Anarchy 51/Blues in the Archway Road

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Blues in the
Archway Road


Look­ing at the post­ers that lit­ter the side streets of cent­ral and sub­urban London, one might be for­given for as­sum­ing that the Blues was cre­ated by a post-Al­der­mas­ton gen­er­a­tion of art stu­dents rather than by the af­flic­ted negro pop­u­la­tion of the American Deep South. The post­ers ad­vert­ise au­then­tic Rhythm ’n’ blues by groups which play a vari­ety of music—some Pop-ori­ented, some Folk-ori­ented, some Jazz-ori­ented but largely de­rived from the music of the more sen­sa­tional col­oured en­ter­tain­ers of the USA, like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, James Brown and T-Bone Walker. Of the 2,000 or more groups work­ing the mul­ti­tude of large and small clubs, no more than two dozen are in any way ori­ginal, even in pop-music terms, and even these are root­less shad­ows of the sing­ers on whose ma­ter­ial they draw. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the blues of mod­ern Amer­ica and the “blues” of mod­ern Britain is the dif­fer­ence be­tween music which is an au­then­tic ra­cial ex­pres­sion and music which is an ex­pres­sion of no more than a lik­ing for the au­then­tic form.

  The ori­gins of British “blues” are far from clear. Their sem­inal genius may have been Muddy Waters who toured Britain in 1958 but it was not until March, 1962, when the har­mon­ica player Cyril Davies and the guitar­ist Alexis Korner opened the first of the clubs—next door to the ABC Teashop off Ealing Broad­way—that the “boom” really had its be­gin­nings. Korner and Davies played mainly pre-war blues of the negro night clubs of urban Amer­ica. Once they had their own stage the “boom” gathered in Cent­ral London, at­tract­ing a young audi­ence in re­ac­tion against a par­tic­u­larly en­feebled pop music—this was the hey-day of Cliff Rich­ard. The Band—known as Alexis Korner’s Blues In­cor­por­ated—had the now fa­mil­iar line-up of har­mon­ica, gui­tars and drums and if it was un­ex­it­ing com­pared with its Chicago par­ent it had, at least, a rhythmic earthi­ness and an emo­tional di­rect­ness which had been com­pletely ab­sent from pop music since the de­mise of rock ’n’ roll in the late ’50s.

