Phenomenons are funny things. Before they occur, no one truly anticipates them. Sure, the rumblings amongst the underground can hint at a possible titanic cultural shift, and there are usually signs that something significant to one nation is ready to resonate worldwide, but for the most part, ‘happenings’ are immediate and immeasurable. They rocket off the Richter scale like a freshly ignited atomic test, and spread their potent positivity over a ready and willing populace. You can toss all the scholarship you want at a sudden fount of inspiration or artistry, but the fact remains that it takes a combination of elements to create a universal stir. Such was the case when Beatlemania ushered in the British Invasion.
For many, the Fab Four stand as the most important, iconic musical act of the 20th century and rightfully so. They set the benchmark for songwriting style and definable audience attraction. They took the routinely relegated “evils” of rock and roll and gave them a merry Mersey mop top demeanor. They combined style and substance in a way no other group would could, and they invented as much as they stole, seeking inspiration and innovation from the past as much as mirroring its solid sonic cues. Let’s face it the Beatles were a remarkable and so far, incomparable, creative comet. How else would you explain the uneven cosmic dust they spread throughout the hit parade over the course of their commercial domination?
Indeed, the British Invasion was not so much a war as a dam bust, a fierce flood of product produced mostly to capitalize on John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s homeland heroism. Perfect proof of this theory can be seen in every second of the smashingly surreal variety film cavalcade Pop Gear. Consisting of nothing more than 15 heretofore unknown UK bands sharing lip synced space with some intriguing live footage of the lads from Liverpool, this compendium of record biz buzz was supposed to jumpstart the careers of several carefully groomed English acts. It was also offered as an open invitation to a world marginalized by media. In truth, with the rare exception here and there, it really showcased the cash-in quick mentality of an industry trying to cope with the non-stop need for more and more Northern Songs.
Known to most Americans by its reconfigured, non Carnaby Street moniker Go-Go Mania, Pop Gear is really quite the kitschy, camp delight. It uses a decided Dada-esque design to bring to life an at the hop kind of carnival. Aimed at teens whose temperament was guided by the available vinyl grooves, the show wants to be a hipster and a horoscope, a funnel to what’s cool and a gauge for where the movement is headed. Granted, there are a lot of one hit wonders here, bands hand picked by eager producers and desperate labels to take their preprogrammed tracks to the top of the charts. Yet what’s most shocking is not how watchable this all is. Instead, one is constantly struck by how seemingly talented individuals can so quickly disappear from the annals of the art form.
(Warner; US DVD: 5 Jun 2007)
It’s important to note that not all of Pop Gear is a has-been hullabaloo. This sadly forgotten find features the powerful performances of acknowledged artists like The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and The Spencer Davis Group. Granted, Eric Burden looks like a naughty snot nosed schoolboy being kept after class, and Steve Winwood is basically bored until required to rip it up and sing, but to watch these bands beginning their careers, carefully choreographing their look and their possible appeal to conform to the Beatles formula for worldwide success, is something quite striking. It makes Pop Gear much more than a time capsule. In fact, one could legitimately call it a good old fashioned lesson in marketing, make-overs and musical association.
The film begins with the most blatant of bargain basement come-ons. Advertised extensively as “featuring the Beatles” the superstar band does appear—live, ragged, and overloaded with hormonally charged adrenalin. They belt out a decent version of the monster hit “She Loves You”, as girls sweat and swoon, screaming their adenoidal appreciation for everything the group stands for. Throughout it all, the camera stays almost exclusively on Paul and George. Why the rest of the band warrants limited exposure is something for celluloid historians to argue over. But it’s clear that Pop Gear is out to make good on its promise and that’s about all. It will provide the Fab Four in all their glory, just don’t get used to them. They won’t be seen for another 70 some minutes.
After the last lyrical “yeah” and a set of mad mod credits, future knight of the British Commonwealth, Jimmy Savile, steps out to begin his rapid fire, DJ inspired patter. Later to be known as the first and last host of the UK staple Top of the Pops, this wild haired oldster, looking friendly if quite foolish in his foppish get up, cozies to the camera and delivers his jumbled jumping jive. It’s a banter based in current catchphrases, ersatz slang, and mile a minute mindlessness. It’s all supposed to symbolize his connection to the kids. All it really indicates is a need for some manner of youth coup. Though only in his late 30s when the movie was made, Savile’s strange appearance gives the production a suitable subtitle: Pop Geezer.
Yet all bad blood disappears as Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas begin the beautiful sonic shuffle of “Little Children”. It’s a performance that expertly illustrates what’s so exceptional about this fine little film. Poised and polished, enveloping the ominous lyrics with angular chord changes and abrupt melodic twists, it’s indicative of the kind of music we can expect over the course of the film’s fleeting running time. Indeed, once Susan Maughan stops screeching about how she will “Make Him Mine”, the Four Pennies proud ballad “Juliet” supports the supposition. All throughout Pop Gear, bands will dress in matching suits, play identical instruments, and coordinate their actions to conform to specific entertainment ideals.
Some of it has to do with the laborious task of performing before cameras. Editors need consistency and continuity when cutting between takes, and rock and roll, by its very nature, is more chaos than control. When a singer like Eric Burdon lets out a sensationally soulful wail, it’s a performance dynamic that’s hard to readily duplicate. So everyone involved in Pop Gear are good natured mannequins, amiable automatons that want nothing more than to look spiffy and sell their three minutes of merriment. It creates a relative uniformity yet also allows the truly exceptional to shine through.
