I talked last week about how the stage was set for a full-fledged, blow-out revival of the early days of rock and roll by the summer of 1973. Here’s part 2 of the story:
Where were we? American Graffiti, which took place in 1962 and had a musical score consisting entirely of songs from that era, became a runaway hit, and its popularity had a ripple effect through the pop music scene, already primed for nostalgia (see part 1).
Actually, it was more like a tsunami effect. Practically overnight, seemingly every song from the early rock era — centered squarely, though not exclusively, on 1962-1963 — was being remade or re-released: the originals of “Rock Around the Clock,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Monster Mash” were suddenly battling for chart position with such unlikely covers as Grand Funk’s “The Loco-Motion” and “Another Saturday Night” by Cat Stevens.
RIngo Starr hit #1 with “You’re Sixteen”; John Lennon released Rock and Roll, a whole album of remade oldies; James Taylor and Carly Simon redid “Mockingbird”; Linda Ronstadt started covering oldies in 1975 and never stopped. I think she’s still doing it. Dr. Hook had a comeback with “Only Sixteen.” Even David Cassidy’s previously unknown half-brother Shaun scored a #1 with his remake of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” fer god’s sake. Anyone could do it!
Everybody wanted a piece of the retro-action, but none more so than the original artists. The airwaves were suddenly flooded with dusted-off pop stars our parents had loved. Paul Anka, Cliff Richard, the Beach Boys, Neil Sedaka, and Frankie Valli, both with and without the Four Seasons, were suddenly all the rage…again. I found it all quite vexing.
Neil Sedaka went so far as to redo one of his old hits, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” in a totally new, slowed-down arrangement, making him the only recording artist to score top 10 hits with distinct versions of the same song…13 years apart, no less.
I could deal with the old songs, to a point — some of them were quite good, actually: “On Broadway” by George Benson, “Land of 1000 Dances” by Patti Smith, “Knock on Wood” by Amii Stewart. I could even get a vicarious thrill, not on Blueberry Hill, but from knowing my mom enjoyed hearing her old teen idols on the radio when I was a teen. Elvis, who had been recording all along, may have left us in 1977, but the fact that every other recording artist from his early days now had a hit record somehow softened the blow.
The new songs in the old style were a little harder to take, though — think “Beach Baby” — and the ones about how much better everything was back then could be especially tedious. “Clap for the Wolfman”? Um, no thanks. Just play that “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll”? Must we? “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”? I wouldn’t know.
There was something about going through my own sexual awakening listening to songs like those that my parents might have heard as I was being conceived, or songs about those times, that was a little creepy. To me. Obviously, not to everyone. These records sold well.
Wasn’t rock supposed to be for us record-buying, concert-going youngsters? Sorry, mom and pop, but you had your turn. The ’70s were supposed to be ours. And, with the war over, was the decade so lacking in an identity of its own that it had to defer to an earlier one?
A New Yorker article that just happened to come out as I was working on this post documents the forces behind these cycles to the past, but I think they got it wrong with their 40-year cycle, at least when it comes to pop music — a much stronger force than the time one was in the womb is the time one was listening to rebellious rock music or starting out as a musician. (I, for one, don’t like most music from when I was born.) Hence, the shorter, half-generation cycle we saw in the mid-1970s.
The upbeat theme songs from Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, both Top 40 hits in 1976, depressed me. This nostalgia thing was taking over television as well as radio. (I did get a kick out of the disco version of the theme from I Love Lucy, though.) Sha Na Na got their own TV show in 1977. We had come full circle.
What really put me over the edge was Grease. I know a lot of people liked it; it was the second-biggest-selling record of the year after Saturday Night Fever. Why did Grease irk me so? Was it just that I was in college now and therefore too cool to like what was popular? No, I think I had just had as much of this manufactured nostalgia as I could stand. Whereas American Graffiti seemed like real nostalgia, this just felt contrived.
The movie was a sanitized version of the more raunchy musical of the same name — first performed in 1971, it wouldn’t have felt contrived back then; Grease was still running on Broadway when the movie and its soundtrack came out in 1978.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t buying it. Everyone else was. How ironic, then, that I embraced Frankie Valli’s line from the title song, Conventionality belongs to yesterday. More to the point, though, what was that line doing in the Grease soundtrack? Espousing conventionality, apparently.
Thankfully, disco, punk, and new wave together reached a critical mass at that time and pushed nostalgia off of center stage — or turned it into something more fun: think Blondie, the Ramones, and the B-52s. (I’m sure there’s another blog post here.)
The critically panned Sgt Pepper movie and its soundtrack later that summer of 1978 showed the limits of repurposing and how not to mess with success. (If only John Travolta had starred in the movie…)
It, and the new wave stuff, also showed us the nostalgia wave had moved up to post–British Invasion, songs I could actually vaguely remember from first time around, which made me happy. And so it goes, rolling along…
Throwbacks would continue, in moderation — the Knack gave it a go in 1979, right down to the early Beatles–era Capitol record label, and were pretty popular for a summer, then never heard from again. We were pretty much done with the late ’50s–early ’60s stuff, though. Post-Grease, all the old pop stars who had come back were gone again. I’m pretty sure. Like Gloria Gaynor, I had survived. Hey hey.