Hello, and welcome to my blog Tim’s Cover Story. In this introductory post I will briefly review the topics this blog will cover and the format that I will employ.
A Little About Me:
My name is Tim Londergan. I am by profession a theoretical physicist and am recently retired from the Indiana University physics department. My research specialty is the fundamental properties of the atomic nucleus and in particular the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. However, there are many blogs that deal with fundamental advances in physics and astrophysics. So physics is not the subject of this blog.
My posts will focus on the early history of rock music and its impact on American (and world) culture, topics that have long held a deep interest for me. As a teenager in upstate New York in the late 1950s, I became excited about folk and rock music and played electric bass in my hometown band. Although I quickly discovered that my musical talents were exceptionally limited, folk and rock music remained important to me. The music was also closely linked to the social upheaval of those times, to issues of generational conflict, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. My performing days quickly ended, but my fascination with the music continued.
Upon completing my undergraduate degree, I was awarded a graduate scholarship to study at Oxford University where I was fortunate to experience first-hand the music of “British Invasion” groups. In the mid-60s London was a veritable Garden of Eden for live rock and blues. In contrast to watching American Bandstand that generally featured artists lip-synching their records, I experienced live performances by groups like The Who, The Yardbirds, Rod Stewart and the Faces, Traffic, The Hollies, John Mayall, etc. It’s amazing that 50 years later several of those artists are still performing (so much for Pete Townshend’s “hope I die before I get old”).
So my blog will feature a personal journey through the 60s and 70s, presented as commentary on the early history of rock music and the social and cultural issues affected by that music.
An Incredibly Concise History of Rock Music:
Like jazz, rock and roll music was born in the American South. It became popular in the U.S. in the mid-1950s, and its influence quickly spread across the entire country. Rock music is one of America’s gifts to the world. Unlike jazz, which initially emerged almost exclusively from the black community, the roots of rock and roll can be found in an eclectic mixture of American musical genres. Rock and roll borrowed freely from folk music, country and western, southern blues, gospel, jazz and mainstream pop music. For a short time it was an edgy new artistic movement on the fringe of mainstream society; however it rapidly became popular across all socio-economic groups.
Rock music arrived on the scene just as the relatively staid and conformist era of the 1950s was being challenged on several fronts. A significant fraction of the folk music community was involved with the civil rights movement. Feminist ideas were challenging conventional norms regarding the rights of women, traditional family structures and sexual practices. Finally, the advent of rock and roll appeared almost simultaneously with an explosive increase in illegal drugs. Rock and roll became a pivotal element in the clash between American youth and their parents’ generation. To conservatives, the hedonistic aspects of rock and roll and its raw sexuality represented a direct threat to traditional values. Let’s face it – the Baptist clergy who fulminated that “Rock and roll is really about sex” were absolutely correct! Progressives tended to see rock music as a liberating force.
So part of my blog will trace the history of rock music and its impact on both popular music and societal issues. From time to time I will also comment on the various aspects of the music industry. With a few notable exceptions, in the early days of rock ‘n roll many performers and songwriters received quite limited financial benefits from their work.
Format for my blog:
I have chosen the following format for Tim’s Cover Story. Each episode will highlight a seminal song from the early days of rock and roll. I will provide information regarding the original song and artist and will contrast this with one or more covers of the same song by different artists. This will allow me to compare treatments by different artists. I will also review the changes over time in the nature of covers. Today a “cover” typically represents a musician’s appreciation for a given song and artist by providing an imaginative re-working of the original. Entire albums are devoted to collections of covers that focus on the work of a given artist or group – e.g., covers of songs from a Beatles album, songs by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell,….
However, in the early days the motive behind “covers” was rather different. In the 50s and early 60s, the color bar in the recording industry made it difficult for black artists to get airplay on mainstream white stations, or to be included on the all-important Billboard pop charts. In fact, until the early 50s songs by black musicians were typically relegated to a separate Billboard category, with the patently offensive notation “race records.” Many white groups simply found and copied, or “covered” songs by black musicians (often in note-for-note copies of the original), re-released them and watched the money roll in. We will discuss this phenomenon in considerable detail in later posts.
