I felt very privileged to be invited on the Nick Conrad Sunday Supplement breakfast-time show, on BBC Radio Camb's on Sunday for the slot 'Music of My Life'. Not only did we talk of Hereward but also another favourite subject of mine, post-war British youth culture of the 50's, 60's and 70's. As with Hereward, youth rebellion was a key theme.
As I explained to Nick, I witnessed the 60's changes in popular culture from a worms-eye point of view. Having siblings 8, 10, and 14 years older, exposed me to the vast array of music and fashion that evolved through an era of huge political, social and cultural change. But the foundation for that was laid earlier. The 'You Never Had it so Good' era of the 50's bore not only an Americanisation of British culture, through rock'n'roll and film, it was also an era that defined the 'teenager', the 'consumer' and the yearning for 'modernity'.
Full employment, rebuilding the post-war broken Britain, meant the youth and teenagers of school-leaving age and beyond had money to spend - and they spent it on clothes, music and going out. Coffee Bars had just broken into British culture, the first opened by Italians in Soho in 1953, and they were soon fitted with jukeboxes. This gave the teenager their own public space and became the haunt of the new 45rpm consumer. A 'tanner for the jukebox' was both a clarion call and an important part of the weekly budgeting for the teenager, and the vinyl 'single' became a cherished emblem and badge of identity. A regular Saturday afternoon for me as a 4 or 5 year old in the early 60's would see me shopping for the latest fashions in Wisbech High Street with my 18 year old sister Sandra, before stopping off at the Blue Spot Cafe on Hill Street, where the jukebox would be playing the latest discs, the Everley Brothers productions always stood out above the rest, made for the jukebox. It was a period that marked the commercialisation of British youth culture.
The Teddy Boy riots that caused a 'moral panic' across 50's Britain had ushered in the dire need for Youth Clubs and many of these were volunteer-led and stationed in Church Halls and municipal buildings nationwide. It is interesting that by 1960 the British Government's Albermarle Report was a damning indictment on the Youth Clubs, stating that across the country the goals were not being met. More discipline and learning needed to be instilled within a more professional service. The report, however, had missed the 1950's Youth Clubs greatest achievement. One which laid the base for everything that was to come in the 1960's and without it, there would not have been a cultural revolution in the 60's.
The American movies Blackboard Jungle and Rock Around the Clock introduced rock'n'roll into Britain, soon followed by Elvis, Little Richard and a host of others that became household names in popular culture. Britain had no answer to this new music, homegrown musical talent was locked into jazz, but in 1956 something peculiar happened, a man called Lonnie Donegan topped the charts with a song called Rock Island Line and the Skiffle Craze was born.
Twenty years before 70's Punk Rock, the original 'punk rock' was born in the surroundings of church halls across the country, usually with the vicar in attendance. The sharp decline in parishioners attending services post-war put the church on a rescue mission for the Establishment to save the 'immoral youth' and in doing so they inadvertently provided the tools for the youth to develop a new D.I.Y. musical style. The church hall PA system, speakers and microphone, meant that a voice could be heard and the 'teenager', a term originally coined as a marketing term in the United States, exploited the opportunity.
Technological advancement and a newly affluent working class, fueling the new consumer society, saw the automatic washing machine gradually become a commonplace feature in the household. It was an important point in the gestation period of the later to come sixties cultural revolution. Not only did it free the hands of the housewife to spend more time with her children, for leisure or for herself, but crucially, it made a small oblong piece of wood and glass obsolete; the Washboard.
Before the automatic washing machine this now relatively rare and strange object was used to rub the clothes against its furrowed glass plate, which was encompassed within a wooden frame. The laborious and less efficient style of wash was soon abandoned and it made the washboard freely available to any household member as the key musical instrument of the new Skiffle craze. It became the percussion instrument that every household had and it laid the base of a cultural revolution. Now, down at the local youth clubs across the country, everyone had a musical instrument, and the craze exploded from there.
When a south London acoustic guitar maker, Charlie Watkins, saw that sales of acoustic guitars were sky-rocketing due to the craze he went to Germany, bought as many acoustic guitars as he could and made electronic pick-ups for them. Watkins guitars had turned the teenager electric. Now, accompanied by the booming tea-chest and broom-handle bass, they could make a noise. Between 1956 - 1958 the Skiffle craze saw the blossoming of the likes of the individuals that became the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the KInks, the Small Faces in youth clubs across the country. It was here that Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Townshend and Daltrey, Ray Davies and Stevie Marriot and the rest first learned their trade and served their musical apprenticeships. Ringo Starr began with a washboard and thimbles on his hand, scratching and scraping a rhythm long before he could afford his first drum kit.
These youth clubs by the late 50's had evolved into a gig circuit for bands, and a network of touring venues around the country began with these as the staple gig. The musical youth of Britain were now networking, exploring and travelling. Cliff Richard and the Shadows with Move It and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, with Shaking All Over are regarded as the first original British rock'n'roll songs. By 1962 a four piece act from Liverpool, who had been playing the circuit, as well as Hamburg, under various guises for a number of years, released a single called Please Please Me. The Sixties 'Beat Boom' exploded.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 had signalled the irreversible destiny of empire, yet that same year can be credited with laying the foundation of a new Britain when the Skiffle Craze inspired British youth to pick up a musical instrument and begin to emulate their American hero's. Within ten years that same 'rebellious youth' through the Beatles and the so-called British Invasion of America had changed the face of popular culture worldwide and through their own ideas and demands helped to forge a new liberal-democratic British society that became the standard bearer for equal rights, civil rights, peace and freedom.
The Washboard and the Church Hall have a lot to answer for.
(To listen to 'Music of My Life' click on the pic of Nick Conrad - on-air from 16 minutes in).
Lonnie Donegan performing Rock Island Line - whose influence on the 60's should not be underestimated