Monday, 28 June 2010

In Defence of Dad Rock

I was tidying up my documents folder, and found this, which I wrote for my college course in music last year. Apologies for recycling something so old, but I re-read it and still like it, so thought I might share it with the world. Parts of it deal with technical music questions but most of it should be fairly accessible and hopefully interesting.

Dad Rock - 1967 - 1975
What is Dad Rock? Apparently, it is the music that people my age play air guitar to when we get drunk at family gatherings. I have also seen it referred to as 'classic rock', 'stadium rock' or 'dinosaur rock'. A recent episode of the Wright Stuff debated whether this year's Glastonbury, with its Dad Rock stars like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bruce Springsteen, should have stuck with a rapper like Jay Z, who caused such controversy last year. The segment was called 'Hip Hop or Hip Op'. Harsh, but given how old you'd be if you were a teenager when these bands were first working, it's probably fair. I've just had a knee op myself, and I got into some of these songs 20 years after they were first released.

Despite its somewhat disparaging title, Dad Rock is a recognisable style of music that gets new compilations released every fathers' day. I will be mainly focussing on the first age of Dad Rock, which approximately covers the period between Woodstock and disco. Dad Rock resurfaced in the 80s, when bands like Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Europe kept the flame burning, but while the musical elements were often in place, the lyrical aspects had lost a lot of sophistication ('Girls, Girls, Girls'? Even ZZ Top's 'Legs' had more depth) and there did sometimes seem to be a slide into self parody (Bad News, Zodiac Mindwarp), at least until Guns 'n' Roses brought some authenticity back to the genre.

Dad Rock is really a subset of rock and heavy rock. When I say they are driving tunes, I am not referring to their rhythmic motifs, although they have a strong beat and good interaction between the bass guitar and the kick drum. I mean that they are good songs to drive to. Put on some Steppenwolf, some Queen or some Led Zeppelin, even better, some Lynrd Skynrd, put the pedal to the metal and let the open road embrace you. There are few experiences that compare to driving fast down a country road in a cool car on a hot summer's day with Freebird's epic guitar solo blaring out of several speakers.

It's not just me that gets this, of course. Arguably some of the sharpest, coolest people working today are the designers of games like the Grand Theft Auto series. Every game I've played (and that's most of them) has had a dedicated Dad Rock radio station in the car, alongside all the breakbeat, reggae and satirical news and adverts. I doubt that I'm in the target demographic for the game, so presumably there must be some young people out there who know what I'm talking about. Choral music was made for the church. Jazz was made for the speakeasy. Dad Rock was made for the car stereo, via the stadium. Australian rocker John Farnham, whose song 'The Voice' is a good example of the genre, has said in interviews that part of his mixing process involves hearing how the CD will sound on various popular car stereos, so that he can optimise it for his audience.

There are several identifying stylistic elements of Dad Rock. Songs should have an anthemic, shout-along chorus pitched within a limited range. 'Born to be Wild', with its three note chorus, is a good example of this. Virtually any Status Quo song fits neatly into this category, as do songs like 'Alright Now' and 'Smoke on the Water'. Dad Rock songs generally recognise that people who can't sing are going to want to sing along with them.

As will be seen just from this limited range of examples, although Dad Rock songs tend to have the big anthemic chorus, the rest of the song can be constructed in many different ways. The Quo, as is their wont, went for the simple 12 bar blues progression, and there is a place for their quaint chuggalong shuffle-type rhythms, but it is not a place near me. 'Born to be Wild' uses both an E minor and an E major chord, to add interest and a change of mood. The verse is just a repeated E minor, and the chorus uses solely major chords (including implied transpositions) to declaim its anthemic credentials. 'Smoke on the Water', meanwhile, again uses just major chords, with the unexpected and atonal semitone drop in its main riff. Clearly it is not possible to use four major chords in a six semitone range and still stay in one key, and the chords used actually come from three separate keys. Dad Rock could not be said to be basic (although 'Smoke on the Water's repeated bar chord makes it one of the easiest songs to play and presumably write). Personally, I consider 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to be Dad Rock. I think that concludes the case for its complexity.

