© 2011 David N. Townsend
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Rock 'n' roll has never been just a music. Heavy Metal, Rhythm & Blues, Art Rock, New Wave, and the rest may be primarily styles or genres, but as subcategories of rock, or of rock 'n' roll, they do not cumulatively add up to the whole. Rock 'n' roll is a movement, a lifestyle, a culture, and possibly an ideology. It is a tradition, in some ways a folklore, in many ways a belief system. And all that rock 'n' roll is today it owes to a brief window of history: two years, no more than three, when the fabric of American popular culture was torn apart and rewoven, and a new era explosively began.
Looking back from these Classic Rock vantage points, it's easy to visualize the early rock 'n' roll days. By now, they've been relived and recreated in hundreds of movies, television programs, magazine articles, biographies, and anthologies. Those were the Happy Days, the Fabulous Fifties, when that Old Time Rock 'n' Roll was blasting from every jukebox, and Peggy Sue rode in her boyfriend's '57 Chevy to the Sock Hop, ready to Rock Around the Clock. It was when Elvis was King, when life was simpler, when they played all those wonderful love songs that touched our hearts when the living room lights were dimmed... The fifties are forever frozen in American memory by these kinds of images, and they may even be fairly accurate, for all we know.
Still, despite the nostalgia crazes, '50s rock 'n' roll hasn't survived as a "popular" music in the way that '60s rock has. By that I mean that '50s rock 'n' roll is treated almost universally as "oldie" music, more of a nostalgic curiosity, whereas rock from the Beatles to the present still has a "contemporary" feel to it. Sixties rock hasn't faded from popular AOR radio stations—Dylan, Stones, Beatles, Doors, Hendrix, and others remained connected to modern rock by an invisible cultural thread throughout the 1980s—and many of the major stars and comebacks of the decade—Steve Winwood, John Fogerty, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Motown—were sixties veterans. The original rock 'n' rollers, however, enjoyed no such longevity in the post-Beatles world. Elvis's popularity from 1963 on was largely confined to his aging original fans—he was something of an embarrassment to the younger generation; Chuck Berry, while personally very resilient, achieved his last real hit with the novelty "Ding-a-Ling" in 1972, and otherwise has played generally to the oldies audience; Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins were all basically irrelevant to rock's development after the early '60s; and other major stars of that initial era have diminished to utter obscurity.
The consequence of this historic dividing line is that, whereas today's teenagers born in the 1970s can recite Beatles and Dylan lyrics from memory, the great original rock 'n' roll tunes are only vaguely familiar even to 35-year-olds who grew up immediately in the wake of the rock 'n' roll explosion. I have a lot of "party tapes" containing a broad mix of songs from different eras including the fifties that I will presumptuously install in the cassette deck at a gathering or on a long car ride. Invariably, I absorb awkward and disappointed stares and groans when, on such a tape, an Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry tune follows a more "modern" song; someone usually insists on fast-forwarding past it.
This is too bad, because the music from that time, especially from the epochal years of 1956 and 1957, is truly great music. Sure, it lacks any overriding social or political themes, there are no screaming guitar solos or overdubbed synthesizers, and the recordings are generally poor (and pre-stereo). But the energy, vitality, and originality of breakthrough rock 'n' roll is unmatched by almost anything that has come along since, and in its context, the ferocity with which this music burst upon the scene was nothing short of amazing. At daybreak, 1955, "rock 'n' roll" was still just a vague notion, an alternative term for Rhythm & Blues, and popular as a genre only among that clandestine cadre of youth who had discovered the R&B radio stations. "Doo-Wop" vocal groups such as the Penguins had penetrated the mainstream with songs like "Earth Angel" (1954), and there were many successful white covers, but this was all very restrained compared to true R&B, about which the majority of the country knew next to nothing. By daybreak, 1956, however, the first beachheads had been established, and as of the middle of that year, a full scale invasion was underway on all fronts. And like the allies at Normandy, the onslaught just kept on coming, with barely time for its teen audience to catch their breath from dancing to one hit before the next—bigger, faster, more enthralling—exploded at their feet.
