Cliff Richard and The Drifters - “Cliff” 1959, Columbia Records
Down the Line
I Got a Feeling
Baby I Don’t Care
Don’t Bug Me Baby
That’ll Be The Day
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going on
I’m excited to start a new weekly feature combining two of my favourite things, music and social history. Each week I’ll be looking at an important album from a British artist and talking about, not only the songs, but why the album was important at the time and if it remains important today.
Readers of my own age or younger may think that my first choice is a bit of strange one, isn’t Cliff Richard just easy listening for grandmas? Well, whoever your favourite UK alt artists are, they all owe a little something to Sir Cliff who was actually Britain’s first real rock star.
Cliff Richard and The Drifters (who would later change their name to The Shadows) first started playing together in coffee bars in London’s trendy Soho district. Coffee bars were a new innovation in Britain and were the place for young people to be seen. Despite this, it was through a more traditional route, a local Sunday morning talent show at a theatre in Shepherd's Bush, West London that they got their big break. An agent saw them and paid for them to make a demo which then found its way to EMI. They were signed and recorded a cover of “Schoolboy Crush” as their first single with “Move It” as the B-side. It became clear to the producers that “Move It” was the real hit, representing a sound that had never been created in Britain before and so the tracks were switched and in 1958 “Move It” was released as Cliff Richard’s first single.
With “Move It” Cliff Richard essentially became Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley (whom he idolised). He was marketed as a rebellious rocker and as Elvis-mania had already swept the UK, a new home-grown talent was well received by young people who had grown up in the austerity of post-war Britain and loved the new found freedom they were experiencing at the end of the 1950s. It seems astonishing now that Cliff who famously eschews all kinds of rock and roll excess was considered rather risque, he was accused of vulgarity, indecency and apparently some people thought the way he moved his hips might corrupt the young. This was the start of a brief period of chart domination for Cliff who was the standout star of the British music scene until The Beatles came along. Indeed The Beatles credited Cliff as an important influence.
“Move It” was the first rock and roll record to be produced outside the USA and reached number 2 in the UK chart in October 1958. Looking at this chart is interesting - all the names I recognise in this chart are American, so it seems that Cliff was truly a breakthrough star. The single stayed in the chart for an impressive 17 weeks. Cliff’s performances at this time apparently owed much to his idol, Elvis with similar posing and swagger and in photos from the time he certainly looks a lot like “The King”.
“Move It” is the stand out song of the album which is a mix of original songs and covers of American rock and roll standards, although my favourite track is “Jet Black” which honestly puts me in mind of The White Stripes - Cliff must have been a true visionary! Cliff even sounds very much like Elvis on this album, in stark contrast to his later work which people are probably more familiar with. This is most evident on “Down The Line” and “Ready Teddy”. The album is very much a product of its time and was recorded live at Abbey Road in front of an invited audience of excitable sounding teenage girls. It’s their screaming rather than the music itself that makes the album feel dated. If you are an Elvis fan, you’ll certainly enjoy “Cliff”.
“Cliff” reached number 4 on the UK album chart and stayed in the chart for 31 weeks. Unlike the top 40 singles chart, the album chart was strictly a top ten at the time, so to stay in it for more than half a year seems incredible, especially considering the moral outcry against Cliff and the genre he represented. What I found most interesting about this chart is that 5 of the 10 albums are soundtracks, so I suppose Brits were getting most of their musical experiences from theatre and cinema and Cliff represents the youth breaking away from these more traditional forms of entertainment.
Having grown up surrounded by rock music, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to hear this kind of thing for the first time in Britain. The idea of music being life changing seems quite cliche, but this was a time when teens were suddenly able to go out to hip new coffee bars and relax rather than being pushed straight from school into adulthood. Being able to put one of Cliff’s songs on the jukebox and dance must have seemed quite wild at the time. After post-war austerity this was a new age of affluence (we’d “Never had it so good” according to the Prime Minister of the day) and teenagers with a disposable income and some free time were beginning to find ways to have fun that separated them from their parents. It’s fair to say then that “Cliff” was very important to the youth of Britain in 1959.
Success and a place in the popular consciousness continued from this moment onward. Cliff Richard remains one of Britain’s most successful and longest serving entertainers. Following in the footsteps of his idol Elvis Presley, he diversified into film, television and musicals. Between 1958 and 1965 he had 23 consecutive UK Top 10 hit singles, this remains a record for a male solo artist. He has released 145 singles to date and shows no signs of stopping (his latest, “Rise Up” came out this week). He represented Britain at the Eurovision song contest and although he is now best known for Christian music, easy listening and that time he made the entire centre court crowd sing in the rain with him at Wimbledon, he has had hit singles or albums in every decade since he started performing. He will release a new album next month, so the potential exists for this to continue, especially as he has been in the news a lot lately having recently been embroiled in a long running court case against the BBC.
I must admit that I have never been a Cliff Richard fan. Listening to his first album hasn’t changed that, but it has made me look at him in a new light and appreciate and respect him as a trailblazer of British music and popular culture. There are a number of UK radio stations who refuse to play his music because he is considered too bland and uncool. I didn’t realise that the man who is famous for his wholesome, clean living lifestyle was once considered such a threat to the morality of the nation’s youth.
“Rise Up” is now available on Spotify and honestly it’s not bad!
If you’d like to find out a bit more about British teenagers at the end of the 1950s this short video clip is a fun watch - 1958 British Pathe Newsreel “Life of The Teenager”