  By the end of 1962 the Beatles had had their first small hit, Love Me Do, fea­tur­ing the ma­gical com­bin­a­tion of har­mon­ica, gui­tars and drums, and the Roll­ing Stones were mak­ing their early pub­lic ap­pear­ances at Ealing and else­where. In Janu­ary, 1963 the Stones ap­peared for the first time at the Marquee. The bill was topped by
Brian Knight’s Blues-by-six and the Stones earned £2 each as the fill-in group. By March the Stones had moved on—to the fringe of pop suc­cess—and their place was taken by another group from Ealing, the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers, later to be re-named Manfred Mann. By the time the Stones had their first small hit, Come On, in the summer of 1963 (only enough to earn them 83rd pos­i­tion in the 1963 New Mu­sical Ex­press Points Table, equal with Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Ken Dodd and Chuck Berry) r ’n’ b was freely tipped as the next pop craze.
  It seems to have hap­pened for much the same reason as rock ’n’ roll ten years earlier: a teen­age re­ac­tion to the sickly gut­less­ness of ortho­dox pop. Its suc­cess has led to ex­traordin­ary re­sults. The Cliff Rich­ard pop image of tidy, boy-next-door Chris­tian­ity, has been re­placed by a styl­ised image of rough-living—beards, long hair, defi­ant non­chal­ance and an in­co­her­ent, un­ar­tic­u­lated curse against con­form­ity. The new image may be as un­real as the old but it is a great deal more toler­able. It is a cliché to ob­serve that pop music is a ma­jor field for the ex­ploit­a­tion and ma­nip­u­la­tion of young people, gener­at­ing re­spect for false values and poor stand­ards, ex­ploit­ing dis­satis­fac­tion to turn young people in on them­selves rather than out on so­ci­ety, serving the func­tion ascribed by Marx to re­li­gion, that of an “opi­ate of the people”. It would be un­real­istic to claim that r ’n’ b has altered this deeply en­grained pop-cul­tural pat­tern but it may have dented it. Since the suc­cess of the Beatles—re­corded not be­cause they might be made into stars but be­cause they already were local stars—teen­agers have shown a gradu­ally in­creas­ing in­de­pend­ence of the will of re­cord com­pan­ies. Mersey­beat and r ’n’ b—or at any rate the local vari­ant on the Amer­ican theme—were cre­ated by teen­agers for them­selves and al­though the com­pan­ies have ex­ploited this music, they have had their urual role, that of cre­ating stars, stolen from them by teen­agers. This has been a tend­ency rather than a de­cis­ive trend but it may rep­res­ent the first steps of teen­agers to free them­selves of the para­sites who live off them and their en­thu­si­asms. It is not just that the qual­ity of the music is bet­ter, al­though I be­lieve it is (com­pare the Beatles’ I’m a Loser or Manfred Mann’s I’m Your King­pin with Adam Faith’s What Do You Want? or Cliff Rich­ard’s The Young Ones) but that the re­la­tion­ships be­tween stars and audi­ences have changed. The new stars are of their pub­lic, neither pat­ron­ising nor stu­pid. They are ir­rev­er­ent, they smoke, they drink, they be­have with a nat­ur­al­ness which would have earned them noth­ing but abuse ten years ago and they are ar­tic­u­late spokes­men for the teen­age thing as well as for their music. The new stars are not held in awe ex­cept by the very young. The club-goer knows that re­cords are poor im­it­a­tions of club per­form­ances, that re­cord suc­cess leads to noth­ing so much as the di­lu­tion of a group’s “sound” in an en­deav­our to court gen­eral pop­ular­ity. It is, in short, doubt­ful whether the com­pan­ies have ever held so little sway over the avant garde “popnik”. Most young people listen to noth­ing but pop music and within this con­text the in­fu­sion of some blues-form into pop music is ex­tremely wel­come. Even in the hands of white sing­ers it has in­tro­duced into a sadly ail­ing pop cul­ture some ele­ments of an in­fin­itely richer folk cul­ture
and some ele­ments of a less cor­rupted pop cul­ture—the music of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and James Brown still ex­presses some­thing of the agony of negro life as well as the enorm­ous sur­ging vi­tal­ity and new op­tim­ism of the Northern ghet­toes. British blues is primar­ily a dance music and if it is im­pure it has, at least, an en­thu­si­asm which is pos­it­ively damning to in­hib­i­tion. In the clubs there is a new vigour.

  Kenneth Rexroth once argued that jazz is a re­volu­tion­ary music only in­so­far as it is con­du­cive to erot­i­cism in dan­cing. The same might apply to British r ’n’ b. Today’s audi­ences are act­ive and the groups, who still play for the crit­ical club audi­ences rather than the eas­ily pleased pop “con­cert” audi­ences, must make people want to dance. The mod­ern dances are not set pat­tern dances. The Shake, the Dog, the Jerk are dances for crowded rooms, im­pro­vised round a basic pat­tern, and the groups must be able to im­pro­vise to provide vari­ety. In the clubs, for ex­ample, Manfred Mann have played num­bers like Cannon­ball Adder­ley’s Sack O’ Woe and their ori­ginal—natur­ally enough never re­corded—Packet of Three, which in­volved viol­ent cli­maxes and sud­den cliff-hang­ing breaks in the rhythm. Graham Bond and Brian Auger, re­cruits from mod­ern jazz, and Georgie Fame, a re­cruit from rock ’n’ roll, play in much the same man­ner and now that in­stru­ment­a­tion is veer­ing away from har­mon­icas and gui­tars, to saxes, flutes, organs and pianos it is these lat­ter groups who may really come into their own.

  If the new music is dif­fer­ent, so are the new stars. Many of them are strange pop idols. Keith Relf, leader of the Yard­birds, was a Beat before he made a liv­ing by sing­ing and so was Rod the Mod Stewart, pos­sibly the best vo­cal­ist to emerge from the “boom”. (Rod Stewart was also an In­ter­na­tional Am­a­teur foot­baller.) Many groups look Beat; tired, worn and weary with the bum’s slouch­ing walk. In­deed the myth­o­logy of the r ’n’ b clubs is the myth­o­logy of the angry, dishev­elled re­ject of ortho­doxy, the pro­test­ing bum. The Pretty Things, the most beat-look­ing of all, sing: “I’m on my own, just wanna roam/I’ll tell you man, don’t wanna home/I wander roun’ feet off the groun’/Dig­ging sounds from town to town/I say I think this life is grand/I say, I dig it man, don’t bring me down, man/Don’t bring me down   I met this chick the other day/Then to me she said she’ll stay/I got this pad just like a cave/And then we have a little rave/And now I’m lying on ground/My head is spin­ning round, don’t bring me down man/don’t bring me down”.

  Other sing­ers too have strange pasts. John Mayall, leader of one of the most vigor­ous groups, the Blues­break­ers, lived in a tree top house. Manfred Mann (sin­gu­lar) was clas­sic­ally trained at Juilliard in the USA and is, even now, more than a little odd by pop stand­ards. The whole Mann group took one man’s name but in­sist that they have no leader, that lead­er­ship is re­dund­ant and re­spons­ib­il­ity shared and equal. It may have some­thing to do with the fact that their vo­cal­ist Paul Jones was once a mem­ber of the Oxford Com­mit­tee of 100 and is, ap­par­ently, still a Tribune con­trib­utor. The Anim­als, prob­ably the best pop-r ’n’ b group, emerged from the strange North East phe­nomenon of “anim­als”, young people who spent the week­ends away from their
bour­geois homes, on cheap trans­port, living “rough”. (In the South they might have earned the de­ris­ive epi­thet “week­end ravers”.)

  Most of the r ’n’ b groups who have had hits have done so with num­bers which were not r ’n’ b num­bers. The Stones made a brave at­tempt with the slow blues, Little Red Rooster, but most of their hits were white pop in origin—Not Fade Away, a Buddy Holly num­ber, It’s All Over Now, ori­gin­ally re­corded by the C & C Boys in Amer­ica, a country-and-western type num­ber, I Wanna Be Your Man was by Lennon and McCartney and The Last Time was writ­ten by them­selves al­though it is re­min­is­cent of the Staple SingersThis May Be My Last Time. Manfred Mann re­corded pop num­bers, non­sense songs and a ballad. Georgie Fame had a big hit with Yeh, Yeh, a soph­ist­ic­ated Lam­bert-Hend­ricks-Bavan “cool” jazz vocal with little blues con­tent. (Sig­ni­fic­antly his fol­low up In the Mean­time, in the same vein, did not do so well, dash­ing the hopes of those who thought Fame rep­res­ented some sort of com­mer­cial break­through for soul-jazz.) The Anim­als’ big hit, House of the Ris­ing Sun, was a folk song. Other groups have either re­corded and wrecked blues clas­sics or con­cen­trated on mono­ton­ously con­trived and un­vary­ingly dis­mal ver­sions of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley num­bers, the staple diet of the un­in­vent­ive. With their own ma­ter­ial they are rarely con­vin­cing; au­then­tic ma­ter­ial they wreck by an ap­par­ent in­com­pre­hen­sion of what they sing. In the clubs they are usu­ally bet­ter and to hear British r ’n’ b, with all its un­deni­able ex­cite­ment and all its un­deni­able, over­all me­diocrity, it is ne­ces­sary to visit the clubs.

