The Who’s Pete Townshend once said, “Rock’n’roll is above all an expression of the frustrations of youth.” When you’re young and bursting with a huge spectrum of emotions – anger, fear, love, hope, despair, anxiety, and all the rest – and it feels like no one else understands what you’re feeling, music can be a lifeline. A simple song can make everything feel better, give you strength, provide catharsis. But as life goes on and you begin to figure things out and settle down, does every song still feel like it has the power to change your life? Can we really expect to relate to it in the same way we did as kids when we’re older?
If BBC Four’s recently-aired What Ever Happened To Rock’n’Roll (broadcast on July 24 and available on iPlayer) is anything to go by, obviously not. A 60-minute debate on whether rock’n’roll is dead, the show was presented by Lauren Laverne and largely featured contributions from aging male musicians, among them punk poet John Cooper Clarke, The Animals’ Eric Burdon and Noel Gallagher. The only young person and sole woman joining Clarke and Burdon on the panel was Savages singer Jehnny Beth.
Gallagher seemed to be of the opinion that rock’n’roll has long been cold in its grave, claiming the last batch of great bands comprised Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, The Libertines and Razorlight. The premise of the show was symptomatic of most conversations around guitar music, in that it was corralled by people who represent an earlier generation of rock’n’roller.
On the show, former NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray made a brief appearance to share his memories of hearing The Who for the first time. “I thought, ‘They’re saying what I feel. This is my music’,” he said. “‘This speaks to me, and to older people it’s just going to sound like this horrible noise, but I know what it is and I know what it means’.”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. Rock’n’roll isn’t something that’s meant to be enjoyed by all the family. It’s meant to be dangerous and unpredictable and messy and loud. It’s meant to feel like a secret club – even when you’re stood in the middle of stadium with 50,000 others – and like the most important thing in the world, even if it’s just three chords. In the 1950s, rock’n’roll sparked a revolution in youth culture and the two have been linked ever since. So why do we constantly look to those who are long past their youth for these pointless post-mortems? John Cooper Clarke, Eric Burdon, Noel Gallagher and their peers may have grown up with rock’n’roll, but if they’re disconnected from the bleeding edge of new music – as Gallagher’s comments on the show suggest – how can they pass comment on what is happening now?
The truth is, anyone who’s tapped into contemporary culture knows there are still plenty of interesting, innovative bands around right now. Girl Band’s debut album is a barrage of discordant noise. Yak regularly teeter – in the most brilliant way – on the brink of collapse at their organ-destroying, no-holds-barred gigs, as do the chaotic Fat White Family. Swim Deep’s second album is a genuine exercise in experimentation, pushing boundaries and genres, and Wolf Alice have the ability to distil even the most complex of emotions into an all-powerful song that hits you in the heart. Newcomers The Big Moon, Skinny Girl Diet, Sunflower Bean, Wand, and countless others all demand you sit up and pay attention, and if you subscribe to the belief that rock’n’roll isn’t a genre with a strict set of rules to be adhered to, but more of an attitude or way of life, then you can expand that list a hundred-fold.
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Rock’n’roll still exists in so many exciting forms, in venues big and small up across the world. If you don’t like what you hear, get out there and discover something you do. If you can’t find anything, make your own thing. Let’s stop focusing on the past and those that have gone before. Stop giving relics, no matter how revered, the final say on how valid our bands and artists and culture are. Stop moaning and do something. Let’s concentrate on creating things that can thrill and comfort and provoke our generation – the ones for whom rock’n’roll really matters – and fuck what anyone else thinks.