Spencer Leigh investigates the links between the armed forces and rock’n’roll
PLEASE NOTE – This feature is a work in progress as there are undoubtedly other musicians who could be included and existing entries which could be expanded. Any comments about army life would also be welcomed. If you have any information, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and the piece can be updated. (7 December 2005)
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” (Dr Johnson)
“Hup, two, three, four: occupation G.I.Blues.” (Elvis Presley)
PART 1 – SQUARES BASHING
Tommy Trinder (walking down Whitehall): “Which side is the War Office on?”
Soldier: “Ours, I hope.”
(Wartime joke for which the BBC was severely censured.)
Rock’n’roll is the music of teenage rebellion. National service is about military discipline. Were the two incompatible? We all know about Elvis Presley and Terry Dene but what about the rest of the rock’n’rollers? Who was conscripted and who avoided service? Who served without complaint and who caused major headaches? And what did they learn from their experiences? Hopefully, this three-part feature answers the questions and a whole lot more besides.
What is conscription?
Conscription is a system whereby the state requires all men (and in Israel’s case, women too) to serve in the armed forces for a fixed period, often two years. It was Napoleon’s idea and generally it has been implemented in wartime.
After World War Two, five million UK servicemen were demobbed and to save them competing for jobs with teenagers, it was thought best to continue conscription, roughly for the ages 18 to 25. As a result, Britain, for the first time, had conscription during peacetime. At the time, no one objected publicly to the legislation: least of all, the potential conscripts. They did not want to be criticised for being shirkers or cowards, that is, as young men not willing to follow their brave fathers or elder brothers who had fought in the war. An unlikely exception to this, as we shall see, is the gangster-like promoter Don Arden.
The situation was similar in America and, as a result, this feature can go back and forth between the two countries with no real loss in understanding. American conscripts were called up when they were 23, but from the age of 18, someone could volunteer to do his service earlier. This means, for example, that Eddie Cochran, who died in April 1960, would have been called up shortly after his return home. Narvel Felts says, “If you passed your physical and you were not married, you were classified 1-A. If someone was married, he would drop to the next classification and if he had a child, it would be the one below that. You had the choice to enlist in either branch of the service or you would be drafted for two years. I chose the National Guard with a six year enlistment. It involved six months active duty, two weeks a year summer camp and once a week, National Guard drill. This changed to one weekend a month when Vietnam came along. At my 1965 summer camp in Fort Knox, the rumours were rampant that we would be activated, but thanks to Lyndon Johnson, we were not.”
There were allowances for conscientious objectors, notably Quakers, which, ironically, took courage during wartime. A conscript would have to show that he had held his beliefs for some time and that he was willing to undertake alternative work in hospitals and nursing homes. During the war Michael Tippett wrote an oratorio “A Child Of Our Time” to protest about anti-Semitic violence, but that didn’t prevent him from being jailed for refusing to comply with the conditions for exemptions for national service. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1966.
There were exemptions for the sick and the handicapped and also those in certain key professions, notably medicine and mining. Bobby Darin was exempt because of the residual effects of rheumatic fever and Fats Domino was excused because of his flat feet. Maybe Fats felt conscious about this as “Korea Blues” suggests that he was serving. Ex-cons were exempt, though I fail to see why, and James Brown, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Sam Cooke avoided service because of their misdemeanors. Similarly, Chuck Berry avoided the forces although he wrote about active service in “Too Much Monkey Business”. In the UK, university students would have their call-up deferred.
I am certain that Elvis Presley would never have done military service if there had been a war raging and there was the slightest danger of him being killed. It’s incredible to think that there was a time when there wasn’t a war on, but there was a little pocket of uneasy peace around 1959/60, though, admittedly, there was the Cold War between Russia and the West.
There had been a fair amount of conflict after World War Two – Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Palestine, Aden, Malaya and Kenya. Although 400 UK conscripts lost their lives, there were relatively few servicemen in high risk areas, and many of the other jobs appear preposterous. What could be more pointless than painting coal white or scrubbing a floor with a toothbrush?
Lee Hazlewood did his national service between 1947 and 1949 but he was unlucky as he was conscripted again at the start of the Korean war. Although he was in danger during his tour of duty, he also worked as a DJ on the armed forces radio service in Japan and so obtained valuable experience.
Despite impaired hearing through a bout of childhood measles, Link Wray was conscripted in 1951 and was sent to Germany and then Korea. He returned to the States in 1953 and ordered a Gibson Les Paul guitar. He developed his own style, playing louder than most because of his hearing. Wray was having problems with his lungs. In the forces, he had been told this was nothing to worry about but now it was diagnosed as tuberculosis. The left lung was removed and he was in hospital for most of 1956. He said, “The only reason I was doing instrumentals was because I couldn’t sing.” An example that genius, or something close to it, can come from adversity.
In 1952, Lloyd Price cut his big hit “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and then was drafted into the forces. On that first session, he also cut “Mailman Blues” which was about getting his draft papers “the night before last” (Strange postal system in America) and the postman tells him that they need him across the sea. Price served in the Special Services in both Korea and Japan and there was even a piece in Cash Box saying that he didn’t like the army. Actually, it wasn’t too bad for him as he formed a band, which backed visiting stars such as Jimmy Durante and Debbie Reynolds. More to the point, by the time he was demobbed, his record label had discovered Little Richard and he had to rebuild his career.
In 1953, Leroy Van Dyke was a special agent in the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps, which was stationed in Korea. Leroy was missing a guitar and asked his mother to send one. Not wanting to ship a decent guitar to the Far East, he told her to buy a cheap one from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. The $34 guitar arrived undamaged in Korea. In the next few months, Leroy wrote several songs including one about his cousin’s job, “The Auctioneer”. He entertained at concert parties and he opened for Marilyn Monroe, who was visiting the troops.
He was an American; he was a star; he wore spectacles; he flew in appalling conditions; and he died in mysterious circumstances while he was on tour. 15 years before Buddy Holly, Glenn Miller died somewhere in the English Channel. He was billed as Major Glenn Miller and he had been one of the first to spot the kudos of being in uniform. Cecil Gant toured the south with his own band until the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941. As a serviceman, he played for bond rallies and was known as “The GI Sing-Sation”. In 1944 he had a hit with “I Wonder” under the name of Private Cecil Gant and he would wear his uniform on stage. In 1951 and long out of the forces, he recorded an early rock’n’roll classic, “Rock Little Baby”. Similarly, when Buddy Knox went into the Tank Corps in 1957, he was allowed to make records. His “Rock Your Little Baby To Sleep” was credited to Lieutenant Buddy Knox. Although some performers were allowed to record while they were in the forces, the sessions were hurried and rarely represented their best work.
In May 1954, the lead singer with the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter was drafted but he was stationed in Buffalo, New York so he could return for weekend gigs, if not for tours. When he was demobbed, he became a solo artist and he joined Bill Haley on a package tour. The Drifters recruited Johnny Moore but he himself was drafted in 1957. The Drifters have the most drifting personnel of all groups, and they certainly would not have drifted so much without Uncle Sam.
Here are the years that some notable Brits were conscripted: 1946 Bob Monkhouse, Roger Moore: 1947 Acker Bilk: 1949 Ronnie Corbett, Ned Sherrin: 1950 Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Arnold Wesker: 1951 Michael Aspel: 1952 Brian Sewell: 1954 Nigel Lawson: 1955 Michael Parkinson and 1956 Brian Blessed. If you were delinquent when you went in, you might very well stay that way. It was once a psychopath, always a psychopath with Reggie and Ronnie Kray. They were conscripted in 1952 but spent much of their time in military prisons. A case of “I fought the law and law won.”
Without doubt, Michael Heseltine had the most novel way to get discharged. In 1959 he had only been in the army for a few months when the Prime Minister announced a General Election. Hezza decided to stand, which meant an automatic discharge, his very move revealing the dexterity he needed to become a top politician.
By the late 50s, the UK had a huge army of conscripts, which was draining the economy. The country had to feed, clothe, train and pay these men, and two years was not long enough for a positive return on conscription. The politicians agreed to amend the legislation but many parents did not want National Service to be abolished – it taught children discipline and gave them trades. The call-up was one reason why being a teenager was regarded as simply a step to adulthood. Heaven forbid that teenagers should have their own tastes and preoccupations. Indeed, many adults viewed the Teddy boy fashions of the mid-50s with alarm and thought that the sooner they got into the army the better.
I was 12 at the time but I can still recall RSM Britton on “6.5 Special” in 1957. This fearsome man had the loudest voice in the army and he would shout his way through his appearances. What was the purpose of this? Was he meant to be encouraging recruitment? If so, it didn’t work as it had the opposite effect. Who wanted to stand on a parade ground and have RSM Britton bawling “You ’orrible little man” a mere six inches from his face?
