Tuesday, September 1, 2009
What’s behind this strange peek into the American mindset? It’s not that we’re a nation of flat-Earth believers who overall deny what science has discovered. For example, as the evidence for global warming has increased, so has our nation’s willingness to believe in that theory. Today, about 95% of the world’s scientists believe that global warming is happening and that it’s a serious issue. Something like 75% of Americans now believe the same thing. OK – so we lag behind the scientists, but we’re mostly on the same page and that 75% number keeps rising. Yet something like 99% of all serious scientists acknowledge that evolution is a reality. In other words, there are about five times as many scientists who question global warming as those who question evolution. Or to put it in legal terms, 99% certainty on the part of legitimate scientists (including many who are devout Christians) is the same as saying evolution is a fact, beyond a reasonable doubt. That's why in court case after court case, schools have been instructed to teach evolution, and have been ordered NOT to teach creationism, at least in science classes.
Of course, there are quite a few “scientists” promoting Intelligent Design (the sneaky new way to say Creationism). But those who are strict creationists, who believe that evolution played no part at all in the development of life forms, that the Earth was created by God a few thousand years ago just as it is today - they’re mostly pseudo-scientists, not really taken seriously by their peers and their “evidence” is easily discounted by those using legitimate methodology. In other words, you'd be hard pressed to find even a handful of respected scientists - people whose research and methodology is accepted by the scientific community - who don't think that plants and animals have evolved over millions of years
An example of the things you hear from strict creationists is that fossils and other ancient records that document evolution cannot be reliably dated. It’s like this: Archaeologist A dates pre-human primate bones at 2 million years old, archaeologist B dates them at 2.2 million years old, while archaeologist C dates them at 1.9 million years old, all using slightly different measuring procedures. “Aha” - says the evolution deniers! “You see how arbitrary those dating methods are? Surely, then, they could just as easily be only 6400 years old!” I'm sorry, but scientists disagree over differences of 5 or 10% in their measurements, yet the Creationists want us to believe that the scientists are off by 99% (virtually 100% wrong). Why in the world do 2/3 of Americans think this kind of reasoning makes sense?
Why should this be? Why can Americans accept global warming, space travel, the existence of sub-atomic particles that can't be seen, computers that do a billion calculations a second - but not evolution? What explains the blind spot in these people’s logic and world view? Of course it’s mostly about religion. Part of it is that folks in the U.S. are more likely to be conservative Christians than other people worldwide. "The Bible says God created man in His image, and that's that." Most European Christians, on the other hand, are perplexed and a bit embarrassed by their American cousins' rejection of evolution. In Europe, evolution is commonly seen as a fact, and most Christians there don't see why that should be a problem. But unlike most European Christians, many Christians in the U.S. basically feel that by questioning Creation you question the Bible and therefore their faith. So they won’t hear of it. Interestingly, most Jews (whose religion is based on the Old Testament) don’t seem to share this curious interpretation, but then Conservative and Reform Jews are noted for their respect of science, and for being open-minded.
What it boils down to for so many is a choice: either the Bible or scientific evidence. Refined further still, it’s either science OR religion. Choose one or choose the other; you’re either with me or you’re against me – no middle ground. And that, unfortunately, is a terrible and absolutely unnecessary choice to have to make. Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, Albert Einstein, said that “Science without religion is lame.” He also said that “Religion without science is blind”. So – what if we really DON’T have to choose between the two?
Well, that’s the very compelling case Dr. Francis Collins makes in his 2006 book The Language of God. Collins is an interesting individual. As a devout, born-again Christian, he most definitely believes in God, Jesus Christ as humanity’s savior, and of course the Bible. Yet as the former head of the prestigious Human Genome Project, he is one of the world’s top experts in the field of genetics (so important to the understanding of evolution) and a scientist of unimpeachable reputation. The thesis of Collins’ most interesting book is that evolution may disagree with the literal reading of a small part of the Bible, but otherwise it meshes just fine with Christian religious beliefs.
It's this very literal reading of the Bible that causes so much trouble, by the way. 3000 years ago, when Genesis was written and humans understood so little of the natural world, could God really have explained how He created the universe with a Big Bang 6 billion years ago? How He caused sub-atomic particles to interact with the various cosmic forces emanating from dark holes, multiple-dimensions, and all the esoterica of astro-physics that we have trouble grasping even today? Seriously - how could the Bible have talked about this stuff 3000 years ago? So does it really lessen the value of the Bible and religion to think that the writers of Genesis used wording and analogies that the people of the time could understand - rather than only writing what was strictly, literally, verbatim true? Not really, a rational person might conclude.
But back to Collins and his book: Evolution is a fact beyond any reasonable challenges, and shouldn’t be a problem for believers, he argues. Put another way, there is no conflict between science and religion, between being a faithful Christian and a believer in the facts of evolution. Collins painstakingly addresses the most common arguments that Creationists and Intelligent Designers proffer, debunking each of them with cold, hard, convincing facts. Convincing, that is, to anyone with an open mind. In his view, incidentally, God gave humans a mind and wants us to use it to help understand the world He has created and, thus, to know Him. Collins goes on to show why God exists, and how He must have been the original source of life, which then changed over time via evolution. Whether you believe that part or not; whether you’re a fervent Christian, a firm evolutionist, an atheist, or somewhere else in between, you should at least read what Collins has to say. But the bottom line is that this fight – evolution vs. religion – is really needless.
What makes this even more needless is that in 1996 Pope John Paul II proclaimed that Evolution is “more than just a hypothesis” and that it is compatible with Christian faith! Probably no modern Pope was more loved and respected than John Paul II. And whether you're a Catholic or a Protestant (or even if you're not a Christian at all), can you think of anyone more knowledgeable about Christianity and the Bible than the Pope? The Pope, most European Christian leaders,and most Jewish leaders believe is that the Old Testament is beyond question - EXCEPT in matters involving science, which of course has broadened our understanding of things immensely over the centuries. Evolution's not just a theory; evolution (a scientific fact) doesn't conflict with Christianity. So said the Pope, traditionally the leader of the Christian world! Even if they're not Catholics, why would 2/3 of Americans think that the Pope lacks faith in the Bible, or isn't a good Christian, or any of the other claims made of those who believe that evolution is a reality?
So just what are we arguing about? Most Jews (who wrote Genesis, incidentally), most European Protestants, and the leader of the Catholic church believe in evolution, so obviously you don't have to sacrifice your religious beliefs in order to think the same. This isn't 1256 or 1803, when such an idea would have been unthinkable, just as space travel, computers, and atomic bombs would have been unthinkable - blasphemous! We've learned SO MUCH; we have endless examples of irrefutable proof. Why won't the strict creationists look at this proof with open minds? How in the world are they going to attract the agnostics of the world, those who WANT to believe in Christianity, but aren’t sure? If American Christians' position on something as clear cut as evolution is one of denial, why should people follow their beliefs on matters of (non-verifiable) faith alone? Honestly, strict Creationists: let's limit the debate to whether God created life on Earth, or whether it arose all on its own - THAT's the only part of the evolution issue where there's any reasonable doubt.
Public Topic #1 has shifted dramatically in the last year or so. It used to be all about Iraq; now it's all about the economy. Easy enough to see why: the surge in Iraq is actually working, as even Bush's harshest critics will admit. At the same time, a number of nasty developments have the economy reeling.
Skyrocketing oil prices drain money away from consumer and business spending alike. Used in the production and transportation of virtually all goods and services, higher fuel costs have hit foods costs especially hard, accounting for an average 40% increase there, according to one source. Droughts, floods, and other weather problems have further raised food prices, not to mention the impact of taking croplands out of food production to produce biofuels. Then there's the housing mess, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, failing banks, a declining U.S. dollar, and the resultant bear market on Wall Street. Prices up everywhere, jobs in jeopardy, homes being lost, banks shutting down - it's hard to think about much else these days!
Former Congressman and McCain adviser Phil Gramm got in a lot of trouble awhile back for saying that Americans were a bunch of whiners, complaining about economic problems that were really not that bad. Nothing more than a "mental recession". Wow! What kind of politician says that these economic problems are mostly imaginary? What better way to alienate the majority of Americans?
So I won't say that. What I WILL say, however, is almost as incendiary: A majority - though not all - Americans deserve much of the economic grief they're now experiencing. At the very least, they (we) are to blame for how much these economic issues are affecting their (our) lives. A lot of the bad economic stuff that's happening fits into the category of paybacks, or reaping what you sow. Here's why...
For various reasons, Americans have come to feel that they always need to have the most, the best. We want the biggest, most wasteful car that we can afford. We're not interested in a nice 3-bedroom house; it's gotta be HUGE! A 26" TV for $300 - are you kidding? We'd be embarassed to own anything less than a $1500 48" LCD. And are you joking about cooking over coals on an $80 Weber? All my friends have $500 gas "grilling centers". Americans eat out often, even though the food usually isn't very healthy and costs many times what home cooking does. They fall for media claims of "bargain" wines that cost "only" $15, boots on sale for "only" $250, vacation hotels for a low, low $350 a night. New homes, from the mid-$800s! Entrees starting at only $27.95 (salads extra)! Tickets for the big game - $200 and up!
The reason for all this is that over the last few decades Americans have become incredibly materialistic, conspicuously wasteful, and have bought into the ridiculous notion that we're all super special and we all deserve the very best. Oh, and we're no longer responsible for what happens to us; if something goes wrong, it's somebody else's fault and/or somebody else will rescue us from our dumb choices. We've become stupid.
I'm thinking about one of my nieces. She's about 35 now. Drives a Cadillac Escalade, one of the most wasteful vehicles a person could buy. She never goes off-road, and rarely has anyone else in the vehicle with her. Why does she need a (luxury) all-wheel drive SUV that seats 8 adults and costs over $60,000? "I like the way it looks, all my friends drive big SUVs, and Cadillac is the best there is" - that's what she once told me. (Silly Uncle Jon; he just doesn't understand!) She had been living in a nice enough house, with her husband and 2 kids. About 1800 square feet, which incidentally is about 500 square feet larger than the house her mom grew up in (along with 7 brothers and sisters) and about double the size of the average house 50 years ago. But everybody else was moving up, so she bought a newer, bigger house a couple of years ago - 2 stories, about 3000 square feet, and affordable thanks to a low adjustable-rate mortgage! Now why do 2 adults and 2 kids need a 3000 square foot house? Answer: they don't. It's all for show and ego.
I remember wondering: "How in the world do they make those payments on that house, her Escalade, and his truck, along with all the gas they suck? What are they gonna do when those low teaser payments on that huge new house jump up in a couple of years?" And how about the bling they both love wearing, and the latest fashions, and the going out to eat almost every night? They make a lot less than I do; how do they pay for all that? Well of course, they do it with credit. In hock up to their eyeballs. THAT'S the American way!
Silly Uncle Jon; he just doesn't understand. See, the Streblers eat almost every meal at home, which is a 1500 square foot place, drive recent model Toyotas that are paid for, buy good wines that are NEVER over $10 a bottle, have ZERO debt (other than the house, which will be free and clear in 7 more years), big old retirement accounts that we've been socking money away into over the years, and healthy savings accounts in case of a rainy day. We eat VERY well, have a marvelous time traveling all over world, and basically want for nothing. And we're perfectly happy, almost as if we had good sense! Well, maybe it's not a fair comparison. I mean, we're in our fifties and are supposed be in better shape financially than someone in their 30s. But even in our thirties, our living style was modest but very comfortable, our debts negligible, we always had a substantial rainy day account, etc.
But back to my niece (let's call her "Kathy") today. Gas prices have doubled since Kathy bought her Escalade, and her 70 mile daily commute to work and back is killing her budget. Payments on her adjustable-rate mortgage jumped from $2000/month to $3700/month earlier this year, which she can't afford. Kathy tried to sell her home, but the housing market topped out last year and her home is worth 25% less today than when she bought it four years ago. So she lost her home to foreclosure, and is now living in a 950 sq. foot condo. With her husband, her 2 kids, and - oh yeah - her cousin who recently lost his home too. Kathy's trying to sell the Escalade, but nobody's buying 13 MPG luxury SUVs these days. She's had to drop the premium cable channels, switch to a basic phone plan, start cooking at home, and she still has no idea what to do about the $21,000 debt she has from her 4 credit cards.
You and I both know it's not just Kathy. We all have neighbors, relatives, co-workers that are in the same boat as Kathy. Maybe their "boat" is a little smaller than Kathy's or maybe they're stuck in a big old yacht of a boat, but the point is they lived way beyond their means, they didn't consider the possibility of bad times, and they're in deep doo-doo now. We're supposed to feel sorry for them. But even those of us who haven't lost our homes or grossly overspent for years, even we are being hurt by $4 gas prices, soaring food costs, a declining stock market, and a dysfunctional mortgage industry. The government's to blame for what's happened - especially President Bush. And the oil companies. And the Arabs. Wall Street's to blame. And the damn tree-huggers. And..... well, this is where you write in whoever else you think is to blame.
But I beg to differ with you. Stuff happens all the time in the real world. That stuff is just as likely to be bad as good, it's most often NOT caused by any one group or some conspiracy, it's often pretty obvious to see in advance for anybody who keeps their eyes open, and it's our job not to be caught off guard too much by it. That's why we've been taught all along to "not put all your eggs in one basket", to "not spend more than you make", to - as a "buyer - beware", to "save for a rainy day", and that "there's no such thing as a free lunch". We all learned these things; but too many of us have chosen to forget them. So many Americans allowed themselves to become stupid and do the exact opposite of these little sayings.
Who's fault is it really that people earning $60,000 a year bought $700,000 houses with mortgage payments that could double in 3 years? Do you really believe that these buyers didn't understand this, that they weren't acting out of greed, or stupidity, or both? Why do we assume that anyone without an MBA is unable to comprehend the risk, that they were "victimized" by predatory lenders? Sure, lenders were complicit. But still, who's job is it to look out for us, if not ours? What - people can use the Internet for shopping and endlessly trolling MySpace, but can't take a little time to research it before making the largest investment of their lives? Give me a break....
Housing prices (in San Diego, at least) dropped 15% or more in the early-1960s, the mid-1970s, the early 1980s, and the early 1990s. Each time, this resulted in hundreds or thousands of foreclosures for owners with shaky finances. After this last dip, prices rose for 13 years (thirteen years!) without a pause, while tripling in value (tripling!), fueled by ridiculous and unsustainable mortgages. Anybody watching real estate knew that the housing market was a train wreck just waiting to happen. So I'm going out on a limb and saying that perhaps 8 out of 10 people in trouble with their homes got what they deserved for their greed, laziness, and stupidity. The others? Legitimate victims of job layoffs, nasty divorces, illness and other factors over which they had less - but usually some - control. Maybe two out of ten - they deserve at least some sympathy and help, but that's all.
