We may be experiencing a period of austerity at the present time but this is nothing compared to Post-War Britain [ 1948 – 56 ]. However, England was the place to be for thousands of immigrants who moved here from the commonwealth countries to take up residence in our fair land. I say fair when in reality, British society was anything but fair at the time [ nor is it any fairer today but I’ll leave that for another blog!] Our commonwealth citizens whilst encouraged by our governments [ Labour and Conservative ] to relocate here where there were thousands of jobs waiting for them, found it much harder to find somewhere to live once they’d arrived. Rented housing, which was the only option for most people, was almost exclusively reserved for white-skinned people. Landlords were able to display notices in their properties saying “No Blacks”, “No Coloureds” and even “No Irish” [ despite them being arguably, paler skinned than the English!] without impunity which meant that the only properties available were often slum dwellings destined to be cleared before the end of the decade. Undeterred, our commonwealth immigrants poured into the UK bringing both their traditional cooking styles and their indigenous music styles along with them. One of those imported styles, Calypso, was exotica to the stiff upper-lipped toffs who frequented London’s Soho district whilst the younger generation preferred to get their rocks off listening to Trad Jazz in the many clubs and pubs of East and South London. The Jamaican singer, Lord Kitchener, became very popular with his song London is the place to be at the same time as Britain was experiencing an epidemic of Trad Jazz Bands led by the likes of Ken Colyer, Humphrey Lyttelton and my favourite, Chris Barber.
The pop charts however, were dominated by lame cover versions of American hits such as Rock around the clock and Razzle Dazzle and when the nation wasn’t snapping their fingers to these classics, they were having their ribs tickled by the lunatic antics of The Goons. I was too young to see the humour in it at the time and simply considered the behaviour of Neddy Seagoon, Min Bannister, Major Dennis Bloodnock, The Famous Eccles and the others to be normal for adults. The adult-world being something that children were largely excluded from meant that my naive assumption was only to be expected and it was years before I could fully appreciate the comedic brilliance of The Goon Shows. In fact, if The Beatles can be attributed with changing the face of popular music in Britain [ and the World ] then the same can be said of The Goons for comedy. However, the advent of the Mop Tops was still a long way away and just like myself, John, Paul, George and Ringo were listening to Trad Jazz, early Rock and Roll and a style of music that combined elements of both – Skiffle. Lonnie Donegan who had started out playing banjo with both the Ken Colyer and Chris Barber Jazz Bands suddenly emerged as the King of Skiffle and went on to carve out an international reputation as one of our greatest entertainers. Around that time I was living with my mother in an overcrowded Anglo-Irish household over which two great figures, Jesus and Lonnie Donegan, presided. The former looked down upon us from every wall in the house whilst Lonnie sang to us from my grandfather’s record player each evening when he returned from work. We didn’t have a television but somehow, grandad had acquired a suitcase full of 45rpm records [ known as singles ] and not, apart from Donegan’s stuff, that British shit. He had genuine American rock and roll records by such amazing artists as Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and of course, Elvis Presley.
Britain could never be accused of being relaxed or complacent about either social or technological changes taking place elsewhere in the world and just as the first notes of Heartbreak Hotel appeared on the BBC World Service, the government revealed its’ weapon of mass destruction – Tommy Steele. Now I have nothing against Bermondsey’s, blonde bombshell, ex-Merchant Navy rating, Thomas Hicks [Steele]. I think that he’s a hugely talented entertainer but he’s never going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is he? And neither are any of those other British Rock ‘n Rollers released post-Elvis to counter the US invasion, Dickie Valentine, Frankie Vaughan, Don Lang, Tony Crombie and Johnny Brandon who actually toured the USA in 1956 billed as Britain’s King of Rock and Roll! Don’t tell me that you’ve never heard his big hit, Shim Sham Shuffle ? However, whilst there was an obvious demand for a wilder form of pop music whether in the form of Trad Jazz, Skiffle or the newly imported Rock and Roll, Britain or more accurately, the establishment run British Broadcasting Service [ BBC ] wanted a more gentle version with far less rock and a lot more roll. In other words, Easy Listening. However, when television became established in the late fifties and those lucky enough to own a TV set settled down in front of it to watch those early variety shows, things started to change and quickly. The Americans were already years ahead of us with TV production and were catering for every kind of demographic including the “teenagers” which we never had until 1963. So while British TV executives such as Jack Parnell put together safe, family entertainment shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium, an outsider inspired by US television, Jack Good, gave us out and out Rock and Roll shows such as Six-Five Special and Oh Boy. The genie was finally out of the bottle.
The British popular music industry owes a great deal to Jack Good although, I suspect that he has not been particularly well rewarded for his innovations in both television and theatre production. However, notwithstanding the innate talent within each and every one of them, Jack’s Rock and Roll stars would never have made it without him and Britain would not have been able to claim its’ place in the history of Rock music. Familiar names such as Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Billy Fury would have made it eventually but the way Jack Good handled them, made them overnight sensations much more successfully than anything today’s shows such as The X Factor or The Voice will ever do. It doesn’t matter whether you are a fan of Sir Cliff or the “Mockney”, Joe Brown, both are extremely talented, each still performing and recording interesting music six decades on from that first Oh Boy TV series. [Oh Boy was revived by Good in the seventies and featured artists such as Lulu, Shaking Stevens, Alvin Stardust and Joe Brown] Television exposure meant that musicians were guaranteed huge audiences wherever they performed and the Sixties heralded the arrival of the “Package Tour” approach to showcasing British talent. As this was a new concept, some promoters would import American pop stars to headline the shows but the bill would largely be made up of Brits. The most infamous of these early tours was one headed by two American rockers, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, in 1960 with our own Billy Fury and Joe Brown in the line up. Sadly, Cochran and Vincent were involved in a car crash on the way from Bristol to a London airport which resulted in Eddie’s death. His final recording had been Three steps to Heaven. Gene Vincent remained a regular visitor to Britain and I once had the pleasure of seeing him play live in 1963 and meeting him in a club three years later. The late broadcaster John Peel attempted to revive Vincent’s career when he financed an album for him in 1969 but neither Gene’s health nor his luck ever improved and he died two years later aged just thirty six years of age.
By a strange coincidence, Gene Vincent and one of Jack Good’s less successful “Oh Boy” regulars, Tony Sheridan, went on to play in Hamburg, Germany in the early Sixties. Sheridan had a residency at the Kaiserkeller club on Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn where he was sometimes joined by five young men from Liverpool, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, collectively known as The Silver Beatles. There is photographic evidence that “The Beatles” and Vincent met up in Hamburg and no doubt spent many a drunken night together however, it wasn’t long before John, Paul, Pete, Stu and George became homesick and moved back to the ‘pool where they came to the attention of a local businessman, Brian Epstein. They dropped the Silver from their name to become The Beatles and with Epstein’s help they became the most popular group in Liverpool before returning to Hamburg determined to make a better success of it the second time around. Stuart, who was more interested in developing his Art work than his Bass Guitar technique was keen to be reunited with his German girlfriend, Astrid who remained in Hamburg however, his relationship with both John and Paul soured. Things became so bad between the three of them that Sutcliffe gave up his place in the group and returned to his first love which was Art. Seizing this opportunity with both hands, Paul moved over to the Bass guitar and bought himself the instrument he is most associated with, the Hofner Violin Bass. Whilst in Hamburg the four piece Beatles went on to make their first official recording under the direction of German “Easy Listening” maestro, Bert Kampfert. As the “Beat Brothers” they appeared on a single featuring Tony Sheridan singing lead vocal [ My Bonnie ] as the A side and “Ain’t she sweet” sung by John as the B side neither of which set the charts on fire. However, upon returning to Liverpool the four found themselves even more popular than when they had last departed for Hamburg. Brian Epstein who was constantly being asked for The Beatles’ recording of “My Bonnie” decided that it was time to get his boys a recording contract. And just six months after being told by Decca Records executive, Mike Smith, that guitar groups had no future in Pop music, The Beatles signed with EMI and changed the course of popular music forever, just as Elvis Presley had done seven years earlier. The Beatles who had been bottom of the bill on a package tour headed by Helen Shapiro in February 1963 were now topping the charts and leading their own UK tours, some made up entirely of their friends and fellow musicians from Liverpool. Things had certainly changed – not Arf!
To be continued.