THE READING ROOM: Artists and Insiders Trace the Evolution of Rock Concerts
One spring night in 1972, six of us piled into a van and headed to the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium to see our first big rock concert.
The auditorium even then was creaky and had seen better days. It still featured pro wrestling matches most weekend nights, but the biggest regular draws were the Happy Goodman Family and The LeFevres, two Pentecostal gospel groups that shook the rafters.
On this particular night in 1972, though, the rafters of the municipal auditorium shook with another sound, and the sweet smell of grass wafted through the air, smoke swirling around the stage. We were there to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who by then had released their second album, Tarkus, and we had seats in the first row of the balcony just above stage right — perfect for fans who wanted to catch Keith Emerson’s action on his Moog and Greg Lake’s guitar work.
I don’t remember every moment of that first rock concert, but the moment that the band launched into “Lucky Man,” the music moved me in a way the album could never do; it was hard to go back and listen to the album after the band’s improvisation on the song. The highlight of the night, though, came when Emerson launched himself from the stage into the standing crowd, taking his portable Moog and creating machine gun sounds as the crowd passed him from front to back. (This, of course, was long before mosh pits.) For the rest of the night, he never let up on his Moog on stage, and we walked out of there and drove back home with ringing ears and smiles on our faces, vowing to go to every concert we could to see bands play live.
At that concert and many to come, the crowd in the auditoriums or clubs came together as a community, bound together by the music we loved. The bands took the opportunity to play their songs differently from the album — more jammy, or slower, or with a different introduction — and almost every band I saw back them featured an extended drum solo or dueling leads between guitarists. Back then, in the 1970s, going to a live concert gave us hope for the world — if we could all just groove like the band and their out-of-this-world music that often condemned social injustices, the world would be a happier, better place.
Music journalist Marc Myers evokes the experience of the rock concert in his entertaining new book, Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There (Grove Atlantic): “For many readers, the book will stir memories of the early rock concerts they attended and how they became turning points along the road to adulthood. Sitting in the dark, we saw and heard musicians we knew only from album covers and bedroom turntables. Yet the music was deeply personal. Experienced live, the rock concert allowed us to see and hear our idols onstage for the first time. It was our introduction to celebrity and to artists who embodied their audience’s spirit.”
Myers’ book is not a simple hagiography of rock concerts; it’s a story of the development of the rock concert itself, from the 1950s to the 1980s. As Myers points out, it’s a “five-decade story of how enterprising songwriters, producers, disc jockeys, managers, promoters, and artists sided with youth culture as it struggled to be heard and changed society at large. Once music became more accessible on the radio … the trial-and-error approach to staging a concert resulted in standardized production strategies, better sound, improved security, sophisticated concert technology, shrewder ticketing, and, ultimately, a multibillion-dollar industry and a successful model for all large-scale music concerts.”
Drawing on interviews with a wide range of sources associated with rock concerts, from promoters and DJs to the artists themselves, Myers presents the evolution of the rock concert. The late George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, for example, recalls how in 1958 John Hammond urged him to include Chuck Berry in the festival program. As he remembers, “The music was fun. But whether it was the right thing to do is another story. Chuck Berry at the Newport Jazz Festival? You have to be crazy.” But then Wein goes onto remark on the festival’s importance to the history and development of the rock concert: “Newport changed the whole presentation of popular music outdoors and paved the way for outdoor rock festivals starting in the 1960s. At the time, I had no idea I was doing that … I just wanted to draw all kinds of people to the music that I loved and for them to bring their families, spend a few days, and make some friends.”
By the late 1960s, rock festivals dotted the landscape, opening the doors for many bands and artists to introduce their sound to larger audiences and for the bands to jam among themselves and discover new grooves. According to Country Joe McDonald, lead singer and guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish, the Monterey Pop Festival was a “game changer for the music business. It put the artists who performed there on the map, especially as rock albums became popular. So from an artist’s perspective, it became easier to pay the bills … No matter your background you brought your struggles to your art. Look at Janis Joplin’s performances. The audience connected, probably because they had their own stuff from their pasts, and the emotional performances were real and touched them.”
Chip Monck, the lighting director for The Rolling Stones in the 1970s, reveals a little about his work with the band. “When a band like the Stones has a principal artist like Mick Jagger and a secondary principal like Keith Richards backed by key supporting players, there are levels of importance for lighting each member on songs … Each song has a color to it, and there’s a lighting choreography that takes place throughout the song that must be worked out in detail before a performance with the artists. My lighting choices are based on my interpretations of what the lyric line and melodic line need.”
In a moment that punctures the fan’s idealization of the fast-paced backstage, post-concert life, Jethro Tull founder Ian Anderson recalls: “I was always happy in my own company. The same was true of our guitarist Martin Barre … We would go back to our hotel rooms and read Agatha Christie novels or watch The Dick Cavett Show on TV or something … After a concert, I loved getting back to my hotel room. I’d do my own laundry, hang up all of my soaking wet clothes, get naked, lie on the bed with a cold beer, and watch Dick Cavett on TV. What a perfect postconcert pastime.”
Myers also includes lists of the 50 best live albums, concert films, and rock documentaries, and the book features a 16-page color insert of photos of artists and concerts from the decades he covers.
Reading Myers’ anatomy of a rock concert (his earlier book is Anatomy of a Song) is bound to carry readers back to their memories of their favorite concerts and to encourage them to consider why those memories are so enduring.