If rock and roll is art and, like all art, is a refraction of all the events affecting all of us: and if it follows
–that rhythm and blues reached a mass white audience simultaneously with the civil rights movement
–that the Beatles, with their vigor, dry wit and flopping hair, evoked maniacal response immediately following the assassination of John Kennedy
–that popular music turned cold and threatening, demanding introverted performance and response, during the Johnson/Vietnam-scarred years–
Then there is, maybe yes, more than campy nostalgia in the revival of simplistic rock from groups such as Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Wild Thing, N.R.B.Q. and, now, Sha-Na-Na.
A brilliantly crystallized dream from the past, Sha-Na-Na is eleven undergraduates from Columbia and a twelfth from Brooklyn College, managed, not surprisingly, by the originator of Columbia’s trivia craze.
The three lead singers slouch on stage in gold lame suits. One spits. The other nine members of the group slide out on their own grease. Elaborate, hooded-eye boredom. D.A. haircuts. Drain-pipe trousers, ending at mid-calf, where the white socks begin. T-shirts, with sleeves rolled up to the shoulder. “De Molay” slapped across one shirt. “Izzy’s Knishes” across another. The rhythm guitarist is bundled up in a black leather jacket with 27 zippers. The microphone is tested: “Tough… Tough… Tough.”
They do “Alley Oop.” “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” “Donna.” “Wipe Out.” “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay.” “Teen Angel.” “Chantilly Lace.” “Little Star.” “Teenager In Love.” “Duke Of Earl.” “Rama Lama Ding Dong.” The entire repertoire is choreographed. In “At The Hop,” everyone twists. For “Tell Laura I Love Her,” hands are clasped in prayer; two of the lead singers then raise hands to form a chapel over the third gold lame; at the climax, the entire group stretches arms upward to form the tabernacle.
And, of course, the Silhouettes’ “Get A Job.”
Sha na na na
Sha na na na na
Sha na na na
Sha na na na na
Sha na na na
Sha na na na na
Sha na na na
Sha na na na na
Yip yip yip yip
Yip yip yip yip
Mum mum mum mum
Get a job
(Richard Goldstein, in his book The Poetry of Rock has it as Sha da da da. But Sha-Na-Na’s leader, linguistics major Rob Leonard, says Goldstein just doesn’t hear well.)
A group that just six months ago was futzing around as the Kingsmen, Columbia’s 22-year-old answer to Yale’s Whiffenpoof singers. Playing college functions, nearby girls’ schools, daring a little folk, some soft rock.
For their own amusement, the Kingsmen played around with a few raunchy early rock numbers. “We always liked oldies,” says group leader Rob Leonard, “and sang them on street corners like everyone else in New York City.” Sneaking a few of them into a March concert, they were knocked over by the response. Rob’s brother, George, a Columbia PhD candidate in English Literature, asked trivia expert Ed Goodgold to look them over.
In April, the Kingsmen drew 1,500 at a Columbia concert of rock classics. In May, 4,500 enthusiasts turned out for a show in front of the college’s Alma Mater statue. Even though Columbia, sided by black slums, white slums and the Hudson river, might often as well be in New Jersey for all its impact on the Manhattan mainstream (hence the surprise about, and consequent startled coverage of, the student riots there), word began to seep out about the group now calling itself Sha-Na-Na.
Goodgold, looking for a manager for the group, was elected by them. Sha-Na-Na signed with William Morris as booking agent. In early summer, Sha-Na-Na started rehearsing six hours a day. A hot show-business property, baby. Twelve clean-cut college kids.
David Garrett, first tenor, is majoring in electrical engineering, “due to a masochistic philosophy.” Like lead guitar first tenor Harry Gross majoring in political science at Brooklyn College, and group leader-bass Rob Leonard, majoring in sociology and linguistics, Garret is from Brooklyn. Piano-baritone Joe Witkin, majoring in analytical biology, and on the dean’s list, moved to Brooklyn from Long Island when he was six. All but first tenor Donald York, from Idaho, are from the East Coast urban sprawl.
Bass Alan Cooper, majoring in religion, born in New York City, and raised in the suburbs, is typical of the group in his penchant for a seriousness parodied by self-irony. The same intelligence that leads to mastering the rules that lead to Columbia can only progress to an understanding of their very fatuousness. In high school, says Alan, “I was debating and oratory champion. Now,” he says, “I am rather conceited and sometimes even mean … but I’m basically OK, although not so hot-looking.”
