by Gary North
I 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.
Hey 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.
Bob 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 Brits.
November 22, 1963
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 older liberalism.
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.
June 12, 2001
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.