David P. Szatmary,
Rockin' in Time:
A Social History of Rock-and-Roll

(Prentice Hall, 2004)

Originally published in 1987, this is the fifth edition of David Szatmary's Rockin' in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll. The updated volume now includes discussions of such recent developments as the Internet's impact on the music industry and the influence of Ozzy Osbourne on nu-metal bands including Incubus and P.O.D. But it's clear that the author's true passions lie with the music of the 1950s and '60s and with the punk movement of the mid- to late '70s.

Szatmary opens Rockin' in Time by reaching back to the roots of rock in the Mississippi delta, documenting the contributions of such blues pioneers as Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and Muddy Waters. He then traces rock's progress through the early days of rockabilly, the British invasion, folk revolution, Motown era, psychedelia, art rock, heavy metal and punk with admirable insight and attention to detail. Tidbits such as the fact that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones -- who would eventually rock the world as members of Led Zeppelin -- were employed as session musicians on the Herman's Hermits hit "I'm Into Something Good" make the reading fun. But what is often most interesting is the way Szatmary keeps his eye on the world in which the music was made, putting songs into a political and economic perspective.

Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Thatcher-era economic policy, unemployment figures, apartheid and 9/11 are all examined for their impact on the music that hit the charts over the 50-year history of rock 'n' roll. And the ebbs and flows of rock's attention to social issues -- or on the flip side its purely escapist tendencies -- are explored through hundreds of quotes drawn from mainstream and underground music press sources.

Unfortunately, by choosing to focus on the importance and impact of a particular singer or band before moving on to the next act, Szatmary is frequently forced to leap about in time. This approach makes it awkward to follow the chronology of the social issues he's linking to the music. He might have been better served by examining the socio-political landscape and its effect on an entire genre of music rather than dealing with, say, Jethro Tull in one paragraph then backtracking four years to cover King Crimson's influence on classical rock. (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis and the Electric Light Orchestra then rate only a single paragraph each before taking a 10-year leap backwards to introduce Pink Floyd.)

Szatmary's love of the early days of rock and of the dynamic interplay of music and social issues that defined the folk and punk eras becomes most obvious through his rather lackluster chapters on more recent musical developments such as hip-hop and nu-metal. And while any book that attempts to deal with the entire history of rock in a mere 350 pages cannot hope to be truly comprehensive, it seems that a rock history that fails to include any discussion of Blondie, Oasis, Fleetwood Mac, Radiohead, Jane's Addiction/Perry Farrell/Lollapolooza, The Jam/Style Council, Smashing Pumpkins, Lillith Fair and the Jesus & Mary Chain is incomplete to say the least.

How in the world did the British heavy metal band Angelwitch rate inclusion while Guns 'N Roses did not? Why feature a quote from the northwest grunge band Tad, "The loser is the existential hero of the '90s," and ignore Beck who brought the "Loser" message to a huge audience? Where is any discussion of Peter Gabriel's involvement with the WOMAD festivals, which introduced a host of world music performers to British and North American audiences?

Rockin' in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll is an uneven book and one can only hope that Szatmary decides that a sixth edition warrants an additional hundred or so pages in order to fill in some gaping holes. And while he's at it perhaps he can fix some copyediting problems; Shania Twain didn't grow up near Ontario, Canada (which would put her in Buffalo, NY, or perhaps Detroit); she's from Timmins, a town about 500 miles north of Toronto.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 28 August 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.