The Moondog Coronation Ball, biological classification and Guided by Voices: together at last

This is an updated version of a post written as Song of the Week at The Finch & Pea on March 23, 2012.

Nearly 20, 000 people were beating on the doors of a venue that could hold less than 10, 000 shouting, “Let us in!” The tickets for the  second night had all been printed with the same date as the first. Faced with the overwhelming numbers, the police waded into the crowd and ordered the opening act, Paul “Huckerbuckers” Williams to stop shortly after he began. A man was stabbed as the confused crowd dispersed. On the surface, The Moondog Coronation Ball, March 21, 1952 in Cleveland, was a total disaster. It was also a defining moment for 20th century music.

Organized by radio DJ Alan Freed (who the crowd was apparently surprised to find out was White), it was a showcase for the music he played on his show: a mix of rhythm and blues, jazz and boogie that he thereafter called rock and roll. The Moondog featured a mixed bill of White and African-American performers and, uniquely at the time, was intended for a racially mixed audience. It is widely considered the first rock and roll show, and March 21, 2012 marked its 60th anniversary.

Joe Soeder, a music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, described it at the “big bang of rock’ n’roll” but that analogy doesn’t seem right to me. Rock and roll didn’t just come suddenly into existence that night. The music was a variation on rhythm and blues that had been developing for almost two decades. What was new was the name, and the name came to mean so much more than just a particular band arrangement and style of song. Rock and roll became a way of life. It brought with it danger, sex, rebellion, and youthful energy. The Moondog Coronation Ball was about naming and claiming that spirit. Without it, there were just scattered DJs enthusiastically playing R+B records.

So it wasn’t the big bang, but we don’t need to leave science to find a good analogy. If there’s one thing that scientists and natural historians have loved over the centuries, it’s naming and classifying things. I think what Freed, promoter Leo Mintz, the crowd, the police, and everyone involved did that night was create the musical phylum of rock and roll.

Popular music at the time was heavily divided by race and generation with little sense of shared musical culture. Somewhat similarly, early classification systems tended to view large kingdoms of life as divisible along a continuum of simple to complex without always noting the relationships and similarities between them. French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier proposed that the animal kingdom was better thought of as divided into four broad categories (embranchements) with similar body types that performed similar functions. Within an embranchement (e.g., vertebrates) contemporary animals had evolved to make the best of use of one of the basic body plans. Cuvier was stubbornly wrong about the relationship between the embranchements, arguing to the end that they had no evolutionary relationship to each other, but the categories he proposed have largely persisted in what we now call phyla. That classification highlighted a different way of looking at the relationship between animals, not as a march from simple to complex but as unified groups sharing common elements.

Calling this music rock and roll  highlighted that it wasn’t just the same rhythm and blues and it couldn’t be dismissed as race music. It was rhythm and blues with country influences and jazz influences. It was music that could be shared by young people across racial lines. Calling it rock and roll made everyone look at it differently.

So why did I mark the 60th anniversary of the first rock and roll show with an indie band’s song from the late 1990s? I could have stuck with Paul Williams’s hit The Hucklebuckle, which includes the terrific dancing call, “Push your baby out, then you hunch your back, start a little movement in your sacroilliac.” I can certainly get behind any song that’s precise about naming body parts. The new category of music, rock and roll, wasn’t just about good songs though. It touched off excitement and wonder in music loving young people everywhere. Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive) hosts a weekly show on CBC radio in which is love for music is the centrepiece, and he often shares insider stories about the songs and artists. My favorite ones are about how magical it was for a cousin or friend from the US or the UK to come to Winnipeg and bring with them new rock and roll records. They were like treasures, listened to with awe and wonder.

It only seemed fair to celebrate with a song that did that for me. In Ottawa, 1997, good new music was still relatively hard to find. No Pandora, no Pitchfork. Living in a small city meant that music was still a treasure passed from friend to friend. Already great fans of Guided by Voices  (I wore out my first tape copy of their classic Bee Thousand), one sunny day a friend and I walked to a local restaurant that also sold music. The owner kept a small but impeccably curated selection of albums for sale and, best of all, you could listen to any of them at one of the listening tables outfitted with two sets of headphones. We had heard there was a new Guided by Voices EP out and were desperate to hear it. We sat down, donned our big black headphones and this was the first track. We listened in awe. After it was done, my friend took off his headphones and said in a hushed and almost stunned voice, “That is like the purest rock and roll song ever.” I nodded seriously with butterflies in my stomach that I’d just heard something special. Calling it the purest rock and roll song ever might be debatable, but  it’s the closest I ever came to feeling what Freed’s listeners must have felt discovering this new category called rock and roll and why nearly 20, 000 of them tried to break down the doors of the Cleveland Arena 60 years ago to hear it. Happy Anniversary rock fans everywhere.

Side note: We may not have been the only ones who saw a connection from GBV to classic rock and roll. GBV’s new single is called fittingly The Unsinkable Fats Domino

It’s been just over two months since I started writing regularly about science and music as the DJ at the online science pub The Finch & Pea. It has quickly become one of my favourite things to do each week. To celebrate, I’m posting a few of my favourite ones here at Boundary Vision. These are the ones that best represent the intersection between science and culture that I aim for here. Enjoy!

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