AWOPBOPALLOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM’ by Nik Cohn (Vintage Books, first published 1969)
This book was written when Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones were still alive and The Beatles were still together.
The main thing it has going for it is timing. In 1968, pop was still treated as a fad that would fade away so the smart papers didn’t give any serious coverage to its cultural import.
As a cocky, outspoken journalist Nik Cohn was in the right place at the right time and at just 22 had the added advantage of being the right age.
This is an insider’s guide, a fan’s view from the front row written in just seven weeks. Its strength is that Cohn captures the spontaneity of the age but it is seriously flawed by the lack of accuracy and astonishing lapses of judgement.
For example, this is him on The Rolling Stones”The way things are they most likely won’t last and I’m pleased. I think that’s right. They weren’t meant to, they weren’t made to get old”.
He may have been on the button by saying that The Stones should have imploded before becoming the dinosaur act they are today but the lack of insight into how pop/rock would evolve is just one of many ‘I’ll just get my coat’ gaffes.
The problem lies in the fact that Cohn can’t see beyond pop as teen music so he immediately closes his ears to any music that attempts to reach a more sophisticated audience.
For him, the catchier the beat and the more banal the lyrics, the better. Lines like “I love her / She loves me / Oh how happy we gonna be” from Larry Williams’ Bony Moronie are the kind he praises.
This is why he doesn’t understand Bob Dylan even though he acknowledges that his influence has been immense. Of Dylan, he writes: “I can’t enjoy him, he turns me off. Just the noise he makes, his whine and his sneer, he loses me.[…….] The way I see him, he’s a minor talent with a major gift for self hype”.
So which of Dylan’s peers does Cohn rate higher? Well, he has the grace to praise the song writing genius of Pete Townsend and Ray Davies but then bizarrely enthuses over P.J. Proby, a Texan who is remembered more for his trouser-splitting stage antics than his musical prowess. Cohn’s admiration derives mainly from being besotted by the man’s charisma when he interviewed him at an impressionable age.
I suppose Cohn deserves praise for having the courage of his own convictions but it’s hard to forgive someone who is consistently oblivious to the merits of major rock acts. He gives short shrift to acts like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix (“all image”), The Velvet Underground, The Doors and describes The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ as second-rate (“a big step forward in ingenuity …..a big step back in guts”).
By way of contrast, he raves about what he calls ‘quickies’ and gushes over the thrills of Tutti Frutti, Jailhouse Rock, She Loves You and Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell. His musical heroes include Eddie Cochran, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
Essentially, he praises guts, flash and energy of pop while regarding anything that he perceives as vaguely experimental as too clever by half.
In the preface to the 2016 edition, Cohn is unrepentant and honest about his journalistic limitations: “I wasn’t much of a critic; reasoned argument was not my strength. My writing, when it was good, lived off characters, sounds, atmospheres and snapshot impressions”
Subtitled ‘Pop From The Beginning’, the slim volume serves as a mildly entertaining whistle-stop tour of the songs and artists who defined the period from 1956 and 1968 but is woefully inadequate as a document of the cultural revolution that Rock and Roll inspired.