Why Britain Rocked: How Rock Became Roll And Took Over The World – By Elizabeth Sharkey.
Release Date: Out Now
Published By: Academica Press
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Elizabeth Sharkey argues that the origins of Britain’s greatest artistic export might not be as straightforward as you think.
As a society we’re constantly being asked to assess and reframe our personal and political histories, so why not our cultural ones too? That question is at the heart of Elizabeth Sharkey’s fascinating book ‘Why Britain Rocked,’ a collection whose narrative presents a challenge to the age-old myth that rock and pop came careering over from the States neatly and readily packed as teen rebellion.
In a series of enlightening chapters, Sharkey takes us on a sociological journey to prove her point, from the sixteenth-century Northern Irish clans and Scottish lowlands, where the birth of folk music was a direct reaction to communal adversity. She reveals that those early seeds of gatherings, particularly the art of dramatic storytelling would be repeated centuries later with Motown, a label whose vivacious snapshots of longing and loss would be a staple in their near-perfect pop songs of the sixties and seventies.
It’s this complicated relationship between the past and present and a sense of duality that drives ‘Why Britain Rocked.’ The UK’s fascination with American music and culture for instance pre-dated the 1950’s by some margin, from the abhorrent minstrel shows which became a music hall hit in England in the late nineteenth century, to the championing of the multi-talented Paul Robeson. In a chapter entitled ‘The People’s Artist’, Sharkey hits her stride beautifully with one of the first examples of the rise and fall of black genius, citing Robeson’s close affiliation with the working classes of Britain to his struggles back home with the FBI. To the initiated ( like me ) it’s always fascinating to be presented with an inspirational story like Robeson’s, crossed with a tinge of guilt too that my knowledge of the origins of Afro-American creativity are rooted in some vague notion of the Delta Blues, which were plainly just a crosswind in the cultural hurricane.
That’s the whole point of this book though and why it’s so successful. It informs and whilst that might sound like a history lesson, rooted in academia, Sharkey’s passionate voice resonates enough throughout to keep things interesting. Meticulous in her research, there’s no doubt she’s a music fan at heart and there’s an elegance to her writing that draws parallels with the American scholar and writer Lara Peregrinelli both in her subject matter and scope. As far as contemporary icons go does the book offer up any new revelations about the emergence of our modern-day heroes that haven’t been bled out onto the page before?
Sharkey’s philosophy seems to suggest that there is no ground zero moment in pop and rock and that cultural revolutions are deep rooted in a kind of creative DNA, not a flash point in time and history, whereas Lydon once suggested ‘anger is an energy.’ There’s an argument against that of course, but in arguably the best chapter in the book entitled ‘Squalid Liverpool,’ Sharkey plays her ace card, focusing squarely on the upbringing of The Beatles. She makes a solid argument that the Fab Four had the talent bred into them through poverty, struggle and their lesser talked about Irish lineage. As the book goes on to explain, it’s no coincidence that both Lennon and McCartney post Beatles ‘released songs in protest against the British occupation in Northern Ireland.’ By Lennon a typical move, but with Paul almost a rare piece of political empathy for both his bloodline and his working-class Liverpool roots.
There’s a similar sense of genealogy in the book with both Oasis and The Smiths, through the Gallagher brothers and Johnny Marr, though more on the hedonistic side of their Irish pedigree. Sharkey to her credit ties it all together with as much poetic verve as the artists she is writing about. ‘The tunes and songs that left the shores of Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries formed one part of the pure, raw ethos from which America’s music developed. With the returning ships the music came back like a gift,’ she states.
It’s certainly a new spin on the age-old origins of British rock and roll and with such an erudite book as this one, it will be interesting to see where Elizabeth Sharkey goes next. For now ‘Why Britain Rocked’ should be on every music fans literary radar. Prepare to be enlightened.
Elizabeth is an author, actress and voice-over artist living in London and is married to the musician Feargal Sharkey. You can find more about the book at the website here: You can buy the book here:
Words by Craig Campbell, you can read more book reviews at his author profile. He also tweets here
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