[21 October 2007]
What does it mean to be a teenager today? There is no distinctive teen subculture; instead, it has been fragmented like the rest of society into a zillion categories separated by small distinctions in age, geography, taste, and what not. But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when teenagers formed a large, identifiable group with shared likes and interests. These youths saw themselves as having something in common just because of their ages. This is why Elvis Presley (in 1956) and the Beatles (in 1964) were mass phenomena that all kids watched on television. It was their music.
So was the music on this collection of doo-wop tunes. These vocal harmony songs of love and romance functioned as the soundtrack to teen life. While this anthology includes monster hits like Dion and the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love” and the Crests’ “16 Candles” alongside obscure ditties like Norman Fox and the Rob Roys’ “Pizza Pie” and the Echoes’ “Ding Dong”, all of the songs would be instantly recognizable as teenage music by the generation of baby boomers that came of age between the mid-‘50s and mid-‘60s.
That said, tastes did change over time. The differences between the music of Elvis and the Beatles caused their respective fans to battle back then. Doo-wop that once sounded fresh in 1956 sounded old fashioned by 1966, the years covered by this anthology. However, the passing of time has blurred these lines. To today’s teenagers, Elvis and the Beatles are classic rock from the past, largely divorced of time and place. To modern ears, doo-wop tracks from the ‘50s and ‘60s both sound the same. All that matters to most contemporary listeners is whether a song is catchy or clever.
This collection of New York area doo-wop is meant for a general audience. A purist would reject the inclusion of songs like the Four Seasons’ “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” for several reasons. Real doo-wop music should only have minimal, unobtrusive instrumentation. A Capella doo-wop is the genuine connoisseur’s choice. But one can’t imagine “Sherry” without it’s drummed introduction and heavy percussion accompaniment. Sure, its roots come out of doo-wop, but it’s like calling Led Zeppelin “blues music” because of the influence the classic Chess records had on the band’s sound. Okay, that may be a little exaggerated, but audiences at the time would have considered the Four Seasons rock instead of doo wop. Besides, the Four Seasons hail from the Garden State. The hit musical based on their lives isn’t called Jersey Boys for nothing. Calling this New York area music is an insult to those of us from the land of Sinatra and Springsteen.
Anyone interested in teenage music from this era would find much to enjoy here. There are rowdy anthems guaranteed to make even the most sedate listener sing along, like the original “Barbara Ann” by the Regents (later popularized by the West Coast pretenders, the Beach Boys, whose vocal harmonies owe a large debt to their Eastern forbearers), the sweet ache of heartbreak on cuts like the Token’s take on Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s “He’s in Town,” and sexy, make out material like the Capri’s “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” that’s almost guaranteed to steam up one’s car windows.
The three-disc set also offers rarities to entice the doo-wop collector who may have the more popular tunes here but cannot resist Dion’s first effort, “Rooftop Serenade”, offered here for the first time anywhere. The recording is a little scratchy, yet there is something magical about Dion’s tenor voice as he sings about looking for a true love. There are 59 tracks here and 58 are wonderful cuts from the original era, but for some reason the collection ends with a modern song by a doo-wopper from the past who recalls the old days in the present. While Kenny Vance and the Planotones’ “Looking for an Echo” is not a bad tune, it doesn’t really fit here. The set would be better off without it. Teenagers are best off making their own music without a nostalgic adult’s interference.