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BETWEEN THE GUTTER AND THE STARS

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Adam Curtis | 13:36 UK time, Thursday, 7 July 2011

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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NEWS INTERNATIONAL - RUPERT MURDOCH

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/01/rupert_murdoch_-_a_portrait_of.html

Comments

  • 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.

  • Comment number 2.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Comment number 5.

    @ Leeravitz

    Span? Not Spam? Oh Damn!

  • Comment number 6.

    Actually, Dan, that is kind of nice to know...not least because, although I could sort of see the point about the generic quality of the material they were seen serving up in the doc, my first impression of the band was that they were actually pretty good in terms of their sound, harmony etc. - not total no-hopers at all, and the casual dismissal of their efforts came across as pretty pompous and self-satisfied in itself! I certainly think that Mike didn't appear to be guiding them well as an agent (!), but even his grandiose way of looking at the world seemed honest and heartfelt enough (self pitying it may have been, but that moment when he realised that he'd devoted eight years of his life to a business he was seeing going down the drain was oddly touching also.)

    I should also point out that, having read your post, I thought I'd google for more information, and learnt that my assumption that Mike was 'Mike Stuart' is wrong - in actual fact, as you may well know, the group were called 'Mike Stuart Span' because lead singer Stuart Hobday reversed his given names (which I assume were Stuart Michael Hobday) when he came up with the name - so there was no actual 'Mike Stuart' at all! Still not sure where the Span came from, though. I don't know if 'Mike' in the doc (who Adam doesn't identify further in his comments) is then the promoter / manager Mike *Clayton*, who is mentioned on the Span's Wiki entry. Equally, as that article amongst others shows, you are quite right to mark the fact that, far from being a bunch of hopelessly clueless wannabes the 'Mike Stuart Span' had already, by the late 60's, been signed and dropped by EMI, played support gigs for Cream and Hendrix, and appeared for John Peel. They may never have broken the big time, but it seems like they were not very different in this respect to many other potentially good groups who never quite get the breaks they were looking for. And apparentely they became 'Leviathan' at the request of an American promoter.

    A case of my being misled by the impression the documentary makes then (or, at least, the impression it makes in Adam's recension of it!) - what does seem to remain striking are certain features of the naivety with which even this level of 'The Span's' success is treated - they still appear to operate under the aegis of a two bit manager whose business hold is precarious; they still appear to be condescended to by pompous BBC producers and Roscoe's parents still appear to think that his job is no real opportunity for a young man, even

  • Comment number 7.

    even though he's jammed with Hendrix! This, in a sense, I suppose, is one of the points Adam was hoping to make about the decided lack of glamour in the British music scene.

  • Comment number 8.

    For anyone interested in finding out a little more about Mike Stuart Span you might like to look up the website www.mikestuartspan.moonfruit.co.uk. This contains a very full biography which may be helpful.

    To assist Leeravitz - the name Mike Stuart Span evolved because, when we moved to Mike Clayton as manager, he had previously managed another local group called the Tony Grant Group. Referring to their initials, publicity posters used the abbreviation T2G. I thought that this was pretty clever, so decided we could use the same trick by calling ourselves Mike Stuart something beginning with 's'. We were quite keen on blues at the time and I think that I chose Span from the singer Otis Span. However, our name was never abbreviated to M2S!

    The documentary that the blog illustrates was shown first in a series called 'A Year In The Life' which followed thirteen subjects (I think) over twelve months. The series was a huge undertaking for Paul Watson, now regarded as the doyen of documentary makers. All the newspaper TV critics gave fulsome reviews of the programme on the following day. Interestingly, it was never mentioned in any of the music press. A little too close to the truth perhaps?

    At he end of the 80s, the programme was updated by adding interviews with the four members and then rebroadcast under the title '20 Years On'.
    Stuart Hobday

  • Comment number 9.

    Enjoyed these a lot, thanks Adam. Nice to have a member of the mighty Span post on here as well! Will be checking out that website.

    In relation to AWOBMOLG - I was watching The Living Dead again yesterday. Some serious crossover in the end of the one of the programs to some of the themes of the recent series.

    Also, in another program, Horst Mahler is interviewed. What happened to him after is quite interesting. I wonder if there are any Germans on here who can give an insight into his story post Adam's film?

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks Adam, I really enjoyed these films they displayed a gritty, slightly depressing image of the music industry that we don't often see. I loved the film of the club singer in Gateshead, she had a very strange sounding voice, it was certainly the sound of a different, older time. Does anyone know the venue where the Geordie synth band are playing? Also enjoyed the Gene Vincent film, he seemed so relaxed on stage and then looked so ill and nervous when off-stage, very sad but I liked seeing the old teddy boys with some incredible haircuts and side-burns.

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for posting the Gene Vincent documentary. I had seen this many years before and recalled feeling quite sad at how such a talented man was reduced to such low-rent gigs and disrespectful treatment and of how at the time this film was shot, Elvis was in the throes of his comeback. Gene Vincent is practically one of the most unknown and underestimated heroes of rock'n'roll music. He wrote most of his brilliant songs, gave Ziggy Stardust his stage pose (left leg behind him copying GV's stance on stage that caused GV to stand this way because of his bad leg), revered by John Lennon, is possibly the reason why Liam Gallagher's kid is called Gene, immortalised by Ian Dury, championed by John Peel, etc, etc. I had read once that if it wasn't for Gene Vincent being either too drunk or suffering from his bad leg, Elvis wouldn't have got his break on national TV in the US and that GV had recommended Elvis to the show's producers to take his spot. Fact or fantasy, I don't know. Either way, they both died in very sad and lonely ways.

    On another note, my grandfather, Bill Corbett, worked for Don Arden in the 60s as a driver and minder for the acts that Arden brought over from the states - GV being one of his charges. I wish he was still alive to recall the stories he must have known from that time. What I do know though, is that Arden was a force to be reckoned with - as was my grandfather - and you didn't mess with either. I think, behind closed doors, the entertainment industry back then was pretty cut-throat. Is it that way now? I couldn't possibly comment.

  • Comment number 12.

    An Adam Curtis exploration of the music industry would be truly fascinating. The evocative mix of showbiz, hard graft and sheer amateurishness you touch upon in your post are one part of this, but for me there is a much larger story waiting to be told - the gaping disjuncture between the human element of the story (the performers, their fans, the emotions generated and shared between them) and the sheer ruthlessness of the business itself.

    To this day, there is almost no understanding at all amongst the public about how the music industry really works. The myth that it revolves around star performers / bands endures - a myth with a grain of truth in it, to be sure, but one which obscures the fact that the entire business is about copyright. It is copyrights that generate the real profits, so if you want to understand how the business works you have to look at how copyrights are managed. Historically, most performers have understood this only after the fact - ie. once they have already agreed terms and signed contracts.

    Of course such a stark view of a business that generates so much colour and excitement and passion is never going to be popular. But it would be interesting to explore why it is, as consumers, that we prefer not to look too closely at the real dynamics of the businesses we fund - or, if you prefer, to explore the ways in which the entertainment business leverages this weakness in us to obscure its real nature.

  • Comment number 13.

    @Tommy #10

    The venue of the synth band looks very much like Balmbras to me. This is a former music hall now a pub on Newcastle's Bigg Market, rather depressingly it's now a 80s theme bar part of the Reflex chain.....

    Details here http://www.pubsnewcastle.co.uk/Balmbras.html

  • Comment number 14.

    During that pop documentary I just kept on thinking about Peter Kay's docu-spoof 'Lonely At The Top' and even the one in the first series of 'The Sopranos' when mobster Chris tries his hand at managing another pretentious but not very good band!

    I remember the Gene Vincent doc being shown years ago, very sad but good to see again.

  • Comment number 15.

    Loved watching the Val Lambert film. Much of the North East was suffused with the music hall and later the working men's club tradition. In some places it even manages to carry on today. The echoes of its influence can even still be heard on mainstream shows like Shooting Stars when Reeves and Mortimer launch into the Club Singer round.

    As for the scenes of economic hardship around Gateshead, I remember very similar things on Teesside around the same time. Although Tyneside and Teesside do get erroneously conflated in some people's heads, in this case the images of what life was like then are hugely evocative of my childhood and the place I lived.

 

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