British rock'n'roll in the pre-fab four era


There's no way that the little island of Britain can claim to have invented rock'n'roll (r'n'r) or even to have contributed to its birth. The music was born in the USA, and it was America that gave the world all rock's major players in its formative years.

However, it should be remembered that there was no shortage of top class r'n'r artists in the UK before The Beatles, and that several superb singles were recorded in Britain between 1956-62. The main purpose of this series of articles is to give (sometimes long overdue) credit to the UK's first rock'n'rollers; while at the same time attempting to put their work into some kind of true perspective.  

 When it came to selecting 'beat' artists to include, I have erred on the generous side, and included several singers who would not merit inclusion in a strict Who's Who Of Rock. I have also made a conscious effort to go into more depth on the lesser known performers of the era, since many major performers are already well documented. It has also been my aim to avoid the more obvious facts about the top acts, trying instead to include lesser known items that relate to the period covered in the articles.

As can be imagined, after 45 years in the music business I have met many successful and unsuccessful recording artists, producers and back room boys, and realise that every record, whether a hit or miss, has an interesting story behind it. Talking to such people helped fit together many of the pieces that make up the pre-Beatles British music jigsaw. It was my intention to try not to look at topics solely from a record business point of view, although I occasionally I may have, and in those cases I hope to have provided an interesting insight. It was initially planned to include many recent remarks from the subjects of this series, but it soon became apparent that there's 'no quote like an old quote', as hindsight tends a dull the edges of truth, and an artist's words at the time generally give a much better and truer picture of events.

  Jim Dale -early Uk rock star

In a nutshell, the ingredients for the r'n'r revolution (or is that evolution?) were already in the musical mixing bowl at the dawn of the 1950s. The music exploded in Britain shortly after it had taken America by storm, and, despite considerable opposition, it was dominating the UK pop charts by 1957, with Britain's r'n'r pupils scoring alongside their American masters. Although the UK media was very slow to give r'n'r the exposure it deserved, rock thrived and prospered, and, like most things in life, it evolved, merging with other forms of popular music; sometimes making it impossible to tell where one form stopped and the next started.

No doubt some of you will find it difficult to imagine Britain in this bygone era. From a musical point of view, it was a land with little or no pop on the radio or TV, and, for the record, in the mid-1950s every single was a breakable 78 rpm 10" platter, most of which were played on wind-up gramophones (record players). The average wind (by hand of course) would last about three singles, at which stage the record would audibly slow down and a vigorous rewind would be called for. The best received technological breakthrough in the record industry during the early 1950s had been the introduction of gramophone needles (a prehistoric stylus) that could play up to ten records before needing replacement. This was a vast improvement on previous needles which were purchased in a box of 100 and which needed changing after every record! The public were far less interested in EMI's announcement that they would be releasing 45 RPM singles on unbreakable 7" plastic, or that EMI were going to be following Decca's lead and manufacturing 33 1/3rd RPM long playing micro groove albums. The majority of record buyers initially ignored both these developments having no intention of paying the same price for 'small ' records (which naturally 'could not contain as much music') or buying records that could not be played on their single speed (78) gramophones. In fact, the 45 rpm 7" single did not really start catching on in Britian until 1958, and only a few r'n'r performers released albums before the early 1960s.



                                Tommy- the first UK rocker

It may help to visualise the record situation in the UK if it is kept in mind that only a handful of companies existed and that the big four; EMI, Decca, Phillips and Pye, had the lion's share of all record sales, and therefore controlled the market. There were no notable indie labels and only a couple of independent production companies who leased their product to the majors. Several different record charts existed, but the one most record buyers consulted was the NME Top 30, which is referred to throughout these articles.


Artist and Repertoire (A&R) men at these companies either produced or selected all the records released. Even in the early 1960s most of these A&R men were from the pre-r'n'r school, which naturally meant that they did not understand the music in the same way as most young record buyers. This situation changed slowly as the sixties progressed, but for the era that this book covers, it is true to say that the majority of music industry people making the decisions about rock (and for that matter most people involved in the record business) in Britain were not rock fans, and hurried home after work to listen to some 'good music', from the likes of Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat 'King' Cole.


This would seem a good moment to mention that many of the people actively involved in the making of r'n'r records, and indeed a large number of the fans, had a sneaking suspicion that the bubble would soon burst. Therefore, with the aim of lengthening their careers, several soloists and groups, who had initially hit with rock oriented releases, quickly attempted to widen their musical parameters and to become 'all round entertainers'. They wanted to be ready for the night club and cabaret circuit when rock receded; the prospect of returning to the coffee bars and cellar club circuit did not appeal to most of them.


