Rod Stewart insists that "every picture tells a story." In the case of Michael Ochs' "Rock Archives," there are 1,100 stories being told and they are all fascinating. The book, published by Doubleday/Dolphin, is a labor of love and the culmination of 15 years of "constantly driving to keep the past present," says Ochs.
"Rock Archives" consists of publicity stills and other vintage photographs tracing rock's first 20 years from its roots in blues, country and doo-wop to its many branches, including psychedelia and surf. You'll find the movers and the shakers (with an honest appraisal of black influences), the pioneers and the profiteers, the immortal and the forgotten. It's a high school yearbook for a whole generation, home movies unstrung one frame at a time.And with The Look often augmenting, or illuminating, The Sound, it's a wonderful reminder of both the vibrancy and the range of rock and roll.
"It really does tell the whole story," Ochs says, "better, I think, than it's been told before."
Ochs, younger brother of the late singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, recalls that "in 1969, when I took my first record company gig at Columbia in Los Angeles [he was head of publicity], I saw them throwing away old photos. I'd had a lot of records as a kid but I hadn't kept them; we moved around a lot and I'd given them away. When I came to California I had about 100 records, so I decided to replace everything I'd had as a kid before it was too late. At the same time I luckily fell upon the photos. I thought that to explain Gene Vincent or Johnny Otis, you've got to have the photos, too."
And so the project began, becoming his life's work in 1977. Ochs did massive mailings to record companies, "to every booking agent I ever heard of, to every old artist on Columbia," to collectors and writers. Sometimes they'd just give him their entire old files (as MCA did); sometimes they'd allow him to make copies. Sometimes Ochs would buy major collections (like those of Peter Kanze and the late Ralph Gleason) and sometimes he'd become an agent, as he did for photographers James J. Kriegsmann and Don Paulsen. "I don't want to own everything," Ochs says. "I just want to make sure it's preserved. And I do have the only known existing copies of many things."
During the early years, Ochs allowed free use of his collection, which made up about a third of Rolling Stone magazine's celebrated book on the history of rock 'n" roll. It was the L.A. Free Press that dubbed him the Michael Ochs Archives, and he's certainly grown into just that. The Archives now includes several hundred thousand photos, 50,000 albums, 25,000 singles and mounds of magazines, sheet music, radio play lists and other rock ephemera.
"Thank God I did this," Ochs says. "It scares me that the Archives is so much bigger than me, that if I hadn't done this, a major part of American history would have disappeared." Based in Ochs' four-bedroom house in Venice, Calif. ("I get one room"), the Archives is open to the industry and to historians.
"Music is my first love, so records were always paramount," Ochs says. "It wasn't until recently that the photos became so big. It became a one-man crusade and I became much better at tracking down this stuff. Now I'm getting through to the people who actually shot all the old stuff."
Ochs, who has been described as a cross between a cultural custodian and a junk collector, admits his archival work has been made easier by the attitude at many modern record companies about the past. "They don't even care about the present," he says. "They want to know about the future. A lot of the great early stuff, unfortunately, was already tossed."
The value of the Archives is evident not only in Ochs' own book, but in the 100 books and 125 albums that have used his pictures over the last 12 years (look at the tiny credits). Ochs has also served as musical adviser to a number of period movies like "The Rose," "Hollywood Knights," "This Is Elvis" and, most recently, John Carpenter's "Christine."
As he travels the country publicizing the book, Ochs has been getting as many of the people pictured as possible to sign his book, including Huey Meaux, Bumps Howe and members of the Moonglows, Magnificents and Crests . . . "I ran into Little Richard at his book party, and he signed it: "Get MY Book!""
Future Ochs projects include "Rock Gomorrah" an oral history project he had put together with the late Lester Bangs.
He's also been working on the Patsy Cline film biography with Jessica Lange, acting as a set decorator and making sure the magazines, sheet music and such are correct. "We didn't want albums because her face would be on them, so not only did I get them Patsy Cline singles, I got them promotional singles from the time. Making things accurate is the fun thing."