What's the Story, Sound and Fury?

By Simon Warner

In the dim and distant, pre-punk Seventies, books on rock'n'roll for the British reader were hard to come by. Picture annuals or fan-aimed publications, echoing earlier obsessions with movie stars, abounded. But there were very few volumes, between hard or soft covers, that gave popular music serious consideration, or tried to make sense of the accelerating cultural juggernaut. It would be some years before American paperbacks like Jonathan Eisen's The Age of Rock cropped up on second-hand bookshop shelves over here.

There were though, even then, some magazines that were beginning to regard rock music and its attendant styles as more than mere adolescent adulation and pubescent angst. In the UK, Melody Maker and, gradually, NME, were handling pop with respect and reverence and leaving behind the obsequious fawning of their Sixties coverage; in the US, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy!, Creem and others had established a young tradition of music writing that had flair, authority and critical distance. But that was all disposable newsprint, consumed one week, discarded the next, just as the music itself had been until Dylan and the Beatles began to suggest that rock might just have more staying power than that.

Book publishers, however, were slow to see the link between the rising album culture, the dedicated aficionado and the possibility that book titles might reflect the maturing concerns of a generation, hungry to not only listen to but read about this sociological tornado, winging its way from Merseyside to Haight Ashbury, London to Los Angeles.

When Charlie Gillett (later to be joined by Simon Frith) launched the series called Rock File in 1972, there was just a hint that these sounds were finally earning an overdue assessment on the bookshop shelves. Although that sequence, which ran until 1978's Rock File 5, was, in essence, a series of chart logs and basically a precursor to the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, each volume also carried essays that celebrated the cultural kaleidoscope surrounding the rock and pop of the time.

Almost as good was the three volume Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, unveiled in 1976, which offered an intelligent and insightful A-Z of the phenomenon, an overview of artists, labels and places. For those of us living in England, Lillian Roxon's US encyclopedia of slightly earlier vintage, referred to in hushed tones in NME reports, was an unobtainable legend.

But the first rock book that really made me feel that finally this personal passion had transcended the news-stand and might actually be on the way to the library stacks, was The Rolling Stone Rock'n'Roll Reader, edited by Ben Fong-Torres and first published in 1974, promising "the sounds, spectacles and super-personalities of an era." And all for a meagre 75p, around a couple of bucks back then.

It was an edition that gathered some 150 examples of the best music writing seen in that venerated journal, since its inception in 1967. I feverishly devoured dozens and dozens of the pieces in this little monster--a pocket book running to almost 800 pages--and helped to order, in my teenage brain, that most frenetic of periods in popular cultural history.

Since then there have been a small number of notable collections of rock journalism--The Faber Book of Pop, edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, overseen by Dylan Jones, come to mind--which have cast their nets more widely, focusing not on one publication's output but a transatlantic panorama of pop writing.

The latest arrival in this category is The Sound and the Fury, unusual in that it is a hard-copy offshoot of one of the best web sites around, Rock's Backpages, and edited by Barney Hoskyns, the journalist who launched the internet library of music magazine articles in 2001.

Sub-titled "40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism" and published by Bloomsbury, the 400-page collection appears to suggest that while the virtual world of the electronic information is perhaps the rising player, it hasn't just yet entirely superseded the paperback as an affordable, portable means of distribution.

Borrowing an apposite title from William Faulkner, Hoskyns' anthology has a quirky, indie-like charm. No greatest hits compilation this, the volume frames work by some of the most significant pop penmen around--only Penny Valentine, Caroline Coon and Mary Harron break the gender stereotype--but it also includes a number of unpublished, unseen articles that remind you of the retrospective CD that incorporates a couple of demo versions, out-takes or fragments of sonic footage left on the cutting room floor.

Many of the expected names are present--Marcus is in there and so's Charles Shaar Murray; Farren's around and also Lenny Kaye; Nick Hornby and Greg Shaw crop up, too. And the most enjoyable pieces, I feel, are those that reflect an older time in rock journalism--that period around the 1970s, sometimes dubbed a golden age--when doors were not quite open wide to the stars but were left sufficiently ajar for the more astute scribes to creep in and grab some exclusive chatter.

Valentine's candid rap with Joni Mitchell for Sounds in 1972, Jerry Gilbert's encounter with Springsteen for ZigZag in 1974 and, maybe best of all, Mick Brown's crowded bar-room tête-à-tête with Dylan for the Sunday Times in 1984, seem to paint a portrait of a time when the PR shroud was not so tightly drawn around the icons of rock. Glenn O'Brien's Madonna piece for Interview in 1990 seems to return us to those older rules of engagement, except interviewer and interviewee are actually just old mates chatting for Warhol's glam gossip mag.

Talking of old mates, God makes a surprising number of appearances--interviews with Marvin Gaye and Neil Young, Dylan and Madonna all touch upon the topic--which suggests there has been a slight shift in agenda as we hurtle away from the 20th Century. However, two of the finest portraits, Jon Savage's Nirvana piece for the Observer in 1993 and Simon Reynolds' New York Times account of Jane's Addiction in 1991 remain grounded on planet earth. The Cobain item is both prescient and moving; the Perry Farrell piece reflects a disappointing failure to fulfil such evident promise.

This collection doesn't allow you to follow that conventional line that the only great rock journalism spanned that zone between Sgt. Pepper and the death of the Pistols. For example, Al Aronowitz's 1964 piece on the Beatles for the Saturday Evening Post is as engaging as Caroline Coon's eyewitness punk account for MM in 1976. Yet not everything included passes the test of time: Bill Miller's grey description of a Stax show in 1967, commissioned for Soul Music Monthly, Vivien Goldman's rather plodding 1975 reflection on northern soul for NME, and the trainspotting minutiae of Robot A. Hull's 1981 article on psychedelia for Creem remind us that content alone is never quite enough.

But what about style? The New Journalism--that bastard offspring of Wolfe and Southern and Thompson--has, in traditional overviews, played a key role in shaping rock writing, yet this compilation doesn't illustrate that alleged trend too convincingly. Farren's visit to Nashville for a 1976 NME feature hints at the link, but only John Mendelssohn's sparky, though never published, snapshot of NWA for Playboy in 1991 gets really close to that school of writing that combines vivid reportage and interior dialogue, edgy commentary and value judgements, in almost equal measure.

As for personal favourites, Michael Lydon contemporaneous, yet never printed, description of Monterey for Newsweek in 1967, and David Dalton's long-gestating report on Altamont for the web zine Gadfly in 1999, told me stuff I'd been longing to know about two of the key festivals of the Sixties, a pair of I-was-there Polaroids which managed to skillfully sidestep the apocryphal and the hyperbolic.

The Sound and the Fury is a worthy arrival at that modestly sized table reserved for digests of rock journalism. At a time when the market is flooded with every kind of popular music text--from academic treatise to photographic study, warts'n'all biography to confessional revelation--we no longer need complain that this subject is under-reported. Hoskyns' collection offers an oblique slice through those four decades when pop matured from teen tantrum to almost scholarly sage.

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  - 

  • The Sound and the Fury; 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism, edited by Barney Hoskyns, is published by Bloomsbury.

  • Simon Warner is a writer and lecturer who teaches courses on rock journalism at the University of Leeds in the UK.
    See Simon's column, Anglo Visions in PopMatters.