Putting aside the 1950s and maybe the early 1960s, who in UK music history has consistently made big hit records in the rock’n’roll style ? After the 50s, this style became a sub-culture, overtaken at different times in terms of popularity by Beatle-mania, Mod, Motown, Soul, Glam Rock, Punk, you name it. But one man, especially in the early 1980s, regularly had mega-hit records and in terms of stardom matched any other performer at that time – and his style was Rock’n’Roll ! Kinda shows how important he was in the history of UK rock’n’roll. His name is Shakin’ Stevens.
It was this man that we celebrated on 16th September, with a Tribute concert at the Esse Café in Moscow. After my introductory rock’n’roll dance class to open the concert, the Lowcosters came on stage to put on a truly great set for us. I have written about the Lowcosters already in this column in the past. They are simply a superb band and Greeeeat to dance to ! Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Event on 16/09/17.
In the early 1980s three of Shakin’ Stevens’ singles records made it to number one in the Charts. To jog the memory of a few of you out there, here’s a reminder of them; “Green Door”, “Oh Julie” and “Merry Christmas, Everyone.” Plus he had many more that made it into the top five in the hit parade, such as “This Ole House”, “Marie, Marie” and “Hot Dog”.
Having lived through those times myself I can testify to a polemic that surrounded him, as follows. By switching from a pure rock’n’roll sound to a combination of rock’n’roll and pop, he was accused by diehard rockers of “selling out”. To be fair, such accusations were not unusual then. Some punk bands at about the same time, such as the Clash, were accused of selling out punk, with their more mainstream-appeal style of music that they switched to. There were many other examples then of such accusations in other genres of music. And it’s maybe a little hard to point fingers at someone who can see a way towards becoming rich and famous. Some of us have stayed loyal to authentic rock’n’roll all our lives, but given the chance to become rich by compromising a bit, would everyone have stayed “true” ?
In any event, there is no doubt that Shaky retained plenty of rock’n’roll in his new image. And again to be fair, he was a million miles away from those “plastic Ted” imposters from around the same period, such as “Showaddywaddy” – yuk ! If you are not knowledgeable about those times and that particular group, no need to waste time here on those pseudo rock’n’roll imitators.
My first direct experience of Shaky was going more than once to see the West End Musical “Elvis” in the 1970s. Almost everyone, including myself, who saw that show could not doubt that here was a real and special talent. But more of that show and its influence on his career later.
His real name was Michael Barrett and his background could not have been more working class. He was the youngest of 11 children in his family and born and bred in a small house on a Cardiff council estate. In 1968 he became part of a rock’n’roll group, “Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets”, a band created and managed by Paul Barrett (no relation). In view of Paul’s impact on Shaky’s career, I wanna take time out to quickly talk about Paul.
Paul’s history in UK rock’n’roll goes back a long way. In particular, it goes back importantly to his managing the Sunsets and subsequently playing the same role for Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers. His career developed into being a general promoter of rock’n’roll bands and events. I have got to know Paul just a little bit on a personal level in recent times and all who know him have testified to his integrity and his commitment to rock’n’roll. He has a political side, a lifelong member of the Communist Party in one of its various forms and this briefly impacted on Shaky’s career in the early days of the Sunsets. As someone who was also very actively left wing and political in my younger days (age inevitably changed me !), I found this part of the Shaky story of real interest.
He performed at various events organised by the Young Communist League. This was really the result of Paul’s influence, plus two other members of the Sunsets were also actively left wing. But the following two stories kind of indicate how Shaky was really indifferent and uninterested in the political side of things.
In the book “Shakin’ Stevens” which Paul co-wrote in the early 1980s with Hilary Hayward, he described it thus: “The group appeared at a number of Communist Party benefits over the years, although Shaky may have been unaware of the significance of this – if it helped his career and if there could be a guaranteed large audience to play to, he’d do it. In later years, conversations which centred around politics rather than his own favourite subject – Shakin’ Stevens – actually annoyed him.” Paul recalled another episode; “We played in Holland when the Vietnam War was at its height and they had a big thing – Amsterdam helps Saigon. We did a gig for them and I got them to play an instrumental – it was “The Red Flag” rocked up. I remember Shaky saying, “Where’s Saigon ?”
The story now gets to the part where Shaky got his crucial break into the big time. The music promoter Jack Good invited him to London, to audition for the upcoming West End musical “Elvis”. He was successful in landing one of the main parts for the show, which was to play the role of Elvis during his early rock’n’roll years. It was the turning point. The show, which was originally intended to run for a few months, proved to be a smash hit and Shaky was acknowledged as the real star. The show was the first time I saw him performing live. As mentioned above I saw the event more than once and was in awe of his performances. Not only the way he moved on stage, but his voice and his rockin’ charisma were sensational.
The original plan had been for him to return to South Wales to re-unite with the Sunsets when “Elvis” finished. But it wasn’t difficult for Jack Good to persuade him to stay in London and capitalise on his new-found fame. The Sunsets were understandably “miffed”, to quote Paul’s under-stated description of their reaction. They’d had a pivotal influence on Shaky’s eventual success, only to be cut out of the picture. The rest is history. The big hits came shortly afterwards and his popularity by the early 1980s matched any other national pop performer.
Inevitably, from the mid-1980s onwards the mega-stardom waned, but he continued to be popular and kept on performing and touring. Of course as he’s got older he’s eased up a bit.
Before summing up Shaky’s story, here’s one more quote from Paul from his 1983 book, which sort of sums up Paul’s own feelings: “Shaky is constantly being quoted as having had a ‘hard time of it’ on the way up the ladder to success. For a young boy who left school at fifteen semi-literate and without formal qualifications of any kind, life as the lead singer of a rock’n’roll band offered far more glamour and interest – and wages – than working as an upholsterer ever could. And yet now that he’s got his mansion in the country and his big cars, he feels angry at the world for making him wait so long.”
Despite everything, Shakin’ Stevens played an important role in the history of UK Rock’n’Roll. His mega-hits and his live act were definitely in the rock’n’roll style, albeit watered down a tad. He may not have stayed as true to our brand of music, as for example Crazy Cavan did over the same period of time. But no-one in the last generation has taken it so high in the charts or popularised it to the degree that Shaky did. So Thanks Shaky – we’re Grateful.