Ian Whitcomb - "Confessions Of A British Invader"

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In 1961, after almost two years in the real world, I retreated to the safety of another institution. I enrolled as a junior freshman in the Modern History and Political Thought honors course at Trinity College, Dublin. TCD at the time was noted as an easy-living university, much favored by Scottish earls, Egyptian counts, and African royalty. Nobody seemed to do much academic work, but there was a thriving community in and around a network of bars within yards of the university campus.

There was also a college jazz band (which I immediately joined as pianist), and, even better, there were actual black men to study so that I could understand at close quarters the authentic roots of the Big Beat. Alas, I soon found that many of my African classmates wore pinstripe suits, carried rolled umbrellas, and preferred Gilbert and Sullivan to Muddy Waters.

By this time, you see, in my digs into American culture, I had discovered rhythm and blues, the electrified city version of the old country blues. R&B, as the music trade papers termed it, seemed to be an overexcited, naked Adam of the metropolis—and the parent of rock 'n' roll, the other parent being Tennessee Ernie and his country-western brothers.

It was an old Etonian friend who steered me from the clanging of Muddy Waters to the immediate shouts and rants and grunts of James Brown. I got into a state of febrile excitement, and at the end of the term I sailed to England and bused to the Ealing Club in London to hear our local version of R&B: Alexis Korner and his band, Blues Incorporated. Korner was the son of an Austrian cavalry officer; his bluesmen had cockney accents. Mick Jagger and Brian Jones sat in from time to time. If these local lads could have a bash, then so could I! I bought lots of LPs at the West End import shops: John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Champion Jack Dupree—grassroots and concrete-based men who had seen and suffered and sang the truth. I studied their music, taking it to bits as others had done with radios and cars, and I tried to reproduce their bent and battered phrases on the sideboard piano in my parents' flat.

Back in Dublin, supposedly studying working-class movements and Karl Marx, I put together an R&B band called Warren (I was a fan of Warren Beatty) Whitcomb & His Bluesmen. This consisted of lapsed college jazz musicians accompanying me as I pounded the piano and shouted about getting my mojo working or using a blackjack bone to ward off enemies.

In the summer of 1963, that fatal year, I was finally able to make a pilgrimage to the land of my dreams, the source of my sounds. I went on a student charter flight to New York, bought a ninety-nine-day, ninety-nine-dollar Greyhound bus ticket, and set off to see the places of my choice. Not the Grand Canyon, not Washington, not Disneyland—but Nashville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and the West Coast beaches. At the end of my trip I managed to talk myself into a job entertaining at a student coffeehouse in Seattle's Pioneer Square. How impressed everyone was that I knew American folksongs like "The Sporting Life Is Killin' Me." And how shocked I was to find that the college kids knew little about the real country blues and, much worse, were wary of the urban shouts and screams of James Brown and his Famous Flames. They preferred to hear scrubbed-clean folksongs concerning jolly coachmen or being stuck a thousand miles from home. Flaxen-haired coeds stroked guitars and sang sepulchrally with eyes tightly closed. When I mentioned my love of Elvis & Co., the collegians talked of commercialism. I saw rock 'n' roll, and especially R&B, not only as great entertainment but also as strong meat flavored with the salt of truth.

Back to Britain and the problem of how to create a proper home product that wasn't an aping of American pop. Rock and Britain seemed inimical. My country was a land of homely comedians, of Shakespeare and tea cozies and everything covered in batter. Imagine, then, my shock and surprise when I returned from America to find every-body talking about the Beatles. A silly name, I said, a play on Buddy Holly's Crickets. Now, the Rolling Stones were another matter: They were keeping the R&B torch alight and moving. They had sass too: They sneered, they never smiled, they couldn't care less. And Mick Jagger with his slim hips and huge rubber lips seemed outrageously sexy.

But it was, at first, the cheeky, cheery northerners who were the darlings of the press and public. With their retreading of American R&B records and their own trifles like "Love Me Do" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Beatles were a far cry from "I'm Your Hoochie Man" and the rigors of R&B. We true blues devotees were certain the Beatles could never break into the American hit parade. Americans had invented R&B and R&R and pop; why on earth would they want to buy pallid reproductions from a group of weedy limeys? But, as all the world knows, America did buy the Beatles. After a little huffing and puffing I stopped trying to reason why and determined to catch the wave and land on the U.S. beach as a bright and breezy British Invader. For suddenly everything British was in style.

