The Beatles on Mount Doom (or a still from Peter Jackson’s Get Back, a documentary constructed from footage shot during the making of the band’s last studio albums and final performance). Linda McCartney/Apple Corps Ltd. hide caption
The Beatles on Mount Doom (or a still from Peter Jackson’s Get Back, a documentary constructed from footage shot during the making of the band’s last studio albums and final performance).
Inducting the Foo Fighters into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in October, Paul McCartney noted the almost eerie parallels between the group’s jovial leader, Dave Grohl, and himself. Both men entered the realm of rock legend as rhythm-section anchors in paradigm-shifting bands: Macca as bassist for The Beatles, for whom he was also a primary songwriter, and Grohl as the drummer who helped take Nirvana worldwide. Both recovered from history-altering group implosions by retreating to the studio and making albums mostly in solitude. Both, McCartney said modestly, started life as “ordinary, goofy kids.” And both “fell into rock and roll, and joined a group.”
McCartney’s fond identification with Grohl emanated from the heart of an archetypal band guy, the hero of rock’s 60-year quest to rule popular music. The band guy’s footprints forged the genre’s path from the early 1960s onward, from Liverpool’s grubby Cavern Club to Seattle’s dingy Dutchman rehearsal space, in leather boots and Converse sneakers. Blending Hobbit-like charm with Aragorn-ish glamor, this figure took shape within the dreams of countless men following in the wake of John, Paul, George and Ringo teaming up as the Fab Four. The romance, familial connection and creative exchange that sparked for The Beatles in their Cavern Club days grew mythic as they became the biggest act rock ever produced, pulling rock’s ring from the hands of solo artists and duos and making fellowship the primary energy empowering rock’s quest. Over the decades, band guys traded leather for Spandex for skateboarder shorts, blew up the genre like punks and reassembled it as grunge; but what bore repeating was that story of men growing up together through music, turning into a family and finding glory on the battlefields of rhythm and noise.
In 2021 this notion that rock’s essence spews forth from acts of male bonding feels somewhat trite. Yet there’s no way to accurately comprehend the genre’s history without acknowledging its remarkable staying power. “Everything I learned about rock and roll I learned from this man right here,” Grohl exclaimed when McCartney joined the Foo Fighters onstage for “Get Back,” the song that provided a title for Fellowship of the Ring director Peter Jackson’s new Beatles doc-cum-band-guy-disquisition Get Back. McCartney gazed at Grohl as they sang together with a fondness that read as both fatherly and filial. Guys on a stage together, bashing it out.
Paul McCartney performs with Dave Grohl during the Foo Fighters’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hide caption
Paul McCartney performs with Dave Grohl during the Foo Fighters’ induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.
What does it mean to be a band guy? A few things, depending on whether you’re an artist or a fan. A musician who’s a band guy is happiest when locked in with his fellow players in the studio or onstage, his ego paradoxically subsumed and enhanced by the creative exchange. And he’s loyal, sticking with one set of collaborators who are also friends instead of changing partners the way a studio musician does. He pursues mutual connection with this small core even when the experience sours, because to him, the core collaborative unit isn’t a means to an end; its no-new-friends essence and ESP vibe represent the end itself. Think of it this way: After Grohl made that album in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, he quickly recruited mates and released it under the Foo Fighters name, not his own. And in the years after The Beatles broke up, all spent years releasing albums under their own names (John’s read John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) except McCartney, who tried that briefly but quickly formed another band, Wings. A scene from Get Back illustrates his dedication. “What’s it for? It can’t be the money,” he pleads to his sulking mates. “Why are you here?” He’s like Sam struggling to get Frodo and his ring to the top of Mount Doom in Tolkien’s Return of the King: “I can’t carry it for you! But I can carry you!”
Fans who are band guys romanticize such heroic efforts. These fans might also be musicians, because the idea that anybody can become a rock star is central to the music’s appeal. Even if a rocker doesn’t play music himself, the genre’s welcoming spirit has a place for him because its central value is friendship. Unlike pop, where razzle-dazzle professionalism reigns, or the country realm of the consummate craftsman, or hip-hop’s fluid landscape of cypher-jumping and mobile DJs, rock places the act of bonding at its very core. We all know this story: Four kids become The Beatles by meeting as teens and banging it out in basements and cheap clubs until the magic comes as naturally as a group hug.
