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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age Of Rock (1969) - Chapters 24-26
24 England 1966 (page 228)
By this time, America was back in control, California was the new pop centre. England just took the signals as they were given and followed the best it could.
Simply, London had run out of steam. It had used itself up. It had produced a lot of heavy talent in one flurry and now it had nothing left in the bag. So when an established act turned boring, nobody new came up instead to replace it. Everything slowed down, everything petrified.
Neither the Beatles nor the Stones played concerts any more, groups spent more time in discotheques than they did on the road, and you were left with a nucleus of maybe ten acts, coming round time after time, the same faces and the same tired songs. Running through everything, there was a persistent sense that something had ended.
The atmosphere had changed. The economic crisis and the freeze, these things didn’t actually change people’s standard of living much but they shifted the mood. When you went abroad and came back again, you noticed something like defeat in the air, a growing drabness and depression. Really, it was only a return to sanity, to responsibility. And sanity, of course, is purest poison to everything pop.
As I said in my opening chapter, entertainment always turns soft when times turn tough. Accordingly there was a massive swing back to old-fashioned balladeering. Even at the height of the pop boom, there’d been occasional freak ballad hits but now the charts were completely swamped in the stuff. Ken Dodd, Harry Secombe, Frankie Vaughan - all the old comedians, they cleaned up. Tom Jones was never out of the hit parade.
After Jones the biggest success of all was Engelbert Humperdinck. He was really a danceband singer called Gerry Dorsey, and he’d been around for a full decade, scrabbing and halfway starving. Finally, in 1966, he became managed by Gordon Mills, who also handled Tom Jones, and Mills changed his name for him.
Engelbert Humperdinck - it was good back-dated gag publicity and, immediately, he was joke fodder for every bad comedian in the country (‘Has Engelbert got the hump?’). Then he came on TV and he was a matinee idol from way back, hollowed cheeks and big mournful eyes, Regency suits and moody sideboards. He looked exactly like some hero in Georgette Heyer, the man who has known sadness, and he mooched around in poses of graceful melancholy, one hand stirring small gestures of resignation. Mostly, he reminded me of a King Charles spaniel.
With all that riding for him, how could he miss? Early in 1967, he made a record called Release Me, an archetypal big ballad from any time in the last forty years, and it went to number one. A bit later, he made something else called The Last Waltz and that did even better, it sold a million without even being a hit in America and that hardly ever happens. Delicate and droopy, he stared back at you every time you turned your telly on. And by the beginning of 1968, he was the hottest thing in England.
All this time, he lived in a council flat in Hammersmith. He was into his thirties and he was married, he even had children. He was a throwback, an afterthought on the Sinatra line, and he didn’t get screamed at much, he was more swooned for.
He posed with his fans and they were women of all ages. On stage, he’d look mournful, be gorgeous, stretch out one hand and let it fall. Out of the dark, everyone sighed.
While the monster ballad was taking over, pop itself was splitting into two distinct approaches, just as it had done in the States.
On one side, there were the straight noise-machines, angled at a mass teen public and at subteens, ages six to twelve. These were just old auto-pop from any time in the last ten years: simple songs, one-line lyrics, gimmicks, big smiles and a dash of good clean filth for flavouring. It’s a format that’s changed only fractionally with time and some new groups did very well with it - the Troggs, the Tremeloes, the Love Affair and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch - but there’s nothing I could possibly say on any of them except that they had hits.
On the other side, there were specialists: soul bands, blues bands, folk singers, freaks and just people who wanted to make good music. In the middle of this, there was a small avantgarde, musical experimenters. Most of them, they took their bearings from the Beatles and they were hip to everything that came out of America, they tagged along with California. Between them, they formed something approaching an Underground, flabby and untogether but going in one direction, trying to make pop expand and progress.
Around the end of 1966, they climbed aboard Psychedelphia. This was the first fashion that England had stolen from the States in years, the first time that London had had to look outside itself for novelty, and the result was only a bowdlerization of the American original. Nothing fresh was added - British mind-expansion meant not much more than a few flashing lights, a bit of back-projection, a handful of discords and some smoke bombs thrown in for luck. In any case, nobody was too sure what psychedelic actually meant.
By far the most earnest attempt at local psychedelphia were the Pink Floyd. Mostly, they played instrumentals, twenty- five minute scream-ups, formless and tuneless and colourless but always incredibly loud. And they were into electronics, free form and all sorts: very solemn, they were, most artistic and, for me, boring almost beyond belief.
As it happened, buried under all the crap, there was a good lead singer/writer called Syd Barrett and he came up with one fine single, Arnold Laytie. After a time, he quit and, from then on, the proceedings were all dire.
Much more to the point was the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Hendrix was an American Negro, born Seattle, 1946, and he’d spent most of his late teens touring the States near the bottom of mammoth package shows, picking them up at one town and quitting them at another. Then he had a spell in Greenwich Village, playing blues guitar and singing a bit, and finally, 1966, he was brought to England by Chas Chandler, who’d played bass with the Animals and who now became his manager.
As blues guitarists go, he was hardly mainstream. He had none of that repose, that inevitability that you get from people like В. B. King or John Lee Hooker. Instead, he squealed and squittcrcd all over the place. He played guitar behind his back and above his head and between his legs, he played it with his teeth, he rubbed it against his amps. A lot of the time, he used it as crude sex, his clean machine.
He was all image. Hendrix, he had long tight-napped hair that stuck up all around his head like some grotesque fuzzy halo, and he was most cool, he had one slow schnidc smile and he talked very drawled. Superspade, he knew exactly what he was doing.
He was an outrageous ham showman, of course, he camped it up like mad. Still, he was good. He had presence. Under the gimmickry, he had it all going. And he did play fine guitar, after all, he carried real exhilaration. He was mesmeric* He was ferocious and sexy. He was an ugly man and he had endless charm.
Also, he wrote strong songs. He stormed so hard on them that he half-obscured his own quality but they worked, they were an odd cross between the old tough blues and post- Dylan imagery, and he sang them in a non-voice, wry and one-note, strangely effective. So he was a showman, a black regardless and he was real excitement.
Unfortunately, he didn’t develop. Having adapted some half-dozen basic patterns for his songs, he hardly varied them and his albums became repetitive. After the Monterey Festival, he came to be the biggest star in America behind the Beatles, almost a Messiah, and was so adored that nobody noticed his stagnation. He moved back to the States and played with various backing-groups but failed to find fresh avenues. Himself, he seemed to understand that he wasn’t making sufficient progress and he tried very hard. He spent eternities in the studio, kept changing personnel, seemed very unhappy. Still, nothing solid emerged.
On stage, he still carried considerable power and his reputation never stopped growing. After his death in 1970, accidentally choking on a mixture of alchohol and barbiturates, the streets of Greenwich Village were filled with openly weeping disciples. A policeman counted more than eighty in a single block and said it was ‘like the assassination of Gandhi’. At least, that’s what he was reported to say.
My own feeling was that it was exactly this kind of unthinking worship which brought Hendrix to despair and, indirectly to death. At base, he was a serious musician and genuinely talented, but, finding his bum notes applauded as wildly as his very best solos, he lost impetus and heart. What was the point of effort when no one spotted the difference? If only someone had booed, just once, I think that he’d have solved some of his problems and gone on to realize his full potential.
For most of his career, his closest rival was Eric Clapton, who became famous playing with Cream. Previously, he had played guitar with the Yardbirds and the blues band of John Mayall and the rest of Cream consisted of Ginger Baker, who’d drummed with the Graham Bond Organisation, the strongest, fiercest of all British blues bands; and Jack Bruce, who sang, played bass and had worked with almost everyone.
Within the business, each was generally regarded as the best man going on his particular instrument. Themselves, they agreed with this and that’s why they used the name Cream.
