Elvis, Cliff and the birth of British rock and roll

PUBLISHED: 14:48 08 September 2017 | UPDATED: 14:49 08 September 2017

Elvis Presley in March 1958

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1958 was the year when rock and roll gripped the nation, prompting some to ask of a young Cliff Richard “Is this boy too sexy for television?” SOPHIA DEBOICK explores when the teenager truly arrived in Britain

Teenage music fans couldn’t be blamed for feeling things were in stasis in 1958.

Elvis was in a state of lockdown, in army training in Texas before shipping out to Germany in September. Crooners Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como were all over the charts and their female counterparts Connie Francis, Doris Day and East London’s own Alma Cogan were purveyors of similarly ‘easy’ fare.

Pat Boone was pillaging the back catalogues of black artists and flogging rock and roll lite. The Beatles were still The Quarrymen, in the process of moving away from the short-lived skiffle craze, popularised by Lonnie Donegan, and towards rock and roll. That March, Paul McCartney bought the band its first amp and George Harrison joined. John Lennon would later proclaim “Before Elvis, there was nothing”, but while budding musicians were certainly looking principally to America for inspiration at this time, 1958 was the year something home-grown would catch their attention.

When Cliff Richard, then just 17, released Move It that summer, it was the first real British rock and roll single, and Lennon would later say “Before Cliff and the Shadows, there had been nothing worth listening to in British music”. This was the year rock and roll went British.

While his pastiche of the Presley sneer might have been a bit much, the teenage Cliff Richard had much to recommend him: an instinctive grasp of stagecraft, an engagingly studied nonchalance, and sultry eyes which he used to devastating effect. It’s difficult to appreciate the impact of Move It with knowledge of the Cliff of the Wimbledon sing-along and the Christmas hit, but it was powerful stuff; ferociously guitar-driven and subtly sexy. While another Norrie Paramor-produced song, Teach You to Rock by Tony Crombie and His Rockets from two years earlier has sometimes been said to be the true first British rock and roll single, it was far too jazz-tinged and lacked the Presleyesque vocals of Move It.

Move It got to number 2 in the UK charts in September and, with excellent timing, television producer Jack Good launched the quaintly-titled Oh Boy! on ITV that same month. Good had just left the BBC’s Six-Five Special, where he had invented the concept of the milling studio floor audience that would go on to define everything from Top of the Pops to The Word, after the corporation insisted on less music and more educational segments, rather in the vein of Blue Peter, also launched that year.

Oh Boy! was the first pure music youth TV programme and it put Cliff on the nation’s TV sets at the prime slot of 6pm on a Saturday night almost every week between the show’s launch and the end of the year. Such was his impact that the Daily Mirror asked “Is this boy too sexy for television?”

In October, Cliff set off on his first tour, along with his backing back The Drifters, later renamed The Shadows, and encountered a frenzied reaction from teenage fans. He had become a bona fide teen idol, and film was the obvious next step. The following year, he took a cameo role as a good-hearted tough guy in the surprisingly dark Serious Charge, starring Anthony Quayle as a vicar falsely accused of sexual abuse. The film featured the song Living Doll, which would become Cliff’s first number one in the summer of 1959. The release of Expresso Bongo followed, where he starred as the world’s most unconvincing bongo player, the teenage hangout coffee bar setting being very much of the time. He would have a staggering 17 top 10 hits over the next four years, including with songs by Otis Blackwell and the duo Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett (authors of The Young Ones) who also wrote some of Elvis’ biggest hits.

Indeed, American music would remain the yardstick of excellence for some time to come. Teen idols Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, rock and roll originals Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, and guitar legends Duane Eddy and Chuck Berry (Johnny B Goode was released that January), were all populating the UK charts in 1958. Elvis had six top 30 hits that year and the influence of Bill Haley and His Comets, who had scored a UK number one with Rock Around the Clock in 1955, and had toured the UK in 1957 (Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and Graham Nash were among the audience members), was still being felt. Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly was at number eight in early 1958, following British top 10 hits with Long Tall Sally, Lucille and The Girl Can’t Help It the previous year. Having established a whole new level of pomp, theatricality and virtuosity, he left the pop scene in the autumn of 1958, having decided rock and roll was the devil’s music, and went off to study the Bible and immerse himself in gospel instead.

