Friday, March 28, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record III: My First Pick

It was the oldest recording I ever heard that sounded like rock & roll.  That’s what it basically boiled down to.  Having no expertise in music, I couldn’t really explain the reasons it came over my speakers that way.  It just did. 

It was probably the drums.  The sticks hammered the skins in a heavy, aggressive manner, pounding out the backbeat in a way the listener couldn’t ignore.  This wasn’t the blend-into-the-background beat that typified the Western music of the early 20th century (and before). From the opening cymbal crash, this was a drum-pummeling that you could hear over the accompanying piano and harmonica all through the song.  This was a loud shuffle rhythm that urged you to dance.  This was the grab-your-attention-and-never-let-go sound that would become the hallmark of rock & roll as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and others came to national attention in the 1950s (a moment conventionally thought of as the musical genre’s beginning, a notion that — as my previous posts in this series say — more recent music critics are contesting, with some pushing rock’s inception as far back as the 1920s).  This was a sound slightly ahead of its time.

While a similar kind of wild drumming had been heard before by big-band drummers like Mickey Scrima (who pounded the time for Harry James and His Orchestra’s 1939 record “Back Beat Boogie”) and rhythm demon Gene Krupa, this sound came from a small ensemble that more closely approximated the rock & roll bands to come.  Yes, the most conspicuous instrument to carry the melody was a piano, not a guitar, but the musicians still had the same kind of tight-knit, compact sound.

In short, I had a hard time believing that the song had been recorded all the way back on May 17, 1940. 

I’m talking about harmonica-player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s rhythm & blues number “New Early in the Morning” (a more upbeat do-over of his bluesier “Early in the Morning”).  I discovered this standout track lurking on the first side of the CD set The First Rock-and-Roll Record.  By that time, I had already consulted a number of sources pondering the identity of the CD’s title, and I had only come across a brief mention of the song on the Wikipedia page “Origins of Rock and Roll,” where the recording is given all the prominence of Where’s Waldo. 

Why hadn’t I encountered this not-so-proto proto-rock & roll performance earlier in my explorations?  Why hadn’t Nick Toshes profiled Sonny Boy Williamson, the way the writer did so many other rock heralds, in his revisionist volume Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll?  Why did Jim Dawson and Steve Propes start the timeline for their book What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record? four years after Williamson’s sure-fire short-lister?  The first song that the authors consider is a saxophone solo in a jazz concert, and when you think of rock & roll, the saxophone isn’t the first instrument to come to mind.  

I was actually able to track down Jim Dawson’s e-mail address, and I wrote him to ask why “New Early in the Morning” wasn’t regularly considered a contender for the first rock & roll record.  He wrote back (which was nice of him) saying that a number of tunes predating the book’s first entry had been brought to his attention since publication, and that he would forward my question to Propes.  (I haven’t heard from either of them since, but it was still good of Dawson to get back to me.) 

I also left a comment on Before Elvis author Larry Birbaum’s YouTube video, the video that summarizes his book.  I stuck my neck out and suggested that “New Early in the Morning” be considered the first rock & roll record.  Birnbaum responded (which was kind of him, too), saying that he thought Big Joe Turner and Jim Johnson’s “Roll ’Em, Pete” of 1938 had an even stronger backbeat than the Williamson track, so he disagreed with me.  And I had to disagree with him: the most prominent (only?) instrument on the original recording of “Roll ’Em, Pete” is a piano.  While the tune does indeed have a brisk beat, no percussion is sounding it out on the disc (although later recordings would readily remedy this).  So, the original 1938 pressing of “Roll ’Em, Pete” doesn’t sound as much like rock & roll to me as “New Early in the Morning” does. 

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (1914-1948)

These exchanges cemented in my mind that Sonny Boy Williamson’s “New Early in the Morning” with its vigorous drums — played by one Fred Williams — deserved the renown of being named the very first rock & roll record.

However, after an extensive search on line, I was unable to find a release date or catalogue number for a 1940-41 78 r.p.m. record (the format of the day) by Sonny Boy Williamson titled “New Early in the Morning.”   (For example, a search of the Library of Congress’ 78 collection yielded no results.)  From what I’ve been able to gather on the Internet, the song can only be found on recent compilation CDs.  So, for all I know, “New Early in the Morning” was never released on 78 r.p.m. in a timely manner after its recording.  That might be why “New Early in the Morning” isn’t widely considered “the first rock & roll record”: there may have never been a record in the first place.

