IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO TODAY
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
What a long time ago seems the British Invasion! Since 1964
fads and fashions have flashed and faded -- folk-rock, bubble gum, glam, punk,
or grunge. There have been wars and revolutions. Kids born during Beatlemania
are now entering middle age.
And the knights themselves, led by Sir Paul and Sir Mick, are senior citizens, albeit vainly kicking up their heels in concert, uttering the odd “yeah, yeah”, still complaining of getting no “Satisfaction”.
I musn’t be derisive: the knights continue to sell a lot of tickets, overflowing stadiums; they are an important economic and cultural wheel of the British Establishment. Indeed, they are part of world culture, world history. Once rock ‘n’ roll outlaws, there are now as safe as Robin Hood.
Recently in Los Angeles (where I linger as a relic of the glorious first wave of Brit Rock) I witnessed Sir Mick in concert at the enormous Staples Center -- running every which way, stopping only to glad-hand the fans, telling us with irony that “It's All Over Now”. As I wandered home I noted, as examples of their longevity, the iconic vestments of Invader leaders in the windows of souvenir shops: rows of T shirts, like medieval banners, emblazoned with the cheery faces of Beatles as we once knew and loved them; and the coat of arms of Sir Mick Jagger -- a blood red lolling tongue.
So, forty years on, the knights live on. Endlessly recycled as “Greatest Hits” and what-have-you, their music continues to sell and to be piped. In galleria, jumbo jet or restroom there's no escaping “Yesterday”.
The Invader chiefs may no longer crowd the Billboard chart as they did in the halcyon years -- the top ten is now the domain of rappers -- and they may be dismayed when their fans wish to hear only the hits of yesteryear and not, for example, Sir Paul's concert cantata. The Invaders may have to live with the fact that that they are Retro, even Nostalgia. But they can take pride in being a permanent part of pop, securely resting alongside Marilyn, Elvis, and James Dean.
Time was when there was no such thing as pop culture, at least not recognizably so, and certainly not preserved, studied, hallowed. Pop used to be throwaway. Let's be teenagers of 1954, on the trembling brink of rock ‘n’ roll. Would we look back at the songs of forty years before and cherish them? Would we be barbershop harmonizing such 1914 hits as “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts For Soldiers” ? No sir! -- if you're a hot-blooded teen, antsy for action, into what's new, progressive, you'll be jiving to “Shake, Rattle And Roll”, the latest from Bill Haley & The Comets. The past is another country, full of old farts.
But wait! You'd be solely into Today if you were in America, a society besotted of fads and fancies here today and gone tomorrow. Once it was flagpole sitters and the Charleston, then it was swingsters and jitterbuggers, recently it's been swooning to Sinatra or else screaming for crazed Johnnie Ray, the “Cry Guy”. You have to be modernistic in a land where nothing is certain except change.
In Britain, on the other hand, things were different. Ever since the arrival of ragtime, just before World War One, the islanders had welcomed and then nurtured American pop, whether it be jazz, swing, or boogie-woogie. We were host to the friendly invaders and we treasured their strange sounds, studying the hot licks and curious drawl of the crooners on our precious 78s. Lately we had been excited by the deep dish cowboy twang of one “Tennessee Ernie” Ford as he rockabillied his way through “Kiss Me Big” with exciting lines like, “I wanna be hugged, I wanna be grabbed, I wanna stand and quiver like I've been stabbed”. All the better that my headmaster denounced this disc as so much “Yank trash”.
We loved the strangers as fans, as customers. We could only gawk, amazed. How could we, rigid with reserve, ever compete with this intoxicating foreign product?
However, we kids of the early 1950s did have our own native music, our own rootsy songs which had been dinned into
us since the cradle. British Music Hall, unlike American Vaudeville, was still operating even though the institution was tottering. Homely native comedians sang of “Friends And Neighbours” or else “My Old Mum” even as, on the same bills, hot American stars like Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine, masters of rhythm and emotion, belted out their latest hits.
