It was April 1954 when Bill Haley and His Comets recorded a song with the title ‘Rock Around The Clock’ that became one of the biggest-selling singles in the 1950s.
Haley and the band recorded the song as a late addition to their A-side single ‘Thirteen Women and Only One Man In Town’, a song about a nuclear bomb blast that left only 14 people alive. ‘Thirteen Women…’ was a moderately successful song. It sold around 75,000 copies.
Roughly a year after releasing ‘Rock Around The Clock’, MGM did a deal with publisher Jimmy Myers for the use of the song in an upcoming feature film called The Blackboard Jungle, when the track was not terribly well known.
The Blackboard Jungle looked at teenage-delinquency in an American high school and starred Glenn Ford, Anne Francis and a young Sidney Poitier. The topic was quite controversial at the time of the movie’s release.
The film’s director, Richard Brooks, made the decision to play ‘Rock Around The Clock’ over the opening credits of the film. The impact was explosive (though perhaps tame by today’s standards); adults were shocked by the violent disobedience of the teenagers on-screen.
However, the younger audiences’ reactions were entirely different. In many cinemas, kids were dancing in the aisles when the song was played. In some theatres there was a perceived link between rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion, which led to abominably bad behaviour.
A buying frenzy was started, roughly a million copies were purchased in the month of March 1955 alone! The song topped the charts, the first by a rock ‘n’ roll band to do so, and it stayed there for 24 weeks, eight of which were in the number one spot.
At Princeton University, New Jersey, one of the most prestigious schools in the United States, a student played ‘Rock Around The Clock’ on his record player and within minutes there was a full-scale riot with students burning rubbish and chanting wildly. Dancing erupted outside the dormitory until the dean successfully talked the students down and persuaded them to return to their dormitory.
The reaction was repeated with even more violence when The Blackboard Jungle opened in Britain, where some theatres stopped showing the movie due to the violent behaviour of the so-called Teddy boys.
The film made headlines for rock ‘n’ roll all over the world, establishing a connection between this new form of music and insurrection, but this did not do any harm to ‘Rock Around The Clock’ which was re-released in June 1955. It also topped the charts in the United Kingdom and Australia, before re-entering the charts in 1974 when it was used as the theme song for the popular TV series Happy Days.
Bill Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and The Comets were inducted in 2012. Haley had a significant influence on a generation of singers, and there’s no question about ‘Rock Around The Clock’ having its place in music history.