The term “band guy” is problematic, though, isn’t it? In 2021 it’s as common for women, trans and nonbinary people to jump into rock’s timestream as it is for men. Yet something continues to infuse the rock mythos with the sweaty-socks scent of conventional, if boyish, masculinity. Whiteness, too. Though plenty of historic examples exist of collaborations among Black performers as intense as The Beatles or as long-standing as Foo Fighters — The Isley Brothers fulfill both goals, for example — rock’s defining narrative still stands alongside others that reflect the historic segregation of Anglo-American social spheres. Band guys stand alongside other heroes of homosocial, mostly segregated histories: astronauts, high school state champions, foxhole dwellers, a rugby scrum.
The primal story of the rock band resonates on so many levels: as a model for sustained give-and-take within collaboration, a dream of deep camaraderie, a formula for plugging in and amplifying human energy. Yet as it became ever more mythical, the rock band ideal also proved exclusionary — even as musicians themselves explored different models and exploded the definitions it imposed. What about the gospel and R&B vocal quartets whose members came and went, the ever-expanding funk ensembles, the fusion groups whose players communicated across boundaries of genre, ethnicity, and nation? Instead of expanding to meet these realities, the definition of the rock band seems to have contracted over time, until, in 2021, it feels frozen, a historical artifact. Yet think beyond The Beatles and Nirvana, or rather think differently about The Beatles, a foursome that could have expanded and contracted with time if not for the enormous pressure to maintain its own myth, and Nirvana, a trio that did augment its original lineup in performances not long before its leader’s death and might have transformed more radically had he survived. Is a rock band still a band if it’s an open system instead of a closed one? This is a question worth applying to rock itself.
The Beatles, dining together in London in 1963. Keystone/Getty Images hide caption
The Beatles, dining together in London in 1963.
Conflict and competition transforming into communion: It’s a beautiful story, particularly resonant if you can locate yourself within it. As evidenced by the joy that’s greeted Get Back, many people can, across generations and levels of rock fandom. I’ve been a Beatles fan (a Paul girl!) since seventh grade, and comparing notes with far-flung friends about the ambient comic drama unfolding across Jackson’s nearly eight hours made me feel connected across a universe. We laughed at the schoolboy humor, worried about the rifts, and admired the restoration that helped make these scruffy millionaires as beautiful as they’d ever been. But I also couldn’t help notice that most of those indulging in post after Beatles post on social media were a lot like me: white music lovers who’d spent their youths (some still in it) rocking out.
The fandom for Get Back is a 21st century update on the original Beatlemania, putting the teen girls who loved the band early on in dialogue, finally, with the grown men who could freely display their enthusiasm only once the band got more “serious.” Viewers’ enthrallment at a rare glimpse deep inside rock’s creative process and at the fabulous winter fashions the foursome and their studio collaborators wore (tangerine cashmere, exotic coats, scarves) has resounded in equal measure. And as in Beatlemania, the response has not been monolithic, but it’s mostly registered that way. Virtuoso Black music generalists like Questlove and the New York magazine critic Craig Jenkins have weighed in, but nearly every review has been by a white critic, and most of the chatter on Twitter and elsewhere has reinforced old divisions. Compare Get Back fever to the wonder and pride that greeted Summer of Soul, the Questlove-directed documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. One release felt like a newly uncovered landmark in the recentered cultural world emerging in step with the Movement for Black Lives. The other, wonderfully intimate and revealing as it is, reasserts familiar hierarchies.
For those who do feel that rush of intimacy, the way Jackson tenderly pulls character studies from the well of rehearsal footage is deeply moving. The passion McCartney feels for the idea of a band — for his band, the one that swiped the throne from the Elvises, Everlys, Miracles and Vandellas who dominated rock and roll before it became “rock” — is, many agree, the doc’s most poignant element. Desperately sharing song ideas, nearly begging for responses from a distant, probably smacked-out John Lennon and a seething George Harrison as Ringo Starr hovers nearby with a ready hug, Paul often seems on the verge of tears in the documentary’s early hours. Things improve and so does his mood, only to devolve again as the Beatles’ differences resurface. This struggle to master his emotions makes Paul the stand-in for the viewer. He wants to keep The Beatles going, as any fan wishes they had. All too human, he sinks under the weight of his own mistakes — he won’t sacrifice the alpha role he’s taken on. Often McCartney seems quite a bit like a spouse trying to process the fact that this marriage has ceased to be. At one heartbreaking juncture, he confides to his ever-flexible sounding board, Ringo, that he thinks the band’s playing better than ever. But, he mutters, the “being together” part is the problem.