At family gatherings we'd sing along with our grandparents to “I'm ‘Enery The Eighth, I am”. Our parents played records by George Formby, the toothy “Ukulele Man” from up North near Liverpool, who sang of seeing ladies knickers while cleaning windows. In summertime we were taken to the seaside where uniformed gentlemen in brass bands blew tunes from as long ago as The Boer War (“The Soldiers Of The Queen”). John, Paul, George, Ringo and me -- we were all soaked in Music Hall, even as we waited for the coming of The Big Beat................
Apart from comedians the rest of our music scene was dispiriting. Pre-war dance bands, led by old men in dinner suits waving batons like headmasters with canes, continued to rule ballrooms, posh restaurants and night clubs. Their vocalists offered pale imitations of Crosby, Sinatra and other U.S. crooners. In the newspapers they were generally pictured clad in cardigan, clutching a pipe.
Being a teenager was no fun in the early 1950s. Britain was reeling from being bankrupted by World War Two even as America had gown fat and sassy. On the eve of the rock ‘n’ roll invasion the nation remained in a war situation, rationed hard from gas to candy. So we were ready to respond when, in 1955, the avuncular Bill Haley roused us to “Rock around The Clock, first on disc and next on the big screen.
Suddenly, British youth, hitherto passive and law-abiding, became an alarming headline: there were riots at the movie, policemen had their helmets dislodged, and the menacing specter of the Teddy Boy emerged -- garbed Edwardian
but topped with greasy hair and armed with a knife. Next came the leather boys on their motorbikes and their new American heroes, the original wild men of rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and the reflective and wry Chuck Berry. Violence twinned with sex, a new mixture, had raised a vulpine head in the once tame and tweedy isles.
The girls squealed and doled out their wages for 78s of the new music. Boys who wanted not only to sway and shout but also to take part were nonplussed. Rock ‘n’ Roll, like all the styles, was an American invention demanding electric guitars, echo chambers, major labels and managers. All very expensive -- and we couldn't compete.
But the local music industry, based in London, responded with its typical business-as-usual methods: slavish copies via cover versions performed by hastily assembled little Elvis Presleys. Fortunately for those of us who wanted to join in but were stuck outside the gates of show biz there appeared, in the midst of the wired roar of commerce, a homely do-it-yourself music dubbed Skiffle.
Borrowing from old American folk, blues and work songs, and much garbled in the process, Skiffle was started by Lonnie Donegan, a banjo player from the ranks of British traditional jazz, through his unlikely hit recording of an obscure railroad narrative set in the heart of Dixie, “Rock Island Line”. “Rock” was the magic word here.
The style was simple and cheap, employing strummed acoustic guitar, a washboard, a tub bass, three chords, and loads of enthusiasm. Soon the country of young wannabes was ringing lustily, if not authentically, to tales of working in cotton fields or on chain gangs. Guitar sales soared.
For some of us (perhaps the more academic and middle class) this short-lived Skiffle Boom led to an examination of underground roots music: black blues and white protest, of racism and dust bowl. In London it was but a short walk
from the tube or bus to stores offering LPs ranging from Big Bill Broonzy to Woody Guthrie. Shop assistants with thick cockney accents were ever ready to recount the sorry history of Yankee Doodle’s oppressed minorities. At home we
studied each moan and cry, each crushed and bent note, issuing from the precious vinyl -- manufactured by thoughtful British labels.
Soon true bluesmen were imported, enthralling the aficionados at London jazz clubs. Modern jazz had been a mystery but bluesmen had a simplicity that might be useable -- the plangent field ring of the lone guitar, the train whistle moan of the mouth organ.
