David Essex hailed from working class London and launched his music career as a teen, releasing a string of barely heard singles in the mid to late 60’s. He began auditioning for acting roles, and just when it looked like thespianism might provide his path to fame and riches, he wrote a little song called “Rock On.”
In 1972, Essex signed on to play a singer in a movie called That’ll Be The Day – a period piece set in the early days of UK rock ‘n’ roll – and he hoped “Rock On” might be a chance for him to get an original song on both celluloid and soundtrack. He entered the studio with his unusual choice of producer, an accomplished advertising jingle writer named Jeff Wayne, and introduced the song to Wayne by banging out the rhythm on a trashcan lid. Meanwhile, the engineer slapped on some heavy, 50’s-style echo on the microphone to fill the empty space while Essex sang with only his own percussive accompaniment.
As Wayne listened, he decided that the emptiness added significantly to the atmosphere and drama of the track, and this, my friends, is a great example of why a producer with impeccable ears is so valuable. Wayne chose to make the arrangement as sparse as possible, in terms of both instrumentation (bass and percussion only on the basic track) and notes (no chords are ever played).
A few strings and horns were overdubbed and “Rock On” was ready to roll. Essex presented it to the producer of That’ll Be The Day who deemed it “too weird” for the soundtrack. While technically correct – the song didn’t fit in among the slew of golden oldies – in this case leaving “Rock On” out of the movie was probably a mistake.
When released as a single in the fall of 1973, “Rock On” went Top 5 in both the UK and the US (the only Top 40 hit for Essex in America), selling millions of copies worldwide.
Hey, kids! Rock ‘n’ roll….