'Smithsonian Rock and Roll' Welcomes the Amateur Concert Photographer

This new book featuring concert photos taken by fans is a stylish, interesting, and absorbing, yet somewhat incomplete look at the history of popular music.

Over a year ago, the Smithsonian held an open casting call of sorts, asking for unpublished concert photos from music fans who just happened to capture an illuminating moment from an iconic onstage performance. Out of thousands of submissions, over 150 were selected and paired with various professionally-taken photographs to create Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen: a type of graphic encyclopedia of popular music from the late-'50s to 2016.

Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen

Bill Bentley
October 2017

The book invites us to question what it is that makes a concert photo important. Is it the time or circumstance in which it was taken? Is it in the subject and what they were doing at the moment? Do lighting, coloring, and atmosphere turn an ordinary photo into a work of art? Certain shots, such as those of Aretha Franklin at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (which made headlines for reported police brutality against the anti-war protesters standing outside) or the grainy, partially obscured photograph of Ritchie Valens taken hours before his tragic death in the “day the music died" airplane crash, are here mostly for their historical value.

Others, such an image of CBGB's intentionally distressed and graffitied men's bathroom, or Elton John decked out in multicolored sequins and feathers in 1973, are here to exemplify a specific moment in time. But of course, many of these photos are here for their artistic merit, such as an ethereally blue-shaded image of David Bowie rising up onstage, or a color photo of The Ramones that due to concert lighting, only appears to consist of three colors: black, white, and red. The fact that roughly half of these photographs weren't taken by professionals looking for an artistic or meaningful shot, but by average people who were in the right place at the right time, is impressive. In fact, it makes the reader wonder why so many professionally-taken images appear here at all.

The text is written by former A&R director, music producer, and all-around industry big-wig Bill Bentley. His enthusiasm for his subjects is obvious, as he often comes up with just the right turn of phrase to accurately describe an artist or their impact. (For example, he eulogizes Amy Winehouse with, “She sounded as though she had stabbed herself in the heart every time she took the stage.") He has a peculiar habit of using celestial and outer space-themed terminology, which works well at some times (such as when he says, “If some cosmic twist of fate dictated only one bluesman per planet, ours would belong to Muddy Waters"), but sticks out like a sore thumb at others (such as when he describes The Crickets' rhythm guitarist as “thumping out beats across one's solar plexus").

Rudimentary information on its artists, including birth/death years, the names of seminal albums or songs, and a general overview of their specific sound and influence are featured, but is in no way comprehensive. (For example, The Beatles' influences, songwriting partnerships, the 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearance, and break-up is mentioned, but not their early German gigs, innovative stadium concerts, wildly successful movies, or illustrious solo careers.) All of this is divided into seven differently titled chapters, some of which make more sense than others. Naturally, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who are included in a chapter entitled, “The British Invasion and Beyond: The Future Is Revealed", but Al Green, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Marley, ZZTop, and Linda Ronstadt grouped together in a chapter entitled “The Wild Side Moves In: Fasten Seat Belts Now" eludes me. Still, the words aren't as dry and formulaic as what you would likely find in similar books.

A roblem with Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen, however, lies in its selection of subjects. Many seminal rock bands and artists, such as Bill Haley & His Comets, Queen, the Faces, Jethro Tull, Peter Frampton, Heart, the Cars, and more are missing from its pages, while artists associated with other genres are included sparingly, implying that pop (Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper), Motown/soul (Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green), and rap/hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., and N.W.A.) can be summed up in just a handful of artists. Other genres, such as country, gospel, and contemporary christian music are virtually excluded, with no predominate artists listed.

Most of the pages concentrate on the '60s and '70s, which are vividly well-represented, but to the exclusion of other decades. Is it fair or accurate to sum up the past 15 years of rock music with just Jack White, Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Alabama Shakes? One feels that this book would have been made that much greater if it was a bit bigger, giving more space to more artists. On the bright side, though, many little-known yet highly influential artists, such as the 13th Floor Elevators, Laura Nyro, and MC5 are featured. There's also an emphasis on performers who might not have had major mainstream success, but still define a specific sound or genre, like Dr. John (synonymous with New Orleans) or Los Lobos (an example of Latin or tejano-infused rock).

In short, Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live And Unseen is a stylish, interesting, and absorbing, yet slightly incomplete look at the history of popular music.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.