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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age Of Rock (1969) - Chapters 12-15
12 Soul (page 109)
In its simplest terms, soul was only updated rhythm ’n’ blues, a rehash of the same old format that has dominated Negro music for the past thirty years, and the only thing new about it was that it has been gingered with a big fat shot of gospel.
In the thirties and forties, big city coloureds had used their music mostly in first-degree escape. If they lived in the ghetto, if they were poor and badly housed and hopeless, they could at least look flash on Saturday night and shake down to Cab Calloway or Chick Webb, Stick McGhee or Louis Jordan or Wynonie ‘Mr Blues’ Harris, or whoever else happened to be big at that particular time. The musicians fitted themselves sensibly to the situation - they kept things light and flip and sexy and, if they had sense, they did nothing to remind their audience of what was really going on outside the dance hall.
Good-time music, loose and amiable and, by comparison, gospel was purest poison. It was archaic, primitive, and it was determinedly down-home. It reminded Northern Negroes of everything they most wanted to forget. Older generations liked it all right but their kids, hip and sharp-shooting, got embarrassed by it and thought it was somehow Uncle Tom.
With the fifties and the upsurge of some kind of organized Negro militancy, things began to change. The coloured public was no longer so keen to ignore its past and, instead of being something vaguely shameful, gospel came to be seen as a real part of the black tradition, private black property. Also, its flat-out emotionalism was an exact expression of the new rage and aggression in Negro life.
So around the middle fifties, Negro pop started grafting gospel feel on to the existing R&B styles. The beat didn’t change, neither did the subject matter, but everything dug deeper, more passionate and everyone sweated. That was soul.
Soul has always been bossed by James Brown. Born 1928, he was a hysterical blues screamer out of Atlanta, Georgia. Very down-home he had got his training in a Southern gospel quartet and used the same technique when he turned to pop.
It’s just about impossible to over-estimate ho-w big a figure James Brown has been. For more than ten years now, he has criss-crossed America in endless ninety-day barnstormers and, in that time, he has gone far beyond being just a singer. Really, he’s the final symbol of everything that Negroes can do, of the money they can make, the style they can achieve, the arrogance they can get away with. More even than Muhammed AN, James Brown has been the outlaw, the Stagger Lee of his time.
Beyond having had maybe fifty straight American hits, he has a show that’s made up of a twenty-one-piece band, four drummers, a boy and a girl singer, Elsie, TV Mamma, and anyone else he feels like hiring. He owns three music companies, five record companies and, when he goes out on tour, he sends out a team of interior decorators ahead of him to redesign all the hotel rooms that he’ll have to stay in. In these ways, he’s a Sultan, an unreachable, and whites simply don’t come into it.
He’s a small man, rather ugly, but he is a beautiful dancer and he has a freak voice, hysterical and piercing and quite unnaturally loud. Little Richard, Arthur Brown, John Lennon, P. J. Proby - they’re all whisperers by comparison. And basically, what he does is to set up some very simple pattern, one deepdown riff, and then he hammers it, hits it over and over, calling a phrase and having his band answer it, building on infinite repetition, piling it on until the tension gets to be almost physically painful. It’s the call-and-response gospel thing, the same old preach, only hyped into line with the sixties.
His stage act lasts one full hour and, all that time, he’s doing nothing but working up panic, hammering and hitting, shrieking, falling to his knees in fake anguish like some cryman Negro Johnnie Ray, striding the stage on bandy legs like some dwarfish Negro Groucho Marx. And his band grinds on behind him and his dancers pirouette and his drummers lay about them. Then he goes into some dancing, a faster Mick Jagger, tight black pants and legs like propeller shafts, and he’s only beautiful.
On Prisoner of Love, he walks away from the mike and calls the title in the darkness. Very thin and distant, repeating just these three words over and over. And then he comes back into the light, up to the mike, and he lets out a series of screams, mad anguished shrieks that last ten seconds each. Probably they’re the loudest sounds you’ve ever heard any human being make and, physically, you can’t not be moved by them. That’s the way he works on you. That’s the way he hurts you and beats you up.
Right at the end of his hour, on Please, Please, Please, he pretends to collapse and is hustled offstage by an attendant, his shoulders covered by a blue cloak. When he gets into the wings, he suddenly breaks loose and rushes back to the mike, screams a few more bars and falls right down again. This time a red cloak gets used. He goes through silver and gold and leopard-spots. Never gets off until his fifth attempt.
It’s terrible ham, of course, so calculated and precise that Brown fines his musicians each time they make a mistake, even each time their shoes aren’t brightly polished enough. But under all its gimmickry, it’s sexual and menacing and genuinely meant. It is also a black show, an Apollo show, and no white man could ever fully join in with it. More than anything, that’s what has made him so crucial.
He’s such a tycoon. Beyond all of his companies, he has organized his musicians into something like a cooperative society: they pay in a part of their wages and hold shares in the organization and, between them, own real estate and businesses and so forth. When anyone opts out, Brown has him replaced by someone unknown and struggling, someone who really needs the break. Uncle James - everyone gets looked after.
Talking to white journalists, he is withdrawn. Not mean or boorish but always guarded. He can be helpful, most courteous but he doesn’t stretch out. Why should he? He has no need of us. We don’t count.
Next in line was Ray Charles.
If James Brown got the soul train moving in the Negro market, Charles was responsible for breaking it around the world and, at his vocal peak, he has always made his rivals look straight silly.
Born in Georgia in 1932, blinded at six, orphaned by fifteen, he had it hard in every way possible and took a long time to get going. Into his twenties, he sold himself as a carbon Nat King Cole and hicked from town to town with a trio, playing a bit of piano, singing the good old good ones. Settling himself down for a lifetime of safe mediocrity.
But around 1953, for no good reason that he or anybody else has ever explained, he just suddenly upped and quit. Threw Nat Cole out the window and hit for himself. What he changed into was purest gospel. The real thing and no padding allowed.
He got himself a big band that could play the blues, hired a solid tenorman called Fathead Newman, added a girl group called the Raelets and topped it all up with his own new voice, which was curdled and hurt and quite magnificent. Raw, very agonized. Crabbed and ugly and unmusical but it carried a kickback like a mule. All you could say - it sounded right.
Anyhow, he was very successful. He sold massively among Negroes, gradually built up a following among whites and, by 1960, had emerged as a definite world force. Remember: this was the dead time, the phase when rock ’n’ roll had run out of steam and the charts were dominated by the detergent inanities of Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis. Pop was sicker than at any time before or since and, coming when it did, a record like Charles’s 1959 hit, What'd I Say?, was pulverizing. So strong, so fierce, so sexy. Simply so real. More than just a one-time smash, it was a rallying point, a trampoline from which pop began its climb back.
Apart from anything else, he was a musician, good on piano and adequate on alto sax, and this was something almost entirely unknown in pop. He did albums of instrumentals. He took solos. He recorded with Milt Jackson, the MJQ vibist, and wasn’t disgraced even then.
All of this seemed so extraordinary at the time that his publicists promptly dubbed him the Genius and, what’s more, many people believed it. Coming after Pat Boone or Fabian, who was to argue ?
He was in no pop tradition. More, he was in the line of doomed jazz heroes - Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker. He was black and blind, and, as such, he appealed not so much to any mainline pop crowd as to students and schoolboys and teen rebels of all shades. Kids like myself who were snob, who thought that pop was nice but maybe a bit banal and Ray Charles was the real thing, smashed and tortured, the soul-cry of an oppressed people. So if you thought yourself at all hip, you automatically worshipped him. Beat poets and hipsters and jazzmen everywhere preached him as messiah: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charlie Mingus. In those times, he was hip status symbol number one.
He had great presence. He’d grope his way out on stage, wave into the blankness around him and then you couldn’t look away from him. You just watched him all the time. Not that he did anything - he only sat and played. Still, he was mesmeric, he had it.
And his voice, when it soared, it chilled you and you sweated. He twisted you and hurt you. The first time I saw him, he stretched me so tight that I sicked up all my tea. All right, I was sixteen at the time and romantic. All the same, I didn’t spew for anyone.
Of course, it was too good to last - he signed up with the giant commercial complex of ABC-Paramount and promptly had all his natural force smothered in great wads of candy floss. In 1962, he committed virtual hara-kiri by cutting a slop Country ’n’ Western ballad, / Can’t Stop Loving You, complete with strings and background choir. Predictably, it sold upwards of two million and was followed by sundry other abortions in the same style. But, apart from being lousy, they were bad long-term commercial policy, alienating him from his blues public and leaving him without any stable following.
The next step was to put him in a movie called Ballad In Blue, a backdated weepie in which he played himself as an all-time caricature of the folksy, lovable, cornbread-and-molasses nigger, and the softening-up process was complete. When he’s given his head, he can still outsing anyone and some of his last records have been brilliant again but it’s a bit late now and hits have been hard to come by.
Ray Charles, in many ways, goes down as a black Elvis Presley, a great natural vitality strangled and aborted by the mechanics of showbiz. That’s too melodramatic an image but it isn’t untrue.
Sam Cooke had charm.
He came from Chicago, son of a minister, and he spent years touring with a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers. When he finally went solo, he sang soul gently, melodically. Sometimes he softened down so much that he was hardly soul at all, he was straight pop. Watered-down or not, he was sweet without being sickly and he wrote some fine songs - You Send Me, Cupid, Bring It On Home To Me, Havin’ A Party.
He was infinitely professional. He’d been through the small-time American night-club bit and knew his business backwards. When he toured Britain in 1962 with Little Richard and Jet Harris, he got up against solid rocker audiences and they wanted to hate him. Every night he’d go out cold and work his ass off, keep right on pushing until they finally broke and, absolutely without fail, he’d wind up slaying them. By the time he got through, they’d all be up on their feet and waving white handkerchiefs at him. Very corny, of course. But still it took some getting and he got it. He never missed once.
Offstage, he was sharp, self-confident, fast on his feet. He was a close friend of Muhammed AN, among the first into the ring to congratulate him after first beating Sonny Liston. In every way, he was smart. Too smart for his own good, in fact, because a woman shot him in a hotel, December 1964, and he died.
The word Soul had originally come out of modern jazz. Negro musicians like Charlie Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann and Bobby Timmons reacted violently against the West Coast cool, white and gutless, that had bossed jazz through the fifties and, by 1960, they had taken things right back to the roots again. Amens, built-in funk, straight-ahead twelve bars - all the tricks of down- home or gospel got dragged back in. Black blues, black musicians, black traditions and it showed in the titles: Better Git It In Your Soul, Work Song, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, Moanin
Somewhere along the line the word Soul got used, sounded right and stuck. In no time, it had become the most over-used cliche in the whole range of popular music. It has stayed that way ever since.
Jazz soul got copied by pop. All of the riffs and patterns and catch-words off a thousand commercial hits were first used by jazzmen. Very often, jazz and pop were indistinguishable anyhow: didn’t Ray Charles play jazz? Didn’t the Adderley brothers flirt with pop? And which was Jimmy Smith, where did Brother Jack McDuff belong ? The easiest answer was that they were sometimes jazz, sometimes pop and mostly a bit of both. Really, the distinctions didn’t matter much.
Across the past decade, pop or jazz, soul has become progressively stylized, formal even, and now tends to be as ritualized as some religious festival.
This is the ritual: the groups wear silk suits, comb their straightened hair into quiffs, concentrate obsessively on synchronized hand gestures, and the soloists sweat hard, yell themselves hoarse and are usually fast, tricksy dancers. Groups and soloists alike indulge in standardized bouts of dialogue with their audience (‘Is everybody all right?’ ‘Yeah.’ Let me hear you say Yeah.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘No, let me hear you say Yeah louder.’ ‘YEAH.’) Everyone grins a lot. In these ways, soul is as crisp and pat as a recorded message.
What makes all of this such a bring-down is the total lack of any real involvement. Most soul singers come on like windup dolls, they almost sleep-walk and they smirk, leer and grimace like so many nigger minstrels. They don’t act like people and they don’t treat their audience like people either. It’s all depressingly Tom.
At any rate, if soul really has become Uncle Tom, it’s largely traceable back to the Tamla Motown and Atlantic record combines, the first soul companies to wake up to the obvious proposition that, since white kids have more spending money to waste than black ones, they’re a vital market. In the light of this discovery, the music has been made gradually less harsh, less racial and more accessible to half-baked white taste.
The worst offender like this has probably been Tamla Motown, which is a pity because it has also dug up a lot of very heavy talent and turned out some really marvellous music. Apart from anything else, it has been one of the most romantic success stories in pop.
In 1959, Berry Gordy Jr, a Detroit song-writer and ex-auto assembly-line worker, launched Gordy Records on a loan of seven hundred dollars. This was fair enough: there are hundreds of small-time coloured labels all across the States, turning out minor local hits and just ticking over. They don’t make fortunes but they usually don’t go broke either. They survive.
But Berry Gordy somehow exploded: he wrote some good songs, little beauties, and turned them into national hits by sustained flat-out hustle. Then he formed two more labels, Tamla Records and Motown Records, and wrote some more songs, had some more hits and, by now, he was a snowball. In 1961, he got his first million sellers, the Marvellettes’ Please Mister Postman and the Miracles’ Shop Around. So suddenly he was an industry.
From there, he just expanded like mad. Signed the Supremes, the Temptations, Little Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes, the Four Tops, Brenda Holloway, the Contours and sundry others, all of whom clocked up monster hits for him. Unearthed two writing machines, Smokey Robinson and Holland/Dozier/Holland. Anyway, by 1964, he was selling upwards of twelve million records each year. Five years, out of nowhere, and now he bossed the first real shrine of soul. He’d been running fast.
The format was, and still is, simple - the songs are all written with one obvious hookline, to be repeated and hammered home ad nauseam, and the beat is kept heavy and the individual voices stay secondary to the overall sound. The rhythm sections are invariably magnificent, the singers strong and professional. Most times, the records sound as though they’ve been put together by computer but, just every so often, a little more trouble is taken and then a classic pop record comes out.
At its worst, Tamla has always churned out good noise for dancing, and, at its best, it has been superb. At its norm, it has put out more slick, well-made, commercial foot food than any other company in the world.
The one drag is that, once he’s broken an act in the soul market, Gordy invariably converts them into cabaret turns. Puts them into the white night-club circuit and has them make like family entertainers. Which is fine for the acts themselves, because they make more money, but a bit rough on their long-time followers, because the music turns lousy.
Again, I’m being too prissy: pop is a business first and last. It has always been full of false messiahs and bring-down is an essential part of the game.
I’m not going to go into any detailed analyses of the individual Motown acts. Most of them are excellent but they’re also largely interchangeable. The Supremes are the best looking, the most astronomically successful (‘America’s Sweethearts’), and Diana Ross, their leader singer, has the sexiest voice. The Temptations have the best sound and are almost my favourites. The Four Tops are the most passionate and Stevie Wonder is the most individual. Gladys Knight sings the best blues. Brenda Holloway is the most under-used. So on and so on.
They all have regular, almost automatic hits and if anyone should happen to miss out three or four times running, then everyone thinks a bit straighter, works a bit harder next time out and a giant is made.
The only real stand-outs are Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, who have been around almost longest of all. Smokey is lovely. He sings lead in a perfect woman’s soprano, not a falsetto shriek or anything so vulgar, but a finely controlled warble, full of its own small subtleties. Pop’s first female impersonator, original prima donna.
The Miracles grunt away in the background and Smokey is everything. Most of his best songs, things like Tracks Of My Tears and Ooh Baby Baby and / Second That Emotion, are begging letters for love and he pleads, he sobs, he keens. Torments of one teenage girl-child, operatic agonies, and his voice breaks, bends and trembles on every last note. Sometimes it’s a cry of pure pain and sometimes it’s only a sigh. Either way, it would like to break your heart. So high and soft and busted. Such fractured sound: Ooh Baby Baby is likely the most lung-pumping ballad in pop.
How could I criticize him ? He only has to open his mouth and I’m melted.
Writing of Motown, I really can’t dismiss the Supremes in one line. They were, after all, the most successful American act of the sixties. Every time that they walked in a studio, so it seemed, they sold a million records.
First and last, they were professional. They sang the right notes, smiled the right smiles and moved like three synchronized robots. They were lookers, politely sexy, and they opened their big eyes for all the people, showed their teeth, even wriggled their shoulders. Pink tongues and false eyelashes: they were cute.
They paraphrased the whole Motown saga. In the start, they were rough and noisy and they made good commercial soul music but, when they got to be successful, they cooled it and they played only white night-clubs and sang standards, film songs, blockbusters out of musicals. They’re clean. They gave the politest, blankest, most boring interviews in the world, real showbiz stuff about being glad to be back in our wonderful country again and aren’t London policemen just gorgeous? So what about black power? What about it, indeed - despite their schmaltzy monologue on Somewhere, which so shook up the 1968 Royal Command Performance, they remain as Tom as they could get.
Atlantic Records, Tamla’s major rival, pre-dates pop.
It’s run by the Ertegun Brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and it has been going for upwards of twenty years now. In that time, it has always been the most perceptive, tasteful and committed label around.
Over two decades, it has pushed Joe Turner, Stick McGhee, the Clovers, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, LaVerne Baker, the Drifters, the Coasters, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and whole regiments besides. Everything that has been new and worth shoving. And not only pop but much good jazz: Charlie Mingus and the MJQ, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, often when rival companies were still running scared of them. It’s not a list that any other combine could even approach.
The Erteguns are clever men, civilized and urbane, even sophisticated. Not obvious hustlers by any means. Ahmet, who has been the more dominant, looks like a Turkish diplomat - he has a billiard-ball skull, a goatee, a squeaky voice, and he comes on like an all-time playboy. Inside the image, he has shrewdness and staying power. Not long ago, he sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers for twenty million dollars and that just about rounded everything off.
