Contents 1. The Mirror Man page 3 2. Give Yourself A Pinch page 11 3. Shush Yourself page 19 4. Lifeâ€™s Like That page 27 5. Distraction He Wanted... page 38 6. To Destruction He Fell page 50
Enlightenment! Jazz. Folk. Calypso. Music Hall. Skiffle. Blues. Ballads. Agit Prop. Highlife. Lowlifes. Beatniks. Modernists. Anarchists. Communists. Chancers. Charmers. Tormented Thinkers. Theatre Revolutionaries. Pop Pioneers. Cockney Visionaries. Soho Adventurers.
Enlightenment! is a work of assemblage. It draws together strands of history that overlap, intersect and get pleasantly tangled up. It links stories from detailed works of research that tend to focus on specific areas. Itâ€™s fun sometimes to take things apart and put them together in different ways. In other words, Enlightenment! is a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces may not necessarily all belong to the same box, but the picture they form will make a special sort of sense. With apologies to all those that know a lot more about some of these stories. Thanks to Per-Christian Hille for doing the layout. More pop tracts and associated activities at: www.yrheartout.blogspot.com Further London-related research can be found at: www.thelondonnobodysings.blogspot.com Contact: email@example.com
Our beloved impossible Lionel Joan Littlewood
The Mirror Man The musical Oliver! is very much a part of the British way of life. It’s what its creator Lionel Bart is known for. But there are so many sides to Lionel, and so many places where his story intersects with other important ones. For example, he was right at the heart of things in the latter half of the 1950s in Soho as the skiffle and wider jazz and folk scenes evolved into the more recognisable rock ‘n’ roll explosion. Lionel literally left his mark on The Two I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, as Chas McDevitt recalls in his book Skiffle. He describes how Lionel had been a student at St Martin’s School of Art, and how this came in handy when the former wrestlers that ran The Two I’s needed the coffee bar redecorated: “He created a distinctive and decadent aura in this basement: black ceiling, large stylized eyes on the walls, and cubist shapes on the wall behind the small stage platform. Small was the operative word, for the basement could hold only about 80 people crammed in tight. The skiffle groups hardly had room to set up when it was in full swing.” 3
Bombsite Boudiccas. On a kind of related theme to Cry Me A River Davy would record the Fran Landesman/Tommy Wolf torch song Ballad of the Sad Young Men on his legendary Folk, Blues & Beyond LP, which features Danny Thompson on bass, as do later recordings like Large As Life And Just As Natural which also has Harold McNair on it.
Chas’ Skiffle book is fantastic for details on the clubs/coffee bars of Soho in the late ‘50s where the scene’s characters played and hung out. He cites his own Skiffle Cellar in Greek Street, the Nucleus coffee house on Monmouth Street (“meeting place of London’s top jazz men, painters, writers, sculptors, poets, and ‘layabouts’”), the Gyre & Gimble underneath the arches by Charing Cross, Heaven & Hell next to The Two I’s in Old Compton Street, the Cat’s Whiskers in Kingly Street, the Freight Train coffee bar in Berwick Street, The Breadbasket in Cleveland Street, the 44 Club in Gerrard Street, the 51 Club on Great Newport Street, and so on.
John Pilgrim, who was in the pioneering skiffle group The Vipers, has also mentioned the South London extension of Soho in his writings: “The Yellow Door just along from the Old Vic where Mike Pratt and Lionel Bart presided over as extraordinary a bunch of impecunious artists actors and musicians as anything out of Henry Miller. And, my place 50 Pearman Street, which took the overflow from the Door and became a crashpad for the late Davey Graham, Jack and June Elliott, Derroll Adams, Jody Gibson, and Redd Sullivan.”
He also refers to The Yellow Door, known as a sort of beatnik commune in Baylis Road, behind Waterloo Station, where Bart was also at the heart of activities: “This was virtually an open house, a Mecca for young skifflers; it could almost have been London’s answer to Guthrie’s Almanac House in New York had it not been for the complete lack of discipline. At the rear of the property was an extension, a sort of outhouse where everyone seemed to meet for a brew and a jaw.” Among those that were in situ there at one time or another were Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and his wife, with their friend Derroll Adams who would later be a mentor to Donovan, a close friend of Lionel Bart’s. Indeed Donovan later wrote a song for Derroll.
It’s very well enshrined in pop folklore how Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt met merchant seaman Tommy Hicks at a party (at The Yellow Door) and started writing songs together and performing as The Cavemen, with Tommy getting ‘discovered’ and taken under the wings of impresarios Larry Parnes and John Kennedy who groomed him as Tommy Steele, the first British rock ‘n’ roll star. Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt would do their bit, providing the (often delightful in their context) numbers like Butterfingers and A Handful of Songs that helped Tommy become a beloved entertainer in the films The Tommy Steele Story, The Duke Wore Jeans, and Tommy The Toreador. In a 1957 groundbreaking piece of pop journalism for Encounter, Colin MacInnes wrote a revealing analysis of the Tommy Steele phenomenon, The Pied Piper From Bermondsey, where he argued the songs the Bermondsey Boy was singing had “a certain English essence of sentiment and wit. Perhaps one day Tommy will sing songs as English as his speaking accent, or his grin. If this should happen, we will hear once again, for the first time since the decline of the Music Halls, songs that tell us of our own world.”
In his excellent book, The Restless Generation, on how rock ‘n’ roll changed Britain in the 1950s, Pete Frame mentions that the actress Shirley Eaton was among the visitors to The Yellow Door. Also hanging out at The Yellow Door was the teenage Davy Graham, newly arrived in London. Fascinatingly the young Davy can be seen captured on film in surviving footage from a late ‘50s Ken Russell documentary on guitar players. In this Davy performs an achingly beautiful version of Cry Me A River on a bombsite so typical of the time. The Russell/bombsite connection extends to his immortal photo essay for Picture Post on East London teddy girls, which was perfectly entitled
Debate has raged down the years about whether Theatre Workshop was successful in connecting with a working class audience. Some of Theatre Workshop’s original stalwarts, like Ewan MacColl, felt for example that the policy of productions moving from the Stratford East base to the West End was pretty much a betrayal of the movement’s working class roots. Nevertheless at the end of the ‘50s the handful of Theatre Workshop productions that transferred to the West End found a new audience. One of these was Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey, which provoked another particularly enthusiastic response from Colin MacInnes in Encounter: “It is the first play I can remember about working-class people that entirely escapes being a ‘working class’ play: no patronage, no dogma, just the thing as it is, taken straight. In general hilarious and sardonic, the play has authentic lyrical moments arising naturally from the very situations that created the hilarity; and however tart and ludicrous, it gives a final overwhelming impression of good health – of a feeling for life that is positive, sensible and generous.”
Despite descriptions of Lionel Bart in the late ‘50s as a beatnik or proto-hippy he seems to have been exceptionally productive, juggling several balls in the air at any one time, and things started happening for him. Looking back on those times in the late ‘50s it is striking how events moved so fast: it was only a few years from writing songs for revues and carving out tunes like Rock With The Caveman to the overwhelming success of Oliver! Somewhere in-between Lionel was headhunted by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where he provided the songs that helped develop a script by Frank Norman into the full blown musical success that was Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, which made a prestigious transfer from Stratford East to the West End, stirring up controversy along the way with its use of the Cockney vernacular and Threepenny Opera style portrayal of criminal lowlife. Now, however, perhaps all that’s remembered of the musical is the title song in its popular Max Bygraves rendition. Despite his hectic schedule and burgeoning success, in 1960 Lionel still found time to direct a production of the young playwright John McGrath’s Why The Chicken in Wimbledon. McGrath at the time moved in the same social circles as pop artist Pauline Boty, the Wimbledon Bardot, and the play itself featured a young Terence Stamp long before he found success in films like Poor Cow with Carol White, the Battersea Bardot. Much of John McGrath’s early success came via pioneering TV drama, and in particular the entertaining social realism of the police series Z Cars. His plays for TV occasionally featured Pauline Boty in an acting role, and Michael Caine is someone who attributes his initial success to McGrath. The film script for The Billion Dollar Brain, part of the Michael Caine as Harry Palmer spy trilogy, was later co-written by McGrath. He, however, went against the grain, by rejecting populism and establishing the company 7.84 to promote a socialist theatre for the people which reflected working class lives in a way that Theatre Workshop and its precursors had set out to do many years earlier.
Another to make the transition Up West was Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, followed by Wolf Mankowitz’s Make Me An Offer which was set among the Jewish community and cockney traders in East London. Also set among the rubble of East London was another play to make the move across town, Stephen Lewis’ Sparrers Can’t Sing. Lewis was someone who had worked his way up through the ranks of the Theatre Workshop, and was therefore more comfortable than a lot of writers with the way things happened there, with actors extemporising and scripts being turned inside out. He, of course, became much more famous for his immortal portrayal of the inspector Blakey in the TV sitcom On The Buses. But then again a lot of other TV sitcom legends also came through the ranks of Theatre Workshop: Yootha Joyce, Harry H Corbett, Brian Murphy, Roy Kinnear, Bob Grant, and so on. Also among those that passed through the Theatre Workshop ranks were Pat Phoenix, Barbara Windsor, Richard Harris, Dudley Sutton, Glynn Edwards,
Victor Spinetti and Murray Melvin. Lewis also gets a mention in the Diaries of Tony Benn, where the maverick politician describes hitting the campaign trail with the actor and “lifelong socialist”.
at Trunk Records for years, excavating library and soundtrack recordings, rehabilitating the works of Basil Kirchin, and so on. But he’s very wrong about ... Isn’t This Where We Came In? It’s certainly a strange old record, but it’s more than an “acid breakdown” oddity. It’s actually an incredibly moving, inventive, and inspiring record which should be celebrated as something special, both in the context of its time and the history of pop generally.
In 1963 the Stephen Lewis play was made into a film, Sparrows Can’t Sing, directed by Joan Littlewood herself, starring many of the Theatre Workshop irregulars, and filmed on location in and around Stepney Green. It is an invaluable document for the way it captures the still blitzscarred East End, 20 years on from the height of the WW2 bombing, just as new blocks of flats were appearing bringing with them a different way of existing. At the start Barbara Windsor is seen on the balcony of her new flat, up in the sky, singing Lionel Bart’s title song. A few years earlier Lionel had written another number for Barbara, the plaintive Where Do Little Birds Go. Barbara’s fellow lead in the film is the perfectly cast James Booth, and the pair had worked together on stage in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. They would work together again in Lionel Bart’s ill-fated 1965 musical Twang!! which strained the relationship between the composer and Joan Littlewood. Indeed, so the story goes, the whole Twang!! experience broke poor Lionel. Or did it? He lost all his money, certainly, but it wasn’t the end. His best was yet to come.
To put it in perspective, this LP was put together and released just as the Carol Reed film of Oliver! was hitting the big screen. And it’s easy to love the idea of admirers of the musical coming across this LP and wondering what on earth was going on. It’s really got more in common with contemporary works like the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake and the progressive UK jazz scene than a West End musical. But it does have a central theme, seemingly, of watching a movie of your life, almost a journey through your own small planet. It could be Lionel’s life. It could be anyone’s. Jonny Trunk was right about one thing. The LP does have everyone on. John Cameron is the musical director. The Mike Sammes Singers are on there, with Madeline Bell, Rosetta Hightower and Leslie Duncan. Celebrity squares Kenny Lynch and Willie Rushton have cameos. Harry Stoneham is on the piano, Paul Jones on the harmonica, Bill Price is at the controls, and Vicky Wickham is co-ordinating. And some of the top jazz performers of the day are on there, like Kenny Wheeler, Tony Carr, Alan Branscombe, and Ronnie Ross. Also featured is the unbeatable combination of Danny Thompson on bass, and Harold McNair on flute. Musically, it is admittedly a right old mix, from music hall to ornate orchestral pop to rhythm ‘n’ ska to free jazz. It’s as ambitious and as brilliantly realised as Sinatra’s Watertown, as Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill, and Jim Webb’s work with Theatre Workshop graduate Richard Harris. But somewhere tangled up in there is an intriguing glimpse of a future which would feature Ian Dury, Madness, Mick Jones, and Vic Godard.
... Isn’t This Where We Came In – “a reflection of experience in songs and sounds” – by Lionel Bart from 1968, originally released by Deram, has appeared on CD thanks to salvage specialists Vocalion, and it is a record that really could not be made up. Jonny Trunk once advised: “Do not buy this LP if you see it. A very strange attempt at doing something different in the late 60s by the master of show tunes. At the time old Lionel was spending most of his time tripping his tits off and this LP is the result. Just about everyone is on this LP and although Lionel is on it, he’s off it most of the time. Sounds fantastic when you play his acid ramblings underneath a good record.” Jonny is an amazingly important figure, and the world of music owes him an incredible amount for the invaluable work he’s been doing over
“Happily . . . . . . I too live upon The Threshold of a Dream, and have no plans to move. Perhaps that’s why the Moodies knew Exactly where to find me When they needed words of Identification On the cover of their owning-up So own up, Lionel ! Put the record on again, And own up Just exactly where the magic takes you This time.”
The executive producer is Hugh Mendl, one of the enlightened pop patricians, whose name often occurs as a footnote in pop history having signed Tommy Steele, produced Lonnie Donegan singing Rock Island Line, and been thwarted in his attempts to sign The Beatles to Decca. He oversaw the recording of a number of original cast recordings, including Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, and was instrumental in developing the Decca progressive subsidiary Deram which sanctioned a series of forwardlooking vital British jazz LPs from the likes of John Surman, Mike Westbrook, Michael Gibbs, John Cameron, Alan Skidmore and Henry Lowther. Surman and Cameron certainly had singles released and promoted in the proper pop way by Deram. Mendl’s motto was: “Because we can and therefore we should”. Deram released the first LP by David Bowie, Wayne Bickerton’s projects like The Flirtations, and connoisseurs like the Anorak Thing site celebrate the label for releasing “a veritable cornucopia of British 60’s pop sike singles (Tintern Abbey, Virgin Sleep, The Human Instinct, The Syn etc.) as well as the brilliant vinyl debuts by the likes of Cat Stevens, The Move, Beverley etc. and of course some brilliant mod/blue eyed soul releases by The Quik, The Eyes of Blue and Amen Corner to name but a few!”
Lionel knew all the ‘in people’ and enthusiastically embraced the excesses of the psychedelic era and its recreational activities, but as a record ... Isn’t This Where We Came In? makes sense. Thankfully John Cameron writes respectfully and sensibly about the making of this record in the new sleevenotes. Cameron himself has had a new lease of life ever since his Half Forgotten Daydreams (almost a Un Homme Et Une Femme theme homage) on the ‘mood music’ compilation The Sound Gallery back in the mid-‘90s, and then later his soundtracks such as Psychomania and Kes, and some of the wonderful library recordings for KPM, were rediscovered. Vocalion, again, in 2006 put out the 1969 Wayne Bickerton-produced Deram jazz LP Off Centre, by John Cameron’s small group featuring colleagues from the Bart sessions: Danny Thompson, Harold McNair and Tony Carr. And what a fantastic record that is from the golden age of British jazz. The nucleus of that John Cameron Quartet played together on pioneering sessions for Donovan and Mickie Most a few years earlier. Cameron’s elaborate orchestrations and the ensemble’s exquisite playing on Donovan’s Sunshine Superman are huge factors in making Donovan’s pioneering record an enduring classic. Cameron would work his magic again on Donovan’s Mellow Yellow, which features a suite of fantastic London-themed songs.
And then there were Deram’s orchestral pop outfits, Honeybus and the Moody Blues. Pete Dello had worked for Lionel’s Apollo publishing company, writing and demo-ing, before starting Honeybus. And Lionel Bart was good friends with the Moody Blues, and Justin Heyward in particular. Deram’s main group was initially the Moody Blues as they entered their new orchestral phase with Days of Future Passed, and it is likely the group was a big influence on what Lionel Bart wanted to do with ... Isn’t This Where We Came In? Hugh Mendl wrote the liner notes for Days of Future Passed and said: “Here, where emotion and creativity blend – where poetry, the beat group and the symphony orchestra feed on each other’s inspiration.” Lionel Bart wrote sleeve notes for the Moody Blues’ 1969 LP On The Threshold Of A Dream:
The members of the John Cameron Quartet would play together in a variety of different
montage sequences of still images, accompanied by music and/or voiceover. The resulting collage of forms gives the drama an almost Brecht-ian feel, far removed from naturalism.”
permutations on different artists’ records, and their own. These include Harold McNair’s Flute ‘N’ Nut, with elaborate big band arrangements by John Cameron, and the more progressive contemporaneous set The Fence which featured Danny Thompson and Tony Carr. McNair played on many of the key ‘60s and early ‘70s recordings, from the Dr No soundtrack to some of John Martyn’s early recordings. In his own way he was even more vital to the UK music scene than his fellow Jamaican Alpha Boys School alumni, the determined revolutionary Joe Harriott and the restless modernist Dizzy Reece. The 1969 Harold McNair Quartet set (with Tony Carr on drums) features the mod jazz dancefloor favourite The Hipster, and the opener Mento makes a connection with his Jamaican roots. There is also a beautiful version of Donovan’s Lord of the Reedy River. It is, however, the magic of Harold McNair’s flute playing on the beautiful 1969 John Cameron soundtrack for Kes (much later released on the Trunk label, naturally) that he is most fondly remembered for.
Loach would go on to make a name for himself, directing for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play, where his credits, with pioneering producer Tony Garnett, include the infamous pair of Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home, which were written by Nell Dunn and Jeremy Sandford, respectively. The partnership of Dunn and Sandford was an odd one. They were from privileged backgrounds, but in the early ‘60s in direct contrast to the hustlers of the day they chose to live among, write about, and campaign for, London’s working class. Cathy Come Home had such an impact that it did perhaps instigate some change in people’s thinking about homelessness. Up The Junction also tackled controversial issues, such as back street abortions, though there was far more to it than that. In a pre-broadcast piece for the Radio Times in October 1965, Tony Garnett wrote excitedly: “They were going mad about a little book of a hundred pages by an unknown girl called Nell Dunn - Up The Junction. Three girls go up the Junction - Clapham Junction. This is their story and they happen to live and work in Battersea, although it could be lots of places. A place of dead-end jobs, crumbling houses, dirty streets and, for the sensitive observer, an overwhelming sense of you-never-had-it-sobad. Whether you like it or not, this is here, now, 1965. Go to any big city and the human waste will horrify you, because the people you will see tonight are exploited, given a raw deal, or just conveniently forgotten by the rest of us. You would expect them to be ‘down’ - and they have every right to be. But they are not. All of them all ages - are irrepressibly alive. And the young people, like Rube, Sylvie, Eileen, and their friends in tonight’s play, have a personal style and sophistication which put to shame the selfpromoting “in-groups” with their trendy clothes and their colour supplements.
The music in Kes provides the perfect foil to the gritty realism of Ken Loach’s film about a young boy growing up in a traditional industrial South Yorkshire community, and suggests a sense of escape from the unremitting bleakness of life in that environment in the same way that the kestrel does in the story. Kes was directed by Ken Loach, who had gained quite a reputation from his pioneering TV work. He had worked with John McGrath on early episodes of Z Cars where they had explored the opportunities the series offered to show elements of real life in popular TV drama. McGrath and Loach had then worked together again on the more experimental series Diary of a Young Man, which was a deliberate breakaway from the prevailing form of TV drama. In his history of British Television Drama Lez Cooke describes the first episode of Diary of a Young Man in 1964: “The degree of experiment and innovation is immediately evident in the juxtaposition of location sequences, shot on film and usually accompanied by a voiceover, with studio scenes, recorded on video, and the
cover of Whole Lotta Love would become the theme tune for Top Of The Pops and thus an integral part of modern day life. The Collective Consciousness Society (CCS) recordings contain some fantastic arrangements, some covers and some of their own songs. With Cameron, the leading light of CCS was Alexis Korner, and it’s ironic in a way that this was the most successful thing he was involved with when his influence and importance on the British music scene was so widely recognised.
“How to bring this to the screen? So many conventional plays seem unreal, and real people in documentaries often look and talk like actors. I said the other week that we on The Wednesday Play would have to break some rules to tell the truth as we see it. So we told our director, Kenneth Loach, that none of the sacred cows of television drama need stand in his way. There were many risks involved in this freedom and he has embraced them with relish. This is a show which defies the categories. It is not a play, a documentary, or a musical. It is all of these at once. It is something new - but, more important, it is something true. If you watch it we can promise you something that will stay in your mind for a long time.”
Alexis had started playing with Chris Barber’s Jazz band at the end of the 1940s, and played guitar with Ken Colyer’s Skiffle Group in the mid-‘50s. With Cyril Davies he became synonymous with pioneering British blues, initially at the Roundhouse pub, on the corner of Brewer Street and Wardour Street in Soho, which became a mecca for the new generation seeking enlightenment and inspiration, particularly when visiting blues and folk performers from the States sat in. Gradually Korner and Davies concentrated on promoting the electric blues, and Korner played on many of the records made by visiting blues and folk performers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, often recorded by Denis Preston and Joe Meek at Lansdowne Studios in Notting Hill. Korner went on to lay the foundations for the British rhythm ‘n’ blues explosion, and so many of the successful figures of the ‘60s and beyond acknowledge a debt to Korner.
