Submitted for your consideration: There is a decided break between what we call ”Rock” and “Rock and Roll” music. I intuitively knew this in 5th grade, when I was having an argument with a classmate about which band was better, the Monkees or the Beatles.
This young girl and I were talking about two different kinds of music. She was talking about the beat, the catchiness and that it made her feel good, while I was discussing the meaning of the lyrics and the depth of emotion. We were on two divergent paths.
Now, looking back on Monkees music, I have reevaluated it and find that much of it is quite good and fits well within the realm of Rock, and Mickey Dolenz had a great Rock voice. But, the relative merits of the Monkees is a different discussion.
Clearly, at some point, there was an increase in the seriousness of Rock and Roll. It became art. It became worthy of analysis and became a leading force for social change as opposed to an entertainment choice.
So, what is the difference between Rock, with a capital R, and Rock and Roll music? Rock lost its Roll when it became both introspective and universal. It became Rock when the primary purpose was to listen, instead of to dance.
Some might say that the amalgamation of the folk protest song and Rock and Roll created Rock. This points to Bob Dylan, of course. We have to examine, however, whether Dylan was the first person to electrify his own music and whether there are earlier examples of lyrically complex music with electric guitars, bass and drums.
Another camp points to Garage Rock as the demarcation, because the purpose of Garage Rock was rebellion against professionalism, pretty songs and conventional themes. So, let’s first examine the Garage and Surf connection.
This takes us back to Link Wray and songs like Rumble. Rumble could easily be the backing track for a mid 70s Garage/Protopunk song by teenage members of the Clash. But, there are no lyrics. The musical elements are there, but there is no universality. When Wray did sing a song, his music was closer to classic blues or teen rock.
Though released in 1958, Rumble was actually recorded in 1954. As the vibrato increases, you begin to realize that the song is meant to touch you emotionally, and not just make your dance. The fact that the song was banned, merely because of the title, lends credence to it being the first Rock song, but, without lyrics with a message, it just doesn’t quite break the plane. But it is still vital enough to be played today, and it still rocks like a mother.
Many other songs from the late 50s and early 60s have been adapted to be great Rock songs, like Summertime Blues by Eddie Cochran and Shaking All Over, by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, but they are still simple Rock and Roll songs, with a basic I, IV, V chord progression and lyrics about unrequited love or teen frustration. They’ve been Rocked up, but they are still Rock and Roll.
Seattle has always been an incubator for new musical directions, and by 1963, several bands combined the grungy guitar of Link Wray, the sonic variety of Dick Dale and a sense of rebellion against polished professionalism to create Garage Rock.
Let’s see if we can find any Garage and Surf music that is lyrically complex. Ok, why do that. Let’s just listen to some and enjoy it for what it is. Here are The Sonics, recorded in 1964 and released in 1965. There’s lots of distortion, a modern, overdriven guitar sound and it’s not a love song, but it’s more in the tradition of a novelty song, and the song structure is simple. It’s really, really close to Rock, as are many of the Sonics song.
1965’s Lies by the Knickerbockers has a great modern guitar sound, but the lyrics are pure teen and the changes are pure British Invasion and Merseybeat. The B side of Lies, The Coming Generation, is closer lyrically to Rock, but still suffers from Merseybeat imitation.
So Garage gets us close, but quite to Rock. It’s fun, but its appeal is purely visceral and not intellectual.
Back to Dylan. Dylan famously electrified his music at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th, 1965, but, it turns out, he wasn’t the first person to play Dylan music electrically. The Byrds recorded Mr. Tambourine Man between January and April of 1965, and released it in June, beating Dylan, but is electrified Dylan even the first Rock?. Let’s look at the Brits: the Beatles, the Who, the Stones and the Kinks, from the same period and see if any of their music qualifies.
