The Creationists

Creating The Rock 'N' Roll Archaeology Project with Christian Swain

February 17, 2021 Steve Waxman Episode 26
The Creationists
Creating The Rock 'N' Roll Archaeology Project with Christian Swain
Show Notes Transcript

This is the final episode of Season Three of The Creationists and since this season featured a series of music related interviews, I thought it only appropriate to include an interview with Christian Swain who, along with his longtime friend Richard Evans created The Rock and Roll Archeology Project, a podcast that is an in-depth look at rock and roll as well as the culture and technology that influenced it from 1945 to 1995.

My conversation with Christian touches a bunch of different areas including the influence of black music on rock and roll, the creation of Pantheon, his podcast network of almost 70 music related shows as well as his views on the use of pre-recorded music in podcasts. But everything Christian and his partners have created starts with the first episode of The Rock and Roll Archeology Project which launched in 2015.

If you have even the slightest interest in the history of music, culture and technology and how they collided in the 20th century, I can't recommend the Rock and Roll Archaeology podcast enough but do yourself a favour and start at episode one. You can find this and all of the other Pantheon shows wherever you listen to podcasts or at

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The Creationists is mastered in post production by Paul Farrant.

Since I’d been doing a series of music related interviews, I thought it only appropriate to include an interview with Christian Swain who, along with his longtime friend Richard Evans created The Rock and Roll Archeology Project, a podcast that is an in=depth look at rock and roll as well as the culture and technology that influenced it from 1945 to 1995. 


My conversation with Christian touches a bunch of different areas including the influence of black music on rock and roll, the creation of Pantheon, his podcast network of almost 70 music related shows as well as his views on the use of pre-recorded music in podcasts. But everything Christian and his partners have created starts with the first episode of The Rock and Roll Archeology Project which launched in 2015.

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Steve Waxman   So, how did this begin, because this is such a big project.

Christian Swain   The idea, initially, was that we would create a podcast, and I  do have a partner, I've got several partners and my main partner, my writing partner, Richard Evans and I, we have been arguing about this for forty years. We grew up together. He's a little bit older than I so we didn't quite go to high school together but we went to the same high school, and  we got to be friends around the time of me being 16 or 17 and he'd be about about 19 or 20. And so, we hung in a crew that loved, loved loved music. Most of us were musicians and most of us played in bands. Many times competing bands. But we have remained friends and have been talking about this for forty years and so, five years ago I said, "Hey, I've got this idea. I personally think that the rock'n'roll story is a fairly completed one, at least, culturally, and I think we should retell the history and put it in context with the times and to elevate it as an art form because, for most of its 70 plus year life, it's been downgraded as the lowbrow type of entertainment with few exceptions." You know, since we started for example Bob Dylan was handed a Nobel Prize for Literature, which certainly helped our cause. But the initial plan was we're just going to tell stories throughout the history of rock and roll. And as we started putting the research together, I said to myself, 'You know, we really need a basic history, top to bottom. We should be able to do this in any year. So let's do that.' Well, five years on, we're still working on it. And, if you listen to the latest Episode, Episode 20, "Ohio," which was just released last week, we have finally made it into 1970. So we still have a long way to go. So this is probably a ten year project.

Steve Waxman   How much of what it has become was in the works in terms of your planning for what it was you wanted this to be?

Christian Swain   You know, it has turned out to be everything and more than what I wanted it to be.  I can still remember the first time we've done the research, written the script, and the scripts are anywhere between 6000 to 10,000 words, and if you've listened to all the episodes, they can take multiple story elements and weave them together. There's a through line. So everything needs to come together at the end, it's a task. And then it goes into production and that usually takes us about a month to do. But the first time we got back the first draft of Episode One, we danced around. We knew this was gonna happen, that this was going to work. And it took us about five episodes to feel like we really had the beast under us and that we understood what we were doing. In fact, we've recently gone back and completely redid Episode One because the project is now being looked at as a potential television series and best foot forward, we kind of felt like that was the entry episode that most people would go to so we went back and we did that. So to answer your question, the plan was to tell the history of, we call it, the rock and roll era in, basically, we say, post war. We start with 1945, because the culture is built at the end of World War Two. American culture is dominant across the globe. Yes, sure there's a battle of hearts and minds between behind the Iron Curtain and the communist faction versus American capitalism and democracy. And so, we felt that we needed to kind of explain some of the early technological, cultural, and musical foundations that everything was built on. Obviously, when we get to Episode Two,  Elvis and the Rise of Television, we're solidly in the rock and roll era.

Steve Waxman  So, let's go back a little bit. When you guys were discussing what it was that this thing was going to be, did you talk about the voices coming in and out, reading different sections of some of your research in different voices? Was it always going to include one of the things that's really important about the series, that it's not just about rock and roll but it is about culture and technology and how everything weaves together.

Christian Swain  So, the original plan was definitely that we felt that the music was downgraded as an artform. It's just music for teenagers, if you will, and when I would read about it, outside of the music magazines and the biographies, I would find that culture writers would downgrade rock and roll. You know, it was just simplified artform and, to me, it was the artform that literally could comment on the times that it inhabited, and those times changed and evolved and the music went along with it. As opposed to other artforms which tend to look back on a moment. This was done in real time. It became a global phenomenon in real time, mostly on the back of mass media which, again, grew prominently post World War Two. And that's why our second episode is called Elvis and the Rise of Television, because rock and roll and television literally grow up together. And it is the music of the masses. I think that it's American culture and American culture is supposed to be a meritocracy and supposed to be the voice of the people. And this is the closest that we feel that you get to the voice of the people.

Steve Waxman How long did it take you to put together the first episode? I'm presuming that once you guys got into a groove that putting episodes together became a little bit easier.

Christian Swain  No, as a matter of fact that's exactly the opposite. The first, about four episodes were really, really easy, because the story is relatively easy. The origins of rock and roll is a very small club. You're really talking about six people here. You know, Elvis, Jerry Lee Chuck Berry, Little Richard, maybe Buddy Holly, you know, it may be a few other minor players but, and I'm sure people yell at me and say well what about this guy what about that guy, but it's still a really small club. And so, we could focus on the individual stories of those people. And if you pay close attention, you'll notice that as we move into the sixties, we realized that once we got to the Beatles it was really difficult for us to dedicate a show to a particular artist or a couple of artists, that it then becomes more of a geographic story, and the later part of the sixties are really split up geographically. I think we started in London, we then go to Southern California, the LA music scene, the San Francisco music scene, New York, Chicago, Nashville. We do a soul triangle, where we talk about Nashville. Memphis and Chicago. And so, as we now get into the seventies, we see that the funnel expands even more. And so, we have to pick and choose what those stories that are going to you know be told, and try to include as much as we can. So, therefore, we can't really focus on people, we can't really focus on geographies, now it becomes more about genres. We've seen the seventies birth the singer songwriters or the beginnings of hard rock, heavy metal, progressive rock, glam rock. We've got a couple of shows planned that will address very specific technological and cultural shifts like FM radio, how the live experience went from this very simple hard to hear, hard to see, small venue to giant spectacles and huge stadiums which happens in the 1970s. So, we have all these disparate story elements that we now need to put together which causes A, a lot more research, and B,  more story elements that have to be together. So, actually, the further it goes, the harder it gets.

Steve Waxman  You know, I'm happy that I went back to the first episode, because listening to it reminded me of a couple of things that that I experienced the first time I listened to it and one was an understanding, or at least the message that I got, whether or not this was what you were intending, was that "Strange Fruit" was really a song that made it possible for rock and roll to speak truth and that Ray Charles, with "Mess Around", was a sound that allow the sound to be born.

Christian Swain  That's very good. Yes, both those songs allowed a certain level of freedom that, obviously, white writers have picked up on later on. And the fact, as we know, Billie Holiday suffered a lot of slings and arrows for recording "Strange Fruit" and Ray Charles did, early in his career, by taking gospel and secularizing it and the church was none too happy about that because rock and roll has been, the finger has been pointed at it as some sort of music of the devil, if you will. And those two elements are some of the beginnings of what comes next.

Steve Waxman  I think that I want anybody that hasn't listened to the series yet, I want to encourage them to start at Episode One which is why I just want to say one more thing about Episode One that I think really sets the tone for what you guys do in terms of finding a unique way to tell stories that perhaps people think they already know.

Christian Swain  And we thought we already knew. We surprise ourselves all the time.

Steve Waxman  I really loved the way you told the Elvis story through Scotty Moore. I thought that was really really awesome that it's not Sam Phillips sitting there and discovering him and that story that everybody has talked about ad nauseum that you have Sam telling Scotty to check out this kid and the kid comes over to Scotty's house dressed to the nines, as far as rock and roll was concerned back then, and that Scotty recognized the talent, but the sound wasn't there. And then we get to the story about how the sound happened to emerge.

Christian Swain  Right. When they’re messing around with "That's Alright Mama" when Sam's taking a break and he overhears it and says, "Now that's the thing I'm looking for."

Steve Waxman  Yeah. So, from there, I think it then sets up, and I think that's part of what the way you end the episode, talking about the emergence of Elvis, it's a great tease into the next episode. And I think that really is the strength of the series. That you build a lot of education into the series and then it builds to a climax at the end of each episode. I feel somewhat fortunate, in as much as I didn't hear the first episode until six seven months ago because I was then able to then listen to every episode, one after another. And I think that for a good two weeks, that's all I listened to because they're long and they are dense. And I think the one of the things that people, and I and I would tell my friends all the time is you've got to listen to the series because I think the thing that's really interesting about the series, I think that's really been fulfilling to me is that you guys really explain what's happening in the culture, and how what's happening in the culture is impacting what's happening music.

Christian Swain  Yeah, you know, Richard and I have a little fun argument amongst ourselves, and that is, I say that this is a history show disguised as a music show and he says this is a music show disguised as a history show, and we're both correct. I was very insistent that we wanted to put the music in the context of the times, and that the late 20th century will be remembered as an evolutionary chain that this particular artform happened to be commenting on daily for seventy years now, and that's pretty extraordinary in human history. And so, that's part of why we called it rock and roll archaeology, because these are artifacts that we can now go back and, like digging up an ancient civilization or stripping away the jungle of a Mayan Temple, we start with the surface and then we start digging in and digging in and digging in and we find more and more interesting facets. Have you listened to the latest Episode, Episode Twenty?

Steve Waxman  Oh, I have my friend because, because the seventies is the greatest era of music.

Christian Swain  So, I won't spoil it for anybody but there are three characters that show up in the episode that we didn't, I knew one of them was there, for sure, I had read his story twenty years ago and so we kind of knew that but we didn't know the other two were there during those events, and that then gave us the through line of what to follow. And we've got some people that said, "What? Really,?" And so, it's definitely interesting to go back and find those things.

Steve Waxman  No, that was amazing to me. You know, it's funny because I was listening to it, and then I was like, 'Did I just hear them say,' and I'm not going to ruin it for anybody, 'Did I just hear them say this name. I gotta go back, like a minute here.' And it's like, wow, the circumstances, I mean it's a tiny world.

Christian Swain  Right, yes, it really is.

Steve Waxman    And that people that don't yet know each other are standing that close to each other,

Christian Swain  At a traumatic, world changing event.

Steve Waxman  Yeah, yeah. And people need to know too that it is not just guitar rock and roll that we're talking about. 

Christian Swain  Oh no, we believe that the rock and roll era includes all the music of the last seventy years, and as we've already introduced elements of blues and soul and even some early funk,  let's face it, the fact is all this music comes from black music. Period. End of story. And so we have to keep going back to that to show that the next iteration that's coming for white music, yeah, it probably started in black music. So, let's go and  expose that to people. And, you know, it's their struggle. That is the bones of this, the blues that we all owe a huge debt to. It's one of the greatest imports of America, and I can't imagine life without it.

Steve Waxman  That, to me, as somebody who grew up in Canada, having heard stories but just on the periphery and not having delved deep into a lot of literature. that  stories that you tell about Aretha, the stories that you tell about James Brown, in particular, I mean those stories were really inspirational to me and I have shared them with other people because I think that those stories can lift people up.

Christian Swain  Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I mean, especially James Brown. To come from just complete utter abject poverty in the deep South during the age of Jim Crow, and to have the struggles that he had as a child and as a teenager and then, just through force of will alone, to become one of the greatest superstars of all time. It's a pretty impressive story.

Steve Waxman  So, the episode that completely caught me off guard was Episode Nine, The Medium and The Message.

Christian Swain  (laughing) I knew that's where you're gonna go. 

Steve Waxman  Yeah. In terms of the series, that's the one outlier so far. I'm just wondering how you guys made the decision to go where you went with that episode.

Christian Swain  Because, and what we're talking about mostly is the drug LSD having a profound effect on society and the music business itself. You know, let's face it, musicians are more than prone to enhance their minds to find some new muse, if you can. And so, when this drug started to hit the streets in the mid sixties, it was hailed by the musicians, first and foremost. And as we go into the episode, the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters' acid tests played a prominent role in that. But we looked at LSD as a technology. It was a new technology that would literally expand your mind and provide new insight into music and we think we did a pretty good job of proving that with the main song that we really point to which is the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Steve Waxman  So, I don't want to, I mean we could go episode by episode and that's not what the interview is supposed to be but I do want to talk more about the process because these things are very very dense. I'm presuming that your show notes are all of the materials that you guys are looking at to create these episodes.

Christian Swain  Yeah, actually the attribution that we do provide has gotten the series to be used academically by many professors around the world,

Steve Waxman  How much work goes into each episode prior to even beginning to record?

Christian Swain  So, we do have a series Bible of this is where we think it's going to go. Each episode has taken us in different directions than what our assumptions were by doing the research. You know, we start off with an idea of 'Well, we think, because we've done a fair amount of reading, we've been involved in music for forty years in some way or another,' that we know the story. And as we dive deeper into the research, many times we find that we didn't understand it as well as we had or new information has come to light. There's a fair amount of that. I think people are more willing to dive deeper into those times, their lives, today than before. Let's face it, as we discussed here Episode Nine of rock culture, drug culture, they kind of go hand in hand. And, you know, it was very illegal back in the day, and so a lot of people didn't want to talk about those stories and, you know as a publicist yourself, as a professional, a lot of that was meant to be kept out of the papers and not exposed to disrupt the mythology that is being created for the particular artists but you know once you get to a certain age and your career has maybe waned, you're not writing hits anymore, I think people are more free to tell the stories as they are.  So we're picking up a lot of new information, but we have it planned out and we have adjusted our timeline a little bit to, while I would say 1995, I can still make a really good argument '95 is kind of the end of that. Windows 95 comes out and makes the PC ubiquitous. Napster arrives about two years later and that totally changes the music business. The rise of hip hop is taking over from rock and roll as the music of the street.  I can make some some good arguments, but, you know, the fact is that American Idiot, which comes out in 2004, is the last number one rock and roll, real rock and roll album to date and we're 15 years on now. That's probably never going to happen again, not unless some kid from Tik Tok does something that causes another song to reach the peak, I don't see that happening. Although I did just read a story yesterday that younger artists are complaining that these old artists are taking chart spots and they're streaming money away. When you've got a fifty year career, I guess, you've got a lot of product out there to compete with. But we have it planned down to the end. We kind of know where it's going. I think the first six, up through the Beatles episode, we knew those were going to be the episodes. We then realized that after the Beatles the story shifted and it became, as I said earlier, one of geography as the only way to tell it as opposed to personality. And now as we move into the seventies, we always knew we were kind of going to go genre specific. We knew that was going to happen. We're excited about the second half of the decade. We've lived that very much so we're really excited about getting there. Every time we do think we were like, "Oh,  the next one, it's gonna be easier. We know this because we were almost there or we were there." And then we get into it and the research says, maybe we didn't know everything that we thought we did. So, literally the mantra is follow the story wherever the story goes. That is our prime directive, if you will. But we have it planned out but everything is subject to change depending on the research.

Steve Waxman  To that extent, are there any stories that came up that surprised you and took you guys in a completely different direction, a left turn, that you didn't expect to go, you didn't plan on going?

Christian Swain  Wow, that's a great question. Um, yeah. The two episodes of 1969. That was a chore. The story got so big that we had to cut it into two long episodes. It's almost four hours of material between the two episodes and we're talking about one year. It's an eventful year, and it's a chaotic year. It's an inflection year. And as we say in the episode, we think it is peak America, and peak music. At that moment, you know, the Beatles are still doing some of their best work but they're beginning to wind down, The Stones now have really risen to the occasion, the Americans have fought back against the British Invasion and we now have a variety of a rock and roll scene out there with new action daily, and we're about the same age so I'm sure you remember that on a weekly basis we would get almost, what is now considered at least, a classic track if not a classic album, which is very foreign and in between these days. So, we just kind of felt that that was a big surprise and just how messy it was and in some ways the episodes reflect that. There was a promise and hope that the world would have been different and we express that in a quote from Charles Reich in the new episode from The Greening of America which came out in 1970 that culturally, this is going to win, politically, that'll be the last act. And I don't know, maybe we saw that yesterday.

Steve Waxman  So many podcasters that might be listening to this and many label people that might be listening to this would probably want me to ask you the question I'm about to ask you. How is it that you can use music in your episodes?

Christian Swain  Well, I mean, honestly, we hang our hat and feel that we have a strong case on fair use. All of the music that we do use is in context of the times and the story of the people. And we, at the same time, know that this presentation is causing our listeners to consume a lot more music. I get emails all the time from people saying, 'You know, your latest episode reminded me of so and so and I just gobbled up his whole catalogue.' So, we feel, and this goes beyond that just the show itself, and I'm sure we'll talk about that in a bit about how Rock and Roll Archeology spawned an entire network of now, almost, 70 podcasts on it. And so, we know that we are kind of like the old music store clerk, who snidely told you what the best records were, the music writers in magazines that are dead or dying, and the FM disc jockey, who played you those songs the first time and told you their stories. So, we're combining those three elements to promote this particular show, music of the past, back catalogue, but with many of our other shows with current music. And so, we feel that we're in a situation that's similar to a commentator of movie reviews, if you will, and you can play a sample of the movie saying here's what I'm talking about to put it in context. At the same time, the podcasting industry is kind of the Wild West when it comes to that, although we are working with rights holders and content ID companies. We're figuring out a licensing structure that would facilitate the use of music and podcasting. It's complicated. It's in process. I can't really talk about details, but it is all being worked on. Because this is a future of music marketing.

Steve Waxman  Now, you have alluded to the Pantheon Network here. And it's born out of Rock and Roll Archaeology?

Christian Swain  Yeah, certainly. Everything starts with Rock and Roll Archeology. That's the foundation. 

Steve Waxman  So there was no Pantheon before you opened the doors? Opened Pandora's box?

Christian Swain  Yeah, yeah, Pantheon home of the gods don't forget. So what happened was we put Rock and Roll Archaeology out there and, as we've already discussed, it takes us a while to put out each episode. We try our best to put them out as quickly as we can but, at the same time, they take what they take. We're not going to put out an incomplete show. Until we believe the research is set, we believe the writing is solid, we believe that production is perfect, it doesn't go up. I can make all the promises in the world, it doesn't matter. The fact is that the end result is time. And the audience will respect the quality over quantity. So, because it takes us so long to do that, we started getting lovingly hate mail, I would call it, saying, 'Why does it take so long?' Finally, literally there was one person, I wish I could remember, there was somebody who said, 'Can't you do something else in between?' And I was like, oh, yeah, we can, yeah we can do something else in between. In the meantime, we brought on another one of my partners, Peter  Ferioli, who kind of came on as a marketing guy for Rock and Roll Archaeology to get us out in the world. And Peter and I got along so well that when that came up, we said 'Well, let's start making some other shows.' So, the first thing we did was we did a couple of recap shows. We did one for HBO's Vinyl, a very expensive one season take on rock and roll from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger and others that failed. But it was dense. It was as dense as our show was with music, and it was fun to do that. Showtime did Cameron Crowe's Roadies, and we did a recap show on that. Again, it only lasted one season. I was doing interviews because of the research, anyway so I turned that into a professional show called Deeper Digs and then, all of a sudden, we had about six organically grown shows. And we went to a podcast function, Podcast Movement and the big buzzword that year was "Networks"and Peter and I looked at each other and said, "Hey, I think we've got a network." So we decided, in 2019, to really focus on that, Peter and I outside of Rock and Roll Archaeology, to build up a community of like minded individuals of what we did with Rock and Roll Archaeology and lo and behold we now have almost seventy shows.

