November 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

The Real Stories Behind Rock’s Biggest Moments, Now on iOS

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One of the greatest things the web has done for music fans is archive our extensive music history. Thanks to YouTube, Wolfgang’s Vault, the John Peel Archive, and countless other music apps, we have unprecedented access to live footage, rare interviews, vintage memorabilia, and actual music, which might otherwise have gone missing.

The new iPhone/iPad app iWitness Reports ($3), created by This Day In Music Apps, puts a new spin on digital music archiving by chronicling some of rock and pop’s most historical moments, culled from the memories of the people who actually lived them.

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The Discovery of Kate Bush

The stories in this app, compiled by music writer Johnny Black (Mojo, Q, Smash Hits, The Times, eMusic), provide intimate details to which we would otherwise not be privy, using a combination of text and images. Sun Records’ Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley recount the rocky recording of the latter’s first record. EMI’s former managing director Bob Mercer and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour remember the discovery and training of a young Kate Bush. Television guitarist Richard Lloyd even spills the beans on Patti Smith’s crush during the early days of CBGB’s.

We were excited by the prospect of this app and it did not disappoint. In addition to the above stories, the app also chronicles Eddie Cochran’s final days, the making of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, The Clash’s 1979 North American tour, and several more — a total of twenty-one rock/pop legends in all, sure to make you a smarter music fan.

The clean and user-friendly interface allows you to get right down to these fascinating accounts. The app is light on photos and graphics, and there’s no audio or video, which is a bit of a let-down, but we were impressed with how the text managed to be unoppressive. Additional features include interactive Google maps of each event’s exact location and links to iTunes so you can purchase music from the included artists.

Curious about the making of the app and possible additions to the app, we asked Johnny Black some questions. Here’s what he had to say (edited for length and clarity):

Aarti Kelapure, How did the idea for the iWitness Reports app come about? What was your goal in creating this app?

johnny black

Music journalist Johnny Black

Johnny Black: In about 1990, I started writing monthly features for Q magazine here in the UK under the generic heading Eye Witness. The idea was to tell the stories of the great moments in popular music through the words of the people who were there at the time. Around the same time, I was doing a monthly series in Mojo called Time Machine where I would examine in detail the events of a specific month in music history.

It soon occurred to me that if I simply added all of these features, Eyewitness and Time Machine, into one Word folder, I’d eventually build the biggest and most detailed oral history of popular music ever conceived.

Back in the early ’90s, I knew nothing about the web, so the idea was simply to use this info for my own research as a journalist. About five years ago, a computer-literate friend suggested that I could begin to put my data online, thus making it more searchable and available to anyone anywhere in the world who wanted it. The result was – the world biggest – and ever-growing – online archive of date-sorted popular music info. (Although what you can see online is a tiny fraction of what we have in our mother database.)

Neil Cossar of This Day In Music approached me about a year ago to work on turning some of my Eye Witness features into an app, which you have now seen. What was appealing about the mobile app format?

Black: We can reach a huge global audience which has never seen these features before. We can [also] target an expanding market which the app business hasn’t really focused on yet — the slightly older, more literate, music lover who wants to dig deeper into the music he/she loves. iWitness is not like a magazine which deals with the ephemeral ever-changing contemporary music scene. iWitness is the very architecture of popular music, an enduring, thought-provoking, in-depth chronicling and examining of the history of the music which has shaped the lives of generations. We’re also committed to creating the same kinds of features for contemporary artists — but it may take a few years before we’ll know which of them are going to be the evergreens. The stories included in this app chronicle some of rock and pop’s most historical moments as told by those who lived them. Can you tell us about the process of compiling these stories? Have you included quotes from your own interviews?

Black: The stories were initiated by brainstorming with my editors at Q and Mojo (and now at Classic Rock) to decide which of the great rock stories would benefit from being re-told in the words of those who were there. The over-riding principle is that an oral history can eliminate the pretentious journalistic waffle that has burdened any serious attempt to chronicle the music for several decades now. You won’t find me, or anybody in iWitness, speculating on what Bob Dylan may or may not have meant when he sang ‘I want you, honey I want you, honey I want you, so bad’ (except perhaps the artists themselves, from time to time). Mostly, we’re just trying to clarify the facts as remembered by those who were there.

Each month, once we’d decided which feature I’d do, I would begin by tracking down as many pre-existing quotes as I could (not as easy in the early ’90s as it is now) and then tracking down the people involved to get fresh material. And it’s not just the artists — I tracked down the minister who married Michael Jackson in his secret wedding ceremony. I’ve tracked down managers, producers, engineers, tea boys, cleaning ladies, pub landlords — anybody who could tell the stories first-hand. I’ve recently tracked down the people who were in the Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan, on the night when Keith Moon of The Who definitely did not drive a car into the swimming pool. That’ll be in the first expanded edition of the app.

So, yes, a lot of the quotes were harvested live by me, and others were found in the archives of rock publications over the years. (I work in a basement full of chronologically sorted boxfuls of old music papers.) What makes this app different from reading interviews you’ve conducted or other stories that are archived on various websites like Rock’s Backpages or Rock Source Archive?

Black: The app makes the stories available in a fully portable, better-looking, more readable format, and the links to Google Maps are great for helping readers get a geographical picture of where the stories take place. There’s nowhere else to find these features so coherently collected together.

Several of the features include new data which I either didn’t have when the feature was first published, or which was cut for space reasons in the magazines.

As time goes on and the app expands, there will be features which have never previously appeared anywhere. Can you briefly tell us about any forthcoming stories we can look forward to reading about in the app?

Black: Yup. Keith Moon doesn’t drive a car into a swimming pool. The history of The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. Making the first Velvet Underground Album. Several Eye Witness features on Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Altamont. The Death Of Eddie Cochran. The Kidnapping of Jimi Hendrix —  the list goes on and on.