Book review / From our friends in the past

THE BEAT GOES ON: The Rock File Reader eds Charlie Gillett & Simon Frith, Pluto Press pounds 10.99
A SELECTION of articles reprinted from a long-defunct rock chronicle of the 1970s - especially one modelled on Wisden's Cricketers' Almanac - does not sound like the most essential of purchases. But this modest compilation of contemporary commentaries sheds more light on the music of the polyester decade than a bonfire of retrospective nostalgia tomes.

Even issues whose currency has dwindled somewhat two decades on - the rudeness of Prince Buster's lyrics; whether Lindisfarne could succeed in producing music that is "British without being insular or nostalgic" - echo forward to the present day and beyond. And if the occasional sociological table has a rather dusty look to it, this is more than compensated for by the thrill of travelling back in time without anyone having had a chance to tidy up.

This is what Greil Marcus was aiming to get out of The Dustbin of History: that people's past ideas of what might happen say a lot about what still could. Reading about the formation of David Cassidy's teenybop constituency, the evolution of the Northern Soul dance underground, and the distinctive characteristics of a Black Sabbath audience in the mid-Seventies ("None of them had horns") tells us things there was no other way of knowing about Take That, Acid House and Nirvana (though not necessarily in that order).

To add an extra dimension to this top timewarp action, the original writers have been recalled and invited to don hindsight's x-ray specs. The resulting afterwords vary from apologetic self-criticism (Simon Frith confessing that his "love of music seems strangely absent") to full-scale social history.

The Beat Goes On concludes with an extraordinary piece of writing by erstwhile Pop Quiz question-setter Pete Fowler. Fowler's great original essay "Skins Rule" identified the appearance of marauding gangs of skinheads at the Rolling Stones' Hyde Park concert as a harbinger of what he calls (in a rare clumsy moment) "the disunity of community in the worlds represented by British rock". A quarter of a century on, he extrapolates eloquently from this bleak moment to the smashing of the crystal decanter of left wing intellectual certainty with Thatcherism's grisly lump-hammer.

"What on earth would I have made in 1969," Fowler wonders, "of a row of conservative politicians sitting under a banner proclaiming `Power To The People' and singing a chorus of `Imagine No Possessions' led by the black lead singer of Hot Chocolate?" This book's highlights convey the same sort of excitement as the best historical moments in Our Friends in the North: the headlong rush of the passage of time and the tingling sensation of liquid reality crystallising into vitreous myth.