Is Rock 'N' Roll Ready For 1976?
New Musical Express, January 3rd, 1976
I don't know about you, but for some of us 1975 really turned out to be a bitch of a year, and that's a fact. Or maybe you didn't notice.
As far as music was concerned, it seemed to kick off with the release of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and terminate with the qualified disappointment of Bruce Springsteen. A year of upheavals, turn-rounds, disappointments, hopes and, when all is said and done, damn-all to show for it.
Not that this is a complaint about 1975 and its shortcomings, nor is it a piece about Bob Dylan. It isn't a piece about Springsteen either (praise, the Lord), or one about my own personal trials and exultations.
I guess you could say it's an examination of what current rock and roll is all about, and what exactly it is relevant to.
Like I said, 1975 was a bitch of a year.
It wasn't one of those grand exhilarating years when it was all going on so fast that there was no time to touch ground and find out what was happening. In that kind of year you couldn't write a piece like this because you were too busy bringing back the word from the front, or too busy doing it to bother to bring back the word.
It also wasn't one of those years when nothing happened at all. In those kind of years you couldn't write a piece like this. It either wouldn't get published or, if it did, you'd get shunned by polite society. In those kind of years, only an attitude of complete terminal ennui would stop you from becoming a social pariah.
Commitment in years like that was a dirty word, and any emotional response above a yawn would be judged positively obscene.
1975 has been neither of these things. At risk of being repetitive, it's been a bitch of a year.
For a start, there really haven't been any dirty words. Sure you could be lethargic, it's just a mild aberration. If you wanted to, you could be committed, another charming idiosyncrasy. 1975 has seemed to be the year when we've been prepared to tolerate just about anything.
The one thing there's been plenty of has been confusion. It's been moving round the planet by the truckload. Even in the private, often hothouse little world of the rock writer, confusion has abounded.
On the surface, one would think that it was a relatively simple act to tell the world at large about the merits or otherwise of a record, artist, live concert, movie or what-have-you.
It shouldn't be hard to tell the public whether Batter Z. and the Dogs' Homes are good, bad, indifferent, or The New Messiahs. Yet we look around and see critics starting to doubt their ability to recognise a Messiah even if he came up and whacked them with his stone tablets.
The relevancy of rock comment, criticism and a rock press, has been seriously questioned, not only in the hangouts of journalists, but in the pages of Gasbag, the luxury hotels of the stars, and the air-conditioned warrens of the business manipulators.
Even the hoary old shock question "Is rock dead?" has been dragged out and given an airing.
The key word to this whole problem seems to be relevancy.
Before we go any further, let me tell you a little story, and maybe you'll see what I mean.
Like a couple of thousand others, I'd gone along to Hammersmith Odeon to see Bruce Springsteen's first U.K. concert. I came out with somewhat mixed critical feelings and got into a taxi. Frankly I was disappointed, and was trying to work out whether this came from something that was lacking in Springsteen himself, or simply that the show had been oversold to me by the massive promo campaign that had surrounded it.
At the time, it seemed that sorting out what I felt about Bruce Springsteen was somehow important. He had, after all, been referred to as the "future of rock and roll" and appeared simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.
The whole thing was suddenly dragged into a much clearer perspective by the voice coming over the cab driver's radio. The despatcher was giving a blow by blow account of the injured being dragged out of a bombed restaurant. Each time a driver called with some fresh information the dispatcher would relay it to all the other cabs in the network.
The impact of this was immense. It wasn't the usual kind of tidied-up newscast. I was actually hearing what was happening, as it happened. I was seeing the bombing through the direct subjective view of a handful of cab drivers.
Suddenly the importance of Bruce Springsteen shrank to almost nothing. There seemed to be little relationship between the concert I had just seen and the horrific events that were going down on the street.
I couldn't recall ever experiencing a similar feeling after coming out of either a Dylan or an early Rolling Stones' concert. The question in my mind was no longer what had disappointed me about Bruce Springsteen, it had been replaced by a much more important one:
Why did Springsteen — and for that matter, a great deal of modern rock and roll — seem so damned irrelevant to most of everyday life?
This is not intended to be a piece, either good or bad, about Bruce Springsteen. His name is cropping up so often because he seems to be a perfect example of the problem afflicting the contemporary rock scene. He has been touted to us by big business promo men as the ultimate street punk. In the guise of "the new Bob Dylan" he seemed to be credited with a degree of commitment, sensitivity and perception that would surpass even the best work of the sixties.
This promotion was so overwhelming that nobody ever stopped to question exactly what Springsteen was either being committed to, or sensitive and perceptive about.
An analysis of his songs reveals not a precise observation of life on skid row, but a kind of punk fantasy world based not in real life, but on an amalgam of pulp fiction and B movies firmly rooted in the fifties' teenage gang tradition.
This concept may have been developed originally in the context of the street, but, as the CBS promotion campaign began to grow, Springsteen must, by necessity, have been isolated from his roots. Unless he possesses an amazing clarity and tenacity of mind, it would seem impossible for Springsteen (or any other artist in his position) to prevent himself becoming cocooned in record company money, and cut off from the first sources of his creativity.
The earning potential of even a middle-grade rock star has so increased in the last six or seven years that a management/record company is far more inclined to treat their "investments" like so many prize race horses.
This almost total isolation of the artist from his audience must result in his or her music becoming, no matter how good, somewhat irrelevant to what's going on in the outside world.
We're back to that word again.
In the sixties it was a lot easier for an artist to stay in touch. It was a time when the music was still controlled by mavericks. On the crucial levels of promotion, production — as well as the musicians themselves — control was in the hands of people from the same background and with very similar ideas.
Bill Graham, Andrew Oldham, Derek Taylor, Spector, and even Epstein set patterns in rock administration that made it possible for people like Lennon, Dylan, Jagger or Jim Morrison to still have solid links with the street.
Today, however, things seem to have changed. A corporation mentality has taken over. Admittedly it's a hip corporation philosophy, but it's a corporation philosophy all the same.
Its attitude to music is one of polish, and giving the customers what they want.
It's an attitude that strips away the rough edges. They are concerned with the smooth distribution of product. Words like 'commitment', 'involvement' and 'art' are, to this kind of corporate mind, bad for business. They cause hassles, they could lower profits.
This has given rise to the technique of totally insulating the artist from the real world. The more the musicians are encouraged to remain in their sheltered worlds, the less trouble they cause and the easier they are to handle.
In many ways it's like a rerun of Hollywood in the 'twenties and 'thirties. Like movie stars and top sports heroes before them, musicians are being encouraged to stay inside a private hothouse environment. It's a superheated world where gossip, scandal, drug habits and breakdowns flourish to exotic proportions. It's a luxurious pen in which are kept the prize, money-earning specimens.
It has little to do with any serious reality.
There seems to be a kind of rule emerging that when rock and roll gets wrapped up in too much money, it begins to lose its guts. The kind of insulation that the corporate salesmen wrap around the musician tends to shut him off from the kind of essential street energy that is so vital to the best of rock and roll.
Occasionally we can see an individual break out of the cocoon and recharge himself from this essential energy source. We have just witnessed Dylan doing this. Lennon does it at regular intervals.
Unfortunately, they are part of a very small minority. It is far easier to call room service at the Hyatt House than to get down on the street and check out the action.
However, it does seem that too long in the Hyatt House can, in creative terms, turn you figuratively blind. The balls go out of the music, and the original fire is replaced by massive displays of sheer money.
The Rolling Stones tour of the Americas, earlier in the year, was an obvious example of what Charlie Murray called "a dinosaur" in his excellent Little Feat piece a few weeks back.
It may have been a magnificent, exciting circus, but on a logistic level it was a vast, blundering, super extravagant, over-consuming thing. It didn't take the 73 people to get Woody Guthrie on the stage.
In a process of gradual evolution, the Stones had felt forced to augment their own unique energy with spectacles like the vast, illuminated folding stages. In the orgy of presentation the Stones' relevancy (that word again) slowly slipped away.
