And with that bit of doggerel none other than Little Richard, almost beyond argument, created what we know as rock ’n’ roll. The year was 1955, and rock music had become a force to be reckoned with, providing a soundtrack for social movement and change for decades after, fracturing into potent subgenres — folk rock, punk rock, glam rock, yacht rock — and making lots of people lots of money. And now, according to none other than Kiss’ Gene Simmons, it’s done. Dead. I tend to agree. And yet …
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large
duty now for the future
1. The Best ‘Rock’ Bands of 2021
Let’s call this one Exhibit A. Straight from that rock bible Forbes and its “Most Anticipated Rock Albums of 2021.” For this list to put Mr. Simmons in his place, it would have to include bands with a few members in their 20s — sorry, Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, Evanescence and Weezer. Greta Van Fleet almost count in that they’re young, use rock staples of bass, drums and guitars, and evince a love of Rush, but their skinny shoulders can’t carry it all.
2. Women to the Rock ’n’ Roll Rescue
There exists the possibility that rock died not because of what it hasn’t done — generate hard-rocking action — but because of what it has done: run the macho ideation of whatever hard-rocking action is into the ground. Which is precisely why Brittany Howard, lead singer and guitarist of Alabama Shakes; Chelsea Wolfe; and Beatrice Laus, the Filipino-born Brit best known as Beabadoobee, leave such a mark when they hit.
3. Latin American Rock Rumbles
Plenty of America’s rock originators were Latino — Ritchie Valens, Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and, on the harder end of the spectrum, Brazil’s Sepultura — but we’re not talking about history here. We’re talking about tomorrow, and none other than Oscar- and Grammy-winning filmmaker and musician Gustavo Santaolalla makes the claim that tomorrow might belong to Latin American rock. One glimpse of his new Netflix documentary, Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America, calls BS on any and all of Simmons’ claims.
4. Plus: The Asian Invasion
There’s plenty of rock to come out of Asia — noise rock with Melt-Banana, experimental rock with Boris, Babymetal for headbangers — but these bands have been around for a minute. And they’re from Japan, where they’ve been doing rock forever. But stoner rock from Singapore, where you could get a decade in prison for marijuana possession? And named Marijannah, no less? They’re as mighty of an argument as you’re going to find that rock is alive and well.
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“I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f--- is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Nick Cave once said in a rip that made it back to the band. And he’s right. Despite boasting a killer drummer, a few different great guitar players and some decent bass playing, singer Anthony Kiedis does to rock what Robert Goulet did to it, and Goulet made Elvis so mad he shot his TV.
Sure, Weezer uses traditional rock instrumentation, but Simmons’ point had everything to do with “glamor, excitement and epic stuff.” Not what anyone thinks of when they think of Weezer and yet Weezer endures — despite an anti-fan base that’s as vitriolic as any fan base anywhere and who, you get the sense, won’t be happy until Rivers Cuomo ceases existing.
3. Just How Good Was Rock, Though?
There’s a tendency to forget how bad bad really is. This is a great human adaptation and keeps us going where a smarter species would just lay down and die. So to all of the greatness Simmons refers to — Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles — there’s an Eagles, “the quintessential band for a decade whose favorite barbiturate was the Quaalude,” according to the LA Weekly, and, of course, Pearl Jam.
4. One Person’s Trash
Despite my negativity and the sense that it’d be more merciful just to let rock die, there are signs that rock is on track for a revival courtesy of Kerrang! magazine. There’s the return of My Chemical Romance, a big Weezer/Fall Out Boy/Green Day tour, a gaggle of hip-hop crossovers, Tool’s continued relevance and … wait. Those were signs that rock would dominate 2020, which have all been blasted out of the water. Shall we rest our case?
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Keep in mind that the aforementioned Little Richard, the father of rock ’n’ roll, just died last year. And while at 87 he wasn’t rocking out the way he was in 1955, he certainly knew how to. Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are also gone, but some rock bands are still laying down the rock law. Expect Aerosmith, Kiss and Guns N’ Roses to be playing live by year-end, COVID be damned.
2. When You Accidentally Almost Kill Rock
Context is everything. You’re at a drugstore at 3 a.m., not really expecting to see Axl Rose. And yet, he must have at one point needed to go to the drugstore at 3 a.m. So it is that one OZY correspondent found himself strangling Mick Jagger in the course of merely doing his job to keep riffraff away from the Clash during their New York heyday. There may have been drugs involved.
It also could be that if Simmons’ rock-free future comes to be, rock is a representative idea that lives on and carries as much weight as it once did. Case in point: When the Ramones, the great American punk rock progenitors, were playing amusement parks in the U.S., they were inspiring revolution in recently fascist Spain. So how dead is dead, really?
After all of this naval-gazing and gloomy pontificating about the continued existence of rock ’n’ roll, did we just see that one of the big rock tours planned for later in 2021 is a Kiss tour? With David Lee Roth, no less? So let’s get this straight, Mr. Simmons: Rock is dead, but you’re still touring? And breaking the Guinness World Record for highest flame at a recent show in Dubai. Perfect.
And regardless of grumbling from older-school cats, it makes perfect sense to me to have hip-hop in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Listen to any hip-hop song and you’re apt to hear bass, drums and guitars, and with the same fire that fueled a Little Richard or a James Brown — who played at least one noteworthy show with the Rolling Stones. Is it not rock ’n’ roll to have Jay-Z be one of the likeliest to be inducted in 2021?
resting our case
The final proof that rock will never die.
1. New York Dolls
“They dressed like women, but I didn’t know any women that looked like them,” a music critic famously said about the New York Dolls in a Johnny Thunders documentary, and the same held true for the rock they played. Their music is great and we still weep for Johnny Thunders.
Black fingernail polish, all-black kit, black shades, a churlish demeanor, drugs, sex with whomever and an unwillingness to play nice, ever: Lou Reed lays out a road map for rock’s continuance for the next thousand years at least. And when his music hit a Super Bowl commercial this year? Perverse perfection.
3. Sly Stone
It’s easy when you think of Sly and the Family Stone to think of all of the drug-fueled no-shows, and the going broke and the current fight over royalties, right up until you hear the music. And then all of that shit just stops. It’s … heavenly. Absolutely. See more of Sly in Questlove’s Sundance-debuting documentary, Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
A whole act predicated on a refusenik’s love of the contrary. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Smith sang, and it was clear that all of those things typically put on female singers were just not going to be part of her deal. The makeup, the shopworn ideas of sexy, all of it received nary a nod. Patti Smith was mighty.
5. Jimi Hendrix
His father used to come into the kitchen when Jimi was a kid to find broom straw all over the floor and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Because what was going on was that Hendrix was playing air guitar on a broom. It caused his father to go out and buy him an actual guitar. The rest is a grand and glorious history. Weird Hendrix fun fact: One of his favorite guitarists ever was Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.