Early British rockers are, of course, not the only ones to get short-changed in most rock histories; countless lesser known American artists too seldom receive the credit they deserve in helping sculpt early rock. In the hope of slightly re-dressing the balance, hundreds of US performers who recorded the original versions of songs cut by British acts will be name checked in this series, information which it is hoped will be of interest. In reality, such a large percentage of the early domestic r'n'r recordings were cover versions that the impression may be given that many UK rock'n'rollers were parasites. It is true that if genuine originality is the vital ingredient most of the UK performers of the period don't stand close scrutiny - however, neither do many of the British stars of the Beat Boom era, nor indeed hundreds of other UK or American artists. If all the truly original rock artists squeezed into a five seater car, there would probably still be room for Elvis, Cliff, Bill Haley and The Everly Brothers.


There's no point in denying that some of the first British rock acts were trampling on a musical terrain already well trodden down by American artists, but the fact is that several of the UK artists of the era were extremely talented and creative, and would almost certainly have been successful in the States had they arrived on the scene after The Beatles demolished the door that for so long kept the British out.


Until the Beatles bulldozed down those barriers, UK-produced rock records were regarded very much as second rate in the USA. This reaction understandably appeared to give most UK artists inferiority complexes about the American market. When his US label, Epic, asked Marty Wilde to cut some tracks for American consumption (after the success there of 'Bad Boy' in 1960), Marty commented, 'I really couldn't believe they would want me to record in America.' Even in 1962, the year that The Beatles first charted in the UK, top British vocalist Eden Kane stated (after returning from a US promotion trip), 'Our music scene has been dominated for a long time by the Americans, but things are gradually changing. I think that by seeing just how they do it, British artists could stay supreme at home.' A positive remark, certainly, but Kane's lofty goal was simply that British acts could rule the roost in their homeland - there was no thought of possible American success too. It seemed to be taken for granted in the early 1960s that the best a UK act could aspire to was a one-off American hit, and possibly the chance of appearing low on the bill of a US r'n'r package show, as Cliff Richard had done in 1960. As history shows, this position almost reversed after 1964's British Invasion, when in some cases American audiences accepted UK songs more easily than their own, or only accepted US compositions when sung by British acts. In truth, during the mid and late 1960s several average UK talents were welcomed with open arms Stateside, whilst superior American artists were overlooked - a situation that seemed absolutely impossible throughout the period this series covers.


It's very easy to look at the music scene in those 'good old days' with only fond memories, and to forget that the era was not quite as innocent as it is often painted. If for a moment we take off our rose-colored contact lenses we would see that those early rock years also had their ugly side - chart hyping was not unheard of, and Payola (pay for play) was rife in America. There is no doubt at all that many of the hits of that era (and indeed several since) may not have originally been played on the radio if money or goods had not changed hands! This fact naturally makes one wonder which of the 'Old Gold' hits we know and love started life this way, and which top stars may not have made the grade, if someone had not been bribed to play their early records. Equally mind-boggling is the thought that hundreds of those equally good (if not better) singles could have been played in their places. This would have resulted in sales, chart hits and successful careers for countless other talented artists who remained non-starters simply because they did not have the weight of the wallets of the major record business players behind them. Any fair minded person must wish such under hand arrangements had not existed. On the other hand, after working for various record companies and having 'marketed' numerous chart records, I know how important hits and market share are to the survival of record companies, and if the standard practice was to 'grease a few palms' to get the necessary airplay, or to 'pull a few strokes' to try and improve a record's chart position, then it is understandable why companies did this - they had to keep the wolf from the door, or in some cases keep the mink in the cupboard. Incidentally, Payola was seldom mentioned in connection with British radio, although there are stories of chart hyping occuring on both sides of the Atlantic in those formative rock years.


It would be wrong to suggest that every record mentioned will be worth rummaging around record sales for, but several do deserve the respect given to less original and inventive later records, and if this series helps dispel the myth that there was nothing of note musically in Britain before the Beat Boom, it has served its purpose. These early UK beat stars not only laid the foundations of British rock, but also built the first few storeys. Many of them were as important in the evolution of British rock as Elvis, Chuck Berry or Little Richard were in the development of rock in the USA - it is a certainty that there would have been no Beatles without the first British rock pioneers.








Adapted from Dave's book 'Hit Parade Heroes'