By Francis Beckett in Britain:
A rock ‘n roll landmark
Saturday 2nd January 2016
Sixty years ago Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock hit number one in the charts. FRANCIS BECKETT explores its cultural significance
SIXTY years ago today, Britain woke up to discover that Rock Around the Clock, by the US rock ’n’ roller Bill Haley and his Comets, had elbowed aside local boy Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet to occupy the number one spot in the charts.
It was a rough and brutal transition, as 1956 itself was to prove to be.
“C is for the candy trimmed around the Christmas tree, H is for the happiness…” crooned Dickie Valentine, but “Rock” had a sexual connotation and Rock Around the Clock was a boast of sexual prowess.
And it was a fitting start to a year which was to see the British shifted out of their comfort zone as never before.
It was the year Britain and France invaded Suez and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.
Nikita Khrushchov’s “secret speech” exposed the crimes of Stalin and the Royal Court Theatre unveiled John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
All the assumptions that had made post-war austerity and rationing bearable were being shattered — that Britain was a great power, that being British was something special, that the British empire was strong and benevolent and forever.
Nineteen fifty-six was the hinge of the 20th century, the year when the old Britain died and a new one was born.
It was, in a sense, the end of the second world war and the start of the ’60s.
And it started with rock ’n’ roll — a raucous, dangerous US sound that made some of the stuffier musicians and commentators look very foolish, very fast.
“I don’t think the rock ’n’ roll craze will come to Britain. It is primarily for the coloured population,” said bandleader Ted Heath.
Haley also occupied the number five slot in that first chart of 1956 with Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie.
It would prove to be a remarkable year for Haley and his Comets. Having only been heard in Blackboard Jungle, they starred in the films Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock.
There was only one week in those first six months when Haley had no record in the NME chart. He spent more weeks in the chart, with more hits, than anybody had before, or has since.
With him, too, came Britain’s first home-grown rock stars, like Tommy Steele. And there was skiffle. Entering that first January chart at number 17 was Lonnie Donegan from Glasgow with Rock Island Line — an obscure railroad song from the repertoire of the black US folk-singer Lead Belly, and a harbinger of the skiffle craze.
It was the first record 15-year-old John Lennon bought, and he took it home very carefully — a fragile, precious 78rpm disc.
That summer, he got together with some friends from his school, Quarry Bank High, to form a skiffle group — the Quarrymen.
The old world fought back — it always does. For most of the rest of the year, the number-one ranking was held by mainstream figures with anodyne songs: Dean Martin, Ronnie Hilton, Pat Boone, Doris Day, Anne Shelton…
But rock ’n’ roll and skiffle had put down their markers: a new music for a new generation. Nothing afterwards would be the same.
That same day, 60 years ago today, the 58-year-old prime minister Anthony Eden’s new year message spoke to the world that was dying, not the world that was being born, to those who listened to Dickie Valentine and not to those who listened to Bill Haley: “This is the season when we, each one of us, try to prepare our resolutions for the new year. We’re determined to keep full employment — we’re all agreed about that… And then there’s the question of peace — always in all our minds. You can be sure we shall do everything we can to reduce tension between the nations at any time and at every opportunity.”
By the end of the year, the prime minister’s remark about peace looked even more out of touch than the bandleader’s about rock ’n’ roll.
In that first week in January, French voters handed victory to Pierre Mendes-France’s radicals and Guy Mollet’s socialists, who intended to abolish state subsidies to church schools. The British Catholic paper The Universe reported it under the headline: “The people fail France again.”
That idea that there is something called “the country” which is greater than the democratic will of the people looks to us a little like fascism. But in January 1956, it did not look at all odd.
It was only 11 years since Labour’s 1945 election victory was greeted by a lady diner at the Savoy Hotel with the words: “This is terrible — they’ve elected a Labour government, and the country will never stand for it.”
The same could well have been said of rock ’n’ roll. Young people took to it, but it was not at all clear that the country would stand for it.
Francis Beckett’s latest book is 1956: The Year that Changed Britain, out from Biteback October 2015.