In 1955 Bill Haley and His Comets were number one with "Rock around the Clock," and it was the sound the young had been waiting for. It was the first record to have -- all in one place -- a lyric about all-night partying, a thrilling guitar solo, and a rock-solid beat, with its drums way up in the mix. What's more, its success was on an international scale, and this is why it crossed a generational threshold, ushering in the rock 'n' roll era.
The beauty of rock 'n' roll was not just its newness but its gleeful awareness of its newness, wiping out the repression of the postwar decade. It wasn't as if the old guard didn't put up a fight, but once the door was opened, once "Rock around the Clock" hit number one in America and Britain in 1955, the heart of pop beat differently. At least fifty percent of the genre's biggest hits could conceivably be filed under novelty: Buddy Holly's hiccup, Little Richard's shrieks, Elvis' pelvic thrusts, gimmicks all over, go ape crazy -- everything was now permissible as long as it created the most stupidly, gloriously distorted noise.
Whether the sounds were created by genuine madmen or were manufactured mayhem was irrelevant; the rock 'n' roll aesthetic was antiboredom. Suddenly, noise and overexcitement became values rather than marks of low quality. It was here and gone in a flash -- hardly more than two years between initial explosion and self-parody. When later generations coined the term "rock 'n' roll lifestyle" for leather-jacket-wearing, TV-smashing, Jack Daniels-swilling, smacked-out oblivion, they did the innovators a bad disservice: first-wave rock 'n' roll was fast-moving, fun, disposable, and defiantly youthful, no time for cliché. There is more rock 'n' roll in the three minutes of passionate dishevelment in Barbara Pitman's "I Need a Man" than the combined catalogues of Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe.
The codes that have riddled modern pop since the rock 'n' roll explosion -- rock versus pop, underground versus Top 40 -- were some way off in the mid-fifies. Almost nobody aside from radio DJs was collecting records or filling in catalogue numbers. Ideologues weren't yet squabbling over Ricky Nelson or Buddy Holly or Johnny Burnette's place in the rock pantheon because nobody was talking about a rock pantheon.
In the twenty-first century Bill Haley is rarely included in any critic's list of prime movers, which is sad and a little ridiculous. Whichever way you slice it, he was at the front of the line. Haley invented rock 'n' roll. No one had blended country and R&B before Haley wrote and recorded "Rock the Joint"; no one hit the Billboard Top 20 with something that could be safely labeled rock 'n' roll before "Crazy Man Crazy"; and no one scored a rocking number one before "Rock around the Clock" turned the music world upside down.
American youth had been searching for their own musical identity, and it was clear that minor variations on the big-band music their parents had danced to were unsatisfactory. Equally clearly, the opening sequence of the 1955 movie "Blackboard Jungle" was just what they needed: juvenile delinquents take over a school and symbolically smash a teacher's collection of jazz 78s into little pieces, to the soundtrack of "Rock around the Clock."
In America, a potential musical revolution had been flagged as far back as 1951, when Leo Fender sold his first electric bass guitar, and early adopters -- like Shifty Henry of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five and the Lionel Hampton band's Roy Johnson -- began to change the dynamics of R&B and jazz. But in 1955 Britain, the metallic backbeat of "Rock around the Clock," the walking bassline and the perceptible change in volume would have seemed to have come from nowhere, a total shock to the system; it unleashed a whirlwind of media attention as cinema seats were slashed by Teddy boys across Britain.
The film's progressive and controversial take on racial integration was enough to get "Blackboard Jungle" widely banned in the States, and the Eisenhower administration kept it from being shown at the Venice Film Festival. "Rock around the Clock" and "Blackboard Jungle's" two-pronged assault effectively compacted white teenage self-assertion and black political justice; on one side an adolescent matter, on the other very much not. This coming together, symbolized in Haley's single, was a very big deal -- for the times and for modern pop. It transformed a raucous hit record and a pop moment into something teenagers of the fifties could look back on later with more than just nostalgia, something all young people could take retrospective pride in. By the first week of July 1955 government edicts counted for nothing -- "Rock around the Clock" was America's number one single.
Excerpted from "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé" by Bob Stanley. Copyright © 2014, 2013 by Bob Stanley. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.