n May 9, 1964, Louis Armstrong’s recording of the title song from Hello, Dolly! became the best-selling single in America, leaping past the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” to reach the top of Billboard’s pop chart. It would be the last jazz record, and the next-to-last show tune, to do so. When Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” was replaced by Mary Wells’s “My Guy” a week later, an era—the one that has since come to be known as the “golden age” of American popular music—ended. Rock and roll, the preferred music of the baby boomers, thereafter supplanted golden-age popular song as the lingua franca of pop music in the U.S. and Europe.
Nothing stays popular forever, and by the ’90s, rock had in turn been supplanted by hip-hop as America’s top-selling pop-music genre. But the splintering of our common culture prevented hip-hop from developing into the new lingua franca. Instead, we now have many popular musics, none of which has anything remotely approaching the cultural dominance that was enjoyed by rock and roll for more than a quarter-century.
The surviving rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s are now in their own golden years, and their lives and work have become the subject of numerous biographies and journalistic histories. The latest, David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year that Rock Exploded, is a lively survey of the year that saw the release of such top-selling albums as Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Led Zeppelin IV, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Carole King’s Tapestry, and the Who’s Who’s Next.1 Hepworth, a veteran British rock journalist, contends that these albums constitute a “rock canon” that has proved to be of permanent artistic and cultural significance:
Many of the musicians who made those 1971 records are still playing today, in bigger venues than ever, in front of huge, multi-generational crowds made up of the children and even the grandchildren of their original fans . . . . These records are not just remarkably good and uniquely fresh; they have also enjoyed the benefit of being listened to more times than any recorded music in human history.
But the fact that the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums 52 years after the release of their first album does not mean that their music has passed the test of posterity. Was baby-boom rock as musically significant as golden-age American popular music long ago proved itself to be? Or might it be that its popularity was an epiphenomenon of the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, and that its latter-day appeal is nothing more than a manifestation of the longing of the boomers for their lost youth?
ost rock students agree that the form began to take recognizable shape at the end of the ’40s. Originally played by such black musicians as Fats Domino and Ike Turner, it was a simplified, rhythmically punchier variant of rhythm and blues (R&B), which was itself a simplification of postwar jazz, whose growing complexity had alienated black listeners who preferred a more straightforward style of dance music. Unlike R&B, rock was specifically youth-oriented and grew more so with the emergence of performers who, like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, pitched their music to teenagers.
Rock became widely known in America after Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. It did not, however, become culturally dominant, for there were not enough teenagers to make it so. Moreover, it was taken for granted that as its fans grew older, they would embrace “mature” styles of pop music. Not only was golden-age popular song more musically and lyrically sophisticated, but its subject matter was adult love, and the other major pop styles of the ’50s, R&B and country, were even more adult in their lyrical content. Early rock, by contrast, was musically straightforward to the point of baldness and drew on everyday adolescent life (“Up in the morning and out to school/The teacher is teaching the Golden Rule”) for its subject matter. It stood to reason, then, that the children of the ’50s would outgrow it.
Instead, the number of teenagers in America shot upward as a result of the postwar baby boom. A demographic tipping point was soon reached, and by 1964 the pop-music industry was marketing its product to adolescents with steadily increasing exclusivity. The mainstream media, not surprisingly, was slower to respond: The New York Times, as Hepworth reminds us, gave Louis Armstrong a front-page obituary in 1971 while it had relegated the death of the Doors’ Jim Morrison to page 34 a few days earlier. But radio had already caught up with the demographic sea change, and the “album-oriented rock” format that was introduced in 1971 promptly became the gold standard for FM radio.
As rock grew more popular, it also grew more challenging. In the ’50s, it was a functional dance music, rhythmically vital but simplistic to a degree that many older listeners—especially musicians—found off-putting. But its horizons widened considerably with the release of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which incorporated elaborate instrumental effects and whose lyrics, influenced by the example of Bob Dylan, moved away from romantic love to explore a wider range of topics in a more self-consciously poetic manner.
Only the very best of ’50s rock—in particular Elvis Presley’s pre-1958 recordings, which fuse country and R&B in a strongly personal way—can stand up to close scrutiny and repeated listening.