Again, there’s not much point in going into any individual breakdowns - Atlantic’s major strength has always been its professionalism and the Erteguns have invariably used the best writers, producers, engineers or session men going at any given time.
The most cosmic singles have probably been Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee by Stick McGhee and his Buddies (1947) and Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis (1962). Outside of that, it’s simply been steady brilliance right through.
Their ablest lieutenant has been Jerry Wexler, about whom there’s not much to say except that he’s probably played producer on more great records than anyone else in the industry.
The only other of their associates who rates a mention is the late Bert Berns, who wrote such enduring stuff as Twist and Shout, Hang On Sloopy, Here Comes The Night and / Don’t Want To Go On Without You. Well, he wasn’t owned by Atlantic but he did a lot of work for them and this is where he fits in best.
Really, I bring him in only because I never met anyone who understood pop so well. Who agreed so much with me, that is.
He was an identikit American recordman, canny and tough and flash, always moneyconscious and he wasn’t a beautiful person but he was intelligent, articulate and he made some good lines.
One time, in my innocence, I asked him what pop was about. At the time, we were sitting in some restaurant, and, straight off, Berns swung round at our table and yelled the one word: ‘Waiter!’
Immediately, three waiters burst out of the wings at a canter and dashed to our table. Berns asked for a match and was faced by a sudden wall of flame, by three flickering hands. When the waiters left, Berns looked at me and wasn’t even smug about it. ‘Wouldn’t you say,’ he asked, ‘that’s what pop’s about?’
Aretha Franklin was different class: quite magnificent.
Essentially, she was the newest in the great Blues line of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington - big women, classic women, all of them with voices of infinite strength and command. None of them have messed about. They’ve just stood up and hollered. Foghorn lungs that could shatter plate- glass windows at twenty paces, no microphones required. Simple white dresses and slaughterhouse shoulders. Big legs and big breasts and big hands. There’s been nothing girlish about them but they’ve been terrific earth-women.
Aretha herself was not a beginner. In the first place, she led the choir in her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist, and she worked in the pure gospel tradition. Then she turned secular but things didn’t work well at first. She was lumbered with indifferent songs, third-rate producers and not much progress was made. Not that she starved: she played night-clubs and built herself a tidy reputation. But she wasn’t an explosion; not the way she should have been.
She wasn’t signed to Atlantic until 1967 but, after that, everything came together fast. Almost every single she released sold a million. And it all seemed so easy, so straightforward: Jerry Wexler, her new producer, discarded all clutter, all fuss and bombast, and gave her voice the chance to fly free, so fierce and domineering that she made you gasp.
She had repose, massive certainty. She had an infinite sweep to her phrasing, a crippling ferocity, and she attacked even mediocre songs so hard that they were smashed, gouged, annihilated and then renewed. Given crap to sing, she tore it to pieces, scattering strings and brass and angelic choirs as though she were an avenging thunderbolt. And where her rivals panicked and settled for climaxing each number in strangled hysteria, she unfurled in a steady steamroller progression from first chorus to last, from an opening of monumental queenly calm right through to final apocalyptic breakup, where she roared and snarled and whooped like a Holy Roller. Then she was a great natural force, not stoppable, and she ripped through brick walls like candyfloss, destroyed skyscrapers, trampled cities underfoot - Monster X reborn and resexed. But when she was finished, she only smiled politely and didn’t sweat but gently perspired.
More than anyone else in pop, it seemed irrelevant what she ate for breakfast or how many lovers she had. Image didn’t count - she was purely music.
For two years, everything went perfectly. But then her producers began to redirect her, moving her away from classic Soul and glutting her with mock- significant ballads, like Eleanor Rigby and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters. She did her best with them, massacred their meanings and somehow contrived to give them power; eventually, however, sheer weight of kitsch began to overwhelm her and she sounded dispirited. At the same time, she was enmeshed in private troubles, suffering through divorces and drunken-driving charges. Altogether, she was losing momentum and, by 1970, she had ceased to storm her songs flat-out. Often she sounded constrained, only half-involved. Given a decent R&B song, however, she would suddenly raise her head, fill her lungs and be just as marvellous as ever.
Her only possible rival was Tina Turner, whom I’ve already mentioned when I was talking about Phil Spector. On River Deep, she came across as a voice of vast potential, a hurricane, but she must have been Svengalied by Spector because she’s never been quite so good again. Usually, she’s wallowed in exactly that kind of strangled hysteria that Aretha disdains and it becomes boring. Really, she wastes herself.
Never mind, she’s sexy. She’s a great big woman with long black hair right down her back and a beautiful snarling animal face and a truly cosmic arse. Not pretty but sexual as hell. And her energy is endless, she flings herself about the stage like some maniac and her hair flays her flesh and her butt, always her butt. Then the sweat rolls off her in sheets and her lips peel back from her teeth and she’s quite murderous.
All this time, Ike Turner, her husband, plays guitar behind her and looks mean, a neat little man with a goatee and sad cynical eyes. He looks like some elegant black magician, so calm and sinister, and Tina his spell, his servant possessed by spirits.
I remember seeing them in a London Club one time and I was standing right under the stage. So Tina started whirling and pounding and screaming, melting by the minute, and suddenly she came thundering down on me like an avalanche, backside first, all that flesh shaking and leaping in my face. And I reared back in self-defence, all the front rows did, and then someone fell over and we all immediately collapsed in a heap, struggling and cursing, thrashing about like fish in a bucket.
When I looked back up again, Tina was still shaking above us, her butt was still exploding, and she looked down on us in triumph. So sassy, so smug and evil. She’d used her arse as a bowling ball, us as skittles, and she’d scored a strike. Smart woman: her flesh dissolving and her hair all flying and her big man- eater teeth flashing. She ate us all for breakfast.
Outside of Tamla and Atlantic, there are other major American soul labels, notably Chess, Bell and Mint. And outside of these, there are maybe five hundred minors. If you like soul music, they’re all fine and, if you don’t, they’re boring. There’s not much more I could say on them.
The thing about soul is that a quite astonishing number of American Negroes are good at it. They tend to have naturally strong voices and they sing in tune, keep time and are loud. Usually, they have no individuality whatever but they’re at least competent. So they come streaming out of the South in their thousands and hassle. Most often, their records never make the national charts but they’re still regional R&B sellers and money gets made just the same. Huge complicated networks of labels and artists and radio stations all across America - it’s a self- contained business within pop and is independent of all trends outside itself.
Because the supply of singers is so limitless, coloured labels can afford to get tough and they do.
A bargain they make is that they’ll get an artist a hit, they’ll start him off but that’s all: they get him known and he can then make money out of live shows. And if he doesn’t accept that, he can drop dead.
Of course, there’s sometimes trouble. Maybe the artist accepts the bargain at first, chalks up hits, gets himself established and then turns difficult. The companies don’t like that. They even hate it.
But if his mind stays straight, if he isn’t foolish, then everyone gets on fine. It’s rational - except for pro football or boxing, soul is usually the only chance that Southern coloureds ever have of escape. The companies give them that chance. In return, they want only humility.
The only other label I’m going to go into detail about is Stax/Volt, which is Memphis-based and has a roster including the deceased Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Arthur Conley, plus sundries. It is also the heart of the sweat-and-Tom syndrome and has much to answer for.
The basis of Stax is its house rhythm section, Booker T and the M.G.s, and they’re the best engine room around, they make everything burst. Booker T. Jones plays organ and Steve Cropper plays guitar and Duck Dunn plays bass and Al Jackson plays drums. That Memphis soul stew. They’re all tremendous.
The biggest Stax seller yet has been Otis Redding and there are plenty of people around who’ll tell you that he was a genius. He was from Macon, Georgia, and started out very much in the style of Macon’s other chosen son, Little Richard. All huff and puff and sharp sticks.
In the early sixties, he went on a soul kick and was very good at it. He had a fine anguished sound, blues-drenched, full of attractive little tricks and mannerisms, and his early hits were most convincing - Mr Pitiful, Respect, I’ve Been Loving You too Long. Meaty stuff, full of guts, and he seemed as if he really meant it.
In person, he wasn’t so hot: paunchy, baggy-trousered, white-socked and ham as hell. He stomped about the stage on his heels, waved his arms, grinned, sweated. He sang well and used good songs. But he was monotonous - he approached every number the same and all those mannerisms that had once been cute were now very stale indeed. Face it, he was typical soul, a bit Tom. Still, he wasn’t bad. He just didn’t slay me.
He was very popular with white kids, with hippies especially, and he played along with them, making small folksy speeches on Soul and Love and Brotherhood. At the 1967
Monterey Festival, the great Love happening, he was the only soul singer to show. Others stayed away because it was a white event and because they were expected to appear unpaid, a condition entirely counter to the whole spirit of Negro entertainment. Otis himself hesitated but finally turned up. And he did himself a lot of good, he became the hero of the whole bonanza.
He was worshipped. Well, after all, he was black. And not just brown black, Northern black, but a real rich Georgia black.
He made good records and sang nice and was perfectly fine. But he wasn’t the greatest soul artist in the world, not nearly, and that’s what the hippies thought he was. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Smokey, Tina Turner - they were all, in their different manners, more impressive performers but none of them sued for white favour, and Otis won out.
Just as he was at his peak and had won an English poll for World’s Best Male Singer, he was killed in a plane crash, along with his backing band. He was said to be only twenty-six. Maybe it was true.
Just before he died, he’d cut a record called Dock Of The Bay and it was his best, his least fake work in ages. More thoughtful and more felt again. So, the signs were he would have improved.
Myself, I’ve always much preferred Joe Tex to any of the Stax crowd. He’s a soul Chuck Berry, and he’s all very bighearted and avuncular on top but, way down deep, he’s sly, he stands a lot of watching.
He comes from Baytown, Texas, and he’s been around a whole long time. Nobody is squite sure exactly how long but he certainly had years of scrabbling, hassling and surviving before he ever got a hit. Maybe a full decade. And now that he’s finally made it, he’s hanging on like a limpet. He is notoriously hard, wary, and he does nothing unless he gets paid for it.
He writes his own material, halfway between country and the blues, softer and subtler than most soul and, according to his hand-outs, he makes ‘songs of kindness, compassion and humility’. Maybe so, but such kindness I could easily live without. Like for instance / Believe I’m Gonna Make It, his Vietnam song:
When I got your letter, baby,
I was in a foxhole on my knees,
And your letter brought me so much strength
(Tell you what I did, baby, you won’t believe it)
I raised up and got me two more enemies.*
*Words of / Believe I’m Gonna Make It by Joe Tex by permission of London Tree Music Ltd, London.
He’s a great one for handing out advice. The way he poses himself is as benevolent Uncle Joseph, forefinger wagging and his head shaking in quizzical puzzlement at the boundless foolishness of man. And his songs are folksy little sermons, things like: Lying’s Just A Habit John or Hold What You’ve Got or Don’t Make Your Children Pay.
He has a cunning voice, real back-country Texas, and he’s hugely smug. Most of all, he enjoys doing spoken monologues, extended debates on the state of the world. Or, more particularly, on man’s responsibility to woman. All of this he delivers in a very humble mumble. Impressive: Uriah Heep is quite outclassed.
Still, he’s cute. He has great greasy charm, much wit and inventiveness, and it just isn’t possible to hold out against him. He’s so transparent about it all. (In Don’t Make Your Children Pay, for one, it turns out that he’s against us starving our children, not on any moral grounds, but because we might need them some day and it wouldn’t do to have them hate us then. Investment and repayment. Self-interest right along the line). And he’s funny, he really is, and he obviously enjoys himself. So his records turn into good clean dirt and you can’t resent them. You keep trying to disapprove but your principles slip. That’s how you get corrupted.
Finally, in this chapter, I have to say something about В. B. King, who has nothing much to do with soul, who is hardly pop at all but has been a major figure just the same. Most simply, he’s the blues.
He’s a tubby man in middle age and he plays maybe the best blues guitar in the world. Originally, he comes out of a Mississippi plantation and is Bukka White’s cousin. And there’s no hyped-up gospel about him, no commercial sixties hysteria, but he plays pure blues, the real thing, and makes no compromises with anything.
Even though he’s from the South, what he peddles now is Northern big city stuff, tough and cynical. He uses organ, trumpet and tenor behind him, a small rough-edged band, and he only sings a bit, plays a bit. His voice is harsh, meansounding, and his guitar wings way over the top, simultaneously brutal and incredibly delicate. So he sells nothing to a white audience but, among Negroes, he’s one of the genuine giants and has been for the last fifteen years.
His songs are mean and humorous and boastful. Very full of В. B. King’s importance. And he trusts nobody, he rates women very low indeed and takes no jive, no mess. Still, he laughs at himself.
His music is mostly simple twelve bars, straight ahead, and he doesn’t ever
change. Just the blues, only the hard blues. You learn him off by heart: it’s so casual, so static, and it only works because he’s just naturally riveting, because he can play some chorus you’ve heard one hundred times before and somehow make it new again.
The biggest influence he’s had, outside of other black blues guitarists his own age, has been among the young intellectual whites - Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green. The way they see him, he’s the last hero of a long romantic tradition and they revere him just as much as trad jazzmen once worshipped Bunk Johnson. They’re truly in awe of him. Not, of course, that he’s much interested: he has his own black public, he has owned them for two decades now and earnest white cults are so much jam. All he does is play the blues.
Inevitably, this chapter has been a bit of a ramble: I’ve had to cover quite a long period, a range of styles, a variety of approaches, and still make them seem as if they had something in common.
The odd thing about soul up to here is that, having started out as a great return to roots and reality, having brought some desperately needed guts into pop during the early sixties, it has grown into something even more phoney than the stuff it replaced. It is exciting or sexual or even moving but does it reflect a new black pride, does it hell? It is commercial. It is professionally servile. And all the impulses that created it in the first place have long since been forgotten. Now it’s only a sleep-walking factory.
Footnote: in the last two or three years, Soul has moved on a bit. Perhaps sensing the same stagnation that I wrote about in this chapter, a fresh crop of black stars began to emerge, combining the familiar ferocity of Soul with some of the flexibility and sophisticated production of white post-Beatles pop. This new style attracted the overall brand name of Psychedelic Soul and its founder was probably Sly and the Family Stone, a West Coast group of real rhythmic and harmonic range. Lyrically, Sly was a virtual non-starter but he was at least an alternative to Otis Redding’s instant grunt and groan and, from him, the new complexity spread to Motown (the Temptations), Stax (Isaac Hayes), Atlantic and any other Soul label that catered for white audiences as well as black. Beatles songs were recorded by the hundredweight, and Rolling Stones songs, and even Bob Dylan songs. Strings were introduced, and mood synthesizers. Hairstyles turned Afro and shiny silk suits were replaced with post-Hippie ruffles and fringes. ‘I don’t dig down-home any more,’ said one of the Four Tops. ‘It’s embarrassing.’
No great new talents emerged. Despite the shift in approach, there was still an overall sense of sameness and computerization, and the closest approaches to originality came from a group that had been together for fifteen years, the Dells.
In the Philadelphia era, they had made a marvellous record called Oh, What A Night, then they’d subsided into obscurity. But in the late sixties, they re-emerged and cut some very fine things indeed. Somehow they managed to combine an atmosphere of experiment with many of the tricks of vintage High-school. Passages of atonal piano, switches of tempo and freak-out crescendoes jostled side by side with falsetto wailings and rumbling bass monologues, as though the Four Tops, the latter-day Beach Boys and the Coasters had all been flung together in a cauldron and scrambled. The results were odd, to say the least, but most entertaining and one of their songs, O-O, / Love You, was truly magnificent.
13 The Beatles (page 129)
Next come the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I've been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarry-men, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them - John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five '0'-levels, and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he'd been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to Art School, he'd grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his put-downs could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle-pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit - they'd made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they'd built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they'd become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn't ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that's what gave them their strength, that's what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he'd wanted to be an actor and he'd gone to RADA but now, approaching thirty, he'd resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody's identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he'd been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they'd got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr's real name was Richard Starkey and he'd been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool's top group of that time. Actually, he wasn't too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please, Please Me, made number one and the third, Front Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day's Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they've hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they're coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher - assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That's how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who'd made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It's a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren't reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they're most charming but they're never remotely involved, they're private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren't reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways - they are anti-stars and they're superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they're being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they're distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses - it's the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can't ever get to them, they're protected and, finally, they only function among themselves. They're in their own league and you're insulted, you sneer but you're hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they'd have been huge anyway, they'd have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they've been strong: / Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn't see an inch without his glasses on, and he'd make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he'd rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He'd grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he'd then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance - Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic - She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn't. He's melodic, pleasant, inventive but he's too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon's toughness plays off well against McCartney's romanticism, Lennon's verbal flair is complemented by McCartney's knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen - Yesterday, She's Leaving Home - but he has a certain saving humour and he's usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he's kept them that way, no matter what routines they've got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he's always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: 'I haven't got a smiling mouth or a talking face.' He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault - he looked that way by nature and couldn't change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he'd emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke - just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: 'I go down to John's place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.'
He was solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no super-groupie, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser's assistant. He had known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
In many ways, he typified the best in the English character - stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knew that he wasn't a great drummer and it didn't upset him. Not very much upset him: he sat at home and played records, watched television, shot pool. Simply, he passed time.
He was hooked on Westerns and he loved new gadgets and he spent a lot of his time just playing. He sat with his wife and his children. Well, he might be slightly bored at times because he had nothing much to do any more but he ticked over and, quite genuinely, he would not have been too distraught if the Beatles had gone broke on him and he'd been forced to earn a living again. He was a survivor.
George Harrison was more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn't much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he'd set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he'd look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they'd shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/ McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they'd epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they'd been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they'd had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they'd made it so huge, they didn't lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar, Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn't until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they'd done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Wont See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I'm A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison's Love You To wasn't even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
Finally, in the summer of 1967, there came Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which took the process to its inevitable conclusion. Although it still used rock 'n' roll as a musical framework, it used all kinds of other disciplines as well -Eastern musics, chamber music, English music hall, modern-classical electronic -and turned them into montage. This was far beyond Pop, beyond instinct and pure energy. Limp and self-obsessed, it was Art. Not art; Art.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them - they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn't matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
Soon after he'd owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I'd ever read by him before. No put-downs, no jokes, no frivolity whatever - he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. 'God is in everything,' he said. 'People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.'
Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they'd renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.
Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison. it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, and he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. 'This is going to last all our lives,' he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.
Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.
Inevitably, being so successful, he'd been the butt of much schnidery within the industry, and, generally, he'd been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he'd gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he'd happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.
Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.
The main thing about him was that he wasn't moronic, he wasn't even entirely fascist. He wasn't much criminal and he didn't have people beaten up and he didn't automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.
By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren't necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.
Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies - Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilia Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963-4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilia excepted, they didn't sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity - the whole bit.
Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn't greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn't flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.
Most important, he was a mother figure - he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they'd outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.
His major problem was anti-climax.
Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he'd been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic - he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.
Already, in the last days of Epstein's life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them, Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi's Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.
As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.
Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they'd showed Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they'd ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That's just how secure they'd become - they were establishment, institutionalized, and nothing could touch them.
More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn't get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.
Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.
Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project - there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon's In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn't, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album, ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.
In America and in England, they had become two separate things. In the States, where pop was followed with great solemnity by a majority of under-thirty intellectuals, they were still taken with extreme seriousness, seen almost as divinities, and their every word was debated and analysed as though it was oracular; but, in England, pop still remained essentially an entertainment and only a small Hip cabal viewed them with reverence. Elsewhere, they had come to be regarded as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, perhaps, but harmless.
Despite this, they continued to sell records by the million. Flying, they were up so high by now that no folly and no pomposity could bring them down again. They had gone beyond.
At this stage, when no outside influence could destroy them, they chose to commit hara-kiri. Ever since they had stopped touring and Brian Epstein had died, they had begun to drift apart. Where once they had been inseparable, a four-man sect as secret and exclusive as the freemasons, they now divided. Lennon and McCartney no longer wrote together. Harrison refused absolutely to remain subservient. McCartney was furiously jealous of Yoko Ono, who had replaced him as Lennon's first lieutenant. There were quarrels, shifting alliances, tacit conspiracies.
Apple brought the breach out into the open. Having been created in a spirit of near-evangelism, it degenerated into the most squalid haggling. When it foundered, everyone came forward with opposing solutions for its rescue. McCartney wanted it made more businesslike, Lennon even more experimental. Some of its employees made off with the petty cash or planned palace revolutions. Ringo Starr grew sick of the whole conception. Disillusioned aides published sordid disclosures. Everyone blamed everyone else.
Finally, it became obvious that something concrete must be done to put Apple straight and Lennon, Harrison and Starr combined to bring in Allen Klein as their new manager. Klein was a notable (some would say notorious) American manipulator from the Philadelphia era and Andrew Oldham had brought him in to co-manage the Rolling Stones. Shortly afterwards, Oldham found himself outmanoeuvred and Klein emerged as sole overseer. Partly because of this and partly because of earlier games in America, he'd established an unequalled reputation in pop for shrewdness, toughness, and stamina; in other words, for winning.
At that level, he was obviously what the Beatles needed. But McCartney opposed him, called him untrustworthy, and suggested that Apple's affairs be entrusted to his father-in-law, the New York lawyer Lee Eastman. He was over-ruled in this and sulked. By now, he and Lennon were hardly on speaking terms and. in any case, Lennon was so wrapped up in Yoko that he became bored with the Beatles, started thinking of them as some adolescent game that he'd now outgrown. By the end of 1969, for all practical purposes, he'd left the group.
The break-up of the Beatles, however, was not made official for almost another year and, when the news was leaked, it came from McCartney. Increasingly ostracised by the other Beatles, he'd finally resigned all hopes of a reconciliation and pinned his trust on a dramatic splash, hoping to bring himself both sympathy and renewed image.
It didn't work. As with everything else in their last years, the Beatles' end was a mess, involving law suits, accusations and counter-accusations, inexhaustible bitchery.
Separately, the four Beatles then began to churn out solo albums, each hoping to outdo the rest in sales and critical acclaim. George Harrison won.
Somewhere in all the confusion, he'd outstripped his masters. He had acquired the knack of easy tunefulness that they themselves had lost and his capacity for making banalities sound like revelations grew greater all the time. He won Phil Spector as his producer and, together, they achieved the major hit of 1970, a song called My Sweet Lord. Whining, Harrison kept repeating that he wished to see his Lord but it took so long, while a girlie chorus chanted Hare Krishna in the background, as though they were advertising washing powder. 'Civilization has reached rock-bottom,' pronounced P. J. Proby. But there were many who hailed it as a work of genius.
Both Lennon and McCartney were less highly praised. Without McCartney, Lennon sounded tuneless and charmless, schlurping neck-deep in gesture and self-pity; without Lennon, McCartney sounded raucous - his essential lightweightedness was exposed brutally and all that survived was coyness, feyness, a certain melancholic facility. In both cases, their lyrics were remorseless in banality.
Meanwhile, Ringo Starr was also active, producing a stream of albums, some made up of standards, other of Country 'n Western. They were nothing musically but likeable enough and Ringo seemed to have fun on them. For myself, I found them overwhelmingly less objectionable than anything his ex-colleagues were creating.
However, it wouldn't be fair to judge the Beatles' whole output by their solo aberrations. Obviously, one has to go back to their collective efforts and, above all, to Sgt. Pepper. Then one can start to generalize.
What does one say? That they were good? That they had talent and that Lennon/McCartney were the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers that pop has produced? That they added whole new dimensions to rock 'n roll, that they introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties? Finally, that they marked a major turning-point in Western culture, the first moment at which popular art became truly respectable in the highest intellectual circles, not just as something to be patronized or camped but to be aped, revered?
Clearly, all these things are true; and yet I have never liked the Beatles much, nor been impressed by them. At a lesser level, I have also thought them bad for pop.
The crux of any argument about them must be Sgt. Pepper, which was a breakthrough in various ways. It was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, She's Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I'm 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In the Life, I'm Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn't matter much - what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.
So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn't much like pop. It wasn't fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.
But, after all, why should it? Why should the Beatles be forever limited, in bondage to pop? Why shouldn't they just expand and progress as they wished, regardless of categories? No reason - they were responsible only to themselves.
The only thing was that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they didn't add up to much. They lost their magic boots and then they were human like anyone else, they became updated George Gershwins. Admitted, the posh Sundays called them Art, as Gershwin was once called Art for Rhapsody In Blue; and it was true in a sense but what, by definition, is so great about Art? The standards and disciplines involved are harsh, after all, and the Beatles hardly measured up. By pop standards, Eleanor Rigby or A Day In The Life might be complicated, path-finding; viewed as Art, they were desperately shorn - glib, simplistic, complacent.
The comparison with Gershwin, in fact, is not unjustified. Just as Embraceable You and / Can't Get Started were flawless popular songs but Rhapsody In Blue was disastrous pretension, so with the Beatles. At the level of Baby Let Me Drive Your Car or Hard Day's Night, they'd been inventive, funny, acute and that'd been enough; in Sgt. Pepper, they retained the same qualities but their new ambitions demanded something more. Ingenuity and quickness weren't remotely enough, and the loss in power proved fatal. They went flat: after all, what does third-rate Art have on Superpop?
In the end, the way I like it best, pop is teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it's about parents and highschool and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it's about America, it's about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it's all about Coca Cola.
And, in the beginning, that's what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.
Anyhow, they changed and, because they were so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, almost every group in the world changed with them. Thereafter, there was no more good fierce and straight-ahead rock 'n roll, no more honest trash.
At least, with the Beatles, there remained a certain wit and talent at work but, with their followers, there was nothing beyond pretension. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, or Iron Butterfly or the Doors in America, were crambos by their nature and that was fine - they could have knocked out three-chord rock and everyone would have been content. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they've turned towards culture and wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions.
It is hardly their fault, you could hardly blame them directly; but the Beatles brought pop to its knees. Finally, Bert Berns summed them up better than anyone. One afternoon, halfway through 1965, he sat in a decaying West Hampstead caff and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. 'Those boys have genius,' he said. 'They may be the ruin of us all.'
14 Merseybeat (page 147)
The Beatles had been the turning point and, after them, everything was changed. Pop stopped being straight noise and now it was full of dogma, full of complex theory, and it was hefty, obsessive, altogether neurotic. It was almost religious and that’s the way it has remained.
