December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Happy Days and the Rockabilly Revival

3 min read
American sitcom Happy Days sparked a revival of interest in Rockabilly and Rock'n'Roll during the 1970s

The 1950s cast a long shadow over the 1970s. Glam rock bands wore a version of Teddy Boy regalia. Both Rock’n’Roll and Rockabilly were consistently popular in the 1970s with the latter experiencing a big surge at the end of the decade. One TV series – a Saturday light-hearted, shamelessly nostalgic comedy – kept the 1950s flame burning brightly. Happy Days aired from 1974 to 1984 and in its 70s heyday took viewers back twenty years to a supposed idyllic post-war past in middle America. It also helped spark a revival of interest in the Teddy Boy and Rockabilly look.

FIND OUT MORE: 1980s Rockabilly and the Teddy Boy Revival

The US broadcaster ABC aired eleven seasons of Happy Days. The show was produced by Hanna-Barbera and Paramount Television. Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the sitcom centred on the fictional Cunningham family. Richie Cunningham was an eternally positive teenager played by Ron Howard – who in real life would go on to become a supremely successful movie director with credits including The Da Vinci Code.

As Happy Days was set in 1955, Richie and his friends would have been born in the late 1930s so only experienced World War Two as children without fighting in it. The Cunningham parents, Howard and Marion, were the archetypal 50s parents. Dad was a bit of a bumbling but well-meaning oaf. Mom was a housewife. Into this saccharine family was inserted the character of Fonzie – or ‘The Fonz’. Arthur Fonzarelli – played by Henry Winkler – was a take on the kind of adolescent delinquent who terrified respectable America in the 50s. But in reality, the Fonz emerged as a very goofy version of the kind of angst-ridden, rebellious teen characters played by James Dean in the 1950s.

Did every young man in the 70s Rockabilly Revival think he was the Fonz (Answer: Yes)?

That said – schoolkids in the 1970s genuinely thought the Fonz was cool – yes, they really did. And I think he became a subliminal role model for Rockabillies later in the decade. I’m betting you half the teenage men swept up in the late 70s Rockabilly Revival secretly saw the Fonz when they looked in the mirror. And might even have performed his double thumbs up and delivered the non-sensical “aaaayyyy”. Happy Days had a lot to answer for!

Why was Happy Days so popular?

The 1970s – as we’re still told today – was a decade of crisis. But in many ways, I think it would be better described as a decade of political and social awakening. The 1960s ran the issues of gender and racial equality up the flagpole. But it was the 1970s that saw the long hard slog to achieve those things get underway. Not everybody felt comfortable living at a time of mass protest, economic instability and political upheaval. To many, the 1950s had a reassuring, simple and homespun attractiveness they increasingly hankered for.

Couldn’t we all be just like the Cunningham family stuck in a 1955 time warp somewhere in the mid-west?

Even some counter-culture figures began looking back at their childhood in the 1950s and wiping away a tear. That might explain the George Lucas directed 1973 movie American Graffiti, which although set in 1962 has all the hallmarks of 50s nostalgia. The teen prom. The slick-backed hairstyles of the guys. The rock’n’roll bands. It’s not disputed that American Graffiti inspired the creation of Happy Days. And Ron Howard starred in both the movie and the sitcom. Three years after Happy Days launched, Grease hit global cinema screens with John Travolta’s take on the 1950s.

Happy Days and the Rockabilly Revival

There can be little doubt that a combination of Happy Days and Grease smoothed the way for the Rockabilly Revival of the late 1970s. The Teddy Boy Revival preceded it by at least five years. The ceaseless barrage of 50s nostalgia on TV in the 1970s and the wave of Elvis worship after his death in 1977 meant our feet unavoidably tapped to the sound of twenty years earlier whether we liked it or not.

1 thought on “Happy Days and the Rockabilly Revival

  1. Republicans have done very little for the common, working man and yet get much support from them. I guess Scott Baio is just a common, working man these days.

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