By 1957, Rock & Roll had its grip on America’s youth sufficiently enough that its supposed detrimental effects had become common knowledge. It made kids horny, violent, disrespectful little criminals. A nation of teenage werewolves. With that came some impassioned defenses from the Rock & Rollers who bashed out this heinous new form of “music.” In the case of “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” by 15-year old Frankie Lymon, it came from an actual teen too. His call for his fellow youngsters to “stay out of trouble” is weepily sincere, but Lymon’s tragic true story told a different tale.
19. “The Monster” by Billy Ford and the Thunderbirds
Frankie Lymon’s doo-wop plea is lovely, but it’s not the most defiant stance. Billy Ford and the Thunderbird’s (soon to transform into the soul duo Billy & Lillie) “The Monster” is another beast entirely. “I’m the monster Rock & Roll” he growls, threatening that everything you moms and dads fear about your kids’ music is true, true, true. The louder the critics complain, the harder he rocks. Try cutting off his head, and two will grow in its place. As his young fans grow up, they’ll still love him and worship him as a king. That every one of Ford’s monstrous assertions would come true shows that parents really did have something to fear in Rock & Roll. Hail, hail the monster!
18. “Pink Champagne” by The Tyrones
Rock & Roll is dumb, inarticulate, a bad influence that appeals to its fans’ basest instincts. Yeah, so what’s your point? Down some booze, whip your hair and hips to the out-of-control, endlessly modulating mania of The Tyrones’ “Pink Champagne”. “Wine! Wine! Wine!” the boys shout in unison to a raunch-o-la sax wail. The track may begin with a list of all the ways pink champagne wrecked the singers’ lives, but their cheery delivery and chug-a-lug chant speaks a lot louder. Get drunk, get crazy. Rock & Roll’s essence served up in long-stemmed crystal.
17. “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors
Rock & Roll wasn’t all monsters and boozehounds. Sometimes perfectly nice young men got on the dance floor to impel other clean-cut youngsters to join them for some good, clean swinging and twirling at the good, clean school dance. There isn’t a trace of groin in Danny and the Junior’s “come on, guys, let’s hop in my dad’s car and head on over to the hop” invitation. But that piano player sure sounds like he’s been gobbling speed with both hands. This is fast, infectious shit, a subversive suggestion that Rock & Roll is just harmless dance music that gets wilder with each repeat so that by the end of the track, you’ve unfurled your ponytail, kicked off your bobby socks, and sweated right through your poodle skirt.
16. “King Kong” by Big “T” Tyler
The same year that Rock & Roll really took off, another great corrupter of youth was getting its second wind. When Hammer studios launched its Gothic cycle with The Curse of Frankenstein, horror was back in action, and it found an easy simpatico with the monster Rock & Roll. One of the earliest horror Rock classics pays tribute to the biggest, meanest monster of them all: King Kong. Soul shouter Big “T” Tyler’s legacy isn’t quite as imposing as that of the big ape. After recording this one mighty single, Chris Tyler stomped out of the Rock & Roll business for good.
15. “Bony Moronie” by Larry Williams
There was an odd subgenre of songs defining women by their body types in ‘50s Rock & Roll: “Short Fat Fannie”, “Long Tall Sally”, Skinny Minnie”, etc., etc. Little Richard’s “Sally” was the hardest rocking, but the swingingest was Larry Williams’s “Bony Moronie”, a girl as skinny as a stick of macaroni. The singer’s New Orleans roots are evident in the piano and brass-powered riffing. Williams only managed one other top twenty hit, the aforementioned ode to a certain rotund Fannie, but he recorded enough winners that British Invaders from The Beatles to The Stones to The Who— who’d have their way with “Bony Moronie”— used his discography like a bottomless goodie bag.
14. “Bi-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
Like Larry Williams, Gene Vincent’s legacy well outweighs his chart prowess, which was limited to the sultry “Be-Bop-a-Lula” and (as a commentator noted below) the less well-remembered "Lotta Lovin'". Much more raucous than either of those tracks, and just as nonsensical as Vincent’s signature number, “Bi-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” wasn’t the hit its Rock-a-billy-defining mania deserved. His Blue Caps whip up such a lather that they can’t keep themselves from screaming along with the beat. Cliff Gallup earns his high-octane name by zipping up and down his guitar neck with adroitness nearly unthinkable at such top speeds.
