The phenomenal and unexpected success of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged record has instigated a muted revolution in the record industry. The music marketplace is currently saturating with a soporific tide of rock and roll at its most laid back. Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and Rod Stewart, among others, have all mothballed their amps, buffed their acoustic six-strings to a TV-ready gleam, and recorded acoustic concerts for MTV, the sound tracks of which are now available in record stores. These outings are the offspring of MTV’s Sunday-evening Unplugged show, which, over the past several years, has featured an array of musicians from the worlds of rock, rap, and pop all of whose work normally uses electricity. For the show MTV asks the artists to step out of character and grace the airwaves with an hour of basically acoustic music. The shows have proved popular, so popular that bootleggers have been selling sizable quantities of unauthorized recordings of some of the performances. The record companies, always quick to spot a trend when someone else is making a killing, are currently issuing a steady stream of “unplugged” records themselves, including some by artists who never appeared on the MTV series in the first place. In fact, so frantically is the record industry jumping on the acoustic bandwagon the concept has already crossed over from the unique to the ludicrous. Even Al “Year of the Cat” Stewart has jumped aboard, with a brand-new unplugged retrospective. I seem to have forgotten the crazed, feedback-laden electric segment of Al’s career. No doubt James Taylor is on the verge of dumping his Marshall stacks as well.
There’s no question that MTV’s Unplugged shows have provided a fresh alternative to the way we normally see and hear rock music. When you consider that most live pop music can only be heard from a distance, in vast, beer-glazed caverns at ear-crushing volumes, there is something refreshingly intimate and engaging about a close-up view of a group of musicians hunched over acoustic guitars, singing intelligible lyrics. The unplugged concept brings musicians out from behind a fortress of decibels and gives the listener a chance to hear what they really can or can’t do. Aerosmith, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam have all dragged out their 12-strings and capos and taken the opportunity to visit the Unplugged set, presenting their music in a more introspective and revealing light. But while many of these shows have captured the interest and enthusiasm of MTV’s audience, it is apparently those performances featuring stars on the shady side of 40 that have transmuted appreciation into hefty retail profit. Why? Well, I suggest that it’s because the House of Rock and Roll is a house divided, and it’s divided along lines that are both permanent and irreconcilable.
During the decade between 1958 and 1968, when rock and roll came of age, the music was performed and enjoyed by people from roughly the same generation. Performers and audiences shared a common set of values and attitudes: social idealism, rebellion against the establishment, nonconformity. The animus of youth, in other words; rock was the first music to embody that dissatisfaction. The diversity on display at Woodstock, where 50s greaser rock (Sha-Na-Na) shared the stage with the likes of Hendrix, Santana, and Richie Havens, was a perfect demonstration of the unity of rock and roll at the time.
Conventional wisdom has it that during the 70s rock lost that unity and began splintering into a multitude of scenes and styles. Sure, the decade between 1969 and 1979 witnessed both the concept-bloated theatrics of Jethro Tull and the skeletal stridency of the Clash, but underneath all the hoopla, corporate arena rock wasn’t all that different from punk and new wave. Numerous bands in both eras, Rush no less than the Minutemen, carped at the ossified complacency of older generations while celebrating the insurgent imagination of youth.
For example, its baroquely convoluted music and lyrics notwithstanding, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick was a 45-minute condemnation of organized religion, upper-class hypocrisy, and the folly of war. The Clash’s hallowed first album was a 45-minute indictment of the institutionalized unemployment, poverty, and indifference that stunted the British youth of the 70s. The clothes and musical vocabulary were different, but the angry attitude was basically the same, an attitude that had been around in rock music since Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.
I began the 70s at the Chicago Stadium gobbling up every pretentious note of Tull’s Passion Play, and I ended the decade at the Aragon Ballroom having my ears sandblasted by the Clash. And there were plenty of others at the Aragon with me who just a few years earlier had been checking out Yes or Marshall Tucker or Santana at some stadium or racetrack or ballpark. We never felt the need to repudiate the music we enjoyed in 1972 in order to appreciate the music of 1979.
The Unplugged phenomenon, however, represents a tear in rock music’s ragged facade. The original rock and rollers are between 35 and 50 years old. They own homes; they run businesses; they’re taking over the government. Paul McCartney has written an oratorio. The Who’s Tommy is a Broadway musical. Songs by Graham Nash, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon have been press-ganged into service for major corporations to help peddle life-style accoutrements. The original wild-eyed, long-haired, up-against-the-wall outsiders are now about as inside as you can get without chairing General Motors. And though they’ve shed, in most cases, the hair, the pot, and the politics, the one thing they seem determined not to give up is rock and roll.
But how do you hang on to a style of music that’s typified by teenage angst, rebellion, and disgust when you’re a graying, married (at least once), and possibly influential 50-year-old? Basically, you put away the old Fender Strat and haul out the blond Martin. Sure, there are 40-, even 50-year-old Dead or Allman Brothers fans, but how many middle-aged men and women come home from a hectic day at the office, kick off the shoes, pour a little wine, and slip “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” into the Nakamichi? Or Anthrax or Slayer or Metallica? Not many. The crunch of a distorted power chord is the sound of hormonal tyranny and mutation.
Grunge rock offers a contemporaneous yang to the unplugged yin. Grunge, with its studiedly haphazard musicianship and mournful mumbled singing, is loud and abrasive and discordant. It’s not all that different from greaser rock in the 50s, acid rock in the 60s, glam rock in the 70s, and punk in the 80s. But the original rock audience has turned to unplugged (a rock and roll supplement with no bitter aftertaste) instead of grunge (the unruly real thing) to satisfy its rock-and-roll jones.
Unplugged rock and roll lets you think you’re listening to rock music even if the genre drains the songs of their vital sap, the spirit that made them great rock in the first place. Clapton’s unplugged version of “Layla” and the Broadway Tommy are perfect examples of this. The original “Layla” simply oozes with grinding desperation. It’s not just the notes and chords that make it so memorable, it’s the “I’m going out of my goddamn mind” performance. The recollection of an emotion one can no longer feel may be one definition of nostalgia; it certainly describes Clapton’s recent unplugged version of “Layla.” The song is no cry of pain, but a languid, good-timey stroll down memory lane with all the emotional force of a Dixieland band playing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” As far as Tommy is concerned, I accidentally caught a medley from the Broadway version on TV recently as I was channel surfing past the Tony awards program. Putting it mildly, tuxedoed trombonists don’t quite convey the tension and spirit of a staggering, windmilling Pete Townsend.
In other words, you can put a toothless shark in an aquarium and a drugged, declawed lion in a petting zoo. And you can produce rock for the baby boomers as long as it’s snug, warm, and sentimental.
I’m not saying that any and all acoustic performances are ipso facto flaccid, nostalgia-ridden shadows of real rock. I recently saw a preview of an upcoming Midnight Oil Unplugged set that, though quiet, was hardly mellow. But that ability to transmit dissatisfaction and resentment without the steroidal boost of amplifiers is pretty rare these days. (Bob Dylan in ’63 seems like ancient history.)
And that’s because, as I said above, the House of Rock is now irrevocably divided. What was once a raucous, crowded, Day-Glo bungalow is now a respectable split-level suburban estate with mom and pop strumming and humming upstairs and the kids down below trashing the rec room. And while it’s true that there’s always been that kind of generational split in families, this is the first time that both generations claim to be playing rock and roll.
The radio stations in this town are a perfect reflection of the split. WNUR (during its rock hours) and WXRT both proudly call themselves rock-and-roll stations. Not only that, both bill themselves as contemporary, cutting-edge rock stations. Both have audiences big enough to suit their respective needs. Yet in an average broadcasting week it’s unlikely that more than a handful, if any, of the same songs will be played on both stations. In fact, the number of artists played by both stations may not even be far into the double digits.
Clearly, rock music now exists on two entirely independent levels. George Harrison and Eric Clapton are megasellers; so are Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. But it’s doubtful that there is much, if any, overlap between their audiences. Harrison’s last record was entitled Cloud Nine. Nirvana’s was Incesticide. The former record is characterized by its accomplishment, smoothness, and timeworn familiarity; the latter by its abundant prickliness, resentment, and self-doubt. Middle age and youth. Perhaps Clapton’s next record will be called “Smells Like Old Spice.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.