Books: Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom by Nik Cohn
Nik Cohn, circa 1966, photographed by Iain Macmillan for The Young Meteors - Jonathan Aitken's book on Swinging London's movers and shakers. Note PJ Proby pic (top middle).
I've recently read and enjoyed Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, which was originally released in hardback as Pop from the Beginning at the close of the sixties, then swiftly renamed for paperback in 1970 with Awopbop... becoming the accepted title.
Cohn's book was the first attempt - beating George Melly's seminal Revolt Into Style - to capture the seemingly ephemeral explosion of pop music, it's attendant fashion and of course reflect on what it all meant. The book's was published with perfect timing, as the popular music groups splintered into sub-genres, alleyways, stadium gigs, parody shortly thereafter, with 1969 a natural full-stop for Cohn's fevered gunshot prose memories. The pop music was changing - soon many groups would be never dream of being labelled pop for a start - and additionally, the end of the decade brought to a close a chapter in Cohn's life - aged just 22(!) at the time of writing Awopbop... he felt ready for a change and wanted to mark what had led up to this crossroads moment.
Cohn wrote in the past tense which gives the book a curious prescience about say, Elvis Presley's decline from relevance if not popularity. Cohn explains at the outset that he chose to write about artists when 'they made their original contribution or changed what existed before'.1
The writing is pacy, opinionated - he's not a big Dylan or Beatles (at least, post-1965) fan - and funny. If it weren't of such niche interest, it would actually make a great audio book, because the key to the book is the distinctive voice of a scenester and although you may not agree with him, it's the way he remembered things feeling. Modern music criticism in the magazines, books and websites that cover pop music often follows the template set by Cohn and George Melly (who collated and summarised his Sixites pieces for The Observer in the afore-mentioned Revolt Into Style) as well as brilliant music paper writers Penny Valentine, Maureen Cleave and Dawn James (Kate Mossman's excellent BBC radio documentary on the ground-breaking women writing for the Sixties press is very much worth listening to).2
In particular, Cohn is very good on the 'tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them' style of gag - something quirky, or ill-planned, is described then explained as going down exactly as something ill-informed would go down; i.e. badly. Alexis Petridis, in particular, I feel has been influenced (and is very good) at this kind of wry and dry writing.
Cohn himself reflected that 'my writing, when it was good, lived off characters, sounds, atmosphere and snapshots impressions. Question of good and bad were afterthoughts.'3 This was informed by the sensuous, overpowering effect music had on him. Describing where his passion for pop stemmed from, Cohn wrote in 2004 that:
'I was raised in a staunch Protestant area of Derry, where Bill Haley and Elvis were never mentioned. Then one evening, at the age of eleven, I went astray. I wandered into the fringes of the Bogside, the heart of the Catholic city, and heard Little Richard's Tutti Frutti on a coffee-bar jukebox. From across the street, I watched a bunch of Teddy boys, with drainpipe jeans and winkle pickers, grease-loaded duckarse haircuts. It was my first glimpse of danger, and sex and secret magic, I never got over it.
Teddy boys at the Mecca Dance Hall in Tottenham, London. Photograph from Picture Post, 1954.
What was it about the Teds? Swagger, and wildness, yes, and something else, which stirred me even more deeply - the force of self-invention. By every rule of birth - religion, politics, economics - these boys were losers. Papist scum, with no future or hope. But that wasn't the way they carried themselves. To me, they looked like stars, transformed and made heroic by the power of Little Richard: rock &' roll.
Report on the front page of The Catholic Standard, 18th November 1955.
For an undersized weakling, mamma's boy, and all-round fuck-up like myself, the image was irresistible. Suddenly, I seemed to have another chance; the possibility of creating a whole new self. I took Elvis as my personal saviour. Squandered my pocket money on 78s. Snuck into Loving You and Jailhouse Rock, both strictly off limits, and cultivated a kiss curl, and lost what was left of my innocence in the seedy pages of Tidbits. Rock was my religion, nothing less.'4
Joan Collins on the cover of Tit-Bits newspaper 1955.
