I haven’t forgotten about the Rock & Roll project I gave myself. It’s just taking a while, because listening to the top 30 from each year is not a half hour activity. I’ve made it to 1955, and tonight maybe I’ll listen to the hits from ’56.
I thought maybe I would find the perfect “Year Zero” for rock & roll, but things are never that simple, are they? Rocket 88 was an early harbinger of the mid 50’s revolution in popular music. But unlike 1789 or 1917, the rock & roll revolution can’t be precisely dated. It happened somewhere between 1955 and 1956.
Before 1955, the vast majority of popular songs seemed to have been aimed at adults: the brave folks who had lived through the Great Depression and then WWII. They probably just wanted some light, cheery music to soundtrack their newfound peace and prosperity in the suburbs. The pop music of the early ’50s reflected the antiseptic new housing layouts springing up all across the United States. The songs were pleasant, shiny, squeaky-clean, and innocent. And they could also be funny, in a Marx Brothers / Abbott & Costello / Vaudeville kind of way. Jazz was by far the raciest game in town… but the jazz that made its way to the charts was suitably neutered for the consumption of people who might have looked a bit like this:
You ended up with a lot of music like this:
1952 was pretty dead, popular music wise. I tried to extract a playlist of decent songs from the year, but very little stood out. Even ‘Jambalaya’ — a song from the dawn of my parents’ generation that I once heard Usha Uthup’s sister do a raucous rendition of — sounds tame.
This novelty song is pretty funny:
This odd Italian song is quite sprightly:
Listening to all this in the jaded, hypersexual 21st century, the general vibe is romantic, upbeat, inoffensive, and even a little adorable — it was the Mickey Mouse era of pop culture. The Baby Boomer generation was just about learning to walk, and this is what their mothers might have sung to them in 1953:
But the older siblings of the postwar boom babies were rapidly growing up, and a new category of person — the teenager — emerged as a discernible demographic for the first time in human history. In the not-too-distant past, able-bodied working class adolescents either began toiling in the fields or factories (if they were boys) or preparing for marriage (if they were girls). Suddenly there was a group of people — not quite kids and not quite grown-ups — who had pocket money, free time, and a restless desire to escape stodgy domestic tranquility. Never having experience the Wars or the Depression, their depressions were more about boredom and repression. The stage was set for the rock and roll explosion…