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


TuckerGrammar and School – what is it about the combination of those two words that provoke such frothing at the mouth? Labour’s leading intellectual of the post-war era, Anthony Crosland, didn’t mince his words in his post as Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. ‘If it’s the last thing I do,’ he allegedly said, ‘I’m going to destroy every f**king Grammar School in England’. From an early 60s Labour perspective, entry to the Grammar School system via the 11-Plus exam was symptomatic of elitism within British society, whereby the lucky ones gained a fast-track to social mobility and the losers were relegated to a lifelong manual scrapheap courtesy of the Secondary Modern, written-off as factory-fodder before they’d even reached adolescence. But was it really so bad?

History tells us that Grammar Schools in the 50s were primarily packed with middle-class pupils, whilst Secondary Moderns were reserved for the working-classes; but the 11-Plus was class blind. If a child was academically bright enough, he or she made it, simple as that. My parents were both born the same year (1943) and both emanated from similar non-socially privileged backgrounds; my mother failed her 11-Plus, whereas my father passed his. My mother, like many girls of her generation and background, wanted nothing more from life than to be a housewife with children, so the 11-Plus was effectively irrelevant to her ambitions; those that wanted more had the opportunity to achieve it (admittedly to a lesser degree than later generations of women) if they passed their 11-Plus, so the exam served its purpose.

The Labour Party that gained power in 1964 regarded this segregation of the population at such a young age as cruelly mapping out their prospects for life, which is interesting; maybe Wilson and his contemporaries sensed traditional heavy industry was already living on borrowed time and that condemning half of Britain’s schoolchildren to a dying working environment was sowing the seeds of future mass unemployment? If so, they certainly didn’t spell it out at the time. Perhaps, bearing in mind their dependence on the support of unions, they daren’t.

The 1944 Education Act could retrospectively be viewed as the midwife to the Swinging 60s. Its introduction enabled working-class Baby Boomers not to have to beg local education authorities for the privilege of a scholarship (as future Tory PM Ted Heath did) to elevate themselves above humble origins, as they would have had to have done before the War. The Act opened the doors to academia for those to whom it would previously have been barred – born troublemakers like John Lennon, for example; a candidate for expulsion, he managed to slip into Art College thanks to a teacher who saw potential that, prior to the 1944 Act, would have had no higher education outlet. Lennon wasn’t alone; most of the musicians, writers and artists who played their parts in the Pop Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s benefitted from the Tripartite System of education, and the wider world benefitted from their benefits.

The social mobility that the Grammar School and its examinational Open Sesame facilitated greatly transformed British society for the better in the decades leading up to its eventual abolition in the mid-70s; and it’s worth looking at how social mobility has declined in subsequent years. How much the eventual subjugation of Grammar Schools by Comprehensives from the 70s onwards, as well as an increasing emphasis on the ‘everyone’s a winner’ educational mindset, has contributed towards the resurgence of success based upon nepotism and the old school tie is something that requires a longer debate than we have room for here; but there’s no doubt that naive belief in intellectual equality is responsible to a degree.

The announcement that the new PM intends to increase the number of Grammar Schools in Britain in an attempt to boost social mobility has been met with predictable protests from the Corbynistas as well as the Liberal Democrats. The former, ironically, betray their Blairite sympathies with their objections. Tony’s determined effort to make universities accessible to all was a misplaced egalitarian experiment that assumed every school-leaver actually sought another four or five years of education. The lack of investment in manual labour apprenticeships and alternatives to the tuition fee treadmill showed a short-sighted appreciation of what some children want from life, making a mistake in assuming Tony’s goals were replicated across society. Yes, of course universities should be open to the bright, regardless of where they come from; but the Blair Government reforms have merely priced the academically inclined from less-privileged backgrounds out of the market and have crammed today’s universities with wealthy dimwits.

It’s no great surprise that rent-a-quote media socialists such as Owen Jones have been so quick to criticise Theresa May’s proposals; the communal philosophy of Corbyn’s left wants to reiterate that all men (and women) are born equal – which should be a given, anyway; that some want to work with their hands and some want to work with their minds is always overlooked when it comes to this rather blinkered aspect of socialist thinking. Personally, I believe the Prime Minister should be given the benefit of the doubt. Unlike her predecessor in Downing Street, she didn’t have success handed to her on a plate; and if an increase in Grammar Schools gives the less-fortunate an opportunity to achieve success currently denied them, this is something that should be applauded rather than condemned with the token jerk of a knee.

© The Editor


VinylThough one could reasonably claim that, in an age of iPod shuffling and the downloading of individual tracks at the expense of a carefully planned running order by the artist, the recorded album as a structured art-form no longer exists, the fact remains that this weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the British album charts. The first chart-topping LP (as the album was commonly referred to prior to the advent of the CD) was Frank Sinatra’s peerless ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, a classic for a defiantly adult audience, the audience the LP primarily catered for following its 1948 introduction onto the market. Initially, the Long Playing record was developed for classical music, enabling separate movements of orchestral works to completely fill two sides of vinyl, rather than being split into little sections as had been the case with the 78. The newfangled format was soon taken up by the mums and dads as a grown-up alternative to the vinyl choice of their children, the 45rpm. It continued to be a barometer of largely adult tastes for the first half-decade of the LP charts’ existence.

Glancing at a list of early LP chart-toppers, however, it’s interesting to note appearances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Tommy Steele, even if Rock ‘n’ Roll has a mere cameo role to play where No.1 albums are concerned during the late 50s and early 60s. If one imagined ‘Original Soundtrack’ was the name of a band, they’d probably be the most successful album act of all time, for original soundtrack recordings utterly dominate the album charts during this period.

‘Carousel’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘The King and I’, ‘High Society’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ – either original Broadway cast recordings of stage musicals or the movie versions – all spent endless weeks sitting atop the LP charts between 1956-58, though none can compete with the daddy of them all, ‘South Pacific’. Hitting No.1 in November 1958, the soundtrack album for the film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical remained resident at the top of the charts for the next 70 weeks! Yes, it was the sole No.1 LP for the whole of 1959 and wasn’t deposed until March 1960. That wasn’t the end of the album’s chart-topping run, however; it returned to No.1 on a further seven occasions, finally ending a staggering tally of 115 weeks at the top with one solitary week in September 1961, almost three years after first reaching the pinnacle. Beat that, ‘Thriller’.

The early 60s saw an upsurge of chart-toppers from Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, as well as the incursion of Trad Jazz via the likes of Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, though middle-of-the road tastes were still the dominant trend; The Black and White Minstrels had a trio of No.1 LPs in 1961-62 and ‘West Side Story’ upheld the original soundtrack tradition.

There was a notable change from May 1963, however, when The Beatles’ debut album, ‘Please Please Me’, hit the top of the charts. It remained there for the next seven months, only knocked off No.1 by the follow-up, ‘With The Beatles’, in December. After almost a full year as the sole No.1 album act, The Beatles were momentarily deposed by The Rolling Stones, when their debut long-player hit the top for twelve weeks in April 1964. Most retrospectively regard the rivalry between the two bands in terms of the singles chart, though it’s more glaringly evident in the LP chart of the time. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ knocked the first Stones album off No.1 in July, a position it occupied until The Beatles again replaced themselves in December, this time with ‘Beatles for Sale’. ‘The Rolling Stones No.2’ hit the top spot at the end of January ’65 and the Beatles-Stones dominance of the chart finally ended when Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’ reached No.1 in April, the first non-Beatles or Stones chart-topper in two whole years.

By the mid-60s, the LP was becoming more recognised as an additional vinyl plaything for the singles-buying teens, with further chart-toppers from The Beatles, Stones and Dylan enhancing the generational handover where the album was concerned. There was one final hurrah for the old-school LP, however, when the soundtrack album for ‘The Sound of Music’ hit No.1 in May 1965, a position it returned to on a further ten occasions for the following two-and-a-half years, enjoying 70 chart-topping weeks in total. Hard to believe in an age when the songs from the film are now primarily seen as the province of a cult and mainly gay audience; but it was once the mainstream.

It was the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in June 1967 that finally sealed the album as the vinyl purchase of choice for the record-buying masses, a position it held throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, surviving the changes in formats, from the cassette to the CD. The changes of the past decade, however, have altered the listening experience far more dramatically than at any time since the long-playing record appeared 68 years ago. The listener can now choose the running order of the album if they so wish; and the cohesive narrative of songs that became the album’s most distinctive hallmark has been rendered redundant. Still, it was bloody good while it lasted.

© The Editor


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


1956A culture that appears to have its best years behind it can often be defined by its anniversaries, and every twelve months now brings a glut of them, each serving to remind the observer of the present day’s cultural impoverishment. Take this year’s line-up: forty years since ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the snotty eruption of Punk; fifty since ‘Revolver’ and the genesis of Psychedelia; sixty since rock ‘n’ roll went over-ground with the chart debut of Elvis Presley. Perhaps 1956 stands as a more significant year than either 1966 or 1976 for it was, in many respects, the lift-off moment of the culture we are forever marking the respective anniversaries of today.

