Elvis Never Did Howl With The Wolf

Some sections of The Roots of Rock that failed to make the final cut

Outside the Birthplace complex is the Mississippi Blues Trail Elvis marker which tells me that Presley continued to incorporate the blues into his music throughout his career.  Not to my ears.  Elvis Presley was no down home blues singer, despite his Sun label origins.  Check the back catalogue.  Not much Mississippi delta in there.

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At the Presley Birthplace in Tupelo

Presley would sell records but the edges would be smoothed.  The interests of the buying public  would be paramount.   Even his country collections, and there were quite a number of these, sound like countrypolitan Nashville where turning a buck was all there was.  In fact Nashville was where Elvis recorded much  of this material with stalwarts Chet Atkins and slip-note pianist Floyd Cramer appearing on his discs.  Over the years Elvis appears to have abandoned any real interest in music itself.  He never followed the careers of others, ignored his roots, and broke new ground not at all.

If he’d lived and Rick Rubin had got hold of him just imagine.  Rick Rubin was the producer who saved Johnny Cash in his final years giving us the stripped back sound of the American Recordings.    Rubin could do wonders with even the least promising of material.  Check his Neil Diamond career salvaging  12 Songs  and the equally engaging Home Before Dark. 

Elvis was Elvis.  Apart from the 1968 Comeback Special on TV and those American Studios sidesteps in 1969 everything would be santised and smooth.  This was down to Colonel Parker, his mind-controlling manager, and his relentless pursuit of movie dollars.  That rock and roll rebel, the one he was that Sun made him, that singer was never to return.  There’d be no Elvis the Sessions Recorded in London, no Elvis Howls with the Wolf, nor Elvis meets the Rolling Stones.  Could have been, so easily.  The Beatles went to see him at Graceland at the height of their career.  Elvis had no idea what to make of this band of Liverpool jokers.  Rapport was low, despite John Lennon admitting to Elvis’s significant influence on his early work.  Presley stayed contained, manicured, managed to the last crease in his white flared trousers. Elvis the innovator.  No.

Not to say that in his extensive output there are not decent sounds.  Among his hundreds of sides there are any number of great hit records, songs that endure.  Despite the British Invasion and the rise of alternative culture Presley records continued to sell.  His low budget films, however, did not.  But hell, if you’ve ever tried any of those last dozen then you’ll know only too well why.

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On the walls of Graceland

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Fifty Things You’ll Discover in The Roots Of Rock

John Lee Hooker playing in a south Wales surf club in 1964

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The two versions Howlin’ Wolf and Smokestack Lightening striking Sophia Gardens Pavilion

How the 78 turned into the 45 and the 33⅓ took over the world

The fakery of Big Bill Broonzy, the man who replaced Robert Johnson at Carnegie Hall’s 1938 Spirituals to Swing

How Champion Jack Dupree, boxer and boogie pianist, got one over on the veterans at Cardiff’s Womanby Street British Legion Club

How not to build a 45 rpm record player from a 78 rpm turntable, a biro, a cone of paper and a pin.

The 30-watt musical past of the land that invaded America, great Great Britain

How Bill Haley, the fat-faced middle-aged salesman and major populariser of rock and roll, ended up as he started – singing country

The finding of Alexis Korner at Church jumble sales and where the British blues began

The story of the Down and Out Blueswailers, the Cardiff-famous blues band that never played a note

How harmonica-player Sonny Terry also hit the groove with a Jew’s harp

Midnight Special failing to impress at Bridge Street’s Greyhound, 1960s south Wales centre for the down and out and the consumption of scrumpy

The real story of the blues.  Were they as ancient as we have all been led to believe?  They were not

The tale of Willie Dixon’s centrality to the music of Chess and his German-promoted tours of Europe which changed the world

How the blues up from Llanystumdwy

Where bluegrass came from, how it appeared in the UK and how it really is up there in the Appalachian Hills

How Jesus Came Searching, and the importance of the Christian Gospel in north American sounds

Raymond Fairchild’s Opry, clog dancing most nights among the excesses of  Maggie Valley, NC

How Pontypridd is a Welsh bluegrass heartland

How the Celtic harp, where so much music began,  has become again a vital instrument in the rocking world

Why Leonard Cohen is world touring until he dies

How the Chieftains’ Paddy Maloney and the Appalachian’s Doc Watson can sound exactly the same

The George Jones excesses of Nashville, the amazing country music graveyards and the medieval Welsh castle sitting there to the city’s south

Finch appearing, at long last, on stage at the Ryman

Music Row’s session drummer washing cars on main street

The car park where Elvis recorded Heartbreak Hotel

David Ackles on the 40, rolling right through blues country

Sleepy John Estes’ house out back of tourist information right on the highway, photos of the great man lining the walls

The soul roots of Memphis, Schwab’s selling magic soul dust, studios everywhere, soul food on every corner

Graceland dominated by tourists, its walls graffitied to death, Elvis relegated to glitter instead of glory

Jerry Lee Lewis showing up drunk with a gun wanting to shoot the King

The story of hit maker and Elvis backer Bill Black, rock and roll’s doomed man

The remaking and over glory of Sun Records

The bluemen singing the whites right down in the Delta and how that Delta is not a river meets the sea thing after all

The worst poetry in the world at the Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, site of John Lee Hooker’s flood when the Mississippi overflowed and half the blues world went under

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Elvis and friends at Porthcawl

Elvis alive again, this time singing on every street corner of  Porthcawl

How, despite the essential authenticity of the black diaspora,  it’s the white men who dominate the blues

How bluegrass is a recent invention and not the ancient olde tyme music you always thought it was

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Highway 61 runs right by my baby’s door

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Steve Martin & The Rangers at Brevard

The trail taken by the Knoxville Girl from a Shropshire graveyard to the 75 rolling across Tennessee, the Louvin Brothers, the Everlys, The Cherryholmes  and the Osborne Brothers all celebrating her passage

The finding again of Root Boy Slim and his Sex Change Band in Asheville, NC

Cecil Sharp’s place in the pantheon and, in particular, his visit to Hot Springs.  How English folk song’s rediscovery ended up influencing everything

The glories of the vast Christian Book Outlet in showman’s wonderland, central Pigeon Forge

The Steep Canyon Rangers, with Steve Martin on lead,  putting Brevard on the map

The blue smoke reality of overstuffed hickory-flavoured  Dollywood, glitter-girl Parton’s homeland

How everything in the Appalachains, bar the music, is made of wood

Country Music’s big bang in Bristol, both VA and TN, the small town that started it all

How Johnny Cash sounds better on 78 than he does on 45

Why the Stetson and shirts with smiles on their pockets dominate the south

How all these musics circle, separate and then rejoin.  The truth found on a beach in France.  Roots music as world music. Rock and roll and finger-in-your-ear singing, all the same

The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back
published by  Seren Books tells the story.  It comes complete with comprehensive timelines, histories, discographies, playlists and  essentials that you just have to hear.

£9.99  isbn: 9781781722664
Orders to Seren

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Read and then listen.  Rock On, the music never stops.

What is this music? Where did it come from? Why does it do what it does? How did it take over the world?

The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back  by Peter Finch and published by Seren Books is now available. Order it here directly from Seren or from Amazon here.

“The book is an absolute treat”- Jamie Owen, BBC Radio Wales.

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Back in the days when I was an aspiring guitarist  I owned a copy of the late Bert Weedon’s seminal guide, Play In A Day.  Everyone owned a copy of this.  I’d have it open in front of me as I attempted to strum.  C, D and then the truly awful F.  It was all such a painful process.  The strings made the ends of my fingers ache.  I read that over time the tips would thicken, like trumpet players’ lips.  This couldn’t come soon enough.  I wanted to do this guitar stuff and do it with ease.  I persevered.

I’d heard the Outlaws’ Ambush and the twang of the Shadows’ Apache.  I wanted some of that.  Bert Weedon, it turned out, had actually recorded the original account of Jerry Lordan’s world-stopper.  Everyone I knew, however,  preferred the one the Shadows had done.  Play them back-to-back today, fifty years on,  and they still sound good.  Yet something still remains uncool about the Weedon take.  Weedon the youth worker,  full of non-stop smiles.   Marvin, king of the Shadows, greased back hair, craggy jaw and a vaguely underfed look.

Things are all relative, of course.  Smooth, black-rim bespectacled Marvin was hardly what you could describe as a non-conformist.   He wore a suit on stage and shined his shoes.  But compared to session musician Herbert Weedon he was nothing short of James Dean.

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The guitar and I didn’t go far.  I took up listening instead.  On my racks I’ve got a copy of  Apache Mania.  It’s a CD that contains twenty-two versions of the great guitar instrumental sequenced one after the other.  The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Jordans, The Spacemen, Les Guitares Du Diable, The Jet Blacks, The Cousins, The Shadows and then Bert himself.  They all take the tune through its twangy paces.  Listening to it in a single sitting is a Zen experience.  You are intrigued, engaged, impressed, lost, bored, and then finally engaged again as Apache reasserts its crisply British sound.  Apache, part of the natural air.

I’m on a journey and The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back  tracks where it goes.   It follows the music back to the American Southern States, driving in a great ellipse. It bowls through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.  It drives across the Appalachian Carolinas, both of them, and then returns to the heartland state that seems to go on in straight historical lines forever.  Tennessee.

I’m tracing an obsession.

I want to find out where the material I listened to as a young man and which became the backdrop to my life came from.  I want to discover where it lived.  How it was.  How it is.  How it got there.  I want to find out on the ground how the blues, hillbilly,  old time dance music, bluegrass, Hank Williams country and western, rockabilly,  Nashville slick and straight ahead Rocket 88 rock and roll came about.  What were the components of these musics?   How did they cross the Atlantic?  What parts came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales?  Most importantly I want to discover how the magic all this became  made the transition back to rain drenched Wales.  How did it flow across the Bay of Tigers to manifest  itself in the bright blue drape jackets of Valley’s born Teddy Boys?  How did it appear amid the banjos plucked in folk clubs in pub back rooms on the Welsh Capital’s Broadway and Charles Street?  How did it rock in the dance halls of Sophia Gardens, Cowbridge Road and Death Junction?  And, in particular, how did it inform the taste of more than one Welsh generation?  Mike Harries, Man, the Sons of Adam, Amen Corner, The Sun Also Rises, Edward H, Meic Stevens, the Manic Street Preachers, Cate Le Bon, Richard James, Georgia Ruth, Gruff Rhys,  Trampolene, Baby Queens, Climbing Trees, and Euros Childs.

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Roots.  Where are they and how do they grow?

The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back  is a record of  finding out.  It’s an expansion of the music,  a delving into it and beyond it, at tangents to it, underneath it and on top.

I don’t much like researching at libraries where time slows down and the world without music in my ears can be so cold.  I’m not keen, either, in dragging data up in great Wiki sweeps, informational dross accumulating against my keyboard, holding me down in a clunk of ordered and numbing stats.  Data: it’s simultaneously the stuff and the bane of life.  Fly with it and you’ll crash because you’re too heavy.  Ignore it and you won’t take off at all.  But use it when you must.

I prefer to walk, that’s when the eyes and the brain are most attuned.  I take photographs  constantly – as aide memoir, as illustration, to capture detail, to collect bits of a place’s soul.  I make notes.  They arrive when it’s raining and the pen ink smears on the notebook’s pulp.  I record them speaking into my iPhone, can’t decipher when I listen later, for the drumming of the air.

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The Roots Of Rock  is a travel book because it recounts a journey.  And it is also not one, simply because it spends  much space and time not actually going anywhere at all.  It is full of diversions and recollections and the recounted voices and sounds of others.  There are guides, opinions,  casual conversations, overheards, read abouts, listened tos.  Stuff recalled and forgotten stuff remembered after all.

The book starts in south Wales, in the place I come from.  The Cardiff delta.  The flood plain made by the three city rivers – the Ely, the Taff, the Rumney – aided ably by the Roath Brook, the Nant, and  that long lost waterway, the Tan.  Cardiff is not the centre of the music universe by any means but it has had its moments.   Bill Haley came here in 1957 and played the Cardiff Capitol.  Lynyrd Skynyrd did the same thing in 1975.  John Lee Hooker was here in 1964 at a surf club on the Wentloog flatlands.  Jerry Lee played  Sophia Gardens in 1962. Dion wandered to the Capitol in 1964.  Chuck Berry duck walked there a year later.  Johnny Cash visited in 1966.  Elvis never.  How and why?  I want to know.

The book flies the Atlantic again and again  to hire cars and to drive  and drive and drive.  It traverses a  great arc, full of plains and wooded hills.  Here there are conifers, high harmonies, fields of rolling corn and rocking rhythms, flatlands bustling with the white tails of cotton, shacks and dust, bent strings, steels, overalls, Stetsons.  Where you from, Honey?  Cardiff, huh? Never heard of that place.

The Roots of Rock  hears the music, considers its history, and sees how the disparate bits fit together.  And if  you keep listening for long enough, then you’ll discover that they do, indeed, fit.  Tight jeans, carrot fit,  peg pants, bib and tucker, bell bottoms, faded, distressed.

From Cardiff to Mississippi, from the Bay to the Delta.  Ain’t nothin’ shakin’, sang Eddie Fontaine in 1958.  How wrong he turned out to be.

Gremlins in The Roots of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi and Back

In all books printer’s gremlins and other slips of the tongue, the pen and the mind get in there between the book and reality. Some of the small blunders made in the first printing of The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back are shown here. If you spot any others then do please let me know.

The Byrds’ seminal album Sweetheart of the Rodeo gets four mentions in the body of the text, and so it should. No, actually,  it only gets three.  On page 123, unaccountably, the album gets a retitle as Sweethearts of the Radio.

On page 42 Ralph and I sneak out to watch the film Rock Around The Clock in Queen Street’s Olympia cinema.  Historian Brian Lee suggests that this might have actually been shown in the Gaumont on the same street. I know that a few years later I saw Twist Around The Clock  at the Gaumont but Rock Around The Clock had the teds jiving at the Olympia.  Didn’t it?  If you saw the film in Cardiff back in the day and can recall where then please let me know.

On page 54 the Hohner harmonica gets misrepresented as a Horner.

Page 71 tells the story of Granada TV’s foray into the blues with a programme they recorded on the disused Wilberham Road railway station in Manchester. I suggest that the railway itself was the “not yet privatised LMS”.  I should have said “the not yet privatised Midland Region of British Rail”.

On page 210 it should be Haight-Ashbury rather than Height-Ashbery