Fifty years ago, a 19-year-old truck driver walked into a Memphis recording studio and changed the world. There are, inevitably, furious arguments over the precise details of where and when rock'n'roll was born. While some maintain that the date was 5 July 1954, with the recording of "That's All Right", there is an equally persuasive argument that it was 19 July 1954, when the song was released on Sun Records as the first single from Elvis Presley. The anniversary has been marked as a musical milestone. What has been less remarked upon is the arrival of rock'n'roll as a cultural phenomenon: revolutionary and dangerous.
Only three months before Elvis made his landmark recording, the United States Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools, in a ruling that provided the legal foundation of the civil rights movement. By borrowing--or stealing--the black sound of rhythm and blues, and adding his own distinct sexual energy, Elvis turned whites on to the feared "Negro sound", unleashing a cultural earthquake that shocked the older generation even as it delighted the newly invented teenagers.
Suddenly, even Frank Sinatra was not cool any more. He famously attacked rock'n'roll: "It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty, lyrics ... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth." Sinatra didn't get it. Rock 'n'roll was not just the sound of drums and guitars; it was the sound of youth and freedom, subversion and self-expression.
As it celebrates its 50th year, rock music is enjoying something of a revival. Having ceded the past decade to electronic dance music, guitar bands such as the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Killers are now in fashion. And concert tours by rock's original greats such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bruce Springsteen continue to attract millions.
No one can reasonably expect the Stones or the Who to shock as they did 40 years ago. What is more disappointing is how many of today's bands lack the ambitions that made rock music so glorious. Guitar music may be back in vogue, but the bands making it are not even pretending to be dangerous. While they have borrowed the chord progressions, they have discarded the attitude. Consequently, much of today's rock music is worse than a pale imitation of what went before; it is something akin to musical necrophilia.
There is nothing remotely dangerous or subversive about modern bands. Once rock'n'roll channelled generational conflict: it appalled parents, who feared their children were being corrupted. But music no longer splits generations. The new bands are enjoyed by parents and children alike. Teenagers find that, rather than outraging their parents, they are borrowing their albums. Indeed, the middle-aged buy more albums than any other age group and therefore influence which bands are given exposure. All that might be good for generational harmony, but it's hardly the spirit of rock'n'roll.
Even the notion that music could be subversive now sounds outdated. …