Is It Really Rock 'n' Roll Without Guitars? Yes, It Is.

Even as the tools of popular music evolve further from the analog to the digital, the spirit of the rock 'n' roll is as dangerous and incisive as ever.

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Is It Really Rock 'n' Roll Without Guitars? Yes, It Is.

It’s tempting to conflate the diminished role of guitars in pop music with the decline of rock ‘n’ roll. Since the turn of the century, when hip-hop and dance-pop took over the singles charts, the six-string instrument has been displaced by synthesizers, samplers and drum machines on hit-driven radio. In such an environment, is it still possible to make rock ‘n’ roll for a broad audience? Yes, it is.

When LCD Soundsystem (pictured above) kicked off their North American tour in Washington in mid-October, the second song they played was the live debut of “Oh Baby,” from their terrific new album, American Dream. A jittery riff rubbed against a slo-mo figure as James Murphy brimmed with unsatisfied yearning, pleading, “I’m on my knees; I promise I’m clean, but my love life waits.” As the chords patiently turned each page, the need and desire slowly built toward a grand climax.

It was a classic rock ‘n’ roll ballad, but you couldn’t hear a guitar. The primary riffs were triggered by synth programs, bolstered by a drum loop and embellished by live drums and live keyboards. But as I stood in the Anthem, the gleaming, metallic, 6,000-seat theater newly built on the bank of the Potomac River, I was struck more by LCD Soundsystem’s continuity with the past than by their break with what went before.

None of this music would work as well as it does without the tension between pre-programmed machines and live instruments, between the sound of social engineering and the sound of personal pain.

At times I thought I was listening to U2, The Talking Heads or The Velvet Underground. It didn’t matter that the riffs were played by keys rather than guitars, nor that the rhythm was generated by machines as much as by the drummer; it was more important that the songs were built around repeating licks, a 4/4 stomp and a charismatic, soul-baring singer. This was rock ‘n’ roll; the tools may have been different, but the methodology was the same.

Guitars were played during the show, but they were almost always subordinate to the keys. The keys—whether programmed or live—were played like guitars, however; the notes were organized into repeating two-bar riffs and percussive chords. And sometimes the keys were used more like horns, presenting a brassy mass of harmony to fill out the space behind the vocals and riffs. It wasn’t so different from the sound of Fats Domino inventing rock ‘n’ roll with “The Fat Man” in 1949.

It’s helpful to remember that the guitar didn’t really become the predominant instrument in rock music until the British Invasion in the early ‘60s. The guitar innovations of Chuck Berry notwithstanding, many of the important founders of the music—Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, James Brown, Dion, the Coasters, Phil Spector—used the instrument as something to support the piano and horns. It wasn’t the guitar that made the music rock ‘n’ roll; it was the blending of blues, gospel and country into a music of riff, beat and shout. Just because the guitar is often in the background again today, the music doesn’t stop being rock ‘n’ roll.

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You can hear that in this year’s excellent albums by LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and St. Vincent—three acts that use synthesizers and drum machines not to bury rock ‘n’ roll but to give it new life. By emphasizing the rock qualities of verse-chorus song structures, swing against straight time, melodic/rhythmic integration and vocals of frustrated desire, these artists use microchip instruments in a very different way than hip-hop or dance-pop acts. Remember, it’s not what tools you use, but how you use them.

Murphy might disagree; he thinks he left punk rock behind when he embraced the dance machines. But he has always used the new equipment with a punk spirit. As the stocky, unshaven singer prowled the Anthem stage with a gray T-shirt and an unruly shock of brown hair, he resembled a rock singer far more than a dance diva. And he sounded like one too—his big, thick-grained tenor was roughened enough to accommodate his discontent but resonant enough to suggest possible pleasures to come. He and his fans may hate the comparison, but he sounds more than a little like Bono.

Songs such as “Call the Police” and “Emotional Haircut” were forceful, uptempo rockers that employed pre-designed loops against live performers to suggest the tension between social context and individual will. That stress was expertly ratcheted up by adding more and more layers of sound as each song built to its climax. The lyrics may have reflected the dystopian malaise of the Trump Era, but the anthemic music offered the consolation of shared experience.

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Regine Chassagne and Win Butler of Arcade Fire, who use synth riffs and drum loops to evoke the Brave New World of prosperity. (Getty)

The malaise is even deeper on Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, which finds the young kids in its songs wrestling with the temptation of suicide. Those youngsters have been given “everything,” as the insouciant, Kinks-like title track puts it, but they find the plentiful possessions and easy sex so impersonal that they can’t think of a reason to keep living. The band uses synth riffs and drum loops to evoke the Brave New World of prosperity and then refuses to let the chords resolve as the tension mounts.

Has this year provided a song creepier than Arcade Fire’s “Creature Comfort”? The percussion loop is perfect in its rapid beat, and the female harmonies are sugary sweet. But the young girl in the song reclines in bathtub with a razor between her thumb and forefinger and offers this prayer: “God, make me famous; if you can’t, just make it painless.” Lead singer Win Butler adds this sobering observation: “It’s not painless; she was a friend of mine.”

If catchy pop songs about suicide make you nervous, well, that’s the point. Butler doesn’t glamorize self-destruction, but he refuses to ignore the phenomenon, as so many would prefer. He’s honest about why the act is so tempting to some people but also honest about its devastating consequences.

None of this would work as well as it does without the tension between pre-programmed machines and live instruments, between the sound of social engineering and the sound of personal pain. This is what distinguishes the use of microchip music in dance-pop from its use in rock. In the former, perfection is the goal; in the latter, perfection is the antagonist to argue with. Guitar-dominated rock rarely conjures such convincing flawlessness, so the argument could rarely be as sharp as it is on these new records.

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Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, has said that she doesn’t want her guitar to sound like a guitar. (Alex Da Carte)

Annie Clark, who uses the stage name St. Vincent, is actually a virtuoso guitarist, but she has famously declared that she doesn’t want her playing to sound like a guitar. She succeeds at that more than ever on her new album, Masseduction, co-produced and co-written with Jack Antonoff, the fun. guitarist and Bleachers solo artist who has helped Lorde and Taylor Swift to microchip hits. Clark and Antonoff’s hypnotic, precision synth hooks and drum loops summon a society of “mass seduction,” where “Pills,” “Sugarboy” sex and “sunset superstars” lure us into dazed, empty hedonism. (Her current tour is even called “Fear the Future.”)

“I can’t turn off what turns me on,” Clark warbles like a disco diva on the title track. But she slashes angrily at the cotton-candy cocoon represented by the swelling synths with a guitar solo altered to resemble the very keyboards she’s battling. The album ends with its own suicide song, “Smoking Section,” although her plans for killing herself are more absurd than realistic (“Sometimes I sit in the smoking section, hoping one rogue spark will land in my direction, and when you stomp me out, I’ll scream.”).

Yet the push-and-pull between temptation and resistance is very real, and it wouldn’t be as persuasive if it were depicted by synth-perfect dance-pop or by guitar-messy rock ‘n’ roll. Only in the exquisite tension of the new, microchip-designed rock, where the stainless predictability of a machine-designed world is pitted against cantankerous singers and soloists, could the struggle be as dramatic as it is.

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