MEETING THOM IS EASY
Everyone will tell you it’s not, and they’re all wrong. There are people who will insist Thom Yorke is a misanthropic sociopath and that he ends interviews for no good reason. They will suggest that the likelihood of him speaking candidly is roughly the same as the chance of him unscrewing two bolts from his neck and removing his cybernetic faceplate, suddenly revealing a titanium endoskeleton that was built by futuristic space druids.
But this is not true.
Thom Yorke is weird, sort of. But you’ve met weirder. He’s mostly just an intense, five-foot-five-inch 34-year-old who wears hooded sweatshirts with sleeves too long for his limbs, and this makes him look like a nervous kindergartener. He doesn’t appear to have combed his hair since The Bends came out in 1995, and his beard looks undecided, if that’s possible. But here’s the bottom line: He’s nice. Not exactly gregarious, but polite. He is neither mechanical nor messianic. And this is what everyone seems to miss about him–and about Radiohead as a whole: They may make transcendent, fragile, pre-apocalyptic math rock for a generation of forward-thinking fans, but they’re still just a bunch of guys.
I’m sitting with Yorke in the restaurant of an Oxford, England, hotel called the Old Parsonage. He was 20 minutes late for our interview, explaining that he had to run home and do some yoga because he was “feeling a bit weird.” He’s studying the restaurant menu and complaining that he’s running out of things he can eat–not only is he a vegetarian, but he’s stopped eating anything made with wheat (for the past six months, he’s had a skin rash, and he thinks wheat is the culprit). Eventually he settles on roasted tomatoes and butter beans, a meal he calls “expensive” (it costs about $17). We’re talking about politics (kind of) and his two-year-old son Noah (sort of), and I ask him how those two subjects dovetail–in other words, how becoming a father has changed his political beliefs and how that has affected the songwriting on Hail to the Thief, the sixth studio album from earth’s most relevant rock band.
His answer starts predictably. But it ends quickly.
“Having a son has made me very concerned about the future and about how things in the world are being steered, supposedly in my name,” he says between sips of mineral water. “I wonder if our children will even have a future. But the trouble with your question–and we both know this–is that if I discuss the details of what I’m referring to in Spin magazine, I will get death threats. And I’m frankly not willing to get death threats, because I value my life and my family’s safety. And that sort of sucks, I realize, but I know what is going on out there.”
Yorke’s reluctance is not a surprise. Since April, Radiohead have stressed that Hail to the Thief is not a political record and that the album’s title is not a reference to George W. Bush’s controversial victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election (in fact, Yorke claims he heard the phrase during a radio program analyzing the election of 1888). This is a bit paradoxical, because that argument seems both valid and impossible: There are no overtly political lyrics on the record, but it feels political. And Yorke is not exactly nonpartisan: At a recent antiwar rally in Gloucestershire, England, he publicly declared that “the U.S. is being run by religious maniac bigots that stole the election.”
“If the motivation for naming our album had been based solely on the U.S. election, I’d find that to be pretty shallow,” he says. “To me, it’s about forces that aren’t necessarily human, forces that are creating this climate of fear. While making this record, I became obsessed with how certain people are able to inflict incredible pain on others while believing they’re doing the right thing. They’re taking people’s souls from them before they’re even dead. My girlfriend–she’s a Dante expert–told me that was Dante’s theory about authority. I was just overcome with all this fear and darkness. And that fear is the ‘thief.'”
Well, okay, maybe labeling Yorke a “normal dude” might be something of an exaggeration. Perhaps he is a little paranoid. But he’s no paranoid android; he’s just a paranoid humanoid, and he certainly has a sense of humor about it. After he casually mentions his girlfriend, I ask him if he’ll ever get married.
“That’s a totally personal question–next,” he says gruffly, and for a moment it feels like I’m watching an outtake from Radiohead’s 1999 documentary, the mediaphobic Meeting People Is Easy. But then I laugh. And he laughs. And suddenly he’s just a bearded humanoid who’s eating tomatoes, completely aware of how ridiculous our conversation is. “What is this?” he asks. “Do you work for Us Weekly now?”