The impact of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, debuting sixty years ago on this very day, was a bombshell that can easily be (and regularly has been) cited as the turning point away from Britain’s immediate post-war malaise, though its impact isn’t always put into context. Too often in an era that can only judge the past by contemporary standards that are irrelevant to it, Osborne’s ‘angry young man’ Jimmy Porter is portrayed as a ranting, nasty misogynist. That Porter takes no prisoners – particularly when the claustrophobia of his grubby rented flat transforms his wife into a manifestation of everything he regards as wrong with the state of the world outside his window – is today held up as something that dates the play, whereas to me there is a refreshing squeamish-free honesty to Porter’s vitriol. Any objections to it now say more about 2016 than 1956, highlighting the new limitations upon what can and can’t be said in polite society that have simply superseded the ones Osborne railed against.

The influence of ‘Look Back in Anger’ spread way beyond the cosseted confines of the theatre and acted as a lightning rod for other cultural earthquakes in a country that Osborne himself later remembered as akin to a sleepy village in the mid-50s. 1956 also saw both the last disastrous hurrah of the old Imperial Britain with the Suez debacle and the introduction of Premium Bonds, a pointer to a future Britain that chose consumerism over colonialism. Between 1950 and 1960, the average wage trebled to £14 10 /- a week, and by the end of the 50s, three-quarters of British homes had a television set. The retrospective rose-tinted memory of 1950s Britain as a quaint little Ambridge theme park, one nostalgically evoked by the likes of 1990s Prime Minister John Major, was certainly not the 1950s Britain of Harold Macmillan as the country’s first true consumer boom took hold.

The democratised affluence that appeared to be changing the country for the better required a neat sound-bite to summarise it, and in July 1957, Harold Macmillan made a speech that contained one of the most paraphrased political slogans of all time, one that served to encapsulate the mood of the moment in a way few politicians’ utterances have before or since.

‘Let us be frank about it,’ he puffed. ‘Most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country; go to the industrial towns; go to the farms; and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime, nor indeed ever in the history of this country.’

However, not everyone was impressed with this view of the country. There is a montage sequence in the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, in which the lead character’s mother embarks upon a spending spree when the insurance money following the death of her husband comes through. As she and her younger children excitedly blitz the shops, Tom Courtenay’s Colin looks on with thinly-veiled contempt. Indeed, when he is handed his own share of his father’s legacy, he proceeds to burn the money. When Arthur Seaton, the antihero of Sillitoe’s 1958 novel, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, was memorably brought to the screen in 1960 by Albert Finney, the character’s response to the superficial benefits of the consumer boom was sneering disdain, especially at how it had impacted on his own parents – ‘Me mam and dad have got a television set and a packet of fags,’ he snarled, ‘but they’re both dead from the neck up.’

That these observations on the zeitgeist emanated from the North of England was no coincidence; the new affluence of Macmillan’s Britain was not regionalised as Mrs Thatcher’s would be, but time-honoured traditions were more cherished and held dear in the old industrial towns, and any dramatic alteration in everyday habits could often be viewed with suspicion. The intellectual Left had a particular gripe with the way in which commercial television and the rampant consumerism it had inspired was changing the character of the country. The same year as Macmillan declared the nation had never had it so good, Leeds-born academic Richard Hoggart published ‘The Uses of Literacy’, a landmark study of how the authentic urban British culture that had defined each region of the country and given it its own unique identity – a culture that celebrated the dignity of labour, one in which financial security was a reward for a good day’s work and the Church still governed social morality in the best possible sense – was being eroded.

Hoggart viewed ‘Americanised’ popular culture as dictated by the likes of broadcasting newcomer ITV, or the elevation of acquisitiveness encouraged by Premium Bonds and Green Shield Stamps, to be a damaging dumbing-down process long before such a phrase had even been coined. Hoggart believed the imposition of a certain kind of popular culture on the public by the mass media was in danger of homogenising the nation, an opinion that was a remarkably visionary one to air as far back as 1957.

But Hoggart was not alone. Passionate architectural critic Ian Nairn published a scathing attack on the post-war British landscape in a 1955 edition of ‘The Architectural Review’, titled Outrage! Nairn invented ‘Subtopia’ as a derogatory description of the new urban town-planning he saw as robbing towns and cities of their individual identity, making every corner of the country resemble the other, a ‘massification’ of Britain’s visual makeup as corrosive as the new popular culture Richard Hoggart railed against. Both Nairn and Hoggart’s prophetic critiques were violently at odds with Harold Macmillan’s viewpoint; but more than half-a-century later, in an age of indistinguishable, identikit towns crammed with the same chain-stores and home to an enslaved populace whose tastes are dictated by a select few controlling the mass media as well as their creature comforts, these prescient warnings from the past have remained criminally unheeded.

1956 may be a long way from 2016, but the desperate need to make people sit up, open their eyes and think seems more important now than it did then. Where be the Osbornes, Sillitoes, Hoggarts and Nairns, though?

© The Editor