Leave Him Alone Lennon Or I’ll Tell Them All The Truth About You (Richard Lester)

Richard Lester was in the right place at the right time just too many times for it to purely down to his luck. He was a bright kid, graduating from college at 19. Within a year of becoming a stage hand at a Philadelphia TV station he was directing live shows. That sounds like the fast track but television was a new thing, the whole operation still seat-of-the-pants. If you said you could direct then you got to have a go, if you didn’t screw up then you got the job. In 1953, still only 21, he moved to the UK where his US experience & his ability to talk a good fight found him work with the new commercial station. Lester has said that he wanted to direct films so that he could shoot a second take. Whatever, the films he made in the 1960s retain the spontaneity & vivacity of someone with a liking for pointing a camera & seeing what happens.

 

The Goons were THE deal in 1950s British comedy. “Goonery” was a tangle of surreal wordplay, Army barrack room disregard for authority & the iconoclastic genius of Spike Milligan. The trio (Milligan, Peter Sellers & Harry Secombe) were looking to move from radio to TV & cinema. Richard Lester was the American, the outsider, with a developed & perverse visual sense who helped to do that. You know how Monty Python had Terry Gilliam…exactly like that. There were a couple of small British films, one for Walter Shenson who was to produce a film that the world & their teenage daughter was waiting for. John Lennon was a major fan of the Goons, he knew who Richard Lester was. The director was in the best place at the best time & got the job of his life.

 

 

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. United Artists may have wanted a cheap, quickly made film to cash-in on this temporary Beatlemania. Fans & their money were easily parted but there was a fascination with the personalities of 4 young Liverpudlians who made the almost irresistible music. Lester’s film contributed to the Mop Top iconography, presenting sanitized characterisations of each Beatle. It did a whole lot more & did it in the correct style. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a Day In The Life mockumentary, black & white, expeditious. There are nods to the French New Wave, the music video is invented before our very eyes for the best music around. The humour is gentle & knowing whether from the Fab Four or the excellent support cast of comedy actors. Oh & Paul’s Grandad (the incomparable Wilfred Brambell) is “very clean”. The film was a great success. I loved it as a young boy & over 50 years later it still rates 99% over at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

So England was swinging like a pendulum do & Richard Lester was helping out because we were so busy. Before he directed “Help”, the Beatles as an international phenomenon, in colour, on location & a little too zany, he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with “The Knack…& How to Get It”, a satire on the new sexual morality since the death of Queen Victoria in 1960 (© Spike Milligan). “The Knack”, though dated, is the quintessential British Mod movie. It’s stylish & energetic without making too much sense & stars Rita Tushingham, our kitchen sink princess. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) was a little too busy, a musical-comedy that could use more of both. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers &, in his final appearance, Buster Keaton are three good reasons to see the film.

 

In 1966 John Lennon gave some of his time & more of his hair to play Musketeer Gripweed in “How I Won the War”, an anti-war movie made with sharp wit & fast pace. “Petulia” (1968) with Julie Christie was made in the US & is very highly rated. It’s so long since I’ve seen this film…I’ll get back to you on this.

 

 

“The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) is, according to the Wiki,  an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satirical comedy…it’s even better than that sounds ! Adapted from the play by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the 20 British survivors of a blink & what just happened nuclear war attempt to preserve a degree of the old ways on the giant rubbish tip they are left with while dealing with unlikely & surprising mutations. The script is hilarious, the filming inventive & the cast is perfect. There are classical actors, Ralph Richardson, in the title role, Michael Hordern (I saw his King Lear that very year) & Mona Washbourne, a couple of Goons, stalwart comedy character actors including Arthur Lowe & Roy Kinnear & there’s Rita Tushingham. The show is almost stolen by Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur) while Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were never funnier on film than they are here. “The Bed Sitting Room” is the bridge between the Goons & Monty Python, thought-provoking, very silly & from the top rank of British comedy movies. God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake !

 

In the next decade Lester’s budgets got bigger. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) became a bit too much of a comedy-action epic & was eventually released as 2 separate films. The starry cast were surprised by “The 4 Musketeers” (1974) as they had only been paid for the one movie ! “Juggernaut”, a shipboard disaster movie, didn’t really cut it & the following year’s “Royal Flash”, starring Malcolm McDowell, so disappointed writer George MacDonald Fraser that he blocked any further cinematic adaptations of his character.Richard going to Hollywood was inevitable but while these films were accomplished & entertaining, the individuality & vibrancy of his earlier work was diluted. By 1976 he was back on it & his next 2 releases are certainly a return to form.

 

 

In “Robin & Marion” (1976), our outlaw hero returns to England wearied by 20 years of full-on crusading. The Sheriff of Nottingham is still set in his evil ways & the verdant venturer is not about to walk away from a fight. Then, of course, the love of his life, Maid Marion, is still hanging out with the forest folk. Post-James Bond Sean Connery chose his film roles well & his gnarled knight schools Costner, Crowe or any of the other men in tights. The final showdown between Connery & Robert Shaw (the Sheriff), tough guys going at it right, is classy mid-70s cinema. Such a masculine Robin Hood needs a worthy Marion. The film’s coup was to persuade a great star to return to the movies after almost a decade away. Audrey Hepburn was no longer Holly Golightly but the camera still loved her. Her strong, beautiful even luminous Maid completes a lovely, mature, romantic film much better than the above trailer. I saw it again last week & absolutely enjoyed it just as much as 40 years ago.

 

OK, that’s three very good films so no room here for “The Ritz” (1976), an update on the screwball that gets it right. It’s a 1970s American comedy from the same top shelf as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks & Neil Simon. Lester had a continuing relationship with the producers of the musketeer movies who had moved on to the “Superman” franchise. The first film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a major success & when director Richard Donner was unavailable to complete the follow-up Lester re-shot “Superman II” (1980) & directed “…III” (the one with Richard Pryor). This was big box office stuff but there was not much more to come. The Musketeers were reunited for “The Return of…” (1989) which went straight to cable in the US & the Beatle connection got him the gig for “Get Back” (1991), a McCartney concert film.

 

Richard Lester’s films have not always aged well but they retain the energy & imagination of the 1960s. He worked with some major talents & made a major contribution to transferring their abilities on to the big screen. The 3 films I have highlighted here are of the highest quality. The others are pretty much a blast too.

 

 

 

Morf On Macca (Paul After The Beatles)

Nick Morfitt, from all the way just over my fence, makes his own music & has plenty to say about that made other people. Loosehandlebars invited Nick to put his keyboard where his mouth is & contribute to whatever this thing is. So, another new voice around here, there’s always room for anyone with a passion for our music though it is getting noisier.

By our Beatles correspondent Nick Morfitt.

What was the projection for Paul McCartney as a solo performer circa 1970 ? For John, it was Janov, a conscious attempt to kill the dreamweaver in the name of artistic truth. George was finally getting a chance to air his own embarrassment of  songwriting riches, half Krishna folk song cycle/half slightly put out Beatle digs, with an illustrious cast of Clapton ,Keltner, Gordon, Delaney & Bonnie etc etc. Both were working with Phil Spector at the controls- airless,stark minimalism for J, the patented Kitchen Sink soundorama for G. Ringo was about to take his own Sentimental Journey of trad ballads and music hall songs,while holding the pocket tight with Klaus Voorman on John and Yoko’s Plastic Ono debuts. So what the heck was Paul doing ?

Hiding. Newly located to the middle of no-wheres in Scotland with Linda and Heather in tow, Paul must have been feeling like the black sheep of the (ex) Beatles. Chided for his “Granny music”, berated for his attempts to lead the Fabs through the dying embers of the 60’s and the only Beatle not to have been charmed by Spector’s methods, resulting in legal action and complication. Speaking of legal action and complication…APPLE RECORDS ! To Paul it must have seemed like an Allen Klein assisted nightmare, a case of  too many people. Britain’s very own Brian Wilson, the songwriter’s songwriter) had no gameplan, merely to head off into the heart of the country and take stock. Musically at this stage there was no sure-fire bet as to how the first solo McCartney material would develop. For all the seemingly in-offensive doodles like “Ob la di…”, “Maxwell’s”, “Honey Pie”, a rather mixed blessing of a stock in trade, Paul blasted out raw soul nuggets like “Oh Darling”, demented “Helter Skelter”, quietly un-nerving “Blackbird”…an eclecticism of variable quality could be expected at the very least then.