MOST OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE ABOUT RADIOHEAD IS WRONG
“The first time I ever saw Thom, he was jumping over a car.” This is not something I expected Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien to say, but he appears to be quite serious. “Thom was an amazing gymnast in high school,” he continues. “Nobody knows that about him, but you can get a sense of it just by watching him move around. He’s really strong. He did this handspring right over a car. It’s like how Morrissey was a great long-distance runner in high school–nobody knows that, either.”
O’Brien is the fifth member of the band I have spoken with over the past eight hours, each in a different room of the Old Parsonage. I’ve been rushing from room to room for answers, not unlike the final ten minutes in a game of Clue. O’Brien is the last person I’m speaking with today, and he’s different from the other four guys in the band: He’s significantly taller (6’5″), he’s the only one who doesn’t reside in Radiohead’s native city of Oxford (he lives an hour away in London), and he talks like an intelligent hippie (if such a creature exists). He’s also rumored to be the most “rock-oriented” member of Radiohead, preferring the conventional structures of older songs, like “Just” and “Ripcord.”
Here, again, my assumption is wrong.
Part of the reason O’Brien is perceived as Radiohead’s designated rocker is that he’s the most interested in classic rock; he especially enjoys discussing U2, who appear to be Radiohead’s third-biggest musical influence (the first two being the Smiths, whom all five members love unequivocally, and the Pixies, from whose records Jonny Greenwood learned how to play guitar). For the most part, the other four members don’t talk about mainstream rock.
“I’m interested in bands as beasts,” O’Brien says. “I’m interested in U2 and the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I love the dynamic of musicians working together and all the voodoo shit that comes with it. It’s a complicated thing to do over the expanse of time, which is why I respect U2 so much. Don’t get me wrong–I adore the Stones, but they haven’t made a good record since 1972. Exile on Main Street was the last great Stones album. But U2 have been at it for 20 years, and that song ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get OutOf’ was amazing. And that’s after 20 years. That’s when the Stones were making Still Life.”
It’s intriguing to hear O’Brien discuss band dynamics, because Radiohead rarely discuss the internal mechanics of their organization; their dynamic is relatively unknown. The band members tend to describe the creative process as their “methodology,” and here’s how it works: Yorke writes the material alone (usually on piano) and gives demo CDs to the other four. They all listen for a few weeks and deduce what they can contribute; then they meet, rehearse, and arrange the songs as a unit (according to Jonny, arrangement is their favorite step). They perform the songs live (in order to see what works and what doesn’t), and then they go into the studio to record them.
With Hail to the Thief, the recording process was intentionally short. Most of the record was cut in two and a half weeks in Los Angeles with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, often one song per day (supposedly, the very first sound you hear on the album is Jonny plugging in his guitar on the first morning they arrived at the studio). What’s surprising is how conciliatory the other four band members are to Yorke. They’re all accomplished musicians, but he directs the vision of the band. Yet this seems to cause no problem whatsoever.
“In a band like the Smashing Pumpkins, that kind of songwriting situation caused problems, because one gets the impression certain members of that band felt replaceable,” O’Brien says. “But if you feel good about yourself, you will be honest and generous toward other people. I hope Thom makes a solo album in the future; there’s no doubt he will. And it will be fucking amazing. But as a band, we are all individually essential. In Radiohead, no one is replaceable.”
“For every song like ‘I Will,’ which arrived fully formed and was immediately perfect, there are songs like ‘Sail to the Moon,’ which weren’t great,” Jonny says. “I’m not being rude, but ‘Sail to the Moon’ wasn’t very well-written, and it had different chords and only half an idea. It only came together after the whole band worked on it and figured out how the structures should be, and [drummer] Phil [Selway] had some insight on how the song could be arranged. And then it became just about the best song on the record.”
In a way, it all sounds remarkably simple, but things weren’t always this easy. O’Brien says Hail to the Thief represents “the end of an era” and that they’ve taken “this kind of music” (however you want to define it) as far as it can go. But that statement seems more reflective of their new outlook on life, which is that being in this band is an exceptional–and relatively painless–experience.
