Was rock really dead in 1959-64?

It’s a common idea amongst rock critics that between Buddy Holly’s plane going down in 1959 and Beatlemania in 1964, rock and roll was essentially dormant and buried under an avalanche of colorless (in all senses) teen idols. But when you actually check the charts of that time you see R&B of all sorts, surf music, girl groups, and all types of oddball one hit wonders. So do you think 1959-64 was rock’s low point? What did people at the time think? And why do you think the rock scene in those years has such a bad reputation?

I wasn’t around during that era so you can take what I have to say with the proverbial grain of salt but I think it’s inaccurate to say rock & roll was dead between 1959 and 1964. However, it did seem to lose quite a bit of its edge as it generally became slicker and more mainstream during that time. Rock & roll lost much of its power to shock and threaten the status quo like it did when it arrived on the scene in the mid 1950s.

Not as dead as it is now.

Many of the early stars of rock and roll had scandals or had their careers derailed or ended around 1959. Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper died of course, as did Eddie Cochran. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis had sex scandals (but stiil made records), Little Richard found religion for a while, Elvis went into the army and was not quite as rebellious after that…and so on. I think those losses were huge setbacks for rock. (1970-1971 was another similar wave of breakups and deaths).

I forgot the payola scandal of 1959, which ruined Alan Freed’s career, and made other DJs reticent to play rock for a while.

Sure, I’ve thought it went into a bit of a decline after Elvis got drafted, Jerry Lee self-immolated, Holly died, Berry went to Hotel Greybar, and Little Richard got religion, all by 1959. I never thought The Big Bopper was more than a flash in the pan with that one novelty song and Valens had a lot of potential but didn’t have time to make much of a mark. Frankly, I think the best thing that ever happened for their careers was dying with Buddy Holly.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so did pop music so doo-wop groups and teen idols and folk music flourished. I think Ricky Nelson and The Everly Brothers did a lot to keep Rock alive. Try to think like the parent of a 1959 teenager. With the exception of Holly, all those other rockers were scary. NOT the kind of person you’d want your teen-aged daughter to date. Then comes clean cut Ricky Nelson. You knew him from his parents’ radio show and now from his parents’ tv show. You saw/heard him grow up. So he’s singing some rock music and he’s SAFE. And then The Everly Brothers came along. Both pretty clean cut (okay, who knows how much brylcream it took for their pompadours) and their music, even though it was Rock, was pretty tame.

But I think this was just a holding pattern for Rock. Surf Music came along and injected some new life and excitement into Rock. Then JFK was assassinated and the US went into a period of mourning. It was 82 days later (I think), certainly a suitable period of mourning, The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. The planets were in aligned in the proper position, I guess, and Rock took off.

Though I could be full of crappola too.

Wow, I wasn’t alive then, but this makes a pretty convincing narrative.

And since Surf Rock is my favorite genre of 60’s rock, I don’t really agree that rock was dead in this time period, but it was transitioning to more complex things.

No, that’s actually a pretty good assessment. It was also the era of early Motown, the Brill Building songwriters, Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. Granted, there was also a lot of stuff that was forgettable or downright painful but, on the whole, the period wasn’t as bad as some people say it is.

Also happened to be a glory era for jazz (YMMV). So many times in my life, I’ve heard a great piece of jazz – creative, yet melodic – and find out it was recorded between 1959 and 1964. Perhaps on some level jazz filled up the extra “music space” for a while until rock reasserted its primacy as a vehicle for artistic expression and popular consumption.

For the UK, there was a slightly different period.

Rock’n’ roll got to us a little later - by a couple of years - but the dead period was shorter. This might well have been because the reboot was fuelled by British bands such as Beatles etc so we got going again a bit sooner.

For us the dead zone would be from around 1961 to 1963. There were lots of ‘safe’ songs full of teenie type stuff and loads of ballads. Anything even slightly uptempo had the awful backing singer line, I can’t describe it but it really sounds so twee.Lots of novelty songs or white artists covering far superior black artist versions, see if I can find some of the dreck.







There is something distinctive about many of the songs from this period, a certain sound - there were some very good songs but you could really see it was very much a holding pattern until some proper stuff came along.

What you have is the rip roaring, and parentally frightening rock’n’roll with white and black artists upsetting the social order, and then this early 1960’s pretty safe, unthreatening and tuneful period, which was then followed by very much a musical revolution where you got another lot of parentally frightening long haired louts such as Beatles, Stones etc

The Beach Boys were putting out great records by 1962. Jan and Dean, Yardbirds, Everly Brothers, Righteous Brothers

The Beatles didn’t save Rock

To show how bankrupt things were, this was the era where a large number of novelty songs made it to #1. Alley Oop in 1960, Monster Mash in 1962, Purple People Eater in 1957 (OK, that’s a little early), Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny in 1960. etc. etc.

“Louie, Louie.”

Case closed.

With all of the first-wave stars having issues/dying, it has become a part of the historical narrative that rock nearly died. Don McLean’s song, hearing that the label exec rejected the Beatles by saying “guitar bands are dead” or some such. Perhaps even Motown and Wall of Sound-type production which had bigger arrangements.

But two fundamental things didn’t change: kids had post-war money, and new technology at the time enabled them to buy, for relatively little money, the means to make simple music. Electric Guitars and basses and somewhat more powerful-yet cheaper PA’s never went way in that period.

So kids were still rocking out.

If you look at the top singles of the era, very few were rock. Elvis and the Everly Brothers were doing ballads, and you had number one songs like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Mack the Knife,” “Teen Angel,” “Theme from a Summer Place,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Sukiyaki,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Stranger on the Shore,” “Roses are Red,” “Go Away Little Girl,” “Walk Right In,” “Hey Paula,” “Blue Velvet,” “Deep Purple,” and “Dominique.” There were a handful of songs that would have been considered rock and roll, but not the majority.

Giving it a quick and dirty survey, I count 31 rock number ones (counting all Four Seasons songs as rock) from 1959-1963, 45 non-rock, five that could be considered either, and 15 I couldn’t identify, but were mostly non-rock (if they were rock, they would have been on oldies stations and I would have recognized the names). So it was clear by the numbers that rock was not in favor, and if you factored in the number of weeks the songs were on the chart, non-rock pulls further ahead.

Growing up at the time, I remember that most songs on the radio were not particularly rocking. Folk was having a boom among college age, but it didn’t translate to hits (the same situation as jazz in the 50s).

You did have Motown and the Four Seasons rocking it a bit, but it took the Beatles and the British invasion to revitalize things.

Kids and their so-called “rock music” these days…

My parents married in June of 1963. Last summer, my sister and I threw a 50th anniversary party for them. As part of the preparations, I put together a playlist of popular songs from that year, to play at the party. Yeah, there was not a lot of what I’d consider “rock”, but there were a lot of “girl groups”, folk, and just odd stuff.

The Beatles saved Rock.

I was there! I saw them apply the paddles!

Seriously, I was there. I watched Ed Sullivan that fateful night. I talked about The Beatles at lunch every day. We had never, ever done that before with anybody else’s music. The world changed like a switch was thrown.

Were individual songs and artists great in the previous five years? Sure, lots and lots of them. But Rock was sure sick, if not actually dead. All the excitement had moved up the chain to folk and jazz, which attracted an older, college crowd. That’s niche music. Popular, influential, acclaimed, but not defining society. They were publicly dumped in the nation’s affection within seconds of The Beatles’ arrival (and they hated them for it).

Check the Billboard charts for the 1960s. Instead of a few good songs and 95% dreck, post-Beatles there were dozens of good songs and 50% dreck. Sturgeon’s Law got a kick in the teeth for a few years. Money poured in. From a sleazy business of shady independent operators, Rock attracted huge corporations who could offer millions. (Whether that was a good thing or not is somewhat debatable, but part of saving Rock means creating a proper industry rather than a flea market.) Rock defined everything new and redefined everything old. It became immortal instead of ephemeral.

Yeah, The Beatles saved Rock. Or they created Rock out of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a different beast. They are every bit as important as their most extravagant admirers claim. How rare is that?

Just so my comments will be seen in the proper light, I had already shifted my attention to jazz by 1959. Great things were happening then. Kind of Blue and Time Out for example.

I had been a moderate fan of Elvis until he started making those shitty movies. I really liked Buddy Holly and was saddened by his passing. There were folk-rock types that I tolerated. I liked some of the doo-wop and Hit Parade offerings. And I have yet to become a true Beatles fan.

All that said, I would have to look over lists of tunes from those years to see if any of them excited me. My guess is: not many.

My next real interest in rock was by way of Pink Floyd, The Allman Brothers, other “Southern Rock” bands, and random hits by anybody from Billy Joel to Elton John.

Louie, Louie didn’t become a hit until December 1963. Granted, they were uninfluenced by the Beatles, but it’s interesting that the record didn’t take off until just before the Beatles tore the rock world wide open.