Song Writing

History Of Rock

by Jeff Suwak

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An interview with Dr. John Covach, music professor at the University of Rochester whose free online courses have become wildly popular.

Dr. John Covach's History of Rock courses have educated close to one million students, making him something of an academic rock star. I came across Covach's classes while indulging my learning addiction on Coursera, a web portal for universities to put their offerings online, and in this case, for free. What I enjoyed most about Covach's particular courses is the way they connect different points in history to show overall trends in the evolution of rock and, subsequently, general culture.

The classes don't just skim interesting bits of trivia; they trace how each movement affected the next along the greater trajectory of music history. Through the window of music history, we see the broader movements of society.

A particularly interesting part of the course examines the way that technology has shaped music, both in terms of the musical content itself and also the way that music reaches its audience. Beyond even those obvious things, though, technology has driven the way we perceive art and celebrity, things which help shape our individual and collective consciousness. This is something that fascinated me from the first time I listened to the lectures, and I wanted to talk to Dr. Covach and zero in on that one aspect of his teaching. Dr. Covach graciously agreed.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Let's start with your musical background outside of academia.

John Covach: When I was in middle school and high school, all I really wanted to do was be a professional musician and play in a band and write my own music and tour. So, I had groups that played around suburban Detroit, where I grew up. We played, and we did some recording.

I was always a fan of progressive rock, which meant there was always a part of me that was interested in classical music and jazz and all that. But, when it came up to the end of the 1970s and progressive rock and jazz rock fusion and all that stuff was gone, new wave was on the way in, and new wave is kind of a rejection of professionalism and an embrace of the idea that the more visceral the music is, the better. And, conversely, the more cerebral it is, the worse.

That change led me away from the world of popular music and into music school. So, I sort of led a dual life. I was at the University of Michigan School of music, playing gigs on the weekend and doing classical music and classical guitar during the regular week, while also getting my PhD and writing a dissertation on 12-tone music, Schoenberg, the Second Viennese School and all that, and getting a job teaching in a regular university music theory department.

And then, the time came when somebody had been teaching the History Of Rock Music class and knew I had this popular music background, this other life, and he said, "Hey, how'd you like to teach this class?" So, I said, "Sure."

I was just lucky that about the time that academics started to get interested in popular music, especially rock music, I not only had a degree and knew how to speak their language, but I had this whole other life. There weren't a lot of people like that in academia at the time because most of them had been scared away, because classical music people, at that time, at least, didn't have really any respect for people with a background in popular music.

I just kind of got lucky and one thing led to another. Before you knew it, I became one of the world's authorities. But, it was almost just because these two things happened to come together at a lucky time at the end of the '80s and the start of the '90s, so I feel very fortunate.

Songfacts: Do you ever find it tough to separate your personal, subjective feelings about music from the academic study of music?

Covach: Well, it's absolutely essential that I remain as objective as possible, so the difference between journalism and fan writing and scholarship is that you're not supposed to really champion something. At the same time, nobody in scholarship studies music they hate, so it's always kind of assumed that for someone to study something, you should probably think those pieces are pretty cool.

When you follow the history, like I do in the rock course, you really can't play favorites - you have to really be as fair as possible to everybody. So, I hope that when people take my courses, they can't tell which acts I like personally and which I don't like so much.

There's probably only a little bit of music in that course that I would actually listen to for fun, like in my car when I'm driving, but I don't want the students to know that. I don't want to ruin somebody else's experience and I want to be historically objective. So, I found out years ago you can't just get up in front of people and talk about your favorite music just because you're the teacher and insist that's the best. People won't put up with it.

Songfacts: For this interview, I'm particularly interested in how technology has shaped music, both in obvious and unobvious ways. So, I think the best place to start would probably be back in the beginning, before radio.

Covach: I think the best way to think about technology is it affords different kinds of opportunities and those opportunities can, in many ways, direct what it is an artist does to take advantage of the technology and the opportunity that it provides. So, in some ways, I guess the academic way of seeing it is that technology mediates creativity in some way. You do what the technology will allow. It's really easily seen today when you think about how many artists have Pro Tools on their laptops. It can do all kinds of things, and so they take advantage of it and the fact that it's available to them.

Geez, their creativity, it's not like it was back in the '60s and '70s where all of this had to be done by an expert who knew how to actually cut the music, to cut the magnetic tape and put it back together again the right way and all that. Only the top acts could really afford to put their music together that way, but now the technology's there for anybody who wants to do that kind of thing, so that affects the kind of things they do. Because it's available, they utilize it.

So, technology, in many ways, has to be figured in to the creative process. Starting from there and giving up on the idea that technology is really just something that is an extra thing to consider but not central is important. Technology is centrally important.

In commercial music, it is expected that people make money, otherwise it would just be called a hobby. And so, in order to make money, you have to think about the audience. Nobody really works in an uncompromising way to do only what they want, and who cares whether the audience likes it or not?

That's a great kind of story to tell and journalists tell it and press releases tell it about various artists, but almost every artist who's successful tried to strike a balance between what they wanted to do and what they think the listener will tolerate. If they're not making money at it, they don't really have access to the markets, they don't really have access to listeners, they don't really have access to the shows and to various kinds of things, so you've got to keep that in mind.

So, between the commercial aspect and the technology aspect, a lot of that really drives and helps shape the history of popular music, starting from the very earliest date. Even before technology, the availability of publishers, sheet music, piano rolls, cylinder recordings, and the availability of gigs and touring circuits all shaped the commercial music business.

So, if you were somebody back in the first couple of decades of the 20th century who owned one of those cylinder playback devices, you probably only had a couple of cylinder recordings. They were expensive and they were specialty things - that was a bit of a novelty. So, that probably wasn't going to be the primary way that you got music because nobody could really just afford to have tons and tons of these things.

Before the advent of radio, music was kind of do-it-yourself for most people, except in major metropolitan areas where there were a lot of performances to attend. If you wanted to hear music you had to play music, so a lot more people could play the piano serviceably. And people could play a lot of other kinds of instruments: guitar, ukulele, that kind of thing.

So, people would make music at home, and that was the way you could connect with the popular songs of the day. And that's why, in the course, I emphasize the cheapness of business so much, because that's really how publishers got the music out to people.

Songfacts: Were the individual songwriters famous, or was it just a kind of nameless rabble throwing the music out?

Covach: There was a sense that some people were more important than others: George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Stephen Foster. So, songwriters were able to build up a name, but the people who really controlled the business were the publishers, where were the businessmen - a little bit like the record labels later. That Tin Pan Alley, New York focused sheet music business, that was really centered on publishers.

And, of course, it was to their advantage to create a brand name. So, if you had a brand name for somebody, like an Irving Berlin or a George Cohan, that's good, because it gave you an edge to be able to sell your product.

Back then, the music that you heard was in many ways circumscribed or conditioned by where you lived. So, we have to think about music before the advent of radio and then later television as being very regional. If you lived in Boston or Chicago, you had access to more cosmopolitan musical experiences, but if you lived in the south or in Texas, the kind of music that was available was very different because there were different traditions and different tastes.

The big change that I attribute to the rise of radio and especially coast-to-coast radio, is that it begins to create something like a national audience. If you're living somewhere in the middle of Alabama and you have a radio you can hear the music that's being performed in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.

Songfacts: Roughly about what time did this start to happen, this evolution?

Covach: The late '20s was when the first coast-to-coast radio stations, NBC, CBS, started to really kind of take off. That's the key: the rise of the radio network. Just about that time, the end of the 1920s, is when movies go from silent to talkies. The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson is usually thought of as being the first big one. And so, now, there's a real rush toward putting on movie musicals. If your town has a movie theater, now everybody sees the same performance everywhere around the country of all of this popular music.So, you've got all this music that's playing on the radio, and then you've got music that's playing in the theater via these movies and going from a time when the only music you could hear was something you played off sheet music and maybe a couple of recording cylinders that you'd purchased. Now there's music everywhere, and in many cases it's the same music, so you now have a national character of American music that breaks down these regional accents.

