Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay: Cliff Richard and the Drifters: "Move It"

In 1958, the UK was enjoying its second year of 'never had it so good' merriment; despite the riots in Notting Hill, things were indeed starting to look up after a long period of austerity. Elvis, safely in the Army and no threat to anyone's livelihood, left something of a vacuum in the music scene. The first keen student to come along and try his best to fill said vacuum was one Harry Webb, who was renamed Cliff Richard (by himself? by someone else?) - a skiffle-beat freak like anyone else in Cheshunt who played guitar in the mirror, mastered his lip curls and hip shakes and raditude, found a group of similar rock 'n' roll beatdowns and went on the road as Cliff Richard and the Drifters. The story could have ended right then, of course, as so many of these stories do; but Cliff wasn't just doing this for a laugh - he was (and is) mightily and determinedly ambitious to make it in the industry.

And so he did - "Move It" made it to number two in the fall of '58, a sharp and mean tune that shows all that mirror practicing was more than worth it. Even though rock is a mere three years old, Cliff can and does sing this with disarming authority: "They say, it's gonna die: oh! honey bee let's face it;/They just don't know what's-a goin' to replace it." Ernie Shears plays a mean guitar and the other Drifters keep well out of Cliff's way, letting the teenager sing his song of getting down to the irreplaceable music of NOW. ("Move It" was apparently written on a bus by the regular guitarist for the Drifters, Ian Samwell; it was inspired by Chuck Berry but Cliff is all Elvis here.)

Indeed, Cliff Richard was marketed as the UK's equivalent to Elvis and Elvis' own neglect of the UK (meaning he never toured it, amazingly) must have helped some in this manner. In music there is almost always someone younger and hungrier coming along to grab someone else's success, but in Cliff's case this was more like an open frontier, the success of Elvis a huge shadow - ah, we'll get to them soon enough - in short, right from the beginning Cliff had an awful lot of catching up to do. Just having one hit single wasn't enough; eventually having a whole ton of hit singles would not be enough. From this entry on, he is there, always striving, always in the background of whatever fads, crazes and fashions the UK public has, sometimes embracing him, sometimes not. But he is always 'Our Cliff' against the Elvis of America, the homely boy from Hertfordshire (via British India) who considers himself at once normal and radical.

(For those who are curious, here is a performance of "Move It" done with Cliff and the Shadows, his next backing group.)

1 comment:

David Belbin said...

I saw Cliff last week (great show, nothing from after 1966) and he saved this for very near the end. As somebody born in 1958, those songs soundtracked my childhood, though this never meant that much to me - too much of an Elvis pastiche. Cliff will be coming up again and again here, so it's worth noting that he remains very affected by his chart placings. He made frequent comments about which got to number one and was happy to boast about his number two too (there's a British toilet joke to be had here but I'm not going to make it!)