Let There Be (Black) Rock

Pulling at some myths of rock and roll with critic Mosi Reeves

Welcome to the newest Abundant Living! I’m gonna keep this intro short as there’s a lot going on in this edition, and you’re going to find it so easy to acclimate that the essay is practically autological. Long story short; myself and Mosi Reeves met on twitter dot com, hit it off reasonably famously, and decided to have a conversation about “Classic Rock” and its *cough* complicated relationship to race. I hope you find it edifying. I did.

For those unfamiliar, Mosi Reeves is “a content editor and reviewer in Oakland, CA. He has written for dozens of publications over two decades, including Rolling Stone, Revolver, The A.V. Club, and many others.” Besides the bio, he’s a great writer/critic and it was (genuinely) humbling to do this with him. I’m beyond stoked that Reeves took the time to join me in my favorite activity; telling everyone they’re wrong about rock music. My only caveat is that, even with the self-imposed limitation of trying to keep within a certain time period (the ‘60s-’70s that encompass the generally accepted definition of “classic” rock… we’re well aware that Classic Rock stations now play Nirvana etc…), the topic could easily fill a library. So I hope you’ll both get something out of what we did discuss and forgive the omissions. Having said that, without further ado- and to paraphrase two of the true prophets of our age- the water is warm enough! Let’s begin!

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Zack: So, this all started with, I think, me having feelings about the brawny Chapo dude for not adequately appreciating AC/DC. And then you pointed out that there's something inherently problematic in the way that, after a certain year, white rockers kind of took it upon themselves the mantle of "the only true rockers." Which obviously both diminishes Black predecessors and peers alike. Is that a fair portrayal of what you were saying? Even close? Or was it more specific to ACDC themselves? 

Mosi: Hi, Zachary. Before I start, I need to acknowledge that I misinterpreted the offending AC/DC lyric in question for decades. Thanks to our tweet thread, I finally looked it up! In the opening verse, Bon Scott actually sings, "The white man had the schmaltz, the black man had the blues." It's not "smarts."

"Let There Be Rock" dates rock's big bang moment to 1955, the year of Bill Haley and "Rock Around the Clock." Bon Scott sings, "Tchaikovsky had the news." It's a subtle reference to Chuck Berry, who sang in "Roll Over Beethoven," "Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news." (That single was released in 1956, by the way.) But why did Scott say Tchaikovsky's name in "Let There Be Rock," and not Berry's?

Music historians have attempted to date the beginnings of rock since the '60s. Some believe it was born with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats' (aka Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm) 1951 single "Rocket '88'." Others argue that Alan Freed's 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball was the moment that rock 'n' roll became a thing. Then there are all the jump blues, boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues songs that predate the '50s and "Rock Around the Clock." But even as our knowledge of this genre shifts and deepens over time, the myth remains: Black musicians developed and incubated rock 'n' roll, then white musicians cleaned it up with "schmaltz," and eventually refined it into something as rollicking, profane, loud and sharp as AC/DC at their best. Let there be rock.

Please don't assume that I'm calling AC/DC -- or anyone we decide to talk about -- racist in some way. I actually like AC/DC's music quite a bit. So let's not use this discussion to indict anyone, at least not without plenty of evidence.

Having said that, when we use myths to simplify complex and byzantine stories, we often gloss over the details. What parts of history do we lose by telling ourselves that white musicians took over rock 'n' roll when Black musicians decided to make soul music instead? Whose contributions are erased in favor of others? Who gets to write that history, and who doesn't?

Zack: I think AC/DC are a good place to start, regardless whether the lyric was misheard or not (after all mishearing lyrics is one of the sideways pleasures of pop/rock). While so many other acts were shooting off into psych or prog or what have you, AC/DC was part of the Australian/UK waves obsessed with "real" Rock and Roll. I wonder if the stated loyalty to rock's roots and the blues meant that bands like AC/DC almost had to, like The Rolling Stones, at least touch on Blackness? It would be grotesque not to when every other word out your mouth is "rock." But with (again, like The Stones) often super cringy results. The Tchaikovsky line could be in line with the band's usual so-idiotic-it's-clever-and-vice-versa wordplay or it could be indicative of larger erasure. One thing's for sure, "jive" rarely sounds right coming from a white singer's mouth.

I was looking for other examples and, while I agree that we're not looking to call every white '70s long hair a racist, boy did I remember the lyrics of Mott The Hoople's "All The Way From Memphis" as less racist than they are. The song, about Ian Hunter misplacing his guitar, not only manages to contain a slur I didn't recall, "And there was my guitar, electric junk/ Some spade said rock 'n' rollers, you're all the same/ Man that's your instrument. I felt so ashamed" it's arguably how the only Black character is used that's even more gross. Less than twenty years after the invention of R’n’R, it seems Mott The Hoople is going for a weird Magical Negro trope type situation. I think that right there indicates something that's lost when white musicians take over. They want to keep all the, forgive me, "jive," all the cool trappings they associate with Blackness, but from an all white band to an all white audience. 

I don't know if your questions were rhetorical but I want us to try to at least touch on them as much as space allows because they're everything we're talking about. Do you think there was a less rough point when Black played rock splintered into soul? Was that Blacks ceding territory or being forced out? It seems like as early as 1965 it was treated as odd that a band like The Equals was playing rock and was multi-racial... 

Mosi: I imagine we could spend a good several hours or longer rehashing the worst offenses of classic rawk. Eric Clapton describes Jimi Hendrix as a "spade" with "a big dick." (At least he apologized decades later.) The Rolling Stones turn the Middle Passage and its horrors of rape and murder into the orgiastic "Brown Sugar." Joni Mitchell dresses up in blackface on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Et cetera, et cetera. However, let's skip reciting entries from Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism!, however fun it might be.

As for whether Black musicians ceded territory...it's wonderful to think that James Brown, Ike Turner, Little Richard and others gathered in a room and decided, "These white folks are hogging our sound. Let's change the code." And BAM! They start making funky ol' soul.

But the facts may likely be more prosaic. During the '50s and early '60s, rock careers were brutally short, with peaks averaging anywhere from a few months to a year or two. The fans were young and insatiable for new sounds. Record company executives were notoriously crooked, with many of them backed by organized crime. They could easily wind down an artist's career if that musician accrued too much sales power and started asking questions about royalties and publishing. They could cut off promotion, or instruct radio stations not to play a musician's new singles. And Black musicians faced obstacles promoting their work, whether it was the Jim Crow South, segregated venues or intolerance from law enforcement and church and political leaders.

With all that, Black musicians had to be dynamic. They had to change and evolve to keep their audiences interested. One year, the guitar gets turned up and the rhythm is a little quicker. The next year, the vocals get turned up and the groove is a little slower. And let's not forget that there are other elements at play in early rock besides electric blues and boogie-woogie, like bluegrass, gospel, doo-wop, big band swing, soul-jazz, etc. Not to mention that these artists are simply being creative, following their whims on what they think fans will respond to next. It's not all about preserving an electric guitar.

I'm clearly painting with a broad brush here. There are many, many books that chart the minor and major evolutions of rock, such as Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City. They're worth consulting for more profound thoughts than I can provide in this space.

Still, there's a huge counterpoint to '70s rock that's hiding in plain sight. It's deeply invested in counterculture ideology. It has plenty of guitar solos. It's a mass movement, with bands sprouting up from Detroit, Michigan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to London, England. And its contents vary from deeply intellectual cosmology -- refuting the racial stereotype that Black music is best as an instinctual form -- to the kind of back-to-basics primitivism that some critics seem to adore. I'll give you one guess as to what it is.

Zack: I assume you mean funk? If so (and I hope so... otherwise I’m gonna feel dumb!) that broaches a question I’ve pondered since I was in high school, reading Chuck Eddy calling Funkadelic and Tina Marie “heavy metal” in Stairway To Hell, what do these genre distinctions serve? Is Funkadelic *not* rock? What’s Sly? Or even lesser known, slightly more “rock” sounding bands like Mandrill or Mother’s Finest? Are Labelle funk or art rock? I’d argue more the latter but maybe I’m being revisionist! I’m not, by the way, asking you to answer those all specifically (tho feel free!), but rather the initial question... what/who do the distinctions serve? And that’s not a loaded question. I can see advantages as well as the obvious negatives in setting the genre differences...

If you don’t mean “funk”... lol at me. My second guess was fusion....

Mosi: I think genre distinctions are useful. It's important to acknowledge that musical ideas often emerge with unique political, ethnic, cultural and regional histories. I think you can celebrate the cultural richness of popular music without ghettoizing its forms. Unfortunately, instead of claiming the first action and avoiding the latter, we often take both hand-in-hand.

Sly & the Family Stone was a Black rock band. Mother's Finest recorded a song called "N*gg*zz Can't Sang Rock & Roll" that mocked white rock fans. Funkadelic made "Who Says A Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!"

With all due respect to Chuck Eddy -- my former Rhapsody/Napster colleague and, before that, my editor when I contributed to Village Voice a handful of times -- Teena Marie is not heavy metal IMO. But she certainly brought a wonderful emotional excess to her work, and experimented with slick '80s FM rock styles on Starchild and Emerald City.

In Maurice White's My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire, he writes that he conceptualized EWF as a fusion of rock, funky soul, gospel, Brazilian music, hard bop, and many other things. Before they got too slick and went to "Boogie Wonderland," EWF was arguably the biggest Black rock band in the world. The opening "Africano/Power" medley on Gratitude may be the most explosive Afro-Latin rocker Santana never made. But when White went to industry functions, he was pigeonholed as a funk artist and restricted to Black music categories at awards shows. It's the reason why he resisted being called a funk musician. He didn't want to be limited in his ambitions.

Rock was the dominant force of '70s popular music. But it often felt like fans, critics and even some musicians took glee in shutting out others who didn't fit a certain paradigm or, worse, a certain racial identity. Again, I think genre distinctions are important, especially when they can reveal whether someone is committed to the form or just treating it as a superficial pop flavoring. Still, why can't musicians hold different identities at once?

By the way, let's acknowledge that there are plenty of Black musicians who left an underappreciated mark on the rock era like Bobby Womack, Tiran Porter, Aalon, Jaimoe, Merry Clayton, Malcolm Mooney and many others.

Zack: So, I'm not playing devil's advocate (God, no pun intended, forbid I ever do that) when I push the genre issue. At the risk of self importance (for both of us) I think the value of this conversation is in pushing what should be included in the "rock" canon. For the purposes of space and our own sanity, we're trying to keep this convo to "classic rock" and, using AC/DC again as the jump, I don't know that, say, The Impressions "Young Mods Forgotten Story" is any further from AC/DC than, say, Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Especially if we consider a band's "look" being important. Which, for rock and roll, I think it is! You and I agree that Earth Wind and Fire are a rock band. I don't think we should take for granted that this is a minority, even among critics, opinion. I think there's value in saying it aloud, again and again until it sticks. And even if the artists in question themselves don't wish to be pigeonholed as soul or funk or rock, can you see the value in us saying "cool. I respect it. Also your act is Classic Rock." Or am I just projecting my bullshit on a bunch of geniuses with bigger/other fish to fry?

As a relevant side note, some of the players you mentioned (Jaimoe and Porter in particular) were Black members of "rock" bands that are now roughly placed on the "jam" end of the classic rock spectrum. As opposed to the primitivist grunt rock of our Australian conversation starters. Do you think there's anything to ideas of more "white" sounding rock bands? Like, less groove/musicianship and more... thuggishness? (I'm obviously thinking of AC/DC and Sabbath more than Clapton and, like, Traffic). Is that a dangerous path to even consider going down? At the risk of exposing myself as a racist dum dum (and straying from our settled time period), I certainly fell for the canard of noisy bands like Gang of Four being outside of funk, sounding "white," because of Andy Gill's noise tendencies... because I had no idea, till I was an adult, the influence Eddie Hazel had on Gill. 

And speaking of Sabbath... where do we even start with the Black Sabbath Black Lives Matter shirt? Cheap ploy? Grand and necessary gesture? Or just consistent with heavy metal's ostensible anti authority stance? Orrrrrr too broad a digression for our purposes here…

Mosi: I think the Black Sabbath "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt is pretty great. It's certainly a surprise, given Sharon Osbourne's long-standing support for conservative causes. Maybe it's a Tony Iommi initiative.

At any rate, the idea that some '70s rock bands sound "whiter" than others is a bit telling. I mean, can't you hear the blues boogie rhythm in AC/DC? Or Black Sabbath, for that matter? Aerosmith? This reminds me of Ken Burns' Country Music series -- and, no, I'm not a Ken Burns fan, but bear with me -- where he demonstrates that nearly every stage of country music includes participation from Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and other groups of color. When it comes to Western popular music, I don't think you're going to find a pure-as-snow white sound. It shouldn't take scouring through liner credits on Discogs to prove that. Still, I admit that attraction can result from perceiving something considered outside racial norms, whether it's Black fans that loved Gang of Four's astringent post-punk take on funk, or white fans that flocked to Prince's Dirty Mind phase.... But I don't want to travel too far afield here.

I think our initial idea was to unpack some of the myths behind the classic rock colossus because, from a critic's perspective, it's the dominant music culture from the late '60s through at least the early 80s. Professional curators like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame continue to treat rock as a melting pot, and we only notice the presence of alternate flavors if the curator is sharp enough to highlight innovative noncommercial acts like Hüsker Du -- or even highly underrated heroines like Chaka Khan -- instead of drowning us in crummy platinum B-teamers like Chicago and The Moody Blues.

I don't agree that The Impressions should be considered a rock band -- and that's no knock on The Young Mods' Forgotten Story, which is arguably their best album. I do agree that EWF, P-Funk, and others who actively tapped into rock belong under that rubric. But why do we have to insist on one unruly big tent where everyone has to fit? Why does celebrating the greatness of The Impressions, Aretha Franklin, et all depend on subsuming them into the rock tradition?

Going back to your thoughts on AC/DC as primitivist grunt rock...it appears to be the kind of bleeding-edge purism that every pop fandom seems to undertake, whether it's first-wave hardcore at the dawn of the 80s, or hardcore hip-hop in the early to mid-90s. Let's face it: a lot of this is pure machismo. It's akin to guys in a bar arguing whether Michael Jordan or Lebron James is the GOAT, or if the New England Patriots can be considered the best team ever despite winning in an era where quarterbacks are treated like Fabergé eggs. It's fun!

So much of hard rock is about being the hardest dick in the circle jerk. It's why women who ventured into the field were frequently derided as less-than-womanly, from Suzi Quatro to Joan Jett; and sexualized as sleazy tarts, like Tina Turner, The Runaways and Heart (which was particularly gross). And misogyny wasn't limited to FM rock, by the way. You could make a pretty terrific playlist out of soul men who resisted feminism and womanism, including Eddie Kendricks ("Girl You Need a Change in Mind") and Stevie Wonder ("Superwoman").

Zack: WHAT DO YOU MEAN "A BIT TELLING"???? lol. Damn. Yeah, I'll cop to falling into a lot of the same traps we're consciously trying to avoid here. In my defense, I honestly always forget that Aerosmith is a band. But your point about Sabbath and AC/DC is well taken. What I may be doing is confusing the bands themselves with those they influenced (at least with Sabbath. the doom bands that came after tended to focus on the doooooom rather than the boogie.) But that's hardly an excuse. I rescind my observation! 

Doubly embarrassing is my weird need to make "rock" a universal compliment. This literally goes against what I've even said in my last newsletter about how it drives me nuts when people try to call whatever they like "punk" as though being punk was the highest aspiration for an artist. Let's grant me that I may be taking positions I don't entirely subscribe to in order to not just have this conversation a series of agreements. Doubt anyone wants to read that.

And I do (genuinely) disagree with the machismo aspect of the discussion. If only because (almost) every non-cis-male musician I know loves arguing about this shit. Anecdotal to my bubble maybe, but none of this is science thank god. 

So, in terms of unpacking the myths inherent to the classic rock colossus, are you saying a solution (if "solution" is possible or even what we're going for...) is not to "elevate" anyone into "classic rock" status but, rather, to explode the very question? If so, I'd agree. For a bunch of genres with rebellious underpinnings, there's been little pushback (from either artist, critics, or fans) against the hierarchical structures we all hate in the straight world. It feels like the Rock Hall of Fame was initially viewed (correctly to my mind) with suspicion but now the arguments tend to be about who is included, rather than whether the damn thing should even exist (it shouldn't). Like, on one hand I agree it's important that Chic (or whomever) is in there. On the other hand, it feels like fighting for inclusion on a Rolling Stone Top 100 list. Antithetical to art. Basically, I'm torn! Counterpoint: like you said, talking about this shit is fun. 

Mosi: Ha ha...apologies. Sometimes I generate friendly fire when I'm debating things. (I love you too, Stevie Wonder.)

While my comment about "guys in bars" was largely aimed at the way classic rock dudes used obscurantist debates to minimize people of color -- don't forget that Bomp! never put a Black person on the cover, and Trouser Press only put three (Phil Lynott, Eddy Grant and Tony Butler of Big Country) -- you're right that arguing angrily about music is hardly limited to cisgendered men. I remember when a woman sent a "Fuck You!" Twitter meme after I called The Weeknd a lounge lizard. So there's that.

I do think institutions can be useful. While many find it anathema that one corporate non-profit gets to decide who's the best artist and who isn't, I think the RRHOF could have value, although it's sorely in need of reform. (And by the way, Chic isn't in the RRHOF...only Nile Rodgers is, and it's in a "Award for Musical Excellence" sidemen category.) Large, populous communities -- award shows, guilds, museums, etc. -- are important. It would be nice if these things weren't managed by moonlighting lawyers, CEOs, ex-political appointees and corporate lobbyists. But if their scale tilts towards Billboard retail hegemony and pop-radio blandness, then maybe we should change the formula instead of destroying them entirely. As you correctly point out, those of us who consider ourselves non-conformists need to push back against hierarchical structures instead of whining that they won't let us in. Or better yet, let's create our own structures that don't replicate the white supremacist and misogynist ideologies we're fighting against.

I don't have a problem with classic rock as an archetype, as long as we try to separate fact from fiction, interrogate its history and figure out what it means now. And sure, I get that the myth is part of its appeal.

Thanks so much for inviting me to participate in this, Zachary! I enjoyed it. And by the way, rest in peace to Malik B.

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