One of the defining musical moments of my youth was hearing a track that was already 22 years old at the time, for the first time. As soon as Roland Janes’ mysteriously bent guitar notes hit my 13 year old ears I was hooked. By the time the 2.05 minutes of the song faded out into the stratosphere with the last bent note from that same guitar I was not only hooked I was mesmerised. That space-aged guitar note led into a maelstrom of unadulterated Rock N Roll abandon, crashing cymbals, slapping bass run-downs, pumping piano (that I later learned was the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis himself), rasping vocals and the screams. Oh those screams, at just the right moments in the songs, had and still have the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. ‘Flying Saucer Rock N Roll’ by Billy Lee Riley and The Little Green Men recorded at Sun Records 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee on December 11th 1956 has to be one of thee most perfect slabs of Rockabilly wildness ever.
Having visited that tiny studio since I could only imagine the atmosphere in there as that timeless flash of group perfection was immortalised on tape forever, Thunderbird wine bottles and cigarettes only adding to it no doubt. Roland Janes letting rip on the guitar, Jimmy Van Eaton bashing the hell out of that basic drum kit’s cymbal and Marvin Pepper blistering his fingers on the bass while Jerry Lee tried to steal the show with his piano. Riley himself was no doubt snarling through the control room window at Sam Phillips as he spat out the words of what was sure to be the biggest hit of 1957, at that moment Phillips’ smile can only be imagined, it would have been broad.
As history tells us, for what ever reason that song was not the smash hit it should have been. Riley and his band went on to record on plenty of Sun classics as the unsung house band and Billy Lee Riley became a Rockabilly legend thanks to re-issues of his Sun recordings in the 1970s and onwards. Though the Rockabilly pond is a small one commercially, to the general public he was still unknown, my first hearing of ‘Flying Saucer’ was on a Pickwick double album found in a supermarket bargain bin.Regardless, that recording from way back in 1956 has become an underground classic and revered by countless musical luminaries that have gone on to greater musically, if only financially, heights than Billy Lee Riley ever did before his death on 2nd August 2009.
What makes that song? For me it was the pure wildness of those 2 minutes, the spontaneity and the built up exuberance of getting gone, pressure that could only be released in an involuntary lung-busting scream, not only that, but a scream at the perfect time. I have relived that perfect two minutes of 1956 untold times since that day I first heard it in 1978. That song has travelled with me on vinyl, tape, CD and MP3 through my life, like an old friend that can be always relied upon in times of need.
I had heard one or two out-takes of the song over the years, unremarkable versions as they were working on the arrangement without Jerry Lee Lewis a few days before, very unpolished, interesting to hear but that’s it. Only last month a newish release came to my attention, ‘Billy Lee Riley – The Outtakes’ which boasted none other than 11 takes of ‘Flying Saucer’ as well as 67 other mostly unreleased false-starts, alternate takes of his classic Sun recordings. It was alternate take 8 of ‘Flying Saucer’ that caught my imagination the most, with ‘studio chatter’. Was it going to be a gem like Carl Perkins threatening to ‘Bust his guitar’ when messing up the start of Dixie Fried or the classic Sam Phillips screaming ‘That’s a pop song now’ after an embryonic Elvis, Scotty and Bill take of ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’? I am a musical geek when it comes to Sun recordings. As it turned out, that bit of studio chatter was unremarkable it was ‘alternative take 10’ of ‘Flying Saucer’ that has knocked me for six, taken away three decades of false mental image as Billy Lee Riley and The Little Green Men belted out their 2.05 minutes of Rockabilly perfection for the umpteenth time with no signs of getting jaded.
If you love the recording originally released on Sun 260 as much as I do, stop reading now.
Those perfectly timed screams from that manic session………..
(c) Simon Nott