Sunday 20 February 2011

See You Later, Alligator?

When I was growing up, histories of rock 'n' roll always started with (We're Gonna) 'Rock Around the Clock', by Bill Haley and his Comets, in the same way that accounts of the postwar British theatre always began with 'Look Back in Anger'. In both cases, the master narrative has been revised backwards, so that theatre historians now acknowledge the importance of Rattigan, Ackland and (lately) Emlyn Williams, and the default option for first rock 'n' roll record is now either Presley's 'That's Alright, Mama' or, if you want to be a real smartarse, 'Rocket 88', by Jackie Brenston and the Rhythm Cats (known to his friends, if he had any, as Ike Turner).

The analogy isn't exact - while 'Look Back in Anger' is still acknowledged, sometimes reluctantly, as a milestone, Bill Haley has disappeared from history, as surely as Paul Whiteman from histories of jazz. The teenagers I work with haven't heard of him, even his greatest hits cd refers to him, awkwardly, as 'the man who helped to bring rock 'n' roll into the mainstream', as qualified a compliment as I've heard since the time my father referred to Goering as the most likeable of the major Nazis.

'Rock Around the Clock' was recorded in two hurried takes on April 12 1954, as a b-side to 'Thirteen Women', a very strange song about the upside of a nuclear war (the song's narrator finds himself the last man alive, together with... well, you get the idea). It was a cover version, recorded by a 29 year-old hillbilly singer, already a little bit paunchy, with a spitcurl that failed to disguise a receding hairline. Like the samplers of a generation later, the band borrowed bits and pieces of other recordings - Haley sung the verse to the tune of Hank Williams' 'Move It On Over' while guitarist Danny Cedrone recycled his solo from 'Rock the Joint', recorded two years earlier.

The song became iconic when it was used over the opening credits of the juvenile delinquent film 'The Blackboard Jungle', and became the first smash hit of the rock 'n' roll era. It's often the case that the first major success of a new form comes with an example that's diluted or otherwise weakened - the same thing happened a quarter century later, when the first major hip-hop hit, Rapper's Delight', came not from the stars of the genre - Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa - but from a studio concoction called the Sugarhill Gang.

Like the Sugarhills, Haley saw his star fade quickly - in his case, eclipsed by the younger, more charismatic Elvis Presley. He carried on touring the old hits, becoming, in effect, his own tribute act, especially in Britain, where the aging teds welcomed him as the king of their personal Brigadoon. I remember him occasionally turning up on television in the 'seventies, still looking much the same - one fortunate side-effect of not being much of a sex symbol in the first place is that he never had a Presley-like decline - and being treated as one would an elderly, distant ancestor.

Haley died in 1981, four years after Presley, and too early to witness his Trotsky-like disappearance from history. It's probably just as well - after being hailed as the Messiah, it would be hard to be told that you're not even John the Baptist.

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