My earliest memories of music were from the radio, Listen with Mother, nursery rhymes and at school. The songs were simple, had clear melodies and words that were easy to remember and wormed their way into our brains to remain there forever. Who can forget the Runaway Train, They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace, Your’e a Pink Toothbush, The Windmill in Old Amsterdam and Three Little Fishies? These were hit songs for their singers and were constants on family radio. At Stainbeck Preparatory School and later at Harehills County Primary School we sang more traditional songs. Hearts of Oak, Oh Soldier, Soldier Won’t You Marry Me?, The Mermaid, Molly Malone and A Keeper Did a Hunting Go were the songs of choice. Usually we had a pianist play whilst the school joined in and hymns were also a regular diet of school assemblies. I never quite got why there was a green hill without a city wall. Hills didn’t usually have walls. Towards Christmas, carols were the fare and we created our own silly versions to sing if no teacher was paying attention. Why three Kings would be selling soap at tuppence a bar was beyond me, or why shepherds would be washing their socks by night I never understood. What was common to most of us was the joy of singing and at Harehills there was a school choir. In these days there was less concern about including everyone who wanted to take part and selection for the choir was on whether you could hold a tune or not. The teacher would walk around the group of volunteers and tap anyone on the shoulder who was tone deaf and they were not eligible for selection. Harsh times, but it did mean that the standard of the choir was quite passable. In the photograph of the choir you will see everyone wearing a uniform of white shirt and red tie. That was the only uniform I ever wore at Harehills.
There was some attempt at an introduction to playing music through the recorder and we had to buy our own. I think we brought in five shillings and the school purchased them and distributed them. The ability to read simple music was helpful in a range of ways and has remained with me. Classical music was the most valued form of music and a record of some famous piece would be played at the start of each assembly as we entered the hall to sit on the rough boards of the floor. It is interesting how I can still recognise the music even if I am not sure about the composer. Popular music didn’t really have any place in our education until we reached the sixth form at Roundhay, where a trendy teacher, attempting to win over our unruly class, brought in Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge over Trouble Water to the English class. Maybe he thought it would help pacify our turbulent aggression, but it was only a short pause in the battle between order and chaos.
Out of school though, popular music was taking off. Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle music was taking over the air waves, Rock Island Line was a big hit as was Does Your Chewing Gum lose its flavour on the Bedpost Overnight? American Rock and Roll was this wild revolution that changed the post war world with music written for teens. Prior to this, adults ruled the world, but this changed with Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock and See You Later Alligator (Despite the songs being almost identical). But when Elvis Presley landed with Jail House Rock, Heartbreak Hotel and a string of decadent hits, any hope of controlling teenagers was lost forever. Sheet music was still popular, but the arrival of single records, LPs and jukeboxes added a new dimension to teen culture. Pop music was the theme tune for a generation that wanted to be free and have fun. Wild dancing styles were seen on American TV programmes and emulated in coffee bars and clubs. Having a new dance move, or collection of hit records gave a teenager status. Born at the end of 1954, I missed out on much of this, apart from what was on the TV or radio and there wasn’t much of that, but it was all about to change again with pop radio.
The BBC resisted the new music as much as possible and so Pirate Radio stations appeared to challenge the status quo (not the band). Radio Caroline and Luxembourg were floating just outside British territorial waters and broadcast the music youth wanted to hear. A friend listened on his crystal radio in his bedroom, but Andrew, my older brother, sent off fifty pence for a transistor radio from Radio Luxembourg and a few weeks later it arrived. Inside a brown cardboard box was a bright red plastic trannie. It was the first I had ever seen. It was the size of a small handbag and had a tuning dial, volume switch and small speaker. The point was that it took batteries and could be carried around. This gave him the freedom to listen to music wherever and whenever he wanted. The sound quality wasn’t great compared to what we have nowadays, but it was pretty good for the time. The music he could listen to now was a real culture change to what was playing on the BBC.
Television and Radio were still in the grips of the older generation and variety shows were still de rigueur. Piano players such as Frank Ifield and Russ Conway and female singers such as Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark and Kathy Kirby dominated with instrumentalists such as Acker Bilk and his Jazzmen. It was safe, mum and dad music and teenagers hated it. My older brother was the trailblazer for me. I remember him buying House of the Rising Sun by the animals from Varley’s toy shop at Harehills. The Dansette record player was a mono only, but we didn’t care. Unfortunately though, my Mum and Dad started buying records too. My Dad loved country and western music and Jim Reeves was his favourite, but he also had a Joe Locke album as well. My mother bought a Frank Sinatra one that had the Rubber Tree song on it and her tastes were growing more into the pop range.
Eventually the BBC had to surrender to the inevitable and Radio One was started and they even pinched the DJs from the pirate stations. Tony Blackburn was the first voice to be heard on the new radio station and from that moment music was never the same. American music was still important, but the British artists who had started as copies of USA artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis and Buddy Holly began to create their own style and this led to Mersey Beat and other trends. Cliff Richard changed from being the UK Elvis to developing his own style, but those who didn’t change disappeared. Songs were short, just over two minutes, immediate, simple and catchy and the lyrics were often cringe-worthy when looked at with 21st Century eyes. Standing On the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By, They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Haha Heehee, would not get air room nowadays, but there were no concerns at the time. Somehow the revolution was losing steam as songs became banal and sanitised, but there was another revolution coming.
Behind the scenes bands such as The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, The Troggs, The Kinks, The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Move and, most importantly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, appeared and from blues roots created music that changed the world. Television embraced the new music with programmes such as Juke Box Jury and Top of the Pops, and these became weekly viewing for everyone in the family. We would all sit down on what I think was a Thursday evening, 7.30pm, to watch who was in the top twenty and who was number one. Juke Box Jury introduced new songs and the panel had to vote on whether they thought it would be a hit or a miss. I remember clearly one episode where one team was the Beatles and the other was The Rolling Stones.
By the mid-sixties new bands were everywhere. I loved the Small Faces and The Who, and there was a belief and a desire that music and young people could change the world. I know that today’s young people reading this will find it hard to believe, but we were revolutionaries. There was a feeling that all you needed was ‘love’ and possible some chemical enhancement, to make the world a better place. Change it we did, but it hasn’t all been good or bad. There have been so many advances since the fifties and sixties and in many ways the west has improved the life experience for the majority of its citizens, but there is a new understanding and awareness of the very great challenges ahead. At the time, in the late sixties, music was again ready for another cultural wave to rush in, and for me it heralded the glory years of popular music, but that is another tale.
For those interested below is the player for my first audiobook in The Moondial Series – The Moonchild. There are nine parts for thos who might be interested and it is free to listen.