Monday, 6 September 2010


I've recently been reading 17 Watts? : the Birth of British Rock Guitar by Mo Foster. Through an entertaining assemblage of anecdotes from that initial post-War generation that went from Meccano to home-made pickups and amplifiers to filling stadiums in a single decade, it tells the story of the birth of our national obsession with guitar-driven pop.

The stories are great, but I think the best bit is the series of late 1950s back garden photographs showing nascent rock gods, aged 12, proudly cradling cheap guitars which are bigger than they are. Who could have guessed what riches the world would shower on some, or how badly it would end for others?

As I mention in my profile (over on the right there, next to the crow), I was born in 1954 and so never knew life in The Land Before Rock'n'Roll. Indeed, some of my earliest memories are rocking out, as only a 4-year old can, to Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele on seaside caff jukeboxes, to the deep embarrassment of my "proper" boomer sister, eight years older. My Dad had to endlessly improvise guitars for me out of sticks and rolled up newspaper -- anything would do, so long as I could go "Dang-a-dang, dang, DANG!" to that rocking music. I was an appalling little show-off.

But reading the book, looking at the pictures, and remembering the music sparked off some deep musical memories that had nothing to do with guitars. If you don't get your cultural history from Central Casting you'll know that culture is always a mixed picture, with huge time lags working their way through the system*. In the 1950s my Dad's generation were in their prime, and closer to their experience of the jungles of Burma and the beaches of Normandy than we are now to "9/11" and the Milennium Bug. To them, the "skiffle thing" was a passing youth fad, just "greasy kids' stuff" in the contemporary phrase.

Dad -- only 40 in 1958 -- had been a keen amateur drummer and motocyclist, but his musical horizons were fixed by big band swing and the sophisticated vocals of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Ton Up Boys, Little Richard and Chuck Berry simply disgusted him. He was a man of strong musical tastes -- he couldn't understand the appeal of anything that lacked polish, that invoked raw or mawkish emotions, or wasn't essentially Sophisticated Movie American in impulse. For him, it was a time of Italian-copy suits and Volare, the excitement of business travel to France on BEA Viscounts and Come Fly With Me.

But most of his generation were stuck in an older, music-hall groove. It was the twilight of the great age of novelty and variety acts -- I well remember harmonica bands and penny whistle acts on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, in between jugglers and the Tiller Girls. What played on the radio until about 1965 was intended to entertain this easily-pleased but easily-bored majority.

Although "rock" has carried all before it for 50 years, to the point where other musics now struggle for an audience, it's important to realise that at the time of its greatest original triumphs it was like those first tiny mammals, scampering around the feet of the dinosaurs -- strong on potential but low on visibility. I doubt the BBC Light Service played more than twenty "Rock'n'Roll" tracks in a week, even in the Great Age of Elvis.

It was also the Age of Dan Dare who, oddly,
crash landed on campus this week

What the BBC did play a lot of was songs and tunes from musicals, and a particular brand of British light orchestral music that has vanished from the world. The composers and players of this music are now forgotten men -- Ronald Binge or Eric Coates, anyone? And yet, if you grew up in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, their catchy, wholesome tunes were ubiquitous, in the arrangements of Mantovani and other popular orchestras. Thinking of the descending riff of Shakin' All Over, I found myself remembering with deep fondness the not dissimilar tune of Binge's Elizabethan Serenade, which instantly transported me back to a sunny, windy washday in Peartree Way, Stevenage, with my Mum pegging flapping wet sheets onto the clothes line.

And the radio in those days carried survivors from an even earlier age, like the Victorian pennies that would turn up in your change before decimalisation. Ancient-seeming music: the fifty years before 1960 seem to have been considerably longer than the most recent fifty years. For some bizarre reason, I found myself singing On the Road to Mandalay while I was away on holiday. Few things take you so thoroughly by surprise as stuff you didn't know you knew. There I was, swaggering around a French farmhouse kitchen, mentally kitted out as a Kipling-era soldier, singing in a faux-baritone,
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder,
Outta China 'crost the bay!
Strange. I doubt this was as enjoyable to listen to as it was to do, but I made a mental note to look the song up when I got home, and perhaps learn the lyric as a party piece. Or maybe not. But I was surprised and pleased by this felt connection to the Land Before The Land Before Rock'n'Roll.

And when I looked up the song, I was very taken with its final verse, a rock'n'roll sentiment avant la lettre if ever I saw one:
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay!

Another time I must write something about Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads (the source of Mandalay), one of the great underrated masterpieces of English literature. But for now, let's all raise a thirst and sing together:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Rip it up...

* If there is a system -- Discuss, with examples.


David Brookes said...

It is sad that for the last fifty or so post-imperialist years Kipling's stock has sunk so low. At his best he was a writer of real genius, with a genuine popular touch (rather like an earlier John Betjeman). From what I read it seems that he is more appreciated in India than here at the moment - so keep up the good work, Mike.

PS: I assume that it was the 78 rpm recording by Peter Dawson that was in your mind in that French kitchen!

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Great post Mike.

Mike C. said...


It was indeed Peter Dawson, though I didn't know this until I looked it up and heard the original on Spotify.

I was interested to see some of his other recordings -- also songs "I didn't know I knew", like "Drake's Drum". Much as I love (some) rock, I can't help but feel it's behaved like one of those invasive plants that wipe out native species.

As you say, Kipling is much misunderstood. He was one of the few writers who cared what Empire felt like at the "sharp end", and that matters. A poem like "Loot" is far from celebratory or morally simplistic.

I get the impression that enough years have passed for the whole experience of Empire to be of interest again. I can feel a photographic project coming on...


Dave Leeke said...

Page 215 of "17 Watts" has an advert for The Watkins Dominator amp ( "a 17 watt tremolo amplifier") priced at £38 10 shillings(with an optional waterproof cover for a further 27/6d!). I noticed this week that recreations of these amps - a short run of 100 - are to be sold to coincide with the orginals' 50th anniversary.

Guess how much? £1399. That's presumably without the waterproof cover, which most likely won't be an option any way.

I'm no economist but I wonder how that compares to the original price.

At least some kids were able to afford the amp in those days. Not that many kids would want to play through such a beast these days - but currently small low-wattage valve amps are back in vogue.

Gavin McL said...

Well using the retail price index
£38 10s in 1960 is the equivalent of £660 pounds today so its more than doubled in price, though if you compare against average earnings; £38 10s in 1960 is the equivalent of £1520 today.

for all your temporal monetary comparison needs.

I read Kim a couple of years ago (I bought one of those Oxford Classics at an airport when I forgot my "main" book) It was a wonderful a great tale and beautifully written. I think there has been a growing campaign to resurrect his reputation, but some people still seem to confuse him with characters in his books and some of the words do jar a bit.
When I was growing up I loved Riki Tiki Tavi and I can remember my grandfather saying "there are other stories in the book" as I begged him to read it again.
Lovely piece and I do like the saint "getting it on" in the previous post.


Mike C. said...


there is clearly a mystique about vintage valve amps that is rather like the mystique of Leica cameras -- I know Steely Dan's Walter Becker has always had a thing about "tube" amps -- and the market is clearly, well, guys of our age but with rather more spare cash. You don't even need 17 amps to dominate the front room, after all.


Kim is a sensationally good book. What has never been easy for me is to disentangle Kipling from the Wolf Cubs... It was very odd, spending years with "Akela" and "Bagheera" in the 7th Stevenage Cubs (often playing "Kim's Game"), only to see them reincarnated in a Disney feature which involved no tents or badges, and then to realise (doh!) that they were characters from Kipling stories. It seems never to have occurred to anyone to explain the connection...

As to the saint, his expression is positively Python-esque, isn't it?(& I don't mean Kaa...) I suspect mediaeval masons and sculptors were a subversive lot, who enjoyed putting amusing faces onto solemn statues.


Mike C. said...

Sorry, the point I meant to make before distracting myself: Kipling also suffers from being thought of as a children's writer. But some of his stories (e.g. in Plain Tales from the Hills) are very adult indeed, and strangely "modern".


Gavin McL said...

The amusing statues and gargoyles on medieval churches are a bit like smiling Victorians in sepia photographs - they remind you that they were human after all.

Martyn Cornell said...

Knowing that you don't like the jazzy version of Joni Mitchell, Mike, I doubt you've heard her version of "If …", but she makes what, to me, is a fair go of it -

except for bottling out on the famous last line. I know it's a poem beloved of the Magaret Thatchers, but actually, y'know …

Mike C. said...

I'll check it out, Martyn, but I can't imagine "If" being improved by being sung by Joni Mitchell -- never liked her version of Yeats' "Secong Coming".

"If" is a brilliant piece of rhetoric spoiled, in my view, by that last line. It's almost as if he couldn't think of anything commensurate with that amazing build up ("You'll be the most improbable, annoying, amazing, GODLIKE PERSON that ever lived!!!!") so went for the effect of paradox.

Also (and obviously) I don't think investing "man" in the "male" sense with that ideological load can ever work any more -- it's where RK is as irretrievably dated as 14th century notions of courtly love.

That's not to say that, otherwise, in my innermost heart I don't endorse every wise boy-scoutish word of it...