I’m not much of a celebrity hound, so I don’t often cry when I hear the news of a celebrity’s passing. I may take some time to reflect on their contributions to human culture, which in turn may move me to tears, but I hardly ever cry when I first hear the news. The process of taking your average human being and transforming them into a celebrity is an act of distortion, and if there’s one quality I prize above all in relationships, it’s authenticity. I don’t know how to relate to a distortion.
Oddly enough, I do cry when I hear of the deaths of innocent people I’ve never met, so this isn’t “I have to know you to give a shit about you.” I can relate to people who aren’t distorted through the prism of fame; it’s harder to see the real person behind any celebrity, given the filters of publicity and hype.
The one time I did cry from the get-go on hearing the sad news was when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. I was in LAX waiting for the home-for-the-holidays flight when I overheard a conversation between two fellow travelers sitting behind me. I spun around and interrupted them with, “What did you say about Joe Strummer?” and one of them replied, “He died. It was on the news this morning.” The shock caused me to spin violently away from them and burst into tears. I remember people looking at me with concern or annoyance, their misshapen faces contorted through a cascade of tears. The crying jag continued through the boarding process and throughout the flight. I looked so perfectly pathetic that the airline attendants offered me free booze, without bothering to check my ID (I’d only just turned twenty-one).
I’ve reflected on my reaction from time to time, especially when other famous musical artists have passed into the great beyond. When I learned of the deaths of Bowie and Prince, I was very upset but didn’t shed any tears until I listened to their music and appreciated the extent of the loss. The fundamental difference is that Bowie and Prince seemed “larger than life,” while Joe Strummer always felt real and accessible to me. If I had run into Joe Strummer in a bar somewhere, I can imagine plopping my ass on the stool next to his and immediately engaging in delightful conversation on a wide range of subjects while we smoked up a storm. This was a man who studiously avoided the ridiculous trappings of stardom and who voluntarily took a cut in his royalties to fulfill his vision of Sandinista! He wrote and sung about things that mattered to me and validated my self-image as a common citizen of the world who cares about that world and the people in it. He poked fun at pretense, challenged unthinking authority and stood up for those left behind by unfeeling bureaucracies and politicians. Joe Strummer was the living validation of some of my most cherished values.
But more than anything else, it was the spirit of the man that made him so very, very special. From a technical perspective, he was never a great singer, but he more than made up for his vocal deficiencies with an undeniable élan that could charm even the most dogmatic musicologist. His openness to a variety of musical traditions always manifested itself in genuine enthusiasm for the music and the culture that produced it. While most of us live our lives defensively and protectively, Joe Strummer lived his life like a great improv comedian, saying “Yes!” to every offer.
What upset me the most about his passing was it happened way, way too soon. David Bowie left behind a solid body of work that will live for centuries. Joe Strummer still had a lot of gas in the tank when he died, and I ache to think about the music I’ll never hear, and the fresh, restorative perspectives he always provided.
Streetcore is proof positive that Joe Strummer still had it and then some.
Due to a combination of disputes with Sony and what he described as his own laziness, Joe Strummer had been essentially out of the music business for ten years when The Mescaleros produced their first album. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style feels at first like an extension of late-period Clash with longer songs and reggae sensibilities, but the arrangements are much more complex and layered, displaying the multi-instrumental talents of the band. The marvelous closer, “Willesden to Cricklewood,” demonstrated that Joe’s lyrical talents had not atrophied during his absence. The second album, Global a Go-Go, corrects the faults of that massive sprawl known as Sandinista! by giving us a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour through the world music scene.
Streetcore was to be the next release, and the band had gone pretty far in the recording process when Joe passed away. While Joe never got a crack at the final mix (about which there was some grumbling from fandom) and some of the tracks are first-take vocals, band members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did a superb job with the mixing and the mastering. Their work on Streetcore succeeds on many levels, but most importantly, Slattery and Shields’ production allows Joe Strummer’s irrepressible, undying spirit to shine through. Joe’s vocals sound as strong and confident as they did on London Calling, and the inclusion of two Joe-and-acoustic-guitar songs give Streetcore an unusual sense of intimacy, as if you’re hanging out with Joe in the living room while he plays some tunes he picked up on his travels. While the general consensus describes Streetcore as Joe Strummer’s return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the diverse influences that formed Joe Strummer’s approach to music still remain, giving the rock-oriented pieces greater richness. There’s also more than a touch of American country-western music, appropriate for a record where Joe continued to explore his combined wonder and exasperation with the United States.
Streetcore opens delightfully with “Coma Girl,” a melodic-harmonic rocker with deftly-executed rhythmic changes and gorgeous energy. The opening of the song is absolutely thrilling, with Joe’s voice soaring with total commitment over the spare accompaniment of a rough electric guitar providing a tension-building rhythm. Whenever I hear Joe sing those opening lines, I want to scream out, “Oh, man, have I missed the fuck out of you!” The bass enters subtly on the third line, but interestingly enough, avoids duplication of the main rhythm while foreshadowing a brief shift to a reggae beat in the transition lines (“And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder/Through all the stages I wandered”). All this is a build-up to the driving chorus, with its catchy tune and energizing harmonies. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the song, leading to the let-it-the-fuck-out closing choruses. While the pattern has enough variety to keep the listener interested, Joe varies both phrasing and melody throughout the song to give it added spice.
The lyrics are based on Joe’s frequent visits to the Glastonbury Festival, and the song has become something of a festival anthem since Bruce Springsteen opened his set with “Coma Girl” in tribute to Joe back in 2009. However, the lyrics could easily be applied to the vibes at any American outdoor music festival or a Dead concert (“I was crawling through a festival way out west/I was thinking about love and the acid test”). Here in the “wide blue yonder” Joe encounters the Coma Girl, “Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang,” an alluring and mysterious figure completely fixated on excitement in the present tense. Nothin’ like a babe on a motorcycle to send guys and discriminating gals into a coma! The last verse establishes her presence as the woman in charge (fuck yeah!) while cleverly synthesizing a series of symbolic images from rock rebel culture:
As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row
Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go
‘Let’s siphon up some gas let’s get this show on the road’
Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
Into action everybody sprang
The oil drums were beating out doo-lang, doo-lang
Joe Strummer was the embodiment of the rebellious spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and “Coma Girl” is a great rock song because it captures that ethos so beautifully.
