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.

You have to remember we were just coming out of the war here in Liverpool, our city's devastated, 65% of the city centre has gone and the UK is rebuilding. And suddenly from the United States there comes this wild and raucous [...] revolutionary sound. We're going through a trad jazz phase in the UK, and this is something that the older generation can deal with [...] but rock'n'roll is a much cruder sound, it's more raw [...]

Things coming from America were not seen as great cultural -

Not by our parents [...] Aunt Mimi I judge as being a very typical parent of her generation: she has come through the war, and I don't think you can ever underestimate what people experienced in the war. Here in Liverpool bombs were raining down upon the city and I think suddenly - this has been a hugely traumatic experience but then stuff like rock'n'roll is so frivolous, so trivial, the parents' vision of this would be it's of no intrinsic value [...], it's a fad, it's of no real substance, it's got no roots, there's nothing in it that they can see is going to elevate -
It's the worst of America.

Yeah, it's reducing things to a lowest common denominator, okay, it's working class, it's blue collar, whatever you want, and so instead of raising the sights it's lowering them. And it's also something that's popularity is very wide -

It's not British.

It's not British. It's persuading our kids to chew gum, to wear grease in their hair and to speak and dance in ways that we're not used to, you know - there's a great informality to it.
 And that's a big thing, because Britain in my parents' day, when I was a little boy, formality and convention and being conservative - and I mean this in British terms with a small "c" - is the way forward. We're a very traditional class-ridden society still in the 1950s, and rock'n'roll is perceived as subversive: this is something which is challenging the established order of life in the United Kingdom. [..]
John Lennon is turned onto it because he is a creative spirit. He may not even realise it himself - we're talking about John Lennon when he is sixteen, seventeen - but something was awoken in John Lennon by rock'n'roll. His famous quotation was "Before Elvis, there was nothing" and that maybe says it all.
 It's maybe not accurate, either, because for John there was lots: there was the Goons (above), which was anarchic humour, anti-establishment - here we have a little something in British culture that John is latching onto, cause it's mocking the establishment [...] - politicians, the armed forces, the church - and its doing it through humour; its a powerful weapon. [...] For the British underclass, the working class, this was a great way of having a laugh at those toffee-nosed people who were in charge of the country.

And John loved it.

John loved it. I would say it was hugely influential in the way that rock'n'roll was, because it was going against the old order, the traditional values.
 Hall goes on to distinguish between between the later satire of the influential 1960 stage show Beyond the Fringe, more directly political in intent, and the Goons' more generalised, cartoonlike lampooning of authority: The Goon Show, which ran on BBC radio throughout the fifties was closer in spirit to that earlier favourite of John's, Alice in Wonderland. (More about this in the next post.)

So what is it about Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers that caputres the ethos of Liverpool and John -
It's not just the music, it's the way they look as well: they're challenging perceptions, they're opening doors and they're saying the music that you've been listening to it doesn't always have to be that straitlaced: listen to the rhythm and the words. They're singing about things that children, teenagers could connect with, not -

Did it matter that it was American?

Well, I think it was more exciting cause it was American. Lonnie Donegan had started with skiffle, but the things he was singing about were American, songs about Rock Island Line, and Chas McDevitt was singing about freight trains -these are not English things but they're connecting with the visual experience we were getting from Hollywood and some of the literature coming out of the USA. So what we're having is a collision here of those different cultural items coming out of the USA, and they are exciting cause the USA is an exciting place: it's futuristic to us.

It's free of class.

And that's another thing; it doesn't look -

It's freedom.

Exactly. It's a freedom of expression that wasn't available at that time, or was kind of looked down on, and so what you have is young people like John, who has this great bubbling talent, suddenly realises that it's okay, that you don't have to be archaic, that here is an opportunity to express yourself in the language that his friends will understand - that they all understand, but it's located in the language of the USA.

And a language that people like his Aunt Mimi just find incomprehensible, right?

Yeah, I guess they couldn't understand the attraction of it.

Did your parents understand? 

Oh God no, my father had [...] served in the war and these people with their longish hair and the way that they dressed - he was critical of the American soldiers, they didn't wear proper unform, they were sloppy, okay [laughs], you guys were sloppy, and I think this was a pervading attitude because we were more regimented, we had the class system. [... blue jeans] were working trousers: you wore those to work, not to go out in - and of course there were many places that wouldn't let you go in in jeans. Jeans were revolutionary.
They go on to talk about the death of John's mother, Julia, and Hall contrasts her with Mimi in a poignant observation:

I think she was before her time in her attitude and her openness. I think she would have flourished in the sixties. A lot of her generation would be looking to the old values I think maybe, not even knowing it herself, she was looking to the future and to something - she was picking up on what was happening and it suited her personality more.
The interview moves on to the losses John suffered in his early years: Uncle George, only three years before Julia, and Stuart Sutcliffe. Towards the end, Hall says:
For John it must have seemed that people with whom you got close were taken. I remember once talking to Astrid Kirchherr and she said that when Stuart had died and John talked to her, he was a great comfort.

But he did say to her you've got a decision to make. Stuart has died - are you going to die with him or are you going to go forward, are you going to embrace life?

And I think that is what John did.

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