There’s a Riot Goin’ On

May 1, 2014

When Walter Wanger conceived the movie that would become Riot in Cell Block 11, he wasn’t thinking in terms of pop culture. The longtime independent film producer, with classics (and Criterion releases) such as Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent to his credit, had a more earnest motivation. In one of the most notorious Hollywood scandals of its day, Wanger had shot and wounded a fellow producer, Jennings Lang, in a jealous rage, and served several months at a Los Angeles prison farm. The appalling conditions he saw there filled him with a zeal for prison reform.

As Wanger observed in an article he wrote for Look, from 1951 until the film’s production, there had been reports of more than thirty prison riots across America. His picture, released at the end of February of 1954, was thus a timely one, too, and ended up doing very well at the box office. Its frank perspective on the rebelling convicts even caused something of a stir (it was banned in Great Britain). And despite its more solemn origins, the film seems to have helped launch an enduring pop cultural meme.

Cut to the spring of that year. Tyro songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who’d moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles as barely more than teens and already had a little ditty called “Hound Dog” under their belts, were working with the R&B singing combo the Robins (later to be called the Coasters). The success of their 1953 collaboration “Ten Days in Jail” still perhaps fresh in all their minds, they then concocted “Riot in Cell Block #9”—a spectacularly catchy tune, introduced with a swinging-but-sinister horn hook that’s become a classic R&B theme, combining a recitative narrative (from vocalist Richard Berry, who would go on to compose the frat-rock immortal “Louie, Louie”)with a raucous chorus.

Interestingly, in recounting how the song came to be, neither Leiber nor Stoller credit the movie, which had to have been big news in the songwriters’ home base of Hollywood, as it represented a comeback for its up until recently incarcerated producer. Rather, Jerry Leiber once cited the radio cops-and-robbers series Gang Busters as his muse. Nevertheless, beyond the nearly identical titles, the song and the movie also share some plot points, including the use of dynamite at a climactic moment.

In the dual Leiber-Stoller autobiography Hound Dog, Stoller says, “We can’t and won’t claim credit as the inventors of rap, but if you listen to our early output, you’ll hear lots of black men talking poem-stories over a heavy backbeat. Looking back, it’s clear that ‘Riot in Cell Block #9’ was a radically different form of song. It would be the template for many of our biggest hits, first with the Robins and then with the Coasters. But at the moment of creation, we were too busy laughing to realize what was happening. We were merely putting a different spin on what was, after all, nothing more than the blues.” Considering that many blues songs and modes come directly out of the prison experience, and that prison chants and such have a direct affinity with blues forms, this all stands to reason. And the chorus of  “Cell Block #9,” with its repetition of the phrase “there’s a riot goin’ on,” came to stand for not just rebellion but partying. The Wanda Jackson version of the song, which takes place in a woman’s prison, has an unabashedly perverse sexual element that gets turned up to eleven, so to speak, once the male state troopers show up to put down the riot.

Three years later, Leiber and Stoller, by now reliable hit makers, would pen another penal-institution classic, “Jailhouse Rock,” for Elvis Presley and the Presley-starring movie of the same name. The picture remains one of the King’s more watchable efforts, thanks in no small part to the Leiber-Stoller songs, which also include the frantic “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” And Don Siegel, director of Riot in Cell Block 11, crossed paths with Presley three years after that for the 1960 Western Flaming Star. This, too, is one of the better Elvis movies, and it’s also one in which the musical component is minimal—there are only two songs in it, and had Siegel had his druthers, there would have been none. Too bad the songs weren’t by Leiber and Stoller—they’re arguably the least memorable features of the movie. As far as I can tell, neither Leiber and Stoller nor Siegel ever brought up the correspondences between Riot in Cell Block 11 and “Riot in Cell Block #9” during their careers. But I think you wouldn’t have the Leiber and Stoller title without the Siegel/Wanger title preceding it.

Here’s the original:

There’s a Riot Goin’ On

Cooler still, the song’s pertinence outlived its immediate cultural moment. The prepunk 1970s British rockers Dr. Feelgood had themselves a helluva time with the song, showing how R&B contained the roots of hard rock. Beach Boy Mike Love, ever a student of the zeitgeist, had the bright idea of “updating” the song’s lyrics to reflect campus drama, addressing the “protest kids” with “Student Demonstration Time,” on which he narrates through a megaphone. And of course the catchphrase from the “Cell Block #9” chorus provided the title for one of the touchstone rock/soul albums of the 1970s, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Twenty years later, hip-hop rebels Public Enemy put their own stamp on the theme with a prison-break rap called “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”

Glenn Kenny is a film critic at RogerEbert.com