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ALL AROUND US are signs that rock 'n' roll is getting old, and not just old but respectable too. Elvis Presley once outraged an older generation's aesthetic and moral tastes with his youthful exuberance and the sexual swivel of his hips. These days Las Vegas audiences pay huge sums to see the now 40-years-plus entertainer--grown paunchy with dyed hair and capped teeth--struggle through one abbreviated set. The Rolling Stones, defiant, sneering stars of the '60s, now mingle easily among the best of any Social Register crowd, and much the same holds true for other rock stars as well. While Mick Jagger lunches with Lee Radziwill, George Harrison meets Henry Kissinger, and Alice Cooper plays 18 holes with George Burns. Even Jimmy Carter, fashionably attired in an Allman Brothers T-shirt, has been seen in the company of Rock entertainers.
For the originators of rock 'n' roll, the musical from embodied many things, some gesture of cultural or political rebellion against the main-stream being crucial among them. But today, as critic Jim Miller points out, "Rock is first and foremost a member in good standing of the American entertainment industry, welcome in Las Vegas and Holl wood, on the screen and over the air, in homes and theaters...rock gossip sells newspapers; rock concerts pack stadiums; rock records dominate the radio." Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone Press is chasing in on this trend, coming out with a new, oversized (though not outrageously overpriced) rock 'n' roll coffee-table volume--The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which commemorates rock, not as it is, but as it was.
Focusing primarily on the "golden age" of rock 'n' roll--the period which, roughly speaking, began with Elvis, and ended as the '70s began--the almost 400 page book includes over 1,000 photographs, and 72 essays on individual artists, the evolution of specific musical styles, and major pop trends. Discographies accompany each essay.
Most writing on the subject of rock music suffers from the problem of how seriously one should approach it--is it art, philosophy, a cultural statement, or just plain good fun? Fortunately though, editor Jim Miller (a teacher of political philosophy at the University of Texas and a frequent contributors to Rolling Stone magazine) has pretty much steered this volume clear of ideology and excess. Most of the 26 contributors have written straightforward, informative and entertaining articles on the areas of their own special interest or expertise. The subjects include discussions of singers, songwriters and well-known studios, covering the range from Rhythm and Gospel, Rockabilly, Doo-Wop, Motown, the British Invasion, the Sounds of Memphis, Philadelphia, San Francisco and more. Up through the closing chapter which traces "the shape of the seventies," not a single important event in the history of rock has been overlooked or left out. When the occasional venture into hyperbole does arise, it is easy to forgive since, almost always, it is the product of genuine enthusiasm: for example, when Greil Marcus in his article on the Beatles eagerly concurs with the judgement that "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the 'Sgt. Pepper' album was released"; or when Robert Christgau compares Chuck Berry's lyrics to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
Some of the most fascinating chapters are those which deal, not with such high media profile stars as the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, etc., but with the lesser talked about yet highly influential personalities like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and B.B. King.
But what really makes this book remarkable are the photographs--all of which are black and white, and most of which are collector's items: a buffoonish Little Richard with six inches--straight up--of hari, "the handsomest man in rock and roll"; Carole King more than a decade ago, starched, prim, and complete with bouffant hair-do; and three grinning Marvelettes ("you can call me up and have a date, any old time"), spike-heeled and poured into satin and sequin sheaths--to mention just a few. The pictures are abundant, and cliched though it may sound, they capture the excitement, the innocence and the defiance of so much early rock with greater clarity than most writers could ever hope to achieve.
One recent popular song declares that "sweet sixteen has turned 31." Rock 'n' roll, too, has passed its prime, but The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll serves as a superbly detailed, carefully compiled "remembrance of things past."
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