Monday, 5 August 2013

Twenty AAA Milestone Events Part One 1956-66 (News, Views and Music 205)

Some days aren’t like other days. Some days are special days. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, they entirely change the landscape of lives forever and mean that things will never be the same again. Events so big that you can almost sense the time-travellers of the future hiding in the shadows with their cameras and their event-recorders. This is especially true of the AAA crew who – in fact – had so many life-changing events that we’ve had to cut this week’s ‘top twenty’ into a two-parter. So here is part one: arranged chronologically from 1956 to 1966, with more next week. Think we’ve missed any major event out? Then give us a shout by leaving a comment below!

1) Event: John Lennon meets Paul McCartney for the first time. Location: Woolton Village Fete, Merseyside. Date: July 1956

In retrospect, I’m amazed that John Lennon’s band ‘The Quarrymen’ were even asked to take part in a village fete. Even as a 16 year old trouble seemed to follow John Lennon around and it was a trusting official indeed who decided to let a lot of poorly rehearsed teenage wannabes busk on the back of a lorry at their precious festival. Moreover, most of the band (Lennon included) had just left school so the Quarrymen weren’t even an example of fete organisers promoting music and arts in schools. After all, The Quarrymen weren’t even close to being the best band in town: Liverpool was full of musicians even then and this was still the band’s pre-rock and roll days, surrounded by skiffle wash-boards and t-chests. The event was certainly the biggest break the band had had up until that time and dare I say it their cocky lead singer in the check shirt even looks a tad nervous in one of the most famous images of the early Beatles doing the rounds. Less well known is that a brief snippet of their performance (an energetic but unfocussed version of ‘Puttin’ On The Style’) still exists, taped by a man in the crowd actually keener on taping the local brass band following on a later truck and testing the tape out – still unofficially available, have a check on Youtube for it. The setlist has been lost down the years but Paul McCartney, then an envious 14 year old schoolboy looking on eagerly in the crowd, remembers a performance of The Del Monts’ ‘Come Go With Me’ (with a nervous Lennon forgetting the lines and making them up as he went along) as the highlight of the show. Finding that the two have a friend in common – Ivan Vaughan – Macca persuades his friend to introduce him and nervously chats to Lennon about how much he loved the gig. Never one for praise, Lennon is said to be non-plussed and considers Paul to be another teenage hanger-on until McCartney plays him the complex Eddie Cochran number ’20 Flight Rock’ without any fluffs and – even better – tunes Lennon’s guitar for him. Deciding that he’d rather have McCartney in his band than with a rival, the world’s greatest songwriting partnership is duly formed. The Beatles may well have continued without this monumental event (with a line-up of Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Shotton) but there’d be no Paul or George (an even younger friend of McCartney’s from school) and arguably none of that creative friction that paid off so handsomely.

2) Event: Brian Epstein hears The Beatles play at The Cavern and becomes their manager Location: The Cavern, Liverpool Date: 9th November 1961

Arguably the single most important sale of any record was the ‘My Bonnie’ record by ‘Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers’ Brian Epstein sold to a customer named Raymond Jones at his Liverpool NEMS store. Making it his policy to track down any record requests, Epstein’s interest was piqued when this record – ordered in especially from Hamburg – turned out to be by The Beatles (the German record company not having a clue what the word ‘Beatles’ meant) and that despite the many signs listing their appearance as being ‘direct from Germany’ they were in fact all local lads and cooking up quite a storm at the local club literally a stones’ throw away from the NEMS suppliers. Some people dispute this claim: Jones was elusive to track down and many assumed he was a figure made-up for Epstein’s autobiography till he finally came forward in the 1990s and it is true that as a good shop-keeper Epstein couldn’t have failed to notice the ‘Beatles top poll’ headlines in ‘Merseybeat’ magazine. However it is fair to say that it was this sale and the resulting conversation with Jones that piqued his interest and inspired him to visit The Cavern, with assistant Alastair Taylor in tow. Disliking what he saw of the place until The Beatles hit the stage, dressed in leather and cracking jokes, history could have been very different. Would Epstein have given up if the Beatles had been playing that day? Would he in fact have signed their main rivals The Searchers (a group he always admired and was due to talk to about moving to EMI the very day he died?) Would he ever have come into contact again had someone else served Jones that day (it was unusual, though not unknown, for Epstein to have been at the counter of NEMS at all, seeing as he was a manager and usually worked in the back-rooms). And what would have happened if a tired and angry group, forbidding from playing much of their own music on disc, had said ‘no’ to Tony Sheridan’s request of backing them (Pete Best, for one, refused to have anything to do with the record, which is why Ringo – then appearing in Hamburg with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes – plays instead). So many alternate parallel universes to consider – and none of them as exciting as the one we got.

