100 Greatest Artists
In 2004 — 50 years after Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios and cut “That’s All Right” — Rolling Stone celebrated rock & roll’s first half-century in grand style, assembling a panel of 55 top musicians, writers and industry executives (everyone from Keith Richards to ?uestlove of the Roots) and asking them to pick the most influential artists of the rock & roll era. The resulting list of 100 artists, published in two issues of Rolling Stone in 2004 and 2005, and updated in 2011, is a broad survey of rock history, spanning Sixties heroes (the Beatles) and modern insurgents (Eminem), and touching on early pioneers (Chuck Berry) and the bluesmen who made it all possible (Howlin’ Wolf).
The essays on these top 100 artists are by their peers: singers, producers and musicians. In these fan testimonials, indie rockers pay tribute to world-beating rappers (Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on Jay-Z), young pop stars honor stylistic godmothers (Britney Spears on Madonna) and Billy Joel admits that Elton John “kicks my ass on piano.” Rock & roll is now a music with a rich past. But at its best, it is still the sound of forward motion. As you read this book, remember: This is what we have to live up to.
By Lucinda Williams
I've used the Band as an example for my career. When I first tried to get record deals, nobody knew how to market me, because my sound didn't necessarily fit into any stereotypes. But the Band did a little bit of everything.
I remember when Music From Big Pink came out, in 1968. I was living in Arkansas at the time. You couldn't categorize the Band's sound, but it was so organic — a little bit country, a little bit roots, a little bit mountain, a little bit rock — and their vocal styles and harmonies totally set them apart. Each member brought something, because they were all consummate musicians.
Their work as the Hawks on Bob Dylan's 1966 tour is some of the best rock & roll ever made, with Robbie Robertson playing just amazing guitar. The Band let Dylan branch out stylistically. In his writing, Dylan was getting away from those heavy, metaphorical songs on Blonde on Blonde and writing cool little tunes.
Their songs are uncoverable — who can pull off Richard Manuel's incredible high voice? — but we tried. Any time we sat around singing songs, someone would inevitably pull out a version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." My favorite song was "It Makes No Difference." The sentiment of it is so heart-wrenching. This guy is saying that his lover has just left him, and he's totally devastated. It's one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard.
There is an element of sadness about the Band. The Last Waltz, despite its wonderful music, was sad to see because they had so much more to give. Richard Manuel's death was really tragic. I got to meet Garth Hudson when he played on a demo I did back in the mid-Eighties. I just remember he was really quiet, soft-spoken and real sweet. And he played like an angel.
By Billy Joel
Elton John defines himself as a rock star, and he really lives it. More like a Roman aristocrat rock star. I've noticed when we've toured together that backstage you'll see young men with togas, dressed as centurions, with little fig leaves around their heads. Inside Elton's dressing room there are a thousand pairs of sunglasses, a hundred pairs of shoes and about 50 Versace suits laid out. He's fucking royalty, and I love it. My dressing room looks like the back of a deli. I have one of those meat platters that sea gulls circle around.
Elton kicks my ass on piano. He's fantastic — a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Little Richard. His spontaneous, improvisational playing always challenges me. And that is his contribution to rock & roll and pop: his musicianship. Before him, rock was a bunch of James Taylors — guitar-based singer-songwriter stuff. Elton brought back fantastic piano-based rock. Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don't strum a piano. You don't bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano. Elton knows exactly how to do that — he always had that rhythmic, very African, syncopated style that comes from being well versed in gospel and good old R&B. Elton and Bernie Taupin did some brilliant songwriting during the first part of his career, from Elton John to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
The first time we met we were in Holland, at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was in the mid-Seventies, and he was at his peak — it was the height of the Elton John era — and I was just starting out as the "Piano Man" guy. We went into a private room and we just talked. I told him what a fan I was, and he said he knew my stuff. I thought this was so cool: There were a thousand guitar players, but there were only two of us. The English piano player and the American piano player. And, seminally, rock & roll was not just guitar. Elton gave a funny-looking guy like me — and so many others — an opportunity to be a singer-songwriter. When Elton was in his first band, Bluesology, he never thought he could be a rock star. Same as me. I didn't look like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney or Jim Morrison. Sure, we thought we'd be piano players for big rock bands, but funnily enough he ended up with big, silly glasses and crazy outfits, and I ended up with my dopey stage behavior, both of us rock stars. To this day we laugh about that. And he keeps going on and on. I haven't put out a song since 1993, and he asks me, "Billy, why don't you write some new songs?" I say, "Elton, why don't you write less new songs?" At $200 a ticket, you can't shove new stuff down people's throats. So much of his stuff is amazing, though: "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Tiny Dancer," "Your Song" and "The Bitch Is Back." That's what they want to hear.
Any melodic songwriter owes a debt to Elton John, the supreme melodist. I don't know shit about new bands, but anybody who plays the keyboard and likes melody must give a nod to Elton. Like Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Carole King and the Beatles, he carries on the rich tradition of writing beautiful melodies.
By Chuck D
Run-DMC were the Beatles of hip-hop — Run and DMC were Lennon and McCartney, and Jam Master Jay was George and Ringo rolled into one. Raising Hell was the first true rap album, a complete work of art as opposed to a collection of singles or a novelty item. It's my favorite album of all time. It incorporated rock, but on rap's terms. Everyone in hip-hop today can be traced back to Run-DMC.
They had a whole new energy that revolutionized hip-hop. Older artists like Grandmaster Flash wore disco-style outfits, were from the Bronx and had a different kind of appeal. Run-DMC were from Hollis, Queens, about 15 minutes from where I lived. Hollis was a suburban, not urban, environment, but Run-DMC dressed more like cats off the street — and 25 years later, most rappers still dress the same way.
When I was doing college radio at WBAU on Long Island, we helped break Run-DMC. They were a model for Public Enemy in that we both made loud, blasting records for arenas, not clubs. They had to yell, because their beats and guitar riffs needed it. You couldn't rap in a low tone over a blaring guitar in an arena.
I was at home in the fall of 2002, and I happened to turn on the TV. Some newscaster said that Jay had been shot and murdered, and I went into shock. Black musicians are not immune to the ills that afflict our community. It's not popular to say, but it's the truth, and we must address it to prevent these tragedies in the future.
One little story: In 1984, I told Jay that I was coming to the Spectrum in Philadelphia to check out the first Fresh Fest tour. When I got to the back gate, I sent a message and asked, could he meet me there? And sure enough, in the middle of a concert in front of 20,000 people, he took time out to walk down the ramp, past security and hit me off with two tickets. He gave me some good seats, too. I was forever grateful. That's who Jay was. He was the type of cat who didn't forget you. And I will never forget him.
By Shirley Manson
I was about 19 when I first heard a Patti Smith record. It was Horses. I remember sitting there, very taken by the sound of her voice, this ferocious delivery. Later I was struck by how literate her lyrics were, how intellectual and political. I loved how, in her songs, she talked about anything other than the love in her heart for a man. And I loved her image: this non-glam look with the chopped-off hair, looking like a skinny boy. She was the complete opposite of the images that were pumped into me as a child, of what I was supposed to aspire to as a woman.
She is a folk artist, in the way that Bob Dylan is. I loved that she was a poet involved in visual art. It wasn't just about the music for her. It was everything. And she knew how powerful her image was — that she was really sexy — and how to manipulate that for her art. What Madonna does today, Patti was doing from the beginning. Except Madonna was into selling, period. I felt that Patti's goal was to use her art to bring comfort and grace — to me, personally. The opening lines of "Revenge," on Wave, give me the chills to this day: "I feel upset/Let's do some celebrating."
Garbage played a festival with Patti in Athens years ago, and she signed a set list for me: "Power to the people, Patti Smith." It's a cliché. But clichés, she understands, can work. I once talked with a young man who was refusing to utilize his right to vote, out of principle. As much as I understood his point, I believe individuals are important. One person can make a difference. When Patti sings "People Have the Power," it moves me, because I know I am not the only person out there feeling these things. I can only imagine there are millions of people out there whom she is singing to, who feel like me. And when you add up those millions of people, it's worthwhile.
She is a soldier. She will not be defeated. I look at today's charts, at the women who are selling the most records, getting the most column inches, and I'm terrified by how so many of them are controlled by a male corporate idea of what women and rebels should be. When some teen-pop singer is taken seriously as a rebellious figure, we have a huge problem. I'm just glad that Patti is still willing to get up there and fight for what she believes in. It makes me feel less alone.
By Rosanne Cash
Janis Joplin was absolutely a barnstormer and a complete groundbreaker. She wasn't just a great woman in rock — at the time she was the woman in rock. Janis really created this whole world of possibility for women in music: Without Janis Joplin, there would be no Melissa Etheridge. Without Janis, there would be no Chrissie Hynde, no Gwen Stefani. There would be no one.
I was a freshman or sophomore in high school when Janis first connected with me. Pearl was the first record I bought. I remember that I was kind of scared. I think that if Joni Mitchell gave me the idea that a woman could write about her life in a public forum, Janis gave me the idea that a woman could live a wild life and put that out there in a public forum, too. At the time, I was this very proper Catholic girl, and Janis was a frightening presence. But being scared didn't stop me from buying Janis' records, and it didn't stop me from wearing a black armband to school the day she died.
It's hard to imagine now the extent to which Janis was so completely shocking at the time. There had been blues singers who were wild and unrestrained — but even they tended to be a little more buttoned-down than Janis. She always seemed on the verge of being totally out of control. A few summers ago, I watched the Monterey Pop Festival film for the first time in ages, and I was absolutely stunned by Janis. She had this focus that was relentless. She was a spectacle, like some kind of nuclear being bearing down on the crowd. In the film, you see Mama Cass at the end of Janis' performance just shaking her head, and applauding, like, "Oh, my God, what just happened?"
She had an unshakable commitment to her own truth, no matter how destructive, how weird or how bad. Nothing else seemed to matter. She was such an individual in the way she dressed, the way she sang, the way she lived. She loved her whiskey and made no bones about it. This was a full-blown one-of-a-kind woman — no stylist, no publicist, no image-maker. It was just Janis.
The beauty and the power of Janis Joplin as a singer is her complete lack of fear. She held nothing back. She went to the edge every time she opened her mouth. She sang from her toes and from her soul. She could also destroy you when she got vulnerable, like on "Me and Bobby McGee," where you saw the little girl underneath. But through it all, Janis never lightened up. She didn't live long enough to lighten up. She was a very fierce, very beautiful bright light that burned out way, way too quickly.
By Tom Petty
The Byrds are immortal because they flew so high. For me, they're still way, way up there. They left a huge mark. First off, the Byrds were the first credible American answer to the British Invasion. All of folk rock — for lack of a better term — descends directly from the music the Byrds made. They were certainly the first to introduce any sort of country element into rock music. As if all that wasn't enough, the Byrds spurred on a good degree of Bob Dylan's popularity, too. And not to be too shallow, but they also were just the best-dressed band around. They had those great clothes and hairdos. That counted for something even then.
I'll never forget hearing "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time on the radio — the feeling of that Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar and those incredible harmonies. Roger McGuinn told me he took that guitar sound from A Hard Day's Night, but McGuinn was a banjo player, and he played the Rickenbacker in this rolling, fingerpicking style — no one had really tried it before. George Harrison admitted that "If I Needed Someone" was his take on the Byrds' "The Bells of Rhymney." The Byrds were the only American group that the Beatles were friendly with and had a dialogue with. Those original Byrds really changed the world in that short time they were together.
In some ways, they were an unlikely group to become rock & roll stars. Chris Hillman was from the bluegrass world. McGuinn had been in folk groups like the Limelighters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, as well as playing with Bobby Darin. David Crosby came out of the coffeehouse scene, too. Gene Clark played with the New Christy Minstrels. McGuinn once told me that the Byrds had to get together and really learn how to play rock & roll as a group. That was their first quest. Imagine a bunch of recovering folkies trying to learn how to make people dance.
The Byrds represented Los Angeles as much as the Beach Boys, except that the Byrds were the other side of the coin — they were L.A.'s whacked-out beatnik rock group. They're part of what drew me to Los Angeles and made me want to be in a band. I got to see the Byrds once at the West Palm Beach pop festival on the same bill with the Rolling Stones. In the beginning, that was the original blueprint for the Heartbreakers — we wanted to be a mix of the Byrds and the Stones. We figured, "What could be cooler than that?"
By Adam Yauch
No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop. I put them on a level with Bob Marley and a handful of other artists — the rare artist who can make great music and also deliver a political and social message. But where Marley's music sweetly lures you in, then sneaks in the message, Chuck D grabs you by the collar and makes you listen.
I remember the first time I heard "Rebel Without a Pause": We were on tour with Run-DMC, and one day Chuck D put on a tape they had just finished. It was the first time they used those screeching horns along with this incredibly heavy beat — it was just unlike anything I had ever heard before. It blew my wig back. Later I remember listening to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" over and over again on headphones after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out. The premise of it — that the current U.S. prison system has many parallels to slavery — blew my mind, and the music is incredible: that Isaac Hayes sample and Chuck D's rhymes about a jailbreak. Like a lot of their songs, it's like watching a movie.
PE completely changed the game musically. No one was just putting straight-out noise and atonal synthesizers into hip-hop, mixing elements of James Brown and Miles Davis; no one in hip-hop had ever been this hard, and perhaps no one has since. They made everything else sound clean and happy, and the power of the music perfectly matched the intention of the lyrics. They were also the first rap group to really focus on making albums — you can listen to Nation of Millions or Fear of a Black Planet from beginning to end. They aren't just random songs tossed together.
To me, Chuck D is the most important MC in hip-hop. On a strictly MC'ing-skill basis, I rank him up there with the best: His power and cadences on lines like "Yes/The rhythm, the rebel/Without a pause/I'm lowering my level" is unmatched. Then if you take into account what he's actually saying, it puts him on a different plane from any other MC. The combination of him and Flavor Flav is incredibly effective: Chuck is so straight and direct, and Flav brings this wild randomness to it. They complement each other perfectly.
Public Enemy made hip-hop that was more than entertainment. They inspired a lot of people who believed that you can effect change through music, and they're still inspiring to me.
Sly and the Family Stone
By Don Was
Sly and the Family Stone didn't have to say, "Why can't we all just get along?" Looking at the band members and listening to their shared sound made the statement. On the early Sly and the Family Stone records, there was just no acknowledgment of race; they're truly utopian. A real idealism comes across loud and clear on songs like "Everyday People" and "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and people need messages like that. The band had blacks and whites, men and women. Seeing this group that embraced so many elements of society sort of drew you in as an extended family member. This was a joyous noise and a joyful vision. Sly was monumental in his contribution to music.
On musical terms, the Family Stone were an amazing band, but there was no doubt Sly Stone was the leader. He is a singular funk orchestrator; Duke Ellington is probably the best reference point. No one had taken elements of funk and combined them the way Sly did. Sly orchestrated those early records in very advanced ways — a little guitar thing here that would trigger the next part that would trigger the next part. Then, as time went on, Sly started using some more dissonant colors; he became like the Cézanne of funk. It's like he took these traditional James Brown groove elements and started putting orange into the picture.
Somewhere along the way, around the time of There's a Riot Goin' On, Sly got disillusioned. I think he discovered that the utopian worldview worked in his band, but when he got out in everybody else's world, he still couldn't walk into a bar in Mobile, Alabama, without getting into a fight. That will change you. Fresh is from a guy who realizes that nobody — not Sly Stone, not the Rothschilds — nobody can mess with the forces of history. Que será será.
Fresh is a very deep piece of work. It's the sound of a guy who has hit the pinnacle and is free-falling. Why is Sly singing "Que Sera Sera" on the album? Because he's got no fucking control. When the magic hits, it's a gift that can go away just as quickly as it came.
Without Sly, the world would be very different. Every R&B thing that came after him was influenced by this guy.
The so-called revolution that was coming at the end of the Sixties: We might have lost that one, but Sly won his own personal revolution, musically and in the minds of the audience. I just hope he knows that, I hope he's not sitting around with any kind of remorse. Because by any real criteria that you measure success, this guy is a titan.
By Peter Wolf
Back in 1968, the Boston Tea Party was the premier club for rock bands. My band, the Hallucinations, composed of art-school dropouts heavily drenched in R&B and Chicago blues, used the club as a rehearsal hall whenever it was available. The music we played could be described as primal, raw and heavy on attitude. We were in the midst of rehearsing one day, getting ready to open for the great bluesman Howlin' Wolf, when something caught my eye, and I looked over to see a stranger looming in the doorway. I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there, so I went over to find out what he wanted. In a thick brogue, he asked about places to play in Boston.
Once I figured out who it was, I was both excited and perplexed. Excited because I'd known and admired Van Morrison's work from his debut on the charts with his group, Them. Perplexed because he seemed so lost and adrift. Despite the recent Top 40 success of his song "Brown Eyed Girl," he'd been having difficulty establishing his identity as a solo artist, but that couldn't account for the bleakness of his mood.
As we talked, it became clear that we shared a passion for the same kind of music. Van gradually loosened up, and we made plans to get together again. He started dropping by the FM station where I used to do an all-night radio show. Soon we began to hang together, going out carousing in the night and sometimes getting into more mischief than we bargained for.
Van was living in a small, street-level apartment in an old wooden house on Green Street in Cambridge. He, his new wife, her young son. They were flat-out broke. The place was bleak and barren, with little more than a mattress on the floor, a refrigerator, an acoustic guitar and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. They had no phone and little food. It was hard times: He was in exile, with a family to feed, no money, no band, no recording contract and no promise of any safe or legal way out. Even the reason he moved to Boston remained a mystery.
Whenever Van had to make business calls, he would walk several blocks to my place to use the phone. It seemed that my apartment also offered him a break from the near-despair of his complicated and unresolved life. He would spend endless hours going through my records. Over and over, we would listen to what he called "the gospel" of Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Louis Jordan, Billy Stewart, Elvis and John Lee Hooker. "They're the real deal," he'd say. He played Gene Chandler's live version of "Rainbow '65" so much, I had to get a new needle for my turntable.
Many nights were spent checking out different clubs, but few people knew who Van was. Sometimes he would show up at my band's gigs. One night, as we started the intro to his song "Gloria," I called him onstage even though he was reluctant to sing it. When he came up, he went into a brilliant scat that rivaled King Pleasure himself. Unfortunately, the audience didn't want this "unknown" singer changing the familiar delivery of a song that was fast becoming a true rock classic.
Eventually, Van managed to assemble a two-piece acoustic band and booked himself at a coffeehouse/jazz club that could only be described as subterranean. It was located three stories below a pool parlor and was deep, damp and dark. Egyptian motifs were painted on its yellow smoke-stained walls. The club justly deserved its name: the Catacombs. I borrowed a tape machine to capture the evening's music. What he performed that night later turned out to be the song cycle that made up the groundbreaking Astral Weeks. Though only a handful of people showed up, when Van finished playing, there was no doubt that the few present had witnessed something extraordinary.
When I see Van now, I still see the same raw power and passion that he displayed more than 40 years ago in the long-forgotten Catacombs. I admire the strength and mysterious ability to transcend the despair and chaos that could have so easily trapped and overwhelmed him. He has created a body of work that reflects without imitation. The gospel according to Van: "Turn it up, turn it up, a little bit higher/You know it's got soul" and "it's too late to stop now!"
By Marilyn Manson
Jim Morrison said it best: "all the children are insane," and he meant it like I mean it. We are children revolted by the banality of what people think is sane. When Jim rambled, quite profoundly, "Rock & roll is dead," and "Hitler is still alive…. I slept with her last night," he knew then what we are choking on now. You can't change the world, and if you try, you just end up destroying it. We love all things to death. We leave the lights on, turn everything up to 10 and fuck everything we fear.
In 10th grade I was told to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the biography of Jim Morrison. Everything I'm interested in now got started with that book. It made me want to be a writer, and I started with poetry and short stories. We don't know what was really going on in Morrison's head, but I liked trying to piece it together. The immortality of his words, the mystery of his existence appealed to my sense of fantasy. I found "Moonlight Drive" — particularly when accompanied by "Horse Latitudes" — scary and sexually mystifying, like Happy Days told by Ted Bundy. I read the poem in front of my 10th-grade English class, and it was as awe-inspiring then as it is now. Words like "mute nostril agony" and "carefully refined and sealed over" always stung in the corners of my eyes.
I think the Doors still fit in because they never fit in in the first place. They didn't have a bass player. The music often had nothing to do with what Morrison was singing. The keyboard held everything together. Most bands can still get through a show if the keyboardist breaks a finger. Not the Doors. Robby Krieger played very odd guitar parts if you compare him to Jimmy Page or Keith Richards. Yet all this combined into something unique that grabbed people's attention.
Morrison's voice was a beautiful pond for anything to drown in. Whatever he sang became as deep as he was. He had the unnameable thing that people will always be drawn to. I've always thought of the Doors as the first punk band, even more than the Stooges or the Ramones. They didn't sound anything like punk rock, but Morrison outshined everyone else when it came to rebellion and not playing by anyone else's rules. There are a lot of bands that seem to want to sound like the Doors filtered through grunge or neogrunge — or whatever it is. But it's all just ideas pasted on ideas, faded copies of copies. If you want to be like Jim Morrison, don't try. You can't be anything like Jim Morrison. It's about finding your own place in the world.
Simon and Garfunkel
By James Taylor
I remember when my older brother Alex and my youngest brother, Hugh, both brought home Simon and Garfunkel albums. The music stood by itself, quite apart from anything else around at the time. Simon and Garfunkel brought something new to music: They brought themselves. Through it all — whether they were together or not — they've remained a force in American music and culture. Their impact has been huge. To use a hackneyed phrase, they scored some of the most meaningful years of our lives. Think of how their songs worked in The Graduate — these were songs that spoke to a generation, in a motion picture that also spoke for a generation.
Paul Simon has just always been one of our best songwriters. Paul's breakthrough came at a time when there was so much in the air, and many of his songs were picked up as anthems. He creates an unusually rich and full world, and he has such a broad palette, from basic and elemental folk music, like "Scarborough Fair," to later songs with far greater sophistication and more worldly approaches on solo work, like "Something So Right" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." And Art Garfunkel is one of those great, rare voices. I would know it anywhere at the drop of a hat, in half a bar. Over the years, I've been able to work with Paul and Art — the first time was with Art on a song of mine called "A Junkie's Lament." Art inhabits the songs like Louis Armstrong did — you don't just get his version of a song, you get his take on it.
It is moving to see them sing together now after all these years. That kind of partnership is like a marriage, only more difficult and more public. You have two very strong, very willful individuals sharing this tight space. I was around Apple Records as the Beatles were disintegrating, and you realize that it's not an uncommon pattern. And perhaps because it wasn't something that came easy, it's all the more inspiring and reassuring to see that Paul and Art can still pull off such great reunions.
By Lou Reed
David Bowie's contribution to rock & roll has been wit and sophistication. He's smart, he's a true musician and he can really sing. He's got such a big range: I like the Ziggy Stardust voice, but he's got a lot of different voices. He's got his crooner voice, when he wants to. And he has a melodic sense that's just well above anyone else in rock & roll. Most people could not sing some of his melodies. He can really go for a high note. Take "Satellite of Love," on my Transformer album. There's a part at the very end where his voice goes all the way up. It's fabulous.
There had been androgyny in rock from Little Richard on up, but David put his own patina on it, to say the least. He bethought hard about that Ziggy character; he'd been studying mime, and he didn't do it just for laughs. He was very aware of stagecraft. He made an entire show out of that character — and then he left it behind. How smart can you get? Can you imagine if he had to keep doing Ziggy? I mean, if you listened to what critics and audiences say, you'd be playing four songs over and over again. David set himself up to do other characters, like the Thin White Duke. And his take on American soul music, on albums like Young Americans, was incredibly good; the original material he wrote was great.
I can't pick a favorite Bowie record. It always depends on my mood — any of the dance records; Ziggy Stardust; I always liked "The Bewlay Brothers," that track on Hunky Dory. And the albums he did with Brian Eno, like Low and "Heroes," are just phenomenal. He's always changing, so you never get tired of what he's doing. And I mean all the way up to his later records: "The Loneliest Guy" on his album Reality is a great song. Yet another one.
David and I are still friends after all these years, amazingly enough. We go to the occasional art show and museum together, and I always like working with him. I really love what David does. I remember seeing him play in New York on the Reality tour a few years back, and it was one of the greatest rock & roll shows I have ever seen. At least as far as white people go. Seriously.
By Lenny Kravitz
I loved the Beatles' music growing up, but I didn't become aware of John Lennon's solo music until I was making my first album, Let Love Rule. There was this guy who was going to manage me; when he heard the raw tapes of my early songs, like "Be," he said, "Have you ever heard John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band? Because your stuff sounds like him."
So I bought Plastic Ono Band, and I listened to it over and over for months. It's a monumental work of genius. I was blown away by how minimal it was, and how expressive it was. Lennon had just finished doing primal-scream therapy, and he was just unloading all this stuff, about his mother leaving him, about the Beatles and about who he was.
A lot of people identify themselves by their success instead of who they are as people. Lennon showed us who he was as a person. He had just come from being in the biggest group on the planet; most people in his position would say, "How do I keep this up? I don't want to come down off this pedestal." He didn't care; he got butt-naked on the cover of Two Virgins, with his dick hanging out.
On Plastic Ono Band, he stripped it down musically: He went into a studio with just a guitar, a bass, a piano and drums, and he made a raw record. The attitude and emotion of that album are harder than any punk rock I've ever heard. And the honesty of that music is why I became an enormous fan of his solo work, maybe even more than what he did with the Beatles. It inspired me and made me want to go deeper with my own songwriting.
As a guitarist, Lennon had a great feel — something that can outshine a guy with a million chops. He's not a virtuoso, he's not Jimi Hendrix, but if you listen to those early Beatles records, there are some serious guitar intricacies going on between him and George Harrison. One of my favorite Lennon solo tracks is "How Do You Sleep?" — the guitar is incredibly funky. Not many people remember that Lennon co-wrote "Fame" with David Bowie; he had a really cool funky side. If he were around today, I think he would have gotten interested in hip-hop. He'd have wanted to blend the different things going on in our culture.
Lennon was more than just a musician; he was more like a prophet. He stated his political point of view and spoke out against war, even when that meant he was being followed and hassled by the U.S. government. "Imagine" is one of the greatest songs ever written. It's like a church hymn, and it states his beliefs quite clearly. And more than anything, Lennon was an icon for peace. That's hard to find these days.
By K.D. Lang
I've always compared Roy Orbison to a tree: passive and beautiful yet extremely solid. He maintained a sense of humility and sensitivity and gentleness uncommon to his era. He wasn't effeminate but extremely gentle. He was someone you felt entirely safe with, whether you were listening to his records or being around him. It wasn't like Elvis: It wasn't like your loins were on fire or anything like that. It's more like Roy was a private place to go — a solace or a refuge.
