The contradiction is in its DNA. It is a tradition of rebellion and novelty.
Is Rock ’n’ Roll Cliché?
“I saw her dancin’ there by the record machine / I knew she must’a been about seventeen . . .”—The Arrows, “I Love Rock n’ Roll,” 1975 (Failed to chart)
“I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine / I knew he must’a been about seventeen . . .”—Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, “I Love Rock n’ Roll,” 1982 (#1 Billboard Top 100 single for seven weeks, 2x platinum)
In an early scene of Almost Famous, director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical ode to his years as a teenage rock journalist, the fifteen-year-old protagonist has finally managed to get some facetime with Lester Bangs, the premier critic for Rolling Stone. “So, you’re the kid who’s been sending me those articles from the school newspaper,” Bangs says. As an adolescent, Crowe really did pester the real-life Lester Bangs with letters and phone calls until the writer gave him a job. But not before Bangs, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the film, tried his best to warn him off. “Your writing is damn good,” the fictional Bangs offers. “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock ’n’ roll. It’s over. You got here just in time for the death rattle . . . They won. And 99% of what passes for rock ’n’ roll these days—silence is more compelling.”
An interview by Shawn Levy with director Cameron Crowe for The Oregonian, September 22, 2000:
Levy: “Was Lester Bangs right when he told you that rock was dying and you had arrived just in time to hear the death rattle?
Cameron Crowe: Yes, he was right, but rock dies every year. Rock is dying this year…And the debate over rock being dead happened in the late ’80s. Someone was trying to get me to do a cover story for Esquire, “Rock is Dead, Elvis Costello is the only living remnant.” And shortly after that, Kurt Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the whole thing was alive again.”
Almost Famous was the tender-hearted This is Spinal Tap of my generation. It was one of the entry-level tests if you wanted to call yourself a guitarist or write music reviews for the school newspaper. Oh yeah, you seen Almost Famous? It was our Hollywood crash course in an era we had missed by decades. Where Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest took every cliché of rock music up until 1984 and skewered it with dry mock-English precision, Cameron Crowe, though wry in his depiction of the classic tropes, hadn’t quite given up on the magic he found in rock ’n’ roll as a teenager. And though the Lester Bangs of Crowe’s quasi-fiction had firmly given up on rock ’n’ roll, the real Bangs, like Crowe, like my generation raised on “everything we’d missed,” wasn’t so certain.
“Personally, I believe that real rock ’n’ roll may be on the way out, just like adolescence as a relatively innocent transitional period is on the way out,” Bangs wrote in his 1970 piece “Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review.” Here Bangs implies a kind of ultimatum; if rock matures past pubescence, past feeling and into thinking, it won’t be long for this world. “The Stooges’ songs may have some of the last great rock ’n’ roll lyrics, because everybody else seems either too sophisticated at the outset or hopelessly poisoned by the effects of big ideas on little minds. A little knowledge is still a dangerous thing.”
So rock is vulnerable in the hands of a thinking person? That would make it a very fragile thing indeed. There is a contradiction in Bangs’ writing. His work reveals a life devoted to thinking about rock ’n’ roll.
“Clichés invite you not to think—but you may always decline the invitation, and what could better invite a thinking man to think?”—Sir Christopher Ricks FBA, “Clichés,” The State of Language
Rock ’n’ roll can bristle if you go after it too hard with your brain. Or at least that’s what the cliché of rock ’n’ roll authenticity demands.
The Bottom Line on West Fourth Street is packed and smoky and Lou Reed is loaded and agitated. Tonight, it’s real Rockers vs. the Intelligentsia and it’s all captured on the gloriously-shitty 1978 live LP Live: Take No Prisoners record. The band vamps dutifully on “Walk on the Wild Side” and Lou steps up to the mic.
A consumer’s guide to rock?! What a moron. A consumer’s guide to rock, man, I object to the fucking liner notes. Ya start studying rock ‘n roll, I can’t believe it . . .
Baroque Rock:—man—’A Study by Robert Christgau.’
And John Rockwell, man, wow. You know how heavy it is to get reviewed by Rockwell?
He says you’re intelligent—Fuck You!
I don’t need you to tell me I’m good . . . He studies at Harvard though—monologue—
Lou pronounces the word ‘monologue’ in a lower register, waving it off, as in, ‘I know, I know; I’m rambling.’
But dig this, man:
His voice cracks slightly on the climb back up to his soapbox register.
