Is Rock Dead?

Deep in the back of my mind is an unrealized sound

Every feeling I get from the streets says it soon could be found.

—from Music Must Change by Pete Townshend of The Who

Implicit in The Who’s splendid last harrumph in Toronto last month was an acknowledgment: The quest for that “unrealized sound” belonged to a new generation. Beset by recession, seemingly abandoned by an entire generation that grew up on rock, bereft of formative figures like Elvis and Lennon, an out-of-sync music industry is asking not just what is its future, but is there a future at all?

From a 1978 peak of $4.1 billion, overall record industry sales dipped to an estimated $3.6 billion for 1981; adjusted for inflation, that’s a drop of about 40 percent. No. 1 LPs no longer automatically go platinum (i.e., sell a million units). To accommodate the decreased revenue, labels have cut so much budget fat that being a rock star can be a kind of no-limos high today. Bob Siner, president of MCA Records, told PEOPLE’s Davin Seay, “The huge staffs, the parties and all that nonsense had to stop. We had to get back to the basic job of selling music.”

Three factors have hurt sales. Foremost is home taping. Arista Records President Clive Davis cites a 24 percent drop in album units sold in 1982’s first quarter that coincided with a similar rise in blank tape sales. Agrees Elektra/Asylum Chairman Joe Smith, “Taping our hits hurts us because that represents our cream profit.”

Another factor is the potential record-buying dollars siphoned off by video games. Label executives hope that the rage for Pac-Man, Donkey Kong et al. won’t last. Grumbles MCA’s Siner, “Try playing a video game and making out with your girlfriend.”

Then, too, the kids who launched the Stones, the Beatles and others in the boom-boom ’60s are now in their 30s, with more pressing places to put their money than turntables. Younger people seem less committed to music in general. Concludes Warner Bros. Records President Lenny Waronker, “Music doesn’t have the same kind of social significance it once had.”

The rock concert circuit has been suffering. In contrast to The Who tour’s exceptional success, such performers as Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac and Blondie, who are used to routine sellouts, in 1982 saw what a lot of empty seats look like from the stage. Pointing to a drop in his business from $24 million concert grosses in 1978 to a mere $8 million in ’82, premier L.A. promoter Jim Rissmiller says, “The business is absolutely the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

Indeed, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers have split up in the last two years, The Who may have toured its last, and the Rolling Stones inevitably will start gathering some moss. But if they aren’t being replaced, they are being supplanted by rappers, conceptual artists, rockabilly revivalists, girl groupers, heavy metallurgists, techno-poppers and sock-hoppers. Last year yielded a bumper crop of fresh Top 10 names, including the Go-Go’s, Asia, John Cougar, the Stray Cats and Men at Work. Columbia A&R (artist and repertoire) man Peter Philbin says, “It’s still a business where an unknown can come in and make a record, and if it’s good, it’ll sell.”

The late music mogul Neil Bogart once theorized that overwhelming musical trends emerged in 10-year cycles, starting around the fourth year of each decade: ’54 the rise of Elvis, ’64 the advent of the Beatles, and ’74 the disco explosion. Is something in the wings for ’84? “Rock may have been napping in the ’70s,” says Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, “but not anymore.”

Following is a series of reports on four recent developments in pop music. In various ways they support the hope of the 1958 hit by Danny & the Juniors: Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.

Rock renews its roots by taking to rap

From blues to jazz to rock to disco, American music has found most of its innovations in the black community. The latest one, nonmelodic but also perhaps the clearest example of a new direction in pop music, is rapping. Born in the Bronx and Harlem in the mid-’70s as a reaction against disco, rap lays a hip-hopping patter of chanted, rhymed lyrics over a funk beat. White New Wavers, including Blondie, first gave exposure to the form, but now the originators are breaking out, barnstorming America and Europe and racking up such million-selling hits as Afrika Bambaataa’s throbbing Planet Rock. From their flamboyant “tags” (nicknames) to their acrobatic dances (“breaking”), they’re spreading a folk art of peacock one-upmanship.

“First it was who could be the best on the block,” says Joseph Saddler of the early days when Bronx rappers vied for turf like street gangs. “Now it’s who can get around the world.” No one has put rap on the map as much as Saddler, better known as Grand Master Flash, and the Furious Five. The group’s million-seller The Message last year blew away the sexual boasting of most raps with a stark ghetto verité and a haunting refrain, “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

A rap group is only as good as its “mixologist,” or disc jockey, who weaves instrumental segments from hit records into background sound fabrics. Grand Master Flash is the Toscanini of the turntables. An electronics buff who was born in Barbados and grew up in the South Bronx, Flash perfected such needle-in-the-groove legerdemain as “backspin” (making a sound repeat) and “scratching” (rocking the disc to produce a grating percussive sound). With these and his dazzling skill at “cutting” from one record to another, Flash tamed crowds at parties where “you keep on rockin’, boy, or they’ll tear you apart.”