Be that as it may, I eventually changed my mind.  After doing some more reading, and a little contemplating, I was persuaded that a different record did more to qualify for the title.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West Side Cuento, Segunda Parte

I’d like to return for a moment to my post about the prospective West Side Story movie remake by Steven Spielberg, and how I would like to see such a film have the musical’s Puerto Rican/Nuyorican characters sing and speak to each other in Spanish.  To help illustrate my point in my previous post, I embedded the above video from the 2009 Broadway revival, which did indeed mix Spanish and English, just as I hope Spielberg’s film (should it come about) will do.

The scene from the video features the musical’s well-known song “A Boy Like That,” sung in Spanish as “Un Hombre Asi.”  The scene depicts Tony (Matt Cavanaugh) and Maria (Josephina Scaglione), the Romeo and Juliet figures, and Maria’s friend Anita (Karen Olivo), the love of Maria’s brother, Bernardo, whom Tony — in the heat of the moment — killed in a knife fight the night before. 

The mix of languages in this scene, Spanish and English, makes palpable Maria’s entrapment between two conflicting worlds.  When Anita sings “Un Hombre Asi” to Maria, the viewer more forcefully grasps that Anita is appealing to Maria’s sense of family and community.  This feeling is much stronger than it was in all of the strictly Anglophone productions of West Side Story that I’ve seen.

And when Maria finally pushes back against Anita, and shouts — in English — “You should know better” to her, the moment strikes like a thunderclap: Maria has assertively chosen a place with the English-speaking Tony (“There’s a place for us”), not necessarily a place apart from her Nuyorican community, but one that allows a different, more inclusive identity. 

It becomes clear to us that Anita senses Maria growing away from a demarcated Nuyorican identity.  As she sinks onto the bed with her hand covering her face, the audience tangibly gets the sense that Anita — having just lost Bernardo — is now losing Maria, too.  Then, Maria continues to assert her new identity by singing to Anita in English.  The song that she sings, “I Have a Love,” has perhaps the most beautiful verses in all of West Side Story, so this is one Puerto Rican-sung number in the musical that ought to retain its English lyrics.  Finally, when Anita joins Maria in singing the song’s final verse in English, the gesture forcefully communicates that Maria has changed Anita’s mind, more forcefully than it would have had the scene been played entirely in English.  Moments like this illustrate the expressive power that comes when using a mix of multiple languages in a single work. 

With all of the newfound strengths in this two-tongued approach, I was very dismayed to learn that the creators of this bilingual production of West Side Story — which used Spanish only very sparingly to begin with — cut back drastically on the use of the language later in the musical’s run.  According to Playbill, most of “A Boy Like That’s” original English dialogue and lyrics were reinstated, and “I Feel Pretty,” initially sung in the revival as “Mi Siento Hermosa” (another Spanish-language video that I embedded), reverted to English in its entirety.  Considering “Un Hombre Asi’s” emotional impact, I can’t see how returning to a (virtually) monolingual rendition of the musical was a change for the better.  I’m left to imagine that the creators of the 2009 revival were hit with mucho negative feedback from viewers (out-of-towners?) who just didn’t like to be linguistically challenged by a Broadway musical (on the other hand, the change might have been prompted by nothing more ominous than disappointing ticket sales). 

Whatever the reason, this now makes it more unlikely that a prospective remake of West Side Story will follow the 2009 revival’s polyglot daring.  I can keep my fingers crossed, but the chances of Spielberg making a bilingual film of the musical were slim to begin with.  And news of the 2009 revival’s reversion to English-only adds to the improbability.  But I hope that a bilingual audiovisual version of West Side Story, by Spielberg or by someone else, is made one day.  Maybe, like Tony and Maria, there’s a place for that as well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record II: Before Elvis

In my first blogpost on the subject of the elusive “first rock & roll record,” I discussed the idea of rhythm & blues and rock & roll being more or less the same thing.  I continue that topic here.

The above video is by writer Larry Birnbaum, summarizing his book Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ’n’ Roll.  Meticulously researched, Before Elvis sees the evolution of rock & roll as so gradual that it doesn’t put forward a “first” record.  Like Nick Tosches’ Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ RollBirnbaum’s Before Elvis also advances the view of rhythm & blues as a form of rock & roll, bolstering the idea that the musical form did not begin with Bill Haley’s platter of “Rock Around the Clock” and with Elvis Presley, as casual conventional wisdom (and Rolling Stone) says.  And this video handily touches upon some of the (many) songs that music historians submit as worthy of the title. 

Among the other more notable musical candidates for the mantle of first rock & roll record are:

• The first recorded mention of the phrase “rock and roll(ing),” referring to a kind of African American religious rapture when praying, on a 1904 wax cylinder of the minstrel showpiece “Camp Meeting Jubilee” by the Haydn Quartet, working under the name the Edison Quartet.

