Music Features

A Brief History of Rock Writing

Have you ever wondered why we write these reviews and features? Most likely you haven't and that's fine. It's even reassuring. Being taken for granted is much better than disappearing in the mist of history along with the dodo. You see, rock journalism has survived in spite of the recording industry, which has lost its grip on youth culture. While it continues producing swill for the masses, it no longer has a stake on the counterculture, if there ever was such a thing. Rock journalism, which has been around for fifty years plus, has always depended on the music industry. In fact, it grew exponentially in the late sixties, a time when markets expanded and record labels transformed into media conglomerates. Since then, rock magazines have survived on ads and free swag from record labels, and it hasn't changed much for profit-based webzines. However, the interaction isn't symbiotic. Though journalists provide much-needed exposure to artists, the exchange demands an ethical distance. The first rule for corporations is to seek fiscal safety. In contrast, rock writers hate stagnation, seek the odd and the weird, and are happier when things are up for grabs. What motivates us is a desire to communicate our passion for the music. Our priority is to keep you informed on what's good out there, a rare privilege in this age of smart devices and short attention spans.

There were no rock critics in the fifties. No one was there to explain the reasons for the sights and sounds when Elvis and Little Richard took the world by storm. Newspapers and magazines couldn't tell you there was a revolution underway; they actually did their best to hide it from view. Though teenagers were becoming a major consumer force, their contributions to music, fashion, and art were belittled. The negative copy churned out by writers portrayed the music as an artless fad, far less welcome than the mambo craze. Interviews with artists were uninformed and banal, concerts weren't covered, and reviews for new releases were as trite as the PR copy. What actually made the headlines was the outright antagonism coming from civic and church authorities. There were writers giving a serious coverage to music, but they centered on classical and jazz releases. Jazz writers avoided the pop field, yet there were notable exceptions like Ralph J. Gleason. A master craftsman with a unique voice, Gleason would be instrumental in the creation of a training ground for rock writers.

By the mid-sixties, it was clear that rock 'n' roll couldn't be ignored. Still, the daily press gave short shrift to its effect on youth, the wild sonic explorations, and the defiant lyrics. As it often happens when reporters miss the vibes, it's the consumers who spread the news. The infrastructure for the rock press was actually built at college newspapers. Budding writers, some still in their teens, debated on the merits of the music and articulated their impressions in their own language. This created a trust between writers and readers that wasn't there before. Paul Williams capitalized on it when he founded the long-lived Crawdaddy! in 1966, which became the first magazine to treat rock as a serious subject. The magazine's success inspired would be editors on both sides of the Atlantic. Among them was Jann Wenner, a contributor to San Francisco's Ramparts. Wenner partnered with his mentor, Ralph J. Gleason, to found Rolling Stone in 1967. This coincided with the rise of the hippie movement in the Haight-Ashbury district, but both Wenner and Gleason were visionaries with a strict work ethic. They followed the highest standards of journalism, fostering staffers such as Ben Fong-Torres, Jon Landau, and Greil Marcus. With its perceptive reviews and thorough interviews, the biweekly's circulation numbers shot skyward. These figures kept strong throughout the darkest days of the counterculture. For instance, its exhaustive coverage of the Manson Family's murders and the killing at Altamont scooped the straight press.

Though Rolling Stone began as an organ of the counterculture, by the end of the decade it had aligned itself with the survival rules of capitalism. The perception on the street was that the publication had lost its mojo, and a fawning attitude toward certain rock groups and captains of industry didn't help the case. The publishing landscape was also changing, with magazines like Circus and Sounds making headways. There was also a new batch of reputable writers, such as Robert Christgau at the Village Voice and female voices like Lillian Roxon, Lisa Robinson, and Jaan Uhelszki. In fact, female staffers were growing in numbers, all adding a fresh perspective. Uhelszki was one of the founders of Creem, which would define itself as America's only rock 'n' roll magazine. "We are real, receptive, and quite selective," declared publisher Barry Kramer, whose staff included Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and Nick Tosches, all fired from Rolling Stone. These scribes now had ample leeway to take down pretentious suckers. With its contentious letters page, funny photo captions and snide reviews, the magazine's focus was on humor and irony, the smart-ass attitude an antidote to the phoniness infecting the music business. Across the Atlantic, Creem had its counterpart in the New Musical Express, whose writers also lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. However, NME had its own editorial signature, with a style of piss-taking all its own.

