Everybody knows the best book about Twentieth Century music is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise but there’s another brilliant book set in the same period – Wilfrid Sheed’s The House That George Built, a history of the golden age of American popular music. It’s about the generations of American songwriters, starting at the turn of the twentieth century in what Sheed calls ‘the piano era’, who essentially invented what we now know as popular music.
It’s sub-titled ‘with a little help from Irving, Cole and a crew of about fifty’ and it’s told through the abbreviated life stories of the dozens of lyricists and composers who grafted on Broadway, on Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood to make us all song addicts. It’s warm and entertaining and full of mad insights into the psychology and economics and aesthetics of pop music.
It’s also a catalogue of amazing songs – from Basin Street Blues to Body and Soul to Baby it’s Cold Outside to April in Paris. I’ve created a Spotify playlist for each section. The artists are a bit variable – performers from the other end of the Twentieth Century aren’t as well-represented as they ought to be on Spotify – and there are a few gaps but it’s an amazing mosaic of song. Let me know if you’ve found better versions.
Nike ads and remixes notwithstanding, the passage of time has not been kind to Elvis. Outside of the faithful, he’s still mostly considered a mockery. The problem is that he was never really a rock star. At least not in the post-1960s sense. A crop of early sixties acts (mostly British) changed our definition of the popular musician forever. Before the Stones (and the Beatles and The Who and The Kinks) a musician was an entertainer, an uncomplicated mouthpiece for song-writer, management and record label. Talent. After the Stones, a rock star was a different kind of creature all together: autonomous, self-directed, ironic, important.
Elvis was a working class kid who grew up in the era of the entertainer. He never shook off the limitations of the role and never aspired to exceed them. He never wrote a song, delivered a manifesto, challenged a convention. He never took up the new entitlement of the musical God to scare or affront or challenge. His excesses were all inward-focused, self-destructive, sad (there may have been 14 TV sets in his house but he never tossed one out the window). None of this compromises his brilliance as an artist. His funny, honest, human performance in the 1970 Las Vegas concert performance ‘That’s the Way It Is’ (DVD UK, DVD US, CD UK, CD US) is wonderful. He’s a magnetic, complicated, supremely engaging figure.