Waxing lyrical

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Laurence Alster plugs in his Fender and perfects hisduck walk for anostalgic trip through the rock of ages.

Four years after Bill Haley and the Comets burst into a new musical genre with "Rock Around the Clock", Danny and the Juniors sang "Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay" in 1958.

Or so they hoped. But their prediction was right. The "roll" might not have survived, but the "rock" expanded into all sorts of styles - heavy, progressive, glam and punk.

Some of the most famous protagonists can be found in Rock Circus, a museum devoted to the development of the genre.

Rock was always the music of excess: visual, loud, making an impact with new combinations of sound, sight and movement. You get lots of the first two at Rock Circus, but not much of the third. This being part of the Tussaud's group, all the stars are made from wax.

It seems appropriate then that the first celebrity we meet should be Michael Jackson, said by some to be composed of as much non-organic material in real life, as he is here. Sadly there isn't a likeness from his Jackson Five days for comparison, but that is the Rock Circus way - nothing critical, or even mildly provocative - just a well-ordered look at a style that started in the mid-Fifties and ends with The Spice Girls.

Along the way we take in icons such as Bryan Ferry, Bono, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, plus two impressions of Cliff Richard, the quiffed, pseudo-rebel of the Fifties and the grannies' darling of three decades later. Opposite Cliff Mark II, a younger, black-clad Elvis Presley sneers disdain.

Remembering Cliff's bloodless brand of rock only makes you grateful for the transformational powers of The Beatles, here drawn up in their Cavern gear of leather waistcoats, tabbed shirts and knitted ties.

All four paid regular tribute to influences caught in colourful action nearby: a wild-eyed Little Richard and, further on, Chuck Berry, all duck walk and trademark leer. Just punching distance away, Jerry Lee Lewis, done out in a ludicrous, luminous red suit, pummels his keyboard while looking balefully at Berry. Quite right: they never did get on.

Set among signed record covers, the modelled palms of various stars and memenoes such as a shirt worn by Elvis, a pair of Elton John's platform shoes, and a Fender Telecaster once strummed by Roy Orbison. These and most other models are so true to life that you're half tempted to beg an autograph.

Jimi Hendrix, huge hands caressing the neck of his guitar, a snarling Pete Townshend windmilling furiously.

Many of the models look out from sets meant to give some idea of the social atmosphere at a crucial stage in their career. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, for example, strut their stuff outside the pub where the Stones first met. Lonnie Donegan, mohair-suited, sings skiffle in Soho. And there's a rouged Boy George inside SEX, the King's Road shop that partially inspired punk in the mid-Seventies.

However mixed his career since, George has happily avoided a berth in the tackiest part of the museum, the Rock Circus cemetery, a mossy, sick-green mock graveyard filled with memorials to the premature exits of Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan and Jerry Garcia, among others. If there is a rough socio-historical pattern to this, it will scarcely satisfy serious students of rock. Rock Circus is a fun place, one suited to teachers looking for a student treat or, at best, somewhere to lend background colour to work on the development of popular music. Even the most impressive feature, a rapid-action, widescreen presentation on the history of rock, lasts five minutes, virtually without comment.

The tune is broadly the same here as elsewhere: great sounds, good visuals, little depth.

Maybe the last is for commercial reasons. Depth requires that people linger, look and reflect, activities Rock Circus seems to discourage. And a management that neither replies to phone messages (two in my case), nor offers a reduction to punters told they will have to leave early to accommodate a private party (as on my visit), can hardly be said to be on song.

Much more of this and Rock Circus could win a reputation as no particular place to go.

Rock Circus Piccadilly Circus, London W1V 9LATel: 020 7734 7203. Open: 10am to5.30pm except Tues (opens 11am). Admission (parties of 10 or more): adults pound;7, pupils under 16, pound;5.30, over 16 pound;6.15. One place free in every 16.

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