Saturday, 7 March 2015

Gene Vincent in the ‘60s: booze, pills, guns, pain, money and marital problems - and some decent records

Gene Vincent’s Wikipedia entry informs us that the great rocker fired several shots at the English pop singer Paul Francis Gadd (now better known as Gary Glitter) in a hotel in Germany in 1968, causing Gadd to flee the country. The bullets missed – unfortunately - but it suggests Vincent was a shrewd judge of character. Of course, had he hit his target, we’d have been deprived of the some excellent Gary Glitterv singles, but any number of young girls would have escaped having to go through the trauma of being sexually molested by a truly repellent shit.

I came across this story while researching the later career of one of my greatest American rock ‘n’ roll heroes – one who was held in high regard and great affection by British music fans: the Beatles based their early leather-clad look on the image created for Vincent by the English TV producer Jack Good when he appeared on Boy Meets Girl on a visit here in 1959. Whereas American producers – and Vincent himself – had always done their best to cover up the fact that one of his legs had been wrecked in a motorbike crash, Good created a set designed to highlight the singer’s infirmity, and spent the recording in the control room shouting “Limp, you bugger – limp!” Of course, the change of image worked – European teenagers loved the soft-spoken Virginian’s dangerous, tortured, moody cripple persona. Perhaps that’s because it was so close to the truth: pills, booze, pain, bad luck, an obsession with guns, and a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Compelling stuff. The truly important thing about Gene Vincent, though, was that he had a superb voice and made great records.

Over the years, I’ve been appalled to discover the lack of actual chart success enjoyed by some of the great rock ‘n’ roll heroes during their heyday in the 1950s. They loom so large in the consciousness of music fans of my generation, we tend to imagine that they spent at least two or three years cluttering up the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic with a stream of what are today acknowledged as classic recordings. I’ve just checked up on poor old Gene Vincent’s 1950s chart positions. A grand total of one of his records reached the US Top 10 – “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in 1956. One more – “Lotta Lovin’” - reached the Top 20 the following year. He never made the UK Top 10, but had four Top Twenty singles (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”, “Bluejean Bop”, “My Heart” and “Pistol Packin’ Mama”) – and three more reached the Top 30 (“Race with the Devil”, “Wild Cat” and “She She Little Sheilah”.

Pretty poor pickings, given the quality of his output.

After his career had pretty much died in the States (the US was generally a lousy place to be an ageing rock ‘n’ roll star in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s), Europe clasped Gene Vincent to its collective bosom. He was never a huge earner or a chart regular, but there was plenty of live work, and – if he hadn’t been such an unholy physical and psychological mess of a human being – he could probably have had a solid career in the ten years leading up to his death in 1971 from a ruptured stomach ulcer while visiting his father in California.

Despite all of his problems (his leg was further damaged in the 1961 crash which killed Eddie Cochran, and he had endless troubles with the Inland Revenue, his wife, and promoters), his voice held up well, and while the later recordings don’t in any way match the brilliance of his early Capitol classics, there were occasional gems. Here are some of the best from The Screaming End’s final decade:

That was from the excellent Crazy Times LP, realeased in the UK in 1961. The next - which bears a marked resemblance to "Fever", is from 1963:

"I'm Goin' Home" (1961) might be his best 1960s recording:

"King of Fools" is a slice of prime pop from 1962:

I know "Spaceship to Mars" is incredibly silly, but I've always been very fond of it. It featured in the 1961 film, It's Trad, Dad, which appears to have been released at the exact moment when the beard-and-duffle-coat brigade were starting to desert Trad for Folk. Presumably the producers thought black leather didn't quite chime with the spcae travel theme of the song: in fact, it's hard to think of a performer you'd be more surprised to find on a spaceship than Gene Vincent (or a performer you'd be more surprised to find appearing in a film with The Temperance Seven):

Back to black leather normality for this Granda TV performance of a 1964 release, "You Are My Sunshine". He is looking particularly psychotic and pissed in this splendid video:

A 1963 album track now - 1963's "I'm Gonna Catch me a Rat". Pity about the girl singers:

1966's "Bird Doggin'" reminds me of the Everly Brothers early '60s stuff, and proves that Vincent's versatile voice could handle the British Invasion style with ease:

I'll end with Gene Vincent's last single, "The Day the World Turned Blue", which was recorded in 1970. It's lovely, and the film accompanying the video, which is from 1969, is poignant:

Wherever he is now, I hope this talented, troubled man has found some measure of peace.


  1. Ian Dury clearly agreed. See 'Sweet Gene Vincent'.

  2. As did The Stray Cats with 'Gene and Eddie.'

  3. It's not in the same league as "Sweet Gene Vincent" or "Gene and Eddie", but I'm fond of Johnny Carroll's tribute record, "Black Leather Rebel", from 1974 - not a bad attempt to recreate the sound of early Vincent, but, then, Carroll was also cutting frantic rockabilly records in the 1950s: