The jukebox generation

Jerry Lieber, who died this week, was one of the last of a breed of writers whose songs of lust and longing were the soundtrack to teenage dreams. By Nick Hasted
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The death of Jerry Leiber on Monday breaks another link with a generation of 1950s songwriters who helped to define the teenage dream. With his writing partner, Mike Stoller, a long sequence of hits including "Hound Dog", "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand by Me" acutely addressed adolescent urges. Rock'n'roll as it has played out over the past half-century made its seismic, still rumbling impact through the shocking sight and sound of performers such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

But the jobbing, mostly Jewish and African-American young songwriters who put words in their mouths were equally vital. In the following decade, Bob Dylan and The Beatles would establish rock and teenage longing as more self-consciously serious forces, sometimes toying with literal rebellion. Leiber's generation found a language for and legitimised more primal concerns: hormonal frustration, girls, cars and dancing.

The year 1956 was when pop changed. In January, Frank Sinatra recorded Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, his definitive LP interpreting the songbook of the 20th century's first half. Songs such as Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You" weren't lacking in excitement or implicit carnal thrills, but they plainly applied to the world of adult relationships inhabited by the besuited, 40-year-old singer. This was music for teens to grow into, not live their lives to.

Elvis's first US No 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel", came in February. The almost Gothic gloominess of its account of lovelorn depression, written by Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, is worthy of The Smiths. Although based on an account of a hotel suicide, when sang by Elvis it could also be taken as a portrait of the absolutism of teenage crushes. The 21-year-old singer's version of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" then toyed with the life-and-death importance of teenage fashion, as he valued his beloved footwear over a house or car.

Elvis's recording of "Hound Dog", his third No 1, added the earthy sexuality of the blues and R&B songs admired by its writers, high-school teenagers themselves when they wrote it. Leiber and Stoller, East Coast natives who paired up while at an LA high school, were adding to a long tradition of Jewish writers as conduits for black American culture. They also helped to ensure that the teenage future, in the US and then the world, would be a miracle of miscegenation. When teenagers had been dealt with at all in America's mainstream until then, they were the saccharine innocents of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies.

Leiber and Stoller added more illicit tastes from across the tracks. "Hound Dog" spoke of a raw world of sexual experience: thrilling hormonal dreams unavailable on Sinatra's songs of bar-room regret. The African-American Otis Blackwell, writer of "Don't Be Cruel", the ballad B-side of "Hound Dog", and "All Shook Up", pushed the boundaries still further with 1957's "Great Balls of Fire". Jerry Lee Lewis worried recording its blatant sexuality would condemn him to Hell.

The flowering of rock'n'roll's first auteur was also seen in 1956. Chuck Berry was a less electric performer than Elvis, but wrote his own songs. "Roll Over Beethoven", based on his annoyance when his sister would play classical records instead of Berry's own modern favourites, announced a generational divide, which in the 1960s would become open warfare. Like 1957's "Rock and Roll Music", it was an anthem of independence for the new culture. Berry, 30 in 1956, was an almost sociological student of teenage rituals and mores when crafting other songs, which set down a prosaic vocabulary of high-school longing, cars and crushes. Buddy Holly, a gawky, 20-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, when he wrote 1957's nervously stuttering love song "Peggy Sue", sang such feelings from the heart. James Dean put an angst-tortured face to this world in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Berry, Leiber and the rest gave it a voice.

Leiber and Stoller's success with Elvis found them in the Brill Building by the early 1960s – the New York home of a sophisticated school of hit-making, applying the professional craft of Cole Porter's generation to the buoyant teenage market they'd helped to establish. Bob Dylan's more confessional and confrontational style, and the violent youthquakes which climaxed with Woodstock and the murder at Altamont at the decade's end, soon wiped them, and the performers they'd written for, from the rock map. But as a teenager, Dylan had watched Holly with awe. The influence of the original rock'n'rollers and their songs on The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, and Lennon and McCartney and every other British 1960s great, was equally profound. It was the backbone of all their early sets.

Today, the first rock writers' great work lies almost 60 years in the past, as dustily far back as the late Victorian era was to them. Their original audience, and Dylan's, too, are pensionable, and rock has long stopped being a purely teenage rite. But their importance endures.

Comments