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Seriously, this was a real thing
by Sha Na Na
Inspired by a post by @rivalsanlendo
As the Woodstock remembrances roll in and keep rolling in, I'm doing something I generally avoid here; posting something that's not recorded music, or not exclusively. Also, writing a godblest Thinkpiece (trigger warning).
This video is an edited-down version of an episode of the US variety show hosted by, and centered on, the band Sha Na Na.
When I was a kid, around 8 or 9 years old, my friends loved this show, imitated the characters, and talked about every episode all week long, until the next episode aired. To us, Sha Na Na were those funny guys who acted like they were from the '50s and sang '50s songs.
But Sha Na Na was barely from the 1950s. Their saxophone player had been in Danny & the Juniors ("Rock and Roll is Here to Stay"). The rest was pastiche, a filtered idea of one aspect of working class youth-oriented popular music. The show's opening invocation; "Hey there, all you greasers!"
Suddenly, this early '50s version of rock was very mainstream stuff. Even, arguably, reactionary stuff.
This was 1978. Stateside, Happy Days was a hit TV show, and the film adaptation of the musical Grease (in which Sha Na Na made an appearance) was enjoying immense success. Animal House caught the wave that year, despite pearl-clutching over its low-brow humor. Even punk, with its skinny ties and stripped-down sound, seemed to echo the '50s, to those searching for an analogue to a phenomena so otherwise alien (guilty as charged).
And yet. Punk had hit our shores just two years earlier. The Black Panthers were still active in California politics, and elsewhere. Elvis had been making a jumpsuited comeback, but had died a wreck the year before. Cults seemed to be everywhere. Also heroin. The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment raged. Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay mayor, had been elected, then assassinated in 1978. And no one knew how to cope with the terrible damage Vietnam had done to thousands of young men, now home but often seeming lost, or worse.
My Dad used to argue that the '50s revival in mass media was generated at the behest of some conservative cabal in government. Invoking a myth of an innocent 1950s as a counterpoint to the heaving, unstable 1970s. He thought Happy Days was worthless. I disagreed with him on both counts. I mean, no one could just tell all the TV stations and movie companies now they had to make 50s shows, right? Plus, the Fonz was cool.
Here's why I picked Sha Na Na for GJB. Exhuming the '50s by recreating it on TV, late in the '70s, was displacing and uncanny.
But Sha Na Na was not a reactionary doo-wop group created for TV. They were an experienced stage band. And any idea that they stood in opposition to the counter-culture is belied by one event. They performed at Woodstock.
Here's the footage: https://youtu.be/HXLsMszmQpA It's as wildly discordant as the phrase "doo-wop novelty act at Woodstock" promises. Pompadours, muscle shirts, gold lame, synchronized dancing.
The crowd seemed to dig it, as if unaware that this moment, this one especially, was one at which they must forswear the un-serious culture of their childhood. As if they didn't realize they were participating in the signal moment that ended all that.
Regardless, even if the ersatz greasers in Sha Na Na kind of looked like they'd grow up to re-elect Nixon, Woodstock gave them a big round of applause.
@rivalsanlendo wrote insightfully about how cultural forms like punk often go from earnest, protean, and raw, to self-conscious, gestural, formal, and coopted -- generic "attitude" subsuming spirit (spirit? you know what I mean). Is it just when the money pours in? That seems too simple.
Is it that the surrounding culture can't accommodate what the music urgently demands, promises, or proposes? So it falls back on more familiar tropes and models, ones it can handle? (gangsta rap subsuming conscious hip hop, Bobby Rydell over Jerry Lee Lewis, the Monkees over the Beatles, Coldplay over Radiohead, Billy Idol over Generation X, etc etc). Could be.
I guess what Sha Na Na at Woodstock makes me feel is how pop culture history often seems to be happening all at once, all the time. That's not to minimize how completely fucking weird it is, or delightful, or horrible, or liberating, or neutering. Nor to imply that "nothing's authentic". I feel quite passionately the opposite way.
Only that I don't know how to parse them from one another. I think of 1958, the year Danny & the Juniors' released "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay" (ABC-Paramount spelled out "and" on the album core). Did the record company think rock was about to be stamped out? That rock was a genre that needed defending? And that it needed defending in song? Defending from whom? And then, of course, who thought they could make money off that rebellion?
1978 - United States
Posted: 16th August 2019
Damien McCaffery
#TIMJrefugee. Born and raised on Planet Rock. Somerville-->NYC-->Glasgow-->Philadelphia. B-boy of a certain age, acolyte of old soul. Elsewhere: https://www.instagram.com/damien.mccaffery/?hl=en. Avatar origin: http://abc7.com/news/suspected-car-thief-dances-during-dtla-police-chase/958920/
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