As someone who likes to try to put the scene I’ve known and loved for over 40 years into some type of context, I’m a sucker for books on social history, even when I know that most of them will either take a lazy approach to the whole rockin’ scene (a bunch of throwbacks indulging in an endless Happy Days fancy dress party), or will know just enough to get tantalizingly close to something I recognize but leave me with that ‘Yes, but that’s not quite the scene as I remember it…’ feeling. Some of those within the scene have given it a brave go, and William Jones set the mark for using social media to try to canvass first hand recollections with his short book Rockabilly Underground back in 2015, and it was certainly entertaining, but focussed on a very particular place, time and crowd so that even those around at the time found much that didn’t reflect their recollection of the same clubs.
It’s an unwinnable challenge. Indeed, the author faces the same conundrum as the military historian, as pointed out by the Duke of Wellington talking about attempts to write a definitive history of the Battle of Waterloo: “The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events… but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance”. Indeed, as we were definitely having a ball on the rockin’ scene in the 80s and 90s, and a fair amount of alcohol and an awful lot of loud noise was involved.
None of which stopped me wanting to get involved when, a few years ago, I saw a call on Facebook for contributions to another book attempting to capture the magic of the scene at that time. I was impressed from the start when the writer, Paul Wragg, turned out not only to be someone who had genuinely been around at the time, but who also seemed to have the capacity to set about it properly, including travelling the country to interview contributors rather than having to rely on email exchanges (ah, those halcyon, pre-pandemic days!). Tempted by what I’d written already about my recollections, he duly pitched up and we spent several pleasant hours discussing our impressions of various trends within the scene, as well as the generalities of how I’d become involved, where I’d been, who I’d known etc. It helped that he had an interview plan, and some definite questions he wanted to focus on, and I was able to send him away not only with what he’d got on tape but also an invitation to plunder my digital archive of photos, flyers and other ephemera.
Over the next few years, Paul carried on with his Herculean task of gathering information and the even more difficult one of sifting it into some kind of structure that would make a readable book. Ironically, he’d started with a relatively simple premise of writing about the bands of the time, but quickly realized he couldn’t do that without talking about the context – not just the scene itself but also the music that was at the core of it. As his work progressed, we’d have fascinating email exchanges, as a topic sparked questions in his mind: “who were the notable DJs outside London?”, “what kind of hair grease did you use and where did you get it from?”, “what were the repro records that were popular in the late 70s?”. Some of those just needed a bit of diving into the memory, whilst others prompted a pleasant dig into my big book of record purchases and some cross-referencing with Discogs.
When the finished article went to print late in 2021, my breath was well and truly bated. Was this going to work? Would it be a product I’d be proud to have my name associated with? Would my reminiscences chime with others around at the same time or would I end up looking like some sort of shallow plastic? Even worse, could I irritate people I respected? The initial indicators were good as orders were flowing in rapidly on Paul’s dedicated Facebook page, and the first recipients were making positive noises. Then my copy arrived, all 734 pages of it, and just in time for Christmas and a bit of reading.
A few days later, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. From my perspective, certainly, the book had worked. It flowed easily between the three themes of records, bands and scene. Admittedly, for me, I found the bits on bands less interesting as I was always more into the original sounds, but even there it was fascinating to read about what I’d missed. I particularly liked the care Paul had taken to unpack the roots of the scene back to the 60s, and the massive influence of characters like Dan Coffey and Chester Dowling. Many of the stories I’d read before either on line, in Chester’s autobiographical albums or in the treasure trove of back issues of Now Dig This, but it was the first time I’d seen it all brought together in one place. What was especially poignant was the number of contributors who we’d lost since Paul had interviewed them, including Cavan Grogan, Colin Silcocks, Paul Dawkins (Owen) and Ray Campi, underlining the point that, even as he set about the book , the first hand sources of information are starting to dwindle.
I was pleased, too, that the contributions by folk I remembered seemed to chime with mine – and that some of the photos I took at the time made their way in too (not that the book is any sort of coffee table photo book – the words dominate). This was the first time I’d seen the complete list of those Paul had spoken to, and there were many who I remembered as regulars in the clubs I went to, not least Dave Penny, himself an esteemed musicologist and writer. Paul also gave much credit to Stewart Rhodes ‘The Prof’, not just for his contribution on everything from rockabilly days in Harrow to the birth of the psychobilly scene, but also for some judicious editing. I’m sure that errors will have crept in, but nothing leaped out that spoiled my reading, nor aroused my grammarial pedantry.
The bottom line? If you were there, this is essential reading to remind you of what a great time we had, and the characters that made it that way, and to make you wish you could go back and catch up on the bits you missed. Even if you weren’t there, but have since been drawn to the rockin’ scene, this will help fill in the gaps as to how it got that way (not least nuggets like the story behind the birth of the version of the stroll now danced and taught worldwide). I guarantee, though, that you’ll wish you could leap into a time machine to head back and live it for real. All I can say is join the queue – I’m off back to 1981, when my quiff was long, my legs could dance all night, and there was a girl over the other side of the dance floor it would take me another 30 years to meet…
And having written all this, Martin Heaphy from Sounds That Swing has put it so much more succinctly in one of their regular updates. Check it out, along with the rest of their fascinating insights into what’s new on the record scene here.