Unknown Legends of Rock N Roll
by Ritchie Unterberger
Good rock and roll books are hard to find. The best, such as Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones or Bob Greene’s Billion Dollar Babies are labors of love. Unterberger’s look at the unlit avenues of rock history is a compelling, informative work that emphasizes his love of the sound and the people who made it. He is the former editor of the magazine Option and an editor of The All Music Guide to Rock, and it’s clear he’s done his homework. The book is arranged by topics as varied as “Punk Pioneers” to “Mad Geniuses and Eccentric Recluses.” Flipping through the artists profiled, you find a span ranging from the talented but deranged Roky Erickson, whose Texas psychedelic blues are only partially anchored to earth, to “The Plastic People of the Universe,” the Czech Republic musical troop that formed “Charter 77,” one of the forces acknowledged as fostering the dissent that lead to Vaclav Havel becoming president, ending years of tyranny.
Each performer’s overview highlights their own unique gifts. No one is profiled here because they were (or are!) a freak — Syd Barrett is here because of Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn one the truly brilliant Sixties albums, not because of his degeneration into madness. Although that part is included, of course, in stark, brief strokes. The author doesn’t linger, as so many entertainment books unfortunately do, at the decline of these artists. He instead provides us good reason as to each performer’s moment in time, and why it was legendary. Special attention is given to music of other countries, with lengthy write-ups of German rock, Australian music, and other “world” beats. You come away knowing far more than you did when you sat down.
Like all great rock and roll books, the greatest sign of success is that it makes you want to hear the music — and since most of the artists here have been out of print for decades, you would be hard pressed to dig them up. (So to speak. About half of the artists here are dead.) Fortunately, Unterberger has included a 12-cut CD that captures some of the best music from the performers in the book. Great music from folks as diverse as the Deviants, England’s Sixties noise shapers, to Penelope Houston, whose punk band the Avengers opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show in San Francisco, and who is now performing folk music. Quite nicely, too. The Mystic Tide’s “Frustration,” recorded in 1966, roars with more conviction and pain than a hundred Maximum Rock and Roll bands, and if it wasn’t for this great book, nobody would have ever heard it.
As either a historical document and reference book, or just a great read, Unknown Legends of Rock N Roll is a must-have.