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Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

ROCK MUSIC — MICHAEL JACKSON: It’s not as if Elvis just died!

In generational/fashion, morality, music, psychology/psychiatry on June 28, 2009 at 7:47 am

From all the fuss of the past few days anyone would think Elvis has just died. Instead it’s just the ever-encroaching end, the gradual unravelling, of an American Idol of yesteryear. To me, Jackson embodied in one increasingly strange person all the show business imperatives necessary to get to and sustain yourself at the top of celebrity today. Looking at all the Madonnas and Britney Spears of the past half-century, who have followed Jackson’s lead, it’s amazing how much success can be engendered by essentially stupid people with a single idiotic but unquestioned idea pursued single-mindedly, without thought entering to disturb the ‘creative’ process.

He was the dream of every American Idol show and its multifarious spinoffs around the world that perpetuate such realities as: the generic ‘rock’ voice shorn of all distinction or real emotion, pared of all identifying idiosyncracies or sign of humanity, so as not to offend anyone by unsightly originality or unseemly singularity — the equivalent of the ubiquitous fuzzed guitar notes and chords backing rock tracks for the past thirty years.

The toast of Motown and little soul-groovers around the world in 1970 (‘I Want You Back’, ‘A-B-C’, ‘The Love You Save’), the Jackson Five lowered themselves fast to Osmonds Pop and on to disco mid-decade. michael jackson 1By late decade Michael as a solo had rid himself of genuine soul and found something distinctive: white skin and a perky little nose, which alarmingly shrank year by year into an almost microscopic compass point. More than music, most charitably described as amorphous sound designed to dance to, the multitude of stage moves he devised, all executed jerkily at lightning speed but still with immaculate timing, were right up there in the best traditions of circus performers seen on America’s Got Talent — and, it must, be remembered, years before them.

Most successfully of all in the superstar firmament, he developed an unparalleled ability to generate fan sympathy in the face of evermore outrageous self-indulgence, previously the domain of friends and mentors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross. Was that his underlying essence, and predestined downfall, that he possessed the psyche of an androgynous being in which the rules that everyone else had to live by didn’t count? Like your ordinary garden-variety diva (and many are said to have the mentality of cultivated, nurtured pot plants) but encumbered by male expectations?

Generating so much money for so many people, he was pampered so that every whim no matter how bizarre was catered for. Every momentary desire was met with a resounding “Yes” by the Yes Men surrounding him day and night, and female celebrities spread their legs to be implanted with his divine seed in hopes of producing cloned products in a dynasty of inevitable success. Not only were the needs of others of no account but he was so far removed from reality that he brought others into actual physical danger — as when he used his baby as a public performance prop — to satisfy his own need for public acclaim, at least notoriety when he was capable of nothing more.

Above all he is responsible for the superstar mantra “Make your own rules” — not in stretching the boundaries of intellect in creating imaginative new music.

And tonight on the news there is a mass spontaneous tribute to his “Moon Walk” — with fans crowded in the street, linking hands and all shuffling backwards together, at least with better coordination and timing than you would expect from, say, a gathering of demented winos. What greater legacy can a performer leave?

His other trademark innovation on stage was simulating masturbating on stage, in time, into a white clinical glove — presumably all the better to inspire those better endowed with semen to donate. It undoubtedly inspired Justin Timberlake to develop his own innovative great leap forward in performance art: simulating humping women dog-like from behind, on stage, to the delight of his millions of fans around the world who pay hundreds of dollars each to see this and the other wonders of his talent.

That all said, I once caught a sustained glimpse of Michael Jackson in a two-hour interview, probably recorded around the turn of the millennium, undertaken to ameliorate the worst backlash after the pedophile accusations. (For the record, I believe them to be false, but how stupid can you be to take unrelated children into your bed and explain it “as the most loving thing in the world”?) I remember my mother, who had just watched it with me and was genuinely intrigued, asking what I thought of him as a genuine creative personality. I told her that I didn’t know if he was a genius but he came across to me as a genuine artist in pursuit of what artists should be — thoughtful, considered work.

Given the nature of the sensationalizing media and the chameleon-like image of Jackson’s public persona as portrayed, who can say what was in his mind from one minute to the next? So I bow to the authority of Quincy Jones, a hugely influential figure in music production for half a century, for the final word — confirming Michael Jackson didn’t like being a black man but dubbing him all the same a “performance genius”. Who might guess what Leonardo da Vinci would have turned out looking like had a mass media existed to shine the brightest spotlight in the world on him 24-7?

And so the debate goes on …

MOVIE REVIEW — HOWARD HAWKS: Rio Bravo (1958) vs El Dorado (1966)

In film on June 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Famous man’s-man director Howard Hawks was primarily a maker of “action” movies, but in the olden days of Hollywood the tag was a thoroughly respectable one implying no aspersion on the audience of such films. Some of the most admired directors of silents, Rex Ingram, and Sergei Eisenstein himself, were action directors. In the Thirties came Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, both today considered master craftsmen of fast-paced adventures made with intelligence, imagination and spirit: in other words, more than Spielberg, Lucas or other of their ilk have ever achieved, and bearing hardly any relation at all to today’s blood-and-gore fests dished up as standard fare for desensitized ghouls who pass as film buffs.

Modern cineastes have concluded that Hawks’ particular schtick was the theme of male comaraderie, starting notably with Only Angels Have Wings (1939) most familiar to modern film fans. But by then he had produced all-time classics in several genres: the similarly pilot-concerned Dawn Patrol, Scarface, Road to Glory, and not least, screwball comedy in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday to follow shortly after with Sergeant York, his third classic on World War I. He came late to westerns with 1948’s Red River but only John Ford’s are admired more, and just a few including Henry King are said to rank with Hawks as authentic interpreters of the American scene. Rio Bravo was remade with the same director-star combination into El Dorado (and certain refrains were replayed in Rio Lobo four years later). Superstar John Wayne was accompanied by Dean Martin in the first, Robert Mitchum in the second. The Duke is his Mount Rushmore self in both, each time a former hired gun turned lawman (the town sheriff in the first; allying himself with the town sheriff, an old friend, in the remake). And each story centers on him supporting his co-star in rehabilitating from town bumhood brought on by a no-good floozie. Making up the rest of the male ingroup are Ricky Nelson/James Caan on the youth side and Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicut as the curmudgeonly but humorously persnickety jailkeeper.

Angie Dickinson and that famous shape in costume for 'Rio Bravo', 1958

Angie Dickinson and that famous shape in costume for 'Rio Bravo', 1958

Rio Bravo, for ill-defined reasons, is the more generally admired by critics. Maybe the prominent contemporary critics that greeted the remake in the Sixties were just more vicious: Pauline Kael, Richard Schickel … Hawks specifically remade it because he believed he could improve on the first version, and then believed he had. I too, maybe because a child of the Sixties, have always preferred El Dorado, though having just seen Rio Bravo again and giving it proper attention, I appreciate its niceties more than before.

Hawks knew what he was doing in remaking it. There seems to be more happening, backed with a booming wall-to-wall Sixties soundtrack. It is in every way less sentimental than its Fifties forebear. The female roles are less defined in the remake (spread as they are now between Charlene Holt and Michele Carey), almost perfunctory compared with Angie Dickinson’s fully defined one, more in the nature of eye candy. That by itself says more about how spectacularly constructed female stars were treated in the Sixties. Raquel Welch hardly ever got a whiff of the central roles Sophia Loren had been entrusted with at an even younger age a decade earlier. And compare ingenue Natalie Wood with, say, the later Sandra Dee — typical Sixties teen fodder; and Tuesday Weld not allowed to show her talent until almost middle age. Dickinson plays a hard-drinking professional gambler turning back to saloon singing for new beau Duke’s sake, while in the Sixties version Duke comes across all bashful as an old-friend-of-the-family even responding to all-grown-up wholesome Charlene Holt, who has a scene sashaying around in a revealing figure-hugging number for no apparent reason but the aforementioned eye-candy factor.

John Wayne and Robert Mitchum on the set of 'El Dorado', 1966

John Wayne and Robert Mitchum on the set of 'El Dorado', 1966

I would have thought by most measures El Dorado is a less compromised piece of filmmaking. The performances of Robert Mitchum and James Caan are more convincing than those of their prototypes. Moreover, the expanded, modified role of Caan allows a real relationship to develop between him and his mentor (Wayne). Maybe simply to give the ensemble cast more on-screen time, there is a conscious insert in Rio Bravo where singing stars Martin and Nelson get to do their thing — Dean crooning a cowboy song — ‘My Rifle, My Pony, and Me’ — with less C & W feel than anyone since Roy Rogers. Ricky bats his thick eyelashes and heavy lids for the girls rather irritatingly throughout, and almost pouts his more-generous-than-Elvis lips. Walter Brennan comes close to self-parody with his incessant cackling. On top of this, the original is far too wordy, especially for a western — courtesy of the screenplay by highly cultured Hawks favorites Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett.

MOVIE REVIEW: GENE KELLY — DRAMATIC ACTOR

In film, history, ideology on June 13, 2009 at 1:30 am

CROSS OF LORRAINE (MGM, 1943)

CROSS OF LORRAINEAside from the usual wartime flagwavers Hollywood came out with detailing the atrocities against “our boys” in the Pacific and other spheres, that stoked the home fires of those back home, the studios did their best on behalf of China, the Philippines and other allies to get the message out about foreign struggles for independence against the ruthless jackboots of the Axis Powers.

Each studio constructed moving if sometimes necessarily artificial vehicles for the voices of oppressed countries to be heard. Goldwyn’s North Star about a Russian village is the most (in)famous of them, with producer William Cameron Menzies enlisting the participation of writer Lillian Hellman, director Lewis Milestone, the photography of James Wong Howe, and the music of Aaron Copeland. These celebrated names and an illustrious cast including Walter Huston, Erich Von Stroheim, Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter didn’t save it from being the target of communist accusations by red-hunters later and the condemnation of critics ever since who have judged the film by how Russian the actors weren’t. Fox’s The Moon is Down has overall the best reputation — about the resistance of a Norwegian village to Nazi occupation, written and produced by Nunnally Johnson from a Steinbeck novel. Warners’ Watch on the Rhine, Northern Pursuit (Mounties chasing Nazis), Edge of Darkness (another Norwegian fishing village), Columbia’s The Commandos Strike at Dawn (commandos returning to Norway), and MGM’s The Seventh Cross are other socko movies worth seeing. Paramount’s The Hitler Gang, Hitler’s Children (RKO) and Hitler’s Madman from Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) are other well-known contributions; the last about the assassination of Heidrich with John Carradine in the title role, and the Nazis’ monstrous revenge against the Czech village of Lidice.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Cross of Lorraine — named for the emblem of Joan of Arc — was a good effort from MGM, a stirring hymn to French patriotism and stickability. The story traces the fate of a French squad persuaded to surrender when their army looks doomed by the Blitzkrieg invasion of May-June 1940. The Nazi promise is of repatriation to their homes — and they are delivered to a repressive POW camp across the German border. The ‘civilized’ Frenchmen led by top-billed Jean-Pierre Aumont think at first there must be some oversight and continue trying to appease and understand the Nazi mentality, trying to appeal to a sense of fair play, even rationality, that (they believe) must lie somewhere under the surface.

The only ones to resist and keep their spirits intact through two and a half years of captivity and starvation are Victor, an aggressive Marseilles taxi driver played by Gene Kelly, and a Spaniard (Joseph Calleia) experienced against the fascists from his country’s Civil War. Reacting against the murder of their chaplain (Cedric Hardwicke), Victor is severely beaten and put in solitary confinement. He is at the mercy of brutal sergeant Peter Lorre, who, annoyed at Victor’s continuing bullish defiance, has him castrated.

The informant among them, Duval (Hume Cronyn), promoted by the Nazis to ‘translator’, has had a hand deep in his own comrades’ suffering, including reporting on the priest, and gets his future sorted out by them. Aumont’s character, promoted in his place, gradually sees how responsible he is in collaborating in his own men’s failing spirits, and determines to organize a mass escape by stealth.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

While not on the same artistic level as Jean Renoir’s classic French POW drama, La Grande Illusion, I consider this film very rewarding and well worthwhile watching. Gene Kelly, in particular, gives a powerful performance of an ordinary man instinctively disgusted and provoked by every duplicitous gesture of the Nazis — every bit as intense as Gabin’s in the Renoir film, and more subtle. On his emasculation, he insightfully and intelligently portrays the fear and anxiety of a man with his animal power and all mental initiative suddenly taken from him.

BLACK HAND (MGM, 1950)

At times Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio of Middle American gloss par excellence, surprises you.

Self-made junk man Louis B. Mayer moved into movie production during World War I and ruled MGM as the amalgamation in 1924 of three medium-sized companies to form the new titan of the industry, surpassing the previously all-powerful Paramount in one stroke. Its readymade stars and early acquisitions included popular leading men John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro (The Big Parade and Ben-Hur, respectively, the two biggest world earners of 1925-27), exotic leading women Barbara LaMarr and Renee Adoree, supreme child star Jackie Coogan, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and a triumvirate of dramatic divas that would rule world screens with few interruptions from the late Twenties for more than a decade: Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.

