CRAZY MAN CRAZY – THE BILL HALEY STORY by Bill Haley Jnr & Peter Benjaminson

It was my misfortune to see Bill Haley on stage for the first and only time in November 1979, about 15 months before he died, at The Venue opposite London’s Victoria Station. He was game but a bit of a sorry sight, aged 54 but looking considerably older, podgy and out of shape, sweating profusely and inclined to leave the heavy lifting to members of his band, none of whom were original Comets. I pushed up to the front to take a closer look at the man who more than anyone else first brought rock’n’roll to the masses, and I felt an urgent need to give him some encouragement, to let him know that even at this stage in his decline he was still appreciated for what he once did, perhaps unintentionally, to change my world. When he played ‘Rock Around The Clock’ I sang along lustily, along with everyone else.
         This last visit by Haley to the UK included an appearance before the Queen on the Royal Variety Performance and would have been in sharp contrast to his first, in February 1957, when the riots started at Southampton docks, continued at Waterloo Station and lasted throughout his entire 14-city tour, to which a dozen extra dates were hastily added. Because Haley kept a diary and his wife at the time, Joan ‘Cuppy’ Cupchak, the second of three, is still alive and has a good memory, Crazy Man Crazy offers an entertaining blow-by-blow account of this tour and its consequence: the first ever rock’n’roll riots in the UK.
         Bill Haley was already being held responsible for anti-social behaviour by teenagers in the US and, correctly, the authors of this biography attribute this to the inclusion of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in the soundtrack for the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle which is set in a multi-ethnic high school where juvenile delinquency is rife. Although in reality Haley was about as sinister as a glass of warm milk before bedtime, this association – which he did not engineer – appealed to moralisers in what was then a deeply conservative America, and thence to an anti-rock movement, demands for its prohibition and derogatory comments by those who feared that it might jeopardise their livelihoods, chief among them crooners like Frank Sinatra. As a result, poor old Bill - he was already 30 at the time - was Public Enemy Number One until Elvis, ten years younger, came along. 
         Regrettably however, Bill Haley Jnr and Peter Benjaminson are not the kind of writers to dwell overmuch on the politics of rock, social analysis of its consequences or how it impacted on American pop music, which is a shame. Instead they have written an immensely thorough but rather insipid biography of this unlikely standard bearer for rock’n’roll, excellent on facts but unsatisfying in regard to the bigger picture. Want to know, in some detail, what songs were recorded and when, which towns he visited on tour or even what Haley ate and drank on certain occasions, then this is your book; want to know how and why ‘Rock Around The Clock’ kickstarted profound changes in 20th Century culture, then look elsewhere.
         Blind in his left eye from the age of four – his kiss curl was designed to hide this – and raised in some degree of poverty, Bill Haley certainly paid his dues, gradually morphing his country(ish) act into a rock’n’roll(ish) act that was more novelty than anything else, at least until it became commercially viable to stick to this path. Even at its height, however, there was something clownish about the way he and His Comets delivered their music, the antics of bassist Al Rex, and the way they jumped around on stage, ungracefully, for laughs. It was as if Haley didn’t take the music too seriously and wanted to play down its potential for trouble, unlike Elvis who played it up, at first anyway. Still, Haley made pots of money touring, squandered almost all of it – he was an easy touch and a hopeless profligate – and eventually withdrew into himself, somehow dissatisfied with his lot, and took to the bottle. He was a mean drunk, a lousy father, a philanderer and prey to dishonest business associates. Forever on the run from the taxman, in his decline he found solace in Mexico where his popularity was sustained through re-recording his songs in Spanish, and in the end he died, pretty much friendless, aged 55, from a heart attack, leaving ten hungry children.
         Crazy Man Crazy covers this lurid rise and fall in the same kind of detail I commented on earlier and, considering one of its authors is Haley’s son, he is to be commended for covering his father’s grim life in such a warts and all manner. There is, however, a regrettable tendency for the prose to slide into Mills & Book-style romanticism whenever Haley’s eyes alight on a woman he fancies, which is often, and mawkish sentimentality whenever tragedy strikes in the form of a death in the family, which also seems to happen with lamentable regularity.
         The overall impression is that Bill Haley was a man of weak character who was unable to control, let alone take full advantage of, the whirlwind in which he found himself. By the time I finished Crazy Man Crazy I was feeling a bit sorry for him. Then again, he only had himself to blame.


TOMMY AT 50 Extract

This is the first of two extracts that will appear on Just Backdated from Tommy At 50, a 176-page large format book with illustrations throughout, co-written by Mike McInnerney and myself, which will be published in mid-May.
        The book is divided into four sections, The Mood (by Mike), The Music (me), The Look (Mike) and The Legacy (me), together with a Foreword by Pete Townshend, an intro by me and, at the back, notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements. There are also 15 two- or four-page features throughout on subjects like The Detours, Meher Baba, Kit Lambert, Pete’s home demos, Woodstock, Karen Townshend, concept albums, Ken Russell and many more, and the illustrations include previously unseen material from Mike’s original Tommy artwork, dozens of photos of The Who and other images linked to the boy who was unable to hear, speak and see.

