Andy Royston takes a look at swinging London and picks out the songs (and videos) that defined the era.
” Suddenly life broke out in warm colors again, so young and beautiful that a lot of people couldn’t stand to look at it. For the first time ever, kids were teenagers. They had loot, however come by, and loot’s for spending. And where there’s loot, trouble follows.” – Absolute Beginners
Colin McInnes’ trilogy of London novels (City of Spades, Mr. Love and Justice and Absolute Beginners) was probably the first real taste of things to come in London.
What he wrote about was the newly independent teenager shaking free from the old worn post-war world. He wrote about the melting pot of races, the tribalism and the love-lives of the new subculture. There’s the roots of the swinging sixties in McInnes’ soho basement jazz and jive clubs.
Much of London’s so-called fashionable areas were seedy and shabby at best, caught between the slum landlords and welfare checks. Rough cockneys, lost provincials and the boys from the West Indies. It’s all there.
Into the sixties though, and the grainy black and white world still ruled. Swinging sixties was just something that David Bailey and Terence Donovan photographed for the Sunday papers. In the real world London’s teens were still waking up to possibilities.
Patty Duke – England Swings
Swinging London was a media creation and the original of this song was recorded by an American Country star, Roger Miller. It was complete tosh – just a Merrie Olde England cash-in – showing how hard it was initially for outsiders to forget about the quaint cliches of old. The image of England as “one groovy little old place” was hard to shake. Patty Duke? American child star actress. Played Neely in the Valley of the Dolls.
Hollywood was putting out glitzy musicals steeped in dear old Blightly, british bobbies and Earl Gray tea – like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Oliver, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins – so we can forgive the poor dears…
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates – Shakin’ All Over
Songs that are thrown together in five minutes – spur-of-the-moment masterpieces – are the stuff of legend.
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates found out that they could put one of their own songs on the B-side of a single release. Kidd wrote Shakin’ All Over in the basement of the Freight Train coffee bar near Berwick Street market and went into the studio with it the following day.
Widely recognized as the best pre-Beatles rock song (though Cliff’s Move It and Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac push it close) it wouldn’t be well known in the States until the Guess Who’s cover version. And speaking of the Who (kinda :-)) , a soon-to-be-legendary rock band were touring with Johnny Kidd during 1962-63 and would do their own cover of Shakin’ All Over a decade later.
An influential member of the band was Mick Green, who, thanks to his Fender Telecaster Deluxe guitar, made a fine old racket. His ability to combine rhythm and lead and his loud, slashing technique influenced young London players like Pete Townsend and Wilko Johnson.
Joe Brown What’s The Name of This Game
Joe Brown grew up the son of an east end publican and came to fame as one of Larry Parnes stable of acts. Parnes had parlayed Tommy Steele to great success and was always on the look out for new talent. Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager all were managed by him at some point. Brown was sold very much as the chirpy cockney, and had a string of hit singles on Decca by the end of 1960.
Joe Brown was all ukulele and music hall at heart, and moved from a skiffle sound to the voguish rock and roll songs from America. He moved from to novelty numbers like Jellied Eels and Henery the Eighth to slick pre-Beatles pop like this one.
In the first few years of the 1960s trad jazz was all the range, culminating in a huge all-nighter at Alexandra Palace starring the likes of Kenny Ball, George Melly, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber. Britain’s odd obsession with old Americana was sadly evident in the best selling LP charts of the day, which were dominated by Minstrel show collections.
The nation’s obsession with TV minstrel shows was almost embarrassing. A spin off from light entertainment and Variety theatre The Black and White Minstrel show was completely faithful to American blackface traditions that even in the US were on the wain. No wonder young people were keen to get out on a weekend.
Rolling Stones – Off The Hook
Meanwhile, in small London clubs and suburban halls a new kind of music was becoming fashionable. These places had only recently played host to traditional jazz. Places like the Marquee, the Flamingo, the Ealing Club and the Crawdaddy hosted intense blues nights headed by white aficionados like Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Zoot Money, Chris Barber and Georgie Fame.
The Crawdaddy, a small hall around the back of Richmond’s Station Hotel witnessed one of those overnight sensations. A bunch of ha’porths called The Rolling Stones started playing there on Sundays initially to a virtually empty hall but by spring were so popular the club was looking for bigger premises. It’s what Londoners used to call a scene, and it was inevitable that this excitement would be lauded by the music papers and find its way onto 45rpm vinyl.
Carnaby Street was just another grotty side street – as far east from Regent Street as Savile Row was west, but apart from a half-decent boozer (the Shakespeare) and a tobacconists there was no real reason to spend any time there.
That all changed when a young upstart called John Stephen went out on his own from the Vince Man’s Shop a few streets away. Vince was flashy in the extreme – the kind of place where they measure your inside leg every time you buy a tie quipped George Melly. Stephen opened his shop along Carnaby Street and soon all the young guns of the day – including Larry Parnes’ finest and the almost movie star s like Cliff Richard and Adam Faith were picking up their gear there.
Every time you walked past a John Stephen window there was something new and loud in it, and when you counted your money, you found you could afford it. Nik Cohn
The London cellar bars still had a strong jazz vibe, though, with the trads getting into beatnik poetry and CND marches, and the mods favoring the avant garde bebop sounds of Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan. Mod fashion sense had a real French and Italian finish, and showed the new affluence of the young; as writer Shawn Levy observes in his book Swinging London, “all they seemed to care about was cutting an image, making the scene, scoring a cool scooter, pills and clothes and holy of holies, becoming a Face.”
The Who Can’t Explain
The Who were more art school at first, but were soon styled as mod and were soon very popular in a scene that didn’t really have a pop group of their own. They recorded a song called I’m The Face and started dressing in the best Carnaby Street gear.
