WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Beatles at High Tide and Linda Ronstadt in Germany)

You know me, I like starting new categories. I don’t know if something will impress me every week, but I hate to keep letting things go by when they do just because they don’t fit anywhere else!

So, this week:

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966)…yes, them again!

I thought reading Pattie Boyd’s autobiography last month would put me in a Beatles’ mood and it sort of did, but I didn’t really dig below the surface until this week.

Granted, when it comes the Beatles, I’ve never found much beneath the surface to begin with. I just have to keep granting that it’s an awfully compelling surface.

And, listening to the crystal clear, remastered, original-English-running-order versions that are now pretty much what’s available (with Revolver somewhat the better for it and Rubber Soul significantly for the worse–Ringo’s vocal on “What Goes On” is so doltish it makes his work on “Yellow Submarine” sound like Otis Redding)–I was knocked out by a lot of the guitar work on these two albums. So much so that I was all prepared to give Boyd’s gloomy-visaged hubby (that’s George Harrison for those of you have may have inexplicably found more interesting things to do with your time than keep up with my monthly book reports or Beatle marriages!) a big shout-out, until I started checking the usual references and found out that most of the stuff I was really impressed with (particularly the lead guitar parts on “Drive My Car” and “Taxman,” the two tone-setting album openers) was played by Paul McCartney.

So now I’m thinking maybe all those Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve who keep saying McCartney was the really talented one–not because they know or care anything about talent in general or the Beatles in particular, but because he wasn’t a pinko-commie like John Lennon–have accidentally stumbled onto something!

Oh, the humanity!

Harrison did, among other things, contribute the effective sitar on “Norwegian Wood” and the attack-mode lead on “She Said, She Said.” So it might be that what we should really be giving George credit for in this period is pulling John Lennon’s increasingly bitter (and, it must be said, increasingly sing-songy) chestnuts out of the fire on more than one occasion.

Anyway, we all know what happened next. The Beatles soon gravitated from art to artiness and thenceforth to solo careers which, excepting Lennon’s first solo LP and a handful of monumental singles here and there (“It Don’t Come Easy,” “What Is Life,” “Jet,” “Band On the Run,” “Watching the Wheels,”–I think that about covers it), have meant less and less as the years go by.

I guess the miracle wasn’t so much that it came apart as that it held together as long as it did.

The Beatles “Drive My Car” (Studio Recording)

Linda Ronstadt: Concert in Offenbach, Germany, 1976

There were/are those–then and now–who liked to say she couldn’t rock or something. I’d say she was one of the few who understood what “rocking” actually was in its post-“Heartbreak Hotel” sense, which was a place for the various mighty rivers of American music–not to speak of the American zeitgeist and just plain old American life–to run together and either fight it out or learn to live together accordingly.

So, in 1976, in Germany, clearly worn-but-not-beaten by the road, she stood in a spotlight in a place called Stadthalle Offenbach and, without moving more than a few feet the whole night–or more than a few inches on the majority of the songs–she did what I’ve always thought a real rocker should do: melded folk, rock, country, soul, shlock, all those good American things, into a unified whole.

That particular night it meant measuring herself against Buddy Holly and Lowell George and Neil Young and Patsy Cline and Smokey Robinson and the Everly Brothers and Ry Cooder and Warren Zevon and Paul Anka and the Eagles and she hung all the way in there with every single one of them (and got past not a few).

If she didn’t quite come up to Tracy Nelson on “Down So Low,” well, all I can say is no one ever has and no one ever will.

And if she didn’t quite come up to “Heat Wave,” I’ll just say not having the Funk Brothers (or the Vandellas!) behind her probably had a whole lot more to do with it than many folks (including the famously nice Ms. Ronstadt herself) have generally been willing to admit.

These days, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can, with a little patience and some basic software, download a pretty decent copy of the whole thing and piece it together. That’s assuming you don’t want to pay the $199.99 it’s going for on Amazon at this moment.

Linda Ronstadt “Love Is A Rose” (Live Performance)

 

 

THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part 6)

…Or, “Yes, There Was a Reason They Drafted Him…However Coincidentally”

A few weeks turned out to be a few months, but I’m finally getting around to continuing the discussion of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented impact in the fifties. Parts 1 through 5 can be accessed in the “Concerning Elvis” category on the right (you’ll have to scroll down a bit–I’ve been busier than I thought). I indicated at the end of Part 5 that I would use this as a sort of philosophical summation, but I realized in the intervening gap that I had left out one important statistical component of my basic argument–and that it was perhaps the most important one!–so I’m inserting it here. It’s a little shorter than previous posts but I think it covers some necessary ground.