He’s a fucking opera guy, man!
And that is the critic for the New York Times, that makes or breaks the best rock bands—that are very heavy intelligent . . . Christgau is like an anal retentive. Nice little box and a B plus. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you got a B plus from an asshole in the Village Voice?
A cliché will bitch and moan if you poke it. It’d be another decade until Lou Reed splashed some cold water on his rock ’n’ roll. For both the individual artist and the culture at large, revitalization develops on a cyclical trajectory.
Lester Bangs was cresting his final loop in May of 1980 when he sat down with Sue Mathews, an Australian journalist, for an ABC radio special on music writing. Over the course of the conversation, filling two entire sides of a cassette tape, Mathews prods Bangs’s passion and drama with a series of measured questions. About twelve minutes into Side 1, she coaxes some of the nuance burrowed within the “rock is dead” refrain that Bangs so often brushed up against in his writing.
Sue Mathews: I supposed what I meant was rather than being continuous with any major single change, like in a series of cycles of changes.
Lester Bangs: I do believe there are cyclical changes and it’s funny because people last year were saying “rock is dead” and all that. Nothing ever quite dies, it just comes back in a different form . . . Things do go in cycles so I never believed rock was really dead—it was really finished or had it—it just comes back in a different form. But as far as this stuff being really new, really different that’s something else again. Even the Sex Pistols were playing old Chuck Berry licks.
Three Ways Rock “Dies”:
- Execution by the Hand of Fate or The Puritan ManRock was dead in the late winter of 1959. Chuck Berry was in prison, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the army and sent overseas, Buddy Holly’s body had been discovered in a cornfield amongst the wreckage of a Beechcraft Bonanza, and Little Richard had left the road for an evangelical seminary after interpreting a flashing red light in the sky above his audience as a sign from God to renounce his “sinful music.” As it turned out, Richard had spotted Sputnik I orbiting Earth’s atmosphere. Piano hotshot Jerry Lee Lewis was both a God-fearing evangelical and a rock ’n’ roller, but when he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, both ceased to count for much of anything. The real rockers had come and gone in a flash. Meanwhile, happy to fill the creative void, record companies and Hollywood studios were fabricating and billing white-bread idols like Frankie Avalon as the latest stars of “rock and roll.
- You’re Dead to Me: Critics and Lovers’ LamentsApparently, rock was also dead in 2010 when the last note of the new Kings of Leon song was still hovering over the Bonnaroo crowd and a sunburned twenty-something elbowed me. “This is garbage, man,” he said, his eyes focused downward on the bowl he was packing. “First two albums slayed. Like, drink, fight, fuck. But this is dead. This is Coldplay shit, man.”
- “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I’m Sixty-Four?”
Or, Rock Ages OutIn 2017, with hip hop at an all-time creative peak and vinyl-mining retro acts like The Black Keys and Parquet Courts constituting the top of the commercial and critical heap, it might feel safer than ever to pronounce the death of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a reliably agitating argument, sure to grab attention and easy to suit to one’s present day.
In a recent Sunday Op-Ed for The New York Times, author and veteran MTV executive Bill Flanagan argues it well, albeit formulaically. “No longer controversial or evolving, at least in any popular form . . . rock finds itself, in a stage of reflection on past glories,” he writes. The statement resonates with the recent deaths of innovators like David Bowie and Prince and the dwindling list of rock artists making any significant impact on mainstream charts. However, in search of a broader cause for what he sees as the current, permanent drought in rock ’n’ roll, Flanagan’s reasoning becomes a little too easy. He indulges in the myth of authenticity and real danger when he frames the end of the early 1990s grunge movement as the last gasp of original rock music. “Rock became less interested in innovating than in repeating. A popular new rock band tended to sound a lot like beloved old rock bands.” Flanagan is sorry he has to tell you all this. Really. He was once a young rock fan, down in the festival mud and the sunshine. That was 1973, and now he’s grown weary. The real rockers are either dead or worse, old like him. In 2017, we’re down to the imitators and the hacks. It’s the unfortunate truth and he wants rock fans to accept it. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.