Cohn moved to England and quickly became pop writer for The Observer and Queen magazine, among others. As the go-to person for hustling, fizzing, op writing, Cohn was moving in the twilight and fast-paced Swinging London social circle. In hindsight, he described it as 'lunch at the Trat with Terence Stamp, dinner with Andrew Loog Oldham, and breakfast in bed with... never mind who. Taxis everywhere, free records and comped invites, a brand-new outfit every Saturday, and never, but never, wear the same shirt twice. The week after I turned nineteen, a publicist slipped me an envelope stuffed with crisp fivers. Though I lacked the balls to take it, I was profoundly flattered. Nineteen, and someone thought I was worth bribing. It felt like a knighthood of sorts...heady days. But not, by their nature, made to last.'5
Significantly younger than other music writers, Cohn filled a gap in the market and reflected the changes happening elsewhere in society. With fashion, photography, music and film-making opening up to a cultural movement riding the crest of the wave created by The Beatles. Speaking at the apex of this lionised period in social history -1966 - Cohn sounded cynical but self-aware:
'I write about totally unimportant, irrelevant things and if there was a real slump I'd be the first to go. I've made a wonderful thing out of the youth cult, which I despise. I've done very well out of Swinging London and I despise that too. It's churlish of me I know, because I wouldn't be making so much money if these things didn't exist, but I really do loathe the falsity and the intellectual campness of these worlds.'6
Cohn's publication writing was earning him £10,000 per year (approximately a quarter of a million pounds in 2017 conversion). He had just turned 21. Falling out of love with musical developments - he reflected that everything was always new, always old'7 - and wanting to become a writer of great books, he quit those lucrative roles to follow the muse.
Awopbop... reads like a stream of consciousness rant from a buzzed, know-all in your ear. There's factual errors, dated opinions (forgotten lightweight PJ Proby gets an entire chapter and, unfortunately, Jimmy Savile is praised). However, his sparky, biased, mainlined prose remains influential - David Bowie included Awopbop... in his 100 top books8- and Cohn's follow up book Today There Are No Gentlemen, his history of male fashion, was a strong influence on Malcolm McLaren.9
Since then, he's written the material that inspired Saturday Night Fever and investigated New Orleans hip hop in Tricksta, which got strong reviews over 30 years after the young tyro scribbled down the funeral oration for rock 'n roll in a windswept cottage in Ireland. The final words should go to how Cohn felt in the moment, reflecting over a decade of music, from Jailhouse Rock to Magical Mystery Tour, from Cliff Richard to Jimi Hendrix. A period that had brought social change, personal freedom in fashion and lifestyle, had left it's victims rich, famous, or dead: 'I was ten when it started, I'm twenty-two now, and it has bossed my life. It has surrounded me always, cut me off, and it has given me my heroes, it has made my myths. Almost, it has done my living for me. Six hours of trash every day, and it's meant more to me than anything else.'10
1 Cohn, Nik Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.nota bene.
2 The Women Who Wrote Rock (BBC, 2016), produced by Paul Kobrak. Available to listen at it's BBC page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07428bt
3 Cohn, Nik Preface to the Vintage Classics Edition of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.x.
4 Cohn, Nik Preface to the 2004 Pimlico Edition, reprinted in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.xiii.
5 Cohn, Nik Preface to the 2004 Pimlico Edition, reprinted in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.xv-xvi.
6 Aitken, Jonathan The Young Meteors (Secker & Warburg, 1967), p.78.
7 Cohn, Nik Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.218.
8 Bowie's top 100 books - the complete list (Davidbowie.com, 2013), http://www.davidbowie.com/news/bowie-s-top-100-books-complete-list-52061
9 Excellent article by Paul Gorman here on Malcolm McLaren's reading list; http://www.paulgormanis.com/?p=18978
10 Cohn, Nik Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (Vintage, 2016), p.246.