Here is the ghost in the Top 40 machine, a spectral cry to raise the dead. Here is the gleaming slice of occult vinyl that goes where no song has gone before, and comes back with the prettiest corpse in Hollywood history. Hear the exhortation to some nameless “kid” - and understand why there is a legend that the track was actually cut in James Dean’s tomb.
Pulsing from a million radios in the holy year of 73, David Essex’s “Rock On” is a fulcrum balancing both past and future, one of the crucial songs of this most crucial of years. Echoing in a haze of Jamaican dub (with reverb-soaked bass playing lead, tom-toms and congas giving a jungle vibe, dead stops opening into absolute harrowing silence, and no guitar) it anticipates music that will be supposedly cutting edge ten years later. “Rock On” also harks back to 50s-era poppy dreamland, conjuring up summertime blues and blue suede shoes.
It’s obvious, though, that more than nostalgia animates the singer. This compulsive call to “Rock On” rises years before cretin-metal devil horn handjiving. It doesn’t mean merely to get stupid and loud. This “Rock On” points toward ghosty resurrection. The question “Where do we go from here?” comes from nowhere and finds no answer. Sadness and death linger in the grooves. Multi-tracked vocals add to the opioid reverie. “See her shake on the movie screen.” Who is the “Baby Queen”? We never find out.
The hypnotic bass on “Rock On” is played by the great Herbie Flowers. Creating the brilliant throb-bottoms for 1972’s “Jump Into the Fire” and “Walk On the Wild Side,” anchoring Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album and hundreds of other hits, Herbie Flowers was the primo bass presence of the era.
Disco too lurks in the grooves. The strings on early-70s dance-hits are universally despised by critics and ignored by dance-floor fans. But the pocket-orchestra riffing is exactly what lifts disco from its banality. Disco’s beat is moronically monotonous, and the lyrics idiotic (“boogie oogie oogie” indeed). However, the sleaze of studio strings and quasi-jazz horn intrusions are exactly what brings the devotee back again and again.
As a one-hit wonder who ended up far more successful acting than making music, David Essex here does the cinematic mind-meld. The song veers toward romance (“prettiest girl I ever seen”), then fades into a lost-soul call: hissing slippery sibilants (“sssssssh”) and gospel wails (“oh my soul!”). More trance than dance, more necromantic spell than pop song, “Rock On” still lingers in the ether - tugging at the souls of dead stars and lonely planet kids who remember, or who have convinced themselves that their music-spawned memories are real.
Blame Th. Metzger Labels: Stereo Throb - 1973