From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘British Beat’ chapter was written by Mike Houghton
In the late fifties, the only development in British pop to show any semblance of originality was skiffle, and even this was directly descended from American folk roots in blues and ‘jugband’ music. Otherwise, the British version of rock & roll was precisely modelled on the American one, exemplified in 1956 by Britain’s lone Elvis imitator, Tommy Steele. Within a year Steele had set the precedent whereby any tough image – in Steele’s case scarcely detectable – was soon dropped in favour of all-round appeal.
1958 however, was Britain’s most memorable rock & roll year. Cliff Richard emerged with the first genuinely exciting British rock (‘ Move It ‘), though he too was quickly groomed to be acceptable to young and old alike. Cliff’s emergence had been greatly boosted by Jack Good‘s TV rock show ‘Oh Boy’, which ran for eleven months from June 1958, and introduced many of the home-grown rockers. Two of the finest, Billy Fury and Marty Wilde, had been renamed by the first entrepreneur of British pop, Larry Parnes. Parnes handled a host of artists, each with a descriptive surname: Johnny Gentle, Vince Eager, Duffy Power, even Georgie Fame and, breaking the sequence, Joe Brown. Brown, like Tommy Steele a cheery cockney, didn’t achieve a hit until 1962, but he did contribute the lead guitar work to perhaps the most extraordinary and lasting recording of the British rock & roll era, Billy Fury’s Sound of Fury. An ‘authentic’ rockabilly-sounding album, all the songs were nonetheless written by Fury himself. He went on to record a string of impressive big ballads that kept him in the charts until 1965.
Although 1958 was Britain’s most convincing year for rock & roll, British pop music thereafter fell into something of a deep sleep. That something akin to rock & roll should reawaken, five years later, on the British side of the Atlantic, was quite unprecedented. Yet what occurred in Britain between 1963. and 1967 amounted to a rekindling of the spirit of the first rock era, while the parallel development of a youth culture was even more far-reaching in its effect than that accompanying the earlier era.
The British pop revolution took the form of a series of local movements, completely independent of one another at first, and establishing firm identities, especially in the major cities. Liverpool, of course, provides the definitive example. Each local scene generated a fierce sense of belonging which focussed on the music at its heart, though that music did not necessarily represent a common local style, except in Liverpool. Essentially derivative, but fast and loud – these had been the basic qualities of British pop since the fifties; but not until now was a new stylistic element forged, strong enough to create a genuinely original article that went beyond mere imitation.
While one should not forget the crucial role of Merseybeat in the British pop explosion of the sixties, its chief significance lay in drawing attention to the existence of an extensive grass-roots pop network in Britain. This didn’t just spring up in the wake of Merseybeat, nor was beat music the first grass-roots pop to develop in Britain. Skiffle had spread like wildfire following Lonnie Donegan‘s chart hits in 1956. The do-it-yourself skiffle was, however, too limited and unsatisfying to last, but it did create a guitar group consciousness that long outlived the boom. The significance of the skiffle craze lay not in the charts but in the coffee bars, church halls and other temporary venues where thousands of kids formed skifflle groups and were hooked on playing this ersatz form of rock & roll. The essential flaw in skiffle was its lack of power; with the arrival of hire purchase in 1960, electric guitars, thirty-watt amplifiers and the basic drum kit were no longer unattainable.
If skiffle laid the foundation, then the Shadows were the catalyst in the new electric phase of nascent British pop. Their string of hits between 1960 and 1963 made them the most successful pre-Beatles group. Adopting a clean sound, with each instrument clearly distinguishable, they provided the ideal model for aspiring lead guitarists in particular, but also for drummers and bass and rhythm players. Like skiffle, the Shadows’ style was constricting, and the new beat groups went back either to American rock & roll or to r & b for inspiration.
Apart from the expected influences of Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, the local groups in Liverpool found particular inspiration in contemporary vocal groups such as the Drifters, the Marvelettes, and the Shirelles, and in obscure singles that came into the city via ships docking in the port from America. Liverpool, with its well-established club set-up, evolved the most complete and singular style of all the cities where a beat scene, in some form, was in existence. There is no doubt that in most of the major cities – Birmingham, Newcastle, , Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow and London – all, save one, ports, group scenes had been steadily evolving since the very early sixties. Merseybeat, following a run of chart successes by the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, the Searchers et al., first drew-attention to this grassroots activity throughout Britain and then offered an immediate and simply adopted stylistic bandwagon to jump aboard. The majority of local groups soon latched on to Merseybeat but they were invariably short-lived. When one looks back to the groups which survived the boom from 1963 to 1965, they were clearly those that went their own way. What they had in common was the basic umbrella style, r & b.
London, particularly after the chart breakthrough by the Rolling Stones in 1964, was a major influence in the large-scale shift of emphasis from beat to r & b. But r & b was open to different interpretations. Even in London, although the Stones’ blueprint was widely adopted (the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, Downliners Sect), it was in direct competition with the Flamingo style, the jazz-horn riffing of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated or the jazz organ-based style of the Graham Bond Organization, while others remained outside even these broad categories. Manfred Mann, for example, was one of the earliest r & b groups in London who, in their early days, couldn’t decide between r & b and jazz and, later on, couldn’t decide between this hybrid and straight pop. Rhythm & blues groups in the provinces also developed individual styles in total isolation from one another. The Animals (Newcastle), Them (Belfast), Alex Harvey’s Big Soul Band (Glasgow), John Mayall’s Blues Syndicate (Manchester); none exactly fit the London pattern.
The impact of r & b could never be measured against a yardstick of chart success. In fact, looking at the charts for i965, the year that the Rolling Stones, Them and the Pretty Things were rearing their heads as the delinquents of pop, beat was clearly running out of steam; the ever-youthful Cliff Richard was scoring his first – Number 1 since Beatlemania, Ken Dodd topped the charts for over a month with ‘Tears’, while the. biggest new group to emerge, adjudged by chart success, was the Seekers.
Yet British- pop wasn’t in as sorry a state as the charts reflected; the excitement remained but had reverted to the clubs. In a network that traversed the country, r & b was still the reagent and, while club acts rarely broke into the singles charts, some produced albums which sold remarkably well. Both the John Mayall with Eric Clapton Blues Breakers album and Geno Washington‘s ‘Hand Clappin’ – Foot Stompin’ – Funky Butt – Live enjoyed unheard-of album sales.
The healthy club circuit was also reflected by the pirate radio stations, at their peak between 1965 and 1967. Stations like Radio Caroline and Radio London were responsible for many of the period’s more unlikely hits. But the true arbiter of the club punter’s taste was the TV rock show ‘Ready Steady Go’. It was the epitome of all that was thrilling about British pop, drawing heavily on Jack Good‘s ideas in ‘Oh Boy’. ‘RSG’ eventually acknowledged the role of the club acts by going live to capture them at their most exciting.
By 1966, soul music was finding particular favour, especially with the black and mod audiences, but the soul-orientated groups, whether they had a horn section – like the Flamingo groups, Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, or the more Staxstyled Alan Bown Set and Jimmy James and the Vagabonds – or whether they simply used soul as one facet of their style – like the Artwoods, the Action and Steampacket – came up against the same problem. Their recreations of black music sounded tremendous in the atmosphere of the .clubs, but their recordings could never compete with the originals. The club-goers naturally bought the original article, so the likes of Chris Farlowe, Zoot Money and Cliff Bennett notched up few hits. Most of the club groups failed to score at all. Ultimately, this attitude fostered the proliferation of discotheques. Both cheaper and easier to run, the discos began to encroach more and. more on live music.
The discotheques were the final nail in the coffin; the heyday of British beat was over by the beginning of 1967. When; in that year, the underground movement caught on outside London, it briefly gave some of the clubs a new lease of life. In its original form, mostly a London affair, the underground was a short-lived phenomenon. The key founding spirits were groups such as Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Tomorrow, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but as the year grew older other groups came under the underground umbrella. They were a motley collection: the Move, essentially a pop group, seemed out of place; as did that arch-looner Zoot Money, riding his Dantalian’s Chariot like a man possessed. He shed his earlier Flamingo identity (as did many other old bluesers) without even pausing for breath. The individuals in the Nice typified the process whereby apparently new groups sprang up; three of them, David O’List, Keith Emerson and Brian Davison, had previously been with stalwart club outfits, the Attack, Gary Farr’s T’-Bones and the Mark Leeman Five. Very few groups stood for the original spirit of the underground. The overall atmosphere by the summer of ’67 was one of exploitation, of cashing in on a rapidly expanding market for what was now being dubbed ‘progressive’ rock.
The underground and progressive music scene also encompassed the second British blues boom. The first, contemporaneous with the r & b upsurge of 1964-5, had never really taken off. The second, however, found a ready audience in the underground clubs and the expanding college/university circuit. Many of the leading blues exponents were refugees from the abortive first wave of groups – for example John Mayall, with a succession of different Blues Breakers, and Cream, featuring Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. These two, aided by the newly arrived Jimi Hendrix, gave the blues movement its much-needed springboard. Hundreds of groups sprang up in 1967 and 1968; the best were Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Free, Jethro Tull, Taste and the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart. The second-division front-runners included the Groundhogs, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack and Ainsley Dunbar’s Retaliation,
The new progressive music – groups such as Yes, the Nice, Genesis and Led Zeppelin, all formed around this time – and the blues bands both required a new outlet for recording. Where British beat/r & b had happened in spite of a recordbusiness system dominated by four major companies – Decca, EMI, Pye and Philips – the new emphasis on esoteric albums; which the underground had instigated, called for a change in attitude from record companies Which, perhaps, only a new type of label would be flexible enough to achieve.