It somehow seems that post-'50s rock fans have the impression that the rock 'n' roll hits of that era occurred over a long span of time. To understand the importance of this watershed moment in modern history, however, it is necessary to realize that it was only a moment. The great classic rock 'n' roll songs didn't crawl out of the woodwork one at a time, one or two per month; they fell from the sky almost simultaneously. It was, I believe, the relentlessness of this deluge that, in the end, made rock 'n' roll and all that came after it so enduring, so permanent.
Following is an annotated list of thirty songs, including the month when each song was either recorded or released. This is just a sampling from the period, albeit many of the biggest hits; there were countless dozens of others in the same style being released at the same time. Try to imagine (if you didn't experience it) what it was like for teenagers once rock 'n' roll first shot forward, to encounter in rapid succession each of these overwhelmingly potent hits. Try to imagine waking up every morning with the increasing realization that a revolution was occurring all around you, that the next wave was likely to hit at any moment, that you were a part of this accelerating phenomenon day in and day out, and all your friends were caught up in it too. About once a week, someone would arrive at school or at the soda shop to announce, "You've got to hear this great new record!" And indeed it was great, and the excitement just grew and grew, until it was bigger than anything before: it was a way of life, a burning passion wanting more and more and proclaiming with religious fervor that it would never die or diminish, but would grow to engulf the world with its message of euphoria and the wonders of life and love and youth. And so it has, the reasons for which to be found in the suddenness and the intensity of the songs themselves that ignited the era.
1. Bill Haley and His Comets, "Rock Around the Clock".
Recorded and released in 1954, this song languished until 1955 when suddenly kids across America and then in England discovered the idea of upbeat dancing ("rocking"!) nonstop, for the fun of it. Where no similarly fast-paced, rocking style song had ever been a major hit before, "Rock Around the Clock" became a smash, the best selling record of the entire year, spawning at least two movies that featured the song and Haley's group. Purists tend to discount this song, despite its vital role, because Haley was white, because he never had another hit of the same magnitude, and because, musically, with its big band/swing overtones, it doesn't quite match the standard "rock 'n' roll" formula. To assert that "Rock Around the Clock" is not the seminal rock 'n' roll song, however, is like asserting that Babe Ruth wasn't the greatest baseball player: you'd better have some strong arguments, because the facts are against you.
2. Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley". Released early 1955.
This is the purists' preferred choice. Although Bo Diddley himself has remained a relatively unknown artifact in contrast to most of the big name rock 'n' rollers, the riffs he popularized with his signature tune are as immortal as any sound in popular music. He uses his guitar as a rhythm instrument, strumming basic blues progression chords with a halting accent on the upbeat through the first three beats of the bar, then adds the downbeat on the fourth: _/ _/ _/ /_. Something like that. Younger rock 'n' roll fans will recognize this syncopation as identical to that in the oft-covered "Not Fade Away". In its emphasis on the upbeat, "Bo Diddley" also crudely foreshadows basic Reggae rhythms. Most of all, this was a catchy, irresistibly danceable number that undoubtedly perked up the ears of many young listeners, and not a few aspiring musicians.
