Hurple Hoopla

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Oldies That ROCK!

Maybe I was born too late. Maybe I just love studying the past, I'm also very much into archeology. Maybe it's just that early rock 'n' roll sounded (and still does) so fresh and invigorating. These were artists doing something new, and they knew it. The songs always felt ready to explode from the sheer energy contained within, it was like the artist was holding back uncontrolled chaos instead of throwing every ounce of energy he had into the performance. The music was new, it was exciting. There were no corporations putting together bands of pre-teen pretty boys and then giving them music lessons, there were no artists taking other artists' already-recorded tracks, cutting them up and re-arranging them into new songs. It was real people with minimal instrumentation cutting tracks, essentially live in the recording studio. And these are the best of those:

(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock - Bill Haley & His Comets

Of course, this one is on this list. Not the first rock 'n' roll record ever recorded, as some historians will try to tell you, but by far the best of the pre-Elvis rock 'n' roll songs. Bill Haley started his career playing cowboy music, then moved on to big band swing, later deciding to make an attempt at standing out from the crowd by performing rhythm & blues in that format. This was his third song mixing all those styles, the others being Shake, Rattle And Roll and See You Later Alligator, both also worthy of being included in this list.

Ain't It A Shame - Fats Domino

This was a hard choice. I wanted to limit the songs on this list to just one per artist, but Fats Domino was way too good to limit to just one. This song was picked over I'm Walkin', I'm In Love Again, Whole Lotta Loving, and of course Blueberry Hill. The seminal New Orleans rock 'n' roller, Domino's sound was energetic and infectious. You cannot listen to his music without fighting the urge to get up and dance. This is the one song from Domino that has probably outlasted all others, due in part to amazing covers by Paul McCartney and Cheap Trick, among many, many others.

C'mon Everybody - Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran is the forgotten great of rock 'n' roll. He wrote great songs, and played guitar better than almost anybody (we'll get to the one early rocker who was better than him later), but now, if not for The Who, Brian Setzer and Paul McCartney covering some of his best songs, he'd be completely forgotten. With all the legends and myths surrounding the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, the car crash that killed Cochran and left Gene Vincent unable to record anymore has been overlooked, and that's a shame. This song is one of Cochran's best, and it is the perfect representative of his style, twangy guitar, driving beat and stilted vocals.

Maybellene - Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry's personal habits aside, he is truly the father of rock 'n' roll. He invented the guitar licks, he developed the lyric style, he created the look, and he defined the style. This was his first attempt, and it's the moment rock 'n' roll was born as its own style. All the pieces were already in place, all it needed was a kick-start, which this song provided. After this song, the floodgates were opened. As for the song itself, it flat out rocks. There is so much energy in its two minutes that it feels like it ends before it even begins.

Be Bop A Lula - Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps

Restraint. This song, like most everything Vincent recorded, sounds like it wants to explode. Energy is coursing through this song, it pushes to break free, it wants to run wild, and, except for a few controlled screams in the background, Vincent fights to keep it under control. You can hear the strain in his voice. A few times it seems like the song might get away from him, but always Vincent pulls it back under his control. An Amazing performance. If you don't like this song, you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Blue Suede Shoes - Carl Perkins

And here is the one early rock 'n' roller who played better guitar than Eddie Cochran. This was also the toughest choice for inclusion on this list. Carl Perkins had to be on the list somewhere, but his songs were the strongest overall of anybody's. This is his best-known song, mainly recognized for an inferior cover by Elvis Presley. Perkins' version is better in every way. This song was selected over Honey Don't, Boppin' The Blues, Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby, Matchbox, Glad All Over and Gone, Gone, Gone.

Tutti Frutti - Little Richard

Well, at this point I'm thinking that my self-imposed rule limiting myself to one song per artist was a mistake. This song is pure energy. Above I discussed Gene Vincent holding back the frantic energy that wanted to explode from Be Bop A Lula, Little Richard has no such concerns. He let's everything go on this song. He's singing is so frantic that he can't get all the words out without them stumbling all over each other. The band has a hard time keeping up with his pace, but somehow they do. This is a two-minute explosion, and it's all good. This song chosen over Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, Lucille and Good Golly Miss Molly.

Peggy Sue - Buddy Holly

Naturally, Buddy Holly has to be somewhere in this list. Modern rock started here. Buddy Holly was the first wholly self-contained artist. He wrote the songs, he played great guitar, he experimented, and he even produced alot of his later material. Now, everybody does all that, in rock's early years, nobody did, except Holly. He was a true visionary. Another frantic song, Peggy Sue is constant momentum. The drumming drives this track. The song sounds like somebody running. And well it should, since the singer is declaring his love for his best friend's girl. Other Holly songs that almost made the cut, That'll Be the Day, Not Fade Away, Oh Boy!, Maybe Baby, Rave On and Well, All Right.

Blue Moon of Kentucky - Elvis Presley

Why this Presley song over everything else? Simple. This was recorded before he was restrained by RCA, and it's Elvis doing what he did best, reinterpreting other people's material. In this case, and old bluegrass tune is turned into a blistering rock number. Elvis's voice pushes the tune into overdrive. This song had never been speeded up like this prior to this recording. It's never been slowed back down since in any subsequent recordings. Other great pre-RCA Elvis recordings are That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight and Mystery Train.

The Train Kept A-Rollin' - The Johnny Burnette Trio

Johnny Burnette is better known for his sixties turn as a pop crooner. This is one of his early recordings. If you haven't heard it, it cannot be described in adequate detail. It sounds like a train wreck. And in this case, that's a good thing.

La Bamba - Ritchie Valens

With this song Valens does the same thing Elvis was good at doing. He takes an old standard and re-interprets it as a blistering rock 'n' roll number. The twin guitar attack of this song is blistering. At points the two instruments diverge into separate patterns. Over the bubbling bed of music Valens shouts the lyrics, just trying to be heard over the noise. He does not always do a good job. The song is better because of it.

Who Do You Love - Bo Diddley

"I use a cobra snake for a necktie," "I got a brand new chimney on top, made out of a human skull," "tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / just 22 and I don't mind dying." Any questions?

Great Balls of Fire - Jerry Lee Lewis

If there are any questions about whether or not piano is a percussion instrument, listen to this song. The way Lewis attacks his keyboard, he must think he's a drummer. The lyrics are just there to be outrageous, ribald and risqué. They succeed on all counts. This song picked over Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On.

Last Word

At just 37, I am way too young to have been around for the first appearance of any of the songs above. My love for music and history combined to make me want to search where the sounds I heard on the radio came from. The list above is a minor part of that history. When all is said and done, those songs represent not only he birth of a new musical genre, but also the best of that genre. Anybody that says that the music is no good because it's old is flat-out wrong. Age does not determine greatness, but neither does it deny it. If you're ever planning a 50's party make sure the above songs are on your tape and it's guaranteed to be a success.


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