GREAT BALLS

I recaJerry Lee Lewisll saying to a friend a decade or so ago that the 60s generation of musicians would begin dying of natural causes within ten or twelve years and the 50s generation would probably be gone for good by then; well, we’re more or less there now. As the survivors of the 60s generation gently morph into octogenarians, those who inspired them to pick up a guitar are pretty much gone, something that the death of Jerry Lee Lewis at the age of 87 has confirmed. The fact he passed away with wife No.7 by his side seems to suggest his lascivious reputation hadn’t been softened by advancing years. Indeed, Jerry Lee Lewis was in many respects the template for every bad boy that came after him. If Keith Moon and Ozzy Osbourne remain the role models for each aspiring rocker with an attitude, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they didn’t emerge from nowhere; Jerry Lee Lewis had prepared the ground for them and had often exceeded them; after all, this is a man who once turned up at the gates of Graceland waving a pistol and demanding an audience with Elvis. Had he been a Brit, it’s hard to imagine him being earmarked for a knighthood.

Yeah, Jerry Lee Lewis – what does that name make you think of? Chances are it’s his brief, curtailed 1958 tour of the UK in which his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was exposed, and it’s impossible to avoid the subject when his name crops up. This shock-horror revelation may have made the 22-year-old rock ‘n’ roller a notorious example of precisely how degenerate the new wave of performers were in the eyes of the parent generation; but it also underlined the fact that Rock ‘n’ Roll itself was rooted in a culture not only alien to European audiences, but to most Americans beyond the South. Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t have come from Hollywood or New York; it was born in circumstances unique to its own particular corner of America, and the moment both heartlands of the entertainment industry got hold of it, the format was diluted and castrated. Elvis was neutered by the movies, though his willingness to play the showbiz game kept him in the public eye whilst his uncompromising contemporaries faded from view. The Elvis of 1960 was a different animal from the Elvis of 1956, whereas the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1960 was the same as the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1956.

Any attempts to mould Lewis into an all-round entertainer would’ve been stymied by the fact the man himself was an uncontrollable force of nature; his missus being a schoolgirl wouldn’t have helped either. The recent loss of Kentucky-born Country singer Loretta Lynn at the age of 90 reminded us she herself was wed as a pregnant 15-year-old, and the variations from State to State when it came to consent was something that appeared to add an extra layer of notoriety to the emerging rock ‘n’ rollers of the era and the female company they kept. There is, of course, the infamous anecdote of Chuck Berry being chased by the police as he desperately tried (and failed) to cross the Stateline, keen to reach a place where his underage passenger would no longer be legally recognised as such. With all of this in mind, it’s evident Jerry Lee Lewis was very much a product of his environment rather than a pioneering pop paedo; had there been a Colonel Tom Parker type smoothing his rough edges, perhaps things might have turned out differently. After all, Elvis may have courted his future bride when she was 14, but he waited till she was 21 before marrying her. Two Southern boys with the same outlook, but one adhered to society’s moral mores whilst the other remained true to his roots. Elvis was the King, whilst Jerry Lee was the Killer.

The original man who didn’t give a f*** was born in Louisiana in 1935; his piano-playing talent was evident from an early age, as was his troublesome failure to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Despite his family’s hopes of his musical abilities being harnessed to the service of the church, Jerry Lee couldn’t help being seduced by the Devil’s best tunes and it led to his expulsion from school. Fortunately for him, the South was a receptive hotbed for his specific skills at the time and Lewis was hired as a session player at Sun studios in Memphis in 1956, playing on landmark records for the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He was also cutting his own discs at the same time, and one of them – ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ – followed the route of many Rock ‘n’ Roll records of the mid-50s by becoming a hit outside of the South. As this new hybrid of established underground sounds happened to break through at a moment when the rise of television enabled regional scenes to go nationwide in a way that hadn’t previously been possible, Jerry Lee Lewis capitalised on national exposure by developing his flamboyantly outrageous stage act. No piano-player had attacked his instrument with such unrestrained aggression and provoked such hysterical female reaction since Franz Liszt, and Jerry Lee Lewis quickly became the personification of everything Eisenhower’s America loathed about Rock ‘n’ Roll. No self-respecting dad would’ve let Jerry Lee within a thousand miles of his daughter, so it was just as well Lewis kept it in the family.

With American pop culture globally dominant at the moment Rock ‘n’ Roll broke out of the South, it was inevitable that the sound and its stars would speedily cross the Atlantic. Bill Haley’s inaugural tour of the UK in 1957 mapped out a route for the younger (and less sanitised) rock ‘n’ rollers, and all bar Elvis followed that route in the late 50s. Jerry Lee Lewis had quickly made an impact on British record-buyers, with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ hitting No.8 and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ going all the way to the top of the charts. Therefore, it was no surprise that Jerry Lee headed for the UK in 1958. With wife Myra beside him, Lewis was expecting to embark upon a nationwide tour; however, the tour and the man himself received unprecedented publicity as soon as the truth of Myra’s tender years was broken by the tabloid press. Lewis became a household name overnight and the outrage that followed caused the tour to be cancelled after a mere three shows; it was the first real example of Fleet Street generating a moral panic around a pop star, something it would specialise in thereafter; but hounding the bewildered ‘cradle snatcher’ out of the country started this salacious ball rolling.

