Published December 01, 2011
November 2011 saw the 10th Anniversary of a fantastic website that currently hosts almost 20,000 articles and reviews from the rich history of rock journalism. Rock’s Backpages was launched a decade ago by veteran music journalist and author, Barney Hoskyns, who is also the author of two of my favourite books on the Los Angeles music scene, Waiting For The Sun and Hotel California.
Today, Rock’s Backpages is a thriving, constantly growing archive, covering every aspect of the history of rock and pop. “Any band or genre/movement that proves to have legs or impact/influence is grist to RBP’s mill,” Hoskyns says. “We don’t jump on every Next Big Thing or new trend but wait to see whether it has some staying power. We believe it’s as important to include pieces on the X-Factor as it is to feature stuff on John Cage.”
Rock’s Backpages was born in 2000, when Hoskyns was asked to recommend someone who could write the liner notes for a CD by British musician Roy Harper. This then led to another idea. “[I thought] it would be great to aggregate online at least 10 great Harper pieces – from all walks of the music press – that would span his career. A little over a decade later, that vision has come true. Maybe in another decade we’ll have twenty Roy Harper pieces.” It certainly doesn’t sound like an impossible achievement – with 10 pieces available for a non-household name such as Harper, you can just imagine the multitude of stories relating to big names such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and so on. Many who read this particular blog will be interested to learn that there are, at the time of writing, 23 articles and reviews about ABBA, including the previously unpublished full transcript of the Björn Ulvaeus interview that formed the basis of Jim Irvin’s insightful ABBA story, published in Mojo in 1999.
Rock’s Backpages does not simply represent the writings of a select few rock journalists, but does include pieces by almost every well-known and lesser-known British and American writer you can think of. According to Barney Hoskyns, the archive boasts contributions from “over 500 writers from all eras and on all genres of popular music”, with 30 or 40 new pieces being added every week. The archive also features over 300 audio interviews with icons from Hendrix to Cobain. “Almost all the writers have embraced RBP from the get-go,” says Hoskyns. “One or two American curmudgeons demurred. Now it’s a club that most rock writers want to join. We never like to turn anyone away but it’s difficult to manage the sheer amount of content flooding in.”
With so many articles and reviews covering so many different aspects now collected in one database, Hoskyns is in a perfect place to make an informed observation about how rock journalism has evolved over the years. “Broadly speaking,” he says, “rock writing has turned from freeform countercultural commentary – passionate and often iconoclastic – to service-industry compliance: blandly deferential profiles and soundbite consumer-guide reviewing. With most outbreaks of rebellion now instantly commodified by the marketplace, rock and roll has been subsumed into the general entertainment culture and lost its tribal, lightning-rod shock value.”
The mere existence of an “archive” of rock writing does indeed seem to suggest that rock and pop as a subversive force, capable of truly surprising its audience and having the function as a life-or-death cultural identifier for young people, is now a thing of the past. Barney Hoskyns would agree. “Without wishing to be an Old Fart for the sake of it, I do think rock culture has reached the end of its first major cycle – and that it will never impact on society in the way it did with Elvis or Dylan or Hendrix or the Pistols or hip hop or even Cobain (arguably the last rock star who really ‘meant it, man’). People will say, ‘It’s still new and radical to a 14-year-old’ but I think even 14-year-olds are aware of the weight of history (of Elvis and Dylan and the Beatles and the Clash) bearing down on contemporary pop. Rock and roll will survive and mutate but I’m not sure it can ever ‘change the world’ again.”
Whether this prognosis proves to be true or not, the fact remains that rock and roll turned 60 this very year (if you’re willing to accept the 1951 recording ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston as the first rock record, as many historians do), and a lot of great writing has been done on the subject over the decades. Much of that writing is now available at Rock’s Backpages and I urge you to become a subscriber. You will be lost for hours reading story upon interesting story reflecting the rich history of modern pop and rock music. As far as I’m concerned, that could never be a bad thing.