Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Continentals Fail to Save Rock and Roll

Rock and roll began so gloriously, with giants like Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Richie Valens, and Chuck Berry emerging nearly on a monthly basis in the first few years. But then Elvis got drafted, Chuck Berry imprisoned, Little Richard sanctified, and a lot of key disk jockeys disgraced in the payola scandal. By 1960, with Dick fucking Clark pushing the frankiebobbies — insipid little twerps like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and, worst of all, Bobby Rydell — on American Bandstand, to that era what MTV would be circa 1985, and American Idol and The Voice in the second decade of the 21st century, the thrilling, defiantly sexy, anarchic pop music of three years before had been supplanted in the chrarts and on the airwaves by such horrors as wee Mr. Avalon’s "Venus", and wan Mr. Rydell’s extremely tame "Wild One". Rock and roll fans had to try to make do with the nearly-as-wan-as-Rydell Ricky Nelson, whose catatonic musical performances at the end of The Adventures [sic!] of Ozzie and Harriett each week made Rydell look in comparison like James Brown. 

But I am now able to identify those most responsible for making the musical Dark Ages between the payola scandal and The Beatles so very dark — The Continentals, from Mamaroneck, a northern suburb of New York City. Their 1961 performance of an original (but not very, as it’s 45,000 other songs, with different words) song called "Thunderbird" on The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour is one of the most ghastly spectacles to which one can subject himself on YouTube. 

How do I hate The Continentals? Let me count the ways! Seeing The Beatles, everyone wanted to be in a rock and roll band. Seeing The Continentals, absolutely no one wanted to. I hate their plaid shirts and their dorky haircuts. I hate the three guitarists’ half-assed dance steps, and that they’re palpably not enjoying doing them, bur rather find them embarrassing and onerous. Seeing The Continentals, young men of the era looked in the phone directory for the address of their nearest armed forces recruiting office.

I hate a big portion of the song being given over to Joseph Messina’s drum solo, as he sounds the sort who took lessons to supplement natural aptitude. (Do I sound jealous?) I would later hate Loggins & Messina, but that may not be Joseph’s fault. I particularly hate lead singer Ralph DiForio’s dancing. It isn’t that it’s bad, in the sense of arhythmic or uncoordinated. It’s just so…dorky, so joylessly — so…dutifully!…executed! Someone on YouTube — who almost certainly thinks Donald Trump a really good idea — has remarked that Ralph was as good as Michael Jackson!  And it bears mentioning that the 1961 Thunderbird was one of the ugliest cars on the road, this after having been epically cute in its original, mid-'50s two-seater incarnation. As rock and roll had gone, it seemed, so had gone the T-Bird!

Credit where due: our heroes anticipated the basslessness of such later giants as The Doors, The Young Rascals, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, and The Cramps, but I suspect that was less an aesthetic decision than a function of none of the three guitarists being willing to reconcile himself to fewer, much thicker, strings. I suppose one could also assert that their three-guitar lineup inspired such post-Allman Southern guitar armies as Lynyrd Skynyrd, but why would he or she want to take a chance of encouraging these boys, even 56 years after the fact?

Between the likes of The Continentals and the accelerating Great Folk Scare, which saw clean-cut white college boys in matching short-sleeved…sport shirts crooning earnestly about dem old cotton fields back home, and Joan Baez warbling in her virtue-dripping soprano about, you know, injustice and shit, is it any wonder that I turned to the West Side Story soundtrack album? Oh, sure, I could have listened to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, or John Coltrane and Miles Davis had I ever heard of them, but I had not, and in fact still haven’t.

[If you enjoyed the foregoing, and God knows you did, you will almost certainly like this too!]

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