Thursday 7 July 2011, 14:36

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Ever since I read the early part of Sharon Osbourne's autobiography I have wanted to make a film about the wonderful, odd culture of the British music industry. She writes vividly about her father who was a legendary music promoter called Don Arden - and the world she describes is a mixture of "Entrepreneur spelt S.P.I.V.", British music hall and even pantomime.

It is a culture that is often obscured by the waves of Americanization that Britain goes through - but it persists. And since the most recent wave of Americanization seems to be receding - and people are now becoming interested in how modern Britain links to its more distant past - I thought I would put up some extracts from films that show that odd Britishness peeking out every now and then in the music industry.

I was going to start with three films that approach this subject from very different perspectives.

The first is a documentary made in 1969 about a struggling pop band from Brighton and what happens to them over a year.

The centre of the story is how they first of all love and trust their manager - but then how that collapses into bitterness. He is called Mike and he is a brilliant character - here he is.

But there is also the agency Mike takes them to who promise to create "an extra aura" around the band - but refuse to do anything practical. Plus the producer of Top of the Pops who is just great in his overwhelming cynicism - "all pop managers are mean and silly".

Here are the four band members - including Roger the bassist - who has the best quote - "my ambition is to own a racing car - and perhaps drive it"

It all goes badly wrong, and the band give up on pop. They get a new manager - and they reinvent themselves as a prog-rock band called Leviathan and the film has a section where Leviathan do their new, political, song. It has the immortal lyric:

"I might go to parliament
To the seat of government
And turn them on to better things

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The second film was made in 1981. It is about a woman called Val Lambert who lives in Gateshead in the North-East. Once upon a time she had been a star of the music halls - her stage name was Val Ferranti.

It is a film about a wonderful woman who refuses to give up. She still sings in the local clubs - and there is a beautiful hand held shot of her doing the Twelfth of Never. Plus a fantastic wallpaper/curtain mix in the background.

It was shot at the very moment when Gateshead was being decimated by the massive rise in unemployment that had begun the year before - and much of the local industry was about to disappear.

Val - along with a local comedian called Bobby Thomson who also appears - are the last fragments from the world of the music-hall that used to dominate the north-east. And there is a very touching section where Val goes to see a local early eighties synth-band rehearsing in the hall where she used to sing. Now the band are singing a song about "your digital DJ"

Here they are with Val watching them - I wonder what happened to them.

And here's the film. It has a very moving final shot.

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The third film was made in 1969 - and it follows four days of a tour of Britain by the legendary Rock and Roll star Gene Vincent.

It is beautifully made - and it watches Vincent with a really sympathetic eye as he struggles to get promoters and TV producers to pay him - because he is broke.

Gene Vincent had been a massive star only ten years before, but now much of that had gone and he takes you into a very British world of small dance halls on the Isle of Wight, cheap hotels where he has to tell the woman on the desk that he will be sharing with his roadie, and a rehearsal room in the basement of a pub in Croydon - where the walls are lined with old mattresses, plus a fantastic touring van.

It is just a wonderful film, full of long hand-held takes - and at the end you watch a man completely exhausted by his performance backstage in a tiny dance hall, and he really doesn't want to do it any more. But then the promoter comes up from the darkness and leads Vincent like a child, by the hand, back onstage to do an encore.

Less than eighteen months later Vincent died - because an ulcer burst in his stomach.

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Because of the renewed interest in the News International scandal - I thought I would put up the link to the piece I did earlier this year about the history of Murdoch's rise to power in Britain, and how the British establishment have disapproved of him ever since the 1960s.

As Murdoch's first mentor in Fleet Street in the 1950s put it - 'Rupert was regarded as the Supreme Satan' - how prescient he was.

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    Comment number 1.

    I'd be fascinated in a piece like this.
    The british invasion and the rise of the artist/creator narrative in popular music has obscured equally fascinating narratives ploughed by figures like don arden, yes, and others like robert stigwood, brian epstein, and joe meek.
    Like Gene Vincent, Meek also came to a tragic end, weeks after turning a staff role at EMI down. Though it would have erased his debts, he valued his independence too much.

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    Comment number 2.

    A band called Spam. Nobody makes stuff up this good...... :-D

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    Comment number 3.

    They do, in the sense that the band are called 'The Span', as is clearly blazoned on their van in oh-so-60's Art Nouveau style. Or, at least, they are called the 'Mike Stewart Span', as everyone insists on calling them throughout (surely a bad sign in the first place, as it reduces what might have been a partially effective name for the group into something which makes them sound like an architectural technique!). I have no idea if someone felt the need to add this modifier in so that they didn't get confused with some other group (Steeleye Span, perhaps?) or whether it's just indicative of Mike's completely proprietorial attitude towards the group - but surely no group worth their salt had been called 'such and such's' outfit since the 50's!! The boys were well shot of him, I'd say. And, for what it's worth, did seem, in the context of the programme at least, to do a little better once they were reworked as 'Leviathan'. Sadly, no 'Spam' as far as I can see or hear at all though...unless I missed something.

    I thought this was a very nice selection overall, though, Adam, although I suspect it will have less impact on the blog than most of the political pieces. But excellent documentaries all - I thought the Gene Vincent piece was especially good...and kind of terrifying, too. How could you not feel for the man when he suggested there must be better ways to earn a living than this? The other curious thing is that, very early on, there is discussion of a critical article on Gene having said that he barely moves during the performances of the songs, and, though it gets dismissed, this is clearly what can be seen later, as if his entire lower body can't respond. As far as I'm aware this is because Gene sustained a motorbike accident at a tender age (before most of his big musical hits, in fact) and suffered chronic pain for the rest of his life. This makes it even more saddening when his need to sit down and recover isn't really being acknowledged, and the heartlessness with which this aspect of his performances was attacked even more brutal.

    But, you know, he surely went on to influence Ian Dury, so some good came out of it all!

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    Comment number 4.

    These are wonderful.

    Although you might infer from the piece that The Mike Stuart Span are long-forgotten, they're a well-known name amongst fans of 60s freakbeat and British psychedelia, chiefly for their 'Children of Tomorrow' single.

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    Comment number 5.

    @ Leeravitz

    Span? Not Spam? Oh Damn!


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