(NOTE: Up until November 10, 1958, Billboard’s Pop Chart was divided into multiple lists–for a time, as many as four per week. For historical purposes, any record that made it to the top of any of these charts is generally considered a #1 hit. Thus, there may be significantly more than fifty-two weeks’ worth of “#1″ records in any given year from 1954 to 1958.)

(SECOND NOTE: Within the definition of “rock and roll” below, I stretched to include the rather dubious likes of Charlie Gracie and Paul Anka–that is to say I even included artists who might well have enjoyed very similar levels of success with very similar sounding records had rock and roll never happened but who nonetheless can at least tangentially be called “rock and roll” acts. I also included those ballads, like Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” which at least get played on rock and roll oldies stations. I did, however, exclude “novelty” records, which tend to thrive in defiance of purely musical trends.)

So to begin, let’s consider the rise of Rock and Roll in three not entirely arbitrary stages:

Stage 1: July 19, 1954–April 21, 1956 (Elvis’ first official release on Sun to the week when his first major label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reached the top of the national pop charts)

Stage 2: April 21, 1956–March 24, 1958 (Elvis’ first national chart #1 to his induction in the Army)

Stage 3: March 24, 1958–April 25, 1960 (Army induction to his first post-Army release, “Stuck On You,” reaching the top of the national charts)

Now some statistics:

STAGE ONE (7/54–4/56):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 125
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 10 (8% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 0 (0% of Rock total)

STAGE TWO (4/56–3/58):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 152
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 83 (55% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 56 (67% of Rock total)

STAGE THREE (3/58–4/60):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 119
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists: 71 (60% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 4 (6% of Rock total)

Followed by some quick thoughts:

Studying these numbers, a few things become obvious.

Rock and roll took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture in the two years before Elvis went into the Army, (in the time frame which I’ve called “Stage 2”).

It took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture (as opposed to becoming a real hot fad in the music business) because of–and only because of–Elvis Presley’s extraordinary success.

Elvis spent more than twice as many weeks at #1 in Stage 2 as all other rock and roll acts combined–even if “rock and roll” is stretched to its furthest possible definition. (Meaning, incidentally, the definition Elvis’ success gave it.)

As one method of considering rock and roll’s impact without Elvis: Pat Boone alone spent 18 weeks at #1 in Stage 2….all rock and roll acts not named Elvis Presley spent a total of 27 weeks at #1.

As another more straightforward method of consideration: Without Elvis, rock and roll only takes up about 28% of the total weeks at #1 in this all important and likely decisive stage.

That’s a long way from nothing. It’s a pretty big deal, moving from 10% to 28%. But, without Elvis, it’s not even close to being a Revolution. (Never mind that, absent Elvis, even the 28% would certainly be lower–he brought a lot of his competition with him.)

When we look at Stage 3, we find that Rock and Roll, broadly defined, really had become the dominant music (in the very era when rock historians have typically written it off), which it would remain until the rise of Hip Hop in the nineties. But that’s mostly because literally every record company in America had made a point of getting in on the act in the wake of Elvis’s extraordinary success, which was of a measure that no savvy businessman could afford to ignore.

Hence, what we find in Stage 3 is a string of #1 hits by Elvis surrogates: Bobby Darin, Conway Twitty, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka…even Johnny Preston and Mark Dinning (not to mention Nashville acts like the Everly Brothers and Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins who were still benefiting from the phenomena I discussed at length in Part 5, though that was about to end). These young men who might not have had recording contracts without Elvis re-directing the music business–and who certainly would have been singing a different kind of music–held the line until the main force returned (whence he immediately spent sixteen of the next thirty-seven weeks at #1 himself and spearheaded a “velvet revolution” in ballad singing that would flip the script so thoroughly that following developments–be it the Beatles or Dylan or Hendrix or Aretha or Johnny Rotten–became predictable in their broad outlines, however unforeseeable they were in their specifics. About that, more later, as we move into Elvis’ post-Army career.)

I wanted to present these numbers in simple, stark form, because I think they make the case more clearly than any amount of anecdotal evidence could, that, without Elvis Presley, the cultural narrative of the post-war era would be remarkably different. I’ll go into that more deeply in Part 7 before I move on to his return from the army.