Gas prices. Here's where everybody complains, but yet we're all largely to blame. Look - we got big wake up calls in the 1970s: we were ruining the environment and were vulnerable to sharply higher fuel prices. The logical reaction to these realities would be to use less fuel. Live close to where you work; drive a car that gets good mileage; drive slower; minimize needless driving, seriously expand mass transit, etc. Good for the environment, good for our pocketbooks, good for the nation's security. But of course we mostly did the opposite, at least over the last 20 years or so. More and more housing built farther and farther from town. Bigger (and more expensive) cars and SUVs getting low gas mileage. Speed limits raised back up to 65 or 70, which hardly satisfied the American greed for speed. Average highway speeds are 70-75 MPH, with plenty of folks going 80 or 85. New highways everywhere, encouraging people to keep on truckin'. And then there's the new American laziness that insists that you never walk when you can drive, and only losers ride bikes.
We end up with people crying on television about how gas prices are killing them, as they fill up their big SUV. Anybody see the irony here? Then there's this sad reality: I've been driving 60 MPH on the freeways for the last few months, since doing so will save me about 20% on gas costs while only adding a few minutes to my daily commute. Don't you think at least a few other people would have figured this out too? You'd be wrong. The other day I was cruising along, going 60 in the slow lane, on a quiet Sunday mid-morning. After a while, I noticed that EVERYBODY was passing me, and most of them seemed to be going a lot faster - 70 at least. So I started counting, just out of curiosity. 87 cars passed me before I passed one car! This is how is every day. Going 60, even in the slow lane, gets you nasty looks and being cut off by irate drivers. You can just tell that they're truly baffled: "Why aren't you driving as fast as you can???". Almost nobody is driving slower, even as they whine about high gas costs! Americans have let themselves become stupid.
I don't want to hear about how the stock market is ruining people, either. Stocks have averaged about 10% total return annually for the last century. That's more than triple what bank accounts have paid over the same period. Anyone familiar with how the universe operates knows that means stocks are a lot riskier than bank accounts. Meaning they go up AND down. Add to that the historic bull market from 1982 to 2007, when the S&P 500 rose more than 1300% (or about 15% average yearly, when you include dividends received). Knowing these things, a prudent individual might think: "whoa, that stock market sure seems to be getting ahead of itself. I wonder if it's time for some bad years, to balance out all those above-normal years?" But no, that would require a healthy skepticism, which would conflict with the idea that getting rich should be quick and easy. So Americans plunked hundreds of billions into their 401(k) plans and other investment accounts about which they knew next to nothing. Maybe they put all of their eggs in one basket - their employer's company stock, or maybe they bought every hot stock pick on CNBC, or invested in the top performing mutual fund. Either way, the market's down now and folks are crying foul - with no good reason to do so.
Food prices? Yes, they're up sharply. But they're also still pretty cheap compared to people's incomes. Stop and think about it: forty years ago, the minimum wage was $1.10/hour, and a GOOD job meant you were making over $20,000 a year. Milk was $1.07 a gallon, chicken 39 cents per pound, and a dozen eggs cost 53 cents. Today the minimum wage is about six times higher, college graduates START at an average of about $45,000 a year, and a good job often pays over $100,000 a year. Today's $4.50 milk, $1.29 chicken, and $1.75 eggs hardly seem out of line by comparison. Still, they're a problem for many, especially Americans who are "too busy" (often as not, this really means they just don't want to bother) to cook healthy meals from scratch. They end up buying mostly processed foods, frozen pizzas, or hitting KFC every other night. Those things cost MUCH more, and many folks could reduce their food bills substantially by cutting back sharply on that kind of spending.
Look: I know there are millions of hard-working, frugal Americans, many of whom are having a hard time with this economy. I don't, for the most part, have a beef with them. My lack of sympathy and outright disdain is for the many millions of Kathys and 80 MPH drivers and greedy investors and lazy shoppers in the U.S. I would point out, however, that, aside from the whole housing mess, the economy today is still MUCH better than what we went through in the 70s and early 80s, when inflation and unemployment rates were both TWICE as high as they are now. And today is infinitely gentler than what people experienced in the 1930s.
So maybe after all I DO mostly agree with Phil Gramm. Our economic problems aren't "just in our minds", it's true; but Americans ARE a bunch of whiners nowadays. Whiners who, as the rest of the world has thought for years, are maybe getting a little of what they deserve.
I admit - it bothers me. As a certified Old Guy with many decades of writing etiquette pounded into my being, seeing a caps-less sentence strikes me as kind of ugly and just plain wrong. Maybe that will change with time as the new paradigm becomes more widespread. But before we go on - why this trend anyway?
Probably for two main reasons. First, it's easier and quicker to type without using caps. Second, these new communication technologies are "informalizing" much of our writing, and the no-caps idea is a way of saying "yeah, I'm dialed in to the 21st century".
Fair enough. You can't stop change and writing evolves over time like anything else. Nevertheless, this no-caps idea is mostly a bad thing, and here's why. First of all, the initial premise is flawed, except possibly in the case of text messaging. If you're a competent typist, then you capitalize a letter with one hand while you type it with the other. Not capitalizing words saves what? A second or two at most on a typical 2-3 sentence email, maybe as much as a full minute on a lengthy letter or essay? Anyone who thinks they're saving appreciable time by not capitalizing is either deluding themselves or needs to improve their typing skills. Again - maybe texting is the exception, but otherwise it's hard to see that this is really about saving time or energy. So it's probably more about being cool and following the latest trend.
But there are problems. Capital letters and proper punctuation exist for a reason, after all: to make it easier to follow the writer's meaning. They tell the reader to pause here, emphasize that, new thought coming up, etc. Why is that not as important in emails as in any other type of writing?
Now to me, old guy that I am, writing without capitalizing words is a sign of laziness, or a lack of seriousness or consideration for the reader, or ignorance about the rules of writing - or some combination. But this is not about me. Wouldn't you suppose that at least some of a student's future professors, bosses, important customers and so forth also might not appreciate the informality of caps-free writing? By allowing students to write this way and - worse yet - modeling that same behavior in their own emails, teachers encourage writing that is not going to be appreciated by people in a position to influence young folks' futures.
I know it's largely a matter of informality. I mean, this new writing mode is mostly about short messages sent to a friend, so what's the big deal? Well I don't know that it is a big deal, but I do know that we've always written informal little notes and whatnot over the generations. Yet I don't ever remember not capitalizing someone's name, a state, the beginning of a sentence, etc. So I guess the whole informality idea doesn't make much sense to me.
But now that I think of it - it really IS a big deal. As kids become more and more comfortable with this kind of writing, one imagines that it might cross over into their formal writing. It's like speaking: we all use one type of language with our friends and another kind with a professor, our boss, or the judge when we're fighting that parking ticket. Most of us know how to speak based on the situation and can switch seamlessly. But what about kids who never learn formal English or seldom use it? Their language too often tends to be inappropriate. This same kind of phenomenon is a real risk for young writers today. I'm seeing more and more essays and other formal writing from students lately where first words of sentences and proper names are not capitalized, while some regular nouns ARE capitalized. It seems clear that the rules of formal writing are blurring, and I think a lot of it goes back to the email thing.
(On a related note, according to TIME Magazine's May 12th edition, "64% of U.S. teenagers use informal text-message slang in their written schoolwork, including abbreviations like 'LOL' (38%) and smiley-face emoticons (25%)." Somewhat surprisingly, "56% of teens surveyed consider good writing to be 'essential' later in life." Anybody besides TIME see something wrong with this picture? Or a connection to the no-caps trend?)
You know - maybe we're going back to the 18th century kind of writing, when words were spelled as you wished and were capitalized (or not) seemingly at a whim. And if that's the way it works out - fine. But in the meantime, expecting my name to be capitalized is not a matter of narcissism, as a colleague recently suggested. It's a matter of courtesy, of respect, and of convention, if you will. And pending any justification for not doing so, my expectation is that students will follow the conventions of punctuation and capital letters when writing. Students who do otherwise, knowing this expectation, risk having their messages deleted without a response. As for other teachers, they of course will do as they do, but I respectfully suggest that they reconsider the message they send students with their own capitalization-free writing.
Americans are a decent and compassionate people; we believe in treating people fairly, humanely, and with respect. We aren't the kind of people who torture our enemies as so many others have throughout history and even in modern times. So the question of "water-boarding", which has been outlawed under international agreements as a form of torture and banned by the US government, would seem to be moot. Yet the current Attorney General nominee's Senate approval has been held up because of his refusal to categorically disavow our government's use of this technique. What's up with that?
Apparently, our government HAS used water-boarding in recent years, specifically at Abu-Ghraib and with high profile terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, such as senior al-Qaeda operative Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. I guess the rationale is that if it doesn't happen in the US, then it's OK. Not really sure how that rationale works, but just add it to the long list of things that I don't quite understand. At any rate, it seems that the A.G. nominee (Michael Mukasey) doesn't want to leave CIA agents who used the technique open to prosecution, and also that he doesn't want to totally preclude water-boarding's use in possible extraordinary future circumstances. We can all see where he's coming from, but still - if it's torture and it's illegal, why are we having this discussion at all?
Well here's why. Like just about everything else, torture and the use thereof is hardly a black or white issue. In the case of water-boarding, it imitates the sensation of drowning and causes extreme horror and fear in its victims. One imagines that very real, temporary psychological damage may result, but apparently there is little or no significant permanent physical harm done. It's torture, but barely so, by my way of thinking. Here's what I mean.
In wartime, enemy combatants and, in this age where warfare often takes the form of terrorism, suspected terrorists, are interrogated to gain information designed to save lives. That's the way it works and the way it's always been. The question is: what kinds of interrogation are acceptable? Let's invision a simplistic scale that goes from 1 to 100, where 1 is very clearly OK and 100 is very clearly unacceptable. Inviting a captured soldier for tea and cookies and a very friendly discussion in a pleasant, comfortable setting with no pressure applied might count as a 1, for example. On the other hand, hanging an enemy naked by meathooks run through his shoulders, while touching live electrical wires to his testicles as his wife and 8-year old daughter are repeatedly raped and his son slowly strangled to death in front of him - that, I would suggest, is a 100 and REAL torture. That kind of thing has happened, by the way, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Idi Amin's Uganda, and assorted other ugly places.
Playing loud rock 'n roll 24 hours a day, forcing Muslims to eat pork and look at porn, keeping room temperatures uncomfortably hot or cold, stressful, threatening interrogation sessions that might include angry German shephard dogs and smacking someone around a little - combinations of things like these might rate a 20, a 45, maybe a 70 on our little imaginary scale. Trying to keep things numerical, let's just say for the sake of argument that actual torture begins at 70, and that water-boarding is perhaps a 75 or an 80. So it IS torture, but not quite in the same league as the really nasty stuff.
The fact is that we lose a great deal by using torture. The USA, the great shining light on the hill, leader of the free world, the most democratic of all nations - using illegal torture techniques! What could be more discrediting and give our enemies more reason to berate us as hypocrites? Furthermore, our use of torture, if found out, makes it much more likely that the bad guys will use even worse torture techniques on our soldiers and on innocent civilians.
Fair enough. But now let's look at the other side of the equation. What could be gained from any interrogation or torture? Consider, please, this extreme and unlikely hypothetical situation: Somehow or another, the bad guys have acquired 10 fully functional nuclear bombs, and they have a plan in place and ready to go to drop those on the 10 largest U.S. cities. (Updated note: The Washington Post published an article on November 11th which identified concerns about the possibility of terrorists acquiring Pakistani nuclear weapons if the situation continues to deteriorate there.) We are somehow 100% certain that they have these bombs and are capable of using them. We conservatively estimate that these bombs will immediately kill at least 10 million people, with many more dying eventually. That 10 million dead would include you, your entire family, and all your friends, by the way. Additionally, the bombings would certainly send the nation and its economy into chaos and a collapse that would make the Great Depression look like a good time. America, as we know it today, would cease to be. But here's the thing: we have the head terrorist and he has information that will allow us to prevent any of these bombs from being used. But time's really short; we have only a few hours, and he's not talking so far. What would you NOT be willing to do to get that information from him?
Well of course anyone who says they wouldn't use the most extreme methods available is just plain lying. Protect one brutal terrorist who we KNOW has committed previous deadly attacks, or 10 million innocent people and the fate of our nation? There is no question of what is right in this situation. So there it is: torture CAN be justified, at least in this very specific and unlikely case. But what if we were only 98% sure of our information, instead of 100% sure? What if our confidence level was 80%? 60%? Would extreme torture still be justified, if you could ensure that the rest of the world wouldn't know you'd done it? At what level of certainty might we back off on the amount of torture we'd use? What if we were "only" talking about 100,000 people dead instead of 10 million? Only 5000 people? 200 people? Would you still insist on the authorities using extreme torture if need be? How about milder torture - say, water-boarding ? Would that be OK?
And so: surprise, surprise. The torture question isn't quite that simple. You and I and Mukasey and the local rabbi will disagree on when torture might be appropriate and what degree of torture would be acceptable. We'd ALL - if given truth serum - agree to use it in the extreme scenario painted above, but after that we're just not sure. Different values, different perspectives - the whole issue becomes very gray.
A final thought: in surveys of Americans following 9/11, something like 80% said they expected another major terrorist attack on America within 6 months. We know that Al-Qaeda has been trying their darndest to do just that. We know that they canceled a major subway attack in the US a couple of years ago because they wanted to go ahead with a "much more deadly" attack instead. What might that have been, by the way? But here we are, 6 YEARS later, and no new attacks on the US (knock on wood). We don't hear a lot about that fact, and I suppose most Americans just kind of figure that we've lucked out since 2001, that it just kinda worked out that way. But do you think that maybe um..... "aggressive" interrogation techniques might be part of the reason we've been able to fend off new attacks? And if that is the case, if those interrogations included some forms of torture, would you rather have had another 9/11 or something much worse? Really? Would you be willing to explain to the victims' families that you were in a position to prevent the THOUSANDS OF DEATHS, but didn't because you would have had to use a technique that was illegal???
Each of us has to answer that question for ourselves, but it seems to me that the whole torture thing is anything but black or white. In a calm, sterile, environment we proudly and categorically condemn torture, smug in our moral superiority to those cretins who would argue otherwise. In a real live situation, with thousands or millions of lives hanging in the balance, I bet most of us would think differently, however. That, I suppose, is the point Mukasey must keep in mind as part of his job. And that is also the point that those who say "no torture under any circumstances!" haven't bothered to think through all the way.
Further support for animals not being quite so different from humans comes from the huge percentage of (fully grown) humans who insist on waiting until the very last minute to do, well.... just about everything! I mean, it's understandable when a little kid poops his/her pants because they don't realize the inevitability of what's about to come out. Little kids, like animals, essentially respond to the immediate situation rather than planning ahead. Cause and effect don't mean so much to them, and they often don't see how their actions now result in consequences later. Yet kids learn quickly, and soon figure out how to get that cookie or mom's affection, how to stay out of trouble, etc.
Amazing then, that so many grown adults exhibit - time after time - behaviors that cause them (and those who have to deal with them) grief, all because they refuse to think ahead and do some basic planning. Take for example - school teachers. Grades are due every 6 weeks. Teachers know it; they know the due dates long in advance; they know how long it takes to calculate and enter grades. And yet.... A great many of these college educated people, ostensibly intelligent, will do nothing about their grades until the night before they're due, and then complain about how unreasonable it is to have to enter them on time! Why is that?
