Mojo: “The exception that proves the rule” is a cliche whose meaning completely eludes me. It’s like saying just once, we can trust Rush Limbaugh to walk into an NFL pregame show and…well, you know what I mean. But if there was ever a band that fit the cliche, it’s Def Leppard. They fit a lot of cliches, but let’s focus on Mojo’s main rule: If it’s got a good hook, it’s gotta be good pop, period, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Miley Cyrus or Miles Davis is doing it. Def Leppard had dumptruck loads of good hooks, but no one would ever confuse them with good pop. “Rocket” is personally offensive to me, because they co-opt the very fabric of rock-n-roll and claim to be a part of the lineage that begat Major Tom, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, and even Lou Reed and his Satellite of Love–even though I think the gents in the last song-off did a good job of communicating the collective Popdose attitude toward Lou Reed. But even he’s a dozen steps up from this garbage.
Jeff: Mojo, do you know why Herbie Hancock named his band the Headhunters? Because none of them could find theirs — they were all too far up their own asses with that watered-down funk in fusion’s clothing. And okay, I admit it’s impossible not to give “Rockit” credit where it’s due — it helped popularize the use of scratching, helped break the color barrier on MTV, and helped Bill Laswell put something other than “fuckin’ weirdo” on his resume. But c’mon — it’s barely a song! I refuse to believe it actually took three people to write what is essentially a five-and-a-half-minute excuse for a video. (Admittedly a very cool video, but still.) Def Leppard has never been one of my favorite bands, but compare their spit-polished, impossibly layered slab of glam rock to the home-studio synthy noodlings of Herbie the Doodle Bug, and the Lep are the clear winners.
Mojo: I think your argument validates my point. It’s excruciatingly difficult to defend the insipid output of Def Leppard. Such an exercise forces the thinking music fan into an untenable position: Attacking arguably the greatest jazz keyboardist of all time. Herbie Hancock was handpicked by Miles Davis to join his Quintet in creating some of the most significant acoustic jazz recordings–ever–in the 1960s, after which much of today’s small ensembles are still patterned. He’d had a solid solo career, pre-Miles, with hits like “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island,” both of which have been covered and remixed as pop hits for other artists. Together with dudes like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin, Miles and Herbie invented hard-funking fusion. “Rockit” was a throwback to the early 1960s, when a jazz instrumentalist could hit the pop charts (see: Everyone from Dave Brubeck to Louis Armstrong, “Take Five” to “What a Wonderful World). Sure, it took a whacked video and some for-the-times wildly inventive synth wizardry to catch our ears with “Rockit,” but Herbie was an artist–and even pop fandom could not resist. Def Leppard’s “Rocket?” Catchy, yes. More than a throwaway? No.
Jeff: Mojo, I love you, brother, but this is nonsense. Bob Dylan is a songwriter par excellence, but he recorded Down in the Groove; Smokey Robinson is pop’s greatest living poet, but he recorded Double Good Everything. Herbie’s got chops and he deserves respect, sure — but that doesn’t mean a thing when you’re listening to “Rockit.” Even hardcore Hancock fans knew what was up when Herbie sat down next to Laswell; the three albums he recorded with that space alien bassist are arguably the worst (and worst-reviewed) of his career.
As a collection of chords, I suppose you’re right about “Rocket”; it certainly isn’t the type of song you can strum on an acoustic guitar at a campfire singalong. But as a testament to the studio wizardry of its performers — and let’s not forget “Mutt” Lange, the mad genius behind the boards — it wipes its ripped-denim-covered rear end all over “Rockit.” Lep’s “Rocket” is like an onion: peeling back the layers might make you cry, but the sheer number of those layers is impressive, and in the right context, it’s damn tasty. “Rockit,” on the other hand, is a gob of stale Bazooka wedged behind Hancock’s headboard.
Mojo: See, Def Leppard has reduced you again, this time to propping up Mutt Lange, while I have at my disposal the finest funk-rock names to drop. Some artists get it, some don’t. Edgar Winter, Average White Band, Tower of Power, wow. Then Graham Central Station, Ike & Tina, and of course Parliament. Rock, and funk put together to create hard grooves that make you want to dance. Then there’s pale Brit imitations of funk rock, such as “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” It’s just so hard to hitch one’s wagon to Def Leppard when Hancock’s “Rockit” throws it down. It’s Funk Rock 2.0, catching both the 1970s groove and 1990s tech. To paraphrase the great funkateer George Clinton, free your ass–and your mind will follow.
Jeff: George Clinton was right — and if he hadn’t been high as a kite when “Rockit” came out, he might have slapped Herbie Hancock in his face for recording something that took the funk, offered it up as a sacrifice to the drum machine gods, and watched as they hacked it to bits on an altar of suck. “Rockit” wasn’t about funk, it was about sublimating real talent for a few minutes of fucking around in order to grab the attention of kids who were a year away from pestering their local DJ to play “Axel F.” Funk 2.0? It might have seemed like it at the time, but no.
Thankfully, Herbie has gone on to do better things. Def Leppard, of course, will never be better than they were on Hysteria, but that’s fine — no band ever merged British glam with ’80s studio technology more cleanly. Here’s what it boils down to: both of these songs are as dumb as stumps, but “Rockit” is a tossed-off trifle, and “Rocket” is a Goldbergian contraption with hundreds of sparkling (if ultimately inessential) moving parts. Somewhere in America, someone is right now blasting “Rocket” in a parking lot while waiting for his buddies to get back with a case of Keystone; meanwhile, the only people who still listen to “Rockit” on a regular basis are retired breakdancing champs.
Last week, in a bitterly contested match, David Lifton edged out Scott Malchus, as Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll Heart” took 53% of the votes. Next week, we’ve got something a little different – Song-Off Jr., which features voting only on Songs that Were Inspired by William Gibson’s Neuromancer. And in two weeks, Taylor Long and Zack Dennis will be recounting the hardships of growing up as white suburban teenagers as they tackle the subject of Teen Angst.