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To describe the Auteur Theory of Rock as a mimicking poor relation to the Politique des Auteurs of the cinema initially clears but ultimately muddies the water which supports this important new mode of rock 'n' roll study.
The role of the director in the Bazin-Godard-Truffaut mode of movie analysis is filled in a comparably all-important manner by the singer. This role, to oversimplify by way of introduction, is to personalize unmistakably the final product. More than creating a recognizable style (for in the main, the human voice is inherently distinctive), the rock auteur utilizes his style to transcend his material. The content of the artist's songs is subjugated, and in fact it sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate within the auteur's oeuvre.
The attacks on the rock theory are the same as those on the Cahiers du Cinema idea--that a fetish is made of personality, that a balanced criticism is sacrified, that competence replaces genius as the ideal. But a look at the following registers clearly shows that the great artists by any standard are the great auteurs; and while many singers who enjoyed contemporary success are dismissed by this evaluation, history will prove that these were the tide-riders, and the auteurs will stand as the forces that supplied the shock that generated the waves.
While acceptance of the auteur theory is currently spreading to many quarters (Ellen Willis gives oblique recognition to it in the April 6 New Yorker), this is the first attempt, to our knowledge, to relate it comprehensively to a significant segment of the rock 'n' roll catalogue.
Limiting the study to white individual artists perhaps increase the resemblance of this paper to Andrew Sarris's rankings of American directors in Film Culture (to continue the cinema parallel). But this is a fertile field, without question, and while the categories of "groups" and Negro performers may be of equivalent stature, the category of white individuals is schematically the logical starting point and should provide more handles for the novitiate to grasp.
The Pantheon (First-Rank Auteurs)
ELVIS PRESLEY: It would be hard to devise any theory of criticism in which the number one position would go to anyone but Elvis. His influence on those who followed cannot be underrated: his hip-swinging set the style for performance, and the hard-driving toughness of Hound Dog and Treat Me Nice spawned a whole generation of imitations, from Fabian, Sal Mineo, and Joey Castle to Conrad Birdie. Only the Everly Brothers can match Elvis's dual line of songs--distinct yet composed of the same ingredients--that both define the pinnacle. Don't Be Cruel, Blue Suede Shoes, and Too Much led down to Teddybear, Wear My Ring, and on to Little Sister, Return to Sender, and Devil in Disguise (one of the few masterpieces in the recently-released Elvis' Golden Records--Volume 4). And while some critics have proclaimed the death of this line, the King's current smash, U.S. Male, is meaner, ornier, and harder rocking than all but the most vintage Presley. The other line, less spectacular but qualitatively better, has flowed equally, from I Want You, I Need You, I Love You through Don't Love Me, Fame and Fortune, Any Way You Want Me, to I Can't Help Falling In Love, and his last chart-topper, Crying in the Chapel.
BUDDY HOLLY was perhaps the first canonized auteur, after his tragic death in 1959. The number of Holly admirers has grown so steadily that Coral Records has managed to "discover" six albums-worth of material since the plane crash. Holly's style was the vehicle for the rise of Bobby Vee and Tommy Roe among others, and the early wave of the British sound in 1964, including a Beatles period, can be traced back to the shy Texan. The rolling beat of Peggy Sue and Tell Me How lived, as little else of the '50's did, well into the '60's, and the Holly hiccup that gracenotes the title phrase of Oh Boy and gives "love" second and third syllables is one of rock's top trademarks.
The EVERLY BROTHERS, while not strictly an individual, are not a group either, and their overwhelming auteurisme cries for inclusion here. Their pleasant-blending thirds and Nashville nasality give them perhaps the only sound in rock that can carry with genuineness, distinctiveness and positive effect into the field of Christmas carols. As with Elvis, Don and Phil's records were consistently two-sided, with the uptempo line of Bye, Bye Love, Bird Dog, Claudette, Wake Up Little Susie, Problems and Poor Jenny balancing the ballads: Love Of My Life, Devoted to You, Crying in the Rain, Love Hurts, Don't Aks Me To Be Friends, Maybe Tomorrow
BRENDA LEE, diminutive in stature, stands head and shoulders above everyone else on the distaff side of the rock picture. Since she recorded Jambalaya as a 12-year-old, she has simply overpowered every song that has come her way. Her big voice is best in the slow numbers like I'm Sorry and Losing You, but her delicately-wielded heavy bass is just as characteristic in the rockers--Dum, Dum, Sweet Nothins, That's All You Gotta Do--in which she employs another trademark, her non-piercing screams.
