Rock History and Visual Culture

In the age of the internet and multi-channel television, the relationship between music and visual culture is intensifying and multiplying. Music videos continue to abound, now that more and more genres have their own digital space. Live appearances on chat shows, comedy shows and so on are still a common feature of the TV landscape. And the music documentary has made a surprising comeback after a 1990s decline. How to assess this new settlement between sound and vision?

Bob Dylan D.A. Pennebaker  Don't Look Back

Bob Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker during the shooting of Don’t Look Back.

One starting point is to recognise a paradox. Amidst all the futuristic claims of a new digital era, there is a veritable explosion of history on our screens – including musical history. Film biopics gain Oscar nominations and drooling reviews (Ray, Walk the Line, Control). In a different budgetary world, cable channels fill their gaping schedules with cheap documentaries tracing the careers of musical ‘legends’ such as Paul Anka or Marc Bolan. In between, there are more serious but nevertheless predictable attempts to tell the story of musical genres (Soul Deep, Ken Burns’ Jazz). Martin Scorsese lends his auteur credentials to series on Dylan and the blues, which are then repackaged as glossy DVD box sets.

YouTube adds fascinating new levels to this retro culture, providing a virtual archive of musical history, from the sublime (Stevie Wonder at his peak performing Superstition on Sesame Street) to the predictable (a thousand indie boys walking through urban decay; ten thousand rappers stooping to peer into a ground-level camera). Inevitably, though, this fabulous resource is being read through the lenses provided by older discourses about rock and soul’s golden ages.


What does this musical history boom mean for our understanding of screen culture – and for that matter, musical culture? There’s a strong sense even amongst those most drawn to retro rock culture that the relentless looking back to the 1960s and 1970s is unsatisfactory. But classic rock fans tend to blame the victim, claiming that pop just hasn’t been the same since Elvis, Hendrix and Bowie shocked baby-boomers’ Mums and Dads with their wiggles, thrusts and pouts. The music nostalgia boom encourages a sense that the sixties and seventies formed not only a golden age of popular music, but a golden age of popular music’s visual power too.

I’m very sceptical about the idea that pop has declined since the golden age of rock and soul. And I’m convinced that the visualisation of this nostalgia is deeply mythological.

Let’s take TV first. Rock musicians were on the whole quite suspicious of TV. If the rock and soul revolutions involved some musicians attempting to gain greater autonomy, they were only rarely going to find that autonomy on television. On the other hand, there were plenty of musicians and managers willing to make all the compromises necessary to work with television, given the rewards involved. We may remember glorious moments of rebellion, but these were few and far between. In the UK, the television norm for popular music was a mimed public appearance on a live half-hour show such as Top of the Pops, or a guest appearance on a ‘variety show’. Some of the most important of these were fronted by bland popular music figures such as Cliff Richard and Val Doonican, performing agonising comedy sketches alongside light covers of recent pop hits. (The US equivalent would, I think, be shows hosted by Johnny Cash and Andy Williams).


One of the most mythologised moments in rock history is Jimi Hendrix’s appearance on one such show, hosted by the Scots singer Lulu in 1969. What is striking is how many accounts portray Jimi Hendrix as sullen, angry and anarchistic, when in fact he is smiling, polite, charming.1 His reference to not playing ‘rubbish’ is self-deprecating rather than aggressive.

Those rock musicians with the necessary resources turned to the cinema, which had greater prestige as higher entertainment, in spite of Elvis’s disastrous forays. These cinematic ventures could take the form of surreal quasi-experimentalism (the Beatles), allowing one’s iconic status to be confirmed through allowing in the direct cinema cameras (Pennebaker on Dylan, The Maysles brothers doing the Stones) or basing a feature film around concert footage (Led Zeppelin, The Who).

