Johnny Kidd was one of British rock’s major stars of the pre-Merseybeat era. And in ‘Shakin’ All Over’, released in June 1960, the former Frederick Heath wrote and recorded a landmark track that, alongside Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It’, proved the UK could finally compete with the States in creating spine-tingling rock’n’roll.
The Pirates had formed in 1958 when Heath/Kidd’s skiffle group, the Nutters, turned professional. Retaining lead guitarist Alan Caddy, he engaged bassist Brian Gregg and drummer Clem Cattini. Although proficient at banjo and guitar, Kidd kept his hands free to wield – and occasionally throw – an antique naval cutlass on stage.
An appearance on BBC’s Saturday Club radio show led to the offer of a recording contract with HMV Records. The Pirates translated their dynamic stage act onto vinyl at the first time of asking with ‘Please Don’t Touch’/’Growl’, their debut single of mid 1959 co-written with manager Guy Robinson.
After its Number 25 success, the eagerly awaited follow-up was a disappointment. Kidd’s crooning of the standard ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’ was inexplicable since the B-side, ‘Feelin’’, had all the hallmarks of a Top 10 single. Again, Kidd had co-written this song and, although the next single – a Number 25 cover of Mary Johnson’s ‘You Got What It Takes’ – was comfortably outsold by the original, Johnny was soon to be given another chance to write a hit.
The release of ‘Shakin’ All Over’ in June 1960, over a year after ‘Please Don’t Touch’, was well worth the wait. The magic of the repeated descending guitar figure (by session man Joe Moretti), echoed by the bass, remains unique over 20 years later, and Kidd’s edgy yet insistent vocals really did send ‘shivers down the backbone’ of the British record-buying public. Though it sat uneasily in a chart inhabited by the likes of Connie Francis and the Everly Brothers, ‘Shakin’’ peaked at Number 3 and proved the breakthrough for Kidd and his crew.
The previous year’s mistake was not repeated and ‘Restless’ was a successful, though similar, follow-up that reached Number 22. The Pirates’ live show featured a lighted galleon backdrop dominating the stage and the musicians in appropriate costumes, as well as the previously-mentioned sword-play. Even more prospective fans were reached by courtesy of TV producer Jack Good’s patronage, and it was at his instigation that Kidd adopted an eye patch to conceal a squint.
Proof that live excitement did not always come over on disc was furnished by 1961’s ‘Linda Lu’ which sounded somewhat anaemic without the visuals. The track, a cover of Ray Sharpe’s 1959 US hit, reached a lowly Number 47. This coincided with a mutiny as the three Pirates jumped ship to back Tommy Steele’s sibling, Colin Hicks, as the Cabinboys. Kidd replaced them with bassist Johnny Spence, drummer Frank Farley and Mick Green, an associate of Farley and a former shop assistant: his arrival served notice that Kidd and his Pirates were no spent force.
The tall, thickset and imposing Green proved the perfect foil for Kidd’s stage antics, while his ability to combine rhythm and lead playing in a remarkably fluid way meant that instrumental backing in the studio could be laid down in a single take. The first recording by this line-up, ‘Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’/’I Can Tell’, was released late in 1962 and clearly indicated the direction that Kidd and the Pirates could have followed. Both imported US compositions, they showed off Green’s economical soloing and augured well for the Pirates’ future influence, but a Number 48 chart peak was disappointing.
Rather than follow this path, Kidd turned to pop and allowed himself to be swept overboard by the Mersey tide. While ‘I’ll Never Get Over You’ and ‘Hungry For Love’ were hits, the classic Pirates line-up broke up. Kidd picked up the Regents, renaming them the New Pirate, but the momentum had been irrevocably lost and they were travelling as a support band when Kidd was killed in a road accident near Bury, Lancashire on 7 October 1966. Their Cortina hit a Mini that had turned out of a side road. Kidd, sitting in the front passenger seat, was dead on arrival at hospital; bass-player Nick Simper (who went on to co-found Deep Purple) had multiple injuries.
A Pirates’ revival in 1977 saw Green, Spence and Farley return to action, and they would enjoy sporadic re-formations thereafter. Their swashbuckling spirit served them well right up to the death of Mick Green in 2010. Tributes came from high and low, including this from Paul McCartney: ‘Mick was one of the original rock heroes. He was a classic rock guitarist with a simple but fabulous style and sound.’
Johnny Kidd’s career shows above all the importance of making the right stylistic decisions. Instead of joining the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds in the British blues vanguard, he plumped for Merseybeat, one step behind the Beatles and losing ground all the way. The loss to British rock was a unique sound, a hard-nosed R&B sensibility that covers of early Pirates material by Girlschool, the Guess Who and the Who have all confirmed.
This album, fittingly a vinyl release, sums up the 1959-62 period when all things seemed possible and Britain really was ‘Shakin’ All Over’.