Somewhere a debate will be happening between earnest philosophers. Do refried beans constitute authentic food? They are part of traditional meals in Mexican cuisine and fundamental to a working class diet but dammit they are also beans refried. The argument could last forever.
Refritos are mentioned and relevant because it was the name given to home grown Mexican rock and roll in the fifties. Refritos were cover versions of the hits of Elvis and other American rock and
rollers. Soon, authenticity was required and musicians appeared who performed the songs in the original English. Okay, the alert will have spotted the post-modern sarcasm. Rock and roll was given an alternative Spanish identity, rocanrol. Later again, Mexico produced its own independent rock music. The phenomenon of Mexican rocanrolis explored in plenty of convincing detail by Eric
Zolov in his book ‘Refried Elvis.’ It fascinates because not only does it explain what happened in Mexico but because the inevitable differences illuminate how and why rock music developed the way it did in the States and in the UK.
Two surprises are revealed by the book. First, rocanrol began in Mexico as a middle class phenomenon. The working class who could not afford either American records or the Mexican covers initially stayed loyal to traditional Mexican music. The new music was popular but it took time to spread out from the city. This was an urban phenomenon. Second, rock and roll was not immediately condemned by the establishment and parents. If there were doubts about the appearance of Elvis, his music was encouraged as a token of a new world modernity that Mexican society needed to embrace. The approval of the establishment did not last because soon rocanrol was to be used as a means of rebellion against parents, rebeldismo.
Elvis without trying also added to the controversy. A teenage riot took place at a showing of his movie ‘King Creole’, titled ‘Melodia siniestra’ in Mexico. Although Mexican
rocanrol began as mainly a middle class phenomenon elements of class conflict also contributed to the violence in the cinema. In a separate incident, Elvis was accused of making disparaging remarks about Mexican women. This is dismissed by Zolov as unfounded and he even identifies the culprit who invented the rumour. But with the sneer of Elvis now much more threatening and their children suddenly more remote and irritatingly knowing, the Mexican establishment became uneasy. Unlike in America and Europe, rock and roll became subject to censorship laws. These laws emphasised the need for music in the Spanish language but there was little in fifties rock and roll that did not survive censorship. Rocanrol, which was admittedly now home grown, flourished during censorship.
Eventually, rock music in Mexico followed a similar path to what happened elsewhere. The music became political and the hair grew longer. Interestingly, left wing academics in Mexico were far less indulgent of Mexican hippies than in America and Europe. They spotted quicker than their Western counterparts the lack of concern hippies had for the trials of working class life. The leftist cultural critic, Carlos Monsivais, is quoted. ‘Of what great (material) abundance can the Mexican hippies (claim to) deny? Against which high technology do they protest in the name of love?’ Carlos said this in 1968. The same doubts were valid in America and Europe if nowhere near as sharp. The much higher standard of living kept left wing critics of hippies quiet. Merle Haggard spoke instead and made the situation worse.
‘Refried Elvis’ is a book about rock music, imperialism, modernity, class and politics which means it resonates. Rocanrol was listened to in cafes called existencialismos which is definitely affected but quite endearing. The initial reaction is that the book uses Elvis in the title unfairly. This is a book about Mexico and how popular music changed because of the influence of America and because of the political and social concerns of its youth. But when you look at the list again it is apparent that for all his lack of education and supposed unsophistication Elvis was a performer whose career repeatedly made statements about the issues that concern Zolov. In a sense, the career of Elvis tells us how an uneducated man deliberately set out to forge an identity that would help him make sense of his inheritance – music, American power, the modern world, class discrimination and political advocates who denied as much as they promised. His critics will say that Elvis never really said anything other than hiccup inarticulately but anybody who listens to the music of Elvis will be aware of how he was always willing to share his loneliness and alienation. He was too big a character and symbol for that loneliness to be a simple consequence of failed romance with his female partners.
There are two words on the list that are particularly important, modernity and class. Elvis was no simple modernist. There was always a link with the past. Before Elvis, popular music had progressed beyond the blues to jazz. Elvis took it back which is why arguments about him stealing from black musicians are irrelevant. He did what Little Richard claimed. He opened the floodgates for music that had been buried in working class communities. This was the contradiction that was misunderstood in Mexico. Elvis was fine when he represented modernity. When he came into conflict with the Mexican idea of modernity and inspired youths to grow their hair, chew gum, walk strange and be generally daft he was seen as a threat and criticised. Elvis became unfashionable everywhere because modernity had to triumph.
‘Refried Elvis’ examines in detail the impact of the Twist and Chubby Checker. Those who assumed that this was a very brief and uncool phenomenon will be surprised by the comments of Zolov. In Mexico, the Twist was important as a bridge between fifties rock and roll and the modern rock music introduced by The Beatles. The Twist unified whereas Elvis divided. My first reaction was to think that this did not happen outside of Mexico but reading the book I remembered the photographs of rich people dancing on thick carpets that we saw in the press at the time and how the Twist was excitedly reported. Modernity triumphed because it was inevitable and because it suited the powerful and the privileged. The working class may have eventually joined the rocanrol phenomenon in Mexico but the affluent were
defining what would happen. The difference was that in America these people arrived later.
When the talented Dylan did emerge to vanquish the social class he supposedly supported he appeared on the CBS record label. Of all the record labels, CBS had in the fifties been the most reluctant to taint itself with rock and roll. When it realised it needed to sell records to the young its first faltering steps were into watered down folk music. After Dylan became successful, CBS recorded rock acts but it always pretended that it was a label interested in serious worthwhile music. These contradictions and pretensions were personified in the rather dodgy chairman of CBS, Clive Davis. The rock music he unleashed was mainly dreary.
If modernity and class is important to rock and roll in Mexico and everywhere else then politics has always been required, albeit in varying dosage. Political protest has dominated Mexican music but presumably this is a consequence of the sharp social divides that exist in that country. Social conflict is likely to increase everywhere in the next decade. Perhaps music will converge again like it did in the late 60s to unite discontented young populations. We will have to wait and see. But just in case it does happen it will do no harm to be prepared. ‘Refried Elvis’ is not a bad place to start.
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.