Friday March 28, 2008
Sometimes rock myths are just that: myths. In the latest edition of
Observer Music Monthly, the DJ Johnnie Walker recalled, "The impetus
for Radio Caroline came when the founder, Ronan O'Rahilly, discovered
Georgie Fame." Were they not dead, Larry Parnes and Rik Gunnell might
contest O'Rahilly's role as Fame's discoverer: Parnes, since it was
he who, having hired pianist Clive Powell to back Billy Fury, renamed
him Georgie Fame; Gunnell, because he oversaw Fame's metamorphosis
into the Hammond-playing hipster whose No 1, Yeh Yeh, was honed at
his Soho club. Walker was repeating a claim aired often enough for it
to have transmuted, like the legend of the man who shot Liberty
Valance, into truth, his endorsement further enhancing its authenticity.
Similarly, a recent Guardian obituary was headlined: "Rock'n'roll
pioneer who was a primary influence on Elvis." Who had died? Little
Richard? Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? No, Freddie Bell,
leader of the Bellboys, a Las Vegas lounge act given momentary
prominence by an appearance in Rock Around the Clock. It may not be
the most important chapters in pop history that are being rewritten,
but that doesn't mean they aren't worth correcting.
Possibly Kris Kristofferson's recent claim (also in the Guardian)
that his was the first beard in country music didn't really warrant a
letter pointing out that goateed Burl Ives had recorded country hits
while Kristofferson was still a clean-shaven soldier, but that didn't
stop me writing one or this paper printing it, prompting the former
Manfred Mann bassist Tom McGuinness to ask how could I have
overlooked the hirsute Gabby Hayes. Before I promulgate another
porky, he was joking.
McGuinness has his own reasons for mistrusting music history.
Watching a BBC documentary, he heard the Shirelles' Shirley Alston
assert that the Manfreds' cover of Sha La La killed the girl group's
original. "As theirs was a small US hit in March 1964 and ours got to
No 12 in November," he notes, "I can only say theirs took a long time
dying. If my memory doesn't fail me, it was in a section of the
programme about black artists being ripped off, particularly galling
as we always gave credit to those black artists who had inspired us."
No less an authority than Charlie Gillett, whose The Sound of the
City was the first reliable rock history book, admits to having
promoted a myth by stating that Gene Vincent's Capitol contract was
the prize in a talent contest to find the next Elvis. "I don't know
where I got the notion from," he says, "but although there was no
such competition, the story has been repeated many times."
The most popular myths are less about the music than events: Mama
Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich (she didn't); Keith Richards
snorting his father's ashes (a joke, according to his publicist);
Paul McCartney dying in a car crash in 1966 (in which case, his
stand-in has done a bad job protecting the family fortune).
The long and lively career of a band such as the Who inevitably
incites ambiguities, which Pete Townshend is happy to dismiss. He
didn't smash Abbie Hoffman over the head with his guitar at
Woodstock. "If I had, he would have been dead." Keith Moon driving a
Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool is an erroneous conflation of two
incidents. In one, he left the handbrake off, and the car rolled into
a pool, which was under construction and waterless. In the other, he
charged a new car to the band, who refused to foot the bill, so Moon
"drove into a muddy pond in his garden and called the dealer to pick
it up". Townshend is even willing to share the credit for pioneering
the use of feedback with the Kinks' Dave Davies - "although he used
quite small Vox amplifiers, so it wasn't particularly loud."
The one fiction that really bothers him is that he had a "serious
tiff" with Jimi Hendrix about who went on first at 1967's Monterey
pop festival. There was a civil discussion before the running order
was settled with the toss of a coin, although "Jimi did stand on a
chair and start to play guitar before John Phillips tossed his coin.
Jimi playing the guitar meant he'd left the room - really rather
rude, but understandable."
So, if you're still around to read Sting's obituary, and it describes
him as a reggae pioneer and primary influence on the Sex Pistols,
don't let it go uncorrected.