Baritone Richard Joffee enumerates the situation of the student in the Ivy League college surrounded by slums: “Parents: Russian Immigrants. Father Chemist. Mother Designer. Two brothers, Harvard graduates. Born: Greenwich Village. Now lives: Jersey. Hero: Mickey Mantle. Plays: guitar, trombone, dead. President high school religious youth group. Editor jr. high paper. V.P. Political-Gov. club in high school. Also Assembly M.C. Participant student Gov. Thrown out of elections for school president. Travel: U.S., Europe, U.S.S.R. Jobs: Library Page, Camp Counselor, Bell Hop. Major: English/Government. Likes: Thighs. Speaks: English. Listens: All languages. At Columbia: Member of Kingsmen. Tutor in Spanish Harlem. Hates: L.B.J., Vietnam War, Greasers, Ignorance, Evil, Apple Pie. Also somewhat ambivalent about his mother. Favorite Music: Anything but nursery rhymes and acid rock. Oldies are almost as bad but not quite. Believes: There is no purpose in living. Has often considered suicide and does not now rule it out completely.”
Only second tenor Denny Green, Harlem-born and bred, the only black in the group, seems unaware of any lunacy in the life programmed for him at Columbia. A scholarship student at Hotchkiss prep school, at the end of his first year at Columbia he had his own weekly radio show, was co-director of a film-making program, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and in pursuit of the American dream.
The group’s over-all sense of irony extends to the long-standing interest they have all shared in popular music while following the straight go-to-college-get-a-degree-and-don’t-make-waves dictum slapped on them by the culture of parents and guidance counselors.
Drummer and baritone John Marcellino, from a Boston suburb, worked with various local rock groups for six years. Joe Witkin, started piano lessons at six, and joined his first rock group, the Phenomenon, in high school. “I played rhythm guitar on my paisley Hofner … played the worst sweet sixteens, but it was incredible fun.” He went on to other groups, some with Henry Gross, playing lead and bass guitar. Bass guitar and second tenor Bruce Clarke, from Washington, D.C., cut his “guitar teeth in a group known as the Fuzz – ‘the band with the arresting sound’.” When that broke up, he organized the “Fantastic Plastic.”
Donald York, from Idaho, remembers “singing more than I would have liked to for church and ladies’ clubs meetings at a very tender age, and my rendition of ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ won me a first prize award when I was four.” But it was his two sisters, ten and twelve years older, who turned him on to his musical reality. “When they were teenagers and I was just a little boy-kid, they provided me with my first exposure to a liberal dose of the kind of music Sha-Na-Na performs today.”
As with rhythm guitar and second tenor Elliot Cahn, from Brookline, Massachusetts: “I was introduced to rock at an early age by my older brother, who is currently a PhD candidate at MIT. I was a regular customer at the local soda shop-teenage hangout, where I would listen to the jukebox and watch with wide eyes the local hoods as they guzzled birch beer and carved their initials in the booths. Late at night I would lie in bed as all the great hits flowed in my mind, and resolved that someday I, too, would be a big rock and roll star, and go out with girls and everything.”
For all the members of Sha-Na-Na, the rock explosion was something to grow up into, like D.A. haircuts, pegged trousers, rubbers, beer drinking, wearing your shirt collar up, being a stud.
In that era of Debbie & Eddie, Janet & Tony, and Rock & Tab, when Archie Andrews was grabbing a shiv and rumbling through West Side Story, if you were a hip New York kid you had to make the pilgrimage to the Dick Clark Show in Philly. If you couldn’t make that, you watched Juke Box Jury or its local equivalent. “It has a good beat,” would declare the bright-eyed panelist, “and I’d like to dance to it. But I didn’t understand the words so I’ll give it an 82.”
After which, you made out. Cool. Or zorch. Depending.
The members of Sha-Na-Na were in grade school.
“What they’re doing,” says manager Goodgold, “is presenting a poetic re-creation of the past. They’re role-playing, imagining themselves as they would have been had they been allowed to suddenly realize the fantasies they had as kids.
