This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of "Rock Around the Clock," the closest approximation we have to the birth of rock 'n' roll. Rock didn't die before it got old, but its meaning has changed. My musings on MSNBC.com on the topic:
- When the clock strikes twelve, we'll cool off then,
Start a rockin' round the clock again.
("Rock Around the Clock")
The first number one single of the rock 'n' roll era was recorded fifty years ago this month. Fifty years between the volcanic eruption of youth culture triggered by Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," and the appearance of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" in Cadillac commercials - fifty years between the rebellious threat of the "devil's music" to the social order, and an ad for the most sacred symbol of the establishment. Along the way rock 'n' roll became the soundtrack to our lives, music that mutated from rebellion to lifestyle accessory, a constant reaffirmation of a culture's refusal to leave youth to the young, our refusal — to paraphrase Pete Townshend — to die OR to get old. How strange and fitting that a song about the ability of music to defy the passage of time would have done just that for five decades.
Haley, His Clock and "The Blackboard Jungle"
Before Elvis, Chuck, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee, there was Big Bill. Bill Haley has sometimes been hailed as the father of rock 'n' roll, but more often denigrated as a fortunate hack who stumbled along at the right time onto something he couldn't begin to understand. Both are partly true.
There is no question Haley, born in Michigan in 1925, instinctively noticed the tide turning among the kids from country to R&B as he toured the heartland in the late-'40s and early-'50s, and he put two-and-two together as early as anyone, recording country/R&B hybrid "Rock This Joint" with his band the Saddlemen in 1952. That pairing of country and R&B was the musical and cultural essence of rock 'n' roll. In '53, Haley's own composition "Crazy Man, Crazy" was the first rock 'n' roll song to make the pop chart — a chart dominated at the time by the sugary mainstream pop of Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Doris Day, and Patti Page — so he was tuned in to something authentic and different.