Where R U Rock? + 70 Years of the Backbeat

by Eric Platz    ¦   March 16 2017

About a year ago I was wondering aloud to a friend if we’ve really experienced the complete (or near complete) passing of rock from our popular music soundscape – the electric guitar-driven sound, heavy “2 & 4” snare drum backbeat, and direct stylistic lineage to bands like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and AC-DC. I’m definitely making a distinction between “rock” and “metal,” metal being a whole other beast that arguably has never been a true part of our popular music.

I remember being on tour in 2004 when Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” was released.

Listening to that song during a sound check, someone mentioned that it was great to hear rock again in a pop hit. At the time, I hadn’t really thought about rock being gone. I guess it had been.

Pearl Jam? Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. I’m a fan, but that makes them old news. U2? Still making records and touring. They were inducted into the Hall of Fame all the way back in 2005. U2 might occupy their own special niche in the rock pantheon, and I’ve heard a number of rock purists dismiss them as not being a “real” rock band. I’ve never understood that argument, but I think The Edge is a polarizing figure among rock guitarists. The Foo Fighters? Are they the last ones standing? “Concrete and Gold” was released last year, and they’re currently touring around the world selling-out large arenas.

I’m not really sure what the metrics would be to determine if a stylistic sound has disappeared from the popular music landscape. “Rock n’ roll will never die!,” and you certainly still hear it in the music of local bands and on the radio. It’s a pronounced element of pop country music and the blanket catch-all genre called “Americana,” but is it still part of our contemporary soundscape?

My kids, aged 6 and 11, connect with the idea of a “rock star” – a singer doing his or her thing on stage in a big way with a big sound in front of a lot of fans. Whether there is a band or just a backing track is secondary. The music is not of prime importance, the vibe is. For my kids, rock is a concept rather than a sound. Maybe a vague, once or twice-removed form of nostalgia that they experience through their parents and other adults? Tellingly, I noticed that a TV show they were watching for a period of time on Nickelodeon called “Victorious” (about a group of talented high school musicians and artists in LA) subtly changed the production of the theme song “Make It Shine” between seasons. The result made it decidedly less “rock”.

The chorus still rocks out a bit, but the original production that appeared in early episodes had a much cleaner, paired-down drum beat and more present electric guitar parts. The remixed version features a more EDM-inspired dance groove and production devices (e.g. the beat drop-out and crescendo into the chorus) with a less guitar-driven sound. In with the new, out with the old.

Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica, the two pop music critics for the New York Times, each shared their Spotify playlists of the “Best Songs of 2017” back in December.

As a rough generalization, Caramanica tends to skew more “contemporary” – hip hop (Smokepurpp, Lil Uzi Vert, Cardi B), Spanish-language hits (“Ahora Dice”, “Depacito”), and songs my kids tend to like (“Awful Things”, “Attention”), while Pareles might be considered more “traditional” in his leanings – Mavis Staples, U2, Feist, Grizzly Bear, Chris Stapleton, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – artists that most readers of this post might be somewhat familiar with, at least in name only. As I explore these playlists (51 songs between the two), there’s really only one song that I would consider “rock” – U2’s “The Blackout”.

This strikes me as a departure from vintage U2 into a more contemporary dance-oriented groove, arrangement and production aesthetic. No one ever accused The Edge of having a gritty guitar tone, but I’ve always considered U2’s music to be rock. No doubt in my mind.

Thinking about the electric guitar and that sound we would associate with the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen, there would be few examples of this on these abovementioned playlists. Maybe Mavis Staples’s “Little Bit”,

but not really – it’s more of an Americana sound. Not surprising since Jeff Tweedy of Wilco produced it. That’s about it, though.

So if I’m going to use these playlists as a sample of the current pop music soundscape, and there’s: 1) a notable absence of the electric guitar as a dominant sound, and 2) a lack of a direct stylistic connection to quintessential classic rocks bands such as Zeppelin, The Who, Aerosmith, and Guns N’ Roses, the question is, “Has rock truly left the building?”. Maybe, although we certainly still have the ever-present backbeat (higher-pitched strong percussive accents on beats 2 & 4) that’s been an essential part of our cultural beat since it started appearing on early R&B records by Fats Domino and Roy Brown in the mid to late 1940s. Earl Palmer, a drummer widely credited with inventing the backbeat (“afterbeat” in his words), described the rhythmic innovation as a move away from Dixieland music, where the steady backbeat only occurred in the shout chorus at the end of the song to lift things off. Early R&B required that strong, intense beat throughout the music. And thus, one of the most important elements of rock began. The idea that someone “invented” the backbeat, however, seems far-fetched. You can find examples of the backbeat (hand claps, shakers, tambourine, etc) in traditional West African and African-American music. That said, it is true that the backbeat wasn’t overtly and repeatedly expressed on the drumset as a heavy snare drum accent until those early R&B recordings like “The Fat Man” (with Earl Palmer on drums).

Returning to these playlists, the ubiquitous backbeat groove is everywhere. It’s the rare exception where that rhythmic element isn’t present. The notable exceptions would be Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You,”

which is based off a Caribbean Soca-type beat (to my ears, at least). Frank Ocean’s “Chanel”

has a typical Arabic Saidi rhythm as its heartbeat. The ethereal, deep groove of Kelela’s “Take Me Apart” alludes to the backbeat, but highly abstracts it in an interesting way (refer to Pareles’s playlist for this one of you’re a Spotify subscriber). These are three examples I could find out of fifty-one. In hip-hop, there are so many compelling beats these days, but I would say the backbeat is an essential element in nearly all of those grooves.

So is the presence of the backbeat as a primary rhythmic feature the last vestige of rock in our pop music soundscape? I’m not sure I’m ready to fully commit to that idea yet, but I’ve been pondering it. I’ve heard expressed relief that pop music has been liberated from the tyranny of the electric guitar sound (haters!). As a drummer, I love playing (and listening to, and dancing to) backbeat-oriented grooves. I think about beats of the future, though, and I wonder if there will be a shift away from the insistence of the backbeat in pop music at some point. What would we do without that rhythmic fulcrum point? Will it free things up and create new possibilities? How will our bodies move without it? Maybe we won’t need the backbeat to dance in the reduced gravity of Mars.















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