3) Event: The Beatles audition at EMI and meet producer George Martin for the first time Location: Abbey Road Studios Date: April 1962

The final missing piece of the Beatles’ puzzle was a sensitive and empathetic producer. As luck would have it a failed audition with Decca on January 1st 1962 couldn’t have gone better: Decca struggled to record rock and roll until as late as the 1970s and Dick Rowe, a no-nonsense businessman used to getting his way, would have clashed badly with the band from the start. No, instead a funny thing happened. Figuring that EMI had sent him the ‘nicest’ rejection letter, Epstein used all of his NEMS management weight to get EMI to give him and The Beatles a chance to be heard in person. As the most junior producer at EMI, George Martin was given the job, but figured it would probably be a waste of time and went to the canteen for an hour leaving his assistant Ron Richards (later The Hollies’ producer) to take charge. Excited by what he heard, Richards got Martin to take a look and, a few Beatle jokes later (‘Is there anything you don’t like?’ ‘Well, for a start, I don’t like your tie!’) Beatle humour had impressed George Martin into giving them a go and his background working with Lennon heroes The Goons had convinced the fab four they were in the right place. It was revealed, though, years later that The Beatles were there under false pretences – fearing another miserable rejection, which might see the Beatles fire him, Epstein had ‘pretended’ that this first date was a bona fide recording session – in actual fact it was just another audition. How badly that could have gone – and how easily the Beatles could have slipped away, rejected by the two single biggest record companies in the UK in 1962, had first Ron Richards and then George Martin not kept an open ear.

4) Event: Dave Davies decides to slash the speakers of his green amplifier with a razor-blade Location: The Davies’ Family Front Room Date: early 1964

Brother Ray had written ‘You Really Got Me’ on piano a few weeks before, but somehow it never quite sounded right. A song about relentless obsession, it was clearly born for rock and roll but at the moment sounded more like jazz. By a lucky coincidence Dave Davies came up with the perfect sound – by accident more than design. Having spent weeks to save up for an Elpico green amplifier from a radio spares shop down the road – in the hope of improving his croaking guitar sound – Dave was frustrated to find that his new purchase didn’t sound any better. In frustration, he took a Gilette razorblade and physically attacked the speaker cone – expecting nothing to come from the sound, he nervously plugged his guitar in and suddenly found his musical voice. The odds of Dave discovering his distinctive sounds so close to his brother’s milestone composition seems incredible – how different things might have been had, say, the radio repair shop been shut that day, had the Davies’ parents got involved and refused to let their 15 year old son cut up something he’d just spent a fortune on or had, say, Dave simply decided to grow a beard.

5) Event: The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show Location: America Date: 9th February 1964

This date still stands as the evening with the lowest single crime rate in America – because everyone was watching the TV. While the then-record viewing figures have since been beaten, it’s probably fair to say that for American music lovers, this is where it all started and where a youth movement first came into being. The story could have been very different. Despite having a highly successful variety, ED Sullivan was often slow to spotting talent (most of the spots on his show were through ‘favours’ or spotted by production assistants). However even Ed Sullivan couldn’t have missed the thousands of screaming kids at Heathrow airport waving goodbye to the Beatles on their first American tour and it was natural that he should enquire about getting hold of them for his station. The build-up among fans – who’d heard word-of-mouth from friends and family in Europe about the band and the hype behind that months’ single ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ – was intense, and yet bizarrely the success of that one short TV spot seems to have taken the programme makers unawares. They were worried about the screams from fans in the audience, hadn’t bothered to negotiate a follow-up appearance with Brian Epstein and – shockingly – didn’t even put the fab four at the top of the bill (that prize went to the cast of ‘Oliver!’, which just happened to feature a young Davy Jones in a role as the artful dodger). The single day that most helped further the Beatles’ careers and helped inspire new groups to start up like none other before or since, life could have been different for so many AAA musicians had this event not taken place, not just for the Beatles themselves.

6) Event: Brian Wilson suffers a nervous breakdown on-board an aeroplane ahead of a Beach Boy tour Location: A plane flying from LA to Houston Date: December 23rd 1964

The Beach Boys’ career hadn’t just been going well since their debut single in October 1961, it was breaking all American records. Working at the ridiculous rate of four albums and six singles a year, Brian Wilson had somehow managed to keep going, on tour after tour, recording sessions after recording sessions and writing with a series of lyricists who, for one reason or another, had all burnt out. After three years of heavy living, however, something had to give – and it did in spectacular style shortly before a brief Christmas tour. Facing yet more time away from new wife Marilyn, new pressures from the Beatles making it big on Beach Boys home soil and bigger and scarier rows with manager and dad Murray, Brian couldn’t handle it anymore. Booked onto a plane alongside Al Jardine, Brian realised he couldn’t go through with the tour and effectively collapsed, his worried younger brother Carl actually plucking up courage to defy Murray’s wishes and notify the pilot. The story has a (short-term) happy ending though: an in-flight phone call to Marilyn and as many of Brian’s friends as they could meant that a whole gaggle of Wilson supporters were waiting on the runway when Brian finally got off the plane, an event that seems to have moved him like no other if his autobiography (which he has since distanced himself from) is anything to go by – a picture taken of the crowds hung on his wall for decades afterwards. However, some things changed forever: Brian wouldn’t go on a full Beach Boys tour until as late as 2012, his relationship with his dad (who thought he was simply letting the side down) worsened and from now on that awful slide into the bed-bound period, though still three years away, seems ever more inevitable. On the plus side, though, would we really have had ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ had Brian stayed out on the road with the other Beach Boys? And would he have simply burnt up in a more spectacular way, doing a full ‘Syd Barrett’ on us instead of the incredible return to his old self that he’s so courageously managed the past couple of decades?

7) Event: Stephen Stills and Richie Furay spot Neil Young’s hearse in a busy LA traffic jam and they decide to form ‘Buffalo Springfield’ Location: Date:

Now, stop me if this gets complicated. Stephen Stills and Neil Young had hung out a lot as two folky wannabes in America, but their paths had taken them in two very different directions and they figured they’d probably never see each other again the day Neil left to go back home to Canada. Along the way Stills’ buddy Richie Furay had met up with Neil and fallen in love with one of Neil’s earliest songs ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ and cooked up his own arrangement of it. The two also drifted apart. A telegram from Stills urging Richie to fly out to California and ‘hook up’ with his band turned out to be a hoax (‘the band is me and you’ a sheepish Stills retorted), but the pair decided to perform together anyway and added ‘Clancy’ to their setlist. Things didn’t work out, though and – dejectedly – they decided to fly back to Los Angeles for a last chance of fame, asking vainly in every club they passed if anyone had heard of Neil. Stuck in a traffic jam going nowhere, Richie looked over – and happened to spot a hearse in the traffic with Canadian numberplates. Neil, it turned out, had been looking for either or both of them but had all but given up and decided to go back to Canada. The odds against them meeting up on this road – and that Neil’s faithful and unusual road vehicle was still running, after breaking down several times over the years – are insane. How different life could have been, not just for the Springfield but also for CSNY and all the Stills-Young sparring down the years to come. Never before has the image of a hearse been so directly connected with ‘re-birth’ and beginnings.

8) Event: George Harrison discovers the sitar on the set of ‘Help!’ Location: London Date: Spring 1965

For the Beatles’ second film, Dick Lester could have done anything and come up with a hit. So what – of all plotlines – made him think of India? (Ringo’s ring turns out to be of huge religious importance, true, but the country could have been anywhere). For George Harrison in particular – and musicians in 1967 in general – the choice was a precipitous one, however. Eastern music and philosophy was in the air: The Kinks ‘See My Friends’ and The Searchers’ ‘He’s Got No Love’ both make good use of a ‘droning’ note similar to that on a sitar and – across the pond – David Crosby is already enthusing about an Eastern player named Ravi Shankar. There’s a scene in ‘Help!’ where the Beatles are hiding out at an Indian restaurant in London and a bunch of musicians play ‘Eastern’ versions of Beatle tunes, one of them on a sitar. His interest piqued, Harrison fell in love with the instrument and learned everything he could – playing one (in a highly Western manner) on ‘Norwegian Wood’ at the end of that year, meeting up with Ravi Shankar in 1966 and falling deeper and deeper in love with Indian religion and ways of life (which couldn’t have seemed more opposite to life as a reluctant celebrity in a capitalist state). From hereon-in in the floodgates opened, the sitar dominating many a song from 1967 and 1968, and Indian session musicians in Britain and America inundated with requests, while other adventurous players (such as Justin Hayward and Bert Jansch) learnt to play the instrument themselves (contrary to popular opinion, George never actually plays the instrument again on record after ‘Norwegian Wood’). The sitar is best heard on George’s ‘Wonderwall Music’ though, a real West-meets-East instrumental soundtrack, which shows off how immersed in the instrument George became.