Basically, they were an updated blues band, but they borrowed from anything that caught their minds, rock V roll or jazz or Dylan. Always, they stormed. Always, they crunched and burned and sweated.
Ginger Baker had long red hair hanging lankily all down his face and a matted red beard and the most agonized face you’d ever see, his cheeks all cavernous and his teeth rotted and his eyes quite cancelled. He was the final drummer, head lolling and mouth open and schizo eyes staring out into nothing, but he was no phoney, he laid down one brutal churning beat, all looped and doubled back on itself, the deepest pulse imaginable. Sunken and suffering, he was epic.
Around him, Jack Bruce pumped out nothing but goose- grease bass and, way over the top, Clapton played the best guitar in Europe. Probably, he was musically stronger than Hendrix but he had none of that flash. Instead, he hunched in tight and watched nothing but his guitar. He concentrated so hard, he worked so much that you’d get hooked by his own obsession, you’d start to ride on him. Held by him, you’d listen very hard, you’d be stretched. When you walked out at the end, you’d be exhausted.
On stage, they could be very fine and, both here and in America, they had massive followings. But, on record, I thought they never quite came off. They weren’t strong writers and, frozen on wax, even live recordings lost a lot of impact.
After a series of massive American tours, they became very rich and rather bored with each other. So they disbanded and Clapton embarked on a whole series of new bands, none of which equalled Cream. He was still a fine guitarist but he began to sing, which was a mistake, and his writing was banal without let-up. One was sympathetic, however, because his supporters wore buttons that said Clapton is God, which was an intolerable burden for any man to bear.
Clapton seemed modest and intelligent, even a bit diffident, and it was hardly his fault that he was so overrated. He was merely suffering from the same problem that was destroying most of the other rock stars of his generation - the Beatles, Hendrix, Janis Joplin. He was being smothered in so much hyperbole by his fans and by his critics that it was almost impossible for him to work out his real talents in sanity. Announced as God, a small talent for guitar-picking seemed hardly adequate and he panicked.
When they first broke through around 1966, incidentally, both Hendrix and Clapton were among the first pop figures to have mass appeal and yet to concentrate more on album sales than on the singles charts. Occasionally, they’d pop in and out of the top twenty but their albums sold in millions and, from then on, the whole focus of the rock industry changed. An L.P., after all, brought in three or four times as much revenue as a single. Then there was a cult for double albums, two L.P.s in one, and that raised the profits even higher. By 1969, a new group would introduce itself automatically with an album and the hit parade had become quite secondary. A hit record was pleasant, for publicity; but the Hipper acts would be a bit embarrassed by such successes, like six-formers caught frolicking in the kindergarten playground.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: in 1966, the Move came down from Birmingham and they took over from the Stones and the Who as rabble-rousers in chief.
They were managed by Tony Secunda, a King’s Road hustler from the early sixties, and Secunda was one fast stroke- puller. Any bandwagon that passed, he’d be up on top of it so fast you couldn’t blink. And he was clever with it, what's more, he had bursts of true inventiveness. At the least, he was entertainment.
In 1966, he launched the Move from the Marquee and they were impressive. They stood in a straight line, four-part harmony, and they were natural rockers, they wore Capone gangster suits and they looked mean as hell. Eternal Brummers. dour and monosyllabic. And Carl Wayne, their lead singer, did a nice line in mike-throwing and Ace Kefford, a guitarist, was the singing skull itself, his flesh eaten away, his jaws clamping endlessly on gum, his face set rigid in infinite boredom. So they were the nastiest-looking bunch you could hope to meet and they sang well, they made a big bad noise.
When Psychcdelphia came in, Secunda made his first jump - he set them to smashing TV sets on stage, assaulting them with an axe, and destroying images of Hitler, Ian Smith and so such. This, if you hadn't guessed, was a comment on the society in which we live and, meshed with a few flashing lights, it spelled mind-expansion. It was all poor man’s Who, and it got them publicity, it freaked them into their first hits.
