Monday Notes

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock. The birth of rock and roll

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[Monday Notes no. 19] Elvis Presley was rock’s first great rock hero. A whole generation recognised themselves in his provocative dancing, his flamboyant look, his songs full of energy and rhythm. Let us analyse his song Jailhouse rock.

Elvis Presley was also the first great commercial music phenomenon of modern times, the first pop star to emerge not from a long and laborious musical career but from the intuition of an entrepreneur.

Sam Philips, Elvis’ talent scout and first record producer, said that he was looking for a white man with a black man’s voice. Rock and roll in fact plundered the music of African Americans, trivialising it to make it more commercial.

The birth of rock and roll brought nothing new from a musical point of view, but represented a real revolution in the way music was perceived. For the first time, music was associated with transgression and young people used it to challenge the values of their parents.

Jailhouse rock takes the form of a 16-measure blues. The beginning is minimalist, with only the drums playing effective snare drum hits. At minute 1’15”, the slightly out-of-tune electric guitar plays a short, rambling solo.

The lyrics are so superficial as to be almost irritating: how cool is it to play rock and roll in prison, they recite. Music for naive kids, who fancy transgression and have no idea what a prison is really like.

Elvis Presley was a handsome, talented, provincial boy with a warm, sensual voice. More than his music, it was his carefully constructed stage character that gave him unparalleled worldwide celebrity.

The price he paid was, however, very high, he had a very complicated life and died prematurely, killed by drug abuse. In this, too, Elvis Presley anticipates the sad fate of many rock stars, who ended up consumed by success.

Until next Monday!

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