Thursday, 25 February 2016

Glen Glenn - Rockabilly Legend (1987)

It took me some time to get my head around rock 'n' roll, as in the specifically American rockabilly variety developed during the fifties and frequently involving quiffs and plaid shirts. My friend Sean's sister liked Elvis, and so we taunted her by referring to him as Elvis Smellvis, which is funny when you're ten. The rest of my limited understanding derived from Top of the Pops occasionally featuring horrible holiday camp cabaret acts such as Showaddywaddy, Matchbox, and Shakin' Stevens - although the latter should probably get some time off his sentence for an admittedly respectable cover of Ricky Nelson's It's Late, among others. I don't know - maybe it was never so bad as it seemed at the time, but English rock 'n' roll made no sense to me, it being something I would mostly associate with people in Burnley pretending to be cowboys. Rockabilly done right should be hot, sunny, and kicking up clouds of dust. It doesn't work in the cold and the pissing rain.

Additionally, when at the age of twelve-ish I graduated from Wombles albums to punk rock - a more entertaining kind of novelty record - it was hard to keep from being swept up in the suspicion that our natural enemies were teddy boys like Rockabilly Ray at school, who was a fucking idiot whichever way you looked at it.

Then in 1984 I moved to Maidstone, Kent, the next town along from Medway with it's thriving garage scene - if we really have to call it that - loosely in orbit of Billy Childish and his band, the Milkshakes. The Milkshakes seemed like something different in so much as they weren't pretending to be American. Amazingly, they weren't even pretending that it was still 1957. They weren't quite playing the kind of thing I was listening to that year, and yet I couldn't help but appreciate their raw energy and no bullshit aesthetic; and this was around the time that my friend Carl attempted to convert me to the Cramps. I liked the Cramps, but even better were Carl's Born Bad compilation albums collecting all the original music the Cramps had covered, stolen, or otherwise mutated. I listened to Born Bad and suddenly I understood; and one aspect I appreciated about a lot of this music was that, when you got down to it, it actually wasn't trying to be Herman Munster, and the trash epithet didn't really fit and was even kind of insulting, because this was some real heartfelt, quality workmanship.

Glen Glenn's Everybody's Movin' wasn't the greatest cut on Born Bad, but it had enough going on to inspire me to snap up this retrospective compilation when I spotted it in the local branch of Our Price. So far as I can tell, Rockabilly Legend comprises mainly demo recordings, broadcast performances recorded directly from the television set by Glenn's dad with a reel-to-reel tape recorder next to the speaker, and a couple of singles which made it big, but probably not quite so big as they deserved thanks to a spell in the military somewhat curtailing our man ever quite building up a full head of showbiz steam in publicity terms. I've had this album nearly thirty years which is roughly how old some of the songs were when I first bought it, which is a truly weird thought. Obviously I generally tend to review material I've had hanging about for a while in this series of reviews - as opposed to ringtones fresh off the MP3 presses - but why this one and why now is nevertheless a reasonable question.

I knew I would experience a certain quota of country music when I first moved to Texas, although it hasn't turned out to be quite so ubiquitous as you might expect, which is nice because I dislike the contemporary stadium version of country with its radio mics, autotune, and songs making incongruous references to facebook. On hearing that I would be moving here, my cousin said he would have to do me a mixtape of alt-country - whatever the hell that is. I declined the offer because the term suggests bearded individuals who own
Sonic Youth records hanging around a raw juice bar discussing Hank Williams, and I think I'd probably rather listen to the real thing, if anything. Nevertheless, country has at last crept up on me - or rockabilly, or whatever you would prefer to call it - when it suddenly dawned on me how much sense this music makes now that I'm living here, as though it's part of the landscape, which I suppose it is. As William Shaw observes in Westsiders:

All music is about geography, in a way. It's either about the place in which it's made, or the place where the maker wants to be.

I still find the notion of cowboys in Burnley mystifying, but over here with the sun, the dust, the possums, and the cacti, I can at last appreciate rockabilly and country as folk music with a profound sense of its place and people, as opposed to an exotic novelty. It somehow explains what I experience as I step outside my front door each day. It feels right, and the discovery of my wife being distantly related to Johnny Cash no longer strikes me as weird.

Anyway, before I disappear completely up my own fundament, let's talk about the actual music. Above all, Glen Glenn favoured a deceptively simple sound which is actually pretty hard to get right in my experience - a raw, acoustic rhythm with wild rock 'n' roll flourishes, yet smooth and even kind of cheery. For all the crap that's been written about rock over the years, and the kind of rock from which almost all else is ultimately derived, it's easily forgotten that this is a well-intentioned music, something which really wants you to have a good time and is supposed to make you happy even with those bluesy origins. Glen Glenn somehow manages to sound both wholesome and worldly, and now that my ears are located in Texas, I realise some of these tracks could have been recorded yesterday, neither six decades nor rudimentary recording techniques diminishing any of Glenn's natural sparkle. I guess it's the mark of a true artist that he can work with a popular form, something resembling a lot of other things which have been around for a while, and yet make it sound new, something fresh and exciting each time the needle hits the record. Glen Glenn packed some serious quality into a career without that much longevity in commercial terms, or by the standards of artists with more extensive back catalogues; and One Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette is easily one of the greatest songs of the fifties for my money, as good or perhaps better than anything you care to name by persons who are better remembered. As titles go, Rockabilly Legend may sound like an overstatement, but it really isn't.

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