There are several ways to approach this question. Yes, the Beatles were indeed the greatest Rock group, or no, other bands were superior and ultimately more significant as influence. Or, the Beatles were indeed the best but in the Pop than Rock idiom. In other words, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and/or Fill-in-the-Blanks were more notable as generators of ROCK music. While Beatles undeniably made a lot of Rock music, they were more famous for what would be labeled as Pop. And, given the rather airy, fluffy, and innocuous characteristics of Pop, one could argue the Beatles weren’t the main inspiration for the best of later Rock, i.e. Beatles influenced bands like the Raspberries and XTC than the richer acts following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, and even the Byrds or the Kinks. Partly, it’s because the #1 priority of Pop is to please, not to wander too far off the range of approved or acceptable taste. (Beatles burst into stardom because, for all the high decibels and delirium of Beatlemania, they were adorable even to adults. And later, their supposed experimentalism was more significant for its crossover popularizing effect than cutting-edge originality. For example, Beatles didn’t so much pioneer, let alone invent, psychedelia than made it palatable to those outside the subculture. Beatles served as the bridge between the hip and the square, between the young and the old, and between the pioneers and the popular. They were like cultural diplomats between the crowd and the establishment.) So, apart from their seminal breakthrough in 1962-1963 with thundering sounds(though even there the secret to their success owed largely to smoothing the rough edges of Rock n Roll with soothing harmonies while simultaneously pumping up the volume — Little Richard’s gas with Everly Brothers’ coolant), Beatles were hardly the leading force(than its most prominent face) in most of Rock Culture of the 60s, especially as John Lennon, like Brian Wilson, increasingly lost his way, leaving it up to the Pop-oriented Paul McCartney to steer the course until the inevitable breakup. One thing for sure, most people would agree that the Beatles were the greatest all-around-band, i.e. not the absolute best in any particular area but more than proficient in each.
Anyway, I bring this up because of the definition of ‘pop’ and ‘rock’ in the recent book YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! THE STORY OF POP MUSIC FROM BILL HALEY TO BEYONCE by Bob Stanley.
Stanley writes: “I wanted to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swathes of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories. The situation has changed considerably in recent years, though rockism still exists, and snobbery is still rife… What exactly is pop? For me, it includes rock, R&B, soul, hip hop, house, techno, metal, and country. If you make records, singles and albums, and if you go on TV or on tour to promote them, you’re in the pop business. If you sing a cappella folk songs in a suburban pub, you’re not. Pop needs an audience the artist doesn’t know personally — it has to be transferable. Most basically, anything that gets into the charts is pop, be it Buddy Holly, Black Sabbath, or Bucks Fizz… What creates great pop? Tension, opposition, progress, and fear of progress. I love the tensions between the industry and the underground, between artifice and authenticity, between the adventurers and the curators, between rock and pop, between dumb and clever, between boys and girls. A permanent state of flux informed the modern pop era and taking sides is part of the fun… So, is modern pop music just chart music? Well, partly… Yet the charts did not always reflect emerging movements. Instead, the new music would percolate, inspire, and — eventually — burst into the charts at a later date. When did the modern pop era start? In 1955, when the first Billboard Top 100 was printed…”
According to Stanley, Rock music isn’t distinct from Pop music but merely a part of Pop, a large inclusive tent. In a way, he’s right. Most, if not all, of Rock was meant to be popular music, and stardom is a big part of what Rock is about. If you don’t make it out of the garage or the high school dance scene, you simply don’t matter in the annals of Rock.
The problem is there are more than one definition of ‘pop’ and ‘rock’. From a purely commercial vantage point, much of what Stanley says is true. But ‘pop’ has several connotations, just like ‘art’ does. For example, ‘art’ can mean any creative endeavor, not only by professional artists but by kindergarteners with crayons, prisoners with time to kill, and housewives with painting as hobby. Quality or worth doesn’t come into the equation in this conception of ‘art’. But there’s another meaning where ‘art’ is something of excellence, originality, sublimity, beauty, truth, and/or genius. By this definition, even most of the output by the most renowned artists wouldn’t quite make the grade. So, even a serious writer may produce just one or a handful of works that qualify as ‘art’. By the generic definition of ‘art’, Rembrandt and George W. Bush both created art. But ‘art’ defined by the highest criterion is exclusive than inclusive.
‘Pop’ can be defined commercially but it’s also a matter of style and sensibility. While there is an element of ‘pop'(as common denominator) in most Rock music — as people in music obviously want fame and fortune — , ‘pop’ as a musical style connotes a certain essence that may be missing or not-so-prevalent among certain popular musical forms. It’s a matter of intent and ‘statement’, the difference being ‘pop’ is first and foremost eager to please, amuse, and entertain. It’s about joy, about giving the audience what they want.
Thus, pop has a soft quality, like soda-pop. Whiskey is also popular and, purely from a commercial vantagepoint, could qualify as a popular drink, but it’s certainly not a soft drink. Because pop’s main objective is to appeal to as large an audience as possible(or the largest possible audience within a certain demography), it is the most fluid of musical forms, copping styles and accents from just about anything to add spice and sparkle but also to remove any element that might give ‘offense’ or seem obtrusive for mass appeal.
Whatever works to make another hit song, the underlying logic of Pop. But for this very reason, pop isn’t grounded in anything. It appropriates and absorbs but remains detached and disloyal. Rock overlapped with pop in that Rockers also lifted ideas from whatever they could get their hands on. Black music, folk music, English ballads, Jazz, Classical Music, and etc. But, there was a key difference in the emphasis and outlook. Rockers, especially following in the heels of Bob Dylan, believed they had to find their own voices and visions, to digest the influences into something personal(as statement or style), and remain true on some level to what they are than always re-tailoring the music for maximum commerciality. Maybe Pink Floyd would have had more hits with some cues from the Moody Blues, but they stuck by their guns. At the peak of his fame, Dylan withdrew and was visible during the Summer of Love. It was all about being true to himself(but then, it was Dylan’s only ticket to stardom as he fell short by conventional standards of popular music). In this period, he was mostly making music in a basement with what would become The Band. He was doing what he loved most, what was most meaningful for him, an approach generally antithetical to the ‘pop’ sensibility.
Granted, Pop could be personal as figures like Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson illustrated. McCartney was essentially pop — he said Cole Porter meant most to him — , but he wasn’t compromising his ‘authenticity’ to please the audience; his very essence was pop to the core, just like Steven Spielberg is, at the personal level, a born popular movie-maker. Same was true of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
But even with McCartney and Wilson, there was an understanding of the difference between personal pop and poppity-pop. The Beatles were offered “How Do You Do”(that became a hit for the Gerry and the Pacemakers), but they declined as it simply wasn’t for them. They didn’t just want hits but the kind of hits that showed the world who THEY really were.
McCartney wrote a perfect melody with “World Without Love” but passed it off to Peter and Gordon as it just didn’t fit the Beatles image. On PET SOUNDS, Brian Wilson aspired to create beautiful pop music with richness and complexity hitherto unknown to the genre, and it confounded many at the time: too arty for pop fans, too pop for serious listeners. Though Wilson always remained within the pop genre, he wanted to bring the fans into his world than go on presenting his songs in their world. He went from candy-seller to a builder of candy cathedral.
That said, when someone sets out to create a pop tune, he or she first and foremost has the audience in mind. Anything that pushes the buttons, pleases them, hits the charts(as validation, and/or makes a buck. In contrast, while no Rocker prefers obscurity to fame, he clings to the integrity, real or delusional, of keeping it real. There is a difference between selling and selling out. (Often in Rock, short-term gain can translate into long-term loss, especially if the popularity is limited to a loyal fan base. When Phish, worthless in my opinion, went in a more ‘pop’ direction with BILLY BREATHES album, it brought them closer to mainstream acceptance but threatened their standing with the core fan base. If Pink Floyd had gone disco in 1977, they might have scored a hit or two but would have been on shakier grounds with their cult-like fan base, key to their reputation and long-term standing. This is why certain acts forsake anything overly pop-oriented, especially if their forte is something other than catchy hit tunes. Not everyone is a Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, or Carole King/Gerry Goffin. Of course, there’s another factor related to the double-edged nature to Rock’s serious side, which can be a means of greater and deeper achievement or an excuse for inferior talents to justify their lack of popular appeal. Seriousness can be a shovel that digs up the gold or a crutch that props a leaden talent despite its pretensions.) The Pop tunesmith and/or performer need not worry about ‘selling out’ since it’s understood his express mission is to crank out hits. No one would blame Neil Diamond for selling out.
