Jailhouse Rock, by Elvis Presley (his 2nd of twenty-one #1s)
3 weeks, from 24th January – 14th February 1958
Ready? This is another song that grabs you from the get-go – just as ‘Great Balls of Fire’ before it – and for two and a half minutes gives you a good shaking. 1958 really did get off to a storming start in terms of chart-toppers.
But whereas Jerry-Lee Lewis grabbed us with his opening lyrics; Elvis here – or rather his band – grab us with their intro. With that guitar and those drums. Durrrr-durr (dun-dun)…, Durrrr-durr (dun-dun)… The most instantaneous intro yet? I mentioned, recently, the start of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, and that the jangly guitar there was iconic. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ kicks off in a much less subtle way; but since when has rock ‘n’ roll been about subtlety?
This is the Elvis that people think of in the early days; before GI Elvis, or Movie Star Elvis, or Comeback Elvis or Bloated Vegas Elvis. Jailhouse Rock Elvis, and that iconic picture of him in his black and white striped T, frozen, mid-yelp, on his tiptoes. Type his name into Wikipedia – go on… – and what is the picture that introduces one of ‘the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century’? In a way, I’m sad that this wasn’t his first ever UK #1 – rather than the nice but very understated ‘All Shook Up’. Imagine this snarling guitar announcing Elvis’s arrival at the top of the charts.
But… But, but, but. Those famous pictures of Elvis in a convict’s uniform (a very sexy, rock ‘n’ roll convict’s uniform, but still) gyrating outside the prison gates? They were promotional shots for the movie: ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ We are already in Movie Star Elvis phase here. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ was his 3rd feature film. The argument I put forward during his first stint at the top – that Elvis was ‘over’ before he got started, that if it ain’t his ‘Sun’ recordings then it ain’t worth shit – gains further ground here. Because this record is an early step into Cheesy Elvis. The music may be rocking; but the lyrics are nothing but a bunch of silly vignettes about prisoners dancing in a jail yard.
Let’s rock… Everybody let’s rock… Everybody in the whole cell block… Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock… The warden throws a party, encourages everyone to get dancing, even if they have to dance with chairs, and madness ensues.
Two verses stand out for having more than a whiff of music-hall comedy to them – thereby somehow tying this classic record to the likes of The Stargazers’ ‘I See the Moon’, from the depths of the pre-rock era (that’s a connection I never thought I’d make). There’s the ‘gay’ verse, in which two prisoners – presumably male – proposition one another: Number 47 said to Number 3, Now you the cutest jailbird I ever did see, I sure would be delighted with your company, Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me… I’ve read some interpretations of these lines as a revolutionary moment in the history of popular music. Personally, I think the songwriters were just taking the piss.
And there’s the final verse: …The wardens lookin’ out, A chance to make or break… Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said ‘Nix Nix, I wanna stick around a while an’ get my kicks… They could have escaped, you see, but they were having such a good time. It’s fun, and silly, but I think it also gives this record slightly less authenticity when compared to immediate contemporaries such as ‘Great Balls…’ and ‘That’ll Be the Day.’
Still, though… this is an absolute cornerstone of music history. On Spotify, even today, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is second only to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ as Elvis’s most listened to track. And it was the first ever record to enter at #1 in the UK. That’s right. The sixty-five previous chart-toppers had all spent at least a week – often much longer – climbing to the top. Elvis barged right in there; he wasn’t waiting for no-one. And – give me a second as I put on my chart-geek hat – up until the 1990s entering at #1 on the UK Singles Chart was an honour reserved for the very biggest stars: Cliff, The Beatles, Elvis, Slade, Frankie Goes to Hollywood… um, Gary Glitter… or the BIGGEST records, like ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. In the ’90s it became de rigeur, and in the early ’00s it was the only way to arrive on the charts. Nowadays, in the streaming era, it’s become slightly less common once again. But in 1958 it was unheard of. Only Elvis was that big.
To finish, something that I’ve come to realise since starting this blog: that ‘pre-rock’ didn’t just mean ‘pre-Elvis’. I used to think that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ kicked off the rock ‘n’ roll revolution before Elvis took over. But I’ve now seen that The King was actually kind of late to the party. And it’s been good to give Johnnie Ray, Guy Mitchell, Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele a bit of recognition, even if it’s been to the detriment of a singer that I was pretty well obsessed with in my teenage years. He may have been The King of it, but rock ‘n’ roll didn’t begin, or end, with Elvis Aaron Presley.