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First published in 1970 in Great Britain by Paladin Press, in St. Albans, Herts, UK. Revised edition published by Paladin Press in 1973.
This edition is published by special arrangement with the Perseus Books Group
Published simultaneously in Canada Printed in the United States of America
FIRST GROVE PRESS EDITION
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cohn, Nik.
Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom : the golden age of rock / Nik Cohn.
Originally published: New York : Da Capo Press, 1996 (reprint of the ed published: England : Paladin, 1970 (1973 printing)).
1. Rock music—To 1961—History and criticism 2. Rock music— 1961-1970—History and criticism. I. Title.
NL3534 .C636 2001
New York, NY 10003
01 02 03 04 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Introduction by Kit Lambert 9
1 Roots 11
2 Bill Haley 18
3 Elvis Presley 23
4 Classic Rock 31
5 Highschool 52
6 Eddie Cochran 58
7 English Rock 61
8 Rue Morgue 75
9 The Twist 86
10 Spectorsound 93
11 California 99
12 Soul 109
13 The Beatles 129
14 Merseybeat 147
15 The Rolling Stones 150
16 R&B England 162
17 Bob Dylan 168
18 The Who 175
19 England After The Beatles: Mod 182
20 P. J. Proby 196
21 America After The Beatles: Anglophilia, Bacharach and Folk/Rock 202
22 The Monkees 214
23 Love 218
24 England 1966 228
25 Ending 241
26 Afterthoughts 244
Introduction (page 9)
Nik Cohn has chosen a grim and appropriate moment to make this brilliantly clear, aerial survey of the Pop World. Out in the audience, too many British teenagers are listening dutifully to their Government-approved diet of ballads and recipes: on stage, the scene is a little brighter. Key musicians are playing for other key musicians. The Beatles and the Stones, seemingly, have become too vast and trunkless ever to play at all. I hope this book will not be thought of in five years* time as the definitive history of a forgotten age. Fortunately, Nik is no obituarist: anyway, if he did write your obituary you’d be better off dead.
He showed up about 1965. The Beatles were into their first million, the disgruntled Rolling Stones were touring USA circuses, billed virtually as a freak show, and a nervous Carnaby Street tailor had just refused to put his scissors into a large Union Jack, which was meant to wind up as stage- clothes for the Who, when a thin young man - he looked about 14 - wearing carefully dirtied-down sneakers, grabbed me in Wardour Street and informed me that he was writing an article for the Sunday Times. I believed him a lot. He landed up in a Chinese restaurant, interviewing the Merseybeats.
But a major article did appear quite soon in the Sunday Times. It revealed a knowledge of Pop (and a rudeness about it) which was fairly frightening. Then came a series of tough and highly partisan record reviews in Queen. He mastered the art of the loving clinch which turned into the killing punch, making enemies along the line. There were accusations of intellectual - even cash - payola. But Nik just got forgiven without getting cynical.
He has been described as the speed-writer of Pop. Halfmartyr to his own myth, he sprints across the gilded landscape, although his feet are bleeding inside the carefully dirtied- down sneakers. At least, I hope they arc: you see he is very bright, he knows too much and he still doesn’t shave.
Co-manager of the Who
Co-director of Track Records
1 Roots (page 11)
Modern pop began with rock ’n’ roll in the middle fifties and, basically, it was a mixture of two traditions - Negro rhythm 'n' blues and white romantic crooning, coloured beat and white sentiment.
What was new about it was its aggression, its sexuality, its sheer noise and most of this came from its beat. This was bigger and louder than any beat before it, simply because it was amplified. Mostly, pop boiled down to electric guitars.
Of course, electric guitars were nothing new in themselves - they had been around for years in jazz and R&B and had even been featured on some white hits, notably those by Les Paul, but they had never been used as bedrock, as the basis of a whole music. Crude, powerful, infinitely loud, they came on like space-age musical monsters and, immediately, they wiped out all of the politeness that had gone before.
Pre-pop, from the thirties on, dance music had got bogged down in the palais age - the golden era of the big bands, when everything was soft, warm, sentimental, when everything was make-believe.
It’s one of the cliched laws of showbiz that entertainment gets sloppy when times get tough and, what with the depression, the war and its aftermath, times had gotten very tough indeed. Hemmed in by their lives, people needed to cling tight in the dark of dancehalls, to be reassured, to feel safe again. Reality they could very well do without.
Always, that’s the kind of situation that Tin Pan Alley thrives on and songs about moonlight, stardust, roses and bleeding hearts were duly churned out by the truckload. The big bands lined up strict and formal in penguin suits, the crooners slicked their hair back heavy with grease, the close harmony groups went oo-wah oo-wah in the background and everybody danced. It was warm and snug like a blanket.
Sometimes, the palais age caught an odd freshness, an innocence, an atmosphere a bit like a Fred Astaire film. But when it was bad, which was almost always, it was only dire.
The worst thing was that it all dragged on so long without changing. Most dance eras last a few years, a decade at most, but the war froze everything as it was, gave the big bands a second life and, by the early fifties, the scene had come to a standstill.
All this time, the music industry was controlled by middle- aged business men, uninterested in change of any kind, and they were making money as things were, so they made no effort to find anything very new. They’d switch a few details, dream up some small novelty gimmick and leave it at that. And the only reason they got away with it was that nobody offered any alternatives. Mostly, showbiz survived on habit.
There was no such thing as teenage music then, nothing that kids could possibly identify with. The business was structured in such a way that singers were generally well into their thirties by the time they made it. There’d be occasional novelties, cute comedies, but basically teenagers had to put up with the same songs that their parents liked.
The nearest thing to an exception was Frank Sinatra.
In the early forties, when he first happened, Sinatra was still in his middle twenties, a novice by the standards of that time, and he was the first heart-throb.
He was hardly a teen idol - he was a conventional balladeer, he was backed by an ordinary big band, he sang the same songs as everyone else. But he was also good looking, he had soulful eyes, and almost all of his fans were women. They swooned for him, rioted for him, even screamed for him, and this was something new. Of course, film stars had always been treated like that. Sinatra was the first singer to join them, that’s all.
As a prototype for pop, though, Johnnie Ray was much closer, the Nabob of Sob, the Million Dollar Teardrop himself. If Elvis Presley was the great pop messiah, Ray played John the Baptist.
Born in Oregon, 1927, he was tossed high in a blanket at the age of ten, landing on his head which affected his hearing. According to his hand-outs, he also changed from a happy, well-adjusted child into a full-time introvert, solitary and sad. At any rate, by the time he became a singer, he was wearing his neuroses like a badge. The gimmick was that, when he got towards the climax of his stage act, he would collapse into helpless sobs. Not just once or twice but every time he performed. It was a ritual.
1952 was his big breakthrough year and the record that did the trick was a double-sider, The Little White Cloud That Cried on one side and just plain Cry on the other, titles that more or less summed him up.
Anyhow, he caused riots, real live ones - he had his clothes ripped off, his flesh tom, his hair rumpled, and the police kept having to rescue him. He sang the same trash as anyone else, but he contorted himself, buckled and gulped, and that released an intensity of aggression that nobody else had stirred.
Johnnie Ray himself upped his earnings to four thousand dollars a week and sold records by the million. All this time, he did nothing but cry. ‘I’ve no talent, still sing as flat as a table,’ he said, ‘I’m a sort of human spaniel: people come to see what I’m like. I make them feel, I exhaust them, I destroy them.’
He was underrating himself. He couldn’t sing, true enough, but he generated more intensity than any performer I ever saw in my life, Judy Garland excepted, and it was impossible not to feel involved with him.
He was a very skinny man and, when he moved, his limbs jerked out sideways as clumsily as a puppet’s. He’d start his act slowly, out of tune, and he’d be almost laughable, whining and amateurish, gangling around the stage like some fevered crab. But then, just when you’d dismissed him, he’d launch himself into one of his major agonized ballads and suddenly everything would come alive.
He’d hunch up tight into himself, choke on his words, gasp, stagger, beat his fist against his breast, squirm, fall forward on to his knees and, finally, burst into tears. He’d gag, tremble, half strangle himself. He’d pull out every last outrageous ham trick in the book and he would be comic, embarrassing, painful, but still he worked because, under the crap, he was in real agony, he was burning, and it was traumatic to watch him. He’d spew himself up in front of you and you’d freeze, you’d sweat, you’d be hurt yourself. You’d want to look away and you couldn’t.
Frail as he was, thin and deaf and sickly, his fans would be twisted into paroxysms of maternal hysteria by him and they’d half kill him. All round, it was the kind of orgiastic exhibition that simply hadn’t happened before and it was entirely pop. The music wasn’t, the atmosphere was.
Ironically, considering that he’d helped pave the way for pop, he was destroyed by it. As soon as rock came in, he sounded hopelessly back-dated and melodramatic. Soon he stopped having hits. He kept on touring but he sagged.
