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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop From The Beginning - Preface to the Vintage Classics Edition
Pop From The Beginning
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Nik Cohn
Dedication Title Page
Preface to the Vintage Classics Edition
Preface to the 2004 Pimlico Edition
The History of Vintage
About the Book
Nik Cohn began to write this book in the late 1960s with a simple purpose: to catch the feel, the pulse of Rock. Nobody had written a serious book on the subject before, and there were no reference books or research to refer to. The result is an unruly, thrilling and definitive history of an era, from Bill Haley to Jimi Hendrix, full of guts, flash, energy and speed. In vividly describing the music and cutting through the hype, Nik Cohn engendered and perfected a new form: rock criticism.
About the Author
Nik Cohn was brought up in Derry, Northern Ireland. His books include I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, Ball the Wall, The Heart of the World and Need. He also wrote the story that gave rise to Saturday Night Fever and collaborated on Rock Dreams with the artist Guy Peellaert. He lives in New York.
Also by Nik Cohn
I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo
Today There are No Gentlemen
Rock Dreams (with Guy Peellaert)
Ball the Wall: Nik Cohn in the Age of Rock
The Heart of the World
Yes We Have No: Adventures in the Other England
Twentieth Century Dreams (with Guy Peellaert)
Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap
To Jet Powers,
Dean Angel and
Pop From The Beginning
NB: Since I have set out to write a critical history of pop, I write about artists, managers and other people concerned, mainly in the past tense. This is simple because I’m putting them where they appear in the context of the general historical development of pop as I see it. It doesn’t mean that many of those people aren’t still very much part of the scene and doing well - just that in this book I have only tried to show where, to me, they made their original contribution or changed what existed before.
Preface to the Vintage Classics Edition
Matt Broughton set me off. Before seeing his cover design for this new edition of Awopbop, I hadn’t read the text start to finish in over forty years. At best I’d manage a page or two here, a paragraph there, come across something that made me squirm and slam the book shut double- quick, like the character in a Hammer movie who opens an old trunk in the cellar and finds a mummified corpse inside.
It took Matt’s dancing letters to lure me back in. Enthralled by their tumbled-dice effect, I started to dance along in my head, trying to recall where each one came from. ‘That В is from The Byrds, right?
The wobbly О is Rubber Soul, I think the L comes off an early Elvis album, that’s a Warner Bros. W,’ and so forth. I managed to guess less than half, but each opened its own door. Gradually, I found myself checking out the corresponding passage in the book, which would lead me to another, and then another. It became addictive, as when you walk past a half-done jigsaw, stop to fill in a piece or two, and the next thing you know it’s five hours later. Soon I’d gone through the whole book.
I won’t pretend I enjoyed it much. Any man, at seventy, who claims he relishes being confronted by his raw self at twenty-two is crazy or lying or both. Hard to believe that this speed-freak gunslinger, so pushy and cocksure, one moment obnoxious, the next devout, could ever have been me. I struggled to find connections. In the end, I came up with only one: young or old, I’ve always been hooked on lost causes.
Beneath the book’s roiling surface, I now saw what had always escaped me, even though Kit Lambert, in his brilliant intro to the first edition, spelled it out clear enough. Awopbop, at root, is a jilted love letter - the headlong, unfiltered outpouring of someone whose girl has done him wrong. Page after page, I keep trying to joke it off, pretend I’m not hurting. The bitch is worthless; I’m better off without her. But who am I fooling? Certainly not Kit. ‘Half-martyr to his own myth, he sprints across the gilded landscape, although his feet are bleeding inside the carefully dirtied-down sneakers,’ he wrote of me. At the time, I felt outraged that he would accuse me of footwear abuse. In fact, he’d got me dead to rights. Awopbop was born of thwarted passion. From the first blast of Tutti Frutti, rock ’n’ roll had possessed me, body and soul. It didn’t occur to me that my love might not be requited or that it could die some day. I was prepared for bumps along the way, some wrong turnings, yes, but my basic faith was absolute. And then, quite suddenly, all was over between us. Rock ’n’ roll and its jailbait sister Superpop were obsolete. My lust had been geared to quickies; the cheap and perfect thrills of the three-minute single. Instead, here came the concept album, the ten-minute guitar solo, the hour-long jam, all sweat and wallow. The quicksilver flygirl I fell for had morphed into a flatulent, acid-addled hag who never shut up.
