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Imagine There’s No Muzak

There’s rock music’s greatest hits—the top 1 percent—and then there’s everything else.

Christmas is coming and with it the usual plethora of Greatest Ever rock music compilations. Some will be marketed at teenies, some at gramps and grannies; all will reflect a decidedly limited knowledge of the full scope of the music of the post-war era—all 60 million recordings of it.

But imagine if it really could be pared and distilled to a truly greatest ever, to a body of work as finite as that of the Western classical canon. What would survive of such a drastic cull? Meaningful critical appraisal of rock music gold has long been bedevilled by a cultural schism, one that dates back to the 1950s’ invention of the “generation gap.” On the one hand are those who dismiss the whole 75 years of it as one long outpouring of ephemeral trash pop (as if Western music’s deep reservoir of creativity somehow ran dry in the middle of the 20th century). On the other hand, are those forever eager to hand out, like confetti, “genius” plaudits to every latest Adele or other. What gets obscured in this polarization is recognition of the yawning gulf that exists between the best 1 percent and the rest.

There is just way too much of it, this post-war musical incontinence. With classical music, one can (with sustained effort) gradually acquire some kind of basic overview. Not so with rock. It takes a tenacity bordering on obsessive-personality-disorder-syndrome to be prepared to pan the ceaseless stream of new releases on the slim chance of finding a new musical nugget. Few people, beyond the years of their youth, have much appetite for this. But in amongst all the dross there exists a scattering of breathtakingly good music that deserves to be recognized as a part of that Western musical canon. No less so than the much admired Baroque madrigals, say, or the songs of Vaughan Williams.

There are, of course, the huge number of sub-genres, including (but not exhaustively): R&B, rock’n’roll, folk, folk rock, country & western, country, southern rock, prog rock, soul, Tamla, punk, disco, dance, new wave, indie, etc. The best is spread thinly across all these genres. This is where the critical filter of rock journalism comes in—or should. But rock journalism tends to be driven by a default imperative to breathlessly and endlessly enthuse. It must be very frustrating for the songwriter who has just produced a beautiful song to read journalism that puts them in the same stable as some talent-show muppet or some tuneless mumble rapper.

Commentary in serious cultural journals is little better at separating the wheat from the chaff. Positive commentary will usually be focussed on some particular rock star icon and about whom it will tend towards the hagiographic. To complicate things more, the greatest music may not correlate tidily with the greatest stars. Many have tended to over-produce, leading to a personal oeuvre that is of patchy quality—and sometimes an all too quick exhaustion of their muse, the chief wellspring of rock artistry being youthfulness.

Meanwhile, discussion of the rock phenomenon as a whole has tended to come from a certain dismissive strand of conservatism where, when actual examples are discussed, they reveal—more than anything else—that the writer has only scant familiarity with their subject matter and so has had to rely on a journalistic pattern book of clichés about The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Sex Pistols, etc.

The genre that has come closest to high-culture recognition is folk rock—most famously, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen among others. The best of this has fallen victim to a kind of category error. Having no unique generic label to differentiate it from the humdrum rest, it is all just nothing more than folksy pop or rock. It is my belief that when future generations come to curate the poetic muse of the late 20th century, it is the best song lyrics of artists like these that will stand the test of time much more than the “poetry” of the era. (There are currently more than one hundred English language poetry magazines. The most high status of them are accorded a respect in literary circles—and in the academy—that seems to inoculate them from worry about the indifference of the wider educated public. Many of the smaller ones, with a readership perhaps approaching zero, nevertheless take themselves very seriously and exult in their esoteric au courant judgements about what makes a great poem.)

Time now for a few examples of the kind of thing I am talking about here. The following is just a very small, and basically off-the-cuff, snippet of my particular tastes (so please don’t phone in!): “Boy in the Bubble”; “Death of a Ladies Man”; “Desolation Row”; “Both Sides Now”; “Sultans of Swing”; “Television Antichrist Blues”; “Fast Car”; “Season of Hollow Soul”; “Bang on the Ear”; “Hungry Heart”; “Don’t Go To Strangers”; “McArthur Park.” I could come up with a hundred others—as no doubt could you—but probably not thousands and certainly not millions. And very few whole albums—that too is the point. Most of Graceland maybe, also Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, Jagged Little Pill, Ingenu, Nebraska and—again—dozens but probably not hundreds more.

In the ’70s, other rock sub-genres with pretensions to be more than just pop music emerged alongside folk rock, much of it just insufferably pretentious. But it would surely take a particularly rockophobic sensibility to hear no musical quality at all in, for instance, the very best of U2’s greatest hits.

Some years ago, a friend asked me to produce a playlist of all-time rock classics for her wedding reception. Within a short space of time I was at two hundred recordings. I could have easily done another couple of hundred. That would leave just the 59,999,600 of rejects. And more than half of my playlist comprised one-hit wonders…but wonders nevertheless. Fifteen minute flashes of genius, to adapt Warhol’s famous line.

But fragmentary and evanescent though it has always been, the rock phenomenon has given rise to a scattering of musical gems in the most unlikely places. It has not all just been folkie songs with poetic lyrics or blues numbers dripping authenticity. A deeply-etched memory of my early teens is in my bedroom circa 1963 and the Ronettes’ “Be My Babyearly Phil Spector “Wall of Sound”—comes blasting out of the transistor radio. It sent ripples all down my spine and amazingly still does, half a century later. Here, there are no poetic lyrics, no obvious musical sophistication, so it is ripe for discarding as trash. What it does have though is a radically new kind of electronic orchestration with a visceral emotional power and strange beauty of its own. Although there are literally millions of other pop songs a bit like “Be My Baby”(or derivatives of it), most of them are entirely forgettable.

The production and sound engineering kicked off by Spector rarely gets a mention alongside song writing, musicianship, and performance but is arguably the late 20th century’s truly distinctive contribution to musical creativity. “Boys of Summer” (Don Henley), “Go Your Own Way” (Fleetwood Mac), “Love is a Stranger” (Eurythmics), “Baker Street” (Gerry Rafferty), “Is This Love” (Alison Moyet), and “Thank U” (Alanis Morissette), are just a few fine examples of the creative fusion of songwriter, performer, and sound engineer. In a similar, vein my teenage years saw the emergence of Tamla Motown, “commercialized” blues and gospel with a scattering of gems in its back catalogue of Holland & Dozier love songs. Tamla laid the foundations for the occasional exquisitely engineered dance and disco music of the ’70s and ’80s. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” sung by Whitney Houston but engineered by Narada Michael Walden, is an example as good as it gets.

OK, enough of my examples. Your own choices might radically differ from mine but the real point here is the huge difference between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Any takers for curator of my notional time capsule of precious rocks?

Graham Cunningham has contributed to The American Conservative, the New Criterion, City Journal, and Spectator.au.