In contrast, the Jefferson Airplane got flak for becoming the Jefferson Starship. From surrealistic pillow to plastic wrapper(though Starship had two first rate songs). And they especially got eviscerated over “We Built This City” in the 1980s. Given their place in the Sixties pantheon of Folk Rock, Psychedelia, and Satirical Rock, it was painful for some Boomers to see them whore out to MTV culture in the Reagan Era. (Personally, I rather like the song.)
All musical genres evolve and change, but there is a core structure or theme that makes each of them what it is, distinct from the others. So, while there are various kinds of blues, there is something common, integral, and intrinsic to all genuine blues music. Likewise, country music has changed over the years, but it’s still about rural folks and has that ‘twang’. The spirit inhabits a specific body. In contrast, pop is like the transmigrating soul without permanent attachments. Pop, like the monster in THE THING(John Carpenter), can take on any form without being true to that form. Pop is plastic than glass, ceramic, or metal; it’s like T-1000 in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY. Pop samples everything, flirts with everyone, lifts from anything, and toss out whatever, all in the name of making the next hit. Pop is essentially formless as it ever shapeshifts, always in pursuit of the next hit; and whatever form(or forms) it happens to inhabit at the moment, anything is open to alteration to make the song immediately appealing and/or inoffensive to the largest possible audience.
Thus, even as pop sensibility flows through and encompasses everything, it remains detached and independent, just like 007 with women. The only thing pop is wedded to is the charts. Yet, for all its promiscuousness, pop also plays ‘cute’ or ‘innocent’ because it operates on the basis of amnesia and anesthesia. Pop makes you forget all the world and all your problems in its euphoric high or relaxing sigh, which works not unlike drugs. Pop sensibility at its most banal is elevator music designed to calm your nerves and leave you feeling comfortably numb — no wonder the mental ward in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEXT plays nothing but muzak, which is like pop candy turned into cotton candy.
Brill Building was pop-centric because it rummaged for styles from just about anything to come up with the next hit. Its composers were fixated on the charts for validation, and it worked like magic for a time.
Perhaps, the finest practitioner of pop in the Sixties was Burt Bacharach who composed hits for Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass among many others. “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” is almost a perfect distillation of pop’s essence. Bacharach is an interesting case because his genius for choosing just the right notes was unparalleled, but this very flawless quality rendered the songs almost unhuman, like mannequins perfect in form but devoid of souls. It was like a musical equivalent of magazine ads with the perfect poses, products, and scenery. “This Guy’s In Love with You” is wonderful but comes perilously close to elevator music, airbrushed in every detail and mood. In contrast, there is something of Paul Simon’s dreams, a real poignance, even in his most beautiful melodies like “April Come She Will”, “America”, and “Bridge over Troubled Water”.
There is an element of personal pride in Rock sensibility that is missing in the Pop industry. While every artist in Rock History wanted his songs to be as popular as possible, there was also the personal pride of conviction, being true to oneself(and to one’s fans who remained loyal through thick and thin). So, disappointment in sales didn’t necessarily dent one’s sense of pride, just like a serious novelist still feels the pride of achievement even if his work doesn’t make the NY Times Best Seller List. In contrast, a popular novelist’s main, or even sole, worth derives from whether the book finds an audience or wins approval from an established one. Likewise, whereas the Rock artist has the consolation of creative pride even with commercial failure, the failure to chart is a death knell to the pop tunesmith, someone like Neil Sedaka or Neil Diamond, even Elton John. Not that the composers of pop hits like “Downtown”(a smash for Petula Clark) and “Like to Get to Know You”(by Spanky and Our Gang) were strangers to personal pride, but the real validation came with the public. This was especially true of those who only composed, thus remaining faceless and anonymous. Even with the best days behind him, the performer remains recognizable and may go on the nostalgia circuit with the old hits, whereas a composer who can no longer produce hits has no place in the culture at all.
The Monkees were the Beatles’ brand of Personal-Pop processed further into formula. Pop can take just about anything and render it ‘safe’ and ‘harmless’ — psychedelia began as controversial Drug Music(with songs like “Eight Miles High”) often banned from the airwaves, but soon, the Monkees were doing it with “Words”, the Buckinghams added surreal sounds to “Susan”(essentially a pop softie), and the family band Cowsills were hallucinating the Flower Girl.
There is also the Pop Paradox, i.e. Pop music is so ‘elitist’ because it’s so ruthlessly competitive as a popularity contest. Even though marketed to the masses with the lowest common denominator(at least in terms of meaning and depth), it operates in a cutthroat environment where only a few rise to the top and the rest hardly matters. And because most people are fools, they are harder to fool. You can fool intellectual types that atonal stuff is the music of the future, but the hoi polloi wants something like “Yesterday” or “Jump”(Van Halen), not Arnold Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone(deaf) music.
Pop music culture is almost athletic, a gladiator event where only the strong survive. It is no mean feat to come up with tunes with immediate mass appeal; indeed, many have said there’s nothing more difficult in music. Even the most learned musicians and music scholars couldn’t come up with viable pop tunes even if they tried. It’s a knack that some people have, and even with them, the muse is as unpredictable as the weather; someone for whom pop melodies rained like cats and dogs can suddenly find himself in a prolonged drought. Writer’s block is nothing compared to the musician’s block.
The constant pursuit of another hit can drive composers to depression, even desperation. Many have turned to drugs and destroyed themselves. In a way, musicians had it better before the rise of pop music industry. They could just work on their music whether it had popular appeal or not because there was no such thing as an instant hit, made possible only with electricity and mass urbanization. Classical composers weren’t sitting over their pianos fixated on nothing but popular tunes. (Of course, AMADEUS would have us believe that Mozart was the greatest ever for his knack for catchy melodies, a hit-maker before a culture existed to accommodate and reward such a talent. It as as if Mozart was proto-Elton-John born too early.)
Hit-making became especially nerve-racking with the rise of youth culture. Young people aren’t known for their patience, and explosion of Rock n Roll and then Beatlemania meant the hit had to have unprecedented immediacy(whereas in earlier times, Frank Sinatra was enough to get the girls all crazy). Movie culture also went the same way. Long gone are the days of the prestigious Hollywood movie rolled out as a Road Show to gradually make its way across the country. In the age of blockbusters, new releases must rake in top dollars in the first few weeks or else it’s a bomb.
Even the biggest names in pop music could fade instantly without a steady stream of hits, and Paul McCartney certainly sunk like a stone after “No More Lonely Nights”, his last first-rate pop tune. In this sense, pop music is ephemeral. Even when a pop tune has lasting appeal, the song remains without the singer, especially if it’s one of those one-hit wonders. Plenty of oldies are played without no one caring who wrote or performed them.
In contrast, the more serious kind of Rock music is relatively shielded from travails of the charts because of a devoted fan base(and new crop of admirers who, though not great in number, keeps forming because of the music’s lasting value). Neil Young didn’t have a lot of hits but gained a lot of respect. The Grateful Dead likewise. Their aura and cult grew so big that the charts hardly mattered. But then, there haven’t been many notable Rock artists worthy of deep devotion and serious attention. More bands were like Kiss than Led Zeppelin. Even for most Rockers, it was a matter of do-or-die with the hits.
