Fifties Teenagers And Fifties Rock
By Frank Zappa, as told to Richard Blackburn
Evergreen Review, August 1970
D.A.'s and peggers. Muddy Waters. Joe Houston. Hank Ballard. Elvis. "I Was A Teenage Werewolf." The Penguins. A guided tour by today's iconoclast of Rock who says, "Things look like they've changed more than they have."
All teenagers are fad-conscious and follow the leader. Because of this, a certain ideal image will usually come to pervade an entire school. During the '50s, I went to four separate high schools. Although each was in Southern California, their images were distinctly different. I went, in chronological order, to Claremont High School in Claremont, Grossmont High School in El Cajon near San Diego, Mission Bay High School in San Diego, and Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, where I graduated.
Claremont's nice. It's green. It's got little old ladies running around in electric karts. The kids are all reserved, want to graduate from high school, and go to colleges around the corner. When I went there, they were preparing for this by dressing California Ivy or Buckle Back A Go Go.
At Grossmont High School, the only things the kids had to be proud of were the size of their student body and the fact that their marching band was really spiffy. Grossmont didn't have just middle and upper middle-class whites, but those it did dressed Buckle Back, though not as severely as Claremont. They wanted to go to San Diego State 'cause they thought it was swinging, or Tempe, in Arizona, 'cause they had heard it was a party school. Their image was superficially clean. They didn't come to class drunk out of their minds; they saved boozing for the weekend. Mission Bay was different.
First, it was a very transient neighborhood; a lot of the kids' fathers worked in the navy. It was definitely juvenile delinquent territory. You wore a leather jacket and very, very greasy hair. You carried a knife and chain. If you were really bad, you mounted razor blades in the edge of your shoes for kicking. Also, you made sure you carved up the school's linoleum floor by wearing taps on your soles. If you failed to do any of these things you would (1) not get any sex action, and (2) probably be injured.
And, like Blackboard Jungle, teachers weren't safe either. In fact, there was a big scandal in San Diego when I was at Mission Bay, because at San Diego High, the teachers were being threatened by knives and other weapons if they wouldn't give the kids money on request. A kid would come up to a teacher in the halls and say, "Gimme a dime, man." If the teacher didn't deliver, he was beat up. A while after all this, the newspapers released a story alleging that the police had sent in undercover agents to spy on the kids, and that these agents had gathered all sorts of information. This got the kids very pissed off, and, in retaliation, the violence increased. Kids were proud of the violence in their schools. They didn't want to have some ninny school. They wanted a rough school.
And though every gang hated what is now known as the Establishment; each had their own style, and hated any other gang almost as much. Each top gang of the school hated the neighboring schools' top gang; hated their guts. The gangs with the cycle boots never did get along with the gang with the peggers and French-toed shoes, and they never got along with the gang with the French-toed shoes, khakis and Sir Guy shirts. The Mexicans hated the Negroes. The Negroes hated the Mexicans. They both hated the whites who hated them back.
On one famous occasion, several gangs from Watts, who had temporarily joined forces, came down in an auto-cade to wipe out an area in San Diego known as Logan Heights. Logan Heights rallied in an all-out concerted effort, and beat the crap out of them. It didn't even make the school paper, but the kids all knew. It was their victory.
My parents didn't let me have a car (I didn't get one until I was twenty-three years old), and nobody would take me riding with them because I was unpopular. So I missed out on the real monstro-fights. But I was involved in some locker room rumbles, so I have a pretty good idea of what that punch-out mystique is all about.
Of course, now, most of those feelings have been sublimated into zap'em-with-love which hides a lot of hostility. Deep down they know it's a lie. They can't believe all that flower power wonderment because they can't make it work. Drugs are largely responsible for this sublimation – they get too stoned to have any sex energy, let alone fight, which was the substitute for sex in the first place. This transition is evident in current pop music lyrics where sensations associated with the consumption of certain types of chemicals have blended with, been confused with, distorted, and, at times, completely replaced the sex/love sensations/emotions of years back. Rushes and flashes instead of feeling and reeling, diamonds and rubies instead of empty arms and broken hearts.
