Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 160pp, 1958
If you’ve read John L Williams’ brilliant biography of Shirley Bassey, you’ll know that a key moment in the singer’s early career takes place in 1955 when she auditions for a London theatrical agent called Mike Sullivan. Hearing her sing in rehearsal rooms in Great Newport Street, Sullivan has what he calls in his autobiography “an uncanny spine-tingling sensation” – just the kind of feeling, in other words, a jaded music business professional has long since abandoned hope of experiencing. For Sullivan, Bassey represented a raw talent he could refine and develop. When, in Robert Hancock’s 1958 novel, Jim Hunter, the A & R man of this book’s title, encounters singer Margaret Love for the first time in a shabby Northern dance hall, his thoughts are rather more cynical. “Properly organized,” he says, “she was the answer to all my financial worries.”
The novel has one other notable similarity with the Bassey book: a supporting cast of shabby bit players, comprising minor villains, two-bit songwriters and sensation-seeking journalists all circling the talent for their own ends. While the Bassey biography ends with its subject on the verge of superstardom, Robert Hancock’s novel ends with Hunter losing his star-in-the-making to a rival record company, and gaining only a recommendation to seek out a new talent who goes by the unpromising name of Jeremy Tubbs.
This is the first book from the 1950s that the Pop Music Library has tackled and I was really looking forward to reading it. The period details are, as you would expect, all present and correct: Margaret sends a waiter off for Alma Cogan’s autograph during lunch at The Caprice, for example, and a TV presenter voices doubts about putting Margaret on his show because she sounds “‘too like Vera.’” But the novel has bigger problems. Jim Hunter sees Margaret as an exemplar of down-home North of England charm – she sucks bull’s eyes constantly and is barely aware of her own talent. And if you think that’s patronising, worse is to come. Her popularity, Hunter tells us, depends on the indiscriminate taste of the audience:
When I listened to Margaret Love in that provincial dance hall I realized that by the standards of Tin Pan Alley Margaret was sensational. She was about a beat behind the band, her voice was slightly off key, and she breathed in all the wrong places. But in an age of round-the-corner destruction she had sincerity; in addition she sounded no better than the girl next door who has had two gins at the firm’s annual outing. In fact Margaret Love was a born pop singer.
After Hunter’s initial discovery of Margaret Love, the novel is constructed around a series of publicity stunts to boost the singer’s career. Hunter manages to splice in a recording of Margaret’s debut single, ‘In Love with Love’, over a tape of a rival singer’s performance during a Saturday night entertainment show, after which he organises a large-scale letter-writing campaign to newspapers to capitalise on the event. For maximum effect, the letters initially criticise Margaret before a second round of correspondents rush to her defence. Following its cynical start, the book becomes farce. Hunter and his colleagues orchestrate a marriage between Margaret and an over-the-hill American guitarist and singer called Gaylor. After a disastrous wedding night, the American flees the honeymoon hotel – and the large contingent of hacks waiting outside for him – in the relative safety of a hearse.
Jim Hunter’s colleague and rival is publicist Janet Correlli, formerly one ‘Ella Cohen’, whom he professes to love, though the relationship is a testy one dominated by a constant need for each to gain the upper hand. Hunter gives voice to the most appalling generalisations about women throughout the book. He writes of the “feminine weakness of wanting to be loved”, and of Janet’s having the “fault of all women”, that of “not being able to laugh at herself.” For his part, Hunter is a former Oxford academic who has stumbled into the music business, and Janet is at least afforded an opportunity to put him straight on a few things:
‘. . .despite all you’ve learned in Tin Pan Alley, you’re still a bit of a bloody intellectual at heart. What you sometimes hanker for is that home full of Georgian furniture, built-in bookshelves, hot buttered toast and home-made plum jam for tea, and sherry with the Provost at six. You’d be the master of the restrained argument, father of a healthy brood, and saddled with a wife as dead as mutton at everything except telling the truth and keeping the brass polished.’
Janet is by some way the best drawn of the female characters in the book, and Hunter is clearly attracted to the same ruthlessness in her that he himself displays. But this can’t excuse the book’s appalling sexism, which extends into the cringeworthy rubbish of the author’s biography on the dust jacket:
[Hancock] says he dislikes women who hold degrees and those who won’t do housework!
This is a bitter little book, even if the bitterness is partly ameliorated by the shift into broad comedy. If an enterprising producer in the early 1960s had focussed solely on the comic elements, it might have made a good film, with Laurence Harvey in the lead role, Liz Fraser as Margaret Love and David Lodge as a journalist hired to churn out favourable copy. What’s most striking about the novel now is the fact that pop music, still very much in its infancy in 1958, is already being described in such jaded terms. It’s presented as a cynical, second-rate profession, run for the benefit of hard-drinking men in suits and consumed by idiots.
As a former journalist, Hancock may of course be the right person to cast such a tired eye on the whole business. His next book was the 1963 biography of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged, and he didn’t have to make too much of an imaginative leap from the environment of The A & R Man to the seedy world, as he describes it, of “drunks, perverts, confidence tricksters and villains” known to his subject. While he is by no means unsympathetic to Ellis, Hancock the biographer again indulges in more dubious theorising about women. “Whores,” he writes in one such display of worldly wisdom, “are born, not made.” Less seriously, but of interest in the context of the novel, is that Hancock is withering about Ellis’s taste for sentimental songs of the period.
So what, finally, of the novel? It’s difficult to feel much warmth towards it because of its dyspeptic disdain for pop music, the people who make it and the people who enjoy it. And if we allow ourselves to move beyond the narrow focus of pop music, the relentless display of chauvinism in The A & R Man ultimately makes it one to forget. If you’re interested in reading either book out of historical interest, I’d recommend the Ruth Ellis biography; the subject of that one, at least, provokes slightly more in the way of generosity of spirit from its author.