Monday, 20 July 2015

The origin of "Lucille", and why "Rock Around the Clock" had such an impact - BBC4's excellent "Rock 'n' Roll America" series

I thoroughly enjoyed the recent three-part BBC4 documentary series, Rock ‘n’ Roll America, which traced the development of the genre from its early 1950s' origins in the American South, to its rapid spead in the late 50s, its temporary evisceration by anaemic white pop singers mostly called Bobby, to its 1960s’ rootsy reinvigoration as teen pop by (among others) Motown, Phil Spector and British Invasion bands.

I realize I know too much about the subject to count as a typical member of the programme’s target audience, and I know I’m abnormally interested in how those old classic recordings were put together – I’m perfectly aware that they had a tremendous impact at the time, but I want to know what they did in studio to achieve that impact. So I tend to cut rock 'n' roll documentaries a lot of slack. But I still tend to judge them on  whether they tell me anything I didn’t already know, whether the interviewees have anything interesting to say about the music (as opposed to some old waxwork mumbling “Wow, Elvis – that cat was amazing!”), and whether the makers have managed to dig out footage I haven’t seen a hundred times before. On all three counts, this series did pretty well.

The first section of the programme that really impressed me was the explanation of the extraordinary effect of “Rock Around the Clock” on young cinemagoers when it was used in Blackboard Jungle. Obviously, one of the reasons the song electrified audiences was that it was the first time they’d heard “beat” music on big cinema speakers – it was simply louder than what they were used to. According to Tom Jones, it was also clearer than any “pop” music they’d heard before, because each of the instruments had been separately miked. And it sounded beatier, because the song’s producers had highlighted the Comets' rhythm section – particularly the whipcrack snare drum. Hence the ensuing pandemonium.

It’s 1955, and you’re a sixteen-year old raised mostly on dozy musical dross. Crank up the volume on your computer, hit the “play” button, and imagine what sort of effect this might have had on you:

I can now see how that might have started riots.

The other section that particularly fascinated me was the account by Little Richard’s brilliant drummer, Charles Connor, of how “Lucille” came about. I first heard the song on a Little Richard EP owned by my brother when I was seven or eight. It’s impact was instant and visceral: it’s still my favourite song opening in all pop music.

According to Connor (okay, this may be apocryphal, but it's a good story), Little Richard drove him to the train station in Macon, Georgia, pointed out the rhythm made by a passing train and asked him what it was. “Those are eight notes,” the drummer replied. Richard asked him to recreate that rhythm next time they were in the studio – and that’s the origin of “Lucille”. In the programme, film historian Michael Hammond notes that, unlike most rock songs, the emphasis is on the first and third beats rather than on the second and third – which may be part of why it sounds so irresistibly urgent and propulsive. The programme makers cleverly overlay the song with the sound of an actual train – and they match perfectly. As Connor noted, “Sound like a damn’ earthquake.” It does indeed:

If you’re reading this outside the UK, the whole of the complete first episode of Rock ‘n’ Roll America is available on YouTube:

If you’re in the UK, all three episodes are still available on BBC iPlayer, here.


  1. You're right Mr.Gronmark on all three counts this series did pretty well.

  2. I'v been watching this,whilst reading Levy's excellent book 'Rat Pack Confidential.'
    Interesting to see how two different forms forms of popular music existed side by uneasy side-talk about parallel universe.

    1. I'd always assumed that as I grew older I'd come to appreciate the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Well, I'm still waiting for that moment to arrive. One of the problems is that I never found any of them remotely likeable. Whatever the reason, I've always preferred Bobby Darin and Matt Monro when it comes to that kind of music. (Okay, I have a soft spot for one or two Dean Martin tracks, and I was jolly impressed when my parents took me to see Sammy Davis at the Palladium when I was eight or so - but mainly for his drumming and impressions.)