Island became the prototype for this new breed of independent labels. In 1967, Island was well disposed to break new ground: following the break-up of the Spencer Davis Group, which Island had managed, the new group Traffic, formed by Stevie Winwood, was signed by them as their first ‘underground" band. Once underground/progressive music had come out into the open, Island was seen to be the British label, scooping many of its leading exponents: Fairport Convention, Spooky Tooth, Jethro Tull and Free in addition to Traffic. Island was attracting the best of the new blood, not only by a policy of offering the kind of artistic freedom that was wanted, but because they stood for the new order in a way that the old majors never could.
The majors’ answer was to launch new progressive labels under their patronage – Decca with Deram, EMI with Harvest, Pye with Dawn and Philips with Vertigo, shifting appropriate artists from the parent label to the ‘new’ one, Thus, the Moody Blues and Ten Years After went to Deram, Pink Floyd to Harvest and the Bystanders, a pop cabaret group about to be released from their old contract with Pye, reappeared on Dawn as Man, one of our most enduring underground groups, The old associations with the parent label were never really shaken off; Vertigo had an impressive roster of artists, among them the leading new jazz-rock groups (yet another growing trend) Colosseum and Nucleus, but could never get the label on the right footing, as could the genuine independents that formed following Island’s success, labels such as Chrysalis, Charisma and Virgin.
The arrival of these new labels was, to some extent, the final, triumph of the British pop explosion, It marked the first real change in the music industry since the war. Sadly, though, the progressive era that the independents represented soon threw British pop/rock into a state of thorough confusion. Eventually it became clear that a new hierarchy had simply replaced the old one. The mixed fortunes of rock under its new masters – heavy metal, glitter rock, ponderous symphonic/opera rock, superstars and supergroups – the leading exponents of which had come through the sixties experience anyway, sent the British rock industry back into a co.a as deep as the one in 1960. The new wave groups of recent years have roused it once again, but how long will it be before the pop cycle turns once again to engulf them as well.
Essential British Beat Singles
She Loves You
The definitive early Beatles single; nothing epitomizes Beatlemania as readily as the Yeah Yeah Yeah’ hook.
The Swinging Blue Jeans
Hippy Hippy Shake
The essence of Merseybeat: an obscure song, absolutely transformed by the strident rhythm and raw energy of the one-take Blue Jeans version.
The Dave Clark Five
Glad All Over
Characteristic DCS pile-driver; Clark’s production gave the group the fullest possible sound with deliberate emphasis on the thumping rhythm track.
She’s Not There
The only British chart hit from the thinking man’s beat group. Superb natural timing and pacing on a highly sophisticated debut single.
Concrete And Clay
Classic one-hit-wonder group who produced this striking folk-beat single. They appeared to have everything going for them – except an image.
House of The Rising Sun
The first folk-rock single and the first hit to defy the three-minute rule.
Their last hit with Paul Jones in the middle, and their most endearing single; Jack Bruce played bass on this one.
Friday On My Mind
Shel Talmy produced this classic teenage weekend song for the Aussie based Easybeats. It’s distinguished by some superb rhythm playing and singing.
Out of Time
It took a Jagger/Richard song and a Jagger production to earn the popular club performer his only hit. Music to clear the throat to.
Shapes of Things
Prime British psychedelic single featuring a consummate guitar solo from Jeff Beck.
King Midas In Reverse
The Hollies’ finest original single and one of the best British flowerpower efforts but scarcely a hit. No wonder Graham Nash left.
The Small Faces
All Or Nothing
Always following leaders, this gave them their only Number I, easily the most worthy of their string of hits.
Pop-art rock of the first water, Shel Talmy produced this for his own Planet label.
The Spencer Davis Group
Gimme Some Lovin’
Relying too heavily on Steve Winwood’s mature voice and musicianship, they rarely came up with the goods to do justice to his all-round talent. When they did …
A Whiter Shade of Pale
No single better conjures up the spirit of ’67 – mysterious, hallucinogenic lyrics and a brooding organ, based on a Bach cantata. Magic.
The impact of hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time was only eclipsed by seeing him perform this on TV for the first time.
Strawberry Fields Forever
British acid rock in classic form – a totally different animal to the American model.
The most memorable underground hit; a tour-de-force performance from Arthur Brown, screaming and gyrating, matched by Vincent Crane’s powerful organ work.