Hail, Hail Rock and Roll: the most important Saturday in modern musical history

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The day in question was 6th July, 1957.

I don’t know how many of you guys here are musicians, or would be musicians or (like me) not very good musicians. Unless you are just going to sing (and that’s not as easy as it sounds, take it from one who does), being a musician requires at least three things: some kit, at least a modicum of skill, and practice. And some music requires a lot more.

This can present something of a barrier, especially for those without a musical family or background.

By the ‘fifties, we had the teenager. Young people left school at 15, there was full employment, their parents were better off than they had been before. So it was that some of the money some of those boys and girls did not grow straight into the housekeeping, keeping the wolf from the door. Instead, kids had money in their pockets. And they spent it on what kids spend their money on: fun.

Hail, hail rock and roll: deliver me from the days of old!

Chuck Berry was one of the two great early rock and roll songwriters. Whilst others had the higher profiles, I’m not sure that anyone from that first generation of rock and rollers was more influential.

Meanwhile, in Britain, if you were the ‘fifties version of the hipster, what came to be known as beatniks, you were into jazz. In the 1950s there was a move away from the smooth swing sound of the war years. One direction was towards what was a more difficult, challenging form of jazz called be-bop, and its descendants. Be-bop has it challenges: it is ferociously difficult to play and some found it plain bloody difficult to listen to.

I have written elsewhere about the coming of the folk revival (see here). At the same time, especially in Britain, there was a move away from the smooth swing sound to the more raucous sounds of traditional jazz. Perhaps the most important figure in the trad jazz scene, as it was known, was Chris Barber.

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Barber also took an interest in other traditional black musical forms. one such was a form born out of economic necessity: the jug band. Jug bands combined relatively cheap conventional instruments, such as acoustic guitar and banjo, with homemade improvised ones such as tea chest basses, washboards and, yes, jugs.

Another name for jug band music was skiffle. Lonnie Donegan played banjo in barber’s band, and during the intervals played some skiffle music. By the mid ‘fifties, Barber was a well established recording artist and so, in 1955, some of Donegan’s skiffle was recorded too. In 1956, his version of Rock Island Line (a song written by the great blues artist, Lead Belly) was a smash hit.

Skiffle groups cropped up all over Britain. Acoustic guitars were relatively cheap, and instruments could be improvised.

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One such skiffle group were The Quarrymen, formed by a wayward 16-year-old art student and some friends. Like many of the skiffle groups formed in 1956/57, its members weren’t really interested in the musical heritage of the the black south. They were rock and rollers, just ones that couldn’t afford the full kit. Less Lonnie Donegan than the other great early poet of rock and roll, and the greatest opening line of any rock and roll song, period.

Whilst The Quarrymen were warming up before playing at a local church fete, they were introduced to a slightly chubby 15-year-old schoolboy, who promptly showed them how to retune their guitar then start himself at the piano and played some rock and roll, including a medley of Little Richard numbers.

The schoolboy thought the The Quarrymen were all right, but the lead singer: he was something else. As for the singer, he had a dilemma: should he get the obviously musically more knowledgeable and gifted schoolboy to join the band. After going for an illicit pint at the Woolton arms, they parted. Two weeks later, the schoolboy joined the band.

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Woolton is a suburb of Liverpool. The schoolboy was Paul McCartney; the art student was John Lennon. The band would go through a variety of names and members, before becoming The Silver Beatles and, then, just plain The Beatles.

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The rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s The Beatles covering Chuck Berry, Lennon in full flow..

 

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