“I can hear music, sweet, sweet music,” sang the Beach Boys, and that’s what I am hearing, leafing through a marvellous history of pop music. Harvey Rachlin takes us on a spin down memory lane in Song and System: The Making of American Pop Music. Elvis Presley and the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, all are recalled in this chronicle. It’s not just encyclopaedic but evocative, the singers’ names and the songs’ titles triggering golden memories. Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock! The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night!
A pop song is a magical thing, says Rachlin, noting it’s short, simple and can be sung out loud or recalled silently in mind anywhere:
“As an art form, the pop song has its own intrinsic qualities. Unlike other great art forms like a book or television show or movie, you don’t need a device or considerable chunk of time to experience it. It’s in your head, and you can run it through your mind or sing it out loud anywhere. You can envision what a picture or painting or sculpture looks like when you’re away from it, but appreciation of these works of art is best when actually seeing them. On the other hand, a pop song is a piece of art that may be distinguished from other art forms in that through its brevity, relative simplicity, easiness to memorise and aesthetic appeal, it may be performed by anyone, anywhere, and at any time.”
In his musical history, Rachlin recalls songs that were popular in 19th century America, but the narrative gets easier to relate from the time of the Broadway musicals and singers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, as their songs and the Broadway standards can still be heard today.
Personally, I love music from the 1950s to the 1970s.
As Rachlin says, the 1960s were a golden age of pop music.
The rise of rock and roll
However, the 1950s were the seminal years, witnessing the rise of rock and roll.
Rachlin writes (I have condensed the quotes from here onwards):
“By around the mid-point of the twentieth century, the young people of the day yearned for a music of their own. And what they wanted was almost there. It was called rhythm and blues, and it had a number of styles, usually vocal with a driving beat, and evolved from black folk music, southern rural blues, and various jazz idioms. With its bluesy vocals, sexy wailing saxophone, and rapid tickling of the high notes of the piano, R&B drew to it young people —whites as well as blacks. It made them want to move, to dance, to snap their fingers and move their legs. But it was music made by African Americans, and for white society it wasn’t white enough yet. Rock and roll, as an official new pop music genre, was just waiting for the right song by the right white artiste to bring it to the mainstream, meaning white teenagers, as society at the time segregated white music from black music and would label whatever music black musicians came up with as rhythm and blues.
“Rock and roll records hit the singles charts in the early 1950s. The genre may be said to have been officially crowned as a bona fide new genre that had mass appeal when it had its first number song, Rock around the Clock, in July 1955. The next year, rock and roll became a dominant new force of popular music when Elvis Presley burst onto the scene with multiple records reaching the summit position of the singles charts.
“Other popular styles of music in this fleeting period included the cha cha cha and doo wop. Its time period was relatively short — it lasted until the late 1950s or early 1960s — but its impact was explosive, lighting the fire for a plethora of pop music genres and subgenres for new generations. With Tin Pan Alley pop before and rock (and all other kinds of popular music) after it, rock and roll was like the demarcation line between vintage pop and modern pop…
“Rock and roll’s icons included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard Bill Haley and His Comets, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Examples of songs from the rock and roll era are Rock around the Clock, Maybellene, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Ain’t That a Shame, The Great Pretender, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, Be-Bop-a-Lula, Blueberry Hill, In the Still of the Night, All Shook Up, That’ll Be the Day, Bye Bye Love, Jailhouse Rock, At the Hop, Great Balls of Fire, Peggy Sue, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Tequila. The core contemporary audience for rock and roll was the first-born of the Baby Boomers those born between 1946 and 1964, and teens and young adults of the time period.”
Rachlin notes the diversity of pop music in the 1950s:
The 1950s’ varied tapestry
“The 1950s had a varied hit music tapestry. There were traditional crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher and Tony Bennett.
“R&B, a relatively new genre, was represented by such artistes and songs as Fats Domino with Blue Monday, Blueberry Hill, and I’m Walkin’, Chuck Berry with School Days, Rock and Roll Music, and Johnny B. Goode, Little Richard with “Jenny, Jenny”, Sam Cooke with You Send Me, the Coasters with Yakety Yak, Lloyd Price with Stagger Lee, Jackie Wilson with Lonely Teardrops, and the Coasters with Charlie Brown.
“There were the new rock and rollers, and they included Danny and the Juniors with At the Hop, Paul Anka with Diana, Buddy Holly and the Crickets with Peggy Sue, Frankie Avalon with Venus, Richie Valens with Donna, and Dion and the Belmonts with A Teenager in Love.
