Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.
How did The Beatles graduate from callow boy band to sophisticated bohemian artists capable of creating a cultural masterpiece in only four years?
This was the question explored by sociologist Colin Campbell in an illustrated talk called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words where he examined the lyrics of selected songs from that seminal album.
His Festival Of Ideas lecture attracted a capacity audience at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub last night (June 15th). This attendance alone suggests the great British public is far from being “peppered out” by the mass media fanfare that has greeted the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The critic Kenneth Tynan has been mocked for describing the album, released on 1st June 1967, as “A decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” However, Campbell put Tynan’s ambitious claim in context by stating The Beatles were more than pop stars; they were artists who influenced millions of people throughout the world. Along with fellow musician Bob Dylan, they were the beating heart of 1960s counter culture.
They achieved this status with their songs. As boys, they played with words before they played the guitar. Being Scousers, they were addicted to puns; the band’s name, after all, is a pun. They also adored alliteration and instinctively used rhetorical forms, such as anaphora, epiphora, symploce and oronym.
Campbell defined good lyrics as being effortless, succinct, pleasing to the ear and original. The lyrics of The Beatles demonstrate these four characteristics. They put music in their lyrics through creative word play. They wrote songs, not just melody; strip away the lyrics from the music and you are left with something that’s vaguely dissatisfying.
Campbell added Lennon was the master of ambiguity, while Paul was the master of word sounds. All the while, curious George was learning the art of song writing by observing his band mates; Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun was, somewhat appropriately, revealed as Campbell’s favourite Beatles song.