Rock’n’roll has always been conscious of its history, self-conscious even: either more than happy to embrace and trumpet its own heritage or, on the contrary, quite determined to tear down the signs and strains of the past, best demonstrated by the kind of scorched earth policy that British punk adopted for a few years in the 1970s.
The American end of that cultural explosion was rather different. If CBGBs shook the US out of its stadium rock complacency, the artists who set that downtown house on fire – performers like Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine and David Byrne – didn’t reject their history but were steadfast in their attempts to take the best of it and then re-shape it.
Such thoughts left me musing on the ways in which popular artists occasionally attempt the telling of such chronologies – and not just in the things they say but in the actual songs they pen. There aren’t that many self-reflective accounts of the story of pop but there are a few interesting examples worth re-visiting.
The Beatles’ ‘Glass Onion’, from 1968, was an early re-presenting of their own myth with Lennon dipping into fragments of the combo’s recent catalogue to paint an amusing, maybe acerbic, portrait of a group who actually wanted to be a band no more, even if they did stagger on for a year or two after his delicious autobiographical doodle.
But there is hardly a better example of the craft of self-celebration than a record from the same era. The Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Creeque Alley’ is an engrossing and witty wander through the emerging scene that preceded the rise of John Phillips’ briefly dazzling vocal outfit with most of the names from Village’s folk revival to LA’s soft rock boom wandering on to the musical stage at some point.
Thus Phillips and his wife Michelle, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty tell sweetly harmonised, rags-to-riches tales of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Byrds and Barry Maguire as part of their own rise to the top of the transatlantic charts from the mid-1960s.
Don McLean’s 1971 global smash ‘American Pie’ is a more oblique odyssey through the golden age of rock’n’roll and the developments of the early 1960s: his stanzas are more allegorical rather than actual though a close-reading of the song doesn’t take long to reveal its heroes – Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Dylan among them.
The punks on this side of the pond had their own histories to recount – inevitably barbed, predictably histrionic. And if the Clash, in a blistering sub-two minutes, exoceted rock’s greatest gods – Presley, the Beatles and the Stones – via the donner und blitzen of ‘1977′, it wasn’t too long before Strummer and co were on trial themselves for betraying this cultural revolution.
Crass had a rather more severe take on what it meant to be independent. Their ethos did not embrace the notion that you could wage the war from within. The Pistols signing dotted lines at EMI and A&M and Virgin and the Clash getting into bed with CBS was greeted with a studied vehemence by Penny Rimbaud and his angry brigade.
‘White Punks on Hope’ dismissed the liberal posturing of that band – ‘They can stuff their punk credentials/Cause it’s them that take the cash’ – and even the gestures of the Rock Against Racism movement as part of a capitalist con, a left wing/right wing spat that ignored the seed of the problem – class conflict. ‘Anarchy and freedom is what I want’ they intone with a venomous snarl.
Somewhat later, an American punk survivor called “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, leader of the Dictators, reflected a touch more nostalgically on the way the game had played out. In 2001, he looked back on the surge of energy that had turned his generation into Fab Four acolytes but then he bemoans the fact that Sgt Pepper had forced rock to grow up.
‘Who Will Save Rock and Roll?’ is a mournful, if perversely affectionate, vision of the way Murray the K sold Lennon & McCartney to the young USA before Iggy and the Stooges turned over the applecart and helped inspire the New York revolution of the early 1970s. I suppose he made his own feelings plain eventually when, in 2005, he hooked up as vocalist with those infamous Detroit revolutionaries the MC5.
What of black music? Well, the great arc of African-American sounds that provided such a thrilling soundtrack to the 20th Century gave many of its singers and groups a powerful sense that they were part of crucial, vibrant tradition, a progressive struggle that helped carry a once manacled, then outcast, race from the social margins to the corridors of the White House.
In 1981, Chaka Khan took Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz standard ‘A Night in Tunisia’ and co-wrote a lyric to accompany the tune. The words to ‘And the Memory Still Lingers On’ provided a celebratory tour through the great names of the genre, embracing Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ellington and Coltrane and even Stevie Wonder along the way, an exuberant roll call of outstanding innovation.
Yet, in the midst of these reflections, there is one piece of compelling polemic that leaves them all in its long shadow: the extraordinary ‘Rock N Roll’ by the rapper Mos Def, as excoriating a tale of the past half century of music-making, of racial exploitation, as you are likely to encounter.
Released in 1999, it is a song of two parts, commencing with the coolest, smartest, laid back rap tribute to the greatest names from the black community, interwoven with a string of searing put downs to the groups who adopted their style, their voice, and made it palatable to the mainstream white audience, appropriation masquerading as appreciation.
Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, James Brown, Nina Simone and Hendrix, Bad Brains and Fishbone are the gods of this pantheon; Presley and the Stones, Limp Bizkit and Korn are mere pretenders, pale and diluted imitations of the genuine article. ‘Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Little Richard is rock and roll’ as the song insists.
The second half of the piece erupts into a furious, punk-like thrash in which the great urban centres of black creativity – Harlem and Atlanta, Compton and Detroit – are screamed, like a scorching mantra to the talent and the passion of a once downtrodden but now proud and upstanding people.
It is a history lesson like no other, one that emphasises the remarkable ability of music to inspire and commemorate but also the manner in which the socially vulnerable have often been easy prey to the commercial ambitions of the dominating power-brokers in our society.
‘Rock N Roll’ is raw-boned and heart-felt, supremely confident and utterly dazzling: a compelling triumph of both style and content and a sharply observed reminder of where most of the music we dig actually came from.