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50 years later, still rockin' around the clock

The first No. 1 single of the rock ‘n’ roll era, 'Rock Around the Clock' was recorded 50 years ago this month. How strange and fitting that a song about the ability of music to defy the passage of time would have done just that for five decades. By Eric Olsen
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

When the clock strikes 12, we’ll cool off then,
Start a rockin’ round the clock again.
— “Rock Around the Clock”, Bill Haley and the Comets

The first No. 1 single of the rock ‘n’ roll era was recorded 50 years ago this month. Fifty years between the volcanic eruption of youth culture triggered by Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” and the appearance of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” in Cadillac commercials — 50 years between the rebellious threat of the “devil’s music” to the social order, and an ad for the most sacred symbol of the establishment. Along the way rock ‘n’ roll became the soundtrack to our lives, music that mutated from rebellion to lifestyle accessory, a constant reaffirmation of a culture’s refusal to leave youth to the young, our refusal — to paraphrase Pete Townshend — to die or to get old. How strange and fitting that a song about the ability of music to defy the passage of time would have done just that for five decades.

Haley, his clock and “The Blackboard Jungle”
Before Elvis, Chuck, Little Richard and Jerry Lee, there was Big Bill. Bill Haley has sometimes been hailed as the father of rock ‘n’ roll, but more often denigrated as a fortunate hack who stumbled along at the right time onto something he couldn’t begin to understand. Both are partly true.

There is no question Haley, born in Michigan in 1925, instinctively noticed the tide turning among the kids from country to R&B as he toured the heartland in the late-'40s and early-'50s, and he put two-and-two together as early as anyone, recording country/R&B hybrid “Rock This Joint” with his band the Saddlemen in 1952. That pairing of country and R&B was the musical and cultural essence of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1953, Haley’s own composition “Crazy Man, Crazy” was the first rock ‘n’ roll song to make the pop chart — a chart dominated at the time by the sugary mainstream pop of Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Doris Day and Patti Page — so he was tuned in to something authentic and different.

But there is also no question that Haley didn’t have a clue as to the cultural significance of all this: he wasn’t a rebellious kid, he was a professional musician who had been at it for years, who had a wife and five children to support. Music was his job and if those crazy kids wanted to hear something wild, he was happy to play it for them.

“Rock Around the Clock” was written by Max Freedman and Jimmy DeKnight (James Myers) expressly for Haley, and recorded by Haley and his Comets for Decca Records on April 12, 1954 at New York City’s Pythian Temple with Milt Gabler producing. At that point, the legendary Gabler had been making records for 30 years with the likes of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, Peggy Lee, the Weavers and R&B star Louis Jordan.

Gabler used techniques developed while recording with Jordan at the Pythian on Haley, including the room’s natural reverb. “At the Pythian you could really blow because there was this big high ceiling, we had drapes hanging from the balconies, and a live wooden floor,” he told author Ted Fox.

“That thing rocked!” he continued. “We had the guy slap the bass, and the drummer, Billy Gussak, used a heavy back beat with the rim … Then I had Billy Williamson, the steel guitar player, hit what I called lightning flashes, where he’d take the steel bar and hit it across the strings of the steel guitar and make it arc. It’d make POW! POW!” Gabler enthused. “I’d say, ‘Give me some of those lightning flashes, Billy!’” and flash Billy did. That, combined with Haley’s vibrant, magnetic vocal, punchy support riffs by the guitars and sax throughout the song, and the classic, astonishingly fast and clean guitar solo by Danny Cedrone (who tragically died in a fall down a flight of stairs just months after the recording) created a masterpiece.

Even though everyone involved was pumped about “Rock Around the Clock,” Gabler played it safe and released the other song they recorded that day, a straightforward R&B number called “Thirteen Women,” as the A-side of the single, and it was only a minor hit, selling around 75,000 copies.

Then fate intervened. Richard Brooks, the director of a shocking new movie called “Blackboard Jungle” was looking for a theme song to reflect the spirit of the film. Peter Ford, the son of “Blackboard Jungle” star Glenn Ford, had “Rock Around the Clock” on his turntable when Brooks came by the house one day for a visit and Brooks found his “spirit.” The song was added to the opening credits and when the film opened in March 1955 the rock ‘n’ roll era erupted. “Rock Around the Clock” was quickly reissued as an A-side, shot to No. 1, and went on to sell over 20 million copies.

What happened? With World War II out of the way and American life more calm, secure and prosperous than it had ever been, kids had time, money and mobility on their hands and they were looking for something that spoke to them and their raging hormones. They were burnt out on their parents’ music, their parents’ rules, they were itching bust loose. “Blackboard Jungle” connected youthful rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll into one volatile package and all that pent up energy spewed forth with uncontrollable fury. There was dancing and even rioting in the aisles of movie theaters — the kids had found their outlet and it moved to a rock ‘n’ roll beat.

Haley was quickly overcome by those who actually were young, not just playing for the young, those who connected with the audience on the hormone/rebellion level such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and an “old man” much more sly than Haley, Chuck Berry.

Adults get hip
The establishment countered with “safe” imitators like Pat Boone and scrubbed teen idols like Fabian, and the kids countered by creating elaborate dance steps to bring energy and youthful exclusivity back into the music. Songs dedicated to dance styles flourished. Backed by Dick Clark and pumped on his “American Bandstand,” by September of 1960 Chubby Checker and “The Twist” (written by Hank Ballard) hit No. 1 on the charts.

But nothing is more dead than a peaked teen fad, and soon the kids were moving on to new dances like the Mashed Potato, the Fly, the Slop, and eventually, the Swim, which in its turn, swam.

In the middle of this Darwinian process something weird happened: the glitterati discovered the droll pleasures of the Twist via chic spots like the Peppermint Lounge in NYC, and adult America took notice:

“Bobby, can I borrow this ‘Twist’ record, just for educational purposes, there’s some place in New York where all of the fashionable people are dancing to it.”

“It’s called the Peppermint Lounge, Mom, and it’s for old, stuck up, rich squares who don’t know Gene Vincent from Gene Pitney, and now suddenly they’re hip.”

“Don’t get fresh, Bobby. Who pays for all those trashy records you listen to? We do that’s who, and if I want to hear one of those records — for educational purposes — you could have the decency to loan it to me without the lip.”

“Okay, Mom, but don’t hurt yourself.”

Cameo Records re-released the single — Bobby’s mom and everyone else’s mom went out and bought it, and “The Twist” was No. 1 again by the end of '61. Parents twisted, hurt themselves, got all excited and said, “Hey, rock ‘n’ roll is fun, it isn’t the devil’s music — necessarily.” “The Twist” — and that nice Chubby Checker — brought rock ‘n’ roll to the adult world. The rebellious aspect of rock ‘n’ roll seemed a thing of the past. A couple years later even the Queen of England liked the Beatles. What next?

Vietnam divides
The Vietnam War restoked the boilers of rebellion and again rock ‘n’ roll was its voice: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and hippies up in San Francisco like the Jefferson Airplane made the music crazy and dangerous again. As pointless and destructive as the war came to seem to the young and their sympathizers, war still held its old meaning as a patriotic rallying point and civic duty to their parents and grandparents.

Dancing to the twist was one thing, but this was important. War still meant WWII, or WWI: wars that required national unity merely to be survived. War was us (good) vs. them (bad). Nothing else mattered. Vietnam divided the “normal” war dialectic of “us” vs. “them,” into a triad of “us” (“America, love it or leave it”) vs. “us” (“Hell no, we won’t go”) vs. “them.” The war created hopelessly confused loyalties and antagonisms between the parties as the “establishment” fought tooth and nail to retain its hegemony.

May 4, 1970, the day four young people died at Kent State University during an anti-war protest was the day youth culture ascended to dominance in the United States, as most of adult Americans were shocked into the realization that generational conflict was not worth the death of their sons and daughters on their own soil. Another factor in the process what that by 1970 a teenager rioting in the aisles at a 1955 showing of “The Blackboard Jungle” was 30 years old and in many cases still determined to never “grow old” or to identify with “them.” Adult culture — the “Greatest Generation” who had fought and won WWII — basically threw in the towel that day because it no longer wanted to fight its own children.

Watergate seemed to certify the corruption and bankruptcy of the “old guard” and herald the moral superiority of the new. “Trust no one over 30” lost its literal meaning as an entire generation determined to always “think young.” The process begun by the electrifying downbeat of “Rock Around the Clock” was complete by the early-'70s.

Rock ‘n’ roll and its derivatives have been the music of the nation ever since as the Baby Boomer and subsequent generations have aged in body but retained a youthful outlook and culture, insisting that the Fountain of Youth resides within each of us, that humans can remain young and joyous and fresh throughout their lives and never grow old until they die — even in Cadillac commercials.

Eric Olsen is the editor of and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.