Steve Waxman  So what are some of the bigger shows that you have on the network?

Christian Swain   Well, now I'm gonna play favorites. That's not good.

Steve Waxman  (laughing) What's the point of having children if you’re not going to pick favourites?

Christian Swain  True, true. I mean, a lot of all of our shows are great. We appreciate all of our hosts. We either brought them on because it fit a need for what we're looking for. We intend for Pantheon to be not just rock and roll just like Rock and Roll Archaeology is not just rock and roll, it is all forms of music out there. But, some of my personal favorites is Pamela Des Barres’ Pajama Party, the most famous groupie of them all has her own podcast. We helped create and produce it for her, and she's fantastic on it. And conversely, we also brought Pleasant Gehman and Pamela and Pleasant know each other and Pleasant was a writer at the LA Weekly, and was very much in the punk scene. A fun little fact for me is that last year two documentaries, music documentaries which are on top 10 lists feature both Pamela and Pleasant. Pamela in the new Frank Zappa documentary.  Miss P was Moon Unit's babysitter. That's how she kind of got involved in the Frank world and part of the GTOs and all that. And then Pleasant Gehman almost plays the same sort of role in the Go Go's documentary. So those are fun and nice for me to see some of our hosts getting some airplay out there. History In Five Songs is a great show for us. And I bring it up because Martin Popoff is out of Toronto, Canada. He has written over eighty books. He focuses mostly on hard rock and metal, and it's a pretty easy great show to digest. It's some topic that he kind of picks out of the air and then he has got this encyclopedic knowledge and can literally extemporaneously just wax on about any subject in that hard rock and heavy metal world, and then he picks five songs to prove his case. So that's a fun, fun show out there. One of my recent favorites is Bob Dylan About Man and God and Law, which is produced and hosted by Dr. Stephen Arnoff out of University of Jerusalem, and he dives deep into the cultural significance of Bob Dylan and his music lyrics and how that fits in with the times. And in fact, as the good doctor is more than willing to say that show is a direct inspiration from Rock and Roll Archaeology.

Steve Waxman  In closing, what do you see as the future for Pantheon? I mean, the Rock and Roll Archaeology project is probably going to last a few more years. I would imagine. Yeah. Till you guys get to 1995.

Christian Swain  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Steve Waxman  How much further growth, do you see in Pantheon?

Christian Swain  Well, first of all, on Rock and Roll Archaeology, A, number one, once we get to '95 we can go back and dive deeper into various areas or subjects. We wouldn't do it chronologically like we're doing now. So there is always a future for that show out there. As far as Pantheon is concerned, we are the largest music oriented Podcast Network in existence and music has gone from the last in subject matter for podcasting to number one in the last year. So, we feel that we're in a great position to be the future of music discovery. A lot of people complain about algorithms as the form of music discovery. And I don't know about you, but I never had a machine tell me what the music was going to be. I had a person usually tell me what your music was going to be. And unless there was some sort of reasoning behind that choice. I may skip it. But if there's a good reason for it, then I might take that person's suggestion, and end up being a new fan for a new band. So, we see this all the time with all of our shows that we are a new form of music discovery out there. The word of mouth type of discovery, and I think that's a big future for Pantheon. We plan on trying to tell as many music stories from as many disparate diverse voices as we possibly can. And I think that's our future. Back to Rock and Roll Archaeology, we have signed with a production company in LA to help turn this into a visual documentary on the streaming services and we just recently finished all of the needed paperwork and series Bible and the pitch video and deck and anything else and so we're now actively pitching that and we see that with some of our other shows. We see live opportunities with all of our shows. I just think the future is very bright and going to be extremely exciting for us for the next ten years.

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I hope that you enjoyed my interview with Christian. If you have even the slightest interest in the history of music, culture and technology and how they collided in the 20th century, I can't recommend the Rock and Roll Archaeology podcast enough but do yourself a favour and start at episode one. You can find this and all of the other Pantheon shows wherever you listen to podcasts or at