BEEN THERE THEN,
BACK FOR MORE NOW…
by ANDREW DARLINGTON
Joe Brown was one of Britain’s first home-grown
Rock ‘n’ Roll stars with real musical ability.
Now ‘56 AND TALLER THAN YOU THINK’
is his first new album for many years. And while
he’s quite happy to talk about the album, about his
work with Billy Fury, Nick Lowe, Eddie Cochran,
and Gene Vincent, just... don’t
ask him to talk about Techno!
Joe should know. I guess. Think “A Picture Of You”, Joe’s no.2 hit from June 1962. The one about Kodak voyeurism, a sneak photo of the girl on the crest of a hill. Then the sharp guitar kick. ‘In the night there are sights to be seen, stars like jewels on the crown of a queen.’ A face glimpsed on the Streetcar, or in a café. Yeah, that one. It’s on every Sixties hits compilation you ever heard. It’s one of the microdots of all our yesterdays.
Of course, he’s put on various faces since then, Pop Star, Cheeky Chappie, Character Ac-tor, Radio Presenter, Spiky-Haired ‘Alf Hitchens’ in Michael Carreras’ movie ‘What A Crazy World’ (1963), and Variety Artist, but the music’s always been there as the underlying continuity. And, as (daughter) Sam Brown told me prior to the interview, ‘I watched Dad go into Cabaret. Then I watched him come out unscathed.’ And although the album has some admittedly duff moments, it’s salvaged by some music of genuine power. Some Nick Lowe songs. Some songwriting co-credits with Chris Difford and Roger Glover. And a ragged weary breadth of vision taking in four decades of British Rock ‘n’ Roll culture.
Joe began in the late 1950’s with Skiffle, and comes neatly full circle back to Skiffle again. He narrated a Four-Part Radio Two Rock-umentary about it, called ‘The Rock Island Line’ (from 17 January 1996). And there’s a stage musical written with Roger Cook called ‘Skiffle’ waiting in the production wings. Although he was born in Swarby, Lincolnshire, Joe’s London credentials were established when the family moved to Plaistow to run the ‘Sultan’ public house. He started out as part of a group called The Spacemen who played East End Pub knees-ups and Butlins Holiday Camp Hops. Exploits narrated in Joe’s book ‘Brown Sauce’ (Collins, 1986).
‘It was quite an interesting era that Skiffle business’ he begins. ‘‘Cos it only lasted two years. But it created havoc when it came on the scene. ‘Cos every kid in the world could play it, y’know? And that’s what it was all about. It was sort-of derived from the American Rent Party thing, where they’d get everybody round their house with some beer, and they’d play their songs. And everyone would chip in a few quid towards the rent. That’s how that all started. They used to use Tea-Chest Basses, Wash-Boards and... anything that came to hand that they could make music on. And everybody could do it. Then Lonnie Donegan really opened the whole thing up over here. At one point in 1957 it was estimated that one-in-nine of the male population was in a Skiffle Group. That’s a fact. There you go.’ Other members of that one-in-nine were a young Cliff Richard, and a guy called John Lennon playing with the Quarrymen Skiffle Group in Liverpool.
It’s evident when Joe played session guitar on what is arguably Britain’s first great home-grown Rock album, Billy Fury’s ‘The Sound Of Fury’ (May 1960). ‘The great thing about that was that we went in the studio... I think it was round about two o’ clock in the afternoon, and we was out by three! We’d done all the album, everything, and out, finished in one take, the whole thing done in an hour. And it turned out very well.’ Yet oddly, his own launch onto vinyl proved problematic. Following a single for Decca at the tail-end of 1959 – “People Gotta Talk” c/w “Comes The Day”, he was sidelined into playing to his comic novelty strengths with “Darktown Strutters Ball” (no.34 in March 1960), “Jellied Eels”, “Shine” (no.33 in January 1961) and a jaunty version of “I’m Henry The Eighth” that Herman’s Hermits would later replicate all the way to an American no.1! It was Pete Oakman – a survivor of the Spacemen and bassist with Joe’s Bruvvers, who wrote “A Picture Of You” that rapidly sold 400,000 copies. So that, as Joe’s own hits began, he found himself touring on bills with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
It’s fair to say that the clean melodic Hank Marvin was the guitarist everyone aspired to be, but Joe Brown was a respected guitar hero before they even got around to inventing the term. Tucked away on the ‘B’-sides of those hit singles were guitar-instrumentals that young would-be-muso’s listened to with awe, working out the fingering of “The Spanish Bit” or “Hava Nagila”. And you want to know where Jimi Hendrix got that playing the guitar behind the head bit, yes, Joe was doing it way back then. One of his last sixties hits was a cover of Epstein’s protégés “With A Little Help From My Friends”. It lost out in a chart battle to Joe Cocker’s version, but still scored a respectable no.32 (in June 1967), and anyway ‘by the time the Beatles came along I was already into other things. I was doing TV Shows and Pantomimes and stuff, so it didn’t really bother me that much.’
But Joe Brown has always been a musician, first and foremost. More recently he toured with daughter Sam in the experimental setting of the Subway Soopa Stringz quartet. And his 1993 ‘Come On Joe’ album proved to be a major step back to credibility. Part-written out of a song-deal for the US Country market during trips to Nashville, it came with occasional guitar supplement from Alvin Lee on tracks like the gruff “Battle Hymn Of Love” and “He Can’t Hold Still”. ‘You’ve got to keep up with it’ he explains with a verbal shrug. ‘Even now, when I hear an obscure record on the radio or something, I write the number down and ‘phone up the next day and order it, y’know. Just heard a great one by Junior Wells which is a version of “That’s Alright Mama”, the Presley song, and it’s a great track. Great, different thing. Different groove, you know? It’s not case of availability. It’s a case of going out looking for it…’
While the hits provide a basis for endless tours. ‘After being on the road for forty years, you learn some tricks because you have to make it appear that you’re singing the songs for the very first time. The very worst thing you can do is to try and remember the next line because its odds-on you’ll forget it. And of course, there are some of the songs, like “A Picture Of You”, “It Only Took A Minute” and “That’s What Love Will Do” that you’ve always got to do otherwise people feel short-changed.’
Been there then. Back for more now. ‘And you won’t really hear me making derogatory comments about today’s music’ he begins tactfully. ‘I’m very careful about what I say. It’s just that... these days it’s 90% image and about 10% music. In our day you still had to get up and do it. You had to have that bit of music in you. With a lot of groups now, you don’t. As long as you can move, and so long as you look good, you don’t need to sing or anything. You just get up and do it.’
But aren’t there parallels there with Skiffle? Weren’t you just saying that was cheap get-up-and-do-it DIY music as well? ‘I guess that’s true, because when I started out they said THAT was a load of rubbish too. But you’ve taken it a little bit out of context with what I mean.... anyway.... good luck to them I say’ as a throw-away afterthought.
And what about bands like Oasis and U2 (Joe does “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on his 2008 ‘More Of The Truth’ album)? ‘Oh, they’re good. You see, they’re very good. They don’t fall into the category of what I was saying. I had more in mind…’
Boy Bands, Techno, programmed drum machines, Dance Music? ‘Yes. THAT’s what I was talking about. ‘Cos I have used drum machines. They lay down a real solid beat, but what happens musically when you’re playing is that you get excited and you try to push ahead of it, but as soon as you start pushing, the bottom falls out of the whole thing. It goes to pieces on you and you just lose interest in it. A real drummer will move around, he gets faster, then slower, and it makes for more life in the music. D’yer know what I mean? It’s weird. THAT’S what I was trying to say. The thing about drummers is that everyone always has problems with drummers. It’s probably ‘cos they wanna HIT things, yeh? But I always prefer ‘em. It’s like anything else that’s got such a wide range. Sure, you have it all available to you, but you don’t have to use everything all of the time. I mean, I have a little sixteen-track studio set-up that I lay my demos down in. And when I’m writing songs on my own them things are very handy. If I haven’t got a drummer available then I’ll use an electronic beat to keep it together. I always lay the beat track down first with those things, but every now and then I’ll tweak ‘em. Where the chorus comes in I just edge it up a notch, so it gets faster. It’s hardly noticeable but it just pushes it on a little bit. People listen to my demo’s and say to me ‘how do you do that? it’s an electric drum thing but it gets FASTER at the end ?’ And I say ‘well, I just bloody TURN IT UP!’ And they go ‘I never fort of that.’ But I wouldn’t put it out on a record. I’ll take it off afterwards and stick a real drummer on. D’yer know what I mean, mate? ‘Cos the thing that REALLY bores me is – the CONSTANT BEAT! When you’ve got a throbbing beat that keeps the same time all the way through! It gets in your BRAIN...!!!’ Joe Brown leans forward, enthusiastically warming to his subject.
Joe should know. I guess.