Published August 20, 2004
One fine mornin’, she puts on a New York station And she couldn’t believe what she heard at all She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music Her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll” Lou Reed: Rock and Roll
I´m not much of a dancer, but I agree with the sentiment. There were days, there were whole years…in fact, I wouldn´t have gotten through the 20th Century without Rock and Roll. I remember running through the door when I came home from school and throwing myself on the cassette player as if another minute without would have done me in. Songwriters like Lou Reed wrote music for the head as well as the feet. I ran the whole gamut of heroes. Bruce Springsteen taught me the life sustaining love of music. Guns n Roses taught me it was cool to drink and smoke, as every generation must learn habits you spend the rest of your life trying to kick. David Bowie taught me it was cool to be an anorexic androgynous strung out schizophrenic alien, although I´m still trying to get the hang of that. And there were other greater and lesser gods, The Stones, the Doors, U2, and, of course Dylan. All took their place on the pantheon somewhere. As I left my teens and entered my 20´s, I went for the darker, somewhat more obscure stuff. Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and then on to country like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, finally winding up with the roots in Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
Doing drugs, having sex and staying up past your bedtime
It is strange that at no time, barring perhaps GNR and Nirvana, did I listen to that which was going on around me. Perhaps it is because when I was developing an interest in music in the late 80´s, it seemed as if nothing was going on. The most interesting thing on the horizon was a Woodstock revival. And, to be fair, at the time Lou Reed (New York), The Stones (Steel Wheels), Dylan (Oh Mercy), Cohen (I´m Your Man), Neil Young (Freedom), and others were making their best work in a decade. The old guard, frankly, seemed to be making the most exciting stuff.
Rock and Roll is reaching, or has reached, 50, depending on when you start counting. Its originators, if still alive, are well into retirement age. Rock and roll has long since ceased being the music of youth, even less the music of rebellion. When teenagers today turn up their stereo their parents bought them as confirmation gifts, listening to someone loudly proclaim that he wants to do drugs/have sex/stay out past his bedtime, said parents are more likely to respond with a knowing grin than shock, having done all that and more when they were that age.
The sound of cash registers
Rock and roll is the sound of the marketplace. It plays in our ears in every advertisement, being blasted out from every Mercedes by an executive in a midlife crisis, in every nightclub where we pay huge amounts of money for the privilege of meeting other people our age. It’s been mass manufactured by ever larger corporations who are constantly trying to reach ever younger audiences more susceptible to product placement.
In fact, without rock and roll, the entire capitalist system may well collapse. With the advent of the internet, with people being able to access music without mediation from the man, it may do just that. If rock and roll were ever to go back into the hands of the people, capitalism at least would lose considerable sums.
Final Rebel Yell
Perhaps the final spurt of rocks’ youthful rebellion was heard with punk. It was one of the last times the bands led and the companies inevitably followed, rather than the other way around. It was the final defiant act against the commercialisation of rock. Pop, and I use the terms interchangeably, for rock is the popular music of the late 20th century, still had its moments. Duran Duran were kinda fun. Frankie Goes to Hollywood may have been the last great pop band. And then the rot really set in. MTV had put ever more emphasis on look than talent. Stock/Aitkin/Waterman started massproducing hit songs for dancers to sing along to. The Beatles revolution had been scaled back. Artists no longer had to have anything to say. They no longer even had to write their own songs. What ever good music still was left had to go underground, banished from all major radio stations. Gone were the days of the 60s, when popular and good could often go together. Rarely were they to meet again. A lot of the great music since has gone unnoticed.
In the 90s the deterioration continued. Hip Hop emerged as the voice of the street and was incorporated into the market. Grunge for a while seemed like another punk movement in the making, ready to take on the system, but like the original punks it self destructed and its leader shot himself before it could accomplish anything much.
10 year olds in G-strings
With producers recycling hits before they got cold, audiences tended to drift away. There was a solution to this. Reach a younger market that can´t remember what was going on two years ago. Enter the Spice Girls, and suddenly you had 10 year olds in G-strings and pre-teens becoming the target audience for music, rather than teenagers. As the market eats itself, it must constantly search for fresh blood. Most of the radio stations stick to strict playlists based on market research and demographics. You need never hear anything new, interesting or surprising again.
Small wonder then, that new heroes pale next to the old. This week, we´ll get the chance to see Lou Reed himself live on stage in Laugardalshöll on the 20th. The day after, on Culture Night, we´ll get to see Iceland´s King of Rock Bubbi play with Egó on a big stage down by the harbour. Meanwhile, on a somewhat smaller stage at the restaurant Við Tjörnina, we´ll get to see master Megas perform. A week later, James Brown will take the stage at Laugardalshöllin. On the 30th, Iceland´s greatest export, Björk, will release a new album. It´s a good time to savour some of the greatest performers from here and abroad play some of the greatest songs ever written. And perhaps wonder, when the time comes, who is to take their place? And will we get to hear them?