In the summer, 1967, psychedelic was replaced by Flower Power and Secunda jumped again - the Move forgot their gangster suits, their axes and their snarls, and they took to frolicking in cornfields, all robed and garlanded. Ace Kefford, Singing Skull, cast as a daisy chain - it wasn’t a likely concept but, once more, it worked.
They made a record called Flowers In The Rain and, to publicize it, Secunda circularized what amounted to a dirty postcard of Harold Wilson. Inevitably, Wilson sued and they had to give all their royalties to charity. Still, it had been their biggest bonanza yet and it finally got them established.
By the winter, Flower Power had duly faded and there were signs of a rock V roll revival. So, you knew it, the Move suddenly had their snarls back and they cut Fire Brigade, complete with Duane Eddy twang guitar. As it happened, this was their best record yet and they were right back where they began, hardcore rockers again. That’s what they’d always been good at, anyhow.
At a less exalted level, there were the Bee Gees, Traffic and Procol Harum, all of them competent enough but none of them so wild that I have to go into any great detail on them.
The Bee Gees were Australian, built around the three Gibb Brothers, who wrote a lot of melodic, catchy and maudlin ballads, heavily influenced by mid-period Beatles. More to the point, Barry Gibb was pretty.
Traffic were formed by Stevie Winwood, who was probably the closest to a soul singer that England had ever had and who had already racked up two number ones with the Spencer Davis group. On paper, Traffic were all musical and should have been formidable but somehow they never made it, they only functioned in spasms and their first hit, Paper Sun} remained easily the best single they made.
As for Procol Harum, they made one classic record, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, and then kept reviving it in different names and disguises, until everyone got sick to death of it.
A Whiter Shade Of Palet incidentally, was produced by Denny Cordell, the most successful new English producer since Mickie Most. Beyond Procol Harum, he handled the Move, the Moody Blues, Georgie Fame and had hits with all of them. Ironically, though, his two best cuts of all - Hush by Jackie Edwards and the epic Marjorine by Joe Cocker - failed to make it.
Most of the progressive groups had their fattest periods during the Flower Power boom in the summer of 1967, which I already mentioned when I was talking about the Move.
As fads go, Flower Power was less than impressive. Just as it had with Psychedelphia, London was content mostly to ape California. Everyone wore kaftans and beads and bells. Everyone spoke in hushed tones of San Francisco and Monterey, of acid and Love and the Maharishi. Nobody threw fists any more. The whole city was cloaked in incense and the smoke of joss sticks. Every last groupie had turned prophet.
The centre of the local hippie movement was UFO, a basement club in Tottenham Court Road, and its Saturday all-nighters turned into major weekly happenings. It was a nice atmosphere down there, very lazy, and the music was fine. Most everyone laid about and, if there was ostentation in it, if there was a lot of flash love-making and out-freaking, there were some mellow times had.
After some months, though, UFO’s lease ran out and nothing so fresh ever happened again. There were other hippie clubs, of course, but they became stale, ritualistic. There was no fever in it any more. Instead, everyone stood and gawked and listlessly shook their beads. They were bored again.
Throughout the Flower Power fairy-tale, the role of bad witch was played by the drug squad.
By their very nature, all teen movements need something to be paranoid about and, this time out, the fuzz asked for all the hate they got because, from the beginning of 1967, they got into the habit of raiding clubs and stopping kids in the street, searching them for drugs and pushing them around at random, bullying them and making them strip and lumbering them down to the station. Small stuff by American standards, of course, but fascist just the same.
I was stopped a couple of times myself and I didn’t get hit but there was a lot of shoving and grunting, a lot of unprovoked aggression flying about. Always, there was this basic resentment that I was young and wore tight pants, bright shirts. Before I opened my mouth, I was hated.
In the summer, there was the Jagger/Richards trial and that hardly helped things. By this time, both sides were hysterical - smokers saw pot as some magic cure-all, the police saw it as a deadly plague. I mean, either way, marijuana is something so trivial, but it had become almost a national obsession, a professional bore.
Anyways, it was a warm summer and people believed in Love. But then autumn came and it turned cold and suddenly people didn’t believe in love, after all.
In any case, Flower Power had always been very much a London thing - kids everywhere else had gone on butting each other regardless, schnide and moody as ever. The summer’s music, rarefied and mimsy, all full of transcendental meditation, had meant less than nothing in the dancehalls and teenagers had been left with nothing they could understand or relate to. Trapped between Engelbert Humperdinck’s flowerpots on one side and George Harrison’s curry powder on the other, they’d completely lost out.
Accordingly, in the winter, there was a swing back to basic pop, instant noise, and there was even a small revival in rock V roll. Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, they all had their old hits reissued and did quite well with them. Nothing sensational but they sold.
More to the point, present-day groups climbed down off their clouds a bit and went back to work. Lady Madonna by the Beatles, I Can See For Miles by the Who, Fire Brigade by the Move, Jumping Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones - it was renewed aggression, an intelligent mixing of basics and progression.
These were only a few singles, though, and everything else looked pretty grim.
For a start, the pirate stations had been outlawed and they’d been replaced by the BBC’s Radio i, which was dire. Under the new regime, you got thin slices of pop wedged in between great gobs of children’s requests, recipes, Joe Loss, mighty Wurlitzers and Jimmy Young chatting with housewives. No flair, no speed, no flash. No hard plugging, either, and that meant that any weird sounds, any experiments were doomed before they even started. Everyone was forced to play safe, nothing moved forward. By spring, 1968, the entire industry had ground to a standstill.
The only DJ peddling anything at all was the Emperor Rosko, an American working out of Paris. His real name was Mike Pasternak (he was the son of Joe Pasternak, the Hollywood producer) and he was a greyhound spieler, one slippery mouth. He knew pop from the beginning, he played amazing noise. Always and always, he was fast.
On French Radio Luxemburg, he had a daily hour-long show and an epic three-hour freak-out every Saturday night, a veritable mind-snapper. On Radio i, he got exactly one hour a week. Precisely, that was what had happened in English pop.
Since mid-1967, only three intriguing new names have appeared, all of them with great potential, none of it fully realized - Arthur Brown, Julie Driscoll and Joe Cocker.
Arthur Brown used to be a philosophy student at Reading University and he was one long gangling skinny streak, complete with haystack black hair and great staring eyes and an elephant’s nose. And when he came on stage, he was wearing Sun God robes, a science fiction mask, the Bug-Eyed Thing, and his head was on fire.
He wore a blazing crown and it threw flames up high towards the ceiling. When the fire burned low, he’d go into a wild sideways-leaping dance, his head flickering, his robes flapping like a shroud, and he screamed, he howled, he snarled. Then he tore off his mask and his face was painted with woad, he looked like something neanderthal, half man and half beast. His eyes burned up in the dark and his head kept thrashing.
When he sang, he told you stories about black magic, about death and destruction, about fire and the way it cleanses, the way it heals. Mister witchdoctor, he made spells and all the time he’d be dancing, whirling, his head kept spinning. So he was scary and he was comic, he was a monstrous ham but he had these sad eyes and this big nose, he looked tragic and the major fantasy he conjured up was King Kong, big doomed animal.
Beyond all this, he could really sing - he had a freak voice that ranged all the way from a Boris Karloff rumble through Tom Jones and Mario Lanza right through to a James Brown scream, a hysterical screech that he’d keep up for whole choruses at a stretch, a killer.
All of this was splendid vaudeville stuff. The only problem was, his self-esteem was infinite and, as he became successful, he ran away with himself. He pontificated, preached at his audiences and kept on insisting on stripping himself naked on stage. After a while, this grew tedious and his audience drifted away.
Julie Driscoll is a skinny girl from east London and she toured the circuits for years without getting anywhere in particular, until, autumn 1967, she suddenly got herself a Jimi Hendrix hairstyle and called herself Jools and was launched as a new ultimate in London dollydom, deadpan and strange, very freaked.
