My Rock and Roll Journey to Georgia by John Scriven: Part One
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From now on, a major part of this blog will be devoted to the story of My Rock and Roll Journey to Georgia; both to the state and my adorable life partner of the same name. It’s a story that demands to be told in more than just text. It needs music to do it justice.
Thank God for YouTube. I hope they won’t close me down for copyright infringement. I’m not posting video links in this blog for commercial gain, but out of an undying love for the music and the artists performing it. Also, to tell a story that doesn’t belong just to me; it belongs to a whole generation of fellow Brits. It can’t be told without also tracing the history of rock in Britain. Since the story is personal, it won’t be a definitive history of the British music scene, but the two story-lines are inextricably linked.
I need to start with a caveat. You will hear about, and see, a lot of geezers in future postings because you can’t recount part of the history of classic rock without featuring the generation who started it all way back in the fifties and the early sixties. Just remember that these players were once young and grew old playing and living the music from the inside out. I respect many contemporary artists, but if you’re expecting to see and hear the likes of Bieber, Perry, One Direction, or Gaga, you’re in the wrong place. We’re talking history here.
I’m from the same generation of Englishmen as The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Animals, Cream and a host of other British bands that spearheaded the so-called “British Invasion”. That term makes me smile, because my British rock rebel generation had the audacity to export back to the USA music that was first created by many fine American musicians.
My life is inextricably bound to the history of a quintessentially American music genre that shaped a whole new generation in Britain; music that has continued to influence generations ever since.
So let’s start where all good stories start – at the beginning. And the story of my journey begins with the blues. Without the blues there would have been no such music as rock. A similar argument can be made for other genres of American music, such as gospel and jazz, but I believe that the Blues were the primary influence in the evolution of British rock, directly and indirectly.
The history of the blues has been lovingly chronicled by people far more knowledgeable than me, so I won’t attempt to deliver a Blues history lesson. What I can tell you is that the blues influenced the first generation of American rock artists who then irrigated the musical desert that was Britain in the 50’s; artists that I and my contemporaries grew to admire, such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly and, of course, Elvis.
In turn, these American rock pioneers influenced a whole generation of British performers, as I mentioned before. I can’t explain how, but the blues touched something in the soul of my generation and began a love affair that lasts a lifetime. It may have had something to do with the post-World War Two depression that lingered in Britain until the early 50’s. Or it may simply have been a reaction against the “white-bread” crooner’s music that dominated pop culture at the time, with artists like Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. I have since developed great respect for these old-school singers but, at the time, they were anathema to a generation of Brits hungry for something to get excited about.
Ironically, when young bands like The Stones and The Animals exported the music of American blues artists back to the USA, it re-invigorated the careers of superb musicians such as Muddy Walters, Buddy Guy, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and my personal favorite, Otis Spann.
In Britain, two musicians in particular were rightly considered to be the “Founding Fathers” of the British Blues Movement. The first is Alexis Koerner (also spelled Korner), who touched the lives of many of the British rock musicians who emerged in Britain in the 60’s, most notably The Stones. Sadly, Alexis died in 1984 at the relatively young age of 56.
Many now-famous artists played in different line ups of Mayall’s band, The Bluesbreakers. Among them were Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Mick Taylor, arguably the best guitar player the Stones ever had (sorry Keef and Ron).
In presenting the blues to you, I don’t want to go back to dusty archives and scratchy recordings. The blues is not an embalmed music form – it’s alive and kicking ass today. So here’s a couple of links to a relatively contemporary introduction to the blues.
The first video features a coming together of an original American idol, Chuck Berry, and two artists he influenced: Keith Richards of The Stones and Eric Clapton, of too many bands to mention. It’s from the movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, arguably the best movie about rock & roll ever made. It also features my personal piano hero Johnnie Johnson, whose piano work helped to shape Chuck Berry’s signature musical style and inspired a generation of piano players. It’s memorable for one other thing: Keith Richards, who was the musical director, wearing a sequined tuxedo. Who would’ve thought it possible!
The second video features two of the artists I mentioned earlier: John Mayall and Mick Taylor, playing at Mayall’s 70th birthday celebration. (Well, I did warn you about old farts)! This is the man who started the London blues movement. Listen and enjoy.
It’s hard to believe that Bill Haley & His Comets incited youth riots and vandalism in cinemas all across Britain in the mid-fifties, but that’s exactly what they did. They wore tartan, lounge-lizard tuxedos and bow ties, and chubby Bill sported a heavily lacquered kiss-curl. They even had an accordion player in the band! Are you kidding me?
Seems improbable, but this band was a major fuel source for the ignition of the rock revolution that swept Britain. At the time, there was a youth cult in the country led by so-called Teddy Boys. They were so named because their chosen fashions were reminiscent of the Edwardian era. A popular diminutive for Edward was Teddy and that got shortened to Ted, so they also became known as Teds.
Bill Haley’s biggest hit, Rock Around The Clock, was featured in a minor movie called The Blackboard Jungle.
Teds who saw this movie elevated it to cult status and developed a new hobby – dancing in the aisles and slashing cinema seats with switchblades. All of this was unnerving for the British establishment, who labeled the youth movement a communist-inspired plot to undermine British society. At 13, I was part of a generation that salivated at the thought of British society being undermined.
Although I was too young to be a Ted, I bought a bunch of Haley’s records. I soon lost interest in Haley’s rockabilly band when I heard a bluesy record called Mystery Train. The singer was a Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and went right out and bought every Elvis record I could find. He was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I was hooked on real rock and roll. Although I struggled with shyness, I made a valiant effort to become a rock and roll rebel. I stopped wearing a school uniform and bought a trendy sport coat and a pair of tight trousers, known as “drainpipes”, an outfit I wore throughout my third year in Grammar School (the American equivalent of High School). I started to grow my hair and practiced my Elvis lip twitch in front of the mirror. Click here for more about Elvis.
Presley led me to other rockers who were spearheading an exciting music revolution across the pond in America. As a piano player, one of my favorites was Jerry Lee Lewis. Click here for more about Jerry Lee.
See if you can imagine all of this: You’re a 13 year old kid living in a country still ruled by stick-up-the-ass upper classes with fussy, outdated rules about protocol and behavior. You’re in a grammar school whose principal would have been deemed old-fashioned when Victoria was on the throne; a school where dictatorial teachers were allowed to bend you over a desk in front of the whole class and whack your backside with a size 13 tennis shoe just for mispronouncing a Spanish verb. All in all you felt like you were just another brick in the wall (more of that later).
Above all, you’re bored out of your mind most of the time and struggling to find a true musical identity. You’ve been forced into piano lessons by well-meaning parents and your piano teacher is so old he wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel. You’re being forced to learn classical music, which you loathe. Then, suddenly, against that background of expression-repression, you stumble across this:
Holy crap! Roll over Beethoven and please take Tchaikovsky, Brahms and those other classical bores with you. And don’t forget my musty old piano teacher! As if that wasn’t enough, I then discovered Little Richard:
For me, Little Richard took rock to a whole new level. He was the real deal. He played the piano standing up! I didn’t know it at the time, but in that raspy, blues-soaked voice, I was hearing the influence of the kind of southern gospel church music that molded artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Tina Turner. And how prophetic was it that Richard Wayne Penniman came from Macon, Georgia? Click here for more about Little Richard.
The discovery of rock music in the 50’s may not have changed my life, but it certainly changed my attitudes toward it. Suddenly, I had something that symbolized my feelings of rebellion against the British class system that tried to pin you for life into whichever socio-economic group you accidentally entered at birth. Screw that.
Rock, and the whole cultural ethos that came with it, showed my generation that we didn’t have to be pinned down by anything. Especially not the values of a generation we regarded as inhibited to the point of paralysis. Later, I adopted a greater understanding and respect for my parent’s generation, but in 1956 it hovered around the zero mark.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my rock and roll journey had begun for real. It continued as I discovered other American artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the incredible Ray Charles. I also continued to discover Elvis and that amazing Sun Records catalog created by the genius of producer Sam Phillips. I breathed in this new music form as if it was a variation of oxygen and essential to my survival. In a way, it was.
Listening to these artists led me to discover the blues and jazz musicians that I admire to this day. And thank God for that, because at the end of the 50’s the American rock scene was about to disintegrate due to the temporary demise of the pioneers who created it. That demise brought new kinds of music into my life that I love: Blues, Jazz and Boogie-Woogie. More of that in the next posting.
Another Brick in the Wall
To begin this installment, I want to explain what it was like to grow up in the English education system in the late 50’s. Understanding how that felt will give you a better idea of why rock, jazz and the blues opened the floodgate of teenage frustration with post-war British society. Those music forms released a cultural revolution the country’s ruling classes had never seen before; a youth movement that baffled them and opened the door to a new era in British culture. To give you a feel for what my school years were like, here’s one of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits, Another Brick in the Wall.
We had plenty of dark sarcasms in the classroom, along with deliberate shamings, public humiliation, thought control and physical abuse. Here are just two examples:
A French teacher who would walk down the rows between desks slapping every boy he passed hard on the back of the head, just because he, a barely adequate teacher, wasn’t satisfied with the progress the class was making.
An art teacher who hurled thick wooden 3×3 drawing boards sidearm across the room if you talked during a painting session. These potentially lethal Frisbees would hit the wall a few inches above your head and blow plaster dust out of the wall. How he never killed anyone, I don’t know.
This kind of abuse was a routine part of getting a Grammar School education and we had no choice but to go along with it. If it happened these days, imagine what the reaction would be.
So we clung to the sounds and images inspiring us from across the Atlantic. What we heard offered salvation from the severe restrictions imposed on us by an older generation who just didn’t get what we felt or needed, and didn’t give a damn about either.
Although I hated the rigidity of school life and the mindless, pseudo-sadistic, control-freak discipline, I now value the academic quality of the education I received. But imagine how I felt at 14 when I saw Elvis in the last half-decent movie he made (King Creole):
That clip featured an amalgam of musical styles that embodied my personal musical rebellion: a combination of rock, jazz and blues. It seems tame now, even corny with Elvis dressed in a dopey busboy outfit, but back then it seemed magnificently defiant. It was another spark thrown into the gasoline of teenage rebellion. The fire had been lit.
But then it burned out.
The rock inspiration that had been pouring across the pond fizzled out in a perfect storm on unrelated events in the late 50’s. Chuck Berry went to jail, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, Jerry Lee Lewis fell into almost terminal disgrace by marrying his 13 year old cousin, Fats Domino and Bo Diddley just faded from sight, Little Richard got religion and, worst of all, Elvis went into the army. When he was discharged years later, he was a pale shadow of his former self.
In place of these inspiring rock and roll heroes, we got a bunch of American teen idols we grew to despise – singers like Bobby Vee and Fabian. Worst of all, was Pat Boone, a choir boy who got rich recording boring, soulless, white-bread versions of rock songs written and performed by African-American artists, and earning more royalties than they could ever dream about. I’m sure Pat Boone is an admirable human being, but in those days he became the poster boy for the sickening demise of the music that had fomented a teenage rebellion in Britain. But help was on the way.
It took the form of a glorious musical genre that has been around for a lot longer than rock music: Traditional jazz, also known as Dixieland and New Orleans jazz. I’ll tell you more about this phase of the British cultural revolution in the next posting.
But, for now, here’s a contemporary taste of this wonderful musical form that became a life-long passion for me. This clip features Wynton Marsalis and a magnificent group of musicians, including a moderately famous English guitar player named Eric Clapton. In the background you will also see Chris Stainton, keyboard player in Joe Cocker’s original Grease Band. Enjoy.
Hastings Pier and Jazz Club Floors
Traditional New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, or whatever you want to call it, is an integral part of the story of the evolution of rock music in Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Along with the skiffle craze led by performers like Lonnie Donegan.