The TV production of Up The Junction adopted an abstract approach to its social realism, with collages of conversations and disorientating dialogue to match the madness of the ‘daily grind’. There is a sense of ‘what can we get away with’, and despite its bleakness and blankness Up The Junction is defiantly pop, with Paul Jones singing its Bad Girl theme song. It feels like the springboard to Ken Loach’s first feature film in 1967 where he collaborated with Nell Dunn on adapting her novel, Poor Cow, which even has a reprise cameo from Tony Sewell and friend as pub show-offs. Carol White, who had been in Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home, puts in a remarkable performance filled with a strange mix of fatalism and romance, and the soundtrack for Poor Cow was perfectly provided by Donovan and John Cameron. The scene where Terence Stamp, as Carol’s new boyfriend Dave, sings Donovan’s Colours is one of the great British cinema moments, soft and gentle for a moment, strangely at odds with the casual violence he dispassionately deploys elsewhere.
A number of the next generation’s stars started out playing in Alexis’ Blues Inc, including some of the more enlightened souls like Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Bruce would play with some of the British jazz greats. Baker would become increasingly interested in African sounds, later moving to Nigeria to set up a studio and be close to Fela Kuti. Before that he set up Ginger Baker’s Airforce, a loose collective that drew many strands of music together and at one time featured the Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka, jazz players Harold McNair and Phil Seamen, along with pop royalty Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Ric Grech, Denny Laine, Graham Bond, Jeanette Jacobs, playing a mixture of musical
The John Cameron/Mickie Most connection continued beyond the Donovan projects, with Cameron later being part of the Hot Chocolate team and doing the arrangements for CCS (which featured many of the top British jazz players, including Harold McNair and Tony Coe) whose
the British rock drummer Ginger Baker. Baker, whom I knew slightly, had recently broken up with the leading band, Cream. He had always been highly regarded by African drummers, and along with the legendary Phil Seamen, his teacher, was acknowledged by Africans as one of the few English drummers to grasp African rhythms. He had left England to escape from drugs and the pressures of the music business, attempting to drive across the Sahara in his Jensen, an epic and somewhat foolhardy journey which was later the subject of a television documentary. Now he was recuperating at Warren’s retreat, but looked exhausted. He gave a creditable performance in the circumstances, but when he saw us, all he could think of was being pursued by the press…”
forms. Among the collective’s repertoire was the Harold McNair composition Da Da Man. The writer and photographer Val Wilmer was another restless spirit who travelled to Africa at the end of the ‘60s, and as she recounts in her jazz memoirs Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This how she unexpectedly encountered Ginger Baker on her travels: “Towards the end of our stay, we heard that Guy Warren of Ghana was playing a concert. Warren, later known as Kofi Ghanaba, was a legendary figure, a drummer who lived in London for period during the 1950s before going on to America. Now he was back home and reported to be living as a recluse. That he was playing in public was quite an occasion. The concert was sparsely attended, but it took the unexpected form of a duet with
The most important thing about Bart was that he came from a left-wing-theatre tradition of the Unity Theatre and Stratford East, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and the music hall. Michael Covene
Give Yourself A Pinch There are many reasons why Absolute Beginners remains a remarkable book. One is that Colin MacInnes was in his mid-40s when the book was published, and that often gets overlooked when people proselytise about the way he captures the teenage thing so vividly. Another is the wonderful caricatures the book contains of the emerging late ‘50s Soho subcultures. There’s Dean Swift, the “sharp modern jazz creation”. There’s the Misery Kid, the “skiffle survival with horrible leanings to the trad. thing”. And there’s Ron Todd, the Marxist “closely connected with the ballad-and-blues movement, which seeks to prove that all folk music is an art of protest”, who looks “scruffy and disapproving, in the correct ballad-andblues manner”. 11
song and speech. Significant credit must also go to BBC directors and producers of the time who made it possible for, and even encouraged, the pair to indulge their passions in such a remarkable way. It seems inconceivable that such a body of work could be made at any other time.
When coming across Ron Todd on the printed page it is hard not to think of Ewan MacColl and his circle. Ewan was one of the driving forces behind the real life ballad-and-blues scene, which started out around 1953 with special events at the home of the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, before moving to the Princess Louise in High Holborn where regular ‘hootenannies’ were held. The idea seems to have been to capitalise on the energy and enthusiasm of the skiffle explosion, and reclaim folk music as a working class art form free from the corrupting influences of Tin Pan Alley and US cultural imperialism. In the process the ballad-and-blues movement would be the catalyst for the folk revival which would have reverberating effects throughout the wider world of pop music. Nevertheless polished pop music, in general, was what Ewan and his inner circle would fervently oppose.
For all his contradictions and bloody-mindedness, MacColl also remains a remarkable figure for many reasons. One important reason is that he worked incredibly hard at whatever he did. He, for example, didn’t just sing songs his family and friends had handed down. He, instead, spent hours and hours carrying out research and cultural archaeology, making field recordings, searching out lost texts in the British Library, and so on. In the mid-‘60s when he was at his most defiantly contrary and curmudgeonly, he and Peggy worked with The Critics Group, young singers that they took under their wing and went to great lengths to develop, using similar demanding exercises and techniques to the ones Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was making use of to help them make a song come alive and a performance be more than simply singing.
It’s easy to label Ewan MacColl as a hardline, militant, intolerant purist, stubbornly sticking to a dated Communist-driven idea of authentic social-realist folk music. But even Colin MacInnes’ narrator in Absolute Beginners has a certain sympathy for the stance, and the notion of preserving source musics: “I mean there’s source music, isn’t there, and period music, that feeds on it, and just comes and goes. In England most of what you hear is period. Not much source.” Mind you, he does go on to argue, returning to one of the favourite MacInnes themes: “You don’t think up enough songs of your own. Songs about the scene, I mean, about us and now.”
There is a brief insight into the Theatre Workshop approach in the 1968 short film, Everybody’s An Actor Shakespeare Said, which accompanies the DVD edition of Bronco Bullfrog. The feature follows the group of young kids, local to the Theatre Workshop in East London, as they take their first steps in the world of drama. Joan, given her own upbringing and the way her company had been treated as outcasts for so long, identified with the local kids and gave them access to the theatre. It was from this pool of Joan’s young ‘Nutters’ that the cast of Bronco Bullfrog would be drawn. Bronco director Barney Platts-Mills mentions how former Small Faces member Jimmy Winston helped the group. And in her autobiography Joan mentions how Jimmy was a part of everything that was going on locally with The Nutters and the theatre, calling him “a frontiersman in the bad lands”. Everyone knows the story of Stevie Marriott being the Artful Dodger Lionel Bart
And yet while the whole folk revival scene, from the ballads-and-blues movement through to the successful Singers’ Club nights held at the Pindar of Wakefield in King’s Cross and elsewhere, celebrated traditional folk song, in their own activities MacColl and Peggy Seeger did an incredible amount of good in documenting British working life in song. While their work was informed by a very specific political agenda, their series of Radio Ballads, for example, is testament to an extraordinary vision and persistence to capture the stories of contemporary working class people through
1880–1935, an invaluable text on the Workers’ Theatre Movement (WTM) in Britain and America which was first published in 1985.
chose for Oliver! But Jimmy, in his pre-Small Faces days, had been a student at the Theatre Workshop, part of the policy of encouraging local talent. Ironically, the Everybody’s An Actor short prominently features the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday, a song that really did say something about everyday life.
The Ewan MacColl part of the book is a complete narrative about the origins of Theatre Workshop in Manchester’s Theatre of Action. It starts with Ewan talking about his own childhood in Manchester, and the climate of poverty and politics that shaped him. In one particularly vivid passage he mentions a jacket he was given by a well-meaning benefactor: “I can remember the feeling of hatred, a hatred so powerful I was blind walking home along the street – just a red haze in front of me. It lasted for years that feeling. It wasn’t just that particular incident – a lot of things combined to produce that kind of response to society. I really did want to tear down the world in which I found myself, and build a new world, I really did.”
The London-themed Sweet Thames Flow Softly LP The Critics Group made for Argo in 1967 and earlier records Ewan made for Folkways revisited the broadside tradition of topical and irreverent popular ballads which MacColl had extensively researched. Some of these broadsides can be seen as a direct link to later folk protest songs, while others may be linked to popular music hall material. The LP also contained a handful of contemporary compositions, including the title track Sweet Thames Flow Softly. This gorgeous song was written by Ewan MacColl initially as the theme for a radio play based on Romeo And Juliet, and it’s a perfect example of how when the will took him Ewan could create the most unique and heartwarming love songs. The most famous of these is, of course, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. And then there’s Dirty Old Town, a song Ewan reportedly put together in a few minutes to fill a gap in a play but which would be sung by successive generations around the world, and by people who may never have heard of Salford let alone the gasworks or canal there but who immediately identify with the muddled sentiments of love and hate.
What is striking in Ewan’s narrative is the part books played in his life, despite a lack of formal education. He refers to books as a refuge, and describes devouring all the volumes of Balzac’s Human Comedy by the time he was 15, immersing himself in Gogol and Dostoyevsky, and how Darwin and Engels led him to seek salvation in Marxism and in the Communist Party which became his life. Even from an early age Ewan wanted to be a writer, specifically a playwright, and almost inevitably he drifted into the Workers’ Theatre Movement, setting up his own group of players (the Red Megaphones) to stage agit prop works, performing in the streets, supporting strikes and marches. There is a telling sentence where he describes how: “Mass declamation demands great precision, and it was my job as producer to run the drill. And they got very good. Resentful but very good.”
Ewan may have been obdurate and dismissive of the pop world during some very exciting times, but when Dylan was in his mid-‘60s revolutionary prime Ewan was 50 years of age. And while Dylan may have invented a past for himself, Ewan in the years leading up to WW2 lived a life so vivid it couldn’t be made up. Any failings Ewan may have had are cancelled out by the importance of the things he was part of during that period alone. There is an autobiography, and an approved biography by Ben Harker, but the best account of those years is captured in the book Theatres Of The Left,
There is another significant passage where Ewan describes how they wanted to be more innovative and more radical than other groups within the Workers’ Theatre Movement. Together with his colleague Alf Armitt he spent hours and hours in Manchester Reference Library, studying theatre related literature and learning about the theories and techniques of Vachtangov, Meyerhold,
French Representational Theatre, and so on. “Strange territory we were exploring,” said MacColl. He added: “We were exploring from a position of ignorance.”
going. Among the early pre-Stratford Theatre Workshop productions was Ewan’s own Uranium 235, which with a little bit of help made the transition to the West End in 1952.
One thing that is striking about the Ewan MacColl story is the way occasionally fate dealt him some winning hands. And he was very fortunate in the partners and comrades fortune sent his way. It was the BBC’s Archie Harding that put Joan Littlewood in touch with Ewan MacColl, and this one casual act had enormous repercussions. Harding himself was in exile at the time, having been a little too bold in his programme making for the BBC in London. MacColl acknowledges his debt: “Harding, the grey eminence of creative broadcasting had, almost singlehanded, created the form of radio documentary known as the feature programme. On leaving Oxford, he had gone straight into radio, convinced that this new medium held the key to a new, important art form in which the spoken work would really come into its own. He maintained that radio was a tool for poets; with it one could manipulate words in the way that John Heartfield manipulated visual images to create his photomontages.”
“How does one describe such a piece?” said Ewan. “An episodic play? A documentary? A historical pageant? A twentieth-century morality play? Almost any of these descriptions would be pertinent, but not completely so. In some ways it resembled the playing of a good jazz ensemble in which, after the theme has been stated, solo instruments take turns in exploring the theme’s chordal structure, each one restating the theme in a different way. In Uranium 235, however, an actor was expected to be a trombone at one moment and a guitar the next and then to be a trumpet and a piano playing counter-melodics. They were faced with a series of rapidly changing scenes in which they were called upon to dance, sing, act, to speak in unison and to parody themselves doing all these things. A brief breakdown of the play illustrates the extent to which we were indebted to our earlier work in Theatre Union, Theatre of Action and the Red Megaphones.” In the Theatres of the Left book the historian Raphael Samuel describes how: “In London, the centre of the WTM, and the place where its groups were most frequent, the troupes seem to have been drawn largely from the lower professions, clerks and out-of-work young people, together with a substantial complement of East End Jewish proletarians in revolt (it may be) as much against the Orthodoxy of their parents as against the conditions of industrial life.”
As the Red Megaphones developed into Theatre for Action Joan Littlewood, who was self-exiled from London and its theatre world, became an invaluable ally for Ewan. They were perfectly matched in terms of revolutionary zeal and imagination, and together they were an incredible force, driving each other on. Theatre for Action in turn developed into Theatre Union, which was given fresh impetus by the Spanish Civil War. The post-WW2 recommencement of activity saw the birth of Theatre Workshop itself, with Rosalie Williams, Howard Goorney, David Scase, Gerry Raffles and Bill Davidson, with Ewan, and Joan as producer. Theatre Workshop was for some time rootless, wandering far and wide, but eventually it moved to a permanent home at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1953 by which time Ewan was becoming more involved with the folk music world than the practical realities of keeping a theatre company
It was from this milieu, and in particular out of the Rebel Players, that the pioneering Unity Theatre emerged from its St Pancras base in 1936. Nearly 20 years before Theatre Workshop set up home in Stratford, the people involved in starting Unity made the conscious decision to move away from the East End and seek a broader audience in a more central London location. The Unity story is the one of the most extraordinary and inspiring tales of popular culture. What was essentially a left wing theatre, rooted in agit
Bassey scoring a hit with Far Away, but it’s not become part of the public’s psyche in the way Oliver! did. It does, however, like Oliver!, feature some fantastic kids-chorus numbers, including We’re Going To The Country which is one of the few songs to deal with the mass evacuation of children from London at the height of the Blitz. Actually, the ‘kids’ song was perhaps Lionel’s speciality, which he continued through Goodbye-mommy-and-daddy-day (from ...Isn’t This Where We Came In) and Happy Endings, when he was recalled to life for the memorable Abbey National TV advert in 1989.
prop and the avant garde, that sprang from the fight against fascism and was closely alligned to Communism, survived in the heart of London for almost 30 years, got many working class people involved in the theatre, and was a valuable launch pad for the likes of Bill Owen, Una BrandonJones (who was in Sparrows Can’t Sing), Ted Willis, Alfie Bass, David Kossoff, Bob Hoskins, Warren Mitchell, Johnny Speight, Herbert Lom, and Michael Gambon. Lionel Bart, who had the perfect East End Jewish communist background, also got his show business start through Unity, participating in the 1953 revue Turn It Up! which was directed by Alfie Bass, and eventually creating his own 1958 production Wally Pone. In Colin Chambers’ essential book, The Story of Unity Theatre, he wrote: “The difficulty of attracting audiences, and at the same time helping them to understand and enjoy the new and the challenging, was starkly demonstrated by the poor reception given to Lionel Bart’s provocative and original musical, Wally Pone. Based on Jonson’s Volpone, Bart set his story in the contemporary world of Soho vice barons and satirised the fashionable coffee-bar culture which preceded the Swinging Sixties. According to an internal bulletin, Wally Pone played to practically empty houses for ten weeks and the report commented that all the audiences seemed to want was Old Time Music Hall.”
Unity had a reputation for being the first to stage productions by writers from abroad such as Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht and JeanPaul Sartre. But there was a real commitment to promoting new works by new writers from within its own ranks. Ted Willis, for example, learnt his writing craft by being at the heart of Unity activity, and progressed from Sabotage! to Woman In A Dressing Gown to Dixon of Dock Green via The Blue Lamp. He is occasionally mentioned in connection with an incident where after being made a peer (for his staunch support of the Labour Party) he spoke out against pop music being ‘candyfloss culture’. The Yardbirds’ young publicist Greg Tesser read about this, and seized on the PR opportunity of having the group fly round to Ted Willis’ home to perform a set on his lawn and acquaint him with some facts about the new music of the day, and oh by the way let’s make sure all the press are there. On the other hand, in his book Black In The British Frame Stephen Bourne acknowledges Willis tackled racism in several early episodes of Dixon of Dock Green. Ted Willis also wrote the controversial 1958 stage play Hot Summer Night, in which the liberal attitudes of a working-class trade union leader are tested when his daughter falls in love with what Bourne describes as “an angry young black man – rarely seen on the London stage – who confronts the trade union leader with a few home truths”. The following year it was adapted for TV’s popular Armchair Theatre series.
Chambers also alludes to the controversy that occasionally rears its head over how allegedly some of the songs in Oliver! had roots in Unity productions, and how Unity stalwart Joan Clarke (or Maitland) did not receive credit for writing the musical’s book. She, however, was credited on Lionel’s 1962 musical Blitz! Set in the East End of London during WW2 it follows the fortunes of families working on the stalls down Petticoat Lane. The original cast featured a number of Unity regulars, and starred Amelia Bayntun (who had also been in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Sparrers Can’t Sing), Bob Grant (Jack from On The Buses) and Grazina Frame. It was an expensive and ambitious production, a success, with Shirley
entertainment. It was adapted at the end of WW2 by Bill Owen, who was inspired by the M. Wilson Disher book of the same name. In its way the popular Unity production was more than nostalgia. It was really about archaeology as politics, celebrating a working class art form where its participants were not afraid to use their own voices and language. A film unit within the Unity organisation later made a film based on Winkles And Champagne, which was called Century of Song. It was written and produced by Alec Bernstein, an old school friend and Communist comrade of Ted Willis, who would become better known as the author Alexander Baron. “We live at a time when the pre-forgotten seek out the reforgotten, the old ones, hoping to verify a mythical past,” wrote Iain Sinclair at the start of his introduction to the 2001 Harvill edition of Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife in its London Fiction Series. It’s a familiar riff. One of the most enduring and endearing themes of Sinclair’s writing for years is that of the lost literature of the London’s Jewish East End. He has been a particularly persistent evangelist for, and archaeologist of, these writers. His enthusiasm has been contagious, and for example the early mention of Alexander Baron in Lights Out For The Territory will have seized the imaginations of many. The subsequent drip-drip-drip effect of Sinclair’s championing the works of these writers will indisputably have contributed to publishing imprints like Five Leaves excavating quite a number of London/Jewish titles, hopefully rebalancing the situation Sinclair described in Lights Out: “Former practitioners were now marginalised: Alexander Baron in Golders Green (‘I don’t know who the publishers are anymore’), Emanuel Litvinoff still at work, wondering if the latest reissue of Journey Through A Small Planet would find a readership, Bernard Kops knocking out radio plays.”
Bill Owen was another Unity insider whose later TV sitcom fame might seem at odds with the productions he was involved in as a young man. In 1949 he adapted (what was for many people a life-changing book) The Ragged Trousered Philathropists for Unity, and the play would be one of the company’s touchstones in one form or another for many years. Another dependable for Unity would be The Match Girls, which as a play by Robert Mitchell was first performed in 1940, telling the story of the 1888 match girls strike which is perhaps the most significant event in East London’s social history. Campaigning journalist Annie Besant had written an article, White Slavery in London, highlighting the appalling conditions girls were working in at the Bryant & May factory in Bow and the effects of phosphorous poisoning. Following publication the factory’s owners tried to get the match girls to sign a statement saying the article was wrong, but they refused. When one of the girls was sacked, her colleagues came out on strike. Their campaign was fought with great vitality, and gained support from many leading socialist figures. The girls won, and one of the outcomes was the formation of a match workers’ union. Its theme was the perfect one for Unity, and as Colin Chambers points out there were definite analogies to be drawn between the Match Girls’ story and the Unity one itself. The Match Girls play was adapted by Bill Owen in 1946, and 20 years later he reworked it again as a musical, for which he wrote the script and lyrics and Tony Russell composed the music. Their adaptation of The Match Girls had a short West End run in 1965, and the surviving original cast recording has real charm in a jazzy chirpy Cockney way. Anita Harris recorded a very nice version of one of the show’s songs Men. Tony Russell just may be the same one who played with Johnny Dankworth and other jazz people and who wrote the theme tune for On The Buses and other TV programmes.
