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Artillery Row

Top of the pops?

What makes great rock and roll

This October is the sixtieth anniversary of a song that ignited an extraordinary — and at times hysterical — global pop phenomenon. I first heard the song, aged twelve, on Radio Luxembourg as it came crackling out of the raffia speaker panel on our walnut-veneered radiogram. “Love Me Do” The Beatles’ first UK hit — is, in itself, nothing special. But it was that spark. By early 1964 the British Invasion of the USA was underway. “She Loves You” was topping the charts simultaneously right across the Western world. The following year “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was doing the same. Tuning in on Thursday night to the BBC hit parade show Top of the Pops had become, for every British teenager, a once-a-week TV Scale A parade.

The hitherto all-dominant American pop industry greeted this British Invasion with shock and disbelief. The Brits?… Rockin’ and rollin’?…Whaat! Head-scratching, almost wounded dismay was an initial reaction; one captured some years later in Don McClean’s American Pie. But from the mid-60s on, the pop industry on both sides of the Atlantic came to be mutually energising; exploding exponentially into the cultural tsunami that was (is?) rock/pop music.

For most people all this is a big thing in their lives in their teens and twenties; from then on interest wanes. Those for whom this phase ran its course at any time in the 60s to 90s tend to think of themselves as having been around for the best of it. If the three billion plus hits on Spotify’s most streamed songs is the measure, you could argue that it is now bigger than ever. But nobody seriously believes that any of them will go down in history as great ones. So what will? What songs will endure when all rock’s ephemera evaporates into the mist of time?

One song that many in the industry think is the greatest pop record ever made was brought back into the media spotlight by the death, earlier this year, of sexy Ronettes lead singer Ronnie Spector. Its release in 1963 is another deeply-etched memory of my early teens: I’m in my bedroom and “Be My Baby” — early Phil Spector Wall of Sound — comes blasting out of our new portable Radio Rentals transistor. It sent sensual ripples all down my spine and amazingly still does almost sixty years later. There are no poetic lyrics and no obvious musical sophistication so it is ripe for discarding as trash. What it did have, though, is a radically new kind of electronic orchestration with a visceral emotional power and strange beauty of its own.

In decades to come, when the rock/pop era has become just something that old people go on about (and when it has ceased to be a Mickey Mouse degree course for the academically challenged) a proper historical perspective might begin to emerge.

An art form complete with designations of musical genius and lyrical profundity

In that historical reckoning, two remarkable aspects are likely to stand out: one of them was the hitherto unimaginable quantity of this new medium of entertainment; now around 60 million songs and counting. The other was the emergence, during the mid-to-late 60s, of a new conception whereby a small part of this vast outpouring came to be accorded a status as not mere ephemeral entertainment but as an art form. An art form complete with designations of musical genius and lyrical profundity. (1962 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan —- the first album by the man who, more than any other, is associated with this idea of rock music as Art.)

I believe that a small number of rock’s back catalogue — very small, maybe 600 out of the 60 million — will indeed endure as great music. I also believe that when future generations come to curate the poetic muse of the late 20th century, it is the best song lyrics 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 established are accorded a respect in literary circles that seems to inoculate them from worrying 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 judgements about what makes a great poem.)

The big problem, though, with rock/pop as art comes with trying to actually pan the gold dust out from the 60 million babbling brook. That tiny proportion of truly great music has fallen victim to a kind of category error, having no unique generic label to differentiate it from the rest. 

In theory, Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time would be the answer. It is, after all, a composite distillation of the individual “top 50” voted by a kind of rock cognoscenti of industry insiders; artists, music critics etc. But when you remember that this is the aggregated judgement of an “industry” driven by a default imperative to breathlessly and endlessly enthuse about every new release — the vast majority of which are worthless trash — it doesn’t inspire much confidence

How about narrowing the field down to just the oeuvre of “serious” rock artists? That approach hits another problem. Anyone with an enduring interest in rock knows that a very large proportion of great records are in fact one-hit wonders. Also the output of even the most celebrated artists is invariably patchy; including plenty of dross, particularly after their early heyday years.    

OK … time now for a few random examples of songs I would choose for my own ‘500’  – just humbly offered as a shuffle/snippet so please don’t phone in!: “Boy in the Bubble”; “Desolation Row”; “Sultans of Swing”; “Hungry Heart”;  “Boys of Summer”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; “Fast Car”; “Season of Hollow Soul”;  “Don’t Go To Strangers”; “McArthur Park”, “Death of a Ladies Man”; “Both Sides Now”; “Television Antichrist Blues”; “Fisherman’s Blues”. Look ‘em up and see if you agree.

The above are all in the “serious” folk-rocky genre but the greatest musical gems have not all been songs with poetic lyrics (or blues numbers dripping “authenticity”). The production/sound engineering revolution kicked off by Spector rarely gets a mention alongside song writing, musicianship and performance but is arguably the late twentieth century’s truly distinctive contribution to musical creativity. “Go Your Own Way”; “Love is a Stranger”; “Baker Street”; “Is This Love”; “Heart of Glass”; “Thank U” and “Pride (In the name of Love)are just a few fine examples of the creative fusion of songwriter, performer and recording engineer. 

In a similar vein my teenage years saw the emergence of Tamla Motown; “commercialised” blues and gospel with a scattering of gems in its back catalogue of punchy love songs written by (recently deceased) Lamont Dozier together with the Holland brothers. 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.

Enough of my own tastes. Any other takers for curator of a Time Capsule of Precious Rock? 

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