Music as Menace

This February cool cats should’ve observed what would’ve been the 90th birthday of Bo Diddley. Burly, commanding, Diddley could not have been mistaken for one of the Golden Era of Rock’s cutesy teen idols.

As Bo Biddley himself would’ve proclaimed, “Bo Diddley was a man!”

A seminal rock ‘n’ roller, Diddley resides on a lower tier than, say, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, but Diddley contributed greatly to the genre nonetheless.

Way more than Elvis Presley.

Almost an afterthought today, the Mississippian offered magnificent inspiration to countless guitarists. He probably still might but with the present generation’s grasp of history flimsy, those strumming cords likely know diddly about Diddley.

Without a doubt Elvis was an idol. He was a vessel through which nascent rock ‘n’ could be made presentable to wider America. However, Elvis merely performed. That is he left impressions. He was an instrument, not an innovator.

Diddley, like Berry and Holly, not only sang, but composed and played. The impetus to burnish Diddley came from a clip issued across social media. Culled from a 1965 show, the song’s 1:40 length succinctly encapsulated the tight-assed mainstream’s white fright of rock ‘n’ roll.

Until lending plenty to rock, rhythm and blues, or as too many knew it, “race music,” fairly occupied aural spaces distant from what those deeming themselves “decent society.” While the self-elect in this respect also let the good times roll, they preferred keeping their urges within the bounds of propriety.

Before rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t much of what passed for musical romantic yearnings been crooned earnestly through pink and purple perfumed prose? Not even innuendo escaped those lips.

For too long our human intentions were stated through inoffensive lyrics, those verses propelled by mild melodies. Be assured these tunes aroused little desires as well as left loins unstirred.

No wonder rhythm and blues seemed like such a threat to order. It was.

Chafing against the severely proscribed barriers limiting performers and audiences alike, black music presented unadorned human nature. Niceties, kind notions, these were fine for people who generally led dandy lives. But for those excised from the American mainstream, such fantasies were insufficient against real life.

What aspects haven’t been curtailed or withdrawn altogether in much of black American life? The highs have been grudging because the lows so deep. What blues tune doesn’t reach into and swirl around the human depths? Add rhythm guitars, bass, backbeats, driving percussion into the mix, as well as the occasional brassy sax, one arrives at a smoother, more accessible version – rock ‘n’ roll.

A good example of this “primitive” into “cultured” elision just may be the song Good Rockin’ Tonight. Initially sung by Wynonie Harris, throughout his version a good ear hears the juke joints where the oppressed could congregate and vent, taste the whiskey they swilled to dull their conditions, feel respite from suppression for a while.

Elvis, who must’ve listened to Harris on the radio and had been influenced by him, sanded off the rough edges. Never knowing the harshness making the song a release valve of sorts let his voice dilute its spirit with syrup.

Elvis transformed Good Rockin’ Tonight into among the first of endless suitable outlets for mildly repressed white youths.

Admittedly Elvis was a seducer. The earliest rockers sought to arouse primal instincts.

With far fewer figures drawn from less reputable sources – or so one could believe because being unknowns from across the Atlantic let listeners here award Britons clean slates – didn’t the British Invasion render rock ‘n’ roll more palatable? Ironically the menace to American youth U.S. authorities saw the foreigners curtailing, these same saviors made subversion all the more insidious by having been motivated by rhythm and blues artists and the early rockers.

Understand, before superstardom turned them into global idols, the Beatles were a house band which honed its chops by singing the likes of Twist and Shout with as equal urgency as the Isley Brothers ever did. The Rolling Stones’ band name ceaselessly honors the bluesman Muddy Waters.

Rendering rock ‘n’ roll indelible were songwriters like the aforementioned Berry and Holly. While there have been paeans to love, the lovelorn, those in-between, since the first ancient Greek was commanded by a deity to scribe a mash note to some particularly beguiling mortal, the number of early rock ‘n’ roll lyricists who pushed the topic beyond “teenagers in love at the hop” were few. Berry and Holly gave the burgeoning style complexities that tugged feelings and incited responses.

In about two minutes, Holly’s subdued Peggy Sue Got Married matter-of-factly presents one of the most crushing disappointments of any boy in love. School Day by Berry makes mundane assembly-line high school academia tolerable because of the effusion once real life resumes after the school bell rings dismissal.

When those tunes came out, listeners were nowhere as cynical and skeptical as current audiences. They were easier to reach. They were more receptive, less resilient to emotive manipulation. While greater sophistication makes today’s music fans better consumers (better consumers, not more knowledgeable listeners) it diminishes entertainments’ simpler pleasures.

Bo Diddley led off this post. A fortunate music clip of him during his heyday crossed my newsfeed screen. Watching it, listening to it, I got somewhat entwined in the presentation. Diddley must be a part of who I’ve become. Without him there’s no George Thorogood yowling about “goodtime music and the Bo Diddley beat!”

More captivating than the sounds laid down on that 1965 occasion are the images themselves. I have no doubt that great swaths of uptight mid-50s through early 60s American parents never even bothered trying to comprehend the music enthralling their children. What likely terrorized them was the absolute showmanship Diddley and his backup band displayed.

The men dressed in sharp suits, the women attired in shimmering gowns beneath elaborate hairdos. Following Diddley’s lead, they performed fearlessly, without the least bit of hesitation or inhibition.

Nor could it have salved many parental nerves that screaming white teenage girls filled the audience. Theirs weren’t the rapturously loud waves which greeted the Beatles, but the sort of shouts acknowledging recognition, interest … likelihoods of grateful submission.