1954, Music

Rock With Bill Haley and the Comets (1954)

Legend has it that this compilation of Haley’s early singles is the first ever Rock and Roll LP. There is a huge problem with that statement but, if accepted on face value, it makes this record seem like a very big deal, perhaps one of the biggest albums of the 1950s.

Before dealing with that claim, we do have to deal with the fact that it’s a compilation. At least, I have to. I am very much of the opinion that compilations are less important than albums. But, of course, that was not true when the LP was invented, when it literally was a compilation. And that was still true in the mid 1950s. The industry had not yet changed to being LP-centric. So, though serious fans of Haley likely had all or most of these songs on singles, this format would still be a good introduction to people who only had one, or who had none. Moreover, for us, 65 years later, it makes way more sense to listen to a compilation of Haley’s first singles then listening to them individually. (Though that’s way easier now that digital downloads and streaming services exist. In the CD era it would have been insane to buy up the singles.)

The issue with calling this the first ever rock and roll LP is, as Little Richard would say, “Rock and Roll” is just the white people name for “Rhythm and Blues”. I don’t entirely agree with that, especially later when both genres clearly departed from each other. But in 1954 this point was rather salient. Rhythm and Blues had existed for anywhere between 10 and 20 years already – depending upon your definition – and the only thing really marking this music out as a distinct genre is the sheer whiteness of it.
And make no mistake: this music sounds <i>white</i>. Bill Haley might be the first major rock and roll pioneer, as remembered by the music industry, but this music has just an unmistakable veneer of whiteness. (By that I mean that it sounds significantly less cool than contemporary R&B and, moreover, lacks some of that genre’s swing and ease.)

It reminds me of a fascinating episode of Revisionist History about cultural appropriation and Pat Boone, specifically, where they try to excuse Pat Boone from the charge of cultural appropriation because Pat Boone’s music sounds so unbelievably white. The idea is that Pat Boone transformed his music in ways in which white rock and roll pioneers often didn’t. You may not like how pop and white Pat Boone’s version of rock and roll sounds, but there’s no mistaking him for Little Richard or Chuck Berry. So to with Bill Haley – though he beat Elvis to the punch in the LP race, Haley’s music is unmistakeably that of a white fan of Rhythm and Blues, it does not sound like the genuine article. (Elvis often sounds like the genuine article.)

So, though on a personal level as a listener, I really don’t particularly like Haley’s take on Rock and Roll, I find the whole thing kind of awkward and I generally do not like pop version of genres, I do think you can make a case that, by playing the music this way, Haley wasn’t taking the jobs or money of black people. (A charge you could make towards a white singer who sounds more authentic.) And I think you could argue that’s a good thing – he provides a safe gateway to a genre while also not serving as a substitute for anyone who becomes a real fan of the genre once they’re aware of it. That fan will hopefully go spend money on records by black R&B pioneers and maybe even brave the circuit.

Of course, I could be completely full of shit. And I still wouldn’t choose to listen to this album over the music of basically any other rock and roll pioneer.

8/10 I guess

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