Picking up where we left off, the 1950′s.
Let’s first dispel with a few stereotypes: Happy Days the 50′s was not. It wasn’t all about poodle skirts and pony tails, D.A.s and leather jackets and hanging around the malt shop doing the jitterbug until it was time to go home and watch Howdy Doody. The 50′s was also an era of bomb shelters, civil defense drills, cold war paranoia & witch hunts. Joseph McCarthy and his band of merry makers were on a quest to rid the U.S.A of evil commie bastards while the country was slowly and surely headed into another depression as the post WW2 prosperity faded and the baby boom tapered off.
The pop charts were largely dominated by inoffensive pablum such as Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney, remnants of the big band era & Broadway show tunes. Juvenile delinquency was on the rise and the kids were just plain bored. And a strange new sound was cutting through the nighttime air. From the exotic locale of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico just across the border from Del Rio, TX., a radio station by the call letters of XERF had a 50,000 Watt transmitter that was playing a strange new sound. Obviously with the power that 50,000 watts provides this sound was heard from Texas to Alaska & across the better part of the U.S.
From the less exotic locale of Nashville,Tenn. we had station WLAC blasting this new sound as well, covering just about anywhere and everywhere that XERF didn’t reach. These stations gave many people what was to be their first taste of a burgeoning new sound called rock ‘n’ roll. A youth movement was growing and had found its soundtrack.
This was the first generation of youth brought up in relative comfort with a bit of disposable income in their pockets and not much to dispose it on. They had found icons in Brando and Dean, who echoed their boredom and restlessness but were looking for something new to call their own. That this generation should glom on to those bastard sounds emanating from the tinny sounds of static filled old A/M radios is of no great surprise. It was a lifestyle within itself with its own code of dress, rules of conduct, dances and slang. Above and beyond whatever else it may have been, it was their’s solely. The fact that parents and the establishment didn’t like it or understand it was all that much to the better.
More importantly, reaching beyond the fact that parents didn’t dig it at all (which is always a good barometer of whether it’s good or not, they more that they dislike it … well, you know the story) was that it was directly addressed to the problems of teen-age America without condescension, patronizing attitudes or trivializing the trials & tribulations of adolesence. And you could dance to it.
Preachers railed against it, the govt. local & national tried to ban it, parents hated it and segregationists saw it as coming of the apocalypse, the end of the world cloaked in jungle rhythms, honking saxophones and boogie woogie beats. To that end of it, r ‘n’ r music has done as much or more to break down barriers both visible and invisible, between the races as any laws enacted in the 50′s did or could have even hoped for. I’ve read stories of performers crying out in tears of happiness seeing the ropes come down on segregated dance floors and black and white kids mixing it up together. An uncommon event in the 50′s and one that still held the distinct possibilities of landing all those involved in jail or run out of town on a rail or worse.
The mainstream success of R N R music gave a voice to the youth movement. With it came a sense of belonging, of something uniquely their own, something that addressed teenaged problems and frustrations for the first time in such a way that only another teenager could possibly understand and what was even better was that it was teens doing the talking. Ironically, one of the first great spokespersons for teen aged culture was Chuck Berry. It didn’t matter that he was black, an ex-convict & pushing 30. With tunes like “School Days,” “Too Much Monkey Business” & “Oh, Baby Doll,” he had his finger firmly on the pulse of day to day teenage life from city to country, coast to coast, sea to shining sea.
While it’s true that many of this first generation of rockers had seen their own adolescence come and go long ago, there were others who were well aware of their highly unique iconic status and of being in the position to help teenagers to vent their anger, frustrations and increasing sense of alienation to a world that really could’ve given a shit less. One such individual was the late great rocker: Eddie Cochran.
Born Ray Edward Cochrane (the “e” was later dropped from his stage name) on October 3, 1938 in Albert Lea, Minnesota, the Cochrane family originally hailed from Oklahoma. While still in his early teens the family made a brief foray back to Okla. City before following the dusty footsteps of thousands of Okies before them out to the sunny climes of SoCal, eventually landing in Bell Gardens, CA., a suburb of Los Angeles. In an interesting bit of trivia, the house of Eddie’s grandmother where the family stayed in Okla.City sat on the exact spot of the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building!
Eddie cut his first single: “Two Blue Singin’Stars” b/w “Mr. Fiddle” in 1955 for the EKKO label out of Chicago as a duet with the C&W singer Hank Cochran (no relation) as The Cochran Brothers. Two more singles for the Ekko label followed but went nowhere, although at least one of the tunes out of these sessions has since gone on to be a Rockabilly classic, ” Tired & Sleepy.” His first really big break came with his appearance in the classic 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, in which he performed “Twenty Flight Rock” and met Gene Vincent (also in the film and with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship, although it was short lived as Eddie died just 4 years later en route to Heathrow Airport on Jan. 8, 1960, after he had just finished up a highly successful UK tour with Gene).
A completely underrated guitarist, Eddie was just at home with jazz and swing as he was with country flat picking, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. He was a very highly in demand session player appearing on hundreds of sides other than his own and was one of the first rock guitar players to experiment in the studio with multi-tracking and overdubs. Many of his greatest sides are delivered with a relaxed and deceptively simple approach which endears him to neophyte rockers to this very day.
The accessibility of Eddie’s guitar work, the straight ahead drive with which he delivered it and his slyly observant takes on the teenage condition imbued his best work with a proto punk sensibility that has found its way into the ouevre of the Sex Pistols (who covered his “C’Mon Everybody” & “Something Else”), The NY Dolls, The Heartbreakers (“Get Off The Phone” starts with a stolen Cochran riff), The Ramones (“Suzy Is A Headbanger” may well be the best EC song he never wrote), The Who (their slamming take on “Summertime Blues” shows them at their punked-out best on the Live At Leeds LP), The Stones, Flamin’ Groovies, Blue Cheer and many others.
The three chords and a prayer approach to his best songs coupled with minimal production (there weren’t even drums on “C’Mon Everybody!” it was Jerry Capehart (long time sidekick of Eddie’s) beating on a taped up cardboard box), angst-ridden lyrics — “I’d like to help ya son, but you’re too young to vote…” — the frustrations of working your ass off to afford a car so some snotty babe who won’t give you the time of day hopefully might and trying to blow off a little steam on a friday night after grinding out the school work all week without getting busted by your folks: “Well, we’ll really have a party but we gotta leave a guard outside, if my folks come home I’m afraid they gonna have my hide.” All of these elements and the timelessness of his art all serve to lay down a virtual blueprint for the shape of punk to come.
After all, it’s only a short step stylistically and ideologically from the frustration and understated rage inherent in his tune “Summertime Blues” to that of The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” and The Stooges’ “No Fun.”
Eddie lived fast, he died young, left a good looking corpse and a helped pioneer a musical genre that despite various transformations and mutations has shown no signs of going away anytime soon.