Ironically or appropriately Five Leaves has also republished Ken Worpole’s pioneering work Dockers & Detectives, which first appeared in 1983 through Verso. Coming from a socialist perspective Worpole looked at the issues of working class reading and writing: “These
Winkles And Champagne was another Unity standard, telling The Story Of The Halls, or Music Hall as working class popular
Library are numerous, for example. Bernard Kops, in his autobiography The World Is A Wedding describes discovering T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and how The Wasteland and Prufrock spoke to him directly as they “were bound up with the wasteland of the East End, and the desolation and loneliness of people and landscape.” That was it for him. There was no turning back. “I lost myself and found myself in books. I devoured books,” he wrote. “About that time I read the poetry of Mayakovsky. His suicide note played on my mind. I found it beautiful and terrifying. I loved Russia and the beautiful dream behind Socialism, but was becoming confused. One minute I wanted to change the world, the next minute I loathed it, wanted only to change myself, to harden myself against the coming night of the long knives. For I was sure of an imminent showdown. In the family and the world. To survive, one first has to acknowledge that war has been declared. The city was a battlefield. I became exhibitionistic for I needed the antagonism of people. Discouragement nurtured me.”
studies are attempts at cultural reconstruction, of some particular patterns of reading and writing during the past fifty years that conventional literary criticism has ignored.” It remains a fantastic work, and finds many new ways to look at literary history, from broadside ballads being the starting point of the novel to the contention that working class readers are the most eclectic and radical in their taste. One of the chapters examines the literature of London’s Jewish East End, and among the writers mentioned are Simon Blumenfield, Willy Goldman, Ashley Smith, Ralph Finn, Roland Camberton, Wolf Mankowitz, Bernard Kops, Arnold Wesker, Alexander Baron, and Emanuel Litvinoff. What Worpole started and Sinclair became an evangelist for is a direct challenge to the idea that the beats and the angry young men were the storm troops of change. The Jewish East End literary tradition they celebrate is a remarkable one, and as Emanuel Litvinoff puts it: “The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure and despair.” Being less of a mystic than Sinclair, Worpole is more explicit in drawing connections between the writers of the Jewish East End and its radical traditions. He refers to Rudolf Rocker, and to William Fishman’s study of East End Jewish Radicals, which focuses on the pre-WW1 period of socialism, anarchism and organisation, and to Joe Jacobs’ autobiography Out Of The Ghetto, which captures the anti-fascist and pro-communist tumult of growing up in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War and WW2. Like Sinclair’s, Worpole’s style is allusory, and references come thick and fast, leaving clues to be followed up by the reader. This is far more effective and exciting than the encyclopaedic analysis of others.
One of the themes of Worpole’s study is the drift from the East End to Soho, and the writer becoming increasingly removed from their roots. Bernard Kops’ first volume of autobiography, The World Is A Wedding, first published in 1963, contains some particularly florid accounts of his time ‘adrift in Soho’ after WW2. It is Kops’ contention that the Jewish East End was changed irrevocably during the Blitz, and something was lost. In his most famous play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, Kops has one of the younger generation, Hava, use the lines: “I’ll be glad when we move from Stepney Green. It’s only full of memories now. All my friends have gone. It’s full of bomb sites and ghosts.” And the departed patriarch Sam Levy advises his son David, who wants to be a singer: “Some people never leave home, even when they put a thousand miles between them and the street door. When you leave, really leave”. In 1960 Colin MacInnes mounted a vigorous defence of Bernard Kops, and in particular The Hamlet of Stepney Green, in an article for
One recurring theme in the story of the literature of the Jewish East End is the importance of books and reading. The mentions of Whitechapel
Encounter, describing the play as “a lament for the bewailing past; a respectful dirge for it, with a tear but with no regret; and a hymn of confident affirmation that young David and his Hava will go out into the English world, there to live out their lives as English Jews.” It was a theme MacInnes had used before, in Absolute Beginners, where another of his pen portraits is of the young Cockney Jewish writer Mannie Katz whose poems had hit the literary headlines for a
while. Mannie is portrayed as “hard and sad, and humorous and sentimental”. On this occasion the writer is a “Southwark Shakespeare”, located in the Elephant & Castle, rather than the East End. MacInnes’ narrator makes his own position very clear on the Jewish issue: “I love London all right, as I’ve explained. But when the Jewish population have all made enough loot to take off for America, or Israel, then I’m leaving too. It would be turning out the light”.
MacInnes’s reference to the old music-hall is interesting because it was in just this direction that Steele and several other early pop stars were to move. Later Tommy actually recorded Harry Champion’s What A Mouth. Others who have followed his example are Marty Wilde and Joe Brown, and the influence of the music-hall on British pop music has been surprisingly strong George Melly
Shush Yourself In Revolt Into Style George Melly praised Colin MacInnes as “the first adult to recognize the significance of pop and to make an attempt to formulate his conclusions”. It is his essay The Pied Piper of Bermondsey that Melly acknowledges “showed a penetrating understanding of what pop was about”. Melly picks up on MacInnes’ reference to Music Hall, and goes on to mention how The Kinks, specifically, and The Beatles, occasionally, pay overt homage to the Music Hall tradition. Interestingly he doesn’t mention that MacInnes wrote a fantastic book on the history of Music Hall, first published in 1967, entitled Sweet Saturday Night: Pop Song 1840–1920. 19
MacInnes’ writings on the Music Hall traditions are exhilarating, and in many ways the book is a perfect complement to Nik Cohn’s Pop From The Beginning. MacInnes’ genuine enthusiasm for his subject comes across well, and his affection for the subject matter is infectious. He readily acknowledges that he was born too late to deliver any real first-hand account of his subject matter, but sets out his credentials clearly. These include producing a series of successful radio shows during the 1950s for the BBC on the subject of Music Hall, and being fortunate enough to see several of the original stars during revivals from the 1930s onwards. Interestingly he acknowledges the importance of M. Willson Disher’s 1938 book, Winkles & Champagne, and admits his “debt to it is endless”.
contemporary cultural studies, and here he was confessing to an enduring passion for a form of popular entertainment long gone. He does keep things somewhat in perspective though with his astute comparisons between the Music Hall tradition and contemporary pop music. The songs of the Music Hall he finds to be less impersonal and abstract than modern pop numbers. The people involved back then were far more working class, and were skilled interpreters of daily life. There was also a greater female presence in the days of Music Hall, with many of the female stars (e.g. his muchadmired Marie Lloyd) being forceful personalities. Modern British pop he acknowledges is more cosmopolitan, but has less of a specific national identity unlike, say, French popular music. One tangential theme is how the songs of the original Music Hall era have lived on and been passed on. This is partly down to the songs being sung in homes, at functions, and in pubs. But he also makes a case for the songs reaching out beyond the working classes through the sales of sheet music, which he argues were themselves something of a pop art with the exquisite cover illustrations and so on. He mentions spending hours perusing old sheet music in the BBC library, and it is easy to see how the use of words and genuine working class vernacular will have appealed to someone like MacInnes who was such a keen observer of life and its absurdities.
There are no great sweeping claims in Sweet Saturday Night about Music Hall being high art. MacInnes does, however, make a case for the Music Hall tradition being a link between traditional folk songs and contemporary pop music. Acknowledging that the Music Hall songs were sentimental, satirical and sardonic, he praises those involved as “proletarian, unselfconscious, poor, self-confident, crude, innocent, optimistic, however disillusioned”. The contradictions of the Music Hall era seem to appeal to MacInnes. The pen portraits in the book are priceless, and MacInnes’ enormous affection for some of the performers is evident. His particular favourite, the coster singer Gus Elen, is described as: “A dyed-in-the wool Cockney with a voice of extreme authority, disillusionment and sardonic irony”. The great Harry Champion, he remembers: “Shot on from the wings as if projected by a missile and, with an enormous grin on his rubicund face, battered out his numbers like an amiable machine gun”. And when referring to Kate Carney, the bard of Stepney, and the Jewish tradition in the world of the Music Hall, he writes: “Jewish vivacity, sentiment and sexual skill add a kind of salt and pepper to the native East End dish”.
As the 1950s became the 1960s, and skiffle/rock ‘n’ roll became popular entertainment, there was a flurry of Cockney knees-up revivals. Both Tommy Steele and Joe Brown released rockin’ updates of Harry Champion favourites, What A Mouth and I’m Henery The Eighth I Am, which they knew from the local pubs in Bermondsey and the East End, respectively. Indeed both songs were co-written by the remarkable R.P. Weston. Another Harry Champion classic was Any Old Iron which, in the bizarre way history works, Lionel Bart sang at the 1955 World Youth Festival in Warsaw in a Music Hall revue that was part of the Unity contribution, along with Sean O’Casey’s The End of the Beginning and an excerpt from Twelfth Night.
It is possible to sense a little unease with his subject matter. After all, MacInnes’ reputation was all about being at the cutting edge of
Lionel Bart’s choices on Desert Island Discs was Peter Sellers’ 1957 souped-up spoof skiffle take on Any Old Iron, produced by one George Martin.
Ewan MacColl’s biographer Ben Harker looks on the 1955 Festival from a completely different perspective, and refers to Ewan singing at “various concerts while the Theatre Workshop performed You’re Only Young Once, a ballad opera hastily written by MacColl to illustrate the festival’s message of peace and international friendship. His play dramatised how young working-class lives were transformed by the prospect of a trip to Warsaw: a promising but illdisciplined young boxer improves his footwork by joininghis girlfriend’s Warsaw-bound dance team; a snarling and narcissistic teddy boy is transformed into a happy and well-adjusted worker by the thought of playing ping-pong in Warsaw. The music was carefully composed – members of Humphrey Lyttleton’s band provided the soundtrack and a young folk singer took a large singing part. Jean Newlove provided characteristically inventive choreography; dispirited by the poor quality of the British dance teams in Bucharest two years earlier, she’d now assembled and drilled her own team, who took awards in the 1955 festival competitions and animated MacColl’s new play.”
Colin MacInnes returns to his favourite theme of pop songs saying something about everyday life with a charming cameo in Absolute Beginners by the newly successful scribe Zesty-Boy Sift, about whom there is a touch of the Lionel Bart perhaps: “In the far dawn of Creation when this teenage thing was in its Eden epoch, young Zesty used to sing around the bars and caffs, and was notorious for being quite undoubtedly the crumbiest singer since – well, choose your own. But – here’s the point – the songs he sung, their words as well as harmonies, were his invention, thought up by him in a garage in Peckham, where he used to toil by day and slumber in an old Bugatti. And though Zesty caught all the necessary US overtones to send the juveniles that he performed for, the words he thought up were actually about the London kids – I mean not just ‘Ah luv yew, Oh yess Ah du’ that could be about anyone, but numbers like Ugly Usherette, and Chickory With My Chick, and Jean, Your Jeans!, and Nasty Newington Narcissus which all referred to places and to persons which the kids could actually identify around the purlieus of the city.”
MacColl was a great advocate of using authentic working class voices in music composition, but the exaggerated Cockney tones that were appearing at the end of the ‘50s and start of the ‘60s were probably not what he had in mind. As well as the reworking of Music Hall numbers, new Cockney works were appearing in theatres and in the hit parade. Lionel Bart, naturally, was at the forefront of this. And if there were not specifically any great political points being scored, there is a genuine sense of young working class kids enjoying being able to get away with showing their roots and pushing things as far as they could. Lionel, for example, provided Joe Brown with the rollicking number Jellied Eels which celebrated the dubious delights of the East End delicacy which is something of an acquired taste. Joe’s ‘cor blimey’ delivery (and the use of words like chavvies) is just as much of an acquired taste, and perhaps only matched by Stevie Marriott in years to come on numbers like Lazy Sunday. Incidentally one of
The character of Zesty-Boy Sift may be more a figment of MacInnes’ imagination than any actual songwriter, and his songs sound more like titles of Muriel Spark books than real hit songs. In fact with exceptions like Jim Dale’s Piccadilly Line and Wee Willie Harris’ Rockin’ At The Two I’s songs about specific London places and faces are few and far between in the British rock ‘n’ roll era, which is in direct contrast to the Music Hall tradition where songs are rich with specific references to London and daily life: Percy From Pimlico, I Live In Trafalgar Square, We All Went To Leicester Square, Looking For Mugs In The Strand, Piccadilly Trot, Burlington Bertie From Bow, Carrie From Camden Town, Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road, and many, many others.
Another recurring theme in Music Hall songs was the threat to its tradition from contemporary American culture, via swing and ragtime. “English songs are now forgotten,” sang Whit Cunliffe in the number There’s No Place Like London. This particular song was another written by R.P. Weston who has a special place in the London/Great British songbook. He had a hand in goodness knows how many songs/monologues in his day, including What A Mouth, I’m Henery The Eighth, Brahn Boots, Hobnailed Boots That Father Wore, With Her Head Tucked Under Her Arm, Paddy McGinty’s Goat, and indeed Goodbyeee. Among his writing partners were Bert Lee, Fred Murray and Fred Barnes.
in Stratford East. It is his practicality and pragmatism that is often credited with keeping the Workshop going through difficult times, and certainly he seems more rooted in reality than the more flamboyant personalities of Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl. Raffles and MacColl were chalk and cheese, in many ways, and there seems to have been a good deal of resentment between the two of them over the years. Raffles became Joan’s long-term lover and fulcrum, and it seems inconceivable the Workshop would have succeeded without him. But any internet search is now more likely to identify flats in the square in Stratford named after Gerry rather than information about his contribution to theatre history.
In the early 1960s it was a similar unease with the seemingly all-pervasive influence of American culture on popular song that inspired young writer Alan Klein to pen What A Crazy World (We’re Living In), which actually said something about life in modern day Britain in a way that people actually spoke: “Dad’s gone down the dogtrack. Mother’s playing bingo. Grandad’s swearing at the telly, trying to make the thing go.” It has a certain something of the Galton & Simpson genius about it. “The song What A Crazy World was born on a District Line tube train on the journey between Charing Cross and East Ham after another fruitless day of trudging around Tin Pan Alley trying to sell other songs,” wrote Alan Klein later. Fortune favoured him, for once, and the song ended up with Joe Brown who was perfectly placed to deliver the sardonic lyrics with a cheeky grin and Cockney charm. Looked upon by some as a piece of contemporary social commentary, Joe got to sing the number on the BBC’s Tonight current affairs TV show. Gerry Raffles saw the performance and came up with the idea of asking Alan Klein if he could work the song up into a musical.
It was a typical Theatre Workshop move to ask someone who had no experience of writing, outside of a few pop songs, to come up with a full-scale musical, but Alan Klein jumped at the chance. What A Crazy World ran at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, for a couple of months at the end of 1962. And by that time Michael Carreras (from the Hammer family) was keen to make a film of the musical. The film has now disappeared, but it’s not forgotten by any means. Pop stars of the day Joe Brown and Marty Wilde were in starring roles, and they acknowledge their fortune in being part of one of the best pop films of the era, and certainly part of one of the grittiest in terms of content and location. Joe Brown seems to attribute its enduring appeal to the contributions of real actors like (Theatre Workshop stalwarts) Harry H Corbett and Avis Bunnage (who was in Blitz! and Sparrows Can’t Sing) as the parents, and Grazina Frame (who was also in Blitz!) as Joe’s sister. Harry H Corbett steals the show with his interpretation of What A Crazy World from the parents’ perspective, instantly recognisable in tones from his Harold Steptoe persona, which was just starting out following a successful pilot.
Gerry Raffles at that time was the heartbeat of Theatre Workshop. He’d been there from the start, back in Manchester, and was instrumental in making the move to a permanent home
Harry and Avis, as young lovers from Manchester way, were early recruits to Theatre Workshop, long before it had a permanent home. Joan Littlewood, however, would disapprove
On close analysis the content of some Music Hall material may raise eyebrows, like Gus Elen in A Postman’s Holiday singing about “working like a nigger”. Apart from the title song the best known number from What A Crazy World is A Lay-About’s Lament, as sung by Marty and Joe. Nowadays it makes for uncomfortable listening as the boys bemoan the fact that their local Labour Exchange has been invaded by all sorts of immigrants disrupting their cosy routine of signing on the dole. The casual racism of the lyrics would not be tolerated now, but that is one of the ironies of portraying working class life accurately in art. There are all sorts of views held by ordinary working class people that would offend the liberal thinkers, and these are rarely captured in songs. Exceptions include the Disco Zombies’ Drums Over London, and Ewan MacColl’s own The Colour Bar Strike where he ruffled feathers by portraying an unsavoury part of labour history when railway workers in Kings Cross goods yard went on an unofficial strike in protest at working with black colleagues.
strongly of Harry’s most successful role, writing in her autobiography: “A shock. Harry C.’s face filled the screen. He was talking in some stylised accent and there was a hideous old man with him ... Harry, who had given us that incomparable Richard II, and so many glorious moments of theatre; what had driven him to this?” Avis would later take the starring role in Theatre Workshop’s 1967 production of The Marie Lloyd Story, which was co-written by Soho face turned East End publican Daniel Farson. Farson’s own book on Marie Lloyd and Music Hall would be published in 1972. It looks at the Music Hall tradition from a different perspective than MacInnes, and Farson is strong on the connections to the East End and the role of the venues such as Pleasure Gardens and Penny Gaffs. He credits Joan Littlewood for desperately fighting to revive the Pleasure Gardens tradition (Farson actually found her the perfect site) in the East End, only to be thwarted by Council planners, adding: “I wonder if the excellence of her ideas would have been appreciated.” Farson is particularly interesting when relating accounts of his own attempts in the 1960s to revive the Music Hall tradition, particularly in his own East End pub, The Waterman’s Arms. It is easy to envisage Farson and MacInnes sitting in Wheelers or another Soho drinking club animatedly discussing Music Hall minutiae. Farson actually quotes MacInnes in his Marie Lloyd book: “The question remained: was the Music Hall atmosphere I was striving for just a matter of a passing night or two, or could it be taken further? Colin MacInnes suggested at the time that I become an impresario. He wrote in New Society: ‘Most of us have fantasies we fail to bend into realities, but Mr Dan Farson has - to coin a phrase – made his dream come true. And not content with realizing his own dream, Mr Farson has realized one of mine: which is that popular song and entertainment should evade the telly screens and radio to which they have been banished from the few surviving Theatres of Variety and reappear, as they did in their days of authenticity and glory, on a performer-to-audience basis where there is direct, personal communication.”
Anyone familiar with Colin MacInnes’ writing will know how he portrays teddy boys as racist Neanderthals. Occasionally teds were a subculture exploited by the fascist movement. But then, 20 years earlier, support for fascists had been strong among the East London working class, hence the need for the Battle of Cable Street, so brilliantly enshrined in works of Jewish East End literature such as Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley. Unity stalwarts Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell developed the exaggerated working class reactionary Alf Garnett, and Galton & Simpson had Steptoe Senior the working class Tory with an aspirational Labour-supporting son. Some views, it may be argued, are traditional and do not necessarily make a person all bad. Conversely Bernard Kops describes the ignorance of a liberal figurehead he encountered working as a waiter in the West End, who treated staff with disdain, leading Kops to conclude that such a person loves mankind as a whole because he hates individuals.
Ironically Alan Klein did find fame in a way with The New Vaudeville Band, an outfit Whitcomb thoroughly approved of. In The New Vaudeville Band Klein adopted the persona of Tristram, Seventh Earl of Cricklewood, when songwriter Geoff Stephens put a real group together to capitalise on the success of Winchester Cathedral, which explored the ‘30s dance band/Tin Pan Alley territory Dennis Potter would return to in such spectacular style with Pennies From Heaven. Despite the nostalgic novelty trappings of The New Vaudeville Band, there was no denying Geoff Stephens was a brilliant songwriter. Ian Whitcomb liked the fact he wanted to write songs that the milkman could whistle on his rounds, and quotes Stephens: “Too many people nowadays are trying to make pop music complicated. I just want to simplify it.” The New Vaudeville Band featured prominently in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, where the perkiness of its music contrasted sharply with the trials of everyday life.
Joe Brown would have chart success with an earlier and rather more polite version of A LayAbout’s Lament. Or rather the success came via the flip, A Picture Of You, which was a number written by members of Joe’s backing group, the Bruvvers. This had a real American country ‘n’ western feel, which was the sound Joe was really interested in. And for all the Cockney Music Hall intonations, the same seems to be true for Alan Klein. One of the numbers he wrote specially for the film version of What A Crazy World was the gorgeous country-tinged Sally Ann, which would become a single for Joe Brown and is one of the best creations from that strange hinterland between rock ‘n’ roll and the beat boom. While it was lost for many years, in more recent times some very grand claims have been made for Alan Klein’s one and only LP from 1964, Well At Least It’s British. The David Bowie comparisons seem strange, but it does definitely explore the ‘cockney ‘n’ western’ territory The Kinks would call their own in the ‘70s. The tone of Klein’s LP is far too sardonic, sarcastic and snide for popular appeal on the brink of the beat boom. And the cover photo is deliberately all wrong with Klein posed among the rubble of a bombed out house, almost like an extra from Sparrows Can’t Sing.
Geoff Stephens has a remarkable track record, and among the songs he wrote or had a hand in composing are The Crying Game, SemiDetached Suburban Mr Jones, There’s A Kind of Hush, David Soul’s Silver Lady, Carol Douglas’ Doctor’s Orders, the New Seekers’ You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me, the Hollies’ Sorry Suzanne, and Scott Walker’s Lights of Cincinnati. Alan Klein did pitch in with the songwriting, though, for the New Vaudeville Band, and came up with the other big hit the group had, which was Finchley Central. Rather neatly, the inspiration for the song again seems to have come to him while travelling on the tube. Interestingly for all the allusions to the London way of life and talking, in his other songs there are not specific references to the Capital. Not even in the comic song Three Coins InThe Sewer which was painstakingly produced by the legendary Joe Meek.
