Friday, June 14, 2013

Teen Idols Of The Sixties : The Class Of 1960!

Teen Idols Of The Sixties : The Class Of 1960!

The first decade of the 1960s, the decade that changed the world.  Or something.  It all started off in an optimistic, and oddly 1950s-ish manner, as the quaint American dream rose to its peak.

It was the year that the United States got a President who looked sort of like a pop star.  PresidentKennedy even had big bouffant pop star hair (sort of).  And he was replacing a President that looked less like a pop star that any President had before. The election ended up bein  a close match, between Kennedy, the embodiment of optimism and perfect young families and the American dream of everybody looking beautiful (even if he did have a funny looking round head) and Nixon, the embodiment of  the majority of not-particularly-attractive but hard working people (which is why he forgot to shave in the televised Presidential debates, he was just too busy).  The Hollywood ideal won. 

Hawaii became a state.  And many Americans spent much of their time dreaming about living there. And Elvis came home from his stint in the army in Germany, whilst simultaneously thousands of American boys were sent to Vietnam, although not a lot was going on over there quite yet.

And America continued to pump out pop music the way only they knew how.  And they continued to pump out teen pop idols.

Now the art of the “teen idol” had been gradually emerging over the last couple of years of the 1950s. Paul Anka had kick-started the idea by taking “Diana” all the way to Number One across the globe, telling everyone that he was a teenage genius and that an army of teenage geniuses were about to take over the world.  That was in 1957.  And over the next couple of years, an army of teenagers did take over the world, although few could be described as geniuses.  There were bright spots such as Frankie Avalon, whose “Venus”  was the most perfectly formed piece of pop of 1959, to lower spots such as Fabian.

But then in 1960, that wave of “teen idols” suddenly turned into a tsunami, so that suddenly there was a teen idol for everyone.  A teen idol for every faction of high school society.

Bobby Rydell was the jock pop star.  He first raced up the charts with “Kissin’ Time.” Then “Wild One”.  Then “Swinging School.”  Bobby Rydell was the coolest kid in school.  He made being a teenager look and sound like the most fun anyone could ever have.  “Swingin’ School” – maybe not his biggest hit, maybe not his best hit, but certainly his most fun song – started off with Bobby yelling out all of his favourite things. “Chicks! Kicks! Cats! Cool! Yeah… SCHOOOOL!”  So he was certainly excited about those sort of things. He had a perfect quiff.  He had a perfectly huge goofy smile.  The girls all though he was an absolute dream.

Competing with Bobby Rydell on the quiff front was JohnnyBurnette, a failed rock’n’roller from the first wave of rock’n’roll.  So rock’n’roll that they called themselves The Rock’n’Roll Trio.
They never got very far on the pop charts despite reputedly being highschool pals with Elvis Presley.  He used to wave at them anyway as he zipped past on his motorcycle.  One of them worked with Elvis, back in his truck driving days.

By the time Johnny Burnette finally managed to storm the pop charts with “Dreamin’” in 1960, he was no longer a teenager (possibly this is why his quiff had a greater similarity with Bill Haley’s, who had originally had to face the problem of being a middle aged rock’n’roller playing rock'n'roll music for kids).  But the demand for more teen-idols was so strong that that never really came up… at 27 years of age, Johnny Burnette became a teen-idol, singing a song about a girl that was sixteen (like so many other teen-idols did at the time).

Both Bobby Rydell and Johnny Burnette could be considered as "answers to Elvis" pop stars.  Bobby Rydell was "American Bandstand"'s answer to Elvis (since Elvis never appeared on the show), whilst Johnny Burnette was Ted Mack Original Amateur Hours answer to Elvis.  Columbia Records, the biggest record company in the land but one with an anti-rock'n'roll policy, took until about now to come up with an answer to Elvis of their own.  Their Elvis was called Crash Craddock, he had a certain jockiness about him - having been a high school football hero - and he was a total failure on the charts.  Except in Australia, where he managed to score not just one but two Number One singles - "Boom Boom Baby" and "One Last Kiss" - giving concerts to thousands of screaming girls in Sydney and Melbourne before coming home to North Carolina where no-one seemed to care who he was.

Novelty songs were also big at the time (when aren't they really?) and when combined with the cheeky and teen idolly good looks of Brian Hyland, you got "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." 

Brian Hyland knew a lot about summer... it wasn't just a time for bikinis.  It was a time that could be cold and lonely.  So he came back a couple of years later with "Sealed With A Kiss."  But for now he was just a happy kid, with interesting dance moves singing what may be a "teenage death song" (or make that a "toddler death song") about bikinis.

For "teenage death songs" - or "coffin songs" or "splatter platters" - were rather popular at the time. As was discovered by Ray Peterson whose "Tell Laura I Love Her" flew up the charts around the world.

Ray Peterson didn't really look all that much like a teen idol.  Photos of Ray tend to have him look a little pale.  A little sickly (he had, after all, battled polio as a child).  Looking quite a bit like an effeminate insect.  Not much like a teen idol at all. And most definitely not the kind of guy who really looked as though he would ever ride a motorcycle. But if there was one thing that everyone knew about teenagers in 1960 it’s that they liked to ride motorcycles.  And when they did they, more often than not, died.

And so, in “Tell Laura I Love Her”, an epic tale of motorbikes, deaths, dreams of getting married and over-the-top desperation, Ray dies in a a motorcycle race whilst trying to win enough money to buy his love an engagement ring.  That sucks. In Ray Peterson’s world, being a teenager sucked.  Sure, it might be a ball for the popular kids like Bobby Rydell, all swinging around kissing wild girls and such, but for more kids… being a teenage was generally a sucky experience, during which there was a good chance that you would die in a bizarre, mysterious - but always romantic - manner.

There was a lot of this around.  Mark Dinning took his “Teen Angel,” all the way to Number One in the US, a song all about a girl who gets squished by a train after going back to Mark’s car, which has stalled on some railroad tracks, in order to fetch his high school ring.  Silly girl.  No common sense at all.

Like Johnny Burnette, Mark Dinning was a rather elderly 27 years of age and didn’t even have a groovy quiff to help you forget it.  He was most certainly not a teen idol.

Jimmy Jones was the teen idol for all the black kids at school. He seemed like the happiest guy in the world.  He came across, in his first big hit – “Handy Man” - as some sort of magical man, akin to a tooth fairy, fixing up girl’s hearts whistling while he worked. He shot up, hit pop perfection – and again, with the possibly even better and chirpier “Good Timin’”- before falling back down to Earth again, heavy with the weight that no-one can possibly retain that much happiness and boundless energy for longer than two short two minute monster hits.


Speaking of boundless energy, there was Freddy Cannon, the idol for all the kids with an undying commitment to rocking and rolling.

Now technically Freddy began his hit making career in 1959.  One could argue that he’d already – after "Tallahassee Lassie" a wonderful record written by his Mom and full of stomping beats and energetic “WOOO!”s – peaked by the time that 1959 clicked over into 1960.  It had been a short, wonderful and action packed hit career, not unlike his records.  Freddy Cannon would continue to rock into 1960, with rockin' song after rockin' song, name checking American place names along the way.

Not a bad year for teen idols.  But still it was nothing when compared to 1961.

1 comment:

  1. Ray Peterson,Jimmy Jones and Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon were FAR TOO UGLY to be teen idols!!!!!(Though I loved the lads' songs when I was a boy,and STILL ENJOY THEM AT AGE 61!!!!!)