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Turn the Beat Around

June 22, 2006 By:
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I've been told that my ideas about the development of rock 'n' roll tend toward the absurd - and yet I stick to them nonetheless, and look for any chance I can get to expound upon them.

Be forewarned: This is one of those chances.

I think few people would argue with the statement that rock 'n' roll grew out of the need to find a new way to dance, and that the dancing the music spawned - like most dancing before it - was just a stand-in for sex, hence the name rock 'n' roll (though the phrase is said to have various meanings). The roots of the music were mostly urban and African-American, at least at the start.

Rock 'n' roll grew out of rhythm and blues, and gospel music, and became popular in the United States when white performers, starting with Elvis Presley, made this new beat palatable to the (white) masses. In time, black performers rose in popularity, and the Detroit sound - via Motown - and the Philly sound began to vie with that mainstream, which, on occasion, would include a Latino like Ritchie Valens.

A beat you could dance to - that was the driving force behind early rock, and it was what disturbed our parents and elected officials, who denounced the music as the devil's tool, which would lead the young down the road to desolution. We used to laugh when we heard such things, but I understand now why the music upset them - it tapped into something they knew nothing about: black life and culture.

The beat, the dances, the sound - these were all elements of African-American existence, which back then was only beginning to become visible in our society (thanks to the dislocations wrought by World War II). The music should have upset them; it was something new and elemental that most white Americans had been trying to suppress for far too long. That also explained why it had a touch of attractive danger to it as well.

But dancing was what this music gave rise to and, at least at the beginning, what it was all about. I remember from about sixth grade on that every week - sometimes every day - someone would be talking about a new dance they had learned over the weekend at a party.

The eclipsing of American, black-driven rock 'n' roll came about, of course, with the predominately white-driven British invasion, starting with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s, and continuing for years via countless other bands. Artists like John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton always acknowledged that their musical roots were in black music, and that they emulated some of the great African-American blues performers and patterned their styles on their playing.

But as the '60s wore on and the political nature of the times started to invade the music (along with the widespread use of hallucinogens), the sound went off into another realm, and turned its back on dance. Once we all became members - willingly or forcibly - of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and went on Magical Mystery Tours, rock traveled a great distance from its dance roots.

Not that wonderful and indelible things weren't created. Some of the greatest performances and songs in rock history came about during this period, but they generally had nothing to do with that original beat - and their goal was anything but trying to get people up and dancing. In fact, the exact opposite happened. At certain gatherings, it became completely uncool to dance.

It's been my contention that white people who couldn't dance preferred music that didn't have a beat they needed to follow. If they wanted to get up as part of their hallucinatory trance and bounce around insanely or do some weird variation of modern dance mostly with their hands (while staring at them obsessively), then so be it.

Some of what went on back then likely had an element of racism to it, though I would argue it occurred on an unconscious level. But I like to insist that Motown was dethroned because the majority of white people couldn't dance like black people. The British invasion, especially as the music became more intellectualized and consciously tried to project the drug experience, gave these rhythmless folks the perfect backdrop for their strange gyrations. But those of us who loved to dance mourned the day it all died (to paraphrase Don McLean's prescient ditty "American Pie").

On the Charts

Many people have denounced me over the years for these theories, especially for the suggestion of underlying racism. But I do get a whole lot of ammunition for my suppositions from a new and quite wonderful book called Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson, published recently by Viking. The book follows the fortunes of seven different songwriting teams, almost all of whom were Jewish, who wrote some of those early rock 'n' roll songs we danced to with such abandon. They did it all, for the most part, in the legendary Brill Building, which still stands at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan. Another building, farther north, known as 1650 Broadway, was an extension of Brill, and also a hotbed of songwriting fervor.

Among the writers were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (whose songs helped Elvis rise to glory and filled the Broadway revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe"); Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield; Carole King (who went on in the 1970s to have a whole other career as a singer/songwriter) and Gerry Goffin; Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; Jerry Barry and Ellie Greenwich; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Among the countless songs they wrote were such hits as Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock," Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By," the Crystals' "Uptown," the Shirelle's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." They wrote many other tunes that never made the hit parade and haven't lasted much beyond their first appearance on vinyl. But Emerson, the author of Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, catalogs all the tunes written at both venues and where they eventually wound up on the Billboard charts.

He also tells the personal stories of these often very young creative types, who were driven by that elemental beat to express themselves. He details their quirks and working habits, their loves and fears, and the driven work atmosphere at the Brill Building.

And Magic adds another element to the story. These young songwriters, most especially the Jews, were emulating the black writers and performers they loved, and trying to channel that energy and spirit, just as in an earlier period Jewish songwriters like Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins emulated and tried to learn from the black greats of ragtime and jazz.

As Emerson makes clear, these Brill Building songwriting teams were like a family. "Most of them were born or grew up in Brooklyn. … As Brooklyn Jews, raised on the Rosenbergs and Jackie Robinson, they developed a political and racial awareness to varying degrees. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, they had some respect for, and in several instances training in, classical European music, which they did not forsake even as they fell in love with African-American and, at the height of Puerto Rican emigration to New York, Afro-Cuban music.

" … these songwriters who calculatedly cranked out hit after hit with assembly-line efficiency also brought to popular music a new authenticity. They were young people, for the most part, writing for young people. In the best of their work … they often drew upon, dramatized and shared their own experiences, be it Doc Pomus's polio and marriage in 'Save the Last Dance for Me' or Carole King's premarital pregnancy in 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow.' Such songs sounded real when they were originally recorded, and the records still sound real today."

 

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