The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, November 05, 2002
LONNIE DONEGAN

Two giants gone in one week. Jam Master Jay, the effective founding father of what we now perceive as hip hop, last week; and now Lonnie Donegan, the architect - or at least the conduit - of Britpop. The man without whom, it can safely be said, virtually none of what you are listening to now from this country could have been produced, from Cliff through the Beatles right down to the Streets. And if that's a cliche, fuck it - cliches become cliches because they had meaning and impact to begin with.

It might still be hard for younger readers to visualise how seismic an impact Donegan had on popular music in this country in the '50s. When I was a youngster in the '70s, he had largely been dismissed as a joke, a London Palladium comedy MOR turn, the "Dustman" man, and in other quarters as a sell-out, a traitor (ha! the insistence of "purity" on what was a bastardisation - albeit a benign bastardisation - to begin with!). More recently, though - certainly in the last 3-4 years - he seemed determined to return to whatever the original punctum was which drove him, as if he knew that five heart bypasses was pushing it, that his remaining lifespan might not be that long, to set everything in his order.

And, as with all real innovators, he did not sit down and carefully plot out his subversion on a bar graph. In fact "Rock Island Line" was recorded under the banner of Chris Barber's band, with whom Donegan was at the time the resident banjo player, as a filler album track. Oh he knew about Leadbelly though, all right - Donegan was from Glasgow; like Liverpool, a port facing west, and therefore the first point of contact for jazz and blues records from the USA (the legacy of the 18th-centiry Tobacco Lords). OK, he might just have pointed out to the virgin listener the existence of Leadbelly, of Skip James and Woody Guthrie, but his own aural and visual impact in 1955-57 (particularly) was overwhelming.

You have to understand that this was still the era of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan - clean-cut, unthreatening, smiling, compromising entertainers crooning cliched songs composed and chosen by committee. The boat it was not within their job description to rock. Keep smiling. Hide the torment. Camouflage the greyness. Sound familiar? Gloop-laden love songs or novelty numbers which made you want to construct your own Columbine.

And yes, OK, nothing could have happened without Presley, without Holly, no one's denying that, but Donegan was here and had the most immediate and shattering impact. View some of his TV performances of the time and contrast his restless on-the-spot franticity and near-psychotic screwing up of the face, his band assaulting their instruments in exactly the same way that the Clash would do a generation hence - put that up against bowties and "Pickin' A Chicken For Christmas" and you might get the idea. Skiffle was Britain's punk of the '50s; also its indie. No more expensive instruments - a makeshift double bass constructed out of a tea chest, a washboard rather than a drum kit. No need even for musical expertise; three basic chords were your passport. It was how you delivered them.

My nomination for the most sonically extreme UK #1 single ever (despite competition from "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," "Respectable," "Firestarter" and "Flat Beat") would have to be 1957's "Cumberland Gap." Lasting barely 90 seconds, taken at a minimum pace of 200 mph, words yelped and barked out which had no obvious literal or other sense, HEAR Donegan's untranscibable yell as Denny Wright launches into his equally demented monotonal guitar solo - this was the first punk number one, the equivalent of "White Riot" getting to #1 in '77 (which it didn't). And engineered, as with most of his hits, by the 29-year-old Joe Meek.

And then people say he lost it, sold out. "Chewing Gum" and "Dustman" - though Donegan argued at the time that he was simply extending the folk concepts into a British perspective, and it is possible to argue that that particular strand of Britpop (the Ray Davies to Jarvis Cocker one) could be traced from here (although Lionel Bart's work, in particular "Oliver!" and "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," the latter done for that great anti-purist Joan Littlewood, need also to be counted as crucial baptismal fonts). But most people just saw it as compromise. It is significant that his last hit single (appropriately enough, "The Party's Over") dropped out of the charts just one week before "Love Me Do" made its debut. He had done his work; it was time for the next lot to take over.

And then - writing hits for Tom Jones, living quietly in Spain (or not so quietly - three wives and a 14-year-old girffriend at various different times), serious heart trouble, a 1978 comeback album with McCartney and others which sank unnoticed beneath the New Wave. Until, in 1999, he suddenly toughened up again and unleashed Muleskinner Blues. Involving Van Morrison and others, this was a remarkable record. "Rock Island Line" was taken apart, slowed down to 16 rpm, and given a blacker, more menacing undertow. Donegan's spoken intro out-Caves Nick Cave in its dark terror. Unlike Tom Jones, there were no late-period embarrassments; no team-ups with Wyclef Jean, no sordid attempts to sex himself up; equally, unlike Johnny Cash's series of "American" recordings, there was no indication that a past-hip producer had shoehorned him into doing some of these pesky modern songs. Like Mark E Smith, he stayed to plough his own furrow determinedly; no wonder John Peel idolised him. His energy in recent concerts was apparenttly unabated ("playing with the energy of someone a quarter of his age," someone wrote to Peel just a couple of weeks ago).

Whatever British pop music you're listening to (perhaps with the exceptions of Gates, Young et al, who take us back to the days of Valentine and Cogan), this man was the founding father of all of it. Venerate and treasure his memory.

Records to listen to
Donegan's discography is a bit of a mess at the moment, but the compilation Skiffle Sensation (£6.99 from HMV) is absolutely crucial; weeding out "Chewing Gum" and "Dustman," this concentrates on the music which caused the rumpus. And to get an idea of how this came across live, Live! 1957 - The Complete Conway Hall Concert (Zircon Records) is also essential. The lengthy, ecstatic rendition of "Glory" in particular is hypnotically compelling in its power. And for evidence of how ahead of and apart from everyone else he was, check out the abovementioned Muleskinner Blues.


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