In grad school, I engaged in debate with a professor over the current state of music. Somewhere amidst a discussion of Ionian scales, 12-bar blues, LeBron James, and 3-chord progressions, he stated something like:
"Rock and roll isn't doing anything now that Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones didn't already do 40 years ago."
Something of the sort. I jumped all over the ridiculous statement, and then wished I hadn't, as it turned out, from a theoretical standpoint, he was correct. Meaning I was not.
"Everything else, it's just Style on top of the same fundamental structure," he said. "Variations of the same thing."
I am not a Rolling Stones fan*, and still think they've made a total of one decent album in their Methuselah-ian lives. But I've been intrigued ever since by the dual ideas of What Comes First versus What is Perfected Later.
Somebody creates something new.
Somebody else takes that original idea and makes it better.
Is the original ever The Best? Aside from issues of loyalty, sentiment, etc., is there a reason to historically elevate the status of something merely because it came along first? More of a rhetorical, ongoing question than one that can ever be answered. If you're going to look back at what the Rolling Stones "started," then you have to keep looking back, further back, back to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and even Chuck Berry.
Sometimes, there is something though, that is so good, so timeless, so drop-deadingly gorgeous that it is unsurpassable.
Roy Orbison invented such a thing in 1963 when he came out with "In Dreams," a haunting, enchanted exploration that is solo island amidst a sea of genres and sub-genres. Its tale of a "candy colored sandman" who puts him to sleep is sad, sweet, troubling, and keeps adding layers of strings and vocals and meaning until exploding into a beautiful neo-Wagernesque finale.
Relevant in any era, any time. David Lynch figured this out. Perfection. One song that can never, ever be improved on. The dual crown of being First AND Best.
Honkey-tonk on that, Mick.
*Give me The Kinks any day.