Mayer had to continually compromise with young and creative production head Irving Thalberg until the death of the ‘boy genius’ in 1936, after which, for the next 12-year period, he had clear running. Trouble was, by this time, immediately post-World War II, MGM began to be overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners. Audiences were no longer the same, and wanted to see real life rather than MGM’s customary rosy Hallmark-greeting-card view of the world. The solution of Loew’s Inc, MGM’s New York parent company, was to bring in Dore Schary, the production head at RKO who had successfully diversified that studio’s output to take it into large profits for the first time in its twenty-year existence. Schary bailed just in time, in 1948, as new RKO owner Howard Hughes began his steady elimination of the studio’s talent through witchhunts for communists and other paranoid purges that would leave his own property as barely a fond memory a decade later.

A thorn in Mayer’s side for the next four years until MGM’s ruling paternal figure was ousted sideways out of the way, Schary instantly led MGM to deal with the reality of the new industry: more reality, less candyfloss. Combining the noirish grittiness he had established in the most realistic films at RKO with the bigger budgets now available to him, under his new influence outstanding films of gripping topical reality were possible: Intruder in the Dust (racial discrimination in the rural South) and Abraham Polonksy’s Force of Evil (postwar rackets), and the following year his first hands-on production, William Wellman’s Battleground, an impressive war film with tour de force ensemble performances from Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, George Murphy and others.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Black Hand, emerging shortly after, was a revelation to me in the performance of Gene Kelly among a number of intriguing elements contained in the film. A fixture at MGM since 1941 (excluding war service shortly after) at age 28, Kelly was of Pittsburgh Irish stock–arriving, according to his own testimony, “twenty pounds overweight and as strong as an ox.” When he was dressed up like Fred Astaire he still “looked like a truck driver.” So, with Fred Astaire the aristocratic dancer of Hollywood in top hat and tails, Kelly dressed in character, usually as a workman.

I’d seen him before in classic musicals of the mid Forties like Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth and Anchors Aweigh with Frank Sinatra; of the early Fifties in the iconic An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Pirate; as a hearty, convincing swashbuckler–a particularly athletic D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; even in a serious role in the dramatic wartime Cross of Lorraine.

Though I’ve since discovered he has been listed as 15th top actor ever in film by the American Film Institute, nothing had prepared me for how he pulled off this portrayal as a young New York Neapolitan (c.1900) caught up in the Comorra phenomenon imported from Napoli–as if born to it. Not only is perfect Italian speech intact, lithe movement and magnetic, brooding silences, but in this film he projects the macho, offhand persona of Sonny Corleone coming more than two decades later. At times the resemblance in mannerisms is so close I would be amazed if James Caan didn’t study Kelly’s performance before his Godfather role.

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly is Johnny Columbo, a law student torn between avenging his father’s murder within or outside the law. Also scoring high in the film are Teresa Celli as the hero’s ally and love interest, J. Carroll Naish as a dedicated local cop and mentor and Marc Lawrence as the elusive archvillain of the local Comorra. The urban sets, dating from the period, are dramatically set off by atmospheric lighting and (mostly) shadow. All aspects of treatment of the subject, down to casting, are spot on. It took just two weeks to shoot and, according to Kelly, took millions in profits around the world.

Though several contemporary reviewers gave Kelly his dramatic due for this one it’s a pity that few observers since have even mentioned Kelly’s dramatic ability. To posterity I suspect Kelly will always be what appears above the surface most often: the screen master of free-form creative dancing–the counterpart to Fred Astaire’s more formal rhythmic dance steps.

ROCK MUSIC — TWIST’N’SURF! FOLK’N’SOUL! (Part 2)

In history, music on June 9, 2009 at 10:57 am

The second part of the chapter excerpt from Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published November 2007 by Booklocker.com, posted at #23 on April 26th 2008 on Amazon’s sales list for the category of Music History & Criticism and available for around $17.95 through your local store.

FRUSTRATING REAL ROCK’N’ROLL FANS, SICKENING from the milksop diet served up by their elders, lounging in the way of energetic, progressive sounds on the radio were single-shots Steve Lawrence (‘Go Away Little Girl’), Japanese torch singer Kyu Sakamoto (‘Sukiyaki’), proto-bubblegum ‘Sugar Shack’ (Jimmy Gilmer) and sanitised brother-and-sister acts Nino & April, Dale & Grace and pretend siblings Paul & Paula. Novelties that went all the way to the top included comedian Allan Sherman’s ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ and ‘If You Wanna Be Happy’, so-called “calypso-soul”. Public inertia had proven immovable by Chubby Checker, already fading, and would be by any but the most attractive figures to the most buyers, sporting unprecedented novelty value and covering all genres, primed and detonated by industry powers. Namely, in one package, the Beatles.

Microsoft Word - _Student Outline #10_ - School of Rock-John Len From on high descended a world phenomenon as the first con-tender, monopolising the six weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to the Beatles’ second coming. ‘Dominique’ was a folk song rendered entirely in French by “The Singing Nun”, who also wrote it, a.k.a. Belgian Sister Luc-Gabrielle, a.k.a. Soeur Sourire. She might have been sent by God but her message came in a foreign language utterly meaningless to America. Conspicuously garbed as a sacred image, could the Catholic sister, if properly promoted, have been the savior Americans were looking for on the recent death of Pope John XXIII and the destruction of their own spiritual leader, JFK? Her later suicide suggested depths never explored by the media. Instead, turned into a circus act by entrepreneurs, she was soon extinguished by another impresario-driven European novelty, a rock and roll group who had thought up their own cute name that would go down in history but were called “The Mopheads” by those who would make fortunes off them.

It was certain Elvis wasn’t looking like himself—his single sales down more than a third on 1962. His biggie, ‘Devil in Disguise’, sounded like a movie-filler but no movie promoted it and it sold only 700,000. Movie songs did worse: ‘One Broken Heart for Sale’, and ‘Bossa Nova Baby’. Album sales were hit harder, down to about 300,000 for each US release (figures Peter Guralnick). All but his most faithful Brit fans too were turning away. ‘Devil’ won a solitary week at top but it was his sole entry in the ten—a steep comedown from the year before when all four singles scored among career best. The first quarter his English counterpart Cliff Richard and the Shadows held top for ten weeks. For the rest of the year Elvis was decimated by the Beatles and Gerry & the Pacemakers—30 weeks at top between them. The best thing about his movies lately was Ursula Andress, Hollywood’s latest continental sex goddess coming clinging-wet out of the surf for James Bond to turn Elvis on in Fun in Acapulco. No longer considering demanding roles, his manager and the studios colluded in giving his fans all they wanted in Elvis: songs and hokum, nonstop.

Roy Orbison: master deliverer of the wailing, pleading, romantic drama on two minutes of vinyl

Roy Orbison: master deliverer of the wailing, pleading, romantic drama on two minutes of vinyl

A few genuine rock artists found room to bloom, showing through the morass of carnie attractions by creating their own music and/or determining how it was recorded, including Elvis’s Texas buddy Roy Orbison. ‘In Dreams’ from early 1963 had a timeless feel about its production, so endured. Orbison’s generosity saw each side of his singles grooved with a classic performance. An unlikely looking star, his trademark dark glasses hid myopic, beady eyes in the middle of anything but chiseled features, like two raisins looking out of a suet pudding. Stock still, gently strumming his guitar, he delivered drama on stage solely through a distinctive voice often reminiscent of Elvis’s low down—but quavering, purring and soaring to the heights. ‘Dream Baby’, that the Beatles had sung on the BBC the year before because ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ weren’t up to it, perfected his distinctive style of country pop tinged with r&b. Months later he put out ‘Working for the Man’, and B-side ‘Leah’ was the bigger hit. ‘Mean Woman Blues’ was one more in his string of million-sellers—not quite as mean as Elvis’s and held back by the attention given to great ballad ‘Blue Bayou’. He was the only country singer to retain superstardom in 1964—because less country than ever. ‘It’s Over’ could have been done (less dramatically) by Jim Reeves, but ‘Pretty Woman’ was pure rock.

Johnny Cash was probably best of all: the genuine article, far more convincing as a people’s troubadour than Bob Dylan because he’d lived life and sang about it in the simplest, most straightforward way, didn’t intellectualize it. Singing from well springs as deep as they come, he was a charismatic performer who happened to choose country & western as his medium of soul-to-soul communication. “The Man in Black” came up with ‘Ring of Fire’ summer ’63, atypical for him in its Tex-Mex feel. Writing in the first person as a spokesman of the unwanted, identifying with a hard-bitten persona, he was mainly silent—maybe dumbfounded— through the upbeat, gimmicky Brit years, to make a comeback at decade’s end. By then the Beatles were hailed for writing and recording genuine folk songs about real people—something Cash had been doing since the mid-fifties, and better. Others silenced after the height of that Indian summer were Grammy winners with affecting country ballads, George Hamilton IV (‘Abilene’) and Bobby Bare (‘Detroit City’).

Over the radio, on records and from diner jukeboxes distinctive styles grabbed attention. Real artists like Patsy Cline (‘Crazy’, ‘I Fall to Pieces’)—the Queen of Country killed in a plane crash in March 1963 (with Cowboy Copas, a boyhood hero of Carl Wilson) —and Loretta Lynn, rarely broke the pop fifty. This in the face of foreign novelties selling a quick million: Anglo-Aussie Frank Ifield and ‘I Remember You’, the Springfields’ ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ and Aussie Rolf Harris’s ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’. Facing a growing stranglehold from producer pop, the biggest country-flavored homegrown sellers were Ned Miller’s ‘From a Jack to a King’ and from gingham-pleated songstress Skeeter Davis—but ‘End of the World’ was disowned by Country Music authorities as too pop.

Like Orbison and a select few others, the Everly Bros had a five-year career at the top in America before carrying on in Britain. And here they had been knocked down a peg or two when outmaniaed on tour by their support act, the Beatles. They had not so much influenced the Beatle sound as determined it right down to their tone of vocal harmony, guitar rhythm and lead guitar licks, and the format of Simon & Garfunkel and English duos Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, David & Jonathan….

IN A NATIONWIDE SURVEY OF US TEENS BY GILBERT Youth Research at the end of 1963 Folk Music was by far the most popular of musical tastes—the participatory, singalong aspect being the decider according to Eugene Gilbert: it only took a campfire to start things off, and the last thing to worry about was individual voice quality. This was the route Ringo Starr took to introduce himself as occasional lead singer with the Beatles. Enquiring who was the most popular singer of westerns in America, he was told Buck Owens, and so set about learning his songs.

Pete Seeger of the Weavers had served his country in World War II and, though frequently banned by America media for raising controversial issues like civil rights, inspired the Kingston Trio and was influencing sixties folkies. The Highwaymen had released the massive world hit of 1961 in ‘Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)’—a ready standard for Christian-educated school children everywhere. By bringing folk music into fashion they made possible new folk groups Peter, Paul & Mary and later the Seekers, both sustaining huge popularity around the world while remaining acoustically pure when everyone else was plugging in his guitar.

The Kingstons returned with Seeger’s protest about the dead of wars, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’, and stood against corporate America: “I don’t give a damn about a ‘Greenback Dollar’ —spend it fast as I can. For a wailing song and a good guitar’s the only thing that I understand.” In May 1963 ‘The Reverend Mr Black’ went up against ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, and in the UK the Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’ and the Pacemakers’ ‘How Do You Do It?’.

The big new artists, Peter, Paul & Mary, had closed ’62 with a stirring rendition of ‘If I Had a Hammer’. This and other decent folk songs were coopted and dumbed down by singalongster Trini Lopez: ‘Lemon Tree’, ‘Michael’ and more, all to the same pace, for bigger hits: the Johnny Rivers of Hispania—a double whammy out of LA. ‘Puff’, written by Peter (Yarrow), was huge around the world despite rumors it was a drug fable instead of a children’s one. They borrowed from Dylan: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’—“It’s all right”, their last big hit for some years. Others in ’63 folk style were ‘Walk Right In’ (the Rooftop Singers) and ‘Green, Green’ “on the far side of the hill”—the New Christy Minstrels with Barry McGuire and Kenny Rogers and sounding like the Kingstons.

Peter, Paul & Mary set a tone against show business excess, for musical integrity. And they celebrated Americana: ‘This Land is Your Land’ from Woody Guthrie. Enough of the hard-working self-discipline and grassroots Americanism of this, and the other trio, the Kingstons, rubbed off on the Beach Boys to make them an anachronism in the trendy era just around the corner. The female-male vocal blend was duplicated by another Greenwich Village folk group, the Mamas & the Papas, to go Hollywood when they got to California.

