Rock and roll will never die,” Sha-Na-Na insisted at Woodstock in 1969. “It won’t fade away.” But it did. Copyright, the golden seam that ran through the rock business, ended with digital file-sharing in the late Nineties. Rock music now survives in two museum formats, the big-ticket bucket-list gig and the anniversary boxset: see them before they die, hear why the offcuts were cut off in the first place.
Rock fans — middle-aged men, invariably — will recite the Sha-Na-Na catechism and remain happily deaf to the obvious. To anyone with ears, it’s clear that rock completed its natural development decades ago and has been fading away ever since. Popular music retained by right the cultural centrality it had assumed in Western societies in the nineteenth century, a right prolonged by the ubiquity and wealth of the twentieth-century entertainment business. But the music, like most of its successful practitioners, was a haggard and stupefied ghost, mechanically repeating its youthful glories.
Even the fans admit that Rock was rotten in the Eighties. Naturally they blame the adults: for not producing enough little rockers as the baby boom ran out, for the deindustrialisation that dissolved the class systems of Detroit and Liverpool, for the geopolitical bungling that pushed up the price of oil and vinyl singles, or even for inventing the compact disc. The material explanation is true, but incomplete. Rock died because it had played out its natural span — not three minutes, but the three-step dance of all Western art forms: classical, romantic, modern.
No one seems to have noticed, but the fortieth anniversary of Rock’s death is upon us. You can pick a personal “day the music died”, but it’ll fall between 14 December, 1979, when The Clash’s London Calling was released in Britain, and 17 October, 1980, when Bruce Springsteen’s The River was released worldwide. Sentimentalists might pick the release of the Ramones’ collaboration with Phil Spector, End of the Century, on 4 February, 1980, or the murder of John Lennon on 8 December, 1980.
But End of the Century, despite its epoch-ending title, was a damp squib of a record; it might have been better if it had included “Hungry Heart”, the song Springsteen wrote for the Ramones, but which instead became his first hit single. And Lennon’s killing, though it said everything about the morbid psychology of fandom, said nothing about music because Lennon, by his own heroin-addled efforts, had made no significant music since the break-up of the Beatles.
London Calling and The River remain, however, magnificently vital and varied. Both albums set rock’s classical virtues, the economies of songwriting form and the small-group sound, in the romantic and programmatic format of the double album. Modernism in its expansive mood, these records are monumental summaries. They are stylistically retrospective, immersed in their history as surely as the national historians of the nineteenth century were in theirs. Yet they are optimistic that immersion in the past will allow them to recover the pagan energy that will, as Ezra Pound said, “make it new”.
London Calling and The River do “make it new”. They both sound fresh — which is to say, they absorb timebound developments so well as to sound almost timeless. Almost, but not quite. The sound of each instrument is a time-stamped archaeological fragment from the sonic strata between 1955 and 1980: Danny Federici’s garage-band organ and Clarence Clemons’s King Curtis sax riffs on The River, Mick Jones’s reggae-style lead guitar phrasing on London Calling. Nothing on either album suggests the sound of the future, the mechanical rattle of drum machines and synthesisers. Their newness is fresh and familiar in the way of sophisticated collages, their delights are those of recognition and recombination.
The french horn that opens the Kinks’ “Dead End Street” (1966) recurs in the first bass notes of London Calling’s title track. The last song on Springsteen’s album, “Wreck on the Highway” revisits the scene of Dorsey Dixon’s “Wreck on the Highway”, written in 1937 and a hit for Roy Acuff in 1942. Each album traces its way back to Elvis and Fifties’ rockabilly, then further back to the origins of the music before the teenager had even been invented. But each album takes a distinctively national path and ends up somewhere different.
The Clash work back from the English rockabilly of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” (1959) to New Orleans and then the Caribbean. A cover of Dr John’s version of “Stagger Lee” (1972) retains the swinging left hand of New Orleans piano, then the syncopation tightens a notch, giving it the ska feel of “Wrong ’Em, Boyo”, whose horns are themselves lifted from a New Orleans rock’n’roll number, Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” (1959).
London Calling was produced by Guy Stevens. In the Sixties, Stevens had been house DJ at the Mod club The Scene; later, as Rock lost its way after the break-up of the Beatles, he had formed and managed Mott the Hoople as a hypothetical fusion of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. The Clash developed into a version of that ideal of combining raw power and clever lyrics, “Death or Glory”, during whose recording Stevens encouraged the band by charging into the live room and throwing a chair at the wall, or “Clampdown”, whose introduction is a rocked-up retread of “Waterloo Sunset” (1967).
The clash had started as deliberate minimalists, and then widened their palette as they worked towards black musical styles. Springsteen worked in the opposite direction, past the mixing of styles to the austerity of Country. His first two albums, musically interesting but commercially unsuccessful, had included funk sounds, soul sequences, Hammond solos and four-part horn harmonies. Even “Meeting Across The River”, from his breakthrough album Born To Run (1975), had featured trumpet improvisations from Randy Brecker. But the rest of Born To Run attempts to recover rock’s lost vitality, both by returning to the three-chord trick in ways that prefigure punk (“Born To Run”, “She’s The One”) and by reviving the grandeur of Phil Spector’s wall of sound.
