This isn’t fair, but often, a book’s success or failure is determined not by its own merits, but by the books that preceded it. Such is the case with The Secret History Of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Mysterious Roots Of Modern Music, a well-meaning but ultimately thin attempt to explore the mystical, religious, and subcultural roots of contemporary popular music. Author Christopher Knowles has been down this road before, in Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History Of Comic Book Heroes, but there, he had the advantage of leading readers along less-traveled ground. In his latest, familiarity is likely to breed frustration, if not contempt.
Knowles sets up his thesis with a quick-and-dirty exploration of the many mystical roots of rock music, from Orpheus and Apollo to the mystery plays to the pseudo-pagan foundations of American folk music. He then spends the remainder of the book singling out various bands and solo artists and grafting them, sometime smoothly and sometimes not, into this scheme: decadent drug-soaked hard-rock bands as incarnations of Dionysus, prog and art-rock groups as latter-day hermetic sorcerers, punk acts as primitive Chthonics. It’s well-organized to the point of simplicity, and it’s all perfectly serviceable; it might even be inspiring to someone with a limited background in either the historical or the cultural material.
Therein, unfortunately, lies the problem. Where, in this day and age, could such readers be found? Anyone with the slightest bit of interest in this material already knows most of what’s found in this book, and more besides. Many of the band entries read like uninspired encyclopedia entries, with no new perspective and only a bare minimum of an attempt to tie them into the book’s thesis. And even where it succeeds, The Secret History Of Rock ’N’ Roll has been done before, and better. Critics have used Orphic language to describe broody rockers for so long that Richard Meltzer goofed on the idea in 1970’s The Aesthetics Of Rock. The Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy was already tired when Camille Paglia peddled it in 1991’s Sexual Personae, and there's more insight on the link between rock and mysticism in a single page of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces than the entirety of Knowles’ book. Where it’s good, it’s not original, and where it’s original… well, it’s never original.
The Secret History Of Rock ’N’ Roll is a quick, easy read, and Knowles’ style is inoffensive and occasionally enjoyable. But even as a casual reference book, it stumbles. Anyone with a real interest in the material is liable to have other, superior, books on the subject already at hand. That isn’t entirely Knowles’ fault; although some of the connections are spotty and the judgments are questionable, there’s nothing bad or objectionable about the book. It’s just so familiar as to be forgettable.