The spirit behind rock and roll came into existence long before the electric second half of the 20th century. The music’s central purpose of challenging social normality and inciting ritualistic debauchery has been recorded in art by humankind as far back as the Grecian age of antiquity.
In a 1980 interview with late-night host Tom Snyder, Iggy Pop, now a sacred cow of rock and roll, described his unhinged music and self-destructive stage performances as being “Dionysian.”
More specifically, Pop said this in reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy, which expressed the philosopher’s views on art. Nietzsche divided art into two categories “Apollonian” and “Dionysian,” and he regarded ancient greek tragedy as the highest art form because of its combination of these two qualities through aspects like stage dialogue and a rowdy, impulsive chorus.
Apollonian art describes the act of construction, that is building a statue or shrine or something with the purpose of standing for time immemorial, reminding onlookers of a certain virtue. Dionysian art, however, is much swifter and exists more in the moment. It refers to an event of destruction or tearing down social constructs in a sort of cathartic cleanse of our base animal nature.
The choruses of early ancient greek drama exemplified Nietzsche’s idea of Dionysian disorder and revelry in a similar way to the drinking, dancing and sometimes fighting of 20th century rock shows especially with bands like The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Nirvana, the infamous G.G. Allin and more modern acts like Death Grips.
The more I consider this comparison of rock and roll to the ancient Greek god of wine and debauchery, the more it makes sense. I can almost picture Dionysus (Bacchus, if you prefer Roman mythology) rolling on the ground and screaming lyrics into a microphone with a backing band of demigods providing abrasive instrumentals.
Like classical tragedies and satyr plays, rock and roll emerged as an art form used for primal pleasures and only grew wilder throughout its siege of popularity. And for the most part, rock music possesses an underlying sense of instinctual aggression and a hypothalamic origin.
The Velvet Underground did not necessarily give a Dionysian live performance but the content of songs like the sadomasochist anthem “Venus In Furs” and the self-explanatory “Heroin” undermine cultural normality. Most of the group’s songs, “European Son” for instance, sputter into dissonant chaos toward the end much like the work of successors like Sonic Youth or Big Black.
What’s more, many rock artists have echoed the jarring implications of Sophocles’ Oedipus complex such as Iggy Pop in “Sister Midnight” and Jim Morrison on the bridge of “The End.”
Conversely, classical music and jazz sought to build up a composition from nothingness, whereas most rock looks to return to that raw and aggressive realm of energy and instinct. And when it becomes too Apollonian, as it did with progressive rock in the 1970s, there’s always a countermovement like Punk to return rock to its infinite perpetuation of vulgarity and vice.
The ideas behind rock and roll are meant to challenge and not to compliment. Like a painting by Caravaggio, rock is meant to show the reality of individuals and destroy perceptions of the ideal and the beautiful.
In a 1983 interview given by Dead Kennedys, lead singer Jello Biafra comments, “The original spirit of rock and roll … was meant in the form of an attack.” And it’s evident by looking at the band’s concert footage that its performance can be called anything but Apollonian. With band and audience sharing the stage, as with many performances, it beckons back to the early Greeks who cared not for sophistication but for fun.
The Greek gods and goddesses might not have delivered guitars, drums and amplifiers to the acropolis of Athens, but like fire, they first gave society the urge to destroy through the act of creation and that urge has never really gone away.