The '50s roots of rebellious rock
BOSTON — Being a teenager has never been easy. That rite of passage has long been marked by pop songs intended to appeal to teens and address their coming-of-age experiences.
The pop music for those who were teens in the '50s has been widely disseminated in recent decades as "easy listening" music suitable for prom nights, close-harmony ballads, or innocuous up-tempo tunes about surfing. That's why pop fans of all generations will find Loud, Fast & Out Of Control: The Wild Sounds Of '50s Rock an utterly entertaining surprise.
This four-CD set from Rhino Records lives up to the promise of its title. The first hard-rocking songs that heralded the birth of rock 'n' roll are found here, but many of the best tunes are obscurities by "one-hit wonders," artists who caught something of the frenzied teen spirit of the time in just one memorable song before fading away.
So while all the towering figures of early rock 'n' roll are represented here - Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry - there are songs by the likes of Thurston Harris, Tarheel Slim, and Johnny Burnette. Linking these 104 songs is a well-honed sense of teen rebellion, expressed in simple but biting lyrics, furiously fast beats, and clamorous electric guitars making two chords resound like a symphony.
There's the teen hero in Chuck Berry's autobiographical "Johnny B. Goode": He couldn't "read or write so well/ but he could play that guitar just like a-ringin' a bell." Adult authority is well mocked in "Yakety Yak," by The Coasters, an anthem to teenagers, then and now, who have better things to do than household chores. Wild-eyed romanticism, or just the consequences of newly discovered yearnings, get celebrated in songs like "Whole Lotta Lovin' " and "Breathless."
But it's often the lesser-known musicians who offer the deepest insights into teen '50's life. "My Boy Elvis," by Janis Martin, offers an entrance into the mind of a young girl fantasizing romance with rock 'n' roll's King. Wanda Jackson, known today as a first-drawer country-music vocalist, had a brief early career as a rocker - her "Fujiyama Mama" proclaims the nearly unthinkable for anyone but a wildly rebellious '50s teen: She brags that what American bombers did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she'll do to the boy she loves - just devastate him, though one hopes just with affection.
Lyrics play a secondary role in songs like Gene Vincent's "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Bo" and "Be-Bop-A-Lu-Bop." The most authentic message of these songs is: Be silly and wild and outrageous while you're young; don't be compelled by adults always to make sense.
The most astonishing recording in this vein is "Love Me," by Jerry Lott, who was christened by his record company with the cryptic name "The Phantom." Saturated in echoing guitar and drums, disconcertingly raucous, with scarcely intelligible mumbled lyrics, Lott proclaims a barely articulate but powerful adolescent aesthetic still present in pop music today. It is an anthem of a boy trying to free himself from the shackles of an uncomprehending world, while pleading for love and understanding. It is a straight line of musical evolution from "Love Me" to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run."
In fact, Springsteen is aptly quoted in the well-annotated booklet accompanying the discs. He reminds us that there have always been those "Who learned more from a three-minute record/ than they ever learned in school."
Even if school served you better than rock 'n' roll as a source of enlightenment, you will find these uniformly energetic performances an education in what the '50s were like for the teenagers who were loud, fast, & out of control.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society