He broke the mold of the Fifties tough-guy thing, and even the style of his music was a kind of fine art for somebody from Wink, Texas. It was cosmopolitan in a mysteriously soft and romantic way.
Roy Orbison was like a folk opera singer. I think he was influenced by Spanish opera in structure and in feel. He also loved to express his voice in this upper range, in falsetto. He was vulnerable and strong at the same time. He was extremely earnest in his voice and his appearance, and yet he had this veil of mystery to him.
In 1987, Roy and I recorded a version of "Crying" for a movie called Hiding Out. We ended up recording "Crying" in Vancouver, which is where I lived. I walked into the studio, and it was like staring at the huge image of the Marlboro Man on Sunset Boulevard — so immediately ominous and present. We were rehearsing the song in the studio with the band, and Roy and I happened to be sharing a mic. When we got to a part where we were singing at the same time, we both leaned into the mic and our cheeks touched. His cheek was so soft, and the energy was so amazing. Not sexual but totally explosive, like the chemistry of some sort of kinship. I'll never forget what that felt like. I can hear that voice right in my ear. His vibrato was sort of fast and had a small waver within it, and that's what gave him the vulnerable sound. That voice.
By Britney Spears
I'm sorry, but I'd rather meet Madonna than the president of the United States.
Madonna has this thing about her that you can't explain — the thing that makes somebody a star. When she walks into the room, you just have to take notice. She's so comfortable with herself, and she's not afraid to live life to the fullest and to say whatever she feels, no matter what anyone thinks. There's something kind of childlike about that; it's a beautiful, amazing thing.
Madonna was the first female pop star to take control of every aspect of her career and to take responsibility for creating her image, no matter how much flak she might get. She's proved that she can do so many different things — music and movies and being a parent, too. Her music has become iconic: Songs like "Holiday" or "Live to Tell" are timeless — not just disposable hits. They feel like home. She has her spells of being moody and vibey and spiritual, but her words are so easy to relate to. She's a diva and does what she wants, but she's a loving person.
The first time I met her was when I flew to visit her at one of her shows in 2001. I walked into her dressing room, and her daughter, Lola, was there, and I felt really nervous. I said to Madonna, "Can I just hug you?" I was so stupid! But she was so nice about it. I would definitely not be here, doing what I'm doing, if it wasn't for Madonna. I remember being eight or nine years old, running around my living room singing and dancing and wanting so much to be like her. All my girlfriends still listen to her stuff. We're all mesmerized by her. Madonna's stage presence has inspired so many artists. You can see her influence in the recent generations of artists who have picked up some of her moves and have been influenced by her style.
Madonna has done so much, and she's been around so long, and the bitch still looks good! She's spent years in the public eye, and that can be really hard for anyone to deal with. But she dug deep and started writing from her heart. Madonna has so much light inside her, and she's so much more noticeable than all of the rest of us. She stuck to what she believed in and did what she felt. It's part of her art — to just be herself.
By Antonio "L.A." Reid
Michael Jackson was the world's greatest entertainer. One of the most explosive performances I've ever witnessed was Jackson sliding across the stage at the Motown 25th-anniversary show. Just watching that made us all know: That's what greatness is, and anything that doesn't measure up to that is beneath greatness. Before him there were the Beatles and Elvis and Frank Sinatra; Michael Jackson takes his place right alongside those greats.
I was born around the same time as Michael, and I was one of the original fans. I first saw him at the Ohio State Fair, when I was very young; the Jackson 5 were performing with the Commodores. Michael came on, and that voice of his rang over the whole fairground. I was deeply touched by that voice from the very beginning.
"Billie Jean" is the most important record he made, not only because of its commercial success but because of the musical depth of the record. It has more hooks in it than anything I've ever heard. Everything in that song was catchy, and every instrument was playing a different hook. You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces and I think you'd have 12 different hits. Every day, I look for that kind of song.
Michael has influenced so many artists, some of whom are picking up on the grandeur and showmanship of his live performances. You can see his influence in his sister Janet, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears, and in Justin Bieber and so many others. You can see his influence in the dance moves — the syncopated choreography — that a lot of young artists use. And a lot of them have picked up his work ethic. When you look at a Justin Timberlake production or an Usher production, you really see that they took a page out of Michael's book; they went to rehearsal, and they must've worked eight hours a day, because their shows are flawless, as Michael's shows were flawless.
Late in his life, there were many, many people who thought of Michael as a spectacle, and it was sad. The world without Michael Jackson is a very, very different world. And I think we should all feel very blessed that an artist of that caliber came into our lives, because he enriched our lives.
There's a rare contradiction in Neil Young's work. He works so hard as a songwriter, and he's written a phenomenal number of perfect songs. And, at the same time, he doesn't give a fuck. That comes from caring about essence. There can be things out of tune and all wild-sounding and not recorded meticulously. And he doesn't care. He's made whole albums that aren't great, and instead of going back to a formula that he knows works, he would rather represent where he is at the time. That's what's so awesome: watching his career wax and wane according to the truth of his character at the moment. It's never phony. It's always real. The truth is not always perfect.
I can't say enough about how much I love Crazy Horse. The sound is so deep, the groove is so deep — even when they're off, it still sounds great, because they feel it so much. I don't usually go for that approach. I like Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis and Mingus. I like consummate steady musicianship. I grew up on jazz. I didn't listen to rock music until I played in my first rock band when I was in high school. I went from progressive to Hendrix to funk to full-on L.A. punk. That's when I had the realization that emotion and content, no matter how simple, were valuable. A great one-chord punk song became as important to me as a Coltrane solo, and I've had the same feeling about Neil Young. He changed the way I thought about rock music. As a bass player, I used to be into very boisterous, syncopated and rhythmically complex songs. After hearing Neil, I appreciated simplicity, the poignancy of "less is more."
My favorite Neil album is Zuma, with "Pardon My Heart" and "Lookin' for a Love": "But I hope I treat her kind/And don't mess with her mind/When she starts to see the darker side of me." And "Tell Me Why," on After the Gold Rush — when he says, "Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?" it feels like me. I know I'm not alone. Tonight's the Night is probably the greatest raw rock record ever made, on a level with the Stooges' Fun House or any Hendrix album. It's such a mess, with stuff recorded so loud that it distorts. The background vocals are completely out of tune. And I wouldn't change a note. It's the spirit of what rock music is, and it's the reason to play rock music.
Neil is the guy I look at when I think about getting older in a rock band and still having dignity and relevance and honesty. He's never, ever sold out, and he's never pretended to be anything other than what he is. The Chili Peppers get offers all the time to sell songs for commercials. Maybe we could whore ourselves out for the right price someday. But I always think, "Would Neil Young do this?" And the answer is no. Neil Young wouldn't fuckin' do it.
The Everly Brothers
By Paul Simon
The roots of the Everly Brothers are very, very deep in the soil of American culture. First of all, you should know that the Everly Brothers were child stars. They had a radio show with their family, and their father, Ike, was an influential country guitar player, so he attracted other significant musicians to the Everlys' world — among them Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, who was instrumental in getting the Everlys on the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps even more powerfully than Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers melded country with the emerging sound of Fifties rock & roll. They were exposed to extraordinary country-roots music, and so they brought with them the legacy of the great brother groups like the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys into the Fifties, where they mingled with the other early rock pioneers and made history in the process.
The Everly Brothers' impact exceeds even their fame. They were a big influence on John Lennon and Paul McCartney — who called themselves the Foreverly Brothers early on — and, of course, on Simon and Garfunkel. When we were kids, Artie and I got our rock & roll chops from the Everlys. Later, as Simon and Garfunkel, we put "Bye Bye Love" on Bridge Over Troubled Water, and much later, Phil and Don both sang on the song "Graceland."
Before the Everly Brothers joined Artie and me on the road in 2003, Phil and Don had actually quietly retired three years earlier. They basically came out of retirement for us. I said, "Phil, look, if you're going to retire, you might as well come out one more time and take a bow and let me at least say what it is that you meant to us and to the culture."
You know, the Everlys have a long history of knocking each other down, as brothers can do. So in a certain sense, it was hilarious that the four of us were doing this tour, given our collective histories of squabbling. And it's amazing, because they hadn't seen each other in about three years. They met in the parking lot before the first gig. They unpacked their guitars — those famous black guitars — and they opened their mouths and started to sing. And after all those years, it was still that sound I fell in love with as a kid. It was still perfect.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
By Bob Seger
I used to go to the Motown revues, and the Miracles always closed the show. They were that good, and everybody knew it. Not flash at all. The Supremes had bigger hits. The Temptations had the better dance moves. The Miracles did it with pure music.
Back then the radio played the rougher stuff, like "Do You Love Me," by the Contours, only at night. Smokey Robinson — they played him all day. Everybody loved his songs, and he had a leg up on all the other singers, with that slightly raspy, very high voice. Smokey was smoky. He could rasp in falsetto, which is hard to do and perfect for a sad ballad like "The Tears of a Clown" or "The Tracks of My Tears."
Smokey wrote his own stuff, so he had an originality or individualism that maybe the other Motown greats didn't. He was a lyric man as well as a melody man, a musicians' musician. It's kinda like Hollywood, where you have the star, and then you have the actors' actor. Gene Hackman — when was the last time that guy gave a bad performance? Smokey was the Gene Hackman of Motown.
I grew up in the black neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I didn't think in terms of black music or white music. It was all just music to me. Smokey's first hit, "Shop Around," was one of the first records I bought. Later on, when my brother went into the service and I was the sole support of my mother, I was playing bars six nights a week, five 45-minute sets a night. This was '63-'67, and I could make the most money playing in a trio. We had a medley of six Smokey songs that we played at least twice every night: "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Shop Around," "Bad Girl," "Way Over There" and a couple of others. It was a survival move — the people demanded it. Also, if you were after a girl in the audience, it was always a good idea to do some Smokey.
Smokey was also known as the nicest guy at Motown, which you hear in his voice. I used to do a Canadian television show called Swingin' Time, and everyone from Detroit would show up: the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations. All of them nice people, but Smokey was particularly a gentleman. I saw him again around '87 at an awards show. I was able to tell him how much I appreciated his writing, and all the money I made playing his songs in bars. I have great memories. Thank you, Smokey.
By Kris Kristofferson
Johnny Cash was a biblical character. He was like some old preacher, one of those dangerous old wild ones. He was like a hero you'd see in a Western. He was a giant. And he never lost that stature. I don't think we'll see anyone like him again. Of course, the first thing he'll be remembered for is the power and originality of his music. The first time I heard Johnny Cash was when he released "I Walk the Line" in 1956. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard. Elvis had had a lot of hits by that point, but "I Walk the Line" was completely different. It didn't sound much like any of the country music that was popular at the time, either. There was always a kind of dark energy around John and his music. My first hero, when I was a kid, was Hank Williams, and he had a similar energy. You could tell they were both wild men.
As a songwriter, I've always loved his lyrics. At the beginning of his career, John released a bunch of powerful songs in a very short time. For me, the best one was always "Big River." It's so well-written, so unlike anything else. The lines don't even seem to rhyme. "I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota/And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl." His imagery was so powerful: "Then you took me to St. Louis later on, down the river/A freighter said she's been here/But she's gone, boy, she's gone/I found her trail in Memphis/But she just walked up the bluff/She raised a few eyebrows, and then she went on down alone."
The first time I saw John live, I was on leave from the Army, visiting Nashville. He was playing the Grand Ole Opry, and I was watching from backstage — and he was the most exciting performer I'd ever seen. At the time, he was skinnier than a snake, and he was just electric. He used to prowl the stage like a panther. He looked like he might explode up there. And in fact, there were times when he did. One night at the Opry, he knocked out all of the footlights. I think they banned him for a while after that. But they banned Hank Williams, too. They were a pretty conservative crowd.
The main thing about John, though — the thing that everybody could sense — was his integrity, the integrity of his relationship with his music, with his life and with other people. He stood up for Bob Dylan when everyone in the music business was criticizing Dylan for going electric. And he did the same for me, in the Eighties, when I was taking a lot of criticism for going down to Nicaragua. That's the kind of guy he always was. He stood up for the underdog.
I thought that The Man Comes Around, one of the last albums John did, was terrific. His version of "Danny Boy" kills me every time.
I think he'll be remembered for the way he grew as a person and an artist. He went from being this guy who was as wild as Hank Williams to being almost as respected as one of the fathers of our country. He was friends with presidents and with Billy Graham. You felt like he should've had his face on Mount Rushmore.
By Iggy Pop
The first time I saw Nirvana was at the Pyramid Club, a rank, wonderful, anything-goes dive bar on Avenue A in New York. It wasn't known for having live bands; it was known more for cross-dressing and bar dancing. I had a photographer friend, and he told me, "There's a really hot band from Seattle you have to see. They're gonna play the Pyramid, of all places!"
You could smell the talent on Kurt Cobain. He had this sort of elfin delivery, but it was not naval gazing. He was jumping around and throwing himself into every number. He'd sort of hunch over his guitar like an evil little troll, but you heard this throaty power in his voice. At the end of the set he tossed himself into the drums. It was one of maybe 15 performances I've seen where rock & roll is very, very good.
