The Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll 2: The Day Rock ’n Roll Died

Alvin Lee is dead. Taken at just 68 by the evasive ‘complications from a routine operation.’ The passing of musical prodigies like Alvin Lee means the passing of a great generation. A generation that had more deep, original talent per square yard than one usually expects to find in a whole century. But then the musical revolution of the 20th century sped up our creative development in just about any genre you can think of. For me as a geeky kid in a tough mill town in the 1970s what got me through the long, dark adolescent day was rock ’n roll.

The passing of Alvin Lee leaves the musical landscape a little poorer.

The passing of Alvin Lee leaves the musical landscape a little poorer.

My best buddy, Billy McGillivray, was Stoney Indian and didn’t care that I wore glasses and preferred reading books to bashing someone’s brains out. We helped each other survive those lean weird years through middle school, mostly with that goofy bathroom humour unique to boys of that age. Helped ease each other through that strange stretching sensation between childhood and pre-adolescence when you’re not quite sure who you are. And anything the least bit different is punished. Remember that for Billy to be Indian in a remote northern community in those days was to have to take a lot of shit. I had to walk a different way home every day to avoid being ambushed. In our school, assault and battery was an everyday occurrence. Probably a mirror of what was going on at home with alcoholic parents.

Ten Years After, Rock and Roll Music to the World. A seminal album that distilled the essence of Chuck Berry, blues and the progressive introspection of the early ’70s.

Then one day I walk into the instant town’s shabby, blank new mall and there in the record racks along one wall is Ten Years After, Rock and Roll Music to the World. When you’re 13 years old and stuck in the bush country with a bunch of violent hicks, you can imagine what an event this was. I used to play it on my little turntable below the blacklight posters radiating like prisms from my white bedroom wall, the album cover open like a painting or a poem. I’d been reading books since I was a tyke so my imagination was already pretty well greased. Sitting on my bed listening to Ten Years After, playing like hell and singing lyrics that echoed my own fucked up head really rang a bell in my brain. And there it’s stayed for 40 years.

The haunting strains of Religion really nailed it for me:

I never really understood religion

Except it seems a good excuse to kill

I never really could make a decision

I don’t suppose I ever really will


I can’t relate to any power structure

Where ego is the driving energy

I let mine go long, long time ago, now

When I decided that I would be free


Only thing I understand is living

The biggest sacrifice to make is death

Once you’re dead, there’s noting left for giving

Life means fighting for your every breath

It had particular resonance for me because I was fighting my parents over religion at 13. Mostly I found any God who was all sweetness and light one minute and in a murderous rage the next kind of puzzling. And here was a guitar player—Alvin Lee—half a world away, voicing my doubts in a few short lines. In a strange way it was priming me for a couple of years later in free school when I’d have my mind blown by Dylan Thomas. Though at the time, critics would laugh anyone to bits who gave popular rock music that much artistic credibility. Still, if it walks like a swan, sings like a swan….

Smoke on the Water may be overdone now but had a powerful impact on its generation.

And then there was the moment I walked into my first high school dance—lights all down except for the glittering ball and a few blacklights. And like a jet taking off straight through the stacks of speakers comes roaring out Smoke on the Water. It’s easy to scoff if you weren’t there. It was as if a door had suddenly swung wide open in my brain—a door I hadn’t known existed. It dug a deep groove in my synapses. Then a recovering heroin addict and Jesus freak turned me on to the Stones’ Let it Bleed, Exile on Main Street, and Goat’s Head Soup. Remarking on the inner sleeve with the goat’s head boiling in a cauldron, he said, “Just throw it away and enjoy the music.”

Argus is often missed in the lexicon of classic rock but is as close to perfection as it gets.

Those were momentous years, being gifted with albums like Machine Head by Deep Purple; Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, plus the eternally new Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Look at Yourself, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday by Uriah Heep—the often overlooked progenitors of what later became known as ‘heavy metal’; the spellbinding intricacy of Argus by Wishbone Ash; Stand Up and Aqualung by Jethro Tull; Pink Floyd’s brilliant Meddle, not to mention the immortal Dark Side of the Moon; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, among the best of Elton John’s heyday; the utterly unsurpassed Queen I and II; Black Sabbath’s Volume IV (to this day listening to Supernaut gives me chills); the sheer perfection of Who’s Next; Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV (gasp); the mind-numbing virtuosity of Yes on The Yes Album and Fragile; Roy Harper’s ascerbic libretto on civilization HQ; quintessential pre- and post-Gabriel Genesis with Selling England by the Pound and Trick of the Tail… I could go on for about three days.

