The History of Rock & Roll Vol I, 1920 – 1963, by Ed Ward, Flatiron, 416 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1250071163
Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, by Jack Hamilton, Harvard University Press, 352 pp, £22.95, ISBN: 978-0674416598
One thing that endeared my in-laws to me was that they held on to my wife’s collection of 45s – her records, I mean, not her (non-existent) collection of other revolvers. True, they were buried in a box under crumpled high-school decals, spineless paperbacks and ratty college notebooks. But there they were: originals of “Please Mr Postman” on the butter-yellow Tamla label (Tamla 54046), “Johnny B Goode” on sea-blue Chess 1691, the Cadence metronome seemingly swaying to the Everly Brothers, “Blueberry Hill” on inaptly mulberry-coloured Imperial, Buddy Holly on hot-pink Coral, the whole, maybe fifty-strong, collection now and then attaining historic heights, in my goggle eyes, by such finds as Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Early” on rainbow-rimmed VeeJay.
Yes, I was a teenage pop, rock, whatever, fetishist; indeed, in that respect, I was a fairly active teenager until I was thirty or more, and the fetishism can still unexpectedly twist again like they did those many summers ago. Absorption in the songs soon led me to wondering if there was any content behind their content. I mean, who exactly did put the bomp …? The music world was a prairie of trivia, and I grazed on it night and day, as though nothing more sustaining was to hand. And here now comes Ed Ward with all my heart desired back then, an enormous fast-food meal consisting of not just staples like labels, writers, producers, DJs and other taste-makers and begetters, but to spice it all up – like so many pickles, hush puppies, slaw, mayo, hot sauce and ketchup – lashings of A&R men, engineers, session-men, talent scouts, club owners, salesmen, back-up singers, chart positions, and pressing plants. And out in the kitchen there’s a large floating population which also lent a hand, members of gospel acts, doo-wop quartets, folk groups, surf-sound combos and touring back-up bands.
But is it history? Well, if chronology is anything to go by, the answer has to be yes, even if initially chronology is a sometime thing. Ward’s treatment of the roughly eighty-year prelude leading up to World War II hardly amounts to anything more than tuning-up. He has some interesting comments about gospel music, the rise of the solo blues performer, and the changes radio and recording made. And of course musical precursors such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and the jump blues of Louis Jordan get their rightful, if predictable, tip of the hat. But the book’s welter of information derives almost exclusively from the ten-year period leading up to the Beatles, whose explosive arrival provides the climax of the story so far. These years provide a basic narrative structure by being taken a year at a time, an approach that, as Ward concedes, occasions “a couple of places where the reader is presented with some long lists of names or songs and/or performers” and that’s about all. Fascinating to a geek like yours truly, but more the work of a chronicler than of a historian. And very little room is reserved, alas, for contexts, overviews, thematic analyses or formal critiques.
Instead, the result is a neutral, non-interpretative documentation of the whole lotta shakin’ that the music had goin’ on. Moreover, confidence in Ward the historian is not especially boosted when he says, “we don’t” have to pick a moment when rock ’n’ roll was born – he’s just claimed in his title to have written the history of the music. Well, maybe we don’t, but if not, it makes chronology seem just an organisational convenience; and besides, doesn’t historiography earn its keep by presuming to delimit eras and ages? If chronology is apparently the best way to accommodate the data-driven storyline, it’s difficult to follow the ebb and flow of influences and imitation across the years (including the ticklish question of cover versions), and also to map out developments within the various evolving genres that constitute rock ’n’ roll as a form of cultural production – rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly, doo-wop, soul, dance music. These and many more subsets all have their different formations and modes of address (or conception of audience), but unfortunately Ward has no real interest in discussing such matters, as is indicated by his reliance on biographical anecdotage and trade-paper reports as basic sources. In addition, he interrupts his march-of-time format now and again with “interludes” that survey the pre-Beatles English scene – trad, skiffle and all that jazz – before going on to give an unnecessarily exhaustive account of the moptops’ pre-recording days, which in turn is followed by Home Counties developments, culminating in the rise of the Rolling Stones. No mention of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates though, tsk, tsk.
At the end of the book there’s a section called “Liner Notes”, in which Ward not only tips his hat to his helpers but also gives a nod to the informative enthusiasm that used to appear on the back of LP covers. The phrase could apply to the entire book’s mix of digging it and dishing it. And with respect to the latter, what real need is there to revisit the famous deaths (Cochran, Holly, Redding, et al)? The same goes for other well-known milestones – Elvis joins the army, where, incidentally, he meets up with “miraculous pills that kept you full of energy and awake during manoeuvres”; Jerry Lee Lewis’s deportation from England on being outed for his possibly bigamous marriage to his fifteen-year-old third cousin; Chuck Berry’s trials on an underage sex charge, which in comparison to coverage of Mr and Mrs Lewis, is given a pretty thorough investigative rundown. The biggest other story – a lot bigger than those mentioned, and unlike them certainly worth rehashing – is the payola scandal (a pay-to-play racket dreamt up by record companies and DJs ), featuring the fall of Alan Freed, a man so determined to claim credit for coining the term rock ’n’ roll that he “later tried to copyright it”.
Still, suggesting that the book is a hit parade – or box of 45s – wrapped up in a gossip column is very far from the whole picture. Within its “thick”, at times almost anthropological, notes from the field, and discernible beyond its somewhat crude and inconsistent chronological organisation, there is nevertheless, inevitably, a certain point of view. Even delving into the minutiae of sessions and labels reveals a perspective, one which not merely attests to rock ’n’ roll’s initially regionally diverse character but enthusiastically revels in it. So, for instance, the inflections of the popular found in the gospel music by which the Specialty label in Los Angeles made its name is very different from the strong rhythm-and-blues catalogue of King records in Cincinnati; what Berry Gordy pioneered on his various Motown imprints was so different from the urban blues issued on Chess in Chicago as to be almost a critique of them; even in the same city – Memphis – Sam Phillips’s Sun label’s debt to country and rockabilly had plainly different tonalities, sonorities and cultural resonances from the soundscapes of Jim Stewart’s Stax. And the most striking numbers in the Stax catalogue refine and intensify the textures of soul pioneered by Sam Cooke in his stronger numbers. Regions, and their rootsy, even perhaps subliminally heartlandish, associations also indicate which styles melted in which pot, filtering in a certain rhythmic pattern in New Orleans or a certain vocal style in the mid-Atlantic. Memphis and Chicago proved to be hospitable to fusions of various kinds, but there are also major centres where there was little or no such activity, at least not early on, notably New York City, which – with all due respect to Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers – only came into its own with the twin phenomena of the folk boom and Brill Building pop.
There’s a kind of jiving element to Ward’s writing, not in its vocabulary, which is no more than serviceable, but in its adeptness at shifting from novelty to novelty and from place to place. But for all the different labels, different locales, different hits and misses, it’s hard to resist feeling that enough is as good as a feast. A little synthesis would have gone a long way. As with the music itself, being repetitious in method and fast and loose in manner overshadows matters with wider and more enduring implications. The book’s superficially engrossing contents, you could say, make up the A side of the record, the material that’s receiving the most attention. While that’s playing though, a B side is also silently spinning, a side that from a production standpoint is usually no more than a makeweight, included for the sake of form, as the trade term “backed with” perhaps unwittingly connotes. Let’s pretend that this analogy holds good and that there is another story beneath all those basically American tales of being number one with a bullet and shrieking crowds. What, for instance, might repay a reader’s attention to a not untypical passage like the following?
Lew Chudd was concerned. The Mesner brothers, who ran the Aladdin label, had managed to score a coup by going to New Orleans to record Amos Milburn, and were getting hit out of hit [sic] from him. Chudd was on a talent-scouting tour in Houston at Don Robey’s Peacock Club and saw a set by a New Orleans trumpet player named Dave Bartholemew, who was a huge draw down there with his band, which included Red Tyler and Lee Allen on saxophones and a wiry drummer named Earl Palmer.
What’s being laid out is the roundabout route to discovering Fats Domino. But the point seems less the music than the business – the scouting, the draw, the competition, the commercial travelling, the apparent excavation of an old-school blues shouter’s repertoire (Milburn). The notion of “discovery” itself, a foundational element in rock ‘n’ roll’s myth of freedom, is not just about performing or being heard; it also raises questions about what the terms of being known are, terms in which the discovered one is usually the last to have a say. Processes connecting raw material and manufacturing underlie not so much the creation or creativity of rock ’n’ roll as its dissemination and appreciation. When in the early Sixties, corporations such as Warner Brothers and MGM brought their clout to increase (through film and television, in addition to establishing record labels) the rate at which popular music was being industrialised, Ward rightly takes exception. The result – “bubblegum” and the like – had such a diluting effect on rock ’n’ roll that, as Ward sees it, only a return to the original regional model (Motown, the Beatles) could reverse the decline. But in a way this corporate intervention, and the cultural politics of white suburbia that helped it along, also pointed to the weakness of rock ’n’ roll’s original business model, which relied on disparities between creators and those who, in various senses of the word, managed them.
Ed Ward tends to overlook these disparities, giving the impression that everybody rocked to the same beat. This view can seem to place the entrepreneur on the same level as his discoveries, so that a sense insinuates itself of the label owner as a freebooter cut from the same cloth as so many other members of the American pantheon of popular success: cowboys, pioneers, trailblazers and prospectors, a random bunch of risk-takers who once again turned up buried treasure in the buried American lives that cry out in the hymns of the hollows and the hollers of the fields. Turned it up, and did well out of it, being knowledgeable in the ways of copyright, performing rights and related business niceties. Well, they say it’s a free country … The historical fact remains, nevertheless, that when in 1960 Barrett Strong put out “Money (That’s What I Want)”, his brash call was echoed down the years by many another artist. Their claims were only so many silent B-sides as far as the majority of label-owners and music business people were concerned, a golden silence this history by and large maintains.
It’s not that Ward entirely ignores the bottom line. Sometimes the size of contracts are mentioned, and it’s obvious from the payola scandal that certain individuals very definitely got paid. Still, if it’s possible to trace the trail of Lew Chudd, it’s surely of equal historical interest to learn at least some details of royalty agreements, shares from tours and appearances, session rates, agents’ cuts and so on. Chuck Berry, it’s said, “became … sophisticated about the music business”. That could very well be because he had to learn the hard way from his dealings with Chess. It’s as though an equivalence is implied between liberty-taking businessmen and the boundary-breaking set of attitudes that the music exemplifies and extols. But maybe giving artists and performers their due is as much as history can do for them. In any event, it appears once again that to write the book of rock ’n’ roll means keeping the ledgers closed, as though all the action is in the selling not in the profiting. There was a character in The Sopranos who had a nice horse farm in toney, ex-urban New Jersey, Morris County maybe. Not a nice person; a former record-label owner …
As suggested earlier, Ward’s thin sense of context suggests that he doesn’t see his history as the story of cultural change in which a hitherto unknown social and economic group called teenagers became attuned to their emerging identity in tune to a new and distinctive cluster of musical expressions. Yet his dense accounts of studio sessions, personnel and personalities, minimise the obvious fact that there is indeed a social and economic phenomenon known as the record business, and like all such ventures, certain rights, reciprocities and contractual understandings inhere in it. Unfortunately, probing that side of things apparently offers neither pay-off nor punch-line. Just as the effective absence of a larger social context unnecessarily constricts what, in large part, comes across as a story of a fresh, integrative, cultural departure, so silence about the power (and class) relations within that departure, of which money is a primary expression, is the basic reasons why The History of Rock & Roll Volume I is ultimately a mile wide but an inch deep. Cue Fats Domino intoning “Ain’t That A Shame” (Imperial 5348).
Calling from “The Promised Land”, Chuck Berry announces that “the poor boy’s on the line”. It’s just a phrase of course, but as Jack Hamilton points out in Just Around Midnight (apropos of its use in the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”) it’s a phrase that’s “both a class statement and [carries] its own hints of blues tradition”. And it’s also a reminder that many of the performers who didn’t get their fair share from rock ’n’ roll were black. As with money matters, though rather more directly, race is unavoidable. Ward opens his history “in mid-nineteenth century rural Southern America, which is as good a place as any to start”, conceiving of it as a landscape in which black and white oral traditions – work songs and ballads — cannot help but impinge on one another. This projection of homologies and harmonies is a version of pastoral which is one more indication of rock ’n’ roll’s abiding self-consciousness about roots, lineage, heritage and other warranties of its own historical essence and cultural continuity. As Jack Hamilton puts it, how rock ’n’ roll thinks of itself (or “rock ideology”) “is first and foremost an ideology of authenticity”, a preoccupation by which “the music was (and is) able to convince itself that its commercial success was the reward of heroic expression rather than business calculation”. The account of how that ideological position attained critical mass in the ’60s, and what the implications are of its role as a master narrative, constitute one of the subjects of what is an eye-opening read. And as a second subject, Hamilton offers a counter-position using specific musical occasions and examples which show that black and white did indeed meet and mingled musically and that landmark artists were involved. These occasions of cross-over contradict what is considered one of rock ideology’s most fundamental tenets, which is that the music is that of – make that belongs to ‑ white people. As Hamilton concedes, the instances in question could also be illustrated by the work of numerous other groups and solo artists, but the ones he chooses suffice quite well enough.
Where Ward basically tends to be anecdotal, Hamilton is analytic, one positive result of which is that his book is a very useful guide to the substantial critical literature of rock ’n’ roll. At the same time, as with many an opus grounded in the field of cultural studies, Just Around Midnight can be heavy going, and it will probably take the reader not well-versed in the critical idiom until the book’s eponymous time of the day to get through a chapter. Conceptual constructs of one kind and another are thrown around like snuff at a wake, and there’s also a certain amount of critical infighting. The latter can have its own cultural fascination, no doubt, but as is usual in academic slap-downs the amount of time and space devoted to counting angels on pinheads risks being disproportionate, even if the angels at hand may do the Wah-Watusi after hours. These cavils to one side though, Just Around Midnight makes no bones about exposing and chastising the rhetorical sleights of hand, self-serving contradictions, and reactionary mythography that is at the heart of the mainstream view of how rock ’n’ roll wishes to codify what it has come to regard as its achievements.
Simplifying grossly, Hamilton’s main point is to demonstrate how, dating from the early 1960s, a rock ’n’ roll establishment came into being, propounding certain criteria by which not only the music itself could be valorised but, just as importantly, the social attitudes and styles which the music was presumed to embody (the title of George Melly’s Revolt Into Style encapsulates some of the relevant considerations). The rock ideology that emerged as a result implied that it was not only possible but necessary to make various claims about the music “including who is authorized to play [it] and who is authorized to talk about and listen to it”. The urge to stake such claims ostensibly exhibits a need to control, which in turn, arguably, masks a certain anxiety regarding purity and fitness, not to mention appropriation and entitlement. A certain type of will to cultural power may be perceived, suggesting the return of otherwise repressed imperious habits of mind, which themselves reflect latent or unexamined ideas of property and ownership. In any case, a sense of custodianship – of “the policing of racial authenticity in music” ‑ grew more noticeable as the ’60s went on through debates about genre and canonicity. And racial “imagining” turns out to be at the heart of the matter, a term by which Hamilton means a fixed, pre-determined set of suppositions regarding black music’s and black performers’ contribution to the making of rock ’n’ roll. The type of discriminatory thinking (however latent or unconscious) in question can be gathered, for instance, from Hamilton’s view of “a sonic worldview in which black musical authenticity was defined in relation to a set of imagined aesthetic strictures imposed onto a group, while white musical authenticity was seen in terms of individuality”. As he notes, nobody would dream of talking about “white music”.
As noted, the consolidation of rock ideology dates from the later ’60s, when rock criticism began to appear regularly in the mainstream media and other print outlets – in effect, rock ’n’ roll began to institutionalise itself by attempting to consolidate the music’s genesis and properties. The demographic and class registers such a turn connote hardly need to be spelled out, but just in case they are reproduced in critics’ arguments “over what this music should, and shouldn’t, sound like, be like, look like”. But whitewashing “the colour of rock and roll” began earlier in the folk revival, a revelation which in one sense seems counter-intuitive, since typically folk fans identified with the civil rights, anti-war and similar movements. An important aspect of the folk revival was a fuller recognition of the blues as a part of American musical tradition (though this recognition drew on, for instance, the initiatives in the ’50s linking resistance to anti-communist witch-hunting and folk music; Pete Seeger’s cover version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” is probably the best-known instance of this connection). Black music was given an increasingly visible place because of the authenticity imputed to it, and this quality made it a suitable idiom in a broader language of protest, of speaking truth to power. Rock ’n’ roll reproduces this same set of connections, though largely in a merely gestural fashion, at best affecting and usually lacking any sense of political engagement. And in their day, folk fans expressed this in their hostility to “rock and roll’s proximity to modernity and the market”.
At the same time, folk purism had an adverse effect on how black music was regarded. Folkies typically encased the blues, particularly, in dogmatic conceptions of the traditional and the unspoiled, two virtues which amount to cornerstones of -‑ you’ve guessed it -‑ authenticity. A critical literature developed separating blues sheep from blues goats, discriminating between singers and stylings with a virtually sectarian zeal and in particular thinking of the music in exclusively venerable terms, that is, as a manifestation “raw and unknowable power that existed almost exclusively in the past”. This view implied that black music was significant because it lacked the wherewithal to evolve, and in being irreconcilable with modernity could have no truck with electricity or the urban – so much for Muddy Waters and the Chicago blues scene. Hereabouts, a certain Robert Zimmerman enters the picture, and in time, of course, messes everything up. Hamilton lays out Dylan’s knowledge of and indebtedness to black music, but his main point is to show that Dylan not only changed the music but also changed how he was eventually perceived. By effectively inventing folk rock with the release of the big-selling “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan reinvented himself as “a full-on rock and roll star”. With typical canniness, he resisted credit for the invention, but on the strength of being given it he was turned into the legendary person who, alone of all his kind, upgraded yer common rock ’n’ roll to “something more significant”, to the degree that that hit record of his “has become a genesis event in the creation myth for the genre of ‘rock”’. There’s something of a bass-line of middle-class snobbery in this assessment, and it plainly shows too the operation of a hierarchical mindset. Meanwhile, Dylan, let’s say, moved on.
If “the racial imagination of the folk revival is the clearest intellectual and ideological antecedent to the racial imagination of rock music that took shape in the 1960s and extended far past it”, Dylan is not the only indicator. The other side of Dylan’s canonisation, Hamilton points out, is that it also overshadows other important instances of cross-over music-making. The case in point here is that of Sam Cooke, who made the breakthrough from leading the Soul Stirrers, one of the country’s leading gospel groups, to wider audiences – this, also, in the context of the civil rights movement. Cooke’s move to RCA records produces a number of successful singles whose poppy tunefulness can disguise the singer’s soulful vocal style. But it is this secular deployment of his gospel origins that makes Cooke significant, a claim that Hamilton supports with a lengthy analysis of the haunting and uplifting “A Change is Gonna Come”. As ‘a stunning mixture of influences’ this powerful piece is right up Hamilton’s alley, being an excellent example of that musical “porosity” which he uses to undermine the lapidary artefact that is rock ideology.
And speaking of soul, it too has suffered the attentions of the ideologists through debates about whether it was a quality specific to black music or whether anyone could do it. The latter position ended up being classified as “blue-eyed Soul”, a musical entity that may never have come into existence had there not been an original soul music to imitate. I wouldn’t say Hamilton goes all the way with LeRoi Jones’s view that “the more intelligent the white, the more the realization that he has to steal from niggers”, but neither does he dismiss the statement as merely that of a polemicist and provocateur. His focus, however, is on how soul voicings in their turn “provided a back-door opening for white ‘rock’ music to further stake itself as inextricably different than black music”. Janis Joplin’s unfortunate line that “young white kids have taken the groove and the soul from black people and added intensity” is one expression of not just what Joplin thought her own music was doing but of more widespread ethic, if that’s the word, of appropriation, together with an idea of specific performance values being synonymous with seemingly racial superiority. Although he doesn’t use the term apropos of Joplin, Hamilton seems to attribute a strain of minstrelsy to the version of cross-over that she practised. What might be called the straining after the realer than real that is characteristic of Joplin’s vocal style comes off a poor second in comparison to other, rather more complicated and daring instances of soul performances, as Hamilton demonstrates in his account of Aretha Franklin’s take on “Eleanor Rigby” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” (originally written for Franklin).
These two records exhibit a musical thoughtfulness that, like the Beatles’ indebtedness to James Jamerson, the Motown house bass player (another Hamilton subject), shows “porosity” not to be a matter of octane levels but a type of sprezzatura ‑ respect and understanding expressed in a spirit of dialogue and play. Such dialogic interactions tend towards renovation and expansion, in contrast to the prescriptive and reductive inclinations of rock’s would-be curators. And it is because of what often seems like the latter’s performance of authority and righteous judgment that the artists discussed here all “provoked a crisis about musical and racial authenticity” by calling it into question through their musical practices, their rereading of sources and traditions, their imaginative adaptation of influences, and perhaps most essentially their sense of openness, flexibility and potential. And of course this crisis was not only musical but was also reflected in the moral panic affected, fomented or perhaps actually felt by various pillars of society at every stage of rock ’n’ roll’s history. This reaction seems to have been more the case in England than elsewhere, what with the public behaviour and appearance of successive waves of rock ’n’ roll fandom (teds, mods, rockers and so on), and Just Around Midnight concludes with England in mind, examining – comparing and contrasting, really – the Rolling Stones and that most unusual episode in the music’s history in that country, the rise to stardom of Jimi Hendrix.
These two acts are tied together by violence, Hendrix’s being of a basically musical variety, grounded in technique no less than expressiveness. Hamilton sees Hendrix’s achievement as a kind of ultimate embodiment of cross-over, a suite of breakthroughs into stratospheric musical spaces where the hang-ups and heavy-handedness of racial determinism cannot be used as interpretative lodestars. Back in the day though, Hendrix’s experimentalism often took second billing to the air of novelty and the exotic that surrounded him, an air whose implications are suggested in one of his obituarists’ description of him as “a black man in the alien world of rock”. I remember seeing him in London at the Saville Theatre, when he burned the American flag on stage. We all cheered, of course, not only assuming that he was protesting at the Vietnam war but that he was doing it for us, because the war was our cause, and wasn’t it to please us he was performing? We could never have imagined that the war was only part of it, and performing was too, though we might have gathered the second bit from his paradoxically passive stage presence if we’d been actually thinking about him, or if we’d been aware enough to who he was to know that all that fantastic fingering was not about spectacle or audiences but about rage and grieving.
The musical experience Hendrix delivered is obviously of a different order from anything the Stones attempted, and their association with violence is much more straightforward in two respects. The first is the notorious 1969 concert in Altamont, California, at which some Hell’s Angels murdered a member of the audience while the band was playing – a horrible contrast to the reading from “Adonais” and the release of a flock of white butterflies during the band’s Hyde Park concert in memory of Brian Jones earlier that year. The second, as Hamilton shows, is in the lyrics of some of their best-known numbers, and the accounts of “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Gimme Shelter”, and especially “Brown Sugar” do raise a fair few questions about how violence is being played by the band, as it were, so much so that these numbers’ various attitudes create further difficulties in prizing the music just because of its “dogged insistence on the centrality of tradition to rock and roll, which [they] saw as directly contiguous to a long and rich history of African American music”. On the face of it, this seems an intellectually bland and morally unexceptional round of applause for a kind of hobbyist’s commitment, notable for its colour sensitivity (no small consideration, needless to say), but all the same somewhat less than an entirely adequate basis for assessing the Stones’ mannerist projections of revolt, the knowing spontaneity of Jagger’s body language, and songs that are more willing to indulge in spectacles of violence than they are to reflect on having done so.
It’s not the Rolling Stones’ status as fans of Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and the whole black rock and blues pantheon that’s at issue. Rather, the point is how they refashioned this enthusiasm, making it a putative musical identity, an image of an anti-establishment acting out. Hamilton’s claim that “being white … was one thing that, for better and worse, the Rolling Stones were never interested in”. Those, in fact, are the last words of Just Around Midnight, but I think he’s nearer the mark when he says the band “were never entirely able to separate their relationship to black music from a fantastical fetishization of the music … The roots of the band’s dangerous, outsider image sprang from the belief that for a white band to play black music was a transgressive and titillating act. The Rolling Stones themselves were by no means innocent in the construction of this image.” The relation between the deliberateness of this construction and the notions of violence that their work entertains could do with being spelled out more fully in Just Around Midnight, paying attention, in particular, to white racial imaginings of blacks and violence and the question of where the Stones stand with respect to those imaginings. And anyway, how much does Chuck Berry’s “poor boy” really have in common with the Stones?
It’s not that Hamilton’s focus on colour blinds him to class, but he could have made a good deal more of that latter dimension of the Stones’ origins and attainments. Granted, the group’s early work was originally an interesting, or at least novel, expression of cross-over musical adventurism. But in being that it also acted as a means of casting off English suburban self-consciousness. This was accomplished more by cultivating an image of outrageousness, and by buying into a reputation for being naughty antitheses to National Service man by the ease with which they got up old Tory noses. Musically, tone and presentation (its impact on the consumer, that is) had to fall in line, and whatever tradition it might have been indebted to had to be adapted to serve the image. The band’s notoriety, starting with their look, placed them at the forefront of the crisis in manners that was taking Daily Mail England aback in the Sixties. And, speaking of looks, since all male performers, whether Sinatra or Joe Cocker, project styles of maleness, how the Stones came across could not help but appear to be a choice that was deliberately provocative, shameful, and (their hope seemed to be) a bit menacing. Hamilton cites press exclamations of horror at the band’s first appearance, and among these miscegenation is hinted at, as though they were black (“Would you let your sister go out with a Rolling Stone?”). But as the image was consolidated the music on the whole failed to evolve; on the contrary it seemed to become trapped in an essentially static groove, its main purpose to map the lyrics’ generalised white anxieties and the hostility they evidently generate onto a musical form created by a black minority in a different country, a different culture and a different set of performing traditions. One of the interesting aspects of Hamilton’s other cross-over instances is that they all show a somewhat experimental edge. There already is a music which black, or white, material can reshape, renew, repurpose (“Blowing in the Wind” as the offspring of “No More Auction Block for Me” is one such example; the Beatles’ “Rain” another). This is not the case with the Stones; as Hamilton says, their music is “conservative”, thus facilitating the triumph of style over substance. And whatever their beginnings in imitative homage, and however successful their adaptation of what they were drawn to, over the years image has yielded to brand, and the resulting end musical product an expression of what a brand requires than what a band desires. Nobody would want to buy themselves out of that – and that’s show business too. Not the somewhat fly-blown undertaking that Ed Ward chronicles but one that lends itself without a second thought to the machinations of the culture industry.
The essentially fabricated character of what the Stones are about has nothing whatsoever in it that even begins to approach Hendrix’s sense of conflict, because nothing in it speaks of, or directly derives from, actual experience or personality. Stylised sneering doesn’t count; it’s no more than, at best, contrarian affectation. Jagger’s campness and Richards’s outlaw posture are just two raised fingers from a speeding Caddy, naughty gestures to get away with, not to be taken at face value. But that’s how it’s taken. I did the same myself, and so does Hamilton with the songs he considers in depth, registering the shock of their lyrics’ brutality, paranoia, and other dabblings in darkness as well as its musical reinforcement, while not fully taking into account their reliance on a persona around which the whole production is coordinated and the particular issues of ego and impersonation such a compositional strategy brings to the fore. If the band is to be credited for viewing their music “as a space where race itself might be radically undone”, it’s the self-regard with which the undoing is undertaken that has the most impact (it fills the arenas) rather than any credible radical input. On the contrary, an argument might be made that, as things turned out, there is no great distance between “Little Red Rooster” and Arise, Sir Mick. But Hamilton will have none of that, and instead gives the Stones props for what he seems to consider their staying true to their roots by “selecting black artists as touring partners”. That’s jolly decent of them no doubt, though there may also be cynics muttering somewhere about what good business sense it makes.
As rock ’n’ roll’s elder statesmen, the Stones are effectively in command of what the majority of their audiences understand, or at least perceive, the music to be. One consequence of such exemplary standing is that they’ve shown the way for generations (!) of bands whose relation to black music has produced work that is, at best, pitifully ersatz. Hamilton takes this as no reflection on the Stones themselves but rather a reflection of how they were “simply absorbed into rock ideology as affirmations of the music’s own white authenticity”. The basis for this evidently passive assimilation, and the hollowed-out sense of tradition with which it resounds, is said to be the group’s “flirtations with violence”, a rather unnerving phrase. Hamilton might have wondered if chatting violence up fits a pattern of flirtation with taboo or épater already established. And, given the Stones’ seniority and their status as role models, he might also have added a few words about whether they also contributed to what’s called rock ’n’ roll these days sounding so dogmatic, embattled and adversarial, as though its primary expressive ambition is to repress the spirit of play, or of the self-forgetting that is play, which is so evident in the music’s founding fathers’ and mothers’ relishing of the freedom to celebrate and reach out, performing styles imbued with cultural values whose roots are to be found far beyond the bedrooms of white male teenagers. Maybe the cries of “Rape, murder” – complete with gospel inflections – in “Gimme Shelter” (likened by Hamilton to Yeats’s “The Second Coming”) tipped successor bands the wink that the dark side of the carnivalesque is the one to go for. Whether or not, there sure is a hell of a lot of it around, worse luck. “Take These Chains from My Heart” already! – Ray Charles’s plaint comes to mind, from that suite of country songs he did that constitute one of the greatest feats of cross-over of all time. But that’s another story. Don’t get me started on that.
George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.