RICHARD THE FIRST

Yes, it’s refreshing to write about something that isn’t the C word; it’s just a pity that in doing so I’m bidding farewell to the greatest showman of them all – the first and finest embodiment of an outrageous archetype hotwired into the pop culture of the last half-century. Indeed, there’s a direct line that goes backwards from, say, Marilyn Manson – encompassing the likes of Prince, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Mick Jagger, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the young Elvis Presley – before finally arriving at Year Zero in the incomparable person of Little Richard. His passing comes as the earnest, preachy, lecturing bores who have colonised what remains of Rock have failed to grab a baton that was once passed from one generation to the next in a manner that implied there would always be at least one young and virile incarnation of Little Richard’s blueprint on the go; but so be it. Maybe the death of the man himself at the grand old age of 87 was perfectly timed, for he saw the whole saga from beginning to end.

Perhaps the legacy of Little Richard today is less evident in the musical genre he helped create than in the successful mainstream infiltration of the drag scene that initially gave him carte blanche to express his penchant for the flamboyant and effeminate. From the unlikely TV career of RuPaul to the adoption of visual tropes by the likes of Lady Gaga, something that was very much an acquired underground taste in the early 1950s is now very much over-ground and in yer face. And, at a time when a camp young man caked in cosmetics had to become a larger-than-life, cartoonish showbiz star to avoid being lynched by Middle America – and that’s not even addressing the colour of his skin – the whole non-binary mix & match that has become a chic affectation of contemporary youth is quite feasibly another element of the modern age that wouldn’t have been possible had not Little Richard put outré ambisexuality on the map over 60 years ago.

How he looked was just part of the explosive package, of course. There was the voice as well – a raw, unrestrained scream of joyous euphoria that blew the elegant croon of the tuxedo-clad song-stylist out of the mid-50s water. It’s almost impossible if you weren’t there to imagine what it must have been like to have heard that voice without any prior reference point in 1956 as the string of hits upon which Little Richard’s career was built thereafter followed one another into the staid Hit Parade. ‘Tutti Fruitti’, ‘Rip it Up’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Lucille’, and others – all of which were lyrically subversive celebrations of lascivious sexual practices – rejected that strain of the Blues that wallowed in self-pitying sob stories and instead revelled in its more profane aspects. And, as with Chuck Berry, Little Richard’s speeding-up of the Blues helped the faster, more urgent rhythms of what became Rock ‘n’ Roll cross the racial divide of segregated America by appealing to a generation of white adolescents eager for a soundtrack reflecting their post-war restlessness.

The musical background of Richard Wayne Penniman is a familiar one for a southern black boy born in the early 30s – the church and Gospel. His brief and premature retirement from showbiz just a couple of years after his first hit saw him retreat to his original comfort zone when the juxtaposition of his hedonistic lifestyle and his faith became too incompatible to sustain. He announced he was going to pursue a career in the ministry and would only record and perform Gospel music from then on; and with Chuck Berry in prison, Jerry Lee Lewis in disgrace, Buddy Holly in the cemetery and Elvis in the army, Richard’s retirement was in synch with the general opinion that Rock ‘n’ Roll had been little more than a fad whose era had come to a natural end. However, its popularity hadn’t waned outside of the US, and Richard was persuaded to embark upon a tour of the UK in 1962 – an experience that persuaded him to ditch the Gospel and return to the more secular sounds his audience wanted to hear.

For some of the dates on that 1962 tour, he was supported by an unknown beat combo from Liverpool; they also supported Richard in Hamburg. The band – whose name momentarily escapes me – had a bassist prone to the occasional fair stab at the characteristic Little Richard vocal style in one or two numbers, though Mr McCartney wisely used it sparingly. As the 60s progressed and the acts for whom Little Richard had been an early inspiration gradually eclipsed him, Richard’s backing band proved to be a canny learning curve for future stars, including Billy Preston and – for a brief period – Jimi Hendrix. The short stint Hendrix enjoyed as a band-member was allegedly curtailed by Richard’s concerns over being upstaged by his young guitarist, who had certainly learnt the art of showmanship from the master.

By the turn of the 70s, the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll were enjoying something of a revival, culminating in the spectacular ‘London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show’ staged at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1972 – the first such occasion in which the twin towers had played host to a non-sporting event. On a line-up that featured more or less every surviving rocker from the first 50s wave bar Elvis, Little Richard did his best to outshine Chuck Berry at the top of the bill; and the priceless film recording of the show contains segments of interviews with Richard that serve as a reminder of how the character he had cultivated was as much a force of nature offstage as on it. Indeed, the belated realisation of just how entertaining a personality he could be if given the opportunity to shine before the camera provided Richard with a profitable income as a chat-show guest throughout the 70s and well into the 80s. His huge contribution to the blurring of gender and racial lines in popular culture also began to be recognised as the family tree of flamboyance he planted decades before bore a continuous flowering of fruit.

Richard himself was engaged in a lifelong struggle to reconcile his urges with his faith, seeming to seesaw between being out and proud and denouncing his inclinations; but one only has to see a clip of him from his breakthrough period and to place him in the context of conformism and conservatism that characterised the mid-50s to realise what a fearless, risqué trailblazer he was. Just compare Richard’s original version of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ with Pat Boone’s lame and lifeless cover and one is immediately made aware of what he was up against. As Lemmy later commented: ‘How hard must it have been for him: gay, black and singing in the South? But his records are a joyous good time from beginning to end.’

As far as we’re aware, the death of Little Richard has no associations with any virus emanating from the Far East, which is itself a curious relief in the daily roll-call of Covid-related fatalities. Let’s not forget he was 87, after all, and he’d lived the kind of life most of us would find exhausting to live vicariously via a work of fiction, let alone in his shoes. To have outlasted almost all of his contemporaries is testament to the limitless energy that remarkable individual generated; and his reputation is assured as a man who lit innumerable fuses that have led to so much of what has kept us entertained for over 50 years. As he himself said, A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom…

© The Editor

THE MAN WHO WROTE THE RULEBOOK

In November 1972, a novelty hit sat atop the charts and ‘Top of the Pops’ proceeded with caution. In his introduction to the video clip, Jimmy Savile reminded viewers the song was about a bell and nothing else; to emphasise this during the performance, the programme’s producer mixed in footage of Rolf Harris sketching bizarre bell-themed self-portraits. Everybody watching and everybody who had made the record an unlikely No.1 knew that the song’s title, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, was a euphemism for a penis; the fact it had topped the charts presented radio and TV with a problem, but forty-five years on the ironic legacy of this particular piece of BBC ingenuity is that the TOTP presentation of the performance is now off-limits for completely different reasons. The moral barometer has swung in another direction, and Chuck Berry’s smutty ditty is not the cause of retrospective panic. I’m sure Chuck would have found the whole business hilarious.

The performance of ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ used on TOTP was lifted from Berry’s recent appearance on BBC2’s ground-breaking ‘In Concert’ series; the programme had been designed as a thirty-minute showcase for some of the era’s prominent singer-songwriters, with the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King and Don McLean receiving rare TV exposure that gave them more breathing space than the hit-machine conveyor belt of most music shows. In hindsight, Chuck Berry seems an incongruous gate-crasher into this sedate patchouli oil-scented refuge from showbiz glitz, yet confronted by a cross-legged audience, he wins them over and wakes them up by encouraging their participation in ‘My Ding-a-Ling’; they can’t resist it. The man oozes charisma and the cheeky schoolboy smirk that spreads across his face come each double-entendre is pure Benny Hill.

Of course, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ may have been the only time the name Chuck Berry hit the No.1 spot, but it hardly serves as the most accurate obituary for a man whose passing at the grand old age of 90 will be marked across the media this weekend. His sole chart-topper came at a moment when the music he’d pioneered almost twenty years earlier was undergoing a popular revival after being shoved off the radar by the cultural revolution of the 60s. The same year ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ topped the charts he’d shared the bill with fellow bad-boy survivors Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis at Wembley Stadium in the landmark ‘London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show’. Watching the DVD of this event is fascinating and I heartily recommend it.

The audience is a mix of long-haired Hell’s Angels-biker types (still in their twenties) and their 50s Rocker predecessors, the kind of ageing Teddy Boys I remember from my childhood; most are pushing forty, yet their haircuts haven’t altered since the mid-50s; the seismic shifts in the pop landscape of the previous decade seem to have passed these guys by. In 1972, they were still partying like it was 1957, though it’s interesting to note a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from none other than Malcolm McLaren, manning a stall from which he’s flogging goods sold in his original Let it Rock boutique. At one gig, you have the immortal innovators without whom the 60s could never have happened, but you also have the presence of someone who would eventually shape the 70s.

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of Chuck Berry. The blistering chainsaw guitar that sliced through the slick tuxedo crooning club of the 1950s and illuminates the incendiary Rock ‘n’ Roll anthems his reputation was built upon still splits the musical atom sixty years on. That guitar is the starting pistol for Hank Marvin, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and every axe warrior to have strut his stuff before a stack of Marshall amps ever since. The electric guitar itself was in its infancy when Charles Edward Anderson Berry first took to the stage, largely in the hands of veteran Bluesmen whose audience was as segregated as everything else in the Deep South; an ambitious Berry soon began composing his own songs and played them in a frenetic speeded-up Blues style that gradually crossed the racial divide in a part of America that suddenly had a generation whose appetite for change wasn’t coloured by the prejudices of their parents.

Berry’s songs made him a lyrical cartographer, mapping out the landscape of fast cars and loose women that rebranded America as the turbo-charged, Technicolor Sodom and Gomorrah that proved especially attractive to the war babies coming of age on the monochrome side of the Atlantic. But Berry was no detached observer; by living his lyrics, he also pioneered the outlaw myth of the Rock ‘n’ Roll guitarist. He’d already served time as a juvenile delinquent in the US equivalent of Borstal before anyone had heard of him, but once he’d established himself both as a live and recording act his talent for trouble earned him three years behind bars after transporting a 14 year-old girl across state lines; he served another sentence in 1979 for tax evasion.

Like the other cast members of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s opening act (bar Elvis), Chuck Berry never enjoyed the sustained commercial success and immense riches that those he directly inspired have continued to mine. By the 80s, he occupied the same ‘living legend’ nostalgia circuit that kept Sinatra in business, recycling signature tunes penned decades earlier in a permanent road-show that nevertheless paid the bills. He was still performing just three years ago, well into his eighties.

John Lennon once remarked that if Rock ‘n’ Roll was ever to be given another name, it may as well be renamed Chuck Berry. It’s hard to dispute Lennon’s logic; he knew, as did every other adolescent wannabe to graduate from British bomb-site to US baseball stadium, that the debt owed to the duck-walking gunslinger with the six-stringed revolver was immeasurable.

© The Editor

ROCKET 56

ElvisSixty years ago the nascent British singles charts were dominated by middle-aged middle-of-the-road balladeers, young middle-of-the-road balladeers, a glut of novelty acts, and American stars who divided their careers between the recording studio and the cinema screen. Sound familiar? The new world of the seven-inch single was just another extension of the Tin Pan Alley franchise, the powerful cartel of record companies, music publishers, Svengalis and hit songwriters that completely controlled the listening habits of the western world; but in a soundscape consisting of Slim Whitman, Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Frankie Laine, Jimmy Young (yes, that one), Alma Cogan and Doris Day, something was changing.

The early summer of 1956 saw the UK chart debut of a young American singer from the Deep South called Elvis Presley, singing an unsettling echo-laden song called ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That Elvis should emanate from a part of the States that the materialistic boomtown of Eisenhower’s America viewed as a shameful embarrassment is significant.

The South was very much the poor relation at the halfway point of the twentieth century, and only the South could have produced a musical form so alien to Hollywood or Broadway sensibilities. For all their cool credentials, both LA and New York were too rooted in showbiz economics to have produced something as dangerously unpredictable as Rock n Roll in the middle of the 1950s. Indeed, the minute they recognised its commercial potential and got their hands on it, they completely castrated it and turned into another inoffensive branch of the entertainment industry.

At the point when Rock n Roll erupted over-ground, the old Confederate States had been officially absorbed back into the Union for 90 years, yet the legacy and grievances of the Civil War had been passed down the generations, particularly that contentious aspect which the 50s American Dream turned a blind eye to, segregation. Segregation was effectively a substitute for the slavery the Southern States had reluctantly surrendered when the white flag was waved in 1865, but for all its undoubted evils, what the policy of segregation did was to create a unique set of circumstances that proved potent in cultural terms.

It’s no coincidence that Rosa Parks should refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a privileged white butt in 1956; the incident that served to set the whole civil rights ball rolling took place the same year as a raw hybrid of the Blues, Bluegrass Country, R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel emerged into the national spotlight – both pointers to the end of a stagnant system of separating black and white that had reached the end of its unnatural life.

Segregation was based in part on fear; the realisation that white kids were adopting black music as their own sparked paranoia of a possible mixed race union that flew in the face of Southern traditions. As opponents to Rock n Roll declared publicly at the time, this was ‘nigger music’ and its race-crossing popularity was viewed by these same enlightened souls as a conspiracy designed to drag the white man down to the same lowly level as the Negro.

In a mainstream America suddenly obsessed with juvenile delinquency – the rebellion of children born during the War years – portrayals on the big screen by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were bad enough; but the prospect of a form of music that dispensed with the smooth orchestrated sheen favoured by the crooners and stripped the sound down to an unrestrained sexualised core posed a threat to the status quo they were determined to silence. That this unwelcome development should crawl out of the No-Man’s Land of the South merely added insult to injury.

Technically, the Blues and R&B, the long-standing sounds of Black America that were too crude to enjoy the mass acceptance of Jazz, were not Rock n Roll; they were component parts. It was the blend of these genres with others already listed that constituted the new sound. And while the likes of Chuck Berry (from St Louis, Missouri) and Little Richard (from Macon, Georgia) were already pursuing a path that would formulate the Rock n Roll template, it took a white man, Bill Haley (a Michigan-born nomad shaped by a Great Depression-scarred childhood), to score the first recognised Rock n Roll hit in the national charts with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1955, four years after the first acknowledged Rock n Roll record, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a band led by Ike Turner). The sheer size of the USA as a landmass meant that Rock n Roll took time to make an impact beyond the Southern States, but what had been a regional sound slowly gathering pace through the early 50s now had countrywide notoriety.

Tuning-in to exclusively black radio stations was a clandestine obsession of more open-minded white teens in the South, but Elvis Presley’s experience of poverty was an undoubted leveller that made him colour blind when it came to music; the Blues spoke to him and his poor white ilk as much as it did to his black neighbours, so there was no opportunistic exploitation of a black sound where he was concerned. If that came at all, it came when he was signed up by the archetypal Southern showman and shyster ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker.

Elvis’s phenomenal success in 1956/57 may have enabled other white Southerners to gate-crash the musical establishment, such as Buddy Holly (from Texas), Gene Vincent (from Virginia) and Jerry Lee Lewis (from Louisiana); but it also enabled Colonel Parker to sell the product to Hollywood, serving to airbrush its animalistic heart and soul in the process. It’s so easy to overlook the sheer sonic shock of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sixty years on; but the record’s importance in acting as the opening missive of the cultural revolution that so illuminated the second half of the twentieth century should never be underestimated. When Radio Luxembourg transmitted a show presented by the white Southern DJ Alan Freed (widely credited with creating the term ‘Rock n Roll’) in the late 50s, it had a particular impact where the infamously-bad reception of the station was better than anywhere else in Britain – Liverpool.

© The Editor