One of musical history’s most seismic events took place on 6 July. None of the people involved had any idea just how important it was. Scouse teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a garden fête at St. Peter’s Church, Woolton. Lennon’s skiffle group, the Quarrymen, were performing when McCartney arrived for the afternoon show, and they were introduced to each other afterwards by mutual friend Ivan Vaughan. McCartney tried to impress Lennon, performing Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock while the Quarrymen set up for their evening set. It must have worked as at the end of the night, Lennon decided he should ask McCartney to join the band.
McCartney had left before their second set, but one of the songs they performed was ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan’s Puttin’ on the Style, which, together with Gamblin’ Man, was sitting at the top of the charts, the first ever double A-side to do so. They were also the first live recordings to reach number 1 in the UK (recorded at the London Palladium), and the last single to rule the charts issued exclusively on the 78 rpm format. The 7-inch, 45 rpm format, which had first been released in 1949, had become the norm.
Gamblin’ Man, credited to original performer Woody Guthrie and Donegan, starts off much gentler than Donegan’s previous incendiary number 1, Cumberland Gap. A tale of a no-good gambler stealing the heart of a mother’s girl, at first Donegan’s trademark bleat is laid over a casual strum. However, just before you start to wonder when Donegan lost his fire, the song picks up, and like Cumberland Gap, it gets faster and faster, Donegan stumbling over the words as he tries to keep up with another blistering performance. The song ends with Donegan’s drummer smashing down repeatedly on the drums. No number 1 had ever ended like this before.
By comparison, the traditional number Puttin’ On the Style is rather sedate. It’s not without it’s charm, however. It’s a cheeky strum-along, offering a wry look at how youths show off to impress – perhaps Donegan’s attempt to charm the older generation, who might have been scared off by the skiffle movement? It is perhaps a sign of things to come for Donegan, whose next number 1, several years later, appalled skiffle aficionados.
A genre like skiffle was, like punk, never supposed to last long before it burnt out, but it had left its mark. The genre would not make it to number 1 again. Meanwhile, one of music’s biggest superstars had been troubling the upper reaches of the UK top 30 for quite some time, and the top spot was about to finally be his.
Gamblin’ Man: Woody Guthrie & Lonnie Donegan/Puttin’ On the Style: Traditional
Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay
Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 June-11 July)
Singer Marc Almond – 9 July
Comedian Paul Merton – 9 July