“Rocks” by Primal Scream always puts a smile on my face. When it came out in the mid-90s it was a different sound, but you couldn’t stop dancing when it came on.
Hard to categorise, I’ve sometimes seen it described as “dance rock” in reviews. I’m not at all sure that’s an official musical genre, but if it is, it’s a genre with very few songs other than “Rocks” in it…
We start with the drums. The style and tempo could easily herald be a heavy rock track, but the drummer’s lighter touch, rather than just bashing the skins as hard as they can, gets you thinking.
The drums are carrying the intro all by themselves up to now, but by holding back a little, the drummer hints that what’s coming along might not be what you’d been expecting. You start off wondering if it’s a band like Rainbow, but a couple of bars in you know it’s something very different, and nothing much has even happened yet…
Next a rocky, but somehow funky, guitar makes an appearance. Again in other hands, you might think it was AC/DC about to make an appearance. But that’s not Malcolm Young you hear. The guitar fills in a bit, but we’re still not at full pelt here. There’s still room for a vocal without the place starting to feel a little overcrowded.
And then we get possibly some of the best opening lines in pop music history.
As we like to keep this a family show around here, I won’t quote the opening verse…even though BBC Radio always plays it in full without an edit. But you get an idea of the apparently simple, yet hard to write, structure from the opening lines of verse two…
Creeps a keep crawling, drunks a keep falling
Teasers keep a-teasing, holy Joes are preaching
Cops just keep busting, hustlers keep a-hustling
Death just keeps knocking, souls are up for auction
Why this writing is so masterful is that the repeating structure builds on the sparse, but punchy, musical accompaniment, ratcheting up the tension to the point where you’re desperate for release.
A line or two less and it wouldn’t have been tense enough. A line or two more and you’d probably have exhausted the listener’s patience. The tension is taken to exactly the right point and no further.
By the time we get to the chorus we’re ready to jump around…by now we don’t just have the drums and guitar for company…they’ve brought along a funky soul brass section to help them out…
Get your rocks off, get your rocks off honey
Shake it now, now, get ’em off downtown
Given the subject matter of the song, it was something of a surprise that famously straight-laced British Conservative politician Theresa May chose the track to accompany her as she walked off-stage after her party conference speech in 2011.
Not only did this get the band in a lather, as their politics come very much from the other side of the political divide, it also caused some hilarity that the most senior government minister responsible for law and order thought a song about “dealers keep dealing, thieves keep thieving and junkies keep scoring” was the best way to spotlight her law and order credentials.
And they say Americans don’t understand irony…
“Rocks” is a great example of how lyrics don’t have to be complicated or clever to be excellent.
By the same token, writing simple things well is very hard. There’s a reason why, when Gordon Ramsey goes into a failing restaurant, the first thing he does is bring the menu down to a handful of dishes the restaurant can do really well instead of trying to do a little bit of everything.
That experience in a song is what “Rocks” is all about. The words are simple, but it takes a high-quality writer to put down something apparently so simple and have it make such an impact on the listener.
That’s why I smile every time “Rocks” comes on the radio. It’s one of the best examples in songwriting of how “less is more”. Here’s Bobby Gillespie fronting Primal Scream as they tear into “Rocks”…hope you’ve got your dancing shoes on, this is a classic…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here)to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).