Album Review

 

March 1962: the Beatles were languishing in Liverpool after failing their audition; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were dressing up as Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys in their middle-class bedrooms; and Cliff Richard was unchallenged as “the biggest star in Europe today”. His latest movie The Young Ones was still drawing in the crowds several months after its release; both the title tune and the soundtrack LP were high in the charts; and his backing band, Britain’s leading group, the Shadows, were also occupying a lofty place in the Top 10 with Wonderful Land.

So it made sense for Columbia Records A&R man Norrie Paramor to indulge in the rare expense of lugging a set of recording equipment all the way from his HQ in Abbey Road to the leafy London suburb of Kingston-upon-Thames, to tape his golden boys at the local ABC. Mixed and mastered within a matter of weeks, the concert was scheduled as a shared Cliff-and-the-Shads album, The Cliff Richard Show – and then abruptly scrapped, for reasons that remain unclear.

Although the project had already been hyped in the pop papers, its disappearance didn’t cause alarm among Cliff’s fan base, especially as their hero was soon hard at work on another, even more successful movie, Summer Holiday. Yet the revelation in RC’s Cliff sessionography, some 12 years ago, that the concert tapes were still in the Abbey Road vaults, sparked a growing campaign for them to be released. Two songs, Dim, Dim The Lights and Save My Soul crept out on EMI’s mail-order box set, The Rock’n’Roll Years, in 1997, revealing that, while Cliff and the boys might have shed most of their resemblance to Elvis’ Sun Records sound since 1958, there were no apparent technical reasons why the Kingston set couldn’t be released.

Neatly timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the show, EMI have finally freed the Kingston One. Lavishly packaged in a 7-inch single sleeve, complete with photo prints and a facsimile of the original concert programme, The Cliff Richard Show captures the prince of British pop at his commercial peak. From this distance, the similarities with his first idol, Elvis Presley, are startling. Just as the American had smoothed out the rough edges of his original rockabilly sound (compare the 1956 and 1960 recordings of Blue Suede Shoes to hear what ‘professionalism’ can bring), so the pelvis-thrusting theatrics and raw-tonsilled rasp of Cliff’s early months had been replaced by a flawlessly smooth pop ‘n’ roll approach.

Yet if Elvis had been touring in 1962, he’d have been offered pretty much the same menu as Cliff – some commendably wild rockers (notably the two songs purloined from Bill Haley, Dim, Dim The Lights and Razzle Dazzle), a splash of gospel (Save My Soul), some jogalong country (Rovin’ Gambler) and a sickly romantic ballad (When The Girls In Your Arms taking the place of Are You Lonesome Tonight).

Sparkingly fresh, eternally good-humoured and never remotely threatening, Cliff’s performance at Kingston was quintessential pre-Beatles pop. Yet his half-hour in the spotlight is only half the story. Although no one in 2002 would want to hear his other support acts at Kingston (the Trebletones, the Two Tones, the Dallas Boys and Patti Brooks), Cliff is almost upstaged on this album by his backing band, and opening-half billtoppers, the Shadows. Their 30-minute set is a reminder that they weren’t only famous because they knew someone famous; in their own right, they were Britain’s top Rock Instrumental group. The opening medley of Apache and Duane Eddy’s Shazam, succeeded by a rockabilly blast through Shadoogie, establishes their peerless credentials. After that, they can afford to relax into banal humour (with Hank Marvin not yet showing the natural timing that made him a TV favourite a decade later), cod-folk harmonies, and good-time party bluster. Just when their charisma threatens to slip, they wind up the tension with Brian Bennett’s lengthy drum solo, Little B, before climaxing with a skin-tight FBI. And all without breaking sweat.

The Kingston crowd scream between songs at the Shadows, during the songs for Cliff. Some of Hank’s jokes are just too quick-witted for a generation who hadn’t even seen Steptoe And Son, let alone Monty Python. And neither Cliff nor the Shads ever forget that this is showbusiness, not some weird form of juvenile delinquency. But The Cliff Richard Show is an endearing snapshot of a bygone age – and proof that stardom rarely arrives by accident.

Peter Doggett, Record Collector, March 2002