Some Other Guys 2 – British Beat Groups in the shadow of The Beatles
As the 1960s dawned winds of change were blowing not just across the colonies of the British Empire but also whistling through the great provincial cities of England.
A generation of young working class men, now that military conscription had been banished to history, no longer had to shudderingly look forward to years of endless spud peeling, square bashing and boot polishing.
Now, if they had the imagination, the will and the courage they could march to the beat of their own drum. And, if along with the drum they added two guitars and a bass they had a beat group!
If you’re looking for the great provincial city where the new call to arms was most resoundingly answered you have to sail down the River Mersey to Liverpool.
Liverpool was a great port city. And through the port along with the everyday trade goods came more exciting and exotic products that might well have been described as contraband by the colonels of musical good taste at the Palais de Dance and the BBC.
Liverpool sailors on the 1950s transatlantic liners left a Britain still painfully recovering from the financial and physical trauma of World War 2. They left a land where there was still rationing and where the landscape was scarred with bomb-sites.
Arriving in New York their eyes must have been dazzled by the cornucopia of delights advertised in shocking neon colours. Consumer goods that were the subject of near fetishistic lust back home could be picked up off the shelves and carried triumphantly home.
Cameras, sharp clothes and above all records. Records vibrating with power on gleaming vinyl with exotic labels from exotic cities like Memphis, New Orleans and Cincinnati.
Records that nobody else would have. Records that showed you were ahead of the pack. In the know. Records you would let your little brothers listen to but woe betide them if they dared to try and play them when you were out!
Of course these younger brothers, cousins, the kid next door, listened and marvelled and thought to themselves – maybe, just maybe we can form a group and make magic like that encoded in the discs spinning at 45rpm.
And, maybe, just maybe, the girls now studiously ignoring them would find them suddenly very attractive indeed!
So its perhaps not so surprising that by mid 1961 several hundred beat groups in Liverpool, with greater or lesser degrees of skill, were channelling Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers.
Sweat ran down the walls of The Cavern, The Mardi Gras and Downbeat clubs as groups and audiences buoyant with youthful energy created a, ‘Happening Scene’ which would outdo their wildest dreams and change the world when it transpired that one of these groups, The Beatles, happened to have the mixture of genius, talent and character that changes not just the cultural weather but the climate.
In February 1961 The Beatles were back from their transformative boot camp experience in Hamburg. They now proceeded to hone those hard earned musical chops on home turf.
Though they had played The Cavern in their days as the skiffle group The Quarrymen their first appearance as The Beatles there was as unannounced guests of a long established Merseyside group, The Swinging Blue Jeans, whose own series of early 60s hits have a charm and power of their own which we celebrate here today on The Jukebox.
We will kick off with their signature hit, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ which must be a near perfect distillation of the Merseybeat sound.
Boom! The Bluejeans had picked the song up from a 1959 single cut by 17 year old Chan Romero (finding obscure US 45s to cover was an essential part of the Merseybeat group armoury). Chan’s version was a winning sashay which benefited from the musical prowess of Earl Palmer, Barney Kessel and Rene Hall.
What the Bluejeans brilliantly did was to up the tempo, turn up the volume and defy anyone listening not to find out how ecstatically they could dance for the two minutes or so the song lasted!
Their stunning attack must owe something to their experience in Hamburg when they were booed off stage for daring to imagine an audience of drunken sailors, strippers and would be existentialists would go for a jazz/skiffle combo still sporting a banjo in the rhythm section! Wisely they heeded John Lennon’s advice to drop the banjo and rock out for all they were worth.
For Goodness Sake! You just can’t resist the relentless drive they bring to the song. The blood must have fair sung in their veins as they played this one live. It raced to Number 2 on the UK charts for Christmas 1963 and was later a top 30 hit in the USA.
The Swinging Blue Jeans locked themselves into my fondest memory because I loved, ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’ from the first moment I heard it and because they appeared on the very first, ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV show which became an unmissable part of my childhood and adolescence.
The line up that recorded The Bluejeans greatest sides was Ray Ennis on Rhythm Guitar and vocals, Les Braid on bass and keyboards, Ralph Ellis on lead guitar and Norman Kuhlke on drums.
They would ollow up the classic Hippy Hippy Shake with a frantic cover of, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ which lodged just outside the UK top 10 and the US top 40.
Their next hit, featured below, was a cannily chosen cover of a song written by Clint Ballard Jnr and most beautifully sung by Betty Everett, ‘You’re No Good’ This one was top 5 in the UK and just grazed the US top 100. The video clip stars one of my favourite actresses from the 1960s era – Rita Tushinghmam who was also emblematic of the arrival of working class talent in the arts (10 points to all who can tell me which film the clip is taken from)
You want moody? Now that’s moody! Even the most hardened Gauloise puffing Existentialists must have dropped the blank stare for a few minutes as they tuned their bruised souls into this one!
And,for many the lyric of bitter experience telling of a misplayed hand in the game of love must have struck a deep chord.
The Bluejeans last hurrah, as far as the charts were concerned, was a lovely take on the Bacharach/David Dionne Warwick classic, ‘Don’t make Me Over’ which almost made the UK top 30 in January 1966. There’s a tough guys show their tender side feel about this one that always makes me swoon.
I’m sure that many couples swooned together as they slow danced under the mirror ball as Don’t Make Me Over resounded over the dance floor.
The Swinging Blue Jeans have never retired though they have had a revolving door cast of members since their 60s heydays.
They lacked the potency of image and songwriting skills necessary for an extended career at the top. They were thus unable to build on their excellence as a Merseybeat group.
But, a fine Merseybeat group, as the tracks above surely demonstrate, was most assuredly something to be!
There are a plethora of Swinging Blue Jeans compilations. My own, which has served me well, is, ‘The Swinging Blue Jeans at Abbey Road 1963-1967’ on EMI.
There is a possibly apocryphal story which I enjoy telling that at that first Top Of The Pops show a fight broke out between the Bluejeans and a scruffy London R&B Band called The Rolling Stones about ownership of a pen used to sign autographs!
The Bluejeans being an iconic Merseybeat band also made an appearance in a breakthrough for realism TV show about the Liverpool Police called, ‘Z Cars’ which was another staple of my youth.