Sunday, September 5, 2010

Forest Gate Center, Woodgrange Road, London E7: The Upper Cut Club, December 21-31-1966

(a scan of the advert for the opening of the Upper Cut Club, London, December 1966-h/t Ross)

My archeaological and prosopgraphical research into rock history has a natural center in the Bay Area in 1966. While San Francisco and Bay Area were critically important to the history of rock music since then, particularly the history of live rock music, its important to look at other scenes periodically in order to consider the ways in which other environments were materially different. 1966 London was a genuinely swinging place, and thanks to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones the first Capital City of Rock. When Rock moved from being "popular" to "Art," English bands were right at the forefront. They were led by the Beatles, of course, but London had no lack of cool, interesting and way out musicians ready to join the transformation of the rock music landscape triggered by the prominence of the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco.

The above ad is for the opening of The Upper Cut Club in East London, which began operations on December 21, 1966. While most of the bands listed were popular in London at the time, they mostly fell into the category of the cool and hip rather than huge stars, even though some of them would become just that. Many of the performers would go on to play the West Coast concert circuit in the coming year, or had other important connections, but the context in which they were playing points up some interesting distinctions between the American and English rock market.

Billy Walker was a popular heavyweight boxer, back when boxing was a nationally popular sport. Handsome and engaging, he had a status similar to David Beckham or Derek Jeter today, an athlete whose appeal extended beyond simply fans of his accomplishments in the ring. Obviously, Walker had partners in the venture, but he was a genuine celebrity in his own right. Chris Welch of Melody Maker reviewed The Who on opening night, and reported a celebrity audience from both show business and the sports world. Note also that while rock bands are only playing on weekends at The Upper Cut, a 15-piece show band (The Mack Sound) plays every night of the week. Show bands were a UK phenomenon, to my knowledge, but I believe they generally included a wide variety of music--big band, pop, soul, music hall and traditional, among others--and were intended to appeal to a broad audience. In the midst of this, some of the hippest bands in London were booked, something that would be hard to fathom in the American rock universe at the time.

One of the often forgotten differences between the American and English rock markets was the vast size of the American continent, which implicitly emphasized regionalism. This is not to say there were not profound differences in different parts of Great Britain, but the entire English music industry was centralized in London. The Beatles were the pride of Liverpool, and proud of it, but they too moved to London in order to become successful. Although there were concert venues all over Britain, London was central enough that a London-based band still had access to the entire country.

In the United States, however, vast and often somewhat empty Western states had entirely different economics, cultures and opportunities than those in the Midwest, South and East. Thus bands or styles of music could be popular and lucrative in one part of the country while having no impact on any other part. Even performers who flew to concert dates--as many did--had a hard time actually covering the country in its entirety, so artists often had pockets of popularity spread around a region if not the entire country (this had a lot to do with radio at the time, but that is outside of the scope of this blog).

England, however, had centralized radio, a centralized music industry and its major economic areas accessible from that place. Thus even the most forward looking bands appeared on TV shows or played variety shows at various major venues, in between playing regular shows for their primary audience.

The Beatles moved to London, as was accepted practice for English success--but if Frank Zappa had moved to Chicago or the Jefferson Airplane had relocated to New York, it would have been seen as "inauthentic" in the American market at the time. Bands from a small place could move to a larger place, but bands who found success in a region in the 1960s were branded "sell outs" if they re-located to a major Music capital like New York or Los Angeles. By the early 1970s, American regionalism had started to fade, as the rock industry became nationalized, but in 1966 American rock music was very much rooted in its locations. Underground rock bands did make occasional appearances on local TV shows of various kinds, but they were the exception rather than the rule, and usually it was because the show didn't realize what sort of barbarians they had signed up.

The only American rock establishment that compares to The Upper Cut would be the fabled Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood. However, while the Whisky was initially a place to see and be seen in Hollywood when it opened in January 1964, it initially featured the same performer almost every night (Johnny Rivers). When the Whisky stopped being the place to see and be seen (or at least was not as glamorous to film stars and the like) it started focusing on hip rock groups (some of whom played The Upper Cut). Yet the Whisky was never really a celebrity joint that booked hip rock groups at the same time, but rather went serially through a phase of being a celebrity hotspot and then a rock club that booked hip bands.

