Saturday, August 21, 2010

British Rock Musicals of The Sixties

Rock 'n' roll originated in the United States, so naturally the rock musical also originated in the United States. Indeed, by 1964 Elvis Presley had already made 14 such films.While Americans had invented the rock musical, there would be a time in the Sixties when the British would dominate the form, when movies starring British bands were in fashion. The turning point came as did for the genre of rock music, with The Beatles. The film was A Hard Day's Night.

To understand how A Hard Day's Night would forever change rock musicals, one had best know something of the history of the rock musical up to that time. The first movie to feature rock 'n' roll was Blackboard Jungle (1955). Although not a rock musical, it featured "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets over its opening credits. This would not only help the song climb the Billboard charts, but it would help the genre as a whole. It was not long before rock musicals would emerge. Indeed, the first rock musical may well have been Rock Around the Clock (1956), a film which took its title from the popular song. It was essentially a fictionalised account of the discovery of rock 'n' roll. Rock Around the Clock set the pace for many rock musicals to come, both American and British. It centred on actors rather than musicians, and featured a number of musical acts (in its case Bill Haley and the Comets, The Platters, and so on).

It was later in 1956 that another rock musical would be released that would create another template for the genre. Love Me Tender was the first movie to star Elvis Presley. Essentially a Western with musical interludes, it offered a fictionalised account of the real life Reno brothers. Elvis Presley's next two movies, Loving You (1957) and the classic Jailhouse Rock (1957) would centre on a young singer being discovered, but King Creole (1958) would return to the format of a drama with musical interludes. G. I. Blues (1960) would be his first comedy. Sadly, while many of Elvis Presely's early films were often quite good, the movie Blue Hawaii (1961) would establish a format that would place Elvis in an exotic location in which the plots were little more than excuses for Elvis to sing songs. Strangely enough, the songs were sometimes tailored to these loose plots and hence not very good (a prime example is "Rock-A-Hula Baby" from Blue Hawaii). Sadly, many rock musicals, both American and British, would follow the example set by Blue Hawaii.

Of course, there were British rock musicals prior to A Hard Day's Night. Unfortunately, both before and after A Hard Day's Night, most of the films were of the sort with flimsy plots and a variety of musical acts. Examples of these films were What a Crazy World (1963), which featured Freddie and the Dreamers and other artists, and Just For Fun (1963), which featured Dusty Springfield and other artists. A notable exception to such films were those made by Cliff Richard. A superstar in Britain, Mr. Richard appeared in his first film in 1959 (Serious Charge) and then in Expresso Bongo in 1960. In neither film was he the star, although he did get to perform. It is in 1961 that we can finally speak of a true Cliff Richard Film. The Young Ones (1961). The film featured Cliff Richard as a young man who, with his friends, try to save their youth club from a developer. Despite the slim plot, it was an entertaining film with good songs. The Young Ones was followed by Summer Holiday in 1963. Summer Holiday featured Mr. Richard as a bus mechanic who persuades his bosses to take one of their buses on a cross country trek across the Continent. While the plot sounds like a typical Elvis vehicle, it was well written and entertaining, directed by Peter Yates (who would Bullitt).  Sadly, Mr. Richard's later movies would not match the quality of either The Young Ones or Summer Holiday.

Cliff Richard was not the only British rock 'n' roller to appear in his own film prior to The Beatles. Before The Beatles, Billy Fury was Liverpool's own teen idol. In 1962 he starred in his first movie, Play It Cool. Like many rock musicals of the time, its plot was very loose. In the film Billy Fury plays Billy Universe, who winds up giving an heiress a tour of London after his flight to Brussels for a music festival is grounded. While the movie itself is reportedly not very good, it had some very good songs.

This brings us to 1964 and A Hard Day's Night. Given the enormous success of The Beatles, a movie was inevitable. British rockers Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, and Billy Fury had all made films. What may surprise many is that A Hard Day's Night was conceived even before The Beatles conquered America. In October 1963 Brian Epstein met with American independent producer Walter Shenson, who was working on behalf on United Artists. Since at the time that there was no expectation that The Beatles should repeat their British success in the United States, United Artists wanted no more than another rock musical quickie to capitalise on the band's success in the UK. In fact, United Artists' primary interest in a Beatles movie was not the movie itself, but its soundtrack album. As to The Beatles themselves, they were a bit leery of starring in a rock musical. They were impressed neither by Elvis Presley's movies, nor the various British rock musicals. Regardless, the film was initially budgeted at only £200,000!

Fortunately, Beatlemania (as the movie was originally titled) would not be another throwaway rock musical. Walter Shenson met with The Beatles and discussed the film with them. He hired director Richard Lester with their approval, an expatriate American who had directed the Peter Sellers short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (a favourite of John Lennon). Walter Shenson rejected a number of screen plays before hiring playwright Alun Owen on Richard Lester's suggestion. He had written the teleplay No Trams to Lime Street set in Liverpool, and showed a gift for writing Liverpudlian dialect. The script that resulted was an exaggerated day in the life of The Beatles. The movie was shot at a rapid pace and, unlike many films, in nearly sequential order.

The end result was a rock musical like no other. Not only did Alun Owen's screenplay dispense with the usual contrived plots of rock musicals up to that time, it virtually had no plot at all. The movie simply portrayed The  Beatles as they travelled by train form Liverpool to London to appear on a television show. The film itself was shot in a nearly cinéma vérité style which owed a good deal to the French New Wave and the British kitchen sink dramas. At the same time, however, there touches of surrealism as seen in Lester's own Running Jumping & Standing Still Film and John Schlesinger's Billy Liar, combined with various camera techniques and Marx Brothers style humour.

A Hard Day's Night was released in the United Kingdom on 6 July 1964. It not only did enormous box office on both sides of the Pond, but received sterling reviews as well. Upon its release The Village Voice termed it "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals." This assessment has not faded, as it is often regarded as the greatest rock musical of all time. Its influence would be extensive. It not only influenced rock musicals, but music videos, The Monkees (although the series would be more strongly influenced by Help!), and even British spy movies and Swinging London comedies.

Of course, just as traditional Westerns were made after High Noon (1952) and traditional spy thrillers after North by Northwest (1959), more traditional rock musicals were made after A Hard Day's Night. Indeed, a traditional rock musical would be released only a few months after The Beatles' first film. Wondeful Life (1964) starred Cliff Richard and The Shadows as a pop group who find themselves somehow involved in a sword and sandal movie. Sadly, Wonderful Life would not be a entertaining as either The Young Ones or Summer Holiday. Even the songs would not be up to par.

Sadly, the only film to star Gerry and the Pacemakers would also be a more traditional rock musical. Ferry Cross the Mersey would be the first film to star a Beat group other than The Beatles. Produced by the two groups' mutual manager, Brian Epstein, the film's plot concerned Gerry and the Pacemakers preparing for and then participating in a music competition. With a trite plot, the movie is of interest for only two reasons. First, the movie features other artists besides Gerry and the Pacemakers (and The Beatles, of course) managed by Brian Epstein, including The Fourmost and Cilia Black. Second, it was the first film shot on location in Liverpool.  It was released in the United Kingdom on 19 February 1965. Since then it has nearly been forgotten.

While the only film starring Gerry and the Pacemakers wound up being ultimately forgettable, a band once considered The Beatles' chief rivals would make what may have been the best British rock musical of the Sixties besides A Hard Day's Night, Help! (1965), and Yellow Submarine (1968). The Dave Clark Five would be the first band to knock a Beatles song out of the #1 spot on the charts and in the years 1964 and 1965 their success nearly rivalled The Beatles at times. It was then not very surprising when it was announced The Dave Clark Five would star in their own film, The Dave Clark Five Goes Wild. The film's producer , David Deutsch, had been producing movies since 1957, and had even produced the Billy Fury vehicle Play It Cool. Fortunately, The Dave Clark Five's film would be a good deal better. Much of this would be because Mr.Deutsch would recruit real talent to write and direct the film. The screen play was written by playwright Peter Nichols, well known for dealing with serious themes through the medium of comedy. For the director  Mr. Deutch recruited a young director who had was the head of the BBC's Bristol Documentary Unit, John Boorman. Mr. Boorman would one day direct such films as Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Excalibur (1981). The film would be shot on location in London and  Devon.

Eventually The Dave Clark Five Goes Wild would be retitled Catch Us if You Can (1965) and was released in the United Kingdom in April 1965 (for some odd reason it was retitled Having a Wild Weekend, the title of another song on the soundtrack, in the United States). It opened to largely positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, in many respects because it was as different from the standard rock musicals made before. Indeed, it was even different from A Hard Day's Night. One thing that separated Catch Us if You Can from other British rock musicals of the time is that The Dave Clark Five did not play themselves, but rather a team of stuntmen (something which Dave Clark had done in real life). It is during an advert for a product called "Meat to Go" that Steve (Dave Clark's character) and a young actress (Dinah Ferris) go AWOL and flee London. While the movie portrays The Dave Clark Five as fleeing London and rebelling against the images and advertising generated against the media, it toys with the idea of what is real and what is ultimately illusion. Compared to other British rock musicals of the time, even The Beatles' movies, Catch Us if you Can is in some ways surprisingly dark. It also happens to be quite funny and even thought provoking and features some of The DC5's best songs (including the title track). I personally think it is a lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered.

Sadly, the next British rock musical that year would be of a much more traditional nature. I've Gotta Horse was the second film starring Liverpool rock star Billy Fury. The film stars Billy as the star of a summer show at a seaside resort and an animal lover who goes out to get a sheep dog and comes back with a horse. Of course, the horse turns out to be a thoroughbred race horse. Even in 1965 the film received bad reviews and it is still not highly regarded today. Like many of Elvis's lesser films, it remains a sad footnote in Billy Fury's career.

Not surprisingly given the quality of Ferry Cross the Mersey and I've Gotta Horse, Catch Us if You Can could have been the best British rock musical of 1965 if it had not been for one thing--1965 would see the release of The Beatles' second film. Tentatively titled Beatles 2, it would soon be called Eight Arms to Hold You. Unlike A Hard Day's Night, Eight Arms to Hold You would have a fairly large budget--£400,000. While A Hard Day's Night  was shot in black and white, Help! was shot in colour. It would also have a much longer shooting schedule, eleven weeks from February 1965 to May 1965. While While Richard Lester returned as director, Alun Owen did not return as screenwriter. Later it would be revealed that Mr. Owen and The Beatles did not particularly get along. Its script would then evolve over time. The idea of Eight Arms to Hold You as essentially a chase fantasy originated in a treatment by Richard Lester and Joe McGrath. The original idea was that Ringo was told by a doctor he only had a short time to live. To spare himself a miserable death, then, Ringo hires a hit man to kill him. Unfortunately, Ringo learns he is not actually terminally ill, but has no means of contacting the hit man. As it turns out, a very similar idea was already being used by a film being shot at the time, Philippe de Broca's Les tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine (1965, AKA Up to His Ears). Richard Lester then approached American Mark Behm to develop the story for the film. Mr. Behm developed the similar idea of Ringo being chased by a cult. It was decided that Mr. Behm's story was not English enough, so Englishman Charles Wood was hired to re-write the script. It was about this time that the title of the film changed. The Beatles disliked the title Eight Arms to Hold You, which among other things would have made for an awkward title song. The title was initially changed to Help (the title of a song John Lennon had written for the movie), which was registered as a trademark in the United States. The exclamation point was then added to the title so it became the familiar Help!

Help! would be a very different film in some respects from A Hard Day's Night. A Hard Day's Night owed something to the realism of the kitchen sink dramas and the French New Wave. By 1965, however, such realism had given way to the fantasy of the Bond movies. Help! was then largely a movie driven by fantasy, at the same time drawing upon the fast and furious humour of A Hard Day's Night while parodying the conventions of the spy films of the day. If anything it contained even more of the Billy Liar style surrealism than A Hard Day's Night, even adding asides and narration in the form of words superimposed on the film or displayed on title cards. Help! was released on 29 July 1965 in the UK and 11 August 1965 in the U.S. While not lauded as greatly as A Hard Day's Night, Help! received generally positive notices. It also did very well at the box office. The Beatles themselves were not especially fond of the film. John Lennon in particular complained that it was as if they were extras in their own movie. By 1980, however, John's opinion of the film had improved, as he pointed out that it was "...a precursor to the Batman "Pow! Wow!" on TV..." Since the Sixties critical opinion has varied with regards to Help! Leslie Halliwell complained, "It looks good but it is too tiresome to entertain." Other critics have been much more charitable. Bill Gibbons of PopMatters referred to Help! as "... a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface."

Personally, in some respects I think critics have consistently underrated Help! since the Seventies. Much of this may be because they compare it unfavourably to A Hard Day's Night, which is about as fair as comparing The Magnificent Ambersons to Citizen Kane. Much of it may also be because Help! was about six months ahead of its time. In 1965 the spy spoof was just beginning to emerge. Nineteen sixty four had already seen the release of the classic Hot Enough for June and 1966 would see the debut of television's Get Smart. That having been said, Our Man Flint would not be released until January 1966. Help! then emerged slightly ahead most of the various spy parodies. Of course, it must be pointed out that Help! was not simply a spy spoof. It also parodied war movies, rock stardom, movie serials, and half a dozen other things. As John Lennon quite rightfully pointed out, it was a forerunner to the Batman TV series. Before Get Smart, before Batman, before The President's Analyst (1967), Help! adopted a camp, pop culture approach that sent up the conventions of movie serials, comic books, pulp novels, and other pop culture artefacts. Indeed, its influence would in some ways be more pervasive than that of  A Hard Day's Night. It would have a lasting influence on rock musicals, such as Herman Hermits' Hold On!, The Spencer Davis Group's The Ghost Goes Gear, and others. It would even have an impact on pop musicals, including Spice World (1998). More so than A Hard Day's Night, it would have an impact on the TV series The Monkees, which not only parodied stock plots the way Help! did, but took such techniques as asides displayed on the screen to a whole new level. Needless to say, it would also have a lasting impact on rock videos.

