Although Eddie Cochran was only 21 when he died, he left a lasting mark as a rock and roll pioneer. Cochran zeroed in on teenage angst and desire with such classics as “C’mon Everybody,” “Something Else,” “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Summertime Blues.” A flashy stage dresser with a tough-sounding voice, Cochran epitomized the sound and the stance of the Fifties rebel rocker.
—from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website
Regular readers are aware of my abysmally low opinion of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution of the industry, by the industry and for the industry. If you go to their website, you can read brief biographies of the inductees. The quote above is taken from Eddie Cochran’s. Pay careful attention to the industry-contaminated language in the phrasing. Cochran zeroed in, implying that his goal as a musician was to find a market to exploit. He had a tough-sounding voice, indicating he was something of a phony who decided that toughness was his ticket to success. Note that it’s the stance of the Fifties rebel rocker, suggesting that he really wasn’t a rebel but your typical homegrown capitalist looking for a way to make a buck.
But what really pisses me off about this pathetic little snippet is what Cochran allegedly zeroed in on: teenage angst. It’s a lazy-ass, cliché phrase that music reviewers use to categorically characterize music dealing with teenage emotional upheaval as trivial.
To be fair, my generation did a lot to turn teenage angst into the boy who cried wolf. We children of the 80’s and 90’s made teenage angst our raison d’être. We were spoiled, pampered, bored little drama queens who embraced the perceived glamor of teenage angst to give our meaningless lives meaning in meaninglessness. “Here we are now–entertain us,” sang generational hero Kurt Cobain, and that generational motto also implied the threat that if you didn’t give us what we wanted we would lock ourselves in our rooms and threaten to off ourselves. We single-handedly created a billion-dollar market for useless drugs to treat fake conditions like ADHD and delighted millions of investors in pharma companies by boosting sales for anti-depressants. Cool was measured by the number of meds you “had to” take. Modern teenage angst was the creation of manipulative brats with no other goal in sight other than to draw attention to themselves and feed their insatiable desire for attention without having to earn it.
Compare and contrast that form of teenage angst to the original version depicted in Rebel Without a Cause. The difference is that the three main characters in that movie wanted to be understood. Jim, Judy and Plato fell in with each other because they were looking for someone to accept them for who they were and they certainly weren’t going to get that from their fearful, super-conformist parents, who had either abandoned them emotionally or, in Plato’s case, emotionally and physically. Being understood was the greatest fear of my generation, because if someone understood you, then the game was over.
Of course, you could blame James Dean for the very existence of teenage angst, since he made it look so cool on the big screen. It’s so hard to tell when Hollywood is depicting real life or creating it. Somebody should do a study . . .
Anyway, I’ve listened to over a hundred Eddie Cochran songs and I don’t hear much teenage angst in his music. Angst means anxiety. Anxiety comes from not having information, and it’s pretty obvious that Eddie had figured out the game and knew the score. What I hear is a young guy who wants to have some fun running up against a society based on tradition and silly rules. Eddie Cochran didn’t whine about it or lock himself in his room, he laughed about the absurdity of it all then went ahead and had fun anyway. The tone he adopts when encountering parents, teachers and other rule-givers is “Man, these people are weirdos.” He didn’t sit around whimpering about the meaningless of it all but made the choice to follow his dream. Eddie Cochran was the rare person who figured out what he wanted from life at an extremely early age and went for it: he dropped out of high school after one year and found work making music. He loved making music, and no parents, no teachers, no societal expectations were going to stop him from banging that guitar and rocking the night away. Eddie Cochran was a fun-poking social critic, a bundle of kinetic energy, a shockingly brilliant guitarist and as sexy as fuck.
No way is a guy with all those qualities going to spend much time messing around with angst!
We are awash in a flood of Cochran compilations, so you have many choices available to you. I chose this one because of its relatively manageable size, but I understand people who want to get the multi-disc sets or even want to shell out a couple of hundred bucks for the rare Somethin’ Else LP. Eddie Cochran is extraordinarily addictive, and his music makes you feel different—confident, cocky, willing to say “fuck it” and take a few risks. His songs are non-conformists anthems just by the attitude he brings to his music. He awakens the little rebel inside all of us—and that little rebel is a lot closer to who we really are than the person we spend most our lives pretending to be.
