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Do You Remember…?

I read recently that the blockbuster film, ‘Blair Witch Project’ cost less than twenty million dollars to produce, and later, after its release went on to gross an unbelievable sum. The filmmaker singularly failed to mention the advertising budget for the film was a little over eighty million dollars.

Ask any member of the public to name the seminal decade of the twentieth century and the reply you will almost inevitably receive will be ‘the sixties’ Thus far, now let us step back for a moment. Most students of comedy would acknowledge the benchmarks of modern humour were implanted in the nineteen fifties, the ‘Goons’ ‘Round the Horne’ ‘the Glums’. In the vanguard was, Barry Took, Muir and Norden, Marty Feldman, and at the forefront, that flawed genius, Spike Milligan. We look to the theatre, to writers, mould breakers like Samuel Beckett, Lynne Reid Banks, Alan Sillitoe, Henry Livings, Alan Plater, whose writing was unmistakably taken from and embedded in the nineteen fifties. It was also in the nineteen fifties Maria Callas introduced believable acting into opera, now Mimi really was a waif dying of consumption in her garret instead of the usual overweight soprano who woodenly followed the action with both eyes fixed on the conductor.

However, with popular music we seem to encounter a problem. The musicians of the fifties seem unjustifiably to be condemned to dustbin of anonymity. And observe what a rich treasure chest we ignore.

The leviathans of the sixties, in the new millennium freshly knighted and honoured, freely admit to their influences, to the blues men, McKinley Morganfield, Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy, to the folk influences, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and to the early rock and rollers… yet overlook the real pioneers, musicians like Ken Sykora, Ken Colyer, Cyril Davies, Bill Bramwell, the colourful Alexis Korner, Cye Laurie, Beryl Bryden, Chris Barber, Denny Wright, Ike Isaacs, Diz Disley … I could go on, musicians who discovered the blues men, who championed Lead Belly and the rest. And brought them to this country. Characters who shaped the decade and laid the foundations for that most over rated of decades, the sixties.

Perhaps it is simply because the sixties was the first media led decade, the first decade to understand and embrace the true cult of the celebrity, and then ruthlessly and angrily exploited it. The decade that cynically expunged all references to the pioneers in order to aggrandise their imperfect artists.

Recently I asked a question on the Whirligig website, ‘who remembers Bill Bramwell?’ The silence was palpable; this session man with a most complex personality, a guitarist who could ‘swing like a gate’ a man into psychoanalysis, an alcoholic, and a giant of the decade, a colossus now all but forgotten.

Additionally I mentioned Ken Sykora, influential host of ‘Guitar Club’ who was on a number of occasions voted the winner, ‘musician of the year’ by readers of the ‘Melody Maker’ Ken Sykora who is now a spectre, with not even an acknowledgement, not even a footnote. Contrast Sir Paul, Sir Elton, Sir Mick feted as iconoclasts, trailblazers.

Upon investigation Maurice Levy’s Oriole records, home to many British musicians, diary of the fifties, appears to have inadvertently or deliberately erased its masters. The BBC routinely wiped their masters; I understand that the Pye Nixa catalogue was discovered abandoned in a shed.

‘The fifties, really was, a good decade to bury’

Alex Balmforth

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