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.

A warm Rock and Roll Hall of Fame salute to Steve Miller and Paul Stanley

New inductee Steve Miller did us all a big service Friday night at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he criticized the organization for neglecting female rockers during his acceptance speech, revealed its mistreatment of inductees during his press conference, then lambasted the publicist for trying to cut him off.

As for his first complaint, I always like thinking I was kicked off the Hall of Fame Nominating Committee years ago because I always spoke out in favor of Lesley Gore, Nancy Sinatra, Joan Jett and the Shangri-Las—not to mention males like The Turtles and The Hollies (Jett and The Hollies have since gone in), even though the form letter giving me the boot (along with a number of others) claimed that they wanted people who were more knowledgeable about 1970s rock—no matter that I’d written the first book on The Ramones.

So good on you there, Steve. Then again, as I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, I know how you inspired my homegirl Tracy Nelson’s signature song “Down So Low”–even if you did break her heart.

As for the RockHall’s treatment of inductees, he slagged the entire induction process backstage, in press accounts accusing the organization of disrespecting “the artists they say they’re honoring, which they don’t.” Here he specified licensing agreements between the show and inductees, and how they only gave him tickets for him and his wife while making his band and their wives fork over $10,000 per.

What I loved most, though, was how when the event’s publicist tried to stifle him, he stood his ground-—and then some: “No, we’re not going to wrap this up–I’m going to wrap you up,” he said. “You go sit down over there and learn something.”

What I’ve always hated about these award shows, or for that matter any major media extravaganza, is the way that media is herded and controlled (see Donald Trump media pens) like sheep—even if most of the time we are. Of course he wasn’t so much sticking up for the press and against big-event publicists as he was for himself and fellow RockHall inductees, but even an indirect slap at media manipulation, even among the most manipulatable, is to be applauded.

“This is how close this whole show came to not happening because of the way the artists are being treated,” he said, holding up two fingers very close together. And then he did wrap it up and walk off.

The RockHall tried to act diplomatic afterwards via a statement: “Rock ‘n’ roll can ignite many opinions,” it said. “It’s what makes it so great.”

Now there’s one big crock of shit statement! It’s the music that makes it so great, and it’s the many opinions that makes the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so despised! In fact, it’s those opinions—a good many if not most of them stupid—that makes defining rock ‘n’ roll apparently impossible! Another new inductee, N.W.A.’s Ice Cube, makes my point.

“The question is, ‘Are we rock ‘n’ roll?'” Cube said in an acceptance speech in which he proclaimed that N.W.A. and hip-hop belong there next to the Beatles, Elvis and Chuck Berry, “and I say–you goddamn right we rock ‘n’ roll.” His explanation? “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s 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.”

You may have noted, as I most certainly did, that he left out country. 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.”

Ice Cube didn’t say “polka,” either. But he—and N.W.A. mate MC Ren—got into a tiff with 2014 inductee Gene Simmons over the very point at hand.

KISS’s Simmons had told Rolling Stone that he was “looking forward to the death of rap,” that rappers didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame because they didn’t play guitar or sing—much as Phil Spector once told me that “rap music” is actually an oxymoron. In The New York Times shortly before his induction, Cube said he respected Simmons, “but I think he’s wrong on this, because rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument and it’s not singing. Rock ’n’ roll is a spirit. N.W.A is probably more rock ’n’ roll than a lot of the people that he thinks belong there over hip-hop. We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as the blues.”

Here he invoked the “spirit” characterization of rock ‘n’ roll, that once again, takes precedence over the music itself. He added in his induction remarks that “rock ‘n’ roll is not even a style of music,” with Ren answering Simmons directly: “Hip-Hop is here forever. Get used to it.”

Never the type to suffer in silence, Simmons tweeted Saturday: “Respectfully, let me know when Jimi Hendrix gets into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. Then you’ll have a point.” The next day Cube retorted, also via tweet, “Who stole the soul? Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Chubby Checker help invent rock & roll. We invent it. Y’all reprint it.”

Simmons’ final reply: “Cube, I stand by my words. [I] respect N.W.A, but when Led Zep gets into Rap Hall of Fame, I will agree with your point.”

Rolling Stone, covering the exchange Monday, quoted from a 2014 Simmons interview with Radio.com: “A few people decide what’s in and what’s not. And the masses just scratch their heads. You’ve got Grandmaster Flash in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Run-D.M.C. in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? You’re killing me. That doesn’t mean those aren’t good artists. But they don’t play guitar. They sample and they talk. Not even sing.”

But KISS and N.W.A. did have one thing in common, in addition to the capital letters. Neither band performed at their induction. As Cube told the Times (and echoed Miller), “we really didn’t feel like we were supported [by the RockHall] enough to do the best show we could put on.” In fact, the members of N.W.A. actually cut out early without taking questions.

KISS had long been shunned by the RockHal nomcomm, and by the time they finally were inducted, also chose not to perform, due to dissension among band members. This was hardly unusual: Paul McCartney didn’t even show when the Beatles were inducted in 1988, proclaiming that “after 20 years, the Beatles still have some business differences, which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion.” And none of the Sex Pistols were present in 2006 when they were inducted, Johny Rotten, contending in a handwritten letter that the RockHall was “a piss stain” and noting that the band would have to pay $25,000 to sit at a main table. And even at last week’s ceremony, inductee Chicago’s Peter Cetera didn’t show, and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, who did attend and perform, complained on Facebook after how the other three originals had forced him out of the band.

