I came to this book as many did, I suspect, because it featured on that list of David Bowie’s 100 favourite books which circulated a couple of years ago. (The list also is explored in a podcast, if you’re interested.)
It makes sense that Bowie would be a fan of this work, given that it’s an enthusiastic, bitchy exploration of early rock. After all, the work is titled for Little Richard’s protean good-time yawp from ‘Tutti Fruitti’, the song that made Bowie “see God”.
After a couple of years of looking, I found a copy replete with terrifying cover. It was written in 1968 and revised in 1972. Kit Lambert, erstwhile manager of The Who introduces the work and sets things rolling: the text covers a brief period in music, but one of supreme importance for everything rock-related that came afterwards. All that’s covered is the period from Bill Haley’s initial popularity until 1966 – that’s it.
But that’s all it has to do, because Awopbopaloobob Alopbamboom exists solely to highlight how transformational this scant 16-odd year space was. From the outset, Cohn makes the case that rock and roll, an amalgam of “coloured beat and white sentiment” – a combination that the UK in particular would run with (into the ground, some might say) – was a break from the safe, acceptable cocoon of doo-wop, of the crooners, and of the Second World War. Indeed, in exploring this theme, Cohn has an encyclopaedic knowledge, the sort that a stupidly young music freak has in spades. And it’s tuned towards this new mixture:
…the musical ingredients that made pop happen – the white ballad tradition, the exhibitionism introduced by Johnnie Ray, the elaborate sentimentality of country and western, the amplified gut-beat of R&B…
Cohn pulls no punches in his retelling of the genesis and glory days of rock ‘n’ roll, and the insurgence of pop music. He describes ‘Rock Around The Clock’, considered the ur-single of the genre (though Ike Turner would have a problem with that) as “a dog” before noting that its lack of competition was what made it a success. He describes Elvis as the equivalent of losing one’s virginity, of screaming at a concert as being as good as confession or psychoanalysis. But he’s also aware of the inherent silliness of the genre, critiquing Little Richard – who he loves – as a creator of “non-songs”, before noting that those same playroom tunes were liquid gold when it came to crowd reaction.
The history of rock and pop is seen Transatlantically. Cohn provides the main beats from the US, but observed from the perspective of a kid waiting for it to hit the UK, for the tour to finally tread local stages. We hear of Haley touring in his decline, of Domino and Checker, of the importance of Cliff Richard, Buddy Holly, of Dick Clark for fuck’s sake. There’s hints of Phil Spector’s vileness at this early point, and a criticism of the rot at the heart of the ’60s hippie movement that would (albeit outside the scope of this book) lead to Altamont and the death of the era.
There’s a lot more in here – Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles are covered in depth, as is their role in making the genre “grow up”, particularly in Dylan’s case – so there’s something in here no matter what music of the era you’re interested in. It’s told with a brashness and a certainty – and a bitchiness – that’s impossible to deny.
In the end, this is a book that was written by a bloke in his 20s about music he loved. He still believed, when revising the work, that he’d seen the best there was and there would be. And it all comes back to that primal energy, that eruption that powered Little Richard and inspired Bowie. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. It doesn’t matter what it means. What it makes you feel is more important.