With the Space Race very much on, 1959 reeked of the future. And one band were particularly influential, Sophia Deboick reports.
One event on its own secures 1959’s position in musical history.
February 3 was ‘the day the music died’, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed instantly when the plane they had chartered to transport them between dates on the all-star Winter Dance Party tour crashed shortly after take-off.
With true showbiz grit, the tour kept going, honouring its date in Moorhead, Minnesota just hours after the crash, with a fifteen-year-old Bobby Vee being hastily recruited to fill in for Holly.
Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch, who had been hospitalised for frostbite caused by sitting in the band’s freezing tour bus, fatefully prompting the chartering of alternative transportation, returned to the tour just two days later, future Country titan Waylon Jennings – Holly’s bassist who had given up his seat on the plane to The Big Bopper – took on vocal duties, and Frankie Avalon, Jimmy Clanton and Fabian were all added to the bill. The teen pop phenomenon was death-defying – Holly’s It Doesn’t Matter Anymore would be propelled to number 1 in the UK by April, and many a teen idol remained to pick up where he had left off.
Bobby Darin, Elvis, Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, along with notable one hit wonders like Jerry Keller with Here Comes Summer and Craig Douglas with Only Sixteen, dominated the UK number 1 spot that year. But, on the threshold of the 1960s, the times were changing as technology took men to the stars, the face of Britain was remoulded, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll-fuelled youth culture exploded, and some true rock originals previewed the sounds of the future.
The Cold War took divergent turns that year, as Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the US, but the establishment of Castro’s regime in Cuba meant a new Communist state was now festering just 100 miles from the US coast. Technology may have progressed in some prosaic forms that year – as with the launch of the Xerox machine – but huge technological strides were taken in the space race, and this was where East-West passive aggressiveness was played out in this year.
The Soviet Luna missions hit the moon and photographed its dark side, and NASA’s Vanguard and Explorer programmes and the US Air Force’s Discoverer project achieved many other firsts for unmanned craft in space. In April NASA brought out the big guns and announced the Mercury Seven – the very first astronauts – and the Soviet Vostok programme had made its selection of cosmonauts by the end of the year. In May, the US Jupiter missile launched monkeys Able and Baker into orbit and they became the first animals to survive space flight. Against this atmosphere of striving for the stars, science fiction was a mainstay of popular culture. Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring James Mason and crooner Pat Boone, was one of the more fantastic cinematic hits of the year, while Ed Wood’s notorious B movie Plan 9 from Outer Space would later be rediscovered as ‘the worst movie ever made’, but captured the space age and pulp-inspired schlock that was a key facet of American-made pop culture at the end of the 1950s.
Life in Britain seemed somewhat gloomier and less high octane than in the thrusting US, and the year began with a dense, Victorian-style smog descending over much of the southern half of the country. But that this was just as much the age of progress in the UK too was proven by the smog causing chaos on the roads in this, Britain’s nascent motoring age. 32% of British households owned a car by 1959 and that year Britons got the chance to push their prized vehicles to their limits when the M1 opened.
While the motorway’s Preston Bypass had been put into action the previous year, on 2 November the full stretch between Rugby and Watford opened. The Daily Mirror called it a ‘space-age highway’ and transport minister Ernest Marples said in his speech at the opening ceremony that the new road was ‘in keeping with the bold, exciting and scientific age in which we live’ (although, as he watched the first cars accelerate on to the tarmac at breakneck speed, he allegedly exclaimed ‘My God, what have I started!’).
The Mini, launched by the British Motor Corporation in this year, would play a key role in the transport revolution, introducing an economy car on to the market that would soon become an icon of British design. Innovative home-grown design was also showcased in the five high-rise blocks of Roehampton’s Alton Estate, a product of London County Council’s visionary architect’s department. A development that signalled the shape of post-war housing to come, it was visited by town planners from all over the world as the vanguard of architectural progress.
As times changed, the world seemed to be reorienting itself towards the young. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin began to impress their unique visions on the nation’s kids as Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine hit TV screens, Asterix made his first appearance in French comic Pilote and Mattel launched the Barbie doll. Things were no different in pop, where an only slightly older generation had staged a complete take-over. A 17-year-old Cliff Richard had launched British rock ‘n’ roll with his single Move It just the previous year, and would score two number 1s in 1959, including Livin’ Doll, which was the top-selling UK single of the year.
