SONIC REDUCER / CARL HANNI

 

The
History of Rock’n’Roll

 

By Carl
Hanni

 

Some
years back Time-Life put together and released the ten part series “The History of Rock’n’Roll,” since
issued on five DVDs with two episodes per disc. I recently re-watched the entire
series, and started editorializing its pros and cons as I was watching it. For
what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts; quite a few of my thoughts,
actually. This is pretty self indulgent and definitely the ramblings of an
obsessive personality type; if you have no interest in rock’n’roll or fanish,
obsessive music chatter, you’d probably be wasting your time reading
this. 

 

Using a
standard documentary format of talking-heads styled interviews with musicians,
producers, disc jockeys, record execs and others, combined with archival
footage and passable but hardly exceptional narration by Gary Busey, the series
runs more or less chronologically and is divided into episodes like “Guitar
Heroes,” “Punk,” “The Sounds of Soul,” etc. Doing this strictly chronologically
is impossible, of course: artists and scenes overlap and flow in and out of
each other, and the work of some acts covers several decades. The narrative
solution they settled on to get a workable framework for this monumentally
unwieldy subject is simple and effective: they run the most important threads
(The Beatles, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Motown, etc.) as clusters of affinities
(say, other Merseybeat bands w/The Beatles) into a mini-sequence that might
cover a few years or so, then double back and do it again with another crew or
scene (say, The Rolling Stones, batched up w/The Kinks and The Who) who are in
the same time-frame. This works well throughout the series and allows the
narration to cut back and forth between the most important acts and scenes,
some of who (Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, James Brown) surface in several
different episodes. 

 

The first
two episodes are “Rock’n’Roll Explodes” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and are
really two parts of the same story of the development of rock’n’roll out of
blues, jazz, R&B, country, doo wop and gospel. It gets off to an
inauspicious start with a few standard pontifications on what rock’n’roll is
about by Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Bono, and a completely superfluous
couple of minutes of U2 doing “With or Without You.” Fortunately it’s pretty
much all candy from here, and they soon settle into a groove and work it for
the next ten hours or so. 

 

Everyone
you would expect is here in vintage black & white – Elvis Presley, Chuck
Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison,
Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker plus key labels like Chess
and Sun Records – but the series archivists also take the time to show the
development of rock’n’roll from it’s component parts. It’s good to see not only
country music (Hank Williams in particular) and gospel get their due, but they
also take the time to acknowledge the hopped-up R&B of Louis Jordan and Big
Joe Turner that was the real foundation of R’n’R, and they get the narrative
pretty much right. These two episodes feature some of the most mind-blowing
footage you’re ever likely to see, including Muddy Waters coming on like God
himself at the Newport Folk Festival, indescribably entertaining, over-the-top
performances from Jerry Lee Lewis, and mesmerizing footage of the young Elvis
Presley. Anyone who ever wondered what all the hullabaloo was about over the
young Elvis needs to see this. His outrageously lascivious take on “Hound Dog”
is simply one of the greatest things of that era captured on film, and the
footage of teenagers (boys and girls both) coming utterly unglued in adolescent
sexual frenzy is the first footage I’m aware of of the nascent youth/pop
culture tsunami waiting just around the corner in the 1960s. It’s easy to see
why parents were flustered, watching their children pulling away from their
authority right before their very eyes. Score one for rock’n’roll.

 

A few
random thoughts on these two shows: Sun Records head Sam Philips is one intense,
grandiose mofo, but has the history to back up the bluster; bless them for
getting Johnny Otis on camera, a personable cat who is as qualified to talk
about rock’n’roll, R&B, soul and jazz as anyone; more kudos for getting
Ruth Brown and Joe Strummer on camera; Tom Petty looks really stoned; boy can
those kids cut a rug to “At The Hop” by Danny and The Juniors; and Hank Ballard
is a card-carrying life of the party. Interesting oddities abound, including
Tina Turner and Carl Perkins talking about picking cotton as kids, Perkins
waxing about “God’s divine plan” in regards to Elvis’ preternatural talent,
truly creepy footage of the KKK and redneck politicians talking about the evil
of rock’n’roll and “degenerate nigger music,” and a very young and comically almost-hip
Pat Boone finger-popping his way through “Tutti Frutti.” These episodes end
with shout-outs to Alan Freed, payola and Brill Building pop, as well as the
short, swift demise of early rock (Chuck Berry to jail, Elvis to the army,
Jerry Lee Lewis in disgrace, Buddy Holly dead, the rise of safe, bland crooner
pop ala Frankie Avalon, Fabian, ad nauseum). Score one for the squares. 