In cinema too, though, the evidence for a golden age is sparse. Sections of the feted A Hard Day’s Night are painful to watch. For all the recent hero-worship and star-struck fascination (I’m Not There), Dylan comes across as a self-absorbed prick in Don’t Look Back. Perhaps the nadir of classic rock’s encounter with the movies though is Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Actually, this may even have been the nadir of rock culture, period. The group hired their own filmmakers to film them in concert, and to produce fantasy sequences that they and their infamous manager Peter Grant had devised. Journeys are undertaken often on horseback or in vintage cars. Women are rescued or are seen preparing food for their swains. The film opens with Grant and a crony, dressed as Chicago gangsters, shooting up a group of ghouls who are seemingly supposed to represent the corporate rock industry. Here the truth is revealed: prog-rock, presented as a coming of age of youth culture, was very often about adolescent boy fantasy, more Tolkien than Tobias Wolff.

Of course ‘70s self-indulgence is now a staple of rock’s retro culture. Filmmakers are quite conscious of the gentle parody of This is Spinal Tap. But what do we say about a culture that actually thinks this stuff is worth celebrating to this degree, even with the wisdom of hindsight? After all, Led Zeppelin have been one of the key players in the current rock nostalgia boom. Their reunion gig in 2007 was one of the most hyped musical events of that year – and The Song Remains the Same was released on DVD in 2007 to considerable excitement in the music press.

As Simon Reynolds has pointed out, retro rock documentaries are just one part of a huge musical retro industry, encompassing ‘band reformations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and out-take crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, live performances of classic albums in their original sequence, rock histories and biographies galore’.2 Reynolds is rightly scathing about this culture, and offers up his own ‘Law of Retro’ – whereby ‘the vitality of a music genre bears an inverse ratio to the amount of historical knowledge built up around it’. But Reynolds also registers that the recent boom in music documentary is providing some interesting material, some of which runs counter to the classic rock nostalgia boom. He cites recent films on Berlin techno and Bristol dubstep, but also more mainstream documentaries on Wilco and Metallica and even retro pieces on some slightly more unusual and marginal figures – Joe Strummer, Shane MacGowan and Scott Walker.

DiG! Poster

Poster for the film DiG! (2004).

Reynolds also mentions DiG!, Ondie Timoner’s film about the contrasting fortunes of two US indie bands as they attempt to make it. Matt Stahl has analysed how DiG! offers a parable concerning the benefits of accommodation with capitalism.3 By setting the hedonistic but balanced Dandy Warhols against the mentally ill lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Anton Newcombe, DiG! portrays to its audiences a new model creative worker, imbued with mass society critique, but little more politically. I think Stahl is right, and that this captures beautifully the development of indie or alternative rock since the mid-1990s. Criticism of poverty, inequality, the opportunism and egoism of private interests, and the destruction of social bonds brought about by capitalism (‘social critique’ in the terms of BoltanskiThe New Spirit of Capitalism) is muted. What remains is an emphasis on disenchantment and inauthenticity, and the limits capitalism places on freedom, autonomy and creativity (‘artistic critique’ in Boltanski and Chiapello’s terms).4 Both critiques are important, but the latter has been thoroughly absorbed into capitalism, say Boltanski and Chiapello.

So DiG! ends up revealing some deeper truths about the realities of musical culture, in spite of its intentions. This is something that the modern rockumentaries share with older variants such as The Song Remains the Same. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is particularly impressive because it seems intentionally willing reveal its stars as sensitive multi-millionaires, who must have their personal guru perpetually present to guide their creativity. Drummer Lars Ulrich is seen strolling around his remarkable collection of Basquiats and Dubuffets, as he prepares to sell them at Christie’s for a breathtaking fee.

Strangely then we seem to be experiencing a golden age for certain aspects of visual culture, in the form of the revived rockumentary, and the glorious resources of YouTube. But these are still buried buried beneath the nostalgic retro culture that still dominates popular music. It’s time to clear that debris away and live in the musical present, while looking and listening back in a more enlightened way.

