Whether your definition of the birth of rock n’ roll has Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Donegan or anyone else as the creator, the music itself was heavily steeped in the idea of rebellion. Post-World War II, teenagers were fed up and in need of something to distance themselves from their past. A shake of the hips, a curl of the lip and a chord ringing out on an electric guitar were their ticket out of the doldrums. Whereas their parents would listen to jazz, Rat Pack crooners or musical standards, these children of the revolution were getting their kicks elsewhere.
So far, nothing you didn’t already know, but in 2011 we’re still being fed the line that rock n’ roll is the anti-establishment music of the underground and it’s simply not true. If anything, rock n’ roll has become the establishment itself. That generation gap doesn’t exist and, when developing music tastes, a large part of becoming your own person is listening to precisely the kind of music your parents wouldn’t approve of. If a 15-year-old today attempted to rebel by listening to The Vaccines, their Dad would likely pop his head round the corner, ask who this band ripping off The Ramones were, and promptly lend their offspring a copy of End Of The Century.
Does this mean rock n’ roll can limp on when its raison d’être no longer exists? Well, for better or worse, we’re always going to have guitar/bass/drum/vocal combos banging out three-minute songs. You could argue it’s the true form of the latter day pop group, but the question isn’t will there be rock bands, it’s whether we should care.
Since The Beatles split, there have been few bands that have truly shaken up the rock n’ roll paradigm. You’ll probably have your own favourites that aren’t included here, but as a back-of-a-fag-packet-list, let’s say: Pink Floyd, The Ramones, The Clash, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, The Smiths, Nirvana, Radiohead and The Strokes. Sure, that list could be debated all day, and there are probably inclusions you strongly disagree with, but the main point is this: you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the last decade who’s pushed rock n’ roll forward.
Why is this? Well, as we’ve established, rock n’ roll is getting on a bit. Of course, not everything that can possibly be done has been done, but we’re starting to repeat ourselves more and more. Rock n’ roll leaves me jaded and I feel like there’s no originality out there. I’m not some seasoned hack; I’m 24 – I shouldn’t feel this way, at least, not yet. If we’re going to strip rock n’ roll back to its first principles and concentrate on it in its purest form, then we reached the zenith in the 1990s with Weezer’s first record and Lemonhead’s It’s A Shame About Ray; two records which can’t be improved upon. And what are the rock n’ rollers of today doing? It’s been ten years since Is This It and it would appear that it, in fact, was it. The Strokes are holding onto former glories and other guitar bands simply re-hash the music of their heroes or look farther afield for their influences.
Aha, farther afield. This is why we shouldn’t care about the future of rock n’ roll. Why get hung up about it when there are so many fresh sounds if you cast your net a little wider? Pop has embraced technology and is racing forward at an alarming speed, electronic music is more exciting than ever before and the relative youthfulness of hip-hop means there are still plenty of places to go. That’s before you’ve even thought about fusions of styles, bedroom experimentalists, dubstep, chillwave and any other new genre you care to mention.
On a personal note, my three favourite albums of the past twelve months are in no way in thrall to the traditions of rock n’ roll: Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, Katy B’s On A Mission, and James Blake’s eponymous debut. While they might not be your idea of fun, you’ll struggle to find a guitar-based record that shows the level of invention and intrigue of any of those records. Who are the hot, young gunslingers supposed to lead the charge in this brave new world? Brother? Glasvegas? Noah and the Whale? Give me a break.
There have always been fallow periods in rock n’ roll and a ground-breaking artist could be just around the corner. But while there are ideas in abundance elsewhere, there’s no point in getting too hung up about it. Right now, I’d rather listen to Rihanna than the Foo Fighters, and that’s the truth.
Only time will tell, but maybe the sad reality is that rock n’ roll really is past its best.