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Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age Of Rock (1969) - Chapters 5-8
5 Highschool (page 52)
Southern rock was hard rock, Northern rock was highschool.
Stan Freberg made a record that summed up Northern rock exactly. In it, he’s a record producer-cum-manager and he discovers a totally talentless kid who wants to be a rock V roller. So he takes this kid and records him, standing behind him with a sharp stick to help him hit the high notes. And all that the boy has to do is sing the word Highschool over and over again. His record is an instant hit.
Highschool wasn’t a musical form. It was an attitude and that attitude read: ‘We go to highschool. We dig rock ’n* roll. We date and go to parties and yes, we sometimes neck but no, we never pet. We also fall in love and that really burns us up. Then we pass notes in class and don’t eat and even cry at night. We also think coke and hamburgers are really neat. We wear sneakers, short shorts, highschool sweaters. The girls have ponytails and the boys are crew cut. Our parents can be kinda draggy at times but, gee whiz, they were young themselves once and they’re only trying to do their best for us. Finally, we dig America. We think it’s really peachy-keen.’
There’s a pop film that has been made maybe a hundred times over and it is the absolute epitome of everything highschool. A girl from a nice home falls for a singer in a rock ’n’ roll group. He had a mean childhood, therefore he’s a bit surly and sad but really he’s a nice kid. The girl’s father hears about this and orders them to break up. There is much tragedy and heartburn all round. Finally, the rock singer finds some way of convincing the father that he’s all right. Everyone is happy. In the last scene, all the kids jive while the father gently foxtrots. Everybody laughs.
Where Southern rock introduced something new to popular music - noise, violence, the mixing of R&B and country, gibberish, semi-anarchy - highschool was basically a continuation of existing white traditions. The solo singers were pretty boys, very much in the tradition of Sinatra, Eddie Fisher or Vice Damone, and the groups sang harmony roughly in the style of the Ink Spots, the Four Preps, the Hi-Los or the Four Freshmen. All that was changed was that highschool catered solely for a teenage market and that it had no conception of quality whatsoever. Its very badness, in fact, is what made it attractive.
Another big difference was that Southern rockers, by and large, had been their own bosses. They had business managers but they conceived their records, worked out their stage acts, built their image all by themselves. Highschool rockers were almost always puppets.
Highschool is where the middle-aged businessman happened. He was a manager, agent, producer, disc jockey or general hustler. He found the act he wanted and also made a record. This record was then released and it either sold or it was hyped.
Hype is a crucial word. In theory, it is simply short for hyperbole. In practice, though, it means to promote by hustle, pressure, even honest effort if necessary, and the idea is that you leave nothing to chance. Simply, you do everything possible.
Hype has become such an integral part of pop that one hardly notices it any more. From certain angles, it’s justifiable - you believe in your product and you spend money promoting it in every possible way. You have faith.
At any rate, the fifties were the golden age of hype. There was a huge scandal about in 1959, the payola fuss, and a lot of people came crashing down. Things have never been quite the same since. In the four years before the fall, however, everyone had themselves a carnival.
Most of the shenanigans took place in Philadelphia, which was the heart of the fifties’ rock industry, until its status was destroyed by the payola scandal. Up till then, there had been groups on every comer, pluggers in every gutter and, each time a lift-door opened, a disc jockey would step forth with his hand outstretched, glue upon his fingers.
The turnover of faces, songs and money was exhausting. Most of highschool revolved around an unlimited stream of harmony groups with V-necked sweaters and acne and, usually, they would cut one major smash before disappearing without trace. Sometimes they would survive for a year; that was good going.
Among these groups, there was a fairly standard style: a bass voice like a foghorn at the bottom, an anguished falsetto over the top and much mumbling in between. For accompaniment, there would be large quantities of cavorting and bounding and frolicking, and of unflickering smiles.
The names and songs were largely interchangeable: Short Shorts by the Royal Teens (‘Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts’*), At The Hop by Danny and the Juniors, When by the Kalin Twins or, perhaps most archetypal of all, Little Darlin by the Diamonds. One’s reaction to them was entirely a matter of perspective. Either they were computerized, inane, unbearable; or one came to love and wait for each small gimmick, each bassman grunt and falsetto shriek, and they were irresistible. Camp, of course, but funny and invigorating. For myself, I found them like a drug and, more than a decade later, still can’t let a day go by without a recharge.
* Words of Short Shorts by permission of Essex Music Ltd, London.
Most of Highschool sounded roughly alike but, every now and then, there’d be some flash of originality: Get A Job by the Silhouettes, splendid defiance against all authority; Earth Angel by the Penguins; The Ten Commandments Of Love by Harvey and the Moonglows; Deserie by the Charts. Above all, there were two spectacularly talented groups - the Platters and the Chantels.
The Platters were in direct line of descendance from the Ink Spots and specialized in remakes of thirties’ standards, like Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and My Prayer, as well as some tortured new ballads of their own, notably The Great Pretender. Their great strength lay in their lead tenor, Tony Williams,who had a voice of true agonized splendour. Blessed with great control and range, he did best on a slow build-up, starting softly and working his way through to a climax of Cecil B. de Mille apocalypse, with regiments of strings shrieking behind him, the rest of the group making Oohs and Aaahs, and Williams himself howling like a lovesick wolfhound, arms outflung, eyes popping: ‘You’re my dream come true - my one and only you.’
The Chantels were also agonized. In place of Tony Williams they had a sixteen-year-old girl called Arlene Smith, who sang heart-pumping tragedies of pubescent loss and desire - Every Night I Prayy Maybet There's Our Song Again. The lyrics were melodramatic but the projected emotion sounded very real indeed and Arlene had a most marvellous voice - high- pitched, clear and soaring, impelled by a real sense of heartbreak. These were the great pop epics of the crush and, if you forgot to sneer at them, they carried great power.
Beside the groups, there were also legions of boys who sang by themselves and these were much less attractive. Frankie Avalon, Tommy Sands, Jimmy Clanton, Jerry Keller, even Ricky Nelson - they had neat hair, they had neat voices. Sometimes they made good records and more often they made bad. Whichever, it was irrelevant.
The most successful of them all was Paul Anka, a Canadian boy from Ottawa, who wrote a song called Diana when he was just past fourteen years of age and then sold nine million copies of it.
In his early teens, he’d been fat and a bit isolated. So he’d written songs and flogged them around, not with much success. Then he coughed up Diana. He didn’t stop at that either: he sold thirty million records in five years. He was number one cute teenager.
He was a showbiz natural. He had a flashy grin and much confidence. He found no difficulty in posing with night-club managers, kissing starlets, winking at cameras and, therefore, he expanded easily from being just a singer into playing tycoon. Very fast, he was making an average half million pounds a year and was reputedly America’s youngest self- made millionaire.
In 1959, to celebrate, he wrote a song called Lonely Boy:
I’m just a lonely boy,
Lonely and blue,
I’m all alone
With nothin’ to do
I’ve got everything
You could think of
But all I want
Is someone to love.*
Too bad, too tough, but he managed to keep going. Admittedly, he stopped having such big hits but he bossed a whole empire of music and production companies and, in a situation like that, who needs hits? Now he sits in Manhattan in splendour, an institution by his middle twenties, a perfection of all American dreams. He has it made. And all because inspiration hit him at fourteen and he wrote the lines: ‘I’m young and you’re so old - this my darling I’ve been told.’+ Diana: it’s the archetypal pop record.
*Words of Lonely Boy © Sparta Music Ltd, and reprinted by permis¬sion of Hal Shaper.
+Words of Diana by kind permission of Robert Mcllin Ltd, London. Copyright 1957.
Highschool was very much a family charade. Father was played by Dick Clark, a disc jockey who looked like an all- American choirboy and who, in the late fifties, got to be about the most powerful man in the whole industry. He was around thirty, married, and he was clean-cut as hell. He had a TV show called American Bandstand and, on it, he preached God, America, Mother, True Love and Washing Behind Your Ears. He turned into the voice of teen conscience.
Apart from his T V showcases, he promoted nationwide pop tours, giant ninety-day caravans which were notoriously rough on the artists.
Now his TV shows have gone down a bit but his tours still make fortunes and you’d be making no wild guesses to imagine that he was one of the very richest men in pop. Godly or not, he surely had his head screwed on.
Big brother was Pat Boone from Florida, great-great-great grandson of Daniel Boone. He started out in 1955 watering down other people’s rock hits and then progressed to ballads and on to films. He was married with very many children and, like Dick Clark, he was a preacher. Interviewed, he suggested that his own moral strength was due to being regularly bent over the side of the bath and beaten when he was a child.
Musically, he was an updating of Perry Como, an ultimate in blandness, and he had thirteen million sellers. Through the fifties, he sold more records than anyone but Elvis. Tt isn’t me,’ he explained. ‘It is the will of God.’
Big sister was Connie Francis, a large lady from Newark, New Jersey, with a taste for sentimental ballads and a dirty great vibrato. She was ideal because she inspired no sinful thoughts in anyone. Sometimes she was given good rock songs to do - Stupid Cupid, Lipstick On Your Collar - but she always managed to make them sound as if they’d just been sprayed with insecticide. As a sideline, she studied psychology.
And that’s just about all on highschool. Musically, it was a dog, but, as myth and noise and comedy food, it did have its perverse attractions and sold in quite phenomenal quantities - Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, these were the real superstars of the fifties. Most of all, it was an exact reflection of what white American middle-class teenagers really liked and dreamed of.
6 Eddie Cochran (page 58)
Eddie Cochran was pure rock.
Other people were other kinds of rock, country or high- school, hard, soft, good or bad or indifferent. Eddie Cochran was just rock. Nothing else. That’s it and that’s all.
There’s not much fact on him: he was bom in Oklahoma City, October 1938, youngest out of five children. His family moved to Minnesota, then to California. He grew up to be one sweet little rock ’n’ roller, a nice looker, and he made records and had hits. He played good guitar and worked on sessions in Los Angeles. He wrote songs, got to be quite big. He even toured England. And on 17 April i960, he was killed in a car crash. He was then twenty-one years old.
As a person, there’s even less on him. He looked like another sub-Elvis, smooth flesh and duck-ass hair and a fast tricksy grin, the full uniform. He was quiet, a bit inarticulate, a bit aggressive, and he cared mostly about his music. He was polite to journalists, helpful even, but had nothing much to tell them. I was once told that he had a deep interest in toads but I have no evidence on it. He was nothing special. He just came and went.
What made him such pure rock? In a way, it was his very facelessness, his lack of any detailed identity. With so little for anyone to go on, he seemed less a specific person than an identikit of the essential rocker, a generalized fifties blur, a bit pretty and a bit surly and a bit talented. Composite of a generation.
But he was something more than that, his songs were perfect reflections of everything that rock ever meant. They were good songs, hard and meaty, but that wasn’t it. In every detail, they were so right. So finally rocker.
Summertime Blues, My Way, C’mon Everybody, a few more - there were only maybe half a dozen things that did him full justice but, between them, they added up to something really heavy.
There is almost a continuous storyline running through them. Eddie is still at school and hates it. Lives at home and hates it. Works in his holidays and hates that worst of all. Still, he’s a pretty ready kid, can handle himself. And he runs in some kind of gang, he’s leader of the pack. Eddie Cochran, no punk or palooka of’59.
When he gets very lucky, his father gives him the car for the night and then things are wild. Of course, after he gets back home, four in the morning, bushed and busted, he is kept in for a fortnight but that’s the name of the game: he can’t win. The world rides him. When he works, he’s paid chickenfeed. When he enjoys himself, he is automatically punished. Tough.
Still, when he walks down the street so nice and slow, his thumbs hooked into the belt-loops of his blue jeans, his hair all plumed and whirled, the girls look up from their chewy mags, sip coke through a straw and they think he’s cute, real cute. Sure good-looking, he’s something else. So, after all, he gets by.
You can see him: hanging around on the kerb outside the billiard hall. Slouching always last into class and who calls the English teacher daddy-o? Mooching along with his transistor radio held up tight against his ear, mouthing all the words but not making a sound. Real romantic visions. It’s only some new version of the old American dream.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Anyone who can compress the atmosphere of a whole period into six songs, who can crystallize the way that any generation worked, must have something very unusual going for him. Pete Townshcnd of the Who is the only person who has caught the sixties in the same way and he has had to work his ass off to do it. Cochran did it almost instinctively. For that alone, I’d rate him very high indeed.
He was the first major American rocker to do a full, unaborted tour here and his impact was tremendous. He was the starting point from which British pop really began to get better.
He was a mover and writer and voice. He played his own things on guitar, he was really a musician. He sang songs that weren’t just crap but did somehow get across a real basic attitude. All of that was new. No poncing about, no dressing- up or one-shot gimmicking: he was something solid happening. So Billy Fury saw him and woke up. Or the Beatles saw him, or the Stones, or the Who, or the Move. That’s how things got started. And at the point, after the style of James Dean, Cochran got killed.
7 English Rock (page 61)
British pop in the fifties was pure farce.
Nobody could sing and nobody could write and, in any case, nobody gave a damn. The industry survived in a state of perpetual self-hyped hysteria, screaming itself hoarse about nothing in particular. There was much assorted greed, schnidery and lunacy. Trousers dropped like ninepins. Sammy Glick would have had the time of his life.
