Reconsidering rock’s dark ages
One of pop music’s most beloved myths is the one about how the Beatles brought rock ‘n’ roll back from the dead. It goes something like this…
Rock ‘n’ roll passed away on or about February 2, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in an Iowa plane crash. As legend has it, the upstart genre was already on life support: Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had spurned Miss Molly for Jesus Christ, and Jerry Lee had married his barely teenage cousin. So when the Holly crash was followed quickly by Chuck Berry’s arrest on an alleged Mann Act violation and Eddie Cochran’s death by car crash, it pretty much drove the last nail in the coffin.
In this version of the rock story, what followed The Year The Music Died was “The Dark Ages” (per Rock Of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock And Roll). During this dreary interlude, real rock ‘n’ rollers were replaced by pretty facsimiles such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian. If the Fab Four hadn’t led a British Invasion of America in 1964, then “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay”, that prescient 1958 hit by Danny & the Juniors, might just as well have been titled “Charleston Crazy” or “Ragtime Uber Alles”.
The only problem with this story is that it didn’t happen. Rock ‘n’ roll was hardly sick in the years before the Beatles’ arrival, let alone dead. Those “Dark Ages” included a series of classic singles that still thrill today and need no more introduction than their opening notes: “Blue Moon”, “Little Sister”, “The Loco-Motion”, “One Fine Day”, “Quarter To Three”, “Surf City”, and “Louie, Louie”, to cite just a few.
Many first-generation rockers produced some of their best work in the early ’60s — the Everly Brothers, the Drifters, Ray Charles. What’s more, the period marked the debut of the music that eventually landed each of the following acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the Beach Boys, Booker T. & the MG’s, Dion & the Belmonts, the Four Seasons, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, the Shirelles, and Phil Spector.
And then there was Motown.
Berry Gordy launched his label in 1959, the dawn of the Dark Ages, and by the time the Beatles showed up, Motown had released indelible singles such as “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Do You Love Me”. The label also had seen the successful starts to the careers of four more Hall of Famers: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.
Some Dark Age.
I’ve been thinking about all this because Hip-O-Select has just launched one of the most ambitious reissue efforts in the history of reissuing. The Motown Select series includes many never-before-on-disc Motown albums, but the project’s showcase is the (limited edition) release of twelve boxes that will collect every Motown single, B-sides included. The first two volumes of The Complete Motown Singles are out now — Vol. 1 covers 1959 to 1961 over six CDs; Vol. 2 covers 1962 in four — and they’re amazing. For starters, the packaging is heirloom quality: each volume comes in a 45-sized version of a 78 rpm “album” and includes insightful liner notes, tons of great color photos — and an actual 45.
But it’s the music that matters. Covering the years before Motown earned the nickname “Hitsville U.S.A.,” Vols. 1 and 2 include a lot of chasing trends and mimicking styles, of solid but generic attempts to land a hit, as Gordy and company searched for what exactly this Sound of Young America was going to be. And, predictably, some of it is awful. (Henceforth, there can be no serious discussion of the worst record ever made that doesn’t consider Popcorn & the Mohawks’ “Custer’s Last Man”, a 1960 answer to the novelty hit “Mr. Custer”.)
That said, what most surprised me listening to all of the misses surrounding the early Motown hits was how often the producers, musicians, songwriters and singers made fun, listenable, very good records. Just about everything Eddie Holland ever released, for instance, should’ve been a hit, and might’ve been on an established label. To my ears, a surprisingly high percentage of Motown’s youthful misses are still better than way too many of today’s pop hits.
Why? These time capsules from the Dark Ages reveal some of what rock ‘n’ roll has misplaced along its way. Much of this comes down to the color line and its consequences in community. Today, rock is guitar-centric “white music” for white people. In the day, it was rhythm-centric (Motown records were dance records), played by white and/or black people for anyone listening to pop radio, which was just about everyone.
This distinction helps explain why the Elvis, Motown and Beatles eras include so many more answer and cover records than today; people were listening often to the same thing and, therefore, speaking to one another. Ditto for the prevalence of instrumentals and novelties. Rock music is so dreadfully serious today, so lyric-focused. It’s no fun and, adding insult to injury, it’s usually less emotionally complex and relevant to boot.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s most damning liability these past decades has been a steadily more rigid segregation between white and black audiences and sounds in a tradition that was once gloriously, sloppily integrated. The favoring today in some circles of singer-songwriters over interpreters and of albums over singles, and the punk-era cry of “disco sucks,” are additional festering symptoms of rock ‘n’ roll’s continued racial divide.
Tellingly, most of today’s exceptions to these trends come from hip-hop — and there aren’t enough even there — where Dark Ages virtues of rhythm and humor, as well as covering and answering (now done as sampling), still occasionally provide a lightness, and a light, that we’d do well to follow. We could use another Dark Age about now.