lazyhome         reviews         hype         webboard                interviews

The University of Rock and Roll

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: February 5, 2003

Imagine this scene from your college days: Class is about to end for the day and the instructor begins to wrap-up by giving you your take-home assignment.

"Let's not forget to do our homework, people" he says, slapping shut the text book. "We're covering The Beatles' first hits, early Rolling Stones, and the emergence of psychedelic rock -- that means I expect all of you to be able to intelligently discuss The Summer of Love, Hendrix and the influences of Janis Joplin."

The class moans in unison. "I don't want to hear it, people. We've got a lot to cover next time, including listening to all that Iron Butterfly, Doors and Jefferson Airplane material."

A bookish freshman raises her hand. "Professor, will we touch on The Velvet Underground and the dawning of proto-punk?"

"Only if we have time, Judy. I want to get as far as Led Zeppelin and The Who by spring break, which means we're really going to have to cram."



This is no dream, it's Music of the People: Rock and Pop (or, Music 1070 for those looking in the catalog) -- a general education course taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that focuses on rock music and its impact on American society.

The instructor, Dr. Tomm Roland, is an assistant professor of Percussion/Multicultural Music at UNO, where he coordinates the percussion program and teaches courses in musics of the world. Roland holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from California State University, Sacramento and a DMA in percussion performance from SUNY Stony Brook. In addition to an esteemed academic career, Roland has extensive real-world experience as a self-described "hair band survivor."

He says the class spans the history of pop music from a cultural perspective, going as far back as the late 1880s with John Philip Sousa and Edison inventing the phonograph, up though the 1990s with Alanis Morissette, Public Enemy, grunge and the resurgence of pop. Throughout the material, Roland draws parallels between music and changes in society.

"In addition to talking about the musical roots that led to rock, we focus on the culture of the time, so students can listen to music and think about how it relates to their time, culture and society," Roland said.

The semester begins by listening to recordings of early, popular cylinders by artists like Sousa and George Cohan, as well as music that reflected racist attitudes that were prevalent in early 1900s. "That music parodied negative stereotypes of African American culture," Roland said. "Ironically, it's African American music -- jazz and blues -- that is at the heart of today's popular music."

Technology and its impact on the music industry is another area of focus. "Prior to the '50s, the music industry consisted mostly of music publishers," Roland said. "That changed as recording technologies took over. We look at how commercial interests have always had a hand in popular music, from selling sheet music to CDs." And that includes such current-day topics as the Internet and Napster.

More music is heard in class as the course hits the 1950s, starting with Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, among others. "The '60s is a very obvious era, with the counter-culture being reflected in pop music," Roland said. "The Beatles hit in 1964 along with the early British invasion. Up to that time, pop music was innocent, with Frankie Avalon on the charts in 1966. Then along came Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the psychedelic era, which actually began in late '66 with The Beatle's Revolver album."

With so much material, Roland says it's impossible to not leave something out. "That's the problem with a general survey course," he said. "There's a lot of important people we're not going to mention because we just don't have enough time. When the class was first offered last summer, we had almost 300 music examples."

"Ironically, it's African American music -- jazz and blues -- that is at the heart of today's popular music."



"I tell them to leave their opinions of what's good and bad at the door. We're going to listen to Sonny and Cher -- they might hate them, but too bad."


Taught on "sort of a pilot basis," that first class had only 35 students. This semester 350 are signed up for Music of the People, which is held Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Recital Hall of the Strauss Performing Arts building. Roland says the class is popular because students can identify with the topic. "It's music that they're familiar with and listen to, and -- whether they realize it or not -- has had an impact on their lives."

Those who come to class expecting to hear only their favorite style of rock are in for a surprise. "A lot of students know a certain degree about a certain music," he said. "For example, metal heads know about metal. I tell them to leave their opinions of what's good and bad at the door. We're going to listen to Sonny and Cher -- they might hate them, but too bad."

Though a new offering at UNO, courses on rock and pop music have been taught at universities across the country for years. "The University of Indiana has been teaching it since '87," Roland said. "They currently offer seven or eight different courses on rock music, including classes that focus on The Beatles, the British Invasion and Frank Zappa. It's not a new thing."

Rock isn't a new thing to Roland, either, though his studies go well beyond popular music. A distinguished percussionist, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the classical drumming of Southern India , where he studied mridangham and thavil with Sri T.H. Subashchandren and Sri K. Sekar.

Still, Roland, 35, said he came to music through rock and roll. As a child of the '80s, his early influences included Duran Duran, Ultravox and Berlin, "all that New Wave stuff that isn't drum heavy," he said. "As I got more into drums, my tastes started to shift to rock and hard rock, to bands like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rush and Kansas."

It wasn't long before he was in a band of his own. "I started playing in 1987," he said. "I had the boots with weird stuff hanging off of them, black pants, leather jacket and long hair. It was the heyday of the hair bands."

Despite a lot of hard work, Roland said none of his bands ever went anywhere. His longest tour of duty was a 5-year stint with a band called Fate Positive. "We played a mix of '80s and early '90s music. We tried to be 'alternative,' but it's hard to give up your roots in Rush. We did originals, but you couldn't make money unless you also played covers."

Roland said Fate Positive recorded twice "back when it was expensive. You could buy all the equipment you need today for what it cost to record our CD back then."

He stopped playing in a band in 1996 -- which just happens to be the last year covered in his music class. He still follows the rock scene, but not nearly as in depth as when he was in a band.

"I'm embarrassed to say that I looked at the Billboard top-10 and knew only one song," he said. "I try to keep track of the trends. Right now is an interesting time in music -- the pop thing is still going strong, but hard rock has made a big comeback in the past few years. Rap and hip-hop are becoming more ingrained in hard rock and pop."

So does he ever have the urge to put those leather pants back on? "No," he says, "but I'd love to play in a rock band again."

Back to  huge.gif (2200 bytes)

Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader Jan. 29, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.