Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" - the first Heavy Metal record

It’s ironic that Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly died on tour trying to make a few bucks when all either of them wanted to do was spend their lives in the recording studio. Of the two, Holly was the better singer and songwriter – a genuine giant. Cochran was a superior guitarist and record producer – and that’s saying something, because Holly was no slouch in either department. 

They are undoubtedly the two greatest musical losses of the Rock era. Everyone else of musical note (geddit?) who has died since 1956 had already showed us what they’d got  - these two were just starting out. 

The fact that both artists enjoyed considerable chart success after their deaths (mainly in the UK) tends to obscure the fact that their respective careers were in a bit of a slump when they died, so it’s hard to say for sure how they’d have fared had they lived. My guess is that Holly would, at the very least, have enjoyed a lengthy career as a top songwriter and Cochran would have become one of the outstanding record producers of the 1960s.

Whether they’d have survived the British Invasion in 1964 as topflight performers is hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure that between their deaths and the arrival of the Beatles, Holly and Cochran would have become a staple feature of the Top Twenty here and in the States: at the time of their deaths, Holly had already proved himself a master of lighter, poppier material, and Cochran was starting to diversify. Even though they both started recording in 1956 (when Cochran was 16!), they’d have been young enough to adapt, had they lived:  Holly was just 22 in 1959, Cochran 21 in 1960 – impossibly young,  when you consider what they’d already achieved. 

But the reason their careers would have thrived in the short term is that what they shared in common - apart from oodles of talent – was intelligence. Kids from the Nowheresvilles of Minnesota and West Texas they may have been, but they seemed to know exactly what they were doing. The likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were forces of nature (occasionally natural disasters) – steaming hunks of primal energy – but Holly and Cochran were two very savvy young men, always learning, always developing, never satisfied. Not surprisingly, both were experts at studio production, and that would have been the key to their future success – along with the fact that neither appears to have been a pill-popper, a juicehead or a sex maniac.

1958 was a great year for classic rock ‘n’ roll records. But the most innovative, by far, was undoubtedly 19-year old Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Nothing had ever sounded like this before – the acoustic guitar, the handclaps, the relentless electric bass, the sparse production, the deep-voiced spoken bits (that’s Cochran’s own voice, by the way). No wonder it’s one of the most frequently covered tracks in rock history. 

1958 also produced what sounds to me like the early beginnings of the sort of heavy rock music that wouldn’t fully emerge until the late 60s,“Nervous Breakdown”. This wasn’t released until 1962, and I didn’t hear it until my second year at university, when the constantly-repeated descending bass-line transfixed me (I coveted the record so badly that the friend who owned it actually gave me the EP it was on – an extraordinarily generous act). 

Later that year, Cochran opened “C’Mon Everybody” with a driving electric bass - unaccompanied this time.  1959 saw the release of a relatively poor-selling record whose long-term influence on subsequent generations of rockers is nevertheless probably up there with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Johnny B. Goode” – the true granddaddy of Heavy Metal (but don’t hold that against it), “Somethin’ Else”.  (If you really want to, you can watch Led Zepellin murdering it in 1970 here.)

Cochran took the idea of a thuddingly heavy bass guitar line from “Nervous Breakdown”, married it to the electric bass openings of“Summertime Blues” and “C’Mon Everybody”, and cranked up the rhythmic effect to 11 by overlaying it with pounding  drums and cymbals. The effect must have been stunning when it was first released (perhaps a bit too stunning, judging by the sales). The track starts and ends the same way, with a thunking, fifteen-note instrumental section followed by a silent beat before it starts all over again. The sequence is repeated four times as the record fades out, giving it a “never-ending” feel, and inviting the listener to start once more from the beginning (which I invariably do).

“Somethin’ Else” is one of a small handful of records I’ve found it impossible to get tired of. I hate to think how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. 

Eddie Cochran made a number of superb records during his brief career –“Pretty Girl”“Sitting in the Balcony”“Twenty Flight Rock”“Cut Across Shorty”“Hallelujah! I Love Her So”“Three Steps to Heaven” and“Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie” among them – but “Summertime Blues”  and “Somethin’ Else” are the tracks that, eventually, genuinely changed rock music.

Cochran enthusiasts can find an exhaustive, international discography (and much else besides) here. And here are parts one,  two and three of an excellent Radio 2 programme about Cochran broadcast in 2009, in which his guitar style and recording techniques are discussed. 

Despite his vaguely James Deanish image at the time, Eddie Cochran - like Buddy Holly - appears to have been a throughly decent and very likable young man. And - again, like Holly - he also happened to be a bloody genius.

(I hate to spoil the atmosphere of awe and reverence I’ve built up, but I’ve always been intrigued as to why nobody at the recording session for Cochran’s amiable “Drive In Show” noticed that our hero twice sings  the line “I”ll bet my penis to a candy bar/You’ll be cuter than a movie star”. See - told you he was innovator!)


  1. Whoever coined the phrase "two nations divided by a common culture"could well have had Cochran's posthumous #1 hit 'Three Steps to Heaven'(1960) in mind.That voice,and that superb guitar work propelled it up the charts on a wave of sentiment after his popular UK tour.But in the USA it was a different story that payola or rather not payola fails to answer:why it never even reached Billboard's top 100.
    Perhaps the radio stations thought that after his meteoric 'Summertime Blues' his career had been in decline and now (sadly for all his fans) it was terminal.
    Either way,Cochran left a legacy of original and great songs,and virtuoso guitar playing that was not lost on fledgling Brit Rockers.
    He is a seminal figure in the Annals of R&R.

  2. I'm just back from abroad and turned on the TV to find The Girl Can't Help It on Sky. I haven't seen it for years but in about 30 minutes Eddie Cochran will come on singing Twenty Flight Rock, from memory just after Julie London's torching Cry Me a River and I'll have instant recall of when I first saw the same film on BBC at age 12 and determined that he was about as cool as cool could be.