Way back on Sandinista! Joe tried his hand at preachin’ to the masses with “The Sound of Sinners,” with mixed results. He does much, much better with the more melodic pattern and hot groove of “Get Down Moses,” a mesmerizing, ass-shaking experience. Part anti-drug message and part biting commentary about the modern irrelevance and ineffectiveness of ol’ time religion, Joe is in superb voice and the band is in top form. I just love listening to this arrangement with its diverse instrumentation providing unexpected splashes of color over tight percussion and heart-melting bass. And I really love the line, “Sayin’ the truth crystallizes it like jewels in the rock, in the rock,” something we all have to remember in these horrible days of alternative facts and orange-haired frothing at the mouth.
We get a nice shift with “The Long Shadow,” a song Joe originally wrote for Johnny Cash, whose work he deeply admired. Joe extended a Southern California vacation to hang out with Johnny during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around simply because he loved hanging out with The Man in Black. The unforeseen meeting of these two greats did result in the Cash-Strummer duet of “Redemption Song,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. In truth, “The Long Shadow” is a tribute song where Joe emulates Johnny’s singing style with obvious gusto (and a faux-Western drawl). I find it hard to imagine Johnny Cash actually covering the song, especially with lines that are so Strummer-ish like “And I hear punks talk of anarchy.” Even so, I enjoy listening to Joe adopt the primitive style of country-western singers and strummers, and as was true with everything he did, he put his whole heart and soul into the effort. The song’s epitaph is a fascinating admission of a man who spent a good deal of his life exploring the music of diverse cultures, and expresses something I’ve recently come to appreciate about myself:
Somewhere in my soul
There’s always rock and roll
When I’ve been away from rock for a while, it’s the emotional equivalent of nicotine withdrawal on a transatlantic flight: I simply have to have it and have it NOW! In Joe Strummer’s case, I think he was self-aware enough to know that his voice and orientation towards life was best manifested in the driving rhythms, nasty guitars and the inherent fuck-the-authorites character of rock ‘n’ roll. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Joe Strummer was The Natural.
This is vividly demonstrated on the next track, “Arms Aloft,” the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll number in the Strummer repertoire since “Clampdown.” This explosive number starts in an entirely disarming manner with a static beat leading to the first verse, where Joe sings over a guitar playing a pattern of selected high octave notes from the simple F-C chord pattern. The relative quiet reflects the mood of the lyrics, where Joe is singing to a friend going through one of those “life’s fucked me in the ass without lube” moments and can use a little empathy from a fellow traveler:
Sometimes there’s no star shining
Scouting the edge of the universe
Sometimes you can’t see a horizon
Between the ocean and the earth
The guitar then shifts to a fuller but still subdued version of the F-C pattern, joined by a solid bottom of bass and drum. After two rounds, Joe re-enters with a slight sneer in his voice to indicate that he ain’t buying this poor-me shit—“And just when you were thinking about slinking . . . ” and the guitar pattern collapses into a perfectly out-of-nowhere, delightfully devilish F#5 on the concluding word, “. . . down.” Now Joe is ready to drive this baby home with “I’m gonna pull you up! I’m gonna pull you ’round!” Then WHAM! We get full, deep thrust in an explosion of driving rock ‘n’ roll with Joe’s voice squeezed through a filter to emphasize the shift. The words that burst out of the sonic sieve are a timeless reminder to everyone that when things are going bad, we all have the tendency to shade everything in a negative tint and behave as if we’re acting out our parts in a disaster movie with no hope of rescue. “Fuck that!” responds Mr. Strummer:
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
May I remind you of that scene
We were arms aloft in Aberdeen
May I remind you of that scene
Let a million mirror balls beam
May I remind you of that scene
Shit, man, I’m ready for the post-fuck cigarette after the first verse and chorus! Fortunately, I have a very large appetite for orgasmic experiences, and “Arms Aloft” is the fuck buddy who never quits. Driven by an exceptionally strong bass pattern, the second verse is dedicated to us common people who have to work for our daily bread. Save us from our self-pity, Joe!
And you say living ain’t nothing but hassles
In a Manila envelope frame
And driving coal all-night to Newcastle
It’s getting to be a repetitive strain
And just when thought you were going down the drain
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
After a fabulous instrumental bridge of sliding, twisting, cascading guitar effects, the band dials it down just a smidge to clear the way for Joe to step up and remind us, “I’m gonna pull you up, I’m gonna pull you out!” and “Arms Aloft” shifts into a hard-driving fade until the band collapses from sheer exhaustion, having left it all on the bedsheets and then some. My favorite line in the fade is “We got all this and Bird and Diz,” referring to the legendary Bebop heroes who pushed musical boundaries to the limit with virtually no hope of commercial success. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for Parker and Gillespie to forget about expanding musical boundaries, get a steady gig with a big band and play the dance music people wanted to hear. Why didn’t they do that? Because the spirit was their gasoline, just as it was for Joe Strummer.
It’s music, baby! Live it the fuck up!
