The 50s is not too well regarded by historians, no matter their special area of interest. It's the 60s that gets all the attention. There was a considerable number of people though who were hugely important to the Rocker culture in that decade, and Steven Myatt looks at just 10 of them
Where would Rockers have been without their bikes? Not much more than updated Teddy Boys, I guess; what need would they have had for black leather jackets and everything else that distinguished a Rocker? What's more where would British bikes of the 50s and early 60s be without the great Edward Turner?
Ed was born in Southwark, south London on 24 January 1901 (the day that Edward VII was proclaimed king, following the death of Queen Victoria three days earlier), so he was an Edwardian - just. At the age of 14 he had his first ride on a motorcycle - a 300cc New Imperial Light Tourist (and famously jolly fast too; it outpaced many 500$ of the day) - and that was it; it was to be motorcycles for Ed for the rest of his life.
When he was 24, an advanced engine design of his was published in The Motor Cycle, and two years later he built his first bike, using a 350cc overhead cam engine.We can't spend too much time here on Ed's amazing professional history, but before the war he designed the very successful and competitively priced Speed Twin, which was to show the way for the great Triumphs of the 50s. Sadly, just as war was declared, his wife of 10 years, Edith, was killed in a car crash near their home in Coventry.
Three years after the cessation of hostilities, Ed's latest design, the 650cc Thunderbird 6T, was brought to market and was - quite rightly - rapturously received. It was fast - it could hit a genuine 100mph -and was both sturdy and reliable. Ed, by now a member of Triumph's senior management, never seemed to pause for breath throughout the 50s. He produced tiddlers like the Terrier and the Tiger Cub, mid-sized machines like the unit construction 350cc 3TA, and great Rocker bikes like the T110 Tiger and the great T120 Bonneville (though, it must be said, he personally preferred lower-powered sloggers and wasn't at home with high performance machines).
He also designed the hemi-headed 2.5 and 4.5 litre engines for Daimler, and - less successfully - the Triumph scooters; Tigress and Tina. No matter what your favourite make of bike, the Rocker years are unimaginable without those great Triumph twins, which not only satisfied the market at home but also sold very well abroad - especially in the USA - and brought in much-needed foreign currency.
Ed was a broad-shouldered, clean cut and always well-dressed man. He was a genuinely enthusiastic motorcyclist - and was, all his life, a Londoner among Black Countrymen. Along with his colleagues, and especially his fellow engineers at Meriden, Ed Turner must be acknowledged as a great hero for all Rockers - and in 2007, fittingly, a blue plaque was unveiled in Peckham, where he had built his first machines in the 20s.
Yes, really. 1960s pop swept away rock 'n' roll, but without John Lennon the triumph of the new would have been far more comprehensive. No matter what we think of musical gaffs such as Obladi-Oblada, The Beatles were the biggest thing to hit the pop world, and their influence was - and still is - enormous. All acts before them were influenced by classic rock 'n' roll, but many who became huge soon after did not have their roots in rock, but in r 'n' b. The Beatles - in their various early forms - were a damn good rock 'n' roll band. When they achieved success though, Paul's instinct was to go mainstream. Me wanted to broaden their appeal and he loved appearing at The London Palladium and The Royal Variety Show. No one had ever been a pop star on that scale before, and, in all fairness, they were making it all up as they went along. Paul wrote ballads, made films and went for the parents market and that, thanks to the likes of Gene Vincent, was professional death for a rock V roll star. Matt Monroe and Kathy Kirby; where was the teenage rebellion in an image like that?
Despite the daftnesses of the early 70s and the annoying Ono influence; John Lennon was a rocker to the very end. He counter-balanced Paul's natural melodiousness with a gritty, flick-knife hardness which was pure rock 'n' roll. Think of those early days in Hamburg, Paul was wearing a soft-collared, tailored jacket. John was wearing a classic black leather jacket, and no ever looked more at home in one.