 

Disc two
has the episodes “Britain Invades, America Fights Back” and “The Sounds of
Soul.” “Britain Invades” has pretty much what you would expect: all kinds of
choice footage of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, The Who, The Kinks, The
Searchers, Freddy & The Dreamers, Marianne Faithful, Cavern Club, etc. on
one side, and Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Young
Rascals, Lovin’ Spoonful and Motown, etc. on the other. The footage from
‘swinging London’ in the early to mid 60s is a great reminder about the magic
that can occur when numerous forces (music, fashion, politics, film, etc.) all
converge at the same point at the same time, creating a heady atmosphere that
can still be felt on film 40 years later. And the argument that the world
changed profoundly when John Lennon met Paul McCartney is hard to refute, if
you believe that pop culture was one if the key culture drivers of revolutions
of the 1960s. Beatles producer George Martin brings some gravitas to the
proceedings, while Marianne Faithful turns out to be a delightful, direct tour
guide into her own public image. But no Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, the American band most
capable of ‘fighting back’ in the mid 60s?

 

“The
Sounds of Soul” tries to take in a subject in an hour that would take several
hours to do justice to, but does a respectable job of hitting the high points.
Motown, Stax Records, Atlantic Records and Philly soul all get their due,
although there’s no mention of New Orleans soul,
Muscle Shoals or  Memphis
stalwarts like Hi Records and American Recordings. Again, you get what you
would expect: James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Berry Gordy, Gamble & Huff, Diana
Ross/Supremes, The Jackson 5, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, The
O’Jays. This section benefits from interviews with a bunch of folks who were on
the ground: Steve Cropper, Jerry Butler, Gamble & Huff, Gladys Knight, Hank
Ballard, Jerry Lieber, Solmon Burke, Patti Labelle, the Righteous Brothers,
Quincy Jones, Jerry Wexler, etc. The archival footage of Brown, Redding, Wilson
Pickett, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes and more brings it all back, and the
message that soul and R&B were an integral part of and partner with the
civil rights movement is loud and clear. And after several hours of watching
black performers playing in front of polite, well manicured white audiences
it’s nice to finally see some genuine soul power coming from the audience
towards the stage. But no Ike & Tina Turner?

 

Disc
three brings us “Plugging In” and “My Generation.” “Plugging In” runs from Bob
Dylan to Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan, with stops along the way in the
Greenwich Village folk scene, Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival
and the early to mid-60s Los Angeles
sounds of the Beach Boys and The Byrds. A quick primer on the founding of FM
radio gives way to footage from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. This is some
of the most exciting live footage ever shot in rock’n’roll: you can debate
whether Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or The Who are the most impressive, but of
course they are all the most impressive. The Joplin footage is electrifying – as raw,
deeply soulful and real as anything I can name-check.  

 

“My
Generation” runs from the San Francisco/Height Asbury hippie explosion of 66′
and 67′ to Woodstock
in 1969 and on to the notorious Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. This hour
features some thrilling footage, including Cream, more killer Janis Joplin, the
Rolling Stones (early Mick Taylor era) doing “Street Fighting Man,” The Who
kicking the snot out of “Baba O’Rielly” and truly brain altering footage of
Santana doing “Soul Sacrifice” at Woodstock. It also includes Allen Ginsberg doing
his happy hippie floppy dance, shots of the Trips Festival and Human Be-Ins in
S.F., anti-war marches and of course more Jimi Hendrix. It also has footage of
a dangerously sexy Jim Morrison and The Doors, and one of my favorite piece:
outdoor footage of Crosby, Stills, Nash &
Young doing “Down by the River.” Neil Young is so great here that even his own
band member, Steve Stills, is looking on in awe. But where is Sly and the
Family Stone, Simon & Garfunkel and “Abbey Road?”

 

Disc four
has “Guitar Heroes” and “The 70’s: Have a Nice Decade.” “Guitar Heroes” pretty
much speaks for itself and is full of Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Van Halen, Carlos
Santana and all the usual suspects. Les Paul, T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry get
their due, and the footage of a feral, wolfish Chuck Berry duck-walking through
“Johnny B. Goode” will pin your ears back. Jaw-dropping clips of Stevie Ray
Vaughn, a riled up BB King and choice Yardbirds material flows around another
stupendous, early 70s cut of The Who. Naturally all roads lead to Jimi Hendrix,
and the footage of him drilling into the heart of “Voodoo Child (Slight
Return)” at Woodstock
is hard to argue with being the pinnacle of style, innovation, inspiration and
raw soul. But where is Johnny Winter?

 

 

At this
point in the series a sort of narrative fatigue starts to set in, as we spend
way to much time looking at and listening to a few of the same guys (one in
particular) talking over and over against bland backdrops, and I’m starting to
think: why not ten minutes less of so-and-so and not ten more minutes of The
Yardbirds or Cream and again, where the heck is Johnny Winter? Fortunately “The
70s: Have a Nice Decade” really gets back on track and is one of the best
sequences of the series. It would be hard to go wrong with the embarrassment of
riches that was the 70s, and the heavy hitters are all here: Elton
John/Fleetwood/Frampton/Springsteen/Bowie/Kiss/Queen/Floyd/Aerosmith/Marley/Browne/Stevie
Wonder. Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone get their due, as does Southern
Rock, and a clip of vintage Allman Brothers brings back what a visionary act
they were back then. For me, the real riches are the raw, early footage of Led
Zeppelin before their first record release and first-album era Black Sabbath. I
doubt if either band ever sounded better: Zep is a tightly coiled machine
unspooling bulldozer blues, Sabbath a dark blast of what was to come. That
future-is-now scenario meets its apotheosis in a montage of early Alice Cooper,
rock’n’roll spectacle at its most inspired as well as being, in Cooper’s own
words, “The band that drove a stake through the heart of the love generation.”
This ends with an extended, almost embarrassing put-down of disco that seems a
bit pissy. Love it or hate it, it would have been good to at least mention that
disco was the most egalitarian music of the 70s, equally open to anyone
regardless of race, class or sexual preference, which is more than can be said
for most of the lily-white/long-haired/jeans-clad rock’n’rollers.  

 

Disc five
features “Punk” and “Up From the Underground.” “Punk” is one of the very best
of the ten episodes for what it has in it, and one of the most vexing for what
was left out. Starting w/some gritty b&w footage of Thatcher-era London and scene-setting
interviews with Joe Strummer and John Lydon, the filmmakers convey the dead-end
decay that spawned British punk rock. They then cut back to the States for a
quick history of punk early birds the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, MC5
and The Stooges, all with amazing, visceral footage. Oddly, no mention is made
of the true precursors of punk, the Pacific NW bands like The Sonics and The
Wailers, and the ex-GI combo The Monks. 

 

From
there we have the well-known story: CBGB’s, The Ramones, Richard Hell, Talking
Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith and Sire Records (but no Television or Suicide) in
the U.S, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Jam, Elvis Costello, Stiff
Records, the importance of dub reggae on U.K. punk and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX
shop, etc. in the U.K. They then jump to a very brief West Coast punk scene,
with hair raising footage of X blasting thru “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and
some footage of some hard-core meatheads doing their brain-dead thing, but no
Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, etc. It’s great to hear Richard Hell, Joey Ramone,
Don Letts and photographer Bob Gruen talk, but Malcolm McLaren comes off as an
insufferable twit, simultaneously “amazed” and “surprised” at every little
thing and taking credit for making much of it happen. This episode leap-frogs
from The Clash to Green Day and Nirvana, and therein lies the rub: they had to
leave out essentially the entirety of British post punk (PIL, Gang of Four, Joy
Division, The Fall, Magazine, etc.) as well as everything that happened in the
U.S. after about 1981. No Fugazi, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, Touch & Go,
Dischord, Merge, on and on and on. They needed another hour, obviously – or
perhaps it can roll over into the next one….

 

But no,
you won’t find any of that in “Up From The Underground,” either. You will find
the marquee names in the 80s (Madonna, Michael Jackson, R.E.M., The Police,
Chili Peppers, but, oddly, no Prince) + Lollapalooza and wayyyy to much MTV. We
have to give them props for a respectable primer on old school hip hop and
b-boy culture, though. Given the cultural bias within pop music, they could
have left a lot of this out, but didn’t. Some of this stuff is pretty fun
(Devo) and some of it is insipid (Dire Straits w/Sting, gag), but what it
really is, is strangely selective. You can watch the entire hour and not get a
single mention of: industrial, goth, ska, hair metal, reggae,
rave/techno/house/dance culture/electronica and post punk, much less that
massively huge swath of arena metal/rock that was the #1 selling genre of the
1980s. This includes everything from Guns & Roses and Motley Crue to Judas
Priest and Iron Maiden and eventually onto Metallica, Megadeath, etc. That’s a
huge exclusion; but, again, to be fair they would have needed another hour to
get that in; but even a brief mention of some or most all of these genres would
have gone a long way towards filling the holes. 

 

Obviously,
even at ten hours, the producers of “The History of Rock’n’Roll” had to make
some pretty hard and frustrating choices about what to include and what to leave
out, and I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the decisions that the time
constraints put on them. They opted for their version of the key players and
movements, and did a respectable job, in a mainstream sort of way. They
included interviews w/many artists who weren’t otherwise included in the mix of
archival footage, getting them into the story in a different fashion. They also
opted to let the clips run for respectable lengths, not cutting everything up
into tiny bits, and we can thank them for that, also that’s obviously one of
the reasons why so much other stuff was left out.

 

Nonetheless,
some of the crucial music, movements and artists left out are worth noting, and
here’s a partial list of who and what else could have easily been included: Richie
Valens, Link Wray, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Wanda Jackson, John Lee Hooker,
Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention, John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra, T Rex,
Roxy Music, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Issac Hayes and his “Theme From Shaft,”
Johnny Winter, Fela, The Staples Singers, Al Green, James Taylor, Carole King’s
“Tapestry,” “Louie Louie,” 60s garage rock, 70s psychedelic soul, British folk
rock, Booker T & the MGs, Ike & Tina Turner, Mitch Ryder/Detroit
Wheels, Television, The Damned, Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Donovan, Steppenwolf,
“Easy Rider,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel, Gram
Parsons, 70s shlock rock ala Journey and Foreigner, prog rock, no wave,
industrial, goth, glam, hair metal, 80s metal ala Judas Priest, techo/house
music and rave culture, “Bitches Brew,”
“Abbey Road”
and “The White Album,”
Let it Bleed” and “Exile on Main Street,” Altamont, “Rust Never Sleeps,” Motorhead, Joy
Division, Gang of Four, The Cramps, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, The Minutemen,
PIL, Dead Kennedys, DC hardcore, Metallica.

 

Leonard
Cohen, for heaven’s sake. PRINCE, for god’s sake!

 

 

The
relative short changing of Sly & The Family Stone, The Kinks and David
Bowie live can be chalked up to time constraints, but I’d gladly have traded in
20 minutes of Bono, Skunk Baxter, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie talking for
a look at Ike & Tina Turner, Van Morrison, Creedence, Gram Parsons, Joy
Division and PIL. And I’d exchange Sting & Dire Straits, The Eurythmics,
some truly atrocious Grateful Dead footage and 10 minutes less of MTV and the
pissy disco dis for a little vintage Mothers of Invention, Television, “Gimmie
Shelter,” some Al Green and Simon and Garfunkel doing “Mrs. Robinson.”

 

No
Prince? Really?

 

But the
really vexing omission is not-so-much-as-a-mention of the world-wide explosion
of homemade garage rock that The Beatles ushered in that ran from 1963 or so
until it merged into the psychedelic scene in 1966-67. The fact that there were
1000s of bands in every country in the world playing this stuff goes
unmentioned, and the exclusion of “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen is
incomprehensible; how can you do 10 hours on rock’n’roll and not mention “Louie
Louie?” The work of bands like The Count Five, The Sonics, Paul Revere and the
Raiders, ? Mark and The Mysterians, The Standells, The Seeds and Sam The Sham
& The Pharaohs was the very stuff of mid 60s American rock’n’roll; perhaps
it was just to big of a subject for the producers to get their heads around.
More likely they are acutely aware of it, and feel the omissions more painfully
than I do. Putting this together must have been a fun but thankless task. 

 

Anyway,
this comes highly recommended, for hardcore fans or casual listeners alike.
It’s a fun, enlightening and satisfying way to spend ten hours or so. 

 

 

 ***

You can leave comments below or e-mail them to me directly at modmedia@theriver.com .

 

Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, disc jockey, book
hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts an occasional concert
and film series at The Screening Room in downtown Tucson, “The B-Side” program on
KXCI (Tuesday nights midnight – 2 a.m.) and spins records wherever and whenever
he can. He currently writes for Blurt, Tucson
Weekly, and (occasionally) Goldmine and Signal To Noise.

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