If anyone today were to suggest for a minute that Perry Como should be classed amongst purveyors of the Big Beat, they’d be (at best) laughed at. Yet there was a time in the mid 80s when a visit to many self-respecting rock’n’roll venues would have found Como’s Juke Box Baby and Kewpie Doll, plus tracks by British jazz artist Ray Ellington and even 40s big bands amongst the staples of many DJs’ sets. And the phenomenon wasn’t confined to jivers and strollers, either. The Bob Crosby Band’s 1930s recording of Big Noise from Winnetka – originally a novelty item performed by drummer Ray Bauduc and bassist Bob Haggart – was a favourite for boppers. That last one could at least be explained in part by a prominent double bass riff that had a lot in common with the slap bass on many rockabilly records, but the incursion of a swathe of pure 50s pop into the rock’n’roll playlist is something that has more recently been the subject of many impassioned exchanges on social media. As someone who was a club regular at the time (and with a few dubious items tucked away in the record boxes upstairs), I thought I’d try to work out how it came about.
I think (and I stress, all of this is my own opinion and so up for debate), that the key lies in the transition from a scene predominantly influenced by the Ted revival of the 1970s to one where new arrivals wanted to draw more heavily on 1950s Americana. There’s a huge irony there, in that it was the characters of the 1970s scene, many of whom would never have thought of themselves as ‘revivalists’ in any sense, who were largely responsible for feeding the UK with authentic rock’n’roll and rockabilly records that had not only never been heard on this side of the Atlantic but that had been pretty much forgotten about in their home territory, too (Breathless Dan, Chester Dowling and Co, we are eternally in your debt!). I guess, though, that for many of us too young, skint, or just too ignorant to be part of the true record collecting scene, access to records outside the rock’n’roll ‘greatest hits’ selections was quite thin on the ground, with the accessible MCA, Columbia and Capitol Rockabillies compilations and the like trickling out far too slowly to slake our appetite.
Anyway, setting aside a much bigger debate about what records arrived on these shores when, the ‘look’ of the scene at the back end of the 70s was very ‘British’, with even the ‘Rockabilly’ look defined by a donkey jacket and straight leg jeans more suited to a UK building site than the drive in. Any attempt to emulate 50s Americana got sidetracked by the naff Grease and Happy Days versions of the time touted in popular TV. Shops like Flip changed that with bales of original clothing arriving from the States untouched since the 1950s. If you had the cash to spare, it meant a trip to the Covent Garden shop or, for the more strapped, a root through the bulk stock in their Curtain Road warehouse in the grubby streets between Islington and the back of Liverpool Street station. From then on, with pegs and box jacket in the wardrobe, it was possible actually to look like the people on the back of the record sleeves and in photos from the 50s.
And with that came a desire to recreate 50s popular culture more widely, and so what I think is at the root of the great Perry Como/Ray Ellington dilemma. Because what it was easy to forget was that this was the culture of everyday 50s youth, complete with the popular music of the era, not world of the rock’n’roller. If this had been the purely British equivalent, we’d have been going to dance classes to learn the foxtrot and quickstep, and tuning in to Sidney Lipton on the Home Service to dance round the parlour, taking care not to dislodge the antimacassar on the back of grandad’s armchair. Sure, some of the records that we were stumbling across from the 1950s hit parade had a danceable beat and used the language of the time, but just because an established crooner like Como slips the word ‘jukebox’ into a song, or bandleader Ray Ellington injects a few minutes of jive talk into the Goon Show every week doesn’t make it rock’n’roll.
As aberrations go, it wasn’t a particularly heinous one, though. The look of the average rockin’ club took on a much more original style, and I’ll never forget the moment of walking into 50s Flash’s White Hart club for the first time, seeing a dance floor full of jiving couples in authentic clothing and realising that this was the image the music I loved had been creating in my head for so long. It was fairly short-lived, too, as the power and excitement of ‘proper’ rock’n’roll, fuelled by the constant stream of new discoveries, and DJs combing existing compilations for overlooked tracks, quickly eclipsed the more tepid white bread efforts. Besides, the chances of anyone bringing Perry Como over for a weekender were thankfully not high, to say the least. It’s interesting, though, how the argument over rock’n’roll vs wider 1950s dance tunes has a close relation in the (equally impassioned) one over 1950s rock’n’roll vs anything recorded after 31 December 1959, where a more purist approach would deny us some storming records. As for me, I’ll always be in love with the 50s look (though I’ll take my suits and Pontiacs from 1948, please), but if it’s a choice between a wild Big Beat record from 1961 and ‘give me a doggy or teddy bear, or a high school banner for my wall’, then the music will win out over the calendar every time.
This article first appeared in Now Dig This – the long-standing magazine devoted to the Big Beat. It provoked a reply in the letters page by old friend and renowned discographer, Dave Penny, who rightly pointed out that the broadening of the rock’n’roll club sound to incorporate danceable 40s and 50s pop could equally well have reflected the desire of DJs to widen the range of records available when new finds from the States were still hard to get hold of and yet to be included on compilation LPs; hence, anything of the right era and available on a UK release was better than playing the same limited set every week. A very valid point and just the kind of informed and thoughtful contribution that I always hope my ramblings will invite.