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!

U2’s Songs of Innocence: High Expectations and Low Opinions

Let’s get my first thought out of the way:

Music fans are a fickle lot.

Hear me out–I’ll admit right now that I’m one of them. I too have been one of those fans who brushed off a new release by a band because I couldn’t help but compare it to one of their previous successes and find myself less than impressed. The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen. Depeche Mode’s Exciter. Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. REM’s Monster. And pretty much anything U2 recorded after Achtung Baby. See a theme here? Hell, even the reviews for The Beatles (aka the White Album) were mixed at first.

Granted, follow-up albums are damned hard to live up to for musicians, just like follow-up novels are for writers. How do you top your success? Do you even want to top it? Would you rather move laterally and go in a different direction? Take a chance and write/record Big Awesome Release: Part II? It’s the reason we have the “sophomore slump”, with a band trying to follow up their ridiculously popular debut with something, anything they can think of.

In the case of U2, they’ve pretty much been a sore subject for some fans. You’ve got the original fans who’ve loved them since War or earlier, and see The Joshua Tree as their crowning achievement. You’ve got the fans who love the original 80s output but felt Rattle and Hum was their Let It Be, where they disappeared down their own navels and lost track of themselves. You’ve got the fans who heard Achtung Baby and thought that it was what the 90s were supposed to sound like. Anything after that…? You’re either a passive fan, a completist, or just have bad taste. After the dithering Zooropa and the electronica misstep of Pop, they just lost all relevance and became that band VH1 played incessantly. They’d become music for yuppies.

And of course, there’s the ubiquitous Bono, rubbing elbows with all the leaders of every country on Earth. Fans started to despise him just for being the bearer of peace, trying to be the next coming of Jesus or something. Didn’t bother me any, but I guess for some, the higher you go, the more irritating you get.

Another admittance: I actually liked Pop at the time. Sure, it really hasn’t aged all that well and it has many weak spots, but I liked what they were trying to do with it. I also have a bit of a prejudice with the album, because it was one of the many I played incessantly while writing The Phoenix Effect at the time. It holds a place in my heart because I relate it to my writing sessions down in my parents’ basement all those years ago. It was also the tour in which I FINALLY got to see them live, after my sisters had gone to see them multiple times on their bigger tours.

But after that? It took me awhile to warm up to their music. I did like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but there was something missing that kept me from outright loving it. It may have been that it was a decidedly introspective album; instead of the blistering and sometimes overbearing rock, it focused on melody and ambience. “Beautiful Day” is an excellent song, but can anyone else remember another track from that album, aside from that one about Bono’s dad? Thought not. And the follow-up albums took longer and longer to come out–four for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, five for No Line On the Horizon, and five for the new one, Songs of Innocence. We had some greatest hits compilations popping up in between and an odd cover/duet with Green Day doing an old Saints track for the Super Bowl. If they weren’t taking time off or working on their own personal projects, they were selling out. They’re not relevant because they take too long to release new music. They’re not popular anymore because they haven’t recorded Achtung Tree II. Your mom and dad like them now. You just can’t win, I guess.

I bring all this up because of all of the noise that’s surrounded U2’s newest release this past week. They’d hinted for a while now that a new album would be forthcoming sooner or later but never gave any specifics, but this past Tuesday they surprise-released the new album in the most amazing and unexpected way: completely for free (for a limited time) for anyone who has iTunes. In fact, you already have it on your iCloud, all you need to do is download it, no strings attached. Apple and U2 are basically saying “here, have fun!”

And just as unexpectedly, there’s a shockingly large amount of music listeners and non-fans who are absolutely incensed that it was given to them for free “without permission”.

This is rich, coming from a music era that got nailed pretty damned hard a few years back when you could pretty much download any album for free through filesharing sites and fans felt no guilt in doing so, but I digress.

To put it bluntly, again: music fans are a fickle lot. The overwhelming response (not including the typical “U2 Sucks” and its varying iterations) seems to be that people are angry at being forced to take an album they don’t want. To be honest, it’s no different than the sample mp3s you find when you upload your new mp3’s software, or the prepackaged apps you find on your Samsung phone. It’s there for your use and download if you want it. No one’s forcing you to listen or play around with it. I can understand the frustration for those who set their iPhones to constantly sync up with whatever’s on their iCloud and suddenly find an album there, but that’s easily rectified with a few steps. As far as I know, one album won’t make a significant dent in your data plan. No worse than buttdialing or forgetting to disconnect from the internet and leaving it on all night.

Part of me wants to think that this is part and parcel of social media’s penchant for righteous indignation at the drop of a hat. [Sure, some indignation is justified, I’m not talking about those instances.] How dare you give me something I don’t want? You’re trying to take over my phone! You’re pushing a product at me that I despise! You can’t tell me what to like! And so on. It’s what I call surface emotion: the instinctual reaction to something we don’t like, and treating that as what we perceive to be the truth. Apple and U2 forced an album on me, so therefore they must suck and be the most horrible company and band in the world. It’s gone so far that even established music reviewers see the album with a tainted eye, immediately thinking of it as craptastic drivel. [And how dare Bono even breathe the name Joey Ramone, let alone use his name in a title of a song! Blasphemy!]

Sure, that may be stretching it a bit, but in the process, this indignation is obscuring the honest personal review of the album. Personally, after a few listens I feel this is one of their best late-period albums. In fact, it’s probably on my Top 5 of 2014 right now, right up there with Beck’s Morning Phase and Interpol’s El Pintor. I say this now because I’ve listened to music closely and intently for so long now that I’m able to listen to a band’s release on its own merit now. The record may not be up to the standards of its predecessors, but taken on its own it’s an excellent release. Songs of Innocence holds vibrant energy that’s been missing or not completely present in their past few albums. The melodies are more memorable this time out, and the production work is tighter and cleaner than many of their previous albums. [And “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is an excellent opening track–the mix of Irish reel and lyrics about hearing punk for the first time is a brilliant move. Take that, Sasha Frere-Jones!]

No band can, or should, be expected to consistently “top” themselves, nor should they feel the need to hit it out of the park every single time. U2 has been a top-selling band for nigh on thirty years now. I think it’s time we take them at surface level instead of as the gods we think they think they are.