Gene Simmons recently issued a highly publicized declaration that “rock is dead,” but whether he knows it or not (and he probably does), musicians and their critics have been heralding the rock-pocalypse since before The Who uttered the phrase in 1972’s “Long Live Rock.” These assertions have ranged the entire spectrum of sincerity, and the phrase “rock is dead” has been rendered all but cliché.
In a way, Gene’s absolutely right. Rock music is no longer the epitome of pop culture: rock musicians aren’t gods anymore, the market share of rock radio stations has been dwindling for more than a decade, and so-called “guitar music” just isn’t the most popular form anymore. But a cultural nerve gets pinched when we hear “rock is dead.” Rock isn’t just a genre—it’s been tangent with lawless creativity; a quivering middle finger in the face of the status-quo. And when Gene Simmons says rock is dead, it means the man won. That’s pretty depressing coming from a guy who spent the majority of his career liberally slathering paint on his face, and endorsing a balance of rocking and partying that’s just downright unhealthy.
As far as the accuracy of his statements go, we could echo the hearty public backlash. In fact, we kind of have already: most millennials understand that recent shifts in the music industry offer, if anything, more power and freedom not just to performers but creators of music—even if the former rock star is unable to recognize the creative spirit of rock n’ roll in this modern music scene. But instead we’ll demonstrate the absurdity of his utterance by showing just how often it’s been made by his colleagues.
“Long Live Rock”
This might be the first example of a major public figure in the industry using the phrase “rock is dead.” It’s also probably the most famous instance of its use, and the most defiant challenge to the notion. It would be hard for anyone to argue that rock as a genre was dead in 1972 when “Long Live Rock” was released. The Who were probably challenging the idea that rock had become a purely commercial beast amid the immeasurable popular success of bands that were playing The Rainbow Theatre—the subject of the song—around the time Pete Townsend wrote his famous refrain.
“Rock is Dead”
Already past their prime, The Doors recorded “Rock is Dead” in 1969; it wasn’t released until 1997—well after the band’s frontman had literally died under some mysterious circumstances. The lengthy and sprawling piece came at time of turmoil for The Doors. Morrison had been struggling with the band’s success and the negative influence it had on their ability to produce authentic music. Morrison in 1968: “We’re big time, we go on tours, record, and, in our free time, everybody splits off into their own scenes…In the studio, creation is not so natural…I guess we’ll continue like this for a while. Then to get our vitality back, maybe we’ll have to get out of the whole business. Maybe we’ll all go off to an island by ourselves and start creating again.”
“The Death of Rock and Roll”
Todd Rundgren was a relatively early power pop pioneer, enthusiastically embracing synthesized music, and occasionally performing live alongside pre-recorded tracks that he produced almost entirely on his own. At the time, he probably looked like all of the Four Horseman enmeshed into one irreverent harbinger of the End of Rock. This song is by far the most “rock” on Rundgren’s ’75 album Initiation, and is riddled with some frustrated irony.
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”
In fairness to Gene, Neil Young only actually said “rock and roll can never die” in this 1979 hit. Ever since Kurt Cobain quoted the song’s lyrics in his suicide note, the song has become somewhat notorious for containing the lines “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
“Rock and Roll is Dead”
The Rubinoos made a YouTube comeback not too long ago after Avril Lavigne very obviously ripped off their 1979 tune “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” The Rubinoos’ iteration of the famous phrase is proudly served up with a defiant: “and we don’t care.” Still, we’ve got to wonder whether they’d care a little bit more now—especially if they got a chance to hear this song during all those legal struggles.
“Rock is Dead”
Marilyn Manson really upped the ante with this one, claiming throughout the song that rock is actually “deader than dead.” Although Manson means rock the attitude and not rock the genre here, it’s hard to say how genuine he’s being—seeing as his persona is a fundamentally subversive one. Either way, the song is not alone on this list for seemingly condemning television as an accomplice in the hypothetical murder: the line “God is in the T.V.” appears a number of times in the tune as well.
“Rock is Dead”
Tenacious D is a comedy rock duo of which Jack Black is half, so we can safely not take this one seriously. Well, unless we take it seriously as a ridicule of anyone who says “rock is dead” with any kind of sincerity.
“Rock and Roll is Dead”
One of the more high profile songs on this list, Lenny Kravitz’ 1995 release caused a little bit of a stir. In response to the commotion, Kravitz said: “That song was completely misunderstood. A lot of people don’t take [the song] that one layer deeper—they hear the title and chorus and take it at face value.” Probably not the whole story, though; he certainly seems to be taking the proverbial piss on some the more alternative ends of the genre with his line: “You can’t even sing or play an instrument/So you just scream instead.”
Rock & Roll is Dead
The Hellacopters were a Swedish rock band that actually opened for KISS in the late ’90s. Maybe unsurprisingly, they share Simmons’ nostalgia for the golden age of rock, and—at least sonically—their 2009 album pretty much ignores any advances in the genre over the intervening forty years since rock “died” the first time. When asked to comment on the album, frontman Nicke Andersson didn’t exactly blow anyone’s minds: “Again, it’s a cool title for a rock n’ roll album, it’s got rock n’ roll and dead in it. It sounds pretty good to me, looks good in print. But then again, it’s the way I feel about the state of rock n’ roll today. I think it’s a pity that the best big rock n’ roll today is played by 60 year olds. And they’re called the Rolling Stones.”