That pop music had truly entered the national consciousness was apparent in the success of Juke Box Jury. Launched in a Monday night slot in June, it moved to early Saturday evening at the beginning of September and was achieving viewing figures of 9 million by the following month. Meanwhile, on the big screen, light, British-made teen idol vehicles like the coffee-bar themed satire on the music industry Expresso Bongo, starring Cliff himself, and Tommy Steele’s fourth cinematic outing Tommy the Toreador stood in stark opposition to the stodgy, over-three-hour epics like Ben Hur (the Oscar-swagging hit of the year) that were still in vogue.
For the more discerning young person, modern jazz was where it was at. The Beatnik was coming into being and Dizzy Gillespie and the already dead and gone Charlie Parker were the subculture’s musical figureheads. While jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott opened one of Britain’s most iconic live music venues in a Soho basement in October 1959 with the express intention of creating a space for jazz like the New York clubs, it was still in that city that the genre was being moved forward. In March, Miles Davis began recording Kind of Blue at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, New York. Often referred to as the greatest jazz record ever made, it was released in August, and was a masterpiece of effortless cool. Shortly afterwards John Coltrane, who had contributed to the Kind of Blue sessions, began the recording of Giant Steps, an album which established several jazz standards and saxophone practice pieces. With less cred but unassailable levels of commercial success was Dave Brubeck, whose Time Out LP was also recorded at the Columbia studios that summer. The album sold over a million copies – the first jazz album to do so – and contained Take Five, probably the most popularly recognisable modern jazz piece ever.
The world of the smoky jazz club and achingly cool members of the proto-counterculture were also immortalised in the literary milestones of this year. Absolute Beginners, the second novel in Colin MacInnes’ ‘London trilogy’, took place against the background of 1958’s Notting Hill Riots, and depicted a multicultural London of Teddy Boy violence, marginal lives and the first shoots of the mod subculture. Its antihero narrator – a nameless young photographer – lauds the jazz club as a place where ‘not a soul cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent or versatile, or what you are – so long as you have left all that crap behind you when you come in the jazz club door.’ Meanwhile, Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar continued the exploration of masculinity and class of the ‘angry young men’. William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a seminal work of Beat Generation literature, was also published in this year, presaging the drug-fuelled popular culture that would dominate the next decade.
For all the landmark records of 1959, two lesser-known acts were probably the most influential for the direction of rock music. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ debut single Please Don’t Touch appeared in May and reached number 25 in the UK. This chart position belied its significance, however, as it had a deep R&B sensibility and British-accented vocals that anticipated The Rolling Stones more than they imitated American rock ‘n’ roll. Headed by Londoner Freddie Heath, who took the Kidd stage name, the band’s set up of bass, drums and one guitarist made for a proto-power trio line-up that would become the set-up of the seminal names of the next decade, from Cream to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath. The group’s theatricality – they dressed in full pirate costume, with Kidd sporting an eyepatch – anticipated glam rock and was taken up by the New Romantics wholesale. The band’s Shakin’ All Over would be a UK number 1 the following summer, its guitar riff – one of the most iconic in British rock history – the work of Joe Moretti, who had also played guitar on rockabilly legend Vince Taylor’s seminal B side, April 1959’s Brand New Cadillac. That song that would later be covered by The Clash, and the British-born, US-raised Taylor, who found success as a purveyor of American rock ‘n’ roll to the French, would become an early acid casualty and well-known figure on the London scene in the 1960s. When he proclaimed himself the messiah on stage, a young David Bowie took note and used this doomed idol as one of the inspirations for Ziggy Stardust. Both Kidd’s death in a car crash in 1966, aged just 30, and Taylor’s sad professional and personal demise made them two cult legends of the early rock era.
1960 would be something of a damp squib, as the promise of the new decade failed to translate into a new pop explosion, but things would change rapidly, and the chart hits of 1959 would seem incredibly innocent within just a few years. While Cliff Richard had sung ‘The rhythm that gets into your heart and soul/ Well, let me tell you baby, it’s called rock ‘n’ roll/ They say it’s gonna die but please let’s face it/ Well, they just don’t know what’s a goin’ to replace it’, some of the myriad sounds of the 1960s could in fact already be glimpsed in 1959. With the founding of Tamla Records in January 1959, and The Supremes also forming as the quartet The Primettes that year, Motown’s 20 number 1 hits of the 1960s, defining soul at its intersection with pop and R&B, were on their way. On 20 February 1959 a 16-year-old Jimi Hendrix played his first gig – bizarrely, at a Seattle synagogue – and his already outrageous antics saw him thrown off stage halfway through. But it was perhaps in the unlikely shape of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates that 1959 most profoundly put its stamp on the future, the band having divined the crystallisation of the rock paradigm of the 1960s, a decade when sounds hardened just as the post-war optimism of the 1950s died.