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Culture & Religion

GOODBYE TO THE SIXTIES?/ Harking back to the moment of Elvis’s “Awake!” (1)

The generation that led the surge towards freedom from the 1960s to a soundtrack that began with Elvis’s Sun records, is now about to retire. This, writes John Waters, brings us to a key moment in recent cultural history.  


In present-day culture it is almost impossible to offer a critique of certain aspects of modern living without it being assumed that you are utterly and comprehensively opposed to the phenomenon under discussion. For example, anyone who criticises the abuse of alcohol is immediately assumed to be a teetotaller, and if it emerges that he enjoys a tipple at the weekends, he is instantly deemed a “hypocrite”.

This is not, in fact, accidental, but is rather a symptom of an ideological view of freedom. What is being talked about in these discussions is not really alcohol per se, but the idea that certain behaviours fall within a particular definition of “freedom” and could come to be questioned only by someone seeking to reduce or attack freedom. It is not, in other words, permitted to be simultaneously in favour of “freedom” and against it. A choice must be made between freedom and something else.

To understand what the “something else” might be, we have to step back from our culture and study it in a wider perspective. In fact, we need to step back far enough to take in a period of approximately 55 years, enabling us to see the totality of the development of modern culture in many of its key dimensions.

Perhaps the central element of this narrative is the emergence in Western society of rock ‘n’ roll, an event generally agreed to have occurred in the mid-1950s.

It began, really, with Elvis. From the very first notes of his very first songs, Elvis Presley urged the world to awake to freedom, desire, change, revolution, life. Elvis said “Awake”, and thus called an end to the post-war period of uncertainty and weariness.

Sam Phillips, the man who recorded those first songs of Presley’s in Sun Studios five-and-a-half decades ago, said that, until Elvis walked in the door, he hadn’t know what he was looking for. But he did know that it would be something not just good but unique and uniquely new, something that didn’t fit, that didn’t make any sense of or reflect life in America as it then was. It would be something that made everything a little bit irrelevant, something that created confusion, that didn’t allow people to feel totally safe in the way they’d grown used to.

Elvis had dropped by one of Phillips’s studios a few months before to pay his $4 and record ‘That’s When Your Heartache Begins’ and ‘My Happiness’ as a present for his mother. But, in the summer of 1954, here he was in earnest, to begin recording what would become known as the Memphis Records, a handful of songs that would, beyond disproportion or hyperbole, change the world.

‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’, ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, ‘You’re a Heartbreaker’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, ‘That’s All Right’ are as vibrant today as the day they were made. They were, and remain, annunciations of what sounded like the endless possibilities of personal freedom – the manifesto of a new sensibility that refused to conform to the strictures of existing authority, the refusal of the young of the infallibility of the old. When you heard or hear them, you could or cannot fail to be alerted to the idea that everything could be completely different to the way you have been told it should be. That was, and remains, the rock ‘n’ roll message.