'Rock and roll will never die': The world’s hottest bands answer the doomsaying cultural commentators

The statistics say that pop rules and guitar music is dead. And the acts themselves? Simmy Richman meets four who don't care about the facts and figures – as long as they can keep on rocking...

Simmy Richman
Sunday 05 February 2012 01:00

It has become as regular a part of the January calendar as filing a tax return, failing to detox and fooling yourself that your team is about to sign a world-class striker in the football transfer window. As the sales data of the previous year in music is collated, the experts line up to pronounce that "rock music is dead". Apparently, rock is suffering its own form of the double-dip recession right now: last year the alarming statistic was that only three of 2010's 100 bestselling singles were guitar-driven ("rock as a prevailing style is part of music history", declared the DJ Paul Gambaccini); this year the headlines centred on the fact that pop albums outsold rock albums for the first time in seven years in 2011.

Look behind the statistics and the news becomes even more alarming. Of those three guitar-driven songs in 2010's hot 100, one was the 30-year-old "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, which could only continue believin' thanks to a mighty leg up from TV's Glee. Of the rock albums that did contribute to the genre's 29.4 per cent market share, the biggest-seller was Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto, which will do nothing to placate those who still like to think of rock music as a genre best served with a dose of raw power and energy.

And so we come to our first problem with all of these facts and statistics: the genres themselves. Who decided that Coldplay and Florence and the Machine are "rock" k and not "pop" acts in the first place? Further, since the early 1990s, when there was suddenly rock music you could dance to and dance music you could rock to, the categories we choose to divide musical styles have become increasingly nebulous. Apparently, Ed Sheeran is "rock"; Mumford and Sons "folk", and so on. Artists who hop genres from song to song (Cee Lo Green, say) are often "pop" purely because that's the definition allowed the most flexibility.

The second problem is that at no time in the relatively short history of popular music, in all its guises, have the pop charts been able to tell us anything about the situation at ground level for music fans. And if you doubt the validity of that statement, watch the Top of the Pops reruns currently being aired on BBC4. A few weeks ago, the programme (now up to 1977) had studio performances from Pussycat, Liverpool Express and Barry Biggs. David Soul was number one. Back in the real world, that was the very week the Clash were headlining the opening night of the Roxy club in London and Sid Vicious was being drafted in to the Sex Pistols, who had just been dropped by EMI .

The third problem is that rock music should, by its very nature, never be striving to be more popular than pop: its forum has always been the live arena. Perhaps the first act to realise that record sales were secondary to getting bums on seats (or rather, these days, mobile phones in the air), was the influential American rock band Wilco. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy (when he found himself without a record contract in 2001) justified his idea to give the band's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot away for free on the internet, by saying: "We had a pretty simple decision to make at that time: we've always made money from touring and we've rarely made money from selling records. So by putting the record out ourselves, we managed to keep our tour going. It was one of the easiest decisions we've ever had to make."

Further to all these objections, the popularity of guitar bands has always run in cycles and it only ever takes one or two pioneering acts to kick-start a "rock revival" (cf Nirvana in the early 1990s, the "battle of Britpop" in 1995, the emergence of the Strokes in 2001, the Kings of Leon in 2003, the Arctic Monkeys in 2006, and so on). In the 1980s, on Radio 1's immensely popular weekly review programme Roundtable, pop producer Pete Waterman famously told the panel that "guitar music is dead... synth pop is where it's at and these boys don't stand a chance". The band whose record he was reviewing? REM, who would go on to sell more than 70 million records.

Guitar music is dead? Someone needs to tell the acts profiled here. Commercially speaking, the Black Keys are never likely to trouble the likes of Adele. Yet their most k recent album, El Camino, sold more than a quarter-of-a-million copies in its first week of release; the band this week plays three sold-out shows at London's 7,000-plus capacity Alexandra Palace. And to prove that loud music is not the exclusive domain of men of a certain age, we talk to the genre-defying Erika M Anderson, whose music as EMA has been labelled "grunge", "goth", "drone-folk", "rock" and all points inbetween. And finally, to show that all it takes to counter the doomsayers is the arrival of an electrifying new voice, we talk to Brittany Howard, of the next band-most-likely-to, Alabama Shakes.

So can we draw any conclusions from the Official Charts Company's sales figures from last year? Only that entire genres can be lifted by one popular artist (easy listening took 7.9 per cent of the total sales almost entirely off the back of Michael Bublé's success) and that if any area of music can truly be said to be in the doldrums, then it's dance music, where sales have dropped by 40 per cent since 2007. But then, that's dance music without factoring in the genres of hip-hop and R&B and the pop-act-featuring-dance-act hybrids that seem to have a constant hold on the top 10 singles – so perhaps, again, it would be wise not to read anything into such statistics.

