Alibi V.19 No.30 • July 29-Aug 4, 2010 

Rock Reads

Dancing About Architecture

Music lit 101 reading list

Thomas Edison intended the phonograph for political speeches and commerce, not frivolous music. Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC) adores lightweight chanteuse Sarah McLachlan. Experimental noise is influenced by pop music even if just to rebel against it.

Different styles of music have more in common than scale and notes. From drumming on hollow logs in the forest to headbanger guitar riffs in the concert hall, music has shared social, political and economic links. This becomes apparent the more one listens. And reads. Despite Frank Zappa’s contention that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” this incomplete list of reading material is a good start.

Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture

Ken Emerson

(Da Capo Press, 1998 • paperback • $18.95)

American pop starts here. In the mid-1800s, music sales meant the sale of sheet music. At the time, most performances were in the home around the family piano.

Woody Guthrie, A Life

Joe Klein

(Knopf, 1980 • paperback • $17)

This bio is ultimately about more than its subject. In his lifetime, Guthrie knew more American folk songs than most any person alive. He trusted in a rural America (fast becoming an industrial nation) and its common people, who yearned for the songs of their grandparents. He was the spark that eventually ignited the folk revival of the late ’50s.

Jazz: A History of America’s Music

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

(Knopf, 2000 • paperback •$35)

This one’s kind of a cheater because it’s the companion volume to Burns’ epic PBS documentary, but it remains a good introduction to America’s first mass-media-popular music.

Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era

Ken Emerson

(Penguin, 2006 • paperback • $23)

This is the unlikely saga of how a dozen Jewish kids from Brooklyn penned hundreds of top 40 hits and dethroned reigning Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Irving Berlin.

Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records

Rob Bowman

(Schirmer Trade Books, 2006 • paperback • $29.95)

We’re still waiting for a volume that seriously chronicles the soul-pop of Motown Records and isn’t just an overblown press release for the label’s founder Berry Gordy. In the meantime, this is the grittier “cornbread” side of rhythm and blues in dense detail.

Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London

Shawn Levy

(Doubleday, 2002 • paperback • $19)

There’s more than enough works covering The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Here’s an account of young and hip photographers, fashion models and self-appointed trendsetters who set the stage for The British Invasion that raised America out of the post-Kennedy doldrums.

Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears

Kim Cooper and David Smay

(Feral House, 2001 • paperback • $19.95)

Lovingly spotlights the marketing forces that invade our airwaves with catchy but questionable songs you can’t escape.

The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night

Anthony Haden-Guest

(Haper Perennial, 1998 • paperback • $14.99)

If you think disco was inconsequential or has nothing to do with techno and electro, you’re wrong. Love it or hate it, disco was more than an embarrassing blip; it’s the ancestor of Euro-American dance culture.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

(Grove Press, 1996 • paperback • $16)

A depraved oral history of the early New York scene from the people who made it happen. This book set the standard for other, lesser punk histories such as We Got the Neutron Bomb and American Hardcore.

Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade

by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn

(Da Capo Press, 2002 • paperback • $29.95)

Hip-hop was once about more (much more) than gold chains and hos. The Bronx, graffiti, breakdancing and DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaattaa receive their dues.