Monday, 1 August 2016

From the Vipers to the Kinks: How British rock 'n' roll records caught up with the Americans, 1957-1964

Vince Taylor & His Playboys
Catching up took a while, but that's not surprising, given that rock 'n' roll was a purely American phenomenon, and that, while it boasted its fair share of jazzers and folkers, Britain wasn't exactly awash with performers steeped in the blues, country or bluegrass.

In addition, British recording studios were relatively primitive and there weren't many of them; recordings were governed by strict rules of correctness, enforced by staff producers and engineers (cleanliness was paramount, distortion was a sin); import restrictions and costs meant that British bands couldn't buy the equipment (in particular electric guitars and any sort of amplifier) that was helping fuel the explosion of American rock 'n' roll;  and opportunities to get your latest rocktastic "platter" heard by the great British public were severely limited due to the BBC's radio monopoly (just imagine - Two Way Family Favourites was once the best place to hear rock 'n' roll on domestic radio). How were groovy young British hepcats supposed to emulate the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly with all those obstacles in their path? Nevertheless, they eventually managed to. Here's a list of what I think were the most significant milestones along the way:

Producing authentic, snarling, echo-soaked, electric guitar-driven British rock 'n' roll was an impossibility in the months following Elvis Presley's first seismic appearance on the British charts with "Heartbreak Hotel" in May 1956. But the British had already come up with an exciting, driving musical genre aimed at young record buyers - Skiffle. Like rock 'n' roll, it was based on American roots music (mainly folk, in this case), but unlike rock 'n' roll, it could be performed without amplified instruments or an expensive drum kit, and it was simple to record. By the time Elvis happened along, Lonnie Donnegan had already reached the UK and US Top Tens with a genuinely authentic-sounding version of Leadbelly's "Rock island Line". So the Skiffle genre was a musical milestone on the road to Anglo-American pop parity - and my own favourite skiffle track was The Vipers Skiffle Group's "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O", a reworking of Uncle Dave Macon's 1920s number, "Sail Away Ladies". Recorded in early 1957, it was produced by none other than George Martin. It doesn't sound much like rock 'n' roll, but it certainly demonstrates an abundance of verve and rawness:

The time it took for skiffle to peak and die away allowed other Brits to figure out how to record something that at least sounded vaguely like American rock 'n' roll. The young Britons who really, absolutely cracked it - heavily aided by session musicians - were Cliff Richard and the Drifters. The song was "Move It", and it was released in August 1958. Cliff (who views this as his one true rock 'n' roll classic) does a convincing job, but the record's authentic R&R feel - its Americanness, if you like - is down to two guitarists: seasoned session-man Ernie Shear, who provided the intro, the solo, the frills, and the first two bars of rhythm guitar, and Ian Samwell, Cliff's regular guitarist, who provided the effectively insistent rhythm guitar on the rest of the recording (and who actually wrote the number):

Certainly, the recording is quiet and controlled - more well-mannered than American rock. But it's undoubtedly rock 'n' roll. The same can safely be said about the next record on the list - to the power of 10. "Brand New Cadillac", recorded by Vince Taylor and His Playboys in April 1959, is THE greatest British rock 'n' roll record of the 1950s. Leather-clad Taylor - who wrote the song - looked and sounded the part, and the lead guitar-playing of recently-recruited band member Joe Moretti is superb. (Moretti was a Glaswegian - which presumably explains Taylor's shouted imprecation to "Hang it on, Scotty!", and may explain the teeth-rattling violence of the splendid guitar solos):

Bizarrely, the song was a B-side and didn't trouble the charts: many would cover it later, most notable The Clash on their London Calling album. Talking of albums, it would take until April 1960 for Britain to produce an authentic rock 'n' roll album: in fact, it was pretty much a genuine rockabilly album. Every track on the 10-inch The Sound of Fury LP was penned by Fury himself, and the stand-out musician on it was the lead guitarist, Joe Brown, who had evidently learned an enormous amount backing the likes of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran when they toured England. The most accomplished track is the poppy, Buddy Holly-esque "That's Love":

The Sound of Fury was impressive, but none of the tracks could compare to the self-penned No. 1 single released by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates in August 1960 - the magnificent "Shakin' All Over". Guitarist Joe Moretti (of "Brand New Cadillac" fame) is once again brilliant:

The next song, released in 1961, was pure pop rather than rock 'n' roll, but the soundscape and atmosphere were unique: the galloping drum/guitar combination, the ethereal female voice wailing in the background, and lyrics about "the wind blowing cold across the moors". John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" was a bizarre, echo-drenched "Ghost Riders in the Sky"/Wuthering Heights musical mash-up written by a chap who claimed it was presented to him in a dream, and produced by a mentally disturbed, drug-addled, gay country boy in his flat above a leather goods shop on the Holloway Road (Joe Meek would later murder his landlady and kill himself with a shotgun.) And it's a thoroughly, unmistakably British classic.

Pausing to mention The Shadows' "Apache" (on which Hank Marvin used an American guitar - a Fender Stratocaster - to create a clean, simple, musical style that sounded like no other player's) and John Barry's "James Bond Theme", with Vick Flick's insistent, menacing guitar interrupting a swaggeringly brassy orchestra, we come to an overlooked classic from September 1962 - former Shadows' bassist Jet Harris's "Main Title Theme", a gutsy, sassy version of the theme to Man with the Golden Arm, which comes close to matching the menace of Duane Eddy's "Peter Gunn Theme": yes, it sounds American - but it's just so confidently American:

With that, we've reached what Americans call the British Invasion era, and five recordings that - in different ways - signalled that British rock 'n' roll/pop/rock production was drawing level with the American version, at least until the release of Pet Sounds. (I don't count black music in this context - nothing produced in Britain in those years could remotely touch American soul, jazz and rhythm and blues recordings produced by the likes of Stax, Motown, Blue Note and Philles.)