The dissatisfaction Klein articulates on the LP was shared by contemporaries such as Ian Whitcomb, who in his excellent Rock Odyssey wrote: “And for my tastes, the only distinctive sounds were being made by those still carrying on the British music-hall tradition – Bernard Cribbins (Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred), Mike Sarne (Come Outside), and, of course, Benny Hill and Peter Sellers. Why was it we seemed incapable of making effective beat records? Were we still a race of motheaten, dull-colored clerks and louts and middle-class excrement living on increment, ruled by the Old School Tie Establishment?” Ian spent the rest of the ‘60s eagerly looking out for signs of miscegenation between his true loves: primitive rock ‘n’ roll and Music Hall. He would even record an LP in 1966 called Mod, Mod Music Hall.
After the curtain had fallen on The New Vaudeville Band, in 1972 Alan Klein would provide the songs for a Frank Norman play Costa Packet which was staged by Theatre Workshop
record as adventurous as Lionel Bart’s ... Isn’t This Where We Came In? Ian Svenonius in his memorable essay The Stilyagi described The Style Council as “a beatnik cafe jazz group” with Weller adopting the role of “the paradoxical left dandy”. He added: “The Style Council watched foreign films, read Sartre, drank expresso, and dug Italian furniture. They also casually propagated world revolution”. Life At A Top People’s Health Farm is one of Weller’s strangest and strongest works, brilliantly satirising the upwardly mobile at-anyprice ‘enterprise culture’ of the Thatcher era. He also works in references to a number of Cockney classics, apart from What A Crazy World, like The Lambeth Walk, Harry Champion’s Any Old Iron, and the King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s A Dustman.
at Stratford East. Lionel Bart would provide a few songs too. By all accounts Norman was less than happy about liberties taken with his script, and would claim the polemics had been removed. A few months earlier Lionel had provided the songs for The Londoners, a musical reworking of Stephen Lewis’ Sparrers Can’t Sing, which has disappeared from trace. Among the players was Rita Webb, whose name may not be instantly recognisable, but she was one of the great British character actresses, appearing in everything from the TV version of Up The Junction to numerous episodes of The Benny Hill Show. She is reported to have been the original choice for the Irene Handl role in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. The Daily Mail apparently said at the time of The Londoners: “The old ones are summed up in Rita Webb’s indomitable old granny, her hennaed hair bristling with combs, who has walked out of her new flat, because if you die twenty storeys up, they have to stand your coffin on its head to get it down in the lift. Life for her has been ‘a lazy git of a husband and a load of blood-sucking kids.’ She is real and she gives the show what truth it has.”
In Pop From The Beginning Nik Cohn damns Donegan with faint praise: “He sang emasculated versions of old Leadbelly songs like Rock Island Line, belting them out with frantic energy and a built-in rasp. Then he moved on to custard-pie comedy routines like Putting On The Style and My Old Man’s A Dustman. Good luck to him – he cashed in fast and didn’t get his motives confused.” A typical Cohn stance perhaps, but a little unfair given that Rock Island Line really did change the world for a lot of young people. What is fascinating is that the success of that song and the whole skiffle thing sprang from the grassroots in a spectacular and unexpected way. The song itself was only recorded as part of a Chris Barber set in 1954, and somehow the momentum grew from next-to-nothing to Transatlantic success. And if there is something absurd about someone from London singing about the old USA there is no denying the ramshackle energy and glorious primitivism of those early Donegan skiffle sides. His Showcase 10” from 1956, for example, features a bewildering mix of old folk, blues, jazz, spirituals and whatever, with a careering brio that wouldn’t be seen again in the UK until the DIY punk era really got going. Donegan’s romp through Frankie and Johnny is priceless, and I Shall Not Be Moved captures consciously or not a downright awkward sense of defiance.
Despite darker days looming, the early ‘70s were actually quite a busy time for Lionel Bart. Apart from The Londoners and Costa Packet, he composed the beautiful theme for the film version of Black Beauty, which was orchestrated by John Cameron who also provided additional music for the film. The screenplay was written by Wolf Mankowitz. Lionel also wrote a suite of songs for the lost Peter Sellers film The Optimists (Of Nine Elms) about a forgotten Music Hall performer down on his luck that, nevertheless, becomes an enchanting figure for a group of street kids. George Martin provided incidental music for the film. What A Crazy World was revived at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1975, with among its cast Ray Winstone making his stage debut. And the title song would be directly referenced by Paul Weller in The Style Council’s Life At A Top People’s Health Farm, a single from the remarkable Confessions Of A Pop Group LP, a
It is ironic that, for all the criticisms of being too dependent on Americana, Donegan should then attract criticism for having a go at updating a Music Hall number with My Old Man’s A Dustman. Lonnie’s interpretation caught the public’s imagination and became a huge hit at the start of 1960, but the original can be traced back to J.P. Long, who came from an angle of poking fun at an overpaid dustman who’s getting above his station and putting on airs and graces. Lonnie’s is more a comic celebration of an ‘unsung hero’, rather more in keeping with the times. The sheet music for the J.P. Long version is dated at 1922, but intriguingly there is another altogether more colourful version that starts: “My old man’s a dustman. He fought in the battle of Mons. Killed five thousand Germans with only fifty bombs ...”
book and Donegan reviving the song. The book itself is an absurd and very funny East London romp, described as “the story of a cockney Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza” who do battle with a cold-blooded East London council administration. Elizabeth Bowen said: “Mr Mankowitz has done (and high time, too) for the Cockney English what James Joyce did for the Dublin Irish”. Perhaps the most telling lines in the novel are Old Cock’s: “They are all rotten, old chap, take my word for it. Whoever holds the upper hand is evil to the under-dog. We want more brothers like dear old Arp here who get on with cleaning up the rusty nails, not big-heads who interfere with your brains, fill up your earoles nose and throat with a lot of old cod, de-louse you, marry you, hold your hand while you’re on the job, buttonhole your nipper so soon as he peeps out his long bald head, dress him in khaki and send him out with a gun so before he catches his packet he will have generously bestowed upon numerous other poor bastards theirs, and all the time our protectors in the councils and the unions and the governments and the cabinets are giving out a lot of bullshit to the effect we are attacking no one, we are defending freedom.”
This Mons version is the one Wolf Mankowitz uses in his 1956 novel called, rather appropriately, My Old Man’s A Dustman. Mankowitz has his character the Old Cock describe the song as an “old gallant old honourable old fighting song” and “old contemptible old marching song”. And the Jewish East End writer Mankowitz was big news at the time, so it would not be unlikely that there’s a connection between his
You know very well, Mr Bo, that African music is too real, too obsessive, too wonderfully monotonous, too religious, for Europeans ever to put up with. We like something much less authentic. Colin MacInnes, “City Of Spades”
Life’s Like That Colin MacInnes’ yen for songwriting to reflect the times and language of contemporary Britain is intriguing. It is to be assumed he was referring specifically to popular tunes, because he would certainly have been familiar with calypso and the way its creators captured issues of the day in a song format. But, according to his biographer Tony Gould, MacInnes wasn’t a fan of calypsos. His passion was more for African music, as he intimates in his 1957 novel, City Of Spades. 27
The historian Stuart Hall wrote an article, Calypso Kings, in The Guardian, in June 2002 to coincide with the release of the first volume in Honest Jons’ London Is The Place For Me series. In it he explained how calypso was part of a tradition of topical song: “The calypsonian is free to comment ironically on any aspect or event of everyday life, to expose the sexual and political scandals of the politicians and the rich, to recount gossip and to scandalise the powerful without fear of redress. Political commentary, the quirks, foibles, the petty dramas and the licentious stories of everyday street life are grist to the calypsonian’s mill. The calypso is the repository of that year’s distilled popular knowledge and wisdom - the informal ‘court’ before which every powerful figure fears being ultimately judged.”
Indeed, MacInnes features a caricature of a calypso singer in City Of Spades. The character Lord Alexander appears early in the story where he is amazed to learn that the narrator Montgomery Pew is not fond of calypso: “’Man, that’s not possible’. He stood up in his flowered pants aghast. ‘Surely all educated Englishmen like our scintillating music?’” Montgomery’s case in his defence is that: “Your lines don’t scan, you accentuate the words incorrectly, and the thoughts you express are meagre and without wit.” When he later encounters Lord Alexander he finds the calypsonian has “swum into the glory. Radio programmes and cabaret work, and even a number of gramophone recordings.” He adds: “Specially enjoyed are those on British institutions: Toad In The Hole and Guinness Stout, and Please Mr Attlee Don’t Steal My Majority, and Why Do I Thirst Between Three and Five?”
He went on to state: “Much the same is true of the black British calypso, which began as a Trinidadian music and, in London, became the first signature music of the whole West Indian community. The calypsos of the 1950s therefore must be ‘read’ and heard alongside books like The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (also a Trinidadian) as offering the most telling insights into the early days of the migrant experience. They are still overwhelmingly jaunty and positive in attitude - this is the music of a minority who have travelled to a strange or strangely familiar place in search of a better life and are determined to survive and prosper. The same confidence, grit and determination are evident in the press and magazine images of immigrant families arriving during the 1950s at London railway stations.”
The Honest Jons series, London Is The Place For Me, has been incredibly important in bringing the calypso tradition back into the cultural fold. Concentrating on British recordings, it collected some fantastic and thoroughly entertaining examples of the calypsonians’ art, which in its heyday in the UK covered everything from the mixed fortunes of West Indians in Britain, cricket, landladies, female police officers, food rationing, the Festival of Britain, prostitution, bulldogs, and the joys or mysteries of bebop and the London Underground. The British calypso songbook contains some colourful commentary on the times the singers were living in. “Every night they walking about in a band attacking woman and man,” sings Lord Invader, for example, in his Teddy Boy Calypso, going on to recommend the return of the cat o’nine tails. As MacInnes wrote in Absolute Beginners, teddy boys did have a bit of a name for getting involved in racist attacks, becoming fascist pawns, and such actions ignited the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill. The following year, in the same area, Kelso Cochrane, an immigrant from Antigua, was killed by a gang of white men. No one was ever convicted, but it was claimed members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union Movement were involved.
There is a particular narrative strand that starts with the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury on 21 June 1948, with Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner and Mona Baptiste on board. The story continues with these calypsonians naturally gravitating towards Soho where the jazz scene was thriving. Kitchener would record his Be Bop Calypso in praise of the new music he heard. And King Timothy would sing about the clubs in Gerrard Street and the clientele: “Another thing I could not realise why they all had dark
glasses on their eyes.” The sleevenotes to the second volume of London is The Place For Me mention Club Eleven in Gerrard Street which was for a short while the home of British bebop and arguably where UK modernism started.
defied convention by using a piano and employing Caribbean hornmen, and entertained many of the louche Soho-ites associated with the Colony Room drinking club. Colin MacInnes, godfather to one of his sons, included Campbell in his 1957 novel, City of Spades, and Daniel Farson photographed Abalabi dancers.”
There is another narrative about the kids graduating via skiffle and The Two I’s to rock ‘n’ roll. But Tony Crombie, who with his Rockets released the first British rock record, complicates the issue considerably. Born in Bishopsgate, he started playing drums in the London jazz clubs as a kid in WW2. Still in the ‘40s he played with Duke Ellington, was involved with starting the legendary London jazz haunt Club Eleven, went on to play with Ronnie Scott and Johnny Dankworth among others. In the ‘50s he started his own jazz orchestra, played regularly at places like The Flamingo, recorded with Annie Ross, before veering off at a tangent and starting a band called The Rockets in response to Bill Haley & The Comets’ success. Not surprisingly Crombie, after some initial chart success, soon returned to jazz, playing with the likes of Stan Tracey and Tubby Hayes. He also did some great soundtrack work, including the theme and incidental music for the TV adventure series The Man From Interpol.
Val’s fantastically evocative photos are an essential part of the Honest Jons/London Is The Place For Me series, and she wrote the sleevenotes for the third volume, which was dedicated to the Melodisc recordings of Ambrose: “Ambrose is part of the story of Soho in the 1950s – but, apart from his good friend Colin MacInnes (who includes him as Cranium Cuthbertson in his somewhat sensationalist City Of Spades), few chroniclers give him houseroom in surveys of the Bohemian quarter. It’s a shocking omission especially given the fame of the Abelabi in its day.” Colin MacInnes actually features a thinly disguised Abelabi club in City Of Spades, which he calls the Beni Bronze. Over 50 years on City Of Spades seems a curious book, and Val’s summation of it being “somewhat sensationalist” is probably a fair one. MacInnes’ motives may have been muddled, and his interests very open to debate. And yet for all his personal contradictions it is still striking that a middle-aged man from a comfortable background would take on the challenge of writing about black immigrants’ experience of living in London. Of course it wasn’t authentic. But it was still a bold move. It is also fascinating how MacInnes’ works have flitted in and out of fashion. Paul Weller’s very public passion for his books at the start of the ‘80s, for example, woke up a whole new generation to MacInnes’ achievements. He was up until that point pretty much a forgotten writer, and even Iain Sinclair admits to having to be alerted to MacInnes in the mid-‘70s by a “runner, chaser of rumours, a hand-to-mouth man with a powerful appetite for literature and gossip.” The same runner that suggested Sinclair seek out Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife, in fact.
Club Eleven is also mentioned in Viper, Raymond Thorp’s drugs memoir, published in 1960: “The musicians played what they liked as they liked - but it was mostly bebop and a lot more frantic than at Feldman’s. There was no requests and no programme. If the music failed to please...well you didn’t have to stay. But there were hundreds like myself who liked the music. So we stayed while some left. And the more we stayed the more the Club Eleven crept into the marrow of our bones...” It wasn’t all jazz in Soho, of course. In her June 2006 obituary for the Nigerian drummer Ambrose Adekoya Campbell, Val Wilmer wrote: “At the Abalabi, a Berwick Street cellar run by the Nigerian Ola Dosunmu and his English wife, record collectors rubbed shoulders with debutantes and diplomats, attracted to the rhythmic and cultural diversions. Campbell
It is also fascinating the different designs that have graced MacInnes’ covers. The revival of interest in the 1980s led to a series of Neville Brody designs, while an Allison & Busby reprint of City Of Spades from 1993 used one of Charlie Phillips’ photos of Notting Hill in the 1960s. Charlie himself had moved to London from Jamaica in 1956, and worked as a freelance photographer. His work also graced the cover of the second volume in the London Is The Place For Me series. The original cover of Absolute Beginners used a photo of modernists in Notting Hill, taken by Roger Mayne, which was MacInnes’ suggestion. Mayne assiduously documented the Notting Hill area over a series of years, and captured a part of London at a particular time in quite a revolutionary social realist way. It is perhaps no coincidence the narrator of Absolute Beginners was a hip young photographer. In 1962 Mayne married the playwright Ann Jellicoe, which would have been around the time her play The Knack was first published, in a very different form than the later Swinging London film version. Ann was part of the Royal Court circle of new dramatists, led by George Devine, the sworn enemy or fierce rival of fellow iconoclasts Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop.
Val Wilmer cites Roger Mayne as one of the people she admired when she first became interested in photography as a career option in the late ‘50s. She mentions his street photography as being an influence, but also says she encountered Mayne at the Trad clubs she frequented. This is mentioned in Val’s essential account of her life in the jazz world, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, which was published by The Women’s Press in 1989. Val is one of the most important figures in popular culture, and this is one of the best accounts of growing up as a jazz fan in the 1950s. It is rooted in a particular suburban South London school of stubborn misfits, and really starts with Val perversely spending her time as a kid rummaging in junk shops for old jazz 78s rather than being part of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion. She is gradually drawn into London’s jazz world as a fan, writer and photographer, eventually becoming part of a “multi-racial network of ravers and hipsters”. Before that, though, there are the inevitable warring factions: “Sharp young working-class boys constituted the bulk of the ‘modernists’, who listened seriously, without dancing, to the music known as bebop. The advocates of ‘Trad’ (Dixieland), on the other hand, tended to be middle-class tearaways, often from an artschool, ‘beatnik’ background. The clubs they frequented catered for dancing – or jiving, as it was known”. Jazz, Val makes very clear, was something that men did. But she had her allies, like her childhood friend Janet, an art student who “dressed in the Bohemian style of the day, dyed woolly stockings, baggy sweater and duffel-coat.”
Following the success of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, Ann’s first and very abstract play, The Sport Of My Mad Mother, had been among the first new productions by The Royal Court, in 1958. Other significant early productions included Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking About Jerusalem, his inspiring East End trilogy, and Shelagh Delaney’s The Lion In Love, the lesser-loved follow-up to A Taste Of Honey. As Frank Norman pointed out in Why Fings Went West, the Devine ‘theatre revolution’ believed “that a playwright’s message should not be permitted to fall victim to a director’s whim”. As he deadpans: “No such luxuries were permitted at Theatre Workshop, however. The moment of a play’s acceptance was very often the moment of departure from it.”
Knowing what we know about Val, the author of the free jazz study As Serious As Your Life, it is perhaps a little surprising that she had time for the Trad scene. In her book, however, Trad idol Chris Barber emerges as almost something of a good guy. On a personal level, he made time to chat with Val and her brother, and to an extent nurtured her interest in jazz. On a professional level, he is shown to be an enlightened soul, someone not hemmed in by the limitations of
for Albany Park and got sneered at. At least we provoked emotion. Essentially, we were barefoot in long black garb, with very straight hair. The residents said we looked like witches. We could handle the aggression. We’d had enough when we were Teddy girls of twelve.”
any one scene. He was keenly interested in blues and gospel music, brought artists over to the UK to play with his band, including Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Otis Spann and Muddy Waters. These were all people the young Val saw perform and got to chat to. And she credits Barber accordingly: “With Chris Barber the blues artists got a chance to be musicians, even if it must have seemed a trifle odd to them – if not actually reflective of a certain stereotype – to have to perform with the band’s regular banjo accompaniment when electric music had been around some time.”
Already deep in trouble, they sneak off to an allnight rave at Cy Laurie’s: “The atmosphere and music built to a tremendous pitch. You could feel the whole thing vibrating up on the street. Halfnaked dancers, wailing wind instruments, all going full out, all at the same point. A few drinks and the charged atmosphere got us going, and we danced without stop until it was almost light. Two stolen hours, beautiful hours where nothing mattered, nothing existed inside our heads. We were just part of a shared experience.” Caught unexpectedly in the glare of tabloid attention on the Trad scene they escape to Spain, ending up in Gerona, where for Patrice her story really starts as she gets to appear in a Cocteau short film, and dances at a fiesta to modern American jazz records, like Earl Bostick’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
There is something about the Trad scene that would be echoed by the mod revival 20 years later. There was a link in that both scenes sprang naturally from the grassroots, and proved valuable sources of learning for many involved, leading to a wider knowledge and understanding of where music came from and what it linked to. Both scenes were also a lot of fun for the participants. And in both movements a case can be made for its participants being awakened to political issues (via CND, for example), foreign literature, films, and even art. Patrice Chaplin’s Albany Park is another autobiography that starts in suburban South London. In it Patrice and her friend Beryl are very caught up in the Trad scene, and this was their personal teenage rebellion:
The brief popularity of the Trad scene seems to have caught people unawares, and some of the musicians involved, like Acker Bilk, Humphrey Lyttleton and Chris Barber must have been amazed to find themselves in the charts at the start of the ‘60s. Most of the Trad successes came from the Lansdowne Studios productions of Denis Preston, who had a little earlier been one of the catalysts behind the success of Lonnie Donegan. But then the name of Denis Preston crops up in so many places during the ‘50s and beyond. Some musicians may have quibbles about how much he actually did in a studio, but there is no doubt that he is one of the most important figures in British popular culture.
“The Dartford loop line to Charing Cross took forty minutes. Then Beryl and I would go into the station lavatory and put on more make-up then walk to Cy Laurie’s in Windmill Street, arriving about eight thirty. Or we’d go to Chris Barber’s off Leicester Square or the 100 Club in Oxford Street. In the music breaks we’d have a drink at the French pub or the Greek cafe in Old Compton Street. There was a lot of hanging around and giggling and picking people up and being chatted up. We wanted the attention of the real artists. They had marvellous lives – they were real travellers but we were too young and they were accompanied by mistresses and models, voluptuous older girls with unbelievable Bohemian style. We used to translate some of it
In Jim Godbolt’s 1989 book, A History of Jazz In Britain 1950-70, he quotes a 1979 Max Jones Melody Maker obituary of Preston: “I found Preston erudite, unpredictable, Rabelaisian, mentally alert, opinionated, often outrageous, warm-hearted, flamboyant in dress, manner and motor cars, dedicated to cricket, food, drink, discussion and the music of Duke Ellington
A typical example of how Preston could combine unlikely elements and make things happen was the classic skiffle recording of Last Train To San Fernando, which he persuaded Americanin-exile Johnny Duncan to record. The song had been successfully recorded by a Trinidadian calypso performer the Duke of Iron, who had been based in New York since the late 1930s. The song had been picked up for release in the UK by the independent Melodisc label. Duncan, apparently, was reluctant to record Last Train To San Fernando, but it was actually a huge success for him. The writer John Pilgrim has suggested it was Denis Preston’s West Indian wife that brought the song to her husband’s attention. Chas McDevitt wrote: “Denny Wright’s tearaway Latin-American guitar solo will for ever remain a classic of its time”. Nik Cohn called it the best British rock ‘n’ roll record.