RICKY NELSON, a disciple of Elvis, is the only derivative member of the first rank, but his place is assured by the bulk of his work and the single detached, cool style in which he approaches all his material, be it the affirmative I Believe, the despondent Lonesome Town, the hopeful I Got a Feeling, or the philosophical A Teenager's Romance. When his fortune is good in Travelin' Man or bad in Poor Little Fool, when he's successful in Be Bop or luckless in Stood Up, Rick's archetypal voice reveals no emotion --just the casual sneer of his autobiographical masterpiece, Teenage Idol.
The Second Line
JERRY LEE LEWIS
BILL HALEY is the earliest rock auteur (which chronologically places him somewhere between Johnny Ray and Elvis Presley). Not only did Haley accomplish rock's conquest of the pop charts with Rock Around the Clock, he molded a cheerful, sincerely synthetic style that brought him hits like Shake, Rattle, and Roll and See Ya Later, Allgiator, and enabled him and his Comets to appropriate any old song for rock's use--remember, for instance, Rockin' Through the Rye. (While speaking of Haley, we might note the best successor to his practices, Johnny and the Hurricanes. Though not properly belonging to this study, this instrumental group ranks high in the auteur ratings for their inspired and practically identical rockifications of Red River Valley, Jimmy Crack Corn, and Reveille.)
GENE PITNEY'S consummate technique, characteristic double-tracking, and nasal strength make unforgettable experiences out of It Hurts To Be In Love, I Must Be Seeing Things, I'm Gonna Be Strong, and above all, Town Without Pity. His noticeably sharp notes and inimitably high range have marked all his songs from I Want to Live My Life Away through three volumes of "Greatest Hits" to his chef-d'oeuvre, Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart, which climaxes the recently released Gene Pitney Story.
NEIL SEDAKA'S credentials hardly need airing. With a style closely related to Pitney's Sedaka has created a sound--from The Diary through Carol, Little Devil, Stairway to Heaven, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen, World Through A Tear--that inevitably blends his whole work into a single medley with scarcely detectable demarcations.
FREDDY CANNON'S position has been lifted to the top of the second rank only in recent years, as students have come to appreciate the Boom-Boom's husky, 150 per cent voice, the kind that anyone can imitate if he doesn't mind being hoarse the rest of the day. Cannon's best song, Palisades Park, is extra-auteur; he owes his place to the "whoooo" of Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Talla-hassie Lassie, and Transistor Sister.
ROY ORBISON has long been a favorite for his bull voice. While many of his big songs--Pretty Woman, Sweet Dreams, Baby, Pretty Papers--work against his strength, the full-throttle heftiness of Running Scared, Crying, and most especially Leah, cannot be gainsaid.
DUANE EDDY is an unusual inclusion, but his twangy guitar conveys an individual expressiveness the equal of any voice. The rocking guitar of Rebel Rouser and Movin' and Groovin' is one thing, but the isolated echo that haunts The Lonely One and Because They're Young is an instrumental experience.
JERRY LEE LEWIS is a vibrating keyboard, flouncing golden locks, and shining Southern teeth. Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On, and Breathless sound just alike--but unlike any other music in the world.
The BIG BOPPER is the ultimate example of style triumphing alone, unsupported. Chantilly Lace, Big Bopper's Wedding, and Little Red Riding. Hood formed a merry trilogy, a song-chronicle; but how much further style would have carried the Big Bopper if he hadn't died with Holly and Richie Valens is open to question.
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