Still, he keeps going and, when he turns it on, he’s as fierce and agonized as he ever was.
All the time that moonglow ballads were dominating the white market, coloured music, as always, was bossed by the blues. The old country blues, raw and ragged and often wildly emotional, had been increasingly replaced by rowdy big city blues, by electric guitars and saxes and, right through the forties and early fifties, the movement had been towards more noise, more excitement. Beat came in, passion went out and, somewhere along the line, the new style became known as rhythm ’n’ blues, R&B.
What this actually involved was a small band, five or six pieces, maybe more, belting out a succession of fast twelve bars. Styles varied, of course, but generally the trend was towards the jump blues, loose-limbed stuff played by people like Louis Jordan, Lloyd Price, Wynonie ‘Mr Blues' Harris and Fats Domino.
It was good-time music, danceable and unpretentious and, by comparison with the mushiness of white music in the same period, it was like a window opened to let some bad air out.
In particular, it was straight about sex, it used no euphemisms about hearts and roses. A lot of the time, in fact, it was downright filthy - Hank Ballard’s Work With Me Annie, Billy Ward’s Sixty Minute Man and the Penguins’ Baby Let Me Bang Your Box were typical. All of them were big hits in the R&B charts and, predictably, all of them got banned by the white radio stations.
Just the same, R&B somehow began to filter through to white kids and they liked it. In 1951, a DJ called Alan Freed launched a series of rhythm reviews at the Cleveland Arena and immediately drew crowds three times as big as the venue capacity.
These shows featured coloured acts but were aimed at predominantly white audiences and, to avoid what he called ‘the racial stigma of the old classification’, Freed dropped the term R&B and invented the phrase Rock ’n’ Roll instead.
Right through the early fifties, however, white stations persisted in blocking R&B off their airways and the biggest names were still people like Doris Day, Perry Como and Frankie Laine.
Black hit songs were usually covered and castrated for the white market - Pat Boone did Fats Domino’s Aint That A Shame, for instance, and Dorothy Collins assassinated Clyde McPhatter’s Seven Days - and even multi-million R&B sellers like Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and Bo Diddley never made the pop charts.
Pop and R&B apart, there was also, throughout the South, a massive market in Country ’n’ Western, jogalong stuff to be sung through the nose. In England, this was thought of as cowboy music and it didn’t sell much. But in the States, people like Hank Williams, Slim Whitman, Eddy Arnold and Tennessee’s Ernie Ford rated as big as anyone.
Each of these musics - country and R&B and Tin Pan Alley - had its own hit parade. Sometimes, of course, these would intertwine - La Verne Baker’s Tweedly Dee was a hit in both pop and R&B markets - but mostly they ran independently and it was quite possible for someone like Eddy Arnold, say, to sell fifty million records and still mean hardly anything on the national charts.
So these were the musical ingredients that made pop happen - the white ballad tradition, the exhibitionism introduced by Johnnie Ray, the elaborate sentimentality of C&W, the amplified gut-beat of R&B. Between them, they would have been enough to produce a major craze and what made rock ‘n’ roll more than a craze, what turned it into a small social revolution, was nothing to do with music.
Basically, it all came down to the fact that with fuller employment, teenagers now had money to waste. If they were white, if they came out of anything but the worst slums, they weren’t going to be hungry. More likely, they were going to get solid jobs and make money. They were even going to get time to spend it in.
Even more important than any factual economic changes was the shift in atmosphere. For thirty years back, in both America and Britain, most working-class kids had come out of schools with a built-in sense of defeat. They might be headed for some dead-end job, they might be sent off to win wars, they might wind up in dole queues. Whatever happened, they weren’t going to have much fun.
By comparison, the fifties were lush. Of course, there was always the chance that everyone would get blown sky-high by an H-bomb but that was too huge a concept to be really frightening and, at least, there was no depression now, no blitz, no rationing. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping afloat any more - teenagers could begin to call cards.
The only snag was that, when they went looking for things to spend their new-found bread on, they found absolutely nothing. They had no music of their own, no clothes or clubs, no tribal identity. Everything had to be shared with adults.
It was tough. After all this time, teenagers had finally made it through to the promised land and they’d found it barren. Definitely, it was frustrating. They had all this money, nothing to do with it and they went spare.
Always, the moment of maximum revolt comes just when things are beginning to get better, when the first liberalization sets in. When kids had had nothing at all, they had somehow accepted it. Now that life was easier, they began to riot.
Juvenile delinquency became all the rage. In Britain, Teddy boys came in and they dressed like Edwardians, drainpipe jeans and pointed shoes and three-quarter coats, and they wore their hair heavy with grease.
They weren’t quite like any movement that had happened in earlier decades. There were so many of them and they were so aimless - they’d roam around in packs, brawling and smashing at random. A bit later, they dressed up in black leather and rode motorbikes. And all they did was to break things, windows and locks and bones. There was nothing else to do and, right through the fifties, the Teds held command, they were the only action going. If you didn’t want to join them, you had to sit indoors and vegetate.
There was something else: businessmen had never before seen teenagers as independent commercial units, as having entirely separate needs and tastes from the rest of the community. Now the possibilities hit them like a prophetic vision and they moved in fast, fawning like mad.
Predictably, kids bought just about anything that was put in front of them - motorbikes, blue jeans, hair oils, ponytails, milkshakes and, most of all, music. All you had to do was label something Teen and they had to have it.
In music, the one snag was that the record companies had no idea what teenagers really wanted. All they could do was to release noise by the ton and see what caught on best. In this way, it would only take time before they struck gold.
This was solid thinking: in April 1954, an ageing Country *n’ Western singer called Bill Haley made a record called Rock Around The Clock. By 1955 it was a hit in America and then it was a hit in Britain and then it was a hit all over the world. And it just kept on selling, it wouldn’t quit. It stayed in the charts for one year solid.
By the time it was finished, it had sold fifteen million copies. It had also started pop.
2 Bill Haley (page 18)
Bill Haley was large and chubby and baby-faced. He had a kiss curl like a big C slapped down on his forehead with grease and water, and he was paunchy. When he sang, he grinned hugely and endlessly, but his eyes didn’t focus on anything. Then he was almost thirty, married, father of five children. Definitely, he was unlikely hero food.
Just the same, he was the first boss of rock. At his peak, he made a film called Rock Around The Clock and, when it was shown here in the summer of 1956, audiences danced in the aisles, ripped up cinema seats, hit each other and destroyed anything they could lay their hands on. In one shot, it crystallized the entire rock rebellion.
The main plot of the film was that Bill Haley grinned. He picked his guitar and his kiss curl wobbled. He sang the title song and the beat stoked up and Teds everywhere went berserk.
Teds wore drainpipe jeans, three-quarter length jackets, winkle pickers, Mississippi string ties and, mostly, they were small, skinny, spotty. They’d been nourished on rationing and tended to be underfed, rat-faced. At any rate, as teenage movements go, they were the least attractive, most malicious ever and, when roused, they took out their flick knives and stabbed each other. Because of this, Rock Around The Clock was banned in some towns.
Up to now, the Teds had been very much a minority but, once they’d rioted, the press discovered them as copy, decided that they spelled full-scale revolution. For the first time, the concept of Teenager was used as news, as a major selling point and, in no time, everyone else was up on the band-wagon. Churchmen offered spiritual comfort, psychologists explained, magistrates got tough, parents panicked, businessmen became rich and rock exploded into a central issue.
Of course, teenagers weren’t slow to respond. There were more riots, more knives, even a few killings. And the papers hollered harder, the panic got greater, the circle kept spinning and suddenly the generation war was open fact. It wasn’t an undertone, it wasn’t just a novelty any more. It really mattered. Above all, it meant money.
As for Bill Haley, he was a trouper and kept right on grinning. Bom in the suburbs of Detroit, 1927, he’d been playing guitar for a dollar a night from the age of thirteen up. Later, he fronted a Country ’n’ Western group and buzzed around the Mid-West, busily getting nowhere. Then he put in six years playing on a small-time radio station until finally, around 1951, he got wise, abandoned country music for good and swung across to commercial R&B.
First, he listened hard to the biggest-selling coloured blues of the time, Louis Jordan and Wynonic Harris, and copied the beat. Second, he watered down the lyrics, the sexuality of the original and made it acceptable to white audiences. Third, he changed his group’s name to the Comets (‘It sounded kind of far-out, wild’) and worked out some acrobatic stage routines. Then he got moving.
In 1951, under his new format, he had a minor success with Rock The Joint. The next year he did even better with Crazy, Man, Crazy and, in 1954, he finally made it big with Shake, Rattle and Roll. Later that same year he made Rock Around the Clock, which was a cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s big hit in the R&B charts.
Musically, it was all pretty dire. Haley was a fair country guitarist but he wasn’t remotely a singer and his Comets sounded like they all had concrete boots. The beat was lumpish, dull. Alone of all the early rockers, Haley has no charm now, not even nostalgia value - Rock Around The Clock became a minor hit again in 1968 but to me, it just sounded period bad.
