Monday, 5 March 2018

The definitive Top 20 early British rock'n'roll tracks

Billy Fury & Joe Brown
I say definitive simply because I need to stop looking for unexpected gems amidst the pile of manure that was British rock 'n' roll between 1956 and 1962. That it was so dispiritingly bad isn't really anyone's fault: the Brits were starting from absolute scratch - with the exception of Radio Luxembourg, there were no radio stations broadcasting this new stuff; they didn't have access to proper electric guitars or amplifiers; they weren't versed in the musical traditions (country, bluegrass, r&b, boogie-woogie, black rock 'n' roll, doowop) that all contributed to the American rock'n'roll explosion; they didn't have access to studios with the knowledge, the spirit or the right equipment to enable them to even vaguely replicate the exotic sounds coming out of the likes of Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis, Cosimo Matassa's in New Orleans, Leonard Chess's in Chicago or Norman Petty's in Clovis. So let's not be too sniffy...

...and let's remember that those early British pioneers did manage to conjure up some of the raw excitement of American rock 'n' roll by taking that country's roots music and turning it into the uniquely British musical genre, skiffle - which didn't require fancy instruments or well-equipped studios.

While skiffle managed to convey some of the spirit of rock'n'roll, it wasn't actually rock'n'roll. The first genuine R&R single to be produced by British artists in a British studio - in fact the first genuine original rock'n'roll record to be produced outside North America - was "Move It" by Cliff Richard and the Drifters, which was released on 29th August 1958, and reached No. 2 in the UK charts. The song had been written by Drifters' guitarist, Ian Samwell (on the top deck of a Green Line bus, apparently), but the brilliant unaccompanied introductory electric guitar riff that was the key to the song's success was played by Ernie Shear, a session musician drafted in for the recording (Hank Marvin hadn't joined yet).

It would be nice to report that this terrific leap forward led to a slew of classic UK rock'n'roll recordings - but pickings remained slim between the release of "Move It" and the emergence of the British Invasion bands in late '62. However, some genuine British rock'n'roll tracks did emerge from the sea of mediocrity that was UK pop at the time. I've come up with 20 records that, while most don't measure up to the best authentic American rock'n'roll, are at the very least as good as a lot of the stuff being produced in the US at the time:

Sticks and Stones - Tony Crombie and His Rockets (1957)
- okay, it's not wonderful, and the singing is a tad embarrassing, but it manages to replicate the Bill Hayley sound fairly convincingly, and the beat's pretty good.
Endless Sleep - Marty Wilde and his Wildcats (1958) (Big Jim Sullivan on guitar?)
- again, not a masterpiece, but the first decent stab at covering an American rock'n'roll hit.

Move It - Cliff Richard and the Drifters (1958) (session-man Ernie Shear on guitar)
- the reason it's regarded as the first truly original British rock'n'roll record is that it's an original song and it doesn't sound like any American song or act of the period.

High Class Baby - Cliff Richard and the Drifters (1958)
- another song written by Ian Samwell: not in the same class as "Move It", but a decent, lively production.

Brand New Cadillac - Vince Taylor and his Playboys (1959) (Joe Moretti on guitar)
- possibly the best British rock'n'roll number created in the UK until "Shakin' All Over": the great Joe Moretti played guitar on both. Like "Move It", it was originally intended as a B-side. Vince Taylor never reached these heights again.

Please Don't Touch - Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1959)
- co-written by Johnny Kidd: only reached No. 25 in the UK charts, but it's a great track, and there have been many cover versions since.

Bad Boy - Marty Wilde and his Wildcats (1959)
- written by Marty Wilde: okay, it's really pop, but so were many of Buddy Holly's later recordings.

That's Love - Billy Fury (1960)
- written by Billy Fury: the first time a British record had managed to recreate (almost perfectly) the sound of Elvis Presley's (gentler) Sun recordings.

Turn My Back on You - Billy Fury (1960)
- another self-penned number from the 10" LP The Sound of Fury: great slice of authentic, echo-drenched, uptempo rockabilly, with guitarist Joe Brown channeling Scotty Moore on guitar.

Teen Scene - The Hunters (1960)
- cover of an obscure US single by an instrumental group from Cheshunt: deserves to be better known.
Shakin' All Over - Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960)
- the greatest British rock 'n' roll record of all time, with one of the great guitar licks (Joe Moretti, again): written in an eyeblink by the band, it sounded like nothing else that had gone before, here or in the US.
Restless - Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960)
- the follow-up to "Shakin' All Over": great guitar break, and should have been another No. 1.