Trad Jazz, as we called it, filled the void that opened up after the sudden demise of the American originators of rock and roll. Jazz was the perfect foil to the terrible dross that smarmed its way across the pond from the kind of white-bread, soulless teen balladeers I mentioned in the last post.
To set the musical scene, here’s a sample of the kind of music that dominated this period of my life pre-Beatles, Stones, and the so-called British invasion of America. It features the Dutch Swing College Band rocking out a boogie-piano driven piece called Dixieland boogie.
So here I am, lying on a hard, bare scrub of sand under the pier in a seaside town on the south coast of England. It’s called Hastings and it’s where King Harold took an arrow in the eye during the 1066 Norman conquest of England, which changed English history. Hastings is an unassuming middle-class English resort with a pebble beach and rows of respectable, white-washed Edwardian houses.
For some reason this unlikely setting had become Mecca for hordes of restless teens who were channeling the American beat generation of Jack Kerouac, spending every weekend on the road, hitch-hiking to the south coast of England. It wasn’t as epic as criss-crossing America in cars with big tail, but it satisfied our frustrated lust for adventure.
All around me that night, in various states of drunken slumber, are guys and gals who come every weekend to this new haven of a generation in search of something different, which we frequently found. We’re the weekend rebel generation who return to their respectable jobs on Monday mornings after weekends of white collar insurrection.
These weekend adventures always began at the notorious Anchor Inn, which had become a meeting place for a disenchanted generation. The then-owner served hooch that went by the name of Merridown Cider, which he brewed himself and sold in bottles that carried lemonade labels to hide the fact they contained an illegal brew: the English equivalent of white lightning. This seemingly harmless but lethal brew reduced many of us to babbling idiots with intoxicated grins, as we staggered off to find a sleep-space in the crowded, makeshift dormitory under the pier.
It’s around midnight and something has woken us beach-sleepers. I raise my beer-bleary head and listen to the faint sounds of jazz wafting down to the beach and growing louder by the minute.
We get up and go to investigate. At the pier head a glorious sight greets us: A jazz band is marching down the esplanade, playing their hearts out, and followed by a stream of people who have swarmed out of the local jazz club with them. They stop at the pier head and begin an impromptu free concert that’s eventually broken up by the police at the behest of local residents who fear that barbarian teenage hordes are about to overrun the town.
When we weren’t hitch-hiking to Hastings for the weekend, we went to London and explored jazz clubs like the 100 Club in Oxford Street. We would spend nights at Ken Colyer’s Jazz Club on Charing Cross Road. Coyler was regarded as a jazz purist by the more commercial bands playing at the time, which meant that he stayed faithful to the original New Orleans style of jazz.
In the corner of his club stood a scuffed but perfectly tuned black grand piano. Throughout the night, after the main bands of the evening had finished playing, musicians would slip in unannounced, sit at the grand piano and pound out blues and boogie woogie, emulating lesser known American artists such as Cow Cow Davernport, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Big Maceo Merriweather.
We learned to take sleeping bags so we could doss down on the floor for the night, waking up only when a new musician wandered in to amaze us with another example of authentic blues and boogie. I learned to love the blues and barrel house boogie piano in those heady days of discovering the richness of the myriad forms of jazz music. Here’s a contemporary example of boogie piano, played by three of its finest. You may recognize the drummer, one of the least-assuming and coolest musicians on the planet:
We also went to a couple of local jazz clubs during the week and danced the night away to live English jazz bands that had become faithful and skilled exponents of the New Orleans style of jazz. One of the clubs was run by a friend of mine and during the band breaks he would play records of classic jazz performances.
One day he decided to play something different and unwittingly heralded a cultural shift that was about to sweep across the country and change everything for my generation. He started playing a pop song called Love Me Do, by a little-known band from Liverpool called The Beatles.
To be continued…
4,000 Holes in Blackburn Lancashire and a Little Red Rooster
Fifty plus years after the event, it’s impossible to describe the stunning impact the Beatles had when they seemed to burst out of nowhere in the early sixties. We didn’t know then they were an overnight success that was many years in the making.