Gold was dripping from speakers everywhere, and I don’t mean the kind you can only count in dollars. For one brief moment in our history, fulfilling the human spirit’s potential mattered more than dollars and sense. And the Renaissance it fostered was incredible. In many respects I believe my timing was misbegotten but not when it comes to music. I was privileged to hear all this brilliant music as it was newly flown. After living with these songs a lifetime, they have emblazoned my synapses. They are literally a part of me.

Like most virtuosos Alvin Lee was known for more than just rock 'n roll.

Like most virtuosos Alvin Lee was known for more than just rock ‘n roll.

So to start seeing your rock ’n roll heroes dying off is tough. Sure, you could argue on one level that they were just as much advertising constructs as pop stars are today. But that would be to miss the point, which of course is the music. If it matters to someone, then it has a life of its own far beyond its creator. If it brings them comfort and joy then it has profound significance. Like it or not this is what creates that much-abused term, ‘great art.’

Although not of his generation, I was among Alvin Lee’s audience. I can feel for someone I only know at a great distance because he gave me something of himself that meant a great deal to me. Not just once, fleetingly, but year in and year out. When I was lonely that music was always there. When I wondered if it was worth carrying on, it was there. If that is indeed a small sliver of the spirit that was Alvin Lee—and all of his generation—then I am blessed indeed to have known it.


About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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4 Responses to The Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll 2: The Day Rock ’n Roll Died

  1. Terry Breen says:

    Thanks Sean,
    mirrors my “growing up” years-experience too,for me though,along with albums such as you mention like argus,”love like a man” was one of the definitive songs,of that era,I listened to a more recent recording by Alvin Lee,who was still playing out of his skin ! and wondered..why the hell cant the generation of today, who go all doolally about present era guitar players,and bands.. not fully appreciate just what bands like Ten years After achieved in terms of lyrics n sounds..and then it dawned on me..we witnessed music, with real soul,and spirit,the young ones growing up today,have no yardstick to measure “greatness” by.from 68-9 to the mid 1970s,bands of musicians,and vocalists inspired each other,and influenced us forever.. Rest in peace Alvin..and thanks for the sounds.. Y

  2. Thanks Terry for your thoughts. I tend to agree that the current generation are sadly deprived of great music; we were truly lucky growing up. The corporate influence has taken over in music and the predictable result is crap unless you’re talking indie bands and their profile is much lower than the popular bands of yesteryear. The great irony of technology – it makes it easier to produce and release a CD but then trying to get an audience is tougher these days. Just too many voices competing for peoples’ increasingly frayed attention spans.

    • Terry Breen says:

      Thanks to you Sean, as it was from one of your posts that I became aware of the fact that Alvin Lee was still around,and playing. a while back…and yes I agree with you entirely ,regards the irony of how our eyes and ears have become inundated by tech.advances etc’..yet the youth of today only get to hear,basically- what the mainstream media,and radio stations “want” the public by and large to hear,many of our home grown artists[Ireland] cannot get radio airplay,on-by the national radio/tv broadcaster-stations..and are forced into using pirate radio a great example of this,back in 1979-80 U2 had their first airplay on one such station [radio Dublin]I listened nightly to that show,and heard the broadcast,although in their early days ,they obviously had potential,but beyond the fact that they played in very small venues around schools/halls,and in the old dandelion market[now gone] facing st Stephens green,where I occasionally busked at the entrance,they were an unknown group in Ireland.I heard other dublin bands round that time, who I,and many others ! felt were far better than U2..sadly they never got the airplay.not begrudging them their ‘start’..I’m sure they worked hard at make it as far as they did.but it highlights the inadequate outlets for bands/musicians now..for different reasons as you outlined.

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