Rock is dead.
I’m not trying to stir shit — it’s just a fact that rock is no longer the dominant form of music, and it hasn’t been for some time now. Rock stations have long been on the decline;, and young people aren’t rocking out nearly as much as they used to. Chuck Berry died last year and even the likes of Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons have declared rock dead. Hell, even Tenacious D know it.
So given the fact that rock is certifiably dead — it just is, get over it — what should we make of all those songs that promised us “rock will never die” and “long live rock” and all that kind of stuff? Did they just get it wrong? And more importantly, why did those songs exist anyway? Why did rock — the dominant form of popular music for almost half a century — need so much goddamn reassurance via these pandering rawk anthems?
To be clear, I’m not talking about all rock anthems here — songs like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” are still fun songs. No, I’m talking about all those terribly insecure rock anthems that promise “rock will live forever” with such indignant force that they always seemed like they must be overcompensating for something.
If you look into the history of these types of songs, you’ll find that they’re nearly as old as rock music itself. While the question of when rock died — because it is dead — is likely the subject of contentious debate, the birth of rock in mainstream America is crystal clear: It happened in July 1955, when Berry released “Maybellene.” As Rolling Stone declared of the song, “Rock & roll guitar starts here.” And to quote one of the most important figures in all of rock history, John Lennon once admitted, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
So rock was born in 1955, but just a year and a half later, in March 1957, Berry released “School Days,” which can be considered the “first rock anthem” thanks to its final few verses.
Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock ‘n’ roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock ‘n’ roll
The feelin’ is there body and soul
But why, when rock music was so brand-spankin’ new, did Berry need to declare “long live rock ‘n’ roll?” At the time, it actually made a lot of sense. As SUNY Orange music history professor Mark Strunsky explains, “Rock and roll music was under assault in those very early days for two main reasons, the first of which was flat-out racism. This was black music — that’s why the mothers and fathers and teachers and preachers hated rock and roll. They weren’t going to have their white daughters shaking their hips to black music. No way. Which leads to the other reason why rock was in trouble: sex. The phrase ‘rock and roll’ was born out of sexual innuendo from the blues, and rock was all about sex.”
Strunsky says that record labels shied away from rock music at first, until they realized there was money to be made in it, at which point they began hiring white performers to sing the music (hi, Elvis!). The more conservative elements in our country remained unconvinced, however, so rock continued to be problematic for years to come. That’s why you have songs like 1958’s “Rock ‘n Roll is Here to Stay” by Danny & the Juniors: While “School Days” just gave a “hail, hail” to rock at the close of the song, “Rock ‘n Roll is Here to Stay” was entirely about rock’s permanency, complete with all the tropes of every rock anthem to follow, with lyrics like, “it will never die,” “it’ll go down in history” and “we don’t care what people say, rock n’ roll is here to stay.”
Despite these songs and rock’s growing popularity among American youth, there was a period in the late 1950s where rock seemed to be in serious danger. While the culture warriors did play a part in things, it seems even fate had it in for rock music: As Strunsky explains, “Elvis was drafted, Little Richard went back to the church, Chuck Berry went to jail and there was ‘the day the music died,’ and all that happened within a couple of years.”
These events occurred for disparate reasons: Little Richard has had a complicated history with his religion and his sexuality, so he left music for a time and returned to his faith; Chuck Berry was arrested under the Mann Act for transporting a minor over state lines — that minor being a 14-year-old girl that Berry was most certainly having sex with; the day the music died was February 3, 1959, when a plane crash killed rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. As for Elvis, Strunsky says there is some evidence to suggest that his draft card was pulled intentionally in 1957 to get him out of the music scene for a while.
Rock music would limp along for the next few years until the British invasion began in 1964, with the arrival of The Beatles, followed by the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals and others. The British invasion would cement rock as the dominant form of music, which it would solidly remain for the next 30 years.
While rock anthems would continue to be released during this time, with stuff like “It’s Only Rock and Roll” by The Rolling Stones and “Revolution” by The Beatles, they seemed a bit less insecure, which made sense: Rock was everything at the time. Of course rock would be here forever — The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan!
