IN THE DAYS BEFORE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: THIS HERE’S A STORY…

The sixties changed everything in popular culture. But they didn’t just ‘happen’, however. Happenings in the decade before informed the cataclysmic events of the decade that followed. And none were more happening than Lonnie Donegan and the legacy he left behind. His is a tale being told at St George’s Hall this weekend, with ‘The Story Of Skiffle’. By Alan O’Hare.

“It was just before the time rock ‘n’ roll started getting big in Britain – I think I was around 15, so it would be 1955. Everyone was crazy about skiffle, which was a kind of American folk music. All the kids who were 15 and 16 used to have these skiffle groups… so I formed one at school.” John Lennon said that.

There’s a story to tell around the legacy of skiffle. Has it been told before? We’re not sure. After all, look online or walk into WH Smith (if you can find one) to see what the music heads are talking about: the nostalgia game is big business, but it’s all about what came next. Lennon, Paul McCartney, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison… all have magazines dedicated to their output and the impact it had on what came next. Where’s Lonnie Donegan’s Uncut magazine special?

“Lonnie Donegan is the father of British pop and rock,” says David Charters. “Without him, we would have relied on covering American stars. He is beyond doubt the most important figure in early British rock.” It’s hard to argue with the Merseyside writer, the brain behind ‘The Story Of Skiffle: How It All Began’, playing at St George’s Hall until July 30th. The show will feature musicians and actors from the award-winning LoveHistory gang and will take place across five locations in the catacombs of The Heritage Centre in St John’s Lane. “We’re so excited about this collaboration,” says LoveHistory’s creative director, Judy McLean. “The event is unique and promises to be a fun show.”

The tale is a familiar one to anyone who knows their history – a teenager, swept up in the skiffle craze following the discovery of Donegan’s seminal ‘Rock Island Line’, joins a school skiffle group and stories and songs follow at a rapid pace. So far, so good… so, we had a chat with writer David Charters (you’ll recognise the name from the wonderful columns full of wit and whimsy that he contributed to the Daily Post for 25 years) to find out more about what happens after you go through that toll gate…

Do you remember hearing ‘Rock Island Line’ for the first time?
Yes, I do! When I was about eight in 1956. I was instantly gripped by the talking intro…

What was it about skiffle that captured the hearts and minds of teenagers at that time?
Fast guitar playing! A strong melody and American themes, too, coupled with the energy and zest of Lonnie Donegan.

Donegan’s influence is vital to this tale, isn’t it… 
He will always be a hero to me – as he was to Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Without skiffle, the great musical revolution of the sixties might never have happened.

Tell us about his, and skiffle’s, impact on The Beatles and their story in particular… 
John Lennon played in a skiffle group, The Quarrymen, and all the Beatles admired Lonnie. Strangely enough, his last big skiffle hit, ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’, was going down the charts when The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ was going up!

The changing of the guard. It wasn’t just Liverpool, was it?
Beyond Liverpool, skiffle inspired The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and The Who – it was that important to popular culture. Writing about it – and working in such a grand setting with the wonderful people in LoveHistory – is an honour for me.

How did the story develop?
It evolved in memories… using the story of young people growing into the world with a background of skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about innocence meeting expectation and the mood and atmosphere of those late fifties.

How do you define skiffle… it’s difficult, isn’t it?
A fusion of blues, folk and jazz played in simple rhythms – but harder to copy than people think.

The Story of Skiffle: How It All Began
St George’s Hall, The Heritage Centre, St John’s Lane, Liverpool
July 28th, 29th, 30th 2016
Tickets and further information

Pic courtesy Bill Elms Associates

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