IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL, AND I LIKE IT
By Crispin Sartwell
October 6, 1997
The Rolling Stones are the best band in the history of rock music. I submit that this can be proven with mathematical rigor and now propose to do so. Follow this closely.
Sartwell's First Law: The quality of a rock band is inversely proportional to its pretentiousness.
Corollary to Sartwell's First Law: The pretentiousness of a rock band can be expressed as a ratio of its artistic ambition to its artistic accomplishment. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, the artistic ambition of the band Yes equals 9, its artistic accomplishment 1. This yields a pretentiousness ratio of 9:1, one of the very worst in rock history.
The evaluation of rock music is no longer an impressionistic expression of opinion, but rather a precise, quantitative science. Anyone who disagrees with me from now on is simply irrational.
Some quick applications: The Ramones (1:8) are better than the Talking Heads (7:7). Nirvana (3:9) is exactly as good as Pearl Jam (9:3) is bad. The worst music ever made (literally) is art rock: King Crimson (10:1), for example. Early U2 and early Springsteen, who took what were fundamentally fairly simple ditties and mounted them with an elaborateness usually reserved for Wagnerian opera, are almost unbelievably overrated.
And finally, the Rolling Stones are much better than the Beatles.
Now admittedly this Stones vs. Beatles thing is decades old. But it rages on.
Both the Stones and the Beatles started out as interpreters of rhythm and blues. They cleaned up African American music and sold it to the world, a tried and true commercial strategy for white folks throughout the century, from Benny Goodman to Elvis Presley to Vanilla Ice.
Which brings me to:
Sartwell's Second Law: The quality of a rock song varies inversely as the square of its distance from the blues. The bluesier the better.
The world's popular music is African American music because African American music is extremely intense and powerful. If you're playing music in a European tonal framework, you're not a rock band at all.
The history of rock is the continuation of the history of the blues, both in the way it is made and in the way it is received (by dancing in bars).
The two laws are connected: When was the last time you saw a pretentious blues band? Rock is a traditional, as opposed to an avant-garde, art form. The authenticity of a work of traditional art is measured by the way it venerates and explores the tradition. The authenticity of a work of avant-garde art is measured by the way it destroys or transcends the past. Avant-garde rockers have profoundly misunderstood their form.
Something awful happened to the Beatles about 30 years ago, something that happens to most young rock musicians who achieve extreme success: They mistook themselves for avant-garde artistes. They made, for example, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a truly bad album. They lost the blues and, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, started sounding like a symphony, a vapid symphony. They went baroque.
Now that was exactly what the Stones never did (though there was one scary moment: Their Satanic Majesties Request). They have remained, for much longer than anybody else, a knockdown, straight-ahead basic blues and rock band. Mick Jagger never mistook himself for Pavarotti or T.S. Eliot. Keith Richard never tried to do anything but make great little riffs.
Think about how hard this must have been: You can do anything you want, and instead of making a statement for the ages demonstrating what a profound puppy you really are, you just write another great, simple rock song: ``Beast of Burden,'' say, or ``Between a Rock and a Hard Place,'' or, from the excellent current disk, ``Flip the Switch.''
When Bach (10:10) made profound statements for the ages, they stuck. When Emerson, Lake and Palmer (10:1) made profound statements for the ages, they were dated before they were released. ``Twist and Shout'' and other early Beatles songs sound like they were recorded yesterday. But ``For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!'' sounds like the relic of an extinct, incomprehensible culture.
Everything the Stones have ever done, with the exception of some very early work recorded before they could sing and play competently, holds up beautifully: It's the rock of ages. Albums like The Rolling Stones, Now! (1964), It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974), and Undercover (1983) sound perfectly fresh. There's a very simple reason for that: They are excellent examples of Sartwell's laws, completely unpretentious and always undergirded by the blues.
The accomplishment of the Stones never exceeds their grasp; they know exactly what they play well, and they just keep on playing it. Do that successfully for a year and, if you're lucky, you've got a good recording and a concert tour to show for it. Do it for 35 years, and you're the only rockers who ever have.
So there you have it: perfectly irrefragable proof that if you go see the Stones, you'll be seeing the greatest freaking rock band in history. Anybody got an extra ticket?