Am I the only person on this planet who can watch these clips and recapture those ecstatic moments of feeling I was in a whole new dimension, away from parents, teachers, bosses and that smug, suffocating, pompous world of received opinion?
Rock n’Roll came exploding out of nowhere (or so it seemed to a gangly British 15 year old going through all those frighteningly mysterious upheavals of adolescence in the 1950s). The notion of a “teenager” was still perceived by most of UK society as an American cultural phenomenon, as alien to our green and pleasant land as those other Hollywood constructs, the cowboy and the gangster.
Although there was an established record industry in post war Britain it’s output was constrained by tastes dictated by radio and that, for us, meant the BBC which had a broadcasting monopoly throughout the land. The result was a bland easy listening diet leavened, occasionally, by the odd “novelty” number.
There was, of course, jazz which had, by the late 40s become respectable and the trade mark music of the student population and it’s bohemian fringe – New Orleans style, in the main, often lovingly analysed and deconstructed by an emerging coterie of bearded cultural commentators. Strangely enough modern jazz, more inventive and adventurous than the predictable drone of trombones and banjos, never became deeply rooted amongst the mass of student opinion in the UK.
Naturally the BBC played some jazz.
Fortunately, like supporters of the Resistance in Vichy France, at night, under the cover of darkness, my friends and I could listen to a different music, sounds that were ignored by the BBC even though they were beginning to echo across the American airwaves. These came via Radio Luxembourg, a European commercial station with a transmitter powerful enough to reach S E England and, even more exciting, AFN, the American Forces Network operating out of Germany.
Unfortunately the signal was never clear and constant from either station and the sound would fade several times during the play of one record. Nevertheless, through word of mouth at school, we were able to get some sort of fix on what was happening in US music and that was how I came across Bill Haley and the Comets.
In some quarters it appears almost de rigueur to downplay Haley’s significance in the emergence of rock music and portray him as a one hit wonder who just got lucky with Rock Around The Clock in ’54/’55. In fact this run of the mill country singer had been experimenting with introducing elements of black rhythm and blues into a western swing style as early as 1951 and, by 1953 had gained national chart success with Crazy Man Crazy but it was Rock Around The Clock, first recorded in April 1954 that became a global phenomenon in 1955 when it was used as the musical theme for the film Blackboard Jungle.
By the end of 1955 rockn’roll was big news not just in the record industry but throughout the world’s media and Bill Haley was The Man – and before any jumped up little scribbler from Rolling Stone tries to say otherwise I WAS THERE! Of course there were other singers and groups (almost entirely from the world of black r&b) who were cutting significant records in the early fifties and, of course, the appearance of Presley as a national star in 1956 had pushed Haley out of the spotlight by 1957 but the fact remains that it was Haley and RATC that created rock as the global culture of youth.
A few months after Haley went global Chuck Berry burst into the charts with Maybellene. Berry was an awkward and sometimes unpleasant individual with a chequered personal life but his music was lively and laced with humour. Most of his songs told little stories, vignettes of everyday life that moved to a driving beat. He accompanied himself with a distinctive guitar style that made the instrument sing.
Berry was one of the first black r & b artists to cross over into the national charts partly because he himself (like Ray Charles) was quite a fan of country music so had a feel for the best way of tailoring his songs for white audiences.
Fats Domino was another black musician who hit the charts in 1955. He was already a well established young bluesman but the driving, steady beat of Ain’t That A shame coupled with an insistent riff placed this squarely in the rockn’roll canon. Unlike Berry, Fats Domino was never suggestive, just straightforwardly cheerful.
Little Richard broke into the big time in 1956. Long Tall Sally was fiery and fierce and full of sexual induendo intertwined with almost Runyonesque humour = just the ticket for a bunch of hormonally challenged teenage boys…….
Elvis was, of course, what the emerging rockn’roll movement, was waiting for, a good looking young white guy who sounded black. Sam Phillips watched the impact of the Comets in 1954 and realised that the avuncular odd looking thirty plus Haley could never generate an emotionally driven fan base. With Presley he found his diamond in the rough and over the next eighteen months he created quite a stir throughout the south. Once he moved to RCA at the start of 1956 he was immediately transformed into a cult figure.
We are now so familiar with the bloated, white suited Vegas image from the 1970s (why do Elvis impersonators always have to reprise that sad image?) but to me this is the Elvis I like to remember – rough, raw and slightly menacing……and that Scotty Moore guitar solo – I’d never heard picking like that before in the suburbs of South London…..
Like I said – am I the only one on the planet with these memories?