With the benefit of hindsight, the opinion expressed by Mike Smith of Decca Records that there was no future for guitar groups in Britain was so far off the mark as to suggest that here was a man who was in the wrong profession. However, to be fair to Mr Smith he was only interested in what made sound business sense which is why he rejected the Liverpool group in favour of a London outfit who lived just round the corner from the recording studio. However, the subsequent success of The Beatles opened the doors for thousands of similar groups who had been playing “Beat” music for years albeit, on a largely part-time basis. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were just a few of the many professions who had budding musicians in their ranks and it was from there that the groups came together. Brian Poole [ who Decca had signed instead of The Beatles] was in fact, a butcher who went on to have a number of hits with his group, The Tremelos. It was mainly young, working-class men who formed themselves into groups however, there were one or two all female groups such as The Liverbirds. I suspect it was either the dream of becoming the next musical sensation or the prospect of attracting scores of adoring female fans that inspired the majority of young men to take up a musical instrument. Whatever it was, there was an incredible amount of talent waiting for the chance to show the British public what they could do and if you thought The Beatles were amazing, they were not the only ones by a long way.
The Beatles had begun like so many others, by playing popular Rock and Roll and Rhythm & Blues numbers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins compositions in particular. However, it was the songwriting talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney that took The Beatles into another league altogether and that talent was shared, initially, with their friends. Liverpool groups including, The Fourmost and Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas had hits with Lennon and McCartney compositions as did soloists such as Cilla Black and Tommy Quickly. However, whilst the by now, familiar sound of The Beatles was guaranteed to get the nation’s toes a tapping, other British groups were releasing their own original takes on Rock, Rhythm and Blues. Newcastle group, The Animals first came to notice in 1964 with their eponymously titled debut album containing a dozen solid R&B covers performed by a group who not only loved this music but fully understood how best to perform it. Their version of a song first heard on Bob Dylan’s debut album, Baby let me take you home gained huge praise from Dylan but it was another stunning version of another song on Bob’s debut album, House of the Rising Son that gave The Animals a worldwide hit single in 1964. However, whilst the group had a songwriter in lead singer Eric Burdon, he was hardly prolific and the group relied on other writers for most of their recordings. The group had success with early Randy Newman, Goffin and King and Mann and Weil compositions, the latter’s We’ve gotta get out of this place gave The Animals a huge hit in America and was even purchased by Elvis Presley who had it on his own personal jukebox.
One of my favourite groups was the London based five piece, Manfred Mann who topped the charts in January 1964 with their single 5-4-3-2-1 which was adopted as the theme tune for arguably, the best pop music show of the sixties, Ready Steady Go! The group took their name from organist and bandleader, Manfred Mann but it was the lead singer, Paul Jones, who got the girls screaming. Jones played a mean harmonica and like Eric Burdon, he fully understood the R&B genre. Their first album, The Five Faces of Manfred Mann, demonstrated the versatility of the group with a mix of R&B covers and group originals. The aforementioned TV show also introduced the British public to a group from Belfast, Northern Ireland when it chose to play Them’s single, Baby please don’t go [another great R&B cover] over its’ opening credits. Them had a number of hits and released two highly credible albums, Them and Them Again however, they are better known for their lead singer, George Ivan Morrison who went on to have a massive solo career.Van still performs some of the songs he recorded with Them and remembers them as being “good records”.
Another regular to the RSG! TV studio was Ray Davies with his group The Kinks who became synonymous with that whole Swinging London – Carnaby Street scene. Interestingly enough,for a group that will always be thought of as quintessentially English, The Kinks had started out as yet another group playing American R&B covers only they proved to be much more convincing when they switched to Ray’s original compositions even though, their first two hits were obviously based on the R&B standard, Louie Louie. The Kinks self-titled debut album also featured a number of R&B covers however, there soon followed a succession of hits all written by Ray, that remain amongst the most popular songs of the Sixties. And then, of course, we come to The Rolling Stones. What more can be said that hasn’t already been said about this group? Well, younger fans might not appreciate how they too started out playing R&B covers and that some of their biggest hits including, Come On, The Last Time, Little Red Rooster were covers albeit, extremely original ones. The Rolling Stones were seen as the main rivals to The Beatles and were equally successful at writing their own material.
