Last week’s passing of Phil Everly serves as a reminder that almost nobody is left from the great Rock 'n Roll era, the first post-big band suburban teen explosion – Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran to name some. Many died young, a few are still hanging on, but this time is about to pass completely. Reconstructions of that period from this point out will likely be forensic, as is this essay.
But them’s the breaks with history. "Rock ‘n Roll,” that most thoroughly useless of musical definitions, purportedly encompassing everything from Bill Haley to Slayer. Ha ha. I have a vague recollection of a music genre chart which showed plainly enough that "rock 'n roll" is just a mixed drink, straight 50/50 combination of Blues and Country (or perhaps Western Swing – it was a long time ago). Beyond that I can't pretend to guess. Wherever it came from, at some point some genius tacked high school lyrics onto the primal, syncopated rhythm called back-beat, and record companies started making astonishing amounts of money. The sex and street craps theme of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” became the understaffed drive-in theater of “Wake Up Little Susie.” The (relative) innocuity of the theme bridged the danger of the music to the mainstream. Sure, you could hire a hipster to chase back-beat to its source, but the point is that in the late 50s it hit.
The Everly Brothers were a big part of that initial explosion. They were called “rockabilly,” but I either don’t hear it or am ignoring it. The vocal vibrato of the Everlys’ greatest song, “Bye Bye Love,” seems to my ears to be sourced in Turner and his ilk, not Nashville. All those dudes ripped that vibrato off. (see Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula,” Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” and pretty much everything early Elvis.) The Everlys certainly did some lovely folk tunes, maybe that causes the confusion, but it sure doesn’t sound like whatever godawful thing was country in ’57 -- Marty Robbins’ pre-bigot period? Whatever.
Maybe we should limit the term Rock ‘n Roll to that brief window of time in the late 50s? Some of it surely transcended and remains relevant to the adult (for the Everlys the aforementioned “Love” and maybe “Cathy’s Clown”), but the rest is in a time capsule of clumsy romance, dance parties and periodic bouts of teen angels getting knocked off in fiery car crashes.
It seems somehow sacrilegious to say it, but the logical heirs of the Everly Brothers are Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber – music that actually might frighten (or at least annoy) parents and enrage 35 year-olds who understand what music is, goddammit. Perhaps the new kids are doomed to a similar fate, a sudden wander out of the spotlight and a pathetic nostalgia tour fifteen years from now. It’s hard to conceive, though, of Bieber covering a song like “Barbara Allen,” of which the Everlys did a stunningly gorgeous rendition.
In the early 60s, the Beatles made a hard stop and started dealing in suspended ninth chords and weird lyrics – music changed. Everything past Sgt. Pepper’s was phenomenal, but I’m not sure it was Rock ‘n Roll. The Everlys could have done a nice job with “She’s Leaving Home,” perhaps a little faster and with less insufferable, but they could not have handled “A Day in the Life.” That’s not a criticism; it just wasn’t their bag.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t awesome – the Everlys played that beat like they had just discovered fire. That violent little guitar strums punctuating the chorus of “Bye Bye Love,” the stutter beat of “Cathy’s Clown,” the Buddy Holley smashups in “Bird Dog” (or was Buddy Holley doing Everly smashups – or were both a temporally improbable theft of the drum solo from "Wipeout!" – or just plain larceny from Bo Diddley? -- again, we could hire a hipster to get to the bottom of it). When I hear it now, it’s almost like they realized that it was temporary. The Everlys had more of a career than most of their contemporaries, but still they remain frozen in time.
Now here’s something to spread some hope through the music scene. Long time Columbus musician Jeff German, who had a nice run with the Cur Dogs and has played occasionally with Lydia Loveless among others, is turning 50 this year and has just signed a three record deal with label Slothtrop Music. Slothtrop will be re-releasing his terrific 2013 album Twelve R.O.U.N.D.S on March 18, 2014. I’ll run a separate review when it drops in March, but in the meantime take heart locals, there might still be a payoff for slogging through the bars and working on your songwriting. Jeff will be celebrating with loud music and cheap champagne at Woodlands Backyard on February 21st.