Indeed, the first major British rock musical of 1966 would owe a great deal to Help! Compared to other British Invasion groups of the time, Herman's Hermits were the British Invasion Lite. They played light, listenable songs (sometimes comic in tone) and had a clean cut image. Regardless, Herman's Hermits was highly successful in the mid-Sixties, with seven top forty hits in the United States alone by 1966. By 1966, before starring in their own movie, Herman's Hermits, they had already appeared in two British rock musicals of the sort that featured multiple artists, Pop Gear (1965) and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965). Given their success, it was inevitable they would appear in their own film. Indeed, Peter Noone, the Herman of Herman's Hermits, had acting experience prior to the band. He had appeared on Coronation Street.

Given the light, somewhat humorous image of Herman's Hermits, it was perhaps natural that their first film would be patterned after Help!. Originally titled There's No Place Like Space, there had even been a song of that name written for Herman's Hermits. Manager Mickie Most and Herman's Hermits both agreed that the song was not the sort they would perform, so songwriter P. F. Sloan was hired to write songs for the film. Retitled A Must to Avoid, Mr. Sloan wrote a song of that title. Ultimately, however, the movie would take its title from another song written by Mr. Sloan for the film: Hold On! The plot was paper thin. While Herman's Hermits are on tour in the United States, American children vote for NASA to name their latest spaceship for the band. Somewhat mystified as to why a spacecraft should be named for Herman's Hermits, NASA official Edward Lindquist (Herbert Anderson) is assigned to accompany the band on their tour to determine if they are worthy of having a spaceship named for them. Hold On! was directed by Arthur Lubin (best known as the creator of Mr. Ed), so one would suspect that it would be funny. It was written by Robert E. Kent, a writer whose biggest claim to fame may be the screenplay for American International's 1962 version of Tower of London. Today not only is the film not highly regarded, it is forgotten to the point that many believe Herman's Hermits only starred in one film (more on that later). That having been said, I know that I watched it when I was seven and enjoyed the movie, and having heard the song's soundtrack more recently, the songs are good.

While Hold On! may not be held in high esteem today, the only movie to star The Spencer Davis Group is held in even lower esteem. Although still highly regarded in the United States today, their success would primarily in the United Kingdom. It was in December 1965 that the band achieved their first British #1 song, "Keep on Running." This success was followed by another #1  song, "Somebody Help Me," in March 1966. The band would have two more top forty hits in Britain in 1966. It is perhaps because of their success that The Spencer Davis Group would star in their own movie, The Ghost Goes Gear. The Ghost Goes Gear borrowed liberally from Help! and could be accused of ripping off The Monkees if not for the fact that it was released in the United Kingdom in September 1966, the very month The Monkees debuted on NBC.

The plot of The Ghost Goes Gear was old even by 1966. In The Ghost Goes Gear, The Spencer Davis Group learns their manager (Nicholas Parson) is not only upper class, but is a heir to a manor. Unfortunately, as it turns out, not only is their manager's family is flat broke, but the manor is haunted. While this could have made for a funny movie, The Ghost Goes Gear is poorly done and decidedly unfunny. Perhaps this should not be surprising given the scant credits of co-writer Roger Dunton and co-writer/director Hugh Gladwish. The only reason to watch the film are the songs of The Spencer Davis Group (one of the best British bands of the Sixties) and to see Steven Windwood when he was very young.

It was in December 1966 that Cliff Richard's fourth movie was released. Unlike Mr. Richard's earlier films, Finders Keepers owed more to Help! than earlier rock musicals. In the movie Cliff Richard and The Shadows are scheduled to perform in a small Spanish town. Unfortunately, when they arrive they find the town deserted. As it turns out, a bomb had accidentally been dropped on the village and has yet to go off. Naturally Cliff Richard and The Shadows decide to find the bomb and save the village. Unfortunately, Finders Keepers would be even worse than Mr. Richard's previous Wonderful Life, with the songs even being less than impressive.

By 1967 the cycle of British rock musicals starring rock groups had run its course. British film had moved more towards Swinging London comedies such as Smashing Time (1967) and more serious looks at Swinging London such as Blowup (1967). Freddie and The Dreamers' first and only movie in which they starred was even then an anachronism.  Freddie and The Dreamers were among the first Beat groups to appear on film, even beating The Beatles to the silver screen, as one of the groups in What a Crazy World (1963). They would appear in two more rock musicals of the sort that featured multiple artists: Just For You (1964) and Every Day's a Holiday (1964). They were also among the biggest Beat groups to emerge in the years 1963, 1964, and 1965.  Unfortunately, while Freddie and The Dreamers were actually quite good as musicians and performers, attention in both the UK and the U.S. increasingly centred on the odd dance (termed "the Freddie") that leader Freddie Garrity did while performing. Freddie and The Dreamers were increasingly viewed as a novelty act and that is exactly what they became. In 1966 they recorded an album of nothing but covers from Disney movies. As a result of being viewed as a novelty act,  their popularity plummeted on both sides of the Pond.

It was not surprising that any movie that starred Freddie and the Dreamers would be a comedy. It is perhaps more surprising that any movie starring Freddie and the Dreamers, by then has-beens, would be released on 16 July 1967 in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, The Cuckoo Patrol, the only starring vehicle for Freddie and the Dreamers, was. The movie was directed by Duncan Wood, long a producer and director on the classsic series Steptoe and Son. Its screenplay was written by Lew Schwarz, who had written for many Britcoms, including The Army Game. Unfortunately, it would seem neither of their considerable talents were on display in The Cuckoo Patrol. The movie's plot centred on then 31 year old Freddie Garrity and the Dreamers disguising themselves (convincingly in the movie, apparently not so convincingly to audiences) as Boy Scouts and foiling a bunch of criminals. While I have never seen the film (and I am not even sure I want to, even as a pop culture historian), it received wretched reviews from critics in the United Kingdom and bombed at the box office there. In the United States it fared no better, with many theatres refusing  to book it because they felt it belittled the Boy Scouts. Indeed, the movie was apparently bad even by the standards of The Ghost Goes Gear. Some have termed "the worst British film ever made."

If British rock musicals starring rock groups were an anachronism in 1967, they were even more so in 1968. For that matter, so were Herman's Hermits. Although the band would have two top forty singles in the United States and one in the United Kingdom in early 1968, they would be their last hits. The band was past their prime. Regardless, a second Herman Hermits movie would be released that year. Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter drew its title from a song that originated in teleplay The Lads in 1963, sung by actor Sir Tom Courtenay and became a #1 hit in the U.S. for the band in 1965. It was perhaps bad enough that the film was already anachronistic when it was released, but to make matters worse, the movie has a rather directionless plot. It roughly centres on the idea that Herman ( Peter Noone) owns a greyhound named Mrs. Brown (which begs the question of why the movie is titled Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter--Mrs.Brown, the dog had no daughter...) who begins winning races. From there the movie meanders and ends without really ending. Given that the career of Herman's Hermits was largely over and the movie was not very good, Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter died a the box office.

Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter would be the last British musical to star a rock group in the Sixties. Although it is a little bit out of the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning Yellow Submarine (1968). Although it did utilise the music of The Beatles, contrary to popular belief they did not star in the film, appearing in a live action cameo only in the last few minutes of the movie. That having been said, it so captured the essence of The Beatles that many believe they provided their own voices for the film. Furthermore, it was the first animated musical to feature a rock music soundtrack. Not only is it among the greatest rock musicals of all time, it also numbers among the greatest animated films of all time.

Also out of the scope of this musical is The Monkees movie Head (1968). Even though The Monkees were an American band, it is worth mentioning as a classic of the rock musical genre. Head would go even further than A Hard Day's Night in deconstructing the rock musical. A Hard Day's Night has a semblance of a plot, while Head is virtually plotless, with a series of vignettes which parody everything from war movies to sports movies to Westerns, all the while attacking the prefabricated image of The Monkees and rock stars in general. In some respects it was a logical extension of the TV series, which increasingly became freer in form as it progressed.

That a cycle of British rock musicals should arise in the Sixties should not be surprising. The enormous success of A Hard Day's Night and Help! guaranteed there would be many imitators. Less clear is why the cycle had run its course in only three years. Much of the reason may have been the musicians themselves. The Beatles had been less than impressed with Help! Even more importantly, The Beatles' music was becoming more complex, which meant they had to devote more time in the studio. When one considers that at the time of Help! The Beatles still toured, there was little time for making movies. It is for those reasons that The Beatles were naturally hesitant to make another film. There can be little doubt that many rock groups shared The Beatles' concerns, so that making movies ceased to be important to many artists as the Sixties progressed.

Another reason the cycle ended after only three years was most likely the quality of the movies themselves. Beyond A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Catch Us If You Can, not only did the cycle produce little in the way of classics, but it produced an inordinately number of bad movies. Worse yet, films such as The Ghost Goes Gear and The Cuckoo Patrol bombed at the box office. Given the fact that profit rules both the movie industries in Hollywood and London, it is easy to understand why the cycle ended when it did.

One thing many who enjoy the music of the Sixties, but are unfamiliar with its history might find curious is that many of the major British Invasion bands would not make rock musicals in the Sixties. The Rolling Stones would make only one movie in the Sixties, the documentary Sympathy for the Devil (1968), directed by Jean-Luc Goddard. While The Who would write the medley/mini-opera A Quick One While He's Away and the rock opera Tommy, they made no movies in the Sixties. The Kinks wrote the concept album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) as the soundtrack of a teleplay to be written in conjunction with novelist Julian Mitchell for Granada Television, but Granada cancelled the teleplay due to its controversial content. It was never made as a teleplay or movie, and The Kinks never made a movie in the Sixties. Here it must be pointed out that, though today they are legendary bands, there are some very good reasons none of them made movies the way their rivals The Beatles did. The Rolling Stones were controversial early in their careers in the UK and even more so in the U.S. It is then doubtful that any studio would have seriously considered a rock musical featuring them. The Who were actually late bloomers as far as the great British Invasion bands were concerned. They would not have their first hit in the UK until 1965, when "Anywhere, Anyhow, Anywhere" hit the British top ten. Success in the U.S. would take longer, until "Happy Jack" hit the top forty in 1966. Even then, superstardom would wait until the single "I Can See For Miles" and the album The Who Sell Out. By the time The Who were big enough for movies, the cycle towards British rock musicals was over. As to The Kinks, they ran afoul of the American Federation of Musicians, who banned them from the States until 1969. At thes ame time The Kinks were well known for their sometime rough and ready behaviour, making them somewhat controversial on both sides of the Atlantic. Even if the American Federation of Musicians had not banned them, it is highly unlikely a Kinks movie could have ever been made in the Sixties.

Regardless, the British rock musicals of the Sixties would have a lasting impact. Their influence would be felt on music video as early as the Sixties, with the various promotional films made by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, and others drawing upon A Hard Day's Night and Help! Even after the Sixties their influence would be felt on films. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976) owes as much to British rock musicals of the Sixties as it does classic horror movies, sci-fi films, and Hollywood movie musicals. Spice World was an attempt to recapture the spirit of the British rock musicals, but in a separate music genre. Today A Hard Day's Night and Help! are considered classics. Although the cycle produced more than its fair share of bad films, it remains well remembered today because of its lasting impact.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cannibal & The Headhunters Founder Richard "Scar Lopez Passes On

Richard "Scar" Lopez founding member of Cannibal and The Headhunters, passed on July 30 at the age of 65. The cause was lung cancer.

Richard "Scar" Lopez was born on May 18, 1945 in Los Angeles, California. He earned the nickname "Scar" from stitches he had received from a gymnastics accident when he was thirteen. While attending Lincoln High School, Mr. Lopez and Robert Jaramillo decided to form a vocal group. Joe Jamarillo joined the group not long after, initially known as Bobby and The Classics. Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia joined later and became the group's lead vocalist, after which they became known as Cannibal and The Headhunters. Eddie Davis, owner and founder of Rampart Records, discovered Cannibal and The Headhunters and signed them to his label. It was in 1965 that Cannibal and The Headhunters had their biggest hit, "Land of a Thousand Dances." Originally performed by Chris Kenner in 1962, Mr. Kenner's version did not reach the top forty. Cannibal and The Headhunters' version went to #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 14 weeks. It was the first version of the song to feature the famous "na, na, na, na, na, na, na" chorus.

Due to the success of their version of "Land of a Thousand Dances," Cannibal and The Headhunters appeared on Americnan Bandstand, Shindig, Hullabaloo, and other shows. They also opened for the biggest acts of the day, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Righteous Brothers, and others. Richard Lopez left Cannibal and The Headhunters, reportedly due to a disagreement with Eddie Davis or a money dispute. The group continued as a trio until 1967, after which they broke up.    Frankie Garcia would eventually form a new Cannibal and The Headhunters, even though he was the only original member. This incarnation of the group continued to perform in the Seventies. After leaving Cannibal and The Headhunters, Mr. Lopez held a number of different jobs, among them landscaping parks in Los Angeles.

Cannibal and The Headhunters are significant as one of the very first Mexican American bands (along with Question Mark and The Mysterians) to have a major hit song in the United States. In fact, it could be argued that their version of "Land of a Thousand Dances" is the quintessential one. It was the first to feature the famous "Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na" chorus, which was utilised in nearly every single version ever since. Wilson Pickett may have recorded the most famous version, but arguably Cannibal and The Headhunters better captured the energy of the song.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Gap Band's Robert Wilson R.I.P.

Robert Wilson, bassist for The Gap Band, passed on August 15 at the age of 53. The cause was a heart attack.

Robert Wilson was born in 1957 on Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1967 brothers Charlie, Ronnie, and Robert Wilson formed the first incarnation of The Gap Band, under the name The Greenwood, Archer, and Pine Street Band, in 1967. It was in 1973 that the band shortened its name to The Gap Band, so it would stand out better on posters for gigs. Discovered by Tulsa recording legend Leon Russell, The Gap Band released their first album, Magician's Holiday, in 1974. They released their second album, The Gap Band, in 1977. Neither album did well, perhaps because the band's funk sound was out of fashion at the time.They were later introduced to producer Lonnie Simmons, who signed them to his Total Experience Records. In 1979 they released their first album with Lonnie Simmons, also titled The Gap Band. This album actually did well and they had a Top 10 R&B hit with "Shake."

Later in 1979 The Gap Band released the album The Gap Band II. The album veered more towards the sound of that of Parliament-Funkadelic. It went gold and the song "Steppin' (Out)" hit the top 10 on the R&B chart. It would be in 1980 that The Gap Band hit the big time. Their album Gap Band III hit #16 on the Billboard albums chart. From the album they had a top five R&B song, "Yearning for Your Love." Their biggest success would come with Gap Band IV. Released in 1982, Gap Band IV went to #14 on the Billboard albums chart. It produced two hit singles, "Early in the Morning" and, what is widely regarded as The Gap Band's signature song, "You Dropped a Bomb on Me."

Unfortunately, Gap Band V: Jammin', released in 1983, did not do quite as well, but it produced a hit single in the form of "Party Train." Gap Band VI, released in 1985, did not do as well as Gap Band V: Jammin'. For the rest of the Eighties and into the Nineties, The Gap Band recorded four studio albums and two live albums.

As bassist of The Gap Band, Robert Wilson was central to the band's success, providing the underlying bass riffs to all of their songs. Indeed, it was a mark of his skill as a bassist that he was called "the Godfather of Bass Guitar." What is all the more remarkable is that he achieved such skill while very young, recording professionally when he was only 14. Before he had turned 20 he had already played bass with both Billy Preston and Eric Clapton. Mr. Wilson belonged to one of the greatest funk bands of all time, and he was easily the greatest bassist in the entire genre of funk.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why I Am a Little Disappointed in This Season of Mad Men

Warning: Here There Be Spoilers!!! If you have not yet seen the first few episodes of the 4th season of Mad Men, DO NOT READ THIS POST!!!

I think it is no secret that I love the TV series Mad Men. Not only is it my favourite show currently on the air, but it is one of my favourite shows of all time. This should be hardly surprising as the show is nearly a perfect fit for me. It is set in an advertising agency in the Sixties. What is more, it is one of the very few period pieces with almost no anachronisms. I am almost never disappointed in Mad Men, but I must say I was just a little disappointed in the start of the fourth season.

Those who know me may ask how I was disappointed in this season. After all, I have liked every episode so far. I cannot say I have been disappointed in how the episodes have unfolded. I certainly am not disappointed in any of the plot developments. So what am I disappointed in? Quite simply, this season began in November 1964, nearly eleven months after the end of the third season. In other words, Mad Men skipped most of 1964, one of the most interesting years of the Sixties.

Indeed, as any good Beatles fan knows, 1964 was the year that The Beatles invaded the United States. Given that Mad Men has followed the various cultural changes in the United States from the death of Marilyn Monroe to the assassination of JFK, I thought it would be interesting if the show had acknowledged the arrival of The Beatles. Indeed, I think it would have been interesting to have seen the reactions of the characters to the Fab Four. Would Don Draper have liked The Beatles (for all his coolness, I have a feeling he would not have). How would the reactions of the younger employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, such as Peggy, have been different from that of those of the older employees, such as Roger? I rather suspect that in skipping most of 1964, producer and creator Matt Weiner missed a great story opportunity.

Another story opportunity that was missed in skipping most of 1964 is that 1964 was a presidential election year. Now it is true that the series already covered one election year (1960), but the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson versus Barry Goldwater was much more interesting. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were at least somewhat in their campaigns. This was not the case with Messrs. Johnson and Goldwater, and the 1964 presidential election saw more mudslinging than ever before or since. In fact, the most controversial political commercial of all time (perhaps the most controversial commercial of all time, period) aired as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater. The official title of the commercial was "Peace, Little Girl," but it is better known by its informal name, "the Daisy Commercial." "The Daisy Commercial" was created by account executive James H. Graham, Sid Meyer, copywriter Stanley R. Lee, producer Aaron Erlich, and legendary sound archivist Tony Schwartz of the advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach. It aired on Labour Day, September 7, 1964 during a showing of the biblical epic David and Bathsheba on NBC Monday Night at the Movies.

"The Daisy Commercial" was in many ways quite simple. It was also a very sophisticated exercise in extreme horror. Shot in black and white, the commercial began innocuously enough with a little girl in a meadow, birds chirping in the background, picking the petals off a black eyed Susan (not a daisy as so often assumed). As she picks the petals, she counts them off, although missing a few numbers. When the little girl reaches the number "9," a rather frightening sounding male voice is heard intoning a countdown, as when a missile is launched. The little girl then turns her head as if to look at something in the sky and the camera zooms into her pupil until it fills the whole of the screen. As the countdown reaches zero, the darkness of the little girl's pupil is filled with the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. It is then that a snippet of one of Lyndon B. Johnson's speeches comes on with the words, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." The voice of sportscaster Chris Schenkel then comes on and says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

LBJ 1964 Election Ad ( Daisy Girl )
Uploaded by DwightFrye. - Classic TV and last night's shows, online.

