Beatles and before

How the Beatles peaked in 1963 according to New Statesman music columnist Francis Newton

Taken from The New Statesman 8 November 1963

Under the pseudonym Francis Newton, the distinguished Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm used to write a regular column in the New Statesman as its jazz critic. Occasionally his interest would stray from the blues to popular music, as this article on the Beatles illustrates. Newton predicted that the young Merseyside group had already peaked in 1963 and that within 20 years nobody would remember them. But, as Hobsbawm was the first to acknowledge, the music of the Beatles grew in maturity. His wide-ranging and authoritative pieces on jazz continue to provide an absorbing read and helped strengthen the reputation of the magazine's cultural pages.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Every so often performers become the excuse for (mainly feminine) teenage hysteria. When this happens in culturally unified societies, in which minds are lost over actors from the national theatre or ballerinas, it is rarely remarked upon. In ours it attracts attention, and the point arrives on the curve of hysteria when even those most insulated against first-hand contact with people like the Beatles (or, earlier, Cliff Richard or Bill Haley) discover their existence and want to know what it is all about.

The Beatles are an agreeable bunch of kids, quite unsinister (unlike some of the American teenage comets), with that charming combination of flamboyance and a certain hip self- mickey-taking, which is the ideal of their age-group. They are in fact the "new Elizabethans" for whom the bishops called ten years ago.

Much of their appeal has nothing to do with music at all, but with clothes, haircuts and stance. What they sell is not music, but "the sound", a slightly modified version of the heavily accented, electronically amplified noise which has long been familiar to rock-and-rollers and could at a pinch be described as the musique concrète of the masses. Anyone can produce that sound, and practically everyone with the money for the rather expensive gear has done so.

Probably because of the large Irish population, Merseyside has long been a matrix of urbanised folk culture, a fact discovered years ago by the folk-song crowd, and has long been enshrined via Liverpool-Welsh playwrights and Liverpool-based TV series in orthodox culture. Merseyside - and the Beatles - emerged as the recognised Nashville of Britain about a year ago, when entrepreneurs first became aware of the size of the market for the beat groups which had grown up spontaneously in provincial cellars and halls.

In such vogues, there is always one governor, for unlike football, the culture of pop music - being national and not municipal - does not divide naturally into the binary pattern which has given so many British cities their two rival teams. There is generally only one idol and it happens that this sympathetic group of lads has been cast for the part. They are probably just about to begin their slow descent: the moment when someone thinks of making a film with a pop idol normally marks the peak of his curve. In 29 years' time nothing of them will survive.

This is where products like the Beatles differ from the ancestor of their "beat music", the urban blues, an historical cross-section of which we were lucky to hear recently in the unexpected environment of Croydon. Joe Williams, a fat, good-tempered, grizzled man with a crumpled face and a big silver buckle on his belt, trousers hanging like a becalmed sail, sang off-hand country blues of the kind stereotyped by Bluebird Records in the Thirties. That now familiar house-noise of Bluebird - piano, guitar, harmonica (but not the old washboard) - was never far from our ears. Lonnie Johnson, a relic of Buddy Bolden's New Orleans, sang the urban vaudeville blues of the Twenties. Like his voice, his songs were light, melodious, relaxed. A historic figure, dapper like an elderly executive of a funeral parlour, he charmed us with "Careless Love", but only moved us with the beauty of his guitar.

Miss Victoria Spivey was even more of a museum-piece. She is the last active survivor of the classic women stage singers who raised the vocal blues briefly to the level of great art in the years before the 1929 slump. Since then the most talented women have moved into jazz and cabaret song or gospel. Miss Spivey was never among the real heavyweights, though she still echoes Bessie Smith's unforgettable phrasing, but perhaps for this reason her voice still survives well, strong and not unduly coarsened, and her eyes and hips are active as ever. Sonny Boy Williamson (not to be confused with another singer and harmonica-player of the same name who got an ice-pick in his head in 1948) is now a man who could pass for an elderly, disenchanted grey preacher with a goatee and an eye for the female congregation. Though his voice is now old and hoarse, he was of all the artists perhaps the most naturally fitted for his task, for his tempo is stunning, the timbre of his voice exactly right, and the sound of his mouth-organ, wielded like a private orchestra, could break a heart of granite.

Like Mr Otis Spann, the pianist, who appeared before us in a gold-and-black watered silk suit and patent leather shoes of powerful impact, there is really nothing one can imagine him doing, once he gets going, except play the blues.

The last set of artists, the Chicago team whose captain is Muddy Waters and whose headquarters is Smitty's Corner on the South Side, represented the blues of the Forties and Fifties, recalling (especially with the sterling Memphis Slim) the era of boogie-woogie, or anticipating (with Muddy Waters himself) that of rock-and-roll. Muddy also sang a country blues about mule-teams and suchlike, doubtless in deference to the growing folknik demand for this sort of thing, but it doesn't suit his style.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins