Most people say they remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.
I know that I do and probably for the same reason as everybody else: that although we knew that history tells of assassinated American presidents, we'd never thought that such a thing could ever happen again, especially since the spin doctors at the time had made President Kennedy a symbol of all the new energy and hope for the future. Consequently we (in Denmark) felt the blow almost as hard as any American.
I also remember the dates of the assassinations of Martin Luther King (4 April 1968), Robert Kennedy (5 June 1968), and especially John Lennon (8 December 1980); but although I am more agreed on the political attitudes expressed by King or Lennon, I don't remember where I was and I was doing at the time of the assassinations. This emphasizes the impact of the shock we felt the very first time we were exposed to such news.
"What has all of this got to do with rock 'n' roll?" you may ask and
rightly so. All of the above is common knowledge.
Well, I was watching a show of old Danish rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame artists ("How It All Began") with my eldest son (b. 1971), and during our conversation I realized that many of the things that I took for common knowledge were new to him. And since he is otherwise a very knowledgeable person, I thought I'd better write the following in case somebody is not in the know of things. (For the term rock 'n' roll please go to the note on Rock Music at the bottom of this page.)
I remember distinctly the first time I ever heard The Beatles (at a school dance in 1963), and I can still recall the thrill I felt. From the moment the record came on it was played over and over continuously at the dance until the chaperoning teachers had it stopped - they thought the DJ was harassing us. But we all liked it and were hooked instantly; not because it was new, but because of the captivating charm exuding from the record. Instant karma.
(I was already then familiar with jazz, all the way from ragtime and the traditional New Orleans marching bands through the swing bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington (to mention a few) and the modern jazz of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet to Cecil Taylor and other kinds of avant-garde jazz that to many people is hardly jazz at all. But the Beatles had the same original freshness that must have been what captured the world when jazz first came out on record.)
The day I graduated we danced to Please Mr. Postman half the evening, and at another party a couple of years later The Mamas and the Papas' Monday, Monday was the choice of the evening. We lived our records till we knew every grunt and every inflection of the singer's voice and every break and lick on the guitar.
An important thing to note in this context is that our enthusiasm was in no way inspired or directed by commercial agents watching cynically from the sideline and channeling our youthful energy into consuming music. The music itself was what hit us. If we didn't like it, we didn't play it. For some there may have been an element of rebellion in their attitude (since rock 'n' roll was not appreciated by parents), but if that was all there was to it, rock 'n' roll would soon have faded away all by itself like other fads such as "the twist".
In the late 1950s, before The Beatles came about, I'd listened to the
commercial Radio Luxembourg, especially its "Top Twenty" on Sunday nights
from 10 p.m. to midnight. The list played was the English chart,
but it included a good many American artists, some of them black.
For a long time The Platters' Only You was my favorite. Radio
Luxembourg was also where for the first time I heard Elvis Presley, his
English equivalent Tommy Steele, and later Cliff Richard.
Of the three Tommy Steele was the first to make a name for himself in Denmark: in 1957 I bought my first rock 'n' roll record, Tommy Steele's: A Handful of Songs (a 78 rpm). It wasn't really a rock song, rather a popular ballad-type song of the time, but it had a quality which was new: the voice of a man who had had no formal training in singing, but displayed a personal and natural talent for timing and phrasing - the slight drawls and slurs we knew from the blues, only here embedded firmly in pop music. And one thing more: his accompaniment wasn't the usual string orchestra, conducted by somebody else in charge of the whole operation, but his own guitar playing. The man seemed to rest completely in himself. The lyrics didn't match the music, but probably he hadn't written them himself, anyway. He was first and foremost a performer, but in his own natural right. Like the bluesmen. (For further development of the Music see the note below.)
Bill Haley and the Comets also made it to the top of the charts with their recording of Rock Around the Clock, but I never really liked it because somehow I found that the sound of the band was "fake" (a feeling that was later confirmed when I got to hear the original black recordings that were the inspiration for songs like Rock Around the Clock.) It had energy, but the timing was bad and uninspired.
Now my son asks me: "How come rock 'n' roll was so late in coming to Denmark? And what did you listen to before The Beatles came along since you responded so enthusiastically to their music?"
To answer the question I need to point out a few peculiarities concerning
the music played on the radio stations, here and elsewhere, even in the
US, in the 1950s:
The energy, dynamics, sound and groove that constitutes black music was not within earshot of white audiences in the US. To ensure that white youth didn't accidentally like and perhaps even buy a record with black music, the so-called race record labels announced in clear letters that this artist is black (even the label was a different color). The main US radio stations didn't play these race records, hence only people already in the know of the music bought and listened to the records. And black music other than jazz (i.e. blues, rhythm 'n' blues etc.) was almost completely unknown in a Europe that insisted on serious music on the radio. After all, the whole purpose of the Danish (state) radio was to enlighten people and educate them, and the "light entertainment" it allowed didn't include "pop" music.
