Various artists: The First Rock and Roll Record – review

It's an unanswerable question, but the search for rock's origins digs up many a treat

The question of what constitutes the first rock'n'roll record is controversial and highly emotive. It takes in serious issues about attitudes to race in 1940s America and interminable nitpicking internet arguments about snare drum accents and eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie rhythms. It began decades ago, when Sam Phillips announced he had discovered the sound that changed the world years before Elvis Presley had fetched up in Sun Studio, offering Jackie Brenston's admittedly amazing 1952 single Rocket 88 as evidence. It's rumbled on ever since.

There isn't a definitive answer, and anyone who prizes their sanity might be best advised to leave well enough alone, which lends an appealing air of deranged folly to this 3CD, 82-track collection. It delves back to the middle of the first world war, raking through blues, country, gospel, R&B, jazz and showtunes in search of clues.

Some of the connections between what's here and what happened years later are well established. Everyone who has read a little about rock's origins knows Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock bore a suspicious resemblance to Hank Williams' blackly comic 1947 tale of marital discord Move It On Over, or about the line that connects Robert Johnson's handful of 1930s recordings to the musical explosion of the 60s. Others are a bit more surprising. Fans of Marc Bolan might find their jaws dropping at Georgia bluesman Tampa Red's frantic 1927 debut single It's Tight Like That: an example of the sub-genre known as hokum, it would have slotted perfectly into Tyrannosaurus Rex's oeuvre alongside One Inch Rock or Mustang Ford.

Indeed, you could say that The First Rock and Roll Record is exhaustive to a fault. There are moments, particularly during the first disc, when you start to wonder if the compilers think that there was any music released in America in the 30s and 40s that didn't have an influence on the birth of rock'n'roll, up to and including Judy Garland's The Joint Is Really Jumpin' Down at Carnegie Hall and the Andrews Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy: even with the help of the exhaustive sleeve notes, it's a little difficult to work out what they're doing there. In fact, the first CD seems less interested in music than in semantics, offering up endless lyrical definitions of the word "rocking". It always seems to have referred to transcendence of one kind or another, although how you reached your state of grace was very much down to personal taste. For those attending 1916's Camp Meeting Jubilee, it was all about fervent prayer. For Trixie Smith – a more forthright lady than you might expect to meet in 1922 – it involved the more straightforward matter of availing yourself of a man in possession of an enormous penis and limitless stamina: by the end of My Man Rocks Me, she's apparently been having it off non-stop for a hugely impressive nine hours. "I feel so happy, I have a smile," she wails, a woman deaf to the risk of traumatic cystitis.

Midway through the second CD, however, things become noticeably more linear. The compilation still finds room for mavericks such as Les Paul and Mary Ford, whose incredible How High the Moon exists in a futuristic world of its own: on YouTube, you can find a remarkable clip of them performing it on a TV show in 1950, headphones clamped to their heads, their backing band a bank of electronic equipment and reel-to-reel tape recorders; the first people to realise the studio itself could be the star. But far earlier than you might expect, virtually all the constituent elements of rock'n'roll are in place: five years before Elvis Presley entered Sun Studio, the release schedules were packed with records that, if they weren't actually rock'n'roll, sounded so much like it as to make the argument academic: Amos Milburn's Chicken Shack Boogie, Stick McGhee's Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, Fats Domino's The Fat Man, the latter a fabulous, million-selling testament to the New Orleans' singer's qualities that suggests he might have got on a treat with Trixie Smith: "All the girls love me, because I know my way around."

It ends with Heartbreak Hotel – "everything a rock and roll record should be," according to the sleeve notes, but clearly not the first. The compilers cheerfully admit they are no closer to a definitive answer, offering instead the vague assurance that "whatever it is, it's probably here". It probably is, but that doesn't matter: The First Rock and Roll Record is proof that sometimes, the evidence is more interesting than the verdict.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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