First up - and inevitably - it's The Beatles. For me, their second and third singles should have been "I Saw Her Standing There" and "All My Loving" - but, then, I'm more a fan of rock 'n' roll and country than pop. The first of those - which was track one, side one on their debut LP, released in March '63 - was the best pure rock 'n' roll record made in Britain since "Shakin' All Over" three years' earlier:

In September, 1963, the Rolling Stones recorded a single that history has tended to overlook. "I Wanna Be Your Man", a song written for them by Lennon & McCartney, was recorded at Kingsway Sound Studios, and "produced" by their brash young rookie manager, Andrew Loog Oldham - who knew absolutely nothing about production (as Mick Jagger later said, "I haven't heard it for ages but it must be pretty freaky 'cause nobody really produced it. It was completely crackers...") Yes, it was, and still is - and, maybe for that reason, it's still thrilling: a 1'45" blast of furious howling energy, propelled by Bill Wyman's super-fast bass and Brian Jones's brilliant, slashing bottle-neck guitar  (which is what Elmore James might have sounded like on "leapers" instead of booze). The contrast with their sedate debut single, the Chuck Berry cover "Come On", could hardly be more pronounced. This sounded like nothing else anybody was recording anywhere:

Loog Oldham's subsequent attempts to recapture the lightning-flash energy of "I Wanna Be Your Man" after he'd learned a bit about production resulted in singles such as "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" and "19th Nervous Breakdown", which to this day sound like a bloody mess to me - and yet they're the ones cited as classic early Stones' numbers.

By contrast, the producer of the Animals' "House of the Rising Son", Mickie Most, was a professional who knew exactly what he was doing. Recorded in May, 1964, this marks the point where a British band working in a London recording studio produced a single as authentically gutbucket  bluesy as anything being produced by any white American performers at the time. Eric Burdon's singing is a revelation, and Alan Price's organ-playing is utterly inspired:

Wowsers! And they did it in one take. 

In a way, my last two choices represent two sides of a single coin: they're simply the two greatest Garage Band singles ever recorded. First, from August, 1964, The Kinks and "You Really Got Me" (I'm using a live TV performance, because it's remarkably close to the single):

That was followed in November, 1964, by Them and the glorious "Gloria" sung (or shouted and rasped out) by it's writer, Van Morrison:

That was a "B" side. I might as well leave you with Them miming to the wonderful "A" side, "Baby Please Don't Go" on Ready, Steady, Go - what a single!


  1. I've never heard of Joe Moretti before-thanks for the education.A big thank you also to Andrew Oldham for urging The Stones to write their own material.Otherwise they would go down in rock history as the best 'cover version band in the world.'As for The Kinks-on hearing the first chord of "You Really Got Me" and it was down to Allnats record store 4s/6d clutched in grubby paw,or was it 6s for a 45rpm in 1964?

    1. I seem to remember, southern man, that singles cost 6/6d or 6/3d at that time. Various people online are citing 6/4d or 6/8d. One chap remembers EPs as being 10/11d. Whatever, they were incredibly expensive, allowing for inflation.

      I seem to remember Elvis' Gold Records Vol 1 costing a whopping 32/-. Worth it, though.

  2. Alan Price was also utterly inspired in insisting that House of the Rising Sun was credited "Traditional: arranged Alan Price" on the label, which meant that he got composer's royalties. This was a source of some resentment within the band.

    Having an older brother meant that I grew up with several of these records from the 50s sounding out from the gramophone, as well as some decidedly less cool like Stairway of Love by Michael Holliday and Magic Moments by Perry Como. I started buying my own in the 60s, including the Kinks. About a month ago, my brother and I were at a Summer fete listening to a band of 20 something year olds playing jazz, who suddenly launched into Hoots Mon, the Lord Rockingham XI tune and another great childhood memory. The band looked a little perplexed at the sight of two grey-haired gentlemen shouting out "Hoots Mon there's a moose loose aboot this hoose". Great post.

    1. Clever chap, Alan Price. I suspect it was Chas Chandler's admiration for the organist's sleight-of-hand that launched the chubby bassist on his career as a manager and business mogul. Nothing like learning by example.

      Harry Robinson - the session musician who formed Lord Rockingham's XI - went on to do the string arrangement for Nick Drake's "River Man"!

      Descendants of the real Lord Rockingham brought a legal case against the group over their use of the name, which was settled out of court.

      I always preferred the Rocks' (as nobody ever called them) "Long John" - rockier, albeit a trifle repetitive:

      Lucky the band at the fete didn't launch into MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" - you've have been arrested.

  3. The gurning,gesturing and whispering from behind the counter made it clear that rock-royalty had entered the shop,strolling round from nearby Denmark Rd-no limo in sight- to buy a pack of fags or sweets.I had no means of verifying if it was Don Lang star of Six-Five Special or not as we had a TV issue (we did'nt bleedin' own one.)
    Thankfully as it was a smallish premises he was unaccompanied by his Frantic Five-a household name in those days.