For most people of forty and under, British pop probably begins with the Beatles, and for those of us over that age, probably begins with Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde – Britain’s two biggest rock stars from 1958 through to the full onset of Beatlemania in the summer of 1963. The period really begins when two strands of American music came together in the British charts during 1956. Bill Haley was at number one with Rock Around The Clock – the first rock ‘n’ roll chart topper in the UK – while Lonnie Donegan was having a hit with his punked up mversion of an old Leadbelly tune, Rock Island Line. But Donegan’s hit wasn’t just a record, it was a way of life called skiffle. Within six months there were skiffle groups, clubs, and even fashions.
Girls liked rock ‘n’ roll, and they particularly liked Elvis Presley. And skiffle gave boys an entry point into youth culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was modern and very American. A mix of contemporary, country and R&B styles, skiffle represented 1920s American folk blues and had been played in British clubs since the 1940s. Donegan’s hit was an afterthought that inspired two generations of British musicians. What we must remember though is skiffle wasn’t the real thing. The real thing was Elvis Presley.
The arrival of rock ‘n’ ro;l was considered as scandalous in the UK as it had been in the US. The music, like the Teds, became the focus of adult disapproval in the mid-fifties. Add to this a general fear of youth, and ‘juvenile delinquency’ had become the new big issue.
When Elvismania hit our shores, he became the king of rock ‘n’ roll both here and in America. Our answer was a young singer from Bermondsey called Tommy Steele, who became the first rock star. A true phenomenon, he elicited screams and dominated front covers of magazines, singing cover versions, such as Singing The Blues, which was his biggest hit. Steele was discovered in a Soho coffee bar, the 2i’s, which made Old Compton Street the mecca for every aspring musician. Nearly all of the British rock ‘n’ rollers played there at one time or another – Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Terry Dene, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. Some only occasionally, and others on a regular basis. The birth of British rock ‘n’ roll was that simple, and it went directly into the most famous pop film of the era, Expresso Bongo.
By the time the 2i’s generation were ready to make records, they had to contend with an industry stuck in the early fiftes. At that time, live performances were often undertaken as part of a variety show, with comic turns, jugglers, fire eaters and an orchetra in the pit. And, despite Cliff’s brave assertion in Move It, nobody thought that rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. Although American was all powerful in terms of record sales, here in the UK, sheet music was the thing. Singers were highlighted in front of groups and encouraged to dilute their pure rock action in favour of something more sedate which might appeal to the mums and dads. And – even more so than in the States – the UK utilised the medium of television to spread the rock ‘n’ roll word.
Following the Six Five Special, Jack Good delivered the perfect rock television concept in 1958 with Oh Boy! – no variety, no handicraft moments, no stupid presenters trying to be funny, just hard and fast music with melodramatic lighting. It made the real British rockers, Marty Wilde and Cliff. We finally had our answer to Elvis.
Audiences were now primed to ignite on contact with any authntioc agent of American rock ‘n’ roll. Cliff looked right. He did a few of the necessary wiggles and that was it: he was the agent that the British fans had been waiting for, someone they could identify with. Cliff was the pioneer rock star who shrewdly widened his appeal with records and films for all ages. From 1959 through to 1963, Cliff dominated British pop with nineteen Top 5 records, seven number ones, and three smash movies. The boy who Jack Good said was ‘gonna rock the world’ did just that.