Saturday, March 15, 2008

Monday, January 25, 1960: el

According to John Tobler’s book, This Day in Rock: Day by Day Record of Rock’s Biggest News Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Elvis Presley’s first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One, was released on January 25, 1956--exactly four years earlier than the above date. (Certain web sources proffer a slightly later date, although the discrepancy is minor and ultimately insignificant.)

On January 25, 1960, Elvis had just about five weeks left in the Army. No one had yet heard of the Beatles; the band as such didn't exist. The band that would become the Beatles was still known as The Quarrymen--the band members hadn’t yet decided on the name The Silver Beetles. In a wonderful sort of symmetry, precisely four years later--January 25, 1964--the Beatles first American single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” was one week away from becoming the band’s first #1 hit on the American charts, where it would remain perched for almost two months. As everyone knows, 1964 was the annus mirabilis of the Beatles, during which they had nine different singles sharing either the #1 or #2 spot on and off throughout the year. Chart information for 1964 is as follows (courtesy Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991):

Song Title/Peak Date/Peak Position/Weeks at Peak Position
I Want to Hold Your Hand/February 1/#1/7 weeks
Please Please Me/March 14/#2/3 weeks
She Loves You/March 21/#1/2 weeks
Can’t Buy Me Love/April 4/#1/5 weeks
Twist and Shout/April 4/#2/4 weeks
Do You Want To Know a Secret/May 9/#2/1 week
Love Me Do/May 30/#1/1 week
A Hard Day’s Night/August 1/#1/2 weeks
I Feel Fine/Dec. 26/#1/3 weeks

In contrast, Elvis Presley had no songs in the Top 40 in 1964 (or 1965, or 1966, or 1967, or…). It wasn’t until late 1969 that Elvis had another #1 hit, his first big hit in many years. Instead of making records, he was busy making movies. During the years from 1960 (Post-Army, Pre-Beatles) to 1964 (Beatlemania), Elvis made the following movies, released in the following order:

G.I. Blues (1960)
Flaming Star (1960)
Wild in the Country (1961)
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Follow That Dream (1962)
Kid Galahad (1962)
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
It Happened at the World's Fair (1963)
Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Kissin’ Cousins (1964) [Arguably his worst film, the absolute bottom of the barrel, infelicitously released at the onset of Beatlemania]
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Roustabout (1964)

Hence, while Elvis was preoccupied with his movie career, the Fab Four were becoming one of the most famous bands in popular music history. The criss-cross that occurred in 1964 (one's fortunes up, the other's fortunes down, and I don't mean by fortunes "money") could not have gone unnoticed by either the Beatles or Elvis. In his biography, Elvis (1980) Albert Goldman writes:

No wonder then, that when the Beatles first came to America--welcomed on the Ed Sullivan Show by a telegram wishing them every success and signed by Elvis Presley (though dispatched without his knowledge by Colonel Parker)--Elvis refused point-blank to meet these dubious young men who aspired to the hand of his daughter, the American youth audience. “Hell, I don’t wanna meet them sons o’ bitches!” exploded Elvis when the Colonel ran the proposition by him for the first time during the Beatles’ initial tour in 1964. (Avon Books paperback, 1981, p. 447)

Elvis didn’t meet the Beatles until the third week of August 1965 (the event recounted with different rhetorical flourishes in different biographies) while in Los Angeles filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), which could be considered his worst film--if it weren't for Kissin' Cousins. He hadn’t been in the recording studio for years, except, of course, for the purpose of recording material for his soundtracks. After the Beatles met Elvis in August, the rest of 1965 worked out as follows:

The Beatles--Rubber Soul (album), December 1965 (U. S.)
Elvis Presley--Harum Scarum (movie), December 1965 (U. S.)

Thus the remark John Lennon made just a few months later, “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” uttered during an interview conducted on March 4, 1966, was made only after he and the other members of the Beatles had met Elvis. Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks, A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), interprets Lennon’s infamous remark as follows:

When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, what’s the chance that he really meant--in Bible Code--that they were more popular than Elvis? In both Hebrew and the language of rock ‘n’ roll, El means “God.” Lennon, however, couldn’t bring himself to say what he meant. Why? It would have been sacrilegious. Remember, it was Lennon who said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” (84)

In other words, Lennon could not bring himself to utter the terrible truth. He could not say, “The Beatles have become more popular than Elvis,” but perhaps, nonetheless, that's what he meant. It’s worth looking at the entire infamous remark Lennon made in 1966, the following quotation taken from

When they reached the subject of religion, Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first--rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

What if he really meant the following? I have supplied the appropriate substitutions:

Elvis will go. He will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Elvis now; I don’t know which will go first--us or Elvis.

