The trailblazing aspects of “Jailhouse Rock”


The popularity of Elvis Presley and that of any of his hits need not be explained to most people of a certain age. What is interesting though, upon closer inspection of “Jailhouse Rock,” was how Presley managed to set a style and tone standard for rock genres to come.

The point here is not to blindly idolize Presley. He had his flaws as do all humans, whether they are wildly famous or not. Also, the purpose is not to declare Presley the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll – – he isn’t. But, as an early performer in the genre, when his works are covered 30 years later, by a heavy metal band, unexpected similarities appear that some audiences might have overlooked.

“Jailhouse Rock” recorded music and film

The song “Jailhouse Rock” was included in the film of the same name. The song was released in late September 1957, and the movie followed in November of that same year. The setting is a jail, where an out-of-work construction laborer (Presley) is sentenced to two years in jail for manslaughter after a bar fight goes fatal. An incarcerated down-on-his-luck country singer teaches Presley’s character to play guitar after hearing him sing. A series of hijinks ensue. Presley performs “Jailhouse Rock” in one scene.

Already, with just the synopsis of the film, audiences can see a certain cultural shift taking place. The country singer is depicted as having a problematic character, and Presley, as the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll, is at times the victim of the country singer’s schemes. Perhaps that wasn’t intentional, but it is certainly there. Maybe the point was to make the singer’s character appear like a (somewhat) good guy.

At any rate, the film received mixed reviews, but the song went to No. 1. This popularity helped to ensure Presley’s influence long after his death in 1977.

The song itself is opened by hard, strident guitar and drums. The guitar’s up-and-down-sounding couplet does a sort of call and response to the drums. That sound kicks the song open. The lyrics are unapologetically impolite. For one, the song takes place in a jail and features a warden who allows a party. And, two, mention is made of The Purple Gang is mentioned as being the rhythm section. The song is self-referential and self-aware.

Presley’s voice is a bit rougher than in previous songs, and underneath it all, through the lyrics, the thudding of the bass, there is a growing feeling of menace.

Mötley Crüe and “Jailhouse Rock”

Thirty years later, bad boys of glam metal, Mötley Crüe, included a live version of “Jailhouse Rock” on their 1987 album, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Interesting things happen to “Jailhouse Rock” when it turns metal. One thing that happens, is that the menace that was hinted at in the original is in audience’s faces in the glam metal version. The other thing that occurs is the song speeds up. It almost sounds like hardcore in places. Further, the bass is almost as present in the cover as in the original, but because the electric bass has a different sound than the upright variety, Mötley Crüe’s version is a bit darker when the bass comes through in the instrumentation.

There is a similar vocal technique in both versions. The delivery is a clenched-teeth, half-spoken approach in the verses. The flow in the chorus is more fluid, but it is still shouty in both versions, especially during the phrase, “let’s rock/ everybody in the whole cell block/will be dancing to the jailhouse rock.”

Both versions succeed in the arrangement that includes the guitar and bass exchanging two notes with the drums. The tension there makes the whole song.

In Mötley Crüe’s version, the ending is stretched out until the song’s blues foundation is exposed, and there is some vocal vamping. Also, in the latter portion, there is an electric guitar solo.

While it doesn’t appear that the glam metal version of “Jailhouse Rock” was released as a single, the album it appeared on did very well. The album “Girls, Girls, Girls” reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200, No. 12 Billboard Hot 100, and No. 20 on Mainstream Rock. In 1995, the album was certified platinum.

The compare and contrast between Presley’s version of “Jailhouse Rock,” and Mötley Crüe’s demonstrates how the original contained some elements of popular music that would become standard for rock ‘n’ roll in the decades to come.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.