The Beatles, of course, have dominated everything. They’ve stood in the middle and everyone else has ebbed and flowed around them - they have been at the heart of all things.
Predictably, the first thing they were at the heart of was hysterical boom in Liverpudlia. Two days after Please Please Me’ had crashed number one, the collected managers and agents of Britain hit Merseyside like a plague and they didn’t leave again before every last able-bodied guitar picker in town had geen hijacked. They were pure Hollywood and they smoked cigars, drove limousines, waved shiny contracts and conned everyone blind. They slavered greed from their throats, lust from their nostrils, hype from their eyeballs and, inside six months, they’d run the city clean. Nobody left but women, children and crips. Total wipe-out.
In the first wave alone, there were the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Mojos, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Undertakers, Tommy Quickly, the Merseybeats and the Big Three. Without exception, they had a few fast hits and, without exception, they then faded.
Liverpool is a strange town, it gets obsessed by everything it does. It is a seaport and it’s made up of different races, it is a city full of neighbourhoods, full of gangs and, outside of Glasgow, it is the rawest, most passionate place in Britain.
It has a certain black style of its own, a private strength and humour and awareness, real violence, and it is also grim, very much so. After the pubs close down, everyone stands out on corners and watches what happens and has nowhere much to go. Clubs are small, sweaty and dumb. Kids don’t move by themselves or they get nutted by the guerrillas. This is America in England: a night out ends almost inevitably with a punch on the nose.
In such an atmosphere, hungry and physical, pop could hardly miss. It exploded. It took over completely, it turned everyone fanatic and, by the early sixties, there were upwards of 350 groups around, more getting born each day. Almost always, they were musically dire, quite dreadful, but that wasn’t the point - they were loud, crude, energetic, and they weren’t faked.
Of course, in the normal run of things, almost none of them would ever have happened but this was no normal run, the Beatles had smashed, Liverpool was a national obsession and, suddenly, they couldn’t lose.
Quality wasn’t remotely relevant here - all they had to do was open wide, let those lush scouse accents out and they were home in one, they had walkovers. In this way, the charts got filled with musical assassination but it was a fierce time, at least it was rowdy, and nobody was bored.
Individually, nobody came to much - the Searchers were the most melodic, the Swinging Blue Jeans the most frantic, the Merseybeats somehow the most archetypal.
The one figure that fully sustained has been Cilia Black.
Cilia was really called Priscilla White and she was a Catholic girl from the Scotland Road, hot contender as Liverpool’s most grimy slum of all. When she got out of school, she worked in the cloakroom at the Cavern Club, a hang-out much celebrated as birthplace of the Beatles, and she did some singing on the side. Then, out of nowhere, she got herself signed by Brian Epstein.
At first glance, she was all problems.
When she sang soft, for instance, she was fair but, when she let fly, her voice turned into a monstrous foghorn blare, the melody got lost and all hell broke loose. Also, she was quite plain, not ugly but not possibly glamorous, and she was gawky, clumsy, and she couldn’t move right. And she was a chatterbox, and she kept giggling. Definitely, she was the girl least likely.
In the light of all this, Epstein played it very clever. No question, he showed shrewdness.
He wasted no time on turning her into any sequined toothpaste robot but let her giggle, let her dress wrong, let her do anything she wanted, and he was right because, the more gauche she seemed, the more school-girlish and gauche, the better she was loved.
It’s true - the British don’t like their girl singers to be too good, they think it smacks of emancipation, and Cilia at least seemed safe. Obviously, she was a nice girl. Also, she was respectful and reliable, very clean and quite unsexy, and she played daughter or maybe kid sister, steady date or fiancee, but she played nobody’s mistress at all. She wasn’t like that.
Everyone patronized her like hell, waiting for her to fall, but then she didn’t fall after all, she floated instead and she’s still up there now. She won’t ever come down, either - she still can’t sing much, she still comes on like a schoolgirl but she’s liked like that and she can’t go wrong.
Genuinely, she’s warm and she makes people glow. In her time, she will grow into a pop Grade Fields, much loved entertainer, and she’ll become institutionalized.
Anyhow, getting back to the point, Merseybeat was huge for a time but Liverpool was a limited city, it only hid so many guitarists and, once they’d all been snared and signed, the business had to look somewhere else for its meat. In any case, the whole thing had only been a one-time craze and, inevitably, it finally blew up. When that happened, thousands of guitarists all over England dropped their scouse accents like gangrened legs and shuddered.
So Merseybeat is now seen only as a farce, an embarrassing lapse from sanity, and being scouse is possibly the heaviest cross that any would-be pop star can bear. Still, I enjoyed it. Right here, I wouldn’t mind swapping.
15 The Rolling Stones (page 150)
In Liverpool one time, early in 1965, I was sitting in some pub, just next to the Odeon cinema, and I heard a noise like thunder.
I went outside and looked around but I couldn’t see a thing. Just this noise of thunder, slowly getting closer, and also, more faint, another noise like a wailing siren. So I waited but nothing happened. The street stayed empty.
Finally, after maybe five full minutes, a car came round the corner, a big flash limousine, and it was followed by police cars, by police on foot and police on motorbikes, and they were followed by several hundred teenage girls. And these girls made a continuous high-pitched keening sound and their shoes banged down against the stone. They ran like hell, their hair down in their eyes, and they stretched their arms out pleadingly as they went. They were desperate.
The limousine came up the street towards me and stopped directly outside the Odeon stage door. The police formed cordons. Then the car door opened and the Rolling Stones got out, all five of them and Ajidrew Loog Oldham, their manager, and they weren’t real. They had hair down past their shoulders and they wore clothes of every colour imaginable and they looked mean, they looked just impossibly evil.
In this grey street, they shone like sun gods. They didn’t seem human, they were like creatures off another planet, impossible to reach or understand but most exotic, most beautiful in their ugliness.
They crossed towards the stage door and this was what the girls had been waiting for, this was their chance, so they began to surge and scream and clutch. But then they stopped, they just froze. The Stones stared straight ahead, didn’t twitch once, and the girls only gaped. Almost as if the Stones weren’t touchable, as if they were protected by some invisible metal ring. So they moved on and disappeared. And the girls went limp behind them and were quiet. After a few seconds, some of them began to cry.
In this way, whatever else, the Stones had style and presence and real control. They are my favourite group. They always have been.
To begin with, they used to play the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond and they laid down something very violent in the line of rhythm ’n’ blues. They were enthusiasts then, they cared a lot about their music. Really, that was the only thing that linked them because they’d come from different backgrounds, very different situations, but they’d all grown up to the blues and, for a time, they got along.
At this point, they were only archetypal drop-outs. I mean, they weren’t art students but they should have been, they had all the symptoms, that aggression, that scruffiness and calculated cool, that post-beat bohemianism. And in these very early sixties, before the age of T-shirts and baseball boots, the heavy art- school cults were Ray Charles and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Charlie Mingus and Monk, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Robert Johnson. If you were pretentious about it, you might stretch to a paperback translation of Rimbaud or Dostoyevsky, strictly for display. But the Stones weren’t pretentious - they were mean and nasty, full-blooded, very tasty, and they beat out the toughest, crudest, most offensive noise any English band had ever made.
(Up to this, the British R&B scene had been desperately thin: Chris Barber, the trad trombonist, had started a few sessions in the late fifties but, by 1960, the obvious boss was a harmonica-blower called Cyril Davies, who died just as the blues boom was finally lifting off the ground.
Davies was an earnest man and a good musician but he mostly rehashed the Americans, he made almost no attempt to translate things into English terms and that limited him. Still, he laid foundations.)
At any rate, the Stones were at the Crawdaddy, peddling stuff about midway between the bedrock Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and the pop-blues of Chuck Berry, and they built themselves a following. Naughty but nice, they were liked by Aldermaston marchers and hitch-hikers, beards and freaks and pre- Neanderthal Mods everywhere. Simply, they were turning into the voice of hooliganism.
As groups go, they were definitely motley: Mick Jagger, who sang, came out of a solid middle-class background and had been to the London School of Economics; Keith Richards came from Tottenham and was quite tough; Brian Jones wasn’t tough at all - he was from Cheltenham, very safe, but he was insecure, neurotic, highly intelligent.
Charlie Watts had worked in an ad agency and, being a drummer, never talked; Bill Wyman was older, was married - he didn’t quite belong.
Anyhow, the thing about them was that, unlike the Beatles, they didn’t balance out but niggled, jarred and hardly ever relaxed. At all time, there was tension to them - you always felt there was a background chance of a public holocaust. That was partly what made them exciting.
In 1963, Andrew Loog Oldham became their manager.
Oldham, without doubt, was the most flash personality that British pop has ever had, the most anarchic and obsessive and imaginative hustler of all. Whenever he was good, he was quite magnificent.
His father having been killed in the war, he’d grown up with his mother, quite rich, and he was sent to public school. By the time he was sixteen, he was doing window displays for Mary Quant, the clothes designer, and then he spent a year bumming round the South of France before he came back to work in the cloakroom at the Ronnie Scott Club and be a publicist with Brian Epstein’s NEMS. And that was the whole sum of his achievement at the time he first met the Stones. He was then nineteen years old.