The contrast between “Arms Aloft” and “Ramshackle Day Parade” couldn’t be greater: one is a song of spirit rising from the ashes, the other a song of spirit crushed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over a gentle background of echoed piano and touches of synthesizer, Joe opens the song by depicting the cinematic innocence of America at the start of the new century:
Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marilyn died
All your life, dreamer of dreams
Somehow connected with the silver screen
Half closed eyes, you realize
Loving the life that is paradise
In the Technicolor fade
JFK and Marilyn were America’s fantasy couple, one the symbol of active masculinity (cloaking Addison’s disease and a degenerative back condition), the other the glamorous sex symbol par excellence (cloaking natural mousey brown hair and lifelong depression). The tendency towards naive fantasy that characterizes the American psyche was further fueled by the end of the Cold War and seemingly unstoppable economy: TV pundits talked constantly about “the new American century.” 9/11 destroyed not only the precious lives of three thousand people but the American fantasy of continuous progress and unbridled optimism. The parade of people walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge after the horror of that sunny day was the cruel opposite of the celebratory ticker tape parades of the past:
This is the ramshackle day parade
Of all those lost, unborn, and unmade
And whose heads got filled with a neon lava
And remain buried underneath this road
Taking the freight elevator
From the incinerator
The ironic line “Bring out the banners of Stalingrad” describes a Pyrrhic victory, and given the continuing decline of the United States in the years following 9/11—masked temporarily and only superficially by the Obama years—the image of a “victory” that causes you to sacrifice everything you stand for is entirely appropriate, given where America is today. “Ramshackle Day Parade” is a haunting and challenging song, brilliantly arranged and executed.
My friends (hah!) over at Pitchfork didn’t think much of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song,” claiming it “verges on comedy.” Oh, my goodness! I guess if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a limit of 800 words to write a piece for the moronic music consumers who read your shit, you need to keep your snark skills sharp! Perhaps if Mr. Hartley Goldstein had eliminated the TWO OPENING PARAGRAPHS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE A MUSIC CRITIC, he might have had some room to write more intelligently and perceptively about Mr. Strummer’s work. As it is, he only mentions half of the songs on the album and blames both Joe Strummer’s widow and Rick Rubin’s production for Joe’s poor showing on “Redemption Song.” To say I believe Mr. Goldstein misses the point would be the understatement of all understatements, so allow me to politely offer an alternative viewpoint to that lazy prick’s senseless meanderings.
No matter what Joe Strummer did in his career, no matter how many musical avenues he explored, and no matter how complex and rich his arrangements could be, all his songs are Everyman songs that anyone who learns a few simple chords can play. The two acoustic numbers on Streetcore allow us to hear Joe without The Clash or The Mescaleros filling in the spaces. All we get is Joe Strummer, armed only with his acoustic guitar and his gravelly, wandering voice. Does his performance on “Redemption Song” come close to any of Richard Thompson’s acoustic masterpieces? Fuck, no! What comes through is his spirit, his passion for human freedom and his deep respect for a great song. That’s good enough for me! Still, I wish they could have included the Cash-Strummer duet instead—the combination of Johnny’s sadly fading voice as he makes one of his last recordings and Joe Strummer’s respectful counterpoint is incredibly moving. Both would be gone within the space of two years, but when I hear that recording, it inspires me with the hope that I leave this mortal sphere singing, no matter how old and creaky I sound.
Joe and the Mescaleros get back to ass-kicking rock with “All in a Day,” where the constant refrain of “Hey, hey!” presents the listener with the overwhelming urge to join in. It’s a great dance number with some nice breaks to let the listening audience throw in a few exuberant shouts. It’s followed by the majestic “Burnin’ Streets,” an update of “London’s Burning” a quarter of a century after the first Clash album hit the U. K. shelves. Joe is in particularly fine voice here, supported by a nicely flowing arrangement highlighting acoustic guitar and Mellotron. Not much had changed in twenty-five-or-so years, but the passage that surprised me highlights Joe Strummer’s lack of tolerance for guns in a civilized society:
Too many guns in this damn town
The supermarket, you gotta duck down
Baby flak jackets on the merry-go-round
I’m thinking, “Compared to the gun-crazy USA, what the fuck are you talking about?” I remain eternally grateful that the NRA hasn’t extended their satanic claws to England’s green and pleasant land, praise the fucking lord and don’t pass the fucking ammunition.
Joe Strummer spent part of his out-of-the-industry years as a BBC disk jockey in a programme appropriately titled London Calling. You can find recordings of his shows in the BBC archives or on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I mean, can you imagine a better disk jockey than Joe Strummer? His natural curiosity and deep knowledge of world music made him a perfect fit for the job, and exposed a lot of people to music (including me) that I would never have heard anywhere else.”Midnight Jam” is essentially an extended instrumental with snippets from Joe’s programmes, riffing on the music he’s spinning. While that doesn’t sound like much, the combination of that unmistakable voice and solid backing makes for a compelling listening experience. My favorite “line” is “Since the last programme I’ve been around the world touring with a group—you name every jail in Germany, I’ve been there.” The line is both a reaffirmation of rebellion and a final nod to The Man in Black, who made some of his best recordings in prisons.
Streetcore ends with the third acoustic number, “Silver and Gold,” Joe’s cover of the Fats Domino-Bobby Charles song originally titled “Before I Grow Too Old.” The two original versions share a New Orleans feel, differing largely in the tempo—Bobby skips through the song at a decent clip while Fats takes it slow and easy. Reflecting his late fascination with voices from the American heartland, Joe turns the piece into a Western tune, replete with harmonica and Tymon Dogg on the fiddle. Obviously, the song’s lyrics take on more meaning because of his sudden death, but I think if had Joe lived to a ripe old age, this song would be remembered as an anthem to his commitment to live life a certain way: at breakneck speed, and if you break a few rules along the way, fuck it.
Oh, I do a lotta things, I know is wrong
Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone
It’ll take a lotta prayers to save my soul
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old . . .
Heh, I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night
I’m gonna see all your city lights
I’m gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old
Joe sings the song with almost boyish sincerity, and when you realize this is the last thing we’ll ever hear from Joe Strummer, it hits you with a combination of terrible sadness and irresolvable frustration that he died way, way before his time.
