Tuesday, 22 July 2008

THE BOB CORT SKIFFLE GROUP: Six Five Special


My wife has suggested an unlikely but I think viable comparison point for skiffle; the frantic but near weightless rhythm, the rhetorical/ritual repetition of phrases and gestures until fascination hypnotically takes precedence over meaning – it’s the unacknowledged grandparent of House music! In that context, Cort’s original recording of “Six-Five Special” – as opposed to the tidied up version by Don Lang and his Frantic Five used as the theme tune for the similarly named BBC “pop” show – is the D-Mob/”We Call It Acieed” of its day; a transcription of essentially American gestures (though with common British roots; New Pop in the case of House, Scottish folk and dance music in the case of skiffle) into contemporary British terminologies and tropes.

This didn’t always work as well as skiffle’s practitioners might have hoped; hear, for instance, Cort’s recasting of Chuck Berry’s “School Day” in an effort to make it into a tea chest manifesto (“Hail, hail, skiffle and roll!” doesn’t quite carry the same resonance). But his “Six Five Special” works because of assured control of the song and style’s motors; the Home Counties “over the points” leitmotif in a Britain where travel, regardless of distance or destination, was considered nonpareil exoticism (and still was three decades later; see It’s Immaterial’s “Driving Away From Home” with its melancholy refrain of “Thirty miles or more.” Thirty miles? Gentlemen, Edwin Starr WALKED 25 of them!). Cort, meanwhile, is bursting with purple wax darts of expectation; he needs her to get to the station, and everything and everyone is working to speed its flow, including Cort himself, with his teeteringly near-sensual “wah wah”s (echoed by strident whistleblowing lead guitar George van Eps block chords), his capturing and chewing of the word “bright” and his astonishing growl of “HARRRRRRRD!!” as the brakes come down (we sense EXACTLY what he means).

The ritual story is that the make do and mend/air raid shelter worthiness of skiffle was eventually leapfrogged by the feral fuckability of rock ‘n’ roll, though in reality both happily co-existed in the charts until young Cliff and the Parnes stable decided to increase the post-Elvis stakes for a Britain no longer reliant on ration books and pressingly preserved lines of string. And, in truth, whatever one’s perspective on the Colyer/Donegan chicken/egg story, Lonnie (with the inescapable aid of his nominal engineer but actual producer Joe Meek) was able to push it forward into a quasi-surreal future; put his “Gamblin’ Man” or “Cumberland Gap” (both number ones in 1957) next to the affable growls of Wally Whyton and the Vipers and it’s clear that, as good as the latter are, the former constitute something beyond “good” (though the lineages are still profuse; the lonesome, isolated wail of Nancy Whiskey amidst the goods trains of Chas McDevitt’s Skiffle Group predate the lonesome diva wails which would characterise post-House dance and rave). Still, “Six Five Special” represents a decisive and rather merry turning down of the coin with “pay for the war” inscribed on both sides.

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