In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In its original form, David Essex’s “Rock On” is one of the great, weird hits of the ’70s — a psychedelic bubblegum rockabilly head-trip that has no business working as well as it does. Essex’s original “Rock On” is a sinuously skeletal little earworm, and while Essex never made another American hit, the song lingered in imaginations. Then, 14 years later, “Rock On” became a #1 hit for another hunky young actor-turned-singer. But the version of “Rock On” that reached #1 had none of the spartan eeriness of the original, and it only ever worked as a piece of twice-removed nostalgia. That’s rock ‘n’ roll for you, I guess.
David Essex, the man behind the first “Rock On,” grew up in a family of Irish Travellers in London, and he recorded a few singles in the mid-’60s. They didn’t go anywhere. Instead, Essex made his name as a stage actor, and he played the lead in the first West End production of the Biblical rock musical Godspell. That gig won Essex the starring part in the 1973 coming-of-age film That’ll Be The Day. Essex played an aimless youth who gets a job at a holiday camp, and Ringo Starr played his best friend.
That’ll Be The Day is a period piece, set in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s got a soundtrack full of Billy Fury and Everly Brothers songs. (Fury acts in the movie, too.) Essex asked producer David Puttnam if he could write a song for the end credits, and Puttnam told him to give it a shot. When Essex came back with “Rock On,” though, Puttnam rejected it. Instead, “Rock On” got Essex a record deal at CBS, and he released the single in 1973, the same year that That’ll Be The Day came out.
If “Rock On” is a song about anything, it’s about early rock ‘n’ roll, as imagined by someone who wasn’t quite a teenager yet during that era. But those lyrics aren’t really about anything; they’re scrambled-up leather-jacket hot-rod signifiers, mushed together without any real concern for sense or narrative: “Hey! Shout! Summertime blues! Jump up and down in my blue suede shoes! Hey, kids! Rock ‘n’ roll! Rock on!” Or maybe it’s about the constant frustration of pursuing an ideal: “Still looking for that blue jean baby queen, prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. See her shake on the movie screen. Jimmy Dean.” Maybe, for David Essex, early rock ‘n’ roll and constant frustration were all bound up within one another.
“Rock On” is pure free-floating nostalgia for a time that Essex only barely experienced, and its real power comes from the truly strange way that it’s put together. Essex recorded the “Rock On” demo almost a cappella, singing while he banged on an upside-down trash can. Producer Jeff Wayne, who mostly made ad jingles, liked the spaced-out quality of that demo, and he didn’t want to choke it out. Instead, Wayne slathered Essex’s voice in echo and added spaced-out drums and a doubled-up bassline from Herbie Flowers, the session bassist who famously played the similarly weird bassline from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” (“Walk On The Wild Side,” which came out a year before “Rock On,” peaked at #16.)
“Rock On” made it to #3 in the UK, and it did almost as well in the US, peaking at #5. (It’s an 8.) In the US, Essex’s follow-up single, the similarly strange “Lamplight,” peaked at #71, and then he never made the Hot 100 again. In the UK, though, “Rock On” helped make Essex a star. He kept acting, mostly onstage but sometimes in movies and TV, and he kept cranking out hits, reliably appearing in the upper reaches of the UK charts into the early ’80s. Essex is still recording now, though he’s self-releasing his music these days.
The San Diego native Michael Damian Weir was a kid when “Rock On” came out, and he always loved the song. (When Weir was born, the #1 song in America was Elvis Presley’s “Good Luck Charm.”) Weir was one of nine kids, and all nine kids ended up playing in a family band called the Weirz. Michael’s mother taught piano, and he started playing as a kid, so he started off as the Weirz’ keyboardist. Soon enough, though, the family realized that Michael was the best-looking of the Weirz, so they promoted him to lead singer.
The Weirz played around San Diego and recorded a couple of albums, but they didn’t really go anywhere, even after moving to Los Angeles. In the early ’80s, a still-teenaged Michael went solo, dropping his last name and simply calling himself Michael Damian. His first solo single was a cover of “She Did It,” a 1977 track from the former Raspberries singer Eric Carmen. (Carmen’s version of “She Did It” peaked at #23. Carmen’s highest-charting single, 1975’s “All By Myself,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.) Damian’s version of “She Did It” peaked at #69, which was enough to get him booked on American Bandstand. Some producers of the soap opera The Young And The Restless saw Dick Clark interviewing this handsome kid, and they offered him a role on their show. Damian took it.
Damian was on The Young And The Restless for years. He played Danny Romalotti, a waiter trying to break into the music business. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Damian says that the show’s producers wrote the character for him, and he really just had to play himself. He stayed on the show for years, sometimes getting to sing songs that he wrote. Like David Essex before him, Damian signed to CBS Records, but they only put out his music in Canada and Europe. Capitol, the American branch of CBS, wasn’t interested.
Damian had built a recording studio in his garage, and one weekend, he and his brothers Tom and Larry recorded a version of “Rock On.” Tom and Larry were working on the music for Dream A Little Dream, a teensploitation flick that starred Coreys Haim and Feldman, as well as slumming character-actor greats like Jason Robards and Harry Dean Stanton. One day, the brothers played their version of “Rock On” for director Mark Rocco, and he liked it enough to put it in the movie. Cypress Records, a small indie label that had a distribution deal with A&M, put out the “Rock On” single, and Michael Damian followed in the footsteps of Rick Springfield, landing a #1 hit while still starring in a daytime soap.
If Damian’s “Rock On” had followed the spirit of the David Essex original, it could’ve been cool. Essex’s original was basically bubblegum dub; it was a song without a genre. In the Bronson book, Damian enthuses about Essex’s original “Rock On”: “It had such a rebellious and haunting vibe.” But Damian’s “Rock On” doesn’t have a rebellious or haunting vibe. It doesn’t have any vibe at all. Instead, the Damian version piles on the cheap ’80s production tricks: Guitar squeals, blaring synths, big drum sounds, power chords, quasi-reggae skank-beats, massed backing vocals. It has way, way too much going on.
Damian’s delivery is a problem, too. On the original, David Essex doesn’t exactly put on a vocal clinic, but there’s a deadpan distance to his voice. He sounds remote and lost, and there’s maybe a bit of existential dread in the answerless questions that he asks: “Where do we go from here? Which is the way that’s clear?” Michael Damian, on the other hand, does that thing that so many singing actors do. He tries to sound cool and slick, and he just kind of toothily glides through the song. He leaves no impression.
“Rock On” is a cool song, but in Damian’s reading, it’s only a ghost of a cool song. It’s not that Michael Damian doesn’t understand the point of “Rock On.” It’s that he doesn’t understand that the song has no point. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s a perfectly absurd and meaningless piece of writing. You can’t just record a weird and woozy ’70s song like it’s generic ’80s pop, but that’s what Damian did.
The success of “Rock On” did not lead to pop stardom for Michael Damian. Damian made a couple of other minor hits. His follow-up single “Cover Of Love” peaked at #31, and his sax-laced ballad “Was It Nothing At All” made it to #24 early in 1990. But Damian never appeared in the top 10 after “Rock On,” and he hasn’t been on the Hot 100 at all since 1991.
Instead, Damian remained on The Young And The Restless until 1998, and even after leaving the show, he’s made a bunch of returns over the years. He also starred in Broadway and West End productions of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he’s directed a bunch of straight-to-DVD movies, including Marley & Me: The Puppy Years and two different sequels to the girl-and-her-horse film Flicka. Damian is still awfully handsome, and I’m sure he’s a nice person, but I’m not sorry that he won’t be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: On the Dream A Little Dream soundtrack album, Damian’s “Rock On” appears right after R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” a 1987 single that peaked at #69. Maybe that had something to do with R.E.M.’s decision to quote heavily from “Rock On” on “Drive,” the opening track from their classic 1992 album Automatic For The People. Probably not, though. Here’s the “Drive” video:
(“Drive” peaked at #28. R.E.M.’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Losing My Religion,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)
THE 10S: Guns N’ Roses’ fragile acoustic ramble “Patience” peaked at #4 behind “Rock On.” It sets my mind at ease, and it’s a 10.