Welcome to A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs! Episode 1, the first episode proper, is coming next week, but for now here’s an introduction, laying out my plans for the series. As I say in the tag at the end of every episode, please, if you like this episode, tell someone about it — word of mouth is important, especially with these early episodes.
Resources Mentioned in the Podcast
My book, California Dreaming: The LA Pop Music Scene and the 60s, available here.
Rock and roll as a cultural force is, it is safe to say, dead.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and nor does it mean that good rock and roll music isn’t being made any more. Rather, rock, like jazz, has become a niche musical interest. It’s a large niche, and it will be so long as there are people around who grew up in the last half of the last century, but the cultural influence it once had has declined precipitously in the last decade or so. These days, various flavours of hip-hop, electronic dance music, manufactured pop, and half a dozen genres that a middle-aged man like myself couldn’t even name are having the cultural and commercial impact that in previous decades was mostly made by guitar bands.
And this means that for the first time, it’s possible to assess rock music (or rock and roll — the two terms are not quite interchangeable, but this is not the place for a discussion of the terminology, which will come later) in a historical context. In fact this may be the best time for it, when it’s still interesting to a wide audience, and still fresh in the memory, but it’s not still an ongoing story that will necessarily change. Almost all of the original generation of rock and roll musicians are now dead (the only prominent exceptions at the moment being Jerry Lee Lewis, Don Everly, and Little Richard, although numerous lesser-known musicians from the time are still working occasionally), but their legacy is still having an impact.
So in this podcast series I will look at the history of rock and roll music, starting with a few pre-rock songs that clearly influenced the burgeoning rock and roll genre, and ending up in 1999 — it makes sense to cut the story off there, in multiple ways. I’ll talk about the musicians, and about the music. About how the musicians influenced each other, and about the cultural forces that shaped them. In early episodes, you’ll hear me talk about the impact the Communist Party, a series of strikes, and a future governor of Texas would all have on rock and roll’s prehistory. But more importantly you’ll hear me talk about the songs and the singers, the instrumentalists and the record producers.
I shall be using a somewhat expansive definition of rock or rock and roll here, including genres like soul and disco, because those genres grew up alongside rock, were prominent at the same time as it, and both influenced and were influenced by the rock music of the time. I’m sure we’ll look, when the time comes, at the way the words “rock and roll” were slowly redefined, from originally meaning a form of music made almost entirely by black people to later pretty much explicitly excluding all black musicians from their definition.
But the most important thing I’ll be doing is looking at the history of rock in terms of the music. I’ll be looking at the records, and at the songs. How they were made and by whom.
I’ve chosen five hundred songs in total, roughly a hundred per decade from the fifties through the nineties. Some of these songs are obvious choices, which have been written about many times before, but which need to be dealt with in any history of rock music. Others are more obscure tracks which nonetheless point to interesting things about how the music world was developing at the time they were recorded. I say “I’ve chosen”, but this is going to be a project that takes nearly ten years, and no doubt my list will change. I’ll be interested to see what suggestions listeners have, once I get them.
Each podcast will be accompanied by a blog post, with a transcript of the episode (actually the script from which I’m working — I won’t be transcribing any of my mistakes) and links to sources, along with any notes — for example, I’ve already noticed a mistake in episode two which I’ll put in that episode’s notes. I’ll also be compiling an accompanying mixcloud post for each podcast. Those mixclouds will have the full versions of every song I excerpt in these podcasts, and I encourage you to listen to them.
The podcasts are planned to be about twenty-five minutes on average, with the occasional shorter one, like this, as a bit of housecleaning.
I’ll also, every two years, be publishing a book based on these scripts, which will eventually become a five-volume work.
Anyone who backs me on patreon, at patreon.com/andrewhickey — that’s a n d r e w h i c k e y — will get free access to those books, as well as backing my blog and my other podcast.
Those of you who have read my earlier work California Dreaming: The LA Pop Music Scene and the 60s will be familiar with this narrative technique I’m using here, and this series is in many ways an expansion of that book’s approach, but it’s important to note that the two works aren’t looking at precisely the same thing — that book was dealing with a particular scene, and with people who all knew each other, in a limited geographic and temporal space. Here, on the other hand, the threads we’ll be following are more cultural than social — there isn’t a direct connection between Little Richard and Talking Heads, for example, but hopefully over the course of this series we will find a narrative thread that still connects them.
Obviously, just as there’s no definitive end to the time when rock had cultural prominence, there’s no definitive beginning either. The quest for a “first rock and roll record” is a futile one — rock and roll didn’t spring fully formed into existence in Sam Phillips’ studio in 1951 (when he recorded “Rocket 88”) or 1954 (when he recorded “That’s All Right”) — music evolved, and so we’ll look at R&B and country, at Merseybeat and punk, and try to find the throughlines. But to start with, we want to take a trip back to the swing era…