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“The War on Rock ‘n Roll”

By: Allyssa (Ally) Robinson

In the early 1950’s, rock ‘n roll emerged as a musical style that represented African-American and middle-class sounds/styles. This new music was sexual, thought-provoking, and black dominated. The goal of rock ‘n roll was to bring classist and racist ideologies within the music industry to light by making the suppressed R&B sounds a mainstream occurrence. A societal change as large and impactful as that of rock n’ roll was sure to gain popularity and opposition quickly. Enter the powerful corporations of post-WW2 United States: The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the US government, the church, and the major record labels.

An important consideration for any societal dilemma is the political climate. World War 2 had recently ended (1945) and there was a newfound sense of pride, unity, and nationalism instilled within Americans. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed during WW2 – due to a cerebral hemorrhage – and was replaced by then Vice-President, Harry S. Truman. Truman proved to be one of the most unpopular presidents the United States of America had seen, resulting in a substantial decline in democratic support and a subsequent loss of power in 1953 when Dwight D. Eisenhower (republican) was elected 34th President of the United States of America. Eisenhower was very conservative and old-fashioned; he was the complete opposite of everything that rock ‘n roll represented. As the R&B music emerged and manifested, Eisenhower and his republican counterparts were determined to put a damper on the music and suppress the socially progressive ideas that it presented.

As far as the music industry was concerned, their main goal post-WW2 was to aid in recovering the economy, and they would did so by using the pleasure principle: if it feels good, buy it (sex sells)! This proved to be a successful technique for sales, but it created conflicts between the church’s Protestant/Christian beliefs of discipline and abstinence, especially as teenagers were emerging as a significant consumer market. During the war, teenagers had learned how to be good consumers and had prevailed as excellent consumers in the post-war society where they purchased records. These records however created a struggle within teenagers who were being advertised sex-culture while being taught to remain pure and innocent. More and more teenagers were facing delayed departures into adulthood as they completed high school/college but these teens sought an escape from their home lives, searching for leisure activities which manifested in the form of rock ‘n roll music. Teenagers were listening to rock ‘n roll music, and parents were afraid of the impact that it was having on their children as the music was a direct representation of sexuality, and black people.

Major record labels (Columbia, Radio Corporations of America (RCA), Capitol, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Decca, etc.) had shaped the music trends of the past but this power was slowly falling into the hands of consumers. During this time, major record labels took a huge hit because their ideological blinders stopped them from producing rock ‘n roll music. Independent labels popped up everywhere to capitalize on the rich market that was rock ‘n roll. From 1955-1959, the major record labels saw a decrease in top ten hits (40 to 30) while independent labels saw an increase from 11-59. This doesn’t take into account the fact that the marked had almost tripled over this time.

Major record labels treated rock ‘n roll music like a fad, relying on their subsidiaries to support until the fad had passed. Once it was clear that rock ‘n roll was here to stay, the major labels had white artists produce covers of rock ‘n roll songs, often stealing or reducing the credit of their black authors. The cover songs proved to be unsuccessful in the consumer market and the major record labels were desperate. ASCAP joined forces with the American government in a campaign called “War on Rock.”

Switching directions, the major record labels opted to find the most promising artist of the time in an attempt to overshadow rock ‘n roll. RCA’s Hugo Winterhalter recruited Elvis Presley who proved to be a raging success and carried the label for years. It was only in 1958, when Presley enlisted in the war, that his reign came to a halt. By the time Presley had returned home from Germany in 1960, there was not much of a market for him or his music. Other labels followed suit, signing artists such as Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Conway Twitty.

Buddy Holly signed with Coral (1949), a subsidiary of Decca. Buddy Holly was successful but his career came to a heartbreaking end in 1959 when he was killed in a plane crash along with rock n’ roll stars Ritchie Valens and JP “the big bopper” Richardson. This event is often remembered as ‘the day the music died.’ Coral went no further than Holly in the rock ‘n roll market, instead sticking to cover songs which is ironic considering that their initial branding was as an R&B label.

Conway Twitty was another artist who was very attractive to record labels because he was pop-oriented and country influenced but he could be branded as a rock ‘n roll artist. In doing this, major record labels would be able to reap the benefits that came along with the high demand of rock ‘n roll without promoting the rock ‘n roll culture (race, sex, drugs, political/social enlightenment).

Major record labels continued to roll out the cover records, going as far as to modify the song by changing lyrics and stylistic features. Once again, this was taking away from the middle-class and African-American sound that rock ‘n roll represented, while also encouraging a sense of purity culture within the American society. This was especially seen with hit artist Pat Boone who covered a variety of songs, even those that were out of his element. As teenagers began to represent a larger percent of consumers and learned to distinguish cover records from original pieces, cover songs became invaluable. Where major record labels struggled to pursue and accept such a dramatic shift in consumer interests, independent record labels flourished because they were more flexible, more in-tune with consumer demands, and had nothing to lose.

Major record labels were forced to change their strategy again, and this time around, they planned to divert consumers away from rock ‘n roll by pushing new types of music. This consisted of calypso, folk music, surf music, and schlock rock.

Schlock rock was a type of music that attempted to distract consumers from rock ‘n roll. While rock ‘n roll was edgy, sexual, and black influenced, schlock rock was not. In fact, schlock rock often favoured looks over talent, with a large amount of schlock rock artists being young men of Italian descent. Schlock rock was constructed to have a clean image. Where rock ‘n roll had the piano, saxophone, and drums, schlock rock had acoustics and strings. Where rock ‘n roll used sexual innuendos, schlock rock talked about falling in love. An example of a schlock rock artist would be Fabian (Fabiano Forte) who is of Italian descent, but chose to anglicize his name. Fabian’s 1959 song “This Friendly World” displays all the features of schlock rock with lovey-dovey lyrics and soft beat that is easy on the ears. The lyrics focus on the overwhelming sensation of love: “the world is such a wonderful place to wonder through; when you’ve got someone you love to wonder along with you. Overall, the goal of schlock rock was to make negate the importance of African-American and middle-class sounds by making it more white and clean-cut. The only exception to this rule was schlock rock artist, Chubby Checker (Ernest Evans).

Chubby Checker was black artist who’s name was inspired by Fats Domino, a black singer/songwriter who had a significant impact on early rock ‘n roll. Chubby Checker can be credited for hit song “the twist” that sparked a dance craze across the nation. This dance craze hit inspired record labels to produce endless amounts of dance related songs but once again, the dance fad faded out and proved that it would not be able to stand the test of time like rock ‘n roll would.

Things were changing quickly and music has proved to have moved beyond Broadway and the major record labels. Music trends were shaped by consumers instead of produces and this created frustration amongst major record labels, the US government, and ASCAP because the power was no longer in their hands. ASCAP was mainly part of the “war on rock” as an attempt to put Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) out of business as most rock ‘n roll music was written by BMI writers. The major labels were attempting to regain power/superiority by slowing the growth of independent labels, which were gaining popularity through the production of rock n’ roll songs in response to consumer demand. The US government and Eisenhower were determined to put a damper on rock ‘n roll so that it would not instill progressive leftist views within consumers.

Overall, the powers that be – the American government, and major record companies – were very determined to neutralize and suppress rock ‘n roll. Through many feeble attempts to diminish its impact, rock n’ roll has proved to stand the test of time.


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