I heard of them before I heard their music. In 1962 I was on vacation in a small fishing village in Spain and met an art student from Liverpool. We got friendly and she invited me to go to Liverpool and hear a great new band called the Beatles, who played in the Cavern Club. I nearly fell down laughing. You want me to drive 250 miles from where I live to hear an unknown band named after bugs? I didn’t go and have regretted it ever since.
Later, I would realize that I’d come even closer to seeing them two years earlier. A friend and I hitch-hiked to Copenhagen, Denmark and one of our rides dropped us in Hamburg, close to the most notorious street in Germany: the Reeperbahn. We wandered down that dusty street of fascinating iniquity, amazed by the open displays of prostitution, sex shows, and drunken brawls.
But we were only 17 and this street felt dangerous, so we stuck out our thumbs and scored a ride out of the city. If we’d stayed longer to explore the Reeperbahn, we might have stumbled into the Top Ten Club and seen the early, raw version of the Beatles with Pete Best on drums. Ah well…
I next became aware of the Beatles early in 1963. The traditional jazz craze was still popular in England after the demise of our American rock and roll idols, and the barf-making teen crooners that seemed to have supplanted them in America (has there ever been a more bizarre record than Pat Boone singing Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally)? But trad-jazz was about to experience the demise to which all fads eventually fall victim. Traditional jazz has always been a musical genre for the ages but, at the time, it was a fad in England.
One of the two jazz clubs I went to every week was owned by a friend, ironically named Pete Best. Pete was a jazz enthusiast, but not a purist, and he added Love Me Do to the records played during band breaks. At first, we trad-jazz lovers were disgusted, but after a while this simple, kind-of-bluesy song began to grow on us. Without knowing it, Pete had introduced us to the band that would become one of the most popular of all time.
Their first album was only a moderate success, but their second album, With The Beatles, was a massive hit. I remember parties where that was the only record played all night. Then came the movie, A Hard Day’s Night and the rest is history.
Unlike many Beatles fans, Sgt. Pepper wasn’t my favorite album. I reserved that accolade for Revolver and, later, Abbey Road. But Sgt. Pepper did include my favorite all-time Beatles recording: A Day In The Life. Here’s a version with a video that will give you motion sickness:
Gradually, the so-called Fab Four seemed to become institutionalized. They played a Royal command performance at the London Palladium in front of the Queen and, worse of all, our parents began to approve of them.
One day I was watching one of the few good music shows on highly conservative, three-channel British TV and saw this:
To me, as a lover of American roots music, this was beyond cool. An English band playing authentic American blues? Holy crap. Suddenly, The Stones made The Beatles seem like a well-behaved pop band. I still admired individual Beatles songs, but The Stones were a breath of fresh air. They were raw, rude, rough and rebellious, and didn’t seem to give a toss what people thought of them. (At the time, I didn’t realize how calculatedly corporate Mick was at heart).
The Stones opened the door for other more down-and-dirty, blues-rock bands, notably The Animals, The Yardbirds, and The Who, while The Beatles found themselves compared (ridiculously) to bands like The Dave Clark Five, Jerry and the Pacemakers, The Merseybeats, Freddie and The Dreamers and other inferior groups seeking a place at the top of the pop charts. The Beatles were way above all of them, due to Lennon and McCartney’s supreme songwriting talents.
I should also give a shout-out to The Hollies for managing to walk a fine line between pop and rock. They carved out a unique place in English music with some fine songs. One of the founders, Graham Nash, moved on to a spectacularly successful career in the USA.
Eventually, The Beatles trod the path of social rebellion, but for a long time The Stones were the bad boys of British rock, and stayed true to its American roots. To this day, Keef (Keith Richards) is one of my heroes. I admire his deeply loyal love of rock music, his musicianship and his refusal to be anything other than true to his musical beliefs. I also admire his ability to play with passionate energy while looking as if he’s just been exhumed from his grave.
Here’s my favorite Stones performance featuring a classic song from one of the best live concerts ever filmed. It’s notable for two things in particular: Chuck Leavell’s impeccable keyboard playing and Lisa Fischer’s almost sexually indecent back-up, front-out vocals:
To be continued…