Before this, in the early fifties, the biggest stars were people like Dickie Valentine and Anne Shelton and Joan Regan. Mostly they had come up through dance bands and, once they had established themselves, they were safe for life. Nothing changed from year to year. The stuff they sang was just as maudlin and meaningless as its American counterpart. Worse, they didn’t even have that certain flair and style that made Sinatra or Como or Tony Bennett halfway bearable. They didn’t have anything.
At this time, records weren’t too important. The really big money was in stage performances and sheet music sales and, accordingly, the business was controlled by agents and publishers. Especially publishers. They had a long-term agreement with the BBC by which they paid fixed rates to get songs plugged. In return, the BBC ensured that at least half of every popular music programme was made up of songs that had been paid for.
What it meant was that nothing got hard-sell plugging unless Tin Pan Alley willed it. Effectively, this was monopoly and, until the system was abolished in the middle fifties, it wasn’t possible to have a hit song without falling meekly in line.
In these years, the industry was structured around the massed publishing offices of Tin Pan Alley. The men in control were mostly middle-aged and they ran very cautious businesses. If they had to be ruthless, they were always sentimental with it and many of them did truly believe that they were turning out quality. They tended to be married with children. They had great sense of tradition. If you asked them, they’d probably tell you that there was no biz like showbiz.
Rock knocked all of that on the head. Tin Pan Alley still thrives, of course. Publishers get a cut every time their records are played on the radio and they make deals, get rich as they have always done. But they don’t hold control any more, they have no monopoly. No one interviews them on TV, no one fawns. They buy their new Rolls and no one is even interested.
Rock brought in operators who were younger, faster, tougher, cleverer. More complicated and more neurotic. In every way, more interesting. They were young hustlers who had probably been hanging around in some other trade, films or journalism maybe, and immediately saw rock as a goldmine dream come true. Sometimes they genuinely liked pop and sometimes they didn’t. Either way, they cleaned up.
Most of them were homosexual. They’d see some pretty young boy singing in a pub and fancy him and sign him up. They’d bed him and then they’d probably very quickly get bored with him.
The boy would fade and disappear again. Or, every now and then, he would turn out to be a stayer after all and he’d somehow keep himself afloat. It was this scrabbling, this desperate jockeying for favour that made the fifties such black comedy.
The first attempt at a major British rocker was Tommy Steele. Launched in 1956, he was eighteen years old, came from Bermondsey and had been a merchant seaman. He had a lot of curly blonde hair and a grin as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.
He was discovered singing in a Soho coffee bar, the 2l’s, by a man called John Kennedy, a New Zealander in his late twenties. Kennedy had been around in a variety of trades and had flair, invention and a fast mouth.
Anyhow, he did a good job on Tommy Steele. He started him out as one more poor man’s Presley but ballyhooed him with more energy, more imagination than anyone was used to. He swept aside obstacles like so much kindling, wouldn’t slow up for anything. He was a truly obsessive man and barnstormed Tommy to number one in six months flat.
Give him credit, Tommy did his best to live up to the spiel. On stage, he squirmed and wriggled in all the right places, strummed his guitar till his fingers went numb, snarled animal, generally did the whole bit. Still he wasn’t really cut out for it. The trouble was he wasn’t evil enough.
As it turned out, he was natural showbiz. He had instant charm going for him, he was photographed with his mother and he kept right on flashing that bottomless grin. He was all hair and teeth. Adults took one look at him and weren’t remotely fooled - the boy was all right. So he moved on from rock as fast as he could and turned to ballads, comic recitations, novelties. He played Shakespeare at the Old Vic and studied tap dancing and squeezed himself into evening dress. He even combed his hair and he was much loved by everyone. He was that all-time showbiz cliche, the lovable Cockney, always merry and bright. He had turned into a pop Max Bygraves.
Compare his saga with Elvis and you have the precise difference between the great American and great British entertainment epic. Elvis became God. Tommy Steele made it to the London Palladium.
Next in line was Terry Dene. He wasn’t greatly talented, he had smooth features and he sang rock without giving it any personal flavour at all. What happened to him sums up the fifties very well.
He had bad nerves. Coming from roughly the same background as Tommy
Steele, he had emerged out of the Elephant and Castle, but he wasn’t anything like as brash or self-assured. He wasn’t remotely tough. He was petrified, in fact.
He had a round face, unformed, childish, and he always looked as if he was on the point of bursting into tears. Very often he did just that, which made him ideal maternity-food for those as liked it. No question, the boy was cuddly.
All the time he had troubles. He wasn’t much of a singer and often got the bird. This upset him. He’d brood until he got out of control. He’d be told to take a rest and he’d return glowing, earnestly promising reform. Things would go all right for a bit but inevitably he’d slip back. Then the cycle would begin again.
He didn’t even get many hits. Factually, he was never more than a minor success but the press found him fascinating, his bringdowns and comebacks, his crises, and they plugged him like mad. This way, even by pop standards, he grew into a figure out of all proportion to anything he’d ever done.
In July 1958, aged nineteen, he married a singer called Edna Savage, a few years older than himself, and it was the fuss wedding of that year. The papers picked it up as a signal that even rockers were human, were capable of finer feelings, and ran it huge. The whole industry glowed with reflected pride. Terry Dene wept with happiness.
The next thing was, Terry got his call-up papers and went off to do his national service.
The press yelled bonanza again. The comparisons with Elvis were most lavishly drawn, the image of pretty young rocker giving up a fortune and selflessly marching away to fight for king and country was nudged home with a bulldozer. Terry himself was quiet and dignified. Edna Savage was proud of him, his mother was proud of him. For one week, he was a hero.
As Rifleman 23604106, he smiled for cameras, waved for weeping fans. He kissed Edna Savage good-bye and flashed a thumbs-up sign. A few hours later, though, having realized exactly what he was taking on, he burst into tears and collapsed. ‘It was grim, man, just grim,’ he said. ‘I was standing up there with my tin tray, having my bit of food plonked down in front of me like all the others. The thought of me in that little bed with fifteen other blokes around -1 felt real sick.’
Two months on, he got his medical discharge and made his ritual comeback. This time it didn’t work. Edna Savage left him and nobody was proud of him any more. His records didn’t sell. This time I’m older, sadder and much wiser,’ he promised but no one believed him. He retired and came back, retired and came back again. He had a couple of years in badly-paid tours and everything was rough. Finally, he dropped out of sight.
That wasn’t all: a couple of years later, he was seen standing on a Soho street corner, preaching the gospel with the Salvation Army. What he preached was repent your sins, change your way before it’s too late. Nobody much stopped to hear him.
He looked much older, greyer. But he said he was happy and fulfilled. He didn’t want publicity, he wouldn’t give interviews. For some reason, he didn’t trust the press.
What’s more, he stuck it out, he didn’t break down. He went on the road and,
as far as I know, he’s still out there, preaching as he goes.