Awopbop has often been cited as the birth of rock criticism. Stricdy in terms of date, this may be true. But I wasn’t much of a critic; reasoned argument was not my strength. My writing, when it was good, lived off characters, sounds, atmospheres and snapshot impressions. Questions of good or bad were afterthoughts. Often, as with Wooly Bully or the Monotones’ Book Of Love, the absence of musical quality was exactly what I treasured. Did Dion’s Ruby Baby, let’s say, have any aesthetic value? Who cared? What it had was dirty magic - the slurred, sex-drunk vocal, those shambolic handclaps, the whole glorious unmade bed. And the magic hasn’t died; not for me. In that, the young pup survives in the old dog. My tail has been docked, I’m a bit gimpy in the hind legs, and my fur’s coming out, but I still chase after pick-up trucks with their radios on, blasting out the lines that could stand as shorthand for the whole of Awopbop and the helpless yearning that drove it:
Said I love a girl and Ruby is her name.
This girl don’t love me, but I love her just the same.*
Nik Cohn, 2016
* Ruby Baby: Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Copyright 1955. All rights reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reproduced by kind permission of Carlin Music Publishing.
Preface to the 2004 Pimlico Edition
This edition of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first to be published in England in the new century, seems a good moment for taking stock. The book is now thirty-five years old, or roughly three times the age of rock itself at the time I wrote it. The obvious question is, does it still have any relevance? Or has rock changed and developed so much that Awopbop is now no more than a period curiosity, the literary equivalent of the hula hoop?
I am hardly unbiased, of course, but my own feeling is that it still has roughly the same value, for better or worse, that it had when it was originally published. Rock has evolved enormously as an industry, but remarkably little as music. Whenever I’m approached to update this book, and I try to focus on what might conceivably be new and challenging for me to write about, I think immediately of early punk, and after that I’m stumped. I would enjoy praising Prince, and, to a lesser extent, Sly Stone, Bjork, George Clinton, A1 Green, Tricky, PJ Harvey, a few others; I would certainly enjoy rubbishing Bruce Springsteen and Sting. But only hip-hop, in the last four decades, has marked a radical change from what went before, and that change has been so far-reaching, it would need a whole second volume to encompass.
Everything else - disco, metal, grunge, glam, funk, techno, and all their innumerable sub-genres - has been in some way a rehash or, at most, a reconfiguration. The basic playing field was already marked out in that first mad rush between 1956 and 1968, the year I signed off. The rest has been nine-tenths marketing.
I wrote Awopbop in spring of 1968, shortly after my twenty-second birthday. I’d been in love with rock ’n’ roll for a dozen years and had written about it, in English and American publications, for the last four. I had met most of the people who interested me, and the edge of my passion was starting to dull. Time, I thought, to gather my thoughts into one final package, and move on.
If this sounds off-hand, it was. Rock in the late Sixties was still a spontaneous combustion. Nobody bothered with long-term strategies; hanging on once the thrill was gone was unthinkable. If anyone had told me then that the Stones or the Who would still be treading the boards in thirty-plus years, I’d have thought they were out of their minds. ‘Hope I die before I get old’ - that was the stuff. All I was doing in Awopbop was trying to get a jump on the mortician.
To that end, my publisher packed me off for seven weeks in a rented house in Connemara and told me not to come back without the completed MS. So I sat down and wrote, ten hours a day, sometimes halfway through the night as well.
In a sense it was a homecoming; a completing of the circle. Ireland was where I had grown up, and rock the main reason I’d wanted to leave.
I was raised in a staunch Protestant area of Derry, where Bill Haley and Elvis were never mentioned. Then one evening, at the age of eleven, I went astray. I wandered into the fringes of the Bogside, the heart of the Catholic city, and heard Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti on a coffee-bar jukebox. From across the street, I watched a bunch of Teddy boys, with drainpipe jeans and winkle pickers, grease-loaded duckarse haircuts. It was my first glimpse of danger, and sex, and secret magic. I never got over it.
What was it about the Teds? Swagger, and wildness, yes, and something else, which stirred me even more deeply - the force of self-invention. By every rule of birth - religion, politics, economics - these boys were losers. Papist scum, with no future or hope. But that wasn’t the way they carried themselves. To me, they looked like stars, transformed and made heroic by the power of Little Richard: rock &’ roll.
For an undersized weakling, mamma’s boy, and all-round fuck-up like myself, the image was irresistible. Suddenly, I seemed to have another chance; the possibility of creating a whole new self. I took Elvis as my personal saviour. Squandered my pocket money on 78s. Snuck into Loving You and Jailhouse Rock, both stricdy off limits, and cultivated a kiss curl, and lost what was left of my innocence in the seedy pages of Tidbits. Rock was my religion, nothing less.
At fifteen I was out of Ireland, at sixteen out of school, and by seventeen down to London. It was 1963, the year the Beatles broke through, and the climate seemed to change by the day. Only months before, most of England had still been locked in the post-war chill. No glamour, no spare cash; not a chance. Snotty youths like myself, drop¬outs with bad posture and worse attitudes, didn’t have a prayer. But She Loves You had changed everything. Suddenly, potential employers were gripped by a recurring nightmare - the dreadful fate of Dick Rowe, the A&R man who’d turned down the Beatles at Decca Records, leaving them for E.M.I. to snap up. Better to get landed with a hundred no-talent tossers, whole armies of degenerates, than risk becoming a second Rowe.
The feeding frenzy wasn’t confined to rock. Newspaper editors, book publishers, fashion mags and film financiers were all caught up in the same fever. Almost overnight, being a teen degenerate was the hottest ticket around. One day I was your British Rail representative in a travel agency, on five guineas a week before tax and lucky to have it; the next, I had a job at the Observer pontificating on у oof. From there, it was fast forward to lunch at the Trat with Terence Stamp, dinner with Andrew Loog Oldham, and breakfast in bed with ... never mind who. Taxis everywhere, free records and comped invites, a brand-new outfit every Saturday, and never, but never, wear the same shirt twice.
The week after I turned nineteen, a publicist slipped me an envelope stuffed with crisp fivers. Though I lacked the balls to take it. I was profoundly flattered. Nineteen, and someone thought I was worth bribing. It felt like a knighthood of sorts.
None of this had come my way by design. I'd simply jumped in at the deep end and started thrashing at random. My timing was unmaculate, though. The London scene was already crammed to bursting with musicians, photographers, designers, hairdressers, models, but virtually no young writers. Most pop columnists were middle-aged hacks, whose true loves were Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. They didn’t go in for shades and skintight velvet strides; they certainly didn’t type their columns on the buttocks of a Lebanese snake-charmer. Or even pretend they did.
Heady days. But not. by then nature, made to last. Even as I was pigging out on the moment, rock and pop were already changing. The world I knew and savoured was basically an outlaw trade, peopled with adventurers, snake-oil salesmen, inspired lunatics. But then tune was almost over. With each passing season, the scene was becoming more industrial. Accountants and corporate fatcats were fast driving out the wild men. The new buzzword was ‘product’. It wouldn’t be more than a few years, at most a decade, before rock became just another branch of commerce, no more or less exotic than autos or detergents.
My options seemed clear. Either I could keep the faith as laid down by the Teds in the Bogside. stay true to rock as a doomed romance, a passionate beating against the tides, or I would shortly be bored. Rich, no doubt, and pampered. But a traitor at heart.
That’s how it felt when I was twenty-two and came to the house in Connemara, with the March rains lashing at the windows and wild waves pounding the rocks below, the perfect melodramatic setting, as I sat down to write my farewells.
My purpose was simple: to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on die subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however die spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prune importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were die things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved. Thev were the things I tried to reflect as I left.
Nik Cohn, 2004
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Epub ISBN: 9781473546325
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Copyright © Nik Cohn 1969
Nik Cohn has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in
accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
First published by Vintage Classics in 2016
First published in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd in 1969
Published by Pimlico in 2004
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library