Lately it appears that the blues, or rather, blues-rock, has made quite a comeback into mainstream popular music. The Black Keys, the most noticeable aspect of this movement, are headlining festivals across the world and selling out enormous show in literally minutes; Jack White is most definitely still around; Led Zeppelin have reformed; and newer bands like Vintage Trouble or Rival Sons are building quite a following with most definitely blues-based rock. But the term ‘blues-rock’ carries such strong connotations of style and form that we have to ask – is it ‘blues-rock’ itself that is making a comeback? Or is it the genre’s influence resurfacing in a new style of rock? The answer lies in the evolution of one key facet of the ‘blues-rock’ sound. But what is the defining feature of that style of music? The pentatonic? That’s hardly exclusive. The soul of the performance? Maybe, but that’s hard to pin down. The guitar? That’s where it gets tricky.
It’s difficult to talk about this subject while avoiding the golden-age nostalgia usually associated with the ‘heyday’ of this kind of rock, vaguely situated in the sixties and seventies, but something I think many would agree on is that the guitar defined the music in a very particular way; the guitar solo. Artists like Free, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (the list goes on), all relied very heavily on the virtuoso guitarist to produce their sound. I know I’m leaving out a great many bands from the era, (did I hear someone yell “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, QUEEN”?) but I’m narrowing this down to the more blues-influenced music that initially defined rock. It gets messy defining popular music too much at this point because ‘pop’ and ‘rock’ were far more interchangeable than they are these days, and I know there was Jazz, prog, electronic music, but I hope the collage of what I’m saying is giving you an idea of what I mean when I say ‘blues-rock’.
This was the first musical movement that really granted pride of place to the guitarist in mainstream popular music. In the charts. It was this style of music that gave way to the first real solo or band-leader guitarists, artists like Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana (again, it doesn’t stop there). Of course, there are precedents – the late fifties and early sixties saw the rise of the Blues in itself in popular music, lead by flagship B. B. King, a true pioneer, but it wasn’t until ‘blues-rock’ that the guitar really conquered the world. Sure, rock and roll and earlier pop all featured and popularised the guitar, and blues influences, but it was the age of the solo that brought the guitar and the guitarist centre-stage, right up next to the singer and shone a spotlight on the virtuoso player.
While the guitar has always survived in one way or another, often in less popular genres, its importance in a band setting shifted fundamentally in mainstream music, giving way to increasingly electronic music, the rise of vocals with the singer-songwriter and the message of the music, its content in lyrics. Prog rock, for example – Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull (I don’t think there’s any of these lists that don’t go on), while often featuring virtuoso guitar passages and much more similar to ‘blues-rock’ than purely solo artists, focused much more on the intelligent content of their music, both in lyrical content and musical development.
Now we turn to the contemporary music scene. At this point it gets even harder to generalise; the multiplicity of influence, from across the world and from any point in the past, makes it even harder to generalise upon a genre; and the ease of acquiring music through low production costs and most important of all, the Internet (which deserves to be capitalised), renders most judgements of ‘the popluar music scene’ pretty murky. Moreover, the charts lose a lot of relevance in this discussion, because they focus on official sales, which skews the demographic quite considerably given the proclivity of personal sharing, illegal downloads and the second wind of radio stations on the internet (be they traditional or self-controlled), although they do give a pretty good idea of the popularity of ‘club’ music ( in all its various forms, my knowledge of the subject is fairly limited) and that gloriously indefinable, yet instantly recognisable ‘indie’.
And then suddenly, there were the Black Keys. El Camino reached no. 2 on the US Billboard and sold 206,000 copies in its first week, achieving Platinum status in both the UK and the US. Out of nowhere, a two-man blues-rock band took over the world. But the interesting thing is that it was this, their last album, and you could definitely make an argument for the more mainstream popularity of the preceeding record, Brothers. Now go and listen to their first album. Or their second. Or their third or fourth. Their sound has most definitely evolved, and while it began as much more solo-guitar heavy and gritty-blues in style, over the course of their career, their sound has lightened in sound and tightened up into much more of a ‘band’ format. They now tour with a full line up, with emphasis on keys and bass, and their songwriting emphasises the groove, the riff, the cohesion of instruments playing together. Obviously, their sound is still blues-based, but their music differs in this one fundamental respect, that of the band dynamic. In this setting, the guitar solo has become a facet of the song itself, it has become a functional development used by rock bands rather than a selling point in itself. Is it a coincidence that their last two albums, the records which have most embodied this change, have been their most successful?
