Extra! Billy Bragg Comes to Tea…

In the late summer of last year, I received an email out of the blue from Billy Bragg.

“Hi Martin”, Billy wrote, “For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a book that seeks to put skiffle into its proper context in British cultural history. My starting point is your dad’s record collection and it ends with Ken playing at the 100 Club the night after the first punk festival held there in September 1976.” [These pictures show the posters on the back wall of the club].

club

He went on to say that Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer – a collaboration between Mike Pointon, Ray Smith and myself that presented Ken’s story as an oral biography – had been a great help, “not only giving me some insight into the British trad scene, but also helping me to understand the importance of New Orleans to both jazz and skiffle.”

Billy wanted to find some pictures that helped to highlight that this was the moment when guitars came to the fore, and the music shifted, setting the stage for the British Pop and R ’n’ B boom of the early sixties. Some were in the Ken book, but there were others left over, so I looked them out and Billy, who was in the East End for family reasons, came to tea. It was great to meet someone so passionate about the story of that time, as well as being what you hoped he’d be – a genuinely nice fellow. So we talked about the romance and inspiration of American roots music of all stripes, and sorted out the most relevant images.

A few days later Billy sent me a few of the chapters, and I was thrilled by the amount of love and devotion that had gone into the book. It needed someone who was willing to put the time and effort into researching and reading widely, and in finding those who had lived through those times and still had stories to be told. I know how pleased my dad would have been to see a light shone on this period – to see the story so well recounted, placed in the context of Britain’s post-war years and the American and British music that preceded and followed. From America’s prison farms to New Orleans at the turn of the century, and forward to the birth of rock, it’s not only a remarkable musical journey but also a terrific piece of social history.

It’s a bonus that Billy comes at it from the viewpoint of a working musician, and a political one at that. Following in the footsteps of Pete Frame’s excellent The Restless Generation, Billy puts flesh on the bones of the story – he shows the wild effect that Skiffle, through Lonnie Donegan, had on the youth of Britain and America, a DIY genre that gave a whole generation the means to make their own music, while shoving aside the bland and tired-out variety shows of their parents.

Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is released on June 1st. I really recommend it. There is a lengthy excerpt [on the music player to the right] of Billy in conversation with Bob Harris at a preview of the book, which took place at Cecil Sharp House. Here’s a short extract.

lonnie

Lonnie Donegan takes centre stage in a photograph from the period, playing guitar and singing into the mic. To his right, Alexis Korner plays mandolin and Ken Colyer strums the guitar slung across his knee. To his left, Bill Colyer sits playing a washboard, while Chris Barber plucks a stand-up bass. This picture embodies a revolutionary moment in British popular music, when the guitar, for so long stuck at the back of the bandstand, an often inaudible part of the rhythm section, comes to the front and takes control. A young Pete Townshend was there to witness this paradigm shift.

The future powerhouse guitar player of the Who was just a schoolboy when he saw Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen at Acton Town Hall, west London. At the time, his father was a professional musician, playing with the Squadronaires big band. Used to the smooth, sophisticated swing played by his father, Townshend was shocked by the primitive nature of the Jazzmen and their crowd. “I was used to the tidy music of my dad’s era. It was messy. He (Colyer) was messy. The band were messy. The audience were messy.” In scenes of seeming chaos that would not have been out of place at a punk gig twenty-five years later, Townshend described how the men were drunk, wore cheap rough duffel coats, some had wet themselves and instead of wearing wrist watches, some had alarm clocks hanging around their necks.

Disorienting though these scenes must have been to the young Townshend, what made a lasting impression on him was the sight of guitarist taking control of the gig by bringing his instrument to the front of the stage. In that moment, he grasped the enormity of what was happening. “This instrument was going to change the world. For me, this was absolutely massive because my father was a saxophone player. I could see the end of my father’s world – I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye old timer and that’s exactly what happened.”

Five Things: Wednesday 19th March

Sammy Rimington, Martin Wheatley, Cuff Billett, Vic Pitt, Chris Barber, Kenny Milne, Camberley Cricket Club

Sammy&Chris

An unprepossessing room, but a great evening, with music ranging from New Orleans to St Louis and New York, via Hawaii (for Martin Wheatley’s cracking solo performance of “Laughing Rag”). Hadn’t seen Chris play for years, but nice to get a chance to thank him for his contributions to British & American music. And lovely to make the acquaintance of Martin, too modest to tell me that he was part of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, but keen to share a love of Hawaiian guitarists in general and Roy Smeck, the “Wizard of the Strings”, in particular.

The Whistle Test 70s California Special
Two highlights (apart from the obvious ones, Little Feat’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Doctor” and James Taylor’s pellucid, almost weightless, guitar playing): JD Souther doing “Doolin-Dalton” with the accompaniment of a bass player who switched to piano for the bridge and coda, playing beautifully… just a shame that JD wasn’t handsome enough to join the Eagles. And Ry Cooder’s fantastic take on Sleepy John Estes “Goin’ To Brownsville” with quite the most violent mandolin playing ever committed to video.

Avicii, DJ, creator of the biggest hits on the planet, by Simon Mills, ES Magazine
“Bergling is on his computer. An Apple laptop screen illuminates the tired-looking but puckishly pretty-boy face (which Ralph Lauren chose to front its Denim & Supply jeans ads). His concentration is trance-like as his fingers move across the keyboard at the warp speed of a jonesing IT man. ‘Sorry. If you can wait a minute… I just have this tune in my head and I need to get it down before I forget.’ Avicii, who has worked with Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, the geeky Swede whom not even One Direction could knock off the number one spot last summer, is writing his next hit song. Right in front of me.

The melody coming from the mini speakers sounds plinky-plonky, almost puerile, but Bergling keeps trimming and honing, adding notes and beat-matching, turning the laptop to show me the Tetris visuals of the FL Studio programme. After five minutes, something approaching the top line of a hit emerges.
It’s impressive but somehow all too easy, too convenient to be what the old fart in me would call ‘real music’. ‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I don’t consider myself “a musician”. Yes, I can play guitar, I can play piano; in fact, I play almost every instrument. I was never good enough to perform with a band… but I always knew about melody. I could vision for how I wanted things to sound. And I don’t think you can say that what I do, what DJ producers do, is not “real music”… it’s electronic music. You are drawing the melodies, drawing the chord progressions. You are making music. Mozart wrote everything down on a piece of paper. DJs write on computers. I really don’t see any difference.’

There’s a pause. ‘I’m not comparing myself to Mozart, by the way…’

You just did.”

My New Favourite Blog: My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection
“Alex and I have lived together for 9 years. In those 9 years we have packed up, moved and unpacked his record collection 5 times. It’s about 15 boxes, about 1500 hundred records, “that includes the singles and stuff, which you’re also going to have to review.” Is what Alex just said to me from the other room.

This project was my idea, inspired by maybe one too many glasses of wine last weekend, when I was in charge of changing the music. So here we are. Alex’s taste in music could probably be best described as eclectic on the snobbier side. My taste in music has changed from the early beginnings of Disney musicals to Dave Matthews Band, to discovering the Pixies in college. I’ve never been ahead of the curve with music, but my taste could probably also be described as eclectic on the snobbier side too – just in a much more clueless way. Alex said reading a reaction from a person like me, rather than a person who knows about the history of what I might be listening to, who has been listening to the same stuff for decades and has the vocabulary to talk about it, will be funny, sincere and maybe even thought-provoking. Maybe? I don’t know, I guess we’ll see. Here are the rules I’ve set for my self. Start with the A’s. Listen to the entire thing even if I really hate it. And make sure to comment on the cover art. Are you with me? Let’s see how far I can go.”

Two excerpts: “There is an article by Ralph J. Gleason on the back cover of this album called Perspectives: The Death of Albert Ayler which is very good and making me wish I liked this music more. Maybe it’s an acquired taste. While I already knew that this type of jazz existed, this is probably my first time listening to an entire album of it all the way through and intentionally.”

“I really love these liner notes.  For the song “We all Love Peanut Butter” by the One Way Streets (which is also very good) it says: “One hot summer day in 1966, two mom-driven station wagons pulled up outside Sunrise Studios in Hamilton, Ohio and out piled 4 insane teens. While their moms set up a table on the lawn outside and played bridge and drank lemonade, the One Way Streets were inside the studio shredding their way through 2 songs they felt would create a major disturbance. As a finishing touch to their wild afternoon, they ripped off an eighty dollar mike on their way out the door and haven’t been heard of since.” Every single detail about that anecdote makes me very, very happy.”

Hate Is A Strong Word, Tim Chipping, Holy Moly, Thursday 13th March
“Just when you thought New Zealand singing teenager Lorde could do no wrong, she goes and upsets reggae fans. Lorde somewhat confusingly wrote on her blog: “I hate Reggae, Reggae makes me feel like am late for something.” She’s not welcome at the offices of newspaper The Jamaica Star. Their resident gossip columnist has put the “Royals” singer firmly in her place, roots-style. Writing in the paper’s Roun’ Up section, columnist Keisha says: “International artiste Lorde say she hate reggae music. Everybody nuh haffi like everything but HATE is a very strong word. Lorde, you always look like smeagol from Lord of the Rings. You always look like you a have seizure when you deh pon stage a try move you crawny body. If you need fi HATE anything, you need fi HATE you age paper. A nuh our fault say you a 17 and look like 3 million. A nuh our fault say you caan sing live. Gwaan from ya, Miss One Hit Wonder.”

Would anyone mind if we spent the rest of the day saying gwaan from ya?”

Five Things Photo Extra

Bob&Manny

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