Of late, it seems pop composers are losing less sleep over coming up with that zinger for the charts. Over the years, the pop music industry have mastered the formula of treating music as chemistry than creativity. Especially with the primacy of the DJ in the club scene, the industry identified which combination of rhythms and beats produce the maximum vibes to keep the crowd happy. In the past, hit-meisters were always looking for that elusive melody around which the rhythm-and-beat were arranged, but now that the rhythm-and-beat have been made so vibrantly infectious, the melody has been rendered almost secondary or incidental. As anyone in hip hop or techno can tell you, it’s easier to master the repetitious features of rhythm and beat than to string together a series of notes that makes for a memorable melody. ?
If you got the formula down pat, you need only to add a little variation here or there to keep the kids grooving or dancing. A good amount of effort and/or inspiration surely went into writing “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” for ABBA but probably not so much with the songs of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Rihanna(with the exception of the skanky-masterpiece or ‘skankerpiece’ “Umbrella”), and Taylor Swift. Also, as the kids are satisfied with the chem-fix of good vibes, they don’t really care if the song is original or not, good or bad. Brill Building at its best produced gems whereas the current industry is about the chems, the product of culture ‘scientists’ who approach music like candy bars in a confection company. The precursor to this was the Bubblegum Pop of the late 60s with songs like “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Sugar, Sugar”, a #1 hit for the fictional cartoon band the Archies, though even the tunes for these songs were rather inventive if not ingenious by today’s standards.
The secret to Pop Sensibility is not to go ‘full retard’ or ‘full rock’. Even when pop flirts with rock, the trick is to render it sweet, pleasant, euphoric, like “Go All the Way” by Raspberries that begins with Hard Rock riffs but coasts on soaring melodies, something the Beatles perfected in 1962 with “Please Please Me”, their most foundational and influential song that served them and countless British Invasion acts well until 1965 when the music went in a new direction.
In the war comedy TROPIC THUNDER, Robert Downey Jr. in a black role — one where he doesn’t quite go ‘Full Negro’ — teases out the reason for the failure of ‘SIMPLE JACK’, that it went ‘full retard’, which made it too much for the general audience. A true Rocker isn’t afraid to go ‘full retard’ or ‘full rock'(or simple jack flash), whereas a pop star must tread carefully around excess lest the overall pleasantness be sullied. No wonder Jimi Hendrix Experience hardly made for an ideal introductory act for the Herman’s Hermits. Of course, what is deemed ‘excessive’ is relative, and plenty of harmless pop songs in the now might have been deemed racy or downright scandalous in earlier times.
Indeed, it’s useful to distinguish Rock Stars from Rock Artists though, of course, a band could be both, as were the cases with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band. But most Rockers didn’t aspire to be artists and cared only about fame and fortune. No one would mistake Bon Jovi, Europe(with the hit “The Final Countdown”), Van Halen, or ZZ Top as Rock artists. 99% of Heavy Metal is just mindless blue-collar get-paid-get-laid music. There is little ‘artistic’ content to “Cum on Feel the Noise” by Quiet Riot or “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC, and even if bands like Bon Jovi, Van Halen, and AC/DC developed loyal fan bases over the years, the nature of the investment was markedly different from the subcultures around figures like Bob Dylan(whose works have inspired countless dissertations and scholar tomes) and Pink Floyd, the favorite among intellectuals and bohemians. Another useful distinction is Art Rock(aka Progressive Rock) and Rock-as-Art. Even though Pink Floyd is sometimes included in the Progressive Rock category, it’s more the case they made great Rock music with artistic worth than consciously added artiness to Rock in the manner of Yes and Roxy Music, though Moody Blues and the Beatles at their more pretentious were there first. Dylan was Rock-as-art, whereas Donovan was a precursor to Art Rock.
Bob Stanley says ‘rockism’, whatever it is, had the effect of suppressing literary interest for certain kinds of popular music, such as disco, but he’s missing the point. Naturally, music critics or scholars want to write about something substantive and stimulating(even intellectually), something worthy of analysis. Much of pop music is to be enjoyed, not examined closely(unless one is studying to be a composer oneself) or interpreted. Therefore, the dearth of books about certain subjects isn’t the fault of ‘rockism’ or ‘snobby’ neglect. Writers like to write about something, and there simply isn’t much to write home about most music or movies. Why are there many more books about Stanley Kubrick than Ron Howard? Howard made some solid movies, but they don’t yield much beyond entertainment value. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is open to endless interpretation(and one of the most revolutionary works in cinema) whereas APOLLO 13 can be enjoyed but isn’t much to think about. Lots of music, even fabulous music, have little value beyond enjoyment, and there’s wrong nothing with enjoyment, but mere pleasure doesn’t inspire much thought.
How many books have been written about roller coasters or water slides? Likewise, food critics prefer to write about French cuisine than burgers and fries.
Now, from a purely cultural or sociological perspective, anything is worthy of study. John Hughes movies of the 1980s offer a glimpse into the trends of the decade, but any serious student/scholar of film would rather write about Martin Scorsese or David Lynch than about Hughes or Michael Bay. Of course, there are talents like Steven Spielberg and, yes, the Beatles, who’ve mostly worked in the popular idiom but invite interpretation, revision, and reappraisal because their talents have been either so prodigious or profoundly altered the cultural landscape. Shaun Cassidy had some decent hits, but don’t expect music writers to form a line around the block in eager anticipation to write about him. Indeed, even in Stanley’s book, some figures and fashions get entire chapters to themselves whereas most acts only get a passing mention. At any rate, while some ‘rockists’ may use ‘pop’ almost as a pejorative, most rock lovers also love pop. Whether they do or don’t regard Stones as Rock and Beatles as Pop, most Stones fans also loved the Beatles, and vice versa. Only the most stuck-up types among the bohemian crowd emphasized ‘versus’ over ‘and’ in their radical tendency to divide the world into opposing camps or ‘thesis’ vs ‘antithesis’.
Furthermore, the main targets or ‘victims’ of ‘rockism’ have been white acts, not black ones. While many black acts have gotten less literary attention than the biggest white acts, especially Dylan-Beatles-Stones, they were highly praised and respected, even revered, not least because Rock music owes so much to Rhythm n Blues and other forms of black music. So, the usual targets of ‘rockists’ were ‘white-bread’ acts like ABBA, the Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, and Anne Murray OR about whites-imitating-black-music without originality or inspiration, like Rare Earth with its hit “Get Ready”.
And ‘rockism’ could actually be anti-snobbish, with special animus reserved for bands like the Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson, (early)Genesis, and etc., though such purism, especially among the punk crowd, could be arrogant and even self-righteous. Because of the victimological idolatry around blackness, Stanley tries to spin ‘rockism’ as possibly ‘racist’, but nothing could be further from the truth. More often than not, ‘rockists’ were knocking a bunch of white acts for either lacking soul or faking it. ‘Rockists’ really hated Captain & Tennille. While it’s true that ‘Rockists’ in general preferred White Rock uber alles, their notion of the greatest sin was being ‘white bread’ or fake chocolate.
Where ‘rockism’ has been problematic, even detrimental, wasn’t when it upheld standards — favoring Dylan over Donovan, Pink Floyd over the Moody Blues, Stones over Aerosmith, and etc. — but when it employed (pseudo)intellectual conceits to lavish praise on certain ‘schools’ or personalities based on attitude, ideology, or specious rationalizations that made sense only to the purveyors of the rot and the suckers stupid enough to fall for anything hyped as ‘radical’ or ‘ahead of its time’.
This dire trend has befallen every field of art and entertainment. Modernism initially produced genuine pioneers like Pablo Picasso but later made excuses for the garbage of Mark Rothko and the inane products of Pop Art, all of it sustained by intellectual conceits to be taken on faith or loopy logic.
When something fertile is afoot in culture, critics and scholars coalesce around the phenomenon to offer their intellect as a means for laymen to better understand and appreciate the works or to critique them(as great art/entertainment is often dangerous). It is in this phase that the critics are most valuable. They know they are subordinate to the genius and/or inspiration intrinsic to a great work of art or entertainment. But within the mind of every critic or analytical mind is a certain envy of the creative process, just like homosexuals envy the power of real-sexuals to create life. The creative artist is always primary, and the analytical critic is secondary, no matter how good he may be; while artists and entertainers have existed and can exist without critics, the latter cannot do without the former.
