[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
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.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. A version of this column
was published on August 21, 2001.
Joe Sobran is an author and a syndicated columnist. See complete bio
and latest writings.
Watch Sobran on YouTube.
To subscribe, renew, or support further columns by Joe Sobran, please send
a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or sponsor online.