13. “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley
Precisely six months to the day before he was sucked into the U.S. army, Elvis Presley put out one of the final specimens of his days as a truly unhinged rocker. The rhythm section’s sneering unison thumps, Elvis’s pelvic screech, Lieber and Stoller’s far-out lyric in which a “sad sack” cries in the corner of his cell because he can’t find a fellow inmate to dance with! This is potent Rock & Roll; no need to remember it was recorded for the soundtrack of one of the King’s goofy movies, which would rule his career way too much when he returned from his military stint. “Treat Me Nice”, the other side of this double-sided hit, is a taste of how nice and safe Elvis would be upon his return to civilian life. That’s why “Jailhouse Rock” is the side we spin so much more often today.
12. “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
Even more so than Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis made the most convincing bid to establish the baby grand as the rockingest tool since the Stratocaster. The Killer used his piano as an instrument to pound on and a second stage to pounce on, and nowhere can you hear how much Jerry Lee abused that fucking thing than on “Great Balls of Fire”. Stand back when he thumps that mother on the ascending intro. Then when everything gets in gear, he effortlessly pumps the boogie with his left hand while shuddering glissandos down the tippy-top keys. Lewis’s vocal is just as unpredictable, whooping and hiccupping and yowling and mmmmm feeling good, supporting the theory that those balls of fire are the ones in his pleated pants. Goodness gracious!
11. “Rockin’ This Joint To-Nite” by Kid Thomas
Whoah, Daddy-O… grab onto something tight! Is this the birth of punk rock twenty years ahead of schedule? They don’t make radar guns sensitive enough to clock how fast the prodigiously pompadoured Kid Thomas is racing on his one known single “Rockin’ This Joint To-Night”. The Kid had just as much trouble controlling his pace in every day life; in 1969 he accidentally ran over a kid on his way to his job as a lawn mower. The boy’s distraught dad gunned our fallen hero down outside the courthouse where he’d just been cleared of manslaughter charges.
10. “Rock Billy Boogie” by Johnny Burnette
Johnny Burnette didn’t invent the term “Rockabilly”, but he sure dropped down one of the subgenre’s archetypal numbers on the flip of “If You Want It Enough”. The grungy riff is just a slight alteration of his most famous rocker, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”. His defiant hiccup cracks through the dirty lowdown, laying claim to a term his fellow rockers deemed an insult because they didn’t dig getting compared to hillbillies.
9. “Red Hot” by Billy Riley & His Little Green Men
Rock & Roll’s meanest taunt. Billy Riley sneers at a rival rocker whose gal ain’t doodly squat. Riley’s is red hot, and he barely has to back up his claim, because when his Little Green Men start ripping, it ain’t the hotness of Riley’s lady friend we’re thinking about. Sun Records never found a more appropriate theme song—and one adapted from a cheerleader jeer, at that! Get yer face nice and close to your speaker and feel the flames licking your cheek. Ouch!
8. “Hey! Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley
Did any pre-hip hop artist get more mileage out of his own name than the Diddley Daddy? He wrote and sang songs with titles such as “Bo Diddley”, “Hey! Bo Diddley”, “Bo Diddley is a Lover”, “Bo Diddley is an Outlaw”, “Bo Diddley is Loose”, “Bo Diddley is Crazy”, “Bo Diddley Put the Rock in Rock and Roll”, “Bo Diddley Vamp”, “Bo Diddley’s Dog”, “Bo Meets the Monster”, and “Diddley Daddy”. And that’s just a sampling. On his first single of 1957, Bo’s name is a chant floating over a melody pilfered from “Hush, Little Baby” and the patented “shave-and-a-haircut” Diddley beat. Narcissism has rarely been so hypnotic.
