In many Beatles biographies penned by American authors or targeted to the American market, you will find passing mention of a guy who went by the name Cliff Richard. The accompanying narrative goes something like this: “Before the Beatles, British birds idolized an Elvis imitator named Cliff Richard who manufactured cheap knock-offs of American hits but failed to make a dent in the American market.” The implication behind the mention is clear: Cliff Richard is a footnote to a more important historical event, so don’t waste your time listening to any of his records because really, it’s not worth the trouble unless you’re training for championship-level Trivial Pursuit.
That narrative was extraordinarily effective in blacklisting early Cliff Richard music in the United States. The other day I was rummaging through various news sites, wound up at The Guardian and read a story about the BBC having to pay Cliff £2m in legal costs for invading his privacy “after it used a helicopter in 2014 to film a police raid on his home and reported that he was being investigated over historical child sexual assault claims.” He was never charged, so Cliff sued their asses and won a pyrrhic victory in court that only covered half his legal tab. I felt bad for the guy, but beneath the empathy lay a nagging thought: I couldn’t remember ever hearing a Cliff Richard record, and if I had, I didn’t know it was Cliff Richard. My brain had apparently filed him away under Beatles, subfolder Background, sub-sub folder British Pop Culture History, sub-sub-sub folder Curiosities.
I thought I must have been mistaken because surely my record junkie and Beatlemaniac father would have collected some samples of Cliff Richard’s music, and with the stereo playing around the clock during the eighteen or so years I lived at home, I must have heard the guy at one time or another. Much to my surprise, Dad confessed that he’d heard one or two of Cliff’s songs but didn’t see the point in adding him to his collection. “The same with Tommy Steele. They were obviously imitators, so why bother? All I have from that period is a Lonnie Donegan record, An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs. I was curious about the skiffle phase, and I knew Lonnie Donegan from ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?’ I loved that song and it had a great influence on my life. After hearing it, I started keeping my Topps baseball card gum on the bedpost to see if it still had its flavor when I woke up.”
“Didn’t seem so at the time—it was a cool thing to do. I remember seeing old chewing gum crud on my buddies’ bedposts turn gray with dust and dirt. And even though the flavor fell a little short of fresh, there was enough there to remind me of that wonderful smell when you open a fresh pack of baseball cards, so I always woke up in a good mood.”
“Well, I’m fucking thrilled to hear about the origins of your sunny disposition, but the bottom line is if I want to explore Cliff Richard, I’m going to have to fork out some bucks.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thanks for nothing, dad.”
So I went back to work and surfed for a Cliff Richard collection, which is how I learned about the existence of The Shadows. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them either, but I certainly knew more about them than Cliff Richard, thanks to a guy who goes by his real name, one Ian Anderson:
When bombs were banned every Sunday
And The Shadows played F.B.I.
Memory now tickled, I knew I had heard “F.B.I” and translated that experience into the belief The Shadows were some kind of instrumental group a la The Ventures.
My ignorance grew more embarrassing when I looked at U. K. record sales history. Cliff Richard remains in the top ten, and The Shadows are still a respectable #59. I learned that Cliff Richard still leads Coldplay in sales by about five million, a factoid I found particularly delightful.
I will not let that juicy little tidbit sway my critical appraisal in any way.
Well, maybe a little.
The main takeaway from my reintroduction to Cliff Richard and The Shadows is that they had enormous influence in the UK, serving as a beacon of hope to budding musicians that Englishmen could make it big in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Since many of those budding musicians became part of the British Invasion that finally smashed the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the U. S. market, it’s impossible to omit Cliff and the Shadows from any serious discussion of the development of British popular music.
