And on the Fifth Day of July, Elvis Rocked
"The Cruisin’ series, incidentally was released in 1970 -- which meant 13 years between the original broadcast and the record’s debut, and 38 years between now and then. The distance between now and then seems half the distance between ’57 and ’70. It’s not just my own subjective perspective -- not entirely, anyway.... If you showed a kid a movie about 1995, they’d laugh at the hair and the big primitive computers with slow modems, but the culture would be recognizable. There was a reason people in the early 70s romanticized the 50s, but at the risk of making the usual fool of myself with platitudes and banal generalizations, I’ll leave it there."
The point is that as early as 1970, people were nostalgic for the 1960s, but this was only possible because it was already a distinct and recognizable era (for example, American Graffiti came out in 1973). And I would say that as early as 1964, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic, it was possible to be nostalgic for the 1950s, since that is exactly when they became a recognizable thing of the past. Almost no artists who were popular on the charts prior to January 1964 were popular after. Countless musical careers were over.
The revelation of rock can be fixed at a particular time and place. It was late one night on July 5, 1954, when Elvis launched into an unplanned and spontaneous performance of That's All Right:
"The session... proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup's That's All Right.
"Moore recalled, 'All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open... he stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' And we said, 'We don't know.' 'Well, back up,' he said, 'try to find a place to start, and do it again.'
"Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played That's All Right on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the last two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black" (wiki).
No one would suggest that Elvis's approach had had no precursors. But this style of music had never crossed over to any kind of mass popularity, and was confined to the "race market." Indeed, it took until early 1956 for Elvis to cross that threshold to mass popularity, so one can really say that rock as a cultural phenomenon began then.
But it didn't last long, and no one at the time assumed that it was anything more than a passing fad to be cashed in on while it lasted. Very similar to Louis Armstrong's revolutionary recordings of the late 1920s, no one at the time imagined that they were producing "art," of all things. Records were ephemeral things to be tossed into the marketplace and then disposed of.
Which is precisely one of the reasons why those primitive Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings endure, because they were completely un-self-conscious. The same can be said of Elvis's earliest recordings, since he was doing them for the pure joy of doing them. He was doing it for love. Indeed, no market yet existed for what he was doing.
And yet, it did. The people were obviously yearning for a musical messiah who would not just liberate them from the pharonic constraints of the pop blandscape of the day, but rock their souls into the promised land. Elvis didn't invent anything, but just happened upon the key to a musical archetype that was already there. Once people heard it, they recognized it as something they couldn't live without -- not just in America, but all over the world. The same thing had occurred with jazz. People talk about "world music," but the only true world music is Cosmo-American black music.
Now, I don't want to get into the question of what rock eventually devolved to, in terms of both the music and the culture. I agree that that is all to be deplored. Rather, I'm talking about that pure, ecstatic impulse at the origin of it all, uncontaminated by fame, money, narcissism, exhibitionism, and infantile sexuality. Those can occur with anything, from politics to literature to religion. That's just man doing what he does and being who he is.
So the birth of rock as a cultural phenomenon can be traced to early 1956. Even as it was occurring, the seeds of its subsequent rebirth and transformation were being sowed, for it was at the St. Peter's Church Hall fête in Woolton on July 6, 1957 -- almost three years to the day that Elvis had revealed it in the studio -- that John met Paul. Like early Elvis, there was a purity to what the Beatles were doing at the time. In fact, I would say that they were motivated by the identical spark that animated Elvis that day.
Eventually the spark was extinguished and the fire put out. Elvis entered the military in 1958, at which time he was taken into captivity and replaced with the "false Elvis" who put out all that lame music and made all those crappy movies. Buddy Holly in the grave, Chuck Berry in jail, Little Richard in the ministry, Jerry Lee Lewis in his fourteen year-old cousin. The music business quickly "contained" the messianic revelation, so that by the early 1960s, popular music was again almost as banal as it had been prior to Elvis. (Of course, there were exceptions.)
But then the Beatles arrive in early 1964, eight years after Elvis, and just eight years later the Beatles are already a thing of the past.
Now, eight years ago is 2002. Has anything in music changed since then? Does 2002 feel like a different era? Is anyone nostalgic for 2002? How about 1992? 1982? I mean, people still listen to U2 like they're contemporary, but their first album came out over 30 years ago. 30 years! I sometimes listen to music that came out in the early 1980s, say, early REM, but it doesn't feel at all like nostalgia. But very few people in 1975 listened to the music of 1945. And if they did, they were certainly aware of how different it was from contemporary music. No one confuses disco and swing.
And yet, to listen to Elvis in 1964 was already nostalgia, just as to listen to the Beatles or Beach Boys in 1973 was already nostalgia.
What does it all mean? I have no idea. Just an excuse to blah blah blog some Coon droppings, I guess.