• The first record to use the words “rock” and “roll” together in a secular (and sexual) context, Trixie Smith’s 1922 classic blues number “My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)”:

• The jazz ensemble the Washboard Rhythm Kings’s frantic 1932 rendition of the jazz standard “Tiger Rag”:

• Father-and-son music collectors John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 field recording of a rapturous religious ring shout in a Louisiana church, “Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah),” with vocals by Austin Coleman and Joe Washington Brown:

• Blues shouter Big Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson’s 1938 song “Roll ’Em, Pete,” which Wikipedia calls “one of the earliest recorded examples of a backbeat”:

• The 1945 country & western tune “Guitar Boogie” by Arthur Smith, the first boogie-woogie record played on the electric guitar (re-released in 1948):

• Singer-pianist Amos Milburn’s explosive “Chicken Shack Boogie” (1948):

• Texas singer-guitarist Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” (1949), whose hard-driving electric guitar style foreshadows that of Chuck Berry in the 1950s:

• Saxophonist Jimmy Preston’s anarchic “Rock the Joint” (1949), recorded with his band, the Prestonians (the song was later covered by Bill Haley and his country & western group the Saddlemen in 1952):

• Guitarist Les Paul and vocalist Mary Ford’s electrical and multi-tracked version of the songbook standard “How High the Moon” (1951):

Big Joe Turner’s influential, palm-pounding 1954 blues shout “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”:

• Although Birnbaum never sides with any particular song to be the “first” rock & roll record (he briefly puts forward “Roll ’Em, Pete” as a possibility before quickly withdrawing it), Before Elvis still nominates Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo” (1954), “with its habanera bass line and Caribbean lilt,” as another recording that should be considered a contender:

Other titles and a more complete history of rock & roll’s ancestry can be found in this informative and enlightening (and lengthy) Wikipedia article.

Birnbaum’s view that rock & roll did not grow out of African American blues is a minority opinion among music scholars.  The majority of music historians say that rock & roll’s basic form sprang from the heavily African-influenced music (because some of its characteristics were passed down by black slaves) of the Delta blues: musical form, plainspoken lyrics, blue notes, etc.  However, Birnbaum believes that the Delta blues weren’t isolated from American culture, and owe at least as much of their music, lyrics, and style to white popular culture and European influences.  So, even though boogie-woogie and hokum represent two examples of the musical form known as the twelve-bar blues — so called because of the its popularizing by W.C. Handy, “the father of the blues” — the form was actually given its shape, Birnbaum argues, by citified minstrel-show performers and songwriters, not by backwoods bluesmen.  

Left to right: Jimmy Preston, Amos Milburn, Goree Carter

For my next post, I’ll talk about the platter that I initially chose as the “first rock & roll record” before I changed my mind.

Excerpts of recordings from 1927 to 1949 that some music buffs have considered contestants for the accolade of rock & roll’s first record

Monday, March 17, 2014

West Side Cuento

Word on the street (i.e., the entertainment press) is that talks are now underway for Steven Spielberg to remake West Side Story, the beloved 1957 Broadway musical that became a beloved 1961 Oscar-winning movie.  The idea has its detractors, who feel (not unreasonably) that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ cinematic adaptation got everything right the first time, so there’s no need to revisit it.

But I disagree.  Unlike Citizen Kane or La Strada or any other classic film not adapted from a previous source, West Side Story began as a work in another medium: in this case, a stage musical — which continues to be widely performed to this day.  Every time a new production of the venerated musical is staged, its creators are, at least spiritually, “remaking” the movie.

However, a new version of West Side Story for the big screen would need to give potential viewers a reason not to stay home and just watch the 1961 movie on DVD.  In other words, it would need to speak to contemporary audiences.  

My suggestion?  I’m glad you asked.  Given America’s growing ethnic and racial diversity, I would urge Spielberg and his team to follow the lead of Arthur Laurents’ 2009 Broadway revival and shoot the scenes of the Puerto Rican (or more precisely, Nuyorican) characters in Spanish.  Not the entire film, just those scenes where those characters, for whom Spanish is presumably their first language, talk and sing to each other.  The interweaving of English and Spanish could also be a theme throughout the film.  (And if you read my blogpost grousing over Nazis singing in English in Cabaret, my suggestion couldn’t possibly shock you.)

My recommendation probably seems counterintuitive: Spanish dialogue and lyrics in a movie intended primarily for U.S. audiences would likely require subtitles, and Americans, for the most part, hate reading subtitles.  Also, what would the subtitles say?  West Side Story’s lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, who has done a thing or two since then, and he might not want substitute Spanish lyrics preserved on film.  And even if he gave his okay, Spanish translations of the songs couldn’t be literal, so what would the subtitles say, Sondheim’s original lyrics or a literal translation of the Spanish lyrics?  All of this would need to be ironed out.

