Sunday 22 April 2012

Gene Vincent: the road is rocky

The more time goes by, the more it seems to me that Gene Vincent has the strongest claim to be the ultimate 50s rocker. Certainly he was the biker's choice. For a start he had the tortured, twisted look, the ever-greasy collapsing pompadour. He seemed shy but overloaded with pent-up aggression, and the only way he could find release was in hard liquor and harsh, chain-swinging songs about gals in red blue jeans. This was the image; you don't hear many stories to suggest it wasn't close to the truth.

Originally he was Eugene Vincent Craddock, a native of Norfolk, Virginia who didn't seem to like much beyond motorbikes and girls, and whose life was entirely unremarkable until the summer of 1955 when two events changed it forever. In July he was involved in a bike crash, one so bad that his left leg was almost severed below the knee. Then in September, with his whole leg in plaster, Gene went to see Elvis Presley play in Norfolk and had his mind blown. Elvis literally had his clothes torn off by rabid fans that night. Gene went home, picked up his guitar, and wrote Be Bop A Lula which he debuted at local radio station WCMS's talent show in January '56. By July it was a US Top Ten hit and Vincent was in demand, criss-crossing the States with his band the Blue Caps. His short life was suddenly mapped out for him.

Vincent's Blue Caps rocked raw, more desperately than anyone - listen again to Cliff Gallup's outrageous solos on the over-familiar Be Bop A Lula. It's an incredibly sexy record - Buddy Holly had melodic, romantic nous and Little Richard had balls-on-the-line freak energy, but neither made a record that was as intense and panting as Be Bop A Lula. Gene can't wait to tell us about what he's got. She's the gal in the red blue jeans, queen of all the teens, clearly a looker, then he sings "she's the woman that I know". From gal to woman in one verse. With that carnal clue, the song pauses, followed by an untamed, unplanned shriek from the drummer. This and the prophetic, breakneck Race With The Devil were both recorded at Vincent's debut studio session; unsociable and ferocious, these early recordings are very hard to beat.

And, truthfully, Gene Vincent never bettered them, though that's no reason to ignore the rest of his career. While the Blue Caps Mark One rapidly disintegrated, later line-ups still cut hard rocking classics; Lotta Lovin', Cat Man, Who Slapped John, the delirious B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo, the slo-mo menace of Baby Blue. Live they were a very tough act; Gene's pose rarely changed, legs apart, gripping the microphone stand as if he might collapse, always looking at some imaginary saviour in the balcony. Footage survives of Tex Ritter's Town Hall Party TV show, and the Blue Caps - with Johnny Meeks now on lead guitar - look magnificent in pink peg slacks, perfectly bequiffed; the pace at which they play was probably down to the diet pills Gene lived on. They also appeared in a film called Hot Rod Gang (1958) about a drag racer who joins a rock 'n' roll band (with assistance from Gene in a brief, not too embarrassing, acting role) to make enough money to race. But in spite of Hot Rod Gang and incessant touring, record sales were constantly declining and by the end of the decade Gene Vincent's career seemed washed up. 

Now you may think all this was a lot of activity for a man who had nearly lost his leg, and you'd be right. During a season in Las Vegas he threw himself around so much on stage that he had to have a metal plate permanently inserted. Pretty soon, his finances were in equally bad shape and, midway through one tour, he absconded to Alaska with all the band's money.

Jack Good, the TV impresario who gave us Oh Boy! and basically invented Pop TV as we know it, was Gene's saviour. At a time when most had dismissed him as a one hit wonder, Good understood that he was a true great and brought him to Britain in '59. He loved the singer's outsider image and convinced him to lose his natty threads, decking him out in black leather. But when Gene appeared on ITV's Boy Meets Girls he hid his leg injury well, much to Good's chagrin - from the wings he was heard to shout "Limp, you bugger, limp!" 

On a British tour with Eddie Cochran in 1960, Vincent played the hapless older brother to Cochran's cocksure pin-up. After one show they dived into a car as fans tore at them - it was only after they'd been travelling a while that Gene, hunched in the back seat, whispered "Eddie... Eddie... they got my pants."

It was also on this tour that Vincent was involved in a car crash near Chippenham, Wiltshire; he survived, but it caused more damage to his twisted leg. A local policeman, PC David Harman, was the first to the scene, where he discovered the crash had killed Cochran, Vincent's co-star and best friend. Unbelievably, the tour continued. In Glasgow he was in terrible pain and rubbed his left shoulder throughout the show before collapsing - doctors then discovered he'd broken his collar bone in the crash. To get out of the rest of the tour, Vincent forged a telegram that said his daughter Melody had died of pneumonia. By the time the promoters found she was alive and well, Vincent was back in the States.

Touring income aside, Jack Good provided a new string of Abbey Road-produced UK hits - Pistol Packin' Mama, I'm Goin' Home To See My Baby, She She Little Sheila; with Joe Moretti on guitar (Shakin' All Over, Brand New Cadillac) and Georgie Fame on piano, they were punchy, fizzy, and outshone pretty much all the early sixties UK competition. By the time he recorded Ivor Raymonde's dire Humpity Dumpity in '63, though, the spark was gone from Vincent's UK career too. Always one to make his life as complex as possible, he had fallen into Don Arden's management clutches, and an ill thought out quickie divorce added to his trouble. With all this, no hits on the horizon and an unpaid tax bill looming, he bailed out of Britain in 1965.

His late sixties recordings were a mixed bag, often underwhelming, but an album cut in '66 - only released in the UK on the London label, and simply called Gene Vincent - is a real gem. It was recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles, where he now lived in a duplex with South African singer Jackie Frisco (right). The Wrecking Crew are all present - Hal Blaine on drums, Al Casey and Glen Campbell on guitar, and Larry Knechtel providing the wailing harmonica that kicks off Bird Doggin', his best single in years. The autobiographical Born To Be A Rolling Stone, the gorgeous Lonely Street, and chiming folk-rocker Love Is A Bird (written by Jimmy Seals, formerly of the Champs, later of Seals & Crofts) are up with his very best. PC David Harman, meanwhile, had by now changed his name to Dave Dee and given up the day job - he was scoring his first Top 10 hit, Hold Tight, with Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, while Gene's fierce garage rocker Bird Doggin' failed to make any headway.

Another obscurity worth digging out, as you fight your way past Be Bop A Lula '62 and Be Bop A Lula '69, is Our Souls (try saying it fast) from his final album, apparently written by his father-in-law. Always the lonesome fugitive, it was Vincent's kiss-off to a world that he must felt had it in for him.
In 1961 he had fallen down thirty concrete steps at a theatre in Newcastle and knocked himself unconscious; in '66 doctors in New Mexico decided to amputate his bad leg, but he fled the hospital in his pyjamas; in '69 he was mugged in his Paris hotel room.

Also in 1969 John Peel signed Vincent to his newly formed Dandelion label - incongruously he became a labelmate of Bridget St John and Medicine Head: sessions produced by Kim Fowley were disappointing, though a duet of Scarlet Ribbons with Linda Ronstadt stands out for its weirdness. He performed at the John and Yoko-sponsored Toronto Rock'n'Roll Festival, backed the Alice Cooper band, in September '69. Heavy drinking made for a shambolic show. At the end of the year he was back in Britain, touring dance halls which were appreciative but mostly small time. His backing group by now was a Croydon rock revivalist act called the Wild Angels and the BBC caught the first few days - including fumbling rehearsals in a pub basement, walls lined with used mattresses, Gene very patient with his amateurish young charges - on a beautiful but melancholy documentary.

He was broke again: at one point in the film Gene has to explain to a hotel receptionist that he is sharing a room with his roadie. On the backstage stairs of a venue in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, he stands exhausted, barely able to catch his breath after one last encore. He comes across as noble, sweet, but entirely defeated. Ravaged by booze, pills and his run of near-fatal accidents, he finally died of a perforated ulcer eighteen months later.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Girls, and other girls with guitars

The Beatles visited Paris for the first time in January 1964. With the distaff population of Britain - even the Queen - in their pocket, they assumed the land of Bardot would be easily conquered. Some shock, then, when the opening night crowd at the Olympia had an unusually high percentage of excitable boys. "We had visions of French girls, ooh la la and all that" sulked George. Paul to this day is convinced that most of the audience was gay. It never crossed their minds that the kids were there to see the headliner that night, France's fastest rising star - Miss Sylvie Vartan.

If female pop singers were regarded as such an insignificant novelty in the sixties, it was ten times harder for female musicians to be taken seriously. Oddly this hadn't been a problem in blues circles where guitarists Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been treated as equals. Likewise with folk, where Joan Baez, then Joni Mitchell, encouraged just as many women to pick up a guitar as Bob Dylan.

But rock 'n' roll was something else. The early sixties saw the huge boom in Girl Groups, propagated by the work of Phil Spector via The Crystals, Paris Sisters, and Ronettes: three girls singing in harmony, with a cavernous drum sound and a pair of castanets, was the du jour American sound of '63 - The Shirelles, Chiffons and Shangri La's racked up scores of hits. Ultimately, there were The Supremes. The records were often written for young women by young women (Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil), but the musicians were very rarely female; 90% of these records were played and produced by men.

The Beatles may not have gone a bundle on Sylvie Vartan, but Stateside they caused an explosion in the number of guitars bought by teenagers, plenty of whom were girls. In Boston, the Pandoras formed because they thought being in a band was, with a neat sideways logic, the easiest way for them to get to meet The Beatles. In Los Angeles, the classically educated Sandoval Sisters swapped their violins for Fender Jaguars and Rickenbackers after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and changed their name, with devastatingly naive arrogance, to the Girls (right). Their debut single, the Mann/Weil-written Chico's Girl, is a post Shangri La's bad-boy-good-girl melodrama which ranks as one of the dozen finest 45s of the Girl Group genre - and they actually played on it.

