When it sells its soul to a formula, rock dies. Or so the argument goes: The music went into hibernation when the wild heroes of early rock 'n' roll were replaced by the groomed idols of American Bandstand, the challenging innovators of progressive rock by the hackneyed boogie bands of the modern ballroom circuit.
In both instances, the eccentric vitality essential to rock gave way, under commercial pressures, to a predictable mix of familiar ingredients that insured popularity, but deprived the music of its cutting edge. Without the galvanizing grace of spontaneity, rock becomes a mere diversion: If you're after transcendence, a formulized record is no path to bliss.
While this understanding of rock is too pat, it does help to explain the feeling, current among critics, that the music has lost its creative drive. Few writers have a kind word for any of the most popular bands of the Seventies, apart from such cerebral favorites as Steely Dan and Roxy Music. If they listen at all, it's only to grimace at the studied commercial moves, or to reprimand the empty world view a song like "Listen to the Music" seems to represent.
Still, corn-belt boogie has its fans and they number in the millions. To take three timely examples, consider ZZ Top, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Doobie Brothers. Stylistic differences apart, these bands have in common a large concert following, particularly in the Midwest, and an ability to sell albums (BTO has had two, and the Doobies three LPs go platinum, selling one million units plus). The two facts are not unrelated: In the crowded marketplace of the Seventies, the surest way to build a band's popularity is to hit the road whenever a new album is released and push for an AM hit. BTO and the Doobies both play the game with consummate skill.
Odd band out in this trio is ZZ Top, a power blues band from Texas that is still building to the superstar status of BTO and the Doobies. Their third LP, Tres Hombres, surprised everyone by hanging on the charts for a year and a half, and eventually going gold (selling more than 500,000 units) and this from a pedestrian trio of musicians playing the most bare-boned variety of boozy blues imaginable. Fandango, their newest offering, includes one side of live material that makes their success all the more inexplicable, by featuring nine minutes of tomfoolery titled "Backdoor Medley," wherein the band simulates burping cows (which may not be so odd: An automotive executive recently claimed that belching cattle are a major source of air pollution).
The ZZ formula runs something like this: Take a B.B. King blues lick, speed it up and amplify to a dull roar, overdub a gruff vocal and then garnish with a touch of maracas, tambourine or hand clapping. The percussive sweetening is this band's distinctive contribution to the genre, but even that is a move borrowed from Andrew Oldham's production of the early Rolling Stones (just listen to one of ZZ's strongest cuts, "Francene" on Rio Grande Mud). Even worse, the group has trouble filling the formula consistently. Their best bet on Fandango is "Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings," but with a title like that, it's hard to put down any money at all.
On the other hand, if a band tours often enough, and hits the formula occasionally, they may sustain a career despite the odds. Formulas, you see, have wonderful properties: They are reassuring and immediately accessible, because we've heard it all before. If the audience can identify a band with a formula, they're halfway home, no matter how infrequently they succeed in making the formula really work.
But let Randy Bachman of BTO explain the logic of formulas: "When the kids come to our concerts or buy our records they know what to expect . . . It all comes pretty automatic. They want simple rock music and we give it to them ... Oh yeah, if we'd been popular playing country rock, we'd still be doing it now."
Well, there's a little more to it than that but in the case of BTO, not much. For these kingpins of porkchop professionalism, following a formula means emulating the Rolling Stones, the Who and Creedence Clearwater Revival, only simplifying their sound and serving it up without a trace of distinguishing vision. This can be called, accurately enough, pandering to an audience, but at least BTO, unlike ZZ Top, know how to wring the last dollop of dollars from their chosen formula.
Unfortunately, the golden sponge has dried up on Four Wheel Drive, the band's fourth outing. The familiar licks all appear on schedule, but the band's almost palpable boredom vitiates the visceral energy hard rock is supposedly all about. Compared with such predecessors as "Let It Ride" and "Takin' Care of Business," "Hey You," BTO's new single, sounds downright arthritic. Which raises the perennial question: Can a Mormon sing the blues?
Or, more accurately, how long can a band run on borrowed steam? The flaw in Bachman's argument is that people will not continue to buy yesterday's papers forever. Which is to say that formulas have a way of becoming obsolete; and rock bands generally survive only when they prove capable of forging an original style.
That brings us to the Doobie Brothers, for among these three bands, they alone have demonstrated a measure of originality. Taking their bearings from the electric rock of Moby Grape and the acoustic drivel of Crosby, Stills and Banana, this San Jose guitar band quickly coined a trademark riff, the springy guitar line that launched "Listen to the Music." (This one was so catchy that soul star Clarence Carter wangled a single, "I'm the Midnight Special," out of the same lick: Such is the life cycle of a formula.)
As it happens, the "Listen to the Music" riff was good for three singles, with "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove" cashing in on the sound. But at least it was a Doobie sound: Nobody else had quite achieved the same blend of close harmonies, semifunky rhythm guitar and lyrics populated with hints of harmless Americana.
Moreover, because the Doobie Brothers obviously care about music as well as business (during their concerts, they use as a huge backdrop whatever album contains the song they are playing), they are continuing to develop their style. Unlike BTO, they know that you can't run standing still.
Stampede, the band's fifth LP, shows the result of such concern. One cut, a remake of Kim Weston's Holland-Dozier-Holland hit "Take Me in Your Arms," accomplishes the unprecedented feat of making a Bay Area rock band sound soulful. Even better, the song, despite Tom Johnston's Marvin Gaye-ish vocal and all the Motown trimmings (baritone sax on the bottom, darting strings on the top), ends up sounding like no one so much as the Doobie Brothers.
Other standout cuts include "Music Man," arranged by Curtis Mayfield, and "Sweet Maxine," a more calculated variant on the Doobie style. By drawing upon artists like Mayfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland, as well as by adding guitarist Jeff Baxter (ex-Steely Dan) to their lineup, the Doobies have beefed up their attack and given it a sharper edge; in so doing, they have broadened their style, which becomes increasingly distinctive with each album.
But a style does not a vision make — or at least not a challenging vision. Lyrically, this band still seems plagued by the spirit of groovy vibrations that made "Listen to the Music" an endurance test for casehardened cynics. "Neal's Fandango" bumbles along to couplets like "On the hills above Santa Cruz/In the place where I spent my youth," which doesn't even rhyme, much less scintillate.
And that, I suppose, is the ultimate limit that most of the rock bands of the Seventies have yet to break through: Certainly neither ZZ Top nor Bachman-Turner Overdrive nor the Doobie Brothers have made a compelling statement that demands our attention in the way that records by Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Dylan have in the past.
On the other hand, I do not mean to dismiss the second-level rock bands altogether. Great rock can be as much a product of circumstance and accident as it is of individual creativity and vision.
Take the case of "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," BTO's smash single from last year. This track has been described as everything from a Who cop — the stuttering vocal recalls "My Generation" — to a Lou Reed steal — the changes suggest "Sweet Jane." Actually, as Randy Bachman tells it — "that song is a joke," an accident that just happened to work. And work it does: Opening with a loping guitar figure, Bachman tears through the track, sputtering out the lyrics; when the band tackles a stock of "power riffs" on the break, Bachman's vocal keeps the cut above water, navigating an explosive stream of clichés. Formula or no formula, this is great rock & roll. But then, formulas often work in strange ways: Perhaps they work best of all when they begin to break down.