I saw this quote from Joni Mitchell on Facebook today:

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist — not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That’s why I spend my time now painting.”

She’s 100% right, of course, but something twanged inside me when I read this, jarring a distant memory. “A certain look and a willingness to cooperate” were the criteria the business used when they were looking for rock stars in the years 1959-63.

Before 1959, rock & roll had been developed by a breed of sex-crazed artists, mostly from the rural South, who had risen more or less independently of each other, testing this new, previously unplayed music in the roadhouses and honky-tonks of that region. When it broke big, around 1955, the airwaves — and eventually, the TV screens — were alive with swaggering, hip-shaking country boys whose sneering presence caused swooning and fainting among teenage girls and envy and guitar lessons among teenage boys. The lyrics were sexual in every respect, because — as Joni Mitchell pointed out — they were unwilling to cooperate. They tore through their songs and their tours with no adult supervision, often causing riots wherever they appeared, and by the time 1958 rolled around, the country was reeling from the rock & roll invasion.ElvisJerry Lee LewisCarl Perkins

All during those early years, calls rose up to ban the music, to protect “decent” kids from alien “jungle rhythms”, to save our republic from being swallowed up in a flash flood of juvenile delinquency. Ministers and moralizers ranted almost daily to compliant media, insisting on the eradication of this plague they call “music”. Willing DJs, looking for a boost in ratings, broke rock & roll records on the air. Public spectacles in the town square were common as records were thrown into flaming pyres to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers. Even scientists got into the act, calling the music a “communicable disease”. Rock & roll was in real danger of disappearing altogether.

And then, in 1958, Elvis Presley went into the Army. Also, that year, Jerry Lee Lewis returned from a career-shattering trip to England with his 13-year-old wife, who was also his first cousin. And in February of 1959, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash on “the day the music died”.

With Presley, Lewis, and Holly out of the way, the record business saw an opening. There was a vacuum at the top of the rock & roll heap. In less than a year, the music had been decapitated, bringing things to a virtual halt. The record companies sensed the moment was at hand where they could put manufactured “stars” into the shoes of the great artists who were no longer on the scene.

They sent out a call for people “with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate”. At the same time, they put the word out to the Brill Building (aka Tin Pan Alley), where professional songwriters had gathered in offices every day for decades to crank out hit tunes for singers and sheet music publishers. The record companies said they wanted songs scrubbed clean of sexuality and “filthy” innuendo. In other words, no more phrases like “great balls of fire”.

Then, they sent people out to the streets to look for “stars”. Talent was unimportant. Looks and pliability were everything. Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Freddy Cannon, Shelley Fabares … the list goes on. Girl groups also broke through during this time. The Shirelles, the Crystals, the Angels, and many others, most of whom have long ago slipped back into obscurity. But for a few fleeting years, as long as they did what they were told, they would become rich and famous and be the envy of the old neighborhood.

But of course, in November of 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated and I Want To Hold Your Hand was released.

Will there be another Beatles? And by that, I mean it in the larger sense: will there be a “savior moment” when we are all rescued from the soundalike crap that is being cranked out by the “music” business?

I’m not so sure. I would like to think so, but things are a little different this time around. First and foremost, pop music today is no longer about the music. It’s about the artist who records the music and the spectacle they put on during their “live” shows.  And I put “live” in quotes because so many of them don’t even sing during their shows these days, relegating the song to lip-synching while they skip around surrounded by slickly-choreographed dancers and dazzling lights. More importantly, people who buy this music today don’t buy it for the song, or even for the music. Because they’re not music fans. They’re pop culture fans. So they buy the music because it dovetails with their place in today’s pop culture.

At least in the early 1960s, you had great songs like Will You Love Me Tomorrow, despite the dreadful arrangement that covered up any traces of adulthood in the incisive Carole King lyrics. Today, we have Justin Bieber singing “Ooh, baby baby, I’m like, ooh, baby baby, I’m like, ooh baby baby …”

A world-changing band like the Beatles doesn’t have anywhere to get their act together these days. The Beatles had Hamburg, with their punishing schedule of seven nights a week, six hours a night (believe me, you play those places long enough, you get good and tight). They had their circuit of clubs in Liverpool, where they could build their sound and develop a loyal fan base. And most importantly, they eventually had George Martin, who steered them in the right direction in the recording studio, AND who insisted they shed themselves of Pete Best and get a new drummer. Enter Ringo Starr, and the Beatles immediately shoot into the stratosphere. They go from Love Me Do to Eleanor Rigby in four years, and to All You Need Is Love, with its 7/4 passages, one year later.

Eradicating this bullshit that passes for music today is going to be very tough, and I’m not sure it’s even possible anymore, but I still have hope.

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  1. John McFetridge

    I find the way the 50s changed fascinating. In addition to the music business there was HUAC and the Hollywood Ten and the big change in the movie business (after “The Best Years of Our Lives” there was probably never another movie that had anything but a positive view of the war and homeland life for a long time). And then when TV came along it was an entirely sanitized view for quite a while.

  2. Mike Dennis

    You’re 100% right about THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, John. It was a great film, and there was never another one like it (at least, not one that dealt with post-WWII problems of returning fighting men).

  3. Charles Koontz

    A thought provoking blog comment. And I’m afraid true!

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