As political advertisements go, "The Daisy Commercial" was extremely effective. Although Barry Goldwater is never mentioned by name, the commercial clearly implies that he could start a nuclear war. This was a part of the overall strategy on the part of LBJ's camp, who wished to portray Mr. Goldwater as a potential hothead who would reckless use the Bomb. Made just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, "The Daisy Commercial" was maximised to capitalise on people's fears regarding nuclear holocaust. Needless to say, it was immediately at the centre of controversy. Republican National Committee Chairman Dean Burch vowed to file a complaint against the advert with both the FCC and the Fair Campaign Practices Committee (FCPC). On September 11, 1964 he singled out "The Daisy Commercial" for attack while at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington D.C. with his Democratic counterpart, John Bailey, to sign a "fairness pledge" for the FCPC. He referred to the commercial as "...the most violent political lie that be told." He filed his complaint the following day, The same day Republican Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen wrote the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) alleging that the commercial violated the NAB code of ethics and was unfit for children as well. NAB simply replied that they did not did not consider applying its code of ethics to political advertising because of the uniqueness of the issues involved. Also on September 12, Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie, Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, demanded the FCC ban "The Daisy Commercial" from ever airing again. Nothing really ever came of the complaints against the advert, not that it mattered. "The Daisy Commercial" never aired again. Its impact in 1964 alone can be demonstrated in that it was featured on the cover of the September 25, 1964 issue of Time, dedicated to nuclear weapons.

I suppose I have digressed a good deal here, but my point is that as Mad Men is set at an advertising agency in the Sixties,"The Daisy Commercial" could have provided grist for an entire subplot of an episode.  What would have been the reaction of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Would they have admired the work of Doyle Dane Bernbach? Would they have thought the commercial went too far, that it was potentially libellous? "The Daisy Commercial" was a landmark in the history of both television commercials and political advertising, a dubious one, but a landmark nonetheless. And, sadly, in skipping most of 1964, Mad Men missed it.

Another reason I would have liked to have seen Mad Men season four unfold over most of 1964 is that is is right in the middle of what I consider the Golden Age of Television Commercials. In 1962 Ajax introduced there "White Tornado" campaign. In 1963 Ajax introduced their even more successful "White Knight" campaign.This was the era of V8 Cocktail Vegetable Juice's "Climb Out of Your Rut" campaign, the "us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch" campaign, the "Things go better with Coke" campaign, and the Noxema "striptease" commercials. Now it is clear that SCDP has expanded a good deal into television. Don Draper even created a commercial for Johnson's Glo-Coat floor wax ("footprints are no longer a hanging offence..."). As someone who admires the commercials of the Sixties, however, I must say it would have been nice to have watched SCDP's conquest of the small screen.

Nineteen sixty four was also the year that New York City announced plans to build the World Trade Centre; the year African Americans and Puerto Ricans boycotted New York City schools in protest against discrimination; the year that 400-1000 students marched in Times Square in New York City and in other cities the first major protest against Times Square; Pacific Air Lines Flight 773 crashed outside San Ramon, California; the year that Gemini 1 orbited the Earth; and it was the year that Bewitched debuted (I think it would have been interesting to see the reaction of SCDP to a show about a fictional account executive married to a witch). Quite simply, even when one discounts the fact that it was the year The Beatles conquered America and the year of a presidential election, 1964 was a very interesting year.

Of course, I realise that if the fourth of  Mad Men had started in, say, February 1964, we would have to sit through the minutiae of Don's divorce (which would not have been pretty), but that is really the only real disadvantage I could see. Indeed, we could have watched SCDP go through its growing pains, as they scrambled to get new clients and continue their expansion into television. It could have provided very good fodder for some episodes. It is right now I really wish I was part of the writing staff of Mad Men, as I would have suggested to Matt Weiner that starting in February would be the path to go. As it is, I feel as if I have missed something.

Here I must point out I am only  a little disappointed in Mad Men because it skipped most of 1964. I am not overly angry they did. I am still very much in love with the show and eagerly await each new episode. While I do think Matt Weiner made a mistake in skipping most of 1964, I do believe that he probably had his reasons for doing so. And who knows? He might reveal how the characters reacted to The Beatles or "The Daisy Commercial" sometime (can anyone say "flashback" episode...). That having been said, now I just hope that when it rolls around, Mr. Weinder does not decide to skip most of 1967....