Rock n' roll, baby.
Stephen King may not be my favorite writer anymore, like he was when i was 14, but he's still in at least the top 20 and I'll always have a soft spot for his stuff, because it was the first writing I ever read that made me think, "I could do this. I'd like to do this (maybe without all the monsters though)." I particularly love to read his non-fiction, whether it be essays on popular culture, autobiographical material, introductions to his books, or interviews. So I had a lot of fun reading "Bare Bones", even though most of the material is 25 to 30 years old and as such quite outdated.
I'm sure you're thinking, but what's all this got to do with music? Nothing directly, but on the other hand, it directly inspired today's post. See, Stephen King's writing has a childlike sense of frantic inspiration to it, which has always reminded me of balls-out rock n' roll. This can include bands like AC/DC, The Ramones, and Neil Young (all of whom he has plugged in various books over the years), but generally in my mind means the real wild stuff from back in the 50s. This was the first music I ever really fell in love with as a child, when I discovered my dad's half-dozen or so old LPs collecting hits of the day in one place, and there's something about it that appeals to me to this day. So, after reading all that Stephen King stuff, I came home and queued the "Loud, Fast, and Out of Control" 4-disc box set from Rhino records. I just happened to have downloaded it a few weeks ago on a random whim, inspired by a Rolling Stone article about Bo Diddley. I still hadn't listened to it all the way through until today.
It's funny; I listen to some of the fastest music ever recorded, on a regular basis. Agoraphobic Nosebleed's machine-generated 360-bpm blast beats are a good example. Old school rock n' roll, no matter how frenetically played, is never going to reach speeds anywhere near a lot of stuff I've heard. However, in spite of whatever numerical evidence anyone can produce, it always feels to me when I listen to this stuff that it's the fastest fucking music I've ever heard in my life. It's something about the raw abandon with which it's performed, the way primitive recording techniques of the time forced bands to all record in the same room together, in real time. There are other interesting elements that come to light when you really pay attention to these old recordings, which are caused by the same factors. For instance, in its infancy, the instrumentation of rock n' roll was far from being nailed down. While some bands relied on guitars, bass and drums, just like the modern bands do now, other bands gave far greater roles to saxophone, piano, and especially nonstandard forms of percussion, than any bands have done since those years. The way those random bits of percussion had to be miked creates the most interesting effect, pulling handclaps or maracas out of the mix and pushing them to the forefront. It's not necessarily an awesome effect, but if nothing else, it adds to the originality, the way this stuff is obviously from another time.
There's a lot of elements like that though, and the main one I find myself going back to over and over is the frantic, explosive performances a lot of these groups give when they finally managed to get into a studio. I continue to return to the freshness, the sincerity that seems to come through in these performances. There's no way things like this could have existed in modern times, now that we're all so unfortunately familiar with concepts of irony and theatrical representation. Plenty of bands play the role these days, but these groups, most of whom were little more than kids when these recordings were made, were just being themselves. There was no role to play. Reverend Horton Heat might be able to imitate the songwriting style that was common then, but really, the music he creates is 180 degrees from anything on this box set.
Don't believe me? There's plenty of evidence here, including a lot of songs I'd never even heard before. Ike Turner's original band, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (who, according to some article I read, were actually called something completely different--Brenston's band was some rival group who mistakenly got credit for the session. Man, no wonder royalties were a nightmare for 50s groups), are here with "Rocket 88", which legend has it is the first rock n' roll record ever. It's primitive, but it sure does wail. Then there's Kid Thomas's "Rockin This Joint", on which the Kid howls and screams but keeps it all together, like Screamin' Jay Hawkins took his meds for once. The music pounds too, as does Gene Vincent's backing band, The Blue Caps, on "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo Bo Bo", which indicates a whole different side to Gene Vincent than I'd ever gotten from "Be-Bop-a-Lula", his only song that I'd heard before this (dude sure was into gibberish song titles, wasn't he?). Listening to the band scream and howl during the instrumental breaks on this song makes me want to get up and dance, though I can't do the jitterbug, as these songs demand. My dad can, I should get him to teach me.
One last thing--I've always heard a ton about how rock n' roll comes from the combination of blues and country/hillbilly music, but listening to this set makes it obvious that a big portion of what led to this music's existence came from jazz, specifically the swing/jump bands of the 40s. You can hear it in the way the electric guitar fits with the stuttering rhythm on Joe Clay's "Duck Tails", despite the fact that the vocal is harking forward to Roky Erickson's work with the 13th Floor Elevators with a prescience I didn't realize was possible. In fact, there's even a straight-up jazzman on here: Louis Prima, doing "Jump, Jive and Wail", a song most members of my generation would only know from the Brian Setzer Orchestra version of maybe 8 years ago. This version makes it obvious just how cleaned-up and slicked-down, how tame that version was, compared to the original. There are plenty of other songs on this box that I only know through covers (Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac," and Larry Williams's "Slow Down" are but a few), and all of them have a lot more venom to them than you might expect. Listening to the stuff from this era that still gets played on oldies radio can fool you into thinking the early rock n' roll was boring and mellow, but this box set proves otherwise. The only question I'm left with is: do we get this impression because our parents don't want us to know how wild they were when they were our age, or is it themselves that they're trying to fool?