‘British blues will survive the apocalypse!’: how the underground scene kept its groove

Seventy years ago, the blues arrived on these shores and transformed the musical landscape. Today, it lives in the shadow of the genres it inspired – but the scene is still thriving

The blues were born in the American south at the dawn of the 20th century as African Americans gave voice to their hardships – segregation, lynching and entrenched poverty being constants – as well as their joys. This musical DNA entwined with everything from jazz and country to rap and, of course, rock’n’roll, and after the blues hit Britain almost 70 years ago it again resonated through genres, from skiffle to metal and grime.

Not that British blues gets too much attention these days, existing as it does in the shadows of its more famous offspring. Perhaps it’s due for a resurgence though – we’ve all had the blues during the pandemic, after all – and on a damp Sunday night Errol Linton shows why he could be the one to power it. As he pumps his harmonica and ensures the well-heeled habitués of Shoreditch’s Blues Kitchen rise from their seats, he does what the genre does best: articulate pain, and then vent it.

Linton, born in Brixton, south London, to Jamaican parents, isn’t the first or only Black musician on the scene, but he is the best known, for his Mississippi-meets-Trenchtown-in-SW8 style. “He mixes blues up with a little London swagger, plus some Jamaican stylings, too,” says Cerys Matthews, presenter of Radio 2’s Blues Show. “He gets people up and dancing whether they claim to love blues or not.”

“When I first started playing harmonica, I played along to anything: reggae, ska, soul, funk, hip-hop,” Linton says. “Then I heard the blues harmonica of Sonny Boy Williamson II – his sound introduced me to what you might call the deep well of blues. With that foundation, along with my upbringing, I could express so many subjects: immigration, city life, poverty, murder, love, joy. All with a danceable beat.”

Linton’s hybrid sound is a measure of how far the blues has travelled in this country from its raw, DIY beginnings. A new box set, Something Inside of Me, celebrates those earlier years with previously unreleased recordings from 1963–1976, chronicling an era bookended by the debut 45s of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.

Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber.
Ottilie Patterson and Chris Barber. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The Stones lauded blues, the Pistols loathed it, and that shift broadly mirrors how public tastes changed, too. Many in today’s small but vibrant British blues scene thinks the veneration of guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Gary Moore as “blues” – when they were actually playing rock with blues influences – has marginalised the scene since the 70s, equating blues with guitar heroics. Instead, a night out seeing British blues will likely find musicians such as Linton, who cross genres – jazz and reggae, dance and, yes, rock – coming together to make a joyous noise that celebrates good times and details hard ones.

“Blues has always been a very open scene, young and old musicians, people from all kinds of backgrounds,” says Big Joe Louis, who started playing as a young man in 1983 and performs four or five times a week. “It’s spontaneous, very loose, not rehearsed, and this keeps the music fresh. That Blues Brothers tribute acts and overbearing guitarists have made blues deeply unfashionable is not something I can change, but it ensures we exist as an underground scene – and I like that. After the apocalypse maybe only cockroaches and the blues will survive!”

The origins of today’s scene lie with the late trombonist Chris Barber in the 1950s. Although a trad jazz aficionado, Barber loved blues and began promoting shows by the likes of Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe here; his band’s vocalist, County Down’s Ottilie Patterson, was Europe’s first and, arguably, greatest blues singer.

Two other members of his band, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, formed Blues Incorporated in 1961 and oversaw London’s thriving scene; Korner, a kindly mentor, guided teenage wannabes from the Rolling Stones to Free. Manchester’s John Mayall interpreted contemporary Chicago blues and won international acclaim; Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and many others would serve apprenticeships backing Mayall before moving on to stardom. Newcastle’s Animals played blues with such prowess they inspired Bob Dylan to go electric while, in Glasgow, Alex Harvey kickstarted the Scottish rock scene as a blues shouter. Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher retooled Irish music by playing fierce blues in Belfast’s Maritime Hotel.

Alexis Korner.
Alexis Korner. Photograph: Brian Shuel/Redferns

“I knew there was a boom,” says Joe Boyd, who arrived in the UK in April 1964 helming the Blues & Gospel Caravan revue tour. “The Caravan was designed to capitalise on it. We went up to Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol, Portsmouth, plus a bunch of London dates. I was smitten meeting British teenagers who knew who John Lee Hooker was. Best of all was the lack of distinction between electric and acoustic blues.” American blues nuts, he says – citing Bob Dylan’s Newport festival performance – were hung up on amplification, which to them represented a kind of selling out. “Brits didn’t find that a problem.”

