Tara Brabazon: The potent pop soundtrack of our lives

Seemingly insubstantial Sixties chart hits never garnered critical kudos, but their power to move us remains undimmed, says Tara Brabazon

February 24, 2010

Popular culture maintains many functions in academic life. High theorists locate quirky case studies for their arguments. Slavoj Žižek’s use of Kung Fu Panda is a great example of this strategy. Fine scholars such as David Buckingham use pop as a motivational tool for hard-to-reach students. But my interest in popular culture is not as an example or motivator. I use pop as a method to teach and an andragogical mechanism to inspire, scaffold and enable scholarship.

Popular culture is a translator between ways of learning and ways of living. It clusters familiarity, difference, relevance and passion into a package that connects to a wide audience. The extraordinary power of popular culture is its capacity to be popular, to claw into so many people’s lives, triggering emotional responses and narrating personal stories. The capacity to link thousands and even millions of people is the gift of pop.

It is easy to justify a supposedly radical and unpopular cultural artefact as worthy of study because it does not attract an audience. That lack of interest supposedly makes it risky, important and edgy. Such elitism blocks a discussion of the difficulties – and specialness – of releasing a song, item of clothing, film or idea that flows through a time and expresses shared experience.

Only half jokingly, I re-label high culture as unpopular culture. This new label pricks the pretensions of those who celebrate images, music and artefacts that attract a small audience. This selectivity confirms superiority from the rest of the population. For me, there is more academic value in understanding why a particular film, song or photograph settles into the texture of daily life, connecting individual and collective memory. Such a project does not evaluate quality, but attempts to understand relevance.

One such shard of pop is The Cascades’ Rhythm of the Rain. Released in November 1962 and written by John Gummoe, a few months later it would peak in the American charts at number three in a week when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Walk like a Man held the top spot. What made Gummoe’s song unusual is the proto-internet speed with which it spread around the world, becoming a number one hit in several territories. While The Cascades would release other songs, they never matched the success of Rhythm of the Rain.

John Gummoe, in remembering that brief period of chart success, described it as “a dream”, believing that “the chemistry was perfect. The group had a perfect sound for the era.” Popular culture at its best operates in this journalistic way, freezing a moment and then allowing it to travel through space and time like a bubble of meaning.

The era Gummoe recalls is an important one: that under-studied and underappreciated period between the death of Buddy Holly and the launch of the Beatles in America. Too often the focus is on Bobby Vee and Pat Boone, rather than the Crystals and Sam Cooke. In 1962, Chubby Checker’s The Twist still rotated through the charts. Booker T and his MGs released Green Onions. Neil Sedaka proclaimed that Breaking Up is Hard to Do. Ray Charles delivered I Can’t Stop Loving You.

From this historical soundtrack tumbled The Cascades. On the first hearing, Rhythm of the Rain seems little more than 150 seconds of bubblegum. Like so much of the music released in this period, the dense orchestration deflected attention from the innovations within. The best musicians of the time played on it, including Hal Blaine, the stellar drummer of the Wrecking Crew. Glen Campbell (as in Rhinestone Cowboy) played guitar.

Lyrically, Rhythm of the Rain tells the story of a man left by a woman. He is lonely. Isolated. It is raining. It is a conventional song of a love lost. The intelligence of the lyric tethers emotion to weather, equating distraught masculinity to falling rain. It is a simple song to sing and play. It starts with the famous sound effect of thunder and a storm. Three chords – E, A and B7 – propel the melody. David Waine, an Amazon.com customer offering his views on a Cascades greatest hits collection, commented: “You’ve got to be 50+ to remember these guys.” As someone under that age – and there are a few of us circulating in the British academy – I can confirm that Waine is wrong. The reason he is inaccurate is that the song has skirted the edges of popular culture through the (nearly) 50 years since it was released.

In 1999, the performing rights organisation Broadcast Music Inc (BMI) constructed a list of the most-played songs of the 20th century on radio and television in the US. Rhythm of the Rain was not only on the list, but positioned at number nine. One reason for its ranking among the best-known work of songwriters including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is that the track has been transformed and migrated to new audiences.

Cover songs are the popular cultural equivalent of referencing. When a version of a great song is re-recorded by other artists, it quotes not only a lyric, melody and rhythm but a memory. The best covers create a pop patchwork quilt, cutting up the original sounds and history and reframing them for new context. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower is the archetype of this capacity both to quote and to change. There is a nod to Dylan in Hendrix’s version, but the violent guitar and savage vocal performance summon the darker side of the 1960s. The brutality of Hendrix’s version is beyond disturbing. It seethes with menace.

While it lacks Hendrix’s wire-cutting aggression, Rhythm of the Rain has been widely reinterpreted. Soon after the original release, Bobby Darin and Ricky Nelson both released their own versions. Dan Fogelberg rocked it up. Sarah Brightman slowed it down. Most famously, Jason Donovan – propelled by producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman and their samplers – recorded the Baudrillard remix. As a re-representation of the early 1960s song, it was even more sentimental, sparkling and Sixties than the bubbling original. Even Chris de Burgh, on a rather strange album of covers released last year, produced a lilting adaptation. An under-recognised cover of the song comes from US country/folk duo Crossing North. Over the years, Rhythm of the Rain has been hyper-produced. It has also been stripped of all instruments except guitars and a voice. Through all these modifications, the song survives.

Singles matter as memory texts. When iTunes arrived, it became a sonic candy store for those of us who adore singles. It has encouraged some very unusual habits of mine. I am drawn to particular songs and buy every available version. My collections of Love Will Tear Us Apart, Four Strong Winds, The Last Thing on my Mind, Rhythm is a Dancer, All Along the Watchtower and Delphic’s The Momentary have initiated new ways of listening to music. Whole days of writing have a customised soundtrack. I place all my versions of Four Strong Winds on a loop and click play. This is not normal. Yet the survival of individual songs is often based on these reinterpretations, remixes and repackaging. These reworked singles provide a soundtrack for teaching and research and alternative ways of thinking and writing.

The Cascades released one hit and then faded from view. This track remains a reminder of all the extraordinary music produced during this era that did not involve Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It shows how the past can live in our present. The cultural critic Dave Hickey observed: “During the 1970s, when I was writing rock criticism and popular songs, and playing music, I used to wonder why there were so many love songs. More specifically, I wondered why 90 per cent of the pop songs ever written were love songs, while 90 per cent of rock criticism was written about the other 10 per cent.”

There are many answers to Hickey’s question, but part of the reason for the imbalance between critical attention and popularity – between Dylan and the Cascades – is that there is a need to make pop into art, to make it significant. In other words, there is a desire to dismiss popularity and to make music meaningful through abstraction rather than seeking to understand the relevance of a single in a listener’s life.

Popular culture does not have to be made significant. A lyric about war, injustice or resistance may be a soundtrack for social change. More importantly, popular culture provides a common language – a sonic touchstone – to speak and share feelings and history.

Noël Coward, in the midst of Private Lives, noted the potency of “cheap music”. He was right. Pop is emotional shorthand. It may be political, ridiculing – as Dylan did – the Masters of War. Conversely, it may compare the loss of love to a rainstorm. Mostly it links the personal with the possible, and the commonsensical with community. Rhythm of the Rain, released in an underappreciated musical year, shows that while critics and academics may ignore or demean a seemingly insubstantial pop hit, new fans will find rhythm in its memory.

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