how to trace a rock family tree

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The Independent Culture
When it comes to surfing the obscure byways of rock history, Pete Frame (right) is the wispy-bearded granddaddy of them all. He was the founder of the pioneering music magazine, Zig Zag, in 1969, and has continued to do thrilling service to popular music ever since with his Rock Family Trees. These are graphic biographies of bands, crammed with interviews and discographies, which lovingly trace various line-ups and track departed members to other groups. Put them all together and you have a sort of pop hypertext, if you will.

Frame's star is deservedly in the ascendant once again, as Omnibus Press has republished The Complete Rock Family Trees, most of which were originally drawn between 1979 and 1983; Saturday sees the start of a six-week BBC2 television series on such subjects as Elvis Presley, Morrissey and The Police; and on Friday, London's HMV Oxford Circus mounts a two-week exhibition of 40 trees, seen, as nature intended, in their full 3x2ft glory.

What drove him to it? "Well, I was 13 the month that Rock around the Clock went to No 1 in England - it was like something from Mars. I just recognised at the time that it was culturally important: rock'n' roll laid itself out before me like a huge carpet which I've danced upon ever since."

If you've the faintest interest in pop, you could accidentally find that a couple of hours have flown by while you were just browsing the trees. For instance, what's the connection between Blondie and Talking Heads? Well, fact fetishists, one-time Blondie guitarist Ivan Kral played in a Patti Smith tour with Andy Paley, who once played drums in a band called Elliott Murphy, whose keyboardist was Jerry Harrison, who later joined the Heads on keyboards and guitar. Now, you didn't know you wanted to know that, but finding it out gives you an enormous sense of well-being.

The family tree device turns out to be gruesomely apt for the life of a band. "You see guys who left groups before success came along and a lot of them are extremely bitter and twisted. Rock bands actually are like families; they live together, they split up - you know, there's rivalry, jealousy, misery, happiness, wealth..." And the way the family trees mostly stop at just the point where other rock chronicles start - when mass recognition is first achieved - is a useful corrective to the notion that bands just spring up by magic and become successful overnight. There's an amazing amount of behind-the-scenes toil, often going back decades, before you get a Police or a Madness in the charts.

Frame has spent the last decade or so doing stuff like Radio 1 rockumentaries, but it is the invention of the trees which marks him out from your average ligger. As well as the fact that, despite being no spring chicken, he refuses to bask in a notion of the "good old days". "Frankly, I've never loved more than about five per cent of the music that's been around at any one time since 1955." He digs techno - "It's just young guys experimenting like they've always done" - and he rather enjoys the current Britpop revival. "At least those bands like Blur and Suede have got a healthy respect for the past - they recognise that they're the latest blossom on a tree which has been growing for 40 years."

There you go: horticulture again. So what advice would he give to a young rock chronicler today? "Oh, go and study law or medicine," he says avuncularly. Only joking - "Actually, it needs a new generation of writers to replace bozos like me." So get sharpening those pencils, but don't imagine Frame's out of the picture yet, as he already has half a wistful eye on the history of Blur: "Yeah, I'd love to sit down and have a chat with that Damon fella...."