It’s all about roots
Going to Gigs Round 12
Wednesday 22nd November 2017
by Trevor Locke
In this issue: we trace the roots of rock by going back in time to the early days of popular music.
Go to a gig; listen to a band. Think about one song that you like. Where did the band get their ideas from? How did that kind of music come into being? We’ve all done it. Heard a song and thought – ‘Oh. That’s like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Or ‘That is so like I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor by the Arctic Monkeys’. ‘That is so like Black Sabbath.’ And so on. Popular music does not happen in isolation. All rock music has roots. Its Influences.
There was a joke we used to play at The Shed once. We thought of a popular song of the day and then suggested whose music it was influenced by. Someone would say Elton John. Someone else would say Elvis Costello. Others came up with David Bowie. Julie Andrews. Cat Stevens. Cliff Richard. Tom Jones. Alma Cogan. Perry Como. Doris Day. Vera Lynn. Lonnie Donegan. Shirley Bassey. Russ Conway. George Formby. But it always ended with Max Bygraves, who was influenced by Lionel Bart. To much laughter and merriment we concluded that all pop music could be traced back to Max Bygraves.
Joking aside, my research into into the origins of English popular music have taken me back in time – a very long way. Music is part of the cultural heritage and traditions of a local area; if we start from present day music, each previous generation of music-makers and their listeners will inherit the traditions that have gone before them. The people of Leicester, who are now listening to local music, are listening to sounds that have been shaped by previous generations of bands, singers and composers. You cannot encapsulate today’s music and assume it just happens in a timeless bubble. All music depends on the past and history is a process of digging back, further and further, into the roots of what we hear now, to discover what nutrients have entered the sap of the great tree of sounds that flourishes in our present era.
No one period of music can be understood in isolation; all musical eras and periods have been influenced by those that preceded them. What is played and performed at a local level is influenced by the wider world of musical activity – by the bands, singers, groups and artists who inhabit the country in which a local area exists. One country’s music will be influenced by the world of music – globally.
Looking back at the music tastes of our parents and grandparents, I wrote about popular music from the 1940s onwards. In particular I thought about how the mass media influenced people during its rise. The drabness of the post-war world gave way to the exciting opulence of the never-had-it-so-good decade of the 1950s. Rock and roll was on the up and the very first charts were being devised. On the radio, shows with music and comedy were attracting huge audiences and English singers were becoming national celebrities, alongside those from North America. In 1955, Little Richard was about to unleash Rock’n’roll, soon to be followed, in the next five years, by Lonnie Donegan and the craze for Skiffle. Jazz fans were listening to Humphrey Lyttleton and Elvis’s pelvis made its debut on national TV along with Cliff Richard’s quiff.
Peoples’ access to music was revolutionised by the mass availability of the radio and the record player. Later the widespread adoption of television sets further increased access to music in the everyday lives of ordinary people. In Leicester the broadcast media, the growth of record stores and later on the emergence of the Internet, gave people more access to music than was the case with the live music venues.
In the late 40s and early 50s, I remember the radio being more or less constantly switched on when I was a child. Our family home also had a record player which was played frequently. My childhood was filled with music. We listened to the Home Service, the forerunner of what we now know as Radio 4. In 1959 the BBC began to broadcast Juke Box Jury and DJs like David Jacobs, Alan Freeman and Pete Murray started to become household names. New programmes started like Pick of the Pops. Music stars were born; Elvis and Cliff Richard owed their emerging popularity to the radio, as well as to record sales in the shops. The radio introduced the top 40 chart programme and, on Sunday afternoons, a quarter of the population tuned in to listen to it. Even for me, it was a must.