Geoff Taylor, the chairman of the British Phonographic Industry, agrees that it's probably best not to draw conclusions from any one year's sales figures. "[Last year] was a vintage year for pop albums so it's hardly surprising that the genre has elbowed rock aside. Although rock's share was the lowest for eight years, it still accounts for three in 10 of every album sold, so recent reports of its demise are premature." Martin Talbot, the managing director of the Official Charts Company, also sees signs of a "rock revival". "Most interesting rock music comes out of periods of austerity," he said recently. "Maybe Tory governments make for more challenging rock music – and we have one."

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Which sounds like a call to arms to anyone under the age of 25 who likes the sound a guitar makes when you turn the volume up to annoy-the-neighbours levels. And it's worth remembering that an album with the title "Rock is Dead – Long Live Rock!" was planned by the Who as far back as 1972. Tellingly, like the death of the genre itself, the album never saw the light of day.

The Black Keys play London's Alexandra Palace on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The album 'El Camino' is out now. Wilco's 'The Whole Love' is out now. EMA's 'Past Life Martyred Saints' is out now. Alabama Shakes play London's Boston Arms on 22, 23 and 24 February. Their debut album 'Boys and Girls' is out in April.

'The best band on the planet': The Black Keys

A duo consisting of Dan Auerbach, 32 (guitar/vocals, interviewed below) and Patrick Carney, 31 (drums), the Black Keys have won three Grammy awards and been described by 'Uncut' magazine as 'The best rock'n'roll band on the planet'. Their latest album, 'El Camino', peaked at number two in the US chart.

"When I started with the guitar at 15 I was mainly playing the folk and bluegrass my family were listening to. A year or two later, when I started practising, I got into all this early rock'n'roll and discovered people like Howlin' Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, T-Model Ford and the work of [Sun Studios founder] Sam Phillips. I don't like all blues music, I'm pretty picky, but I love the stuff that's ramshackle, raw and simple.

"As the Black Keys, we tried playing with other musicians, but it didn't work and the way things are now means I don't have people bothering me. We recorded a demo in Patrick's basement, sent it out without telling the label we were a two-piece, and got a deal before we'd played a show. It all happened so quick and the truth is that we've always just sounded like we sounded. It's so simple. There's not much to what I'm doing. The influence of those blues records means I can pluck bass lines with my thumb and that fills the sound out.

"Is rock music dead? Ha. Honestly? I don't really care. I don't listen to just one kind of music. As long as music doesn't die, I'll be OK. All that talk is just fads and stories and that's not my job. I don't worry about anything other than playing music. We've always ignored the trends.

"When we released 'Tighten Up' as a single [in 2010], we had some of the biggest radio stations in the US tell us they'd never play our records. And then it went to number one [on the Alternative and Rock charts] and they had to. They're sheep. Before that album [Brother, 2010], we didn't know how to make music for the radio, but at that point we sort of got there in our heads. The big thing was focusing on melody. The idea never came up before [laughs]. It was all about the groove.

"Now, each record we make we learn something. We could have sped things up for ourselves success-wise, but we're better off for having done it the way we have, and I love the fact that there is no such thing as a typical Black Keys fan – they go from high-school kids to 50-year-olds and don't all look like they shop at the same jeans store or go to the same coffee shop. I love that."

The Elder statesman: Jeff Tweedy, Wilco

Jeff Tweedy, 44, was a founding father of alt.country with his pioneering band Uncle Tupelo. When they split up in 1994, he formed Wilco, who have dabbled around the edges of mainstream success ever since. Their latest record, 'The Whole Love', is nominated in the Best Rock Album category at next week's Grammy awards.

"Rumours of rock music's death are always exaggerated – they were saying the same thing back in 1978 when the New Romantics emerged with their synthesizers. All it takes is for an imaginative band that plays guitars to come out of nowhere and resonate and the next thing you know, we'll have 3,000 guitar bands again.

"For myself, I don't honestly think [that being in rock music] was a choice. I would love to be able to write, but I'm not good at anything long-form. I struggle to write long emails. I really am geared towards distilling things down into bites of language that I feel are powerful.

"People always ask if I tell my sons not to do it, but I can't see that I've suffered any more hardships than anybody else in the world doing anything else. To be honest, I feel charmed and I hope that is all that's being conveyed in our household. Music is a great thing to have in your life but, more importantly, being one of the tiny fraction of people on Earth who find something they love to do is, I think, to be advocated.

