Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, January 17, 1960: The Classic

After two weeks at #1, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” (see my entry for January 4) was displaced at the top of the pops by Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”—which, like “El Paso,” is also a narrative about sexual obsession and death. The song’s eponymous protagonist is cast as the Romeo figure in love with “Little White Dove,” the Juliet of a rival tribe (the river and the rival tribe function as obstacles to the fulfillment of their desire). Unable to consummate their love, they choose death instead, in the form of a double suicide.

Not that anyone remembers. It’s “ancient” history, a perception that is encouraged, no doubt unintentionally, by historiographers of rock and roll. The problem is that rock and roll historians have derived their crude historiographical method from the science of paleontology (crude in the sense that it presumes a sort teleologically-driven process governs the progress of rock and roll), and hence the history of rock and roll has been emplotted as “eras,” with the period 1959-1963 perceived as a sort of anomaly, a non-period, in an otherwise rationally developing and coherent system. The history of rock would seem to be conceived of as follows (at least in the North American geographical region):

--Stone Age: Development of the “blues,” once known as “race” music, then “jump,” then, eventually, following a period of hybridization enabled by the war years and the post-war collapse of the swing industry, around 1951 or so, “rhythm and blues”
--Bronze Age: Early elaboration and experimentation with rhythm and blues elements beginning ca. 1951. Artifacts from this era: “Rocket 88,” early Little Richard recordings on Peacock, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” as well as other materials of interest only to (musical) archaeologists having an arcane (specialized) knowledge.
--Iron Age: Began around 1954 in the rock and roll equivalent to the “Fertile Crescent,” i.e., the Mississippi Delta, in diverse villages. Developed by Little Richard (New Orleans) and others, popularized by Elvis Presley (Memphis), followed by the subsequent sudden and widespread dissemination of rock and roll, primarily among Caucasian populations, 1956-58. As above, material artifacts from this era are now of interest only to those with a specialized knowledge and the urge to preserve and collect these shards in museums ("halls of fame").

Following this continuous three-part development, however, there’s an unpredictable cataclysm, the rock and roll equivalent of a gigantic meteor strike, an apocalyptic sequence of events structurally necessary to explain the always puzzling, inexplicable, and violent end of one era and the interstitial moment before the next--“the day the music died”: The King’s exile to Germany (subsequently inviting a host of illegitimate Pretenders), the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson, the arrest of Chuck Berry, public backlash against Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on. Following this cataclysm, there’s an immedicable historic rupture, the post-apocalyptic return to the “Dark Ages,” a period of trauma-induced shock, an amnesiac gap, “missing time”—the “Lost Years,” roughly corresponding to the years 1959-1963.

The problem with this model is that it makes it seem as if what came after, especially the music of the Beatles, appear fully formed, ex nihilo. According to David Stowe in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (1994), this sort of moment occurred before in American popular music. It happens because changes in popular music are often “obscured by conditions in the music industry” (206). In his discussion of why the post-war emergence of bop (bebop) was so puzzling to its contemporaries, Stowe explains:

Just as the formative preswing years of the early 1930s had been elided by the post-Crash collapse of the entertainment business, particularly the recording industry, bebop’s lengthy incubation period coincided with the distraction of world war. The 1942-1944 recording ban, moreover, ensured that the prime vehicle for disseminating the new music was unavailable for nearly two years. (206)

Profits in the entertainment industry are largely determined by advertising revenues, especially so for Top 40 radio and network television. (The Top 40 analogue within the television industry at the time was American Bandstand.) The format of Top 40 radio was determined by the industry’s commitment to the 2-3 minute single, which easily allowed for the insertion of advertisements between each song. By 1960, the LP had existed for over a decade, but LPs primarily consisted of collections of singles—hence the invention of the “Greatest Hits” album around this time, a heterogeneous assemblage culled from previous single releases. A rock and roll song was defined by its length (the single) and not yet by the “jam” (enabled by the length of a side on an LP. A “Greatest Hits” album premised on the extended “jam” is inconceivable). Rock and roll songs were, are, singles; everybody knew, knows, this.

So did the Beatles--except the Beatles, given developments in recording technology in the 1960s, also helped popularize the LP, at least to a younger generation. Hence the perceived “vacuum” in the years 1959-1963 is an effect of the institutional commitment to rock and roll singles and not to rock and roll LPs (except as a cobbled together collection of 2 to 3 minute songs). There are no “classic” rock albums from this period because the rock album as such didn't yet exist--there was no such thing as a “conceptual” or “concept” album (although Sinatra had begun taking such steps in the 1950s, creating albums unified by a single “mood”). Only with the rise of FM radio later in the decade did “classic” albums, in the sense of LPs, emerge. Obviously, the “classic” rock album was a consequence of FM radio privileging the album over the single ("AOR"). It's true that Elvis's first LPs are referred to as "classics," but in this case the term is used to distinguish the era, not the specific use of the LP format.

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