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

Elton John, Naturally. But Led Zeppelin?

And then there’s the irresistible ’50s camp that is “Crocodile Rock”. Elton and Bernie Taupin were sued (and settled out of court) because of the close resemblance between the signature falsetto phrase in the refrain and a similar vocal in “Speedy Gonzalez” a 1962 Pat Boone hit. But for the most part, “Crocodile Rock” sounds like every up-tempo track from the American Graffiti soundtrack thrown into a blender, with especially large portions of “At the Hop” (Artie Singer, John Medora, and David White), “Little Darlin’”, (Maurice Williams) and “The reference to Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers’ “Rock Around the Clock”, the Bill Haley hit, which, incidentally, scratched the Top 40 in 1974 after being used as the opening-credits music for George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Garry Marshall’s American Graffiti-inspired television show, Happy Days

Not only did “Crocodile Rock” lift Elton to a new level of popularity (it was his first US #1); it signaled a shift in his persona, from pensive singer-songwriter (or co-writer, since Taupin wrote the lyrics) to flamboyant pop superstar. (Compare his pre-1973 album covers to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic. The cover of the pivotal album, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, evokes “Crocodile Rock” with a photo of a couple in 1950s outfits beneath a mid-century movie marquee.) In 1973, to embrace the sound of ’50s rock, and to celebrate it as ‘Crocodile Rock’ does, was to lighten up, to go pop, to move from the ’60s into the ’70s by going back to the ’50s. 

There’s something of that same spirit even in the heavier, more album-oriented rock of the early-to-mid-’70s. Led Zeppelin played the ’50s card with “Rock and Roll” in 1971. Glam and boogie lent themselves easily to ’50s song structures – particularly in the case of T-Rex. 

David Bowie’s minor hit “Drive-In Saturday” from 1973’s Aladdin Sane comes across as a druggy answer to “Crocodile Rock” – doo-wop from another planet. It’s as if Bowie is riffing from the nostalgia for early-rock arrangements but not allowing himself to give in to it. This being early-’70s Bowie, the song is set in the future, with references to strange friends who live “in the dome” and “cursing at the astronette”. But the chorus is a fond remembrance of drive-in movies (referred to as “video films”, again suggesting nostalgia for a kind of drive-in experience unknown to 1973): “His name was always Buddy / And he’d turn and ask to stay / She’d sigh like twig the wonder kid / And turn her face away / She’s uncertain that she likes him / But she knows she really loves him / It’s a crash course for the ravers / It’s a drive-in Saturday.”

Bowie’s vocals – both the lead and the nasal doo-wop backing – are anguished, sometimes on the brink of rage. Like Lennon and the Who a few years earlier, Bowie uncovered and heightened the aggression and sexuality in ’50s rock, hinting toward a punk future by drawing on the pre-psychedelic past. 

But the song that best summed up the new reverence for the ’50s as a musical golden age was Don McLean’s “American Pie”, inescapable throughout 1972 and a staple of oldies radio and late-night sing-alongs ever since. “American Pie” is not just mournful of (a) the loss of Buddy Holly, (b) pure, simple rock ‘n’ roll, and (c) innocence; it’s also a pretty cranky assessment of the rock music made between the 1962 setting and the 1973 release of American Graffiti. 

The song’s allegorical cast of characters has been interpreted too many times, both in print and during drunken dorm-room symposiums, but here goes: McLean espouses the consensus view of early ’70s Dylan as uninspired (“moss grows fat on a rolling stone”), while the song is ambivalent toward Dylan’s earlier incarnation as “the jester”: when he stole Elvis’ (the King’s) thorny crown, “no verdict was returned”.

The Beatles are referenced repeatedly but not favorably; the Byrds (“eight miles high and falling fast”) and the Stones (“Jack Flash sat on a candlestick / ’Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend”) are blamed for late-’60s decadence and the violence at Altamont. As John Milner, the badass car racer in American Graffiti would put it, “I think rock and roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.” The difference is that the fictional Milner said that in 1962, and McLean is saying it ten years later, after a period of incredible growth and maturation in rock music. “American Pie” reaches for a larger critique of ’60s culture, especially in the last verse, but its focus is mainly on music-makers, and it’s a strangely reactionary kind of nostalgia for pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll. 

How do we explain the ’70s’ intense ’50s nostalgia? There’s the “American Pie” thesis, that disillusionment with the excesses of the countercultural ’60s led inevitably back to the “golden age” that preceded it. There was, at least, a strong sense of an era ending – it’s no coincidence that ’50s revivalism took off around the time of the Paris Peace Accords and the end of the military draft. The early Boomers were in their mid-to-late 20s, starting families and reflecting on their childhoods.

Moreover, the ethos of the “Me Decade” stressed personal development over social activism, so a return to the pleasures of adolescence makes sense, especially when the mythical, middle-class white ethos of the long ’50s was one of innocence and exuberance. That larger cultural “return” to the ’50s expressed itself through popular music, especially in tributes like “Crocodile Rock” and Grease

But at the same time, there was a growing recognition that the sounds developed by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and others on the American Graffiti soundtrack were the foundation for what had become “rock” in the late ’60s. As rock culture developed, largely through magazines like Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem, it claimed ownership of the various youth-oriented styles of the 1954-62 period and built them into the narrative of rock’s development, with “Rock Around the Clock” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” as founding documents, despite the deeper, more complex lineage of blues, country, Tin Pan Alley, swing, etc.

A song like “Drive-In Saturday” might be a particularly self-conscious example, but there was a larger sense that Bowie’s music, along with Zeppelin’s and everyone else’s, even Pink Floyd’s or Alice Cooper’s, evolved from the songs that filled out the American Graffiti soundtrack. This rock historiography may be misleading – it’s certainly oversimplified – but it was soon taken for granted by most fans. 

One final example from 1973 illustrates this point: Dick Clark, who, along with Wolfman Jack, served as a kind of ambassador from the Republic of Oldies, released a two-LP collection called 20 Years of Rock n’ Roll. (I still have my copy, ordered with 11 other albums for a penny from Columbia House.) It begins with “Crying in the Chapel” and concludes with two hits from 1972, Al Green’s “So You’re Leaving” and Gallery’s “Nice to Be with You” (written by Jim Gold). These last two don’t sound anything like the ’50s, but they are presented in this collection as the latest products of a tradition advanced by performers ranging from Bill Haley to the Everly Brothers to the Shangri-Las to Van Morrison to Curtis Mayfield.

Even without any psychedelia or power chords, the album’s line-up is incredibly varied. Yet it’s all still rock ‘n’ roll – or now, “rock” – to Dick Clark. In a banner across the top of the back cover, Clark makes sense of it all: “In the 1950’s people used to ask me, ‘How long can Rock last—.’ In the 1970’s Rock rolls on…” 

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