The drums beat like someone who is announcing their presence by rattling some candy in a box. The space of the sound is huge; it seems as if the song is intimate and large at the same time, like the song is admitting that there is a lot of space, emptiness. The bass beckons; it lets you know that something's up, that if you're willing to listen, then here it is...
...and here is David Essex's voice, a knowing call, a stamp of approval; it almost sounds as if he is talking to the past, that near past of rock 'n' roll that by 1973 was being revived everywhere, from King's Road to Hollywood, trying to get back to the primal moment when someone in a pub or bar or basement or living room said, enough, things have got to change*. And along came rock 'n' roll to save the kids from being younger versions of their parents, of being pod people. All the signifiers, as the French thinkers would call them, are here - James Dean, blue suede shoes, the girl in blue jeans who is the real queen - but though he is recalling all this, he knows that there is something wrong. It is as if he is confronting The Fog as it happens, asking "And where do we go from here? Which is the way that's clear?" Because the simple dream of liberation that rock 'n' roll presented is now muddy, tie-dyed, and way overdue for something, but what? Essex (who wrote this song, a Luxembourg #2) may not know in the song besides the heroic call to "rock on" but the music tells a different story. It slinks around, horns and strings appear and disappear, the Real Thing come in to reaffirm that the girl is indeed the prettiest girl, and all at a pace that is entirely more to do with dub or even avant garde music than what bands like Slade or Wizzard were doing at the time. Producer Jeff Wayne and Essex wanted to make something new here, a song that pauses to ask just what on earth is rock 'n' roll for and what can it do? And as Essex exhorts us all to rock on, there he is talking to the kid - the one with the radio under the pillow, perhaps - as the song's space increases and echoes, as if to say that there is space here for you, whoever you are. Essex sounds as though he knows that yeah, being cool is good and everything, but there is something at stake here just besides watching old James Dean movies and looking for the girl. I see him calling out to the faithful, the ones who still don't fit in, the ones who maybe were too young to know about Beatlemania firsthand, let alone psychedelic freak-outs, and maybe those who love Glam but can sense that spangly stomping isn't going to last. The punches of quiet rock as hard as any guitar solos ("Jimmy Dean!" he calls out, as if to invoke him, bring him back to life) - is this the beginning of trip-hop? Of "quiet is the new loud"? This song takes rock 'n' roll and strips it back, not back to some kind of "authentic realness" but to the sense that it belongs to those who need it, the kids. If The Carpenters wanted to go back in time, only to find that maybe it wasn't all that great, then Essex is saying that maybe it can be great in the future, sure, but in the meantime there's a lot of work to be done - "Rock on!" being as much a call to action as anything. Persist and something will happen, spaces will appear, as dark and scary as things are getting (and with this you can hear the dreaded quiet of The Fog approaching, almost as a physical thing).
The emphasis on rhythm here is important too - the song comes up from the floor, there is no guitar, just a rumble, as if to say, this is the future - bass and drums, the beat, too slow to be a heartbeat but something tangible, sensual even. (Essex was a pin-up at the time and I can't ignore this, nor that this was included in the That'll Be The Day soundtrack.) As things get tougher, the essence of rock 'n' roll will remain, will be remade, will once again surprise and delight, nod it's head and say "Rock on" like a morse code, go UP and Down at just the right moments. It still stands as a call, a prophecy from here; and hip-hop begins, disco begins, the rhythms and beats and breathless pauses are all in here, in a song that can still be scary, a dare, a challenge - "Rock ON!"
Next up: what happens after you do get satisfaction.
*The recent success Richard & Adam's The Impossible Dream shows that there is still a segment of the music-buying public that maybe thinks that rock 'n' roll is okay but has had its day ("rebel rock has had its day...it has") and now is the time to turn back to what came before. I am not against this sort of thing if it is done well (pre-rock songs are pretty awesome, for the most part) but if it simply a recital or could be described in any way as "bonny wee" or "aw wee" and there isn't something a little...off about it (i.e. Neil Reid) , then that's not making it new. That's vintagizing repetition and a living death. "Rock On" is about keeping a hold on what has been and radically jumping into something new at the same time,