At a time when several Western countries are turning the clock backwards to pursue the discredited ideology of Nationalism that gave us decades of war, the life and work of Joe Strummer reminds us that there is an alternative to fear-driven self-destruction: the celebration of human diversity and inclusion. Through his endless curiosity about different cultures and the music of those cultures, Joe Strummer was the model world citizen, actively chipping away at the real and imagined borders that divide us. I am certain he would be absolutely astonished to return to the world of today and see that its inhabitants have responded to fear by splitting apart instead of coming together . . . and I’m equally certain he would respond forcefully with songs that expose the absurdity and validate the humanity. Streetcore is the final gift from a man who lived life to the fullest and had complete confidence that the human spirit could survive the worst tendencies of the human race.
The spirit, after all, is our gasoline.
My dad is such an asshole.
I knew—I fucking knew—that as soon as he saw my Tom Petty review, he’d ask for another favor. And I knew exactly what the favor was going to be.
He pounced one day while taking a look at the hot water hookup to our bidet, something I’d asked him to do to so my partner and I could avoid the unpleasant sensation of icy water on our clits. I hung around while he worked, listening to him chatter away about French and American politics, his recent addiction to the television series The Americans and a trip back to Chile that he and maman are planning for winter. I knew he was just fucking with me, and as soon as he finished the job he put his cards on the table.
“Well! Now that you’ve done Tom Petty, how about the Wilburys?”
“No way, dad! Why on earth would I want to waste my time on a bunch of old farts way past their prime?”
“Because it was one of the most beloved albums of its time.”
“Beloved by other old farts way past their prime. Just like you, dad!”
“I’ll defer to your mother on the subject of my primeness. Now—about the Wilburys . . .”
“I already gave you a Dylan review! I was even complimentary in spots.”
“You trashed ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ one of the most beloved songs in history.”
“Shit, dad, his version went on forever. The Byrds wrapped it up in a couple of minutes. And anyway, The Wilburys came twenty years after his so-called prime. And what’s with you and ‘beloved?’ Have you been working on your eulogy?”
“As a a matter of fact, yes. I want something to offset your rendition of ‘Born to Lose.'”
“Which I will sing with everlasting affection.'”
“I’m touched. But back to the Wilburys . . .”
“Dad, I don’t have time. I’ve got to get this book off my plate!”
“You said the other day you were short on 80’s albums. With Full Moon Fever and The Wilburys you can close the gap.”
I was so locked into debate mode that I completely missed the point that he was now asking for two reviews. “Fuck, dad! Except for Tom Petty, they were all washed up. George went dry about the same time Dylan did and Jeff Lynne was never more than a Beatles wannabe.”
“You forgot Roy Orbison.”
Shit. I did forget Roy Orbison. That gave me pause, and dad seized the opportunity.
“Admit it. You love Roy Orbison. Doing the Wilburys would be a great way for you to pay your last respects. You know he died just a few weeks after the first Wilburys album came out.”
“If you tell me he was one of the most beloved singers in history, I’ll cut your nuts off.”
“But he was—and you know it. Give the man his due.”
“Hold it right there. I’m not Rolling Fucking Stone. I’m the altrockchick, with a devoted fan base in the dozens. Nobody gives a shit whether or not I give Roy Orbison a proper sendoff.” Then something clicked in my brain. “Hey, wait a minute! I did give him a proper sendoff! I covered his last single—‘Mystery Girl’—in the Playlist review. You lose, dad!”
“But . . . ”
“But nothing. No fucking Wilburys!”
He looked crushed, and I love it when men look crushed. Now I could get exactly what I wanted in the first place.
“There is something I want from you that would be a helluva lot more fun than the Wilburys.”
Head hung in utter defeat, he mumbled, “What’s that?”
I explained that there aren’t any great collections of 60’s singles, and many of those songs have had surprising staying power—they’re as familiar to Millennials as they are to Baby Boomers. 45’s dominated the music scene at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and only started to fade into the background when albums gained prominence and listeners started to abandon AM radio for the higher quality sound of FM in the late 60’s. I told him I wanted to go through his stack of 45’s, select the most interesting and create a virtual compilation album for review.
He lifted his head. “Hmm. That would be pretty interesting. You could cover a lot of ground that way.”
“It would fill in a lot of gaps, close some loose ends and I think we’d have a gas doing it.”
“Cool! When do we start?” He had now completely submitted to my will and was ecstatic about it. That’s dominance!
“After I get back from Milan—next weekend?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
As noted in his post dedicated to his gorgeous, sophisticated, compassionate and extremely modest daughter, my father bought his first 45 way back in 1961: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens on RCA Victor. A dedicated follower of the Top 30 charts, he collected hundreds of 45’s over the next seven years. He expanded his collection with music from his early childhood years when his older brother went to college and left him a few dozen 45’s from the 50’s and early 60’s. Beginning midway through 1967, when albums had established their dominance, the collection thins out dramatically. The few singles he bought after that consisted of Beatles releases and a few odds and ends. He purchased his last 45 in 1970: “Venus” by Shocking Blue.
Great fucking song, literally and emphatically.
At first I was daunted by the sheer volume of sides, but after sorting through the pile I discovered that I had already reviewed many of these songs in reviews of various compilation albums. There were also plenty of “Dad, what the fuck were you thinking?” turkeys that helped shrink the pile to almost manageable. Several that I flung into the reject pile fall into the category of “novelty songs,” a genre that was very popular in the 50’s and 60’s. Novelties in his collection include:
- “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvous
- “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley
- “Witch Doctor” by David Seville
- “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Over Night?” by Lonnie Donegan
- and too many others to mention
I chose one from the pile, as one was all I could take.
After looking through all the content in his collection, I would describe my father’s tastes as strongly oriented towards rock and soul with a typical teenage boy’s fascination with girl singers who made him want to whip his skippy. He was also fond of male falsetto, but denies any same-sex fantasies. My father’s undying loyalty to his hometown is apparent in the relative quantity of San Francisco and Bay Area releases. I would characterize his early garage rock collection as “excellent.” British readers will note the absence of Cliff Richard and The Shadows, but in my dad’s defense, Cliff Richard was virtual nonentity in the States during what was his peak period in the U. K.