I've played dances and even lectured at a couple of high schools, and those kids are really into a drug culture, a drug mystique. They've got a whole new set of fads. Leather arm bands, beads, feathers, weird clothes, and long hair are the I.D. bracelets, madras shirts, Princeton haircuts, and loafers with pennies in them of today. No matter what they wear, the bulk of kids in the U.S. continue to think as their parents do, adopting the old prejudices and stupidities in a different disguise and repackaging them on their own level. Sure, there have been some real basic changes in the attitudes of some kids, but not nearly enough.
A lot of things look like they've changed more than they really have. For instance, all this dropping out. Today if a kid splits from his home and lives in the streets, he can always join up with some hippies – some group that will take him in. In the '50s, no one dropped out. You left the house and you were an adult and had to go punch it out with all of them. The main reason a kid would be in the streets then was to participate in a gang fight. It's easy to overestimate kids' independence from the family when they've just exchanged them.
The underground gets a lot of press coverage today; it didn't get much at all in the '50s. Elvis Presley was the most widely known figure, and, in my group, he was liked mostly by the girls and younger guys. But in San Diego, which is a good town for blues, a lot of the boys liked Howlin' Wolf and B. B. King better. Their music was stronger and the kids responded to it. Also, blues are usually appreciated most by people who feel themselves alienated and oppressed, regardless of education or economics. The blues lovers I knew then, the ones with the leather jackets, certainly were those kind of people. They felt oppressed by everything, and they were the ones who developed all that teenage slang. It never came from the madras shirt set who only took over and adopted some collegiate expressions, probably from their older brothers and sisters. The real gritty slang came from those guys who felt themselves so threatened that they would do everything they could to look hard even if they didn't get a chance to act hard. And the reason it developed is very similar to the reason slaves in the South developed their own talk – to fool their masters, to make them feel superior, exclusive. Same thing with the clothing and hair styles. Some of these guys from that period are still around. In East L.A., guys in their early thirties who still wear DA's and peggers are called veteranos. In fact, most of the gangs I was familiar with were Mexican, and a lot of those guys – the pachucos – still dress and think the same way today. Most of them married their old girl friends and are working in a garage.
Any figure who was alienated became a potential idol. This could take strange turns. There was a lot of identification with James Dean, but there was also a lot of identification with I Was A Teenage Werewolf. In that movie, an evil doctor turns a teenager into a werewolf. Naturally, the teenager is alienated, and the doctor, being an adult, is someone to blame. This stuff is going on all the time. Madison Avenue is constantly injecting people with product desires which turn them into mad consumers. The people I hung around with were sold on monsters and horror of every kind. And if I sat down to draw a picture, you could bet it would be a monster. It was great to laugh at that stuff – that's why we loved it – so we could convince ourselves it didn't scare us, that something didn't scare us. I couldn't stand any other type of movie. I saw stuff like Wasp Woman, The Beast of Haunted Cave, and (very good!) Attack of the Killer Shrews.
In Not of this Earth, a dude wearing wraparound glasses takes this thing out of a tube. It looks like a stretched piece of wizened romaine lettuce. He sets it on a table and right away it starts puffing up. Then it picks up and hovers off through the window until it comes in some other guy's window. It drifts over to the guy, hovers above him, then drops – woosh – around his head, and, closing in, bites him. It's great! The blood is coming from underneath onto his white shirt and he's going, "Whhaaarrghh!" I saw that three times, and when I had learned to tell just when that thing was going to get him, I'd sit behind some noisy kids, and right at the exact second, grab the kid's throat, and then, in a flash, sit right back. Panic out!
Out of a town's neighborhood theaters, there would be one where all the teenagers went. It was comparable to a '50s Fillmore, or any of your local psychedelic dungeons of today. Nobody really cared what was being shown. It was just a dark place where guys went to meet some girl who they tried to make it with later, if not there. There was this one theater in Lancaster where, looking down the seats, you'd see a head here, another one there, fine, but then you'd see some huddled lump of blankets or clothes that was moving, and then another and another. And then you'd notice all these bodies jammed in weird positions against the walls – Kama Sutra 375 with a leg sticking up-and the monster was happening on the screen. It was really great!
My fascination with monsters extended, like that of a lot of other kids, to comics. Horror comics. All the things EC did – The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, that stuff. Mad was big too, appealing as it did to a certain lunatic fringe with a certain type of humor. Those were comics that girls used to glance at and go, "Eeeewe!" And some of that stuff was a little raunchy. I remember reading a Plastic Man comic where a guy blew his nose on his coattail with the word snork above it. Heavy business for the children in those days.
By the time I was really into high school, however, comics were fairly puny and stayed that way for me until Marvel came out. I read them now. And I'd only go to the movies maybe twice a month. My real social life revolved around records and the band I played with. There wasn't much work for us then. We'd get a job maybe every two months at a teen hop, but most of the time, I was back in my room listening to records. It was the records, not TV, which I didn't watch, that brainwashed me. I'd listen to them over and over again. The ones I couldn't buy, I'd steal, and the ones I couldn't steal, I'd borrow, but I'd get them somehow. I had about six hundred records – 45s-at one time, and I swear I knew the title, group, and label of every one. We all used to quiz each other. We really liked records that featured guitars. If you remember, the featured instrument in early rock was the saxophone. It was very phallic. This guy, Joe Houston, used to do a number where he'd wind up bending over backwards just squawking out this one raucous note. Now that the guitar is the predominant instrument, it has been redesigned to look less feminine and more phallic – flatter, with longer, skinnier necks. The visual part of music, the actual playing, is seeing very interesting developments.
As for our taste in singers, my set just wouldn't listen to any white rock. It was always punier than the black stuff, and a lot of it was simply inept imitation. But then I was lucky to have black rock available, since the musical taste of a community not only affects, but is, in turn, affected by what is available at the moment. For instance, Claremont just had Dixie and semi-classical in its main record store. Many people hadn't even heard of someone like Muddy Waters. The blues freak of the '50s was a real rarity.
So, a statement that appeared in some newspaper article about pop music, saying how great it is that we have finally gotten away from the puerile slush of the '50s, was probably made by someone who never heard any of that decade's great R&B numbers. He probably only heard stuff on easy access labels like Liberty, Dot and, maybe, Capitol. And, even if you were into R&B at that time, there was still another strata, one beneath the accessible R&B records. If you knew and liked R&B, then you knew Little Willie John and Hank Ballard on the King label. Once you found a store, they were as easy to get as Pat Boone on Dot was for all America. But some of the best really happening stuff was strictly one-shot. It would be a monumental job of research to list all the little label releases during that time. Companies were being formed everywhere. For instance, in Arizona there was a company that put out Bat Records. Maybe they put out only one record, maybe hundreds. It was so small, you don't know. For records like that, you really had to scuffle around, haunt places that sold used jukebox records from the South. If you did that kind of scouting, you might come across someone like Roy Tann.
In 1956, I hit upon the only record of this Roy Tann I ever saw. It was called "I Don't Like It," and it was on the Tan label. Hmmm. It went like this:
You been rockin' on my baby,
And I don't like it.
I'm warnin' you daddy-o
I'll hammer your head so low
You'll look mighty funny you must admit
Unbuttoning your collar just to talk a bit.
So quit rockin' on my baby. I don't like it.
Daddy, you got to go.
The other side starts like this: Roy Tann: "Ah, you tend to spring chicken. Girl, what's your name?" Girl: "My name's Isabella and I'm off to a party. I can't talk to you right now." Then Roy breaks into song:
Won't you tell me where the party's gonna be?
Don't treat me like a stranger
And leave me like the Ranger
I've got a dollar in my pocket
And I want to rock it
Can't you see?
Oh, man, they were really talking some good stuff then. Compare that with tutti frutti, awrootie by the time Pat Boone got through with it, and the whole thing's ridiculous.
Another great label, besides Tann, was Dootone, the one that first released "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, but they had a lot of other great stuff like "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild," which had a dance on the other side – "The Ookey Ook." Then there was "Ay Si Si She Likes to Mambo," which had the odd line about how their radios were turned low down so nobody could see 'em when they really went to town. As if the radio was controlling the lights in the room.
One of the strangest, if not the strangest record of all time wasn't a one-shot, but came out on the other side of "Teardrops" by Lee Andrews & The Hearts. "Teardrops," a love song, was the big hit and "The Girl Around the Corner" was passed over, but it's fantastic. It's the most abstract lyric I've ever heard – highly stylized. It has to do with a girl named Buddha Macrae and a guy named Butchie Stover who "makes love like a Casanova." This guy is telling about some chick around the corner and how far out she is, and he succeeds, while all the time, someone in the background is going "Bum Bum Dee-Rahcha." I still can't figure it out, it's insane. And if I ever met this Buddha Macrae chick, I'd uh ... I don't think I could handle it.
I have a few friends who come over to the house, and we whip through those 45s of mine three to four times a month 'til they're coming out of our ears. It's like a time machine; takes me right back to school days. I can almost smell what was cooking in the kitchen when I first heard them. And in the Reuben and the Jets (sic) album, I very consciously took all those hot numbers – "Nite Owl" and "Cherry Pie" – all of them, and blended them in combinations to come up with my songs. I even mixed parts of "The Rite Of Spring" with The Moonglows' style of harmony. I took some of their better lines too.
Love lyrics were some of the best things in the old R&B. If you listened to the words superficially, you might have thought they were talking about "old love"-hold hands, kiss her, ask her out -- but they weren't. They were talking about getting laid. The beginning of the sexual revolution is chronicled in song and story on those oldies. Also, if you took all those songs with the ice-cream cone changes, (there must have been thousands):
DAA DA-DA-DA DAA DA-DA-DA DAA DA-DA-DA DAA
and pumped them all into a computer, you would come out with a very exact social moral code for the kids of that day. It's the best history you could get because it's all in there: prejudices, beliefs, disbeliefs, social practices – everything.
Looking at the main attraction of that time, Elvis Presley, and the superstars of now, The Beatles, some interesting changes seem to have taken place in terms of how an audience chooses its idol. I think Ralph Gleason is right when he calls the Beatles an ideal projection of the audience's personalities, and Presley a strictly sexual phenomenon. Presley, when he first hit, did not have a new image. He already existed in the masses and was easy to identify with. But the Beatles created a wholly new image that was foreign, no pun, to America. Presley's impact, the way he moved and sang, was so sexual that he was too much of a threat to the teenyboppers of those days, and eventually had to sing songs that reversed the sexual roles, making him the passive in such tunes as "Love Me Tender" or "Any Way You Want Me to Be." So along come the Beatles, who look so cute and harmless that they are allowed to sing dominant songs. Their sexual innuendo was verbal and subtle and they got away with it.
Then long hair happened. In the early days of Beatlemania, a guy with long hair had about a three hundred percent better chance of getting laid than a guy without (the chick being so stupid as to automatically assume "He's either an English pop star or he's in a group or something"). Bu whatever her fantasy, she was sure he was way cuter than the guy in the corner with the greasy mop. This dictating of fashion by chicks for men, this power, was a very important part, of Beatlemania. So, if you were a madras-shirt man, you could safely grow your hair – a little bit – and become an ersatz Beatle and get laid. Then, when the The Rolling Stones hit, and there were all those pictures of Bill Wyman with that real long, scraggly black hair, hippie packaging really began. Now if you had been a motorcycle fug you could grow your hair longer, wear even dirtier clothes, and get action without having to go mod and cute. You were provided with a fashion image too.
At one point during Beatlemania, the guys started faking English accents and really pulled the wool over the chick's eyes. Of course, after going that far, the next step was to get a band together just like The Beatles and have more glamor. "Let's get in there and then we can play a job at the dance." So they started learning how to play like Beatle records from scratch. Some got tired of imitating and, wholly by accident, started playing their own music. But most found it hard to break their imitative image even if they wanted to since there's always some schmucko beer bar owner who wants a Beatle or a Rolling Stones band, and will pay for it. Even at fraternity drink-outs, if you don't sound like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, they don't even want you to play. The boys are just as narrow as the girls. Actually, some of the girls have improved. In fact, the main difference between then and now is that there are about ten percent less puny-minded girls. Consider: for a girl to have status in the '50s she had to wear her dress sticking out with all those starchy petticoats and eat her lunch on the school's front lawn and be a cheerleader. She had to be "real cute" and sublimate sex feelings with school spirit, student government, church or whatever.
Today, for a girl to have status, she has to make it with a rock star. I find this to be a definite improvement.