Rock-a-Billy, by Guy Mitchell (his 4th and final #1)
1 week, from 17th – 24th May 1957
Part 58, in which Guy Mitchell scores his latest UK #1 single with a rockabilly record entitled… ‘Rock-a-Billy.’ Imagine if Eminem were to release a song called ‘Rap’, or Ed Sheeran were to record one called ‘Bland Shite’ – that’s where we are right now. This is a record that does exactly what it says on the tin.
It’s another fast-paced chart topper – not quite as frantic as ‘Cumberland Gap’, but then what is? – that rolls along on jaunty guitars and a Winifred Atwell-esque piano. While lyrically it takes the term ‘generic’ to new levels. This is a song about a man and his love for rock ‘n’ roll music, to which the chorus goes:
Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rock, rock, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly, rockabilly, rock… Rockabilly, rockabilly… Rock! Rock!
Anyone who claims that modern pop is dumbed-down nonsense; point them in the direction of this record. The verses aren’t much more highbrow. There’s some silliness about the history of rockabilly music – it came from Tennessee, spread on out to the lone prairie – and then a lot of advice on how to dance to this crazy new music:
From the moment that you feel this crazy beat, You gotta lose control of your two left feet, Give me mountain juice, Turn me loose, Leave me wave my arms about…
It’s the latest song in a growing list where I’ve had to look the lyrics up online, rather than transcribe them by simply listening to them, as Guy Mitchell does a good bit of growling and slurring. (Actually, if you listen to his first chart-topper, back in 1953, and now this, Mitchell’s voice does have a harder edge – perhaps he was altering it to fit the style of the time? Or maybe he was just getting older?) Plus… is that reference to ‘mountain juice’ the first mention of alcohol, of drugs, of any kind of intoxicant in a UK Number One Single? I think it might just be… We truly are rockin’ and rollin’!
However, although I’m bandying terms like ‘generic’ and ‘silliness’ around, I wouldn’t want anyone to think for a second that I don’t like this song. It’s great. It’s dumb. It’s fun. I like it like how I like sherbet dib-dabs: I know there are ‘better’ foodstuffs to shove down my gullet, but I know I wouldn’t enjoy them half as much. It is a song that I dare anyone to dislike, a song that’s programmed to hit all the most primal happiness receptors in your brain. It’s got four key-changes, for God’s sake! The best bit of all is the bridge, which strangely comes right at the end, and which is positively life-affirming: You know what rockabilly’s all about, You know it’s gonna make you sing and shout, You know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool, Who cares? It’s cool! Yes, dance people! Dance like no one’s watching. Guy says so!
We have to bid farewell to Mr. Mitchell here, following this short encore at the top of the charts. And I have to admit that I’ll miss searching for pictures of his handsome face to add to these posts. His first chart-topper was… interesting, but the subsequent three – ‘Look at That Girl’, ‘Singing the Blues’ and now this – can legitimately go down as classics of the early rock ‘n’ roll/pop crossover. Few, if any, artists can claim to have been as consistently popular throughout the 1950s as Guy Mitchell: he had his first US Top 10 single in 1950 and his last in 1959. And we leave him here as the man with the joint most UK #1s, a record which he’ll hold for a couple more years.
Anyway, I’m on my seventh listen of ‘Rock-a-Billy’ as I type this sentence, and with every listen I like it more. I’d better stop before I begin claiming that it’s the best song ever recorded. One final thought, though: it’s telling that the biggest stars of this fledgling ‘rock age’, at least in UK chart terms, were Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray – two already very established artists who jumped on the rockin’ bandwagon and started scoring huge hits once again. A case of mass-appeal, perhaps? The kids liked the cool new music, while mum and dad trusted good ol’ Guy to keep it respectable? More respectable than arrivistes like Elvis, Chuck and Little Richard at least? Not that this will last long, but still. An interesting mini-era in rock music: the oldies outselling the upstarts.