Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why We Should Thank Rod Stewart for Grunge

The current state of rock 'n roll couldn't be better.  The music is more accessible than ever and the bands are, if not better, then they are certainly more plentiful than they have ever been.  We all owe awful music of the early 1970's a great deal of gratitude.  If not for the likes of Rod Stewart and the Jackson Five churning out the trite crap that still cling to our synapses like dog poo on our shoes, the punk rockers would not have rebelled against it. If not for the punk rockers, like the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, the Ramones and The Clash, then other types of rock 'n roll might not have ever happened.  I am not a huge fan of punk, but I do appreciate what they did for popular music.  Rock 'n roll was in a rut and punk rock gave it a well needed kick.

I usually don't have a lot of use for genre.  I tend to think that when you start putting music (or any creative form) into categories, you start losing what it is all about.  Rock 'n roll is about freedom and rebellion, so when a bunch of corporate executives start packaging it and putting it into easily defined boxes of "country & western," "rock," "rock-a-billy" or "blue grass" etc, it stops being about rebellion and starts being about revenue.  No one doubts that some good has come out of the business of music, but those of us who like expanding horizons, have to look elsewhere.  In 1978, Neil Young had just released his Comes a Time album.  This is a decent traditional acoustic album, not his best and not his worst.  Then he heard the Sex Pistols and Devo and he became embarrassed of his own work.  He tried to pull Comes a Time from the shelves; he even bought a bunch of them himself to prevent his fans from hearing it. This might be one of the reasons this album is lesser known than a lot of his others.  While most musicians in his circle were recoiling from the punk movement, Young embraced it.  He immediately started working on Rust Never Sleeps, perhaps his best album, solo or otherwise.

If you listen to the second side of Rust Never Sleeps (for those of you who don't have vinyl, I am talking about the second half of the album), it doesn't sound like California in 1979 but more like Seattle in 1992.  Here is where grunge was born.  It is angry, socially conscious, full of distortion and ambiguity.  There are no answers in the lyrics, only images at war with each other and the listener.  You don't sit put this album on if you intend to relax.  It was recorded live at San Francisco's Cow Palace, but the audience noise was removed giving it a rawer sound than most studio albums.  Side one is acoustic with some of his most powerful lyrics with songs like "Pocahontas" and "The Thrasher."  He recorded some of these during the Comes a Time sessions.  I can see why these songs didn't make it onto that album.  They fit better with the angry songs of side two. In 1978, it took someone who had creative control and a large following to produce something like Rust Never Sleeps. Nowadays, with people carrying virtual recording studios in their pockets, the business executives only has control of your creativity if you want them to.

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