by Gene Sculatti
Any good student of pop-music history knows what happened in the 1970s: The broken bricks from the aesthetic street-fights of the ’60s were scooped up and mortared into a new edifice, “rock,” which housed art- and prog-rock, heavy metal, sententious singer-songwriters and gray-faced corporate music. Then, in 1976, punk arrived and blew it all up real good, reinvigorating rock ’n roll.
Well, kind of. Actually, from the dawn of the decade another force had been quietly at work, chipping away at contemporary “rock,” and its cumulative efforts may well have paved the way for punk’s paramedic arrival. This was the revival of interest in ’50s rock and pop (which, arguably, can be said to have run from 1954 to 1964). When you examine the early ’70s, a lot was going, the effect of which was to legitimize pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll and thus challenge the notion that all the new hybrid rock forms constituted some inevitable forward motion or “growth”—which was precisely the thesis behind the Ramones-Pistols-Clash attack.
“On Oct. 18, 1969, with backing provided by an office-partition manufacturer, Richard Nader presented the first edition of his Rock ’n’ Roll Revival at New York’s Felt Forum. Headlined by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and the Shirelles, it was a sell-out, the first of nearly a hundred since…Nader’s projection is that the Rock ’n’ Roll Revival will keep kicking along until the next direction in music arrives in 1974.” – Phonograph Record Magazine, November 1972
With hindsight we know that the first signs of a coming sea change were present in 1974 (proto-disco singles by the Hues Corporation and George McRae, the Ramones’ CBGB debut), but these weren’t apparent at the time. Back then the decade’s next direction looked more like Diamond Dogs or Tales from Topographic Oceans.
By ’74 the presence and impact of the ’50s revival was already six years old and growing. The phenomenon’s parents may well have been Frank Zappa and Dr. Demento, whose twin 1968 projects almost appear conspiratorial. Where Zappa had been goofing on gooey teen ballads as early as 1966’s Freak Out! (the Paragons’ “Let’s Start All Over Again,” he told one interviewer, “has the unmitigated audacity to have the most moronic piano section I have ever heard”), with Cruising with Ruben & the Jets he delivered a smoochy satiric valentine to early rock ’n’ roll, using his Mothers to perpetrate such send-ups as “Fountain of Love,” “Stuff Up the Cracks” and “Jelly Roll Gum Drop.” On Doo-Wop, its cover featuring a caricature of a hipster ’50s DJ, Barry Hansen (yet to become Demento) gathered a dozen vintage Specialty sides (Larry Williams’ Beatles-covered “Bad Boy,” Roy Montrell’s “Mellow Saxophone,” etc.) into the world’s first serious oldies compilation. Scholarship and humor jelled: Both albums earned a good deal of play on the then-new rock-FM radio.
Sixty-eight also brought such harbingers as Fats Domino’s acclaimed Fats Is Back LP and the Beatles’ first consciously retro moves (“Back in the USSR,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”). Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Huey “Piano” Smith got covered on the Flamin’ Groovies’ Supersnazz debut, and a stretched-out version of Dale Hawkins’ “Susie-Q” was the centerpiece of the first Creedence Clearwater Revival album.
Over the next four years, rekindled interest in early rock burst into a great ball of fire, one that was continuously stoked by archeological digging in Creem and Phonograph Record Magazine and, most importantly, in new history-conscious fanzines like Who Put the Bomp. United Artists Records took Barry Hansen’s comp cue, issuing exquisite, double-LP Legendary Masters anthologies on Domino, Cochran, Jan & Dean and Ricky Nelson in 1971 (Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets arrived on Elektra the following year). Sha Na Na debuted (1969), Little Richard followed Fats with a pair of comeback albums, and Dave Edmunds charted with an unlikely cover of Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking” (1970), then cut half a dozen Spectorized remakes at his Rockfield studio. (Edmunds and Andy Kim each took a crack at the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You,” with Kim making it into the Top 10 in 1969.)
Fleetwood Mac, in its pre-pop blues-band incarnation, was a neo-’50s force of the first order. In ’69 the group masqueraded as Earl Vince & the Valiants to wax the crypto-Ted anthem “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonite”; a year later, guitarist Jeremy delivered an eponymous solo set that flipped a finger at prevailing rock tastes by affectionately covering disparaged vanilla-teen classics by Fabian (“String A-Long”) and Johnny Restivo (“The Shape I’m In”).
