Friday, September 9, 2016

The futile quest to identify pop music's greatest year

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 7.)

There seems to be some sort of contest underway to determine the most significant year in the history of pop music. Over the past year or so, several music writers have submitted their nominations.

For Andrew Grant Jackson, it was 1965. The American writer’s book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music fastens onto the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones’ hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and the Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited, on which His Royal Bobness, realising that pop stars had much more fun than earnest folkies, re-invented himself.  

British writer Jon Savage opts for the year that followed. In 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, he examines the significance of the milestone Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds, the emergence of New York proto-punk band the Velvet Underground and the powerful influence of drugs, notably LSD, on pop music.

Now we jump to 1971. Another British writer, David Hepworth, suggests this was the year when the pop music era ended and the rock era began, although the distinction is entirely artificial.


In Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year that Rock Exploded (note the nod to Savage’s title) Hepworth bases his case, less than persuasively, on a series of unconnected developments: Don McLean’s American Pie, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Rod Stewart’s Maggie May and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Good luck finding any commonality in that lot.


Now someone named James Woodall has got in on the act. In the British magazine The Spectator, Woodall makes a case for 1976, pronouncing that it “left a more multifarious pop and rock legacy than any year I can think of”.


Again, his reasoning his less than convincing. Certainly, 1976 was the year of the Sex Pistols, when the primitive thrashings of punk challenged the increasingly bombastic excesses of mainstream rock, but that’s about it.


Other than that, Woodall can justify his choice only on the basis that several singers – Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Dylan and Bowie – produced records in 1976 that became his personal favourites. That doesn't make it a watershed year for anyone other than him. 


What emerges from all this is that it’s possible to choose almost any year since the start of the rock and roll era (however that’s defined – I’ll come back to that later) and argue, on the basis of a few cherry-picked examples, that it was some sort of milestone.


In any case, I read somewhere recently – I think it may have been in Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd’s entertaining book In Love with These Times – that everyone is convinced the music of their own youth is the greatest of all time, and I think that’s probably true.


The teenage years tend to be the time when music leaves its deepest imprint because emotions are intense at that stage of our lives and we’re at our most impressionable.


As it happens, I too would mount a vigorous case for 1965 or 1966 (my own teenage years) as the greatest years in pop music, although probably not for the same reasons as Jackson and Savage. It was a time when pop music was not only reaching new heights of sophistication, but branching off into multiple new directions. 

But even I can't be emphatic. Which was the greater Beatles album: Rubber Soul or Revolver, which came out the following year? My answer tends to depend on whichever one I'm listening to at the time. And anyway, what about Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was issued in 1967 and arguably represents the apotheosis of pop creativity? 

The truth is, no one can say with pontifical certainty that there was a single greatest year. 

I suspect an element of commercial opportunism behind the current spate of pop histories. Particularly among affluent baby boomers, there’s a hunger for nostalgia about pop culture and a desire to revisit their glory years.


It’s also apparent that there’s some convenient historical reinvention going on. Music writers are very good at retrospectively reading profound significance into historical events and making them fit whatever cultural narrative happens to be fashionable.


The emergence of the Velvet Underground, for instance, is reverentially treated as a development of almost biblical significance, although it went virtually unnoticed at the time other than by the arty New York elite. Even now the band remains essentially a cultish fascination, worshipped for reasons that have little to do with music.


Besides, all these books bypass what were arguably the most significant years of all: the years when rock and roll came into being. That’s probably because the precise origins of the genre are hard to pinpoint.


Conventional wisdom has it that it all began in 1955 with Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and his Comets, but this is where it gets complicated.


Haley wasn’t really a true rock and roller; his background was in country music. His band was originally known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. 

Contrary to popular belief, Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954) was Haley's first rock and roll hit. Rock Around the Clock was first recorded in the same year and went to No 1 only after it featured on the soundtrack of the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle

Was it genuine rock and roll? Most musicologists accept that it was, but to my ears Haley’s hits owed more to the black jazz genre known as jump blues.


I would argue that it wasn’t until Elvis Presley stormed the charts in 1956 with Heartbreak Hotel that what we now recognise unmistakeably as rock and roll penetrated the commercial mainstream. But even then, Tutti Frutti by the wild black rocker Little Richard beat Presley to the punch by several months.


In any case, rock and roll wasn’t new. Black audiences had been listening to similar music for years. All Presley did was make it palatable to white ears.


For the true source of rock and roll, you have to go back at least as far as 1951 – to Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (who were, in reality, Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) – and even further. As I wrote in my recent book A Road Tour of American Song Titles, I defy anyone to listen to the young Fats Domino singing The Fat Man in 1949 and tell me it’s not rock and roll.


But no one, to my knowledge, has written a book devoted to 1951, and still less 1949, as the defining year of rock and roll. Could it be that we’re still perpetuating the cultural conceit that it was a white invention? 


Jigsaw said...

Benny Goodman 1938

paul scott said...

Sounds a little like an old Guys competition.
I liked it when we started getting music videos on the box.
I am stuck in a time warp over here in Bangkok, the taxis play Carol King, I heard one driver humming to Electric Light orchestra, and the fake blonde Thai girls bounce to 70's music on the breakfast show.

John said...

God I love Spotify! I was able to quickly listen to Jackie Brenston's 1951 hit 'Rocket 88', which you mentioned. And I discovered that the long intro to that 45's flipside, 'Come Back to Where you Belong', is almost identical to the instrumental, 'Night Train', which came out in the same year and became a hit in 1964 with the Bill Doggett version. Who ripped off whom?

Karl du Fresne said...

You're right about 'Rocket 88' (the title came from a racy model of Oldsmobile) being a hit, but because it was classified as "race music" it would have been heard only on black stations.

Graeme Peters said...

Agree that this is pointless but still a great column. Must throw in 1974 when krafterk might have ushered in Electronica, and 1982 as possibly the birth of hip hop (Grandmaster flash). But 1976 gets my vote for obvious reasons re punk/alternative