We’re dealing with a pretty important single this time around, folks. This is the kind of stuff that I am the most excited to explore: the game-changers, the revolutionaries, the stuff which, had they never existed, we’d be looking at a whole different musical playing field entirely. Not too bad for a single clocking in at just a few seconds over two minutes, probably the shortest song I’ve ever had to cover on this site thus far.
But is the record really all that unique? It’s often considered by many to be the very first successful rock ‘n’ roll single – but this is far from the truth, and there are numerous examples to counteract this claim. I would even go as far as to say that it isn’t even the first rock song to hit #1, as Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version of “How High the Moon”, with its prominent sliding electric guitar, hit the top spot way back in 1951. Nonetheless, the impact it left on the country (and soon the world) was unprecedented. I was surprised to find that the record was actually a bit of a commercial flop upon its initial release in May 1954, until it was used for the film Blackboard Jungle nearly a year later. While the film itself is innovative for its usage of a rock-n-roll-based soundtrack overall (as well as introducing Sidney Poitier to the world), “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” immediately made it impact as it marketed majorly toward teenagers. Reports had been made of young viewers dancing in theater halls while the song played over the opening credits; later on, more reports were made of violence and vandalism that tended to blame the song for its influence on teen behaviors.
In any case, the surge in “Rock Around the Clock”‘s popularity specifically among this demographic helped it to reach number-one on Billboard’s pop charts for eight weeks. Perhaps the biggest achievement of this feat is that it confirmed that rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay – at least for as long as the industry can continue to successfully peddle it to the growing market of teenagers with raging hormones and disposable cash. Moreover, it is widely considered the one song that helped the most to bring rock ‘n’ roll into the mainstream, to the joy of music appreciators (and the chagrin of the conservative kinds) everywhere. Sadly, the band were never quite able to duplicate their success, and although they had a few more top ten and top twenty hits since, “Rock Around the Clock” remained their one glimmering success, all the way up to Bill Haley’s death in 1981. Nonetheless, for a brief amount of time, the world belonged to Bill Haley and His Comets.
Personally speaking, the history of this particular single may be a tad more interesting than the record itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly fine song and certainly a catchy one! The melody is one for the ages, though music historians may note that it very much resembles that of Hank Williams’s 1947 hit “Move It On Over”. Still, it takes the traditional 12-bar blues format, speeds it up, and revamps it into something much more suitable for dancing to, which is pretty admirable alone. Honestly, my favorite aspects of this record are twofold: the strum-along standup bass that really appeal to the inner early rockabilly lover in me, and the sax solo that comes about halfway in to really amp up the energy that is already in some pretty ecstatic territory.
The lyrics also aren’t anything to marvel at, although their simplicity is a bit of an unsung relic of a much more naive time. The count-off at the start is certainly iconic, with Haley’s count from one to twelve immediately connecting the aforementioned 12-bar format with the overarching message of dancing and “rocking” amidst the passing of time. Since it’s assumed that the subjects of the song are partying for several hours, it’s certainly not surprising to hear of the anxieties that many parents must have felt about the effect such a powerful message emitted through catchy notes and grooves would have 0n their children. Throw in the unspoken connotations of sex that are often said to be coded in many of these lyrics (“When the clock strikes twelve, we’ll cool off then / Start rockin’ ’round the clock again”) and you’ve got a recipe for revolution – rock ‘n’ roll revolution, that is.
Now, it should be emphasized that “Rock Around the Clock” was hardly ever the first in anything. Rock ‘n’ roll had existed for years prior to this single in the form of blues and R&B, and the breed of the genre that this single helped to popularize is the kind that was the most palatable for white audiences. Without Bill Haley’s success, we wouldn’t have had the greater successes of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone a few years later… who certainly did their fair share in appropriating black folks’ music to immense monetary compensation. I say this with the utmost of respect, though. Although I’ve never quite loved the song as much as many do (and for that, I blame my having not watched American Graffiti nor Happy Days until much later in my life), the immediacy of its “pop staple” status is nothing if not impressive. Nonetheless, it’s immensely vital to always be aware of the fact that many of these early rock ‘n’ roll classics were built off the backs of so many other innovators, many of which were never adequately represented on any sales charts. Just be glad that the knowledge of this history gives us all the privilege to look back and consume our media that much more responsibly.
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