A musician needs rock n' roll high schoolin'
April 9, 2008 7:52 PM   Subscribe

You-Knowledge-of-music-sucks-for-being-a-musician-filter: I would like to be better-versed in the history of modern (western) rock. Much more inside.

I am what you might call an indie-pop musician. Let me start by saying that I'm not even sure how we have arrived at having a genre for 'independent' musicians- I'm vaguely familiar with the movement in the nineties, but that's as far back as my (not very) comprehensive knowledge of modern rock goes.

I am often awed at conversations in which music nerds will talk at-length about influences on eras of rock, the careers of musicians (I'm talking the bassist on this album who also worked on this album sort of thing), the rise-and-fall of a multitude of labels, and even historic television appearances on shows that I had never even heard of (i.e. The Old Grey Whistle Test).

As a musician I am really ashamed at not having a better understanding of all the whirlwind of activity that has led to this (what now feels like a stagnant) era of 'rock'. What routes can I take to build a working knowledge from the ground up?

By rock I'm really wanting to encompass UK and US mostly, from the 1950's to modern day. I use the term rock to loosely describe most all of popular music.

I'm looking for books, sites, and any additional resources that give an overall outline of progress as well as detailed information. I have looked on amazon and google, I have tried this on my own, through sites like allmusic.com, and books like Music Lust... but I need something more syllabus-like, I suppose. Some guidance that can only come from experience...

Help me appreciate what I could one day contribute to! Thanks, hivemind.
posted by pedmands to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Quite a few music/band biographies are a good place to start, because they reference what they were influenced by, as well as what was happening culturally around them. I'm partial to Pink Floyd, so the book Inside Out (written by drummer Nick Mason) is fascinating, not just for the band history, but how their paths crossed with many other bands both in the US and Great Britain. And, since they started in 1964, that goes pretty far back.

Bob Dylan's Chronicles may be of help as well. I'll confess it's on my "to read" list. Apparently it's not necessarily linear, but might give insight into some of the history.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:07 PM on April 9, 2008

As much as it pains me to recommend, the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll might be a good starting point. I'm not sure if it's been updated, but my copy is from 1980. It starts in the 1930s with Lomax Brothers and the bands they recorded and quickly (about 15 pages) takes you to Elvis. Most of the chapters are pretty short, 5-10 pages, and each ends with a suggested discography. Along with chapters on key artists, there are also chapters devoted to genres and movements like R&B, New Orleans, rockabilly, doo-wop, the Brill Building, girl groups, and so on. It gives you a little overview but never gets bogged down in in minutia (although now it's the minutia that I like so much).

After a few decades of reading dozens of music books, watching loads of rock movies and documentries, and following Mojo and Goldmine and countless other music mags, it seems a bit too basic for me now. But for someone looking for a broad introduction (while still having good stories and a linear presentation), this is a pretty good launching pad. From here you should have a respectable knowledge and probably a large list of artists that you want to check out.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:12 PM on April 9, 2008

Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azzerad
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:14 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

As an indie rocker, you need to read Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. It chronicles the DIY movement as developed and championed by Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, the Replacements and others. Azerrad is a journalist, so it's pretty straightforward reading. Reebee Garofalo's Rockin Out is a straightforward, accessible, and (relatively) critically engaging general rock history textbook. His more academic works, including Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, are slighly more analytical and describe the links between mass culture and festival culture in the 1970s until now. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has compiled an excellent list of notable resources for more in depth history questions.

Good luck! Rock and roll!
posted by cachondeo45 at 8:44 PM on April 9, 2008

BBC2 had a neat series last year called Seven Ages of Rock. It's certainly a bit focused on the UK side of things, but if you can find a copy, it's got some great old footage.
posted by smackfu at 8:51 PM on April 9, 2008

Learn about 1980s indie. Start with well-known independent record labels. I'm forgetting many, but: Factory, Rough Trade, Cherry Red, Sarah, Flying Nun, K, Postcard, Creation. Most of those pages have lists of performers.
posted by seldomfun at 8:52 PM on April 9, 2008

The companion book to a great 1995 PBS series is Rock and Roll - An Unruly History, by Robert Palmer (not that Robert Palmer, the other Robert Palmer). It's a shame the PBS series itself doesn't seem to be available - I thought it was terrific. But the book should give you some good background.

Also check out the MIT OpenCourseWare materials for Music Since 1960, which covers rock along with jazz and other forms.

Finally, whenever I want to review more formal materials for something I want to learn, I tack "syllabus" onto the end of my Google search. Try Googling

"history of rock" syllabus

for a few thousand ideas.
posted by kristi at 9:25 PM on April 9, 2008

If you want to really zero in exact timeline's of bands/movements and see how many bands/artists are interrelated, I'd recommend Pete Frame's incredibly detailed The Complete Rock Family Trees 1 &2. It's very surprising to see how many of these band's paths cross over the years.

And if you want to focus on modern rock, here are some of my faves: Our Band Could Be Your Life, as mentioned many times already, is a great look at the American underground scene. For punk I'd go with Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. And focusing on first hand stories of American punk, I'd highly recommend Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock. And I seldom pass up an opportunity to rave about one of my favorite music books of the past few years, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds, which is a passionate account of the post-punk wave from one of my favorite music writers.

As for early rock and roll: At times his writing style can be a bit much, but Greil Marcus' Mystery Train is a great read for some insight into early rock and roll and blues. I haven't read it yet, but I keep hearing that Sound of the City is a great look into rock and roll that's easy to read. And even though it really won't give you much of a practical overview, Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is a pretty damn fun read and seems to appear on many rock aficionado’s must read lists.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:34 PM on April 9, 2008

Seconding Our Band Could Be Your life and Mystery Train.
posted by radioamy at 9:48 PM on April 9, 2008

I super-hate Gina Arnold and her book is masturbatory in a lot of ways, but Route 666: The Road to Nirvana may help you make some of the connections you're missing in 80s-90s American indie rock.
posted by padraigin at 10:03 PM on April 9, 2008

The BBC recently did a series of programmes on the history of modern British pop music, including Pop Britannia, which went right back to the invention of the phonograph to explain the history of record labels, the rise of pop music and its various forms right up to the present day. It's probably floating around on the interweb somewhere, and is well worth watching for a good overview as to how the modern music business got started. BBC Four does loads of documentaries on music (such as the aforementioned Seven Ages of Rock) which are well worth a look if you can get hold of them - see the music programmes index on the website for the channel.

They're a bit specific but two of the best books I've read on popular music are England's Dreaming by Jon Savage (about the history of punk, focusing on the Sex Pistols) and The Last Party by John Harris, which is an in-depth look at Britpop - seems to be sold as Britpop! in the states, but check it's the same book first.
posted by terrynutkins at 1:38 AM on April 10, 2008

Learn about 1980s indie.

Always a good idea. "The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize" is the book you should pick up after you have finished "Rip It Up".
posted by soundofsuburbia at 2:34 AM on April 10, 2008

Couple of others

Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, by Richie Unterberger. Covers lots of less-well-known but often highly influential rock/punk/folk/experiemental bands and performers.

Krautrock Sampler, by Julian Cope. Covers the genre very well. Again, very influential bands for lots of current indie-related music. Out of print, though.

Good Vibrations: A History of Record Production, by Mark Cunningham. The sections on recording techniques of Motown, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and the Beatles are very relevant to the history of rock, and indie-pop in particular.

The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, by Charlie Gillett. A good history of early rock-and-roll.

And check out the 33 1/3 series for albums you are interested in.

Also, I join in on the recommendations for "Psychotic Reactions", "From the Velvets to the Voidoids", "Englands Dreaming", "Our Band Could Be Your Life", and "Rip it Up and Start Again".
posted by alb at 10:13 AM on April 10, 2008

This comes up in every rock-writing thread, but I guess I get the honor of introducing it this time:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk is a fascinating book that arranges original source interviews in such a way that you get a great view of the landscape and players of 70s New York punk rock. I'd recommend it even if you hate music, as long as you love a good memoir.
posted by fishfucker at 11:38 AM on April 10, 2008

In addition to these other fine books, pick up Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus for an alternate history of subversion in rock (mainly through the Sex Pistols, but touching on everything from the Inkspots to the communards).
posted by klangklangston at 11:59 AM on April 10, 2008

I would like to second heartily everything Slack-a-gogo mentioned. (Mostly because I have no idea how I managed to educate myself on indie music, but I'm pretty sure a lot of it was through those very books.) And as long as we're recommending scene-specific books, try Marc Spitz's We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, also pretty good.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 3:02 PM on April 10, 2008

Oh, man - I just discovered that the dean of rock criticism, Robert Christgau, has an extensive archive of his writings on his web site.

It's more about what's good and why than about history, but totally worth reading in your quest to know more about rock. (And there's coverage of everything from Chuck Berry to Magnetic Fields.)

There are a ton of his amazing capsule reviews, but take a look at the longer stuff, like Any Old Way You Choose It (a collection of 40 of his essays) and the essays.
posted by kristi at 6:19 PM on April 10, 2008

For a fascinating analysis of the Los Angeles music scene from PostWWII to the 90's check out Barney Hoskyns' Waiting for the Sun.
posted by shakobe at 1:28 PM on April 11, 2008

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