A SERIOUS GAME….

Just off the top of your head, name the ten most important people in the History of Rock and Roll (individuals, not groups, though group members, including your favorite Beatle, are eligible). Not your favorites or who you think was the greatest, just the most important to the history of Rock and Roll America, however you define it. Here’s mine, in chronological order, by year of their first major impact (crazy game, so feel free to argue/substitute/debate in the comments. Just remember if you add somebody, you have to take somebody out!):

1) Fats Domino (1950) The Originator

2) Elvis Presley (1954) The Driver of the Narrative

3) Chuck Berry (1955) Rock and Roll America’s First Poet Laureate

4) James Brown (1956) The Visionary

5) Berry Gordy, Jr. (1960) Master of the Game

6) Bob Dylan (1962) Rock and Roll America’s Poet Laureate Redux

7) Jimi Hendrix (1967) Traveler through Time and Space

8) Aretha Franklin (1967) The Definer of Soul

9) John Lydon/Kurt Cobain (1976/1989) The Twinned Spirits of Destruction….neither complete without the other…and no, they didn’t need their particular groups the way John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger needed theirs.

10) Madonna (1982) The Solvent.

11 thoughts on “A SERIOUS GAME….

  1. Feel free to argue? Are you sure? Heh heh…well, at least this should provoke some responses, genuine and heartfelt though I mean it: It’s very, very difficult for me to even consider viewing Bob Dylan’s influence with objectivity, because I hate the sound of every one of his songs I’ve ever heard, and I’ve never understood why the entire world kisses his ass. His importance to the way rock and roll unfolded throughout the ’60s is vastly overrated.

    Part of my disinclination to even try figuring out why he was allegedly so significant is that I hold grudges, at least when it comes to music I love. It’s possible that even at 45, I’m in the same state of mind that you were in during that Elvis-impersonator performance, way back in your teens. I never thought I had arrested development, but anything’s possible.

    So at least I’m admitting to the grudge. I heard in some documentary (can’t remember which) that ol’ Bob put down the Shangri-Las during one of his concerts in front of several of his fellow sanctimonious, holier-than-thou folkies. Here’s a man who couldn’t sing if someone put a gun to his head, attempting in vain to trash one of the greatest singing groups that ever existed.

    I couldn’t stand his voice before I heard about that anyway.

    And his lyrics? I’ve read more profound poetry in Dr. Seuss books.

    I just don’t get it.

    In the extramusical sense, I could never stomach the self-important miasma around him. Oh, sure, Bob: Your stuff is so lofty and important, and everything else is crap. Okay, chief. You’re so “real” that you don’t even want to use your real name. And you’ve made more money than nearly everyone you accuse of being “merely pop” or “selling out,” so take your hacky, endlessly regurgitated traditional-folk chords and your brainwashed masses / unwashed hippies and go watch some parking meters.

    How is he so above what he considered crappy pop? I’d stack the work of Mann / Weil, Barry / Greenwich, Goffin / King, etc. etc. against his cute little rhymes any day of the week. If someone can explain to me how anything he wrote is somehow better than “I’ll be back in the time it takes to break a heart,” please do. For that matter, are any of his Guthrie-and-before chord progressions anywhere near as arresting as the pre-chorus piano arpeggios in “S.O.S.”?

    Again, however, a lot of this bile is probably flowing from my grudge. The fact remains that I’d rather gouge my own eyes out with a spork than listen to him sing for more than a few seconds.

    Besides, he’s not rock. He’s folk and/or country. He doesn’t even belong on your list. I argue in favor of replacing him with John Bonham (“The Engine”) or Phil Spector (“The Chemist”). Rock and roll / hard rock were never the same after those men made their marks.

    Madonna isn’t rock, either. She’s disco, or choose-your-modern-euphemism: modern R&B, dance music, synth pop, etc. Besides, she wasn’t important, but merely extremely popular. I move for replacing her with Billie Joe Armstrong (“The Palatable Re-Punk”).

    Aretha Franklin should be replaced with Ray Charles, the actual definer of soul. As much as I love Aretha’s voice and respect her amazing work, she came after, and her call-and-response arrangements owed some debt to Ray’s pioneering use of backing singers.

    Kudos for naming Fats “The Originator” — 1949, was it? — and not being too cool to cite Elvis. Bad associations with Elvis linger in my head, because my highly toxic ex-girlfriend liked his stuff as much as I did. It’s been over five years since I managed to overcome her guilt-making insanity and dump her, so I need to become reacquainted with Elvis without letting her pop into my head. I want my Elvis songs back. It shouldn’t be that hard; I was three when my dad gave me the “Jailhouse Rock / Treat Me Nice” 45 on red-label RCA / Victor.

    Concerning Kurt Cobain…I was always put off by his self-important, shit-doesn’t stink attitude, too, not to mention the crass, “over it” demeanor in his vocals, which certainly helped to kindle what you’ve referred to as Angst Is All.

    (That sounds like a spray for clearing non-blessing-counting teens from the room: “Angstisall — when you’ve had enough whining!”)

    “I wish I were like you……easily amused.” Oh, you’re SO above us, Kurt. Have you been listening to Bob Dylan, by any chance?

    So if you become a junkie, and then decide to kill yourself in spite of having a kid, what are you “easily”? Impressionable and unspeakably self-centered?

    “Oh, well……whatever……never mind.” His lyrics sound copied from an eighth-grade girl’s diary.

    However, I’m forced to admit that you’re right about including him. (Ouch. That hurt.) “Important” doesn’t always have to mean “in a positive way,” after all. Looking back, he was lucky that the Pixies didn’t sue him for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I think the only Nirvana songs I ever enjoyed were both covers: Huddie Ledbetter’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and the Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun.”

    At least you didn’t name Eddie Vedder. That would have made for even harsher comments.

    That was fun! (Just debating in the spirit of the post!) Go on; let me have it. I can take what I dish out, no problem.

    • Well, first I should reiterate that this was about the Rock and Roll Narrative as I actually see it…not as I wish it were. That said, I love the first 8 artists here more or less unconditionally (including Dylan) because I think they all made the world bigger and better. I’m ambivalent about the last three (or the last two if you accept Lydon/Cobain as two sides of the same coin). Love some of Madonna’s early records, like some of Nirvana, the Sex Pistols leave me cold. But I tried not to let my personal tastes get in the way…

      As to Dylan…yeah, his voice always divides. I love his singing on his first album and Highway 61 and parts of Blonde on Blonde and most of the Basement Tapes…The rest of the time it frequently grates, so I can see where others are coming from. He’s one of those who either connects or he doesn’t.

      But, all that aside, I think you’re wrong not to consider him rock and I also think you may be confusing Dylan’s early folkie audience’s attitude toward rock and roll with his own. He’s been pretty straightforward about his love for early rock and roll in particular.

      On the OTHER hand, he was certainly willing to play to the crowd who adored him before he “went electric.” The Shangs’ dis you mention in from his October 1964 Carnegie Hall concert (my favorite of his) and it’s worth it’s own post. It’s an open question whether the joke was on the Shangs (and Martha and the Vandellas) or his audience–his audience being incapable, at that point, of imagining that he could possibly be putting one over on them (they’d think differently a few months later when he stabbed them in the face at Newport). I lean towards him having it both ways–placing himself above both his competition AND his audience, but whether from chutzpah or contempt (they aren’t necessarily the same thing) is an open question which can probably never be answered. Dylan’s untrustworthiness is a huge element of the mark he left on the world. Destabilizing, but I still think he left the world better than he found it.

      Phil Spector was one I certainly considered (as who would not). I just always thought Berry Gordy was an even greater record man with an even larger vision…and the degree to which Motown single-handedly held the Black/White Portion of the Rock and Roll Coalition together in the wake of the British Invasion is the subject for yet another post. Which reminds me that I can’t believe how much of my original project is left undone five years into this!

