Friday, July 2, 2010

Why All Summer Long is better rock music than Rubber Soul

David Thomas makes the claim that rock music is the voice of American folk culture and, because of that, non-Americans can't make rock music. I'm not sure that I believe him, but I do think he's onto something. It does seem that there is a major - I'd even argue central - feature of American rock that did not travel with the music when it was picked up by British bands. Whether or not this feature is more or less valuable than those that were successfully exported is up for debate (I'm beginning to suspect more), but the fact that it's tied to a specifically American context strikes me as being an empirically sound observation.

So - what exactly is that feature? In private conversations, I've been using the phrase "geographical naturalism" to describe it, but that's a bit obscure shorn of any other context. What I mean though is that there are many American rock songs that are grounded in specific details of a place and time (and, because of that, in the specific details of a society, a culture, a history), but there are very few non-American rock songs that are geographically grounded.

Compare the songs of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins to those of Lennon and McCartney, their overseas followers. There are only one or two Beatles songs a sense of place that can rival "Dixie Fried" or "Johnny B. Goode" ("Eleanor Rigby" is one of them), but that kind of geographical naturalism was the norm for Perkins and Berry - not the exception. The vast majority of Lennon and McCartney's work consists of self-expression: expressing feelings for someone else or expressing what it feels like to go through an existential crisis. In their own way, Perkins and Berry do these things, too, but it's almost as if they can't help but do more. The stories they tell aren't merely personal: they're geographical, cultural, historical.

You can find similar stories throughout American rock music. On the Precise Modern Lovers Order live album, Jonathan Richman introduces "Roadrunner" as "our geographical song involving Route 128", which is where I got the "geographical" part of "geographical naturalism". The "naturalism" comes from the lyrics of the song: a story about a guy listening to WOR while driving down Route 128 past the industrial park and the Stop 'n' Shop. As far as I know, there is no British rock song that expresses a culture through these kinds of specific but mundane details in the way that "Roadrunner" does. (Although I'd be glad to hear any suggestions in the comments.) When British rock does deal with geography, it's usually imaginary and often (as in "Jumping Jack Flash" or "Crossroads") a mythical version of America. Greil Marcus (I think) called the Beatles "imaginary Americans" and, if they are, the America they're from is imaginary, too: a homogeneous export product, not the actual places where the people who invented rock lived.

Side-by-side comparisons of a few more songs will further illuminate this lack of a geographical and historical sensibility in British rock. The world traveling in Rod Sewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story" seems positively fantastic next to the details of the cross-country travels in "Tangled Up in Blue". The alienated subject of Gang of Four's "At Home He's A Tourist" seems (perhaps appropriately) that he could be living anywhere, but the alienation in the Talking Heads' "Don't Worry About the Government" is less theoretical because it's grounded in a recognizable (if obliquely described) place.

I'd also point out that there are American rock musicians who write these songs almost exclusively: Bruce Springsteen, Stan Ridgway, John Cougar, Brian Wilson, and, of course, David Thomas.

The importance of these kinds of songs is that they do more than just capture what it feels like to be a teenager in love: they reveal the mysteries of a culture and a nation, as well as their promises, prophecies, and betrayals. They force us out of our own egos, into an awareness of a larger history. They tell us our story.

That's why I've begun to balk at the idea of the Beatles as the greatest rock band. Right now, I'd give that honor to the Beach Boys, who were s accomplished musically (and who aced the whole self-expression thing on Pet Sounds), but, on albums like All Summer Long and Surf's Up, also gave us a stories of a place and a culture