I’ll be honest, I’ve kind of ignored the origins of rock music for longer than I really should have. I’m quite familiar with rock in the late 70s and 80s, having lived through it, and over the years I’ve read a lot about how the 60s shaped and influenced rock music and vice versa.
The 50s and earlier, however? I have a very thin basic knowledge at best. Of course I’m familiar with the classics everyone else knows…the early Elvis tracks on Sun Records, the handful of Jerry Lee Lewis songs, the usual Chuck Berry riffs, and thanks to the Beatles, the not-quite-hits that got a second life as covers. But that’s about it.
Ed Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll, Vol 1: 1920-1963 is a fascinating read in that it’s not a memoir of that era but a streamlined chronology of numerous events, people and performers that helped shape the music genre we all know today. There’s no concrete starting point to rock music — it evolved over a long period of time, inspired and influenced by all kinds of different regional styles of music. And thanks to radio’s own evolution from providing entertainment (such as the comedies and the dramas, and the aural productions of plays) to focusing more on shorter popular music, these regional sounds were heard nationally, informing and influencing even newer sounds.
If you’re familiar with how current styles of rock evolve within the last twenty to thirty years, this will make total sense; the Ramones begat the UK punk movement begat the moody post-punk sound begat American college radio begat 90s alternative, for instance.
The writing isn’t bland, even though Ward promotes this work as a textbook of sorts. On the contrary, he delights in amusing asides (Screaming Jay Hawkins gleefully admitting to not remembering recording his signature song “I Put a Spell on You” because he was completely drunk at the time), conservative backlashes (label owners creating a ‘good music’ subgenre of Sinatra-inspired saccharine music from the likes of Frankie Avalon), weird moments in rock history (the bizarre popularity of Alvin and the Chipmunks), producers and promoters milking a trend as far as they can (death songs like “Teen Angel”) and so on. His overall theme seems to say that no one in the music business really knew what the hell they were doing half the time, but as long as they made money and the kids loved it, then why complain?
In addition to this, Ward doesn’t completely focus on any one artist for an extended length of time; this is all about the chronology of the history. It puts things into a wider perspective, showing just how many different sounds and events unfolded at the same time. (I did not know that the careers of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins pretty much started off within a month of each other, for instance; in fact, Elvis befriended Carl early on and helped get him an audition at Sun.) He also includes the other popular genres at the time: country, soul, folk, and jazz. While they weren’t lumped in with the emerging rock genre, they were part of its inspiration and were closely related enough to warrant further investigation.
It’s definitely a fun and very informative read, especially if you’re a music nerd like myself. It’s also inspired me to investigate this period of popular music a lot more closely than I have in the past. I’d like to check out those pop singles of yore, those jazz albums and whatnot, and hear for myself how they informed and inspired the popular music we all know and love today.
On a side note: I still find it kind of mind-bending when I compare this kind of chronology with my own experience. While reading this I was reminded of the Sha Na Na variety show that was on TV in the late 70s; they were essentially covering those old 50s pop songs that were twenty or so years old by then. In modern times: that would be me doing a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”…which I still think of as relatively recent in my own personal timeline!