History

Wednesday Mini-Book Review: Great Pretenders

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In what I hope can become a Hit and Run tradition as beloved as Tim Cavanaugh's old "one minute book" summaries, herewith what might become a weekly series of mini-book reviews of recent books I found worthy of note.

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music, by Karen Schoemer (Free Press, 2006). Turning rock critics' disdain for 1950s soft-pop crooners into a feminist issue convincingly, linking her quest for connection with her mother to her quest to get meaningful and juicy profile interviews out of the likes of Fabian Forte and Connie Francis, former Newsweek critic Karen Schoemer hits the road in search of the neglected stars of '50s non-rock n' roll pop music and gets an offer for a makeover from Ms. Francis, develops a crush on the Fabe, reaches a moment of truth with her nibs Miss Georgia Gibbs over a an aging, unloved film of her singing on Frank Sinatra's '50s TV series, buys lunch for a destitute and troubled Tommy Sands (Sinatra's former son-in-law), gets gifted with artisanal maple syrup from the singing rage Miss Patty Page, realizes how much more fun the audiences are at Frankie Laine gigs than Sonic Youth audiences, and through it all does a spirited job at dispelling the white male rockcrit myth that the time between Buddy Holly's death and the Beatles arrival was a denuded, forgettable dead zone for interesting pop music:

It dawned on me that rock history is different from other histories…in that it's written by critics, not historians. A few of the great writers, like [Robert] Palmer and [Peter] Guralnick, functioned as both, but for the most part the people telling the story were basing their definitions of greatness on their own opinions, not fact or collective consensus….They were creating a universe in which the imprecise, unpredictable, and impenetrable crushes of girls could be obliterated and wiped from the record. They were leaving out the music that they deemed "bad," because to them those songs seemed shallow and fleeting and romantic. But those songs were our history, the secretly significant history, the overlooked history of a million screaming girls. I knew of not a single history of rock that gave the girls in the audience any credibility whatsoever. Our tastes always needed to be expurged or overcome. Yet we were driving the mystery train. More than the guys, we were deciding who would make it to the top, who'd stay there.

The reader–and even the author–can and will question the delicate interconnections between mass popularity and a body of music that is frequently, perhaps often, not worth revisiting to the sane listener. Still, Schoemer's very personal voyage of discovery of the music, its makers, and what it meant to her own relationships to her family and the men in her life, is certainly deserving of the attention of those interested in 20th century pop music and its historiography.

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  1. I’m just thankful Tim Cavanaugh is gone.

  2. It makes perfect sense that girls have marginal influence on pop history. How many of those screaming girls went home and picked up a guitar? Compare vs. Black Sabbath’s audience.

    If Bobby Darin influenced anyone similarly, it would have to be in some (non-musical) cultural area that is as yet undisclosed.

  3. All of the money in the music industry, at least since the 40s, has been in selling to 12 to 15 year old white kids and girls in particular. The Spice Girls made over $300 milllion. No one ever made any money in hip hop when it was a geniune black art form. Only when they figured out how to market it to white kids as “dangerous negro” music did the money start rolling in. It is all about selling to the young white kids with money to burn.

  4. ” It is all about selling to the young white kids with money to burn.”

    American Orthodoxy

  5. dispelling the white male rockcrit myth that the time between Buddy Holly’s death and the Beatles arrival was a denuded, forgettable dead zone for interesting pop music

    Myth? I have a Billboard collection that includes the top 100 songs from 1959-1964, and calling that era a “dead zone” is giving it credit. That stuff is terrible.

  6. Oh come AC,

    What about Phil Specter and the early Motown? That is some pretty good stuff in between Elvis and the Beatles.

  7. Billboard Charts are available here. “Pretty good” is not what I would call most of the output from 1959-1964.

  8. Dave Marsh, to his credit, is another one who has debunked the conventional wisdom that rock “died” between 1959-1963. As Marsh has pointed out, what really happened is that the focus turned away from “rock” (as played by white guys) toward “soul.”
    But even aside from that, let’s look at the big picture: in the pre-Beatle sixties in addition to the dance craze stuff you had the Drifters, the Shirelles, the early rumblings of Motown, Goffin/King, Neil Sedaka, Roy Orbison, the Four Seasons, a doo-wop revival, Sam Cooke, Gene Pitney, the Phil Spector sound, Chuck Jackson, the beginnings of Philly and Memphis Soul, the Kingsmen, not to mention the whole West Coast surf thing. And if that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll…

  9. It is all about selling to the young white kids with money to burn.

    So?

    (BTW, it’s Frankie Laine.)

  10. Well put, Jim Walsh. Girl groups, soul, garage rock. I can dig it.

    If one looks at the Hot 100 for any year, the majority is crap that one wishes one forgot.

  11. Elvis, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, Fats Domino, Cash, Orbison, The Beach Boys…(I feel like a K-Tel ad)

    Yep, nothing influential there.

  12. Plus, what would Scorsese mob flick soundtracks be without this musical era?

  13. Thank you, Jim. Not to mention Dion and the Belmonts, Fats Domino, and Chubby Checker. In 1962 the Isley Brothers put out “Twist and Shout,” which the Beatles actually covered. Obviously they didn’t see a wasteland.

