Confessions Of A British Invader

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“Shindig” was a heavenly reward for all the gray grind of England. The weekly ABC network romp was the creation of Jack Good, English born and Oxford educated. He wore a bowler hat and suspenders and had the manner of an ideal headmaster. This week’s stars were the Beach Boys, and I was thrilled to hear their smooth voices and chocolate harmonies. They were ocean angels in my mind, and they knew how to relax, sipping Cokes, sampling pastries, and casually cuddling the squeaky-clean “Shindig” dancing girls. The show’s backing musicians were laid back too. They’d played with every rock star you could mention, their hair was blown into fancy helmets, and their clothes were smart, sporty, and mostly velour. They were effortlessly professional, producing edgy blues-bright rock from their instruments with an ease that bordered on boredom.

Just before taping time Jack Good assembled us all behind the stage curtain and delivered a stirring exhortation. “Now look here, Beach Boys, Shangri-Las, British and American rockers, I want you to go out there and so pulse and throb and shake and shout that Western civilization will never be the same again!” My role was simple: I was comic relief, dressed in leather as a biker, playing the roughtrade boyfriend of the Shangri-Las in their hit “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” When it came my turn to perform, I had to make do with “This Sporting Life,” since the censor who haunted our set had vetoed “You Turn Me On” as too suggestive. George, while adjusting my collar and puffing up my hair, said this image might confuse the fans, but this was a national plug.

After the show an aged stagehand told me I’d been performing on the very spot where in 1927 Al Jolson had got down on one knee to sing “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer . This impressed me more than anything else I’d seen in lotus land; this was as far as I could go.

Time was not on my side. “Sporting Life” was history, and “You Turn Me On” was peaking (at No. 8 on the Billboard chart). There was a pressing need to go out on tour and have a new single ready, a follow-up. How do you follow a novelty number like “You Turn Me On”? I suggested “N-N-Nervous,” a blues stuttering song I’d been getting screams with back in Dublin. The Tower executives said they’d consider it. Meanwhile, off we go to see America.

I saw it from the window of a tour bus. Crisscrossing the continent, driving by night, eyeing the groupies, eating, sleeping, singing, sometimes indulging, always regretting. Meeting fellow Invaders. None of them knew quite what to make of me. Who was I and where had I sprung from? I am the Father of Irish Rock, I told them. You sound too toffee-nosed for an Irishman, they said. I met them all on the bus and in the motels. We were on nodding acquaintance: Freddie and the Dreamers, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger took a particular interest in me, wanting to know where I’d been to school and was I for real. The Kinks demanded cups of tea and cash in a suitcase before they would appear. I was distressed. There was a feeling of contempt for America as a place to rip off and then return home from, like Elizabethan privateers.

I was breaking all over America, but controversy was collecting. Portland had banned me for encouraging loose sex and drug taking.
 

For me, America was a treasure house of country music, blues, ragtime, jazz—the roots of my soul. In Memphis I was stunned to receive boos and catcalls when I announced from the stage that I was proud to be in Elvis country, home of Sun Records. “We love the Beatles! We love the Stones! We love you!” came the cry. We were not only Invaders but masqueraders as well. In my dismay I retreated into America’s glorious musical past, seeking out ragtime and Tin Pan Alley sheet music in thrift stores across the country. And I studied for my history finals even as the bus rolled across the Great Plains.

Somewhere in Kansas we were joined by the popular duo Peter and Gordon, both ex-public-schoolboys, well bred but hiding it. Peter and I palled up eventually. He confessed he’d earlier mistaken me for a moron on the basis of his reading of “You Turn Me On.” Then he’d spotted my work books—Karl Marx and working-class movements—and thought better. As we bused along, Peter told me about the terrific progress pop was making—from the crude early rock V roll of the Elvis variety to sophisticated art rock—and how Bob Dylan’s poetry would revolutionize the business. Even I had recognized that times were changing. I had already had experience of the movement toward serious artistry within pop. Thought, current affairs, and meaningful relevance were creeping in, and the result seemed to be much finger pointing at the wickedness of the world and an invitation to change its ways via magic and chemistry. I was at the birth of folk-rock and protest. But hadn’t I already been through all this back home?