With his dewy eyes, tousled hair, and angular good looks, David Essex was every bit the seventies icon he never quite became. Moviegoers will recognize him for his hardened turn in That’ll Be The Day – a powerhouse rock movie featuring drummers Keith Moon and Ringo Starr among the supporting cast- and Essex was also the first person to cover Mike Batt’s seasonal standard “A Winter’s Tale.” However, 1973’s “Rock On” remains his most distinctive stroll into pop infamy.
Replete with swagger and character, the punchy vignette proved a favorite amongst Glam audiences. New York producer Jeff Wayne, a titan of progressive pop, arranged the track, impressed by the single’s kitsch.”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.”
With decorative, dandy outfits matching Essex’s brooding good looks, the singer was a Top of The Pops shoo-in. Offered the chance to appear on The Midnight Special in 1974, Essex entertained audiences wearing a suit that could only be likened to one worn by a late- sixties era Elvis Presley. Warbling as he did, Essex sounded like a smoother, silkier Las Vegas raconteur, though the references that littered his number (particularly those that mentioned “Jimmy Dean”) had dated by the eighties. It scarcely bothered Essex: he merely changed some of the words when he re-recorded the song on 1989’s Touching the Ghost.
By that time, “Rock On” had become a pub rock classic. The Young and the Restless star Michael Damian introduced a new generation to the number in 1989. In keeping with the times that Damian lived in, the song featured in the coming-of-age movie, Dream a Little Dream (starring the “Coreys” Feldman and Haim).
Def Leppard recorded their own version of “Rock On,” furthering Essex’s recognition. Since his 70s heyday, he’s continued to enjoy success in the UK as a singer (with 19 Top 40 singles) and as an actor, appearing both on stage and in popular TV series including East Enders. He rejoined his former producer for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds, first as a narrator, then more recently in a live version of the sprawling rock opus.
Yet David Essex will always be best remembered for a three-minute rock song that perfectly captured the almost “extraterrestrial” nature of the 70s countercultural movement.
Fair use image from “Rock On” cover