Even today, the archetype is so fixed and commonplace as to be thunderously obvious: Long-haired men in tight pants, playing crushingly loud music on guitars and drums in front of tens of thousands of people, and held upright by groupies, mounds of blow, and the luxury of deluxe tour buses and multimillion-dollar record contracts.
And yet this archetype has all but disappeared from pop culture. “Mainstream rock” barely exists anymore. To understand how we got to this point, we’re not going to learn anything by examining for the umpteenth time how the Velvet Underground invented alternative music, or watching all of the approximately 214 documentaries on punk, or talking to Ian MacKaye about why Fugazi never sold T-shirts at shows. What we need instead is a Winners’ History of Rock and Roll that tells the stories behind some of the biggest bands of all time. If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.