When the "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll" came out in 1976, it was correctly hailed as the finest collection of writing about rock music under one cover. Its more than 20 authors were among the best rock had to offer. Several -- Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnik, Lester Bangs, Barry Hansen -- wrote as fans who were both lucid and informed. Though the book was somewhat marred by omissions (and by some inclusions), its intelligence and devotion made it a valuable reference tool and overview, and a guide to musical and cultural developments.
Four years later, both rock and the economy have changed, and so has "The History." The economy has mandated changes in its size: from 15 inches down to 10 1/2 in height, and a similar reapportioning of width. The typeface is smaller and there are far fewer pictures. This last point is important: the original "History" was a pictorial celebration that had its own life beyond words. Its full-page portraits, frequent doubletrucks, publicity shots and hundreds of album covers catalogued the quarter-century rise of rock, coalescing and coaxing ancient memories. Too many of these pictures have disappeared from the new edition.
As for the writing, there are 18 new chapters, as well as revisions and updates of the originals. The major overhauls concentrate on the work of Paul Nelson, who wrote the "Bob Dylan," "Rod Stewart," "All the Young Dudes" and "Folk Rock" chapters in 1976; only the last remains. The Dylan chapter was an embarrassment the first time around, a vague, unsettling fable that has been dumped for a straightforward essay from Janet Maslin, who unfortunately downplays the singer's career after his 1966 motorcycle accident and doesn't even mention seminal albums like "John Wesley Harding" or "Nashville Skyline." At least it's readable. Greil Marcus has rewritten the Stewart chapter, and the "Dudes" have been split. There's a chapter on David Bowie; the Velvet Underground appears in a new chapter called "The Sound of Manhattan."
It's in the demotions and upgradings that you see revisionism at work. "The Allman Brothers" are now merely a part of "Southern Rock." "Protopunks/The Garage Bands" has been slipped in right before "The Sound of San Francisco," a bit of deja vu repeated in another unnecessary new chapter, "Bubblegum." The predictions made in "Shape of the '70s" worked out well, with sketches evolving into chapters on Steely Dan. Bruce Springsteen, disco and reggae. Neil Young moves out of "Singer/-Songwriters" to his own space, but neither Joni Mitchell nor Simon and Garfunkel do. Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt are lumped into the "Sound of Hollywood." Elvis Costello, who wasn't in the 1979 edition, has the final chapter here.
Elvis Presley's death and Bob Dylan's being born again are duly noted. In many cases the updating is confined to a paragraph slipped in before the same final judgment, although Dave Marsh performs a major overhaul on his "Who" essay. Besides two facile essays on the New Wave in England and America by Ken Tucker, the two major new overview pieces are on "Disco" (by Tom Smucker) and "Anarchy in the U.K." (by Greil Marcus). The latter, dealing seriously with the Sex Pistols and The Clash, shows why Marcus is one of the best analysts of rock motivations, of cause and effect, of the central idea of rock 'n' roll in relation to conflicts in contemporary culture. It's almost worth the price of the book in itself. Along with Guralnik (whose "Lost Highway" is the year's best pop music book), Marcus is a dedicated and critically intense fan of his subject. Rock will stand with historians like these.
"The Rock Music Sourcebook" is the perfect gift for the budding musicologist, particularly one employed at a radio station. It offers thematic chronicles of songs based around such topics as "Old Age," "Outlaws/Hobos," and "Twenty Emotions and Themes of Love." One of the authors is described as a "rock and roll computer," and this book reads like a print-out that only had access to major-label information. The book is incomplete and badly organized: in the Prostitution section, 11 of the 12 "classic" songs are versions of "House of the Rising Son" (sic). Frijid Pink, Santa Esmeralda and Leslie West versions are classics? In the Women's Identity/Liberation secton, there is not a single selection from the many feminist labels. Under the "Sexism/Chauvinism" subhead, there are 30 songs by men, one from Suzie Quatro, one from Peter, Paul and Mary.
"The Sourcebook" is obvious, but barely useful. The few sections of pseudo-criticism are of the Don Kirshner school of absurd praise. This book is an illegitimate stepchild of the "Book of Lists": important dates in rock 'n' roll (like Thom Mooney of Nazz's birthday), rock deaths (with an emphatic "died" between each name and date, just so you'll be sure), basic rock library, TV soundtracks, and so on. Much of the material listed here is totally unavailable, out of print; this book deserves the same fate.
And finally, there's "Rock Year Book 1981," which suffers mostly from being lost in a time warp. It says 1981, but covers the year from September 1979 to August 1980. It's a collage, mostly originating from England, with sales charts for the year; star quotes; brief but generally astute appraisals of music magazines, boks, films, records, trends; lists of clubs, recording studios, radio stations; tips on promising acts (mostly English). The writing is breezy and opinionated in typical British music paper style, though there is perhaps a bit too much material organized in too little time (one hilarious photo flub has a picture of white pop singer Robert Johnson above a discussion of the American blues legend who shares the name -- but has been dead for 45 years). The book uncovers numerous substrata of the rock world, but, unlike the "Rolling Stone History," nothing is revealed. Bob Dylan said that.