Focus : Rock of Ages

Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar and TV Times

Graham Nash digs out his wallet and displays a laminated orange piece of paper that he carries with him everywhere.

"This is the ticket to Bill Haley's concert in Manchester, 1958," he says, holding the item up as if it were a sacred religious relic, "that changed my life."

That's just one typical moment in "The History of Rock 'n' Roll," a 10-hour documentary series comprehensively examining the 40-year history of the cultural phenomenon. There are plenty of such moments--206, to be exact.

That's the number of people interviewed on screen for the series--nearly all of them historical figures themselves in rock's evolution. But rather than dwell on what they did to change the music, they talk, with zealous fervor, about how the music and its idols changed them.

Quincy Jones recalls being the musical arranger for the Dorsey Brothers' TV show when a young Elvis Presley made his first national broadcast appearance. That brief glimpse brought in more than 8,000 fan letters, much to the chagrin of the staid Dorseys.

Bruce Springsteen tells about how he got a good laugh from his dad by combing his hair forward a la the Beatles ... until Dad realized he meant to keep it that way.

And so on. "The History of Rock 'n' Roll" isn't so much a matter of musical invention as infection. And the figures who appear in the series are its gladly willing hosts and carriers, whose personal memories represent the grand social upheavals that have marked each great era of rock's 40-year journey.

"The thing was to focus on periods of time when things got shaken up," says Jeffrey Peisch, vice president of programming and production for Time-Life Video & Television and the series' creator and producer. "We really spent a disproportionate amount of time on some of those periods. We do an entire episode on punk, when if you look at the number of records sold at that time it's not deserving. We spend an entire episode on rap. New sounds came up from the underground and broke down the status quo and changed things.

"Tom Petty has a great line to the effect that what he likes are these periods where someone comes around and shakes things up. Those periods are exciting: the early '50s, the British invasion, Dylan, Motown, punk, rap. Those are the periods we really focus on."

But it's not just talking heads. It's rocking heads--and hips.

The series is loaded with dynamic performance footage that amply illustrates the power of the music. Among the highlights: old black gospel in rural churches, vintage clips of R&B; pioneers Big Joe Turner and Ruth Brown, electrifying segments with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, rare film of Bob Dylan's controversial first electric rock performance at Newport in 1965, TV variety-show performances by the Rolling Stones, rap revolutionaries Public Enemy, all the way through neo-punks Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins on last summer's Lollapalooza '94 tour.

That's an awful lot to fit into just 10 hours, but "The History of Rock 'n' Roll" manages to cover virtually all bases of modern pop music and make insightful connections between the different genres and time periods. Nonobtrusive narration by Gary Busey (who played the title role in the feature "The Buddy Holly Story") provides effective thematic links.

"You'll see in the early episodes (rappers) Chuck D. and Grandmaster Flash talking about Little Richard and James Brown and how they relate to what they (the older figures) were doing--not just the music, but something wild and revolutionary," says Peisch. "Similarly, we have Little Richard talking later about rap, saying how he relates to what Chuck D. and Ice-T are doing."

The series benefits from a production dream team, headed by executive producer Andrew Solt, a veteran documentarian whose rock-oriented credits include the critically acclaimed theatrical releases "This Is Elvis" and "Imagine: John Lennon" and the home video "25 X 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones." Quincy Jones, who remains a leading figure in the music world, is also an executive producer of the series, along with his partner David Salzman.

The esteem in which they're held allowed access to most crucial performers and a lot of rare footage, most notably the Dylan at Newport clip--with the folk-music loyalists audibly booing his move to rock--which hadn't been seen for nearly 30 years at Dylan's decree. Of the artists asked to be interviewed for the series, only Dylan and the artist formerly known as Prince declined.

With all that star power at his fingertips, did Peisch become jaded?

Not a chance. The 41-year-old, raised on rock himself, was awe-struck.

"Getting to work with (Beach Boys leader) Brian Wilson was something I'll always treasure," he says. "I mean, I've been around a lot of big stars, but hearing him talk about making those great records was a personal highlight."

"The History of Rock 'n' Roll" will air Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., two episodes per night, and March 19 at 7 p.m. on KCOP. Video versions, available in stores March 21, feature some extra material.

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