What is rock? What is pop?

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Sat Jun 9 08:34:01 CDT 2007

Good article by David Lister in The Independent ranting about the BBC's "Seven Ages of Rock": 

David Lister: The Week in Arts 
I say rock, you say pop. Call the whole thing off? 
Published: 09 June 2007

Tonight sees an another instalment in BBC series The Seven Ages of Rock. Starting with Jimi Hendrix, the history has moved on to glam rock, punk, and now heavy metal. I'll never totally understand television's insistence on choosing commentators to pontificate about bands they were too young to have seen. There are, after all, plenty of old lags around. Nonetheless it has proved enjoyable, nostalgic and instructive. And also utterly ridiculous.

How can you have a history of rock with little mention of the Beatles, the Stones, or Elvis Presley? And, while we're about it, the Kinks, the Small Faces, Tamla Motown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. Led Zeppelin might get their place in the sun at some stage, but who would bet on it?

At least, I suppose, the series has shown a disregard for the political correctness that prevailed for decades, when the Beatles and Stones were urged to acknowledge their debt to Chuck Berry and virtually accused of racism if they did not. The BBC has gone one better. It has ignored the lot of them.

Was the whole thing a marketing wheeze that came out of a BBC producers' meeting? "Let's ignore the obvious. There have been so many TV programmes about music, that if we're iconoclastic and ignore the most famous names, we will at least be different."

Well, if so, does it matter? Yes, I think it does. For a history programme on the BBC - and that is what this is - somehow becomes a journal of record. In years to come this series will be regarded as part of Britain's official social history. And, as such, it is absurdly cavalier.

But I think there is something more complex than producer ego behind the oddness of this series. It is the word "rock". The BBC might well argue that Jimi Hendrix was the first rock star, while the Beatles were "pop" and Little Richard "rock'n'roll". At least they have recognised that The Who's Pete Townshend was as much a rock guitarist as Hendrix. But what about some of the greatest rock voices of the 1960s, Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and Eric Burdon of the Animals?

I can see there is a problem. In the 1950s and 60s, probably right up to Led Zeppelin in about 1968, the word rock wasn't in common usage. One went to pop concerts, not rock concerts. The 1967 hit by the Byrds (another BBC casualty) was called "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star", not "So You Want to Be a Rock Star". Jimi Hendrix, for all the BBC's hailing him as the first age of rock, might not, when he started out, have recognised the term.

Even now, I feel that there is real difficulty in the linguistics of musical definition. What is rock; what is pop? Who can precisely define the difference between the two? Is it that pre-pubescent girls scream at pop concerts, but rock gigs are watched with adult respect? It can be fairly safely said that Arctic Monkeys play a rock concert, while Kylie Minogue and Westlife play pop concerts. But what about the legion of artists in between? What exactly is KT Tunstall? Where linguistically do we place the Magic Numbers? And don't even begin to think about the nomenclature for Gorillaz.

We're in a bit of a linguistic mess when it comes to defining the music of the past 50 years. Often it comes down to snobbery. The music we like is rock. The naff stuff that others like is pop.

Perhaps the answer is to describe all groups as a former editor of this paper once described Oasis in print - as a "beat combo". I look forward to the BBC's Seven Ages of Beat Combos. At least the Beatles will get a look-in.

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