Folk songs emerging in New Year ’64 would be swamped by a first wave of Britons—and pure folk strangled in one stroke as the mainspring of American music. The Beach Boys—‘Sloop John B’, ‘Cottonfields’—would attempt to revive it in rock form. Recognized as standards around the world but hardly fitting the new Top 40 diktats were Tom Paxton’s ‘Marvelous Toy’ recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio and Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’. The year would see just two big folk hits, the Serendipity Singers sounding like the Minstrels on ‘Crooked Little Man’ (‘Don’t Let the Rain Come Down’), and New Zealand-born Gale Garnett’s declaration of sexual freedom, ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine’ (“and I’ll be on my way”), astonishingly going all the way in Cash Box; no.4 in Billboard, deferring to much greater airplay given Brit acts. The Beatles had taken over with Boy-Girl Lite.

‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ from P, P & M was as telling a performance as ever but stalled under a swarm of Beatle tunes. At the Invasion’s height ‘Early Morning Rain’ barely made the hundred; at its end they must have got some satisfaction in ‘I Dig Rock & Roll Music’, parodying the Beatles’ voices and contrived recording effects. ‘Leaving On a Jet Plane’, as the Beatles broke up, finally gave them a no.1.

From right, the lovely Mary Travers, and the professorial Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.

From right, the lovely Mary Travers, and the professorial Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.

From blonde, full-lipped, wide-hipped, chicly casual Mary Travers came the model for female folk singers—half intellectual, half earth mother; more sensual, less didactic than Joan Baez, admired as much for their poise as their voices. Hers rose to the heights of intensity as the pivot of the group sound. The trio headed the Folk Establishment when Dylan was booed off the stage at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival on switching to electrics— “selling out” to Beatleism and a Byrd brainchild.

THE GIRL GROUP SOUND—AND THERE COULD BE NO wider social, economic and musical gulf—was everywhere in 1963. Folk had neglected ‘Negro’ music evolving into regional styles of Blues: Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, Mississippi Delta, Harlem…. Artists like acoustic bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (‘See See Rider’, ‘Cottonfields’) had been forgotten by all but a few. Black performers were excluded from recognized forms of Country and Folk and barred from the teen idol club. Girl groups, overwhelmingly African-American, represented an essential outlet.

This shortlived, early-Sixties rage inhabited two-minute singles while it lasted; folk music filled half-hour l.p.s. It was accessible to young teens’ budgets, unlike the folk popular with older, upper middle class youth who were after an instructive experience maybe even more than a musical one. And the guarded intellectual independence of the socially conscious folk artist was anathema to the strict (read ‘control freak’ for Phil Spector) management setup governing the girl groups. Ponderous intellect was banned altogether from the genre for hormone-driven, teenage emotions. On disc The Girl alternately pleaded for mercy from a boyfriend or otherwise strutted in triumph, and always purred in self-absorption.

Nurtured and then pushed by Eastern labels, impressionable teens in a once-innocent after-school pastime came to be molded to appeal to fans their own age. The creative units that were the Shirelles, Bobettes, Chantels and Marvelettes—composing, writing and arranging vocals for their own songs—were taken over by professional writers, producers, corporate middlemen and retailers, who took the lion’s share of returns on the ‘product’. While most scored a string of hits, one-hit wonders followed up with a soundalike that spelt their doom. Striking one-offs on DJs’ platter-racks came from up-and-coming record entrepreneurs, producers taking over the reins of pop. These mavericks used artists as conduits to creative and business ends. With such a cavalier attitude taken to their careers, it was rare for group members to make it as real stars. Those who did could be counted on three fingers—Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight. The rest, used as interchangeable makeweights by producers who could swap personnel among established groups at will for purposes of cutting a 45, were anonymous to record buyers and to rub in their employee status were usually paid per hour of studio time on a union scale.

The ’62-63 girl groups owed nothing to passive fifties sweeties the McGuire Sisters (‘Sugartime’) and Chordettes (‘Mr Sandman’, ‘Lollipop’). The Chantels (‘Maybe’), whose soaring gospel tones had set the standard, inspired New Jersey’s Shirley Owens to call her group the Shirelles—and to also write their own hits. For more than two years it was a two-horse race until late in 1960 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ the Shirelles were snatched up by the big time—Brill Building Pop and composer Carole King. Black girl groups took off as an industry, though it took almost a year for other major acts to arrive: the Marvelettes and self-penned ‘Please Mr Postman’, and the Crystals, ‘There’s No Other’. These were remade by the Beatles and Beach Boys. Not merely paying tribute to current American culture, with ‘Boys’, ‘Chains’ and ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’, the Beatles adopted it.

The Shirelles reigned for two years as the top group, male or female—manager Flo Greenberg owned Scepter Records—continuing with ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ (remade by the Mamas & the Papas), ‘Baby It’s You’ (Beatles) and ‘Soldier Boy’, a Beatle live favorite. But as black rock’n’rollers they were unacceptable to network tv, the most racist of the mass media. People had prejudices about whom they “invited into their living rooms”. Through ’63 the Shirelles gave ground to the sounds of Phil Spector and then to big media machinery—EMI, backing Britain. They were last seen in the US top fifty the very week the Beatles arrived in America. Months later their ‘Sha La La’ flopped only for Manfred Mann to run strong with it. In fact, all existing girl groups—but the strongly supported, highly drilled and adaptable Motowners—would be wiped out by the Brits.

Hot on the heels of Spector’s Philles in exploiting a girl group sound was Philly’s Cameo-Parkway, Dee Dee Sharp and the Orlons —launching them with ’62 dance crazes ‘Mashed Potato Time’ and ‘Wah-Watusi’. And there was ‘The Loco-Motion’ intended by Goffin & King for Dee Dee but passed on to Leiber & Stoller protégée Little Eva.

Small labels who knew how to improvise and innovate often incorporated male voices to broaden the two-minute dramas. The Orlons (also ‘Don’t Hang Up’, ‘South Street’) and Exciters (‘Tell Him’, United Artists) had a male voice in their lineups; Sensations (‘Let Me In’ on Argo), Ruby & the Romantics (Kapp) and the Essex (Roulette) a female lead backed by males. The Essex was comprised of off-duty US Marines—a fun, semi-professional element was still essential to the entertainment business.

Soloists were produced to sound like groups by backing singers or double-tracking the lead’s voice: Mary Wells’/Motown’s ‘My Guy’. Before that Detroit sister Barbara Lewis was (like homegirl Aretha Franklin) claimed by Atlantic, creating the highly attractive self-penned ‘Hello, Stranger’. Shirley Ellis from New York City was on small indie Congress: ‘Nitty Gritty’, ‘The Name Game’. Branching out from the Four Seasons, Bob Crewe took one more New Jerseyite to the top—a double-tracked Lesley Gore and her pleas to boyfriend Johnny, declaring independence in ‘You Don’t Own Me’—blocked from no.1 by the Beatles in their first sales rush. Darlene Love was a member of LA’s Blossoms but as a freelancer was used anonymously by Spector as one of the Crystals—lead voice on ‘He’s a Rebel’ and ‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ before stamping her mark with ‘A Fine Fine Boy’ and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, now a perennial on The Late Show.

In twenty months up to the end of ’63 thirteen acts recording in girl group mode reached no.1. Dee Dee Sharp’s and the manbait Ronettes’ were disputed chart toppers, as was ‘Sally Go Round the Roses’ by the Jaynetts—a highly advanced theme (insanity over love loss) and sound released by tiny Tuff. The Chiffons (Laurie), the Essex based in North Carolina and New Jersey’s Angels (Smash) ruled for multiple weeks in a fickle year.

the crystalsThe Crystals—whether using Lala Brooks or Darlene Love as lead—and the Chiffons from The Bronx and Upper Manhattan with personality-plus, were now the top girl groups, though hardly long enough for a reign. Between them they defined the genre in ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’—and ‘He’s So Fine’, a five-week no.1 through April, and equally famous classic ‘One Fine Day’, ‘Sweet Talkin’ Guy’ sneaking in three years later. At Motown the Marvelettes (‘Playboy’, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’) lay fallow through ’63 but revived fitfully through the Brit era with ‘Too Many Fish in the Sea’ and more. New girls Martha & the Vandellas had a similarly patchy stardom: ‘Come and Get These Memories’, then true classic ‘Heat Wave’. A year later they and Motown’s house band delivered a shining milestone, ‘Dancing in the Street’, then ‘Nowhere to Run’—but again at the height of the British Invasion their impact was blunted.

The Ronettes: from left, lead singer Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett (the future Mrs Phil Spector), her cousin Nedra Talley, her sister Estelle Bennett. The Ronettes, unlike the Crystals, survived into 1964, but were unceremoniously pushed to the margins. New girl group releases went begging: the Secrets’ ‘The Boy Next Door’ and ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ by the chronically ignored Supremes—laboring under the harsh male r&b line introduced by ‘Louie Louie’ and extended by English arrivals.

The Beatles and Beach Boys, more than any other male groups of the mid-sixties, owed the girl groups. Brian and Carl Wilson, and Al Jardine, could be mistaken for women, on vinyl, when the occasion called for it. But while they nurtured and developed the style, the Beatles rather exploited it. The UK scene was instead geared to provide bulk, redone r&b from the many hundreds of groups scattered from Liverpool to London; its studios were technically capable of little else. As major production outfits only Motown (and later Atlantic) had the impetus to take on the British Invasion. Three teenagers from the Brewster Projects on the east side of Detroit, showing signs of life after four years, would suffer a further nine months before living up to their name in commercial success.

………………

SO, AS HAS BEEN AGONIZED OVER OFTEN, WHEN DID Fifties music end and The Sixties really begin? Official histories tell us that Rock music was dead and America was left somewhere between slumber and coma until the Beatles breathed new life into it in ’64. But evolution was all around and had never stopped, in innovative recordings by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, then the Leiber-Stoller productions for the Drifters—‘There Goes My Baby’ and its orchestration of r&b—and the coming of Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison, girl groups…. This was known by, was obvious to, those who rejected the Beatles as well as the Liverpudlians themselves, who tried at every stage to emulate—copy— current music and recorded sounds coming out of America. It was quite apparent to many people around the world, who kept buying American records in preference to any others. The Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Motown and the Four Seasons brought new forces to bear in 1962-63, and were picked up on and absorbed by the English groups—the Beatles no less than anyone else, long before their arrival in America. And the Beatles found at least as much kinship with pure pop from Bert Kaempfert, Burt Bacharach and Don Kirshner as with its progressive creatives.

There were still divisions in radio between stations along race lines or, more accurately, according to how black/white the music. Black acts had been crossing over the racial barrier into broad popularity since blues/jazz artists Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in the Roaring Twenties, when ‘lude’ delivery wasn’t a problem. In the hung-up Fifties when interracial sex was more of a possibility and therefore more threatening, only balladeers engendering genteel romance were accepted: the Platters, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis. The barometer of societal pressure was measured by tv ratings counters, and that meant Ed Sullivan, since the Thirties the arbiter of what was okay on radio. Into the Sixties he barred black rock’n’roll groups from appearing on his tv show—maybe fearing like other tv bosses it would appear to Southern viewers as an on-screen race riot—while welcoming ‘cultured’ black performers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. More cultured than virtually anyone in the country had been Paul Robeson—opera star, actor and all-star football player, but a one-time admitted ally of Russia and therefore reviled, blacklisted and exiled from home.

Sam Cooke: smooth and soulful, with an incomparable voice that made you sit up and listen.

Sam Cooke: smooth and soulful, with an incomparable voice that made you sit up and listen.

Black music was tougher. While the popularity of Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis—‘Gina’, ‘What Will Mary Say?’—got old in ’63 r&b’s Sam Cooke continued to thrive. One of the great Gospel-Soul singers, he was a mainstay of r&b-pop through ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Chain Gang’, ‘Cupid’ and Grammy-winner ‘Twisting the Night Away’. Cooke was the spearhead of Soul singers in the American mainstream and going strong into the mid-sixties—so needing no reviving by English acts. Still, they queued up to use his material: ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, ‘Another Saturday Night’, ‘Little Red Rooster’. But the British imperative—the necessity of looking and sounding so 1964 through 1966—would stifle the emergence of new Soul stars, while those who didn’t have a sufficiently ‘African’ element to claim a distinctive niche were swept away: Chubby Checker, Ben E King, the Drifters, the Shirelles….

Intended by RCA to be the black girls’ Elvis, Cooke’s subdued tone and laidback image—unlike some others he was not banned by BBC Radio—did almost fit a sweater-wearing pretty-boy image. Yet he got involved in civil rights and founded a record label, keeping pace with blues shouters James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding who had more the image of what a black male singer should be in the mid-Sixties. At his handgun murder late in 1964 the B-side of ‘Shake’, his classic Gospel-styled protest song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, earned him joint ownership with Ray Charles of the title “Fathers of Soul”. His vocal tone and timbre were reproduced through the rock career of Brit invader Rod Stewart, his number one fan.

Ray Charles: amalgamated genres to form a unique style.

Ray Charles: amalgamated genres to form a unique style.

