Saturday, 22 February 2020

music of the 1950s: part 3

…list continued from Part 2, (1957–58).

Chuck Berry—Sweet Little Sixteen (1958)
Unbelievably, it has taken me until 1958 to get around to listing Chuck Berry. Nobody from the 1950s has had more of his songs covered by later musicians, although this isn’t one that I’m aware has been covered by anyone else. However, it’s always been my favourite Chuck Berry track, although this isn’t because the lyric includes the following lines:
They’re really rocking on Bandstand,
Philadelphia, Pa.
It was clearly Berry’s intention to celebrate the program, but I’ve always considered American Bandstand, and its host Dick Clark, to be among the prime movers behind the general trend towards emasculating rock ’n’ roll that gathered steam in the late 1950s in the wake of the payola scandal, when it emerged that record companies were paying disc jockeys such as Alan Freed to play their records (Freed has a composing credit on Chuck Berry’s first ever hit, Maybellene, which is highly suggestive of a corrupt system).

Jerry Lee Lewis—High School Confidential (1958)
If Little Richard is the rhythm-and-blues exemplar of manic singing and piano playing, then Jerry Lee Lewis is his country-and-western counterpart. And this is Lewis at his most manic.

The Coasters—Yakety Yak (1958)
The Coasters were probably the most prolific vocal group of the late 1950s, and several of their songs were covered by British bands in the mid-1960s, including Poison Ivy and Searchin’. A lot of their output could be categorized as ‘novelty’ songs, but Yakety Yak had a more serious message: the nonsense that teenagers have to put up with from adults.

Johnny Otis—Willie and the Hand Jive (1958)
The cadences of Willie and the Hand Jive bear a strong resemblance to Bo Diddley, but Bo Diddley’s endless self-referencing is tiresome. This is a far more interesting song.

Bobby Day—Rockin’ Robin (1958)
Most people will be familiar with this song from the version by Michael Jackson, from the time when he was still a squeaky-voiced member of the Jackson 5. Check this one out—it’s much, much better!

Frankie Ford—Sea Cruise (1959)
This song was originally recorded by Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, but as I’ve already included a song by this artist in my list—and this is the version I heard first—I thought that it was worth a mention.

The Olympics—Hully Gully (1959)
This song is reputed to have kickstarted a dance craze, but if it did, the echoes certainly didn’t reach the small market town in the north of England where I grew up. And the twist had to wait for Chubby Checker before catching on as a dance rather than being just a song (below). I don’t think many people will remember this one.

The Clovers—Love Potion No. 9 (1959)
This song was written by the Leiber/Stoller partnership, who were also responsible for the bulk of the Coasters’ output, and I’ve often wondered why it was never recorded by the better-known group, because it would have been right up their street. This is the only notable recording by the Clovers.

Chan Romero—Hippy Hippy Shake (1959)
Most people will have first heard this song in the version by the Swinging Blue Jeans, one of the lesser bands to emerge from Liverpool on the back of the Beatles, but this is the original. As a Latino, Chan Romero was heavily influenced by Ritchie Valens, but this was his only major hit.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters—The Twist (1959)
Chubby Checker may have popularized the twist as a dance, but he added absolutely nothing to the song. This is another original that deserves more attention.

Wilbert Harrison—Kansas City (1959)
I’ve often wondered what is special about Kansas City, which strikes me as an insignificant midwestern conurbation. Perhaps it’s because it’s the only place that I can think of whose name fits the cadences of the song. However, that observation doesn’t detract from this recording, which is another widely covered original that is well worth a listen.

Ray Charles—What’d I Say (1959)
This record attracted controversy when first released because it featured the call-and-response motif that had until then been restricted to gospel music. And this was a clear example of ‘the Devil’s music’ and thus antithetical to gospel.

Barrett Strong—Money (That’s What I Want) (1959)
I first heard this song in the Beatles’ version, and I was electrified. However, this is the original version, and it’s well worth a listen. It was also the first ever hit on the soon to be dominant Tamla label.

Johnny and the Hurricanes—Red River Rock (1959)
Purely instrumental music was a rarity in rock ’n’ roll, but Johnny and the Hurricanes produced a string of hits in the late 1950s. This track, a rocked-up version of the country song Red River Valley, is my favourite. The melody is played on a Hammond organ, with embellishments by guitar and tenor saxophone.

further reading
Don’t Talk Back.
Black Music of the 1960s.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

rotten row

There is a thoroughfare in central London known as Rotten Row. With a name like that, you might think that it runs through a slum area, but you would be mistaken. ‘Rotten Row’ is a corruption of route du roi (‘way of the king’) and reflects a time when French was the language of the royal court in England. However, there is a location that I pass through almost every day here in Hong Kong that I identify mentally as ‘rotten row’ (no capitals), and it really is rotten. What follows is a description.

Whenever I want to go into Fanling from the village where I live, either for shopping or for something to eat, I follow a narrow concrete path across an area that was extensively cultivated when we moved to our present house in 2008. However, most of these fields were fenced off by the landowner—Henderson Land, one of the largest property developers in Hong Kong—in 2011, and there is now no evidence of their previous use apart from banana ‘trees’, which have somehow survived the encroaching vegetation, although they no longer appear to bear any fruit. This is a photo that I originally used in Hong Kong Country, a survey in pictures of this area that I posted in January 2010:


The high-rise blocks mark the eastern edge of Fanling, but this view no longer exists.

When the various cultivated areas were fenced off in 2011, Henderson’s employees also demolished all the unoccupied habitable structures in the area, including Koon Garden and the house of Lee Ming Sang, photos of which I included in my original survey.

However, if I’m walking into Fanling from my house, shortly after leaving the village and crossing the Ma Wat River, I pass in front of a row of ramshackle ‘houses’, all of which were occupied in 2008. My original survey also included a photo of the first of these.

When walking from Fanling, this is a view of the start of the row:


The land on the right wasn’t being farmed, but it was fenced off anyway, presumably to prevent subsequent occupation by squatters.

And this is a closer look at the first house:


The red graffiti are now almost illegible, but they were painted by the last occupant of the house, who was lamenting the fact that he’d just been evicted! The walls are a single brick thick, the walls subsequently being rendered. This doesn’t sound particularly substantial, but this building is more robust than some others in the row.

The door has now been securely padlocked, as you can see in this photo:


I believe that the rather cryptic writing you can see to the left of the door was painted by a government agency, possibly the Housing Authority, to indicate that the occupant has been rehoused, although it probably doesn’t refer to the last occupant.

And this is the next house:


This house also appears to be quite robust—apart from the door, which is made of wood and could easily be infested with termites now. The padlock here is quite flimsy, and it would probably be quite easy to force a way in, should someone want to re-occupy it.

The next photo shows something that is surprisingly common—an enclosed ‘porch’ that is effectively a cage:


The frames of bars at each end of this house appear to be there to stop anyone trying to pass between the house and its neighbours.

The next house also has a caged porch:


…and I’ve no idea what this bed frame is doing on the roof:


The fifth house was the last in the row to be occupied—by an old woman. I don’t know whether she died, or has been rehoused elsewhere:


If you look closely, you will see that—like the previous two houses—the entrance to this house has been securely chained and padlocked. This house also includes the extended section beyond the cage, making it the largest in the row by floor area.

And this is the final house in the row:


This photo was taken looking back towards the rest of the row. All the windows in these houses are old-fashioned metal-framed casement windows, and in all but one case, the glass is still intact. However, one pane has been broken in this house, so I reached in with my camera, hopefully to get an idea of what it looks like inside. This was the result:


The calendar is open at May 2017, which is probably when the last occupant left—or was evicted.

