Sunday, 28 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 34 (The first rock'n'roll record?)

This series started as an exploration of David Bowie's early influences ("Gnome" as in The Laughing Gnome) but has drifted some way from its moorings: in recent posts about rock'n'roll's impact on fifties Britain, Bowie has been mentioned only in passing.

But then again - and do correct me if I'm wrong - the country's denizens in that decade did include one David Robert Jones, born in 1947. And according to wikipedia, as with Alan Charles Klein (b.1940) and so many others, Master Jones's musical epiphany occured in the magical year of 1956, even though he was only nine at the time:

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 33 (fifties radio comedy)

By way of an extended footnote to the previous post, more about repression in fifties Britain, this time through the prism of radio comedy, plus further evidence of intertwangularity between John Lennon and The Goon Show

But before the Goons, The Glums.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 32 (That Was Fifties Britain That Was)

You can find out more about the the Britain in which John Lennon, Alan Klein and so many others grew up in Humphrey Carpenter's book That Was Satire That WasIt's actually about the satire boom which began with Beyond the Fringe in 1960, but there's a prologue describing the decade which led to that moment of release.

Staid as fifties Britain may have been, Carpenter dates the impulse for social change back to the forties. The need for everyone to pull together during wartime temporarily created a "comparatively classless" society, he says, and the mantra of Other Ranks (ie the non-officer class) was that "things are going to be different after the war."

Sure enough, a Labour government was elected in 1945, despite outgoing prime minister Winston Churchill's warnings about incipient Communism. But when this led to an era of austerity - the country had been "virtually bankrupted" by the war - the electorate got cold feet, voted the Conservatives back into power in 1951, and British society reverted to its "pre-war heirarchichal norm."

So what eventually caused that structure to buckle?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 31 (The Man from Mendips)

Listened last night to another of the very highly recommended LENNONYC "Beyond Broadcast" podcasts discussed in post 29, this time an interview with Colin Hall, curator of John Lennon's restored childhood home, Mendips (above).

The Liverpool slant has meant that none of the material was ultimately useable in the forthcoming documentary, part of PBS's American Masters series, which focuses on Lennon's reinvention as a New Yorker and is due to air in the US on November 22nd.

But as Hall speaks so illuminatingly about the significance of rock'n'roll for British teenagers like John in the fifties it's perfect for this point in the Gnome Thoughts ... series, so I have taken the liberty of transcribing a section below with a few edits.

You can download the complete podcast, which also features an interview with Quarryman Colin Hanton, at the American Masters site here. Hall is the only interviewee so far not to have had any direct contact with Lennon, but he paints a vivid picture of the times, and seems to have been only slightly younger. Dedicated Beatle people will already know many of the details - American records brought into the port of Liverpool by US-infatuated merchant sailors dubbed "Cunard Yanks," for example - but when Hall describes the spectacle of a friend's brother stepping off the boat in all-American gear then it really comes alive.

If you have read recent entries in this blog about the 1950s charts you will find much that is reinforced or confirmed by the interview, especially the comments about the moribund state of British society in Dennis Potter's 1956-set Lipstick On Your Collar quoted in post 19. And it's good to see that he links The Goon Show to rock'n'roll, as at the end of post 22.

New visitors to this blog, or incurious regulars who haven't explored its inner recesses, may also be interested in an earlier blog entry about Nowhere Boy, here. It features quotes from UK reviews of the film, including that of Philip French, who praises its portrayal of a Britain still in the grip of postwar austerity.

The LENNONYC interviewer is Michael Epstein; his questions and comments are italicised throughout. He begins by asking Colin Hall about the initial response to rock'n'roll in Liverpool.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 30 (1959 charts and early Britrock)

Only one more volume of the Fabulous 50s to go, but if you're not so keen on the tracks which don't come straight from the fridge (like L7, Daddio, you dig?) maybe I could draw your attention to an inexpensive box set which focuses exclusively on British rock'n'roll from the initial 1956 explosion to the early sixties - and not a Ronnie Hilton or a David Whitfield in sight.

I bought it recently on a well known shopping website for 6.99 - the price has now gone up a bit but it's still very good value. If you have access to spotify, here is a link. Doublelick on the image below for a readable tracklisting:

In fact, if you are looking to buy just one cheapo box set which includes, in the sleevenote writer's words, "almost every area in British rock music's rise ... from Big Bands to the Beatles" then this may well be it.

Admittedly, not every single track on this 5 CD set of homegrown rock'n'roll will make the liver quiver, the knees freeze and the bladder splatter (Little Richard's infallible tripartite test for the real thing), but for the average listener - and especially at such a bargain price - this collection provides an excellent overview of the pre-Beatles British rock era, illuminating that time, from the mid fifties onwards, when the likes of Lionel Bart, penning ersatz rock'n'roll hits for the likes of Tommy Steele and Anthony Newley, started the ball rolling for the Fabs.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 29 (1958 charts, Humph & Big Joe, 50s Lennon)

Here's the tracklisting (including some youtube links) for the 1958 volume of the Fabulous 50s series, plus some brief notes made at the time of purchase:
We are now approaching the end of this series whose major benefit is that you get to see the sort of thing which was in the UK charts that year, not simply the mostly American items which have subsequently become classics.

So in addition to the international biggies on this edition which need no introduction there is also Lord Rockingham (a successful attempt by contemptuous British jazzers including Benny Green to cash in on the rock'n'roll craze, as it was then); Lonnie Donegan still riding high on the skiffle craze; a forgotten Tommy Steele track entitled Nairobi; the non-international Max Bygraves with Tulips from Amsterdam; "Elias and his Zigzag Jive Flutes" plus some early CLiff Richard from the days when he was (briefly) seen as the British Elvis - I think Schoolboy Crush was originally intended as the A side to Move It but the latter track's quality (one of the few British rock'n'roll tracks which would not have disgraced an American company) was unmissable.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 28 (Ringo forever?)

Talking of those darlings of the Cold War, a current British TV comedy show has a regular sketch based on a very simple premise: the Beatles are still together, still recording, didn't take drugs, are still with their first wives.

Oh, and didn't die.

It's funny but sort of heartbreaking too: they are now grey-haired moptops, jolly schoolboys bantering with each other as though they're still in Hard Day's Night (the writer gets the style just right), kept in order by a Norman Rossington figure. George Martin features as a strict but fair headmaster type.

It's heartbreaking because you know the ridiculousness and the impossibility of the situation and yet part of you wants it to be true, wants them to be restored at last to their cheeky, unreal selves.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 27 (The Atomic Mr Haley and others)

"C'mon, lads - let's reck not of the morrow!"

One thing I haven't yet addressed in this scamper through the 1950s UK charts is just why that general audience split into two irreconcilable halves mid-decade - in America as well as Britain.

I had assumed it was essentially economic, ie the targetting of a new group of people with disposable income, as typically summed up below:
In 1955 teenagers had economic power, often accompanied by a consumer frenzy to equal that of their parents. They created a new market, which from that time on was flooded with products made especially for their consumption [...] And, of course, records. The 45rpm single had just made its appearance, and the portable record player allowed teenagers to take over the world of sound. Until then, to play music they had been dependent on the good mood of their fathers, who were usually in charge of the cumbersome record player enthroned in the front room.
But an article by Jon Savage in today's Guardian traces the origins of the divide back to the first atomic bomb - and offers a related reason for the scale of the Beatles' success in Britain: