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British rock, seen and (partly) remembered

October 29, 2010 | 12:18 pm

Thewhoposter What is it that makes rock 'n' roll so rock 'n' roll? For Keith Richards, it's not the phalanxes of groupies, the legendary partying, the tragedies of Brian Jones and Altamont or the complicated personality of lead singer Mick Jagger. What surfaces as essential, in Richards' new memoir "Life," is the music itself. Richards writes about music itself, David L. Ulin writes in Friday's paper, "with insight and grace."

Here we have the brilliant stuff, worth the price of admission. Early on, he breaks down the intricacies of blues guitarist Jimmy Reed's chording: "It took me years to find out how he actually played the 5 chord, in the key of E … [I]nstead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn't bother with the B at all. He'd leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. And there's the haunting note, resonating against the open A."

There's more: Richards' discussion of Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker's double-string playing ("[I]t had the possibility of getting this dissonance and this rhythm thing going, which you can't do picking away on one string"); or his notion that "There are some people looking to play guitar. There's other people looking for a sound."

It may seem insular, nerdy even, but Richards resolves it in his explication of five-string open tuning, which became the key to the Stones' sound. The genesis, he tells us, is pure Jimmy Reed, a way of tuning the guitar so there is always a drone note, so that, "if you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you're not playing." This is why, he claims, so many Stones songs, while apparently so simple, can be so hard to re-create on a conventional guitar.

Yet there are still the groupies, the lead singers, the parties, the outrageous fashion, the druggy rock 'n' roll lifestyle. "Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down you can see it," Richards writes. "It's impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were."

Part of what fed that image, in the 1960s, was the burgeoning art scene that grew up with rock 'n' roll. The new book "The Art of British Rock: 50 Years of Rock Posters, Handbills and Fliers" by Mike Evans ($25, Frances Lincoln Publishers) showcases the ephemera of the time. It traces the evolution of what was originally throwaway advertising that blossomed into full-fledged psychedelic art, crashed into punk aesthetics and the garish glamour of New Wave into today's melange of styles. See a sample in our "Art of British Rock" online gallery.

The book also includes stories that show a culture rapidly in motion. The Who's Tuesday residency at the Marquee Club in 1964-65, advertised in the poster above, started on a rainy night; only 30 people showed up. Weeks later, the band was playing to a club packed with record-breaking crowds. 

But could Pete Townshend describe those shows? "The ultimate party," Richards writes, "if it's any good, you can't remember it. You get these brief vignettes of what you did." These posters and flyers are visual vignettes of that time -- for bands other than the Stones -- contained behind the marvelously eye-catching pink and green cover of "The Art of British Rock."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: From "The Art of British Rock" by Mike Evans. Copyright: Brian Pike