Image Credits:

1. Bob Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker during the shooting of Don’t Look Back.

2. Poster for the film DiG! (2004).

3. Home page image. Design by Peter Alilunas.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. See the journalist John Walsh quoted in Keith Negus, ‘Musicians on television: visible, audible and ignored’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 131,2: 310-330. Negus’s article is a rich set of reflections on music and visual culture. []
  2. []
  3. Matt Stahl, ‘Sex and Drugs and Bait and Switch: Rockumentary and the New Model Worker’, in David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee (eds), The Media and Social Theory, London and New York: Routledge, 2008. []
  4. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005). []


  • A principle concern of mine, as someone with both a personal and professional investment in rockumentaries, is what we do with nostalgia. Or, perhaps more accurately, revising nostalgia. I would argue in the wake of documentaries like “DiG!,” there have also been a glut of music documentaries that deal with canonizing marginalized music cultures through history. Recent titles like “I Was There, I Swear” and “Kill Yr Idols” deal with two very interesting phenomenas: the missed moments of critical importance in the development of punk culture and the accumulation of time that allows people to reclaim the moments in which they didn’t initially participate.

    “I Was There, I Swear” is about the small group of Mancunians who saw the Sex Pistols play the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 and the revisionary practices that allow a substantially larger group of people to all claim that they saw this important musical event. With “Kill Yr. Idols,” we have the conflict of a group of young New York art bands profiting off the revival of no-wave and pig fuck — musical movements that relied on insularity and themselves have an ambivalent relationship with the canonization process inherent in music documentaries. I wonder then, how music documentaries allow for historical and cultural revision and how this might complicate how we conceptualize nostalgia.

    Another thing I find interesting are the emerging documentaries that deal with a smaller figure within a particular scene. Documentaries like “Hey Is Dee Dee Home” and “New York Doll” shed light on what it was like to be in the band rather than the star of it, thus removing ourselves from our preoccupation with lead singers and their constructed personas (something I’d argue “DiG!” would’ve done well to further flesh out).

    But what do we do with marginal figures who were once involved in music production, but only through association? I’m thinking of David Siegfried, the strange and wonderful kid brother who is the subject of “My Brother is James Chance,” who tried to follow in his older brother’s footsteps by forming a no-wave band that played a couple gigs in Evanston when he was in high school, was unsuccessful, went to college, and wound up a candy salesman. In the process of telling his story, he also gives us insight into his brother’s career. I wonder if this approach to documentaries at once dislodges the mythic importance we place on the lead singer, yet also gives us better insight into who he/she is as a person.

    And finally, I wonder what we make of the hollowness of our investment with rock nostalgia. I was especially struck by this watching the Grammys last Sunday, where there was a brief announcement of bluegrass guitarist Earl Scrubbs winning a Lifetime Achievement award, only to cut to Feist singing “1234.” Now, I’d argue we’ve always been more preoccupied with current developments over past achievements. How else to explain why Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix are lauded as guitar players, yet are conceptualized as individual achievements rather than as part of a lineage of African Americans’ involvement with rock music? But I wonder how this hollow, surface investment with rock history is informing music documentaries.

    For example, in “DiG!,” both bands seem invested in antiquated notions of “revolution,” seemingly embodied through bands like the Velvet Underground, yet initially feel comfortable with (or at least recognize the inevitability) of selling out to music’s current corporate interests. What do we do with that and how might this better inform how nostalgia itself, not the bands or the scenes they represent, is what is now being sold in music documentaries?

  • How is “One of the most mythologised moments in rock history” something that most Hendrix fans are not even aware of? I would argue it is not even the most mythologized performance of Hendrix’s career, seeing as how canonized his performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock have become. They were both seen by many at the time, captured on film, referred to in numerous documentaries, and repackaged on albums, CDs, and DVDs.

    I would also like to know where these accounts are that portray Hendrix as “sullen, angry and anarchistic.” I had always gotten the impression that he was extremely shy, introverted, polite, and uncomfortable with his talent and fame.

    On a different note, I am also wondering what it is that the author finds painful to watch in A Hard Day’s Night?

