Halfway to Paradise. Harry Hammond and the Birth of British Rock. Scarborough Art Gallery. Touring from the V and A. 14-03-13

“I wanted every girl in the audience to feel that I was there just to make love to her. And it was no act.” Adam Faith.

Poster for rock photo exhibitionThe exhibition of photographs by Harry Hammond at Scarborough Art Gallery, visiting from the V and A, is a fascinating look back at a vanished time. Many of the faces in them are familiar, as they became iconic figures and had long careers which stretched well beyond the period of the late fifties/ early sixties when the photographs were taken. These are the days of their youth and innocence, when everything was new and exciting. Many good looking and talented young people have followed the same path since but these were the pioneers. Their age group had never had a voice, money and influence before and in many of them they look as if they can’t believe their luck. It wasn’t just the music that the old guard found shocking- it was the simple fact that young people were asserting themselves for the first time rather than aping their elders. It was a revolution. A carefully staged revolution perhaps, but a revolution nonetheless. The producer Jack Good made sure that Eddie Cochrane wore black leather and Gene Vincent emphasised his limp when he appeared on television to make sure that they didn’t look too tame and polite, and there are many silvery suits and immaculate hairdos to admire throughout the exhibition. The young stars new status is recorded cheerfully, Cliff Richard stands beside his brand new grey Sunbeam alpine with red seats in 1959 and there is Lonnie Donnegan with his Riley Pathfinder in 1960. There is also a puzzling one of Lonnie standing in front of a quite large but ordinary suburban looking house with his wife and child that looks as if it may have escaped from the family album of an accountant. To get the point of these particular photos you need to remind yourself that young people had never had this kind of money before, unless they were born wealthy. There was a real wow factor in tasting success so fast and so young. There is a great shot of Cliff on his haunches looking thoughtfully at the poster for the first time he topped the bill at the Chiswick Empire in 1959. The girls are gorgeous, especially a teenage Helen Shapiro in the tiniest pair of shorts you have ever seen and Alma Cogan, always known for her frocks, hands on hips staring straight into the camera lens managing not to be upstaged by the fact the she is wearing a massive confection of lace and ostrich feathers which takes your breath away. Image was everything, just as it is today.

It is the shots from live performances which really hit home and make you feel the power of what was going on. These are young people using every ounce of their natural energy and there is both joy and danger in the best of them. Johnny Ray was known for his ability to work both himself and his audience into a frenzy of emotion and you can feel the power of his performance, even in the silence of a photograph, as he is captured really letting rip, holding a mike stand over his head as he wrings every last drop of emotion out of his song. My own favourite Billy Fury is shown in a large print clicking his fingers as his guitarist plays a riff and he is grinning all over his face- clearly having the time of his life and who could wonder?

There are a few simple portraits. The two best show that real star quality doesn’t have to be manufactured or mediated through a manager. Nat King Cole sang with great warmth, ease and honesty and the same qualities shine out of his face as he sits in his dressing room looking into the camera lens. Frank Sinatra can’t help looking relaxed and self possessed even as he leaves an aeroplane, glancing sideways at us in a trilby and carrying a smart flight bag. Nobody needed to tell him what was cool. He knew.

There is a great shot of a ticket office window with a mass of leaflets and posters for all kinds of shows. Looking round this exhibition really makes you long to be able to buy a ticket.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s