What follows is a series of five reviews of 45’s from five different time periods: 1955-1958, 1959-1963, 1964-1965, 1966 and 1967. The dates attached to each song generally reflect the month in which the song first appeared on the Billboard Top 100, according to the wonderfully well-organized and well-researched site Weekly Top 40. These dates may lead to some confusion among listeners who associate a record with a special moment in their lives—first fuck, first car, first cigarette, first blow job, getting dumped or busted at the prom—whatever. Singles were often released in different countries at different times, and sometimes a song would take a while to catch on after its release. I’ll explain those peculiarities when relevant to a song’s history.
Covered in Other Reviews: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Dion, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (début album), Eddie Cochran.
Americans dominated popular music from 1955 to 1963, a phenomenon driven primarily by the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the years 1955 to 1958. As is true with almost anything Americans dominate, they fucked it up, and almost killed rock ‘n’ roll in the process.
The primary drives of American culture during this period were the five C’s: conformity, consumerism, convenience, comfort and communism. The American economy exploded in the postwar era, and a generation sick of the sacrifices demanded by depression and war wanted more, more, more! More cars! More appliances! More push buttons! More babies! The United States dominated the world in nearly every tangible category you can name, from military might to technicolor movies, a condition that should have created a tremendous sense of security in the populace. This was not to be the case, as unscrupulous politicians from both major parties constantly fanned the flames of communist paranoia, so much so that when a puny satellite measuring less than two feet in diameter started orbiting the earth, the entire country was thrown into a tizzy. Behind the façade, American confidence was a very fragile thing.
The patriotism engendered by the war provided a fertile ground for the ethnocentric paranoia that manifested itself in the notion that there were two kinds of people: those who were “Real Americans” and those who were not, the latter group consisting of “Negroes,” “Indians,” and other undesirables. The definition of a “Real American” constantly morphed over time to include a hodgepodge of nostalgic impulses, pre-existing biases and behavioral expectations from the burgeoning consumer culture. Real Americans had eggs for breakfast and meat-and-potatoes for dinner. Real Americans kept their lawns up and painted their fences. In a Real American family, the man was the breadwinner, the woman the cook, cleaning lady and all-purpose nanny. Real American kids were expected to behave, and those who didn’t were termed “juvenile delinquents.”
And though Real Americans must have been fucking their brains out to produce all those whiny bundles of joy, Real Americans never spoke about sex in polite company. Lucy and Ricky slept separately in twin beds in the early 50’s, as did Rob and Laura in the early 60’s.
While most teens of the 50’s went along with the program and strived to become the good boys and girls their parents wanted them to be, others felt differently. The pressure from a conformist society in denial about sex weighed heavily on those horny adolescents. Born in the waning years of the Great Depression and entering childhood during a global conflict, they were as eager as their parents to experience the joys of plenty. Their basic needs for security and safety fully satisfied, they wanted something more, something different, something their hopelessly square parents couldn’t give them. Like the character of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, they had a hard time expressing exactly what they wanted, so they literally became rebels without a cause: I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want this!
This strange state of consciousness combined with the insatiable sex drive of the teenager made them the perfect audience for a new form of music—music that encouraged non-conformity, validated sexual urges and confusing emotions, and above all, allowed you to dance your blues away, preferably all night long.
This is what the period from 1955-1958 was all about: rebellion for the hell of it, rebellion because it felt good.
“Rock Around the Clock,” Bill Haley and the Comets, March 1955: The single that changed everything was originally a b-side released in 1954 that had a modest run on the charts. What rescued the song from obscurity was its appearance in the classic juvenile delinquent movie, Blackboard Jungle. The film version begins with an extended drum solo, a call to the ancient rhythmic impulses that merged into the famous stop-time intro that caused teenage blood to boil over and send thousands of adolescents into the aisles to shake their fannies and engage in general mayhem. Compared to the heat generated by some of Ruth Brown’s R&B hits, “Rock Around the Clock” feels rather tame, but to white teenagers of the 1950’s, who had probably never heard of Ruth Brown, the punctuated snare shots, the pizzicato guitar solo and the growling sax must have sent their libidos into overload. I think the basic message of the song is as important and as validating as the music: instead of “Johnny, it’s past your bedtime,” you get to “rock, rock, rock ’til the broad daylight!” Take your curfew and shove it up your ass, mom and dad! Haley’s vocal is rather dull and weak on the blue notes, but he does sound like he’s having a good time.
The alleged a-side, “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)” is an Atomic Age classic: the singer dreams that the H-bomb has been dropped, leaving himself as the world’s sole penis possessor with thirteen women to take care of him. He doesn’t fuck a single broad before waking up, making him the biggest moron to ever survive the H-bomb.
“Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford, November 1955: The advent of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t change the status quo as much as historical hype might lead you to believe. Rock wasn’t much more than another category of music to add to the already diverse popular music offerings in the 1950’s. The charts brimmed with lush pop songs, Latin-influenced instrumentals, mood music, country-western ditties, novelty pieces and, eventually, rock ‘n’ roll. In the midst of all this diversity came Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons,” which is simply one of the greatest vocal performances on record in any genre.
The piece grabs you right from the start with its mournful clarinet melting into Ernie’s opening fermata (a note prolonged beyond its expected duration) on the word some. He then picks up the hidden beat with four finger snaps that form the lead-in for the stand-up bass and drums. When Ernie arrives at the chorus, a thin, wavering trumpet enters to add some texture, but all the touches are on the light side—the arrangement is carefully attenuated to focus the listener’s attention on Ernie’s vocal. And a magnificent vocal it is! His expressive variations—the shift to a threatening whisper on the phrase, “better step aside,” the cocky little laugh in the line, “Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line,” and the grand a cappella finale—are the work of a master. Merle Travis’ song is a gritty depiction of life as a coal miner, and Ernie makes us feel the silent desperation burning inside the man. The closing diminuendo of the clarinet is as perfect as perfect gets, a sad punctuation mark emphasizing the dreary truth that our coal miner is forever trapped in a pattern of inhuman absurdity. While most pop songs lapse into melodrama, “Sixteen Tons” honors us with a completely aesthetic experience, achieving what very few popular songs have ever achieved: tragedy with catharsis.
