There are a number of things you can argue killed the soul of rock and roll. Perhaps you believe it was the consolidation of the music business in the ’70s, the shift towards technicality over feel with classic rock’s heyday or even the metric shit tons of coke everyone consumed in the ’80s. These are all contenders, without doubt. But one I personally like to return to is the anthropologizing of rock history, the strip mining of rock myth in pursuit of unquestionable facts and encyclopedia entries on the various happenings of the early rock era.
Ed Ward is a veteran of this movement, co-writing the Rolling Stone history text Rock of Ages in the early ’80s, so it’s not too shocking that his ambitious new book The History of Rock & Roll Volume 1: 1920-1963 is in the same mold, providing an exceptionally dry chronological overview of rock’s formation. But it is disappointing that the book offers nothing that hasn’t been explored elsewhere and in more depth, and that its format, by nature, causes some of the more interesting elements of rock history to be diminished or excised altogether. It’s a rock history for people who likely already own twenty other rock histories, too shallow to be of use to historians looking for deeper insight, too flat to be of interest to newcomers who know how to navigate Wikipedia and enjoy going down that platform’s wormholes.
True to its title, The History of Rock & Roll explores rock from its American origins to the point where it truly achieved global domination thanks to a British Invasion, the chapters mostly broken down by year, with occasional detours to provide a distracted overview of the UK’s awkward attempts to enter the fray. The book’s first half examines the evolution of blues, jazz and country, tracing the genres’ innovators and the points where they began to intersect and thus create what we now know as rock, as well as R&B and soul. The book notably began as a project called Not Only Rock & Roll and it’s clear that one of Ward’s goals was to illustrate the crosspollination between genres and rock’s status as a highly evolved fusion of America’s various sounds. That’s a noble goal but in execution, it comes across as cluttered and unfocused particularly since Ward’s early desire to “examine the ‘footnotes’ of early rock and roll” means there’s essentially no critical perspective on what was happening.
Footnotes is also a more accurate term for Ward’s style in The History of Rock & Roll. Ward structures each chapter as a convoluted, artless timeline, hopping from event to event without any scene setting or clarity. There’s an incosistency to Ward’s editing that frequently makes it difficult to follow the action. Though there is some effort to separate scenes within the chapters– one section will focus on the Sun Records stable, for instance, while another will focus on the Chicago electric blues community– the giant paragraph blocks have no flow to them, there’s no real attempt to guide the eye or keep the reader engaged. For most of its length, the book essentially reads like someone saying “This happened, and then this happened, and then over here this happened, but also this happened which caused this to happen.”
Contrast that with Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first book of rock criticism, which still holds up today thanks to its rhythmic style, a perfect match for the music it chronicles. Last year, Bob Stanley wrote about Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom for The Guardian and argued the book’s continued relevance is due not only to the way it reads “like a series of 7in singles, with no room for deviation, no long solos, no flab at all,” but because of “its total confidence and absolute sense of finality.” Ward’s text might be more informative and factual, but it’s missing that potency and verve and the almost complete lack of critical insight makes it difficult to care about the information Ward is communicating. This isn’t to say that a rock history must mirror the style and structure of the music it chronicles, but without any authorial voice the work functions less like literature and more like the footnotes to someone else’s story.
In fact, The History of Rock & Roll is at its best in its final sections, as Ward details the humble rise of the Beatles. In this section, Ward carefully pieces together the ascent of England’s skiffle movement, the country’s disappointing early attempts at creating rock stars and the culture of war time rationing that was receding, all of which came together to allow for the unstoppable phenomenon that was the Beatles. The background Ward gives on the British government’s futile attempts to stop American rock music from reaching English youth, and Radio Luxembourg’s eagerness to meet that demand, as well as the bureaucracy that perpetually threatened to halt the rise of British rock stars, perfectly sets the scene for the British Invasion the fab four led and Ward seems far more passionate about this material. Though it’s just as dense with information as the rest of the book, it also shows more personality, with Ward giving us glimpses into the Beatles’ early clashes with authority and each other, handily illustrating how the band’s internal rivalries developed and pushed them towards greatness. It’s as though everything that precedes it is merely an epic introduction for the story Ward actually wanted to tell.
If there is to be a volume two of Ed Ward’s History of Rock & Roll, one can only hope it follows the path carved out by the end of this first volume rather than what preceded it. At the least, Ward would be wise to remember that the history of rock is as much a history of personalities, rivalries and myths as it is sales data, release dates and production credits but it’s only the former set of qualities that keeps the music relevant. Rock and roll may never die but works like this certainly make the wrinkles in its skin impossible to ignore.
Ed Ward’s The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One 1920-1963 is out now via Flatiron Books.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover