Saturday, May 16, 2020

Revisiting Roxon's Rock

The great Lillian Roxon's POV was appealingly skeptical, fan-ly, yet clear-eyed
I've been dipping into Lillian Roxon's influential Rock Encyclopedia lately, eager as always for on-the-ground reportage of the late-1960's rock and roll scenes. An Australian, Roxon was dubbed the "Mother of Rock." She wrote pop music criticism and journalism before turning her attention to sexual politics and feminism. Born in 1932, she died of an asthma attack in 1973.

The massive Encyclopedia was published in 1969 (and revised in 1978). Roxon's entires, ranging in length from single sentences to multiple pages, blend journalism and wit, and are equal parts forthright and idiosyncratic. She was slightly older than the Beatles generation, and perhaps her point of view—appealingly skeptical, fan-ly yet clear-eyed—was shaped by that. What's especially captivating in hindsight was the Encyclopedia's appearance at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s. Many changes on the rock and roll landscape were forthcoming, not least of which the rise of virtuosity, "progressive" ensembles, more baroque stages, and the widening gap between performer and fan—nearly all of which Roxon smelled in the air as she was working on these pieces. ("Multimedia is moving in and the rock light show will be a big part of it," she predicted, correctly.) 

And yet: as she wrote, Brian Jones had only just died, and Gene Vincent, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin were all very much alive, the latter three buzzing with the promise of bold futures. Tommy and Led Zeppelin II had just been issued, too close to Roxon's deadline for their track listings to appear, though the Four Seasons' psychedelic political concept album made it in. "Groupies" earned a respectful entry. Neil Young had just hooked up with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and "Supergroups" were all the rage. The Encyclopedia begins with an entry on "ACID ROCK" and ends with one on the Zombies, who'd released Odyssey And Oracle the year before. So, the quote-unquote 1960s were still very much alive. After all, the Beatles were (still) together (barely). 

In her author's note, Roxon complained of the inherent frustrations in writing about musicians and bands at the end of the decade: "Trying to get the rock world to keep still long enough for me to take its picture was one of the most difficult tasks in putting this book together," she writes, adding, "Groups split even as I wrote of their inner harmony, and got themselves together just as I had acknowledges their tragic demise."
Too many people blinked when I clicked the shutter—but then, isn’t this restlessness exactly what rock is all about? The madness and desperation and constant shifts of power. I wanted to record the facts without losing the feelings. In the end, though, the music itself has to tell the story. This book is the companion to that story.
If the landscape was constantly shifting, many of Roxon's observations were thoughtfully weighted—one ear to the past, one to the future, and she's always careful to (attempt to) place artists in context. Already the Grateful Dead, with only two albums under their belt, "were not so much a band as a social institution." With their "natty striped blazers," the Cyrkle offered "crystal-clear college rock" (what a difference a generation would do to that term!). Turned on by the ongoing dynamism in the air, Roxon often made bold predictions concerning the legacies of certain bands. About Jefferson Airplane, she wrote, "Years, or maybe centuries from now, someone will discover that there really was a music of the spheres, and it will sound not unlike the music the Airplane plays in the moments of its highest flight." (One wonders what Roxon would have made of the high-flying Starship.) Soft Machine "have been called the Futuristic Beatles," she notes, "and years from now, when we fully understand their combinations of John Cage, Stockhausen, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, we might agree." She made the same guess about the Fugs' eventual place in rock history. And what of the Rolling Stones, who at the close of '69 were ascending into the far reaches of their peak years? "The group is still strong and together," she observes. "Jagger is becoming a film star (Performance and Ned Kelly)." Alluding to Jones' death, she added, "But nothing is the same. How could it be?"

Altamont hadn't occurred yet. One ear on the past, one to the future.


My favorite entry in Rock Encyclopedia belongs to this upstart band of kids:

Word is they're in the studio now.

