Review: “Rock ’n’ Roll Britannia”


Everyone knows rock ’n’ roll was born in the USA, but this BBC 4 TV programme takes a look at some of its early imitators in the UK.


This hour long documentary is the first in a two part series. For those who can receive it, it is currently on BBC iplayer, but will doubtless soon find its way onto YouTube. This is a remarkable programme, meticulously researched it includes rare archive footage, some of which probably hasn’t been seen for decades, and interviews with many of those who were there, those who have not gone to that great gig in the sky.

This is a must, even for aficionados like the man from Songfacts. Ever heard of Tony Crombie? Lady organist Cherry Wainer? The Southlanders? How about Vince Taylor? Maybe the latter, Dutch rockers Golden Earring wrote a song about him.

The evergreen Cliff Richard puts in a typically self-effacing appearance; he may not have quite been the British Elvis, but unlike the King, he is still around and performing.

It is difficult to credit today that “the avuncular” Bill Haley – one time yodelling cowboy – was regarded as controversial or even degenerate, but it was his recording of Rock Around The Clock that started the ball rolling here in Britain. It was his biggest hit, making the number one spot on both sides of the Atlantic.

Six-Five Special, the first British rock ’n’ roll TV programme – as we might understand – gets a mention. Those of a certain vintage might recognise the presenter, who is not named here, it is (now veteran) DJ Pete Murray.

We visit the site of the 2i’s Coffee Bar – the birthplace of British rock ’n’ roll, in Old Compton Street about which Al Stewart would pen a much darker song in the year of the bar’s demise.

There is a great deal more to this programme, including footage of skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, and Joe Brown, who is nearly as old as Cliff Richard, and like him still performing, clips of impressario Larry Parnes, Marty Wild – who is still around, and Billy Fury, who died aged only 42, but how about a lost Paul McCartney song for a find? Well, it isn’t quite lost, but McCartney probably wishes it had been. Having said that, he was only 16 years old at the time, and there has been a lot of water under a great many bridges since then. In Spite Of All The Danger – recorded by The Quarrymen – was dug out and re-released in 1995; it is said to be the only song credited to McCartney and George Harrison alone.

There is one big name missing from this programme – Chuck Berry – but apart from that it is a tour de force of an era that although long gone will never die, check it out, and the follow up next Saturday.

The earliest extant recording by future Beatles members Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

[The above article was first published May 19, 2013; the original wasn’t archived.]

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