In the waning days of the 1950s, happening London teens began their Saturday nights with an adventure. As the sun set over the Thames, droves of kids would flock to a small island in the southwestern section of the city. Eel Pie Island was only accessible by a chain barge or, more commonly, a brisk nighttime swim. Still, this unlikely get away from the harsh reality of post-war life became a breeding ground for a new style of music, a slapdash mash-up of blues, folk, and bluegrass that would become known as rock n’ roll.
Steven Tow’s London, Reign Over Me opens in the mid-1950s, as a generation of children grew into adulthood in a new kind of world. A decade after World War II, London was being rebuilt after extensive carpet bombing from the Luftwaffe. The young people entering adolescence spent their formative years diving under tables when the roar of fighters passed overhead. As U.S. parents returned home puffed up by their newfound international clout, most Londoners were thrilled just to be alive and back in the arms of their family. London was a city that came out of the other side of a waking nightmare and managed, miraculously, to hold on to their optimism. Sure, everything was destroyed, and most people were dirt poor, but there was hope, and there was music.
Stephen Tow’s lovingly-researched history follows the story of London’s rock revolution across the barge to Eel Pie Island, into the smoky Station Hotel Auditorium, and through several intimate clubs and stages brimming with vibrant music. In between sets, unknown artists like Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger slurped beers, swapped stories, and aped each other’s sound.
London, Reign Over Me isn’t your standard rock history. It tells the story of a community of musicians and artists, devoted to raising their creative game. These were young people bound by a common goal and living in an environment that seemed tailor-made for groundbreaking art. As a result, Tow’s book seems miles away from the rumors of hostility and lewd road stories that dominate the recollections of rock musicians. Instead, London, Reign Over Me, focuses on the music. And Tow’s prose is perfectly suited to the task. The book’s lyrical style keeps the history moving forward and accentuates the music so eloquently you can almost hear the opening chords of some of your favorite songs. You will never think of “House of the Rising Sun” the same way, ever again.
From the prehistoric days of a musical trend called “skiffle” to the influence of black American innovators like Sister Rosetta Tharpe to the late-sixties’ forays into classical music, London, Reign Over Me hits the high notes of a decade of brilliant music in fine fashion. It’s more than a simple history, it’s a snapshot of one of culture’s most monumental — and fleeting — moments, told by the artists’ who lived it and the people who listened.
London, Reign Over Me is out now in print and digital.