Milton Berle with Beatles fans
So when Burdon’s band the Animals offer their famous take on the American folk song “The House of the Rising Sun” it’s like witnessing the second coming. The group looks like they are actually performing even though the lack of electric cables indicates mimicry quite clearly. But more importantly, you sense an aesthetic at play, a real and tangible insight into the inherent power of the music they are making. When the iconic organ solo starts up, the slightest amount of distortion illustrating the dramatis driving the lyric, we realize that we no longer care if the band if faking. The opportunity to experience the ballsy bravado of the various acts more than makes up for the lack of live instrumentation.
Even in the more gimmicky areas of Pop Gear, such a stratagem works. No one would ever argue that The Honeycombs are Mersey Beat masters. Indeed, their female drummer was rumored to be a former assistant hairdresser of the band’s producer. But the minute ‘Honey’ Lantree starts pounding on her kit, arms flailing like a Georgy Girl version of Mo Tucker during “Have I the Right”, we forget all the questionable contrivances. Savile tries to sell us on the “mixed group” status of the act, yet that controversial sounding statement is quickly countermanded, with Ms. Lantree’s gender equity becoming nothing more than a one-off scoff. Yet just like the Rockin Berries when they break into a gorgeous reading of the Goffin/King masterpiece “He’s in Town”, the combination of material and maker really prime our pleasure centers.
There are still hints of the geriatric reach of the old guard here, tones guaranteed to get your great-gran up and swooning. Matt Morno, noted for essaying the title track to 1963’s From Russia with Love, is represented here three times, each entry symbolizing the ersatz Sinatra qualities that would create his wobbly reputation, (he had already come and gone as a ‘50s idol). Of the trio, “Walk Away” is the best. It’s schmaltzy without being sickeningly so. His take on “For Mama” however, is enough to have you considering matricide. Something called Sounds Incorporated also slows things down considerably, using the yackety sax silliness to infuse instrumentals like “Rinky Dink” and a worn out “William Tell Overture” with unnecessary goofiness. In some ways, they represent the resistance by the status quo toward recognizing the Beatles importance. By marginalizing their music and continually pushing the past onto the audience, there was hope to stop their social steamroller.
Yet Pop Gear goes back to the signs of the time when the overly cutesy Herman’s Hermits arrive to bring their breezy sunshine stomp “I’m into Something Good” to the screen. Peter Noone, whose boyish whimsy seems to infuse every line with sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, can really sell a song, and his band mates deliver the kind of sturdy seriousness that sets off his jocularity with faultless aplomb. It’s a shame that in the second half of the film, when it looks like every group will get an encore, the Hermits are omitted. It’s a fate that befalls Peter and Gordon as well. Their “World Without Love” is exceptional, but it would have been awesome to hear another of their stunning duets.
Indeed, about halfway through, Pop Gear begins to loose just a little of its luster. We listen to Savile stammer on about jolly blokes and beautiful birds, and the aggravating artifice of groups like Tommy Quickly and the Reno Four, (performing the pathetic “Humpty Dumpty”), and The Nashville Teens, (who torture our eardrums with the grating gravitas of “Tobacco Road” and later, “Google Eyes”), begin to wear us down. In fact, when the standard BBC dance troupe arrives to give legs to a lengthy mid-movie break, their well groomed strutting acts as a soothing auditory salve. It’s a sanctuary from the derivative droning being served up, and a pause in preparation for the onslaught about to occur.
With the exception of The Honeycomb’s “Eyes”, and The Four Pennies “Black Girl”, (which Nirvana later unearthed for their Unplugged piece “In the Pines”), the second half of the film consistently underachieves. Gone are the recognizable tracks and perky performances. In their place is a showboating sameness that grows increasingly tiresome. Even the reappearance of The Animals delivering “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” with an equal urgency as before can barely save our soiled spirit. As in any phenomenon, Pop Gear goes overboard in trying to give the people what they want. With the promised return of the Beatles at some point in the production, (they do appear, playing the last chorus of “Twist and Shout” before the credits roll), what was once novel had become nothing more than a waiting game.
Years later, with the music biz mimicking itself repeatedly for an increasingly micromanaged marketplace, Pop Gear seems both prophetic and prosaic. While the expressionist approach to the sets, (we get exaggerated angles, freaked out forced perspective, and lots of pre-Peter Max pseudo psychedelia), and the clean cut as counterculture couture definitely date the material, the approach to the artist remains, like the song, the same. This is the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial mill, a grinning grindstone waiting to suck the creative and commercial into its chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out express. The Beatles opened the door. The labels looking for some fiscal headway into the lucrative American adolescent fanbase simply opened up their vaults of viability and zeroed in for the kill.
And yet, as a movie, Pop Gear is remarkable. It’s eye candy at its most scrumptious, like a Willie Wonka version of a rock and roll road show. Attitudes range from sparkling to spunky, with even the solo acts capable of holding the camera. While some may argue that video killed the radio star, it was obvious that the British Invasion invested heavily in image as a means of making waves. A band like Spencer Davis was obviously in it for the music, but they are put together and packaged like everyone else here. Kudos are also owed to director Frederic Goode. With his roving lens, readily picking out moments of movement and charm, and a framing sensibility that turns every sequence into a living record sleeve, he was an excellent choice to helm this effort. He brings the best out of each and every artist.
In addition, Pop Gear also illustrates the fleeting notion of fame. As with all phenomenon, the bloom quickly falls from the rose and almost everyone let into the party soon find themselves wallflowers among the still cool clique. The dance floor overloads with the latest fad and the once familiar are now relegated to fate as someone’s nostalgia. Hindsight is usually unkind, and that itself derives from a lack of perspective and the actual ability to see said one time sensations in action. Thanks to something like Pop Gear, however, the truth can be told in all its gap toothed, peg panted, small collared glory. It may not be as seismic as the original happening itself, but the chance to channel it once more should be eagerly embraced. After all, social situations like these are very extraordinary. That makes Pop Gear a very rarified item, indeed.