Saturday, January 19, 2008

REWRITING MUSIC HISTORY

I am trying to get my head round what appears to be, on the face of it, some kind of Buddhist lesson.

It has been one of my principal working practices to follow my enthusiasms and investigations wherever they may lead. Sometimes you strike gold; other times, the outcome is downright failure. You never know for sure; either way you learn a lot on the journey.

For the past twelve months my leading obsession has been the musical history of Britain in the 40s and 50s which led me to try and map all the clubs and music venues in Soho - the junction box of British music during that period - from 1942 to 1964. It was a fascinating study. I drew up a large pencil-sketch map and read a bookshelf load of books - keeping both Amazon and Abebooks well fed with orders in the process.

Twelve months in, I happened to mention my project to Mr Jeff Dexter, best known to most as a leading dj during the 60s and 70s, at clubs like UFO and at most major festivals including the Isle of Wight. He tipped me off to these two titles, they arrived within a few days of each other, and I was somewhat taken aback to discover that - to all intents and purposes - the work had been done. A very strange feeling.

'London Live' by Tony Bacon may not be the definitive work on the subject but I can categorically tell you its the most comprehensive to date. Full of maps, posters, handouts, photos, it runs from the 50s to the punk period and includes an astonishing and totally comprehensive database of everyone who played at the Marquee Club, arranged both in date order and by artist. Its obviously a labour of love and it will be enjoyed by many. What was really galling was to discover it was published in 1999 - how the hell could I have missed it!

Pete Frame's book is brand new. He is well known to most as founder of Zigzag magazine and as the author of the Rock Family Trees, now available in one volune from Omnibus Press, which formed the basis of a tv series on the BBC sometime back. One of his hallmarks is an almost obsessive attention to detail.

Thus this mammoth memoir reeks with authenticity, with a feeling that what you are reading is a wholly accurate account of what went down - a feeling bolstered by the fact that the book is built around scores of interviews with key people of the time, many of whom I suspect have never been interviewed before or since. Its a brilliant work and immediately stands head and shoulders above all but a few works on the decade. I can say this with some certainty because I've read scores of them. Most provide genuine insights and useful information but none are anywhere near as comprehensive, level-headed and carefully constructed as this masterwork. We are all in his debt for the thousands and thousands of hours he has spent since 1989, doing interviews and thinking about this project.

It starts, correctly, with several chapters on the marvelous Ken Colyer - the Joe Strummer of his time - a difficult man who had a major impact on his musical times. News of his death was marked by two minutes silence in the House of Commons. Yet today his name has been forgotten except by afficionados.

Then comes Chris Barber - another man whose huge contribution to British music still remains underplayed, and a marvelous pen portrait of Lonnie Donegan. These three characters along with the likes of Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner lie at the roots of so much of British music.

Frame then takes us to Soho of the time, to clubs like the 2I's, The Roudhouse, the Gyre and Gimble, and the Nucleus and gives us a full blast of the characters, action and ambience. He charts the birth of skiffle and the growth of the folk clubs and coffee bars (inventions of the period), the impact of Elvis.

If you think all this stuff is dusty old material of no relevance to today, then you'll be much mistaken. We have up to now been fed a kind of 'official history' of British music which is not only woefully manipulated and partial, but also excludes the many and celebrates the few - most often the wrong ones. 'The Restless Generation' is a huge contribution towards setting this picture straight. Its a big work in every sense of the word, packed with meticulous detail and telling incidents, driven along by a strong narrative style. It comes complete with a detailed chronology and index thus increasing its usefulness as a research tool.

Interestingly, both books are published by independent publishers. In the first instance, the author is also the publisher. Tony Bacon co-founded Balafon in 1992, which he claims on the flyleaf is now 'the leading independent publisher of fine books about music, musicians and musical instruments.'

In the second case, Pete Frame explains in the introduction how he had begun on the process of self-publishing, rightly assuming that no commercial publisher was likely to fund such a detailed work on this subject, when ' who should come tripping back into my life but Johnny Rogan.'

'Since I first got to know him in the golden age of Zigzag, he had not only become the acclaimed author of more than 20 books but had also unlocked the secret codes of publishding. A man with a keen interest in political and social history as well as rock music, he was eager to read the manuscript and, even though he winced at some of my rampant self-indulgence and schoolboy enthusiasm, he offered a deal and a distribution network which I could not refuse.'

See: www.roganhouse.co.uk

As a final PS, many of the comments above could be equally applied to another recently published huge tome - Peter Doggett's 'There's A Riot Going On' [Canongate] - which, in brief, puts the politics back into the history of '60s music - too long portrayed in an emasculated manner as one long LSD party with a big comedown.

The book's thesis: 'That between 1965 and 1972 political activists around the globe prepared to mount a revolution. While the Vietnam War raged, calls for black power grew louder, and liberation movements erupted. Demonstrators took to the streets, fought gun battles with police, planted bombs in public buildings and attempted to overthrow the world's most powerful governments. Rock and soul music fuelled the revolutionary movement with anthems and iconic imagery.'

Like Frame's work, this book has been in gestation for decades, and contains material from scores of original interviews. Veterans of the period may remember the highlights but will have forgotten a great deal of the detail, much of which has only emerged in the decades since.

For those not around at the time, this book will be an instructive education into a period, forty years distant, when it did seem possible for a brief time that youth movements could change the world and how this movement was dissipated and destroyed, repressed and swallowed by the forces of Control and Mammon helped by cynicism and celebrity stupidity .

Whilst not totally agreeing with Chuck V writing in The Skinny (Edinburgh and Glasgow's free entertainment, culture and listings magazine) I think his reaction is an interesting one:

Doggett details the drama of the aborted American revolution

'There’s A Riot Going On traces the rapid decline of 1960s counter-culture from na├»ve radicalism to uncommitted self-obsession. Psychedelic musicians are exposed as ignorant or hypocritical, movements slip from dynamic idealism to drug-addled cynicism while radical politicians are confused and exhausted.

In breathless prose, Doggett details the drama of the aborted American revolution, expressing disappointment while retaining a tremulous hope in music’s potential. Although Doggett obviously admires the musicians of the late 1960s, he clear-sightedly deconstructs the bizarre mixture of psychobabble and empty rhetoric that characterised the period. John Lennon comes across as a distracted junkie who switches between support for terrorists to flaccid pacifism; Dylan abdicates responsibility for any political stance while artists from Mick Jagger to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young climb on the revolutionary band-wagon without actually offering anything.

Without denying the power of the state - guns, spies and the courts were routinely used to undermine the counter-culture - Doggett reveals how easily capitalism could co-opt the wild energy of the times. Since much subsequent radicalism has taken its cue from the 1960s - adopted the Panthers, Rave took its utopianism from the first summer of love and even the SSP follows the inclusive spirit of 1968 - There’s A Riot Going On is a quietly depressing read. It shows how the energy of youth can be mistaken for commitment, and catalogues some of the stupidest statements made by public figures (on both sides of the conflict). Of course, these days nobody would mistake a concert performed by millionaires as a substitute for meaningful political protest, would they?'

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