Pre-Beatles there had been a few maverick girls with guitars. Country singer Wanda Jackson was surrounded by older men telling her what to wear, what to say and what to sing until she crossed paths with hillbilly singer Elvis Presley in 1955. He convinced her that she had the voice for rock 'n' roll and Wanda duly obliged with gale-force rockers like Fujiyama Mama and Honey Bop. She painted her name on her acoustic. Off came the fringed suede jacket, too. Her new raunchy, heavy-lidded, high-heeled image went down particularly badly when she played Nashville's Grand Ole Opry where country bruiser Ernest Tubb insisted she couldn't show her shoulders. Wanda was so angry she could hardly sing.

On the rhythm and blues side Bo Diddley, a paternal, philanthropic rocker, assumed correctly that most people would rather watch musicians with accentuated femininity than a bunch of paunchy blokes; to this end he tutored a string of women to play guitar alongside him. The greatest was Norma-Jean Wofford, his amazonian half-sister (at least that's what told male admirers to keep them at bay) - she was renamed the Duchess (left). For good measure, the Bo-ettes provided backing vocals for Diddley. Footage of them on pop exploitation film The TAMI Show from 1964 shows just how mesmerising they were on stage, and makes their fellow performers - the full flower of mid-sixties pop from the Stones to the Beach Boys to the Supremes - look like so much less fun.

It says a lot that lead guitarist with the Beatles' Capitol label-mates the Girls, Rosemary Sandoval, was completely unaware of either the Duchess or Wanda Jackson when her own band started in '64. "We only ever came across one other all-girl band. There weren't many. In New York we met a group called The Female Beatles." The Girls' career path was typical of the period: signed by agency, plenty of local shows for reasonable money, the occasional Hollywood party, virtually no recording. "We played at a party for Bob Dylan once. Everyone was there. I remember one of the Yardbirds touched my guitar and I went 'Oh my gosh!' I was so excited."

Another common fate for girls with guitars was a trip to Vietnam to give the troops a shot in the arm. "We were there four weeks" remembers Rosemary, "and our dad, who was our manager, was very protective. Afterwards he admitted we'd been in quite a bit of danger, and places we'd played got mortared." Detroit's Pleasure Seekers (right), featuring 17-year old guitarist Suzi Quatro, played the same tour with a stop-over in Guam, site of the US military hospitals. "They asked us to play for a corridor full of wounded soldiers" Suzi recalled, "and it was horrible. They were 18-year old boys... legs missing, arms missing, eyeballs missing."

Gigs closer to home could be almost as bloody. The Girls, unarmed, had to deal with the mob frequently muscling in, not to mention over-amorous male fans and less than appreciative women. Rosemary Sandoval and her sisters wore "black tops, black tight pants and boots. The Midwest was not prepared for that look - too wild. We'd walk on stage in some clubs and straight away there was a certain buzz, then name-calling. And looks from some of the women, like 'what are they?' They thought we were going to steal their guys."

Respect from male bands seemed to come relatively easily - The Girls played with the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful and Young Rascals, and they were "always super-nice. They carried our amps for us! Usually they didn't think we were serious but their attitude changed when we played."

If there were only a few scattered all-girl bands in the States, the UK was almost entirely barren. The Liverbirds were the only femme Merseybeat band to record, and they had to go to Germany to do it, where they became regulars on TV show Beat Club. Sally And The Alleycats grew out of the all-female Ivy Benson Big Band but cut just the one single. The Honeycombs had a girl drummer, Honey Lantree, who told reporters that she made tea for the boys. Guitar strumming heroine Twinkle had a hit with the doomed biker epic Terry, but had her career squashed by her record company Decca - they couldn't take a smart, attractive, woman guitarist who wrote her own songs. Homely Cilla and be-gowned Dusty were so much safer.

Oddly, the one girl group who did make it here in the sixties were imported Americans: Goldie And The Gingerbreads were brought to London by Animals' manager Mike Jeffries who had seen them at New York's Wagon Wheel club. It's saying something that the best known all-girl band of the era had just one Top 30 hit (Can't You Hear My Heartbeat in 1965), but they enjoyed a high profile in their two year stay. Frequent performances on Ready Steady Go, and tours with the Kinks, Stones, Yardbirds and Hollies, were augmented by drummer Ginger Bianco's ad work for Premier drums, guitarist Carol MacDonald's songwriting for Madeline Bell, and organist Margo Crocitto's session work for the Pretty Things; there were no troop-rallying chores for the Gingerbreads.

Gingerbread Margo, somewhat neatly, played keyboards in the last line-up of Bo Diddley's band. The Girls, after having kids and drifting apart, got back together forty years on with the rather startling new addition of electric violins. In the wake of more recent role models - the Runaways, Dolly Mixture, Kenickie - it's now a hell of a lot easier for girl bands to be taken seriously than it was in 1966. "There weren't too many heroines in the sixties, that's for sure" sighs Rosemary Sandoval. Thanks to her and a handful of others, shoulder-baring is no longer a sackable offence.
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