Here, in my capacity as cultural historian, I should stop the narrative in order to interject a calm telescopic view of this turbulent period.

The British Invaders weren't acting only for reasons of fun and money but also out of a sincere (and well- researched) admiration for the musical heritage of the United States, a treasury woefully overlooked by most Americans. Maybe this was because Americans, being a go-ahead people, had (and still have) a healthy obsession for the new and immediate and thus quickly discard the old and out of fashion. Maybe the reason they often can't recognize the dirty gold on their streets is the same reason that I and many of my British colleagues can't see why there's such an enthusiastic Shakespeare industry in the U.S.A. The grass is greener, as the saying goes.

At any rate, historically it's always been foreigners who have taken America's musical heritage seriously. In the 1930s and 1940s it was French, Belgian, and British writers who championed jazz. Later the Germans grew academic about ragtime. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music was written by an Englishman, as was the first serious examination of rock 'n' roll, The Sound of the City, by Charlie Gillett. In 1967 I was the first writer, in the Los Angeles Times, to examine and question the so-called poetry of the new psychedelic rock groups, and there was an angry reaction from the rock industry, which saw the music only in terms of sales figures.

The fact is that British musicians have always been in the vanguard as curators of the traditions of ragtime, jazz, and authentic rock 'n' roll—from Harry Roy, Ken Colyer, and Chris Barber to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and my own Bluesville. We studied the shouts, grunts, and blue note crushes as we listened repeatedly to our precious imported American records. We analyzed, we copied, and eventually we created, exporting back to America the vibrant, hurting, ultimately joyful musical culture so neglected in the country of its origin.

In the summer of 1964 I returned to the Seattle coffeehouse, but as a new person to a new country. Tragedy—the assassination of President Kennedy—had somehow created the right conditions for novelty. Americans were thrilled by the idea that sexiness could come in the shape of British lads fresh from a land of tally-ho and teacups. I had also worked hard to improve my appearance, with pushups, a chest expander, and a special diet (mainly, no more chips or Mars bars), plus a real leather jacket, a roll-neck striped jersey, and a pudding-basin haircut.

The coffeehouse was ready, festooned with a big banner: IAN WHITCOMB —DIRECT FROM LONDON VIA LIVERPOOL! I was ready with rock 'n' roll songs as well as the music-hall numbers from last year. But the patrons liked the rock songs best; by simply shouting, sighing, panting, I was able to get the attention of lots of lovely girls. One night one of them murmured, "Ian, your accent is really turning me on!" What an odd image, I thought. You turn on a tap, not a person. I visualized boiling liquid emanating from her. But I stored away the phrase.

Meanwhile, I determined to land myself a record contract. In my baggage was a tape, a bluesy instrumental I'd recorded in a basement as a theme for a Trinity College revue. With this little artifact I felt armed and ready to combine musical integrity with commercial considerations. The masses would be taught music history in a populist manner by a university man, trumpeting abroad the hidden treasures of the African-American, of the hillbilly, the descendants of indentured servants, of oppressed East Europeans. Inner city, outer rural transmogrified pop culture . . .

I consulted the Seattle Yellow Pages for "Recording Companies," eventually running across one Jerry Dennon, reckoned to be "King of Northwest Rock" for having produced the infamous frat classic "Louie Louie," by the Kingsmen. With my crinkly tape I visited Dennon, explaining that I could be as big as Mick Jagger. He nodded and consulted a music-business paper. Yes indeed, the Rolling Stones were charting and also annoying Dean Martin. Yes, he'd give me a contract and release my tape. I was now a recording artist. Next stop was to become a star.

Just before I returned to Trinity, Jerry Dennon presented me with a box of 45-rpm disks, my very first record, "Soho," as my college revue tune was now called. Here I was, immortalized in plastic. I stared at the label all the way home on the plane.

Back at school I showed the records to Bluesville and told them we were going to have a hit. They weren't impressed. Why should they be? Seattle was a long way away, and there were local club dates to play.

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