They like being Radiohead. Six years ago, they did not.
“The worst point [in our career] was playing shows in the U.K. right after OK Computer came out,” says bassist Colin Greenwood, Jonny’s older brother. “There is nothing worse than having to play in front of 20,000 people when someone–when Thom–absolutely does not want to be there, and you can see that hundred-yard stare in his eyes. You hate having to put your friend through that experience. You find yourself wondering how you got there.”
Colin is saying this as he eats in the hotel’s parlor room. It’s the second of four meals he will consume today (he claims nervousness over Hail to the Thief has raised his metabolism). Colin is both the band’s friendliest and goofiest member and about the most enthusiastic person I have ever met. Sometimes he closes his eyes for 20 seconds at a time, almost as if the world were too brilliant to look at; there appears to be no subject he is not obsessed with. He tells me I must visit the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to see the stuffed dodo birds (which I do) and insists I check out a cartography exhibit at the Bodleian Library (which I do not). He gleefully mentions having seen a baby deer while driving to the Spin photo shoot, as if it had been some rare sighting of the Loch Ness monster. He mentions about 15 different books during our interview and even gives me one as a present (Brian Thompson’s Imperial Vanities). Everyone in this band probably reads more than you do; hanging out with Radiohead is kind of like getting high with a bunch of librarians. At one point, I ask Colin, who is married to American writer and literary critic Molly McGrann, a theoretical question: If the music of Radiohead were a work of literature, would it be fiction or nonfiction?
“I think it would be nonfiction,” he says. “Thom’s lyrics are sort of like a running commentary on what’s happening in the world, almost like you’re looking out of the window of a Japanese bullet train and things are sort of flying by. It’s like a shutter snapping in succession.”
That’s an apt description of the lyrics on Hail to the Thief, particularly on less abstract tracks like “A Punch-Up at a Wedding” (a narrative about the clichéd reactions to a social faux pas), “We Suck Young Blood” (about the vapidity of celebrity), and “Myxomatosis,” perhaps the most interesting entry on Hail to the Thief. Myxomatosis is a virus that inadvertently devastated the British rabbit population after it was introduced in the 1950s, covering the countryside with bunny carcasses. The disease is not what the song is literally about, but hearing Yorke’s explanation illustrates why trying to dissect the metaphors in Radiohead’s music is virtually impossible. The dots do not connect.
“I remember my parents pointing out all these dead rabbits on the road when I was a kid,” Yorke says. “I didn’t know that much about the virus, or even how to spell it. But I loved the word. I loved the way it sounded. The song is actually about mind control. I’m sure you’ve experienced situations where you’ve had your ideas edited or rewritten when they didn’t conveniently fit into somebody else’s agenda. And then–when someone asks you about those ideas later–you can’t even argue with them, because now your idea exists in that edited form.
“It’s hard to remember how things actually happen anymore, because there’s so much mind control and so many media agendas,” he continues. “There’s a line in that song that goes, ‘My thoughts are misguided and a little naive.’ That’s the snarly look you get from an expert when they accuse you of being a conspiracy theorist. In America, they still use the ‘conspiracy theorist’ accusation as the ultimate condemnation. I’ve been reading this Gore Vidal book [Dreaming War], and I know Vidal is always accused of being a conspiracy theorist. But the evidence he uses is very similar to the evidence used by a lot of well-respected British historians. Yet they still call him crazy. To me, that’s part of what ‘Myxomatosis’ is about–it’s about wishing that all the people who tell you that you’re crazy were actually right. That would make life so much easier.”
This self-analysis is noteworthy, because it speaks to where Yorke is coming from intellectually. However, it avoids one trenchant question: What does mind control have to do with a virus that kills rabbits?
The answer is “nothing.”
Yorke named the track “Myxomatosis” for the same reason he repeats the phrase “the rain drops” 46 times during the song “Sit Down. Stand Up.” He simply liked the way it sounded on tape. The syllables fall like dominoes, and consonance collapses like a house of cards. Sometimes you can’t find the meaning behind the metaphor because there is no metaphor.
