Paul Cole, a Barefoot Bay, Florida resident, held a very unpopular opinion: he didn’t like the Beatles. Despite his apparent unappreciation for the British boys’ music, Cole found himself inadvertently immersed in the realm of pop culture history when, while visiting London in 1969, happened to be standing near the now famous Abbey Road.
Who Shot Rock and Roll, a Photographic History, 1955 to the Present at the Allentown Art Museum functions in much the same fashion as Iain McMillian, the photographer who captured Cole just behind Lennon. The photo exhibit immerses visitors within the art and the music of rock and roll history.
Crowd Surfing from 1955 to Today
The photo exhibit– housed at the Allentown Art Museum until May 13– includes over 175 images of classic artists who defined the genre including, Elvis Presley, Nirvana, Queen and Pink Floyd, to modern-day acts such as, Amy Winehouse and Eminem. During my visit, the behind the scenes photos, images from live performances, portraits, conceptual images and album artwork honestly told the story of rock and roll. Visitors, carried along for the ride, milled from picture to picture as if they were surfing the crowds of 1955, making their way to the stage of today while passing through the movements— the rebellion, the freedom of expression, and reinvention— which have become synonymous with the genre.
Who Shot Rock and Roll, organized by the Brooklyn Museum in New York and guest curator Gail Buckland, transformed my few dollars into an all-access, VIP, backstage pass to witness some of the greatest acts the music industry has ever produced. The images of live performances, including the famous image of Paul Simonon of the Clash smashing his bass— if bells have yet to ring, think London Calling— buzzed with energy. One could almost feel the rebellion and excitement embodied in the images while, when viewing the behind the scenes images, one could gauge the toll rock and roll took on some participants; a feeling best embodied in a moving portrait of Kurt Cobain, captured back stage breaking down.
Carried away from behind the scenes— the back stages, the cheap hotel rooms and the candid moments— I found myself thrust into the crowds…literally. Photographs of the audiences, including a massive composite from a Madonna concert, brought to life the magic found within a crowd at a show and the sense of comradery that accompanies singing the same song with hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
Peering through the looking-glass into a time when the Beatles were “kooks,” as Cole referred to them in a 2004 interview, KISS was just another no-name act and The Police were sending out demos as opposed to a message in a bottle, the images contained within “Young Artists” portrayed the classic bands in a light up-and-coming musicians can appreciate. The music industry is a difficult business but not impossible to gain a foothold in, perseverance pays off and, one can’t help but wonder where rock and roll would be today had any band decided to call it a day and hang up their six-string before finding fame.
Behind the Lens
While the musicians shaped the genre, the photographers highlighted in Who Shot Rock and Roll fashioned its image, a fact the exhibit does not overlook. Famous photographers including, David LeChapelle, Linda McCartney and Annie Leibovitz, dot the walls of the Allentown Art Museum, offering the visitor a glimpse into the realm of music as well as art “through skillful, sensual, sexy, creative and compelling images that are among the best representation of rock photography, past and present.”
…Put Another Dime in the Jukebox
The emotions, the causes, the movements and the energy, deftly captured with the photographers’ lens and conveyed into pictures, which effectively told the history of rock and roll, positioned Who Shot Rock and Roll firmly in my mind.
Music is an art, a culture, a form of expression and a movement. It has a past, brilliantly portrayed in Who Shot Rock and Roll, and a timeliness one cannot argue. (My only objection arises from the Bon Jovi-less walls of the exhibit; honestly, how can the Jersey boys who were livin’ on a prayer, a feeling shared by bands and fans throughout time, not be featured?).
Cole may have never listened to the Beatles but millions of others, born and raised in a generation in which only a handful of the members survive, have; a testament to rock and roll’s power, its appeal and its message. As Friedrich Nietzsche once penned, “Without music, life would be a mistake…”