The untimely death of Buddy Holly was immortalised in the popular imagination as the day the music died, not least due to the narrative of Don McLean’s 1971 ballad, ‘American Pie’. According to the author and former host of NPR’s Rock & Roll America, conventional wisdom has since held that rock and roll went into decline in the United States until the explosive arrival of The Beatles in 1964.[i] Remembered popularly as the British Invasion, the arrival of the Fab Four in the United States has been widely accepted as heralding a new golden age in popular culture. In his latest book, Richard Aquila seeks to dispel the mythology of the decline of rock and roll in the early years of the 1960s, arguing instead that it was an era of fruitful cultural output in its own right. Moreover, Aquila sees music as a lens through which to better understand John F. Kennedy’s America as a dynamic period of changing social and political values. Written in three parts, Aquila’s book investigates the emergence of new styles of popular music – namely girl groups, Motown, and surf music – before considering the evolution of old genres. The book concludes by placing these artists within the broader context of the cultural Cold War and the New Frontier. A compelling endeavour and surely an essential work not only for historians of music, but also cultural historians of the mid-twentieth century, Aquila’s work nevertheless raises a series of questions that ought to be disentangled.
Figure 1 Buddy Holly Publicity Picture, Brunswick Records, 1957, Wikimedia Commons.
Aquila differentiates himself from the broader field of popular music history scholarship by arguing that ‘contrary to popular opinion, the music did not die on that cold February morning in 1959’, after the death of Buddy Holly.[ii] Whilst this position was maintained clearly by Glenn Altschuler in particular in 2004, there has perhaps been more nuance to the arguments of Paul Friedlander who classed the years between 1959 and 1964 as a ‘period of transition’ from the era of classic rock to the dawn of a new rock cultural phenomenon.[iii] Likewise, David Szatmary has also characterised this period as one in which ‘businessmen reshaped rock-and-roll and made it respectable’.[iv] Additionally – and perhaps most interestingly – Aquila’s latest work shows a clear departure from his previous conviction that ‘when the Beatles came along in 1964, rock & roll was nearly dead’.[v] Whilst Aquila then argues that in 1985 ‘the rock stars still on the scene were no longer recording music relevant to teenagers’, in Rock & Roll in Kennedy’s America he posits exactly the opposite.[vi] Teenagers living in America characterised by the nuclear family and the nuclear threat found plenty of relatable material in the content of popular music of the early 1960s, from romance to race relations, as Aquila argues.
Figure 2 The Beatles Wave to Fans After Arriving at Kennedy Airport, UPI, February 7, 1964, Wikimedia Commons
Fundamentally, the book is exceptionally readable with enjoyable narrative and an impressive selection of original oral history interviews with many of the artists featured in the volume. Organisation of the chapters by musical genre allows Aquila to narrate individual stories within the broader landscape of the music industry in a convenient way. But it also has him fall prey to an increasingly formulaic writing pattern midway through the volume, where an artist is introduced, their hit is described in great attention to musical detail, and then linked back to the social status quo. Whilst a reliable formula, there is little in the way of narrative variety which led to a sense of reading a case-by-case study of various artists and the author becoming repetitive in jumping through the chronology. That being said, Aquila’s volume does flesh out and narrate through an entire publication what has previously been condensed into a single chapter by other scholars.[vii] If the aim has been to give the artists of this period their just dues, Aquila more than succeeds in doing so.
Perhaps confusing is precisely what music is classed as rock and roll in an era in which a variety of musical styles emerged. In Rock & Roll in Kennedy’s America, Motown, do-wop, girl group pop, folk music and surf music instrumentals are all seemingly assumed to belong to the meta category of rock and roll music, which could perhaps be a point of contention in itself. If the spiritual essence of rock and roll music is that it has to have, as some scholars and artists claim, an element of danger, it is up for debate how many of these acts fit the bill, with Altchuler noting that much of the sounds of these years were ‘homogenized’.[viii] Additionally, Aquila leans fully into the language of the British Invasion, describing the bands left behind in the wake of 1964 as ‘casualties’ of the Fab Four’s new found success.[ix] The author frames the British Invasion as a drastic cultural change, which it undoubtedly was, yet the fact remains that there is perhaps more continuity than change lurking under the surface: The Beatles were themselves heavily influenced by American rock and roll and included many of the popular songs of the 1950s in their repertoire.
Beyond these issues, the distinctive feature of Aquila’s work lies in his addition not only to the history of popular music, but also to that of the culture of post-war America and the babyboomer age. Whilst Aquila’s own clear enthusiasm for the music of this era shines through in his detailed reconstructions of songs and musical arrangements, he continues throughout his book to hone in on the teenager as consumer and key protagonist in the narrative. The most convincing case study for the music industry echoing social changes is Aquila’s narration of the emergence of Motown as an industry which he positions parallel to the Civil Rights movement gaining momentum concurrently. Similarly, the ‘Surfin’ Safari’ chapter contains perhaps the most well-developed analysis of how ideas of American exceptionalism in the West was manifest in the music of surf acts, most famously with the Beach Boys.
Figure 3 The Beach Boys in a Billboard Advertisement, 29 June 1963, Wikimedia Commons.
Although Aquila asserts that the music of this era showcases the optimism of Kennedy’s America in the throes of social change, his analysis is painted with broad brush strokes. If anything, the connections made between popular culture and the political status quo are so engaging that the reader is left yearning for more.
[i] Richard Aquila, Rock & Roll in Kennedy’s America, A Cultural History of the Early 1960s, (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University Press, 2022), 3.
[iii] Glenn C. Altschuler, All Shook Up: How Rock’n’ Roll Changed America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 161; Paul Friedlander, Rock and Roll, A Social History, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 75.
[vii] Paul Friedlander, Rock and Roll, A Social History, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 69-77.
[viii] Ibid, 176.
[ix] Aquila, Rock & Roll, 2.