The Curse of the Commercial
We were known as lads, and certain music forms had lad value, and the music lads such as myself listened to at Pangbourne between about 1969 and '72 we called Underground, a term redolent of its shadowy exclusivity. In addition to the out and out Progressive Rock of bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, it also included Art Rock, Soft Rock and Hard Rock.
In short, Rock for us was divided into two categories, Underground, and Commercial - a word we tended to spit out like some kind of curse - which was being effectively pure Pop whose domain was the Pop chart featured weekly on the British TV program Top of the Pops. The Underground, on the other hand, was composed of bands who made music largely for the growing album market...and there were those Rock acts such as Led Zep, who never graced the singles chart despite earning fortunes through concerts and album sales. From about '69, they constituted one of my prime facilitators into the murky depths of the Underground.
It seems incredible that a force of such seismic power and influence as Led Zeppelin should emerge from the relative innocence of the London Blues and session music scenes of the sixties, but then a similar thing could be said of British Rock as a whole. What was it that transformed an interest among young men of largely middle class origins in the bleak brooding music of the Blues into a musical movement which took America and the world at large by storm in the late '60s and early '70s? That's not an easy question to answer, but I'm going to give it some sort of a go.
The Blues themselves may provide something of a solution to the puzzle. Widely believed to have begun life as a secularised version of the black Gospel music of the American south, with lyrics reflecting the sensuality, isolation and anguish of lost souls victimised by life and alienated from God, they found fertile soil in the still repressed United Kingdom of the late 1950s and early sixties. They did so especially in the affluent south among men such as Brian Jones from the genteel spa town of Cheltenham...Eric Clapton from Surbiton - via Ripley - in Surrey...Jimmy Page from nearby Epsom, also in Surrey etc...
However, it's not any of these superstars, but a Paris-born guitarist and pianist of Greek and Austrian ancestry who has been called the "Founding Father of British Blues". Justifiably so, too, because possibly more than anyone, Alexis Korner was the incubator of the '60s Blues Boom which was one of the great cornerstones of the entire Rock movement. He began his musical career in 1949 as a member of Chris Barber's Jazz Band, but his love of the kindred but then lesser known music of the Blues led ultimately to his forming the band Blues Incorporated in 1961, with singer Long John Baldry, harmonica player Cyril Davies, guitarist Jack Bruce, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and drummer Charlie Watts.
In addition to those already mentioned, the list of future Rock stars who were drawn to Korner's regular Rythym and Blues night at the Ealing Jazz Club in the early '60s included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Ginger Baker, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, and Paul Pond.
Pond, a tall, elegant Oxford undergraduate with the chiselled good looks of a Greek god, had been Brian Jones' first choice as vocalist for his band the Rollin' Stones, but he turned him down in the belief that the Blues had no future. He later resurfaced as Paul Jones, front man for Manfred Mann, one of the first wave of British Blues bands to achieve mainstream Pop success, along with the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Spencer Davis Group, the Yardbirds etc.
However, the British Rock explosion was not just fuelled by the Blues, because by the early '60s, an effervescent fusion of Rock and Roll, Skiffle, R&B, Doo-Wop, Soul and even traditional Classic Pop had emerged from several British cities most notably the tough industrial towns of Liverpool and Birmingham, before going on to take the UK charts by storm. It was the sound of Beat, and no band incarnated it to quite the same extent as the Beatles.
That said, to further confuse matters, the term Beat - or rather Big Beat - had been used to describe a music genre as early as 1961 by the writer Royston Ellis, a close friend of John Lennon's due to their shared appreciation of the Beat poets. In Ellis's book "The Big Beat Scene", the term Beat is used to describe the music of the first British Pop stars to emerge in the wake of the Rock revolution, such as Billy Fury, Joe Brown, Marty Wilde et al, as well as a host of lesser known ones...but then Rock is also used as an abbreviation for Rock and Roll in the same book.
The Beatles are seen by some as the inventors of modern guitar Pop. While this is debatable, they are without doubt the best known and most successful Pop group in history. Yet they themselves resisted being typecast as mere Pop, and could be said to have ultimately promoted a type of Rock with Pop elements which was yet no less removed from pure Pop than the Blues-based Rock of their chief rivals the Rolling Stones. The overwhelming melodiousness of their classic period of 1964-'69 was founded on a vast variety of genres including Classical music, Folk, Classic Pop, Country and Western, Rock and Roll, Soul and Motown, and even the Blues, leading one to conclude that largely through the Beatles, Rock became the ultimate musical smorgasbord, a veritable Babel of musical styles.
During their brief few years of existence, they informed the development of Rock to a greater degree than any other group or solo singer, and that includes the Rolling Stones, whose early style was far more rooted in the Delta and Chicago Blues than that of the Beatles, which was lighter, or Poppier. The Stones' uncompromisingly primal rhythmic proto-Rock went on to form the basis of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, and yet even these have to a greater or lesser extent benefited from the unrelenting melodic inventiveness of the Beatles. That's not to say, however, that the Beatles introduced melody into Rock and Roll, because it already existed by the time they had their first hit single in 1962.
One of its chief sources was the Brill Building Sound, which thrived in that brief period between Elvis's induction into the US Army and the onset of Beatlemania, during which the music's initial threat was neutralised by its co-option by teenage idols on both sides of the Atlantic, who while heavily influenced by Elvis visually, had nowhere near the same devastating effect on the moral establishment. It was named after the very building in New York City where many of its songwriters were housed and which since the '30s had been a centre for Pop music, a term allegedly coined as early as 1926.
Brill Building could be described as traditional Pop informed by the Rock and Roll revolution, and so partaking of Rock rhythms as much as the sophisticated songwriting techniques of the Classic, which is to say pre-Rock, Pop of the Great American Songbook. It exerted a colossal if largely unsung influence on the evolution of Pop in the sixties, and as if to confirm this fact, the greatest of the sixties groups the Beatles covered songs by Brill Building composers Goffin and King and Bacharach and David in the early more wholesome phase of their career.
Yet, while the Beatles remain indelibly associated with modern Pop, by the totemic year of 1966, they were as much a Rock as a Pop group and this had less to do with their music than their lyrics, which had started to acquire a marked intellectual dimension. This was in no small part attributable to the influence of Bob Dylan, a consciously intellectual figure who in the fallow years that immediately preceded the British Invasion had mined the ancient American art of Folk Music for inspiration, thereby gaining an international reputation as a poet-minstrel in the Protest tradition. Pop as a whole had acquired a gravitas by the mid 1960s which was jarringly at odds with the innocent and sentimental music of the early Beatles and other bands within the outdated Beat genre. This was as a result not just of Dylan's influence as the first great poet of Rock, but both an increasing melodic complexity and an increasing spiritual darkness. While the Beatles led the field in terms of the former, the latter arose as I see it from the growing pre-eminence of harder, darker acts such as the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds and the Troggs. The term Rock was somehow perfect in describing the way out music they made, although when this moved in to supplant Pop as the favoured term for hard-rocking guitar music it's impossible to say.
One thing is certain...as soon as it did, Rock became far more than a mere music form. I'd go so far as to say that it was a way of life almost from the outset, a philosophy, even a religion...one of whose prime tenets was rebellion against the traditional Judaeo-Christian moral values of the West. Could this be the reason - or at least one of the reasons - why the US and Britain came to be its spiritual homelands, given that these are the nations most associated historically with the rise of Evangelical Christianity?
Who can say for sure...but whatever the truth, Rock is clearly more than just another form of Pop, despite having been inextricably linked to the same for the last half century or more in much the same way as Jazz once was, and while it has very little ability left to shock, the damage it has wreaked has been enormous, and Western society has been altered possibly beyond all recovery by Rock Music and the social revolution it led.
The Genesis of the Beats
My Pangbourne years were spent during a time when this revolution was at its zenith...but it would be false, indeed absurd, to suggest that it was a unique historical event devoid of precedents and precursors.
In fact, the Counterculture of the 1960s was merely the latest in a long line of seditious undergrounds that can be traced at least as far back as the 18th Century. In other words, by the time of the Hippie revolution, much of the groundwork had already been done, not least during the two immediate post-war decades.
During this brief 20-year period, the Existentialists, Lettrists and Beats became international icons of revolt... Britain's first major youth cult surfaced in the shape of the Edwardians or Teddy Boys...a cinema of youthful discontent flourished as never before, fuelling a desire among many young people to be identified as rebels and wild ones...and Rock and Roll took over the world with Elvis Presley as its first true superstar. But it was the Beats who were the true precursors of the Hippies...in fact it was in about 1965 that Beat started to imperceptibly mutate into the Hippie movement.
Few today are aware of the existence of the Lettrists, that scandalous band of avant garde agitators who thrived in post-war Paris under the leadership of Isidore Isou, but their contemporaries the Beats continue to enjoy an exceptionally high profile. This may be the result of Paris ceding her time-honoured role as the world epicentre of the avant garde to New York City in the late 1940s, but whatever the truth, the Lettrists have been forgotten while the Beats have never been hotter.
It had been been earlier in the decade...around 1943, in fact...that a disparate group of would-be poets and authors of Bohemian inclination had coalesced around a brilliant cherubic young Columbia University undergraduate by the name of Lucien Carr. The first to gravitate towards Carr was a fellow Columbia student from nearby New Jersey by the name of Allen Ginsberg. Through Carr, Ginsberg was introduced to Arthur Rimbaud, the quintessential post-Romantic bad boy poet whose terrible yet beautiful visionary verse and frenzied rebellious rage has exerted an influence on the development of the adversary culture of the post-Romantic West that is second to none or close to it. Rimbaud went on to significantly inform the evolution of Ginsberg's own poetic vision.
Also through Carr, the bookish-looking poet met the boyfriend of future Beat biographer Edie Parker, who was another of Carr's Columbia friends. This was Jean-Jacques Kerouac, known as Jack.
Until recently, Kerouac, the self-styled shy Canuck from a close-knit French Canadian family from Lowell, Massachusetts, had been a Football player of enormous promise, but soon after gaining a scholarship to Columbia, things had started to go awry for him. First, he cracked his tibia during a game, and then repeatedly clashed with the coach Lou Little whom he accused of benching him to excess. The upshot was that he left Columbia in his sophomore year, and ended up drifting in New York City, where he met the two men - both through Lucien Carr - with whom he went on to form the nucleus of the Beat Generation, these being the aforesaid Ginsberg, and a friend of Carr's from St Louis, the patrician William Seward Burroughs.
In 1957, Kerouac emerged as the movement's undisputed leader with the publication of his second novel On the Road, a fictionalised account of the cross-country wanderings he undertook between 1947 and 1950 with his close friend Neil Cassady...famously named Dean Moriarty in the novel.
Cassady, who bore a striking resemblance to the iconic movie star Paul Newman, was the son of an alcoholic whose early life had included the early loss of his mother, a childhood spent on Denver's skid row, a spell in reform school, and eleven months imprisonment for theft. Little wonder, therefore, that he served as muse to Kerouac who - from such a stable loving background himself - was the genius behind Beat's defining work, while Cassady provided the inspiration as the Beat par excellence.
Oddly perhaps, Lucien Carr himself never went on to write anything of note, preferring to father a family and pursue a long career with the venerable news agency United Press International. It fell to his son Caleb, author of "The Alienist", "The Angel of Darkness", "Casing the Promised Land", "Killing Time" and "The Italian Secretary" among other works to be the novelist of the family…but his place in literary history is secure. As Allen Ginsberg once put it, "Lou was the glue” of what was probably the most significant and influential avant garde faction of the 20th Century. More than any, it was the movement which birthed the counterculture of the 1960s. It was in about '64 , in fact, that Beat started to shift imperceptibly into the Hippie movement.
