Recently, I've been listening a lot to what I call the “third generation” of rock n’ rollers. In my mind, the first generation were the creators – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, etc. The second generation consists of the “classic rawk” of the 60s bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, etc. All are great and deserve listening. But lately I've been listening to Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp, Warren Zevon, and John Hiatt - rock n’ rollers that were roughly the same age as the 2G but came to maturity later, once the path was paved - but they ride on it oh so well.
Fom what I understand, Tom Petty was pretty much an instant classic rock n’ roller from his debut album, although I must admit I’m just not that big of a fan of his early work (his singing is too unrestrained and IMO doesn’t really do his limited vocal range any favors). As his career progressed, however, he really came into his own, peaking for me with the Full Moon Fever era in the early 1990s. Like how including synths focused the Who's chaos in WHo's Next, Jeff Lynne's production cleans up Petty's energy in a pop sheen that brings out the best of the pop and rock in Petty. Plus, Petty's quality band - the Heartbreakers - are incredibly dynamic, in particular the amazing Mike Campbell. The guitar solo that rides out “Running Down a Dream” is a pure rock n’ roll moment that you wish went on forever...
JCM certainly always had the rock n’ roll attitude down pat from the get go. The problem was that his lyrics range from “something to be desired” to “downright embarrassing.” Just listen to “Authority Song:” “Dying don’t sound to me like so much fun.” Not sure that dying sounds like much fun to anyone in their right mind there John. But his attitude and music pulls these songs past these awkward moments towards his strength: the choruses. God damn does the brother know how to write a chorus: “Authority Song," “Tumbling Down,” “Pink Houses,” the list goes on and on.
Warren Zevon is, to me, is in a league of his own. His good songs are good on a whole ‘nother level – lyrically, musically, and emotionally. For someone that leaned so heavily on irony, he put a lot of himself in his songs – it’s hard to listen to the primal screams of "Detox Mansion" without feeling his rage and frustration at his addiction and frustration at the boring life he describes as a condition for the detox. Its true that there are fewer moments of true musical catharsis in Zevon than there are in JCM or Petty, but to me he makes up for that with subtlety. The sublime guitar solo in "Looking for the Next Best Thing" that describes the yearning and giving up that’s the message of that song… The pounding backbeat emphasizing the pounding that the boxers take in “Boom Boom Mancini”, the kid piano that leads to the baby grand in the autobiographical “Piano Fighter.” I think that the only real thing holding WZ back from superstardom was his consistency – he never released an album that was classic from start to finish – and that the alcoholism that generated some really awful filler on his best selling albums caused some people to not take him so seriously (it killed him that many saw him as a one hit wonder).
John Hiatt peaked the mid-90s. My personal favorites of this period are all hardcore rock: “Something Wild”, “Paper Thin”, “Real Fine Love”. At these points, he sounded like Keef Richards with a good voice: a personification of rock. The big difference was the consistency – I haven’t heard everything he’s done and suspect there’s a reason for that – and the quality of the musicians around him. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they’re perfectly adequate. Jim Keltner syndrome. The one example that comes to mind is in the great suburban father anthem “Slow Turning” where he sings “the kids are in the back seat banging like Charlie Watts” and the drummer tries to do a fun little fill, but it’s just not very exciting. However, he makes up for this with his inventive word play; hardly a song of his goes by without a fun turn of phrase that makes you smile: “Maybe some paper doll with a pasted on smile/Would let you write her number down” from “Paper Thin”, “If they’d know what we was up to they wouldn’t let us in/ And now we landed in Memphis like original sin” from “Tennessee Plates." Also check out "Thank You Girl": “My fate was sealed before I met you darling, I was halfway down a shallow grave” and also the fun southern culture celebration of “Memphis in the Meantime:” “And after we get good and greasy/ Baby we can come back home/ Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac/ And change the message on the cord-a-phone”
Of course, this is simply my simplified notion of these folks, and if you’d like to argue the point, please do leave a comment! But there’s so much good music out there that people don’t always think about when they think of rock and roll that I hope this stuff doesn't get lost in the shuffle, embarrassing images of comeback albums, or buried under soda commercials.