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Inside Classic Rock Tracks

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One of the most overlooked aspect of popular music is its structure–and yet, it’s an important element of what makes the music we like work: the mile-long coda of “Hey Jude”, the lack of traditional choruses in “Kashmir”, the long instrumental opening of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” theme song–these are all structural choices that make these songs what they are.

Rikky Rooksby’s Inside Classic Rock Tracks is a guide to what to listen for in rock and pop songs over the last forty years, and while it’s not exclusively about song structure, it does discuss it in some depth. Just as New Shimmer is both a desert topping and a floor wax, Inside Classic Rock Tracks is both a handy tool for songwriters and producers seeking inspiration, and a nice guide for listeners, providing new insights into songs heard on the radio every day. While anyone who picks it up will probably find a song or two missing, there’s enough material here, from enough genres (from Roy Orbison and Glenn Campbell, to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Marvin Gaye, to The Sex Pistols and Kate Bush) to satisfy a wide variety of readers. My biggest peeve with the book was a lack of examination of the Beatles’ songs (only “Please Please Me” and George Harrison’s “What Is Life” are represented from the Fab Four), but then there are numerous books about the Beatles’ music and George Martin’s production and arrangements in enough depth to float a bathysphere. And of course, the usual left-wing bias is present in a few places, but that’s practically de rigueur for a book on rock music.

Speaking of structure given Inside Classic Rock Tracks song-by-song breakdown, it’s easy to start anywhere in the book and begin thumbing through it, or pick a favorite musical period or decade and begin there. But it’s worth examining the rest of the book as well—there are sure to be undiscovered gems of music waiting to be explored.

For those who start at the beginning, the growth of popular music’s complexity is apparent: while there were early experimenters with structure and harmony such as Orbison, most early rock and roll tunes were based on cookie-cutter formulas derived from simplifying older forms of pop music as well as rhythm and blues. Then the Beatles opened the floodgates to a whole host of experimentation by using the recording studio as an instrument in and of itself.

Ironically, the Beatles turned inward to the recording studio because it was a superior technology to that era’s underpowered and generally god-awful equipment that prevented them from being heard during their live performances. The interplay between technology and music is a subtle (and perhaps unintended) subtext of the book: while music grew more complex as recording become more sophisticated in the 1960s and 1970s, the perfection of synthesizers and drum machines in the early 1980s ushered in an age of simplification: because that equipment sounded so good simply by pushing a few buttons, or holding a simple chord shape on a keyboard, pop music in general became simplified and clean-cut. The return in popularity of hard rock, via such guitar-based bands such as Guns and Roses, and Seattle’s grunge acts, was in direct response to this.

If you’d like to read how artists and their producers have used the recording studio as a composing and arranging instrument, turning simple three minute songs into a complex art form, Inside Classic Rock Tracks certainly makes for a fun read.

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About Ed Driscoll