Does '50s music still matter?

New books and tribute albums reassess the decade's influence in rock 'n' roll

Published August 24, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

The deathless doggerel I want to share is from Teddybears' "Devil's Music," where it's preceded by an electronically treated 22-second snippet from a Charles Bukowski documentary about tending sparks that can start fires. Personally, I prefer rapper Eve's kicking "Rocket Scientist": "I am the robot Elvis rocking my bionic pelvis / I'm Technotronic sipping vodka tonic yeah I'm selfish / I am the Killer shaking up some more rock and roll." And then the capper, from an electronically treated Teddybear: "Them drum machines ain't got no soul."

Barnes & Noble Review"Devil's Music" is a concept album about the uses of rock 'n' roll that's mistaken for a hodgepodge because it features nine guest artists, including Teddybears' hottest collaborator, Swede Robyn. The quatrain's focus is the '50s, but Elvis and Jerry Lee aren't its only historical referents. There's also the long-gone Belgian house-pop unit Technotronic, whose many déclassé "Pump Up the Volume" variants I loved unreasonably circa 1990. Note too that the title song, which name-checks a medieval idea the '50s revived with a vengeance, adduces Robert Johnson and Eddie Van Halen as well as Bo Diddley, and that the electronically treated "Wolfman" begins: "Seasons come and go / Everybody knows / All the players change / The song remains the same."

I'm not endorsing this platitude, which would be stomach-turning from a garage purist or Americana sap rather than a Eurodisco production team. Nor do I believe it signals a trend -- if I did trends, I'd bet heavily against '50s revival. Still, I was struck when a similar theme was taken up by another déclassé dance act on Teddybears' American label, which happens to be called Big Beat: the reformed L.A. screamo vocalist Skrillex, who opens his "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" EP with chipmunks electro-harmonizing "Together we can play some rock n' roll." I was delighted, too, to be bowled over by recent albums called "Rave On Buddy Holly" and "Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales." I even found a good '50s book: Albin J. Zak III's "I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America."

Where for most rock historians the '50s begin circa 1954, musicologist Zak's angle is to encompass the entire decade. For him, the game changer was the man who symbolized the pop establishment rock 'n' roll displaced: Columbia Records production chief Mitch Miller, auteur of Frankie Laine's "Mule Train," Johnnie Ray's "Cry," and Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-A My House" as well as his own "The Yellow Rose of Texas." What unites these "novelty" records is that each, like many early-'50s hits from Miller and others, constituted a unique soundscape whose only natural environment was the studio. Thus they challenged recording's performance-based, ear-on-the-wall ethos. Zak believes that although rock 'n' roll began with different materials, it found new ways to exploit and embellish the novelty aesthetic.

Zak overstates his thesis, and although he doesn't ignore race, which remains fundamental no matter how revisionists nitpick, he does downplay it, as he does the bigness of the beat. Nevertheless, this is a well-researched study that pokes major holes in Americana and garage orthodoxy, both of which conceive early rock 'n' roll as a species of folk music in which unschooled young bucks gain entrance to a recording facility and do their fresh and simple thing. Instead, Zak emphasizes the willingness of indie label owners to turn off the clock through many humdrum hours until fresh music actually happened, be it Buddy Knox's raunchy "Party Doll" or the Drifters' semi-sophisticated "There Goes My Baby." He honors the tricky sound effects that delighted musical thrill seekers. He describes how deliciously amateur singers rubbed against jazz-trained sidemen in doo-wop and elsewhere. And beyond the Mitch Miller effect, he insists on a truth long denied -- that '50s rock 'n' rollers also dug pop's pre-rock history, on a hit parade with room for Frank Sinatra and Gogi Grant and in rocking covers of such chestnuts as "Blue Moon," "Blueberry Hill," "Baby Face," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Zak's revisionism might have been tonic for Simon Reynolds, the one-time techno utopian whose strange new "Retromania" is particularly glassy-eyed about what a long chapter calls "The Never-Ending Fifties Revival." But this was not to be -- Reynolds' extensive bibliography cites only one outdated and sketchily researched work that documents the decade. Retromania is an entertaining if long-winded exposé of backward-looking fads most of us were too sensible to pay any mind in the first place, from Sha Na Na to postpunk revival concerts featuring full-length renditions of albums never before performed beginning to end. A committed futurist for all of a quarter-century critical career, Reynolds is old enough to feel nostalgic about futurisms past and smart enough to know this is weird. But he isn't humble or candid enough to admit that although he can write with passable insight about chart pop, black music and America in general, he has no heart for any of them. Hence he doesn't get the '50s at all, which renders doubly redolent his explanation of why he believes 1963 was "The Year That Rock Began": "Rock'n'roll in the fifties sense was both rawer and more showbizzy; 1963, the year of The Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, is when the idea of Rock as Art, Rock as Revolution, Rock as Bohemia, Rock as a Self-Consciously Innovative Form, really began."

