While in the UK, my wife and I went to Liverpool and took the tour of Lennon and McCartney's childhood homes operated by the National Trust. Upon arriving at Mendips (Lennon's home), the caretaker/guide greets you outside the gate and gives a brief talk about the house, how you will enter it via the rear door and why (not part of this review, mind you, but a truly wonderful and emotional story) and about the music scene in England in general and Liverpool in particular at that point in time; namely summer 1957.
As part of this presentation, he asked: "What was the name of the music which was so popular among people the age of Lennon and McCartney at that time?"
That question is followed by another: "Who was the premier purveyor of this music?"
The answers to these questions are 1) Skiffle and 2) Lonnie Donegan.
As a genre, skiffle is a mongrel, containing influences from jazz, blues, folk and country. Played by people using home-made instruments, it is the archetype of roots music. But, as most of the material performed is standards from the aforementioned styles, skiffle is a bit more about the instruments than the material. Nevertheless, Lennon's first bands were skiffle bands, including The Quarrymen, the group containing Lennon and subsequently joined by McCartney and Harrison. It is thusly completely accurate to say The Beatles came out of a skiffle group and Lonnie Donegan was the most well-known presenter of skiffle.It is not, however, not at all accurate to say the songs on this album are predecessors to anything The Beatles did.
Lonnie Live! consists of two bodies of material. The first is live performances recorded in England in 1967; the second is what are reported to be studio tapes from around the same time. A few songs in the latter group contain some audience noise, but this could have been dubbed on. Why this is on what is said to be studio recordings is not really essential to this review. What is does provide is an interesting, if dated, view into a performer who the music which was a part of the birth of The Beatles.
But, 1967 was quite a bit beyond the heyday of skiffle which was the late 50s/early 60s; that is to say, pre-Elvis. It's certain Lennon and the rest of the band promptly forgot about skiffle upon hearing The King. After all, the images alone - look at the photos of Donnegan and then at those of Elvis - - who would excite you? - tell you what entranced the memebrs of that skiffle band. Then...there's the music and that voice.
Rock 'n' Roll relegated Lonnie Donegan to the sidelines. After Elvis. he became what was essentially a novelty act; something he didn't take well. He was notorious for not embracing rock `n' roll, electing to continue to perform skiffle until his death. In fact, his apparent animosity to RnR - or maybe, perhaps, to the success and cash achieved by its purveyors - can be heard when he castigates Beatles and Stones during the live performance portion of this CD.
On the CD, Mr. Donegan performs mostly songs from the first half of the 20th Century that can be classified as "standards," among which are "Rock Island Line," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Cumberland Gap." There are also a number of pieces that fall into the English Music Hall category, evoking other performers Like Harry Champion, Stanley Holloway and (believe it or not) Ian Whitcomb in the later stages of his career. It is eminently listenable and likable with extremely good sound quality. Donegan's two US hits, "Rock Island Line" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the bedpost over night?)" are contained here.
So, what to make of this album?
It is a four-star item for what it is: a clear, concise example of who Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle performer was and what his performance sounded like. As a piece in the wall of the creation of The Beatles, it is minor.