Rewriting Pop History

In March 2008’s Observer Music Magazine, DJ Johnny Walker recalled, “The impetus for Radio Caroline came when the founder, Ronan O’Rahilly, discovered Georgie Fame.” Were they not dead, Larry Parnes and Rik Gunnell might contest O’Rahilly’s role as Fame’s discoverer: Parnes, since it was he who, having hired pianist Clive Powell to back Billy Fury, renamed him Georgie Fame; Gunnell, because he oversaw Fame’s metamorphosis into the Hammond-playing hipster whose No 1, ‘Yeh Yeh’, was honed at his Soho club. Walker was repeating a claim aired often enough for it to have transmuted, like the legend of the man who shot Liberty Valance, into truth, his endorsement further enhancing its authenticity.

A Guardian obituary should engender as much trust as a revered radio veteran. Recently one was headlined: “Rock’n'roll pioneer who was a primary influence on Elvis.” Who had died? Little Richard? Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? No, Freddie Bell, leader of the Bellboys, a Las Vegas lounge act given momentary prominence by an appearance in Rock Around The Clock. It may not be the most important chapters in pop history that are being rewritten, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth correcting.

Possibly Kris Kristofferson’s claim that his was the first beard in country music didn’t really warrant a letter pointing out that goateed Burl Ives had recorded country hits while Kristofferson was still a clean-shaven soldier, but that didn’t stop me writing one or this paper printing it, prompting Tom McGuinness to ask me, how could I have overlooked hirsute Gabby Hayes’ even earlier ‘Who’s Been Spittin’ In My Spittoon?’. Before I promulgate another porky, he was joking.

The Manfred Mann bassist has his own reasons for mistrusting music history. Watching a BBC documentary, he heard the Shirelles’ Shirley Alston assert that the Manfreds’ cover of ‘Sha La La’ killed the girl group’s original. “As theirs was a small US hit in March 1964 and ours got to No 12 in November,” he notes, “I can only say theirs took a long time dying. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it was in a section of the programme about black artists being ripped off, particularly galling as we always gave credit to those black artists who had inspired us.”

No less an authority than Charlie Gillett, whose The Sound Of The City was the first reliable rock history, admits to having promoted a myth by stating that Gene Vincent’s Capitol contract was the prize in a talent contest to find the next Elvis. “I don’t know where I got the notion from,” he says, “but although there was no such competition, the story has been repeated many times.”

The most popular myths are less about the music than events: Mama Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich (she didn’t); Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes (a joke, according to his publicist); Paul McCartney dying in a car crash in 1966 (in which case, his stand-in hasn’t done a bad job protecting the family fortune).

The long and lively career of a band like The Who inevitably incites ambiguities, which Pete Townshend is happy to dismiss. He didn’t smash Abbie Hoffman over the head with his guitar at Woodstock. “If I had, he would have been dead.” Keith Moon driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool is an erroneous conflation of two incidents. In one, he left the handbrake off, and the car rolled into a pool, which was under construction and waterless. In the other, he charged a new car to the band, who refused to foot the bill, so Moon “drove into a muddy pond in his garden and called the dealer to pick it up.” Townshend is even willing to share the credit for pioneering feedback with The Kinks’ Dave Davies – “although he used quite small Vox amplifiers, so it wasn’t particularly loud.”

The one fiction that really bothers him is that he had a “serious tiff” with Jimi Hendrix about who went on first at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. There was a civil discussion before the running order was settled with the toss of a coin, although “Jimi did stand on a chair and start to play guitar before John Phillips tossed his coin. Jimi playing the guitar meant he’d left the room – really rather rude, but understandable.”

So, if you’re still around to read Sting’s obituary, and it describes him as a reggae pioneer and primary influence on The Sex Pistols, don’t let it go uncorrected.

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