Getting Cross

Monday Magazine | February 27, 2008
For the last 15 years, Alan Cross has been filling airwaves all across Canada with insights, tidbits and trivia on the who's who of alternative music. But what you might not know about the host of The Ongoing History of New Music radio show -- syndicated out of Toronto in a dozen cities, including Victoria -- is that he's also an accomplished author. The esteemed broadcaster has four titles under his belt, all of which deal with some aspect of Cross' vast amount of modern rock knowledge. His latest endeavor, The Alan Cross Guide to Alternative Rock, combines both of these facets; it's an audio version of 20th Century Rock and Roll: Alternative Rock, an out-of-print book he wrote back in 2000.

"Unless it's a biography of a dead person, non-fiction music books have a defined shelf life. With the rise of the internet, people no longer have to go to books exclusively to find out information about their favorite artists, they go online, so there was no point in reprinting it," says Cross. "However, somebody came to me and said, 'Well, why don't you turn this out-of-print book into an audiobook?' I thought, 'That's an interesting idea, let's try it.' So we did, with some updates."

The original 110,000-word book documents the bands from the '60s through the '90s that most influenced modern day alternative rock; groups like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and Pearl Jam are name-dropped. So far, only the first audio volume, covering the 1960s and '70s, has been released ("We were going to try and do it all in one, and then I started reading and realized 'My god, there are a lot of words here,'" says Cross), telling the tales of bands such as the Stooges, David Bowie and the Clash from their humble beginnings -- and, in some cases, taking it all the way to their not-so-humble endings. But before he delves into the stories, Cross spends a good chunk of the first disc laying the ground rules for how and why he chose who he did.

"When I started this project, it was just amazing how many people believed that their favorite band should be included in the list," Cross says. "The Psychedelic Furs, hey you know what, that was a pretty good band, but as far as being a ground-breaking, influential band for all time? I don't think so. You have to step back and be very dispassionate about it and look at these performers from a scholarly, historical point of view and say, 'Okay, which were the performers who helped change music in this genre more than any others?' This is what I’ve come up with."

Cross says in some ways, determining the top artists of the '60s and '70s was easier because the passage of time made it easier to see which bands made the biggest impact.

"The longer you separate yourself from an event or a thing, it'll gain significance or diminish in significance," he says. "When the Velvet Underground were around, for example, nobody cared about them. Nobody whatsoever. It wasn't until they started to get some reissues in the 1980s that people started to say, 'Wait a second, there was something to this noise.' Same thing with the Ramones ... for the entire '80s, the Ramones were a joke. It wasn't until grunge came along and people like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder began namechecking the Ramones that people started taking them seriously again."

Perhaps it's good only the first volume has been recorded so far (after promising sales for Volume One, Volume Two, covering the '80s and Volume Three, covering the '90s and 2000s have been given the green light); as it gives Cross more time to tweak.

"The book, when it was first published, did not include Radiohead because it was written in 1999, which was only about a year and a half after OK Computer came out. At that point, Radiohead was just still a really good British band, but obviously their significance in the food chain has increased dramatically in the 10 years that have passed," he says. As for additions, he's not sure who's going to end up on the final volume. "I'll have to think about if there's going to be any more. There's a bunch of bands that contributed something on some level, but not on a macro level. Oasis, for example. Where do you slot them? They were a very popular band, but did they change the world? Probably not."

For now, fans will have to be content with the four-and-a-half hours and four discs of Volume One, which are chock full of Cross' signature soothing conversational tone and vital details about some of the most influential groups of the '60s and '70s -- not to mention a plethora of interesting, extraneous details. Cross' uncanny ability to dig up even the most obscure information shines through here; an ability he attributes to his voracious reading habit, the 25 years he's spent as a broadcaster and his packrat tendencies.

"I have a contract that was signed by the Ramones when they did a community center in Burlington, Ontario in 1981. I don't know what to do with it, but I know what the Ramones wanted backstage at that show. That's the kind of stuff I've got," he says. "The little details are the fun ones, because behind every performer, behind every song there’s a story. These are real people who did something, so let's humanize it. Let's take it out of the newspaper article, the critical album review, all that stuff and let's find out the stories behind the stories, or find some way to make it happen."

In the end, says Cross, it all comes down to the "Oh, cool" test. "I've been doing this a very long time, so I've seen and heard a lot. I've seen a bunch of trends come and go, a bunch of bands come and go, and there's really not a lot that surprises me anymore," he says. "So what I'm always looking for are things that make me go, 'Wow, that's cool.' If they make me say that, can you imagine the kind of impact it's going to have on people who have a life?"

The Alan Cross Guide to Alternative Rock Volume 1

Harper Collins

4 CDs, 4.5 hours • $24.99

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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