Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry, and will be published in August. In the article below he looks at subversive British music.
London, a city built to stay warm, can breed tension in the heat of the summer and no less so when rock ‘n’ roll reverberates in the streets. When Cliff Richard entered EMI’s London Abbey Road recording studios fifty years ago on 24 July 1958, the idea of British rock was an oxymoron. Only ten years later, almost to the day, the Rolling Stones and Decca would clash over the right to incite open rebellion. Between these two events, British rock went from a naïvely enthusiastic attempt at seduction to an arrogant challenge to the social order.
With a transit strike, simmering racial tensions, and Cold War fears, London in the summer of 1958 nervously sipped the caffeine of anxiety. Cliff Richard’s convincingly swarthy interpretation “Move It” captured the awkward but subversive challenge of guitarist Ian Samwell’s song articulating adolescent impatience. Bandleader, arranger, and producer Norrie Paramor had been seeking an authentic British rock performer for several years, with only minor success. On this day, they would change their lives, the lives of British teens, and the life of British popular music. “Move It” proved that the British could rock ‘n’ roll.
Five years later on 25 July 1963, the Rolling Stones released their first single, a primitive cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” Two years after that, on 23 July 1965, Beatlemania peaked with “Help!” But by the summer of 1968, a different wind blew through London. The adolescent innocence and exuberance that had percolated through the fifties and early sixties was evaporating. The previous year’s summer of love had seen singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards tried and convicted of drug possession and temporarily thrown in jail, only to have their convictions overturned when even the conservative Times of London questioned the court’s procedures. A year later, as American cities writhed in the wake of assassinations and war protests, the Rolling Stones sought to redefine themselves.
They had severed ties with manager-producer Andrew Oldham and had abandoned the psychedelic pop that had dead-ended with the album Their Satanic Majesties Request. Earlier in the summer of 1968, American Jim Miller had helped them reclaim their edge with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; and now in July they pushed the limits of Establishment patience with “Street Fighting Man.” Proof of a successful return to their roots came when a number of radio stations immediately banned the disk. Mick Jagger hoped that Decca would release their new album, Beggar’s Banquet, on his birthday, 26 July, but the company rejected the toilet-graffiti cover, if not the subversive message of its songs. That summer, the Rolling Stones pushed all the corporate buttons.
The truth of guitar, bass, and drums spanned the ten-year musical expanse between Cliff Richard’s “Move It” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” From adolescent defiance to civil disobedience, British rock found its voice and articulated a generational challenge.