She was a vegetarian and lived off carrot juice. She dressed up in improbable antiques bought in junk shops, all feathers and mangy furs. And she made up her eyes to look huge and she moved her shoulders like a cobra nodding, she hardly ever smiled, she froze.
With all of this going for her, she came in for fast publicity and, in 1968, she had her first hit, Bob Dylan’s This Wheel*s On Fire, and she was voted Britain’s top girl singer. What’s more, many people thought she was a good singer and many people thought she was sexy. Myself, I thought she was the best and sexiest thing in Europe but that’s no kind of competition and, truthfully, I thought she was mannered and monotonous, and I detected no trace of feeling in her singing at all.
Joe Cocker was a fat ex-plumber from Sheffield and I liked him very much. On stage, he was greasy and he sang white soul, very sweaty, and he waved his arms like some demented windmill, he was hilarious and he sang quite splendidly. His first record, Marjorine, was a small classic and bombed. His second, Lennon/McCartney’s With A Little Help From My Friends, was less good and made number one.
Finally, purely in my role as chronicler, I should note the existence of the Incredible String Band, a folk duo whom several English critics described as the best song-writers since the Beatles. This mention made, I will make no further comment.
At any rate, the good thing that Cocker and Jools and Arthur Brown all shared was that they worked hard, that they raved and rampaged some and this alone made them exceptional. In this time, most English performers have gotten entirely lazy.
So I’d say this was the worst phase that English pop has been through since before the Beatles and it’s not easy to see how things are going to get better again. Basically, as I said at the beginning, this isn’t a pop age, it’s much too insecure and careful. Get down to it, there simply aren’t any heavy new talents coming up and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
At a less bedrock level, though, there are changes that could be made. Two changes in particular. First, the Government has to bring in commercial radio and let pop work as it wants. And second, the musicians themselves have to stop playing games, have to stop winking at each other’s cleverness and they have to get right back down in the alley, go back on the road and start reaching their audience all over again.
25 Ending (page 241)
Probably, it’s not been a bad time to write this book: pop is at its most important junction yet, it’s the gap between two major phases, and this has been quite a clean moment to make some interval notes on it.
What I’ve written about has been the rise and fall of Superpop, the noise machine, and the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock ’n* roll music. Elvis riding on his golden Cadillac, James Brown throwing offhis robes in a fit, Pete Townshend slaughtering his audience with his machine-gun guitar, Mick Jagger hanging off his mike like Tarzan Weismuller in the jungle, P. J. Proby - all the heroic acts of pulp.
Superpop? It hasn’t been much, it’s been simple always, silly and vulgar and fake, and it has been a noise, that’s all. In the end, specific records and singers have hardly mattered.
Instead, it’s been pop itself, just the existence of it, the drone of it running through everything.
Myself, I was ten when it started, I’m twenty-five now, and it has dominated my life. It has surrounded me always, cut me off, and it has given me my heroes, it has made my myths.
Almost, it has done my living for me. Six hours of trash every day, and it’s meant more to me than anything else.
Superpop, it’s been like a continuing Western, it’s had that same classic simplicity, the same power to turn clichd into myth. It’s had no mind of its own. All it’s ever done has been to catch currents, moods, teen obsessions, and freeze them in images. It has made giant caricatures of lust, violence, romance and revolt, and they’ve been the most powerful, most accurate fictions of this time.
And then, beyond the heroes, beyond anything, there’s been the noise, the endless and perfect and changeless beat. Noise has been everything.
Anyhow, it’s finished now, the first mindless explosion, and the second stage has begun. Pop has gotten complicated. That was inevitable, everything ends, nothing remains simple. Pop has split itself into factions and turned sophisticated. Part of it has a mind now, makes fine music. The other part is purely industrial, a bored and boring business like any other. Either way, there are no more heroes and no more Superpop. It has all been reduced to human beings.
What’s left? In England, the industry is split roughly eighty per cent ugly and twenty per cent idealist.
The ugly eighty are mainline pop, computerized, and they hit a largely teenybop or pre-teen market, ages six to sixteen, plus a big pocket of middle-aged parents. They have a function and they sell records. They make money. When I’ve said that, I’ve said everything.
The noble twenty are hardly Pop any more. With very few exceptions, they don’t sell singles any more, which means that they don’t sell to the mass of teenagers. Instead, they sell to students, readers of the posh Sundays, middle-aged groupies and what used to be called the Underground, the Hip nucleus. In America, this amounts to a very large market indeed, the Woodstock nation; but here twenty per cent is not an impressive lump and progressive pop has developed a somewhat esoteric feel. In ten years, its practitioners will probably be called by another name entirely, electric music or something, and they’ll relate to pop the way that art movies relate to Hollywood.
How good could they be? Logically, there’s no limit - amplified music is an obvious art form for this century and there’s no reason whatever why it shouldn’t produce major works.
Very soon, you’ll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you’ll have pop concerts held in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you’ll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked into one, the music creating picture and patterns; you’ll have cleverness of every kind imaginable.
Myself, though, I’m not interested. Not that I have anything much against masterworks in principle but I’m hooked on image, on heroics. It’s like films - the best in art movies have no doubt been most sensitive, brilliant and meaningful works of art, and where have I been? In the back row of the Roxy, of course, gawking at Hollywood. The art movie carries the quality and Hollywood carries the myth.
Superpop is mass media, it is teen music always, it has to hit. Ideally, it has to do what Bogart and Brando and Monroe have done in films, Gable and Fred Astaire - it has to be intelligent and simple both, it has to carry its implications lightly and it has to be fast, funny, sexy, obsessive, a bit epic.
The words of Little Richard still apply. They summed up what pop was about in 1956. They sum it up now and always:
AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM. -
26 Afterthoughts (page 244)
It is now more than three years since I first wrote this book and, inevitably, some of it has needed bringing up to date. For this new edition, therefore, I have revised certain sections to include a few of the larger recent developments - the demise of the Beatles, deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the resurrection of Elvis. I have also adjusted some of my judgements a bit: in retrospect, I felt that I’d been insufficiently worshipful of the Everly Brothers, too hard on the Supremes, foolishly bashful about my liking for Highschool. But I have not cheated. I haven’t tampered with the overall drift of the book, nor have I tried to camouflage my mistakes.
This means that one major miscalculation in particular, still survives. I had guessed that progressive pop would shrink to a minority cult and it hasn’t. Well, in England, I wasn’t entirely wrong, because teenage interest had fallen away badly since the euphoria of the mid-sixties and new ‘heavy’ artists sell hardly half as well as the early Beatles or Rolling Stones.
But, in America, I fluffed completely - the Woodstock nation has kept on growing and, for all his seriousness and pretensions to poetry, someone like James Taylor has achieved the same mass appeal as earlier stars. His public may be older than Fabian’s or Frankie Avalon’s was, grouped mostly between seventeen and twenty-five, and he may rely on album sales rather than top ten records but the money involved, the hype and hysteria are all very much the same. Pop lives, after all.
Despite this, I have continued to drift away from it, very much for the same reasons that I gave three years ago - its new solemnity and piety, its instant acceptance of pisspot bards as messiahs, its loss of energy and honesty and humour, all the things that made it so compelling in the first place. More and more, I have retreated into the past and immersed myself in fifties’ rock ’n’ roll. Where someone newer has attracted me, they have almost always belonged to Country ’n’ Western rather than pop. Certainly, no rock star of the last five years has seemed to me remotely in the same class as the Country singer/songwriter Merle Haggard, whose imaginative power and command and personal magnetism have all reminded me of vintage Chuck Berry.
For these reasons, it would be silly for me to attempt a detailed analysis of rock developments now. I am simply not equipped and must confine myself to a few generalizations.
