Today I bring you a silly trifle of a post, but one with perhaps bottomless usefulness. This is the Scale of Rock, a standard by which you can determine how much something does, or does not, rock. Or rawk. Or RAAWWWWK!
I will spoil the grand reveal here and tell you that the hardest-rocking song ever written is “Back in Black” by AC/DC. It’s not the best song, or even the best AC/DC song – in fact, it falls in line behind about 15 others from the Bon Scott era – but it is three minutes or so of ass-moving, Jesus-punching, motherfucking rock ‘n roll like none other, with a guitar riff so fat and nasty that you can almost forgive the guy playing it for wearing ridiculous shorts and being named Angus. Yes, “Back in Black” is our standard. If you disagree, you may go fuck yourself. I’ll wait here.
(Taps foot impatiently.)
(Hums a little tune.)
Done yet? Done fucking yourself? Good – let’s get to the rest of this list. Everything here is rated on a scale of 0.00 to 1.00 Back in Blacks; only “Back in Black” can score a full 1.00 Back in Blacks, but it’s fun for everybody else to try. Also note that we will not be judging anything that is not actual rock ‘n roll – sure, a lot of classical music and lawn ornaments score 0.00 Back in Blacks, but we won’t be larding this list with them.
1.00 BIBs: AC/DC, “Back in Black” Simply the rockingest song there is. If you don’t feel that guitar riff, you have no rock in your soul. Or any of your other places. (You may still have a little rock in your kidneys.)
0.99 BIBs: Metallica, “One” – just the “I cannot live, I cannot die” part It’s hard to gauge a song like this as a whole; like “Stairway to Heaven,” too much of its running time is devoted to mournful guitar picking and mayqueens and such. But if you were to cut “One” in half (in which case, it would be called “Zero Point Five”) and just listen to the thrash ending part, this song rocks out loud. Even people who have never banged their heads against the stage in their lives would be throwing some hair around.
0.97 BIBs: The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” I have argued many a time that “Gimme Shelter” is the definitive rock ‘n roll song – the essence of rock. And I’m sure Martin Scorsese would agree with me, to judge by the entirely awesome opening to “The Departed.” Interestingly, this song doesn’t rock as much as it is possible to rock, but it comes damn close. I guess a little bit of rock has to be compromised to make a truly awesome song.
0.96 BIBs: Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Child”/”Purple Haze”/”Foxy Lady” This slot could be occupied by any of about ten Hendrix numbers, but I chose three familiar and gigantic ones. For me the one that slightly edges the others is “Voodoo Child” thanks to that guitar riff that sounds like the entire history of blues compressed into one wad and then swallowed by Satan.
0.94 BIBs: Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir” Just a redonkulously huge riff. However, it loses 0.03 BIBs because Zep allowed P Diddy to ruin the song with his excruciating “sampling” of it. And Jimmy Fucking Page even helped him perform it live. Ye gods.
0.90 BIBs: Soundgarden, “Outshined” This is the biggest rock song the alterna-grunge generation of musicians ever spat out, but they still managed to slightly hobble the rock by putting it in such a weird meter. C’mon, Soundgarden: 4/4 time is your friend.
0.86 BIBs: Guns ‘n Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” Kind of a weird test case for our scale, “Welcome to the Jungle” presents the GnR paradox in full. Clearly the song rocks like an earthquake, but it also has a surprising amount of funk in its veins. GnR was a bit of a dance band throughout “Appetite,” which compromises just how hard they can rock (see also: nu metal). In the final analysis, it’s quite an accomplishment that a song as groovy as “Jungle” can also score so highly on a list like this one.
0.83 BIBs: Mahavishnu Orchestra, “Birds of Fire” This one has the Outshined Conundrum, in that the time signature is just too damn weird for the song to really rock. But – damn, just listen to it! John McLaughlin is the only guy on the planet who could turn that groove into an almost Hendrixian experience.
0.80 BIBs: Link Wray, “Rumble” a.k.a. that instrumental song from “Pulp Fiction” that everybody recognizes within three guitar strums. This song almost single-handedly brought the nasty into rock ‘n roll, for which we all owe it a debt of gratitude.
0.75 BIBs: Black Sabbath, “Iron Man” This song rocks somewhat less hard in practice than in memory, but it still rocks. Re-watch that trailer for “Iron Man” and tell me you don’t get chills and the urge to smoke a bowl when the robo-voice comes on at the end. “I… am… IRON MAN!” Hell yes you are, robo-voice.
0.70 BIBs: Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” Until Guns ‘n Roses came along, this was as rockin’ as a toe-tapping dance number could get.
0.68 BIBs: Ice Cube, “Wrong N***a to Fuck Wit” Yes, Diane, I totally wussed out and starred out the N word. Get over it. Anyway, this song is one of the hardest rap songs ever laid to tape. The beats sound like bombs going off and Cube sounds like he wants to kill everybody – the police, white people, the manager trying to get him to do “Are We There Yet?” Which reminds me:
R.I.P. Ice Cube, 1969 – 2005. He Used To Be Hard
.063 BIBs: The Clash, “London Calling” After “Gimme Shelter” this is the best song on this list, so it pains me to rank it firmly in the middle of the pack, rock-wise. But this is really about right. The god’s-honest truth is that the Clash were an awesome band who rarely rocked very hard, certainly not as hard as the Ramones or the Pistols – and yes, punk purists, I have heard their first album. A lot. Anyway, this is one of their heaviest songs. It’s not so much the actual riff or the rhythm section as the whole dark, apocalyptic vibe – a vibe, incidentally, which works so well in “Gimme Shelter” too. (And now you know the secret to writing a song that Agent Dale Cooper will love.)
.060 BIBs: Weezer, “Tired of Sex” Weezer hit maximum rock ‘n roll (for Weezer) on this awesome lead-off track to “Pinkerton.” “Pinkerton,” by the way, is their most rock and most spectacular album. Naturally, it flopped and they started cranking out songs ready-made for inclusion in Kidz Bop CDs. Sigh.
.050 BIBs: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Refugee” Just seems about right, doesn’t it? Tom Petty makes a perfect halfway point on any scale measuring anything.
.046 BIBs: Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight” This song spends 2/3 of its length noodling around atmospherically, which only makes it all the more fantastic when that enormous drum fill comes in and announces, “Ladies and gentleman – this song will NOW START TO ROCK!” The entire rest of Phil’s solo career added together only comes to about .042, but this one song is a pretty solid entry in the pantheon of rock.
0.40 BIBs: Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” This song is a little too frantic and ridiculous to qualify as pure rock, which is true of hardcore in general. So let this be the standard: hardcore can rock to about 40% of maximum AC/DC capacity. The punk community won’t be happy to hear this news, but fuck ’em – they never liked Angus anyway. You can also throw “Filler” by Minor Threat into this bracket.
0.35 BIBs: The Monkees, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” No Monkee outing can venture higher up this list, but in truth, this is a high accolade for anything Monkee-affiliated. And really, within “Steppin’ Stone” lurks a truly nasty rock song that just requires less delicate hands to bring it out. This point has been proven repeatedly by the many cover versions that cascaded forth over the years.
0.30 BIBs: U2, “Vertigo” There it is, Bono: the hardest you’ll ever rock. Hope you sold a lot of iPods.
0.27 BIBs: Radiohead, whole career
0.22 BIBs: Guided by Voices, “Hot Freaks” See, indie rock snobs: this is why classic rock people think you’re a bunch of pasty, fey goobers. This is as hard as your favorite band ever rocks! And it’s not very hard at all. I give ’em credit for that weird, druggy vibe though – that’s pretty rock ‘n roll.
0.20 BIBs: Rick Derringer, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” I don’t know what rocks the least about this alleged classic rock song: the hoochie koo part, the “rock AND roll” part, the comma between those two parts, or the total white guy groove it has going throughout. I hate this song.
0.11 BIBs: Lenny Kravitz No matter how hard he tries, Lenny’s idea of rock sounds utterly plastic and fake, like someone trying to pass off a Twinkie as a fine pastry. “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” in isolation, would rank about .33 on this scale, but when considering the man in toto, this is as good as he’s gonna get. Which reminds me:
0.10 BIBs: Toto, “Africa” The very essence of soft, adult contempo rock. It preserves exactly 10% of the essense of the pure stuff.
0.06 BIBs: Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” You can feel Joel trying to work up some rock lather throughout this “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” ripoff, but he never quite gets there. This song is the equivalent of a fifteen minute bad handjob that ends with the guy waving the girl off due to boredom/chafing.
0.04 BIBs: The Cardigans, “Lovefool” Great, tremendously sexy song. Despite that, and the fact that it is ostensibly a “pop/rock” tune, “Lovefool” does not rock… not at all. No one has ever been motivated to throw horns when that adorable Swedish chick sings, “I can’t care ’bout anything but yooouuuu.” In fact, despite their affinity for Black Sabbath, the Cardigans almost never rock.
0.01 BIBs: Soul Asylum, “Runaway Train” It pains me to recall that this band used to be good. It also pains me to recall that the lead single off this same album was “Somebody to Shove,” which was a great song and totally rocked, and yet “Runaway Septic Disaster” was their most enduring hit and completely overshadowed its predecessor. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be sitting here with my eyes closed listening to “Cartoon” and “Sometime to Return” on infinite loop.
0.00 BIBs: Don Henley any time he does his tough guy voice This ball started rolling when the Eagles did a fairly convincing piece of work in “Life in the Fast Lane,” which is the only exception to this rule (“Life in the Fast Lane” scores 0.2 BIBs). Forever thereafter, Henley was strangely convinced that he could inject a little grain, a little sneer into his voice, and it would sell whatever song he was singing as a kickass, rockin’ good time. Henley was very wrong, as proved repeatedly by the likes of “All She Wants to Do is Dance” and “Dirty Laundry.” But the worst came recently with the Eagles song “Get Over It,” featuring totally rockin’ lyrics like: “You bitch about the present and blame it on the past/I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass!” Yeah Don: it turns out that “bitch” and “ass” are not very tough-guy curse words any more, and bragging about beating up children doesn’t make you dangerous. (Except to children.)