Rock ‘n’ Roll 101
The stories behind 14 songs that define the genre
Pete Townshend once rejected liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s request to use the classic Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for his 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Townshend questioned Moore’s dedication to the truth, for starters. The rocker also knew something about the power of rock music that he shared on his personal website. “He’ll have to work very, very hard to convince me that a man with a camera is going to change the world more effectively than a man with a guitar,” Townshend said.
With that world-changing quote in mind, here are the 14 most essential rock songs.
Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm – “Rocket 88”: The song, recorded by Chess Studios and legendary producer Sam Phillips in 1951, is considered by most music historians to be the first rock song ever recorded. “Rocket 88,” an homage to the smooth, fast and recently released Oldsmobile, was labeled as recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, though it was actually Turner and his group.
“Rocket 88” is considered historic because it was the first song recorded with a distorted guitar. For those who don’t play the instrument, a distorted guitar sounds like The Beatles on “Revolution.” A traditional “clean” guitar sounds like The Beatles on “Love Me Do.”
The song, the instruments, the players — it feels as if it will fall apart on the next note and the speakers are going to explode.
The new sound they discovered happened during a road trip. Guitarist Willie Kizart’s guitar amp became damaged. Some say it fell off the roof of the car and the speaker cracked. Kizart attempted to repair it with newspaper, and was left with the now-familiar and ubiquitous distorted sound. Turner and others say the amp was actually damaged due to a water leak in the trunk of the car. Either way, Kizart loved how it sounded it and it made the recording.
To add coincidence, cosmic symmetry, or proof of God’s will, the incident occurred on U.S. Highway 61 through Mississippi — one section of the “Crossroads,” where blues great Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil. Ten years later, Bob Dylan would begin the ’60s music movement with his album “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Chuck Berry – “Johnny B Goode”: Berry was the first flame-throwing rock guitarist. He blasted through his solos and chugged his blues riffs at a speed never heard before. One result was “Johnny B Goode,” which earned a historical citation in the movie “Back to the Future.” Everything written from the ’50s until punk was invented was derivative of Berry’s autobiographical tune (and even Jimi Hendrix would pay homage with his own version of “Johnny B Goode”).
The Beatles – “Revolution”: The Beatles tune is known mostly for its blazing distorted guitar tone and rocking rhythm, but the lyrics blasting the era’s radicals was stunning. Lennon still had radicals in mind when it came to the sound of the song. Legend says the band plugged the guitar directly into a multimillion dollar studio board and could have blown it up in the attempt to get the sound they wanted. If they had, it would have meant instant bankruptcy.
The Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Like a Rainbow”: After Dylan told The Beatles they needed to say more with their music, the Stones figured out they need to as well. Up until then, they were mainly dedicated to blues covers and rocking them in their own way. “Satisfaction,” written with a distorted riff and simplicity that Keith Richards would describe as almost idiotic, became the band’s signature song and the new template for the ’60s rock song.
With bands of the era competing to stretch themselves musically, the Stones hit the studio and recorded “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song whose title alone brought howls of protest. But for those checking out before checking into the song, Mick Jagger had an almost biblical understanding of moral relativism as it related to the devil. It’s not evil that’s evil, but the gray areas, the not doing of good, but the not doing of anything. It was the band’s crowning achievement, showing musical craft and lyrical depth that’s been missing from culture for years.
“Like a Rainbow” was the only gem on a flop psychedelic concept album, but it kept true to Stones simplicity. When it came to writing great music, some could do more so than others. The piano riff was absolutely addictive and, like “Sympathy for the Devil,” it showed blues rock still had millions of miles it could travel.
Jimi Hendrix and The Experience - “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”: “Purple Haze” was better known, “All Along the Watchtower” charted higher, but "Voodoo Chile" was akin to an auditory trip to Mars. The song, the instruments, the players — it feels as if it will fall apart on the next note and the speakers are going to explode. There has been nothing recorded like it since. (But make sure you the live version from his 1969 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London.)
Led Zeppelin – “How Many More Times”: The song wouldn’t make most Zep fans' Top 10 lists, but the simplicity backed by the electricity made it emblematic the band’s first album. It was the one song that pushed the '60s into the '70s.
Pink Floyd – “Brain Damage/Eclipse”: The closing tracks to “Dark Side of the Moon,” the best-selling and perhaps greatest rock album ever made, feels as if the moon and sun are colliding with your roof as Floyd, as the narrator, realizes he’s becoming insane. Then the pace changes, and it builds to the most epic crescendo in music.
Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop”: With progressive rock at its peak, the appetite for old-fashion garage rock grew, and out came the Ramones. There were no 10-minute, multi-instrumental, Beowulf-ian epics to be found here. “Blitzkrieg Bop” was a three-chord jab to the face of the music industry when it needed it most, and the Ramones became the most influential band since The Beatles. While drawing 150 to shows in New York, they drew 5,000 to two July 1976 shows in London, where members of The Damned, Sex Pistols and The Clash would meet, igniting the punk movement.
Van Halen – “5150”: Van Halen reinvented hard rock music, and hard rock wouldn’t recover for 15 years. Nearly every band afterward was some carbon copy of Van Halen. There was the charismatic goofball lead singer (David Lee Roth), loads of sexual party lyrics and blazing guitars set over some simple riff. The formula changed when Sammy Hagar replaced Roth. A musician himself, and without anyone to hold them back, the band found a way to build complexity and get the most from their talents without sacrificing accessibility. “5150,” the title track off the first Hagar album, combined Hagar’s fiery vocals and a band at its peak, with Eddie Van Halen cut loose on the song structure and drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony along for the ride. No band since has been able to match this level of talent, musicianship and songwriting.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: According to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, the band was almost too embarrassed to release its first single because he felt it was such a blatant Pixies rip off. Instead, "Teen Spirit" imploded the existing musical paradigm, and rewrote rock music for the next 20 years.
Pixies – “Here Comes Your Man”: Pixies didn’t seem to mind their growing influence and kept writing brilliant, catchy and weird songs that would be stuck in your head for months. “Here Comes Your Man” was the band at its best, combining its vocal combo of Frank Black and Kim Deal, with the catchiest guitar riff ever written. Indie rock didn’t have to sound like sludge, but in fact could be addictive and brilliant.
Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name”: Rage’s punkified metal meets MC5 political rock was electric to the ears. Sure, the band was communist (though that didn’t stop them from cashing checks) and made a lot of their fans angry for their more controversial political causes (The Guitar World letters section after a Rage interview was always a hoot), the band took the rock-rap duality farther than anyone had before or since. Guitarist Tom Morello was the last truly inventive and influential rock guitarist, finding ways to get new sounds from his instrument and breaking down walls for what was capable on the guitar. Jack White has made a career of ripping him off since.