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Monday, September 12, 2011

Bill Haley: Rockin' Around The World


BILL HALEY: ROCKIN' AROUND THE WORLD (1958)

1) Pretty Alouette; 2) Me Rock-A-Hula; 3) Wooden Shoe Rock; 4) Vive La Rock And Roll; 5) Come Rock With Me; 6) Jamaica D.J.; 7) Piccadilly Rock; 8) Rockin' Matilda; 9) Rockin' Rollin' Schnitzelbank; 10) Rockin' Rita; 11) Oriental Rock; 12) El Rocko.

The birth of worldbeat! Forget Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon — this is where it all begins. Well, from one possible perspective at least. Although it would be tough to suspect Mr. Haley of a par­ticularly high level of sophistication, Rockin' Around The World shows that his knowledge and love of pop music was hardly limited to contemporary American forms. On this second «concep­tual» album, the point (gimmick) is to take bits and pieces of traditional folk tunes and generic «ethnic» melodies and mold them in a rock'n'roll-ish form, along the same lines they did it with the old swing and lounge tunes on their previous record.

Overall, it's a fairly silly idea, and it results in a fairly silly sound. But a hilariously silly sound all the same — and it is, at the very least, interesting and amusing to see how much effort the band, and Bill in person, had put into creating these odd concoctions: rewriting the lyrics, to insert all sorts of «rocking» references, speeding up the tempos, sometimes recycling old vocal lines and riffs to make the final effect more convincing, and so on.

For instance, all of us are well used to Elvis' transformation of 'O Sole Mio' into 'It's Now Or Ne­ver', which basically amounts to a new set of English lyrics and the addition of a steady pop rhy­thmic base. Few of us know that two years before the fact, Haley took the same tune, did all those things, but also sped up the tempo, set up a boogie bass line, threw out the sap (while still leaving the romance), and ended up with 'Come Rock With Me'. Who'd be the winner? Elvis — just be­cause he happened to have a so much grander singing voice? Or Bill — who did a far more suc­cessful job of showing how much unrealized potential that melody had in the first place?

Purists and PC types these days would probably castigate Haley for almost completely identify­ing «The World» with «The Western World»: other than a brief incorporation of some unspecifi­ed Middle Eastern motives into 'Oriental Rock', and steel guitarist Billy Williamson's imitation of the Caribbean accent on 'Jamaica D. J.' (which the aforementioned PC types these days would, no doubt, dub racist), all of the source material essentially stems from Europe (France, Germany, England, Holland) or, at best, Latin America. No attempts to put Australian aboriginal music to a good old rock beat. But one has to remember that the record was not motivated by deeply thought out «artistry», or by any Sixties-triggered feel of liberal guilt: most likely, Haley and his record label (Decca) simply thought that this would be a good way to bring the new sound of rock'n'roll closer to the ears of as many immigrant minorities in the US as possible. (Still no Chinese Rock, though. We'd have to wait until the Ramones for that).

It is not likely that the Comets would have any more success at that than they had at wooing tee­nagers' mothers with the sweet-and-rocking sounds of Rockin' The Oldies. Would a conserva­tive citizen of French origin be able to admire the re-write of 'Frère Jacques' as 'Vive La Rock And Roll'? And would a not so conservative citizen of French origin, already sick to death of 'Frère Jacques', find new respect for the song if he found out he could dance all night to it at the local ballroom? As a marketing move, I fail to see the smartness in this thing, and, once again, the album garnered not one single hit or classic.

But as a curious pop experiment that would be fun for younger generations to dig out fifty years after the fact, Rockin' Around The World is, I believe, a total gas. The only way one can truly enjoy all these proverbial ditties these days (for the record, Haley's range also covers 'London Bridge Is Falling Down', 'Hawaiian War Chant', and 'La Cucaracha' in one go — I feel silly even typing out all these names) is from a deconstructivist point of view, and, without knowing it, Ha­ley went on record as their first, or one of the first, post-modern interpreters. Too bad there was nobody to see it from that point of view back in 1958 — had the record made more of an impact on musical minds, who knows, maybe rock music could have turned into an art form several years earlier. Or maybe I'm exaggerating. Anyway, well worth a listen: thumbs up.

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