      Jon Bonham is an interesting pick. If I was going that direction, I’d probably pick Keith Moon, but I can see your point. In terms of sheer technical influence, you might be right…but we might be veering towards the personal over the collective at that point. Huge influence…but over a fairly narrow spectrum of white-boy rock.

      As to Ray Charles: On one hand, I’ve always thought the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got their first induction class just right (maybe the last time they got anything just right). I could have just picked those ten artists (if I can count Lydon and Cobain as one, I could certainly have done the same for Phil and Don Everly!) and left it at that. You could make a case that the music of the 50s represented the REAL revolution and everything after amounted to variations on a theme until the Reaction set in. So yes, I considered Ray very heavily. But as an originator of soul, he’d have to fight it out with Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke (not to mention my own pick, James Brown)–which is to say I don’t think Soul music would have gone in a significantly different direction if Ray had stuck to Jazz (and I want to be clear I’m in no way downgrading Ray’s brilliance or the sheer number of phenomenal records he made in a wide range of styles).

      When I called Aretha the Definer, I should have probably said Definer of the Limits, with a similar argument to be made for Jimi Hendrix on the Outer Limits of Hard Rock. Al Green found a deeply personal and popular space inside Soul music after Aretha, and also predicted much of the future, spiritually if not musically, that she missed. But, after her, it was inevitable that soul would turn back in on itself–in much the same way that it was inevitable for country music to turn back in on itself after Patty Loveless and horror films to become more and more reactionary after Psycho. Sometimes, a point is reached where all the other artists have to ask themselves, “What do we do now?” and the only answer is a retreat to safety…or politics. I think that was the effect Aretha had on everyone except Al Green. She could still build on Ray (and Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, et al). No one could build on her.

      So the arc of my list was upward and onward until the late sixties–and then a space in which it was still possible to pursue visions that were exciting both personally and collectively (Al Green being a great example).

      And then the true reaction set in (which brings us to punk/rap/Madonna). Reactionaries often end up being more significant than revolutionaries, sad to say, because revolutions burn out while Reactions, when they set in, tend to last much longer. The world we live in–socially, politically, economically–looks a lot more like the get-it-while-you-can vision Madonna dreamed all the way into being (in the name of Progress of course) than the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I one Elvis dreamed into being (while being called a reactionary, of course). And I say that while believing “Papa Don’t Preach” is the greatest Shangri-Las’ record ever made by anyone but the Shangri-Las. You can dread what you love and love what you dread in this world. That’s the beast of it.

      Now I’m gonna wish you the very best of luck in removing the bad mojo that is not letting you hear Elvis asap….

      And be thou wary of selling Dr. Seuss short my son!

      • All great points, and well stated. (If you were considering Spector vs. Gordy for the same slot, we certainly agree: Gordy belongs.)

        And I believe that Dr. Seuss was brilliant, so that was a bad example. I think I was just trying to crack you up with that comparison.

        (You’re clearly much, much better at keeping your personal tastes out of the way of objective decisions like the ten above. That can be a very useful skill. I should work on that.)

        • Well, I’ve been practicing Stoicism since I was nine…some days I actually achieve it, but the effort alone helps with objectivity.

          I’m glad you like Dr. Seuss, though. I really didn’t want you to be the first person I ever knew who didn’t!

          • I, too, would be interested in reading the Dylan / Shangs piece that you’ve been half-consciously creating in your thoughts for a while. Maybe it will soften my grudge (not that it’s your job to soften any readers’ grudges). If I’ve misinterpreted his intentions, I guess I could stand to lighten up. I’m so damn……protective. As if the Shangs would have even needed that from a ’60s fan, let alone a modern-day one.

            On that note: You’ve mentioned Stoicism a couple of times. I might be off, but I interpret that as “acceptance of What Is, and fulfillment in acquiring objective knowledge.” I probably don’t quite understand it, but the general gist I get from it seems to make it a very wise approach to a world in which everything is somehow connected to everything else.

            Also on that note (probably an F-sharp), there’s a stereotypical view of men that sounds something like this:

            Men bury their emotions!

