Books

'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Over a year ago, the Smithsonian held an open casting call of sorts, asking for unpublished concert photos from music fans who just happened to capture an illuminating moment from an iconic onstage performance.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
(Smithsonian)
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.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.