Cities in Rock 6: In the Vicinity of Little Falls, MN; or, Toward a General Theory of Rockin’

Posted on October 10, 2013 by

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I used to play with a drummer from Little Falls, Minnesota (“where the Mississippi pauses”). It was in this country band led by a singer-songwriter, in support of her studio musician-recorded CD. He was a solid guy, solid drummer. Good sense of time, no flash, terrible crush on the singer. He was driving a lot to get to rehearsals and gigs, two hours per leg. (Her legs, probably. Crushes get a lot of music done.1)  The singer was hoping to get some traction with her CD in the “Christian country” market. For the most part, the songs were carefully constructed to be Christian if listened to in a Christian context, and otherwise not. Good voice. Anyway, all at once, she quit communicating with no explanation, and no response to phone or email. Whatever.

I’m only telling you this because it is pretty much the extent of my connection to Little Falls. I also drive through it a couple of times per year, taking my son, the thirteen-year-old, whose innocent question started this entire “Cities in Rock” “what is classic rock?” business for me, to camp. In fact, I made the drive last week with Zane as my co-pilot, him playing DJ with his phone.

It is a long time to be in the car. But I’ve learned to appreciate these in-between times with Zane. Last year, we were stuck at the Eiffel Tower for three hours waiting for Michelle and Theo to get to the top and back down. We walked around the Le Mur pour la Paix, people watched, talked about girls and cars, had an hour-long conversation with a woman stranded by her husband, and walked around some more. Since we had nothing else to do, we interacted. That’s a great opportunity to get to know your teenage boy.

Likewise the drive to camp. Between spotting Mustangs and reading billboards about an upcoming festival, the Half Way [sic] Jam.2), — featuring the Bullet Boys (“a collection of talented musicians from high profile bands such as King Kobra and Ratt”); Electric Eye, “THE tribute to Judas Priest!” (I did not know that “Judas Priest tribute band” was even a category); Fool Fighters (ditto); Great White; Loverboy; Ratt; and Survivor (“Eye of the Tiger” has to be one of my least favorite songs ever) — I was able to observe Zane’s relationship to his music in some detail.

You might recall that it was Zane who asked me, a while back, via text,

What’s some good classic rock?

I gave it quite a lot of thought. First off, I bought him some Alice Cooper just because it was what I liked when I was thirteen (“and I LIKED IT“). Then I got busy trying to make a decent, representative playlist for him. This, it turns out, is impossible, since the genre “classic rock” is incoherent. So after a lot of fuss (and four essays, so far), I finally came to a solution for the smaller problem of picking some “good” classic rock for Zane: I gave up trying to be educational (or even fair), and just picked stuff I thought I could stand hearing over and over again which ended up being smart since we’ve been hearing it over and over again.3 (I now regret including Styx.)

It was in observing Zane interacting with my list that I had my insight: A while back, when I was student teaching 7th grade, I taught a lesson on the Icarus story from Greek mythology. As part of the lesson, I played “The Flight of Icarus” by Iron Maiden: apart from its use in shameless pandering for seventh grade attention spans, the song is actually a pretty good reading of the story.4 Anyway, after I played the song in class, one of the less academically-inclined students spoke for the first time I ever noticed, saying, “Dr. Coyle: that rocked.” Likewise with Zane: he doesn’t care what is classic, he cares what rocks. Figuring out what makes classic rock classic rock might be impossible, but perhaps one can identify what rocks.

That is, I think I can do this.

Consider what we can call “the 13-year-old boy test.” (Girls rock differently, and I think this wouldn’t work for them.) Step 1: kidnap a 13-year-old boy.5 Step 2: lock them in a featureless room. Step 3: pipe in your test music and observe. It was from Zane that I learned what to look for: when something rocks, the air instruments come out. Air guitar, of course, is the most common, but there are air keys (organ seems to rock the easiest), air bass, air drums, and even air vocals (e.g., the pivot in “Carry On,” or the shouted eponym in “Freeze Frame“). Furthermore, air instruments only come out in certain places, and furthermore, I was able to feel the emotional rise myself in those places, even if I have gotten “mature” enough to suppress my air rockin’. There are, I believe, objective features in tunes that lead to the experience of rock.

First, some caveats. (1) A tune can be great without rockin’. Beth, by Kiss, e.g., does not rock. (2) A tune can rock without being a rock tune. Steve Reich’s Music for Mallets rocks.6 (3) A tune can be awful, but rock. I’ll leave this to you to find examples, but check the Eagles‘ catalog.

