It all started with that stunning final episode of “Breaking Bad” (mild spoiler alert). As Marty Robbins’ 1959 “El Paso” was revived as the soundtrack for Walt’s career (Mexican girl=methamphetamine), the tune bored its way into my ear canal and brain, an ear worm on constant repeat. A few days later it was replaced by “Teen Angel”(“I pulled you out and we were safe, but you went running back”), also from 1959, and then “Tell Laura I Love Her”(1960, “Tell Laura not to cry, my love for her will never die”).
Memories were triggered, of “Endless Sleep” (1958) which seems to have started it all, “Running Bear”(where was political correctness when you needed it?), and “Last Kiss”, though gratefully, none became aurally embedded. But it started me wondering, what was it about the late Fifties/early Sixties that inspired these lugubrious laments?
Was it The Bomb? I still remember filing to the dank school basement where we would sit cross-legged in orderly rows on the newspaper we kept handy in our desks, then bow our heads to our knees, hands over our necks, perhaps praying, more likely giggling. Memory fails, appalled.
The Communist Menace? While later they were called out as Commies, Joan Baez (1960) and other folkies brought back some of the equally tragic early English ballads, “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “Barbara Allen”.
The Teen Tragedy trend has lasted sporadically up until the present day, with Katy Perry’s “One That Got Away” but peaked around 1963. There were two seminal events in my life in that period, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the American debut of the Beatles, the first in November 1963, the latter in February 1964, both filtered through the monochrome eye of our TV.
“She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” was the antithesis of those ballads of woe, and it might be argued that the meteoric rise of the Merseyside Four and their music helped to sweep away the sadness. It is strange to realize that the Beatles only performed in concert until 1966, yet their music became the soundtrack of our lives. In 2002 I was visiting a University in Moldova (smallest, poorest country in Europe, look it up). Our hosts spoke Romanian and Russian, our group spoke neither. At dinner, as the vodka flowed, they began to serenade us, and requested a song in return. We were stymied, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” didn’t quite fit the bill. But then one of our group started in with “Michelle, Ma Belle.” Our Comrades joined in with that, and all of the other Beatles songs we could muster. There was just something about “La la la la la la la, hey Jude” that melted any remaining ice, and helped mask our inability to match them, shot for vodka shot.
My brother Richard has served as an invaluable resource for this piece. While I couldn’t wait to escape the Fifties, he has immersed himself in its music and cultural icons, and even had a Fifties-themed wedding! He has offered to sing any and all of the Fifties pop songs referenced here if you phone with a request. Just contact me and I’ll pass on his number. After all, the Fifties were a time of innocence.