Nobody likes Rock ‘n’ Roll, except the public. In spite of the stream of adverse criticism aimed at Rock ‘n’ Roll since it became popular, Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to roll along at an ever-increasing pace. It has virtually mushroomed like an atomic cloud. And most of all, it has teen-age America dancing again…in schools, dance halls, or dance parties…wherever Rock ‘n’ Roll is played. The 50’s will be known in the years to come as the decade of Rock ‘n’ Roll…the years when music became danceable again. For, if we must select the one major contribution that Rock ‘n’ Roll has made, it is the fact that more people are dancing than ever before. There have been many recent arguments as to whether or not Rock ‘n’ Roll will last. What is more important is that the rhythm of Rock ‘n’ Roll is here now…urging us to dance.
|Alan Freed and Bill Haley (and Bill O'Brien)
—Album liner notes to A Rock ‘N’ Roll Dance Party, 1955
“Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the street. They’re dancin’ in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City. All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere.”
—Martha & the Vandellas, 1964
This book examines how rock ‘n’ roll was part of a developmental dynamic within American society—leading to the liberation of sexuality. But initially, rock ‘n’ roll was primarily about physical exuberance and dancing.
To say that rock and roll led to the liberation of sexuality is not to say that rock and roll was primarily about sex. In spite of efforts to find “dirty lyrics,” early rock and roll was about movement, dancing, excitement, and energy.
To hear the driving beat of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957), for example, was to become energized. Jerry Lee says, “Shake, baby, shake…All you got to do is stand in one spot. Wiggle around just a little bit, that’s what you gotta do.” Rock and roll inspired—compelled—energized movement.
Contained within the dream of rock and roll was a proselytizing impulse: The idea that rock and roll could change the world. In the beginning, this impulse was rarely articulated. Soon, however, people began to believe that rock ‘n’ roll was more than “just music.”
Responding to criticism in 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang, “Rock and roll is here to stay, it will never die. It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why.” Then they declared, “Rock and roll will always be; it’ll go down in history.” Rock ‘n’ roll, this song claimed, was much more than “teen-age dance music.”
At the time, the idea that rock ‘n’ roll would “go down in history” seemed a far-fetched proposition. No one could have imagined or predicted the impact that rock ‘n’ roll would have.
This Chapter will explore rock and roll’s sense of grandiosity—its missionary dimension. Boosters of the music, it turned out, were correct: Rock ‘n’ roll’s impact was profound, changing the character of the American people.
The excitement of early rock and roll was the surprise or shock of new energy revealed and released into the world: a new level of passion; new experience of the body and the potential for joy contained within it.
The popular music of the early Fifties, sung by performers such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Patti Paige and Teresa Brewer was light, romantic, cheerful. Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and others introduced a new level of excitement into American music and life, suggesting a kind of energy and intensity that seemed, at the time, astonishing.
Rock and roll discovered something within human beings which, prior to rock and roll, people did not know existed, releasing desires and fantasies from the unconscious. This book seeks to ascertain what it was about rock and roll that permitted it to “shake” the consciousness of Americans, and alter the American character.
Rock and roll seemed like a spontaneous irruption; an inchoate form of energy. From the beginning, however, rock ‘n’ roll contained an ideology. The rock and roll ideal was the pursuit of perpetual movement; never-ending “rocking” and “rolling.” At the very beginning (1955), Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” conveyed this idea:
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock, five, six, seven, o’clock, eight o’clock rock, nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock, we’re gonna rock around the clock tonight. If the band slows down, we’ll yell for more. When the clock strikes twelve we’ll cool off then, start a rockin’ round the clock again. We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight, we’re gonna rock, rock, rock ’til broad daylight, we’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight.
Rock and roll imagines a world where the rocking never steps: the “beat goes on,” the pleasure continues, perpetually, throughout the night and day. Contained within the ideology of rock and roll was Norman O. Brown’s dream of the reality principle transformed by the pleasure principle.
The ideological fantasy of rock and roll revolved around dancing, and a community of joy united by music.
Robert Pielke (1986) writes about the impact of radio:
Radio is a unifying medium; in no way does it isolate us from one another. Even while listening alone, we are aware of others doing the same, even if this awareness isn’t always conscious. The medium itself overcomes the physical separation and is, in a sense, its fundamental message. It retribalizes our diversified and alienated culture, creating empathy among listeners where none existed, bonding people together who would otherwise remain alienated.
Alan Freed was the pioneer disk jockey who invented and promoted the term “rock and roll” to describe the music he played on WINS radio in New York City (1955). He called his station “the home of the big beat.” The inspirational, missionary aspect of rock and roll was contained within the beat, which created excitement; compelled everyone to move.
The radio-listener is usually alone. But rock and roll created the fantasy of a country in motion, everyone excited by and dancing to “the big beat.” The vision of a community united by dancing is conveyed in Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958):
They’re really rockin’ in Boston and Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas and round the Frisco bay.
Way out in St. Louie and down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with, Sweet Little Sixteen.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” is not one young lady, but a typical teen-age girl in cities throughout the United States, rocking to the music, inspiring “cats” to want to dance with her. Rock and roll’s mission was to get everyone dancing, everywhere, moving to “the big beat.”
Soon, the joy of music and dance spread. Danny and the Juniors sang, “If you don’t like rock and roll, think what you’ve been missin’…Let’s all start to have a ball. Everybody rock and roll.” The phrase “everybody rock and roll,” repeated again and again, implored people everywhere to experience the excitement; join in the good times.
The rock and roll dream of a community of dancers united in joy was expressed vividly by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” (1964). Martha, “callin’ out around the world,” asks everyone if they are “ready for a brand-new beat. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the street.”
Like Chuck Berry, she conveys a vision of dancers throughout the major cities of the United States: “They’re dancin’ in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City.” The music evokes an experience of communal joy: “All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere. There’ll be swingin’, swayin’ and records playin’, dancin’ in the street.”
There are no qualifications: “It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there.” The dancing can happen anywhere: “Every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world, there’ll be dancin’, there’s dancin’ in the street.” The song describes what is already occurring, and predicts a future when everyone will be “dancing in the streets.”
Another central theme of rock ‘n’ roll was the desire to escape the unpleasantness of reality. Chuck Berry’s “School Days” (1957) describes an arduous day in the life of a student:
Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone
After more suffering, “three o’clock rolls around.” The school day is over—and the student can finally “lay his burden down.” He goes up to the store on the corner, drops a coin into the juke box, and begins to dance: “Feeling the music from head to toe, round and round and round we go.”
The climax that follows conveys what amounts to an anthem: appreciate for the music that has generated such wonderful feelings:
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
Yet there was a darker dimension to the music. Blackboard Jungle was perhaps the first movie to use a rock and roll song as its soundtrack. Linda Martin (1993) writes:
When Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” appeared on the soundtrack of the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle,” it marked the beginning of rock and roll’s full breakthrough as a popular music form among the young. It also laid the groundwork for a firm association of rock and roll and juvenile delinquency. The first shot in the film showed kids in a schoolyard, with a high, chain link fence in the foreground—a symbolic jail—while “Rock Around the Clock” blared away in the background.
For teens, the song represented a call to break out of their “jail” and to celebrate. It was a stand against parents and teachers. “Rock Around the Clock” became a youth anthem, the “Marseillaise” of rock and roll, and moved to the top of the charts. Adults arrayed in almost unanimous opposition. They believed “Blackboard Jungle” advocated violence and disrespect. In “Blackboard Jungle” the students made defiance and insolence the norm, committed acts of vandalism, and assaulted their teachers.
The movie shows students committing radical forms of violence against teachers. What does juvenile delinquency have to do with rock ‘n’ roll? The implicit message conveyed is: “To hell with school and education. We’d prefer to Rock Around the Clock.”
In the next Chapter, we’ll see how the Sixties represented an intensification of the rebellion against the reality principle. Drugs would join rock and roll music as the “turn on” that could make people feel good; transform painful “reality” into a place where pleasure was possible.