To gain control of the culture, the resentful intellectual begins to concoct theories as to what constitutes the avant-garde, the purpose of which is to make theory supersede art as the main focus of culture, i.e. what the artists create is less important than what the critics and intellectuals make of them; the cleverer ones invoke philosophy to, for example, ‘deconstruct’ art, while the dumber ones lean on the crutch of ideology as basis of endorsing or condemning works. Via theory, works of genius can be relegated to the dustbin while works of idiocy can be placed on the altar. So, the modernists in music persuaded entire generations to neglect Jean Sibelius and to fiddle with atonal stuff instead; and T.S. Eliot is now mainly remember for his ‘antisemitism’. It’s like homos, envious of the reproductive power of real-sexuals, cooked up the most ridiculous theories about ‘gender’ where two homo guys can be ‘two fathers’ or a ‘woman’ can have a penis and produce semen because a man insisting he’s a woman must be regarded as a ‘woman’.
Thus, art no longer needs to be justified on the basis of beauty, truth, genius, originality, or sublimity. Rather, as long as it conforms to or is confirmed by the theory, it is said to have value, even great value. The pernicious impact has been devastating. Consider: Even a novice in the arts, with some degree of personal effort, could readily see what made Vincent van Gogh or Picasso great. In contrast, without the theory, one would be totally mystified as to why Rothko matters or why Lichtenstein’s works are anything more than enlarged comic strips.
‘Rockism’ didn’t falter in its evaluation of Bob Dylan, The Band, Buffalo Springfield, Van Morrison, The Who, and Neil Young. It faltered when it pretended Patti Smith was a major talent or Kate Bush amounted to anything. By far the worst product of this kind of theory-obsessed and ideology-driven ‘rockism’ was the massive hype of punk music. While punk, like any musical genre, produced its share of memorable songs, it was showered with far more attention than it deserved on the basis of intellectual conceits of the critical community. Paradoxically, there is a strain of criticism that seeks to render culture critic-proof. When a subculture and its output are taped off with theory, they are shielded from rational scrutiny and assessment. Usually, the subculture is over-valued for its ‘radical’ or ‘subversive’ content, but the implied egalitarianism is bogus because Theory usually gains traction from the prestige of the expounder, who could be a genuine intellectual with deluded ideas or a third-rater selected & promoted by the establishment academia & media as confirming their standards of ‘progressivism’. An example of a genuine intellectual with loopy ideas is Greil Marcus. As for second-raters and third-raters favored by the Power, just look to the New York Times or notice what kind of people receive ‘genius’ grants.
Intellect has a logic of its own, and intellectuals, always thinking, tend to become enamored of their own or someone else’s ideas and get carried away with the idea-for-idea’s-sake. This happened with Greil Marcus in his obsession with punk, more for what it represented than what it produced in terms of listenable music. Marcus became renowned as one of the most intelligent Rock critics with keen insights into the great acts of the 50s and 60s. But increasingly in the 70s and 80s, his ideas got the better of him, and he became immersed in the punk scene as something on which to project his ideals and frustrations.
Likewise, the film community created a cult around Jean-Luc Godard that kept going long after his expiration date as a relevant figure in cinema. Because of the prestige held by the leading critics/intellectuals, these absurdities could go on for a long time, like in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, that is until enough people become jaded and lose confidence in the critical/intellectual community.
Indeed, the rise of what might be called ‘popism’ was a backlash to years of intellectual abuse by ‘rockists’ whose sin, however, wasn’t having standards but abandoning them in favor of ideology, attitude, and/or conceit. Despite the outliers, punk was essentially antithetical to music and anything resembling humanness, but the intellectuals pushed it as an agenda and ‘school’, much like the dogma of atonal music was sustained in the music departments. Just like the modernists had to pretend to like Alban Berg, the ‘rockists’ convinced themselves that LONDON CALLING is the greatest album of the 80s. (At least, the Clash was one of the few punk bands one could listen to with some, if not much, pleasure.)
Then, it’s hardly surprising that Quentin Tarantino became such a darling in the 90s with PULP FICTION. Whatever one thinks about it(and I think it’s pretty foul), it made art/independent cinema fun again. It also engaged the larger public than gaining notice only in the austere corners of the film festival circuit. It sure beat doing one’s best to stay wake through the latest Godard offering and pretending it was ‘important’. (Quite possibly, PULP FICTION may have been the first instance in which the public participated in something like film discourse that had been limited to critics, scholars, and cinephiles. Especially via the nascent internet, it provoked discussion and analysis from top to bottom, one of the few times the cultural elites and the hoi polloi rubbed shoulders so closely.) Perhaps, the godawful grunge was the last hurrah of intellectually conceited ‘rockism’ — there was just enough spirit and personality in Kurt Cobain’s tantrums to make it half-exciting — before the young ones said enough of this anti-musical stuff. To them, ‘rockism’ became as ‘puritanical’ and dreary as Folkie Stalinism came to be for the Counterculture open to new possibilities and welcomed the electrified Dylan. But this could have been avoided if ‘rockism’ hadn’t fallen into the rut of intellectual conceits.
Of late, ‘wokeness’ applies pressure on critics/intellectuals to reassess past works on the basis of racial content — spot the ‘racist’! — or heap special praise on blacks. In popular music, this isn’t difficult to do as one could conceivably fill up the top 10 songs or albums entirely with the works of black performers/artists, but it gets hilarious in cinema, with a piece of junk like BLACK PANTHER receiving unanimous high marks, trashy GET OUT being rated a work of genius, any work showing interracism or ‘diversity’ receiving extra credit, or some mendacious propaganda about ‘racism’ being greeted as courageous — yeah, it’s really courageous to scream ‘racism’ in this day and age. For real courage, I’d like to see someone attempt to make a movie about Nakba or the attack on USS Liberty. (GET OUT is about white people trying to appropriate black bodies deemed superior in prowess. It almost sounds like a twist on the Aryanist theory of Jews appropriating white beauty to outwardly improve the Jewish race while keeping the soul Jewish. Mate with ‘shikses’ and produce more Aryan-looking Jews whose Semitic identity must be reinforced even more. Because mixing with goyim could weaken Jewish identity, the more the Jewish blood is thinned, more the Jewish soul must be strengthened. Jews figure white folks have minds, bodies, and blandness of the universal soul but lack the potent power of the Covenant that binds spirituality and tribality together, and therefore, someone who is half-white and half-Jewish will eventually gravitate toward the latter, especially as Christianity has been weakened and/or twisted into atonement for ‘historical sins’, celebration of Globo-Homo & George Floyd, and worship of Jews/Zion over God & Jesus AND as whiteness has been made synonymous with the demonology. So, Christianity, once a source of moral power and sanctimony, now weakens the West because its only acceptable incarnation must now apologize for the hypocrisy of past Christians, support Zionist tribalism/supremacism, and/or bow before the altars of false gods, especially the idolatry of Holy Homo & Magic-Tragic Negro. The sacral trumps the real in the hearts of many people. In truth, BLM policies have actually led to MORE black deaths, but those grim facts are secondary to the feel-good faith in the Noble Negro as the favored icon of tragic suffering. It’s the thought that counts among the faith-oriented. Marxists favored communism over capitalism even upon realizing the latter did more for the working class in material and individual terms because it was communism that sacralized the worker. Workers under communism materially had less than workers under capitalism but had a quasi-spiritual worth completely missing among the latter. BLM has a similar appeal. Like communism destroyed many more ordinary lives, BLM policies ended up killing more blacks. But at least blacks feel the special glow of sanctity via the racial-idolatrous delusion. As for whiteness, it’s now the duty of the FBI to track down those who put up “It’s Okay to be White” signs. Anything less than total self-abnegation and abasement of whiteness is ‘white supremacism’. In the past, Christianity was de facto the religion of the White West with an implicit sense of strong racial/ethnic pride: We white Christians vs those Muslim Arabs and benighted heathens yet to be saved by Jesus. Today, Christianity is about white apologism, and whiteness has no legitimacy as an identity, heritage, or pride. However, Jewishness allows one to feel proudly Jewish both spiritually and tribally/racially. Jewishness is a soul, whereas whiteness is a hole, one which can no longer be filled by Christianity that has been turned against whiteness as the new original sin. Devil Pope Francis says the West must fling its gates wide open to billions of Africans and non-whites… or else Christianity has sinned once more. Then, it’s no wonder that someone who’s part Jewish and part white will choose Jewish identity even if he looks more Aryan than Semitic. Better a Jewish soul than a white hole. But this may produce its own set of problems. While people like Jeffrey Epstein hoped to create a new breed of Jews via sex with Nordic women, the formula of ‘Jewish Souls in White Bodies’ is too simplistic. After all, the Mischling inherits some of the inner as well as the outer characteristics of the Aryan. So, the offspring could be just as much outwardly Semitic and inwardly Aryan as well as inwardly Semitic and outwardly Aryan, or outwardly mostly Aryan and inwardly part-Aryan. If the inherited personality is Aryan than Semitic, then the Mischling will have to go against his inner Aryan nature to feel and act more Jewish, which may lead to ever higher levels of neurosis.)
