Thursday, June 5, 2014


Other than two live concert numbers by the Beatles (lifted from the 1963 short The Beatles Come to Town), Pop Gear consists of nothing but lip-synched performances by over a dozen, mostly forgotten musical acts playing their records that charted in the UK. Only a handful were ever released in America, and for very good reason. Most of the music presented here ranges from bland, mainstream, over-produced pop to bland, mainstream, over-produced pop-rock. Not that you can tell the difference. If nothing else, Pop Gear should put to rest the myth that the 1960s British music scene was the swingingest in the world.

God almighty, what an idiot.
Just as every band west of the Rockies wanted to be the next Beach Boys, so did every band within a thousand-mile radius of Liverpool strive to make it big by wearing collarless jackets, skinny ties, and "mod" haircuts. Talent? What's that? And so Pop Gear offers us, without shame, Tommy Quickly singing "Humpty Dumpty" while grinning like a mental ward patient on an all-night masturbation jag. Yes, "Humpty Dumpty" the nursery rhyme. In 1965. The year that the Beatles recorded "Norwegian Wood." Now, to be fair, most of the songs in Pop Gear were originally released in 1964 -- the year the Beatles recorded "Things We Said Today." Get the picture?

Got to get you off the stage.
And speaking of the Beatles, the instrumental band Sounds Incorporated promised to be of mild interest, having provided the backing tracks for "Got to Get You into my Life" and "Savoy Truffle." So they must have some kind of cool factor, right? Sure -- until they play their big number, the "William Tell Overture." Had Rossini heard his piece arranged for three bellowing saxophones, he'd have asked Tell to shoot an arrow through his head.

Perhaps rightly thinking that performers standing in one place could make Pop Gear even more unwatchable, the director wrongly told each of them to walk around in circles for three minutes, to the obvious embarrassment of those who were more self-aware. Did you ever think Herman's Hermits would ever be described as self-aware? Me neither.

This is rock & roll?
Forgive me for not going into further detail, but I admit to fast-forwarding through most of Pop Gear, the majority the bands being entirely interchangeable and utterly forgettable. American audiences (who saw it under the title Go Go Mania) must have been baffled by the line-up. For every Peter & Gordon, Animals, and Herman's Hermits, there's Billie Davies, the Rockin' Berries, the Fourmost, Four Pennies, the San Remo Four (there must have been a law requiring audiences to know how many people were in the band), and others who were completely unknown over here. Too, what were they to make of dancers "interpreting"  terrible pop instrumentals by artless studio musicians trying desperately to imitate the Mersey sound, or the crooning of Matt Munro, the UK's answer to Vic Damone?

No, there's nothing skeevy about this guy.
The whole shebang is hosted by Jimmy Savile of the UK's legendary music series Top of the Pops. Resembling Marty Feldman after semi-successful corrective eye surgery, Savile was the kind of wacky personality who was popular with all ages. That came crashing down after his death when an investigation showed him to have been a major player in a pedophile ring that operated out of the BBC for decades. When you're aware of that piece of the story, there's something unsettling about how he anticipates Pop Gear's first number, "Little Children." Seriously.

The Dave Clark 5's pretentious Having a Wild Weekend (released as Catch Us if You Can in its original UK release) must have been a little bizarre to US teens as well. The opening scene promises a combination of A Hard Day's Night (black-and-white cinematography) and Help! (zany friends living together in a zany house). But once Dave Clark is addressed as "Steve," you learn these guys aren't playing themselves, but, rather, stuntmen currently appearing in an ad campaign for the meat council. Steve doesn't dig the job (he's just a piece of meat, get it?), but he seems to fancy the commercial's star, Dinah. She and Steve jump in an MG and escape to the real world, with the other four, and the director of the ad campaign, on their trail.

Unlike the Beatles' movies, Having a Wild Weekend isn't a showcase for a band. No, this is Dave Clark's project all the way. He and Dinah (played by Barbara Ferris) are supposed to be symbols of the freethinking younger generation, but their pseudo-philosophical ramblings are pretty much what you'd expect a couple of budding 23 year-old Rambauds to babble while on holiday (as the Brits say). Director John Boorman pads out the couple's getaway with endless scenery shots while Dave Clark 5 songs bash away on the soundtrack. It's kind of like playing a record while watching artsy home movies. As I think of it, Having a Wild Weekend is an attempt at what was referred to as  "kitchen sink drama," only after a good scrubbing of Ajax. (Boorman would later polish his C.V. by directing Point Blank and Deliverance.)

