“It is the end of the rock era,” declared veteran DJ and “professor of pop” Paul Gambaccini in a story entitled R.I.P. Rock ‘n’ Roll? that appeared recently in British newspaper The Guardian.
“It’s over, in the same way the jazz era is over. That doesn’t mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history.”
What? No more Aerosmiths, AC/DCs or Van Halens, no more Nirvanas, Pearl Jams or Soundgardens?
The painful truth is, only three rock songs charted in the U.K. last year, headed by Journey’s 30-year-old hit, Don’t Stop Believin’ — and say what you will about Journey, they’re no Led Zeppelin — and Train’s defiantly untesticular Hey Soul Sister.
A glance at the Canadian music charts confirms this death knell, with rock acts such as Arcade Fire and Black Keys struggling for dominance in a quagmire of auto-tuned electrotrash (Kesha), teen pop (Justin Bieber), dance music (Rihanna) and country lite (Lady Antebellum).
Even the hard rock chart is a wasteland, filled with 30-year-old re-releases (Guns N’ Roses), greatest hits compilations (Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin) and new material from old school revivalists (Kid Rock).
In a mass entertainment sense, if rock isn’t dead, it’s sure taking one hell of a hiatus.
But don’t tell this to Lemmy Kilmister, battle-scarred frontman of apocalyptic Brit-metal pioneers Motorhead, steaming into Kitchener tonight for a sold out show at Elements nightclub.
“Well,’’ he says, delivering the obvious rebuttal from a tour stop in Grand River, MI. “I’m alive.’’
And as anyone who has followed Motorhead’s indefatigable 36-year career can attest, as long as Lemmy is able to croak into a microphone, rock and roll can never be truly obsolete.
“Just ‘cause there are no big hits doesn’t mean it’s dead,’’ he says of the dearth of celebrated rock tunes.
“You never hear it on the radio nowadays because five people control all the radio you hear — and all the TV, for that matter, and none of them like rock and roll.’’
Rock and roll, especially the ‘50s variety Lemmy grew up with, was dangerous and edgy, he says, a combustible force for change that delivered a violent, visceral kick.
“Elvis couldn’t get a breakout hit now, like he did with That’s All Right,’’ insists Lemmy, noting that in the modern age, it’s all about marketing. “Because nobody would play it, ‘cause he’s unknown.’’
That’s right: Elvis Presley, the King Of Rock and Roll, wouldn’t stand a chance against brand-stamped hitmakers such as Bieber and Lady Gaga.
“They’re there because they’re safe,’’ insists the mutton-chopped, Fu-manchued upstart, whose own band never scored much radio play on these shores, but whose 1980 British hit, Ace Of Spades, became an anthemic call to arms.
“It doesn’t matter how much you play them, they’re not going to incite anybody to do anything, are they?”
Ah yes, incitement. With Motorhead — whose truncheon-like melodies filled the void between the implosion of corporate rock and the explosion of punk in the mid-70s — it’s been their musical calling card.
“I think people like us more for the attitude than the music,’’ admits the man dubbed the Godfather of Heavy Metal. “Because a lot of people don’t like the music.”
And what, pray tell, is the attitude?
“F—k you!” He laughs gruffly, accompanied by a hoarse cough.
This is the guy, after all, who once bummed acid off Jimi Hendrix, drinks a bottle of Jack Daniels a day and claims to have bedded 1,000 women. One of rock’s true immortals.
But wait, what was that? A hoarse cough?
“Everybody’s immortal ‘til they die, right?” quips Lemmy, who admits his body no longer does all the things he’d like it to.
“It’s not a contest. You go a long as you can, doing what you do. One day you won’t be able to, right? So that’s when you stop.’’
What he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t have to, is that mainstream rock — such as jazz and blues before it — is also, increasingly, falling prey to the ravages of time, fronted by men in their ‘60s whose old school head-banging feeds a nostalgic yearning for an earlier, less automated age. Living history.
Sure, modern bands such as Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire have taken up the rock and roll mantle and, to some extent, propelled the music in intriguing new directions.
But from a mass culture point of view, the thrill is gone.
But, again, ahem, don’t tell Lemmy.
“You just creep up there, and there you are, you know,” he confides, assuring me his new-found senior status hasn’t compromised his ability to rock out. “What am I gonna do?”
“I bit off a bottle yesterday,’’ he laughs, reassuring me his badass habits remain firmly intact. “And I’m working on the other half today.’’
Joel Rubinoff writes about pop culture trends every Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org