Rhino Handmade's There's a Riot Goin' On: The Coasters on Atco, a four-disc box set that contains all the key recordings from the group's peak (including sides by the Robins) and noteworthy tracks from the '60s, plus a disc's worth of rarities. If that title carries a threat of violence seemingly atypical for the guys who sang "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," it's not wrong, either, as the Coasters were a rock & roll band with all the excitement and danger that implies. Sure, they were a vocal harmony group and they could conceivably be labeled as doo wop, but like all true greats, the Coasters don't quite sound like anybody else. They had close relations: their roots reached back to the Clovers, as the group's earliest incarnation as the Robins had a similarly loose interplay; they had cousins in fellow Atlantic R&B act the Drifters in how they livened up those very traditions into rock & roll; and their humor flowed like the Cadillacs (whose lead singer, Earl "Speedo" Carroll, later joined the Coasters), but the Coasters were far from a group harmonizing on a street corner. They were rough and tumble, they rocked and rolled, they sounded a bit like the adults they were, even when they sang to teachers. Like all greats -- and the Coasters are surely one of the great American bands, as this set proves -- the Coasters defied all easy labels and transcended categories, standing as something utterly unique, and this originality is what keeps their music fresh even as it uncannily captures the feeling of early rock & roll.
The Coasters did sing to teenagers, but just like with Chuck Berry, there is no sense of pandering to their songs, but more importantly, their other songs show how the group rose from black culture. Set aside these teenage tunes and there are songs about gambling, cell-block riots, booze -- they even had a song called "Hey Sexy" long before such phrases were spoken in polite company. They were gaudy and goofy but grounded in some semblance of reality that gave them a wider appeal at the time, and make their records stand the test of time. Sure they're dated, but they're not antiquated: like the greatest recorded music, it's still electric, thrilling, and vital. Some might think that four discs of the Coasters might be too much -- but then again, nobody is going to start listening to the Coasters on a set this. But the Coasters deserve a set this size, a set that's double the length of 50 Coastin' Classics and somehow twice as impressive, because it paints a fuller story, as the three main discs give the narrative of their career, slowing only when the second disc dips into standards. Bbut the third disc chronicling such latter-day classics as "Shoppin' for Clothes," "Bad Blood," "Bad Detective," and "Saturday Night Fish Fry" is surprisingly strong, holding up to that first disc, which is wild, wooly fun. After those three discs are absorbed, the fourth disc filled with alternate takes is a treat to show that it took considerable work and skill to make records that sound so easy and fine. Their genius wasn't accidental; it was carefully planned, and on this great set, the Coasters shine in all their glory, standing as one of the indisputable greats of early rock & roll, standing alongside Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley himself as the core architects of rock & roll.