The New Rock
Our present state of socio-sexual enlightenment is, to a certain extent, attributable to the evolution of rock and vice versa. Our story begins back in ... the good old days, at the recreation centers, no Levis or capris please. "School functions" and "teen hops" were real swell and keen and acceptable to Mom and Dad. They were also dull unless you liked to dance a fox-trot as the high school swing band fumbled through an evening of Combo Orks and reprocessed Glenn Miller. The kids would be holding on to each other desperately and sweating. The chaperon would come along and say, "Seven inches apart please," and hold a sawed off ruler between you and the girl.
Society was very repressed, sexually, and dancing was a desperate attempt to get a little physical contact with the opposite sex. Free love, groupies, the Plaster casters of Chicago and such bizarre variants as the G.T.O.s of Laurel Canyon in L.A. didn't exist then. Preoccupation with sexual matters accounted for a disproportionate amount of the daily conscious thought process and diverted a lot energy from school work.
This, and the low quality of teaching in many schools, caused kids to seek education in the streets. Youth gangs with marvelous names and frightening reputations cruised the streets at night, searching for ways to compensate for the lack of sexually approachable girls. Vandalism and assorted manglings became acceptable substitutes for "teen sex." Young men would compete, like cowboy gunfighters, to be "the baddest cat." This dubious honor would generally entitle its bearer to boss the gang and, in some instances, preferential treatment from those few daring girls who would go "all the way."
Parents, unfortunately, have a tendency to misunderstand, misinterpret, and worst of all, ridicule patterns of behavior which seem foreign to them. When they noticed a growing interest among teenagers in matters pertaining to the pleasure-giving functions of the body, they felt threatened. Mom and Dad were sexually uninformed and inhibited (a lot of things wrong with society today are directly attributed to the fact that the people who make the laws are sexually maladjusted) and they saw no reason why their kids should be raised differently. (Why should those dirty teenagers have all the fun?) Sex is for making babies and it makes your body misshapen and ugly afterward and let's not talk about it shall we?
The Big Note: Digression I
Look at the kids in school, tapping their feet, beating with their fingers. People try, unconsciously, to get in tune with their environment. In a variety of ways, even the most "unconcerned" people make attempts to "tune up" with their God. Hal Zeiger (one of the first big promoters of rock entertainment during the 50s) says, "I knew that there was a big thing here that was basic, that was big, that had to get bigger. I realized that this music got through to the youngsters because the big beat matched the great rhythm of the human body. I understood that. I knew it and I knew there was nothing that anyone could do to know that out of them. And I further knew that they would carry this with them the rest of their lives."
Rock around the Clock
In my days of flaming youth I was extremely suspect of any rock music played by white people. The sincerity and emotional intensity of their performances, when they sang about boyfriends and girl friends and breaking up, etc., was nowhere when I compared it to my high school Negro R&B heroes like Johnny Otis, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Mae Thornton.
But then I remember going to see Blackboard Jungle. When the titles flashed up there on the screen Bill Haley & His Comets started blurching "One Two Three O'Clock, Four O'Clock Rock ... ." It was the loudest sound kids had ever heard at that time. I remember being inspired with awe. In cruddy little teen-age rooms across America, kids had been huddling around old radios and cheap record players listening to the "dirty music" of their life style. ("Go in your room if you wanna listen to that crap ... and turn the volume all the way down.") But in the theatre, watching "Blackboard Jungle", they couldn't tell you to turn it down. I didn't care if Bill Haley was white or sincere ... he was playing the Teen-Age National Anthem and it was so LOUD I was jumping up and down. Blackboard Jungle, not even considering the story line (which had the old people winning in the end) represented a strange sort of "endorsement" of the teen-age cause: "They have made a movie about us, therefore, we exist ..."
Responding like dogs, some of the kids began to go for the throat. Open rebellion. The early public dances and shows which featured rock were frowned upon by the respectable parents of the community. They did everything they could to shield their impressionable young ones from the ravages of this vulgar new craze. (H. Zeiger: "They did everything they could to make sure their children were not moved erotically by Negroes.")
From the very beginning, the real reason Mr. & Mrs. Clean White America objected to this music was the fact that it was performed by black people. There was always the danger that one night – maybe in the middle of the summer, in a little pink party dress – Janey or Susy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their parents ashamed.
Parents, in trying to protect their offspring from whatever danger they imagined to be lurking within the secret compartments of this new musical vehicle, actually helped to shove them in front of it whereupon they were immediately run over. The attitude of parents helped to create a climate wherein the usage of rock music (as a pacifier or perhaps anesthetic experience) became necessary. Parents offered nothing to their children that could match the appeal of rock. It was obvious to the kids that anyone who did not like (or at least attempt to understand) rock music, had a warped sense of values. To deny rock music its place in the society was to deny sexuality. Any parent who tried to keep his child from listening to, or participating in this musical ritual was, in the eyes of the child, trying to castrate him.
