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Hot Rock on a Fresh Roll

8 minute read
Jay Cocks

Rock rules again. And you didn’t even know it had abdicated, did you? Admit it: you haven’t been paying attention. And that’s part of the problem.

If you’re among the generation that matured with rock — the same generation that made rock grow from Elvis to Dylan, Berry to the Beatles and beyond — try this E-Z test at home. What’s the last concert you went to see: the Rolling Stones in ’89, maybe? And what’s the latest CD by a new artist that you bought for your own pleasure? Could it be Chris Isaak, because his hit single Wicked Game sounds like a slick hunk of hickabilly passion that could almost have been a Sun 45? Maybe Madonna, out of curiosity? Or sheer exhaustion?

If those questions are anywhere on target — and if they make you squirm — you should know that it’s safe to turn on the radio again, and maybe even go back to the record store. Until recently, traditional rock — that gut- level stuff Bob Seger had in mind when he sang, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul/ I like that old-time rock ‘n’ roll” — has been under assault from rap, retooled metal and various highly sampled items from the dance floor. The upper reaches of the charts have been overwhelmed by performers like Paula Abdul, laying down bass-ballasted club tunes that keep your booty shaking while your brain shrivels to the size of a snow pea. The last rock record to top the Billboard pop chart was Motley Crue’s inglorious Dr. Feelgood, and that was almost two years ago. Just a few weeks back, Billboard’s Top 50 had a total of five rock albums. Well, you said you want a revolution.

Then R.E.M., that rhythmically cerebral band from Athens, Ga., released Out of Time, which shot to the No. 1 slot in a brisk eight weeks. And Isaak had his first runaway hit. The DiVinyls, an Aussie group with a tough backbeat and a wicked sense of humor, have their own smash in I Touch Myself. The Black Crowes, a not entirely holy amalgam of the Byrds and the Allman Brothers, also found their album, Shake Your Money Maker, in the Top 10. The Mallomar metalists, Queensryche, got themselves near the chart top with Silent Lucidity, a tune about spelunking through the subconscious. New groups such as Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More are shaking and breaking, and one of the wildest, Jane’s Addiction, just sold out its Madison Square Garden show. “Rock ‘n’ roll may have been taking a backseat,” says ; Kendall Jones, the intrepid lead singer of Fishbone. “But it’s redefining itself. We have no rules. We’ll play any kind of music we want to.”

Feel better now? Jones urges everyone to keep up with such other promising upstarts as Bad Brains, Murphy’s Law, the Butthole Surfers, the Electric Love Hogs and the Brand New Heavies. “Hopefully,” he adds, helpfully, “it will be like the ’60s, when you could listen to Sly and the Family Stone, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Led Zeppelin. It’s time for music to be free.”

To a large extent, commercial conservatism has put a crimp in rock’s evolution. It’s a matter of survival for “AOR” radio — stations that play album-oriented rock — to coddle their audience (usually in the 25-to-44 age group) with a steady dose of oldies. “We find that classic rock is what most people want to hear,” says Mark Chernoff, program director at New York City’s K-ROCK. “They like the familiarity.” K-ROCK and similar stations may play a new Eric Clapton record relentlessly (“We will beat it to death,” Chernoff says), but they go easy on breaking their listeners in on the new stuff. Easy, and conservative. R.E.M., the Black Crowes and a couple of the less obstreperous bands will get on the air, but it may be a while before Fishbone or the Butthole Surfers make the cut.

It’s a truism by now: rock ‘n’ roll, born-and-bred rebel music, languishes when it becomes a commercial tool, part of a marketing package. When Dennis Hopper made Easy Rider and Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, the use of rock ‘n’ roll on a movie sound track was practically revolutionary. Now it’s de rigueur: the rip-snorting Thelma & Louise, with first-rate tunes by the likes of Toni Childs, Marianne Faithfull and Glenn Frey, released its sound track even before the movie hit the theaters. This is good for the movie and good for business, but it makes rock part of a formula. When great rock tunes show up as prefab nostalgia on a movie of the week, or when they’re used on TV to shill everything from brew to sneakers, the music’s devalued. Its history and resonance are depreciated, embalmed in commerce.

Now that rap is the newest thing for underscoring commercials, and Madonna is ascending from pre-eminent dance diva to the high priestess of the new pop panculturism, rock has found a little room to maneuver. “Rock’s in a constant state of change and always mutating,” Geoff Tate, lead singer of Queensryche, reminds us. “You’re seeing the fusion of rock with funk. I mean, extreme ( black R.-and-B.-influenced rhythm sections.” Also, a fearless rock band like Jesus Jones, fresh from London, manages to meld echoes of psychedelia with hot flashes of contemporary urban rhythm. The results are heady, challenging and abrasive, and unlikely to show up on a Subaru commercial anytime soon.

“I think it’s better that we have so many choices,” says Allison Anchors, 24, a veteran New York City rock-club employee. “When I was visiting in Florida, it was so cool. All styles and races totally mixed. There would be dance-offs, with three homeboys going against three Army guys. Everyone doesn’t follow one music anymore. People are getting more diverse. They finally woke up. Or got bored.” Christina Amphlett, lead singer of the spunky, post-punky DiVinyls, says, “The whole rap thing has been a rhythm revolution. It’s always good to have diversity.”

The new rock invites — indeed, insists on — different kinds of sounds for different kinds of audiences. “I think the British invasion will happen again,” predicts Mike Edwards, the lead singer of Jesus Jones. Fishbone combines an upside-your-head musical assault with some pointed lyrics. “Forgive us for we have no control or self-respect,” goes Junkie’s Prayer. “Grim reaper has cashed my life-savings check/ Thy rocketh and thy pipeth restoreth me . . .”

There’s rap attitude and rhythm under Fishbone’s rock, just as Queensryche modifies its metal base into something sleeker and more pointed. “We have audiences full of schoolteachers and college professors,” reports Tate, who also plays keyboards for the group. “It’s really weird. We have the 7-Eleven clerks and the people from Microsoft.”

That’s the kind of sound and sensibility to shore up rock’s foundation, but Ken Barnes, editor of the trade magazine Radio & Records, suggests, “We may be seeing a fundamental, almost revolutionary shift in what exactly is the mainstream for pop music. New musical ideas continue to come from the inner city instead of rural areas.” Pressed hard, Barnes will paint the musical future as “a fusion of dance, funk and rap,” and admit, “Rock will never die, but it will become a minority music.” Geffen Records president Eddie Rosenblatt scoffs at such predictions. “People have been saying rock ‘n’ roll is dead since the third Elvis Presley album,” he insists. “It’s a broad area of music. It will continue to be that.”

Maybe it’s time for rock to give up on its siege mentality and draw strength from its own breadth. The richness of the music has always been its core. Yes, yes: Paula Abdul is the Doris Day of dance music, and she’s flourishing. Michael Bolton has a soul made of buttermilk, but that doesn’t put a crimp in his record sales. Nor does it mean that traditional rock is being shut out. It only suggests that it will have to adapt and remain openhearted, keep learning and keep listening. A little heavy artillery never hurts, either: the next few months may see releases by Bob Seger, Guns n’ Roses, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. If rock ‘n’ roll ever died, a roster like that means we’ve all gone to heaven.

But rock has always been enriched by everything going on around it, including its recurring and eternally recyclable history. Whatever action goes down on the Top 10, the past and the future of rock will continue to intersect on the streets as well as the charts. While the rhythm goes through all kinds of redefinition, it might also be helpful to keep in mind that objects in the rearview mirror are always closer than they appear.

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