You may not have heard of Taylor Hawkins. If you have then well done, you can expect a certificate in the post in the next 3-5 working days. Taylor Hawkins is the drummer with The Foo Fighters, or rather he was the drummer until he died. It was a sudden death, at the age of just 50 (which some helpful sort will happily explain is no age at all, even though we all know that it is). The Foo Fighters do absolutely nothing for me: just another solid band that made it big, but I bear them no ill will because they always seem like such nice people, and in an industry full of dickheads that’s quite a refreshing thing. Hawkins died in a hotel in Bogota and was found to have rather a lot of naughty things in his system. Until now I hadn’t really thought of The Foo Fighters as being a rock and roll kind of a band; nothing too cool, just nice and loud and smiley. But perhaps I was wrong. Hawkins was a big fan of Dennis Wilson, who was seriously rock and roll, and so maybe I should give credit where credit is due – maybe Hawkins should be celebrated as someone who still had something of the rock and roll spirit about him.
What the hell happened to the spirit of rock and roll? Where has it gone? How has it been so thoroughly lost – one of the few things that made life on earth more bearable? I’m thinking specifically about the spirit of rock and roll in music today, but we mustn’t forget that a rock and roll attitude can inhabit almost any corner of life. And it is about attitude; not just sex and drugs and being a bit bad. It’s about swagger and brio, charm and wit, both style and substance, a whiff of rebel and a waft of general indifference towards the more mundane avenues that day to day existence prods us along. It’s why snooker has much more potential for rock and roll than rugby. It’s why Tom Hanks can bag all the Oscars he wants but will never be as rock and roll as Richard Burton. Putin isn’t remotely rock and roll and Zelensky most definitely is, which is why Russia will have to nuke the world to win their war. Zelensky has form in comedy, and comedy can be very rock and roll, provided it’s done right.
But if we have to narrow down the search for the true meaning of rock and roll we would have to start with rock and roll itself. There is something quite tragic about musicians who want to be rock and roll but never quite manage it. Take U2, for instance. I hear that Netflix have commissioned a new drama series about the rise of Ireland’s favourite tax dodging band, and right now I can’t think of anything I’d rather not use my precious time watching. Not that U2 aren’t entirely without merit – they made some quite good music many years ago – but there is an assumption that because they are a huge rock band they must be rock and roll. And yet they are most emphatically not that. In fairness any band with a member like (and called) Bono is never going to be all that cool, especially when he thinks that all it will take is a poor taste in sunglasses and a desperate urge to give the Dalai Lama a reach around. The Edge also has a very silly name, but at least he’s handy with an axe. U2 really want to be rock and roll but at the end of the day it just isn’t going to happen. Ever,
It wasn’t always this way. The true spirit of rock and roll really shifted up a gear in the mid 60’s but had peaked by the late 70’s, when the movement that claimed to shake things up – punk – came along and, perhaps without realising it, instead opened the doors to a much safer kind of musical world – a world that included Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Chris De Burgh and serial applicants to the role of worst band ever – Madness. So many acts made the fundamental error of swapping being a bit rock and roll with being a bit shit. Even in punk the essence wasn’t always in the right place; The Clash were infinitely more rock and roll than The Sex Pistols. It was a long old stint before we got to see rock and roll get even a bit of the mojo back. Depeche Mode discovered that they had a way with the darkness, just as Guns N Roses were lighting their own voodoo fire; one that would burn out almost as quickly. Then came Britpop, and the reason Britpop was so exciting was because it had a little sprinkle of the old magic to it; not nearly as good, but as good as we were going to get and certainly better than nothing at all. In the vapour trails of Oasis and Blur came the idea that dance music could be rock and roll, but it doesn’t have quite the same quality to it. Early rap had rock and roll, but today, with Grime and oily, empty R & B there is nothing left in the barrel. Kanye West isn’t rock and roll, he’s just an arsehole.
You could argue that U2 are the poster boys for un-rock and roll, rock and roll. But in truth there are many contenders. Coldplay are so not rock and roll it actually hurts me when I grimace at the thought of them, a once promising career as nice young lads with decent tunes having sold themselves away to make music as soulful as cottage cheese and play in front of millions of morons who should know better but evidently do not. Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone both had rock and roll but Adele wouldn’t know it if she tripped up over it, which she probably will one day. It seems we are all ecstatic at the thought of having live music back on the menu, but that doesn’t appeal to much to me. Who wants to sample the miserable flop of sound available at an Elbow gig, or to immerse themselves slowly into the shitted hot tub of noise that the Kaiser Chiefs have to offer? Were Culture Club really ever that good to justify a nostalgia tour (no, they were not) and does anyone need a Rag ‘n’ Bone Man in their life? There are even options for people for whom hearing is a complete waste of a sense: he probably loves the attention and fancies the rattle in his pants but surely there is nothing more of an erection killer than the thought of Russell Watson merrily whistling a tune about his brain tumour whilst backed by The NHS Choir. It is music such as this that is the reason we need nuclear weapons.
I could go on for hours, giving you lists of who is rock and roll and who is not. As the summer uncoils we will hear about all the festivals that are planned and the wonderous coming togethers of like-minded dullards to celebrate musical mediocrity (if they’re lucky). We’ve already had the leaking nappy that is ‘The Brits’, and soon we’ll have footage of Glastonbury, where some old lady smelling of piss will explain why we need ley lines in our lives as Sir Paul McCartney rolls back the years with a medley from his rather substantial back catalogue. And perhaps it’s best to end with McCartney as piece of evidence #1. The Beatles may have been brilliant but, you see, they were never truly rock and roll. Sir Paul might insist on it but he just never had the right spirit; this is the man who recorded The Frog Chorus. Elvis had it. Led Zeppelin, John Martyn, Miles Davis, The Band, Bob Dylan, Little Feat: they all had it. For a few years The Stones embodied it to perfection (but not so much these days). But The Beatles never managed to get there. Nor did Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, I would suggest. It’s just the way of things. You can’t put your finger on it but take it from me – you’ll know it when it’s there and you’ll feel it in your bones. It may not seem important but trust me, you’d be a much better person if you were a little bit rock and roll. I wish I was.
G B Hewitt. 27.03.2022