Charles, blind behind dark glasses but a restless mover behind the piano, was taken as a model by highly energetic and sexually charged James Brown and Otis Redding. More popular with the white public than even Cooke—and through four numbers topping the Cash Box r&b chart twenty-one weeks ’61-63—Charles’ impact on white musicians came in 1959’s ‘What’d I Say’, which might have started Sixties Music and that the Beatles and Beach Boys incorporated into their live repertoires. Both, understandably, declined to record it for fear of too obvious an authenticity gulf. Between huge Country standards ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ “The Genius” inspired the Soul explosion: ‘Unchain My Heart’, ‘Hit the Road Jack’, 1963’s ‘Busted’. His brittle, controlled voice can be heard in Bill Medley of the Righteous Bros, taught to sing by Charles, Eric Burdon (Animals) and Joe Cocker, who covered many of his standards.

Jackie Wilson: virtuoso vocals and dance -- the forerunner of Michael Jackson but with style and grace, and real soul.

Jackie Wilson: virtuoso vocals and dance -- the forerunner of Michael Jackson but with style and grace, and real soul.

James Brown and Jackie Wilson were double attractions, gifted dance stylists with potential to be universal rock showmen, only held back by dark-chocolate voices and visages—two ‘handicaps’ avoided by Michael Jackson, who was heavily influenced by both. Wilson was a perpetual-motion machine on stage, mixing spins, graceful leaps and splits all in one movement. So were the two responsible for Eighties Music? Jackie Wilson only captured world attention twice—with 1957’s ‘Reet Petite’ (popularly revived ex-USA after four decades), then ten years later, ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’, though in ’63 he offered the hard driving r&b #1‘Baby Work Out’. Jackie’s exquisitely controlled vocal gymnastics on his first hit—many claimed fellow Detroiter Aretha Franklin was his only equal—made it big also in the UK; Brown never did have a UK hit of any size, being just too black to taste. Mentored early on by Berry Gordy, had Jackie gone to Motown everlasting fame would have been his, but probably at the cost of stylistic castration.

James Brown, vintage 1964: a macho sexual shouter, and a good little mover.

James Brown, vintage 1964: a macho sexual shouter, and a good little mover.

Brown’s first sizable pop hit, ‘Prisoner of Love’, didn’t come until ’63 and was accompanied by huge sales for Live at the Apollo—such a breakthrough for black popular culture that it was played in its entirety by black radio stations. He posed a viable, stark alternative to the white rock’n’roll of the Beach Boys and ultimately the Beatles with a no.1 album to prove it.

World fame was further delayed for two years and ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’—bringing further musical tumult to the summer of ’65, followed at year’s end by ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, his iconic chart-topper. With his accompanying dance he was the personification of funky as funk can be (avoid Robin Williams’ tribute in Good Morning Vietnam). In advancing the cause of black music without the compromises of Motown’s top artists, his multilayered rhythms and staccato horn backing pointed the way to Sly & the Family Stone.

Brown’s explosion on to the scene as an alternative to the mainstream at the height of Brit Beat was propelled by listeners who had heard Motown’s response to the Beatles—the Supremes and Four Tops—and wanted something more authentically black. James Brown was by the end of the decade “Soul Brother Number One”, his ongoing dominance of African-derived r&b seeing him elevated to “Godfather of Soul”.

The Drifters in 1963, lead singer Rudy Lewis ('Up On the Roof', 'On Broadway') second from right. Lewis fatally shot himself in the spring of 1964 the morning 'Under the Boardwalk' was to be recorded, leaving the group's umpteenth lead singer, Johnny Moore, to do the job.

The Drifters in 1963, lead singer Rudy Lewis ('Up On the Roof', 'On Broadway') second from right. Lewis fatally shot himself in the spring of 1964 the morning 'Under the Boardwalk' was to be recorded, leaving the group's umpteenth lead singer, Johnny Moore, to do the job.

MORE ACCESSIBLE TO WHITE LISTENERS, THE TOP black male group to late ’64—until the Four Tops and the Temptations—was the Drifters. Evolving from Doo-Wop combos and produced by Leiber & Stoller, they posted ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ as a massive hit in fall 1960 only for lead singer Ben E King to solo and take the brand with him in ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Stand By Me’. Anyway, they proved a pillar of Sixties music combining r&b and pop in innovative ways for Atlantic —though for a time overshadowed by the preponderance of girl groups. They came right in ’63 with ‘Up On the Roof’ and ‘On Broadway’, followed up by ‘Under the Boardwalk’. It was a startling success at the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, which through the Searchers was regurgitating their ‘Sweets for My Sweet’ and ‘I Count the Tears’. By ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’, a popular party number, they were sounding dated. Their new producer, Bert Berns (a.k.a. Russell, writer of ‘Twist & Shout’, etc), who had dragged out the baion rhythm past its welcome, went to the UK to be part of the Invasion.

The contemporary force compelling the Beatles and Beach Boys to pay hommage was a mainstream sound they could approximate without the vocal contortions of turning into a black man (though McCartney and Lennon strained to do that on occasion). Motown of Detroit was under its founder multiplying into the wealthiest independent record company by the mid-Sixties.

Smokey Robinson (second from right) & the Miracles

Smokey Robinson (second from right) & the Miracles

First harnessed were the formidable talents of singer-songwriters Smokey Robinson (‘Shop Around’) and Barrett Strong (Beatle favorite ‘Money—That’s What I Want’), then prolific team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier & Eddie Holland and Stevie Wonder (‘I Was Made to Love Her’). Robinson, admired for his fine, evocative lyrics—called by Dylan “America’s greatest living poet”—would have been the envy of Dylan for mastering the musical side of the art too in composing-recording the emotive ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and ‘Tears of a Clown’, ‘My Guy’, ‘I Second That Emotion’ and ‘Get Ready’.

Instead of enslaving mass instruments into a lump of sound as did the Spector-Nitzsche-Levine team at Gold Star, the Motown studio wizards featured individual talents and idiosyncracies of working Detroit jazz and r&b musicians, kept them upfront at the mikes, and left fully intact the live response of the snare drum, saxophone, etc, and avoided Spector’s everpresent drum muffling, echo and other elaborations. Based on an intimate working pool known as the Funk Brothers, Motown broke the mold of pop production. Gordy’s hands-on Svengali management with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Barrett Strong or Henry Stevenson producing, dwarfed the scale of Spector’s one-man Philles operation.

Before striking a compromise ‘black pop’ formula exemplified by the Supremes (the Isley Bros’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, sounded very much like the model for late-sixties Brit pop) that would bring it two dozen Billboard number ones, the early Motown records were raw and convincing, including those from its girl groups. To ensure inroads into the white market the appealing but recognizably black Mary Wells was introduced in 1962, two years later replaced by the breathlessly cooing Diana Ross, on every track sounding like Marilyn Monroe gasping ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ and squealing every now and again for effect, supposedly signalling the height of passion.

Holland-Dozier-Holland were now in ’63 making their mark with ‘Heat Wave’ and Supremes protohit ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’. Smokey Robinson was more versatile. As the one highly talented string to Gordy’s bow at the fledgling company he had become a co-director of the label and catered to his group the Miracles and the demanding vocal artistry of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.

Martha Reeves heading the Vandellas: more talented than Diana Ross but not cozy with the boss.

Martha Reeves heading the Vandellas: more talented than Diana Ross but not cozy with the boss.

An array of talents was flourishing within the broad limits of Motown for three years before the Beatles hit America. While the Beatles attempted to duplicate its sound on record they never came close, and afterwards the “Sound of Young America”, displaying shrewd cross-racial marketing by Gordy, only expanded its popularity and influence through the so-called British Beat Boom.

Atlantic, as an artist-driven enterprise, avoided direct competition with Motown’s factory of craftsmen. Led by closely cooperating Muslim and Jewish figures (God Bless America), it emerged as the definitive label of Soul Music, in ’64 blowing off its rival the troubled Vee-Jay. Producer Jerry Wexler under Turkish-American brothers Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun was the preeminent creative force with, briefly, Leiber & Stoller, the Coasters—featuring “The Yakety Sax” of King Curtis—the Drifters and Ray Charles, Carla Thomas and father Rufus, Barbara Lewis, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha. The Mar-Keys, racially integrated—white Memphis guitarist Steve Crop-per and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn with drummer Al Jackson (see The Blues Brothers, 1980)—joined a local organist as Booker T & the MGs for ‘Green Onions’ and backed tracks for Atlantic-Stax.

It goes without saying both Beatles and Beach Boys owed much to black music. Lennon and McCartney nurtured an ability to simply regurgitate it rather than adapt it. But in trying to render it faithfully they can be seen to more often parody it. It is a rarity to find a cover that matched the original in quality of feeling; poor choice of material unsuited to their strengths was another failing early on that betrayed a stubbornly untrained, at times amateurish, approach.

ROCK MUSIC — TWIST’N’SURF! FOLK’N’SOUL! (Part 1)

In music on June 5, 2009 at 11:29 pm

— another excerpt from a chapter of G. A. De Forest’s book ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’, published November 2007 by Booklocker.com and available from Amazon.com, where it listed #23 on its sales list of Music: History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008.

Chubby Checker demonstrating The Twist, late summer 1960

Chubby Checker demonstrating The Twist, late summer 1960

As the world bleached itself blonde, daydreamed of waxing ironing-boards or bikini lines to go surfin’, hitched up its collective swimsuit and pondered on converting the family runabout into a woody or hotrod, the Beach Boys hung ten over a cauldron of pop sounds. The vocal surf sound they invented superseded both Elvis Presley and “The Twist” that had ruled under the perpetual-motion hips of Chubby Checker.

By the time the sizzling Twist tempo simmered down to a ‘Mambo Twist’ and ‘Twistin’ USA’ those with an ear knew it was time to move on; just as Capitol wouldn’t know when surf music passed its prime. By summer ’63 when the Beach Boys had left the field Chubby had moved on too—but to ‘Surf Party’; and the Isley Bros from ‘Twist and Shout’ to ‘Surf and Shout’. Rock iconoclast Frank Zappa conquered and held the Mexican charts most of that year with ‘Tijuana Surf’. For the next four years, as he sustained his creative momentum, the world would not catch up to—but for an idealistic minority, did not want to catch up to—Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson. It had new champions in the Beatles, much better at keeping pace with even the slow, retro-inclined audience.

FATS DOMINO WAS SOLE ORIGINAL ROCK’N’ROLLER to make it with a hit catalogue to the end of 1963. Then he faded, ironically to forge a comeback in the late Sixties showing up the Beatles with raunched-up takes on ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Lady Madonna’. Chuck Berry and Little Richard both revived in 1964 after five years of relative obscurity—still with old-style rock’n’roll, as a direct result of imitations by the Beatles.

Dion DiMucci: the first Bandstand teen idol to be more than a sweater-wearer

Dion DiMucci: the first Bandstand teen idol to be more than a sweater-wearer

Del Shannon: American rock is reborn in 1961, cloaked in a sweater. The Beach Boys could have taken the rocker image further.

Del Shannon: American rock is reborn in 1961, cloaked in a sweater. The Beach Boys could have taken the rocker image further.

Shunning the sappy teen idolatry of the Frankies and Fabians, white rock’n’rollers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, were too rebellious to be tolerated by the Establishment though continuing popular in the UK, and especially France, just catching up with the play. Here they were treated as current, even after Cochran was deceased, shown by their huge chart success into the mid-sixties. Closest in toughness—but judged marshmallow enough for vulnerable American teens—were Del Shannon and Dion (DiMucci). Del was far less consistent in the States but, unlike Dion, hugely appreciated in Britain, where he passed as an almost-leather-clad rocker touring there over the Beatles in 1963. His lukewarm cover of ‘From Me to You’ that introduced Beatle music to America was a comedown after ‘Runaway’, a couple of soundalikes and his latest, ‘Little Town Flirt’. Reduced to remakes, ‘Keep Searchin’’ kept him alive a year into Beatletime.

Coming from Italian-American Doo-Wop humming on Bronx street corners, Dion by ’63 was the most respected of all teen idols in Elvis’s trail. ‘Runaround Sue’—like Bobby Darin on speed— and even better his convincing r&b growling on ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Ruby Baby’, set new marks for white singers. The complex cyclical harmony-and-percussion of ‘Donna the Prima Donna’ was an exciting arrangement the Beach Boys would later use. He then attempted Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’—in too-direct competition with British groups, who had (apart from the Beach Boys) cornered the market on Berry refrains.

While English groups from London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle—and West Coast US groups from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and LA—merely extrapolated on old forms of r&b and blues, black artists were developing a new form, “Soul”, often as African as the original Blues and Gospel. Black singers and musicians in distinctive African form were rarely given the limelight, James Brown & the Famous Flames being the shining exception—in America, not Britain, which has forever cherished its tuneful pop, Beatle music coming to serve as its epitome. A new strength was showing in black music in 1963, building on a base created by Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, their former lead singer Jerry Butler (often coupled with Betty Everett) and Gene Chandler at Vee Jay and the Isley Bros. All of these were habitually successful on the r&b charts but only fitfully on the pop charts. A whole array of talent at Atlantic/Stax so far undiscovered by the white audience but for instrumental group Booker T & the MGs, and a new direction in girl groups and male vocalists (notably Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson) headed by Motown, would change all that. Brown and 13-year-old Stevie Wonder were even now rising to the very top of mainstream pop with hard-out r&b—an initiative effectively stifled and set back years by the Brit conquest of America.