A useful distinction is between Rock Music and Rock Culture. Rock Culture comprises the whole spectrum of musical forms of impassioned interest and/or inspiration to the boomers and generations thereafter, at least up to 2000. Thus, the music need not be rock music to be part of Rock Culture. If Beatles or Stones sang soft ballads, they too fall within the tent of Rock Culture. Anything that intersected with the Rock scene and left its mark as part of Rock Culture. Ravi Shankar’s music isn’t Rock, but it was part of Rock Culture at Monterey, especially as it exerted influence on Rock in the psychedelic era. For the most part, Simon and Garfunkel didn’t do Rock and hardly even Folk Rock, but they were relevant to the Counterculture and spoke to boomer feelings of alienation, anxiety, and yearning. “Bridge over Troubled Water” isn’t Rock Music but part of Rock Culture. Rock Culture is less about a musical style than about a sensibility and attitude toward music, the need to make it personal, different, and eccentric, to make it own’s own. Both Burt Bacharach and Paul Simon were brilliant tunesmiths, the difference being Simon was personal in ways that Bacharach never was. Simon’s songs are about his feelings, whereas Bacharach’s songs mean to make the listener feel good. (That said, even Burt Bacharach may be considered as part of Rock Culture because his hits with Dionne Warwick and others had considerable influence on the Boomer rock/pop scene. Brian Wilson sure learned a thing or two from Bacharach.)
In general, Rock Music lacks the cult of integrity at the heart of Rock Culture. Most Rock Music is about short-lived fame for the bands and long-term fortunes for the industry. Consider all the countless imitations of Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, and etc. promoted by the industry to hook the new generation of teeny-boppers and pipsqueaks. And most of the big-hair rock bands of the 80s were little more than noise machines with the same bag of tricks. In this light, this thing called ‘Rockism’ is more about Rock Culture than Rock Music. ‘Rockism’ is about passing the torch lit by Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Velvet Underground but wouldn’t think twice about hosing down the likes of Twisted Sister, Journey, and Foreigner.
Granted, ‘rockists’ are divided between the cerebral and the instinctive, though the latter tend to intellectualize their primitivism. If the cerebral types prefer the artier styles of Rock, the gutsy types insist on anarchic vitality, disdaining the floweriness of progressive rock and the ‘gay’ affectations of disco. One might see it as more slobbery than snobbery, albeit still qualifying as ‘rockism’ because there is a ‘philosophy’ underlying it. The timid bald guy in HIGH FIDELITY is the artier ‘rockist’ whereas the fat loud guy represents the other end of the spectrum. They rarely see eye to eye, and indeed, some of the biggest ‘victims’ of ‘rockists’ are other ‘rockists’, like when the guys refuse to sell a Captain Beefheart album to a certain guy(who too is a ‘rockist’) because he’s not ‘cool’ enough.
But however argued, Rockism was bound to fade in significance for the simple and inevitable reason that everything is creatively exhausted(at least in originality) and burns out. It happened to modernism in painting. At least, key modernist painters like Pablo Picasso became household names and for a time captivated the world. Modernism in music hardly left a mark outside academia. The problem wasn’t so much the spirit of experimentalism but of dogma that insisted the new music must wholly reject the old(and timeless) and adhere to rules etched in stone by a handful of dour theorists. Besides, whereas a picture, like it or not, remains outside the viewer who can ponder or ignore it as he chooses, music intrudes into the senses, and thus, it can be either more pleasurable or more painful. Given the direction of modernism in music, it’s no wonder even those who were open to modern painting weren’t so keen on modern music.
At any rate, an art form has most promise as subject of serious discussion when its potential for personal expression and aesthetic experimentation is at its peak. But in time, not only are the possibilities exhausted but the enthusiasm wanes as well. Maybe U2 of the 80s was just as talented as the Beatles, but a mass psychosis like Beatlemania could never happen again. Then, just like cinema went from the Film Generation of the Sixties to the Box Office fixations of the Eighties, the pop music scene moved past the seriousness and got back down to business; furthermore, the ascendancy of blackness in rap & hip-hop and the skank-idol wasn’t exactly conducive to intellectualism. The popularity of the TV show AMERICAN IDOL was a sign of how irrelevant ‘rockism’ had become, but then, the batch of serious rock bands since the new millennium were mostly bummed out retreads of past acts, though “Hate Me” by Blue October is a stunner and Cold Play, though flaky, recorded some of the most breathtaking tracks in Rock.
The rise of post-modernism and uninhibited hedonism meant the new generations were less inclined to care about artistic hierarchy, and if hierarchies must exist, they must be aligned with the agenda of PC or ‘wokeness’. The Rock generation of the Sixties was in a transitory period: Even as key intellectual voices at the time pushed against old certitudes, they’d inherited and internalized the ‘bourgeois’ standards of seriousness. Susan Sontag, born in 1933, wasn’t part of the boomers but young enough to stand out as a fresh voice among her peers in high culture. At any rate, despite her salvos at entrenched hierarchies, her methodology was forbiddingly serious. This is what the Rock generation took for granted, happy to be ‘liberated’ in their youth and hedonism. But despite what they threw themselves into and wallowed in, their formative years were partly in the pre-Rock era, and it wasn’t as if adult-culture vanished overnight in the Sixties. (It’s also instructive that most of the Rock n Rollers of the Fifties styled themselves after men, not boys. And when Elvis turned thirty in 1967, he showed off his manhood, rather at odds with the Peter-Pan-ism of the Counterculture. On the other hand, the Counterculture took itself very seriously and believed it was on the cusp of profound revolutions of the soul and psyche through music, drugs, and protest.) Boomers were shaped and affected by something more than youth culture, and this may explain the multi-layered quality of the great Sixties bands that later was generally missing among generations that only knew youth culture. In his memoirs CHRONICLES, Dylan recollects how he spent a lot of time educating himself with serious books on arts and history. In retrospect, Grace Slick was grateful for the serious and excellent education she received in the pre-60s era. The seriousness could lead to pretension or solipsism but also have a restraining effect on the urge to push solely in one direction. For example, while sexuality was very much a part of Rock, rockers wanted to be something more than sex symbols. Jim Morrison styled himself a poet and visionary. Grace Slick oozed with sex appeal but regarded herself an artist, whereas in our day, the utterly shameless pornification of culture has led to skank-acts where singer-dancers do precious little than hiss and howl about their buns & pooters and ‘twerk’ like insane baboons.
Finally, Pop Music is too big and broad a concept for Bob Stanley to coax out a definition of ‘modern pop’ that is limited to youth music of the English-speaking world, mainly US and UK, from 1955 to the present. While it’s true that Rock music originated and was dominated by the Anglophone world(though it inspired counterparts in virtually all languages), popular music has been around since the advent of mass culture and urbanism and especially with the rise of the radio and the record player, and every society has its own popular music, some of which have little or nothing to do with Rock Music/Culture. Therefore, narrowly associating ‘modern pop’ with the Anglophone world since 1955 is like associating ‘pride’ with homosexuals, as if ‘gay pride’ is the real or ultimate expression of pride when, if anything, it is not only limited to homosexuals but shamelessly misconceived, as what real pride is there in a guy taking a dong up his bung?
In a way, the most depressing thing about music culture in the US is the utter lack of interest in anything but English-language pop(and maybe some reggae and Afro-Pop). While the movie business has long been dominated by Hollywood, film culture has always been about appreciation of world cinema and all the genres. For all the talk of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in the music scene, there’s hardly any interest beyond what’s produced in the Anglophone world. Given that the language barrier matters far less in music than in movies, one might expect music lovers to have wider-ranging tastes, but it isn’t so. Perhaps, the rise of Art Film trained cinephiles to develop a certain patience, whereas Rock Culture, despite its serious artists like Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, encouraged the audience to call out for instant thrills, and most music around the world just doesn’t cut it in this regard. Of course, another factor is the sheer volume of music recorded every year. Even a leading movie industry like Hollywood produces around 200 movies per year, the annual count of albums and songs must be in the many thousands. Given the sheer volume produced by US or UK alone, music lovers have little time for music from outside their familiar zone.
Now, what about the Beatles? The problem isn’t with designating them as a Rock band because they were indeed that and much more. Beatles came up with some great Rock songs, several of them, especially “Ticket to Ride”, among the greatest ever. But even though everything the Beatles did is part of Rock Culture, so many of their songs weren’t Rock but Pop. Their pop songs fell under the rubric of Rock Culture for their personalism, which mattered more to Rock Culture than whether the song rocked hard. For example, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”(sung by Nico) by the Velvet Underground isn’t a Rock song but a valuable addition to Rock Culture because it was written from the heart; its emotions are private, even decadent, than generic and familiar. The personal element made even non-rock songs of the Rock Era distinct from the general pop scene that put out hits like “These Boots Are Made for Working”. Also, even when the Monkees came close to affecting the style of the Beatles, the difference lay in originality grounded in individuality vs mimicry of a proven act into viable formula. “Daydream Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” were superb but composed and/or arranged as calculated approximations of the Beatles sound. Even when the approximation was absolutely brilliant, like “Pleasant Valley Sunday”(by the incomparable songwriting duo King and Goffin), it was more the case of replicating someone else’s style than drawing it out of one’s own personal well. Brill Building music can be included as part of Rock Culture because the composers freely borrowed from rhythm & blues/rock n roll and had considerable influence on Rock bands, certainly the early Beatles, but their industrial approach to music stood in opposition to the individualist ideal of Rock Culture where, as with the Auteur Theory in cinema, the personal counted for a whole lot.
So, we are agreed the Beatles were a Rock band, indeed one of the best. But were they greatest Rock band? One could conceivably make that claim, especially within the broader context of Rock Culture. But purely in terms of Rock Music, several other bands are stronger contenders for the title. After all, the majority of the Beatles output were either pop or more-pop-than-rock. For the Beatles, Rock was an option than an obsession(or the mainstay of what defined them). Beatles rocked when they felt like it but often felt otherwise. For the most part, the Beatles lacked the killer instinct of The Who, the bad boy cockiness of the Stones, the dementia of Jimi Hendrix & Led Zeppelin, the private hell of Jim Morrison, the ruggedness of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the angst of Pink Floyd.
The Beatles rocked hardest at the outset, unleashing Beatlemania on the world, and they tried to rock pretty hard near the end, especially on parts of THE BEATLES(aka White Album) and LET IT BE, as if to recapture or reignite the earlier spirit. But even at the beginning, the secret to the Beatles’ success owed to streamlining the rougher contours of Rock n Roll with a slick pop sensibility perfected by Brill Building. Thus, the Beatle Mobile got a bigger engine but also awesome suspensions. The overall impact was seismic, demonstrated by the phenomenon of Beatlemania that was not only unprecedented but remains unsurpassed; only Woodstock was comparable as a cultural event in the Rock Era, but then it represented a culmination whereas Beatlemania was an explosion, seemingly out of the blue like the bullets that killed Kennedy. America wanted happy bullets to be sprayed on them by the mop top assassins. Dave Clark Five arrived at a similar approach and went head-to-head with the Beatles in 1964 and 1965 but faded as a result of their inability to evolve with fast-changing times.
Anyway, the songs that initially made the Beatles were less pure Rock than something like Pop-Rock (or ‘Pock’) or Rock-Pop(or ‘Rop’) or Poppy-Rock. The Beatles were often loud and screamed & shook their heads, but the overall effect was so pleasant and pleasing. Not for nothing was their breakthrough song called “Please Please Me”.
The sheer volume was unprecedented but not assaultive, and teenage girls loved it(as an affirmation of their feelings) and even adults who didn’t care for the music weren’t appalled as many had been with Rock n Roll in the mid-fifties. Indeed, one reason why Elvis Presley didn’t take to the Beatles was they didn’t seem tough enough. For all their volume and the hysterics of their fans, the whole thing seemed a bit ‘cute’. And even though “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were high-energy, there was something a bit coy, closer to Everly Brothers and even the Teen Idols than the rough-and-tumble pioneers of Rock n Roll. Beatles managed to make it louder but also more innocent. When young women in the mid-fifties fell under the spell of Elvis the Pelvis, it was all about sex, as if the King of Rock n Roll’s stage antics popped their cherries. The screams were primal. With the Beatlemaniacs, it was more like girly shrieks, puppy love gone mad.
And apart from “Ticket to Ride” and “Help!”, many of the memorable Beatles tunes from 1965 to 1968 were more Pop than Rock: “Yesterday”, “Norwegian Wood”, “In My Life”, “I’m Looking through You”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Here, There And Everywhere”, “For No One”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “With a Little Help from My Friends”, “Fool on the Hill”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Hello Goodbye”, and “Magical Mystery Tour”.
The last two songs on the list could count as Rock, as they’re certainly high-energy, but they are essentially feel-good songs similar in spirit to the Hollies. Same goes for “Nowhere Man”, almost a children’s song. More pulsating pop than raucous rock, more soda than beer. “A Day in the Life”, the finest song on SGT. PEPPER album, also isn’t a rocker, with the loudest feature being a modernist experiment with classical orchestra. And “Hey Jude” qualifies as a rock song only because the second half turns into a scream-fest of na-na-na’s. Otherwise, it is pop.
From 1965 to 1968, the Beatles produced their share of first-rate Rock songs — “I Feel Fine”, “I’m Down”, “Drive My Car”, “You Won’t See Me”, “Think for Yourself”, “We Can Work it Out”, “Day Tripper”, “Paperback Writer”, “I’m the Walrus”, “Lady Madonna”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Revolution”, “Helter Skelter”, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — , but how do they compare with the greatest Rock songs of other bands in either originality and power? The standouts are “Ticket to Ride”, perhaps their greatest song and among the best of the Rock era”, and “Help!”, John Lennon at his most brilliant, and one could even make a case for George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”(with kudos to Eric Clapton).
Still, even most of the best Beatles Rock songs are overshadowed by the best of the Stones: “Satisfaction”, “Get Off of My Cloud”, “Paint It Black”, “Under My Thumb”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Street Fighting Man”, and “Honky Tonk Woman”. And in 1969, Stones unleashed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Gimme Shelter”. For sheer inspiration and multi-layered depth, consider Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, and “Ballad of a Thin Man”. In complexity, what can top “Visions of Johanna” and “One of Us Must Know”? And CCR had a string of great Rock songs that leaves the last batch of Beatles’ rock songs in the dust. And the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” on TOMMY and much of WHO’S NEXT took Rock music to a whole new level, and right alongside them was Led Zeppelin.