What he had going for him was mostly a frantic yen to get up and out: he loathed slowness and drabness, age and caution and incompetence, mediocrity of all kinds, and he could not stand to work his way up steady like anyone else.
Instead, he barnstormed, he came on quite outrageous. He slabbed his face with make-up and wore amazing clothes and hid his eyes behind eternal shades. He was all camp and, when he was batting off nothing at all, he still shot fat lines and always played everything as ultimate big-time.
The great thing was the way he pushed himself, he could either clean up or bomb completely. He couldn’t possibly get caught by compromise.
Anyhow, the Stones were obviously just his meat. He caught them at Richmond and got hooked by their truculence, their built-in offensiveness. Also, he struck up immediate contact with Mick Jagger, who was greatly impressed by him and became almost his disciple, his dedicated follower in the ways of outrage.
So Oldham brought in Eric Easton, who was his partner and had capital. Easton, a stock businessman who handled such showbiz stuff as Bert Weedon and Julie Grant, wasn’t unimpressed. ‘But the singer’ll have to go,’ he said. The BBC won’t like him.’
As manager, what Oldham did was to take everything implicit in the Stones and blow it up one hundred times. Long-haired and ugly and anarchic as they were, Oldham made them more so and he turned them into everything that parents would most hate, be most frightened by. All the time, he goaded them to be wilder, nastier, fouler in every way and they were - they swore, sneered, snarled and, deliberately, they came on cretinous.
It was good basic psychology: kids might see them the first time and not be sure about them, but then they’d hear their parents whining about those animals, those filthy longhaired morons, and suddenly they’d be converted, they’d identify like mad.
(This, of course, is bedrock pop formula: find yourself something that truly makes adults squirm and, straightaway, you have a guaranteed smash on your hands. Johnnie Ray, Elvis, P. J. Proby, Jimi Hendrix - it never fails.)
So their first single, Come On, got to the edge of the twenty, and then / Wanna Be Your Man was number ten, and Not Fade Away was number three and, finally, It’s All Over Now was number one. Their initial album did a hundred thousand in a week and, by this time, they were running hot second to the Beatles and they kept it like that for two years solid. Later on, in America, they even temporarily went ahead.
All this time, Oldham hustled them strong: he was hectic, inventive, and he pulled strokes daily. Less obviously, he was also thorough, he worked everything out to the smallest spontaneous detail. Well, the Stones were really his fantasy, his private dream-child and, healthy narcissist as he was, he needed them to be entirely perfect.
The bit I liked best, about both Oldham and the Stones themselves, was the stage act. In every way, both individually and collectively, it expressed them just right.
Charlie Watts played the all-time bombhead drummer, mouth open and jaw sagging, moronic beyond belief, and Bill Wyman stood way out to one side, virtually in the wings, completely isolated, his bass held up vertically in front of his face for protection, and he chewed gum endlessly and his eyes were glazed and he looked just impossibly bored.
Keith Richards wore T-shirts and, all the time, he kept winding and unwinding his legs, moving uglily like a crab, and was shut-in, shuffling, the classic fourth-form drop-out. Simply, he spelled Borstal.
Brian Jones had beautiful silky yellow hair to his shoulders, exactiy like a Silvikrin ad, and he wasn’t queer, very much the opposite, but he camped it up like mad, he did the whole feminine thing and, for climax, he’d rush the front of the stage and make to jump off, flouncing and flitting like a gymslip schoolgirl.
And then Mick Jagger: he had lips like bumpers, red and fat and shiny, and they covered his face. He looked like an updated Elvis Presley, in fact, skinny legs and all, and he moved like him, so fast and flash he flickered. When he came on out, he went bang. He’d shake his hair all down in his eyes and he danced like a whitewash James Brown, he flapped those tarpaulin lips and, grotesque, he was all sex.
He sang but you couldn’t hear him for screams, you only got some background blur, the beat, and all you knew was his lips. His lips and his moving legs, bound up in sausage-skin pants. And he was outrageous: he spun himself blind, he smashed himself and he’d turn his back on the audience, jack-knife from the waist, so that his arse stuck straight up in the air, and then he’d shake himself, he’d vibrate like a motor, and he’d reach the hand mike through his legs at you, he’d push it right in your face. Well, he was obscene, he was excessive. Of course, he was beautiful.
The weird thing was, Jagger on-stage wasn’t like Jagger offstage but he was very much like Andrew Oldham. Andrew Loog Oldham. I mean, he was more a projection of Oldham than of himself. (This happens often. For various obvious physical reasons, most managers aren’t capable of getting out and being stars themselves. So they use the singers they handle as transmitters, as dream machines. Possibly, that’s the way it was with Jagger and Oldham.)
Anyhow, what I was saying, the Stones had a wild stage act and, at that time in Liverpool, the night I mentioned before, they put on maybe the best pop show I ever saw: final bonanza, hysterical and violent and sick but always stylized, always full of hype, and Jagger shaped up genuinely as a second Elvis, as heroic and impossible as that.
After the show, I hung around in the dressing-rooms. The Stones were being ritually vicious to everyone, fans and journalists and hangers-on regardless, and I got bored. So I went down into the auditorium and it was empty, quite deserted, but there was this weird smell. Piss: the small girls had screamed too hard and wet themselves. Not just one or two of them but many, so that the floor was sodden and the stench was overwhelming. Well, it was disgusting. No, it wasn’t disgusting but it was strange, the empty cinema (chocolate boxes, cigarette packs, ice-lolly sticks) and this sad sour smell.
Throughout this chapter, I’ve kept on saying how great the Stones were but all I’ve shown is evil and the question finally needs to be asked: what’s so good about bad?
No question, of course, the Stones were more loutish than they had to be but then, after all, each pop generation must go further than the one before, must feel as if it’s doing everything for the first time. Always, it must be arrogant and vain and boorish. Otherwise, it’s not being healthy and the whole essential teen revolt gets dammed up, that whole bit of breaking away and making it by oneself, and then it’s stored up in frustration, it twists itself and, most likely, it comes out ugly later on.
The best thing about the Stones, the most important, was their huge sense of independence, uncompromised.
In the first chapter, I said that pop had originally been just that, a movement towards teen independence, and that Elvis was its first great leader. Well, compared to Elvis, the Stones were entirely different class: they were as far ahead of him as Elvis himself had been ahead of the young Sinatra.
No mashed banana sandwiches, middle-aged managers, G.I. blues, teddy bears, Gods or obediences - the Stones were a teenage industry all by themselves, self-contained, and the adult world simply wasn’t relevant. That’s why they were so loathed inside the business, because they threatened the structure, because they threatened the way in which pop was controlled by old men, by men over thirty.
That’s also why they mattered, that’s why Andrew Oldham mattered in particular, because they meant that you didn’t need to soften up to make it any more. You didn’t need to be pretty, you didn’t need to simper or drool or suck up - the old men might hate you in every way possible and you could still make yourself a million dollars.
Really, the Stones were major liberators: they stirred up a whole new mood of teen arrogance here and the change was reflected in the rise of Mod, in Carnaby Street and Radio Caroline, in Cathy McGowan and the Who and, later, in Twiggy. These weren’t purely teenage happenings, of course, but most everyone involved in them was under thirty and none of them could possibly have happened in the fifties. For the first time, England had something like a private teen society going and, myself, I think it was the Stones rather than the Beatles who led it.
Certainly, the Beatles were the bigger group but, until they turned to Love in 1967, they never greatly changed the way that anyone thought. They were self-assured, cocky, and they took no shit but they were always full of compromise and they appealed as much to adults as to kids. They weren’t committed. The Stones were.
In this way, then, the Stones were the final group of the sixties and their image was the final image, Jagger was the final face and their records were the final records. More than anyone, more even than Bob Dylan, they became their time.
Apart from anything else, they made marvellous music.
In the early R&B phase, they were wildly exciting but also crude, derivative, very limited, and they shaped up only as a short-term craze. But then, just as things were wearing thin, Jagger and Keith Richards suddenly upped and exploded as writers. Out of nowhere, they started churning out monsters: The Last Time, Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud, Mother's Little Helper, Under My Thumb, Paint It Black.
They weren’t much on melody, their words were mostly slogans, and a lot of their songs were simply crap. None of that mattered. All that counted was sound - an adapted Spectorsound but less symphonic, less inflated - and the murderous mood it made. All din and mad atmosphere. Really, it was nothing but beat, smashed and crunched and hammered home like some amazing stampede. The words were lost and the song was lost. You were only left with chaos, beautiful anarchy. You drowned in noise.
Their best record was probably Satisfaction. Their most archetypal was Get Off Of My Cloud, which sloganized the sixties just as Blue Suede Shoes had the fifties.
