When Did Rock and Roll Lose the Roll?

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.

History-of-Rock-Chalkboard-16x10Some 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.

The First Rock and Roll Song

Let’s have a debate. There is no definitive answer as to the first recorded Rock and Roll song, because it depends on where one draws the line between Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll. It is also impossible to know how long prior to the first recorded Rock and Roll song something was happening in some club or juke joint that we might define as Rock and Roll, but never made it to record. However, a minimum date can be set.

The reason we can have a minimum date is because my contention is that the electric guitar must feature as a prominent instrument for the song to be defined as Rock and Roll. This eliminates Boogie Woogie and Stride piano music that goes back to the early 20s. An argument could be made that if you added electric guitar, drums and bass to Boogie Woogie you would have Rock and Roll, but, there was no electric guitar, so, ergo, no Rock and Roll. Deal with it.

Count Basie and other Kansas City bands were playing a swing jazz that had all of the elements of Rock and Roll, probably by the late 20s. The beat was there, but the music was piano and horn based and far more musically complex than Rock and Roll. One of the primary characteristics of early Rock and Roll is that it could be played by relatively unsophisticated and untrained musicians.

Check out the bass figures the Count is playing here, in Count Basie’s Boogie Woogie. Slow this down, or speed it up and add a vocalist and you have Rock and Roll. But as recorded, it’s not.

Count Basie Boogie Woogie – Count Basie 1937

Or this candidate from Big Bill Broonzy in 1938 – Truckin Little Woman

The Rock and Roll beat certainly existed in the rural blues, as well, but without electric guitars, bass and drums this music remains defined as Blues. OK, so where is the line between Blues, and Rock and Roll? Mississippi Fred MacDowell famously claimed “I do not play no Rock and Roll” and then proceeded to play some of the rockingest Blues around. So, the difference is in the ear of the beholder.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell declares he don’t play no Rock and Roll

For example, here is Charlie Patton in 1929 with all of the elements of Rock and Roll, but it’s not Rock and Roll, it’s Blues. But any Rock and Roll musician could easily turn it into a Rock and Roll song.

Going to Move to Alabama – Charlie Patton 1929

So, to qualify for first Rock and Roll song, we have two criteria:

  1. Simpler than jazz.
  2. Features electric guitars, bass and drums.

The consensus is that 1951’s Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston, is the first Rock and Roll song, but I disagree strongly . Rocket 88 is piano and horn based, even if it does have a distorted guitar on it. Ike Turner, who played the guitar, says it’s Rhythm and Blues and not Rock and Roll. Besides, my candidate comes from 1946, five years earlier. Listen, and you decide.

Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston 1951

There are Swing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues candidates for earliest Rock and Roll song that are better than Rocket 88. In December 1947, Wynonie Harris sang Good Rocking Tonight. Substitute the piano and horns and you have a definite Rock and Roll song. It even has the word “Rocking” in it.

Good Rocking Tonight – Wynonie Harris 1947

Another Swing Jazz and Rhythm and Blues song that is a Rock and Roll song with the wrong instrumentation, is We’re Gonna Rock by Wild Bill Moore. It even contains the lyrics “We’re gonna rock, We’re gonna roll.” But it’s still piano and horn based Swing Jazz.

We Gonna Rock – Wild Bill Moore 1947

That can also be said for the rockin’ Swing Jazz of Louis Jordan. In fact, 1949’s Saturday Night Fish Fry even had audible and slightly overdriven guitar, but it’s there for accent and not the primary instrument.

Saturday Night Fish Fry – Louis Jordan 1949

So, let’s go to my candidate: Fanfare please.

The Rock and Roll is strong in this one. It actually became a Rock and Roll hit 8 years after the original 1946 recording. Elvis made a hit of it in 1954, and it is still considered part of the Rock and Roll standard repertoire.

The evidence:

  1. The first recorded version is straight electric guitar, bass and drums.
  2. It has the boom, chick, boom rock beat.
  3. It has an electric guitar solo and a relatively untrained guitarist can play it.
  4. It’s full of hooks and easy to follow. It’s Rock and Roll.

Here it is: That’s Alright Mama by Big Arthur Crudup 1946

And the Elvis version 1954

In fact, I would suggest that the 1946 Crudup version rocks better than the 1954 Elvis version which lopes along more like a Country Western song.

So, there it is. Positively and definitively, the first Rock and Roll song. Of course, I am always willing to entertain alternative candidates, so feel free to post them and state your case.

Next, we’ll debate when Rock and Roll lost the Roll and turned to Rock music.