The main problems with this compilation are that the chronology is entirely fucked up and they spend way too much valuable disc space on Eddie’s early years with Liberty Records, when the music moguls tried to turn him into a teen crooner. During that period, captured on the album Singin’ to My Baby, Eddie finds himself in the role of straitjacketed Elvis imitator drowned in strings and cutesy wutesy background singers. There is some decent stuff there, but the ballads in particular range from simply dreadful to outright embarrassing. This early Liberty period only yielded one top thirty hit: “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” which should have told the music industry masterminds that they needed to let Eddie do his thing. However, record company executives are famously and stubbornly arrogant, so much so that they completely missed the potential in what proved to be his breakthrough hit by sticking it on the B-side of a single. On rare occasions, though, music has the power to overcome stupidity, and there was no way in hell that one of the greatest songs in rock ‘n’ roll history was going to fade into obscurity. Oh . . . there it is! Opening the album, no less!
“Summertime Blues”: If I had to vote for the quintessential rock song of all time, I’d take this over “Johnny B. Goode,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and certainly “Rock Around the Clock.” More importantly, I would insist on this version over the amplified and distorted versions of The Who, Blue Cheer, Joan Jett and several others. Stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll is a thing of beauty because it’s an alluring invitation to try it out for yourself—grab a guitar, a few friends and head for the beach or your buddy’s house when the parents are away and rock out together! If you don’t quite capture Eddie’s sound, that’s because he was one of the first to use overdubs on his recordings, but even with the overdubs, the arrangement of “Summertime Blues” is superbly simple and rhythmically ingenious. Eddie opens the song bending his vibrato bar on the first note of the riff while the reverberating double hand claps form a rhythmic dotted note to extend the sound slightly beyond beat two. His opening chord combination enters just a tiny moment after beat one while pattern two is sharply cut before the final beat. There are a few cleaner examples of riffing off the main beat than “Summertime Blues.”
Eddie Cochran co-wrote the song with manager Jerry Capehart in about forty-five minutes. Capehart told Rolling Stone what inspired the song: “There had been a lot of songs about summer, but none about the hardships of summer.” The lyrics describe the world through the eyes of a teenager, a world of Catch-22’s where a teenager, freed from the regimentation of the educational system, wants to have a little fun for a change. No dice! The Puritan work ethic trumps the myth of the endless summer, parents are always ready with gotchas to keep you in your place and teenagers are shocked to learn that the democratic system drilled into their heads in history class is only accessible to adults whose votes help keep congressmen in office. Eddie sings the song in a tone of head-shaking wonder, with the attitude of “What does a guy have to do to get a break around here?” “Summertime Blues” is an anti-repression anthem for the ages, a song that begs the essential question, “Why do we have to take things so fucking seriously all the time?”
“C’mon Everybody”: Heads firmly stuck up their asses, the brilliant leaders of Liberty Records did it again, sticking another classic on the B-side of the single. The British, who adored Cochran and Gene Vincent, made this a top ten hit; in Eddie’s homeland, it didn’t make it into the top thirty. So much for the advantage of being a white rocker in 1958! Another Cochran-Capeheart original, it’s similar in feel to “Summertime Blues” but with a much more insistent bass line, a more prominent role for the great Earl Palmer on drums and a tambourine shaken so hard it sounds like the zils are going to fly off. The story line is classic—the parents have split, so let’s boogie! What gives the story life is the sheer intensity of the arrangement and a world-class vocal by Eddie Cochran that perfectly captures the devil-may-care attitude of a teenager willing to risk punishment for the chance at a good time:
Well we’ll really have a party
But we gotta put a guard outside
If the folks come home, I’m afraid they gonna have my hide
There’ll be no more movies for a week or two
No more running ’round with the usual crew
Eddie’s delivery of “Who cares?” gives me the shivers and makes me want to head over to his place and party right this minute! It sounds like it’s going to get naughty, and I fucking love naughty!
