In this day and age, when music fans yawn at the prospect of being gifted with yet another completist box set, maybe it's time to reconsider even giving the gift of music. Instead, give the gift of music journalism -- not music per se, but knowledge and experience and feeling superior and complaining about things!
After all, you could give your friends and family a Stooges album for Christmas (or the complete Fun House box) and you'll have given them the gift that keeps on spewing, but consider giving them the gift of music criticism -- let's say, said album reviewed by Lenny Kaye in Rolling Stone circa 1973 ("The band is a motherhumper") or by Lester Bangs in Phonograph the same year ("...rampaging guitar lines hurtling out or colliding like opiated dervishes, steady, mindless, four-four android drumming, Iggy outdoing even his own previous excesses with a ragged tapestry of yowls, caws, growls, raspy rants, epithets, and imprecations.").
Two products, one new this year, make it easier and more entertaining than ever to track rock movements and rock criticism across the ages -- or at least, since the late '60s. Rolling Stone's Cover-To-Cover project is a $75 DVD-ROM set that allows you to view every page of every issue from 1967 to 2007 on your computer (provided you have 512MB of RAM; 1024 is recommended). The other, Rockâ€™s Back Pages, is an online subscription service ($50 per year, $30 for six months) that, for several years, has collected thousands of articles from every major rock-music periodical: Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy!, Circus, NME (as early as 1965), Melody Maker, Sounds, The Face, Mojo, Q, and Uncut.
Rolling Stone triumphs over The New Yorker, one of the other magazines with a DVD-ROM incarnation, in its ease of use, whether searching for artists and albums, or browsing (by year, cover, author, etc.). Although search results arenâ€™t indexable (say, by year), it does give you the ability to print out any page quickly and easily, and it also allows you to save the set of three DVD-ROM's to your hard disk -- so, no need to switch discs when youâ€™re moving from a Blind Faith feature from 1969 to a Van Halen feature from 1984 or Van Halen to Queens of the Stone Age.
In attendance is every Jon Landau review, every Hunter S. Thompson dispatch, every Annie Leibovitz photograph, every Random Note, and every single one of the hilariously dated advertisements -- Uriah Heep: "The sound is heavy, but the melody lingers on"; "I Am Seatrain!"; Atomic Rooster: "Sometimes the younger you are, the more you feel that death walks behind you"; Sha Na Na: "Greased and ready to kick ass!"; Dylan's Self Portrait: "We let some critics write this ad." [!]), Jim Croce: "I think music should make people sit back and want to touch each other."
Also at your fingertips is a parade of hilarious hippie-nation talkback in the early section Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice: "Grand Rapids is a lonely town when you're the only surfer-boy around.", "Imagine John [Lennon] with no possessions.", "How come you never print the letters I send you? Is it because I'm from N.J.?", "Sigh. When I unzipped the zipper on my new copy of Sticky Fingers, nothing popped out.", "I thought your Vietnam dope page was far out. But please let it be known that you can buy acid at Mom's at Tan Son Nhut too."
One of the features that's most fascinating about Rolling Stone's Cover-To-Cover is seeing the albums that were released and reviewed concurrently. The December 24, 1970 issue alone reviews Sly & the Family Stone's Greatest Hits (by Jon Landau), the Velvet Underground's Loaded (Lenny Kaye), the Allman Brothers Band's Idlewild South and Derek & the Dominoes' Layla in a dual review, the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Frank Zappa's Chunga's Revenge, Santana's Abraxas, and Miles Davis at Fillmore.
Rockâ€™s Back Pages, overseen by Barney Hoskyns, is a treasure trove of rock arcana, containing thousands of articles from a bevy of rock criticismâ€™s heaviest hitters during the â€˜60s, â€˜70s, and â€˜80s, from Crawdaddy to Creem to Rolling Stone to Phonograph to Sounds to Q to Mojo.
Want to see what the New York Times said about The White Album? Yep, itâ€™s in there, and itâ€™s not pretty: "This new album sounds spectacular at first, but the fascination quickly fades. Where the best American groups -- Jefferson Airplane and Blood, Sweat and Tears are two of them -- produce substantial music that can be lived with, the Beatles tend to produce spectacular but thin music that is best saved for special occasions."
Fully searchable and indexed (by artist, genre, author, publication, etc.), Rockâ€™s Back Pages is limited only by your imagination in what to search for -- and, believe it or not, itâ€™s occasioned the entry of at least one band into the AMG database that hadnâ€™t existed previously (stand up and be counted, Scafell Pike, about whom was written in NME in 1975, "SCAFELL PIKE ARE a four-piece, three guitars and piano, who confine themselves to British traditional song and seem to specialise in sea shanties. Given that, and the presence of tracks such as 'The Roast Beef of Old England', it's ironic to discover they were formed in Sweden.").
To be sure, it's not just your imagination that limits Rockâ€™s Back Pages, but also Rock. Rock music, as it was first defined in the late â€˜60s, as being separate from Pop (the Mamas & the Papas, Gary Lewis & the Playboys) or Rock & Roll (early Elvis, Chuck Berry).
So, prepare to overdose on all the Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, Stones, and Clapton you can handle -- plus, thanks to contributions from Paul Morley, Jon Savage, and many others, a very healthy dose of '70s/'80s/'90s punk, post-punk, Britpop, alternative, and indie-rock from the pages of NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, The Face, etc.
A few of the roots genres -- R&B and Country especially -- do indeed get their due, and not always from Peter Guralnick. The modern end is sewn up quite well, with 2007-era features on White Stripes and Amy Winehouse, among others.
Another factor is the price -- $30 for six months or $50 per year, quite an investment for those who pinch their pennies. (And, unlike Rolling Stone, these are not the articles in their original typeset; they're all delivered in the same aesthetically poor font and design.) Still, if you can remind yourself to spend time with it -- and want to spend time with it -- a subscription to Rockâ€™s Back Pages can be more reading material than youâ€™d find in music books over the course of years.