FILM GOES BEAT – POP MUSIC FILMS IN THE MID-SIXTIES
The sixties are often considered the heyday of British pop music and British filmmaking but rarely both at the same time. In fact the pop music film in any country (or at any time) has a pretty low reputation. But with young people making up a large percentage of cinema audiences producers have always looked to tap this rich vein. Elvis’ endless stream of rock-a-hula beach parties were at least financially successful if not critically. The British Elvis, Cliff Richard made similarly successful films – replacing dragsters and surfboards with double-decker buses – while within a year of their breakthrough The Beatles were being signed up to star in their own vehicles. This was an era when the entertainment industry was coming to terms with a’changing times. Three films from 1964-65, Catch Us If You Can – The Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night -, Pop Gear – Jimmy Savile introducing some of the best bands of 64/65 – and Gonks Go Beat – a truly awful film with some great bands and great songs – illustrate this moment perfectly.
As Matt Monroe sings in Pop Gear, ‘the Beatles started it all’. Although perhaps not as musically innovative as is often thought it was the huge success of The Beatles that sent every A&R man looking for the next best thing and prompted every skiffle band to trade in their banjos and washboards for electric guitars and drums. Similarly the success of A Hard Day’s Night set many producers thinking how to turn the beat boom into successful movies, especially after the Beatles and The Dave Clark Five (followed by the rest of ‘the British Invasion’) made it big in America.
Pop Gear was a cinema release from before the days of pop videos or YouTube. It features a collection of mid-sixties greats and also-rans miming to their hits (in Techniscope and Technicolor). It holds together surprisingly well as a film with the exception of the tacked-on low quality footage of the Fab Four at the beginning and the end, which looks like it must have been acquired through some copyright loophole. The rest of the film is directed by Frederic Goode who avoids the fast cutting style that became de rigueur for pop videos and concentrates on finding imaginative ways to frame the bands. The performers are all dressed in matching suits purchased by managers like Brian Epstein (although The Animals somehow still look grubby). The performances vary from Billy J Kramer’s trademark awkward stiffness to Tommy Quickly’s irritating chirpiness (playing a rhythm and blues version of Humpty Dumpty) to The Four Pennies going round and round a fountain almost in a daze. The minimal sets are often a bit too literal – balloons and alphabet blocks for BJK’s ‘Little Children’ and eyes for The Honeycombs’ ‘Eyes’. There is also some cross-over into light entertainment with a couple of unnecessary interludes – silly dance routines straight from Sunday Night at the Palladium – and three songs from the old crooner Matt Monroe. It is not quite the swinging scene of Austin Powers but we at least get the glasses and the ‘English teeth’ (Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits).
As Jimmy Savile says, it was a big year for rhythm and blues. Thus The Nashville Teens (from Surrey) sing about living in a shack on Tobacco Road or catching fish in the Mississippi, The Animals (from Newcastle) sing of brothels in New Orleans. But despite this emphasis on the blues all of the performers are white. It is notable that the only black face in all three films is a black and white minstrel costume in Catch Us If You Can. Supposedly one of the reasons that the British invasion was so big in the US was that white Americans were more likely to buy black American music if it was performed by white British singers like Billie Davies.
Catch Us If You Can features those great exponents of the Tottenham sound and the Fab Four’s first major rivals, The Dave Clark Five. The ‘Tottenham sound’ being Merseybeat with a saxophone (and also seems to be played solely by the DC5). It is also noteworthy as director John Boorman’s first film and the only film of the three where the direction is as ‘up to date’ as the music.
The plot seems to have been written to match the title of one The DC5′s hit records – although in America it was named after another equally suitable song from the soundtrack – Having a Wild Weekend. Basically, an actress (Barbara Ferris) and a stuntman (Dave Clark) abscond with the boss’ Jaguar whilst shooting a TV commercial for meat. Dave Clark was a former stuntman and drama student as well as being the band’s manager, producer, co-songwriter and drummer. The rest of the band play fellow stuntmen and flatmates who all live together in an old church – complete with a pipe organ alarm clock. Unlike The Beatles the DC5 don’t just play themselves – although only Dave Clark’s character has a different name – Steve. Dave Clark is a bit wooden in the lead role and, as with the band, lead singer Mike Smith steals every scene he’s in. There are a few poor attempts at Beatlesque quirky dialogue and a few zany antics – bouncing on trampolines etc. but it soon moves away from A Hard Day’s Night imitation.
The episodic structure takes them on a variety of adventures from a masqued ball in Bath to wild-west horseback riding in Devon whilst the evil world of advertising tracks them down. We meet some early hippies (who deny being ‘beats’) who try to get the super straight Dave Clark to try drugs. He later turns down offers of cigarettes and sherry claiming, ‘tried it once didn’t fancy it’. This is perhaps why the DC5 failed to make the transfer to the late sixties. Right there in a shed on a military exercise base somewhere in the West Country the future of rock’n'roll is made. If only he’d taken the spliff the DC5 could have made that great psychedelic concept album (imagine an upbeat stompin’ Sergeant Pepper) but instead they were playing Merseybeat (with sax) on the cabaret circuit by 1968.
Gonks Go Beat exploits that curious sixties fad for shoddy handicraft (remember Humpty from Playschool), although the gonks themselves make only a very brief appearance. I wonder if kids took their gonks to see it – although the fad was probably over by the time the film came out. It is a film so poor that even its star, Carry On‘s Kenneth Connor, an actor whose single talent is his unrivalled ability to say ‘phwoar’ to saucy nurses, seems embarrassed by the proceedings. The special effects are sub-Dr Who (in his 60s incarnation) and the story – a war between country of up-tempo music Beatland and its rival Balladisle, whilst two star-crossed lovers search for a happy compromise – is just daft. Even Jimmy Savile seems a better option, even Cliff and ‘the young ones’ putting on a show to save the youth club would have been better. It also features the worst battle scene in the history of cinema – a dance with guitars for guns and drumstick hand grenades. The only highlights are a few great songs by the much undervalued producer/songwriter Mike Leander (the man who gave the world Gary Glitter) performed by likes of The Graham Bond Organisation and Lulu.
Not many people realise it but 1965 was the greatest year in pop music history; even the Eurovision winner was a truly brilliant song. Experimentation was rampant, albeit confined to three-minute pop songs, and yet that year is often dismissed as the transitional period from rock’n'roll to rock. The recent BBC2 series Seven Ages of Rock typically starts with Hendrix and completely ignores this important era. I recently got an email encouraging me to sign a petition to get The Monkees enrolled in the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame. I think I’ll sign that one and start one for the Dave Clark Five (unless they’re already in). Critical reputation still seems based on a band’s ability to make ‘great albums’ (the DC5 were a singles band) although maybe this will change with the increase of the pick’n'mix i-tunes selections. The Dave Clark Five and some of the great one-hit-wonders from Pop Gear deserve better than to be languishing on compilation albums with names like ‘Now that’s what I call the swinging sixties’ given away free with The News of the World. And Catch Us If You Can is a good film (a great pop film) although in cinema as in music The Dave Clark Five were never quite as good as The Beatles.