Rock and roll is inherently rebellious, spontaneous, and even a bit dangerous. That’s part of its attraction. It resists easy categorization. But those of us who grew up with and on it (with apologies to Justice Potter Stewart and his comment about porn) know it when we hear it. And the (for me, Fredonia High School) Class of 1974 — my class — indeed grew up with rock and roll.
Rock and roll fit with the culture of its times — the youth culture anyway. J. D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. We weren’t born then but I read it in 11th grade English during the Spring of 1973. The novel’s main character, Holden Caulfield, was a popular icon for disillusioned teens everywhere. And which teenagers weren’t disillusioned or at least claimed to be? We thought we were the (only) authentic ones rebelling against society’s “phonies.” Especially in the early days, there wasn’t much that was phony about rock and roll music (its promotion and sale is quite another matter altogether).
At its best, rock and roll is authentic and even pure in a way. It crossed economic, racial and cultural divides routinely if not always easily. But by 1980, Mark Chapman had claimed that Catcher had inspired him to murder John Lennon. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems, and rock and roll is surely no different. We grew up in cynical times, but we weren’t cynical about the music — our music.
Rock and roll music has always been guitar driven. For a long time, it was solely guitar driven. Leo Fender introduced a sleeker version of the Fender electric guitar in 1954 (see right), when we were oh-so-soon to be born. His Fender Stratocaster would become the central instrument of rock and roll.
The James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause debuted in 1955 (when some of us were born) and became a big hit, especially with the young. Rebellion was in and was always an important element of rock and roll. Blackboard Jungle, a film about a teacher at an inner-city school which featured Bill Haley and His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock during the opening credits, was also released that year. The film helped to popularize the rock and roll sound and to heighten parents’ concerns about juvenile delinquency (those two things were surely related).
By 1957, the Class of 1974 had been born, Lennon and Paul McCartney were in a band together (though not yet The Beatles), Dick Clark’s American Bandstand hit the air (“It has a nice beat and is easy to dance to”) and controversy over allegedly “obscene” music led the Congress to consider legislation that would have required that song lyrics be screened by a review committee before sale. Rock and roll was here to stay and so were we.
We’re the class of Kevin and Winnie, Bill Maher, Nathan Lane, Dan Patrick, Patricia Cornwell, Joe Montana, Chris Isaak, Jerry Hall, Montel Williams, Tom Hanks, Tony Kushner, Dorothy Hamill, Anita Hill, Maureen McCormick, Carrie Fisher, and Phil Simms.
The oldsters in our class were born in 1955, the year Rock Around the Clock hit it big due to its Rebel Without a Cause tie-in (it had been recorded in 1954). While it wasn’t the first rock and roll song (that was probably Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm record, Rocket ’88), from a cultural standpoint it way as well have been. So who better than the Class of ’74 to create a classic rock and roll playlist with songs from 1955 through our high school graduation? Rock and roll is “our” music, after all. We grew up with and on it. And our parents hated it (which was, of course, largely the point).
Everybody tends to think that the music of their youth is the greatest ever, but we are actually right about it. Our 40th year high school reunions are coming up next summer. So, in anticipation of a party, here’s my working draft of a playlist — 74 great songs from that period (1955-1974) for the Class of 1974. This is a highly personal list, of course, and many amazing songs didn’t make the cut. But I’m open to suggestions as to songs I forgot, missed or misevaluated. Fire away.
There are also a lot of great songs that fell outside the time window I have imposed. Bohemian Rhapsody, Born to Run, Thunder Road, Go Your Own Way, Stayin’ Alive, Free Bird, Dancing Queen (if you’ll admit to liking it and Abba), the best Linda Ronstadt (for example, Heart Like a Wheel was released in 1974, but after we graduated), Frampton Comes Alive and Hotel California all came too late. Tutti Fruitti, Shake Rattle and Roll and Bo Diddley are too early. Aerosmith’s Dream On was first recorded in 1973 but it was an edited version that really broke through as a hit in 1976. Before you attack an apparent omission, please make sure it is within the time period I have designated (it’s funny how our minds can trick us — a number of songs that immediately came to my mind as sure things were too late to qualify).
I have also elected to include no more than one song per artist for any given year. So The Beatles (most prominently) get slighted. Posts with videos of the selected songs (as well as honorable mentions) by year will follow. So here goes, 1-74, starting with 1955.
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock….