They say that history is written by the winners, but that’s not entirely true. More accurately, history is written by historians. And the first historians to give a shit about pop music were baby boomers. And those baby boomers started listening to music as teenagers in the mid ‘50s. So, as far as they were (narcissistically) concerned, the birth of rock and roll – Elvis! Chuck Berry! Jerry Lee! – was the birth of music. And, perhaps because they were there first, their opinions became general wisdom, reinforced by numerous books, TV programs and lists in music magazines like Mojo or Rolling Stone. But Elvis and Chuck Berry weren’t doing anything majorly new; they just took pre-existing styles aimed at regional working class adults (country music, rhythm & blues) and made them appeal to teenagers.
So what would be the closest 2010s equivalent of ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ be? The equivalent would have to be a) by a white person from the South of the USA; b) a style of music that adults find distasteful; c) which is loud and energetic; d) which has a sort of ‘fuck you’ attitude; e) and which is massively popular. So if you want to understand Jerry Lee Lewis, think of him as Ke$ha.
Let’s put those baby boomer music writers canonising Elvis and Little Richard and Jerry Lee into a modern context: imagine someone in 2022 writing a history of pop music that says it all started with Dr Luke and Lady Gaga. By 2022, musicians who are currently teenage fans of Lady Gaga will be in their twenties. Perhaps they will take her musical style and put their own spins on it in order to say the things they have to say about their own lives. I mean, that’s what happened with Bob Dylan and the Beatles and all those baby boomer bands; they all heard Elvis as teens, and it changed their lives – and then they used that music as a basis for saying things about what it was like to be young in 1965.
In 1956, the kind of people who now dig ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ – people with a sense of pop history, with a sense of the classics – would have hated Jerry Lee Lewis with a passion, the way that those people now probably hate Chris Brown. Not only did he make the equivalent of the kind of music Chris Brown makes, but he makes that smarmy girlfriend–beater look like an okay kind of guy. After all, Jerry Lee is up there with Phil Spector as the most despicable man in rock and roll. I mean, you probably know about the marriage to his 13-year old cousin, but did you know he shot one of his bandmates in the chest? That he was racist enough to yell “top that, nigger!” to Chuck Berry after his set on a package tour (mostly because he was shitty that a black man was the headliner instead of him)? That Rolling Stone basically accused him of killing his fifth wife in the early 80s? Nick Tosches, in his (incredibly good) Jerry Lee Lewis book Hellfire, paints Jerry Lee as genuinely believing he is possessed by the devil.
That belief in devil possession seriously almost meant ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ was never recorded. There’s a famous religious discussion between Jerry Lee and Sun Records’ Sam Phillips that was recorded for posterity (and which is available here on YouTube). The recording shows just how agitated Jerry Lee gets about singing ‘Great Balls Of Fire’. When Lewis says that “no sin shall enter there – no sin! For it says no sin. It don’t say just a little bit – it says no sin shall enter there”, he is clearly quite agitated about the possibility that – if he sings the song – he might well go to hell. Eventually he shouts “I got the devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian…Jesus! Heal this man!” Later that night, they recorded the famous version of ‘Great Balls Of Fire’.
Perhaps it was that belief in devil possession that gave the song the kick that made it sound alive, made it so seductive to its 1950s teen audience, the same kick that Ke$ha’s music must now have for a fair chunk of teens. Of course, the famous Sun Records version of the song now sounds quaint; it doesn’t really sound alive anymore, unless you have the knowledge and understanding of pop to be able to imagine that you’re listening to it in 1956. After all, Sun in 1956 didn’t have the kind of hi-fidelity recording equipment and technology that you now need to really make a song sound huge to modern ears (the kind of thing that makes teenyboppers think ‘Tik Tok’ sounds alive).
But listen to Jerry Lee Lewis playing the song in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg. In 1964, Lewis was pretty close to being a beaten man. He hadn’t had a hit for years, his personal life was in tatters, his audiences were fading, and he was deeply resentful of the fact that those fucking limey Beatles assholes were playing the music he invented and conquering the world while he was languishing in obscurity. But, in front of an adoring German audience screaming “Jerry, Jerry” at him (30 years before the Jerry Springer Show), he doesn’t sound like a beaten man. He sounds like he has the devil in him. The version of ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ at Hamburg is aggressive, frantic, played at breakneck speed. He shouts and screams the words unselfconsciously, like a man who expects to get his way, and right now. And he sounds consumed with vengeance, not only in his singing but in the way he beats the shit out of the piano. It’s recorded well, too – you really hear him destroy that piano, and there’s a surprising amount of kick in the rhythm section for a live recording from 1964. It still sounds alive. And that aliveness is something teenagers are willing to pay good money for; they’re full of hormones, taking risks, navigating uncertain waters, often dealing with situations where they have more responsibilities but less freedom. They wanted music that reflected this in 1956, and they want it in 2011. The musical attributes that mean aliveness do change over time, which is why kids listen to Ke$ha today instead of Jerry Lee, but there’s enough aliveness left in that performance from 1964 that it still feels that way to me.
Jerry Lee Lewis – ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (from Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, 1964)