Monday, June 28, 2010

6/28/10 - Songs of the Summer: #15-16 - "Sh-Boom" and "Rock Around The Clock"

Top Song of 1954 - "Sh-boom", by the Crew Cuts:

Sh-boom, sh-boom, we've got doo wop coming up on the horizon. And, although there are still some instrumental big band horn fills coloring in the margins of this song, they sound much more out of place than they do in the late '40s/early '50s summer hits. The harmony vocals are front and center here - instead of the single powerhouse vocalist a la Vaughn Monroe or Vera Lynn the emphasis is much more on the blend of voices. Cuz, duh, it's doo wop. But even this sounds like a quantum leap forward in terms of musical styles from the croony croony goodness found on the summer #1s up to this point.

The bass has more of the standard pop progression, as well, moving in cheery major key bounces underneath the barbershop quartet harmonies above. This is also the first appearance of the nonsequitur rock lyric on the summer charts, something that I had always associated with '50s/60s rock and roll - think "Tutti Fruitti", "Who Put the Bomp", etc. "Sh-Boom" is a meaningless phrase in this context, denoting the nonsensical hook of the song, rather than anything to do with the content of the lyrics.

"Sh-Boom" also marks the first time that the lyrical subject matter becomes expressly adolescent. Unrequited love has been present in earlier songs, but it was more a matter of adult romanticism - "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart" and "I'll Never Smile Again" are both dramatic songs, but their casting of heartbreak is explicity adult - "Sh-Boom" marks the first song with the world-is-ending emotionalism of teenage romanticism: "Life would be a dream...if you would tell me I'm the only one that you love". Variations on that theme have sustained the pop charts ever since.

Top Song of 1956: "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley

Well, that was quick. I thought doo-wop would last a little longer before rock and roll came knocking, but here's "Rock Around The Clock", the first song in this list that I had heard before I started this project. It's always hard to listen to the sounds of the revolution after the government's in place and see what all the fuss was about, but listening to this song after a steady diet of pre-rock music gives me a greater appreciation for how alien and terrifying the devil's music seemed at the time. Here's a quick run-down of what immediately jumps out about the first rock song to grace the top charts in summertime:

1. Drums. This song has drums. The earlier songs on this list, for the most part, don't. Drums mean rhythm, and thus begins the drive toward rhythmic focus on the pop charts over the last half-century, until by the 2000s you've got Gwen Stefani topping the charts by singing cheers over martial foot-stomps. The song announces them with authority, with a drum roll right into the signature "1-2-3-4 o'clock rock" opening line over a pause, after which the drums crash back in for another pause, receding like the tide, and then coming back in to anchor the verses. The difference it makes to have a rhythm section, and not just a bass anchoring the song, account for why it suddenly got easier to dance to. You wouldn't dream of shaking your groove thang to a Tool song, but here at the foundations of rock and roll the drums are built for dancin'.

2. Chaos. The instrumental breakdown in this song sounds like Captain Beefheart atonal jazz freakout compared to the polished instrumental breakdowns in the earlier songs. There's much more of an emphasis on noise and feel, and less on melody.

3. Country + Blues. That's it. That's the formula, and you can really hear it in the early stages. the bassline could have been airlifted right out of "Smoke Smoke Smoke (That Cigarette)", but that repeated phrases, dramatic-tension producing pauses, and rudimentary melodies are all blues. Before the skyscraper's complete, it's a whole lot easier to see the foundation.

1 comment:

ariyele said...

i wish i could leave a comment while still listening to the song :(
i'll listen to it from the master list :)
i see what you mean. this song is all about movement, and that has to do with the drums. without them, you can't shake around and move across the floor. maybe it's because it's branded into my mind about how one danced to this music in the 50's--but i can only see the "hop" of the dancers back and forth, and clapping.
also, your beloved sax is a main instrument. you didn't make any comments on that ;)