But it's hardly just teachers acting this way. Every April 15th the TV news shows people lined up at special post offices that are open until midnight, dropping off their tax returns. Many other people don't wait until literally the last minute; they went ahead and prepared their returns as much as 24 hours before the deadline! Almost as many, however, couldn't quite bring themselves to meet the deadline; they asked for an extension, as they do every year. "Oh my God! Taxes are due tomorrow - who knew?" What are these people - morons?
And there's my friend Mark. We've been friends for 30 years now, and Mark is probably the best friend I've got. I need something? Mark's there, every time, no questions asked. But he's always late. He says he'll be over between 5:00 and 6:00, I know that means we'll probably see him sometime after 7:00. That's just the way Mark is, and we've learned to adapt, to accept him as he is. But still - why is that?
Of course, the common denominator is that these folks seem unable to do a little simple planning. I mean, just how hard is it to figure out: "hey, I'm 30 minutes away, maybe 45 with traffic. To get there by 6:00, I should leave by 5:15. To get ready by 5:15, I ought to start getting my act together around 4:30." Do you need a PhD in astrophysics to be able to work backwards in time like that? Or, "geez, grades are due on October 26th and they take me 4 or 5 hours to do. If I start them a week before, and work on them a little bit every day, it would be easy to have them in by the 24rd or 25th. If I get sick, or the car breaks down, or the surf's good, or whatever, I've still got some leeway without having to stress!" Is that kind of reasoning accessible only to, like, MENSA geniuses or something?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The "why", as in "why do they wait until the last minute?" isn't because they're so busy, as is usually the excuse. Yeah, EVERYBODY'S busy; it's just that some people deal with that reality effectively while others essentially close their eyes and hope it will all go away. And a number of people swear they do their best work by waiting until the last minute. Bull - that's just lame rationalizing. The truth is that choosing to wait until the last minute to do things is just plain stupid, and it's rude. There's no advantage to it, unless you want to count the adrenaline rush that comes from trying to beat a deadline. Your work ends up being more rushed and lower quality than it could and should be. You're stressed, and half the time you end up having to make lame excuses for why you missed the deadline, begging for an "exception", an "extension". Meanwhile, other things that need doing get pushed aside, delayed or not done at all. Where's the benefit?
Besides, this behavior is rude and childish. Suppose you regularly show up half an hour later than you tell people - that's 30 minutes that someone else has to wait for you. 30 minutes that they could have been doing something else with their time; 30 minutes of you saying, in effect, "my time is more important than yours!" It's the same general concept with last minute work, and especially work that ends up being half-assed or misses a deadline. Your message is basically that the work (which someone else is counting on) isn't that important, that it's your priorities, not the other person's, that matter. This is selfish, childish behavior.
But again - what's in it for the last minute person? Well it's not really that you "saved time", like so many claim. Had you given yourself an earlier deadline, had you broken the work up into smaller chunks to work on every day or every week, your total time invested would have been the same. It's just that you arranged it differently - earlier, over time instead of all at once at the very end. You showed the ability to look ahead, to plan, to act like a grown up human being instead of a reactionary animal or a little kid.
Too often, society sees the person who gets stuff done early and expects the same of others as unrealistic, an over-achiever, or just a plain old prick. That childish view is unlikely to change anytime soon, just as it's unlikely that most procrastinators will ever choose to do a little simple planning that shows that they are, in fact, intelligent, grown humans and not little kids.
(This was written to accompany a 2 CD set of tunes I created that trace rock 'n roll from the 1920s to the 21st century. Email me for an original copy of the text that includes the graphics that don't show up here.)
(This was written to accompany a 2 CD set of tunes I created that trace rock 'n roll from the 1920s to the 21st century. Email me for an original copy of the text that includes the graphics that don't show up here.)
This collection is about showcasing essential pieces of rock ‘n roll music. Like jazz and the blues, rock ‘n roll is a distinctly American form of music, yet one that is now almost universally appreciated. It’s generally conceded that rock started in the early to mid-1950s, with its first “golden age” between about 1955 and 1959. Rockers such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly led the way, along with doo-woppers like the Coasters, Flamingos, and the Diamonds. A second great age of rock began around 1964 with the British invasion - first the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones, Peter and Gordon, et al. - and morphed a few years later by the psychedelic/hard rock sounds of folks like the Yardbirds, Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. In between these two great eras came the “girl groups” (the Crystals, Shangri-Las, and Shirelles, etc.), “surf music” (e.g. Dick Dale, Beach Boys, Jan & Dean), the folk sound (including the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, and Peter Paul and Mary), as well as the nascent Motown sound of The Miracles, Four Tops, Supremes, and others – all of which were pretty heavy sounds of their own! So let’s go (not very far) out on a limb and say that rock ‘n roll’s true Golden Age was the years between 1955 and 1969: basically - Elvis to
Certainly, immense quantities of superb rock ‘n roll have come out in the years since 1969. At the same time, rock has gone punk, techno, retro, alternative, speed metal, Christian, ska, hip-hop and whatever else, evolving to fit the times and whims of the public. For the most part, this collection doesn’t go there; its focus is on how rock came to, and went through, the Golden Age as defined above. That’s probably a not-so-subtle way of saying that – again, all props to the post-1969 sounds – the most ground-breaking, most defining and perhaps the best rock ‘n roll came out before 1970. Of course, there’s the theory that all of us tend to think that the best type of music is the type that was popular when we were growing up, and that may have some bearing on this collection’s selections and opinions. Certainly many people might say that The Best music was produced at some other time, and they may go ahead and write their own story of rock and roll!
ROCK’S EARLY ROOTS: AN INTRODUCTION
Be that as it may, the real purpose here is to look at (and listen to!) the history of rock ‘n roll – mostly the olden days. Rock is derived from a variety of earlier forms of music, from Negro chants, shouts, and field songs; gospel music; jazz; blues; country/western; and rhythm & blues. Early rock had clear hillbilly and country/western ties; many of its early stars got their starts in those genres or in gospel music. The first true white rock ‘n rollers, Bill Haley and His Comets, started out as a country/western group, for example, while Elvis Presley’s own country background and love of gospel music are well known. But it is rhythm & blues, or simply R&B, that most directly gave birth to rock. The term rhythm and blues was first used in the 1940s to describe music made by and for blacks in the
Rhythm and blues itself derived mainly from jazz and from blues. There is some disagreement as to jazz’s influence on R&B, and thus R’n R, but the link is solid. In the late-30s and early-40s, jazz performers like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Jordan began playing hard-driving, bluesy “jump” tunes. Hampton in particular developed a particularly gutsy jazz, played in a very animated fashion, which got everyone hand clapping, ass shaking, and dancing all over the place, and making his group a favorite with the R&B and bebop crowds. As for Count Basie, who preceded Hampton by just a few years, his All-American band of 1939-40 had “the best ever” rhythm section, at least according to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. And Jordan, who had more than 50 R&B hit tunes between 1942 and 1951, is cited by rock pioneer Bill Haley as his biggest single influence. The fabulous energy, musicianship, and noise level of guys like Basie, Hampton, and Jordan, when mixed with the guitars, beats, and gravity of the blues, basically created R&B, the twin parents of rock ‘n roll.
