ROCK’S BIG BANG

1950s song with a claim to be rock ’n’ roll’s first

The New European - - News - BY SOPHIA DEBOICK

A new song stakes a claim to be the first rock ‘n’ roll sin­gle, while mu­sic else­where plays catchup. SOPHIA DEBOICK re­ports

The mood was am­biva­lent in Britain in 1951. In one sense it seemed ev­ery as­pect of life was chang­ing and strain­ing to­wards the fu­ture, but in an­other the coun­try was still in wartime mode. Tea, sugar, cheese and eggs were still on the ra­tion, and the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of House­wives As­so­ci­a­tions in­dig­nantly pre­sented a pe­ti­tion to par­lia­ment about there be­ing “barely enough meat to main­tain strength to work and en­joy leisure”.

The wartime prime min­is­ter re­turned, as Churchill re­gained power af­ter Labour called a gen­eral elec­tion in an effort to in­crease their wafer-thin ma­jor­ity. Post­war aus­ter­ity had been ex­ac­er­bated by the costs of the Korean War, and Nye Be­van re­signed as a min­is­ter in protest over the in­tro­duc­tion of a pre­scrip­tion charge for den­tal work and glasses. But Britain was mak­ing huge ef­forts to shake the dust of the war from its shoes, hold­ing a great na­tional cel­e­bra­tion and re­build­ing its towns and cities in am­bi­tious new schemes as the tex­ture of daily life be­gan to shift from pre-war black and white to tech­ni­colour. And while it was across the At­lantic that mu­si­cal in­no­va­tion could be found, a gen­er­a­tion of Bri­tish chil­dren was poised to ex­ploit it.

In his open­ing ad­dress for the Fes­ti­val of Britain on May 3, King Ge­orge said:

“In this fes­ti­val we look back with pride and for­ward with res­o­lu­tion” – this was to be a cel­e­bra­tion of past vic­to­ries as well as a vi­sion of the fu­ture. But the war hung over the pro­ceed­ings more like a shadow than a warm mem­ory of suc­cess – af­ter all, the fes­ti­val’s logo was cre­ated by Abram Games, the ge­nius de­signer of of­ten fright­en­ing wartime pub­lic in­for­ma­tion posters.

This back­ward-look­ing im­pulse was strong­est in the fes­ti­val’s mu­si­cal pro­gramme, where there was noth­ing to equal the fu­tur­is­tic ar­chi­tec­tural feats of the Sky­lon, the huge Dome of Dis­cov­ery, and Les­lie Martin’s mod­ernist Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, cen­tre­pieces of the fes­ti­val grounds that cov­ered a 27-acre area of London’s bomb-scarred South Bank. The Hall’s in­au­gu­ral con­cert fea­tured a very safe se­lec­tion of Bri­tish mu­sic, in­clud­ing El­gar, Vaughan Wil­liams and hon­orary Brit, Han­del, and a se­ries of eight con­certs of Pur­cell and per­for­mances by the London Phil­har­monic, London Sym­phony and BBC Sym­phony Or­ches­tras fol­lowed in the weeks after­wards, dur­ing which Beethoven’s Ninth signalled the kind of canon­i­cal grav­i­tas in­volved.

This clas­si­cal stodgi­ness, along with per­for­mances of early mu­sic, like the His­tor­i­cal Pageant of Bri­tish Mu­sic by the Cam­bridge Univer­sity Mu­si­cal So­ci­ety, sug­gested that mu­si­cally the Fes­ti­val was about nos­tal­gia rather than the new, and while the Arts Coun­cil did com­mis­sion works specif­i­cally for the event, few of them en­joyed any longevity.

How­ever, there was some di­ver­sity at the pe­riph­ery of the pro­gram­ming. The Peo­ple’s Fes­ti­val Ceilidh, held in Ed­in­burgh in Au­gust, aimed to put Gaelic and Scots tra­di­tional pop­u­lar cul­ture on the map, and the event would be a for­ma­tive in­flu­ence in the Scots Folk Revival and the folk-in­formed rock that fol­lowed in later decades.

Three years on from the Win­drush dock­ing at Til­bury, the per­for­mance of the Trinidad All Star Per­cus­sion Or­ches­tra as part of the Fes­ti­val pro­gramme brought at­ten­tion to ca­lypso, a genre that would be pop­u­larised five years later by Harry Be­la­fonte and that would be­come part of the palate of black mu­sic drawn on across pop and rock.

The pres­ence of West In­di­ans on Britain’s streets was just one way that life in Britain was chang­ing. Po­plar’s Lans­bury Es­tate, built as part of the Fes­ti­val of Britain as a show­case of mod­ern hous­ing, was just one such project in this time of post-war re­build­ing, and the lit­er­ally con­crete proof of the shift in Bri­tish life was the New Town.

The first wave of planned towns cre­ated un­der the New Towns Act 1946 were well un­der­way, Corby be­ing the last of the orig­i­nal se­ries to be des­ig­nated, in 1950. The first res­i­den­tial tower block in the coun­try, the 10-storey The Lawn in Har­low New Town fol­lowed in 1951 as Britain sought to put it­self at the van­guard of mod­ernist res­i­den­tial

ar­chi­tec­ture at a time when Le Cor­bus­ier’s Cité radieuse in Mar­seille, the em­bod­i­ment of his con­cept of unité d’habi­ta­tion, was then be­ing built.

