'Rock Bands' of the Nineteenth Century There's rock music -- you know, the kind inaugurated by Chuck Berry in the 1950s -- and then there's the real rock music, which started out on actual rocks in England in the 1800s. Paul Collins has written about the phenomenon of early rock bands in The Believer magazine, and talks about his findings.
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'Rock Bands' of the Nineteenth Century

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'Rock Bands' of the Nineteenth Century

'Rock Bands' of the Nineteenth Century

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This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Lynn Neary. Paul Collins is a writer who loves to explore old books and newspapers. He has a knack for finding the oddest so-bad-it's-good story. Recently, Mr. Collins was reading an 1842 issue of Illustrated London News and came across an article about a rock band. 1842 - a rock band?

Mr. Collins joins us from WSUI in Iowa City. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. PAUL COLLINS (Writer): It's good to be here.

NEARY: Now, you must explain. What kind of a rock band was around in 1842?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, that would be a band playing with rocks.

And what astonished me was really two things. First, I was sitting there reading this about a rock band, and I looked at the date again, but then when I started looking into it, it turned out that it went back even further. And you could actually date the invention of rock music, which would be June 11th, 1785.

NEARY: Rock music, as in music played on rocks. But what kind of rocks are we talking about exactly?

Mr. COLLINS: Slate mainly. It seems like there was a whole movement of, well, rock music coming out of - mainly out of one town in the Lake District in Britain, a town called Keswick, and the person that really kicked it off was this fellow Joseph Richardson. He was a stone mason. In fact, almost all of the people involved with this were masons. Maybe not surprisingly. They're spending all day banging rocks. And so he slowly, over the course of about a decade, assembled what was basically like a giant, five octave crude stone xylophone, really, what a musicologist would classify as a lithophone. And it was so large, this instrument, that it needed three people to play it.

NEARY: Thus the first rock band.

Mr. COLLINS: The Richardson rock band. They had a rock concert in 1842 in London, and it was hugely successful, so successful that the started to get imitators, where all these competing rock bands were going around claiming to be the original rock band. In fact, it got to the point where the Richardson rock band started holding what they called monster stone concerts. I mean, you would imagine an instrument made out of rock to be harsh, but they actually were describing it in terms of being very sort of sweet and mellow sounding and almost like a piano in some ways, which seems hard to believe, but when you hear it, it is actually a very almost soothing kind of sound.

NEARY: What exactly is a lithophone? Maybe you can explain what a lithophone is.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's a class of instruments basically, where you're getting the sound by striking a stone. There's actually a site that was just rediscovered in Southern India where there are a number of boulders and rocks that were clearly meant to be used basically as musical instruments. And in some of the cases, they actually had to hang people basically over the side of a cliff for them to play in the right spot. That's a tough gig.

NEARY: That is. And is the original one - the original Richardson harmonicon, is that still around?

Mr. COLLINS: Not only is it still around, you can still play it. It's at the Keswick Museum, which is up in the Lakes District in Britain. And visitors can go there and rock out.

NEARY: You can read more about early rock bands in this month's Believer magazine. Paul Collins latest book is The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine. Paul Collins, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. COLLINS: Oh, thank you.

NEARY: We called the Keswick Museum and asked to hear Joseph Richardson's harmonicon. They sent us this recording, a new composition on the old instrument. You can watch a video of this performance at our website, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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