Thursday, May 5, 2011

Union Jack

But what can a poor boy do,
Except for sing for a rock n roll band?
Cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for
A Street Fighting Man! 
Rock n roll is a thicket of mysteries layered upon one another. Who invented it? Was it the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta or that Son of a Truck Driver from Memphis who drew so much from what they did? Was it Little Richard banging his baby grand and flashing that million dollar smile; or Robert Johnson, anonymously flailing that old worn out acoustic that the Devil taught him to play? What was their inspiration? Was it the pain of manual labor in the baking summer sun of the Delta, or was it something more refined; an animal instinct coupled with supernatural skills driving them relentlessly forward towards Something bigger. (BB King did not become BB King by sitting around bemoaning his station in life. Elvis did not become Elvis by frittering away his time playing checkers at filling stations. They worked at it. Hard.) I do not believe anyone can say exactly who invented rock n roll or why. But there is no doubt about who perfected it. 

England is, of course, a nation that forms part of an island off the coast of Europe. In terms of land mass, it is roughly one-third the size of California; slightly smaller than Georgia. In terms of influence on the musical genre known as rock n roll, it is Pangaea. And then some. It has been there for a very long time. While humans first inhabited the place during the "Upper Palaeolithic" period, since I don't know when that was, and for the benefit of the non-anthropologists among us, let's just say the place was first a unified state around A.D. 927. That would mean the fine people of the island had been enjoying evening mead with their countrymen for around 465 years before Columbus set off on his little frolic. (If only they would have had Fender Stratocasters and some Marshall stacks the whole time, Lord only knows what we'd be listening to today!) 

Stop for a moment and start making a list in your head of the greatest rock n roll bands ever. How far do you get before you reach a band that did not originate in England? (If not to five or so (not including Queen), then by all means call me and let's chat.). England of all places! I'll go you one better. Start ranking the greatest albums in rock n roll history? How far do you get on that list before you leave the area within 300 miles of London? (If not to 15 or so, then we really should talk). While the English did not invent rock n roll, their influence on it was so outsized it defies the imagination. They are the unquestioned wizard masters of the genre. 

Now. Stop for a moment and ponder how this happened. It's something like this: Black sharecroppers come in from the fields and invent the blues deep in America's belly. Their "crop" of musical genius gets carried up the river towards Chicago and other big cities, where it gets mixed in with a bit of jazz and swing (think Ray Charles), and bam, you got R&B. Then, the white boys get ahold of it. They've been out in the country listening to Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford. They take the blues/R&B stew and mix in a little spice in the form of C&W, and whaddayagot?  The "Upper Palaeolithic" period of rock n roll. Elivs. Carl Perkins. Still, we're not quite to what we've come to know as rock n roll. 

Well, right about the late 50's, as blues is taking root (electric style) in Chicago and ol' Ray is figuring out that he "[had] a woman," early curators of the art like Leonard and Phil Chess got smart and figured out that there was a real market for this stuff, and it wasn't just stateside. As sure as they started putting it on wax, the little black discs started trickling their way across the Atlantic. English ears perk up. Think a young Keith Richards sitting in his bedroom hunched over a record player. It's late at night and waaaaay past his bedtime (if he ever had one). He can't even play guitar yet, but he knows that Muddy Waters can the nanosecond the needle hits the wax. It was Keith's own Moment Zero. Not even the width of an ocean could hide the fact that those cats from America had the blues. People like Keith Richards and John Lennon wanted It. Thus, the raw material from which rock n roll was formed started to make its way across the Atlantic. First slowly, then in a flood. From the Delta to the suburbs of London by steamer. Soon, music would never be the same.  

But still, none of this answers the question. Why England? It's not like the place has a deep history for musical innovation. Literature, sure. From Shakespeare on through Wordsworth and his Romantic cohorts, nobody writes better rhymed verse than the Brits. But "Satisfaction" is no "Midsummer Night's Dream." Before rock n roll, name any legendary musician that came from England. As far as I know, the musical history just is not there. Why, after centuries of nothing much going on in the world of English music, did such a massive explosion erupt in the space of a few years?  

Perhaps it was the World Wars. England spent the better part of half a century getting ready for, fighting, and cleaning up after massive armed conflicts. One can only imagine by the time May 8, 1945 rolled around that the Brits were rightly tired of wars. As the country dug out from the Second World War, I'm sure there was a generation of youths looking for a lighter way of life. When you are worried about a bomb falling on your house, it's gotta be hard to concentrate on learning your chords or stringing lyrics together. When you read the early chapters of Keith Richard's new book Life, what you see is a post-war nation that was ready for a diversion. There's a spark. Throw on a big pile of dry tender in the from of blues and R&B never been heard before on that side of the Pond, and you've got yourself a fire. A hot one. [Cue "I Saw Her Standing There."]

Then there's the people. Say what you will about the Royal Wedding last week and all the hubub surrounding it. That was one heck of a party! Those streets were packed by stout, vivacious souls who are positively drenched in history. They've been invaded, conquered, colonized, ceded, threatened, bombed, and otherwise had their apple cart upset repeatedly, none of which stopped them from going out and forming the largest empire in the history of earth ... then slowly but surely giving it all up like a pint of Guiness after closing time. Those Brits have attitude and they are nobody's chumps. What better people to perfect a genre of music characterized by such swagger as rock n roll. 

Alas! Like so much else about rock n roll as art, we will unfortunately never know exactly why the Great Rock n Roll Explosion erupted in England. All that we know is that a tiny spark imported from the U.S. was set on the record players of a generation of English youth. That spark became a raging inferno. It set the world on fire without burning a thing save the musical conventions of a generation past. All of us who love music are a little warmer because of it. We are left only to admire and wonder. "The King is dead. Long live the King!"  

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