Yorke’s preoccupation with picking words for how they sound (as opposed to what they mean) is part of why Radiohead’s cultic following cuts such a wide swath (every album except 2001’s Amnesiac has gone platinum): If phrases have no clarity and no hard reality, people can turn them into whatever they need. If you need the words on Hail to the Thief to be political, they certainly have that potential; if you need Hail to the Thief to explain why your girlfriend doesn’t love you, it can do that, too. It’s a songwriting style Yorke borrowed from Michael Stipe; not coincidentally, Stipe’s R.E.M. were the last rock-band intellectuals taken as seriously as Radiohead are taken today.
“What I love about them,” says Stipe, calling from a recording studio in Vancouver, “is that Radiohead’s music allows me to craft my own film inside my head. That’s what I like about all music.”
Stipe and Yorke’s relationship is hard to quantify, as it’s difficult for über-famous rock musicians on different continents to have any kind of normal friendship (since traveling together on R.E.M.’s 1995 Monster tour, they’ve maintained a sporadic phone and email dialogue). However, this much is clear: The guidance Stipe provided Yorke at the height of Radiohead’s fame almost certainly kept the band from breaking up. To hear Stipe explain it, their interaction was almost academic–he talks about the complexity of “dealing with words” and how all performers “are missing something in their DNA” and that it’s almost impossible for artists to balance their inherent insecurity with the ego required to display oneself in public.
Meanwhile, Yorke’s description is considerably simpler.
“The nicest thing Michael did for me was pull me out of a hole I would have never escaped from otherwise,” Yorke says. “This was right after OK Computer came out. All he really did was listen to me talk about the experience I was going through, but there’s not a whole lot of people who can relate to that kind of situation, you know? That was very nice of him. I would like to pull a few other people out of holes at some point.”
I tell Yorke he should consider contacting White Stripes frontman Jack White about this, but he says, “I don’t think he needs my help.” This is another of Yorke’s quirks: He tends to assume that everybody on earth has their life more together than he does. Sometimes he puts his hands on the sides of his skull and inadvertently replicates the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Conversationally, he seems completely rational and calm, but he’s convinced he’s losing his mind. And it’s probably Bill O’Reilly’s fault.
“I absolutely feel crazy at times,” he says. “Anybody who turns on the TV and actually thinks about what they’re watching has to believe they’re going insane or that they’re missing something everyone else is seeing. When I watch the Fox News channel, I can’t believe how much nerve those people have and how they assume that people are just going to swallow that shit. And I find myself thinking that I must be missing something.”
This is who Hail to the Thief is ultimately for, I think–people who look for order in the world and simply don’t see it. Colin thinks much of the album is about the destruction of human space by corporate forces (he draws thematic comparisons between Hail to the Thief and Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to Be Alone); Jonny thinks it might be about accepting the condition of the world and concentrating on one’s own family; Selway talks of “dark forces” that drove the record’s creation; O’Brien casually wonders if “it might be too late for this planet.” (Part of Radiohead’s enduring mystery might be that even the other guys in the band don’t fully understand what Yorke’s lyrics are trying to convey.) Yet the songs are all about the same thing, really: learning how to understand a new kind of world. And while this isn’t always simple, it’s not necessarily depressing. In fact, it might be why Yorke still claims that Hail to the Thief is a record “for shagging,” which is what he told the press months before the record was released. Apparently, we’re all supposed to listen to “Myxomatosis” and get laid.
“I think this is a sexy record,” Yorke says, and there is at least a 50 percent chance that he’s serious. “The rhythms are very sexy. It’s where the beats fall. It has its own sexy pulse.”
Hoping for clarification, I ask him to name the sexiest record he owns.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “Public Enemy was pretty sexy. ‘911 Is a Joke’ was a sexy song.”
And I find myself thinking: “I must be missing something.”