(these often overlapped), enthusiastic about motor racing and gangster and boxing books. He was eloquent in tongue and pen.” Denis Preston himself would write in the sleevenotes of a late ‘60s Ellington-tribute Stan Tracey record that featured Acker Bilk (he allegedly suggested Bilk record a couple of bluesy numbers, thus being indirectly responsible for Stranger On The Shore) and Joe Harriott: “Were there such things as a Jazz Lover’s Diary (And why not? Boy Scouts have ‘em; so do motorists; even philatelists!) one page thereof would surely be especially gilt-edged... notably that bearing the date, April 29th. For it commemorates a singular occurence in jazz history - and possibly one of the half-dozen most significant anniversaries in the whole of that world of music - the birthday of Duke Ellington, born Edward Kennedy of that ilk in Washington DC in 1899. Which means further that April 29th 1969 marks a particularly important anniversary - the seventieth birthday of a man still active, vital and contributory in a business generally regarded as a relatively youthful pursuit. To paraphrase Jelly Roll Morton, Creole Love Call by Duke Ellington was no doubt the first record I ever bought in my life... in 1931, Lazy Rhapsody, on date of issue, was the third - Louis Armstrong c/w Joe Venuti interposing! As further affirmation of my credentials as a bona fide Ellington lover I claim to be one of the survivors of the Great Transpontine Trek of ‘33... to the Trocadero, Elephant-&-Castle, to witness Duke Ellington’s premier concert appearance in London.”
Frame, when commenting on the twists and turns of fate, states: “Ironically, skiffle was next to feel the draught. Its demise had first been predicted in spring 1957, when a conspiracy of pundits foresaw a replacement craze – calypso. Rock ‘n’ roll fans laughed for five minutes, knowing it was nothing more than a novelty blip. Which is all it turned out to be.” This was a reference to the brief chart success of Harry Belafonte. And, calypso did prove to be a useful tool for humorous performers like Peter Sellers, Lance Percival, and Bernard Cribbins. Bernard Levin would also write a regular satire on current affairs, which the Guyanese singer and actor Cy Grant would deliver in calypso format, for TV’s Tonight programme. The success of this slot made Grant something of a star, and he was certainly one of the most recognised black performers of the day. The price he paid for this success was that his acting career suffered. It was hard for him to shake off the calypso tag and be taken seriously again as a dramatic actor.
The Joe Meek story has its young hero working away in Preston’s Lansdowne studio (in the heart of MacInnes’ Notting Hill territory) as the engineer on many important sessions, providing all the magic touches but getting little of the credit. But then Preston is usually said to have simply ‘supervised’ recording sessions. Chris Barber says in Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation: “All he did was drink brandy and leave it to the engineers. He was a producer like a film producer: he couldn’t work the studio, but he could see to it that a record got made.”
Calypso might be one man’s novelty, but it is also another person’s reason for being. John Cowley, for example, is a calypso scholar and historian. Long before his involvement with the Honest Jons series, in the late 1980s he
this may well be the first commercial recording in the UK to feature exclusively the steel pans.
compiled a couple of volumes of early British calypso-related recordings for the New Cross label showcasing Black British music from the early 1950s. Around the same time he wrote a fantastic essay, London Is The Place, for an Open University book called Black Music In Britain, which contains fascinating details on the early UK calypso studio sessions. And, right there at the start, making it all happen is Denis Preston, recently returned from working in the US where he’d heard a lot of calypso being performed in Harlem. Indeed, Denis had earlier, in 1945 promoted a ragtime concert in East London which featured Freddy Grant with his West Indian Calypsonians.
As things progressed, Preston increasingly departed from the calypso norm. He used unorthodox mixes of musicians and styles. He had Jamaican and Guyanese players at the sessions, for example. He got the Guyanese be-bop singer Frank Holder, who sang with Johnny Dankworth’s group, to record a couple of calypso LPs, one of which was with the Kenny Graham Orchestra. Holder, incidentally, later concentrated more on his percussion skills, playing with Joe Harriott among others. Cowley notes that in 1951: “Preston recorded further calypsos, two Barbados-Jamaican competitive comic dialogues, two castillianes, Martinique beguines, more Jamaican folk songs, Cuban music, and early French calypsos for Melodisc; he also recorded calypsos for Parlophone. A feature of some of these sessions was the use of African percussionists – such as Billy Sholanke’s conga drum playing in Mona Baptiste’s version of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Calypso Blues. Preston also supervised the first Melodisc recordings by Ambrose Campbell’s West African Rhythm Brothers at this time.”
The first UK calypso recording is reported to have taken place at Abbey Road studios on 30 January 1950, when Denis Preston brought together the experienced musicians Cyril Blake, Dreamer, Brylo Ford, and Freddy Grant with the calypsonians Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener to record a number of songs which would be released through Parlophone. These included what are now born-again favourites like The Dollar And The Pound, General Election and The Underground Train. As well as recording calypso sessions for Parlophone, Preston would also ‘supervise’ recordings for Emil Shalit’s newly-started Melodisc label, which would carve a unique niche in British popular culture. The first calypso recording Preston made for Melodisc in 1950 included Lord Beginner’s very successful Victory Test Match.
In 1952 Preston oversaw one of his earliest esoteric musical experiments, when he got members of New Orleans traditionalist and communist Humphrey Lyttleton’s band to play with a West Indian rhythm section, led by Freddy Grant. These recordings were credited to the Grant-Lyttleton Paseo Jazz Band. The emphasis generally is on the Trad style but one track, Mike’s Tangana, is quite remarkable. It was written by Mike McKenzie, a Guyanese pianist, and seems to mix together all the ‘hip’ styles of the day. There was also a bold but wellreceived package tour to promote this musical miscegenation, which also featured the West Indian singers George Browne (from Trinidad, and known as Young Tiger), Tony Johnson (from Jamaica) and Bill Rogers (from Guyana).
The more you look at the details of the sessions Preston supervised, the more you realise the gift he had for putting x with y, and introducing a to b. So, for example, by the time of his second session for Melodisc Preston was already veering away from the true Trinidad calypso tradition. In September 1950 he had Louise Bennett record a couple of traditional Jamaican folk songs, and Cowley makes the case for these being the first release of “authentic black music from Jamaica made in Britain for both sale here and in that island”. Another 1950 Melodisc session that Preston supervised featured the Trinidad Steel Band, and
Among the people Preston most loved working with, in his supervisory capacity, were Kenny Graham and his Afro-Cubists, who were
beatnik, mod and hippie ephemera. This is it dude, straight from the fridge, a novel so groovy and ahead of its time that it joined the Legion of the Reforgotten faster than the publisher was able to dispatch it to the shops.” The book mentions Kenny Graham. And just as Home has helped stimulate interest in Terry Taylor so Jonny Trunk has helped in the rediscovery of Kenny Graham’s art, with the reissue of the Moondog And Suncat Suites by Kenny Graham And His Satellites. Inspired by the success of the Moondog compilation issued by Honest Jons, Trunk performed his customary magic in making available this fantastic 1957 set which features interpretations of a number of the Viking of 6th Avenue’s special compositions, along with a complementary suite of Graham’s own creation. The personnel include Phil Seamen, whom Val Wilmer described as “the most African of English drummers” and Ambrose Campbell’s number one fan. The reissue cover, reflecting the times, proclaims boldly that the recordings were engineered by Joe Meek, but elsewhere Trunk acknowledges the sessions were supervised by Denis Preston, adding: “Who else could’ve done?”
pioneers on the British jazz scene in the way they used African and Cuban rhythms and musicians. Preston even had a speaking role on Graham’s Caribbean Suite. There is a great paragraph, relating to the Downbeat club in Old Compton Street, in Jim Godbolt’s book on Jazz in Britain which mentions how in 1954: “One memorable afternoon Billie Holiday was brought into the club and sang to a mere handful of people. During her performance, someone with absolutely no sense of occasion decided to use the payphone near the bandstand, resulting in Kenny Graham having to be physically restrained from attacking him.” There is another great passage, in Tony Gould’s biography of Colin MacInnes, Inside Outsider, where MacInnes takes his young protégé Terry Taylor to the BBC Gramophone Library. Terry selects some of Kenny Graham’s AfroCuban music to play, and MacInnes is instantly converted. Indeed Graham goes on to become a friend of MacInnes’, and they collaborated on a musical play that sadly never came to fruition. Negotiations were taking place with the Royal Court Theatre in 1961 about staging the play, Cousin Mixed, for which MacInnes had written the book and Graham the music. But when George Devine was taken ill, hopes of staging the play faded away.
Joe Harriott was someone else Denis Preston would remain close to, supervising some of his most exploratory sessions, such as Abstract, and the ones with John Maher in the fantastic IndoJazz series. Stan Tracey was another musician Preston was close to, supervising for example the wonderful Under Milk Wood suite. Don Rendell and Ian Carr were close colleagues of Preston’s over a long period of time. He also encouraged and captured the work of Indian jazz guitarist Amancio D’Silva and the Ghanaian percussionist Guy Warren. The way these artists appeared in different permutations on each other’s records, with names cropping up from Denis’ past, is quite fascinating. And these really are some of the greatest ever, most beautiful and adventurous records ever made. Neil Ardley was another of Preston’s co-conspirators. And the doomed jazz romantic Mike Taylor another of the British jazz greats whose name crops up in association with Preston’s. It was Preston who
Terry Taylor, at the time he was befriended by MacInnes, was wholeheartedly living the Soho life and dabbling in photography, which would have provided valuable source material for Absolute Beginners. MacInnes, on his side, introduced Taylor to the photographer Ida Kar with whom he gained valuable experience of life as her assistant and lover. Ironically, in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like These, Val Wilmer cites Ida Kar as a major inspiration for her as a young photographer, and that her friend, the Nigerian sculptor, Lucky Wadiri took her to meet Ida at her Soho studio several times but sadly never found her there. Taylor went on to write Baron’s Court, All Change, which Stuart Home makes a case for being the “Holy Grail for all collectors of
The Folk Catalogue site makes a strong defence of the music used on The Ballad of John Axon: “Take the people who appeared on this ‘folk’ documentary. They’re an example of the kind of connections that were common at the time, particularly on the musical left. Four were Soho jazz men from the Bruce Turner Jump Band – Terry Brown, Bobby Mickleburgh, Jim Bray and Bruce Turner. Bray (double bass) and Turner (clarinet) played in Alan Lomax’s Ramblers skiffle group with Ewan MaColl, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins. Bray played too with Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen between 1953-54. Alf Edwards, John Cole and Brian Daly were threefifths of the Topic label’s ‘house band’ of the mid to late fifties. Daly and Cole were in Lomax’s Ramblers too.” The site also points out that The Ballad of John Axon “wasn’t the first time Alf Edwards, Fitzroy Coleman and A.L. Lloyd had worked together on a documentary. Edwards and Coleman provided the music – and Lloyd the songs – for a documentary short made for the National Coal Board in 1952 by budding young director Lindsay Anderson.” The film in question was Trunk Conveyor.
got Taylor to record his two sets, Pendulum and Trio, before his tragic death. Ginger Baker was another supporter of Taylor’s, adapting a few of his tunes for Cream to record. Preston recorded British jazz singers Cleo Laine and Elaine Delmar early on. He got Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to record a couple of LPs during his brief but eventful stay in the UK. And visiting Blues artists such as Roosevelt Sykes and Champion Jack Dupree were recorded by Preston. He also played a big part in Roger Whittaker’s success. The Windrush influx changed a lot, but a number of the West Indian musicians and performers used by Preston on his calypso/jazz sessions, like Frank Holder, George Browne (Young Tiger), Coleridge Goode, Cyril Blake, and Freddy Grant, had been in Britain since WW2. The guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, for example, played on the early Preston calypso sessions. Fitzroy came to the UK in 1945 when he was chosen to be part of Al Jennings’ All-Star Caribbean Orchestra. While the Orchestra seems to have struggled to survive, Coleman stayed on and claims never to have been short of work. He became involved with the odd aggregation of people that were part of Ewan MacColl’s ballads-and-blues scene, appearing regularly at ‘hootenannies’, and playing with MacColl on radio broadcasts where his musical versatility was a great asset.
The encouraging reception that The Ballad Of John Axon received opened doors for Ewan MacColl that had hitherto been closed because of his difficult reputation and political affiliations. The following year he took part in another BBC radio production, My People and Your People. Described as a West Indian Ballad Opera, it was written by veteran BBC man D.G. Bridson and the Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey. Bridson crops up early in the stories of Ewan MacColl, Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, when he was part of Archie Harding’s court in Manchester in the mid-1930s. Ben Harker describes Bridson then as “a moustached aesthete with a social conscience who wrote Audenesque verse.”
Fitzroy Coleman would be part of the team that put together the first and boldest of the radio ballads for the BBC, The Ballad of John Axon, which was broadcast on 2 July 1958. As part of this broadcast Fitzroy would sing a calypso about a West Indian railwayman. The song, written by MacColl, was designed to emphasise the railway tradition of tolerance and fraternity, but the style and content of the song was not to everybody’s liking. Indeed, there was criticism at the time of the way the music in this ballad was too American (in the use of the banjo, predominantly) or exotic and so sat uneasily with the content which was rooted in the North West railway world. Given future developments it is ironic MacColl should be accused of not being traditional enough.
My People and Your People was based in Notting Hill, around the time of the riots, and among its cast was Nadia Cattouse who becomes romantically involved with a Scottish skiffle singer, played by Ewan MacColl. Stephen
Andy Roberts and Mike Evans, Nadia’s own achingly beautiful Sorrow, and the calypso Hurricane Hetty. The highlight, however, is the uncredited composition Bermondsey, which is one of the finest example of London songwriting, perfectly capturing a sense of place, time and real life, with great specific local detail.
Bourne’s Black In The British Frame features quotes from Nadia about the production, and she mentions that one of the songs featured was The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which Ewan sings to her. He originally wrote the song for Peggy Seeger, who was also involved with the drama. Russ Henderson’s Trinidad Steel Band was also featured, along with a West Indian Choir, which had been arranged by Pearl and Edric Connor. Nadia adds that after the drama was broadcast she was asked to join a folk group, which she agreed to do, but once she was part of that milieu she found herself “entirely removed from the world of radio and television acting.”
The songwriter Nadia is perhaps most closely associated with is Sydney Carter, with whom she appeared on Hallelujah, a 1965 Sunday evening religious/satirical TV series which also featured Isla Cameron, the Johnny Scott Trio, and Martin Carthy. Sydney’s name may not be instantly recognisable, but his song Lord of The Dance most certainly is. After its debut on an Elektra EP produced by Joe Boyd in the mid1960s, featuring Sydney with Martin Carthy and the Mike Sammes Singers, it took on a life of its own and is now one of the best known songs in the world, deeply rooted in the people’s psyche in a way so many pop performers must envy.
It is, ironically, as a singer that Nadia is now known. Her inclusion on the early Numero Group release, Belize City Boil Up, in the Cult Cargo series, with the folk/calypso number Long Time Boy, brought her name back into circulation. Her story, as Bourne tells it, has her first coming to the UK in 1943 to help as a wireless operator and PT instructor in Edinburgh. After the war ended she trained as a teacher in Glasgow, before returning to Honduras briefly in 1949. In 1951 she came to London to study at the London School of Economics, before drifting into acting. She appeared, for example, regularly in BBC broadcasts to the Caribbean which featured dramas by Sam Selvon, Jan Carew, and Sylvia Wynter. Her early TV appearances included the pioneering drama A Man From The Sun, written by John Elliott, in 1956. This was a genuine attempt to portray the harsh realities faced by Caribbean families arriving in London, and how these contrasted with the Commonwealth idyll of the ‘mythical Britain’. The play/documentary was broadcast live in late 1956, and featured with Nadia among its cast was Cy Grant and George Browne (Young Tiger).
It is with his religious songs that Carter is most closely associated, but these are far from ever orthodox. His takes on Christianity have ruffled many a feather, and Enoch Powell and others considered his song Friday Morning blasphemous. It is one of the songs included on The Present Tense, a 1968 folk rock LP on the Christian label Reflection which contains some fantastic interpretations of Carter’s compositions. These included a couple of great songs that reflected Carter’s staunch pacifism, like I Want To Have A Little Bomb Like You, about the escalation of the arms race, and Crow On The Cradle which would be later come to be closely associated with Jackson Browne. The Reflection LP also features The Vicar is a Beatnik, a skiffle-style send-up of the Sunday tabloids’ old stand-by story, which has its roots in the outrage caused by the Rev Geoffrey Beaumont, who had his own Hallelujah Skiffle Group, with Clifton Ford and some of the Mike Sammes Singers. In 1957 as Vicar of St George’s, Camberwell, he hit the headlines when he held a folk mass, featuring jazz, skiffle, and calypso, earning himself the label “jazzuit”.
As a singer Nadia is best heard on the 1970 LP Earth Mother, which is a mixture of studio recordings and live performances from the 1969 Edinburgh festival. The studio numbers feature the unmistakeable tones of Danny Thompson on bass. And the songs include All Around My Grandmother’s Floor, which was written by
in the early ‘70s. That LP And Now It Is So Early also featured Sydney himself singing on a handful of tracks. Bob and Carole had a little earlier recorded Sydney’s Lord Of The Dance on their He Came From The Mountains LP. That record features a fantastic and haunting cover of Phil Ochs’ The Scorpion Departs. The Peggs are perhaps best known for their works as Mr Fox which are right up there with the best of the British folk rock recordings, and Carole’s voice was the best of that whole electric folk era. Up At The House Of Cecil Sharp though is a witty satire about someone who was very much part of the ‘in crowd’ up at the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), but times change, people fall out of favour, and though they keep up their subscriptions they may nevertheless be reduced to dancing in Soho “with nothing but a python on”.
While some of his songs could be dark and challenging, Carter could write some genuinely funny numbers. Eros, for example, has a real twinkle in its eye, providing a timely reminder for those who want to make a big thing about race that there is no such thing as a ‘pedigree’ cockney when since the days of Julius Caesar the river has brought goodness knows how many different races to London. Carter’s message is simple: “We’re mongrels and proud of it”. Another humorous London song of Carter’s is Down Below, set in London’s sewers: “Hatton Garden is a spot ... that we like to go a lot ... since a bloke in Leather Lane dropped a diamond down a drain ... we’ve been waiting .... but in vain ... down below.” And then there’s Up At The House Of Cecil Sharp sung by Carole Pegg on the LP of Sydney Carter songs she recorded with her husband Bob
Great change suddenly came over London at that time. The American civilisation had caught up with us. Everything was speeded up and slicked up, and there was a great deal of violence in the streets. A wave of bitterness and cynicism broke out. The whole surface seemed to be cracking. Prostitutes were thronging the pavements of Old Compton Street and policemen were walking around with hands open behind their backs for their dropsy and the pornbrokers were raking it in. Cafes that we knew started closing, the leisurely ones where artists and anarchists argued all day. Coffee bars were opening in their place. The object was to get you in, make you feel uncomfortable under the harsh lighting, and then get you out as quickly as possible. Skiffle swept through the streets. Groups of kids started twanging guitars under the arches near Charing Cross. Tommy Steele arrived. Bernard Kops, “The World Is A Wedding”
Distraction He Wanted… One man’s nightmare is another man’s epiphany. The advent of jukeboxes and Gaggia coffee machines, pinball and coca cola, has its own place in Soho mythology. Teenagers and rock ‘n’ roll suddenly became big news. By general consensus Expresso Bongo is the film that best captures the ways in which British rock ‘n’ roll met show business, and Wolf Mankowitz’s script is a sharp satire on the pop process. Wolf, at least, knew about Soho. 38
Ken Worpole, in Dockers and Detectives, concedes: “Possibly the best-known East London Jewish writer after the war was Wolf Mankowitz. Alone of all these writers he went to university, Cambridge in fact, and there met Raymond Williams, with whom he set up the journal Politics and Letters in 1947, with an office in, of all places, Soho. The journal only lasted a year, but Mankowitz stayed on and started writing short stories and plays about East London Jewish life, which, for some reason, captured the popular reading public in unexpected ways.”