News of the uproar didn’t play well back in the States and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career as a chart star never really recovered from the scandal. Lewis had already been married twice before he wed Myra, though his third marriage was characterised by accusations of physical and psychological abuse on Jerry Lee’s part and ended in 1970, with a further four wives to come. By the beginning of the 60s, Rock ‘n’ Roll had largely fizzled out in the US, with a string of wholesome teen idols replacing the disreputable rockers on the Hot 100; although the music remained a popular live attraction in Europe, America offered little to the trailblazers and Jerry Lee Lewis turned to Country in order to keep the wolves from the door. This proved to be a relatively profitable career move, though the mid-60s British Invasion reawakened interest in the acts who’d inspired the Brits and a full-scale Rock ‘n’ Roll revival at the end of the 60s was something he seized upon. Perhaps the peak of this period was the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in 1972, with Lewis appearing alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Bo Diddley and Screaming Lord Sutch before an enthusiastic audience of ageing Teds and younger Hell’s Angels.

By the time of the Wembley show, the scandal of 1958 had been superseded numerous times by other scandals involving other pop stars and Jerry Lee Lewis was sufficiently rehabilitated by the late 70s to even play live on ‘Blue Peter’. But he never quite lost his capacity for bad behaviour and stories of this are legion. However, it is his electrifying presence as a dynamic live performer at his 50s peak that should be regarded as the real legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis, showing crooners the door and turning the stage into a platform for later live acts to both smash and burn their guitars as well as stoking the odd moral panic along the way.

© The Editor

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IT’S BEEN AN AGE

Stones CricketAs a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.

As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.

The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.

Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.

Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.

Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.

Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.

© The Editor

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HALF AN ARMFUL

HancockFor anyone too young to recall what the Great British Sunday used to be like before John Major moved the goalposts and allowed the retail industry to extend its week from six days to seven, there’s still no better document than the 1958 episode of the radio incarnation of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ titled ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’. The unique boredom once associated with the day of rest is absolutely nailed as Anthony Aloysius repeatedly yawns, routinely checks the clock, struggles to find things to occupy the endless hours stretching ahead, and suffers a stodgy Sunday lunch cooked by Hattie Jacques. ‘I thought my mother was a bad cook,’ says Hancock, ‘but at least her gravy used to move about.’ The nearest evocation in recent times of how Sundays once were came with the first lockdown, though even that didn’t entirely recapture the bleak, existential ambience conveyed in Hancock’s weary statement, ‘Oh, I do hate Sundays’; he delivers it in a miserable manner that provokes a laugh from the listener and the studio audience, underlining how so much English humour is derived from familiar situations with no apparent humour in them. Perhaps this is a key to Hancock’s enduring appeal and timeless relevance.

Revisiting the television version of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ after a lengthy absence, it’s interesting how a series which is now between 61 and 66-years-old can still retain its ability to inspire laughter. Nothing says ‘this is an old programme’ quite like a monochrome telerecording, and the various pop cultural references dotted throughout the scripts can even outfox a pop cultural nerd like me; yet strip away the signs of the times, and many of the actual situations the Hancock character finds himself in remain relevant and essentially universal. That distinctive character, developed by the man himself and his scriptwriters – the redoubtable Galton and Simpson – is an archetype whose talent for starting an argument in an empty room has echoes down the years in the numerous British sitcom characters that followed; you can see elements of Hancock in everyone from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew to David Brent – characters we wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in a lift with (as happens in a famous Hancock episode), but who are nevertheless capable of articulating the exasperation many of us feel in certain social situations.

The Hancock character is a narcissistic, pompous, know-it-all with a far higher opinion of himself than anybody who comes into contact with him has. However, at the same time, the people he regularly comes into contact with are often the kind whose superior and dismissive attitude towards Hancock is worthy of being challenged – mainly petty authority figures who need taking down a peg or two, and the kind we still all have to deal with today, whether the snooty receptionist in the GPs surgery or the Jobsworth types who had a ‘good’ pandemic; and Hancock is not a character prepared to stand by and keep schtum. He’s not afraid to say out loud what most of us think when confronted by such people.

Often, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is unfairly reduced to a minor footnote in the ‘Steptoe and Son’ story, viewed as providing Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with the necessary grounding to reinvent the TV sitcom once they and Hancock went their separate ways. On television, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ ran for five years (1956-61), whereas Albert and Harold’s saga stretched all the way to twelve, well into the colour era and the consequent guarantee of recurrent repeats long after both stars were deceased. Yes, by recruiting straight actors rather than comics into the lead roles, Galton & Simpson did indeed break new ground and set the template for every sitcom to come; but the fact Tony Hancock emerged from the immediate post-war variety circuit didn’t necessarily mean he was content with the formulaic vehicles for such graduates that were the staple diet of radio and television comedy in the 1950s. US TV had proven, with the likes of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Sgt Bilko’, that it was possible to present self-contained stories in 30 minutes, expanding the usual five-minute sketches into the full programme whilst dispensing with guest stars, musical interludes and dancing girls, and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ (which debuted on the BBC Light Programme in 1954) gradually managed to lay the foundations for the Great British sitcom we know and love today.

The main difference between the radio and TV versions of the show is the fact that Hancock was able to play upon his talent for visual humour on screen in a way that wasn’t possible on the wireless. His facial reactions require no dialogue and are able to elicit laughter that would only have excluded the listening public in the radio series; a wonderful example comes in the TV episode, ‘The Missing Page’, in which the hushed setting of a public library denies Hancock the chance to describe the plot of a pulp novel to Sid James in words, so he acts it out brilliantly in mime. Indeed, as great as Galton & Simpson’s scripts are, perhaps sometimes too much emphasis is placed on them at the expense of Hancock’s superlative interpretation; after all, several have been remounted with other actors in recent years, and none have come close to Hancock’s intuitive comic timing.

Although Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques occasionally appear on the TV show, the only regular from radio to transfer properly to television was Sid James, playing Hancock’s dodgy lodger and sidekick. So successful was this partnership that Hancock began to become concerned the public were viewing the pair as a double act, even though their chemistry together was a winner. In fact, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is fairly unique when it comes to a sitcom in that it gets better as it goes on; there’s no slow diminishing of quality at all. Indeed, by the time of the penultimate series, it reaches a peak it’s hard to see being bettered. It’s possible this was a factor that enabled Hancock’s restless ambition to assert itself and demand a shake-up of the format for what turned out to be the last series. Galton & Simpson responded to the challenge – Sid James and 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam were both jettisoned, and the show even lost five minutes per episode as it was renamed simply ‘Hancock’. The character relocated to a bedsit in Earls Court and delivered some of the show’s most memorable episodes, including ‘The Radio Ham’ and ‘The Blood Donor’.

Hancock’s desire to spread his wings also paid off with the two movies he made in the early 60s, ‘The Rebel’ and ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Unfortunately, though now recognised as classics of British comedy cinema, the films failed to reproduce the success of the TV and radio series at the time, and Hancock’s career as a cinematic comic actor never really took off in the way he envisaged. Walking away from the BBC series and Galton & Simpson at the peak of his popularity was a brave step that certainly ensured the series went out on a high, but Hancock never recaptured its brilliance or its audience and both his life and career went into a swift, sad decline thereafter. His battle with the bottle didn’t help, exacerbating his demons as the desired career revival failed to materialise. The famous ‘Face to Face’ interview he did in 1960 is perhaps the best insight into his incurable yearning for perfection that he didn’t seem to realise he’d already achieved on the small screen.

A 1971 audio interview with Sid James provides a poignant tribute to Hancock three years after his suicide; James describes Hancock as ‘the greatest friend I ever had’ and then goes on to recount a moment when he spotted Hancock from his car window in Piccadilly – a bewildered and intoxicated shadow of a man marooned on a traffic island. Intending to give him a lift, James turned his car around and pulled-up, only to find Hancock had gone; he never saw him again. Whether Tony Hancock could have returned to his late 50s and early 60s peak had he lived is one of those never-to-be-resolved conundrums, though what he left behind from that peak still stands tall as one of TV’s finest comedy masterpieces that the passage of time has not dimmed the ability of to make the viewer laugh over and over again. A comedian can ask for no greater legacy.

© The Editor

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INTERMISSION OF MERCY

Considering where my interior excursions have taken me of late, it probably won’t come as a great surprise to learn I spent some of the weekend watching the ultimate visual alternative to the media here and now, i.e. BBC Interlude films from the 1950s. Most of them are on YouTube, and I wandered into their comforting embrace totally unplanned, albeit probably driven by the kind of subconscious craving for unusual escapist options that has become the norm over the past year. As these curious little films predate my lifetime, they’re something I’ve always found quaintly intriguing ever since I saw a few repeated during the BBC’s 60th anniversary in 1982. Although British television had yet to morph into a 24/7 landfill site in 1982, the launch of breakfast TV the following year pointed the way forward, so it now feels as if 1982 was the last year in which television could get away with putting its feet up for a while; and what better way to do that than the Potter’s Wheel?

The Interlude films, ranging from five to ten minutes, hailed from a time when virtually all television went out live; this seems an important point. For example, should the evening’s showcase programme be the broadcast of a play staged at Lime Grove, it would naturally follow the same pattern as in the theatre, with an interval required for scene and costume changes as well as giving the actors a breather; therefore, a short Interlude would plug the gap for viewers, providing a barely moving image on a static camera if one wanted to watch, but a visit to the privy or the boiling of a kettle could be attended to without fear of missing any action; return to the room and nothing had changed.

These famous fillers, which appeared to have achieved iconic status even during the era in which they were broadcast, have a unique period charm that serves as quite a sedative in 2021; I guess their original purpose wasn’t too dissimilar, but some of the subliminal messages inherent within those seemingly innocuous images are now so redundant that their antiquated appeal is considerably enhanced. Of all the ones I’ve chilled out to over the past couple of days, perhaps the ones that appear to embody a particular ‘this is what we fought the War for’ vibe are the ones that could just have easily been immortalised as patriotic propaganda on canvas as on the television screen. The Interlude featuring an old lady at a spinning wheel has an almost-‘Whistler’s Mother’ ambience; I should imagine even in the early 50s use of the spinning wheel had become something of an eccentric choice in the age of the sewing machine, but the fact the old lady is also sat outdoors lends the vision an even greater Olde World potency, as though she represents a gentrified impression of a pre-industrial rural idyll of the kind evoked in a song like ‘There’ll Always Be an England’.

Similarly feel-good nostalgia permeates the Interlude of the windmill in Bury St Edmunds and the lady sedately engaged in embroidery by the fireside. However, maybe none quite spell out these sentiments with such elegiac serenity as the Interlude of horse-drawn ploughs slowly plodding along the field. In reality, the tractor had already all-but replaced this ancient agricultural sight – indeed, one of the earliest storylines on ‘The Archers’ (which began in 1951) concerned the retirement of two Shire horses as the farmers of Ambridge moved into mechanisation; but this archaic Interlude is effective. It makes one think of the wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and the enduring mythology of Merrie England’s green and pleasant land, both the nutritious womb of the nation’s diet and the scenic Arcadia of the Romantics. It’s a step back to a gentler pace of life in that uncertain interim between the horrors of the Home Front and the white heat of the Swinging 60s. I suppose it could also be looked at as a subtle reminder for the everyday trials of a 50s audience that an evergreen England will still be there when austerity and rationing are finally over – that garden beyond the bombsite which proved immune to the jackboot.

Many of these Interludes boast a Light Programme-type soundtrack, whereas some simply feature the melody of nature, whether rolling waves on a distant Jamaican beach or the sounds to be found rowing along a quintessential British river; those belong to the ‘landscape’ variety of Interludes, of which there are several. Some of the more ‘domestic’ indoor Interludes reflect a nation of animal-lovers, particularly the one in which the camera fixes on the inhabitants of a tropical fish tank and the one starring a characteristically animated white kitten romping around what looks like a middle-class drawing-room. The latter is perhaps the liveliest of all the original Interlude films, unless one includes the famous fast-motion ‘London to Brighton in Four Minutes’ short in the Interlude list, which plenty often do.

Generally, however, the Interludes were not necessarily designed to stimulate the senses; on the whole, the opposite was the intention. Lest we forget, the Britain that produced these films was one in which a day like Sunday forced its citizens to take it easy, to relax with a pipe and a paper because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do; an Interlude therefore mirrored the mood in most post-roast households. Although they seem to typify the pre-ITV, so-called ‘cosy’ British TV experience of the 1950s as much as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, BBC Interludes appear to have made it into the brave new world of the 1960s, though the test card began to claim the majority of downtime hours as the decade progressed.

One of the last Interludes I’m aware of dates from the mid-60s and was quite a contrast to its more soporific predecessors in its dynamic style and tone. Titled ‘Toy Fair’, it features a range of children’s prized playthings from the period, such as clockwork cars, toy soldiers, train sets and dolls that have all been wound-up into life. It also shows the encroachment of tie-in merchandise onto the Christmas shopping list and into the nursery as toy Daleks make an appearance, unsurprisingly cast as the villains in this enjoyably melodramatic vignette that bears little relation to the old lady with the spinning wheel; in its own way, however, it shows the country was moving in another direction, a long way from horse-drawn ploughs and potter’s wheels.

Bar the occasional impromptu Interlude I faintly recall stumbling upon when manually channel-surfing in the 70s – perhaps bridging the gaps between acts on a BBC2 Shakespeare production – Interludes disappeared unless dusted down for a repeat outing during BBC anniversaries. In recent years, the arrival of what has been labelled ‘Slow Television’, which has periodically infiltrated the BBC4 schedule, shows that the spirit of the old Interludes can be refigured to suit contemporary mores and sold as novel innovation. The examples of Slow Television seen on British TV tend to span several hours rather than several minutes, promoted as programmes in their own right as opposed to unlisted fillers; but they are undoubtedly welcome breathers that there should always be space for. When one considers the brain-mashing guff that constitutes so much mainstream TV today – not to mention the current desire to lose one’s self in somewhere that isn’t here – the occasional presence of Slow Television, even for five minutes, is something this licence fee-payer wouldn’t object to.

© The Editor

A BREATHER

The colder the climate outdoors, the warmer the soundtrack indoors – that’s what I’ve found, anyway. The convenient distraction of creativity when the world has typed ‘Hell’ into its handcart satnav has kept me busy during this uniquely awful year so far. I always have a musical accompaniment as I write and it’s always been as varied as my tastes, with whatever the mood of the moment dictates resulting in an eclectic songbook; but my subconscious response to 2020 seems to have been exclusively manifested as that which is often dismissively labelled ‘Easy Listening’, ‘MOR’, or ‘Light Music’. Yes, it’s extremely easy on the ears and is highly conducive to creating a relaxed ambience in which the creative juices can flow uninterrupted; but an umbrella label is misleading. The only thing I sense any of these tunes have in common is that they all belong to an era that spanned around 40 years, roughly 1930-1970.

Every twist and turn that popular music went through during what was, for the world beyond the stage or studio, a pretty tumultuous period is represented on this makeshift mix-tape. There are the big bands, there is Swing, there is Be Bop, there is Cool; there are the song stylists with the sweeping strings; there are the instrumentals – the themes from movies or Broadway shows; there are the upbeat Light Programme ditties that the housewives chose; there are the post-Rock ‘n’ Roll tunesmiths like Bacharach & David, who blended the contemporary with the classic; there are the Bossa Nova rhythms evoking a turn-of-the 60s sophistication for those too mature to Rock. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, there is all that life can afford in there.