Top of the Pops started in January 1964 and for many years of my early life this was a ‘must watch’ programme, as much as listening to the radio on Sunday afternoons. In the 1960s bands became super-stars with the rise of the Beatles, The Dave Clarke Five and the sounds of the Mersey, while in the mid-60s, TV began to air new kinds of pop music shows, with Ready Steady Go and the 60s were ready to swing. Musical tastes were being influenced by the hits in the top 20 and the top 10. The Rolling Stones developed a huge fan base and Bob Dylan was being criticised for playing an electric (shock, horror) guitar. By the late 60s we saw the rise of Flower Power and the drugs and politics that fuelled it and on the TV families were watching the first Eurovision Song contests. Metal was on the rise and the first arena shows were taking place.
Music Halls and public theatres
To understand the popular music of the post-war era we need to go back further in time. In the latter part of the Victorian era, music halls and concerts began to be established, initially for the middle classes and then later on for ordinary working people.
Not much remains of the entertainment once enjoyed in Leicester. The Theatre Royal of 1836 was a grand building with a portico of Doric columns but it was demolished in 1957. The Opera House, The Empire Theatre, the Temperance Hall, the Palace Theatre and the Floral Hall have all disappeared. Along with the music that was played in them.
In the early part of the 19th century (1840s, 1850s) brass bands started to become popular. Sheet music began to be widely available during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From the 1850s, pub landlords began to open Music Halls; these purpose-built halls retained many of the functions provided by the Inns and Taverns which were the venues that provided live music to working people during the early to mid Victorian times.
In 1853, The Temperance Hall opened in Granby Street. Concert parties were held there. The Hall opened with a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was also used as a venue for dances, till it was demolished in 1961.
in 1862 The Hippodrome was built in Wharf Street as The Gladstone Hotel. (near to where The Musician now stands.) By 1880 it had become known as the Gladstone Music Hall, or the Gladstone Vaults.
From 1862 onwards The Alhambra Music Hall once stood in Belgrave Gate, and was once of the most popular places of entertainment in the city. 1877 saw the opening of the Opera House in Silver Street, another very important theatre for music and entertainment.
The De Montfort Hall, opened in 1913 and has been a venue for music to the present day. In 1922 the first concert of the Leicester Symphony Orchestra took place there. In 1914, music halls put on concerts to raise funds and enthusiasm for the war effort. Around this time, the venue that is now the Y Theatre was an important locale for war-related activities and many of the most important national acts performed there during the inter-war years.
The formation of the BBC was a milestone is the development of popular music. Radio Leicester, which began in 1967, the first local radio station provided by the BBC.
1927 saw the birth of the singer Laurel Aitken. Lorenzo Aitken, born in 1927 and better known as Laurel Aitken, was a singer and one of the originators of Jamaican Ska music. Often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Ska’, Aitken lived in Leicester from 1970. 1958. Singer Engelbert Humperdinck released his first single I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. He moved to Leicester in 1946.
Even today we see the comings and goings of once popular places of live music entertainment. The renown Charlotte in Oxford Road, for example, is now a block of student flats. The Auditorium in Market Place, once a cinema and then a bingo hall, served as music venue for a while but has now gone back to being empty. The building in Orton Square that was once a large popular Odeon cinema is now the Athena, a place that regularly hold parties, shows and wedding receptions. That much-loved live music venue, The Attik, has now become a bar.
I know that there is much more that can be said about the origins of the music we listen to today. Take metal for example: the west Midlands played a key role in the development of metal and many of the British bands that were vital to the progress of metal came from towns in the Midlands. The role played by music artists from African and Caribbean origins is of great important, not just to Leicester, but to British music as a whole. It is a subject that deserves an article of its own.
Mapping and charting the development of popular music from the accession of Queen Victoria, in 1837, through to the present day is not difficult; pretty much all of it was recorded, in one form or another. But what about earlier times? We know a lot about the music that was played in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII – who was an able composer and musician, and we even know what kind of music would have been listened to by Richard III.
We can even push back our knowledge through the dark ages and the sagas of the Vikings, to the genteel villas of the Romans. But I will leave that for another day.
Next time on Going To Gigs: It’s all about the music. We look back at Leicester’s greatest Hits.