The first Beatles album with lyrical sophistication was Help. The Beatles entered the studio in February of 1965. When John sings “Here I stand, head in hand, turn my face to the wall” these definitely seem to be the words of an adult. There is a directness and personal-ness to the delivery, which the Beatles lacked before (except, surprisingly, maybe in the early Harrison composition Don’t Bother Me). But it’s still a variation on the Love song. Ticket to Ride is also about a girl, though it has a great Rock riff. Three quarters of a year later, with the album Rubber Soul, the Beatles were definitely a Rock band, with Lennon songs like the Word and Nowhere Man having no romance, won or lost, in sight. So the Beatles lost their Roll sometime in the middle of 1965.
Let’s look at the Stones. They started out as a blues and R & B cover band. The Last Time was the first great Stones song to be written. It’s a groovy song, but it is an “end of romance” love song, so not quite there. Satisfaction, with fuzz tone and criticism of radio and consumerism, in general, falls exactly into the Rock camp. It was recorded 10th of May, 1965, so predates definitive Beatles Rock songs but is still later than the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. I probably don’t need to provide a link to Satisfaction, but here it is, anyway.
OK, how about the Kinks. There is no doubt that You Really Got Me rocks, but it’s still a love song, so it doesn’t have one of the essential elements of Rock. It’s a great Garage Protopunk song, but there is no wisdom in it. It wasn’t until the Kinks third album, Kinks Controversy, that indications of Ray Davies wry social commentary became evident. Being recorded in October 1965, it misses out being “the first”, but not by much. Here, we have The World Keeps Going Round, an early indication of Davies jaundiced view of the world.
Right in the mix were The Who. My Generation, with it’s references to a stuttering, amphetamine using teenager, protesting not about school but society, in general, and massive use of feedback is a true Rock song, but wasn’t recorded until October 1965, so, again, it’s early, but not the earliest.
Here’s the version from the Smothers Brothers, that changed my life:
Oops, what about the Yardbirds. Well they weren’t the earliest but they were pretty freakin’ early, and musically, more complex and modern than any of the other candidates. For example, By October 1965 they had left the teen sentiment of For Your Love and entered the world of pure psychedelia earlier than their other British cohorts. Check out the the great Jeff Beck fuzz tone explosion in “You’re a Better Man than I”.
Oh, wait, wait, wait. There was another early British band that beats all of these groups. The mostly a pure R & B group, mining the repertoire of American bands, the Animals recorded House of the Rising Sun, a song about wasted life with some very earthy themes, in May 1964. The song structure is folk, but the electric guitar and organ are integral to the song. So, this qualifies as the first Rock, without the Roll, song. Not a teen lover, car or school in sight, and it’s not the most danceable song. It’s for listening. If only the guitar tone was a little fuller.
So, let’s reexamine Dylan to figure out if he was rocking up his own music before Newport. It seems that Dylan was trying some electric experiments at his home and in the studio in December, 1964. Not early enough to beat the Animals. One can also assume that, if the Byrds were recording electric Dylan in early 1965, than they were playing it in 1964. In fact, drummer Michael Clark was added in the summer of 1964, so they had probably left their folk roots, by then. But, maybe, even before the Byrds, David Crosby sang this electrified version of Dino Valenti’s (Chet Powers) Get Together. It’s from late 1963, or early 1964, and predates House of the Rising Sun. The band is probably The Wrecking Crew, the same studio musicians who were the actual players on the early Monkees tracks.
The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Jefferson Airplane were not formed until 1965, so they don’t beat Crosby. The Beau Brummels date from 1964, but didn’t hippyize until 1965, clearly playing teen music until then. The Charlatans may have been playing avant garde rock that would meet the qualifications, in 1964, but, sadly, they were not recorded until 1966. The may have sounded like this as early as 1964:
So, while 1965 seems to be the year Rock lost its Roll, in general, The Animals actually released the first Rock song in 1964. Crosby did a Rock demo even earlier, maybe as early as late 1963. The Byrds were playing Rock and Dylan was electrifying his own music by the end of 1965 and the British Invasion bands, who started out as Blues copyists, were playing Rock music by the end of 1965.
The winner, to the best of my research, then, is David Crosby changed Rock and Roll to Rock.