There was a hiccup, though, when one of these folk heroes, Muddy Waters, placed an amplifier on the stage and proceeded to blast off on an electric guitar. The folkies were horrified -- but others were thrilled and then converted. Was this not rock ‘n’ roll with a conscience and a history? We had been exposed to Rhythm & Blues, the all electric city version of the old country blues. From here it was but a step to the more immediate rants and grunts of James Brown and the gospel call-and-response of Ray Charles. The race was on to form bands and regurgitate this hypnotic yet authentic music from abroad. Embryonic Rolling Stones took note, practiced, waited.
But I am confining myself to Southern England. Up in the forbidding and unruly North, especially in Liverpool, Skiffle didn't necessarily lead to folk and blues study. Instead skiffle group experience led back to the original strong beer of rock ‘n’ roll, and to the formation of electric guitar groups on the lines of Buddy Holly & The Crickets. Thus The Gerry Marsden Skiffle Group turned into Gerry & The Pacemakers, while The Quarrymen (containing John, Paul and George) became Johnny & The Moondogs. In fact, as John Lennon said later, even as skifflers the boys had been already squeezing in beat stuff like
Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” because they found folk songs restricting. The gritty Northerners had no patience with effete Southerners and their imported bluesmen fossils. Future Beatles and Merseybeaters felt up-to-date earthy
with their raucous renditions of American B sides by R&B girl groups, by Dr Feelgood & The Interns, and other obscurities. Where'd they get these rare records? Not from London.
One thing that both North and South, middle-class and working-class, agreed upon: by 1960 rock ‘n’ roll was a dead
The music had gone wet with violins; every other singer seemed to be a buttoned down crooner called Bobby. Erstwhile local rockers -- such as Cliff Richard, an early Elvis clone but at least once dangerous and sultry-sulky -- had been managerially rolled smooth and silky. The real rockers were absent: Elvis emerged from the army only to vanish into a Hollywood haze; Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace for marrying his 13 yearend cousin; Chuck Berry was in jail; Buddy Holly was dead. Pop had taken over -- packaged, precise pabulum.
Let me now introduce myself. Ever since childhood in post-war England I had been a user of popular song -- from leading a comb-and-paper school combo performing 50s pop like “Answer Me, My Love”, through a skiffle group period
when I sang, “This Sporting Life Is Killin’ Me”, to a rock ‘n’ roll band in which, armed with an electrified guitar, I did an impression of Cliff Richard rendering “High Class Baby”. I was now 18 and a hero to the junior schoolboys, proving that you could shine without being good at sports.
In 1961, with the big beat in retreat, I enrolled as a history student at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. But, truth to tell, I spent most of my time in bands, starting with trad jazz and finally launching into a sort of R&B. At the same time I had acquired a ukulele, using it to amuse my fellow undergraduates with versions of music hall songs, particularly those recorded by George Formby. In this pursuit of rough music instead of proper education I was not alone. Over in England there was a new tradition among art students for using their schools as covers for rock studies rather than for Rembrandt. A partial
list of those errant students would include John Lennon, Keith Richards (The Rolling stones), Pete Townshend (The Who), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Eric Burdon (The Animals) and Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds). What we had in common, apart
from our obsession with true blues, was that we weren't about to be fodder for the show biz industry. We were our own men, we weren't Bobbies.
In the summer of 1963, that fatal year, I pilgrimaged to the land of my dreams, the source of my sounds. I saw The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, ancient black jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and James Brown in person at a Seattle armory. I was shocked that my American peers neither knew nor cared about the blues, were wary of R&B, and considered Elvis to be little more than white trash. They appeared to be going through a more sanitized version of our Skiffle era, with crew-cutted collegiates singing of jolly coachmen or else Michael rowing his boat ashore.
I returned to England determined to create a band that, while respecting the roots, would not ape the real McCoy. But I still felt queazy: that rock ‘n’ roll and my own country were inimical, that we were a place of Shakespeare, tea cozies, and men in bowler hats. Imagine my surprise when I found everybody and the bus conductor talking about the Beatles! A silly name, I said, a play on Buddy Holly's Crickets. The Rolling Stones were another matter: they were keeping the R&B torch alight and moving, even if they did sound like Thames Valley sharecroppers.
