MANY SECOND-generation rock fans (those who went steady to The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" and became serious with "Abbey Road") feel the boredom of the "Me" decade has eclipsed the spirit that once intoxicated the music and its audience in the '60s.
Each new Jimi Hendrix compilation drives the annual nail into that celebrated era's (and guitarist's) coffin while David JoHansen croons, "Let's jus' dance and I'll forget." Today's teenie pesters mom and dad for Kiss tickets, not knowing (or caring) that Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings. The community of Woodstock has devolved into California Jams and as Elvis Costello impatiently waits for the end of the world, John Sebastian might well ask, "Do you still believe in magic?"
The magic of '60s rock lay in experimentation; put simply, artists took risks . Americans suffered squeaky girl-groups and surf music until the British Invasion and the sprouting San Francisco scene coaxed a renaissance of sorts. The new wave of psychedelic rockers had no guidebook so they wrote their own, just as Bartok and Coltrane had done before them. Conventions were disposed of in short order, revolutionizing the record industry. Thumbing their respective noses at the limitations of the 45, the Rolling Stones slapped an 11-minute "Goin' Home" on "Aftermath" and Bob Dylan took up an entire side of "Blonde on Blonde" with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."
The Pretty Things' concept album "S.F. Sorrow" (Peter Townsend's admitted inspiration for "Tommy") brought the LP record into play as an entity in itself; not one hit single padded by 10 demos. In-house art departments were eschewed in favor of supervised album graphics, the fruits being "Sgt. Pepper" and "It's a Beautiful Day." Whole genres appeared overnight: Blue Cheer built a wall of Marshall amps, recorded the aptly-titled "Vincebus Eruptum" and gave birth to heavy metal. Procol Harum created art-rock with their eponymous debut LP (a cruelly overlooked masterpiece whose catherdral organ, gothic arrangements and nonsense lyrics made it the aural equivalent of "Alice in Wonderland") and Frank Zappa produced the first rock-jazz LP, "Uncle Meat."
Such flagrant violations of the status quo, however sincere the intentions, necessarily left a few disasters along the way: The major failures of the '60 were servere cases of Beatles imititus (the Rolling Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties Request" and the "White" album), the minors merely pretentious (Vanilla Fudge's "The Beat Goes On"). The psychedelic and bands transcended a limited technology; as late as 1967 many albums were still being recorded in mono and Pink Floyd used a sole Farfisa organ for the effects today's sci-fi bands need banks of synthesizers to duplicate. "St. Pepper" was eight months in the making on a four-track machine; the average LP today rquire 32 tracks in four different studios on two continents.
R. Meltzer suggested one must willingly suspend a historic disbelief to survive the current dearth of musical incitement; style at the expense of focus is the norm. The vacuum left by Presley and the Fab Four has not only denuded the culture's reliance on a cynosure for its unity, but also raised speculation as to how they achieved unprecedented sucess. Both were classic applications of the Right Time/Right Place Theorem: Elvis by shaking up some action during the reign of a tame president, the Beatles for taking to these shores in the wake of a murdered one (their second British LP having been coincidentally released on Nov. 22, 1963.) The vacant Pantheon alternately implies that the "right" time has yet to rear its head and that we've all had too much, too soon.
The extremeties of the disco and punkrock drifts have prevented either from convincing the majority of auditors. The punks proved too crude even for an esthetic rooted in minimalism: Sid Vicious was the first rock star to die for what he believed rock 'n' roll to be (sex and drugs and loud jamming); what's unfortunate is that he chose the same frame as Nelson Rockefeller, so neither one received the attention he deserved. The inhabitants of Boogie Wonderland would rather surrender to an avalanche of Black Russians than broken bottles, but their rules of conduct (as opposed to no conduct at all) have alienated the average hard-rock fan.
Disco's heavy four-beat is merely robotic to those weaned on the R&B served in the heyday of Motown and Stax-Volt, its celebration of loveless sex particularly offensive to good Catholics like The Rev. Peter Marori who sees it representing "the most insidious and devastating attack on traditional Judeo-Christian morality." Rock 'n' roll itself is a synonym for copulation that dates back to Bessie Smith and probably earlier; rock's favorite subject matter has always been itself, since white rockers, unlike their black counterparts, are unable to discuss the topic without smirking (compare Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear" with recent albums by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood). Thus, the best rock LPs of the '70s have not dealt with sex but rather its complications: desperation and self-destructive passion ("Layla" and "Exile on Main St"). Graham Parker's "Squeezing Out Sparks" recently detailed the inability to sustain relationships in the face of crumbling mores; the Sex Pistols recorded a powerful anti-abortion tract ("Bodies") and the Reverend, Al Green, delivered two masterful accounts of a man in the abyss between physical and spiritual love, "Take Me to the River" and "The Belle Album."
What was once a day-glo magic is now aural wallpaper. The Grateful Dead have succumbed to senility; the Rolling Stones relaed an album that was 50 percent filler and hailed as their best in years ("Some Girls"); Bob Dylan has turned stand-up comedian and John Lennon is milking cows to avoid embarrassment in the marketplace. Such sterile concoctions as Steely Dan's "Aja" have dominated the play lists and pushed the sincere rock-cum-jazz-cum-disco attempts like Steve Winwood into the bargain bins.
There's still hope, though: In the United States, George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic aggregation is warning listeners against the "Placebo Syndrome" made musically manifest in the Fuzak of Eric Gale, Bob James, et al. Britain's Radar/Rockpile axis is pumping life back into the tried-and-true pop song format.
For anyone who once scraped up pennies for "Disraeli Gears," "Sailor" and (yes) "In a Gadda da Vida," the Cars and Cheap Tricks are hardly enough. The rock experience is becoming a vinyl, insular one.