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.

"My philosophy is to really emphasize the music," says Unterberger. "In the 'Mad Geniuses' chapter I did bring in the personal difficulties of Syd Barrett and Skip Spence. It is unfortunate that mental problems do have to be discussed." Indeed, several times throughout our interview Unterberger brings up illustrative details about his subjects -- one had a drug problem; another wanted to be paid for an interview -- but then he holds back names. See, Unterberger is a fan. And as a fan, his allegiance as a writer is to his source, not his reader. It's a problem.

Unterberger wants to talk with, to get close to, his subjects. "I didn't think it would serve anyone's purpose to interview people whose music didn't personally interest me, or worse, whose music I actively disliked," Unterberger writes in the introduction. "There is not a single artist covered in the book that I was not eager to talk with and write about."

As a fan, Unterberger writes as if the musicians always know best. The close focus is admirable, but the results are often as succulent as a saltine cracker. When the interviews are good, when the performers understand the music they made and can articulate their music's goal, meaning, and lasting import -- often with the corrective vision of hindsight -- the essay succeeds. For example, Martin Newell, a failed early '80s popster who claims he started the lo-fi cassette underground with his group Cleaners From Venus, explains a link between artistic freedom and creativity. But when the interviews are not revealing, Unterberger fails to help the performers along. Meanwhile, actual criticism gets upstaged by innocuous explanations, meaningless -- often unsupported -- pronouncements, and trivial "firsts": The Music Machine's "scream/duck call in the instrumental break is one of the eeriest vocal sounds to be heard on any rock record." Savage Rose is "perhaps the most ambitious and eclectic band to ever emerge from Continental Europe." Unterberger also breathily notes that Duffy Power, a heartthrob British blueskid who recorded "I Saw Her Standing There," was the second person to ever record a cover of a Lennon-McCartney tune.

Unterberger is a decent writer, and his workaday prose carries most sections. What he needed was an editor. A good one can save a writer from himself, flagging cliches, untangling metaphors, and burnishing lazy prose. Upon examining the raw text, Unterberger's apparently dropped the blue pencil. The cliches: A U.S. tour "proved to be the straw that broke the back of the original Deviants"; on an X-Ray Spex song the band "kicks in with all the immediacy of a custard pie in the face."

The rock criticism cliches are even more nefarious not just because every writer who has xeroxed together a fanzine has used them, but because Unterberger uses them like flash pots along an already humdrum stage. Lee Hazlewood is "a man who sounds like Johnny Cash might after gargling with razor blades"; Judy Henske's voice "took Billie Holiday into purgatory"; a Love song sounds like "the Tijuana Brass on acid." (The "-- on acid" construction alone is grounds for a ball-peen hammer manicure.) Some of the other rock cliches are only half-assed controlling statements. The Raincoats' "music eludes easy classification"; the work of three "post-punk hybrids" "defies easy imitation"; Germany's F.S.K. is "impossible to classify."

The flubs are sad. Good writing -- good criticism -- tells us stories, interprets mystery, makes context, and extrapolates connections. Good rock criticism does all of those things too, but -- by necessity -- it must do something more: It's got to make us want to hear. Or, if we've already heard, it's got to make us feel like we're hearing something entirely new. At the end of every chapter in Unknown Legends, Unterberger guides novice listeners through subpar reissues and useless bootlegs, recommending each artist's best work. It's a vital service for both his readers and the artists. But shouldn't a book like this do a bit more? Isn't there something poignant about these lost would-be, never-were stars? Or isn't there something magical about them, and the sheer, random effervescence of stardom and anonymity?

These are the things Unterberger doesn't include. The worth of past pop music constantly changes as the canon evolves and revolves. As French pop star Francoise Hardy edges back into fashion over the next couple of years, as some garage band happens upon the Mystic Tide, Unterberger's book will come in handy. Its readers will have the career outline, a few details, some musical suggestions. Thing is, they'll need more. They'll need prose that makes those dusty, forgotten bands sing, or crunch, again.

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