Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that “No generalization is worth a damn, including this one.”
The same can be said for tags like the “Lost Generation,” the “Greatest Generation,” the “Silent Generation,” the “Baby Boomers,” then “Gen X,” “Gen Y” and now “Gen Z.” Taxonomists believe ascribing characteristics and behavioral patterns to generations based on defining events that occurred, usually within a 20-year time period, serves a meaningful purpose.
According to these rubrics, members of the “Silent Generation” were born between 1925 and 1945 and they are noteworthy because they are (or were) thrifty, respectful, loyal, stable, dependable and determined.
This description is misleading and simplistic. The 1950s were a period of noisy upheaval, the effects of which are still being felt. The generation that followed the “Greatest Generation” was anything but “silent.” In style and dress, for example: Crew cuts gave way to long greasy hair with pompadours and “duck tails.” Boys wore “peg pants with saddle stitching.” Girls traded wide-pleated skirts and modest blouses for tight sweaters and toreador pants.
In film, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies were replaced by James Dean and Marlon Brando movies with titles like “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “The Wild One” (1953). A character from “The Wild One” asks the motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler, played by a sneering Marlon Brando, the question “What are you rebelling against?” Brando responds by saying, “What have you got?”
Other teen rebel movies flooded the market: “Hot Rod Girl” (1956); “The Delinquents” (1957); “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” (1957); “High School Hellcats” (1958); and “High School Confidential” (1958).
“Blackboard Jungle” (1955), in particular, best captured the ’50s zeitgeist. It was the most popular teenage gang movie. Perhaps its most compelling feature was its rousing theme song. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” became the anthem of the generation.
Soon, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and many others were releasing tunes with the same thumping backbeat. The songs took teenage life seriously — the nagging conflicts between teens and their strict, judgmental parents; the anguish of being a teenager who desperately needed someone to love, but who was told he or she was “too young” or that the boy or girl was from the wrong side of town; or who sadly discovered that breaking up was hard to do. Happier tunes celebrated thrill sports like drag racing or surfboarding.
Between 1955 and 1959, disc jockey Alan Freed popularized rock on his New York City radio show. He also popularized live rock ’n’ roll shows and appeared in five films (“Rock Around the Clock,” “Rock, Rock, Rock,” “Mister Rock and Roll,” “Don’t Knock the Rock” and “Go, Johnny, Go!”) featuring the rock stars of the day.
As films, they are dreadful, but as time capsules for the music and performers of the early rock era, they are priceless.
The story lines of these films usually dramatized censoring efforts by “square” middle class white parents and communities to “knock the rock” by banning the music from the radio and prohibiting live performances in their towns.
Elvis Presley’s arrival exacerbated the generational tension. The sight of his swiveling hips in the summer of 1955 shocked the faint of heart so much so that generational battle lines were drawn. “Bye, Bye Birdie” — “What’s the matter with kids these days?” — satirized this conflict a few years later in 1963.
Mass media amplified the parents’ concerns, condemning not only the music but also the musicians as pagans and sex fiends. Many chose to believe that rock ’n’ roll was a fad, a passing fancy, like the hula-hoop. They failed to reckon, however, with the visionary wisdom of “Danny and the Juniors,” namely, that “rock ’n’ roll is here to stay.”
A recent article by Louis Menard stated that it was not the “boomers” who defined the 1960s: “Apart from being alive, baby boomers had almost nothing to do with the 1960s.” It is “almost impossible to name a single person born after 1945 who played any kind of role in the civil-rights movement… [or]…the women’s movement or gay liberation.” Furthermore, every prominent writer and artist and songwriter in the 1960s was born before 1945.
So, before the “boomers” were born, restless folks from the pre-1946 generation were raising their voices for a new world. And somewhere an unknown band was raising the roof with a new sound — a heavy drum and bass backbeat synced with horns, guitars and a vocal in 4/4 time …. “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock; five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock…”
Rock ’n’ roll captured the restless energy of this period, laying down soundtracks that set us off in previously unimaginable directions. So I nominate a new title for this noisy generation: “The Rock Generation.”
Like all other generalizations, it may not be worth a damn, but it’s certainly worth more of a damn than “silent.”
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, can be followed at williampshaw.substack.com.