That doesn't happen in folk and country music, and it doesn't happen in rhythm and blues, because those styles don't have access to these media networks and to the studios, and so their styles remain regional. So, we talk about Memphis Blues, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blues. It's because even at a time when popular music was national, blues was still regional, and each region had its regional accent because they didn't have as much access to the networks.

Songfacts: These networks were centrally located in New York City?

Covach: They were. The entertainment business was completely focused in New York. The movie business was in Los Angeles, but that was seen as the other side of the planet, like we think of China now. It was tough to get out there before air travel and all that. You had to spend four days on a train, so it was way out there.

They began to shift from New York to Los Angeles about the middle of the 1960s, and by the time you get into the '70s, most popular music is happening around Los Angeles, and not so much around New York anymore. I can still remember when Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I grew up in Detroit and everybody was like, "Oh, this is a bummer."

Acts like The Beach Boys, The Monkees and The Mamas & the Papas led the West Coast music migration. Top-tier session musicians (like this lady) played on many hits for these and other artists, establishing a distinct sound and ruthlessly efficient operation where songs were cranked out at a breakneck pace. Many of these songs were about California, which solidified its stature as the place to be. Artists like Simon & Garfunkel and The Four Seasons still recorded in New York with very talented players (like this guy), but the other side of the country had a lock on mystique.
So, radio makes a big difference, and movies with sound make a big difference, too. And the big difference is that they create a national audience.

Now, we can start having national charts to account for hit singles. There had been charts before but now they truly were national because people had access to it nationally. So, in the 1920s, you have records, radio and films all together, really changing popular music from something that really depended on where you lived to now something that was pretty much available to anybody, no matter where they lived.

Songfacts: At that time, did individual stars start to rise up, or was it more homogenous and scattered?

Covach: There certainly were important stars. The whole idea of celebrity goes back about as far as you want to take it in human culture. P.T. Barnum brought a famous singer [Jenny Lind] to the United States and toured her around as a star. And virtuoso pianists and various people like that used to tour around with their name, with a kind of star quality. But, in many ways the "star" as we understand it in the 20th century, was kind of defined around this time.

I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but the Paramount Films logo is this mountain with a bunch of stars across the top of it. Well, those stars were initially meant to represent the different actors and actresses that worked under Paramount contract. When Paramount did a film, they had a certain number of actors and actresses who were on contract and could only work for them, unless they were given release to work for somebody else, so they had a real stake in building these stars up as a way of attracting people to the movies. If you knew your particular favorite – Clark Gable or whatever – was going to be in this movie, you'd go to it even if you didn't know anything about the movie or what it may be about. You knew that you wanted to see this star.

It was a great marketing approach. Think about somebody like Bing Crosby, who was in films, was on radio, and had all kinds of records at the very top of the charts into the 1930s and 1940s. There was no bigger figure than Bing Crosby. But also, people like Judy Garland. Think about The Wizard of Oz and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." Fred Astaire and all those dancing films, he had a whole series of pop hits and movies and hit movies with Ginger Rogers and all that.

And, also, in classical music, a conductor such as Arturo Toscanini also became a kind of a celebrity with stories in magazines and pictorial layouts and that kind of thing. The advantage of star quality is that people will buy something even if they've never heard of it before. They'll just buy it because they like the star. You've probably done this yourself. If you like a particular band and you buy the new release, you probably haven't even heard it, but you know you like the band, so you buy it. The record company is depending on the fact that you'll buy it because there's a brand associated with it. They can take this band and build that brand up. They tell stories about the artists, many of which are not wholly true - they're sort of mythical. The whole idea is to enhance the brand to entice you to buy fresh product.

Songfacts: In the '60s and '70s, celebrity seemed to take a turn. People were looking to music stars for the answers to life, which seems absurd now. Do you have any insights into why that change happened particularly at that time in history?

Covach: There's no line that distinguishes where the '60s starts. People loved to hear Elvis Presley sing but nobody ever asked him for the meaning of life. Nobody really expected Elvis or Chuck Berry or any of those guys to have answers. In fact, it was better if they didn't, because anything you say politically can please half the people and alienate the other half. So, "just stay out of it" was the music business model.

