From A Two Ton Typewriter To Tablet
Memories of a music journalist in the 1960s
By David Paul
I left school aged 16 in the summer of 1960. Like many working class teenagers, the musical soundtrack of my life was Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and home grown imitators like Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. But I had a friend with an older brother whose record collection included discs by Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters. I had listened to these records a couple of years earlier when I was 14. They sounded strange, otherworldly. But they lodged in my brain in a way that the current radio pop didn’t.
And in that summer of 1960 I discovered why. I went to my first live gig. It was at London’s Marquee Club with Alexis Korner’s Rhythm and Blues Incorporated. A loose collective of British blues and jazz players which also acted as a performance nursery for various Rolling Stones. I was blown away. Totally transfixed by the power and volume. Suddenly Muddy Waters made perfect sense and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that record again. I became instantly addicted to Blues.
In the same month I found Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger’s Ballads and Blues Club just a stone’s throw from the Marquee. The laid back atmosphere of the folk club couldn’t have contrasted more with the high octane decibels of the Marquee. But once again the hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I sat feet away from American acoustic blues players who performed back to back with unaccompanied singers of English Folk songs.
After gigs there were coffee bars like the Nucleus, The Blue Room, The Gyre and Gimble where there was often impromptu music and talk of guitar legends like Davy Graham and Whizz Jones. It was a very politically charged scene as well with demonstrations almost every weekend where you could catch sight of someone you’d seen singing in the folk club a few days before.
Amongst the left wing magazines and pamphlets that were lying around at the time was the communist Daily Worker. I couldn’t help noticing that some of the clubs and some of the performers that I had become familiar with were dotted around in the paper’s classified ads. I also noticed an ad for an Office Junior to work at the Daily Worker. And so began my first job.
The Daily Worker was a friendly, encouraging and very inclusive place to work and seemed a lot closer to popular music that other national dailies. In 1964, The Young Communist League set up an R&B club in a grim pub called The Railway Hotel in Harrow and Wealdstone with resident band the Bo Street Runners which they advertised in the paper. It soon became a sell out venue. A fact that wasn’t lost on local Band The High Numbers who set up their own residency on another night – renaming themselves as the Who while still gigging at the Railway. It’s worth mentioning that R&B in the 60s was a close relative of Chicago Blues and bears little resemblance to music called R&B today.
More and more American blues singers like Muddy Waters were finding bigger audiences in London clubs than in Chicago and the fascination for blues was fuelling the live R&B scene in London which was spreading out from the Marquee and the Flamingo to pubs in the outer suburbs. In 1964 I asked the features editor if I could write a regular column about the music and was given the go-ahead.
The paper already had a regular Jazz columnist and a regular Folk columnist. It seemed a natural fit to include articles on the rock, blues and the general underground scene at the time. It made the Daily Worker completely unique in Fleet Street. No other newspaper covered the whole spectrum of popular music in this way. For the tabloids – rock or pop was merely a source of sensationalised news stories about drug busts or topless fans at festivals. Record reviews were unknown.
So I started. It had to be in my own time and couldn’t interfere with my day job at the paper as a typographer and graphic designer. I had no expenses. The paper was always strapped for cash and relied on donations from readers. But I contacted all the major record companies who were happy to send me details of future record releases and any review copies that I requested. I spent weekends at the Flamingo Club’s All- Nighters watching people like John Lee Hooker accompanied by John Mayall. I had little interest in chart music and saw no point in reviewing discs that would probably get extensive radio and tv exposure.
I was going to gigs of bands like Pink Floyd and The Who – both still with word of mouth followings. All of the regular gigging Soul and R&B Bands, Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with the young Eric Clapton, The Spencer Davis Group with teenage Steve Winwood, The Yardbirds, Steampacket – including Rod Steward, Long John Baldrey and Julie Driscol, The Artwoods, The Graham Bond Organisation with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Any of these bands could be seen for the price of a beer or two.
But there was a growing alternative to the Club and Pub circuit that had been the mainstay of the London live music scene. In 1961 The National Jazz Federation held an outdoor Jazz Festival at the Richmond Athletic Ground. NJF Secretary Harold Pendleton was an enterprising promoter who ran the Marquee Club. So it was hardly surprising that the National Jazz Festival should parallel the direction of the Marquee with a gradual injection of Blues and Rock into what was initially a purely jazz festival.
So by 1962 – the year that the Rolling Stones made their debut at the Marquee – the word Blues was added to the title. By 1968 – it had become the National Jazz, Pop, Ballads and Blues Festival and jazz was now just a token presence. And like the Marquee it had become the premier launch pad for almost every major British Rock or Blues band. A debut spot at the Festival was virtually a passport to success.
In 1966 the Daily Worker re-launched itself as The Morning Star. There was something in the air in 1966. Change seemed to be happening everywhere at a breathless pace. The number of bands that seemed to come from nowhere during 66/67 was astonishing. That core roster of mainly R&B bands that I was following a year or two ago had turned into a myriad of styles and creativity.
Some stalwarts of the R&B scene like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood shot off in a completely new direction with Cream and Traffic. Others like the Who had now become mainstream. Or like Pink Floyd, were on the verge of becoming mainstream. Suddenly there was also Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, The Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Yardbirds, Family, Joe Cocker, Deep Purple, Ten Years After, Chicken Shack, The Nice, Small Faces, Pentangle, Amen Corner, Marmalade, Colosseum, Soft Machine and so many more.
On the back of this growth and diversification came the launches of alternative music or counter culture magazines like Rolling Stone, Oz and International Times. Record producer Jo Boyd opened the UFO club in London with regulars Pink Floyd performing experimental music to mesmerising lightshows. Such was the following Pink Floyd built up that the following year they were able play the Royal Festival hall in a bizarre performance piece called Games For May – before they had even released a record.
This explosion of activity and creativity was reflected each year in the line up of the National Jazz and Blues Festivals. It was like an annual progress report on the state of British rock.
By today’s standards the festival budget was tiny, so bands that got their big break at the festival often did not come back simply because even by the following year they were no longer affordable. Crowd numbers were kept down to comfortable numbers and facilities were adequate. It was a golden time to see some of the best bands in the world in a setting that’s a long way from the logistical nightmare of today’s Reading and Leeds festivals. Which is what the National Jazz Festival eventually became.
For a journalist in the 60s however it was a problem. There were rarely any telephone lines on site. To phone copy over for tomorrow’s newspaper usually meant leaving the site, often when the headline act was on, to find a telephone box and then read your copy over to a stenographer. I normally did a recce before I went in to any festival site to note all the nearest telephone boxes outside.
The typed copy was then sent to a sub editor who would often fatally wound it with a dozen cuts because there were too many words for the space that was allocated. It then went to a two ton typewriter called a Linotype machine which cast every letter and punctuation mark from molten metal.
Getting a picture to the paper was even tougher. A roll of film had to be biked back to Central London and then chemically developed in the darkroom before the editor even knew if there was anything worth printing. And if there was – it had to first be screen etched on to a metal plate which was then mounted in with the contents of the two ton typewriter.
Today – virtually all of that could be handled in minutes on a tablet.
It’s a similar story for musicians. Today an enterprising new band can write a song and in days have a high quality performance video of it on line to be seen again and again potentially by millions all over the world. That was unthinkable 50 years ago.
And try listening to the jaw dropping multi-layered textures of Sergeant Pepper while reminding yourself that it was recorded on a 4-track tape recorder. A mobile phone today can have a hundred times the processing power available in Abbey Road studios in the 60s.
Someone learning guitar today can Google virtually any guitar solo and have it shown note by note. Developing as a musician in the 60s was infinitely more difficult and lonely. Instruments were far more expensive. There were none of today’s unending selection of digital effects and modelling amps. A gigging guitarist in the early 60s would carry just a guitar, a lead and an amp.
Learning how to squeeze every ounce of tone and feeling from this simple set up was something that could only be done on the road. They couldn’t even practice at home because valve amps at the time had to be played at maximum volume to get some of their desired tone.
It was a tough regime. But it clearly worked because even though Gibson and Fender are still making the same guitars that they made then - there is a billion dollar industry making replacement pickups and effects to try and replicate the elusive tone of a vintage 60s Telecaster or Les Paul. I suspect the most elusive part of that vintage tone was human.
At the end of the 60s I left the Morning Star. By then I had covered the three Isle of Wight Festivals. The first one was a small one night affair headlined by Jefferson Airplane. It was such an elusive site that I remember being in a crowd shuffling along pitch dark lanes guided only by the distant sound from the opening acts and a vague glow in the sky. The second and third I.O.W. festivals had grown into massive transatlantic festivals. Like Glastonbury many years later – they were awe inspiring and I was thankful for the experience.
But it just didn’t do it for me like a hot summer Saturday night at the Marquee or a West London pub around 1966.