Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017
Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.
But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.
I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.
The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.
When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.
Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.
Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!
Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.
The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.
The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.
It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.
Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.
Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software. He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.
If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.
This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.
Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!
You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun 2017
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig’s book, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s might appear from the cover to be a ghostwritten or co-written memoir of the former’s career. It isn’t, though it does include a lengthy section at the beginning by Mike Heron that recounts the early years of the band. The core of the book, however, is Andrew Greig’s own memoir of growing up in the late sixties with The Incredible String Band providing the soundtrack and a spiritual path.
I was a bit perplexed by this format as I began the book. Mike Heron’s section is fascinating. His memories of the Scottish folk scene of the early sixties are vivid. Readers of Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger will already be aware that this period represents one of the great gatherings of talent and unique characters in popular music. Locals such as Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell (one of the drunken revelers in Dylan’s hotel room in Don’t Look Back -not the dude who threw the glass though), and Hamish Imlach mix with mythic figures like Anne Briggs in the legendary folk pubs of Edinburgh. At the semi rural home of Mary Stewart, the folk community mixes with the mountain climbing set. Rose Simpson, in fact, met Robin and Mike in the house after an unsuccessful attempt on Ben Nevis. Mary’s children appear on the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, considered by many to be their finest album.
The first incarnation of ISB included Clive Palmer, another great Scottish folk eccentric. He left after the first album and headed for Afghanistan before returning to the music world as a sort of cult musicians’ cult musician. If you’ve never heard Sunshine Possibilities by his Famous Jug Band or any of the early Clive’s Original Band (COB) records, the time has come! Mike Heron was an early fan who ended up playing with him in the trio that became The Incredible String Band. The story of their trip to London to record a demo for Elektra is wonderful and partially explains Clive’s plastic coat on the front of at least one version of the LP.
Just when I was getting ready to hear about the recording of my beloved The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album and the time that Paul McCartney declared The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the most important record of the year, the narrative came to an abrupt end.
Suddenly we’re back in Scotland in the mid sixties. It’s raining and Andrew Greig is at school. He discovers the Incredible String Band, has his mind blown, forms his own freak folk outfit, and becomes a poet. I enjoyed the stories but I kept waiting for Mike Heron to come back. Then the penny dropped.
Andrew Greig is not a rock journalist. He has written many books of poetry, a few novels, several books on mountain climbing, as well as a memoir about his friendship with the Scottish poet, Norman McCaig. He is a literary writer and thus his memories, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s are assuredly delivered. There is also a discernible subtext here and it relates to what is perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Incredible String Band. Andrew Greig heard the whisper of freedom in these endearingly loose records. The 1960s in Scotland was not, he observes, all that different from the 1940s. Men went to work, women stayed home and ironed sheets. Even Mike Heron’s father, the head of English at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, finds it hard to come to terms with Mike’s decision not to become a chartered accountant.
The Incredible String Band bring colour and light to the young Andrew’s dour existence in Fife. He and his friend George form a band called Fate & ferret. They write their own songs and go as far as meeting with Joe Boyd in London. Boyd is, of course, the John Hammond of English folk rock. His good taste brought, in addition to ISB, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and many others to the recording studio. In Greig’s memoir, he is friendly with them but not particularly interested in their music. Their initial meeting with him does lead to a gig opening for John Martyn at Les Cousins. Not bad for a high school band!
There are a number of books on The Incredible String Band that will provide a chronological account of their musical journey. Rob Young’s take on their career in Electric Eden is particularly good. But You Know What You Could Be is something different. Surely a band’s story must include their audience to some extent. Without going all ‘trees falling in the forest’ here, the effect of the music is often as significant as the music itself. Most rock and roll biographies will trace the influence of their subject on subsequent acts but what about the ordinary fans whose lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the music? Clearly, no one wants to read a whole book of Led Zeppelin fans cooing about Knebworth or, worse, a Deadhead memoir (there are many, if you do!) but I like what Greig has done in this book.
He has explained the real power of The Incredible String Band in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible in a straight biography. For most of us, our favourite bands exist in a dreamscape with a great soundtrack. We may see the band live or even meet the members but, as Yeats says, it is the dream itself that enchants us. You Know What You Could Be is a book about music, imagination, and the freedom to do exactly as you please. Who could ask for more?
(*The Band’s performance at Woodstock didn’t go over that well either. The Dead were booed apparently. No shame in struggling to identify the elusive zeitgeist of half a million wet hippies!)
Teasers: Wish you’d seen The Incredible String Band live in 1968? I sure do! Andrew Greig did and he has the writing chops to put you in the front row. I find many of the concerts I see these days far too formulaic. These chaotic evenings sound glorious!
Best song ever about insomnia!
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!