Music Features

Debate Series #4: Do we need rock n' roll?

Is rock n' roll still relevant? Joe Iliff certainly thinks so…

I recently did a review for The Vaccines, the album felt like a 7 – I gave it a 7 being the good little logically thinking man I hope I am. And then I sat back at my computer and did a strange thing, I popped up iTunes and I played a song, a song by The Vaccines. “You nutter,” I hear your deadened sarcastic tones ring out, but hear me out: after about three hours listening to an album on repeat (as I found myself doing last night), however exceptional that record might be, it is nigh on impossible to pump up the spirit to utter that Dickensian plea of "Can I have some more?" So there I sat, squirming with triumphant joy as this song played out and now, owing to the fact that I have nothing else to complain about, I can’t help but wonder why.
The answer is simple: I am craving guitar music, I am on a wretched sugar low of ‘Casters and kits; I am crying out for the love of a foot-shodden four-piece with a repertoire of three God-given chords and a cocky gobshite at the front who thinks he is that aforementioned donator. After years of MGMT, Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem, I can’t be the only one whose ears are starting to bleed just a little bit, surely?
Before this self-reflective run turns self-righteous rant, I had better attempt to measure my tone. The British independent music industry is on the ropes; alongside its major label counterparts it is taking a beating: record sales are dropping, HMV is reporting crashing music sales and tumbling share prices, high profile venues are facing or have suffered the chop - notably the 100 club and the Astoria - and people are turning to piracy as a frankly guiltless crime. But over the last few years the independent scene has faced another crisis, one of identity. All of a sudden the guitar bands were gone, that Strokesian cool and garage fervour of the early 21st Century was lost, and we were left drowning in the likes of La Roux, Delphic and Friendly Fires. Meanwhile our British guitar heroes dissipated: Muse went mental, Biffy lost their inner metal-head,  and Kasabian – well best not to talk too much about them. And all I can remember is waking up some day in 2009 and thinking “Bollocks, how the fuck did we get here?”
So how did we get here? Well, a simple answer is that there’s a current wave of 80s nostalgia sweeping across the western world and, as in 2008 rumoured remakes of the A-Team and Karate Kid began to be murmured around Hollywood, more ill-omened proceedings were taking place in the subterranean basements of indie louts the world over. The 80s was an awful decade: Tiananmen Square, Thatcher and Top Gun to suggest but a few; yet Joy Division indebted guitar groups (Editors, Interpol, The Killers) started to appear across the noughties scene and then the visionaries of retro-electronica began to gain ever greater foothold (LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk). But where many of these earlier pioneers crafted their wares well, all it took was a few idiots with a sequencer, a Mac book pro and a complete misunderstanding of how the meanings of the words ‘quality’ and ‘music’ interrelate in juxtaposition, to push us off down that slippery slope. The thing is I’m not sure who those people are – so being the illogically thinking little man I really am – I simply go back to the last thing I was certain of. In my world that’s the fact that the outpouring of mind-numbing synthesisers correlates very nicely with the arrival, and swift disappearance, of, among others, Passion Pit. Passion Pit is (present tense I confess) an American band, backed by a vast arsenal of nasal falsettos and shimmering keyboards. I won’t dwell on them, but suffice it to say, I’d happily blame every global catastrophe since 1948 on those poor buggers; and since that’s clearly unfair we’d better move on.
The second fault is that we don’t have many indie guitar bands to get behind – and I’m talking those that might produce the next wave of heroes – so the Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club certainly don’t count. The Rifles were awful, The Courteeners produced a fatally weak second record: by the end of 2010 I could only remember one British band to produce a worthwhile indie rock debut that year – and that’s Two Door Cinema Club, the sum of whose ages amount to far less than the average Galapagos Islands tortoise.
As much as we need great songs we need some character; some crazy, drug-addled Iggy Pop enthusiast to inject (pun unintended, but welcome in hindsight) life into this increasing comatose genre, a libertine indeed. To clarify I’m not asking for a full-blown reincarnation of Lord Byron, only the sort of band capable of coaxing interest wherever they go, we all need heroes in rock and roll and right now there’s a distinct shortage.
And now after a dismal few years, we wonder why The Vaccines have reached such prominence on the back of so little: it’s because they execute the simple things so confidently, and it is well and truly a sound for sore ears. They are not vastly significant, nothing like the Strokes or Arctic Monkeys have been for the previous decade. However, they do raise this far larger issue, as well as representing a false start in the bid to anticipate the next big band. It feels as though we are due a game changer right about now, the next flagship guitar band for the next generation – Lord knows we need it. And so we wait…
On the other hand, Joe Rivers disagrees…
Whether your definition of the birth of rock n’ roll has Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Donegan or anyone else as the creator, the music itself was heavily steeped in the idea of rebellion. Post-World War II, teenagers were fed up and in need of something to distance themselves from their past. A shake of the hips, a curl of the lip and a chord ringing out on an electric guitar were their ticket out of the doldrums. Whereas their parents would listen to jazz, Rat Pack crooners or musical standards, these children of the revolution were getting their kicks elsewhere.
So far, nothing you didn’t already know, but in 2011 we’re still being fed the line that rock n’ roll is the anti-establishment music of the underground and it’s simply not true. If anything, rock n’ roll has become the establishment itself. That generation gap doesn’t exist and, when developing music tastes, a large part of becoming your own person is listening to precisely the kind of music your parents wouldn’t approve of. If a 15-year-old today attempted to rebel by listening to The Vaccines, their Dad would likely pop his head round the corner, ask who this band ripping off The Ramones were, and promptly lend their offspring a copy of End Of The Century.
Does this mean rock n’ roll can limp on when its raison d’être no longer exists? Well, for better or worse, we’re always going to have guitar/bass/drum/vocal combos banging out three-minute songs. You could argue it’s the true form of the latter day pop group, but the question isn’t will there be rock bands, it’s whether we should care.
Since The Beatles split, there have been few bands that have truly shaken up the rock n’ roll paradigm. You’ll probably have your own favourites that aren’t included here, but as a back-of-a-fag-packet-list, let’s say: Pink Floyd, The Ramones, The Clash, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, The Smiths, Nirvana, Radiohead and The Strokes. Sure, that list could be debated all day, and there are probably inclusions you strongly disagree with, but the main point is this: you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone in the last decade who’s pushed rock n’ roll forward.
Why is this? Well, as we’ve established, rock n’ roll is getting on a bit. Of course, not everything that can possibly be done has been done, but we’re starting to repeat ourselves more and more. Rock n’ roll leaves me jaded and I feel like there’s no originality out there. I’m not some seasoned hack; I’m 24 – I shouldn’t feel this way, at least, not yet. If we’re going to strip rock n’ roll back to its first principles and concentrate on it in its purest form, then we reached the zenith in the 1990s with Weezer’s first record and Lemonhead’s It’s A Shame About Ray; two records which can’t be improved upon. And what are the rock n’ rollers of today doing? It’s been ten years since Is This It and it would appear that it, in fact, was it. The Strokes are holding onto former glories and other guitar bands simply re-hash the music of their heroes or look farther afield for their influences.
Aha, farther afield. This is why we shouldn’t care about the future of rock n’ roll. Why get hung up about it when there are so many fresh sounds if you cast your net a little wider? Pop has embraced technology and is racing forward at an alarming speed, electronic music is more exciting than ever before and the relative youthfulness of hip-hop means there are still plenty of places to go. That’s before you’ve even thought about fusions of styles, bedroom experimentalists, dubstep, chillwave and any other new genre you care to mention.
On a personal note, my three favourite albums of the past twelve months are in no way in thrall to the traditions of rock n’ roll: Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, Katy B’s On A Mission, and James Blake’s eponymous debut. While they might not be your idea of fun, you’ll struggle to find a guitar-based record that shows the level of invention and intrigue of any of those records. Who are the hot, young gunslingers supposed to lead the charge in this brave new world? Brother? Glasvegas? Noah and the Whale? Give me a break.
There have always been fallow periods in rock n’ roll and a ground-breaking artist could be just around the corner. But while there are ideas in abundance elsewhere, there’s no point in getting too hung up about it. Right now, I’d rather listen to Rihanna than the Foo Fighters, and that’s the truth.
Only time will tell, but maybe the sad reality is that rock n’ roll really is past its best.
So, which Joe is in the know? We’d love to hear what you think, leave feedback using the comment form below.