A little under an hour’s drive outside Paris is the village of Hérouville. There, in an eighteenth- century château, recently converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio, a young man sits down at the piano. It’s the summer of 1972, and Elton John is twenty-five years old. In the last year, he and lyricist Bernie Taupin have come into their own, penning “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer,” symphonic pop ballads strung with surrealist poetry that stretch past five and six minutes in length. Having spent the last four years with his head down, struggling to define rock ’n’ roll on his terms, it’s occurring to him that the music he makes is not the music he grew up with. He’s feeling nostalgic for his teenage years, for 45rpms by the Del Shannons, Bill Haley & His Comets, and Little Richard. It’d be fun to try and conjure some of that silliness, that 12-bar camp and brevity. Wasn’t that rock ’n’ roll?
“I remember when rock was young / Me and Suzie had so much fun . . . But the years went by and the rock just died / Suzie went and left us for some foreign guy . . . Learning fast as the weeks went past / we really thought the Crocodile Rock would last.”—“Crocodile Rock,” recorded at the Château d’Hérouville, 1972
The “rock is dead” argument relies on a perspective limited to the here and now, but it has been argued flexibly for over sixty years. How can something that has been alive for six or more decades also have been dead the whole time?
It’s February 2017. Instead of writing a song, Dave Longstreth, leader of the indie rock band Dirty Projectors, has taken to Instagram with a screenshot of a long-winded entry in his iPhone notes:
is it me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24½th century both bad and boujee? Bad in the basic sense of like, musically underwhelming—mostly miming a codified set of sounds & practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now . . . refined and effete, well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience?
It’s March 1963. Chuck Berry is sitting in a prison cell and a clean-cut new group called the Beach Boys have just scored their highest Billboard pop position yet with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” The single sounds a lot like Berry’s 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen”—a genuine cliché in the context of the word’s nineteenth-century printing press origins. Or as Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors might say, the Beach Boys were “mostly miming a codified set of sounds & practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered.”
The Beach Boys inherited “Sweet Little Sixteen” from Chuck Berry, but in revision and addition, they discovered “Surfin’ U.S.A.” for themselves. Brian Wilson’s Doo-Wop harmony layers are the most conspicuous change in texture, but I think the real discovery is in the kick drum. Dennis Wilson beats out solid quarter notes where Berry’s swinging feel leaves a space. “1-2-3-4-1!—If everybody had an (1)o(2)c(3)e(4)a(1)n—Across the U.S.A.” In the five years between Berry’s original and The Beach Boy’s arrangement, the Twist had taken the world by storm. You can hear its distinct motion in Wilson’s through-line kick-drum beat.
Are clichés the primary tools for creating rock music and culture? Rock is blatant, contagious, and reproducible. These aren’t descriptors so much as they are tenets, points on a manifesto. The maraca shake of clichés from one decade to the next is not a death rattle, it is music and culture in motion. The contradiction is in its DNA. It is a tradition of rebellion and novelty. Rock music bristles at scrutiny but revels in the physicality of the present. As such, it seems fundamentally locked into a pattern of cliché-based life cycles. Perhaps the push and pull of this primary contradiction is what makes rock music historically, and presently, such a suitable vehicle for the expression, exploration, and assertion of sexual agency. A cyclical culture long-obsessed with the idea of its own demise, rock has always centered on a preoccupation with sexuality as well. Reborn again and again, rock’s defining cliché is not that it is dead, but that it is sexy.
Which has gone limper? Academia’s obsession with the guitar as a phallic symbol, or rockers’ perpetual reenactment of the “I can’t help it” orgasmic guitar solo routine? When was the last time it really felt dirty, involuntary?
Esquire sends a twenty-six-year-old Robert Christgau to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Here’s what he comes back with:
With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings . . . I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it.
1972: David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars are burning through “Suffragette City” on stage at the Oxford Town Hall. The moans from Mick Ronson’s Les Paul catch Ziggy’s attention from across the stage. The red-haired predator is intrigued. He turns, circles his prey, sizing Ronson up—tour photographer Mick Rock raises his camera. Ziggy drops between Ronson’s legs, gripping his thighs for support. His head rolls back and his mouth opens wide. Ronson’s guitar teases and smears across the eager red lips.
1980: Ariel Swartley is at the Paradise Rock Club with her notepad and pen. A nineteen-year-old named Prince has scored a hit with “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and the alternative newsletter The Real Paper has sent Swartley to review his live act. “Slung across the chest and crotch, a guitar is half armor, half advertisement,” she writes. “An alter ego, almost human shaped, it’s a foil for the player’s sexuality . . . No wonder the guy who plays twenty-six instruments in the studio chooses only one onstage—you can imagine which.”