There was much resistance on the part of the music industry itself. (Hal Zeiger: "I remember a conversation with M-- D--, a very famous song-writer, who had written many of our all-time favorites, wherein he chided me for being involved with this kind of music entertainment and I said to him, "M--, you are just upset because it has been discovered and revealed that a song written by some young colored child in a slum area can capture the fancy of the American public more efficiently than a song written by you, who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion.'") Every year you could hear people saying "I know it's only a phase ... it'll poop out pretty soon. The big bands will come back." Year after year, the death of rock was predicted ... a few times, as I recall, it was even "officially" announced: "Rock 'n' roll is dead, calypso is all the rage ... "
Hal Zeiger: "The problem at the time was basically this: Trying to make the music acceptable, or, to try to get the right to expose it, and that took some doing. I knew the kids were listening to the radio stations ... it was just a matter of how to merchandise this to get their dollars too. I told Bill Graham (founder of the Fillmore and former manager of Jefferson Airplane), 'You've got to understand when these things are underground, that's one thing. But the minute it goes over ground, the minute, you see, it looks like money, everyone wants in.'"
So to make R&B acceptable, the big shots of the record industry hired a bunch of little men with cigars and green visors, to synthesize and imitate the work of the Negroes. The visor men cranked out phony white rock. Highly skilled couriers then delivered the goods to American Bandstand along with a lot of presents (tokens of their esteem) to Dick Clark for all his marvelous assistance in the crusade to jam these products down the kids' throats. Pat Boone was notable, too, for his humanistic activities (bleaching Little Richard and making him safe for teen-age consumption).
One of my favorite Negro R&B groups during the 50s was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Their work was some of the most important socio-sexual true-to-life commentary of that era, for instance: Stingy Little Thing (a song in protest about girls who wouldn't "put out"), "Work with me Annie", and "Annie Had a Baby". Songs like these got played on the air every once in a while -- the kids would here "Annie Had a Baby" and say, "Hey, here's a song about a girl getting pregnant," and rush to tune it in -- but an official of the station (with teen-age children of his own to protect) would "lay a pink memo on it," and the song would sort of "disappear."
The visor men, meanwhile, were magically purifying all this stuff. "Work with Me Annie" ("Please don't cheat / Give me all my meat") through the wisdom of their craft became "Dance with Me, Henry" ("If you want romancin' / You better learn some dancin'").
White rock, over produced and shiny, nearly sickened itself to death. (Remember "Fats Domino with Strings"?) The music industry was slumping a bit. Was this to be the end or rock? Were we doomed to a new era of country & western tunes smothered in Vaseline? Then, just in the nick of time, Beatlemania. New hope. There they were: cute, safe, white. The kids took to them immediately. Their music had real energy; it was sympathetic to their life style. It was music made for young people by other young people. No green visors. It seemed to radiate a secret message: "You can be free. You can get away with it. Look, we're doing it!"
I'm sure the kids never really believed all The Beatles wanted to do was "hold your hand". And the girls were provided with "kissable close-ups" (enlarged views of their idols' lips, teeth and gums) which they could kiss, touch, rub and/or hang on the bedroom wall. Girls forgot Elvis Presley. He was too greasy, too "heavy business": sullen and pouting and all that stuff. The Beatles were huggable & cute & moptops & happy & positive. Beatlemania was fun to be involved in.
The record companies were at a loss to compete with the British threat. Zeiger relates another droll incident: "I remember Mike Maitland who was then vice president and sales manager of Capital Records. He was decrying the fact that they couldn't get any hit singles, and I said to him, 'Well, Mike, the reason is because you have the wrong people working for you.' 'Well what do you want me to do? Get some of these fellows with the tight pants to produce these records?' I said, 'Exactly. Two button records can't be produced by guys with three buttons suits. It's all a matter of buttons.' Look at Mike Maitland now. He's president of Warner Brothers Records and look at the kind of thing they're putting out ... fellows with tight pants ... or no pants ... are producing the records."
There seems to be a trend in today's music toward eclecticism. The people who make this music are examining a wide range of possible musical and nonmusical elements to incorporate into their bags. Through rock music, the audience is being exposed to an assortment of advanced musical and electronic techniques that five years ago might have sent them screaming into the street. Amazing breakthroughs have been made in the field of "audience education."
These improvements have been made almost against the will of the mass media. Suppression for racial and sexual reasons doesn't go on as much but radio stations still do not program progressive rock in proportion to the market which exists for it. Specific songs which seem most threatening to the established order don't get on radio and TV. Example: "Society's Child" by Janis Ian about interracial dating. (Mass media does more to keep Americans stupid than even the whole US school system, that vast industry which cranks out trained consumers and technician-pawns for the benefit of other vast industries.) It is something of a paradox that companies which manufacture and distribute this art form (strictly for profit) might one day be changed or controlled by young people who were motivated to action by the products these companies sell.