Nobody knew if it would be a hit, because it was the first of its kind. Sure, there were package tours at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll — caravans of rockabilly cats and doo-wop singers traveling through cities, singing their hits — but in 1969, there was nothing like a rock ‘n’ roll festival, a three-day shindig designed to celebrate the voice of the new generation. Myths immediately surrounded Woodstock, but one thing conveniently consigned to the footnotes of rock history is how one group at the bottom of the bill shook up that crowd: the oldies cabaret act Sha Na Na. Among the squalls of feedback and folkie harmonies — the very foundation of “real rock” — was this fabricated nostalgic nonsense, transparently artificial music that nevertheless signaled the emergence of a pair of pop trends that resonate today. Not only were Sha Na Na the first mainstream flowering of the rock ‘n’ roll revival that bubbled underneath the ’60s underground, but from a certain angle they can be seen as the first boy band — a group of shameless hams getting together with no purpose other than to entertain.
Sha Na Na aren’t necessarily forgotten today — search YouTube and you’ll find a few clips with around a million views apiece — but they have no apparent musical legacy, likely because the records they released during their prime were awful. Their first, Rock and Roll is Here to Stay, was reviewed in the December 13, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus, who offered the cold dismissal, “There’s also this album, which must be part of the press kit, ’cause I can’t see any other justification for it.” Time has been no kinder to the album or the rest of the group’s discography: On each album, Sha Na Na delivered contemptuous paint-by-numbers renditions of classics that merely flirt with competence (only 1972′s The Night Is Still Young, a stab at contemporary pop that finds the sweet spot between Andy Kim and Dr. Hook, is worth a listen). If the group released nothing but records, they’d have been forgotten but they were never rockers in any sense of the word. They were canny peddlers of throwback shtick, song-and-dance men through and through.
Unsurprisingly, Sha Na Na did not have a history of harmonizing on the neighborhood stoop. They were a glee group from Columbia University who initially called themselves the Kingsmen, possibly aware that this was the same name of the Seattle garage band that turned Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” into a standard six years prior, but probably not. Sha Na Na were very much a collegiate creation: a bunch of clean-cut guys pretending to be greasers, their homages to street-corner harmonies smooth enough to disguise how they didn’t much respect the songs they sang. Like any revue, individual members didn’t matter much. With his booming bass and slicked-back duck’s-ass haircut, Bowser was the runaway star of the TV show, but the best-known Sha Na Na’er was Henry Gross, who’d later have a hit with “Shannon,” a staple of denim-clad ’70s soft rock. Their lack of individual identity suggests nothing so much as Menudo, the quintessential boy band whose members were swapped out whenever they passed puberty, and that was unusual in 1969. The past decade had seen harmony groups and mop-topped rockers reach the top of the charts but there was nothing like Sha Na Na: They got by on their concept and charm.
Sha Na Na’s diluted doo wop did have an impact. They played Columbia to rousing crowds — their manager Mangar Goodgold claimed in an October 18, 1969, article in Rolling Stone that “young girls grab at Sha Na Na’s clothes when they perform. They don’t grab at Cream’s clothes, at Blind Faith’s,” a statement that may have been technically true, but nevertheless needs to be taken with a gigantic rock of salt. On the strength of this lively act, the group wormed their way onto the bottom bill of 1969′s Woodstock festival, appearing just prior to Hendrix’s festival-closing early-Monday slot. Their routine went over like gangbusters because they were crowd pleasers surrounded by groups determined to get out of their own heads. This is a crucial point to remember, that beneath all the noisy revolution — the generational shift that has calcified into cliché — there were legions of young rock ‘n’ rollers eager to get back to where they once belonged, and Sha Na Na’s oldies but goodies struck a chord. Given the tumultuous 1968 — the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, a year where the Vietnam War escalated, a year where Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek a second term and Richard Nixon won the presidential election — it’s not hard to see the appeal of yesterday amid all this chaos. You could possibly blame it on Richard Nixon’s silent majority, the millions quietly choosing to not partake in upheaval, but Sha Na Na were a sensation within the beachhead of hippie revolution, meaning that many listeners yearned for a past and, in the process, they helped dull the messy danger of the rock ‘n’ roll big bang.