But envisioning this process with rock music is harder. Almost anything can be labeled “rock”: Metallica, ABBA, Mannheim Steamroller, a haircut, a muffler. If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a “rock-star C.P.A.” when describing your business to less-hip neighbors. The defining music of the first half of the 20th century was jazz; the defining music of the second half of the 20th century was rock, but with an ideology and saturation far more pervasive. Only television surpasses its influence.
And pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying. The critic Richard Meltzer supposedly claimed that rock was already dead in 1968. And he was wrong to the same degree that he was right. Meltzer’s wrongness is obvious and does not require explanation, unless you honestly think “Purple Rain” is awful. But his rightness is more complicated: Rock is dead, in the sense that its “aliveness” is a subjective assertion based on whatever criteria the listener happens to care about.
This is why the essential significance of rock remains a plausible thing to debate, as does the relative value of major figures within that system (the Doors, R.E.M., Radiohead). It still projects the illusion of a universe containing multitudes. But it won’t seem that way in 300 years.
The symbolic value of rock is conflict-based: It emerged as a byproduct of the post-World War II invention of the teenager, soundtracking a 25-year period when the gap between generations was utterly real and uncommonly vast. That dissonance gave rock music a distinctive, nonmusical importance for a long time. But that period is over. Rock — or at least the anthemic, metaphoric, Hard Rock Cafe version of big rock — has become more socially accessible but less socially essential, synchronously shackled by its own formal limitations. Its cultural recession is intertwined with its cultural absorption. As a result, what we’re left with is a youth-oriented music genre that a) isn’t symbolically important; b) lacks creative potential; and c) has no specific tie to young people. It has completed its historical trajectory. Which means, eventually, it will exist primarily as an academic pursuit. It will exist as something people have to be taught to feel and understand.
I imagine a college classroom in 300 years, in which a hip instructor is leading a tutorial filled with students. These students relate to rock music with no more fluency than they do the music of Mesopotamia: It’s a style they’ve learned to recognize, but just barely (and only because they’ve taken this specific class). Nobody in the room can name more than two rock songs, except the professor. He explains the sonic structure of rock, its origins, the way it served as cultural currency and how it shaped and defined three generations of a global superpower. He shows the class a photo, or perhaps a hologram, of an artist who has been intentionally selected to epitomize the entire concept. For these future students, that singular image defines what rock was.
So what’s the image?
Certainly, there’s one response to this hypothetical that feels immediate and sensible: the Beatles. All logic points to their dominance. They were the most popular band in the world during the period they were active and are only slightly less popular now, five decades later. The Beatles defined the concept of what a “rock group” was supposed to be, and all subsequent rock groups are (consciously or unconsciously) modeled upon the template they naturally embodied. Their 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is so regularly cited as the genesis for other bands that they arguably invented the culture of the 1970s, a decade when they were no longer together. The Beatles arguably invented everything, including the very notion of a band’s breaking up. There are still things about the Beatles that can’t be explained, almost to the point of the supernatural: the way their music resonates with toddlers, for example, or the way it resonated with Charles Manson. It’s impossible to imagine another rock group where half its members faced unrelated assassination attempts. In any reasonable world, the Beatles are the answer to the question “Who will be the Sousa of rock?”
But our world is not reasonable. And the way this question will be asked tomorrow is (probably) not the same way we would ask it today.
In Western culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person — the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell — as a prism for understanding everything else. That inclination works to the Beatles’ communal detriment. But it buoys two other figures: Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are the most meaningful group, but Elvis and Dylan are the towering individuals, so eminent that I wouldn’t necessarily need to use Elvis’s last name or Dylan’s first.
Still, neither is an ideal manifestation of rock as a concept.
It has been said that Presley invented rock and roll, but he actually staged a form of primordial “prerock” that barely resembles the post-“Rubber Soul” aesthetics that came to define what this music is. He also exited rock culture relatively early; he was pretty much out of the game by 1973. Conversely, Dylan’s career spans the entirety of rock. Yet he never made an album that “rocked” in any conventional way (the live album “Hard Rain” probably comes closest). Still, these people are rock people. Both are integral to the core of the enterprise and influenced everything we have come to understand about the form (including the Beatles themselves, a group that would not have existed without Elvis and would not have pursued introspection without Dylan).