But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Spielberg, who knows how to entertain an audience (assuming he directs it himself, rather than just producing it).  After all, if he can turn a three-hour, black & white film about a downbeat subject like the Holocaust into a box-office champ that grosses $96 million domestically, then he can do just about anything, cinematically speaking, so subtitles should be a piece of cake.

That’s my suggestion: shoot the scenes between the Puerto Rican characters in Spanish.  In fact, I think that shooting those scenes in Spanish is the best reason to remake West Side Story.  If Spielberg decides to film the entire movie in English, I just might switch sides and join the opposing camp.  Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

Scenes from the 2009 revival of ‘West Side Story’:

And ‘America’ performed on Spanish television:

Friday, March 14, 2014

The First Rock & Roll Record

For most of last year, I ruminated on one question: What was the first rock & roll record?

Now, I wasn’t expecting to find a definitive answer.  I just thought it was a good framework to help me reacquaint myself with some old music I hadn’t listened to for a while.  A decade or two ago, I used to listen to a couple of late-night radio shows that played rhythm & blues music of the 1940s and ’50s.  I really enjoyed the music, but not so much that I sought out any of the old songs to buy.  Simply listening to the radio shows on a regular basis satisfied my appetite for the music.  As the years went by, I became interested in other things, and other kinds of musics, and my fondness for rhythm & blues went into hibernation.

Last year, however, a chance encounter with some historical materials pondering the identity of the “first” rock & roll record reintroduced me to some rhythm & blues music that I hadn’t listened to for a long time.  The gist of the various materials — books, CDs, Web articles — was that the music we now think of as “rhythm & blues” at some point morphed into the music we now call “rock & roll,” and many of the sources asked themselves: At what point did this happen?  One element in this inquiry was that the phrase “rock and roll” predates the music and was introduced into song well before the emergence of the four-man electric-guitar ensemble.  And some of the materials arrived at their own, often divergent answers.  So, using some books on the topic as guides, I thought that asking this question myself would give me a good excuse to delve back into rhythm & blues, and its history, and to see if I could come up with an answer of my own.

I (finally) started buying many of the songs mentioned in the books, including an anthology CD titled The First Rock-and-Roll Record, which contained a good deal of them.  After marinating myself in the music for months, I thought that I had, in fact, come up with an answer, with my own contender for the title of “first rock & roll record,” and I started to draft a blogpost about it.  However, my writing on the subject never seemed to take off — perhaps having to do with my inexperience scribing about music — and draft after draft turned into one false start after another.  Before long, after reading more books and other materials on the subject, I began to question my answer.  And I never got around to finishing my writings. 

So, below I’m printing an essay that I began writing last summer in an effort to put forward my own nominee for “first rock & roll record.”  It was supposed to be the first in a number of posts on the subject, withholding the identity of my candidate until the very end.  I have since changed my mind, but I thought that this post — which I hope to follow up with newer ones — will demonstrate my mind’s evolution on the issue:
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five

“Rock ’n’ roll was an evolutionary process — we just looked around and it was here.... To name any one record as the first would make any of us look a fool.” —Billy Vera 

I’m about to make myself look like a fool. 

Usually, when broaching the subject, or even the idea, of a “first rock & roll record” — or “rock and roll” or “rock ’n’ roll” — it’s both easy and open minded to say that there isn’t one.  The formation of the musical genre was just too complex, and its history is lost in the sepulchers of time, never to be revived.  The answer will likely never, ever be found.  But — good golly, Miss Molly — it sure is fun to try to find out!  It sure is a good excuse to play a lot of music that (for the most part) is fun to listen to, and to discover how the various musical genres combined and blended to turn into the sound that took the world by storm!

The above quote by bandleader and music historian Billy Vera is from his foreword in the book What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?, co-authored by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes.  Their answer?  In the time-honored tradition I just mentioned, they don’t have one.  Still, Dawson and Propes — and their readers — have a grand old time combing the histories of and the stories behind 50 would-be contenders for the title, from Illinois Jacquet’s volcanic saxophone solo during the first “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert in 1944 to Elvis Presley’s haunting “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956.  All 50 songs are nominated; each gets its own chapter; but none goes home with the trophy.   Understandable, but also a little unsatisfying.

This isn’t to say that Dawson and Propes’s non-answer is a cop-out.  The two authors are obviously very knowledgeable about the early years of rock & roll and beyond, and they amply demonstrate an unyielding affection for the music.  But the absence of even a provisional winner — unless one considers “Heartbreak Hotel” the victor by virtue of it being the ultimate song in the book — doesn’t clearly explain how all these musical strands tie together.  I thought I’d offer an alternative.

But if such conversant authors as Dawson and Propes were unable to offer the title of the first rock & roll record, how am I qualified to offer one instead?  Well ... I’m not, actually.  Although I’ve been listening to the rhythm & blues music of the 1940s and ’50s for decades, I’ve only very recently started to study the music’s history and its connection to big-name rockers like Elvis.  So, I’m a total novice at this.  Why, then, should I even attempt to designate a “first rock & roll record” at all?

I started this essay intending only to write about a handful of contenders for the crown, without declaring a winner at all, à la Dawson and Propes.  But after I came up with my short list of record titles, one jumped out at me as a stronger candidate than any of the others.  After more reading and more contemplation, I couldn’t think of a reason (other than my own lack of expertise on the topic) why that particular record didn’t deserve the accolade — or, at the very (very) least, my disquisition of nomination.  After all, other titles have been proclaimed the first rock & roll record by various authorities.  What have I got to lose — other than any pretense of musical knowledge?

Illinois Jacquet

“The first rock ’n’ roll record?  My big question is: by what criteria?”  —Billy Vera, foreword, What Was the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record?
An excellent question, Mr. Vera!  When I say “rock & roll,” what am I talking about?  One reason why defining the term is so tricky is because this musical genre has absorbed the influences of so many others.  The Beatles are (justifiably) seen as the world’s pre-eminent rock band.  But their offerings range from the upbeat pop gem “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963) to the reflective strings of “Yesterday” (1965) to the orchestral psychedelia of “A Day in the Life” (1967) to the Indian instrumentation of “The Inner Light” (1968) to the Stockhausen-like blending of spoken voices and mostly non-melodious, non-percussive sounds of “Revolution No. 9” (1968).  These tracks all tend to be classified as rock & roll, but what do they all have in common?  One answer is: not much, other than the name of the band on the label. 

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers

When I was a young music aficionado growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, I remember very few African American artists who played upbeat popular music described by magazines, disc jockeys, and record outlets as rock & roll.  Virtually the only black recording artists whose music was regularly called “rock & roll” were those who became widely known ’round about the time that Elvis Presley hit it big: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Frankie Lymon. (The only other major exception that I can think of is Jimi Hendrix in the ’60s.) Most other black artists were said to play other kinds of music: rhythm & blues, doo-wop, Motown, soul, funk, and disco — subgenres of rock & roll, yes, but rarely labeled simply as “rock & roll.” 

I didn’t pay much attention to this kind of musical categorizing at the time, but I see now that these divisions ingrained in my mind — and, it seems to me, the minds of many others — the idea that “rock & roll” as such was a music by white artists for white audiences.  Consequently, when we talk about the history of rock & roll, we largely think of the history of Caucasian musicians and performers.  I suspect that this kind of thinking gave rise to the widespread idea that rock & roll came into being in the mid- to late ’50s when white artists like Elvis and Pat Boone started singing black rhythm & blues, an idea that recent music critics have contested. 

A different, more inclusive critical perspective is that what many of us think of as the African American rhythm & blues of the pre-rock years is itself a form of rock & roll.

Alan Freed
Disc jockey Alan Freed is often credited with using the term “rock & roll” to describe the hard-driving records he played by black artists on his Cleveland radio show Moondog’s Rock ’n’ Roll Party in 1951.  At a time when music listenership was racially segregated as a rule, where record-spinning radio announcers played music by artists of their own race to listeners of their own race, Freed was one of the very few white DJs to play platters by black artists (rather than covers of black songs by white artists).  Some say that Freed used this bit of nomenclature to avoid any stigma Caucasian audiences might associate with the phrase “rhythm & blues” — so that labeling this racially inclusive music as “rock & roll” ironically had arguably racist motives.  Still, at least in Freed’s use of the term to his audience in the early ’50s, “rock & roll” was “rhythm & blues.”

As Nick Tosches puts it in his book Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll: “Rock ’n’ roll emerged in the middle of a war, when the world was mad.”  The war in question is World War II.  Tosches views the rise of the musical genre when the big-band sound of the 1930s gave way (for economic reasons) to a more aggressive sound by smaller ensembles, in particular Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.  In a time when the music-industry trade publication Billboard magazine segregated the bestselling music into white pop charts and black “race” records, Jordan in 1942 started regularly crossing over from the black charts to the white charts with his rambunctious rhythms backed by a strong shuffle beat.  As Tosches tells it, this adrenalizing style of music caught on simultaneously with the wartime incorporation of a number of smaller labels independent from the larger record companies.  Where the major labels mostly disdained this new kind of music, the small independent — or “mongrel” — labels rushed to fill the void, both making the music accessible to audiences and giving it an against-the-mainstream, underdog identity.

