Friday, 13 January 2012

The Rock’n’Roll Years

Part two in an occasional series

The idea that boys like us could actually do it ourselves never occurred to me, until we heard Lonnie Donegan, Johnnie Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys, the Vipers, Nancy Whiskey.  I was given the washboard, and begged my mother for thimbles (the washboard itself acquired from a long gone ironmongers in Southbourne Grove).  Skiffle groups erupted all over the place.  But soon after I’d been issued with my washboard, and the other guys had bullied guitars out of their parents, frustration started to set in.  ‘I can do that’, I thought.  My parents got me a guitar.  The first thing I found out was that, once having managed to tune the thing, if you played the bottom three strings in succession, they spelled out the first three notes of ‘When I Fall In Love’.  So I hunted around till I found the fourth note, then the whole tune. I got a chord book and learned, in about three weeks, how to play four string majors and join them together into as near as I could get to what I was hearing on those relatively accessible skiffle records. 

And then, suddenly, it was 1956.  The 7 inch 45 was invented and we had to have, and got, our green and beige Ferguson record player with the lovely cream and maroon 4-speed Collaro ten-disc auto-changer (the Dansette scathingly rejected).  You could stack up ten 45s – your current top ten – then as the last one drops onto the pile, you take off the arm which had held the stack in place, and the top record plays over and over until you choose to stop it.  Brilliant!  The records themselves were designed for this purpose, with serrations around the outer edge of the label which stopped them skidding or damaging each other as they landed from the stack, like so many flying saucers.  Naturally, I had to own more than ten 45s.  Every penny of pocket money’s worth of 45s.  The exact chronology, obviously, is available elsewhere.  By now, you’d expect it to have turned into one amorphous blur, and to some extent it has, but I like to recall two overlapping phases.  First there was Bill Haley, with a few imitators like Freddie Bell and the Bellboys.  Little Richard and Fats Domino crept in alongside.  And then Elvis came and hit us straight in the ears, guts and seething hormones. The rest followed.  My enduring, confused memory of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is hearing it late at night on some kind of radio in our holiday home in Pembrokeshire, presented by my sister as a secret thing that parents had to be protected from, weren’t permitted to share.  It was dark, mysterious, unattainable, addictive. 

I loved the sheer energy and meaninglessness of pure rock’n’roll.  By definition, you can’t analyse ‘Tutti Frutti’.   John Lennon said, years later, something like “There is nothing conceptually purer than ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’”.  He was right.  But I loved the slushy stuff too.  My heart still quivers when I listen to Elvis explaining why he’s ‘Playing For Keeps’, or the Everly Brothers’ complaining about ‘Crying In The Rain’.  Even ‘Susie Darling’ by the long-forgotten Robin Luke can catch me unawares.  Why is this?  I sometimes wonder.  The hormones that drove those emotions, all those years ago, have thankfully done their job and fallen back to where they belong; but they left the emotions behind them.

Next: Jazz
Thanks to Rog.  I feel an anthology coming on.


  1. We had a green Dansette and after 2 or 3 singles on the autochanger invariably started to slip and slide and distort the sound. They do appear to have lodged a special place in people's hearts as they sell on eBay for 5 or 6 times their original cost.
    I always wanted to play a washboard.

  2. Good post, Tim. Talking of washboards, I caught Mark Kermode playing with the Dodge Brothers in an impromptu set at the 2010 New Forest Festival, of all places. They were impressive.

    My mother purchased what she referred to as, a stereogram. It was a good deal for us. She polished the outside and we kids commandeered it for our music playing pleasure.

  3. I continue to be impressed by your guitar playing abilities, Tim. I tried to learn as a teenager but could only ever play what I was shown by my teacher. I still cannot read music nor could I play by ear, two problems that contributed to my giving up. That and the fact that I was lazy.

    Great post.

  4. I remember that Heartbreak Hotel was the first record I bought, obviously after hearing it on the radio in Pembrokeshire.