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Rock On (song)
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Rock On (song)

"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[1] 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.

Essex later re-recorded the song in 1988 with an updated lyric. The version, which was remixed by Shep Pettibone, appeared on Essex's 1989 album Touching the Ghost. A single release of the updated version reached No. 93 on the U.K. charts.

Arrangement and Interpretation

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.

The Essex recording is featured in the movies Dick, The Devil's Rejects and Sunset Strip, as well as in episodes of The Sopranos and Cold Case.

Michael Damian version

"Rock On" was covered by soap opera star and singer Michael Damian in 1989 and featured in the teen film, Dream a Little Dream, starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, among others.

Damian's version, which he also released from his independent album Where Do We Go From Here on the Cypress Records label, which A&M Records distributed, was a harder-edged interpretation that employed none of the vocal or instrumental distortion Essex's version had used. It reached the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, thus outperforming Essex's original Billboard ranking. However, the song did get to #1 for Essex in '74 on the US Cashbox charts, the same week it was at #11 on the Billboard Charts.

This version was ranked #99 on VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s (despite the fact that Damian actually had four Billboard charting singles during the '80s).

Other versions

The English hard-rock band Def Leppard covered the song on their 2006 album, Yeah!, which features cover versions of 1970s rock hits. It was released as the second single from the album.

The song has also been sung by Michael Jackson on several occasions.

The American alternative-rock group The Smashing Pumpkins included a live cover version of "Rock On", performed during their Sacred and Profane tour, on their 2001-release album Judas O, a bonus disc (containing B-sides and rarities) which accompanied the group's greatest hits album Rotten Apples.

The Canadian Artist Betty Moon covered the song on her debut album under the name "Bambi" in 1987. The song became a regional hit in Southern Ontario.

The American parody group The Traveling Pillsburys recorded a version with different lyrics, titled Spock On, in 1989, which was aired on the Dr. Demento radio show.

The song was covered by Austin, TX indie rock band Love Inks on its album E.S.P. in 2011.

The song was covered by Toni Basil on her album Word of Mouth.

The song was also covered by Adam Freeland, on the album "Cope".

Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor included a cover of the song on some versions of his 1990 covers album Dangerous.

The song was sampled in Toronto rapper Mayhem Morearty's "Rock N Roll" during mid 2000's [2]

*Library and Archives Canada shows this single to attain the #1 position on the date and hold it for one week. There is no chart for March 23 available. The March 30 chart shows the previous week's position to be #2.

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