There are the vocal giants – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Nat King Cole and (of course) Frank Sinatra; there are the master bandleaders, arrangers and orchestrators of orchestras playing the ‘pops’ and steering a steady course through the middle of the road – Henry Mancini, Ray Conniff, Bert Kaempfert, Wally Stott; there are the exotic – Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, Francis Lai; and there are the wonderful home-grown cheesemongers – Geoff Love, Engelbert, the Mike Sammes Singers. This is the alternative 50s and 60s that music historians are prone to write off as something that only existed so that Rock ‘n’ Roll and the counter-culture had something it could react against. The official narrative of this history says the listener cannot listen to both; but the one place barricades should never be erected is on the musical landscape.

And it’s such a warm embrace of a landscape. There’s a comforting intimacy to the finest stylists that lends itself to a certain lonely hour when the rest of the world is lost to slumber and you can’t sleep. When Julie London lights her chanteuse’s torch with just a guitar and a double bass for sparse support, she’s the only person in the room with you, but she’s there for you – reaching out to give you the sultriest, most sensuous hug you’ve ever received. Similarly, when Sinatra steps up to the midnight mic, he’s shed of the swaggering shield he wears during the day; this time of night, it’s just you and him and he needs to tell you what a lousy day he’s had so you realise you’re not alone after all; he doesn’t share this vulnerable, human side with ‘the guys’ or the yes-men who are paid to massage his ego and tell him how great he is; when he joins you for one last nightcap, you’re seeing the man, not the caricature. He’s your buddy. For singers who learnt their craft with a big band behind them, the ability to tone it down and make it personal, so you’re not singing to the man at the back of the hall but the solitary night-owl a few feet away, is a skill in itself – and they all have it.

The Great American Songbook has a multitude of immortal standards that belong to the listener rather than the singer; only a handful of numbers have been owned outright by an individual vocalist, whereas some have taken the same song and done it so differently that you cannot choose which you love the most. I will never be able to decide whether I prefer Sinatra’s melancholy, tear-jerking take on ‘Night and Day’ or Ella’s joyously swinging interpretation; I guess which one I opt for depends what mood I’m in. The rise of the writer-performer in the 60s put paid to the dominance of Tin Pan Alley, and though it lived on through the likes of New York’s legendary Brill Building, the majority of singers were thereafter judged as much on the quality of the songs they’d written as the voice they sang them with. The singer and the song became one and the same. Even though someone like Sinatra could convince you he was singing his own thoughts when he interpreted another’s words, it was no longer regarded as authentic.

This is ‘grown-up’ music that refutes the adolescent view that growing up means growing boring; it’s music for people not interested in pretending to be teenagers or forever fruitlessly trying to recapture their youth; it has dignity. Its writers, arrangers and producers look like bank managers; and its most photogenic performers look like they’ve lived. Frank Sinatra looks like a man, not a boy; Julie London looks like a woman, not a girl. You know they’ve had their hearts broken just by looking at them, and if you’ve been there yourself, you get it; they speak to you in a way that some floppy-haired student with a guitar or some gyrating ingénue doesn’t. Yes, some of it wears carpet slippers and smokes a pipe, but the best of it still has something to say about that overlooked age in the middle.

The throwaway dirges aimed at youth are unashamed fashion statements, as irrelevant six months down the line as whatever stupid dance was all the rage on TikTok yesterday; this music, on the other hand, may have been made back when your grandparents had yet to go grey, but it has a timelessness that keeps it eternally relevant for anyone wanting a musical accompaniment that tells it like it is, one that is brutally honest but still has space to dream, if undoubtedly wistfully. This music and those who made it has maturity but not senility; it’s celebrating that criminally-ignored interregnum between the wide-eyed know-it-all and the infirm incontinent, the years that actually cover a wider span of our lives than any other. Why shouldn’t that span have its own soundtrack, one that sings of what it really means to be grown-up?

Like all good music, the contents of my mix-tape conjure up imagery in the listener’s mind; this specific imagery is both clichéd and charming, straight out of ‘Mad Men’ era Madison Avenue, but oh-so seductive in its corny innocence. It’s of night-clubs with tables, guys in dinner-jackets, girls in tight satin dresses with an abundance of cleavage; it’s cocktails and drinks that they don’t serve in your local pub; it’s a convertible heading towards a deserted beach that has been reserved for the impossibly good-looking couple in the car; it’s a candlelit meal on a balcony overlooking the ocean; it’s a handsome man and a beautiful woman, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn; and it’s a pianist providing an unobtrusive accompaniment in the background. It’s a world of old-world certainties that the new world doesn’t recognise.

© The Editor

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

CRYSTAL BALLS

How much unexpected meetings or chance encounters that lead to seismic life changes are indeed down to chance or are merely inevitable moves in a preordained plan depends, I guess, on your view of man as either an autonomous animal in control of his own destiny or as a mere pawn in God’s grand scheme. The Osmonds certainly fell on ‘the plan’ side of the argument, as the title of their 1973 concept album testified – though why ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ fitted in to His big idea remains an extremely mystifying example of the Almighty moving in a very mysterious way.

