Did rock and roll begin when Elvis Presley released his first record, a thrilling, evocative ride called "That's All Right, Mama" way back in 1954? Or did this most spectacular and elusive of genres not really arrive until ten years later, during that magical stretch of time between the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and the Stone's epic "Satisfaction"? Some will argue that rock and roll began with the genius of one Ike Turner and his band's epoch-making single, "Rocket 88". Others trace and blur the origins of this most purely American music back to the iconoclastic attitude and songwriting of Hank Williams. In perhaps the most daring feat of musical academia, Nick Tosches has even gone so far as to suggest that rock and roll began a long time ago in the world of the minstrel show, with the famed Emmett Miller.
Wondering when rock and roll began is almost as fruitless an enterprise as speculating whether or not it has died. So it was with a little bit of skepticism that I approached the "Rock 'N' Roll 50th Anniversary Edition" of Bill Haley and His Comets' classic Rock Around the Clock. And, oh, was that skepticism in vain. For as soon as this tidy little remastered disc slipped into my CD player, all those barely academic questions became immediately irrelevant: whatever you choose to call it, the music on Rock Around the Clock is nothing short of pure magic.
"Boogie" seems to be what Bill Haley wanted to call it at the time. His magical sound of thumping backbeat, of driving acoustic bass lines, and of tenor saxophone dueling it out with tremolo guitars is referred to as "Boogie" in the title of one third of the original album's 12 tracks. But genre seemed to be of little import to Haley in any fashion other than using its terminology to get his foot in the proverbial door of the listener's ear: why else would he refer to particularly un-Latin music as "Mambo Rock", or name his "Two Hound Dogs" rhythm and blues, respectively? In truth, while Haley's sound, or more properly, the Comets', is incredibly fresh even after 50 years, it does owe a great deal to the swing and jump tradition that made stars out of Louis Prima and the all-time great, Louis Jordan -- it comes as no surprise that Haley's rise to fame was coincidental with his hiring of A&R man Milt Gabler, handler of Jordan's career and fame. The call-and-response, the descending guitar slide accents, and the omnipresent wailing sax are direct descendants of the Tympani 5.
At first, you might suspect that Rock Around the Clock is little more than an album-length single, a product for which the 1950s is most famous. But by the time you're done rocking around the clock, have finished with your "Shake, Rattle, and Roll", and have learned your "A.B.C. Boogie" is when the band just starts cooking. For as much as all three of those songs are rightful classics, indelibly inscribed in America's cultural canon, Rock around the Clock real genius sets once you get past the singles. Track four is the hilarious H-bomb dream/nightmare, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in town)", a scene so hilarious that it makes Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues" seem pale in comparison. Seriously.
"Razzle-Dazzle" does just that, while the aforementioned "Two Hound Dogs" keep the party going. Sure, there's a little crass consumerism here on Haley's part -- cashing in on the evident and inexplicable mambo craze by calling a jump song "Mambo Rock" or explaining to us all the "Birth of the Boogie" -- but what else would you expect with an album released a year after the success of its eponymous lead single? While the songs lack the self-awareness and detached irony that came to pervade rock and roll with the advent of the British invasion, the honesty and humor of the songs is undeniably fun. Your foot can't stop tapping, your head can stop from bobbing, and your fingers will demand to snap with a forceful belligerence. Rock around the Clock is an album that writes its own epitaph: the closing track, "Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie" most appropriately opens with the perfect self-description of its record's contents: "You take a rock / You take a beat / You take a boogie / You make it sweet".
Perhaps the main reasons for the sheer exuberance that goes by the name Rock Around the Clock has a little less to do with Bill Haley and owes a little more to "his" Comets. In odd fashion for a rock and roller, Haley pronounces every single syllable of every single word he sings with an actor's learned precision; he never misses a single "O'" in all of his myriad "O'clock"s. It's actually a bit of a distraction to hear a frontman laboring so intently to cross every verbal "t" and dot every oral "i". But if this nowadays bizarre practice is overlooked as a quaint archaism, it's nonetheless quickly forgotten because of the band. At its core is bassist Marshall Lytle, who takes four different drummers on perfect rhythmic backing tours de force. This incredible backbeat with slinky bass is accentuated by two distinct duos of lead men: Danny Cedrone and Joey d'Ambrosio, and Franny Beecher and Rudy Pompilli. Playing lead guitar and tenor sax respectively, both duos bring an incredibly jazzy set of musical ideas to make the songs jump, jive, and wail. Scotty Moore, Elvis' long time guitarist, clearly cut his teeth on Cedrone's riffs, while everybody whoever played in a New Jersey bar band owes a tremendous musical debt to Mssrs. D'Ambrosio and Pompilli. You can not only hear their incredible interplay throughout Rock Around the Clock, but can also have the great fun of watching their flat-on-the-back traded solos in any of the films Bill Haley and His Comets graced with a cameo between 1954 and 1957.
Almost as quickly as they rose to prominence, so rapidly did the Comets' star fall. Despite trying to cash in on the incredible popularity of "Rock Around the Clock" with a string of overtly self-styled singles like "R-O-C-K" and "The Saints Rock 'N' Roll" -- which are appended as bonus tracks on this "Anniversary Edition" -- Bill Haley rapidly vanished from the mainstream American music scene, relegated to playing summer festivals and reunion bills. If Bill Haley is gone, he is hardly forgotten. He is alive in every one of Clarence Clemons's solos, he breathes into every scale Brian Setzer fingers on his majestic Gretsch -- by the way, I'd pay serious money to hear Setzer release a cover version of this entire album. If the 50th anniversary of rock and roll is nothing but a scam cooked up by record companies to unload their back catalogue, it nonetheless brings back to us in its tide a truly remarkable album, a perfect gem from our past that has perhaps been too long hidden. Bring Rock Around the Clock out in the daylight for yourself again, and you'll be dancing to it all through the night.