Barred from contributing to black music for obvious reasons, the Beach Boys took r&b rock in a divergent direction over several years, from garage-band rock to psychedelia. The white world of 1963 in which they infused their music was an ill-fitting one dominated by tv’s Bandstand, the first teen-oriented pop show. Given the setting of their songs’ images their music was inevitably dubbed white and therefore middle-class, avoiding any deeper thought on the subject.

Dick Clark pretending to take a call.

Dick Clark pretending to take a call.

Chubby Checker, a protégé of Dick Clark (and named by Mrs Clark), the most popular performer in rhythm & blues— was the first ‘colored’ rock’n’roller to come anywhere near Elvis Presley, dominating the Twist as Elvis had original rock’n’roll. He was made all the more important by Elvis deserting rock for balladeering. Grooving on a rhythm similar to the dormant Little Richard, Chubby was arguably the biggest contemporary influence on the Beach Boys in their formative stage.

‘The Twist’ was huge in America and after ‘Let’s Twist Again’ it came back even bigger. In Britain the four big twist tunes (including the watered-down ‘Twisting the Night Away’ and ‘Peppermint Twist’) hit in a bunch early ’62, leaving Frankie Vaughan and Petula Clark to carry on with minor entries. Afterward Chubby was hardly heard from there, bowing to Pat Boone’s milksop twister ‘Speedy Gonzales’. In fact, Chubby’s genuine ‘Twist’ had been considered far too raucous for English ears on first release and missed top ten on re-release. No wonder English reviewers had no taste for ‘Surfin’ Safari’—they couldn’t recognise r&b authenticity when they heard it. The Brits preferred their own diluted covers of Twist songs, and their r&b groups were still infatuated with long-gone Lonnie Donegan and rockabillies Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It was fitting as per the cyclical nature of pop culture that, after Cash Box named his ‘Limbo Rock’ top hit of ’63 and then years in rock’n’roll revival shows, Chubby returned with a version of ‘Back in the USSR’, written by Paul McCartney for the Beatles, but sounding like the Beach Boys.

The American group’s special aspirations were later summed up by Chapple & Garofalo in Rock’n’Roll is Here to Pay (1977): “The surfing music that appeared in the early sixties should not be seen as just another fad that softened rock’n’roll. Rather it was a precursor to the psychedelic and underground progressive rock of the sixties. Several of the important people involved in surfing music—especially the Beach Boys (‘Surfin’ Safari’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Surfer Girl’) and Lou Adler, one of the first producers of Jan & Dean, became central figures in sixties rock. Surfing music represented an authentic West Coast rock’n’roll culture that differed in one important way from earlier rock’n’roll produced by urban blacks and Southern rockabillies: it was made by middle-class whites.” The Beatles and other British groups of the mid-Sixties attempted to reproduce the earlier rock’n’roll.

The Four Seasons in 1962, of 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

The Four Seasons in 1962, of 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

Bandstand‘s update of teen idols—in light of the turn away from solo vocalists to groups wielding their own instruments, a develop-ment toward independence diametrically opposed to what the industry wanted—was the Four Seasons, Dick Clark’s new favorites from just down the New Jersey turnpike. Modelled on doo-wop vocal quartets and stopping short of adding a drummer meant they didn’t qualify as a rock’n’roll band and so appealed to the conservative music industry bosses of 1962-63 as a halfway stop; still desperately seeking an alternative to rock’n’roll, for a while they thought they’d found it in folk music.

Self-determining like the Beach Boys, the Seasons recorded in their choice of studio, or rather producer Bob Crewe’s—in New York—and did a pressing, distribution and promotion deal with Chicago’s Vee-Jay for 16 cents per single—about 21%, around sixty times what the Beatles were now getting from their songs licensed to the same label. One estimate of Four Seasons career sales is 175 million worldwide.

Under Crewe they showed just the right combination of toughness and sophistication in the studio, described as “technically brilliant” by an English reviewer who visited them, though in person up against laddish English boys came across as overly mature squares though hardly older than the Beatles or, especially, Stones. It was an image that would hamper them all too soon, considering the assets they drew together to offer Pop, combining modern r&b—hear departing member Nick Massi’s vocal arrangement of ‘Ain’t That a Shame’—with Tin Pan Alley, often employing composers Denny Randell & Sandy Linzer (‘Let’s Hang On’, ‘Working My Way Back to You’, ‘Opus 17’). Their arranger, Charles Calello, incorporated classical touches on piano and harpsichord to add Noo Yawk class. Keyboard player Bob Gaudio was sole or main writer of breakthrough no.1 ‘Sherry’, ‘Marlena’, ‘Dawn (Go Away)’, ‘Big Man in Town’ and ‘Beggin’’, and created with Crewe ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Save It for Me’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Rag Doll’ (their biggest gobally) and ‘Bye Bye Baby’, later blanded out by the Bay City Rollers.

FEW SOLO STARS—THOUGH THE SEASONS’ FRANKIE Valli was distinctive and well enough known to be a teen idol, and did issue solo discs—continued strong into 1963. Bobby Vee, come from an association with Buddy Holly, from whom he continued the trend of orchestrated pop, was little seen after ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ early in the year. Brian Hyland (‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’, ‘Sealed With a Kiss’) returned at four-year intervals: ‘The Joker Went Wild’ and remaking the Impressions’ ‘Gypsy Woman’; Lou Christie, emulating Frankie Valli’s shrill falsetto and now in the last intake of idols with ‘The Gypsy Cried’ and ‘Two Faces Have I’, every three years—‘Lightnin’ Strikes’, ‘Rhapsody in the Rain’— then ‘I’m Gonna Make You Mine’. Bobby Rydell (‘Wild One’), counting as almost a major star for four years, pegged out with ‘Forget Him’ late ’63, as did Johnny Tillotson (‘Poetry in Motion’, ‘Judy, Judy, Judy’), a prolific but minor ‘idol’, with ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’. Rick Nelson, a rock’n’roll stylist cum teen idol who featured top-notch backing musicians, bowed with a bossa nova treatment of ‘Fools Rush In’.

Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

Brenda Lee: "Little Miss Dynamite"Urban-Italian-sweet Connie Francis (‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, ‘My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own’, ‘Where the Boys Are’, etc) and country-Georgia-sassy Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothin’s’, ‘I’m Sorry’, ‘Dum Dum’) remained top teen princesses, each mounting nearly twenty top 20 US hits—and then their head-to-head contest came to a dead halt. While ’63 was a great year for Brenda—two international multimillion-sellers in ‘All Alone Am I’ and ‘Losing You’, the belter ‘My Whole World Is Falling Down’—her last real big one, ‘As Usual’, was leaving the charts as the Beatles landed. That was really the end. Connie treaded water in beach movies (Follow the Boys), and Brenda—succeeding Connie—retained her Cash Box world’s top female vocalist crown for two more awards, but it was only the wan impact of their British equivalents that enabled the two to stay recognised names, just submerged under the new group scene.

Connie Stevens and Annette Funicello, recording actresses, were their runners-up in popularity polls. Precocious acting talent Patty Duke, with her own teen sitcom, would succeed them in the pop market and last four hits. Big for a while in ’63 were Marcie Blane’s ‘Bobby’s Girl’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ and melodramatic ‘I Will Follow Him’ (“wherever he may go”) emoted by Little Peggy March, all following up award-winning ‘Johnny Get Angry’ from Joanie Sommers the year before. All were one-shots until Lesley Gore (‘It’s My Party’, ‘Judy’s Turn to Cry’, ‘You Don’t Own Me’) made the teen girl vein her own.

Virtually all teen idols, female and male, were gone before the arrival of the Beatles—thanks to the dominating presence of the Beach Boys and Four Seasons driving the pop industry away from sometimes puerile, often sentimental, mush into a much tougher group-oriented scene. In the new world of male groups, alternately male rights were demanded and male longing for “the right girl” was openly expressed. All had melted away, that is, but for the resistant strain of Bobby Vinton, in America; and Gene Pitney, more popular ex-USA.

Gene Pitney: a Euro-ising influence on American pop, with Burt Bacharach

Gene Pitney: a Euro-ising influence on American pop, with Burt Bacharach

Pitney hit through movie themes Town Without Pity and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ending ’62 in ‘Only Love Can Break a Heart’, a no.2, backed by jukebox favorite ‘If I Didn’t Have a Dime’—as big as he ever got in America though through ’63 he continued to define Sixties pop: ‘True Love Never Runs Smooth’, ‘Half Heaven, Half Heartache’, upbeat ‘Mecca’ and signature tune ‘Twenty-four Hours From Tulsa’. All fell short of top ten but by now a superstar in Britain he switched to suit the market from the Bacharach-David writing team to big ballads ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’ and ‘Looking Through the Eyes of Love’ from Spector favorites Mann-Weil. His pseudo-operatic pleading style hit a chord world-wide. Spending a deal of time in the UK with publicist Andrew Loog Oldham and thus the Stones and other new figures at the centre of the industry, he came to adopt, and was adopted by, the British Invasion with trans-Atlantic sounds ‘It Hurts to Be in Love’ and ‘Last Chance to Turn Around’. But while staying a fixture there—‘Princess in Rags’, ‘Backstage’, etc—he also sank with the Brits.

The new Bobby had only been around a year (‘Roses Are Red’) but dominated second-half-of-’63 charts: ‘Blue on Blue’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘There! I’ve Said it Again’ all reaching top and spanning into Beatletime. Sticking to slow, melodious Easy Listening as a sort of white Johnny Mathis, he went all the way again with ‘Mr Lonely’ (hear the dire rehash c. 2005) but stuck fast in glutinous remakes thereafter. Like Mathis, he defied the trends— and uniquely for a teen idol scored better in sales than in airplay. But the fact that the Brits ignored him made him an anachronism, never figuring in the development of Sixties Music.

Bobby Vinton: sweetly retro, pointing the way 'forward' to Beatle ballads.

Bobby Vinton: sweetly retro, pointing the way 'forward' to Beatle ballads.

Vinton’s sentimental sweetness and total lack of rock impetus—a male Patti Page—kept sleepy Middle America in the Fifties, though strangely well in tune with the sentimental Beatle ballads everpresent through the Sixties. Of Middle European extraction, nicknamed the Polish Prince, his Polka-paced melodies brought out the Old World tradition the Beatles were so fond of. Vinton’s album Tell Me Why revealed his affinity with many Lennon-McCartney tunes. He carried the stream of comfortable-sweater Bobbys to Bobby Goldsboro mid-decade, on to Shindig resident Bobby Sherman—Las Vegas style, not hinting even at the cleaned-up version of “rock and roll” but successfully passed off as such.

ROCK MUSIC — ENGLAND SWINGS?

In anthropology, celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music on June 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm

— an excerpt from another chapter of G. A. De Forest’s book ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’, published by Booklocker.com in November 2007 and available for around $17.95. Highest position thus far on Amazon’s sales list in the Music: History & Criticism category is #23 on April 26th 2008.

“Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do/ bobbies on bicycles two by two/ Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben/ the rosy red cheeks of the little chil-dren.”—Country Music’s Oklahoma stump philosopher of the mid-Sixties, Roger Miller, observing the myth of Merry England. By the time of Miller’s paean—what, in any other era, would have been a giant pain—England had ruled pop music for two years and was conquering the rest of pop culture. The miniskirt, fashion designer Mary Quant, supermodel Jean Shrimpton (Twiggy to come), and Carnaby Street were all household names around the world. In London they took their fashion so seriously that anyone walking down Carnaby Street or Chelsea’s King’s Road out of fashion might have been ritually stoned, in both senses of the word.

The coolest tv program was The Avengers—karate-kicking Emma Peel and immaculately Savile Row-attired John Steed. The chic actresses were Julie Christie on the big screen, by acclaim, and by definition Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher, and Mick Jagger’s, Marianne Faithfull—by her own account blessed by an accident of birth with “The Look” and so doubling effortlessly as a chic rock star.

The Beatles in '65: John and Paul styling their hair, Ringo and George still generic moptops

The Beatles in '65: John and Paul styling their hair, Ringo and George still generic moptops

The Beatles came in 12th at American box-offices for 1965, 6th UK. America’s two no.1 movie stars through 1965-66 were Brits Sean Connery (James Bond) and saccharine songstress Julie Andrews, dis-placing all-American team Doris Day and Rock Hudson —suddenly hopelessly outdated 40-year-old born-again virgins, plopped down from Planet Quaint into The Swinging Sixties. The British had cornered the movie market (apart from westerns, fading fast): Bond and Michael Caine the nattiest dressed screen spies; Peter Sellers superseded Jerry Lewis as America’s most popular comic; Hayley Mills still the world’s no.1 child star, turning 20; Margaret Rutherford was the screen’s adored septuagenarian. An entire generation of British actors—Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Susannah York, Sarah Miles—were said to be the most interesting on screen. The swingingest middle-aged affair involved fifth-time-around Liz Taylor/Cleopatra and her consort Richard Burton/Marc Antony. And more UK actors—Richard Harris (‘MacArthur Park’), Noel Harrison (‘Windmills of Your Mind’)—were held to be the most expressive vocalists in recording.

