When I discuss early rock & roll with pop music lovers I’m surprised that many don’t know how and when rock took hold in America. Nor do they know how quickly it disappeared—to be rescued by the Brits.
And few appreciate a simple lesson it teaches us about innovation.
Rock & roll was a combination of many musical elements of course, including Rhythm & Blues, Rockabilly, Blues, Gospel, Boogie-Woogie, Jazz, Swing, and Country. All of these were in full bloom by the late 40s and early 50s when records by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Preston, Goree Carter, Ike Turner, and Big Joe Turner (among many others) were hinting at what was soon to come.
Although the phrase “rock & roll” was heard in African-American R&B lyrics prior to the mid-50s, it was disk jockey Alan Freed who helped popularize the term for whites when he was playing R&B and Country to a racially mixed audience, calling his show “The Rock & Roll Party.” Soon “rock” and “roll” were widely used in lyrics and song titles that were marketed to middle class teens. Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” became an R&B hit in 1954—but a bigger hit for Bill Haley and His Comets. Then Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” shot to #1 after the 1955 release of Blackboard Jungle which featured the song as its soundtrack. Rock was about to go mainstream.
But it took Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley—the most influential musical pioneers of the time—to break down the door and launch the new era.
A recent comment grabbed my attention: “People change not when they see the light, but when they feel the heat.”
I thought it amusing—and a tad cynical. But not convincing. Of course people will adjust their behavior when they feel the heat—and do things differently to avoid pain. The proverbial “stick” has worked quite well for quite a few millennia. As one US intelligence officer put it (carefully articulating his philosophy of change): “I’m a fan of 220 volts.”
But is this the whole story? And is this the kind of change we want?
To test theories about anything, I usually look to pop music (perhaps reflecting my emotional maturity). I wondered what a highly productive rock band could teach us about what best motivates change—and especially successful change.
So I turned to The Beatles, the most commercially triumphant and most critically acclaimed pop music team in history. What brought about their biggest career-changing moves—which in the end turned out to be spectacularly successful? Did they have a realization, an epiphany, a perceptual shift that had them see the world differently, which called for a new set of actions? Or were they feeling uncomfortable pressure from someone or something that coerced them to do things differently?
I decided it was time for another interview with myself.
Self-interviews are always tricky because the interviewer is usually reluctant to challenge the interviewee. But the main problem in this case was coordinating the schedules of two very busy people. (We had to conduct this interview by email.)
Q. So what’s the latest on your book? The last we heard, your agent was shopping it to publishers.
A. Well, one major publisher—my first choice—was quite interested but wants me to improve my “platform” first.
Q. Will you do that?
A. Absolutely. Once I figure out what that means. But I’ve got some carpenters coming over tomorrow to help me figure it out.
To prep for a talk I’ll be giving in a few weeks, I’ve been revisiting early rock & roll, and noting the explosive effects it had on popular music, lifestyle, culture, technology, and even politics. An unappreciated part of the story is how R&R gave voice to a new population demographic: TEENAGERS—especially of the affluent, white variety, who had suddenly fallen in love with black music.
It could be said that teens didn’t exist until the 1950s. Not as a population segment to take seriously. Not as an economic force. But after World War Two, as families became more prosperous, there was no need to push teenagers into the workforce (or into battle, after the Korean War). More students were staying in high school and then going to college. Even middle class teens and young adults had time to pursue new interests. By the mid-50s rock & roll was there to serve them.
This new music was clearly the result of socio-musical trends. Blacks and whites were living closer to each other, influencing each other’s music. The same radio stations were catering to both audiences for the first time. Independent record labels were giving innovative black artists a chance to record their music. And white teenagers had the disposable income to buy it.
Just when I needed my Walk Off The Earth fix, the band obliged by releasing a new video in the last 24 hours.
WOTE is clearly going after a tougher, edgier look and sound here. And this video has more of a big production feel than many of the DIY clips they're famous for. So the fan reaction has been a tad mixed. But for me there are enough creative touches here to save the day. Besides, they've set the bar so high they can't hit it every time. They set records for viral success with their first video smash "Somebody That I Used To Know". Even lesser known clips like "Payphone" are case studies in innovative home-made videos.
But what comes through the loudest here is their chutzpah, hubris, and even insolence. Walk Off The Earth, epitomized by Sarah Blackwood, is not lacking in 'tude and swagger. These are required for success in rock—and especially for women in rock.