Ian Whitcomb - "Confessions Of A British Invader"



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I always used music. Pop songs were my escape chute from the austerity of postwar Britain, a drab and flaccid land where I wore thick long underwear and Wellington boots, where I was always saying good-bye to my parents and trying not to cry. On the grimy train puffing me back to boarding school by the mud gray sea, I would counter the clacking wheels by chanting such songs as "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" preparing for the inevitability of rough blankets, bullies, the eating of toothpaste, the learning of Latin, and the mystery of math.

England wasn't swinging in 1951. It was always raining, not just outside but in the heart as well. The grownups said life was much better before the war, before the Americans arrived. Why, demanded my teachers, do you read American comic books crammed with cowboys, gangsters, and sudden death? Why do you sing silly songs like "Never Trust a Woman"? (Phil Harris and His Orchestra, HMV 5623, I could have told them.) When will you progress to Gilbert and Sullivan?

Now I can tell them: I liked America for the name alone, rolling along like a prairie; I liked the shouting colors of those comic books with their slogan, "68 Big PagesóDon't Take Less!"; I liked the slick clang of American pop with its promise of a more exciting world across the sea; I liked the grinning curvy cars, and the healthy sweater girls with breasts pointing aggressively; I longed to clamber inside a pair of tight blue jeans.

Back in that year, 1951, we visited the Festival of Britain, a celebration of a coming new age. The part I enjoyed was the fun fair in Battersea Park, even though the ice cream tasted like margarine. Over the Tannoy speakers buzzed a current pop song, British-made: "If you're a Londoner just like me, meet me in Battersea Park; there's music and dancing, a place for romancing..." There was definitely a problem with homemade pop; the song was a waltz and sung by a local crooner always pictured in the papers clad in a cardigan and smoking a pipe.

Fortunately there were visiting weekends at school. Then my understanding parents would drive me to Brighton, where, on the beach between two sad and rusty piers, shimmered the Super-American Fun Pal- ace. Boing, boing, boing, clung went the fleet of pinball machines, made in the U.S.A. and painted with incendiary blondes squired by Burt Lancasters. Over this wondrous scene came crashing American pop, sent out from on high by four great bullhorns. I knew the words to this inspirational music and could pipe about hot kisses and the Deep South.

Back at school, and no good at sports, I found my niche by forming my first band, a kazoo ensemble; with lavatory paper wrapped around combs, we hummed the hits of the day: "Answer Me, My Love" and "Shrimp Boats." One night, on the BBC, just after the news about Korea, we heard a terrific new record called "Kiss Me Big." The singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford, sang in a strong cowboy twang of wanting to be hugged and grabbed, to "stand and quiver like I've bin stabbed." I was captivated by "Tennessee" and in particular the driving boogie beat of his band. During the holidays I bought the record and often simply gazed at the label's enticing picture of a tower of disk platters, the home of Capitol Records. Whenever I played it to my sister and her friends, they stuck fingers in their ears and grimaced. That made me like the record even more. This was outlaw music; this was the Big Beat. I was ready for the world.

After prep school the next institution to which I was sent was public school, meaning private school. A great sacrifice for my parents, but boarding schools were the proper training ground for all would-be British gentlemen. As vicious as any urban jungle (minus the guns), these schools prepared us for the rough-and-tumble of the adult world. Some of the toughest wheelers and dealers of British rock in the 1960s and 1970s graduated from these expensive institutions: Brian Epstein, Peter Asher, Denny Cordell, Andrew Loog Oldham, Simon Napier-Bell.

Napier-Bell, known as "Fruity," was already at Bryanston when I arrived in 1955. But he was a hot trumpeter in the school jazz band and had no time for Tennessee Ernie or me. There was something piquant about listening to American music deep in the lushest Dorset countryside, in Thomas Hardy land. In our regulation gray shorts and open-neck shirts, my friends and I spent many a lazy afternoon in the long grass with a portable gramophone, engrossed in King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Big Bill Broonzy.

Suddenly, that year, rock 'n' roll hit Britain, springing out at us fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove. By December the hit parade was led by "Rock Around the Clock," played by Bill Haley and His Comets. The avuncular chief scout of rock 'n' roll was first received at Bryanston from the hissing radio secreted in Smythe-Crotchford's bed, after lights-out one night. From Radio Luxembourg, sandwiched between the gabble of French and German stations, we heard Bill Haley's good news train clickety-clacking through the ether, firing rim shots at nearby music teachers, dropping molten rock on the history-laden trees of England. There would be no stopping this boogie train. For Bryanston and for Britain this new music came simple and select, trailing no grim history of Africa-America, of poor white trash, of hillbillies and juke joints, of suffering jazzmen and blues folk. There were no complications. There was no responsibility.

Early one morning I sneaked out and wrote in the snow covering the school lawn the incantation "ROCK 'N' ROLL." Magical name, gleaming future, lure of America, call of the wild! I determined then and there to somehow make my own rock 'n' roll. I was not alone. Embryonic Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Led Zeppelins, and Dave Clark Fives were going through the same experience.

So it came to be that my father, braving the tough guys of the music trade in London's West End, traded in my accordion for a Spanish guitar with a golden sunburst finish. But authentic rock 'n' roll performance required electrification, and we hadn't the cash for that. Fortunately, at about that time, there developed in Britain a craze for American folk and blues songs played by skiffle groups. This had been started by a local jazz fellow called Lonnie Donegan, with his unlikely hit record "The Rock Island Line." The skiffle style employed strummed guitars, simple chords, and lots of energy. Soon this do-it-yourself music swept the country of the young, and we all were singing lustily (if hardly authentically) of cotton fields, chain gangs, and being on the "Last Train to San Fernando" and declaiming that "This Land Is Your Land."

At Bryanston I quickly formed the first school skiffle group. The resident jazz buffs threw up their hands. It would not be long, they warned, before I'd be dragging the "unacceptable face of capitalism" into the school by starting a rock 'n' roll band. Which is exactly what I didóbecause Elvis had hit, and his face and his stance seemed to replicate in real life all those superheroes I'd so admired in the American action comics of my prep school days.

In my last year at school, 1959, I presented the first-ever Bryanston rock 'n' roll group, complete with electrified acoustic guitars and starring me, fat and in my Sunday suit, doing my impression of Elvis (an Elvis, of course, who was then slim and sleek and dangerous). But the boys loved my performance; I became a sort of hero, and it was amazing to realize that you could be a hero without being good at sports.

I left school in a daze, and in a state of permanent adolescence (not a bad condition for a future rock star). I got a job working at Harrods department store in London, selling records, pleading with the customers to buy the latest Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry rather than the Mantovani. I had been privileged to be witness to rock 'n' roll's classic age, the crucible when the new music had been defined as a sound, as a style, and as an attitude.

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