Cult filmmaker John Waters once called the Beatles “those honky Beatles who ruined rock and roll” and while I think that’s absurd (but funny) to say, I get his point. Before the Beatles made rock respectable with strings and orchestral backing, fancy time signatures and chord changes, song suites and concept albums, there was a youthful exuberance and transgressive energy that was traded in for that respectability. And The Coasters (along with their primary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) represented that pre-Beatles rock and rock style more than just about any group on the planet.
As songwriters and producers, Lieber and Stoller were pure gold, creating 26 U.S. top 40 hits from 1954 – 1963. To put those numbers in perspective, check this: Motown powerhouses Holland Dozier Holland wrote 30 charting hits from 1963 – 1970, and the Rolling Stones had 24 top 40 hits in a comparable span from 1964 to 1973 – and Jagger/Richard didn’t even write them all. And that figure doesn’t include hit covers of these songs that the duo didn’t work directly on, like a little Elvis song called “Hound Dog,” or Dion’s #2 remake of The Drifters’ #10 “Ruby Baby.”
The Coasters began their life as The Robins, an L.A. based vocal group that Lieber and Stoller had written some hits for – most notably “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Smokey Joe’s Café,” both included here – before relocating to Atlantic Records’ home of New York City with a slightly altered lineup. The Robins and the Coasters hits comprised a dozen of those 26 Lieber and Stoller songs to climb to the top 40. And in 1987, The Coasters became the first group (as opposed to individual or duo) to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The same year, Lieber and Stoller were also inducted for their contributions to the music.
So surely you’ve heard many of these – the #1 hit “Yakety Yak” or the #2 “Charlie Brown” (which they insist had no relation to the Charles Schulz comic strip) almost certainly, probably their first top ten “Down In Mexico” – but have you dug past the comic surface of them to get to the smarts and brilliant musicality underneath? Dig on the voices first because that’s easy: founders Carl Gardner and Billy Guy, bass men Bobby Nunn (early) and Will “Dub” Jones (after the 1957 relocation to NYC), tenor Leon Hughes (early) and Cornell Gunter (also after 1957). Dig on guitarist Adolph Jacobs, who played a vital role up through 1959 when he left to pursue a solo career. Dig on sax player King Curtis who played on many of the NYC sessions and whose sax breaks were written out for him verbatim by Lieber and Stoller. And then loop back around to realize how much musicality goes in to writing tight rock and roll songs like these: how the timing of the voices is pretty much perfect due to both the group’s talent and Lieber and Stoller’s legendary perfectionism, how Jacobs’ guitar rocks as hard as anyone of his day, how the low, honking sax in “I’m A Hog For You” is the exact right way to express the sentiment of the song. Dig how the lyrics are slyly funny throughout, yes, but also speak directly to the day to day realities of the young audience – pre-respectability, mind you – who’d be listening to this music: bad TV serials, doing your homework and chores, that cut-up Charlie Brown from school, that rock and roll nonsense your parents hate so much, and so forth. Adults making music that’s smart and sympathetic to a teen audience without condescending to them are a rare breed.
There’s not a bad cut here – hell, there’s not even a “good” cut here. From the top 10 smashes right down to minor chart hits like “I’m A Hog For You” or (my personal fave) “Shoppin' for Clothes” this is classic stuff beginning to end. Rock and roll was once synonymous with fun, and this is an instructive lesson in why.
- Patrick Brown