In Britain in the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll was almost as great a phenomenon as it had been in America. Radio stations and imported records kept British youth up to date, and ensured a rapturous audience when a star like Bill Haley came to visit. By the late 50s and early 60s, local ‘skiffle’ bands were springing up all over the country. Skiffle was a rough fusion of blues, country, folk and rock ’n’ roll played on acoustic instruments. From Glasgow to London, British bands were producing their own sound.
Cliff Richard, photography by Harry Hammond, Chiswick Empire foyer, London, 1959. Museum no. S.14383-2009
Cliff Richard was born Harry Roger Webb in India in 1940 but the family moved to England when he was seven. At the age of 17 he was living in England in a council house in Enfield and like most boys of his age, worshipped the American Rock n’ Roll stars, particularly Elvis. He lost his status as a school prefect after going to a forbidden Bill Haley concert. In 1958 Harry changed his name to Cliff Richard and started a band The Drifters who played in pubs and clubs. By the end of that year, their single Move It had reached number two in the charts and Cliff was on his way to stardom. As well as singing, he appeared in films, pantomime and as Heathcliffe in his own musical production of Wuthering Heights. He has had a hit in the charts every decade since the 50s, remarkable in a business which is notoriously fickle. Also remarkable is his lifestyle which is the opposite of ‘rock and roll’. Cliff is a committed Christian, does not believe in sex before marriage, follows a strict diet, and exercises daily.
Marty Wilde with wife and baby daughter Kim, photography by Harry Hammond, 1958. Museum no. S.16222-2009
Teen-idol Marty Wilde had 14 chart hits between 1958 and 1962 including ‘Teenager in Love’ and ‘Rubber Ball’ (both covers of American songs). He even had a girls’ magazine, Marty, named after him.
As with so many British singers, Wilde (actually called Reginald Smith) started off in a skiffle group, the Hound Dogs. He left the band to go solo under the management of impresario Larry Parnes who renamed him Marty Wilde. Parnes was also responsible for turning one Ronald Wycherley into Billy Fury - ‘bad boy’ names were the thing. Wilde’s success owed much to his sex appeal, including an Elvis style hip grind.
In 1959, thousands of teenage hearts were broken when Wilde married Joyce Baker, one of the Vernons’ Girls singing group, and his popularity plummeted. He was overshadowed by Cliff Richard and the Beatles, but his daughter, Kim was to become a pop star, after her recording of one of her father’s songs ‘Kids from America’ went into the charts in 1981. She later abandoned her successful singing career to become an equally successful garden designer.
Adam Faith filming in Shepherds Bush Market, London, photography by Harry Hammond, 1960-62. Museum no. S.10923-2009
In 1955 15 year old Terry Nelhams started a skiffle band called The Worried Men, who played regularly at 21’s Coffee Bar in Soho, the club which had hosted early performances by Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. He released a few solo singles with no great success until, as Adam Faith, he recorded What do you Want in 1959. By the early 1960s he was one of the three top British pop stars along with Cliff Richard and Billy Fury until The Beatles knocked them all off their perch.
In the late 1960s, Faith’s music career was slowing down so he switched to acting, appearing as a cheeky cockney in the 1970s TV series Budgie. Over the next 30 years he continued to act intermittently while managing other artists, producing records and being a financial entrepreneur.
The Beatles, photography by Harry Hammond, 1960s. Museum no. S.9084-2009
This photograph was taken by Harry Hammond during a shoot in 1963, when Ringo had just joined the band. That year The Beatles made their second ever single and their first ever album both called Please Please Me. The album stayed at number one in the charts for 29 weeks.
From never having recorded an album in January, by November the band were appearing at a Royal Command performance performing Twist and Shout. John Lennon brought the house down by saying to the audience ‘People in the cheaper seats clap your hands, the rest of you just rattle your jewellery’.
By 1963 they were setting the trend in clothes, haircuts and music all over Europe. By 1964 they had conquered America and were on their way to being the most successful and influential band of the 20th century.
Pete Townshend's Gibson Les Paul guitar broken on stage, 1960s, plastic, mother of pearl and rosewood, given by John Entwistle. Museum no. S.12-1978
The Who was one of the greatest and most progressive bands of the 1960s and 1970s. As with the first rock ’n’ roll bands, its songs were about teenage angst, but with a more realistic, and darker humour than its romantic predecessors with songs like My Generation, I’m a Boy and Pictures of Lily. The Who’s musical style was as radical as its subject matter with Townshend’s power chords and Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming. In 1969, the band created the first rock opera, Tommy, followed by Quadrophenia in 1973, both of which were subsequently made into films.
Townshend’s guitar smashing habit became an integral part of the band’s act, a form of ‘auto-destructive art’ (works of art which destroy themselves after a set time). However the practice allegedly originated by accident. In 1964 the band was doing a weekly set at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, where the ceiling was so low that Townshend took the top of the instrument’s head off while swinging it - he then trashed the whole thing and the crowds loved it so much it became a weekly event.