Ya gotta go back, not forward, for best rock ever

Last Sunday Citizen Arts editor Peter Simpson wrote: “There are certain titles that should be on every list of the best rock albums of all time, and if the titles are not there the list should be dismissed with a theatrical flip of the wrist.” He then cited “Televisions’s 1977 debut Marquee Moon” and Ow! My wrist! Never heard of it. Never want to. But don’t you mess with my blue suede shoes. Peter may have better musical taste than I do. It has been done. But here’s a scary thought: The origins of Rock and Roll lie in the early 1950s. So even if we stretch its golden age all the way to 1977, that’s still closer to its origins in the Truman era than to kids deafening themselves with iPod technopop today. Holy Vanished Historical Era, Batman. Which points us back, not forward, if we are to savour its classics. How did we get from swing to rock … while Smokin’ in the Boys Room?

OK, not Brownsville Station. Nor, despite Louie Louie, Richard Berry. What is really interesting, beyond my personal arrested development, is how this remarkable new musical form came into existence, developed, and matured. And once you get started on a “best of” list, the problem isn’t finding things to add but things to remove. (Unless it’s punk, I mean.) So I generally try the space-alien method.

No, not listing Ziggy Stardust first. I imagine a Martian hopping out of his little saucer, saying “We mean no harm to your planet … so we won’t be playing any punk” but he’s doing an essay for Human Culture 101 at the University of Mars, Valles Marineris, well, to be honest it’s due in three days so could I please quickly give him the 10 CDs that will let him fake it for a B. Which means “records,” every one of which had thousands of people, including other artists, saying I never knew music could be like this.

Okey dokey. Here we go. First, precursors. Black precursors. You must know producer Sam Phillips’s oft-repeated comment, before he discovered Elvis Presley, that if he could find a white boy with the “Negro sound” he could make a million dollars. Moreover, groundbreaking DJ Allan Freed got into rock partly because a recordstore owner convinced him to play some black artists he claimed white kids were buying (and, thanks to Freed’s show, they started to). At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame they sold me a terrific Louis Jordan double CD so he’s my choice, but you could go with Fats Domino (Freed did) or others.

Next ain’t nothin’ but a hound dawg. No Elvis no rock. End of argument. But not of the 1950s. You need Buddy Holly, because nerdy-looking and - sounding (Peggy Sue) white kids were picking up this new sound and making it racier. Call me Squaresville, Daddy-O, but I find a certain charm in bobby-soxers and boys in stovepipe jeans listening to juke boxes. Sure, the audio quality was awful. But something exciting was happening, artistically, sexually and culturally. So we can’t leave the 1950s without your choice of Chuck Berry (Johnny B. Goode) or Little Richard (Long Tall Sally).

Great Balls of Fire, I don’t mean to slight other practitioners. But next we skip to four mop-tops from Liverpool. Then the anti-Beatles, one of whom just fell from a tree. Now Hendrix? Or Joplin? No. My OD entry is Jim Morrison, with The Doors’ L.A. Woman. Next Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, 15 years on the charts and still among the best-selling albums ever. I may be influenced by hearing Stairway to Heaven at the end of every high-school dance, but we need something from the metal genre and glam rock so let’s get both from Led Zeppelin 4.

Finally, for my money Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is the all-time “concept album,” and Peter and I probably at least agree on that. By the way, I’m trying to avoid fogeyish complaints about the ever-faster beat in pop. But I was once told that punk would bring “more energy” to rock, which I hadn’t realized had gone languid, so if you insist on a punk precursor #11 is Alice Cooper’s School’s Out.

There’s a lot missing here. So if I get a second page I’m adding 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Oh, and I once saw an interview where Hank Williams III said some people call Rock Around the Clock the first rock ’n’ roll song but it’s basically identical to his granddaddy’s Move It On Over. So what about CCR? Then there’s the folk strand: Dylan, Neil Young …

That I own almost no new music is, I grant, a badge of fogeyhood. That to me “new” means after Pink Floyd’s Animals doesn’t help, though my growing collection of even older stuff gets me some points in that new Lifelong Learning thingamajig. But honestly, classic rock albums don’t include fading attempts to revive the magic, let alone it getting mugged in an alley by punks. Marquee Moon a rock classic? Listen, Buddy, That’ll Be The Day.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson