Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sounds Of The Fifties

It would be pointless to explain why greasers are fascinated by that crazy decade that was the 50's; it is the raison d'etre of being a rockabilly cat. We are immersed in the cars, threads, music and all things 50's.
One aspect that has long since passed into the sands of times, however, is how that decade sounded.

Rapid technological change has made our present day ambient sound very different than it did as recently as twenty years ago. The fifties and its corresponding technology definitely had its signature sound, and judging by the dialogue in old movies, people even talked kinda funny, and I'm sure even said "fuck" a lot. The mores of the times prevented actors from uttering such crude epithets in the movies, so we are left with a sanitized version from a Hollywood perspective. Here's a short list of forgotten sounds of the fifties and their modern counterparts.

1. Sirens.

You still can hear the occasional firetruck that has one of those old style sirens. The ones that whine and vary pitch. If you heard that siren, you knew somebody was in deep shit and they were probably a desperate bad-ass. Those sirens, along with the single red cherry mounted on the roof of a '55 Chevy and bias ply tires screeching around a corner meant business.

The cops were coming and there was going to be some fast talking and exchange of gun fire. The bad guys would get caught and they invariably all wore suits.

State Troopers used the same siren and you knew were gonna get a speeding ticket when you heard that sound. In those days, however, if they smelled booze on your breath they would just tell you to go straight home.

Today's manic sirens always scream a sense of urgency. You will panic at the thought that they're coming to get you. Most times, a police cruiser, ambulance and one large fire truck have caused all that commotion just because some crackhead fell off his stolen bicycle or is sitting in a pool of his own urine cursing at passers by.

2. Phones.

It's nostalgic to hear those old style phone bells in some old movie. Funnier still, is some cop movie where those bells are ringing constantly amidst the clatter of manual typewriters. At home, everybody had just one phone and it was usually bolted to the wall in the kitchen. If that phone rang, it would scare the shit out of everybody, because it was as loud as air raid siren. If the phone rang after 10 pm, somebody had just died. When you had to dial a phone number, it could take up to fifteen minutes as you dialed on the rotary dial and waited for the chatter to stop. It really sucked if the phone number had a bunch of nines in it.

In keeping with the general annoying and ubiquitous beeping of all modern gizmos, today's average cel phone has more functions than an average Apollo moon mission and way more beeps and boops. Every single operation needlessly beeps. To add to the mayhem, many people download the most annoying ring tone possible.

You could really slam the shit out of old phones and it was satisfying. If you happen to drop your cel phone, you will hear that small, but unmistakable, sound of cheap plastic breaking. The subsequent sound will be silence, as you realize your down a hundred bucks.

In the fifties, if you were to have a conversation on the bus with yourself talking into a little plastic box, they probably would have locked you up. Then again, those smoke belching diesel buses from the fifties were so loud, nobody would hear you anyway.


Without resorting to preaching to the choir, I think that we can all agree that nothing sounds quite so right as a big bock American V-8. Nobody has ever been able to replicate that sound, and to this day, it is sweet music to the ears of many. Even more distinct is the sound of a V-8 flathead sporting headers. Now that is the epitome of coolness. Some American cars still have cool horns, but in the fifties, all cars did. That macho two tone horn that blared at 120 dB. When somebody honked, it meant that you had better get the fuck out of the way real quick.

The most annoying sound of the last 60 years has to be those anemic Japanese horns. Even luxury models have them and it sounds like a goat dying a terrible death. It's hard to be intimidated by one of those horns but quite easy to get irritated. The second most annoying sound is when idiots decide to hop up their Subaru or Honda and throw on one of those soup can exhaust systems. This is about as far from macho as one can get. They usually elicit the same response from most people who hear that loud "bra-aap". Most people will involuntarily curse or call them idiots out loud as they fight the uncontrollable urge to throw something at the offending vehicle.

4. Bums

Every city has its fair share of crackheads and bums these days. They produce sounds that are endemic to their lifestyles and designed for maximum encroachment into the lives of regular folks. Their own particular dialect has to be shouted at all times. This when they are trying to communicate with others of their ilk. If no one else is around, they are content to shriek gibberish at the top of their lungs regardless of the time of day. This is usually accompanied by the rattle of shopping carts filled with junk. Some of the more industrious crackheads sometimes fill their carts with empty beer cans and the crunching sound that thin Aluminum produces.

Many crackhead ride bikes, but they never seem to have any brakes. This produces a sliding sound as the crazies attempt to stop their bikes like Fred Flintstone. Often their used sneakers are so worn out, that they will be unable to stop, thus producing the easily identifiable sound of a cheap mountain bike crashing into a brick wall.

Other crackheads will produce low frequency metallic sounds as they climb inside a dumpster and start rooting around, not unlike the sound of a very large rat chewing through a pile of garbage.

The fifties were simpler: all they had were winos. They were called winos because they drank really cheap wine. Their natural habitat were parks. The sounds they produced were far less numerous. If one took a walk in the park  he would hear the crinkling of a brown paper bag vainly attempting to hide a wine bottle, the occasional breaking glass as the drunk bums would drop said bottle and maybe the shuffle of newspapers as they passed out on a bench and used the newspaper as a blanket. The only intrusion that they would impose on passers by was "hey buddy can you spare a dime? " or the odd belch.

5. Stereos

High end audio was in its infancy in the fifties. Most people had one of those console stereos but a select group of enthusiasts were enjoying the great sound of Macintosh tube amps, Rek-o-Kut turntables and massive Electro Voice or JBL speakers. Record stores abounded and many of them had listening booths where you could listen to hours upon hours of glorious vinyl. Air guitar, the devil's spawn that is karaoke or computer music games hadn't been invented, so people actually listened to music. This was usually accompanied by the flick of Zippos or the crackle of wooden matches because absolutely everybody smoked in the fifties.

This is the same reason why vintage guitars are such in high demand and command exorbitant sums of money. A mid-fifties Gibson ES-335 sounds better with age. The crappy guitar with all the knobs that they sell at Future Shop just can't compare and would be used by clowns in the circus had they been around in the fifties.

Somehow, listening to MP-3's on 49 dollar computer speakers over the whine of the computer's fan just doesn't have the same allure. Watching some wobbly image on Youtube captured on some drunken party goer on his cel phone makes me slightly sea sick.

I gotta go, the microwave is beeping, the cel phone is ringing, there's a car alarm blaring on the street, my hard drive is making funny noises, the neighbor's home theater is blaring and there's some crackheads in the alley trying to steal my empty beer cans. Have a nice, quiet evening.

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