Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 21 September 2009

September 2009

It's only Rock and Roll
Summer is pretty much over, and so is the music festival season. While some critics bemoaned the encroachment of "pop" groups into this arena, the outdoor music festival is still the traditional territory of Rock music and its myriad progeny.

Rock music is less a single genre and more a blanket term which includes several distinct kinds of music, all of which are directly or indirectly descended from Rock and Roll, a form of popular music that emerged in America in the 1950s, combining elements of the Blues, Jazz, and Country and Western music (among others). There are copious and complicated "family trees" showing how the various genres and sub-genres are related to each other; less is written about where the names come from.

According to one folk theory, the name Rock and Roll, is actually a euphemism for sexual intercourse. While this sounds racy for a genre so popular among teenagers, we must remember that teenagers are for their interest in sex and, more importantly, that this was not the first time sex had yielded the name of a musical genre. Jazz, which predates Rock and Roll, is thought to be a variant of jizz or jism; its application to the musical style presumably evokes the intense emotional release resulting from the improvisation of the musicians.

The "rock" in the full form Rock and Roll is clearly a verb; however, as the genre became established, the name was shortened to Rock, which is grammatically ambiguous: it could be taken as a noun or a verb. Rock and Roll was always characterized by a heavy beat and a fast tempo. As the genre developed, the guitars got louder, even distorted, and the subject matter of the songs became more serious. Whether by accident or design (or a little of both), the noun became the more appropriate: Rock music was indeed "hard" like a rock. It is perhaps this association of "hard" music with a hard substance that eventually yielded Metal.

This genre of "extreme rock music" was originally called Heavy Metal. No one is exactly sure when Heavy Metal was first applied to music, though one legend has it that a journalist described a Jimi Hendrix' as "heavy metal falling from the sky." (The Steppenwolf lyric "heavy metal thunder" clearly refers to the motorcycles, not the music.) This sense of heavy metal originated in chemistry: it refers to metals on the periodic table with a high atomic weight, such as uranium and plutonium. These elements are used in nuclear and atomic weaponry, and cold-war nuclear hysteria made them household terms. Thus "heavy metal" was an effective description of loud, explosive rock guitar.

Other bands and artists that lay claim to originating Heavy Metal include Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and (somewhat more likely) Led Zeppelin, though most fans regard Black Sabbath as the first Heavy Metal band. Even so, the band made it through most of their career without ever hearing this term. It wasn't until the late seventies/early eighties that the name became established, probably in order to distinguish its territory from its main extreme-music rival: punk.

As a genre-name, Punk is somewhat easier to define: a "punk" is a (usually young) delinquent person of low social standing, perceived to be engaged in devious, destructive, or underhanded activities. Punk Rock is simply rock music played by punks (though making music of any kind is an inherently constructive activity). Harder to determine is which was the first band to be called "punk". Pete Townsend of The Who tried to claim that honour, citing his band's tendency to smash their instruments during or after a performance. Iggy and The Stooges are also on the list (yes, they are both metal and punk), and Iggy claims to be the first musician called "punk" by the rock press. However, just as Black Sabbath are traditionally considered the founders of metal, most fans consider The Ramones as the originators of punk, and their song "Judy is a Punk" (track 3 on their first album) would seem to cement that reputation. The later genre "hardcore punk" is simply punk played even louder and faster (and angrier) than usual, while "horror punk" (pretty much invented by The Misfits) is punk with a horror theme.

This brings us to sub-genre names, some of which have interesting histories of their own. For example, a form of jazz that emerged during WWII, originated by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Kenny Clarke, among others, came to be known as bebop, thanks to a mishearing. One night in a noisy New York jazz club, a journalist asked Gillespie what he called his music (seeking a genre-name). Dizzy thought the journalist wanted to know the name of the song he had just played: "Old Man Rebop". The journalist misheard and thought Gillepsie had said "Bebop". And the name stuck.

As far as Rock music goes, creating sub-genre names is usually a case of adding an adjective or noun-modifier to "rock" to indicate how it differs from "typical" rock music, e.g. in intensity (hard rock, soft rock), audience (goth rock, jock rock) or by combining elements of another genre (folk rock, country rock).

With Metal, the story is slightly different. Heavy Metal remains the blanket term for the genre as a whole, though it is most likely to be applied to "classic" practitioners such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and the host of British acts in the late 70s and early 80s like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and even Def Leppard (these bands are further grouped into their own sub-genre, the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM). Many NWOBHM bands were contemporaries of the original punk and hardcore punk bands. In the early 80s metal bands began combining the theatrics and occult subject matter of metal with the speed and aggression of punk to create a new sub-genre, variously known as speed metal (because of the fast tempo) and thrash metal (from the verb "thrash", which evokes not only the music itself but also the act of enjoying it).

Thrash is often traced back to the NWOBHM band Venom; their first album Welcome to Hell was a major influence on Metallica and Slayer, who would go on to establish a template for thrash metal which is still relevant today. Venom created another sub-genre, however, with their second album Black Metal. The story goes that the band came up with this name when a journalist asked them what kind of music they play. The name "thrash" was not yet established, and in any case they wanted a darker, more distinctive name. Black Metal came to refer to any metal band with fast, aggressive music and overtly Satanic lyrics. This new genre once included the trash band Slayer and the death metal band Deicide.

The last major sub-genre of metal emerged in the mid-80s. San Francisco had become the spiritual home of Thrash Metal. Within this scene, a new band called Possessed (featuring future Primus-guitarist Larry Lalonde) emerged, seeking to push the music to new extremes. One day, during a test, the band's vocalist and bass player started writing lyrics for a new song called "Death Metal". He failed the test, but invented a genre. The song became the title track of their Death Metal EP and was also featured on their debut LP Seven Churches. Musically, Possessed still sound like thrash metal, but they were a major influence on, among others, the Florida metal band Death, who further pioneered the genre, and cemented its name.

Few, if any of these word histories will appear in major dictionaries. Interesting though they may be, these stories cannot really be proven and are thus resigned to the realm of "folk etymology". This is because popular music is on the one hand constantly evolving and changing, and on the other hand often ignored as a subject of serious study. It is only after a genre or sub-genre has survived a few decades that people really begin to wonder where it began; but by then it is too late to gather real evidence.

Robert Groves - Editor