When the American DJ Alan Freed played black artists on his program, sponsors and listeners threatened to boycott the station, and it took great courage for him to carry on. Eventually, he was fired and later sentenced for being "on the take" by the record companies (the payola trials: among other things it was said that he helped Elvis Presley's career along when he played That's All Right Mama more than half a dozen consecutive times in the mid-1950s.)
Documentary films show how many radio stations - spurred on by religious groups, mostly in the Bible Belt - believed that black music and its new, white offspring: rock 'n' roll, was part of a Communist conspiracy conducted by the KGB to contaminate the minds of young people in the West. Public breaking of the hated records brought back memories of the Nazi bonfires of "sick (Jewish) literature" in the late 1930s.
In the US of the late 1950s, several rock concerts were canceled because the police couldn't "guarantee the safety of the audience" - physically as well as mentally, I presume.
(A thing much too similar for comfort happened in the 1990s when overzealous
American parents wanted to clear public libraries of "indecent literature"
and banned (even burned) books that were considered too "explicit" as far
as sex is concerned. This included several plays and poems by Shakespeare,
but the Bible got off scot-free, God knows why.
In recent years, especially after the killings in American schools, the call for stricter measures in the upbringing of American youth has once again pointed to "the Devil's music" as the main culprit and contaminator of the minds of young Americans.
In the UK rock idol Cliff Richard has taken a different course: while "converting" to Christianity and professing publicly to Christian values, he also announced that he would go on singing his old songs as usual because, "Why should the Devil have all the good music?")
In the US white-washed (as thus approved) pop-rock "clones" like Pat
Boone re-recorded the black songs that showed market potential. Sadly
enough, many of his ardent followers never heard the original music (nor
the original lyrics - only his pale imitation.) However, a sign of
a loosening up of old-fashioned bourgeoisie values was that Pat Boone loosened
his tie when he performed the vigorous music. A giant step for casual appearance
in those days.
But after his break-through in 1956 and first appearance on national TV, Elvis Presley (w/ the gyrating pelvis) could only be filmed from his waist up due to his rhythmic escapades which seem rather innocent today (if not ridiculous).
Mass hysteria and hired claqueurs (paid for by "Colonel" Parker, Elvis Presley's manager) was partly responsible for the hype surrounding Elvis Presley's image (as was the case when Frank Sinatra started his rise to fame), but just one look at Presley's captured audience tells a story of deep fascination, a fascination we saw again in the eyes and faces of screaming teenagers when The Beatles came to the US to play the concert at the Shea Stadium in 1965. It was as if white teenagers suddenly realized that they had a body.
Such was the context (the Red Scare and the aftermath of McCarthyism,
the suppression and deprivation of natural instincts, and nauseous pop
songs like Que Serà, Será) in which the advent of
rock 'n' roll must be seen - in Denmark and elsewhere. Young people
in Denmark were starved of good music expressing genuine feeling while
being fed up with their parents' cover versions of German and Italian pop
Like it happened in the UK, some were lucky enough to hear black music and white derivations hereof like rock 'n' roll from records imported privately, especially by sailors, but the general public was left to the pseudo-sentiment expressed in the cheap slipstream of German operetta.
The Danish jazz clubs of the 1950s offered a refuge from this. This coincided with the second wave of revolt from the Danish cultural radical left which included experiments in jazz and poetry inspired by the beat generation in the US (Ginsberg and Kerouac). But many in the audience weren't exactly interested in jazz per se; their presence in the jazz clubs was as much a turning their backs on cheap pop music. Besides, there wasn't anywhere else to go if you wanted to avoid the dance halls and their authoritarian ballroom dancing (see the note on dancing below).
Thus when rock 'n' roll finally came onto the stage it was scorned:
by the Philistine parents, by the bourgeoisie, and by the academia alike.
And some of the young people that hailed the new the most ardently may
not have been able to appreciate anything in the music but its sound board
Still, I am the living proof that rock 'n' roll may go to your head and bones, and for purely musical reasons: I've never bought a pop magazine, never put up a poster in my room, never been a fan of any particular group, never fainted at a concert.
Quite frankly, I just "dig those rhythm 'n' blues" and related styles and genres and think that my life would have been poorer without them. In fact, the impact is so deep that I can still recall my very first experiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost to the minute.
Please note: All of the above has got nothing to do with nostalgia.
Good rock music will live forever, independent of any "do you remember when?"
Erik Moldrup (b. 1945)
When I was 13 my parents sent me to a dancing school to learn the basic steps of ballroom dancing, i.e. the Viennese waltz, the English waltz, the quickstep, the tango...