For the first time in centuries England defined cool. Three months after the Beatles arrived in America, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan were trying their luck with extended tours in England, previously a whistle-stop. Those who could fake being English to Stateside audiences were flavor of the month, often literally. New LA groups the Byrds—first goofily calling themselves the Beefeaters—and the Turtles, false-advertising themselves as from England, strained mightily for Beatle accents in the frenzied quest for fame before stumbling on to Dylan and folk rock. Others hoping to fool the public were the Buckinghams and Golliwogs (later Creedence Clearwater Revival). For more than two years Americans were mindlessly Anglophile, and it took an English songwriter, Ray Davies of the Kinks, to debunk it all in the spring of 1966 with the flaying derision of ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Still, only slowly was the spell broken: Britons had nine number ones in America that year.

While it lasted the edict—more powerful than if a law had been passed—shut out the all-too-American Beach Boys for their obvious aural and visible handicaps: being so un-English as to commit a heresy against revealed wisdom. The Four Seasons, older and more brittle, broke—no longer superstars in ’65 due to media neglect. Wide-ranging surveys in the mid-Seventies by WNBC-New York, WFIL-Philadelphia and WRKO-Boston to discover the most popular hits long term showed that the Seasons were done in by someone: ‘Dawn’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Let’s Hang On’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘Opus 17’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘C’mon Marianne’, mostly greeted without fanfare on release, ended up like most Beach Boys hits among the top dozen or so Eastern Seaboard sellers from their respective years— rated higher than Beatle number ones ‘Ticket to Ride’, ‘Day Tripper’, ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Frankie Valli: “A lot of American groups got lost… Everybody has to have their own identity—it’s very important. That’s what we did. We said, ‘Sink or swim, but we’re going to stay with what we do’ and it’s the only chance that anyone could have.”

The towering, enduring irony was that the best to come out of Britain in the Sixties by its best—The Who, the Kinks, the Stones, Cream—was created on vinyl by American record producers, resettling in Britain because anxious to get in on the scene. Foremost among an array of dominating American producers was Shel Talmy, who described Dick Rowe, “the man who turned down the Beatles”, as “one of the few people in England who was pro-American”. The anti-Americanism was a pathetically hypocritical defensive screen erected by a domestic industry built on a framework of American music as its direct inspiration, and now heavily reliant on imported American talent to make it work.

The Beach Boys would have to overcome the dictates of fashion—a feat unheard of in the pop scene—generated in London and pervading America via New York, always susceptible to trends crossing the Atlantic. In choosing artistic integrity they chose values that held no currency in the prevailing showbiz climate. And if they won they presented a danger that show business might never recover from, a threat to the whole basis of marketing: “Go with the bestselling commodity of the moment. Undersell, then dump, yesterday’s goods.”

For Capitol/EMI, the Beach Boys’ primary business connection —the multinational that manufactured and distributed their recordings but was now dependent on the quick-sale Beatles—the course was clear.

WHEN SIXTIES HISTORIES RECORD THE BEATLES saved pop music from dreary, saccharine crooners of no originality it is partly true—in the UK, not the multifaceted, ever-changing American scene. The Cliff Richards, Shadows and Joe Meek acts including the Tornadoes had already made strides in Britain. For all their individual qualities their passing would not be mourned by the Beatles who, pre-fame, derided them as smoothies in suits. While rock’n’roll had cooled from its original white heat, the American mainstream had the vital three-pronged thrust of the Beach Boys, Motown and Atlantic primed to explode, a mainspring integrating black and white performers now put on hold by the Beatle-led aberration.

The year the Beatles had their first hit—1962—the UK top 20 was full of inferior covers of American records, as bemoaned by Britain’s own industry spokespersons: ‘Moon River’, ‘Tower of Strength’, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, ‘When My Little Girl is Smiling’, ‘Roses Are Red’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Bobby’s Girl’, ‘Up On the Roof’…. These remakes and their performers—Danny Williams, Frankie Vaughan, Karl Denver, Johnny Spence, Craig Douglas, Jimmy Justice, Shane Fenton, Ronnie Carroll, Mark Wynter, Susan Maughan, Maureen Evans, Kenny Lynch—weren’t heard overseas except in dutiful British Commonwealth markets loyal to the mother country. Orchestra leaders left over from the big band era purveyed restful ballroom numbers: Acker Bilk, Joe Loss, John Barry. If Kenny Ball—popular in America with ‘Midnight in Moscow’—hadn’t introduced post-War-styled ‘Sukiyaki’ it is unlikely Americans would ever have let the original out of the bottle to contribute to the apparent malaise of 1963.

While rare knowledgeable British fans have been praised by American rock’n’rollers for recognising quality, the UK had an all-powerful clobbering machine keeping rock’n’roll down—“Auntie BBC”, which in its duty to young and old ears alike efficiently suppressed black music under the guise of preserving the country’s cultural heritage: akin to the White Australia Policy elsewhere in the Empire. It was the brief liberalisation of the airwaves, 1964-67, when they finally got some exposure as private ‘pirate’ radio stations flourished around the British Isles, that the rock’n’rollers were thankful for.

So it was that the run of new UK groups formed by 1963 left much to be desired in originality and style, but what did America’s fashion-conscious youths, white middle-class teenyboppers who hadn’t heard real rock’n’roll, care? Most British rock’n’roll in the invasion was about as convincing as Italian westerns or Japanese Elvises. The Beatles and other UK r&b groups always preferred the original US recordings, if they could get them—then spoilt the effect by performing inferior covers themselves, true to the English spirit of anyone-can-put-their-hand-to-it-rock’n’roll, one level removed from the makeshift skiffle groups. Obviously, like the Rolling Stones, the more up-close exposure the Beatles had to American practitioners the better they got, though Paul, George & John’s dumping of virile drummer Pete Best (with his bass-drum and tom-tom driven sound a spotlighted feature of the band) had defeated creating a distinct English rock style for themselves in favor of Ringo’s ballroom versatility.

Still, Music Hall style and sensibility were deeply ingrained in the Brit psyche. David Jones, a struggling singer with several bands, as late as 1967 put out novelty parodies of rock’n’roll: ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ and ‘The Laughing Gnome’ in the style of early-sixties comics Mike Sarne (‘Come Outside’), Bernard Cribbins (‘A Bird Up On My Bike’), Tommy Steele (‘Little White Bull’) and Anthony Newley (‘That Noise’). It was a breakthrough tactic that caused im-mense embarrassment later. With a leap towards cool and a hefty push by Yank producer Shel Talmy he released ‘Space Oddity’ to be one of the great English figures of the early Seventies. By that time he had changed his name to David Bowie.

A persuasive view contra to Beatle omniscience comes from the British documentary tv series Dancing in the Street: American music was progressing very well, thank you, on diverse fronts most broadly represented by an r&b/soul barrage, only to be stifled by a cheapened homogenised product from UK groups with fashionable hair as their claim to popularity, a qualification unmatchable by the black originators of the music.

The coup was resented in some circles to the lengths that a “Stamp Out the Beatles” campaign was organised by Detroit student activists, fans of Motown and devotees of the grassroots r&b and blues of their city. When Paul McCartney heard of it he sensitively riposted that the Beatles would stamp out Detroit. British musicians were by and large clueless to the nuances of Blues, Gospel, Soul and any number of other American idioms of expression. And entrepreneurs of Epstein’s ilk would never have understood the dedication to quality and authenticity of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Phil Spector, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil of Brill Building ‘pop’ and many others in the American recording industry of that time: Jewish aficionados of black music.

Fans of Motown invaded the broadcast of the Beatles’ second Sullivan show in Miami, in vain. By the end of that year, 1964, a Leiber-Stoller produced, blues-tinged ‘Go Now’ was commandeered by new English group the Moody Blues for their US debut; and the Shirelles’ ‘Sha La La’ overwhelmed by a Manfred Mann cover following up ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, yet another song (by Mann-Weil) with girl group written all over it. As Dancing in the Street concluded, if the English acts had saved American music, what had they “saved” it from?

THE BEATLES WERE WORKING-CLASS LADS RAISED as pets of the English business aristocracy (and fast favorites of royalty for that) and a year later were enthroned by America, having freed itself from the British Empire two centuries before only to now don the chains wholeheartedly. Homebred musicians withered from unrequited wooing, shunned by their own media. Who would challenge the invaders?

Not a few bluecoats turned redcoat, going mod in a half-assed process totally out of cultural context. Peroxide-blond ‘surfers’ had carried surfboards through fashion-governed Chelsea in 1963, just for the look, and now the tables were turned with a vengeance. To make the switch was to be “fab”, “smashing”, “gear”. But instead of carrying it off with aplomb as the Beatles and Kinks did, Yanks started looking and acting like Austin Powers: aping foreign fashions, and parroting music alien to them. Just as the English did, to American music. In some twisted sense of karma the Byrds and Righteous Bros latched on to British wartime heroine Vera Lynn, suspecting that her flagwavers of a generation before might be just the ticket, and produced hideous remakes of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. The Beau Brummels (‘Laugh Laugh’, see John Candy comedy Uncle Buck) posed English enough to appear on The Munsters as Beatle standins. Their Revolutionary War period costumes were outdone by the bluecoat uniforms of Paul Revere & the Raiders, cashing in on lace and frills but sticking for a while to a tough LA r&b produced by surf music alumnus Terry Melcher.

P. J. Proby: introduced to the UK by the Beatles and had talent overflowing enough to go worldwide and then some.

P. J. Proby: introduced to the UK by the Beatles and had talent overflowing enough to go worldwide and then some.

Ponytailed and knee-breached on the same theme, P J Proby from Texas was befriended by the Beatles, annointed by them on UK tv and had his career made—in England, joined by Righteous Bros-soundalikes the Walker Brothers. The highly talented Proby blew his chance of continuing superstardom (or more important, widening it to his homeland) when in early ’65 he was banned by UK theatre chains and BBC-TV for deliberately splitting his tight britches to get a reaction. Tom Jones, on the same tour, took over as the star. Jones and Dusty Springfield squeaked in by the back door—welcomed by American audiences who thought they were black. The favored groups in both Britain and America now typically offered a maximum of volume and minimum of finesse, or hummable singalong melodies set amid this mishmash of so-called “rock and roll”.

Precipitating all this, the shock of the Beatles hitting America was all the more so when it was realised they were only the tip of an ever-broadening iceberg. England was soon so central to the pop culture of the Western World that within two months of the Beatles landing her two feeblest rock and roll pretenders, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes and Freddie & the Dreamers, were greeted with screaming fits in Australia on a package tour with Gerry & the Pacemakers, Dusty Springfield and adopted Yank Gene Pitney. That May the Dave Clark Five were mobbed by 5,000 fans in Washington DC, helped by well-placed pre-publicity; Fred Vail recalls being told that only two of their tour dates made money. In June the Stones dropped in to Chicago’s Chess studio to jam as equals (in fame) with their teachers Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon; but in Sacramento the Stones managed an audience of only a thousand, not helped by the exorbitant $6 price (personal communication, Fred Vail). Yet by the end of the year top US acts Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Supremes and almost the entire Motown star roster on a package tour—aside from the Shangri-Las and many less stellar—were obliged to pay return visits to England for sheer commercial reasons, if not to bow to the new Mecca of reconstituted rock and roll.

Cliff, c.1964, now with pompadour and sideburns trimmed like the tamed-down Elvis

Cliff, c.1964, now with pompadour and sideburns trimmed like the tamed-down Elvis

English teen idols with swished-back hair—but otherwise hardly differing from the Beatles—were not welcome in the US and chief among them, Cliff Richard, had suffered more initial rebuffs than the Beatles. ‘Livin’ Doll’ had made top thirty, prompting an invite from The Pat Boone Show New Year 1960. But his only apparent advance was to lead Elvis Presley’s move from rock’n’roll. A huge seller in Europe, especially Germany where Elvis was still stationed in the army, it is hard to believe the song’s sedate shuffle beat didn’t lead directly to ‘Stuck On You’, ‘Good Luck Charm’ and more sounding a lot like Cliff’s pace.

Three years later ‘Lucky Lips’, another massive world seller on the same lines, made a reentry and then late 1963 Cliff’s remake of ‘It’s All in the Game’, his biggest in the US yet, though short of top 20. Unfortunately the Beatles arrived in America just as Cliff was “peaking” and his pompadour went stone-cold-dead out of fashion. Songs like ‘Don’t Talk to Him’ and others written by a combination of Shadows/Cliff were better than Beatle music of the time though maybe it was matched by ‘Please Please Me’ (after being immensely improved by song surgeon George Martin’s revamp). But he was disqualified from serious consideration Stateside for another twelve years, continuing a household name almost everywhere else. His biggest English teen rivals, Adam Faith and Billy Fury, each had a dozen (shrinking) hits into Beatletime at home. Though Faith was pushed by all-powerful Englishman Jack Good, producer of American tv’s Hullabaloo and Shindig, this resulted in a solitary US top forty hit backed by the Roulettes, the rollicking-good ‘It’s Alright’ early in ’65. Fury too had contacts, but neither got within a bargepole of American acceptance.

