Artistic risk and Gene Sculatti’s Binary Theory of rock ‘n’ roll

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Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”

To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.

I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.

Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”

What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.

Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?

This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?

Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.

With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”

Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.

But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”

Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.

Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.

Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.

“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.

“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.

“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”

But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”

Sculatti kindly recaps.

“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”

Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.