Rock and Roll Isn’t Dead

Paul wasn't even dead yet.

Pictured: Not a funeral

Rock and roll itself is an expression of the creative commercial cycle I mentioned above, acting more broadly within the entire music industry rather than just one genre.  As the pre-baby boomers hit adolescence in the late jazz-swing age, a lot of what was going on then had been watered down and made mainstream. So they did what teenagers always do and went looking for things to do that scared their parents.  At that time and place, the answer to this question was, largely, “black people.”

In the post-war era, you had a nation of affluent white kids with nothing but time, most of them with transportation, and a whole lot of curiosity about the world around them, all of this in a personal context of testing authority, establishing individuality, and of course emerging sexuality.  They started finding the places their parents didn’t tell them about, and a few of the more adventurous ones would go to another place farther down the road that they heard about at the first place, and suddenly you had this huge new audience being turned on to the blues and juke joints and that whole world that they had barely, if at all, even heard about before.

And they came back to the Andrews Sisters and Peggy Lee and Dinah Shore and it was all so bland and dull and done. And hearing those old cats in sweaty dives full of people dancing and drinking and oozing against each other, all that talk about rockin’ and rollin’ and shakin’ and rattlin’…well, it was definitely a more reliable aphrodisiac than the top-40 hit of 1948, “The Woody Woodpecker Song,” and if there’s ever been a sure-fire way to create a cultural phenomenon, it’s to be sure that it can get people laid.

So the blues and original R&B started influencing a wider audience, and we discovered how many different wonderful euphemisms there were for having sex, throw in a little jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie, and boom, rock and roll – itself an “opposite reaction” to the drollery that was passing for popular music in the late 1940’s, and an “equal reaction” to what was happening on the musical underground from Clarksdale to Birdland.  You got Bill Haley rocking around the clock, Buddy Holly studiously redefining his instrument somewhere in west Texas.  You got the WTF reaction in Little Richard and Gene Vincent.  And you got the money reaction in all of them, mostly of course Elvis Presley.

Immediately of course the money-men rolled in and started trying to manufacture this organic substance while also doing all they could to commercialize and profit from those who led the pack, which created some negative effects on their work whether from excess, bad stewardship, or just plain bad luck.  So you had that explosion around 1951-53, and then it resonated.

As it resonated the equal reactions came, and also the opposite:  the soft-schlock of Andy Williams and Pat Boone pop songs featuring teenagers singing love songs in a nice harmony.  The schlock started taking over the mainstream – just as it had in the late 40’s – and you heard the first dirge called:  “Rock and Roll is dead!”  An executive at Decca records famously remarked that “guitar groups are on their way out,” by way of rejecting from consideration by their label a little group of four kids who had been heavily influenced by early American rock and roll and wanted to try their hand.   Decca passed on them because rock and roll was dead.

As it turned out that group, the Beatles, was a major player in the next wave of life in rock and roll, as you had somewhat simultaneous breaks from the bland direction music had been going with the British Invasion and Motown.

Elvis was repackaged from a laid-back southern boy with a wide streak of overtly sexual flirtatiousness into a smoothly airbrushed facade on racetracks and Hawaiian islands all over the movies.  Black music was relegated largely to doo-wop groups again, in spite of some breakthroughs like Chuck Berry and Little Richard maintaining some level of prominence and popularity.  Not that they were bad, mind you, but they were safe.  Nothing like the blues, although some blues artists like “Big Mama” Thornton and B.B. King enjoyed some prominence.  But overall the picture of the music world in the late 50’s and early 60’s in terms of what was commercially successful and accessible was a picture of the establishment trying to toothpaste back in the tube.

The results were about what you’d expect.  Teenagers kept listening to what they wanted, while the first wave of stars collapsed under their own weight or lapsed into artistically shallow banality.  Then you started hearing different things from all directions, and the big explosion bands happened from that – the Beatles and the Stones and the Beach Boys, who collectively set the template for rock music that hasn’t changed radically since.

And just as soon as – or in some cases at the same time as – those bands started breaking, musicians like Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were looking in to the back catalogs of old American blues artists that were barely noticed here in their heyday, and sure enough the cycle repeated and quickly this time.  The new dogs got well fed and big and healthy and sometimes collapsed under their own weight and their sound got watered down and commercialized and turned into jingles.  This generated an “opposite reaction,” folks like Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield rise and give spark very quickly to acts like Zep, Sabbath, Yes, Genesis, another HUGE explosion of creativity during the very last years of the Beatles and the first few years of the 1970’s.

I bet you can guess how that turned out, but I’ll tell you on the next page.