Even Jack White, whose musical ego can barely be contained, has styled himself as a songwriter and a bandleader, rather than a guitarist. On his first record as a solo artist, how many guitar solos were there? Not many, and they were mostly musical experiments, strange noises rather than the lyrical blues-based lead lines that people would recognise as a ‘solo’. What’s more, his most recent tour has been all about the backing band. He has two groups, one entirely male, and one entirely female, each with different sets, “different versions of the same songs” (quote from the Guardian); so it was the band that defines the set he played, rather than Jack himself, despite the fact that he still led the show and his name sold the tickets.
Now let’s have a look at John Mayer, a much more common name in the popualr music scene. Clearly, he’s a blues enthusiast, but he made his name as a singer-songwriter rather than a guitarist, and while he continually breaks out solos at live shows and brings in as much blues influence as he can into his records, it’s clear he will be very much be remembered as a pop singer. While his self-representation as a solo artist can be liken to the guitarists of the seventies, this is much more similar to solo pop singers; it’s that version of his musical persona that sells the records, not his (quite incredible) skill as a guitarist. In fact, in his 2007 live album, Where The Light Is, Mayer feels the need to point out that “how wonderful it feels that it’s 2007 , and we just launched into a slow blues, and 7,000 people in L.A. just went nuts. All is not lost.” So has the guitar solo become self indulgent, a pleasure for musicians, and not listeners? ‘Become’ is a bad choice of word. It has always been self-indulgent, but the willingness of the audience to indulge the guitarist has certainly declined.
But what about the other bands I mentioned in the introduction? Led Zeppelin’s reunion is marketed entirely towards older fans and as a comeback – they’ve written no new music, and the shows are publicised with the same typography and symbols as the original albums in order to sell them based on their existing reptuation. Strangely the new bands I mentioned have a much more defined image of what they think blues-rock is, and it’s old, it’s retro. Rival Sons dress like they’re setting off for Woodstock, and Vintage Trouble left a fairly big hint in their name as to what they’re trying to achieve. However, they’re hardly nostalgia acts – while their music is heavily indebted to the heyday of blues-rock, they have their own sound – but they’re very consciously ‘old-fashioned’.
But ‘old-fashioned’ is cool now. Retro, vintage, it’s all making a comeback. Could this explain the Black Keys’ success? Quite possibly. It seems that the modern mainstream audience is very happy to tolerate or enjoy blues influence, but not really more evidently blues-based music. The Black Key’s success didn’t come with their actually old-fashioned blues, but rather accessbile, modern rock than has retro influences – perhaps it’s for this reason that while the blues has made something of a return to the modern music scene, the guitar solo has not. It’s appealing to fans of old-fashioned sounding music, rather than of blues-rock in itself, and the expressionism that came with the guitar solo of that genre. So what we’re left with is something other than a resurgence of ‘blues-rock’ in itself, but rather a new blues-influenced scene. “What shall we call it, GiantMan? You like naming things!” I do. But right now, the scene has yet to define itself. There are many different strands, and while I for one hope it doesn’t, it may just turn out to be a passing fad. It’s simply too early to say.
I must, however, finish on a hopeful note for the guitar solo. While virtuosity on guitar may be dying out in mainstream popular music, other genres, Metal in particular, have never been more technical. Djent and ‘tech-metal’ are among the most youthful and energetic sections of the wide genre, and focus on incredibly complex rhythms and solos. Sure, it’s not the blues, and there are still a great many musicians out there who still play the sort of music I’m talking about (B. B. King still plays live at the ripe old age of 87), but it’s the new music that intrigues me: there will always be people who play the music they grew up with, the music they have always played. However, when new artists and entirely new music features a facet of playing like the guitar solo in innovative ways, that’s how it survives. Music is always changing, it would be boring if it stayed the same, but there are some things I’m sure a lot of people would like to hang around for a while yet.