‘Rock music, handicapped as it is by an obsession with rebellion (which is rarely more than gestural) and youth (which has all but ceased to exist as anything other than a symbolic construct) has a paradoxical and uneasy relationship with its own tradition. Its periodic bouts of innovation are tempered by an instinctive mistrust of complexity and ‘pretentiousness’, and counteracted by an almost neurotic desire to get back to basics. For all its rhetoric, rock’s conservative tendencies are never far from the surface.
What is perhaps saddest about rock music in the late 1960’s is the craven way in which it retreated from its vantage point. The cross-currents and multimedia initiatives which gave birth to the underground were fleeting and short-lived. Within eighteen months of making Revolver and Sgt Pepper, Paul McCartney was hammering out riffs borrowed from Fats Domino and Humphrey Lyttleton on ‘Lady Madonna’ and getting back to where he once belonged. It took John Lennon a little longer, but eventually he too abandoned the avant garde (which, as he was once happy to point out, was ‘French for bullshit’) and retreated back to trad rock. The Plastic Ono Band’s debut concert in Toronto, the Beatles jam session during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions and Lennon’s final collaborations with Phil Spector have one thing in common, a plethora of run-of-the-mill rock ‘n’ roll covers.
The Rolling Stones made even less convincing musical revolutionaries, never more than ‘a shot away’ from a Chuck Berry lick and an endorsement of the showbiz status quo. They all but dismissed their own brief flirtation with the dark side of psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request, as bandwagon-jumping, and by the early 1970’s, as Robyn Hitchcock notes, had turned into just another ‘druggy jam band’. The Rolling Stones’ reactionary influence over rock has been pervasive and remains largely critically unchallenged, but their every creaking gesture and genuflection remains a salutary corrective for anyone who thinks that there is anything remotely confrontational about their shtick. As they have always been ready to remind us, its only rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock missed a trick in the late 1960’s. Groups who a year or two earlier had forged brave adventurous links with jazz, pop art, beat poetry and the twentieth century classical avant-garde collectively lost their nerve. Country rock replaced futurism, as an entire generation of musicians began to make music more appropriate to the rocking chair than the rocket ship. Rock found a new sense of place in the early 1970’s and that place turned out to be the front porch of some mythical Americana.’

by Rob Chapman


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