Tag Archives: book review

Book review: ‘Roots, Radicals & Rockers – How Skiffle Changed the World’ by Billy Bragg

For far too long the 50s skiffle boom was seen as a context-free curio and a bit of a novelty rather than as a vital component of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll history. To be honest that was never my understanding. My dad had been a huge Lonnie Donegan fan before gravitating to the world of rock. I remember being ill in bed with measles aged 6 or 7 and him bringing his record player up so I’d have something to listen to in bed. This would have been around 1972/73. He obviously wasn’t going to trust me with his latest Stones album but I do remember playing a stack of Lonnie Donegan 45s that he brought up to me. My dad retained a lifelong affection for Donegan and even as a kid it was drilled into me that this man had been a huge inspiration to many of today’s rock stars.

Billy Bragg’s book basically sets out, in meticulously-researched detail what my dad tried to impress upon me while I was still at primary school. No stone is left unturned in exploring the roots of the movement, both in terms of how it emerged out of Britain’s post-war trad-jazz scene to how the songs that inspired the British skiffle boom themselves originated. He takes right back to America’s blues and folk scenes, tracing back songs like ‘Rock Island Line’ through a myriad of permutations in what is a really fascinating and inspiring read. The word skiffle originally emerged from piano-based music found at urban rent-parties in the States in the 20s and how it came to be used by the guitar, tea-chest, and washboard ensembles of late 50s Britain was largely a matter of chance as this new musical movement was grasping around for a name.

Bragg paints a vivid picture of the stultifying drabness of the immediate post-war years and what the advent of both American rock ‘n’ roll and American-inspired British skiffle represented in terms of colour, excitement and youthful rebellion. Parallels between the birth of skiffle in the UK and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the US at around the same time continue to be made and the styles of music that influenced both. Indeed, in the same month Elvis Presley was recording his breakthrough song That’s Alright, Lonnie Donegan was recording his breakthrough song Rock Island Line.

While the skiffle boom soon died out, Bragg devotes a considerable chunk of the final part of his book examining its legacy: from the bands that evolved out of skiffle outfits such as The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Who to individual musicians who first cut their teeth playing in home-grown skiffle bands such as Dave Davies, Rod Stewart and Ian Hunter. He also illustrates how skiffle played a part in fermenting the British folk revival of the early 60s as many aspiring musicians began to look at their own country’s traditional roots, not just those of the States.

The book is not perfect. When he discusses the English folk revival he is in danger of stereotyping the Edwardian folk collectors like Cecil Sharp while painting the second generation revivalists like A,L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl as knights in shining armour. The reality is both generations made a major contribution and both had significant flaws, something that most studies acknowledge these days. Nevertheless, Roots, Radicals & Rockers is an extremely well-researched and well-referenced book and Bragg’s affection for the DIY anyone-can-do-it approach of skiffle is as for a very similar DIY youth movement that came along some twenty years that Bragg himself played a part in.

First published in 2017

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Book review: ‘Look Wot They Dun! – The ultimate guide to UK glam rock on TV in the 70s’ by Peter Checksfield

Rather than another biography giving an overview of the various glam acts of the 1970s ‘Look Wot They Dun’ is basically an encyclopedic directory that methodically lists all the TV appearances of numerous bands associated with the glam era throughout the 70s. Fifty different acts are covered in all, with the appearances for each in turn listed chronologically.

As much as I am fascinated by this era and as much as I will always love bands like Sweet and Slade and T. Rex, I must admit when I first picked up this book I wasn’t sure whether there would be enough in it to sustain my interest across a whopping 286 pages. However, I soon began to get engrossed, reading some of the fascinating little snippets and insights that accompany many of the entries. In one of his earliest TV appearances, Elton John, for example, is wearing “a horrible outfit of faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved orange T-shirt and a sleeveless striped cardigan” prior to the emergence of the flamboyantly-dressed larger-than-life character of later appearances. The Sweet’s Andy Scott had a run of appearances on Opportunity Knocks in late 1966 in an outfit called The Silverstone Set, we learn, several years before finding fame with the glam rockers. And Mud’s first TV appearance, back in 1968, is on the Basil Brush Show while David Essex’s first appears some two years earlier on the Five O’clock Club.

