“Rock On” by David Essex is probably one of my all-time favorite songs. While it was a song I recognized from frequent radio play growing up (and from the terrible cover it by a soap star) it was not until I was regularly buying records on vinyl (a practice I have foregone) and looking for unique ways bring music together for DJ sets that I happened upon it again and gave it a good listen. The song has a haunting quality that reinforced by its liberal use of reverb on both the vocal and the unorthodox bassline. The muted thump on the bass as the song opens emulates a heartbeat. The lack of conventional drums (there’s a high-hat cymbal and what sounds like a bongo) makes the song feel unearthly, dislocated, The backing vocals panning from left to right sonically manifests that dislocation while making the song an aural delight for headphone play. There is also a affective flatness to much of Essex’s vocal delivery, which adds to sense of being disaffected.
The song’s content speaks not only a to a rock n’ roll disillusionment, but even suggests that it could never fulfill its rebellious promise. At its heart, the song is an indictment of rock n’ roll, while still paying it a respectful homage to references to its golden era of “blues suede shoes” and “summertime blues” and James Dean—rebel without a cause. The song’s warped string and horn break even challenges the idea that there is such a thing as “rock n’ roll”—as long before 1973 the category of what could be called “rock” was so expanded as to become meaningless. The song is fairly clear in expressing its ennui, “Where do we go from here? Which is the way that’s clear?” There is no authentic relationship to rock music, all that remains is a cynical and limp call to “rock on.” It’s all a put-on. If it weren’t for the song’s careful arrangement and layers it might even be called punk (the simplicity makes it more like glam of the T-Rex vein). There is no future, because there was no past. The sonic qualities of the song cut it off from the possibility that it expresses nostalgia for an older and better rock n’ roll.
“Drive” by R.E.M. off of 1992’s Automatic for the People is a song in the same vein as “Rock On.” While more rhythmically textured that Essex’s song with it use of acoustic guitars and its heaving movement towards something of a refrain with its more conventional reliance on a snare, it also evokes a sense of unfulfilled longing that still haunts. The song’s lyrics directly reference “Rock On” with its own “Hey kids, rock n’ roll” and mentioning Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Furthermore, while incorporating a crunchy guitar riff, “Drive” also includes a string component that sounds a lot more polished than the raw sounds of “Rock On” (which I’d think were re-created on synths if not for the year the song was recorded). Like Essex, Stipe delivers the lyrics with a degree of emotional flatness. Perhaps, “Drive” is the “Rock On” for the 90s, but post-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) it seems like it is just re-treading old ground without providing anything new to something a generation of kids growing out of adolescence 20 or more years earlier were already figuring out.
I do like the double-valence of the lyrics in “Drive.” When Michael Stipe sings, “Nobody tells you what to do,” it does capture a tension between wanting direction and not wanting to be told what to do or who to be. In addition, the irony suggested in these young fans “tying another one [pop star?] to [their] back[s]” (the video with Stipe crowd-surfing seems a little too obvious) as a way to express a form of personal identity through spoon-fed commodified popular culture certainly resonates. Each generation is “bushwhacked” to some degree, but R.E.M’s expression of it here seems more derivative than exploring some new aspect or reaction to it. It doesn’t help that at four and half minutes the song is way too long and feels repetitive without purpose.
A friend of mine says that when he first saw the video for “Drive” he got the feeling that R.E.M and other alternative “college radio” bands of our youth—we were old at 21—were “pimping it out.” But, as I said to him, they were all already always pimping it out. The shit’s a business. You can get caught up in believing it, but they are all selling commodified adolescent alienation (in its longest contemporary form) as rebelliousness without having the dignity to even bite the head off a bat or shoot ping pong balls from their vaginas. David Essex’s sneering “Rock On” said as much in 1973. The first time it is tinged with the sense of cynicism borne from tragic realization, but the second time, 20 years later, it is more like the recapitulation of Theodore Adorno’s assertion of the culture industry’s “manipulation of taste and the official culture’s pretense of individualism.” Then again, as useful as Adorno’s broad critique of the culture industry can be, his conception of a totalizing self-regulating system of society fails to account for the powerful possibilities brought about by affect in the experience of music, even when it is a selling you a false consciousness. It is just that in uncritical repetition even the rejection of pretense becomes a pose.