By David Browne
March 31, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

History of Rock 'n' Roll (10 Volumes)

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  • Movie

When it comes to documenting the twisted, glorious saga of rock, you’d think that 10 hour-long videotapes would suffice. But judging from the ambitious History of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1995, Time-Life, 800-241-2400, $13.48 for Vol. 1; $23.48 for Vols. 2-10), you’d need enough tape to equal the first Woodstock-at least 72 hours’ worth-to adequately cover all the bases. Take Vol. 1, Rock ‘n’ Roll Explodes. It opens with what-rock-means-to-me observations from such disparate talents as Graham Nash and B.B. King. Then, during its second half hour, it whips through-hold on-Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, gospel, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, the blues, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the ’50s payola hearings, and Elvis. The whole mess leaves you dizzy and bewildered, as if you’re trapped in the most mushily nostalgic side of Dick Clark’s brain. (He’s here too, of course.) So it goes with the other nine volumes of this Herculean, but often superficial, effort. Good Rockin’ Tonight, which traces rock’s first heyday, in the late ’50s, is followed by Britain Invades, America Fights Back, which rushes through the rise of the Beatles and their peers and the simultaneous reign of Motown and the Beach Boys. Vol. 4, Plugging In, meanders from L.A. folk rock to Hendrix. The Sounds of Soul starts with James Brown and ends with, er, Daryl Hall. The rise of FM rock and the ’60s counterculture is traced in My Generation; Vol. 7, Guitar Heroes, cranks through all the expected ax-grinders, such as Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen. The ’70s: Have a Nice Decade leapfrogs from Ozzy Osbourne to disco to Bob Marley to Springsteen and segues naturally into Vol. 9, Punk. The last two decades- covering the birth of MTV and rap, with absurdly brief stops for vital (but non-”rock”) artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson-are lumped together in Up From the Underground. If it’s archival footage you want, the series delivers some incredible jaw- droppers. We see the Rolling Stones performing in a nearly empty stadium on their first U.S. tour; Bob Dylan going electric at the historic 1965 Newport Folk Festival, never broadcast since; and Stevie Wonder unveiling his grown- up, gritty self with a wailing rendition of ”Superstition.” Even some of the nonperformance clips are terrific, such as Joni Mitchell being reduced to tears by a hostile audience at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival and a roadie tying Freddie Mercury’s shoelaces. (The series recently aired in syndication, but as a bonus, each tape adds up to 20 minutes of often raunchy footage. My + Generation, for instance, includes a veritable orgy aboard a Stones tour jet.) A running narrative with historical data and critical insight would have helped make sense of this onslaught of images. Instead, the producers rely on interviews to fill in the blanks. There’s no shortage of memorable quips, from the eternally quotable Pete Townshend recalling the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, et al. (”They may be your f — -ing icons-they’re my f — -ing friends”) to Gregg Allman mumbling, ”Rap is short for crap.” But for every terrific line or anecdote, there are two that are frustratingly generic. A very rare live clip of the early Steely Dan is interrupted several times by say-nothing reminiscences from former member Jeff ”Skunk” Baxter. The worst offender is Quincy Jones-one of the series’ executive producers-who appears on nearly every tape whether or not he has any insight to offer. (Of the Motown sound, he digs deep and emerges with ”It was very, very different.”) Every so often, the voice of Gary Busey pops up to provide bland comments like ”The electric guitar defined rock & roll.” By trying to jam-pack each volume with both clips and recollections, the series ends up being a weird paradox: It’s both too much and not enough. The one exception is Punk. From a hilarious clip of Iggy Pop on The Dinah Shore Show in 1977 (”What did you do to those nice people out there?” she attempts to banter after his performance) to live footage of the Patti Smith Group and the Sex Pistols’ chaotic final concert, Punk has a pogoing narrative drive; it feels like a self-contained mini-movie. ”New wave was the corruption of everything,” recalls Johnny Lydon (formerly Rotten) with a sneer, which leads into the Police’s video for ”Every Breath You Take.” It’s a subtle, snide bit of attitude and editorializing-exactly what the nine companion tapes lack. All tapes except Punk: B Punk: A-

History of Rock 'n' Roll (10 Volumes)

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