This month I wanna take time out from telling you about the great things going on in the rockin’ World here in Russia, to take you back to an iconic event in rock’n’roll history. Here in Moscow we organised a special concert to commemorate its anniversary.
In 1956 the first ever rock’n’roll film was made. “Rock around the Clock” was a Columbia Pictures production which was released in the UK later that same year. On 6th December at the Esse Cafe in Moscow I organised, along with the venue owners, a concert to celebrate the film’s UK release all those years ago. Our Moscow event included showing some clips from the movie. The real stars of the concert were the Raw Cats, performing live on stage. Regular readers of this column will remember them, from my glowing comments about them in previous issues. In particular, their leader, keyboards and vocalist, is a Russian rockin’ legend. They are a fantastic group specialising in 1950s’ style rock’n’roll, so there was no better choice to help us pay tribute to the great film. We had a great 1950s’ style night in Moscow ! You can see here some of the photos we took at the concert.
Why celebrate a film in this way ? The following is the story of why the movie was so significant in r’n’r history, especially in Britain.
In the mid-fifties there was a real social (not political) revolution going on. For the first time, an independent youth culture had sprung up in the West. Central to this was the music, Rock’n’Roll. And the movie was one the youth were able to totally identify with. The most significant content in the film were the songs performed. There were many and here are some of the most notable – “Rock around the Clock”, “See you later Alligator” and “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley and the Comets; “Teach You to Rock” and “Giddy up a Ding Dong” by Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys; “Only You” by the Platters. These were historic rock’n’roll numbers and for the audiences, seeing these groups perform them in the movie, it made a huge impact.
And this impact was a surprise to nearly everyone. It was only released as a “B’ movie on a small budget. But it was the timing of the movie that made all the difference, right at the start of this “social revolution” I mentioned above. Teenagers at the time went crazy over it. Suffice to say it caused a tremendous response. Most youngsters loved it, whilst many older people saw it as symptomatic of all that was wrong with the new generation.
I first saw the film in the 1970s as a young Teddy Boy. I thought it was brilliant. When watching it, one needs to always keep in mind the time it was made. Some of the dialogue now might seem a bit dated, old fashioned and even tame by today’s standards. But back in the 1950s it was, well, revolutionary in it’s challenging of the established Music Order. Although some of the script in the movie was decidedly “middle class American”, the working class youth in the UK really related to the new musical culture and style on show in the film. This was especially true for the Teddy Boys and Girls.
Following the release of the film in 1956 in the UK, the mayhem and disorder it caused made headlines in the national media. Above all it was the Teddy Boys and Girls causing all the trouble. Newspapers, local and national, reported on the riots throughout the country, especially inside the cinemas where the movie was being shown. Cinema seats were slashed, there were fights between Teddy Boy gangs and the police, you name it ! These are some of the headlines from the newspapers at the time:
“Rock’n’Roll mayhem: 400 riot in cinema”, “Wild mob rock’n’roll into street after cinema riot”, “Raving youths fined after rock’n’roll film”, “Rock’n’roll film has police standing by for riots”, “1,000 rock’n’roll rioters take city by storm” and “Rock’n’roll frenzy brings out police”. To give you an idea how serious these riots were, here’s the beginning of a headline article from the Daily Herald, a national newspaper at the time; “Teddy Boy ‘Rock” Riot Again – Usherettes trampled – Rock’n’roll crazed rioting – the worst yet – broke out again this afternoon at the Caiety Cinema, in Peter Street, Manchester, where the film ‘Rock around the Clock’ is being shown. A gang of 100 youths stormed down from the balcony to the stalls, seized hosepipes and sprayed the audience. Lighted cigarette butts were thrown from the balcony. A stool also went over. Armed with broken pieces of the stool, youths struggled with police. Light bulbs were snatched down and thrown into the fray. Usherettes were thrust aside and trampled. One was struck on the leg by an exploding bulb.”
This violence was of course indefensible. But it gives an indication of the intensity of this “social revolution” I spoke about above. Britain had seen nothing like this before amongst their younger generation.
Remarkably, if you watch the film you’ll see there is no real violence in it to speak of. The film had a “U” rating i.e. anyone including children can view it. It tells the story of how rock’n’roll was discovered. It is a very fictionalised account, but very entertaining nonetheless. Some of the highlights are the performances of Bill Haley and the Comets, plus some great jive dance sequences. There is even an appearance by Alan Freed, playing himself. Many of you will know Freed’s huge contribution to the birth of rock’n’roll as a promoter, albeit he ended up being disgraced for taking payments for illegally publicising certain records: But that’s another story. In 1956 the film was also ahead of its time in the USA in terms of social progress, in that it showed white musicians performing in the same venues as Black performers.
So this is a story of a low budget B movie that rocked the World. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out. It’s a wonderful slice of rock’n’roll history.