The soundtrack to the film Nowhere Boy, which chronicles John Lennon's teenage years, can be easily summed up in one word: raw.
Included on this album is rock and roll in its purest, most basic form. The soundtrack compilers clearly studied what the future members of the Beatles—as well as Lennon's first band, The Quarrymen—were listening to in the early to mid-50s. While the track list contains the usual suspects—Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis—it also offers lesser-known R&B tracks that were shipped to the Liverpool docks. What results is a fascinating, exhilarating tour of early rock, which demonstrates how The Beatles eventually developed their highly original sound.
Widely considered to be the first rock and roll song, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats' "Rocket 88" contains the usual double entendre-filled lyrics that many blues tunes featured (see Rockabilly's page devoted to Jackie Brenston for the complete story on the 1951 classic). Along with Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," it's easy to see why some parents were horrified by the overtly sexual words of the time.
Contrast these songs with Dickie Valentine's "Mr. Sandman" (first recorded by the Chordettes in 1954), an innocent, dreamy confection with the raciest line being "give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam." In the mid-50s, rock rapidly changed such lyrics to more accurately reflect teenage angst and sexual frustration—when Elvis sings "Come on back to me, little girl/So we can play some house," in "Baby Let's Play House" it sounds a million miles away from the wide-eyed innocence of "Mr. Sandman."
Want teenage rebellion? Classics such as Lewis' "Wild One," Richard's "Rip It Up," and the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law" still fit the bill. Blues still figured prominently in rock, as evidenced by the strangely hypnotic "I Put A Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Wanda Jackson's gritty "Hard Headed Woman," and Dale Hawkins' slow-building, shuffling "Susie Q" (Credence Clearwater Revival later famously covered this classic).
Also included on Nowhere Boy are songs that The Beatles themselves cited as key influences. Paul McCartney first auditioned for Lennon's Quarrymen by playing Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," right after witnessing the band perform The Del-Vikings' "Come Go with Me." The Beatles later covered relatively obscure R&B songs such as Lloyd Price's "Money (That's What I Want)" as well as well-known hits like Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." McCartney has frequently pointed to Buddy Holly as a major inspiration, represented here with "Peggy Sue," as well as Fats Domino. Just compare "Lady Madonna" with "Ain't That A Shame." All of these songs figure into The Beatles' music through their raw rock sound and catchy lyrics.
The actors portraying Lennon, McCartney, and George Harrison (as well as the other members of the Quarrymen) performed some songs in the film, and a few of those songs are included on the soundtrack. Their largely unpolished feel actually works well for them, as The Quarrymen began as essentially a garage band.
Billed as the Nowhere Boys, the group faithfully recreates songs from the Quarrymen's set list such as "Raunchy" (the song Harrison used to audition for the band) and "Maggie Mae," (showing the influence of "skiffle," a then-popular conglomeration of rock, folk, blues, and jazz). They even record versions of "That'll Be the Day" and "In Spite of All the Danger" (The Quarrymen's first recordings), and "Hello Little Girl," the first song Lennon and McCartney wrote together. For the original versions of these songs, including their cover of "That'll Be the Day," check out The Beatles' Anthology 1.
Interestingly, the album also includes Lennon's "Mother" from his landmark John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. The soundtrack offers an alternate take, but the song still contains Lennon's anguish and conflicting emotions concerning his parents. Since the film portrays Lennon's strained relationships with his mother and Aunt Mimi, with whom he lived, it makes sense to include the track. When he practically screams "Mama don't go/Daddy come home," the listener can still feel the pain he experienced upon losing his mother at a young age (his mother, Julia, was run over by an off-duty cop in Liverpool). Almost 40 years later, Lennon's raw vocals and piercing lyrics still send shivers down the spine.
While the Nowhere Boys covers are serviceable, it's the original 50s hits that stand out on the soundtrack. Anyone looking for an education in early rock—and to fully experience the rawness of the music—should add Nowhere Boy to their library. Some of the cuts are hard to find, and thus are conveniently compiled on this album. Don't miss the opportunity to not only learn about how The Beatles formed their music, but how 50s rock still sounds gritty and dangerous today.
For more information on Nowhere Boy, visit the film's official website.