“In Belfast, like many coastal cities, blues contagion struck there quickly,” says Dónal Gallagher, who witnessed Morrison’s homegrown Them plus touring blues artists such as Mayall and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac: “This was an awesome, evolving musical environment to find yourself part of.” He roadied for his brother Rory’s band Taste. “London in the late 60s was potent. The Marquee club, in Wardour Street, was the epicentre – Muddy Waters and others gave masterclasses, and this created a ripple effect out to other cities and towns.”

The Something Inside of Me (SIOM) box set documents this period, its recordings going from fumbling juvenilia through more subtle, shaded interpretations. White British boomers attempting to emulate Black Americans – whose lives were infused with brutal racism and in some cases religious fervour and West African superstitions – can carry a degree of absurdity, but the sheer enthusiasm on display is infectious. The compilation’s title (lifted from an Elmore James tune performed by Boilerhouse) is appropriate, as blues inspired something deep inside many British youths, gifting them an expressiveness they might never have found otherwise.

Boilerhouse, whose five tracks on SIOM represent their only recorded demo, were a Brixton trio lead by the 18-year-old Danny Kirwan. Impressed by Kirwan’s guitar playing, Peter Green invited him to join Fleetwood Mac – fame, fortune and an awful decline would follow, Kirwan dying in 2018 after decades of homelessness. Rod Price of Dynaflow Blues is the only other musician featured on SIOM who would experience later commercial success, with Foghat. But the British blues scene, while producing numerous rock stars, was never focused on fame. “I’ve been playing blues for 57 years,” says Dave Peabody who features on SIOM as leader of two jug bands. “Never got rich but I’m still finding new things in the music. Blues is a feeling, and I love sharing it with an audience.” Many others remain active – Shakey Vick, Bob Hall, Graham Hine, Simon Prager, Dave Kelly – while some died young: Duster Bennett fell asleep at the wheel, while alcoholism destroyed Steve Rye’s career and health.

Featured throughout SIOM’s accompanying book is the late Jo Ann Kelly, a Streatham-born singer and slide guitarist considered by many visiting American blues musicians to be the UK’s finest. Touring the US in 1969, Kelly quickly grew disenchanted – she had no desire to be promoted as Britain’s Janis Joplin – but enjoyed playing with many of her heroes at the Memphis Country Blues festival (a taste of her performance is now available as Fat Possum Records has, perhaps inspired by Summer of Soul, put an entire documentary about the festival on YouTube). Kelly certainly fits in better with the veteran African American artists than the festival’s headliner, Johnny Winter, whose guitar-strangling signals how heavy rock would seduce, then smother, many aspiring blues guitarists.

This duality was reflected in the British blues scene, with a split between aspiring guitar heroes – such as Clapton with Cream – and those who valued it as roots music, like Kelly, who returned to London and happily played folk clubs until a brain tumour extinguished this singular talent in 1990. “Today it’s too easy to limit the palate to more straightforward ‘rock’ blues – it’s so much more than that,” Matthews says.

By the mid-1960s, blues was the lingua franca of British rock: Pink Floyd, Small Faces and the Kinks, outliers all, began by bashing away at blues standards. Even David Bowie started out as an inept blues singer (he took notes: The Jean Genie’s riff is a straight lift from Muddy Waters’s Mannish Boy, and later he hired then unsung Texan guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on Let’s Dance). Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Martyn all respectively developed their guitar styles by studying Big Bill Broonzy (whose debut UK performances in 1952 could be seen as another genesis point of British blues). Led Zeppelin looted and bludgeoned blues across their first four albums, as did the likes of Ten Years After, Humble Pie, Foghat, Savoy Brown and Climax Blues Band. These journeymen bands earned fortunes playing heavy blues – essentially selling coals to Newcastle – to US audiences across the 1970s.

