On 6 February, 1958, British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich-Riem Airport in West Germany. Slush on the runway caused the plane to smash through a fence, and it then hit a house, tearing the left win off. On board the craft were the Manchester United football team, then known as ‘Busby’s Babes’ after their manager, Matt Busby, along with supporters and journalists. The team hadn’t been beaten for 11 matches and were one of the best in the country. 20 people died at the scene of the Munich Air Disaster that day, and one on the way to hospital. Among them were seven of Busby’s Babes. Bobby Charlton and Busby were among the survivors, but the manager and several other players were seriously injured.
Number 1 at the time of this terrible event was Elvis Presley’s second chart-topper, Jailhouse Rock. It had made history as the first single to do straight in at number 1 (and did so again when it was re-released in 2005 – making it the first single to repeat the feat). It deserved to. Unlike All Shook Up, which I was rather lukewarm about, Jailhouse Rock is certainly a classic, and one of Presley’s best songs.
The title track of Elvis’s latest film, it had been written by one of the most famous songwriting partnerships of all time – Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. They had worked with him before, but it was on this film that they developed a close working relationship. The singer came to regard them as his ‘good-luck charm’, and Lieber and Stoller were impressed by his knowledge of black music after initial reservations about his authenticity.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire, Jailhouse Rock has an excellent intro that grabs from the get-go. Unlike that song, which rocks immediately, the tension builds, with Elvis starting the story behind that famous beat, before kicking into gear with the chorus. As catchy as the song is, and the band put in a great performance, the key here is Elvis’s delivery. It’s possibly his finest vocal performance, and it’s a damn shame he never let rip quite like this again. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a novelty song – the kind Lieber and Stoller enjoyed writing for The Coasters. Elvis plays it completely straight, and you’re too busy enjoying the performance to take too much notice of the silly lyrics. Notably, it’s the first song to contain homosexual references at number 1:
‘Number forty-seven said to number three
“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see
I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me”‘
In a decade in which previous number 1 Answer Me got into trouble purely for using God’s name, this seems somewhat surprising. You could look at it as progress, but it’s perhaps more likely to have either been considered a joke or was missed by everyone enjoying the song too much at the time. There’s also a reference to real-life mobsters The Purple Gang in there, too.
Jailhouse Rock is the sound of a legendary artist at the top of his game, and I ‘get’ Elvis completely when I hear this. It’s such a shame he became stuck doing so many saccharine ballads for films as the years went by.
Written by: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Producer: Steve Sholes
Weeks at number 1: 3 (24 January-13 February)
Musician Jools Holland – 24 January
Comedian Linda Smith – 29 January
British broadcasting executive Michael Jackson – 11 February
Scientist Steve Grand – 12 February
Manchester United players and associates in the Munich air disaster – 6 February: Roger Byrne (team captain), Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Frank Swift (journalist and former Manchester City and England goalkeeper)
Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst – 13 February