Granted, perhaps we need a new category that sits somewhere between pop and rock, what might be called the ‘rocturne’ or ‘rock + nocturne’. The ‘rocturne’ is usually gentler or subdued, too soft to be called Rock music. Yet, hauntingly personal, it differs from the pop tradition in its neurosis simmering just beneath the surface. Pop songs like “Downtown” and “Moon River” were crafted to be anonymous in appeal. Any listener can identify with the ‘woman’ who yearns for the bright lights of downtown. Petula Clark owns that song, but no one mistakes it for HER view of life. And Henry Mancini composed “Moon River” as something like a bouquet of flowers because people like pretty things. He wasn’t probing into or revealing something about himself.
Indeed, impersonality and/or collectivity(of vibes) defined most of pop music prior to the rise of Rock Culture. Even the early Rock n Rollers who wrote their own songs — Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc. — catered to what the kids wanted for dance music in the burgeoning Youth Culture. Though distinct in styles, there was little personal content in their music. It was about capturing the collective spirit of Rock n Roll for a generation of youths who wanted a culture all their own.
This was before Rock Culture began to take shape in mid-60s, especially under the influence of Bob Dylan, an unlikely star who lacked the voice and the look but more than made up for the deficiencies by creating a powerful and ingenious fusion of everything he’d come across and bent to his creative will(though some of his songs were turned into generic pop hits, like “I Got You Babe”* by Sonny and Cher and “It Ain’t Me Babe” by the Turtles). Songs like “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Fourth Time Around” are neither strictly pop nor rock. And they’re something far more than folk ballads that lean on tradition and sense of community.
*Correction: Sonny and Cher’s Dylan cover song was “All I Really Want To Do”.
Changes spearheaded by Dylan in the mid-60s(though he wasn’t the only one) led to greater introspection among the Rockers. They shouldn’t be afraid to look in their own hearts, ruminate on their feelings and doubts. Not just the mood for love but for everything ignored by popular music. “Norwegian Wood” isn’t just a love song but a very private one. The effect is closer to eavesdropping, an act of voyeurism, than one of identification on the part of the listener. It’s about Lennon’s ambiguity about a frivolous affair that somehow lingers. Likewise, the psychedelic ballad “Strawberry Fields Forever” qualifies as a ‘rocturne’ as it’s about Lennon’s melancholia-induced nostalgia for childhood. McCartney, more pop-oriented than Lennon, composed “Yesterday” and “Penny Lane” that were more in line with classic pop, but even he was under the spirit of the times, and his best songs as a Beatle are more than silly-love-songs. “Yesterday” came to him in a dream, and the picaresque “Penny Lane” is a memory lane of familiar places, a kind of mini-album tucked in the corner of the mind.
To an extent, the emphasis on the personal had a somewhat inhibiting effect on Rock Culture. Generally, louder the music, more frenzied the collective spirit of Rock, which was centered on the stage before the studio album became the main vehicle of expression, especially with Brian Wilson and Beatles quitting the concert circuit. Being personal usually requires some measure of meditativeness, the search of an inner light that is unique to each person; in contrast, loud music is like revelry around a shared camp fire. So, while some Rock songs were highly original and unique — “Satisfaction”, “My Generation”, “You Really Got Me”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Day Tripper”, etc. — , many of the most memorable songs of the Sixties Rock Culture owe more to mood and sentiment; and if possessed of wit, a sense of irony or sardonic view of life, creating possibilities for satirical-rock, or what might be called ‘satirock’, most notably associated with the Kinks.
It was during this period that the Stones found the ballad/pop idiom equally if not more challenging as they’d already mastered rhythm-and-blues, a form that countless other British acts had already imitated to death, with most of them sounding more or less interchangeable as white wanna-be-negroes. As for songs like “Satisfaction”, “Get Off of My Cloud”, “Under My Thumb”, and “Paint it Black”, the muse had to be on their side to inspire something so original and unique, impossible to create with mere formula or force of will. Stones couldn’t always fall back on rhythm-n-blues standards and were hard pressed to come up with another astounding Rock song, perhaps the most difficult feat as it must be both uniting and unique. Meanwhile, they composed “Lady Jane”, perhaps in competition with the Beatles then gaining renown for their arty ballads. And “Dandelion” and “She’s a Rainbow” were as sunny and blissful as the Stones got. “Mother’s Little Helper” was satirical in the manner of the Kinks. Their greatest song in this vein(and my favorite) was “Ruby Tuesday”, maybe the finest example of the ‘rocturne’, a further progression from “Play with Fire”. It’s not Rock(not exactly) and certainly not the blues but intimates at a brooding soul. It doesn’t boil but the burner is on. It might be called ‘bruise music’, balladic and wistful but wounded purple with the kind of pain conveyed in “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.
Because the Rock Culture Ideal was to write one’s own songs and make them personal, the result was a string of songs too ‘thoughtful'(and even a bit too literary) to be straight-out Rock and too eccentric to be conventional pop. To name just a few: “California Dreaming”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Expecting to Fly”, “The Sound of Silence”, “America”, “Just Like a Woman”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “As Tears Go By”, “Sad Memory”(Buffalo Springfield), “Younger Generation”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Ripple”, “Tuesday Afternoon”, “Traces” & “Stormy”(Classics IV), “Everybody’s Been Burned”(Byrds), “Undun” & “These Eyes”(Guess Who), “Today”(Jefferson Airplane), “Pictures of Lily”, “Daydream”(Lovin’ Spoonful), “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”(Fairport Convention), “Waterloo Sunset” & “Well Respected Man”, “Femme Fatale”(Velvet Underground), “Dear Prudence”, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”, and “Katie’s Been Gone” & “Whispering Pines”(The Band). And somewhat later with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and “Quicksand”, some of the first post-modern songs playing with retro-nostalgia, interiority, queerness, and sci-fi dreamscape.
Even though the Beatles could do just about everything in Rock and Pop idioms — Lennon even added some Greek flavor to “Girl” — , their forte was pop, or personal pop(or ‘perpop’), again distinct from conventional pop or pure-pop(or ‘purpop’), essentially the crafting of songs for maximum appeal. At times, Beatles could come very close to pure-pop, e.g. “Hello Goodbye”, a feel-good song for any time of day. McCartney could have given it to the Monkees or Herman’s Hermits.
Generally, Paul McCartney has been associated with pop and John Lennon with rock, and it’s true enough that Lennon had a rougher, bolder, edgier, and more aggressive side. Lennon also had a more willful personality prone to near bipolar bouts of rage followed by paralysis and introspection. Even so, most of Lennon’s aggression and irreverence emerged through interviews, political activity, literary forays(like IN HIS OWN WRITE), and antics with Yoko Ono(aka Oh-No), like when he stood naked with her for the album cover of TWO VIRGINS and even made a 15 min film about his penis(which, one hopes, is lost to posterity). When it came to music, most of Lennon’s great songs from 1965, again apart from “Ticket to Ride” and “Help!”, are either pop songs or ballads. His best songs on RUBBER SOUL are “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life”. On REVOLVER, it’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. In 1967, his best songs were “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “A Day in the Life”(heavy in part only because of classical orchestra), and “All You Need Is Love”. “I’m the Walrus” counts as a Rock song, but it’s essentially psychedelia for kids.
In 1968, when the Summer of Love vibes of the previous year evaporated with the worsening war in Vietnam, May 68 protests in France, race riots in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination, and the fiasco at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Rock scene understandably reflected the rage and chaos. Lennon, like the Rolling Stones, touched upon the rawer nerves of Rock. Grunt replaced the groovy. On the White Album, there was “Yer Blues”(atypical for Lennon who hardly played blues music) and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”. And the ballad version of “Revolution” on the album was redone as a hard rock single, perhaps a rejoinder to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” where Mick Jagger, of a background far more privileged than any of the Beatles, pouted as a working class rebel. In 69, Lennon released the abrasive single, “Ballad of John and Yoko”, which, unlike the standard ballad, seethed with exasperation and lashed out at the world. If ever there was a Personal Protest Song, that was it. And McCartney did his part in 1968 by padding the second half of “Hey Jude” with lots of screaming; there were also “Lady Madonna” and “Helter Skelter”.