In the mid-70s, when Paul's dreadful Mull Of Kintyre was in the charts, John's Rock 'N' Roll album was on sale and on the cover John was wearing a black leather jacket.
Through The Beatles' heyday John remained a rebel. It was he who upset people and said unsayable things, he was the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Without John British pop would have been a lot more saccharine and might well have faded away, never to return.
In those years our household saw its first washing machine, refrigerator, television and record player. Motorcycle sales boomed, and whether you were a middle-aged family man wanting something solid but uninspiring, with a comfy pillion seat for the wife and a large sidecar for the youngsters, or you were a leather-jacketed 'tearaway' who just wanted chrome mudguards and the ability to hit the ton, there was a huge range of affordable bikes to choose from.
The fiscal security also meant that hire purchase was common. You no longer had to spend years saving up for the bike of your dreams. If you had a job (and almost all young men did) and a permanent address you merely signed on the dotted line, paid over three months-worth of instalments and rode away. You could even buy all your kit on HP too and after you'd paid the instalments every month you probably still had enough left to indulge in a few beers, take a girl to the cinema, and even buy one of those new transistor radios. It was a revolution in the way expensive Items were bought, and it helped make the Rocker years happen. It was no coincidence that Teddy Boys hadn't had motorcycles at the beginning of the 50s and you know what? It was true; you'd never had It so good.
Macmillan - who was already seven years old when Queen Victoria died - didn't exactly personify the rock 'n' roll culture, but without him Rockers might not have prospered in this country quite as they did.
Macmillan became Prime Minister in January 1957, following the resignation of Anthony Eden, who had been politically crippled by the Suez affair. A hero of WWI and a close ally of Churchill In WWII, he came to 10 Downing Street at a good time. More than a decade had passed since the end of the war and after some very difficult times, Britain's economy was on the up. Macmillan's fiscal policies encouraged further economic growth, and manufacturing and exports were booming, while unemployment was negligible. He also got UK/US relations back on track after that daft Egyptian adventure.
He coined the phrase 'You've never had it so good', and he was right. He was also a man with a strong social conscience who wanted the men and women of Britain to be wealthy and more self-assured. Through to his resignation in October 1963 (brought about by a false diagnosis of poor health), the British did indeed become richer and more secure.
--If I told my teenage son that until
^^^ 1957 British television used to shut down every night between 6pm and 7pm so that parents could put their children to bed, he'd probably laugh with undisguised delirium. You have to get the perspective before you can understand how great was Jack Good's contribution to the emergent teenage world and the Rocker scene.Born in London in August 1931, Jack brought rock 'n roll to British TV. It was astonishing. No one else had any interest in doing so, and the BBC was set against it. They thought this new jungle music would lead to the fall of Western civilisation. What's more until 1955 there was just one channel. Now there were... two.
In 1957 Jack - who had joined the Corporation from Oxford university and RADA, expecting to work in theatre - and 27-year-old Jo Douglas - launched a Saturday evening music show called 6.5 Special. Their budget was £1000.
The line-up included crooners and jazz bands, but it was the rock 'n' roll acts that made the impact, because there was no other showcase for them. Now, a Rocker could actually see his rock 'n' roll heroes no matter where he lived. Unless you'd been to one of the rare live gigs, you'd only have seen photos before.
Jack moved to ITV and created Oh Boy!, which dropped mainstream acts, being 100% pop and rock 'n' roll. It was the precursor of every British rock programme, and it was the best thing he ever did. In 1960 he produced the short-lived pop series Wham! then worked for Brian Epstein, before going to the USA to produce Shindig.Quoting an internal memo, from January 1959, Jack said 'It will become the standard practise for every artist to make a film of themselves performing their record. These will be sent to TV producers for their programmes. You will be able to play it on your television, which will have a recorderlike attachment, allowing you to record it'. In 1959 -some prediction. One minus point in my otherwise unstained opinion of Jack Good: He played on Lord Rockingham Xl's chart-topping hit Hoots Mon. Shame.
