‘Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen’: The Playlist
Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen will hit shelves on October 24. The book, curated by the Smithsonian and authored by music business legend Bill Bentley, features photos and stories from rock & roll fans around the world of/about the likes of Nirvana, the Runaways, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Metallica. TIDAL asked Bentley to put together a playlist to herald the release of the book. Check that out below.
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By the time the 1960s got rolling, rock & roll was looking for new blood. That it first appeared in England makes sense: American music there seemed so new and revelatory, it was like the world had opened up and been shown a way forward for Brits still reeling from life after wartime. The Beatles and all the other groups there relit the fire that had started in America during the ’50s, and from there, rock & roll was off to the races again. It hasn’t stopped since, as the wild, stylistic gyrations of the music continue to twist and turn all over the map. Just when things seem to be settling into a secure place, sonic bombs go off that help start brand new paths to follow.
These 15 songs start with The Beatles issuing a statement of purpose, roam through a whole range of what’s now called classic rock and ends with one of rock & roll’s fundamental guiding beliefs: never back down. Long may we listen.
The Beatles, “The Word”
This song really laid out the template for the coming counterculture revolution that would be based on peace and love. No other band said it as simply or as forcefully, and for many of the Beatles’ millions of followers, it became a rallying call for world change that lives to this day.
The Doors, “Break on Through”
As the 1960s really kicked in, rock & roll fans were looking for anthemic songs to express what so many were striving for. They wanted themes for their aspirations, and the Doors’ song vividly expressed exactly what young people were hoping to do via their music and psychic explorations.
Neil Young, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”
As the music started to express discontent with the way society was evolving, Neil Young looked around him and found a lot that needed to be changed, starting with himself. In his own natural way, he personalized how it felt to be caught in a place that left a lot to be desired and turned those thoughts into one of his early classics.
The Beach Boys, “Sloop John B”
Very few artists would be able to take what is basically an older folk standard and rework it into an ultra modern mega-hit. But Brian Wilson was capable of just about anything during the mid-’60s, and filled the airwaves with a song that became about much more than just sailing.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Lookin’ out My Back Door”
This Bay Area band lead by John Fogerty had a way of capturing the music of the American experience in all its glory and making it sound all their own. On this unforgettable CCR song, Fogerty took a basic country riff and expanded it into a near-hallucinatory celebration via his use of an endless imagination into a ride into the cosmos.
Velvet Underground, “Sweet Jane”
The New York band that rewrote the rule book for what rock & roll could be about zeroed in on a Manhattan couple that was looking for new horizons. The band’s Lou Reed realized he had written a song that would last forever, and when he revamped it into a majestic achievement as a solo artist a few years after this version, he proved the permanent power of his vision and the undying hopefulness at the heart of his songs.
Little Feat, “Dixie Chicken”
While many of Little Feat’s fans assumed they were from the South, in reality this Southern California outfit was a real revelation of a band that crossed all boundaries. They pulled in influences from across America, letting Lowell George create cinematic-sounding standards that still feel brand new and offer a skewed take on what is so often called reality.
Traffic, “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring”
Even if early descriptions of this band mentioned the term super-group, that didn’t stop members Steve Winwood and Dave Mason from keeping things centered on the music itself and concentrating on their irresistible compositions. It wasn’t long before Mason left for the solo world, while Traffic carried on to become one of rock and roll’s most beloved aggressations.
Rolling Stones, “Get off My Cloud”
What started as a reverential group plying the backroads of American blues soon became an expansive force of musical revolution. They opened up new possibilities with this song, taking on the world of social relevance beyond their previous romantic machinations and giving room for drummer Charlie Watts to create a percussive pattern that still shakes the rafters. In the process the Rolling Stones ignited an excitement that continues to thrive over 50 years later.
Jimi Hendrix, “Crosstown Traffic”
Right at the time when one of rock & roll’s undeniable geniuses was throwing off question marks about his future, he stopped time with a double album of songs that blew out the doors and window panes of perception. This unstoppable-sounding single stands as a combination of innovation and insight for what the future would be, like, slyly tying the ears in a knot and bashing the brainpans of all his followers.
ZZ Top, “Jesus Just Left Chicago”
It’s often said that the “little ol’ band from Texas” was mostly a blues-rock trio, but on deeper listening they were laced with psychedelic instincts and modern art visual influences that would defy convention and mesmerize the willing. This mid-tempo stomper sprinkles a little purple haze into their down home stew, letting singer-guitarist Billy F Gibbons turn the world a deeper shade of blue.
Cream, “I Feel Free”
One of the strongest introductions to a new group ever recorded, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker immediately let it be known with this nuclear nugget there was a new band in town, and they weren’t taking any prisoners. And even if their history was ultra-compacted into only a few short years, they did as much as anyone to give the keys to the kingdom for all the musicians who came after.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Freebird”
It’s a mark of musical permanence when a song can quickly enter the common lexicon of standards, and this early ’70s song has become like a Rock of Gibraltar staple from that era. It’s even been transformed into a rallying cry at concerts no matter which band is performing, like a warrior’s call to excess, and shows how the South did it again once and for all time.
The Kinks, “Lola”
These English troublemakers might have started as sounding more interested with the grungy side of the street, but once Ray Davies had a few rock-solid hits under his belt he removed the blinders and started writing in 3-D. He also plowed new ground for dramatic license and lifestyle reorientation, all in a way that made life open up for those seeking a world outside the uptight social codes of the past.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “I Won’t Back Down”
Just as rock & roll has always concerned itself at its core with freedom, leave it to this Florida-born rock & roll whiz to record a song that is a mantra for how that hard-earned freedom can never be forfeited. The song says it all with such a seductive sledgehammer punch there is no room left for discussion or retreat, instead burning these words of wisdom into the back of every electric guitar in the world.
Photo Caption: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones at the Forum, Inglewood, CA 1972
(Photo Credit: James Fortune/Smithsonian Books)
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