Now, a bit of conceptual framework: saturation. When the whole band is playing — bass is thumpin’, the drummer is banging on his rides, the guitarists are all wailing, and so on (in jazz, this is “blowing”) — we will call that “saturation.” All the space is taken up. Observation: saturation never rocks. Thus, Dream Police never causes you to reach for your air guitar, nor does anything by Satriani. (This is why, in general, shredders have trouble rockin’: they are busy. It fills up all the space. Buckethead doesn’t usually rock, but he does when Les Claypool makes some contrast for him. The Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Phish all rarely rock. Lots of notes, undifferentiated texture.)

OK, then — you know, for what was really intended to be a tossed off joke, this essay is getting kind of elaborate — what makes rockin’? Take Fool in the Rain by Led Zeppelin as a test case. I can tell you — heck, you probably already know (that’s the point) — where the air guitar comes out. You can see it in the 13-year-old, and feel it in the rising sensation in your gut. But let’s be analytical: the tune starts with the riff that it will repeat until you habituate to it. The band is in full form, here: Plant has the kind of authority in the vocal that you can apparently only get as an old lion — the only people who can even compare to this performance are Jagger, Daltry, Hynde. (They also, quite noticeably, moved him up in the mix compared to the previous couple of albums. The guitar and vocals, both, were pushed back in Physical Graffiti and Presence. It wasn’t a winning formula for them, and I guess they noticed.) Anyway, that goes on until the B part, the giant, strange Caribbean-sounding thing where Bonham demonstrates his mad skills. None of this rocks, though (in the air guitar sense), and the B part is way, way saturated. But, when all of that settles out, and we return to the main riff — bump ba da bump de dump — which we were kind of missing, two repetitions and then Page enters and it is an announcement. That’s where the air guitar comes out.

This moment has a few notable qualities which I think generalize: first, the saturation of the previous section makes the return sound spacious. Second, what Page plays is singable. As far as I can tell, what you can’t sing doesn’t rock. (Another issue for the shredders.) When, later in the solo, Page gets busy playing fast, it quits rockin’. The third quality might seem kind of mystical, but I don’t think it really is. I will call it “tesuji,” which in Go means, roughly, the right play at the right time. Although maybe you couldn’t have predicted the music, once you hear it it seems inevitable.

So space, singablility, and tesuji. In AC/DC‘s Back in Black, it happens quickly. The guitar and bass establish three notes, then — lots of space — the guitar plays the descending, singable riff, which, once you hear it, is completely inevitable. In, oh, I don’t know, Kate Bush’s Them Heavy People (that is a strange video: Liza Minnelli on acid), the piano creates a wispy vibe so that when the full band comes in, it rocks. For a moment, anyway. Riffs in general are good for producing rockin’ because they automatically have space (guitar and bass in unison achieves that effect pretty well) and are singable. (Tesuji is more of an achievement.)

Naturally, my theory needs testing. So, get those LPs out (ha, I’m old) and see where you reach for your air instruments. Let me know if it works.

1 My wife believed that the singer ran the band by flirting which was sort of a sore point at home. (back)

2 Rural Minnesota is one of the rockin’est places left. We love the stuff here. (back)

3 Do you care about this? I picked: Back in Black, Walk This Way, And When I Die, Eight Miles High, My Best Friend’s Girl, Dream Police, Carry On, Sara Smile (sue me), Save it for Later, Hold Me, Rich Girl (so I like Daryl Hall), Barracuda, Freeze-Frame, Piece of My Heart, Wooden Ships (Jefferson Airplane), Aqualung (for my friend Todd, his favorite band mid-teens), Carry on Wayward Son, Them Heavy People, Beth (needed a ballad), Fool in the Rain, Trampled Under Foot, Heart of Gold, Back on the Chain Gang, Bohemian Rhapsody, We WIll Rock You, We Are the Champions, It’s the End of the World as We Know It, Shiny Happy People, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, Benny and the Jets, Gimme Shelter, Tom Sawyer, Magic Carpet Ride, Lady, Come Sail Away, Take Me to the River, Mony Mony, Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Year’s Day (U2 is Michelle’s favorite band), Baba O’Riley (very often covered by local rock acts), I’ve Seen All Good People. (back)

4 Short version: in the story, Icarus’ fall and death are not presented as a result of his youthful recklessness. Icarus is killed as a punishment for Daedalus’ hubris. Daedalus is the p.o.v. character; Icarus is a red shirt. (back)

5 To any law enforcement personnel who might come across this page: it’s a joke. (back)

6 Yeah, OK, it’s my favorite tune, and it probably doesn’t really rock. I was just listening to it. (back)

You are connected to Eunoia Solstice, a web-magazine curated by Jason Quinn Malott, Eric Jenkins, and Stephen McClurg. “Assembly Required” is my twice-monthly column concerning free improvisation, folk music, the apocalypse, and the self in contemporary society. Check out some of the other stuff on offer. Come back soon!

Cities in Rock is mostly a record of associations between music, time, and place — more memoir than musicology. Several authors plan to contribute. Stay tuned!