For most young people it will strike them as hard to imagine, but in the 1960s and 70s music was a major part of a teenager’s life, in a way that I am not sure has the same value today.
Our grandparents had no means of listening to music apart from live music at dances or concerts, at the cinema or through their own devices by playing the piano at home. Family social events often involved sing-a-longs around the piano. Many if not most homes would house an upright piano and it was only when recorded music and radio became commonplace that these disappeared. Upright pianos became almost worthless overnight. Of course there were those who persevered, but pianos were often scrapped and thrown out. Their status became so low that I can remember games on TV where teams would have to smash pianos into small enough pieces using sledgehammers and race other teams to pass all of the pieces through a small square opening. Looking back it seems such a waste, but such was the move to modernity and there was an optimism in what the future would hold that has been lost.
At Stainbeck Preparatory School I remember one of the teachers playing hard 78 records on an old gramophone that had replaceable hard needles and a large trumpet. It wasn’t powered by electricity and had a handle that you wound up to get the record to revolve. The quality of the sound was poor and there was a lot of crackle and hiss that would be horrifying nowadays. My memory of these times is in black and white and similar to Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday where colour appeared in the film when the bus crossed the Channel to Europe. In my memory there was a sudden change in the 1960s and the world became colourful. As I have discussed before, radios were the major replacement for piano playing and within a few years these were replaced by television and transistor radios, or trannies as they were referred to. It was television and music that seemed to be the catalyst for the world becoming colourful. The radios played serious music that belonged to adults, but then something happened to change that and music became the possession of youth and their symbol of rebellion. Music on television tended to be variety show music. Perry Como, Matt Monro, Russ Conway, Frank Sinatra and the myriad of others, played adult music that soothed mums and dads, but did nothing for teenagers. The last thing that you wanted to be, as a teenager, was anything like your mothers or fathers; in fact I swore that I would never be like them. How little did I know? How many times have I heard myself utter their very words when speaking to my growing children? Ah well!
There was a change afoot, but at first it was pretty tame. Lonnie Donegan and skiffle had a little more life about it, but really was nothing to get excited about. Then something happened in America. Bill Haley and the Comets had two singles: Rock Around the Clock and See You Later Alligator. These became big hits and were the opening for what had previously been black music, to burst upon the mainstream. Chuck Berry, Little Richard (sadly deceased) and others started the riot, but it was Elvis Presley with his censored hips, that started the opening of the floodgates. Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and a string of worldwide hits spoke to the disaffected youth around the world. This was matched and encouraged by the sale of single records on vinyl. Cheap and readily available, singles were what every teenager wanted to be seen carrying. Coffee bars and other meeting places for teens had jukeboxes and here the current hits could be played and listened to.
For those of us with little money, it was possible to buy ex-jukebox singles and these had the centres missing and you needed an adaptor to play them. Singles played on record players at 45 rpm and were often known as 45s. There were vinyl albums on sale and these played at 33 rpm and allowed up to 20 minutes of music on each side. The vinyl records produced a much improved sound quality to either 78s or the medium or short wave radio, but the first records were all in mono. We had a Dansette record player in the 1960s and it was a fairly basic player with a very heavy arm on the deck. It had a replaceable centre spindle so that a pile of singles could be stacked on top of each other and it would automatically lift the needle, retract the arm, allow the next singled to drop on top of the last one played, replace the needle and play each of the singles in turn. This seemed very clever at the time, but the higher records often slipped on the ones underneath. I remember going down to Varleys at Harehills with my brother to buy the House of the Rising Sun by the Animals in 1964. It was a major event at the time. It was the first music that he had bought and the first single in our household. The bunch of young men from Newcastle spearheaded the British movement into the teen revolution.
They looked hard, weren’t pretty and the song spoke of the USA which was the Mecca for UK youth. Of course, like most revolutions, the powers that be saw this as an opportunity. Pop music became taken over by the establishment. Radio One started playing pop, the companies that recorded and distributed the classical and adult music cashed in and started hiring, recording and selling anything they could. They saw the new audience of youth, with their own money to spend and a cash cow, and new British bands were signed up to compete with those from the USA. Cliff Richard was the English Elvis, Adam Faith and the like became stars. Some like Tommy Steele started as pop stars but became more mainstream and then general entertainers. It began to look as if the youth revolution would fizzle out until the sharper edged bands like the Animals came along and the revolution in Britain took off with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Beatles were more acceptable to parents and my mother loved their music, but the Stones came from the US blues roots and had a harder edge.
