Whenever I've interviewed a musician, the topic of conversation invariably works its way round to the music that inspired and influenced the individual in question. While contemporary musicians have access to a far greater range of music simply because of the sheer volume of music that is now available through a variety of sources, earlier generations had to make do with either what they heard on the radio or by haunting record stores. In Great Britain of the 1950s and early 1960s that meant primarily tracking down recordings coming out of the United States by the likes of Eddie Cochrane, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and other popular musicians of the time, or buying up blues albums in used record shops.
The early to mid-'50s in Britain saw a short-term outbreak of popularity for skiffle bands. Playing a type of music similar to the jug bands of America in the '20s, they were usually composed of a guitar player backed by washboard, washtub bass, spoons, or other homemade and inexpensive instruments. The bands specialized in taking vintage American blues and folk songs and speeding them up. One band sold over a million copies of their version of Leadbelly's gospel-tinged "Rock Island Line" in 1956. However, the biggest appeal of skiffle bands was there was no need for expensive equipment and, like punk in the '70s, it relied more on energy than skill for its success.
Anyone even slightly familiar with popular music history knows that John Lennon began his musical career in a skiffle group called The Quarrymen, and that Paul McCartney and George Harrison joined the band, setting the stage for The Beatles. A new movie, Nowhere Boy, released in the United Kingdom on December 16, has recreated those days in an attempt to tell the story of the young John Lennon and the first phase in the development of the Beatles. The soundtrack was released a week earlier than the film. It's a two-CD set, with the first disc containing music from the film and the second containing music of a similar type as that used in the film. (The review copy I was sent only contained disc one, so I'll not be commenting on the second disc.)
The soundtrack itself is a mixture of music Lennon would have been influenced by; songs by a band simply referred to as The Nowhere Boys playing the pieces performed in the movie by The Quarrymen; and two additional songs, "Mother" performed by John Lennon and "Hello Little Girl" sung by Aaron Johnson, the actor who plays Lennon in the movie.
Depending on the movie, a soundtrack can have multiple functions. In most cases, though, a soundtrack is composed to augment the story line by underscoring the action that's taking place on screen. In most instances this usually means the music helps develop the atmosphere of the scene, like the blatantly obvious swelling strings at times of heightened emotions. Some composers show a little more originality and create motifs or themes that represent the various characters and locales used during the movie and uses them to help establish each new scene. In the case of Nowhere Boy, the soundtrack, as far as can be told without seeing the movie, seems designed to both recreate the musical atmosphere of the times and to give the listener an indication of which music influenced John Lennon's early creative development.
The first two songs on the soundtrack offer an example of the contrasts between the two types of popular music being played at the time. It opens with the original wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis, performing "Wild One," one of his typical fireball rockabilly piano tunes, and is followed by an example of some of the sappiest pop music you'll hear, "Mr. Sandman" performed by Dickie Valentine. Listening to these two songs you can hear immediately how the music of Lewis, Elvis, and other American rock and rollers would have appealed to young men and women who felt even the least bit rebellious.
Aside from the rockabilly and rock and roll music Lennon would have listened to, the soundtrack also contains examples of the other big influence on British pop music, the blues. The fifth and sixth songs on the disc are "Hard Headed Woman" performed by Wanda Jackson and "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins respectively, and later on they've also included Big Mama Thornton singing the original version of "Hound Dog". The unfortunate thing about the inclusion of these three songs on the disc is how poorly the rest of the music stacks up to them in comparison. Gene Vincent And The Blue Caps singing "Be-Bop-A-Lula" sound positively insipid following immediately after Thornton growling out her version of "Hound Dog."
Whether intentional or not, what the producers of the disc have done by placing the songs in that order is show just how much the music had been watered down from the original blues that had inspired it. People might have disapproved of Elvis's pelvis and not allowed him to be filmed below the waist on The Ed Sullivan Show, but his version of "Hound Dog" became a hit, while I doubt Thornton's version was ever played on the radio in the 1950s.
The six songs on the disc played by the Nowhere Boys, representing The Quarrymen, are very accurate recreations of the type of music this band would have played. You can also hear the beginnings of the sound – mainly in the vocal harmonies – that would become the hallmark of The Beatles in the early 1960s, a few years after the events depicted in this movie took place. Although I searched the movie's web site I couldn't find any information about the musicians who make up the Nowhere Boys save for the fact that they were specially formed for the movie to play the music of The Quarrymen. Perhaps their names wouldn't mean anything to anyone, but it still would be nice for them to get credit for their performances somewhere.
However, that's only a minor quibble, as overall the soundtrack CD from the movie Nowhere Boy gives you a really good idea of not only the music which inspired John Lennon and subsequently The Beatles, but supplies a very good overview of the musical atmosphere of the times. It not only depicts the difference between what had been popular before rock and roll came across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain from America and after, it shows how young British musicians took that music for their own and started to create their own sound. I don't know what kind of job the movie does in recreating John Lennon's life, but those responsible for the soundtrack have done a great job in bringing the music of the times to life. Listening to this CD you hear the sounds that continue to shape popular music to this day.