But the Beatles were never quite so natural with hard rock as the Stones were, especially starting with “Jumping Jack Flash” that initiated a series of powerful songs that pushed them over the top as indisputably the Greatest Rock Band. Only Pink Floyd is a worthy challenger for the title but for somewhat different reasons. When it came to rocking hard, Floyd never came close to the Stones or even attempted to. Only the Who and Led Zeppelin rocked as hard and as good, but the Who imploded almost completely following their peak with WHO’S NEXT, and Zeppelin was comparatively one-dimensional. In rocking hard and rousing the audience, Stones were tops, but it’s difficult to think of another band that did as much as Floyd in fulfilling the vision of Rock as an art form without compromise. Along with Dylan, Pink Floyd probably pushed Rock to the farthest reaches of artistic potential.
Beatles certainly rocked hard when they wanted to, but as good as they were, their Rock songs on THE WHITE ALBUM, LET IT BE, and ABBEY ROAD came nowhere near the best rock songs on ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, BEGGAR’S BANQUET, LET IT BLEED, WHO’S NEXT, and LED ZEPPELIN IV. And even the Doors at their best, not to mention CCR. Partly, it was because the Beatles lacked a clear and cohesive identity following their initial carnation as the Fab Four. They weren’t grounded in anything. They were essentially inspired poseurs, and their playacting as the fictional Sgt. Pepper band was rather uncanny, more than they realized at the time. Beatles sampled and borrowed from everything and crafted some wonderful songs but lacked a core sense of what they were about, and things got more confusing when boomers looked to them as the pied pipers of the Counterculture with the answers. In contrast, despite all the experiments and diversions, there was an unwavering quality about Pete Townshend. And despite their forays into other genres, the Stones never lost their sense of roots in whites blues and rhythm-and-blues. And Pink Floyd was a Rock-as-art band, do or die, hit or miss.
Paul McCartney, though essentially of a pop sensibility, certainly could rock hard when he wanted to, but everything he did was an act, a roleplaying, than a calling. He wasn’t about passion or zeal, the lack of which made him more adaptive and versatile but also stretched somewhat thin. In contrast, even when the Stones did a slow song like “No Expectations” or “Ruby Tuesday”, there was a brooding undercurrent as reminder of what they were, the boastful ones fallen from grace in the ‘Faustian’ tradition of the blues, a matter of both pride and remorse.
John Lennon grew somewhat scornful of McCartney’s assertiveness over the Beatles with his pet projects, and Lennon’s tougher songs on THE WHITE ALBUM were in part a reaction to the McCartney-led pleasantries of SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, especially turned sour when the terrible accompanying TV movie made Beatles almost a laughing stock.
But, as impressive as some of these songs are, especially “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, Lennon and McCartney’s sensibilities were differences of degree than of kind. Lennon too was really an artful poseur without grounding, which may explain why he strained so hard on “Yer Blues”(and later with radical politics), whereas Stones could generate twice the energy with half the effort.
Indeed, the standout Beatles song of 68 was “Hey Jude”, a four minute pop tune that segues into four minutes of rocking na-na-na’s — the comparison of the two parts reveals where McCartney’s true genius lay. If “Helter Skelter” sounds like McCartney doing Hendrix, “Hey Jude” sounds entirely his own. It is unmistakably Beatlesque. Though McCartney’s personality wasn’t as striking, upfront, and brazen as Lennon’s, it emanated with hues and shadings generally missing in popular music. His most remarkable early song, “All My Loving” led the way. In the hectic days of Beatlemania, its rapid-fire delivery and gushing passion were very much in line with the other songs that brought the house down, but there was a forlorn quality, intimation of un-consolable vulnerability, a sublimity of emotional tonalities almost unheard of in pop. Amidst the stardom and revelry, McCartney tapped into a sense of fragility and transience, the twilight at the other end of good day sunshine. These emotions could easily spiral into despair and despondency, but he knew it could also be the source of his art, and it’s hard to miss the progression from “All My Loving” to “Things We Said Today” to “Yesterday” to “For No One” & “Eleanor Rigby” to “Hey Jude” to “Let It Be”.
The primacy of pop as the Beatles’ natural metier is evident when ABBEY ROAD and LET IT BE are placed side-by-side. The latter was an attempt by the Beatles to strip away the flowery psychedelia and slick production values for something more direct and raw. It is hardly a bad album, and has its share of solid songs. “Don’t Let Me Down” is a good song, and plenty of people love “Get Back”, a #1 hit, though not one of my favorites. Still, the better songs are the title track, “Across the Universe”, and “Long and Winding Road”(though mucked up by Phil Specter’s wall of unsound cliches), none of which is rock(though “Let It Be” has some rockish feel by way of gospel motifs and Bill Preston’s soulful organ). The special place of “Get Back” in the Beatles catalogue is rather puzzling. McCartney’s bluesy act seems rather phony, an act he pulled off much better with the solo hit “Maybe I’m Amazed”, one of the few times his soulfulness came across as genuine. The primitivism of “Get Back” comes across as rather studied and calculated, like the country boy schtick in “Rocky Racoon”. And, if there’s a sense of fun to the rollicking “Back in the USSR”(never my favorite) and hair-raising “Helter Skelter”, “Get Back” is rather evasive and standoffish about who-knows-what? It is rather introverted for rock, which thrives on extroversion.
By standards of Rock, LET IT BE is a pretty good album but falls way short of the Beatles’ standards. ABBEY ROAD, recorded after LET IT BE but released earlier, is the far superior album, and its overwhelming mode is pop. “Come Together” is solid rock but overly derivative of Chuck Berry. “Oh Darling” is good too but another throwback to an earlier style, as if McCartney reached the limit with the rock form and could only hark back. “I Want You” is rather dumb, and worse, it goes on forever. The two best songs on the album are surprisingly by George Harrison, and they’re both pop, though clearly personal-pop: “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”. Ringo’s children’s song “Octopus’s Garden” is also delightful.
The most celebrated part of ABBEY ROAD is Side B, especially its two medleys, and despite sporadic bursts of rock energy, it is informed mainly of pop sensibility. The various melodies and rhythms, though strikingly different, are meshed into a continuous stream, a kind of Pop n Flow. If ABBEY ROAD is rock, it’s slick rock or ‘slock’.
Lennon dismissed ABBEY ROAD for this very reason, that it was essentially the baby of perfectionist Paul McCartney and George Martin, who was all about professionalism. At the time, Lennon affected a contrasting musical ‘philosophy’: Tougher, harder, grittier, more personal and primal, soon to result in JOHN LENNON: PLASTIC ONO BAND, that wasn’t a big hit but much admired by critics, many of whom, to this day, believe it to be his best solo work.
At last, Lennon felt liberated from the confinement of the Beatles’ pop sensibility, but an overview of his post-Beatles career suggests he couldn’t do without pop either. Indeed, it’s telling that most of his memorable solo songs are in the pop idiom: “Imagine”, “Jealous Guy”, “Oh Yoko”. Meanwhile, his hardest rocking album, SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY was so bad that even his fans jumped ship on that one. Before his five year hiatus between 1975 and 1980, his other memorable songs were also pop, especially “Mind Games” and “#9 Dream”. The hard rocker “Cold Turkey”(recorded solo in 1969 when Lennon was still in the band) strikes me as retarded, decidedly inferior to “Heroin”(Velvet Underground) and “Gimme Shelter”. Many think highly of “Instant Karma”, but it sounds like another one of Lennon’s manic speed-ball combos of nervous breakdown and brotherhood-of-man sermonizing. It’s like “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”(Napoleon XIV) and “Get Together”(Youngbloods) in a blender. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” made #1, but all it has going for it is high-strung energy that simply doesn’t redeem the threadbare babble. Lennon’s final album DOUBLE FANTASY proved once and for all that, like McCartney, he was essentially a master of pop, which when rendered personal, was as much a part of Rock Culture as rock music.