Paul took with him an acoustic guitar and a Studer four track recorder (not the portastudio or laptop, more an analogue megolith). As the break-up of the Beatles slowly became moot fact to all but the public at large, home movies show Paul sketching a brand of pastoral, half-baked(with the emphasis on baked I think) folk pop that owes a lot to the fingerpicked stylings and general ambience of his acoustic “White Album” material. It’s obvious this was music for it’s own sake ,nothing more than Macca doing what he does best, in this context as the soundtrack to a new found family idyll(with danger just skulking out of sight) .It’s interesting that two songs he would promptly revisit,”Junk” and “Teddy Boy” originated from the Rishikesh days…perhaps Scotland was a similar restorative. “Junk” appears in two incarnations on the Cherries album, the winner being a haunting instrumental version that suits it’s whimsical hymn to impermanence vibe and “Teddy Boy”…Well, you can see why Lennon sabotaged his previous attempts to record this story of a boy named Ted. It’s good natured, light, tasteful fluff that is charming to the point of inanity. Lennon’s ad hoc “take your partner’s dosey doe” hectoring highlights that it’s one step away from a barn dance (You can hear this demo & “Junk” on Anthology 3 for comparison)

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or home-recording late night with a nice supply of grass, doodling and rocking out your own one man band masterworks. It was the latter that formed the basis for Macca’s debut, finished off in more professional studios when Paul had decided that he rather liked these little bits and pieces. I’d argue that while McCartney is NOT an epic statement of artistic intent, it is more honest in intention than John or George’s debuts. Now I’m not saying “Plastic Ono Band” isn’t honest, it is,brutally so..but there is a slight pretence to proceedings. John’s primal scream concept suffers only because the writing is so superlative for a confessional, the music so perfectly crafted be it the “I Found Out” side or the “God” side. POB is a knowing masterpiece of self-confession couched in sensitive production ( a Spector surprise here), a definite statement. Yoko’s recorded in one day debut actually nails the Janov wail-like-the-cosmic-baby & be re-born idea more faithfully.

These exploratory recordings were made after a year of soul searching and beard growing showing Paul with his guard down and having fun. The perceived McCartney indulgence is tempered by a definite sense of the bittersweet, the tweeness is always slightly stalked by shadow and that holds true for the willowy nature of the first three Paul/Wings LPs. Less of an album,more of a scrap book and it’s home recorded fidelity renders it  akin to the soundworld of the Escher demos or the barest of “Let it Be”‘s endless rolling tape. For all his blockbuster songwriting qualities there’s only one perfect for mass stadium consumption & even then “Maybe I’m Amazed” appears as version that feels just short of a full song and is more affecting & effective for that. Opener “Lovely Linda” is pretty self-explanatory , typical of the offhand homely ditties that permeate the early Macca oeuvre and features a charming chair-squeak. For those who may want to ship out already..just listen to his acoustic guitar work. Then via a stoned giggle we jumpcut to the rustic and rootsy “That Would Be Something”, the song that was George’s fave moment.

There are detours through vintage Beatledom (“Hot as Sun”), bluesy instrumentals, slightly uneasy ballads, field recordings(“Glasses”) & odd fragments of sound (the unfinished song “Suicide). After the rousing “Maybe…”  the oddest moment on the album & perhaps its most mysterious, compelling moment “Kreen Akrore” is a surreal one man revisit of “The End” sonically inspired by a contemporary documentary about the tribe that everyone forgot. Linda’s worn angel vocals hang at the album’s fringes (& feel more integral to the music than Yoko’s yelps through “Live Peace In Toronto) they would become more defined later.

