Saturday, 18 July 2015

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

The final episode of the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America was delayed by almost an hour - blame the corporation's decision to persist with live coverage of a golfing event - but it proved worth the wait.

I did wonder, initially, whether the need to cover all the many offshoots of rock'n'roll in this final programme meant that we might only be scratching the surface, but that was a misunderstanding of what the series is trying to do. There may have been more genres to be covered than in earlier episodes but once again the programme makers did a pretty of good job of selecting key moments and remarks which conveyed the essence of a range of styles without losing a sense of the bigger picture.

Which, in this episode, was rock'n'roll's transition into various strands of pop, for good and ill, followed by the impact of the Beatles on a moribund US chart.

We started with the main figures "missing in action" - through death, religion, the army or scandal.
So far so familiar, but a nice touch was that we heard a recording played at Holly's funeral (I'll Be Around by the Angelic Gospel Singers) as Crickets drummer Jerry Allison, Don Everly and Jerry Lee Lewis paid tribute to the man they knew - indeed, Don Everly seemed at pains to stress how rare it was to have a genuine friend in the industry. The most devastating comment, however, came from Jerry Lee - not because the thought was new, but - uttered as it was by one who was there - it felt fresh and raw:
Any time you lose a talent like that everything suffers.

Which made for an appropriate transition to the sanitising effect on of Dick Clark and American Bandstand. By the end of the fifties the number of homes with a television had soared, and Clark's was the acceptable face of rock'n'roll who emerged unscathed from the payola scandal, unlike Alan Freed. A couple who had danced on the programme made clear the extent of Clark's tight control on the presentation:
If you went on a weekend to a dance and there were some black kids dancing their dances we would bring it to Bandstand and Dick Clark would not allow us to do it because it just wasn't clean enough.
Pat Boone adds, with evident approval:
It was kids dancing in acceptable ways - it was like apple pie and rock'n'roll, it was alright.
Former Brill Building writer PF Sloan's take on the epidemic of Bobbies who appeared on programmes like American Bandstand is that "The music business did not want to be dependent  upon a genius" so went for "cookie cut" versions of Elvis instead: Rydell of that ilk and Fabian. But it was pleasing to see Bobby Rydell as he is now, with no illusions about his achievements - but, equally, no shame. 

"Lyrically? We're not talking Gershwin here," as he says about Wild One. But whatever charm the present day Rydell may possess, the archive footage of his corny dance steps to the song, shown several times, really spells out that we're not in Memphis anymore. (Luckily the above is only a videocap.) And I don't know whether it is common knowledge already, but Fabian talks about why he bought himself out of his contract and never recorded again: to escape the attentions of his manager.

Of course Chubby Checker is in a different category to those briefly flickering teen idols, although,like Donovan, you rather wish someone else would sing his praises for him:
How far has the telephone gone? How far has the electric light gone? I fall into that category.
Maybe, but he certainly wasn't the originator. I note here, for those who are unaware of it, that the Spaniels were offered The Twist first. Who knows how their fortunes might have changed had they gone with it? Here's the relevant section from Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Spaniels:
On March 14 [1958], they began a week at the Howard Theater (Washington, D.C.). While there, they were approached by a couple of members of the Sensational Nightingales gospel group. They'd written a song called "The Twist," but because of its suggestive lyrics, the Nightingales certainly couldn't record it. They'd already offered it to Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers, but had been turned down. The Spaniels took the song to Vee-Jay to see if there was any interest. Vee-Jay actually had the Spaniels record it, but decided that it wasn't their style, so it was never released. [It was probably more in the realm of a demo, since Vee-Jay never recorded it in their master book.]
However, the Nightingales kept trying to have their song recorded. Finally, in Miami, they found the perfect vehicle: the Midnighters. According to guitarist Cal Green, Hank Ballard liked it and the group made a demo which they sent off to, coincidentally, Vee-Jay (along with a tune called "I'll Pray For You"). Hank was sure that their King/Federal contract was about to expire and decided to give the Chicago company a try. Vee-Jay probably would have released it, but Syd Nathan informed the Brackens that he had picked up the Midnighters' option and they were still recording for him. Therefore, the original (and very different) recording of "The Twist" was kept hidden away until it appeared on a 1993 Vee-Jay CD.
The programme then moved to "One of the few rock'n'roll originals" still active in the early 60s, the man who made a false start at Sun, Roy Orbison. Roy is no longer here but we got to see his producer Fred Foster. This section really was living history, if anything was, as we watched the elderly, painfully harsh-voiced Foster watching film of Roy singing Crying. From the way the camera was dwelling on Foster's face it looked like the director may have been hoping for an actual tear to be squeezed out; that didn't quite happen but there was no doubting the emotion in Foster's words and the heartfelt truth of his final statement: "I still miss him."

Then we got on to the girl groups, starting with the Chantels. There was no mention, however, of the role of Richard Barrett: a pity he is no longer around to contribute to the programme, as he could have been enlightening about Frankie Lymon as well.

Neil Sedaka was on hand to talk about bringing his "girlfriend" Carole King along with Gerry Goffin (which will be sure to delight Ms King if she watches it) to 1650 Broadway to be part of the happy band of new teenage songwriters writing for the teenage market: Sedaka was eighteen and thinks King was seventeen.

It is pleasing that Mike Stoller makes a point of crediting Gerry Goffin for the lyrics of Will You Love Me Tomorrow and that Sedaka adds: "I thought it was a groundbreaker." This balances the late Gerry Goffin's comment (not in the programme but in this book) that Sedaka wasn't in too much of a hurry to introduce Carole King to Don Kirshner as he "didn't particularly want the competition."

We get the usual bit about Jerry Wexler's tunafish-sandwich-splattering reaction about the Drifters' There Goes My Baby (penned, of course, by Ben E King) from Mike Stoller. This makes a bridge to Spanish Harlem and then on, inevitably, to Phil Spector. Although Ben E King features briefly in this episode (and his recent death is acknowledged at the end, as the image at the bottom of this post shows) the clip of King embedded in the post about Episode One of Rock 'n' Roll America here did not make it to the final cut of this programme. A pity in one sense, but indicative of the series' focus on essentials: the way that the instrumentation on There Goes My Baby influenced later records is of greater importance to the overall story of rock'n'roll than Stand By Me.

Phil Spector wasn't called upon for an interview, unsurprisingly enough, though he appears briefly in archive footage in the studio with Darlene Love. And in the present day we get to hear Ms Love talking about her shock and anger at Spector's crediting her work to the Crystals.
How can somebody do that? What I didn't realise was that Phil was trying to become a star too.
I have recently been reading Mick Brown's book on Spector and Darlene Love is quoted at length, but to see and hear her makes a huge difference. There's even a bit of laughter as she tells her tale, which is greatly to her credit.

I am not well versed in the origins of surf music, but it was fascinating to hear that it came about through the limited technical ability of the Ventures when trying to play a jazzy Chet Atkins track - followed by the happy accident of their music being chosen to accompany footage of surfers. Here is the Chet Atkins original - just add water ...

The Beach Boys follow, of course, but it's David Marks rather than Mike Love or Brian Wilson who gets to speak, which makes a change. I have read and remember enjoying his autobiography (The Lost Beach Boy). If you have ever wondered how Chuck Berry felt about the appropriation of Sweet Little Sixteen by Brian Wilson for Surfin' USA Marks provides a hint:

I remember sitting down next to him at a doughnut shop in Boston next to the jazz workshop and I introduced myself and he didn't look up from his doughnut or say a word; he just walked out.

I have read an interview with Berry in which he warns the interviewer "You will be excused" if an unwanted topic is aired; could this be the first recorded instance of Berry excusing himself?

PF Sloan (the writer of Eve of Destruction) has been a regular presence in this series. I don't know enough about him to comment but he sums up the reasons for the success of the Bobbification of rock'n'roll as succinctly as can be imagined:

When that's all the fare you have you'll eat sh*t muffins and say they're good, if that's all you got.

Appropriately enough it was a Bobby (Vinton) with a revival of an old song who was displaced at the top of the US charts in early 1964 by the Beatles. And Jerry Lee is on hand to cheer:

We needed a shot in the arm ... when the Beatles come out that was the end of the Bobbies.

This reminds me of an article in an edition of the Beatles Book Monthly. I don't know whether Jerry Lee was quoted directly but the impression I retain is of his gratitude that the Beatles cited him among the artists they admired. And as there are so many documentaries devoted solely to the Beatles it was interesting to be reminded of the context in which they made their impact on America - and to hear those refreshing sounds after the Bobbies. Even someone from Motown, initially sceptical, admits:

They looked one way but they sounded another.

Nevertheless, the Beatles and the groups who made it in the US along with them, did mean, as DJ Jerry Blavat notes, that

All of a sudden, very few American artists are getting the play.

In my review of a doo wop documentary, here, I quoted the reaction of another DJ (and singer), Bobby Jay, to the British Invasion:

Everything changed. 
 Not an entirely happy ending to Rock 'n' Roll America, then, but of course the story doesn't really end there - or anytime soon.

And while it's been sad, as well as heartening, to see our heroes, and their accomplices, at this distance from their first appearance on the scene this series has proven a thoroughly enjoyable reminder, refresher, reaffirmer or whatever, of the importance of the music I fell in love with in the early seventies (I'm talking about the pre-Beatles stuff) and which captivates me to this day, so all credit to the team behind Rock 'n' Roll America including producer/director John Williams.

I hope the series may be released commercially (ideally with raw footage of interviews, as I can only guess at how much was filmed in order to get those pieces which fit precisely into the jigsaw).  The series is beautifully concluded by a brief clip of Jerry Lee, one of the few surviving greats, which I won't spoil by quoting here, except to say that here, as so often elsewhere in the series, the simple fact of time passing adds a poignancy to his words.

Related posts: 

Episode One
Episode Two
All You Need Is Love (Tony Palmer's 70s documentary series)
Life Could Be a Dream: doo wop documentary
The Spaniels # 1
The Spaniels # 2
Ben E King and Stand By Me
Gerry Goffin
Neil Sedaka # 1
Neil Sedaka # 2
Always Magic in the Air (Brill Building book)
 Street Corner Soul (BBC radio series about doo wop)

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