Monday, September 11, 2006

POP GEAR on Flix

POP GEAR's Jimmy Savile: "Video WatchBlog! Wait, that's the name of this blog!"

1969 was an important year in the logline of my television viewing. It was in 1969 that Cincinnati got its first independent station, WXIX-TV, Channel 19, and with its arrival came an assortment of oddities I could never have seen on the city's three network affiliates. Much of my pleasure with Channel 19 came from its American International Television movie packages, which included quite a few Euro horror curiosities like PORTRAIT IN TERROR, STRANGLER OF THE TOWER, and HORROR CASTLE... but also included in one of the AIP-TV packages was a British import called POP GEAR, which was given the chronologically-skewed but more US-friendly retitling GO GO MANIA.

Running a mere 70 minutes and change, POP GEAR is essentially a collection of Scopitone-like lip-synch performances of various British musical acts from the Mersey Beat era: The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, The Honeycombs, The Spencer Davis Group, Sounds Unlimited, The Nashville Teens, The Fourmost, Tommy Quickly, The Four Pennies, Matt Monro, Billie Davis, and others. The movie is hosted by long-haired impresario Jimmy Savile, whose silly banter ("Pop gear! Wait, that's the name of this picture!") connects the dots with the dotty. Several of the groups on hand were managed by Brian Epstein, whose behind the scenes involvement opened the door to the film's producers being able to include The Beatles in the movie's list of stars, courtesy of some amazing color-and-scope footage from a newsreel entitled "The Beatles Come To Town."

Naturally, my earliest viewings of the picture were pan&scanned, and when I finally scored a copy of GO GO MANIA on videotape, early in my collecting days, it was not only pan&scanned but in black-and-white. I assumed I would never see it properly, but who knew in those days how widely available nearly everything would become? Some years ago, before they went south with incessant commercial interruption, American Movie Classics included the film during a week of rock 'n' roll movies, not only in color and scope but under its original title POP GEAR! It was a treat to finally see intact and in its original form. And now you too can have the pleasure of seeing it, if you have the Showtime cable package, because the premium cable channel Flix is showing POP GEAR -- in Technicolor and Techniscope -- throughout the month of September in a handsome, newly remastered version preceded by a Studio Canal logo.

What's astounding about POP GEAR is not only that it preserves so many classic (and some offbeat) groups in their prime, but that these acts were photographed in color and scope by none other than Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later photograph such important features as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. Some of the acts are preposterous, like Tommy Quickly (a grinny fellow who embarrassingly mugs his way through a "song" reprising nursery rhymes) and the heavy-handed Big Band novelty act Sounds Incorporated (how to describe their sound? like a vocal-less Dave Clark Five on steroids and goofballs), and some are misplaced like suave "From Russia With Love" vocalist Matt Monro, who closes out the program with a "Pop Gear" song that pays lip service to all the movie's participants!

Tommy Quickly reminds us of the tragedy that befell Humpty Dumpty.

The movie also pads out its running time to feature length with a couple of absurd, pre-HULLABALOO choreography sequences.

POP GEAR's kitschy qualities are part of its appeal, but what saves it from being a purely guilty pleasure are the performances it preserves by people like The Honeycombs (Joe Meek's bedroom studio group with rock's first woman drummer, Honey Lantree, who perform their worldwide hit "Have I The Right"), The Nashville Teens (who scowl and lurch their way through "Tobacco Road"), and the original lineup of The Animals (I'd love this movie if only for the close shots of Alan Price's hands kangarooing all over the keyboard during his "House of the Rising Sun" solo). The Four Pennies, a largely-forgotten group who never cracked the US charts, are introduced performing their glimmering tremelo ballad "Juliet," a UK radio hit, but their second number is a disarming cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- a blues standard that had its next moment in the sun when Nirvana covered it as part of their historic MTV UNPLUGGED performance.

The Honeycombs ask the musical question, "Have I The Right?"

Art Sharp and Ray Phillips front The Nashville Teens.

This film was made before rock music acquired an imagery of its own, and there's a certain preposterousness about the sets where the bands are shown performing, the props they're given (The Animals play under dangling Christmas-like ornaments, while The Nashville Teens establish their blues funk cred amidst bales of hay), and the choreography they are sometimes subjected to. One of my favorite moments finds Eric Burdon asked to lead his fellow Animals in a kind of conga line toward Unsworth's camera as "House of the Rising Sun" charges toward its crescendic finale; as a straight-faced Burdon relates his story of a man brought low, guitarist Hilton Valentine, visible just behind him, can't resist cracking up at the absurdity of what they're doing to promote their record. Incidentally, the director of POP GEAR, Frederic Goode, later ventured into the horror genre with the vampire film HAND OF NIGHT aka BEAST OF MOROCCO (1966).

Eric Burdon spins a cautionary tale, but Hilton Valentine's pickin' and grinnin'.

Set your TiVos and timers for POP GEAR, tomorrow (September 12) at 6:30 am and 2:50 pm, September 18 at 5:50 am, or September 26 at 6:00 am and 3:00 pm -- all times given are Eastern time zone. Flix is clearly booking the film into low traffic timeslots, but this is one of those movies that acquires a special flavor when viewed in the middle of the night.

If you find yourself loving POP GEAR as I do, I can steer you in the direction of the perfect chaser: SWINGING U.K., a budget-priced DVD that collects two short films very much in the POP GEAR mold: SWINGING U.K. and U.K. SWINGS AGAIN, dating from 1965. Here you'll find similarly sublimely silly lip-synchs by such artists as Lulu and the Luvvers, Little Millie Small (who sings one of her songs to a bewildered puppy), The Tornados (how could such an ungainly bunch of lads have recorded "Telstar," one of my favorite records of all time?), The Hollies (see Graham Nash clean-shaven and dressed like a banker!), The Merseybeats, The Applejacks (who play two songs that sound dead alike), the hilariously-named The Wackers, and the post-Alan Price lineup of The Animals. These two shorts (which were later combined with another short called MODS AND ROCKERS to manufacture a feature called GO GO BIG BEAT) are hosted by Alan Freeman, Brian Matthew, and Kent Walton, all of them much straighter-looking than Jimmy Savile and therefore exponentially funnier. The lucky kids who saw this on the big screen must have had a hoot.

I wasn't aware of this 2004 DVD release till a friend sent me a copy in the mail a couple of weeks ago, which just goes to show that -- even now, at this late date -- there continue to be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my flotsam and jetsam.

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