Skiffle: Britain’s first punk revolution

29th May 2017

Label: Bear Family

Date: 2013

It changed everything. It brought music down from the stars and handed it to ordinary people. It gave a true DIY ethic to music production that allowed new ideas to flourish and entire sub-genres to form and blossom. You think I’m talking about punk from the late 70s, don’t you? I’m not. I’m talking about the punk principle that arose during the early 50s: it was called Skiffle.

Skiffle was important. In fact, along with rock’n’roll influences, Skiffle begat beat music. From beat sprang game-changing outfits such as The Beatles that helped to forge the cultural renaissance during the 60s. In fact, artists such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks were all directly influenced by the genre, for example.

To celebrate this wholly significant musical genre, Bear Family ( released The History Of Skiffle, a box set of classic Skiffle music featuring a superb, hard-back book plus a range of acts onto six CDs. From Ken Colyer (with Down By The Riverside and Midnight Special) to Lonnie Donegan (Cumberland Gap and Rock Island Line), Johnny Duncan’s Last Train To San Fernando, Chas McDevitt’s Freight Train and The Vipers Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O plus European outfits such as the Roban’s Skiffle Group and the Mozam Skiffle Group and a range of previously unreleased tracks.

For this column, I could have taken the clichéd position and focused on a Lonnie Donegan album but, although Donegan was the king of Skiffle, he wasn’t Skiffle. The genre encompassed much more but is still small enough to be considered as a focused, relatively niche, entity, hence this Masterworks is devoted to a genre instead of an artist. Unlike pop, rock or soul, Skiffle is a splintered kaleidoscope of small, yet intense, colours that are best seen in the round.

Skiffle stems back to the early spasm bands of the early 20th Century and the later Depression era. I’m not making up that term, either. A spasm band was a real thing. ‘Spasm’ referred to bands who couldn’t afford proper instruments and used ‘found’ items instead: items that were not created for such tasks such as combs, tea chests, broom handles, washboards and the like. UK trad jazz groups discovered this music in the USA, tweaked and played it during their trad jazz gigs.

Ulf Krueger, a Skiffle and beat musician himself who backed Lonnie Donegan on many occasions and produced two albums with him in the early 70s (under the Lonnie Donegan meets Leimann moniker), was the compiler of the box set.

Lonnie Donegan

“Skiffle began during the early 50s in England, that spread later to the continent. Centring on the black experience, it drew upon the hardships of life. It was a very serious thing for, jazz legend, Ken Colyer and Donegan, in the beginning. Skiffle appeared by accident. Colyer created it from a mixture styles: blues, jazz, gospel and more. Playing them in a simple way because of the simple arrangements. Bill Colyer the brother of Ken, was the first to coin the word ‘Skiffle’ in the UK. It was a bohemian term, fitting people who lived a certain lifestyle.”

You can read more about the life of Ken Colyer in this book.

Listening to this box set, you can hear Colyer, who was a purist, injecting jazz into Skiffle but also trying to imitate the blues stylists. Because it’s impossible to do that successfully (unless you were there and lived that life) it was injected with a definite English twist. The inclusion of the washboard was almost symbolic, a nod to the Depression but it also recreated the sounds of Colyer’s favourite songs. Lonnie Donegan played with Colyer in Chris Barber’s band on the early Skiffle tracks. During his own, later, tracks on this set, you can hear Donegan’s evolutionary style, twisting Skiffle to incorporate rock-a-billy and a particular British music-hall slant.

The Vipers

Donegan energised young people. Like the punk scene of the 70s, most of the Skiffle songs were based on three chords while instruments were basic. More to the point, everyone could join in (you couldn’t say the same about the contemporary rock’n’roll scene, most rock’n’roll outfits were packed with professional musicians). For Skiffle, “Not all of them were very good,’ said Krueger, “but other youngsters were more interested in bands of their age such as The Vipers (produced by George Martin and seen in this box set too) instead of the older, more professional musicians, such as Colyer and Chris Barber.” It’s almost, but not quite, like the pub rock/punk band comparison of the mid- to late-70s.

The source music for the box set was largely drawn from Krueger’s collection, ‘It comes from my heart,’ he said.

In his book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, singer Billy Bragg talked to Who rock legend, Pete Townshend, during a 2008 radio documentary about Ken Colyer. Townshend stated that he saw Colyer playing at Acton Town Hall, west London. Up until then, Townshend was used to the smooth swing sounds of his fathers sax playing with the Squadronaires big band, “I was used to the tidy music of my dad’s era,” said Townshend to Bragg. “It was messy. He (Colyer) was messy. The band were messy. The audience were messy.”

The audience? Drunken men too far gone to visit the gents urinated where they stood. Others who probably couldn’t afford a wristwatch stood with an alarm clock around their necks. Many hung around is scruffy duffle coats. A punk audience before punk. Then the guitarist brought his instrument to play at the front of the stage. It was a breakthrough moment for the future Who man, ‘This instrument was going to change the world. For me, this was absolutely massive because my father was a saxophone player. I could see the end of my father’s world – I was going to get this guitar and it was going to be bye-bye old timer and that’s exactly what happened.”