3. The Platters, "Only You". Released mid-1955.
A smash crossover hit, not the only or even the greatest that the Platters would achieve with their smoothly orchestrated crooning style and their impeccable singing voices. These kinds of mellow black singing groups had been accepted and successful for years by 1955, and the Platters were merely the most successful of them all, and it is legitimate to ask how much direct relevance, other than their race, they had to the rock 'n' roll explosion. I can think of two answers immediately. First, lead singer Tony Williams's singing style, exemplified in this song, really stood out from the rest of the music, as he twisted and manipulated his vocal cords to emulate a kind of imploring stutter followed by a long croon: "Uh-uh-oh-only yoooou..." Elvis Presley soon tried the same trick, and got similarly impassioned responses, especially from females. Second, it is a mistake to ever to exclude so-called "mellow" songs from the panorama of rock 'n' roll music (forcefully though some would try). From the very beginning, rock 'n' roll fans have demonstrated that a solid mix of loud, hard core, fast paced dance music and softer, slower, romantic music is preferable to a one-dimensional style at either extreme. Teenagers in the fifties bought Platters and Presley records side by side and played them one after the other, and that tradition hasn't changed in thirty-odd years; almost every band, in fact, except the roughest and most uncompromising, tends to diverge into fits of mellowosity from time to time. Witness Aerosmith's "Dream On," the Stones' "Angie," the Clash's "Broadway,", not to mention "Stairway to Heaven, and countless others. You can say that these songs aren't true "rock 'n' roll" songs, but some kind of latter day Tin Pan Alley infused within rock, but that is a capricious distinction. Mellow is a part of rock, a component of the whole, if only to provide an occasional respite from sensory overload and energy release, or perhaps to fulfill the promise of rebellion, the object of angst: peace, romance, tranquility—the rewards for fighting so hard. The mellow songs, after all, were always the ones played at the end of the dance.
4. Chuck Berry, "Maybellene". Recorded May 1955.
Still, this is the stuff we really came to hear. With "Maybellene," Chuck Berry arrived, and so did the Real Thing. This song has every element of bona fide rock 'n' roll: a fast backbeat, blues-based chords, knockout guitar solos, a charismatic lead singer belting out lyrics about fast cars and unfaithful women. That this tune came to be in 1955 indicates how rapidly things were changing. "Maybellene," because of its sound and who performed it, was the no-turning-back threshold rock 'n' roll event. "Rock Around the Clock" may have set the table and whet appetites, but it was Chuck Berry who served up a main course that left the feasters insatiable.
5. Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti". Recorded September 1955.
To kill the metaphor, Little Richard might have been dessert. Not as polished nor as skilled, nor as intelligible, as Chuck Berry, he made up for crudeness with raw energy. A badly recorded monophonic relic like "Tutti Frutti" could still hold its own against the hardest hitting rock of any era when it comes to revving up an audience. Richard's powerful, flexible shouting/singing is mirrored by nearly out-of-control backing instrumentals: drums, bass, piano, saxophones. You can picture the band bouncing around in ecstasy, and the teenagers of the fifties, just discovering this amazing new sound, doing the same. A lot of people, we can guess, must have begun asking themselves, "what's going on here?!"
6. Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes". Recorded December 1955.
Now you're beginning to get the idea. These are songs you're familiar with, but they were each new and unexpected to that original audience. Already the topic of dancing—fast, rhythmic, boogie dancing—was being celebrated in songs. Songwriters could feel the groundswell as much as anyone. What Perkins represented, in addition, was the same thing that Elvis was about to epitomize: the wedding of R&B with Hillbilly/Country and Western, Black with White music. Chuck Berry fit this mold as well, a black man with a country flair. Perkins came out of Sam Phillips's Sun Records where Elvis had produced some minor hits with "That's All Right" in 1954 and "Baby Let's Play House" in 1955. Despite his eclipsing career, however, Elvis can't lay claim to this first and perhaps greatest Rockabilly smash.
7, 8. Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You". Recorded February 1956.
Two more items for the "Can you believe it?" category: Can you believe that all the above potent rock 'n' roll was recorded and popular before Elvis Presley really broke on the scene? And can you believe that Elvis's first two monster hits were so utterly mellow as these two? You should believe both, because it helps to demonstrate that by no means did Elvis create the rock 'n' roll revolution that he soon came to rule. He entered into the middle of the chaos and immediately became its focus, but it would have happened without him: it already had.
Listening to these songs today, their most remarkable feature is Presley's voice itself. He takes the Platters' Tony Williams's techniques, and any other predecessor's, to new, uncharted pinnacles. For a singer who was only just encountering widespread popularity, his singing resonates with amazing fortitude and confidence, especially on "Heartbreak Hotel," where Presley alternately shouts with full lungs "Well since my baby left me" and then gulps back the words "they'll make you so lonely baby" as if under water, without missing a beat. These are really blues songs, nicely arranged, with slow but steady rhythms, nondescript except for these astounding vocals. That Elvis rose so suddenly to such unprecedented fame on the strength of these initial hits, and of those that came immediately after, is proof that young rock 'n' roll fans were in fact quite discriminating; they recognized and responded to his exceptional musical gift. Marketing strategies and shameless manipulative promotion may have dominated his subsequent RCA career, but Elvis made it because he deserved to. That is, he was not merely a white guy who sang like a black, but a magnificent talent who was somehow keenly attuned to the culture. I would assert that before Elvis became the movement, he sensed it, however unconsciously, and moved on instinct to became its leader.
9. Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven". Recorded February 1956.
There's not much point in elaborating on Chuck Berry's genius ad infinitum, since it's been done so much recently. Everything about this song, from the lyrics to the rhythm to the quintessential Berry guitar licks, is the most vital rock 'n' roll, the definition of rock 'n' roll, which is exactly what the song tries to be. A slick, black, country R&B singer announces with unmitigated audacity that a new musical era has arrived, and in so announcing, he makes it come true.
10. Little Richard, "Long Tall Sally". Recorded February 1956.
This was a good month. Every bit as energetic and motivating as "Tutti Frutti," this song adds slightly more comprehensible lyrics, and compounds the theme of "havin' me some fun tonight" that was at the foundation of the movement. And, with the messages being put on vinyl during this epic month, a movement was precisely what was underway. The peak was yet many months away but already American teenagers' awareness of a special new force in the world was spreading exponentially. Its benign credo—that everyone should enthusiastically celebrate fun and romance and camaraderie—only partly masked the evidence that rock 'n' roll's popularity arose on a platform of discontent. The Blues component of R&B, and of rock 'n' roll, remained hidden within the enjoyment, translated into lost love or sheer musical combustion, but in a way to have "fun" itself was rebellious—to have this much fun, anyway, to dance about wildly, shouting and reeling to exhaustion. And the growing adherence to rock 'n' roll as a purpose, an end in itself, signalled that this was more to kids than just a good time.
11. Roy Orbison, "Ooby Dooby". Recorded April 1956.
12. Gene Vincent, "Be-Bop-a-Lula". Released June 1956.
This was the heyday of rockabilly, when complete unknowns could flex their proficient vocal cords to an R&B beat, add a country flair such as a washboard or string bass, and take over the nation for a few weeks. These tunes, especially Vincent's, are unforgettable variations on the standard rockabilly sound. Twenty-five years later, the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer could only dream of replicating its authenticity. Orbison, meanwhile, achieved an immense and unlikely comeback with his participation in the original Traveling Wilbury's, before his untimely death in 1989.
13. Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk". Released June 1956.
One of the first big instrumental rock 'n' roll hits, elevating the saxophone to top billing, and proving that it was not merely the singers' words or images that inspired rock 'n' roll fans, but the style itself. "Honky Tonk" reached number two on the charts on the strength of a very catchy melody and an unshakable rhythm, nothing more. The beat, incidentally, is enhanced by clapping hands that somehow bring the whole recording closer to the audience: it's hard not to clap along.
