When Eddie Cochran Invented the Modern 

Looking back at the exact moment Rock ‘n’ Roll was transformed forever

Eddie Cochran (Image: Britannica)

This is a story about Eddie Cochran. 

It is also a story about That Trinity Moment. That crack in progress after which nothing can ever be the same. Those moments when the peeled, scalded eyeball of God fills the sky, summoned by Oppenheimer to save a million and condemn 100 billion. Those moments when we look down and see we are bleeding, but don’t know why. Have we always been bleeding?

Of course we have, the blood has always been waiting to split the skin. Those moments when the future is forever changed, but never out of thin air, because even thin air didn’t come out of thin air. This is a fact. We only know of Eden because the apple was eaten. Of course, it was always going to be eaten. It was eaten before we even could write the letter ‘A.’ 

Trinity Moments, yes? 

I have long loved to search and collate such moments, at least those that inhabit the rather shallow and undignified mini-cloaca of rock ’n’ roll, this loud little scar on the 20th/21st century where we plant a flag to find our fellow tribesmen, where we paradoxically invest our desire for both rebellion and inclusion, a place not fit to be the dust fallen off a mite crawling over the collar of the guard watching over the Venus of Willendorf, she being the true queen king of rock. “I am sex, I am fear and joy, I am the mother and the lover, I am the icon of slaves and kings/queens, and anywhere there is desire, and anywhere there are slaves, and everywhere where we hit a rock in rhythm to build a palace or pyramid, there is rock ‘n’ roll, pee-pee-maw-maw, pee-pee-maw-maw.” (That’s what she says.) The Venus of Willendorf is held aloft by Heilung and Bo Diddley, and it laughs at those who claim electric vaudeville is actual invention. The Venus says, “You see God in ‘When I’m 64,’ when there are jugbands, Moondogs, Billy Childish, and Penderecki afoot? What fools you are! Now I must go and follow that ice wagon that just flew down that alley.” 

But let us return to those Trinity Moments, which are great fun (even if they are both trivial and lies in any true sense, for reasons I shall explain shortly). For instance, a few years back I did a rather detailed analysis attempting to determine what the first modern Punk Rock song was. (For brevity’s sake I will not detail the process or show the math, but let’s just say the clear winner was “She Does It Right” by Dr. Feelgood; before you argue with that choice, I suggest you take a look at the full article, where I will neatly explain why your selection, no matter how well meaning, is wrong.)

 

AUDIO: Dr. Feelgood “She Does It Right”

I gleefully collect moments where a remarkable scene change occurs in pop, you know, your Autobahns and Overkills, Hallogallos and Birmingham Bounces, Bo Diddley and “You Really Got Me,” why, even Public Image. But those, of course, are all lies; nothing emerges in and of itself; no dust, no DNA, no atom, no synth throb nor guitar tic nor absence of guitar tic, emerges out of thin air, even thin air does not arise out of thin air (that sounds familiar). All form is empty of a separate self.

“There is no thingness, no whole without parts, that persists independently from all other things,” writes Barry Kerzin, a physician and monk. Likewise, we do not have “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen without “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” by the Rivingtons. After all, the metal filings and cruel, acrid smoke of every satanic mill was always within the atoms of Eden. We must accept that God inhaled before he exhaled light. This makes all trinity moments a lie. Dependent origination an’ all that. “And God said let there be light.” Which is to say, that God inhaled! Papa Oom-Mane-Padme-Hum-Mow-Mow. The apple was always eaten, even when it was a seed; the eaten-ness was inherent to it. Is there better evidence of that than the fact that whenever I type ‘apple,’ my mac insists on capitalizing it? 

So Trinity is dependent arising, Trinity always existed, it was present (yet not yet revealed) when Oppenheimer was taunted on the playground,  it was present when he burned his first bug with his second magnifying glass. At that moment a sky filled with an unholy fake sun, it just hadn’t manifested yet. 

Which brings us to Eddie Cochran. 

