Waiting for the (company) Man

Richard Williams regrets that big business ever laid greedy hands on the music of youthful bliss
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Almost grown: the rise of rock by James Miller (Heinemann £#163;12.99)

Almost grown: the rise of rock by James Miller (Heinemann £#163;12.99)

TWENTY YEARS after some accursed creative director discovered that pop music was a useful selling tool, it still makes me mad to hear "Purple Haze" or "Come Together" employed as music for television advertisements. Neither record, as it happens, is among my special favourites, but Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon were certainly among those who found voices for the incoherent feelings that were among the pleasures and pains of growing up. The anger I feel is compounded because Hendrix and Lennon are no longer around to sanction the employment of their work for a purpose at such a degree of variance from its original motive.

At its best, James Miller's survey of the first 30 years of rock and roll follows the currents that carried this music from the springs and streams of comparative innocence into the stinking cesspool of international corporatism. Mostly, he acts the dispassionate observer, but occasionally what appear to be his true feelings bubble to the surface.

Remarking on the effect of George Lucas's American Graffiti on the use of music in films, he writes that "studios in these years became adept at churning out big-budget pictures that combined a coming-of-age story line with a suitably high-octane rock and roll soundtrack. If music helped sell a film, the film just as often returned the favour."

This was not, as he writes, an unmixed blessing. The music of people like Marvin Gaye and the Ronettes achieved "a new, and terrible, sort of immortality... these musical traces of youthful inspiration, products of whimsy preserved on tape, were fated to be repeated over and over again, in film after film, in ad after ad, aimed at the young, and at those who wished they still were, until nobody, young or old, could any longer experience the core feelings - of wonder and surprise - that rock and roll had really excited, once upon a time."

I happen to feel that if I were to go to the shelf and pull out, say, Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger" or the Reflections' "(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet", they would elicit something very much like the feelings of "wonder and surprise" that I experienced in 1963 and 1964, respectively. But then I would never have described them as "products of whimsy". His point, however, remains generally valid.

Miller started writing about pop music in 1967, and served as rock critic of Newsweek from 1981 to 1990. Currently professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, and the author of works including The Passion of Michel Foucault and History and Human Existence: from Marx to Merleau-Ponty, he appears to have embarked on this project at least partly in order to explain his own past to himself, and to figure out why he spent such a large proportion of his adulthood immersed in rock.

The form of the book, which he describes as "a reflective look back at selected episodes in the history of the world's most popular form of music", is unusual and not without merit. Using the most recent sources, he re-examines significant incidents in the music's development, starting with the recording of Wynonie Harris's "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 and ending with the death of Elvis Presley 30 years later.

The reader's pleasure is likely to be measured in direct proportion to his or her ignorance of the subject at hand. For me, the passages on the rise of Alan Freed and Dick Clark, who disseminated the music via radio and TV respectively, were an illuminating reflection of the experience of American teenagers - and a useful description of the means by which both men exploited, with very different success, the available commercial opportunities.

Many of the significant events are covered - from Blackboard Jungle through the founding of Atlantic Records, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis on the Steve Allen Show, the Beatles at the Cavern, Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Hendrix at Monterey, the Stones at Altamont, the Doors in Miami, Ziggy Stardust and The Harder They Come, up to the Sex Pistols' television confrontation with Bill Grundy.

Too much, as Miller admits, is missing to qualify this book for consideration as alongside the likes of Charlie Gillett's book The Sound of the City. No Holly, Cochran, Berry, Beach Boys, Bacharach, Tammy Wynette, uptown soul, disco, or the New York new wave of Television, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads.

Within this loose weave of anecdote, a few themes can be identified. If the growing commercialisation of the music is the work's factual thread, its connecting emotion may be a barely suppressed distaste for the complete takeover of rock and roll by (to borrow the title of someone else's book) the Dark Stuff - the subversive, the transgressive, the self-consciously "doom eager", in the Icelandic term. What began as a clandestine subtext eventually turned into a mandatory preoccupation, thanks largely to the astonishing success of the Velvet Underground in colonising the minds of a generation ("the most influential rock band since the Beatles", Miller correctly concludes). Much as I continue to love "Venus in Furs" and "Sister Ray", I have some sympathy for the author's ambivalence.

So there are flashes of worthwhile argument here, although not enough to allow Almost Grown to rival Miller's friend Greil Marcus's Mystery Train. Yet, given the necessary brevity, his accounts are sharp and carefully balanced, offering the occasional genuine insight.

When Presley sang "My Way", he writes, a lyric originally intended to suggest magisterial self-command instead "conveyed a mood of stately disintegration, evoking the morbid pride of a man taking solace from the certainty that he is, as if in a dream, slowly, and not without pleasure, killing himself." And that, he seems to think, should have been that.