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The foundations of British rock: Archer Street

By Gordon Thompson

Fifty years ago, on Monday 22 May 1961, London’s constabulary attempted to terminate a British musical tradition.  For as long as most of them could remember, musicians had gathered Monday afternoons on the short stretch of pavement between Rupert Street and Great Windmill Street in Soho to collect their pay from previous engagements and to pick up work for the coming week.  A local merchant had probably complained about the disparate crowd blocking the street, so the police made an ultimately futile show of disbursing the peace and harmony.  But Archer Street served a purpose beyond paychecks and contracts: here musicians gathered to network and to share stories about gigs, owners, patrons, and, of course, other musicians.

Soho had been home to musicians for centuries with even Mozart briefly residing in a house in what is now Frith Street in 1765.  A few blocks and centuries away in Old Compton Street, British rock and roll would find a shrine in the 2i’s coffee bar.  Archer Street in the early sixties resembled many other small back lanes in Soho, with the stage doors from the Apollo and Lyric Theatres—not to mention the notorious Windmill Theatre (with its history of staged nude tableaus)—emptying into the narrow and dimly lit alley.  But Archer also featured the Red Lion public house where Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had first presented the outline of the Communist Manifesto and where musicians like Ray Davies would join their first professional bands.

A year after the failed crackdown on loitering musicians, Archer Street was still the place for a young bassist to come looking for work.  John Baldwin knew from his father (Joe Baldwin, a band arranger) where he might find the most prominent electric bassist of the era, Jet Harris.  That meeting behind the Windmill Theatre set in motion a chain of events that would change Baldwin’s life, if not British popular music.

Harris and drummer Tony Meehan had been members of the Shadows, Britain’s most successful instrumental group and the designated accompaniment for Britain’s Elvis, Cliff Richard.  Harris in particular—with his lean frame and angular features—had become an icon of British rock in the late fifties and the early sixties, especially with his imported American Fender Precision Bass.  Anyone who played the electric bass in Britain in this era had to measure himself or herself (and there would be budding female bassists such as Megan Davies) against Jet Harris.

Modern ears often fail to understand the iconoclastic impact of the electric guitar and bass in the late fifties and early sixties.  The sonic presence, the attack, and, most of all, the sheer coolness of that twang resonated with hormonal intensity in adolescent minds.  Allan Weighell, who played for Britain’s first pop star Tommy Steele, had taken up the electric bass to replace the low (but clean) thumping of the acoustic bass.  But Jet Harris’s eager embrace of the Fender P-bass made it a cultural weapon and placed the sound at the front of the band instead of the back.

With his edgy image, Harris, of course, also had his problems, notably with alcohol, as did many working musicians of the era.  Notably, only a few months before the Bobbies had tried to clear Archer Street, Harris had fallen off the Cavern Club’s stage in Liverpool.  Even the normally politic Paul McCartney reportedly aped this sad moment in Harris’s career, stumbling around the Cavern’s tiny platform as though in a stupor.  By 1962, both Harris and drummer Meehan had left the Shadows for solo careers.

Baldwin remembers finding Harris on Archer Street and, perhaps hearing that Harris had begun playing guitar, took the opportunity to ask his idol if he needed a bass player.  Guitar solos of the era, as epitomized by the Shadows’ Hank Marvin, were often simple but catchy melodies, devoid of the pyrotechnics that would come to dominate rock in the coming years.  Harris had begun dabbling with a style of playing and timbre that emphasized the bass in solos, leaving a potential musical opening at bottom of the audio mix.  Although better known, Vic Flick’s guitar theme for James Bond owes much to the twangy bass line that Harris promoted in 1962 with tunes like “Besame Mucho” and “Main Title Theme from ‘Man with the Golden Arm’.”

Over the coming weeks, impressed with what he heard, Baldwin’s idol soon drafted the sixteen-year-old musician to help promote the former Shadows duo’s first release, “Diamonds.”  In 1963, having just turned seventeen, Baldwin now found himself earning in impressive £30 a week and touring with Jet Harris and Tony Meehan as their single climbed to the top of British charts.  In the coming months, they would score further hits with “Scarlett O’Hara” and “Applejack.”

During the sixties, Baldwin would become a soloist in his own right, a session musician, a music director, and a producer, changing his name to reflect his transformation into a professional.  As John Paul Jones, he would see his own star rise with Led Zeppelin, even as Harris’s career dissolved.  Nevertheless, Jet Harris, who died on 18 March 2011 at the age of 71, laid a foundation upon which others built.

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. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

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  1. […] (nearby theatres and clubs) and places to drink and socialise. Gordon Thompson, the author of Please, Please Me describes the reasons for musicians congregating on Archer Street as being beyond simply […]

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