How $3.98 changed the world of music for ever

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The Independent Culture

One sunny afternoon on 5 July 1954, a teenager walked into a Memphis recording studio to make his debut single, "That's All Right", with the hope of earning a place on the local music scene.

Nearly half a century later, the studio session that catapulted the young Elvis Presley from an ostentatiously dressed high-school graduate to global icon has been hailed as the most important moment in the history of rock 'n' roll. In those days anyone could make a record at Sun Studios for $3.98 and Presley had paid the fee to record a track on the premise that it was for his mother's birthday. A year later, the studio chief Sam Phillips recalled the 19-year-old boy with the unforgettable voice to make his first single.

Presley's first guitarist, Scotty Moore, who attended the recording session, said he had mesmerised the studio as he "fooled around" singing the blues and strumming on his guitar. He said: "He was wearing black slacks with a pink or white stripe, and a lace-up shirt with his ducktail and white bucks.

"He was a little more flamboyant than most people his age. His voice was fairly high, but it seemed like he knew almost every song in the world.

"I was trying to understand why Sam [Phillips] was so excited about it ... it sounded a bit different, not that we were working for that. It just fell together that way! It was still too early to tell what was gonna happen, but soon enough we realised that we had a real product on our hands."

Over the course of the year, Presley recorded four more singles for Phillips, and by 1956 he had earned international celebrity. That first recording tops a readers' poll of the 100 pivotal events in popular music in next month's Mojo magazine.

All-male acts and music from the 1960s and 1970s dominate the top ten positions in the poll, which was organised to celebrate the magazine's 10th anniversary. Only one moment ­ Nirvana's run of five headline UK shows culminating at the London Astoria ­ took place in a more recent decade. It is rated the ninth most important event and happened in 1990.

Phil Alexander, Mojo's editor-in-chief, said he was not surprised by the classic choices that readers had made but noted the absence of Brit Pop acts from the Nineties such as Oasis and Blur. "The list is acknowledging the moments which have shaped a defining moment in the world or when musicians have a defining moment and influence an entire generation," he said.

The Rolling Stones figure at number five for their return to mainstream form with "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in 1968 after the critical failure of the psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Other artists on the list who captured the spirit of the times feature an electrifying Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and John Lennon with the release of his Imagine album in 1971. Two controversial performances appear in the top ten, including Bob Dylan's gritty new "electric" sound at the Newport Folk Festival, after he abandoned the acoustic guitar and alienated thousands of folk fans.

Closer to home the Clash's contentious release "White Riot", which was written as an expression of solidarity with the black minority against police actions at the Notting Hill Carnival, was voted in third position.

The song placed the band in the vanguard of punk and, naturally, earned the wrath of the establishment. Capital Radio refused to play the song and band members Joe Strummer and Mick Jones daubed the song's title on the station'swindows.

The Beatles appear for their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, a moment when Beatlemania was seen to have conquered America and 73 million viewers tuned in. Singers, including Billy Joel, Tom Petty and Alice Cooper, spoke of the impact that the Fab Four's appearance had on their own careers. Joel said: "Lennon had this look on Ed Sullivan like, 'F*** all of you'. And we knew. I said, at that moment, I wanna be like those guys."

Cooper said he watched the show with a "huge smile on my face", and Petty said it crystallised the moment he chose to become a musician.

"I saw the Beatles on television and I thought I could either be a farmer or I could do that," he said.

The highest-placed female performance on the poll is that by Debbie Harry of Blondie in 19th position, for the number one hit, "Heart of Glass", in January 1979. The band had restyled their image and Harry became an instant sex symbol. Harry said she never envisaged the song would become such a huge hit ­ or that her personal appearance would pass into rock legend.

"My hair had broken off," she said. "We'd always made visual changes ­ that one was obviously very styled, more slick than usual. We were all trained as art students to think conceptually, and that's how we treated each piece."

The poll, which spans six decades, also traces significant moments in jazz and swing. Miles Davis is in 24th position for the creepy bass and echoing trumpet in "Bitches Brew", and the success of Frank Sinatra's first track recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra album, in July 1945, is in 18th position. Later moments are represented by the White Stripes, in 92nd place for their secret gig in north London in August 2001. REM's release of "Everybody Hurts" in 1993 is in 54th place and Radiohead's entry into the US charts in 1992 is in 16th position.


1. Elvis Presley: The Sun Records session on 5 July 1954 that yielded "That's All Right", Elvis's first single.

2. Bob Dylan: Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival, 25 July 1965.

3. The Clash: Release of "White Riot", March 1977.

4. The Beatles: First appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, 9 February 1964.

5. The Rolling Stones: "Jumpin' Jack Flash", a "comeback" single after the psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request, 12 March 1968.

6. Jimi Hendrix: The Monterey Pop Festival, 28 June 1967.

7. Neil Young: Release of Time Fades Away, September 1973.

8. John Lennon: "Imagine", 11 October 1971.

9. Nirvana: Six-day UK tour, 21-27 November 1990.

10. Led Zeppelin: First LP, March 1969.

11. Sex Pistols: Foul-mouthed appearance on ITV, 1 December 1976.

12. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side Of The Moon, March 1973.

13. Marvin Gaye: Threatened to quit Motown unless What's Going On was released, summer 1970.

14. Brian Wilson/The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds released, 7 May 1966.

15. Bob Marley: Seeks out Lee "Scratch" Perry to produce the Wailers, spring 1970.

16. Radiohead: Guitarist Jonny Greenwood sabotages Thom Yorke's "Creep", spring 1992.

17. The Velvet Underground: Fired from Café Bizarre after performing "The Black Angel's Death Song" twice, December 1965.

18. Frank Sinatra: Records "Someone To Watch Over Me", 30 July 1945.

19. Blondie: "Heart Of Glass" number one in Britain, 27 January 1979.

20: The Kinks: "Waterloo Sunset" puts London at centre of swinging Sixties: 27 May 1967.


John Peel, DJ on BBC Radio 1: "The moment when Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel was requested on the radio in 1956 was when nothing would be the same again. Hearing his voice was as startling as having a naked woman run into the room."

Andy Gill, Music critic: "When Bob Dylan went electric, the sound he was making had never been made - it was loud and overbearing and people thought it revolting."

Nick Mason, Drummer for Pink Floyd: "Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock marked a seminal moment. It was bad and it was violent and nothing like that had come before it."

Phil Alexander, Editor-in-chief, 'Mojo': "When Black Sabbath released their album in 1970, they created modern heavy metal as we know it. It was ugly music for ugly times."

Liz Kershaw, Radio DJ: "It's a toss up between Sandy Shaw winning the Eurovision title for the UK in 1967 and Robbie Williams leaving Take That. On a serious note, I would say the invention of the gramophone, the electric guitar and radio."