The Shadows too—backing Cliff but having a spectacular career of their own ex-USA—were surplus to requirements. They’d been blocked in 1960 by one-hit-wonder Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann’s cover of their world multi-million seller ‘Apache’; after that, well America already had the Ventures, thanks for askin’.

For UK audiences local teen raves Helen Shapiro, hitting at 14, and Kathy Kirby, specialising in speeded-up Doris Day retreads, vied with Brenda Lee and Connie Francis. Shapiro even went to Nashville to record in 1963 but remained unknown to the rest of the States but for minor Easy Listening hit ‘Tell Me What He Said’. Anyway, Lesley Gore already had the teen girl franchise in America, Connie Stevens runner-up, and sultry Connie Francis and wholesome Annette Funicello between them cornering beach movies. In January of that year the Beatles, with just ‘Love Me Do’ under their belts, were ranked fifth on the Helen Shapiro show touring the UK, behind secondary American teen idols Tommy Roe (‘Sheila’) and Chris Montez (‘Let’s Dance’). By the end of the year they were at the top and she was nowhere, her demise highlighting the useless waste and anti-female bias at the onset of the Beatle era. The Beach Boys would choose her as the main support act on their spring 1967 UK tour and she later made a go of a jazz career.

There were legitimate, barely decipherable routes to American hearts other than on the lacy cuffs and billowing shirttails of the Brit Invasion.

Dusty, late '63, with the thick mascara and beginnings of a La Ronette hairdo, but still in the gingham a la the country-styled Springfields

Dusty, late '63, with the thick mascara and beginnings of a La Ronette hairdo, but still in the gingham a la the country-styled Springfields

The husky ‘black’ voices of Dusty Springfield (‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’) and Tom Jones (‘It’s Not Unusual’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’) saw them embraced as Blue-Eyed Soul, as coined by the Righteous Bros. Neither was quite as successful in the blue-eyed genre as Bill Medley & Bobby Hatfield under Phil Spector, though they lasted longer. And each was courteously credited by black artists with opening ears to black tones, though Britain remained immune to any “black” sounds but the poppiest of Motown pop for some years yet. In reality, Dusty was an acceptable torch singer, her forté the intimate whisper that Cilla Black did badly. There was a whole vocal ladder between her and Nancy Wilson or Dinah Washington, and a good few rungs up to Betty Everett or compatriot Shirley Bassey. In the UK real soul singers of the day like P P Arnold, Madeleine Bell and the Flirtations were hardly appreciated compared with the acclaim showered (mainly justly) on Macy Gray, Joss Stone and Amy Whitehouse two generations later.

Touring America early on with the Springfields, Dusty settled as a solo in New York City and remolded herself from a wholesome Irish-styled colleen belting out country-folk to the first Brit girl replicating Soul. To highlight the new image she took up a bleached-blonde variation of the big backcombed beehive hairdo and black eye makeup of the Ronettes. She cited the Exciters’ ‘Tell Him’ as her style model, and her backing vocalists the Breakaways had done a UK cover of ‘He’s a Rebel’ though Phil Spector and the Crystals’ original became the hit. Thank goodness for small mercies because the Brits had accepted everyone from Tommy Steele to Max Bygraves as stand-ins for the real thing—and continued to, as the French did their own in a rock toujour spirit.

Dusty rivalled Dionne Warwick as top songstress in the States through ’64, but then with the second big wave of invasion a songbird reminiscent of a French-styled Vera Lynn won over sentimental (white) hearts.

Euro-chanteuse Petula Clark as 'Downtown' broke, aged 32 -- an age before which Pete Townshend hoped to die.

Euro-chanteuse Petula Clark as 'Downtown' broke, aged 32 -- an age before which Pete Townshend hoped to die.

‘Pet’ Clark was over thirty and well established in middle-aged French cabaret when she introduced ‘Downtown’. A parallel movie career and accomplished stagecraft assured her place as long as the Invasion lasted and an American career as long as there were musicals on Broadway. In 1967, when Aretha Franklin discovered Soul, Pet’s days on Top 40 radio were numbered though two of her biggest hits came the first half of that year: movie director Charlie Chaplin’s ‘This is My Song’ and ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ by her writer/producer Tony Hatch, by his account modeling it after the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

lulu It wasn’t until this point, when the thrust of the Invasion was blunted, that Lulu made her biggest impact in the US, ‘To Sir With Love’, helped by the movie starring Sidney Poitier, America’s new no.1 box-office star. Resembling a Scottish Brenda Lee, Lulu went on from her ersatz stab at the Isley Bros’ r&b classic ‘Shout’— faked well enough for the British Commonwealth—to develop an individual delivery on her classics including ‘Oh Me, Oh My’. Some years later the Brits would again show their weakness for little girls in their early teens with big, put-on gravel voices by making Lena Zavaroni a star for her talent-quest renditions on tv of ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me’ and ‘Personality’.

But at the height of the Invasion America was impervious to Britain’s two best-liked girl vocalists, Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, both tressed in Brit bobs, enjoying one Top 40 hit each, ‘You’re My World’ and ‘Girl Don’t Come’. Cilla, a Liverpool/Cavern mate of the Beatles, was the US flop for manager Brian Epstein—but a British institution, moving effortlessly to television hosting. Model-like Sandie, discovered by Adam Faith, scored a small consolation in ‘(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me’ outselling Dionne Warwick’s version. But she reached her peak in Eurovision Song Quest winner ‘Puppet on a String’—not the Elvis ballad but a horrendous Bavarian-style oompah song beloved of Brits and other Euros that sold four million-plus.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

Sandie Shaw

Sandie Shaw

Gawky Cilla, overflowing with English working-class “If she can make it I can make it” appeal, made pseudo-operatic versions of Bacharach-Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ‘Alfie’. English aping led to such disasters as a cover of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’, just pipped to UK no.1 by the original. Cilla, with Manfred Mann, the Hollies, Tremeloes and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, participated in the decline of British pop in the late Sixties, now reliant on homegrown writers and producers, laid to rest by styleless Marmalades and Love Affairs. The much better Foundations, Amen Corner, The Move and others were unfortunately short-lived.

But with all this—1964 being above all a novelty year—the biggest American impact by UK-based females was made by one-off novelty takes. Overshadowing Dusty and Dionne for three months, “Millie”, Small by name and frame, promoted her native Jamaican ska beat with ‘My Boy Lollipop’ performed at the World Fair in New York with a bevy of dancers sponsored by the newly independent Jamaica’s tourist board. It was a bouncy ditty that went to #2 in Billboard, attracting as much airplay but not sales as the Beach Boys and Four Seasons through early July. The same beat, same everything, was trotted out for lesser hits. Julie Rodgers in early fall trod her footnote in history with ‘The Wedding’, moving seven million in the next eight years—seemingly played at every second wedding in the Western World in that time. The key line “You by my side—that’s how I see us” rang out the death knell of a romantic era.

IN AMERICA PRODUCERS AND SIMPATICO ENGINEERS had wholly realized advances in the studio. Hailed above them all was Phil Spector as creator extraordinaire—now coming to be rivalled by George“Shadow” Morton and Motown’s team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. All were widely acknowledged for weaving spells at the control panel—a bewildering press-button device looming large in the lives of girl artists as a metaphor for a loss of control over self-expression and their own careers. Spector in particular was widely modelled by aspiring Svengalis around the world but living up to the substance was something else. In Britain the dark shades and bodyguard-henchman clearing the rabble for the royal procession were embellishments adopted by Andrew Loog Oldham, the echo chamber effects overdone by independent producer Joe Meek.

The Rolling Stones in 1964. From left, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger,  a stoned Brian Jones, Charlie Watts; a young, relatively humanoid Keith Richards.

The Rolling Stones in 1964. From left, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, a stoned Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, a young, relatively humanoid Keith Richard

The Animals in 1964: better musicians and singers than the Stones. Eric Burdon is up front, Alan Price on keyboards and bassist Chas Chandler partly obscured

The Animals in 1964: better musicians and singers than the Stones. Eric Burdon is up front, Alan Price on keyboards and bassist Chas Chandler partly obscured

Along with the scene came girl group songwriters admired by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others. Goffin & King, writing for Little Eva, the Chiffons and Cookies (‘Chains’), wrote ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ for the Animals and later Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough ‘Natural Woman’. Other major New York spousal teams were Mann & Weil—now with ‘Walking in the Rain’ (Ronettes), ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ (Animals), ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ and ‘Soul and Inspiration’ (Righteous Bros); and Barry & Greenwich—an array including ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.

Spector, the model of the go-getter entrepreneur, reveled in the chutzpah it took to make a hit out of nothing in a make-or-break showbiz world as the rock’n’roll era wound down in 1959 and businessmen who made their livings from teen music looked for certainty in trends—a predictability that the best, most vibrant rock’n’roll abhorred, by definition. Three of the Beatles turned to Spector above anyone to produce their starting projects and reignite their solo careers. But as rock moved on, the spontaneity of the original rock’n’roll would only be recaptured in moments, and by the most talented artists.

ROCK MUSIC — CATCHING A WAVE

In history, music on June 4, 2009 at 10:26 am

— one further excerpt from ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’ by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com in November 2007 and available for around $17.95. Top position in Amazon’s sales list in the Music: History & Criticism category is #23 on April 26th 2008

The mercurial launch of the Beach Boys to hit-making in four months contrasts with other hopefuls’ gritty struggles. The Beatles, Four Seasons and Supremes—their rivals—all paid dues through a five-year lead time. The Four Tops took ten years—from generations of pop prior at the dawn of the Doo-Wop Era, when the influential Drifters were stars.
The "Coasters": early California Music; lead singers Carl Gardiner and Billy Guy fooling around center.

Dennis recalled fifteen years later to the UK’s Disc trade paper it was 1955 that his father drove the Wilson kids home from his work in the pickup as they sang ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, r&b from Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller who also created ‘Riot in Cell Block No.9’, a Beach Boy concert favorite. More street-wise, sexually-charged narratives came from the same five voices, piano, drums, bass and guitar— the Robins morphing into the West Coast’s top black group, the Coasters. In summer 1959 the big r&b hit from Leiber-Stoller was ‘There Goes My Baby’ performed by Ben E King & the Drifters.

And in that last Fifties summer Denny, not yet 15, sized up the waves at his local haunt, Manhattan Beach, dogged by cousin Mike hassling him to get musically grounded brother Brian to form a band. It wasn’t until two springs later that things began coalescing, Brian coaching them in precise Four Freshmen harmonies, favorite among favorites. In the Wilson home, going-on-19-year-olds Brian and Al Jardine, his alarmingly little (5ft-5) grid-iron buddy from the Hawthorne High Cougars, recruited youngster Carl, who gave saxophone over to Mike for Chuck Berry guitar riffs. Mike’s predominantly black former school, Dorsey High, gave him a headstart in close-up interpretation of rhythm & blues singing, and the Wilson-Love clan were imbued with r&b broadcast incessantly by LA stations. It was Dennis, dropout from high school drumming lessons, who inspired Brian and Mike to write about surfin’; in another two months, again finessed by Dennis, they had that recording contract.

The California they would come to represent around the world —then with only a fraction of its 40 million population—was emerging as the Golden Age of Hollywood movie studios passed and television invaded every living room. The USA’s West Coast seemed ripe for revolution. Those who held the purse strings over movies, TV and the big radio networks were still in New York, the center of American entertainment for two centuries. A geographical rebalancing was overdue. Pop music needed a local guiding genius to buck the powers.

As if sprinkled from a cloud of pixie dust, it would be Brian, the teenage but already eccentric creative leader of the Beach Boys, who created California Music; not Phil Spector, the savvy New Yorker transplanted to LA who at 17 had played at being a native Californian by forming the gently cooing teen trio the Teddy Bears (‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’); nor Lou Adler, Liberty Records producer soon to marry tv starlet Shelley Fabares; nor producer-trumpeter Herb Alpert, boss of brand new A&M Records and wedding Lani Hall, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66’s vocalist.

Settlers were attracted to this land famous for its resources—the native population early dispossessed—plundered by Spanish conquistadors and Gold Rush ’49-ers. Few stars originated here. The movies came to Los Angeles, not sophisticated San Francisco, for its equable weather offering filming year-round. The Arizona wilds of Flagstaff and Tucson had been tried—a little closer to Civilization, that is, the founding colonies Back East. By the Twenties the Hollywood Hills were circled by the screen industry. As the prosperous, ultra-conformist Fifties passed, Hollywood liberals blacklisted in the McCarthy Era were allowed back, secretly. Kansas president “I like Ike” Eisenhower was better known as a war hero and golfer; his vice-president, LA’s Richard Nixon, a commie-hunter. When handsome intellectual cum touch-footballer JFK was chosen in LA at 1960’s Democratic Party convention to run as the first-ever president born in the 20th Century the time was ripe for a new breed of local go-getters—young and competitive, confident, even cultured, energized by an invigorating outdoors spirit. The Beach Boys saw LA grow into a metropolis, then exiled themselves as the inevitable decay set in.