While Cliff Richard and the Shadows have had extraordinarily long careers in the business (together and separately), this 4-CD set focuses on the period between 1958 and 1962 when they dominated the British charts. Cliff and The Shadows (also known as The Drifters before the American Drifters threatened legal action) had eighteen Top 10 hits during this period, and The Shadows added another nine all by their little ol’ lonesomes. This compilation consists of 140 tracks, including all their singles and EP’s, songs targeting the West German market and a few live performances. The first two discs feature Cliff and company; the last two discs are all Shadows. Readers will be delighted to learn that I have no intention of reviewing all 140 tracks, but will organize the review by CD and cherry-pick the tracks I think are most relevant to understanding their stylistic leanings and the source of their influence. I will say that after having immersed myself in the package by letting it run nonstop on my audio system for a week, I concluded that the collection forms a fairly coherent and pleasing tapestry of late ’50s/early ’60’s music, so if you feel like time-traveling back to the malt shop, this is a nice way to get there. As for myself, I noticed that I felt strangely motivated to put my hair in a ponytail and scrounge up a pair of pedal pushers.
I can summarize my general critical opinion in a few bullet points:
- Cliff’s music is highly derivative. If you’re looking for unique contributions to popular music, you will find nothing of the kind in his catalog. Producer/arranger Norrie Paramor made sure that Cliff stuck to the American formulae in vogue at the time.
- The Shadows, on the other hand, did some very innovative work with their twin guitar attack. Duane Eddy and Dick Dale were obvious influences, but they eventually crafted a signature sound of their own.
- Cliff was able to vary his vocal style well enough to do somewhat credible imitations of all the big American teen idols: Elvis (especially Elvis), Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Gene Vincent . . . they’re all there.
- Cliff had a nice voice and hit most of the notes, but wasn’t particularly good on the glides.
- I have no idea why British lasses found the guy attractive. Early Cliff looks kinda pudgy and nondescript to me. He became much more handsome in his 30’s.
- From a technical perspective, Cliff’s best vocals in the collection appear in the songs he sings in German, probably because there was no one to imitate.
- Most of the kick in Cliff Richard records comes from The Shadows, in one form or another. Not only did they know how to rock, but had the ability to motivate Cliff to get off his ass and rock the fuck out.
- Above all, Cliff Richard and The Shadows were reliable. During this four-year period, the consumer could feel comfortable that the next record would have the same kind of music delivered with the same level of professionalism as the last record. Cliff evolved in the same way other American artists evolved during the era, moving from sock hop hits with a snappy beat to slow and mid-tempo numbers covering the teenage angst inherent in the boy-girl relationships of the era
- The American crooners of this period were expected to grow up and become Sinatra knock-offs; when Cliff’s star began to fade with the advent of The Beatles and their cohorts, he balanced his work with The Shadows by shifting to Christian music. Same diff: he went soft.
Disc One: Cliff Richard, Rock Idol
Disc One features most of the period of chart dominance, loaded with the big hits from 1958-1961. If you want to build a case for a Cliff Richard and the Shadows plaque in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, this is your best evidence.
I don’t know why anyone would want to be honored by such a corrupt organization, but I’m sure it would thrill the pants off Sir Cliff.
The best of the best evidence comes in the form of “Move It,” a song Cliff refers to as “my one outstanding rock ‘n’ roll classic” (not true—I count at least three) and trumpeted as the first real British rock ‘n’ roll record by none other than John Lennon himself. Written by then-Drifters rhythm guitarist Ian Samwell (who would later wind up in the 70’s band America), “Move It” combines crunchy bottom-oriented rhythm guitar, what are now classic rock guitar licks and a Cliff Richard vocal delivered in the Tupelo dialect. Elvis did kick-ass songs like this before his induction into the army, but never one with such emphasis on the power of a six-string electric. It’s important to note that only two of the Drifters/Shadows play on the original track (Samwell and drummer Terry Smart), as Paramor was rather fond of session musicians. While Ernie Shear and Frank Clarke get the job done, the song is ten times more powerful when long-time Shadows Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch handle the guitar work . . . as vividly demonstrated in the following video:
“Move It” is so frigging hot that you might think that making it the A-side would have been a slam-dunk, no-brainer decision. Apparently Norrie Paramor was unfamiliar with basketball jargon and a victim of brain freeze: he wanted to give the song “Schoolboy Crush” top billing, oblivious to the fact that American country singer Bobby Helms (the “Jingle Bell Rock” guy) had just successfully penetrated the charts with that song only a few months before. That should have put the kibosh on the idea, but what should have been more obvious is the simple truth that “Schoolboy Crush” is a fucking dreadful song to begin with. Adding a chorus of female singers in that Ray Conniff style responsible for ruining a good chunk of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music made Cliff’s version of “Schoolboy Crush” the musical equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space—so bad, it hurts.
The next single featured “High Class Baby” and “My Feet Hit the Ground,” the first written by Samwell and the second a Samwell-Paramor collaboration (the latter under a pseudonym). In a burst of democratic fervor, neither side was designated the A-side, allowing the DJ’s and the fans to sort it out. Cliff overdoes it with the Elvis imitation on both, a flaw amplified by the use of stop time vocals a la “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up.” The Drifters attempt to replicate The Jordanaires with little success, not having earned their stripes in gospel vocals as The Jordanaires did. “High Class Baby” won out, probably because of the “surprise” tempo shift to high speed rock ‘n roll, but really, this was a purposeless coin flip of a competition.
“Livin’ Lovin’ Doll” is where Paramor poured Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” into the music test tube, “At the Hop” into the lyrics test tube and wound up with a botched experiment that barely squeaked into the Top 20. Samwell took a page from Tommy Sands and contributed “Steady with You” for the B-side, a classic ’50s teen ballad where all the cliches about love = possession (“life would be so heavenly, if you were mine to keep”) and rejection = doom (“the future holds for me nothing but loneliness”) are dragged out in a maudlin display of self-pity accentuated by a very awkward performance by Cliff.
Top 10 success returned with the “Mean Streak”/”Never Mind” single. This is the point in history when the connection between Cliff and The Shadows (still The Drifters for a little while longer) is solidified, with tremendous results. “Mean Streak” is initially marked by a two-note reverberating guitar riff further distorted by bends that appears in a call-and-response dialogue with Cliff during the verses. You notice that Cliff has toned down the Elvis act and seems somewhat restrained in comparison to previous vocals right up to the guitar solo. Hank Marvin then takes over and demonstrates he knows how to play a helluva lot more than two notes, ripping out a solo comparable to some of Chuck Berry’s best. When Cliff returns to the mike, he’s a different man, one drenched in all the testosterone a young man of eighteen can generate—he has found his mojo and rocks his ass off. That energy carries over into “Never Mind,” another upbeat rocker featuring another fabulous Marvin solo backed up by unusually audible bass (for the time) and solid drumming from Terry Smart. Cliff goes wild encouraging the band in the second go-round, channeling back to his first rock hit by shouting “Let’s move it!” While the songs only reached #10 and #21 on the UK charts, this is my favorite single combination in the entire package—a kick-ass 45 that rocks so hard that if I had been a teen when this sucker hit the shelves, I would have flipped that 45 over again and again while sliding out of my pedal pushers to masturbate until I turned blind.
For those of you new to the blog, I just gave Cliff and the Shadows the ultimate compliment.
Up to this point, the compilers had strictly followed the timeline, but for some unknown reason we now jump ahead to 1962 and “I’m Looking Out the Window,” a Cliff Richard solo release (with the Norrie Paramor Orchestra, of course). The song was a Peggy Lee B-side a few years prior to Cliff’s effort, and in comparing the two there turns out to be no comparison: Peggy Lee by a landslide. Peggy was a jazz singer with superb phrasing skills, fully capable of handling the song’s extensive melodic range; Cliff sings the song with the precision of a choir boy, sounds bloody awful on the low notes and is quite stiff in his delivery. The historical value of the release is that it told the younger set that Cliff was definitely going square, as did Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon and all the others.
Cliff and the Shadows didn’t reach the top of the charts until “Living Doll” put them there in the summer of 1959. Written by Lionel Bart (of Oliver! fame), this is song that falls somewhere between pop and easy listening; it lopes along pleasantly enough, with Cliff hitting those pesky low notes with due precision. Hank Marvin gets to work on his country-western chops and gives a passable performance. I find the song incredibly dull, but it’s better than the B-side, a tune by the name of “Apron Strings” where Cliff suffers from a severe attack of Elvis Impersonator Syndrome. With Paramor’s eyes firmly glued to the record sales figures, the boys followed up with another lope-along country-ish song called “Travelin’ Light,” which also hit #1. I tend to fall asleep somewhere in the second verse, but the B-side—a Samwell rocker called “Dynamite”—is definitely worth a spin, with Cliff going Gene Vincent in the vocal and The Shadows going delightfully insane in the instrumental break.
My level of interest in Disc One steadily decreases from this point forward, as the songs generally become softer and more formulaic. The few highlights consist of “Please Don’t Tease,” a song that clearly anticipates the style of the lurking British Invasion; “Peace Pipe,” a Shadows instrumental with some amazing picking from Hank Marvin; and “Nine Times Out of Ten,” simply because it rocks like a bitch in heat. Lowlights include the Bo Diddley ripoff songs “Mad About You” and “Mumblin’ Mosie,” the latter a horrid creation of Johnny Otis that pokes fun at a stutterer. Comic relief comes in the form of another Otis cover, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” where I could swear Cliff repeatedly replaces the phrase “hand jive” with “hand job.”
At least we know Cliff didn’t go blind in the process.
Disc Two: Cliff Richard, Mr. Predictable
Disc Two largely chronicles the purely commercial period full of string-laden sap, lope-alongs and a rancid cover version of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance.” Cliff was a film star by now, so we get the theme from the highly popular movie The Young Ones. Think of it as the vocal complement to Percy Faith’s “Theme for a Summer Place” in order to appreciate the insipidity of it all. In addition to singles, you get a run of songs that appeared on various EP’s, including three in a row with the word “dream” in the title. My assumption is that because Cliff had a hit with a song called “Theme For a Dream,” “dream” became a primitive version of a keyword designed to lure collectors of dream songs. All three were very successful in luring me to sleep, so I guess it worked.
There are some valuable moments on Disc Two. Cliff’s German renditions of a few of his hits are rather charming, and better than the original English versions in my always-humble opinion. But the best stuff on Disc Two comes from The Shadows, who by this time had established themselves as a major draw with a string of instrumental hits and two #1 albums. They perform their duties as a backing band with professionalism and flair, providing several splashes of excitement in the midst of the overwhelming predictability of the cliché-rich music. By the end of Disc Two, you feel an irrisistible urge to grab your genie lamp, rub the hell out of it and cry, “Oh, Genie, I’d sure like to hear The Shadows without Cliff butting in.”
Poof! When the smoke clears, you find yourself holding a copy of Disc Three in your grubby little mitts.
Discs Three and Four: The Shadows
The last two discs are completely devoted to The Shadows, a beautifully compiled tribute to this fascinating and influential group of musicians.
You’ll notice that the first two tracks are attributed to The Five Chesternuts. You feel an irresistible urge to shout, “Genie! Get your ass out of that lamp! You owe me one!” Calm down. The Five Chesternuts were a group formed by a drummer named Pete Chester who had the brains and good taste to hire a couple of talented teens by the names of Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch to handle the gee-tars. Marvin and Bruce were clearly the most influential members of The Shadows, so sit back, relax and listen to their relatively obscure maiden visit to the studio.
Or was it a studio? The quality of the recordings gives credence to the theory that The Five Chesternuts were taped while busking on a street corner somewhere, a street corner completely abandoned by pedestrians who probably took a detour to avoid this scruffy crew. They managed to squeeze in two full performances before the bobbies urged them to move along. Those two performances were captured on the completely unsuccessful single “Jean Dorothy”/”Teenage Love.” While lead singer Gerry Hurst gives earnest performances on both tracks, he was hampered by the awkwardness of the name “Jean Dorothy” (which comes out “Jean Darthy”) and the less-than-scintillating lyrics:
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
Jean Darthy, you know I love you
You know I love you, yes, I love you true
It’s pretty much the same routine with “Teenage Love,” a poorly executed imitation of The Diamonds where Neil Johnson’s bass oddly disappears at random moments. Hank and Bruce have little to do on either track, and it’s obvious that their skills at this point were understandably rudimentary. The pair were smart enough to figure out that The Five Chesternuts would go no further than that street corner, and they leapt at the chance to join Cliff Richard’s backing band, The Drifters.
After serving solely in a supporting role for a year or so, they signed a separate contract with EMI, and avoided the threat of legal action by changing their name to The Shadows. Their first three singles failed to excite anyone; two were Buddy Holly-ish group vocals, and one (“Driftin'”) was an instrumental spiced with what one might politely refer to as exuberant vocalizations of hormonal overdose. They followed the latter with a similar piece (“Jet Black”) and a couple of further attempts at becoming a vocal group, the last (“Lonesome Fella”) a ho-hum attempt at duplicating The Fleetwoods. It should have become abundantly clear by now that their strength did not lie in their vocal cords, but in the magic fingers of Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. Although neither of the instrumentals recorded so far were particularly catchy, the guitar sounds really caught the ear. All they needed was a well-crafted instrumental, and one came their way in the form of “Apache.” Composer Jerry Lordan was disappointed with Bert “Play in A Day” Weedon’s rendition, so he tossed it to The Shadows hoping for a more satisfying outcome.
Western-flavored instrumentals would become fairly popular during this period, with Al Caiola leading the way in the States with his versions of “The Theme from the Magnificent Seven” and “Bonanza.” “Apache” is a more challenging composition, and boy, did Hank nail it in a dazzling display of hard, precise picking, superb use of the whammy bar and nimble, tension-building bends. Bruce Welch’s acoustic rhythm guitar is a masterwork in strumming technique that adds palpable depth to the rhythmic foundation. The B-side, “Quartermaster’s Shores” is positively delightful, a lighter melodic piece with lots of bounce. Unfortunately, while this fabulous single topped the U.K. charts for five weeks, The Shadows were denied success in the States because Danish guitarist Jørgen Ingmann benefited from a superior distribution network (not to knock his version, which is first-rate). The Shadows would have to settle for becoming a significant influence on nearly every top-tier guitar player who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, from Eric Clapton to Brian May.
They accomplished this by making the guitar sound like a seriously cool instrument capable of creating moods through a combination of melody and sonic variation. They created mystery by covering the theme song from the series Edgar Wallace Mysteries (“Mystery Man”), darkening the soundscape through tonal variation that reflects the tension that drives mystery. Marvin’s last solo on that piece is unusually dissonant and raucous for the period, exploring the latent capabilities of the fretboard without restraint. “Mystery Man” appeared on a double A-side single with “The Stranger,” where the bass is marvelously present and Marvin’s work covers an even broader expanse of the fretboard. The self-composed “F.B.I” demonstrated compositional capabilities far beyond the average pop performers of the time, featuring a memorable riff that practically begs for extended improvisation . . . but that goddamned three-minute limit forces the band into a fade. Another ten minutes might have satisfied my cravings.
Regrettably, as the CD progresses, the sounds become more predictable and the music much safer, a decline that continues until you get close to the end of Disc Four. There you’ll find four live performances The Shadows gave in Johannesburg, and though the recording quality is understandably primitive, the sheer exuberance of the band’s performance carries the day. The studio version of “Shazam” is something of a yawner, played mid-tempo without a lot of zip . . . but the live version features a manic beat and Hank knocking out blues riffs similar to those heard later in the decade during the British Blues Boom. The follow-up number, “Guitar Boogie”, confirms that these guys knew how to thrill a crowd with kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll. I would have loved to have seen The Shadows in their prime.
I can fully understand why Cliff Richard and the Shadows earned a large following in the U. K. and in many places on the continent. In this early stage of rock, they rocked just hard enough at times to titillate the teens and dialed it down far enough to make them acceptable to the parents. Over time they developed their professional chops and learned how to give their fans what they wanted to hear. Outside of a few bursts of marvelous madness from The Shadows, they played it safe, delivering generally pleasing music marked by simple, hummable tunes and/or something you can dance to, Dick. You certainly can’t call them “sellouts,” because there wasn’t any kind of ethic in place regarding artistic excellence in rock ‘n’ roll. My take is that Cliff is the kind of guy that would have played it safe in any social climate, but The Shadows might have become greater innovators had they hit their prime later in the decade when the rules were bent all to hell.
Bottom line: Cliff Richard and the Shadows inspired a generation that would take rock ‘n’ roll to places no one could have imagined, turning music that most dismissed as nothing more than a hula hoop into one of the great artistic movements of the century. That’s a pretty impressive legacy.