I just finished reading Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock and Roll by Joe S. Harrington. Overall, it was an interesting read. Unlike a lot of other books about rock, Harrington is also a social critic. He spends the first 30 pages discussing American-life post World War II, and how rock was a natural rebellion out of the McCarthy-era. His basic premise of the whole book, was that in truest form rock and roll was about rebellion, and once we entered the 90s when everything became sanitized and mainstream, that part of rock and roll became dead.
I agree with Harrington to a certain extent, but that he means he into places way too much significance on hard-core music of the early 80s. This is where he lost me – I found 75 pages of reading about Black Flag, Husker Du, and Anti-Seen extremely boring. I suppose this style would have been interesting and significant if you were at the time. But hard-core is not as rebellious as Harrington made it seem. If anything, I find hard-core extremely fascist due its exclusiveness. Because many of these bands refused to acknowledge much musical history before them, to me their attack and intent is failed from the beginning. While The Clash may have bragged about “No Elvis, Beatles, and The Rolling Stones in 1977”, they also had sense to realize that playing three-chords loudly didn’t mean as much two years later, and they eventually branched out with London Calling. Even the Ramones owed a huge debt to the pop-sensibilities of 1950s and early 1960s singles.
By placing this much emphasis on hard-core and Riot Grrl music for the last hundred pages, Harrington almost completely ignores groundbreaking work by Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, R.E.M., The Smiths that was going on at the same time. You could say that I’m biased, but I truly believe these artists are far more influential to a variety of bands than any hard-core band. I doubt that many artists outside of the punk circle are influenced by hard-core (though I could be wrong.) I know Ryan Adams is a big Black Flag fan, but I’ve yet to hear of Black Flag influence in his music.
On the flip-side I was impressed by Harrington’s analysis of the origins of gansta-rap. As a white male who was only a kid when records by NWA and Public Enemy came out, it’s heard to truly comprehend and understand the impact these artists had. Unlike hard-core, I’d say when it came out, rap was truly rebellious in every sense. NWA and Public Enemy not only lashed out at the world as they saw it, but their sound was also groundbreaking. Unfortunately for me, by the time I truly began to appreciate hip-hop as a teenager, MTV was blasting songs by Puff Daddy which was more pop-oriented and stale in comparison to NWA and Public Enemy.
For anyone looking for an interesting view of the history of rock and roll (and popular music) I’d suggest reading Sonic Cool. But if you’re like me, maybe you should skip the parts about hard-core.