Music history: the sound and legacy of “Jailhouse Rock”

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On Sept. 24, 1957, Elvis Presley released “Jailhouse Rock.” The song was released as a 45, and was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. “Jailhouse Rock’s” hard-hitting beats, rhythmic breaks, and references to real-life criminals gave Presley’s image a tougher edge. So enduring was the song that 30 years later, it became a single for hair metal masters Motley Crue. This ensured the song’s legacy for another generation of rock fans.

The song appeared in the movie of the same name in November 1957. The single itself went to No. 1, while the movie did not fare as well, Still the imagery from the movie, the reference that the rhythm section was comprised of “The Purple Gang” all added up to a veneer of toughness for Presley.

A song does not get a “legacy” simply by having been released a long time ago. A track earns its place in history by new audiences finding it meaningful despite the passage of time.

That is exactly what happens with “Jailhouse Rock.” Even with the cover version, listeners can still hear the kick of the drums that set the tone for everything else. In the original, the boogie-woogie piano is a nice touch that offers a bit of nuance to the song. “Jailhouse Rock” has a swagger that even if it didn’t come from the song (but how could it not?) it would have come from the premise: going to a party at the county jail. The idea is either hilarious or bold, or both. And it sets the tone for each line of the lyrics.

Motley Crue and the King: “Jailhouse Rock”

The hard rock version of “Jailhouse Rock” is live. Singer Vince Neil informs the audience that they are recording live. Guitars and drums launch into the familiar rhythm. The audience goes crazy. Motley Crue’s version offers audiences a frenetic energy for the song. The exchange between band and listeners seem to indicate a shared knowledge of the song’s place in history and the enthusiasm from the crowd to hear it done by their favorite rock band.

Motley Crue’s version of “Jailhouse Rock” can be found on the 1987 release, “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

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