And More...

I’m not, however, suggesting music publishing companies were totally in control of the directions the music was taking. In a fictional account of America in the twenties such as Roddy Doyle’s Oh, Play That Thing the reader can sense something of the excitement of jazz in live performance but the story also has forces attempting to channel and control the direction that the music was taking so that its commercial possibilities were maximized. 

So through the Jazz and Big Band eras we can see the mixture of (largely instrumental) original material from the musicians and the lyrics from professional writers that led to much of what is now regarded as The American Song Book.

There were other elements bubbling away under the surface. While mainstream white bread America tuned in to Tin Pan Alley there were people travelling the back blocks recording the blues, folk songs and other music that had its own market once people could afford to buy phonographs. Those elements came together with the emergence of Elvis Presley and the early rockers, although in practically no time the music industry had recruited the rebels and placed them firmly in the mainstream.

There was a message there for anyone who wanted to look. The music industry didn’t always know what people wanted to hear, and even music the industry rejected as too primitive for the mainstream could sell, provided there was someone willing to give audiences a chance to hear it.

Although it was almost entirely an English phenomenon, the emergence of Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle bands changed the direction of popular music, although not many people noticed at the time. The example of Elvis had would-be musicians racing out to buy guitars and the rough and ready nature of skiffle meant that you didn’t have to be very good to start playing in public.

Anyone wanting to understand why the Beatles revolutionized things when they shot to prominence in the early sixties need look no further than a generation of teenagers playing guitars in bedrooms, cellars and school dormitories in the years leading up to 1963. 

Most of what they were playing came from the early rockers or the old blues men who inspired Lonnie Donegan, but as they fooled around learning new chords some of them started stringing them together into tunes and adding words. So the beat groups that sprouted in the wake of the Beatles weren’t the heirs of the skiffle boom, they were the kids of the skiffle boom grown up and developing their own repertoire, much of it at least partly road-tested in front of audiences that weren’t excessively critical because they weren’t expecting virtuoso performances.

There was, however, one problem that all these groups kept coming back to and that was the limited repertoire available to the groups of the day. While they could cover the early rockers and continue playing the folk-blues stuff that had come through in the skiffle era, they all needed new material that would be unfamiliar to their audiences.

One source for new material was the blues and R&B records that were starting to appear in British record shops, and were being brought into the country by sailors from merchant ships. While I’ve often wondered about how New Orleans R&B managed to grab a foothold in New Zealand I have a suspicion that it had something to do with an air base around Christchurch that was apparently a staging post for servicemen and other personnel in transit between the United States and Antarctica.

Of course, if a band was going to cover material from those sources, there was a decided advantage if the singer sounded at least a little like the original performer. It can’t have been entirely coincidental that the early sixties saw the emergence of not just Mick Jagger, with his vocal mannerisms very heavily blues-based even if his voice didn’t quite have the same growl as a Howlin’ Wolf or the resonance of Muddy Waters, but also of Eric BurdonJoe CockerSteve Winwood and Steve Marriott

For bands that did not have access to, or couldn’t afford imports there was another solution and that was to write your own material. If their earliest efforts might not have been all that brilliant as they found out what worked, the results improved dramatically, particularly when they saw what their contemporaries and rivals were coming up with. 

You could find any number of examples of that quantum leap in the discographies of bands who appeared in the wake of The Beatles, and you probably only need to look at the difference between Love Me Do and I Am the Walrus for an indication of how far the Fab Four had evolved in the space of five years, though Love Me Do actually dates back to 1958, well before the recording sessions supervised by George Martin in 1962.

Alternatively, you could look at the speed with which The Easybeats evolved from In My Book to Come In You’ll Get Pneumonia, though much of that possibly has something to do with Dutch-born Harry Vanda’s increasing English vocabulary.


B© Ian Hughes 2012