If Tommy Steele and Terry Dene were the fifties heavies, Wee Willie Harris and Screaming Lord Sutch provided the slapstick.
Wee Willie had his hair dyed flaming pink and wore a polkadot bow-tie like elephant’s ears. Also, baggy candy-striped Big Bopper suits and neon shoes. All set off by an unchanging idiot grin.
Screaming Lord Sutch was nobody’s idea of a genius musician either. He didn’t need to be because he was a tireless self-publicist instead. Basing himself very much on the antics of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he pulled all the standard stunts of the time - clambered out of coffins or dressed up like a caveman. What made him a stand-out was his persistence.
His gift was that whenever he looked like fading, he always managed some stroke. He stood for Parliament, got engaged, grew his hair long, tried some new form of fancy dress, hustled like mad. As stunts, they were lousy but they were also endless and, cumulatively, they worked.
He had real staying power. He has never had hits but he’s outlasted everyone and still goes out for good money now. He’s an institution. These days he has transformed himself into Lord Caesar Sutch and rides on stage in a chariot. Why the change? ‘You have to move with the times,’ says Sutch.
After the first wave of rock, there was a fast craze for skiffle, which was knockabout American folk song thumped out any old how on guitar and washboard. Its major attraction was that any musical ability was entirely irrelevant. All you needed was natural rowdiness.
Dustbin lids, tin pans, papers and combs - anything went. In no time, there were an estimated three thousand skiffle clubs in London alone. Admittedly, they shut down as fast as they opened, but it was still an impressive statistic.
The cult’s leader was Lonnie Donegan, long-time banjoist with Chris Barber’s traditional jazz band. He sang emasculated versions of old Leadbelly numbers like Rock Island Line, belting them out with frantic energy and a built-in rasp. Then he moved on to custard-pie comedy routines like Putting On The Style and My Old Mans A Dustman. Good luck to him - he cashed in fast and didn’t get his motives confused. What’s more, he held on tight and still does well in, among other things, variety and seaside summer shows.
Much better than anything Donegan did though, was Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan and his Bluegrass Boys. The genuine American article, Duncan had a wild whining voice, straight from the nostril and, if skiffle hadn’t suddenly died an overnight death, he might have done good things.
As it is, San Fernando is my nomination for the best British record of the fifties. This isn’t such a cosmic claim as it sounds. Check the opposition and you’ll see that I’m taking no great chances.
In all this chaos and foolishness, the only man who had any remote awareness of what was really happening was a TV producer called Jack Good. Everyone else saw pop as a one-shot craze and rushed to cash in on it fast before sanity returned and everything returned to normal. By contrast, Good realized it clearly as a major phenomenon.
I suppose he was the first pop intellectual. He’d been to Oxbridge, had letters after his name and could spell words of more than three syllables. More, he knew that pop was going to boss the entertainment industry from here on in, that it was the product of real social change rather than publicity hype, that its possibilities were just about limitless.
As a producer, he was responsible for Six Five Special, Oh Boy and the other major rock TV shows of the fifties. In the sixties, he emigrated to America and produced Shindig, their best pop showcase ever.
He sent P. J. Proby to Britain in 1964. He dreamed up a musical version of Othello, Muhammed Ali to take the title part and Proby himself to play lago. He even made a great record called / Sold My Heart To The Junkman by Lyn Cornell, an English version of an American hit, out-of-tune and hopeless but quite amazingly exciting, a little joke masterpiece. In every job he tried, he did something good.
I can remember hearing him interviewed on the radio once, sometime in the late fifties. He said that Elvis Presley was a genius and that he’d go down as one of the major artistic figures of our century. Even now, that would hardly go unchallenged. In its time, it was total anarchy. And his willingness to be outrageous, to shoot his mouth off blind at a sceptical audience was a big help in getting rid of rock’s built-in inferiority complex.
The next figure to come along was Larry Pames, who was a very big-time manager indeed and sold pop in bulk. He handled whole battalions of singers and gave them marvellous Technicolor names - Billy Fury, Cuddly Duddley, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride, Duffy Power and so forth.
Pames was the perfect fifties manager, meaning that he was shrewd, fast- witted and had natural publicity flair but didn’t go further. He had limited imagination, didn’t plan years ahead and didn’t bother his head too much about art or progression. But, he made money and avoided mistakes.
His first major property was Marty Wilde, who tried hard, had many hits and was a thoroughly likeable man but didn’t have the magnetism to bring him right through. Billy Fury was different.
Fury was the closest that Britain ever got to producing a genuine rocker, someone almost in the class of Eddie Cochran. For one, he was a face, high cheekbones and moody little eyes and a comma of hair drooping down on his forehead. For two, he was a mover, he rolled his hips like he almost meant it.
Originally, he was a scouse called Ronald Wycherley and, when he was in his middle teens, he wanted to wear drainpipe jeans but his father wouldn’t let him. So he’d sneak out of the house into the back yard and hide his drainpipes in the outdoor lavatory. Then, when the time came to go out, he’d saunter away all innocent in his baggy flannels, whip round the corner, up over the back lane wall, rescue his drainpipes from the can and finally hit town in full splendour. That was determination. That was his exact difference - could anyone imagine Tommy Steele or Terry Dene going to all that trouble just to be an image rocker?
He was a merchant seaman but did some singing and songwriting on the side, and the way he was discovered was very typical of the period and of the way that
Larry Parries functioned. In 1958, he got the ferry to Birkenhead, where Marty Wilde was doing a one-nighter, and played a few songs in Marty’s dressing room. Larry Parnes overheard him.
Five minutes later, Ronald Wycherley was Billy Fury and was playing bottom of the bill. When he came off stage, he dashed back home, packed his case and joined the tour. Real Eddie Cantor stuff - no fuss, no messing about, no nothing. Just go out there and sing and get paid. The rest, as they say, is history.
On stage, he was best at agonized balladeering, face contorted and hand clutching at nothing, thin body all racked and buckled with sadness. When things got going, he’d wrap himself around the microphone like a python and rape it. This got him banned in Ireland and fussed about even in England. So he toned down. Still, just for a moment, he’d been wild in there.
He was strange. When he was at his peak, around 1961, he moved into the country and took up bird-watching. Ornithology became his great driving passion. He said that he couldn’t talk deeply about himself to people, couldn’t relax with them but he felt much happier with animals. ‘I’m an introvert and an extrovert,’ he said. Tm an exhibitionist on stage but I can’t tell anyone about myself, I freeze up.
I don’t want anyone to know.’ When he talked, he mumbled and stared at his hands. He was tense and, in some odd sense, genuinely innocent.
He has lasted well. His records tend not to be hits any more but he has a big following and goes down a storm in cabaret. He’s still managed by Larry Parnes and they go along steadily. In the North, even after ten years, he gets mobbed in the streets.
