Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Oozin’ and cruisin’ along!

In the immediate post-war years, the term rocket became the perfect metaphor for branding consultants and ad-men. Troubling associations with the slaughter of civilians in the war just ended were soon forgotten in the Cold War era as the rocket became a symbol of peace; a defence against the Soviet menace. In the late 1940s Oldsmobile launched the Rocket 88 in an advertising campaign that took full advantage of all the associations with dynamism, energy and velocity. The big red beast at the top is a Rock Island Rocket streamline diesel passenger train. The pride of the Rock Island Railroad (immortalised in song by Leadbelly), it was a product of the late Machine Age when introduced in 1937.

The publicity for the Rocket 88 was especially rich in futurist rhetoric with Whirlaway Hydra-Matic Drive and high-compression Rocket power constantly invoked. One example features the Futuramic Oldsmobile as a companion to a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house to drive home the comparison with forward thinking and cutting edge design. It seems to have been an effective strategy because the campaign persisted for several years.

Meanwhile in Memphis in March 1951, Sam Phillips (whose Sun Records was as yet, unborn) recorded Jackie Brenston, accompanied by Ike Turner, performing Rocket 88 that in later years became a much-touted contender for the rather pointless accolade of “first ever Rock ‘n’ Roll record”. Brenston wrote the lyrics as an extended exercise in double-entendre and grafted them on to a tune known as Cadillac Boogie (recorded by Joe Liggins). The song begins thus:

You may have heard of jalopies,
You heard the noise they make,
Let me introduce you to my Rocket 88.
Yes it's great, just won't wait,
Everybody likes my Rocket 88.

And concludes with the immortal invitation to go Oozin’ and cruisin’ along! The finished record was released by Chess in Chicago and went on to top the Rhythm ‘n’ Blues chart in the summer of 1951. There’s much more about this song in one of my favourite books, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Nick Tosches; a book to be cherished as much for its linguistic extravagance as for the content.

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