Caught by the River

Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 24th November 2011

Even More Rock Family Trees
by Pete Frame. Omnibus Press 32 (very large) pages Paperback

Review by Andy Childs.

I am going to have to admit to a significant degree of bias this month as Pete Frame, author of this unique and indispensible volume is my very good friend, luncheon partner, correspondent (he lives in a remote but apparently habitable part of Scotland), mentor and inspiration. It is no exaggeration to say that the rock music magazine he founded in the late 60s – the often-copied-but-never-surpassed Zigzag, and his writing therein, changed my life completely. I suspect he has changed a fair few other unsuspecting readers’ lives as well and even though he would strenuously try to deny it he has certainly had a profound and benign effect on the careers of a multitude of eternally grateful musicians. But Zigzag was a lifetime ago now and since then Pete has become more renowned for an innovation that has elevated the presentation of intricately detailed historical information into a new art-form – his encyclopaedic series of Rock Family Trees, of which this book is the latest collection.

A bohemian at heart and a draftsman by inclination, Pete abandoned a career as a Chartered Surveyor in the late 60s to write about his real passion, rock music. Zigzag very soon became essential reading and as editor, designer and general one-man show, Pete’s appreciation of the more esoteric and adventurous artistes of the time was matched only by his graphic skill in producing a magazine that was not only a revelation to read but very satisfying to look at, a fact that forever positioned it apart and above the ragbag of fanzines that percolated in its wake. A significant and innovatory element of the visual excellence of Zigzag soon began to emerge – hand-drawn geneology charts tracing the history of bands through their numerous personnel changes and annotated with a wit and sense of humour that was noticeably absent from practically all other writing about music of the time. As early as issue 2 in June 1969 the basic, formative idea of what was to become ‘Rock Family Trees’ was laid bare across a double-page spread – a list of first-wave and then current L.A. country rock bands with hand-written notes and line-ups. Nothing too sophisticated but a sign of things to come. Several more prototypes appeared in the following months but the first rock family tree proper didn’t appear until issue 21 and sketchily traced the career of Al Kooper. ‘Simplified for clarity’, as Pete described this first effort, was a maxim that was spectacularly abandoned over the ensuing years as each successive tree became more complex, more dense and detailed, until it became something of an obsession of Pete’s to cover every available inch of the page with information and anecdote. It wasn’t too long before the standard was set and a new medium for writing about rock bands in their various incarnations was established, although subsequent attempts by lesser mortals (myself included) to emulate this new art-form were predictably feeble. This, amazingly enough, was a technique that only Pete could execute with any legitimacy.* He’d single-handedly established a brand (before that deadly word became a staple of marketing psycho-babble) that was so perfectly realised no-one dared try to seriously compete with it. A wider appreciation of this work was achieved with a couple of successful TV series based on several of Pete’s trees with John Peel providing the voice-over, but essentially their natural home is the medium of print.

It’s stating the obvious maybe but the genius of Pete’s family trees is that by developing and enhancing a single, simple concept with a peerless artistic flourish he has solved the problem of how to convey a mass of complex information in a way that educates, illuminates and entertains whilst avoiding very smartly the deadly pitfall of monotonous historical documentation. Even rock history, to paraphrase Herbert Butterfield (not Alan Bennett), is just one bloody thing after another. But when presented like this it takes on a shape and clarity that fires the imagination rather than deadens it.

Look at pages 8 and 9 of Even More Rock Family Trees for instance. Who needs a whacking great blow-by-blow history of the Allman Brothers Band in what would most likely be a 500-plus page door-stop when all you need to know about them is right here? And you won’t grow too old reading it either. You might go blind though. You will certainly need your pince nez to get to grips with the Muldaur/Garrett/Keith ‘n’ Rooney tree which surely sets new standards in scholarship and presentation that is staggering. The range of artists represented in this book is broad and shrewd as well. Something for everyone. There’s a Grunge : The Sound of Seattle tree that nicely complements the Everybody Loves Our Town book mentioned here last month, several charts of English 80s/90s bands such as Suede, Jesus & Mary Chain and what looks like every band that ever recorded for the Creation label, a brilliant Surf City tree for all you Beach Boys fans, the classic Fairport Convention chart that somehow manages to include both The Soft Machine and Cat Stevens, and an engrossing tree on The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group whose records I know you all own and cherish (anyone remotely interested in the origins of rock music in Britain should study this and then go off and read Pete’s indispensible The Restless Generation).

