Nik Cohn: feel the noise

Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti /Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti ...
... reading Nik Cohn's amazing Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop From The Beginning is often a bit like listening to Little Richard's nonsense masterpiece. It's exhilarating, bone-shakingly basic, and genuinely funny. Hey! You KNOOOOOOW what I liiiiike ...

Yes, Cohn's book is really good. It pulls off the unlikely trick of reproducing some of the thrill of good music - especially rock 'n' roll - in the writing itself. I don't quite know how. It's possibly something to do with his unusual stripped-back style: plain language, brisk almost dismissive summaries ("and that's all there is to say ..."), yet all matched to an underlying intelligence and knowingness about "pop" and what makes music really work (he often refers to "noise" for example). Here's a typical sample (on Eddie Cochran):

"Eddie Cochran was pure rock. Other people were other kinds of rock, country or highschool, hard, soft, good or bad or indifferent. Eddie Cochran was just rock. Nothing else. That's it and that's all ... He looked like another sub-Elvis, smooth flesh and duck-ass hair and a fast tricksy grin, the full uniform."

After this Cohn gives a short summary of why songs like Summertime Blues and C'mon Everybody work as quintessential late-50s pop-R'n'R (it's a lot to do with the use of by then classic archetypes: blue jeans, moody youthful good looks, teen rebellion, being American). Cohn clearly appreciates it all but also stands slightly apart - the key phrase is "the full uniform". By '59 Cochran is a package, just like Elvis quickly became, but no less potent for all that.

Anyway (to adopt Cohn's manner), that's just how Cohn does it - using apparently dashed off writing that's better-crafted than it lets on and all the while having a pretty firm grasp of the essentials of the main musical developments from 20s jazz, big band balladeering, crooning, R'n'B, rock and roll, and the whole shebang of the 60s beat, rock, freak-rock and proto-hard rock scenes.

Most of the lineage and influencing stuff is well known and almost over-familiar now (Chuck Berry on the Beatles, Muddy Waters on the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan on the Beatles, the Beatles on everybody else), but it's worth remembering that Cohn wrote the book way back in 1968 (!) so was pretty much a pioneer. I don't always agree with his musical judgements - he dislikes Dylan ("he bores me stiff"), mentions but says almost nothing about the Velvet Underground or Captain Beefheart - but Cohn's many insights into what makes exciting pop music work and his overall lightness of touch are the reason the book is worth reading.

But, enough with all this appraising and pontificating! Here are a few extracts from the great man himself. Here he is on seeing the Rolling Stones arriving at the Odeon cinema in Liverpool in early 1965:

"... I heard a noise like thunder. I went outside and looked around but couldn't see anything ... Finally, after maybe a full five minutes, a car came around the corner, a big flash limousine, and it was followed by police cars, by police on foot and police on motorbikes, and they were followed by several hundred teenage girls. And these girls made a continuous high-pitched keening sound and their shoes banged down against the stone. They ran like hell, their hair down in their eyes, and they stretched their arms out pleadingly as they went. They were desperate. The limousine came up on the street towards me and stopped directly outside the Odeon stage door. The police formed cordons. Then the car opened and the Rolling Stones got out, all five of them and Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager, and they weren't real. They had hair down past their shoulders and they wore clothes of every colour imaginable and they looked mean, they looked just impossibly evil. In this grey street they shone like sun gods."

And on Screaming Jay Hawkins:

"He began his act by emerging from a coffin and he carried a smoking skull called Henry, he shot flames from his fingertips, he screamed and bloodcurdled. At the end, he flooded the stage with thick white smoke and, when it cleared, he was gone. 'I used to lose half my audience right at the start, when I came screaming out of my coffin. They used to run screaming down the aisles and half kill themselves scrambling out of the exits. I couldn't stop them. In the end, I had to hire some boys to sit up in the gallery with a supply of shrivelled-up elastic bands and when the audience started running my boys would drop the elastic bands onto their heads and whisper "Worms".'

And on how Sinatra-esque crooning got pushed aside by brash blues showmanship married to good looks, overt sexuality and teen-flavoured angst:

"Anarchy moved in. For thirty years you couldn't possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely-spoken and phoney to your toenails - suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased or almost anything on earth and still clean up."

Ha! Anarchy indeed. And of course whole generations of people (my father included) would go to their graves cursing the Beatles for "ruining jazz" or dismissing all rock and roll as "rubbish", when it precisely tapped into their beloved jazz or blues (and even torch song balladeering) to channel a new excitement and energy into modern music. Can you dig it, Daddy-o?

"The lyrics were mostly non-existent, simple slogans one step away from gibberish", says Cohn of the new pop of the 50s, while pointing out that this was deliberate, cutting older generations off from the security of the words, leaving them with the raw beat and the blaring noise. The message was: cope with it or retreat back to your '78s, your sheet music and your Fox Trot at the Hammersmith Palais. (This is not to dismiss decades of music and mass culture attaching to the big band and "palais" dance hall scene, by the way. It might have been pretty staid by later standards, but I appreciate that it still gave millions of people their first thrill of sexualised encounters while the band jived away up on the plush-curtained stage. Sex and music. Who knew they went together, eh ...?)

But Cohn gets to the heart of it. It's sex, but it's more than that. It's drive, clothes, rebellion, "flash", cars, "girls", loneliness, danger. And it's very much noise. Cohn quotes Jerry Lee Lewis as saying "You are either hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you out of his mouth", which seems fair enough to me.

For Cohn the most exciting performer he'd seen by the time (aged 23) he wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom was Little Richard. I can dig this. Forget your precious Beatles and Stones, your revered Hendrix, The Who or The Kinks. Because ... tutti frutti, oh rutti / Tutti frutti, oh rutti ...


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