The finest of Britain's first generation skiffle bands, and possibly the most purist as well, the Vipers were formed in early 1956 at London's fabled Bread Basket Coffee Bar by guitarists Wally Whyton, Johnny Booker, and Jean Van Den Bosch and washboard wizard John Pilgrim -- there was never a settled rhythm section. By July, the group had a residency at the legendary 2 I's, the proving ground for so many of Britain's earliest rockers, and it was there, in September 1956, that they were discovered by producer George Martin. He produced the Vipers Skiffle Group's debut single, "Ain't You Glad," for release shortly before Christmas and, over the next six months, the group released five further singles, earning two successive British Top Ten hits, "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O" and "Cumberland Gap," plus a Top 30 berth for "Streamline Train."
In early 1957, the Vipers cut their first album, the pseudonymous (and frankly poor) Original Soho Skiffle Group set for release in the U.S.A. only. A more representative set, Coffee Bar Session, followed in the U.K. later in the year. Other recordings from this period appeared either as 45s or on EP -- the classics "Pay Me My Money Down" and "Homing Bird," the much sought-after Skiffle Along With the Vipers and two volumes of Skiffle Music among them.
Van Den Bosch departed in late 1957 and over the next 12 months, Whyton, Booker, and Pilgrim recruited any number of passing musicians to the cause. None, however, lasted more than a matter of months. The Vipers broke up in 1959, shortly after the release of their tenth, and final, single, a remarkable cover of "Summertime Blues." Whyton remained with Parlophone for a little longer, cutting a brace of solo singles under his own name and also offering up a pseudonymous role model for all that Screaming Lord Sutch would later achieve, with the blood-drenched classic "The Horror Show"/"Cool Gool." Sutch himself always cited Screaming Jay Hawkins as the premier influence on his visual presentation -- candles, coffins, skulls, and so forth. But it was Sharkey Todd & the Monsters who best chilled his blood on vinyl. Whyton also undertook some notable session appearances under George Martin's aegis, recording with both Laurie London and Peter Sellars; the latter's "Goodness Gracious Me," incidentally, features Whyton strumming a de-tuned guitar in imitation of a sitar, a full five years before any of the effect's better lauded practitioners.
1960 brought a brief Vipers revival, an all-new lineup of Whyton and Pilgrim, Sally Miles, Ian MacLean, Rex Dabinett, and Bobby Orr, cutting four sides for the Pye label. They did nothing and Whyton faded slowly from the music scene. Through the 1960s, he was a regular in children's television; he also made a name for himself on the country music circuit both in Britain and abroad and became the regular host of BBC radio's much-loved Country Club. He was diagnosed with cancer in the early '90s, passing away on January 22, 1997, just six months after the Vipers' entire recorded legacy was exhumed on Bear Family's three-CD box set, 10,000 Years Ago.
There, a world which had largely forgotten the band was reacquainted with what made them so vital to begin with. At a time when both skiffle and the newly emergent rock & roll looked exclusively towards the United States for inspiration, the Vipers were more concerned with enacting a British equivalent. They frequently sang in broad English accents, purposefully distancing even the most traditional American ditty from its roots, a policy which Whyton himself later explained. "If I was aware [of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley], it was something that didn't appeal to me. Even now, very strange, I can't take Presley. [And] I always thought Bill Haley looked like a bundle of sh*t tied up. I didn't really go for his music. I suppose I was pretty much a musical snob." Whyton's refreshing honesty notwithstanding, the group's importance to the ultimate development of a distinctly British rock & roll scene can best be gauged, somewhat ironically, through the later work of three bandmembers whose own stints in the Vipers is barely remembered even by the participants.
Hank Marvin, Tony Meehan, and Jet Harris were all Vipers during the confused period following the departure of original member Van Den Bosch, remaining on board for one week, three months, and six months respectively. All three, of course, subsequently found fame as members of Cliff Richard's backing band, the Shadows. But catch their early live sound, across Cliff's debut album, and the benefits of their apprenticeship are there for all to hear. Applying the hiss of the Vipers to the roar of Richard unleashed, the group took Whyton's vision into a world of its, and their, own. ~ Dave Thompson