By ’71 and ’72, dedicated revivalist bands had moved in from the freak fringe to deliver their own albums: Detroit’s Frut, Australia’s Daddy Cool and Michigan/California’s Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, whose’72 debut, Lost in the Ozone, threw off a hit single (a re-do of Johnny Bond’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”) and essayed a re-examination of rockabilly a full eight years before the Clash fishtailed their “Brand New Cadillac.” If 1972 saw the less than stellar return of Chuck Berry in the chart-topping “My Ding-a-Ling,” it also witnessed the rock ’n’ roll resurrection of another royal in “Burning Love.” The year produced Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” its central riff lifted from Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales” (1962), Johnny Rivers’ smash cover of Huey Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia – Boogie Woogie Flu” and the premiere of the Grease musical. Just as significantly, the mythos of early rock ’n’ roll was addressed in such disparate hits as Don McLean’s “American Pie” and B.J. Thomas’ Beach Boys-inspired “Rock and Roll Lullaby.” (Pre-Beatles elements were becoming visible in the work of more adventurous rockers too—the “primitive” riffs and modified Holly-isms of T. Rex, the stylistic nods on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.)
But 1973 was when the movement really exploded. Ground zero in terms of impact was American Graffiti. The power-shifting paean to early-’60s adolescence was a movie blockbuster whose soundtrack eventually sold 3 million copies. The film transformed Wolfman Jack into an American icon (the Wolfman-hosted Midnight Special concert series always featured a roots-rock act) and launched the ’50s-fixed Happy Days. (In 1976, Steve Barri-produced duo Pratt & McLain scored with the show’s faux-oldie theme song; Cyndi Greco did the same with the ersatz girl-group theme to sister show Laverne and Shirley, “Making Our Dreams Come True”.)
AmGraff and its spawn took ’50s/early-’60s nostalgia out of the “guilty pleasure” category for Boomers and introduced younger listeners to the joys of music before it got “heavy.” The same year that produced Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy and Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play also threw one of the revival movement’s more creative developments into high gear: new original music created in the oldies mode, what might be termed “nouveau-retro.” The genre’s foremost practitioner – to this day – would have to be Roy Wood. With the Move, Wood had covered everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Jackie Wilson and cut ’50s-styled rockers like “California Man,” but in ’73 he unleashed his inner JD, declaring unabashed love for the rowdy/pretty old stuff on such singles as “Angel Fingers” and the extravagant Spector homages “See My Baby Jive” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.” Robert Plant revisited his Rosie & the Originals roots in Led Zep’s “D’yer Mak’er.”
In the wake of Sha Na Na’s success, hundreds of neo-’50s groups strolled onto the scene – none, however, as imaginative as Colorado’s Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids, whose 1973 debut LP revealed them as promising adherents of nouveau-retro. The Cochran-esque “Betty Lou” was a typical FlashCad original: “Betty Lou, Betty Lou, won’t you dance with me, so I can dance with you.”
Seventy-three also returned Jerry Lee Lewis to the charts (“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O’-Dee” from The London Sessions scraped the Top 40), put Ringo atop the Hot 100 with a remake of Johnny Burnette’s 1960 hit “You’re Sixteen” (the following year he’d almost do it again with the Platters’ “Only You”) and saw the Osmonds corner the cuddly end of the market. Donny racked up hits covering Johnny Mathis (“Twelfth of Never”), Sonny James (“Young Love”) and Jimmy Charles (“A Million to One”), while Marie grabbed gold redoing Anita Bryant’s 1960 ballad “Paper Roses.”
But the real measure of just how far the revival had advanced may have been the Carpenters’ Now & Then album. The platinum LP, which hung around Billboard’s album listings almost a year, devoted a whole side to songs, all from 1962 to 1964, by the Beach Boys, Chiffons, Crystals, Bobby Vee and others. “Yesterday Once More,” the album’s hit single, didn’t merely eulogize the bygone era as Don McLean or B.J. Thomas had; it celebrated the very revival movement itself:
Every wo-wo-wo still shines
That they’re starting to sing so fine
The next two years saw early rock more deeply saturate the mainstream. Grand Funk notched a No. 1 record with Goffin-King’s “Loco-Motion,” John Lennon released Rock ’N’ Roll, and Linda Ronstadt began a 1975-78 covers streak that posted more than seven Top-30 singles with tunes previously cut by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Betty Everett and others. Nouveau-retro prospered: First Class aped California pop on “Beach Baby,” and Flash Cadillac turned in Sons of the Beaches, an entire album of surf-and-summer sounds (thus inventing the Barracudas). Billy Swan went early-’60s on “I Can Help,” Carly Simon & James Taylor flew with Inez & Charlie Foxx’s 1963 duet “Mockingbird,” and Art Garfunkel further etherealized the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Kiss made its singles-chart debut with a reprise of Bobby Rydell’s 1959 “Kissin’ Time.” Across the pond, Pete Wingfield did mock doowop on “Eighteen with a Bullet,” and Mud saluted post-army Elvis with “The Secrets That You Keep.” Roy Wood scaled new heights with the powerfully wimpy “This Is the Story of My Love” and his full nouveau-retro set, Eddie & the Falcons.
By 1975 and 1976, ’50s/early-’60s revivalism had become, if not the dominant trend, a powerful presence in pop. John Denver, Fleetwood Mac and Physical GraffitiBorn to Run (at No. 3) sold 4 million copies. Its sound was pure Spector, its subject the loss of innocence and its second single, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” built in part upon the Orlons’ “Wah-Watusi.” The Four Seasons returned (after a seven-year hit drought), with the chart-topping “December 1963 (Oh What a Night).” So did the Beach Boys, whose cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” anchored a new album, 15 Big Ones, which sported covers of songs made famous by Freddy Cannon, the Five Satins, Dixie Cups and others. Long before the 70s’ ’50s revival – specifically 1964 on All Summer Long – the Beach Boys had honored their forefathers, in “Do You Remember (the guys that gave us rock and roll),” a song that stood solidly in line with such heroic defenses of the music as Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” and the Showmen’s “It Will Stand” and may well have inspired the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio.” took top albums honors, but
When they arrived in 1976, first-generation punk-rockers – as well as the pub-rockers who preceded them – were even more attuned to the essential charms of early rock ’n’ roll, though the mid-’60s exerted an even stronger influence. Significantly, one of the Ramones and Pistols’ main inspirations was the New York Dolls, whose 1973 and ’74 albums showed considerable affection for Bo Diddley, the Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”) and girl groups, as well as ’65 Stones. And, of course, the Ramones covered Bobby Freeman and the Trashmen, and the Pistols worked over Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry in their formative period. And, once punk happened, it sparked all sorts of offshoots – not just electro-punk and the dance hybrids but numerous revivals of earlier forms, most notably rockabilly, ska, Brit R&B and, later, psychedelic and garage rock.
Although the revival had peaked, the remainder of the ’70s showed the movement’s continuing strength as a repertoire source. With his 1977 interpretation of Jimmy Jones’ 1959 “Handy Man,” James Taylor began a side career in oldies covers, redoing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” (with Simon and Garfunkel), the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” and, with Carly Simon, the Everlys’ “Devoted to You.” Blondie did some gender transformation on a re-do of Randy & the Rainbows’ “Denise” in 1977, the same year Shaun Cassidy took his re-do of “Da Doo Ron Ron” to No. 1, and Jackson Browne sang Maurice Williams’ immortal “Stay” (1978). Around the corner in a new decade: the Stray Cats, the Pointer Sisters’ girl-group redux “He’s So Shy,” Ronstadt’s take on Little Anthony’s “Hurt So Bad” and on and on…
Flash Cadillac’s Sons of the Beaches is available on CD, though, sadly not their eponymous debut or the even better sophomore set, No Face Like Chrome. Roy Wood’s solo, Wizzard and Eddie and the Falcons (which features the perfectly swinging “You Got Me Runnin’”) are all on CD, but Jeremy Spencer’s first LP is not. Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock is a worthwhile Australian import. The Guess Who’s So Long Bannatyne features Burton Cummings’ nouveau-retro doowop classic “Life in the Bloodstream,” and 2005’s soundtrack to Stubbs the Zombie has some surprisingly cool covers by, among others, Death Cab for Cutie (the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”), Ben Kweller (the Chordettes’ “Lollipop”) and the Walkmen (on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” singer Walter Martin sounds like Ian Hunter doing mock-Dylan on those early Mott records). Fleetwood Mac’s Earl Vince & the Valiants record can be found on The Immediate Singles Collection.
Intrepid wax-hunters will want to check out two delicious pop singles, Sha Na Na’s “Maybe I’m Old Fashioned” (Kama Sutra, 1974, written by Alan Gordon of Bonner & fame), from the band’s The Hot Box album, and “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (Mercury, 1973), written and produced by Frank Zappa for Ruben and the Jets (an actual band, not the Mothers), which also led off the group’s For Real LP.