Bill Haley’s foundational
role in American popular music is often overlooked.
You’ve seen this one before: the kids are at a nightclub or a soda shop, or maybe in a gymnasium. They’re dancing, energetically and all-smiles, to beat-heavy music. Adults are present as well—parents or teachers, usually, but they could be rich, stuffy old men in tuxedos and monocles. They are not smiling. Indeed, they are shocked and offended by kids these days—by their footloose dancing and wild, loud music most of all. Then, unexpectedly, one of the oldsters begins to smile, to tap a foot, and then to dance goofily in place, seemingly powerless before this new and forbidden fun. This lasts only a moment, though: pruned stares and I-nevers swiftly marshal the offender back to his or her staid station. Sometimes, peer pressure isn’t even necessary. The dancing adults simply regain self-consciousness—what’s wrong with me?—before furtively glancing about to confirm that no one saw them acting the fool.
This scene, witnessed countless times in movies and on television and maybe even now and then in real life, enacts the way that fresh freedom sneaks up on us, tumbling out of us spontaneously, like laughter, moving us strangely but joyously to rhythms and melodies we’ve never known. The music that inspires these scenes is almost always rock and roll, or one of its descendants, and the responses to its appeal, whether youthful enthusiasm or stodgy but humorously framed hostility, embody the erosion of resistance to new worlds. Moving to the beat, our bodies briefly become these worlds. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” the funk master George Clinton insisted (as did, later, En Vogue). But such emblematic rock-and-roll set pieces know that freedom emerges the other way around at least as often—and that its great leaps forward are often followed by prudent retreats.
A similarly decorum-smashing interlude occurred on the radio sixty years ago this month: “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, 1955’s song of the summer, became the first rock-and-roll record to top the Billboard “Best Sellers” pop chart (in the two weeks following, it also topped the magazine’s “Most Played on Jukeboxes” and “Most Played by Jockeys” charts). The first half of 1955 had seen chart-toppers typical of the post-Second World War, pre-rock-and-roll era: the McGuire Sisters’ ”Sincerely” and the Fontane Sisters’ ”Hearts of Stone,” sped-up but otherwise entirely Your Hit Parade-styled versions of R. & B. hits from, respectively, the Moonglows and the Charms; Perez Prado’s cool and sexy “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White),” a cha-cha instrumental that would go down as the year’s biggest chart hit; and Bill Hayes’s slight but enduringly catchy novelty “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Each of these recordings was charming and fun, in its own familiar fashion.
Then, unexpectedly: “One, two, THREE o’clock, four o’clock ROCK.” Tension is built as drums smash and the countdown proceeds. Tension is released when a light-on-its feet but herd-driving swing rhythm takes over. Haley, an extraordinarily ordinary-voiced singer, is telling his girl to put her “glad rags on,” they’re going to rock through the night to a crazy new sound. This sound. The Comet Danny Cedrone plays a hypertensive electric-guitar solo that squeals and vibrates and is pure, beautiful noise. Joey D’Ambrosio, on saxophone, blats his simple line on repeat as if he’s only this moment learned to play. Everything—the chanted lyric, the acoustic guitar, the slapped bass, the skittering drums, and (a reminder of the group’s country-and-Western origins) the “lightning strike” pedal-steel guitar—are all about the beat, the beat, the beat. Like nothing else on pop radio, Haley’s call to his girl is experienced collectively, a generation’s imperative to move.
Mystery Scene Back Issue #140,
Summer 2015 (Canada)