I Can’t Explain, though, was an instant classic. The Who’s earlier shows were almost pop art happenings, and their hyped up tempo and rough edged live performances attracted a lot of attention. The song itself plays like a reply to The Kinks earlier hit You Really got Me, and is delivered with a dash of Summertime Blues.
The Mod scene was soon swamped by out of town wannabes, attracted to the fashions they’d seen on Ready Steady Go and the increasingly violent seaside rucks with townies. My Generation debuted on Guy Fawkes Night in ’65 to great acclaim by the suberban mods, but already the real faces on the scene had moved on.
Pretty Things Midnight To Six
One band that missed the Beatles-led British Invasion of the US was The Pretty Things. They were a raucous R&B outfit and they had hits with their first four singles. Their early sound became the blueprint for countless American garage bands, before they took an acid trip or two and turned into full-on psychedelic nutters. Shame.
The Equals Baby Come Back
London had a decent amount of black-owned venues going back before the war, including places on Carnaby Street, Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road. The African and West Indian influence in the city pre-dated the famous Windrush generation and was all over town by the 60s, when Eddy Grant arrived in the capital as a 12 year old. His folks were from Guyana and he’d grown up with the distinctive Caribbean tan singing.
In the North London council estate Hornsey Rise though he absorbed rock and roll and blues too and by 65 was fronting Britain’s first popular multi-racial band. The Equals gigged heavily around the city for over a year before signing to President Records. Eddy was still a teenager when Baby Come Back made the charts, a solid blue-eyed soul song with a Dave Clark Five beat and a touch of the ska in Eddy’s vocal style. Grant was working also with some of London own ska bands, and wrote several songs for visiting Jamaican stars like Prince Buster.
The impact of The Equals, as a multi-racial British band, who got edgier and angrier into the late sixties and early seventies can’t be overstated. From their Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys stomper to solo numbers like Police on my Back (later covered by The Clash) Cockney Black and Race Hate, Eddy Grant paved the way for British roots reggae bands like Misty in Roots, Steel Pulse, Matumbi and Aswad. The Equals had a huge impact on race relations at a time when the bigotry of Enoch Powell was fanning the flames of racism.
The Kinks Waterloo Sunset
When Ray Davies was around 14 he had a heath scare. When he was younger he’d fractured his jaw and broken his nose, and he was at the hospital to have the jaw reset. Only things went wrong and his lungs collapsed. His memory of the next few days was hazy, with a recollection of being wheeled out onto the balcony of the hospital, which lies right on the Thames by Westminster Bridge staying in the mind long enough to be captured in song.
By the time that Waterloo Sunset was written the names of John Lennon, Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger were household names, falling over themselves to write the most far out and with it tunes. Davies wasn’t looking for that.
“That’s where I differed from my contemporaries and why I didn’t always feel in tune with them. I wrote ‘Sunny Afternoon’ when I was 21 years old and wrote it so my grandad could sing it. I didn’t write it to make my parents angry. It was the same with ‘Waterloo Sunset’. I wanted everyone to like it. I didn’t exclude adults from my audience. I basically wrote it for my family because I came from an environment where everybody sang and was musically inclined.” Ray Davies
Small Faces Itchycoo Park
Another band to emerge from London’s mod scene were the aptly named Small Faces. As their biographer Paulo Hewitt observes, clothes played a huge part in this group’s legacy. “The Small Faces wore the sixties. Mohair, cotton, leather PVC, prince of wales check…wide belts, striped jumpers of all colors, straight-legged trousers with sharp creases. And then there were the shoes…”
Depending on who you listen to Itchycoo Park is about an East London park. Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, says one. Valentine’s Park in West Ham, says another. Wanstead Flats over past Leytonstone says a third. Ronnie Lane himself said it was Little Ilford Park. All porkies. And none of these places have dreaming spires.
Tony Calder, faced with a BBC ban because of references to getting high and being hung up, came up with a handy bit of cock and bull.
“We told the BBC that Itchycoo Park was a piece of waste ground in the East End that the band had played on as kids. We put out the story at ten and by lunchtime we were told that the ban was off.” Tony Calder
The Pink Floyd – Arnold Layne
Syd Barratt came to London from Cambridge in ’64 to study painting at the Camberwell College of Art. He wound up living halfway across the city – joining a blues band called The Tea Set, who had songs by the likes of Bo Diddley in their repertoire. That soon changed dramatically; they changed their name to The Pink Floyd and hooked up with a few mates from Hornsea College of Art who were experimenting with slide shows and projections. Those blues numbers soon extended into free jams and the shows became trippy experiences.
Another side of the band though came from the English whimsy that overtook the London bands of the day. Arrangements became more pastoral and fringe instruments like harpsichords and flutes were mixed with reverb, echo and distortion. Arnold Layne was part of a new English pop trend towards creating character vignettes led by The Beatles’ (Dr. Robert, Sexy Sadie, Maxwell, Mr. Kite, Rocky Raccoon, Lovely Rita Meter Maid, Bungalow Bill, Eleanor Rigby, Polythene Pam).
Arnold Layne was only a minor hit, but it propelled Barrett and his band out of the underground and on the road to fame – helped by pirate radio ban on the song for being “too smutty”. The beginning of Syd’s acid breakdown were just weeks away.
What draws all of these songs together is the wonderful Anglo-American cross cultural blend. At the heart of the “British Invasion” was a delicious cocktail of American blues, folk and rock n roll with a particularly English lyrical style rooted in the music hall. A generation of English artists were raised not just on radio but on strong literary and humorous traditions. From Dickens and Shakespeare to Edward Lear and The Goon Show. All of this combined with the British love of theatricality to place London at the heart of pop culture for decades to come.
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