There were a few big waves in ’70s music — disco probably comes first to mind; then there was punk and new wave — but one such trend has been, in my view, underappreciated: the massive, regressive wave of nostalgia for the early days of rock and roll. I didn’t like it one bit.
Well, that’s an exaggeration. There were some good bits…it started out fine, but it became just too much. This is the first in a two-parter about the phenomenon.
Sure, there had been remakes before, but this went way beyond. Sha Na Na had introduced the idea of nostalgia for the early days of rock and roll at Woodstock, of all places. I know, right? I guess because it was a new concept, it didn’t seem out of place at the time. Or maybe it did. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure how it went over. My guess, though, is that those muddy hippies couldn’t wait for Jimi Hendrix to take over the stage.
In any case, it seemed like an isolated incident, at least for a while. Nostalgia was not yet seen as a repudiation of the counter-culture. That was to change beginning in late 1971.
The “Garden Party” at which Rick Nelson’s departure from the oldies playlist at a Madison Square Garden 50’s-rock-revival concert was met with boos happened October 15 of that year (and his song about it became a hit in 1972); weeks later we all got an earful from Don McLean’s famously retrograde “American Pie,” 8-and-a-half minutes on how music — and, by implication, all of godless, modern American society — was ruined after “the day the music died” in 1959…coincidentally, the year I was born. Maybe I ruined it.
By design or not, that record was prescient for marking the end of the radical era it bemoaned. Rock went soft and lost much of its political edge at that time (with few exceptions like the music of the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and War); it also took a sharp turn backward to that more innocent time, returning to the womb, as it were, the pre–British Invasion era of sock hops and hot rods, in the form of remakes, revivals, and comebacks of the old performers.
Donny Osmond had just topped the charts with a remake of “Go Away, Little Girl,” the first song of the rock era to hit #1 by two different artists; his hits that followed, all of them, were remakes of similar love songs from that bygone era (as were his later duets with Marie). How cute, the reasoning seemed to go, a boy singing as though he’s an adult songs that were popular when he was a toddler!
The Jackson boys followed soon after with “Rockin’ Robin” and “Little Bitty Pretty One,” the Partridge Family with “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (more on that song in part 2), and David Cassidy with the only slightly newer “Cherish” and “How Can I Be Sure.”
It wasn’t just teen idols dredging up the old stuff: Robert John scored big with a remake of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Commander Cody resurrected “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Old-timers Sammy Davis Jr. and Chuck Berry strangely both had #1 hits in 1972. Bobby Vinton revived his career remaking other people’s songs from when he used to be popular.
By the end of 1972, the airwaves were rife with remade oldies and songs in the style of the early days of rock and roll (or even earlier), some good, some bad: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Do You Want to Dance,” “Jambalaya,” “Daddy’s Home,” “Rockin’ Pnemonia–Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” and “Oh Babe What Would You Say” were all on the Hot 100 at once. (So was “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull, ironically.)
The nostalgia wave picked up momentum with the Carpenters’ May 1973 release of Now and Then, which included the backward-looking hit “Yesterday Once More” and a whole medley of songs from the early ’60s, complete with a pseudo DJ. (“Please Mr. Postman” came a bit later.)
But it was that August’s release of a low-budget film by a fairly unknown young director by the name of George Lucas that really sealed the deal. Coinciding with America’s withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the Watergate Senate hearings, it seemed there would be no turning back from the turning back.