Time to kick out the jams

Rock'n'roll has toughened up, but, asks Phil Johnson, is it reacting to the forces of history or the blandness of Britney?

As we approach the 50th anniversary of rock'n'roll, or at least of Elvis's first Sun single ("That's All Right Mama", cut with "Blue Moon of Kentucky"), rock music has suddenly become - to quote the title of an old Muddy Waters album - hard again. The White Stripes and The Darkness are the bands of the moment, while hoary old stagers such as Motörhead and AC/DC are enjoying both renewed popularity and (gasp) critical respect. Such is the power of the White Stripes dividend that almost any rehab-rockers with three chords and a Marshall stack between them can get paid for a gig again.

Recently, I even saw the "legendary" Boston hard-rock trio Blue Cheer play in Bristol as part of the post-Stripes wave. An unreconstructed noise-machine with only the original bassist Richard Peterson still more or less intact ("I wrote this song when I had hepatitis," he told the audience - equal parts new Stripes fans and old serial killer-lookalikes), Blue Cheer were so loud you felt the bass-lines through the soles of your feet. They were also wonderful, in a primitive, morally degenerate, pagan idol-worshipping sort of way. And that, of course, is what rock'n'roll is all about.

Although there's any number of binary oppositions you could use to define the essential yin and yang of rock and pop (raw and cooked, loud and quiet, redskin and paleface, mild and bitter), "hard versus soft" has to be the most compelling. In the type of chronological sketch probably first essayed by the pioneering rock historian Nik Cohn, the opposition of hard vs soft functions in much the same way as goodie vs baddie. In the beginning, goes the story, was the word and that word was rock. Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and the rest of the pantheon of authentically hard rock-gods then gave way to the softies: to "soft", army-issue Elvis; to emasculated pretty boy Pat Boone; and then to the gooey "high school" kid stuff - the twittering, brainless, pop-showbiz trash of Bobbies Darin, Vee and Vinton, the Hollywood-sponsored decadence that was Fabian and Frankie Avalon.

When things got hard again, so the story continues, it was due to the impact of the British beat boom, when home-grown bad boys from poor port cities started copying the original wave of "hard" rockers. This in turn reinvigorated the US scene, through copycat acts like the Sir Douglas Quintet from Texas and "garage-punk" bands from the Pacific north-west. The result was a bi-coastal new wave of "hard" bands, from The Velvet Underground in New York to the Grateful Dead in San Francisco. If psychedelic drugs helped to turn the music soft again, they also sowed the seeds for the coming of punk, through the back-to-first-principles reactions of essentialist rockers like The Stooges and The New York Dolls; these led in turn to Television and The Ramones, and thence to British punk and pub-rock. For the last 25 years, of course, it's been downhill all the way. Well, at least until The White Stripes.

This kind of meta-history may not actually be true, but it's very attractive all the same - an essentially phallic theory of rock history as tumescence and detumescence. There's a sort of puritanical purity there, too. The flash and filigree of a more "sophisticated" notion of rock'n'roll gets the chance to develop, but once the rock becomes too baroque, it's time for a swift return to the stylistic stone age - to pounding pianos, buzz-saw guitars and songs about sex.

This is as it should be. It's all very well having softie singer-songwriters tell us about their feelings and rich interior lives, but isn't that what novels are for? Has any rock or pop artist ever written anything as powerful as "Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom!", or "Louie Louie, me gotta go!" If I had to choose between the entire works of Bob Dylan and Billy Lee Riley singing "My gal is red hot", it would be a close-run thing.

Black music is, as they say, another country and they do things differently there. Hip hop would like you to think that it's hard all the time, but these days R&B provides the soft stuff, a sophisticated "cooked" to the raucous "raw". It's perfectly possible, however, to draw a fairly straight and unbroken line from the original rock'n'roll of the black rhythm and blues stars Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris to today's hip hop and R&B. In fact, in black music the whole history of rock - hard and soft - starts a good 10 years earlier, reaching its equivalent "high school" stage in 1953 or so, with the Teenqueens' immortal "Eddie My Love".

You can even begin the story from Count Basie and the Kansas City "territory" bands of the 1930s, whose hard-riffing style anticipated the rock'n'roll beat. Indeed, it's reputed that an early manager of Black Sabbath, Jim Simpson, used to lock the group in a room and force them to listen to Basie records in the belief that it would tighten up their riffs.

Of course, you can argue that the best music is both hard and soft, like The Beatles, Miles Davis and Otis Redding. Perhaps the hard/soft dichotomy should really be seen less as an either/or proposition and more as a self-regulating function, so that the need for hardness to reassert itself occurs when the overall musical culture is at its most flaccid. Maybe all The White Stripes really needed as a precondition for existence was a surfeit of boy bands, Britney and Pop Idol.

The White Stripes UK tour begins at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, on Monday