Was Lennon consciously aware of what he really meant? Could he imagine the improbability that he had displaced his precursor, the one who had, in a very real sense, made him possible in the first place? That he had, figuratively speaking, like Oedipus, committed patricide? What are we to make out of the following juxtaposition, each album representing the first formal studio recordings made by each of the artists subsequent to their August 1965 meeting?

The Beatles: Revolver (August 1966)
Elvis Presley: How Great Thou Art (February 1967; recorded 1966 except for "Crying in the Chapel," 1960)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sunday, January 24, 1960: Oldies But Goodies

According to Joel Whitburn’s The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums (Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, 1995), by Sunday, January 24, 1960, the compilation album Oldies But Goodies, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), The Teen Queens (“Eddie My Love”), The Medallions (“The Letter”), The Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”), and others, released on Art Laboe’s Original Sound Record Co. label, had been on the charts for well over twenty weeks. Peaking at #12 on September 28, 1959, Oldies But Goodies would remain on the charts—this again according to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums—for a total of 61 weeks, that is, well over a year.

Most famously known (at least in the Los Angeles area) in the late 50s as a disc jockey for radio station KPOP, Art Laboe (pictured) is credited with having invented the phrase “Oldies But Goodies.” But in addition, by issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era--"The Original Recordings of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits Of All Time" is boasted on the album cover (in Hi-Fi to boot, a sonic upgrade in the form of "reprocessed" stereo), while the title itself is emblazoned in gold. Outside of Atlantic’s Rock & Roll Forever (which had the virtue of including Joe Turner’s versions of “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “Flip, Flop & Fly,” popularized by Elvis), which briefly peaked at #20 on the charts in late 1956, the huge success of Oldies But Goodies (peaking at #12, but remaining on the charts, as I indicated earlier, for well over a year) has to be the reason why rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums became such a defining feature in the later consumption of rock 'n' roll--including, of course, numerous additional volumes of Oldies But Goodies.

I’m using the word “album” here in contrast to the word “record,” following my friend Mike Jarrett on this matter, who observes that while a record is a material object, an album is a concept. (As Jarrett points out, the word “album” is from the Latin, albus, “white,” meaning “blank tablet.”) Thus all compilation albums are conceptual, however banal that concept might be. For instance:

Various Artists, Oldies But Goodies (Original Sound) (pre-Elvis R&B, with special attention to L.A.-based R&B bands)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino) (historical reconstruction of doo wop as a baroque reinvention—this according to Mike Jarrett--of rhythm & blues)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box II (Rhino) (same as above, with the designation "II," meaning that if you own both box sets, you have most of the songs defining the genre, enough to be considered "exhaustive")
Various Artists, The Time-Life History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Teenage Years 1957-1964 (Time Life Music) (diachronic slice of popular hits as determined by chart ranking, duplicating Top 40 radio format)

But Art Laboe did more than historicize rock with his compilation album. By giving rock a past, he thereby also gave it a future, and so significantly contributed to the institution of rock music developing a self-reflexive discourse (aware of itself)—all of which happened rather quickly, in fact. After the Oldies But Goodies album, in 1960, Art Laboe issued yet another compilation album on his Original Sound label, Memories of El Monte, the title alluding to Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. The title of Laboe’s compilation album, in turn, became the inspiration for one of Frank Zappa’s very first compositions, “Memories of El Monte” (co-written with Ray Collins), a pastiche of doo wop incorporating allusions to several of its biggest hits (according to biographers, Zappa had fond memories of seeing shows in the 1950s at the El Monte Legion Stadium). Eventually recorded with lead vocal by Cleve Duncan of The Penguins, the single was released on Laboe’s Original Sound label in 1963. Here’s an instance of the song’s self-reflexivity:

And I, Cleve Duncan, along with the Penguins will sing:/
"Earth Angel, Earth Angel/
Will you be mine?"/
At El Monte

