Friday, 11 September 2015

The New Bob Dylan #1

After Bob Dylan triggered a passion for pop protest in 1964/65, as I write in Electric Shock, the music 'became a debating chamber for social and political issues which ranged from the banal to the apocalyptic. Every nation seemed to have its Bob Dylan . . . all young, angry, politically committed, controversial.'

Nowhere was that more apparent than in France, where Pierre Antoine Muraccioli - better known to his fans simply as Antoine - took on the mantle of becoming the Parisian equivalent of Bob Dylan's electric incarnation. His scattershot, frenzied 1966 single, 'Les Elucubrations' (which translates roughly as 'Feverish Dreams'), was a blatant attempt to mimic the beatnik politics and rock'n'roll swagger of Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'.

Like Sonny & Cher's 'I Got You Babe' from the previous year, the song began with a complaint that people kept asking Antoine to cut his hair - which, to be fair, was long by 1966 standards, even alongside the likes of Doug Sahm or the Pretty Things' singer, Phil May. From there, Antoine savaged French accordion star Yvette Horner, pleaded guilty to murdering a woman on the grounds that he loved her, and satirized the predictability of local pop hero Johnny Hallyday, suggesting that he'd be more at home in the circus.

Hallyday, too often dismissed in Britain as a French joke rather than a trend-surfing participant in all things 1960s, immediately responded with the equally outspoken 'Cheveux Longs et Idees Courtes'. (In the same way, folkie Tom Paxton had rounded on his friend and fellow Greenwich Village veteran Bob Dylan in an article entitled Folk Rot.) Hallyday's lyric was an all-purpose assault on the banality of pop protest, which namechecked the conflict in Vietnam long before any English-speaking rocker dared to do so in song. Only Sonny Bono's joyously incoherent 'The Revolution Kind' could match him for counter-revolutionary fervour.

To accompany the live Antoine clip above, here's Hallyday from French TV, looking remarkably like the Elvis Presley who would make a TV comeback himself in 1968. He and Antoine continued to spar with each other at long distance for the remainder of the decade, long after Bob Dylan had withdrawn from the fray into the seclusion of Woodstock.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Obscene and Disgusting, 1919 style

As I set out to research 125 years of popular music history, from 1890 to 2015, one thing quickly became apparent. New kinds of pop, and the behaviour they induce, are always greeted by parents, politicians and other adults as the most disgusting exhibition since . . . well, since the last one.

To demonstrate the point: in December 1918, a London pantomime production incorporated a freshly written song called 'Stick Around for the New Jazz Band'. It included the line: 'All the time we wine and dine, hear that new jazz band, it's fine'. The Daily Mirror described this couplet as 'emphatically vicious', because it would encourage young children to imagine that they wanted to drink alcohol.

A few weeks later, no less a personage than the Archbishop of Paris was appalled to discover that - so soon after the end of the Great War - the pleasure-seeking young people of Paris were meeting in public places to dance to jazz music. Worse still, the dances in which they were indulging were 'foreign'. The Archbishop complained that they 'so violate good taste and modesty, that no Christian man or woman can conscientiously indulge in them'.

And there was much worse to come in the years ahead . . .

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Hoagy's Creation Myth

One of my aims in writing Electric Shock was to question everything that we thought we knew about popular music . If I could help to puncture some legends and overturn some certainties along the way, so much the better.

When I was a kid, everyone knew that rock'n'roll began with Elvis Presley - or was it Chuck Berry? Anyway, it was definitely in 1956 - or maybe 1955. It was inconvenient that Bill Haley recorded 'Rock Around the Clock' in 1954, of course, almost three months before Elvis Presley cut his first single for Sun Records. So the story kept changing. As the children of the rock age delved further into the pre-history of rock'n'roll, the birth date of the music shifted ever earlier. Bill Haley, after all, was making boogie-tinged country records in 1951, which was also the year when Frank Sinatra taped 'Castle Rock', sounding like a man enduring a particularly traumatic blackmail suit.

And it was also 1951 when Sam Phillips, the future mentor of Elvis Presley, recorded 'Rocket 88', by Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner - which duly became the favoured candidate for 'first rock'n'roll record' during the 1970s and 1980s. 

It's a remarkable piece of music, rollicking, flamboyant, utterly self-assured: everything rock'n'roll should be. But the first? Nothing like it. As I discovered during my research, Billboard magazine was writing about 'right rhythmic rock and roll' back in 1945, which was when the likes of Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordan were in their prime. More of that, however, on another occasion.

For now, let me leave you with a record that - like a strange ancestor of Chuck Berry's 'Roll Over Beethoven' - offers an alternative creation myth for all that 'swing, boogie-woogie and jive'. It's the product of a rare collaboration between two of the hippest white Americans of the pre-rock'n'roll era, lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Hoagy Carmichael. 

You can track Hoagy's influence down through Bob Dylan and the Band, the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson: everyone, indeed, who taps into the spirit of America with a combination of deadly conviction and iconoclastic good humour. And it's the latter that wins out on this 1943 recording, which sees Hoagy masquerading as a classical genius of the 19th century (on celeste) and 'a little colored boy' (we're definitely in the pre-civil rights era), alongside Spike Jones on percussion and Art Bernstein on bass. Rock'n'roll might not have been invented yet, but Hoagy can already see its distant shadow on the horizon . . .