The amnesia of pop
The story of Rock & Roll is always told as follows: in the sultry late-summer of 1953 an unreasonably gorgeous young truck driver called Elvis Aron Presley wandered into Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee and recorded a double-sided acetate disc of cover songs as a gift for his mum. On the record, Presley took popular jazz songs which were often played with a swing rhythm by small brass and woodwind dominated orchestras, and made them sound totally different; he made the swing rhythms straight and on-the-beat, sped them up, and then simply sung them in his lip-curling, honey-dripping warble, accompanied by guitar. The simplified, faster, guitar-driven sound was instantly more commercial than the original jazz versions of the songs; the fact that, just over two decades later, Presley would die of a tricky-poo-related heart attack, shows the overwhelming degree of fame and wealth that his so-called “creation of Rock & Roll” earned him. He was perhaps the first star of the hyper-commercial sphere of music we call pop – he was, so to speak, the original pop star.
His authenticity as a pop star only deepens when we consider the fact that he stole almost his entire sound, and act, from an African American who had been doing the same thing (but better) for some years before him. Chuck Berry’s career had begun some years before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. Berry had already broken with the convention of jazz singers who politely stood to attention in front of their orchestras during their performance in the manner of conductors; his cocksure strut and windmill guitar strumming reinvented the role of the bandleader into the arresting Rock & Roll frontman that has been an unwavering mainstay of virtually all forms of live music ever since.
A year after Presley’s rise to fame, the Supreme court outlawed racial segregation which, up until that point, had attempted – with some degree of success – to create two distinct and qualitatively different societies within the US. Presley was born into what was, in the American South of the 1930s, the lower boundary of modesty; Berry 10 years before was born into a relatively affluent African American family. The two grew up in different worlds in the racially inflected socio-economy of interwar America, yet their respective fame would soon grant them entry to the same cultural sphere: pop. There was still a sense of segregation in popular culture – music gigs, televised concerts, sitcoms, and films: all of these cultural forms either had all white or all black casts. Many famous white artists held racial prejudices which caused them to decline offers to appear in Harlem concert halls, and of course invitations were almost never offered in the reverse. But there was one way in which the racial boundary within pop was transgressed, and that was by white artists appropriating (read: stealing) the material of African American artists. Whilst Elvis was obviously very talented in his own right, his careful copy and paste of large parts of someone else’s fully formed act was typical of white artists’ unacknowledged engagement with black pop culture.
Thus, it has been possible to write Elvis into the mythology of music as the innovator of Rock & Roll largely because of America’s obscurantist history of segregation. This is not to say that those who idolise(d) Elvis were or are consciously involved in a racist ignorance of artists such as Chuck Berry. Both men have deservedly enjoyed wide recognition for their talents, but both enjoyed certain levels of privilege which helped to smooth their paths to fame and fortune: Berry came from a reasonably well-off family, and Elvis was white. Both are straight cis-men. The uncomfortable question that this case raises is this: if an already famous person like Chuck Berry can have part of his cultural contribution plagiarised then forgotten about, who else’s contributions have been suppressed in the history of pop music? The mythology of pop has always been forged to flatter the person who cut the record, got played on the radio, and took the money. What is needed is a history of pop music which illuminates those musicians who didn’t get into the recording studio quick enough, or weren’t allowed into the studio in the first place because they were black or gay or trans or all of the above, who got only a co-writer’s credit or no credit at all, and were left penniless in their reeking basement flats.
Pop, it seems is dangerously prone to amnesia. But as music lovers, we can use our knowledge of our favourite artists and their influences to smash the mythologies of pop and in their place, write the history of those artists who have been muted.