No sympathy for the devil

This post originally started as a comment on Falstaff’s blog. And precisely when I hit the submit button (after duly entering in an inordinately long word for the sake of verification) blogger chose to go down, and this was left unsaid.

While I agree that the Rolling Stones was one of the greatest rock bands ever, I am a bit leery of nostalgic characterizations of all bands from that generation as revolutionary. As a rock and roll band, the Stones were pretty mainstream, and my belief is that bands like the Stones had it easy by piggybacking along the backs of a social movement that started during the euphoric years when the post war generation grew up. As a band, I do not think their music was all that inspirational.

The history of rock and roll (and of music in general) has been of breakaway movements that got assimilated into the mainstream, and typically bands that chose to so sell out are the ones that saw commercial success and are remembered with nostalgia. Those that ‘stayed true’ (such as VU in the ’60s, or Sonic Youth from the ’80s onwards) remain quite obscure, apart from a small core of fans that truly appreciate what they were worth. It was these bands that had the greatest degree of influence of what was to come. The Velvet Underground was the inspiration for the punk and new wave movements in the seventies and early eighties. Sonic Youth has influenced almost every genre of alternative rock (which, arguably, has become quite ‘mainstream’) over the last twenty years, while still remaining relatively obscure. Or we could take the example of the Pixies, who were the precursors of grunge and heavily inspired bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the likes. It is the latter that have had a lot of commercial success and will be remembered as symbolizing that genre of music years from now.

The closest analogy to the Stones that comes to my mind is that of Nirvana, which having been heavily influenced by the alternative scene of the time, went on to become one of the most popular rock bands of our times. Nirvana will be remembered with nostalgia, but they will never have the kind of influence that bands like SY and the Pixies will have on subsequent cultural movements in music.

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7 Responses to “No sympathy for the devil”

  1. Falstaff Says:

    Sigh. It’s going to be a long week.

    First, I wasn’t necessarily making a case for the Stones being hugely influential or generation defining (except in the sense that they’re one of the few people still around and together from their generation) – I was just making a case for their being really good (which I continue to stand by).

    Second, I’m not convinced about the popular artists vs. influential artists divide. Where would you put the Beatles? Where would you put Dylan?

    More generally, I think the dialectic you talk of is true not just of rock music, but of all art (and, come to think of it, a lot of science as well). In any art form you will have the following – a) the popular artists who are rapidly forgotten as time makes them irrelevant b) the unsung geniuses who nobody paid attention to at the time, but who are revered (perhaps beyond their due, as a sort of compensation) by modern ‘experts’ and c) the folks who were immensely popular in their own time and (it turns out) actually deserved to be. If the issue’s more confused in Rock, I think it’s because there’s a larger question about whether popularity rather than ‘artistic’ merit is not a better metric for an art form that is inherently designed to be popular. But the basic struggle between those who define and exemplify a trend and those who buck it remains.

    And that’s what makes it hard to choose between artists. Is how much they contributed to the development of their field really the right way to be assessing talent? Is Ginsberg a better poet than Frost? Is Toulouse Lautrec a better painter than Renoir? These are difficult questions, and ones that I’m not convinced are worth asking.

    Besides, I can’t help wondering how much of this is just selection. Hornby makes a similar point somewhere, but to the extent that rock is something you use to define your own identity with, it follows that you’re always going to end up fete-ing (and claiming to be influenced by) the more obscure of bands you like. There isn’t much purchase in being a Stones fan because, at a certain point, everyone was a Stones fan. I’m sure these bands you mention have heard the Stones. I’m sure that the Stones music is an innate part of the musical idiom they bring to Rock. It’s just that it’s so basic, so much a part of what we consider rock today, that they don’t need to point it out, don’t need to make a fuss about it. Don’t misunderstand me – I like Velvet Underground (note to self: must not finish rock week without putting post about ‘Heroin’)- I’m not entirely convinced that they’re that better a band than the Stones – they just get feted more because it’s cooler to be a vu fan than a Stones fan.