I do not know how long The Upper Cut lasted--probably not that long. I do know that The Small Faces (the classic lineup with Steve Marriott, Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones) did have a regular residency there at one time. Although I am hardly expert on London geography, I do know that The Upper Cut was in the part of London where the members of The Small Faces actually grew up, so that's not so surprising.

The other claim to fame of The Upper Cut seems to be that Jimi Hendrix apparently wrote "Purple Haze" at the club. Whether that was on Boxing Day isn't clear to me, and in any case I'm not certain how it was determined that Jimi wrote the song there, but it makes my point nicely. Here's Jimi Hendrix, newly arrived in England, writing his arguably most famous song at a club backed by a famous athlete and patronized by celebrities. Imagine if Syd Barrett had written "See Emily Play" while booked at a New York club owned by Mickey Mantle and the disconnect is apparent.

Generally speaking, English bands in the late 60s were more professionally competent than their American counterparts, but Americans were often freer to experiment in different ways that wouldn't have been possible in the competitive London show business environment. The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground and The 13th Floor Elevators were all unique, and uniquely different, aggregations that would have had a hard time succeeding in England. Yet all three of those bands stumbled sideways into becoming electric rock bands, while English groups like The Who and The Spencer Davis Group were ultra-competent. It seems simplistic to suggest that the size and isolation of American regions had a profound influence on the music, but it is a point so rarely made that I felt it was important to highlight, and the first week of The Upper Cut presents itself as a uniquely 1966 London experience.

Notes On The Bands

December 21, 1966: The Who
The Who's opening performance was favorably reviewed by Chris Welch of Melody Maker (31 Dec 66 issue). Highlights included "Happy Jack," "Substitute" and the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann."

All the shows (except Boxing Day) are from  7:30-11:30 pm. London venues closed considerably earlier than most American nightclubs. I have to assume that The Mack Sound played their sets, and then the headliners did their turn. As far as I know, sets for headliners at places like these were typically about 30-40 minutes.

December 22, 1966: The Easybeats
The Easybeats were the biggest band in Australia, and Australia's first important pop music export. All the members had emigrated as children to Australia from elsewhere, so they had a symbolic importance to the country beyond sheer popularity. At this time, The Easybeats would have just relocated from Syndey to London, and in November 1966 they had released their most famous song, "Friday On My Mind." Songwriters and guitarists George Young and Harry Vanda returned to Australia in the mid-1970s, largely as producers. Their most famous productions were of the band featuring George Young's younger brothers, Angus and Malcolm, AC-DC.

December 23, 1966: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich
This British quintet was quite popular worldwide and remains so to this day. They were more pop oriented than some "British Invasion" bands, and did not make the transition to the harder rocking Fillmore circuit.

December 24, 1966: Eric Burdon And The Animals
Although few realized it at the time, Eric Burdon had reconfigured the Animals from an organ-based band to a twin guitar attack that featured Vic Briggs (from Brian Auger's Trinity) and John Weider. The expansive style of the new Animals was custom made for the new rock circuit that would arise in America for the balance of the 1960s.

December 26, 1966: Jimmy Hendrix Experience (Afternoon-2:30-5:30)
The advert helpfully suggests BOXING DAY FOR ALL THE FAMILY. Yeah, bring Gran and the kids. Good times.

December 26, 1966: The Pretty Things
The Pretty Things were a fine and underrated band from that era, somewhere between The Rolling Stones and The Who. Their hair was very long, and their behavior shockingly bad. Had they ever made it to America they could have been extremely popular, if their notoriety didn't get them exiled (like it did in New Zealand), but it was not to be.

December 30, 1966: The Spencer Davis Group
The original Spencer Davis Group was supposed to be one of the finest live bands in England during the era, not surprising given that the key player was then 18-year old Steve Winwood, who sang like Ray Charles while playing lead guitar, organ and piano. The other band members (guitarist Davis, Steve's brother Muff Winwood on bass and Pete York on drums) were solid too, and they had great original material to go with apparently tremendous covers.

December 31, 1966: Geno Washington and The Ram Jam Band
Geno Washington and The Ram Jam band were a very popular English R&B band, so they did not export themselves to the United States. Lead singer Geno Washington was an African American (from Indiana) who would sit in with local bands while assigned to an Air Force base near London. When he left the service, he took up guitarist Pete Gage's offer to become lead singer with the Ram Jam Band. The group released some popular live albums in the 1960s, but I have never heard them.