A New Rock History Project…

School of rock

Riding the train to work one morning recently in the mid-April sun.  Down by the water, heading west between Port Moody and Vancouver.  Listening to “The Fool On The Hill”, one of my favourite Beatles songs. Heading upstairs from the platform at my destination, a lone coyote crossed the tracks down below.

Wow. Look at me go. Get outta the way, Kerouac.

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that, while I’ve been enjoying this endeavour of mine (listening to an artist’s discography from beginning to end), it can easily lead to over-saturation.

Case in point: Neil Young.  Gifted and prolific songwriter and musician, with 36 solo albums since 1969.  Amazing output of great work in the Seventies. Lost the script for a few albums in the early Eighties, then got it back with Freedom in 1989. Dubbed the “Godfather of Grunge” by some (though I don’t really hear it, even though Pearl Jam backed him up on 1995’s Mirror Ball).  But partway through Mirror Ball, I realized I just plain needed a break from Neil.  That, I suppose, illustrates the sole problem with the most prolifically gifted musicians: for their listeners, it may be possible to get too much of a good thing. (As an aside, on the morning of April 21 I edited this post to suggest that the same was probably true of Prince. And then later that morning, I learned he’d passed away. R.I.P….)

By coincidence, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the ups and downs of postwar culture and its connection to history lately; I chalk that up to my recent acknowledgement that 44 is probably the onset of “middle age”, coupled with all the recent reminders of rock star mortality. Everybody agrees that the decade of the Sixties was thoroughly transformative in modern human history on pretty much every level. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this could only be assessed in hindsight; I asked my dad about this recently, as somebody who was a twentysomething during the decade, and he agreed with this. Living through it at the time, it was just “life”, minus the historical context.

So, the goal of the new project: to obtain and hopefully come to appreciate, even a little bit, the context of the music I’ve grown to love over the last quarter century or so. I figure the best way to do this is to go back in time and listen to each month’s significant album releases, then move on to the next month, and so on. Listen to the ebb and flow of the medium as a whole, not just of one artist.

Which makes now – the 50th anniversary of April 1966 – a great place to start, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the whole 50th anniversary thing.  Secondly, I’ve never been terribly into Fifties rock n’ roll, other than a brief flirtation in my teenage years.  Likewise the music of the first half of the Sixties – no slag on it, it’s just not my thing. Excessively jangly and pop-ish for my tastes, without enough emphasis on the low end. Much like the early Beatles recordings: groundbreaking and revolutionary in their day, no doubt about it, but pale in comparison to their later work.  This was also true of the Rolling Stones, though at least they were leaning significantly on the blues and its inherent heavy sludginess.  Not as much The Who, however, who kicked it right out of the gate with My Generation from their 1965 debut using actual percussion pyrotechnics (literal and figurative) and an evident acknowledgement that, hey… we have a guy with a bass here. Let’s give him a role in this.

The third reason to start with early 1966 is that I figure that’s when rock n’ roll finally gave way to “rock”. In terms of categorization, making a distinction like that is no doubt as problematic as trying to say what the “first” rock n’ roll record was (Sam Dunn had me convinced for awhile that it was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but then I stumbled upon Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s work), but what the hell. Besides, there’s no dispute that the rock of, say, the Seventies was a sonically different animal from the rock n’ roll of the late Fifties or early Sixties. Thus my obsessively categorization-addled brain compels me to explore this a bit.

And so… Off we go.

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