GLS / 1956 / Hong Kong
Hoover Cinema program for The Blackboard Jungle
Rock N' Roll arrived in Hong Kong at the Hoover cinema on 4 November 1955 with The Blackboard Jungle. The theme music was Rock Around The Clock performed by Bill Haley and the Comets. It made a tremendous impact on squaddies bored with the sacharine banalities of Doris Day and Dean Martin.

Rock N' Roll was an eclectic style of popular music that lasted only a couple of years from 1955 to about 1957. In the US the music charts were largely divided by ethnicity. White music was divided into categories such as Country & Western, etc., but all black music was lumped together into one category, originally known as the "Race Chart". By the 1940s this had been replaced by the less-contentious term "Rhythm and Blues", which was deemed to embrace the significant aspects of black music. Jazz was considered a seperate category of its own as it was by then a minority interest and had both a white and a black following.

By 1954 white American teenagers were bored with the popular music of the times and began to listen to black music, and even buy black records. Tracks by black musicians such as Little Richard began to become popular, and the music industry soon reacted to this trend. White groups began to copy black styles and Rock N' Roll was born.

A Country and Western Group known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen grabbed the ubiquitous saxaphone and reinvented themselves as Bill Haley and the Comets. They were followed by a host of other groups. The most famous artist of the time was of course Elvis Presley, who could not only do the moves but actually sounded black. Some blacks who had only heard Presley on radio were very surprised when they saw him in the flesh.

Of course some of the Rock N' Roll lyrics did not make a great deal of sense outside of their black context - for instance "Don't you step on my blue suede shoes" was only meaningful to someone who understood the cultural significance of "signifying".

Rock N' Roll embraced many styles and many periods. Ancient black classics such as Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill had a new lease of life and was in every Hong Kong jukebox. Contempory black groups made it into the pop charts. Everybody knew the Platters' Only You, The Great pretender, and You'll Never Never Know, But it couldn't last.

America was deeply segregated and a reaction set in. The music industry obliged and the dead hand of commerce sucked the vitality out of the genre when it pushed for white cover versions of the popular black works. After all, if you had heard Little Richard's rendition of Lucille, why on earth would you want to listen to the cover version made by Pat Boone?

In the UK it was worse. Rock N' Roll never made the same impact as it did in the US. At the time there were stict limits on the release of music by American musicians, and anything popular usually had a cover version made by a British artist. In the UK being able to hear an American musician was a rarity, let alone black-American musicians.

Rock N' Roll finally died when the public appetite swung back to more sentimental and less challenging music. Banality became the norm with Bud Holly's Peggy Sue which appeared in July 1957 and hit a spot with American college kids - and would-be imitators. Eventually the world ended up listening to the Beatles - four acceptably clean-cut young men playing (apparently) clean-cut music which went down equally well with adolescent girls and their mums.