The history of rock and roll inscribed itself in the nervous system of who-ever passed through it. Years later it persists as a network of potential responses and unbidden flashbacks. Sometimes the resurgent impressions are connected with public events: watching a crowd of teenage girls storming New York’s Paramount Theater for a glimpse of Eric Burdon and the Animals, or bursting into startled laughter as Bob Dylan launched into the as yet unrecorded “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” or sprawling on the floor of the Avalon Ballroom amid a sea of strangers, like a vast kindergarten class, as Janis Joplin tore “Down on Me” to pieces. More often the crucial moments were less planned and less collective, tiny accidental collisions like a saxophone solo on the radio (Junior Walker’s on “Come See About Me”) blowing away the intricacies of a personal crisis, or a refrain from the open window of a bus—the Orlons chanting “South Street, South Street”—beckoning hauntingly toward the unknown.
The mere fact of living in a large city was transmuted by the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud” into stylish futuristic bleakness (“I sit at home looking out the window/Imagining the world has stopped”), while the torpor of summer was given structure and a sense of mission by Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” It wasn’t a question so much of what you looked for as of what found you. Sounds went after you: intrusions, alarm bells, outbursts, the hoots and shrieks of party-goers, seductive hisses, warped laments, a nagging fragment of lyric or the thud of a bass line sturdy enough to order the world. It was a music of impatience, of insistence, and for a time—the peak of the era described in James Miller’s efficient, compact, ultimately disenchanted Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977—it seemed to be a one-size-fits-all universal soundtrack.
In the retrospect of anyone’s life, the elements of the music track accumulate as promiscuously as the heap of records on the rug after a party. What those who attended this particular party couldn’t have guessed was that the playlist would repeat for the next thirty years, tempering nostalgia with an echo of the old line “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” From oldies stations to television commercials to movie soundtracks, the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies never stop playing. Video histories of rock have proliferated, and at almost any hour the career of some band or the destiny of some stylistic trend is unspooling on one cable channel or another. Disco rises; glitter falls; stars are born, stars are murdered or in various ways murder themselves, stars return from the dead with a new manager and a new album: nothing will ever be as it was but the music goes on forever. The giddiness of show business, with its steep ascents and equally precipitous falls, its full-blown ecstasies and harrowing abysses, provides material for a thousand chronicles as entrancing as the ancient rollercoaster rides of Tamburlaine or Richard III, with the added democratic attraction that absolutely anyone can grow up to be a rock star. The history of rock and roll is the great melodrama and the great celebration; nostalgia for an irrecoverable past dissolves in the pro-mise of perpetual rebirth as new styles and new superstars emerge on cue.
James Miller has chosen a movielike form for his history, breaking down the three decades between Wynonie Harris’s 1947 recording of the rhythm and blues hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and the death of Elvis Presley in August 1977 into a series of forty-five discrete episodes. 1 Forty-five episodes out of a possible 45,000: it is a workable enough solution to the problem of a story with no real beginning or end, a story that starts when you happen to tune in—or in this case when a generation of teenagers happened to tune in—and ends, presumably, when you’ve lost the desire to keep listening.
The possibility of such a loss of desire underscores the whole book. Miller is unmistakably one who tasted fully the string of conversion experiences that once made rock and roll so exciting; it is the music’s bright youth that draws him. He discreetly withdraws from the stage in 1977 just as punk is emerging and with it the commercial exploitation of a vision “of childish revolt and cultural chaos,” even if for many devotees that’s where the story gets interesting. The spine of his tale is the heroic arc of rock’s rapid early evolution as perceived by the generation that grew up with it, a generation persuaded more than once that the onset of a new heaven and new earth could be detected in the cadences and textures and sheer volume of “Tutti Frutti” or “Twist and Shout” or “2000 Light Years from Home.” Here was music to dispel the ghosts of the past and smash the world open, mass-market party music transmuted into ritual you were permitted to make up as you went along:
More than a genre of popular music, [rock] now defined a classless and ostensibly color-blind “universal form”—the product of the coldest sort of commercial calculation, true, but also embodying a not ignoble vision, of an America transformed, of Mind and Body, Black and White, dancing the same dance, moving to the same beat, as kids, en masse, joined in their own brand of Dionysian revelry, watered down and trite, but genuinely uplifting all the same.
“Not ignoble,” “watered down and trite, but genuinely uplifting”: these are perhaps understandably qualified responses to a revolution televised once too often. The way stations of rock history have acquired a weary inevitability reflected in the curdled fervor of Miller’s prose. Elvis will appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, again; disc jockey Alan Freed will convert young white listeners to rhythm and blues before being destroyed by the payola scandal, again; the Beatles will invade America; Bob Dylan will go electric to the chagrin of Newport folkies; the Altamont festival will collapse in apocalyptic violence. These moments have long since assumed the portentous historical weight of, say, the Battle of Midway; merely to allude to them is to evoke a whole tradition of grandiose recapitulation.
What is striking is how vividly and quickly each such episode imprinted itself. In the pop culture of the 1960s, in which everyone was raptly studying everyone else’s moves, even peripheral accidents and misfortunes could be given meaning and incorporated into the unfolding drama. Subsequent retellings of the rock and roll story refine it into the chronicle of a sequestered analogue domain, with its own allotment of violent tragedy and its own brand of moral uplift, its own parades and nagging philosophical doubts. It also has its innumerable splinter sects—as I write a hundred more are being formulated—through whom the earlier history is not merely redefined but restaged.
In this tradition it is mandatory always to begin at the beginning, as if every take were the first ever. Each new subgenre aspires to duplicate the shock value achieved in a now legendary time by the invention of rock and roll, back when it really had adversaries. The primal smash-up lingers on as a symbolic moment of cultural violence to be endlessly reenacted. What contemporary rocker would not cherish, more than any endorsement, the overwrought dismissals once elicited from Frank Sinatra (“It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons”) or Sir Malcolm Sargent (“Nothing more than an exhibition of primitive tom-tom thumping…. Rock and roll has been played in the jungle for centuries”)?2
Instead—no matter how recklessly they push the limits—they are likely to find themselves part of a blandly acceptable subdivision of the industry that embraces television, advertising, and fashion, an industry content to purvey whatever brands of accessorized rebellion move the most units off the shelves. As the pioneering Top 40 radio programmer Todd Storz remarked a long time ago, “I do not believe there is any such thing as better or inferior music…. If the public suddenly showed a preference for Chinese music, we’d play it.”
Even after a lifetime steeped in rock and roll one can remain uneasy with the very notion of such a category, especially since its long dominance has served so often to keep potential listeners roped off from other sonic possibilities. No term is more elusive; a 1995 rock critics’ poll to determine the “100 Greatest Albums Ever Made” gave the first three spots to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968), and the Beatles’ Revolver (1966), eclectic and experimental works far removed from the rhythm revolution ushered in by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.3 Of the hundred albums on the list, only eleven, it might be noted, were released after 1980, a temporal bias consonant with James Miller’s sense that “the genre’s era of explosive growth has been over for nearly a quarter century.”
The question remains whether one can even speak of a genre. Rock begins as a slapped-together mix of blues and boogie, country and pop, gospel and rumba, and ends up as pretty much anything that can be marketed under that name. Attitude in the end is all. If attempts to define rock begin with the concrete—with discussions of specific audiences, production companies, radio stations—they tend to drift toward a separate and ineffable reality, along the lines of H.G. Koenigsberger’s notion of “the rise of music to a quasi-religious status and cult, as a psychological compensation for the decline of all forms of traditional religion.” Any attempt to nail down a definition is too restrictive for a culture whose whole point is to find out what happens when every form of restriction is removed. The critic Robert Christgau in his recent collection speaks of “irresistible energy and mysteriously renewable spirit,”4 and the late Robert Palmer declared: “Rock and roll was our very lives, our reason for being. Rock was our religion.”5 Rock finally is definable not by the kinds of sounds it makes but by how those sounds have been used by their listeners. Its history is the history of what people—specifically young people, these days (in the era of “tweenie” pop) getting younger by the day—have insisted on hearing.
