Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Dick Clark vs. Alan Feed

What side are you on, Beatles or Stones? That used to be the defining Rock and Roll question; did you prefer the subtle, clever pop craftsmanship of The Beatles or the raw sexuality of the bad boy Rolling Stones? Or to put it another way; were you a Mod or a Rocker?

This line in the sand was the classic divide of Rock and Roll. The Beatles, especially in their lovable Mop Top phase, were so charming that even some parents could almost tolerate them. They had upbeat melodies and four part harmonies that went "Yeah yeah yeah!". They bounced around the microphone and bowed curtly after each song. And they wanted to "hold your hand". The Stones on the other hand swaggered and swore, they pranced and swaggered. They looked like they were about to steal your hubcaps. They had over-amped guitars and their singer had an arrogant nasal sneer. And they wanted to do a lot more than hold your hand. If you liked the Beatles you may have had good taste but you were not really in touch with the dark heart of Rock and Roll. That's where the Stones lived.

This debate goes even further back than the sixties in fact and has it's echos in contrasts between, say, the clean-cut smiling Bill Haley and the young greasy Elvis. Later after he went into the army the new cleaned up Elvis versus more authentically greasy rockabillies like Gene Vincent. Between white and black Doo Wop. Between the twangy Duane Eddy and the rumbling Link Wray. Between the pop-surf of the Beach Boys and the blaring guitar surf of Dick Dale. Between the slick soul of Sam Cooke and the sweat of James Brown. Between the craftsmanship of Motown and the strutting of Stax. Between the upbeat Mersey beat of the Dave Clark 5 and the blues-rock of the Yardbirds and Animals. Between the Psyche and Folk Rock of California and the Garage Punk of the Midwest and Texas. Between the Nashville Sound of Patsy and the Bakersfield twang of Buck Owens and the later Outlaw sound. Between New Wave and Punk. It actually goes back even further in the 1930's and 40's between the machine-like precision of the white big bands like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and The Dorseys versus the more open swing of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And even earlier to the 1920's and Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.

Of course it's really a false choice, there is no good reason why a discerning fan couldn't and shouldn't like them all. Taste is not a political of moral question after all. Except when it is.


Because you don't even have to be a Rock historian to know there is a vast world of difference between Elvis and Pat Boone, or any of the various pretty boy singers named Frankie or Bobby. One is authentic Rock and Roll and the other is the music industry's concerted attempt to tame and exploit this new Rock and Roll beast.

That brings us to Dick Clark. Or if I may borrow a quote from Brother Chuck D;
"Dick Clark was a hero to some, but he never meant shit to me, that cat was racist! Straight up racist!"
OK that is totally not fair; he wasn't really of course. But he was closer to the villain that sanitized rock and roll for the white suburbs than was Elvis or even Bill Haley.

The first major political clash in Rock and Roll was between two DJ's and what they represented. Between Alan Freed (and Dewey Phillips) and Dick Clark.

Alan Freed (in Cleveland) and Dewey Phillips (in Memphis) were the first real Rock and Roll DJ's. If they didn't actually invent the term Rock and Roll (as Freed claimed) they certainly publicized it, and brought it and the music of black juke joints, white-trash honky-tonks and urban street corners to the wider white middle class suburbs had no clue such worlds existed.


Freed and Phillips were shocking to respectable society. They were brash and pushy, they bragged and swaggered. They wore loud clothes, they drank hard, chain smoked, popped pills and sounded like it. They were arrogant and utterly shameless. And they loved a good fight with stuck up squares. When the various civic and legal guardians of virtue tried to stop them from playing black music, or from booking concerts with not only mixed race bills but mixed audiences as well, they barked back their outraged defiance. When their concerts got canceled they denounced the petty institutional racism that would deny kids a chance to dance together. And they did it in public. When record companies and radio station owners tried to force them to play the bland white cleaned up cover versions of real Rock and Roll songs they refused. When they were offered bribes to play nice Freed bragged that he had taken their money and still refused to play their crappy records. It was indeed a moral question after all for a few of the early Rock n' Roll moguls like DJ's Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips along with record label owners Sam Phillips of Sun (no relation), Ehmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton of Stax and The Chess Brothers as it had been for the Lomaxes. They weren't saints of course (au contraire) but they despised the conformist, racist culture of the 1950's and knew that they were mounting a direct challenge by exposing the nation's youth to the liberating sounds coming from the hills and ghettos. In their own way they did as much to integrate America as the civil rights movement without ever actually being a part of it. Some of them paid a heavy price for that, especially Freed and Dewey Phillips.