Sticking with all things Merseyside, take 6 July 1957. Skiffle is the first of many teenage fads to come, and a church fête gives The Kids a chance to strum their washboards amidst the Morris dancers and a display by the City of Liverpool Police Dogs. On this occasion, The Kids are a bunch of school pals called The Quarrymen, led by a 16-year-old named John Lennon. The cocky leader of the pack shares a mutual friend with an equally overconfident adolescent called Paul McCartney; said friend introduces the most successful song-writing partnership in musical history to each other for the first time that day. And so the wheels of a cultural revolution are slowly set in motion with neither party remotely aware of it. How could they be?

It’s quite possible McCartney might have decided not to accept his pal’s offer to visit Woolton that summer’s day in 1957; after all, Macca had only just turned 15, still at a young enough age to be susceptible to other offers characteristic of a 1950s British childhood. If he’d gone fishing or train-spotting or had indulged in a jumpers-for-goalposts kick-about, the world would have kept on turning and none of these activities would have altered it, unlike the meeting at that church fête, which did – in many ways, for all of us. One could argue the mutual friend of Lennon & McCartney – Ivan Vaughan – was a pivotal figure in modern history, yet he could just as easily not have been. On such wafer-thin paper is history written.

The tempting ‘What if?’ scenario has generated many speculative and imaginative alternatives to historical events over the years: think of a novel such as Robert Harris’s ‘Fatherland’ taking place in a parallel universe 1960s, twenty years after Nazi Germany won World War II. Counterfactual history approaches the concept with a more academic eye, though many historians see it as an essentially pointless exercise; Nazi Germany didn’t win WWII, but was that always destined to be the final score on the eve of kick-off?

Certain figures whose actions changed the course of world history often appear to have led charmed lives, as though there was indeed a plan in mind for them. As Andrew Roberts highlights in his new biography of Winston Churchill, the Great British icon was born two months premature, suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a child and was stabbed as a schoolboy; he regularly diced with death as a soldier, and civilian life was punctuated by three car crashes and two plane crashes, all of which he survived along with numerous strokes and heart attacks. Pure chance or preordained?

If one believes our destinies are already mapped out for us before we even arrive in the world, one could almost adopt a petulant attitude to our apparently powerless part in directing those destinies. What’s the point in trying if we’re only acting out actions penned in advance anyway, being little more than marionettes whose every move is dictated by some celestial puppet master? If whatever we do makes no difference to the eventual outcome, we could consciously live a life of inactive isolation, surrendering to sloth and deliberately avoiding effort altogether. Then again, by doing so we may well be merely fulfilling a designated role after all. It’s a conundrum if life seems frustratingly impervious to our attempts to improve it, as though we permanently sleep on the wrong side of the bed.

We’ve all retrospectively recognised moments in life when we’ve stood at a crossroads and chosen a specific route from several options available to us. These options could have been deliberated upon at length beforehand or we may have just thrown caution to the wind with an ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ moment. If the consequences of our decision fail to deliver, it’s unavoidable that years later we ponder on what might have happened had we chosen one of the other options. Middle-age is especially prone to such hindsight musings, though only if we don’t find what we’re looking for once we get there. And, of course, there’s always the nagging belief that what we didn’t do would have turned out so much better than what we actually did. If only…

When constructing these parallel universe lives, it pays to pause and recall the saving graces that emerged from even the darkest of times, those times we become convinced life could have done without. In my own experience, feline and canine companions came out of a period in the 1990s I often wish I could erase from memory, yet both cat and dog long outlived its merciful end, enriching my existence for years afterwards; without that painful period, I would have been denied the joy they brought. Therefore, I accept it was necessary – my own personal 40 days and nights in the wilderness. And I’m sure we’ve all had them.

I’ve never visited a fortune-teller nor bought into their mystical shtick, not out of any inflexible opinion that they pedal pure hokum, but mainly because I genuinely have no desire to see into the future – even if it were possible. Should the crystal ball show me something I don’t want to see, I’d be convinced the future is already arranged and it’d be futile me trying to change it. And feeling as though someone else is scripting that future puts one back into the worst kind of childhood mindset, trapped in a world where all-powerful beings, from parents to teachers, are in control of everything that happens to you. Your input is negligible in terms of impact compared to theirs, so why bother?

One problem with accepting the preordained notion of life as a readymade plan is that, unlike the end result of WWII, it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes a luminous path ahead that certainly feels preordained as it generates good vibrations is abruptly blocked and we are rerouted against our will, back down a darker avenue as the trite ‘well, it just wasn’t meant to be’ excuse is trotted out. One could either behave like a senior Met officer and lock one’s self in one’s car when confronted by an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events or one could face them head on. But the latter depends on whether or not one has faith in the possibility of a reward for doing so; and faith, like love, trust and hope, is not always the most accessible of subscriptions when life’s size-nine’s have your groin (and your crystal balls) in their sights. But maybe that’s the fate that always awaits we fools who (like Blanche DuBois) still believe in magic…

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1)

© The Editor

THAT WAS THE DAY, THAT WAS

I thought I might write about the fact that Spain has imposed direct rule upon Catalonia and has, in the process, stripped the region of its autonomous status; but as this is a subject I’ve covered a couple of times of late, I figured it would be wiser to wait till the next development before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). I’ve a feeling there’s more to come where this particular story is concerned, and whatever I add to what I’ve already written will only needed to be added to again pretty soon after. I suppose I could also bemoan the fact yet another public figure has had to issue yet another public apology for something he said that offended somebody – i.e. Michael Gove’s ‘outrageous’ Weinstein joke; yes, Gove is a twat, but how many more times do we have to endure online outrage before we say enough is enough?

