Why did people forget the 50s?
The beginning of the 50s is 70 years ago and for us young people, it might as well be the stone age! Remember hearing your grandparents’ stories of those years and you thought of that time like The Flintstones and not in colour, but in black and white. Think about it, when was the last time you heard 50s music on the radio (and I don’t mean a specialised satellite radio station)? For me? Maybe sometime in the 2000s on some oldies station when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Posts about pre-1964 music don’t get the engagement that classic rock golden age (1965-1980) gets and it’s kind of sad. A lot of people are only interested in one part of music history and I think that’s sad because laser focussing on one part of music history doesn’t tell the whole story of that era. Music builds upon the music previously released and I’ll explain more about that later.
Do people not like the 50s? Does that era give people a weird taste in their mouth? Perhaps. In a way, the 60s (well, the mid-late part of the decade anyway) was a rebellion and response to the 50s and its conformity and traditionalism, and it was a drastic chance – 1967 didn’t look like 1957. I guess in this post I want to defend the music of the 50s and explain its role in shaping the 60s and beyond. Writing about classic rock is becoming a lost art in a way with publications shutting down and people’s attention moving to what’s new and the definition of what’s classic moving more and more modern.
“Let us close our eyes. Outside their lives go on much faster
Oh, we won’t give in, we’ll keep living in the past”
– “Living In The Past” – Jethro Tull (1969)
Why do I write about music and not something like history if I care about history so much? Well, it’s because I love music and I think it’s an interesting way to look at history. I think of records on a shelf as a time capsule of sorts. These records were pressed in a different time. The songs were written and recorded in a different time with older technology. People listened to these songs differently than we do now. The way the songs were promoted was totally different: it was all legacy media like radio, TV, and print.
Typically, there’s fewer photos and videos of older musicians because film wasn’t democratised like it is now and TV networks taped over old tapes to save money, not realising the historical and cultural value of music programming (don’t get the Doctor Who fans started though! Almost 100 missing episodes!). That might be one reason why the 50s aren’t talked about like the 60s, 70s, and 80s are. There’s less video. When researching British music programmes, I had a hard time finding footage of Oh Boy!, but a slightly easier time finding footage of Ready Steady Go! and an even easier time finding footage of Top of the Pops. Still, a lot of RSG and TOTP tapes are gone and we have to rely on musicians’ stories and articles about their time appearing on those shows. Music fans today don’t know how lucky they are to have HD fancams of their favourites and that everything is archived and preserved. Nowadays the average person can record any live broadcast with in the late 70s people having VCRs, the 2000s with DVRs, and the present day with screen capture software. I’m just happy to see a grainy TV performance or rudimentary music video.
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way”
– “Time” by Pink Floyd (1973)
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos. What can I say? My attention span has become like that of a goldfish and there’s a lot of good content there and for free and I can hear all sorts of different perspectives that you won’t necessarily hear on mainstream media outlets. One YouTube channel that always makes thought provoking videos is Vsauce, and one of his most recent videos is about time and how people view it and all the illusions of it – temporal illusions. People like to think they’re rational and they can’t possibly have any biases, but think about it. How long did 2020 feel to you? I can’t tell you what you think about 2020, but I can tell you how much of a mindfuck that year was when it came to my perception of time. I felt like it was a decade. I’m honestly surprised I’m not in my 30s yet, but I feel like I am.
“I am old, but still a child”
– “All Dead, All Dead” Queen (1977)
No, I’m turning 27 this year as it was planned (cue all the 27 club jokes). My parents always said I looked way younger than my age, passing me off as a 12 year old even when I was 18 to get cheaper rates at buffets and tourist attractions. Can’t do that anymore because of a pesky thing called grey hairs and they’ve been multiplying since my hairdresser started noticing them in me at 20. Wasn’t so noticeable when I was dying my hair red, but I stopped dying my hair red to save money and so my hair can be even longer and healthier. I’m just gonna leave the greys alone and wait until there’s enough of them so I can dye my hair red again.
“Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far”
– “Video Killed The Radio Star” – The Buggles (1979)
If you don’t have the time to watch the video I talked about above, I’ll give a summary. Time keeps moving forward, we can’t experience the past again as it happened, but images and videos are a record and jog our memories. Even if you have a good memory, you can’t remember everything. Which is why I love travel photography, brings back a lot of memories of the past and it’s just cool to look at and see my skills improve. My mum’s parents didn’t take many photos and she went crazy taking pictures of everything whenever we travelled and said “you’ll thank me later”. As awkward as some years of my life were, it’s cool to see pictures of my past and in this day and age of going nowhere and having way too much time on my hands and me pondering the past, thinking about way better times and how distant they seem now.
“Picture yourself when you’re getting on, sat by the fireside a-pondering on
Picture book, pictures of your mama taken by your papa, a long time ago”
– “Picture Book” – The Kinks (1968)
We also use ourselves as a reference point. I remember when I was teaching English at that summer camp in the summer of 2019 (the last normal summer – hello darkness my old friend) and I noticed such a huge generation gap when talking about pop culture. Kids today like TikToks and newfangled stuff. Thinking back to when I was a teenager, YouTube wasn’t seen as a viable career path and it wasn’t commercialised like it is now. I referenced one of my favourite movies from my childhood, “Mean Girls”, and the kids didn’t understand it and many of them hadn’t seen it. The Zoomers see the 90s and even early 2000s as retro and a total throwback. Totally weird to me because that was what was normal and hip and cool, to me that is! I’m old enough to say I saw Mulan, Spy Kids, Shrek, School of Rock, and the Rugrats and Spongebob movies in the cinema and even have memories of seeing these movies in the cinema or at least renting them from Blockbuster.
For me, the oldies are the 60s and 70s. Now it’s safe to say Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Blur, and Oasis are classic rock! I’m as old as Definitely Maybe, does that make me old? No, media ages differently than people. Music and art live forever, but people can live a long time and it’s so cool seeing people who are living history books and remembered all sorts of historical events. Like that 108 year old Victorian woman who was interviewed in the late 70s. It’s not only appearance that shows that someone lived in a way different time, it’s also heard in their voice. Accents evolve and change so much. A Victorian doesn’t sound like a Greatest Generation who doesn’t sound like a Boomer who doesn’t sound like a Millennial. Here’s one more that will shock you, there are actual recorded interviews with formerly enslaved African-Americans, as recently as the 1940s! If you want more mindblowing time comparisons, the subreddit BarbaraWalters4Scale is full of these.
Photography and visual technology can make things seem more recent or more distant. Take a classic rock movie example. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released exactly one year apart from each other (if you’re looking at the American release date of 11 August 1964 and 1965), but it feels like two different eras in a way and not because of how The Beatles look – their hair’s not that much longer and clothing styles were pretty much the same in 1964 and 1965. It’s because AHDN was in black & white and Help! was in colour. In America, broadcasting made the switchover to colour in the mid-late 60s (the UK followed in 1969) and it felt like a whole new era and a revolution and so much more lifelike. For us young people, I suppose it’s like the introduction of HDTV and widescreen and how you could see everyone’s flaws and faces in the crowd! Not so nice, but it does make nature documentaries a lot prettier to look at.
Looking at the 60s and 70s, those decades look very different if you look at the beginning, middle, and end of them. The early 60s looked like the 50s, the mid 60s looked mod, and the late 60s looked hippie. The early 70s looked a lot like the late 60s but with more bell bottoms and still had that hippie look, the mid 70s was more casual and sporty and not at all hippie, and the late 70s looked comfy and disco.
Sound wise, it’s so weird to think that “Apache”, “The Wanderer”, “Purple Haze”, and “Whole Lotta Love” were all made in the same decade. Or that “American Woman”, “Get It On”, “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and “Stayin’ Alive” were released in the same decade. A lot of variety can be found in one decade and it shows how the music scene is always changing.
“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes, pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time”
– “Changes” – David Bowie (1971)
Simply put, the world keeps moving on and things change all the time. Like I said before, we see ourselves as a reference point and we like to relate to things and at some point the past becomes harder and harder to relate to and more intimidating. Being raised by boomer parents and a boomer grandmother, the 60s seems way more relatable to me than anything before it. The 50s seems like a whole other universe and the extent of my pop culture exposure to it was watching I Love Lucy, listening to The Champs’ “Tequila”, listening to Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and learning about The Day The Music Died and watching old Disney movies like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty, but I don’t think of those movies as 50s movies – old Disney movies are timeless. Disney transcends time. The movies are so fresh and perhaps the fact that they mostly didn’t take place in the present day (referring to when they were released in cinemas) makes it seem fresher.
In defence of 50s pop culture
I think an important part of understanding the music you listen to is to understand its history and that includes understanding what came before it and when you do, you have an even bigger and better appreciation of what you love. Music and how it evolved over the years is like building stuff with Legos or like learning maths. You need to learn the basics before you learn the more complicated stuff. A lot of things that you think were pioneered in the 60s were really used earlier, just in a more rudimentary way – especially with the limits of technology: distorted guitar, power chords, electric guitars being used instead of acoustic, shock rock, screaming and shouting, and delay/echo/reverb effects.
The music of the 60s wasn’t made in a vacuum. Beat music, folk rock, psychedelic rock, blues rock, and hard rock didn’t come out of nowhere. Musicians born in the 40s – who made the music of the 60s, their childhood was in the 50s. Those were their formative years: they went to school, they listened to the radio, they watched movies, possibly TV depending on where they grew up, all in that decade. So their musical inspirations were more than likely largely from the 50s, but many musicians from the 60s listened to even older music from classical to 20s-40s jazz to music hall to folk to traditional music. Some examples of rock bands borrowing from Victorian/Edwardian era music hall include: Herman’s Hermits with their version of “I’m Henry The VIII I Am”, The Beatles with “When I’m Sixty-Four”, Queen’s “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”, and The Small Faces’ “Rene”. This article though isn’t really about music before the 50s, but if you can’t hear a lot of 50s music on the radio, it makes sense that anything made before that is even harder to find on the radio outside of specialty satellite radio stations. Sirius XM has a 40s channel called “40s Junction”, but no 30s or 20s channels. This kind of music is niche because those who enjoyed it in their youth are not alive anymore. There are few 1920s babies left and they were the ones who were teens or in their 20s in the 40s. When I’m old will people be looking at me funny for listing to 100 year old music? Will there be anything to serve that niche? I’m sure there will be because there’s enough people who love the 60s. There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to pre-1920s fashion, which is really forgotten about and I always think it’s so cool looking at 19th century and very early 20th century clothing. Silent film and Old Hollywood still has a following too and there are entire classes on those eras of film. Most people though aren’t taking classes on film and music history.
What 50s music inspired rock stars the most? From what I can piece together through various interviews I’ve read over the years, generally it was American R&B and doo-wop, skiffle music, and rock and roll and rockabilly. You can find examples in the playlist linked below since I think the music speaks more than words.
Were there 50s revivals? Certainly! There still are! Look at the 70s: Happy Days took place in the 50s, Grease took place in the 50s, The Buddy Holly Story came out in 1978, American Hot Wax came out the same year, and while American Graffiti took place in 1962 – a lot of the music in it was from the 50s. Music wise, you had Sha-Na-Na, The Stray Cats, Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, Shakin’ Stevens, Robert Gordon, and The Cramps. Bands like CCR took a lot of inspiration from 50s rockabilly and country music, even if they weren’t exactly a rockabilly revival band. After a decade or two pass by, what was once considered passé is now cool again in a retro way. Like there’s a revival of interest in the 90s at the moment, the 70s reignited a love of the 50s, bringing back a lot of memories to those who were young when the music first came out and those who were too young to appreciate it then can appreciate it now that they are older.
This music certainly isn’t lame, boring, or square. It may sound that way to those of us who grew up on 60s music and later, but if you were to go back in time and listen to 50s rock and roll at the time, it was different, revolutionary, mindblowing. I think what makes the 50s so intimidating for a lot of classic rock fans whose comfort zone is the 60s-80s is that it’s unfamiliar material and when there’s a lot of it, it’s even scarier to get into. My goal here with this blog is to make all things classic rock approachable and that includes 50s rock and roll and R&B. Think of this as a primer for early rock and roll and R&B. You might even enjoy these playlists even if you’re a longtime fan.
Two playlists: 50s for those who hate the 50s
The first playlist is 50s songs that inspired classic rockers and the second playlist is classic rockers covering 50s songs. Note: These playlists are quite long and when I embed Spotify playlist links, it only shows the first 100 songs. If you go to the app or the website, you should see the full list of songs. 🙂
Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!
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