Fury was one prong of the triumvirate that dominated British pop from about 1959 until the Beatles first broke through in 1963. The other two were Cliff Richard and Adam Faith. Of the three, Fury was the most exciting, Faith the most intelligent, Richard the most competent. What they had in common was that they ended up smooth. In every way, they became presentable. They had tidy smiles and noncommittal accents and nice manners. They tended not to make fools of themselves in public. Between them, they made pop singers almost respectable.
Cliff was easily the most successful. His great secret was that he was like a magic slate, a pad on which almost anyone could scrawl their fantasies and rub them out and try again. He was the nice boy that girls could be proud to date, the perfect son that mothers could be proud to raise, the good nut that schoolboys could be proud to have as a friend, the earnest youth that intellectuals could be proud to patronize, the perfect flesh that homosexuals could be proud to buy drinks for, the showbiz smile that hipsters could be proud to despise and so on. It was a format that Tommy Steele had used first and that the Beatles were later to perfect. It is the classic British way of making it - be a clean white wall and let everyone write graffiti on you.
At the time when he got his first hit, 1958, he was seventeen. By any standards, he was adult for his age, very cool and knowing indeed. Probably that’s why he never let himself be conned or mismanaged. Whenever it counted, he was always shrewd.
He started out as one more computerized rocker, one more sexy mover and sub-Elvis rebel, but this wasn’t ever his natural style. He wasn’t butch enough for it, he didn’t even hint at rape. Instead, he sang in tune and showed many toothpaste teeth. He was sleek, glossy. Most important, he was amazingly scrubbed, he radiated a kind of glowing cleanness that ordinary mortals couldn’t even hope for. With all that going for him, rock was out. He was born to sing ballads.
His first ballad hit, Living Doll, was by far the most influential British single of the whole decade. It was cute and sweet and bouncy. It was tuneful and ingenuous. It was the British equivalent to highschool - and it was desperate. In months, it took over completely. No rage, no farce, no ugliness left. We had mass-produced faces with mass-produced voices on mass-produced songs. It was as bad as the pre-rock early fifties all over again. That’s mostly why the Beatles were hailed as such messiahs when they first started.
It has to be said that Cliff at least did it well. He was unassuming, he worked hard and he came to be very professional. He was insipid and syrupy but he wasn’t nauseous. He was modest and thoughtful, essentially decent.
When Beatlemania came along, Cliff took it well. He praised the Beatles’ records, refused to bitch back when they were rude about him, held on to his dignity at all times. He just slid neatly into the background and looked benign. After all, he made upwards of a hundred thousand pounds a year and could afford to be kind.
His most lasting influence, however, hasn’t been his singing, his conversion, even his white smile, but his speaking voice. Before him, all pop singers sounded what they were, solidly working class. Cliff introduced something new, a bland ramble, completely classless. It caught on - David Frost uses it. So do Simon Dee, Sandie Shaw and Cathy McGowan. Admen and publicists and hangers-on everywhere. Ambitious kids ape it and it has become the dominant success voice. I’m not suggesting that anyone deliberately copied it from Cliff but he was where it first broke through - that’s the kind of area in which pop is most genuinely powerful.
The Shadows, who had been his backing group all this time, were almost as successful as Cliff himself. There were four of them, three guitars and drums, and they made records of their own, almost all of which went straight to number one - neat little instrumentals, entirely unmemorable and played with total lack of any emotion. On stage, they wore evening dress and the three guitarists shuffled forward and back in unison. At moments of great climax, they’d turn quickly at right angles and kick one leg out limply from the knee. Then everyone would scream.
I’ve never figured out just why they made it so big. Partly because of Cliff, I suppose, and partly because they shared his clean innocence and partly out of habit. Partly perhaps because they were musicianly, and partly because their tunes were always easy to hum. Most of all, because there were no real challengers around at the time. At any rate, they were fiercely worshipped and imitated and, on the Continent, they were the most influential sound ever.
Even now, if you’re traipsing around the backwaters of Morocco and you stumble across a local group, they’ll sound exactly like the Shadows, flat guitars and jigalong melodies and little leg kicks and all. In Spain or Italy or Yugoslavia, they’re regarded as the pop giants of all time. Elvis Schmelvis, Beatles Schmeatles. Viva los Shads!
The only Shadow I’ve ever been able to warm to at all is Hank B. Marvin, guitarist and song-writer. He wore huge black spectacles and had many spots and was nobody’s idea of beautiful. When he was younger, he must have felt quite self-conscious about it all and to respond by christening himself Hank has always struck me as quite a splendid act of defiance.^
There were other big successes at this time: Frank Ifield, a large hunk of Australian baritone with an alarming line in yodelling; Helen Shapiro, who had a truly foghorn voice but was badly over-publicized and didn’t sustain; Eden Kane, who growled; David Jacobs, compere of the long-running TV show Juke Box Jury, the last word in mister smooth ; Emile Ford, who was excellent but he was also coloured and that, ten years ago, was just about that; and Norrie Paramor, a small middle-aged man with glasses, mild and harmless, who produced hits for Cliff and the Shadows and Helen Shapiro and, by his very harmlessness, summed up everything that had gone wrong.
The best of the bunch was Adam Faith, who was at least an original. He was a marvellous face, classic bone structure, but he was also very short and had to wear monstrous high-heeled boots if he wasn’t to be dwarfed by his infant fans. He didn’t have much of a voice either, he was all nose and tonsil, a poor man’s Buddy Holly. What he did have, though, was good management, good songwriting, good plugging and, most important, a certain persisent oddity, a real individuality.
His first number one, What Do You Want? was one continuous hiccough, a dying fit, agonized and agonizing, the words contorted almost beyond recognition. He spewed up the word ‘baby’ as ‘biybee’, choking horribly on each vowel, and that was the major hook. So all right, maybe it wasn’t any profound insight into the human condition but it was catching; it made him. One word mispronounced and he had his whole career going for him.
Natch, he flogged it hard, spluttering and expiring like a man inspired, and he did very nicely. In retrospect, his big hits - Poor Me, Someone Else’s Baby, How About That? - stand up as the best, most inventive British records of that time, the only truly POP music we were producing then. They still sound active now.
But the most important thing he did was to introduce the concept of Pop Singer as Thinker, now so popular with documentaries and the Sunday papers.
Originally, he got interviewed by John Freeman on Face To Face, a chore he shared with such as Jung, Gilbert Harding and Tony Hancock. Freeman put up a series of nice slow lobs for him and Adam fended them off very capably - his favourite composers were Sibelius and Dvorak, he said, and his favourite book was Catcher In The Rye; sincerity was the quality he would most like to be admired for, that and being an individual; thirty was about the right age to get married. That kind of thing. Hardly sensational but he spoke it neatly, smoothly. He was strictly non-moronic.
