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Confessions Of A British Invader
He was in the vanguard of that wave of young Britons who, in the 1960s stormed our shores and gave us back our musical heritage
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Early one morning I sneaked out and wrote in the snow covering the school lawn the incantation “ROCK ’N’ ROLL.” Magical name, gleaming future, lure of America, call of the wild! I determined then and there to somehow make my own rock ’n’ roll. I was not alone. Embryonic Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Led Zeppelins, and Dave Clark Fives were going through the same experience.
I sneaked out and wrote in the snow covering the school lawn “ROCK ’N’ ROLL.” Magical name, gleaming future, lure of America!
So it came to be that my father, braving the tough guys of the music trade in London’s West End, traded in my accordion for a Spanish guitar with a golden sunburst finish. But authentic rock ’n’ roll performance required electrification, and we hadn’t the cash for that. Fortunately, at about that time, there developed in Britain a craze for American folk and blues songs played by skiffle groups. This had been started by a local jazz fellow called Lonnie Donegan, with his unlikely hit record “The Rock Island Line.” The skiffle style employed strummed guitars, simple chords, and lots of energy. Soon this do-it-yourself music swept the country of the young, and we all were singing lustily (if hardly authentically) of cotton fields, chain gangs, and being on the “Last Train to San Fernando” and declaiming that “This Land Is Your Land.”
At Bryanston I quickly formed the first school skiffle group. The resident jazz buffs threw up their hands. It would not be long, they warned, before I’d be dragging the “unacceptable face of capitalism” into the school by starting a rock ’n’ roll band. Which is exactly what I did—because Elvis had hit, and his face and his stance seemed to replicate in real life all those superheroes I’d so admired in the American action comics of my prep school days.
In my last year at school, 1959, I presented the first-ever Bryanston rock ’n’ roll group, complete with electrified acoustic guitars and starring me, fat and in my Sunday suit, doing my impression of Elvis (an Elvis, of course, who was then slim and sleek and dangerous). But the boys loved my performance; I became a sort of hero, and it was amazing to realize that you could be a hero without being good at sports.
I left school in a daze, and in a state of permanent adolescence (not a bad condition for a future rock star). I got a job working at Harrods department store in London, selling records, pleading with the customers to buy the latest Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry rather than the Mantovani. I had been privileged to be witness to rock ’n’ roll’s classic age, the crucible when the new music had been defined as a sound, as a style, and as an attitude.
In 1961, after almost two years in the real world, I retreated to the safety of another institution. I enrolled as a junior freshman in the Modern History and Political Thought honors course at Trinity College, Dublin. TCD at the time was noted as an easy-living university, much favored by Scottish earls, Egyptian counts, and African royalty. Nobody seemed to do much academic work, but there was a thriving community in and around a network of bars within yards of the university campus.
There was also a college jazz band (which I immediately joined as pianist), and, even better, there were actual black men to study so that I could understand at close quarters the authentic roots of the Big Beat. Alas, I soon found that many of my African classmates wore pinstripe suits, carried rolled umbrellas, and preferred Gilbert and Sullivan to Muddy Waters.
By this time, you see, in my digs into American culture, I had discovered rhythm and blues, the electrified city version of the old country blues. R&B, as the music trade papers termed it, seemed to be an overexcited, naked Adam of the metropolis—and the parent of rock ‘n’ roll, the other parent being Tennessee Ernie and his country-western brothers.
It was an old Etonian friend who steered me from the clanging of Muddy Waters to the immediate shouts and rants and grunts of James Brown. I got into a state of febrile excitement, and at the end of the term I sailed to England and bused to the Baling Club in London to hear our local version of R&B: Alexis Korner and his band, Blues Incorporated. Korner was the son of an Austrian cavalry officer; his bluesmen had cockney accents. Mick Jagger and Brian Jones sat in from time to time. If these local lads could have a bash, then so could I! I bought lots of LPs at the West End import shops: John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Champion Jack Dupree—grassroots and concrete-based men who had seen and suffered and sang the truth. I studied their music, taking it to bits as others had done with radios and cars, and I tried to reproduce their bent and battered phrases on the sideboard piano in my parents’ flat.
Back in Dublin, supposedly studying working-class movements and Karl Marx, I put together an R&B band called Warren (I was a fan of Warren Beatty) Whitcomb & His Bluesmen. This consisted of lapsed college jazz musicians accompanying me as I pounded the piano and shouted about getting my mojo working or using a blackjack bone to ward off enemies.