When the clock strikes rock

One of the most important singles in American music history, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets was the B-side of his first Decca single, a post-apocalyptic novelty tune called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town).” Like most B-sides, it attracted scant attention. Haley did much better with his follow-up, the raucous “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” a cover of a rhythm and blues number released by Big Joe Turner in 1954.

wierzbickiBut destiny had not yet finished with Haley’s unsuccessful B-side. James Wierzbicki‘s new book Music in the Age of Anxiety recounts how “Rock Around the Clock” came back from obscurity:

The turning point for Bill Haley and His Comets—indeed, the turning point for rock ’n’ roll—was the use of “Rock Around the Clock” as the main title music for the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Based on a novel by Evan Hunter that had been published the previous year, this black-and-white MGM production centers on an idealistic young English literature teacher (played by Glenn Ford) who literally risks his life in his efforts to connect with students at a vocational high school in the Bronx.

Like the novel, the film features a scene that reveals much about youth’s shifting attitudes toward music. In both cases a secondary character, a math teacher, attempts a lesson in symmetry by playing jazz recordings. Whereas in the novel the students reject jazz for not having the emotional immediacy of Perry Como and Tony Bennett, in the film the students react adversely to “adult” music in general. The screenplay never articulates precisely what it is that the teenagers want in lieu of adult music. Yet it is clear from Blackboard Jungle’s opening moments—during which the title sequence’s forceful underscore transforms into “source music,” apparently sounded via a portable radio, accompanying carefree schoolyard dancing—that the teenagers’ appetites run along the lines of “Rock Around the Clock.”

The record industry took notice. Companies released just about anything with a rockin’ beat, and if Pat Boone sang it, all the better. But “Rock Around the Clock” had an influence far, far beyond mere commerce:

For teenagers in general, most of whom were far removed from overt delinquency, “Rock Around the Clock” was a potent reminder of their status in America’s new societal structure. Never before had teenagers possessed as much buying power, physical mobility, or leisure time as they had in the economically flush postwar years; more important, never before had they been recognized as a social class unto themselves. The controversy over Blackboard Jungle was much publicized, and doubtless this helped make the song an emblem for teenagers’ increasing distance from the norms of their parents. Played over cinema loudspeakers far more aggressively than it ever could be on radios or phonographs, “Rock Around the Clock” for teenagers all across the country in effect became an anthem of solidarity.