Your Hero’s Hero: A Personal History Of Rock N Roll
In a previous post I talked about artistic genealogies; the idea that specific individuals and genres build off one another.
The idea was inspired by Austin Kleon’s, author of Steal Like An Artist, article on Climbing Your Own Family Tree.
Kleon talks about swimming downstream a particular artist’s genealogy — i.e. looking back in time at the people and work that influenced them.
I like to think of this idea as finding your Hero’s Heroes.
Seeking out your hero’s hero shows you both the roots of artists you adore, and gives you a list of similar work to check out.
It’s also a cool way to link different people in a particular genre or movement. Some of them will know and reference each other. Others will be unaware of the many faceless figures they’re indebted to.
I want to explore this idea by taking a trip through the history of Rock N Roll and examining the influence of three famous, and one not so famous, rock stars.
Let’s begin in the present:
If you ask a 16 year old who their favorite rock star is, there’s a good chance they’ll say Foo Fighters front man and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
In the 21st century, a time when rock music has steadily declined in popularity, Grohl has become the de facto face of the genre.
Grohl holds this position for good reason. Few modern rock stars have done more to celebrate and preserve the music’s legacy.
He’s kept the spirit of rock alive through his music and documentaries like Sound City, HBO’s Sonic Highway and the upcoming series “What Drives Us” — a tribute to the vans that carried famous rockers from gig to gig.
When Grohl cites his influences, of which there are many, one group is at the top of the list: The Beatles.
It’s hard to undersell the importance The Beatles had on Grohl. He mastered guitar by playing along to old Beatles records, and claims to have learned everything he knows about composition and song structure from the group. One could speculate Grohl (the musician), Foo Fighters, and Nirvana might not exist without The Beatles.
In the 2013 documentary Sound City, Grohl teamed up with his hero Paul McCartney to write the tune “Cut Me Some Slack”. You can see the two performing the song together in the video below.
That The Beatles are a highly influential rock n roll group is close to a fact of nature. Stating it again is akin to pointing out the sky is blue and the sun sets in the West. Rather than belabor the point I’ll share a few fun facts about the band:
- In their 8 years together, they had 20 number 1 hits and 34 songs on the Billboard top 10.
- At the end of the week of April 4th 1964 the group held all the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
- The group is not only popular in the US and Europe, they’ve enjoyed eight number 1 hits in Zimbabwe and two in Ethiopia.
- The Beatles song Yesterday is the ranked “the most covered song of all time”. There are an estimated 3,000 recorded covers of the song.
Before the fame and hit tunes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were a couple of lads from Liverpool trying to get their hands on American rock records. Liverpool’s position as a port city allowed the two to hear early rock music before most people in the UK. Their youth was filled by the sounds of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and in particular guitarist Chuck Berry.
Both Lennon and McCartney acknowledge the inspiration of Chuck Berry on The Beatles and the rock genre. Lennon says if you were trying to give Rock N Roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.
The two heroes met in 1971 when Lennon and his group served as a backing band for Chuck. The clip below shows the 2 song performance- including Yoko Ono’s infamous scream during Johnny Be Goode.
While Elvis Presley hoards the title “King Of Rock n Roll”, most acknowledge the crown belongs to Chuck Berry.
In the 1950s Berry popularized rock n roll staples like fast guitar licks, youthful lyrics, and stellar showmanship — his duck walk is one of the most recognizable stage moves of all time.
Chuck Berry was the original guitar god (sorry Hendrix). His playing style pushed the electric guitar to center stage, and made a generation of kids pick Gibsons and Fenders.
The opening riff of Berry’s song Johnny B Goode has been copied and recopied by generations of rockers — including by The Beatles in their single Revolution. You can see Berry performing the tune in one of his earliest televised performances below.
However, Berry did not come up with the riff. He openly admits ripping it off from a name you may not have heard of…
If you climbed up our family tree and asked Dave Grohl if he’d heard the name Carl Hogan, my guess is he’d say no (note: I haven’t asked Dave the question so I can’t prove this). Yet the work and careers of Grohl, and everyone else on this tree, are in some ways beholden to him.
Hogan played guitar for Louis Jordan — a big band leader in the 1930s and 40s who influenced Chuck Berry, Bill Hailey, and other early rock icons.
The opening riff for Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode is almost a note for note copy of Carl Hogan’s guitar part on Louis Jordan track “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.” Check out the first 10 seconds of the video below to see the not-so-subtle resemblance.
Berry is open about the influence of Hogan on the song and his sound. In an early interview he says:
“The first time I heard that riff was in one of Carl Hogan’s riffs in Louis Jordan’s band. We have T-Bone Walker; I love his slurs; he’s bluesy. So I put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker, and a little Charlie Christian together. Ain’t nothing new under the sun.”
From Carl Hogan to Chuck Berry to The Beatles all the way up to Dave Grohl and Nirvana, all art builds on what came before it. On broad scale this shows how certain styles and sounds meld together to form a genre of music. But when you look closer it tells a more personal story...
One in which music that has changed the world many times over, is merely the product of people trying to live up to the heroes they loved as a kid.