Rock Around The Clock was no better and no worse than most of his work. The song was laughable, the arrangement non-existent but the beat was there and Haley shouted quite loud. In honesty, it was a dog but it was also first and that’s where it won. It had no competition.
Originally, it sold as a novelty, as a joke almost. Then the press took it up, hammered it, called it anti-music and suddenly it became a big generation symbol, a social phenomenon on its own. By the end, it was the source of an entire new music and Haley was automatically leader. He’d been lucky, of course, but he’d been around a long time and no one could reasonably begrudge him his break.
Soon, he was featured in a film called Blackboard Jungle, a corny old soapbox about juvenile delinquency and generalized teen hang-up. The opening sequence showed schoolkids jiving debauchedly in the playground and Haley was singing Rock Around The Clock on soundtrack. It all helped - the film was successful, caused fuss, helped sell records. Above all, it cemented the fiction of a uniquely teenage way of life with Bill Haley as its leader.
Through 1955 and on into 1956, he held complete control. He racked up another million seller with See You Later Alligator, had another monster film in Don't Knock The Rock. And he was everything - singer, face, prophet, explorer - and no one else counted. But all the time he was on a rain- check, he was doomed. He’d jumped the gun and he was ahead only as long as it took the rest of the field, younger, tougher, sexier, to catch him and swamp him.
Don't Knock The Rock was the signal. It was Bill Haley’s film but he lost it, he had it torn right out of his hands by Little Richard, a guaranteed genuine rock howler out of Macon, Georgia. Little Richard was the real thing. Bill Haley wasn’t. Haley kept grinning but he sounded limp by comparison, looked downright foolish.
But what really did him in was the coming of Elvis Presley. The moment that Elvis had cut Heartbreak Hotel, Haley was lost. Suddenly his audience saw him as he was - ageing, married, corny, square, deeply boring - and that was that. Within a year, he couldn’t get a hit to save his life. It was cruel, of course. It was also inevitable.
In early 1957, he toured England. By this time, he was already sagging on the ropes in America but Britain hadn’t yet caught on and his arrival spelled bonanza time. He rode from Southampton to London in state on the Bill Haley Special, laid on for him by the Daily Mirror and, at Waterloo, he was met by three thousand fans, many of whom had waited all day for him. He grinned. ‘It’s wonderful to be here,’ he said. ‘I’m going to like England just fme. I only hope it likes me back.* The only stroke he missed was the bit about our English policemen being wonderful.
On 12 February he played the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road. It was the prototype of all pop concerts since. The music was drowned out by screaming, whistling, stamping, roaring and the gallery shook so much that people below could see the floor buckling above their heads. All you could hear was the beat, the amplification, the non-stop thump. The big beat, the monster. That was all there was.
The only trouble was Haley himself. Instead of a space- age rocker, all arrogant and mean and huge, he turned out to be a back-dated vaudeville act. The saxophonist squealed, honked and leaned over backwards until his body was parallel with the floor, his head almost touching the stage, him blowing madly all the time. The bass player lay on his instrument, climbed up it, used it like a trampoline. Haley grinned. It was slapstick, knockabout. It was pure embarrassment. And the audience was too pre-hyped to turn against it at the time; but when it was over, when the shouting and stamping had all died down, everyone finally had to face facts and Haley was through.
It was really quite bitter. After all, he was everyone’s first try at pop and having him turn out like this was very much like getting drunk, losing one’s virginity and then waking up in an empty bed the next morning.
As for Bill Haley himself, you couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He was an amiable man and he couldn’t figure what had happened to him. Admittedly, he had made a fortune and he was assured of well-paid work for the rest of his life but it must still have been a cruel turn-around for him.
He took it philosophically. He kept plugging away, made new singles, toured, plastered his kiss curl down with grease and water, picked guitar and grinned at all times. In 1964, he was back in England, almost unchanged. This time nothing much was expected of him, he was seen as a historical curiosity and was received with some affection. At thirty-seven, he was attractive in his resignation. ‘I’m old now,’ he said. ‘But I’ve been around. I sure have been around.’ And he shook his head slowly as if he had truly seen everything there was to see.
3 Elvis Presley (page 23)
What rock needed to get it off the ground now was a universal hero, a symbol, a rallying point. Someone very young, private, unshareable - exclusive teenage property.
Someone who could crystallize the whole movement, give it size and direction. Obviously, Bill Haley didn’t measure up.
Equally obviously, Elvis Presley did.
Elvis is where pop begins and ends. He’s the great original and, even now, he’s the image that makes all others seem shoddy, the boss. For once, the fan club spiel is justified: Elvis is King.
His big contribution was that he brought it home just how economically powerful teenagers really could be. Before Elvis, rock had been a gesture of vague rebellion. Once he’d happened, it immediately became solid, self-contained, and then it spawned its own style in clothes and language and sex, a total independence in almost everything - all the things that are now taken for granted.
This was the major teen breakthrough and Elvis triggered it. In this way, without even trying, he became one of the people who have radically affected the way that people think and live.
In the beginning, he was a country boy out of Tupelo, Mississippi. He was born 8 January 1935. His twin, Jesse, died at birth. His father was a farmer, not a successful one, and, when Elvis was fourteen, the family moved to Memphis.
There was no work around. The Presleys lived in one room and survived. By the time he was sixteen, Elvis was a professional lawn-mower. At nineteen, he did better - he became a truck-driver and brought home thirty-five dollars each week.
There was nothing special about him - he was stolid, respectable, unambitious. He liked trucks. (“I used to see them drivers with their shirts off, handkerchiefs around their neck, a little cap on their head. They looked daring to me. I always dreamed of being a real wild truck-driver.”) He was country, naive, very religious. Beyond that, he played a bit of guitar, sang some.
Definitely, he was young for his age - collected teddy bears, ate ritual peanut butter and mashed banana sandwiches last thing before he went to sleep each night and loved his mother to the point of ickiness. In fact, he was cutting an amateur record of My Happiness as a birthday present for her when he first got discovered.
Later, he was signed to Sun Records, a local label, and went out on the small-time Southern circuit, playing school dances, county fairs and so forth.
And his first record, That's All Right, was quite marvellous. Elvis had been exposed to a lot of different musics - coloured R&B, fundamentalist preachers, country ballads - and his singing was a mixture of all of them, an improbable stew to which he added sex. His voice sounded edgy, nervous, and it cut like a scythe, it exploded all over the place. It was anguished, immature, raw. But, above all, it was the sexiest thing that anyone had ever heard.
By May 1955, he had a manager, Colonel Tom Parker (the title was honorary). If nothing else, Parker was a man of experience. At forty-nine, he’d been through peepshows, carnivals, patent medicine, the Great Parker Pony Circus and just about anything else before Elvis came along. Canny but unsophisticated, he hadn’t been unsuccessful and he managed some successful country stars but, then again, he’d hardly struck gold either. On all known form, he was an unlikely revolution-maker.
Under Parker, Presley was moving up. His records were selling quietly but well round Memphis and the girls had just begun to scream at him. His singing was as good now as it was ever going to get and he kept moving his hips, wriggling and, every time he did that, there was some kind of riot.
Early in 1956, Elvis was signed by R.C.A.-Victor and made a record called Heartbreak Hotel It sold a million and a half straight off. By the end of six months, he’d sold eight million records, worked up to ten thousand fan letters a week and raised the shrillest, most prolonged teen hysteria ever. It really was as fast, as simple and complete as that. By the next year, he had grown into an annual twenty million dollar industry.
He would come out on stage standing on a golden Cadillac. He wore a golden suit and, on his feet, he had golden slippers. His sideboards reached down to his earlobes and his hair, heavy with grease, came up in a great ducktail plume off his forehead. He had a lopsided grin and he used it all the time.
When the music started, he’d begin wriggling and he wriggled so hard that quite a few cities banned him for obscenity. ‘Elvis Presley is morally insane,’ shrieked a Baptist pastor in Des Moines and that just about summed it up.
He was flash - he had four Cadillacs, a three-wheeled Messerschmidt, two monkeys, much jewellery. He built himself a house for one hundred thousand dollars and it glowed blue and gold in the dark.
On stage, he sang hymns in between his hits. With strangers, he was invariably charming, boyish, immensely courteous. He’d smile shyly and mumble. He’d call men ‘sir’ and women ‘ma’am’, drop his eyes, look around frequently for approval. And, of course, this was all tremendously flattering. In these ways, he had real talent for handling people, for making himself liked.
At the centre of everything was his mother. But, shy and deferential as he was, whenever he got pushed into fights by passing madmen, he’d invariably take them apart. No question, he was a very Southern boy.
Always, he came back to sex. In earlier generations, singers might carry great sex appeal but they'd have to cloak it under the trappings of romanticism, they’d never spell anything out. By contrast, Elvis was blatant. When those axis hips got moving, there was no more pretence about moonlight and hand-holding; it was hard physical fact.