World events seemed to barely touch the lives of the Disney-raised kids. April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was first in space, and Kennedy flunked his first real test when he allowed a CIA plan to go ahead for an invasion of Cuba from the US by expatriates; face was saved two months later by ballet master Rudolf Nureyev defecting to The West. In the tit-for-tat propaganda war, on August 13th East German border guards strung barbed wire along Berlin’s East-West boundary, now a menacing frontier. September 18th Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, secretary-general of the UN, was assassinated—his plane shot down en route to peace talks with a Congo dictator. That month London’s Ban the Bomb protest march ends in a thousand arrests.

LABOR DAY WEEKEND, SEPTEMBER 2-3 1961, SEVEN months into the Kennedy Era: Brian, Dennis & Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, now at community college with Brian, rehearse their first hit-to-be at the Wilson home in blue-collar subdivision LA—the corner of grandly named Hawthorne Boulevard & 119th Street, five miles from the Pacific Ocean. They attract neighborhood throngs and a squad of police, but it’s a party atmosphere, just a bunch of South Bay kids whipping up a rock’n’roll storm. Within two years there would be two hundred garage bands around LA playing gigs. Arrest and trial comes with the Wilson parents’ return from a business trip to Mexico City, astonished that the emergency money they left their sons, along with additional finance from Al’s mother, is swallowed up to rent instruments. After bristling father Murry—a physical disciplinarian when frustrated—pushes ringleader Brian up against the wall and threatens the others, and gentling mother Audree calms everyone, the group performs a nerve-racking audition.

Murry and Audree—and her brother, Mike’s father—were brought as children post-World War I to the Promised Land, as it was called in the parched and rugged Midwest according to all expectations, to end up settling among other economic refugees on Huntington Beach, a locale that would only take on a romantic aura in song a generation later:

“At Huntington and Malibu they’re shootin’ the pier—at Rincon they’re walkin’ the nose. We’re goin’ on safari to the Islands this year so if you’re comin’ get ready to go.” (‘Surfin’ Safari’ by Brian Wilson & Mike Love, copyright February 1962)

They were used to hard times—and hard, make-or-break saving, young Murry coming from rural Kansas preempting the Dust Bowl exodus of the Thirties Depression, and Audree of Swedish stock from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Loves were evidently as tough. The Wilsons and Loves stayed close, bolstered by musical get-togethers when Murry on piano and Audree on organ were augmented by the kids’ voices—until well into their teens, to the point when one of the Love girls was almost a Beach Boy. Like Ike Eisenhower, Murry nourished a Kansas conservatism destined to clash constantly with Hollywood-liberal sons. On the other side of the family coin, the rugged commonsense and integrity shown by their elders would often prove the firm base the boys could turn to.

Murry, sucking sagely on his pipe, that end-of-summer day for once forcing himself to listen to rock’n’roll, grudgingly accepts that here is something special: “I never did like that song [‘Surfin’’]… it’s so rude and crude, you know?” But on songs Murry liked, “They sang like the Four Freshmen, but with a younger, sweeter sound.” Having struggled to get a few of his own songs published, he’s struck gold and takes his boys under a smothering wing. Ambivalence about Brian’s success, and a proprietorial attitude to the group, would make inevitable the implosion of a time bomb planted with the domineering upbringing of his sons.

Though his songs tended to sub-Stephen Foster—American Hymn in style—Murry was an avid Cool Jazz follower who exposed Brian early on to jazz piano ‘feels’. He would later make his musical presence tangible in The Many Moods of Murry Wilson, recorded by Capitol to placate the Beach Boys’ ubiquitous stage father: one of those Easy Listening sixties albums that was anything but easy listening, especially in what he did to his son’s ‘Warmth of the Sun’. Life with father was hardly harmonious. At one point in his boyhood, rebelling against Murry’s physical regimen directed at Dennis, especially, and himself (young Carl retired quickly from the battlefield), Brian is said to have “dumped” on a plate and served it up for dad’s dinner, compliments to the chef not recorded.

Alan, leader of a semipro folk group at Hawthorne High but en-ticed by Brian & Carl singing “kind of sophisticated” duets at a talent show, had played stand-up bass at that first command performance and now advanced the group through his contacts song-publishers Hite & Dorinda Morgan. ‘Surfin’’ was conceived by surf-crazed Denny, backing Brian and Mike into a corner by bluffing the Morgans that the song already existed, ready to record. Reluctant surfers taught the lingo by Dennis, they took a melody written by Brian for a 12th grade ‘F’ (his teacher wanted a sonata). An October 3rd recording session led to release late in November through the Morgans’ tiny X label and then on Candix organized for mass pressing and distribution.

If it wasn’t recorded in a garage, with Brian beating on a garbage can lid for a snare drum—as once reputed—the debut hit sounded like it: raw r&b. The lineup, as reported by Carl in 1965: Mike singing lead (and wanting to play saxophone for a Coasters sound but the rest of the group forbidding it); Al on (still-rented) standup bass; Carl, basic chords on guitar; and Brian—who took off his shirt to lay it over and beat on an actual snare drum. Lack of a recording studio was a minor inconvenience—a movie-dubbing studio doing just as well for their purposes, to get a record out. They sang all the vocals together through one microphone.

October: The nucleus of English group the Beatles— John Lennon & Paul McCartney—are in Paris celebrating John’s 21st birthday. Together four years with a good lead guitarist and now a steady drummer their group has in the past year or so tripped twice to Hamburg—the Reeperbahn district, a hotspot of sleazy showbiz where many Liverpool acts find better paid work. Paul, especially, is into fashion—and he and John get their hair styled anew by friend Jurgen Vollmer, now a French resident, in the mode of Parisian art students, ungreased and combed forward. Astrid Kirscherr had already done this in Hamburg for boyfriend Stu Sutcliffe, in the group only on the strength of being John’s friend. On the way home they stop in London’s fashion district in Chelsea, and buy pointy-toed slip-on shoes. Posterity will hail ‘Le Beatle’ hairstyle and Beatle boots.

The Beatles, late 1961: all tidied up in suits by manager Brian Epstein

The Beatles, 1962: all tidied up in suits by manager Brian Epstein


Peter Eckhorn, manager of the Top Ten Club, Hamburg, where the Beatles had played for four months up to July: “The interesting thing about the Beatles was that people liked them more for their engaging personalities, their onstage antics, and smart remarks than for their music. Their music sounded very much like all the other English groups, but as performers they were unique” (Pritchard & Lysaght, 1998).

While there the band was signed for Polydor as Liverpool teen idol Tony Sheridan’s backing group—by bandleader/A&R man Bert Kaempfert of huge American success ‘Wonderland By Night’, and recorded in a school hall by him. A Merseybeat version of the old standard ‘My Bonnie (Lies Over the Ocean)’ by Sheridan & the Beat Brothers emerges. The Beatles receive session fees. John’s art school friend Stu Sutcliffe, who has grappled with bass guitar without ever coming close to taming it, leaves the group just before recording to take up a scholarship. Those who have seen them play say the Beatles have lost their most charismatic member: apart from Paul, good playing was somehow irrelevant to this act. The best looking one—most popular with girl fans—remains for now, but Pete Best refuses the Beatle haircut: one more factor separating him from the others.

Back in Liverpool the Beatles have resumed a casual residency doing lunchtime shows at the Cavern Club. Unlike other groups— immaculately turned out in florid dinner suits modelled on the Shad-ows, the no.1 UK group—the Beatles sustain their round-the-clock Hamburg timetable and at first turn up in the attire they woke up in. It is a bohemian image cultivated by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and soon capitalised on by the Rolling Stones, much to the fury of John Lennon, who gives in to the Establishment.

Local editor Bill Harry starts ‘Mersey Beat’ with a John Lennon article on the Beatles. Week by week he favors the engaging characters so much other groups complain. “Beatlemania” won’t be coined by the British press for another two years but in Liverpool it has been part of the scene since returning from their first Hamburg trip, Xmas 1960—but shared with mob scenes for the Flamingos, Searchers and others. Eventually overtaking Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, the Big Three, Gerry & the Pacemakers and the Fourmost, the Beatles will become most popular of 350 working bands —more than there are in London.

By November 1961, after more than four years playing and com-posing together, Lennon & McCartney finally believe enough in two of their songs to introduce them to their setlist, ‘P.S. I Love You’ and ‘Love Me Do’. Orders for ‘My Bonnie’ catch the eye of records divi-sion manager and heir of NEMS stores, Brian Epstein, and assistant Alistair Taylor, who persuade Polydor to press it in the UK; it will only puncture the bottom of the chart at #48 on the momentum of growing Beatlemania a year and a half later. Epstein, a frustrated actor and dropout from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, follows his bent as theatrical entrepreneur. Visiting a show at the Cavern, his reaction is typically couched in English diplomatic-speak: “They had a very honest and unrehearsed sound. I thought that if I liked it and all those teenagers liked it, then there was something worth explor-ing.” Alistair Taylor: “There was this very scruffy band on stage in black leather and black T-shirts. They were fooling about and they weren’t very good musicians. But it was the most phenomenal experi-ence I’ve ever gone through… They had Ingredient X… So we signed the boys and nobody wanted to know about them”(Pritchard & Lysaght, 1998).

But after cleaning up—nice suits, no smoking or drinking on-stage—they are on their way to the big time. John got moody, but there was no real rebellion from the rock’n’rolling Teddy Boy. Soon Epstein’s proudest boast was that he had got the Beatles a gig for 15 pounds ($36 then)—unheard-of heights for a Liverpool group. Lon-don might as well be on another planet. Like the Beach Boys they will be hindered by recording brains who say guitar-and-drum vocal groups are on the way out.


Events are shaping the modern world—the first US military ob-servers are posted to Vietnam in December; King of Rock’n’Roll Elvis Presley has not made a personal appearance for nine months (and won’t until the end of the decade)—but the Beach Boys’ immediate concern is their new record, revelling in its primitive origins. It is none the less picked up as phone-vote favorite on the platter-rack at popular KFWB the week after Xmas, its first airing causing the Wil-sons uncontrollable excitement. Denny: “Brian ran down the street screaming ‘We’re on the radio!’ Carl threw up.” Constantly distracted, Dennis is only now let into the group at Audree’s insistence. It means a step up from his dollar-a-day chore sweeping out Murry’s workshop and free-flowing girls on stream— though all the boys (but late de-veloper Brian, at 22) would be married by 21, Mike by ‘shotgun’.

KFWB, their favorite station for its r&b, took minor vocal groups the Olympics (‘Hully Gully’), Passions, Skyliners and Fireflies to the top of the LA charts regardless of national trends, plus instrumental groups Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Fireballs and the Spacemen, and paid ongoing respect to rock’n’rollers Bo Diddly, Fats Domino, Johnny Burnette and the Bill Black Combo past their commercial prime. Black vocalists Richard Berry, Etta James, Della Reese and Sarah Vaughan got a look in here better than other mainstream outlets across the country. Ray Charles, the Jive Five, Ike & Tina Turner, Lee Dorsey, the Drifters, Chantels, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Reed (‘Bright Lights, Big City’), Van McCoy and Mary Wells were others punching above their weight. Local youths the Jaguars, among others, featured on playlists—encouraging the new boys. Now there was one more reason to like the Warner Bros station, for breaking their group into local fame.

The Wilson brothers' and Al Jardine's high school celebrates the Beach Boys' first hit, New Year 1962

The Wilson brothers' and Al jardine's high school celebrates the Beach Boys' first hit, NewYear 1962

‘Luau’, written by the Morgans’ son, best described as rhythmic in a simple hip-hop way, was put on the B-side. ‘Barbie (Barbie, Queen of the Prom)’/‘What is a Young Girl Made Of?’, a falsetto dirge backed with a bouncy ditty—provided by Hite Morgan— were released too, luckily invisibly by tiny local label Randy under Kenny & the Cadets, said to be Brian, Audree and Al. Reflecting on these, recorded under obligation—duds at the time, and all happily lost to history—must have taught Brian a valuable lesson not to rely on the creative ability nor the business judgment of others.

Candix, making up for the Z-material the group was lumbered with, chose a new name for their green clients. On the new 45 under ‘Surfin’’ they print “The Beach Boys”—maybe inspired by ‘Beach Boy Blues’ on Elvis’s new Blue Hawaii album. There had briefly been a Beach Boys two years before on Kapp, and a Beachcombers singing sedate pop in the Fifties would soon convert to surf rock on Dot. There would turn up, too, a Beach Girls recording act. Posing a potent image of smooth confidence, decadent rebellion, danger to unwary beach girls, the name wiped memories of doo-wop style Carl & the Passions (used by Brian to lure Carl into the group) and Pendletones, Mike’s play on Washington State’s Pendleton lumberjack plaid shirts popular for winter surfing.

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