But the story doesn’t end there. Just a few years later, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded an entire (concept) album of doo wop pastiche, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). Subsequently, according to a statement to be found about the impact of the album at, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets led to the formation of Sha Na Na, an “oldies” act that early on in its history (1969) appeared at Woodstock (“At the Hop”). But there’s a crucial difference between a band such as Sha Na Na and a band such as The Mothers of Invention. Sha Na Na misread Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, thinking it was homage, a self-conscious tribute hearkening back to a more “innocent” age. Hence, Sha Na Na sang and played “oldies” music as an act of homage--meaning band members sang and played as fans. In contrast, the music of Zappa and the Mothers consisted of parody and pastiche--mock imitation--that is, their music was created by artists, by those who are self-consciously aware of traditions, styles, as well as historic periods and movements.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mondegreen Redux: Betty and the Jets

Based on the personal emails I’ve received as well as a rather significant increase in the number of hits on my blogspot the past couple of days, my previous entry on the mondegreen would seem to have been a popular success.

For the record, there are several websites devoted to mondegreens, so I can't claim any originality in that regard. I probably should have referred to a couple of websites in my earlier entry that collect mondegreens, at least those dedicated to misheard popular song lyrics:


There are also a couple books I’m aware of that collect mondegreens, and there are probably several more of which I’m unaware: Charles Grosvenor, Jr., Hold Me Closer Tony Danza, and Gavin Edwards, Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.

I do hope that my previous blog entry hasn’t left readers with the impression that my view of mondegreens is that they are simply another form of widespread or popular "error," that is, that I was trying to diminish their (unwitting) achievement. Rather, I was trying to illustrate how mondegreens can be highly creative (the writing of an entirely new song, as it were), but also, in psychoanalytic terms, how the mondegreen has the potential for activating meaning(s) that were repressed or unacknowledged in the original set of lyrics. Moreover, there is at least one popular song lyric that was sung differently than in the form it is widely known in print. According to, The Beatles’ "Ticket to Ride" is known in its "incorrect" form. Listeners who have claimed to hear

She’s got a ticket to Rye [as in the town in East Sussex] and she don't care

are not, in fact, hearing “incorrectly”—that’s the way The Beatles sang it. As sung, the song lyric is not

She’s got a ticket to ride and she don't care

According to

The Beatles cut the record, it was confusing to U.S. audiences, the record execs changed the title and lyrics. The song was never re-recorded. Listen carefully--you hear no ‘d’ sound in the word. Thus, Rye isn’t a misheard lyric. This is according to Casey Kasem.

How many bands in the history of rock have covered "Ticket to Ride," never knowing that they were singing the lyric incorrectly? Of course, it doesn't really matter. Referring in my previous entry to Dave Marsh’s book Louie Louie, I was trying to reiterate a point made throughout his book that the lesson many early rock and rollers learned from the controversy over the lyrics to “Louie Louie” was that the best rock lyrics should be purposely enigmatic. Hence, aural ambiguity isn't an accident, but necessary for the best rock lyrics to resonate, to be provocative. More abstractly put, rock lyricists exploit the susceptibility of messages to be deformed when received by the listener: they exploit the potential deformation made possible through the electronic transformation of messages. Although there is a widespread rumor (perhaps true) that the lead singer for Iron Butterfly was so heavily intoxicated that the words, "In the garden of eden," emerged in slurred form as, "In-a-gadda-da-vida," my own view is that the band's decision to leave them in their garbled version was absolutely brilliant, and no doubt contributed in no small way to the success of the song. How mysterious and enticing, how provocative, how mystery-laden those nonsense syllables were to a young generation of listeners.

The aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone hence isn't merely an "accident" that occurs in the transmission of the message, but instead reveals the received nature of the message itself. Of course, it doesn’t help when, for instance, The Kingsmen recorded "Louie Louie" with the microphone hanging from the ceiling so that there was no way the lyrics could be properly heard--but this is yet another instance of the interference that is inherently part of any electronically transmitted message. How many popular songs are themselves about this interference?

I’ve Got To Get a Message to You

Telephone Line

Hanging on the Telephone



I made this list off the top of my head. Some enterprising person ought to assemble a CD compilation of such songs, to be called, what? Maybe The Girl With Colitis Goes By.