When Rock 'n' Roll Forgets

S.F.'s Richie Unterberger writes about the greatest musicians you've never heard of

Richie Unterberger gave himself one of the best jobs in rock journalism. A few years back, the San Francisco author and former editor of Option began working on a book about cult rockers -- Nick Drake, the Creation, Young Marble Giants. The stories of some -- the Giants, an icy, minimalist, late-'70s art/new wave band -- were cloudy, more or less untold. Others, like Drake's, were well-documented in biographies, fanzines, and on CD reissues. Most had seen lionizing reviews and hagiographic retrospectives in reference books, but no one had ever tried to put them together in one volume. (Nick Tosches' classic Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll is about the prehistory of rock, "the wild years before Elvis.")

Last month, Miller Freeman -- the company that puts out Guitar Player and all those other techie magazines for musicians -- published the result of Unterberger's research, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, a discursive set of 60 profiles, which together limn a shaggy subhistory of rock, from the early American rockabilly of Wanda Jackson to landlocked British Invasion acts like John's Children and on to frazzled psychedelic warriors Skip Spence (from Moby Grape) and Roky Erickson. Throughout two years of research, Unterberger told anyone who wanted to know that acid casualty and original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett would be the most well-known figure in the book. Swamp Dogg, a bawdy soulman and one of Unterberger's subjects, said it more succinctly: "It's about all the motherfuckers who didn't make it!"

Unterberger's airy Inner Sunset apartment is a library of paperback rock-reference books, neatly stacked old magazines, several thousand records, and a half-dozen racks of CDs. In the bedroom, a sleeping-bag pallet lies on the floor. Out in the eating area, in front of a breakfast table covered by a checked cloth, Unterberger leans back into a wooden chair, carefully processing questions about his first rock book before answering them. Some of the answers are already routine. He is 36 years old. He's lived in San Francisco on and off for about 12 years. He immersed himself in music on a Philadelphia college radio station and began writing about independent bands -- for a magazine called Op -- shortly thereafter. He edited the L.A.-based Option magazine for six years, traveled extensively after leaving, then free-lanced for and finally joined the staff of the All Music Guide reference books, where he is currently a senior editor. It was there that someone from Guide publisher Miller Freeman asked him for a book proposal.

"It's the kind of book I always wanted to do," Unterberger says of Unknown Legends. "I never really thought it would be publishable, but as long as someone came to me and expressed interest -- for anything -- I thought, 'Why not try the one that is closest to my heart at first?' "

Arranged into a lucky 13 loose categories -- "Mad Geniuses & Eccentric Recluses"; "Psychedelic Unknowns"; "Rock Enigmas"; "Lo-Fi Mavericks"; and so on -- the book attempts to glue dead leaves back on rock's family tree. Unterberger doesn't want to rewrite history; he's not some revisionist trying to unravel the Beatles, supplant the Rolling Stones, or roll over Jerry Lee Lewis. For him, the careers of '60s British producer Joe Meek, clever crooner Scott Walker, and Dutch band the Outsiders are not rock's real story, but the glorious details eclipsed by superstars and hype.

An introductory lesson in rock history would chart the blues, R&B, Motown, the British Invasion, and so on with the canonized albums, chart positions, and anecdotes. Unknown Legends would be the textbook for the upper-division survey course. The first would produce a sterile yet competent timeline, something like the PBS Rock 'n' Roll series from a few years back; the second itemizes a messier version of history, one riddled with holes and interpretation, a history with room for more books.

When he's at his best in Unknown Legends, Unterberger uncovers the kind of tiny details that imbue his subjects with life and sound. For example, Unterberger writes about a producer who criticized rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson for drinking milk at an early session (the cow juice smoothed out her snarl). And in the chapter on Joe Meek, one of the first successful independent British producers, sort of a limey Phil Spector, he describes the producer using every room of his home studio, as well as various telephone books and springs, to create singles based not on lyrics and arrangements but on unusual sounds.

Unterberger strained those details from intense scholarship: At the core of the book are interviews (in almost every case) with either the actual performers or others -- producers, session musicians, record company people -- who were there when the music was being made.

While Unterberger likes giving the lore behind the records, he's sometimes less comfortable telling the performers' true stories. VH1's fascinating documentary series Behind the Music -- which has managed to make even Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ted Nugent into interesting people -- biographs stars. The series regurgitates the stories that we've often heard and forgot; it inflates corpses with a breath of detail. Unterberger wants to do something different: biograph music, not performers. Love, the psychedelic band that first interested Unterberger in rock's shadow history, becomes the sum of its creative forces, helmed by Arthur Lee and jangling throughout three full-length records.

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