Around that time, writing appeared on the footpath, purportedly by the ‘landlord’ of these premises, that announced the imminent closure of the footpath. My reaction at the time? I’d like to see him try! I should point out that there are streetlights along this path, and I've always interpreted the existence of streetlights as indicating a public right of way! Of course, there is an alternative route to the shops from the village, but it’s twice as long, and I’m not about to take it with a rucksack full of beer, although I might do so if I merely felt like a longer walk. I imagine that my fellow villagers would have had similar feelings—minus the beer—although the threat of closure seems to have gone, and I was never aware of any protest that might have been planned.

Incidentally, I wrote ‘landlord’ instead of ‘landowner’ because I can’t imagine that the skullduggery I’ve been describing here has anything to do with Henderson Land. If it had been, then rotten row would have been demolished by now, to prevent re-occupation, and it hasn’t been. I continue to wonder why.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

music of the 1950s: part 2

…list continued from Part 1, (1952–56).

Buddy Holly—That’ll Be the Day (1957)
I was a big fan of Buddy Holly in the late 1950s, although in retrospect I find that much of his output seems to have been designed to appeal to self-conscious adolescents. Not this one though. Holly’s ‘hiccupping’ vocal styling is what makes this record.

The Edsels—Rama Lama Ding Dong (1957)
This track is classic doo-wop, complete with a honking saxophone solo and a nonsense title.

Dale Hawkins—Susie Q (1957)
This echo-laden example of rockabilly clearly shows the effect of other influences, especially the blues of the Mississippi delta.

Johnny Burnett—Rock a Billy Boogie (1957)
Although Johnny Burnett had his biggest hit with the pop song Dreamin’ in 1960, he’d been active throughout the second half of the 1950s with a string of rockabilly numbers, of which this is a typical example.

Thurston Harris—Little Bitty Pretty One (1957)
Several versions of this song were released around this time, but I believe this to be the original—and improvements on an original song are extremely rare.

Buddy Knox—Party Doll (1957)
This is another rockabilly number, although it’s unusual in featuring female backing singers.

The Diamonds—Little Darlin’ (1957)
The Diamonds were a Canadian doo-wop group whose success was achieved in the United States. This isn’t the original, but it was the only one to be a hit. It also includes a spoken middle eight, which in retrospect turns it into something of a comedy record!

Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns—Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu (1957)
As you might guess from the singer’s nickname and the title of the song, this recording features piano accompaniment that is heavily influenced by both R&B and boogie woogie.

Bobby Freeman—Do You Wanna Dance (1958)
This song was covered by several bands in the mid-1960s, including the Beach Boys, but once again the original is the best. Freeman was just 18 years old when this record was released.

Larry Williams—Slow Down (1958)
I first heard this song on an LP by Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963, and it grabbed my attention, but this, the original version, was on my search list when scouring the second-hand shops of Manchester a couple of years later. There are hints of Little Richard here (both recorded for Specialty Records), but this is almost out of control. It is, without doubt, the fastest record in this list. It may also have been, originally, just a B-side, because the other side was Dizzy Miss Lizzy, also a rock ’n’ roll classic.

Eddie Cochran—Summertime Blues (1958)
Although I’ve not attempted to rank the recordings in this collection, the fact that I selected this record as one of just eight to be marooned with on a desert island indicates that I consider this the #1 record of the 1950s. Cochran’s death in a car accident in the UK in April 1960 is particularly tragic because he was one of the first to experiment with a variety of recording techniques, including overdubbing and double-tracking, and it’s likely that he would have become a major star in the 1960s had he lived.

This track is also the first on this list to feature a fade-out groove—the standard practice used to be that a song had to have a precise end. It may just be coincidence, but the next recording on my list also ends with a fade-out groove, and Eddie Cochran and Ritchie Valens were friends. Just saying.

Ritchie Valens—Come On, Let’s Go (1958)
Ritchie Valens was the first Latino to make a mark in rock ’n’ roll. Sadly, however, he was only 18 years old when he died, in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly in February 1959, so it’s impossible to evaluate what he might have achieved. This record provides just a hint.

The Everly Brothers—Bird Dog (1958)
There was a lot of crossover from country and western music to what was increasingly becoming ‘mainstream’ rock ’n’ roll in the late 1950s, and most of it can be ignored, but not the Everly Brothers, whose close-harmony vocals were something new. This song is typical of their early output, and it also provides another early example of the use of a fade-out groove.

Danny and the Juniors—At the Hop (1958)
This song was performed by Sha Na Na at Woodstock in 1969, but this is the original—and vastly superior—version.

The list is continued in Part 2 (1958–59).

Sunday, 9 February 2020

music of the 1950s: part 1

It is slightly misleading to talk about the music of a given decade as defined by the calendar, because the emergence of new musical styles doesn’t neatly coincide with the start of a decade. For example, from a musical point of view, the 1960s didn’t begin until January 1963 with the release of the Beatles’ Please, Please Me. The 1950s experienced a similar delay, because the music of the decade is inevitably defined by the emergence and early development of rock ’n’ roll.

The milestone in this case is Rock around the Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets, which was originally released in the USA in 1954 but didn’t catch on around the rest of the world until it was used to back the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle the following year. However, although I’ve labelled this record a ‘milestone’, I also regard it as one of the most overrated records of all time. Wikipedia describes it as ‘a rock and roll song in the 12-bar blues format’, but although I’m not an expert on music theory, it sounds to me more like a novelty foxtrot sung by a balding, middle-aged man with a condescending attitude. That patronizing mindset is exemplified by the reasons Haley gave for ‘cleaning up’ the lyric to Shake, Rattle and Roll (see below).

In preparing for this assessment of the music of the decade, I started by compiling a ‘top ten’. That seemed easy, except that I soon found myself pondering what to leave out! As I reviewed the options, I found myself struggling to restrict the list to a ‘top twenty’, and in fact the following list contains 42 records. And I’ve probably still overlooked at least one recording that belongs on the list. In case you’re wondering, I have to confess that I didn’t hear any of the early records on this list at the time they were released. The main reason I’m familiar with them now is that as a student in Manchester in the mid-1960s, I spent a lot of time scouring the city’s second-hand shops looking for old 45s.

I’ve deliberately excluded urban blues recordings of the period, such as Smokestack Lightnin’ by Howlin’ Wolf, Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters, Dust My Broom by Elmore James and I’m a King Bee by Slim Harpo. Although these are now regarded as classics, they attracted very little mainstream attention when first released.

I’ve listed the following records in approximately chronological order with the year that they were released and a YouTube link so that you can listen to ones with which you’re unfamiliar (click on the artist/title). You may notice that all but one of the 42 records are by American artists. The sole exception is a Canadian doo-wop group that achieved its success solely in the United States. Britain didn’t make any original contributions to the development of rock music until the release of Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates in 1960.

Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats—Rocket 88 (1951)
This track is often touted as ‘the first rock ’n’ roll record’, although to my ear it sounds more like the kind of urban rhythm and blues that was becoming increasingly popular towards the end of the 1940s. Definitely worth a listen though.

Lloyd Price—Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1952)
Although rock ’n’ roll didn’t become defined as a distinct genre until the emergence of Elvis Presley, this record is a classic early example of one of the two main influences on the developing style: urban rhythm and blues. You will notice that the guitar is merely part of the rhythm section; the principal accompanying instruments are piano and tenor saxophone.

Big Mama Thornton—Hound Dog (1952)
Although Hound Dog sounds like ‘authentic’ blues, it was actually written by two professional songwriters from New York, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were Jewish. However, like much of the blues, this song is full of sexual innuendo, albeit not in the sanitized—and inferior—version recorded by Elvis Presley a couple of years later.

The Drifters—Money Honey (1953)
In the later years of the decade, the Drifters specialized in saccharine ballads and went through so many personnel changes that there were half a dozen vocal groups touring the world as ‘The Original Drifters’ in the mid-1960s, but this record features the original line-up, with Clyde McPhatter as lead vocalist. It dates from the time when the Drifters were still an authentic doo-wop quartet.

Joe Turner—Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954)
Now this is a real 12-bar blues (with refrain), although its status as an embryonic rock ’n’ roll song is obvious. And if you listen to the lyric, you will get a sense of why Bill Haley thought it necessary to prettify it. It is relentlessly misogynistic. However, I might add, if you think the Haley version superior, you ain’t no rock’n’roller.

Carl Perkins—Blue Suede Shoes (1955)
This is the first of several songs on this list to be recorded by Sun Records of Memphis and is also the first example of the second main influence on the development of rock ’n’ roll: an offshoot of country and western music known as ‘rockabilly’. Note that there is no piano or saxophone on this track. This is when a guitar became the main instrument to accompany a song.

Elvis Presley did a passable version of this song, but this is the original. Not that Perkins had any grounds for claiming he’d been upstaged. The other song for which he’s well known, Matchbox, is merely a reworking of Matchbox Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson, which was recorded in the 1920s!

Fats Domino—Ain’t That a Shame (1955)
Fats Domino had been recording since the late 1940s, but this is his first song to catch on with a mainstream audience. It is also the first recording on this list to feature piano (played by Fats himself), saxophones and guitar in the accompaniment. It was covered by Pat Boone at the time, apparently in the belief that the Domino version would be too ‘difficult’ for white audiences.

I should also note that in compiling this list, I decided to restrict every singer to just one entry. Had I not done so, Fats Domino would have been mentioned half a dozen times, with songs like Blue Monday, Blueberry Hill, I Hear You Knockin’ and Sick and Tired.

Smiley Lewis—I Hear You Knockin’ (1955)
Having mentioned I Hear You Knockin’ in connection with Fats Domino, it is probably a coincidence that this recording is next on my list. Both artists were recorded by Imperial Records of New Orleans, and this is the original version of a much-covered song. The distinctive driving piano is provided by Huey ‘Piano’ Smith.

Elvis Presley—Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
Presley’s early (and best) work was recorded by Sun Records of Memphis but reached only a local audience. This was his first record for RCA and showcases his unique vocal style—a style that was slowly diluted, to the extent that he recorded absolutely nothing worth remembering after he was drafted into the US Army in 1958.

Little Richard—Long Tall Sally (1956)
And this is when rock ’n’ roll performance really became exciting. Nobody could match the hysterical singing and frenetic piano playing of Little Richard. All the songs for which he’s famous (e.g. Tutti Frutti, Ready Teddy, Rip It Up, Lucille, Good Golly Miss Molly) were recorded during a two-year period, and this record is Little Richard at his most intense. Try sitting still while listening to it!

Roy Orbison—Ooby Dooby (1956)
Roy Orbison’s reputation rests almost entirely on the quasi-operatic ballads (Only the Lonely, Running Scared, Cryin’, In Dreams, etc.) that he recorded for Monument Records in the early 1960s. I suspect that the vast majority of the people who bought these records are totally unaware of his rockabilly recordings for Sun Records in the mid-1950s. This is the best.

Gene Vincent and his Bluecaps—Be-Bop-A-Lula (1956)
This recording is quite a rarity: an example of a slow (and moody) rockabilly number. Few singers could have pulled this off, but Vincent does. In spades.

LaVern Baker—Jim Dandy (1956)
You would probably have to be familiar with the R&B scene of the 1950s to have heard this record, but it’s a classic.

The Del-Vikings—Come Go with Me (1956)
The Del-Vikings were a racially mixed group at a time when this was an extreme rarity. In this classic doo-wop song, you won’t hear a single intelligible word until 30 seconds has elapsed from the start!

The list is continued in Part 2 (1957–58).

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

state of the union

Luen Wo Hui is a district on the eastern edge of Fanling. It would originally have been separated from Fanling town centre (the area around the railway station), but the area in between has since been filled by village houses. The centre of the district consists of narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants, but in the last couple of decades, it has expanded to include six high-rise housing estates.

Two of these estates are distinctly low-end, judging by the architecture of the blocks and the fact that there are only small shopping arcades at ground level. However, the other four estates all incorporate shopping malls (to qualify as a mall, there has to be a central atrium).

Three of these malls—Belair Monte, Regentville and Green Code Plaza—are interlinked by footbridges, but the fourth, Union Plaza, is separated by a significant distance from the other three and is thus completely self-contained. It is in fact immediately adjacent to the old centre of Luen Wo Hui.

What follows is a tour of the mall, focusing on the patterns in the floor tiles. I featured the tile patterns in Regentville as part of Tile Styles, and I hinted at the complexity of the floor patterns in Green Code Plaza in The Corridor of Uncertainty. However, unlike the more complex but uniform patterns in Regentville, the tile patterns in Union Plaza are irregular, albeit less complex.

There are three entrances to the mall. This is the one next to the centre of the district that I referred to above:


You will see this pattern of overlapping concentric arcs of outdoor tiles as you approach all three entrances:


And this is what you will see immediately you enter the mall:


The main tile colour is light brown, but there are a variety of arrangements within this scheme in which a ‘ring’ of blue tiles surrounds black and white tiles. The ‘tree’ that is surrounded by a ring of pot plants reminded me immediately, when I went to take the photos for this report a few days ago, that we are in the run-up to Chinese New Year. I was disappointed, because I knew from an earlier visit that it concealed an eight-pointed star that has been constructed from polished stone rather than tiles (eight is the lucky number in Chinese culture).

…and this is the tile pattern immediately inside the entrance:


…although it’s partially concealed by the mat, which is there, presumably, so that people can wipe their feet.

There is a smaller eight-pointed star at the top of the escalator leading to the mezzanine floor:


The mezzanine floor consists of a gallery around the central atrium, and the standard tile pattern appears to be concentric squares of blue, white and black.


There was a Chinese restaurant on the left the last time I visited, and I’ve no idea why it has closed. ‘Competition from other places’, to quote Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing. Paula and I never visited, because we’d been going to Sun Ming Yuen in Green Code Plaza for yam char even before the restaurant moved to its present location.

Did I just write ‘standard tile pattern’? Around the first corner, the arrangement changes:


And this is a view of the central atrium from approximately the same location as the previous photo:


Notice the brown/white chequerboard pattern behind the escalators (there is a closer look below).

Although I couldn’t get an uncluttered view of the eight-pointed star, I still took a photo from the gallery:


The ‘tree’ is a peach, which is the Chinese New Year equivalent of the Western Christmas tree (the peach is the symbol of longevity in Chinese culture). The various pot plants surrounding the tree include miniature orange trees (the symbol of prosperity) and a variety of flowers. The yellow flowers are chrysanthemums, but I cannot identify the others, or explain their significance. Perhaps they’re there simply because they look nice.

You will also notice that the star is surrounded by an obviously irregular hexagon. This is a photo that I took last year that shows just how irregular the hexagon is:


The third and fourth sides of the gallery mirror the tile patterns on the respective opposite sides:



You may have spotted that the tile pattern next to the entrance (above) differs from that on the mezzanine floor (blue/white/black rather than blue/black/white). It would seem that this is a uniform distinction between floors, because this is a photo of what it looks like underneath the gallery:


The entrance through which we came earlier can be seen on the top left.

And this is a closer look at the chequerboard pattern behind the escalators:


As you can see, it is highly irregular in the context of its surroundings, but irregularity appears to be the plan here.

Two of the three entrances to the mall bring you immediately into the central atrium, but if entering or leaving through the third, you have to walk along a short corridor:



The first photo was taken looking away from the atrium, while the second was taken from the entrance, looking back. To confound, yet again, my expectations, the first photo shows a blue/black/white arrangement of the tiles, but given the irregularities that I’ve pointed out so far, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

And that’s the state of this union, which, despite the irregularities I’ve pointed out, is in better shape than that other union, which, despite the recent claims of its leader, is in a bit of a state.