In 1945 one war ended but another very different one was about to begin. A generation of young men had been consigned to graves far from home; those that survived, along with their partners who had endured air raids and deprivation, were prematurely aged, as if weighed down by the responsibilities they had shouldered. From ground fertilised by their blood a new generation arose, no less determined to conquer the world. Rather than battling a fascist ogre, the enemy these war babies had in their sights was simply the drudgery and drabness of everyday post-war life; their recipe for change involved guitars, cars, dance moves and firm-hold hair treatments. In terms of lasting impact, the campaign they waged runs the Second World War a close second.
Even when waged without conventional weapons, no war is without its casualties. One of the most significant met his end at Chippenham in Wiltshire on 17 April 1960, at the age of 21.
photo credit: Showtime Archives
Eddie Cochran fulfilled every requirement of the rock-and-roll icon; impossibly good-looking, a vernacular poet who wrote and performed songs which expressed exactly what was on every young person’s mind — She’s sure fine-lookin’, man, she’s something else –- while playing a fat orange Gretsch guitar and dipping his shoulders suggestively. (He never did quite master the Elvis hip-wiggle, although he attempted it on the first night of his British tour, in Ipswich, where he announced ’It’s great to be here in Hipswitch’ and thrust his pelvis a couple of times, which made the girls scream).
How did this young man, born in Minnesota but raised in California, meet his end in the middle of the night on the outskirts of a rural English town? To help me imagine the circumstances I take the train to Chippenham and walk from the station, under the viaduct and back up Rowden Hill, to the spot where his car left the road. Cochran had just completed the punishing first leg of an extensive British tour of provincial towns and cities, co-headlining with Gene Vincent and supported by a number of British acts including Georgie Fame, Billy Fury and Johnny Gentle. The last fixture of the tour had been a week of shows at the Bristol Hippodrome. Cochran was riding high, earning £1,000 a week and on course to become the most popular American rock and roll star yet to hit the UK. However he was also exhausted, cripplingly homesick and perpetually cold. After their last show in Bristol, Vincent and Cochran were handed a bunch of train tickets to London for the following morning. Vincent was heading for Paris and more shows, but for Cochran there was also a plane ticket to the States, leaving Heathrow at 1.00pm. He was looking forward to spending time with his family and soaking up some sunshine, as well as fulfilling a recording contract, before resuming his British tour. Who persuaded whom that instead of taking the train to London in the morning they should hire a taxi to drive them back to London that night? Johnny Gentle remembers Cochran asking if there was room in Johnny’s car for him and his fiancée, Sharon Sheeley. He had to turn them down as all the seats were taken.
The taxi that showed up had been used for a wedding that afternoon; Sheeley remembers it still had confetti on the floor. Its young driver, George Martin, was probably excited at having such glamorous passengers on board and would have been eager to complete the unusually long run. Perhaps he also wanted to impress them with his driving and the pace of his Ford Consul. The car entered Chippenham via the A4 Bath Road shortly before midnight, a route now lined with the drive-in stores from which people construct their lives: The Tile Gallery, The Kitchen Bedroom Bathroom Centre, Bathwick Tires. By all accounts, it was travelling much too fast; Sharon remembers Cochran repeatedly asking Martin to slow down. Unusually for one so young, he was keenly aware of his own mortality. Two of his friends, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, had been aboard a plane that crashed near the town of Clear Lake, Iowa the year before, killing them along with their co-passenger J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. Eddie had recorded a song in their memory just two days after their deaths.
Martin intended to take a shortcut through Chippenham but lost his way, deciding instead to retrace his steps and pick up the A4 on the edge of town. On a sharp bend on Rowden Hill, then an accident black-spot, the car burst a tyre and skidded across the road, reversing direction and slamming into a lamppost with a noise that convinced some locals they had heard a plane crash.
Those hurrying out of their houses to offer help saw the bodies of Vincent, Cochran and Sheeley lying where they had been thrown onto the grass verge, alongside a large orange guitar, while photographs and sheet music fluttered in the breeze. At the precise moment the ambulance took Sharon and Eddie away, onlookers recall, the streetlights went out, leaving the street in darkness.
I walk the short distance from the roundabout, flanked today by a garage and the Rowden Arms public house, to the spot where a plaque commemorates Cochran’s life. Pebbledash bungalows gradually give way to 1970s maisonettes and then to 1930s villas and, higher on the hill, one or two fine eighteenth century houses. A blossom tree in the garden of number 36B is just coming into flower, its branches reaching across the low wall towards the verge where the plaque is situated.
The faithfully rendered Gretsch guitar is emitting white musical notes, which, I can’t help noticing, have almost completely faded. It seems a strangely inconsequential spot for such a momentous event and yet lines of connection reach out from it through time and space.
It is hard today to imagine the cultural impact the visit by the two American stars had on a generation of musicians. A young Marc Bolan carried Vincent’s guitar from the stage door of a theatre to his car and later had his own guitar re-sprayed the same distinctive colour, in homage. (Seventeen years later, he too was to die in a car crash). George Harrison followed the tour from venue to venue, soaking up Cochran’s technique. Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix were both similarly in awe of, and deeply influenced by, his playing. John Lennon may have got his early love for black leathers from Gene Vincent, but he let Paul McCartney join his group because he knew Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock. A month after Cochran’s death, ‘The Silver Beatles’ were themselves on tour in Scotland as Johnny Gentle’s backing band, performing a cover version of Summertime Blues.
It is impossible to know how many nascent careers were propelled forward by an injection of Cochran’s rockabilly spirit. The first policeman on the scene of the crash was Constable Dave Harman, who impounded Cochran’s guitar. He later changed his name to Dave Dee and formed a beat combo of his own, called Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch, who went on to have a string of hits. According to some, he taught himself to play on Cochran’s guitar, down at the station. Perhaps the strangest twist in the story was that later that night, driving back to London, Gentle took the same route through Chippenham as the taxi carrying Cochran and Vincent had an hour or so earlier. Low on petrol and seeing a wrecked car by the side of the road about to be hauled away, he asked the tow-truck driver whether he could siphon some fuel from its tank. It was only a day or so later he realised he and his companions had got back to London on Cochran’s gas.
Before leaving I call in at the Rowden Arms, which is advertising its Big Deal Menu and large-screen sports entertainment outside, to raise a glass to Eddie in the spirit of research. I ask the barman, a man in his early sixties with a white, bouffant hair-do, whether many pilgrims come to the site; I already know that for the past few years a commemorative musical event has been held in Chippenham on the weekend closest to the date of his death. ‘We used to have a tribute in the pub on the Friday night’, he tells me as he pours my pint. ‘That’s not happening anymore because the band who used to play it broke up. Then they used to have a big event up in town at the weekend but I’m not sure that’ll be happening this year. I don’t think they made any money – or rather, I think they lost money – last time they staged it. The level of interest isn’t there any more.’ He shakes his head as he puts the glass on the bar, then smiles wistfully – or is it wearily, I can’t tell. ‘You can pull the screen out in the bar if you like. We’ve got a couple of Eddie Cochran disks up there’.
Sure enough, in the back bar a large projection screen covers much of one wall, although a black and white framed photograph of Jerry Lee Lewis in the act of combing his hair remains visible, presumably a relic of times when rock and roll enthusiasts were more regular visitors.
I pull the screen aside and there is the sleeve and disk of the Sunset label album Cherished Memories. Letting it fall back into place, I go to sit at a neighbouring table. Two men in suits come and sit down next to the screen, unaware of Cochran’s proximity, consulting the menu that incites them to ‘Fill Up on Good Times’. They decide on another American cultural import, The Classic Burger, and settle down to discussing their tax returns. As I leave, I notice that a number of musical acts will be visiting the pub in the coming months, including women passing themselves off as Dolly Parton and Adele and a singer called Gathan Cheema who will be returning with his tribute to Micheal (sic) Jackson. I can’t help thinking of the fading white notes on Cochran’s memorial plaque. However, even if Cochran has severed his connection with this physical location, he hasn’t left but merely moved elsewhere, not least to the flickering Valhalla that is YouTube, where he performs forever, on demand.
To hear Eddie stretching out a little, explaining why he inspired Hendrix for instance, try this rendition of Chicken Shot Blues….
And in a completely different, mellow and jazzy mood: