Know Your NME
Wednesday 19th August 2015
Rock ‘n’ roll history is bound up with one iconic magazine now facing obscurity, writes PETER FROST
THE NME, once the Accordion Times and Musical Express, then the New Musical Express, is changing. The weekly publication, which currently sells about 15,000 copies, will be distributed free at train stations, shops and student unions around the country. Its content will expand to cover film, fashion, TV, politics and gaming.
Few believe that that it will last long, even if it outlived its rivals Sounds and Melody Maker. The title, once full of critical reviews and good writing, is likely to become another freesheet repository for slick self-serving PR handouts.
It is just one more indication that the world of popular music, always a battle between those who want to make music and those who just want to make money, has suffered another setback.
Today, when bands so often seem to be created by a team of smooth marketing people or cynically put together to win the latest TV talent show, it’s hard to believe just how many bands and groups there were in the late 1950s and ’60s scrabbling to make music and, if truth be told, to make it big in what would become the world of rock ’n’ roll.
Back in July ’57 a skiffle group called The Quarry Men entertained at St Peter’s church fete, Woolton, Liverpool. They went on stage after the election of the rose queen and a police dog display.
The Quarry Men, with Ivan Vaughan on tea-chest bass and Ron Davis on banjo, had been formed just a few months before and their repertoire included such Lonnie Donegan standards as Railroad Bill, Cumberland Gap and Maggie Mae as well as Be Bop A Lula. Lead guitar and vocals was a 15-year-old named John Lennon.
Another young musician had ridden his bike the couple of miles from Allerton to the fete. With drainpipe trousers and a quiff, Paul McCartney looked like a real musician — far more sophisticated than the check-shirted teenager fronting the Quarry Men.
Bassist Ivan introduced Paul to John across his tea chest and the world of music changed forever.
I grew up in Harlesden, north London, where Freddie Heath’s skiffle group became Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. In 1960 their Shakin All Over reached number one.
Barney Davis, who would become national secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL), drove the Pirates to gigs.
Barney himself won a place in the final of a contest for singers at the State Kilburn. Sadly the final clashed with a YCL committee meeting. Barney chose the final but was pipped for first prize by Dave Sutch, who would later become Screaming Lord Sutch.
Other young communist friends in north London were deeply involved in the ’60s R&B scene. I was secretary of Willesden YCL and just up the road the Wembley YCL Branch opened its own R&B club at the Railway Hotel in Wealdstone.
At Christmas time 1963 Wembley YCL organised a dance at the Railway with local band the Bo Street Runners. The event was such a success that the band were approached by two YCLers, Gus Brain and Paul McCloughlan, with the idea of setting up a weekly R&B club at the Railway. Door takings would be split equally, half for the band and half to fund the revolution.
The club was up and running by February 1964 and the venture was an instant success. YCLers and Mods from all over north London danced to the music.
For legal reasons it was run as a membership club. Membership was just sixpence (2.5p) and admission 3/6 (17.5p). Within a month the numbers turning up had reached the 200 mark, creating an incredible atmosphere. Vespas and Lambrettas filled the pub car park.
The YCL monthly magazine Challenge told its readers: “Soon the group announces its arrival with a vigorous tuning-up session, with amplifiers booming, humming and screeching and the electric organ erupting with cascades of chords that vibrate around one’s head.
“A hypnotised crowd fills the floor in an incredibly short time; Skip-dance, floog and good old fashioned shake are demonstrated to the full.”
Sorry: even Frosty doesn’t know what the floog was.
Willesden YCL member Barney Barnes, who became Dick Barnes and finally rock journalist Richard Barnes, opened his own weeknight club at the Railway, following on from pioneer British blues musician Cyril Davies’s own club here.
Barnes booked people like Long John Baldry and a band called The High Numbers, who had also been known as the Detours. One of their members was himself a YCL member.
There was a certain swapping of acts between the two clubs and at one stage the YCL Sunday club considered changing their resident band to The High Numbers. George Bridges remembers the High Numbers wanted £13 for the gig, the Bo Street Runners £2 more.
In the end the YCL club decided to stick with the Bo Street Runners as they had just won TV’s Ready Steady Win competition.
YCL member Pete Townsend and Dick Barnes renamed The High Numbers The Who and the rest is history.
The very history you could once read in the pages of NME, but alas no more.