In England, the fashion has swung towards solo performers, preferably songwriters as well as singers. Elton John, Cat Stevens, Labi Siffre - all have been highly praised but I have found them to be posturing and banal in much the same way as the Flower Power seers of four years ago, full of pre-packaged profundity and mock-sensitivities. On the whole, I have preferred the alternatives, which have pulp-pop groups like Marmalade and the Equals, bland and unoriginal but at least without pomposity.
In America, the singer/songwriter fashion has caught on as well, led by James Taylor, Randy Newman, Melanie, John Sebastian and Joni Mitchell; they have been neither better nor worse than their English equivalents, although Newman has had at least a certain wit and oddity to help excuse him.
In the same pretty-pretty style, there have also been Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, probably the most successful new American group of the past three years, after Creedence Clearwater Revival. They have specialized in delicate ballads, full of shifting tempi and complex harmonies, which they have invariably delivered out of tune. Gutless and mindless, they seemed to me an all-time nadir. ‘Yeah, but we’re the poets of Now,’ Nash said to me once, admittedly stoned at the time. ‘You read Yeats or what’s-his-name and you can’t make out a word.’
Partly in reaction to so much folksy gentility, there has been a countermovement, a return to aggression and straight forward impact. This has taken several forms - a revival in old rock ’n’ roll, a flirtation with Country ’n’ Western, a fad for ‘heavy’ groups (i.e. groups who played incessant twelve bar blues, as loudly and crudely as possible).
At its worst, this had led to awful excesses. In particular, heavy bands like Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After have reduced blues-playing to its lowest, most ham-fisted level ever. But there have been successes as well, and the most notable has been Creedence Clearwater Revival.
This was a West Coast band, dominated by their lead singer/guitarist/songwriter John Fogerty, and they had been playing together for eight years before they made it. Because of this, they possessed a tightness and drive unequalled by any other emergent bands, and they played fine updated rock ’n’ roll. Compared to their predecessors of the fifties, they lacked charm and individual personality but the requisite energy was there, Fogerty had a strong commanding voice and they layed down a perfect dancing beat. Numbers like Proud Mary, Green River and Bad Moon Rising were splendid.
Bob Dylan’s backing group, the Band, also made progress. They developed a strong Country flavour, played compactly and precisely, and their songs were often very good indeed - evocations of middle America, past and present, free of all the pretensions that fouled their more poetical contemporaries. In debit, they suffered from a shortage of drama; but they were good at conveying the size and complex strangeness of their continent. Hearing one of their records, one felt oneself straightaway on the freeway, three thousand miles behind one, driving and driving and driving.
Nobody else reached these standards. The Flying Burrito Brothers, an offshoot of the Byrds, achieved a single terrific album, The Gilded Palace Of Sin, and then fell away; Blood, Sweat & Tears were competent jazz musicians but limp, facile, insufferably smug; Bonnie and Delaney and Friends were adequate white imitators of a black Soul band: adequate but no more. Beyond that, there was nothing.
In other words, nothing has happened to make me revise the central judgement of three years ago. I still believe that rock has seen its best moments, all of them, and my major regret, looking back on my first edition, is not that I over-abused the new but that I wasn’t loving enough towards the old. Not to have mentioned Earth Angel or Get A Job - those were bad omissions and I’m glad to have had the chance to put them right here.
Acknowledgements (page 247)
The Beatles - Donald McCullin
Tina Turner - Baron Wolman/Rolling Stone
Little Richard - Baron Wolman/Rolling Stone
Jerry Lee Lewis - Topix
Elvis Presley (bottom) - Topix
P. J. Proby - Topix
Cliff Richard - Topix
Johnnie Ray - H. Leonard/Camera Press
Bob Dylan - Jerrold Schatzberg
Bill Haley - Topix
Everly Brothers - M. Sharrat/Camera Press Rolling Stones - P. Shillingford/Camcra Press Ray Charles - Topix Otis Redding - Topix
James Brown - Arnold Schwartzman/Rediffusion Television Ltd.