Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Alwyn W. Turner (V&A Publishing, 2008)
This is a big book about big names. But not always respected names: Cliff Richard is a by-word for “bland” and Tommy Steele was much more music-hall than mean, moody and magnificent. And some of the names were big back then, half-forgotten now, like the charismatic but unlucky Billy Fury from Liverpool. He was born Ronnie Wycherley, which explains his change of name. Vince Eager, Georgie Fame, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride and Marty Wilde weren’t born under those names either. Re-invention is an important part of rock: musos are made to sound and look meaner. Or milder. The Beatles, who appear in the final chapter, were taken out of their black leather. Which is ironic, because it was inspired by Gene Vincent, who was put into his:
Vincent had been brought over to Britain by Jack Good, primarily to appear as the star of the television show Boy Meets Girls. Anticipating danger, Good had been horrified to meet off the plane a polite Southern gentleman. “I thought he was going to be a dagger boy, the rock and roll screaming end,” he remembered, before adding with some relish, “I had to fix him.” He readjusted Vincent’s look so that, by the time the star reached the television screen, he was dressed in black leather and ostentatiously dragged his damaged leg behind him. When asked later about this new image, Good cited Shakespeare’s Richard III as a model, with the moodiness of Hamlet thrown in, and admitted that the set was constructed to make it more difficult for his star: “I arranged for some steps so that he could hobble nicely on TV, but he negotiated them very well and hardly looked as if he was hobbling at all. I had to yell out, ‘Limp, you bugger, limp!’ He didn’t mind. He limped.” (ch. 3, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, pg. 94)
Vincent was an idol of the Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing group, and the bassist Jet Harris is quoted as saying: “That’s what we called real rock and roll.” But the Shadows appeared in suits, not black leather, and so did all the other British acts discussed and pictured here. They might have admired Gene Vincent, but they dressed like Buddy Holly. And played like him too: British rockers didn’t have the primal power, the jungle rumble, of Americans like Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran. Unlike Elvis, that trio all performed in Britain, but doing so killed Eddie Cochran: he died in a car-crash near Bristol in 1960 at only the age of 21. He was the greatest of the early rockers, I think, or at least the greatest might-have-been. If you’ve never heard “Somethin’ Else”, “C’mon Everybody” or “Summertime Blues”, you haven’t heard the roots of rock. If Cochran did all that having barely left his teens, what might he have done later?
He reminds me of Évariste Galois, the French mathematician who died at twenty but whose work is still honoured in his field. I don’t think Cochran was a genius like Galois, but he had great talent and he stands out in his photos, on-stage in 1960, like a peacock among crows. His backing players, presumably British, wear suits and ties. Cochran wears black-leather trousers and a metallic waistcoast over a plaid shirt. He dominates the stage as he might have dominated the ’60s, but he never reached 1961. His posthumous single, “Three Steps to Heaven”, topped the charts in Britain but “didn’t even make the top 100 in the United States”. It wasn’t a very good single, after all, but Britain was grateful for his tour and he has always remained popular here. It would be some time before Brits were brewing rock’n’roll as potent as that of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent at their best. Vincent was hampered by a bad leg. Perhaps Brits were hampered by good taste.
You can see them beginning to shake it off here, but the most memorable photo remains that of Eddie Cochran in 1960, king of the stage and ready to reign in the decade ahead. He’d never get a chance to and the book says he foresaw this. After Buddy Holly died in a plane-crash, Cochran had premonitions of his own death in an accident. He wanted to stop touring and concentrate on studio work. But the need for money brought him across the Atlantic and sent him back dead. It’s a memorable story, which is why I mistrust it. The re-inventions of rock don’t stop after death and Cochran pioneered more than music for Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. They too would die young and attract memorable stories, but there’s little hint of their drugs and decadence here. Cochran was about songs, not sybaritism, and didn’t celebrate self-indulgence.
He’d be in his seventies now, like the Rolling Stones, who don’t quite make this book. That’s appropriate, because I think he’d have given more to music if he’d survived.
• More Musings on Music