1984: Prince has studied Hendrix, studied Bowie. Today they’re filming the “Computer Blue” segment of his Purple Rain film. His guitar solo sounds impatient and reckless. He takes a step toward his eighteen-year-old rhythm guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Obedient, almost demure, she kneels at his feet, engulfing her bandleader’s Telecaster in her bushy curls.
The image is uncomfortably misogynist for an artist we generally remember as a sexual progressive. In the context of his baffling cruelty toward a shivering Apollonia in the Lake Minnetonka scene of Purple Rain, it becomes even more unpleasant. The fellatio scene is reenacted live on all ninety-eight stops of the Purple Rain Tour.
2017: The thought occurs to me that a man on his knees fellating a women’s guitar might be exactly the “vulgar parody of rock theatrics” the Donald Trump era is in need of. I look forward to reading The Guitar as Vulvic Symbol in ten years.
The sexualized guitar is a good example of how cliché can develop through recontextualization. The rock vocal accent provides further insight.
Rock vocals or, white American men imitate white British men imitating American black men. Refer to Jonathan Richman’s count-off to 1972 single “Roadrunner” for the precise moment in which the art was perfected. (See Otis Redding’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” for completion of the circle and subsequent total mindfuck).
The Mick Jagger Affect:
It isn’t really in the naay-uum of, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…” nor in the “Midnight Rambler”— “the one you neva’ seen bee-fowh”; it’s in his interviews—pick any of them—where you can truly appreciate just how wide the expanse is between Mick Jagger’s speaking voice and his singing voice. One good example of his polite, Dartford timbre is in a now famous 1965 BBC special. The host asks the twenty-two-year-old Jagger about how long he expects the Rolling Stones to continue. “I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year, at least,” he replies, without a hint of the irony that answer would take on fifty-two years later and counting.
“Don’t move yo’ lips / Jus’ shake yo’ hips,” Jagger sings, also without a drop of irony, on the second cut of Exile on Main Street. Jagger is an exceptional stylist as well as, in addition to his bandmates, a genuine disciple of the blues. Muddy Waters would likely tell you as much. In a moment toward the end of Waters’s Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981 concert film, he calls the Stones up to jam with him, leaning back on his stool and beaming like a proud uncle as they take the stage.
The band’s knowledge of Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf is tangible on their three-minute epistles to White America that first began transmission across the Atlantic in the early 1960s. The rock ’n’ roll accent as we’ve come to know and expect it came into being when a generation of American kids raised on the British Invasion started drawling and slurring their “bab-ayy’s” like English school boys trying to sound “Black.” Steven Tyler was one of those kids with a transistor radio. Listen to the “baaabes” and “bab-aaaays” on Aerosmith’s late-period comeback ballad “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” The blended spirits of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Mick Jagger coat Tyler’s vocal folds.
Scholar Ruth Amossy divides linguistic clichés into two distinct categories:
- Passively Registered Cliché: “It helps the reader get his bearings and models his attitude and expectations along familiar horizons . . . Helps construct a representational illusion.”
- Critically Perceived Cliché: “An intentionally obvious cliché reminds the reader of the pre-existent discourse from which it was taken . . . an earlier literary discourse or a generalized social discourse.”
A Classification System for Band Name Clichés:
Passively Registered Clichés
- 1940s through early 1960s doo-wop: proclivity for birds, nominalizations, and music theory.
The Five Keys
- Mid-late 1970s soft rock: Single-word names evoking great distances, great wisdom, and great places to avoid visiting. (Evokes blue jeans, blue collars, whiteness, individual freedom, muscle cars, beards).
- Glam and hair metal bands of the 1980s: Double letters and linguistic symbols. Considering the strength of A&R departments and big label money in the late 1980s, the capitalist benefits of the “passively registered” band name and aesthetic should also be considered:
Honorable Individual Mentions:
Nikki Sixx (aka Frank Feranna, bassist for Mötley Crüe)
Mick Mars (aka Robert Deal, guitarist for Mötley Crüe)
C.C. Deville (Bruce Johannesson, guitarist for Poison)
Rikki Rockett (Richard Ream, drummer for Poison)
Tracii Guns (aka Tracy Ulrich, lead guitarist for L.A. Guns)
Note: The glam and heavy metal period also saw an inexplicable enchantment with the letter W and a possibly explicable fondness for the color white—the color of their favorite powdery drug?