In 300 years, the idea of “rock music” being represented by a two‑pronged combination of Elvis and Dylan would be equitable and oddly accurate. But the passage of time makes this progressively more difficult. It’s always easier for a culture to retain one story instead of two, and the stories of Presley and Dylan barely intersect (they supposedly met only once, in a Las Vegas hotel room). As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar, perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible one of them will be dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.
If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remembered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the centrality of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters it. Rock becomes a performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona — his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger‑than‑life charisma — become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists.
But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything; rock is somehow calcified as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven‑decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of autonomous states eventually became a place called “America.”
These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.
There is, of course, another way to consider how these things might unspool, and it might be closer to the way histories are actually built. I’m creating a binary reality where Elvis and Dylan start the race to posterity as equals, only to have one runner fall and disappear. The one who remains “wins” by default (and maybe that happens). But it might work in reverse. A more plausible situation is that future people will haphazardly decide how they want to remember rock, and whatever they decide will dictate who is declared its architect. If the constructed memory is a caricature of big‑hair arena rock, the answer is probably Elvis; if it’s a buoyant, unrealistic apparition of punk hagiography, the answer is probably Dylan. But both conclusions direct us back to the same recalcitrant question: What makes us remember the things we remember?
In 2014, the jazz historian Ted Gioia published a short essay about music criticism that outraged a class of perpetually outraged music critics. Gioia’s assertion was that 21st‑century music writing has devolved into a form of lifestyle journalism that willfully ignores the technical details of the music itself. Many critics took this attack personally and accused Gioia of devaluing their vocation. Which is odd, considering the colossal degree of power Gioia ascribes to record reviewers: He believes specialists are the people who galvanize history. Critics have almost no impact on what music is popular at any given time, but they’re extraordinarily well positioned to dictate what music is reintroduced after its popularity has waned.
“Over time, critics and historians will play a larger role in deciding whose fame endures,” Gioia wrote me in an email. “Commercial factors will have less impact. I don’t see why rock and pop will follow any different trajectory from jazz and blues.” He rattled off several illustrative examples: Ben Selvin outsold Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. In 1956, Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter outsold “almost every rock ’n’ roll star not named Elvis,” but they’ve been virtually erased from the public record. A year after that, the closeted gay crooner Tab Hunter was bigger than Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, “but critics and music historians hate sentimental love songs. They’ve constructed a perspective that emphasizes the rise of rock and pushes everything else into the background. Transgressive rockers, in contrast, enjoy lasting fame.” He points to a contemporary version of that phenomenon: “Right now, electronic dance music probably outsells hip‑hop. This is identical to the punk‑versus‑disco trade‑off of the 1970s. My prediction: edgy hip‑hop music will win the fame game in the long run, while E.D.M. will be seen as another mindless dance craze.”
Gioia is touching on a variety of volatile ideas here, particularly the outsize memory of transgressive art. His example is the adversarial divide between punk and disco: In 1977, the disco soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” and the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” were both released. The soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” has sold more than 15 million copies; it took “Never Mind the Bollocks” 15 years to go platinum. Yet virtually all pop historiographers elevate the importance of the Pistols above that of the Bee Gees. The same year the Sex Pistols finally sold the millionth copy of their debut, SPIN magazine placed them on a list of the seven greatest bands of all time. “Never Mind the Bollocks” is part of the White House record library, supposedly inserted by Amy Carter just before her dad lost to Ronald Reagan. The album’s reputation improves by simply existing: In 1985, the British publication NME classified it as the 13th‑greatest album of all time; in 1993, NME made a new list and decided it now deserved to be ranked third. This has as much to do with its transgressive identity as its musical integrity. The album is overtly transgressive (and therefore memorable), while “Saturday Night Fever” has been framed as a prefab totem of a facile culture (and thus forgettable). For more than three decades, that has been the overwhelming consensus.