After that, I bought Bleach, and listened to it in Europe and Asia on tour. I still like this album very much, but there was one song, "About a Girl," that's not like the rest of the album. It sounded like someone gave Thorazine to the Beatles. And I thought, "If he puts out a record full of that, he's gonna get really rich." And sure enough …
I met Kurt at a club in L.A. right before Nevermind came out. We took a picture and he said, "Come on, let's give the finger!" So we did. I bought Nevermind and I thought, "This has really got it." Nirvana genuinely achieved dynamics. They took you down, they took you up, and when they pressed a certain button, they took you over. They rocked without rushing and they managed melody without being insipid. It was emotional without sounding dated or corny or weak.
Some time later, Kurt reached out to me. I missed the call, but my wife took the message: "Kurt Cobain wants to go into the studio with you." See, I'm 113 years old now; I was about 72 in the Nineties, so I was going to bed at, like, 10 p.m., and he was just getting going around 11. I did call him back a couple of times. The number was from the Four Seasons in L.A., and I would get these responses like, "Mr. Cobain has not left the room for three days" or "Mr. Cobain is under the bed."
As for his legacy: He was Johnny B. Goode. He was the last example that I can think of within rock & roll where a poor kid with no family backup from a small, rural area effected a serious emotional explosion in a significant sector of world youth. It was not made in Hollywood. There were no chrome parts. It was very down-home at its root. Somebody who is truly nobody from nowhere reached out and touched the world. He may have touched it right on its wound.
By Eddie Vedder
The Who began as spectacle. They became spectacular. Early on, the band was in pure demolition mode; later, on albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia, it coupled that raw energy with precision and desire to complete musical experiments on a grand scale. They asked, "What were the limits of rock & roll? Could the power of music actually change the way you feel?" Pete Townshend demanded that there be spiritual value in music. They were an incredible band whose main songwriter happened to be on a quest for reason and harmony in his life. He shared that journey with the listener, becoming an inspiration for others to seek out their own path. They did all this while also being in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's loudest band.
Presumptuously, I speak for all Who fans when I say being a fan of the Who has incalculably enriched my life. What disturbs me about the Who is the way they smashed through every door of rock & roll, leaving rubble and not much else for the rest of us to lay claim to. In the beginning they took on an arrogance when, as Pete says, "We were actually a very ordinary group." As they became accomplished, this attitude stuck. Therein lies the thread to future punks. They wanted to be louder, so they had Jim Marshall invent the 100-watt amp. Needed more volume, so they began stacking them. It is said that some of the first guitar feedback ever to make it to record was on "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," in 1965. The Who told stories within the confines of a song and, over the course of an entire album, pushed boundaries. How big of a story could be told? And how would it transmit (pre-video screens, etc.) to a large crowd? Smash the instruments? Keith Moon said they wanted to grab the audience by the balls. Pete countered that like the German auto-destructive movement, where they made sculpture that would collapse and buildings that would explode, it was high art.
I was around nine when a baby sitter snuck Who's Next onto the turntable. The parents were gone. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling. Rock & roll. That began an exploration into music that had soul, rebellion, aggression, affection. Destruction. And this was all Who music. There was the mid-Sixties maximum- R&B period, mini-operas, Woodstock, solo records. Imagine, as a kid, stumbling upon the locomotive that is Live at Leeds. "Hi, my name is Eddie. I'm 10 years old and I'm getting my fucking mind blown!" The Who on record were dynamic. Roger Daltrey's delivery allowed vulnerability without weakness; doubt and confusion, but no plea for sympathy. (You should hear Roger's vocal on a song called "Lubie [Come Back Home]," a bonus track from the reissue of their first album, The Who Sings My Generation. It's top-gear.)
The Who quite possibly remain the greatest live band ever. Even the list-driven punk legend and music historian Johnny Ramone agreed with me on this. You can't explain Keith Moon or his playing. John Entwistle was an enigma unto himself, another virtuoso musical oddity. Roger turned his mic into a weapon, seemingly in self-defense. All the while, Pete was leaping into the rafters wielding a Seventies Gibson Les Paul, which happens to be a stunningly heavy guitar. As a live group, they created momentum, and they seemed to be released by the ritual of their playing. (Check out "A Quick One While He's Away," from the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus.)
A few years ago in Chicago, I saw Pete wring notes out of his guitar like a mechanic squeezing oil from a rag. I watched as the guitar became a living being, one getting its body bashed and its neck strangled. As Pete set it down, I swear I sensed relief coming from that guitar. A Stratocaster with sweat on it. The guitar's sweat.
John and Keith made the Who what they were. Roger was the rock. And at this point, Pete has been through and survived more than anyone in rock royalty. Perhaps even beyond Keith Richards, who was actually guilty of most things he was accused of.
The songwriter-listener relationship grows deeper after all the years. Pete saw that a celebrity in rock is charged by the audience with a function, like, "You stand there and we will know ourselves." Not "You stand there and we will pay you loads of money to keep us entertained as we eat our oysters." He saw the connection could be profound. He also realized the audience may say, "When we're finished with you, we'll replace you with somebody else." For myself and so many others (including shopkeepers, foremen, professionals, bellboys, gravediggers, directors, musicians), they won't be replaced. Yes, Pete, it's true, music can change you.
By The Edge
The Clash, more than any other group, kick-started a thousand garage bands across Ireland and the U.K. For U2 and other people of our generation, seeing them perform was a life-changing experience. There's really no other way to describe it.
I can vividly remember when I first saw the Clash. It was in Dublin in October 1977. They were touring behind their first album, and they played a 1,200-capacity venue at Trinity College. Dublin had never seen anything like it. It really had a massive impact around here, and I still meet people who are in the music business today — maybe they are DJs, maybe they are in bands — because they saw that show.
U2 were a young band at the time, and it was a complete throw-down to us. It was like: Why are you in music? What the hell is music all about, anyway? The members of the Clash were not world-class musicians by any means, but the racket they made was undeniable — the pure, visceral energy and the anger and the commitment. They were raw in every sense, and they were not ashamed that they were about much more than playing with precision and making sure the guitars were in tune. This wasn't just entertainment. It was a life-and-death thing. They made it possible for us to take our band seriously. I don't think that we would have gone on to become the band we are if it wasn't for that concert and that band. There it was. They showed us what you needed. And it was all about heart.
The social and political content of the songs was a huge inspiration, certainly for U2. It was the call to wake up, get wise, get angry, get political and get noisy about it. It's interesting that the members were quite different characters. Paul Simonon had an art-school background, and Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat. But you really sensed they were comrades in arms. They were completely in accord, railing against injustice, railing against a system they were just sick of. And they thought it had to go.
I saw them a couple of times after the Dublin show, and they always had something fresh going on. It's a shame that they weren't around longer. The music they made is timeless. It's got so much fighting spirit, so much heart, that it just doesn't age. You can still hear it in Green Day and No Doubt, Nirvana and the Pixies, certainly U2. They meant it, and you can hear it in their work.
By Ahmir Thompson
Prince was forbidden in my closed, Christian household. He was somewhere between Richard Pryor — whom we absolutely couldn't listen to — and a stash of porn. In junior high, my parents would put $30 or $40 in an envelope, and that would buy a card that would cover a month of school lunches. It was November of 1982, and I took my $36 and purchased Prince's 1999, What Time Is It?, by the Time, and the Vanity 6 album. I starved that whole month.
"Little Red Corvette" from 1999 was one of the first regularly played songs by a black artist on MTV; Prince crossed boundaries like that all the time. In the first five songs on Sign 'O' the Times, he sprawls across James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Curtis Mayfield in five easy swoops and maintains his own identity. But it's Purple Rain that was a crowning achievement, not only in Prince's career but for black life — or how blacks were perceived — in the Eighties. It's the equivalent of Michael Jordan's 1997 championship games: He was absolutely just in the zone, every shot was going in. "When Doves Cry" is one of the most radical Number One songs of the past 25 years. Here's a song with no bass line in it, hardly any music. Yet it's still had such an influence; "When Doves Cry" is a precursor to the Neptunes' one-note funk grind, a masterpiece of song with just a drum machine and very little melody. Purple Rain was a great movie too. Anyone who saw Eminem's biopic, 8 Mile, if they're over 35, the first words out of their mouth are, "Oh, I liked that film the first time I saw it back in the Eighties. It was this Prince movie called Purple Rain."
Prince must be one of the most bootlegged artists of the rock era — on a weekly basis I listen to a bootleg called The Dream Factory, which would later be known as Sign 'O' the Times. His ability to create on the spot is mind-boggling. Like a hip-hop MC freestyling, he executes ideas off the top of his head in a very convincing manner. But there must be at least 20 ways to prove that hip-hop is damn-near patterned after Prince, including his genius, blatant use of sexuality and the use of controversy as a way to get attention. I don't think any artist before had used that level of sex to get in the door and be accepted by the mainstream. I wonder what his mind state was in 1981, standing onstage in kiddie briefs, leg warmers and high heels without a Number One hit. That was a risk. Also, Prince created the image of what we now know as the video ho — he was a pioneer of objectifying and empowering women at the same time. Jay-Z often talks about ghostwriting for other artists; Prince is notorious for ghostwriting. Not only that, but he invented different aliases for himself in a way that rappers have adopted — he was Jamie Starr, Joey Coco or Alexander Nevermind.
I met Prince in 1996, and I was prepared for the grasshopper voice, the one that he always uses at award shows, but he was totally normal. Just like you and me, except he's Prince. We played together a few times, and one of my hero moments of all time is after a concert in New York when me, him and D'Angelo got onstage and played for about a half-hour. His period of silence about a decade ago bothered me. It was really a shame that his fight for independence from the labels was a David and Goliath battle that he had to fight alone. But judging from what he's done lately, I'm happy to say that he hasn't lost a step in his 30 years of doing it. He seems as young and as in charge as ever. He definitely seizes the moment. In case a few people counted him out, he's got a few trump cards up his sleeve.
By Lenny Kaye
Every rock & roll generation needs reminding of why it picks up a guitar in the first place, and four nonbrothers from the borough of Queens had a concept that was almost too perfect. Their look — ripped jeans, tight T-shirt, high-top sneakers, bowl haircut and black motorcycle jacket — was a cartoon version of rock's tough-guy ethos. When they first started, they played what they knew how to play, which wasn't much, and worked it to their advantage. They opted for speed rather than complexity, they aspired to be the Beach Boys, Alice Cooper and the Bay City Rollers, and their rotational three chords and headlong lunge kept them skidding through the simpleton catchphrases of their singalongs.
The Ramones were pure, unadulterated — and hardly adult in their adolescent concerns of sniffing glue and beating on brats with a baseball bat, even if the brats were themselves. Their sibling rivalry meshed like any television reality show. Johnny was the stern older brother, disciplined, military; Dee Dee was the blunt instrument; Tommy was the producer who knew the record business, and like any good producer, knew that you build a great track from the drums out. Joey was the beating heart.
The Ramones had their act so together that they would change it only in increments for two decades after they took it out of the CBGB nest in 1975. They were easily understood, translatable. When the band got to England on Independence Day 1976, returning the favor of the English Invasion in a fun-house mirror, it was a frontal assault on here-we-go-again pop subculture.
The Ramones always believed in their music's message of self-deliverance. They affirmed that if they could do it, you could do it; just be resolute. Count to four.
When I think of a Ramones moment, I remember not the early years — when the bands played for each other on the Bowery, and each was like a different world — but a late afternoon in May, somewhere in New England, a daylong festival, maybe the early Eighties. I'm standing backstage with Johnny, and we're talking about nothing much, guitars we've known, the Red Sox, and finally the conversation stops, and we just look around, quiet in the midst of electric noise, seeing where rock & roll has brought us on this beautiful afternoon, playing the music we love.
By Dr. John
After John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Fats Domino and his partner, Dave Bartholomew, were probably the greatest team of songwriters ever. They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes and a cool groove. And their songs all had simple lyrics; that’s the key. There are no deep plots in Fats Domino songs: “Yes, it’s me, and I’m in love again/Had no lovin’ since you know when/You know I love you, yes I do/And I’m savin’ all my lovin’ just for you.” It don’t get no simpler than that.
Even when Fats Domino did songs by somebody else, it was still Fats. He could really lock in with his band and play those hard-driving boogie shuffles — it was pre-funk stuff, and it was New Orleans, and he did it all his way. One thing that most people miss, which he did on some of his biggest records, like “Blueberry Hill”: He could do piano rolls with both hands. A couple of guys, like Allen Toussaint, could do Fats to a T, but with Fats, there was brothsome little different thing. He was like Thelonious Monk that way. You can always tell when it’s Monk and when it’s somebody trying to play like Monk.
I give a lot of credit to Dave Bartholomew, Fats’ producer and songwriting partner. They were a team. Dave produced records perfect for Fats. He had the sense to go with the best-feeling take when they were recording. People would have missed something great about Fats if they had just heard the more “correct” takes — the ones without that extra off-the-wall thing that Fats would bring.
You can’t hardly hear the bass on some of Fats’ early records. Later, they started doubling the bass line with the guitar, and it made for a very distinctive sound. That became standard with Phil Spector. I don’t know if Phil picked it up from Fats or from somebody who picked it up from Fats, but it started with Fats. You can hear a lot of Fats in Jerry Lee Lewis. Anytime anybody plays a slow blues, the piano player will eventually get to something like Fats. I can’t tell you the number of times I played sessions and was asked specifically to do Fats. Eighty kajillion little bands all through the South — we all had to play Fats Domino songs. Everybody, everywhere.
Fats is old school to the max — he loved to work the house, do looooong shows and push the piano across the stage with his belly. That innocence is there in his music. He’s a good man, and people respond to that goodness. I don’t think it was about anything other than the tradition of working the house and what felt good to Fats.