“They don’t like being regarded as quaint curios of the past, or being limited by nostalgic bullshit. They really believe they’re in the vanguard and, rather than following other groups, new groups are going to follow them.
“Generally, the Fifties themselves are irrelevant to them. The audiences, with the same shared remembrance, are responding to them now. They do Elvis numbers and girls scream at them, girls who can have no remembrance of wildman Presley who first burst on the scene. “Young girls grab at Sha-Na-Na’s clothes when they perform. They don’t grab at Cream’s clothes, at Blind Faith’s.
“Recent musical trends have been predicated on coolness. The frontiers of coolness are always expanding. Somebody’s always cooler. And you reach the danger of over-cool, which forces the audience to shrink back.
“A group like Led Zeppelin can leave people with a feeling of inadequacy. The audiences may flock to sophisticated groups, but they’re really just faddish and in the end their audiences can’t keep up with them.
“Sha-Na-Na doesn’t ask its audiences to be cool. For them, it’s like the 49th Psalm: Join us in a joyous noise.”
Their joyful noise has led them to a contract with Buddah Records’ Kama Sutra label (which offered them a strong advance and hard promises on promotions: one Sha-Na-Na, shrugging off Buddah’s aura of tackiness, allowed as Sha-Na-Na should up the company’s image). Appearances on Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin and Hollywood Palace are in the works.
The only bothersome question for their new-found show business friends is whether they’re just this year’s version of Tiny Tim. Or, worse, Mrs. Miller.
Manager Goodgold, increasingly harried by the non-trivial aspects of handling an emerging sensation, stoutly maintains that Sha-Na-Na is not just a novelty act.
“They are,” he says, “the best singing rock group in history.”
Bass singer Alan Cooper, a Mahlerfreak and off-hours oboe player, says, “Because we’re re-arranging these songs, we’re aware of their technical faults. Like, in “Little Star” the harmony (on the original recording) is a good half-note off. Bach would have thrown up. We’re cleaning it up, making it tighter, the sound is clearer.”
“But,” he adds, “it’s the same old Brooklyn.”
“The point is that all good music is based on some tradition. Neither Mozart nor Bach were innovators. They took the musical traditions of their eras and brought them to fruition.”
And this is what the Beatles did to grease music. They culminated Presley and allowed a new period to begin. The people who have followed the Beatles have not grasped rock and roll.
“Acid rock, blues rock, is not happy music. It’s introverted music. Contemporary sounds have been putting a lot of pressure on non-musicians. And everybody has to exert the negative energy to be cool, both audience and performers.”
Or, as the New York Times deduced, in reporting on the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, most rock today is played by stoned musicians for stoned audiences.
“In the music we’re playing,” says Leonard, “there’s a quality anyone can respond to. At first, people don’t know what to make of us. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’ they seem to be asking each other. Then they just slip into it. We’re playing happy music and we get happy audiences.
“I remember at the Scene, Jimi Hendrix was standing on a chair, digging us, and that was really beautiful, that really blew my mind.”
“The people are into the whole period we’re into,” says Cooper, “rather than just the songs. There’s nobody nowadays who can say the music is before their time. Teeny-boppers know our songs even better than we do. The songs are part of our culture. And, with a heavy 1969 instrumental sound, we’re giving the old songs a contemporary impetus. In the Fifties, vocal groups backed up bands. Today it’s a band that just happens to sing. We’re trying to strike a happy medium.
“We are not regressing. We’re neo-classicists.”
Which, indeed, is just what Eisenhower’s vice president may be considering himself these days.
“Nixon? Well, that’s more coincidental,” says Cooper. “Sure, there’s a nostalgia for the Steady Fifties. But there’s also nostalgia for the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties. If we are just an outlet for nostalgia, we’re a more constructive one than some others, like Nixon.
“I don’t know. The Steady Fifties are also referred to as the Silent Fifties. By and large, there has been a resurgence of political apathy, certainly at Columbia. There’s a sense of futility in people’s political involvement. The kids, even the most rabid SDS kids, are realizing that by trying to change things they only get their heads bashed in.”
Rob Leonard said that Sha-Na-Na “isn’t playing for the man on the street … we’re playing for the man on the street corner.” And, it would seem, the man on the street corner is ready for them. Again.