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'Encyclopedia of Classic Rock' Seeks to Define an Innovative Era


The classic rock radio format has been around since the 1980s and is still a popular one with radio stations today.  But for many rock fans, classic rock is a contested term. It could mean any of the famous artists who changed the rock scene, from The Beatles to Bob Dylan, to Joan Baez, David Bowie, the Eagles, Leonard Cohen, or Led Zeppelin, and countless others who influenced the genre.

Dave Luhrssen often joins us on Lake Effect as a film contributor, but he’s also a music writer. His latest endeavor is the Encyclopedia of Classic Rock, written with Michael Larson. The new book defines the age of classic rock as spanning from 1965-1975 and gives an in-depth exploration of hundreds of bands and people and their impact that remains a half-century later.

Luhrssen believes this book can represent true classic rock - a much abused term in his opinion.

Credit Greenwood Publishing Group Inc
Greenwood Publishing Group Inc

"From about 1965-75, rock music reached a sort of high plateau that it became conscious of itself as a potential art form," Luhrssen explains. "No longer just entertainment, but it could actually express something of deeper meaning consciously."

In addition to new sounds and the incorporation of blues and folk, complete albums became widely popular during this time period. Compared to the typical one hit single, "the album gave rock bands a bigger canvas in which to paint their ideas," Luhrseen explains.  He also notes the 1960s were a period in which musicians became more aware and practiced in what they could accomplish with instrumentation, making rock music much heavier.

According to Luhrssen, The Beatles and Bob Dylan were among the quintessential artists and bands of classic rock . "By the time (The Beatles) appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show had a very fresh take. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' was a simple song, but didn't sound like anything that was happening before that time. It in itself was innovative."


Bob Dylan also played a major role in creating music that was innovative. "Dylan is crucial to this and under recognized for his role in planting the idea that rock music could be an art form," says Luhrssen. Dylan associated his song writing with modernist poetry and "inspired the Beatles and many other bands to not just re-hash American music, but go further."

1965-1975 was also a historic period, which encompassed the Vietnam War and the battle for Civil Rights. "(These events) couldn't help but influence this newly aware generation of rock musicians who saw themselves not simply as entertaining their generational peers, but as maybe having something to tell them," says Luhrssen.

For Luhrssen, three personal favorites say "something about an aspect of where the music was going during that time period:"

1. "Painted Black" by the Rolling Stones


"Simple but vivid word pictures of what's going on - the state of mind of the depressed narrator of the song. And I've always been drawn to Middle Eastern or Indian music and the sitar and the minor chords; it really drew me into that particular song."

2. "Ballad of a Thin Man" by Bob Dylan


"At the age of 13 puzzling over this lyric, I discovered this is a song about a sexual encounter between two men and it's being played on the radio which was unheard of at that time. But that's not all that song is about, that song is like an onion with one layer after another. It spoke to me in many ways including the possible complexity of lyrics in a relatively short rock song."

3. "I'm Waiting for the Man" by Velvet Underground


"It was very important to me in kind of making me more aware of this sort of scary other world out there -urban life and all of its gritty aspects."

With over 400 pages of information about artists, bands, songs, albums and history, Luhrssen says that such a big project was a good reminder of his own perspective being influenced by the music at the time.

"I would have to say that in most cases I found that I either enjoyed the music as much as I did back then, or I come to it as an adult now with greater appreciation of what some of it was trying to do," he says.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.