Chris Cobb has been reporting the music scene for the past twenty years for the Ottawa Citizen. This excellent article traces the roots of pop music with a focus on the major contributors who helped shape the music industry.
John Whelan, Ottawa Beatles Site Researcher


By Chris Cobb, the Ottawa Citizen

December 4, 1999

From ragtime to The Beatles, technology and social upheavals swayed popular music. Chris Cobb
finds the dull hits of the past 15 years set the stage for the next big pop revolution. But what will it be?

"They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile."

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely
Hearts Club Band

It's fitting, perhaps, that the century's last phase of pop music is creatively dead.

The music-cum-revolution that began with the Beatles in the early 1960's is now a mishmash of aging, multi-millionaire rock stars squeezing their last bit of ego gratification from the great tube of life -- and a slew of others who think that originality is the act of adjusting slightly what has gone before and pretending they thought it first.

In other words, there hasn't been anything even vaguely new on the pop/rock music scene for at least 15 years.

Some say that everything around today can be traced back to either The Beatles' White Album or Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. They have a point. But the Beatles weren't averse to stealing an idea or two.

But when the Rolling Stones and Elton John, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin remnants Plant and Paige, the newly resurgent Santana, the grizzled rock-poet Bob Dylan and the rest finally become immune to the elixir of life, what's next? A new Presley, a new Beatles, another big band era to swing us in to the early 2000's? Not likely. But nobody saw The Beatles coming either.

There are reasons why old rock and rollers are still making vast amounts of money churning out pale imitations of the music they wrote and recorded 20 or 30 years ago. Some, like Rod Stewart, don't even bother pretending they have anything new to say because they know that concert-ticket buyers don't really care. Nostalgia plays a significant part in their latter-day success. But to give them credit, they remain viable entities because few who have followed have been able to do it better. And certainly, no musical artist in the past 30 years has threatened to take popular music off in a totally different direction.

If it isn't too late to lay claim to one of the great understatements of the 20th century, things have changed in pop music since 1900 and in the last few years of the 1890's.

Pop -- and for these purposes we also include post-Beatles rock -- has been driven by technology and heavily influenced by the goings-on in society, be it war and economic depression, or peace and prosperity.

We began the century with acoustic recording, used so magnificently by the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who was the first performer to make significant amounts of money from recorded music. Then we moved into electrical recording and beyond.

The phonograph, or gramophone, was in early development and still a rich man's toy. Later, of course, it was to have a revolutionary effect by taking popular music from an essentially intimate experience between artist and audience -- or among family members sitting around a piano -- and allowing it to be heard by millions of listeners in the privacy of their own homes.

The century opened with vaudeville and so-called Gaslight Songs. It was an era when a hit song was measured by the number of pieces of sheet music it sold. Music stores hired song pluggers to play the music for potential buyers. Song pluggers would often even touch the music, if asked.

This was an earlier version of standing in a record store today and sampling music through headphones. Even that has been done before: in the 1950's and '60's, record stores usually allowed you to hear a vinyl recording before you bought it.

So when it comes to pop music, there's nothing new under the sun. On the other hand, we've come a long way.

"In the early part of the century, popular music was sitting around the piano playing from sheet music," says Ottawa musicologist Brian Murphy. "The sheet music came from songwriters producing original songs, others adapting classical and other types of music such as novelty songs from the burlesque circuit. Until the arrival of the phonograph, and later radio, that was how the pop music system worked. You went to the music store, had the music played to you and then took it home to play yourself."

For all the different styles and types of pop music during the past 100 years, it has one common denominator: pop music has always been the soundtrack of the times.

During the brutality of the First World War (1914-18), upbeat, jaunty patriotic songs -- most famously, A Long Way to Tipperary -- were in vogue. These tunes were designed to make everyone feel good about the fact that a generation of young men was being slaughtered on the muddy, disease-ridden battlefields of Europe, and elsewhere, for no apparent reason.

It was in sharp contrast to radical protest music 50 years later, which was designed to make everyone loathe and detest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and, indeed, played a significant part in rallying young people against another pointless conflict.

After the First World War, misery was past, and ragtime, popularized through a nifty little piece of technology called player-pianos, was hot; jazz was beginning and everyone had work. For a decade or so, it was party time. The Great Depression, which was to beget Hitler and the Second World War, was coming, but people were getting a happy, much-deserved respite for a while. It was a time of hope, music and good times.

By the mid-1920's phonographs were in most homes, and wax discs, revolving at 78 r.p.m., heralded the era of popular music as later generations would come to know it. Blues great Bessie Smith, whose influence would be widespread and seep into future generations, was at her height.

As the flourishing economy began to grind to a halt and ultimately collapse into human misery, pop music gave people a means of escape. The glittery Busby Berkley musicals and great songwriters such as Irving Berlin preceded the proliferation of big band music, which made huge pop stars out of the likes of Benny Goodman and Harry James.

Popular music's future symbiotic relationship with radio began to emerge in the late 1930's when the big bands performed live in New York -- and Toronto -- and were broadcast throughout North America. Touring was the bread and butter of the big bands, but they gradually began to notice radio exposure attracting more fans to their concerts.

Yet not everyone in the music business was happy about the new appeal of radio.

"Music had been phonograph driven," says Murphy, "and then came radio. Now here's the irony: record companies didn't want their records played on the radio because they figured that, if people heard them on the air for free, they would not want to go out and buy them. That may be one of the dumbest attitudes of the century."

During the Second World War (1939-45), Glen Miller was one of the hottest touring acts, and his uptempo songs -- Little Brown Jug, In the Mood, String of Pearls, etc -- became huge hits. In a similar musical groove were the Andrew Sisters with Don't Fence Me In and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Sinatara and Crosby also emerged. And growing in the background was country and western, blues and modern American folk music kick-started by Woody Guthrie and The Weavers.

After the war, and into the 1950's rhythm and blues started taking hold, and it wasn't long before white guys clued in: Pat Boone being the first of hundreds of young white boys to make nice incomes from black music.

And so it continued until Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed coined the immortal phrase in the spring of 1954, which he was playing R&B: "This music," he said, "makes me rock and makes me roll." (Rock and roll was black jargon for having sex).

Enter Elvis Presley, the white king of black music.

"Elvis knew all the southern black music," says Carleton University sociologist George Pollard, "and he knew all the black moves. From 1955 to 1963 was the Elvis era -- the era of three-chord rock. They called him the King, but if there was a king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry would be deserving of the title."

Sandwiched somewhere between Elvis and the early '60's entry of The Beatles were Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who in Pollard's opinion crafted the first modern pop songs (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow being one).

The Beatles, and their wonderful musical and studio innovations, were the pride and joy of the post-war baby boomers and, to a great extent, still are. The Rolling Stones, the world's ultimate bar band, marketed themselves successfully as the antithesis of the wholesome John, George, Paul and Ringo. In Southern California, The Beach Boys became the musical expression of sea, surf and fun -- the world's ultimate party band contriving a world where only beach babes and fast cars were needed to secure happiness.

In terms of influence, these three groups are a significant triumvirate. But they spawned hundreds of other two-and three-year wonders whose creativity and staying power fizzled early:

The Guess Who, Supertramp, The Eagles, Boomtown Rats, Duran Duran, Bay City Rollers, Culture Club, Peter Frampton, etc. etc. etc. The list could fill another page.

At least 95 percent of rock music throughout the century has been about love in its various forms -- requited, unrequited, consummated, unconsummated, found and the romantic variation and several thousand songs -- mostly including the word "baby" -- have been written about it.

There have been a few symbols too over the years: Motorcycles have symbolized the "Born to be Wild" spirit among young people, and cars, which the Beach Boys loved with the same passion as girls, were all about Fun, fun, fun and cruising up and down main street in search of some action.

Pop music isn't dead, far from it. But in the last flickering light of the 20th century, innovation in the field has been replaced by rapidly disposable novelty acts -- Spice Girls, Back Street Boys etc. -- and a strange blending of musical styles that were once separate and distinct. Country music, as we knew it, will soon be history. Musicians from many genres have crossed over and are struggling to find room in the middle.

What's next?

The Internet may play a big part in delivering music in the next century, and the age of digital. It's all a far cry from the aluminum-wrapped cylinders used to record music at the beginning of the century, and the hand-cranked gadgets used to play it.

But another Beatles and all they represented?

Not a chance, says Murphy.

"They were the product of so many things besides music," he says. "It's impossible to believe that all the stars could be lined up in the same ever again."

The Definitive List of the Most Influential Popular Musicians of the 20th Century
(give or take a few)

	Enrico Caruso		Bing Crosby		Elvis Presley
	Jelly Roll Morton	Edith Piaf		The Beatles
	Billy Murray		Frank Sinatra		Rolling Stones
	Marie Lloyd		Aretha Franklin		Beach Boys
	Bessie Smith		Ray Charles		Jimi Hendrix
	W.C. Handy		Duke Ellington		Bob Dylan
	Louis Armstrong		Hank Williams		Pink Floyd
	Irving Berlin		Fats Waller		Elton John
	George Gershwin		Buddy Holly		David Bowie
	Benny Goodman		Chuck Berry		Madonna

Compiled by Chris Cobb with the help of Carleton University's George Pollard and musicologist Brian (The Source) Murphy

Copyright, the Ottawa Citizen, December 4, 1999.
E-published here with permission.

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