Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - The Restless Generation (2008)

‘This is musical Mau-Mau’ – Jeremy Thorpe, 1956
Written By: John Burton
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

The Restless Generation: How rock music changed the face of 1950s BritainBy Pete Frame Pub: Rogan House 2007 512pp Paperback ISBN: 978-0-95295-407-1

Post-1945 Britain saw something unknown for a generation – slowly rising working class aspirations and living standards. By the 1950s, as Pete Frame says ‘having been liberated from war and austerity ... youngsters were ready, willing and able to indulge themselves ... no longer little adults waiting to become big adults, we luxuriated in a teenage world’.

Into that world came Rock and Roll and its cousin skiffle, (whose British origin in 1949 is traced by Frame to a tin hut round the side of a pub in Cranford, up a tributary of the Thames) the ‘bastard offspring of New Orleans-style jazz’.

The mention of the hut is enough to suggest that this book may be packed with tiny detail. It is. (Frame was, after all, the author of various ‘Rock Family Trees’ where you could find out exactly who played what with whom and when, if you were so inclined.) He has interrogated almost ninety people to create this story. It starts with the jazz and blues enthusiast Ken Colyer, the man from that tin hut who jumped ship to play with the jazz greats of New Orleans before being deported to rejoin the early English trad-jazz and skiffle scene with Chris Barber, Lonnie Donegan and others.

The new music inspired thousands of hopefuls to pick up guitars, banjos, washboards or whatever. We meet many famous names as they come together (and split) in coffee bars, clubs and theatres. We see bizarre attempts by their managers to insert them into variety theatre shows (flagging because of the spread of TV), billed along with acrobats, ventriloquists and unfunny comedians before realising that most of the audience only wanted to rock. For similar reasons abysmal British covers of great American singles were produced with zero excitement and session musicians ‘squarer than an Oxo cube’.

When the film with Bill Haley Rock Around the Clock was released in 1956 it stuck ‘a dagger into Britain’s staid way of life’ according to Frame. ‘What mattered was the music . . . and the insight into the milieu surrounding it. How American teenagers dressed, spoke, behaved, danced. . . Hundreds wanted to start bands.’ There were street disturbances in east London after jiving fans, jeering at the police, were ejected from cinemas, many being fined for insulting behaviour. Rank dropped Sunday showings. Watch Committees and local councils banned the film across Britain as cinema seats were slashed, fire hoses and fireworks set off, post-film audiences danced in the streets and police were attacked. Although only about 60 people were prosecuted, the media reaction was as if the entire teen population had gone berserk.

The arrival of Elvis Presley and Heartbreak Hotel was just too much for BBC Radio’s Head of Light Music. Presley and Haley were ‘freaks at the bottom of the gimmick noise barrel.’ Equally vicious were some music journalists. Jazz critic Steve Race wrote in Melody Maker

‘... the current craze…. is one of the most terrifying things ever to have happened to popular music... let us oppose it to the end.’
Too late. Elvis was wild, young, beautiful and sexy. He wasn’t this year’s model, says Frame. He was this generation’s model.

Riding to Rock and Roll’s defence came an unlikely hero: Labour MP Manny Shinwell, 72. After denouncing the censorship, he said in a near-Marxist moment on radio, found by Frame in the BBC archives

‘… there’s something happening to the youth of the nation; they’re trying to free themselves, they want more liberty, more freedom. They resent the routine, being in a rut, getting up in the morning, being clocked in, being liberated only when the employer decides they can be liberated… Therefore I don’t worry when they do a bit of jiving.’
That’s it exactly. Pete Frame has done a great job telling his story of alienated youth seeking expression (not overtly political, but rebellious) and the moral panic that they triggered. (Elsewhere in this Newsletter Gerd-Rainer Horn writes of cultural rebellions of 1956 onwards preparing the ground for the political rebellions of the sixties and seventies.)

There’s a useful timeline but no footnotes or chapter titles and the index isn’t brilliant. The prose is that of a dedicated rock journalist, not an academic. But even if you don’t want the small details of the artistes and repertoire, there’s still enough material buried here to conjure up the world of stuffiness and grey-flannel boredom that the musicians and their fans fought against in the 1950s.

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