Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll
by Mark English
The phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” came up on this site recently. People seemed to be generally in favor, as I recall. It’s just a jokey mantra, I know, but nonetheless it could be seen to express a certain view of the world. And to the extent that it does encapsulate a view of life, I have to say that from a personal point of view I am ambivalent about it. It’s not my mantra, certainly.
Arguably, as rock has become mainstream, the values and attitudes associated with the broader culture of rock and roll have also gained widespread acceptance, changing societies and cultures in subtle or not so subtle ways. My focus here is mainly on music however.
Some kinds of rock I relate to, at least to some extent – certain songs and so on – but overall I’m not fond of the genre. I tend to see it as a somewhat regrettable cultural contingency. And the more I hear it, the less I like it. Somehow it just doesn’t express my kind of personality.
We all have our pet hates. I recently heard someone (a photographer) say that the thing that really drives him mad is the artificial clicking sound made by cell-phone cameras. You can’t escape the clicking of digital cameras and (in my experience) you can’t escape rock and roll and the newer forms of music which derive in some sense from it. It comes at you from buskers, from outdoor and rooftop bars, from hidden speakers in coffee shops, supermarkets and malls, from parties you might attend or even parties you don’t attend.
My interest in 20th century popular music is driven in part by the perspective it provides on broader cultural and social changes. And quite dramatic changes have occurred, especially over the last seven or eight decades. One of the “foolish things” that “remind me of you” in the 1930s song (by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey) is a “tinkling piano in the next apartment”. This is certainly not the world I am living in, and I suspect it’s not the world you’re living in either.
But rather than do a rant (others are better at it), let me just make a few brief observations relating to music and cultural history.
First of all, rock and roll is very much – unlike sex and drugs – a cultural contingency. Music per se may not be, but rock and roll – or any particular style of music – is. So, in a sense, any particular style needn’t have existed. According to the view I am suggesting, if (hypothetically) you wound back the clock a few hundred years and started again from there, political and cultural history would take a different course from the one we know.  The traitor’s plot that was in fact discovered may not have been discovered, the assassin’s bullet that in our world hit its target and precipitated the Great War might have just grazed the Archduke’s shoulder, and so on.
In a little-known movie, set in London a couple of decades after World War 2, the city was depicted as dark and conservative, the fashions, mores, and strangely even the technology, suggestive of an earlier time. The reason? The Axis powers had won the war. Unsurprisingly, there was no rock and roll (in England or Europe at any rate) – but even I would have to concede that the price paid for its absence might have been rather too high in this case.
If you grow up with a certain kind of music you can’t help but be tuned into it to some extent: that’s just the way our brains work. Individual differences and the specific context (e.g. church, home or peer group) in which we hear the music also matter and help determine what we like and what different types of music signify for us.
I grew up with a strange mixture of music: marching bands; snatches of Delius and Vaughan Williams on the radio, but also pop music and rock; church organs and hymns. My mother had an aversion to rock and roll and my father’s cultural world (he was considerably older than my mother) was so alien to rock that I don’t think he even noticed its existence. Two aunts also played prominent roles: one was almost hip; the other (my father’s sister) used to do silly dances and sing “Come into the garden, Maud, For the black bat, night, has flown…” (words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, music by some forgotten Victorian); and an expurgated – risqué rather than crude – version of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.” In the face of all this, rock and roll didn’t stand out particularly – or, if it did, it didn’t stand out in a good way. As I grew up, I always felt a tension between the popular music of the time – particularly rock – and the more traditional forms to which I was attached.
This may be a contentious view, but I see rock music as being unlike most previous varieties of popular music (including jazz and swing) in that it is at a deep level incompatible with mainstream Western musical traditions. I am aware that many rock musicians were classically trained and that there have been all sorts of attempts to blend elements of rock and classical music. Sometimes these attempts succeeded, but I still feel that there is an inevitable and fatal tension between the two traditions. There are countless examples of the seamless merging of jazz and classical; not so many in relation classical and rock because the rock element (to my ears anyway) inevitably overwhelms and undermines the classical – or at least the “traditional classical” – element.
To me it is an endearing feature of traditional French musical culture that it was particularly resistant on this front. Rock and roll was quite alien to it. In fact the first French rock and roll songs were actually parodies written by Boris Vian, who despised the form. By and large, early French rock and roll was extremely derivative – and often closer to pop than rock.
Johnny Hallyday was – supposedly – the “French Elvis.” He was a giant star at home but little known outside the francophone world. He married Sylvie Vartan who was identified with the yé-yé movement. (Get it? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Beatles.) It was pop, not rock. She did a French version of “The Loco-Motion.” Her greatest hit was the yé-yé song, “La plus belle pour aller danser,” written by the French crooner and actor, Charles Aznavour and his longtime collaborator Georges Garvarentz. Rock and roll it is not.
The general process of the individual’s early exposure to music works not unlike early exposure to particular foods (which is said to powerfully influence food preferences for life). It reminds me also of the way goslings fixate on and follow whatever moving thing they first see upon hatching. The ethologist and writer Konrad Lorenz was mother goose to a batch of them: they used to follow him around. In somewhat similar fashion, the music we hear at vital stages imprints indelibly on our brains and is granted privileged access to our emotional centers.
The point is, this says very little about the music itself but a lot about our early environment. People often don’t get this simple truth: that what they grew up listening to and liking will likely sound very ho-hum (or worse) to anyone whose musical background was different.
An interesting twist on this relates to the conscious use of music as a repellent. I’ve heard of various cases but only witnessed one myself. The city in which I live has a very large number of people camping on the sidewalks and sleeping in doorways, etc. One popular night-time sitting and sleeping location was at the entrance of the central city branch of a major bank, close to the ATMs. Not good for business. So they piped Italian opera through their speakers. It had the desired effect.
Clearly, many of the factors that lead us to be attracted – or not – to certain musical forms are quite extrinsic to the music itself: sociological rather than musical. It depends on one’s upbringing whether certain music is, say, cool and sexy – or repulsive. (Opera is sexy for some.)
The English writer Philip Larkin was famously described (by Eric Homberger) as “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket.” Larkin played up to this image, remarking that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth. He loved jazz and wrote about it and readily admitted that, for him, above all jazz meant sex. Rock inherited that cool and sexy image.
Of course, in the past other musical forms would have played a similar role to that played by jazz and rock in the 20th century. There were always popular dances and risqué songs – even in the supposed depths of the priest-ridden Middle Ages.
“Sex, drugs and rock and roll” is just a modern version of the old expression “wine, women and song.” Alcohol or other drugs and certain kinds of music certainly can be a potent combination, and are often associated with sex. Rock, especially when coupled with illicit drugs, adds another element: that of rebellion; of a conscious rejection of tradition.
A flyer I got in my mailbox the other day offers free admission to a nightclub. “Who are you with?” it asks. “Team Riot or Team Filth?” Beats me. (2) I think I’ll pass on this one.
- How different I cannot say: as time passed the differences would become greater – though they would necessarily be constrained by the basic facts of human biology.
- Apparently there are two spaces with different sounds: the Riot Room is upstairs, the Filth Room is the basement. The music styles are given as deep house, party tunes, commercial, RnB, techno, bounce, minimal, hardstyle and psytrance.