I seem to spend a lot of time lately complaining about music I don’t like.
There is a great quote credited to Jerry Garcia that I would do well to remember: “Even the worst, most ill-thought-of music in the world doesn’t hurt anybody.”
And yet, another From the Valley flashback post has me sharpening the rough side of my tongue again.
A few months ago I looked at old local airplay charts from Allentown’s WAEB-FM, formerly the top hit-radio station in the Lehigh Valley, now a talk-radio station. I wrote about charts from 1968 and 1970, both preserved online by the marvelous ARSA database.
Whaddya think I found but another WAEB local airplay chart, from this week in 1960.
And … well, it hurts to look at.
Because it just drips with the marshmallowy, string-laden, soulless, sweatless, sexless, grooveless music that owned the world between the fall of Chuck Berry and the rise of the Beatles.
The Four Preps? Steve Lawrence? Jimmy Clanton? Bobby Rydell? Mitch Miller? Frankie Avalon? A teen-tragedy record? All present and accounted for.
Here are a couple of examples. See if you can sit all the way through them. First, this week’s WAEB Number One, Dion and the Belmonts with “Where or When”:
And up a notch this week to Number Six, the Four Preps with “Down By The Station”:
Sure, there are a couple of worthwhile records here.
Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is part of the Great American Country Songbook. I know reasonable adults who like Bobby Darin’s version of “Beyond The Sea.” And if you look carefully, you’ll see a young James Brown at the bottom of the chart, under the nom de plume of Nat Kendrick and the Swans.
But I think the whole thing is summed up in the Big Six Pix of the Week, which I’m guessing is a list of “bubbling under” hitbound singles that hadn’t made the main list yet.
What was moving up this week in 1960 but “Onward Christian Soldiers,” performed by the Harry Simeone Chorale?
Imagine a couple parked on Lovers’ Lane in Allentown, wherever that was, in February 1960. (Or, since it can get cold here in February, maybe they are parked on a couch in a house that has helpfully been left unattended.)
The radio is playing low and the light is shining in their eyes as the boy reaches over and draws his sweetheart’s lips to his …
… and then the Harry Simeone Chorale comes on the radio singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and the moment is ruined, and the boy and girl dispiritedly get out the Mille-Bornes deck and start playing because what the hell else is there to do in a world that feeds you “Onward Christian Soldiers” at every opportunity?
It’s almost as if this music was forced on the youth of America as a placebo to keep them well-behaved and compliant.
No wonder songs like “Satisfaction” flipped people out so much. Just five years before, everything on the radio had been so clean, so chaste, so inoffensive, so soft-edged.
(Unreliable narrator alert: A number of religious songs made the charts in the ’70s, too. You could move the frustrated teenage couple forward about 15 years, and the radio might be playing “My Sweet Lord” or “The Lord’s Prayer” or “Day By Day” or “Morning Has Broken.” So what made 1960 so much worse than 1974? The impenetrable wall of vanilla surrounding the hymns in 1960, I’d argue. But I could be seeing things just the way I want to see them. Wouldn’t be the first time.)
If there’s a silver lining in this countdown, it’s that the development of pop music must seem like a continual wonder to my parents’ generation — those unfortunate kids who had to sit through Bobby Rydell and Jimmy Clanton when they were young.
Every time someone of that generation hears something new and creative that grooves them — whether it be the Beatles, or Aretha, or Al Green, or the Sex Pistols, or U2, or Radiohead, or you name it — it must feel like they survived the famine and are now seated at a lavish buffet.
I feel that way just reading this chart.