Soon, he was to be heard discussing morals, sex before marriage, just about anything solemn that got thrown at him and this was where pop began to go up in the world. Slowly and humbly, admittedly, but upwards just the same. All through the fifties pop had been desperately unfashionable, the last word in non-chic. Outside its immediate public, it was seen simply as a joke.
Now, mostly because of Adam, it was getting to be accepted. It was becoming something of a fashionable status symbol and that, of course, is where the Beatles cashed in.
Finally in this chapter, Jimmy Saville, who was our best disc jockey. Come to that, to me, he was our only disc jockey.
In America, DJs have always been big business. People like Dick Clark or Murray the К have been superstars, one-man industries, phenomena on a par with anything but the very biggest stars of all. Mostly they have been maniacs, hurricane spielers, throwing out ads and jingles, music and patter and noise like one-armed bandits gone berserk. Their shows are brainstorms and their music is only one part of the attraction. That’s what jockeying means.
British jockeys have never been in the same class. Most of them sound like BBC announcers, neat, laundered, boring. They have nothing to do with pop. They aren’t jockeys at all, in fact, they’re only men who put on records.
Until Emperor Rosko arrived in the middle sixties, Saville was the only genuine exception. He’s a Yorkshireman, an ex-miner of indeterminate age and he has different coloured hair almost every time one sees him, usually peroxide blonde, occasionally pink or striped or tartan.
As an antidote to all the mid-Atlantic that surrounds him, he uses an exaggerated staccato Yorkshire accent and waves his arms, rolls his eyes, hams like mad. He isn’t good-looking, smooth or even very funny. But he wears amazing costumes, looks like something from space and works his ass off. His one card is outrage.
He isn’t an easy character to unravel. He’s shrewd, hard-headed, but he has wide naive streaks and he can come on horribly sentimental at times. He makes at least fifty thousand pounds a year, lives in a council flat and allows himself only £9 a week spending money. On the other hand, he raises thousands of pounds each year for charity, flogging himself really hard at times. In a way, it makes sense: his hunger is not for owning money but for making it.
Beyond being a jockey, he’s a wrestler and keeps himself painfully fit. When he’s in London, he lives in a room under the stairs of a small King’s Cross hotel, a miserable little box, and he works out endlessly with dumb-bells.
So he’s mean, hard-headed, tireless, a marvellous raconteur, truly original. He’s crazy like a fox. And with the money he makes, who wouldn’t be crazy the same way ?
* The Shadows have now disbanded.
8 Rue Morgue, 1960 (page 75)
Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion, Chuck Berry was in jail, Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.
Why didn’t rock sustain ? Not easy to answer. Partly it was because the vintage rockers were so ill-fated. Partly it was because they weren’t flexible - they did what they did perfectly but couldn’t progress. But mostly it was because pop is by nature ephemeral, it must change constantly to keep alive and not even the very best things can hold.
New people came up to replace the gone heroes, of course, but they weren’t in the same class, they certainly weren’t flat-out rockers. Hard rock was done. What had replaced it was a continuation of highschool. Most of them were just as forgettable as their predecessors: Brian Hyland, Jerry Keller, Johnny Tillotson and, a bit later, Bobby Vinton. Bobby Vee was not much better but was given good songs like Rubber Ball and Take Care Of My Baby. The only stand-outs were Neil Sedaka and Dion Di Mucci, two of the most underrated figures in the whole of rock.
There’s not much to be said about them, just how good they were and what lasting records they made. Sedaka came from Brooklyn and trained as a classical pianist. Then he knocked off songs for Connie Francis, Clyde McPhatter, LaVerne Baker. Then he began to make records of his own. Almost without exception, they were classics.
He was quite some writer. He’d start out steady, build-up gradually and then, when he snapped into the chorus, the hook, there’d be a real explosion. It isn’t possible to explain it right but he’d come out with a sudden aching, pulling figure that used to make me catch my breath and count. It had nothing to do with words, it was purely musical. Something would burst.
His best sides were Breaking Up Is Hard To Do and Oh Carol and Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen. Ten years on, they still make me gasp every time I play them.
Dion who had hits with the Belmonts before he went solo was simpler. He was just given some hit songs and he did them well - Little Diane, Runaround Sue, Ruby Baby, The Wanderer. He was a format singer, meaning that all his singles sounded alike, which was fine by me. They were a bit like catch songs, everyone singing different riffs and chasing each other, and this gave them a curious circular feel. Comforting. His best was Little Diane: ‘I should knock you down and slap your face - bad girls like you are a disgrace.’*
He went through a long bad patch in the middle sixties but made one beautiful record in 1967, Mr Moving Man. And then, out of nowhere, he cut a major 1968 American smash, Abraham, Martin and John.
Neither Dion nor Sedaka was strictly a rocker but they were in direct line of descent. That’s how they came to be so good - they had drive, guts, when everything that surrounded them was jellyfish and flabby.
Why had everything gone so dead ? Really, it was a failure of imagination, a simple inability to think things out from basics.
When rock had come along, it had changed everything, it had seemed the complete answer and the industry had got used to the idea that what you had to do was, say, imitate Elvis, change his format slightly, add a mandolin, take away a triangle and you were automatically made. They weren’t far wrong, of course.
But each imitation was a small emasculation of the one before, each rehash took things further and further away from the original hub. Pop ended up as a copy of a copy of a copy. Teenagers got bored, records sold less. In the end, there was just nothing left and that was 1960.
Nineteen sixty was the gap between two separate generations, the changeover, and the reason it was so bad was really that pop moves in very specific generation cycles: there is one breakthrough, followed by maybe three years of great excitement, followed by three years of stagnation, followed by a fresh breakthrough. Each cycle takes roughly seven years to run its course and 1960, of course, was the stagnant bit.
Seven years seems nothing but it’s really surprisingly much. After all, one pop generation really only lasts four years, the time it takes to get from eleven to fifteen and, again, from fifteen to nineteen, and a seven-year cycle means that a whole generation gets skipped.
Why does it work like that ? Probably because seventeen-year-olds are up too close to things, they don’t see straight. When someone like Elvis first explodes, they buy his records and copy his looks but it goes no deeper, it’s only imitation.
With fourteen-year-olds, however, it becomes a big part of growing up - Elvis is their great adolescent hero, he’s central. They buy their first suit and have their first sex and promote their first hangover with him in the background. And then they have five years in which they can distance him, get him into perspective and absorb him deeply. So when they come to do things themselves, they don’t ape him but use him to form their answers.
Roughly, that’s why 1960 was bad and, in the same way, that’s why 1963 came good.
Also, Tin Pan Alley was back in the catseat. As soon as record sales began to fall, the music publishing world decided gleefully that hard rock was finished and they shut out everything that wasn’t highschool. Instead of yakety saxes and greasebox bass, the big black sounds of classic rock, we all got stuck with Disneyland.
Tin Pan Alley, of course, saw this as a clean-up campaign, a repudiation of all that sinful jazz music, a return to decency. Ironically, though, 1959-60 became the ultimate golden age of hype - the only way to make kids accept the prevalent crap was by flat-out payola and so the swing back to godliness was turned into the dirtiest period that pop has been through.
Also, this was the time of the Beach Party movies, made by American International and starring such as Tommy Sands, Frankie Avalon, Annette (ex- Mickey Mouse Club Mouse-keteer) Funicello and Fabian.
These were unchanging epics - there were always a lot of cleancut bodies in bikinis and briefs, a few songs, a few bad jokes, much suntan and sand and water, hundreds of flashing teeth and endless cheerfulness. Seen in retrospect, they’re camp and they’re true Pop Art, they say more about Campbell Soup than Warhol ever did. As 1960 teen entertainments, though, they were nothing but dire.
All of this, the whole 1960 bit, was epitomized by Fabian.
His real name was Fabiano Forte and he came from Philadelphia. When he was thirteen, he was signed up by two local recordmen and computerized.
To start with, he had the basic requirements - olive flesh, duck-ass hairstyle, conveyor-belt features. He had the required passing resemblance to Elvis Presley. On top of this, his management did the full Professor Higgins bit. They had him groomed, had him taught to speak nicely, had his voice trained. Made him round and flawless like a billiard ball.
One snag: he couldn’t sing. He ran through voice teachers the way old-time Hollywood stars once ran through wives. What did that matter ? His management launched the biggest publicity campaign ever, besieged the trade papers for weeks on end, howled him from rooftops. Fabian himself only stood still and sparkled.
Once the snowball had got started, it was hardly stoppable. In no time, Fabian was going out for twelve thousand dollars a night and then he sold a million of a record called Tiger and then he was into movies. Not just crap movies either - he was in North to Alaska with John Wayne. Later, he got married and was duly mobbed. And all the time he could hardly sing a note. That’s highschool. So, all right, he’s less than mister big these days but what should he care? He’s rich. He made it.
Outside the prevalent pulp, however, there were occasional goodies in the highschool tradition - Angel Baby by Rosie and the Originals was one, Blue Moon by the Marcels was another and Tossin and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis was a third. By now, with payola under fire, Philadelphia had lost much of its preeminence, although Dick Clark still ruled from there. In its place, New York was emerging as a new centre, with a series of successful songwriting partnerships: Gerry Goffin and Carol King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, as well as the now near-veteran Lieber and Stoller.
Any one of these combinations could be relied on for anything up to a dozen hit songs in a year and most of the best records of the early sixties stemmed from them, or from other New York writers, working alone - Bert Berns, Jerry Ragavoy, the young Phil Spector.
But among actual performers, only three shaped up as originals - Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Gene Pitney. They had a lot in common. For a start they weren’t amateurs.
They had good strong voices and none of them did much cavorting on stage, they just stood up straight and did their act without fuss. Then they were songwriters, businessmen and they were built to last. They were shrewd. Between them, they added up to the first major onset of professionalism.
Out of the three of them, Orbison was easily the most impressive. No question, he wasn’t a likely-looking pop star but he could cut just the same. He had a pudgy, pasty face, very white and sickly. Then he was chronically shortsighted and had to wear glasses as thick as lemonade bottles. No Mr Universe. But he had a classic voice, perfectly controlled from mumble through to full- blooded yell, and he approached his songs like operatic arias.
Usually he set off almost conversationally then broke into tortured tempo, got gradually more fevered, more tragic and finally wound up in frantic howls of anguish. It was a formalized pattern, used on almost all his best records, and he had it by heart. He never missed a trick.
If your nerves were bad, the unbroken agony of it all might get a bit oppressive. But if you were suckered by schmaltz, Orbison was the very best brew going. Whatever, he attracted great regiments of fans and, in Europe, they’ve stayed endlessly loyal to him. Outside of Elvis, he has the most unquestioningly devoted following going.
Not that he has stuck exclusively to ballads. In his time, he’s rocked harder and longer than most but he always sounds as if he wants to slow things down and, even at his toughest, he’s always liable to launch himself into sudden spasms of bugeyed operatics.
Orbison was born in Texas in 1936, and, by his teens, he was writing Country ’n’ Western. In the fifties, he was on to rock and wrote Claudette, a million seller for the Everlys. So by the time he recorded Only The Lonely in i960 and finally made it big, he’d been ten years in the business. An old pro, battle-hardened. That’s how he came to sustain so well.
He was a quiet man, not flash or imposing, not outstanding in any way. He was polite. When he wasn’t touring, he stayed home in Texas with Claudette, who was his wife, and they played motorbikes together. Finally, she had an accident and was killed. Orbison put out a record called Too Soon To Know, very much based on her death, and it was a big European hit.
He’s still a good performer. The last time I saw him was at the 1966 New Musical Express poll-winners’ concert and he shared the bill with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers, Cliff Richard, the Shadows, Dusty Springfield, the Who and umpteen others - the full flower of British pop. With hardly any exceptions, he cut them into pieces.
He wore something like an out-of-work flamenco dancer’s outfit, high-waisted trousers and boots and a tatty little jerkin. Then his puff pastry face and those impenetrable tinted glasses. All the time he was on stage, he didn’t move an inch, didn’t even nod his head. He just stamped his foot, stood his ground and belted.
Why was he good? It was something to do with presence. Everyone else was frantic, ran themselves crazy trying to whip up reaction. Orbison just commanded: the big O. He sang nothing that hadn’t been a major hit for him - Running Scared, Pretty Woman, In Dreams - and he banged it out so solid, so impossibly confident that he made everything that had gone before seem panicky. He’d been around, had twenty years behind him. Almost on his own, he knew what it was all about.
(Orbison is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and this is maybe the place I should mention Nashville in some detail.
Basically, it’s the centre of country music but it handles a lot of pop as well, it carries more recording sessions than anywhere outside New York. Most everyone works there - Elvis Presley, the Everlys, Joe Tex, even Bob Dylan, and then the straight Country ’n’ Western acts, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins, George Jones and Buck Owens and Hank Snow.
It’s a strange city, filled to overflowing with guitar pickers by the thousand, all scuffling, and, at its highest levels, the music community there has formed itself into some kind of unofficial club, managers and publishers and artists. To get accepted into this, you have to be very big indeed, you have to be a monster but, once you’ve made it, you’re in for life and you’re looked after, you’re just about guaranteed work for as long as you can walk. You’re in an oligarchy and you can never fall.
Roy Orbison is in this league.)
Del Shannon was along the same lines, meaning that he had a lumberjack voice and never budged. Not as operatic as Orbison, he just wound himself up until he roared, from where he gradually got louder and louder and louder, climaxing with a frantic falsetto shriek. All it took was a lot of lung-power and one sharpened stick. Simple but effective.
He has always been one of my heavy heroes. He charges head-on at his songs like some angered bull, mauls them, bangs them against the board until they’re shattered. Over the early sixties, he turned out long streaks of worldwide hits and wrote them himself - Runaway, Hats Off To Larry, Two Kinds Of Teardrops, Swiss Maid, So Long Baby.
On stage, there was the same appeal. Shannon was pretty sawn-off and wore his big guitar slung high across his chest, so that he had to hunch to get at it. That made him look aggressive and he stood square and howled. Beautiful songs, beautiful noise. Pure pop. The backing pounding along like a cavalry charge, all organ and percussion, and Del himself bull-dozing through everything. He could have knocked down brick walls, that man, he could have demolished skyscrapers.
There wasn’t much more to him - he was originally an out-of-town boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, but he turned into very much the spruced, smoothvoiced young businessman, shaved and manicured, toting a smile like a slot machine. That didn’t matter: he sang like someone else entirely and it was his records I cared about. Raunchy might be the word I need.
If Del Shannon looked like some kind of budding executive, Gene Pitney came on like a full-blown tycoon, which was exactly what he was. He was of Polish extraction, and money interested him deeply. Deals - they lit him up like neon.
The one time I met him, he was in his hotel room and he was talking business on the long-distance telephone. Shirt torn open at the neck, tie twisted, sweat marks under his armpits: classic Hollywood image. As he talked, he moved one hand in small upwards circles, as if he was trying to conjure up something tangible out of the air. Like banknotes. So I stood there, waiting to get noticed, and he looked straight through me. I wouldn’t say he was ignoring me. I’d really say that he didn’t know there was anyone else in the room.
Ballads were his meat. Tearjerkers, monstrous flowerpots that made Roy Orbison’s songs sound like Woody Woodpecker symphonies in comparison. And he had a big voice, a fine range and most professional projection, but he chose to sing in a whine like an electric saw. Cutting, needling, excruciating. It has given me more real pain than any other voice I’ve ever heard. I can’t be objective about it: it nags me like a toothache.
Still, he was sharp. His judgements had been cautious, unadventurous but always accurate. And, even forgetting England and America (he had always been bigger in England than in the States), he had huge followings in Europe, in the Far East, in Australasia, almost everywhere. He commuted endlessly. He made deals, cut hits, accrued, amassed.
On stage, he looked small and had a schoolboy’s face, round and unused, his hair slicked flat across his skull. He stood still in a single spotlight, all lost and lonely, one hand in his pocket, the other extended towards his audience, and he waded through heartbreak ballad after heartbreak ballad. Between numbers, he sat on a stool and read out sentimental letters from his fans. His audience hushed for him as if he were making a funeral oration. Then he sang more ballads and he looked sad as hell, trapped inside his spotlight, and everyone felt sorry for him. Mothers adored him.
It was all a bit like a recital, he carried himself like an updated Richard Tauber. Everyone was miserable. When he completed each song, he looked down and stared stonily at his feet. You almost expected him to let drop a rose. Anyhow, his control was remarkable, he never dropped a stitch. By the time he was through, even those who hated him most, even me, we felt like we’d been swimming in a cement mixer.
Most important of all, there were the Four Seasons.
In pop terms, the Seasons were freaks - they were four bodies of ill-assorted shapes and sizes, all getting on a bit, and they looked like bank clerks, accountants, floor managers, they looked like anything on earth but they never looked like any pop group.
As it happened, they weren’t only pop, they were the most POP pop ever. I mean, if I had to explain pop to anyone in one throw, I’d just play them a Four Seasons record - Sherry, Rag Doll, Big Girls Don't Cry, Let’s Hang On or Dodie.
The thing was, they had a lead singer called Frankie Valli and he had the most piercing falsetto ever, a monster, an excruciating screech and, whenever he really let it go, he’d shatter plate windows all across the city. It was the ultimate deterrent and it was also beautiful, it was a thing of true wonder. It would scream out of your hi-fi like some insane air-raid siren and it deafened you, destroyed you, turned you blind. So you’d stumble and shake in the sheer wildness of it. You’d be tripped out on sound alone.
They had two ultra-shrewd hustlers behind them, Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, producers and writers who kept them fed with natural hit songs and, from 1961, they’ve peddled a string of American smashes, they’ve hardly looked like slipping. Almost every time they’ve walked into the studio, they’ve cut some major classic. Altogether, they’ve probably turned out more mind-snappers than any other group in the world and it’s only in the last year or so that they’ve finally hit trouble.
There’s not much to say on them, they’re not analyzable. They’re perfect, that’s all.
Then there was Brenda Lee, who didn’t make sense. Just five foot tall, she looked like an all-time peak in highschool teenybop. She wore wide party dresses, very likely with frilly petticoats underneath, and she had an unformed elfin face, hugely grinning at all times. She chewed gum, read comics. Had outbursts of adolescent spots and pimples. Wore high heels and nylons on big nights out. For Chrissake, she was even her school cheer leader.
She came from Atlanta, Georgia, a real Southern girl, and she was making hits by the time she was eleven: Little Miss Dynamite. Right through her teens, she alternated singing and going to school. Her songs were just what you’d expect, bouncy little routines, halfway between rock and country. And the only thing that didn’t make sense about her was her voice, which was freakish, making her sound thirty at least and sexual, knowing, very world-weary indeed. By the time she was seventeen, she had a ballad style along the lines of Edith Piaf, as used and bravura as that.
She could be magnificent. She conjured up real three in the morning visions, ashtrays full of ends and lipstick smears on the coffee cups, small rancid rooms, off-hand desperation. Then she’d come out and she’d be like some kewpie doll, all sheen and varnish and eyes that really roll. It was this woman/child contradiction that made her happen. Myself, I couldn’t ever take it.
When she grew up, the greatest part of her appeal inevitably fell away. She got married and had a child. Still, she looked amazingly innocent, she wore the same bobbysoxer uniform as ever, but it just wasn’t the same thing. So her records stopped being hits.
Her voice hasn’t changed, still feels like bad whisky. Sometimes she puts out new singles and they’re not good songs, not well produced or anything but, herself she cuts through it like a laser beam. If only she didn’t look so precisely like Little Orphan Annie.
In any case, she made no difference. Nor did Del Shannon or Dion or Orbison or Neil Sedaka. Nineteen hundred and sixty meant doldrums just the same.
The point is that pop doesn’t work around good records or pretty voices or cute people - those are only details. Really, it happens off superheroes and superdollars, off hyped mass hysteria and deepdown social change, off shortterm collective insanities. People aren’t relevant.
*Words of Little Diane reproduced by permission of Spanka Music Ltd, London.
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