There is a moment, yes “A” moment, when roots rock, antique rock,  Memphis chakka-chugga and smokey Super Chief/Pan Am Clipper/Atomic Chitlin boogie rock becomes Modern Rock, Modern Damn Rock. There is a moment, “A” moment, when whatever started at Sun or even back at Tom Anderson’s in Storyville went CLICK and became the beast of Liverpool and Seattle, Minneapolis and Manchester and everywhere in between. See, I think I have found “the” moment modern rock ‘n’ roll, distinct from hillbilly/rockabilly/vaudeville-as-hillbilly/vaudeville via shave an’ a haircut was born. I have found “the” moment when the slap-back snare and combo-jazz lurch of Sam Phillips, Wynonie and the rumble rail-beat of New Orleans became the straight-arrow autobahn jet-age needle gun V1 sputnik chemtrail beat that we associate with, basically, all modern rock, whether it’s played by Mötorhead or MC5 or Manic Street Preachers or the Monks. And that moment happens about 9 and a three-quarters seconds into “Somethin’ Else” by Eddie Cochran. 

After the initial riff (that riff that sounds like a car engine sputtering and spitting and hollering and saying ‘DAVE DAVIES ARE YOU LISTENING?’) and the two bars of stop an’ start (which pretty much predict one of the Who’s prime musical signatures, that ACCENT/pause/ACCENT/ flourish), at NINE SECONDS AND THREE QUARTERS OF A SECOND INTO THE SONG the verse on “Somethin’ Else” kicks in with drummer Gino Riggio smashing down on the beat like it’s London ’44 and the snare, the kick, and the crash cymbal is a 10 month old baby he’s trying to throw under the bed when he hears the whistle of one of Werner Von Braun’s buzzbombs (y’know? That’s EXACTLY what it sounds like). But it’s not just that Riggio slams down on the beat like he’s an ingenue leaping off the Empire State and demolishing a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster (her name was Evelyn McHale, by the way); it’s what he does next that really makes this recording Nude Descending a Staircase.

In support of Cochran’s lustful pleas, Riggio heads off down the stretch of ol’ 66 from Santa Monica to San Berdoo veering a little too close to the center stripe, not even slowing down to take a nip from the pint bottle of Old Smuggle Scotch rattling against his right pocket, with a very slight puffa-puff in-an-out which he picked up from hearing the freights run about a third of a mile behind his house when he was a kid back in Glendale (his first-ever memory was lying in a crib in just as the sun was rising, a thin, light blue baby blanket tucked under his chin, and the room was full of the pink light of pre-dawn, and off in the distance he heard the pale staccato of the comb-whistle of the freights, and I guess that stuck with him, right?).

But ‘cept for that homage to the rail rhythm (it’s a wee little ‘push’ on the third beat, you’re way familiar with it if you’re a fan of Slade or Neu!), Riggio’s in your face kick and crash and snare just sails forward, determined and a little thick, like an arrow on a humid day. As utterly brilliant as Eddie is – and man is he brilliant, if he hadn’t died when he was just 21 years young, I am TELLING you the Beatles wouldn’t have been necessary – “Somethin’ Else” just HANGS off of the framework and suspension of Riggio’s MODERN drums, the first modern rock drums.

 

AUDIO: Eddie Cochran “Somethin’ Else”

And there is a direct line from what happens starting at 9 and 3/4ths seconds of “Somethin’ Else” to what the Sonics did, what the Trashmen did, what the Ramones did, what Pixies and Generation X did, even what the early fabs did, and on and on to everyone who treated rock as its’ own mad animal, wholly distinct from hillbilly/r’n’b/electrified vaudeville. It’s the moment rock becomes a DISTINCT creature, literally the MOMENT that modern rock begins, July 1959 plus or minus 9 and 3/4ths seconds.  

Now, contrast Riggio’s mad-act on “Somethin’ Else” (his drumming feels like the time you accidentally got kicked in the teeth on the monkey bars when you were 8, seriously straight in the teeth, the lips were completely missed, just a freaking 3rd graders Keds straight to the incisors, you still can taste the blood, rubber, and gravel) with the drumming of the legendary Earl Palmer, inarguably one of the greatest of all time, on Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody.”(Man that was a bus plunge of a sentence.) Palmer – who pretty much literally put the “roll” in rock ‘n’ roll and somehow was able to translate the classic, rumbling, tumbling gigantic New Orleans parade beat into the spine of small-combo rock ‘n’ roll – sits back and BREATHES with the riff on “C’mon Everybody.”

Palmer refuses to allow Eddie to just square the proto-Who/Kinks riff the song is built around. Instead, Palmer’s spacious, almost stoned drums forces it to swing. But there’s no such finesse on “Somethin’ Else.” Riggio just leaves the gate and figures, what the heck, it’s a short race and I’ll just go all out, Eddie can just hang on. 

(From a piece on the Boulder Station casino in the January 10, 2000 issue of the Las Vegas Sun: “Gino Riggio, 63, is the ‘senior ambassador’ for Boulder Station. Among his many duties is to help organize the events. Riggio can even be found dancing with the members when he isn’t busy doing something else.” Curiously, although the article does mention that Riggio drummed with Cochran and Trini Lopez, I suspect that “something else” pun was completely coincidental. Riggio passed in 2020 at age 73, outliving Eddie Cochran by 60 years.) 

Whatever Riggio is doing on “Somethin’ Else” – and I don’t know the ‘why,’ I just know the effect – it feels like modern rock ‘n’ roll is born at that exact moment, 9 and three-quarters seconds into “Somethin’ Else.” Now, I’m not claiming what Riggio and Cochran did was better than the past – and honestly, it doesn’t get better than “Bo Diddley” (which is the song that connects west Africa, the satanic plantations, and the sooty urban tenement steps with Phil and Leonard Chess and Heilung), nor does it get any freaking better than the ghostly, captured fog of Elvis’s slow version of “Blue Moon” (one of the greatest goddamn recordings of all time, it sounds like Elvis is imaging the first and last breath of his stillborn twin, and somehow thinking, “What would that sound like if it was a song?”) – it’s just that the modern rock we all grew up on, in all its beauty and horror, begins at THAT moment. 

I mean, there are other reasons to consider Eddie Cochran the father of modern rock. Cochran may be the first rocker to consistently make electric small combo music that did not have transparently clear roots in hillbilly, r’n’b, or electric vaudeville. Although some of his work does have tendrils in those forms, his most famous work represents something new: it opens the door to the fat, flat riffing and non-swinging, interstate rhythms of modern rock. It is a step into the profoundly modern, sort of like the Seagrams Building. (In fact, a lot like the Seagrams Building.)

Contrast this with Buddy Holly, who by and large whelped up hepped-up Vaudeville with a pale Diddley Beat and a little Jimmy Rodgers/Hardrock Gunther snarl; I mean, really, most of Holly’s songs placed in a different setting could have been sung by Jolson, Dick Haymes or ol’ Ukulele Ike (harsh, yeh, but I mean that), he was a fairly straight ahead B+ level Madison Avenue songwriter who applied an effective, lightweight if primitive Texas swing and hiccup to what he did. Honestly, if Holly had lived, I believe he would NOT have investigated new corners and dynamics in rock (as some have said); he would have mainstreamed, he would have become Bobby Darrin or Slim Whitman or Marty Robbins. No one could mistake “Somethin’ Else” for one of those limpid, well-constructed Buddy Holly songs.

Chuck Berry, of course he’s revolutionary (and his stuff has dated extraordinarily well, better, I would argue, than the stuff it inspired, but that’s a different story), but that’s because he took Louis Jordan and crunched it into small-electric combo rock (I wrote all about that here); sure, the building blocks and context were different, but the architecture belonged to the (near) past. And Elvis, well, he’s Oppenheimer-as-Hillbilly, he filled the sky with the power of a thousand suns, but, like, he’s still fairly rooted in the hillbilly and southern churchy and medicine showy thing, he just happens to inject it with that Messiah Charisma that comes around once a century or so (a grotesque simplification, I know, and as an Elvis worshipper I feel bad about that; I merely want to stress that The King worked generally in neo-Hillbilly and electric vaudeville forms).

But Cochran is different: He does not write vaudeville songs, and his most extreme work anticipates a future based on clobberhead riffing and dumbangel rhythms with little or NO connection to r’n’b or hillbilly; I mean, Cochran’s work leads directly to the Kinks, the Sonics, the Trashmen, the Troggs, the Who, and beyond as none of those other early rockers do.

The other rock pioneers pointed the way to an attitude, a volume, a style, even a combo format; but Cochran actually did it, he actually made modern rock. 

 

(Note: This piece is the prelude to a review of Heilung, provisionally title “There is a fine line between Papa Oom Mom Mow and Pee Pee Maw Maw.”)

 

 You May Also Like

Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.