It's true. In Arnold Shaw's excellent book The Rockin' 50s (published in 1973), Shaw shares some quotations about the state of music in 1958 from the Encyclopedia Britannica yearbook. The encyclopedia entry was written by Sigmund Spaeth, a Britannica contributor who really hated rock 'n' roll. Spaeth summed up the popular music of 1958 like this:
The incubus of rock 'n' roll continued to weigh down the popular music of the year, with a majority of the music representing some form of the illiterate, savage noise.... The violence of this juvenile concentration on aboriginal rhythms actually led to several cities eventually barring rock 'n' roll from public performance. ... One of the biggest sensations of the 'Hit Parade' was a definitely Negro exaltation, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands...."
Intrigued by this outpouring of racially loaded anti-rock rhetoric from a stodgy encyclopedia, I looked at Britannica Book of the Year 1960 to see if Spaeth held forth in a similar manner that year. He did! Spaeth wrote:
The menace of 'rock 'n' roll' continued through 1959, although it showed some signs of weakening. Elvis Presley's military service did not interfere noticeably with his standing as high priest of the cult, and his popularity with teen-agers accounted for at least three hits....
...There was also a flicker of encouragement in the fact that some real folk music managed to find its way into the mass of incredible trash, a trend already established by the jazzed-up Negro exaltation, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand."
There he goes again with that "Negro exaltation" stuff. He really liked that phrase.
Spaeth also liked show tunes, or at least some of them. Remarking that the "few good songs" that were released in 1959 "were seldom heard except in the theatres," he went on to say:
When Kurt Weill wrote The Three-Penny Opera, he deliberately turned out a vulgar, worthless tune called "Mack, the Knife." Brought up to date and recorded by Bobby Darin, it became one of the big hits of the year.
Elsewhere in the entry he gets in some digs at Fabian, describing him as "highly synthetic." Fair enough.
In the 1962 yearbook Spaeth was right back at it, beginning his article on the previous year's music thusly:
Once more it was difficult if not impossible to express any enthusiasm for the music being produced in the U.S. As of 1961 there was very little material that could be credited with either musical value or novelty. There was the same emphasis on the "big beat" characteristic of the nauseous "rock 'n' roll," although this particular type of musical illiteracy seemed gradually to be losing its hold on even the most undiscriminating teen-agers.
I wonder if many teenagers read this encyclopedia entry and agreed?
Spaeth argued, with some merit, that the hit records of 1961 were hits only because of payola and the star power of the performers, not the quality of the songs:
Again the success of a popular song depended largely on phonograph records rather than sheet music, and the sale of records could be traced to the drawing power of the interpreters, not the merit or appeal of the song. The form of bribery known as "payola" reportedly continued to play an important role in such spurious promotion of commercial trash.
After giving a rundown of the previous year's hits, Spaeth managed to find two pop records he actually liked:
To balance such a consistent array of nonsense, there were at least two songs published in 1961 that could command respect. The first was the theme from the motion picture Exodus, by Ernest Gold, whose background music for that film won an Academy award. The song had an excellent melody of the Hebraic type and was helpfully recorded by Pat Boone (also credited with the words), the Ferrante-Teicher team and orchestrally by Mantovani.
The other outstanding popular song of 1961 was "Never on Sunday," also derived from a film of the same title and winner of the "Oscar" as the best of the year in that field. The composer was a Greek, Manos Hodijidakis, and the song profited by the recordings of Don Costa, the Chordettes and the star of the picture itself, Melina Mercouri.
Even though I'm a Pat Boone fan, I find it pretty amusing that a person could hate all the music of the rock 'n' roll era until Pat Boone's vocal version of "The Exodus Song" came along.
Today, artists in music and film are sometimes criticized for remaking old songs and movies instead of creating new ones, but Spaeth felt differently; he hated new music and liked old music, so he saw any return to pre-rock songs and styles as an improvement:
There was an encouraging trend toward the revival of song hits of the past, including some authentic folk music, obviously resulting from the increasing realization by even the juvenile singers of the poverty of current material.
Fascinated by Spaeth's indefatigable crusade against rock, I hoped to find a continuation of his thoughts in the following year's installment, but the 1963 yearbook contained a much milder assessment of the previous year's music. What changed? Well, Spaeth didn't write that year's entry—he died in 1965, so he appears to have retired from Britannica in '63. The 1963 entry on popular music was written by Lester L. Brown, who said:
There was some improvement in the general quality of rock 'n' roll records over previous years, mainly because the smaller recording firms that had championed the idiom in the beginning had acquired enough wealth to dignify the songs with thoughtful arrangements using brasses and strings. Rock 'n' roll was essentially the same musical ragamuffin it had been in the mid-1950s but was somewhat more attractively outfitted.
The standard narrative in rock histories is that popular music was so insipid and uninspiring in the early '60s that music listeners were desperate for anything new and different, and that's why the British Invasion happened, but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, American pop music was actually better in 1963 than it had been in the previous years, including 1958, which is my personal favorite year in music. It's an opinion I don't recall ever hearing or reading elsewhere.Who was this Spaeth guy, you ask? He was almost 80 years old when he wrote the words above and had been active in music, music instruction, and music journalism for decades. A musicology PhD, he wrote for The New Yorker in the 1920s and hosted some radio shows in the 1930s: Keys to Happiness (a piano instruction program), The Tune Detective (which became Spaeth's nickname), Song Sleuth, and Sigmund Spaeth's Musical Quiz. He wrote some books too. He wasn't alone in being a high-profile hater of rock 'n' roll in the '50s; he had allies among folks like Mitch Miller and Stan Freberg.