To say that rock and roll is deeply imbedded in the history and culture of the Western world would be an over simplification to the extent of which music holds sway over us. Even though genres like hip-hop, many forms of electronica, and pop have dominated the airwaves the past two decades, they all find their roots in the rock and roll of last century. While countless books have been published that discuss this very thing, only serious scholars of music take the time to really delve into these tomes. Most of our musical knowledge comes from tales passed down from others and Wikipedia pages. Smithsonian Books set out to catalogue some of rocks biggest players and influencers by crowdsourcing fan photographs in an overview of rock and roll from the point of view of the fans.
Smithsonian Rock And Roll is ultimately a “People’s History of Rock and Roll” as told by pictures and brief descriptions of the band or artist. Though not every hugely influential band or artist is included, the lion’s share can be seen throughout the over two hundred pages included in the publication. From Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello; from Bowie to Beck and MC5 to N.W.A., this book covers the bases. Many of the pictures included with each artist are previously unseen and unpublished, so the reader is constantly seeing a new view of each band. Most pictures are from live settings, while a few are more professional.
The most interesting additive to the book is author Bill Bentley’s blurbs that accompany every band/artist. In each entry, Bentley provides a short history of when the band formed (or artist started), what their influences were and their impact on rock and roll. Though only a few hundred words at most, each narrative does a fantastic job of giving many readers a deeper knowledge of each band/artist. Bentley does a solid job at keeping everything short and digestible for a society whose attention spans grow ever shorter.
It is by no means a comprehensive list, and a few hugely influential acts (e.g. Radiohead) are excluded. Some entries legacies and influences, while great bands, remain to be seen (e.g. Alabama Shakes). However, as a whole Smithsonian Rock And Roll is essential reading (and viewing) for every music lover. It provides a simple and undemanding way to learn the history of rock and roll and can help broaden the scope of appreciation for those that influenced the bands around today.
Cover image: The Clash at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, September 19, 1979. Photo: Catherine Vanaria / Smithsonian Books