Roxon's wide-view take on scenes and developments are worth reading, as well. About "Electronic Rock," she observed, regarding the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, that "only with electronics can you get those eerie nonhuman sounds, echoes, distortions, sound effects, and only in a studio can you produce them." She notes that "People had experimented with electronics in rock before...but until [Pepper] the mechanical tinkerings tended to take away from rather than contribute to the emotion of the music."("Was it a Beatle triumph or an engineering triumph or both?" she asks smartly.) She goes on to reference the United States of America, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, the Silver Apples, and the Byrds, bands that designed their own electronic equipment "so they could create studio effects on stage in live performance." "Interest is growing," she reports, "and the day will eventually come when bands will bristle with electronic equipment and use tapes, gadgets and trickery to get a variety of noises not yet heard on the rock stage." Alas.

She takes on "Head Music" and "Acid Rock," dryly reporting that "some music is more appropriate to certain chemical states than to others." Interesting also is her excitement about the "Discotheque," then a relatively new development. Joints such as Le Club, Arthur, Cheetah, the Electric Circus, Trude Heller's,  the Scene, Ondine, Salvation, The Barge, and Whisky A-Go-Go weren't only intimate venues to hear live bands, many of which were getting a foothold, but also "meeting places of just about anyone you've ever wanted to see. If you can find them in the dark, that is." This entry was followed by the helpful command, "(See the TWIST)." One ear on the past, one to the future.

Speaking of The Future, Roxon's entry on "FUTURE ROCK" is especially interesting, and worth quoting in full:
Some people believe that by 2001 rock will be entirely machine-made. Machines will be programmed so that combinations of different sounds will be left to chance. At-home listeners will have controls that will make it possible for them to “produce” a record—speed it up, slow it down, make it louder and softer, and separate the tracks, adding, subtracting, overdubbing—to create their own version if a hit. There will be no live performances, no stages. Music will be heard with a small circle of friends, not with a group of strangers. The sound will possibly be closest to that of the United States of America, an electronic-rock group. So many groups of the sixties have gone after a future-rock sound, however (the Byrds in their explorations of jets and space; the Jefferson Airplane in its explorations of the mind), that 2001 may very well bring a reaction against these “prophetic” sounds and move into something quite different, perhaps more along the line of Oriental music. Already the sitar, which was regarded as “boring” by musically uneducated westeners, has been taken up—and discarded. Thousands of fads are sure to come and go before 2001. There will probably be no more records, just tapes sold in combinations that can be mixed and mingled. And there will be Sunday producers (like Sunday painters) playing with sound on their home sets. Then it will be possible to have the Byrds and Beatles singing together with the New York Philharmonic. Or Aretha Franklin an Donovan and the New Lost City Rambles.The sort of thing that has been happening informally in jam sessions, and more formally on the SUPER SESSION albums, the mixing of performers who don't usually play together, will be taken for granted on tape.
Well, 2001 came and went. And thousands of fads did come and go. GarageBand and other online home studios proliferate. The average fan can in fact digitally manipulate any track they upload, whether it's theirs or someone else's. Live performances never went away (sob), but 1s and 0s allow studio "duets" to magically occur between the living and the dead alike. Records did go away (kinda), but came back—hey, so did cassette tapes. Like any bold prediction about the future, a third of Roxon's claims here are quaintly archaic, but the vast majority of her encyclopedic enthusiasms and sober reckonings have aged very well.

Photo of Roxon at the launch of Rock Encyclopedia in 1969, via NFSA


Joe Kenney said...

Fom one Joe to another, this was a great review! I picked up the original edition months ago but haven't read it, just skimmed some. I especially enjoyed the head music section. Your review has inspired me to start reading it again. Maybe a few entries a day. FYI, Greil Marcus gave this book a negative, Comic Book Guy-esque review in Rolling Stone...kind of bitchy diatribe on all the little things she got incorrect. He totally missed the fun aspect of the book, not to mention the quality of Roxon's prose.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Joe! Glad to hear that you're inspired to get back in to the book. Great stuff. And yeah, GM's been known to not get a thing or two.