PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Stephen Tow's 'London, Reign Over Me' Is a Must-Read Tour of '60s British Rock

Jordan Blum

Historian Stephen Tow's London, Reign Over Me is an insightful, thorough, and welcoming exploration of '60s-era British rock.

London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock
Stephen Tow

Rowman & Littlefield

February 2020


It's no secret that America and England have long had a symbiotic relationship when it comes to popular music. For the better part of a century, the two countries have influenced each other's tastes and trajectories in terms of shaping mainstream interests and artistic evolutions. Undoubtedly, the most crucial decade in that respect was the 1960s, and that's the era historian Stephen Tow explores in, London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Build Classic Rock.

In his latest work, he takes readers on a fascinating, astute, and welcoming tour through the birth of the several genre offshoots—such as progressive rock and folk—to explore the remarkable circumstances that made London and its surroundings such a fertile and significant creative space.

One of the strengths of this book is the inclusion of insights from important musicians, managers, producers, critics, and others of the time. Through both first-hand interviews and vintage excerpts from publications like Melody Maker, Record Mirror, and New Musical Express, Tow embraces the feedback Dave Davies (The Kinks), Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention), Peter Frampton (Humble Pie, solo), Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Manfred Mann, and Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), and dozens of other music notables.

Doing so gives priceless authenticity, humility, and weight to Tow's already valuable assessments and explanations, so it really feels like you're being taken along for the ride with the star players, reviewers, and behind-the-scenes craftsman who steered the ships and turned the tides. Indeed, London, Reign Over Me begins with a foreword from iconic drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson), who interweaves anecdotes about the era with consistent and valid praise for Tow's ability to judge it clearly and wisely.

Tow touches upon the pre-classic rock stuff like American blues, skiffle, jazz, and British R&B. Specifically, he argues that English jazz musician Chris Barber—after discovering American jazz as a teen while working with influential guitarist Alexis Korner and trumpeter Ken Coyler, and playing on Lonnie Donegan's vastly celebrated version of "Rock Island Line"—directly paved the way for those aforementioned genres to take flight in Britain. As he left his mark, other prominent musicians and palettes spread as audiences flocked to digest all they could, leading to the formation of acts like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Animals.

Naturally, Tow also explores many other facets of British rock music in the '60s, such as the rise of the Mods vs. Rockers rivalry (which formed the basis for the Who's 1973 masterpiece, Quadrophenia, from which London, Reign Over Me partially got its name). He devotes significant attention to the seeds and blossoming of progressive rock and progressive folk, too, by noting how records like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, and the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed demonstrated more intricate and conceptual leanings. Within a couple of years, huge ensembles like Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, the Strawbs, King Crimson, and Yes would progress things even further, and Tow makes sure readers are made aware of how it happened.

Although his discussions of those eminent acts are praiseworthy, Tow recognizes the importance of artists who don't get as much attention from the media. A personal favorite is the brilliantly bonkers Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (whose mastermind, Neil Innes, recently passed away). Known for their truly idiosyncratic blend of genre-splicing arrangements and wacky antics, they were the musical equivalent of Monty Python in more ways than one. It's fair to say that many bands that infuse humor into their music owes a debt to them. (Let's not forget that their 1967 gem, "Death Cab for Cutie", inspired the name of one of America's biggest pop/rock acts 30 years later.) Elsewhere, outfits like the Move, the Small Faces, the Nice, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown are given their due.

Throughout, Tow highlights the venues and ever-changing [counter]cultural attitudes that allowed these artists to perform and grow a following. For examples, he muses about London's Eel Pie Island, which held a hotel that offered teenagers "an oasis from the grim reality of postwar life" as artists like Eric Clapton (with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), the Who, David Bowie, Jeff Beck (with The Tridents), and Rod "the Mod" Stewart built a following and found their voices. He investigates how the mid-to-late '60s London folk and psychedelic scenes grew, thanks to clubs like The Roundhouse, UFO, The Cousins, and Middle Earth, as these venues allowed up-and-comers to try out new things and get to know each other. In that way, London, Reign Over Me includes a healthy amount of vivid details about the look and feel of the places that nurtured these musicians.

Despite all of its strengths, there are two major sticking points that might bother some readers: its organization and repetition. Rather than arrange his chapters by band, Tow structures them by genre/movement; while that's a compelling approach, he subsequently jumps back and forth between artists too frequently and briskly at times. Occasionally, he will focus several consecutive pages on one group, but he'll also juggle several at once (as if he's fitting them into a textual Venn diagram). This method isn't too difficult follow, but it could certainly be a smoother read if the book were arranged chronologically.

Quibbles aside, London, Reign Over Me is a masterfully researched, spacious, and inviting survey of British rock music in the 1960s (and a bit beyond). Those who lived through it and/or are invested in this music may know a lot of this history, but Tow's extensive insights, engaging connections, and approachable voice makes it an enthralling read, nonetheless.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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