Danger doesn’t sell as well as nostalgia, so it’s not surprising somebody realized that it would be good business to package Sha Na Na’s cabaret with the survivors who were still grinding out a living as working musicians, and that somebody was Richard Nader. A promoter keenly attuned to his audience’s large appetite for nostalgia, Nader decided to mount a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll revival at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 1969. Like many original ’50s rock ‘n’ roll shows, this was a package crammed full of stars, headlined by Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and featuring new lineups of the Coasters and the Platters. Defying expectations, the concert sold out and Nader pegged its success precisely on the surging popularity of progressive rock. Talking to Jan Hodenfield in the November 29, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone, Nader claimed, “I felt Woodstock showed that underground music had reached a critical plateau, a certain climatic point. Progressive rock could only go sideways or start getting into different forms, like the Who’s rock opera Tommy…A re-evolution of basic rock is underway and it will last until a new form comes along. I give it nine or 10 months.”
Nader’s prediction of the rise of basic rock never came true — he wasn’t prophesying the rise of punk by any stretch — and he was able to eke a respectable run of oldies shows at Madison Square Garden, putting on concerts well into the early ’70s. He never claimed to be peddling anything but nostalgia — he told a New York Times writer in 1973 that the audiences “were getting back into the irresponsibility, the carefreeness, the fun they had before they got married,” the quintessential concerns that have kept any kind of pop culture nostalgia alive. Nader might’ve been happy to sell a memory but not all the old rockers were. Inspired by a particularly dire show at Madison Square Garden where the audience wasn’t ready to hear the contemporary country-rock of his Stone Canyon Band, Rick Nelson wrote “Garden Party,” a song whose lyrical defiance belies its mellow West Coast vibe.
Nelson took “Garden Party” into the Billboard Top 10 in 1972, the same year Chuck Berry had his only No. 1 single with the naughty nursery rhyme “My Ding-A-Ling.” This was the commercial culmination of the rock ‘n’ roll revival that started in 1968, the last time original rockers had a genuine shot at the Top 10. Nelson and Berry benefited from the increased attention generated from the rock ‘n’ roll revival but they, along with the Everly Brothers, were among the few old rockers to actively reckon with the shifting fashions of the ’60s. Nelson and the Everlys surfed the cosmic American tradewinds blowing out the West Coast, refashioning their style to suit the hippiefied country-rock coming out of Southern California — a savvy, fruitful move that didn’t initially earn the attention of Nader. Instead, the promoter put Chuck Berry on his initial ’69 bill, a move for which Chuck was roundly punished.
Jan Hodenfield, the author of the ’69 Sha Na Na Rolling Stone profile, reviewed the rock ‘n’ roll revival at Madison Square Garden for the magazine’s November 29, 1969, issue. He was not kind. “Chuck Berry has already returned to the New York rock scene two years ago. Tired then, he is exhausted now. The eyes are dead. But, like a jiggling puppet with bills to pay, he gives what he has left,” Hodenfield wrote of Berry. He was no kinder to the Coasters, calling their catalog “moldy minstrel show standards” and dismissing much of the bill as “has-beens.” While the Coasters suffered an ever-shifting lineup — an ailment common to other prime R&B vocal groups, such as the Drifters — the harshness of Hodenfield’s dismissal set the tone for a narrative for the ’50s survivors that exists to an extent until this day: Their early work is to be celebrated but they were punished for sticking around trying to earn a living.
This dichotomy surfaced clearly in the coverage of Fats Domino, the first of the original rockers to score a splashy new deal in the wake of the rock ‘n’ roll revival. Fats benefitted from the renewed exposure that came from the Beatles’ rocking ’68 homage “Lady Madonna,” a song that wound up as the centerpiece of the Richard Perry-produced ’68 LP Fats Is Back. Jann Wenner reviewed the record enthusiastically in his September 14, 1968 review for Rolling Stone: “One would really expect that something like this — a new recording by an old artist, long past his time, with a new record company, and during the “rock ‘n’ roll revival,” yet — would inevitably be totally without taste, dull, a tepid rehash at best and a waste of money and time. But one can be wrong. Fats is Back is unequivocally a fine record in all respects” A second review by Jerry Hopkins, oddly run seven months later in as part of a package review of several Perry productions, deflated the balloon somewhat, emphasizing how the producer was the mastermind, with Perry himself claiming “Fats isn’t the fastest learner.” This diminishment of Domino’s agency — it was even publicized that Fats barely played piano on the record, an odd production choice considering Domino is one of the great R&B pianists — inadvertently suggested that even if he was singing the Beatles and Randy Newman, he was a relic of the past that wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the largesse of the new generation.
Over the next few years, Fats’s peers released several comeback albums apiece, all of them falling somewhere on the spectrum from solid to surprising, all of them sharing the common denominator of not being powerhouses on the charts. Bo Diddley perhaps fared the worst, possibly because he took the greatest risks by delving deep into wah-wah streaked funk; it’s not for nothing that “Bo Diddley” scored a sequence in Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 film Fritz the Cat — Bo immersed himself in the thick funk of the fallout of the ’60s. His Chess/Checker labelmate Chuck Berry didn’t take the same musical risks once he returned to his alma mater with 1970′s Back Home — he allowed himself to indulge in some slow blues, that’s all — but he did open that record with “Tulane,” a speedy tale of a dope dealer on the run. “Tulane” signaled that Berry was comfortable with the counter-culture in a way no other old rocker was — ultimately, that’s what brought him a hit with “My Ding-A-Ling,” which plays best not as a novelty, but a college crowd-pleaser — but the Everly Brothers’ 1968 LP Roots is as nimble an excursion into proto-Americana as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Little Richard’s two records for Reprise, 1971′s The King of Rock & Roll and 1972′s The Second Coming, both show a facility for funk that nicely complements his signature reckless rock. Ironically, the straightest of all these revival records is Carl Perkins’s 1970 Boppin’ the Blues, an album recorded with rising rockers NRBQ, a perfectly nice bit of relaxed rockabilly that splits the difference between an earnest new band and casually interested old pro.
What all these records have in common is that they were all well received at the time — not one of them was poorly reviewed in Rolling Stone — but all were eventually pushed to the margins of the rockers’ stories as ’50s nostalgia took hold. As Rick Nelson admitted in “Garden Party,” audiences didn’t want to see or hear him sing a song about a honky-tonk, they wanted to see Chuck Berry “playing guitar like a-ringin’ a bell and lookin’ like he should.” Soon, it wasn’t just canny old sharks like Chuck happily playing upon nostalgia. Two years after Sha Na Na shook up Woodstock with their cabaret act, Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey picked up that hanging thread via their musical Grease. Seven years later came the film adaptation starring John Travolta, whose Danny was a dead ringer for Sha Na Na’s juvenile delinquent cartoon Bowser. By that point, the slick leather-clad ’50s greaser was practically a stock character, thanks to Henry Winkler’s the Fonz, the iconic central character on Garry Marshall’s ’50s fantasia Happy Days, which is itself was a sweet dilution of George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a 1973 film that codified ’50s nostalgia at the end of the great rock ‘n’ roll revival.
Due to the power of visuals and incessant television reruns, Happy Days and American Graffiti wound up as the ultimate legacy of all the star-studded package shows and all the wannabe comeback records: They were the purest distillation of the nostalgia that lay behind it all. Over the last several decades, whenever the glory days of early rock ‘n’ roll are referenced in pop culture, it’s through this prism: Think of how Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video plays off not of the Lubbock rocker but of Happy Days, or how certain sequences of Jersey Boys seem tied to Grease, not the Four Seasons. Perhaps this is the ultimate end of any nostalgic venture — what endures is not the details, or even rose-colored memories, but a wish fulfillment pieced together from fact, fiction and suppositions. If that’s true, then the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the ’60s deserves some credit for starting to solidify our ideas of what the ’50s were all about but it’s worth exploring now for those lively, messy comeback records from the original rockers. Their heirs have been given plenty of slack throughout their careers, maintaining strong reviews and interest into their 70s, but these middle-aged comebacks show Chuck, Bo, the Everlys and Rick Nelson were doing interesting work. Nobody wanted to hear it at the time, not even with the good reviews, but they’re worth seeking out now.