Justin Lewis draws on his encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music to pick out some key moments in music history that are worth revisiting
My new book, Don't Stop the Music, is a 366-day guide to 70 years of pop and circumstance, from Bill Haley to Billie Eilish and from Little Richard to Little Simz. On each day of the year, I list anniversaries of some of pop history’s greatest events.
Some of those were recognised as major events when they happened, but others were barely noticed at the time, and only gained considerable resonance afterwards. Here are five of my favourite moments from the book.
July 13, 1954: The recording of "Rock Island Line" changes British pop music forever
The Chris Barber Jazz Band assembles in a London pub to discuss how to complete a forthcoming album. Barber, usually a trombonist, switches to double bass, while guitarist Lonnie Donegan doubles up as lead vocalist for a cover of a song written in 1929. "Rock Island Line" has already been embellished and popularised on record by Lead Belly in 1937, and in Britain by George Melly in 1951.
But Donegan’s recording will unexpectedly be revived in 1956 when record label Decca wants something British with the same kind of mass appeal as Bill Haley’s "Rock Around the Clock". Not only is "Rock Island Line" a transatlantic top 10 hit, but it also ushers in a UK skiffle craze. One skiffle band—the Quarrymen from Liverpool—will eventually and convolutedly become The Beatles.
February 6, 1967: Micky Dolenz arrives in London and gathers material for a new song
As "I’m a Believer" continues its UK number one run, the Monkees’ drummer-singer meets Paul McCartney, who plays him the next Beatles single, "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever". That evening, Dolenz and McCartney attend a nightclub party, meeting among others, Mama Cass Elliot from The Mamas and the Papas.
Earlier that evening, Dolenz happens to be watching the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. "The father figure calls the young son a 'randy scouse git'," Dolenz later recalls. "I didn’t know what it meant, but I just thought, 'Whoa, that’s really cool.'" "Randy Scouse Git" will become the closing track on The Monkees’ third LP, Headquarters, the first on which the group will adopt greater creative control, but it is released as a UK single (reaching number two) under the even coyer name of "Alternate Title".
August 11, 1973: DJ Kool Herc essentially invents hip hop
At 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, Jamaican-born 18-year-old Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, provides the musical entertainment at a Saturday night Back to School Jam for his younger sister and the neighbourhood. From his apartment, he uses James Brown LPs to switch from one drum break to another, while adding vocal chants and commentary, essentially a forerunner of rap.
The word "break" is key here: deriving from street slang for "get excited", it not only describes Campbell’s use of music, but also the kind of "break" dancing it leads to, as performed by "break-boys and break-girls". DJ Kool Herc’s brand of DJing and performing skills will influence future hip hop recording pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.
November 6, 1984: Chaka Khan’s "I Feel for You" reaches number one in the UK
Chaka Khan’s time as lead singer with the group Rufus during the 1970s had yielded many US hits; solo record "I’m Every Woman" and her swan song with Rufus "Ain’t Nobody" both chart high in the UK, but "I Feel for You" is her first chart-topper.
Yet she had to be persuaded by producer Arif Mardin to approve its rap section by Melle Mel, which she disliked. "He played me this guy repeating my name over and over again. I was so embarrassed. I thought it was horrible."
"We had an AMS sampler," Mardin will say in 2004. "We put Chaka’s name in and my hand slipped on the key. So that’s how that Chaka-Chaka-Chaka thing happened. Believe me, it was an accident!"
March 10, 2003: The Chicks cause controversy by criticising George W Bush
Nine days before US forces begin air strikes on Iraq, the Texan-born country music trio (then known as Dixie Chicks) take the stage at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire venue. Lead singer Natalie Maines introduces their song "Travelin’ Soldier" with the words: "We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
The trio receive support from artists including Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, but fewer figures in the country music fraternity. Yet the Chicks remain unrepentant. "That night it felt just too strange not to say anything," Maines would later reflect. "It would have been trite to not acknowledge it." On the trio’s return to the same London venue in 2006, their merchandise will be emblazoned with "The Only Bush I Trust is Shepherd’s Bush".
Don’t Stop the Music: A Year of Pop History One Day at a Time by Justin Lewis is out now in hardback (Elliott & Thompson, RRP £16.99)
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