Sep 19, 2023, 06:26AM

Rockets Over Blueberry Hill

Rock 'n' roll in 1950s Britain.

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I’ve witnessed four youth music rebellions in my life: rock’n’roll, psychedelia, punk and rave. There may be more but, if so, I wasn’t a party to them.

Rock is coterminous with my birth. The first rock record to chart in the USA—Crazy Man, Crazy by Bill Haley and the Comets—did so in June 1953, when I was born. Haley had been a Western Swing artist, but, after recording a rockabilly version of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88 (considered by many to be the first rock record) he changed his style. You can see this as healthy opportunism. Rock was a development of rhythm and blues, a black music form. Haley saw the potential in the music and repackaged it for a white audience.

There’s a crucial difference between the two versions. Bill Haley sings, “Going round the corner and havin’ some fun, takin’ my Rocket on a long, long run,” while Jackie Brenston in Ike Turner’s version sings, “goin’ round the corner and get a beer, everybody in my car’s gonna take a little pill.” What’s odd here is that none of the lyric sites give the actual words. It’s always some version of the Haley lyric, or the Brenston lyric with the word “nip” substituting for pill. It’s about time someone corrected that.

Rock’n’roll was the background music to my life growing up in the 1950s. My favorite record as a child was Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. I had it on 78. I guess it was my mum’s. It sounded so ancient, like something that had been created in the primeval swamp at the beginning of time. I’d no idea that it was a recent release, in 1956, only two or three years before I was listening to it. I played it every morning before I went to school. There was something in the quality of the voice, and in the jaunty melancholy of the melody, that drew me in and overwhelmed me with a kind of gentle, sweet sadness.

Blueberry Hill seemed like a place I’d like to go. I associated it with a girl I was in love with and who I had a dream about. We were soaring high on the back of a white swan, me and the girl, high, high in the endless sky, with the little toy town world spread out below us, all the tiny cars moving along the roads, and the minuscule houses with people in them. My heart was soaring too, exultant, expansive, reaching out into the far distance, till it flew on ahead and came to a mountain and just under the summit there were all these jewel-encrusted pillars with many colors glinting in the sunlight. It was a place of pure beauty that wrenched my heart with the ache of love.

I used to play “Blueberry Hill” on a little Dansette record player with a lid. The 78 was bigger than the deck, and one day the lid fell down, breaking the record in two. It was one of the great losses of my childhood.

Another memorable record was Elvis Presley’s Wooden Heart. Not strictly rock’n’roll, it dates from Presley's time in the American army, and is based upon a German folk song, Muss i denn. What makes it meaningful for me is that it was through this song that I discovered irony. I associated it with the film, Pinocchio, which I must’ve seen around this time. Pinocchio, of course, was a puppet. He was made of wood and he did have a wooden heart. There were strings upon that love of his, because he was a puppet. So I imagined Elvis as Pinocchio, singing in that melancholy voice that he didn’t have a wooden heart, when he did. That was the irony. What this says about me I can’t say. There was always a kind of melancholy to my fantasies, a sense of loss. In my cowboy and Indian fights, when I was shot and fell down, I would often construct a back story that involved someone grieving over me.

Rock’n’roll in 1950s Britain was accompanied by the first recognizable post war youth movement, the Teddy Boys, or Teds. Their name was based upon the Edwardian suit jackets they wore, which the Daily Express shortened to “Teddy.” They were generally working class kids rebelling against post-war austerity. Their suits, with velvet collars, were meant to signal style and affluence. They adopted rock’n’roll as their musical form, and were known for carrying flick-knives and for rioting during showings of the American film Blackboard Jungle, which featured Bill Haley and the Comets playing Rock Around the Clock. It was the first time rock’n’roll was heard in Britain. My uncle Rob, my mum’s youngest brother—only seven years older than me—was a bit of a Ted in his time. I remember him working on his quiff in front of the mirror in our living room, combing back his hair repeatedly on the sides and then pulling it forward in the front to make the quiff. One day he made a bomb out of sugar and fertilizer packed into a metal pipe which he used to blow up a tree in our local woods.

Another of the crazes of the 1950s was skiffle. This was a British version of American blues and folk. The foremost skiffle group of the time was Lonnie Donegan, whose first record was a copy of Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line, sung in a very pronounced American accent. Skiffle groups were characterized by acoustic guitars and improvised instruments such as washboards and jugs. Most of the 1960s British rock acts began as skiffle groups. Donegan changed his style in the end and began singing in his native Essex accent, as witnessed by his 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman.

I was 10 when I heard my first Beatles record, Please, Please Me. It was different than anything else at the time: lively, catchy but also sly and suggestive. Listening back it reveals the relationship that the Beatles had with their girl fans, who would’ve understood the references. My favorite early Beatles record is Twist and Shout, a cover version of a song originally recorded by the Top Notes, then by the Isley Brothers, who had a US hit with their version. The Beatles’ is still the best: fast-paced, infectious, with Lennon’s rasping vocals, rising to a screaming crescendo at the end, it shows what a great rock’n’roll band they always were. The Beatles had begun as Teds. If you look at the first album cover Ringo still has his Teddy Boy quiff. He’s only just joined the group and hasn’t adopted the Beatles cut yet.

British interest in American music led to a further delving into its history and the discovery of the blues. A number of the best known groups of the 1960s started off as blues acts, most notably the Rolling Stones, who had a number one hit with Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster in 1964. It remains the only blues song ever to reach the top of the UK charts.

The reference to “a little pill” in Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 reminds us that there has always been a relationship between popular music and drugs. In the 1950s and early-60s the main drug was speed, which allowed its users to stay up all night and dance—that’s whatRock Around the Clock” is about—but by the mid-60s new drugs had become available which began to alter the character of the music: marijuana and LSD. It was the introduction of these drugs that led to the creation of psychedelia, the next great musical form to take over Britain and the world.

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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