We could have been talking about Elvis. “A Mess Of Blues” made it to the number two slot, but it’s not a terrifically inspiring song and it’s exactly nobody’s idea of his best performance, despite some nice honky-tonk piano. We could have been talking about Roy Orbison. His voice is one of the great achievements of Western civilization, and even when the material faltered that most perfect of vocals never did – even up to his death he sounded perfect. And the song would have been “Only The Lonely”, which… well, its amazing. But no. Instead, we kick this nonsense off with Eddie Cochrane.
In rock and roll, Cochrane is a curious figure. He’s vastly influential, yet it’s an influence not often mentioned. He’s an artist who died absurdly young – he was twenty-one when he was killed in a traffic accident, younger than contemporaries like Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper, and significantly younger than later ingenious of the Hendrix/Morrison/Joplin brigade. But his early death didn’t in any way diminish his legacy. He was an experimenter in the studio, yet when the history of recorded music is talked of, Cochrane’s name is rarely mentioned despite pioneering work with overdubs, feedback and a whole host of techniques which would become 60’s standards. And he was a multi-instrumentalist years before people were impressed by the fact that Paul McCartney could play drums as well as bass. But these days Cochrane is a marginal figure. He wrote classic songs, but songs where his name never quite seems to resonate with the same force as others of his era. He’s just a little bit forgotten.
And he absolutely shouldn’t be. In a way it’s a shame we’re stuck discussing “Three Steps To Heaven”. It’s not that it’s a bad song, exactly, but it’s not also what one could call representative either. It’s was a huge hit, and indeed remains a standard to this day, which eventually (posthumously) climbed all the way to the top of the charts. But, decent though it is, it’s no “Twenty Flight Rock”. “Twenty Flight Rock”, quite apart from being a fantastic song in its own right, is the reason Paul McCartney joined The Quarrymen – latterly The Beatles – because Lennon was so impressed by his ability to play it, thus making “Twenty Flight Rock” arguably the single most influential song of the 20th century. But lots of people loved “Twenty Flight Rock”. The Who fucking loved it (and “Summertime Blues” is on the original Live At Leeds, a contender for the best live album ever). “C’mon Everybody” is another straight-up classic.
“Three Steps To Heaven” is… well. It’s old-fashioned in a way none of those songs are. That’s not necessarily a slight, but it clearly belongs to a different genre, and a different period. “Twenty Flight Rock” is funny – there’s a direct line between that and something like “Drive My Car” – and its simple, direct wit is very charming. “Summertime Blues” speaks, or at least spoke, to teenage frustrations of the time. “Three Steps To Heaven”, with its slightly cheesy backing vocals and traditional, very 50’s sounding crooning, doesn’t quite carry the same weight. It’s not that it carries no influence – even the most cursory listen to David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” should reveal the fact he quite shamelessly stole the chord change – but it’s not quite Eddie Cochrane at his best. “Three Steps To Heaven” looks back – his best work looked forward.
But the voice is there – and he really does have an amazing voice. If “Three Steps To Heaven” struggled to have the same impact that his other songs do, it does at the very least show off his versatility. He nails that crooning style very successfully – honestly, better than Elvis often managed – and if the song is looking backwards, it’s doing so in a style that Cochrane owns. There’s nothing rock and roll about the song, but it’s working within a formula and it’s a formula Cochrane has no problem commanding. It’s not his finest, but in a way that’s almost a compliment – he tosses off something like this, makes it looks utterly effortless, then goes on to deliver a handful of standards that provide some of the foundational tracks to a nascent genre.
“Three Step To Heaven” was a huge hit in 1960. You know what else was a huge hit in 1960? Go on, think about it. 1960… 1960… Well, there’s “Apache” of course. And… um… Exactly. “Heartbreak Hotel” was four years in the rear view mirror. “Tutti Fruit” was three years previous. “Johnny B. Goode” was two years ago. If you look at the UK charts there’s a positively obscene amount of Cliff Richard. There’s a lot of bland material, but music is essentially stuck between the initial blast that rock and roll provided by the classics – Presley, Berry, Richard, Lewis – and hanging around waiting for the Beatles to turn up. Buddy Holly died in 1959. What was “Three Steps To Heaven” supposed to achieve in the face of all that?
Not much. It’s fine. No innovator, but never quite simple pastiche, it’s an absolutely classic example of “by the book” writing. Cochrane’s voice – he has such a very fine voice – isn’t really utilized to its fullest here, and it’s whole galaxies away from his best performance, yet it’s still easy to warm to. He knows how to hang off a note – “Step one…” pause. And his voice comes in just perfectly, hitting the space the flourishing guitar provides but with an emphasis that makes the line ring. Bits of the song could be mistaken for a sub-Elvis impression (the choruses especially, “aynd asss life travels on…”) yet it never lapses into that kind of easy commercialism. Even in this Cochrane’s voice remains his own.
So that’s where we start in 1960. This entry is really just an excuse to mention someone who deserves way more attention than he gets. It’s easy to understand why the likes of Buddy Holly get all the focus, and obviously Holly is great, but Cochrane should get more appreciation. He almost never recorded a song more than three minutes in length and dying so young means he has a short, punchy catalogue that’s easy to become familiar with, and it’s worth doing because there’s some really great music in there. As we go on through this series we will talk about artists who are bigger, more successful and more famous that Cochrane. But as we do, spare a thought for someone who helped all of it to happen. And when I say all of it – well. It really is all of it. Cochrane is a true original, and a great place to begin.
What Else Happened in 1960?
As you might have gathered from the article, fuck all. The biggest song of the year was “It’s Now Or Never”, a slice of cheese thick enough to have a rind and be sold in supermarkets. The second biggest song, also by Elvis, was the disturbingly similar “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, which is even more cheesy to the point where the lactose-intolerant may choose to avoid listening. “Apache” got mentioned, but it’s worth drawing attention to again simply because Hank Marvin could credibly be described as the first guitar hero – or the first lead guitar hero at the very least. The Shadows don’t drip cool credibility but Marvin still deserves respect. The Beatles played their first gig under that name (sans Ringo, plus Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best) and the venerable 78rpm record bows out as a format, replaced by the new-timey “long player” that all the kids are into these days. Get your vibratos ready – Edith Piaf warbles her way into immortality with “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”. Ben E King went solo, Bono arrives on the planet, Elvis became a sergeant, and that’s your lot.
- Eddie Cochrane – Three Steps To Heaven