I endured the ordeal for a few months and thought nothing of it until I became of age.
To my luck dancing changed with the music: when my eyes were ready to take in the beauties of the opposite sex, but my palms still sweaty, dancing was done without any particular partner - you just danced along, with yourself, or with an unspecified group of dancers. Community dancing, you might call it. At any rate, you didn't hold on to your partner, but danced separately. And the steps were not the set and rehearsed steps of the dancing school, but the steps you invented, right now and here.
This corresponds to the growing community feeling in the mid and late 1960s (note also the shift in emphasis from a soloist with a anonymous backing to a group of equal partners). And while European rock groups started out making cover versions only, they soon found the courage to compose their own songs. They were self-taught by and large, so from then on the authoritarian music mistress was out for good. Besides, their instruments (the electric guitar and bass) were not taught in music schools, and when the conservatories realized what potential customers they were losing, they started teaching classical guitar, so they never caught up.
The former anonymous standard repertoire to be played by all musicians gave way to "originals" playing their own music; and due to the experiments in sound and idiosyncrasies in the musical material composed and played by people who had no formal training, it was difficult to reproduce the original sound that often meant more to the music than the usual parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Above all, playing music came to mean much more than a profession by which to earn one's living or a mere pastime; instead it took a decisive turn toward self-expression. And with the additional element of improvisation the composing rock musician came to be as much an artist as were writers or painters.
All in all I think it's perfectly safe to say that the rock music of
the late 1950s and early 1960s was the starting point for many of the cultural
changes that came about later, generally known as "the 60s".
When the Beatles let their hair grow as a gimmick it was soon followed all over the world, at first as a protest (against the stupid parents who reacted the predicted way and thus emphasized their middle-class, suburban prejudice), but later as the most natural way of self-expression (you also became aware of the fact that you do, in fact, grow hair on your head and suddenly felt it as for the first time).
But it is worth noting that when the commercial music businesses tried to take over and prey on "the people's music" in musicals like "Hair", John Lennon cut his hair (when he visited a commune in Denmark in 1970). He let it grow back later, but what is hair but hair - after all...?
Some people keep quoting the lyrics of the songs, focusing on how much the lyrics meant to them at the time (and still do - indeed, some of them were great, memorable lyrics). I don't. I never listened to the songs for the lyrics' sake. At best they formed an integral symbiosis with the music, but I have never been able to disregard a badly turned musical phrase because the lyrics were great.
Most of the lyrics to Elvis Presley's songs were written by professional songwriters whose lyrics were sometimes marked by their own diction (which was out of place in a rock context, e.g. Leiber/Stoller's Jailhouse Rock).
In contrast, Bob Dylan's songs have good, memorable lyrics, but who would listen to his songs for the sake of the music alone? In a song you can't separate the lyrics from the music, but if a song doesn't work because it wants musical timing, it should be read instead. But if it can be read and appreciated as a poem, why set it to music at all? A good poem has all the rhythm and sound it needs, all by itself.
In the late 1960s several Danish progressive artists' communes tried to jump the band wagon and express themselves in the idiom of the time: rock music. But although they meant well and their criticism of society was often very much to the point, they never really hit any musical groove. Consequently, their songs are not played today.
Rock 'n' roll is rock music, but rock doesn't necessarily mean rock 'n' roll. There's a long musical journey from the rhythm 'n' blues inspired rock 'n' roll of piano players like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis to the bouncing early rock 'n' roll of Chuck Berry; from the Caribbean-New Orleans bass of most of Elvis Presley's recordings to the rather awkward, square beat of a Bill Haley; from the country and western inspired music of Buddy Holly to the pre-Latino music of Richie Valens; from the polished harmonies of the many black vocal groups to James Brown's soul explosions; from simple folk ballads to the electric Bob Dylan and The Band; from Bo Diddley's rudimentary guitar playing to the equilibristic feats of Jimi Hendrix; from the sophisticated studio arrangements of The Beatles to the more direct appeal of The Rolling Stones; from The Beatles' first recordings to their last; from John Lennon's first solo album to that of Paul McCartney; to that of George Harrison ...
Over the years the different styles have fused, voluntarily, in a give
and take of characteristic features, and in looking back today the early
distinctions seem unnecessary because all the contributors had the overall
important elements in common. Elements such as:
The general impact of this new kind of music making cannot be measured - or over evaluated - as most other music on the western hemisphere has been influenced by it, even classical music since also young classical composers have grown up with it, hence the cross over activities between musical styles that previously were very different, if not direct opposites. And pop music will forever be influenced by the rhythmic timing and melodic intonation in rock music.
In later years all of this has been summed up in the term rock music. Its early beginnings came to be known as rock 'n' roll, but where and when the original rock 'n' roll music ended and was fused into other, similar musical expressions isn't really interesting.