When all the payola scandals were happening and it looked bad for rock & roll, Fats did an interview in some magazine. He said, “I don’t know what all the trouble is about us being a bad influence on teenagers. I’m just playing the same music I played all my life.” That’s what Fats was about. He didn’t look on what he did as special or different. He just did what Fats did.
Jerry Lee Lewis
I'd be curious to know how many pianos Jerry Lee Lewis has gone through in his lifetime. Whoever was responsible for keeping the piano in tune and making sure it didn't fall apart at Sun Studio must have wept every time he showed up to play. I don't know what switch got flipped in his brain when he was born that compelled him to play so fast and so hard, but I'm glad it got flipped.
There's a perhaps apocryphal story that when he and his cousin, the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, were children, they went to a roadhouse and listened through the window to some amazing R&B band. Jimmy Swaggart supposedly said, "This is the devil's music! We have to leave!" But Jerry Lee just stood there transfixed and couldn't tear himself away. He was an evangelist for the devil's music.
If you listen to his records, they sound more punk rock than just about anything any contemporary punk band is doing. His records sound faster than they actually are, and they sound louder than they actually are. If you listen to them on a crummy little stereo on low volume, they still sound like they're exploding out of the speakers.
Whether it's Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard or Gene Vincent, these guys were dripping sex and anarchy. Their records all have a sense of abandon, like they had given up all hope of commercial success or ever being respected, so they just wanted to play crazy music and get laid.
If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her date a musician, because most of them are just too dumb. In Jerry Lee's case, if he were coming over for dinner, I would literally lock her up. The story of him marrying his 13-year-old cousin is unbearably sad. Elvis had just been drafted, Jerry Lee was about to tour England for the first time, and the scandal broke. He was never able to ascend to the throne that was rightfully his. And the piano faded because it was too big and too hard to mic. The beauty of the electric guitar is that it's small, portable, loud and easy to mic.
"Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" are the iconic singles. But if you really want to understand Jerry Lee Lewis, find some video performance of him doing "Great Balls of Fire." It's pure, narcotic rock & roll excitement.
By Jackson Browne
In many ways, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of rock & roll. Combining strains of Appalachian music, rockabilly, blues and R&B, his work epitomizes rock's deepest values: desire, the need for freedom and the search to find yourself. All through his songs there is a generosity and a willingness to portray even the simplest aspects of our lives in a dramatic and committed way. The first time I heard him play was at a small club, the Bitter End in New York, where he did a guest set. It was just an amazing display of lyrical prowess. I asked him where he was from, and he sort of grinned and said he was from New Jersey.
The next time I saw him play it was with his band, the one with David Sancious in it. I'd never seen anybody do what he was doing: He would play acoustic guitar and dance all over the place, and the guitar wasn't plugged into anything. There wasn't this meticulous need to have every note heard. It filled that college gym with so much emotion that it didn't matter if you couldn't hear every note.
A year or so later I saw him play in L.A., with Max Weinberg, Clarence Clemons and Steve Van Zandt in the band, and it was even more dramatic — the use of lights and the way it was staged. There were these events built into the music. I went to see them the second night, and I guess I expected it to be the same thing, but it was completely different. It was obvious that they were drawing on a vocabulary. It was exhilarating, and at the bottom of it all there was all this joy and fun and a sense of brotherhood, of being outsiders who had tremendous power and a story to tell.
Bruce has been unafraid to take on the tasks associated with growing up. He's a family man, with kids and the same values and concerns as working-class Americans. It runs all through his work, the idea of finding that one person and making a life together. Look at "Rosalita": Her mother doesn't like him, her father doesn't like him, but he's coming for her. Or in "The River," where he gets Mary pregnant and for his 19th birthday he gets a union card and a wedding coat. That night they go to the river and dive in. For those of us who are ambivalent about marriage, the struggle for love in a world of impermanence is summed up by the two of them diving into that river at night. Bruce's songs are filled with these images, but they aren't exclusively the images of working-class people. It just happens to be where he's from.
Bruce has all kinds of influences, from Chuck Berry and Gary U.S. Bonds to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. But he's also a lot like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean — people whose most indistinct utterances have been magnified to communicate volumes. He is one of the few songwriters who works on a scale that is capable of handling the subject of our national grief and the need to find a response to an event like September 11th. His sense of music as a healing power, of band-as-church, has always been there. He's got his feet planted on either side of that great divide between rebellion and redemption.
By Chris Martin
I don't buy weekend tickets to Ireland and hang out in front of their gates, but U2 are the only band whose entire catalog I know by heart. The first song on The Unforgettable Fire, "A Sort of Homecoming," I know backward and forward — it's so rousing, brilliant and beautiful. It's one of the first songs I played to my unborn baby.
The first U2 album I ever heard was Achtung Baby. It was 1991, and I was 14 years old. Before that, I didn't even know what albums were. From that point, I worked backward — every six months, I'd get to buy a new U2 album. The sound they pioneered — the driving bass and drums underneath and those ethereal, effects-laden guitar tracks floating out from above — was nothing that had been heard before. They may be the only good anthemic rock band ever. Certainly they're the best.
What I love most about U2 is that the band is more important than any of its songs or albums. I love that they're still best mates and that they each play an integral role in one another's lives as friends. I love the way that they're not interchangeable — if Larry Mullen Jr. wants to go scuba diving for a week, the rest of the band can't do a thing. U2 — like Coldplay — maintain that all songs that appear on their albums are credited to the band. And they are the only band that's been around for more than 30 years with no member changes and no big splits.
It's amazing that the biggest band in the world has so much integrity and passion in its music. Our society is thoroughly screwed, fame is a ridiculous waste of time, and celebrity culture is disgusting. There are only a few people around brave enough to talk out against it, who use their fame in a good way. And every time I try, I feel like an idiot, because I see Bono actually getting things achieved. While everyone else was swearing at George Bush, Bono was the one who rubbed Bush's back and got a billion dollars for Africa. People can be so cynical — they don't like do-gooders — but Bono's attitude is, "I don't care what anybody thinks, I'm going to speak out." He's accomplished so much with Greenpeace, in Sarajevo, at the concert to shut down the Sellafield nuclear plant, and he still runs the gantlet. When the time came for Coldplay to think about fair trade, we took his lead to speak out regardless of what anyone may think. That's what we've learned from U2: You have to be brave enough to be yourself.
By Steve Cropper
The first time we saw Otis Redding was in 1962, and he was driving a car for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers out of Macon, Georgia. They had a moderate hit, an instrumental called "Love Twist," and they wanted to record a follow-up in Memphis with my band, Booker T. and the MGs. I saw this big guy get out from behind the wheel and go to the back of the truck and start unloading equipment. That was Otis. And we had no idea he was also a singer. In those days, instrumental groups always carried a singer so they could play the songs on the radio that the kids wanted to dance to.
We had a few minutes left at the end of the session, and Al Jackson, our drummer, said, "This guy with Johnny, he wants us to hear him sing." Booker had already left for the day, so I sat down at the piano, which I play only a little for writing. Otis said, "Just gimme those church things."
We call them triplets in music. I said, "What key?"
He said, "It don't matter."
He started singing "These Arms of Mine." And, man, my hair stood on end. Jim [Stewart, co-owner of Stax] came running out and said, "That's it! That's it! Where is everybody? We gotta get this on tape!" So I grabbed all the musicians who hadn't left already for their night gigs, and we recorded it right there. When you hear something that's better than anything you ever heard, you know it, and it was unanimous. We almost wore out the tape playing it afterward. "These Arms of Mine" was the first of 17 hit singles he had in a row.
Otis had the softness of Sam Cooke and the harshness of Little Richard, and he was his own man. He was also fabulous to be around, always 100 percent full of energy. So many singers in those days, with all due respect, had just been in the business too long. They were bitter from the way they were treated. But Otis didn't have that. He was probably the most nonprejudiced human being I ever met. He seemed to be big in every way: physically, in his talent, in his wisdom about other people. After he died, I was surprised to find out I was the same age as he was, because I looked up to him as an older brother.
When I wrote with Otis, my job was to help him finish his songs. He had so many ideas that I'd just pick one and say, "Let's do this," and we'd write all night long. "I Can't Turn You Loose" was just a riff I'd used on a few songs with the MGs. Otis worked it up with the horns in about 10 minutes as the last thing we did one night in the studio. Just a riff and one verse that he sings over and over. That's all it is. With Otis, it was all about feeling and expression. Most of his songs had just two or three chord changes, so there wasn't a lot of music there. The dynamics, the energy, the way we attacked it — that's hard to teach. So many things now are computer-generated. They start at one level and they stop at the same level, so there isn't much dynamic, even if there are a lot of different sounds.
I miss Otis. I miss him as much now as I did after we lost him. I've been to the lake in Madison, Wisconsin, where they have the plaque. The best explanation I've read is that his plane missed the runway on the first approach, and it circled around over the lake when the wings iced up. That was December 10th, 1967. It's been difficult for me to listen to Otis since then. It brings back too many memories, all great except for the end.
By Iggy Pop
Bo Diddley's music is enormous. It's deeply moving. It has the sultry, sexual power of Africa. There's all sorts of mystery in that sound. People listen to Bo Diddley recordings and think, "Oh, you can just go bonk-de-bonk-bonk, de-bonk-bonk, and you got a Bo Diddley beat." But it isn't that easy. He played really simple things but with incredible authority. I first heard him on a Rolling Stones album, on their cover of "Mona." It was such a great song; I looked at the credits and it said "Ellas McDaniel," and I thought, "Who the hell is that?" But when I wanted to get into songwriting, he was the key for me. I didn't have a lot of vocal range, and I didn't know a lot of chords on the guitar. So I was looking for a way to write, and there he was, writing very complete, very memorable songs without a lot of fuss. They weren't florid. He never bothered to change the chord, for one thing — which is very heavy-metal! It's hypnotic. And, of course, there's the attitude, a chin-up, chest-out sort of thing. He was a bull; he had a bullish quality to everything he did and everything he played. Vocally, he reminds me of gutbucket Delta blues: Muddy Waters, but brought to town, rocked up. And his voice is so damn loud. It's just a huge voice, and he's got a big, deep shout.
Then there's the way he played the guitar. First of all, Bo's hands were about a foot long from the wrist to the tip of the finger. He really controlled his guitar. Bo plays his instrument, and the way the rhythm clicks is unique. What seems to pass for guitar more and more now is some wimp with a fuzz box. Somewhere around Hendrix, the line was crossed. Hendrix had both: He had the hands, and he had the fuzz box. Now all they have is the fuzz box — a lot of them.
Bo Diddley had a huge impact on Sixties rock. The Stones covered Bo Diddley, and the Yardbirds did "I'm a Man," and the Pretty Things did his song "Pretty Thing." My band in high school, the Iguanas, did a few of his songs, including "Road Runner," and you can hear a bit of him in the Stooges. You can be damn well sure that Jack White has studied Bo's records.
I've had a little personal experience with Bo. I worked with him in Vegas once, and I kept running into him on airplanes in the Eighties and Nineties — always in first class, always alone, always with a roll bag, his police hat and his sheriff's badge. I think Bo and Chuck Berry have both suffered the trivialization of people who are covered too much. His influence is everywhere, but his personal career could have used a boost. Some car or jeans company needs to put a track of his in a commercial so a lot of young dudes and dudettes can go, "Whoa — that's rockin'!"
The Velvet Underground
By Julian Casablancas
When you listen to a classic-rock station today, why don't they play the Velvet Underground? Why is it always Boston and Led Zeppelin? And why are the Rolling Stones so much more popular than the Velvets? OK, I understand why the Stones are more popular. But there is also a part of me that has always felt that it should have been the other way around. The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time. And their music was weird. But it also made so much sense to me. I couldn't believe this wasn't the most popular music ever made.
Listening to those four studio albums now is like reading a good book that takes place in a distant time. When I hear The Velvet Underground and Nico or Loaded, I feel like I'm in Andy Warhol's Factory in the 1960s or hanging out at Max's Kansas City. The way Lou Reed wrote and sang about drugs and sex, about the people around him — it was so matter-of-fact. I believed every word of "Heroin." Reed could be romantic in the way he portrayed these crazy situations, but he was also intensely real. It was poetry and journalism.
A lot of people associate the Velvets with feedback and noise. White Light/White Heat is the kind of record you have to be in the mood for. You have to be in a shitty bar, in a really shitty mood. But the Velvets created some very beautiful music, too: "Sunday Morning," with John Cale's viola; "Candy Says"; "All Tomorrow's Parties" — I can't imagine that song without Nico singing it, although I thought Maureen Tucker had a cool voice, as well as being a really cool drummer. She had a femininity. I thought she sounded hotter than Nico.
In the beginning, the Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets. I listened to Loaded all the time when we started the band, while I was writing my first songs. For four solid months, it was just Loaded and this Beach Boys greatest-hits record, Made in the U.S.A. A lot of our guitar tones are based on what Reed and Sterling Morrison did. I honestly wish we could have copied them more. We didn't come close enough. But that was cool, because it became more of our own thing. Which is something else I got from the Velvets. They taught me just to be myself.
By Smokey Robinson
At Motown, Marvin was one of the main characters in the greatest musical story ever told. Prior to that, nothing quite like Motown had ever existed — all those songwriters, singers, producers working and growing together, part family, part business — and I doubt seriously if it will ever happen like that again. And there's no question that Marvin will always be a huge part of the Motown legacy.
