Rock and Roll Book Club: 'London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock'

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Stephen Tow's 'London, Reign Over Me.'
Stephen Tow's 'London, Reign Over Me.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"We historians love to find one magical link to provide us a neat line that takes us from one era to the next," writes Stephen Tow. "Unfortunately, life doesn't always work that way."

That's especially the case with the birth of rock. The transformation of popular music in the two-decade span from 1950 to 1970 was so vast, it's almost impossible to encapsulate. Even the birth of hip-hop and the rise of streaming didn't change popular culture to the same extent, nor did they overlap with such seismic social and political realignments.

In the '50s, America was ground zero for the birth of rock and roll, which fused R&B with country as crystallized in U.S. records like Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," Elvis Presley's "That's Alright (Mama)," and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

After a relatively quiet few years in the early '60s, the storm broke across the Pond. Tow's book London, Reign Over Me (buy now) focuses on developments in the U.K. from 1963 to 1969, when "rock and roll" became "rock." When those bands hit big over here, it became known as the British Invasion.

Oh, yes, that obscure little corner of music history. Obviously this is extremely well-trod territory in music history: you could fill your personal library with shelves upon shelves of books about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and other British rock bands from the '60s. What does Tow have to contribute?

The book's subtitle — How England's Capital Built Classic Rock — suggests a granular, hyper-local approach, and to some extent Tow delivers on that promise. He takes us to venues like the Eel Pie Island Club, a West London hangout where you might bump into Keith Richards to discuss Chuck Berry; where Rod Stewart and Ian McLagan first met, not realizing they were dating the same woman; where the Animals were discovered by EMI. Tow also takes us to Carnaby Street, where swinging mods in skinny ties and short skirts shopped for records and hooked up.

The scene quickly became much bigger than any club or neighborhood could hold, though. Brits had just a couple of quick years to enjoy the Beatles before they blew up into international superstars, and the Rolling Stones followed a similar trajectory. In a series of concise, densely-packed chapters, Tow also describes the rapid evolution of prog rock and touches on "progressive folk" (think Fairport Convention), among all the sub-genres described here probably the one that made the smallest splash in America.

The book, then, becomes about much more than just London per se...but it does serve as a reminder of just how incredibly fertile that city was in the second half of the '60s. Why London? Why not New York or San Francisco? Of course those cities had their scenes as well, but it was London that towered like a colossus over the popular music landscape.

Tow doesn't have a tidy answer, and the question may ultimately be unanswerable. The question of race is central, a fact that Tow digs into but really deserves its own book...or two, or three. British artists had a different relationship to American popular music than musicians in this country did, because the spoken and unspoken codes of race landed differently there.

British musicians continually wondered why their American peers weren't as obsessed with the blues as they were, which is a really good question, but whatever answer, the fact is that British rockers bore down on the blues, amped it up, and blended it with their own folk and jazz traditions, in the process creating what we now call "classic rock." To them, the American blues felt like a subculture they'd discovered, a marvelous invention to treasure.

The book is also a reminder that London was a war-torn city. The young men and women making the scene in London circa 1965 were children during World War II, when the city was blitzed. That not only left them with memories of trauma and a desire for rebirth, it physically changed the London landscape. A crater could become a music venue. Tow also argues that because of their wartime experiences, British youth in the '60s had a different, less rebellious (or, at least, differently rebellious) attitude toward their elders.

By and large, though, London, Reign is less about theorizing than about celebrating: it's a whirlwind tour through much of the defining music of the rock era. It's about the Stones and the Yardbirds, who had the same ten albums but were careful not to cover the same songs. (Despite the unusual time signature of "For Your Love," it was still too pop-friendly for blues purist Eric Clapton.) It's about the Kinks, who changed their name (from the Ravens) and their genre (from skiffle to rock) as guitarist Dave Davies experimented with a new fuzz-tone riff on "You Really Got Me."

It's about the band formed by art school classmates Eric Burdon and drummer John Steel. After honing their chops in rough-and-tumble Newcastle, the Alan Price R&B Combo (named after the band's keyboardist) came to London and were rechristened the Animals by their manager, who sagely thought they'd do well to have a name that sounded more like the Beatles.

"House of the Rising Sun" was a traditional folk song canonized by first Woody Guthrie and then his protegé Bob Dylan. Tow likens the Animals' approach to what Jimi Hendrix later did with Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower": they made it completely their own. Guitarist Hilton Valentine reworked the song chords as an ominous arpeggio, and when Price laughed, calling it "corny," Valentine shot back, "You play your keyboard. [I'll] play my guitar."

The resulting track, with a remarkably assured lead vocal by the 23-year-old Burdon, raised flags because it was over four minutes — then thought to be a prohibitive length for a single. "The hell with that," said engineer David Siddle. "We're in the vinyl age now." Sure enough, upon its 1964 release it became the first American chart-topper by a British band since the Beatles' overseas breakthrough.

It's about the Who, with Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and discovering their fans were craving a new, no-holds-barred type of stage show — then writing "A Quick One While He's Away," a nine-minute composition that helped spark the idea of a concept album. It's about folk stars like Sandy Denny, part of a scene that didn't appreciate Pete Seeger's amusement at hearing American folk and blues sung with a cockney accent.

It's about the Small Faces, absolutely unashamed at writing radio-friendly folk-rock songs. It's about the Zombies, who walked into Abbey Road to record their album Odyssey and Oracle and discovered John Lennon's Mellotron, which ended up shaping the sound of that album. It's about Deep Purple, whose 1969 concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra shocked an older generation that still saw classical music and its temples as sacrosanct.

The rise of Led Zeppelin capped this era, marking the birth of hard rock and opening the road to heavy metal. Henceforth, rock would continue to fragment and the rise of electronic instrumentation sparked new energy in cities like Berlin and New York. In the catalog of Led Zeppelin, classic rock came to its purist fruition: a set of fully realized albums that were heavy as hell, mystically folk-inflected, and driven by an iconic singer-guitarist creative duo.

"Audiences were open to it all. That's what made it work," writes Tow. "They'd go out on a routine night in 1968 to catch a Saturday show at the Middle Earth featuring the newly formed Led Zeppelin, John Lee Hooker, and the Deviants. Then the next Saturday they'd catch the Who, Arthur Brown, the Small Faces, and Joe Cocker. Maybe the vaudevillian Bonzo Dog Band might show up on a bill with the psychedelic Pink Floyd. Or Zeppelin might have a show with the acoustic folk/blues Pentangle. It didn't matter. It was all good."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Feb. 26: God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli (buy now)

March 4: Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant (buy now)

March 11: Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale (buy now)

March 18: Loud Fast Words: The Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics by Dave Pirner (buy now)

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