December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
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
I always used music. Pop songs were my escape chute from the austerity of postwar Britain, a drab and flaccid land where I wore thick long underwear and Wellington boots, where I was always saying good-bye to my parents and trying not to cry. On the grimy train puffing me back to boarding school by the mud gray sea, I would counter the clacking wheels by chanting such songs as “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” preparing for the inevitability of rough blankets, bullies, the eating of toothpaste, the learning of Latin, and the mystery of math.
England wasn’t swinging in 1951. It was always raining, not just outside but in the heart as well. The grownups said life was much better before the war, before the Americans arrived. Why, demanded my teachers, do you read American comic books crammed with cowboys, gangsters, and sudden death? Why do you sing silly songs like “Never Trust a Woman”? (Phil Harris and His Orchestra, HMV 5623,1 could have told them.) When will you progress to Gilbert and Sullivan?
Now I can tell them: I liked America for the name alone, rolling along like a prairie; I liked the shouting colors of those comic books with their slogan, “68 Big Pages—Don’t Take Less!”; I liked the slick clang of American pop with its promise of a more exciting world across the sea; I liked the grinning curvy cars, and the healthy sweater girls with breasts pointing aggressively; I longed to clamber inside a pair of tight blue jeans.
Back in that year 1965, we visited the Festival of Britain a celebration of a coming new age. The part I enjoyed was the fun fair in Battersea Park, even though the ice cream tasted like margarine. Over the Tannoy speakers buzzed a current pop song, British-made: “If you’re a Londoner just like me, meet me in Battersea Park; there’s music and dancing, a place for romancing. …” There was definitely a problem with homemade pop; the song was a waltz and sung by a local crooner always pictured in the papers clad in a cardigan and smoking a pipe.
Fortunately there were visiting weekends at school. Then my understanding parents would drive me to Brighton, where, on the beach between two sad and rusty piers, shimmered the Super-American Fun Palace. Boing, boing, boing, clung went the fleet of pinball machines, made in the U.S.A. and painted with incendiary blondes squired by Burt Lancasters. Over this wondrous scene came crashing American pop, sent out from on high by four great bullhorns. I knew the words to this inspirational music and could pipe about hot kisses and the Deep South.
Back at school, and no good at sports, I found my niche by forming my first band, a kazoo ensemble; with lavatory paper wrapped around combs, we hummed the hits of the day: “Answer Me, My Love” and “Shrimp Boats.” One night, on the BBC, just after the news about Korea, we heard a terrific new record called “Kiss Me Big.” The singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford, sang in a strong cowboy twang of wanting to be hugged and grabbed, to “stand and quiver like I’ve bin stabbed.” I was captivated by “Tennessee” and in particular the driving boogie beat of his band. During the holidays I bought the record and often simply gazed at the label’s enticing picture of a tower of disk platters, the home of Capitol Records. Whenever I played it to my sister and her friends, they stuck fingers in their ears and grimaced. That made me like the record even more. This was outlaw music; this was the Big Beat. I was ready for the world.
After prep school the next institution to which I was sent was public school, meaning private school. A great sacrifice for my parents, but boarding schools were the proper training ground for all would-be British gentlemen. As vicious as any urban jungle (minus the guns), these schools prepared us for the rough-and-tumble of the adult world. Some of the toughest wheelers and dealers of British rock in the 1960s and 1970s graduated from these expensive institutions: Brian Epstein, Peter Asher, Denny Cordell, Andrew Loog Oldham, Simon Napier-Bell.
Napier-Bell, known as “Fruity,” was already at Bryanston when I arrived in 1955. But he was a hot trumpeter in the school jazz band and had no time for Tennessee Ernie or me. There was something piquant about listening to American music deep in the lushest Dorset countryside, in Thomas Hardy land. In our regulation gray shorts and open-neck shirts, my friends and I spent many a lazy afternoon in the long grass with a portable gramophone, engrossed in King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Big Bill Broonzy.
Suddenly, that year, rock ’n’ roll hit Britain, springing out at us fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove. By December the hit parade was led by “Rock Around the Clock,” played by Bill Haley and His Comets. The avuncular chief scout of rock ’n’ roll was first received at Bryanston from the hissing radio secreted in SmytheCrotchford’s bed, after lights-out one night. From Radio Luxembourg, sandwiched between the gabble of French and German stations, we heard Bill Haley’s good news train clickety-clacking through the ether, firing rim shots at nearby music teachers, dropping molten rock on the history-laden trees of England. There would be no stopping this boogie train. For Bryanston and for Britain this new music came simple and select, trailing no grim history of Africa-America, of poor white trash, of hillbillies and juke joints, of suffering jazzmen and blues folk. There were no complications. There was no responsibility.
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.
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.
In the summer of 1963, that fatal year, I was finally able to make a pilgrimage to the land of my dreams, the source of my sounds. I went on a student charter flight to New York, bought a ninety-nine-day, ninety-nine-dollar Greyhound bus ticket, and set off to see the places of my choice. Not the Grand Canyon, not Washington, not Disneyland—but Nashville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and the West Coast beaches. At the end of my trip I managed to talk myself into a job entertaining at a student coffeehouse in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. How impressed everyone was that I knew American folksongs like “The Sporting Life Is Killin’ Me.” And how shocked I was to find that the college kids knew little about the real country blues and, much worse, were wary of the urban shouts and screams of James Brown and his Famous Flames. They preferred to hear scrubbed-clean folksongs concerning jolly coachmen or being stuck a thousand miles from home. Flaxen-haired coeds stroked guitars and sang sepulchrally with eyes tightly closed. When I mentioned my love of Elvis & Co., the collegians talked of commercialism. I saw rock ‘n’ roll, and especially R&B, not only as great entertainment but also as strong meat flavored with the salt of truth.
Back to Britain and the problem of how to create a proper home product that wasn’t an aping of American pop. Rock and Britain seemed inimical. My country was a land of homely comedians, of Shakespeare and tea cozies and everything covered in batter. Imagine, then, my shock and surprise when I returned from America to find everybody talking about the Beatles. A silly name, I said, a play on Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Now, the Rolling Stones were another matter: They were keeping the R&B torch alight and moving. They had sass too: They sneered, they never smiled, they couldn’t care less. And Mick Jagger with his slim hips and huge rubber lips seemed outrageously sexy.
But it was, at first, the cheeky, cheery northerners who were the darlings of the press and public. With their retreading of American R&B records and their own trifles like “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles were a far cry from “I’m Your Hoochie Man” and the rigors of R&B. We true blues devotees were certain the Beatles could never break into the American hit parade. Americans had invented R&B and R&R and pop; why on earth would they want to buy pallid reproductions from a group of weedy limeys? But, as all the world knows, America did buy the Beatles. After a little huffing and puffing I stopped trying to reason why and determined to catch the wave and land on the U.S. beach as a bright and breezy British Invader. For suddenly everything British was in style.
Here, in my capacity as cultural historian, I should stop the narrative in order to interject a calm telescopic view of this turbulent period.
The British Invaders weren’t acting only for reasons of fun and money but also out of a sincere (and wellresearched) admiration for the musical heritage of the United States, a treasury woefully overlooked by most Americans. Maybe this was because Americans, being a go-ahead people, had (and still have) a healthy obsession for the new and immediate and thus quickly discard the old and out of fashion. Maybe the reason they often can’t recognize the dirty gold on their streets is the same reason that I and many of my British colleagues can’t see why there’s such an enthusiastic Shakespeare industry in the U.S.A. The grass is greener, as the saying goes.
At any rate, historically it’s always been foreigners who have taken America’s musical heritage seriously. In the 1930s and 1940s it was French, Belgian, and British writers who championed jazz. Later the Germans grew academic about ragtime. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music was written by an Englishman, as was the first serious examination of rock ’n’ roll, The Sound of the City , by Charlie Gillett. In 1967 I was the first writer, in the Los Angeles Times , to examine and question the so-called poetry of the new psychedelic rock groups, and there was an angry reaction from the rock industry, which saw the music only in terms of sales figures.
The fact is that British musicians have always been in the vanguard as curators of the traditions of ragtime, jazz, and authentic rock ‘n’ roll—from Harry Roy, Ken Colyer, and Chris Barber to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and my own Bluesville. We studied the shouts, grunts, and blue note crushes as we listened repeatedly to our precious imported American records. We analyzed, we copied, and eventually we created, exporting back to America the vibrant, hurting, ultimately joyful musical culture so neglected in the country of its origin.
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.”
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.
