Friday, September 9, 2011

800 Words: The Day the Lyrics Died (Part 1 of 2)

It was an incredible coincidence. Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford died on August 22nd of this year. The former was the lyric half of the team that combined black and white music. The latter, the lyricist half of the team who preserved black music when white music went off the rails.


“I think popular music in this country is one of the few things in the twentieth century that have made giant strides in reverse.”

- Bing Crosby

(So utterly wrong that it never gets old)

You can agree or disagree with Bing at your leisure, but I can’t help seeing what he means. To people brought up on the 7th and 9th chords of Cole Porter and Ellington, the music of Little Richard and The Big Bopper must seem like a weak brew. In Crosby’s generation, music was supposed to be written by one person, lyrics by another and performed by a third. By the 1950’s, all three jobs were brought together into a single unit. A great rock performer didn’t have the time to assimilate all the musical style that went into the Great American Songbook. They were too busy handling every aspect of the music. But with the total control which musicians like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had gave more vitality to their music than Harold Arlen could ever dream of his songs getting.

(Stand By Me)

Some people like it simple, some don’t. Some people grew up listening to three chord songs, some didn’t. It’s generally said that your musical tastes are formed between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one. Everything else is a foreign language. But for most people of my generation, our language begins in the 1950’s. Most likely, in 1952. For our parents, that doesn’t seem too long ago. But for my generation, that’s ancient history - imagine asking the average Baby Boomer to relate to the music of King Oliver. But even if the next generation might not relate to anything older than MJ and Madonna, our generation can still listen to songs by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis with familiarity. Their music is still our language.

(Charlie Brown)

But neither of the two principle inventors of our musical language were single performers who worked in all aspects of music. They were songwriters of the old model - one of them did the lyrics, the other did the tunes. The songs would then be farmed to a record company, where a producer would hire an arranger and a band and give the song to a talented singer. Even in an era that saw the most significant flowering of singer/songwriters since the Troubadours of the Middle Ages, there was still an enormous place for composers who didn’t perform.

(Kansas City)

They were two 19-year-old Jewish boys who loved the Blues, one from Baltimore, one from Long Island. One worked as a pianist, the other in a record store. In time, they became the most important songwriters for Elvis, and they wrote songs for Ben E. King, Peggy Lee, Edith Piaff, Big Mama Thornton, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Exciters, Jay and the Americans, The Shangri-las and The Dixie Cups. Phil Spector became their long-time producer and created what became the standard sound of a rock band.


All of the acts they wrote for were filled with talented performers. But none of them could have existed without talented songwriters any more than Frank Sinatra or Mel Torme could have. Together Leiber and Stoller built a bridge. On one side lay the world we’ve left behind - the world of gospel, ragtime, old-time country, delta blues, bluegrass, swing, big bands, lindy-hop, cabaret, music halls, Tin Pan Alley, musicals and crooners. On the other side lay the world we’ve embraced - the world of R&B, bebop, soul, counterculture, singer/songwriters, psychedelia, punk, funk, industrial, hard core, rap, heavy metal, garage, grunge, noise, hip-hop, ambient and DJ’s.

(Jailhouse Rock)

Unfortunately, Rock Music could only have been invented by white people. No black person could have gained admission into enough country and bluegrass concerts to assimilate its musical language, let alone want to. No black person could have raised the money it took to record and mass distribute records for a large audience. But thanks to composers like Leiber and Stoller, Rock’n Roll was the first genre in the history of American music to be biracial. It was music about young people being young composed in a language that only the young seemed to understand. It was American music’s Coming of Age, the first genre of music for which no American could be considered an interloper.

(Hound Dog)

Leiber and Stoller were two white kids who wrote the soundtrack of our parents’ childhoods. We still love this music today, but our attachment to it is nostalgia for an era that will soon pass out of living memory. It was an American Springtime. We had just won the war and surely, Americans reasoned, no problem of the future could present a challenge as great as that. The art which Americans loved (and it was art) did not require the performers to give anything personal of themselves. Americans just needed entertainment from their music: tunefulness, vitality, fun and wit. If one can apply classical terminology to Rock Music, this was Rock Music’s classical period. Like all classical periods, all it takes is a natural-born Romantic to shatter the idyllic vision. Soon, the models of perfect balance and craft which were Leiber and Stoller songs would be smashed by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Beatles.

(Love Potion #9)

If Brian Wilson was our Mozart, if Bob Dylan was our Beethoven, if Paul McCartney was our Schubert, then Leiber/Stoller could be our Haydn. They created the model for all the songs that came after. Like Haydn’s music was for classical, the songs of Leiber and Stoller were like a laboratory for rock music in which people could see what worked and what didn’t. Ideas of pure genius stand right next to pure banality. They provided the fusion of all those elements from the bygone world of our grandparents, and opened the door to an entirely new one.

(Yakity Yak)

But even if we recognize the language of these songs today, we still don’t quite get them. Even if Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock are sung in our own language, they sound absolutely quaint. Next to Black Sabbath and Public Enemy, this music is positively innocent. Yet the earthshattering shock of Rock’n Roll in its time dwarved either Heavy Metal or early Hip Hop in theirs. It was something entirely new, and almost entirely feared. The world which the Greatest Generation built was entirely different from what they’d hoped to build. The Baby Boomers saw a blank slate, and took the world in their own direction. And they got the idea for it from Leiber and Stoller.

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