Riddle, how: “My father has, all his life, had an irresistible compulsion to accumulate books. Unlike most book collectors, he then proceeds to read them with total concentration from beginning to end, as if searching for the secret of the world, which he knows must have been written down at some time, by someone.” Iain Sinclair and many other seekers may have a very real fascination for the writers who disappeared, those who perhaps only wrote one or two works before ostensibly vanishing from the literary world. Sinclair, for example, spent years searching for traces of the lost Jewish East End writer Roland Camberton, although others were more dismissive about the author of Scamp. Emanuel Litvinoff advised that people should cease chasing ghosts and look instead at Wolf Mankowitz: “Now he knew how to make money”. Mankowitz certainly seems to have been a driven character, and his output and activity between, say, 1952 and 1962 is remarkable. He was among other things a TV host, playwright, poet, film writer, gallery owner and pottery expert. A piece of film preserved by British Pathe describes a day in the life of Wolf Mankowitz and depicts him approaching his writing like a full-time office job.
In an interview with New Left Review in 1977 Raymond Williams said about his time working on the Politics and Letters journal, from the Noel Street base in Soho, that Mankowitz did the hardest work of the editorial team. He added: “Mankowitz broke right away from the minority culture positions. He was already in effect a professional writer; I used to think he could write virtually anything. Beginning with that talent, he took his own material into the most popular forms.” In London, City Of Disappearances, Iain Sinclair has a scene (Every Day Above Ground Is A Good Day – Carpenters Arms, Cheshire St, 1992) where Tony Lambrianou, an East End Face is chatting with Derek Raymond, a Chelsea Character, and they reminisce about the Carol Reed film made from Mankowitz’s early novella, A Kid For Two Farthings, how it featured Diana Dors, and was filmed on location in Brick Lane. After many years the film’s sentimental charm still works its romantic magic on these hardbitten souls. Other early plays and stories by Mankowitz, like The Bespoke Overcoat (based on a Gogol story) and Make Me An Offer, similarly draw on his Jewish East End roots, and in performances the same names of Unity stalwarts David Kossoff and Alfie Bass recur.
His prolific output had some intriguing byproducts, and for example his 1958 TV drama The Killing Stones, about illicit diamond smuggling and dealings in South Africa, featured theme music he had chosen while researching the story in Johannesburg. The song, Tom Hark, by a group of African musicians called Elias and the Zig Zag Jive Flutes caught the public’s imagination, and when it was released by Columbia it became a massive hit, staying in the UK charts for 14 weeks, and reaching No.2. As Ray Templeton states in an 1999 article for Musical Traditions magazine: “It was unexpected because this type of music was previously more or less unknown in the UK, although kwela or tin whistle jive was increasingly popular in South Africa at this time.” Templeton goes on to explain how: “The UK record industry of the time scented the possibility of another trend. No
Mankowitz’s father had a stall in the East End from which he sold books, which in turn provided an invaluable supplementary source of education for the young Wolf who later wrote in an essay to accompany his play, The Samson
you consider how wrong Godard got pop in Masculin Feminin, say, Mankowitz’s script is shrewdly spot-on.
doubt at this early date, many in the business still felt that rock ‘n’ roll was no more than a passing phase, and were on the look out for what was going to replace it in the hearts of the record-buying public. Spurred on by Tom Hark’s success, most other companies had a go with some kwela.”
The limelight is stolen by Laurence Harvey’s virtuoso performance as impresario Johnny Jackson, reflecting the new phenomenon of pop svengalis like Larry Parnes and John Kennedy who were vital to the success of Tommy Steele and subsequently a whole stable of stars. Harvey captures in a perfectly caricatured way the desperate starmaker, the person who gives shape to dreams and fantasies, who does most of the hard work, who has all the ideas and none of the morals. He is wonderfully appalling and oddly endearing as svengalis go. It was, according to Tony Gould’s Inside Outsider, Colin MacInnes who would defend the role of the early pop impresario in the New Statesman at that time: “Myself, I see nothing reprehensible in this fact, nor in this kind of person. Artistic promotion is so chancy – as it ought to be – that none but a gambler by temperament can really help an artist, and there cannot be an artist, pop or otherwise, who has not been helped on his way, at many critical moments, by intermediaries of this kind.” The article as a whole is something of a swipe at what he considered the joyless left’s Marxist strictures, and jazz critic Francis Newton in particular. Newton, in fact, was the pseudonym of Eric Hobsbawm, who had been turned-on to jazz by his cousin Denis Preston.
Templeton in his article, and Chris Stapleton in his essay African Connections (which was also included in the 1990 Open University book, Black Music In Britain), describe the African sounds Melodisc, in particular, released in the ‘50s and ‘60s, mentioning Ayinde Bakare and his Meranda Orchestra, Tunde Nightingale, and home-grown recordings by Ambrose Campbell’s West African Rhythm Brothers, Ginger Johnson (who, ironically, is most famous for his brief appearance, with his African Drummers, on stage with the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park in 1969), the Nigerian Union Rhythm Band (which was an offshoot of Campbell’s West African Brothers, led by guitarist Brewster Hughes), and the guitarist Rans Boi’s Ghana Highlife Band. Stapleton gives a special mention to Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists who featured African drummers such as Ginger Johnson, Guy Warren and Billy Olu Shalanke. Wolf Mankowitz had an ability to connect which perhaps ironically undermined the reputation of his work. Academics may be better thought of by some. Dave Haslam in his magazine Debris wrote in 1987 a tribute to Mankowitz’s old colleague Raymond Williams which began: “As Sartre was to France, so Williams was to Britain; the greatest left-wing thinker of his generation. But unlike Sartre’s, Williams’ death went almost unnoticed. It’s a measure of our society’s crackpot priorities and values that this should be the case.” It is ironic, in a way, that while his old Cambridge colleague Raymond Williams was putting the final touches to his academic critique of society and culture, The Long Revolution, Wolf Mankowitz was writing about the pop experience in Expresso Bongo. The film may not exactly be on a par with the French New Wave of the time, but when
It was a piece of perfect casting to have Laurence Harvey as the hungry starmaker in Expresso Bongo. He’d come up the hard way, as a rootless Lithuanian Jew, but he was hot property at the time, having appeared in the remarkable Room At The Top. He would shortly be off to America, to star in Butterfield 8 and Walk On The Wild Side. He would also star in The Manchurian Candidate, and become part of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Frank Sinatra’s jet set. He got to make a record with Herbie Mann where, in a cool jazz setting, he recited the romantic poetry of Walter Benton. Arthur Prysock would later do the same thing just as wonderfully. But Laurence Harvey for all
Expresso Bongo was Monty Norman, another graduate of the Jewish East End, and occasional collaborator with Wolf Mankowitz, such as on the ill-fated musical Belle about the life of Dr Crippen which nevertheless appealed to Cubby Broccoli who helped fund the short-lived show. Cubby later invited Monty to get involved with a new project he was working on his new partner Harry Saltzman (who was hot property after the success of Look Back In Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Entertainer, and who had been introduced to Broccoli by Wolf Mankowitz). This was to be the first of the Bond films, Dr No, and Norman was whisked off to Jamaica to start work on the score.
his charm was never as horrifyingly compelling as when he played the amoral aristocrat Miles Ravenscourt in the mid-‘50s British film noir The Good Die Young alongside Stanley Baker, Joan Collins, and Gloria Grahame, the ‘suicide blonde’ whose unexpected British connections would later become such a strange, compelling part of Peter Turner’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool with her immortal line: “Both Sartre and Camus said when they died that in this world the only thing that is important is love”. The Soho settings of Expresso Bongo show something of the more seamy side of life Up West which thrived regardless, alongside the skiffle scene, although its depictions of striptease and exotic dancing are curiously innocent. Sylvia Sims, in her role as the stripper Maisie, gets pretty much Mankowitz’s best line when she describes the punters’ bald heads as akin to dancing in front of a load of egg boxes. Avis Bunnage, as the star’s embittered mother, also threatens to steal the show, with a characteristic performance. Theatre Workshop stalwart Avis, again, was part of several of the era’s most significant shows and films, usually as the matriarch. She was in the original stage play of A Taste Of Honey, and the films Expresso Bongo, Sparrows Can’t Sing, What A Crazy World. She also appeared in the holy trinity of kitchen sink films Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and The L-Shaped Room.
The excellent Dr No soundtrack still surprises the casual Bond fan, with its accent on calypso, jazz and early ska. The scene where Ursula Andress emerges from the sea singing the calypso Underneath The Mango Tree is immortal. The song itself was sung by Norman’s wife, Diana Coupland, who is better known as Sid James’ wife in the TV sitcom Bless This House. Coincidentally Norman claims that the original Bond theme evolved from an abandoned project he had worked on to adapt V.S. Naipul’s A House For Mr Biswas, which was based in Trinidad, as a musical. Naturally, it is the John Barry arrangement of the Bond theme from Dr No onwards that became immortal. And over time the tradition of writing a Bond theme with John Barry would be a badge of honour which some of the best writers wore, starting with Lionel Bart for From Russia With Love and Anthony Newley with Leslie Bricusse for Goldfinger.
Expresso Bongo’s pop celebrity Cliff Richard never appeared in anything as gritty as Expresso Bongo again. Before long he had topped the charts with the Lionel Bart ballad Living Doll, about which Nik Cohn wrote: “His first ballad hit, Living Doll, was by far the most influential British single of the whole decade. It was cute and sweet and bouncy. It was tuneful and ingenuous. It was the British equivalent to highschool – and it was desperate. In months it took over completely. No rage, no farce, no ugliness left”.
John Barry had become hot property for his arrangements on Adam Faith’s early hit records, with the trademark pizzicato strings and twanging guitars, which Nik Cohn concedes “stand up as the best, most inventive British pop records of that time, the only truly POP music we were producing then.” Adam started out as a kid playing skiffle with The Worried Men in The Two I’s, where they became the resident group for a while. In this they were following in the footsteps of The Vipers, the first group
The music in Expresso Bongo was good though. A Voice In The Wilderness was particularly appealing. Among the musical credits on
most of the places that made fifties Soho special were ignored. We heard about The Colony and The French but no mention of The Mandrake in days of the redoubtable chess playing Boris. Or of Henekey’s where Kenny Graham, Frank Norman, and Norman the Foreman held court. The French Café in Old Compton Street and their constant denizens Ironfoot Jack, Frankie and Booie, and Harry Diamond, was similarly absent.” He concluded: “It is this Soho that affected the lives of so many artists, musicians, and writers who did not centre their lives round Jeffrey Barnard and his cronies.”
to play at The Two I’s and the first to secure a residency there. The Vipers were almost Soho natives, scene insiders and musical fanatics with wildly eclectic tastes, and they approached their skiffle with a punk irreverence and an ‘anything goes’ approach. Their records, however, which were produced by George Martin, still sound great. Jazz legend Phil Seaman played drums on their Coffee Bar Session LP in 1957. John Pilgrim was the washboard player with The Vipers for a time, and more recently he has become an incidental chronicler of a lost 1950s Soho. His obituaries and tributes, scattered around a mixture of publications, tell forgotten stories of anarchists, agitators, musicians, chancers and visionaries such as John Rety, Harry Diamond, Diz Disley, Johnny Booker, Cyril Davies, Wally Whyton, Davy Graham, Johnny Duncan, Philip Sansom, and Colin Ward. He, ironically, recalls to life a London nobody would know the details of unless they were actually there. The soundtrack is one of skiffle, blues, jazz, folk and anything else all mixed in together, which is all a little bit messy for tidy chroniclers who like their history neatly compartmentalised. Pilgrim, for example, tells as part of a Cyril Davies tribute how one night in the A&A, “an all-night cafe frequented by taxi drivers, petty felons, and a number of notorious liggers from the music scene”, a jam session took place featuring Big Bill Broonzy and guitarist Diz Disley, who were joined by trumpeter Dizzy Reece. Pilgrim mentions how “initially our musically conservative souls were appalled. Reece, later picked up by Miles Davis, was on the cutting edge of jazz development and averred, at the time, fragmented flurries of notes that to our ears were only distantly related to the chords being played. In fact there was no problem.” They were in turn joined by Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who had heard about the session that was taking place.
John Pilgrim later had his own unique place in Davy Graham’s story, with his live 1967 Hull University post-gig intimate recording, After Hours, perhaps capturing the guitarist at his relaxed best. In an obituary of Davy, Pilgrim recalled the days when he first knew the great guitarist: “As a teenager he made a stunning impact on bohemian London. Turning up at 50 Pearman Street, a crash pad near Waterloo for out-of-work musicians and artists, he greeted everybody with the formal politeness that was his trademark and began to play an original piece based on a Broonzy line. All of us in that decrepit room felt the world change. In that twilight of the skiffle boom, Graham made Pearman Street’s population immediately redundant. Here was a player who married Bill Broonzy and Charlie Mingus, whose questing mind took the whole of music as a resource for the guitar, and made something new and startling, yet extraordinarily accessible. Failing to make a living or at that point secure any interest from record companies, Graham took off for the continent (in the company of my wife). He busked the cinema queues and the Metro in Paris, played up and down the French Riviera and for Elizabeth Taylor’s parties, and visited Greece, Italy and Tangier.” Another great account of that time comes via an essay, On That Train And Gone, by poet, skiffle and Soho legend Hylda Sims: “There I go again. I’ve moved into Waterloo with my lover, Jazz Painter and quattro & kazoo player
Pilgrim, on his own site, has railed against the perpetuation of certain Soho stories: “I recently heard another of those predictable BBC features on the Soho of the fifties. All the usual clichés were present. Yet most of the characters and
were featured on his Grand Union LP. The latter, a deeply moving song, captures the tale of how, on the night of 3 March 1943, 173 people were crushed to death in Bethnal Green tube station while it was being used as a shelter during the Blitz. It’s an incident that is also vividly portrayed in Bernard Kops’ memoirs The World Is A Wedding.
Russell Quay. The house has been condemned for demolition and has no bathroom. We live there with Russell’s lodger, John Pilgrim and his highly destructive capuchin monkey, Saki. Saki chatters in his cage in the kitchen (let him out for more than five seconds and he is capable of decorating the entire flat with the contents of the kitchen cupboard - eggs, butter, milk we have no fridge of course - and mulching them with monkey pee) while we three invent the City Ramblers Skiffle Group - Pilgrim will play washboard and we enlist a tub-bass player, one BoBo Bouquet. We begin to play under the Arches and outside Waterloo Station where Rosie, a friendly prostitute, moves along for us and declares, as does the all-night mobile coffee and saveloy stall, that we’re good for business.”
The other song, She Was Poor But Honest, made famous by Billy Bennett, and written by the great team of R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, tackles the theme of stolen innocence and the hypocrisy of the privileged classes. It was a George Eliot novel in a few choruses, with its memorable refrain: “It’s the same the whole world over. It’s the poor what gets the blame. It’s the rich that gets the credit. Now ain’t it all a bleedin’ shame.” In the version Whyton sings the fallen parson’s daughter who runs away to London is further exploited by a Tory leader: “See him in the House of Commons , and he’s making laws to put down vice, while the victim, victim of his pleasures, walks the streets each night in shame”.
Wally Whyton, before he became a TV and radio regular, was lead singer with The Vipers. Momentarily breaking away from the yoke of George Martin he and guitarist Johnny Brooker recorded an LP as The Original Soho Skiffle Group for American release only, British Blues Badmen Balladry, with sleevenotes by the great jazz critic Nat Hentoff. It features an odd assortment of covers, from popular folk numbers to Irish rebel songs to a couple of Music Hall oldies that fitted perfectly but which would have been patently too bold for the UK pop market. Ironically a decade later Colin MacInnes in Sweet Saturday Night highlights the same two atypical numbers as he wonders why Music Hall songs steered clear of tragedy and the really disturbing things in life.
While there is something wonderfully natural about The Vipers’ story, and those that came along in their wake to find success in the Expresso Bongo tradition, the same certainly could not be said about the 1960 film Beat Girl, which was on one level a shameless piece of teen exploitation, a blatant cash-in on the likes of Rebel Without A Cause, And God Created Woman, and indeed Expresso Bongo with its mix of Soho coffee bars and strip clubs. Where, however, it transcends its genre is with the priceless performances Beat Girl features. Adam Faith is magnificent and moody, as is spoilt brat/sex kitten Gillian Hills, and there are great cameos from a sultry Shirley Ann-Field, an oafish Oliver Reed, and a lupine Christopher Lee. Despite its patently plastic Soho settings, the film does have a great end-of-the-decade ‘what next’ in-flux feel, as its characters flit between rock ‘n’ roll primitivism and jazz modernism. The sequence set in Chislehurst Caves, where there is a beatnik rave, is great fun, and the venue itself
One of these, Sam Hall, dating back to 1860 and the early days of Music Hall, was sung by W.G. Ross in the persona of a condemned criminal. It is closer to the style of the old murder ballads and broadsides than later satirical Music Hall numbers. Curiously, the song survived and criss-crossed the Atlantic, and more recently was performed by Frank Tovey in his post-Fad Gadget folk persona, in which he sang some of the finest London songs ever, including IKB (RIP), a tribute to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster, which
One of the reasons Beat Girl succeeds is the music it features, which was very much down to John Barry. He created so many great scores and themes, such as The Knack and The Ipcress File, that it almost seems like stating the obvious to say Barry was a great composer. Listening to John Barry’s work on the soundtrack of Beat Girl, with the dramatic twanging guitar and jazzy interludes, it is easy to understand why he makes a strong case for being responsible for the Bond theme. Ironically, the best performance of a song in any Bond movie would be Dusty Springfield singing Burt Bacharach’s The Look Of Love for the extravagant spoof, Casino Royale, starring Peter Sellers and so many others. Among the writers was Wolf Mankowitz (who had worked with Peter Sellers previously on The Millionairess). Ironically Mankowitz had been among the writers on the first Bond film, Dr No, but his name was left off the credits because he feared it would not be a success. Even more ironically Mankowitz was himself suspected by the British Intelligence Services of being a possible Russian spy, and certainly as someone with left leanings and a wife who was once a Communist he was ‘kept an eye on’ for several years, as the preposterous file in the National Archives demonstrates only too well.
would feature in pop lore as an occasional venue such as when Jimi Hendrix played there in 1966, around the time the immortal photos were taken of him by (Wolf’s son) Gered Mankowitz. The appealing strangeness of Beat Girl can be attributed to its script, which was written by Dail Ambler (aka Betty Williams), a King’s Road resident and prolific pulp writer. She was the creator of hard-boiled detective Danny Spade and titles like Shadow of a Gun, Hold That Tiger, The Lady Says When, Johnny Gets His, Wildcat, Duet for Two Gunmen. She also played a role in the infamous Liberace libel suit against the Daily Mirror and its Cassandra columnist after a spectacularly spiteful piece of malevolence the paper printed about the showman’s popularity. The teenage Soho beatnik scene perhaps wasn’t her natural milieu, which is why some of the dialogue seems wonderfully awkward, with all its references to squares and exhortations to ‘dig’. On the other hand her pulp writing skills will have helped in the creation of classic lines like: “straight from the fridge”, “rat race rock”, “if you wanna fight go and join the army, that’s the place for squares”, and “who wants their arms around an iceberg anyway?” There are also some great sub-texts to the story too. Throwaway allusions to Dave Brubeck and West Coast v East Coast jazz, for example. And the topical reference to the world-record drum marathon attempts, like those of Raye Du-Val in the Top Ten Club which at the time got him in the Guinness Book of Records. Then there’s the suggestion of class antagonism, with Adam Faith the working-class would-be pop star at-odds with his ‘upper crust’ peers, as he talks about being born in the Blitz, his family hiding like rats with many others in the Underground, and growingup playing on bombed-out sites. This is very much in contrast to Gillian Hills’ contemporary Kensington home, where her successful architect father (with his new trophy wife) is dreaming of building the futuristic City 2000 where people can be comfortably alone. There are echoes too of Absolute Beginners in the ‘cool’ rejection of alcohol and the portrayal of teds as Neanderthals.
Among the directors on Casino Royale was Ken Hughes. A few years before, he had written and directed one of the great Soho films, The Small World of Sammy Lee, which starred Anthony Newley. It opens with a car driving down deserted and very real Soho streets, at the start of another working day, with the gutters being cleaned and the rubbish being cleared away symbolically. The camera allows passing glimpses of a wonderful mixture of foreign restaurants, the well-known coffee bars (Heaven And Hell, and its neighbour The Two I’s), and all the nude revues and strip clubs. It is these strip clubs that form the focal point of the very adult Soho in Sammy Lee’s sad world. “During the short period of relative calm, after the rock ‘n’ rollers had been tamed and before the onslaught of the Beatles, London’s biggest
as the unseen camera wends its way through the deserted Soho streets. It’s a setting Graham would have been perfectly qualified to capture in music. But then experience has not always limited him. He composed and recorded his Caribbean Suite with the Afro-Cubists – which would be revisited beautifully by Harold Vick in 1966 with an ensemble featuring Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes.
sensation was nudity and striptease. As the press, comedians and puritans were forever pointing out, naked women were everywhere,” wrote Murray Goldstein in Naked Jungle, his memoirs of ‘60s Soho and his own rollercoaster ride in the ‘naked city’. For those looking for unexpected connections he credits his great friend Monty Raphaelson with widening his political horizons as a youngster and introducing him to the Unity theatre in Kings Cross “which offered a platform to many left-wing writers, who subsequently became household names.” He also refers to being directed several times by Pauline Henriques, who was the first black actress to appear on British TV and who appeared in a number of important productions, including the D.G. Bridson play My People and Your People.
