Rock originals roll back clock in old England

THE BALTIMORE SUN

London -- This could be 1959.

Wembley Arena is packed. The crowd is dancing in the aisles like it's a sock hop. And on stage, Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard to his fans, is bashing the piano and shrieking, "Lucille."

It doesn't matter that most of the audience has gray hair. And it doesn't even look the least bit peculiar that Little Richard, now 62, has to be helped atop the piano by some kid with a guitar.

All that matters is the music.

"What you hear on the radio now is, bang-bang, rap," says Tegwen Denslow, a 55-year-old housewife who was chauffeured the concert by her 19-year-old son. "The old-time music is real music."

In Great Britain, old rock acts never die and old rock crowds never fade away. There is money to be made selling nostalgia to the generation that never wants to grow old.

Last night, Little Richard and Chuck Berry rocked the joint, filled with about 10,000 spectators who paid up to $38 to hear the songs of youth.

So, the two stars are about 35 years past their prime. So, Fats Domino, the third man on the bill, called in sick with the flu.

The old men still belted out the old hits.

"You don't come here to feel any younger, or to relive your youth. You come to hear the legends," says Ron Gardner, 56, a veterinarian surgeon who boasts of having one Wurlitzer juke box devoted entirely to Elvis Presley music.

With most of this crowd, Blur is a sign of middle age, not a band. Shampoo is what you do with your hair, not a teen girl group you listen to on a CD player. And Morrissey, whatever that is, is something that only the children know about.

These are the fans who fuel Britain's old-rock-star industry -- living and dead divisions.

They are the ones who have turned "Buddy" -- a lightweight musical about American rock legend Buddy Holly -- into a London theater staple that has played more than six years and is selling seats until 2000. They have ignored the slings and arrows of high-brow critics to keep alive another rock musical titled "Only The Lonely," which tells of the sad life and times of Roy Orbison.

And they are among the 700,000 annual visitors who pay up to $12 a ticket to enter Rock Circus, which houses the eeriest collection of wax figures you've ever seen. From the people who brought you Madame Tussaud's comes Elvis, wearing a gold-sequined jacket, crooning "Love Me Tender," one more time, in a revolving theater that enables patrons to sample the history of rock 'n' roll.

In this museum, the kids encircle a wax Jon Bon Jovi, while their parents crowd around the young Beatles.

And, yes, Little Richard and Chuck Berry have their places for all time, molded in wax, playing beside Bill Haley.

"This exhibition is a way for people to recapture their youth," says Julian Marshall, of the Rock Circus marketing department.

Memorabilia market

For those who can afford it, there is plenty of rock memorabilia crowding out the ceramics and the antiques at London's main auction houses. Even now, chief rock appraiser Stephen Maycock is putting the finishing touches on Sotheby's autumn rock sale. But don't expect any monster items on the block, like the John Lennon psychedelic Rolls-Royce that copped $2.3 million in New York in 1985.

"We started selling rock memorabilia in 1981," Mr. Maycock says. "People were fascinated to see how it would go. And here we are, 15 years later, still going strong."

Mr. Maycock adds that Beatles' collections are always a best seller, along with gear from the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. And of course, Elvis is very, very big.

Yesterday, a south London shopping mall was turned into a little bit of Memphis with the opening of the Elvis Presley Traveling Museum.

Fans gawked at Elvis' last Harley Davidson, his Stutz Blackhawk auto, his jewelry, his film costumes, his guns. They could even take "A Walk Through Elvis Presley's Life." It was like going to Graceland -- minus the airfare.

"Elvis was the best thing on two legs, ever," says Christine Brewer, 43, a lifelong Londoner and Elvis fan.

But for those who wanted the original -- live -- there was only one place to be last night.

Wembley Arena.

The real thing

The British always had a keen appreciation for rock originals. While America in the 1950s responded to cover versions of old-time songs by black artists, it was the British who yearned for the real thing as played by acts like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Those were the musicians who influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

"I actually came here to see Chuck Berry before he died," says Anna Addison, 19, one of the few in the audience under the age of 45. "There's nobody like him playing now."

"This is wonderful music," adds Ms. Addison's friend, Gyles Williams, 29, dressed in black leather more appropriate for a Megadeth concert. "Chuck Berry has written five songs and changed the words. But they're all great songs."

Even now, the songs of Chuck Berry still have the power to move an audience filled with grandparents.

Appearing frail at first, dressed in white flairs, a matching white cap and flower shirt, rock's original guitar hero did the duckwalk and rolled through a 40-year-old playlist. With each song, the years peeled away.

Finally, there was one moment of pure joy when two gray-haired fans pumped their fists in the air as they heard the old-time star scream the words that fired a generation:

"Hail, hail, rock 'n' roll."

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