Changing the World:

Rock 'n' Roll Culture and Ideology


David N. Townsend


The premise of this work is that rock 'n' roll matters, and that it means what it says. It seems that rock 'n' roll music has seldom been given its due as an art form, that it is somehow relegated to a category of less "mature" or "serious" artistic pursuits by the media and the intellectual community (whatever that is). Some critics use the generic term "Pop" to refer to any popular music, including all contemporary rock musicians, as if the fact of rock 'n' roll's immense commercial success implies that it cannot really be taken seriously alongside, say, classical music, or even Jazz. Beyond artistic circles, rock 'n' roll is usually given even less credibility; the ideas and feelings and beliefs expressed and reflected in rock songs tend to be dismissed by non-fans, by the Establishment as a whole, as quaintly naive at best, childish and irrelevant at worst.

What's even more disturbing is that these attitudes often seem to be held by fans of rock music themselves. We may still listen to the radio stations, dance and sing along to the old favorites or the new hits, but when we gather in serious intellectual or political forums, to share our views on the great issues and ideas of the day, we leave rock 'n' roll behind, back in the closet where old baseball gloves and Barbie dolls gather dust. Especially for the Baby Boom generation, which grew up on rock 'n' roll, and certainly took it seriously in youth, this desertion, or embarrassment, or hesitation, or whatever it is, casts a sad pall over approaching middle age: sure, in our youth we believed in all those great ideals, but that was when we were young and carefree; now we've got responsibilities, and well, it's just not so simple as all that...

In defiance of this trend, and in view of the apparent retreats from idealism that have permeated the past decade or two, this book celebrates rock 'n' roll as a legitimate art form, and more, as a strong current in American and world culture, which contains a central and coherent ideology, as viable as any other ideology competing for primacy on the world intellectual stage. I present these themes as justification, and excuse, for examining rock 'n' roll music, history, personalities, and ideas from the standpoint of the unifying ideas and trends that have remained with rock from the beginning.

Rock 'n' roll can be described in such cohesive terms only if it is more than just a popular consumer entertainment medium: it must be a self-contained "movement," which adherents choose to "join," and by so choosing accept its terms. In turn, rock 'n' roll can only be a movement if all of its widely disparate strains and offshoots are in some way connected to a common, unifying origin. This is in fact true; every rock musician today, from Alabama to Australia, from Sinéad O'Connor to Axl Rose, can trace his or her roots directly to a single moment in history, the springboard of all rock music and culture, the explosive events of the mid-1950s that first introduced the idea of rock 'n' roll to the world. It is the themes and artistic styles of that very special, very brief time, that spawned the movement, and that subsequent artists, from Dylan and the Beatles through Midnight Oil and Public Enemy, have merely refined and redefined. The 1950s were comparatively safe and innocent, and rock 'n' roll established a foundation for the ideals that youth could pursue in such an environment. When issues of race relations, war, sexuality, drugs, ecology, and world hunger arose in later years, rock 'n' roll was forced, like every other ideology, to respond to them. That many of these concerns were of central importance to the kids reared on and reveling in rock 'n' roll as a lifestyle only heightens the significance of their common response, as expressed in and through the music.

What we of the rock generations lack, then, is not a belief system, or a serious foundation for political, social, and creative expression, but simply a willingness to accept that what we have is good enough. Believers in Socialism or Conservatism or Buddhism have no more coherent, sophisticated, or relevant conceptual system of how humans should interact, should respond to common problems and needs, and should understand their place in the universe. It's just that there are a lot more solemn, tedious books written about those ideologies, and their promoters don't typically gross $15-million on a world tour. So this book tries to be slightly more of the solemn variety, although not tedious, and certainly entertaining, in the tradition of the genre, despite its serious intent. It traces the sources of rock 'n' roll's meaning, the paths which that meaning has taken over time and the performers and events that have shaped it, and how rock 'n' roll has confronted the many and potent challenges that have faced its millions of followers throughout the past four decades.

In attempting to paint this unified portrait, I have been responding to a perceived need, a need that is within myself as much as in any other rock 'n' roll fan. When listening to countless heartfelt rock anthems, ballads, protests, and love songs, I have shared the feeling of purpose and hope contained therein. Then, when looking at the outside world, I have witnessed the frustration, hypocrisy, and despair that so regularly dominate headlines and events, and it always seems that rock 'n' roll is very distant from these sad realities. The politicians and power centers--the Establishment--are almost always so un-hip, so far removed from the simple, sincere sentiments of the music. If we listen to the cynics, then this is because rock 'n' roll is kid stuff, and has no place at negotiating tables or decisionmakers' desks. I prefer not to accept that view, to remain defiantly naively idealist. I prefer to assert that not only is rock 'n' roll ideology real and viable, but that maybe its time has come.

In this vein, Changing the World: Rock 'n' Roll Culture and Ideology proceeds roughly along historical lines, discussing the evolution of the music and the culture, pausing each time it encounters an issue with which rock 'n' roll has been especially concerned. It leads toward a coherent, albeit dynamic, conception of the culture's ideology, and of its meaning for those of us who, in our way, "believe" in rock 'n' roll.

Chapter 1. Origins. This chapter involves the prehistory of rock 'n' roll from a social as well as musical standpoint. It begins with the observation that the single most important phenomenon in eventually "causing" rock to evolve was slavery, which unnaturally brought together entirely different cultures. The chapter moves on to discuss the other essential historical ingredients: radio communication technology and World War II, and the overall atmosphere in America, especially among youth, at the dawn of the 1950s.

Chapter 2. Beginnings. Chapter 2 introduces rock 'n' roll as a cultural revolution of tremendous immediacy and intensity in the mid-1950s. The key theme it develops is the suddenness of the arrival of rock 'n' roll and its original stars (Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, etc.), and how completely it became a lifestyle for millions of teenagers. The format begins with a summary essay, then moves into a chronological song-by-song description of some 30 of the major hits from 1955 to 1957, emphasizing the power of the music and the emerging dominance of the rock 'n' roll culture.

Chapter 3. Changing Times. Beginning with a summary of the decline of rock 'n' roll by the early 1960s, this chapter then moves on to the arrival of Bob Dylan in particular, and folk and protest rock generally. It speculates on the nature of inspiration and leadership, as embodied by Dylan, and on the individual causes of widespread political awakening.

Chapter 4. Unrest Overseas. Shifting focus, this chapter discusses the social and musical currents extant in Britain in the late '50s to early '60s, leading to the emergence of the rebellious strain that soon found its way to American shores in the wake of the Beatles. The discussion demonstrates through the examples of the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Who, among others, the fervent anti-Establishment attitude that was rapidly growing up, and gaining force on both sides of the Atlantic.

Chapter 5. "Oh yeah". This section concentrates solely on the Beatles as a musical, cultural, and ideological phenomenon. It begins with a personal perspective by the author on his particular passion for the band, and the difficulty of doing their accomplishments justice. This is followed by generalized musings on some of the reasons for the Beatles' success, their influence, and the meaning of their work for today's world, both within and outside rock 'n' roll.

Chapter 6. War. Deviating somewhat from the more or less linear historical path of the previous chapters, this chapter begins with discussion of the 1960s anti-War movement as epitomized by the Woodstock festival, and then moves to a more general contemplation of the relationship between rock artists and War from an ideological perspective. It points out the anti-War themes that have pervaded the music even in peacetime, and the implied pacifist philosophy that has dominated the rock culture for most of its existence. [This chapter requires revision in the wake of recent global events; such revision most ideally should wait as long as possible to include all repurcussions of the latest War(s) on rock 'n' roll and vice versa.]

Chapter 7. Sex. Chapter 5 picks up one of the key controversies that has shadowed rock music since its inception (and before), the inherent sexuality of the form, and its blatant exploitation (as well as feverish opposition) over the years. The chapter appears at this point in the rough chronology of the book because the American "sexual revolution" more or less began in the early 1970s, at the same time as the pornography industry started to take off. The discussion, however, follows the sex-in-rock issue from its beginnings to the present, including the recent PMRC, 2 Live Crew, and other controversies. Beyond detailing events that have occurred in this area, this chapter describes a social philosophy regarding sex in the public media, particularly in rock music.

Chapter 8. Drugs. In a similar vein to the focus on sex in the previous chapter, this chapter highlights the long standing conflicts over drug use and rock 'n' roll. Rather than reiterating the long history of incidents and personalities and tragedies, however, this chapter concentrates on illuminating the underlying cultural and philosophical issues raised by drug use and abuse in general, and how those issues have been (and should be) treated by rock musicians.

Chapter 9. Art. This chapter deals with the notion of "Art" as applied to rock music, in a variety of contexts. It begins with a retrospective description of the so-called "Art Rock" movement of the 1970s, focusing on the experimental elements of the music and some of its key contributors. The chapter then moves on to a broader inspection of the idea of Art itself, and discussion of how other elements of the rock repertoire that began to emerge later in the decade and into the 1980s, including Punk, New Wave, Rap, and Heavy Metal, all imply highly "artistic" innovation and creativity, despite their divergent forms and the often excessive commercialism of the industry.

Chapter 10. Countdowns and Classics. The 1980s were a decade of retrenchment for much of rock 'n' roll, in which the great music of the 1960s, in particular, experienced a resurgence, and the concept of "Classic Rock" was invented. This chapter takes the opportunity to reflect upon the unique phenomenon of "countdowns" in rock 'n' roll, in which musical quality is hierarchically ranked, on a weekly basis. Following general musings on this topic, the author takes the plunge of listing his own version of the "All Time Top Ten," as judged by the industry and the listening public (as opposed to the author's personal taste) over the years.

Chapter 11. Changing the World. This chapter seizes upon the humanitarian and political efforts of rock 'n' roll musicians in the mid to late 1980s, such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, "We Are the World," and the like, to crystalize the concept of rock 'n' as an ideologically coherent subculture. Central to the entire idea of rock 'n' roll as something larger than music or entertainment is the recurring theme of "changing the world," a seemingly naive but at the same time profound and vitally important notion that permeates nearly all aspects of rock history and tradition. This chapter tries to explain that concept, and to justify its relevance to wider political and social contexts.

Chapter 12. Moments and Feelings. This chapter serves as something of an epilogue, diverging from the heavy discussions of political and ideological issues, to return to the most basic rudiments of the music: how it makes people feel. Since the dawn of the rock age, this music has taken on a crucial role that may have no substitute in the modern era; formal religion has waned as a source of inspiration and comfort, especially for young people, and in many serious respects rock 'n' roll has filled the void, providing a forum for shared experience that approaches the spiritual, and for examining deeper thoughts and questions that the superficial material world seems not to address. Whether the theme is teenage love or the existence of God, this music offers its adherents perhaps their best opportunity to look within themselves while reaching beyond. Through examples from recordings and personal reflection, the author attempts to amplify this transcendant aspect of rock 'n' roll music and culture.