When Marvin first came to Motown, he was the drummer on all the early hits I had with the Miracles. He and I became close friends — he was my brother, really — and I did a lot of production and wrote a lot of songs for him: "Ain't That Peculiar," "I'll Be Doggone." Of course, that means that I spent a lot of time waiting for Marvin. See, Marvin was basically late coming to the studio all the time. But I never minded, because I knew that whenever Marvin did get there, he was going to sing my song in a way that I had never imagined it. He would Marvinize my songs, and I loved it. Marvin could sing anything, from gospel to gutbucket blues to jazz to pop.
But Marvin was much more than just a great singer. He was a great record maker, a gifted songwriter, a deep thinker — a real artist in the true sense. What's Going On is the most profound musical statement in my lifetime. It never gets dated. I still remember when I would go by Marvin's house and he was working on it, he would say, "Smoke, this album is being written by God, and I'm just the instrument that he's writing it through."
Marvin really had it all — that voice, that soul, that look, too. He was one very handsome man. He had sex appeal and his music was sexy. You couldn't blame women for falling in love with Marvin.
I said before that when you worked with Marvin, it meant you were waiting for Marvin. But Marvin was always worth the wait. I suppose that in a way, I'm still waiting for Marvin.
By Billy Gibbons
Muddy and his band opened for ZZ Top on a tour in 1981. This was over 40 years after his first recordings, and that band could still play the blues, not just as seasoned pros but with the same enthusiasm Muddy had when he started out. When he sang that his mojo was working, you could tell his mojo had not slowed down at all. He was satisfied, composed, self-contained. If he had an opinion on a subject, he didn't allow a whole lot of latitude to be convinced otherwise. If he was bitter about the way he'd been treated by record companies, he never showed it. We talked to him a lot as we traveled, when he wasn't chasing young girls through the airport. He told us a story once about his friends Freddie King and Little Walter walking from Dallas to Chicago. I've always had that image in my mind of two guys walking from the South to the North. Everyone else in the great migration took the train. I hope they weren't carrying their equipment.
People call his sound raw and dirty and gritty, but it wasn't particularly loud. It just sounded that way. A guitar amplifier in the Fifties was maybe the size of a tabletop radio. To be heard over a party, you had to crank that thing as loud as it would go. And then you left behind all semblance of circuit design and entered the elegant field of distortion that made everything so much deeper. If you didn't have a big band with 20 guys, you had 20 watts.
I first heard Muddy Waters through two friends of mine, Walter Baldwin and Steve Roberts, in junior high in 1962 or '63. We grew up together and jumped on every piece of musical madness we could find. Most people in my generation probably discovered Muddy backwards from the Rolling Stones, who got their name from a Muddy song. I heard him just before the Stones got here, but it was all good, whether you discovered it backwards, forwards or sideways.
Anyway, I picked up the guitar because of Muddy Waters as much as anyone. Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King — they all had an impact too, but they all followed Muddy Waters. He started out in Mississippi playing acoustic, using his thumb to play the bass line and a real bottleneck slide for melody on the upper strings. The slide guitar got the nuance of the human voice better than any other instrument. Basically, it was a Robert Johnson thing, and Muddy took it to Chicago, electrified it, added a bass player and a harp with a good backbeat, and you had a party. His bands were always powerhouses, and his voice had an amazing depth.
The remarkable thing is that the blues never died out, ever. It's been rediscovered every 10 years since the Twenties. Nobody can do what Muddy did, but his energy is still fueling that fire. You can hear his enthusiasm in bands like the White Stripes or the Black Keys. I'd recommend his first album, The Best of Muddy Waters, with the early Chess singles, to anyone. Every track is worthy. The albums Johnny Winter produced in the late Seventies, Hard Again and I'm Ready, are also terrific.
It was all supposed to be disposable. Just noise on a shellac disc. And here we are in the 21st century still trying to figure out how such a simple art form could be so complicated and subtle. It's still firing brain synapses around the world. You've got the Japanese Muddy Waters Society corresponding with fans in Sweden and England, and his music can still propel a party in the U.S. He made three chords sound deep, and they are.
By Art Garfunkel
Sam Cooke was grounded in a very straightforward singing style: It was pure, beautiful and open-throated, extraordinarily direct and unapologetic. Let's say you're going to sing "I love you for sentimental reasons." How do you hit that "I"? Do you slur into it? Do you put in a little hidden "h"? The attack on that vowel sound is the tip-off to how bold a singer is. If you pour on the letter "i" from the back of your throat, the listener gets that there is no fudge in the first thousandth of a second. There's just confidence from the singer, that he knows the pitch, and here's the sound. That's what Sam was great at. He had guts as a singer.
Sam also threw a lot of notes at you. Today you hear everyone doing those melismatic notes that Mariah Carey made popular. Sam was the first guy I remember singing that way. When he's singing, "I love you for sentimental reasons/I hope you do believe me," the next line should be, "I've given you my heart." But he goes, "I've given you my-my-mah-muh-my heart/Given you my heart because I need you." It's as if he's saying, "Now that I've sung the word, I'm going to sing it again, because I've got all this feeling in my heart that demands expression." He gave us so much that he could have given us less, and that would've been enough, but he put in all those extra notes, as in "You Send Me," where he's scatting between the lines: "I know, I know, I know, when you hold me."
He had fabulous chops, but at the same time fabulous taste. I never felt that he was overdoing it, as I often feel with singers today. He stayed rhythmic and fluty and floaty; he always showed brilliant vocal control.
I must have sung "You Send Me" to myself walking up and down stairwells at least a thousand times. It was on the charts right when I was having my first little success with Paul Simon as Tom and Jerry. Our "Hey, Schoolgirl" was on the charts with "You Send Me" and "Jailhouse Rock." "Jingle Bell Rock" had just come out. I was just a kid, calling on radio stations for promotional purposes, and all I heard was "You Send Me." Sam was great to sing along with. He was my hero.
There was a deep sense of goodness about Sam. His father was a minister, and he obviously had spent a lot of time in church. His first success came early as a gospel singer, and he expanded into R&B and pop. It looked like he was making the right choices in life until he got shot by the night manager of a motel. You wonder who he had fallen in with.
Paul Simon, James Taylor and I covered "Wonderful World," which he also wrote. It was a teenage short story like Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" or "School Days." You're stroking the teenager's sense of style with those pop songs. Sam was a master of that idiom. "Wonderful World" was unsophisticated but very Tin Pan Alley.
Sam came along before the album was discovered as an art form. You think of him in terms of songs. My favorites are "Sad Mood," "Wonderful World," "Summertime," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" and "You Send Me." I think that "A Change Is Gonna Come" shows where he could have gone if he had lived through the Sixties, doing Marvin Gaye kind of lyrics about the society we live in. It was a tremendous loss when he was killed. I remember thinking, "Oh, that can't be." He was such a rising star, a fabulous singer with intelligence. And that brilliant smile.
I used to think he was just a great singer. Now I think he's better than that. Almost nobody since then can touch him.
By Elton John
Let me put it this way: Wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life. For me, it's the best album ever made, and I'm always left in awe after I listen to it. When people in decades and centuries to come talk about the history of music, they will talk about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Stevie came out of the golden age of Motown, when they were putting out the best R&B records in the world from Detroit, and he evolved into an amazing songwriter and a genuine musical force of nature.
He's so multitalented that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes him one of the greatest ever. But first, there's that voice. Along with Ray Charles, he's the greatest R&B singer who ever lived. Nobody can sing like he does. I know: I actually recorded a version of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" when I was young, and I really had to squeeze my balls to get those high notes.
As a keyboard player, I've played with him over the years, and he never ceases to amaze me, the stuff he comes up with. He can play anything — check out his harmonica playing. I think I'm a pretty good musician, but he's in a whole other league. He could play with Charlie Parker or John Coltrane and hold his own.
Stevie's Sixties hits are amazing — joyful music that still sounds great — but then, starting in the Seventies, he hit a run of albums that's unsurpassed in music history, from Talking Book to Songs in the Key of Life. I think the elite — the most major of major artists — often have a period when they can do no wrong. It happened to Prince, too, who is like Stevie in some ways. He has got an immeasurable amount of talent — so much talent that sometimes it can seem like he's kind of lost.
Stevie is an amazingly positive, peaceful man. When you ask him to do something, he is generous. He loves music. He loves to play. When he comes into a room, people adore him. And there aren't many artists like that. People admire you and they like your records, but they don't want to stand up and hug you. But this man is a good man. He tries to use his music to do good. His message, I think, is about love, and in the world we live in today, that message does shine through.
By Dave Grohl
Heavy metal would not exist without Led Zeppelin, and if it did, it would suck. Led Zeppelin were more than just a band — they were the perfect combination of the most intense elements: passion and mystery and expertise. It always seemed like Led Zeppelin were searching for something. They weren't content being in one place, and they were always trying something new. They could do anything, and I believe they would have done everything if they hadn't been cut short by John Bonham's death. Zeppelin served as a great escape from a lot of things. There was a fantasy element to everything they did, and it was such a major part of what made them important. It's hard to imagine the audience for all those Lord of the Rings movies if it wasn't for Zeppelin.
They were never critically acclaimed in their day, because they were too experimental and they were too fringe. In 1969 and '70, there was some freaky shit going on, but Zeppelin were the freakiest. I consider Jimmy Page freakier than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a genius on fire, whereas Page was a genius possessed. Zeppelin concerts and albums were like exorcisms for them. People had their asses blown out by Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, but Page took it to a whole new level, and he did it in such a beautifully human and imperfect way. He plays the guitar like an old bluesman on acid. When I listen to Zeppelin bootlegs, his solos can make me laugh or they can make me tear up. Any live version of "Since I've Been Loving You" will bring you to tears and fill you with joy all at once. Page doesn't just use his guitar as an instrument — he uses it like it's some sort of emotional translator.
John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn't know what was going to happen next — like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don't think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time. You have no idea how much he influenced me. I spent years in my bedroom — literally fucking years — listening to Bonham's drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power. Not just memorizing what he did on those albums but getting myself into a place where I would have the same instinctual direction as he had. I have John Bonham tattoos all over my body — on my wrists, my arms, my shoulders. I gave myself one when I was 15. It's the three circles that were his insignia on Zeppelin IV and on the front of his kick drum.
"Black Dog," from Zeppelin IV, is what Led Zeppelin were all about in their most rocking moments, a perfect example of their true might. It didn't have to be really distorted or really fast, it just had to be Zeppelin, and it was really heavy. Then there's Zeppelin's sensitive side — something people overlook, because we think of them as rock beasts, but Zeppelin III was full of gentle beauty. That was the soundtrack to me dropping out of high school. I listened to it every single day in my VW bug, while I contemplated my direction in life. That album, for whatever reason, saved some light in me that I still have.
I heard them for the first time on AM radio in the Seventies, right around the time that "Stairway to Heaven" was so popular. I was six or seven years old, which is when I'd just started discovering music. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I discovered the first two Zeppelin records, which were handed down to me from the real stoners. We had a lot of those in the suburbs of Virginia, and a lot of muscle cars and keggers and Zeppelin and acid and weed. Somehow they all went hand in hand. To me, Zeppelin were spiritually inspirational. I was going to Catholic school and questioning God, but I believed in Led Zeppelin. I wasn't really buying into this Christianity thing, but I had faith in Led Zeppelin as a spiritual entity. They showed me that human beings could channel this music somehow and that it was coming from somewhere. It wasn't coming from a songbook. It wasn't coming from a producer. It wasn't coming from an instructor. It was coming from four musicians taking music to places it hadn't been before — it's like it was coming from somewhere else. That's why they're the greatest rock & roll band of all time. It couldn't have happened any other way.
By John Mellencamp
Buddy Holly was a complete and utter hillbilly. I'm very proud of that. So much of our musical heritage is from the country. People always ask me, "Why do you stay in Indiana?" Well, I have to. Just about every song, every sound that we emulate and listen to was created by a hillbilly, born out of the frustration of a small town where there ain't much to do in the evening. That's one thing that I loved about Buddy Holly.
Buddy Holly was one of the first great singer-songwriters — he wrote his own material and in the end was producing it, too. He came from such a rural area and was able to speak to so many people in so many locations. He was one of the first to get away from the Tin Pan Alley songwriting factory and communicate directly, honestly with his audience.
I was just a little kid when I first heard Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." You may not understand what it was like being about nine years old in 1957 or '58, but it was quite a treat. All of this music was just coming out of nowhere — Memphis and Texas. I was in a band when I was in sixth grade, and we played "Not Fade Away." You shouldn't even be in a band if you haven't played that song. It's two chords, beautiful melody, with a nice message. Holly's songs never really left my consciousness. When I set up my iPod, there he was, those same songs that I've heard for all these years. They sound just as good as the first time I heard them.
Holly's melodies and arrangements were a huge influence on the Beatles. With the whirlwind they were on in 1964, the first thing John Lennon asked when he got to The Ed Sullivan Show was, "Is this the stage that Buddy Holly played on?" That shows a lot of quiet admiration. Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums. Take their voices off, and it's Buddy Holly. Same with the Rolling Stones.
Record companies encourage young artists to copy what's been there before. But nobody was pushing Holly in any direction. That was just all him and his instincts. Those songs are great, and some are only a minute and 25 seconds long. Think about delivering a song like that today. The magic that Buddy Holly created was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that he died at 22 is just ridiculous. That tells you all you need to know about just how focused and visionary he was.
The Beach Boys
By Lindsey Buckingham
The Beach Boys showed the way, and not just to California. Sure, they may have sold the California Dream to a lot of people, but for me, it was Brian Wilson showing how far you might have to go in order to make your own musical dream come true.