But it was the Northern groups who were dominating the airwaves and record charts. Liverpool was deluged with agents seeking the next sensation. Some even signed each other up. Other cities were searched. Manchester rendered up the Hollies, Herman's Hermits, and Freddie & the Dreamers. Why all this to-do at this precise time?
A combination of the fall of the Establishment (caused by a political sex scandal which destroyed forever the image of the discreet, sexless Britisher), an increase in pocket money so kids could indulge their pop tastes, and a delayed “silly season” for the media (due to this Profumo business). Enter the Beatles and the cheeky, lively Northern groups. They could be marketed as cuddly toys, they spoke in a funny dialect, they were bouncing haircuts, appealing to young and old.
Common but not ashamed, the Northern groups were noisy but at least not banging on about society's woes like the Angry Young Men in the recent social reality films (“Look Back in Anger” had started the movement). No, the Beatles admitted they were in it for the laughs and the money. They sent themselves up as well as the pop industry. The barriers between Them and Us were down and now the cat could look at the Queen. Indeed, a pop group, like a royal event, could unite the nation, providing an escape from reality. Everyone -- from babies burbling about “Beakles” to the London “Times” critic writing of their “pandiatonic clusters” -- was enthralled by the four lads. Working class fun and frolics had become everybody's
chic. Trendy London fashion photographers took their picture and in turn the boys’ management borrowed the photographers’ Cuban heeled boots, the idea of long hair, and a concept of smart clothes rather than dirty black leather. By
Christmas “She Loves You”, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” anthem that John and Paul had knocked off in a few minutes when a new single was needed, had sold almost two million copies (in a country where a sale of a thousand was considered
decent). On another Christmas hit, “All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle”, the comedienne Dora Bryan admitted she didn't care which one she got because “they're all the same”. Yes, that's what they seemed: four carefree, mop-topped toy-boys. To be Beatles was to be a national institution, above criticism. But would America take the Beatles to heart? Would the world center of show business accept a group that in one way was carrying coals to Newcastle, and in another way merely an insular phenomenon, a rocking revival of Music Hall?
The U.S. campaign was cleverly planned. Capitol, their record company, sent press kits -- including Beatle wigs and a special newspaper -- to every disc jockey. Five million stickers proclaimed, THE BEATLES ARE COMING.
Billionaire Paul Getty had a Beatle wig plunked onto his scalp. Nat “King” Cole rang his label and was greeted by a snappy-happy, “Capitol Records -- Home of the Beatles!”. Carnegie Hall had been booked in advance, as had two appearances on the important Ed Sullivan Show.
One was enough: on February 9, 1964, the boys were seen by 73 million, the largest television audience ever. They had already won the hearts of Americans with their wacky answers to inane questions at press conferences: “What do
think of Beethoven?” Ringo: I love him -- especially his poems”.
With all their flip and frip the lads represented the jolly end of a growing American infatuation with all things Brit -- the new wave of “kitchen sink” movies and plays, the snazzy James Bond. Now, in a society still recovering from the assassination of President Kennedy, the Beatles were just what the doctor ordered.
But when all was said and done the fact is that the music had done the trick. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was Number One on the “Billboard” chart by February 1, 1964, before any of the above hoopla and hype. Americans love a parade and they needed one, but they also recognized a good song -- as solidly substantial as fish and chips soused in stateside Tabasco. Said King Elvis to his gang, after watching the Ed Sullivan appearance, “They've brought it home, boys!”