Like black R&B, Spector offered a route back to the Fifties that sidestepped the monolith of the Beatles. The Clash reflect on the British Empire in the key of Spector in “The Card Cheat” and they allude repeatedly to ska, but they dismiss the hyping of punk as “phony Beatlemania”. Strummer and Jones knew how to write a middle-eight — the earlier, riff-driven “Career Opportunities” goes into the relative minor after its second chorus, like any other classic pop song — but on London Calling they avoid middle-eights unless, as with “The Card Cheat”, obliged to by the demands of pastiche.
Springsteen’s Sixties sounds are Spector and American garage groups. His Liverpudlian moments are closer to the Searchers, a second-string Merseybeat group, than to the Beatles. “The Ties That Bind” has, like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, a middle-eight that has ten bars so the group can rev up for the next verse, but its guitar line comes from “Needles and Pins” which, though made famous by the Searchers, was originally an LA impersonation of the Liverpool sound, written by Jack Nietzsche and Sonny Bono and recorded by Jackie DeShannon.
“Out In The Street” has the same title as the first track on The Who’s My Generation (1965), and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s “Out in the Streets”, a hit for the Shangri-Las in the same year. “Jackson Cage” has a Searchers-like twelve-string hook and a complex structure, but the delivery is furious, and closer to The Clash than the Searchers.
Both Springsteen and The Clash sensed that in successfully reviving the spirits, they had killed themselves off
Both Springsteen and The Clash presented themselves not in the frills, velvets and long hair of the romantic style, but in the masculine, disciplined uniform of the classical rockabilly: biker boots, denim, leather jackets, quiffs and sideburns. The uncombed hair and trucker’s plaid shirt that Springsteen wears on the cover of The River are misleading, part of the workingman persona he adopted when he attempted to write more mature songs. Photographs from the River sessions and tour, however, show him in full rockabilly fig and at times wearing a quiff that you wouldn’t want to take out in a high wind.
Ray Lowry’s cover design for London Calling — pink and green titles around a black & white image of abandon — is a pastiche of the design for Elvis’s 1956 debut on RCA. Elvis is dancing with his guitar and singing with his eyes closed. Paul Simonon is smashing a guitar at the end of a concert. Visually, as aurally, the circle was closed.
To their credit, both Springsteen and The Clash sensed that in successfully reviving the spirits, they had killed themselves off. Both acts quickly tried to revive themselves. In the space of a year, The Clash went from producing one of rock’s best albums to one of its very worst. Two days afterL ennon’s killing, they released Sandinista!, an addled and pretentious triple-album whose main significance lies in anticipating three of the worst trends in Eighties music: white rap, paper-thin production, and attempted revivals of rock’s cooling corpse with shots of what would shortly be sold as “world music”. Their last album, Combat Rock (1982) was an agreeably absurd Vietnam costume drama with lashings of rockabilly and a cameo from Alan Ginsburg.
In 1980, while Springsteen toured The River, The Clash had added a Jamaican toaster and DJ, Mikey Dread. Springsteen, who presumably thought a toaster was a device for heating bread, stuck with the rockabilly. In 1982, apparently having second thoughts about becoming a stadium parody of his earlier self, he insisted that his next album, Nebraska (1982), would be a set of generally miserable acoustic demos. He then surrendered to his management and became a wealthy and futile stadium clown.
Plutarch records that when a ship bound for Italy rounded Paxi, near Corfu, its pilot was passed a message: “When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.” At Palodes, across the Strait of Corfu, he called out the message across the water. “Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement.”
Forty years on, London Calling and The River sound like modern equivalents of those cries of lamentation and disbelief. They are among the last artworks of the great Western youth revolt which began with Romantic poets and revolutionaries, ruined European civilisation as its children rallied to fascism and communism, and then played out its final stage as radical entertainment in America. They were recorded just after the death of Elvis the King in 1977, an event that, precipitating waves of Plutarchian lamentation, gave extra impetus to punk’s attempt to revive the pagan vitality of Fifties rock’n’roll.
“Hey hey, my my,/ Rock and roll can never die,” Neil Young sang on “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”, from that year. “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten,/ Johnny Rotten, Johnny Rotten.” But Elvis is now pretty much forgotten, and Montgomery Clift is only remembered because The Clash sang about his death on London Calling. The revivals of course go on, because the boys’ voices carry across the water. “The great god Pan is alive,” Mike Scott insisted on The Waterboys’ “The Return of Pan” (1993).
In 2011, Florence and the Machine even covered Buddy Holly’s premonitory “Not Fade Away”. But no one is listening, or listens in the same way because music no longer occupies the same central place in Western culture. The old gods of rock’n’roll are long dead and, in the words of Buddy Holly’s posthumous hit, “It Just Doesn’t Matter Anymore”.
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