In fact, much of the earliest rock ‘n roll was more jazz than blues. Bill Haley and the Comets were among the greatest true early rockers, and their “jump” jazz roots have already been noted. Listening to Fats Domino, the #2 top selling rocker of the ‘50s (after Elvis Presley), one cannot miss the connection to
Yet in the end, it IS the blues, not jazz, that are most at the heart of rock ‘n roll. There’s all kinds of blues: Lousiana blues, Piedmont blues,
This last feature, the accentuated back beat of Mississippi’s black music, turns out not to be so unique after all, and helps trace the music’s roots back even further – to Cuba and then to Africa. The Haitian slave revolt of 1803 led to the
The earliest known recording of vocal blues was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920, and in the decade that followed, blues became (along with jazz) a national passion. By the late-1920s the first identifiably Delta blues artists like Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Son House were recording top selling tunes. Well, they were top sellers among Southern blacks. The great migration of the ‘30s and ‘40s spread the blues to the West Coast, but even more notably to the cities with manufacturing jobs up north - especially
EARLIEST ROCK ‘N ROLL SONGS
What was the first actual rock ‘n roll song? There are several candidates. Bill Haley and His Comets had the first really universally recognized rock song with Rock Around the Clock from 1955’s hit movie “The Blackboard Jungle”. A year earlier, Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right Mama hit the airwaves, launching his career and – some would say – the whole rock ‘n roll phenomenon. Yet Bill Haley’s 1953 hit, Crazy Man Crazy was actually the first rock hit by a white artist or group. And two years further back, Jackie Brenston, with Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, released what many consider the first true rock ‘n roll song performed by any race: Rocket 88. Going back to 1949, Fats Domino’s The Fat Man gets the nod from some rock historians as the first rock ‘n roll record. Finally, another two years earlier, in 1947, Roy Brown had a monster hit with Good Rockin’ Tonight, which is perhaps the best choice for First Real Rock ‘n Roll Song. The fact is: they’re all great, early rockers and point to the late-1940s and early-1950s as the birth of rock ‘n roll.
ROCK’S GOLDEN YEARS
And so by 1955, rock ‘n roll was in high gear, with legendary artists such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino blowing away teens with their unique brands of early rock ‘n roll. In the next couple of years, other seminal performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and the Flamingos added to the variety and progression of rock ‘n roll as both a musical form and cultural form. Buddy Holly’s death, along with The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in an
Yet it was in late-1963 that the rock ‘n roll scene really exploded again. The Beatles released their first single (I Want to Hold Your Hand) in December of that year and teens went crazy in a way that they hadn’t since Elvis first hit the scene. The song, historically significant as it is, really wasn’t all that special musically, but for some reason it just struck a chord with teens. In any event, it marked the beginning of the British Invasion, which before long would invigorate American (and world) popular music with high energy, blues based rock ‘n roll. The Beatles, initially discounted as mere bubble-gum lightweights, dominated rock music until they disbanded in 1970, as their music evolved and continually defined rock ‘n roll’s cutting edge during those years. At the same time, the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, The Who and other great British bands helped push the trend towards higher energy, bluesy rock. Great American artists, such as the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Mamas & Papas, and Buffalo Springfield pushed rock forward with more of a folk sound during the same time, while the (generally considered a musical joke) Beach Boys’ tremendous technical advances in the recording studio would help to revolutionize rock music even more.
In the summer of 1967, the Doors’ seven minute long Light My Fire marked another major turning point in rock music. The first extended length song to get widespread airplay, Light My Fire kicked off the age of psychedelic rock music and the whole hippie era. To be sure, other groups had been playing this kind of music for many months before the song’s release, and the
THE LATER YEARS
The 1970s brought gobs of great music by those same groups, but lots of other great acts as well: The Eagles, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac – just to name a very few. And of course this decade brought new variations such as punk rock, funk rock, glam rock, and (gulp!) disco. But in the end, the 1970s was more about refining the music of the ‘60s than about breaking any major new musical ground.
If the ‘70s brought lots of great music, though little that was Earth-shaking, then the ‘80s gave us some really cool tunes, but also a lot of crap. The ‘70s groups were joined by others like Van Halen, the Cars, Talking Heads, and AC/DC, providing the eighties plenty of good tuneage. And there were the Pretenders, R.E.M, and some surprisingly decent girl groups (e.g. the Bangles). There were also great pop performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, the decade’s top selling artists. On the other hand, the ‘80s gave us the likes of Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and the God-awful Thompson Twins.
The eighties also marked the advent of music videos (MTV) and the extensive use of synthesizers in the recording studio, both of which had significant impacts on rock ‘n roll, though not always positive ones. And while rap music first got its start in the very late 1970s, the eighties were definitely its decade, as rap rose from practically unknown in 1980 to become one of the biggest selling music genres worldwide by 1989. Finally, the eighties saw the rise of alternative and grunge rock, which along with rap and its younger sibling, hip hop, would play major roles in the popular music of the ‘90s and beyond. The finer points of grunge and hip hop escaping this author, it will be left to others to extol those musical forms’ merits and discuss their key artists.
The music of the early 21st century is, as it has always been, a hodge-podge of different genres and levels of quality. The Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton are still hanging in there, and putting out good tunes. They’re joined by 90’s superstars Alanis Morrissette, Sheryl Crow, but also their modern equivalent Norah Jones, alt-pop/rockers No Doubt and John Mayer, hip-hop potty mouths Eminem and Nelly, pop eye-candy/sluts Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera, R& B’s Usher, and post-grunge metalists Korn. As a HISTORY of rock ‘n roll, this century’s artists and musical trends, along with those of the ‘90s, are mostly left for others to explore.
A number of cities played crucial roles in the development of rock ‘n roll.
But finally, let’s not forget little ol’
WHY THESE ARTISTS, THESE SONGS?
As you look over and listen to the songs of this collection, your biggest question is likely to be: “where in the hell is ______ ?” (fill in the blank) How can a history of rock ‘n roll possibly omit Ray Charles, or Johnny Cash, or Bob Marley, or Iggy Pop, or the Ramones, or Stevie Wonder? No Dire Straits, Smiths, Supremes, James Brown, or Jethro Tull, for cryin’ out loud? The Allman Brothers, Doobie Brothers, Isley Brothers, and Everly Brothers – all M.I.A.? Well sure – they’re great performers, and they’re not here. That’s partly because there’s not nearly enough room for everyone in a 2-CD set. And it’s partly because this is a subjective collection of artists and songs of what the author likes and considers important in rock ‘n roll. Admittedly not a musician nor any kind of musical expert, he couldn’t tell you a guitar chord from a tab or a bridge; he just knows what he thinks sounds good.
Some songs are here because they were truly groundbreaking, defining tunes, such as Rock Around the Clock, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Light My Fire. Many other songs merely represent a particular time or genre, and are not necessarily unique in their own right. So in the end, this collection doesn’t pretend to be THE end all and be all History of Rock ‘n Roll; it is merely A history of the music, one man’s version of what matters. And so here it is…..
HISTORY OF ROCK N ROLL
YEAR ARTIST SONG__________
1. 1928 Charlie Patton Revenue
Charlie Patton is as good a place to start in the history of rock ‘n roll as anybody. He was the first real star of the Delta blues, which in turn is the earliest direct “ancestor” of rock ‘n roll. Patton epitomized the bluesmen of his time and those of future decades – he was a big drinkin’, quick tempered man, and a major womanizer. His guitar playing influenced the most important early Delta blues artists, from Son House and Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf, and even in the guitar work performers like Jimi Hendrix. Revenue Man Blues wasn’t his first nor biggest seller, but is nevertheless a snappy sample of the man and his music.
2. 1934 Leadbelly Special
Huddie William “Leadbelly” Ledbetter is captured here by Alan Lomax as he toured the South during the Depression, recording various blues and folk musicians. Midnight Special was adapted from an early-1920s song Leadbelly heard while in a
They used to call Eric Clapton “God” for his guitar playin’ abilities, yet Clapton reveres Robert Johnson above all other bluesmen – so what does that make Johnson? In the few short years that he dominated and defined the blues (he died in 1938 at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by the husband of a woman he was hustling), Johnson created music that transcended the decades. Tunes such as Love in Vain, Stop Breaking Down, and Sweet Home Chicago have been covered by the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and, of course – Eric Clapton, among many other great performers. The story of Cross Road Blues is that Johnson sold his soul to the devil “at the cross roads”, in exchange for the ability to play blues guitar better than anyone else. As much as any other, this song alone IS the history of rock ‘n roll, covered by the awesome Elmore James and his blazing guitar some 20 years after this original version, and becoming one of the greatest rock standards of all time a decade later when Clapton’s band, Cream, recorded the tune.
