photo: Danielle St. Laurent
“What’s Wrong With Having Fun?”
A History of All Ages: A conversation with Calvin Johnson
by Jay Babcock
Calvin Johnson is the founder of Olympia-based K Records. He was in Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and recently toured the USA in tandem with Ian Svenonius. His influence on underground American music in the last 25 years is enormous; read more about him at wikipedia.
I spoke with Calvin by telephone in early 2007, following on an interview I did with former MC5 manager/poet/historian John Sinclair, published in Arthur No. 24, in which we tried to figure out how rock n roll music went from being an all-ages thing to what, all too often, it is today: age-segregated. Calvin had some ideas about that…
Arthur: Where did you see your first shows?
Calvin Johnson: I was going to some stadium shows. When I was 12 I saw Paul McCartney & Wings. That was in the Kingdome, which is like 75,000 people. I was like, This is different than the Casbah Club in Liverpool. This isn’t the same. I kind of view that as more… Having read this biography of the Beatles and their whole world in Liverpool just seemed really exciting. Very little of that excitement existed in the stadium. And I’m like, Hmm. Something went wrong here. Just shortly after that is when I started reading about punk rock and I recognized that as being within the spirit of that local scene that the Beatles came out of.
It was about two or three years later that I went to my first punk rock show which was… A band from Seattle called The Enemy played here in Olympia. Then I started attending shows in Seattle. There was an all-ages club called The Bird that was in an old warehouse, then it moved into an Oddfellows hall. They had shows twice a month at this Oddfellows hall. That was really exciting.
Arthur: How did age segregation in rock ‘n’ roll music performances start, do you think?
My knowledge is second or third-hand on these things, but in reading rock n roll histories or biographies, it seems like some of those people, like Little Richard, was playing in nightclubs and juke joints that were serving alcohol and they were mostly oriented towards adults, meaning people in their 20s and 30s.
So live music was divided in a demographic way: there were these teen-oriented events and then there were adult-oriented events, and rock n roll was viewed at first as teen-oriented music. It seemed to have been normally in these environments that are dance-oriented—the armory, the school cafeteria, gymnasium, the local union hall—might be rented for these teen events.
When people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis became rock stars, and they were playing at those kinds of shows where there’s 10 or 15 acts on the bill and they each do their one or two songs that are well-known, kids were still trying to dance in the aisle. [in faux announcer voice] “Can’t stop the kids from dancing! They’re dancing in the aisles! Crazy! Bedlam has broken out!”
You look at films like Charlie Is My Darling—the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland in ‘65—and you see it’s sort of a transition to this more concert-type situation, where it’s not necessarily a dance, kids are still dancing, and the set-up seems so nascent, they don’t have huge P.A.s or amps, they just have their regular amps and drums, little vocal public address system, and it’s …very quaint.
But it seems as though in the Northwest here, there was a circuit more or less of all-ages teen dances, which were held at various either hall-type situations or clubs that catered to teenagers and…
Arthur: How is that different from a sock-hop?
A sock-hop is more like high school dance where people are just dancing in their stockinged feet. It seems like the demographic is what divided things rather than a legal situation. The demographic was, ‘only kids would want to go to that show.’
Arthur: ‘Who else would want to?’
Yeah. It’s difficult to say, because I’m just piecing this all together, I didn’t live through it, but it appears that it had this vibe that as the audience for rock n roll starts to age into the ‘60s, and people were in their 20s and still interested in rock n roll, the focus changed. I blame the Beatles for that, because they created the atmosphere for where every rock band was suddenly Beethoven, and was creating “Great Works.” So it was more like when you go to the concert symphony orchestra and everyone is paying attention in this way and dancing is almost like an insult. It’s not that the Beatles had that attitude, but I think that the way that their music developed, people started to view music that way, and then these more serious prog rock bands came along and people suddenly forgot all about having fun. What’s wrong with having fun?