Of all the rock 'n' roll stars of the 50s, why does Eddie Cochran make this list? Why not Gene Vincent? Why not Cliff or Elvis?
Eddie was to the Rocker generation what Pete Townshend was to the next. He wrote all his own words and music, played and sang - the total rock star. To have so many talents was rare. He wasn't as rock 'n' roll as Gene, but was the greater star.
Born in Oklahoma in 1938, Eddie learned to play guitar in his teens and formed a hillbilly band before discovering rock 'n' roll. He wrote some of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs, aimed at teenagers and about teenage frustrations. He wrote and sang about sex while not offending adults and every Rocker could identify with the subject matter, and it was a great help that his songs were jukebox-friendly. He was also a good looking guy.
Eddie and Gene toured the UK, back by Marty Wilde's band The Wild Cats (including Georgie Fame, Big Jim Sullivan and Brian Bennett). They played two shows a night, almost every night between 16 January and 24 April 1960. Tickets cost between 2/6d and 7/6d. It was a huge success and for many their first experience of American rock 'n roll. They started at
Philip Larkin wrote that 'sex began in 1963...' I know what he meant, but he was wrong. Sex raised its gorgeous, platinum-blonde head in the mid-50s its name was Diana Dors.Diana was gloomy, grey Britain's answer to America's Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield - with a touch of Mae West. She lived by a maxim; 'I'm the kind of girl that things naturally happen to - and when they don't, I give them a push'.
She was important to the 50s because she alone encapsulated sexual desire and freedom in what were still strait-laced times. Think of the female 'celebrities' the press drool over now; then there was just Diana. There were good girls - like Hayley Mills - never a whiff of scandal, sin or sexuality. Diana's life constituted a wild ride - in keeping with black leather jackets, rebellion and fast motorcycles.
Born in 1931, her parents let her go to stage school because they believed she wanted to be a diction coach. This from the girl whose first pin-up photo session was at age 13. She started in films in the late 40s and by the end of the 60s had appeared in 36 (almost half the total by her death in 1984). She occasionally played the girl next door, but made her name as a 'good girl gone bad'. Many were as close to porn as cinema got then, and by 20 she was driving a Rolls-Royce.
She was lusted after by most British men and one of her raunchy pin-up pictures would be found
the Gaumont, Ipswich, and throughout Britain they were received like Messiahs from a Promised Land. The tour provided British Rocker culture with a huge shot in the arm.
Eddie died on 17 April 1960, having been thrown through the window of the Ford Consul which was taking him, Gene and Eddie's girlfriend Sharon Sheeley to London from Bristol. The car hit a lamppost near Chippenham on the A4. It was a terrible loss to rock 'n' roll; as great as Buddy Holly the previous year.
Eddie had 13 UK hits, eight posthumously. The best in his lifetime was number six with C'Mon Everybody in 1959. Summertime Blues scraped into the top 20 and Somethin' Else topped at 22. Three Steps To Heaven was a number one hit, but only in May 1960, three weeks after his death.
inside many a Rocker's wardrobe door. She married three times and every tempestuous moment of her love life was documented by the tabloid dailies.
Unlikely as it seems, she was born in Swindon, and her birth surname was Fluck. Returning to her hometown to open a church fete when she was at the height of her fame she told the vicar when they met that she had changed her name in case of any mispronunciation. So, perhaps flustered, the vicar took to the podium and announced her, saying, Our star guest today is a local girl so I'll use her real name -ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the very lovely Miss Diana Clunt.' Absolutely true.