It was of course the payola scandal of the late 1950's that destroyed Freed and essentially Phillips as well. The scandal came about when some congressmen came upon the novel theory that the only reason why the hated Rock N' Roll was popular was that vulgarians like Freed forced kids to listen to it. And the only reason they did so was because they were bribed by the record companies, especially the small independent ones who recorded the most Rock. This was called payola. This theory ignores the fact that the major labels who encouraged this witch hunt had openly engaged in payola for years, and they had deeper pockets than the indie labels. It also ignored the fact that at that time payola was in fact perfectly legal, at least assuming it was declared to the IRS. Nonetheless Congressional hearings were held and a defiant Freed was hauled in and grilled. He should have known it would end badly. The fifties had already seen the McCarthy witch-hunts and the less well known hearings on comic books which had essentially destroyed the classic EC Comics empire. These people were not fooling around, they had the power to crush the like of Freed and the desire to do so. Freed was the big prize, his original radio show had grown to include a TV show. He became a show promoter, a record producer and later a producer of wildly popular Rock n' Roll movies. He even owned some publishing rights, something that would, rightly, not be allowed today but which was once again perfectly legal at the time. He was genuinely famous, possibly the first multi-media star. With his brash manner, raspy voice and loud jackets Freed was the very face of the enemy as far as the Rock hating establishment was concerned. Even more than the actual singers, who tended to be rather polite and soft spoken to the media, Freed was a swaggering affront to polite society and proud of it. The very spirit of Rock and Roll.


Freed, arrogant as ever, refused to back down or apologize, nor would he lie. When he refused to sign an affidavit swearing that he had never taken payola his career was over. Then the IRS went after him and hounded him to his grave a few years later. Dewey Phillips was slightly luckier, he would keep his radio and TV shows in Memphis for a while. However the new squeaky clean era would have little time for a boisterous hard drinking pill popping throwback like Phillips. As the raw early rockabilly and R&B was replaced by the fresh scrubbed pop he lost first his TV show and then his radio show, forcing him to retreat further into the small town stations of the south, he would survive Freed by only a few years.

Enter Dick Clark.

Dick Clark was not one of the breed of DJs who discovered Rock n' Roll as an unwanted foundling and forced the bawling, brawling brat on the world. That role went to a few men (and they were all men) like Freed, Dewey Phillips, Macy Skipper and even Rufus Thomas and Bill Haley (both of whom started out as DJs). However Dick Clark had actually been kicking around television and radio for years before Rock n' Roll hit as a sort of utility fill-in man. He had been a radio and TV announcer, a game show host and a DJ known for his clean-cut preppy professionalism and affable demeanor rather than any actual interest in music. In fact he had no such interest or background at all and in later years he would admit that his favorite records were the various bland light classical compilations put out by Reader's Digest at the time. He had no background in Rock, or even Jazz. Alan Freed by contrast had genuine music roots having served as an MC and trombonist in a swing band before stumbling onto R&B. However while Clark was not by any stretch of the imagination cool or hip, if his job required him to learn at least a bit about what the kids were listening to then he would do it. This was not as cynical as it sounds, this sort of nine-to-five "just say your lines and hit your marks" attitude was quite common at that time. Such TV icons as Mike Wallace, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Walter Winchell and Dave Garroway had similar journeyman backgrounds until they figured out what they were good at, but in Dick Clark's case his choice seems to have been especially arbitrary. He could have just as easily ended up as the host of a game show or chat show as anything else. However if he little real interest in Rock n' Roll it must be admitted that he didn't look down on it either and he did not condescend to his teen audience, and this was more than could be said of many others at that time. His bland boy-next-door good looks and affable persona was perfect for TV in the same way that Johnny Carson's was, and the way the often loud brash Freed was not. While Freed courted controversy and got way too much enjoyment out of his bad press, Clark studiously avoided any such problems while still mostly giving his audience what they wanted and not completely horrifying their parents. And while his squeaky clean image may have been a mask, it was one he was quite comfortable wearing, there were never any sordid scandals attached to him. That didn't mean that he was really squeaky clean though.