In 1954 Gramophone magazine said: “Graham is a Londoner. He was born in West Ealing, on July 19th, 1924. As far as I know he has never been out of England. He has certainly never been to the Caribbeans. But an interest in West Indian rhythms and modes has developed in him a flair for them that could make anyone believe he hailed from Trinidad. The items which constitute his Suite, all based on incidents in life in the West Indies, have the true melodic and rhythmic character of the music of the Isles, plus a charm of melody that is all Graham’s own. There is, however, also the influence of New Orleans jazz, and how this came to be wedded to the West Indian idiom to produce the music that is now known as Afro-Cuban, and is the inspiration of Graham’s Suite, is explained by Denis Preston in one of the most sensibly instructive and free from blah sleeve notes anyone could want. As compere of the performance, Mr. Preston also announces each item on the record. Whether this is going to pall with constant rehearing, and so would not have been better in the form of further sleeve notes, is something I have yet to find out. But on first hearing it comes up as brief but informative narrative that lets one know what each item is about and sets the right mood to help one enjoy it.”
When after initial successes in the strip club world Murray expanded his business interests by opening a discotheque in Gerrard Street, the Big Toe, in February 1961, the publicity proudly proclaimed that Ginger Johnson’s Latin American Band would be appearing at weekends. Ginger was a drummer from Nigeria, who had come to London during WW2 and had played extensively on the live circuit, in particular with (the popular Trinidad percussionist) Edmundo Ros, Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists, and later at the Contemporary Club in Piccadilly playing a mixture of mambo, high life and other West African dance music. His Melodisc releases include titles such as Africa Jazz Cha Cha, Egypt Bint Al Cha Cha, and Wee Tom Cha Cha. The group’s name would later be simplified from Ginger Johnson & his Afro-Cuban Latin-American High-Life Cha Cha Cha Band to the African Messengers who would release the classic 1967 LP African Party, which was engineered by John Woods of Fairport Convention fame.
Graham also composed an Australian Suite, which would be recorded by the Ted Heath Orchestra. Graham’s Afro-Cubists’ own recording of Kings Cross Climax from the suite has been issued as a digital single on Trunk Recordings. The Afro-Cubists’ Bongo Chant from the Carribean Suite re-emerged occasionally, for example as one side of a single in 1960 for the Starlite label, a subsidiary of the legendary jazz imprint Esquire
The music for The Small World of Sammy Lee was composed by Ginger Johnson’s old bandleader Kenny Graham, and it’s one of the most perfect jazz scores ever. The music fits perfectly with the opening credits, for example,
in Lena, later said No Trams To Lime Street was “an absolute watershed in drama, I don’t think they realised what they’d started. Because of that, things like Softly Softly, Z Cars, and Coronation Street followed... because it became okay to have ordinary people going through ordinary emotions – but all the others were imitations.”
which originally issued Graham’s Caribbean Suite and many other important early British modern jazz titles. Starlite ironically usually specialised in leasing Jamaican recordings, including early ska sides, from the likes of Chris Blackwell. Bongo Chant seems to have been a radio favourite in Jamaica, and eventually was re-imagined as Bangarang in a ska version by Lester Sterling with Stranger Cole.
Other TV productions of Alun Owen works in that early 1960s golden age of small screen drama included You Can’t Win ‘Em All and the series Corrigan Blake. Owen briefly renewed his partnership with Joseph Losey when he appeared in The Servant, in 1963, which also featured a young Davy Graham performing in a Soho jazz club. The soundtrack for The Servant was also brilliantly composed by John Dankworth, and features All Gone, another exquisite Cleo Laine song.
Kenny Graham’s score for The Small World of Sammy Lee is a strong contender for being the best British jazz soundtrack, along with perhaps the John Dankworth one for The Criminal, the 1960 Joseph Losey film, which has the added bonus of Cleo Laine singing the haunting Thieving Boy. The screenplay for The Criminal, which starred Stanley Baker and was billed as “the toughest film ever made”, was written by Alun Owen at what must have been a hectic time for him. In 1959 Harry Corbett had returned temporarily to the Theatre Workshop fold to direct a play at Stratford East. He chose Progress To The Park by the Liverpool writer Alun Owen, one of the new wave of dramatists, with a cast including Tom Bell and Billie Whitelaw. Owen was adamant that he would not allow Joan Littlewood to mess with any of his writing, but her mind was elsewhere anyway.
With his impeccable Liverpool credentials Owen was a natural choice to be asked to write the screenplay for The Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night. He had for some time before this been busy writing the libretto for Lionel Bart’s musical, Maggie May, which was distantly related to the prostitute theme of the traditional Liverpool folk song. Indeed a lot of the music in the play was based on traditional Irish and Liverpool folk songs. The Vipers, coincidentally, had recorded a great version of Maggie May, the song itself, in 1957 with George Martin. The musical has at its core the Liverpool Irish and the politics of the docks, just as Ken Loach’s TV play The Big Flame would at the end of the ‘60s. In Maggie May there is a clash between the cold cynicism of big business (“Grow up and get into long kecks, Billy, you’ll be sitting down on your bottom in Trafalgar Square with all them actresses next!”) and ‘bleeding heart’ idealism (“Did yez ever see a lone man change d’world we live in? It’s our choice to walk away from d’dirt or give in”).
Another play by Alun Owen, No Trams To Lime Street, appeared on TV in late 1959 as part of the Armchair Theatre series, also starring Tom Bell and Billie Whitelaw, and a 1970 version of No Trams To Lime Street featured songs by Marty Wilde. Many of the early Armchair Theatre TV plays attracted high viewing figures, and indeed these works were seen by an audience that would not even consider going to the theatre to see a well-known production, let alone a challenging work by a new writer. Owen was at the forefront of a TV drama revolution, where young writers were encouraged to write contemporary plays about the everyday lives of ordinary people. Among the other examples of social realism Owen wrote for a TV audience in 1959/60 were After The Funeral, The Ruffians, and Lena, O My Lena. Billie Whitelaw, who also starred
By the time Maggie May was staged Liverpool was at the heart of a new pop explosion, and the musical reflected this by featuring a beat group. There were references to the way things were
away. Think of James Caan in Karel Reisz’s film, The Gambler (1975)”. Mention of Reisz gives Sinclair an opportunity to reprise his own riff on how in the ‘60s the North suddenly became exotic and sexy, and as a consequence “London fiction moved away from the Jewish working class (Baron, Emanuel Litvinoff, Bernard Kops) to those who could talk up the changes, soft-sell the Swinging City. Photographers, pill poppers, property sharks.” Nik Cohn in Today There Are No Gentlemen talked about another drift, away from Soho to Chelsea: “To a large extent, the Artist was being replaced by the Hustler, as the central fantasy, and the Soho romance was beginning to lose its attractions. Starving in garrets, pouring out one’s soul through a pen or paint brush and drinking oneself to an early death- such picturesque squalor seemed somehow less heroic and, in their place, there sprang up a vogue of toughness.”
going with a group of old dockers singing: “We used to struggle to earn. Now you’ve got money to burn. The loudest sound we heard around d’Mersey was grumbling tummies not learners with their guitars.” To which the youngsters respond: “We didn’t ask to be born, but since we’re here we have sworn to have a ball and stuff ‘em all.” Judy Garland recorded an EP of songs from Maggie May, and the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra released an LP of symphonic versions of songs from the show with a fantastic grainy black-and-white cover shot of Andrew, an old friend of Lionel Bart’s, lounging against an old wooden door. The jazzy soundtrack and grainy black-andwhite Truffaut Shoot The Pianist style look gives Sammy Lee a definite French new wave feel, but it is very much a London film. It’s the sad story of Sammy Lee, a compere in a strip club who stupidly runs up a gambling debt and finds himself threatened by some very heavy types. He has five hours to raise the money, and this storyline gives Ken Hughes as scriptwriter plenty of scope to conjure with the colourful Soho clichés. Occasionally he inverts these, such as when Sammy approaches a black jazz pianist, played impeccably by Harry Baird, about buying some ‘weed’ and the jazzman is genuinely offended at the way Sammy shamelessly perpetuates stereotypes.
It is easy to see the temptation to link The Lowlife with The Small World of Sammy Lee. They were released around the same time, and both fell into the category Sinclair calls ‘the reforgotten’. They were lost for years before being reclaimed. And there is that Jewish East London gambling connection. But Sammy scrapes by, working away at a sordid job he hates as he gets sucked further down in to the Soho swamp, while Baron’s Harryboy at least has an air of being in charge of his own destiny. Harryboy chooses to be a layabout. He is happy idling away his time in his poky bedsit out east. So, okay, he might lose his money at the dogs, but he’s quite content sitting around all day reading his collection of Zola novels or working his way through Theodore Dreiser tomes. It’s only when he gets involved with other people that trouble starts.
Iain Sinclair refers to the film in his 2001 introduction to Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife: “It’s a well-tested device: the outsider, the believer in arcane systems, divorces himself from righteous society, begs, cheats, lies, steals, subverts every taboo. Revengers set out on his trail. He runs. He tries to borrow. He confronts the mobsters, the professionals of hurt who are out to damage or destroy him. It’s a standard riff, a way of giving tension a structure. Think of Anthony Newley, the sleazy, sweating, chainsmoking clipjoint MC in Ken Hughes’ film, The Small World of Sammy Lee (1962). He races from Soho to the family shop in Whitechapel; to his brother, Warren Mitchell. Soliciting straight money that can soon be bent, burnt, blown
Anthony Newley liked trouble and was certainly interested in doing different things. He was a huge star at the time The Small World of Sammy Lee was made. There was massive media and public interest in his romance with Joan Collins. So Sammy Lee was a strange sort of role to take on, but there is a strong suggestion Newley liked being
Shortly after Gurney Slade was on TV, Newley became a West End sensation with Stop The World I Want To Get Off, the musical he created with his writing partner Leslie Bricusse. In this Newley was Littlechap who, as Tony Barrow (the soon-to-be Beatles publicist) wrote in the sleevenotes for the original cast recording, “thought he was more perspicacious than the other clowns in the stupendous, non-stop circus of life; he was a natural, surely, for the role of ringmaster. He had decided upon his destiny long before he had outgrown his first professional teamaking job or seen the film Room At The Top. Littlechap’s intentions were clear and shining in his mind. He would make himself rich.” And Littlechap’s songs appealed enormously to the public, and made Newley and Bricusse rich as numbers like Gonna Build A Mountain, Once In A Lifetime and What Kind Of Fool Am I? caught on spectacularly. It’s said Tony Hancock would sit weeping while listening to What Kind Of Fool Am I?
contrary. This is his equivalent of Sinatra playing Frankie Machine in The Man With The Golden Arm. And Newley had first played Sammy in a Ken Hughes TV play in 1958, where the ‘action’ all took place in his Soho flat. So the film gave him a wonderful opportunity to expand the character, and his performance really is remarkable. He completely becomes Sammy Lee. He is completely believable as Sammy Lee the loser. The film has its great cameos too. Toni Palmer, for example, is perfect as Newley’s neighbour, the glamorous, independent tart with a heart. Toni was one of Joan Littlewood’s ‘girls’ from the Theatre Workshop, who’d been in Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing, Blitz! and What A Crazy World. She would later marry Ken Hill, who would succeed Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles as artistic director at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. Hill’s speciality was madcap musicals, and an occasional collaborator would be Alan Klein on productions such as The Mummy’s Tomb. Coincidentally, The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb had been a 1964 Hammer film, made by Michael Carreras. The soundtrack was by Carlo Martelli, and featured a Kenny Graham composition called The Belly Dance.
It seemed Newley and Bricusse could do no wrong. They even turned their hand to writing comedy, creating the excellent Fool Britannia series of sketches with Peter Sellers, very neatly sending up the then recent Profumo scandal, and having a Top 10 selling LP along the way on Jeff Kruger’s wonderfully eclectic Ember label, which also released a Mandy Rice-Davies Motown cover. Kruger’s place in British folklore is sacrosanct for his associations with The Flamingo nightclub, which in its original incarnation he started with his father in the basement of the Mapleton Restaurant in Coventry Street, Piccadilly. It opened on 31 August 1952, with performances by the Johnny Dankworth Seven and Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists and queues around the block. The Flamingo became an important venue for London’s modern jazz fans, and in its later Wardour Street setting became a vital part of mod folklore when it branched out into r ‘n’ b and bluebeat, with Georgie Fame and his Blue Flames as one of the house bands. Fame, whom Lionel Bart recruited to Larry Parnes’ finishing school, was one of the artists, like Duffy Power,
Newley’s career is a fascinating one, and he was a bit of an enigma. For every family friendly Dr Doolittle or Willie Wonka role there would be corresponding curiosity in the spirit of B.S. Johnson’s Christie’s Malry’s Own DoubleEntry. Newley could be as perverse as Johnson. He, for example, revelled in making the surreal series The Strange World of Gurney Slade with comedy writers Sid Green and Dick Hills in 1960, and seemed particularly proud that at the start of the ‘60s there’d been nothing like it on TV. At that point he was a bit of a reluctant pop star, so no doubt welcomed the opportunity to bemuse. The jazzy Dave Brubeck-style theme music by Max Harris was rather better received, and became a hit. It has since been salvaged by Trunk Records, and issued as part of an excellent digital single series, featuring lost British jazz recordings by greats such as Kenny Graham and Dizzy Reece.
quality about her voice, a detachment, a refusal to get flurried. At her best, she sings the way Francoise Sagan writes, in a fallen and angelic manner which is at once her trademark and her secret. Nobody in Britain is likelier to change the course of modern jazz.”
who graduated from the ‘50s pop scene and came up with something altogether more intriguing. Jeff Kruger only accidentally entered the world of independent records at the end of the ‘50s, but among his esoteric Ember output (including tracks leased from the US by James Brown, Richard Berry, Roy C, Jackie Wilson, Earl Bostick, Glen Campbell, etc.) he took the opportunity to exploit The Flamingo connection and give releases to some of his British jazz favourites like Tony Crombie, Ray Ellington and Ronnie Ross. He also released a fantastic LP by Annie Ross in 1963, which was produced by John Barry. The Johnny Spence arrangements on this are, as it says in the liner notes, “hip and strong” and it’s a very sophisticated, adult jazz affair with a spectacularly smouldering Gered Mankowitz cover photo. The title track was A Handful of Songs, the Lionel Bart/Mike Pratt Tommy Steele song which John Barry also covered on his 1961 LP Stringbeat.
Jeff Kruger also had the guile to release an LP on Ember of Lita Roza singing sultry, smoky ballads with a discreet quartet in 1963. Lita had been one of most successful of the UK pop singers in the ‘50s, making some fantastic sides with the Ted Heath Orchestra, for example, and this LP caught another, more intimate, more mature side of her perfectly. In Up West Pip Granger also remembers Lita’s awe-inspiring glamour: “Another thing that stuck with me was a hairstyle that I’m sure Lita pioneered. Years later there was a huge fuss when Mia Farrow had her hair cut just like it by Frank Sinatra’s barber, but I remember Lita doing it first. I was so impressed by her stylish cap of short, highlighted hair that when I grew old enough to decide for myself what hairstyle to have, I chose Lita’s. Back then when women had few choices and men virtually none, Lita’s innovative hairstyle really was startling and wonderful.”
In 1963 Annie, the great internationalist and vocalese pioneer, was back home in London after the spectacularly successful spell as part of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and the Ember LP followed some other fantastic sets under her own name with musicians like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, Zoot Sims and others. She would soon open her own West End nightclub, Annie’s Room. She had at various times been a Soho habitué, and in the great London book Up West Pip Granger mentions how as a kid she lived above a delicatessen on Old Compton Street, next to The Two I’s, and Annie Ross lived with Tony Crombie in the flat below her. Annie had recorded with Tony Crombie’s 4-Tet in 1956, putting together the Annie By Candlelight LP (plus the Nocturne For Vocalist EP) for which king of the critics Kenneth Tynan wrote in the sleevenotes: “There is a meditative
Before Lita recorded Love Songs For Night People she made a single for Ember at Jeff Kruger’s behest, which was a startling cover of Ruth Brown’s Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, with Tony Crombie’s Orchestra in fantastic form. Lita described it as “a row”, but it is a fierce performance of British mod jazz with a stinging beat guitar break. Tony Crombie’s outfit used to perform the number back in 1956 with Annie Ross, and existing live recordings from that time are equally striking and way ahead of the pack. Early in 1956 Annie Ross starred with Anthony Newley in the successful West End musical Cranks.
Now his lovers have left him, and his youth’s ill spent. He cries in the dungeons and tries to repent. But change is a monster and changing is hard. But he’ll freeze away his summers in his underground yard. T.Rex, “Dandy In The Underworld”
To Destruction He Fell… Anthony Newley had a career that shot off in all sorts of strange directions. The straight jazz ballad singing of Newley, for instance, albeit with his uniquely distorted Cockney intonations, is caught best on the 1964 LP In My Solitude. The Ellington title track itself was used as the name for another lost London book by David Stuart Leslie, which was later filmed as Two Left Feet. Newley jokingly referred to the ‘obscure’ standards on the LP as “twelve sort of sad songs for suicidal lovers!” And it’s certainly a beautifully bleak set, with Newley on the cover sitting slumped on the pavement’s edge. It’s easy to imagine Sammy Lee on a bad day sitting listening to that record. 50
Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? For some it’s an absurd folly, while for others it’s fantastic art. The legendary Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert caught the mood right early on when he wrote: “It is strange, wonderful, original, and not quite successful. It is just about the first attempt in English to make the sort of personal film Fellini and Godard have been experimenting with In their very different ways. It is not as great as 8⅓ but it has the same honesty and self-mocking quality.” He concluded: “But what also emerges, on reflection, is a movie that sags under the weight of too much invention, rather than too little. The miracle is that Newley is able to keep all the pieces somehow related, and to get them to add up to a statement, or at least a feeling, about the nature of life. The result may be more of a juggling feat than a directorial triumph, but it’s a good act while it’s onstage.”
Shortly after In My Solitude came the second Newley/Bricusse musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. The reception to this, when it was first staged in 1965, was not enthusiastic. It was deemed a commercial failure in the UK (muttered asides of too pretentious, too ambitious), and famously didn’t even make it to the West End. Failure? In the States it was a very different story, where The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd was a huge success, with its memorable numbers soon becoming showbiz standards. Songs like The Beautiful Land, The Joker, Who Can I Turn To?, Feeling Good, and A Wonderful Day Like Today all found their way into many singers’ repertoires. And that barometer of cool Herbie Mann recorded an LP of the whole score. When the irreproachably cool jazz singer Mark Murphy was in the UK in 1965 he made an LP with some of the top British jazz players of the day, like Kenny Napper, Kenny Baker, Tony Coe and Alan Branscombe (in other words, the sort of musicians who were central to Denis Preston’s jazz series for Pye Nixa in the late ‘50s). This LP featured a couple of tracks from The Roar Of The Greasepaint, including the title track Who Can I Turn To?, as well as another couple of Leslie Bricusse songs. The LP itself appeared on Andrew Loog Oldham’s independent Immediate label with a wonderfully moody black and white sleeve.
It’s the story of a life, Heironymous Merkin’s life, Newley’s life, perhaps, and in this way echoes Lionel Bart’s ... Isn’t This Where We Came In? Newley and Bart had much in common, and worked together earlier, at the start of the ‘60s, on the Ken Hughes film Let’s Get Married which produced the big hit Do You Mind? The Small World of Sammy Lee was in fact the last in a series of films Newley made with Ken Hughes. The sequence started with Jazz Boat, which featured Theatre Workshop’s rising star James Booth. Newley and Booth appeared together again in the Frank Norman-scripted In The Nick, which also featured songs by Lionel Bart.
It’s easy to see why the young David Bowie might be attracted to Anthony Newley: the theatrical flair, the exaggerated Cockney tones, the charming chameleon who one moment might be working with Delia Derbyshire on an electronic pop creation, and then the next performing as a fully fledged member of the Rat Pack, the toast of Las Vegas, making what would become lounge classics with Billy Strange, singing songs such as Fran Landesman’s Ballad of Yesterday’s Idol, no doubt with a twinkle of irony in his eye.