The acceptance of army life can be seen in “Carry On Sergeant” (1958), the first of the “Carry On” films and although a series hadn’t been planned, it’s appropriate that the training of conscripts was the first target. Elvis had gone into the army which is why Gerald (“Billy Bunter”) Campion is polishing his guitar while others are cleaning their rifles, but he doesn’t play it. The wimpish Horace played by Kenneth Connor shows how difficult it is to escape from army duties, “Medical, huh! It’s a farce, a criminal farce! A1! Me! A-flaming-one! Army doctors, huh! I tell you, mate, two of everything you should have two of, and you’re in!” By the end of the film, the sergeant (William Hartnell) has made a man of him – or was it Nora (Dora Bryan) in the canteen?
Strangely though, even ten years after the war, there was still no rebellion against conscription. By and large, teenagers accepted it as something had to be done and made the best of it. Rather than wasting two years of their lives, many found the forces a blessing in disguise. They were trained for civilian jobs – at its best, commercial pilots. In addition, they learnt to drive and became sexually experienced: hence, Leslie Thomas’ novel, “The Virgin Soldiers”. Most significantly, the conscripts widened their experience by meeting recruits from other social classes, other ethnic groups and from other parts of the UK.
In 1957 an accounts clerk called Dick Teague formed a skiffle group but the lead singer Terry Harness was drafted. They wanted a new singer and a young Harry Webb auditioned and joined. It was Harry’s first group and he became Cliff Richard. Steve Turner, Cliff Richard’s biographer, says that Cliff was euphoric the day he picked up the Daily Mirror and saw that children born in 1940 would not have to do National Service.
On 13 May 1963, when Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan walked out of an army camp and returned to civilian life, he became the last National Serviceman to be demobbed. On the whole, the professional servicemen were relieved. They believed that a high quality army was best served by the regulars, that is, those who wanted to be in it. Ever since then, whenever a reintroduction of conscription has been suggested as a means of resolving teenage crime, the forces have been unwaveringly against it. They do not want the forces to become a human dustbin. A good example of a reluctant recruit would be the disc-jockey John Peel. With his public school background, he was officer potential, but he hated army service and did the least he could with the minimum of enthusiasm.
Conscription continued in America, and when John Lennon was asked by an American reporter in 1964, “Will the draft break up your group?” he replied, “There is no draft in England anymore. We’ll let you Yanks do the fighting for us.”
The draft became a necessity for the Vietnam war, which, from the start, was a questionable undertaking. Few conscripts wanted to participate as there was a very real danger of being injured or killed. Many objected on ethical grounds, believing that America had no reason to be involved, but this was not regarded as an acceptable excuse by the authorities. Thousands of young Americans burnt their draft cards and settled in Canada. It was no longer unpatriotic to avoid the draft: indeed, quite the reverse. Nevertheless, a very macho record, S/Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” topped the US charts for five weeks in 1966.
In 1961 the Four Preps recorded “The Big Draft Medley” on which they suggested that the Platters, the Four Aces, Dick and Deedee, the Marcels, the Highwaymen and Dion should do army service:
“I’ll never smile again, our new record’s a bomb,
They’ve never heard of us in South Vietnam.”
The jokes were too parochial for the UK but the Barron Knights reworked the idea for “Call Up The Groups” in 1964, even though conscription had been abolished.
Although the Four Preps had made a humorous record, it made serious points. The Liverpool R&B band, the Hideaways, had one American member, John Shell. Ozzie Yue recalls, “John Shell was born in Dallas and because his mum was married to an American serviceman, he had American citizenship. He got his conscription papers and he went out to Vietnam. He was only there three months before he was killed in action. It was just a week after he got a Purple Heart for being wounded in action. He had wanted to see the world and had seen the call-up as an opportunity but it was the wrong way of doing it.”
In a bizarre move in 1969, conscription was turned into a televised lottery and if your date of birth was selected, it was hard luck or even goodbye. Conscription ended in the US in 1973 and since then, all vacancies have been met through voluntary recruitment or re-enlistment.
During 2005, a British serviceman James Blunt topped the singles and albums charts with wimpish love songs. The last track on his album, “Back To Bedlam”, is attributed to Capt. J Blunt LG and is called “No Bravery”. It is about the horrors of Kosovo: “I see no bravery in your eyes anymore, only sadness.” Blunt is seen as a model serviceman but that song isn’t far removed from Billy Bragg.
War service – I love a guy in uniform
One of the first show business personalities to avoid war service was Cole Porter. He relocated to Paris during the First World War and when he returned to America, he told the press that he had been in the French Foreign Legion. Total nonsense, but unlike today, no reporter checked the story.