When the payola scandal hit Clark was almost as famous as Alan Freed and so he was also called in to testify in front of congress, some of what was revealed showed that he was actually even more compromised than Freed was. It turned out that while Freed had taken money from favored record companies and had been given a share in the publishing on a number of songs, Clark had an interest in no less than thirty three music industry businesses, including record and publishing companies, management agencies and even a record pressing plant. Among the artists involved with Clark these included a several big pieces of chart topper Duane Eddy who had not surprisingly gotten a big push from Clark's shows. While Freed had always maintained his independence and refused to play records he thought his audience wouldn't like, and was openly disdainful of the pretty-boy Teen Idols and white-bread pop cover songs, Clark had no such qualms, he would happily champion the various vapid Frankies and Bobbys that the industry began to churn out. Besides music Freed had sold rebellion and sex, Clark sold neither. Clark carefully presented not only himself but the rest of his empire in a solidly respectable way while still being able to appeal to the teen audience. It was this balancing act along with his sense of self-preservation and professionalism that saved him from the fate the likes of Alan Freed or Dewey Phillips. Freed had snarled his defiance, Clark had been smooth and polite. Freed had refused to sign any wavers promising to behave, Clark quickly divested himself of any embarrassing conflicts of interest and promised never to step out of line again. And everyone believed him because he was Dick Clark. Freed and Phillips drank hard and gambled their money away, Clark built up an empire of game shows and restaurants. He would later add "Candid Camera", "TV Bloopers" and the New Year's Eve at Times Square to his haul, although those shows were created by others.


In later years Clark actually showed little shame about any of this, occasional admitting in interviews that he knew and cared little about music and once famously referring to himself as "a whore". He did try to burnish his reputation somewhat by claiming that he too had fought racism as Freed had done by hosting integrated concerts. However he seriously overstated his boldness, his studio audience was noticeably white and clean cut, with boys wearing prim jackets and ties and the girls wearing midi-hemmed dresses. There would be no smoking or gum chewing, no leather jackets and jeans, especially for girls. And there would most definitely not be any mixed race couples on American Bandstand, ever. The black artists Clark preferred were of the decidedly non-threatening (if still talented type) such as Chubby Checker, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and the Motown stable. When singers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Larry Williams and Chuck Berry found themselves embroiled in scandals Clark was quick to drop them. Once he had divested himself of his interests in Duane Eddy he dropped him as well. Gene Vincent got on Clark's blacklist when he walked off in protest over Clark's lip-sync only policy. All this allowed Clark to survive while most of his contemporaries fell by the wayside, it also made him an extremely rich man. This may not however make him a villain like the successive owners of MGM Records, Mitch Miller and Mike Curb who made a concerted effort to stamp out Rock n Roll, and were rewarded by seeing their once powerful label all but disappear. He was certainly no hero though.

As the fifties turned into the sixties and some artists would begin singing cruder material and even protest songs, American Bandstand would remain an oasis of suburban calm. Eventually even the Bandstand had to end but by then Clark had branched out into so many other interests that he probably didn't care. He became the sort of distant exploitative tycoon who could be trashed by Micheal Moore in "Bowling for Columbine" for taking corporate handouts while using forced welfare workers for free labour.


Still his argument that his non-confrontational approach and businesslike attitude was the best way to keep Rock alive rather than the red hot visionary like Freed is not without some truth. The forces that were roused against Rock n' Roll in the late fifties should not be underestimated. It was after all the McCarthy era and the power of government to force a "clean-up" of the airways was very real. Less well known today was a contemporary attack on the comic book industry which destroyed many careers, drove many publishers out of business and forced an industry wide standard which amounted to an all-out censorship regime which would stay in place until the 1970's and retarded the artistic growth of the medium until the 1980's. The possibility of doing the same to Rock was very real. So perhaps while Freed is the more heroic (not to mention entertaining) figure, his kamikaze attitude was not the best long term strategy. If a few years of putting up with Frankies and Bobbys until the big social and cultural changes of the 1960's cleared the decks and allowed a more open society that would allow more creativity and expression, then perhaps it was worth it.

At any rate Clark managed to keep an affectionate place in the hearts of a generation of teens who got their first exposure to Rock n' Roll from American Bandstand. In fact it may be safe to say that for many white, middle class suburban teens they might not have otherwise discovered Rock at all. There are many important figures of rock's early years whose only surviving footage was an appearance with Dick Clark. That alone would have gained himself a footnote in Rock history.

Canadian footnote; one of those groups who made an appearance on Clark's show was a Montreal band called The Beau-Marks who became the first Canadian band (as opposed to a vocal group like the Crewcuts or Diamonds) to score an international hit with "Clap your hands" in 1960.



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