But I’ve noticed — just in the last four or five years — that this consensus is shifting. Why? Because the definition of “transgressive” is shifting. It’s no longer appropriate to dismiss disco as superficial. More and more, we recognize how disco latently pushed gay, urban culture into white suburbia, which is a more meaningful transgression than going on a British TV talk show and swearing at the host. So is it possible that the punk‑disco polarity will eventually flip? Yes. It’s possible everyone could decide to reverse how we remember 1977. But there’s still another stage here, beyond that hypothetical inversion: the stage in which everybody who was around for punk and disco is dead and buried, and no one is left to contradict how that moment felt. When that happens, the debate over transgressions freezes and all that is left is the music. Which means the Sex Pistols could win again or maybe they lose bigger, depending on the judge.
“There is a justice-driven part of my brain that believes — or needs to believe — that the cream rises to the top, and the best work endures by virtue of its goodness,” argues the music writer Amanda Petrusich, author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” a dive into the obsessive world of 78 r.p.m. record collectors. “That music becomes emblematic because it’s the most effective. When I think of rock and who might survive, I immediately think of the Rolling Stones. They’re a band that sounds like what we’ve all decided rock ’n’ roll should sound like: loose and wild. Their story reflects that ethos and sound: loose and wild. And also, they’re good.”
This is true. The Rolling Stones are good, even when they release records like “Bridges to Babylon.” They’ve outlived every band that ever competed against them, with career album sales exceeding the present population of Brazil. From a credibility standpoint, the Rolling Stones are beyond reproach, regardless of how they choose to promote themselves: They’ve performed at the Super Bowl, in a Kellogg’s commercial and on an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The name of the biggest magazine covering rock music was partly inspired by their sheer existence. The group members have faced arrest on multiple continents, headlined the most disastrous concert in California history and classified themselves (with surprisingly little argument) as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” since 1969. Working from the premise that the collective memory of rock should dovetail with the artist who most accurately represents what rock music actually was, the Rolling Stones are a strong answer.
But not the final answer.
NASA sent the unmanned craft Voyager I into deep space in 1977. It’s still out there, forever fleeing Earth’s pull. No man‑made object has ever traveled farther; it crossed the orbit of Pluto in 1989 and currently tumbles through the interstellar wasteland. The hope was that this vessel would eventually be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, so NASA included a compilation album made of gold, along with a rudimentary sketch of how to play it with a stylus. A team led by Carl Sagan curated the album’s contents. The record, if played by the aliens, is supposed to reflect the diversity and brilliance of earthling life. This, obviously, presupposes a lot of insane hopes: that the craft will somehow be found, that the craft will somehow be intact, that the aliens who find it will be vaguely human, that these vaguely human aliens will absorb stimuli both visually and sonically and that these aliens will not still be listening to eight‑tracks.
But it did guarantee that one rock song will exist even if the earth is spontaneously swallowed by the sun: “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. The song was championed by Ann Druyan (who later become Sagan’s wife) and Timothy Ferris, a science writer and friend of Sagan’s who contributed to Rolling Stone magazine. According to Ferris, who was the album’s de facto producer, the folklorist Alan Lomax was against the selection of Berry, based on the argument that rock music was too childish to represent the highest achievements of the planet. (I’m assuming Lomax wasn’t too heavily engaged with the debate over the Sex Pistols and “Saturday Night Fever” either.) “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock song on the Voyager disc, although a few other tunes were considered. “Here Comes the Sun” was a candidate, and all four Beatles wanted it to be included, but none of them owned the song’s copyright, so it was killed for legal reasons.
The fact that this happened in 1977 was also relevant to the song’s selection. “Johnny B. Goode” was 19 years old that year, which made it seem distinguished, almost prehistoric, at the time. I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select. Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.
Let’s assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock ’n’ roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry’s body.
Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis.
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.
Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” That quote is as close as we come to a full‑on Sousa scenario, where the person and the thing are ideologically interchangeable. Chuck Berry’s persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them. He is the idea itself.Continue reading the main story