Okay, so sod the day today and dip into weekend nostalgia once more. My choice of Saturday night viewing as the rest of the nation plugged into talent show tripe was the 1973 movie, ‘That’ll Be The Day’, which itself dips into nostalgia for an earlier era. By the date of the film’s production, the pop culture revolution of the 60s had reached the point whereby it paused for breath for the first time and looked back over its shoulder at the remarkable journey it had made in little short of 15 years. In the US, the likes of Todd Rundgren condensed those 15 years into his oeuvre as pop realised it had a past, whilst stage musicals moved from the contemporary concerns of ‘Hair’ and escaped into the safer sentimental refuge of ‘Grease’; simultaneously, on this side of the pond Roxy Music and Wizzard revived the dormant 50s spirit by injecting it with some trashy 70s glamour as they were surrounded in the charts by a string of reissues.

‘That’ll Be The Day’ cast David Essex in the lead role of Jim MacLaine, a composite character of the Lennon/McCartney/Jagger/Richards generation, beginning life as a war-baby whose parents’ marriage is a casualty of conflict and then growing up to reject the novel new grammar school path to higher education courtesy of an imported youthquake that opens a door to alternate possibilities not dependent upon the results of exams. Essex was largely unknown to the general public when he won the role, though had made a mark in the archetypal turn-of-the 70s Rock Opera, ‘Godspell’; within a matter of months of the film’s premiere, he had become a bona-fide pop star, but he shared the spotlight in ‘That’ll Be The Day’ with genuine veterans of the period it recycles.

The likes of Keith Moon and Billy Fury feature in small cameos, though the real coup at the time was securing Ringo Starr as the street-wise Mike, who accompanies Jim on his journey through the rites-of-passage Butlin’s experience and then onto the fairground circuit. Starr had himself been a beneficiary of the holiday camp summer season during his pre-Beatles membership of rival Liverpool band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the fact the Fab Four remained viable pop currency when the movie was shot undoubtedly aided its box-office success.

A pre-‘Citizen Smith’ Robert Lindsay also features as Jim MacLaine’s best mate at school, the swot who did as he was told when Jim ran away; his college life embraces the Trad Jazz and obligatory beard that serve to sever the friendship when the two old pals reunite a couple of years after Jim escapes the preordained path his mother laid out for him. Jim eventually returns home and belatedly attempts to fit in, marrying the sister of the Robert Lindsay character and impregnating her before the allure of Rock ‘n’ Roll proves too great. By the time we rejoin him in the following year’s sequel, ‘Stardust’, Jim MacLaine is the leader of a Beatles-esque band whose rise to fame and fortune has left his old life behind.

Critics have often labelled the two acts of Jim MacLaine’s fictional life ‘old wine newly bottled’, though the old wine was of a relatively recent vintage when the movie and its sequel were produced. I first saw the pair myself less than ten years after they premiered, when they constituted part of BBC2’s ‘Rock Week’ in the late summer of 1982, an early example of television ‘streaming’, with a series of loosely connected programmes on a theme spread over seven days. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Jim MacLaine’s mother projecting her own thwarted academic ambitions onto her offspring would be mirrored in my own life a couple of years later – something that provoked an instinctive rejection from me that ‘Stardust’ and its document of Jim MacLaine’s career as a pop idol provided an antidote to. For further reading, see the post from a couple of weeks back, ‘Musical Youth’.

In ‘Stardust’, Adam Faith steals most of the scenes he’s in as Jim’s devoted manager, albeit one who’s unable to save his golden egg-laying charge from the characteristic drug-induced exit of the period come the movie’s traumatic ending. Purely by coincidence, Slade’s solitary cinematic outing, ‘Flame’, appeared at a cinema near you at virtually the same time; considering Noddy and the lads had such a happy-go-lucky image, ‘Flame’ unexpectedly portrays the music biz in a similarly dark light as ‘Stardust’, chronicling the rise and fall of another fictional 60s band with equal cynicism. By 1974, the workings of the industry and the creative casualties it had left in its wake as Philistines in suits racked up the royalties had bred a disdain for its practices that helped provoke Punk a couple of years later, even though that generation didn’t fare any financially better than its predecessor.

Whilst it’s true that ‘That’ll Be The Day’ speaks the language of anyone who’s ever asserted their independence and challenged the consensus, whereas ‘Stardust’ documents the dream that used to fire the imaginations of the imaginative and was therefore only reality for a select few, the alternative available when Jim MacLaine walks out on domestic bliss is one that is no longer an option. Richard Ashcroft’s high-street stroll in the promo video for The Verve’s 1997 epic, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, is now the fate of the outsider who never got away – despondent and defeated, though retaining a healthy contempt for the world about him, bereft as he is of social mobility, pining for the vanished riches of Rock ‘n’ Roll. From Jim MacLaine to Victor Meldrew in half-a-century.

