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It Was The Teenagers, Stupid 

Correcting rock historians' biggest mistake

There is a standard line among rock music historians that goes like this: Early rock & roll -- Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. -- awakened American teenagers' sense of themselves as a separate group with its own distinct interests. Rock & roll, though, was soon defanged by schlocksters and big record companies; and, the story goes, teens' communal identity dissolved along with rock's rebellious edge. This rock gospel contends that the music deteriorated bit by bit until the records released in the months preceding February 1964 were such a worthless, mewling mess that only someone like the Beatles -- energetic, eclectic and foreign -- could save it. Within a year of the British Invasion, the standard line goes, an intense sense of generational identity was reborn.

I've been listening to rock & roll, thinking and writing about it, and teaching the history of it for decades, and I'm here to tell you that most of that story of the early '60s is a fantasy. And it drives me nuts. Pardon my getting all nit picky, but history is important -- cultural history as well as the kings-and-wars version -- and it should be true to the experiences of those who lived it.

This all came up recently for me when I heard that singer Gene Pitney had died, just as I was reading Always Magic in the Air, a great book by Ken Emerson about the Brill Building songwriters and their virtual hit machine in 1960s New York.

It's all too true that from 1958 to 1961 rock suffered a series of gut punches -- Little Richard stopped rocking and started preaching, Holly died, Presley was drafted, Lewis was blacklisted and the infamous payola scandal wrecked many of the small indie labels that had provided much of early rock's wild energy. Into the vacuum slithered sorry corporate clones like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and my candidate for most putrid of the bad lot, Bobby "Swingin' School" Rydell. But if you were around then, you also know that from 1961 to 1963 -- the years just before the Beatles' advent -- schlock-rock was increasingly being crowded out by some great rock music. And as far as that era's "youth market," teens and pre-teens at the time were damned sure their generation was the greatest ever, thank you very much -- a sense of generational uniqueness that still manages to piss off non-boomers on a regular basis. Hey, grow up with Presley and JFK and the Beatles and see what it does to you.

So what happened between 1958 and 1962 to revive rock's energy level? For one, a few R&B companies, including a new outfit called Motown, rose from the ashes of early rock to launch the likes of Smokey Robinson, the original Isley Brothers and Jackie Wilson. For another, a group of innovative, young songwriters ousted older Tin Pan Alley hacks from their traditional lair in New York's Brill Building.

Which brings us back to Gene Pitney. Now an inductee in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Pitney was an exuberant pop belter who recorded several big hits like "It Hurts To Be In Love" and "Twenty-four Hours To Tulsa." But he began as a songwriter in the Brill Building. In the days before the Beatles made it nearly mandatory that artists write most of their own songs, Pitney and other great writers like Carole King and husband Gerry Goffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Ellie Greenwich labored in what was essentially a hit music factory. As described in Emerson's book, the songwriting teams worked at pianos in small rooms, banging out hit after hit -- in the same building, often down the hall from each other.

You may have heard of some of their songs: "Jailhouse Rock," "Spanish Harlem," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "Stand By Me," "The Loco-Motion," "Da Do Ron Ron," "Up On The Roof," "And Then He Kissed Me," "Uptown," "Be My Baby" ... I could go on all day. In short, black pop-rock and the Brill Building writers, singers and producers reinvigorated rock in the early '60s -- which, of course, belies the standard historical view of that era's music.

Nobody loves the Beatles more than I do (OK, some people are kinda nuts about it, but apart from them ... ), but they weren't miracle workers who could revive a corpse, and I've never understood why rock historians insist that's what happened. The real story, and to me it's a more interesting, even a beautiful story, is that the era's teenagers, through their buying choices, revived rock music themselves. Tired of the schlock, they supported new R&B artists and went crazy over the Brill Building's innovations, so that when the Beatles came along, they were actually building on rock's newfound momentum. I know it's inevitable that history will include some myths. I just hope the "Rock as Lazarus/Beatles as Jesus" myth will eventually be buried. It's high time to correct the rock history canon, before we boomers who actually remember the early days of rock check into the final big pop festival.

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