Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…

Willkommen, 2012…

Hello and happy New Year to whoever may or may not be reading this- for those who are not, please consult reality and try again. I was considering taking this opportunity to look forward and pontificate on what the new year may bring, but I eventually decided that since I don’t have a sodding clue what interesting stuff’s going to happen (bar the Olympics, which everyone knows about already), I have decided instead to give you a list of random facts to give some new stuff to confuse people with in 2012 conversations*. Read and enjoy:

The only sound Seahorses make is a small clicking or popping sound during feeding or courtship

Krispy Kreme make five million doughnuts a day

There were no red colored M&Ms from 1976 to 1987

In Belgium, there is a museum that is just for strawberries

Tomatoes were once referred to as “love apples.” This is because their was a superstition that people would fall in love by eating them

Over 90% of diseases are caused or complicated by stress

An average person uses the toilet 2500 times a year

Approximately 97.35618329% of all statistics are made up

Michael Jordan makes more money from Nike annually than all of the Nike factory workers in Malaysia combined

Pentagon estimates their computer network is hacked about 250,000 times annually

Marilyn Monroe had six toes

On a Canadian two dollar bill, the flag flying over the Parliament building is an American flag

Most heart attacks occur between the hours of 8 and 9 am

There is a town in Norway called “Hell”

The electric chair was invented by a dentist

The word “nerd” was first coined by Dr. Suess in the book “If I Ran to the Zoo.”

For every human in the world there are one million ants

After being picked an orange cannot ripen

There are more pigs than humans in Denmark

Hockey pucks were originally made from frozen cow dung

Karate actually originated in India, but was developed further in China

A group of tigers is called a streak

The average ear grows 0.01 inches in length every year

The same careers advisor dismissed both Mark Knopfler and Alan Shearer’s ambitions (to be a musician and footballer respectively), saying to Knopfler “you’ll never get anywhere playing that kind of stuff”. Shearer broke the world record in transfer fees when he signed for Newcastle, and Knopfler went on to make over £50 million and played at Live Aid

The most exclusive aftershave in the world is named after a Welsh winger and rugby captain

A bank in Paraguay was once held up by two sets of bank robbers simultaneously

A South Korean woman failed her driving test 959 times, and when she finally passed was given a car worth nearly $17,000 by Hyundai, as well as an advertising deal

The biggest defeat in a game of football is held by a team from Madagascar, who lost 149-0 in a match in October 2002

In a 2008 council election in North Dakota, absolutely nobody voted, not even the candidates

A news reporter in Swaziland once spent a month delivering reports from a broom cupboard whilst pretending to be in Baghdad

Elvis Presley once came third in an Elvis Presley impersonator contest in Tennessee

A South African effort to promote condom usage, that included the distribution of a free government condom, ended in failure when it was noticed that the condoms had been stapled to the packaging, puncturing two holes in each of them in the process

*I make no claim to have sourced any of these- the first half come from a friend who used to post these things on Facebook, and the second half are from one of my favourite books- The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile. The ones I have done are just the easiest to paraphrase from the first two chapters- if you want a good source of laughs for the upcoming year, buy yourself a copy and enjoy the rest