Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Saying what's left to be said

These are just a few of my favorite songs with "rock and roll" in the title

The term "rock and roll" will be eternally defined in as many ways as there are fans. I've collected some of my favorite definitions down the years; I'll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting. Ah, the tyranny of taxonomy! The dilemma evokes Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's infamous definition of pornography in 1964: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... [b]ut I know it when I see it." 

And I know it when I hear it. So, of course, does every musician who's ever fallen in love with the noise and been inspired to write a song in tribute. Here are five—no, six—of my favorite tunes with "rock and roll," variously spelled, in the title, randomly selected and ordered. There are a lot of songs to choose from; add spelling variations and there are countless more. I ignored the well-worn and overplayed (you know them all) and went for tunes of the, well, rockin' variety that have always moved me, for one reason or another. (Tomorrow this list will surely change.)

The Beat, "Rock N Roll Girl," The Beat (1979)

The mythical, unobtainable rock and roll girl, who television has assured the singer really does exist. Yet he looks for her at "the local disco show" and she's a chimera on the dance floor, calls her on the phone yet she doesn't answer. He pines for "an easier way to meet the girls of today," because he really wants to talk, but what can he say? That old problem. Back home, alone, he'll turn up his favorite rock and roll songs and once again wish her into existence. Whether she's myth, someone he's only imagined, the high standards of which are impossible to maintain, the song doesn't resolve: our only choice is to play it again. Thankfully, to paraphrase Pete Townshend, the song rocks so hard and the chorus is so rousing that he can dance all over his problems, forget about them for two minutes and twenty seconds.

Sleater-Kinney, "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun," All Hands On The Bad One (2000)

Anyway, he's got a better shot than this dude, whose "head's always up in the clouds" as he's writing his songs. He's no fun, he's "like a party that's over before it's begun"—just one of many devastating similes S-K launch at this loser scenester:

You're no walk in the park
More like a shot in the dark
With clues left for no one
You're no rock n' roll fun
Like a piece of art
That no one can touch
He won't get laid, in other words. They'd rather hang with the boys who "know how to get down," how to fill their Christmas socks "with whiskey drinks and chocolate bars." The kicker: they won't flock to him even if his song's on the jukebox! So much for that empty promise. Besides, he likes to party with the lights on. She counters: "Come on, I like the dark!" He wants to hear the same boring songs; she wants a different song, this killer tune, probably, that rightfully shames the death of the party.

The Frost, "Rock & Roll Music," single (1969)

Within years of its inception, rock and roll mythology inspired songwriters to celebrated the genre in meta songs. (The urtext being The Book of Chuck Berry.) By the late 1960s, such commemoration had taken a self-serious turn, and I can't decide which camp the Frost's '69 single lands in, Fun or Grandiloquent. Recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit as like-spirited bands the MC5 and the Stooges were in ascension, having lifted off from the same stage, the song is of its era, but that era is complex, the sense of mid-decade "innocent fun" having been given darker dimension by drug use and social activism. This wasn't your older sister's rock and roll music, this was something else, a sonic wave washing away the public pool with its Copertone and blaring transistor radios and heralding a new epoch in which the (considerably louder) music is "all that you take to your head" and is "saying what's left to be said," which is that "you need to be free." All noble goals, if wincingly naive now—hell, even just a few years after the single came out, when proto punks were rolling their eyes at heavy-lidded, spacey Woodstock Era pledges. I hold a soft spot in my heart for such rock and roll idealism, however foolish. Truth be told, there are still plenty of nights when I'm in front of the stereo or a stage and this exhilarating Dick Wagner- and Gordy Garris-led exhortation feels pretty damn meaningful.

Ramones, "Rock 'N' Roll High School," single (1979)

Then along came punk rock, when the guarantees of early rock and roll were deconsecrated and thrown back as irony. "I don't care about history" was, of course, a misnomer: Joey Ramone was among those in the late-1970s who still believed passionately in, and spoke honestly about his love for, pre-Beatles and mid-60s righteousness dressed as a kind of sonic purity. Ramones' take on teenage rebellion looks both backward and directly at its times, celebrating an earlier era's kicks, chicks, and square teachers with eighth notes, ripped jeans, and loud guitars. Fun, oh baby, fun! I prefer this single version, cleanly yet punchily produced by the great Ed Stasium, remixed by Phil Spector before the latter overspent his time and goodwill on the song later for End Of The Century.

The Shazam, "Rockin' And Rollin' (With My) Rock N' Roll Rock N' Roller," Tomorrow The World (2002)

If you've never listened to the late, lamented Shazam out of Nashville, Tennessee, you ought to redress that. Torch bearers of loud power pop in the Who/Cheap Trick/Red Kross tradition, the band released five albums between 1994 and 2009, each chock full of Hans Rotenberry's witty, hooky, crunchy tunes. Marvel at "Gettin' Higher" from Tomorrow The World, an album that kicks off with this winner that trades a mid-60s pop sensibility for a lean, Stones cum AC/DC-riffing groove, a guaranteed show-opener evoking arena rock in its weed-and-sweat bliss. I'm not sure at the dawn of the 21st century it was possible to write a song about everything being awright 'cause I'm gonna rock my blues away tonight! without navigating through several layers of camp and twisting the title into the post-modern joke it is. Here's the thing: the song could collapse under its own reference-laden sarcasm and studied irony if it wasn't so damn fun, blasting away the satire with power chords—the whole point of the song, really. (Around the same time, the Mooney Suzuki were mining similar territory before they lost the plot.) Play it loud and move around with it—if you have to imagine that no one's watching you, so be it.

The Soft Boys, "Rock & Roll Toilet," Invisible Hits (1983)

Then there's...this. Another Stones-y riff, allegedly played with the band members on their wrong instruments. (Here's the tighter version.) A hilarious, sardonic counter to the Shazam's wry wink, "Rock & Roll Toilet" is vintage Robyn Hitchcock: peculiar and witty, trippy and earthy. Whenever Hitchcock and his band go there, you want to follow, in this case down into a metaphor. I think. (The folks at the Genius lyrics annotation site seem stumped, also.) In the first verse the singer's trapped in the titular joint with two "jerks," and then Jah walks in, performing "his works"; in the second, the jerks are now "a coupla clones" with "eggs as smooth as polished stones." And so on. Robyn snarls, metaphors pile up, redolent: 
Rock 'n' roll toilet's my alibi, my lullaby, my sacrify
Rock 'n' roll toilet's my pair of boots, my only chutes, my open wounds
Things alter in the middle, a psychedelic kaleidoscope during which we're invited to look at the "beautiful patterns that form on the wall," to stick out our fingers "to trace them." Oddly lovely, even gentle, the passage suggests that the song's graphic observations originate in one hell of a trip, and the singer hasn't come down yet. No matter, the song rocks hard, the dirty harmonica, slashing guitars, and chugging rhythm section muscling the singer's hallucinations out of the way, in the process making a highly subjective few minutes feel true and universal as, fantastically, the best rock and roll always does.


Dennis said...

Always nice seeing The Shazam get some love!

Joe Bonomo said...

Aw man, they deserve all of it!