Rock and roll evolved in the United States and gained popularity in the post World War II era. However, a new book by Christopher Knowles proposes that this genre of music is part of the wider human story, dating back to ancient cultures, 2,000, 4,000 even 10,000 years ago.
Rock ‘n’ roll, says Knowles, has its roots in the mystery cults of the ancient world. His new book is “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“The mystery cults were really a reaction to the coldness and almost the inhumane nature of the official state cults,” Knowles says. “In Greece, of course, it was Zeus. In Rome, we had Jupiter, and in Egypt, we had Amon-Ra. These official state cults were sort of alienating to the general public because the official state cults had become formalized and so rigid. So the mystery cults started around, usually, a god of fertility and it all stems around the idea of fertility, and the seasons and the cycles of life. People really felt a very strong need to connect with something greater than themselves.”
The music played during the rituals and ceremonies of these cults was fast, loud, and wild — very similar to rock and roll.
“The ancient Egyptians, they had temples where they had pop divas who became the pop stars of their time,” he explains. “They would have these festivals where they would get together. They would drink beer and they would have music. They would have their own heavy metal bands. They had these guys who would come out dressed on leather armor and would bang time with their swords and shields and scream at the top of their lungs.”
And just like modern rock and roll, Knowles says, ancient cult music provided a much needed escape for people.
“Human beings need excitement,” he says. “They need relief. They need a sense of catharsis. We see this all around the world. It’s not only rock and roll; it’s not only the ancient mystery cults. We see this in cultures everywhere. It is really necessary and very badly needed part of human existence, to break the rules for a while, to break out of our ordinary consensus reality. So culture might change on the surface, but there are all these lines of continuity that stretch over time because they speak to basic human needs.”
In both ancient and modern times, he adds, new trends started as a counter to mainstream culture.
“At first, it was not very well received,” Knowles says. “The mystery cults were seen as counter-culture at best, and a challenge to authority at worst, particularly in Rome. So people met in secret, often out of necessity because they were not approved officially. So this is a process where it starts off being counter-cultural and rebellious, but over time it becomes more acceptable. The greatest parallel, of course, is rock and roll. When rock and roll starts off, we have record burnings, we have all sorts of controversies in the media, but eventually it’s accepted. So I think it is an interesting process that repeats itself throughout history.”
In his book, “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Knowles also follows the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll from an expression of youthful rebellion to a symbol of American culture.
“It’s really an amazing process because it all starts off as rhythm and blues,” he adds. “R&B is combined with country swing and then it becomes rock-a-billy, which becomes rock and roll. Then, we see soul music. We see psychedelic rock in the 1960. That sort of opens this Pandora’s box where things began to multiply. We see heavy metal. We see punk. We see art rock. We see progressive rock, and we see glam rock.And the interesting thing is that when you look back in the ancient world, they had their own glam rockers. They had their own heavy metal bands. They had their own punk rock bands.”
But are modern rock stars aware of the resemblance between themselves and ancient rockers?
“We’ve got to start with Elvis and the interesting thing about Elvis is that he really was very conscious of this process,” Knowles said. “He presented himself looking like Apollo, dressing like a superhero with the cape. The Beatles have become gods into themselves. John Lennon is sort of a rock and roll martyr. Every religion sort of needs a martyr.”