Being The Change
“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play,” and so begins one of the most storied albums of 20th century popular music. Many of us didn’t truly recognize it at the time but in less than a decade, the Beatles accomplished what no other musician or musical group had successfully done before. In short, the band (with help of producers George Martin and later, Phil Spector) amassed a body of work that between 1963 and 1970, was both prolific, and musically groundbreaking. They constantly reinvented their music with each album. And, of course, their changing looks (appearance) and their politics, were mirrored in the evolution of those recordings. Their influence on generations of musicians and groups is obvious. Perhaps The Rolling Stones would have evolved the way they did without the Beatles, but then again . . . . Same for Brian Wilson and what he accomplished under the Beach Boys ‘brand’. The Beatles caused change. They were change. Although solo recordings continued, the Beatles as a group were done by 1970.
Immortalized by Don McLean in 1971, “American Pie” rewrote a mini-history of popular music, with too many people focusing on the three who died in the tragic 1959 crash at Clear Lake, Iowa. But McLean also sang about the much more (then) recent tragic death of Janis Joplin (October 4, 1970): “I met a girl who sang the blues, I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.” In less than 12 months three meteoric pop stars died: Joplin, Jimi Hendrix (September 18, 1970), and Jim Morrison (July 3, 1971). We are reaching a point in time where “The Day The Music Died” has little meaning for the vast majority of music lovers because the lives of the generation that was, as McLean wrote, “lost in space’, are nearing their inevitable conclusions.
All of this came to mind last month when I was reminded that it had been forty years since what some might suggest was the last major “day the music died”. In August 1977, at 9:30am, I was in Tempe, Arizona, standing at Tower Records, talking with the store manager. I observed and couldn’t get over how many people were in the store so early, coming in, buying a few records or a stack of vinyl albums, and leaving the store at such a relatively early hour. One look at what they were buying solved the mystery. People were coming to Tower because they knew they would find lots of Elvis Presley records. Tower, after all, was known for the wide aisles filled with stacks and stacks of vinyl records, not to mention all of the records in the bins.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977 and I was watching as shopper after shopper carried 5 or 10, or 20 Presley vinyl records to the cash register. Nothing but Elvis! I spoke with some of these early morning shoppers who were buying these vinyl albums, and found there were conflicting motivations. Some thought that once he was dead the label would stop pressing these albums. Really. Some believed that the albums purchased on the day Elvis died would be more valuable because they had a receipt that proved they were purchased on that infamous day. Others believed that the vinyl albums pressed (manufactured) months or years later would be of lesser quality because Elvis wasn’t going to be around to make certain RCA Records hadn’t let the quality slip. And still others had no profit motive or fear of crummy vinyl. They were crying or on the verge of tears because they felt so awful about the death of “The King”.
I’ve written about my own memories of hearing records like “All Shook Up” and “Suspicious minds”—two recordings more than a decade apart—and so many others that remind me of the importance of Presley in America’s (and for that matter, the world's) psyche. To be certain, not every Presley record is worthy of such veneration. Nor is every Beatles recording, or that of any other artist or songwriter. Does Barry Mann’s authorship of the 1961 hit “Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)” rise to the level of pride he (and co-writer/wife Cynthia Weill) have in their credit for writing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers? Many songs are touchstones, and so are some recording artists.
We may never observe or encounter another music figure who is recalled so emotionally ten, twenty, or forty years after their death. And that’s the way of things. In fact, as I was writing this the media reminded me that on this day (August 31) it would be twenty years since the death of Princess Diana.
Let me state for the record: I was not alive for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. However, I know where I was when JFK was killed. And Martin. And Bobby. Some people probably connect those dots only through Dion’s recording of "Abraham, Martin, and John". But every day we collect moments, many of which are lost somewhere in our gray matter; but some stay with us because they meant something to us, then or now. I saw Elvis in concert on June 16, 1972 at Chicago Stadium. (My wife came down with the flu and to this day, wished she had gone to the Elvis Presley concert and ralphed in the aisle instead of giving up her seat.) I’m happy I saw him but it wasn’t life-changing. What is life-changing is how we enjoy, observe, and address events within our time. We always need to keep a perspective and know that individually we cannot change the world. But we should change what we can. I believe change can be like the “butterfly effect”. Small causes can have a larger impact. In these somewhat (?) tumultuous times let's all decide to be the change.