Rock On (song)

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This article is about the David Essex song. For other songs with the same title, see Rock On (disambiguation).
"Rock On"
Single by David Essex
from the album Rock On
Released November 1973
Recorded 1973
Length 3:24
Label Columbia
Writer(s) David Essex
Producer(s) Jeff Wayne
Certification Gold

"Rock On" is a song recorded in 1973 that was composed and sung by English singer/songwriter David Essex. In March 1974, it reached number one in Canada on the RPM national Top Singles chart[1] and was a Top 5 song (reaching the number five position) on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 pop-music chart. It was Essex's only Billboard Top 40 hit. The song also reached the number three spot on the UK Singles Chart. "Rock On" was the title track to Essex's 1973 debut album and was also featured on the soundtrack album to the 1973 film That'll Be the Day, in which Essex had a starring role. The song is still frequently played on classic rock and oldies radio stations.

Essex later re-recorded the song in 1988 with an updated lyric. The version, which was remixed by Shep Pettibone, appeared on Essex's 1989 album Touching the Ghost. A single release of the updated version reached number 93 on the UK charts. The recording is featured in the movies Dick, The Devil's Rejects and Sunset Strip, as well as in episodes of The Sopranos and Cold Case.

Arrangement and Context[edit]

The song features a slow-tempo vocal performance in a minor key, along with a minimalist, rhythm-driven instrumental accompaniment to Essex's vocals, which shows the strong influence of Jamaican reggae and dub. The lyric pays homage to early rock and roll and its surrounding youth subculture, and notably to 1950s iconic rebel James Dean (although the lyrics refer to him as "Jimmy Dean", the same exact name as the country-western singer famous for Big Bad John).

The distinctive stripped-back musical arrangement was devised by producer Jeff Wayne after hearing Essex's original vocal demo:

" 'Rock On' was demonstrated to me in the studio after finishing the jingle session. And the way David demoed it for me was he went into the studio, our engineer put on a microphone and David picked up a trashcan and started banging out this little rhythm, so there was no instruments. Because there was no instruments, the engineer put on this sort of repeat echo, and it gave an atmosphere to it, and that's what I then went away to work on. I went away and thought about the song and the attractiveness was the hollows, the absences and the mood in the lyrics as well. And so I had this idea that there would nothing on it that played a chord, so that's why there's no keyboards, there's no guitars, there's nothing that plays a chord."
"When David wrote 'Rock On', it was the type of song that from my point of view as an arranger and producer gave me much more adventurous ideas, a concept of sound. A ballad is a ballad, whereas 'Rock On' allowed us to be a bit more off-the-wall. It was a gamble and a bit of a fight to get it through. But both David and I felt that 'Rock On' was a career-breaking record, whereas a ballad would give him a shorter-term success, it wouldn't distinguish him."[2]

According to Wayne, only three session musicians played on the final backing track, and the most prominently featured was veteran session musician Herbie Flowers, whose double-tracked bass guitar was treated with a prominent "slapback" delay effect, creating a complex polyrhythmic backbeat:

" I can recall the three musicians on the backing track for 'Rock On' all looking around in a mostly empty Advision Studios, Studio 1, wanting to know when the rest of the band were arriving! I explained there weren't any others for that track, and I was relying on them to understand my idea for the production. While the drums and percussion parts were written out, it was definitely Herbie that grasped immediately that a bass guitar playing a lead riff could fill a large part of the spatial spectrum and he took my idea and turned some basic notes of mine, into his amazing bass riff. Then to top it off, he suggested playing it again an octave higher. So you get this unusual bass sound right up front - now it couldn't have been up front if the arrangement didn't allow the air and the space to be created that way."[3]

Flowers himself noted that, as a reward for devising the double-tracked bass line, he was paid double his normal session fee, and thus received £24 instead of the usual £12.[4]

"Rock On" can be linked to Don McLean's 1971 song, "American Pie", as a mysterious valediction for the recent past. The song might otherwise be located within the 1950s nostalgia strand in popular music of the 1970s; though in this context, Essex's allusive, ambiguous song is quite unlike typical expressions of the nostalgia boom, for example the hits of the UK band Showaddywaddy.

Michael Damian version[edit]

"Rock On" was covered by soap opera star and singer Michael Damian in 1989 and featured in the teen film, Dream a Little Dream, starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, among others. It became his first hit in eight years, since his 1981 cover of Eric Carmen's song, "She Did It." His rendition became a gold record.

Damian's version, which he also released from his independent album Where Do We Go From Here on the Cypress Records label, which A&M Records distributed, was a harder-edged interpretation that employed none of the vocal or instrumental distortion Essex's version had used. It reached the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, thus outperforming Essex's original Billboard ranking. However, the song did get to #1 for Essex in '74 on the US Cashbox Top 100, the same week it was at #11 on the Billboard Charts. In addition, Haim, Feldman, and Meredith Salenger all appeared in the music video for the song.

This version was ranked #99 on VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s (despite the fact that Damian actually had four Billboard charting singles during the '80s).

Other versions[edit]

"Rock On"
Single by Def Leppard
from the album Yeah!
Released 2006
Format CD
Recorded 2006
Genre Hard rock
Label Bludgeon Riffola - Mercury
Writer(s) David Essex
Producer(s) Def Leppard
Def Leppard singles chronology
"No Matter What"
"Rock On"
"20th Century Boy"
  • The English hard-rock band Def Leppard covered the song on their 2006 album, Yeah!, which features cover versions of 1970s rock hits. It was released as the second single from the album. It became a staple in their live setlist for the ensuing tours.
  • The American alternative-rock group The Smashing Pumpkins included a live cover version of "Rock On", performed during their Sacred and Profane tour, on their 2001-release album Judas O, a bonus disc (containing B-sides and rarities) which accompanied the group's greatest hits album Rotten Apples.
  • The Dave Howard Singers released their version as a single in 1986.
  • The Canadian artist Betty Moon covered the song on her debut album under the name "Bambi" in 1987. The song became a regional hit in Southern Ontario.
  • The song was covered by power/heavy metal band Heavens Gate on its EP Open The Gate And Watch in 1990.
  • The song was covered by Toni Basil on her album Word of Mouth.
  • The song was covered by Adam Freeland, on the album Cope.
  • The song was covered by Garland Jeffreys on the USA release of his album The King of In Between (2012). In Europe it was available as free download.
  • Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor included a cover of the song on some versions of his 1990 covers album Dangerous.
  • American new wave band Blondie covered the song in 2012 and released it via Amazon.[5]
  • American Post-Rock band Tortoise have covered the song on their forthcoming album 'The Catastrophist', to be released January 2016.


Preceded by
"A Love Song" by Anne Murray
Canadian RPM number-one single
(original David Essex version)

March 30, 1974 (1 week)*
Succeeded by
"Sunshine on My Shoulders" by John Denver
Preceded by
"Forever Your Girl" by Paula Abdul
US Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
(Michael Damian version)

June 3, 1989 (1 week)
Succeeded by
"Wind Beneath My Wings" by Bette Midler

*Library and Archives Canada shows this single to attain the #1 position on the date and hold it for one week. There is no chart for March 23 available. The March 30 chart shows the previous week's position to be #2.