But the insecure rock anthem would inexplicably reappear in the decade to follow. Sure, The Beatles broke up in 1970, but it was nothing like the late 1950s. Rock was firmly the dominant form of music and nothing else rivaled it. It seems inexplicable, then, that Argent felt the need to proclaim that “God Gave Rock and Roll To You.”
First off, it’s just factually inaccurate: God didn’t give rock and roll to us, Chuck Berry gave rock and roll to us, and then he went to jail for statutory rape. Get your story straight! And just so I don’t have to mention this song again when we get to the 1990s, yes, KISS recorded this too, and yes, it did close out Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
The very next year, 1972, The Who would get into the fray with “Long Live Rock.” In principle, I also want to lampoon this song for the same reason as the other insecure rock anthems of the age — rock is king, so why the hell are you whining about how it should “long live”? But, try as I might, I cannot criticize this song because it’s fucking amazing and I will tolerate no criticism of it whatsoever.
As the decade went on, proclamations of rock’s permanence grew in direct correlation to its lack of need for such songs. In 1978, Rainbow released “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Judas Priest vowed to “Rock Forever.” In 1979, Neil Young insisted that it was “better to burn out than to fade away” even though, in the same song, he claimed that “rock and roll can never die” (Young’s take, at least, was more self-aware and personal than most).
But again, why all this insistence on rock’s immortality at a time when rock was perfectly safe as a genre? “They’re just celebrating. They love rock and so they want to say it,” Strunsky says. But additionally, Strunsky speculates that some of it really was just insecurity — a feeling that maybe the music they were making wasn’t good enough. They weren’t The Beatles (with the exception of, y’know, The Beatles), so they had to keep telling themselves — and the public — that they were good enough via these catchy anthems. Strunsky also says that no matter the era, rock was always about challenging the status quo. It was always about rebellion, always about confrontation, and even if rock is secure as a genre, the artist themselves may be under assault, as the culture wars over music waged on through the Vietnam era and into the 1980s.
It was in the 1980s, of course, that the rock anthem would enjoy its last years. Perhaps the rockers could smell a change in the air, because these anthems became all the more desperate, starting with ACDC’s “For Those About to Rock.”
Now, I love ACDC, but Jesus Christ that song is annoying: It has no melody, the guitars are just okay and the lyrics are so stupid and pandering that it makes my skin crawl. The song is garbage, and no amount of middle-aged man hopping in a schoolboy uniform is going to change that fact.
Then there’s Twisted Sister in 1984, shouting “I Wanna Rock” as though anybody at all is trying to stop them from doing so. Dee Snider, you’ve got 30 years before you start appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, so rock on, brother, rock on.
In 1984, there was also MSG’s “Rock Will Never Die” (even though, to be sure, rock would indeed die in about a decade).
Following the 1980s, the rock anthem would pretty much die out — not just the pandering “long live rock” types, but rock anthems altogether. In the 1990s, rock music focused less on partying and more on angst, depression and general Gen-X existential dread. A lot of people liked that! Some really did not.
Meanwhile, another genre entirely had taken rock’s “dangerous” label: Hip hop. Rock — at this point beloved by at least two generations — seemed aged and toothless when compared to this new(er) style, and without anxious parents around to say that rock was bad, it could paradoxically no longer be all that good.
Sadly for rock, the 1990s were its last big decade, and going by the tone of the rock made in those years, it knew it. Its popularity has continued to decline in the 20 years since, and while it’s still heard on the classic rock stations of Spotify, it’ll never be the behemoth it once was. And that’s okay! Times change, tastes diversify, music evolves. That’s the whole reason we got rock in the first place, instead of spending the 20th century jamming the fuck out to kick-ass baroque harpsichord compositions. For those who continue to love rock, those songs still exist, and it’s easier than ever to hear them.
Or, as The Who put it in the greatest rock anthem of all time: “Long live rock, be it dead or alive.”