by Dave Thompson
The dominant domestic musical form in Britain through the late 1950s, skiffle is one of the best-known but least understood terms in all of rock ’n’ roll history. The simplistic vision of a handful of reformed folkies bashing out borrowed dustbowl epics on an array of household implements — broomstick bass, washboard percussion, granny’s elasticized corset — is, of course, rooted in some form of fact. Skiffle was nothing if not adaptable, and every month of the year, The Beat, a monthly British magazine devoted exclusively to the still-touring-and-recording relics of the ’50s and ’60s (www.thebeatmagazine.com) reports on the latest activities of its last few surviving progenitors.
But it went beyond that, then and now. In 1955, rock ’n’ roll was still a distinctly American phenomenon, and one that the Brits simply couldn’t compete with. Guitars were expensive, amps weren’t cheap, and as for drum kits … Like the proto-Punks of two decades later, young musicians took one look at the technological arsenals of their idols and then fled for the hills. The punks returned with used budget guitars and loudly buzzing amps; the skifflers came out with whatever they could find in the cupboard under the stairs. And, though the means were different, the ends were very much the same: the creation, through muddle and mutation, of a uniquely British musical genre.
The father of skiffle was a former jazz musician named Lonnie Donegan. It was he, in concert with Chris Barber and brothers Ken and Bill Colyer, who formulated, then crystallized, the music in a mass audience’s mind; who so totally redefined what had hitherto been a 1920s term for impromptu jam sessions. If one wishes to pursue the punk analogies further, Donegan was the Johnny Rotten of his age. And Wally Whyton was its Joe Strummer, a man whose commitment was so great, whose energy so fiery, whose passion was so unyielding, that even when skiffle had died a natural death, and Whyton himself was a staple of British children’s’ television, one still half expected him to break out a chorus of “Rock Island Line,” just to confuse Ollie Beak.
The Vipers’ story is well-known to any aficionados of pre-Beatles Britain — and, if it isn’t, a fabulous three-CD boxed set released by the German Bear Family label in the mid-1990s should answer any lingering questions. Formed in early 1956 at London’s fabled Bread Basket Coffee Bar by Whyton, Johnny Booker and Jean Van den Bosch, by July the group had a residency at the legendary 2 I’s, the proving ground for so many of Britain’s earliest rockers. It was there, in September 1956, that the band was discovered by producer George Martin and, within two months, Parlophone was releasing the Vipers’ debut single, “Ain’t You Glad.”
Over the next six months, the Vipers Skiffle Group released five singles, earning two successive British Top Ten hits, “Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O” and “Cumberland Gap,” plus a Top 30 berth for “Streamline Train.” They might, even at this early stage, have been doomed to forever play second best to the unstoppable Lonnie Donegan, but in the world of British skiffle, the Vipers Skiffle Group had no peers. Donegan, after all, was already beginning to embrace the music-hall traditions which would characterize much of his best-remembered work; the Vipers, on the other hand, were absorbing rock ’n’ roll as though it were going out of fashion, creating a fusion whose rudiments remain integral to even the most contemporary modern British band.
Whyton himself constantly underplayed this element of the band’s appeal. Talking about the Vipers’ early days in 1986, he acknowledged, “If I was aware [of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley], it was something that didn’t appeal to me. Even now, very strange, I can’t take Presley. [And] I always thought Bill Haley looked like a bundle of shit tied up. I didn’t really go for his music. I suppose I was pretty much a musical snob.”
Whyton’s refreshing honesty notwithstanding, the group’s importance can best be gauged, somewhat ironically, through the later work of three band members whose stint in the Vipers is barely remembered even by the participants. Hank Marvin (one week), Tony Meehan (three months) and Jet Harris (six months) were all Vipers during the confused period following the departure of original member Van den Bosch; the trio would, of course, soon become better known as members of Cliff Richard’s backing band, but catch their early live sound, across Cliff’s Rock ’n’ Roll Years boxed set, and the benefits of their apprenticeship are there for all to hear.
Applying the hiss of the Vipers to the roar of sundry Presley standards, the group took Whyton’s vision to the next level. And within five years, The Beatles would have taken it even further, and there would be no looking back. Even today, and even in the U.K. itself, there is a tendency to regard the Fab Four as British Pop’s Year Zero. Without Cliff and the Shadows, though, there could have been no Beatles — and without Wally and the Vipers …
America, of course, was another matter entirely. Through the 1950s, Trans-Atlantic pop success was essentially a one-way street, with only Chas McDevitt and the ubiquitous Donegan going against the traffic.
The reason for skiffle’s failure here, of course, is simple, as the title to Donegan’s own American debut album acknowledges. Indeed, An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs puts one in mind of nothing so much as the oxymoronic question posed a decade later by the Bonzo Dog Band: “Can blue men sing the whites?” And soon, in 1957, the Vipers were invited to offer the Americans a taste of the real thing: Englishmen singing English folk songs, all set to that compulsive skiffle shuffle.
The project was not recorded under the auspices of either George Martin or Parlophone. Rather, Whyton explained, it was “a bootleg album under an assumed name.” He continued: “There was a big-name guy in the music business then, and he had his own label, something like WRC or one of those. And he wanted all English tunes, traditional, because he didn’t want to pay [songwriting] royalties or PRS [performance fees], and we did things like ‘um dum dee vay valley, va dam daddle daddle.’ ” Self-produced and financed by future publishing mogul David Platz, the album was recorded on a strict cash-only basis and released here towards the end of the year.
The Original Soho Skiffle Group, by — of course! — the Original Soho Skiffle Group, was recorded at IBC Studio in Portland Place, far from the eagle eye of George Martin. Exceeding their “English only” brief to incorporate Scots and Australian tunes as well, the band ran through 14 songs, ranging from “Greensleeves” and “Charlie Is My Darling,” to “She Was Poor But She Was Honest,” “The Wild Colonial Boy” and, predating The Beatles by a good four years, “My Bonnie.” All reappeared, for the first time in 40 years, on the Bear Family boxed set, and Whyton’s own dismissal of the performance is essentially correct: “None of the songs really suited the skiffle idiom; they were all totally wrong.”
The Vipers broke up in 1959, shortly after the release of their tenth and final single, a cover of “Summertime Blues.” Whyton would remain with Parlophone for a little longer, cutting a brace of solo singles under his own name and also offering up a role model for all that Joe Meek and Screaming Lord Sutch would later achieve, with the blood-drenched classic “The Horror Show”/“Cool Gool.” Sutch himself would always cite Screaming Jay Hawkins as the premier influence on his visual presentation — candles, coffins, skulls and so forth. But it was Sharkey Todd And The Monsters who best chilled his blood on vinyl.
There were also some notable session appearances for Whyton. Under Martin’s aegis, he recorded with both Laurie London and Peter Sellers, and apropos of absolutely nothing, the next time some clever sod informs you that it was Dave Davies, strumming a de-tuned guitar, who introduced the soon-to-be-fashionable sound of a sitar to modern pop music, strike back with Wally Whyton, who was doing the same thing in 1960, on Sellers’ “Goodness Gracious Me.”
Wally Whyton passed away in 1997 at the age of 68. Having so successfully reinvented himself in childrens’ television through the 1960s, his death received considerably more coverage in the TV pages than it did in the music press. But 10,000 Years Ago, the Bear Family box which was already at the printers when the sad news came through, stands as a sterling tribute to his early career, and the current health of British music, that most direct descendent of the Vipers’ own musical innovation, is a legacy of which all his fans and admirers can be proud.
by Dave Thompson