Episode #11: Revisiting the 1950s in the 1970s
“The Star Spangled Banner” by Jimi Hendrix (1969)
“Born to Hand Jive” by Sha Na Na (1978)
“Runaway” by Del Shannon (1961)
“I Wish” by Stevie Wonder (1976)
“American Pie” by Don McLean (1971)
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley (1969)
“Burning Love” by Elvis Presley (1972)
“Grease” by Frankie Valli (1978)
“You’re The One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (1978)
1:00 It is hard to believe that Mom and Dad (and maybe Grandma and Grandpa) were frolicking in the mud of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 50 years ago this month. As we come up on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, it seems very fitting that Jimi Hendrix closed out the festival with an amazing and controversial rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Hendrix, who was openly and adamantly against American involvement in Vietnam, made his guitar sound like it was wailing. Amy plays a bit of it — check out how Hendrix makes his guitar mimic the sound of bombs falling.
03:40 The Seventies inherits weariness from the Sixties — lots of “fussing and fighting,” to borrow a line from The Beatles — and so we play make believe with The Fifties.
04:15 Sha Na Na was the second-to-last band to perform at Woodstock and went on right before Hendrix, at about 7:30 in the morning. It seems like a weird fit to have a doo wop band at Woodstock but they had already made a name for themselves at Columbia, where they went to college. Members of the bad will tell you today that Sha Na Na was popular because they represented a break from the heaviness of the Sixties. If you are thinking that you do not know who Sha Na Na is, you probably saw them in “Grease,” where they played “Born to Hand Jive” (and other songs) at the dance contest.
07:30 The reason that Sha Na Na played Woodstock is because Jimi Hendrix saw them at The Scene in New York City and liked them. He took Michael Lang, one of the organizers of Woodstock to see them and he liked them, too. Sha Na Na got paid $350 to perform at Woodstock but the check bounced. The $1 they were paid for appearing in the Woodstock movie was probably more valuable, not just because $1 is better than $0 but because it helped launch their national career.
08:30 George Lucas created the movie, American Graffiti, as a love letter to his childhood in Marin County. (By the way, 1962 is still part of the era known as The Fifties.) He uses words like “innocence” when he describes that time and he especially wanted to recreate that “mating ritual” involving 50s rock and roll and cars.
10:11 There are 41 songs on the American Graffiti soundtrack, which is full of popular songs rather than an original score. Amy plays “Runaway” by Del Shannon as a sample of the soundtrack and also because it is a cool song that is very indicative of the rock music of that era.
12:10 Were The Fifties as innocent as Lucas remembers them? No. They were actually bad for many reasons, especially if you were not a white heterosexual male. In fact, teen pregnancy has never been higher than in 1957. However, American Graffiti is not a documentary. We need to remember the difference between nostalgia and history.
13:53 It is great if you can reflect on your childhood and feel good about it. Stevie Wonder did that with “I Wish,” which is a celebration of his childhood in the 1950s but not The Fifties as an era.
16:39 People love to analyze the song, “American Pie.” Collectively, we figured a lot of the references out a long time ago, such as Bob Dylan being The Jester who stole The King’s “thorny crown.” Of course, The King is Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan was not too thrilled to be referred to as “The Jester.” It is hard to blame him for that. Before he auctioned off his original notes about “American Pie” a few years ago, Don McLean said that he wrote the song because things were headed in the wrong direction in 1971. He said life was, “Less ideal, less idyllic,” which serves as more evidence that many people were left mentally weary by the Sixties and looked back to the Fifties as an ideal time.
18:21 Elvis finally gets onto an episode of the podcast! The Sixties were not good for Elvis, who played a lot of guys named Lucky and Chad and Ross in B-level movies, so his musical comeback in 1968 was a big deal. It proved he still had “it” — that swagger and charm and he could still sing. His next (and last) #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit came soon after that in 1969 with “Suspicious Minds.” It has that Nashville sound, which is discussed in more detail in Episode 2. Amy plays a lot of the song because it is awesome.
22:20 The last rock and roll hit of Elvis’s career was “Burning Love,” which he did not want to record because he was sad about his breakup with Priscilla. Would you want to record a song like that if you were going through a divorce? No, you would not. However, being The King, he did it and did it well.
23:48 Elvis benefited quite a bit from the Fifties’ revival but also made good music. The tours near the end of this life were not great, he did not look good, and nostalgia sold tickets more than the quality of his performances.
24:16 When Elvis died in 1977, it was not just the end of his life. It was the end of an era. Amy plays a short clip of grieving Elvis fans standing outside of Graceland the day of his funeral. One guy said that Elvis was still the King of Rock and Roll. Many many people felt that way, even if you could make a good case that it was not true anymore. Nostalgia does that.
26:10 How do you account for younger people and Gen Xers who liked The Fifties as an era but were not part of it? They liked it because it was presented as a fun time to be a kid or a teenager. It was a fad. in 1972, some college students reported that they liked The Fifiies because it was different and the “greasers” were the freaks of their era. The fad was fueled by a mythical presentation of The Fifties.
27:53 Amy discussed the birth of KOOL radio in Phoenix, which is an oldies station. It began playing “oldies” from the 1950s in 1971. Ironically, KOOL plays 70s music now.
28:24 Grease is still popular because it is fun. When it premiered on stage, there was nothing like it. Non-Broadway types went to see it after it opened in 1972 because they wanted to relive their childhood, even if their childhood was not quite like that and they never had hair as good as Danny Zuko’s hair. They may have had “nostalgia for the Fifties as they never quite were.” Reminder: Grease is not a documentary.
32:00 Grease is the word! Amy plays the title track, which is sung by another guy who was experiencing a comeback in the 70s, Frankie Valli, and “You’re The One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It seems strange that “You’re The One That I Want” actually makes a lot of Gen Xers nostalgic for the 70s when it is a song about nostalgia for the 50s.
34:00 There is no harm in creating fictional worlds, like the worlds in Grease or Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley. The harm is in either presenting them or accepting them as eras that never were.
36:00 Hey, go give the show a good rating on Apple Podcasts and help other fans of 70s music find the show!
SOURCES USED TO CREATE THIS EPISODE
Boonstra, Heather: “Teen Pregnancy and Lessons Learned.” Guttmacher Institute. February 1, 2002. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2002/02/teen-pregnancy-trends-and-lessons-learned
Coontz, Stephanie. “The Not So Good Old Days.” The New York Times. June 15, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/opinion/sunday/coontz-the-not-so-good-old-days.html
Everett, Todd. “Theater Review: Grease.” The Los Angeles Times. June 27, 1991. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-06-27-vl-1946-story.html
”George Lucas on American Graffiti.” Video. YouTube.com. American Film Institute. October 30, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvmFpj2Bgyc
Graff, Gary. “Sha Na Na Talks Woodstock Hallucinogens and 50 Years of Rocking.” Billboard. June 19, 2019. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/8516675/sha-na-na-woodstock-50-years
Moyer, Justin Wm. “Gloomy Don McLean Reveals Meaning of ‘American Pie’ — and Sells Lyrics for $1.2 Million.” The Washington Post. April 8, 2015.
“The Nifty Fifties.” Life. June 16, 1972.
Raidy, William A. “There’s Money in Recalling the 50s.” Philadelphia Inquirer. August 20, 1972.
Warner Archive. “This Is Elvis (1981) – Fans React To His Death.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Aug. 2017. www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFF1wEBBrtI.