“Three Steps to Heaven”: This song was the product of his last stateside recording session in January 1960 (he would continue to add to his catalog in several recording sessions in the U. K. before his death in April). Released posthumously in the land where he died, it went to #1. In his country of origin, it failed to chart. This pattern held true for Gene Vincent as well: they were far more popular in Britain than in the land of the free. Eddie wrote this with brother Bob and brought in The Crickets to sing background. The first thing you notice is Eddie’s amazing back strum, where every note is remarkably clear as if he were an amped up android battling for the title of fastest and clearest arpeggio in history. The band does remarkably well with the Latin-influenced beat and the vocals are nice and tight. The lyrics may seem strange to time travelers, but in fact they evoke one of the dominant personalities in American culture during the 1950’s—a woman by the name of Betty Furness:
The formula for heaven’s very simple
Just follow the rules and you will see
And as life travels on
And things do wrong
Just follow Steps 1, 2 and 3
One of my cherished historical possessions is a DVD of episodes from the 50’s anthology series Studio One. Between acts, a petite and perky little woman named Betty Furness would glide gracefully into the studio kitchen and show you all the wonderful new appliances from Westinghouse designed to make the little woman’s life in the kitchen easier. Her primary job was to demonstrate how convenient the new appliances were, emphasizing the phrase “then all you have to do is (steps one, two and three)” . . . and you have a meal sure to please the whole family. And clean-up? That took place in a jiffy! Thanks to Betty Furness and Westinghouse, all the housewives in America could dress up fashionably for kitchen work just like Betty, press a few buttons and spend the rest of the day in the salon with the girls! How about that?
Convenience was a huge selling point for everything in the 50’s, often to the point of absurdity (push button transmissions in particular blow my mind). In turning seduction into a formula, Eddie Cochran was tuning into the cultural meme of the time. Technically, his formula was 100% correct for heterosexuals and lesbians: “Step 1: You find a girl you love/Step 2: She falls in love with you/Step 3: You kiss and hold her tightly.” He may have left out a few details, but don’t you wish it was that convenient?
“Sittin’ in the Balcony”: Backwards in time we go to Eddie’s first top 30 breakthrough, a cute little number about smooching in the dark written by John Loudermilk a. k. a. Johnny Dee, who would go on to compose quite a few country and crossover hits in his day. This was recorded during the crooner-molding period, so it isn’t one of his better vocal efforts, but holy shit, what a guitar solo! The combination of clean tone and a complex fitting of overdubs creates a brilliant musical interlude that seems to come out of nowhere. Guitar Player translated the passage into a transcription for a solo guitarist in their very helpful and economical study of Eddie Cochran’s guitar style, so feel free to try duplicate Eddie’s studio magic in the comfort and convenience of your own home! You’ll also learn from the article that Eddie was one of the first to dump the wound G-string for an unwound string to increase bending opportunities . . . and the first to modify his pickups to get a different sound. That’s influential.
“Drive In Show”: Another cute early Liberty cover song designed to capitalize on the drive-in theater craze, this song is only noticeable for one of the great mondegreens of all time. Okay, I might be one of the horniest bitches on the planet, but I swear Eddie sings “I bet my penis to a candy bar” and not “I bet my peanuts to a candy bar.” And I’m not the only one! I played the song for a couple of the more fluent English speakers in the office and they both started giggling when the line came around. It might have been the Elvis slurring style he was trying to adopt to make his handlers happy, or maybe Eddie was slipping in (ha!) a little bawdy humor under the radar. The mystery is the best thing about this song, which is way too limiting for a man of Eddie Cochran’s talents.
“Jeanie, Jeanie, Jeanie”: This is that rare song that qualifies as a cover of a rip-off. It was originally intended for a girl group called The Georgettes, then went through a gender switch to suit Eddie. The song ripped off was Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny,” one of his many signature songs. Putting all that aside, Eddie’s vocal is closer to his natural rock style and he has a nifty, if not particularly challenging, guitar solo. The best part of the song is Earl Palmer on the drums, who really drives this sucker with a thumping beat and unusually intense rolls.
