Looking at Old Yearbooks, Part 1

Originally published at Sweet Pea in October, 2005, this article will now be held here, awaiting its Part 2, what will undoubtedly be the final entry of the Blog /Blob.


Looking at Old Yearbooks, Part 1: Lillian Roxon, Trouser Press, Spin

Four books: the 1978, updated, and revised version of Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia; Columbia House's The Year in Music: 1978; the fourth edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Alternative Music [1991]; and the Spin Alternative Record Guide [1995]... the first two I came across recently, at random, the other two I've read off and on for about ten years. Except for the Columbia House book, glimpses of how writers from differing perspectives conceptualized large swaths of the history of popular music. These impressions we get piecemeal, discovering clues here and there in what are after all supposed to be mere reference books. What is more intriguing about them is that they were written and published at significant turning points in the history of Rock, inviting us to try to discern how commentators reacted to changes as they were happening, what they foresaw would be the long-term consequences. By the time we get to the last of these four, critics are self-referential (academic) enough to take stock of their own culture and provide a unifying thesis behind their writings - in this case, Eric Weisbard's compelling and maddening introductory essay, "What Is Alternative Rock?" Maddening, because he is probably right: in short, Weisbard's interpretation is a variant of the typical U S A view of Punk, giving The Ramones precedence over The Sex Pistols in the contest over who serves as the proverbial Big Bang; it may be right only with regard to Americans - all the more unfortunate for us!

Roxon's book appeared when Rock was truly hegemonic in U S A popular culture, yet still was independent enough as a cultural entity to seem like it belonged to certain audience, who in turn were not as wracked with internal divisions, debilitating debates, or pestered by grown-up kids with new tastes and ideas, as they would be by the early 1980's, post-Disco, post-Punk, post-Electro - in other words, still eager to keep mellowing-out to The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac as the nation crumbled around them. The book is almost endearing in how limited its scope is and, moreover, the entries for each artist are terse, often witty, comments, usually about the band's commercial success, or lack thereof, rarely attempting to describe how the music actually sounds. Signs of Rock's mansion-on-sand status appear, especially the tendency to branch out only to include M O R pop like ABBA, Paul Anka, Cher, etc., suggesting the implicit connection already made between Rock and the music industry itself, instead of seeing it as an independent craft, a style fashioned by the inter-play of musicians themselves. This unspoken link would eventually prove fatal, leading to the temporary mis-appropriation of electronic sound by Rock as well as the gross wresting of M T V away from British Electro music by "hair Metal," surely more than any other phenomenon the turning point after which popular music in the U S A became too strange and nauseating for those of us with sensitive ears and weak stomachs. Indeed, while the common perspective which holds that Rock has declined relative to Rap and Country is, broadly speaking, correct, one needs to keep in mind that Country and Rap only went through the same kind of commodification process that Rock pioneered, allowing them to compete with Rock as money-making endeavors. By the early 1990's both at least looked, and in Country's case certainly sounded too, a lot more like Rock at its commercialized worse than vice versa.

Looking back at the Columbia House book, obviously distinct from the other three in being geared only toward contemporary readers, again a charming, non-clever, and non-cynical interest in the subject matter comes through. The book attempts to maintain the distinction among Rock, Rhythm and Blues, Country and Western, Jazz, Classical, Easy Listening, and Disco, yet notes in its introduction that "the year's top performers sought to create sounds that were not limited by [such] categories [...] The top records of the year, with their heavy use of synthesizers, echoes, and layers of smoothly intertwined overdubs, all pulsing with a swingy, danceable beat, could not be categorized as anything put pop." Nonetheless, we find a clue to Roxon's hidebound focus in the book's comments on Rock: though it was "now a comfortable grandfather" which had "sired disco, punk, new wave," and was dealing with signs of stifling nostalgia, the book also peculiarly suggests that only with Elvis Presley's death did "rock finally become totally acceptable." Perhaps only to appeal to the broadest audience, the book is more positive toward Punk than Roxon (or, rather, "compiler" Ed Naha, who presumably had some role in writing the newer entries, as Roxon had died in 1973) who gives it scant dismissive attention. Suggesting how strong the memories of Rock's early controversy were, the book says "punk, for all its hype and subsequent disappointment, was very real, a continuation of the rebellious energy that radiated from the early Elvis Presley, the revolutionary fervor that has always been part of rock and roll."

The Trouser Press guide appeared in 1991, just before Nirvana's mammoth success, and as such is cruelly reduced to being a memento of a culture which, for those of us too young to have experienced it directly, is foggy-distant, given a roseate hue it does not necessarily deserve. By 1995, writing directly in response to the resulting milieu of the early 1990's, the Spin guide is more exclusive with regards to contemporary music - fewer artists make the "alternative" cut than in the dense Trouser Press book - even as it attempts to lay claim to a diverse selection of pre-Punk artists, unjustly ignored in darker times, now given proper due by a small and self-conscious Indie audience made cynical, but determined, by the petrifying conservatism overtaking America.

Spin's relatively-exclusive selection of artists on one hand suggests a Punk-like rewriting of the past, a refining of the "alternative" canon, even as it also suggests the pressures of the marketplace, an attempt by the magazine to maintain its cool even as it keeps the number of artists in its book limited, its pages thick and glossy, its type-font large - all the more appealing for the novice. One can only bemoan the great artists included in the Trouser Press guide that are ignored in Spin's. Despite these misgivings, the serious reader cannot discount how much better the Spin guide's writing is compared to the Trouser Press. Precisely because the artists covered and the writer designated to each was chosen with greater care, the book is more insightful and inspired, except in the case of a few entries (R E M and Galaxie 500, for example) when they falter badly.

I discovered a few years ago that Spin's book probably subconsciously guided me in my listening endeavors. When I purchased the book upon its release, my sixteen-year-old self did not know of many of the avant-garde artists discussed therein - for example, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Derek Bailey, John Zorn, Borbetomagus, Fela Kuti, Sun City Girls - let alone understand why they deserved a place alongside more-accssible artists; except, perhaps I had the common dumb notion that they were put there only because of how "extreme" or "obscure" or "influential" they were. Re-reading the book sometime in the early years of this century, having not picked it up for years, I was pleasantly surprised that now I knew every artist covered. I felt the same kind of gratitude I also have for those friends and acquaintances who had, in traditional bohemian fashion, encouraged and goaded me - even sometimes in a condescending, unpleasant manner - to question received wisdom and to search out forgotten paths.

How sad it is: pondering how much less-compelling Spin, or the similar Alternative Press, are today compared to ten years ago. Sure, Alternative Press put the likes of Marilyn Manson on its cover, but it also ran a serial on the history of Punk, and featured well-written, positive reviews of some of the best experimental Rock of the day: I fondly recally deciding to buy Gastr del Sol's Upgrade and Afterlife after reading Alternative Press's glowing five-finger review. No mainstream Rock magazine at the moment could play the same role in their young reader's lives. Then again, perhaps the historical-minded Mojo could, but that only shows that Rock is behind us; and perhaps took with it the very notion of mass culture being something other than a business, a con game wherein those who have the means and the will to create refuse transparency, concocting product so that listeners and spectators can live vicariously through them.