One day long ago I happened upon Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll in a pile of books at home. I was intrigued by the title: the book and CD began - like a charismatic lesson plan - with an oxymoron, as if it were nothing but an innocent encouragement to point out the problems with the phrase ‘unknown legends.’ In doing so it persuaded anyone who listened to buy into this alternative history.
For a person who knew very little about musical eras at the time, Unterberger’s selection was like some kind of progressive school that teaches history from an experimental angle. It’s a dilemma: do we learn better from consensus or from outside it? These days, for whatever reason, the artists that Unterberger’s CD and book namechecks have mysteriously made it into the alternative canon, which is fast becoming the main textbook for people interested in the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (people who weren’t there mostly). When I think of my reconstituted 60s, compared to the 60s that my parents’ generation remember, compilations like Unknown Legends and the Nuggets collection represent the difference in our outlook (Lenny Kaye of Nuggets writes the forward for Unknown Legends). These days crazed garage rock like The Monks, pyschedelic experiments like The United States of America, not to mention rockabilly like Wanda Jackson, is raided more enthusiastically than the mainstream.
It is almost uncanny to see how spot-on Unterberger’s selection has proved to be in terms of current tastes and trends. People like Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake, and The Raincoats enjoyed none of the attention when Unterberger’s book was published that they seem to afford now. Which is why the odd title has lately started to make sense to me. Unknown legends is not an oxymoron but a prediction: these artists were already legends in Unterberger’s personal canon, although they were unknown to his readers. And lo, they shifted into focus and became legends for the current breed of pioneers (The United States of America were Broadcast’s favorites). Maybe the reason that progressive music is often chosen over the mainstream in hindsight is because it seems to have more in common with present developments. It’s as if progressive music communicated and connected with future music by trying to understand how that might sound. Unterberger himself suggests that this music has been traveling for decades to reach its ideal audience — an all too appropriate statement for what we are trying to do here at Delorean Towers, except that we’re the ones waiting with open arms. Expect to see a blatant reissue of the contents of Unknown Legends come out in not-so-subtle Delorean installments over the next few months.