If you’re not a regular reader of the sports and pop culture web zine, Grantland, then perhaps you’ve missed Steven Hyden’s must-read series, A Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll. By avoiding the obvious reexaminations of influential bands like Nirvana, Fugazi, The Replacements, Black Flag and Husker Du, and instead focusing on less sexy picks like Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Linkin Park, Hyden hoped to find greater insight into rock music’s current plight. It’s all spelled out in his introduction to Part 1, Led Zeppelin:
“Mainstream rock” barely exists anymore. To understand how we got to this point, we’re not going to learn anything by examining for the umpteenth time how the Velvet Underground invented alternative music, or watching all of the approximately 214 documentaries on punk, or talking to Ian MacKaye about why Fugazi never sold T-shirts at shows. What we need instead is a Winners’ History of Rock and Roll that tells the stories behind some of the biggest bands of all time.If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.
While, I do recommend starting from the beginning, as it will give you all the background you need to understand why The Black Keys are the last arena rock band of their kind, I won’t fault you for starting the series with the Akron boys. After all, they’ve done pretty good for themselves, and they owe it all to licensing, more specifically, that one time they turned down $130K from a British mayonnaise company. At least, that’s where the story starts.
As it progresses, Hyden examines why the Grizzly Bears of the world will always have the odds stacked against them when it comes to breaking big, like The Black Keys. This time, mayonnaise, isn’t part of the equation. Instead, the reason The Black Keys can fill arenas and Grizzly Bear can’t, is because the Keys seized their opportunity. They brought in a big name producer. They tried to find the middle ground where their music could attain mass appeal in cities other than NY and LA, and still respect themselves when they returned home from tour.
When I said earlier that indie has failed rock and roll, this is what I meant: Indie bands haven’t done enough to compete. The status quo in indie rock these days is to make records aimed directly at upper-middle-class college graduates living in big cities. Only a small handful of indie bands attempt to reach listeners who aren’t already on the team; even the really good records reside firmly in a familiar wheelhouse of tastefully arty and historically proven “college rock” aesthetics and attitudes that mean nothing to the outside world.
As I said earlier, this really is a thoughtful series, one that doesn’t lament rock’s second class status on the charts. Rather, it observes how we got to this point where the bands who get the most press can’t fill the floor in Cleveland.
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 1: Led Zeppelin
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 2: Kiss
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 3: Bon Jovi
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 4: Aerosmith
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 5: Metallica
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 6: Linkin Park
The Winner’s History of Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 7: The Black Keys
Preview photo by Danny Clinch