By 1971, the new music brooked no rivals. Country and soul (a latter-day outgrowth of R&B) were niche styles, favored by demographic minorities but in no way challenging rock’s cross-cultural dominance. Even older singers like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como held their noses and recorded watered-down versions of rock and modern pop songs in a desperate attempt to catch up with a parade that had already left them behind. The age of rock and roll had arrived.
nd now that it is over, what remains?
The rock of the ’50s is still what it always was, a rhythmically exhilarating but otherwise simple-minded accompaniment to social dancing. Only the very best of it—in particular Elvis Presley’s pre-1958 recordings, which fuse country and R&B in a strongly personal way—can stand up to close scrutiny and repeated listening. The rest is of interest only to septuagenarians who met their spouses at Eisenhower-era sock hops.
The rock of the baby boomers and their Gen-X siblings is, up to a point, a different story. Nevertheless, most of it, from the Who’s “My Generation” in 1965 to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, was also created by young people for consumption by younger people, which helps to explain why so little of it is capable of holding our attention today. It is not challenging enough, whether musically or lyrically, to engage what F.R. Leavis once referred to as “minds with mature interests.”
To be sure, baby-boom rock was, and still is, an important part of the story of postwar America’s transvaluation of all values. Such songs as “My Generation” (“I hope I die before I get old”), Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” (“One generation got old/One generation got soul”) and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (“Young people speaking their minds/Getting so much resistance from behind”) served as its soundtrack. But to revisit them now is to be struck by their political naiveté—as well as the immaturity of the musicians who wrote them.
It is noteworthy in this connection that very few of the rockers of the ’60s and ’70s engaged other than in passing in their music with such topics as marriage, parenthood, divorce, or the workplace. Moreover, scarcely any of them managed to sustain their creative vitality into middle age, much less write about their later lives with heightened maturity. Instead, they became nostalgia acts, playing their early hits over and over again for their aging fans.
Needless to say, there were prominent exceptions to this rule. Foremost among them was Bob Dylan, who embraced rock in 1965 and made consistently adult-oriented music throughout a career that has now lasted for more than a half-century. The Band, which accompanied Dylan before striking out on its own in 1968, recorded a half-dozen albums that fused rock, country, R&B, and the blues into an incontestably adult amalgam from which today’s equally adult “Americana” style of pop is directly descended. Steely Dan, which recorded its first album in 1972, took a different but similarly mature path, assimilating jazz and R&B into its rock-based musical language and recording songs that portrayed the foibles of the boomers with coolly sardonic detachment. And though none of the individual members of the Beatles made music on their own that was comparable in quality to their group efforts, much of the Dylan-influenced music that they recorded together prior to breaking up in 1970 remains impressive to this day.
For my part, though, I am struck by how little of the rock to which I listened so avidly as a teenager is interesting to me today. This is especially true of the “classic” albums of 1971 that are cited in Never a Dull Moment, most of which I have since come to find embarrassingly jejune. Who now listens to (say) America, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 4 Way Street, Yes’s Fragile, the Doors’ L.A. Woman, Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, Pink Floyd’s Meddle or Janis Joplin’s Pearl for any possible reason other than nostalgia?
No less striking, however, is the contrasting vitality of the golden-age popular music that rock displaced. Not only is it now being ably sung and played by such younger artists as Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli, but the albums of its original exponents, most notably Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, still sell briskly, just as the golden-age musicals continue to be revived on Broadway and throughout the country. Most surprising of all is the long list of rock and contemporary pop singers, including Natalie Cole, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, and Rod Stewart, who have recorded golden-age pop songs to profitable effect and (in some cases) with passable artistic success.
It goes without saying, of course, that there will be no full-scale revival of golden-age popular music—or any other kind of popular music, for that matter. The cultural and demographic conditions that are necessary for such revivals to occur no longer exist. We are too fissured a nation to care collectively about one style of music more than another. But while the prospects for the survival of golden-age pop seem increasingly bright, the long-term survival of baby-boom rock is looking no less increasingly problematic in the second decade of the 21st century. Indeed, it may well turn out to be that Danny & the Juniors were wrong when, in 1958, they declared that “rock and roll is here to stay.”
1 Holt, 307 pages, $30