Ian Whitcomb - "Confessions Of A British Invader"
Over in hollywood, inside the tower that resembled a stack of platters, the Tower Records executives ignored "No Tears for Johnny" but took the panting track seriously. A seasoned promotion man, "Jumping" George Sherlock felt its potential immediately. "It's a record," he said. "Definitely a happening one. A possible stone fox smash." The president of the label, genial Gordon "Bud" Fraser, a twenty-five-year veteran of the disk business, a man who had walked with Sinatra, gave Jumping George a brief: Make a few test pressings, and take this mother and run it around the stations if you feel so hot for this weird thing. Run it up the flagpole, in other words, and see if anyone salutes (both Bud and Jumping were fifties people).
At my rooms at Trinity College the telegrams came in once more. "You Turn Me On" (a.k.a. "The Turn On Song") is a "pick" in Billboard, Cashbox, Record World, and Music Business and is becoming a "national breakout" via Los Angeles. "We're shipping 50,000 of these babies a day! Are you ready for this, Ian baby??" —signed by George Sherlock, the West Coast promotion chief. . . . "Ian your record will make it big. Working to put it in Top Ten within next thirty days. Regards Gordon "Bud" Fraser, President Tower Records." . . . "You are scheduled to appear on the ABC TV network show "Shindig" next week. Jerry." . . .
Stardom at last! First I was flown to New York, where Tower's East Coast personnel greeted me. One of the promotion men, a Mr. Licata, rehearsed me in my hotel room, showing me how to mime ("lip synch") to my record, suggesting spins and hand gestures. Then I was escorted around the trade-paper offices, to shake hands with kindly old gents who had pipes and memories of the great days when Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell were riding high in the charts, when artists were under the control of the executives and knew their places in the great well-oiled American entertainment machine. Now all was chaos; the inmates had taken over the asylum. Could you believe the surliness of those Rolling Stones, Kinks, Animals? None of them can read music, none of them could play Vegas! Now you, Iron —you got class, you got manners. And also a stone fox smash, added Mr. Licata. "You Turn Me On" was currently at No. 25, with a bullet.
Mr. Licata next escorted me to the TV studio where I lip-synched to my record. Back to camera for a few bars, spin around slow and British, sidle about, and then cup hands sexily for the panting on the "Huh! Huh!" break. These shows were all the same, all without any order or direction. Show business was not yet prepared for framing the British Invaders as it had gorgeously framed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and even Elvis. It had no idea what to do with these untamed youngsters from the erstwhile land of the bowler hat. Nor did I have any idea what to do. I was a student having fun, enamored of America, longing to meet some of my R&B idols and sorry that Jelly Roll Morton was dead.
I remember well one of these television lip-synch shows—in upstate New York and employing an endless array of miming stars, including Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dizzy Gillespie, all selling their latest wares, the little bit of vinyl. The kid audience showed scant interest in these stars and too much in me, screaming at every shake of my long hair. Beatles stardust had fallen like dandruff onto my shoulders. These kids were crying for me simply because of my magical connection with England, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, whatever, so long as it was cutely rude and British. I approached Dizzy Gillespie to commiserate with him, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and emptied some spittle from his trumpet.
Next stop, Hollywood. At the Los Angeles Airport I was mobbed in the arrivals area. Girls, some very little, broke through the police barriers to press into my hands stuffed animals, brownies, Bermuda shorts, books of poems. I was eventually helped into a police car and then transferred to a civilian one. "We'll give them a run, but keep in touch—know what I mean?" said my driver, smiling winningly from his glinting suit. "Hi, I'm George Sherlock, West Coast promo man, and you're a star." I asked what was happening. "You're what is happening, baby! You're hot, you're the hottest, so grab it. Everybody wants to know who and what you are. Are you truly British or are you a colored Ohio Jew? That type question." Then he punched a button on his radio; "Huh! Huh! Huh!" came out. He punched another: same thing. George, pounding the steering wheel on the off beat, told me I was breaking all over America and even infiltrating Brazil and Canada. But controversy was collecting: Authorities in Portland, Oregon, had banned me for encouraging loose sex and drug taking. "Cheer up," said George. "You're a star now, whatever the reasons."
