David Essex wrote this to play at the end of the 1973 movie That'll Be The Day, where he played a working-class, aspiring rocker in pre-Beatles England. Essex spent much of the '60s making unsuccessful recordings, but did far better as an actor, landing the role of Jesus in the London production of Godspell in 1971. This earned him the role of Jim MacLaine in That'll Be The Day, in which he starred along with Ringo Starr and Keith Moon.
Essex asked the film's producer David Puttnam if he could write the ending song, and Puttnam told him to take a crack at it. During the eight weeks of filming, Essex came up with "Rock On," a song that summons the restless and rebellious nature of his character amid the backdrop of rock and roll. Puttnam thought it was "too weird," so it didn't make the film, but Essex used it to get a record deal with CBS, which released it as his first single on the label. The song was an international hit, and the movie did very well in England; Essex reprised his character in a 1974 sequel called Stardust - this time the song he wrote ("Stardust") was used in the film.
This slinky song is a tribute to the early days of rock 'n' roll, with mentions of the 1956 Carl Perkins classic "Blue Suede Shoes
" and the 1958 Eddie Cochran hit "Summertime Blues
Essex wrote this song on his bass guitar, which helped give it a menacing tone. He wanted to write something different, and succeeded.
The repeated "hey kids, rock and roll, rock on" section is something Essex came up with to sound like a mantra, similar to what's heard in lots of Indian chant music.
In America, this was the only big hit for David Essex ("Lamplight" made #71 in 1974), but he fared far better in his native England, with eight more Top 10 hits in the UK, including the chart-toppers "Gonna Make You A Star" and "Hold Me Close." He became a teen idol, not unlike a man he mentions in the song: James Dean. In 1978, he reached out to a more mature audience, starring as Che Guevara in the musical Evita.
The famous bass line in this song was played by Herbie Flowers, who played on many recordings for Harry Nilsson and David Bowie.
A jingle composer named Jeff Wayne produced this track. Wayne was an unusual choice, but his background in jingles, which have to be very efficient, proved worthy.
This was a US #1 hit for Michael Damian in 1989. Like David Essex, Damian was also a musician turned actor turned musician. In 1981, he had a very modest hit (#69 US) with a cover of the Eric Carmen song "She Did It." This earned him an appearance on American Bandstand, which led to a role on the soap opera The Young And The Restless. In 1984, he got a deal with CBS Records, but was only distributed in Europe and Canada. Damian grew up listening to "Rock On" and loved the song, so in 1988 he recorded it with his brothers, Tom and Larry, in his home studio. CBS wasn't interested, but Tom and Larry got a gig working on music for the 1989 Corey Feldman movie Dream A Little Dream. They played their brother's version of "Rock On" for the director, Mark Rocco, who loved it an put it in the film. The song was released as a single on the Cypress label and shot to #1. David Essex gave his approval.
The original version is the opening song for the 2000 movie Sunset Strip
Def Leppard covered this song for their 2006 CD Yeah!
, a tribute to influential '60s and '70s rock bands. The song was often the only cover Def Leppard played at their shows.
With a lead in the hot Godspell musical and his face all over the fan magazines, Essex's label felt the more commercial B-side "On And On" had a better chance of getting him into the charts. The singer recalled to Circus:
"We did a deal with CBS and they actually wanted to push the flipside, which was a more conventional song, but I said 'No, I've had three years of people telling me what I should do.' But when 'Rock On' came out I was actually surprised it did so well. It was very sweet success because it was exactly what I wanted - the song, the production, the attitude - it's one of my favorite records, no matter whether I recorded it."