Sunday, June 13, 2010

Led Zeppelin at the Dawn of the Swinging Sixties

By Royston Ellis

The early 1950s in Britain were grim dull years but by the time the decade ended, musicians were being heard as the dawn chorus of The Swinging Sixties.

In Britain there were no coffee bars, no commercial television stations, no jukeboxes, and no teenage popstars. The young people of the 1950s were the same as they had been for generations previous. They were quiet, ordinary embryo adults plodding without interference to maturity. Their spare time was spent on sport, ballroom dancing, or on visits to the cinema. Slumped in the stalls of the local "fleapit" they came face to face with celluloid glamour transporting them to the fantasies of filmdom. Their early idols were US film stars, not record stars. Bill Haley and Elvis Presley changed that in Britain and then home-grown pop stars like Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard attracted the fans.

The abolition in 1960 in Britain of the compulsory two years military National Service for 18-year-olds had a liberating effect on teenagers. It was a taste of freedom; the excesses that resulted in the Swinging Sixties stemmed from that liberty. It was those early years that spawned Led Zeppelin.

The cult of the teenager in Britain can be dated from the end of conscription. There was no more forced discipline; kids were able to do what they wanted, unchecked by the call of military service that moulded previous teenagers into obedient, conventional, young adults. Thousands of teenagers took up the guitar in the hope of emulating their idols and to play the music they loved. It was a form of rebellion.

One boy, 16-year-old Jimmy Page from Epsom, near London, joined a group that called themselves first the Red Caps and then, as that sounded rather square - it was the name of a brand of milk - the Red Cats. In 1960, I met Jimmy Page and we became friends. I was using different musicians to back me for my performances of poetry read to rock and roll accompaniment, which I called Rocketry.

Jimmy was playing guitar in a London-based group managed by Chris Tidmarsh, who later transformed himself in to the Swinging Sixties pop star, Neil Christian. At the time I was writing a book about the big beat scene and introduced Jimmy to many of the stars featured in the book. I was living in a rented cottage in Watchbell Street, Rye, and Jimmy and the Red Cats used to stay there too.

Radcliffe Hall, the lesbian author of "The Well of Loneliness" had once lived next door. I acquired her topcoat and there exists a photograph of me wearing it at a rocketry performance at Cambridge University while a young Jimmy Page giggles in the background. Jimmy backed me on many stage and television performances, with our last appearance together being in a show at London's Mermaid Theatre in July 1961.

By that time I was 20 and no longer a teenager. My book was published and it seemed time to move on. I left England and escaped the Swinging Sixties. Jimmy, however, stayed and absorbed everything that was going on in the youth and music scene. As a result, in 1968 his energy, experience and talent gave the world the incredible Led Zeppelin. From being picked as a teenage guitarist to play backing music for a beat poet, he became the great music icon he remains today.

Royston Ellis, author of over 60 biographies, novels and travel guides, now lives in Sri Lanka having left England, where he began as a beat poet, in 1961, age 20, for a life of travel. His latest book, The Big Beat Scene, has just been published by Music Mentor Books in a new edition for the first time in 50 years with a foreword and afterword about his association with Jimmy Page and The Beatles. For more information, see

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