“McCartney” is a definite new beginning, albeit one that defied expectations for all the “wrong” reasons.-It’s far from the slick mullet haired rockshow, the Macca tour machine evolved into ( those drums are distorted and what’s with Macca’s “Beatboxing” to accommodate this?). It’s only controversial element is the accompanying press release. Here in a faux interview, included to avoid inevitable press hoohah,Paul took ownership for the break up of the Beatles and by default announced to the world at large that the Fabs were no more. John was shocked at this uncharacteristic bold move and in the legendary Jan Wenner Rolling Stone interview made his distaste known. Hey, Paul had grown up too, his defiance was REAL (&  real was key to John at that time)..as REAL sounding as the album was. One could be pretentious & say the album predates the lo-fi one man band overdubbed efforts that would become fashionable later (Beck’s “Mellow Gold”, that’s one), oh wait I did ! Macca’s debut album served to illustrate that his life wasn’t a bowl of cherries while offering him a suitable platform to spread his Wings and ram on into the 1970’s. Man, they were lonely but they weren’t  hard pressed to find a smile. Over and out.

 

 

 

I’m Not In Love With T-T-T-Twiggy (Ready Steady Go !)

In 1959 the Royal Cinema, you know it, on Gilliatt St, near my Nana’s, stopped showing films because everyone was at home watching TV. I think it was that year that my family rented our first set. I wonder what we pointed our furniture at before that. The Royal became the Star Bingo Club, a new thing allowed by an Act of Parliament which liberalised gambling. There were lots of new things at the beginning of the decade… a Labour Government, the Twist, bouffant hairdos (well, ding dong !). Philip Larkin knew the score…

” Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP”. (Annus Mirabilis)

Yeah Man ! The Mersey Beatles, they certainly felt like a big new sexy noise for a big new post-war baby boom teenage bulge. That’s why a queue sinuated around the Star Bingo Club on a Saturday afternoon waiting for the “Teen Beat” music session to start. Live bands, records & soft drinks for the under 18’s. All down the line the juveniles, delinquent or otherwise, were chatting about the previous night’s TV programme which brought the best of the new British Beat to a living room near you.

“Ready Steady Go !” began in August 1963. The Stones first single “Come On” was still in the Top 30, the Beatles released “She Loves You”. The commercial & creative surge in British music had not been well served by the 2 TV channels (really !). Groups were shoe-horned awkwardly into light entertainment shows between the  juggler & the mother-in-law jokes. The BBC’s flagship music show played records at a “Juke Box Jury” of 4 know-nothings who decided “hit” or “miss” &…erm…that’s all. RSG surrounded the music with its young, fashionable audience, capturing some of the excitement & informality that a TV studio/schedule still often deflates. This stuff caught on. The Fab Four appeared in October (Paul judged a miming contest !) & the show got its highest audience when they took over the show in March 1964. This clip has received a sound upgrade but “You Can’t Do That” is so good it should be heard at its best. John’s finest Arthur Alexander style songwriting , George’s shiny new Rickenbacker 360 Deluxe 12-string…a B-side as well.

I missed all of this. The vagaries of regional scheduling meant that, in my provincial backwater, the early Friday evening show did not come around until after 10.30 & that was…after my bedtime…hours after! These new bands from that London, the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, the Kinks, playing the Thames Delta Blues, I would not get to see them until they made the charts. The BBC opted for quantity over quality with a new music show based on sales. The discourse on the concourse about “5-4-3-2-1”, the theme tune, or about that group who smash their instruments (the what ? The Who !)  sounded so exciting, proof that the real fun only started when the kids were asleep. Something was happening in 1964, the RSG crew had a handle on what it was. The young production staff ditched the lip-synch & ran with a new national early evening slot which meant that I could finally see the thing.

