Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Thirty five years ago today pop music stopped being "alternative"

Thirty-five years ago today I was woken by the news John Lennon had been murdered.

It's difficult to think back to that time when he was just another former rock star living in effective retirement in New York. However I have a feeling that he wasn't all that famous. Obviously he was famous but he wasn't as famous as he would become in death.

I was editing Smash Hits at the time. I wasn't surprised that people like me, who'd grown up with the Beatles, were deeply affected by his death but what amazed me is how keen the readers of Smash Hits, who had been infants at the time they broke up, were to join in the mourning and celebration.

In the days following his death everybody else piled in. The greybeards of the arts, the men of the cloth, the politicians, the soothsayers of the media, every last man jack who had ever been on a TV programme with him, everybody who had ever sung a pop song, been to the pictures to see "Help!" or combed their fringe forward. They all wanted to make it clear how much they approved of pop music.

Some of it was delayed reaction to Elvis Presley's death three years before. The editor of "People" didn't put Elvis on the cover because he wasn't sure it was a big enough story, which tells you a lot about the moment. His career had faded, much as Lennon's had, and it was assumed that the lustre would diminish along with it.

Of course, as we know now, it didn't. It grew. The process of mourning made both men bigger figures in death than they had ever been in life. In Lennon's case it also triggered the rekindling of the love affair with the Beatles, an affair which continues to this day.

It was the day pop music stopped being the alternative and became the mainstream.


  1. My mother's words after watching all the reports on the news: "I didn't realize how important they were."

  2. Great observation. Though also probably fair to say that Lennon actually meant something personal to more people than every assassinated political figure of the 20th Century rolled into one.

  3. The death of Elvis was announced to the British live during the ITN 10 O'Clock News. It was a red-nosed Reggie Bosanquet who delivered the sombre message and he himself received the item via a phone on his desk. And, if memory serves, I recall him returning the receiver back to his ear and reconfirming that Elvis had in fact died. These days I suppose that desk phones are as archaic as the 'O' that ITN later dropped.

    Who was an Elvis fan in 1977? A good many I expect; he'd recently had a hit single and his death propelled Way Down to Number One. My gran even bought me a green sweatshirt that bore a likeness of his face and the slogan Elvis The King of Rock 'n Roll; all of which started to peel off after the first couple of washes. I couldn't say that Gran was a fan though; there was nothing in her house related to music of any kind.

    A few years ago I bought the DVD of Elvis in Hawaii 1973. It had been thirty years since I'd even seen footage of Elvis. His helicopter landed to so that Elvis could meet and greet his waiting fans*. When he stepped out of that helicopter I felt, for a second or two, that I was looking at some mythological creature, the stuff of legends - I had the fleeting thought that this must be what people who think they've seen a ghost feel.

    Anyway, to the fans. Who wasn't there? Bless 'em all, the long and the short and the tall: the grans and grandads, the aging 50's greasers, mutton-chops a plenty, their kids,surf dudes, those shirts, bright 70's clobber. For someone whose comeback career was longer than the career was coming back to, I'd say that Elvis wasn't doing to badly for real fans.

    * This DVD extra can be seen on YT.

  4. Lennon's death was the first time I shed a tear over the death of a public figure. There haven't been many since - John Peel was another. I don't usually get caught up in the waves of public grief that often sweep the nation, but those two felt personal in some way.

  5. Andy - to follow on from your Hawaii moment, Bobby Gillispie tells a tell of being ambivalent about Elvis, until a girlfriend showed him the 68 spacial, where he seemed God-like and all the Elvis pieces fell into place

    My two teenagers, (with quiffs and fifties fashion being popular with the yoot again) think Elvis is one of the coolest things they've seen..

    For me, going from tot to teen during 70s, Elvis seemed like a super-hero sent from another planet(compounded by that fact white-suited turns from The Osmonds to Bowie were borrowing from him). Whereas The Beatles appeal was they were four funny blokes from Liverpool with catchy tunes

  6. I have a slightly different take, which may only apply to me. When Lennon died, I was in my early teens. My parents had Hard Day's Night and The Bealtes in their record collection but moreover The Beatles still seemed to be everywhere. What affected me at the time about his death was the recognition that, as many children experience when someone they know dies, things that are thought to be permanent are in fact not. I thought "There would be no more John Lennon, out there, ever." He, like The Beatles, seemed omniscient. If that's the case, pop was already mainstream in the sense that perhaps other young people like me just presumed that the Lennon's would be there, forever.

  7. Agreed Mr Mondo, the 68 Special is terrific. I think that Elvis is such a ubiquitous presence in popular culture for the wrong reasons. To certain age groups his is a grotesque morality tale which terminated in Elvis having a heart attack mid poo, squirrel burger in one fist and a chemical salad of uppers, downers and round-abouters in the other.

    For that generation who first heard Mystery Train etc in the early 1950's Elvis must have sounded like something from another planet to others he was seen solely through his kitsch afternoon TV movies or that dreadful Las Vegas concert in which he forgets the lyric and starts laughing.Don Everly said of the end of the 'rock 'n roll' years that around 1962-63 before he could turn round twice* The Beatles were everywhere. By 1968 in his Special and Aloha he did look a little out of time yet, as these DVDs show, Elvis Presley, loved by men and women alike, endured.

    *I'm recalling the 1984 Arena documentary on the Everley Brothers. Not sure if it was Don or Phil who said it but it amounted to 'before we could turn round'. They continued to work but the change in the pop climate seemed quite precipitous to them.

    Also, I can not recommend highly enough Peter Guralnik's two part Elvis bio which I was first tipped off about on a word podcast.

  8. I heard about the death of Elvis about 7-15am on the morning after. With Lennon it was 5-45am the morning after. This was during my proper-job-shift-working days and, as might be deduced, I was on on the early morning stint. I can only think that I got the news because the folk I worked with knew that, generally speaking, I was a bit more of a music fan than most music fans. Or summat.

    I worked and socialised with one committed Presley fan and my indifference was “tolerated.” In recent years I knew socially one committed Presley fan. He never stopped telling me about his trip to Graceland or whatever the museum is. The former was five or six years older than me and the latter 20 years younger.

    I’ve never been an Elvis fan, and anything “cabaret” has me running for the hills. But I did quite like a goodly percentage of his pre-army stuff. Of his post-army career, the double “A” side of “His latest Flame/Little Sister” are the only two songs that I listen to. Which is one more than Lennon, whose post-Beatles career leaves me cold. Although having said that, some of the “Rock and Roll” album stuff is reasonable. Ditto “Jealous Guy.”

    However I’ve always loved The Beatles and their catchy tunes. And just to show that contrariness is a family trait, my Mam and Dad, although they weren’t sturdy fans, didn’t find anything objectionable about the Beatles, Elvis, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, Elvis and on. This did set them apart from most, but far from all, parents of the time. Looking back I am more amazed now that this was so. Back then, it wasn’t amazing, it just was. They were both 40 years old in ’63.

    What, if anything, any of this says, about anything, is anybody’s guess.

  9. Somebody, surely, can set aside the fetish-worship of John Lennon and speak with objectivity? Yes, he was a genius composer and (along with Paul McCartney) gave the world some of its best loved songs. But, when he wrote "imagine no possessions" he was one of the wealthiest men on the planet. He wrote "imagine no religion" and got rich and famous from one the most commercially successful Christmas songs of all time. And while he wrote endlessly about love and marriage, he also ran out on his young bride and child to galavant with, well, Yoko Ono, then left her for what's her name and then left her for Yoko Ono. I am just asking for one person, anywhere to speak with balance. Sorry if I offended, and thank you for listening.

  10. Point taken, but...

    Unless I've missed something there does seem to be a goodly sense of balance in David's post(s) and the comments, as usual. Not too much resembling worship, overall.

    Well, that's what I think.

  11. Andy - yes to both of the Guralnik books, although my pref is for the second volume. Also Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom is a slim volume written in the late sixties and a highly recommended read on the shift from pre-Elvis ( Palais Age) pop to fuggy/fuzz driven end of that dedade..

    A pal of mine Jukebox Jimmy (67) was around for the arrival of Elvis - he confirms what you say. That, it sounded like nothing heard before and almost alien. Even the name 'Elvis Presley' was other-worldly

  12. Being an Ancient Briton I was also around for the arrival of Presley and thought it was like nothing on earth. However I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t quite as sock-blown as I might have been if I hadn’t already heard my cousin Pat’s Lonnie Donegan and Bill Haley rackets.

    She’s about seven years older then me, and along with her boyfriend, later husband, later (sadly) ex-husband were jiving along like all the best jivers do/did. Most of the early rockers I heard were thanks to Pat and her mother’s radiogram. Her mother, Aunty Mary, being my mother’s sister.

    There’s no denying Presley’s impact, nor the fact that he was more than several notches above the rest of the gang, but I simply don’t recall anybody I knew being particularly phased. And certainly not outraged. Perhaps I was asleep a lot of the time. The radio at the time was enough to put anybody into a coma.

    Unlike now...

  13. And yet, as anyone watching BBC4's recent TOTP repeats will have seen, it was St Winifred's School Choir 'There's No-one Quite Like Grandma' that was the sentimental choice for the British public's Christmas No.1 that year, just 2 weeks after his death and with 'Starting Over' still in the charts.