(With crooners, with people like Sinatra and Eddie Fisher, girls had suffered crushes and they’d sigh, swoon and sob gently inside their handkerchiefs. Always, they’d been romantic and quite innocent.
With pop, though, it's all been down to mainline sexual fantasy. Sitting in concert halls, schoolgirls have screamed, rioted, brawled and fainted. They’ve wet themselves and they’ve masturbated. According to P. J. Proby, they’ve even ripped the legs off their chairs and mauled themselves. They’ve done all kinds of outrageous stuff that they’d never do anywhere else and they’ve been so uninhibited because there has always been a safety belt, because the pop singer himself has been unreachable, unreal, and nothing could actually happen.
In this way, it’s all been sex in a vacuum - the girls have freaked themselves out, emptied themselves, and then they’ve gone back home with their boy-friends and played virgin again. As rituals go, it’s not been beautiful but it’s been healthy, it’s acted as a safety valve. Screaming at Elvis or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, has been as good as saying confession or going to an analyst.
At the same time, off-stage, Elvis read the Bible, loved his mother. ‘He’s just like a paperback book,’ one of his girl fans explained. ‘Real sexy pictures on the cover. Only when you get inside, it’s just a good story.’ He looked dangerous but ultimately was safe and clean. This is what young girls have always wanted from their idols, an illusion of danger, and Elvis brought a new thrill of semi-reality to the game.
With all his peacockery, his implied narcissism, he was also a major pose-maker for boys. A lot of the time he sang conventional romantic lyrics but some of his biggest hits were breakaways - the harshness and contempt for women in Hound Dog was typical.
Blue Suede Shoes was even more to the point. This had been a hit for Carl Perkins in 1956 but Elvis took it over the following year and gave it wholly new dimensions. It was important - the idea that clothes could dominate your life. Girls and cars and money didn’t count. All that mattered were shoes, beautiful brand-new blue suede shoes. It was the first hint at an obsession with objects - motorbikes, clothes and so on - that was going to become central.
By 1958, Elvis had ruled for two years solid and the hysteria showed no signs at all of dying down. He’d gone into movies - Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock. He had racked up twenty worldwide million sellers. Still, he had some long-term problems. He was already twenty-three, he couldn’t go on being a teen idol for ever. The difficulty was how to turn him from an adolescent rebel into a respectable establishment figure without his fans feeling cheated.
At this point, a godsend: Presley’s army draft came through and he went on ice for two years. It meant losing a lot of money but Elvis took it philosophically. As for Colonel Parker, he was delighted.
From here on in, Elvis got more and more saintly. On army training, he was a paragon of diligence, cheerfulness, humility. His officers praised him warmly, the press swung behind him. Adult America was much reassured - the monster had shown that it was only kidding.
In August 1958, his mother took sick, had a heart attack and died. At the funeral, Elvis was hemmed in tight by reporters, jotting down every word he said, noting every last sob and whimper. ‘She was the sunshine of our home,* Elvis moaned. ‘Good-bye darling. We loved you. I love you. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you.’ Next morning, his ramblings were splashed syllable by syllable across the papers. It was diseased, ghoulish, but it finally cemented the new Presley image. The boy was all right.
There was even a record about it all, New Angel Tonight by a certain Dave McEnery. The first verse went:
There’s a new angel tonight
Up in heaven so bright,
The mother of our Rock ‘n’ Roll King -
And I know she’s watching down
On her boy in Army brown,
In her angel mother’s heart remembering*
*Words of New Angel Tonight by permission of Southern Music Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
By the time he was shipped out to Germany, Elvis was everything that an all-American boy ought to be, working and playing hard, dating but not too much, visiting spastics, drawing emotional tributes from rugged G.I. buddies. He wound up a Specialist Fourth Class, a rank equivalent to corporal and worth $122 a month. The whole operation was a triumph.
By the time that he came back to civilian life again, he was almost as respectable as an Andy Williams or a Perry Como. Predictably, his first new record was a ballad It's Now Or Never, an inflated up-dating of О Sole Mio. Also predictably, it was his biggest seller yet, doing more than nine million worldwide.
He didn’t go back on the road. Instead, he hid himself away in vast mansions outside Hollywood and Memphis and there he stayed for the next nine years. During that time, he lived like a recluse, kept company only by his Memphis Mafia - about a dozen friends, most of them picked up during his time in Germany, who amused him and served him, fetched him drinks and played touch football with him. He gave no interviews, hardly ever went out. Altogether, he took shape as a juvenile Howard Hughes and whatever fired him, whatever kept him ticking over, it remained a secret. Not even his Mafia knew for certain what he thought or wanted. He was slightly lonely, we were told.
Most of his time was spent in churning out an endless succession of vapid and interchangeable musicals - Kissin Cousins, Clambake, Harem Scarum, Girl Happy, Fun In Acapulco and more than twenty others - and each one seemed flabbier than the one before. Elvis passed into his thirties and was overweight. His voice seemed to have lost its edge and his songs were gormless, his scripts formula-fed, his films looked as though they’d been put together with two nails and a hammer. Since he was guaranteed a million dollars plus fifty per cent of the profits in each of his movies, he still made a fortune, something around $5 million a year, but his records had ceased to make number one and he’d started to slip back at the box- office.
As far as contact with his public was concerned, he might have been on another planet. From time to time, his gold Cadillac was sent out on tour across America and his fans came flocking to touch it. He sold his one hundred and fiftieth million record and earned his hundredth million dollar. Year after year, he held himself remote and somehow his fans accepted it, came almost to like it.
The point was that he’d passed beyond criticism, moved somewhere out of reach, onto a plateau of showbiz untouch- ability. The obvious parallel is with Frank Sinatra - both of them had changed so much, had earned such astronomical moneys, had so dominated the entertainment worlds of their periods that what they did with the rest of their lives was largely immaterial. They had passed beyond and the less they tampered with their myths now the better. Colonel Parker understood this well and that’s why he kept his boy under wraps, out of all harm.
What survived was image, the flash of how he’d been at twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, strutting and swivelling and swaggering, leering all lopsided, riding on his golden Cadillac, gold and gold. Then he’d been magnificent and his story since seemed like a Hollywood cautionary tale, a classic saga of what happens to sexy little boys when they’re fed into the superstar sausage-machine.
He had become, in fact, a godhead - unseen, unreachable, more than human. The demon lover had been turned into a father, an all-powerful force that could rule his fans’ lives without actually being there. His distance was a positive advantage, his artistic mistakes irrelevant, and there seemed no reason why anything should ever change. Worship, after all, is a habit that's hard to break.
Nevertheless, it did change. Around 1968, when everyone had finally given up on him, there were some first signs of re- emergence. He had got married and he had a daughter. He dispersed his Mafia and made a few cautious sorties into Hollywood. Then he began to make more efforts with his recording and cut a couple of songs that were right up to his old standards, Guitar Man and U.S. Male. His voice sounded sharper, and he lost weight, and his hair grew longer. He had big worldwide hits again, In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds and Kentucky Rain. Finally, he returned to live performances, gave a series of engagements at Las Vegas and the rehabilitation was complete.
The reasons behind all this were partly necessity, partly Presley’s own desire. It was true that his film takings and record sales had declined to a point where some fresh boost was called for, and that’s why the Colonel let him out of his mansions. But Elvis himself had grown impatient, in any case, both with third-rate product and life as a hermit, and threatened to break out anyhow, whether Parker approved or not. The turning-point was Christmas 1968, when Elvis recorded a TV special and dressed up in his old black leathers, when Colonel Parker had wished him to sing devotional songs in a tuxedo and a bow-tie. It was the protege’s first-ever disobedience and set him free.
His progress since has been erratic. There have been more slop-ballads as singles and his film career has ground to a temporary halt but there have been good records among the bad, one great album (From Elvis In Memphis) and, on stage, he has been simply tremendous. Miraculously restored, in voice and flesh alike, he has prowled and pounced and whirled as though no time had passed at all, as though this were 1956 and everything was just starting. Each night, his performance achieves that same first impact, of new possibilities presenting themselves, a whole new style made possible. From the moment he comes out of the wings, all the pop that has followed him is made to seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.
4 Classic Rock (page 31)
Rock’n’roll was very simple music. All that mattered was the noise it made, its drive, its aggression, its newness. All that was taboo was boredom.
The lyrics were mostly non-existent, simple slogans one step away from gibberish. This wasn’t just stupidity, simple inability to write anything better. It was a kind of teen code, almost a sign language, that would make rock entirely incomprehensible to adults.
In other words, if you weren’t sure about rock, you couldn’t cling to its lyrics. You either had to accept its noise at face value or you had to drop out completely.
Under these rules, rock turned up a sudden flood of maniacs, wild men with pianos and guitars who would have been laughing stocks in any earlier generation but who were just right for the fifties. They were energetic, basic, outrageous. They were huge personalities and they used music like a battering ram. Above all, they were loud.