© The Editor

A FALL BEFORE PRIDE

One of a series of programmes spread across the television networks to mark the 1967 Sexual Offences Act’s fiftieth anniversary, ‘Against the Law’ was a drama-documentary that aired on BBC2 last night. It dramatised the infamous 1954 Montagu Trial, in which Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and journalist Peter Wildeblood were tried on charges of gross indecency and (to simplify matters) ‘buggery’; they were found guilty, with Montagu serving 12 months and the other two 18 months. The dramatised sections of the programme were interspersed with the recollections of gay men who were old enough to have been affected by the laws surrounding homosexuality as they then stood; and men were the exclusive targets of this law. Lesbianism was never illegal in this country.

These fascinating interludes could have been jarring intrusions into the drama, but actually served to strengthen it as their reminiscences gave the viewer a clearer idea of the parallel universe Britain they inhabited and the dangers of that parallel universe colliding with ‘straight society’. In the late 50s, there were more than a thousand men in British prisons serving sentences for ‘homosexual offences’, yet the police continued to make the arrest and prosecution of gay men a priority; the brutal medical treatments offered as a ‘cure’ for the condition mirrored the establishment line that this was a sickness within society and one it was the establishment’s place to eradicate.

However, what one appreciated yet again in watching this programme was the unique classlessness of the gay underworld in the pre-decriminalisation 50s and 60s, when a peer of the realm could mix and mingle with ‘the lower orders’ in a way that had few contemporary equivalents at the time. It could be argued that the establishment’s fear of this social melting pot – existing long before the over-ground breaking down of class barriers that took place in the Swinging decade – played no small part in the ruthless campaign against gay men that seemed to reach its apogee (or nadir) in the years after the war. The Profumo Scandal of 1963 exposed the hypocrisy and double-standards of the ruling class and was crucial in the death of deference, but the Montagu Trial was also significant in that it reflected the antiquated notion of social superiors ‘setting a good example’ (in public, at least); the outcome also demonstrated a distinct divergence of opinion on homosexuality between the classes.

The prosecution, with the full weight of the police force and the then-Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe behind it, imagined the case would unite the nation in revulsion as the trial of Oscar Wilde had sixty years previously; but the assault backfired. It emerged the police were pursuing Lord Montagu in a virtual vendetta; having failed to succeed in an earlier conviction, they may have achieved their aim in 1954, but many members of the general public couldn’t see why their taxes were being spent on locking up what were (in the phraseology of the time) ‘consenting adults in private’. The ramifications of the Montagu Trial led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee to look into the laws on homosexuality, and although it took a further decade before the Wolfenden recommendations were implemented in law, the ball had been set in motion.

With his private life made public during the trial, Peter Wildeblood decided there was little point in pretending anymore and openly admitted he was homosexual. Upon his release, he was interviewed by the Wolfenden Committee and aired his belief that his type of gay man should be the main beneficiary of reforms to the law – that is, the type seeking to conduct his business behind closed doors with a man over-21 without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. He made clear distinctions between the camp, effeminate queens, the pederasts and the ‘straight’ gay men like himself. It was to be the third group whose voices were loudest as the campaign to change the law gathered pace in the 60s, the thinking being that the public would accept the more ‘normal’ sort as convincing salesmen for the changes; and the majority within society gradually came round to this way of thinking, ending the ‘blackmailer’s charter’ at last.

When watching ‘Against the Law’, there were undoubted parallels evoked in relation to the police prioritising of this particular offence with the more recent and ongoing pursuit of ‘historical’ sex offenders. Just substitute ‘Pansy’ with ‘Paedo’. Jonathan King himself drew the same parallels when sentenced on charges of dubious authenticity in the first such high profile case of this nature fifteen or so years ago. Comparing his conviction to that of Oscar Wilde appeared a tad egocentric when the claim was made, though subsequent witch-hunts of old celebrities – and the persistent attempts to ‘get’ the ones that were cleared of charges by marching them back into court on new ones – seem to back-up King’s comparison. And, of course, we’re only aware of the famous names doing time for historical crimes.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act didn’t change everything overnight, however. It may have enabled gay men of the Peter Wildeblood ilk to enter into happy, long-term relationships without having to conduct their affairs in the shadows, but the police continued to crack down on ‘cottaging’ well into the 1980s (especially via entrapment) and raids on gay bars, along with the lingering belief that youth remained susceptible to corruption, was memorably chronicled in Tom Robinson’s seminal protest song, ‘Glad to be Gay’ in the late 70s. As recent as the 90s, what would now be unimaginable language and anti-gay opinions were expressed in media circles, particularly the right-wing press; they must have viewed the onset of AIDS as a God-send to give credence to such beliefs.

Today we do indeed live in a very different kind of society to the one portrayed in ‘Against the Law’, but plenty of men are still imprisoned on charges of sexual offences that a politicised police force and an avaricious legal profession pursue with the same kind of crusading vindictiveness that gay men were once the target of. Indeed, with an estimated half of 2017’s court cases centred around sexual offences and the fastest growing age category in British prisons being the over-60s, there’s no reason to exhibit smugness at society’s supposedly more enlightened attitude towards what men do or don’t do with their willies.

© The Editor

THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor