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'Rock'N'Roll Inventions' Shows Us How the Beat Goes On
January 16, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Smithsonian’s new Rock ‘N’ Roll Inventions series offers a technology tour that leaves you hungry to hear more of the music that inspired it.

The six-part series, which kicks off at 8 p.m. ET Monday, starts with a quick lesson in the development of recorded sound, from Thomas Edison’s cylinders to the invisible downloads of today.

It doesn’t tell the average fan anything new unless that fan is under 25 and doesn’t realize there was anything before MP3s.

It does, however, remind us about a couple of the most significant breakthroughs, including the transistor radio, cassette tape, and Sony Walkman.

The transistor radio in the 1950s enabled teenage fans of this new rock ‘n’ roll music to untether themselves from the family radio, or even their own private home radio. Now they could carry the radio, and thus their music, wherever they wanted.

The cassette tape made music flexible. Instead of being restricted to what was on the radio, or a vinyl record, you could record whatever you wanted, in whatever order you wanted.

The mixtape is one of the great, underrated phenomena of popular music history. Not only did it become a foundation for hip-hop, it also enabled millions of young folks to write musical love letters and bond with their fellow music fans.

The Walkman advanced the work that the transistor radio had begun, except this time the listening could be truly personal. Where transistors mostly played through speakers, the Walkman was designed for ears, with the same flexibility in what you wanted to hear.

It could also be argued that the Walkman helped pave the way for the isolation that marks much of our popular culture today. If everyone is listening to his or her own music, there’s less of the collective experience that lies at the heart of music’s appeal.

That’s a discussion for a separate series, as are several other matters where the impact of technology has sparked debate. For all the advantages of the compact disc and MP3s, like ultra-clean sound, do we lose some of the richness of the music by compressing it? Does vinyl really sound warmer than CDs?

When the first episode traces music technology, it curiously omits the critical changeover in the 1920s from acoustic to electric recording. In its day, that change raised some of the same questions: In getting a crisper sound, was some of the resonance of the music lost?

While Rock ‘N’ Roll Inventions acknowledges the American roots of modern popular music, it has a strong British tilt, interviewing British music journalists, DJs, and musicians.

For that reason, perhaps, much of the seminal 1950s rock ‘n’ roll is seen here from the perspective of British teenagers – as an exotic object from, literally, a foreign land.

There are segments on the British “pirate radio” stations of the 1960s, Radio Caroline and Radio London, and there’s an extended shoutout to Lonnie Donegan, the British skiffle artist whose “Rock Island Line” had an Elvis-like effect on British teenagers while becoming only a minor novelty in America.

The best parts of the show, in many ways, come when musicians, DJs, producers, and writers reminisce about their own experiences with the music, like the first record that mesmerized them or the time their father turned off the radio because a rock ‘n’ roll song was playing.

That’s what it’s really about, of course. The technology provided the vehicle, but Rock ‘N’ Roll Inventions feels most engaging when it talks about what that technology delivered.

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