By Kevin O’Sullivan
It’s forty years since Joni Mitchell went on down to Yasgur’s farm to join in a rock’n’roll band, camp out on the land and try and get her soul free. The same has passed since Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, The Band, Liege and Lief, Tommy, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dusty in Memphis, Songs from a Room, Five Leaves Left and Led Zeppelin II first hit our shelves. It’s been fifty years since the first Newport Folk Festival. Next month the Beatles release the digital remasters of all their studio albums. Neil Young calls his re-release programme ‘The Archives’. The record industry is dead? Long live the music.
It’s everywhere now: on the train, in the shops, in the bath, on your television, on your phone, in the lift, in the swimming pool (I kid you not). Everyone’s a collector, everyone’s got their favourites on shuffle. Everyone, it seems, has released their own version of ‘Hallelujah’.
But amidst the saturation, it is easy to lose sight of the important role played by popular music in the social and cultural history of Western and, increasingly, global society over the past fifty or so years. There are plenty of treatises out there on music, culture and history, from journal articles to broader texts like Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties: Cultural Transformation in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, 1958-74 (1998), Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2005) and Eric Harvey’s interesting recent social history of the mp3 for the online magazine, Pitchfork. But by its very nature, the medium itself – the music – demands an altogether different approach. No words can describe the rattlesnake shake that kicks off ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ or the pregnant pause that begins Prince’s ‘Kiss’. We need to hear this history to feel it and understand it.
Tony Palmer’s 1976 documentary series All You Need Is Love, re-released last year on DVD, is a great place to start. It might look and sound a little dated in parts, but for the way it’s put together and the depth and quality of its interviewees it is unparalleled – try not to let your jaw drop when one ninety-something American black man explains the origins of his music with the words ‘my parents were slaves’. Originally intended as a book, it retains something of that structure running the gambit from modern music’s beginnings in Africa, through ragtime, blues, jazz, vaudeville and music hall to the Beatles and glitter rock across seventeen fifty-minute episodes. This is history as popular entertainment, and all the better because of it.
In fact, watching Palmer’s footage, from his interview with mountain singers in the Appalachians to Mick Jagger drawling ‘pleased to meet you, I hope you’ve guessed my name’, it struck me that a love of music prompted something very close to the history gene in its (mainly male) adherents. It’s like a form of archaeology. We’re like the white middle-class kids in Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles (2006) who sought out their black blues-playing heroes in the toughest areas of the urban United States and put them on stage in university bars, living rooms and any space they could hire for their own entertainment. We want to get closer and closer to the source, to hear how it formed, to see behind it, to explain why it turned out this way. And the only way to do this is to hear what came before, to understand the motivations, the chord and time changes, the lost verses. Greil Marcus’s intriguing (though not for everyone) book Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005) is a case in point: a whole book devoted to the development and recording of just one song. Ian MacDonald’s tome Revolution in the Head (1994), Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Neil Young’s Archives, the Beatles’s Anthology, U2’s ongoing re-releases, all fall into the same pattern, digging deeper into their own musical pasts. And, of course, as anyone who’s listened to the Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear et al will testify, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’.
Now if only historians could devise a way of bringing history on tour, selling millions of copies of our work, reading to packed-out audiences at Wembley and living in a white mansion in LA (à la the Fresh Prince), all would be rosy in the Garden.