“The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll means you follow your own path regardless of the critics and your peers,” Paul Stanley had said in his KISS acceptance speech, ironically presaging Cube’s speech Friday night: “Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life. That is rock ’n’ roll, and that is us.”

Stanley also observed that KISS had stuck to its path for 40 years.

“Here we are tonight basically being inducted for the same things that we were kept out for,” he noted, and nodded to the fans. “Let’s not forget that these people make it all possible. We just benefit from it.”

I was reminded how, many years ago, I interviewed Paul for a Billboard KISS special, and told him that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was irrelevant without KISS.

“You know, we have our own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s in the record store bins.”

And really, what’s in the bins is what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great.

Glenn Frey: An appreciation

Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow’s statement summarized it succinctly: “As a founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey was an integral part of one of the most storied bands in pop history.”

He added, “Glenn’s untimely passing is a huge loss for the music community.”

Frey died Monday at 67, leaving prominent fans profoundly moved.

“Glenn Frey and the music he created alone and with The Eagles have been such an inspiration to me,” said country star Travis Tritt in a statement. “We first met at the video shoot for my version of [Eagles hit] ‘Take It Easy’ in 1993. He always went out of his way to acknowledge and encourage me ever since. I’m a better person, better musician and a better songwriter having met him.”

Tritt’s release of “Take It Easy” led to an Eagles reunion for the music video. Having broken up bitterly in 1980, the Eagles reconciled and fully reunited for their 1994 Hell Freezes Over tour.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, Paul Stanley of Kiss tweeted, “SHOCKED to report the death of GLENN FREY. Eagle & brilliant songwriter. We shared some memories at RRHOF [Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]. Shocked.”

Russ Titelman recalls a fortuitous meeting with Frey when he was producing Randy Newman’s 1974 Good Old Boys album.

“Glenn pulled me aside at the Troubadour and said, ‘Hey, man. If you ever need any background singing on Randy’s record let us know,” recalls Titelman. “Glenn, [fellow Eagles] Don Henley and Bernie Leadon sang on three songs—‘Rednecks,’ ‘Naked Man’ and ‘Back On My Feet Again.’ Three years later he worked–with Don, [Eagles] Tim Schmit, JD Souther and [Eagles] Joe Walsh) on [Newman’s album] Little Criminals: He sang on ‘Short People’ and ‘Baltimore’ and played fantastic guitar parts on ‘Little Criminals’ and ‘Baltimore.’ But the most notable and most fun thing they did was on a song called ‘Rider In The Rain,’ Randy’s funny fake cowboy song. Glenn, Don and JD Souther sang beautifully. It sounded like Randy singing lead on an Eagles record. Humorous and great.”

Frey, said Titelman, “was certainly one of the best songwriter-singer-musicians that ever graced our stage. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Frey was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame [SHOF] in 2000.

“Glenn did our Songwriters Hall of Fame Master/NYU Session a couple of years ago and it was the first time I got to talk to him since the very old days when the Eagles signed with Asylum and I was at Atlantic, both Warner Communication companies,” says SHOF president/CEO Linda Moran. “His daughter, Taylor, was attending NYU and was in the audience, so Dad’s interview and his responses and active participation were even more spectacular than we could ever anticipate. He spoke masterfully and passionately about songwriting that night and it was obvious the important role it played in his life and in his career. At the small dinner party afterwards, we chatted about the good old days. Being as he now had short hair, was clean-shaven and wearing a suit, he looked and acted very differently than the young kid I met decades ago. He really had his act together and you could tell he was enjoying and appreciating life. He laughed when I told him that he had ‘grown up very nicely!’”

New York classic rock Q1043 station DJ Maria Milito represents so many in taking Frey’s loss hard.

“I gasped, then cried when I heard the news of Glenn Frey’s passing,” says Milito. “Whether you grew up in the ‘70s or you’re a millennial, The Eagles have been a thread in the fabric of your life in America. The writing team of Henley-Frey were America’s Lennon-McCartney. But because The Eagles were from the next generation of bands, it’s difficult to wrap my head around this. I just thought he’d always be around and The Eagles would continue to tour.”

Concludes Milito, “Glenn Frey was a part of our youth, and now another piece of growing up is gone.”

Three years in the making, the Jim Bessman Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is up and running!

What an embarrassment.

It’s been almost three years since I wrote here that I was going to start up the Jim Bessman Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–and I only got around to it yesterday.

Actually, it’s now called The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon (not to be confused with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and like most of my writing over the last three years, you can find it here at examiner.com.

In the interim at least a few of the artists I had intended to induct have been inducted into the RockHall: The Hollies, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro. But I still have about 30 who should be in–that will be in The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon (not to be confused with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

And now, having honored KISS as the first inductee, the Jim Bessman Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a reality–though under a different name and in a different place. The nominating committee and electorate (there’s only one person in both–and it’s the same person) assure me that forthcoming inductions will be at the very least occasional.