Rock and Roll will never die (probably)

There are areas of the British coast that time has forgotten. Musically it’s as if they have moved forward at glacial speed. The beat boom is just about acknowledged but psychedelia and all points onwards have never happened. Many of the smaller resorts seem to be living out some version of That’ll be the Day’ the 70’s film which made a name for David Essex but referenced a period 15 years earlier.

Stars that time have forgotten will be appearing at the local winter gardens, it’s probable that a reformed version of the Honeycombs or the Applejacks will be appearing in an oldies package on the pier and the local legion club will be hosting a tribute to the Everly Brothers.

On a visit to Great Yarmouth I came across this poster of a yet to be discovered star posted in the window of a terraced house.

 rocking ronnie

There’s a huge audience still for rock and roll, they are invariably white, working class and inevitably mainly aged.

In the 70’s rock and roll culture bubbled away beneath the surface occasionally making breakthroughs. In 1976 a forgotten recording made in 1958 re surfaced. ‘Jungle Rock’ by Hank Mizell’ was an unexpected hit reaching No3 in the British charts.Hank was 53, he didn’t know what had hit him but we never heard of him again. Someone must have bought his record though, there were a lot of rock and roll fans out there

But if the English seaside seemed backward and conservative imagine what it must have been like in Wales.

Fast forward just a few years and Shakin Stevens is all over the charts. Shaky, as he was known, seemed a pleasant but bland Welsh guy who seldom seemed to string a couple of sentences together and delivered reliable sanitised rockabilly influenced hits. In retrospect it’s hard to really dislike Shakey although the hard core Teds did, they would burn his records. Shaky’s tunes were a bit bland but they were livened by the presence of Mickey Gee one of Wales’s best guitarists. For me Shaky really lost it with with his Christmas song ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ which sound like a piss take or how to write a Christmas song piling cliché upon cliché and concluding with ‘What a nice way to spend the year’. Nice!, only Brian Wilson is allowed to use that word in a song!!.

But Shaky had a past that included playing tough venues including punk gigs and benefits for the Communist party. He had worked and lived in Europe, recorded many records on many labels and lead the premier British roots rock and roll band the Sunsets.

The story begins in the 60’s when Cardiff milkman Michael Barrratt began to attach himself to local band The Backbeats. The band were actually from Penarth which is a seaside town just down the coast from Cardiff. The band were managed by a local character Paul ’legs’ Barrett. If Barrett had operated in London he would probably be up there with the likes of Stiff’s Jake Riviera or the Clash’s Bernie Rhodes as well as being an old style entrepreneur and celebrity manager Barrett was also, unusually, a member of the communist party.

Barratt had his own band and asked Barrett to come and see them. The band wasn’t that good but Barrett was impressed with the singer and managed to lure him away and christened him Shakin Stevens which will make the rest of this article a lot easier to follow.

Shaky’s backing band the Sunsets were cobbled together from the Backbeats and the cream of South Wales musos. Their career got off to a good start in 1969 when Barrett landed them a gig supporting the Stones. The band were not really up to the challenge at this point and matters weren’t helped by the drummer forgetting his sticks and having to borrow a pair for Charley Watts. With Barrett at the helm the career of the Sunsets lurched from inspired to half arsed. John Peel, who had always been a Gene Vincent fan, wanted to record them for his Dandelion label but Barrett considered that the demo’s they made for him were not up to scratch. Guitarist/producer/notable Welsh person Dave Edmunds was also drawn to the band remembering them from their Backbeat days. Much to Shakey’s annoyance Edmunds affection for the past led to him bringing in original vocalist Rockin Louie to sing on some of the tracks and the resulting album modestly entitled ‘A Legend’ did more for Edmunds reputation as a producer than for the band.

From there on an erratic career path followed. The Sunsets were a volatile band with members leaving and returning. At one point a bass player was sacked after smashing a full bottle of whisky over Shaky’s head. A further episode in the band’s history was when they decamped to Holland where they had a recording contract and the promise of a career but being big in Holland was not necessarily a good career move.

Throughout it all Shakin Stevens and the Sunsets were potentially a phenomenally great live band and that was their forte. They were even voted best live band in an NME poll. The band was playing anywhere and everywhere which led to them being in contact with the first wave of punk bands many of whom were impressed at the energy and excitement of a Sunset’s show.

Of course there is a limit to the number of times any bands wanted to play the Nashville Rooms or the Red Cow or the Tally Ho and when Shaky got offered the job to play middle period Elvis in the west end play Elvis-The Musical he was off.

The Sunsets still exist to this day of course in a severely watered down version. The last contact Shaky had with them was when he was sued by various members including old manager Barrett over non-payment of royalties from ‘A Legend’, royalties were awarded of £70,000 but the case cost Shaky and producer Edmunds £200,000.

Today Shaky is a well preserved 69 year old who continues to make records now and again but for a few years in the 70’s he was a genuinely underground figure known only to genuine rock and roll fans and certainly his legacy is better served by the records he made with The Sunsets rather than ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’


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