The Sixties – What Sixties?
by Robin Bell
I am a typical baby-boomer. I was born at the end of the forties, went to school in England and then on to Technical College in London in the mid-sixties. But my brother is six years older than I and it was through him that I first heard the music revolution called rock ‘n’ roll that changed the world.
Much has been written of the swingin’ sixties, the decade that time will never forget and yes, I agree that it was a turbulent time, a time when the establishment was challenged, when new frontiers were created in society and music. But to my mind the music of the mid to late fifties was the catalyst that allowed the sixties to happen. Look at a set list from the early Beatles concerts in the sixties and what do you see? Covers of songs by Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, that’s what.
Our first record player, in the late fifties, was a wind up model, complete with thorn or steel needles, which needed re-sharpening every couple of plays. We were the proud possessors of a needle sharpener and a small tin box of replacement needles. On this marvelous machine we could play those wonderfully exciting 78 rpm, brittle records.
Records like Elvis’s “All Shook Up”. Our copy suffered an unfortunate knee on it, which caused a crack to spread from the centre to the outside. I’m not sure how, but the click caused by needle hitting that crack seemed to be in perfect synchronization with the beat. Of course, the flip side “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” was rarely played – that wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll and besides, the click was off beat on that side.
It wasn’t long before we graduated to a modern record player – one that could play those new fangled 45’s and that didn’t have to be rewound or have the needle re-sharpened all the time. Also it could be played at maximum volume – much to the dismay of the neighbors. Now we could listen to Little Richard, Buddy Holly and the Chirpin’ Crickets, Eddie Cochran and all those others that we loved whenever we wanted.
No more did we have to strain through the static in the evenings to our heroes coming from Radio Luxembourg, 208 on your dial. No more interruptions while we heard the virtues of Charles Atlas extolled, or discovered the magical and mysterious pools winning system of Horace Batchelor, when all we wanted was to hear the beat from the rapidly growing up baby of rhythm and blues that was rock ‘n’ roll.
Listen to any of those records today and you will marvel at the sounds that could be achieved with equipment that today would be laughed out of the studio. How did Sam Phillips capture the raw energy of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis so perfectly down in Sun Studios in Memphis? Can anyone today reproduce the excitement that Little Richard generated in “The Girl Can’t Help It” or “Babyface”? For all the pyrotechnics of some of today’s guitar heroes, they can’t compare to those magical instrumental breaks that Scotty Moore conjured up on those early Elvis records.
The memorable sax breaks by King Curtis on those Coasters records like “Yakety Yak” still produce shivers down my spine and Duane Eddy’s use of his bass strings to form the melody is a technique that has influenced countless other guitarists. The old adage of keep it simple surely must have its origins in rock ‘n’ roll music.
Of course it couldn’t last. The establishment fought back with insipid covers of the originals for white audiences only. The sanitized, wholesome, all too clean Pat Boone must surely have his tongue firmly in his cheek when he recorded “Rip It Up”. Teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis appeared and rock ‘n’ roll was in danger of emasculation. And then things started to go even more wrong. Very badly. Elvis was drafted. Buddy was killed in a plane crash. Little Richard threw his jewelry into Sydney Harbour and turned to religion. Eddie Cochran was killed in a car crash – in England, in a taxi. The decade that had excited, tantalized, offended and raised the hopes of so many, now sank slowly in a sea of mediocrity.
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