Bob Eaton On Growing Up With Rock ‘n’ Roll
As a child growing up in the 1950s, Bob Eaton remembers the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, Writer and Director of Roll Over Beethoven, Bob Eaton, reflects on the rock ‘n’ roll influences from his childhood that inspired him to create this new musical.
I was born in 1948. My brother Nick was nine years older than me so, when in the mid 1950’s he brought home rock ‘n’ roll records to play on our wind-up gramophone, I was right there and open-eared. The first big black “78” disc I remember was Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley. I played it over and over, lifting the needle and putting it back a few grooves to try and catch and learn by ear the strange and exotic lyrics. I can still sing that song phonetically but I still don’t know what half the words actually are.
Nick also took me to see the film of Jailhouse Rock, as well as to Bakewell’s annual funfair where I heard Blue Suede Shoes for the first time, blasting out over the speakers above the screams of people on the waltzer. He even took me all the way to Sheffield to see Marty Wilde and The Wildcats performing on a bill that also included Hilda Baker and Tommy Steele’s brother Colin Hicks and his Cabin Boys, along with various juggling and acrobatic acts.
Back in the fifties rock ‘n’ roll was still seen as a novelty and very much part of Variety. Variety was the twentieth century descendant of the Victorian Music Hall which had itself developed when the ‘legitimate’ theatre began to concentrate on middle class subjects and audiences and turned its back on the more broadly popular Melodrama. For me, even though I didn’t fully realise it at the time, rock ‘n’ roll had a very early association with popular theatre.
I have a lot to thank Nick for. He was responsible for the most important part of my education before the age of ten. Most significantly for me he joined a skiffle group. Skiffle was a craze that swept the country at round about the same time as early rock ‘n’ roll. Made popular by such Lonnie Donnegan hits as Rock Island Line and Cumberland Gap, it was a blend of American folk, blues and jazz played on impromptu instruments such as washboard, tea chest bass and the occasional guitar. A kind of do-it-yourself rock ‘n’ roll. And that was the thing. Kids realised they could actually do it themselves. So I would sit and watch as The Pilsley Youth Club Skiffle Group beat the living daylights out of Long Lost John. Nick had bought himself a cheap guitar but soon rejected it in favour of biscuit tin and knives, which was great for me because I got to inherit the guitar. It only had three strings left and so I worked out a way of tuning these three strings that enabled me to play three chords.
Bob Eaton in his Skiffle group, The Invaders
Then I met another lad at the youth club called Oggy. Oggy’s guitar had six strings and he could play it. I don’t know how he had learned, he certainly didn’t have any lessons. He just had a natural creativity and artistic sensibility. And with the aid of Bert Weedon’s ‘Play In A Day,’ he showed me the proper tuning and chords for a full six strings, enabling me to play rhythm to Apache while he did a very convincing imitation of Hank Marvin on lead. In time we were joined by a couple of other lads on bass and drums and would figure out Buddy Holly and Eddy Cochrane songs in our front room.
After a few months, we got our first gig; a dance at The Whitworth Institute in Darley Dale, and decided to call ourselves The Invaders. We then got a regular Sunday night booking at the Northwood Lane Working Men’s Club playing before and after the Bingo, and were allowed to use the club room to practise every Wednesday night much to the relief of my parents and the neighbours! Over the next year and a half we played, as well as the club, one or two nights a week, throughout The Peak District in pubs, town halls, village halls, dance halls and mechanics’ instititutes, at Young Farmers’ dances and in the somewhat rougher pubs and clubs of the East Derbyshire Coalfield.
To this middle class boy it was a cultural awakening and I relished every minute of it. It was fun, but it was more than that. It felt like this was the real me doing something authentically creative for the first time, and there was something about the audiences we played to that made me feel comfortable, genuinely appreciated and somehow at home. Homework naturally took second place and this began to be noticed at school. My Maths teacher, making me stand in front of the class, said, “Well, Eaton, this skiffle group’s all very well but you won’t make a living with it will you?” Which was almost exactly what John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi had said to him a few years before. Mind you, he did go on to make a rather better living out of it than I ever did.
Bob Eaton – Writer & Director, Roll Over Beethoven
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