Review: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll

The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke with Holly George-Warren

I have always had a camp—some might say hideous—taste in music; I’m only half-joking when I mock Jedward (look, their cover of “Ice Ice Baby” is actually a lot of fun!), I often prefer covers to originals, and the more over-produced something is, the more starry-eyed I get. My only excuses are that I am not a musically inclined person and that I was reared on ABBA. So when I decided to hurl myself into the depths of the best cheesy rock the ‘80s had to offer after seeing Rock of Ages (twice!), I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about rock music. But there’s no excuse when you’ve got the Internet and libraries at your fingertips, hence today’s title.

The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll was originally published in 1976, and has since been updated in 1980 and 1992, respectively; I’m reviewing the latest edition. It’s part anthology and mostly history; each chapter is a self-contained article by a Rolling Stone’s contributor and/or a rock critic, covering a musical scene, artist, or trend that contributed to the creation of rock music or splintered off from it. It’s more or less chronological, although not strictly so, starting with rock’s roots in rhythm & blues and country and ending with a brief glance into rap music.

Can I just say that I love reading old books about pop culture? There’s something so uniquely pleasurable about experiencing a moment in time while knowing way more than they do; the little gasp as you read a passing reference to Nirvana and realize that the whole mythology surrounding Cobain hasn’t even been invented yet, or realizing there was a time when Will Smith was just the Fresh Prince instead of the most bankable man in Hollywood. It’s the closest we can get to time-travel at the moment, so I will take it.

So, rock and roll, right? There’s no way I can possibly scratch the surface of its history, let alone this book; there’s simply too much. But, briefly, it grew out of rhythm & blues and country (with some smaller debts owed to folk and jazz), was codified by the Beatles, and has been trying to figure out what to do with the longevity of a sound meant to capture a certain youthful movement ever since. (Or until 1992. Downside of old books about pop culture; my modern context is lacking.) In Anthony deCurtis’ introduction, he notes that each chapter is meant to provoke a reaction (good, he hopes, obviously), and that’s true. Music, especially music like this, is so incredibly personal, and several contributors talk about their relationship with the music. It’s a biased history, on the parts of the authors and Rolling Stone (Billy Joel, who I gather is somewhat important in the scheme of rock, gets three sentences, because he and Rolling Stone loathe each other), but I would kind of prefer that, with the vim and vigor it brings, to a cold history of rock. I could have just read Wikipedia, you know what I mean?

I learned ridiculous amounts reading this book—it took me a week to get through it (it is quite substantial!) and I had Spotify open to listen to pertinent songs and albums mentioned in the text. If I told you everything that blew my mind, we’d be here all night, but I think the fact that rocked my world the most was the fact that the Beatles were only together for ten years. What? I guess I just thought their active years were in direct proportion to their impact… But I think the thing that fascinates me the most is how the history of rock is essentially the history of the mainstream co-opting a subculture. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that something as innocuous as the Beatles’ early stuff would be looked at askance, but that’s because I’ve grown up in a world where it is the mainstream. Punk and heavy metal, in particular, are two subgenres that specifically try to reclaim rock away from its comfortable, middle-class, mainstream position, a position that sometimes makes it feel like rock never really gotten over the sixties. If you’re not into music or into rock, this isn’t a book that’ll change your mind, but it’s deep, broad, and engaging for those who are.

Bottom line: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll is a substantial, deep, broad, and engaging exploration of the history of rock up to 1992. If you’re not into music or rock, this isn’t going to change your mind, but it’s a solid introduction to the genre.

I rented this book from the public library.

One thought on “Review: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Bookish Questions « The Literary Omnivore

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