Reynolds is making fun of himself a little; he knows all those capitalized concepts generate folderol aplenty. But the real problem is the absoluteness of the bifurcation he proposes. As Zak is one of many to point out, the standard 1955 dividing line is problematic enough. It's much worse that what the Beatles and the Stones and the less showbizzy Dylan are actually doing in the supposed year of Rock as Innovative Art is seizing the past by reinterpreting Americana (albeit not in the garages they didn't have). The Beatles and the Stones share Chuck Berry, a bugbear of Reynolds, while the Stones and Dylan share blues, which he never addresses. But all define an aesthetic in which a modernity they will soon start messing around with begins with the insurgent American pop of the '50s.

Most of what's become of this aesthetic, especially when it imagines a utopian '50s that never existed like "Grease," is as artistically flabby and intellectually barren as any other golden-age escapism, including many of the retro strategies and subcultures Reynolds dissects. But for some reason he skips one of the most egregious: the tribute album, in which artists take time out of their busy schedules to honor an earlier cynosure in cover versions of widely varying approach, quality and enthusiasm. I count precisely six such tributes of any consistency since 1990: reconstituted Jimmie Rodgers, Hound Dog Taylor and Fela Kuti, well-respected Richard Thompson, Gram Parsons and Loretta Lynn. Now, suddenly, there are two more.

Like 1997's "The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers -- A Tribute," the brainchild of none other than Bob Dylan (who has a Hank Williams tribute due in October), "Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales" benefits from the input of a legendary sponsor: Stax-Volt guitarist Steve Cropper, who has long considered the 5 Royales' Lowman Pauling his hero. "Dedicated" is doubly welcome because the 5 Royales aren't famous and should be -- the only first-rank rock 'n' rollers who never broke pop. Yoking pithy language to irresistible refrains in one of the '50s' deepest songbooks, their writer was guitarist Pauling, whose fancy licks and decisive rhythms meshed with a panache that would culminate in none other than Jimi Hendrix. Presented with Pauling's simple yet manifestly excellent songs, soul stick-in-the-muds like Steve Winwood, Bettye LaVette, Delbert McClinton and an inspired Sharon Jones throw down their vainglory and rock while a jubilant Cropper and a band as sharp as the M.G.'s motorvate those songs like never before.

Everybody wins on "Dedicated." But there are no drum machines with soul here. Its accomplishment is to juice the present with the past rather than propel either into the future. A sense of occasion plus a trove of underutilized material allows a bunch of spiritually and formally weary boomers to reaccess some spark. However, my favorite performance is "Come On & Save Me," which joins 55-year-old Sharon Jones -- who, backed by her excellent Dap-Kings, has spent a decade proving that she's not James Brown because she just doesn't have the songs/riffs/beats/whatever those things were -- with a kid, 21-year-old Dylan LeBlanc. I was so put off by LeBlanc's low-consonant flow that I walked out on it at the Mercury Lounge earlier this year. Here he's tuneful, funny and sexy, all because Lowman Pauling wrote him a song.

Multiplied tenfold, something similar happens on "Rave On Buddy Holly," where 19 new renditions of Holly songs -- a dozen he wrote and seven more he defined -- are divided between six veterans, five in their 60s, and 13 new jacks, most between 29 and 33. With exceptions -- I'm a Modest Mouse fan; Fiona Apple is a force; I haven't given up on Patti Smith or Lou Reed; Paul McCartney outdid himself on 1999's "Run Devil Run," the extraordinary collection of '50s covers he recorded to exorcise his wife's death -- these are not artists I expect much of. But the new jack group includes many whose jib is cut smartly enough to make me wish they'd catch a headwind: My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, She & Him, Florence + the Machine, Justin Townes Earle, Karen Elson. And here they do.

It's not just the songs. But songs are where it starts, and so it's notable that neither Zak with his focus on the studio nor Reynolds with his jones for the experimental writes much about songs. Before he died in that plane crash when he was just 22, Holly was the finest and most prolific songwriter of a youth culture he epitomized. He kept his chords basic enough for any high school band, and his childishly simple lyrics evoked a nice guy's romantic travails with exceptional clarity. Holly was plenty brash offstage, and behind the whispering and hiccuping a horny boy lurks. But he wasn't just going to jump Peggy Sue's bones.

For new jacks who've devoted too much of their limited creativity to the formal exploration Reynolds craves or, more often, the recombinant microgenre cocktails he's fed up with, Holly's irresistible little tunes are manna. Even when they modernize his instrumentation they honor his mood, and since they're 10 years older than Holly was, as well as half a century later, this required some imagination. With the inevitable nuances and exceptions, all achieve a return to aesthetic and emotional innocence too playful, tender and provisional for "Grease." The women seem especially grateful for the opportunity -- cf. Florence Welch's dreamy "Not Fade Away" or Zooey Deschanel's kissable "Oh Boy!" The kids keep it short the way Holly did -- their mean length is a minute under the old-timers'. But then, the old-timers have the heavy lifting of deconstruction and reinterpretion to do: Reed's metal-machine "Peggy Sue" with Laurie Anderson sawing away; Smith's "Words of Love" as sweetly solemn as a wedding vow; McCartney's "It's So Easy" guttural, eccentric and "su-uch fun!!"

Holly would have been 75 on Sept. 3, and he'll have another multi-artist comp out soon enough: overstated self-promotions by big names whose excuse is that proceeds go to charity. Although Brian Wilson's title track has its harmonized charms, "Listen to Me"'s near keepers are by youngsters -- aspiring Irish belter Imelda May and fallen-out boy Patrick Stump. As if each collection's mind-set shapes the second-level stuff, even repeater Zooey Deschanel overdoes it. Nick Lowe would probably sound bored and Lyle Lovett kindly if they were on each other's records.

These tribute albums aren't going to start any fires. It's fun to pretend with Teddybears that song-conscious dance music -- a liberation-focused variant on the "big beat" style that raved on and then faded away just after Reynolds published his "Generation Ecstasy" in 1998 -- might raise the temperature in the room. And it's correct to insist that there's no intrinsic opposition between Rock as Revolution and Rock as Historical Consciousness -- that in fact they need each other. But all that's really happened here is that some old players got some new old songs and some young players got some old ones that were new to them. Nothing remains the same, but that doesn't mean every change is for the better. In a formulation that's retained plenty of spark, Raymond Williams used to argue that both the residual and the emergent are essential weapons in any battle against the dominant. Retrosanity, you could call that notion. Changing all those changes, as Buddy Holly once put it in a song.

By Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau is the author of the collections "Grown Up All Wrong" and "Any Old Way You Choose It," and three books based on his Village Voice Consumer Guide columns. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a music critic for NPR's All Things Considered.

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