The arrival of rock and roll in Britain, and particularly the film Rock Around the Clock, was greeted by a chorus of disapproval that verged on atavistic fear.
The Times warned that we might see a replication of scenes from the United States, where there had been: ‘Outbursts of violence spurred by the heavy, pulsing beat of this latest derivative of Negro blues, by the moaning suggestiveness of most of its songs.’ The Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe denounced the movie as ‘musical Mau Mau’, and worried that ‘a fourth-rate film with fifth-rate music can pierce through the thin shell of civilization and turn people into wild dervishes’. And Sir Malcolm Sargent, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, clearly shared his perspective: ‘It is nothing more than an exhibition of primitive tom-tom thumping,’ he shuddered. ‘There is nothing new or wonderful about it. “Rock and roll” has been played in the jungle for centuries.’
At least the bandleader Ted Heath could take some comfort from these analyses, explaining that rock and roll simply wouldn’t take off in Britain: ‘You see, it is primarily for the coloured population.’
Such comments had a particular resonance in the mid-1950s, as Britain began to come to terms with the imminent loss of its imperial status. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya had effectively been crushed by the time Thorpe made his comparison between Bill Haley and Jomo Kenyatta, but the demands everywhere for national liberation continued to grow; indeed, the timetable had already been agreed that would see Ghana become the first African colony to gain independence in 1957. In this context, one can see a certain fear that in rock and roll the empire was somehow striking back: ‘We sometimes wonder whether this is the Negro’s revenge,’ is how the Daily Mail put it in a 1956 front-page editorial headlined ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL BABIES’.
(Nearly a quarter of a century later, almost as if in ironic reciprocation, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s newly elected Prime Minister, was keen for Cliff Richard to headline at the country’s independence celebrations; sadly, he was over-ruled and Bob Marley and the Wailers appeared instead.)
By the end of 1956 the phrase itself had become sufficiently negative that it had entered the lexicon of political abuse, with Labour MP Alice Bacon denouncing Sir Anthony Eden’s administration as ‘a rock and roll government’. But for those young enough not to care who Eden was, let alone Alice Bacon, there was little doubt that Bill Haley and his Comets were very definitely a good thing, even if it was all a bit of a culture shock.
‘We were terribly British,’ pointed out Marty Wilde later. ‘It was hard for us to latch onto this new thing of dressing up like they did and lying on your back playing a bass upside down…’