*, **, *** These three trace to mid-seventies nominal trend setters Led Zeppelin and Motörhead respectively.
- 2010s pop/rock disguised under the bewildering catch-all “indie rock” moniker: Smart-ass imperative statements and large creatures.
Walk the Moon
Cage the Elephant
Young the Giant
Of Monsters and Men
Critically Perceived Cliché (or what we might call “A Nod and a Wink” Names:
- Punk-tinged, 1950s nostalgia names of the late 1970s through early 1980s transition period:The Pretenders
Elvis Costello & the Imposters
Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Robyn Lane & the Chartbusters
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Adam and the Ants
Echo & the Bunnymen
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Prince & the Revolution
- Ironically pedestrian, corporate, technical, and/or institutional band names of the early 1980s:The Police
Men at Work
The English Beat
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a curious project. In one sense, it could be read as a systematic effort to transform passively registered clichés into critically perceived clichés. Instead, it performs both functions. Each year, the voters construct an updated representational illusion of what rock music should be based on where it has been.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inaugural class 1986:
The Everly Brothers
Jerry Lee Lewis
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2017:
Amy Ray is one-half of the multi-platinum folk rock duo Indigo Girls. I like to think of her as my rock ’n’ roll fairy godmother. A little over four years ago, when I was a few weeks shy of graduating high school, she asked me to join her solo band. Since then, it’s been four years of firsts for me: first time recording in a major studio, first cross-country tour, first time I’ve ever been asked to sign my name on a record sleeve with a Sharpie. Amy’s texts usually come in the form of an invitation to an adventure and it was no different when my phone buzzed twice around midnight a few nights ago. “Do you want to go to the hall of fame ceremony tomorrow?”
We slip out the backstage entrance onto the floor of the Brooklyn Barclays Center. Around us are dinner tables full of inductees, their families, and assorted rock and Hollywood royalty. In front of us is the most beautifully lit stage I’ve ever seen. Amy and Emily, her musical partner in Indigo Girls, have just come off stage from their performance with Joan Baez, the only woman being inducted this year. Now, Snoop Dogg, T.I., and Alicia Keys are onstage rapping Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” In the months leading up to the ceremony Tupac and Baez were at the center of this year’s “they aren’t rock ’n’ roll” argument. From where I’m standing, there’s no question as to their credentials. From where I’m standing, I can also see the massive HBO teleprompter. The lyrics to “Keep Ya Head Up” scroll by . . . ladies that make the babies / And since a man can’t make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one . . . I’m trying to think of another female empowerment song penned by a male in rock ’n’ roll, but I can’t. I try to think of more than just a handful of equal-opportunity rock bands with both men and women in them, but I can’t. So I think I’ll start my own.
I’m standing here among the wrinkled and prestigious, their denim and leather traded for black tie and evening gowns. One by one, each artist cycles past the podium to make polite remarks and stare bemusedly, for the camera, at the award clutched in their hand. To play rock ’n’ roll is to be a walking antique. To play rock ‘n’ roll is to be young, on fire, and on time. “So you want to be a rock ’n’ roll star?” The Byrds asked in 1967. I think about Tupac, I think about Wendy Melvoin, I think about Lester Bangs and his cycles. I think there is work left to do.
Almost Famous. Directed by Cameron Crowe. DreamWorks Pictures, 2000.
Amossy, Ruth, and Terese Lyons. “The Cliché in the Reading Process .” SubStance Vol. 11, no. Issue 35 (1982): 34-45.
Bangs, Lester, and Greil Marcus. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York City: Anchor Press, 2003.
Bangs, Lester. “Lester Bangs Interview with Sue Mathews.” Interview by Sue Mathews. Souncloud. https://soundcloud.com/cousincreep/lester-bangs-interview-with. May 13, 1980
Christgau, Robert. “Anatomy of a Love Festival.” Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. Accessed May 2017. https://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/music/monterey-69.php.
Levy, Shawn. “Almost Famous – The Oregonian.” The Uncool – The Official Site for Everything Cameron Crowe. Accessed May 2017. http://www.theuncool.com/press/almost-famous-oregonian/.
Reed, Lou, writer. Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners. Arista, 1978.
Ricks, Christopher, and Leonard Michaels. The State of Language. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Swartley, Ariel. “Prince Live Review.” The Real Paper, 1980.