Where Were You in ’72? The ’50s Revival Reconsidered

How do we explain 1970 America’s intense ’50s nostalgia, which took off around the time of the Paris Peace Accords and the end of the military draft?

41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti
August 1973

Anniversaries of classic albums such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Joni Mitchell’s Blue have listeners reflecting on the incredible range of groundbreaking, original music produced half a century ago, shifting the current locus of Boomer nostalgia from the ’60s to the ’70s. So this seems like a good time to appreciate a 50-year-old pop music phenomenon that ran against the current of the fresh, innovative sounds of those celebrated albums, and which provided the Woodstock generation with their first blast from the past. 

While albums such as What’s Going On, Blue, and John Lennon’s Imagine seem to capture the early ’70s zeitgeist, those years were also defined by a revival of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll. You could even argue that the ’50s provided the most distinctive sound of the early ’70s. The seeds had been planted in the late ’60s by the Beatles themselves (the Get Back album project that became 1970’s Let It Be), along with Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (Live Peace in Toronto), the Who (“Summertime Blues”), and other major rock acts, not to mention the Woodstock performance of Sha Na Na’s “At the Hop”.

By 1972, ’50s revivalism had emerged as a major force in American culture. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s musical Grease opened that year on Broadway, beginning a decade-spanning run and eventually inspiring the blockbuster film that served as a kind of grand finalé of the ’70s interpretation of the ’50s. Top 40 radio reflected the new obsession. Elvis hit #2 on the Billboard charts with “Burnin’ Love” and Chuck Berry scored his first and only US #1 with the immortal “My Ding-a-Ling”. Neither of these singles sounded quite like their singers’ ’50s hits, but they were bold reminders: Elvis could still bring genuine sexual energy to a rock ‘n’ roll performance, and Chuck could top the charts singing about masturbation.

Meanwhile, Michael Jackson hit number two with a cover of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” from 1958, and Commander Cody made the top ten with “Hot Rod Lincoln”, a 1955 hit for Charlie Ryan. They would be followed in 1973 and ’74 by top-ten remakes of “Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Johnny Rivers, “The Loco-Motion” by Grand Funk Railroad, “You’re Sixteen” and “Only You (And You Alone)” by Ringo Starr. Less inspired tributes included Donny Osmond’s retread of Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love” and Bobby Vinton’s “Sealed with a Kiss”, a subdued rendition of Brian Hyland’s syrupy 1962 smash. 

But perhaps the most enduring early ’70s tribute to the ’50s came with George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti and its best-selling soundtrack album. Groundbreaking in its use of nonstop diegetic music (Lucas considered the film a musical), American Graffiti’s songs range in date from 1953 (The Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel”) to 1964 (The Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long”), and most predate the film’s 1962 setting by at least two years. Streaming songs that reflected the entire pre-1963 era was more important to Lucas than capturing what would have actually been on the radio in 1962, despite the emphasis placed on that year in the film’s promotion with the tagline, “Where were you in ’62?”

Because so much had happened in rock and pop music in the decade that separated the film’s setting from its release, the music on the American Graffiti soundtrack seemed to emerge from a time capsule, and in the vinyl era most of them had become hard to find: the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles”, Lee Dorsey’s “Ya-Ya”, the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go with Me”. Several tracks include Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter from the film, adding to the effect of songs blaring from car radios as opposed to, say, home stereos where most people listened to 41 Original Hits from the Original Soundtrack of American Graffiti.

Thanks largely to that album, the temporarily “lost” time period came to be regarded as a musical “golden age”, with all that phrase implies: not just artistic flourishing but also innocence that precedes a period of decadence. Peaking at #10 on the Billboard album chart and eventually going triple platinum, the American Graffiti soundtrack was perhaps the first major expression of Boomer nostalgia. 

The revival of pre-Beatles rock and pop also revived the careers of some decidedly unhip performers from that era. Paul Anka cashed in on his newfound relevance in 1974 and ’75 with a trio of duets with Odia Coates, including the chart-topping “(You’re) Having My Baby”. His jingle for Kodak in 1975 (“Remember … the times of your life”) testified to the nostalgia that he had come to represent, even though his new hits actually had a very contemporary easy-listening sound.

The same could be said of former Brill Building hitmaker Neil Sedaka, whose comeback was aided by Elton John and bolstered by his songwriting credit for Captain and Tennille’s ubiquitous “Love Will Keep Us Together”. Among Sedaka’s mid-’70s singles was a lounge-ballad version of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, his own #1 from 1962. (The new single opened with a snippet of the original, to ensure that listeners appreciated the concept.) Frankie Valli completed the holy trinity of early ’60s teen idols topping the charts a decade after their first run: in early 1975, “My Eyes Adored You” initiated a string of solo and Four Seasons hits (“Oh What a Night”, “Who Loves You”) over the next few years.  

Anka, Sedaka, and Valli traded on their “golden age” bona fides but generally avoided the musical styles that made them famous the first time. Meanwhile, those earlier styles were invoked by writers and arrangers who were only slightly younger but belonged to a distinctly different musical generation. In the year of American Graffiti, the Carpenters observed that it was “Yesterday Once More” in a gossamer tribute to doo-wop. 

From the reverb on the opening guitar lick to the jump-blues rhythm with piano trills and a honking sax solo, Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” announced itself as a ’50s throwback. The song is standard twelve-bar blues, a classic R&B template for classics like Bill Haley & His Comets “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, and Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Yet because it’s a ’70s update of ’50s rock, everything in the mix sounds cleaner and brighter, and Loggins and Messina stay true vocally to their mellow country-rock roots.

It’s a formula similar to the one Linda Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher would use to generate multiple hit oldies covers, starting with Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved” and Clint Ballard Jr.,’s “You’re No Good” in 1975. The lyrics of “Your Mama Don’t Dance”, of course, point straight to a sanitized vision of the teenage ’50s: necking at the drive-in, parental disputes over dancing and curfew (you gotta end your date by 10PM), as opposed to, say, smoking pot and protesting the war.  

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