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Face the Strange: Extremes of British Pop Movies '65-'75

  There had been pop music movies made in Britain before the Beatles thundered onto the scene with A Hard Day's Night, but they were rooted in the sensibilities of the nineteen-fifties, with two of the first identifiable ones a quota quickie named Rock, You Sinners, a title that promised far more than the actual experience of watching it could ever hope to deliver on, and The Golden Disc, a vehicle for Terry Dene, here more clean cut than his bad boy image in real life. Tommy Steele was probably the biggest pop star back then, and he was rewarded with a film career, if "rewarded" was the right word, starting with the self-explanatory biopic The Tommy Steele Story the year before, though his attempts at rock 'n' roll simply sounded like the sort of bland pop you would get on a typical variety bill, and so it would continue for a star whose interests actually lay with showtunes and musical theatre.

Cliff Richard took over, but he was just as square in films like The Young Ones or Summer Holiday, pleasant, inoffensive hits at the British box office which would in theory be revolutionised once the Fab Four changed all the rules with their worldwide blockbuster in 1964, a cheap and cheerful effort that made its money back many times over. Sensing there were profits to be made, producers set about creating their own pop movies, but for every Freddie and the Dreamers in Cuckoo Patrol there were a few works that went to strange places, and Gonks Go Beat was one of those. Gonks were rotund little soft toys that were a craze themselves for a while, though in spite of the title they did not feature heavily in the plot, a shoddy science fiction flick which acted as a system for providing those tunes, none of which troubled the music charts in spite of featuring artists who did, such as Lulu or The Nashville Teens.

That storyline saw Kenneth Connor as an alien agent threatened with banishment to the Planet Gonk if he does not sort out the problems between two rival factions on Earth, those who live in Beatland and those who live in Balladisle: you can imagine the differences are purely musical, and they try to settle them with regular singing contests, thus predicting the kind of music movie that would often happen along decades in the future, not to mention the television shows that took over as the prime source of music entertainment. But in a Romeo and Juliet twist, the daughter of Terry Scott's Balladisle Prime Minister, Barbara Brown, falls in love with the brother of the Gillian French's leader of Beatland, Iain Gregory, thus paving the way for an agreement between the two battling regions, which have an actual musical battle with instruments on a beach (quite a lot of this took place on sand, for some reason).

You could see this was struggling to get with the times, but the spectre of the fifties was not far away, therefore the characters with the real power were the ones played by older actors who didn't particularly like the music, such as Connor or Frank Thornton who essays the all-powerful A&R man, the trappings of the industry as it was in '65 worried over and translated awkwardly into plot points. But for all its tries at being hip and happening, and the actualities of how staid it was coming across, every so often director Robert Hartford-Davis would conjure up something with real energy, such as most famously the prison drumming sequence where two rows of drummers, including legends Ginger Baker and Ronnie Verrell (who performed for Animal in The Muppet Show), indulge themselves in a pure example of their art. Elsewhere he took his musicians out to an airfield and had them drive around miming an energetic instrumental. Mostly, however, Gonks Go Beat was so odd in its conception that it was almost eerie at this remove.

More deliberately sinister stuff arrived in 1967, when director Peter Watkins offered up his feature Privilege, a sign he was unwilling to back away from controversial subjects after the BBC refused to show his docudrama The War Game, about a nuclear attack on Britain. He was still worrying about the state of the nation here, where he set his story (actually devised by sitcom writer Johnny Speight) in the near future when a fascist government was taking hold, one which was comprised of a Conservative-Labour coalition (we're told their policies are virtually identical) with a heavy influence from the Church, which Watkins regarded as a dangerous one, the old anti-authoritarian that he was. To do this and control the public, they turn to the entertainment industry, and specifically the huge popularity of the fashionably self-flagellating (literally) pop star Stephen Shorter, played by actual pop start Paul Jones, fresh off Manfred Mann lead singer duties.

Jones was no actor, or at least his main talents lay in putting across a tune, but his Shorter persona was one of a doleful, none too bright and therefore easily manipulated celebrity who will lend his image to sell all sorts of products, curiously predictive of the fanatically corporate antics The Spice Girls would get up to thirty years later, anything to make a fast buck basically. However, the Great God Mammon was fair enough to this lot, but they were after hearts, minds and souls too, so after Stephen's masochistic stage act that makes the girls scream and the older generation want to clasp him to their collective bosom runs its course, the Church steps in and holds a rally reminiscent of the then current Festival of Light which was pushing its moral crusade across Britain. Interesting to note that Cliff Richard the same year starred in Two a Penny, a drama sponsored by a Christian organisation, though that was not much of a hit while Privilege did pretty well at the box office.

It obviously came from a deeply concerned place, but while the satire was there, it was more difficult to divine from the material: when Shorter's backing band at the religious rally throw encouraging Nazi salutes behind him, is this supposed to be funny or is it simply being laboured in its themes? As for the music, there were pop versions of a few hymns (played by a band dressed as monks at one point), but this had something Gonks Go Beat didn't, a hit single in Jones' I've Been a Bad Bad Boy which went some way to securing the film in the consciousness of the potential audience (oddly enough, Mike Leander was behind the tunes here, and wrote much of the music from Gonks). For fans of sixties zeitgeists, early supermodel Jean Shrimpton appeared as Shorter's artist love interest in what was her sole acting role of any note, though she did not break out into song. Heavyhanded Privilege may have been, but it did compensate with a sincere social agenda that looked outward.

