Cecil Parkinson, Ken Livingstone, music and me

With no qualification besides being an obsessive fan, I was invited to give a sixth form lecture at Watford Grammar School for Boys – my alma mater – on 20th January 1984, on the subject of popular music. The invitation arrived due to the enthusiasm of my cousin Phil, who by coincidence was now teaching Classics at the school – and perhaps due to the credulity of John Holman, the teacher tasked with organising the sixth form lectures.

I was flattered, although initially hesitant. But I had given a best man’s speech the previous year which went down well, so I thought, why not? I prepared a lecture entitled “Songs and Stories”, consisting of ten songs, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, each accompanied by a brief introduction, and arrived at the school at lunchtime. I had left the school in December 1974: nine years later Mr L.K. Turner was still the headmaster. He had always seemed a remote figure, so it was a strange feeling, returning as an adult to sip sherry in his office with a couple of other teachers.

Off duty from enforcing discipline, Mr Turner – or Trog, as I will always think of him – was relaxed. Conversation turned to some CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) graffiti which had adorned the school wall all through my career there. He mused whether any contemporary issue would arouse the same strength of feeling – this was Margaret Thatcher’s fifth year in power – and I thought he sounded a little wistful that the youth had become apathetic. This surprised me, I remembered him as the embodiment of “The Man”. We concluded that CND at the time was probably still – or rather, again – the issue most likely to stir young people to protest.

I delivered my speech to a fairly passive audience, perhaps tired on a Friday afternoon, perhaps a little surprised and indignant that they were expected to pay attention to a 27-year old’s views on pop music – quite reasonably wary of this sacred youth territory being annexed by the curriculum. Or maybe they found the lecture dull. Certainly it proved a tougher audience than a good natured and slightly tipsy wedding gathering. The talk was enlivened when my final music selection suddenly came on at twice the volume of the previous nine: presumably this was a way for the boys tasked with the audio to show appreciation for their favourite – perhaps the only one they liked.

In the discussion afterwards one boy pointed out that I had omitted so many great artists – what about Hendrix, for instance? Of course, Hendrix was indeed mighty, but being limited to ten records, I couldn’t cover everything. A teacher posed the question: was pop music just a sop to keep youth from protesting or getting involved in politics? I had, and still have little sympathy with this view – the music is real. I responded tartly: “That sounds like the question of a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t like music.” That got a few sniggers at his expense, but I later regretted my sharpness – he had only been trying help me by breathing life into the flagging conversation.

Thirty-seven years later, I have stumbled on my notes. It doesn’t seem like my tastes have changed very much: if called upon now (and I’m not holding my breath) my music choice would be little changed from 1984, although I would phrase a few things differently. And I might omit the Rascals song, which though it still sounds great, doesn’t define a genre as the others do.

With my notes was the programme of sixth form lectures for the Spring Term. I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew, what august company I was keeping. Later that term one speaker was the Rt. Hon. Cecil Parkinson MP – previous holder of two cabinet jobs, later holder of two more – who also served two terms as Chairman of the Conservative Party. Another was Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, which was to last just two more years before it was abolished by Thatcher’s government. Livingstone later bounced back to serve two terms as Mayor of London.

I don’t think I was aware of these political heavyweights being on the same bill that term, and just as well: I was nervous enough already. Thankfully I didn’t have to follow them on stage.

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SONGS AND STORIES (20 January 1984)

Good afternoon.

I want to talk to you about various aspects of popular music over the last thirty years. I should say right at the beginning that I won’t be attempting to give a full history of pop music – I couldn’t begin to do justice to the subject in the time available – nor will I attempt to draw a tidy conclusion at the end. All I want to do is to play some records which have been important in the development of pop music, and to talk about each in isolation. This is, I should emphasise, a purely subjective choice.

Some of you probably aren’t interested in pop music; others of you may enjoy it, but may not expect to see it reduced to being a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. To both, I apologise. But if some of you come to discover and enjoy the music played today, I’ll be well satisfied.

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The first record I want to play is by the Robins, later known as the Coasters, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954. America during the 1950s had hundreds of black vocal groups making records, often with very little to distinguish them. But what set the Coasters apart was their hugely talented songwriters and producers, Leiber and Stoller. The Coasters churned out a long string of records, each of which was a miniature opera – a perfectly formed piece of theatre in three minutes.

Their better known records include Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak which both have a flippant teenaged theme. But the song I’m going to play is Riot in Cell Block Number 9 which is possibly the most menacing and hard hitting drama on record. Full use is made of sound effects, while the singer’s voice is tinged with sufficient brutality to be convincing as a man doing time for armed robbery.

The Coasters – Riot in Cell Block Number 9

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Elvis Presley is these days most often recalled as a grossly fat 40-year old crooning ballads to to blue-rinsed matrons in Las Vegas. This image does no justice to the fiery and controversial figure he once was. During the 1950s Presley became a huge star by the violence of his music, his moody good looks and his lithe and suggestive dancing. American television found his stage act so profoundly shocking that they would only show his performances from the waist up.

Presley was born into a very poor family in Mississippi where he grew up surrounded by and enjoying black music. His success came about because he combined in his music the rhythm and mood of black rhythm and blues music with the sharp lyrics and energy of white country music. To understand the impact Presley made in the 1950s it’s important to realise what went before him. The music scene was dominated by soft ballad singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Rosemary Clooney; there was no appreciable teenaged audience. This was partly because teenagers had very little money to spend, and partly because the music scene was too middle aged and sedate to be of interest. But the emergence of rock’n’roll, epitomised by Presley, and the growing affluence of the fifties was to change that. The record which best demonstrates the violence and youthful energy of rock’n’roll is

Hound Dog – Elvis Presley

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Doo-wop is the slightly comical term applied to a very popular ballad style of the 1950s. It is so called because nonsense phrases like doo-wop would often be used as harmony against the lead vocal.

Literally hundreds of black American vocal groups used the style, and would actually sing on the street corners of their neighbourhood. They would often sing unaccompanied, sometimes to avoid detracting from their intricate vocal harmonies, but more often for reasons of economy. Recently the unaccompanied, or a capella style has made an unexpected come back with The Flying Pickets.

The proliferation of groups singing in this style meant that thousands of records were made, usually very cheaply and mostly of indifferent quality. Sharp-eyed producers would pull a local group into the studio, set up some beers, press a few dollars into their hands, and ask them to sing. The results were often appalling.

The Five Satins would have been forgotten with the rest of them, had it not been for the extraordinary quality of one of their records, In the Still of the Night.

The first reaction on hearing this song is probably one of amusement at the weird arrangement and the deliberately dumb backing vocals. But if you listen closer you might hear the simplicity and understated power which makes this, in many enthusiasts’ view, the finest record ever made. They say the song hangs in the air over New York City on summer nights. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but it’s probably true.

The Five Satins – In the Still of the Night

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Elvis Presley may have had a shattering effect on the calm of Eisenhower’s America, but he was ultimately assimilable. For all his raucous shouting and obscene gyrations, he loved his mum, he ate mashed banana sandwiches, and he was proud to do his bit for Uncle Sam when he was called up in 1958. He was, in spite of everything, an all-American boy. Little Richard made no such concessions, and no one has ever understood him.

Little Richard would sing and play piano with demonic energy, standing and bashing at the piano as if he was trying to smash it. He had a powerful voice, always on the edge of hysteria; he would sing with a passion and commitment which belied the fact that the lyrics were usually quite meaningless.

From 1956 to 1958 Little Richard had a string of million-selling records. His manager found himself without any new material to promote, and with a typical disregard for commercial considerations, Little Richard refused to go back into the studio. Instead, with casual genius, he sent in a rough demo tape lasting less than a minute, called Keep A-Knockin’. This was dressed up in the studio to a respectable length and became another million seller.

If rock’n’roll was marvellous drivel, Keep A-Knockin’ is a fine example. It is so brash and confrontational that you have to take sides – you either love it or hate it. This was very much the stuff that helped create the generation gap.

Predictably, no performer could keep up this level of energy and commitment for long. While touring Australia in 1957, a fire had broken out in the plane he was travelling in. Convinced that he would die, he got down on his knees and promised that if he was spared he would give up “the devil’s music” and devote himself to the gospel. The plane landed safely, and Little Richard was as good as his word – since when God has never looked back.

Little Richard – Keep A-Knockin’

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In complete contrast to Little Richard, Sam Cooke was the very model of urbane sophistication. Well-groomed, polite and clever, he had frequently sung in American night-clubs, and sang in a smooth, sweet style that owed much to his training as a gospel singer.

From 1960 to 1965 he made many fine soul records. Unfortunately he had to fight a running battle with his record company, who wanted to turn him into a second Sammy Davis Jr. But Cooke’s voice was distinctive and beautiful enough to transform the slightest song or the most sickly arrangement into something worth hearing.

But his finest record is Bring it on Home to Me from 1962, in a straightforward gospel style, making much use of close harmony and call and response with a second vocalist.

Cooke was never popular with the white American establishment; he was too clever, too successful for their taste. Incidentally, he was a close friend of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and was among the first into the ring to congratulate him after beating Sonny Liston.

Sam Cooke died in a shooting incident in a hotel in 1964. Some have speculated that this was a CIA set-up.

Listening closely to the slightly hoarse quality of Cooke’s voice, it’s easy to see why Rod Stewart claims Cooke as a major influence. However, it is debatable whether Stewart has ever conveyed such powerful emotion in his singing.

Sam Cooke – Bring it on Home to Me

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The only record producer ever to acquire the status of legend in his own right is Phil Spector.

After singing, writing and producing a few fairly ordinary hits in the early 60s, Spector slowly developed the production style that was to make his name. Where other producers used a four or five piece rhythm section, Spector used overdubbing to create a multi layered, symphonic effect which he called the “wall of sound”. He took pride in the craftsmanship he lavished on what critics described as trash; he was fond of referring to his “Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll – little symphonies for the kids”.

By the age of 23 he was a multi-millionaire. Then the problems set in. He put six months work into recording a Christmas album which was released on 22nd of November 1963, the date of president Kennedy’s assassination. Suddenly nobody wanted to hear his version of Frosty the Snowman. Three months later the Beatles arrived in America, crushing all opposition before them. Finally, the enemies he had made by his idiosyncratic behaviour conspired to bring about the failure of what he regarded as his greatest record – Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High.

Humiliated, he went into virtual retirement, an increasingly enigmatic figure in dark glasses surrounded by bodyguards. Always image conscious, he enjoyed this reputation; he was quoted as saying “It isn’t funny when you see your father’s head blown apart by a shotgun.” We have no evidence that anything like this ever happened to him. Either way we can only agree: it isn’t funny to see your father blown apart by a shotgun.

Be My Baby by the Ronettes is probably not Spector’s best recording but it is the one that best illustrates his dictum: symphonies for the kids. A little girl’s voice, singing a lyric of unashamed banality, is surrounded by great waves of sound; one girl and a thousand-piece orchestra. Like it or not you have to agree: it’s way over the top.

The Ronettes – Be My Baby

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John Lennon claimed in 1971 that the Beatles made their best music before they ever signed a recording contract. This remark was probably made to shock rather than to inform. But what he meant was that before the Beatles ever reached the studio, they had a raw pace and excitement which was never quite captured in their more polished studio recordings.

From 1960 to 1963, hundreds of beat groups sprang up in Liverpool, and many of these make the trip to Hamburg, where their rough and ready music was very much in demand at the local night clubs.

Conditions in these night clubs were appalling. The groups had to play for stints up to eight hours; they would consume vast countries of alcohol and drugs, and more than once their performances were interrupted by violence between rival gangs.

The track which I’m about to play comes from the Live at the Star Club album. This was not released until 1976; it was taken from an amateur recording of the Beatles performance. This explains the poor sound quality. But it is difficult to listen to this recording without getting some feeling of how exciting those early performances must have been, and without an intimation of the huge talent that was to take the world by storm in 1963 and 1964.

The Beatles – Shimmy Shimmy

Listening to this today, it is hard to believe that the man playing bass guitar and singing backing vocals is currently at number one with Pipes of Peace.

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Aretha Franklin with the daughter of a black preacher in Detroit, the Reverend CL Franklin. This man was a wealthy and by all accounts devastating Baptist preacher, who held sway over a huge and devoted congregation, and commanded large fees for his appearances.

The influence of gospel music and the church was the foundation of Aretha’s success, but this success took a long time in coming. From 1960 until 1966, she made scores of records with CBS; but while everyone agreed she was very talented, none of the records were artistically or commercially successful.

1966 saw her move to Atlantic Records. and November of that year saw the historic recording session with Atlantic’s top producer, Jerry Wexler. With the rest of the American music business looking on with interest, Wexler decided to set Aretha loose. Where before she had recorded in a clipped, polished style, Wexler encouraged her to sing her heart out, over a taut, understated backing. The result was definitive soul music; pure, uninhibited and powerful.

Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

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The Rascals didn’t just play soul music – they understood it. What made this unusual was that they were white, at a time when for white people to play soul music was virtually unheard of. Blue-eyed soul they called it.

Besides that I have to admit that their story is not particularly interesting. But they left us one monumentally exciting record. The frenetic Good Lovin’ which was a US number one in 1966. In Britain it never did a thing.

The Rascals – Good Lovin’

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They wouldn’t agree, but in many ways the Sex Pistols can be seen as the true successors to Little Richard. Both rely on uncompromising attack; both produce a violent confrontational sound. Significantly, both produced their finest records in a period of less than 12 months; it was simply not possible to maintain the intensity of feeling – in the Sex Pistols case hatred – which inspired their most powerful work.

Their manager Malcolm McLaren has always claimed that he created the group from nothing, that they were totally untalented and owed all their success to his promotion and publicity stunts. This is simply not true; for despite the Sex Pistols indifferent musicianship and unpleasant behaviour, they make uniquely powerful records, which again like Little Richard, forced the listener to take sides.

Sadly, Sid Vicious started to believe his own publicity; he stabbed his girlfriend to death and later killed himself – a born victim carrying on his shoulders the accumulated hang-ups and neuroses of his generation.

The Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK

That just about concludes the talk. I hope you found something to enjoy. Thank you.

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