It begins to make sense …

Rocket 88

At first sight I was going ape at the New Yorker piece:

NY

To [one] way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing. No one contributed more to the job than Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, and the man who discovered Elvis Presley.

I blanched at the notion that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) … like Chuck Berry. Back to the Future this ain’t.

Berry’s recording comes from 1958, but it was derivative. He lifted the intro from Louis Jordan and 1942, and the outline for the guitar break from T-Bone Walker and 1950. Even then, those were probably not far distant from “race records” clichés. None of which detracts from the definitive Berry version.

52032b2509e5cf01aadf57f26a666847Then Menand’s next eighteen-penn’orth of paragraphs amounts to a review of Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, which has been getting notices across the American press. His take is that Guralnick is at-least-a-trifle hagiographical. The excuse given is that:

Guralnick understands his subject, and, after a while, you pick up on the subtext. Phillips had a genuine feel for a kind of music that was, in a Southern context, slightly asymmetrical to his own race and class. He liked the blues, and his liking of the blues was bound up with progressive views on race relations. He really did believe that by recording B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—and many other African-American musicians, most of them now largely forgotten—he was doing God’s work. He respected his musicians as artists and as people; he identified with their travails; and he threw himself into the job of getting their music out.

My Big Bastard hard-drive, from which assorted puny iPods are serially refreshed, is one proof that B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf are not now largely forgotten. I cannot be alone in such retrospection.

Only in the latter part of his essay does Menand start to make more sense:

Rock and roll is usually explained as rhythm-and-blues music—that is, music performed by black artists for black listeners—repurposed by mostly white artists for a mostly white audience. How do we know this? Because that’s the way the industry trade magazine Billboard represented it.

Billboard started charting songs in 1940. By 1949, it was publishing charts in three categories: pop, country-and-Western, and (a new term, replacing “race music”) rhythm and blues. Every week, in each category, there were lists of the songs most frequently sold in record shops, most frequently requested in jukeboxes, and most frequently played by disk jockeys. (These rankings were all relative; actual sales figures were proprietary.)

The charting system was predicated on a segregated market. How did Billboardknow when a song was a rhythm-and-blues hit, and not a pop hit? Because its sales were reported by stores that catered to an African-American clientele, its on-air plays were reported by radio stations that programmed for African-American listeners, and its jukebox requests were made in venues with African-American customers. Black artists could have pop hits. The Ink Spots, a black quartet, had fourteen songs in the Top Five on the pop chart between 1939 and 1947. That was because their songs were marketed to whites.

And that is how I’ve been accounting for it, all these years.

Then Menand undermines that basic narrative. He argues that several industry developments subvert this version:

  • the growth of local radio stations as the FCC broke up the CBS, NBC and Mutual cartels;
  • this was accompanied by the proliferation of juke-boxes;
  • small labels intruding into the mass-market, particularly as the big labels withdrew from racially-segregated marketing;
  • the post-war boom putting buying power into the pockets of a younger market [that’s my gloss, by the way], who were more likely to cross-over the racial divide. “Race music” became R&B and also became acceptable to the white teenager with a portable record player and a thirst for excitement.

Then (after a nod at Rocket 88) he throws in the spit-ball:

Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?

The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.

On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent.

We’re onto the home straight, it seems. Except again Menand swerves:

0189562572… the best conclusion seems to be the one reached by the sociologist Philip Ennis in his valuable analysis of popular music, The Seventh Stream (1992). “Did the music industry force-feed teenagers into the acceptance of rock and roll?” Ennis asked. “To the contrary, it was almost the reverse.” White listeners began consuming a style of music that had not been manufactured for or marketed to them. The d.j.s and the record companies were only scrambling to meet the demand. That demand seems to have sprung up everywhere—in Cleveland and Memphis, in Los Angeles and New York—and all at once. If advertising and promotion didn’t bring about this phenomenon, what did?

It’s tempting to interpret it as a generational rebellion against a buttoned-up, conservative domestic culture, but this is almost certainly a retrospective reading, created by looking at the period through the lens of the nineteen-sixties. Folk songs had a message, and some sixties rock songs had a message. Rock and roll did not have a message, unless it was: “Let’s party (and if you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair).” Or maybe, at its most polemical, “Roll over, Beethoven.” But it was music intended for young people, and this was the distinctive thing.

That’s not all. There needs to be the delivery system, which (as I’ve already adduced) was:

 The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.

Menand then concertinas technological development: the transistor radio was not as rapidly adopted as he implies — we would be more towards the end of the ’50s or early ’60s for that. But we were still tied to the main suppliers: and in Britain they were few and far between (unless you had a mate with eclectic tastes and access to those expensive — and fragile, especially on a Dansette — LPs). As for the “pirate” radio stations, and before them Radio Luxembourg (208 metres, medium wave), once night fell, the sound quality was liable to be execrable.

More liberating, especially in the European market (and Menand misses this), was the compact cassette: but that was a different Philips. And with the cassette recorder, preferably plugged into the AUX socket on the best radio in the house, everyone became his (or, less often, her) own DJ.

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Filed under History, Music, New Yorker

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