Gene Vincent in Europe
Reading through the articles on the Blue Caps in Original Cool (issues 1, 9 and 22) once again brought home to me the cultural chasm which separates Europe and the USA. I suspect that the differing value systems are rooted in attitudes towards judgement of worth in traditionally cultural terms, and those promulgated in the mass media, primarily in TV and the tabloid newspapers, where the transcending benchmark is (financial) success. Add to this the cult of Youth and The Modern, and a climate where ignorance and a detachment from any awareness of history bloom freely. I can find little sympathy with any environment where it is possible to be famous for being famous, or adulated because of material affluence. Due to the globalisation of popular culture via TV, these shallow attributes can now be found amongst young people everywhere - in Europe, in China…
To understand the enduring nature of Gene Vincent’s appeal in Europe requires a knowledge of the milieu into which he burst into prominence in 1959. Europe in the 1950s was a dreary place, the many afflictions of the Second World War lingered on. Popular culture had undergone little change over the previous two decades. Music played on radio was largely dull popular songs or middle-brow classical music. TV was by no means ubiquitous, and there were just two channels in Britain, one with inane adverts, the other without and very staid. Fashion was something the rich could indulge in. The concept of the Teenager was something alien where most young people looked pretty much like their parents and had many of the same aspirations. What would you desire after the holocaust? A quiet and safe life.
This cosy pattern, however, began to erode with various incursions from the States. There’s a whole book waiting to be written about about the cultural revolution wrought by the introduction and promulgation of jeans in Europe. Here was a garment that young people could actually afford (in 1960, my employment as a Pharmaceutical Apprentice paid $4 a week!). It had the added appeal that it was casual, something one’s parents disapproved of (one was supposed to dress up smartly to go out on Saturday night), and was not worn by them. Then there were strange films suddenly bringing awareness of a youth culture unlike anything one could dream of. Young people with their own cars! AND, there was this (what we thought to be) NEW MUSIC. Looking back at the old footage, it is rather difficult to see what Bill Haley and His Comets had going for them, yet they created a sensation when they came to Europe. Suddenly it seemed, the floodgates opened. You could actually buy records like these! The good old BBC didn’t play them, but your friends did, and so did a radio station broadcasting in English to Europe from Luxembourg, of all places. Rock ‘n’ roll! We had never heard anything like it. It was exciting, incomprehensible, and our parents at best tolerated it. Whilst tapping your feet, you could firstly try and figure out what the words were, and then spend a somewhat longer time attempting to decipher them into something vaguely capable of assimilation.
So, by December 1959, we had progressed to some knowledge about teenage rebellion and so forth. We had seen and been smitten by James Dean, we had goggled at Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It, and we had our collections of 78s and these new 45rpm records you had to have a special player for. You might even know someone who owned a long player. There had even been the odd TV performance by Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and Charlie Gracie. But don’t get me wrong, there was still a LOT of puerile pop music about on radio and TV, and record. Another development of youth culture (we now knew about this stuff), was a division that happened amongst young people themselves. The original guys who locked into rock were the Teds, with their characteristic drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and crepe soled shoes. As financial straits eased, and Hire Purchase schemes (dubbed the Never Never in the UK) became available, young people began to obtain their own transport.
We’re not talking Chuck Berrymobiles here, we’re talking British motorcycles (then the finest in the world). And, of course, following on from the motorcycle racing field where leathers were compulsory for safety reasons, a whole new fashion for black leather was born. Not many of us could afford the trousers, but the black leather jacket became something other than a practical motorcycling garment. And the wearers became Rockers. They were a subculture among young people, but an enduring one.
Now, place yourself amongst your family on an early Saturday evening before you hit the town pub with your mates, tuning in to a youth oriented TV show produced by Jack Good called Boy Meets Girls . You’ve read in the music papers that an American singer who had a hit a few years back is going to appear. That’s ALL you know, except you remember a somewhat wild guy in strange clothes in that Girl Can’t Help It film, The opening titles flash up in complete silence, the screen goes black, the words GENE VINCENT appear bottom left, a side spotlight hits a face in extreme close-up, and a guitar starts playing the intro to Baby Blue.
As the apparition starts to sing in his now famously unique voice, the camera pulls back to reveal he is crouching over a microphone stand, clad in black leather from head to toe. I can tell you, that moment changed people’s lives. I can still clearly remember the gobsmacked discussion of this event later. And we were hooked. What other possibility was there than to go to as many concerts as possible? The money would have to be found. So, my first ever live performance was seeing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in London in April 1960. And, as anyone who has seen Gene perform will bore you to tears with, he was dynamite. I have seen many, many other performers in concert, all the famous rock ‘n’ rollers (except Elvis Presley), but Gene was something else. He was mad!
All over Europe, where Gene was the biggest live draw until the blossoming of the Beatles mega-career, other people were having the same revelation as we had. He quickly became a legend. Whether he had a hit record or not (Capitol were particularly ineffective in promoting him record-wise) didn’t mean a bean. we bought the records, of course, and cherished them, but the legend grew until he is now a rock icon. And as my generation grew older, but not much wiser, we played the records and told the stories to our children. This, and the fact that there is a prevailing culture amongst the not-so-young that a good record is a good record whatever the date on it (just look at the booming market in CD re-issues) leads to the continuing acclaim for the main man here in Europe. GENE LIVES.
(Slightly adapted from a piece originally published in ORIGINAL COOL Jun/Jul 97)
©Derek Henderson 1997