[This Commentary originally appeared in the April 6, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Like any typical driver, I listen to the radio a lot. In fact, I generally listen to only one type of station – the one that plays the most Beatles songs in an hour. (Every once in a while, though, I switch to the one which plays the most Frank Sinatra songs in an hour.) In either case, I limit my listening to “oldies” or “classic hits.”
I’ve begun to notice a disturbing tendency – people younger than me are requesting songs just slightly before my time! It’s acceptable, I guess, for kids born after Paul McCartney’s last number one hit (and well after the break-up of the Beatles) to request Beatles songs. I figure they like the Beatles for the same reason I like Sinatra. Even though I wasn’t around at the peak of his popularity, I know of his historical impact and, besides, I really like his music. Yet, I have trouble with these kids who think Apple is a computer, not a recording company (and apparently so does the recording company).
I am really irked, though, by obvious prepubescents calling in to request such songs as The Duke of Earl. It seems every time I turn on the radio, another squeaky voiced kid wants to hear The Duke of Earl. And they make their appeal with a conviction as though the song has a poignant place in their heart.
Did I miss something? What’s with the sudden popularity of Gene Chandler’s 1962 hit? And, especially, why do so many teenagers desire to listen, repeatedly, to the incessant thumping chorus of “Duke, Duke, Duke…” above other equally respectable rock-and-roll classics?
I don’t see it as a rallying cry for the loser of last November’s election. Neither do I think it portends a new appreciation for John Wayne’s cinematic glories. Lastly, I can’t imagine what Billy Joel believed when he mentioned the “red head girl” and “The Duke of Earl,” but this also doesn’t seem to explain the phenomenon.
Maybe if we go back to 1962 we can begin to understand the song’s recent attractiveness.
Thirty years ago, the first baby-boomers ascended into their teenage years. Like typical adolescents, they strove for anti-heroes as role models. The champions of their older brethren had vanished, perhaps best symbolized by the tragic wreckage of a small airplane on a silent snowy Iowa cornfield. The entertainment industry, ordained by the blossoming mass media as producer of human icons, had failed to replenish itself.
James Dean, having decapitated himself in a fit of vehicular frenzy, left a void on the silver screen that neither Marlon Brando (too rough and too intellectual) nor Montgomery Clift (good looking, but far too melancholy) could fill. Worse yet, the boring banality of Pillow Talk and its ilk spread throughout the country’s drive-ins. Film distributors, for the most part, removed movies of import to small theaters in the same small part of town frequented by small crowd who preferred small jazz combos.
On the audio side of the street, rock-and-roll’s novelty, with its innovators missing, had begun to drain. Sure, only Buddy Holly had actually died, but Chuck Berry flew away on the lam, Jerry Lee Lewis married the wrong girl, and Elvis Presley – in the Colonel’s carefully crafted career move – decided to join the Army. Eventually, it would take an English foursome to import American rock-and-roll and restore the evolutionary track which the music industry had set upon in the mid-Fifties.
During the early Sixties, and before the Beatles, radio listeners had to accept either artificial (read: Hollywood created) rock stars, wholesome Pat Boone, not-so-wholesome folk music or (gasp!) Neil Sadaka. Where could the average teenager turn to for a good old-fashioned anti-establishment trail blazer?
Folk music, while it sold in Harvard Square and Bob Dylan did end up with James Dean’s jacket, seemed to unrefined for middle America. Anything else, granted acceptance by most parents, naturally fell into disfavor with most teenyboppers. Youth had to turn to the immediate past for guidance.
Enter Gene Chandler. A throw back, a rock-and-roll dinosaur, a song released well after its time, The Duke of Earl captured the rhythmic roll of a capella be-bop.
“Duke, Duke, Duke,…”
A hearty song of love, adoration and what everyone expected out of life, the tune captured the imaginations of not only the current group of thirteen-year-olds, but the imaginations (and the memories) of those a bit older.
“Duke, Duke, Duke…”
An original remake, the melody allowed the younger generation a fresh version of what they had envisioned their adolescent years would become. From the radio came a rhapsody of grunted bass beat and of flowing falsetto aria.
“Duke, Duke, Duke…”
You could sing along easily. You could smile at the words. You could dream yourself as a Jet (“from your first cigarette to your last dying day!”) and chant the vocal background. You could fancy yourself the billionaire anti-hero (“He’s too rich to kill!”) who started life as a misunderstood juvenile delinquent standing strong against the imposing constraints of the adult world (“I have a secret place no one knows about!”) as you stretch the limits of your vocal cords during the falsetto lyrics.
“Ah, I am me. I am strong. Self-confident. Secure. Apart from the world of the Organizational Man. Together with those who understand and live like me. I am tranquil. I am happy. Life is wonderful.”
Well, maybe The Duke of Earl does not really serve as a Soma Holiday. Still, it does have a little twinkle in its eye. It does hark back to an era of innocence (on the verge of being exposed, but an era of innocence nonetheless). Perhaps that’s why those of age savor the song’s current revival.
What about the apparent fondness today’s teenagers have for Gene Chandler’s exemplary sonnet? For your answer, I suggest reviewing the current crop of Top Forty tunes. Bruce Springsteen had gone soft, Billy Joel became a family man, Sting thinks he’s an actor and Michael Jackson is, well, Michael Jackson. And everybody’s in it for the money (the very symbol of the establishment). If you were thirteen years old and did not want to turn to teenybopper rags for heroes, where would you go to?
“Duke, Duke, Duke…”
Last Week #2: Rumors Resolved (originally published March 30, 1989)
Next Week #4: Mr. Spock’s IDIC (originally published April 13, 1989)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]