If this all sounds a mite academic and dry rest assured that an impish sense of humour also pervades these pages.One feature of these trees which, over the years, has confounded students of rock history, delighted those of a less po-faced disposition and tripped up many a plagiarist is the insertion of deliberate mistakes. If I remember rightly Pete began including these after becoming increasingly irritated at how hacks not fit to refill his rotring pens would lift information from these fonts of erudition and use them in their own inferior scratchings. The Sunday Times magazine no less, in one of its hastily cobbled-together ‘history of rock supplements’ solemnly imparted the information that, after Crosby, Stills & Nash had parted company for the first time David Crosby went off to work in a seaman’s mission in San Francisco and Graham Nash was to be found working in an old people’s home in Salford, information gleaned (without permission of course) from one of Pete’s early CS&N family trees. Whether this latest collection is riddled with such mischief I wouldn’t like to say but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I would assume that if you have got this far you probably know what I’m talking about but if there is anyone still out there labouring under the delusion that everything you need to know about rock music can be found in the prosaic pages of Mojo, this book and its four predecessors will come as a startling revelation. There are 33 large fold-out charts in this volume alone, and across all five volumes of these family trees – all still available by the way – there are over 100. And you need them all.

* Curiously, there are a couple of rogue efforts by someone called Paul Barber included here, and endorsed by Pete – on Miles Davis and The Kantner/Balin/Casady Band – that I can just about live with, but if anyone else happens to feel inspired to try their luck, don’t bother.

New & Noteworthy
Soundcheck Books are a relatively new publisher in the music books field but already they are building up an impressive catalogue of titles. John Blaney’s A Howlin Wind : Pub Rock and the Birth of New Wave was published in October (more about this in a future column) and in a similar vein they have Sean Tyla’s Jumpin’ In The Fire : A Life In Rock’n’Roll which has a foreword by my good friend and distinguished author Will Birch. But next year Soundcheck are publishing the official biography of Eliza Carthy entitled Wayward Daughter by Sophie Parkes and an updated version of Alan Clayson’s 1988 biography of Stevie Winwood – Still In The Game. Watch this space as they say. I mentioned this last month but after Jeff made me aware of it and having now heard him on The Guardian Books podcast, a book I perhaps might have overlooked but now definitely want to read is Nile Rodgers autobiography Le Freak : An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny (Sphere). Rodgers is such an engaging person to listen to, his life has been so full of incident, trauma and tragedy, and he has so many great anecdotes to tell, a story like his couldn’t be anything but totally engrossing. If he writes half as well as he talks this could well end up being the music memoir of the year. A contender for music biography of the year is Martin Power’s Hot Wired Guitar : The Life of Jeff Beck (Omnibus). Exhaustive doesn’t really describe how thoroughly Power has researched his subject having interviewed practically everyone who’s played a part in Beck’s illustrious career and sourcing everything that seems to have been written about him. At 487 pages it’s a fitting monument to a guitar player who many still believe to be the best alive today.

Some Interesting Forthcoming Titles
The Last Sultan : The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield (Simon & Schuster) (Nov 2011)
My Life, as I See It : An Autobiography by Dionne Warwick (Atria) (Nov 2011)
Da Capo Best Music Writing 2010 – guest editor Alex Ross (Da Capo Press)
Byrds : Requiem for the Timeless Vol.1 by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House) (Dec 2011)
Everything Is An Afterthought : The Life & Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery (Fantagraphics) (Dec 2011)
The Doors by Greil Marcus (Faber) (Jan 2012)
All the Mad Men : Barrett, Bowie, Drake, the Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and the Journey to the Dark Side of English Rock by Clinton Heylin (Constable) (Feb 2012)

Previous bulletins can be found HERE and the Music Book Reader lives HERE.

Copies of Even More Rock Family Trees can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £13.95