As boring as she is pretty.
Ironically for a former actor, Dave Clark himself is the least engaging member of the band, blessed as he is with an acting style consisting of squinting, scowling, and squinting and scowling. The looker of the bunch, Dave is given plenty of soulful James Dean-ish close-ups, but appears to suffer from constipation. Co-star Barbara Ferris, is cute -- I'm always a sucker for that '60s blonde go-go girl hairdo -- but is appealing as a stick of butter that's been out during a heatwave. These two specious bores are actually perfect for each other, but Dave (or Steve, whatever you want to call him) wants more out of life than ad campaigns for meat; he's looking for the meaning of life by moving to Spain... and becoming a skindiving instructor. What?

Dave Clark leaves Barbara Ferris
to fend for herself.
Written by Dave Clark and bandmate Lenny Davidson, Having a Wild Weekend seems to be deliberately playing to the critics. A subplot featuring the cynical ad agency probably flew right over the heads of the barely-out-of-rompers audience. During their weekend adventure, Steve and Dinah crash a proto-hippie commune, whose equally-turgid denizens are looking for marijuana and heroin. You almost want to applaud when they're all suddenly driven out by army tanks firing live shells at them (Occupy Cotswold!) for no reason other than Dave and Lenny's script wanting to make a statement. Whether the statement is anti-military or anti-hippie, well, you'll have to ask them. 

A later segment featuring Steve and Dinah spending an afternoon with a bored suburban couple, Guy and Nan, seems to be lifted from another movie entirely. While the sexually-frustrated Nan puts the moves on Steve, the clueless Guy tries seducing Dinah via his collection of pop culture memorabilia. (That hit a little too close to home for comfort.) Guy is an unhappy man, baffled by the strange world of 1965, wanting nothing more than to escape to an earlier, simpler time, away from the wife who offers him nothing but contempt. It's a strange, biting scene -- the film's best, in fact, thanks to Robin Bailey's exquisitely sad portrayal of Guy -- but one that makes you wonder, What's this doing here?

"Who are these four guys in the car with me?"
Dave's bandmates don't get to indulge in any of this stuff -- they're strictly supporting players, with little individual characterization, other than Rick Huxley trying to eat inedible objects. Although sharing an authentic camaraderie, they lack the Beatles' natural charisma and wit. Too, the muddy audiotrack and their thicker-than-blood-pudding accents often muffle what little dialogue they have. 
Having a Wild Weekend actually plays better the second time around, when you know to expect, but its drawbacks persist. The main problem is its dichotomy. It wants to be taken seriously as a message movie -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! There's talk of drugs and sex -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! It exposes the media's manipulation of society -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! The nervous taglines on the movie's American posters warned it was "the year's big dramatic surprise! Watch it make the 10-Best lists!" Clearly, Dave and his mates were going for something other than just another teen idol comedy, and are to be commended for their effort.  But did screaming teenyboppers in the audience really give a shit about drama and 10-best lists? Give us "Bits and Pieces!" 

TCM recently ran a beautifully restored Technicolor, letterbox print of Pop Gear. Unfortunately, all I could find on YouTube was this washed-out, non-widescreen clip of its horrid finale from a subtitled, second generation Japanese video:


Anonymous said...

Completely disagree with Pop Gear. It is an utterly fascinating collection of incredibly entertaining bands. Widescreen, technicolor!. The constant movement of the performers is a bit strange, in a Lynchian way, but works fine. Anyone interested in a collection of diverse 60s Brit bands should seek this out; the clips of the Honeycomb are worth it alone.

Anonymous said...

dude that bit about tommy was so fuckin' mean and unecessary. he was 19. have you listened to the original version of that arrangement of humpty dumpty? by austrailia ringo substitute jimmy nicol? horrendous. compared to that, tommy's version is a BOP.
what were you doing at 19? more importantly what were you doing at 17? you certainly didnt wow Brian Epstein like Tommy did. he was his youngest artist. the Beatles thought his cover of You Might As Well Forget Him was tremendous.