Looking inward, on the other hand, was 1970's Performance, actually made in 1968 but taking a long time to be released since the studio were incredibly uneasy about what they had been given to promote. Oddly enough it shared with Privilege a star whose dissatisfaction with showbiz drove him to become a Born Again Christian, Jones in the case of the former and James Fox in the case of the latter, though more seriously Performance seemed to be so debauched in its creation that many of the central talents involved suffered, usually with drugs problems. Naturally, this makes a good story and contributes to its mystique, but while co-director Donald Cammell could arguably be said to never have been able to live this production down, his cohort Nicolas Roeg went from strength to strength as the nineteen-seventies progressed, so it was more a matter of who you asked. The plot did not even concentrate on the music industry till Mick Jagger's character Turner was introduced.

That was half an hour in, where we saw glimpses of him (appropriately?) painting a wall in rock star Turner's house black, as per a song that was nowhere to be heard on the soundtrack. Fox played Chas, a gangster thug who must go on the run after a murder goes wrong for him, and winds up in Turner's London town house where he discovers that all the decadence of the Krays-era criminal underworld is no match for the mindbending experiences that a trip into the dark consequences of entertainment can bring. Pausing briefly to note that the gangsters here apparently taught Guy Richie all he knew about bringing these lawbreakers to the big screen with their catchphrase-encouraging (and sample encouraging) dialogue, the more interesting aspect from a music point of view was that while Billy Fury would never have gone off his face on magic mushrooms for I've Gotta Horse, in Performance the rock star lifestyle made it look de rigueur.

There are many tales to be told about the film, and the filming, for that matter, as Cammell invited his cast to immerse themselves in the sex, drugs and rock and roll, rendering that combined experience explicit in movieland where before it had been implicit, if referred to at all. Making for maximum paranoia in the Rolling Stones camp, Jagger's girlfriend in the film was played by bandmate Keith Richards' girlfriend in real life, Anita Pallenberg, and if that wasn't enough she was an ex of Brian Jones, who Jagger was emulating in his character who wallows in his riches to the point of stagnation. It was enough of a hit at the time to influence the notion of what the rock musician would get up to in his time off to this day, though arguably it was merely reflecting the truth, but the plot which saw anything from hardmen getting sexual satisfaction from their violent sadism to identity confusion that ultimately had Chas and Turner swapping their minds was like little seen before or since.

As the seventies dawned, the craze for starring musicians and singers in films did not exactly abate, but it did rely more on concert movies like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii or Yessongs to bring in the punters. Probably the biggest narrative effort from that first half of the decade was the 1973 David Essex nostalgia fest That'll Be the Day and to a lesser extent its sequel Stardust, but Performance had noted the appeal sexual content had for audiences of the day, and racy items like Permissive, Groupie Girl and Bread followed its lead. However, the most significant example of these was to arrive in 1975 when the sequel to the huge domestic success Confessions of a Window Cleaner chose to focus on the pop world, and thus Confessions of a Pop Performer followed Robin Askwith as the perpetually clumsy Timmy Lea where he joined a band managed by his perpetually angry brother-in-law Tony Booth.

The Carry On series had never tackled the realm of music, but Confessions had other ideas, and mined the possibilities while sending up the seedier end of the business with broad slapstick and equally obvious verbal humour. These films are much maligned now, but credit where it's due, for a sex comedy of this decade they were more progressive than they might initially appear, as considering how much more off colour and inappropriate they could have been, Timmy was no groping lecher, he was always the pursued in his encounters with the opposite sex, so the women were the ones doing the instigating, be they, in this case, Jill Gascoine as the promoter's wife, or the girl in the record shop who likes the look of him and acts on impulse. That said, the attitude towards pop and rock performers at the time was that they couldn't get enough carnal pleasure, and this was not going to dissuade you from that impression.

The band Timmy joined was called Kipper, he was the drummer of what looked at times like a proto-punk outfit, especially when they destroyed their instruments onstage during one snarling number, led by a tightly-permed singer/pianist nicknamed with typical tact Nutter Normington (Peter Cleall). There were more performances here than in Performance, which merely settled for the Memo from Turner exercise, though nothing here troubled the charts, but it did prove a canny observer of what it took to make it there, with record fixing and easing the gears of prosperity with favours or outright cash payments. The Opportunity Knocks spoof led by Peter Jones, improbably named Star Knockers, did have faith in that TV talent show's clapometer, and eventually Kipper played before the Queen though Timmy for complicated reasons did so in a silver dress, but its healthy cynicism was what the seventies wanted as dodgy acts like The Bay City Rollers dominated the pop scene - Askwith even demonstrated his Mick Jagger impersonation.

The same year the last gasp, effectively, of the old style of pop movie was produced with such comedy and song showcases as Side By Side (with Terry-Thomas as a club owner featuring the likes of The Rubettes and Desmond Dekker) and Never Too Young to Rock (a near-future search for bands like Mud, Slik and, er, The Rubettes again). But the most significant serious movie was probably Slade in Flame, which took a withering look at the hoops bands had to jump through and surprised many for such a fun group to be headlining in such a grimly non-fun picture, from criminal negotiations to internal strife once success dawns. Also worth including was The Who's Ken Russell-directed Tommy, an adaptation of their multi-million selling concept album, though that was so far into its own sphere of reference that it bore little relation not only to the real world but to the music world as well; as an experience, it was overwhelming and a little sick-making into the bargain. Yet '75 was the end of a particular era as from now on British music movies would hiccup out the likes of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, The Music Machine or Breaking Glass intermittently, and the form would no longer be released as a matter of course whenever a band made it big. Pity.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006