In the beginning, I was someone who grew up in California and loved the early music that he and the Beach Boys made. Later, I would relate to Brian's struggle as an artist against a machine that tended toward serving the bottom line — the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger than that with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.
When the Beach Boys started, Brian was taking European sensibilities and infusing them into a Chuck Berry format. Those harmonies were based on the Four Freshmen, with a little church element added to it. He put all that on top of Chuck Berry rock & roll, and the result sounded so fresh. I remember hearing "Surfin' Safari" first when I was in sixth grade. It had the beat, the sense of joy, that explosion rock & roll gave to a lot of us. But it also had this incredible lift, this amazing kind of chemical reaction that seemed to happen inside you when you heard it.
Pet Sounds is the acknowledged masterpiece, and it's everything it's said to be, with Brian taking some of the influences he got from Phil Spector and making something all his own. But even before that there's Side Two of The Beach Boys Today!, which is really just one ballad after another and is for me one of the great sides on a rock album. Those are beautiful numbers — "Please Let Me Wonder," "Kiss Me Baby," "She Knows Me Too Well," "In the Back of My Mind" — that foreshadow Brian's angst and start exposing his vulnerability. A lot of what you find later on Pet Sounds or Smile, you could find in a different form early on.
Today it's nice to see that Brian's in a place where he can do what he wants without the pressure of selling or of having to be the support system for so many others. Because he gave the rest of us more than his fair share of good vibrations.
By Wyclef Jean
What separates Bob Marley from so many other great songwriters? They don't know what it's like for rain to seep into their house. They wouldn't know what to do without their microwaves and stoves — to make a fire with wood and cook their fish next to the ocean. Marley came from the poverty and injustice in Jamaica, and that manifested itself in his rebel sound. The people were his inspiration. Straight up. Like John Lennon, he brought the idea that through music, empowerment and words, you can really come up with world peace. But it's hard to compare him to other musicians, because music was just one part of what he was. He was also a humanitarian and a revolutionary. His impact on Jamaican politics was so strong, there was an assassination attempt on his life. Marley was like Moses. When Moses spoke, people moved. When Marley spoke, they moved as well.
Marley almost single-handedly brought reggae to the world. When I was growing up in Haiti — where my father was a missionary and a church minister — we could barely get away with listening to Christian rock and definitely couldn't get away with any rap. When I was 14, I slipped on "Exodus," and my dad, who didn't speak English very well, asked me, "What's this song about?" I told him it was biblical, and it was about movement. The minute it reached his ears — the minute Marley's music reaches anybody's ears — he was automatically grooving. The vibe goes straight to your brain.
"Redemption Song" transcends time. "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/'Cause none of them can stop the time." It will mean the same thing in the year 3014. Today, people struggle to find what's real. Everything has become so synthetic that a lot of people, all they want is to grasp onto hope. The reason people still throw on Bob Marley T-shirts is because his music is one of the few real things left to grasp onto.
Ray Charles is proof that the best music crosses all boundaries, reaches all denominations. He could do any type of music, and he always stayed true to himself. It's all about his soul.
His music first hit me when I heard a live version of "What'd I Say" on American Forces Network in Germany, which I used to listen to late at night. Then I started buying his singles. His sound was stunning — it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing — it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing.
As a singer, Ray Charles didn't phrase like anyone else. He didn't put the time where you thought it was gonna be, but it was always perfect, always right. He knew how to play with time, like any great jazzman. But there was more to him than that voice — he was also writing these incredible songs. He was a great musician, a great record maker, a great producer and a wonderful arranger.
There's a reason they called Ray Charles "the Genius." Think of how he reinvented country music in a way that worked for him. He showed there are no limitations, not for someone as good as he is. Whatever Ray Charles did, whatever he touched, he made it his own. He's his own genre. It's all Ray Charles music now.
I always learn something from him. It's music that set a tough standard. For me, two albums that stand out are Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in Person. Then there's Genius + Soul = Jazz with the Basie orchestra and Quincy Jones. And of course Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. There's so much to live up to — these days, you almost have to go backward to go forward.
In 2004, I did a duet with him on one of my songs, "Crazy Love." It felt fantastic. I always loved his singing, but I also connected with him on a soul level. I just felt his emotion. People like Ray Charles — and Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland and Solomon Burke — defined what soul was for me. It wasn't just the singing — it was what went into the singing. These were guys who put their souls on the line.
This music is way beyond marketing. This music is global, and its appeal is universal. Ray Charles changed music just by being himself — by doing what he did and translating it to millions of people with the force of his soul. That's his legacy. I think that the music of Ray Charles will probably outlive us all — at least I hope that it will.
As a producer, I almost always addressed phrasing and enunciation with the singer, but in Aretha's case, there was nothing I could tell her. I would only be getting in her way. Nowadays, singers who want to be extra soulful overdo melisma. Aretha only used it a touch and used it gloriously because her taste was impeccable. She never went to the wrong place.
It wasn't her gospel training. Most young African-American singers get their musical training in church. Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you the cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process, but training isn't genius. Genius is who she is.
"Respect" had the biggest impact, with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it's hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.
Aretha wrote most of her material or selected the songs herself, working out the arrangements at home and using her piano to provide the texture. In this case, she just had the idea that she wanted to embellish Otis Redding's song. When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head.
Otis came up to my office right before "Respect" was released, and I played him the tape. He said, "She done took my song." He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her.
Aretha had a minor career at Columbia before coming to Atlantic. I don't think Columbia let her play the piano much. It's always been my belief that when a singer plays an instrument, you should let them play it on the record, even if the singer is not a virtuoso, because they're bringing another element to the recording. In Aretha's case, there was no compromise in quality. She was a brilliant pianist.
It is part of her genius. No one can copy her. She's all alone in her greatness.
A lot of people call me the architect of rock & roll. I don't call myself that, but I believe it's true. You've got to remember, I was already known back in 1951. I was recording for RCA-Victor — if you were black, it was called Camden Records — before Elvis. Then I recorded for Peacock in Houston. Then Specialty Records bought me from Peacock — I think they paid $500 for me — and my first Specialty record was a hit in 1956: "Tutti Frutti." It was a hit worldwide. I felt I had arrived, you know? We started touring everywhere immediately. We traveled in cars. Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn't go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car. You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car. I had a Cadillac. That's what the star rode in.
You remember the way that Liberace dressed onstage? I was dressing like that all the time, very flamboyantly, and I was wearing the pancake makeup. A lot of the other performers at that time — the Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters — they were wearing makeup, too, but they didn't have any makeup kit. They had a sponge and a little compact in their pocket. I had a kit. Everybody started calling me gay.
People called rock & roll "African music." They called it "voodoo music." They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan — the same thing that they always used to say about hip-hop. Only it was worse back then, because, you have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me. We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were "white spectators." But then they'd leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.
I didn't get paid — most dates I didn't get paid. And I've never gotten money from most of those records. And I made those records: In the studio, they'd just give me a bunch of words, I'd make up a song! The rhythm and everything. "Good Golly Miss Molly"! And I didn't get a dime for it. Michael Jackson owned the Specialty stuff. He offered me a job with his publishing company once, for the rest of my life, as a writer. At the time, I didn't take it. I wish I had now.
I wish a lot of things had been different. I don't think I ever got what I really deserved.
I appreciate being picked one of the top 100 performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn't matter to me anymore. Because it won't be who I think it should be. The Rolling Stones started with me, but they're going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they're going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me. I fed them, I talked to them, and they're going to always be in front of me.
But it's a joy just to still be here. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear the old-time rock & roll. And I'm just glad I was a part of that.
By Rick Rubin
In one sense, James Brown is like Johnny Cash. Johnny is considered one of the kings of country music, but there are a lot of people who like Johnny but don't like country music. It's the same with James Brown and R&B. His music is singular — the feel and tone of it. James Brown is his own genre. He was a great editor — as a songwriter, producer and bandleader. He kept things sparse. He knew that was important. And he had the best players, the funkiest of all bands. If Clyde Stubblefield had been drumming on a Motown session, they would not have let him play what he did with James on "Funky Drummer." James' vision allowed that music to get out. And the music always came from the groove, whereas for so many R&B and Motown artists at the time it was more about conventional songs. James Brown's songs are not conventional. "I Got You," "Out of Sight" — they are ultimately vehicles for unique, even bizarre grooves.
The first big record in hip-hop that used a Brown sample was Eric B. and Rakim's "Eric B. Is President." That opened the floodgates for people to sample Brown. I can't remember ever using a James Brown sample on my early records with LL Cool J or the Beastie Boys, but I wanted to make records that felt as good as Brown's, and I didn't want to do it by sampling or copying him. For me, it was about understanding the feeling you get when you listen to those grooves, figuring out how to achieve that with drum machines.
That feeling was something that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I worked on for BloodSugarSexMagik. We used Brown's idea that all the musicians didn't have to be playing at the same time. Let the bass have its moment; don't be afraid to start a song with just guitar or break it down to just drums and guitar. Those are the sort of dynamics you hear on Brown's records.
I remember going to Minneapolis to visit Prince years ago, sitting in an office waiting for him — and there was an endless loop of James Brown's performance in the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show running. That may be the single greatest rock & roll performance ever captured on film. You have the Rolling Stones on the same stage, all of the important rock acts of the day — and James Brown comes out and destroys them. It's unbelievable how much he outclasses everyone else in the film.
I first saw James Brown around 1980, between my junior and senior years in high school. It was in Boston. It was in a catering hall, with folding chairs. And it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. His dancing and singing were incredible, and he played a Hammond B3 organ tufted with red leather, with "Godfather" in studs written across the front.
Regardless of what went on in his personal life, his legacy is secure. He certainly did things along the way where you can't help wondering, "What's going on?" But the good stuff comes from these one-of-a-kind people. These people are just touched by God. They are special. And James Brown is one of them. His legend will loom large, because the rhythm of life is in there.
By John Mayer
Jimi Hendrix is one of those extraordinary hubs of music where everybody lands at some point. Every musician passes through Hendrix International Airport eventually. He is the common denominator of every style of popular music. Was he a bluesman? Listen to "Voodoo Chile" and you'll hear some of the eeriest blues you can find. Was he a rock musician? He used volume as a device. That's rock. Was he a sensitive singer-songwriter? In "Bold As Love," he sings, "My yellow in this case is not so mellow/In fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me" — that is a man who knows the shape of his heart.
So often, he's portrayed as a loud, psychedelic rock star lighting his guitar on fire. But when I think of Hendrix, I think of some of the most placid, lovely guitar sounds on songs like "One Rainy Wish," "Little Wing" and "Drifting." "Little Wing" is painfully short and painfully beautiful. It's like your grandfather coming back from the dead and hanging out with you for a couple of minutes and then going away. It's perfect, then it's gone.
I think the reason musicians love Hendrix's playing so much is that the language of it was so native to his head and heart. He had a secret relationship with playing the guitar, and though it was incredibly technical and based in theory, it was his theory. All you heard was the color. The math is what's been applied ever since.
I discovered Hendrix by way of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I heard Stevie Ray do "Little Wing," and I started working my way backward to Hendrix. The first Hendrix record I bought was Axis: Bold As Love, because it had "Little Wing" on it. I remember staring at the album cover for hours. Then I remember spending months listening to Electric Ladyland, which was very creepy. There's something dark about it in certain places that maybe Hendrix was too honest to hide.
Hendrix invented a kind of cool. The cool of a big conch-shell belt. The cool of boots that your jeans are tucked into. If Jimi Hendrix is an influence on somebody, you can immediately tell. Give me a guy who's got some kind of weird-ass goatee and an applejack hat, and you just go, "He got to you, didn't he?"
Hendrix has the allure of the tragic figure: We all wish we were genius enough to die before we're 28. People want to paint him as this lonely, shy figure who managed to let himself open up on the stage and play straight colors through the crowd. There's something heroic about it, but there's nothing human about it. Everybody is so caught up in his otherworldliness. I prefer to think about his human side. He was a man who had a Social Security number, not an alien. The merchandising companies put Jimi Hendrix's face on a tie-dyed T-shirt, and somehow that's what he became. But when I listen to Hendrix, I just hear a man, and that's when it's most beautiful — when you remember that another human being was capable of what he achieved. Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure to become Jimi Hendrix. However far you stop on your climb to be like him, that's who you are.
By Joe Perry
Like a lot of guitarists of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was so blown away by the way those bands were playing these hardcore rock & roll songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Around and Around.” I’d looked at the labels, under the song titles. I’d seen the name “Chuck Berry.” But I was fortunate enough, again like a lot of guys from my generation, to have a friend who had an older brother, who had the original records: “If you like the Stones, wait until you hear this!” I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top — and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.
It’s not so much what he played — it’s what he didn’t play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you’re ready for the next verse.
As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what’s going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.
He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “School Days” — how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words “rock & roll” in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands — everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it’s also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff.
It’s funny — when my son, Roman, was 12, he came back from his guitar lesson one day and I said, “What song were you learning today?” He said, “We’re learning ‘Johnny B. Goode.'” That’s the essence of the appeal of Chuck Berry. When you’re a young guitar player now, you’re confronted by all these guys: Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page. But you can sit down and get your guitar to sound like Chuck Berry in a very short amount of time.
The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It’s not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural.
I still listen to Chuck Berry Is On Top. The whole thing just rocks out. That’s why I love it — for the same reason I love AC/DC records. They just don’t stop. That was another thing he did: He stayed in that groove. He could have done one or two of those “Johnny B. Goode”-type songs, or a couple like “Maybellene,” then gone off and done whatever. But he stayed in that place, that groove, and made it his own.