    The truth, I suspect, is somewhere mid-way. Some bands just happen to end up being commercially successful (not because they’re necessarily better than others; or because they’re inherently out to be popular – it’s just luck, I think) and others don’t. And the ones that don’t have a reason to try and solidify their stance as being alternate by pushing the borders of innovation so that they can protect their egos and sneer at the more popular bands.

    Finally, and this is kind of where I was going with the post – I think the History of Rock is a combination of two vectors – one spreading outward, the other going upward. Whatever VU’s contribution to the musical development of Rock, it’s hard to argue that they were the key contributors to it’s social popularity. The Stones didn’t just join the mainstream – they helped create it. How many people in those halcyon days do you think were first seduced into becoming Rock fans by that instantly recognisable tum-tum tadata tum tum that Satisfaction opens with? Sure, many of those people may have moved on to other (potentially better) bands – but without the Stones, how many people would be listening to this stuff in the first place.

    P.S. I think blogger doesn’t like this discussion. The first time I tried posting this comment, it blanked out on me. fortunately I managed to save a copy, so here it is.

  2. Tabula Rasa Says:

    “The history of rock and roll (and of music in general) has been of breakaway movements that got assimilated into the mainstream, and typically bands that chose to so sell out are the ones that saw commercial success and are remembered with nostalgia.”

    That’s a *very* broad brush! What price Thelonious?!

    Also, as Falstaff says, pioneers often *define* the mainstream, e.g., Dylan at Newport.

  3. Heh Heh Says:

    Falstaff:

    “I think it’s because there’s a larger question about whether popularity rather than ‘artistic’ merit is not a better metric for an art form that is inherently designed to be popular

    That, i agree, is the crux of the matter. I take the view that rock is *not* designed to be popular any more than any other form of music is. It is a form of music that is characterized by a specific (though hard to define) usage of certain instruments (percussion with certain kinds of regular beats, guitars – acoustic, electric and bass, keyboards, and the occasional wind or brass instrument).
    In this sense, there is every reason to not use popularity as a metric, though popular rock tends to be easily accessible (and in general, non-innovative).

    I do not agree with statements like ‘Rock is life’ or ‘Rock is any music that you define it to be’. I know rock when i hear it, and not ‘everything’ can be loosely called rock.

    TR:
    Okay, I agree it was a broad brush. But it does describe the situation quite well, though there will always be exceptions.

    I was making the observation that the popular mainstream often seems to me to be a somewhat watered down version of the truly innovative. The reason could be, as Falstaff says:

    “And the ones that don’t have a reason to try and solidify their stance as being alternate by pushing the borders of innovation so that they can protect their egos and sneer at the more popular bands”

  4. Tabula Rasa Says:

    Hmm, okay — I guess you’re making the argument that the mass market for aesthetic products requires that they be dumbed down. Your neighbor Morris Holbrook (Columbia Marketing) is doing a lot of work in this area. I’m a believer.

  5. Heh Heh Says:

    🙂
    I’m at the other one – the one that’s downtown. And in case it hasnt been apparent I do finance.

  6. Falstaff Says:

    heh heh: Ah, but I don’t agree with the Rock is life, Rock is anything you define it to be argument either. But I think there’s a difference between just being rock and trying to advance the field. You’re surely not suggesting that the Stones are not rock? That they may not have influenced the next generation is a seperate issue from saying that they don’t meet the bar per se.

    The analogy to Frost is a good one, I think. I’d be the first person to be critical of people who claim to write poetry, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Frost is an incredibly good poet. Is he the most influential poet of his time (i.e. are there tons of poets after him being inspired by him / scrambling to imitate him)? I would say almost certainly not. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a good poet per se.

  7. Tabula Rasa Says:

    dude, from where i am sitting, any place within an A train ride of you is nbd enough!

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