Ironically it was James Booth who had a big part in the making of Frank Norman, when he found the original script for Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be on Joan Littlewood’s desk, while hanging around Stratford East as a young actor oozing danger and charm, waiting for a break. He’d loved Frank’s prison memoirs Bang To Rights, and whisked the script away. He showed it to Lionel Bart, who also loved it, and their enthusiasm for the story and Frank’s way with writing ‘Cockney as it is spoken’ and using
Those who seek to deify or condemn Newley will at some stage point to the grandiloquence of his end-of-the-‘60s film Can Heironymous
British rock ‘n’ roll with a fantastic guitar solo from, presumably, the incomparable Vic Flick, whom John Barry had met while he was playing guitar with Bob Cort’s Skiffle Group before later recruiting him for the John Barry Seven.
rhyming and underworld slang, persuaded Joan the project should go ahead, though Frank was a little surprised that his script would suddenly become a musical. James Booth starred as Tosher, at Stratford and in the West End where Fings ran and ran, getting his lucky break alongside Miriam Karlin, Toni Palmer, Barbara Windsor, Yootha Joyce, Glynn Edwards and George Sewell. And for all its runaway success it was very much a bold, revolutionary and almost anarchic event.
The follow-up to Beat Girl for Adam Faith and John Barry was Never Let Go, which was a ‘straight’ crime drama also starring Peter Sellers. Faith acts mean and moody again, and looks great in a sheepskin coat. Carol White is also involved. The title song, Faith’s only musical contribution, was a John Barry reworking of When Johnny Comes Marching Home, with lyrics updated by Lionel Bart who is credited as John Maitland, ironically so close to the name of Joan Clarke (Maitland) whom he neglected to credit on Oliver! It’s part of show business lore how John Barry would then go on to help Lionel with the theme song for From Russia With Love, and Lionel in turn would recommend Barry to Stanley Baker as the person to compose the soundtrack for Zulu, starring Michael Caine and James Booth.
It’s easy to imagine how Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be could, if it had been made into a film, have been a reference point for Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols alongside the oft quoted Oliver! Fagin/Artful Dodger ones. People familiar with the bowdlerised Bygraves hit theme tune will certainly be surprised at the actual musical’s Soho setting populated by ponces, brasses, queers, crooked cops, lowlife, layabouts, young Teds and old villains. The family favourite theme song has in the stage version altogether more eyebrow-raising lines like: “Tarts with toffee noses and poofs in coffee houses”/“Short-time low-price mysteries without proper histories“/“Once in golden days of yore ponces killed a lazy whore”/“Big hoods now are little hoods. Gamblers now do Littlewoods.” And it seems an eerie premonition of Dave in the Winchester Club when Glynn Edwards orders: “Park your arses and pin back your lug’oles”.
By the time Barry had written the score for Zulu he was working for Jeff Kruger’s Ember label as a producer and creative director, and the label released the brilliant beat reinterpretations of the African themes from the film, Zulu Stamp/ Monkey Features, as a single. Getting Barry on board had been a real coup for Kruger’s independent set-up, and there were some wonderful projects like the Elizabeth score from the Elizabeth Taylor in London TV spectacular, which Barry had worked on. He later did a similar project with Sophia Loren in Rome. Barry repaid Kruger’s bold ambition with a couple of Profumo scandal related hits. He’d overseen the recording of Fool Britannia, and made the Christine cashin by Miss X, which got the BBC establishment a little hot under the collar. The novelty number could be said to have been a product of London’s own jet set, created over dinner by Barry, Leslie Bricusse and (a friend of Sammy Davis Jr’s) Don Jaime de Mora y Aragon. Joyce Blair, who was with them, provided the vocals when the group adjourned suitably refreshed to a near-by
Adam Faith recorded a couple of the other songs from Fings. One of these, Big Time, was a showstopping declaration of intent on a 45, which boldly kept in the lines: “I’m gonna use my wits instead of just my mitts”. Faith, however, did sensibly leave out the lines: “No more Walworth raids, showing off with blades. Trips to Notting Hill and punches off with Spades. Let all the other yobs do tuppeny ha’penny jobs. I’m hearing Big Ben chime. Big time.” Adam also covered Carve Up, which in the original cast recording sounds suspiciously like the Cockney Rejects 20-odd years too soon. Adam stays surprisingly close to the stage version, complete with lines about blood being all over the place, and in the process produces one of the wildest pieces of
James Booth with Shelagh Delaney as she makes an appearance as ‘a mystery’ in Fings, and poignantly Brendan Behan’s funeral which Frank attended with Joan Littlewood. Frank pinpoints the problems Brendan faced “with so much bad company to fall into, songs to sing and bottles to empty, he found it more and more difficult to concentrate on writing.”
recording studio. Barry would later return the favour when he wrote the number Gotta Get Away Now for Joyce to sing in the 1965 film Be My Guest, with lyrics by Mike Pratt. Mike’s old songwriting partner Lionel Bart had earlier provided John Barry and Adam Faith with another pop gem, Easy Going Me, when success was very much on the agenda for all of them. “Success” is also something at the heart of Frank Norman’s Why Fings Went West, a 1975 book and part of Lemon Tree Press’ A Time Remembered series. In it he outlines the ‘revolution’ that took place in the London theatre world from May 1956 when the Royal Court put on John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger and Theatre Workshop put on Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal, Stratford. He goes on to describe his own part in that ‘revolution’, and how he became a writer with some unexpected patrons, like Raymond Chandler, and welcome help from old friends: “Bernard Kops, a Soho friend from the starving late ‘40s, was the first person in the literary world to give me encouragement. His first play The Hamlet of Stepney Green, which he must have written during time off from dishwashing at The Mandrake club, was about to open at the Oxford Playhouse. On the first night, with several other Soho faces, I sat in the stalls and was as impressed at knowing someone who had actually had their play put on as I was by the piece itself.” Bernard did more than simply encourage Frank, but then their links were wrought long before: “Bernard, a girl and I had once spent Christmas Day together in a freezing room at some nameless address. There was nothing to eat but a single egg, which we boiled and ate with three spoons.”
Frank Norman looking back on those times philosophically wrote: “There were deeper problems that must have concerned all the children of the revolution who had inadvertently come by more publicity and money than they had deemed possible. Would they survive if their mentors lost interest in them? Does success inevitably corrupt or ‘spoil’ you and, if so, how quickly? And is the process so subtle that you do not notice it yourself?” Norman astutely mentions timing as a key factor in the roaring West End success of himself, Brendan and Shelagh not being repeated. He acknowledges though that Shelagh Delaney’s second play, A Lion In Love, had a lot that was good in it, and of course it included great one-liners for Morrissey later to hang several Smiths songs on. Joan Littlewood did not adopt The Lion In Love for Theatre Workshop, and instead it was “first presented by Wolf Mankowitz at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry on 5 September 1960. On 29 December the play was presented by the English Stage Company in association with Wolf Mankowitz at the Royal Court Theatre, London...” with Theatre Workshop pioneer and historian Howard Goorney as Jesse Fuller (who just may have been named in honour of the American blues man, the first person Val Wilmer interviewed when she struck up a long-distance correspondence with him as a kid. Fuller was also a massive influence on the young Bob Dylan). The original Theatre Workshop presentation of A Taste Of Honey did after all feature a jazz trio, and The Lion In Love used extensively a single musical theme and counter-melody specially written by Monty Norman, played on two guitars. His wife Diana Coupland appeared in The Lion In Love as Cross-Lane Nora.
Why Fings Went West is worth seeking out for the photos alone. These include Frank with Bernard Kops and Lionel Bart in Soho, John Osborne and Mary Ure marching for CND, Rita Tushingham in the stage version of The Knack (in which she mentions how she came to London and booked herself in at the YWCA), Barbara Windsor and Toni Palmer in Fings,
Diamond wrote that: “Harry knew everybody in the Soho of the time and it was something of a paradox that everybody knew him, was fond of him, and yet tended to avoid him. He was a frustrated and abrasive character, an Ancient Mariner, much given to immobilising people for long periods while he harangued them on the iniquities of governments, officialdom or the politics of Soho jazz clubs.” And that’s exactly how he looks on the cover of Stand On Me talking to Frank.
Shelagh Delaney may not have written for the stage again after The Lion In Love, but she did not stop writing. Her sharp screenplay for the 1984 film Dance With A Stranger, based on the story of Ruth Ellis’ downfall and the doomed love affair with spoilt rich kid and racing driver David Blakely, features some great lines, like the reference to the “tatty little drinking club for deadbeats” in which Ruth worked in the West End. The perfectly understated film also features fine performances from Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett and Ian Holm. Joanne Whalley has a memorable cameo role as Christine, working behind the bar in the club Ruth ran, eerily paving the way for her performance a few years later in Scandal!
Stand On Me is Frank’s account of his life in Soho in the 1950s before he was caught ‘bang to rights’ for passing dodgy cheques. It’s a surprisingly bleak but un-self-pitying portrait of lowlife, layabouts, petty criminals and tormented thinkers sinking deeper and deeper in the morass of misery, sitting around all day, year on year, penniless, in the sordid surrounds of the 86 cafe. There is no great philosophical perspective on the life he led. He just tells the story as it was, in fantastically florid Runyon-esque prose rife with characteristic Cockney and underworld slang. It’s a very different London than the one usually presented in the bohemian artists’ folklore, and what is particularly striking is the scary fatalism and lack of any great dreams and schemes. Frank and his fellow lowlife were just content to sit around, and let life take its course.
Frank Norman acknowledges his fortune in Joan Littlewood showing him considerable loyalty in staging his second play, A Kayf Up West, in 1964. She was recently returned from adventures overseas, following other enthusiasms. She had, for instance, fallen in love with the work of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer, and she travelled far and wide in search of him to explore the possibilities of making a film of his play The Lion And The Jewel. Ironically, a production of the Wole Soyinka play, The Road, was staged at the Theatre Royal in Stratford in 1965 as part of the Commonwealth Arts Festival. This production was by the Negro Theatre Workshop, which had been launched by Pearl and Edric Connor in 1963. Musical director for that production was Tunji Oyelana, who would in 1967 return to the UK to record with Chris McGregor and colleagues on tracks such as Omonike which is featured on the second volume of Honest Jons’ London Is The Place For Me series.
Occasionally the lowlife would break out of its Soho prison, and Frank on one occasion wonderfully describes mixing with the upper crust at a party in Chelsea: “Well after a while some one put on a record of Hey Mister Don’t Touch My Tomato and all the pound note birds and geezers started doing their pieces all over the place, and Muggles started to belt out a rhythm on the bottom of a frying pan that he had got hold of from somewhere or other. And a good time was being had by all, personally I was clocking around the place to see if it was worth screwing, but after giving this careful consideration I decided against it because there really wasn’t anything worth nicking, except for a few odds and ends and I put them in my bin. I suppose it must have been about two o’clock in the morning when we
A Kayf Up West was in Frank Norman’s own words “a great rambling, panoramic, documentary of Soho’s lower depths during the post-war years.” Norman covered similar ground in the Stand On Me volume of his memoirs which was published in 1960. The Herb Greer photo on the cover shows Frank Norman with Soho legend and occasional photographer Harry Diamond. John Pilgrim in his obituary of
based his career on) and features a whole host of jazz stars in a loose jam session, including Lester Young looking impossibly cool in his trademark hat. Marie sings and dances in this short. She also appeared in Nicholas Ray’s classic film noir They Live By Night.
left the gaff, and Cuthbert told us that we must be sure and come again any time we were on the manor. So with that we bid farewell to everyone and then had it away, up West.” Marie Bryant sang the irresistible Don’t Touch My Tomato on a 1953 release on the Lyragon label, with accompaniment by the Mike McKenzie Quintet featuring Bernie King on alto sax, with Rhumboogie Anna on the flip. Was Denis Preston behind this? It seems more than likely. John Cowley in his London Is The Place essay mentions how in 1952 there was a disagreement between Melodisc’s owner, the American-based Emil Shalit, and his British label manager, the jazzman Jack Chilkes, over business practices. Chilkes went to work for another British independent label, Polygon, and in November 1952 launched the Lyragon label for the West Indian/West African market. Polygon was itself a label that Leslie Clark was instrumental in setting up to protect his daughter Petula’s career. Among the artists that would record for it early in their careers were Monty Norman and Laurie Johnson. Denis Preston was certainly involved too, using it as an outlet for his jazz recordings. Around the same time Marie recorded four jazz standards (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Georgia On My Mind, and Beale Street Blues) with a fantastic line-up featuring Denis Preston’s comrades Humphrey Lyttleton, Mike McKenzie, the great guitarist Denny Wright and bassist Jack Fallon. Both Wright and Fallon, despite being jazz man, would go on to play important parts in the skiffle explosion.
Janette Prescod’s entry on Marie in the second volume of Notable Black American Women explains how she also got involved with teaching jazz dance and choreography. Some Hollywood legends were among her pupils, like Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner. She taught in a variety of places while living in Los Angeles, including the Cotton Club where she taught Afro-Cuban, blues and striptease to the girls working there. Prescod quotes an article from Ebony magazine in 1950 which explained how Marie’s theory was “to make the strip more of a dance, and less of a come-on, to give the stripper more art and dignity.” While in England during the 1950s Marie appeared in High Spirits, an ‘intimate’ West End revue by Peter Myers, Alec Grahame, and David Climie. She caused an international scandal in May of 1953 that was even reported on the front page of the New York Times over an anti-apartheid song, Don’t Malign Malan, about the South African Prime Minister Daniel Malan, with lyrics like: “Don’t malign Malan because he dislikes our tan. We know that it is wrong to have a skin that’s all brown. And wrong to be born on the wrong side of town. It is quite right that our filthy old homes be burned down. Malan is a wonderful man. Don’t malign Malan. He’s doing the best he can.” Written by David Climie, Don’t Malign Malan reportedly got the biggest round of applause each night it was performed as part of High Spirits. There were pieces about it in The Manchester Guardian and the Sunday Express, and Die Transvaler in Johannesburg called it “a shocking song.”
Marie’s recording of Don’t Touch My Tomato is often included in round-ups of early Jamaican mento recordings. She, however, grew up in New Orleans, and became a singer and dancer, working with Duke Ellington. In the 1939 revue Jump For Joy she appeared performing the showstopping Bli-Blip number. Ellington called her “one of the world’s greatest dancers”. In 1945 she appeared in the amazing short film Jammin’ The Blues, which was made by Gjon Milli and Norman Granz (who Denis Preston
Marie made a number of recordings while in the UK. Some of these were with Jackie Brown’s Calypso Kings, on London’s Calypso imprint. There is also a listing for a Melodisc LP which seems to be a compilation featuring
Mary Had A Little Lamb / Chi Chi Boom / Too Much (Isn’t Good For You) / Noisy Springs / Water Melon // Don’t Touch My Nylons / Sixty Minute Man / Suede Shoes Calypso / Tomato / Little Boy. Melodisc really did have a wonderfully bewildering roster of releases, featuring everything from Bill Haley to Laurel Aitken to Joe Harriott. One of Harriott’s earliest solo outings was an extended play on Melodisc in 1954, featuring Cherokee / Out of Nowhere / Summertime / April in Paris. Among the other labels Harriott recorded for early in his career was Polygon, where there was a date with arranger Laurie Johnson, who was the label’s bright young star and whose orchestra had success there with among other things theme music from Wolf Mankowitz’s A Kid For Two Farthings.
broadcasting. He still is; but this descendant of Wieniawski has always cherished a dream, which after years of recording various manifestations of popular music, has now come true. This is based on a firm conviction that the string quartet is not only a perfectly valid medium for music but that, given time, money—and thought, it can capture the imagination of a mass public. Sitting behind the clean desk that is the hallmark of the efficient administrator, Mr Preston, who master-minds a number of recordings for EMI, told me of how he was determined to create an ensemble of outstanding excellence. More than this, it would play a repertory not confined to the Viennese classics but drawn from a wide range of music in performances that must compel attention. Money from jazz and ‘folk’ and goodness knows what else has now produced the Lansdowne Quartet.”
Dennis Preston would recall the Harriott/ Johnson sessions in his liner notes for Joe’s later release, Personal Portrait: “I first made records with Joe Harriott in 1954. At that time Joe was a fairly recent arrival from his native Jamaica, and a relative freshman on the British jazz scene. Yet he had already established an enviable reputation - amongst musicians rather than critics - as an outstanding disciple of the Charlie Parker school of alto playing. And, indeed, many idiosyncratic Parkerisms are still apparent in his work today. These first recordings were in the familiar ‘jazz quartet’ idiom - solo instrument (in this case alto saxophone) and three rhythm. But in 1955 we embarked upon what I believe to have been the first jazz recordings of its type in this country - JOE HARRIOTT WITH STRINGS. (The arranger and musical director for this ‘extended play’ experiment was the redoubtable Laurie Johnson, and the titles, which I well recall, were I’ll Remember April and Easy To Love).”
Laurie Johnson would work again with Joe Harriott in an orchestral setting on his Synthesis symphony which featured The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Jazz Orchestra. On its release in 1969 it got an enthusiastic response from Gramophone magazine: “Nowadays, with pop groups appearing in concert with symphony orchestras, the presence of the LPO and LJO on one LP excites less comment than it would have done even five years ago. There have been attempts in the past to wed jazz and concert music but I think that Laurie Johnson’s Synthesis is far and away the best of these experiments. Perhaps the main reason is that Johnson has deliberately used the established classic symphony form and, moreover, made use of the vocabulary employed by such composers as Gustav Hoist and Vaughan Williams. In other words he has not tried too much at once. Neither has he simply grafted jazz soloists on to the symphony orchestra; the London Jazz Orchestra is very much a part of the complete concept and the solos arise naturally from within the context of the music. Prelude establishes the individual identity of the two orchestras, LPO first (under the leadership of Rodney Friend) then the LJO with Kenny Wheeler stating the first theme on flugel horn.
Personal Portrait itself returned to the ‘With Strings’ theme, and featured the Lansdowne String Quartet, a pet project of Preston’s in the late ‘60s. As Gramophone magazine reported: “For a long time now Mr Denis Preston has been engaged in the business of recording and
like The Sound Gallery, which featured a few Laurie Johnson classics on its second volume, including the theme from Jason King.
“Understandably Con Moto and Allegro are the movements which give the LJO soloists the greatest scope for improvisation. Wheeler, Tony Coe (tenor), Tubby Hayes (tenor and flute) and Joe Harriott (alto) make the most of their opportunities to carve out exciting stretches of extemporisation over the majestic sound of the LPO and LJO operating together under Laurie Johnson’s baton.
Back in the late ‘50s Laurie Johnson and Lionel Bart were given the opportunity to collaborate on the musical Lock Up Your Daughters, which was based on the Henry Fielding comedy Rape Upon Rape, and became a West End success in 1959. They worked together too on a curious LP, Bart For Bart’s Sake, released in 1960, which was pretty much a round-up of Lionel’s early years. It featured a couple of numbers from Fings, a couple from Lock Up Your Daughters, as well as a selection of songs from earlier revues Lionel had contributed to. These included the epic Newmarket Nightmare, which featured in the 1955 Unity revue Peacemeal, and was a send-up of a possible flat racing follow-up to the Soviet Union’s successes at the Henley Regattas in 1954 and 1955. Lionel’s delivery on the record sounds strongly influenced by Noel Coward, but that’s understandable. ‘The Master’ did after all act as a mentor to the young Lionel, in the same way that the success that was Bart’s at the start of the ‘60s opened doors which those in his social circle such as Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham would benefit from.
“Synthesis is, to my ears, perhaps the only successful fusion of two forms and we must be lavish in our praise of composer-conductor Laurie Johnson, his soloists (and Don Lusher and Stan Roderick are also heard in addition to those already mentioned) and every single musician in both the London Philharmonic and London Jazz Orchestras. Finally credit must go to Denis Preston of Record Supervision for the production of this costly but exciting project. I only hope that record sales will justify the faith lavished on Synthesis by all concerned. Recommended without reservation.” Denis Preston’s name would reappear in the production credits on some of the fantastic TV theme work Laurie Johnson would be justly famous for, such as the Jason King and New Avengers ones. Adrian Maddox, classic cafe connoisseur, has claimed: “The best caff background music of all would be a dream compilation of incidental music from lost British movies like The Beauty Jungle and The Running Man, featuring early Laurie Johnson themes (composer of The Avengers series).” Laurie Johnson was among the elite group of composers who seemed determined to outdo one another in coming up with impeccably dramatic and memorable works that fitted perfectly as theme or incidental music for TV or films. It is hard to imagine any of the successful pop culture TV adventure series, for example, without the music being an integral part of the experience, fuelling the fantasy. It was in the latter part of the 1990s that interest really surged in listening to such musical masterpieces, with compilations of ‘mood music’
*** Postscript On 2 March 1977 a launch party was held for T. Rex’s Dandy In The Underworld LP in The Roxy Club, the punk hangout in Neal Street, Covent Garden. The party started at 7pm with guests including Mike Mansfield (from the TV show Supersonic), Harry Nilsson, Billy Idol, Linda Lewis, members of the Sex Pistols and Gonzalez, Lionel Bart, Donovan and Captain Sensible. Marc Bolan and Gloria Jones arrived later in the evening. Once the launch was over the club reverted back to a live music venue, with Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers playing a show later that night.