Indeed, although the book is presented in catalogue format and lacks an explicit overarching narrative there are, nevertheless, obvious patterns that begin to emerge across a significant number of bands. First we see tentative appearances on scratchy black and white shows during the 60s beat boom (Marc Bolan and David Bowie/Jones on Ready Steady Go, the aforementioned Andy Scott on Opportunity Knocks etc.) Then we fast-forward a few years and see those same people bedecked in glitter and glam hamming it up on Top Of The Pops in the period 1971-1973. Then by around 1974 we mostly see the glam bands to start putting away the bacofoil and the glitter and opting for a more conventional rock star jeans-and-leather jacket or cool-white-suit look. Then, finally, in many of the cases we see the number of entries for TV appearances steadily declining as the second half of the seventies draws to a close.

Though I would have welcomed a bit more by way of narrative thread, the book nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into how one of the most visual musical genres of the twentieth century projected itself on to our TV screens. And as an invaluable reference tool I’m sure ‘Look Wot They Dun’ will be something I’ll be going back to again and again.

Published: February 2019

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Book review: ‘Uncommon People – The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars’ by David Hepworth

From Little Richard through to Kurt Cobain (taking in the likes of Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks and assorted others along the way) David Hepworth’s book is a fascinating collection of pen portraits of rock stars at key moments in post-war popular culture.

I’m not sure I completely buy his central thesis that the mystique-destroying power of the internet, changing tastes in popular music and a music industry that has transformed beyond recognition means we’ll never have anything approaching the slightly preposterous, larger-than-life, self-obsessed personality of the bona fide rock star ever again. Assuming the future of rock ‘n’ roll is one as a niche genre rather than a mass-market genre, surely we’re still going to see the odd flamboyant, charismatic, guitar-wielding eccentric who craves recognition and manages to make some sort of name for themselves, even if they are no longer driving mythological Rolls Royce’s into swimming pools or chucking TVs out of hotel room windows?

Even if you’re more optimistic about the future of rock ‘n’ roll than the author, there is plenty to keep the rock music fan totally engrossed in this book. Did you know the joys of anal sex provided the original inspiration for the lyrics to Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti or that Dave Clarke of the Dave Clarke Five was the one who was sitting with Freddie Mercury on the day he died? Uncommon People has certainly encouraged me to seek out a few more biographies of some of these exotic creatures we called rock stars.

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Left politics and music events – the 1980s and now

With all the twists and turns in the build-up to the Labour Live event (problems with tickets sales, problems with attracting headliners, rows with the brewery over whether crowd numbers would justify draft beer at the bar etc. etc.) it got me reflecting on Daniel Rachel’s book about the coming together of music and left politics back in the late 70s/early-mid 80s. His book ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ covers the era of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, Red Wedge etc – which I reviewed last year, saying:

“In terms of how well popular music and political activism can mix the main message I came away with from this book is that it can be a great force for change on particular issues at particular moments in time (Rock Against Racism, Free Nelson Mandela) but it all starts to get a bit complicated and a bit messy when you try and combine it with party politics and a long-term programme (Red Wedge).”

Looking back to these movements in the 1980s though it’s clear from the book how much more the artists were in the driving seat back then, compared to the politicians. If you are announcing a date for a festival and you’ve given far more thought to the speaking slots for the party leader and the shadow chancellor than you have to the headline music acts, it’s reasonable to predict you are likely to run into a fair few problems along the way – even if, one way or another, you manage to get a fairly reasonable crowd in the end.

Book Review: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Daniel Rachel

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Book review: ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ by James Hall

The early days of the recorded music industry were a cut-throat affair: rival technologies, competing phonograph and gramophone companies and a complete absence of such legal and business niceties like copyright agreements and recording contracts. An ideal setting for a novel, therefore. ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ is set in late Victorian London and takes the reader on a journey through vicious beatings, gruesome murders, family feuds and unspeakable treachery. It follows the lives of Italian emigrants Max Cadenza and his cousin Rusty as they set up The London Gramophone Corporation to capitalise on the potential of this new technology.

