- Historic Sites
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
In the Summer of 1964 I returned to the Seattle coffeehouse, but as a new person to a new country. Tragedy—the assassination of President Kennedy—had somehow created the right conditions for novelty. Americans were thrilled by the idea that sexiness could come in the shape of British lads fresh from a land of tally-ho and teacups. I had also worked hard to improve my appearance, with pushups, a chest expander, and a special diet (mainly, no more chips or Mars bars), plus a real leather jacket, a roll-neck striped jersey, and a pudding-basin haircut.
The coffeehouse was ready, festooned with a big banner: IAN WHITCOMB — DIRECT FROM LONDON VIA LIVER-POOL ! I was ready with rock ‘n’ roll songs as well as the music-hall numbers from last year. But the patrons liked the rock songs best; by simply shouting, sighing, panting, I was able to get the attention of lots of lovely girls. One night one of them murmured, “Ian, your accent is really turning me on!” What an odd image, I thought. You turn on a tap, not a person. I visualized boiling liquid emanating from her. But I stored away the phrase.
Meanwhile, i determined to land myself a record contract. In my baggage was a tape, a bluesy instrumental I’d recorded in a basement as a theme for a Trinity College revue. With this little artifact I felt armed and ready to combine musical integrity with commercial considerations. The masses would be taught music history in a populist manner by a university man, trumpeting abroad the hidden treasures of the African-American, of the hillbilly, the descendants of indentured servants, of oppressed East Europeans. Inner city, outer rural transmogrified pop culture …
I consulted the Seattle Yellow Pages for “Recording Companies,” eventually running across one Jerry Dennon, reckoned to be “King of Northwest Rock” for having produced the infamous frat classic “Louie Louie,” by the Kingsmen. With my crinkly tape I visited Dennon, explaining that I could be as big as Mick Jagger. He nodded and consulted a music-business paper. Yes indeed, the Rolling Stones were charting and also annoying Dean Martin. Yes, he’d give me a contract and release my tape. I was now a recording artist. Next stop was to become a star.
Just before I returned to Trinity, Jerry Dennon presented me with a box of 45-rpm disks, my very first record, “Soho,” as my college revue tune was now called. Here I was, immortalized in plastic. I stared at the label all the way home on the plane.
Back at school I showed the records to Bluesville and told them we were going to have a hit. They weren’t impressed. Why should they be? Seattle was a long way away, and there were local club dates to play.
In these rough-and-tumble places we were getting accepted as Ireland’s only authentic R&B band, and I was starting to savor the greatest pop weapon of all, sex. Let me give you an example.
Bluesville was appearing at a charity function at a church hall in Mount Merrion. We were now surrounded by the latest in electronic devices. Amplifiers to the right of us, to the left of us, and behind us, amplifiers glowing with red lights, studded with chrome lettering spelling “Fender Showman.” Guitars, all electric and with solid bodies, and even a gleaming gold sax. And me standing at the battered old church-hall piano, its innards stuffed with thick chrome microphones. When we plugged in, we’d amaze the welkin, waken the dead, bring an end to Celtic Twilight!
Fueled by ale and stout, we gave our audience raw chunks of R&B, while I sang on top of this stew about having the blues all ‘round my bed every day, feeling fairly honest because it was cold in Dublin that winter. … Suddenly—wham!—I tripped on a wire and fell headlong into our city of amplifiers. What a foul-up!
But no, wait! As I lay sprawled there, I heard a scream—a girlish one—and then more, excited, sexual. My bottom touched a loose amplifier wire, and the electric shock sent me leaping into the air with a jackknife movement in the Jagger manner. A howl of ecstasy rose from the hall. Then I limped around the stage while Bluesville played on, although my accident had rendered their guitars acoustical. But the thump of the drums was enough to accompany my dance of agony, and soon the crowd was joining in with claps and yelps. My sense of this was later confirmed when the college postman delivered a letter to my rooms: “Ian, I would like to have sexual intercoarse [ sic ] with you at your earliest convenience. Yours, Moira.”
The fact is that British musicians have always been in the vanguard as curators of the authentic traditions of ragtime, jazz, and rock n’ roll.
This was all very exciting, but the problem remained of how to capture my inadvertent stage magnetism on record. My Seattle-released “Soho” hadn’t done the trick, and there had been an awful silence from Jerry Dennon, the dream of golden summers on golden beaches with golden bodies fading away. So quite deliberately I decided to fabricate a hit record.