Rock & roll exploded in the ’50s onto a cultural landscape that was so uptight and repressed as to be unrecognizable today, even to those who lived through it. Everything — from the clothes young people wore to the music they listened to to the money they spent — was a hard-fought statement, because no youth group before those ’50s teenagers ever had that kind of freedom and did something with it. Pop music was bland, bland, bland (just like it is now) and the bigger and badder and bolder rock & roll became, the more of a threat it was to the status-quo squares who banned it every chance they got. You couldn’t listen to it, you couldn’t dance to it at your school, concerts in public places were banned, and artists were often jailed for performing it in public.
Make no mistake about it, this music is full of abandon and release and joy. It is far more than just the roots of today’s music; this is loud, nutzo, visceral, screaming-in-the-night music that is unfortunately being killed off in order to feel-good us into buying hamburgers and pantyhose.
Enter Rhino Records. As America’s #1 reissue label, Rhino will be the first to tell you that artists in its catalog — like Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Ballard, and Carl Perkins — don’t sell diddly-squat compared to the latest ’60s day-glo reissue or disco box sets that regularly get all the critical kudos.
To stem this tide and right this historical wrong (and no doubt shed a little light onto the darker regions of Rhino’s catalog in the bargain; remember, there are still bean counters to answer to), comes this delightful four-disc collection of everything that’s right about original rock and roll. There aren’t any safe, cutesy Bobbies or Frankies aboard, no cloying novelties that barely passed for the real thing in the early days. What is included here is just the raw stuff that set jukeboxes and radio dials aflame, and spread the word that rock and roll was something new, fun, wicked, and dangerous.
There are front-line hits from Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Gene Vincent, as well as sides from all of those who were influential beyond their lowly chart status (kudos to Rhino on this point alone). There are rockabilly classics galore from names both famous and super obscure (more points in their favor), R&B and jump from pioneers like Louis Prima, Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, and LaVern Baker, and offbeat instrumentals, like “Woo-Hoo” by the Rock-A-Teens, that stand as testaments to rock and roll’s do-it-yourself spirit.
You could call this box the ultimate cruising set, except that you’ll be driving 20 miles per hour faster than you were planning on once this baby starts blaring. The transfers are excellent and there are top-notch essays from Billy Vera, Michael Ventura, and producer Gary Stewart that put the music in perspective. Those searching for perfect prom night or wedding reception music are advised to look elsewhere; “At the Hop” this ain’t. (AllMusic)