“There were what might be called pop rock-and-rollers, and their ranks included Pat Boone with Love Letters in the San, Bobby Darin with Splish Splash and Mack the Knife, and Neil Sedaka with Oh! Carol.
“There were hip country acts that tried to marry country with rock and roll, and their roster included The Everly Brothers with Bui Bye Love and Bird Dog and Jerry Lee Lewis with Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.
“Calypso and Caribbean-flavoured artistes also had chart hits such as Harry Belafonte with his Banana Boat Song (Day-O). There were young pop balladeers such as Johnny Mathis with It’s Not for Me to Say and Perry Como with Catch a Falling Star/ Magic Moments.
“And there were the new doo wop acts who fused R&B, pop and rock and roll in vocal-centric performances featuring male leads and attractive harmonies who scored on the charts. The doo top chart-makers included Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers with Why Do Fools Fall in Love, The Platters with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, The Five Satins with In the Still of the Night, The Flamingos with I Only Have Eyes for You, Little Anthony and the Imperials with Tears on My Pillow, and The Skyliners with Since I Don’t Have You.
“In 1960, numerous rock and roll songs charted, such as Paul Anka’s Puppy Love, the Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me, and Chubby Checker’s smash-hit dancing sensation, The Twist.
“As the early 1960s moved along, among the chart-making artists were the Beach Boys, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Vinton, Brian Hyland, Roy Orbison, Dion and Sam Cooke.
“Near the end of 1963, there was talk about a new group from England. They had a funny name: The Beatles. On February 7, 1964, some four thousand screaming fans at Heathrow Airport in London bid the Beatles goodbye. Two days later, on February 9, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show to a frenzied studio audience and with a staggering 73 million people watching on television. In March 1964, the Beatles occupied the top three positions on the pop singles chart with I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, and Please Please Me. Beatlemania hit America.”
Before the Beatles, “there weren’t many rock and roll groups in which all the members stood in front of audiences playing instruments and singing hit songs they wrote. Sure, there was Bill Haley and His Comets and Buddy Holly & The Crickets, and the Beach Boys, to name a few, but the majority of the pop chart-makers were individual singers such as Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, Ben E. King, Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis, Sam Cooke, Andy Williams, and Ricky Nelson, or groups whose members just sang and didn’t play instruments or write their hit material such as the Shirelles and the Platters.
“The 1960s mainstream pop songs covered an array of universal sentiments. Sprouting out of rock and roll, these tunes, from the 1960s to the early 1970s, might now be termed classic modern pop. They are characterised by ultra-catchy hooks and melodies with basically clean and meaningful lyrics. In their day, these songs dominated the Top 100 singles charts. These songs are generally memorable, many the kinds of standards that will last through time and known to future generations.
The golden age of pop
“There were hundreds of these songs from what might be called the golden age of pop. They became hits in recordings by such artistes as The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, the Rolling Stops, the Supremes, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Young Rascals, the Turtles, the Mamas and the Paps, Bread, the Jackson Five, the Fifth Dimension, Tommy James and the Shondells, Sly and the Family Stone, the Doors, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Dave Clark Five. Many of these songs had the same basic themes, but they were expressed in different ways, or they covered specific niches of the overall themes. Indeed, their titles were so telling that one might even conjecture how the lyrics go from the titles alone.
“From this arguably golden age of pop there were songs with sexual innuendos such as The Birds and the Bees, Hanky Panky, and Gimme Some Loving’, songs about love such as Happy Together and Baby I’m Yours, songs about pining for somebody such as I Saw Her Standing There, Oh Pretty Woman, and Save The Last Dance for Me, songs about insecurity such as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and I Won’t Last a Day without You, songs about heartbreak, infidelity, loneliness and sadness such as Crying, Take Good Care of My Baby, Only the Lonely, songs about places such as On Broadway, San Francisco and It Never Rains in Southern California, songs about reminiscing or growing old such as Those Were the Days and Yesterday Once More, songs about helping others through rough times such as Lean on Me, Bridge over Troubled Water, and You’ve Got a Friend, story songs such as Harper Valley PTA, A Boy Named Sue and Tie a Yellow Round the Old Oak Tree.”
As Rachlin says in his introduction to the book:
“Since the human condition is essentially timeless and universal, there are songs about almost every conceivable aspect of the human emotional experience. It’s the idioms of the times that change, providing songwriters with new linguistic tools to breathe new life into popular songs for the same basic sentiments. And presumably, the well of language for finding new forms of expression will never run dry, as we are all unique human beings with our own inimitable perspectives and ways of looking at and reacting to situations and experiences. Consequently, there will never be a limit to the kind of lyrics that songwriters can write.”
Yes, there will always be music.