Uncommon People is a brilliant elegy for the age of the rock star. In a rich survey spanning four decades, David Hepworth recounts defining moments in the careers of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Who, David Bowie and many more. In this extract, rock and roll and the “American slouch” first capture the imagination of British teenagers.
For Britain’s teenagers, the ones who were in their early adolescence when Elvis and Little Richard began to filter through, there was the immediate comfort of knowing that they were the first generation in years not required to do compulsory military service. Jobs were easy to find, they lived at home and they had disposable income. They had grown up in the shadow of the war and didn’t want to hear any more about self-denial or patriotic duty. This generation looked to America for everything: Westerns, hard-boiled detective stories, coffee, blue jeans, chewing gum, slang, hair products, and above all an American way of carrying themselves that they were just starting to pick up from the new rock idols.
In 1957 the Canadian pop singer Paul Anka was touring the United States in the package tour called ‘The Biggest Show of Stars’. At different times this caravan included everyone from Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins, the Drifters, Frankie Lymon, Buddy Knox and Clyde McPhatter. It was a medley of the wide variety of people having rock and roll hits at the time. Anka noticed that the acts could be divided into three groups: the older black acts, the Italianate city slickers, and the Southern boys. This last group tended to drink, curse and threaten people with the consequences of stepping on their blue suede shoes. They generally played guitars, had impenetrable accents, spoke in a thick patois and had an unlearned swagger about them. These Southern boys were the men laying down the template for what would come to be thought of as rock-star style. It helped immeasurably that they played guitars. The guitars were less important as instruments than as natural extensions of their cool. Although Eddie Cochran hailed from Minnesota and had lived since 1952 in California he fitted right in with the Southern boys because he too looked the part. Whereas Chuck and Fats were too old for the audience to wish to emulate and the Italian boys were too obviously showbiz, the look of somebody like Cochran seemed achievable to the kids who were drawn to the music.
In 1957 the British cultural historian Richard Hoggart published his book The Uses of Literacy, which pondered the apparent decline of self-improvement among working-class males, many of whom he pictured spending their days sitting around in milk bars ‘with drape suits, picture ties and an American slouch’. The American slouch was particularly appealing to those whose army-trained fathers had insisted that the only proper posture of a man was at full attention. In Britain these imported manners appealed right across the social spectrum. When Blackboard Jungle, with its rock and roll soundtrack, had first played in British cinemas it had unleashed something previously unsuspected in the British character. Even nice girls in Cromer had gone along and found they were screaming before they knew what had come over them. Although the sociologist Mark Abrams, researching his book The Teenage Consumer, came to believe that teenagers were an almost entirely working-class movement, the American way of doing things was just as popular with the young men who would have been officers as with those who would have been other ranks.
When sixteen-year-old John Lennon was being raised by his Aunt Mimi amid solid middle-class respectability in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool, the rock and roll way of behaving was almost as attractive as the music. It could be quickly achieved, at minimum expense. Men in their twenties who worked for a living might go for the full teddy boy uniform but those who were still at school and had to obey their parents’ or guardians’ wishes had to be more discreet about it. They could announce themselves as one of this tribe simply by taking off their ties and pulling up their shirt collars, as James Dean had done in Rebel Without a Cause. Fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney had spotted Lennon around Liverpool before they formally met. This was going on all over the country. The members of this emerging tribe would silently note each other well before moving along.
McCartney’s father had run his own dance band. Hence Paul’s first instrument was a trumpet. A trumpet was difficult to play and it didn’t seem to have much of a role in rock and roll. More important than that, in the eyes of a teenage boy, it didn’t make the player look as good as a guitar did. The guitar transfigured he who owned it. So he persuaded his father to let him swap the trumpet for one. There wasn’t a great deal of choice. Like hundreds of teenage boys across Britain he had his nose pressed to the window of a local musical instrument supplier, searching for something that did the job musically but also looked like the kind of machine he might have seen an American rock and roller holding in a picture, rather than the type of guitar favoured by the brilliantined men who operated them from a sitting position in the old dance bands. The way this new music looked was every bit as important as the way it sounded.