A few years back, someone created a cool diagram of the history of rock that was designed to look like the map for the London Underground subway. Sonic Cool, a 2002 book by Joe S. Harrington, functions much the same way – it’s a satisfying, thorough, point-to-point history of rock music. This dense, 500+ page tome connects the many dots between Elvis Presley and modern music, and while there are literally tons of books on the market that attempt to tell the story of Rock & Roll, Sonic Cool lays it all out as well as anything else written on the topic. In spite of my criticisms, this is a strong book that deserves serious recommendation.
First the good – Harrington writes in a breezy style, and he’s done a fine job of seamlessly connecting the many offshoots of rock history. He’s to be commended for not being afraid to back up and repeat certain points that are essential to multiple strains of Rock (The Stooges, MC5, and New York Dolls justifiably feature in many chapters). He also deserves a medal for his two sentence description of Rock & Roll, which alone trumps many volumes on the subject:
“The common denominator between both Blues and Country was the funky down-home quality that enabled one to let go of his/her emotions and not feel self-conscious about it. Elvis realized this, and it was through his realization that the synthesis of these two musical forms could finally take place (hence “Rock ‘n’ Roll”).”
Harrington’s no-holds-barred writing style is best exemplified by his entertaining description of Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson:
“A raving bearded satyr who looked like he hadn’t taken a bath in two months, his stage antics included leaping around the stage wearing a codpiece and honking on his massive flute. The most well known flautist in Rock, Anderson was also an outspoken detractor of other bands and a tireless promoter of himself. His air could be summed up in one word: pompous.”
But this book starts to run into trouble with the second half of its subtitle, The Life & Death Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Because the history of rock has been written so many times, one can assume that Harrington was encouraged to put a unique twist on it: hence, in his opinion, rock “died” sometime around 2002. His reasons for this conclusion aren’t abundantly clear, but they seem to revolve around the rise of music videos, the triumph of style over substance in music, and the ascendence of Hip-Hop.
At any rate, he runs into the same problem as kooks who predict the end of the world – namely, what happens the day after the prediction, when the world is still turning, or rock is still going?? Much can be said about the troubles of the music industry, but nobody in their right mind thinks that rock is now dead. By wrapping his book around that conclusion, Harrington comes off as a doomsday crank, and dates his book in the worst possible way.
The same could be said about his tendency to project the worst bits of a musical genre on its audience. In particular, his ranting about Grunge and Generation X are the literary equivalent of foaming at the mouth. I’m squarely within the demographic of Gen X, and a lot of my fellow X’ers will probably be surprised to learn that we’re part of “a generation of self-loathing, doubt, and anxiety… a generation with low self esteem that aspired to nothingness.”
Even more reprehensible is Harrington’s conclusion, based on a woman’s comment that her grandmother owned a copy of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, that “Granny was a former coke whore who chain-smoked and spat venom.” If that’s the lone borderline racist comment in this book, it’s certainly not the only time that Harrington draws a reckless, sweeping generalization that’s based on questionable musical profiling.
Harrington is an astute music critic, but he stumbles when he tries to connect the history of music to larger events. For instance, his assertion that “The defeat of [George] McGovern in ’72 left a big scar on the collective psyche of the baby boomers” is a laughably unnecessary reach (Vietnam, yes – Kennedy assassinations, yes – McGovern? Please…). Thankfully, Sonic Cool overcomes its obvious flaws because it’s mostly dedicated to unraveling the absurd, complex, entertaining history of Rock.