It is a well-known fact that English is the language of rock’n’roll.
Well known where I come from, that is. But what you find when you live somewhere non English speaking is that people don’t necessarily agree.
Sure, they think Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California are the twin peaks of pop music (not to me, they’re not) but they also want to play their own local hits by their own heroes.
And to the Brit, American, Aussie, Canadian and New Zealander, very often the foreign stuff sounds like nothing on earth.
For want of a better term, because listening to other countries’ productions is a relatively recent phenomenon, it is known as ‘world music’, presumably as distinct from martian or moon music.
The British comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones did a sketch about it a few years ago, in which a profoundly unrock’n’roll sound drones on for a minute, before Smith stops and says, “Is it me, or is this crap?”
It depends, of course, on your definition of crap. We can’t dismiss something as not very good just because we don’t like it. Our parents probably did that with our teenage musical discoveries, and when we become parents ourselves, as hard as we may try, it is difficult to really get into our offspring’s stuff because it is part of the teenager’s nature to like things his or her parents won’t like. It’s part of growing up.
We may not like this stuff because it sounds avant-garde, screamy, morose, discordant and consciously ignoring or breaking rules that have never been laid down, or even discussed outside academic circles.
I once heard Eric Clapton complaining that someone wasn’t singing properly because he didn’t put any vibrato into it. Singers in punk bands didn’t go in for such niceties. You didn’t find Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer giving it a bit of croon.
But have rock singers ever really been conscious of the technical side of what they’re doing?
Probably not. Most of us just want to sound like our heroes. The man with the most-admired voice in 1970s and 80s rock music, Paul Rodgers, was blessed with a slight rasp in his throat, which is the key to much of what ‘soul’ in a voice is supposed to be. Rodgers grew up listening to the Beatles and sixties soul/pop and then got into the blues. He wasn’t at college studying singing; he was in his bedroom, listening to records. “I would hear Muddy Waters sing something and I would try to do that or Howlin’ Wolf, everybody. Then the soul stuff took it to a different place. Like Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, and the Temptations,” he told Glide magazine.
Rodgers had the raw material – that rasp – plus a decent range, and he just took it from there.
What strikes me about a lot of world music is that the young musicians and singers seem to be ploughing the same furrow as their elders (not that most of us would know in the case of African music – or indeed most of it). When a Latin band gets going, it’s probably got trumpets etc. like an old mid-sixties showband or the BBC Light Orchestra, and the average young musician of that time wouldn’t be seen dead with a brass section. They wanted guitar, bass and drums and, if you really insist, a keyboard. But even then, how did you swing a dirty great Wurlitzer or Hammond organ around and look sexy, which had become part of the act?
Perhaps it is ignorance on the part of a British rocker’s ears that we can’t see the difference between a 21st century Spanish band and the likes of Sergio Mendes (who is actually Brazilian and was big in the 60s, but that doesn’t stop our objections).
It’s a bit like thinking that all Chinese people look the same (and make no mistake about it, they think the same about us). We’re tuned into our own culture, our own appearance and our own sounds, and it takes time – perhaps years – to get used to, start to like and then understand other countries’ music.
In the meantime, we might struggle to pick up the national anthem in our adopted country, but you only have to go to a children’s party to see that they sing Happy Birthday To You all over the world. Same tune, different words. So at least that’s one thing we have in common, on which to build.