The Week in Arts: Rewrite rock history? That's all wrong (mama)

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This week saw the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock'n'roll. I know this to be true because the estimable James Naughtie said so on Radio 4's
Today programme; every television news bulletin verified it; and every daily newspaper played along.

This week saw the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock'n'roll. I know this to be true because the estimable James Naughtie said so on Radio 4's Today programme; every television news bulletin verified it; and every daily newspaper played along.

Fifty years ago this week Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right Mama" in a Memphis studio. Actually, the correct title is "That's All Right", but as it has been effectively renamed this week, I'll go along with the "new" title. I had a sneaking suspicion that some of those talking about the birth of rock 'n'roll had actually heard "That's All Right Mama" for the first time on the radio that morning. I relished overhearing one conversation about That's all right "Mermarr", with Elvis given the persona of a home counties prep school boy.

Something worries me about this anniversary. Despite the ubiquitous tributes to and memories of that event in July 1954, I have to confess I hadn't before realised that rock'n'roll was born then. I have certainly read and even written before about the birth of rock'n'roll, but, last time I discussed it, I'm sure it was deemed to be the recording of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in April 1954 (itself a cover version). Surely that has a prior claim to Elvis. Haley's website doesn't even think "Rock Around the Clock" is the first rock'n'roll record. It points out: "In 1953 Haley wrote 'Crazy Man Crazy' which became the first rock and roll record to make the Billboard pop chart reaching the Top 20."

To try for a ruling on this, I decided to consult the encyclopaedic Rough Guide to Rock. There, under the entry for Elvis Presley, it states: "Most would agree that ... rock started when Elvis Presley released 'Heartbreak Hotel' in 1956." I didn't hear most agreeing on "Heartbreak Hotel" this week. But in two years' time most probably will agree on it again. There can, of course, be any number of claims for the birth of rock'n'roll. In the past it's been open to argument. Now it's suddenly an undisputed fact that it all started with "That's All Right Mama". Why, then, do I not recall a "That's All Right Mama" fest on the 40th anniversary in 1994?

However, "That's All Right Mama" does have one distinct advantage over the other challengers for the birth of rock 'n'roll. It was recorded 50 years ago from NOW. And we do like our anniversaries to be now. Certainly, record company arketing departments do. In the shops at the moment is a special Elvis Presley DVD brought out just in time for the 50th birthday of rock'n'roll. That's the trouble with anniversaries. They always want to sell you something.

The shock of this regurgitated old hat

I said last week that the art critic Robert Hughes had done the art world a favour in revealing that Damien Hirst had refused him permission to film his work at the Tate, despite the Tate's commitment to provoking debate about contemporary art. Sadly, there was little else provocative in Hughes's much anticipated TV programme, The New Shock of the New. He ridiculed the kitsch of American artist Jeff Koons and maintained that no one dared to speak out against him. Come off it, Bob. I must have read a dozen demolition jobs on Koons. He ridiculed Tracey Emin for spelling a word wrong in one of her embroidered works. She can spell, Bob. It was a joke!

He said that "in my view" Paula Rego is the most effective artist alive at portraying women's experiences on canvas. In his view? Germaine Greer wrote a seminal essay on exactly this more than 10 years ago. Many, many others have said it since. The one new shock in The New Shock of the New was that Robert Hughes had nothing new to say.

¿ On the subject of anniversaries and marketing wheezes, I was taken aback to see a lavish box set of Dvorak music from Warner Classics to celebrate the Dvorak centenary. But the composer most certainly wasn't born 100 years ago. No, the record company replies. But he died 100 years ago.

It has always been something of a tradition that anniversaries commemorate the birth rather than the death. OK, with particularly violent deaths such as JFK or John Lennon, we do remember the dates of their deaths rather than their births. But generally it's the date of birth that counts. Still, where Warner Classics has led, others will follow. Expect to see as many centenary death box sets as birth box sets from now on.

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