Absolute Beginners

Written by Andrew Calderbank
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Mod, or modernism is probably the most enduring and well documented of all of Britain’s sub-cultures. The golden ages of mod are largely dependent on age, taste and experience. For many, mod culture perfectly encapsulates the optimism of the swinging sixties.
British Beat groups, Motown, Ska, Carnaby Street dandies, and dust ups at fading English seaside resorts. For others it’s about the mod revival of the late seventies, Quadrophenia, scooter rallies and The Jam mixing a traditional mod sensibility with the furious energy of punk and a strong dose of gritty social realism. For the nineties generation it is about Britpop, a new generation of British guitar bands pushing aside the Grunge of Seattle, Oasis and Blur reviving the tradition of writing songs about suburban angst and frustration. The roots of Modernism however can be traced before the swinging sixties, the age that really put British popular culture on the map.

And fifties London seems an unlikely starting point for the birth modernist culture, a decade claimed by the teds and their religious devotion to American Rock 'n' Roll. But as Rock 'n' Roll seeped into the consciousness of British youth, and the teds took control of the dancehalls, something quite different was stirring from the capital and out into the provinces.
"The Jam mixing a traditional mod sensibility with the furious energy of punk"

A British youth no longer living in the grim shadow of war, instead wanting to live in the here and now, to escape the last echoes of Victorian morality and the claustrophobia of the class system. And the early modernists, or Cats or Be-Bopper’s as they were then known, were every bit as fashion obsessed and style conscious as their Edwardian counterparts. The obsessive desire to step out of the constraints of humdrum nine to five jobs, the chance for factory workers and office clerks to look smart and sharp, to be somebody, if even only for a Friday and Saturday night. Drape jackets and drainpipe trousers dismissed in favour of slim Italian style suits, courtesy of the skills and sartorial creativity of Jewish tailors.

And it was in the coffee houses of Soho that the modernist culture developed and thrived, as the hardworking Italian immigrants of post war London introduced expresso culture to a populace more acquainted with imitation chicory. The expresso revolution had modest roots, a world away from the bland corporate coffee palaces of millennium Britain. And it was Pino Riserverto, a dental equipment salesman from Italy, who was to open the legendary Moka Bar, soon to be one of five hundred expresso houses scattered throughout the capital.
"Drape jackets and drainpipe trousers"

The fifties expresso bar became the hangout for anybody who wished to escape the conventions of conventional society, where Jazz and Calypso musicians shared space and ideas, and where dreamers and schemers, for the price of a cup of coffee, could live out their bohemian ideas. And it was the expresso bar where the embryonic youth tribes started to grow, rock n roll loving teds, existential beatniks, and the first pioneers of mod culture.

And it was all about Jazz, a genre in which the entire modernist culture is indebted to in some way or another, past and present. And London however didn’t have a Treme or a Harlem, but it did have the West End. And the West End, with its air of decadence always swung. It swung through the roaring twenties, the depression hit thirties and the bomb ravaged forties. And in the dark and smoky basement clubs, Londoners and African American GI’s beat the night with imported sounds from across the Atlantic. The Downbeat club, The Marquee, and the Flamingo club providing an edgier alternative to the stead conservatism of the traditional British dancehall.

The early modernists rejected the Traditional Jazz of New Orleans in favour of the American Modernist Jazz styles of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Chet Baker, with the homegrown talents of John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes added into the mix. And it was the British Jazz musicians of this era that set the tradition of taking American influences and creating something of their own. An ethos that would continue into the following decade and beyond, as sixties mods took the Rhythm and Blues of the American south to create and created their own vibrant modernist sounds.
"Tubby Hayes added into the mix"

And if any record label defines this vital but largely unforgotten era, it’s Emil E. Shalit’s venerable Melodisc records. Very little is known about the mysterious Shalit and any attempt to document his life is at best sketchy and filled with gaps. What is known is that the Shalit family up-rooted from Austria to settle in New York. In 1947, with a generous pay off from the US Army, Shalit moved from the bright technicolour of the Big Apple to a London still recovering from the effects of the second world war and the horrors of the blitz. Fittingly Shalit was to establish his first record label, Melodisc, in Earlham Street, Covent Garden, the beating pulse of ‘up west’.

From its inception Melodisc Records, believed to have been Britain’s first independent record label, released an eclectic mixture of records, often of a jazz and folk persuasion. Early American musicians on the Melodisc roster included Slim Gaillard, Meade Lux Lewis, Crane River Jazz Band and Sister Ernestine B.Washington.

But it was Melodisc’s acknowledgment of Britain black music scene that was give it such a significant and pivotal place in the development of British modernist culture. Black music wasn’t new to these shores even in the post war period. The dockland areas of Liverpool’s Toxteth, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay and London’s East End having long histories of shebeens and drinking clubs, where West African, Arabic and West Indian sailors danced and drank through the night. But it was during the post war period, and the emergence of Melodisc records, that the commercial viability of sounds originating in far flung colonial lands first emerged.

In 1952 Jack Chilkes departed Melodisc following a dispute with Shalit, the day to day running to be taken over by the London based Trinidadian Rupert Nurse. Nurse had cut his teeth on the London Jazz circuit, mixing the Calypso of his homeland with the Jazz of New Orleans. Nurse was instrumental in the recording of West African folk music, the Mento of Jamaica, and most notably, Trinidadian Calypso. Music that had only be accessible in a scattered network of small venues was now available in vinyl.

And it was the luminaries of the Calypso movement, Lord Beginner, Lord Kitchener and Lord Woodbine who paved the way for future generations of Caribbean artists to play a part in shaping the modern British music and culture. The three sharply attired Calypsonians arrived in Britain aboard the HMS Windrush in 1948 and went on create music that would reflect the Caribbean experience. An experience of optimism, which often gave way to disappointment and a longing for home, reflected in Kitchener’s,” I can’t stand the cold in winter”,” if your brown” and ”my landlady”.

This period in history has largely been un-documented, the stories of Jazz and Calypso musicians having been forgotten in the mist of time. But this era, best defined in Colin MacInnes evocative Absolute Beginners, set the blueprint of a sub culture that sixty years is embedded in the very fabric of British society. And as Notting Hill and Nottingham became rocked by race riots, a clued- up section of youth tuned in to the influences of post war multi-culturalism. Modernism was about embracing Italian tailoring and coffee, American Jazz and Trinidadian Calypso. These exotic styles and influences mixed and mashed by a rebellious youth and creating something uniquely British.

"Best defined in Colin MacInnes evocative Absolute Beginners"
Read 3375 times Last modified on Monday, 21 January 2019 15:31
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Andrew Calderbank

Andrew Calderbank

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