It was a great time - every month would produce someone new, someone wilder than anything that had gone before. Pop was barren territory and everything was simple, every tiny gimmick was some kind of progression. Around i960, things evened out and much of the excitement died out. Pop had become more sophisticated, more creative, more everything. But the fifties were the time when pop was just pop, when it was really something to switch on the radio and hear what was new right that minute. Things could never be so good and simple again.
For instance, the first record I ever bought was by Little Richard and, at one throw, it taught me everything I ever need to know about pop.
The message went: ‘Tutti frutti all rootie, tutti frutti all rootie, tutti frutti all rootie, awopbopaloobop alopbam- boom!* As a summing up of what rock V roll was really all about, this was nothing but masterly.
*Words of Tutti Frutti printed by kind permission of Burlington Music Company Ltd.
Very likely these early years are the best that pop has yet been through. Anarchy moved in. For thirty years you couldn’t possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely-spoken and phoney to your toenails - suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased or almost anything on earth and you could still clean up. Just so long as you were new, just so long as you carried excitement.
In a way, we were moving towards some kind of democracy. Under the new system, all you needed was dollar potential: earn, baby, earn. So that’s what Little Richard was celebrating in Tutti Frutti and he was very right.
Most of the best early rockers came out of the South - Elvis from Mississippi, Little Richard from Georgia, Buddy Holly from Texas, Jerry Lee Lewis from Louisiana, Gene Vincent from Virginia. These were the states where the living had always been meanest, where teenagers had been least catered for and, where, therefore, the pop kickback was now most frantic.
Anyhow, the South was by far the most music-conscious section in America. It always had been. It had huge traditions in R&B, country, trad and gospel, and its music was in every way more direct, less pretentious than up North. Mostly, it had a sledgehammer beat and pulled no punches. Down here, rock was an obvious natural.
The only innovation was that the rockers made use of all the sources around them. Up to this, whites had used country, Negroes had used R&B and the two had never remotely overlapped. Now everyone incorporated anything they could lay their hands on and it was this mix-up of black and white musics that gave Southern rock its flavour.
(Needless to say, this racial interaction had nothing much to do with tolerance. Black stole from white, white from black - that didn’t mean that they liked each other, it just meant that they accepted each other’s uses. And then white kids liked playing black-sounding music because it shocked their parents and black kids liked playing white-sounding music because it made them money. From any angle, it was strictly a fair deal all round.)
Out of all the great Southern rockers, just about the most splendid was the before-mentioned Little Richard Penniman out of Macon, Georgia, who was and still is the most exciting live performer I ever saw in my life.
The background on him was that he’d been bom on Christmas Day, 1935, one of thirteen children, and had an archetypally harsh childhood. At fourteen, he was singing solos with the local gospel choir. At fifteen, he was blues shouting, dancing and selling herb tonic in a medicine show. From there, he got into a variety of groups, made a sequence of nothing records and finally, in 1955, when he was twenty, sold a million copies of Tutti Frutti.
He looked beautiful - he wore a baggy suit with elephant trousers, twenty-six inches at the bottoms, and he had his hair back-combed in a monstrous plume like a fountain. Then he had a little toothbrush moustache and a round, totally ecstatic face.
He played piano and he’d stand knock-kneed at the keyboard, hammering away with two hands as if he wanted to bust the thing apart. At climactic moments, he’d lift one leg and rest it on the keys, banging away with his heel, and his trouser rims would billow like kites.
He’d scream and scream and scream. He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar. On every phrase, he’d embroider with squeals, rasps, siren whoops. His stamina, his drive were limitless. And his songs were mostly total non-songs, nothing but bedrock twelve bars with playroom lyrics, but still he’d put them across as if every last syllable was liquid gold. He sang with desperate belief, real religious fervour: ‘Good golly, Miss Molly, you sure like a ball - when you’re rockin’ and rollin’, you can’t hear your momma call.’*
As a person, he was brash, fast, bombastic, a sort of prototype Muhammed Ali (‘I’m just the same as ever - loud, electrifying and full of personal magnetism’) and right through the middle fifties he was second only to Elvis. Most of his records sold a million each - Long Tall Sally, Lucille, The Girl Cant Help It, Keep A Knockin', Baby Face. They all sounded roughly the same: tuneless, lyricless, pre-Neanderthal. There was a tenor saxo solo in the middle somewhere and a constant smashed-up piano and Little Richard himself screaming his head off. Individually, the records didn’t mean much. They were small episodes in one unending scream and only made sense when you put them all together.
But in 1957 he suddenly upped and quit. No warning - he just stopped touring, stopped making records and went off to play piano in a Seventh Day Adventist church off Times Square.
Apparently, he’d been in a plane and a fire had broken out. Richard got down on his knees and promised that, if he was spared, he’d give up the devil’s music for ever and devote himself to the gospel instead. ‘And God answered my prayers and stopped the fire.*
So he announced that he was giving up but his entourage thought he was mad and laughed at him. Then Richard, in a typically flash performance, took his many rings from his fingers and flung them into the sea. Eight thousand pounds’ worth: T wish I’d seen the face of the man that caught those fish. A King’s ransom, all courtesy of Little Richard.’ And he quit on the spot. At least, that’s the story he tells.
Five years he kept it up, made no records, gave no interviews. But in the early sixties he began to cut gospel records and from there it was inevitable that he’d go back to rock again. He didn’t get any further hits but he was still a name. Several times he toured Britain and each time he went down a storm.
* Words of Good Golly Miss Molly by permission of Southern Music Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
The first time I saw him was in 1963, sharing a bill with the Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers, and he cut them all to shreds. He didn’t look sane. He screamed and his eyes bulged, the veins jutted in his skull. He came down front and stripped - his jacket, tie, cufflinks, his golden shirt, his huge diamond watch, right down to the flesh. Then he hid inside a silk dressing-gown and all the time he roared and everyone jumped about in the aisles like it was the beginning of rock all over again.
Objectively, he didn’t even do much. Anyone else that has a great stage act, they always have an obvious selling point - James Brown has speed, Johnnie Ray has pain, Elvis has sex. Little Richard had none of that. All he had was energy.
He howled and hammered endlessly. On Hound Dog, he dropped down on his knees, grovelled and still he howled. It was all gospel - ‘that healing music, makes the blind to see, the lame to walk, the dead rise up.’ He kept it up so long, so loud it made your head whirl. Good hard rock, he murdered it and murdered us. When he was through, he smiled sweetly. ‘That Little Richard,’ he said. ‘Such a nice boy.’
Fats Domino came from further back. In fact, he was almost pre-pop. As early as 1948, he cut a big hit called Fat Man and he’d already tucked about ten smashes under his belt by the time that Bill Haley came along.
At this period, he sold mostly around his home town of New Orleans and worked for a strictly Negro market. The music he peddled was a nicely relaxed line in R&B, backed by tightly-knit small bands, and everything he did was casual. Fats himself wrote the songs, played piano and sang.
When rock came in and R&B was acceptable, the fat man very quickly cashed in. He had whole strings of American hits and, by i960, he’d sold upwards of fifty million records. Fifty million is a lot of records. Officially, he’s also credited with twenty-two individual million sellers, which puts him ahead of everyone outside of Elvis and the Beatles.
Mind you, it has to be said that these figures make him sound a lot bigger than he ever was. Most of his alleged million sellers were only regional hits and he never made much sustained impression on British charts. All the same, he was a figure. More important, he made good records.
The way he was so lazy and good-humoured, he was a bit like an updated Fats Waller. Most of his best songs - Blue Monday, I’m Walkin’, Blueberry Hill - were dead simple, straight ahead, and Fats sang them as if he was having himself a time. When he was at his best, he conjured up small-time coloured dancehalls on Saturday night - he played a bit, sang a bit and everyone got lushed. Good-time music, that’s all it was and it hit the spot just right.
In his unpretentious way, he also had quite an influence on what came after him. The British jazz/blues bands in the early sixties used his understatement, his idle beat, his tight backing sound. Georgie Fame especially was a big Domino man.
In 1967 he did a Sunday night show at the Saville in London and the audience was made up of rockers from way back - all greased hair, drainpipes and three-quarter coats. Fats weighed in at sixteen stone and smiled all the time. He ran through hits and diamonds glittered on his fingers and he wore bright orange socks.
When he came to his finale, he went into an endless and very corny workout on When The Saints Go Marching In. It went on and on and on. Fats glistened and gleamed all over, his band cavorted like circus clowns and it was all a bit embarrassing. At the end, Fats got up and started to push his piano across the stage with hard thumps of his thigh. He was past forty and not fit and it was a very wide stage. By the time he was halfway across, he was flagging. The music rambled on and Fats was bent almost double with effort. It was a very ludicrous situation - the rockers stormed forwards at the stage, willing him on, and he kept on heaving, he wouldn’t give up. And it took him maybe five minutes but finally he did make it and everyone cheered like mad.
Two of the rockers jumped up on stage and lifted his hands holding them aloft like he was a winning fighter. They were big kids and Fats, for all his weight, is quite squat. He stood shaking between them and he looked vulnerable, almost old. Everyone was rioting. Fats streamed sweat and kept smiling but he also looked a bit confused. Very likely, no one had gone quite that wild for him in ten years.
* During 1969 Domino was brought out of Las Vegas semi-obscurity by Reprise Records and has cut an excellent new album.
Like Fats Domino, Larry Williams came out of New Orleans. He started out playing piano with Lloyd Price, who was one of the biggest Negro R&B stars of the fifties and had world best-sellers with things like I'm Gonna Get Married, Personality and biggest of all, Stagger Lee. But in 1957, Larry went solo, started writing songs and became the first rock V roll whistler. Straight away he turned out some of the best rock records ever made.
He specialized - almost the only songs he wrote were about girls’ names - Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Short Fat Fanny, Bony Moronic. This obsession with names was quite a central part of rock, one manifestation of the massive swing towards gibberish, and Larry didn’t introduce it but he did give it new dimensions and turned it into a whole tiny anti-art form on its own. In Bony Morottie, which was his best, he touched true inspiration:
As a contribution to pop history, this was all very righteous stuff but maybe less than earth-shattering and I wouldn’t give him this much space for his music alone. What gets him in is that his personality epitomized everything flash and catching about Mister Rock V Roll.
Like most of the classic rockers, he didn’t tour Britain until the sixties and by this time things had very much run down for him. He’d moved on from rock to soul but still he didn’t get hits. He was almost thirty and said he felt like an old man.
Most of the time he sat in his small hotel room and played cards with his wife and, even in decline, he was a smooth man. He wore rings on all his fingers and brushed his h?ir far forward like the Beatles. He had shiny silk suits and everpresent shades. And he talked a lot, with a turn of phrase that was truly elegant. In this style, he made my all-time favourite remark about rock. ‘I’m truth,’ he said. 'It has no beginning and no end for it is the very pulse of life itself.’
Another noble rocker was Screamin’Jay Hawkins, who had been around ever since the middle forties. He wore a zebra- striped tailcoat, a turban, polkadot shoes. He began his act by emerging flaming from a coffin and he carried a smoking skull called Henry, he shot flame from his fingertips, he screamed and bloodcurdled. At the end, he flooded the stage with thick white smoke and, when it cleared, he was gone.
‘I used to lose half my audience right at the start, when I came up screaming out of my coffin,’ he said. ‘They used to run screaming down the aisles and half kill themselves scrambling out of the exits. I couldn’t stop them. In the end,
I had to hire some boys to sit up in the gallery with a supply of shrivelled-up elastic bands and, when the audience started running, my boys would drop the elastic bands onto their heads and whisper “Worms”.’
Jay’s biggest hit was the original version of I Put A Spell On You and he had other things like The Whammy and Feast Of The Маи Маи. Actually, he had quite a pleasant baritone but, on stage, he’d only scream and ghoul. ‘I just torment a song,’ he said. ‘Frighten it half to death.*
Then there were the Coasters, who had the most sly- sounding lead singer in the whole business, not to mention the most lugubrious bass. The lead, Carl Gardner, played the school bad boy. He sang like he had some bubblegum permanently stashed away inside his cheek and everything he did was sneaky, pretty hip. Then he was a loudmouth, a natural-bom hustler and all the time the bass groaned and grumbled below him, the voice of his conscience speaking.
The lead took no blind notice.
Mind you, they could hardly miss. For a kickoff, they had the most prolific song-writers in rock going for them, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, a partnership that shifted upwards of thirty million records in five years. Lieber and Stoller also wrote some of the best early Elvis hits, notably Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rocky but they were natural humorists and Presley was just a bit straight for them. The Coasters were ideal.
Lieber and Stoller churned out stuff that was inventive, wry and sometimes very shrewd - a running commentary on the manifold miseries of being teenage - and the delinquent talents of Carl Gardner did the rest with no sweat. Between them, they came up with some very funny records.
The format was simple: they got a fast shuffle going, reeled off the assembled lyrics and then stuck a frantic yakety sax chorus into the middle. It was a comforting scheme of things. You always knew what was coming and could relax. So the lead snickered, the bass moaned and everyone was happy.
Probably their most classic effort was Yakety Yak, a knockdown and drag-down row between a bullied teenager and his monstrous parents. The teenager, of course, is seen as martyr. He spends his whole time tidying his room, doing homework, washing, generally flogging himself. And when he complains, he’s frozen stiff by the ultimate deterrent threat - no more rock and roll.
From there, they went on to further explorations of teenage hell - Charlie Brown, Poison Ivy and Bad Blood. Each one was perfect in its own way but the whole style was completely geared to rock attitudes and, when times changed, they were among the first to slip.
They’re still around, though, and occasionally a new single filters through. Nothing vital is changed. The lead still sounds maybe fifteen years old and carries himself as if he’s just seen his geometry coach slip on a shrewdly-planted banana skin. The bass still groans. They live in a cut-off private world and everyone is sweet sixteen for ever.
While I’m talking about Lieber and Stoller, I’d better stick in a short bit about the Drifters, who were hardly rock but who don’t fit too well any place else. Really, they were just commercialized R&B and their most major contribution was that they introduced the violin into modern pop.
Lieber and Stoller, who produced them, wrote natural hit songs for them and then used string sections to play what would normally have been the lead guitar part. It was good stuff, too - stylish, relaxed, always melodic. Over the years, they came up with some beautiful things - Under the Boardwalk, Save The Last Dance For Me, I’ll Take You Where The Music s Playing, Up On The Roof and quite a few more.
The only comic thing about them was that their personnel changed completely every time they turned around. They ran through themselves like fire, the turnover was amazing. What’s more, other groups all over America turned up under the same name, so that you wound up with umpteen different outfits, all called the Drifters, all swearing blind that they were the original and only genuine article.
The Lieber and Stoller Drifters recorded for Atlantic and ran through such good lead singers as Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, both of whom later made it as soloists. No matter how many individuals came or went, they always kept the same basic sound, tight and immensely commercial. Goodtime music, they were unusually polished for their time and, like everything else that Lieber and Stoller handled, they were fun.
Chuck Berry was possibly the finest of all rockers and he’s easily my own favourite pop writer ever. He wrote endless Teen Romance lyrics but sang them with vicious, sly cynicism and this is the clash that makes him so funny, so attractive.
His most perfect song was You Never Can Tell, an effort that gets a lot of its flavour from the knowledge that it was made soon after Chuck had served a hefty jail sentence for transporting a minor across a state boundary without her parents’ consent. Its full lyrics went:
It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished ’em well, You could see that Pierre did truly love die mademoiselle, And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell - C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell. They furnished off an apartment with two rooms, they were all by themselves, The coolerator was crammed with TV dinner and ginger ale, But when Pierre found work, die little money coming worked out well - C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell. They had a hi-fi phono, boy did they let it blast, Seven hundred little records, all rockin’, rhythm and jazz, But when the sun went down, the record tempo of the music fell - C'est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell. They bought a souped-up Jidney, was a cherry-red ’53, They drove it down to New Orleans to celebrate their anniversary. It was there where Pierre was wedded to the lovely mademoiselle - C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.*
*Words of You Never Can Tell by permission of Jewel Music Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
A jangle piano rambled away legato in the background and there were great swirling sax riffs and Chuck himself more intoned than sang, sly and smooth as always, the eternal sixteen-year-old hustler. That was it - the Teendream myth that’s right at the heart of all pop and You Never Can Tell expressed it more exactly, more evocatively than any of the other fifty thousand attempts at the same theme.
Of course, this is all very naive and undeveloped by comparison with what has come since, but then Bogart proved thirty years ago that, in mass media, you don’t need to be a monster intellectual to be great. In fact, it’s a definite disadvantage if you are. What you do need is style, command, specific image and these are the exact things that Chuck Berry has always been overflowing with.
Basically, what it boils down to is detail. Most pop writers would have written You Never Can Tell as a series of generalities and it would have been nothing. But Chuck was obsessive, he was hooked on cars, rock, ginger ale and he had to drag them all in. That’s what makes it - the little touches like the cherry-red Jidney ’53 or the coolerator.
Chuck was born in California in 1931, but grew up in St Louis and, when he was older, got to be a hairdresser. By nature, he was an operator and he was always going to be successful. The only question was how. So he tried singing, he wrote, he made progress. In 1955, he had his first national smash with Maybelline and from then on he was a natural Mister Big.