Music journalist, James Hall’s debut novel, ‘The Industry of Human Happiness’ is meticulously researched and very effectively captures the flavour of both the fledgling record industry, and the revolutionary impact it would come to have on cultural life, as well as the seedy but exhilarating world of London’s West End in the late nineteenth century. The plot remains fast-moving and engaging and in spite of some epic betrayals there is a reconciliation of sorts at the end, both dramatically and historically. Recommended.

Published: May 2018 by Lightning Books Ltd

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Book Review: ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by Daniel Rachel

‘The music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge’

For someone like me who has long had a burning passion for both music and a range of progressive causes ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ was an interesting read. It is written as an ‘oral history’ which means that you don’t necessarily want to read it continuously for hours on end, given it is just one long succession of quotes from key players rather than being wrapped up into an overarching narrative and analysis. Nevertheless, it is an absolutely fascinating read. It covers the period from the late 70s to around 1990 with insights into the Rock Against Racism movement, the bands brought together under the 2 Tone label and finally the Red Wedge initiative which worked to try and build support for Labour in the run-up 1987 General Election.

In terms of how well popular music and political activism can mix the main message I came away with from this book is that it can be a great force for change on particular issues at particular moments in time (Rock Against Racism, Free Nelson Mandela) but it all starts to get a bit complicated and a bit messy when you try and combine it with party politics and a long-term programme (Red Wedge). There are real parallels here with John Harris’s ‘The Last Party’ which covers Britpop’s flirtation with New Labour a decade later.

Published 2016 Picador

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http://danielrachel.com/

Book review: ‘Hastings Old Town Music Scene’ by Sean O’Shea

Having been resident in Hastings only some six months or so my perceptions of the town’s lively, thriving music scene are still those of the enthusiastic newcomer. I can’t pretend to know the scene inside out and back to front like many of the people Sean O’Shea interviews in this 140-page book, but that helped make it a fascinating read for me.

For a smallish town of 90,000 Hastings has an unparalleled live music scene, particularly in the old town which this book focuses on: dozens of pubs and bars putting on live music, a healthy mix of larger venues, too, and numerous events and festivals. And for a long long time the town has exerted an almost gravity-like pull as a place for musicians of all types to set up home here and play here. But my perception is that unless you are familiar with the town, either as a resident or frequent visitor, all of this is pretty much under the radar. I think this is probably because, although it’s long had a very healthy live music scene and is teeming with musicians, it’s not given birth to a really big name band that comes to define the place musically and put it on the musical map. Andover forever has The Troggs, Guildford – the Stranglers, Wolverhampton – Slade. Yet Hastings just seems to have dozens and dozens and dozens of very talented musicians, but not necessarily ones who are household names. This book, therefore, is not filled with interviews of mega-successful rock icons reflecting on their long-past musical roots, but rather is a series of interviews with musicians who live and perform in the town today. A few of those interviewed were born here and reflect on a Hastings childhood and teenager-dom. But most have been drawn here at some point by the pull of the town’s music and arts scene, many it appears via south-east London – a journey I, too, have made.

It’s packed with stories and reflections and covers interviews with musicians from a wide range of genres: folk, jazz, rock, blues, classical and more. Some like Lorna Heptinstall of the internationally acclaimed Skinny Lister or Liam Genockey of the iconic folk rockers Steeleye Span, both of whom ended up in Hastings, have profile and reputations that stretch far beyond Hastings. But others, like the four women who make up the a capella harmony vocal group, Rattlebag, renowned for their folk sing-arounds in the Stag Inn, are little known outside Sussex. But their passion for and insight into the Hastings music scene makes for a genuinely enjoyable read.

Whether you’re a music-loving resident familiar with scene or a curious visitor who wants to find out more, ‘Hastings Old Town Music Scene’ is well worth a read. At the back there’s a list of old town music venues as well as a calendar of the key musical events, festivals and fairs that Hastings has built up a considerable reputation for.

Published 2016 by Hastings Press

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