  There are clubs all over the coun­try. In London there is the Flamingo, once the mod­ern jazz centre, with its large, lively and crit­ical audi­ence, many of whom are West Indian; Klook’s Kleek in West Hamp­stead (the name a give-away of its mod­ern jazz ori­gins); the Craw­daddys at Rich­mond and Croy­don; Blues­ville Har­ringay at Manor House; Club Noreik at Tot­ten­ham and many, many more. In Southamp­ton there is Club Con­cord, in Man­chester the Twisted Wheel, in Guild­ford and Windsor the Ricky Ticks. The out­land­ish­ness of their names is only equalled by the names of the groups who play in them. Some take their names from song titles—the Roll­ing Stones, the Hoochie Coochie Men, the Pretty Things, the Thunder­birds, the Dis­satis­fieds. Others bor­row other singers’ names—the T-Bones, the Bo Street Run­ners. Some use names which seem to sound good—the Au­then­tics, the Soul Agents, the Delta Five, Hog­snort Rupert, the Loose-ends, the Down­liners’ Sect. The British blues has its ac­know­ledged “ori­gin­als”, as does negro blues. The more hip fans talk as rev­er­ently of Alexis Korner, Cy Davies and even George Melly, as blues en­thu­si­asts of Son House, Charlie Pat­ton or Rob­ert John­son. The lead­ing star of this old elite is Long John Baldry who was a vocal­ist-tam­bourin­ist with Cyril Davies’ All-Stars (formed, from Scream­ing Lord Sutch’s former back­ing group, the Sav­ages, after Davies’ break with Korner) and took over the band, chan­ging its name to the Hoochie Coochie Men when Davies died, late in 1963. Baldry has an envi­able repu­ta­tion, earned partly be­cause he is con­vinced of his own value and
partly be­cause most groups are very poor, which has en­abled him to break at­tend­ance re­cords set by more ap­par­ently suc­cess­ful groups like the Roll­ing Stones. He is a pass­able singer, clever but un­moving. The sort of bore­dom he in­duces has often been thought a sign of au­then­ti­city.

  Over the last eighteen months there has been a steady stream of real blues­men to this coun­try, among them Big Joe Wil­liams, Sleepy John Estes, Light­ning Hop­kins, John Lee Hooker and the un­ques­tioned genius of in­stru­mental blues, the har­mon­icist Little Walter Jacobs. While it re­mains sadly true that local white sing­ers are pre­ferred to the “ori­gin­als”, it is al­most en­tirely due to the pro­pa­ganda ef­forts of the white mu­si­cians that we have been able to see the genu­ine art­icle at all. People like Mick Jagger of the Roll­ing Stones have been ad­mir­ably un­self­ish in their ful­some praise of sing­ers like Muddy Waters, James Brown and Howl­ing Wolf, an un­self­ish­ness which clearly places them apart from most English re­viv­al­ist jazz band lead­ers.

  It is tempt­ing to end this ac­count by argu­ing strongly that white sing­ers and mu­si­cians should leave negro “folk” music alone. The British sing­ers argue, cor­rectly I think, that no music is sac­ro­sanct, that if they wish to play what they like and pub­licly cham­pion, that is their af­fair. So it is. It is also the critic’s right to as­sess their music, rather than their so­cial sig­nif­ic­ance, in terms of the negro tra­di­tion and find it want­ing. When Rod Stewart made the mem­or­able state­ment that it is as easy to have the blues in the Arch­way Road as on a Deep South rail­road he was, in a way, right. You can have the blues in the Arch­way Road—the blues is, in one sense, the im­mem­or­ial music of sad­ness. But it is more than a sad­ness in the heart, more than the ache of hun­ger, more than the misery of the hobo. It is the vo­cal ex­pres­sion of a people, just as all real folk music is. Rod Stewart is only half right. It may be as easy to have the blues in the Arch­way Road. It just is not as easy to sing them.