Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Rockschool (not to be confused with Gene Simmons' Rock School) was a short lived television series produced for the BBC somewhere in the dark musical ages of 1983 - 1985 (depending which source you believe). A cursory viewing immediately reveals the show's hoary '80s vintage and Anglo-centrism. It's a cultural time capsule of oversized hair, passed-expiration performers and gear, reggae infatuation, and worst of all, those sickly sounding cotton-candied synths. (I defy anyone to wax nostalgic on 80s synth sounds.) But even worse, according to the show's prognostications a cotton-candy synth epidemic was all but poised to devour all guitar, bass, and drums from pop music. (Thank heavens this Satanic plot was thwarted!) And then there are times the show is just plain naive as when it always seems to err on the side of old school, e.g. choosing Genesis' Tony Banks over, say, Brian Eno for a synthesizer demo. But then, it's these same lapses that make the show's retrospective impact both laughably featherweight and such a juicy guilty pleasure.

Here, one of the better episodes featuring funk bassology from the thumbs of Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins:

I discovered Rockschool around 1990 on New York PBS station WNET, the show's only American outlet
. Much of the trove now available on YouTube reveal episodes with Herbie Hancock. These episodes were a retooling designed exclusively for American audiences. Otherwise, it's all thick beans-on-toast accents of the anachronistic house band interspersed with Brit-pop curiosities of the era and a few legitimate masters thrown in. The result: An Extreme Remedial "Rock" for Non-native Dummies.

Like most academic tours into the ghettos of pop culture, the show's emphasis is mostly on the banal mainstream. Case in point: A segment on vocals by way of Midge Ure and Graham Bonnet (!?). You'll notice there's also a fan-boy zealotry for the era's dated technology (pretty much anything digital). The program on Funk is legitimately good (Brits have long lurved American R & B) while the Heavy Metal segment is deliriously naive. Rockschool asks you to believe the bible of metal was actually the illuminated word of Foghat. (Motorhead, a basically funnier, drunker, and sloppier version of Foghat, gets some face time.) The better done reggae segments may've something to do with the music's proximity to the British heart. (For American audiences it may seem like over-representation.) There's also an awful lot of gear info the show would've been better without (do we really need to know how to tune a drum?). And then there's the cachet degrade that happens every time the house band plugs in: Even The Wiggles would've passed on this ultra-lite electro-fusion.

The meat of the show, the reason for watching, is in the commentaries from the show's celebrity cameos. Seeing drummers like Ginger Baker and Omar Hakim demonstrate polyrhythmic techniques only possible from drummers with four brains is awe-inspiring. (Squandering Omar Hakim behind a Syndrum, on the other hand, is criminal.) Jools Holland's encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll piano styles happily knotted up my boxers. And Funk from the likes of Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Maiden would be top drawer by any thinking person's Funk cabinet.

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