9) Event: An advert is placed in an American newspaper headlined ‘Madness!! Auditions!’ for what will become ‘The Monkees’ Location: Unknown Date: October 1965

The Monkees are, of course, unique among AAA bands and amongst groups in general in having been formed not by friends at school or word-of-mouth suggestions of players but because of an advert in Cashbox magazine (an entertainment publication). Producers Bert Rafelson and Bert Schneider felt, rightly, that television wasn’t really representing the youth of the day and – as both producers were in their early 30s and the latter was related to the head of Screen Gems – they ought to have a go at making a programme for teenagers before anyone else did. Figuring that the biggest interest of the day was music and that there were hundreds of Beatle wannabes who’d seen ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and formed a band, they wrote off an advert that asked for experience of both acting and music. Appealing for ‘boys aged 17-22’ (which was promptly ignored as of the four only Davy was this old) and for a background in ‘folk and roll’ (which of the four only Peter fitted), the producers were shocked to find a total of 437 people turning up at their door. Even accounting for a few hundred who probably weren’t good enough or had the right qualifications, how different The Monkees could have been in any of the various hundred other permutations? Charles Manson is said to have tried out for the series (an idea sometimes challenged depending who you ask), Stephen Stills definitely applied (although he either left when he discovered how little say-so he would have in the music or was dropped because of his receding hairline and bad teeth, depending who you ask) and closest of all was Bill Chadwick, a talented singer-songwriter who hung around long enough to get three of the very best Monkees cover songs on album (‘The Door Into Summer’ ‘Zor and Zam’ plus the unreleased ‘All Of Your Toys’) and become Micky’s double on the TV show. The Monkees were big for a year then laughed at and ridiculed by people who should have known better for – shock, horror – not playing their own instruments (they were actors after all), but for a time between Autumn 1966 and the Summer of 1967 their influence was key, their humour hi-jinks and new brand of fast-paced fun and zany humour shaping an awful lot more recordings in that period than bands would ever admit to later on.

10) Event: Producer Tom Wilson digs out a flop single titled ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and overdubs some electric instruments on top in the vain hope of scoring a hit. Location: L.A. Date: Autumn 1965

Simon and Garfunkel could – and should – have been big several times over, together and apart. From their schoolboy beginnings as Tom and Jerry to their ‘failed’ acoustic album ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’ events conspired against them and the pair had split – not for the first or last time – a dejected Paul Simon playing small clubs in the UK while Garfunkel tried to study to become a graphic artist. Somehow, though, serendipity intervened. Without the duo’s knowledge the producer of the ‘Wednesday’ record – Tom Wilson – decided to take a gamble. He’d loved ‘The Sound Of Silence’ when he’d heard it as an acoustic ballad and was surprised when it wasn’t a hit. Figuring that The Beatles had just become popular in American by using electric instruments, he spent his own money paying for a group of the best session musicians of the day to overdub a simple part on top, turning the quiet and inward ‘Silence’ into a catchier hit single. Was it the overdubbing, the extra record company hype, a growing word-of-mouth about the fab new track that few people had heard or simply gifted timing? Who knows – but one thing’s for sure, without this sudden brainstorm (made without the knowledge of either Simon or Garfunkel, whose lives were changed when the song unexpectedly became a ‘hit’) the duo might never have been heard of again and might have turned their backs on music for good (by this time they had spent some eight years trying to make it big and ‘Wednesday’ appears to have been their one last crack at fame, at least together). Life could have been very, very different and, indeed, the success of this new ‘electric’ style song changes the way Paul Simon wrote forever, dropping the ‘folk rock’ style of his early work for a sound that, gradually, comes to encompass rock and roll, world music, psychedelia and – briefly – doo-wop.

Haven’t covered your favourite AAA moment of monumental historical importance? Well fear not – there’ll be another 10 milestone moments coming along next week! Till then – goodbye!

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