As a writer, he was something like poet laureate to the whole rock movement. He charted its habits, hobbies, hangups or celebrated its triumphs or mourned its limitations and he missed nothing out. School Days pinned down exactly that schoolkid sense of spending one’s whole life listening for bells and Johnny B. Goode, guitarslinger, created a genuine new folk hero and Roll Over Beethoven should have been adopted as the universal slogan of rock. But almost best of all was Sweet Little Sixteen. Nothing summed up better the twined excitement and frustration of the time:
Sweet little sixteen, she’s just got to have
About a half a million famed autographs.
Her wallet’s filled with pictures, she gets ’em one by one,
Becomes so excited, watch her, look at her run
Sweet Little Sixteen, she’s got the grown-up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes
Oh but tomorrow morning she’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen and back in class again.
They’re really rocking in Boston, in Pittsburg, PA.,
Deep in the heart of Texas and ’round the Frisco Bay,
All over St. Louis, way down in New Orleans,
All the cats want to dance with Sweet Little Sixteen.*
*Words of Sweet Little Sixteen by permission of Jewel Music Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
Beyond his writing, he played a very fair blues guitar, Chicago-style, and sang in a voice as waved and oily as his hair. On stage, his speciality was the duck walk, which involved bounding across the stage on his heels, knees bent, body jackknifed and guitar clamped firmly to his gut. Then he would peep coyly over his shoulders and look like sweet little sixteen herself, all big eyes and fluttering lids. He had a pencil moustache and had the smoothness, the cool of a steamboat gambler. A brown-eyed handsome man, in fact.
Just when things were going so well for him, he made his mistake with the minor and was put away. By the time he got out again, in 1963, rock was finished but the British R&B boom was just getting under way and he was made blues hero number one by the Rolling Stones, who started out playing almost nothing but Chuck Berry songs. Almost as a matter of course, he’d landed on his feet.
He was brought over and made much of but turned out to be hard to deal with. He was arrogant, rude. When he liked to turn it on, he could be most charming but often he couldn’t be bothered. First and last, he was amazingly mean.
There’s an authenticated story about him that, on his first British tour, he used to study the evening paper nightly and check to see if there had been any fluctuation in rates of exchange. If there was any deviation in his favour, no matter how small, he’d demand payment in cash before he went on. On one night, this supplement came to 2s. 3^d.
Still, all of that is irrelevant when you hear his records again. In any case, his hardness, his greasincss is all part of his double-edged appeal. And when he does his duck walk, when he flirts over his shoulder and unfolds one of his best flowerpot teen epics, you know that he’s one of those few people in pop that really count.
By and large, white rockers were a lot less impressive than their coloured counterparts. After the wildness of Little Richard, the lyricism of Chuck Berry, they sounded samey and half-hearted. As personalities, too, they were less colourful, less articulate. Mostly, they were plain boring.
The major exception was Jerry Lee Lewis, a pianist and shouter from Louisiana. He used R&B and country in about equal doses and attacked the keys in very much the same style as Little Richard, bopping them with fists, feet, elbows and anything else that was handy. Towards the end of his act, he’d climb on top of the piano, hold the mike like a lance and stay up there until the audience got hot enough to dash forward and drag him down.
His great gift was that, no matter how frantic he got, his voice remained controlled and drawling country. He seemed to have a lot of time to spare, an unshakeablc case, and this gave him class.
He had long yellow crinkly hair that fell forward over his eyes when he worked and a thin, slightly furtive face. He always reminded me of a weasel. And when he got steamed up, he’d sweat like mad and his face would collapse into nothing but a formless mass of heaving, contorting flesh. Still, his voice would be strong, easy. As stage acts go, it was hardly pretty but, definitely, it was compelling.
After he’d rampaged through his earliest hits (the apocalyptic Whole Lotto Shakiri Goin On and Great Balls of Fire), he did a 1958 tour of Britain and immediately plunged neck deep into trouble. He had brought his young wife with him. His very young wife, as it turned out. Her name was Myra and Jerry Lee said she was fifteen. Later, he admitted that she was only thirteen. He also said that, at twenty-two, this was his second marriage. His first had been at fourteen (‘Hell, I was too young*).
The British press duly disgraced itself. It howled blue murder, screamed babysnatcher, and finally got the tour cancelled. Jerry Lee flew out in disgrace. ‘Hell, I’m only country,’ he pleaded, but no one .took any notice.
Before the cancellation, he’d had time to do two concerts and, doomed by so much bad publicity, they were disasters. In the first, Jerry Lee dashed out in a pillar-box red suit and smashed straight through two numbers without let-up. He was brilliant, by far the best rocker Britain had then witnessed and he half won his audience round. Then, before going into the third, he took out a golden comb and very delicately swept his hair back out of his eyes. It was a fatal move. Someone yelled ‘Cissy!* at him and from there on in it was solid murder. Finally, Jerry Lee just upped and walked off stage. The curtain came down. Pandemonium.
All of which goes to show how superficial the rock revolt had really been. On paper, Jerry Lee’s marital junketings were exactly calculated to improve his prestige, make him into an even better symbol of rebellion. In practice, it only took a fast burst of pomposity in the papers and the kids were just as appalled as their parents. And when Jerry Lee left his hotel, he was hissed and insulted and spat upon.
Jerry Lee wasn’t downcast. Arriving back in New York, he announced that his concerts had been ‘Great, just great* and that, as he’d left, ‘three thousand stood and cheered*.
The final irony was that the marriage worked out idyllically well. They settled down, had children. They were both intensely religious and Myra carried a bible with her everywhere.
In any case, he was forgiven. Throughout the sixties, he toured here often and always went down a storm. It wasn’t surprising - he had huge command and manipulated his audiences exactly as he wished.
Towards the end of the decade, he abandoned rock and concentrated on Country *n Western, which he’d always liked. Its sentimentality and largeness of gesture suited him perfectly and he carved out a whole second career. At the start of the seventies, he was among the half-dozen biggest C &W attractions in America and some of his recent hits - What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made A Loser Out Of Me), She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart) - were almost as good as his original rockers of the mid-fifties.
There are people around who’ll tell you that he’s the greatest pop figure ever. I wouldn’t agree but he certainly rates. I also like his attitude. ‘You are either hot or cold,’ he says. Tfyouare lukewarm, the Lord will spew you out of his mouth.’
Buddy Holly was really called Charles Hardin Holley and first came out of Lubbock, Texas, with broken teeth, wire glasses, halitosis, plus every last possible kind of country Southernness. He wasn’t appetizing. In fact, he was an obvious no-hoper.
On the other hand, he had a voice, he wrote natural hit songs and, what’s more, he was by no means prepared to sit tight in the background and churn out smashes for other artists. He said he wanted to sit in his front room and watch his face singing to him out of the television screen. He was very firm about this. So a man called Lloyd Greenfield, a toughened Northern agent, took him up and changed him into another person. Buddy had his teeth capped, his breath cleansed, his hair styled, his wire glasses exchanged for big impressive black ones, his voice toned. Then he was put into high-school sweaters and taught how to smile. Suddenly, he was all-America.
Holly sang lead with a group called the Crickets and promptly cut a succession of monster hits with them - That'll Be The Day, Oh Boy, Maybe Baby. By 1958, growing big- time, he had dumped the Crickets and gone solo, clocking up a further sequence of million sellers on his own - Peggy Sue, Rave On, It Doesn't Matter Any More. He was smooth, he was clean. He had a smile straight off a toothpaste ad. and his new black glasses were major trend-setters. In every detail, his career was perfect and in February 1959, just to round it off, he got killed in an air crash. He was then twenty years old.
Long-time rock fans have always been bitterly divided about him. He wasn’t a hardcore rocker, being too gentle and melodic, and this eccentricity can be construed either as backsliding or as progression. Even ten years after his death, it isn’t an academic question. I have seen rock preservation meetings reduced to brawling knuckle-dusted anarchy. On the wall of a pub lavatory in Gateshead, there is a scrawled legend: ‘Buddy Holly lives and rocks in Tijuana, Mexico.*
He was all adenoids - twanged them like a catapult, propelled each phrase up and out on a whole tidal wave of hiccoughs and burps. As sound, it was ugly but at least it was new. It was also much copied: Adam Faith, for one, built his early career largely around his variations on it. For that matter, so did Bobby Vee and Tommy Roe.
Holly’s breakthrough, in fact, was that he opened up alternatives to all-out hysteria. Not many white kids had the lungs or sheer hunger to copy Little Richard but Holly was easy. All you needed was tonsils. The beat was lukewarm, the range minimal - no acrobatics or rage or effort required. You just stood up straight and mumbled. Even the obvious rockers, things like Rave On or Oh Boy, were Neapolitan flowerpots after Tutti Frutti.
In this way, Buddy Holly was the patron saint of all the thousands of no-talent kids who ever tried to make a million dollars. He was founder of a noble tradition.
Also killed in the same air crash that did for Holly were Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Valens, at seventeen, had already made some of the direst records in pop. The Bopper, on the other hand, had made one of the very best: Chantilly Lace.