"Shindig" was a heavenly reward for all the gray grind of England. The weekly ABC network romp was the creation of Jack Good, English born and Oxford educated. He wore a bowler hat and suspenders and had the manner of an ideal headmaster. This week's stars were the Beach Boys, and I was thrilled to hear their smooth voices and chocolate harmonies. They were ocean angels in my mind, and they knew how to relax, sipping Cokes, sampling pastries, and casually cuddling the squeaky-clean "Shindig" dancing girls. The show's backing musicians were laid back too. They'd played with every rock star you could mention, their hair was blown into fancy helmets, and their clothes were smart, sporty, and mostly velour. They were effortlessly professional, producing edgy blues-bright rock from their instruments with an ease that bordered on boredom.
Just before taping time Jack Good assembled us all behind the stage curtain and delivered a stirring exhortation. "Now look here, Beach Boys, Shangri-Las, British and American rockers, I want you to go out there and so pulse and throb and shake and shout that Western civilization will never be the same again!" My role was simple: I was comic relief, dressed in leather as a biker, playing the rough-trade boyfriend of the Shangri-Las in their hit "Give Him a Great Big Kiss." When it came my turn to perform, I had to make do with "This Sporting Life," since the censor who haunted our set had vetoed "You Turn Me On" as too suggestive. George, while adjusting my collar and puffing up my hair, said this image might confuse the fans, but this was a national plug.
After the show an aged stagehand told me I'd been performing on the very spot where in 1927 Al Jolson had got down on one knee to sing "Mammy" in The Jazz Singer. This impressed me more than anything else I'd seen in lotus land; this was as far as I could go.
Time was not on my side. "Sporting Life" was history, and "You Turn Me On" was peaking (at No. 8 on the Billboard chart). There was a pressing need to go out on tour and have a new single ready, a follow-up. How do you follow a novelty number like "You Turn Me On"? I suggested "N-N-Nervous," a blues stuttering song I'd been getting screams with back in Dublin. The Tower executives said they'd consider it. Meanwhile, off we go to see America.
I saw it from the window of a tour bus. Crisscrossing the continent, driving by night, eyeing the groupies, eating, sleeping, singing, sometimes indulging, always regretting. Meeting fellow Invaders. None of them knew quite what to make of me. Who was I and where had I sprung from? I am the Father of Irish Rock, I told them. You sound too toffee-nosed for an Irishman, they said. I met them all on the bus and in the motels. We were on nodding acquaintance: Freddie and the Dreamers, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger took a particular interest in me, wanting to know where I'd been to school and was I for real. The Kinks demanded cups of tea and cash in a suitcase before they would appear. I was distressed. There was a feeling of contempt for America as a place to rip off and then return home from, like Elizabethan privateers.
For me, america was a treasure house of country music, blues, ragtime, jazz—the roots of my soul. In Memphis I was stunned to receive boos and catcalls when I announced from the stage that I was proud to be in Elvis country, home of Sun Records. "We love the Beatles! We love the Stones! We love you!" came the cry. We were not only Invaders but masqueraders as well. In my dismay I retreated into America's glorious musical past, seeking out ragtime and Tin Pan Alley sheet music in thrift stores across the country. And I studied for my history finals even as the bus rolled across the Great Plains.
Somewhere in Kansas we were joined by the popular duo Peter and Gordon, both ex-public-schoolboys, well bred but hiding it. Peter and I palled up eventually. He confessed he'd earlier mistaken me for a moron on the basis of his reading of "You Turn Me On." Then he'd spotted my work books—Karl Marx and working-class movements—and thought better. As we bused along, Peter told me about the terrific progress pop was making—from the crude early rock 'n' roll of the Elvis variety to sophisticated art rock—and how Bob Dylan's poetry would revolutionize the business. Even I had recognized that times were changing. I had already had experience of the movement toward serious artistry within pop. Thought, current affairs, and meaningful relevance were creeping in, and the result seemed to be much finger pointing at the wickedness of the world and an invitation to change its ways via magic and chemistry. I was at the birth of folk-rock and pro-test. But hadn't I already been through all this back home?