'64 was also the year the Beatles conquered America...but away from the mainstream, a certain Colorado farmer's son and former Stanford University student called Ken Kesey set off on his legendary cross-country trip from California to New York on a psychedelic school bus he named Furthur, with one Neil Cassady doing most of the driving. He did so in the company of a band of counterculture pioneers, writers, artists, students &c., known as the Merrie Pranksters. Once in the Big Apple, they met up with the New York Beats including Jack Kerouac who, deeply patriotic and a devout Catholic at heart, was allegedly repelled by the Pranksters' outlandish dress and appearance, and took no part in the coming psychedelic revolution, unlike Allen Ginsberg, who embraced it wholeheartedly.
The first of the infamous Acid Tests occurred a short time later in 1965, and during these LSD-fuelled events, there'd be slide and/or light shows and experiments with cutting edge sound technology, and bands such as the Warlocks - later the Grateful Dead - or Kesey's own Psychedelic Symphonette would regale the crowds with proto-psychedelic Rock, and so on...all of which served to usher in the Hippie era.
However, it wouldn't be until '67 that the Hippie phenomenon entered the mainstream to became an international obsession...and it was in that very year I harried my mother into making me a psychedelic paisley shirt which I went on to wear with a peaked Dylan cap and possibly also purple corduroy jeans. By the end of the decade though, the relative innocence of my infatuation with the Hippie dandies I witnessed each Thursday night on Top of the Pops and other frothy Pop programmes had mutated into a passion for actual social revolution, whose apologists I read about and viewed with awe.
Tap Turns on the Water
As for the Commercial chart Pop of the early '70s...it was the music from a world I no longer even barely acknowledged as existing. Strangely enough though, it was a world that produced several hits in 1970 by a band known as CCS which had been masterminded by Pat Halling's close friends Mickey Most and John Cameron, and fronted by no less a figure than Alexis Korner, including the top 5 smash, "Tap Turns on the Water".
It also produced Glam Rock, a heterogeneous mixture of Pop and Rock allied to an outrageous androgynous image, which starting to infiltrate the British charts for the first time in 1971.
It's Marc Bolan, a former darling of the Underground as the front man and chief songwriter for fey Hippie duo Tyrannasaurus Rex who is widely credited with inventing Glam, although its true pioneers were the Stones in the UK and Alice Cooper in the US, among others. As ever, though, its roots can be traced back to the dawn of Rock and Roll, and specifically to one Little Richard Penniman, who as a child had attended Pentecostal churches in his native Georgia, and seriously considered becoming a preacher of the Gospel, before he went on to become the most outrageously effeminate of the early Rock stars. That said, few have been so vocal in their denunciation of the music that made his name as the good Reverend Penniman.
The Glam Rock era of 1971-'73 was to some extent a revival of the sartorial flashiness - and musical simplicity - of early Rock and Roll...and one which swept a host of gifted young musicians who'd been striving for major success since the early 1960s to fresh levels of stardom in the UK and elsewhere. Yet, despite the Pop star status they enjoyed in the UK, several of these were viewed as serious album artists as well as TV idols. They included - in addition to the aforesaid Marc Bolan - David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Elton John, all of whom had been previously involved in some form or another with Art, or Progressive Rock...were refugees from the Underground in other words. Thanks in some measure to their efforts, Pop underwent something of a rehabilitation in Britain from about 1971 or '72, and they strutted around on TV in flashy attire and stack-heeled boots, while assailing the Pop charts with intelligent and imaginative singles in the Glam genre which harked back to the golden age of the mid-sixties. For my part, though, I remained indurate, viewing the effeminate antics of T.Rex and the Sweet et al with all the horror of a typical macho adolescent male.
