Monday, April 30, 2007

100 Great Rock & Roll Songs Of The 1950s, Part I.

Hello and welcome to my newest installment of trying to prove I have better taste in music than you do. I’ve already done the Sixties and the Seventies, but instead of taking the next logical step and doing the Eighties, I’ve doubled back and am presenting the Fifties.

Not, I need to make clear, a comprehensive overview of the music of the Fifties. There’s no Miles Davis Quintet, John Cage, or Doris Day here. I’m concentrating on rock & roll, partly because that’s what I know best and partly because it makes for a tighter, more cohesive list. And I’m not Counting Down, either: this is a playlist, in rough chronological order (organized by year, but within each year going for the most logical flow I can, which may not be very logical to anyone but me). I’ve also futher limited the list to songs, which means singing, or at least a vocal line. So no Speedy West, Duane Eddy or Link Wray either. And I’m only counting American music; which you might think would only be natural, but you’d be surprised how many rabid Cliff Richards fans are still out there.

Finally, what I call rock & roll is not necessarily what everyone calls rock & roll. But relax; sit back and enjoy the ride. I know what I’m doing.

Percy Mayfield “Please Send Me Someone To Love”
(Percy Mayfield)
Specialty, 1950
You couldn’t say this is the first time a pop song conflated personal and romantic pain with the pain of racial intolerance; its forebears include not only Billie Holiday’s magnificent tone poem “Strange Fruit” and Andy Razaf’s gently melancholic standard “(Why Must I Be So) Black And Blue,” but cabaret goddess Florence Mills’ 1925 signature song “I’m A Little Blackbird (Looking For A Bluebird)” and even vaudville star Bert Williams’ Eeyoresque “Nobody” from the turn of the century. But there’s a new dignity here, a tempered passion that is as different in kind from Billie’s raw emotion as from Bert’s shuffling resignation. In another decade, we’d learn to call it soul, and Sam Cooke would deliver full-grown what is here only a planted seed. But the passion and the glory of music like “A Change Is Gonna Come” would be imposible, even unthinkable, without this first step.

Tiny Bradshaw “Well Oh Well”
(Tiny Bradshaw)
King, 1950
They say this was one of the first times that the R&B charts started to be thrown off by a huge influx of white listeners, who dug the hell out of the song. It’s a regular old jump blues, maybe swinging a little harder than average, but where Bradshaw, who had been a local bandleader on the dance circuit for two decades before this, really delivers is on the vocals. He’s not crooning or scatting or moaning or yodeling: he’s rock & roll growling and roaring, using the untrained urgency of electric blues to deliver a full-throttle, hard-ass stomper. You’re still supposed to dance to it, sure, but just try to jitterbug. Uh-uh. You’ll be shakin’ it, even if you don’t mean to. Which is what rock & roll is all about: what the black guys are doing gets under the white guys’ skin, and suddenly the white guys can’t get enough of it either. By the end of the decade, Billboard, flummoxed, removed the R&B chart because too many white artists were showing up on it.

Hank Williams “Hey Good Lookin’”
(Hank Williams)
MGM, 1951
Hank Williams resides at the heart of American music the way only three or four other people ever have; its streams flow through him into every possible crevice and subgenre. (Plus, we like our heroes young and dead; it makes it easier to idolize them.) This song, a jaunty honky-tonk number without any of the latent pathos in “Honky Tonkin’” or overt pathos in “Lost Highway,” still resounds with the fragility of earthly love. Partly because he’d be dead in the backseat of his Cadillac a year later, but part of it is in the wounded croon of his voice, as it stretches out the end of each line into a ghostly moan, and part of it is in the burred smear of the steel guitar, and part of it is in the apparent good-time frivolity of the lyrics. My mom used to sing it when I was a kid, which is usually the gold standard for puerility — but it’s the verse she didn’t sing, the unexpected declaration of fidelity in “I’m writin’ your name down on every page,” that hits me the hardest today.

Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats “Rocket 88”
(Ike Turner)
Chess, 1951
Famously considered the First Rock & Roll Record by many. I guess if you’re the kind of person who needs to believe in the First Rock & Roll Record (rather than in a gradual coalescing of various elements which have been in American vernacular music from the beginning, prompted by the evolution of technology and popular taste), it’ll do as well as any other. The guitar amp probably got rained on, which is why it fuzzes so much; Ike Turner (who’s only tickling the ivories here) would go on to intelligently explore the many gradations of fuzz and wham in the next two decades, but it’s somehow fitting that the natural world, weather and entropy, should produce that sound. It’s even more mythic than Dave Davies’ knitting needles and razor blades.

John Lee Hooker “I’m In The Mood”
(John Lee Hooker/Bernard Bessman)
Modern, 1951
Rhino’s terrific Rhapsodies In Black box set ends with Louis Armstrong singing “I’m In The Mood For Love” in 1935 — a perfect symbol of the domestication of early hot jazz into Tin Pan Alley pop, and the end of the Harlem Renaissance. The King Snake’s megahit appropriates and references that song (and probably that performance), but sets it to his grinding, trancelike boogie. The result is one of his mellowest, least-ominous songs, practically a ballad. Hooker even multi-tracked his vocals; you couldn’t get more cutting-edge pop in 1951. It’s this sophistication of the most elemental Delta blues that is another way into the mythic origins of rock & roll — sophisticated being another word for “white” in the popular imagination (though not, don’t forget, in the real world).

Ella Mae Morse “The Blacksmith Blues”
(Jack Holmes)
Capitol, 1952
Virtually forgotten today, Ella Mae Morse was the hippest white girl in the world in the 1940s, with a string of jive hits including the massively influential “Milk Cow Boogie” and the eternally cool “House of Blue Lights.” She moved effortlessly between the worlds of country, jazz, and hepcat pop, and even Capitol Records’ expensive polish couldn’t tame her expressive, leering voice. This song, an average entry in the quasi-novelty pop market of the day (it adapts Longfellow for the swing generation), is raised above the herd by her easygoing scatting and lie-down cool sense of rhythm. And that fake anvil beat. (A portent of industrial music to come?)

Lloyd Price “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
(Lloyd Price)
Specialty, 1952
One of the great rock standards, it’s still played by bar bands with pretensions to rootsiness, and is one of the hundred or so unofficial anthems of New Orleans. Lloyd Price owned the first half of the fifties the way Fats Domino owned the second half; both of them were produced by Dave Bartholomew, had massive r&b hits which were later co-opted by white singers for even greater commercial success, and faded in popularity as harder-driving soul began to take over their friendly New Orleans stomp. But the dirty little secret that nobody who subscribes to the official History of Rock party line will tell you, is that Lloyd rocked harder than Fats.

Charles Brown “Hard Times”
(Charles Brown)
Aladdin, 1952
Somehow it never seems right to be listening to Charles Brown in the comfort of your own home. For the proper effect, you ought to be in a smoky, mostly-empty bar, nursing something that’s not taking the place of whatever you’re drinking to forget, and when you look at the clock, it’s later than you think it is. Sure, it’s a cliché now, and was when Tom Waits started building his persona around it, but when Charles Brown introduced his distinctively urban, ice-cool blues into the lexicon of popular American music, it was something startlingly new, a blues form that was as gently lacerating as the most emo white torch songs had ever been. But ever since the sixties, people don’t like to associate the blues with sophistication, so he’s been too much ignored.

The Treniers “Poontang”
(Cliff Trenier/Claude Trenier)
Okeh, 1952
Oh, it’s pretty much exactly what you think it is. Of course, to clean it up for radio, they add “poon is a hug/tang is a kiss” to the chorus. Uh, sure it is, guys. The saxophone player knows better; he shrieks and sobs like a lust-crazed Ornette Coleman, and the relish with which the entire band shouts “Pooon-tang!” gives the game away. They were nominally a swing band led by the Trenier twins, but their frenzied pace and good-humored lasciviousness made them the original raunch & roll outfit, the horns-n-rhythm forebears to the Fugs, Ted Nugent, 2 Live Crew, and Snoop Dogg.

Slim Whitman “Indian Love Call”
(Rudolf Friml/Oscar Harbach/Oscar Hammerstein II)
Imperial, 1952
The haunting, wordless falsetto floating over ambient chords wasn’t invented by Thom Yorke, kids. Or even Bryan Ferry. Never mind the fact that the song (which has sweet f-all to do with actual Native culture) comes from a 1924 operetta by a Czech expat who sniffed at the negroid vulgarity of George Gershwin — Whitman utterly transforms it with his signature keening vocals, scoring an unlikely kitsch-pop hit. He was a pop-country star who was more at home in Hollywood than Nashville, but his memory shouldn’t be entirely given over to the Greatest Generation nostalgia-mongers; British sophisti-pop owes him a bigger debt than it realizes.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Things Necessary To A Civilized Existence.

1. Food.
2. Shelter.
3. Companionship.
4. Music.
5. Payment for services rendered.
6. Pen and ink (or their electronic substitutes).
7. A half-read W. W. Jacobs book by the side of the bed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Where My Head At.

I don’t have writer’s block. (I’m not convinced such a thing exists.) What I have is thinker’s block.

Which is not to say that I
’m much of a thinker, or that I think deeply even at the best of times. But I’ve got nothing now, and have had for the past several weeks. I’ve attempted numerous times to begin a certain Big Serious Literary Argument, but have been paralyzed by doubts that I’ve really done enough research to convince even myself. I don’t necessarily want to be William Gerhardie (not-particularly-famous midcentury writer whose magnum opus on European History, some forty years in the making, had to be published posthumously because he could not be convinced he had thoroughly covered his subject; it’s on my shelves, unread except for the introduction), but making grandoise claims about a critically neglected genre of literature after only three or four years of haphazard investigation also seems imprudent. Not to mention that every time I try to corrall my thinking on the subject, it slips through my fingers like water.

’d quote Hamlet here (the stale, flat and unprofitable bit) if it hadn’t become a cliché to do so by the early nineteenth century. Is there anything new I can add to the centuries-old dialogue of humanity? (I’m not, oddly, concerned that the centuries-old dialogue of humanity will be cut short in the next few years, either by rising barbarism or nuclear annihilation; perhaps I’m so cynical that even these fears seem risible simply because they’ve been feared before. And let me stop to note: Risible? Really? I can’t pull a less pompous word out of my ass than fucking risible? Well, at least Latin scholars will know what I mean.)

But enough linguistic grandstanding. Maybe a Princess Bride quote will serve better:
“Friendless! Brainless! Helpless! Hopless! (Though even a quick Google search to make sure I got the order right shows that I’m certainly not the first to woe-is-me apply it to themselves.) Fezzick has always seemed the most sympathetic character in the movie to me, particularly as I’ve, ah, filled out in the last ten years.

how much work even this self-indulgent scrap was! (Took about an hour.) I’ll never be able to produce anything that anyone would want to read, let alone be convinced by.

(And perhaps I
’ve been spending too much time online recently, reading the comments sections of articles and posts, but it increasingly seems that persuasive writing, as they called it in Comp 101, is a fool’s errand. No one is convinced, and then they yell at you for having an opinion that differs from theirs. And trying to anticipate every possible argument, up to and including “This is stupid. Why would anyone write about this? will certainly drive you mad.)

Okay. Next post, after all this whining, better be funny, interesting, or at least have some kind of point, however ill-considered and poorly-expressed.