Whatever your feelings about rock-and-roll, you must admit that there has never been a better time to read about it.
Lately, some of the more compelling artists of the 1960s and ’70s have found the time — and the financial incentive, no doubt — to publish memoirs. And their books aren’t too bad, either. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir, “Life,” helped tug the rock bio format toward respectability. Written with the assistance of journalist James Fox, “Life,” contained a lot of the usual stuff — sex, drugs, headscarves — but it also had humor and depth. Other iconic baby-boomer-era artists noticed. In just the past several months, Bruce Springsteen and the Band’s Robbie Robertson have published career-spanning bios. Because these artists came of age during the ’50s and ’60s, their lives parallel the commercial rise of rock-and-roll — roughly from the advent of electric blues to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Their books are entertaining and educational, offering insight into popular music history along with the trash-talk and bad behavior.
If you prefer a more cut-and-dried take, however, there’s “The History of Rock & Roll,” written by longtime music writer and rock historian Ed Ward. This first volume, covering 1920 to 1963, traces the genre from its primordial origins in country and blues to the dawn of its cultural dominance during the early ’60s. Ward’s writing is deeply researched but conversational in tone. He nerds-out just the right amount, moving briskly from hit to hit and craze to craze, slowing down only to impart a few choice anecdotes.
The pace can be daunting. Early on, the book reads a bit like a biblical genealogy: Hank Williams begat Bob Wills, Ahmet Ertegun begat Atlantic Records, “Teen Angel” begat “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and so on. But this rapid turnover helps underscore a reality of early rock: Careers didn’t last long. Eventually, a few familiar names emerge — Elvis, Chuck Berry, pioneering disc jockey Alan Freed — and their longer, deeper stories help to keep the book engaging.
Ward is not very sentimental about his subject matter.
He doesn’t spend much energy explaining how rock-and-roll felt or interpreting what the music meant to teenage consumers. At times, he takes a cold stance against the established mythology. For instance, he plays down the significance of the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
“Despite the words of a popular song written years later, this wasn’t ‘the day the music died,’ but an unpleasant moment in an evolution that was already underway,” he writes, taking a dig at Don McLean’s 1971 song, “American Pie.”
These artists had made a mark, but they were already being shoved aside by softer, schmaltzier performers such as Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vee.
Instead, Ward finds significance in events that are a bit more banal, such as the release of the film “Blackboard Jungle” and its opening song, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets. “If we had to pick a moment when rock and roll was born as a major movement in American popular music (and we don’t), May 1955 would be a good candidate,” he writes, logging the month that the tune topped the charts. The song’s success proved the music had an audience and that young people were paying attention.
“The History of Rock & Roll” favors facts over drama, but that shouldn’t suggest that the book is a snooze. Rather, Ward’s faithful documentation of the genre’s more obscure corners helps to point out that, early on, rock was weird. Once the red-hot sound of teenage rebellion, it has since grown up. Its rhythms are now familiar and comfortable. Its ability to shock and awe has been subsumed by hip-hop, R&B and dance music. A single song is no longer enough to scandalize Mom and Dad. And maybe you’ve even borrowed a couple of their CDs.
In the same way that Richards’s “Life” recalls an era of rock celebrity as cultural outsider, this book helps to reaffirm that the genre was once strange, wild and dangerous. In Ward’s book, the genre’s defining acts emerge in moments when inhibition fell by the wayside. Following an afternoon spent recording not-so-great ballads, Elvis Presley and his band began to ham it up, playing “That’s All Right (Mama).” Feeling deranged after a few too many drinks, blues singer Jay Hawkins took a weirder and wilder pass at “I Put A Spell on You” and scores a hit as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
For Ward, the story of rock-and-roll is one of weirdo fortitude. Iconic personalities such as Presley, Freed and Carl Perkins were applicants for jobs that didn’t yet exist. The music was not a sure bet but a passion project peddled by opportunists slinging 45s out of the trunk of their cars.
Ward underscores the vital point that rock was a music invented by people who knew better but just couldn’t help it.
Aaron Leitko is a freelance writer in Washington who also works for Dischord Records and Don Giovanni Records.
By Ed Ward
Flatiron. 416 pp. $35