7. “Wake Up, Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers
Phil and Don Everly looked so clean scrubbed compared to their raunchier chart mates. How could one of their sweetly harmonized country poppers stir controversy? Well, it did when “Wake Up, Little Susie” was interpreted as a tale of teen sexing and banned in certain markets throughout the country. All that “ooh la la” is fine for the history books, but what makes this such a great record is how complete a statement it is. Whereas most of the era’s records offered little more than a stomping beat and a title phrase repeated over and over, “Susie” has every ingredient of a great song: a memorable guitar lick, an infectious chorus, an actual bridge (!), and a fully-realized plot that isn’t quite as scandalous as the prigs assumed. Plus, those cheeky harmonies that are the real reason to slap your 89 cents on the counter for the latest Everlys single.
6. “Frenzy” by Screamin Jay Hawkins
Alice Cooper may think he invented horror rock, but that ghoul’s gonna have to fall in line behind Mr. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Patterning himself on a bone-nosed witch doctor, Hawkins wielded a skull-headed scepter and screamed about blood gushing from his heart amidst the frenzy of love. Only Vampira would have swooned upon receipt of this minor-key valentine. Only a pit bull would have taken Screamin’ Jay’s cheek-wobbling, saliva-spraying gnarl as a come on.
5. “Little Bitty Pretty One” by Thurston Harris
“Wake Up, Little Susie” displayed a level of compositional development rarely heard in 1957. Thurston Harris’s “Little Bitty Pretty One” stewed Rock & Roll down to the bones. One chord, one hand-clappin’ beat, one hummed mantra. The rising and falling dynamic and the choir’s joyous shout transform these base elements into something sublime. If not for the fade, you could play it on a loop and never know when it starts or ends. You might never need another record either. This isn’t the best song on this list, but it’s the most transcendent recording.
4. “Keep A-Knockin’” by Little Richard
Charles Connor likely worked up his drum intro to convey the sound of a hand knocking on a door. Sounds more like a skull smashing through a windshield. Only Little Richard could deliver on the delirium that opening promises. He screams his pompadoured head off with a psychotic’s determination. Was “Keep A-Knockin’” really once fodder for the mid-tempo piano boogying of James “Boodle It” Wiggins or the sweetly swinging likes of Louis Jordan? Little Richard renders this standard into a complete original with both fists flailing. Not recommended to those with heart conditions.
3. “Come Go With Me” by The Del-Vikings
Could this be the finest doo-wop record of all time? The Del-Viking’s signature record is spacious, transporting, a balloon inflated with sweet air to whisk you off to destinations most romantic. At first, the interjectory screams seem out of place in such a wistful piece of music, but those must be screams of bliss.
2. “Peggy Sue/Every Day” by Buddy Holly
Did Buddy Holly not know the meaning of the word “filler”? The idea of two such sublime recordings sitting on either side of the same single must have seemed so wasteful in the pre-Beatles days. But here you have them, two indelible classics, each providing ample evidence of Holly’s Pop & Roll brilliance. On the A-side: the cavernous echo, the roiling, boiling Rock & Roll of Jerry Allison’s drum kit, Buddy’s cheerful hiccup and limber-wristed Stratocaster strumming. On the B-side… the B-side?!?... the birth of twee pop, a lullaby of excruciating beauty, the heart-swelling promise of ever-growing love, and Vi Petty’s celestial celesta twinkling like the constellations. The “Peggy Sue”/”Every Day” single is like a Buddy Holly’s greatest hits album hacked down to the basics and spinning at 45 rpms.
1. “Rock and Roll Music”, “School Days”, “Oh Baby Doll”, and “Havana Moon” by Chuck Berry
How do you narrow down Chuck Berry’s best record in a year that saw him unleash “Rock and Roll Music”, “School Days”, “Oh Baby Doll”, and “Havana Moon”? Each record offers something so different from a guy who sometimes seemed like he just kept putting out the same song over and over and over. You get your anthemic fix from “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days”, the former singing the praises of teens’ favorite medium, the latter protesting their greatest nemesis. “Oh Baby Doll” is a breezy but manic story of romantic paranoia. “Havana Moon” is Berry at his most picturesque and atmospheric, the dreamiest calypso. What to choose? What to choose? Dang it all. Rock & Roll ain’t about choosing; it’s about gluttony! Toss them all on the turntable, set that thing to automatic, and repeat until nirvana sets in. Shouldn’t take long.