am a man of the fifties. When my generation thinks of the fifties,
we have a specific range in mind: 1953 or maybe ’54 to 1959. There
is a reason for this, and it isn’t hormones. Well, not primarily
hormones. It is music. A child of the fifties became self-aware
when he heard these words: “Turn that thing down!”
When we discovered that our parents could not stand our music,
we became a separate culture. We had sufficient income to buy
ourselves our very own musical subculture. By the end of the decade,
we owned popular music. We were the first generation to achieve
this. Always before, parents had at least participated in the
shift — the Glenn Miller syndrome. Not this time.
You can see it by comparing the top hits of 1953 and 1954. In
1953, adults were still in charge of the airwaves: Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Eddie
Fisher, Frankie Layne. There was only the faintest trace of the
change to come: Bill Haley & the Comets (“Crazy, Man, Crazy”).
In 1954, the invasion that had begun "below the charts" the year before, now
surfaced. Bennett, Como, & Co. were still there, but they shared
the spotlight with groups: the Charms (“Hearts of Stone”), the
Cheers "([Bazoom] ‘I Need Your Lovin’"), the Chords
and also the Crew Cuts (“Sh-Boom”), Bill Haley and the Comets
(“Shake, Rattle, & Roll”). In 1954, the rout was on: Bill Haley
& the Comets (“Rock Around the Clock”), the Platters (“The Great
Pretender”). In 1955 came Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. By 1956, the war was basically over: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino. In 1957,
Buddy Holly arrived, accompanied by the Everly Brothers, Jerry
Lee Lewis, and the Coasters. A whole lot of shaking was going
on. And shaking out.
I select 1959 as the consummate year, but not because it ended
the decade’s calendar. It was on a day in 1959 that the music
died. No, not the February 3 plane crash that took Buddy Holly,
Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper). I mean April
24: the day we finally ran “Your Hit Parade” off the air forever,
which had been broadcasting since 1935. Snooky Lanson and Giselle
MacKenzie finally disappeared. Our parents no longer had any hit
songs to listen to. The songs were all ours.
The fifties became visible in 1954 with “Sh-Boom.” Why was Sh-Boom
so popular? Because it was so appallingly bad that our parents
revolted. “Turn that thing down!" Sh-Boom was recorded two
groups in the same year, and both versions became smash hits —
unique. Here are the opening lyrics of the song
that re-shaped American culture.
nonny ding dong, alang, alang, alang
Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay
(You must click through to read the closing stanza. I am too ashamed
to reprint it here.)
It was about 1954 when technology transferred power to my generation:
the 45 rpm record and the portable 3-speed phonograph. Then came
the cultural shift: the top-40 radio shows and TV dance shows.
We had our own world now, and it was tied to music for turning
up real loud.
You may have heard about the scandal of “payola,” wherein record
companies paid money — yes, money! — to disk jockeys to get
them to play certain records. This was illegal, or so the Federal
Communications Commission said. The payola scandal became big
news in 1959 and 1960, when Congress started investigating the
practice. We kids couldn’t have cared less. We knew it was just
our parents’ generation trying to get even with us for having
run “Your Hit Parade” off the air.
The early 1960’s had a few musical successes. The Beach Boys arrived.
(I lived in Manhattan Beach until 1959. The Beach Boys’ lead guitarist
was my good friend’s kid brother. They lived in Hawthorne. Beach
Boys, my foot. They were the Five Miles Inland Boys.) But, on
the whole, it was a disastrous period. It was the era of the Bobbys:
Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, and the appropriately
named Bobby Bland and Bobby Bare.
Basically, the sixties began with a musical vacuum. Chubby Checker
was no Fats Domino.
Stereo records arrived in 1958. They began to become readily available
in 1960, which meant upgrading our systems, which meant buying
an FM radio. We wanted good sound, and FM sound was superior to
AM. When we went off to college, millions of us stopped listening
full-time to AM radio. The top-40 addiction began to wear off.
Dylan vs. the Bobbys
I can recall the first time I heard Bob Dylan. It was in the spring
of 1962. I was listening to the weekly Les Claypool show on FM
radio in Los Angeles. He played folk music. He put on the “Bob
Dylan” album, and I was blown away. I can still remember my mental
reaction. “I hope they can record some more of this old man before
he dies.” I didn’t find out for over a year that he was 21.
Protest songs? Not on that first album, unless you count “Talking
New York Blues,” which protests a cheap club owner who paid him
a dollar a day. He played his guitar like a wild man, and a harmonica,
too. He sounded old and authentic. His voice was best described
in 1964 by the Dillards’ patter-master, Mitch Jayne: like a dog
with its leg caught in barbed wire.
Dylan invented folk rock. He made the protest song famous. But
he did it without the applause of a lot of his 1962 fans, who
literally walked out of his 1965 concerts during the second half,
when his electrified band came on stage.
Dylan was the American man of the sixties. He made the transition
from the traditional folk music world to the world of inhaling
that we associate with the sixties. He was there at the transition
point, making his own musical transition. So were the Beatles,
of course, but they were late arrivals, and Brits to boot. Booted
When Kennedy died, faith in the older can-do liberalism received
a mortal wound. This was a shock to the Left. He had possessed
such class, it seemed. He held a great press conference. His wife
was so pretty. He was replaced by a man who was the incarnation
of New Deal liberalism, and who had lots of style, all crass.
His failure in Vietnam coincided with the loss of faith in the
The sixties were the anti-Johnson years. Culturally, we can date
their advent: from November 22 until early February, when the
Beatles arrived in New York. They became the cutting edge, with
Dylan close behind.
The sixties were when the certainties came unglued. Most of these
certainties had been liberal. Barry Goldwater was not a household
name in 1960 or even 1962. Ronald Reagan had barely sent back
his membership card in the United World Federalists. The sixties
were the extension of the New Deal liberalism — into violence,
radical subjectivism, and full-scale hedonism. If I were to represent
this shift graphically, I would have two photos: one of a smiling
FDR with his cigarette holder, and the other of a roach clip.
The kids in 1965 had even more discretionary income than my generation
had had in 1955. Chuck Berry was replaced by Mick Jagger. 45 RPM
singles were replaced by LP stereo albums. In Engels’ phrase,
a change in quantity produced a change in quality. Liberalism
went schizophrenic: new vs. old. Sometimes they went to war, as
when hard hat union members faced off a crowd of college-age protesters.
The sixties definitively ended on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University.
The National Guard opened fire on student protesters. Four students
died. The Newsweek photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old
runaway, arms outspread beside a body, was the era’s pictorial
gravestone. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Cambodia had just been invaded
by U.S. forces. The students’ five-year effort to “bring the war
home” had finally brought the war home. In the words of one of
my New Deal, old liberalism friends, then out of college and working
for a newspaper, “It’s possible now to get your a– shot off.
This will end it.” He was right. The risk-reward ratio had swung
decisively in favor of risk.
The sixties ended in May of 1970. Nixon’s recession had hit, the
job market had shrunk, and discretionary income had shriveled.
The following semester saw quiet campuses, empty quads, and very
few dogs, which had been everywhere the previous semester. The
days of rage never appeared again on campus.
The fifties began in 1953/54, and ended in 1959. The sixties began
in 1963/64 and ended in 1970. They were unquestionably defining
eras. They were both tied to high discretionary income for parentally
subsidized teenagers and young adults. They were both tied to
the music industry, which responded to demand as a free market
industry always does. Two overlapping generations defined themselves
in terms of what their parents did not approve of, but nonetheless
financed. What their parents did not approve of was a new form
of music. So, their sons and daughters defined themselves in terms
of this music.
As a man of the fifties, who still likes to listen to Fats Domino
once in a while, I find it inconceivable that any generation could
define itself in terms of rap. If it does, then I shudder to think
of what their kids will adopt in protest. As Ray Charles said
— the one constant star, 1955 (“I’ve Got a Woman”) to the
present — “I could write that stuff when I was 12.” And even
more to the point, “You can’t even print what I think.” As far
as I’m concerned, they should turn that stuff way down.
Gary North [send him mail]
is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary
on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion:
An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.