The British Scene in the 1970s
During the past fifteen years I’ve been very much involved in the British country scene. I’ve seen changes and many times I’ve heard whispers and roars that home-grown talent was about to set the world alight. Yet here we are in 1980 and still without a major British country star.
On the surface, it probably appears that throughout the 1970s great strides have been made. Certainly there are more clubs, more groups, more singers and, most important, more fans. Yet if you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the scene in 1980 is little different to that in 1970, when CMP was firstly published.
Sadly, it appears to be a case of quantity above quality today. There were as many top-rate musicians on the home front in 1970 as there are now. In terms of bands and singers, the story is much the same. Ten years ago the top groups I came across numbered roughly about a dozen. Amongst them were the Hillsiders, Phil Brady & The Ranchers and The Kentuckians (from Liverpool), The Country Cousins and Jonny Young Four (from Kent), Lincoln Park Inn and Country Fever (from London), Country Syndicate (from Berkshire) and Frank Yonco.
Today the story is much the same. There are still only around a dozen groups which could rightly be termed top class. You can count among them Poacher, The Hillsiders, Frank Jennings’ Syndicate, Ned Porridge, Southbound, Kelvin Henderson’s Band, Little Ginny’s Room Service and Frank Yonco. I have no idea exactly how many country bands are currently working in Britain. Judging by the listings in the BCMA Yearbook, I would guess that there must be four times the number that were around in 1970. For the number of bands, and for that matter solo acts, to have increased so substantially, it must mean that the demand for ‘live’ country music has also grown and proportionally the umber of clubs and similar venues.
Country music, or more specifically British country music, commanded quite a large following ten years ago. The number of fans today must be quite huge, yet there is no apparent sign on the horizon of any major star or band emerging. To draw a comparison, there was only one country act, The Hillsiders, signed to a recognised major label in 1970. The progress through the last ten years finds us in the embarrassing situation of still having only one act, Stu Stevens, signed to a major label (MCA).
Why, in ten years of steady growth with a much increased following, has British country music failed to progress in more startling terms?
Could it be the old, old story of too many well-meaning amateurs working extremely hard in their own little corners of the country to make British country music a local success, holding it back on a national level? I believe that the biggest problem in selling British country music to the general public is at the ground level. Lots of little clubs run by fans for fans has held back the progress of the scene for too long.
No band or singer can improve, either musically or professionally, when the bulk of its work is in a sometimes badly organised atmosphere where the music is treated as little more than dance-floor fodder. Nothing is fundamentally wrong with that, but history has proved that it needs a person who is ‘money motivated’ to make something a success.
We all knock Mervyn Conn. Yet isn’t Wembley a prime example that a ‘money motivated’ venture will work. When Conn first unveiled the plans for his International Country Music Festival a dozen years ago he was laughed at. He was attempting to take a ‘minority’ interest music and make it nationally known. All the odds were stacked against him. The man knew nothing about country music, perhaps didn’t even like the music. But he was out to make his fortune, so by applying a shrewd business brain to the operation and blending it with the will to make money, he came out on top.
None of the local country club organisations possess the business skills of Mervyn Conn. If they did, there’s no way they would be running a country music club. But I wonder how many of them have bothered to try and learn business skills, either via correspondence courses or going to an adult education course. Can any club organisation honestly say that he would like his club to make money. It is only if a club makes money, lots of money, and reinvests this money into larger premises that the British scene will grow. There are country clubs in America. The difference between the best there and the best over here is that in America they are run first and foremost as a business. A club run in a proper business-like way has the potential to expand. And as it expands so will the number of patrons. Many clubs still meet in the same small room where they started some six, seven or ten years ago. Can you honestly call that progress?
The British country clubs need to appeal to the general public, not just the dedicated country fan. By expanding their appeal, the clubs will then be able to afford the higher-priced bands. These bands will improve, both musically and professionally, because of the surroundings they are working under. The clubs cannot carry the blame for all the failings of the British scene. The acts themselves must shoulder a fair proportion for their unprofessional attitude and at times lack of dedication.
For too long the blame has been laud at the feet of the media. There’s no doubt that the press (including CMP) have not done their job as well as they could have, and certainly the radio and television have been most unfair in ignoring home-grown talent. But what of the talent itself?
Artists like Stu Stevens, Tony Goodacre, Pete Sayers, The Hillsiders, The Duffy Brothers and one or two others do keep the press informed of their various activities and I regard these as the true professionals. The rest truly don’t deserve to make it. An artist must realise that success has to be worked for. The road to the top is hard and rocky. Days on the road travelling from gig to gig can be gruelling, but unless you work on your PR or can afford to pay someone else to do it, all the graft you put in travelling, performing and practising could be wasted.
The American country music scene has grown into a big business. The reasons are simple, both artists and the booking agents treat country music as a way to make money. Sadly that attitude is not apparent this side of the Atlantic. The British country scene is run and organised by people who are first and foremost fans, business is a little further down the line.
We are beginning to see the booking agents emerge. Lee Williams, Mike Storey, Live Promotions and others—these are the people and the organisations who are beginning to change the face of British country music. But they are all having an uphill struggle. When I have booked shows the problems I have in obtaining photos or publicity material on British acts is quite unbelievable. Yet this basic requirement is so essential for gaining a write-up in a local newspaper. Without this write-up how on earth are the public to know that the show is taking place, or who the various acts are?
Then we come to the cost of the acts. To be honest, all British country acts are going out much too cheaply. The blame must rest here on the clubs. Because they have failed over the years to expand, .the artists have been unable to put their fees up. It is all very much a vicious circle, it goes round and round and there seems to be no immediate solution.
Perhaps Marlborough, instead of injecting cash into the Wembley Festival, which is already well established, should help the British scene at grass-roots level. Unless we have a really strong British scene with major British stars, then American country music is always going to experience problems in being accepted in Britain.
Since 1963, when The Beatles put British pop music on the map, there have been more major American pop and rock stars touring Britain. I believe that the same could happen to country music. For too long we, the country music fans, have put down British country music. In doing so we have defeated our own objectives of seeing more American stars this side of the Atlantic.
The media is of course chiefly to blame for this. We have two specialist country music journals. One is written by professional journalists and the other one is full of the writings of local club organisers and those associated with that area. Rightly or wrongly, CMP has concentrated on featuring the ‘bigger’ names in British country music, which means that the coverage has been a little scanty, with generally one act featured each month.
Country Music Roundup follows the approach of the duplicated journals of the 1960s (I used to edit one—Country Music Monthly) in featuring news and reviews of British acts whether they were good, bad or indifferent, with little constructive criticism on these acts. They are fulfilling a need for the fans who frequent the local clubs, but is CMRU really doing anything worthwhile in helping the progress of British Country Music?
Sadly I think not. CMRU has taken British country music back in time by an inward, instead of outward, policy towards British country music. This also has been the problem with the BCMA. A fan-oriented organisation that fulfils a necessary need, yet by its very set-up hinders the progress of the scene. A couple of years ago it seemed to be making the right moves, but now appears to be going backwards instead of forwards. The annual awards this year were a complete farce in both the British and American sections, and took us back to 1969 when we were all novices involved in country music.
In America the CMA helps constructively in building country music. This just doesn’t seem to happen in Britain. It seems as if our CMA is completely out of touch with what is happening, and the failure to direct the development of country music in Britain makes the organisation ineffective.
The Brighton Festival of all British Country Music has been a bold step, but needs a sponsor. National advertising would really put the Brighton Festival on the map. Even open the doors for similar events in other areas of the country.
The failure of the British country scene to develop during the 1970s is a problem created unwittingly by all of us. Whether or not we can put things right during the next ten years is up to us. Attitudes must change. Country fans must be prepared to listen to ‘new’ songs and not the same old standards night after night. Artists must be committed to making a commercial success out of their music. Success cannot be handed out on a plate, it has to be worked for, but it can be attained.
The media must be more prepared to accept British country music and help it to grow, and those people running the music business in Britain should welcome original British country acts and groom them for the great rewards that are out there waiting to be picked. It is in the interests of the American record companies that Britain has a healthy country scene, and that means investing money into British acts. It happens in Canada and Australia, so why not in Britain?
I believe in British country music. True it might seem that I’ve given everybody a kick up the backside, but perhaps that is just the remedy the scene as a whole needs. Certainly we cannot continue for another ten years as we have for the past decade. The scope for British country music is so wide, and if we all pull together we can make it all happen.