Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta

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