I took the old ragtime number that I’d been performing at the coffeehouse, “The Sporting Life Is Killin’ Me,” and gave it some British Invasion touches. I would make the old song sound like that recent hit by the Animals (from Newcastle): “The House of the Rising Sun,” another transmogrified American folksong. With jerky arpeggiated guitar chords and the gospel combination of piano and organ, as well as my own particular brand of English angst, our recording was eventually completed. At Christmas I flew over to Seattle with the tape of “This Sporting Life” and told Jerry Dennon there was absolutely no doubt we had a hit. He nodded and made an “O” sign with a finger and thumb.
The record was released on Jerden Records in Seattle in January 1965. Almost immediately it became “Pick of the Week” on the local powerhouse rocker station, KJR. Dick Clark was soon featuring it on “American Bandstand.” The college postman handed me a telegram: “Record released nationally by Tower Records, a subsidiary of Capitol. Record makes charts next week. Get Bluesville in accord as am arriving to make album soon. Regards, Jerry Dennon.” Capitol Records! Home of Tennessee Ernie Ford!
Get Bluesville in accord . Getting them in one place at one time would be work enough. More important, I had to rustle up some songs for the album. Some I wrote, others I found. The most promising seemed to be an antiwar number called “No Tears for Johnny,” a surefire follow-up to “This Sporting Life.” My pop would be taken seriously; my recordings would slot in with ease beside my Marxist studies. Life would be in rhythm, in a groove. … Jerry Dennon arrived in the middle of the Easter term, accompanied by his delightful wife and a briefcase full of business papers. I booked them into the only hotel in Dublin that offered ice water. Between lectures I conferred with Jerry about the forth-coming album, suggesting a cheap studio. He gave the “O” sign. Then he presented me with a pile of contracts: for recording, publishing, personal management. Me, the subject of long-winded contracts! I signed and signed.
Next evening Bluesville and I cut our album in a tiny studio near the famous post office where, in 1916, the Irish Republic had been declared. Most of the time was spent on the antiwar song; I felt sure I would be the next Joan Baez. With a few minutes left at the end of the session, we decided to record a version of a song with no name, a funny thing we’d been exciting the girls with at local beat clubs. It involved some orgasmic panting and no lyrics except the repetition of the phrase You turn me on , the words that the Seattle girl had murmured to me.
As the resulting recording was to become a monster hit—one that is now a golden oldie, is still played every day somewhere in the U.S.A., has been also recorded by Mae West, the Surfaris, Sandy Nelson, and Brazil’s top rocker, was featured ad nauseam in the movie Encino Man , was for a time an anthem of the gay liberation movement, inspired William Burroughs when he had a case of writer’s block, et cetera, et cetera—I intend to go into the creation of this classic in some detail. I’m still flummoxed by its sucess, I’m still trying to rid myself of this albatross. And yet … “You Turn Me On,” I think, is as good and honest a piece of rock ’n’ roll as you’ll ever hear.
Like the British Empire, this song was conceived in a fit of absence of mind. Nothing was planned. The tape rolled; Jerry paced the room, nodding; the band set off at a boogie shuffle pace on a bluesy gospel lick of ancient origin but recently popularized by Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Marvin Gaye, and countless others. During the instrumental opening chorus an ashtray, powered by the music, slid off my piano and thudded onto the floor. But the band chugged on, so I thought I might as well contribute a vocal for the heck of it since the take was already ruined. I sang in a high-pitched, whimpering voice, and I made up the full lyrics as I went along. Here is a transcript:
We listened to the playback, had a laugh, and went our various ways. The protest song was to be the hit, a worthy successor to “This Sporting Life,” already in the Top Ten of Los Angeles.
Over in Hollywood, inside the tower that resembled a stack of platters, the Tower Records executives ignored “No Tears for Johnny” but took the panting track seriously. A seasoned promotion man, “Jumping” George Sherlock felt its potential immediately. “It’s a record,” he said. “Definitely a happening one. A possible stone fox smash.” The president of the label, genial Gordon “Bud” Fraser, a twenty-five-year veteran of the disk business, a man who had walked with Sinatra, gave Jumping George a brief: Make a few test pressings, and take this mother and run it around the stations if you feel so hot for this weird thing. Run it up the flagpole, in other words, and see if anyone salutes (both Bud and Jumping were fifties people).
