I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging, musical and otherwise, for several months now. I think what I need is a project that forces me to blog regularly. So I’ve decided to do a little rock and roll history series, with key tracks picked from youtube. Let’s see if I can keep this up! I’m not claiming to have all this stuff in my head — part of the motivation is to examine how the pop charts evolved over the decades. Wikipedia and other resources have made this easier than ever.
I’ve always felt that placing a work of art in context helps you develop a new appreciation for it. Not everyone responds to the historical lens, but I’d like to work with it, perhaps incorporating other lenses and prisms along the way. So the plan is to go chronologically through the history of rock and pop since the 1950s, until such time as the branching genealogical tree gets too tangled to climb up (or is it down?). It will be hard to stick to a strict chronology, so I might jump back and forth a bit. Maybe movie posters, trailers and historical snippets will help set the ambience too.
Origins are always murky, so let’s start with what is “widely considered” the first rock and roll song. 1951’s ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats — a band formed by Ike Turner (later infamous for being Tina Turner’s abusive husband).
It’s got several elements that soon came to define rock and roll. The rollicking pianos, the blues rhythm sans blues, and the lyrics celebrating the thrill of cruising in a beautiful, powerful American automobile. Chuck Berry would later transform these elements into sheer musical gold: his philosopher’s stone was the electric guitar. But we’ll come to that in a later.
One of the biggest hits of the era was Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’.
The top-selling album that year was by Thelonious Monk. But those were the days when most people bought singles on little 45 rpm records. The hits tended to be sweetly romantic, conservative, traditional. The occasional novelty song added some spice. But it was all very G-rated. In 1951 Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was one of the top grossing movies of the year. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well A Streetcar Named Desire fared that year. A very mature movie, even half a century later.)
The 1950s was the age of McCarthyism, so hard-left folkies like Pete Seeger found themselves playing it a little safe:
Rocket 88 might sound tame today, but amidst soppy songs like Johnnie Ray’s ‘Cry‘, it must have jumped out of the radio. It may not seem like it now, but it was a harbinger of revolutionary times: music was becoming youthful, irreverent, and most importantly, fun.
1951 in film: