The first episode of the heavily trailed seven part television series The Seven Ages Of Rock aired tonight on the BBC. The programmes were made by the people behind the previous series Dancing In The Street and Soul Deep. Like the latter, Seven Ages weaves each episode around a central figure which helps with the narrative structure, but does tend to lead to a fairly distorted reflection. The first episode concentrated on Jimi Hendrix, and the part that he played in turning the British rhythm and blues boom into what is now known as rock.
To say that there were a few problems with the programme would be an understatement. The whole premise seemed to be that rock music began in September 1966 when Hendrix touched down at Heathrow – a frankly ludicrous assertion. The whole hour seemed to be spent twisting facts to fit the theory. The major problem is that rock, and popular music in general, has had an evolutionary, not a revolutionary history. Things have never happened suddenly, as if beamed down from another planet, as this series seems to be suggesting. Admittedly, there have been periods when the musical landscape has appeared to change almost overnight, but this has been more to do with exposure to a mass audience rather than sudden changes in what was actually happening in the music.
In September 1966 the Grateful Dead (not even mentioned in this programme) were already spinning out long improvised sets in San Francisco. The Byrds had had a hit with “Eight Miles High”, a song that took Coltrane’s late period free jazz improvisations and shoe-horned them into the structure of a three minute pop hit. The Mothers Of Invention had released Freak Out, a double album of wacked out beatnik rock that was cynical before its time. The Velvets were doing nihilism in New York, and there was a garage band on every street cranking out high octane tunes influenced by the Stones, Beatles and Yardbirds. The programme even acknowledges that the Who and Cream were already engaged in making music that fitted the narrow defintion of what is rock that it has set up.
This is not to belittle Hendrix, of course. The conjecture that he changed everything stretches the truth, but he was a massively influential figure, particularly when it comes to the history of rock guitar playing. In that context he was, and always will be peerless. But the course of rock history was never changed by one man or one band alone.
The programme did seem far too Anglo-centric, too. Hendrix may have been an American, but he’s always been considered an honoury Brit since his band were English, and it was the UK that embraced him long before America was interested. The other groups featured – Cream, the Who, the Stones, the Beatles and the Yardbirds – were all British, with the only other Americans getting any look in being old blues masters like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, and Bob Dylan. It fitted the contention that English white boys took black r&b, sprinkled it with fairy dust and exported it to the Yanks as new-and-improved rock music – a theory that is rather facile and simplistic. American white boys were doing rock before the British invasion (the Wailers and the Kingsmen, for example). The story of rock is messy, obscure, controversial and virtually impossible to be objective about. It’s impossible to sum it up insuch a pat fashion.
I also quickly got bored with the proclamations of the rock critics wheeled in to chip in their two penn’orth. Jeez are these guys (and they are all guys) pompous! The musicians are better value, and it’s always a treat to marvel at Jack Sparrow’s dad and to wonder at the voodoo that keeps him alive and sentient. There were a few niggly factual errors in the programme – Tim Rose didn’t write “Hey Joe”, for example. Things like that are annoying, because it gives the viewer cause to question the veracity of the statements that he or she doesn’t know.
So, I’ve panned the programme and its ridiculous premise. So I won’t be watching the next six episodes, right? Wrong! I wouldn’t miss them for the world. At the end of the day, the series has hung seven hours of fantastic archive footage on a bunch of dodgy theorising. Who gives a toss, in the end, when there is such brilliant material. I’d never seen Hendrix’s takes on “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Sergeant Pepper”, and they were a joy. All of the archive material, though, whether live performance or contemporary background was well chosen and expertly put together. It was an hour crammed with great moments (and disturbing ones, such as Meredith Hunter’s murder at Altamont). I cannot recommend this series highly enough on these grounds – just don’t give too much credence to the contextualising and theorising, but enjoy the wealth of great material that’s been unearthed.