The foreverness of the Everlys
All things must pass, everything is in transition, and nothing is forever. Part of the innocence of being a kid is a belief that what cannot be might nevertheless – you never know – just be. It isn’t healthy to live in the past: but to forget it is far worse…and unutterably sad.
‘Anecdotage’ used to be a regular feature in the early days of The Slog, and having been glued to the BBC4 Rock n Roll fest last night, I now feel sad I didn’t write more of them. So many people these days are down on nostalgia – especially from Baby Boomers, who have become something of a hate-group: the young affect yawns when we talk about growing up in the 1950s, and in doing so they may seem no different to how I was when my parents started going on about Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin.
But there is a difference. Many people will find it weird that I suggest this, but the 1950s weren’t really a reaction to the grey 1940s and postwar rationing: rather, they marked the end of Victorian imperial Britain. It was the first step in the process of Brits loosening up: you might still wear a tie to go to Church on Sundays, but you’d undo the collar-button on the way home.This wasn’t just true of dress. It also applied to expressing emotions.
Silly as it sounds, without the 1950s, the 1960s wouldn’t have got going until the late 1970s.
It’s hard now to explain in 2016 just how inhibited, deferential and formal the 1950s were in Britain. A 1957 radio episode of Hancock’s Half Hour was devoted entirely to Hancock, Sid James and Bill Kerr trying to get through a Sunday without expiring from boredom. Every shop, pub, cinema and restaurant was closed. Having fun on a Sunday was Not Done: at least, not until the Church Youth Club got going after Evensong. And even then, getting home later than 10 pm would result in a parental grilling of which the Gestapo would’ve been proud.
But by then (as usual, the BBC was late to catch on) something different had already arrived from America. Until Bill Haley recorded Rock around the Clock in 1956, UK youth pop music was still aspiring to get anywhere near to even dire: tunes like I’m a pink toothbrush and Who stole the Ding-Dong went straight into the Top Ten because the only alternatives to such ‘novelty’ rubbish were Frankie Laine (who my Auntie Molly always called “mouth almighty”) and the truly awful singing duo Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson.
The big difference this time around was that not only had a new musical form arrived, an equally new invention called teenagers were at large….and with the coming of Macmillanite prosperity, they all had jobs. With most kids leaving school at 15 – and only 1.8% of the young going to University – a 78 rpm pop single costing 4/11d (about 25p) was well within their reach. For the first time ever, music, fashion and movie marketeers had to start decoding what this new teen phenomenon wanted.
Bill Haley briefly personified rock n roll until photos of him arrived in England, and he turned out to be a fat bloke with a silly kiss-curl. But later in 1956, Elvis Presley recorded Heartbreak Hotel – swiftly followed by Hound Dog – and after that, he was The King. Whereas Haley looked as if he might abuse your kid sister, Elvis was the sort of raw southern white-trash sex machine almost certain to ravish any unchaperoned daughter.
I was just that bit too young for Bill Haley and early Presley. My elder brother bought all their records, but it wasn’t until I became aware of a Little Richard track Long Tally Sally at the start of 1957 that I bought my first ‘EP’ (extended play) 45 rpm plastic disc, featuring Ready Teddy and Tutti Frutti alongside Richard’s massive hit about Sally who jump back in de alley, oh baby. Then came Great Balls of Fire from Jerry Lee Lewis, and That’ll be the Day by Buddy Holly & the Crickets. I did wonder why an American called his band after a very English game; but once I began gyrating around in front of the mirror with a cricket bat as my fantasy guitar, everything became much clearer.
There was one act, however, for which my brother and I shared an admiration: the Everly Brothers.
Phil and Don Everly came from a country & western tradition built on 1950s radio audiences in the US, overlaid with a dimension of rockabilly. But just as with Elvis, Carl Perkins, Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, the two brothers lacked the racial bigotry of previous generations: they wanted to know how black guitarists hepped up the folkiness of white country music to produce the riffs that produced can’t-sit-down rock n roll. They sought out writers using that form, but most important of all they brought romantic harmonies to pop music like nobody before or since.
Everly Brothers songs have – and this is a very personal thing – the ability to take me back to that 1957-62 period during which early rock n roll blossomed, faded, and then produced a throwback from Liverpool called The Beatles. I don’t mean simply “what I was doing at the time”; I’m talking about the primary senses of fifty-five years ago.
The last rays of sun coming through the bedroom curtains at night in that seemingly endless hot summer of 1959. (Dad had called me in from the street about twenty times before eventually shoving me up the stairs).
The smell in the morning air the day after Bonfire Night, during which fathers had flung gallons of petrol onto the bommies to get the damp pyramid of beams, branches and old wicker fencing to light…..while mothers took a hammer to treacle toffee before handing it out to half-drowned kids in blue gaberdine raincoats.
The xylophonic sound of ice-cream vans all those deep-space light years ago – when only posh families had fridges, and the creamy-crisp texture of one Lyons Maid wafer could turn saturnine grey into special day.
Then there were the emotional stirrings I felt – perhaps because I was a precocious kid desperate at the age of ten to be an age ending in ‘teen’. I got these every time Linda Mordin came round from Polefield Road to play French Cricket with we Freshfield Avenue kids: but nothing made sense of my hormonal confusion quite as much as Everly tracks like Bye Bye Love, Wake up Little Suzie, Let it Be Me, Dream and above all, So Sad to see Good Love Go Bad. Get a load of these lyrics:
But now I feel them slip away
It makes me cry to see love die
So sad to watch good love go bad
You said nothing could change your mind
It breaks my heart to see us part
So sad to watch good love go bad
“It was a more innocent age” has become such a cliché, but it all depends on how one interprets innocence.