At my rooms at Trinity College the telegrams came in once more. “You Turn Me On” (a.k.a. “The Turn On Song”) is a “pick” in Billboard, Cashbox, Record World , and Music Business and is becoming a “national breakout” via Los Angeles. “We’re shipping 50,000 of these babies a day! Are you ready for this, Ian baby??” — signed by George Sherlock, the West Coast promotion chief. … ‘Tan your record will make it big. Working to put it in Top Ten within next thirty days. Regards Gordon “Bud” Fraser, President Tower Records.”… “You are scheduled to appear on the ABC TV network show “Shindig” next week. Jerry.” …
Stardom at last! First I was flown to New York, where Tower’s East Coast personnel greeted me. One of the promotion men, a Mr. Licata, rehearsed me in my hotel room, showing me how to mime (“lip synch”) to my record, suggesting spins and hand gestures. Then I was escorted around the trade-paper offices, to shake hands with kindly old gents who had pipes and memories of the great days when Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell were riding high in the charts, when artists were under the control of the executives and knew their places in the great well-oiled American entertainment machine. Now all was chaos; the inmates had taken over the asylum. Could you believe the surliness of those Rolling Stones, Kinks, Animals? None of them can read music, none of them could play Vegas! Now you, Iron —you got class, you got manners. And also a stone fox smash, added Mr. Licata. “You Turn Me On” was currently at No. 25, with a bullet.
Mr. Licata next escorted me to the TV studio where I lip-synched to my record. Back to camera for a few bars, spin around slow and British, sidle about, and then cup hands sexily for the panting on the “Huh! Huh!” break. These shows were all the same, all without any order or direction. Show business was not yet prepared for framing the British Invaders as it had gorgeously framed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and even Elvis. It had no idea what to do with these untamed youngsters from the erstwhile land of the bowler hat. Nor did I have any idea what to do. I was a student having fun, enamored of America, longing to meet some of my R&B idols and sorry that Jelly Roll Morton was dead.
I remember well one of these television lip-synch shows—in upstate New York and employing an endless array of miming stars, including Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dizzy Gillespie, all selling their latest wares, the little bit of vinyl. The kid audience showed scant interest in these stars and too much in me, screaming at every shake of my long hair. Beatles stardust had fallen like dandruff onto my shoulders. These kids were crying for me simply because of my magical connection with England, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, whatever, so long as it was cutely rude and British. I approached Dizzy Gillespie to commiserate with him, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and emptied some spittle from his trumpet.
Next stop, Hollywood. At the Los Angeles Airport I was mobbed in the arrivals area. Girls, some very little, broke through the police barriers to press into my hands stuffed animals, brownies, Bermuda shorts, books of poems. I was eventually helped into a police car and then transferred to a civilian one. “We’ll give them a run, but keep in touch—know what I mean?” said my driver, smiling winningly from his glinting suit. “Hi, I’m George Sherlock, West Coast promo man, and you’re a star.” I asked what was happening. “You’re what is happening, baby! You’re hot, you’re the hottest, so grab it. Everybody wants to know who and what you are. Are you truly British or are you a colored Ohio Jew? That type question.” Then he punched a button on his radio; “Huh! Huh! Huh!” came out. He punched another: same thing. George, pounding the steering wheel on the off beat, told me I was breaking all over America and even infiltrating Brazil and Canada. But controversy was collecting: Authorities in Portland, Oregon, had banned me for encouraging loose sex and drug taking. “Cheer up,” said George. “You’re a star now, whatever the reasons.”
“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.
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?
The bolshie attitude of my fellow Invaders was even affecting American performers. When I returned to Hollywood, I was on a television show with a hot new folk-rock group called the Byrds. Now, while everyone else and I were clapping along to the beat, beaming and showing teeth, these Byrds stood like tombstones. They didn’t wear band suits; they wore buckskin with fringes and soiled sweaters and jeans. There was no velour in sight. They halfheartedly lip-synched, and I could have sworn they were having a chat while they were supposed to be singing along to their record. But the main surprise was they didn’t smile .
They performed a version of “We’ll Meet Again” on twelve-string guitars and with a kind of sneer in their voices. I pointed out to them that this song was originally made famous by Vera Lynn, “The Forces’ Sweetheart.” “We think it’s funny, spooky, and very old,” said one of the Byrds, a fellow in Ben Franklin wire glasses. I replied that the song meant an awful lot to those in Britain who had experienced World War H. At last I was given a smile, a bit twisted. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but whatever it was, I didn’t care for it.
In August I went on a disk-plugging trip with George Sherlock, the Tower promotion man. He was in good form because Mick Jagger had immortalized him on the flip side of the Rolling Stones recent hit “Satisfaction” as “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.” We were armed with promotional copies of my new single, “N-N-Nervous,” and we had an appointment with a top San Francisco radio program director called “Swinging Swallow.” He was a fat man, sleek and sallow, and he had little time for us. When George finally managed to get “N-N-Nervous” on the audition turntable, all Swinging Swallow did was lie back in his expanding chair, sip a beer, and talk about last night’s base- ball game while he kept picking up the tone arm in order to skip grooves on my new record, the one that my pop-life future depended on. “When you gonna make another record?” he asked. Before I could reply, he said, “I mean a record , something that’ll fly . Have you guys heard this ‘Eve of Destruction’ mother by Barry McGuire? No? Well, it’s gonna be a stone fox smash!” and he busted open another can of beer, soaking my record. “A lot of the lyrics I can’t make out, but what I can is goddamn treason! Can you believe a guy who knocks our draft, our senators, our church—and all on a pop record?”
“So I take it,” said George, with a boogaloo gesture from his hips, “that the disk, Swallow, is negative as far as your big boss playlist is concerned?”
“Not on your Hollywood scalp doily! It may knock the U.S.A., but I don’t knock success. Never knock success, Whitcomb. This ‘Eve of Destruction’ is Dylan made commercial. It’s a new kind of loot music under the title of protest . Remember that! Get me? And get out!” It certainly was the eve of destruction for me. My moment of fame was over. It was time to go. Just before I left for Dublin and my finals, I got a letter from a sort of fan. I have kept it:
Dear Ian Whitcomb,
I have watched you several times now and I want to say that sure you have talent and you’re magnetic, but why, oh, why, do you screw it all up by horsing around, being coy, by camping—as if you’re embarrassed by show business? You could be great if you faced your potential and saw it through but that takes guts. Instead you mince, or treat it all as a big joke. Come on now!
In October I sat for my finals in Modern History and Political Thought. A month later I received this letter from my tutor:
My dear Whitcomb,
You’ll be glad to learn that we’ve awarded you a second class degree. Under the circumstances—I mean your musical career and success in America—we all feel that you performed remarkably well. I speak for all of us on the faculty, including Julian [the college postman], when I say “well done” and “good luck” in your future life, whatever that may be.
My future, as it turned out, lay in the past. I left the pop scene to its apocalypse and, in the seventies and eighties, its subsequent coagulation into a monstrous corporate business that had nothing to do with roots music. Indeed the roots—ragtime, blues, jazz, country—had all been pulled up and gobbled and spat out by a long line of rock stars. Especially the British Invaders and, I’m sorry to say, me.
And what happened to the British Invasion? It was absorbed, like the Norman Invasion of 1066. American youth, after the first flush of infatuation, turned around to face their own heritage and started contributing once again to mainstream culture. The already burgeoning folk movement was electrified, leading to the heady (and sometimes even heavy) work of the Byrds, the Doors, and Bob Dylan. All had been galvanized into artistic action by the artless cheeriness of the British Invaders.
And I am glad the Americans acted, for I have always believed that ragtime, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and rhythm and blues are vernacular styles best carried on by the natives themselves. There’s nothing more embarrassing than a Mick Jagger impersonating a poor black from the Deep South. All that we outsiders—we curators and enthusiasts—can do is to encourage by example. America is pop, the nation’s great and only contribution to world culture. I mean that as a compliment. Heaven knows, we don’t need any more Joyces, Prousts, or Picassos.
For myself, I became a writer of pop history, a reviver of older styles, a neo-Tin Pan Alleyman. Once, at Trinity College, Julian the postman had asked me: “What d’ye want to study history for? It’s all happened, and there’s nothing ye can do about it.” But there was: By writing about it, I could create my own world. So I marched steadily backward until I reached the sunny banks of vaudeville, where I rested. Here I am, where the proscenium arch separates actor from audience, where the singer is not yet the song, where you still end a sentimental ballad with a wink. Where, on a sad and dripping pier, I can still thrill to Al Jolson’s recorded call to come to California, and be right back where I started from.