According to the story line, Jagger lives in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of his block and sits alone by the window, imagining the world has stopped. He plays records incredibly loud, makes holocausts of noise, and nobody can reach him, nobody can turn his volume down. People from below try to shut him up but he takes no notice. He sits and plays records and watches and floats. He can’t be touched. He’s on his cloud.
From Autumn 1966, though, the Stones began to slide.
Basically, they’d become too familiar. They’d come to be accepted and new people came along (the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Mothers of Invention), who went beyond them in outrage and made them look tame. Suddenly, when the Stones came out to do their thing, they looked dated and a bit comic - Jagger’s cavortings even had a certain period charm to them. That’s how fast pop is: the anarchists of one year are the boring old farts of the next.
Beyond that, they’d gone badly stale in themselves, they’d lost pace and direction. Like the Beatles, they’d stopped touring. Unlike the Beatles, they didn’t use the extra time to make better music - their records went flabby and gutless instead.
Finally, they made an album called Their Satanic Majesties Request, very experimental, and they commissioned a 3D cover and they pushed the whole operation like mad, they peddled it as a major musical breakthrough. And it was only boring. It wasn’t freakish or dire or nauseous - it was a drag. It had no rage or arrogance left, no image. In every way, it was toothless.
Also, they weren’t too much of a group any more: Watts and Wyman were married and settled, Brian Jones was going through big neurotic troubles on his own, only Jagger and Richards were still close.
Fatally, they’d made no films and, without movies, nobody can really sustain. The Stones had had chances - they’d bought a property, they’d had deals set up but they’d never brought anything through. The right moment went and still they fannied about. When they finally got straight, it was already too late.
In the summer of 1967, Jagger and Richards were given jail sentences on drug charges and, later, they got off on appeal. Shortly afterwards, Brian Jones went through roughly the same thing.
That could have saved them: they’d been made martyrs again and they were hounded by authority, by jobsworth, by the uglies in general. They were saints in the true cause of pot, teen symbol of that year, and they were most dignified, and they held their cool. In theory, they should have won everything back.
It didn’t work - they rushed out a new record, We Love You, complete with sound effects of prison doors slamming, and it badly failed to hit number one. Well, it was a lousy record but that wasn’t the point. In such a situation, it should have scored regardless. Obviously, the time for dramatic savers had gone.
The same winter, Andrew Oldham stopped being their manager.
No question, the second half of his management had been infinitely less impressive than the first. Really, he’d run out of targets - after all, he’d come out of nowhere and found the Stones and made them happen, he’d earned himself a million dollars and started Immediate Records, his own independent label, the first indie in England. He’d cleaned up. He’d entirely made it and he was now twenty-one years old.
Not surprisingly, he turned a bit aimless. He hung out in Hollywood a lot and squandered much money. Whenever I saw him he looked bored, vaguely unhappy.
The Stones weren’t much pleased by this and relations got very strained indeed. The clincher came when Oldham didn’t fly back from Hollywood for the Jagger/Richards drug trial. Even Jagger, who’d always been closest to him, was finished by this and, not long afterwards, the split was made official.
Oldham does all right - he still owns Immediate on which he has the Amen Corner and Fleetwood Mac, and he has the Beach Boys’ publishing in England. At the worst, he’s suffering from anti-climax. But he is much changed, very much deflated.
At the time of his bust-up with the Stones, he went through some quite bad times. When he came back on the scene, he was almost unrecognizable. No make-up, no camp, no outrage - he’d turned into a businessman.
He wasn’t objectionable. He was quiet and thoughtful, very polite, and he wasn’t even rude to waiters. He wanted to get into films, he wanted to be solid inside the pop industry and, on his office wall, he had a small photo of himself and his partner, Tony Calder, solemnly shaking hands with some middle-aged American record chief.
In every way, he was a more adult, responsible and admirable man but, myself, I’d preferred the ancient monster. He used to be messianic. And now he was a merchant. So Andrew Oldham lived but Loog was very dead.
Окончание главы в издании 1969 года:
And the Stones? At the time of writing they’ve appeared in a Jean- Luc Godard film, One Plus One, and they’ve done a few televisions, a few records, and that’s just about all.
Musically, they’ve veered away from the artiness of Their Majesties Request and gone back to the basics, the bedrock aggression that they’ve always been so good at. In this style, they’ve produced one marvellous album, Beggars Banquet, and two fine singles, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man. No question, they still have what it takes, they remain the best rock band in the world and, if only they’d concentrate, they could rescue rock single-handed.
Tactically, though, they’ve wasted themselves - there was a time when they could have been as heavy and powerful as the Beatles, when Jagger could have become bigger than anyone since Elvis, when the Stones could have led their whole generation but now it’s not going to be like that, there have been too many miscues and culs-de-sac, too much unused time, too much assorted fucking about.
They’re hardly suffering. They still sell records and make headlines and, even now, they probably run second behind the Beatles. The only thing is, they could have been more than that.
Predictably, Jagger has come off best. He’s settled himself down nicely as an international gossip-column face, a trusty, and he’s seen at the opera and the theatre, he makes trends and he gets his face in the papers every time he catches a plane. He’ll always be around. He’ll make it in the movies and he’ll guest on TV shows and he’ll go to premieres. Gradually, he’ll lose his hair. Never mind, he’s safe.
On the whole, things have worked out well.
So all right, the Stones could have been smarter, they could probably have upped their status a bit but, finally, what would be the point?
They could slowly twist themselves into family entertainers (a song, a dance and twenty-two tricks with a banana) or they could hang on to become elder statesmen in pop, sage old maestros like the Beatles will be. What for? Either way, they’d bore everyone stiff.
The way things are, they most likely won’t last and I’m pleased. I think that’s right. They weren’t meant to, they weren’t made to get old. They existed only to go bang one time, and then disappear again. And if they have any sense of neatness they’ll get themselves killed in an air crash, three days before their thirtieth birthdays.
Окончание главы в издании 1971 года:
And the Stones themselves? They revived. Musically, they veered away from the artiness of Their Majesties Request and went back to the basics, the bedrock aggression that they’ve always been so good at. In fact, they went beyond aggression and plunged themselves into darkness, where they hinted of orgy and satanic atrocity, in songs like Stray Cat Blues, Sympathy For The Devil and Let It Bleed. Where the evil was expressed directly, the effect grew tedious, as with schoolboys being endlessly and repetitiously naughty; but where it was merely implied, there were moments of high excitement, almost as fine as on Satisfaction or Get Off My Cloud. In particular, Beggar's Banquet was probably their strongest album and Street Fighting Man, Gimme Shelter and Honky Tonk Women among their best-realized songs.
Brian Jones became progressively estranged from the rest of the group and fell ill and, in 1969, died by drowning. He was replaced by a guitarist called Mick Taylor, who looked a bit like him, only cruder, and the group continued very much as before. In 1970, they made a barnstorming tour of America, in which they reestablished themselves as easily the finest of all rock bands on stage but also introduced some dreary overtones. Jagger took his sexual ambiguity to such lengths as to turn into self-caricature, ogling and pouting and wrist-flapping like some pop Kenneth Williams, and he pantomimed decadence. Where once there had been an assault on despised adult values, a hint of positive break-out, the violence and hysteria had now become targetless. They existed only for themselves: Jagger was bored, one sensed, and raising riots amused him. So he indulged himself in orgies of camp and rabble-rousing, and filled his songs with double-entendre and drug references and hip Californian voodoo. Because he remained a great showman, the effect on stage was still exciting; but the implications were sour, the gestures third-hand. By 1971, he’d lost himself in amateur-dramatic nastinesses, as real and as frightening as Sweeny Todd, and was well on his way to becoming a bore: ‘Silly boy,’ said P. J. Proby.
Meanwhile, he’d settled himself down nicely as an international gossip-column face, to be photographed each time he got on or off a plane. He was seen at the theatre and opera, made friends in the very highest circles and was responsible for establishing an entirely new vision of male beauty, based no longer on muscle or tan but on skinniness, outrageousness and belle-laide oddity. With the breakup of the Beatles, he became the most superstar superstar of all, after Elvis Presley, and media accepted him unquestioningly as the oracle of all Western youth, to be consulted on whatever new issue might arise. Twelve months in a year, he travelled in search of amusement and got his face on front pages, haunted the smartest restaurants, guest-starred at the choicest parties. Finally, he got married in St Tropez and held a party for hundreds of beautiful-person guests, the assembled press of the world and the cream of the Rock establishment - a true Hollywood fantasia, at which he threw so many tantrums that his guests, half-admiringly, declared him ‘the new Judy Garland’.
Of course, far away in the background, one occasionally recalled that he’d begun as a guerilla. Once upon a time, he’d seemed dangerous, a threat to all things drab and authoritarian. But such stuff had become very distant. However much he cavorted and postured, or made his naughty gestures, he had gone soft and safe. There was no chance now that he’d use his money or influence for change.
At the time of We Love You, the Stones had had plans of forming a combine on the lines of Apple, to buck the existing pop structure and, indirectly, to build alternatives to the established order. Now all that was forgotten. Instead, the royalties went on beanfeasts in St Tropez.