Friday, 12 December 2008

Lt. Rudder

Under-the-counter recordings of erotic material – referred to as either “blue discs” or “party records” – have circulated since at least the 1930s, but attained a new degree of cultural visibility in the 1950s and ‘60s, when they were often intended for a culture of male hi-fi aficionados. Many American men developed an interest in high fidelity audio equipment after World War II, in part because of the extensive electronics training they received in the armed forces. Risqué records provided a means of bringing frank discussions of sex and the rough language traditionally associated with men into the home. Military themes are prevalent on postwar party records, from Fax’s series of “Wild Service Songs” albums to blue discs that dramatized the experience of American soldiers. For example, a record from the late 1940s entitled “Lt. Rudder” features a routine that circulated amongst soldiers during the final years of World War II. The routine was described in a 1945 Associated Press article:

Someone got weary of reading the honeyed accounts of America’s returning air warriors and wrote a parody account of the homecoming of such a gay, cocky, young flier that has half the European theater of operations in stitches. The pilots, themselves, think it is wonderful, because they think the acclaim that greets their exploits is sometimes false and foolish and smacks of mock heroics.

The newspaper article could only reprint what it called a “heavily censored” version of the routine, with apologies to the original anonymous author, “in whatever pub or opium den he lies dreaming.” The under-the-counter recording of the routine however, was free to unleash Lt. Rudder in all his gay, cocky glory.
The “Lt. Rudder” skit articulated soldiers’ ambivalent feelings about re-integrating into civilian life, where very different social rules held sway than in the homosocial context of the military. The record begins as an elaborate send-up of radio: following a fake commercial, we hear an earnest announcer declare that he is taking us to LaGuardia Airport for a special broadcast to welcome home Lt. Ronald Rudder, one of “America’s leading aces” overseas. Listen to the two sides of the record here:

The “Lt. Rudder” record mocks the platitudes and clichés of “false and foolish” accounts of male wartime experience – accounts that are associated both with feminized domestic life as well as broadcasting. Unlike radio and television, bawdy phonograph records such as “Lt. Rudder” and “In Hawaii” (a blue disc that dramatizes the adventures of two “lovable Marines” on leave in Honolulu), could present the rough, frank talk of soldiers, while also providing a means of virtual escape from a postwar domestic space increasingly devoted to family togetherness.