Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau's msn.com record blog is called Expert Witness. His Rock & Roll & column appears at The Barnes & Noble Review. He is a critic at NPR's All Things Considered. He teaches in NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. He has published five books based on his journalism. He keynoted the first EMP and has spoken at every subsequent edition.



"The Original Sound of the City: How Charlie Gillett Named This Conference"

To dub this conference "The Sound of the City" is above all to pay tribute to EMP's long-awaited sojourn in Gotham. But it should also serve to remind or inform younger pop adepts that a book of the same title was the foundational text of rock history and criticism. Conceived by a British graduate student at Columbia University at around the time Charles Keil's Urban Blues was making academia safe for African-American music utilizing amplifiers and a strong four-four, the late Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City was an even more ambitious and declasse undertaking: a serious history of rock and roll from 1954 to 1968 -if I remember correctly, my copyright-1970 first edition having disappeared into some undocumented corner of my library (a replacement is on its way) -that was substantially expanded and revised up to 1971 in a second edition published in 1983.

Gillett believed rock and roll was the sound of rural music adapted to differing urban environments, and for that reason was most aptly recorded and marketed by indie labels based in these urban environments. These theses may sound like cliches now, and they weren't radically outlandish then. But it was Gillett more than anyone who helped transform them into truisms opened to revisionism and other modifications. Often his information was partial -he had to contend with both a scholarly vacuum and a commercial vacuum cleaner. And as new theses tend to be, his were often overstated or oversimplified. These things I know from having looked back at the book over the years. But I haven't read it cover to cover since 1970.

I propose a historical and critical reconsideration of The Sound of the City that would also include some research into exactly how the book was written. I would expect to compare it to its great rival of the time, Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning. Perhaps Arnold Shaw's The Rockin' Fifties and Ed Ward's section of Rock of Ages should be included as well. That should be plenty.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

11:15am EDT