Why there is no golden age of rock ‘n’ roll
According to an anonymous friend of John Robb the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll is over – having been born in 1966 and reached its demise in 1993. What comes after are merely the orphan ages of rock ‘n’ roll, doomed forever to walk the earth dwindling and mournful, entirely unaware of their own inadequacy. In response Mark Fleming suggests that reports of the golden age’s demise may be exaggerated.
The suggestion that a timeline between Revolver (1966) to In Utero (1993) maps out a golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, and that post-Nirvana everything has gone downhill, is as bonkers as the Mayans who insisted the world would end last December. It is a myth that the concept of a golden age can be applied to something as dynamic and subjective as rock ‘n’ roll. Anyone stating otherwise has fallen into the age-old dilemma of the popular music fan: growing old. My mother-in-law was a teenage modette. The music searing into her young consciousness came from the Kinks, The Who, the Small Faces, the Rolling Stones et al. My own teenage years coincided with punk, then post-punk; indeed, this very day my iPhone has been blaring with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Metal Urbain and Gang of Four. Each generation will always claim their own golden age. Ten years ago The Libertines and The Vines were the latest epitome of rock n’ roll energy. Last month, thousands of kids were at British music festivals, relishing every moment of Frightened Rabbit and The View. The fact we can’t necessarily predict next year’s headline acts is something to be celebrated.
Going back to my own youth, the most exciting aspect of punk was its refusal to stagnate. It was all about encouraging people to make their own rock ‘n’ roll statements and experiment with new musical possibilities. Unfortunately, self-parody quickly crept in, along with rules about what did or did not constitute punk rock; or worse still, what clothes you were supposed to wear. The fact is, the best rock ‘n’ roll has always perfected a balancing act, one foot in the past, soaking up influences and paying homage to classic acts; the other stomping an accelerator into the future. A terrific example of post-1993 rock ‘n’ roll innovation has got to be The Stranglers. Throughout their richly diverse career they have steadfastly refused to adhere to rules. While their peers in the 1970’s were bleating about boredom and dole queues, they were namedropping Japanese philosophers while mashing genres, playing sublime pop one minute, brutal nihilistic rock the next. Last year they released a new album, Giants, that included some of their best ever material. Another 70’s band, Wire, continue releasing provocative, innovative music – the fact a lot of their tunes play very loosely with any accepted definition of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like is perhaps the band’s most singularly rock ‘n’ roll attribute.
As for Noel Gallagher’s claim that Oasis (as opposed to Nirvana) were the last rock ‘n’ roll band – he is straying into Dr Goebbels territory (the bigger the lie, the easier it will be swallowed). The stadium-friendly Mancs produced many memorable anthems, but they had numerous contemporaries in the 1990’s who eclipsed them in terms of ambition, vision and sheer originality – Manic Street Preachers, The Verve, Suede, Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, not to mention (sorry, Noel), Blur.
Hindsight is wonderful. In November 1973, during the golden age of glam and prog rock, Bob Harris famously described an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance by the proto-punk New York Dolls as ‘mock rock’. Three years later, the punk scene consigned his beloved prog groups to the musical scrapyard, and rock ‘n’ roll was altered forever. In a sense, whispering Bob’s failure to anticipate what was round the corner is an example of what makes rock ‘n’ roll so exciting. The late, lamented John Peel made it his life’s mission to uncover new talent. The possibility, no matter how remote, of discovering a fledgling Sex Pistols, or Joy Division, or Nirvana, or Arctic Monkeys, or Arcade Fire (insert favourite post-1993 rock ‘n’ roll band of choice) when you catch up and coming bands at your local venue is what live music is all about.
Danny Baker, on his Radio 5 morning show, once commented that the most chilling phrase audience members ever hear from any stage is: ‘now we’re going to play some new material’. I disagree 100%. Discovery is the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll. I was annoyed at a Buzzcocks gig in 2006, just after they’d released a fantastic new album, Flat Pack Philosophy, when they only played one song from it. Instead they regurgitated all the golden oldies from Spiral Scratch and the first three albums. Much as their back catalogue is amongst the most dynamic of any British band of the past 30 odd years, I prefer the aforementioned balancing act of past and future!
Even if new music is heavily influenced by the past – and this applies to every band who has ever strapped on guitars and counted four beats in the bar, from the Pistols aping the Stooges and Small Faces, John Foxx era Ultravox aping Roxy Music, The Jam aping classic 60s R’n’B, to The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Primal Scream ransacking entire vaults of classic rock ‘n’ roll and funk – as long as the reinvention is done with panache and originality it can produce nuggets of sonic brilliance. Rock ‘n’ roll is as much about the anticipation of what is yet to be discovered, as celebrating the high points of what already has.
All words by Mark Fleming. More work by Mark on Louder Than War can be found here.