His real name was J. P. Richardson, he was a Texan disc jockey and Chantilly Lace was his only hit. A fat man in his late twenties, he wore vast baggy striped suits, the jackets halfway down to his knees and the trouser seats big enough to hide an army in, and he owned a grin of purest lip-smacking lechery, a monster. Chantilly Lace is his testament.
He’s in a phone booth, ringing some girl, and he’s having to hassle like mad to get a date out of her. He sweats, he giggles. He drools, overflows himself...
You can feel him wriggling his fat shoulders in delirium, his joke suit draped around him like a tent, his eyes bugging and his bottom lip hanging slack: ‘Chantilly lace and a pretty face, pony tail hanging down, wiggle in her walk, giggle in her talk, Lord, makes the world go round round round ... Makes him feel real loose like a long-necked goose.’* And all this time he’s melting.
He’s getting nowhere, of course, but he doesn’t give up, he campaign shouts like a Southern democrat. The result doesn’t matter anyhow, it’s the performance that counts. *Ooh baby,’ he howls. ‘ You know what I like. You KNOW.* And when he says that, he bursts, he just disintegrates.
Apart from being so funny and good, Chantilly Lace was a big step - it was the first time ever that white popular music owned up to lust.
Also, in classic rock, there were instrumentalists but they came a bit later. Duane Eddy played guitar man. He twanged. He was from Arizona and he was a big country man, who just stood still on stage and laid down sound like someone playing at the bottom of the Cheddar Gorge. He didn’t use the top of his guitar at all - it was all solid bass, big and booming. Sensitivity wasn’t the name of the game but he made nice noise.
Apart from his own hits, he set the standard of all instrumental groups for almost five years. The Shadows copied him. So did the Ventures and just about everyone else.
Eddy had his first major smash in 1958, Rebel Rouser, and Johnny and the Hurricanes made it the following year. Johnny himself blew anguished sax and the Hurricanes featured a shrill little organ. Their records were strictly novelty, small musical jokes. My favourite was Rockin Goose, with Johnny pretending to be a wild goose on sax. It was one of the most ludicrous records ever made.
Gene Vincent had a bad leg. It had been first mangled when he was a child and later it was made worse in a motorbike smash. Because of it, he couldn’t fling himself around the stage like other rockers. He could hardly move at all.
*Words of Chantilly Lace by permission of Southern Music Publishing Co. Ltd, London.
Instead, he went through his whole act in one fixed pose. He’d dress himself entirely in black leather, right down to gauntlets and high-heeled boots, and he’d stand with one leg thrown back, the other forward and his body twisted aggressively sideways, a bit as if he was just about to start a punch- up. There’d be a single spotlight on him and he’d look agonized. He had unruly greased hair hanging in ratstails across his forehead and a very painful mouth. The way he stood, so still, his body simultaneously thrust forward and dragged back, he looked like he was chained.
The image wasn’t so very phoney - he had two fast hits in 1957 (Be Bop A Lula and Bluejean Bop) and things had looked good for a time but from then on it was all struggle. Simply, he couldn’t cope. He had constant pain from his leg and, in any case, he was naturally depressive. He went through repeated breakdowns and treatments and failed comebacks.
For a time he lived in Britain and he was always popular here but he couldn’t cash in. He was in the i960 car crash that killed Eddie Cochran, his closest friend. That was virtually the end.
He’s still remembered with a lot of affection. He wasn’t much of a singer but, in his calmer moments, he had great gentleness, built-in innocence, and he roused up protective instincts in some most unlikely people. Above all, it’s not possible to forget the melodramatic picture of him in his black leather, gauntlets clutching the mike, his body twisted.
He has been back in Britain several times in the last years, made sporadic comebacks without ever getting very far but right now he has disappeared and nobody is sure where he is or what he’s doing.
Next, the Everly Brothers: there were two of them, Don and Phil, and they came from Kentucky.
They were troupers. Their parents had been a Country ’n Western duo for years and their sons were brought in on the act, touring the South, appearing on small local radio shows and generally working the circuits. Until their late teens, they travelled by summer, schooled by winter and never stopped long in any one place. Then they turned into rockers and were famous. To that extent, they were pop equivalents to Judy Garland, classic Hollywood scenarios, and they were always the sharpest, most professional of their contemporaries.
Musically, they were pure country, brought up to date and given a rock ’n roll beat. They’d use a fast shuffle rhythm, light and nervous, and throw their voices high across the top, in soaring and agonized harmonies, wild and clear and piercing. They recorded their hits in Nashville, home of all things country, and had publicity pictures taken of themselves eating ham hocks and black-eyed peas. In image, they were true home boys but their looks denied it - they had fine bones and restless eyes, and their hair flowed backwards in high-blown quiffs, so that they looked like beautiful delinquents. Their songs were all about innocence and teenage disaster but, on stage, they brought their lips close together for their choruses as though they were kissing.
It was this paradox, between the boyishness of their music and the sense of hidden evil in their appearance, that gave them their fascination. That, and the consistently high quality of their songs, which were always melodic, tricksy, original. Wake Up Little Susie, Bird Dog, Cathy s Clown, Let It Be Me, Claudette, All I have To Do Is Dream, Crying In The Rain - each of these were exquisite, performed with a grace and lightness of touch quite unlike rock ’n roll as a whole.
In particular, they introduced the idea that sound was all- important, rather than lyrics or the singer’s personality. On an Everlys’ record, words and voices and backing and production all blended into a single entity, and they became one of the major influences on the Beatles. As for Don and Phil themselves, they sold almost twenty million records and turned into millionaires.
As with most other rockers, however, things began to go wrong for them in the sixties. They had to do a service stint in the Marines and lost momentum. When they came out, they failed to adjust to changing fashions and started sliding. They had changed record labels and parted from Felice and Boud- leaux Bryant, who’d written many of their fifties’ hits, and they couldn’t find a replacing formula. Then there were personal troubles - Don suffered a phase of amphetamine addiction and there were periods when he quarrelled bitterly with Phil. Everything had turned messy.
Still, they were capable of great triumphs. In 1964, they released a single called The Ferris Wheel and I thought that it was among their finest ever, a miraculous careering melody above a deepdown throbbing rhythm, a kind of Spanish- Moorish chant turned into pop terms. Wretchedly, it struggled to the edge of the English top twenty and then quietly died its death.
They never did anything quite so good again. On stage, they retained their old high-pitched, keening sound and were still capable of real magic; but many of their records sounded disinterested and, by 1970, they had virtually disbanded. Before that, however, they had recorded one last strong album, a return to Country, called Roots.
Ultimately, there was Charlie Rich.
Rich was an ex-Georgia cotton farmer and he was into his thirties, he had grey hair and a paunch. He looked most square, he was one natural-born ticket collector. Still, he wrote songs, played piano and sang. And he was beautiful, he was the most mellow sound in the world. He didn’t have many hits, admittedly, but he kept going right through into the sixties and, always, he was classic.
His finest efforts of all were collaborations with Dallas Frazier, a song-writer. Best ever was Mohair Sam, made in the middle sixties, a work of genius.
And that’s about where it ends, that was rock, those were the great rockers.
Looking back through what I’ve written, I’m struck hardest by two things - just how good the best of rock really was and just how sadly most of its practitioners have ended up.
I suppose the trouble was only that rock was such committed music, such a very specific attitude, so tied to its time, that it wasn’t possible for real rockers to ever move on. Of course, this is a stock problem in any field - revolution so quickly becomes boring - but the thing about pop is that its generation cycles last five years at the very most.
Never mind: the best rock records stand up still as the most complete music that pop has yet produced. Everything about it was so defined - all you had to do was mix in the right ingredients, stir well, and you had a little rock masterwork on your hands. It was that simple, that straightahead and, finally, that satisfying.
Of course, rock wasn’t ever anything like as complex, as creative as pop is now. Does that matter? It was Superpop. On its own terms, it was quite perfect.
Книга вышла в 1969г, но затем не раз переиздавалась снова, причём даже с другими названиями: Rock from the Beginning (в США), Pop From The Beginning... Также несколько менялся и текст книги. Например, т.к. книга вышла в 1969, в год смерти Брайана Джонса (The Rolling Stones), то и в ней об этом ещё не упоминалось, но в последующих выпусках книги окончание было изменено (упоминание о смерти Брайана Джонса, о женитьбе Джаггера в 1971 в Сан Тропе...). Поэтому тут, в главе посвящённой The Rolling Stones приведены оба варианта окончания. Книга "Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom - The Golden Age of Rock", по сути дела, является одной из самых первых книг о рок-музыке. Американский журналист и музыкальный критик Грейл Маркус (Greil Marcus) сказал о ней: The first best book on rock'n'roll / Самая первая и лучшая книга о рок-н-ролле.
В 1985 году журнал "Ровесник" (№№ 4, 6, 8-11) напечатал отрывки из этой книги Ника Кона. Опубликованы они были под названием "Рок как есть". Перевод с английского А. Соколов.