As a countdown toward Christmas, VH1 Classic tonight begins its broadcast of a BBC-sprung series called "Seven Ages of Rock." There is fun to be had for the whole family -- nostalgia for the old folks, inspiration for the young -- assuming your family likes to sit around watching old clips of bands and hearing musicians talk and seeing what they look like now. If not, such a family is my holiday wish for you.
There are, to be sure, not actually seven ages of rock. (There are about 136. Either 136 or 142.) And this is not a complete history even of the identified trends (including art rock, punk, heavy metal and Britpop); rather, each installment focuses on a few appropriate and mostly super-famous bands and name-checks a few others. (You might say it has something missing for everybody.) Complicated strands of influence are reduced to partially accurate generalizations.
But within its limitations, it's an intelligent take -- British journalist Charles Shaar Murray is the presiding consultant, off- and on-screen, and the other critical commentators are superbly credentialed, including Jon Savage (author of the endlessly re-readable punk history "England's Dreaming"), Sylvie Simmons and David Fricke. And unlike many rockumentaries, it actually contains a good deal of music, and most of the music is actually good.
Much of the material will be familiar to rock-doc watchers, but for all but the pathologically well informed, every episode should hold at least a surprise or two -- certainly for American viewers, because much of it comes from the vaults of the BBC. Although VH1 claims a co-production credit, it's basically an English view of 40 years of rock history. (There are the obvious exceptions -- the installments "Left of the Dial: American Alternative" and "Blank Generation," which, in the usual formulation, divvies up punk between New York and London.) This isn't fatal, since American pop music has long taken cues from British, and the featured bands were largely known here, if not always as important. But there is no hint of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, nor -- until we reach Black Flag and Motley Crue in the 1980s -- mention of a single band from Los Angeles.
While the series is less than clear about what separates "rock" from "rock 'n' roll," certain facts do emerge: With some notable exceptions -- and allowing that in this world we are free to make or like whatever music we want -- it is white people's music. It is usually loud, its advent not coincidentally indexed to the growing size and power of guitar amps and PA systems. It is self-determined. And it moves forward through dissatisfaction, with the state of world, or just the state of music -- which for many amount to the same things.
The American version has been cut to make room for commercials, the rude words have been excised and Dennis Hopper's narration has been substituted for Julian Alistair Rhind-Tutt's -- a name that, notwithstanding its sonic excellence, carries no weight here. The series has the look of a somewhat over-designed coffee table book, with digital superimpositions and color effects, and there are some overly literal visual cues (money in a hand to accompany the line "twenty-six dollars in my hand") and "dramatic re-creations" (Ozzy Osbourne snorts ants). But these are more often amusing than distressing.
Among the many musicians interviewed -- a witty, reflective bunch overall -- are John(ny) Lydon/Rotten, Mick Jones (the Clash Mick Jones, not the Foreigner Mick Jones), Richard Hell, James Hetfield, Bryan Ferry, Henry Rollins, Damon Albarn, all the surviving members of Pink Floyd and their erudite ex-manager Peter Jenner ("Why the Floyd became so big so quickly was because what they were doing was culturally and musically different and radical in a context of a socially radical and political time"). Oasis' Noel Gallagher remembers the fine summers of 1994 and 1995 ("Don't think it rained once -- I sorted that out"). Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson discusses the melodic effect of the "rising sixth"; founding Sex Pistol Glen Matlock demonstrates how ABBA's "SOS" inspired the opening riff to "Pretty Vacant."
And then there's Keith Richards, his usual rubbery self, demonstrating the origins of "Satisfaction" on an acoustic guitar. A seven-hour series on Keith would not be too long, and the footage of him here suggests he could do worse than sit himself in a room with a microphone and a guitar and just play what he knows.
'Seven Ages of Rock'
Where: VH1 Classic
When: 9 to 10 tonight through Sunday