The sixties were not entirely dominated by “Beat” groups although there were some outstanding groups such as The Hollies who not only sounded different from the majority but also had a number of great songwriters within the band. There were groups that contained individual players who would go on to form their own hugely successful groups later on – these included Jeff Beck from The Yardbirds, Peter Green from The Bluesbreakers and Stevie Winwood from The Spencer Davies Group. However, the most surprising success of the mid-Sixties came from Australia in the form of a folk group calling themselves The Seekers. Looking back I suppose that it was inevitable that there would be a backlash to all that loud R&B and Folk music had always been popular in the UK albeit, considered a bit dull. Lonnie Donegan was kind of folky and another group, The Springfields, had been extremely popular before lead singer, Dusty Springfield, decided to concentrate on her first love which turned out to be R&B music! However, The Seekers were a much better folk group than The Springfields had been and they decided to try their luck in England. They worked their passage to England on a liner in April 1964 only planning to stay in the UK for a couple of months but ended up staying for six years during which time the group became as popular as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Their singles replaced efforts by The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks from the number one spot on the charts at various times and their albums became huge sellers.
Popular music in the latter half of the Sixties became such a melting pot of styles and influences with almost anything done well having a good chance of becoming a hit. Names that would become huge in the next decade such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Rod Stewart,The Spectres [ later renamed as Status Quo] and The N Betweens [ late renamed as Slade] all released music in 1966 without much success however, there was nothing wrong with any of their early recordings. One of the reasons why these artists had to wait for their success was simply down to there being so much going on. Not only had The Beatles released their masterpiece, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but other influences such as Psychedelia and the Art School Movement were fast emerging as an influential underground/progressive music scene. This scene was largely experimental in its’ approach to what had gone before it however, whilst it remained influenced by Pop and R&B, it did things differently. Groups no longer concerned themselves with producing three minute singles, nor did they rely on conventional instruments to produce their sounds; everything and anything could be miked up and added to their recordings. This subtle shift away from the verse, chorus, repeat, style of songwriting introduced production techniques that both complemented and enhanced a sound that was unmistakably British.
In 1966, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker unleashed the ferocious Cream, a group that dominated the world until they called it a day with a late 1968 farewell tour. Family, a group formed at Leicester Art College in 1962 arrived in London in 1967 and immediately established themselves as favourites at The Roundhouse and UFO, two of the most celebrated underground music venues. The groups debut album Music in a doll’s house released in July 1968 remains one of the all-time classics however, it was far ahead of its’ time and despite selling reasonably well it has largely been forgotten. Two other groups who produced some outstanding pieces of work in the latter half of the decade were The Moody Blues and Traffic, the group which included Stevie Winwood. The Moodies had started out as a “Beat combo” alongside all of those other early Sixties groups and had scored several hit singles. However, it took a change of lead vocalist and a decision to work with a symphony orchestra on their 1967 album Days of Future Passed before the group was finally elevated into the premier division. Traffic on the other hand, were already up there even before their first ever recordings were released. The music press and Melody Maker in particular, had hyped up the new group built around the precocious talents of ex-Spencer Davis Group vocalist, Stevie Winwood for months whilst the foursome were holed up in some Berkshire cottage preparing their debut album. Fortunately, the group lived up to the hype and their first album Dear Mr Fantasy was both successful and delightful.
It seems that British pop music in the Sixties owed everything to four working-class lads from Liverpool, The Beatles, from those early covers of American R&B and Tamla Motown hits to the more experimental sound collages which appeared on their later albums. Their album, Rubber Soul, could be seen as a template for the Folk Rock groups that appeared from 1966 onwards whilst Revolver remains the essential reader for every budding singer-songwriter since. Donovan’s Sunshine Superman was one of many hit songs that owed everything to Sgt Pepper. It has a beautiful, whimsical melody based around a simple, blues influenced guitar signature and child-like, surreal lyrics referencing fantasy figures such as Superman and Green Lantern. It’s a classic that will never fade from popularity however, if you enjoy surreal lyrics the best example has to be A Whiter Shade of Pale a 1967 hit for Procol Harum who, as The Paramounts, had been the opening act on The Beatles final UK tour in 1965. However, we can’t leave the Sixties without mentioning those giants of Rock who together created something that not only matched everything The Beatles had achieved but went on to surpass them, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.Personally speaking, whilst everyone under twenty-five years of age in the UK was going mad for either “The Floyd” or “Led Zep” I found both groups to be rather boring and I much preferred to listen to groups such as The Liverpool Scene or The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The “Scene” released their first album Amazing adventures of in 1968 on the RCA label and went on to release three more however, what started out as a bit of fun soon became anything but and the group finally called it a day two years later. The Bonzos suffered a similar fate in that they had a hit single [ produced by Paul McCartney ], starred in a Beatles movie and became TV regulars in the UK, were hugely popular on the University/College gigging circuit and had a loyal following. Then someone decided that they should try to break into the US market [can you imagine this?] but the Beatles connections were not enough to endear this group of musical crackpots to the American public and they returned to the UK broke and totally disenchanted with the entire Pop and Rock industry.
To be continued.