Use of Media in this Blog:
Whenever possible, I will provide videos of various songs courtesy of YouTube or Vimeo and I will try to include live performances. Rock and roll began as live performance, and this is still the heart and soul of rock music. In my opinion, a major cause of the decline of rock music in America in the early 1960’s was due to the decision by Dick Clark to feature “lip-synching” of records on his show. It’s true that studio cuts provide impressive technical sophistication, but when musicians were no longer required to perform their work live this opened the door for mediocre artists.
I have not been able to find live performances of every artist, and in some cases the video and/or audio quality in live performances is poor. So I will supplement the videos with audio recordings of the featured songs. I will provide links to the audio service Spotify. There are two ways to obtain service from Spotify. You can pay a monthly fee of about $9.99 that gives unlimited commercial-free access on all your devices. Alternatively you can get a free subscription; in this case the audio may not be available on all devices and the free service includes some commercials.
A subscription to Spotify will provide you with access to roughly 10 million songs. There are artists whose work is not offered through Spotify, and for our purposes the most glaring omission is The Beatles. If you aren’t already a member it should be easy to open a Spotify account and utilize the links. For starters, here is a link to Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly:
More or less immediately I will release my next post that features the song Respect. I will first review the cover by Aretha Franklin and then compare it with the original version written and performed by Otis Redding. After that my intention is to publish roughly four new posts each month.
I hope that you enjoy my blog as much as I enjoy writing it. I welcome comments on my posts, particularly if I make a mistake or report as fact an urban legend. I will update my blogs to remove these errors. Let me clarify a few things at the outset. I have no formal training in musicology and am not a professional historian. Furthermore, I am not expert in the literature on pop music, musicians or the music industry. My commentary comes strictly from my own experience, supplemented with what I find online. Entire books have been written on these artists and songs. My aim is to provide vignettes on different takes on a particular song by a few artists.
My blog is intended to be something you can enjoy in a relatively short time. At the end of each post I will include a list of sources that provide references. My musical choices are strictly personal. Many songs represent important and influential contributions to the “roots” of rock music. Other songs may be less important but represent work with personal relevance for me. If you disagree with artists whom I admire or the songs that I highlight, that is your prerogative. I am reminded of the French phrase “a chacun son gout” (‘to each his own taste’). Feel free to post critiques regarding my musical and critical tastes, but my response will generally be “If you don’t like my choices, feel free to start your own blog.”
Other Sites of Interest:
I am greatly indebted to my sister Betty Londergan for her encouragement and also for a lot of technical advice. Unlike me, Betty has real writing talent. In addition to a couple of acclaimed non-fiction books, Betty also writes a blog about her charitable work and produces columns for Huffington Post. You can find her work here or here.
Also thanks to my colleague Glenn Gass, professor of music at Indiana University. Glenn has developed a series of courses on the history of rock music and rock artists. Glenn is kind enough to read drafts of my blog entries. Although I am 100% responsible for errors that make it into print, Glenn’s extensive knowledge of rock music history helps me avoid several mistakes. You can find syllabi for his classes here.
The header for this blog is the Crossroads guitar designed by John “Crash” Matos for Robert Kantor guitars. You can view the Kantor custom guitars here.
There are many blogs that deal with the “roots” era of rock music. Several are more comprehensive than mine, and present the material in a more academic style. One of my personal favorites is Ted Barron’s “Boogie Woogie Flu” that you can access here. Since I deal with covers of classic rock songs, you can find an extensive list of “covers” here. The choice of artists is somewhat random but this site contains an impressive number of covers.
I will also mention Jerry Coyne, professor of biology at the University of Chicago and author of the best-selling popular book Why Evolution is True. Jerry also produces a chronicle (don’t call it a blog!) with the same title as his book, which you can find here. His site contains reviews of issues in biology and evolution, as well as discussions on secular and atheist issues, philosophy of mind and free will, wildlife photographs and several other topics. Jerry also posts videos and commentary on rock music by his favorite artists. It is daunting to consider how long it takes me to produce this blog while Jerry regularly tosses off several posts a day.
My favorite blog on contemporary issues in physics and astrophysics is Preposterous Universe by Sean Carroll from Caltech. Carroll provides exceptionally clear expositions on subtle topics and keeps up on the latest news and controversies in this field. He also treats questions of science vs. faith and was awarded the 2014 “Emperor Has No Clothes” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You can find his blog here.