Cerys Matthews, presenter of Radio 2’s Blues Show.
Cerys Matthews, presenter of Radio 2’s Blues Show. Photograph: Leigh Keily/BBC

Inevitably, the boom waned: Dr Feelgood were the last British band with blues roots to command wide popularity and the scene went back underground. John Lee Hooker’s chart success in the 1990s suggested a large audience remained but no UK artist has since captured wide attention. That said, from Portishead to Alabama 3 through Amy Winehouse and Adele, blues has continued to inspire; Rag’n’Bone Man and James Bay both started out playing blues before realising, by doing so, fame and fortune were unlikely. Joe Boyd rates Andrew Brown and Little George Sueref as the best of contemporary British blues while Donal Gallagher mentions Dom Martin, Crow Black Chicken, Grainne Duffy and the Mary Stokes Band as rising Irish talents.

Today, a loose-knit web of pubs, festivals, magazines and record labels doggedly serve British blues. A baton of sorts was passed on when Radio 2’s Blues Show saw Paul Jones – who started out singing alongside Brian Jones at Blues Incorporated gigs – was replaced in 2018 by Matthews, so connecting with a younger demographic; her mix of enthusiasm and irreverence ensuring an engaging hour’s radio.

“It is the seemingly effortless drive and groove that attracted me to blues music in the first place,” says Matthews, “as well as the lyrical genius of some of the best songs – they’re like haikus in the sense that verses can be small but revealing with timeless imagery: the devil at the crossroads et al. I fell in love with these kind of songs as a child and the wonder’s never ceased. Blues music is dance music – infectious and life affirming.”

Matthews says she is excited about the array of new blues talent, both in the UK and internationally, mentioning Joanne Shaw Taylor, Gwenifer Raymond and Lady Blackbird as rising British female talents. As well as Jo Ann Kelly, women have always been among British blues’ most distinctive performers, from Ottilie Patterson through Elkie Brooks, Christine McVie and Dana Gillespie. Today, Shaw Taylor, who grew up in the west Midlands, has won an international audience with her dynamic blues rock; Manchester’s Kyla Brox is an earthy R&B vocalist of great panache; and Raymond, from the Welsh valleys, might just be Kelly’s spiritual offspring, her acoustic guitar picking drawing on Mississippi country blues, Appalachian banjo and the sonic spells woven by John Fahey and Robbie Basho.

Joanne Shaw Taylor.
Joanne Shaw Taylor. Photograph: Larry Marano/REX/Shutterstock

At 30, Lucy Piper, who drums for several south-west England blues bands is a relative youngster. “It’s crucial to get a younger audience in,” she says. “I hope to inspire others – particularly young women – to take an interest in the scene and to feel they could be a part of it, too.” Big Joe Louis says London crowds are full of twentysomethings, but outside major metropolises, he can find himself playing only to pensioners. “When I played in a blues club in, say, Rochester in 1987 I was the youngest person in the room. If I played there tomorrow I’d likely still be the youngest.” Adam Blake, a guitarist who plays with both Errol Linton and Cornershop, also worries that blues is in danger of being relegated to the oldies circuit. “My daughter’s generation are almost completely ignorant of the blues,” says Blake. “She would never dream of going to a blues gig – unless I’m playing – but loves the current jazz scene.”

Joe Cushley, who hosts Resonance FM’s long running Balling the Jack radio show and co-produces the Future Juke blues festival, agrees that British blues suffers in comparison to British jazz. “If there had been a parallel Afro-Caribbean figure to Orphy Robinson, Courtney Pine or Cleveland Watkiss, we might have a sturdier, more diverse scene. Errol Linton’s the closest we’ve got but he’s never had the support – from labels and institutions – that jazz has had.” Indeed, jazz has long been accepted by the establishment, while blues, a music born of sharecroppers in juke joints, is viewed as uncouth, for pub performances as opposed to genteel jazz clubs. Lockdown has also proved punishing for blues, which thrives on live interaction between performer and audience.

But on stage at Blues Kitchen Linton is blowing harmonica and wailing about trouble and strife, while Big Joe Louis and keyboardist Peter Zivkovic play with furious joy. Uplifted by the huge groove, people dance with wild abandon, British blues still bringing the night alive against so many odds.

• Something Inside Of Me: Unreleased Masters and Demos From the British Blues Years 1963-1976 is out now on Wienerworld


Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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