Dispensing with even the thin fictional frames of Rock! Rock! Rock! or Just for Fun, this Britpop musical is a string of Top of the Pops-style performances, introduced by TotP regular Jimmy Savile, with artists miming enthusiastically to their singles on minimalist but striking sets. It’s book-ended by valuable newsreel footage of the Beatles playing live, desperately trying to be heard over screaming, ecstatic girls – though, despite later complaints, the Fab Four plainly egg their fans on with all those high-pitched ‘ooo-ooo-oooh’ wails in ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. Between these numbers are a run of pop performers who aren’t the Beatles, but had hits in 1964. Possibly, the producers envisioned making one of these films every year; it’s a shame that they didn’t.
Directed by Frederic Goode, of the underrated vampire film Hand of Night, and imaginatively shot in widescreen by Geoffrey Unsworth, Pop Gear showcases classic and the cringeworthy with equal abandon – though why prematurely middle-aged Matt Monroe gets more songs (three) than anyone else is frankly a mystery. Some of these well-spoken, clean-cut kids have been listening to Chuck Berry or Delta Blues, but they are almost absurdly well turned-out in suits and ties: the most radical fashion statement comes from Alan Price, who leaves his jacket unbuttoned as he pumps away at the keyboard while Eric Burdon belts out ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. Among the most striking personalities are the few women in British pop at the time – huge-voiced teenager Billie Davis (‘Whatcha Gonna Do’) and energetic drummer Honey Lantree of The Honeycombs (‘Have I the Right’). Lantree is one of the few musicians who seems actually to be playing (it’s hard to mime drumming) and shows more attack than the lads carting their unplugged guitars around.
Standout songs include ‘Little Children’ (Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas), ‘I’m Into Something Good’ (Herman’s Hermits), ‘World Without Love’ (Peter and Gordon – with Peter looking like the original Austin Powers), ‘Tobacco Road’ (The Nashville Teens) and ‘Black Girl’ (The Four Pennies). Savile gets his intros and segues over quickly, but still manages to exhude that insufferability which has been a signature throughout a long, long career*. A few dance numbers are included, one featuring an actual (light-skinned) black girl among the gold-trousered ensemble – her presence emphasises the total whitebreadedness of everyone else in sight.
*these notes were written back when I just hated Savile for his work – before all the other stuff came out.
Ian Johnston This sounds great. Is there a Jimmy Savile commentary track? “Now then, now then, now then, goodness gracious, as it ‘appens, ‘ow’s about that, then?”
Valerie Laws classic comment on Savile, Kim! insufferability deffo his verbal avatar. I love old TOTPs, the studio audiences are so totally un-media savvy, so innocently awkward and unfashionable, making no attempt to get the camera’s attention, and almost as ‘prematurely middle aged’ as Matt Monroe. Good to see a geordie lad being the fashion maverick of the bunch!
David Southwell If Jimmy Savile did not have his mother stuffed away in ‘her room, left just as it was when she was with me’ at one his flats I would be deeply shocked.
Helen Mullane I love Pop Gear, great fun! I love how goofy and unslick all the bands and performances are, it almost looks like a school play at points.
Classic for its footage of The Honeycombs and the super cool Nashville Teens in (kind of) action.
Tim Lucas If only for preserving the Honeycombs on film, and The Five Pennies doing the Ledbelly song that Nirvana covered 30 years later, it deserves classification as an international treasure. It will never leave my HD hard drive!
Adrian J. Smith this is a weird coincidence as I woke with the Honeycombs in my head, i.e. ‘Have I the Right’ and had to look it up on the net as no idea who it was by! Seems the ‘legendary’ loon Joe Meek produced it the year I was born (ahem) and recorded it on the same road I now live, albeit further up! Annoying and catchy at the same time…
Kim Newman Actually, it’s not a coincidence – I saw Adrian’s note and link (to a clip from Pop Gear) and was prompted by that to put my notes up. Joe Meek once spent the night in the building where I now live – when it was the Islington nick and he was done for cottaging.
I’ve been tracking down those odd UK pop movies of the ’60s, all of which are somehow mesmerising – Just for Fun, The Ghost Goes Gear (one of the best titles of all time), Gonks Go Beat (just … indescribable). What a missed opportunity that the only movie Britpop managed in its months of happeningness was Spiceworld …
Helen Mullane The pressing question really is where do you stand…Beat Land or Ballad Isle? Answer carefully… ;D
Adrian J. Smith aah, your building was the nick! Yeah, it has that old cop building look. Glad someone actually clicks on video link postings. There is often no feedback and I wonder whether they are a complete waste of time…
Kim Newman Helen – there’s only one answer. Planet Gonk!
Helen Mullane Haha very wise. Go Gonks!