(Pictured: Vince Taylor at work.)
“Goin’ Down Geneva” is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. It opens his 1999 album Back on Top, and the groove is a killer. The words have been chosen more for sound than for sense (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as far as it’s about something, that something seems to be a bluesman’s lament about life on the road and a fear of being forgotten. At one point, Van sings, “Vince Taylor used to live here / Nobody’s even heard of him / Just who he was / Just where he fits in.”
Van’s right. It’s likely you don’t know who Vince Taylor was, or just where he fits in. He never had a hit in America; his best-known song, “Brand New Cadillac,” is famous for being covered by the Clash. Should you know one thing about him, it’s this: he is said to have been the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. “I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties,” David Bowie told a reporter in 1996, “and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.” But that was after Taylor has developed a famous taste for booze and acid.
Taylor was born Brian Holden in England in 1939, but his family emigrated to New Jersey and eventually to California, where he attended Hollywood High School. Like others in the late 50s, he was seduced by rock ‘n’ roll, adopting a performing style patterned after Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and played a few gigs in the Los Angeles area. On a trip to London, he met a couple of other musicians at a concert, and they impulsively decided to form the Playboys. It was at that point Holden ditched his birth name and became Vince Taylor, a leather-clad hip-shaker. This was a time when British “rockers” tended to be clean-cut boys a young girl could take home to Mother—your Tommy Steeles and Billy Furys—but Vince Taylor was a lot more kinetic, a lot more dangerous, a lot more everything.
It was never a smooth ride for Taylor and the Playboys—Taylor was famous for missing shows, leaving his bandmates to perform without their charismatic front man. (The original Playboys included Tony Sheridan, who would be backed by the Beatles within a few years, and Tony Meehan, later of the Shadows.) After the group split, Taylor went to Paris, where one memorable 1961 gig turned him into a star. He got a record deal from a French label and laid audiences dead in the aisles during the first half of the 60s. That he was called “the French Presley” should surprise nobody. He sang original songs, but his setlists were peppered with covers, including “Memphis Tennessee,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Tutti Frutti.”
In 1965, Taylor and his band opened for the Rolling Stones at a show in Paris, but his career was about to crash. He had discovered LSD earlier that year, and it wasn’t long before his drug habit was consuming most of his bankroll. A month after the Stones show, he went onstage claiming that he was a Biblical prophet, or the son of Jesus, or somebody, and nothing was ever the same after that. Although Taylor would continue to perform from the late 60s into the 80s, he was a classic acid casualty, often put on stage by unscrupulous promoters, and occasionally rumored to have died. He spent the last few years of his life as an airplane mechanic in Switzerland, and died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 52.
Honesty compels me to report that it’s a little hard to hear why Taylor drove the kids so nutty, at least from “Brand New Cadillac,” which has a rockabilly clatter that sounds pretty generic nearly 60 years later. (It was originally released as a B-side, so even Taylor and his label likely considered it a throwaway.) His appeal is easier to grasp when you can see him, as on this Scopitone performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” and a TV performance of “Shakin’ All Over.”
But even those clips fail to get at why Dangeous Minds described Taylor as “the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. He was Iggy before Iggy Pop.” For that you apparently had to be there. For those who were, as Morrison’s 1999 invocation of him indicates, Vince Taylor left an impression that lingered for years.