Having said that, Dad Rock is a no-nonsense genre that knows what it likes. Complexity is all well and good as long as it doesn't sound weird. While bands like Deep Purple blurred the distinction between prog and hard rock, songs that are too demanding can not be considered Dad Rock. For example, Pink Floyd's 'Money' is Dad Rock, despite its somewhat challenging 7:8 time signature, for it has a strong guitar and bass riff, a great guitar solo and shoutalong sarcastic lyrics of fiscal subversion. Crucially, it sounds simpler than it actually is, at least until you try dancing to it. Compare this to something like 'Echoes' or 'Careful with that Axe, Eugene' by the same band, which were from their more psychedelic period. Although there are many elements in common, from the actual musicians to the instrumentation, the writing and arrangements are much more complex, more challenging. There is nothing in either song that would get a stag party full of drunks singing along to a jukebox, or a kitchen full of dads embarrassing their teenage kids by reliving their glory days through shared memories of song, raging against the dying of the light.

This is perhaps the heart of Dad Rock. It is party music for people that are supposed to be too old to party. And while it's true, as my grandfather used to say, that 'many a good tune is played on an old fiddle'. I don't think he really grasped what sort of tunes could be played on a '62 Stratocaster and a vintage Marshall stack turned up to eleven.

I remember seeing lots of old ladies wearing headscarves when I was growing up. Bearing in mind that I was a child at the time, I initially assumed that women got to a certain age and started wearing headscarves. I'd never seen a young woman wearing one. Perhaps the old women were going bald. After a while, I saw films set in the 40s and 50s and realised that these old ladies were just wearing what they had worn when they were young. Rest homes of the future will probably be full of tattooed pensioners called Britney and Beyonce with Burberry colostomy bags, pimped wheelchairs and the same knock-off tracksuits they've always worn. I think the same is true of music. I didn't get to forty and suddenly start listening to Queen, Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf, etc. It is not some rite of passage. There was not a voice that said 'you are now middle aged. Congratulations. There's some good news and some bad news. You are now at higher risk of prostate cancer, your metabolism has slowed to a crawl and your youthful idealism has withered to a resigned indifference. But on the plus side, you now understand what a good guitarist Brian May is. You now really appreciate "Born to be Wild"'. I have been listening to this music for the last 20 years just because I like it. I've always liked it. I probably always will. Nothing has happened to make the music any less great.

What could? Phil Spector is now a convicted murderer, but 'The Long and Winding Road' still sounds amazing, as do 'Unchained Melody', 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'Be My Baby'. The wall of sound has not been knocked down, even by murder most foul. If it can withstand that, it will probably stand forever. Queen's music is still exciting and witty, despite the tabloid-fed 'scandal' of Freddie Mercury's 'selfish and self-inflicted' death from AIDS. Eric Clapton's drunken on-stage rant in the 70s, where he seemed to support the National Front, directly led to the 'Rock against Racism' campaign and a serious fall from grace for the man they once called 'God'. But the opening twelve notes to 'Layla' remain the most recognisable lead guitar riff in rock music. Over the course of his chameleonic career, David Bowie has probably done something to alienate everyone in his audience. At various times, he has been a flowers-and-patchoulli-oil unwashed hippy folk singer, a pill popping, bed hopping bisexual hedonist in a dress, a right-wing pseudo-intellectual smackhead who was once refused entry to Russia because his travelling library contained so much Nazi literature, and a cynical yuppie who so absorbed the message that the artist was the product that he sold shares in himself. The only consistent thing about Bowie is that he was, is and ever shall be a dedicated follower of fashion, even if that fashion is fascism. Knowing this, do I still want to join in with the 'hey man' chorus of 'Suffragette City' every time I hear it, even though I've now been listening to the song for decades?. Absolutely. Good music will always be good music, regardless of anything the musicians get up to, no matter how many times we hear it. Sometimes, familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment. Gary Glitter, of course, is an exception to the 'bad people can make good music' rule, as paedophilia is indefensible but more relevantly, the music wasn't that great anyway.

But a lot of Glam Rock was, and some Glam Rock songs can also be considered Dad Rock. Given Glam Rock's position on the Rock / Hard Rock spectrum, this is not altogether surprising. Examples include 'All The Young Dudes' (now sung ironically, especially the bit about 'Billy rapped all night 'bout his suicide / said he'd kick it in the head when he was 25'). Dad Rock proves you don't have to be young to be a dude (even a dude who looks like a lady). Songs like 'Ballroom Blitz' by the Sweet, even 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Starman' fit the Dad Rock template, although other Bowie compositions like 'Life on Mars' are probably too ambitious. But follow the path of TV's 'Life on Mars' and time travel back to 1973. Turn on the radio. If there's a guy with a mullet, a sleeveless T-shirt and a Watney's Party Seven wobbling his beer gut in time with the music, it's probably Dad Rock he's listening to.

From an arrangement perspective, Dad Rock usually uses the rock template of two guitars, bass and drums, although there are many examples of other instruments like piano (Lynrd Skynrd), organ (Steppenwolf / the Doors) and saxophone (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) as well. Many bands also used synthesisers. Meatloaf, who is perhaps the Pavarotti of Dad Rock, was famed for his over-the-top theatrical arrangements (because, as writer Jim Steinman said, 'until you've gone over the top, you can't see what's on the other side').

Keyboards were used in many different contexts in Dad Rock. Lynrd Skynrd would use a twinkly, arpeggiated piano in a high octave to make their songs prettier, something they learned from their country background. Apart from some string-based sweetening, 'Tell Me Why (I Don't Like Mondays)' was entirely based around the piano and had been cunningly written in the key of B so that the descending harp-like intro could be played just on the black notes and still be in tune with the rest of the song. The Doors based their sound around Ray Manzarek's Bach-like organ compositions, replete with contrapuntal harmonies and some surprising transpositions, at least in the instrumental sections / intros (I'm especially thinking of 'Light My Fire' here, but there are others). J. Giles Band's 70s hit 'Centrefold' was based around a simple (but huge!) analogue synth riff. Most people assume the opening chords of 'Smoke on the Water' are played on a guitar, but it is actually John Lord's Hammond organ going through a distortion pedal. And 80s era Dad Rock artists like Pat Benatar ('Hit Me With Your Best Shot') and Bon Jovi ('You Give Love a Bad Name') made much use of the newly available digital synthesis to make their choruses bigger.

While drummers on some of these songs were among the best in rock music (eg, Nick Mason, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, etc), and all were capable of 45 minute drum solos in their live sets, drumming on the Dad Rock songs was generally more contained. Most of the time, the drums kept to the rock template of kick drum on first and third beat and snare on second and fourth. Choruses would be heavily based around cymbals (and some Dad Rock bands had an extraordinary number of these) and rolls on the toms would be used frequently (see previous parenthesis). There was also a surprising fondness for the cowbell.

Perhaps the word that best describes a Dad Rock bassline is 'solid'. It is often made up of repeated eighth notes, locked in with the kick drum or pushing the beat slightly. While there is potential for the bass taking more of a lead role (eg, 'Money', 'With or Without You') most songs in the genre are too anthemic for the bass to be too mobile, too interesting. The bass should not detract from the song's strength, which is often its simplicity. It should play simple parts to make this simplicity bigger and more effective, especially in the chorus, which is where the impact is.

What makes a song Dad Rock? I think it is a combination of the big chorus, a strong electric guitar riff that lends itself to air guitar shenanigans, an unobtrusive, dependable but still cool bass part, a guitar solo full of soulful angst and agonised facial expressions and lyrics that remind middle aged men of their rebellious youth, when everything was possible and bliss was just a Jimmy Page solo away. Choruses and occasionally verses are sweetened, depending on context, by the use of backing vocals, often in three or more parts (eg, Pink Floyd, Queen, Guns 'n' Roses, etc). The use of diffused backing vocals, often singing a full chord, can lift the song wonderfully, and just as backing vocals on a karaoke song can seem to make the singer more tuneful, the drunken hollering of middle aged men at a wedding can only be improved by the same.

The lyrics generally have at least a veneer of rebellion. The really succesful Dad Rock songs had lyrics that struck a chord both with teenagers, who wanted something rebellious to identify with, and middle age men, who wanted to be able to remember their 'salad days', when they too were 'green in judgement'. 'Born to be Wild' is a good example. It is about the freedom to just get on your motorbike and ride down the highway, wind in your hair. Given that young people like the cool image of motorbikes, despite their being four times more likely to be in an accident than a car, and middle aged men on a budget often adopt a motorbike as a menopausal lifestyle choice, the song neatly appeals to both camps. The concept of freedom is a curious one to men of a certain age, who often feel that they have made their choices and are stuck with what they've got. Reminders that this is not the case probably have some kind of therapeutic benefit. Other songs in this ilk include 'I Want to Break Free' by Queen and the immortal and defiant Freebird ('I'm as free as a bird, yeah, and this bird you cannot tame / Lord help me, I can't change').

Then there are the good time songs, to remind us that the sun comes out occasionally. Examples include 'I'm Gonna Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day)' by Kiss, Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' and Homer Simpson favourite 'Two Tickets to Paradise'. There are Dad Rock songs on many subjects, of course, as it is a subset of rock, and rock is incredibly diverse. But generally, Dad Rock songs are either about rebelliousness or partying. Songs like 'You've Got To Fight For Your Right To Party' by the Beastie Boys combine the two.

One song that deserves special mention for its lyrical content is Aerosmith's 'Dream On'. I think if Dad Rock, a genre made up mainly of anthems, needed an anthem of its own, 'Dream On' would suffice. Lines like 'every time I look in the mirror / all the lines in my face getting clearer / the past is gone' reflect the preconceptions of the audience. Speaking as someone who has spent 'half his life in books written pages', I have indeed tried to 'live and learn from fools and from sages', so I at least can relate to it, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Life gets more complicated as you get older. To quote Lou Reed: 'responsibility sits so hard on my shoulder'. So reminders of an earlier, simpler life are an important part of staying sane through middle age. This is an important function of Dad Rock: it is not merely a musical force. It is also a psychological one.

There is an old Russian proverb that says 'would that the young had the wisdom / would that the old had the strength'. By invoking youthful memories of hearing songs the first time around, Dad Rock allows men in their time of wisdom to recall their time of strength.

To recall, perchance to relive... Dad Rock can even keep you young. It has doubtless fuelled many a menopausal misadventure. Looking for Tir Na Nog, the mystical Irish land of eternal youth? Listening to Thin Lizzy playing 'The Boys are Back in Town' or Van Morrison singing 'Gloria' might well take you there. Possibly even some early U2, if you still haven't found what you're looking for, if 'they' could not take your pride (in the name of love). 'Credence Clearwater Revival' could almost be a metaphor for a belief in the clear, reviving waters of the fountain of youth, assuming that 'Credence' in this context has the same Latin root (credo, meaning 'I believe') as words like creed and credibility. Personally, I feel 20 years younger when Dave Gilmour goes into the high part at the end of the second solo in 'Comfortably Numb'. My arteries become unclogged, my joints regain the power of movement, my politics lurch leftwards and cans and jars miraculously become easier to open.

Just like the dads themselves, Dad Rock must be relatively old. Probably at least 20 years old. There are some modern contenders for Dad Rock status (eg, 'Wonderwall' and 'Don't Look Back in Anger' by Oasis, 'Oh My God' by the Kaiser Chiefs and 'Run' by Snow Patrol have the required anthemic nature and singalong potential), but even given the youth of certain dads in the news recently, these songs are probably of too recent a vintage to be considered Dad (and therefore classic) Rock.

However, these songs will probably become the Dad Rock of the future, as the current generation of teenagers find their narrow waists and broad minds swapping adjectives, and kitchens of the future will be full of the song of fathers singing 'Mr Brightside' while their embarrassed offspring cringe before their apologetic mothers. Meanwhile, Britney and Beyonce in the rest home are being entertained by a local organist playing 'Smack My Bitch Up' and 'Gangsters Paradise'. Dad Rap - it can only be a matter of time.

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