McCartney’s bossiness can be irritating at times, and he’s unforgivably dismissive of Harrison’s creative and spiritual explorations. (“But … that’s like trying to do jazz,” he replies with bemusement when George tries to explain a new guitar style.) He’s the one who can’t see past The Beatles, and especially past his partnership with Lennon, which he wants to click as it once did. Even as his own personal and creative energy is redirecting itself around the family he’s forming with Linda Eastman — at some point, predicting the near future, she tells someone she’d love to live on a farm — he doesn’t really know who he’d be without John. Lennon’s absorption in his relationship with Yoko Ono defines his role in Get Back, and if that’s not a plot point from a male bonding story, what is? A calm presence in Jackson’s edit, Yoko has finally been freed from the villain role in the Beatles myth — and recast as the kind of love interest who helps not just her sweetheart but his best pal see life differently. At one juncture Paul, talking to Linda, admits that the John-and-Yoko bond doesn’t have to be a problem: “It’s not so much of an obstacle, as long as we’re not trying to surmount it,” he says. This rapprochement could have come straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Anchorman. Pure bromance.
It may seem reductive to use that slang term to refer to a collaboration that wielded classic songs from “Let It Be” to “Something” to “Get Back” itself. Bromance, though, is the band guy’s succor and strength. Get Back reaffirms rock’s mythologies, in part, by offering a portrait of men who can’t really bear to speak candidly about their own hurts and hopes, and instead channel those vulnerabilities into killer music. The creative brotherhood makes its members better by feeling like a safe space. To open up that sibling circle — with new members, through solo ventures that might re-energize and reconnect the core, or by welcoming the input of anyone who doesn’t exactly fit within the original family — seems inconceivable. It would change everything.
Yet Get Back also offers glimpses into how the late Beatles did start to make those changes. High points suggest alternate realities that might have transformed the group’s methods and its mythology. When Harrison brings the keyboardist and Apple Records artist Billy Preston into the sessions halfway through, all four lads crackle with new energy — what if, as Lennon suggests in one scene, they’d made Preston a genuine Fifth Beatle? What if Ono had been allowed to take over vocals on one of Let It Be‘s tracks? (This idea may seem like sacrilege to Beatles purists, but she actually does it during a couple of jams in Get Back, and everyone enjoys the fracas.) What if George had made the album he wanted to make — All Things Must Pass, a masterpiece — with his fellows’ blessing and the four had reunited at his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971? Any of these developments might have made for a very interesting and Beatles-filled early 1970s.
Yes, The Beatles were a unique foursome, with each member bringing key ingredients to the mix. For those who had forgotten or are too young to have previously witnessed the manic ingenuity of Paul, the left-field energy of John, George’s introverted elegance or Ringo’s radiant goodwill, Get Back is a gift. Yet viewed a certain way, Get Back does suggest that the band-ness of The Beatles — the foursome’s ineffable and impermeable bond — was, at least by 1969, mostly theoretical. As the core dissolves, it also broadens, and that’s what keeps The Beatles together long enough to make two more treasured albums. Like most bands during an era when rock’s sound was expanding, The Beatles weren’t really interested in keeping their collaboration to themselves. The pressures of presenting themselves as such contributed to their mutual estrangement, representing a limiting ideal more than anyone’s reality.
Fans in London hold tickets for a Beatles concert in November 1963. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption
Fans in London hold tickets for a Beatles concert in November 1963.
Before The Beatles invaded America with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in 1964, only a few ensembles with all-white members who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments — the 1960s-derived definition of a “real rock band” — had an international following, and those were mainly vocal groups like The Beach Boys or one-hit wonders like The Kingsmen. By 1970, after they recorded “The End” at Abbey Road Studios and split for good, rock bands with all or mostly white male members comprised half of the top 100 and sonically dominated the ground where rock ruled and was expanding. The rock band ideal, the coming-together of four or five boyish men who learned together how to make music and become stars, continued to dominate a major corner of popular music for 50 years. And that unit became the engine that carried the genre away from its Black-dominated, intermingling roots in jazz, gospel, doo-wop and rhythm and blues into a separate, informally segregated sphere.
“The Beatles made rock’n’roll fun again,” an infamous Time magazine cover story on “The Sound of the Sixties” declared in 1965. “The Beatles also made it all right to be white again.” While the un-bylined piece noted that “the best brown sound is, of course, that sung by Negroes” (namely, Motown), its giddy account of how all kinds of white Americans gave in to the irresistible charm of The Beatles after seeing them on television — “four young chaps having a jolly good bash” — made clear that along with pointy boots and cute accents, The Beatles brought white America a sense of relief, convincing the middle-class consumers that the music industry wanted to reach to accept rock, a once-threatening cultural trend.
The New York Times had been on the Beatlemania beat for a year by then. Critic Paul Gardner’s assessment of the group’s effect on American popular culture followed several earlier reports on the international frenzy greeting the quartet. Gardner’s wry description places this viral phenomenon squarely in the picket-fenced neighborhoods far from the inner city: “Beatlemania creeps in slowly. Collarless jackets, usually worn Saturday nights on Forty-second Street, are turning up in the strangest places, like the safe suburbs. Teen-agers who once considered the G.I. crew-cut the height of adolescent fashion are letting their locks curl down their necks and over ears and across foreheads.”
This bemused assessment of a mostly symbolic threat differs from one noted in the media eight years earlier, when a mostly-Black muti-artist bill headlined by white rock band Bill Haley & His Comets faced a picket line formed by the North Alabama White Citizens Council. The protestors’ signs compared the Black groups performing that night to wild animals. If the teens behind Beatlemania expressed desire in unruly but still acceptable ways, the ones who faced the racists in Birmingham had a more specific cause: integration. The Chicago Defender‘s report on that show noted an exchange between one sign-holder and a young white music fan whose words are troubling in their own way, and certainly challenging. “One young girl, on entering the theater, turned to a man carrying a placard which read, ‘Jungle Music Promotes Integration’ and said, ‘Bring me my grapevine.'”
The threat Black bands may have brought to mind to white observers was that of Black people finding their power together. It’s not a coincidence that the music industry itself became more segregated during a period when civil rights defined the spirit of protest in America. The Beatles and the other English soul transformers/appropriators that quickly followed in their wake, from The Rolling Stones to Joe Cocker, personally protested the divisions that greeted them on tour and sometimes in the recording studio; yet as they became rock’s norm, they allowed white fans to enjoy what the late great music writer Greg Tate identified as a pasteurized form of Black culture: “everything but the burden.”
Women of any race were also pushed out of the band-guy narrative, despite the very real roles they played in the British Invasion, from Tina Turner teaching Mick Jagger how to move to The Shirelles inspiring The Beatles’ harmonies. They often held equal importance within the musical configurations produced within Black milieus, like the girl group and the gospel ensemble. But they just didn’t fit the band guy storyline. One term that feminist music scholars have used to describe the emergent essence of 1960s rock culture is “fraternal individualism” — men pursuing self-realization through the support of other men. The groundbreaking musicologist Sheila Whiteley noted that this framework resurfaced in popular culture mid-century through the influence of the Beats, another group of mostly white artists who absorbed Black culture through an idiosyncratic, rebellious lens. Band guys blended Beat attitude with the spirit of youthful innocence to convince boys that they could find freedom making a racket with each other and girls that they had no place in these garage experiments. Masculinity became the element that made a band rock, and that formulation stuck. In the ’90s, around the time Dave Grohl became famous, a teen guitarist interviewed by the ethnomusicologist Mary Ann Clawson put it succinctly: “If you’re a guy and you have a band, it’s rock and roll. If it’s a band of women it’s a girl group.”
That kid didn’t say the boys had to be white, but he didn’t really need to. The origin stories of the British Invasion helped establish the truism that forming a band meant connecting with schoolmates and neighbors — boys who could instantly recognize themselves in each other. This was a shift from the more professionalized ways that many jazz ensembles and R&B groups came together, though it did borrow its energy from the Black doo-wop kids who soon got written out of the official narrative. As rock culture clung to and even magnified a youthful spirit of amateurism, what became obscured were aspects of music-making that didn’t reflect teenage dreams. And teenagers in both the U.S. and England in the early 1960s did not often mingle beyond their race.
The Supremes, arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1965. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption
The Supremes, arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport in 1965.
The definition of “rock” continued to narrow as the 1960s wore on. As late as 1964, girl groups, soul crooners, pop ballad singers and the first wave of the British Invasion all met under the big tent of youth music. “In hindsight, it is striking to watch The T.A.M.I. Show, a concert filmed in Santa Monica in 1964, and see the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones all greeted with equally fervent screams by an overwhelmingly white, female audience, then to watch the effort Otis Redding had to make just three years later to connect with the audience of white hippies in Monterey,” writes Elijah Wald in his 2009 account of rock’s effect on pop’s varicolored soul, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. One thing that changed, Wald and other historians have noted, is that the arbiters of rock taste within the industry and the media made decisions about what kinds of popular music could still be considered rock. These had to be rebellious, nonconformist, self-consciously deep. Post-British Invasion rock, even when it went psychedelic or folkish, became part of a larger constellation of endeavors in opposition to the “square” status quo, which also encompassed the underground press, European art-house movies, weed smoking. Meanwhile, even obviously brilliant Black innovators like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had to work harder to prove they could be more than entertainers confined to singing love songs in their velvet suits.
The emergence of Bob Dylan as a shaggy, poetic voice of his generation was a big part of this shift. But the other factor was the way the British Invasion made bands exciting again by enacting a ruse: the idea that these bonny English boys were doing something new at all. The wave of appreciation that, in 2021, greeted the now-geriatric Rolling Stones on what might be the band’s last tour has proven how generational that perspective was and remains: While fans extolled Mick Jagger’s vigor and the band’s camaraderie, even in the face of drummer Charlie Watts’ recent death, Gen Z music lovers remarked upon what distance has again made obvious. “I’ve never really listened to The Rolling Stones until now and it’s kind of freaking me out how much of this is just… black music LOL,” reads an exemplary tweet from 21-year-old writer Camryn Garrett.
Jack Hamilton’s 2016 book Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination traces the way this clear view of the Stones’ foundation became obscured by both circumstance and strategy at the dawn of the British invitation. He quotes critic Lester Bangs, writing in 1976 after the rock band had claimed its central space in the baby-boomer imagination: The British, Bangs contended, resurrected “music we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form.” But as Hamilton points out, Black artists and audiences never abandoned the styles the Stones and The Beatles employed to jump-start their own efforts. They were still perfecting the nature of rhythm and blues and soul — sometimes even while on tour with the Stones and The Beatles. What Mick Jagger brought, when he strutted on stage after observing Turner do exactly what he’d then emulate, was his own conviction that this music could become his own. Unlike earlier pop idols like Paul Anka, whom Bangs and others derided for being literal pale imitations, the British Invasion stars enacted their privilege to embrace this music so confidently and insistently that their entitlement became an aesthetic force as well as a social one. And that confidence was shared by their fans, especially young girls.
Feminist scholars have long celebrated Beatlemania as a seed of women’s liberation — I’ve written my own paeans to those screamers, hotel-room invaders and limousine attackers. Yet just as second-wave feminism often marginalized and excluded BIPOC women, the media and the music industry’s focus on white female Beatles fans as a cultural phenomenon and a market has played a central role in the further segregation of the rock band within metaphorical and real white spaces. It didn’t matter that the Fab Four and their messier siblings, the Stones, consistently celebrated the Black music-makers who inspired them, took them on tour, and insisted on being photographed getting blessings and fashion tips from them. In fan magazines and the infant rock press alike, British Invasion bands were elevated as more important, more alluring, more now. And the fact that white teenage girls loved them so damn hard soon gave them a near-monopoly in the press, on television and on tours that made history.
Meanwhile, Black fans were screaming for their own idols, and sometimes for the British bands, too, just as white fans continued to admire Black American musicians. “We all dreamed of being a Supreme and dating a Beatle,” one woman friend of Wald’s reminisced about that era. And there were Black Beatlemaniacs, as Christine Feldman-Barrett documents in her recent book A Women’s Beatles. She notes Chicago-born writer Bonnie Greer’s memoir of her youthful fandom, which years later helped inspire her to move to the U.K.: “Through all their permutations, the Beatles were like Oz or Alice in Wonderland, a passageway to another world.” Instead of being read as threatening, as they were in the 1950s, these fandoms across racial lines were largely ignored. Though The Beatles refused to play segregated venues on their 1964 tour, documentation of their concerts shows seas of white faces anyway, and that identity solidified even as Beatlemania began to include adults. “I’m 37, happily married to a suburban executive, have two-teenage daughters [and] have a college degree, magna cum laude,” wrote a Chicago Tribune reader in 1965. “But I am a far gone Beatlemaniac!”
The deftness with which The Beatles and the Stones in particular continued to grow by absorbing all kinds of influences also played a role in making the British Invasion feel like more than just another version of white appropriation of Black music. This is where the bandness of these acts becomes important again. If these bands were sold to white teen girls as safely diverse — besides the cute one, there was a quiet one, a smart one, a funny one, but none who crossed acceptable lines of dateability — they sustained older listeners’ interest by building their sounds in ways that could be explained by the shifting dynamic of the group. Brian Jones traveled to North Africa and The Rolling Stones tried out drones. Ray Davies overheard some fisherman making music on the shores of the Ganges while on tour and, via The Kinks’ “See My Friends,” Indian raga sounds entered the Western pop lexicon. Meanwhile, in the U.S., groups started forming that brought together men with different musical backgrounds but mostly similar social ones. The Byrds had members rooted in both folk and country music. The Grateful Dead brought together garage rockers and bluegrassers. Unlike the image adjustment necessary when, say, Bob Dylan decided to make a country album, a band could absorb new source materials and retain its established identity.
It’s important to note that as the 1960s wore on and rock’s influence ballooned, non-white musicians were always present on the scene. The Chambers Brothers and Love blended folk and psychedelia alongside the singer-songwriters of Laurel Canyon. All-woman garage groups like Fanny toured up and down the West Coast and throughout the Northeast. A huge Chicano rock-and-soul scene flourished in Texas. And by the 1970s funk arose as a kind of separate sphere for Black bands, though its founders never accepted segregation — as George Clinton’s Funkadelic asked in a 1978 single, “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?”
Brandi Carlile (center) performs with her longtime collaborators Phil Hanseroth (left) and Tim Hanseroth, at the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hide caption
Brandi Carlile (center) performs with her longtime collaborators Phil Hanseroth (left) and Tim Hanseroth, at the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.
By the end of the 1960s The Beatles were dissolving in a flurry of lawsuits and the Stones, ensconced as the “Greatest [touring] Rock and Roll Band in the World,” were augmenting their studio sound with up to a dozen session players – including, as Maureen Mahon documents in Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, Black women background singers like Merry Clayton, who became indispensable to many British Invasion bands. The Beach Boys, long considered the American rival to The Beatles, had mostly become Brian Wilson’s studio project, declining along with his mental health. Yet the fetishization of the band as something bigger than itself — a cult, a family, a superhero squad — only intensified. Arena tours allowed new superstars like Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk to enact their group dynamics on bigger and bigger stages. Meanwhile, in the underground, a bohemian version of band magic emerged, gaining an arty and even mystical hue. It happened in San Francisco via psychedelic noisemakers like Moby Grape, and it happened in Andy Warhol’s New York. Call it, as Jonathan Richman does in Todd Haynes’ 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground, about that primordial New York art-punk band, “the group sound.”
The group sound is a vibration arising not from any one instrument but within the space shared by members of a band, an ethereal vibration that somehow becomes sonic. It’s generated by the collaboration itself, and as former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon trenchantly noted in her 1988 tour diary “Boys Are Smelly,” within rock it’s almost always read as an aspect of boy energy: “The swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl,” she writes. The Velvets also had a woman member, drummer Moe Tucker, whose style and stance behind the kit made her gender unremarkable if not incomprehensible. The John and Paul of that band, in Haynes’ view, were Lou Reed and John Cale, a Brill Building-inspired would-be street tough and a Welsh artiste. The sonic overflow of their early collaborations had a specific musical source — the microtones created through feedback, within the lineage of drones borrowed from African and South Asian music. In this way, the Velvets story veers away from band-guy boilerplate. Free jazz pioneers, including groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, explored this same territory in vital ways during the same time period. But Reed’s songs married the group sound to lyrics that were not only deeply informed by his love for rock’s lineage but intentional in their amplification of its mythical aspects — songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and, well, “Rock & Roll” amplified the rock and roll lifestyle so that it became more transgressive, more perverse, vibrating with the precious energy of what Reed identified as “white light/white heat.” (He later wrote a song called “I Wanna Be Black” that both made fun of and fell prey to the worst stereotypes white America has propagated about Black culture.) As the critic Joshua Clover writes in his fantastic 2021 book on Richman and The Modern Lovers’ Velvets-inspired song “Roadrunner,” The Velvet Underground revitalized rock by being meta- about it. They were “rock & roll in italics.” Haynes’ dazzling documentary reinforces this idea by turning “the group sound” visual, through an overload of images taken from contemporary avant-garde films juxtaposed with shots of band members and associates telling the story of this most extra of all rock endeavors.
The group sound doesn’t always feed the myth of the band guy, but as water tends to find its own level, it’s become intertwined with it. It’s not imaginary, this sense that musicians making music together over time produce something that both enhances and exceeds each participant especially when they are composing together. This is one way to understand jazz, for example. But in rock the fascination with “the group sound” melded with a romantic view of masculine freedom and prowess that made the band not just a conduit for artistry, but a way of life. Even as the multiracial revolution disco wrought overtook it in the 1970s and, simultaneously, punk’s antics knocked it down a peg, the band lived on as the most potent signifier of rock’s ability, in the words of its post-1970s high priest Bruce Springsteen, to “bust this city in half.”
From The Clash to Metallica and Nirvana, from Green Day to The Strokes and Radiohead, guys in bands lived out the saga and became bigger, better — and richer, and more famous — men. Rock itself continued to be challenged by more fluid and inclusive musical styles, from the blockbuster pop of the 1980s to electronic music and, most of all, hip-hop, which eventually became the ground for all of popular music as rock and roll had been a half-century before. A funny thing happened as hip-hop took over: The notion that the band is a sacred space intensified. Male stars spoke openly of the role the band’s brotherly fellowship played in defining, even saving, their lives. They could lose and find themselves within their bands. “There’s such a commitment within the group that ninety-eight per cent of Bono’s lyrics could have been written as if they were for the band,” U2’s guitarist, the Edge, said in a 1985 Musician magazine interview. Three decades later, Bono wrote in the liner notes to U2’s 14th album, Songs of Experience, “The history of this band is precious and we realize we mustn’t break up, mustn’t die and the legacy of what we do should continue.” A near-death experience, he revealed, had only reinforced his convictions. Few bands last as long as U2, or are as religious in their devotion to the band guy bond. But those who remain definitive in mainstream rock fans’ view — not only U2 but Springsteen’s E Street Band, Metallica, Green Day, and, yes, Foo Fighters — connect with their fans through this mythos of longstanding mutual devotion to the brotherly ideal.
In the 21st century, the band has changed, despite the symbolic machinery surrounding it. Women and people of color now rule rock’s critically acclaimed vanguard, and the music’s strongest innovations connect it to more collaborative and fluid styles of music-making, especially hip-hop. The same dynamics that thrilled John and Paul when they first worked together still arise among collaborators, and there’s certainly plenty of thorny drama as collaborations and loyalties mutate and dissolve. But the language has changed and so has the ruling narrative. Women and nonbinary artists like Michelle Zauner or Heloise Letissier take on band names like Japanese Breakfast or Christine and the Queens as multiform personae that leave room for all kinds of collaborators. Brandi Carlile, right now owning the arenas where classic rockers once stomped, considers her partnership with brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth to be a classic band formation, but they’ve chosen to continue operating under a solo name that puts a fortysomething lesbian in the spotlight. Young solo artists form aptly named supergroups like boygenius and Bachelor with no concerns over whether they’ll feel diminished if they walk away from them for a while. Meanwhile, as rappers like Young Thug and Lil Nas X incorporate rock sounds just as the Beatles and the Stones appropriated rhythm and blues, the category of rock itself seems to be reconstituting itself. Band guys are still around, many making great music. But they’re sharing space and the culture is better for it.
Rock has been reborn even as the rock era has entered its afterlife. New story arcs are taking over. To return to the band guys who stood together at the beginning of this journey, two men welcoming this transformation are Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney. Grohl got slightly roasted this year when he declared Billie Eilish, who collaborates with her brother Finneas on music whose sound borrows from both jazz and Beatlesque rock, the genre’s future. He doubled down on his assessment. McCartney, for his part, continues to tour as part of his own band, but as his playful experimentations in Get Back show, he’s always been awake to new sounds and new ways of executing them. It feels like something his old friend John would have said – imagine there’s no limit to what a rock band can be. That’s the key to the music’s future, as it actually was all along.
An earlier version of this piece located the Cavern Club, where The Beatles played shows early in the band’s career, in Hamburg, Germany. The Cavern Club is in Liverpool, England.
An earlier version of this piece located the Cavern Club, where The Beatles played shows early in the band’s career, in Hamburg, Germany. The Cavern Club is in Liverpool, England.