In many ways, The Who’s recording career up to Tommy can be seen as a template for their magnum opus. Indeed, a case can be made that the protagonist of their very first single as The Who was the prototype for the deaf, dumb and blind boy.
       The narrator of ‘I Can’t Explain’, recorded in November 1964 and released midway through the following January, is a frustrated teenager unable to express himself, not just to the girl of his dreams but also to the world at large, and although he’s unencumbered by Tommy’s sensory handicaps, there’s more than a hint of the angst that Tommy Walker will endure.
       ‘I Can’t Explain’ appeared after The Beatles and Rolling Stones had emerged as the twin forerunners of the sixties beat boom. The Who – who in the fullness of time would occupy a sort of bronze-medal position behind them – were not just slow off the starting blocks but approached their calling from a different angle. The first eleven singles released by The Beatles were love songs or songs that related in some way to relationships with the opposite sex, as were seven of the first eight released by the Stones. In contrast, it’s hard to find a trace of romance in any of The Who’s singles that followed ‘I Can’t Explain’. Pete Townshend’s mind was thereafter focused on higher things: the generation gap, the plight of teenagers, communication or lack thereof, the futility of conformity, cross-dressing, sexual frustration, illusions and disillusionment. Much of this was seen through the prism of mod, the youth cult to which The Who had attached themselves during the brief period in 1964 when they were known as The High Numbers, and which clung to them throughout 1965 and ’66.
       Fortunately, Townshend had a knack of framing his rather lofty themes within a punchy three-minute pop song, so those for whom the lyrics went in one ear and out the other, or who simply didn’t get what Roger Daltrey was singing about, could still appreciate the rush of a Who single, especially when Townshend’s distorted guitar and Keith Moon’s tireless drums played key roles.
       More specifically, the musical seeds of Tommy can be traced back to The Who’s second album, released in December 1966, side two of which is dominated by the closing track, ‘A Quick One’ (also the album’s title in Britain). Included largely because Daltrey and Moon had failed to come up their quota of songs as per an agreement with the group’s music publishers, “A Quick One” was in part Kit Lambert’s solution for filling up the LP, but also a means to encourage Townshend to write an extended piece of music, thus fulfilling Kit’s ambition to emulate in some way his illustrious composer father, Constant Lambert. Goaded by his manager, Townshend wrote a “mini-opera” that lasted just over nine minutes and sped through six connected sections, all with different melodies of their own, ranging from rather camp country and western to lush harmonies and all-out power-pop, with a touch of ribald English music hall in between. There was also a rousing power-chord climax, soon to become a distinctive Who trait, with quite stunning vocal harmonies that benefited from John Entwistle’s ability to sing falsetto.
       Once recorded, ‘A Quick One’ soon became part of the group’s stage act, debuted at London’s Saville Theatre on January 29, 1967 – a propitious occasion, with Jimi Hendrix also on the bill and John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the audience. “The Who were as wild and unpredictable as ever,” wrote Chris Welch in the following week’s Melody Maker, before going on to comment on the potential for rivalry between The Who and Hendrix. “It was a close battle . . . and fans will be arguing about the winners. Either way, two of Britain’s most exciting groups thrilled the crowds with hard-hitting sights and sounds.”
       Crucially, playing ‘A Quick One’ enabled The Who to come to terms with the complexities of performing a conjoined medley of several songs, albeit fairly short ones, moving from one to the next with effortless precision regardless of tempo changes or shifts in ambience. All of this would stand them in good stead when it came time to take their next, far longer and more ambitious, rock opera on the road.
       The Who’s 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, contains precursors to Tommy that are even more unequivocal. There are hints of the opera’s mood in ‘Odorono’, a spoof deodorant commercial, and Entwistle’s ‘Silas Stingy’ seems like a blueprint for the “nasty” songs that Townshend requested he write for Tommy. Even more explicit is the coda to a lengthy and fairly enigmatic song called ‘Rael’, which offers an early introduction to the melodic themes of ‘Sparks’ and ‘Underture’ – both key instrumental motifs of the opera.
       An even bigger clue to what was going on in Townshend’s mind, albeit hidden from public view at the time, was a song called ‘Glow Girl’, which he wrote around this time, and which was recorded shortly after Sell Out was released. Though ‘Glow Girl’ would not appear on record until 1974, on the outtakes LP Odds and Sods (and later as a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of Sell Out), it seems in hindsight to be the very first lyrically identifiable germ of Tommy. Ostensibly a song about a plane crash in which the protagonist sifts through the contents of her handbag as the aircraft descends, toward the end it includes the line, “It’s a girl, Mrs Walker, it’s a girl.” With a gender change, these are among the opening lines to Tommy.
       “[‘Glow Girl’] is rich in both melody and ideas and was to have influential repercussions,” writes John Atkins in The Who on Record. “A great deal happens in a short duration . . . and the song encompasses Townshend’s patent ringing guitar chords on the intro and an up-tempo verse pattern with a sure beat from Moon before a simulated plane crash effect gives way to a more placid coda in which the victim is reborn.”
       Tommy Walker, of course, would himself be reborn once he was cured of those annoying sensory impediments.