Music of the Beatles and Rolling Stones was a breaking out from the 'gray' of post WW II, says Prof Stephen Tow
Professor Tow teaches at Delaware Valley University and has authored 'The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge' & 'London and Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock'
Stephen Tow is a world-renowned historian and music professor at Delaware Valley University, where he conducts courses in American history and rock n' roll. As an avid musician & passionate lover of rock music, Professor Tow has also written two comprehensive books on two era-defining periods that transformed the genre namely, 'The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge' (Sasquatch Books, 2011) and his latest book, which was released last month, 'London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock' (Rowman & Littlefield, February 15, 2020).
We caught up with Stephen Tow recently to pick his exceptional brain on all things rock music.
What led to these definitive histories of grunge and classic rock being written?
I grew up with classical music, so I've always had an appreciation for it. On the other hand, I became extremely rebellious as a teenager and quickly embraced rock, with 'Van Halen' being my first "crank it loud" album. But mainstream music had become pretty stale by the late ’70s - it was the same old Billy Joel, Jefferson Starship or 'Grease' tunes. Bear in mind, I was in a suburban high school that was far removed from the cutting-edge music of the time, notably new wave and post-punk.
Then MTV hit in full force during the '80s and it became all about the presentation. All my college friends were talking about the pretty girls in the new ZZ Top video or how hot Madonna was. And I would go, “But the music kind of sucks”... it just didn’t register. Then my roommate’s girlfriend gave me a copy of 'Quadrophenia' and that changed my life. Another roommate lent me Jethro Tull’s 'Benefit' and I delved heavily into the '60s. While everyone was into Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, I was discovering Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Who, and the Beatles. It just seemed so much more vital than what was happening currently.
Then in the '90s when 'Nirvana' broke, that became my '60s. I was still relatively young and finally, things began to rock again. I ate up the whole grunge movement coming out of Seattle. Suddenly the presentation didn’t matter anymore. I became so enamored with the Pacific Northwest that I wrote a book about it, 'The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge', published in 2011. For my second book, I decided to go back to my own roots and explore the ’60s, treating London as a music scene, much in the same way I approached Seattle.
Who was the first rock artiste that you fell in love with? And who was the first rock musician that you started corresponding with?
The first rock musician I fell in love with was Jimmy Page. I was a Zep head back then, and I still am. The first book-related interview I ever did was with Jack Endino in 2006. He was the producer of grunge, recording all those great bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Green River (who split into 'Mudhoney' and 'Pearl Jam')
The first major artiste interview I did was with Stone Gossard of 'Pearl Jam'. I ran into him at a punk reunion show in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. I introduced myself and politely asked if we could do an interview. He called my landline a week later. My daughter yelled upstairs, “There’s this Stone guy from Seattle on the phone for you!”
Of the numerous interviews that you conducted for 'London, Reign Over Me' which one did you enjoy the most?
There were many. Some interviews that stood out include Greg Lake, Peter Noone, Neil Innes, Roger Glover, Geno Washington & Brian Auger. Greg was just so passionate about the music, he was a 'Beatles' and Jimi Hendrix fanatic. Peter was really funny - I had a dozen questions prepared when we chatted in Basingstoke, England, and I’m not sure I even asked one. He just went off and I let him. Brian Auger is a keyboardist who told me some great stories about recording 'For Your Love' with the Yardbirds and playing with Sonny Boy Williamson. Neil Innes was also hysterical, as would be expected from a Monty Python collaborator, and Roger eloquently described his early days with Deep Purple. Geno is all over the epilogue in my book.
How do you think the differences between Americans and Brits manifested itself in the divergent musical expressions that we now see from both the countries?
Mostly, what really impacted England was the Second World War. The country was so devastated in its aftermath that the generation of kids growing up in its shadow were desperately looking for something to break out of the gray. America didn’t suffer in the same way. I think that British experience impacted the music and led kids like Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Eric Clapton to seek out and identify with black American blues musicians that most Americans still don’t know about today.
Do you prefer the Beatles to the Rolling Stones? And can you rank these bands in order of preference - Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains & Stone Temple Pilots
The Beatles for sure. They were so wildly innovative and life-changing, it’s not even close. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Stones circa 1964-1972, and they rocked way harder than the Beatles, but between the two, I have to go with the Liverpool lads. Of those grunge-era bands, I would rank them: Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney' (had to throw them in), Pearl Jam. STP, along with Rush, is probably the most underrated band of all time. I hate that the critics decided they sucked. Their early records still sound fantastic. And their new all-acoustic album, 'Perdida', is out of this world. Rush is another great band the critics panned back in the day. After Neil Peart died, I listened to about five of their early records. Every one of them is brilliant.
Which contemporary rock bands do you listen to nowadays?
There are a ton of young kids making great rock music. Some of my favorite bands include Kinski and Nurse Ratchett from Seattle and a homegrown band called Olden Yolk, which is an offshoot from Quilt. Kinski sounds like Black Sabbath and Sonic Youth had a baby. Nurse Ratchett reminds me of early Rush, with a super-skillful drummer. Olden Yolk is kind of dreamy, acoustic folky psychedelia. There's plenty of great bands out there, we just haven't heard about them.