- Buy the book
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
n his preface to “A Brief History of Rock, Off the Record,” Wayne Robins outlines his hope that “teachers can use this book to unlock their students’ enthusiasm in late 20th century American history, and that students will be able to absorb the music of their parents (and grandparents!) with new appreciation and understanding,” going on to admit that his book isn’t meant to be “comprehensive and encyclopedic.” As a set of guidelines and a caveat, both of these statements are helpful; if you’ve somehow managed to pick up this slender 276-page book hoping for an in-depth look at rock’s history – or are looking for a humorous, Klosterman-style narrative – put it back on the shelf and back away slowly, because Robins’ goals are much more straightforward.
They’re no less ambitious, though – it takes cojones to try and tackle the rock era in a single volume, and to his credit, Robins does a fairly admirable job of following the path he outlines for himself in the preface. This is a novice-friendly primer for would-be students of rock music, picking up the story by asking the most basic question – “what is rock & roll?” – and pulling the thread up until something like the present day. His prose is dry but warm; readers will quickly get a sense of the decades of experience (Robins was Newsday’s music critic for nearly two decades, did tours of duty with Creem and Rolling Stone, and is now an editor at Billboard) that inform the book.
Perhaps predictably for someone who’s been in the trenches for so many years, Robins is on his surest footing when discussing rock’s earliest days – he deserves a lot of credit for taking a story that’s been rehashed countless times and infusing it with a solidly entertaining mixture of objectivity and passion. Reading the first handful of chapters, you’re liable to feel the urge to expand your collection – from Leiber & Stoller up through the heyday of Stax Records, Robins proves a fascinating tour guide, acquainting readers with the Coasters, the Drifters, Dr. John, the O’Jays, Curtis Mayfield, and more.
Even in the early chapters, however, the book’s main weakness is evident – namely, that whoever was in charge of editing it did a piss-poor job. It’s a problem that becomes more pronounced in its back pages, but “A Brief History of Rock” is riddled with typos, from easy-to-forgive transpositions (at one point, the 1980s are referred to as “the 1908s”) and grammatical boners (such as referring to the Allman Brothers Band as “the Allman’s”) to bizarre, did-I-just-read-that? paragraphs that appear to be missing whole sentences. What’s worse, neither Robins nor Routledge appear to have bothered with fact-checking: In the section dealing with Southern rock, he refers to Johnny Van Zant, lead singer for the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd, as a former member of .38 Special.
Younger readers will probably also take issue with the way Robins deals with rap and hip-hop. Though Robins could probably have argued that both genres fall outside the scope of his book, he decided to touch on them here, and therefore deserves his share of brickbats for electing to hold off until the book’s 270th page, at which point he leads off his discussion by saying “by the mid-1990s, hip-hop had supplanted rock as music of protest and teen rebellion” – despite the fact that white suburban teens were rapping along to N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” as far back as the late ‘80s, and by Robins’ own count, not a single rock album made it to the top of Billboard’s album charts during all of 1990.
“A Brief History of Rock, Off the Record” is an interesting read, and certainly not without its charms. But as a textbook-style primer on the rock era, it’s deficient in a number of areas – many of which should have been caught and fixed before the book made it into the marketplace. As it stands, it’s worth a read, but certainly not at $95, the price for a new hardcover copy that Routledge is currently listing at Amazon. (Wayne Robins sends us the following correction: "Though it is true that the publisher screwed up by releasing the hardcover to trade/consumer Web sites, fairness requires that readers know they can readily buy the book for no more than $25. As I explain on my MySpace page, nobody, especially me, expects the reader to pay $95.") Robins clearly has the knowledge and experience it takes to put together excellent books on any number of rock-related subjects – but this isn’t one of them.