“Teenage Heaven”: This is from 1959, when Eddie Cochran really began to find his stride, and American audiences barely noticed, as the single barely nudged into the Billboard 100 at #99. That’s fucking criminal! This song has so many great things about it that I’m choking in disbelief at such an insulting chart listing! Let’s start with Eddie’s jaunty vocal, free and easy as he allows himself to play teenage lottery and imagine all the things he’s going to get when his ship comes in. The Cochran-Capeart lyrics are a hoot, exposing the teenagers of the time as faux rebels only interested in how they can soak dear old mom and dad:
I want a house with a pool, shorter hours in school
And a room with my own private phone
I wanna stay up all night, see the big city lights
No more troubles or worries at home
Mmm, just gimme some time on my hands
I wanna make my own private plans
Yeah, I want my own Coupe de Ville
Make my dad pay the bill,
Yeah man, that’s heaven to me
Dave Shriver delivers a solid performance on the bass, but the pièce de résistance is Plas Johnson’s tenor sax solo, one of the best sax solos in 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. He blows that sucker like there’s no tomorrow, playing off Eddie’s rat-a-tat guitar riff and adding a touch of hard bop along the way. Ninety-fucking-nine? Jeez, people!
“Somethin’ Else”: This “follow-up” to “Teenage Heaven” did better, but still a pathetically low #58. Infuckingcredible. This song is frigging hot! Written by girlfriend Sharon Sheeley and Bob Cochran, two people who knew their Eddie, “Somethin’ Else” gives Eddie a hot-wired vehicle for some sexy and expressive vocal work. The seriously cool thing about the song is the repeated “instrumental” passage between the verses, consisting only of Eddie on electric bass and Earl Palmer on drums: it is the ultimate definition of “throbbing” and I mean seriously fucking throbbing, like a super stiff prick ready to explode. The effect is achieved partially through simplicity and partially through the decision to raise the volume of the passage between the verses to reinforce the throbbing emotions of the narrator, a guy who has encountered one hot fucking babe he’d like to date. Earl Palmer adapted the drum part from Little Richard’s “Keep-a-Knocking,” but who cares? It’s perfection!
The lyrics deal with insecurity caused by not having the dough to afford the new convertible he thinks he needs to get the hot chick to go out with him. What I love about the story is in the end, he says “fuck this teenage angst bullshit” and goes with what he’s got. It works!
What’s all this?
Never thought I’d do this before
But here I am ah-knockin’ on her door
My car’s out front and it’s all mine
Just a ’41 Ford not a ’59
I got that girl and I’m-ah thinkin’ to myself
She’s sure fine lookin’ man
Wow! She’s something else.
“My Way”: From the same session that gave us “Teenage Heaven” comes a song written by a stable of writers determined to write the ultimate expression of machismo. I always find it so cute when men want to strut their stuff, and Eddie struts as cutely as any of them. As a dominant, I can certainly respect the motto, “‘Cause what I do I do my way or it won’t be done at all,” but when I hear a man sing it, I have to laugh and say, “Well, we’ll see about that, honey!” As it turns out, he loses his dominant façade with the line, “‘Cause a woman ain’t been born yet/That can play me for a chump,” a clear sign of male insecurity. Give it up, dude! More than the strutting, I love the instrumental passage where Eddie explores dissonance with a cleverly picked solo that eases right into some seriously hot sounds from the sax section. The song was a posthumous UK hit . . . and once again, didn’t do dick in America. The more I go through this record the more I want to storm into the U. S. Embassy tomorrow and renounce my citizenship!
“Cut Across Shorty”: This was actually the A-side for “Three Steps to Heaven,” a competent rendition of a humanized version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It’s a pleasant song but doesn’t knock my socks off. Too tame!
“Twenty Flight Rock”: Eddie first performed this song in the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, the 1956 Hollywood vehicle designed to spotlight Jayne Mansfield’s fabulous tits. Eddie re-recorded it a year later and while he failed to chart in the U.S. (arghh!), he did pretty well in the U. K. Eddie is listed as co-writer with “Ned Fairchild,” actually a very talented woman named Nelda Fairchild who remains among the living and has a very fascinating, almost heroic back story. It was somewhat standard practice in the day to give the performer co-credit for writing a song, but apparently all Eddie did was play it in his inimitable style. The song is most famous as Paul McCartney’s audition song for John Lennon, which opened the door for Paul to join The Quarrymen. It’s one of the great early rock ‘n’ roll songs, but I have to say that if I were the girl waiting for Eddie my biggest concern about listening to Eddie climb those stairs would be that he would develop hemorrhoids and strangle the blood flow to his pecker. Can’t rock, can’t get it up, what’s the fucking point?
“Weekend”: Of course Eddie’s last U. S. single didn’t chart . . . even though it was released posthumously and Americans love to buy records of artists they ignored during their lifetimes. In this case, though, I blame the producers more than the public. The gain to Eddie’s vocal is way too low and I want to thrash the shit out of those silly girls la-la-la-ing in the background. We need a remastered version of this song without all the crapola.
“Hallelujah, I Love Her So”: Eddie’s remake of the Ray Charles’ original is ruined through no fault of his own. The version on this compilation features the addition of a slick and syrupy string section that is so not Eddie Cochran. The string-free version is way better, and you can find it on a couple of his UK compilations.
“Lonely”: I warned you that ballads were not a Cochran competency, and this unusually weak song from Sharon Sheeley proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Recorded in 1958, Liberty didn’t bother to release it during his lifetime, instead waiting to package it with the equally awful “Weekend” to try to exploit Eddie’s tragic passing.
“Sweetie Pie”: For some reason they tried to sell “Lonely” to the listening public twice after Eddie’s death, originally with this song appearing as the B-side. Eddie’s vocal is too Elvis, and the tune is very reminiscent of “Teddy Bear” on the cuts, but there is real value here in the multiple guitar fills, which are absolutely first-rate. I love it when Eddie goes down and bends the low strings on a guitar stripped of the low EQ. Shivers!
“Three Stars”: Eddie covered Tommy Dee and Carol Kay’s million-seller eulogy for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper a year before his own death. Technically, the lyrics are quite maudlin, but what saves it for me is the sincerity of Eddie’s voice, particularly in the verse for Buddy Holly.
“Skinny Jim”: This song dates WAY back to July 1956, around the time Eddie did The Girl Can’t Help It. This was his first single under his name for Crest Records, and I don’t know how the geniuses at Liberty could have heard this song and tried to turn Eddie Cochran into Pat Boone. This boy was built for rock’ n’ roll! You hear it in the sheer enthusiasm and variation he brings to the vocal, in the energetic, free-flowing guitar solo and in the groove provided by the band members who accompanied him and fed off his energy. Rockabillly heaven!
“Nervous Breakdown”: The one song in this collection that clearly qualifies as a teenage angst song is hardly a depressing piece of music: it’s an upbeat rocker featuring an energetic, expressive vocal and a strong bottom thanks to frequent Cochran session bassist Connie “Guybo” Smith. It should also be noted that Eddie didn’t write it, further debunking the “zeroing in on teenage angst” myth. The session history on this one is more complex and mysterious than most of his songs; according to the info site Remember Eddie Cochran there are two versions with multiple takes recorded in two sessions (probably) in 1958. Eddie may have had some issues finding the right feel or mix for the song, but I can’t imagine what they were. The version on this compilation is delightfully raw and it sounds like heaven to me!
“Completely Sweet”: Flipping back to 1957 and his crooner period, this one was plucked from the LP Singin’ to My Baby, with The Johnny Mann Orchestra and Chorus. Whoever came up with idea to pair Eddie Cochran with Johnny Mann should burn in eternal hellfire. Eddie was in his Elvis-imitation mode too frequently during this period, making this song pretty much a drag except for his nimble strumming and picking.
“Rock and Roll Blues”: The compilation closes with an odd duck; the track was recorded in 1959 but sounds much more like something from that awful Johnny Mann period, with those dumb ass background singers and Eddie doing a mellower version of his Elvis voice. I wish they would have ended with something rougher, something that displayed more of his guitar talents . . . something like “Chicken Shot Blues.” Well, fuck it, let’s take control here and end the review with “Chicken Shot Blues.” Listen to this and try to tell me that this boy wasn’t one of the greatest guitarists in rock ‘n’ roll history!
There are many tragic aspects to Eddie Cochran’ story: his early death, his relative obscurity in his homeland, the wasteful attempt by the record industry to turn him into something he was not. Most tragic of all to me is the loss of his musical potential; he was so enormously talented and naturally inventive that if he had lived five more years I am certain his influence on the course of rock ‘n’ roll, on recording techniques and on guitar stylings would have changed music history. Even with his too-limited catalog, he had a powerful influence on some of the greatest musicians who followed him. But while he was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the musicians he influenced have sung his praises, I still feel that Eddie Cochran is terribly under-appreciated, especially in his homeland.