Not of course that I was really all that tough...in fact, I ran away from Pangbourne once like some kind of hysterical gym slip schoolgirl...just the once it was...to avoid being punished for something stupid I did that i'd rather not go into just now. It was an utterly pointless exercise as it was the last day of term, but I just panicked and bolted, and kept on running...until I ended up trekking through a muddy field in the heart of the Berkshire countryside before simply giving up and sitting by the side of the road. Then, after a short time of waiting for who knows what, the college chaplain, who just happened to be driving by, offered me a lift back to college...this would have been in about 1971, I think, or perhaps '72, I can't recall...
Certain pieces of - pastoral, and quintessentially English - music have the power to evoke this strange and sudden rush of blood to the head for me, such as Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending", which bespeaks a passion for the Arcadian soul of England that verges on the ecstatic. The same could be said for Richard Rodney Bennett's score for the John Schlesinger film version of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd", which had such an inordinately powerful effect on me when I saw it at Pangbourne, and certain sections of Mike Oldfield's "Hergest Ridge" and "Ommadawn", among other pieces. They tend to convey to me a deep mournfulness beneath the picture perfect image of English privilege.
Any argument in favour of such a tragic element would be powerfully reinforced by playing the music of the much-loved singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Not so much handsome, but beautiful after a classically English, soft, dreamy, romantic, fashion, and blessed with charm, intelligence, and a precocious musical genius which ensured him a recording contract with the Island label when he was just 20 years old and still at Cambridge, one might say that he was destined for a long and happy life. Sadly though, he was unable to translate his enormous gifts into commercial success, and he became very seriously depressed as a result.
I can't help thinking that in any era other than that ushered in by the Rock and Roll revolution, Drake would have pursued a career more suited to his background than that which ensured his immortality, which is to say a perfectly conventional one. However, he came to maturity in a Britain whose young were in active rebellion against the traditional Judaeo-Christian values on which the nation had long been founded, although he himself doesn't appear to have been especially rebellious, despite the long hair and passion for Rock music that was more or less ubiquitous among young men of his generation.
That said, he was unavoidably affected by the spiritual chaos of the age, which propelled him - as it did so many of his contemporaries - towards the endless night of worldly philosophy, deadly for a mind as touch-paper sensitive as his in my opinion, and which must surely have played its part in the mental deterioration which resulted in his spending his final few months of life as a recluse at his parents' home in Tamworth-in-Arden, Staffordshire, where, wrongly convinced he'd failed at everything, he died aged only 26 in 1974.
Since his death, his small but impressive life's work has inspired some of the most successful Rock artists of all time on both sides of the Atlantic, including Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe of REM, Elliot Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Norah Jones and Coldplay.
Listening to him, I become aware of a colossal compassion within myself for the privileged classes of Britain, a somewhat unusual receptacle for the milk of human kindness some might say...but they are no less in need of consideration than any other social group. I speak as one distantly connected to them through my paternal grandmother Mary, whose flight from a gilded cage of upper middle class convention resulted in my branch of the family being cast out into a kind of social exile. At least, that's how I see it.
Social advantage can clearly be a cruel and heavy burden to bear for some, like poor Nick Drake who once sang so hauntingly of falling so far on a silver spoon...but let us not go too far...for the vast majority of those who’ve passed through the public school system since its inception, before going on to university and a successful professional career have been perfectly normal and far from melancholy.
As for myself, if I possess a single quality that might termed noble, such as patience, or self-mastery or consideration of the needs of other people, then I am significantly indebted for such a blessing to my education. Within this sphere, I would place parental discipline, and the four years I spent at Pangbourne…whose authorities extended me a fair and decent report after my departure, commenting on my resilience, and the fact that I was universally well-liked. They also gave me a good send-off in the college magazine, mentioning my time in the Boxing and Swimming teams, and my tenure as 2cnd Drum in the college band. God bless you for that, Pangbourne, beloved old friend and sparring partner…and long may you thrive in your sanctuary deep in the Arcadian heart of the English countryside…
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