Initially in the '50s, rock and roll was seen as the music that was associated with teenage rebellion, but in the 1960s, rock music was seen as part of the counter-culture movement. Issues like civil rights and the Vietnam war, and this whole idea of questioning authority is in all of that.

At the same time, people in the popular music business throughout the 1960s were increasingly thinking that music could be more than just disposable copies. They could really sing something or say something important or interesting. As they started to become more serious-minded, there was this rise of social awareness, so pop singers became part of the counter-culture.

Dylan really resisted that idea. He said, "I can't talk anybody into anything. I'm not your mother, I'm not your father. I'm not leading anybody anywhere." Not everybody wanted to be part of it, but that is the way it went.

Songfacts: How much of that was due to the fact that the celebrities were far enough removed that the audience could only see the mythologized aspects? Could the level of political and spiritual reverence of the '60s happen today, when stars are so exposed to media that they become very humanized?

Covach: Well, I think there are two parts to what you're saying. I do think that the more you see people, the harder it is for them to seem like they're somebody different or more special than you. What you're saying, to turn somebody into a living myth, really requires that you don't know that they're just as fully human and fallible as you are. So not seeing them, or seeing them only through the lens of what their press releases say, really helps.

But, with this information explosion, you can't even play a show anymore without somebody taking a video on their phone and putting it up on YouTube. In the old days, the first four or five shows, bands would play outside of a major city. They wouldn't go to New York City until the fourth or fifth gig. The first few gigs would be warm-ups because they were rusty.

But, that was OK, because most people will forgive a lot if the artist is right in front of them. They think, "Oh, gosh, that's Robert Plant." But you haven't been able to do that for the last 10 years because there's somebody at the gig with a cell phone and if you're sucking on that first gig, they'll put it on YouTube and then people won't come to your other shows. So, really, this exposure makes it much more difficult to hide things.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of fans who believe that the guys in Radiohead will only do what they want to as the spirit moves them and will never compromise or adjust to any external circumstance. And there's just nobody in the entertainment business that can live that way - you're always negotiating some kind of a compromise. Nevertheless, that myth continues, and people continue to believe it.

When our music students go out into the real world, they often wonder why their careers seem so different from those of these other musicians they admire. Oftentimes, you've got to say to them, "Don't believe the stuff you read on the internet about these guys. They've got problems and they've got people complaining at them and they've got issues that have to do with their agents and their managers and their record labels, and they're fighting with each other about things. It's not the way it looks in the press release. That's just the story they tell to get people to think of the artist as somebody special. And actually, there are other musicians just like you, with a lot of the same problems, albeit, with a lot more money."

So, I think that mythology still exists, although not on a scale it used to. Could there be a Dylan or The Beatles or Michael Jackson again? I don't know. My tendency is to say, "I don't think so," because the musical world has been fractured into so many different pieces. One of the great things about technology and the internet and smartphones and all that is it's made more music available to more people than at any other time in the recorded history of humankind.

Anywhere you can get cell service, you can listen to Bon Jovi, if that's what floats your boat. Or, if you're more interested in Fred Astaire, you can listen to that, and it's available to you everywhere, all the time, and that's awesome. But, the fact that so much is available also fractures the audience. You begin to wonder, how is it possible for somebody to come along and capture a majority or even a significant portion of those spaces all at once? It seems like it's not. It seems like it would be very, very difficult for somebody to have that same kind of impact.

Although, maybe I'm just ignorant of what's happening with modern ideas. I'm pushing 60, what do I know about what gets 20-somethings excited about music? But it does seem like it's a lot more difficult these days than it was. In the '60s and '70s, all it took was an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and everybody knew who you were. There were only three shows on Sunday nights and everybody huddled around the television because that was the new technology, and if The Beatles got on Ed Sullivan everybody was going to know who they were.

What would that venue be today? Maybe it would be halftime at the Super Bowl. But, how many moments are there like that? There certainly aren't television moments anymore that can bring that many people together around a single TV set. Maybe not impossible, but much more difficult than it used to be, and it's because technology has opened up access to audiences, democratized the world - "flattened the world" as Thomas Friedman says - so that it makes it difficult to reach everybody at one time.

Songfacts: At what point does great art, great music, become impossible if somebody can no longer make a living at it? If it does become so fractured that it's just a whole bunch of people with a couple thousand followers, it just makes me wonder if it would be possible for great music to ever be made again?

Covach: You hit on something I've been saying for years. If you make it so that music doesn't pay because everything is free, and everybody should be able to just record it for free and listen to it for free, will anybody do it? It's a great argument for playing clubs at $150 a night, but that's certainly no way to make a grown-up living after you get out of your 20s. The people who are very smart and very creative could be successful in any number of different areas - it doesn't have to be playing the guitar and singing. That's one man's distinction of a creative artist, to think that just as easily he could be doing other things that pay better like designing music for video games. So, if the smart, really talented people gravitate away from music and towards some of these other things that pay better, what's the effect of that?

There's a lot more fantastic musical talent in this world than you ever hear recorded. There are really talented people playing music everywhere. The question is, will the most creative and interesting and intelligent people who seem to have been drawn towards music in the '60s and '70s, and maybe even the '80s and '90s, will they start going towards other things that they find fulfilling that offer them a better opportunity for acquiring wealth and prestige? That's the big question. Technology makes everything free, but then it takes the professional motivation out of it.

Songfacts: I've seen many musicians who were incredibly talented and I figured they had to be doing well financially, but then I find out they have two day jobs and are making a few pennies here and there from their music.

Covach: Well, it's tough. In some ways, it's always been that way. Back in the '70s a lot of really good musicians who were working two day jobs.

Songfacts: Fair enough.

Covach: For a period of time, I was that guy. But, I think you're right. You've probably been surprised to be interviewing somebody who you imagine is doing better financially. There's a plus and a minus, right? The plus side is access, ability, flattening of the hierarchy, but then the down side is how do you get somebody's attention? How do you advertise in today's world, where everybody's trying to get at people with Facebook ads and banner ads and very expensive things like that? How do you get anybody's attention?

Most of us just dismiss all that stuff and pay no attention to it, mostly as a point of principle. In that environment, how do you reach people?

Everybody's trying to reach us. You can get your music on the internet, but how do you get anybody to listen to it, even if it's free? So, I think technology always brings with it opportunities and challenges, and we shouldn't expect it should be any different now.

Back when radio came in, musicians were all complaining because they didn't like the idea of radio stations playing the records over the radio. They believed that all music that's played on the radio should be live music, and they thought that because every radio station in the country, even the small ones in small cities, paid musicians to be on its network. So, there were all these musicians who had great gigs around radio. Then they started playing records on the radio and, all of a sudden, those guys are out of work.

They had a musician's union strike over it nationwide. There was a period in the 1940s when nobody recorded, nobody performed. It was a big deal because they thought, This new technology is going to ruin our livelihood. We're kind of back to the same thing, which is opportunities and challenges. They always seem to come hand in hand. I think the key for most artists is taking control of the opportunities and trying to minimize the challenges. That's a tough balance to strike.

Songfacts: How much of progressive rock was trying to push the technology to its limits, and what do you think fed into that genre, and what led to its demise? It's not completely dead, but it had its heyday.

Covach: When I think of prog I'm mostly talking about Yes, Genesis, and those other British groups of the first half of the 1970s. That music arose out of psychedelia and the idea that rock music could be more like art music: pieces should be journeys, stylistically diverse, and music should be sophisticated and sometimes very complicated. There should be virtuosity involved in the performance.

That was happening in the late 1960s, fueled by people like The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, and all they were doing was really positive, and I think part of it was technology. Some of the first bands to really feature the synthesizer were progressive. They made full use of multitrack recording as it went from 8 to 16, 32, 48 tracks. If there's 48 tracks available, they're going to fill 48 tracks. There's nothing worse than a lonesome track - you'd better put something on them.

So, you got these really rich, dense songs, and to me, that was great. Of course, punk and new wave and, to some extent, disco brought the whole prog thing down, because we can see in the history of not just pop music, but music generally, there are often phases of something starting out, becoming extremely complicated and then the next thing coming along and being a return to simplicity that then becomes increasingly complicated before the next thing comes along and it's a return to simplicity, and it just keeps going through the cycle.


Prog went down at the end of the '70s in favor of new wave and punk, and then the '80s developed and the music got increasingly ambitious. There were music videos, then here comes Nirvana, which is essentially a return to the simplicity movement. You can see this kind of thing cycling again and again, and prog was the one that took the hit at the end of the '70s.

But this idea of making music into a trip, into a kind of musical journey, there were two interesting ways that that continued. One was in heavy metal. In many ways, heavy metal in the '80s was the sound that really carried the flag for what prog had been: virtuosity, dynamic guitar solos, big theatrical live presentations. And then the place where the prog thing starts to come back is in the ambition of music videos. So, you get a guy like Michael Jackson doing more than a video when he does "Thriller." He's actually doing a short film. It's become really, really ambitious, doing a big choreographed dance thing that could have come out of a 1940s MGM musical, and there really is a lot more than just a pop hit. It's actually become a kind of a production number, very conceptual. People like the Red Hot Chili Peppers into the '90s brought really conceptual kinds of videos.

The one group everybody would point to as a prog legacy is Radiohead. They've always said they don't have anything to do with prog, but all you have to do is listen to those records and realize that they do, whether they say so or not. So, Radiohead probably is the best example of a latter-day, very successful band that comes out of the prog tradition, or at least out of the objectives and goals of progressive rock of the early 1970s.

Songfacts: Interesting. How has the reception to your History of Rock course been?

Covach: Well, when Coursera first got rolling, they started out with only six or seven universities. We were part of the next bunch of about 20 to 30. And, the university really wanted to do these MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) but they didn't know what the MOOCs would be and so they did a call: Who wants to do one of these?

And I said, "Sure. I'll do one. I've got a textbook on the history of rock. I'd love to have the videos up and maybe I'll sell some of the books." And it's free - I didn't get paid a cent to do those videos, and you guys, hopefully, didn't pay a cent to take that. We released "The History of Rock Part One and Part Two," because the Coursera people said one of those courses should not last more than seven weeks. It's very difficult to hold people for a full 15 weeks. So, we just divided my usual History Of Rock classes in two parts: History Of Rock Part One followed immediately with History Of Rock Part Two. Then in "Story Of 1964" we launched a Beatles course, and then maybe six months after that, we launched a Rolling Stones course.

I think my enrollment on the first course was pretty close to 60,000, and those were the days when there weren't any MOOCs. Now I probably have about 400 people who add the course per week, of all four of my courses. The History Of Rock Part One would probably be about a 150 or 160 people a week.

That's more students than I typically teach in a year in my university job. And 150 a week is a lot less than 60,000. We figure that our enrollments overall since we launched the first course are probably pretty close to 300,000 since we launched them four years ago.

Songfacts: It's interesting that in the modern age you can get more exposure as an educator than a lot of musicians can.

Covach: Well, between the sales of the textbook and the Coursera courses, we figure it's probably approaching one million students. It grows every day, every week.

Songfacts: Have the courses bumped your book sales?

Covach: It really hasn't very much. People expect this stuff to be free so they don't want to pay for the book. That's okay, I'm good with that. It's a little bit like the artist complaining, "Nobody buys my music, everybody just downloads the files."

I'm not complaining because I've done great with the textbook. It's been a wonderful income for my family. Of course, I teach in college, I have income from the book, and I really feel like those of us who teach at university, especially senior professors, most of us really enjoy the full advantages of our job and we have a responsibility to give something back not just to our own students inside of our own universities but to the rest of the world. If those videos of mine can help people and give them some enjoyment, understanding of the music, I think that's a good thing. More universities should think about doing it.

March 1, 2018
Further Reading: Lace The Music: How LSD Changed Popular Music

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  • Con from IrelandHi please do more research on the band name Skid Row The original band were Irish and included Gary Moore and Phil Lynnot ( Thin Lizzy)
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