  • David Hesmondhalgh

    Thanks to Alyx for these thoughtful comments and questions – and pointers to some very interesting-sounding music documentary work that I didn’t know about.
    As for Josh, well, ‘one of the most mythologised moments in rock history’ was a slip. I should have said ‘in rock on television’. I’m surprised though that Josh, as a Hendrix fan, doesn’t know about Hendrix’s appearance on Lulu’s show. It’s appeared on numerous rock histories and Charles Shaar Murray discusses it in his Crosstown Traffic, generally regarded as the definitive study of Hendrix. As for the characterisation of Hendrix’s mood in this clip, I’ve cited one example in the first footnote. And Shaar Murray echoes this characterisation. But maybe some of this is a matter of a difference between perceptions in the USA and the UK, where I am.
    Yes, certainly, Hendrix’s Monterey and Woodstock appearances are more discussed. But Woodstock is surely another example of mythologisation. Very few people (at least here in the UK) are aware that Hendrix’s set was recorded on the Monday morning, in front of a sparse crowd, because he decided not to go on in the rain on Sunday. And while his Monterey set is wonderful, his performance at Woodstock really isn’t that great, apart from the famous version of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.
    What I was trying to say is that Jimi is more interesting and varied than rock nostalgia generally allows for, and that TV and visual culture are bound up in this.
    As for what I find painful to watch in A Hard Day’s Night, where do I begin? How about the scene in the train carriage with Paul’s ‘other grandfather’? Or the shaving gag while John is in the bath? Don’t get me wrong, the film has its charms. But it seems to me another example of over-rated, mythologised, rock culture.

  • So, apparently the big issue here is American perceptions of Hendrix versus those in the U.K.

    The smaller issue that I was trying to demonstrate was that the phrase ‘one of the most mythologised moments in rock history’ was a slip. This has been addressed. Still, I would add that the phrase should still be further qualified to something like “one of Hendrix’s more mythologized TV appearances, especially in the U.K.” That performance is not nearly as mythologized on the level as Elvis or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or The Sex Pistols with Bill Grundy, or Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live, to name a few.

    I would also argue that even then, this performance on Lulu’s show would merely be on par with his perfomance on Dick Cavett’s show, one that has much more resonance stateside, and would also make one wonder why someone would claim he’s “sullen, angry and anarchistic.”

    As for Woodstock and Monterey, I feel you are just furthering my point. You even select the most romanticized song out of a romanticized set as the only noteworthy one, and assert misleadingly that he played on Monday morning because he did not want to go on in the rain on Sunday. In reality, the entire lineup was shifted back due to the rain and played the entire night into the morning, with Hendrix beginning his set as the new day was rising.

    In regard to A Hard Day’s Night, I was merely curious why someone would make a statement about it being painful to watch without citing examples, when the general perception of that movie is quite pleasant.

  • The idea that “older is better” imbues rock culture right down to the instruments: pre-owned musical equipment is no longer used, it’s “vintage.” No matter how unreliable, how difficult to intonate, “vintage” equipment carries with it an aura that would make Walter Benjamin cringe.

    But on to the matter at hand. I would like to touch on Dr. Hesmondhalgh’s point about the rare gems that surface on YouTube. In addition to Stevie Wonder’s appearance on _Sesame Street_, YT offers up glimpses of marginal musical moments that up until this year were fairly inaccessible. For example, I first learned about Northern Soul two decades ago when I read a brief caption beneath a photo of a dancer at the Wigan Casino in a book on rock style, but it remained a tantalizing mystery. Currently, there is a glut of Northern Soul videos on YouTube. While not all of it is historical footage–there are many contemporary NS dance contests–I’m still able to get a sense of what that scene was like. Likewise, there is in fact historical footage from ITV of mods and rockers clashing on the beaches of Margate in 1964. Again, while I have read extensively about those subcultures, having an archive of moving images helps flesh out what I’ve had to visualize in my head all these years.

    More importantly, such visual archives complicate our understanding of pop music culture. That is, hippie was not the only game in town in the early ’70s (at least in the UK).

    The comments that accompany these videos sometimes seem to lean towards the nostalgic, in “Northern Soul Forever” sense. However, is this nostalgia or evidence of a living (sub)culture? In other words, what do we make of a phrase like “Keep the Faith,” used by NS adherents and gracing several NS websites? Is it nostalgic or part of a process whereby a (sub)culture is kept alive. Are the current NS dance contests retro revivals geared toward living in the past or are they points on a continuum that stretches back to the late 1960s and early 1970s?

    I wonder about punk in a similar way. Punk never really died (as the title of the doc and the Exploited albume _Punk’s Not Dead_ make clear). As shoddy as the film PND is, it makes clear the ongoing existence of the subculture. While longevity might not be a defense against nostalgia, I wonder how it might complicate or even critique that nostalgia. Or maybe punk isn’t a living culture but a kind of static cultural experience, a postmodern feedback loop in which the members of the culture recycle the culture over and over again, not really moving forward, but not necessarily reviving anything either.

    I would rather not support that bleak supposition. Instead, I’d like to think through the possibility that ongoing musical styles and their associated subcultures continue to adapt themselves to present circumstances. How might they create temporary autonomous zones through which their members can imagine and then create counter-hegemonic lifeways? I’m thinking here of Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher and other former members of Crass who continue to practice anarchism on their commune in Essex, but there might be numerous other examples.

    Finally, a general interest in rockumentaries could loose enough capital that not only nostalgic filmmakers, but filmmakers with critical eyes and ears, could benefit. This seems to be the case with PND, _American Hardcore_, _My Brother is James Chance_ (thanks for the tip, Alyx!), _Dig!_, and many others that I’m forgetting. Whether or not these films will get the kind of wide distribution that Scorcese’s Rolling Stones film will get is debatable, but it’s a start.

  • Where are the women?

    If we want to have a complex portrait of rock’s past and present, we need to attend to those who have been consistently marginalized within rock discourse, whether academic or popular, print or audiovisual. One primary myth about rock that needs to be deconstructed, is that it was, and continues to be, a male-only culture.

    I’m happy to share references to articles, books, and AV texts that have attempt to demythologize the gender-specificity of rock.

  • It’s interesting to look at the mythologization of rock & roll in the context of Battlstar Galactica. By the end of the show’s third season, seven out of twelve models of Cylons – the human-looking machines bent on destroying humanity – had been revealed. Every one had at one point seemingly been human with a later reveal of the true nature that often spun the show in a different direction. After three seasons of these reveals, the audience was very much prepared for five more. What no one could prepare for though was when a central character drunkenly blurted out the first line of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ Imagine the shock, then, when four main characters each quoted a line from the song, thus signaling the realization of their true nature as Cylons. Few fans were particularly shocked at the revelation Most are still trying to understand the diegetic significance of Dylan’s classic.

    Ron D. Moore, the show’s executive producer, has discussed the fact that the song is exists to demonstrate a connection between our world and the show’s. It is not that Bob Dylan exists in their Galactica universe, but that this song, like the inclination to explore or the fear of God, is part of human consciousness. As the show has progressed, though, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ has become like Ezekial’s chariot, a signal of the divine.

    The use of the song on Battlestar Galactica seems to be another portent of Hesmondhalgh’s mythologizing of classic rock. Both its composition and lyrics are dissected by the show and given enormous power. The music, now laden with sitar and duduk, becomes an integral part of the show’s score in the fourth season, always coupled with a transcendent experience. The show has been noted for its diverse score that ignores cultural or geographic boundaries. The music veers away from orientalist stereotypes. Japanese Taiko drums, signal that the Galactica is ready for battle, while a piano solo inspired by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” accompanies the alien Cylons on their geometrically schizophrenic Basestars. Through all of this, though, it is the American rock classic that is tied to the great mystery of the show.

    A central theme of Battlestar Galactica is questioning what it means to be human, as well as what it means to believe in God. ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ as it is used on the show, seem to represent the best of humanity and of our beliefs. The song is apparently something so beautiful and profound that it is nothing short of divine. In fact, it’s function is to push the audience to do what the characters on Galactica cannot: look into our past and marvel beauty we have created rather than looking into our future in search of our next conquest. This is particularly ironic for a show that has had to constantly overcome the inclination of viewers to look back and compare the show to its source, the 1970’s Galactica .

    Galactica does not harp on popular culture – after all, it is popular culture – the way those who revere Dylan and Hendrix over modern musicians often do. On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that out of all the touchstones it could use to signify the grace of humanity, the chose a rock classic. Though critics will continue to argue about whether or not the use of the ‘All Along the Watchtower’ enhances or destroys the narrative, there can be no doubt that it was a bold decision. It was also one that shows how much, for better or worse, we still worship the golden age of rock and roll.

  • Salut à tous ! Avez vous démarché une agence référencement web pour le référencement web ?

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