I was nervous about the 'Time-Life' tag attached to this 10-hour, five-disc project. Would it be some nicely-sanitised version of the history of the most anarchic music the world has yet seen?
Well, no. This is comprehensive, exhaustive, straight-down-the-line storytelling of the explosive transmutation of blues, rhythm-and-blues, soul and boogie-woogie into good old-fashioned rock 'n roll. The reverberations of that explosion are still being heard.
One of the strongest features of the set are the personal reminiscences from people who made rock 'n roll. People like David Crosby, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Ronny Ronette, Johnny Rotten, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and countless more -- with the strongest, most consistently interesting commentator being leader, lead guitarist and composer for The Who, Pete Townsend.
First episode is Rock & Roll Explodes, and is a good overview of just from where our music came. We see and hear Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard - all of whom just shine, and show up the later arrival Elvis Presley as virtually a cheap vaudeville act.
Next comes Good Rocking Tonight, which presents iconic figures of the 1950s such as the great Buddy Holly.There's more of the dynamic Little Richard, and there's Jerry Lee Lewis, in performance and in interview along with his 14-year-old child-bride. Great video footage here as rock was being freshly-forged.
There's also a bit of the history of the anodyne show American Bandstand, which launched 100 comparatively talentless White acts, along with its charmless self-important host Dick Clark. And there's telling commmentary on why racism made it so hard for Black groups and personalities to get the recognition they deserved.
Britain Invades; America Fights Back does show something of the overall parochialism of the series. From an American viewpoint, I guess the wondrous explosion of rock in Britain in the early and mid 1960s was some sort of invasion. Here's footage of The Beatles, Stones, and my favourite of all groups, The Who, followed by some feeble responses by The Beach Boys and other Yank ensembles. Brian Wilson still tours the world trying to convince everyone that the Beach Boys were really greater than The Beatles. Sorry, Brian....
Next up is The Sounds of Soul. Again, the effect of racism on the American music scene is pretty well delineated, and Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and James Brown preach their gospels.
Halfway through the series comes Plugging In, and it's time for the arrival from Hibberd, Minnesota, of young Robert Zimmerman, ready to turn folk-music on its head. He changed his name to Bob Dylan, climbed to the top of the folk-pile in a matter of moments, found that too restrictive, so he invented folk-rock, and changed the course of rock 'n roll forever.
I think Bob Dylan stands with Pete Townsend as the great innovator of rock 'n roll. And this episode does him justice. Also here are The Byrds at their most tuneful, Janis Joplin, rock's archetypal angry and erotic poet Jim Morrison, and perhaps the greatest guitarist the genre has yet produced, Jimi Hendrix. All these are subjective comments of course -- if you prefer the strangely bland Eric Clapton, you're entirely free to. Isn't it great what wonderful arguments rock 'n roll produces?
My Generation looks at the Woodstock age, personified by The Who's eternal anthem. The Who's own brilliant drummer Keith Moon was one of rock's saddest fatalities, along with Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Pete Townsend erupts in anger as he discusses this period. "These were my friends", he explodes.
In the next episode, Guitar Heroes, all the fans of the super-group to end all super-groups, Spinal Tap, can relax -- the gang does get a guernsey at last, with a glimpse of them desperately trying to find the way from dressing-room to stage. A sad episode in a strange career...
Also present are Jimmy Page, Keef from The Rolling Stones, Pete from The Who, and Eddie Van Halen. It's not as connected as the other episodes in the series, and is weakened by not following the same vaguely chronological style, but has some nice vignettes.
In The ‘70s: Have a Nice Decade, we take a fairly disappointing look at the ugliest decade in rock 'n roll history, a decade which saw the emergence of the 'chug-a-lug' 10-hour guitar riffs of Led Zeppelin as a symbol of that decade's bloated decadence. How good to hear Pete Townsend frankly admit how he hated everything Leaden Zep did. We veer to the genius of Bob Marley (pity they didn't trace back to his friend Desmond Decker as well), and lurch back to banality of Carlos Santana. A truly uneven decade.
That decade also saw the rise of such luminaries as Neil Young, and Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. Unfortunately, they're virtually ignored, with the doco makers focusing on mediocrity.
Things look up for the penultimate episode, Punk, an examination of the genesis of that movement in both New York and London. Iggy Pop (an impressive commentator), The Ramones and Talking Heads are all given their due, before heading across the Atlantic to see the rise of The Sex Pistols and The Clash - with some great live commentary from Johnny Rotten, and from Elvis Costello, who found himself being marketed as some sort of eccentric Punk as well. It's a strong episode, one you'll want to return to.
Finally, the long journey concludes with Up from the Underground, about how MTV revolutionised music-making through its insistence on grabby music-videos. It promised great things; the episode shows how in fact it censored and sanitised rock, and even perpetuated the inherent American racism. And watch out -- here comes rap and hip-hop too. Ah well, back to Buddy Holly for me. I'm talking about my g g g generation.