Banging record collections. Beats bigger than the great outdoors. The glorious chonk-a-chonk rise of the rhythm guitar. Wailing harmonicas. The States and England. Black and white. Art schools. Ports. Bluesy chords inflected with flat-out pop bliss. Would-be creative geniuses in the process of mastering that genius whilst in thrall to their African American musical idols. Behold: the adrenalized juggernaut that is British rhythm and blues, the most exciting, culture-shaking, epoch-rattling genre in the history of popular music.
British R&B is a story of symbiosis. Students and working class blokes alike thrilling to hard-charging music, with sophisticated—but gutsy—vocal élan, producing some of the best music of their lives, oft-overlooked in the decades since on account of a Sgt. Pepper, a Tommy, a Beggars Banquet. But were the bands behind those masterpieces ever really better than they were in the age of British R&B? Colin Fleming shifts the paradigms of musical history, what we think we know, and what we need to hear—and hear anew, and for the first of what might be a thousand times, hooked forevermore.
Witness those Beatles covering the work of their greatest hero Arthur Alexander on the BBC. The Rolling Stones tearing it up at floor-shaking volume levels at Chess Records in Chicago. The Who’s seismic detonation of the notions of what maximum R&B could be. It’s a gathering of tribes: Yardbirds. Lulu. The Big Three. Zombies. Pretty Things. Them. Kinks. Animals. Rhythm and blues was manna for a plethora of English musicians in the years 1961-1965, remaking everything. How they thought, how they played, how they wrote music, how they hung out, how they viewed themselves, and how they experienced and heard the world they were in the process of changing, and would go on to change, each in their distinctive ways.
But they all started from the same place: the genre with the big beat, that has never stopped beating, no more than the throbbing triads and bass lines of Time’s own sweaty, pilled-up, lager-quaffing house band.
So come on inside, and Get a shot of rhythm and blues, with just a little rock and roll on the side…
Just for good measure.
Colin Fleming’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, MOJO, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, ARTnews, Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, JazzTimes, and many other publications. He’s the author of Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, in the 33 1/3 series, and If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope (Dzanc). Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com, where he maintains the popular Many Moments More blog.