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From skiffle to Sgt Pepper – Billy Bragg on the evolution of British pop

June 26, 2017 | by johng

Tags: billy bragg, roots radicals and rockers, sergeant pepper, the beatles

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World was published on the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that, more than any other, marked the end of a process initiated by Lonnie Donegan. Before his version of Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ was released in late 1955, the singles chart comprised mostly of jazz-based music for adults.

Backed by big bands, crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Al Martino had hits with songs often taken from hit Broadway musicals. This trend was reflected in the domestic market by singers such as Dickie Valentine and David Whitfield, whose ‘Cara Mia’, a slushy ballad backed by Mantovani’s simpering strings, was number one when Donegan recorded ‘Rock Island Line’ in July 1954. Children were catered for with novelty songs such as ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’, taken to the top of the UK charts in March 1953 by Lita Roza, a Liverpool shop girl who became a featured soloist with the Ted Heath Orchestra.

The spending habits of teenagers had yet to make their mark. Young women tended to buy similar music to that of their parents, while young men were not really that interested in the pop charts at all. This began to change in the mid-fifties. Winning the Second World War had nearly bankrupted Britain and, as a result, post-war governments were forced to continue the rationing of food, petrol, clothing and other consumer goods into peacetime. When it finally ended in July 1954, rationing had created a generation of teenagers who had never been able to go into a sweet shop and buy whatever they wanted. Such was the pressure built up by years of depravation that when sugar came off the ration in 1949 the sudden rush of demand was so great that restrictions had to be swiftly re-imposed.

It is understandable then, that when everything became freely available, those teenagers who had only ever known rationing should act like kids in a sweet shop – and not just with confectionaries. During 1955, sales of cosmetics, clothing and records rocketed, a process driven by the fact that teenager’s wages had risen by 50 per cent since 1938, twice the rate for adult pay. There was plenty of work about and, for the first time in British social history, teenagers became an identifiable force in consumer spending. These new consumers were almost wholly confined to the working class. Middle- and upper-class teens had their spending power deferred, first by university and then by the long periods of training involved in such professions as teaching, medicine and the law. Working-class teenagers, on the other hand, tended to leave school at fifteen and go straight into manual or semi-skilled labour. Their tastes were to shape Britain’s first real youth culture.

While young women’s interest in pop music tended to be stylistic, skiffle offered young men a practical way into pop. Lonnie Donegan was different from all the other male stars of the day. The most successful tended to be American, yet he was from London. And while all male singers wore a dinner jacket and sang with an orchestra, Lonnie sported an open-necked shirt and played a guitar.

In post-war Britain, the guitar was an instrument associated with outsiders: cowboys, blues men, calypsonians. So rare was it to see someone from the UK playing a guitar that Bill Drummond, of KLF fame, recently told me that the first time he saw a skiffle band, he thought the guitarist was plucking the sound from a hole in his stomach. Donegan changed all this. The first domestic artist to get into the charts playing a guitar, his example fired up the imaginations of boys who had grown up watching singing cowboys in B-movies. And the instrument was so accessible – just learn three chords and you could play most of Donegan’s repertoire. On his first national tour in the autumn of 1956, the message he brought was perhaps the most revolutionary idea ever imparted to British youth: 1) You don’t have to be a musician to play music and 2) You don’t have to be an American to sing American songs.

In the two years following the success of ‘Rock Island Line’, sales of acoustic guitars in the UK had leapt from some 5,000 to over 250,000 a year. Skiffle was a craze among school-age boys in the same way that the fidget-spinner has swept through playgrounds across the country in the past six months. Everybody either had a guitar, wanted a guitar or made one with their dads. Among the teenagers inspired to start strumming were three lads who were fired up by Lonnie Donegan’s week of shows at the Liverpool Empire in November 1956. George Harrison was only thirteen at the time, but he went every night to see Lonnie’s show. His school friend, fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney was so taken by Donegan that he convinced his father to end his trumpet lessons and instead buy him a guitar. And at Quarry Bank School, a sixteen-year-old John Lennon formed a skiffle group called the Quarrymen in the weeks following Donegan’s residency.

Lonnie Donegan was in the first rank of artists who helped define British teen culture and, within a few years, the singles charts had become dominated by teenage taste. In the process, British pop moved from being a jazz-based confection for adults to become a guitar-led music for teens. This transition was even more stark in the US, where in 1957, if we are to believe the music press, Elvis Presley battled it out with calypso singer Harry Belafonte for the title of the King of Pop. In truth, this was a battle between generations. After the mambo mania of 1955, calypso had been lined up to become the next big dance craze, the exotic style that every fashionable big band had in their repertoire. But rock ‘n’ roll turned up at the party and things got ugly, with teenagers demanding music they could jive to. A highly talented twenty-nine-year-old nightclub singer, Belafonte’s smooth delivery was popular with adults. Presley, the twenty-one-year-old Hillbilly Cat, was the champion of the teens. Their supposed rivalry covered up a significant schism in the record-buying public. Belafonte sold the most albums in 1957, while Elvis sold the most singles, creating a pattern that was to continue for the next decade: adults mostly bought albums, while teens bought singles.

Those three lads from Liverpool made a significant contribution to this trend. After the Beatles had their first number one in the US in January 1964 with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, British artists held the top position in the Billboard charts for a period of fifty-two weeks during the following two years. And, with the exception of Petula Clark, every one of those bands contained ex-members of skiffle groups. However, throughout that period, album sales in the UK were still dominated by adult taste. In 1965, the Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan all topped the album charts, but the bestselling long player of the year was the original soundtrack recording of The Sound of Music, which had appeared in cinemas in March. It was to repeat that feat in 1966, but the following year brought a sea change. In 1967, only three artists topped the UK album charts. The Monkees eponymous debut album and its follow-up represented the young teens who normally bought singles but would splash out for the album of a favourite artist. The Sound of Music was also there, evidence that the adult consumer’s long-established appetite for show tunes was still alive and well. But the bestselling album of the year came from a different place altogether.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was a decisive break with the past for the Beatles. Just ten months before, they’d been playing their boy-band hits, along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers from their Hamburg days, at their last live show in Candlestick Park. Now they were running childhood memories through psychedelic tape loops while simultaneously mixing eastern mysticism with Edwardian music-hall stylings. The first British teenagers had come of age and, in doing so, turned their attention to both producing and consuming albums. The music that their parents liked – Val Doonican, Ray Conniff, show tunes and soundtrack records – would become increasingly rare in the album charts as that generation moved into middle age. And as the teenagers settled into adulthood, those pop stars born in the 1940s began to show outward signs of their maturity. Lyrics began appearing on record sleeves ­– Sergeant Pepper’s was the first – and journalists began asking for opinions on current events, rather than the staple questions of the teen pop mags: what is your favourite food and what type of girl do you like? Instead, concepts abounded. Beards appeared, and were stroked. In short, pop stars began taking themselves very seriously.

It was in this sudden shift from throwaway pop to meaningful rock that made skiffle unfashionable. To the British rock aristocracy of the late sixties and early seventies, almost all of whom had been involved in the skiffle boom, Lonnie Donegan and his ilk were no longer hip. Better to claim that you had been inspired by Elvis and Buddy Holly than to admit that it was Chas McDevitt or the Vipers that first gave you the urge to play guitar. The new scene was all grown up and had no time for such juvenilia. Skiffle was consigned to the attic of British pop culture, along with those embarrassing school photos and your old teddy bear. Lonnie Donegan became a figure of fun, his hammy performance of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ erasing all memory of his incendiary rendition of ‘Rock Island Line’.

Roots, Radicals and Rockers seeks to rehabilitate skiffle by exploring the forces that came together in the early fifties to create a situation in which the banjo player from a trad-jazz band could ignite a cultural revolution that would lead not only to the British Invasion of the American charts, but to Sgt. Pepper’s and beyond.

Billy Bragg’s new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is out now.