Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America (BBC 4 documentary series)

Just watched Episode One of the new BBC 4 series Rock 'n' Roll America, which will be available on BBC iplayer for a month (for those in the UK, anyway).

It was a particularly clear and effective retelling of what has become an oft-told tale, with enough freshness in the detail to mean that it can serve equally well as an introduction to the social roots of rock'n'roll and as a reminder of the music's importance for those who have read the books and seen the other documentaries. Archive clips seemed to have been very carefully selected and, crucially, the programme's length meant a decent chunk of time was devoted to the consideration of the contributions of key individuals. Each episode (this was the first of three) is an hour long, though the pace never seemed to flag in this debut show.

The great strength of the programme was the way in which the social background to this upsurge of a new kind of music was firmly sketched in.
A map of the States was a handy motif, used early on to indicate the migration of black workers (and their music) to the North with its car plants and steel mills, then, at the programme's climax, to illustrate the lyrics of Chuck Berry's song Sweet Little Sixteen (also the title of this episode) proclaiming the spread of rock'n'roll to the nation's teens by the time of the record's release in 1958:
They're really rockin' in Boston, Pittsburgh PA,
Deep in the heart of Texas and 'round the Frisco bay.
All over St. Louis, way down in New Orleans,
All the cats wanna dance with sweet little sixteen.

Note, by the way, the canny Mr Berry's invoking of earlier song titles, with the implicit suggestion that rock'n'roll is now as much part of the cultural furniture as those works.

How does Rock'n'Roll America compare to other series such as Dancing  in the Street or Tony Palmer's pioneering seventies series All You Need Is Love? The answer is I dunno, without watching them again. And in a way it's a pointless question. It's a bit like the several thousand Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams documentaries out there: the participants may be slightly older or younger but if you're like me it's a story you will want to hear again and again regardless.

Though I must admit that the more recent documentaries about my idols almost invariably have an extra layer of melancholy. So many of these giants of the 1950s (in comedy and rock'n'roll) have now gone, and those left, along with the friends and contemporaries of departed subjects, won't have many more interviews to give. As David Morrisey spells out in the opening narration of Rock 'n' Roll America: "These are some of the last witnesses ..." and they aren't all looking in the best of health. He only appeared very briefly in Episode 1, but Jerry Lewis appeared uncharacteristically placid and avuncular, a long way from the showman featured All You Need is Love or the happily raving, figure, sealed in his own little world, who can be seen in the hypnotic raw footage of Taylor Hackford's 1987 Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.

Anyway, assuming that you, too, will know the story of rock'n'roll in outline I won't go on to give a comprehensive account of the first programme and will content myself with pointing out some of the details I noticed.

Rocket 88, one of the contenders for the title of first ever rock'n'roll record (though Ike Turner wasn't so much as mentioned) was, we were told, written in Clarksdale, recorded in Memphis (by Sam Phillips) and released in Chicago (on Chess). How's that for statehopping?

We were taken into details about the rhythmic differences between the playing of Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Richard's drummer was on hand to relate how, before a rehearsal, Richard asked him to listen to the sound of a train - which became part of Lucille.

We saw Allen Touissant going around the site of Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans, now a laundromat. (I checked to see whether Larry Williams's Bad Boy was recorded there. It was not.)

In Chuck Berry's Maybelline the narrator is driving a V8 Ford; the object of his affection is driving a Cadillac Coupe Deville - "a rich person's car". Which, we were told, was "dangerous in the fifties" - linked, I think, to one interviewee's comment that we were never explicitly told in the song whether Maybelline was black or white.

Glenn Ford's son was on hand to tell us that he, the son, was a big Bill Haley fan, and when the producer of Blackboard Jungle was looking for a song to put on the credits Master Ford had the record of Thirteen Women which had as its B side Rock Around the Clock. One tiny chance moment ... so many ripped cinema seats. Unless that was just in Britain.

Another detail relates to the rise of doo wop. I have read that part of the reason American teens congregated to harmonise on front stoops or under streetlights was that many homes didn't have air conditioning and wouldn't necessarily have television or any of the technological distractions afforded to today's youth.

The programme doesn't see it in quite the same way. It wasn't that there was no TV but it had little appeal for adolescents. Televison may have been on the rise but the content was mostly pap, aimed at a family audience. And so as the general cinema audience began to tail off in the wake of this domestic entertainment for the tired breadwinner, teens were increasingly targetted by the film industry, hence such movies as The Wild Ones and Blackboard Jungle, where Glenn Ford's prized jazz records are gleefully destroyed by his class.

Talking of doo wop, I was pleased to see that it was given its, er, due here - especially after being dubbed in a 1992 book as "The Forgotten Third of Rock 'n' Roll". Doo wop was, we were told, the first popular music by teenagers for teenagers. As is well known, it's an urban phenomenon, and the point was made that its exponents hadn't grown up in the South so their lyrics weren't going to reflect the darker themes of earlier bluesmen. And the proliferation of jukeboxes carrying 45rpm records in cafes frequented by teens was also a factor: it meant that they became aware of doo wop even if it wasn't being played on the radio stations favoured by their parents.

Nevertheless, I had mixed feelings about seeing what is presumably the current version of the Spaniels singing Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight. Afterwards I looked up the name of the person singing bass and found he had been in Pookie Hudson's very first high school group, actually predating the Spaniels. But it was still odd, in a programme otherwise pretty good on selecting the telling detail, not to have the names of Pookie Hudson and Gerald Gregory (originator of that unforgettable bass intro) mentioned at any point.

Yes, yes, I do know that the lineup of most doo wop groups is subject to the odd change over the years, but we're not talking the Drifters here. Hudson wrote Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight himself. And it was about a real life "parting is such sweet sorrow" situation - R&J meets R&B - which would seem a perfect illustration of the "for teenagers by teenagers" line so why not credit the composer of this enduring work? Still, at least we got to hear the song, sung acapella and pretty well, though the absence of those tremulous Hudson tones, suggestive of adolescent gaucherie, meant an extra dimension was missing.

Anyway, that is all I wish to say for the moment though I return to later episodes. Along with the TV series there are going to be a lot of related radio programmes, mostly repeats as far as I can tell but very welcome. You can see the details, including documentaries on Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, here. US readers will, I think, be able to access the radio programmes.

Finally, I'd like to end with this clip from a forthcoming episode of Rock 'n' Roll America of the late Ben E King talking about Stand By Me. There's no new information in it - indeed he gives the impression, as he has done before, that the song was a happy afterthought in a session (which Mike Stoller called "a figment of someone's imagination", as recorded in the post here). But that doesn't matter. What is really touching in this short clip is to hear his singing, unaccompanied, the opening of There Goes My Baby. It was one of the songs which started it all, it's a bridge between doo wop and soul, and it's a fitting final memory of a great yet humble man.

Related posts: 

The Spaniels
The Spaniels # 2
Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Two
Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Three 

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