Friday, December 25, 2015

Dirt City Chronicles, Year in Review: 2015

Year in Review: July 2015

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 1

The definitive history of American rock and roll from 1955 to 1964. Presented in a loose chronological order over six comprehensible segments. An epic tale that begins in 1954, just as rhythm & blues finally merged with Hillbilly Boogie (a combination of country vocals and instrumentation with a boogie woogie beat) creating one of America's most endearing musical genres: rock & roll. A series originally conceived as a last ditch effort to secure a passing grade in my sophomore English class. Rock and Roll saved my ass then and it shall save your soul now.

We can argue until the cows come home about when rock & roll actually came to be. R & B artists such as Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Johnny Otis, Smiley Lewis, Billy Wright, Willie Mae Thornton, Arthur Crudup, Jackie Brenston etc. were all precursors to rock 'n' roll. You could say the same for the purveyors of Hillbilly Boogie... Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, The Delmore Brothers, The Maddox Bros. and Rose (Fred Maddox is credited with inventing the slap bass technique, a definitive feature of rockabilly music) Merle Travis, Bob Wills and Moon Mullican, a piano thumping Texan who boldly declared “We gotta play music that'll make them goddamn beer bottles bounce on the table”

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 2

The concept of rockabilly as a style distinct from mainstream rock and roll simply didn't exist in the mid-1950s. Southern musicians considered the term an insult or as Barbara Pittman of the Experience Music Project points out: “It was their way of calling us hillbillies” As long as there's been music, there have been genres. Slotting music into categories made it easy for artists, record labels, radio stations and music stores to market their products to a specific audience or demographic. Sometimes it's easier said than done. When rock & roll first broke, the style really didn't have a label. Someone would have to invent a name for this raucous hybrid. D.J. Alan Freed is generally given credit for coining the term “rock & roll” though its true origins are unknown and the subject of much debate. What is known however, is that once Freed took to calling the music he played rock & roll, it stuck.

Jerry Lee Lewis saw it a little different “I had created rock & roll before they ever thought about having rock & roll, he said. “When Elvis come out, he was rockabilly. When I come out with Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, that was rock & roll. That's when the name rock & roll was put in front”

It seems that once the Benzedrine buzz wore off, the music lost its edge. Rockabilly was fueled by fast cars, fast women and bennies by the handful. Years later, still holding out like it was 1955 instead of 1965, "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis was busted in Grand Prairie, Texas for having in his possession a prodigious amount of prescription pills. The cops found 700 pills, which J.W. Whitten, Jerry Lee's road manager explained as “Two hundred of 'em for the boys and the rest were Jerry's.” Stoked on pharmaceuticals, these hillbilly cats put out a dangerous vibe. They also crafted amazingly innovative music that has held to the test of time. More so than the so called “popular” music of the day.

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 3

For a short time rockabilly was king, but by 1958 it had lost all its momentum. The last true hope for the genre was Eddie Cochran, a guitarist and vocalist who also wrote his own songs. Eddie resurrected the tales of teenage angst first popularized by Chuck Berry, injected them with the speed freak energy of the early rockabilly cats to evolve into what can best be described as Post-Rockabilly. Cochran was a good looking though diminutive man, features that he purposely accentuated with jittery mannerisms and an exaggerated slouch. (best exemplified in the motion picture, Untamed Youth in which he starred alongside Mamie Van Doren ) That perception would change as soon as he strapped on his trademark orange Gretsch 6120 and took the stage.

The curtain would rise, Eddie standing center stage, with his back to the audience would let the shrieks grow to a full crescendo before whipping around and jumping straight in to his first number. He held Elvis like command of his audience. Cochran was poised to carry the flame on into the 1960's when sadly he was killed in a car accident while touring in England. Gene Vincent and Eddie's girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Seeley were traveling in the same vehicle, both were seriously injured but survived. Eddie however struck his head on the roof of the car and was flung out of the vehicle as it slammed sideways into a lamp pole at a rate of 60 mph.

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 4

Much has been written about February 3, 1959 being the day the music died. That simply wasn't the case. In fact the ill fated Winter Dance Party continued on for another two weeks following the tragic events of that winter day. Dion & The Belmonts as well as the ersatz “Crickets” (Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup & Carl Bunch) saw the tour through to the bitter end. (Dion Dimucci was offered a seat on the doomed plane, though the idea of paying $36 for the ride, more than his father spent on rent, led him to reject the offer. Bobby Vee, Jimmy Clanton, Fabian & Frankie Avalon were brought in to headline the remaining shows)

Though the day is forever immortalized as “The Day the Music Died” it wasn't until Don McLean's song American Pie topped the U.S. Charts for four weeks in 1972, that the phrase started to take root. American Pie is not specifically about that fateful day, though it does touch on the tragic events in the intro verse as McLean makes reference to Feb. 3rd. 1959 with the line “February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver” which alludes to his claim that he first learned about the plane crash while folding newspapers for his paper route.

For the longest time McLean remained cryptic about the song lyrics and their true meaning. Stating instead, “It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to” When the lyrics and notes for the song were auctioned off for $1.2 million in April of this year, he coyly revealed that the song was meant to convey a feeling of “things headed in the wrong direction or life becoming less idyllic” Though, I'm pretty sure it still means that the son of bitch will never have to work again if he don't want to.

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 5

A nation "giddy with prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life” welcomed the age of Camelot with open arms. By the narrowest of margins, John F. Kennedy had turned back Sleazy Dick Nixon's attempt at commandeering the American dream. “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier” Although, not where radio program directors were concerned. Popular music had grown every bit as dull and drab as it had ever been before the rock & roll era. One need only glance at the U.S. popular music charts for the years 1960-61 to realize that rock & roll wasn't much of a factor on the American music scene.

The vapid period following “the day the music died” was truly rock & roll's dark age. A sad parade of prefabricated teen idols rang up sales while hammering out their sad little songs. Novelty tunes and one hit wonders dominated the airwaves. Instrumental groups were suddenly in vogue. It seemed that Americans had grown tired of trying to decipher the innuendo they imagined was implied in every single rock & roll song and simply given up on vocals altogether. America which had just elected into office the youngest and hippest president ever had suddenly elected to go lame as well.

"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot...... there'll never be another Camelot again… It will never be that way again."
Jacqueline Lee "Jackie" Kennedy 1963

Dirt City Chronicles Rock & Roll pt. 6

In late November, KOIA in Des Moines, Iowa started playing I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand from a copy of “With the Beatles” owned by a student. Dec. 18th. Carroll James at WWDC in Washington D.C. Played a copy of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” that was hand delivered by an airline stewardess flying in from London. Capitol Records having just obtained all future rights to Beatles recordings, ordered WWDC to stop playing the song, then reversed the order and started rushing production in a push to have some vinyl out before Christmas day. Footnote: Del Shannon's 1963 cover of “From Me to You” has the distinction of being the first Lennon & McCartney song covered by an American artist... many more would follow.

The bombora of British Invasion bands that followed in the wake of Beatlemania pitted everything that had come before it. By the summer of 1964, the musical landscape of the U.S. was radically different from that of the previous summer when baggies and huaraches were in vogue. Brian Wilson inspired by Lennon & McCartney, shucked his trunks, dusted off his hands and declared surf music dead to him. It wasn't of course, even without the Beach Boys, surf music kept rolling in just like the waves at Haggerty's and Swami's. Surf music stuck around until 1966 when the advent of flower power pretty much killed it. As everyone knows; Hippies don't surf. Surfing culture was suddenly the very definition of square, although those shoobies just loved them some Sha Na Na......