He set 21 fastest laps
Once he realised that moving to 500cc BMWs was a bad idea he went back to 350cc Nortons
He raced for Gilera, which was OK because they weren't German
He was named Sportsman of the Year in 1951 He was awarded the Seagrave Trophy in 1951 He was the first racer to wear one-piece leathers He was a champion despite the fact that his middle name was Earnest A point on the Island's TT course is named after him He was a Northener He was - and still is - a gentleman the receiver for just £50,000. He steered the business through the war years, and encouraged his designers to have new civilian models ready for when the hostilities ended. In 1944, he sold Ariel to BSA, and in 1951 he sold Triumph to BSA for the huge sum of £2.5 million - about £60 million today. Good going, eh?
Approaching 60, no one would have blamed Jack If he had taken his riches and retired - but Jack was nothing like finished with the British motorcycle industry. He joined the board of BSA as part of the deal, and became Chairman In 1956, having outmanoeuvred the flamboyantly wealthy Sir Bernard Docker. Under his stewardship BSA and Triumph created and launched many of Britain's greatest ever motorcycles. It can be said of Jack Sangster that he was a complacent businessman, and completely failed to see the threat from the Japanese - which was just becoming apparent, even at that date.
He should be a hero to every Rocker though; he steered the company that made many of the 50s Rockers' favourite bikes, and by keeping the company competitive he ensured that they were affordable and bang up-to-date. After a very good life he died of cancer on March 26 1977.
All the great bike racers of the 50s and 60s had their own fans among individual Rockers. They'd ride miles to see them race and have no trouble at all in imagining they were them as they roared along the local by-pass. A remarkable number of great racers were admired by all though, and - arguably - the chief among them was Geoff Duke-There are many reasons why:
He had 50 podium finishes in his career He saw 33 wins in Grand Prix out of 60 races He had six World Championship wins He was appointed OBE as early as 1953 Having signed to Norton in 1950 he promptly won the 500cc loM TT
1950s Britain would have looked very different had John Young Sangster not become an industrialist. 'Jack' Sangster was born in Birmingham in 1896, the son of an engineer and businessman, Charles Sangster. After leaving school he embarked on an engineering apprenticeship, but the outbreak of war cut short his education. Post war he joined joined his father's company, which made cycle parts and designed a cheap-to-make car, which he sold to Rover, who gave him a job and put it into production. In 1923 he rejoined his dad and eventually became joint MD, but the firm went bust in 1932.
Jack bought the assets from the receiver and founded a new company - called Ariel. A natural talent spotter, Jack employed and nurtured Val Page, Edward Turner and Bert Hopwood - the three greatest names among British motorcycle designers.
In 1935, just three years after he had established the company, Jack bought the bankrupt Triumph from
Tartan-wearing, kiss-curled, podgy Bill Haley was the first person to introduce Britain to rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll put the 'rock' in Rocker.
In December 1954 Bill's Shake, Rattle and Roll went to number four In the UK charts. Elizabeth had been queen for a year, Winston Churchill was prime minister and Britain was a very different place from today.
The following year Bill had four hits, including a number one with Rock Around The Clock. He was to have 11 hits in 1956. He was the first rock 'n' roll star heard by millions of young Britons - who were starting to think of themselves as teenagers rather than smaller versions of their parents.
Then, in 1957, Bill brought his band to Britain. He was already 32, and while he didn't exactly look like your dad, he was getting on for twice the age of his fans. To some this was a disappointment, but everyone who noticed managed to overlook it as the music was just so damn good. This was live rock 'n' roll, brought to grey old Britain by a genuine full-colour American rock 'n' roller. How could it get any better?
Ok, the seven of them looked like a dance band, in their matching dinner jackets and bow ties - but they could hardly have sounded less like the sort of combo to which your parents danced the foxtrot down at the
Roxy. They bopped around the stage, Bill got the shakes on, the bass player played his instrument while standing on it and twirled it like a cheerleader's baton. This was so different; so raw, so sexy, and - despite that age problem - so young. This was music for... what was that word again? Teenagers! Best of all, your mum, your dad, your uncle Bert and your auntie Ethel all absolutely hated it. That's how it got better!
The bloke who first put one make of engine In another make of frame, just because he thought it might be a good idea.
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