  14. You have got to see a PBS doc called “John Lennon’s Juke Box.”

    They take Lennon’s portable juke-box, the iPod of it’s day, and go through all the 45s. This was the stuff he was listening to as a teen and in the early days of the Quarrymen and Beatles. The go record by record, interview the living artists and show how the influences manifested themselves in specific Beatles hits. It really shows the major impact late 50s and early 60s pop/soul had on the group and in turn rock and roll.

    Set your TiVo.

  15. As far as the point goes about the bilboard being crap, most of the billboard hot 100 chart was crap thoughout the 60s. The number 1 Billboard single in 1965 was? Something by the Beatles? The Stones? Dylan? Nope, the Ballad of the Green Berets. Go back and look at the Billboard charts in the 1960s and you will tons of really geeky stuff that you can’t believe ever sold.

  16. “Pretty good” is not what I would call most of the output from 1959-1964.

    I defy you to pull any year out of those listings — 1950 to 2005 — and argue that they were any better.

  17. Count me in. I like the idea of weekly mini-book reviews, even though this particular book doesn’t interest me. (Sorry I don’t know how to make an en dash on here. I don’t mean to endorse reviewing mini-books.)

  18. What about Del Shannon?
    Gary US Bonds?

    “Quarter To Three” might be one of the best rock records ever.

    I owe a decent amount to rock critics — as a nerdy teenager, I read Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, and, as a result, I went out and discovered some pretty kick-ass music.
    But now most of them annoy the hell out of me. Just like anyone else who’s also interested in music, they can point me in the direction of something good, but who really cares what they think in general?
    Of all of them, Nick Kent and Lester Bangs are the ones I still enjoy — regardless of their opinions, their writing makes them fun reading.

  19. What highnumber and Lazlo said. The Billboard chart, like the list of Grammy winners, is always made up of a mix of a few timeless songs and a lot of banal crap.

  20. in recent times sites like pitchforkmedia do a pretty non-snobby job of judging pop music and taking it seriously — not to say pitchfork isn’t without a snobside, what music site would be complete without it but they review Justin Timberlake as seriously as they review the newest Super Furry Animals or Belle and Sebastain album and that is to be commended

  21. Plus, what would Scorsese mob flick soundtracks be without this musical era?

    Look In My Eyes by Arlene Smith and the Chantels is all by itself worth the price for the Goodfellas soundtrack…

  22. “Quarter To Three” might be one of the best rock records ever.”

    I’ve gotta agree on that one. Hell Springsteen does a hell of a verison of it as well.

    “Sleep Walk ? Santo & Johnny” from that time, is one of my favorite songs of all time. There’s some great songs from that period. But mainly it was all just bubble gum crap until, The Who showed up on the scene. Thank God for them.

  23. A lot of folks here seem to be missing Schoemer’s point. Beyond her feminist take, I would add that there was a lot of other music besides rock’n’roll going on in the late ’50s and early ’60s that made a huge cultural impact and had chart success. But it mostly made for grownups or college students. Frank Sinatra’s best records were released during that period. Miles Davis, anyone? B.B. King, anyone? And that doesn’t even get into soul music.

    Before about 1965, rock ‘n roll was strictly teenybopper stuff. The equivalent of boy bands or Britney/Cristina/Jessica. Schoemer is expressing admiration for the teenybopper stuff by pointing out that it drove the industry then, as it does today. To me, the larger point is that rock “grew up” in the late ’60s primarily because its audience became older and more sophisticated.

    My dad, who grew up in the ’50s, is a good case study. He dug a lot of the original black rock artists, like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc., but thought that Elvis and the other teenybopper types were crap. He also thought more highly of blues and jazz at the time than he did of rock.

  24. Here’s a parallel to consider: I recently saw on VH-1 a history of heavy-metal that pretty persuasively argued that the “big-hair” phenomenon of the ’80s was a consequence of a yank in heavy-metal that opened the thing up to girls in a way that had never happened before. Thinking about it, it was true in my own experience and observations that there weren’t a lot of chicks digging Blue Oyster Cult back when they were the first true voice of American heavy metal. Things turned a market corner with Judas Priest’s fashion statements, and >wham< — next thing you know, every wannabe in Hollywood is wearing eye makeup and every rock album has a power-ballad.

    I didn’t think it was exactly thrilling to live through, but it’s interesting to think about in looking back on it.

  25. Here’s a parallel to consider: I recently saw on VH-1 a history of heavy-metal that pretty persuasively argued that the “big-hair” phenomenon of the ’80s was a consequence of a yank in heavy-metal that opened the thing up to girls in a way that had never happened before.

    As a heavy metal musician myself since the early ’80s, I think there’s both truth and untruth in that statement. “Hair metal” really began with Van Halen in 1978, and that was initially marketed to and listened to by young men. However, the sensibility was clearly poppier and more fashion-conscious than earlier metal right from the start. That said, it wasn’t until Def Leppard hit big in ’83-84 that the female audiences started showing up at hard rock shows on their own.

    What I call “real” metal has always had an artsy quality to it, right from the first Sabbath album. “Hair metal,” by contrast was simply generic pop music that was dressed up with heavier guitars and drummed, and performed by musicians who often looked more like ’70s glam rockers than by the stoner-looking dudes who populate Real Metal.

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