The first young Modernist magpies about town favoured Italian fashion, New World rhythms, French cigarettes & philosophy. By 1964 Mod was more about dressing sharp, looking good on the dancefloor & while knocking over the local chemist looking for the pharmaceutical amphetamine or giving a rocker a kicking on a Bank Holiday, your getaway scooter waiting. The symbols of the next big youth movement were in place…you’ve seen “Quadrophenia”. “Ready Steady Go !” made the move from Mersey Beat to Mod giving impetus to its spread out of London up the new motorway system to the rest of the UK. I know, those original Mods viewed this dilution & subsequent commercialisation as the end of it all but, in the mid-60s, provincial British youth were better dressed, with better haircuts, than they had ever been.

RSG’s dance lessons & fashion tips were stiff & lame but there was just so much exciting new music around & whoever was booking the turns or picking the sounds was making plenty of good decisions. In March/April 1965 a roster of Tamla Motown artists had toured the UK to sparse audiences. RSG, prompted by producer & fan Vickie Wickham, filmed an hour long special “The Sound of Motown” featuring Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, 14 year old Stevie Wonder, the Temptations &, Motown’s only UK Top 20 act, the Supremes. Wickham’s best friend Dusty Springfield hosted the show. Dusty had been in a faux-folk trio, recorded overdramatic Euro-pop ballads but she had a heart full of soul & she was sheer class. The show was a blast of energy, a blur of hand clapping, foot stomping, funky butt Detroit Soul. We were able to match some faces to some tunes. Tamla Motown was here to stay.

This wonderful clip, Dusty getting some help on “Wishin’ & Hopin'”, her Bacharach & David US Top 10 hit, from Martha Reeves & the Vandellas is what live music TV can be & rarely is. Dusty & Martha seem to have been left to work it out for themselves & are liking what they have done. The gospel boost to finish makes for a unique performance by the Righteous Sisters.

The groups at “Teen Beat” was the first live music I saw. I think that I was a little underwhelmed at first, it was hardly the Swinging Blue Jeans was it ? Now I remember them as good bands from around the North of England who were ahead of those Top 20 fans. The reference point was the first LP by the Rolling Stones, released in April 64 (May in the US as “England’s Newest Hit Makers”). They all played approximate versions of “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” & surprisingly the soul-jazz groove of Phil Upchurch’s “You Can’t Sit Down”. Y’know if you saw a young bar band playing these songs tonight you would be impressed with their good taste. That was then, 1966 was Now ! & every group was expected to play some new songs.

“Knock On Wood”, “Hold On I’m Coming”, “Mr Pitiful”, this was the new canon. Motown was perhaps a touch too much what with the harmonies & the choreography…at the same time. The music made at Stax Records  was raw, even more basic when there was no horn section, just 4 young energetic kids could fill the dance floor with  these tunes. In September 1966 RSG handed over the show to the label’s figurehead Otis Redding. It was a case of light the blue touch paper & retire to a safe distance as Otis, backed by the Bar-Kays, made a compelling case to be considered as the most exciting act in music. Blue-eyed soul Brits, Chris Farlowe & the great Eric Burdon were invited along & joined in this clip of the closing “Shake”, Sam Cooke’s soul stormer. Eric never looked happier & rightly so. Years later I carried a video tape of this show around, ready to share the greatest 30 minutes of music TV ever. When Stax brought their tour to the UK there were full houses everywhere because people wanted a bit of what they had seen on RSG.

Then, in December 1966, the plug was pulled. Mod probably was past its sell-by-date, the Beat Boom was over but British music was as vibrant in 1967 as it had ever been. The commercial TV network were having none of it, having cancelled the other music show “Thank Your Lucky Stars” in June. Just 2 weeks before RSG ended the UK TV debut of Jimi Hendrix tore up the rule book & knocked us sideways. I had seen the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, for the first time on the show, I was going to have to dig a bit deeper to see the Doors or Jefferson Airplane because ITV would be not be helping. I would too, no longer get my weekly fix of Cathy McGowan, the Mod Dolly Bird next door who so successfully replaced the stiff DJs for hire with a naturalness, an enthusiasm & well, take a look, we were all a little in love with Cathy.