"All I ask from rock bands is that they sound like they give a shit – and that seems to be in jeopardy these days. Kids are overwhelmed: this is the first generation growing up with so much influence available to them. We grew up hearing a handful of records while this generation has access to all of recorded music history and has to learn to pick and choose. I don't know how anyone navigates this overwhelming ocean of musical influence but I do know it's easier to get synth sounds through headphones in your bedroom than it is to record electric guitars, so there are probably practical reasons why people are making the music that's out there.

"My continuing obsession is the desire to connect – I'm striving for that and at the same time I'm asking why I'm striving for it. It would be really nice to still be doing this in 20 years' time, but it can be a liability to stick around for a long time: people don't have much good to say about getting older, and they certainly don't seem to want it from rock bands. But as long as people respond to what we're doing, I like to think we'll be up for it."

The genre-buster: EMA

Erika M Anderson, 28, records under the name EMA and is an uncategorisable musical performer recently labelled 'One to Watch' by 'Rolling Stone' magazine. Her 2011 album 'Past Life Martyred Saints' was noted for its 'naked emotion', disturbing lyrics and intensity; Anderson says it is her 'best attempt at a pop record'.

"I grew up listening to everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Tchaikovsky but I picked up a guitar because I needed to if I wanted to front a band – the guitar is still the bottom line if you want to be taken seriously; the symbol of rock. But I don't really care about the guitar. I'm more into production and I'll steal from anything and weave it into what I'm trying to do. I've realised that I can't compose a concerto, but I can create music with guitars and be interested in the same sort of structures that classical music is concerned with. I'm trying to create a symphony out of feedback.

"How I'm feeling about it all right now is that I'm learning about the history of painting and how, in the past, art was the thing that would define what's relevant, capture emotions and tell us about the human condition. But painting is now less relevant to these things than rock'n'roll – that's become the cultural mirror that expresses how we feel. It's this beautiful, populist language that, even if people aren't schooled in it, they understand it as a secondary language and I feel excited that rock music has created this cross-cultural shorthand for me to use.

"So rock'n'roll is still very much alive to me, but the role of the rock star is super-problematic, because while the music still has soul and cultural meaning, the rock star is like a zombie, a marketing term to sell things.

"I come from a noise-music background, so my own records are not necessarily accessible in pop terms – they can be awkward and kind of on the edge. Maybe pop is entertainment while rock is still there to deal with god and human nature. For me to be pop, I'd need to shift my perspective and I'd rather be the person making other people shift theirs, for them to hear my music and think, 'That doesn't sound like noise to me any more.'

"There's a rebellious part of me that wants to turn [the artist Marcel] Duchamp's [painting] Nude Descending a Staircase into music, to make people think about space and time differently. Though Duchamp might be too gimmicky, I'd love to be Egon Schiele."

The buzz band: Alabama Shakes

The fastest-selling ticket for this year's NME Awards shows, Alabama Shakes have just recorded a single for Jack White's record label. Their singer (interviewed here) is the 23-year-old Brittany Howard.

"We're all Athens, Alabama-born and raised and with only about 20,000 people living there, there isn't a whole lot to do, to be honest. So as a kid I started playing any musical instrument I could get my hands on. There was a piano at my grandma's house and my uncle showed me Kiss, the Stones and all this rock'n'roll music. At about 13 I took a guitar to a music teacher at school who tuned it for me and pretty soon I was making up these easy, three-chord punk songs.

"I knew Zac [Cockrell, bass guitar] from high school, Steve [Johnson, drums] worked in Athens' only music instrument store and Heath [Fogg, guitar] was already in a band and knew Steve. So we all got together and would play for hours. At first we were all over the place. But one day, playing a song called 'Be Mine', something just happened and I remember thinking, 'This sounds pretty cool.' It suddenly felt good, right. We'd always been able to sound sweet, but we like the hard stuff, too.

"I like the studio and writing songs, but on stage is where you get an hour to be truly free. No matter how tired we are from the day and getting to a show, it's like a light flicks when we get on stage. That's the time to let it all out – you can hold back all day during normal life.

"When we started out, people saw us as a kind of soul showband, but people coming to our shows these days expecting to hear so ft ballads are going to be confused. Maybe they only heard a couple of things on the internet – these days everybody seems to be endlessly searching for what's happening out there – but you won't know what we're really about until you come to see us live. Rock'n'roll is not a type of music, it's a feeling. There needs to be sweat and electricity in the air. There needs to be the feeling that if things go wrong it doesn't matter, then everyone can try to get loose like people have needed to do since the dawn of time.

"Everything that's happened so far is shocking and unexpected. Like I say, we got together because there was nothing to do and it's fantastic that people are suddenly listening to us. I don't really care too much for pop success; any type of success is great – just as long as I don't have to deliver the mail any more."

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