4. 1938 Count Basie Jumpin’ at the Woodside
Jazz had pretty much surpassed blues in popularity by the late-30s, although guys like Count Basie were taking jazz in new directions that included blues elements. Already mentioned as having “the best ever rhythm section”, Basie’s career started back in the 1920s. By the late-30s, his style of hard-driving “jump” music set the stage for bebop and dance music that, in turn, added a critical element to creating R&B. Jumpin’ at the Woodside is neither Basie’s first big hit nor his most famous tune, but it’s from the early formative years, and it’s got plenty of “jump”!
5. 1941 Son House Levee Camp
Along with Charley Patton and Willie Brown, Eddie “Son” House was the original deal and a source of great influence on seminal Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson and (later) Muddy Waters. House recorded several tunes in 1930 – and then absolutely nothing for the next 11 years. Alan Lomax captured Levee Camp Moan in 1941, after House’s real heyday – but at least the audio quality is much improved from his earlier recordings. The song shows why he was the consummate Delta blues genius. Little was heard from him again until the mid-1960s when he was “rediscovered”, finally gaining recognition as Father of the Delta Blues.
6. 1942 Lionel Hampton Flying Home
Lionel Hampton is credited with creating the heavy backbeat and passion that typified what would soon be called “rhythm and blues” or R&B, which in turn was the older brother of rock ‘n roll. As part of the Big Band scene,
7. 1945 Louis Jordan Caldonia
Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five were the most popular group in the decade of the 40s – masters of the jitterbugging, jump jivin’ style of jazz so instrumental in the development of R&B and early rock ‘n roll. Caldonia is one of
This version of Good Rockin’ Tonight was recorded in 1970, more than 20 years after Brown recorded what many believe was the first true rock ‘n roll song. Brown himself confirmed what most thought anyway: the lyrics weren’t about dancing, they were about doing the nasty thing with a girl that had been on his mind! Elvis Presley used to follow Brown’s band around in the early-50s, and later covered this tune, as did Jerry Lee Lewis and – decades later – the Led Zeppelin alumni band, The Honeydrippers.
9. 1948 John Lee Hooker Boogie Chillen
Boogie Chillen was Hooker’s first major hit, going to the top of the R&B charts in 1948. This “king of the stompdown boogie” was a major part of the blues scene in the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially in
10. 1949 Fats Domino The Fat Man
This is another of the “first rock ‘n roll song” candidates, from the man who went on to become the fifties’ second best selling performer (behind Elvis Presley). Antoine Domino actually got his nickname, Fats, from this, his first hit single. Domino was from
11. 1950? Willy Dixon Hoochie
12. 1951 Jackie Brenston/Delta Cats Rocket 88
Long before Tina Turner was the Acid Queen of rock, and even before there was an Ike and Tina Tuner Revue, Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm were rocking around
13. 1953 Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog
Elvis (the Pelvis) took this song coast to coast in 1956, and it has been subsequently covered by everyone from Tom Jones to Jimi Hendrix to Bryan Adams. But it was originally written for Big Mama Thornton, and she belted it out in fine, early-rock ‘n roll fashion, which kept the tune at #1 for seven weeks at a time when Elvis was just a wanna be. Sadly, Big Mama never really made the big time, other than with this great rock classic.
14. 1954 Muddy Waters I’m Ready
Lots of folks think that Muddy (McKinley Morganfield) WAS the electric blues. Surely, his blues pedigree fits the bill. A native of
15. 1954 Elvis Presley That’s Alright Mama5
Elvis is the King of Rock – a title that is deserved, but not. The fact is that he was the first white artist to really take black, R&B music to white
16. 1955 Bill Haley + The Comets Rock Around the Clock
Bill Haley has been called the most underrated and neglected figure in the history of rock ‘n roll. In 1955, he was 30 years old and had been recording country, R&B, and rock ‘n roll hits for years. His earlier band (Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, whose name hints at their country/western past) recorded the first successful cover of a black R&B tune by a white group with their version of Rocket 88. Crazy Man Crazy in 1953, and Shake, Rattle, and Roll in 1954 were huge hits for The Comets, and historical milestones for rock ‘n roll. Rock Around the Clock, a minor success when first released in 1954, found a place in the classic 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle” and shot up to #1, where it stayed for 8 weeks. Eventually, it sold enough records to make Rock Around the Clock the #2 top selling single of all time, and an absolute rock ‘n roll anthem.
17. 1955 Chuck Berry Maybellene
Chuck Berry has been called the true Father of Rock ‘n Roll or, as John Lennon put it: “If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'”. Coming out of
18. 1955 Bo Diddley Bo Diddley
While Chuck Berry was rocking out down in
19. 1955 Sonny Boy Williamson Don’t Start Me to
There were really two Sonny Boy Williamsons; the one featured here is really #2, and he “borrowed” the name to take advantage of the original’s popularity. This Sonny Boy was a blues legend who covered the times from (and played with) Robert Johnson in the ‘30s to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the ‘60s. In between, he authored classics like One Way Out (covered so wonderfully by the Allman Brothers in the ‘70s) and Good Mornin’ Little School Girl, and blew harp to back up guys like Elmore James. Don’t Start Me to Talkin’ was from the 1950s, when Williamson and so many of the other
20. 1956 Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes
Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes was the first song to really make it in all three pop markets: R&B, country, and rock ‘n roll, and should have given him his big break. Perkins released this song in early 1956, about the same time that his former Sun recording mate Elvis Presley put out his own version of the tune. Carl’s record had better success than Elvis’, and he was scheduled to appear on national TV and bust into the big time when he was severely injured in a car crash. So it was Elvis who got national TV exposure singing this song instead – adding to his popularity and, unfortunately, pushing Perkins into the background where he – mostly – stayed the rest of his career.
21. 1959 Elmore James Dust My Broom
Elmore James may best be known for the role his music played in the 1980 musical/comedy “The Blues Brothers”. Because he died at a fairly young age in 1963, James missed out on the fame that came to other blues legends in the ‘60s. Like the others, he started playing in
22. 1959 Skyliners Since I Don’t Have You
Since I Don’t Have You has been called one of the great “torch” songs; it certainly has few equals among fifties doo-wop tunes, and is here as a wonderful example of the genre. The group itself is a bit unusual – 4 white guys and a gal from
23. 1962 Blues Incorporated Got My Mojo Workin’
1962 was a quietly formative year. While
24. 1963 Beach Boys Surfin’
Surfin’ USA isn’t anything special, musically. It appears here, however, as testament to the brief popularity of the uniquely American “surf” sound of the early to mid-60s. Actually, when hardcore surfers first heard tunes like this, they almost puked. They had listened for years to funky jazz and blues – decidedly heavier stuff than what the bubblegum-sounding Beach Boys and other “surf” groups were laying down. The music paralleled a tremendous increase in surfing’s appeal and The Beach Boys went on to become an American icon, as well as the source of powerful musical innovation.
25. 1963 Peter, Paul + Mary Blowin’ In
the Wind While guys like the Beach Boys were focused on surfin’ and chicks, other artists pondered more serious matters like civil rights and war. The “folkies”, building on earlier traditions of Woodie Guthrie, the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio, were increasingly active in places like
26. 1963 Caravelles You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry
Here’s just a little something. A wonderful tune with a lovely sound from one of rock’s many One Hit Wonders, a British girl group: the Caravelles. You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry was a very popular number from the Dusty Springfield, just-before-the-Beatles era – but then the song just disappeared from the face of the Earth. It marks no great musical milestone, but is here simply because it’s beautiful, and because you probably would never hear it otherwise.