I also have a bunch of different compilations, and I hear the direct influence on me. The way he phrases things, that double-note stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound — that’s what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It’s a little bit of technique, but it’s mostly phrasing.
And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it’s punk rock. It’s the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.
People will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.
I’ve had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I’ve never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, “It’s Chuck Berry over there.” Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.
The Rolling Stones
By Steven Van Zandt
The Rolling Stones are my life. If it wasn't for them, I would have been a Soprano for real. I first saw the Stones on TV, on The Hollywood Palace in 1964. In '64, the Beatles were perfect: the hair, the harmonies, the suits. They bowed together. Their music was extraordinarily sophisticated. The whole thing was exciting and alien but very distant in its perfection. The Stones were alien and exciting, too. But with the Stones, the message was, "Maybe you can do this." The hair was sloppier. The harmonies were a bit off. And I don't remember them smiling at all. They had the R&B traditionalist's attitude: "We are not in show business. We are not pop music." And the sex in Mick Jagger's voice was adult. This wasn't pop sex — holding hands, playing spin the bottle. This was the real thing. Jagger had that conversational quality that came from R&B singers and bluesmen, that sort of half-singing, not quite holding notes. The acceptance of Jagger's voice on pop radio was a turning point in rock & roll. He broke open the door for everyone else. Suddenly, Eric Burdon and Van Morrison weren't so weird — even Bob Dylan.
It was completely unique: a white performer doing it in a black way. Elvis Presley did it. But the next guy was Jagger. There were no other white boys doing this. White singers stood there and sang, like the Beatles. The thing we associate with black performers goes back to the church — letting the spirit physically move you, letting go of social restraints, any form of embarrassment or humiliation. Not being in control: That's what Mick Jagger was communicating.
In the beginning, it was Brian Jones' band. He named them. He managed them — got the gigs and wrote to the paper when they got bad reviews. The attitude and aggressiveness — they first came from him. And the tradition came from him. He was using the blues pseudonym Elmo Lewis and playing bottleneck guitar. Then, on albums like Aftermath, he was playing all of these other instruments: dulcimer, harpsichord, sitar. He was so inventive and important. If anybody gets left out of the Stones' story, he's the one.
But Keith Richards has been taken for granted too, relegated historically to permanent rhythm guitar. But his solos were great: "Sympathy for the Devil," "It's All Over Now." And there are the riffs: "Satisfaction," of course, and "The Last Time," which the Stones themselves considered the first serious song they wrote. "Honky Tonk Women" is just one chord. Then he started the tunings: the G tuning and the five-string version of the G tuning. There are chord patterns that relate to his tunings — the "Gimme Shelter" effect, let's call it — where you add a suspended note, and it becomes more melodic and rhythmic at the same time. I play rhythm guitar with the E Street Band in Keith's style all the time. Anybody who plays rock & roll guitar does.
Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, more than any other rock & roll rhythm section, to this day, knew how to swing. It's so much a thing of the past now, but in those days rock & roll was something you danced to. You can just picture how much fun it was to be at the Station Hotel in London in 1963: the crowd going crazy, the Stones going crazy, like they were in a South Side Chicago blues club. You can picture it in the music.
There are generations of young people now who only know the Stones iconically. So I'd send them to the first four albums, the American versions: England's Newest Hitmakers, 12×5, Now! and Out of Our Heads. The next lesson is the second great era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. They make up the greatest run of albums in history — and all done in three and a half years.
In a lot of ways, the Stones are playing better now than they were in the Sixties. They were quite sloppy in the early days — which I enjoy. Technically, they're better than they've ever been. The trouble is, their power comes from their first 12 albums. There have been a few great songs since '72, but only a handful. If they were making great records and playing live the way they are now, my God, how amazing would that be?
But live, they're still able to communicate that original power. You can learn a lot from the Stones still: Write good songs, stay in shape and dig deep down for that passion every night. You should live so long, a tenth as long, and be as good as Mick Jagger. It's amazing Keith is still alive. There are a few people who have this constitution of invulnerability, although you shouldn't learn that. Let's be honest: Excessive drug use hurts songwriting. The good side is, he's still on the road, rockin', almost 50 years later. You can't hold most bands together for four years, let alone 50.
They show that if you stick to your guns, and don't compromise with what's trendy, you're gonna go a long fucking way.
Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn't New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically. In Elvis, you had the whole lot; it's all there in that elastic voice and body. As he changed shape, so did the world: He was a Fifties-style icon who was what the Sixties were capable of, and then suddenly not. In the Seventies, he turned celebrity into a blood sport, but interestingly, the more he fell to Earth, the more godlike he became to his fans. His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple.
In Elvis, you have the blueprint for rock & roll. The highness — the gospel highs. The mud — the Delta mud, the blues. Sexual liberation. Controversy. Changing the way people feel about the world. It's all there with Elvis.
I was eight years old when I saw the '68 comeback special — which was probably an advantage. I hadn't the critical faculties to divide the different Elvises into different categories or sort through the contradictions. Pretty much everything I want from guitar, bass and drums was present: a performer annoyed by the distance from his audience; a persona that made a prism of fame's wide-angle lens; a sexuality matched only by a thirst for God's instruction.
But it's that elastic spastic dance that is the most difficult to explain — hips that swivel from Europe to Africa, which is the whole point of America, I guess. For an Irish boy, the voice might have explained the sexiness of the U.S.A., but the dance explained the energy of this new world about to boil over and scald the rest of us with new ideas on race, religion, fashion, love and peace.
I once met with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil rights movement, and they reminded me of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. Elvis was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don't think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.
In the Eighties, U2 went to Memphis, to Sun Studio — the scene of rock & roll's big bang. Elvis' music diviner Cowboy Jack Clement opened the studio so we could cut some tracks within the same four walls where Elvis recorded "Mystery Train." He found the old valve microphone the King had howled through; the reverb was the same reverb: "Train I ride, 16 coaches long." It was a small tunnel of a place, but there was a certain clarity to the sound. You can hear it in those Sun records, and they are the ones for me. The King didn't know he was the King yet. Elvis doesn't know where the train will take him, and that's why we want to be passengers.
Jerry Schilling, the only one of the Memphis Mafia not to sell him out, told me that when Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn't stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul's great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn't believe God's grace was amazing enough.
Some commentators say it was the Army, others say it was Hollywood or Las Vegas that broke his spirit. The rock & roll world certainly didn't like to see their King doing what he was told. I think it was probably much more likely his marriage or his mother — or a finer fracture from earlier on, like losing his twin brother, Jesse, at birth. Maybe it was just the big arse of fame sitting on him.
I think the Vegas period is underrated. I find it the most emotional. By that point Elvis was clearly not in control of his own life, and there is this incredible pathos. The big opera voice of the later years — that's the one that really hurts me.
Why is it that we want our idols to die on a cross of their own making, and if they don't, we want our money back? But you know, Elvis ate America before America ate him.
By Robbie Robertson
Bob Dylan and I started out from different sides of the tracks. When I first heard him, I was already in a band, playing rock & roll. I didn't know a lot of folk music. I wasn't up to speed on the difference he was making as a songwriter. I remember somebody playing "Oxford Town," from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, for me. I thought, "There's something going on here." His voice seemed interesting to me. But it wasn't until we started playing together that I really understood it. He is a powerful singer and a great musical actor, with many characters in his voice. I could hear the politics in the early songs. It's very exciting to hear somebody singing so powerfully, with something to say. But what struck me was how the street had had such a profound effect on him: coming from Minnesota, setting out on the road and coming into New York. There was a hardness, a toughness, in the way he approached his songs and the characters in them. That was a rebellion, in a certain way, against the purity of folk music. He wasn't pussyfooting around on "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Ballad of a Thin Man." This was the rebel rebelling against the rebellion.
I learned early on with Bob that the people he hung around with were not musicians. They were poets, like Allen Ginsberg. When we were in Europe, there'd be poets coming out of the woodwork. His writing came directly out of a tremendous poetic influence, a license to write in images that weren't in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or typically rock & roll, either. I watched him sing "Desolation Row" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" in those acoustic sets in 1965 and '66. I had never seen anything like it — how much he could deliver with a guitar and a harmonica, and how people would just take the ride, going through these stories and songs with him.
When he and I went to Nashville in 1966, to work on Blonde on Blonde, it was the first time I'd ever seen a songwriter writing songs on a typewriter. We'd go to the studio, and he'd be finishing up the lyrics to some of the songs we were going to do. I could hear this typewriter — click, click, click, ring, really fast. He was typing these things out so fast; there was so much to be said.
And he'd be changing things during a session. He'd have a new idea and try to incorporate that. That was something else he taught me early on. The Hawks were band musicians. We needed to know where the song was going to go, what the chord changes were, where the bridge was. Bob has never been big on rehearsing. He comes from a place where he just did the songs on acoustic guitar by himself. When we'd play the song with him, it would be, "How do we end it?" And he'd say, "Oh, when it's over, it's over. We'll just stop." We got so we were ready for anything — and that was a good feeling. We'd think, "OK, this can take a left turn at any minute — and I'm ready."
More than anything, in my own songwriting, the thing I learned from Bob is that it's OK to break those traditional rules of what songs are supposed to be: the length of a song, how imaginative you could get telling the story. It was great that someone had broken down the gates, opened up the sky to all of the possibilities.
I think Bob has a true passion for the challenge, for coming up with something in the music that makes him feel good, to keep on doing it and doing it, as he does now. The songs Bob is writing now are as good as any songs he's ever written. There's a wonderful honesty in them. He writes about what he sees and feels, about who he is. We spent a lot of time together in the 1970s. We were both living in Malibu and knew what was going on in our respective day-to-day lives. And I know Blood on the Tracks is a reflection of what was happening to him then. When he writes songs, he's holding up a mirror — and I'm seeing it all clearly, like I've never seen it before.
I don't think Bob ever wanted to be more than a good songwriter. When people are like, "Oh, my God, you're having an effect on culture and society" — I doubt he thinks like that. I don't think Hank Williams understood why his songs were so much more moving than other people's songs. I think Bob is thinking, "I hope I can think of another really good song." He's putting one foot in front of the other and just following his bliss.
But Bob is a great barometer for young singers and songwriters. As soon as they think they've written something good — "I'm pushing the envelope here, I've made a breakthrough" — they should listen to one of his songs. He will always stand as the one to measure good work by. That's one of the greatest accomplishments of all.
By Elvis Costello
I first heard of the Beatles when I was nine years old. I spent most of my holidays on Merseyside then, and a local girl gave me a bad publicity shot of them with their names scrawled on the back. This was 1962 or '63, before they came to America. The photo was badly lit, and they didn't quite have their look down; Ringo had his hair slightly swept back, as if he wasn't quite sold on the Beatles haircut yet. I didn't care; they were the band for me. The funny thing is that parents and all their friends from Liverpool were also curious and proud about this local group. Prior to that, the people in show business from the north of England had all been comedians. Come to think of it, the Beatles recorded for Parlophone, which was known as a comedy label.
I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It was the first time anything like this had happened on this scale. But it wasn't just about the numbers.
Every record was a shock when it came out. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else. They had already absorbed Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, but they were also writing their own songs. They made writing your own material expected, rather than exceptional.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exceptional songwriters; McCartney was, and is, a truly virtuoso musician; George Harrison wasn't the kind of guitar player who tore off wild, unpredictable solos, but you can sing the melodies of nearly all of his breaks. Most important, they always fit right into the arrangement. Ringo Starr played the drums with an incredibly unique feel that nobody can really copy, although many fine drummers have tried and failed. Most of all, John and Paul were fantastic singers.
Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers. Imagine releasing a song like "Ask Me Why" or "Things We Said Today" as a B side. These records were events, and not just advance notice of an album release.
Then they started to really grow up. They went from simple love lyrics to adult stories like "Norwegian Wood," which spoke of the sour side of love, and on to bigger ideas than you would expect to find in catchy pop lyrics.
They were pretty much the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Before the Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments in the Fifties, but you didn't have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on "Strawberry Fields Forever." You can't exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.
My absolute favorite albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. When you picked up Revolver, you knew it was something different. Heck, they are wearing sunglasses indoors in the picture on the back of the cover and not even looking at the camera … and the music was so strange and yet so vivid. If I had to pick a favorite song from those albums, it would be "And Your Bird Can Sing" … no, "Girl" … no, "For No One" … and so on, and so on….
Their breakup album, Let It Be, contains songs both gorgeous and jagged. I remember going to Leicester Square and seeing the film of Let It Be in 1970. I left with a melancholy feeling.
The word "Beatlesque" has been in the dictionary for a while now. I can hear them in the Prince album Around the World in a Day; in Ron Sexsmith's tunes; in Harry Nilsson's melodies. You can hear that Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles and mixed them in with punk and metal.
I've co-written some songs with Paul McCartney and performed with him in concert on a few occasions. During one rehearsal, I was singing harmony on a Ricky Nelson song, and Paul called out the next tune: "All My Loving." I said, "Do you want me to take the harmony line the second time round?" And he said, "Yeah, give it a try." I'd only had 35 years to learn the part. It was a very poignant performance, witnessed only by the crew and other artists on the bill.
At the show, it was very different. The second he sang the opening lines — "Close your eyes, and I'll kiss you" — the crowd's reaction was so intense that it all but drowned the song out. It was very thrilling but also rather disconcerting. Perhaps I understood in that moment one of the reasons why the Beatles had to stop performing. The songs weren't theirs anymore. They were everybody's.
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