There is a certain arbitrariness about where that history might begin. James Miller starts in December 1947, with Wynonie Harris, a thirty-two-year-old singer who adopted the nickname “Mister Blues,” recording “Good Rockin’ Tonight” for Syd Nathan’s King label in Cincinnati, Ohio—noting at the same time that “there was nothing noteworthy about the setting, the singer, or his songs.” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is one of a thousand up-tempo blues numbers that had been rolling off bandstands and out of jukeboxes for decades, a song that could have been sung by Joe Turner back in the heyday of Kansas City jazz, an excellent record—relaxed and comfortably swinging, moving so securely in its groove it has no need for strenuous emphasis—in a genre in which, at that time, such excellence was almost routine. It was certainly not an isolated sign of life: the late Forties were a musical era of unparalleled variety and invention, whether the inflection was gospel (Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” 1948), bebop (James Moody’s “The Fuller Bop Man,” 1949), western swing (Tex Williams’s “Cowboy Opus No. 1,” 1949), or Afro-Cuban (Machito’s “Gone City,” 1948). It is tempting to linger on the threshold, steep oneself in all the music of that moment, and think idly of the potential musics that could have been: Why not, side by side with rock and roll, cowboy bop or Caribbean big band as Top 40 material? Why not a yet wider range of forms, more varied instruments, rarer harmonies?6
A record like “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was just part of the landscape, a restricted part:
Distributed primarily on jukeboxes located in Negro clubs and bars, none of these pioneering “rock” records reached the larger white audience.
The real story of rock and roll tells how, in the seven years between Harris’s record and Elvis Presley’s cover version of it in 1954, the landscape changed. Up until 1948, for instance, the industry magazine Billboard featured a single jukebox chart topped typically by Bing Crosby or the Andrews Sisters, icons of the genial mainstream; only in that year did the magazine acknowledge other markets by adding charts tracking “race” and “folk” records (categories soon amended to “rhythm and blues” and “country and western”).
What the chart numbers registered, as Miller explains, was that the records were reaching unintended audiences. While the majors continued to focus on material like the Ames Brothers’ “Sentimental Me” (1950) or Vera Lynn’s “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” (1952)—the dross of a songwriting era notably lacking in Gershwins and Porters—younger white listeners made a sonic escape into the black music released on smaller labels and played on local radio stations whose signals often reached far beyond Memphis or Nashville or Cleveland. A radio empire of the night effected a crossing of racial lines despite the efforts of the mainstream industry to keep its audiences separated. Little Richard and Chuck Berry broke into the pop charts, just as white country musicians like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were adapting rhythm and blues into the breakthrough rockabilly hits of the mid-Fifties. The major companies would take years even to grasp what had occurred, letting the small labels reap all the early profits of rock and roll.
The penetration of white radio by black music was the single great fact, ultimately enabling artists on the order of Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield to reach an immense and all-inclusive audience. In 1956, Elvis Presley—still known by some as “the King of Western Bop,” and headlined by Life as a “Howling Hillbilly Success”—defined what he was about with remarkable bluntness: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them.”7 (Ironically enough, by the mid-1970s radio would retrench into carefully separated niche formats, and “rock” itself would become a marketing term implying a product made by and for white people, differentiated from the myriad form—disco, funk, rap—that black musicians would continue to evolve.) There was nothing new in such a racial crossover: it was the permanent condition of American music, which had always been a laboratory for revealing what happened when African and European musics mixed with a freedom ferociously resisted in other spheres of life. The major difference this time was that there were more potential listeners, young ones, with a lot more money to spend. “I’ve got some money in my jeans,” sang Eddie Cochran, “and I’m really gonna spend it right.”
Myths need points of origin, however, and in rock history the primal place tends to be Sam Phillips’s Sun recording studio in Memphis, for which Elvis made his first recordings. Operating in a tiny space and with the most rudimentary equipment, Phillips launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, having already cut pioneering sides by blues singers B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, and James Cotton, among others. A record Phillips made in 1951, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” featuring Ike Turner on piano, is a frequently cited prototype of rock and roll; five years later Carl Perkins became, according to Miller, the first country singer to make the national rhythm and blues charts with “Blue Suede Shoes,” a record that sold more than a million copies.
The legend of Sam Phillips’s Sun has everything to do with the atmosphere of laid-back improvisation evoked by Scotty Moore, Elvis’s original guitarist: “We had absolutely no material going in. We’d just go in and start kicking things around…. Every session we did on Sun was done the same way—just through trial and error until something would just finally click.”8 A recording studio where schedules didn’t matter, where there was unlimited time to “kick things around”—tear songs apart and reassemble them, bang out stray sounds until they coalesced—suggests a pastoral paradise or paleolithic cave of music-making. Those early days at Sun, culminating in Elvis’s first recordings, have been studied as assiduously as the origins of World War I; every bar of “That’s All Right” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” each slur and shout and half-swallowed howl has been parsed as if to tease out the alchemical transmutation taking place. The birth of a singing style has often been taken to register the moment when an atrophied culture is swept contemptuously aside, as all the American voices separated or suppressed or held in contempt converge to celebrate a new day in a new all-purpose language.
But what if, instead of taking the Sun sessions as the dawning of an era, we saw them as something of a last gasp, a final burst of raw improvised sound before the time of the Great Homogenizing? They were still part of that vast undercurrent documented by the mountains of 78s from which Harry Smith had compiled his Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music,9 the blues and jug and string band cultures that (as the recording industry retrenched during the Depression and as a streamlined pop industry rolled over the airwaves) had retreated into local crannies. When Sam Phillips opened his studio to every residual sound that came through his door, he merely extended an ongoing fusion. The sonic landscape of the years between Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Elvis Presley’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight”—that part of the landscape unlikely to show up on Lucky Strike Hit Parade or Chesterfield Supper Club—encompassed, to cite a few random examples, Pee Wee Cayton’s “Blues After Hours” (1948), the Delmore Brothers’ “Pan American Boogie” (1949), John Lee Hooker’s “Hoogie Boogie” (1949), Hank Williams’s “Mind Your Own Business” (1949), Wild Bill Moore’s “Neck Bones and Collared Greens” (1950), Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” as performed by Ole Rasmussen and His Nebraska Cornhuskers (1952), “Little Maxie” Bailey’s Korean War blues anthem “Drive Soldiers Drive” (1953), Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Space Guitar” (1954), and its country cousin “Stratosphere Boogie” (1954) by Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
There were not dozens but thousands of such records, jukebox music, honky tonk music, barn dance music, designed to go well with dancing and drinking and carrying on, churned out by countless small labels: King in Cincinnati, Excello in Nashville, Duke and Peacock in Houston, Modern and Aladdin in Los Angeles. No one person was likely to be listening to all of it, localized and hidden as it often was; no one was writing books or publishing glossy magazines about the people who made it. Except for those directly involved, no one was apt to think about the music at all except as scattered pockets of indigenous noise.
What happened next was a business revolution, forced by a realization of the size of the potential audience. Within a year Elvis went from small-time country phenomenon to the unavoidable defining figure of a dominant teenage culture sweeping all before it. It was his singular ascendancy that identified rock and roll forever with a new kind of idolatry, a cult of unimaginable stardom fed by unimaginably wide diffusion, as the music spilled far beyond the “rural rhythm field” where it had been nurtured. It became clear that honky tonk could be sold as the New Teen Sound, and that the Elvis of Sun’s “Mystery Train” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” could, with a few adjustments, become RCA’s Elvis, a smoother product cutting across regional and class lines. It wasn’t just the music but the whole culture that had changed its name: rock and roll wasn’t a niche, it was going to be the whole picture. The performers converged on a national public square that in a few more years, with the advent of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, would become a global public square. For a time it would seem that there was one universal audience watching a single show: the Play of the World, mirror of attitude, school of gesture, showcase of fabrics and accessories, discount warehouse of fantasy roles.
Robert Christgau speaks of “the great schism” in which “pop music changed utterly around 1955,” and who could deny it? Anyone who was then alive can remember the nearly simultaneous emergence of “Crazy Man Crazy” and “Long Tall Sally” and “Be Bop a Lula,” the sense of noise unleashed and nonsense set free, the invitation to go wild extended in Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential”:
Go get your bopping shoes
Before the jukebox blows a fuse.
It didn’t matter what you thought of it: it wasn’t asking your opinion, merely saying that this was what the world was now. (Anyone who has forgotten should consult the unrelenting Rhino compilation Loud, Fast and Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of ’50s Rock.) The exhilarating arc of rock’s ascent as it was experienced by people of Miller’s (and my) generation created an impression of being inducted into a central space where you could lose anything you wanted to lose, from inhibitions to name and prior history. Dissolution as uplift was the dream that for a while forced its way into waking life, along the lines of Miller’s vision of young Americans “dancing the same dance, moving to the same beat…joined in their own brand of Dionysian revelry.” The Sixties proposed a possibility of endless anonymous collective merging that rock alone among cultural forms has tried to sustain without dilution, each generation of youth inheriting the attempt as the privilege of its order.
Rock by now aspired to more than nameless swirl and head-knocking backbeat; it had acquired complexities and elongations, political missions, liturgies and robes and masks; lyrics had evolved from the equivalent of “Meet me on the corner and don’t be late” into increasingly baroque variants of Jimi Hendrix’s “Is this tomorrow or just the end of time?” Music was scarcely the point by now: this was literature, theater, religion, noise opera, political action, erotic paradise. It contained the promise of perpetual new inventions, new social relations, even as it drew into itself whatever of the past could be salvaged, from cowboy campfire songs to Vedic chants. To the giddily contagious grandiosity of that moment—the certainty that music was reshaping the world just as irrevocably as it had reshaped the consciousness of the stoned dancers caught in its flow—the only dramaturgically appropriate follow-up was steep descent and radical dispersal, the fall commemorated by so many histories and memoirs. There is no substitute for cosmic fusion, and whatever comes after tends to seem like a footnote to a sacred text.
A more lucrative footnote would be hard to imagine, of course, as the major labels freed themselves of hidebound anti-rock holdovers of the Mitch Miller breed and finally succeeded, in the early Seventies, in getting a handle on the product they were selling, achieving—with the help of terminally hip, cocaine-addled sales reps and producers—full mutual interpenetration of rock underground and global industry. The revelries were reorganized under the auspices of Dionysus Incorporated, and excess itself reconfigured as an ostensibly rational, assembly-line procedure. Stare at the industry long enough and the music itself seems an accidental byproduct of an impossibly turbulent and treacherous skein of mad transactions and delusional ambitions, an out-of-control mix of farce and bloody melodrama whose participants are blown about as helplessly as Dante’s Lustful.10
The scale changed. A moment ago you were getting down with your friends and neighbors on the corner, or in church, or at a barn dance, or at a high school hop, or in your living room; now you’re in the midst of an army of strangers at stadiums and streamlined clubs and revival-style raves, getting high on sheer acceleration and the press of crowds. The music reaches into more and more places, but at the same time comes to the listener from farther and farther away. If archaic music consisted of songs sung at harvests, we have progressed to harvest songs sung in dance halls and from there to songs about dance halls sung nowhere in particular, perhaps not sung at all but merely pieced together from a menu of morphable blips.
The term “rock and roll” in any event long ago lost its utility as anything but a commercial subdivision of a field Balkanized into sliver-audiences. By the end of the Seventies rock was already a dubious label for defining a scene that encompassed (along with much else) disco, the Philly sound, reggae, a resurgence of cabaret, a range of jazz fusions and electronic experiments, and the earliest hip-hop. Since then things have only gotten more baroquely variegated. For one example, a recent study of techno and rave lists over forty allegedly distinctive genres, ranging from New York Garage and Ambient Techno to Darkcore, Terrorcore, and Horrorcore.11 Ineluctably the rock and roll moment—the great convergence of midcentury pop—begins to take its place as just another episode in an endless serial. Even now, in New York, the new oldies station in town features late Sixties and early Seventies soul, funk, and disco, while excising the treasured masterpieces of rockabilly and doo-wop under the sardonic slogan “Elvis Has Left the Building.”
It is possible to imagine a history of rock and roll that would not be about superstars or record labels or Billboard charts at all—not even about the armies of aspirants and small-time contenders and might-have-beens who in many ways are even more important—but about the use that listeners made of music. Such a project, however, would resemble a history of lighting effects, or sex acts, or breathing. It would be a history, finally, of the desire to bury history, to be free once and for all of an imposed narrative. To remain rock and roll, whatever is being said must be true to the code summarized with comic aplomb by Ian Dury in 1977:
Sex and drugs and rock and roll
Is all my brain and body need
Sex and drugs and rock and roll
Is very good indeed.
More than any musical trait, that invitation to unhindered interpersonal meltdown—culminating in the fenced-in desert frat party of Woodstock ’99, looking in the video clips like a fiesta in an internment camp—keeps the idea of rock and roll alive. It is the promised paradise where everybody gets a chance to “crash out” like an escaped con in a Thirties gangster movie: or more precisely the one paradise that is not merely promised but—such as it is—delivered.
The ultimate rock history would be a history of the listener’s body as transformed by music, or of the imaginary body that the music makes possible, and that the listener can select from an expanding menu of options, in an era when music is often experienced as a literal appendage, attached via Walkman or Discman. What kind of body do you want? Pick your desired model of nervous response from the rack. The ideal record can be relied on to deliver a jolt of gratuitous excitement unencumbered by relationship or history. You play it to enhance an excitement you already feel, or to revive an excitement you have unaccountably lost. This is revelry you can swallow like a pill, like the Who record called “Instant Party.” At the push of a button you are lost in a nerve dance, fused effortlessly with bass line or falsetto refrain or repeated intrusive jangle.
You don’t listen to the record, you virtually inhabit it. The digitalized home of the future is set to function as resonating chamber for the sounds piped in by request from Disembodied Music Central, far from any hint of taverna or road house or rocked-out stadium. But then the places have always finally been imaginary, reconstructed in memory, or never experienced at all except through songs: At the Hop, On Broadway, Under the Boardwalk, In the Basement, In My Room. The festivals and orgies (rock history’s visual high points) provide an ornamental backdrop even as the tape loop filters into the drabber confines of office life, apartment life, subway and airport life, as roots music gives way to rootlessness music. A whole population, adrift with headphones, continues to tune in to the permanent all-night party in the Grand Virtual Ballroom of the Twentieth Century, a party that goes on without regard for the collapse and disappearance of some of the guests and their replacement by new recruits. Those who have stayed longest may find the drastic changes in tempo and texture disorienting, perhaps around the time “Let’s Have a Party” (Wanda Jackson, 1958) is replaced on the turntable by “I Wanna Destroy You” (the Soft Boys, 1980).
For each listener, what persists is the imprinting, the earlier the better. You don’t after all forget songs, you merely lose contact with them. The connection can be renewed at any point in life as if nothing had changed, and no more exact retrieval of experience is possible. Everything comes back, and then the comebacks come back: the Fifties theme from I Love Lucy mutates into a Seventies disco record which surfaces again in the Nineties as a classic oldie, and late at night an easy-listening arrangement of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” fills every corner of the underground concourse of the World Trade Center.
A nearly infinite web of chance encounters makes up the music’s intimate history. What one remembers in the end is not the power of a single record but the environment created by many records bouncing off one another: a transitory space, but persisting as a memory of mysterious richness and extensiveness. It was only after buying a good many records, apparently at random, that I became aware that I had, almost somnambulistically, reassembled the playlist from a certain memorable party in the fall of 1965. The efforts I had taken for research had been driven by the unconscious desire to hear once again, one after another, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and the Premiers’ “Farmer John” and the Righteous Brothers’ “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” and the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and Sir Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally.” That was the night the cops finally showed up to quiet things down, the night when the music seemed—as it would never quite seem again—the solution and dissolution of every perplexity.
December 16, 1999
It’s too bad that Miller has felt obliged to ignore much of the music that made that era so interesting; wanting to pinpoint the “cultural essence of rock and roll,” he’s ironically forced to jettison a good deal of music that he himself prefers. He’s at least explicit about what he’s skipped, providing a list that could help to outline a different and in many ways more interesting history: Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin. ↩
Quoted in Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (Harmony Books, 1995), p. 51. ↩
The results of the survey, undertaken by the British magazine Mojo, are published in Mark Cunningham, Good Vibrations: A History of Record Production (Sanctuary Publishing, 1998). ↩
Robert Christgau, Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno (Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 9. ↩
Palmer, Rock & Roll, p. 147. ↩
Of countless CD reissues relevant to this period, these are recommended: Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, 1921-1956 (Rhino); The Original Mambo Kings: An Introduction to Afro-Cubop, 1948-1954 (Verve); 1948: The R&B Hits (Indigo); Swing West! Volume 3: Western Swing (Razor & Tie); John Lee Hooker: The Legendary Modern Recordings, 1948-1954 (Flair). ↩
Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen, Elvis Day by Day (Ballantine, 1999), p. 77. ↩
John Floyd, Sun Records: An Oral History (Avon, 1998), p. 34. ↩
Miller’s telling of that story can be supplemented by Fred Goodman’s mordantly funny The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce (Times Books, 1997). ↩
Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Routledge, 1999). ↩