In an early edition of the influential American magazine New Republic, published a little under a century ago, a writer declared: “Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics”. By extension, writing about writing about music must be illogical almost to the point of nonsense. But bear with me.
It took me at least three times as long as it should have to read Jack Hamilton’s brilliant but uneven Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. It is, I quickly discovered, a book to be read with YouTube close at hand, so that the music can provide a soundscape to accompany the words. Who could resist listening again to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, having read Hamilton’s description of its “bombastic orchestral introduction, replete with strings, tympani, and a mournful French horn that leads into Cooke’s vocal”? And how could I not want to hear, as I read about it, “the snare-drum hit that opens ‘Like a Rolling Stone’”? How could I put off confirming Hamilton’s claim that Smokey Robinson’s vocals are “controlled and assured, his mellifluous tenor carrying a preternaturally mature bluesiness” on The Miracles’ You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me? Further delay in the reviewing process ensued on learning that in 1967 Aretha Franklin covered the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction in an “exciting and new” way, “boasting a driving four-on-the-floor kick-drum groove surrounded by swirling, churchy organ, pounding piano (played by Franklin herself), and piercing horn bursts”.
Hamilton looks at major British and American recording artists of the 1960s to identify what amounts to that decade’s cultural rebranding of rock and roll as “white”, despite its many black originators and practitioners. At the heart of the way music was promoted, sold and discussed was a quest for racial “authenticity”, a hegemonic concept that meant quite different things for white musicians than it did for black ones. Hamilton aims to expand the rock and roll canon “to a degree that challenges and defamiliarizes the ways we have come to think about music in general during this period”.
But for all Just Around Midnight’s valuable engagement with the unheard narrative of race in rock and roll, another story remains untold. Despite Hamilton’s at times glorious prose, the book is disappointingly canonical: there are entire chapters on both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Only one chapter looks in any meaningful way at the mark women made on the musical landscape of the 1960s, and those women are so well known that they might easily go by their first names alone: Aretha, Janis and Dusty.
Hamilton almost completely neglects female artists, then, and that’s a shame, especially since he is winningly upfront about some of his work’s shortcomings, confessing “I am acutely aware of the fact that this book reproduces a dyadic and by now thoroughly antiquated notion of race”. But this dyad was very much the dominant cultural model in the era that most closely concerns Hamilton, who argues that it was overturned only by the emergence on to the UK and US music scenes of Mexican-born guitarist Carlos Santana, offering “a renewed contact with Otherness for the white genre of rock”. I hope that in his next book, Hamilton turns his attention to even more of the “Othernesses” that histories of music in the 1960s continue to ignore.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies and director of the Institute of Gender Studies, University of Chester.
Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
By Jack Hamilton
Harvard University Press, 352pp, £22.95
Published 29 September 2016