27. 1963 Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand
The Beatles launched rock ‘n roll’s second great age with the release in
28. 1964 Martha + the Vandellas Dancin’ in the
This group represents two different musical segments: Motown and girl groups. The Supremes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and Temptations all sold more records for Motown, James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, while Aretha Franklin was Lady Soul. On the girl group side, the Shirelles, Crystals, Ronettes, and Shangri-Las were at least as popular as Martha + the Vandellas. Dancin’ in the Streets is such a cool, happy, lively tune – that’s why it gets the nod here.
29. 1964 Four Tops Baby I Need Your Lovin’
Here’s one more sample of
30. 1965 Rolling Stones Satisfaction
The Rolling Stones spent the sixties living in the Beatles’ shadow, although they were (and are) a magnificent, virtually unparalleled blues/rock band in their own right. More heavily influenced by American blues masters like Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley than were the Beatles, they were the edgier, harder rocking bad boys of British rock ‘n roll. The Stones had many top hits in the sixties, and again in the seventies, and in the eighties, while continuing to record and perform live into the 21st century. Satisfaction was their first monster hit, and holds a unique place in rock history: for years after its 1965 release, Satisfaction was consistently voted the greatest rock ‘n roll song of all time by American radio listeners.
32. 1965 Bob Dylan Like a Rolling Stone
Bob Dylan may have been the greatest songwriter in the history of rock ‘n roll. Originally a folk singer, he penned many of the sixties’ most memorable tunes, and almost single-handedly created the folk rock genre. It was Dylan who “turned the Beatles on” early in their career; additionally, he had an incalculable influence on groups such as the Byrds, Turtles,
33. 1966 Beach Boys I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
Giving the Beach Boys even one slot in this collection is a questionable move – but putting TWO of their songs in it??? Let me explain…. Musical genius and group leader Brian Wilson was the driving force behind the album Pet Sounds, which was voted the best rock ‘n roll album of ALL TIME in several prestigious polls. The Beatles fell in love with Pet Sounds, and it was the inspiration for their Sgt. Pepper album (which also tops several Best Album polls on its own). Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones took the most unusual step in 1966 of placing an ad in the British music papers urging everybody to buy the Beach Boys’ album! I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times is representative of the album’s beautiful, complex melodies and multiple layers of sounds.
34. 1967 Byrds My Back Pages
Sometimes referred to as
35. 1967 Doors Light My Fire
As mentioned earlier, the Doors ushered in the psychedelic rock music era with this 7-minute long tune that blew everyone away in the summer of 1967. Light My Fire marked the start of the
36. 1967 Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze
With the possible exception of Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Hendrix was probably the most talented person in the history of rock ‘n roll. As a guitarist, there were no exceptions – he was the best ever. When he first played
37. 1967 Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s
Called the Beatles’ most historically important album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, also stands out as the first “concept” album – a collection of related songs based on a particular theme. Heavily influenced by the Beach Boys’ trippy “Pet Sounds”, and released a few short months after Light My Fire, “Sgt. Pepper” quickly took its place as a cornerstone in the psychedelic movement and confirmed the Beatles’ uncanny ability to stay up with and ahead of the musical times. The album’s title song, featured here, bears Paul McCartney’s lighter, more whimsical touch – but is just one of the disparate styles found on the album.
38. 1968 Aretha
Like so many other soul singers, Aretha Franklin started out singing gospel music in the 1950s. Her early pop attempts weren’t too successful, but in the second half of the 60’s she hooked up with the top-flight Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, a match made in music heaven. Her true soul style and awesome pipes (think of Janis Joplin, but without the booze and smokes-caused hoarseness) soon earned her the title Queen of Soul. Think was a hit single in 1968, and again in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers”.
39. 1968 Cream Crossroads
Cream’s live cover of Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues is perhaps the defining rock ‘n roll masterpiece. The song taps into rock’s 1930s roots, acknowledges guitar great Elmore James’ electric adaptations, and then takes the whole package to an incredibly higher level. This is Eric Clapton, and electric blues/rock, at their very finest.
40. 1971 Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven
Crossroads was a really tough act to top, although tons of great electric rock would follow in the years after 1968. Led Zeppelin was the band playing the most consistently high-quality hard, blues-based rock over the next half dozen or so years. The group had quite a few better songs than this one, but Stairway to Heaven was THE commercial monster hit for the Zeppelin, and perhaps the decade’s defining rock ‘n roll single.
41. 1974 Eagles Already Gone
The seventies’ biggest selling album was the Eagles’ best of collection: “Their Greatest Hits”. It and the group’s “Hotel California” album, also from the 70s, are among the top ten selling albums of all time. The band itself melded country, folk, and rock to create a unique sound that – obviously - appealed to all different kinds of listeners. Already Gone is one of their most popular tunes: heavy on the country AND the rock, it perfectly captures the band’s “
42. 1979 Sugarhill Gang Rapper’s Delight
Rap is an unfortunate development in the history of popular music. Early rap songs were pleasant enough – an East coast mix of urban beats, nifty rhymes, and record scratching. But the genre soon turned towards embracing and promoting greed, violence, and misogyny. And even when rap songs didn’t focus on those negatives, they still moved music away from beautiful melodies and instrumental virtuosity and, often as not, towards childish, boastful rhyming. Rapper’s Delight is cited as the first, or certainly one of the first, rap records. Since this collection isn’t much interested in rap, and since the full song goes over 14 minutes, this short 30 second sound bite will have to suffice.
43. 1982 Michael Jackson Billie Jean
Originally gaining fame with The Jackson Five in the early 70s, Michael turned out to be an extraordinarily talented performer, even if he wasn’t a true rocker. By the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was the most popular musical artist in the world. He combined snappy tunes with a pleasant singing voice and – helping to popularize the new format of music videos – virtually untouchable dance moves. Even though it is “pop”, Billie Jean is a great tune from Michael’s peak years, before he (sadly) destroyed his face and came to be widely regarded as a freakish pedophile.
44. 1983 ZZ Top Legs
The “Little Ol’ Band from
45. 1985 Madonna Material Girl
Like Michael Jackson, Madonna was a pop artist and like him, her music and persona fit well into the new world of music videos. There were much better musicians at the time, but Madonna was pretty special, and she’s here to represent a particular segment of the music market (a hugely popular segment) that was also pretty fun to listen to. She was called the “material girl”, and so is the song.
46. 1991 Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
47. 1995 Dr. Dre/Ice Cube Natural Born Killaz
As mentioned earlier, rap music morphed into hip-hop, and that most unfortunate, hugely popular “music” – gansta rap. Gansta is all about being filthy rich, beating up or killing people, pimpin’ ho’s, and just generally being as profane and ugly as possible. There’s little actual music involved – no great guitarists, piano playin’, or sax blowin’; no singers with beautiful voices. Gangsta rappers and their multitude of apologists say the disgusting lyrics merely reflect the harsh realities of the inner city, but that’s a crock. For decades blacks had it much worse than they do today; all around the globe today, 90% of the world’s people live worse than the poorest minorities in the
48. 1999 Carlos Santana SmoothIn direct contrast to the “gangstas”, Carlos Santana is a musical virtuoso whose songs celebrate life, beauty and love. After 30 years as a rock ‘n roll superstar, Santana blew everyone away with his incredibly successful 1999 album “Supernatural”. The last song on this collection then, Smooth, is from that album and testifies to the timelessness of good music – especially good rock ‘n roll.