Worth Repeating: Revolution Now!

In August, 1966, Greg Shaw helped launch the very idea of rock criticism with his mimeographed publication, Mojo-Navigator Rock & Roll News. A few years later, he started up what was to become the extremely influential network of Bomp! : a magazine, a record store, and a record label, all of which helped sow the seeds of punk and new wave. Over the course of the next four decades, Shaw was an instrumental figure in the careers of numerous musicians and writers. On October 19, 2004, he died from heart failure at the age of 55.

REVOLUTION NOW:
A BOMP EDITORIAL!

by Greg Shaw
Those of you who remember the old Bomp Magazine (1970-1979) know that my editorials were one of the staple features. The topic was usually “the State of Rock and Roll.” In the early to mid 1970s, when music had never been so oppressively controlled by corporate powers, and choice so limited, it seemed insane to believe that we, as fans, could ever have a meaningful voice in what we were allowed to hear, or how it was presented. But we had to try, because we loved rock & roll and didn’t want to let those bastards kill it.

Strangely enough, all the things dreamt of in those editorials came to pass, and sooner than anyone expected. Local bands re-emerged. The great raw sounds of the ’50s and ’60s were reissued (either by major labels under fan supervision, or on fan-made compilations), and had a galvanizing influence on a new generation of bands. Punk Rock was born in the spirit of the ’60s garage explosion, blowing open the doors that the industry had held fast against any fresh breath of rebellion. Vast networks of indie labels, fanzines, radio shows, record distributors and more, scarcely imaginable in 1975, were fully in place two or three years later.

Bomp’s editorials didn’t cause these things to happen, of course; rather, they voiced the need for them, encouraged people to believe in and work for change, and pointed out areas in which progress seemed possible. There was intense resistance from the established order to the kinds of changes we wanted, but amazingly enough, a relative handful of people who shared a common vision were able to make a huge difference simply by doing the right thing at the right time.

I stopped writing editorials 20 years ago, and don’t intend to make a practice of it again. My views are my own, and I recognize that I am of no mind to formulate any grand theories of pop or anything else. Yet I can’t help being struck lately by the similarities between 1975 and today.

  • Item: In both cases the record industry had turned its back on new talent and concentrated on a handful of boring superstars they could count on to sell a huge volume of records.
  • Item: In both times, local music either didn’t exist at all, had no focus, or lacked any kind of scene to take root in.
  • Item: Then as now, audiences had been turned into passive consumers of prefab culture, with no interest in creating anything of their own.

All this could be coincidence. Or it could be a clue that the conditions for a revolution are once again ripe.

There is a misconception about revolution, namely that they are supposed to accomplish something lasting. This is simply not true. What a revolution does is replace an existing order with a new one, which left to itself, will soon become as rigid as the one it replaced.

Revolution is a process, and its main payoff is to add value to the lives of those who participate in it, and improve conditions in general for awhile. When it stops moving, it dies.

The point of a music revolution is not to replace today’s pop stars with a new slate; it is to kick out the jams! Riot in the streets! Do it now! etc. It’s all about direct engagement, and the result of all that activity should be a better time for all, a party that will keep everyone coming back to do it some more. And not only that–”parties” are not radical in themselves. The sense of being more fully alive, empowered, having an impact on your world and your culture, these are the chief rewards. This is what rock & roll at its best can provide–leading to the idea that perhaps rock & roll itself should be seen not as a genre, not as a mere noun or even a verb, but also as a process.

Punk rock was a fantastic thing for those who took part in it, but listening to the Sex Pistols today is not a “punk rock” experience: it is an “oldies” experience. Same for the revolutions of the ’50s and ’60s. The “My Generation” of The Who will be on Social Security soon! The only meaningful revolution is the one that is taking place right now, if at all. There is no other time but now that we can live in, existentially speaking, and we either seize or or we don’t. We can use history to see what other revolutions have looked and sounded like, but we can’t truly know what it is until it’s happening all around us, and we have a personal role to play.

It may be folly to believe you can alter the course of the world, which is inevitably becoming more centralized, more controlled by large money interests, and less free–in terms of mass pop culture, at any rate. Out on the fringes, the Internet is enabling more and more variety, which is great, as long as you’re satisfied with a very small cult following and no money. This you are free to have. But the dream of rock & roll, from Elvis to the Beatles to Nirvana, has been the dream of doing something cool and changing the lives of millions with it. This is a dream each new generation of musicians embraces, for better or worse. And no matter how great the odds seem to be against it, I firmly believe it can happen any time people decide they’ve had enough crap.

Now, there are a couple of things necessary for a revolution. One is that the people be unbearably oppressed. Oppressed we surely are, with only three major record companies now controlling all channels of distribution (even indie records are distributed by a branch of EMI) and desiring nothing more than for us to shut up and buy more Britney Spears and Eminem. But “unbearably”? There are so many other obsessions these days; a kid with a new Nokia cell phone doesn’t have a clue he’s missing the joys of being part of a rock & roll scene. The masses will not rise in the name of something they can’t even imagine.

The other ingredient lacking is some charismatic band to carry the revolutionary banner. There’s been no shortage of overnight sensations in music recently, of course. But whatever their success, acts like Oasis, Radiohead, Beck, or (you name it) have not inspired their generation to “seize the means of production” or whatever it is proletariats are supposed to do. Any such band, I suspect, will need to be a whole lot more subversive than anything we’ve seen before. And probably something incapable of being packaged and sold for a profit!

(In many ways, the Grateful Dead met most of these criteria:
underground till the end, they did create a substantial alternative culture around them. Unfortunately it was not a particularly viable one, and not one that many of us would care to join. But it is a valid example of what I’m talking about, I must admit.) Then there are “paint-by numbers” bands, starting possibly with Bomp alumni the Flamin’ Groovies, who think that by retracing the steps of past heroes, they can launch some new Heroic Age. Much as I have enjoyed some of these bands, their premise has clearly been proven wrong. (If we can’t learn from our own history, we may be condemned to endlessly reissue it…)

And yeah, there’s rap… but among other problems, rap comes out of a completely different cultural vein. I’m talking about a tradition called “rock and roll” that has been invented and re-invented continuously since the early ’50s, going always back to its roots and coming up with something new and more powerful. In my opinion, rap is the belated black response to punk, parallel to it in some ways, and like punk, long past its most creative days. Public Enemy and their ilk were subversive, in their way, in their time. But that revolution died when its heroes grabbed the gold chains rather than holding out for real change. Sure, some cool stuff has gone on in the name of rap, not to mention reggae, techno, the rave scene, and so on, empowering individuals in the context of music culture. Movements have arisen, and changed lives in way I can’t but admire. But all this is a far cry from what rock and roll has done in the past, and from what I expect it to do for me, being who I am. So I address myself to what I believe can be done in the name of Rock and Roll.

An artist who will command the world’s imagination and set it on a new musical course is what’s needed to set off a wide-scale revolution. In their wake, a whole wave of superior bands would be able to follow. But such an artist may or may not appear, like it or not.

Revolution, however, does not need to be as massive as all that. It is a process that begins at the grass-roots level, and needn’t necessarily rise above it. Horizontal growth may actually be what’s called for… (I’ve always maintained that if punk rock had happened on labels like Rough Trade instead of EMI and Warner Brothers, it would not have burned out so soon.) The point of revolution, in this sense, is to be a part of it. That’s where the pleasure comes from–the involvement, the participation in creating something. And this is a revolution we can have–if we want it badly enough to make it happen.

The conditions for it are better now than they have been in quite awhile. Healthy local music scenes are emerging all over, with bands whose vision embraces folk and blues, ’60s pop and ’70s punk, all the elements of the tradition they yearn to be a part of, with intelligence and historical savvy. I won’t mention any bands, but there are some great ones out there all of a sudden (Parenthetically: of course there are always plenty of cool local bands; most of them, however, have nothing to do with any of this, not to knock them.

It may sound vague, but I know the kind of band I mean when I see it, and so will you.) I’ve talked with many in the past year or two and the same ideas keep coming up: there’s something happening here, we’re all a part of it, we don’t know what it is, there’s no marketing slogan, no ad campaign, but it’s real and we can feel it. And that’s the way it ought to be. Right now, there’s no excuse for anyone who loves music not to get out and support the good bands, who are either in your town or coming through soon. Don’t wait to read about it in Rolling Stone; put your ear to the ground.

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