14. Elvis Presley, "Don't Be Cruel". Recorded July 1956.
This was the first major peak in the rock 'n' roll explosion. "Don't Be Cruel" reached number one simultaneously on Billboard's pop, R&B, and country charts, the first record ever to do so. The symbolism is obvious: blacks, country folk, and average suburban whites were all enthralled with the phenomenon represented by Elvis. Topping both the pop and R&B charts at once was actually fairly common for both black and white artists in the early 1950s, and sporadically thereafter; it was bringing in the country fans that was more remarkable. Presley would do the trick a couple of more times, and the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis would also achieve the same feat in the next two years, but country music listeners soon retreated from the rock 'n' roll coalition, and recent decades have seen a fairly sharp separation between country music and rock music, with the pop charts tilting back and forth between derivatives of each. Black popular music, in particular, no longer displays any significant relation to country, and vice versa. For a brief time, however, there was certifiable unity across these highly diverse audiences, adding to the legend of primeval rock 'n' roll.
"Don't Be Cruel" is certainly a worthy recording to be granted this honor: upbeat, well-sung, and competently arranged and recorded. In its context, it seems merely to have arrived at the right time, when teenagers of all stripes were buying records in droves and were loony over the King. Nor did it hurt that the flip side of the single was Elvis's version of "Hound Dog," noticeably louder and harder than Willie Mae Thornton's. With this release, if not before, Elvis achieved a "can do no wrong" status with his fans, and with a broader segment of the American public. Although Establishment critics and unsuspecting parents either dismissed or lambasted him, the entertainment industry couldn't ignore Presley's unprecedented appeal, and income potential. He began appearing on television shows, movie contracts were drawn up, and each record he released outsold the last. It is sometimes hard to remember, I think, that the pitiful shell who sedated himself to death in 1977, and whose spirit is shamelessly retrieved in uncounted sleazoid magazines on a weekly basis, was actually a vibrant 20-year-old godchild in 1956, whose very newness and unbridled pleasure in his own craft sent legions of youthful fans into recurrent ecstasy. That intense a reception (which of course is what keeps his name and face beside the checkout counters) has been replicated only once in the intervening decades, with the arrival of the Beatles from another shore. No Springsteen, Grateful Dead, Bon Jovi, Madonna, or Michael Jackson can claim inheritance of Elvis's throne, regardless of how many records they sell or concert hall seats they fill. His was a breakthrough in cultural evolution itself: the origin of the Superstar. All the others have merely followed his lead, imperfectly silhouetting the Elvis Presley idol. Until a new phenomenon arrives that captures the world as only he and the Fab Four did, all subsequent "pop stars" must be counted as no more than disciples.
15. Fats Domino, "Blueberry Hill". Released September 1956.
That this record was as popular as it was (#4, #1 on the R&B chart) in the midst of the rock 'n' roll outburst demonstrates the enduring rhythm and blues influence among the popular audience. This is a mellow New Orleans ballad, far removed from the Elvis-Chuck Berry school—a pleasant change of pace in fact—and it works largely because it is so authentic. Of course, Fats's jolly public image worked too, again in contrast to the sex and youth appeal of the major teen stars. To be different and real, and true to one's roots, has always been the surest success formula for rock 'n' roll performers.
16. Elvis Presley, "Too Much". Released January 1957.
There's been some discussion among rock 'n' roll historians that the movement nearly died, almost as suddenly as it arrived, in late 1956. The hiatus represented here for example (September to January), seems a lifetime compared with the rapid-fire releases of early and mid-1956. I don't see that rock 'n' roll was at all sickly, however; it may have just needed a breather. Certainly unless talents like Elvis, Berry, Little Richard, et al, were concurrently removed from the scene (q.v. 1959-60), there was little chance that the creativity and the energy would dry up. And once inspired, the teenage audience would surely never choose to abandon its discovery, contrary to the wishful expectations of many adults. In any event, hindsight proves that rather than fading, rock 'n' roll was in for a renewed thrust in 1957 that would even surpass the bedlam of the previous year. Elvis appropriately opened the gates with this hit, which reached #1 despite not being
released as a single.
