Various Artists

British Before the Beatles, Vol. 1-7

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This multi-volume series from British EMI is a much-expanded (and more expensive) successor to Sire Records' old two-LP retropective on pre-Beatles British rock. Each volume, broken down by year, contains 20 songs recorded between 1956 and 1962, by acts such as Art Baxter & His Rock 'n Roll Sinners, the Vipers Skiffle Group (George Martin's first "rock & roll" signing on Parlophone), Adam Faith, Don Lang, Vince Eager, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Joe Brown, and dozens of other performers whose names were, mostly, never even mentioned on this side of the Atlantic. There's an uneven quality to this material -- Ricky James turns in a surprisingly soulful rendition of Buddy Knox's "Party Doll" on Volume Two, but that same CD contains rubbish like Laurie London's version of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." The sad truth is that the British, even less than the Americans, knew how to define rock & roll -- anything that appealed (or seemed likely to appeal) to teenagers was lumped together, from bad pop and novelty tunes to raunchy, nearly proto-punk pieces. Mostly they muddled through with covers -- round-faced Don Lang's cover of Chuck Berry's "School Days" (and his much more comfortable-sounding original "Red Planet Rock") and future Kinks and Troggs manager Larry Page's version of "That'll Be the Day." Alma Cogan (a sort of British Teresa Brewer), Tommy Steele, Terry Dene, Colin Hicks (Tommy's brother) and the Cabin Boys ("Empty Arms Blues"), Terry Wayne ("Matchbox"), Bert Weedon (doing the original recording of "Apache"), Jody Gibson & the Muleskinners ("If You Don't Know"), the Vipers Skiffle Group ("Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O")...they're all names out of another age, and their music sounds it, but the best of it has a beat and voices to be reckoned with -- the best may be Joey Castell, a superb, moody, thoroughly Southern-sounding white blues singer. The dazzle factor on a lot of these volumes, especially the early ones, is pretty high for anyone who thinks England was oblivious to rock & roll, and there are some real ear-openers to make up for dross like Laurie London.