Tag Archives: music

[September 3, 1961] Musical interlude

by Gideon Marcus

Galactic Journey is all about spotlighting the exotic, from science fiction to the Space Race.  Sometimes, the far out stuff can be found right here on Earth.  I’m talking about music, man.  Music.

Music is a weird thing.  Unlike evolution in animals, which scientists believe is a smooth, unbroken process, music seems to evolve in sudden spurts.  A genre will be born, flourish, and then become overripe.  That’s when another will spawn out of nowhere and supplant the old one.

For instance, in the 30s and 40s, popular music was all about Big Band Jazz.  Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, they all peaked pre-War and kept us dancing while our boys (and ladies) went to fight the Axis.  After the War, that music evolved into a syrupy, schmaltzy mess.  By 1954, the radio was almost unlistenable, filled as it was with crooning and orchestras. 

Unless you tuned into the Black stations.  There, a fusion of Western and Blues called “Rock n’ Roll” was catching fire.  The Crows and Chuck Berry were joined by White performers like Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis Presley.  All of a sudden, music was alive again.  The late 50s, right around the time I started this column, were an exciting time for listening.

(Don’t get me wrong — Jazz was and is still a thing.  Coltrane, Gillespie, Brubeck…just look at the recent popularity of Take Five, for instance.  But it’s for hipsters and hepcats, not for the hoi polloi.)

This may be a purely subjective view, but the 60s seem to mark another transition period for popular music.  It seems to be floundering, torn between the classic (and now stale) riffs of the last decade and…something else.  Of course, one rarely knows how a revolution will work itself out until its over, but there are a couple of movements might be indicative of where things are going.

On the one hand, you’ve got The Miracles with last year’s popular tune, Shop Around, and The Marvelettes with their brand new hit, Please Mr. Postman.  These acts show off the Motown Records sound, a Detroit based mix of Pop and Rhythm and Blues.  You can add Bobby Lewis to that list: his Tossing and Turning was probably the hit of this year, and while he now lives in New York, he started his music career in Detroit.  To my ears, the music these acts produce sounds fresh, and it may well become the emblematic sound of the ’60s.

On the other hand, you’ve got instrumental music — what people are calling “Surf Guitar.”  If you’re not familiar with surfing, it’s wave-riding done on a long, flat board.  The Hawaiians made it popular, and it’s become an overnight craze here on California’s coasts.  A certain kind of music has become identified with it, a lyric-less, guitar-intensive sound. 

Big acts include Link Wray, The Ramrods, and The Ventures.  On the other side of the pond, Cliff Richard and his Shadows have refined the genre to a high art.  Dig their hit single, Apache, in particular.  And don’t forget the Swedish Spotnicks!

Surf music is a big departure from the rock of the ’50s.  The simple riffs are gone, as are, for the most part, variations on the 12-bar blues (God, may I never hear them again…) In their place are throbbingly energetic, almost raucous tunes.  These songs aren’t vehicles for words — they are raw emotion, displays of real musical prowess.

I saw a prime example of one of these guitar masters last night, a local talent who still hasn’t cut his first single.  Dick Dale lit up a Vista stage with traditional and original songs, all sizzling with his instrumental virtuosity.  The man is fab. 

Maybe instrumental guitar won’t be the “in thing” for the decade.  It probably requires too much skill, and the audience may be too limited (coastal types).  But man alive, I’m sure digging the scene.  I hope it lasts a good while, at least!

Next up…  a report from Worldcon on this year’s Hugos!  Will they match my Galactic Stars for 1960?

[August 17, 1960] Dancing to a new beat (The Twist)

We interrupt this cavalcade of science fact and fiction articles to bring you…some pop culture.

Seven years ago, The Crows came out with Gee, what is now generally recognized to have been the first “rock ‘n’ roll” song.  It was a revolution–within months, the crooners and the overripe schmaltzy swing tunes were swept aside in favor of the new mode.  Well, at least on the Black stations.  Then Elvis and Pat Boone came along and made this scary new music safe for everyone else. 

This year, it appears Chubby Checker has sparked a similar, related revolution.  With a simple, catchy rock ‘n’ roll tune, The Twist, he appears to have single-handedly invented solo dancing. 

Think about it: for centuries, from the Estampie to the Waltz to the Cha Cha Cha, dancing has been something you do with partners.  Now, with The Twist, you can shrug all by your lonesome–or with hundreds of friends.  There’s no denying its popularity.  Checker’s song is at the top of the charts this week (displacing Elvis’ short-lived tenure, thankfully), and if you caught his performance on American Bandstand the other day, you were probably tempted to join in the fun.  There may not be a jukebox in America what doesn’t have, at any given hour, several teens around it Twisting the night away.

I only hope that Checker, a promising nightclub player with a talent for mimicry (check out last Christmas’ surprise hit, The Class), doesn’t get pigeon-holed, doomed to release dance number after dance number to stay afloat. 

I suppose it is better to have one hit than none. 

When the music died (2-03-1959)

The music died yesterday.

When I started reading science fiction back in 1950, we were in what I called a “music blight.”  The bouncy swing tunes of the war years had gone overripe.  Schmaltzy ballads and crooning filled the airwaves.  For a while, I didn’t even bother to turn the radio on, so sure was I that nothing of note would be playing.

Then, around 1953, I discovered “Black” stations (as opposed to “White” stations).  There was the energy and passion I had been looking for: Negro performers fusing blues and bluegrass and jazz into something that didn’t even yet have a name.

But Negro stations aren’t that common, and the White stations are stronger out here.  Then, around ’55, rock ‘n’ roll jumped the color tracks and careened into the mainstream.  Bill Haley was the pioneer, and of course Elvis.  Negro luminaries like Chuck Berry followed.  “Oh Mine Papa” was banished to make way for “Maybellene.”  It was a renaissance of music, not a little aided by the influx of sounds from south and southeast of the border (Latin, Cubano, Calypso).  Gradually my radio came to be on all the time.

Rockabilly was one of the first and still one of the strongest branches of rock ‘n’ roll.  Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison… these are all household names.  But perhaps the greatest rockabilly performer of them all was Buddy Holly. 

Holly was versatile, mixing in folkish refrains a la The Everly Brothers with his toe-tapping rockabilly tunes.  “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “It’s so Easy,” “Every Day” The list goes on for miles, and he’d just gotten started.  Just 22 and newly married, he was set to write the musical landscape of the 1960s.

And now he’s gone.

Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) exploding onto the scene last year with his sizzling rendition of the Mexican traditional song, “La Bamba,” and his ballad, “Donna,” has sold a million copies.  He was just 17, a high-school drop-out, and had just starred in his first movie.  Valens could have brought a latin touch to rock n’ roll just as Presley and Haley had popularized Negro music.

But now he’s gone.

24-year-old J. P. Richardson was better known as The Big Bopper.  His novelty rock n’ roll song, “Chantilly Lace,” was the third-most played record last year.  A disc jockey by trade, he’d taken a break to make it big and tour with Holly and Valens.

All three of them had just entertained a thousand fans at the Surf ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  They then got on a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza bound for Fargo, North Dakota for gig last night.  They never made it.  Shortly after take off, the plane crashed killing all aboard (including the 22-year old pilot, Roger Peterson).

Today, my heart is so sick, I can barely type.  I know I’m sharing this emotion with millions of people around the nation, around the world.  I cannot even fathom the blow that has been dealt to music.  This is one of those unforeseeable events that changes the course of history and will always have us pondering “what if?”  and “if only.” 

I apologize for the break in schedule.  I just felt it important that I lower the flag of this column to half-mast in honor of the passing of these three musicians. 

Rest assured that my show will go on.  Put “That’ll be the Day” on the Victrola, have a good cry, and hang in there.  I’ll be back day-after-tomorrow.

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