Monday, June 2, 2014

Masterpieces of Pop: "Rock On"

It's been a while since I have posted another installation of my "Masterpieces of Pop" series in which I explore the songs that I consider to be seminal moments or highlights in pop music. Now, as I said in my very first post in the series (which surveyed Bobbie Gentry's masterpiece "Ode To Billie Joe" seen here), my definition of pop for this exercise is quite broad; it includes music from genres such as country and western, and soul/ R&B. For my purpose here, “pop” means any music, after the start of rock n’ roll, that was “popular.”

Another measure of a "Masterpiece of Pop" for me are the issues of subject matter and brevity. Every song I have surveyed packs a tremendous amount of meaning, whether outright or by inference, into a small space of four or five minutes (sometimes less!). Just look at the profundity that reverberates out past the edges of the song in pieces like The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," or Sly Stone's "Family Affair," or even something as seemingly simple as "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingos. A Masterpiece of Pop can and should evoke a sense, a place, a time, an emotion, a psychological state. It should be a signpost to something larger, like any good piece of art, whether a film, a novel, a painting, or a poem, which is what these gems of music are.

And with all of that in mind, the following abstract musical expression certainly deserves a place on this list: the phenomenal "Rock On" written and performed by David Essex.

Essex recorded his first song in 1963 for the Fontana record label (a subsidiary of Phillips in Europe and Mercury in the US) called "And The Tears Came Tumblin' Down" at the shockingly young age of 16. After recording a few more songs and touring with a group called David Essex and the Mood Indigo, he explored an acting career by appearing in a few films. Finally, he got the lead role in a stage production of "Godspell" in 1971. But it wasn't until 1973 that he recorded and released his most famous song, "Rock On." Fueled by his angelic yet sexy looks, and a vague sense of the kind of Glam Rock that was wildly popular at the time, the song shot to #1 in Canada, #3 in the UK, and #5 in the United States.

The song starts with a very eerie bass line approximation of a human heart beat. This heartbeat gets folded into the melodic bass line as the song starts. The addition of cymbals and bongos immediately gives the song a sinuous, sultry, even sinister feeling that sets the tone for the entire piece. Then Essex issues a warning: a moan and a "sshhhh" before launching into a minor-chord, spaced-out ode to the birth of rock n' roll in the 1950s as well as the youth culture and celebrities that grew from it. With references to Elvis ("Blue Suede Shoes"), actor James Dean, Marilyn Monroe (although she is not specifically named in the song, it is assumed that the "blue jean baby queen" who is the prettiest girl ever seen on a movie screen refers to Norma JEAN, aka Marilyn), and early rock n' roll pioneer Eddie Cochran's classic song "Summertime Blues."


Hey, kid, rock 'n' roll, rock on
Ooh, my soul
Hey kid, ya boogie too, did ya?
Hey, shout, Summertime Blues
Jump up and down in your blue suede shoes
Hey, did ya rock 'n' roll, rock on

And where do we go from here?
Which is a way that's clear?
Still looking for that blue jean baby queen
Prettiest girl I ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen, Jimmy Dean
(James Dean)

And where do we go from here?
Which is the way that's clear?
Still looking for that blue jean baby queen
Prettiest girl I ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen, Jimmy Dean
Jimmy Dean
Rock on
Rock on

Rock on
Rock on
Hey, kid, rock 'n' roll, rock on...

Given the subject matter, one would think that a song called "Rock On" would be a sound-alike celebration of the optimistic energy and exuberance of 1950s rock n' roll, yet it ends up being anything but. Instead of the bouncy, joyful naïveté of those early days of rock, we have a dark, almost cynical hallucination of the time period. And after the failure of the 1960s protest movements to try to turn the world into a better place, after Vietnam, after the Kent State shootings, after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, after Altamont, and the rise of the Black Panthers, it's easy to see how things got to be a little darker, a little more cynical, and a lot more disheartened. It is exactly this contrast, this conflict, this disconnection that gives the song its unsettling power. The lyrics can be seen as a mourning for what is perceived, in hindsight, as a lighter, less troubled time...given all that came after, we indeed were asking "Where do we go from here? Which is the way that's clear?" This is a song about the destruction of innocence.

The entirely sparse arrangement features so much disturbing space around each instrument. Chilling, mournful strings and an understated bare-bones horn section are the only sounds aside from Herbie Flowers' insidious bass line and the vocals. In fact, a very important part of the texture and success of this song is the echo or reverb which is applied to the bass and vocals. But it is more--or less--than an echo. It is a lurching, throbbing delay...and it gives the bass its distinctive roiling, slapping sound. And Essex' vocals are not so much treated with an echo as much as they are simply doubled, giving the disconcerting effect of a doppelgänger clearly coming from the right channel a heartbeat after the main vocal.

The track unfolds without a true verse or chorus; even the structure of classic rock n' roll songs is disassembled and subverted here. After an unexpected full-stop silence at the 2:21 mark in which the world seems to stop and hold its breath, the song loosens, the strings join in, the drums become more intense, Essex growls the song's title, and the whole thing inches toward a dissolution of control, a sense of tribal abandon, a spooky kind of trance...

This is the tenth installment of my original, ongoing "Masterpieces of Pop" series. You can read the other essays here:

Masterpieces of Pop: "Ode To Billie Joe"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I'm Not In Love"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Warm Leatherette" and "Cars"
Masterpieces of Pop: “Family Affair”
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dreams"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dance This Mess Around"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Eleanor Rigby"

No comments: