It’s hard to write about the T.A.M.I. Show and not lapse into overenthusiastic, Kandy-Kolored-era Tom Wolfe gibberish. A concert shot in California in 1964, it evokes an American pop culture utopia, a musical mélange of teen-attractive genres from Motown (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes), soul (James Brown and the Flames), surf rock (Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys), British rock (Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Rolling Stones, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas), teen anthems (Lesley Gore), and garage rock (the Barbarians).
The racially integrated acts are united by boundless energy, overenthusiastic talent, a wicked back-beat, and the overly polished performance style one gets from an entertainment industry predicated on social Darwinism. The tumult of the ‘60s has been documented to death. Knowing what was and would go on outside the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium doors, however, only heightens the sense of a plastic paradise lost, of a perfectly optimistic union of commerce and art driven by the wide-eyed potential of youth.
The concert itself was quite literally lost for some time and is just now being made available for commercial purchase by Shout! Factory. It was originally shot live on a video format called “Electronovision” (over two days but the second day’s footage was only used) and was shown in movie theaters for several months before being largely forgotten except by fans trading in bootleg videos. (I first ran across it at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York.) The imagery has been cleaned up as much as old video can and it’s still a little blurry, but the sound is excellently rendered in high-definition.
Of the other shimmering lost possibilities of the concert, one must start with the organization that promoted it. As the DVD liner notes state, “T.A.M.I. (an acronym for Teenage Awards Music International) was designed to be an international nonprofit organization that would produce a series of yearly concerts and awards ceremonies to be broadcast over a major television network, with proceeds earmarked for music scholarships and other musical programs to benefit teenagers around the world.”
That none of this ever happened goes beyond saying. Yet the do-gooder impracticality and corporate far-reaching of T.A.M.I. is evident in their sole outing.
What one is immediately struck with when watching the T.A.M.I. Show is the manic thrilling speed of the entire enterprise. The filmed intro, shot like the type of slick MTV-influenced advertising of decades later, has the show’s performers racing around Los Angeles getting ready for the concert. The hosts, Jan and Dean, ride around on motorbikes, go-karts, and skateboards through the city streets.
Their song, “(Here They Come) from All Over the World”, plays on the soundtrack and the lyric “you know the guitar’s grooving so keep it all moving” seems to propel everyone forward. The camera cuts to the auditorium, Jan and Dean run out and introduce Chuck Berry, and he immediately starts playing.
This rabid amphetamine fueled workmanship is evident in all quarters, from the performances, editing, camerawork, and tight choreography of the ever present go-go dancers. The hectic visual motions, quick pans, and hairbreadths cuts between acts would be copied by later television shows like Shindig! (which actually premiered two months earlier) and Hullabaloo.
It’s refreshing to watch when compared to the self-important televised concert and award shows of today. Where a crane on American Idol will glide over the performers with “majestic” wonder, here the camera swoops down like a dive bomber, mimicking the energy of the music. The pace is so fast it approaches punk, and its clear what tradition the Ramones were harking back to in their short and simple set lists.
Jan and Dean, though second rate surf pop talents, are the ideal ambassadors for the show’s distinctly Californian vibe: sun-kissed and laid back with a prankster spirit. They keep the introductions brief and goofy. At one point they bring out a guitar case and a skateboard falls out. They ride around and then introduce the “real surfers” the Beach Boys. (A joke the audience probably didn’t get; the Beach Boys weren’t real surfers.)
The Beach Boys on T.A.M.I. (partial) courtesy of Shout! Factory
As with the host’s somewhat lame jokes, there is a sense of early innocence to the performances, of future superstars who have not quite left the womb. Chuck Berry is the first to perform, and his fingerprints are all over the tight structures, guitar solos, and song structures of Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beach Boys. (The Beach Boys notably play long after Berry, perhaps in attempt to mask how badly their “Surfin’ U.S.A.” rips off his “Sweet Little Sixteen”.) There are obvious echoes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles in the performances of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The British Invasion is less than a year old and the Rolling Stones are hardly more than a blues cover band.
Obviously, the show was made for teenagers. The biggest audience response is for Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” and there is a special soft focus camera (the lens smeared with Vaseline) used for the ballads to give them an extra syrupy sheen. That doesn’t mean that the producers look down on their audience, though. The show is imbued with professional sophistication.
The backing band, made up of some of the crack LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, is led by Phil Spector’s right hand-man Jack Nitzsche, who gives the performers a pared down Wall of Sound grandeur. Gore’s powerful voice conveys equal parts hurt and self-assurance within a plain and conservative persona. The Motown acts, in particular the Supremes, display a heightened sense of style, vocals, and song structures.
Then there is James Brown and the Flames. Brown is the highlight of the concert, eons above and beyond all others, and seemingly beamed in from some other place. Where the other acts rush through their performances like the 2:30 single artists they are, his is a drawn out, slow tease. His set crescendos during the fabulously ridiculous “Please Please Me” and is followed by the gospel-fused shakedown of “Night Train”. To see him perform his famous collapsing with a cape act, the act that propelled him to fame and drove audiences wild and which has lost absolutely none of its shivering brilliance through the years, is the main reason why I and anybody else who has ever seen the T.A.M.I. Show will tell you that you have to watch it.
Brown’s performance is the essence of the T.A.M.I. Show’s appeal as a cultural artifact whose core does not look dated. Perhaps American pop culture has gotten bloated and stodgy and there is an element of nostalgia in my appreciation, even if I was born 13 years after the concert took place. Re-watching it now, I’m struck by how indelibly modern-feeling the show remains, projecting a youthful energy so intense it seems impervious to age.