Modern pop is essentially urban, and city living is a matter of constant shifting of context, between neighborhoods and between roles. Two or more seemingly incompatible styles working at once is the existential reality of urban life. The term “authenticity,” one which causes a constant tension throughout the story of modern pop, was popularized by existentialism, the du jour beatnik/student philosophy of the early sixties. Beatniks, jazz fans, and readers of Kierkegaard and Sartre may have heard “There Goes My Baby”by the Drifters (1959) in the context of a TV show like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and dismissed it as inauthentic, emotionally infantile, but right here was a blend of different musics and neighborhoods (Spanish Harlem, Long Island, the Bronx, Broadway) that related to shape-shifting street life much more closely than the venerated, undiluted directness of Pete Seeger’s folk or Chris Barber’s jazz.
The acme of doo wop, the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite,” was recorded in a church basement. It contains the beautiful noise, the essence of a city, that Neil Diamond later referenced; to my ears it condenses the entire fabric of New York inside three minutes, and has a saturated saxophone break that sounds like it echoes from one end of the Holland tunnel to the other.
Skiffle was the original DIY music, cut-and-paste, no qualifications necessary; amid the combination of washboard percussion, broom-handle bass, kazoos, and nasal shrieks you can hear the first footsteps on a path that led to Joe Meek, to punk and to jungle.
This urgency and sense of constructing something out of nothing—and doing it right now!—was fundamental to the progression of British pop. Some of Lonnie Donegan’s hits may sound like scrunched-up tinfoil, but the airplay that “Rock Island Line” received on the BBC in 1955 inspired John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Jimmy Page to pick up guitars for the first time; it’s one of the unlikelier facts of history that a song about illegally transporting pig iron is British pop’s fountainhead.
Bo Diddley had the beat. Take his onomatopoeic name for a start—it was so good, he used it in a dozen different song titles: “Bo Diddley,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Bo Diddley Is a Lover,” “Bo’s a Lumberjack.” He chopped up rock ’n’ roll’s square 4/4 rhythm into jagged pieces with his rectangular guitar, hired a maracas player called Jerome Green to add a counterrhythm, and rarely bothered with chord changes. Bo claimed to have come across his patented beat while trying to play Gene Autry’s “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle,” though it more closely recalled the rhumba rhythm of the Andrews Sisters’ 1945 hit “Rum and Coca Cola.”
Among the future hits to feature or adapt the Bo Diddley rhythm:
Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” Them’s “Mystic Eyes” The Who’s “Magic Bus” The Stooges’ “1969” David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit” George Michael’s “Faith” and the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.”
That’s not including covers of Bo’s songs, which made up a good percentage of repertoires on the British R&B circuit in 1963 and ’64: “Mona,” “Pretty Thing,” “Road Runner,” “I’m a Man,” “Who Do You Love,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.”
“To me, the things that are suspenseful, that I find frightening, aren’t someone jumping out of a closet or those kind of big scares, but instead that slow build of dread, and [Highsmith] does that really well. She kind of takes you by the hand and walks you toward the cliff.”—Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn on the suspenseful writing of Patricia Highsmith. Flynn will lead the Wall Street Journal book club discussion of Highsmith’s fifth novel, Deep Water.
Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”
We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.
“The intent is to be as funny as possible as much as possible.”—Harold Ramis, who died this week at the age of 69, on making Caddyshack. Read an excerpt from Ellin Stein’s history of the National Lampoon, That’s Not Funny That’s Sick to see how Ramis made Caddyshack.