In Britain, NME and its rival Melody Maker were musical institutions long before the birth of rock 'n' roll, yet both papers bolstered the rise of beat groups in the mid-sixties. There was a sudden explosion of pop publications that included Rave and Record Mirror among the most read. The coverage was mostly shallow, yet pioneers like Penny Valentine at Disc and Nik Cohn at The Observer were by then writing insightful columns on music and youth culture. It paved the way for short-lived countercultural publications like Cue, Intro, Frendz, and the British version of the much-maligned Oz magazine, which was taken to court on obscene charges. By the start of the seventies, the NME was faltering against Melody Maker. That changed when Alan Smith and Nick Logan took over the editorial posts in 1972 and hired new staff that came mostly from the underground press, such as Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent. It turned things around for the NME, which would see its cultural influence grow under the editorship of Smith, Logan, and Neil Spencer.

In terms of style and context, most editors gave free rein to writers in those days. The influence of the beat generation had a considerable weight, but the new journalism of Tom Wolfe and the gonzo musings of Hunter S. Thompson had the same heft. Good writers, however, found their own distinctive voice through other sources. Take for instance Greil Marcus, who's been interviewed in this webzine. Marcus's studies in classic American literature and political thought were fundamental in his growth as a writer. His books are gems of critical appreciation that connect the music with the history and moods of the past. One of his best is Mystery Train, which paints a panoramic view of America as a land of contradictions and counterpulls. This literary quality is also found in the writings of Lester Bangs, some of which are preserved in the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, compiled by Marcus. Bangs' free-form ramblings are provocative and funny, the product of a muckraking mind working in tandem with a poetic instinct. His reviews made a strong impression abroad. In 1973, NME writer Nick Kent made a pilgrimage to Creem headquarters in Birmingham, Michigan to "learn at the feet of the master of new rock journalism". He learned that good writing stems from a commitment to dig deep, that music should stir something deep in you, and that losers make more compelling stories than winners.

The mid-seventies saw the launching of monthlies like Rock Scene and Trouser Press, but Punk magazine topped them all in originality. Founded by Ged Dunn, Legs McNeil, and John Holmstrom on a shoestring budget, Punk chronicled the New York scene in visual form through the use of cartoons, drawn titles, and hand-lettered text. This DYI approach inspired a slew of punk fanzines all around the globe, an ethos that's still going strong today in music webzines. The times, however, were changing. The growth spurt of publications ended abruptly at the start of eighties: Retaining fickle readers was proving to be a hurdle.

The pop audience has divided in tribes since the beginning, with distinct peer-group cultures such as teds, mods, and surfers staking their claims. Hippie idealism, however, brought forth a semblance of community that took hold for a while. That inclusive spirit waned in the seventies just as genres like glam, punk, and disco were claiming their tribes. This fragmentation increased when rap and hip-hop started to compete for the consumer's wallet. Moreover, the hegemony of radio and the print media was shattered when pop videos began to sway consumer taste. Rock publications now had to aim at particular markets to survive. Case in point is Spin, which did well since its launch in 1985 due to its extensive coverage of hip-hop and alternative music. Specialized magazines like Kerrang! (heavy metal) and The Source (rap and urban) siphoned underserved audiences. In contrast, rising publication costs and ownership issues forced Creem to shut down for good in 1989.

The Internet created a paradigm shift. A changing consumer market now threatened the very existence of record labels and the print media. Facing extinction, capitalist ventures of all kinds have adapted to reach online consumers and keep up with their demands. The new infrastructure has been a godsend to outsiders. For one, it has leveled the competition field for indie labels, providing channels of access that resist the tampering of big conglomerates.

Rock scribes like us still belong to the starving masses, yet these transitional times have been liberating. Despite some editorial blunders, Rolling Stone and the NME have survived, yet there are now a number of online challengers that are not beholden to the old structures and vices. Take us, for instance. This is an independent webzine that is ruled by a strong code of ethics and an egalitarian policy. We can be as useful as any consumer guide, but we don't see music as a disposable commodity. Its social significance can't be dismissed. Even the most inane pop song gives us a glimpse of the dreams of its audience. The good ones have the power to ride out all fashions and carry their message through time. These may be days of low expectations, but there's always something to pin your hopes on. If you're touched, you're compelled to share it with the world. That's what writers do. It's what keeps us engaged until reality knocks at the door.