In my opinion, the Beatles, and some of the other Invaders who rowed in their wake, were the last practitioners of the art of the well-made, free-standing popular song, an art dating back to Stephen Foster. After the coming of psychedelia and heavy metal and the rest, the art was lost, never to reappear. Even Mick Jagger, bad boy poseur who at first appeared to be no more than a James Brown/Tina Turner impersonator, went on to contribute sturdy songs like, "As Tears Go By” and “Lady Jane”. The Invaders knew it was not enough to serve up only re-heated R&B. The best of their material -- "She's Not There” (Zombies), “Concrete and Clay” (Unit Four Plus Two), “Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter (Herman's Hermits) -- can stand up today in print proudly, can be played on a piano or by a full orchestra. Even on a ukulele, the instrument of choice for both the late George Harrison and myself.
And speaking of myself: back in Dublin, watching the Invasion gain momentum, I limbered up to catch a wave. Already I had formed Bluesville, a hard-driving group devoted at first to R& but then adjusted by the realization that a bit of wiggling and hair-shaking could win the girls, and that it was better artistically and financially to stop copying and start creating. Perhaps there was to be an Irish Invasion, a native sound?
Of course, I was an anomaly as an upper-class Englishman in the Republic of Ireland leading a rock band whose manager lived in Seattle. Still, I was following the same rapture as the mainlanders and, at the end of 1964, after serving time bashing out blues in grotty Dublin dives, I was writing and recording my own material. Next year, as the Invasion grew to include not only groups but also barbershoppers (The Bachelors), a demure veteran from the 1940s (Petula Clark) and even harmless Aussie folkies (The Seekers), I was swept in with a careless track of no name, a creature of thumping beat and orgasmic panting, a monster created by current U.S. needs outside of my control.
“You Turn Me On”, its eventual name, was as good a slice of R&R as ever hit the charts: blues, beat, sex, and hunger -- as far a cry from current events (Vietnam) as possible. On the “Billboard” chart of July 17, 1965, my record peaked at Number 8, beaten by my brothers the Rolling Stones and Herman's Hermits. The chart of that week, showing 14 of us in the top forty, marked the zenith of the British Invasion.
I was in teen heaven, appearing on “Shindig” (the very best of the rock TV shows), touring with the Stones and Herman, helping the Kinks get their tea, amusing the Turtles with my ukulele tributes to George Formby. Was I aware that I was experiencing the last halcyon beach boy summer as insidiously those protest songs crept in, heralding the darkness to come --the death, the drugs, and Altamont. Was I aware that I was the father of Irish rock? No, I was too busy having a good time in the fleshpots of Southern California, making Old Country dreams come true.
And today, as a sexagenarian, I can revel in nostalgia remembering those years from 1964 to 1966 when we ruled as a time when we believed we were bringing back a little grit to the land of Mickey Mouse.
I have settled here to embrace Mickey, living near Hollywood's corporate factories of fun. But there's no need to feel in exile. Paul McCartney has a home in Pasadena -- a mile or so from me -- Herman's nearby, as are Peter & Gordon and Spencer Davis. George Harrison, married to a local lady, died here.
As a One Hit Wonder I'm hardly remembered, but as a published historian I can stand back and inquire. Thus, a recent survey I conducted revealed that although most adults talk of the Beatles with affection, they rarely play Beatle records for their own sake. Instead the songs are used as pacifying parental treats for their offspring. Gurgling with delight, banging their feet, the babies are filled with ineffable delight, demanding more, more, just as they would any sweet and comforting food.
The legacy of the British Invasion, in the end, lies in the age-old transcendence of good rhythm music, of emotion in locomotion. The songs are not, on the whole, standards or evergreens because the lyrics are wanting, dealing largely with “Me” and “You” and feel-good declaration -- “I Feel Fine”, “You know what I mean” -- or else pseudo-poetic nonsense involving a “semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower”. Only Sgt. Pepper and his music hall pals stands strong in front of that fountain of past times from where we still get our nourishment.
The invaders were a happy band who once delighted a mourning republic with the erotic sound of young voices in an exotic accent. Now perhaps it grows poignant, like the eternal cry from a faraway place of a lost and lonely Boy Blue.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com