17. The Coasters, "Young Blood". Recorded February 1957.
The first of many Coasters hits (they previously charted as the Robins with "Smokey Joe's Cafe"), and also one of the first major successes for songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, two of the hidden heroes of rock 'n' roll. In addition to composing many of Elvis's greatest hits, Lieber and Stoller were behind dozens of songs by such black performers as the Coasters, the Drifters, and Lavern Baker. Here was a more subtle marriage of black R&B with white music: two white songwriters creating hit material for black singers, and reaching the top of the R&B charts in the process. The lines between cultural groups were that blurred, both behind the studio doors and in the ears of the listening audience. Compared with the level of segregation that has returned lately to the rock industry, this achievement, less than three years after Brown v. Board of Education, and well before the Civil Rights movement really caught hold, is doubly impressive. As with other remnants of '50s rock 'n' roll, music like the Coasters' tends to be ignored or sneered at by contemporary listeners, even "nostalgic" ones. That is especially unfortunate, given the ideal of common heritage and mutual appreciation they symbolized.
18. Chuck Berry, "School Days". Released March 1957.
This is another, even better example of that cross-racial model. In what is arguably Berry's greatest anthem, his combined ballad of teenage life in the mid-1950s and salute to the triumph of rock 'n' roll, there is an unmentioned and fascinating incongruity. Chuck Berry, a thirtyish black man from St. Louis by way of Chicago, is describing the lives of white teenagers in the suburbs of Milwaukee and Cleveland and Baltimore. More to the point, this "negro" was singing about classrooms and "juke joints" where no blacks attended. Intentional segregation was still dominant throughout America, but that didn't extend to the records that kids bought and listened to. By showing his intuitive understanding of his audience's youthful restlessness, and providing a free and exhilarating way out, Chuck Berry may have contributed as much to the impending shift in young whites' racial attitudes as the Supreme Court and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Deliver me from the days of old" could have more than one meaning.
19. Elvis Presley, "All Shook Up". Released March 1957.
Considering his tremendous popularity, Presley sure can't be accused of resting on his laurels, going through the motions. I'm only including a handful of his 1956-57 hits on this list; there were others equally memorable. Elvis's songs did indeed decline to a relatively mediocre level by 1959 when he entered the army, but for three or four years he had an astounding series of not only successful but original and quality recordings.
20. The Everly Brothers, "Bye Bye Love". Released April 1957.
Now things really start to heat up, as the second wave of artists and recording companies arrives. The Everlys also emerged from the country and western school to discover a new rhythm and a massive audience. They introduced white vocal harmonies that would inspire the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel, and yielded danceable music that relied primarily upon acoustic guitars. The theme, lost love, was as old as they come, but the approach was altogether new.
21. Jerry Lee Lewis, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". Released May 1957.
Believe it or not, it gets even better. Jerry Lee Lewis's reputation has endured for more than thirty years, which is surprising if you consider that he only had three real hit records, covering less than two years. A big part of the reason, of course, is the controversies he incited with his raucous antics and his underage bride; Jerry Lee would have been prime National Enquirer material. But another, perhaps more important cause of his persistence is the records, "Whole Lotta Shakin'" premier among them. The pounding, single chord piano solo is by itself both Jerry Lee's trademark and a rock 'n' roll institution. My favorite bit is his soft-spoken "Shake it baby, you can shake it one time for me." Just the title of the song captures everything one needs to hear about rock 'n' roll's incipient meaning—rhythm, slang, colloquialism, and pervasiveness—only it says it with feeling instead of pretentious analytical detachment.
22. Buddy Holly and the Crickets, "That'll Be the Day". Released May 1957.
The general consensus seems to be that, had he lived, Buddy Holly was destined to become rock 'n' roll's greatest champion, eclipsing even Elvis and Chuck Berry. Back in 1957, it must have been almost too much to take, after the succession of great performers and songs that had engulfed the nation already, including the above new entries from the Everlys and Jerry Lee, to be again assaulted by still another new singer, whose song was yet one more notch above its predecessors. The kids must have been exhausted (listening to this tape is exhausting!). Rock 'n' roll by springtime 1957 was like an opiate or a strong drink that just kept getting stronger, steeping its fans in loftier euphoria with each passing week.
23. Little Richard, "Lucille". Released May 1957.
Pre-historic Heavy Metal: the louder it is played, the more exciting it sounds. White Snake has nothing on Little Richard.
24. Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu". Released mid-1957.
How come there has been so much attention given to the origins of the term "rock 'n' roll," but no one asks about the origins of "boogie woogie"? As another euphemism for dancing and/or sex, it seems almost more appropriate, more dirty. As a throw-away New Orleans fun song from 1957, this little gimmick is as representative as any of the atmosphere that year. It stood out well enough that fifteen years later in 1972, fellow Louisianan Johnny Rivers (of "Secret Agent Man" fame) was able to produce a number six hit with his cover version.
25. Elvis Presley, "Loving You". Released June 1957.
Presley's baritone on this, the ultimate slow dance number, is almost too powerful: his "don't you be blue..." virtually rumbles the floor. The recording could probably do without the silly backing chorus, but that was the state of the art for the time. In fact, the entire song would be unappealingly syrupy if it weren't for Elvis's extraordinary voice. It wasn't enough that he whipped young girls into a frenzy with his gyrations and bopping—this kind of record had them swearing off any other lover, devoting their lives to Elvis's worship. Tommy the greaseball down the street never sang like that.
26. Everly Brothers, "Wake Up, Little Susie". Released August, 1957.
Aside from the Everlys' musical contributions, particularly their pioneering harmonies, this song stands out from its time as startling evidence that teenage sex was not, in fact, an invention of the 1960s. The characters in the song, Susie and her boyfriend, are about to get in trouble because they fell asleep at the movies on a date, and now it's four o'clock in the morning. Their "reputation is shot." They lament, "what are we gonna tell our friends when they say 'ooh la la!'?" In other words, the whole world is going to assume that they've been out screwing! That the clean cut kids in the song are actually innocent doesn't change the fact that the suspicions must be founded in some awareness of and concern about teenagers messing around—i.e., it must have happened for real sometimes. And this is the mainstream white culture were talking about: the Everly Brothers were as harmless and cute a duo as rock 'n' roll produced, not some dubious black blues pickers with a bottle in their pocket and a leer in their eye. If they knew what sex was, and that—ooh la la!—it sometimes happened between teenagers, then everyone must have known... So much for the innocence of the era.
27. Buddy Holly, "Peggy Sue". Released September 1957.
Another of Holly's legendary offerings, showcasing his acrobatic vocal cords and his innate sense of rhythm. For me it doesn't have the overwhelming inspiration of "That'll Be the Day," nor is it in a league with his less familiar "Rave On," but "Peggy Sue" somehow came to symbolize for many people the whole fifties era. The credit for that lies largely in the name Peggy Sue itself. They don't give girls names like that any more; it retains a certain pre-sixties naivete and cuteness, an image of pig tales, bobby socks, long wool skirts, innocent smiles, high school proms. Whether or not such girls ever existed is rather irrelevant: our memory of the era can be solidified by such icons (reconstructed, in this case, thirty years later by Kathleen Turner in the film "Peggy Sue Got Married"), just as the fleeting image of Buddy Holly himself somehow captures the essence of that time and preserves it. Buddy Holly never had a chance to get old and alter or shatter the world's impression of him; Peggy Sue never ages either. Somewhere in teenage fantasy heaven he is still courting her and she is coyishly shying away from his advances. The sun is shining on their suburban town, the proverbial '57 Chevy convertible is parked in front of her house, and good times rock 'n' roll is thumping over at the Malt Shop, down the street from the school field where the football team is practicing. Why is it so easy, so automatic, to conjure up these visions? Similar stereotype pictures of other eras seem less clear, more ambiguous. The fifties are defined, in our times, by their simplicity; complexity is what came later.
I don't have any answers, other than a suggestion that perhaps lives were simpler in the fifties, at least for a couple of years. Rock 'n' roll was not really disruptive to the American social fabric, despite its tremendous and sudden impact on teenagers' lives; it actually provided a structure that was somewhat lacking before, a code of living that required the car, the dance, the Friday night date, the entire lifestyle depicted and celebrated in the songs. Until other influences splintered and diversified the audience, maybe rock 'n' roll, for all its rebellious reputation, inspired conformism more than anything else.
28. Danny and the Juniors, "At the Hop". Released November 1957.
Case in point: the Hop. This song is as much a command—"let's go to the Hop"—as a description of an event. By this time, with rock 'n' roll intractably established as the dominant influence in teens' lives, the music often spoke directly about itself, singing its own praises. To a cynical outsider, this could have seemed like brainwashing propaganda; to the insider it was more like ritual celebration. Either way, the lifestyle was exponentially reinforced. But the point of this whole discography is that it was all justified, because, damn it, the music was so great! Inspiration inspired further inspiration, and the young American (and soon European) audience was gleefully carried along on the wave. In every way, this wonderful little piece of propaganda by Danny and the Juniors fits that qualification.
29. Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls of Fire". Released November 1957.
Another masterpiece mixture of beat, boogie piano, lyrical tricks, personality, energy, sexiness. Another exhibit in the Hall of Fame, another Classic. In 1957, just another button on the juke box.
30. Chuck Berry, "Sweet Little Sixteen". Released January 1958.
The rock 'n' roll juggernaut didn't stop in 1958, but it slowed down a bit from the breakneck pace of 1956-57 that I've tried to portray here. To close out the period, Chuck Berry submits another quintessential anthem. Among its many merits, this song introduced the idea of nationwide unity in the rock 'n' roll community, ticking off a handful of cities that span the continent, where "they're really rockin'" and "all the cats want to dance with sweet little sixteen." Other songs have since repeated this theme, including Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancin' in the Streets" and Huey Lewis's "Heart of Rock 'n' Roll." Such was Berry's brilliance, and such was the magic of rock 'n' roll, that it made kids feel that they belonged to something big, important, and widespread. There is nothing gratuitous about comparing that revolution with the movements inspired by written words, e.g., Thomas Paine's, in other eras.
Thus we have the inception of the Rock era, brought about by a confluence of ideas and feelings and creative experiments, founded on the restlessness and dispossession growing among American children of the second World War. This was no small moment in history, for the effects of these two years' echoes continue to spread, to other nations, to new generations, to the thrones of power and the seats of wealth, as well as to the dispossessed and restless youth of a new era. Rock 'n' roll revival is only partly nostalgic: it also signifies a yearning for rejuvenation, for the kind of uncompromised exuberance that those star-crossed kids shared over thirty years ago. Although the movement has wandered many and varied paths during those years, it has retained at least the unconscious memory of its glorious birth. And in many respects we can claim that the entire diverse and volatile history of Rock, both the music and the movement, boils down to a search for its own roots, for Paradise regained. That Paradise should be defined in simplistic, youthful, romantic, communal, non-ideological terms—all traits from which rock has so often deviated, or that have eluded so much of rock, in the ensuing decades—only reinforces the conviction that the ideology of "Rock Around the Clock," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Don't Be Cruel," "Whole Lotta Shakin'," "Peggy Sue," and "Sweet Little Sixteen," is the only rock ideology that has ever really mattered.
—END CHAPTER 2—
Disclaimer: This is an unpublished manuscript, made available to the public for your personal interest and reaction. It may not be reprinted, copied, or distributed in any manner, without express permission of the author. I neither ask nor receive any financial compensation for this document. Hence, although I use quotes from several published song lyrics without having obtained formal permission of the copyright owner, there is no violation of copyright, since this document is not "published" or sold in any meaningful sense.