Various Artists: Rock & Roll: 50th Anniversary Collection
The entire notion of whether rock 'n' roll either needs an anniversary or possesses a birthdate is made entirely irrelevant by the sheer exuberant fun of Rock & Roll: 50th Anniversary Collection. Celebrating not the totality of the genre but rather its earliest successes, this compilation documents the phenomenal sides produced during the second half of the 1950s that turned "rock" and "roll" into forever-inseparable partners.
The only real review Rock & Roll: 50th Anniversary Collection really needs is a track listing. "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock", "Tutti Frutti", "That'll Be the Day", and "Sweet Little Sixteen" are not only present, but also lead off the first disc of the set. But this collection goes far deeper than Bill Haley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, respectively. Of course, any worthwhile '50s compilations would need to contain these songs, as well as the obvious "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Great Balls of Fire" (both included). But what sets this 50th Anniversary Collection apart from other imitators is its breadth: while not every epoch-making songs is present (artists are usually featured only once, or in the case of the difficult-to-license Elvis Presley, not at all), some wonderful nuggets are brought forth into all their clarity.
"Wake Up, Little Susie" not only gives the Everly Brothers proper credit for their contribution to modern music, but also reminds us of the innocence of the by-gone era in which not only was coming home late was a cardinal sin, but so was ruining one's reputation by losing one's virginity. In similar vein are Dion's "A Teenager in Love" and Sonny James's "Young Love", both sugary paeans to the ups and downs of sweetheart teenage romance. Connie Francis crooning "My Happiness" or the Fleetwoods "dam dam dam doo doo dam"ing their way through "Come Softly to Me" represent the more ethereal side of the '50s love ballad, ostensibly sung while looking one's love directly in the eye. None of these tracks, despite our loss of innocence, have lost any of their power.
But young love is hardly the sole concern of the 50th Anniversary Collection. In attempting to catch as much of the movement as possible, included are the obligatory musical self-references ("Rock Around the Clock", Johnny Otis's "Willie and the Hand Jive", and Bo Diddley's "Say Man") as well as plenty of nonsense songs with nonsensical syllables that cut directly to the power of rock and roll's rhythms: "Tutti Frutti", "Ooby Dooby", "Be-Bop-A-Lula", and, lest we forget, the Champs' "Tequila". Trips are taken on the "Sea of Love" -- perhaps by taking a "Sea Cruise" -- either to dance "At the Hop" or to revel in the beauty of "Venus". In this ridiculous thrill ride through the best music of a nascent rock 'n' roll, even "The Purple People Eater" makes a guest appearance.
But the music celebrated here is of a more serious nature as well. Kudos to the executive producers for including Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee", a most upbeat version of the most horrifying song ever (and repeatedly) recorded to record. Link Wray & His Ray Men are hardly household names, but the proto-surf guitar stylings of their dark "Rumble" are not only immediately familiar to the ear, but of immeasurable importance to subsequent generations. The same can be said of Jackie Brenston's (a.k.a. Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm) "Rocket 88", a track often granted the encomium of first rock 'n' roll record of all time: while not as instantly recognizable as Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (also present), "Rocket 88" is an importance part of any document claiming the title Rock & Roll: 50th Anniversary Collection.
As for omissions, there are plenty and none. Elvis aside (the damn estate won't let anyone else make a dime of the King's imprimatur), anyone could argue for the collection of any track from the myriad songs to rise and fall on the charts in the late '50s. It would take a 10-record set to document fully all the great music of the period, and the decision to limit Rock & Roll: 50th Anniversary Collection to a consumer-friendly two-disc size can hardly be the grounds of complaint. I for one am glad to own this compilation of truly inspiring music from a truly inspired time; the only person who wouldn't love this set would truly fit Bill Haley's eponym, "Crazy Man, Crazy".