The band that once talked uncompromisingly about the world they saw around them had turned into a Busby Berkeley spectacular.
So is there no hope at all? Is rock and roll on an unalterable course to a neo-Las Vegas?
It damn sure looks like it.
We are currently going through the worst depression since the 'thirties. In global terms, the fear of civil war is probably greater than it was even at the height of '60's paranoia, and in quiet moments I tend to wonder just how long the food, water, air, etc., are going to last.
Do we ever hear any of this reflected in rock and roll? Not often. Most of the time it seems as though all either musician or audience want to deal with is pure escapism.
If that is what everyone wants, then fair enough. I'm not about to argue with the will of the people. You have to admit, though, that the only social significance that can be gleaned out of this is that maybe we've unconsciously started on the last great party before the human race becomes extinct.
I'd be quite happy to lie back and enjoy myself if it wasn't for a small group of musicians who seem to have turned their backs on escapism and are totally related to the environment in which they live. They are also producing some of the most exciting music that's around at the moment.
If being plugged into the street is the only way to produce good rock and roll, then reggae is possibly the only kind of music that is still sitting up and taking nourishment.
I have a strange feeling that when we look back and get a perspective on the 1970s it will be Bob Marley who emerges as the "Bob Dylan" of the period.
This is no more a piece about reggae than it's a piece about Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. One of the problems in getting anywhere below the surface either in reggae or, for that matter, Rastafarianism is that a white boy never really gets a straight answer.
Marley appears to be talking to his own generation in the same way that Dylan talks to his. With Dylan in the mid-sixties it was the proto-freaks that grasped his convoluted symbols. It was a language that they, and they alone, understood.
Marley is talking to young West Indian blacks in the same kind of secret language. Unfortunately for the white would-be aficionado, a great deal of this language is unintelligible. We are, after all, the bunch who shipped their ancestors off to Babylon.
One thing does seem to have been established, however. Both Marley and the Rastas have moved the consciousness of their followers to a point beyond the consumer-orientated, leopard-skin-suit-and-diamond-pinky-ring ideology of the Superfly/pimp cult that grabbed American blacks so solidly.
They also seem to be able to hold off the corporation structure. The world of reggae is one of small studios, technical improvisations and for the most part, small struggling labels.
According to the corporation philosophy, this should create frustration and inferior product. In fact, it turns out far more energetic music than anything that comes gift-wrapped out of the high-rise entertainment complexes.
If we take the whole thing a stage further, even the most cursory examination of rock history proves beyond doubt that the most inventive and rigorous periods are those when musicians and producers worked in very similar circumstances as are now prevalent in Jamaica.
The Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howling Wolf classics that came out of Chess Records; the early Stones' material; Specter's first masterpieces and, to a certain extent, even Blonde on Blonde were produced in unsophisticated studios and on comparatively small budgets.
In this context, a considerable emphasis had to be placed on the musicians becoming absolutely proficient on a live stage before they could be trusted in a studio.
This kind of recording environment makes impossible both manufactured groups of good-looking incompetents and the marathon fifty-eight hour "if-we-go-on-long-enough-we-might-come-up-with-something" philosophy of album-making.
The question that we face at the moment is whether rock and roll can move back to this simpler, more dynamic method of working and hold back from becoming simply an extravagant show-biz spectacle.
A few isolated purists like Dr. Feelgood have consciously made this move, but they are, unfortunately, very much alone in their dedication. While bands like Queen go on spending the equivalent of the annual wages of a whole factory-lull of workers on making an album, far too many musicians are going to be tempted to follow the same course.
There is a slight possibility that the success of Bob Marley may encourage other creative musicians to re-evaluate their situations.
This could be the salvation of rock and roll. It really depends on whether the white boys in rock and roll can once again stop and learn from their black counterparts.
We shouldn't forget that in these terms, Bob Dylan is a lot blacker than Isaac Hayes.
[going good until that last line - ouch!]