I accept the saying that The Who were one of the “thinking man’s rock bands,” but this Songbook entry is more music-focused than idea-focused. Instead of considering the fairly interesting and very zeitgeist-representative lyrical content of these two songs, I’m contrasting them here to highlight the departure already mentioned in passing in the Songbook, from rock n’ roll to rock.

Here I want to lay my cards on the table. Rock and roll, also known as rhythm and blues, is first and foremost a type of dance music, and one of deliberately apparent simplicity. (It sounds simple, spontaneous, and untutored to its ideal listeners , people who want to dance heartily—but its musicians need a lot of tutored artistry to get that sound, as we shall see.) Contrary to what many assume, musically it is what it is whether or not a rebellious attitude or a go-for-broke hedonism accompanies it. Rock, on the other hand, is a rhythmically heavier or simplified departure from rock and roll, resulting in hard rock and, less objectionably, in the various forms of art rock and rock-based pop.

For example, the Who’s “My Generation” is rock and roll, still musically akin to tunes like Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” whereas their later “Won’t Get Fooled Again” isn’t. Rock and roll practically pulls one onto the dance floor, whereas rock forces dancers to put more effort—perhaps aided by various drugs—into locating the groove. What hard rock invites is something like the gesturing of a Beethoven-esque symphony-conductor—this can be mocked (or ironically embraced) as “head banging,” but the deeper invitation is to tune oneself to the muse of profound primality. The fact that many rock artists elude purely musical definition by mixing various styles—even the hard rock archetype Led Zeppelin, for example, often played mystic folk or “hardened” rock and roll—doesn’t alter the fact that this change did occur, and that it signified a deeper turn in aesthetic attitude.

Compare and contrast the two films linked below of the Who in live action—in the earlier one, the band is actually named The High Numbers(you can skip about a 1:30 in for the music). Moving from ‘64 to ‘71, note particularly the dramatic gestures, and their general amped-uped-ness , The Who has to rely upon in the hard rock number, as opposed to the more audience-connected and seemingly effortless dance vibe of the rock and roll numbers.

One might also notice there are parts of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that are more purely hard rock, and parts that are nearly rock and roll. One might also judge that it is a more melodically memorable song than is “My Generation” or the High Numbers’ numbers. I’m not denying that hard rock came out of rock n’ roll, and was able in certain ways to half-retain its characteristics, nor am I denying that it could do some things better. If stage drama is your thing, or a passage that sticks in your memory more vividly, hard rock might be the way to go. But take a look and listen at what you’re missing: the footage of The High Numbers shows us a shindig whose music is sexier, bluesier, swingier, and just way more fun. It also is a shindig in which the spotlight is not so much upon the band—they are clearly there to serve the dancer’s need, and they need the dancers for their music to make sense. And while this particular audience is made up of those super-serious-about-being-hip teenagers the mods, there is no question that the High Numbers could get a high school auditorium rockin’ anywhere, and that some of the chaperones there, whether they’re 30 or 80, would be tappin’ their toes and wishin’ they could join in. Big-time Meaning is not in the house, whereas it’s screamin’ it’s head off in the mixture of party/rally/happening/statement that “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” seems to be striving to be.

Again, Martha Bayles’ book Hole in our Soul lays out the Rock n’ Roll v. Rock departure/difference better than I can here. I know some readers will find much to quarrel with in my summary statements above, in the second and third paragraphs—all I can say is they are statements only arrived at through much back-and-forth thinking, after accounting for a great deal, and that I know that they verge on over-simplification.

Finally, I did aurally illustrate, somewhat cheekily, the basic change in aesthetic attitude in my Rock n’ Roll Patriotism post in Songbook #10. 15 more irrefutable proofs await you there.

Articles by Carl Scott

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