‘Anyone who doesn’t like rock and roll has something spiritually wrong with him’ (James Lee Burke)
I am born on 1 March 1947, which turns out to be the ideal starting point for a life whose course will be signposted by pop records. Music fans of other ages may argue on behalf of other years, but here’s a watertight case for my birth date.
When rock’n’roll takes hold in 1956, I am nine years old, my antennae erect and quivering, ready to respond to the excitement, and aware at once that this music is a universe away from anything I’ve heard before. Were I to enter the world later, the chances are that it would sound like someone else’s – someone older’s – music; I would be able to catch up with what I’d missed, but I couldn’t experience rock’n’roll bursting from the unquiet outer grooves of a shiny black 78rpm record or exploding through the static on Radio Luxembourg like a firework spectacular.
Much older, and a drip-feed of classical music and big band crooners might have already aligned me with an earlier generation’s disapproval of pop. In the mid-fifties, months – never mind years – can open an unbridgeable gap. A big brother or sister might as well be your parent. And even if I weren’t too old to rock’n’roll, I would definitely be past it by the time the Beatles and the Stones invented the sixties.
At the time, of course, all this is intuitive, though later study reveals how precisely synchronous is my own chronology with rock’n’roll’s. It is as if it has been rehearsing its rebellious act for my eager ears from the moment my DNA was thrown together. Across the United States, in various cities, adventurous musicians have been making – and recording – music whose disparate, but essentially similar elements, come together as the joyous racket that will determine the direction of my life.
I am conceived in June 1946. Given the eight-hour time difference and an early afternoon session in Los Angeles, my parents’ coupling could have coincided with Louis Jordan’s spirited recording of ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, not much more than a few watts and a backbeat from rock’n’roll.
Around the time the bump that is me starts to show, Amos Milburn, also in LA, records ‘Down The Road Apiece’, authenticated as rock’n’roll fourteen years later by Chuck Berry, from whose version the Rolling Stones learn the song as I will hear it for the first time.
When I am one month old, Hank Williams, at a session in Nashville, shows what hillbillies can bring to the party with ‘Move It On Over’, whose jumping rhythm and doghouse lyrics are made for rock’n’roll, and would pass for it, were the musicians not wearing stetsons.
In April 1948, I am photographed as a one-year-old cradled in my father’s arms, a finger apparently pointing out a slim stroke of moustache that would not look out of place on the lip of Jordan or Milburn – or McKinley Morganfield, who, fourteen months older than Joe Pidgeon and known as Muddy Waters, is in the Chess brothers’ Chicago studio, singing ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’, another song I will hear by the Stones in the bouncing back room of a pub in Windsor.
Aged two in 1949, I nurse a cut lip from a tricycle fall, as Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, in New York, produces one of those records that historians will argue is the start of rock’n’roll, Stick McGhee and His Buddies’ ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’.
A year later I am hospitalised long enough to bank dreams from which I will wake terrified for years to come, while in New Orleans Antoine Domino cuts ‘The Fat Man’, a record whose undulating boogie piano and easy vocals are little different in style from later hits of his that will be identified as rock’n’roll, though always referred to by Fats himself as rhythm and blues.
Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket ’88’, recorded for Sun in Memphis in 1951, with Ike Turner on piano and me out of my depth on my first day at school, becomes another contender for ‘first rock’n’roll record’, although, for me, there will always be something plodding about its sound that disqualifies it as a true harbinger.
Another Chess recording, Little Walter’s ‘Juke’ in 1952, when I am five and falling out of trees, is not a foretaste of rock’n’roll, but of the rhythm and blues boom that will break out of the — handy for me — home counties and other all but secret locations across the UK in the early sixties, and, by launching the Rolling Stones, Who, Yardbirds and the rest, will form the backbone of what will take over the world as rock.
1953, and Ray Charles, relocated from Georgia (where he was born and struck blind at five) to LA, secures his place on this list with ‘Mess Around’, secularising upbeat gospel; while in Memphis Sam Phillips records bluesman Junior Parker wailing the haunted, haunting ‘Mystery Train’. Me, I imagine myself planting a Union Jack at the top of Everest, guided to the snowy summit by my faithful sherpa Tensing.
In 1954, the year that rock’n’roll breaks regionally in America, I balance uneasily on my first two-wheeled, too big bike. Rock’n’roll spreads initially in ripples, rather than the tidal wave which will soon surge across the Atlantic, but Elvis Presley rocks up both black country blues (‘That’s All Right Mama’) and white hillbilly country (‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’) at the same July session, three months after Bill Haley cuts ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1955 sees me crouched in my grandfather’s summerhouse, puffing on a Senior Service nabbed from his silver humidor, and Chuck Berry in Chicago and Little Richard in New Orleans recording ‘Maybellene’ and ‘Tutti Frutti’, although it will be another two years before either singer has a hit in the UK.
And 1956, the year I turn nine and rock’n’roll is certainly here, if not incontrovertibly to stay, opens with ‘Rock Around The Clock’ at No 1 in the UK, six months after it has topped the US charts. My introduction to the record has occurred the previous year, at a friend’s house, where it is played repeatedly and danced to, for the first few spins, with energetic enthusiasm, although it is not long before someone flips it over, the lights are dimmed, and older couples jive slowly and sinuously to the B-side, ‘Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)’. But even at nine, I am old enough to discern that there is something hokey about Bill Haley and his Comets.