FBI - The Shadows (1961)
- a magnificent, menacing, swaggering instrumental classic.

You've Got What I Like - Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers (1961)
- not great, but not bad either (and yes, it's the same Cliff Bennett who went on to have a hit with The Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life")

Johnny Remember Me - John Leyton (1961)
- very much the pop end of the rock'n'roll spectrum, but wonderful nevertheless.

Linda Lu - Johnny Kidd an the Pirates (1961)
- third great crunchy R&R single in a row: a convincing, meaty cover of American Ray Sharpe's original.

Tribute to Buddy Holly - Mike Berry (1961)
- still brings a tear to the eye

Main Title Theme (from Man with the Golden Arm) - Jet Harris (1962)
- The Shadows' former bassist produces an instrumental as tough, unrelenting and sassy as Duane Eddy at his finest

A Shot Rhythm and Blues/ I Can Tell - Johnny Kidd and then Pirates (1962) (Mick Green on guitar)
- stupendous double-sided rock'n'roll classic from the King of British Rock and Roll: Mick Green's aggressive guitar style is awesome - and unique.

Compared to what the Americans were producing at the time, that selection may not seem particularly impressive - but these artists and producers created a platform for the next wave of British acts to conquer the world.

If anybody thinks I've missed out any British rock'n'roll gems recorded before October 1962 (when "Love Me Do" was released), please let me know. I'm done trawling!


  1. Jo Brown and the Bruvvers might squeeze in with "Picture of You" in May 1962,and at a stretch Adam Faith's "Poor Me" because of the debt it owes to Buddy Holly (anything even remotely connected to the shy young man from Lubbock Texas is good enough for me.)
    Both are more pop than rock so what an earth happened. I know countless books and articles have been written on the subject of the British Invasion but it still astonishes me how at least half a dozen and counting, world class groups could arise so quickly out of such barren soil.

    1. I tried to find something suitable by Joe Brown, because he seems to have been the earliest exponent of genuine rock'n'roll guitar (he learned a lot from Eddie Cochran when they were on tour together) - but I thought his hit singles, while perfectly decent, were just too far removed from rock'n'roll.

      As for Adam Faith, just...NO! There are Hollyish elements in his records, but they're just so gutless.

  2. Barren soil with the exception of most of the above.

  3. You've highlighted one of the reasons for the dire state of British rock and roll during that period. While the US was producing some of the greatest electric guitars and amplifiers ever made - an original 1959 Les Paul Sunburst will probably cost you about £600,000 now - and was developing the studio equipment to make them sound good on record, nothing like the same quality was being produced here. The better the instrument, the easier it was for US musicians to develop techniques beyond the capabilities of most British musicians, as anyone who has ever played a British guitar from that period will know. Hank Marvin had one of the first Stratocasters in this country in 1959 which you can probably hear on FBI. The rest were struggling with lumps of wood and strings which tore your fingers to shreds.

    With high taxes on imported records, as well as a policy by the Musicians Union that made it very difficult for US acts to come to the UK, it is no wonder that our own music failed to match US standards. As you say, skiffle was an inventive way for young British rockers to make music on the cheap - that's how the Beatles started - and led indirectly to the great flowering of British beat music in the 60s.

    1. Good points, Ex-KCS. I think it was Cliff Richard who bought Hank Marvin's Strat for him - and Marvin was a bit disappointed because he thought he was getting a Tele (like James Burton's). The story makes one realise just how disadvantaged British musicians were when it came to the instruments and innovations the Americans had at their disposal - I suspect a British guitarist would have passed out if anyone had stuck a Gibson E-295 plugged into a Ray Butts EchoSonic amplifier into their hands any time before 1960 - that was Scotty Moor'e set-up from mid-1955 onwards. (Mind you, a lot of American musicians were in the same boat - I was amused by James Burton's tale of painstakingly mastering Scotty Moore's style by playing every note twice, because he had no idea that the second notes were created by an echo device!)

      Having said all that, I wonder if, had the Brits had all those advantages earlier, there would have been the explosion of bands in the early '60s, and whether the British would have turned out to be quite so brilliant at producing rootsy pop.