London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock 

London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock [Rowman & Littlefield, February 2020] by Stephen Tow

I wasn’t alone in thinking that nearly everything pouring out of London from the mid 1960s was epic. The amount of music that was generated on the relatively small island of Britain, most all of it emanating from London, was massive, influential and apparently now timeless.

Music historian and professor Stephen Tow has paired contemporary observations with direct recollections from over ninety musicians who helped foment the scene. Tow does an admirable job pulling apart the many threads that created a musical renaissance the likes of which have not been heard before or since.

Whether the era ended when the Beatles split or when punk hit or eventually when the Rolling Stones retire, Tow points out that the subject provides endless fodder for discussion over pints down the pub. He wisely ends his book at the dawn of the 1970s. (That doesn’t mean the great music ended there, much more was yet come as David Hepworth has already reminded us).

Tow smartly gets ‘the elephant in the room’ addressed early: although The Beatles were from Liverpool, most all their efforts flourished once they were in London.

Tow also paints a pretty compelling picture of post WW2 London, from an economic and sociological perspective. He cites Roger Daltrey’s autobiographical observation that “so much had been destroyed, all we could do was build.”

Put another way, all the right ingredients were ready for the stew to begin cooking.

Crucially, a demographic that had seemingly never existed was there as the both the key ingredient and the voracious consumer: the teenager.

In an interesting parallel, Tow points out that American GIs returning from the war had the opportunity to attend college for free, and there was a narrow window for the youth of Britain to avoid the seeming binary choice of factory work or a white collar job – art school. That was a breeding ground for so much of the English music that has withstood the test of time. The enrollment list of art school students is massive, and surely begins with Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Freddie Mercury, Ian MacLagan and Sandy Denny.

Tow traces the big band and trad jazz elements that set the stage for skiffle.

After the short burst of skiffle, it was the blues that began to change things. Tow points out that practically every London band from the 1960s started out as a blues band based on an American sound, because it was rebellious and “so un-English.” Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues points out that like black musicians in America, his generation of English teenagers had experienced their sort of deprivation, brought on by war.

But by the middle of the decade British kids started looking at their own roots and that is when things really got interesting.

Tow looks at the three distinct flavors of rock that emerged:

As to progressive rock, the author astutely points to “A Quick One While He’s Away.” This ten minute piece by The Who was a massive departure from the obligatory 2:57 length of music being generated by the band’s contemporaries. Once such permission was given to explore lengthier arrangements, all bets were off.

I particularly enjoyed the backstory provided by Dave Cousins, who formed the bluegrass inflected Strawberry Hill Boys, but once hooked up with Rick Wakeman they blossomed as Strawbs.

The wonderful foreword by Bill Bruford (drummer in Yes) provides this sterling insight:

“Where music appears unimportant, irrelevant, unloved, demanded for free, and the audience stays away in droves, atrophy and sclerosis descend. Where, on the other hand, there is a reasonable chance of fair payment for musical labour, freedom of thought, technological development, critical engagement, and a ready and enthusiastic audience; oh, what gems may emerge. Such was the music ecology of London in the 1960s.”

I spoke with Tow about he became aware and eventually enamored of the era. The roots of his love of music were the happy result of older siblings’ musical tastes. “The mainstream music of the 70s and 80s when I came of age was stale and MTV all about presentation. I need up discovering the 60s in the 80s,” he told me. We both marveled at the decades have been kind to the era. Whereas each generation wants and needs its own music, every generation unfailingly discovers and sticks with the music of the 60s. We pondered to what extent subsequent decades will respond to newer music as it hits the half century mark.

Tow has assembled a great blend of then-contemporary observations with latter day perspectives from those who were there in this delightful and edifying book.

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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