Monday, 1 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 27 (The Atomic Mr Haley and others)

"C'mon, lads - let's reck not of the morrow!"

One thing I haven't yet addressed in this scamper through the 1950s UK charts is just why that general audience split into two irreconcilable halves mid-decade - in America as well as Britain.

I had assumed it was essentially economic, ie the targetting of a new group of people with disposable income, as typically summed up below:
In 1955 teenagers had economic power, often accompanied by a consumer frenzy to equal that of their parents. They created a new market, which from that time on was flooded with products made especially for their consumption [...] And, of course, records. The 45rpm single had just made its appearance, and the portable record player allowed teenagers to take over the world of sound. Until then, to play music they had been dependent on the good mood of their fathers, who were usually in charge of the cumbersome record player enthroned in the front room.
But an article by Jon Savage in today's Guardian traces the origins of the divide back to the first atomic bomb - and offers a related reason for the scale of the Beatles' success in Britain:
On 11 October 1962, the Beatles' first single for EMI, Love Me Do, entered the UK charts. Four days later, the Cuban missile crisis began, when a US reconnaissance plane spotted Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In the days that followed, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. As a Soviet general later said, Earth was "minutes" away from "catastrophe".

The Beatles' extraordinary breakthrough from that date onwards has been put down to a variety of factors, not the least the quality of their music. But among all that explosive positive energy, it's hard not to sense, somewhere in the background, a reaction to the missile crisis. People of all ages were hit by it, of course, but a significant proportion of young people thought: "If we're all going to be blown up tomorrow, then I'm going to do what I want. The only thing that matters is NOW." If you were young, 1963 felt like a jump cut – from the vestiges of Victorianism right into mass modernity. And it all happened in a flash. Instead of existing in the past, it was time to live in the moment.

The Cuban missile crisis was the nearest the world had come to nuclear destruction since 1945, when US atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear terror dominated the 40 or so years of the cold war. It ebbed and it flowed, but it was always there in the back of people's minds, like climate change and jihadist terrorism today.

The relationship between the atomic bomb and postwar popular culture is as intimate as it is complex. It stretches right back to the almost contemporaneous invention of the teenager, in the winter of 1944, as the new model of youth: this product-hungry, pleasure-seeking individual was the perfect person to inhabit the new psychology of a world that could be blown up at any moment.

In the vacuum of 1945, American youth provided a beacon of hope and the ideal of the teenager took hold. Pop culture was thus founded on a kind of mass-market existentialism: living for the moment with no thought of the tomorrow that might not exist anyway. This helped to fuel all the pop explosions that followed Elvis Presley from the mid-1950s on.

The profound effect of the bomb on teenagers was examined by Jeff Nuttall in Bomb Culture, his 1968 survey of postwar youth culture: "No longer could teacher, magistrate, politician, don or even loving parent guide the young. Their membership of the H-bomb society automatically cancelled anything they might have to say on questions of right or wrong." In his view, "the so-called 'generation gap' started then" and had been widening ever since: "The people who had passed puberty at the time of the bomb found that they were incapable of conceiving of life without a future," he wrote. "The people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving of life with a future."
It's widely accepted that the rapidity of the Fabs' rise in America was in part about a national craving for distraction after the Kennedy assassination but I think this is the first time I've seen the above explanation for their unique impact on the UK charts.

Read the complete article on the Guardian website here. It coincides with the release of a mammoth Bear Family box set entitled Atomic Platters, covering bomb-related music from 1945 to 1969; more details here. Below is a promo clip with some brief samples of songs:

Having talked about Bill Haley in recent posts, here's a song of his featured in the set  which reflects those times (there is also a brief clip of Ann-Margaret's later version in the video above):

You can find the full background to that song here, including the surprising information that originally Rock Around the Clock was the B side to this song:
 Thirteen Women is the prototypical atomic fantasy song that features a working stiff dreaming about being the only male to survive an H-Bomb attack. The creeping beat, the plucked electric guitar chord (that signifies the hydrogen explosion) and the risque lyrics make this tune a landmark Bomb tune and the king of its own subgenre -- the Atomic Sex song. Reportedly Dickie Thompson's original lyrics did not reference the Bomb and that it was Bill Haley's producer, Milt Gabler, who 'atomized' the record.

And Gabler must have had high hopes for the tune because at the April 12, 1954 recording session it was the first of two scheduled songs he had Haley and His Comets record, the other being Rock Around The Clock. [...] Thirteen Women was issued in 1954 by Decca as the A-side and Rock Around The Clock consigned to the B-side. Rock Around The Clock's prominent exposure in the 1955 motion picture 'Blackboard Jungle' made the song a cultural phenomenon.
 Incidentaly, I've always had a sneaking admiration for that boastful capsule history of the development of popular music in Haley's R-O-C-K:
Strauss discovered waltzing,
The Handy man found the blues,
Then Haley came along with a rockin' song -
Crazy, man, crazy, crazy news!
Less "crazy", perhaps, than self-serving and reductive - and note that while brother pioneers are credited merely with the discovery of their respective genres, the suggestion is that Haley actually invented the style which was to split audiences in the age of the atom.

A sketch in the seventies BBC children's show Playaway featured a humourless and literal-minded pedant taking issue with a performance of the song Every Night's a Saturday Night, finding fault with all the idiomatic phrases - eg "Make the scene with the record machine" - and eventually insisting that the title be amended to "One Night in Seven's a Saturday Night" - a matter of brute fact, after all (if somewhat lacking in the "zing" stakes by comparison).

In the same way, a more strictly accurate account of rock's evolution, along the lines of:
Strauss discovered waltzing,
The Handy man found the blues,
Haley came along with a rockin' song deriving from a variety of sources, as detailed in "Big" Jim Dawson's book on Rock Around the Clock -
Crazy, man, crazy, crazy news!
seems somehow less felicitous. So why don't we just submit to the legend?

Postscript:  short review of Mr Dawson's book I prepared earlier: 
A book devoted to one song? Yes, when that song tells us about the evolution of a musical form still with us more than fifty years later. And Ian Whitcomb (who contributes a chapter about Bill Haley's unfortunate tour of the UK) has elsewhere (After the Ball) linked the song to Alexander's Ragtime Band (an Irving Berlin composition) some fifty years earlier: "A clarion-call summons to everybody to come take part in some twentieth-century fun," not unlike the mid-century exhortation to "put your glad rags on" in Rock Around the Clock.

So this book is the story of rock'n'roll's beginnings, taking in early use of the term, Louis Jordan, Bill Haley's roots in Western Swing, the tangled origins of the song itself and its impact in the film Blackboard Jungle. The blurb at the back of the book says: "Dawson makes the case that Rock Around the Clock - besides being the first national No. 1 rock'n'roll hit - killed Tin Pan Alley and heralded the beginning of modern youth culture."
What Was The First Rock'n'Roll Record?, written by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, is mentioned in post 34, here, along with a list of their 50 (count 'em) candidates, with spotify and youtube links to most of them.

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