“Rock ‘n’ Roll: the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.”
There are key moments in history when the world changes, never to be the same again. In centuries past, these were often decided on the battlefield or in the political arena. But something changed in the middle of the last century. Suddenly something happened that altered the face of the planet; over the coming years ahead, they would continue to have growing repercussions across the face of the globe. But when battle was declared, it wasn’t between empires hoping to expand into new territory. This time, it was a fight with an enemy which was unstoppable – even unbeatable. Because the 1950s saw the rise of the most dangerous creature known to mankind: the teenager.
There has been lots said and written over the last six decades on the importance of the teenager and the culture which has sprung up around them. And while much can be dismissed as hysteria caused by a misunderstanding of youth (at least by those of us who still remember being that age), the impact they have made on the world – particularly in terms of culture – cannot be underestimated. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where the teenager is king, and whatever he says, goes. MTV’s demographic is 18 to 24-year-olds; these are the ones who decide what is popular or cool. So it is interesting going back to the 1950s, when these strange new creatures were first making themselves heard.
During the last few months, I have been listening to the albums which, according to a select group of music critics, are the most important (I hesitate from saying ‘best’) from the period of 1955 to 1959. It has been an eclectic mix of sounds. We’ve covered jazz, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, country, folk – the list is far longer than I imagined it would be. I’ve been surprised at how much jazz was around, particularly as it covered a wide range of sub-genre. Alongside this, I’ve also witnessed the birth of my own particular favourite style of music – rock – from some of the early greats. And, given that my musical knowledge of this period is limited, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve heard.
True, I’ve not become a great jazz lover as a result; I still don’t get Miles Davis or his contemporaries. But that hasn’t meant I haven’t enjoyed moments and, such as the recent case of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, there have been times when I’ve found myself starting to be moved by it. I’ve also been given the pleasure of some wonderful easy listening thanks to two rather wonderful Frank Sinatra albums and a feast of the Gershwins, courtesy of the stunning voice of Ella Fitzgerald. Country still eludes me – I pray that I never have to listen to the Louvin Brothers again (although Marty Robbins’ brand of country mixed with folk and rock wasn’t too terrible); Little Richard and The Crickets, perhaps unsurprisingly, were clear favourites, alongside the fabulous Jack Elliott. But it was the hidden gems which struck me most during my journey through the late 1950s. The likes of Tito Puente and Palo Congo were wonderful to hear for the first time, opening up a new world of styles. Perhaps the greatest ‘unknown’ I came across (I use the phrase lightly as I had heard of him, even if I didn’t know his songs) was Louis Prima. If there is one reason to keep doing this, to keep listening to these albums, is for moments like this; that time when a something a little different suddenly pours out of the speakers, causing you to sit up and listen intently. I’m looking forward to the next period, hunting out those hidden gems from 1960 to 1964. In the meantime, if you don’t want to listen to all 23 albums, below are my recommendations for the three albums I enjoyed the most…
Recommended listening for 1955 to 1959:
- Louis Prima – The Wildest!
- The Crickets – The ‘Chirping’ Crickets
- Jack Elliott – Jack Takes the Floor
Next time: Joan Baez by Joan Baez