The almost simultaneous deaths of legendary percussionists D.J. Fontana and Nick Knox last week was shocking, tragic and a loaded cultural moment that demands re-examination of the 20th century’s single greatest phenomenon — rock & roll. As Elvis Presley’s drummer, Fontana played a critical role in establishing a sound whose fundamentally primordial message of rebel liberation threatened to destroy Western civilization’s social order.
This is not an overstatement — by 1956, Elvis was universally perceived as a threat worse even than communist Russia — and Fontana’s lethal machine-gun rolls on “Hound Dog” were the straight-to-the-gut opening salvo of a full-blown musical revolution. Before D.J. arrived, Elvis, Scotty and Bill were like a mutant bluegrass trio, flying along on 16 strings and a heap of horny mojo, but Fontana added the final lethal component — the beat — that assured dominance and shook the world to its core.
What New Orleans–born geniuses Earl Palmer (the legendary studio player whose ferociously elegant backbeat completely set the tone) and Charles Connor (a supercharged, Category 5 juggernaut who divided his mid-’50s time between playing with Little Richard and James Brown) had simultaneously codified and epitomized, Fontana exploded and turned upside down. Palmer and Connor had feel, nuance, that sophisticated boom-boom if you will, but Fontana was all feral primitivo and blunt force trauma that spoke to and inflamed the basest human instincts — without him, Ed Sullivan probably could have shown his viewers what was going on below Elvis’ belt.
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Twenty years later, Cramps founder Lux Interior’s brilliant redefinition of both the music’s foundational ethic and evolved capacity struck a blow as artistically profound and resonant as Elvis’, and drummer Nick Knox, with his throbbing tom-tom and coolly spare, relentless drive, was a crucial element in what proved to be the last word in rock & roll. The Cramps were deadly serious about rock’s mystic power, and Lux Interior was equal parts showman and shaman (the moniker has nothing do with used-car classified ad abbreviation and everything to do with its true Anglo-Latinate meaning, Inner Light), and by combining the genre’s two most provocative elements, rockabilly and psychedelia, they attained an elevated state of uncut rock purity.
It was an unexplored, truly liberated territory that freed the band to make a stunning series of artistic declarations. Moreover, arriving at the height of the roiling punk era, The Cramps acted as both trackers and guides, opening unforeseen, new creative vistas and proudly upheld vernacular pop traditions that reintroduced listeners to countless underappreciated forebears.
As such, Fontana and Knox were highly significant contributors with a direct, if unseen, spiritual parallel between them. It reaches from the Big Bang of Fontana’s “Jailhouse Rock” intro to Knox’s shadowy, armor-piercing barrage on “Garbage Man,” irresistible beats of astral heights that define pop culture cosmology. Neither was an innovator but both were messengers who served their masters perfectly and spread this feverish gospel with a zeal as relentless and metronomic as their playing. Gone now, but the incalculably valuable rock & roll knowledge they shared is eternal.