(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and His Comets (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 25th November to 16th December 1955 / 2 weeks, from 6th to 20th January 1956 (5 weeks total)
This is it. Strap yourselves in! A new era begins right… Now!
1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock! 5, 6, 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock rock! 9, 10…
You know how it goes. Everyone does! Put your gladrags on, join me hon’…
It is undoubtedly ‘rockier’ than anything that’s gone before. Earlier chart toppers have featured guitars and drums – I’ve been surprised by just how many – but none have used the instruments in this way. The guitars stab at the listener, the double bass twangs and the drums bang out a very frisky rhythm. There are lyrics about dancing (more than just dancing…?) and never going to bed, while there’s also a pretty aggressive saxophone solo.
There are two things to consider here, both of which affect how I approach this seminal record. To my cynical modern ears, first of all, it sounds pretty tame, a bit of a nursery-rhyme, a bit babyish. Sixty-three years have done a lot to blunt its edge. Much in the same way that nobody in 2018 is going to be truly disturbed while watching ‘Psycho’, or truly terrified by ‘The Exorcist’, nobody is quite going to get the visceral thrill that this record must have provided when bored sixteen year olds across the land lowered the needle and heard that gunshot-drum intro.
Of course, ploughing my way through the thirty-eight earlier #1s, through the David Whitfields, the Eddie Calverts and the Vera Lynns, has undoubtedly helped this record to stand out. I can understand why this would have been thrilling to the kids and alarming to their parents. I can picture Aunt Marjorie clutching at her pearls. I get why it was so big; why it was the UK’s 1st million-selling record.
But. Yes, now for the ‘buts’… There’s the well-trodden argument that ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in this form was already just weak R&B, diluted for a white audience. And Bill Haley wasn’t exactly a shock-rocker. He was in his thirties by the time ‘Rock Around the Clock’ became a hit – plump and very white, with a weird-looking curl of hair stuck to his forehead. The rest of his Comets were similarly plain.
Plus, there’s the fact that this wasn’t a new song, at least not by the time it hit #1. It had been released almost a year earlier, hitting the lower reaches of the chart. Then it was re-promoted and crawled its way to the top, taking longer than any of this year’s other chart-toppers to get there. It certainly didn’t arrive at the top out of nowhere. And, it goes without saying, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll hit single. Number one singles don’t tell the whole story of the charts.
And, just to cap off my attempt to single-handedly destroy the reputation of this much-admired record, I’ve always thought The Comet’s follow-up single, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was much heavier, much more in the true spirit of ROCK (fists clenched!) with it’s misogynistic references to women, it’s sax-slash-guitar riff, and its genuinely raunchy lyrics: I’m a one-eyed cat, creepin’ in a seafood store (a very abstract innuendo, but think about it…) It was a cover of an even more raucous rhythm and blues hit, but only reached #4. Compare and contrast here.
So, in summary, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll record, or even the first hit rock ‘n’ roll record. It wasn’t the first release of the song, it hit the top in the UK nearly two years after it’s first recording, and Bill Haley recorded better, heavier rock songs. But… But, but, but. This is the one that everyone remembers. The times they were a-changing. Something has to represent this new musical wave, this spirit of teen rebellion, and this record is it. At least until Elvis comes along.
One final note. Back in the mid-nineties, when I had a short-lived attempt at learning the keyboard, this was one of the very first songs I could play. At least, I could play the intro. Just about. And this, perhaps more than anything, signals that we are in new territory here. I wasn’t learning ‘I Believe’, or ‘Rose Marie’. And yes, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is a stupidly easy song to play – the intro is the same note played nine times in a row – but it is also a song that everyone knows. The mist is clearing, we are emerging from the pre-rock swamp, and an increasing number of these #1 singles are going to be songs that I, you, people, know.