June 20, 2007

Big beat on the luxury liners: Bob Stanley on Cunard's cool cats (new film on Cunard)

This from Guardian Film

Bob Stanley Friday June 15, 2007
GuardianThe often-ignored period between VE Day in 1945 and the release of Rock Around the Clock a decade later is proving to be fertile ground for the youth culturalist. A new film suggests that in that period, in the tepid, grey world of postwar Britain, the luckiest men alive were sailors working on the Cunard line. No George Formby and Vera Lynn for these boys. They would dock in New York, swan around the city for a couple of weeks, and bring back consumer durables the likes of which no one back home had ever seen: super-8 cameras, Fender electric guitars, Wurlitzer jukeboxes. When they returned to Liverpool and Southampton, they stepped off the boat tanned and dressed in clothes that were 10 years ahead of British fashion; they looked like Technicolor action transfers on a black and white picture.

Director Mike Morris's new documentary, Liverpool's Cunard Yanks, explains how, in the aftermath of the war, 42nd Street to 52nd Street was not only the cultural heart of New York, but of Europe. With pocket money earned from tips - priests and nuns were apparently the most generous - sailors would hoover up jazz records, then rhythm and blues, early rock and doo-wop, and bring them all back to Britain. It's no coincidence that George Harrison and John Lennon's dads were both at sea.

Some of the sailors' New York haunts of 50-plus years ago are still there - the documentary takes a bunch of the unwitting pioneers back to the Knox Hats store, and the Market Diner (which has sadly since closed) where the sailors would hone their cod-Sinatra accents to pull the girls back home. Full of hotcakes and syrup, the young blades would head for basement jazz clubs and drink well past the UK pumpkin hour of 11pm.

It wasn't all shore leave, though - the four weeks spent crossing the Atlantic involved tough work with long hours. One poor soul tells of boarding the wrong ship in a stupor and ending up in a Havana prison, living for a few weeks on black bean soup that invariably had a layer of ants half an inch thick on the surface. On the ships, sailors were forbidden from playing their newly acquired guitars - the working classes were still kept firmly in their place - until a 1955 seamen's strike that was nicknamed the Teddy Boy Strike.

The knock-on effect of all this sampling of the New York club scene was that sailors who had saved a few quid came home to open nightclubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Others bought records to stock their shops with exotic imports even the beatniks and outsiders of Soho couldn't obtain. Fast forward to 1960 and you have the familiar picture of the Beatles at the Star Club.
The Cunard Yanks' special relationship with New York is a fascinating lost piece of the British teen culture jigsaw. Just the one question: whatever happened to the Southampton beat scene?
· ;Liverpool's Cunard Yanks premieres on June 21 at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Details: http://www.souledoutfilms.co.uk/

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