A biography of one of the great folk heroes of British music by Bill Sykes.
Review by Kevin Pearce.
“I’ve always been there with the pioneers. I admire the pioneers.” – Roger Eagle
Roger Eagle is one of the adopted patron saints of Caught By The River, so the publication of Bill Sykes’ biography Sit Down! Listen To This! will among many of us generate a sense of great eagerness and quiet terror. The zeal comes from a relief at knowing that, at last, a book exists devoted to the life of one of the great folk heroes of British popular music. The fear stems from the acute awareness that, so often, biographies can either alienate you from someone you have cared deeply about or make you want to attack an author who has completely failed to capture what makes their subject special.
Thankfully, Bill Sykes has succeeded admirably in telling the story of Roger Eagle in a way that makes you care desperately for the man in the spotlight. This is a book that has been keenly anticipated ever since it was mentioned in the Remember Roger Eagle tribute that was put together by Jeff Barrett and CBTR to mark the tenth anniversary of the great man’s death in May 2009. If that publication stirred the imagination then Bill’s lovely book will be an essential read, regardless of whether you ever set foot in The Twisted Wheel or Eric’s, met Roger or even know who LaVern Baker was.
Bill’s biography is a labour of love, and his very evident respect for Roger Eagle underpins the book. It is not, however, an overly sentimental work, and Roger clearly was not a saint. There are many striking passages, but this one perhaps best captures the central theme of Sit Down! Listen To This!: “A point that crops up time and again throughout Roger’s life is his determination to educate or teach people, generally musicians, about obscure or classic tunes of every genre. To Roger it was almost a religious calling. This is one of the reasons he is remembered throughout the British music scene so fondly. He wasn’t just a DJ, he wasn’t just a promoter, he wasn’t just a band manager, he was an avid fan with an inherent need to turn people on to music they had not been exposed to”.
This is a functional book. There are no literary pyrotechnics. And, as with many books nowadays, it deserves more careful editing. But Bill doggedly tells Roger Eagle’s story in a straightforward, nicely balanced way, with the emphasis on oral history and accounts from people who were there with Roger. Thankfully we are spared reminiscences from many of the usual suspects on the Liverpool and Manchester music scenes. And anyone wanting salacious stories and celebrity gossip will be disappointed. Instead there is an extraordinary amount of detail, and if you are the sort of person who loves to learn that Roger put on The Action at The Twisted Wheel club in Manchester three times in 1965 then you will be in luck.
I learned a lot from Bill’s biography. I am, admittedly, the sort of person that wants to know ridiculous amounts of information about the ‘60s mod milieu and the late ‘70s punk scene. But it was actually other parts of Roger’s life that I was more intrigued by in this book: the hippy era, the final days in North Wales, and particularly his family background with its privileged Oxford roots which helps to explain the military bearing he is often described as possessing. His mother Dorothy was a great character, and occasionally steals the show, and I love his brother Martin saying astutely: “Roger’s music is essentially a kind of protest music isn’t it?”
Understandably, perhaps, there is a certain amount of regional flag-waving. And maybe at times the reader needs a sense of perspective, and should overlay this story with other books covering similar ground like Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life. When, for example, reference is made to Roger Eagle and the first visit to Britain by Captain Beefheart in 1968 I was desperately disappointed Peter Meaden failed to make an appearance in the text. At other times I found myself condemning other historians’ omissions, because I hadn’t realised for example quite how much of an influence Roger Eagle with his knowledge of dub was on the remarkable work the Blood and Fire organisation did.
I suppose Roger’s story brings out the partisan in many of us. He liked what we consider to be the right things, the righteous rhythms. He loved the 3Rs: rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, reggae. He worshipped Charlie Parker, Captain Beefheart and King Tubby. And in his life he never seemed to want much more than somewhere to store his records and somewhere to sleep; and if he had a bit of a scene on the go, then so much the better. I don’t know, maybe it IS the weather, but there seems to be an underlying sense of poignancy to the way Bill Sykes tells the story, almost a simmering anger that Roger rarely had more than his vinyl and a place to stay when popular culture richly rewarded those contemporaries who were far more intent on self-promotion and exploiting opportunities.
If there is a moral to the Roger Eagle story, as it is told in this book, then it is that before it is too late we should celebrate those individuals who selflessly, quietly, determinedly share their enthusiasms, those that educate others about the important details and the hidden stories. This, therefore, is an important book. Bill Sykes has done some valuable research work. I really respect him for that. And, as many people will be unable to resist saying in years to come: Sit Down! Read This!