Great Balls of Fire, by Jerry Lee Lewis (his 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 10th – 24th January 1958
My usual writing process for this blog – in case you’ve ever found yourself wondering – is to preview the next song after I finish writing a post. I listen once, take notes and can thus get straight into writing when I return. Except, upon lining ‘Great Balls of Fire’ up in Spotify and pressing play, my ability to take notes suddenly disappeared. I felt frozen, tied to the tracks, zapped by a Taser… This record seriously impairs your ability to think.
And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s not that it’s dumb, or monotonous, or anything like that. It’s just an absolute blitz, an assault on the senses, a two-minute blast which takes rock ‘n’ roll up another notch. I think everyone’s pretty familiar with the opening salvo:
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, Too much love drives a man insane, You broke my will, But what a thrill, Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire…!
Jerry Lee then sets off on what is basically GBH of a piano – he stabs, he pounds, he slides his fingers down the keys (a ‘glissando’, apparently, though that sounds far too delicate a term for the noises made here). He goes from high to low seemingly at random – though obviously not ‘at random’, you know what I mean – poking and prodding away. You hope he at least bought the piano a drink afterwards.
I mentioned in my post about The Cricket’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ that we were entering a new phase in rock ‘n’ roll, one in which the kids were taking centre stage away from oldies like Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray. This record’s arrival at the top of the chart confirms it. Ol’ Johnnie may have dialled up the raunch on the wonderful ‘Such a Night’, but even that pales in comparison with ‘Great Balls…’ Lewis doesn’t just make the old pre-rock stars sound dated; this makes 1st generation rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for example, sound slow and babyish. And it is an absolute palate cleanser – the tangiest of sorbets – after the schmaltzy ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ which preceded it!
Is this a lyrically shocking record? There are a few choice lines: Kiss me baby – Mmmh, feels good…! I wants to love you like a lover should…! C’mon baby, you drive me crazy! Not truly top-shelf stuff, but we are still in January 1958. No, actually I think the most outrageous thing about this record is the piano-playing. We get to the solo and it is an all-out attack – you can really picture Lewis standing hunched over the keys, as he did so famously, thumping and sweating away. It’s great to have both a completely piano-led rock ‘n’ roll number, as 1957 was a bit guitar heavy, and to tick another ‘Legend of Rock’ off our list. ‘The Killer’ won’t be back at the top of the charts again. In fact, he would only return to the UK Top Ten on two occasions following this. His career stuttered when he married his thirteen-year-old cousin (marrying thirteen-year-olds will do that to a career…), but he is still a-hoppin and a-bobbin to this day, aged eighty-two.
Unlike Elvis and Buddy Holly, Lewis is not someone whose back-catalogue I’m terribly familiar with. I first truly became aware of ‘Great Balls of Fire’, as most people of my age surely did, through that scene from ‘Top Gun’ (Take me to bed or lose me forever!). Though I actually danced on stage to a ‘version’ of this song in a school play long before that – when I was but ten years old. The song was really a pastiche of loads of different rock ‘n’ roll standards, called ‘Surfin’ The Web’, but I’m sure I remember the line: ‘You shake my mouse and you rattle my keys…’ (It was the mid-nineties, when computers were still enough of a novelty that you could write comedic songs about them). I played a character called Rocky Rom: a doll competing against lots of other dolls for a boy’s attention. Rocky was a total brat, but he was the toy du jour, and quite confident of getting chosen. He didn’t, obviously. A tatty old teddy bear with one eye got the pick – it’s who you are inside that counts, kids.
A song truly has entered the public consciousness, you’d have to say, when it’s getting ripped off for primary school plays forty-odd years later.