Light Reading: Ed Ward’s ‘History of Rock & Roll, Vol 1’

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!

[Year]: The Year [Something Happened]

savage 1966

I’ve been reading a few rock history books lately, and it seems the current trend is to focus on a single year and focus on its events chronologically.  It’s meant to put the music in some sort of context; it’s very similar to what I’d originally wanted to do with the Walk in Silence project.  The focus of these books is to not only explain how these groundbreaking songs and albums were recorded but why.

Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded is a great example of this.  It not only focuses on the back end of the British Invasion, changes in fashion, and the ups and downs of politics, it also comments on the public and governmental reactions to each, both in the US and the UK.  Nearly all the events of that year informed or influenced events that happened soon after.

Andrew Grant Jackson’s 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music (yay, fellow Emersonian!) does a similar job, showing how pop music of the time — not just rock from both sides of the Atlantic, but the soul of Motown and Stax, and the country of Nashville and Bakersville — but the ever-rising tension of politics, war, race, and gender.

A third interesting example is David Browne’s Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.  The title format is flipped, but the story is the same, this time focusing on the public hangover of the late 60s and four bands that influenced the start of what would be the bipolar decade of music, one side embracing lite-rock and the other embracing Bacchanalian excess.

Another is David Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – The Year that Rock Exploded.  I haven’t read that yet, but it promises to be interesting…the Beatles may have broken up, but in their place we were given, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, and more.  Not to mention John, Paul, George and Ringo being able to express themselves in ways they couldn’t have as a group.  In short, rock had ceased to be a ‘pop’ element and came into its own as an art form and a self-supporting music genre.  Given that 1971 is my birth year (yep, I’m an old fart at 45, folks, but I’m still rockin’), I’m looking forward to giving this one a read.

 

While I am a bit amused at how often this book trend has been popping up lately, they’ve all been fun reads.  Too often I’ll hear a song on the radio and completely forget its place within the bigger history of music and what was going on in the world at the time.  These books definitely offer a lot of that insight that you don’t always hear on the radio.

What are the current music history books you’ve read that you’ve enjoyed?

It’s Just a Dugout That My Dad Built

In my recent dollar bin shopping spree at Amoeba, I finally got around to picking up Donald Fagen’s post-Steely Dan solo debut, The Nightfly.  It’s very typical Fagen — jazzy, sardonic, nerdy, and wonderfully creative all at the same time.  I remember the first single, “IGY (What a Beautiful World)” being played a bit on the radio, but the second single, “New Frontier”, was the one had the video on MTV and became the memorable hit.

I loved the use of animation in this video, multiple styles used to show multiple facets of the song itself:  the (then modern) computer graphics to show the futuristic layout of new housing developments; the early Vogue ads and the Picasso paintings come to life; Soviet propaganda hinting at the impending Cold War.  And my two favorite bits of animation:  the cowboy-hatted, pistol-packing general marching around and shooting at rogue Commie nukes (a distinct nod to the old UPA films), and the bendy, lo-fi-but-cool jazz band.

[That last one had a particular effect on me; a few years later when I went through my jazz phase in the mid-80s, I would often visualize this particular image while listening to it late at night on my headphones.]

[Also, a quick bit of interesting trivia: the directors of this video, Annabel Jenkel and Rocky Morton, also directly my other favorite animated video, Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen.”  Furthermore, they’re the co-creators of the Max Headroom franchise, and also co-directed the Super Mario Bros movie.]

I was listening to this track the other day and thinking about the sounds of the radio, pre-1989, before the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s, we all listened to the popular sounds and were aware of the possible political threats out there.  Some of us kept it separate, some of us mixed the two Amnesty International-style.

We weren’t oblivious or ignorant of world issues out there; we just chose not to be completely frightened or doom-laden about it (Prince’s “1999” comes to mind, for instance).  We’d gotten so used to the elephant in the room that we just treated it as part of the furniture, and felt reasonably sure that in its advanced age and sedentariness, it probably wasn’t going to act up any time soon.  Our reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR wasn’t so much a patriotic whoop of victory as a sigh of happy relief that it had finally gone away.