you stole the bomp

If I had to sum up David Walley’s 1998 release in one word, it would be ‘snoozefest’. Teenage Nervous Breakdown: Music and Politics in the Post-Elvis Age is more of a personal nostalgic take on life than insightful look at how the rise of rock ‘n’ roll shaped the world.

Though the book contains research, most of Walley’s commentary is derived from his own experience and predilections. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing, but would be better suited for a memoir. The heavy baby-boomer/ex-hippie/weren’t the fifties swell-slant makes it difficult for a younger audience to relate while simultaneously dating the perspective.

Also annoying is the clear fact that Walley never got over high school – he goes so far as to dedicate an entire chapter to explaining how society structures itself in much the same way high-schoolers do. While high school as life is a common metaphor, most of us get over the fact we were picked last in gym class and don’t fixate on it well into our forties. Hopefully for him he really showed the football team who’s boss by putting out this book.

While the content of the book did nothing to move me, matters were not helped by the format. The publishers picked a font that is hard to read (commas and periods are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and each letter has so many serifs it might as well be Middle Ages-era calligraphy), each paragraph has a large break in between (generally reserved for a separation of ideas), and there are several large block quotes per chapter (why not just read the other authors’ work?). This may be a nerdy conceit, but if a book is a laborious read regardless of content, it’s a problem.

If the title and proposed subject matter of the book intrigues you, I’d advise skipping Walley’s entry and going straight for Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. It does an amazing job of tracing youth culture’s rise to prominence and is well-written on top of it. It’s a bit heavier but will save you the waste of time Teenage Nervous Breakdown turned out to be.

‘that guy’ has a name – adam coil

The Boy Who Cried FreebirdYou’ve all heard him. At more of the shows you’ve gone to than not, there’s that guy. The one who insists on yelling “Freebird!”, regardless of appropriateness of the request. In the first section of his book, The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling, author Mitch Myers personifies this shady character into the fictional Adam Coil.

Utilizing both straight fact and outright fiction, Myers gives readers a blend of history and tall-tale, often blurring the line between the two. Anti-hero Adam Coil serves to put a personal spin on various musical experiences, such as giving “Freebird”-guy a name and giving a fresh perspective to the hippie-tastic era of The Grateful Dead in San Francisco as a time-traveler from 2069.

Other fictitious tales include a musical face-off between a DJ and jazz drummer for club supremacy and bringing about the world-wide destruction of aliens posing as humans with Black Sabbath recordings (*coughMarsAttackscough*). There are several pieces that are more or less straight-laced music history essays, and a smattering of probably true but most likely embellished stories (like getting locked into a Tower Records overnight).

Though The Boy Who Cried Freebird would tip toward ‘enjoyable’ on a scale, the fuzzy line between real-life and make-believe can get a bit tedious. Also, Myers’s narrative voice skews toward middle-aged male, both in tone and reader appeal. There’s nothing wrong with either of these traits, but it does have the potential to turn off some readers.

make believe ballroom

Last Night A DJ Saved My Life CoverWhen I picked up Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, I expected it to be a history of popular music on the radio. After all, when one encounters the term “disc jockey” the mind generally doesn’t jump to an image of a man behind a set of turntables, pulsing lights and thudding bass abound – but this is in fact the type of DJ authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton are referencing in their 1999 release.

The radio DJ does get a fair shake in the book, providing context for the history of bringing music to the masses.The focus, however, is a thorough history of dance music and its accompanying culture in the US and UK.

Northern soul is the first trend to be covered, revealing a culture of obsessive collecting of obscure tracks partying until the break of dawn. A celebrated example of northern soul is R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost In My House” – a surprisingly gritty Motown track from 1967.

Next to be covered is raggae, with its early remixes and soundclashes. Elements from both the raggae and northern soul scenes paved the way for the two most expansive genres of DJ-led phenomena, disco and hip hop. Brewster and Broughton set the record straight on the origins of these genres and shine a light on their far-reaching impact on both culture and music.

Later forms such as house and techno are also covered, with the final portion of the book tying everything together and offering commentary on the then-current state and future of dance music. At the book’s press time, late-90s dance music was cracking into the American mainstream with acts like Fatboy Slim, Moby, and the Chemical Brothers, but the authors did not comment on the trend, instead focusing on the more established UK/European success of acts like Sasha and Paul Oakenfold.

Though I’d consider myself a dabbler at best in the field of dance music, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life was a a great read. Brewster and Broughton make even the most foreign of experiences seem accessible while seamlessly providing snapshot after snapshot of cultural history.