(In Part I of this essay, the origins of the rock star figure in Western culture were examined, beginning with Elvis and leaving off with the Beatles’ triumphal debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.)
To be sure, America’s youth had been using jazz as liberation theology a full generation before rock music appeared. Broadly speaking, big band music was the rock and roll of the radio era.
Just don’t say that to a Hepcat. 1940s hipsters hated the new generational preference for rock and roll with a passion. Their jazz was complex, sophisticated, groove-able, while rock was crude and obvious.
And therein lies the difference between the youth music of the radio era and the youth music of the TV era. In television, the visual supplants the audible. The looks and moves of the front man replace the bandleader’s role of conductor. The punch of the drums and guitar are turned up in the mix while the harmony of the brass and woodwinds are eliminated entirely. Four guys do what two-dozen used to.
The rock pioneers who grew up in the pre-Elvis era talk about picking up obscure radio stations broadcasting out of the Mississippi Delta states and of being unable to ascertain whether a given artist was white or black. This miscegenation was indeed the original sin (as some saw it) that spawned rock and roll. Television eliminated the racial guesswork, and a narrower flavor of rock ensued.
TV pretty much created the rock star right about then. Rock and roll would have gone on had there been no television, but it would have remained underground, taking place in dark, crowded clubs that violated local noise ordinances, not to mention segregation laws. But Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan one Sunday night, the Rock Star was born, and the rest is history.
Elvis was an entertainer when he went on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles were entertainers, too. The persona of the singer/songwriter hadn’t permeated the rock and roll pantheon just yet. But things took a serendipitous turn when the Fab Four retired from the road and became dedicated studio artists.
By the early 60s, rock’s original pioneers were either dead (Buddy Holly), jailed (Chuck Berry), drafted (Elvis Presley), disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis), or in bible college (Little Richard). The hits kept coming, but the producers were the ones setting the trends, not the musicians. Novelty songs and instrumentals often dominated the charts.
The intellectually curious of the early ’60s gravitated towards the folk movement. If rock and roll was high school, then folk music was college. And folk had produced a star in his own right by that time, the baby-faced Bob Dylan. Whether very directly or only somewhat directly, Dylan’s songwriting had a big influence on the Beatles, as did their initiation to weed, supposedly at the hand of Dylan.
Folk music and grass. In essence, the four working-class lads from Liverpool were seduced by the college coffeehouse scene of the 1960s. Lennon and McCartney were like Pinto from “Animal House” in Prof. Jennings’ bathroom. “Can I buy some pot from you?”
The trend was set.
THE ASCENT OF ALBUM ROCK
1967 is known as The Summer of Love, but it should really be called The Year of the Album. By then, most of the baby boomers who screamed Beatlemania into existence four school years earlier were becoming college-aged (or draftable).
A day in the life of The Summer of Love consisted of drawing the shades, smoking banana peels, and listening to album sides as the album’s cover is passed around and gaped at like a sacred object to be inspected for hidden truths.
In 1967, records were tailored for this very thing. Liner notes and jackets became part of the album package rather than just the packaging. Albums folded out like centerfolds. Lyrics were printed inside because they were that important.
Consider some of the records that came out that year: Strange Days, Surrealistic Pillow, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Are You Experienced, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Disraeli Gears, Days of Future Passed, Forever Changes, Axis: Bold As Love, Procol Harum, and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, among others.
Rock and roll had outgrown the family room TV and entered liberated dorm space and crash pads. The album had become the highest form of artistic expression and would remain so for a very long time.
Alongside the concept album, the advent of commercial FM radio in the late ’60s, with its superior sound quality to AM and its countercultural background, provided an ideal vehicle for this new format of album oriented rock to expand into. (Read Part 3 here)