In the entire history of pop music, every song tells a story. In the more innocent days of rock and roll's dawn especially, the jukebox idylls and three-minute dance-hall melodramas of coffee bar heartbreak and last dance epiphanies reflected their era in a way that now seems obvious material for full-length musicals such as Dreamboats and Petticoats.
Yet, behind the songs themselves was a legion of songwriters, producers, singers and musicians all looking to hit the big-time with their own particular take on teenage dreams. These were the days of the production line song-writers, be it emanating out of Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building, would-be American hit factories where songwriting teams would hawk their wares. One of the latter was Neil Sedaka's Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen, a bubblegum classic written in much the same vein as the work of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, a canon so perfectly observed by Todd Rundgren I Saw The Light, from his 1972 album, Something/Anything.
A few years after the Brill Building's golden era, the Beat boom would find groups writing their own material before the 1970s Me generation made self-absorbed introspection the soundtrack to student bedsits. All that was a long way off, however, from the Dreamboats and Petticoats era, when possibilities seemed endless.
The titles of the songs say it all. In Dreams, written and performed by Roy Orbison, who so defined the song's era of teenage yearning and pathos; Dream Lover, composed and recorded by Bobby Darin with a similar mix of wide-eyed longing; Dream Baby Dream; and of course the show's title track, Dreamboats and Petticoats.
From Chris Montez's Let's Dance, written by Jim Lee, to At The Hop, a hit originally for Danny and the Juniors, the evergreen nature of the songs shines through. At The Hop, and indeed the whole era, would get a second life after appearing on the soundtrack of Star Wars director George Lucas' 1973 rock and roll era movie, American Graffiti.
One of the oldest songs in Dreamboats and Petticoats is Jezebel, a hit for Frankie Laine in 1951. Laine's career dated back to the 1940s, and, although not a country and western singer, scored hits with his own versions of western theme songs including High Noon and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Jezebel was written by Wayne Shanklin, whose best known song, Chanson D'Amour, was a hit twice over in 1958 both for Art and Dotty Todd and The Fontane Sisters. Chanson D'Amour became even more ubiquitous in 1976 by way of The Manhattan Transfer's smash hit version that was a long way from the Old Testament temptress immortalised in Jezebel.
It's interesting to note here that archetypal Me-generation troubadour Leonard Cohen's 1977 album, Death of a Ladies Man, features a track called Memories, which opens with the line, 'Frankie Laine, he was singing Jezebel. It's worth mentioning too that Death of A Ladies Man was produced by none other than Phil Spector, who reputedly forced Cohen at gunpoint to complete the album. It was Spector, of course, who would go on to greater glories with his Wall of Sound, who scored an early success in 1958 when he penned To Know Him Is To Love Him. The song, which was a number one hit for The Teddy Bears, was inspired by the words engraved on Spector's father's tombstone; 'To Know Him Was To Love Him.'
After Jezebel, there were more biblical references, as well as historical ones, in Good Timin', a 1960 hit for R&B singer Jimmy Jones. Good Timin' not only namechecked David and Goliath, but Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella 1 of Castile, who sponsored some of Columbus' voyages. Both of these somewhat grandiose references were used in the song to justify the simple but life-changing act of a boy meeting a girl.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, the guitar-based instrumental, Wonderful Land, offers a unique perspective on the British take on rock and roll. The track, which, as the title suggests, is a shimmering musical hymn to some kind of teenage Shangri-la, was penned by Jerry Lordan for The Shadows. Paddington-born Lordan was a self-taught musician, who'd worked as a stand-up comedian and wrote songs for Anthony Newly before being signed as a singer to the Parlophone label.
While on tour with The Shadows, Lordan offered them his wild west tinged piece, Apache, after being unhappy with guitarist Bert Weedon's recording. The Shadows version stayed at number one for five weeks in 1960, and was voted record of the year in the New Musical Express readers poll. Wonderful Land followed, similarly shooting to the number one slot. Lordan also wrote for Cliff Richard, a pivotal figure in the British scene, whose recording of the Ian Samwell penned Move It was regarded by Beatle John Lennon amongst others as Britain's first real rock and roll record.
It's hard to believe that the artist formerly known as Harry Webb was originally marketed as England’s answer to Elvis Presley, but with a band called The Drifters, who eventually morphed into The Shadows, backing him, that's exactly how he was originally perceived. It was Richard's fifth single, and his first backed by The Shadows, that showed the difference between the British and American scenes. Livin' Doll was composed by Lionel Bart, who would go on to score hit musical, Oliver. In Britain, it seemed, rock and roll still had one twitching toe in top light entertainment. Tommy Steele would also go on to be a star of musical theatre, while Shane Fenton, who Lordan also write songs for, would, as Alvin Stardust in the 1970s, become a camp parody of rock star moodiness.
If Move It was the first British rock and roll classic, then Shakin' All Over was the second. Johnny Kidd and The Pirates scored a UK hit in 1960 with this raw, libido-driven firecracker of a song, but it would take Canadian band The Guess Who to introduce it to America some five years later. As performed by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, Shakin' All Over was suggesting a world infinitely less innocent than the world depicted in Dreamboats and Petticoats. Pop music, like teenagers, was growing up very fast indeed.
Originally commissioned as programme notes for the Summer 2013 UK tour of Dreamboats and Petticoats, by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.