“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Elvis Presley, May 1956: This is my favorite Elvis song of all-time and I was delighted to see it in dad’s collection! What’s more amazing than Elvis’ performance, though, is the engineering brilliance that created that performance. The story is a beaut: RCA, eager to record a follow-up hit to “Heartbreak Hotel,” flew Elvis to Nashville during a one-day break in his touring schedule. The plane developed engine trouble, powerlessly plummeting through the air several times before the pilot regained control. Needless to day, when Elvis and the boys arrived at the studio, they weren’t in the best of moods. Elvis had no idea what to record (!), so they turned to producer Steve Sholes for suggestions, and he came up with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” After seventeen less-than-satisfying takes, Sholes gave up and sent the band home.
Realizing he wouldn’t get Elvis in the studio for months left Sholes with very few options, so he took parts of two reasonably acceptable takes and spliced them together. Sholes must have been seriously on his game, because no one noticed. In a few months, Elvis had his second gold record.
Scotty Moore’s opening lick is truly attention-grabbing, but what I really love about the song is the complexity of the chord structure, sweetened by a brief key shift in the bridge. The melody also features significant movement, and, combined with the truncated lyrical lines, make for an extremely challenging vocal. You can hear Elvis taking breaths at shorter intervals, and sometimes he inhales with such speed that it sounds like he’s surprised he has to breathe so often. There are dozens of mini-phrases in “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” and Elvis nails every single one. The choppiness you may experience comes from the phrasing challenge, but think about it a minute—aren’t nearly all genuine expressions of passion for another a little choppy? We stutter, we can’t find the right words, our volume oscillates and our tongues get tied. The weird confluence of events preceding the recording session gave us a frazzled Elvis who managed to create an emotional honesty in his performance that is far more satisfying than the experience of listening to a technically brilliant but completely lifeless singer. When I listen to Elvis’ voice here, I hear sincerity, and when someone’s verbally making love to you, that’s really all you want to hear.
The b-side, Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” is a song Elvis could have sung in his sleep. He was a great translator of early R&B.
“Be-Bop-a-Lula,” Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, June 1956: Gene was Capitol’s answer to Elvis, and you can hear the vocal similarities especially when Gene drops down to the lower part of his range. However, Gene’s vocal style was far more “out there” than Elvis Presley’s, and drummer Dickie Harrel’s screams are something you would never hear from Scotty Moore or a Jordanaire. The movement from mellow to bash makes for an incredibly sexy build, and Cliff Gallup’s lead solos and “Jumpin'” Jack Neal’s bends on the string bass are to die for. Alas, this would be Gene’s last trip to the American Top 10. He would abandon his homeland for a reasonably successful career on the other side of the pond, survive the auto accident that killed Eddie Cochran, develop a serious drinking problem, attempt to kill Gary Glitter for messing with his babe and die at the ripe old age of 36.
“Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley, July 1956: I realize that “Don’t Be Cruel” was technically the A-side, but I’ll take “Hound Dog” over “Don’t Be Cruel” anytime. What began as a comic relief number became a signature song of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, phase one, especially after Elvis displayed his pelvic flexibility on The Milton Berle Show. On Berle’s show he moved like a guy in the dying stages of an orgasm trying to get that last bit of shot out of his system. When I fuck a guy, that’s exactly how I want him to look when I’m done with him—spent, deliriously happy and ready to rock again! Elvis belts this sucker out in his best drawling growl, encouraged by Scotty Bowman’s sharp fills and D. J. Fontana’s muscular drum rolls. What makes “Hound Dog” all the sweeter is that it sparked a nasty reaction from American Puritans, various members of Congress, and the now seriously-uncool Frank Sinatra. Good Boy Elvis dismissed the song as “silly,” but Bad Boy Elvis is the guy on the record, and that’s the guy we’ll remember.
By the way, Elvis’ version is nothing like the Big Mama Thornton original. Big Mama’s take is like Memphis Minnie Meets the Fifties, an ode to female sexual control. Elvis’ version is somewhat closer to the one by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, which is godfucking awful and moves like a stegosaur with hemorrhoids.
As for “Don’t Be Cruel,” it’s a good song and it’s got a nice beat you can dance to, Dick, but so very, very tame in comparison.
“I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash, September 1956: It’s a shame that nice deep voices are relatively rare in popular music, and when I worked my way through the flood of falsetto that greeted me when I started listening to singles from the 60’s, I found myself missing them terribly. Here Johnny not only changes keys in every verse but also drops octaves, most noticeably in the last verse, where his voice seems to fade into the nether reaches of the underworld. I hate to be a girl, but I think it’s so cute that he hums right before each verse to find the key! You combine that vulnerability with a deep voice expressing undying devotion and you’re going to get one horny altrockchick! Okay, let me admit it up front so I don’t have to deal with it later—I would have fucked Johnny Cash but I would have never fucked Lou Christie. There! I’ve said it! Fetish confessed!
“Little Darlin’,” The Diamonds, March 1957: The falsetto “ya-ya-ya-ya” is frequently borrowed for satires of 50’s music, making this an iconic song of sorts. It’s actually a Canadian white boy cover of a Maurice Williams song that he performed with The Gladiolas. Whitewashing remained a common practice throughout the 50’s, with Pat Boone leading the way with his bleached version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.” While Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic thinks The Diamonds’ version is the bees knees, I find their performance deeply offensive. The Diamonds’ attempt to sound African-American is so over-the-top that it’s the aural equivalent of blackface. Yecch!
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee Lewis, June 1957: The only member of the Million Dollar Quartet I haven’t covered, Jerry Lee Lewis was the voice of the devil whispering in my ear during piano lessons, “Fuck that Schubert lieder. You know you want to boogie, baby!” I gave into Jerry Lee’s pleadings one day and scared the hell out of my piano teacher when I got stuck on a particularly difficult passage and vented my frustration by banging out the left-hand run from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” I even threw in a few slides with the right hand. Damn, that felt good!
