Rock’n’roll America review – the gospel truth about a music revolution

It wasn’t that long ago that Elvis Presley was denounced as the devil’s disciple. The way the first rockers tell it, though, it was more about impressing girls…

You kinda assume that they’ve just been printing the legend since the day he died. But watch the footage of radio presenters smashing records on their turntables and promising not to play any more of the devil’s music, or of severe women in severer hats saying things like “I watched him gyrate his legs and swivel his hips and our parent-teachers’ group feels he should not be on TV” and you goggle and you boggle and you realise that there was a time, there genuinely was a time when Elvis Presley was the greatest, filthiest threat to innocence, to society that there had ever been.

Almost more implausible, when you watch the likes of BBC4’s three-part documentary Rock’n’Roll America, is the fact that it happened well within living memory. There’s his drummer and his guitarist. There’s Wanda Jackson, who toured with Presley early in her career. Still hale, hearty and full of stories about the turbocharged years of undreamed-of fame, courtesy of that lividly beautiful, hip-swivelling man channelling Memphis gospel music and turning everything he sang into gold.

Pat Boone
Pat Boone … reworking Fats Domino. Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock

Pat Boone (who must have some terrible be-cardiganned portrait in the attic because he looks 40) gave us his account of reworking Fats Domino’s Ain’t That a Shame. He was majoring in English at Columbia and changed it to Isn’t That a Shame. His producer persuaded him to change it back. The radio stations began playing the original as a novelty item. The teenagers bought it in droves.

Jerry Lee Lewis – perhaps slightly less hale, but still almost dangerously hearty – gave us his account of setting fire to Chuck Berry’s piano on stage when they were touring together. The former bible-college boy once asked Elvis if he thought they’d go to hell for inventing rock’n’roll. “Jerry Lee, don’t you ever say that to me again,” came the reply.

Don Everly and a couple of Buddy Holly’s Crickets contributed too. Tales of demos being made and released straight off as number one singles, of eternal classics springing forth at late-night bars or out of John Wayne quotes between friends, of last-minute title changes to impress girlfriends named Peggy Sue came thick and fast. Who’s to say it isn’t all as simple and as true as that? Maybe the legends are only a B-side.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Readers recommend: songs about scandal | Peter Kimpton
Sex, drugs, money, sport, politics or hypocrisy? Sift through your songs to craft a collection of controversy, exposing the wrongs that pretend to be rights, says Peter Kimpton

Peter Kimpton

08, Oct, 2015 @7:04 PM

Article image
Million Dollar Quartet – review

Jerry Lee Lewis is the standout in this musical celebration of a great day for rock'n'roll back in 1956, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

28, Feb, 2011 @10:15 PM

Article image
Chris Isaak: 'My advice is: if you've got to be miserable to write great music, then drive a truck!'

The singer on recording his new album of covers in the legendary Sun studios – and the secret of his quiff

Tim Jonze

01, Mar, 2012 @8:00 PM

Article image
Music Moguls, Masters of Pop: Myth Makers review – you just can't beat a pop PR disaster
‘Uriah Heep’s drummer got into a fight with a man dressed as a bear – while Alan Freeman passed out into his soup …’

Tim Dowling

30, Jan, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Joy of the Guitar Riff – TV review
Sam Wollaston grabs his air guitar to play along as Johnny Marr, Joan Jett and others riff on rock'n'roll in this BBC4 documentary

Sam Wollaston

19, Jul, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Play It Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp review
Guitar geeks, you owe it all to a tap-dancing boy, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

29, Nov, 2014 @7:02 AM

Article image
Blondie's New York … and the Making of Parallel Lines – TV review
Blondie's hit album was broken down for the viewer in this show about the group's rise from out the grime of New York, writes Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan

30, Aug, 2014 @6:59 AM

Article image
People's History of Pop review – 'We’re on the cusp of something terrifying!'
No noodling musicans, no massive mixing desks, no show-off journos … this romp through recent pop was all about the fans – and they were an absolute treat

Sam Wollaston

11, Mar, 2017 @6:20 AM

Article image
The Joy of the Bee Gees review – a song of constant reinvention
Lucy Mangan: The Gibb brothers’ saga could have been filled with an endless parade of hits, never mind their turbulent life stories

Lucy Mangan

20, Dec, 2014 @7:00 AM

The Ballad of Mott the Hoople – TV review
Mott the Spinal Tap? Almost, says Tim Dowling of a wonderful Hoople rockumentary

Tim Dowling

09, Mar, 2013 @8:00 AM