Some people think rock and roll is about attitude -- the irresistible sneer of Elvis, the inscrutable sarcasm of John Lennon or the smart-ass smirk of Billy Idol. Others insist that it's the sound that matters most, be it the bluesy wail of a gutbucket sax solo or the ear-shattering screech of an electric guitar.
But the truth is that rock and roll is about rhythm. From the first, it has had that big beat, that driving, infectious groove. Rhythm is what set rock apart from swing, gave it an edge over Tin Pan Alley and made it instantly understandable in any language. As Chuck Berry put it, "it's got a backbeat, you can't lose it."
Or maybe you can. After all, rock's reliance on the backbeat -- that familiar one-TWO-three-and-FOUR -- has decreased dramatically in the last 18 months. In its place, a growing number of rock bands are applying grooves derived from hip-hop and house, beats that owe more to Chuck D than Chuck Berry.
With samplers and sequencers, rap breaks and extended remixes, newfangled guitar bands like Jesus Jones, Happy Mondays and EMF are rewriting the rules of rock and roll. And the music they've come up with reflects what may be the most profound shift in pop music sensibilities since punk.
Let's start with Happy Mondays. A sensation in their native Britain, the Mondays are leading lights of the Manchester movement. As pop music personalities, the group is famous for its ribald wit and campy affection for '60s psychedelia (not to mention the antics of percussionist/mascot Bez). But as a musical entity, what really makes the Mondays stand out is the group's sly appropriation of house music remix techniques.
Given that Manchester was the beachhead for Britain's acid house craze, some intermingling between guitar-based rock bands and synth-happy house gurus was inevitable. But the Mondays didn't take the obvious course. Working with remix engineer Paul Oakenfold, the group used house music strategies to beef up its beat, adding percussion, cranking up the bass and imposing a pronounced hip-hop groove over a basic rock beat. Yet it avoided the most obvious elements of the acid house sound -- its synths, drum machines and spacey effects.
As a result, the tracks that were eventually compiled into the Mondays' remix album, "Hallelujah" (Elektra 60945), had a sound unlike anything else in the clubs. Sure, they were danceable, but they were also recognizably rock and roll.
Along with the Stone Roses' similarly reconstructed "Fool's Gold," the Happy Mondays' remixes sparked a minor revolution. But it was with "Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches" (Elektra 60986) that the band ultimately came into its own. Rather than retrofit the house elements, the band built them in, so that each song started with the bass and drums pumped up to club levels regardless of what the guitars did.
As a result, the songs' rhythmic and melodic elements operated almost independently of one another. "God's Cop" is a typical example. Listen to the guitar and vocals, and it has an obviously conventional structure, with a whining slide-guitar hook and catchy power-chord chorus. But the rhythm bed is as hypnotic and repetitious as any club hit, with a lumbering, monotonous bass line and a jittery, boogaloo drumbeat.
Even more telling, though, is the way the band borrows from otheracts. Although it's hardly unusual for a rock songwriter to quote from the classics -- think of Neil Young's nod to "Satisfaction" in "Mr. Soul," or the Beatles' swipe from "You Can't Catch Me" in "Come Together" -- the Mondays reconfigure their stolen themes in the same way house producers structure new songs out of samples.
Thus, "Kinky Afro" quotes from "Lady Marmalade" without really evoking the original, while "Step On," though enough indebted to John Kongos' "He's Gonna Step On You Again" to earn Kongos a writer's credit, hardly qualifies as a cover. And, of course, both songs were natural remix fodder; "Step On Remix '91" (Elektra 66569) collects several, including the spare, bass-heavy "Step On (Stuff It In Mix)" and a long, loping rethink of "Loose Fit."
That's nothing compared to the treatment accorded EMF's debut single, "Unbelievable" (EMI 56209). Although the "single version" is certainly catchy enough, with its insistent chorus and biting guitar hook, the cassingle and CD-5 versions are fleshed out with three separate club versions: a sample-heavy "House Mix," a bass-driven "Hip-Hop Mix" and a rock-oriented "Cin City Mix."
Given the band's acid house origins -- the E in EMF stands for "Ecstacy," the British club circuit's intoxicant of choice -- this is hardly surprising. But even when stripped of the studio effects and club-conscious groove, "Unbelievable" stands up a solid song, something that can't always be said of Happy Mondays'material. And an advance listen to "Schubert Dip," EMF's debut (due out in early May) confirms the notion that this band is more than just the product of its production techniques.