Wynonie Harris
Since much of the music was meant for dancing, singers would often exhort their listeners to “rock” or “rock and roll,” a synonym for dancing, but also with sexual connotations — a double entendre.   And Tosches recounts how the words “rocking” and “rolling” were sometimes used to advertise the records of these singers as early as 1947.  To Tosches, the marketing of this music with those words qualifies the upbeat tunes of the 1940s as rock & roll.  And the word “rock” is especially bonded with the rhythm & blues music released in the wake of Wynonie Harris’ phenomenally successful rhythm & blues record “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1948), which spawned multitudes of copycat songs with “rock” or “rockin’” in the titles and/or lyrics. 

But in an severe, purist view, Tosches regards rock & roll as a spent force by the end of 1954, the year that Elvis made his first commercial recordings and Bill Haley cut “Rock Around the Clock.”  Nevertheless, Tosches’ book recalls that the words “rock(ing)” and “roll(ing)” were first associated with what we think of as rhythm & blues — a good five years or so before Alan Freed started his radio show.  (On a final note about Freed, whether or not he was the first to affix the phrase “rock & roll” to the music he played, this extremely popular DJ of the 1950s — who also branched out into concert promotion and film appearances — unquestionably did the most to popularize this term among white audiences and make it stick.)

Although Tosches regards the upbeat music of the late ’50s and beyond as something other than rock & roll, his book doesn’t helpfully quantify how the pulse-pounding music of the pre-Elvis years is appreciably different from what came later.  He uses adjectives like “audacious,” “wild,” and “hot” to describe his favorite rhythm & blues tunes, but he doesn’t explain what exactly gave the music this quality or how that of, say, the Beatles is lacking in it.  So, if we’re going to look for elements that define a prospective “first rock & roll record,” we’ll need to look beyond Tosches book (which never attempts to name a “first,” in any case).  But Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll reminds us just how fluid this musical category is and just how subjective setting boundaries for it can be.

In my next post, I’ll examine another definition of rock & roll in my lead-up to unveiling what I consider to be the first real rock & roll record.

*          *          *

Such was my thinking last summer, at any rate.  For my next posts, I’ll talk about some of the music I encountered in my investigation, the song that I chose as my own “first rock & roll record,” and what changed my mind.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

NC-17: The Radioactive Rating

I know that in the minds of many, the phrase “adults only” is synonymous with “pornography” and “no redeeming value.”  For a long time, I had hoped that an adults-only Hollywood movie would challenge this conception.  For a long time, I had hoped that a major motion picture with content best restricted to adult audiences — but also clearly of redeeming value — would shake up such reductive categorizing.  And in the years 1998 and 1999, I thought that my hope might become a reality. 

It was in those years that I learned from the entertainment press that two prestigious big-studio productions — Steven Spielberg’s combat film Saving Private Ryan in the earlier year and Stanley Kubrick’s psychological drama Eyes Wide Shut in the next — were having ratings problems.  In their respective years, it was rumored that they might be “slapped” with NC-17s, Hollywood’s adults-only rating.  Saving Private Ryan was in danger of receiving the usually unwelcome rating for the intensity and grisliness of its World War Two violence, and Eyes Wide Shut might earn an NC-17 due to an orgy scene.  I remember wishing that the two films by famous auteurs, both starring big-name movie stars, would be designated as such in order that they could thereby prove to the movie-going public that an NC-17-rated film wasn’t a euphemism for “smut.”

To better explain my state of mind, it helps to take a look back:

When Hollywood switched from its Production Code to its age-based rating system in 1968, its X rating, the rating telling audiences that the film was for adults only, was supposed to be value neutral.  The trade organization the Motion Picture Association of America copyrighted its other ratings — G (general audiences), M (mature audiences — later GP and then PG for “parental guidance”), and R (restricted audiences) — it did not copyright the X rating.  (The MPAA added a fifth rating in 1984: PG-13, to occupy a middle ground between PG and R.)  But the X rating was not copyrighted so that films could assign themselves the adults-only rating without the members of the board needing to sit through one pornographic film after another.  (As a child, I remember watching a brief film explaining the new ratings system.)

Poster for ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969): note the X rating in the bottom left corner

In 1969, when the makers of Midnight Cowboy, an early Hollywood production to deal openly with the issue of homosexuality, wanted to declare up front that their film confronted controversial subject matter, they voluntarily gave their movie an X rating without screening it for the board.  Midnight Cowboy became a hit (“I’m walkin’ here!”) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year.  Afterwards, the producers submitted their film for an official rating, whereupon it received an R.  To date, Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film with an Oscar for Best Picture.  This is one high-profile example of “adults only” not having its usual connotations.

However, after Midnight Cowboy and a few other prestigious X-rated productions (such as Kubrick’s 1971 futuristic drama A Clockwork Orange) had been released, the MPAA’s adults-only rating became synonymous with pornography.  Why?  This was because the intervening years saw the massive popularity of Deep Throat (1972) and other titles to show unsimulated sex in exacting detail, something that the big screen was never allowed to show legally before.  The greater accessibility of hard-core pornography in some mainstream theatres — as well as some porno movies boasting about their X rating or even hyperbolizing it as “XXX” — stigmatized the rating among U.S. audiences.  As a result, exhibitors became increasingly reluctant to show any film, however meritorious, with an X.  With the profitability of such films now imperiled, the major studios eventually seemed to go out of their way to avoid an X rating.

British poster for William Friedkin’s ultimately R-rated ‘Cruising’ (1980)

I didn’t really keep my ear to the ground, ratings-wise, when I was a teenager, but I remember hearing in the newspapers about the ratings tussle over William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), and how it was cut and re-cut to dodge an X rating.  I thought to myself at the time, “Why doesn’t Cruising just accept the X — the same way that Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange did — and be done with it?”  When Cruising was eventually released with an R rating, and I learned that both Midnight Cowboy and a slightly edited Clockwork Orange had been re-rated with Rs, it finally dawned on me that the meaning of the adults-only rating had changed. 

I later found out that a movie branded with an X rating was shut out of many cinemas, and such offerings were also frequently ignored by newspapers that refused to advertise or review them.  I learned that an X-rated movie, whatever its value, was immediately thought of by a lot of people as pornography, with all the pejorative associations that come with that category.  In short, by 1980, a movie with an X rating, unlike the early years of the designation, had a harder time making its money back.  I thought — and still think today — that the easy equation of “adults-only” with “porn” was unfortunate.  Just because a work might find its best audience exclusively among adults, that ought not to mean ipso facto that the work is obscene.  So, I was dismayed by this turn of events. 

Film critics Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert: they discussed the new
NC-17 rating on a 1990 episode of their eponymous TV show

So were some like-minded film critics.  Among them, one critic was named Siskel, and another Ebert.  Starting in 1987, they pushed the MPAA for an adults-only rating that wouldn’t instantly connote pornography.  On their various film-review TV programs, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert lobbied the association to create something new: an “A” rating — A for “adults only.”  The head of the MPAA at the time, Jack Valenti, pushed back.  The film-ratings system was supposed to be an objective means by which parents could judge whether a film was appropriate for their children to see, Valenti said in his interviews and press releases at the time, and to introduce an A rating would be asking the board to assess film quality: to assess artistically redeeming sex and violence from sex and violence that was not artistically redeeming, a task reputedly outside the rating board’s systematic purview.  However, Valenti never substantively addressed the fact that X-rated feature films were usually stigmatized by audiences and exhibitors and therefore economically disadvantaged.  For years, the forces that favored a different kind of adults-only rating and those that didn’t fought each other to a standstill.

‘Henry & June’ (1990): the first film
to be rated NC-17
Things seemed to get especially testy around 1990, when the MPAA saddled Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Wayne Wang’s Life Is Cheap…but Toilet Paper Is Expensive, independent films of edgy subject matter but recognized artistic worth, with X ratings.  The feud over the ratings system then moved into the headlines of the entertainment press.  Then came Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990), produced by Hollywood heavyweight Universal Pictures.  This fact-based feature about the erotically charged encounter between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in 1930s Paris garnered an X by the MPAA, hitting Universal in the pocketbook.  The studio reportedly protested to Valenti.

Given the months of mounting controversy, I assume that Henry & June was the straw that broke the MPAA’s back.  Before long, Valenti announced the creation of a new rating: NC-17, the designation for a film in which no children under 17 years of age were to be admitted (later revised to disallow anyone 17 or younger).  The copyrighted rating replaced the X; it did not, as Siskel and Ebert urged, stand as an intermediary between the respectable R and the pornographic X. 

Maria de Medeiros (left) and Uma Thurman in ‘Henry & June’

Many film enthusiasts cheered the change and hoped that NC-17 would mark a new beginning for films reserved for adults.  But almost immediately afterwards, exhibitors, especially those in the more conservative parts of the U.S., let it be known that they regarded the NC-17 as nothing more than the smutty X by another name, and they refused to screen films with the rating.  Some newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, said basically the same thing and refused to advertise them.  Now, instead of editing their adult-oriented films to avoid an X, the major studios edited them to avoid an NC-17.  Furthermore, in what was a rarity and clearly a test case, Hollywood’s NC-17 release with the highest profile, Paul Verhoeven’s sudsy and salacious melodrama Showgirls (1995), bombed at the box office (but did respectable business on video), furthering NC-17’s association with poor quality and further repelling the major studios from the rating.  The new beginning turned suddenly into the same old thing.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
That’s why I hoped that first Saving Private Ryan and then Eyes Wide Shut would receive the NC-17 rating: so that they would prove that the rating isn’t synonymous with pornography.  I remember at the time reading a Spielberg quote saying that if the MPAA gave his cut of Ryan an NC-17, he would respect the decision and distribute the film with the adults-only rating (a promise few other directors could make, because Spielberg co-owned his distribution company, Dreamworks SKG).  The stage was set, I thought, for the NC-17 to be given a new lease on life. 

But such was not to be.  Despite the ferocity and the bloody carnage of its opening D-Day scene, Spielberg’s cut of Saving Private Ryan received a respectable R.  I think that any reservations an MPAA member might have had about the opening scene’s graphic violence was offset by the rest of the film: a heartfelt salute to the World War Two generation, an affectionate tribute wrapped in star-spangled sentimentality.  As for Eyes Wide Shut, the digital insertion of a figure to block the view of a couple at the orgy — a remedy conceived by Kubrick himself — was all it took to remove the danger of an NC-17.  Eyes Wide Shut was released (after the director’s death, sadly) with an R rating.  I was dismayed that these two films didn’t challenge the negative connotations of the NC-17.  That would need to wait for another day — or another millennium.

However, it wasn’t very long after Eyes Wide Shut’s release that I discovered the book Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry by university professor Jon Lewis.  This is the thesis of Lewis’ scholarly book:

• Hollywood movies are commodities that, in order to maximize their profitability, need to circulate in as free a market as possible. 

• Perhaps the greatest hindrance to any film’s circulation is for it to be labeled “obscene” and being taken off the market for that reason. 

• Thanks to a 1974 Supreme Court decision, films rated G to R by the MPAA are effectively shielded from any charge of obscenity, but films rated NC-17 are not. 

• By reserving the NC-17 for “obscene” films, those rated G, PG, PG-13, and R are able to circulate freely without fear of obscenity accusations, thereby maximizing their profitability.  This is why adult-themed movies sometimes struggle so mightily to avoid an NC-17: they are simultaneously avoiding the uneconomical prospect of being tagged as obscene.

What Lewis says makes a lot of sense, and Hollywood v. Hard Core gives a thorough history of both the Production Code and the ratings system, analyzing the pertinent court cases (Supreme and lower) to make Lewis’ point.  Had I known this in 1998 or 1999, I might not have anticipated Saving Private Ryan and Eyes Wide Shut as films with censorship-challenging missions.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
Today, I’m not as preoccupied as I used to be with what particular movies are rated, and with what those ratings mean.  While some outlets still understandably bemoan the seeming inscrutability of the ratings system, such as Kirby Dick’s MPAA documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), the debate has lost any real meaning for me.  The only context in which an NC-17 can really hurt a film’s performance is the theatrical market, and movies now have a longer and more important life on video.  Only when it comes to buying a ticket for a movie at a cinema’s box office does the rating carry any real stigma. 

Theatrical films originally rated NC-17 but edited to achieve an R can now release their first cut as an “unrated” edition for home video, perhaps alongside its R-rated iteration, thus maximizing profits even more.   And so many “films” (some now even shot directly on high-definition video) are now watched at home on DVD and tape that any trouble with the MPAA can be seen as a momentary hiccup in its monetary circulation, a mere initial inconvenience in its long march to video.  Moreover, some recent non-Hollywood NC-17 films have been screened in the prestigious theatres of large cities, films such as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (色,戒, 2007) and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle, 2013), a sign that the rating might be losing some of its ignominy, at least in major metropolitan areas.

So, the NC-17 seems to be sliding slowly into irrelevance, except for a controversial film’s (i.e., future unrated video’s) theatrical release.  And given new electronically based media and distribution systems, I sometimes even wonder if our entire contemporary conception of “movies” and “theatrical releases” may be slowly slouching towards irrelevance as well.  Gradually, mainstream audiences — particularly home-video audiences — seem to be realizing what I thought and tried to communicate all along: “adults only” need not be the same thing as “pornography.”