            Actually, ladies, we know perfectly well how we feel, thankyouverymuch. I’m generalizing grotesquely here, but most of us, at least in the Western World, are extremely glad that we’ve been taught, either directly or by example, to not let our emotions control us. To reword, we value our ability to keep our feelings under control.

            It’s a good thing, too, considering what it has allowed men to come up with: civilization, medical science, running water, gas and electricity, sound reproduction, and pretty much everything else.

            That’s what’s great about being men (or should be……there are always exceptions). We can approach whatever confronts us with our rational minds, rather than our feelings, which we wisely suspect, as they’re both temporary and subjective. Men are digital — either something is 0 or 1. We take comfort in this. Women are analogue.

            We respect each other’s privacy, too, at least in person. “Share your feelings! Let me in!” sounds like ammo collection for the future, ladies. Make no mistake: We’re hip to it.

            All of this rationality, this ability to keep emotions at arm’s length, can be obliterated with that most popular of drugs — alcohol — and therefore represents one reason why I’ve never been a drinker.

            Anyway, I bring all of this up because 1. When you cite Stoicism, that’s the kind of rationality-above-drama that springs to mind, and 2. In most every case, I’m immediately capable of addressing situations in a rational, emotions-free way, except when it comes to music.

            It’s good to know oneself, I guess!

            In the writings on this website, you’ve done a formidably superb — and enviable — job of walking the balance-beam between how certain music makes you feel / what it re-evokes for you, and a rational, historical approach that eschews pure subjectivity. Much applause.

  2. I’m tempted to give this one some thought, but I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not.

    I must admit that Chuck Berry immediately came to mind, and I’m glad to see he’s on your list.

    Here’s a weird question….aside from Madonna, do you see any of these artists’ influences in current music today? I know they laid the foundation and the history of it all is linear from then to now, but how much of it is buried in history and how much is still out there for the uninitiated to see, or rather hear?

    • Hmmm. Do I see any of these artists besides Madonna in the artists of today? If you mean popular artists who actually get played on the Top 40 and the like, then no. That’s why I called Madonna the solvent. She buried Elvis as thoroughly as he buried Bing Crosby (though, unlike Bing, Elvis left something like a world view behind which might be useful to the future. Something more than wonderful records in other words.)

  3. I’d like to see that post RE:Dylan/Shangs.
    Bob was a fan of Bobby Vee and you can’t get more whitebread than that!
    Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde are EPICS IMO.
    Besides, Bob was Jimi’s fave so that’s gotta count for something!!!

  4. Chris,

    I’m not sure I’m a Stoic in the classic Greek sense…they developed the underlying philosophy before Christianity, so if I’m being strictly accurate what I’ve been after is a style of Stoicism that’s filtered through New Testament ethics (the hard parts like love thine enemy, walk the extra mile, etc.) Again, I don’t claim to have actually ACHIEVED this (the few people I’ve known who did were missionaries), but attempting to live by those standards has led me to wherever I am, which is a pretty good place. I think the advantage religion has is the acknowledgement that man is bound to be a mixture of the rational and the irrational and therefore the pursuit of pure Reason is bound to come up short. Once you accept that, about yourself and everyone else, the world becomes a lot more comprehensible. Ain’t easy. Like I said I’ve been practicing since I was nine….

    But I appreciate your comments about my striking a balance between the two–my feelings (not especially rational) and where it all fits in history (hopefully somewhere close to rational).

    That’s what I strive for so hearing that I’m achieving it on some level creates an ENTIRELY rational warm glow within!

    • I’m delighted to hear that, because the writings on this site can’t be praised enough. I guess one of my general problems with so-called rock critics is that they *don’t* aim for that balance, or even for factual accuracy.

      When it comes to something like Mystery Train, Marcus isn’t so much a “critic,” but simply a writer. But man oh man, Rolling Stone alone certainly kicked off a lot of careers with no former credentials or music-particular qualifications. I mean, how is someone like Marcus (or Marsh, or etc.) more “qualified” to write about music than you? I maintain he’s not.

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