“Rock On” is a song that was composed and sung by English singer/songwriter David Essex in 1973. In March 1974, it reached #1 in Canada on the RPM national Top Singles chart and was a Top 5 song (reaching the 5 position) on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 pop-music chart. It was Essex’s only Billboard Top 40 hit. The song also reached the #3 spot on the UK Singles Chart. “Rock On” was the title track to Essex’s 1973 debut album and was also featured on the soundtrack album to the 1973 film That’ll Be the Day, in which Essex had a starring role. The song can still frequently be heard on classic rock and oldies radio stations.
The song features a slow-tempo vocal performance in a minor key, along with a minimalist, heavily-bass-driven instrumental accompaniment to Essex’s vocals. The lyric pays homage to early rock and roll and its surrounding youth subculture, and notably to 1950s iconic rebel James Dean. The musical arrangement is quite distinctive. While Essex’s voice is overlaid with reverb, which itself echoes early rock-n-roll production, Herbie Flowers’ bass guitar is inflected with a very obtrusive delay-echo effect. Delay echoes, when run at very high frequencies, transform into reverb. The halting delay effect thus essentialises, but at the same time undercuts, the smooth reverb-laden vocal and its “right” location in a more straightforward 1950s homage. Meanwhile, the delay is radically opposed to clean-cut rock-n-roll rhythms. The song begins with a heartbeat representation, which then is heard to disrupt settled rhythm: the dialectic of life becomes subversive, rather than the youthful and joyous “heart” of rock’s typical bass drum/snare drum alternation. The bass guitar is the “wrong” instrument to be echo-delayed. Such musico-conceptual tensions give rise to the recording’s unsettled, dislocated feel, which is further intensified by haunting proto-disco strings and a soulful Motown-esque male voice in occasional harmony. Essex’s first hit pop single is like nothing he recorded subsequently as a UK teenybop idol. “Rock On” can be linked to Don McLean’s 1971 song, “American Pie”, as a mysterious valediction for the recent past. “Rock On” might otherwise be located within the 1950s nostalgia strand in popular music of the 1970s; though in this context, Essex’s allusive, ambiguous song is quite unlike typical expressions of the nostalgia boom, for example the hits of the UK band Showaddywaddy.
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