It came and it went. No fanfare, hoopla, folderol or ballyhoo. Fiftieth anniversaries are usually treated better. We have been conditioned to mark time with the observance of anniversaries: Prohibition, the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, landing on the moon, Woodstock, the Watergate scandal and the debut of ”ALF.” How can a society so entrenched in the ritualistic celebration of epochal moments have let Dec. 31, 2010 just slip by?
I suppose some slack should be cut; it was New Years Eve for fuck’s sake, and there was that epic New Kids On The Block/Backstreet Boys team-up on Dick Clark’s Times Square broadcast to contend with. One would think, however, that in our 24-hour TV news cycle world filled with a nigh on infinite amount of print and web sources, there would be at least one blurb commemorating the Golden Jubilee of the most important day in rock ‘n’ roll history!
For on Dec. 31, 1960 … get ready for it … Great Britain ended its mandatory National Service requirement!
Yeah, I guess, all exclamatory punctuation aside, that is not the sexiest sounding event in music history, but the ripple effect of that one bureaucratic decision has changed all of our lives for the better.
We can argue the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll all day long. Was it the recording of “Rocket 88,” the charting of “Rock Around The Clock” or the emergence of Elvis? Regardless of its actual time of birth, by 1960 rock ‘n’ roll was all but pronounced dead. A newly discharged Elvis was busy making the shittiest movies imaginable, Little Richard up and found Jesus, Jerry Lee Lewis’ pedo-incesto marriage had made him a public pariah, Chuck Berry was sentenced to five years for violating the Mann Act, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash a year earlier and Eddie Cochran was killed in a car accident that year.
Already an anachronism by 1960, ’50s style rock ‘n’ roll had proven to be what Frank Sinatra once predicted it to be: a five-year fad. In America, at the dawn of the ’60s, Brill Building songsmiths propped up swarthy teen idols and virginal girl groups and denim bedecked folkies whined about the “establishment” in coastal coffeehouses, but only the fringe rumblings of surf and frat rock kept the flickering torch aflame. Two decades earlier, in Britain’s darkest hour, it was America who sent her boys over to save the day. They were about to repay the favor.
Britain had enacted a compulsory National Service Requirement (commonly called “conscription”) after World War II to bolster the diminished ranks of its military. By the 1950s a requirement of two years of service was demanded of every 20-year-old male not attending a four-year university. In the bleakness of post-war England it was American rock ‘n’ roll that gave this next generation of scrawny, pasty Anglicans something to live for. This unbridled, sweaty sound of rebellion served as a decadent counterpoint to the passionless, respectable existence that was theirs by tradition.
To Americans rock ‘n’ roll was a spoiled kid’s new toy, but to the Brits it was a jailhouse note passed from cell to cell outlining a daring plan for escape.
Undaunted by the sterility of government controlled radio, trad-jazz inclined venues and the scorn of their elders, they plumbed the depths of obscure rockabilly and R&B records, struggling over ramshackle instruments with a dedication and acumen lacking in their formerly colonial brethren. With conscription looming low on the horizon of every budding musician, few, if any, bands survived without their momentum being impeded or their trajectory being diverted by attrition, as their members were called up one-by-one into National Service. In 1960 the specter of this inevitability weighed heavily on the hearts of Ringo Starr (drummer for Rory Storm & The Hurricanes) and John Lennon (leader of Long John & The Silver Beetles), two gigging Liverpudlian musicians in Hamburg whose lives were about to be mothballed by the British government in July and October, of that year, respectively.
The rest is, or should be, history. By repealing the National Service Requirement Britain learned a lesson that our current government has chosen to ignore: By imposing less of its will on the lives of its citizens it reaped immeasurable profit artistically, culturally and economically in ways unimagined. The impact of The Beatles and the teeming hordes of British invaders who followed in their wake not only defibrillated the flat-lined carcass of rock ‘n’ roll, but supplanted our xenophobia with a fraternal worldview. Legions of Anglophilic American teenagers ran to their garages, plastic department store guitars and vacuum tubed amps in tow. Hair grew longer, skirts rose higher and the old guard stood helplessly by as their newly awakened children began to question their motives and priorities. Our music had been saved and the modern world had begun.
Check out my list of “The 25 Greatest Albums Of The British Invasion” and I think you’ll see my point, and maybe, just maybe, when you throw that big party next Dec. 31 you’ll do it for the right reason.