Jerry Lee’s emphasis on the piano as a percussive instrument was critical to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, for he rescued the most versatile of all musical instruments from the squares and “longhairs,” making the piano a viable alternative to the guitar. I really dislike it when people use the term “thunderous” when talking about Jerry Lee’s style, because thunder is a random, arrhythmic occurrence, and Jerry Lee Lewis is rhythm personified. Let’s just call his style “fucking hot” and move on.
While his contributions on the piano alone would have earned him a place in any hall of fame you care to mention, it was his singing that blatantly confirmed the sexual messages in his music. His phrasing flies over the rhythm, almost like he’s providing a guided commentary on the erotic underpinnings of the sounds he’s creating on his piano. The back-and-forth shifts between melody and spoken word express extreme confidence in both his ability to maintain the rhythm without bass support and his own sexual prowess. When he talks to the imaginary babe during the down-low passages (“All you gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot/Wiggle around just a little bit, that’s when you got it, yeah!”), he is in full seduction mode, getting the likely virgin to loosen up and ride along with those funny sensations building up in her clitoris. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” validated the heavenly union between sex and rock ‘n’ roll, angering Puritans of all stripes.
Had I been alive back then, I would have told them to fuck off but Puritans don’t know how to do that.
My father’s collection also includes “Great Balls of Fire,” but I find Jerry’s vocal on that one a bit too obvious and over-the-top, even for me.
“Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley, October 1957: Sadly, “Jailhouse Rock” proved to be the last single featuring Elvis in full rock-out mode, growling his vocal with consistent intensity over five stop-time structured verses. By comparison, “Hard-Headed Woman” from King Creole is a pale imitation, a choppy song with an arrangement that drowns Elvis’ voice far too often. Here he’s still Bad Boy Elvis, in perfect sync with his character in the film, where he plays a guy sent to the joint for manslaughter. In a few short months he would forever become Good Boy Elvis by entering the U. S. Army. After his release, he would stick to pop songs and ballads and appear in a series of eminently wholesome and forgettable movies that made him rich enough to fly his friends in his private jet to Denver at the drop of a hat to dine at a restaurant that served his favorite peanut butter sandwiches.
“At the Hop,” Danny and The Juniors, December 1957: Danny and the Juniors began life as The Juvenairs, performing primarily as an intermission act at (where else?) sock hops. Members John Medora (sometimes Madara) and David White had written a tune called “Do the Bop,” but by the time they played the song for producer and vocal coach Artie Singer, the Bop fad had faded into history. Singer suggested (some argue it was Dick Clark who made the suggestion, but it hardly matters) they change the title to “At the Hop,” transforming what would have been another one-shot dance-fad number into a song about the teenage experience. Sock hops and mixers had become essential rituals in teenage culture in the 1950’s, events where adolescents could show off their moves and both cats and chicks could bridge the chasm between the sexes through the arts of dance and flirtation . . . under the watchful eyes of chaperones.
“At the Hop” not only celebrated this cultural development but helped shift adult perceptions of rock ‘n’ roll from something dangerously rebellious to a form of good, clean fun. The lyrics even argue that rather than serving as the harbinger of revolution, rock ‘n’ roll could serve a supporting role in the general cultural trend towards conformity. The line, “Do the dance sensation that is sweepin’ the nation at the hop” essentially urges teenagers to get with the program and do what all the other teenagers do. Don’t be a square, hit the dance floor! That line also embraces another important feature of American culture in the 1950’s: faddism. The Fifties were a fad factory, and one of the most effective ways to validate your credentials as a real American was to jump on the fad bandwagon. The Hula Hoop is the classic example (20 million were sold in the first two months after it hit the shelves), but the 50’s also brought us 3-D movie glasses, DA’s and sideburns, drive-in diners with carhops, Pez dispensers and coonskin caps. The era was also an assembly line of dance fads, a trend that continued well into the 60’s with The Twist, Watusi and Mashed Potatoes. Fads are extremely effective means of defining cultural norms, and a relatively pleasant way to enforce obedience.
Despite its obvious nod to conformity, I would also argue that “At the Hop” subtly encouraged revolution by expanding the definition of “normal” to encompass the pseudo-sexual expression manifested in dance. More than any other song in the decade, “At the Hop” made rock ‘n’ roll normal and safe for kids—and by redefining “normal” to include previously unacceptable behaviors, it reminded people that the boundaries of “normal” are fluid, not static—a notion that would be fully exploited in the second half of the 60’s.
Danny and the Juniors initiated these cultural changes by . . . being Danny and the Juniors. The one feature I love most in this song is Danny Rapp’s unadulterated Philly accent. You don’t hear any of the vocal gyrations and drama of Elvis, Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. You hear the guy you know from sixth period Algebra performing with his buddies at the high school talent show! You don’t have to be “kooky” to do rock ‘n’ roll! Anyone can do it—even you!
The desirability of pursuing a career in rock ‘n’ roll is intensified by boogie-woogie piano and solid group collaboration throughout the song, from the opening four-part harmonic build to the increasingly complex call-and-response vocals. When Danny opens the vocal on the third instead of the root in the last verse to shake things up a little bit, it feels like the group is infused with a fresh burst of energy that they maintain right to the hard stop on the final “at the hop!” There are few songs in rock ‘n’ roll history as joyful at “At the Hop,” and if this song doesn’t make you smile, you may need several sessions with a shrink or a call girl to clean out your psychological intestines.
Even with the title change, the song spent several months hanging around the bottom of the charts until Dick booked them for a slot on American Bandstand. After the televised publicity, the song rocketed to the top and became one of the biggest hits of 1958. Dick also demanded half the royalties for the song, giving credence to the belief that the title change was his idea and reminding us that Dick Clark didn’t become the most influential person in the music business by being a nice guy.
“Get a Job,” The Silhouettes, January 1958: Written by the four Silhouettes, the arrangement for which Howard Biggs was given credit was actually the group’s creation as well. Biggs wanted to replace the “dip dip” opening with a musical introduction, a suggestion that has to rank as one of the dumbest ever made. The layering and variation of the doo-wop syllables that establish the foundation create a fascinating backdrop, but my favorite parts come at the ends of the bridges when the meager instrumentation fades and all we hear is a soaring solo voice over pounding drums and handclaps, soon to be joined right on cue by full harmonic power. Outfuckingstanding! And the sax solo between the two bridges ain’t chicken liver either.
“Do You Want to Dance?” Bobby Freeman, May 1958: Bongo drums were all the rage during the 50’s and early 60’s, popular with beatniks, college geeks and pop fans alike. Bobby Freeman’s song is as much an ode to bongos as a dance song, and if anyone could write a song about bongos, it would have to be a guy from San Francisco, the beat generation mecca where Latin-tinged jazz became all the rage during Orlando Cepeda’s rookie season with the Giants. On “Do You Want to Dance” we get bongos at the start, bongos throughout the verses, bongos re-starting the song after a brief pause, and bongos punctuating the finish. I find the slapping sound intensely irritating after about 45 seconds, and I’ve never cared for any of the many cover versions of this song (though I do like the genuine enthusiasm in Bobby’s vocal). Bobby would later perform at the Condor Club where another San Francisco legend and one of my personal heroines, Carol Doda, first shook her fully-exposed, fabulous set of tits for legions of adoring fans.
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, June 1958: Duane Eddy did as much as anyone to bring the guitar into prominence and inspire budding guitarists to attempt to duplicate the unusual sounds he wheedled out of his ax. Here the low-string riff is enhanced by an echo chamber, spiced with spots of vibrato from Duane’s whammy bar and supported by a strong, pounding beat. Duane plays the same pattern over and over again, masking the repetition by moving up a half step every twelve bars. Apparently the producers felt the song needed more variation and added a blow-with-all-your-might sax solo in the final mix. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that it’s a patch—the sax player never fully connects with the original groove and is so loud that the star of the show fades from earshot. I want a “naked” version of “Rebel Rouser!”
“Chantilly Lace,” Big Bopper, August 1958: J. P. Richardson was a popular local DJ when he capitalized on the latest dance fad (The Bop) and changed his over-the-air name to The Big Bopper. During 1958 and early 1959 he would also establish himself as a successful songwriter, penning a #1 country hit for George Jones and a #1 pop hit for Johnny Preston, “Running Bear,” one of the painfully long line of death songs popular for a few years in the early 60’s.
Thankfully, my father’s collection does not include “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
He also had a hand in the creation of his signature song, “Chantilly Lace.” The idea to create a song reflecting only one side of a phone conversation was an inspired choice that enabled the Bopper to slip a ton of innuendo past the delicate ears of the Puritans. The Bopper plays his role in the masquerade to perfection. His timing is exquisite, especially after he moans the line “But, baby, I ain’t got no money, honey.” He holds that silence long enough for the girl on the line to say something like, “The thing I want won’t cost you a dime” leading him to respond with his heartiest laugh and most emphatic “you KNOW what I LIKE!” I adore his voice on the chorus, sung with the gorgeous baritone confidence of a man who knows exactly what he wants.
Speaking of fabulous tits, Jayne Mansfield (another one of my heroines) released an answer song to Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” a kittenish, sexually submissive, and thoroughly risqué piece called “That Makes It.” The song makes a playful attempt to reproduce what Chantilly Lace is actually saying to the Bopper on the other end of the line. It’s worth the price of admission for one vocal passage that consists entirely of moans and squeals of delight that ends with “Ooh, that’s so kinky!” While I vehemently disagree with Jayne’s wish for “a man who’s cool, who really knows how to rule/the way he keeps ’em in line/makes ’em feel so fine,” this was a pre-liberation song and the thought of female domination probably never crossed her mind—despite millions of drooling admirers who would have sacrificed their dicks and first-borns for a shot at Jayne Mansfield.
“La Bamba/Donna” Ritchie Valens, November 1958: I first learned “La Bamba” in seventh grade Spanish class, and later I found out that my Aunt Pug learned it in her seventh grade Spanish class, too. I had no idea that Ritchie Valens would be part of the educational curriculum in California schools for almost three decades! “Donna,” a slow-dance number Ritchie had written about a lost love, turned out to be the bigger hit, but “La Bamba” is the one that achieved iconic status.
Ritchie was reluctant to re-jigger a Huapango folk song to fit a syncopated 4/4 backbeat, but with a great band behind him (including the versatile Carol Kay and Little Richard’s drummer Earl Palmer), he delivered a multi-faceted once-in-a-lifetime performance. His lead guitar solo is one of the best in early rock and he nails his lead vocal, easily riding the strong dance beat and trilling his r’s like a native (he was one of many Mexican kids who grew up on an English-only diet).
On February 3, 1959, Ritchie, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly would all lose their lives in a plane crash, an event Don McLean would later christen “The Day the Music Died.” The tragedy was really another nail in the coffin for early rock, as by this time it was already suffering from degenerative disease. Jerry Lee Lewis had fallen out of favor after marrying his 13-year old cousin, Little Richard had shifted to preaching and gospel songs and Elvis was wearing khaki. Chuck Berry would be indicted for violating the Mann Act in December 1959, and the most promising rocker of them all, Eddie Cochran, would die in an automobile accident in 1960. Combined with the earlier loss of James Dean, that gorgeous symbol of alienation and rebellion, it’s no wonder that the populace bought into the notion that rock ‘n’ roll was a passing fad similar to the hula hoop and, to borrow a phrase from David Bowie, that teenagers would “grow up and out of it” In the end, the strong conformist leanings of American culture reasserted themselves, much to the delight of record company moguls who were never really comfortable with the rebellious trappings of rock ‘n ‘roll.
We now move on to the lean years of 1959-1963, our next stop on the journey through my dad’s 45’s.