Jun 22, 2023, 05:57AM

Mood Music

“Rock Your Baby” in the Park Lane Bar.

9115d78e f812 43a2 be0a 1bd2e9d00dae.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Music can attach itself to you in strange ways. Sometimes a song can acquire a meaning that exists beyond any aesthetic considerations. Rock Your Baby by George McCrae is one of those songs.

I first heard it in the Park Lane Bar in Cardiff in the summer of 1974. The bar was down a little alley beside a hotel of the same name on Queens Street in the center of the city, where I was a student at the time. I’ve just looked it up and it seems it doesn’t exist anymore. It was a plain bar, consisting of a single room with a linoleum floor and bench chairs, dark wooden panels with ancient pictures of boxers and rugby players on the walls, the bar to the left, toilets to the right and a jukebox at the back. It served an excellent pint of Guinness.

I was there with my friend Dave. I’d been tripping all day with another friend, Lois, and, for some reason I’d started to freak out. We’d been playing in the weir by the River Taff, after which we’d walked to Llandaff Cathedral. As we approached the Cathedral the bells started to sound. Lois said, “Listen: aren’t they lovely?” But they weren’t lovely to me. There was a snarling growl in the heavy drone as it hung in the air. It got worse and worse as we approached the Cathedral. The shuddering bells resonated with some presence. Inside the Cathedral it was dingy, inhospitable and the building seemed to groan under the weight of some nameless, ancient evil. I remember staring into the darkness, trying to see what was there. I was trying to contact something. I was trying to pray, I guess. But nothing answered but the shuddering bells and the nameless force hidden in the darkness.

I guided Lois back to my place. I put on the Garcia album, by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. There was one track on there I used to identify with: To Lay Me Down, on the second side. I used to interpret the lyrics as “to lay me down,” meaning to lay down my ego. I felt that my ego was a burden I had to get rid of. The second side starts with some electronic noises which, in my paranoid state, took on the same quality as the sound of the bells at the Cathedral earlier. It was suffused with the same nameless evil. That’s when I started to freak out. I snatched the record off the record player, horrified. Lois put on White Bird by the Incredible String Band to replace it. It was very gentle, very soothing. She was stroking my brow as I was listening, saying “Relax, relax.”

In that moment I fell in love with her. Even though my eyes were closed I could see her silhouette behind my eyes. She had one foot tucked up beneath her and the other stretched out behind. Her back was straight. There was a top-knot on her head. She was the goddess. I could see all her chakras, like a lacework pattern of different coloured lights shimmering up and down her body. And there, in her loins, pulsating with a special red light, was the chakra which joined her to me. We were joined in that place, god and goddess, eternal creatures on our journey through time, two parts of the same being. We were man and wife. We’d always been man and wife.

The record finished, and she got up. It was very sudden. "See you later," she said blithely, and left. I guess she was bored with ministering to me. It was like a part of myself being wrenched away. I slammed my fist into the door as she walked out and let out an involuntary sob. Then I watched from the window as she disappeared down the street.

Dave’s version of the story is that he met Lois and me on the street and that Lois said she was worried about me, but that can’t be true. I think he may have met Lois after she’d left my place and then come back to find me. He suggested we go to the pub. After that, things started to get better. The Guinness flowed and my body began to relax.

“Rock Your Baby” had just come out. It was very popular in the Park Lane Bar that evening. Someone was putting it on repeatedly. It was in marked contrast to the hippie meanderings of the Incredible String Band I’d listened to earlier. It’s very professional, very slickly produced, with an insistent rhythm, choppy, high-end guitar chords and a great, soaring melody. McCrae’s voice is almost angelic as it rises throughout the song.

I took it as a commentary on my feelings towards Lois—“Woman, take me in your arms and rock your baby”—while at the same time it grabbed hold of the paranoid mood that had overtaken me during the day and cast it off like an old cloak. It was like a hymn of liberation. It released me from the pangs of my inner oppression. Dave and I returned home at the end of the evening suitably relaxed. I’ve liked it ever since.

I was reminded of it recently when I read Tony King’s book, The Tastemaker. He describes the recording of Whatever Gets You Thru The Night by John Lennon and says that it was an attempt to emulate the feel of “Rock Your Baby.” It may even have the same chords. What this shows is that Lennon was a magpie when it came to picking up ideas from other artists. You can hear the influence in the guitar licks and the laid back sax sound. It’s very R’n’B, not at all like the tortured Lennon of his Plastic Ono Band period.

There are a number of versions of “Rock Your Baby” on the internet. There’s the single version: It’s 3.14 minutes long. There’s the extended dance mix version, which is 6.24 minutes long. And there’s the Disco Mix instrumental version which is 7.07 minutes long. Really it’s an early disco record.

Disco was just emerging as a musical form. It was producer-led music, designed in the studio, much more expensive to create than an average pop song. It’s characterized by a “four-to-the-floor” beat: that is the drummer thumped the bass drum with equal emphasis throughout the piece. There will be string sections and horn sections and that choppy guitar sound, the guitar used as much as a rhythm instrument as a melodic one. It’s also more sophisticated than most pop songs, with complex Latin polyrhythms overlaying jazz chords. It was professionally produced using session musicians, with orchestral arrangements made by composers who could read and write music.

It was a development of soul and Motown, emerging from the black community. It was adopted by gay people, who at that time were rising up against the laws that had oppressed them for centuries. It was less than 10 years since homosexuality became legal in the UK. There were discotheques popping up everywhere. The music was designed to dance to, hence the different mixes. DJs could mix tracks to create extended versions of the song. It meant that the song could go on and on to a rising crescendo to match the rush of the party drugs that often went with it, chiefly cocaine and amyl nitrate. It was associated with gay liberation and rampant hedonism.

I was a young hippie at the time, into spiritual development and anarchist politics. I considered myself a revolutionary. What I didn’t realize was there were other revolutions going on, of which the disco scene was a part. People were breaking down barriers, embracing each other across the racial and sexual divide. As Tony King says in his book: “There was happiness and exuberance on the dance floors wherever you went.” It was open and welcoming, every race, every color, every creed, every sexual persuasion: “whoever or whatever you were, you were welcome…”

There’s a partner song to “Rock Your Baby,” released about a year later. It’s called Rocking Chair, sung by McCrae’s wife, Gwen. It features some of the same lyrics, including the “rock your baby” refrain. George sings backing vocals. It hit number nine in the US pop charts and was number one in the US soul chart for one week.

McCrae never had another hit in the US, although his follow up singles, "I Can't Leave You Alone" and "It's Been So Long", both reached number 10 in the UK. His star waned as the 1970s progressed and by the 80s he’d gone into semi-retirement. He moved to Europe in 1989. There was one last hit, in 2016, in Mallorca. It was called Sexy Woman, from his concept album LOVE, produced by the Dutch composer Roger Heijster. It featured two of his daughters on backing vocals.

I never did have a relationship with Lois. We remained good friends, and whenever I hear “Rock Your Baby” it reminds me of that night in the Park Lane Bar in Cardiff all those years ago.

—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


Register or Login to leave a comment