I can’t stop tapping my toes.
Is that because I’m enjoying “Rock Around The Clock”, though? Or because the way to move to rock and roll has got wired into my reflexes? This is the first song in Popular that I can’t remember not knowing, after all.
(My toes are still tapping to the song I am listening to right now, which is “Don’t Go” by Awesome 3. I like it better than “Rock Around The Clock”: it’s less shopworn for one thing, but also more comforting, closer to my idea of what pop is. A warning to new readers: Popular is written by somebody whose general belief is that pop music has improved with each decade it’s been around. This project may make me change my mind – we’ll see.)
I’ll try to be dry about the record, then. It’s obviously the Comets that make the performance – Bill Haley starts it with gusto but begins to run out of breath after about a minute, an old trouper already being left behind by rock and roll even as he was cynically cashing it into life. He promises that when the clock hits 12 he’s going to rock around it all over again and you can hear that his fingers have slipped off the baton – it’s an outright lie, he just wants a sit-down.
But the Comets! I don’t know anything about the Comets but they sound like they were having a lot of fun. Listening to it closely the drummer steps smartly out of history, his snappy fills at the end of each line bursting with good humour. Like the jokey little diving notes at the end of the guitar phrases, and the punchline ba-boom of the ending, it’s all very light-hearted, not that far away from Alma Cogan to be honest. Of course there is a difference – it’s the difference between the fixed smile of a hostess and the relaxed grin of a guest – but if the song was ever charged with a rebel energy, none remains today.
And even though this is something new at No.1 (it had been a minor hit earlier in the year; this was a re-entry) it’s also part of a trend: the records at the top of the chart had been getting sparser and sharper since the soupy days of 1953. “Rock Around The Clock” didn’t come out of nowhere.
Still though, you can understand how shockingly basic rock and roll must have sounded. The see-saw might have been tipping away from the tidy complexity of early-50s pop, but fat old Bill gave it a fairly decisive push. The indistinct pop market of the time – I’ve been imagining well-scrubbed young men buying ballads and roses for their best girls, but it might have been their fathers or mothers or grandmothers even – becomes something more focussed, familiar and celebrated. Not overnight, though. For now, rock and roll is a fad. And “Rock Around The Clock” is a fine, exciting pop record. And the toes keep tapping.