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A Year in Music : 1951 and the first rock ‘n’ roll single

Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner perform Rocket 88. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images - Credit: Archant

A new song stakes a claim to be the first rock ‘n’ roll single, while music elsewhere plays catch-up. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports

The mood was ambivalent in Britain in 1951. In one sense it seemed every aspect of life was changing and straining towards the future, but in another the country was still in wartime mode. Tea, sugar, cheese and eggs were still on the ration, and the National Federation of Housewives Associations indignantly presented a petition to parliament about there being ‘barely enough meat to maintain strength to work and enjoy leisure’.

The wartime prime minister returned, as Churchill regained power after Labour called a general election in an effort to increase their wafer-thin majority. Post-war austerity had been exacerbated by the costs of the Korean War, and Nye Bevan resigned as a minister in protest over the introduction of a prescription charge for dental work and glasses. But Britain was making huge efforts to shake the dust of the war from its shoes, holding a great national celebration and rebuilding its towns and cities in ambitious new schemes as the texture of daily life began to shift from pre-war black and white to technicolour. And while it was across the Atlantic that musical innovation could be found, a generation of British children was poised to exploit it.

In his opening address for the Festival of Britain on May 3, King George said: ‘In this festival we look back with pride and forward with resolution’ – this was to be a celebration of past victories as well as a vision of the future. But the war hung over the proceedings more like a shadow than a warm memory of success – after all, the festival’s logo was created by Abram Games, the genius designer of often frightening wartime public information posters.

This backward-looking impulse was strongest in the festival’s musical programme, where there was nothing to equal the futuristic architectural feats of the Skylon, the huge Dome of Discovery, and Leslie Martin’s modernist Royal Festival Hall, centrepieces of the festival grounds that covered a 27-acre area of London’s bomb-scarred South Bank. The Hall’s inaugural concert featured a very safe selection of British music, including Elgar, Vaughan Williams and honorary Brit, Handel, and a series of eight concerts of Purcell and performances by the London Philharmonic, London Symphony and BBC Symphony Orchestras followed in the weeks afterwards, during which Beethoven’s Ninth signalled the kind of canonical gravitas involved.

This classical stodginess, along with performances of early music, like the Historical Pageant of British Music by the Cambridge University Musical Society, suggested that musically the Festival was about nostalgia rather than the new, and while the Arts Council did commission works specifically for the event, few of them enjoyed any longevity.

However, there was some diversity at the periphery of the programming. The People’s Festival Ceilidh, held in Edinburgh in August, aimed to put Gaelic and Scots traditional popular culture on the map, and the event would be a formative influence in the Scots Folk Revival and the folk-informed rock that followed in later decades.

Three years on from the Windrush docking at Tilbury, the performance of the Trinidad All Star Percussion Orchestra as part of the Festival programme brought attention to calypso, a genre that would be popularised five years later by Harry Belafonte and 
that would become part of the palate 
of black music drawn on across pop 
and rock.

The presence of West Indians on Britain’s streets was just one way that life in Britain was changing. Poplar’s Lansbury Estate, built as part of the Festival of Britain as a showcase of modern housing, was just one such project in this time of post-war rebuilding, and the literally concrete proof of the shift in British life was the New Town.

The first wave of planned towns created under the New Towns Act 1946 were well underway, Corby being the last of the original series to be designated, in 1950. The first residential tower block in the country, the 10-storey The Lawn in Harlow New Town followed in 1951 as Britain sought to put itself at the vanguard of modernist residential architecture at a time when Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse in Marseille, the embodiment of his concept of unité d’habitation, was then being built.

With the debut of supermarkets and zebra crossings, ubiquitous parts of the British urban landscape were also born in this year. Food culture was about to undergo a major revolution, as George Perry-Smith opened Bath’s Hole in the Wall restaurant, and the publication of both Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking and the first edition of The Good Food Guide indicated that continental culinary principles would eventually eclipse the native stodge. Between the surrealist anarchy of The Goon Show, launched in May, and the post-apocalyptic vision of Britain of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, popular culture was changing in thrilling ways.

The modern music to go with these times was slow in coming. In Britain, trad jazz was the nearest thing to an underground music scene, and the swing sound and wildly popular American male vocalists continued to dominate the charts. Frankie Laine signed to Columbia Records and continued his success with sultry megahit Jezebel, a double A-side with the perky Rose, Rose, I Love You. Nat King Cole’s lusciously romantic Unforgettable and Too Young were two of the biggest hits of the year, Tony Bennett’s Because of You and Cold, Cold Heart were No.1 records, while tenor Mario Lanza had a hit on record with Be My Love and one on screen with The Great Caruso, the top-grossing film of the year.

Such smooth sounds were only partially challenged by the emotional histrionics of Johnnie Ray, whose maudlin debut Cry was the most successful single of the year internationally. But the sounds that would make the decade the most important in the history of popular music were also being heard.

In March, singer and saxophonist Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats – in fact Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm – recorded Rocket 88 at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, the studios that would become the headquarters of Sun Records the following year. It was released in April and destined to join the long list of contenders for the first rock ‘n’ roll single, sharing the distorted guitar of Goree Carter’s 1949 Rock Awhile, and the chugging bassline of ‘jump blues’ landmarks like Chris Powell’s Rock the Joint (1949) and Louis Jordan’s Caldonia (1945), as well as the boogie woogie piano of Fats Domino’s 1950 debut The Fat Man. But Brenston’s single felt like the whole package, bringing all these elements together on a song about a car – the then ubiquitous Oldsmobile 88 – as a metaphor for sexual prowess. Nothing could be more rock ‘n’ roll.

Bill Haley and His Saddlemen may have recorded a version of Rocket 88 in June, but it had a more straight-laced feel, and the combined force of The Dominoes’ not remotely euphemistic Sixty Minute Man being released in May, Alan Freed starting the first mainstream radio show playing R&B, and Marlon Brando’s brooding turn in A Streetcar Named Desire was of deeper significance to the burgeoning youth culture.

Back in Britain, the atmosphere of potential for change was being experienced by the future innovators of British music at the most impressionable age. Those who would revolutionise music in the 1960s and 1970s were just tiny infant school children, but were looking at the world around them with watchful eyes. War baby Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy would play extensively with Second World War imagery when given a filmic treatment by Ken Russell, and Townshend’s song from the original album, 1921, would become 1951 as a year that embodied the cautious optimism of Tommy’s mother, in a new relationship after her pilot husband is apparently lost at war: ‘Got a feeling fifty one/ Is going to be a good year/ Especially if you and me/ See it out together/ I have no reason to be over optimistic/ But somehow when you smile/ I can brave bad weather’.

Ray Davies’ memory of his trip to the Festival of Britain with his mum and dad when he was seven would inform the imagery of Waterloo Sunset a decade and a half later. While the Tory government wasted no time in dismantling the Festival’s icons, the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery going straight to the scrap merchants, the sense of the myriad possibilities for the future that 1951 had put into the hearts of the young couldn’t be as easily erased.

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