Teenage haunts such as the Texas Grill and the Del Rio would find us spending our spare coins on songs that would be magically selected and the record picked up by the amazing mechanics, dropped vibrating onto the turntable and then have the needle arm fall heavily onto our selection. The knack was to pick a song that your friends would like, but hopefully hadn’t heard before. To introduce them to a masterpiece could enhance your kudos. I remember well Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum (1969), In the Year 2525 Zager and Evans (1968-69) playing on the jukebox incessantly.
1969 was the major year for my musical tastes and that was where albums became important to me. The Beatles had produced the most influential album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1967 and split after Abbey Road and the Rooftop concert in Jan 1969. They set the scene for all other bands and a cluster of wonderful albums were produced from a wide range of bands and styles. New genres were being created and the psychedelic Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, matched the Rolling Stones with some of their best albums: Let It Bleed, Beggars Banquet and later, Sticky Fingers. Groups such as the Moody Blues , Crosby Stills and Nash, Caravan, The Doors, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Family, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Deep Purple, The Who, Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention and The Small Faces. What every self-respecting teenager wanted was to be seen carrying an armful of high status albums. They were so heavy, but they were possessions to be proud of. They were fragile and suffered sound quality loss from the moment you slipped them out of the sleeve, statically charged. I still have many, some which belonged to my older brother and my friends, but they don’t often get an airing.
It was shortly after this time when we used to gather in Pete’s cellar and listen intently to any new albums on his stereo system. Pete was lucky. We still had the mono Dansette at home and I would play stereo records with a compatible cartridge. It was in this environment that my musical tastes were honed, lying back listening to In the Court of the Crimson King and discussing the meaning of lyrics, the virtuosity of the band members and listening to the stereo effects of A Whole Lotta Love as the guitar swirled in a figure of eight.
The next major step in music reproduction was a giant backward step. We were round at another friend, John L’s house, when Pete arrived without his usual wide ranging new collection of albums. He carried what looked like a small suitcase. My interest was more than piqued as he opened it up to reveal a small deck and two speakers, connected by cable. He set it up, plugged it in and produced something we had never seen, from his pocket. It was a cassette tape. It was so small, lightweight and he opened the front door of the player and slipped it in. It was a pre-recorded cassette and I can’t remember the album, he may be able to let me know if he reads this. He shut the door and pressed play. There were two initial reactions: the first was ‘Wow!” and this was followed by, “What is that hissing!”
The deck was amazing, but the tape had a dreadful hiss. Of course, the cassette didn’t have Dolby Noise Reduction at that time. That came later, as did high quality tapes and Chrome tapes and finally Metal tapes which improved quality, but were soon replaced by the compact disk. The human mind has an amazing ability to focus and the quality of television and sound recording that we first experienced was dreadful compared to even the most basic televisions and sound systems, but we didn’t care. We experienced the music when it was in its halcyon days. Real artists, musicians who could play, took risks, were self-indulgent sometimes, often under the influence (as were the listeners), were popping up everywhere. Concert tickets were fifty pence, there could be five bands on a set list and people would sit and listen without the need to whistle or scream out. Music had something to say and even though it wasn’t the revolution we had hoped, the world changed and in some ways for the better. Unfortunately music no longer has a value and streaming means people aren’t prepared to buy it. Vinyl has come back, but it is only a boutique trend and will fade away again. My biggest worry is that due to the pandemic, bands can no longer play live or tour. This was their only means of making a living as sales are almost nonexistent and it may be years before it can start off again. If the art goes, we may find ourselves subjected to the charts dominated by three or four writers whose material sounds identical, but it has been researched and formulised to meet the maximum audience. Next artificial intelligence will write and perform and the art may be lost forever. What we need now is a new revolution! Come back Punk! Come back Folk! Come back Progressive Music! Come back Rock! Come back Motown! Come back Soul! The world needs real music more than ever. Maybe Video didn’t Kill the Radio Star, but image has seen the music die.
My first novel as an audiobook. Free to listen to on the Soundcloud player below.