With the de­but of su­per­mar­kets and ze­bra cross­ings, ubiq­ui­tous parts of the Bri­tish ur­ban land­scape were also born in this year. Food cul­ture was about to un­dergo a ma­jor revo­lu­tion, as Ge­orge Perry-smith opened Bath’s Hole in the Wall restau­rant, and the pub­li­ca­tion of both El­iz­a­beth David’s French Coun­try Cook­ing and the first edi­tion of The Good Food Guide in­di­cated that con­ti­nen­tal culi­nary prin­ci­ples would even­tu­ally eclipse the na­tive stodge. Be­tween the sur­re­al­ist anar­chy of The Goon Show, launched in May, and the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion of Britain of John Wyn­d­ham’s The Day of the Trif­fids, pop­u­lar cul­ture was chang­ing in thrilling ways.

The mod­ern mu­sic to go with these times was slow in com­ing. In Britain, trad jazz was the near­est thing to an un­der­ground mu­sic scene, and the swing sound and wildly pop­u­lar Amer­i­can male vo­cal­ists con­tin­ued to dom­i­nate the charts. Frankie Laine signed to Columbia Records and con­tin­ued his suc­cess with sul­try megahit Jezebel, a dou­ble A-side with the perky Rose, Rose, I Love You. Nat King Cole’s lus­ciously ro­man­tic Un­for­get­table and Too Young were two of the big­gest hits of the year, Tony Ben­nett’s Be­cause of You and Cold,

Cold Heart were No.1 records, while tenor Mario Lanza had a hit on record with Be My Love and one on screen with The Great Caruso, the top-gross­ing film of the year.

Such smooth sounds were only par­tially chal­lenged by the emo­tional histri­on­ics of John­nie Ray, whose maudlin de­but Cry was the most suc­cess­ful sin­gle of the year in­ter­na­tion­ally. But the sounds that would make the decade the most im­por­tant in the his­tory of pop­u­lar mu­sic were also be­ing heard.

In March, singer and sax­o­phon­ist Jackie Bren­ston and His Delta Cats – in fact Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm – recorded Rocket 88 at Sam Phillips’ Mem­phis Record­ing Ser­vice, the stu­dios that would be­come the head­quar­ters of Sun Records the fol­low­ing year. It was re­leased in April and des­tined to join the long list of con­tenders for the first rock ‘n’ roll sin­gle, shar­ing the dis­torted gui­tar of Goree Carter’s 1949 Rock Awhile, and the chug­ging bassline of ‘jump blues’ land­marks like Chris Pow­ell’s Rock the Joint (1949) and Louis Jordan’s Cal­do­nia (1945), as well as the boo­gie woo­gie pi­ano of Fats Domino’s 1950 de­but The Fat Man. But Bren­ston’s sin­gle felt like the whole pack­age, bring­ing all these el­e­ments to­gether on a song about a car – the then ubiq­ui­tous Oldsmo­bile 88 – as a metaphor for sex­ual prow­ess. Noth­ing could be more rock ‘n’ roll.

Bill Ha­ley and His Sad­dle­men may have recorded a ver­sion of Rocket 88 in June, but it had a more straight-laced feel, and the com­bined force of The Domi­noes’ not re­motely eu­phemistic Sixty Minute Man be­ing re­leased in

May, Alan Freed start­ing the first main­stream ra­dio show play­ing R&B, and Mar­lon Brando’s brood­ing turn in A Street­car Named De­sire was of deeper sig­nif­i­cance to the bur­geon­ing youth cul­ture.

Back in Britain, the at­mos­phere of po­ten­tial for change was be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced by the fu­ture in­no­va­tors of Bri­tish mu­sic at the most im­pres­sion­able age. Those who would rev­o­lu­tionise mu­sic in the 1960s and 1970s were just tiny in­fant school chil­dren, but were look­ing at the world around them with watch­ful eyes. War baby Pete Town­shend’s rock opera Tommy would play ex­ten­sively with Sec­ond World War im­agery when given a filmic treat­ment by Ken Rus­sell, and Town­shend’s song from the orig­i­nal al­bum, 1921, would be­come 1951 as a year that em­bod­ied the cau­tious op­ti­mism of Tommy’s mother, in a new re­la­tion­ship af­ter her pi­lot hus­band is ap­par­ently lost at war: “Got a feel­ing fifty one/ Is go­ing to be a good year/ Es­pe­cially if you and me/ See it out to­gether/ I have no rea­son to be over op­ti­mistic/ But some­how when you smile/ I can brave bad weather”.

Ray Davies’ mem­ory of his trip to the Fes­ti­val of Britain with his mum and dad when he was seven would in­form the im­agery of Water­loo Sun­set a decade and a half later. While the Tory govern­ment wasted no time in dis­man­tling the Fes­ti­val’s icons, the Sky­lon and the Dome of Dis­cov­ery go­ing straight to the scrap mer­chants, the sense of the myr­iad pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture that 1951 had put into the hearts of the young couldn’t be as eas­ily erased.

Pho­tos: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Im­ages

TRAIL­BLAZ­ING: Jackie Bren­ston and Ike Turner, left, per­form Rocket 88, among the con­tenders for the first rock ‘n’ roll sin­gle. Right, the Fes­ti­val of Britain guide

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