Now 27, Flash finds it tough to guard his innovations. To disguise his most “burnin’ ” records (he owns at least 4,500), he has soaked off labels and glued on others from lesser discs. But Flash is not budging from the South Bronx. “Once you live in luxury you can lose your grip on reality,” he contends. “To create, you’ve got to go back to the root, which is broken glass. It’s sure not California.”

These days Athens (Ga.) is a creative center

Athens, Ga. is a town of 41,000 an hour or so outside Atlanta. Herschel Walker plays tailback for the University of Georgia there; everybody else seems to play guitar, bass, keyboards or drums. Athens (yes, the classical antecedent is appropriate) is a prime example of regional rock, a flourishing grassroots movement characterized by strange compulsions to not move to New York or Los Angeles.

The campy, New Wave B-52’s launched the Athens music scene in the mid-’70s. While they eventually moved North, bands like Pylon and R.E.M. have stayed on after catching the ear of big-city critics, and the scene has grown with such new groups as Love Tractor, Art in the Dark, the Squalls, Oh-OK, Bang, Limbo District, Toy Boat and Is/Ought Gap.

Many Athens musicians come to town not as musicians but as students at the University of Georgia’s art school, one of the more experimental in the South. From there, it’s a short sidestep into performance art and rock. The B-52’s grew out of the school parties, recalls Maureen McLaughlin, their former manager: “People would start jamming, and everything in the house would become musical instruments.” Drug use is slight. “The currency here is booze and beer,” says Cynthia Flack, 27, a sometime student and friend of many musicians. “The atmosphere is not New Wave, not punk, it’s more bohemian, ’50s beatnik.”

“It’s easy to be a starving musician in Athens,” adds McLaughlin, now a jury consultant. Part-time work in restaurants is easy to get, and rents in the town’s ramshackle, if once-grand, houses typically come to about $75 per person per month. Practice and performing space lie within a few blocks of each other downtown. Bands share equipment and often recommend each other for jobs. Pylon opened for Gang of Four in New York in 1981, then gave the job to R.E.M. who last year gave it to Art in the Dark.

Rock has always had a cradle in Georgia—the Allman Brothers never really left Macon—but musicians insist there is no “Athens sound,” except for what Mike Richmond of Love Tractor calls an “arty-pop” danceability. “You wouldn’t dare play like anybody else here; you’d hate yourself in the morning,” says Jimmy Ellison of Group 3. Most bands that record sign and stay with DB Records, an independent label in Atlanta. “No one has an eye on vast success,” Ellison explains. Instead, they rely on locals like William Orten Carlton, 33, a beer can collector and music buff who loads his trunk with Athens discs when he drives to can conventions. Stopping at record stores en route, “Ort” sells his wares a few at a time like a rock ‘n’ roll Johnny Appleseed.

Heavy metal keeps an iron grip on its audience, thanks to the likes of Van Halen and Def Leppard

The surprising news about hard rock and its cacophonous cousin, heavy metal, is that they are not between rock and a hard place. Few forms have been as durably profitable. Together they account for a whopping two-thirds of the top concert gates for ’82 and amount to the strongest evidence going that this brand of rock still thrives. Heavy metal remains an old-fashioned mixture of macho preening, megavolt guitar riffs, thunderous drum rolls and screeched vocals. Hard rock may add a dash of melody or harmony here and there—though not enough to bother anyone, especially a new generation of teenage devotees. They have a fan magazine (Circus), distinctive fashions (denim on denim) and, particularly in England, a dance called “headbanging,” characterized by frantic, jerky headbobbing, often performed with a cardboard guitar prop.

The galvanizing Beatles of heavy metal were England’s Led Zeppelin, once described by rock impresario Bill Graham as having “more pulling power than anybody since Mahatma Gandhi.” The group dissolved in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham, but its seminal Stairway to Heaven, recorded in 1971, remains the most requested song on many rock stations, and a collection of studio outtakes called Coda released in November entered the charts at No. 9.

“Because the sound is so raw,” explains David Krebs, partner of a New York City management firm specializing in heavy metal groups, “it is often considered a tune-out factor for radio. But it thrives on word of mouth.” Indeed, groups that are hardly household names—California’s Van Halen, Canada’s Rush, Australia’s AC/DC—have all scored platinum discs (1,000,000 copies sold) and play 15,000-seat arenas.

The leading metal miner these days is eccentric Brit Ozzy Osbourne, 34. Ozzy, who for nine years fronted the still-clanging-away band Black Sabbath, is now on his own and was ranked as top male pop album artist of 1982 by Billboard. “There will always be a little corner for heavy metal,” says Ozzy, “because kids like that fight.” Or, as Van Halen’s lead singer, David Lee Roth, says with a laugh, “How artistic can you be in a place where they sell popcorn and jujubes?”

Updated by Eric Levin
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