I haven’t actually read This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, but I have been in the same room with someone who has. It was he who pointed out to me a passage where the author attempts to explain rock’n’roll to an 80-year-old engineer friend of his.
He knew about my previous career in the music business, and he asked if I could come over for dinner one night and play six songs that captured all that was important to know about rock and roll. Six songs to capture all of rock and roll? I wasn’t sure I could come up with six songs to capture the Beatles, let alone all of rock and roll. The night before he called to tell me that he had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn’t need to cover that.
Here’s what I brought to dinner:
Long Tall Sally – Little Richard
Roll Over Beethoven – Beatles
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton
Little Red Corvette – Prince
Anarchy in the UK – Sex Pistols
Now this is the sort of thing that grabs my attention, of course. There are some interesting choices here. Little Richard is obviously meant to represent the roots of rock’n’roll, which makes sense since he invented it (just ask him), but he’s such a singular talent it’s hard to think of him as representative of the genre. The inclusion of the Beatles and Hendrix is hard to argue with, though one might quibble with the choice of songs, which were intended in part to acknowledge their writers as well (Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, respectively). “Roll Over Beethoven,” while a perfectly enjoyable rocker with some historic resonance, doesn’t well represent the depth and breadth of the Beatles’ creativity. “Watchtower” may be Levitin’s strongest choice — majestic, evocative, poetic — though it wouldn’t necessarily be mine.
After that, though, he goes completely off the rails. The inclusion of “Wonderful Tonight” is, if you’ll pardon my French, batshit crazy. I probably wouldn’t have Clapton in there to begin with, but if I did, it would be something a little more rockin’ —”Crossroads,” “Layla,” “Cocaine” maybe — certainly not this treacly ballad recorded long after Slowhand’s heyday. And “Little Red Corvette”? Prince has made occasional forays into rock’n’roll, but this is straight-up soul music — and modern, mechanized soul at that. It’s not a bad song, to be sure, but it’s not among Prince’s 10 best, and it doesn’t belong on this list whatsoever.
That leaves “Anarchy in the U.K.,” which is a sensible choice, representing punk rock and capturing rock’s general sense of rebelliousness. But it’s debatable whether the Sex Pistols, essentially a gimmick band who made one album and disappeared, deserve such prominent placement in the pantheon.
So naturally I set about making my own list. My initial thought was to limit the staggering number of choices by using only songs with “rock’n’roll” in the title. Under consideration were such songs as:
Rock and Roll Music – Chuck Berry/The Beatles
Rock’n’Roll – The Velvet Underground
Only Rock’n’Roll – The Rolling Stones
Rock’n’Roll – Led Zeppelin
Rock’n’Roll Part 2 – Gary Glitter
It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll) – AC/DC
I Love Rock’n’Roll – Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – Ian Dury & the Blockheads
and although I ultimately rejected this approach as too limiting, it did somewhat influence my final choices — which I will reveal one by one through the course of this week. Stay tuned.