PBS seldom misses beat in look at history, heart of rock and roll

September 23, 1995|By Thor Christensen | Thor Christensen,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Rock and roll and television have spent the past 30 years on two very different wavelengths.

In the '50s, TV host Ed Sullivan whitewashed the King by refusing to let cameras show his swiveling hips. In the '80s, MTV refused to air videos by black artists until the music industry vowed to boycott.

But the tube is finally getting in tune with rock.

For proof, check out "Rock & Roll," an absorbing 10-part PBS series airing on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

Produced with input from rock/blues critic Robert Palmer and divided by musical eras, "Rock & Roll" studies its subject as both an art form and a cultural phenomenon. But just as important, it burrows deep into the bizarre layers of rock.

For example, we listen in as an ultra-ornery Bob Dylan insults telephone callers during a rare 1966 radio interview.

Instead of getting too bogged down in rock's landmark albums, the series wisely focuses on its songs. Viewers get behind-the-scenes insights into tunes ranging from the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " to Blondie's "Rapture."

But the show's greatest achievement is its unblinking look into the ugly side of rock: Like Ken Burns' 1994 PBS series "Baseball," each episode of "Rock & Roll" spotlights issues of racism, beginning with the legendary stories of DJs banning Little Richard's songs in the '50s while playing Pat Boone's tepid cover versions. But the series uncovers lesser-known examples as well.

It claims the BBC rejected the Rolling Stones at first because Mick Jagger sounded "too black." We learn that Sire Records took Madonna's picture off her first single, reasoning that black listeners wouldn't buy it if they knew she was white.

Uneven moments are rare during the 10-hour series: For the most part, it treats the music with all the passion, respect and cynicism it deserves.

Here's a rundown of what you'll see on each episode:

* "Renegades" (at 9 p.m. Sunday) Rock's roots in New Orleans, Chicago and Memphis; early rockers Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley.

* "In the Groove" (at 10 p.m. Sunday) Rock songwriters Leiber and Stoller; vocal soul groups; doo-wop and girl groups; Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

* "Shakespeares in the Alley" (at 9 p.m. Monday). Dylan and the Great Folk Scare; the English skiffle craze and the Beatles; the Byrds.

* "Respect" (at 10 p.m. Monday). Motown; the soul of Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala.

* "Crossroads" (at 9 p.m. Tuesday). British blues-rock and Jimi Hendrix.

* "Blues in Technicolor" (at 10 p.m. Tuesday). Psychedelic-rock; Woodstock and Altamont.

* "The Wild Side" (at 9 p.m. Wednesday). Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground; the Doors; David Bowie; Iggy Pop; Alice Cooper; Kiss.

* "Make It Funky" (at 10 p.m. Wednesday). Pioneers of funk and the disco craze.

* "Punk" (at 9 p.m. Thursday). The proto-punk rock of Jonathan Richman; American and British punk; reggae and grunge.

* "The Perfect Beat" (at 10 p.m. Thursday). Rap, electro-funk, MTV, techno, house and ambient music.

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