Pantheon Book Club: The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Christopher Knowles

Pantheon Book Club: The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Christopher Knowles October 16, 2010

Music and religion go hand in hand. Maybe it’s on a dance floor, moving to syncopated drums around a campfire or locked in your room transported by the sounds flowing from your headphones. At some point, you’ve probably had a religious experience that was fueled by music. No genre has exemplified the ecstatic power of music as rock ‘n’ roll. From Chuck Berry to The Beatles to The Ramones to The Cure to Green Day, rock music feeds our soul.

It’s no surprise then that Christopher Knowles was able to trace the roots of rock ‘n’ roll back to the ancient mystery cults in his latest book: The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He manages to capture the fascination and religious fervor that rock ‘n’ roll can inspire. Knowles manages to be both educational and juicy as he explores ancient cults and their counterparts in modern music.

If this book is anything, it’s fun. The book has the indulgent, gossipy feel of a celebrity mag, only the information is solid and the celebrities are the Gods and rock musicians of renown. I have danced around a fire late at night and felt the ancient frenzy, the opening unto mystery and reading Knowles makes me grin from recognition. I’ve never participated in anything nearly as wild as a Bacchanal, but then you can’t believe everything you hear. Malicious people have said the most astounding things about us, so when I read about the Maenads performing human sacrifice or tearing wild animals limb from limb I consider the source.

The first section of the book travels through the religious mystery traditions through history. The second focuses on modern rock artists divided into archetypal groups. We’ll be going through the book by groups of musical archetypes and discussing the ancient mysteries along the way.

How do these artists exemplify Apollo, the original “golden god”?

I was really amazed at how sunny these artists are as I played their music. My one reservation was Bob Dylan, who I tend to think of as being darker, but I think can see the “golden boy” status conferred on him.

I think Elton John may be the epitome of the Apollonian rock gods. He’s meticulous, passionate and as golden and glitzy as it gets without being feminine.  What do you think?

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  • This is great, Star. I’ll be on hand to answer any questions as to specific passages in the book.

  • Star, I’m wondering: is Euripides’ Bakkhoi an “unreliable” source for information on the activities of mainades? It was written in 5th c. BCE Athens by a pagan who, despite questioning some aspects of public religiosity, is overall in favor of the Dionysian cultus as-a-whole, it would seem (especially since dramatic festivals were part of it). Even if definitive evidence for human sacrifice is not present for actual bacchic rites that took place historically, animal sacrifice of the type you mention probably was; and just because the mainades didn’t do it with tools and in the trappings of civilization the way they did in the temples doesn’t mean it was necessarily “bad,” or in any case any worse than animal sacrifice in general is.

  • P Suf- The Euripedes passages are there for cultural context. “Teach the controversy,” as it were!

  • Michael Kenyon

    I’m 3/4 of the way through the book, and it is a powerful experience. I feel like I’ve been walking in the company of ancient giants, which I sensed but could never clearly perceive until this book. Time after time I nodded, saying “yes!” realizing that “Prof.” Knowles has perfectly captured the deeper feeling I’ve felt with this music. He has shown that the feeling beyond amplifiers and six strings, which could not arise from musicians who often could not even read music, is an ancient feeling – that the feeling is actually an invocation of something much older and possibly intrinsic within all of us. I was astounded at how much deep sense the book made, and with every page, wished it was longer. It is that kind of a book, where you are sorry the journey is over. For my part, I feel as though an aspect of the human experience called forth at mystery religion rituals, has not vanished. Instead, it is still here – and as Secret History of Rock ‘n Roll illustrates – it never disappeared at all. That moment of a wordless mystery suddenly touching consciousness is with us today. Secret History validates those feelings I’ve had when listening to the right music, and it also shows why some kinds of music have been so eagerly sought out by fans. Thank you, Prof, for helping me to realize the richness already present in my life through the medium of music.

    I highly recommend this book to those looking to better understand the power of music in their lives, and to realizing that we are not cut off from something ancient which added richness to life’s experience.

  • I had a dream last night that one of my friends was an Elvis-like rock star and now I’ve been thinking about whether my friend is like Apollo. I think the classification works really well. Dylan, Springsteen and Green Day seem like odd choices for Apollo but the more I think about it the easier it is to see.

    I guess Apollo feels like an odd choice for rock music, because Apollo seems so Establishment.