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The Reactionary Utopian – Classic
April 14, 2010

The Decline of Rock
by Joseph Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation

[It was already over when the Beatles arrived.]

DUNN LORING, VA — So far I’ve tried to stay aloof from the raging controversy over whether rock music is in decline. It’s become a generational thing, pitting the Baby Boomers who came of age in the Sixties against the kids of the Nineties.

In its silliness and pettiness, the question reminds me of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s answer when Boswell asked him which of two minor poets was superior: “Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.”

But now I think it’s time for me to jump into the fray. Both sides are missing the real point.

I do not necessarily claim to be “hip” — a vague notion at best, anyway. But I know what I like: Fifties rock. It was a joyful sound, music a Richard Nixon or a Joe McCarthy could snap his fingers to.

Rock was in decline by the time the Beatles came along. Their music wasn’t bad, but it showed how derivative rock had already become. Most of the possibilities of the genre had already been explored by their great predecessors: Elvis (Presley, to you “squares” out there), Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and the Everly Brothers. And that’s the short list. Let’s not omit such great groups as the Four Preps, the Crests, the Drifters, the Platters, and the ones who started it all, Bill Haley and the Comets.

In time even these giants, so alarming to our parents, would be dismissed as square in their turn. But one name deserves special mention: Pat Boone. Boone gave rock its cleanest sound ever. He was utterly wholesome; he pronounced every syllable of the lyrics with the precision of a college prep English teacher, and his flawlessly melodic baritone made him rock’s answer to Crosby. He proved once and for all that rock doesn’t have to be “funky” to be good; it can be refined of all grosser elements. And it can be performed perfectly well without suggestive gyrations of the hips.

There are those of us who still consider Boone’s rendition of “Ain’t That a Shame” superior to Fats Domino’s. People who think of Fifties rock as tame have probably never heard Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales,” a number that continues to defy today’s ethnic hypersensitivities. Boone also recorded what I regard as the definitive “Jambalaya.”

Today Pat Boone is in eclipse — temporarily, one trusts. Even the oldies stations don’t play his records, which sold millions in their day. Someday his niche in musical history will be acknowledged: he was the father of soft rock. To this day, it doesn’t come any softer.

Over the years, I’ve tried to keep up with the development of rock, maintaining an open mind. I own several Dylan albums. I enjoy Abba and, now and then, Fleetwood Mac. There is still young talent out there. But I nevertheless insist that Fifties rock remains unsurpassed.

As the poet says: “No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.” I can say this because I discovered many of these performers after they had ceased to be fashionable. I savored them on their merits as musicians, not because I craved belonging to the “in” crowd, as it is called.

Great art doesn’t date. Its appeal is universal. “Till I Kissed You,” by the Everly Brothers, is just as thrilling today as when it topped the charts in my youth. I remember thinking, during one crush I had, that that simple song expressed my deepest feelings better than anything in Shakespeare or Beethoven. It makes you want to say: “Me Dante, you Beatrice.”

In the Fifties rock had not yet learned to put on airs of rebellion. It was just fun. Rock performers still smiled on their record jackets, because they were frankly entertainers, eager to please, just like Patti Page and Perry Como.

Sometime in the Sixties rockers began posing as disgruntled artists, mad at the world and all that; in the Nineties this pose remains a rigid convention of a highly artificial genre that pretends to smash conventions and refuses to admit it’s artificial at all.

I challenge you to name one current rocker who can carry a tune and sing lyrics suitable for the whole family while wearing a tie and blazer and making it seem pleasant and effortless, as Boone did.

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Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. A version of this column was published on August 21, 2001.

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