May 10, 2009

Rock & Roll — The New Nostalgia

First of all I apologize for not having blogged for the past month. We’ve been in the middle of a move which has been a challenge.

I’ve been in the music business long enough to see a curious turnover. It used to be when a gig was going to be an obvious senior citizen event, the playlist called for “Sentimental Journey,” “In the Mood,” “As Time Goes By” and various collections of swing and ballads written in the 1930’s and 40’s. As I’m dictating this entry I’m on my way home from a gig that had us playing in a huge ballroom for that same demographic. And what did they come to hear? They came to hear a five piece vocal group doing Doo-Wop and various pop hits of the fifties; followed by an Elvis Presley show. Rock & Roll has now become nostalgia for the boomers. It’s as if the Rock & Roll deluge which overtook swing and jazz as pop music in the 50’s has now happened again. The generation who embraced Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra as their pop music is leaving us. Do the math. Kids who were Sweet 16 in 1958 when Chuck Berry sang about being that age are now in their late sixties.

As I looked out in the audience at this gig I was struck by the impression that these songs must have made on them as teenagers. I watched a lady with bluish hair singing along with the bop-bops that come at regular intervals in Elvis’ song “Don’t Be Cruel.” Not only did she know the song, she knew the back-up vocal parts! On the drive home, I picked up an AM station broadcasting a show called “Friday Night Bandstand.” I don’t know about you, but if I hear “Friday Night Bandstand” is coming on I normally expect to hear big band ballroom sounds. Instead I heard “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino; “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets; and “Who Wrote the Book of Love” by the Monotones.

This particular evening came on the heels of an event that gives the phrase “Rock & Roll will never die” added significance for me. For the last two years I’ve been working with a group that we call “The Roots of Rock & Roll” with this exact thought in my mind, that Rock & Roll has now become the music of nostalgia. At the same time it seems to cut across all generations. Our band recently played three concerts in one day for junior high kids and for primary grades, and you would be amazed at the involvement of kindergartners, first graders and second graders in the music that their grandparents — possibly even their great-grandparents — were listening to as teenagers. There’s something about “Johnny B. Goode” “Don’t Be Cruel, and “Great Balls of Fire,” that seeps into our subconscious, perhaps like no other pop music. Maybe it’s the singalongability, the simplicity of form and the strong backbeat that seems universal for generations. Maybe it’s the tempos that inspire — no demand — that we move some part of our body. It’s fascinating to listen to a song like “In the Mood” followed by “Rock Around the Clock.” They are basically both swing songs, almost the same tempo, based on a 12-bar blues form, and “Rock Around the Clock” will perk up anybody’s ear, no matter what age.

So if you’re a musician and you are playing for a mature audience with hearing aids and canes, don’t be surprised when instead of requesting “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me,” they ask for “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”

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