I had no idea that the anniversary of the recording (or is it release?) of Elvis Presley’s version of “That’s All Right Mama” was going to be so heavily covered in the popular press. Apparently some people are asserting that this was the first rock and roll record.
The question of “what was the first rock and roll record” is always fun at parties unless you’re a deathlessly dull musicologist like myself. Try it sometime. Pose the question around a bunch of music nerds and watch them try to out-obscure each other.
I pity the fool that tries to claim Elvis’ first record as the beginning of rock and roll at one of these grim gatherings. Just about anybody who has put any thought to the beginnings of rock and roll realizes the huge stylistic debt that Elvis had to his forebears, and that his fusion of hillbilly and blues had many precedents as well.
Nonetheless, Elvis is seen as the originator, which doesn’t surprise me, given what I think about the way history is written. See, we write history in order the make sense of the present – “how we have gotten here”. That’s why the rock pantheon of greats keeps changing if you look at different rock history books from the 60s to the present.
In the mid 70s, Tony Palmer wrote that Mike Oldfield was the future of rock in ‘All You Need Is Love’. This was understandable, because he was writing at the height of prog rock. But he also highlighted the past artists that seemed to point the way to Oldfield, like the Beatles, Phil Spector, etc and downplayed the rockabillies.
Now the centre of the rock narrative has shifted again since the punk of the 70s, and we look much more closely at Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly as well as proto-punk 60s garage bands like the Troggs and the Count Five. We need to take punk into account to make sense of the current state of rock music. Now, the reason that Elvis is seen as the beginning of rock and roll.
Elvis was no great pioneer as a musician, but he was teen culture’s first real media folk hero. He was the whole package – he could sing, dance, sneer and act – just like Britney. And he was marketed up the wazoo. Not surprising then that in this heavily mediated society, where musicians are expected to be a brand, that we celebrate rock’s first brand?