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Some of us used to think that rock would die with its beads on, gunned down in the street by agents of the law. This thrill of paranoia was the bequest of rock’s abrasive history. As the Great Domestic Annoyance of the Fifties, in the days of Elvis Presley, rock & roll played with sinister jubilance off in the distance, breaking the jowly slumbers of the burghers and their wives, and sometimes it exploded right upstairs, in one of the kids’ bedrooms. Dad, paunchy and balding, gripping the evening paper in one angry fist, hammers against the bedroom door, and yells hoarsely into the hypnotic din: “WILL YOU TURN THAT DAMNED THING DOWN!” Downstairs in the kitchen, Mom clucks to herself fretfully.
The uproar began when Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis Presley from Sun Records in 1955. In 1958, the momentum was fatally interrupted when Presley was drafted, which seemed to inspire a massacre: scandal ruined Jerry Lee Lewis’s career, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, and Chuck Berry was arrested for violating the Mann Act. (Little Richard had escaped this visitation by embracing religion in 1957.) Rock was suddenly leaderless, much to the benefit of promoters like Dick Clark, who oversaw the manufacture of an unthreatening new generation of “teen idols.” Singers like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell (“There was nothing but Bobbies on the radio,” Jerry Lee Lewis grumbled) wooed the American teenager and won Dad’s heart. There was no need to break down the door and stomp on the phonograph, because rock’s threat had exhausted itself.
Although the music’s spirit died in 1958, the Fifties lasted until late 1963, when the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in America. The Beatles made rock & roll outrageous again, reminding their young listeners that rock was not just music but the vindication of a possible community. The Beatles defined “straight” by presenting themselves as its unsettling alternative. Confronted by Elvis’s lean sneer and snaking hips, Dad swelled with indignation. But when he saw the Beatles wagging their shaggy heads at the microphones, and saw the hordes of girls in heat (“What do they see in those guys?”), he was incredulous.
During the Sixties, the ludicrous image of Dad pounding on his daughter’s bedroom door evolved into a terrifying fantasy: the State would smash the tubes and cut the wires. It did not seem far-fetched for the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine, steeped in the hue of law enforcement, to savage every form of musical expression. The rock star’s droogish image had taken on a revolutionary glow; his music rang like a call to insurrection: “Got to revolution!” shouted the Jefferson Airplane; “We want the world and we want it now!” threatened the Doors. We feared that Dad, encouraged by S.I. Hayakawa, would pull the plug, a strategy pursued by Richard Nixon, whose diligent harassment of John Lennon suggests that the President saw Yellow Submarine between viewings of …
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Declining Rock? April 14, 1977