- 09 Sep 10
It has sometimes occurred to your correspondent, after one too many cups of tea, that Sun Studios was a hell door or a portal to another dimension, and its proprieter Sam Phillips a necromancer summoning dark spirits upon the earth through the wizardry of slap-back echo. Never have so many dark and electrifying sounds emanated from one postal address, namely 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
Maybe all great rock ‘n’ roll, from the Sex Pistols to Public Enemy to Godspeed, sounds like the end of the world. A few years back in a Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan spoke about the impact of the atomic bomb on 20th century culture. Before Oppenheimer, music was agrarian and strange and insular. Afterwards, rock ‘n’ roll felt urgent and imperative because it seemed the world was on a permanent short fuse.
“The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it,” he said. “I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all those early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before. Lyrically you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn’t singing about the stuff that Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee were singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction.”
And consider for a moment the legendary Million Dollar Quartet summit, a jam session that took place in Sun Studios in December 1956 when Elvis returned to Sam Phillips's fold like the proverbial prodigal (having defected to RCA the year before) to join Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins around the piano, during the course of which some 40-odd numbers were recorded and eventually released in LP form.
Talk about the talent in the room: Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Carl, the original Mount Rushmore idols of rock 'n' roll, the four horsemen of the rockabilly apocalypse, a quartet whose ruckus resonated louder than the H-bomb itself through the postwar void when anything seemed possible because everyone was doomed, when the world's nervous system was warped by the knowledge that mankind possessed the capability to annihilate itself and so every threatened moment counted, all they had was now because tomorrow might never come, and it bestowed upon their music the molten heat of madness, Elvis's fever, Jerry Lee's great balls of fire, Johnny's ring of fire, Carl's St Vitus dancing madness... And Roy Orbison bringing up the rear like the Grim Reaper himself or a dark angel of pop opera wearing shades and black sackcloth and keening his end-of-rainbows hymns.
Armageddon never sounded so good.