12.8.16

BRITISH ROCK IN THE FIFTIES





Called upon to edit a book about the history of rock on television earlier this year[1], I was taken back into the world of Six-Five Special, Oh Boy! and Juke Box Jury. These names will ring a bell only to those of us who can remember a time when news presenters, all of them male, wore evening dress to inform us of the day’s events, when Woodbine cigarettes were available in packets of five and when Cliff Richard – believe it or not – was deemed threatening. These were not the only televised shows that featured what was termed ‘beat music’, just the best known, and the book I edited is not a nostalgia fest – it is bang up to date and dwells lovingly on Ready Steady Go! and The Tube, to name but two – but somehow I found myself drawn to the first chapter, about the fifties, for the simple reason that it was all so innocent then and, of course, this was the first rock’n’roll I ever saw, as opposed to heard.
All of which explains why earlier today, browsing the CDs in Sainsburys, I was tempted by a CD package called Rock’n’Roll Britannia: The Foundations Of Rock’n’Roll Culture which looked like a snip at £3 for 75 tracks across three CDs. Leaving aside for a moment the undisputed truth that the foundations of rock’n’roll culture lie not in Blighty but somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line in America, this works out at just four pence a song so it’s unlikely Cliff, Marty, Adam, Billy, Tommy and all the rest will benefit much from my indulgence, a sad reflection on the value of music these days.
It was misleadingly packaged with the kind of graphics that suggest it's a Britpop compilation – Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar on the front[2] – and it lacks sleeve notes of any kind bar a track listing, but in no other way do I regret my purchase. Prog rockers would be advised to note that no song exceeds two minutes and 48 seconds, with the shortest ‘Big Beat Boogie’ by Bert Weedon clocking in at just 38 seconds, shorter than any Ramones track on my iPod, as is the shortest vocal track, ‘What Do You Want’ by Adam Faith. The running time is two hours and 45 minutes, which means the average song length is two minutes and two seconds – and they say kids today have no attention spans.
What these early British rockers lack in finesse they by and large make up for in enthusiasm, albeit often misplaced. Nevertheless, I may have been hasty in a previous post when I suggested that Cliff Richard’s debut single ‘Move It’ was the only decent record he ever made, for ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Livin’ Lovin’ Doll’ aren’t bad at all, and he makes a decent fist of ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ too. The rot set in with Lionel Bart’s ‘Living Doll’ which, doubtless because it was his first number one, set him on the path to righteousness and rubbish records. The same thing happened to Cliff’s role model Elvis, of course, insofar as the insipid movies GI Blues and Blue Hawaii were enormous hits, far more popular than his earlier films, and similarly nudged him down the slippery slope to inconsequence.
Tommy Steele was another victim of the dreaded ‘family entertainer ambition’ syndrome. I can remember my mum taking me to the local Odeon in 1957 to see the movie The Tommy Steele Story, a sort of bio-pic that dramatised his rise from ship’s steward to Britain’s ‘first rock’n’roll star’, but of his four tracks only ‘Tallahasie Lassie’ is worth a second listen. I can only hope he listens to Paul Weller’s ‘Come On Let’s Go’ to learn what a song with this title ought to sound like.
The omission of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’ is strange considering that two other great JK&TP’s tracks, ‘Feeling’’ and ‘Please Don’t Touch’, are included, but I suppose this has something to do with availability. A third JK&TP’s track, ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’, is an uncharacteristically bad choice on their part. Quite why they were persuaded to record an inappropriate marshmallow ballad written in 1916 is a mystery to me.
Aching melodrama was clearly a sought after ingredient in fifties pop ballads that dealt with unrequited love and in this respect Marty Wilde (‘Endless Sleep’), Billy Fury (‘Maybe Tomorrow’) and Vince Eager (‘This Should Go On Forever’) all score heavily. It’s not hard to imagine teenage girls weeping buckets and wringing their hands in anguish as these heart-throbs, their voices drenched in doom-laden echo, emote raw feelings of discontent at the faithlessness of their women. Better Fury tracks of which I am familiar are not included.
Men dominate, of course, but the two tracks by girls stand out. ‘A Girl Likes’, a rockin’ 12-bar by Janis Peters, shows the clear influence of Brenda Lee and could easily be mistaken for a Lene Lovich B-side. ‘Getting Ready For Freddy’, on the other hand, is a novelty song by variety star Alma Cogan, the most successful UK female star of the fifties, whose curiously dark life was the subject of a brilliant novel by Gordon Burn.[3]
There are, of course, far too many tracks by relative unknowns for me to asses the lot here but it’s worth mentioning that Dickie Pride doesn’t quite make the grade on ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’’ but the guitar solo is ace; Larry Page, who went on to manage The Kinks, can’t rock for toffee if ‘Cool Shake’ is anything to go by; Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ is more than respectable; ‘Six-Five Special’ by Don Lang & His Frantic Five, which became the theme tune to the TV show, is marred by Lang’s assumption that the faster you play the more you rock; and ‘Rockin’’ by Tommy Sampson & His Strongman sounds like the Black & White Minstrels have washed off their dodgy black make-up and ill-advisedly pitched into this newfangled rock and roll business, ditto The Most Brothers who cover ‘Whole Lotta Woman’, a song originally recorded by Cherokee Indian Marvin Rainwater that I remember my mum buying for her pop mad 11-year-old son, on the yellow MGM label, in 1958.
Finally, there are Beatles fingerprints to be found on this set. Of songs they recorded, we have Terry Waye doing ‘Matchbox’ and Jack Parnell doing ‘Kansas City’; and of songs they covered we have Craig Douglas’ curiously anaemic reading of ‘Nothin’ Shakin’ (But The Leaves On The Trees)’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ by The Tunettes (who they?). Roy Young, who played with the Fabs on stage in Hamburg, rocks out splendidly on ‘Big Fat Mama’, and ‘Raunchy’, the guitar instrumental that secured George’s future after he played it to impress John atop a Liverpool Corporation bus in January 1958, is offered up by the bandleader Ken Mackintosh.
            "Hi there... we've got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us the gas, so just get with it and have yourself a ball," spluttered DJ Pete Murray when Six Five Special first went on air on February 16, 1957, a priceless quote from the rock on TV book.



[1] We Hope You Have Enjoyed The Show: The Story of Rock and Pop on British Television by Jeff Evans, to be published by Omnibus Press on September 12.

[2] In the fifties it would probably have been regarded as treason to use Union Jack imagery to promote rock’n’roll. Townshend changed all that.

[3] Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn (Secker & Warburg, 1991)

4 comments:

  1. Three quid on Amazon, it's American counterpart £6.34! Both temporarily sold out...

    Of course they nicked the title from the BBC as well as Noel's guitar.

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