“Jailhouse Rock” (Elvis Presley)

It seems right that rock’n’roll’s first principle should be its prison ontology. Elvis was in the jailhouse and Bill Haley was a slave to working hours. So we “rock” because we’re stuck in Parchman Farm, or on a chain gang, or queer in a world of compulsory heterosexuality, or stuck behind the Iron Curtain. We don’t ask permission. It’s intentionally disruptive. Sometimes what we do may not rise above putting an occasional spanner in the works, or utilizing “the weapons of the weak,” as James C. Scott puts it. But, other times, rocking might rise to the level of the general strike, and make the walls and borders of the world tremble. So it’s strange to remember that Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) involves a rock show staged and strenuously promoted by the warden and capable of making the prisoners complacent enough to forego escape so they can listen to the beat combo. Rock here is exposed as nothing but an aural strain of the spectacle, as conceptualized from Machiavelli to Debord. So perhaps we’re all in jail, in one way or another, but rock’n’roll, as soon as it calcified and corporatized, became one of our wardens.

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“Garden of Eden” (Guns N’ Roses)

Axl Rose’s consistency as a lyricist should never be in question: beyond dispute, he is a “country” singer, regarding the city, over and over again, as a place of diaspora and loss for him. But he does not sing in the genre called “country music,” and for reasons of absolute and complete diaspora. Country boys are nice and simple folk (see “Welcome to the Jungle,” Appetite for Destruction), and such “nice boys don’t play rock and roll” (see “Nice Boys,” Lies).  But, for Axl, that was long ago and far away. Rock is an index of Babylon, of corruption.  “We’re lost in the garden of Eden,” and the “problem” itself is called “rock’n’roll.” But as a mere index, it has no pragmatic utility, and GN’R is not so much irresponsible as not responsible. A declaration of radically innocent corruption, then.

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“Rock the Casbah” (The Clash)

Rock music inherently dissolves (Iran’s) monarchic/theocratic ordering, and even liberates crude oil from the rock (the other kind). Shakin’, cruisin’, rockin’, wailin’, jivin’ all free the street.  No cliche spared, as the Middle East learns to party all the time. Rock antithetical to jet fighter planes, finally. (Tell it to Top Gun.)

 

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“Eruption” (Van Halen)

The solo that launched a thousand (hair) bands, it’s also a mythologized piece used to legitimize rock guitar playing more generally. But even nine-year olds are getting in on the act, and kids can play this trax with startling proficiency. Maybe all of this this is a human version of Moore’s Law dealing with human performance. The trax is mainly about technique, with the whammy-bar dives and two-handed tapping coalescing in what’s supposed to be a new form. We shouldn’t forget Steve Hackett’s tapping from Genesis or Eddie Cochran’s tremolo strategies, though. Discussions of Eddie Van Halen’s early classical training occludes this indebtedness, and popular texts instead redirect toward the trax’s strategic allusions in order to elevate the sonic repurposing. Also important are the effects used, including echo and phaser. Even so, this prosthetic humanness is a helpful lesson. Innovation as a recursive structure, and newness as a function of articulation (not a progressive temporality). All the rest, including Moore’s Law: profit motive.

 

 

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“Revolution 1” (The Beatles)

Renounces violent legal and institutional change in the present, in favor of a preliminary project of individual moral reformism (“free your mind”): the final, most sinister implication of the doctrine, “All you need is love.” Backing track downshifts the impulse to “rock” toward quietistic, contemplative, shooby-doo-wop shuffle. The famed altered lyric in this White Album version, “Don’t you know that you can count me out/in,” amounts to a bit of pandering, really, toward all self-styled revolutionists. Let’s compare it to Marx (Groucho, that is), and his more general allergy to community and inclusion: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Marx will have none of it; Lennon, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be bound to the insurgency and its strictures, but would like to continue to serve as sniping, spiritual advisor from the sidelines. Coming off more than a bit Fabian in inclination (and no, not Fabian Forte), it’s useful to remember that the Fabian Society was named after the general Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC), known as the “Cunctator,” or the “Delayer.” Putting off revolution while remaining comfortably glum.

 

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“All the Young Dudes” (David Bowie)

Mott the Hoople’s far more famous version is so welcoming in its vocal outro: “I want to hear you, I want to see you, and I want to relate to you.” Thus, Ian Hunter firmly positions the song on the side of the glam “dudes,” while Bowie’s original take on them is relentlessly ambivalent. Yes, “I got T. Rex,” but in order to really get it, “man, I need a T.V.,” too. Bowie puts his finger on glam’s worrying teletechnological supplement: the “television man is crazy,” and anti-rock, but if I smash the boob tube I won’t see this week’s “Top of the Pops,” or the latest Russell Harty or Bob Harris interview with Marc. This concern, of course, redounds on Ziggy, who worked and shopped his television image as hard as anyone. Two strategies remain possible: abandoning entirely the image of the pop idol (purity), or unworking the mediascape as a pop artiste (parasite).

 

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