That Cliff Richard’s Living Doll was written by Lionel Bart indicated the symbiotic relationship between popular music, the musical and variety traditions. Tommy Steele, who Bart worked with extensively, was emblematic of this; he rode the rock and roll wave while also being marketed as an all-round entertainer. Starring in his own film The Tommy Steele Story, the previous year, when he’d also had a number one hit with Singing the Blues, in 1958 he appeared in the wholesome The Duke Wore Jeans, another Bart project, playing his cheeky cockney self. Steele’s manager was the legendary impresario Larry Parnes, who also signed Billy Fury that year. Fury penned and recorded his debut single Maybe Tomorrow, showcasing his trademark anguished and vulnerable vocals, which was released in early 1959. Marty Wilde, another of the Parnes stable of putative teen heartthrobs, hit the top five with the story of a drowned lover, Endless Sleep, that summer. Both Fury and Wilde made regular Oh Boy! appearances and, despite Fury’s evident song-writing talent, going to write every track on his Jack Good-produced debut album, both would be pushed by Parnes into recording derivative covers of American hits, making little money in the process.

In other quarters, there was real musical innovation. The BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was established early in 1958 under Daphne Oram as its first studio manager, charged with creating sound effects and soundtracks for BBC programming. The Workshop’s experimentation with musique concrète techniques, oscillators and early tape editing marked the start of a British affinity with electronic music. The Workshop’s soundtrack for Quatermass and the Pit, which scared the nation silly when it began airing just before Christmas, was a notable project of this year. For Oram, however, the BBC wasn’t pushing the boundaries far enough, and she would resign before the year was out, leaving to set up her own studio having seen the innovations in electronic sound being made on the continent. Indeed, mainland Europe seemed closer than ever in 1958, with the European Economic Community coming into being on January 1, following the previous year’s Treaty of Rome.

The Munich air crash in February, killing seven members of the Manchester United team, cast a pall over the year and was a blow to the spirit of youthful invincibility seen on the music charts. In film, theatre and literature, kitchen-sink drama grappled with the contemporary struggles of the young. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in May, Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which had premiered in 1956 and would be made into a film starring Richard Burton in 1959, was an ongoing sensation. The teenager had arrived. James Dean and Marlon Brando had established the standard for the young brooding rebel by the mid-1950s, the “angry young men” put such figures in the context of British class and society, and native rock and rollers’ latently menacing masculinity was caught up in this web of influences. Indeed, issues of gender, class and race were squarely on the agenda.

Second-wave feminism and the pill may have been a few years off, but at the Lambeth Conference that summer, the Church of England passed a resolution supporting the use of contraception, and the Life Peerages Act allowed women to sit in the Lords for the first time. The last debutantes were presented to the Queen as even the lifestyle of the aristocracy began to change, bringing a 200-year tradition to an end. As August turned into September, Teddy Boys rioted and attacked West Indian immigrants in the Notting Hill riots, mirrored by similar trouble in Nottingham.

In the midst of nuclear tests and weapons cooperation treaties, the launch of CND in February confirmed that the atomic age was going to endure, and the first of many annual marches between the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire and London (a distance of 52 miles) took place at Easter, foreshadowing the youth-orientated protest movements of the 1960s and beyond.

The opening of the M1 in March, Britain’s first full-length motorway, was a sign that post-war austerity was well and truly over. A rise in car ownership and the very first parking meters being installed in Mayfair in July meant the public spaces of the nation were changing and a new age of consumerism had dawned. The Hire-Purchase Act 1957 – which sought to give new protections to the buying public – came into force and the launch of Bri-Nylon, marketed as the fabric of the future, heralded the birth of disposable fashion.

Mass communication reached maturity with the first communications satellite going into orbit that December, and two months previously Pius XII, the wartime pope, had declared Saint Clare of Assisi the patron saint of television. Such gestures towards modernity would be accelerated with the election of John XXIII after Pius’ death that October.

The years that immediately followed would see the kings of rock and roll dethroned. Elvis arrived back in the US in early 1960 and would not regain creative form for almost another decade. Buddy Holly was killed in the famous February 1959 plane crash that Don McLean would refer to as “the day the music died” in American Pie.

If that was a song about the passing of the original rock and roll generation, written with the turbulent 1960s in mind, this point in the history of British popular music was key to that shift; it was when the seeds of the British Invasion and all that followed were sown. Rock and roll becoming just rock, as it had done by the mid-1960s, involved not just the loss of its originators, but the passing of the reins across the Atlantic, and the British becoming the creators of music of unrivalled originality and energy.

Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick

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