The Golden Disc 1958 – The Coffee Bar
‘What will it be madam?’ asks Harry ‘Ballad or Rock?’ Aunt Sarah replies ‘Rock-maninoff’.
In the fifties the English café became a continental coffee bar with espresso replacing tea. In The Golden Disc Harry and Joan (Lee Patterson and Mary Steele) convert Aunt Sara’s decrepid café into a coffee bar (to include a record shop and a recording studio) eventually promoting a young singer (Terry Dene) to No.1 in the music charts and cashing in on the start of the rock and roll era. Unconsciously, it is a snapshot of the late fifties in Britain. It throws in a cornucopia of music styles, the producers obviously try to phase all. There is folk, instrumentals, skiffle, jazz, ballads and rock’n’roll. As a piece of musical history it is excellent in capturing the feeling of changing times.
The fact that prime-time television or cinema could induce hysteria and phenomenally increase sales of rock’n’roll music was not unknown. That said, the whole concept of these early pop musicals were specifically created for financial gain in a failing movie business with audiences that had dropped off since the late forties.
The opening song Dynamo by Sonny Stewart’s Skiffle Kings stretches from ambient diegetic to performance mode (through a dissolving montage of nightclub neons from one coffee bar into another) as the music abruptly changes from a studio recording to live performance. This brave musical edit did not fool everyone. ‘You may be annoyed by the way it sometimes fades the music before the artists have quite finished’ says Nina Hibben in the Daily Worker, (15/3/58)
Campbell Dixon’s adult view of the time sees ‘a strange world of frenzied exhibitionism and phoney, carefully cultivated hysteria. He knows it exists… as the young playwrights assure us its significant, and I’m sure it is, thought just what its significant of, except family neglect and poor teaching, I’ve really no idea. All that concerns me here is that I find it quite numbingly dull.
The modification of the coffee bar during a musical number is almost a religious transformation. The Gaggia coffee machine is brought into the newly refurbished coffee bar ceremoniously carried on a wooden plinth like a pharaoh’s mummy. It is placed in the position of font on a bar serving as the altar. The jukebox pervades as the church organ and the Espresso coffee serves ritualistically as a relaxed form of communion. These simple characteristics are indicative of the new trend: the blood of rock’n’roll in religious undertones. The owner cannot believe the amount of coffee drunk as the coffee bar starts to be successful.
The attractions of the coffee bar; that peculiar amalgam of pine, caffeine, bamboo and bullfight posters, were legion. The coffee bar offered teenagers a warm, welcoming meeting place. Not a parent in sight. They were places you could hang about for an evening, spend a shilling on a coffee, go in at nine and come out at eleven, and nobody bothers you.
Terry Williams (as Dene was born) worked as a record-packer, who had a desire to sing at office parties (his Presley imitations were well received) and was discovered by producer Jack Good of 6.5 Special. As Terry Dene, he almost had respectable hits, but his cover of Marty Robbins’ White Sport Coat was a bigger hit for another British group, and his second single was overshadowed by a Sal Mineo version. Nevertheless he was an overnight sensation with his Elvis impersonation.
Terry Dene’s part in the film is overshadowed by his disastrously short career (that could have matched any of the other artists mentioned). Scandal and his inability to deal with drink in the music clubs led him to be the first UK rebel. In his documentary he bemoans that the ballads Decca forced him to record were not what he was about, he was a rock’n’roller when he played live. ‘Girls swooned over him, boys wanted to punch him.’ says producer Jack Good in the biopic of Dene’s life.
After various tantrums involving panes of glass and mirrors being drunkenly smashed, he lost the respect of his fans. The alcohol brought out a violent streak in him that was not there when he was sober. A mild and gentle natured person from London’s working class Eastend (Platchet), he was confronted with National Service (following in Elvis’s footsteps). The other soldiers taunted him and within 48 hours he had had a nervous breakdown and left the army in disgrace. The press of the day scolded him for his pointless scandals and inability to perform his duty for his country.
The Golden Disc took him to success, which was short lived, and he soon became portrayed as the ‘bad boy’ of British rock’n’roll. This left him jobless after his demobilisation. In 1964 he then found solace in Christianity and proceeded too produce gospel records.
The film finale sees Mary Steele and American Lee Patterson launch a record company and make a nation-wide hit with Dene’s first record. A big British company nearly ruins them, but an even bigger American company big-heartedly steps in and saves the day. As Nina Hibbin says in the Daily Worker (15/3/58) ‘It’s supposed to be a British film but its message is “Good old Uncle Sam”.’ This is unlike Expresso Bongo ‘which is a rarity: a British film-musical of which we can be proud of and America envious.’
Expresso Bongo 1959 The Manager
A rowdy elegy to British youth culture in the fifties Expresso Bongo ‘plunges a savage paw into the mess that is show business.’ It is a film spoof of The Tommy Steele Story, (written by Wolf Mankowitz), taken from the West End musical of the same name. So enter Bongo Herbert, the ‘unbroken street Arab’ as described by his shrewd manager Johnny Jackson (Harvey) into a life of Penny arcades, Prostitution, spaghetti, espresso coffee, garlic sausage, neon, parmigiani and salt beef and the whole plethora of necessary beatnik paraphernalia of props that shrouded the film from tip to toe.
‘In 1959, show business is entertainment of the morons, by the morons, for the morons. And you get nothing for nothing’.
This point of view is put forward in Expresso Bongo. It may seem exaggerated but was not far from the truth in its portrait of Tin Pan Alley and Soho, where ‘stars are made and broken by the chequebook’ as Anthony Carthew revealed in his scathing report where he also claimed ‘This vicious story of show business is very near the truth.’ John Waterman speaks of ‘the penalty of writing a bitingly topical book or play or musical is that by the time the film appears it may have lost some of its teeth.’ Whatever the outcome it was his impression that ‘overnight singing successes are no longer the topic of public interest as they were 18 months ago, in the stage play.’ Perhaps this comment spells the end of the pop years, which are widely known to be between 1956-1960, after which time the Beat Boom began which led to the ‘British Invasion’ of British Pop music into the American charts. This began with the success of the Beatles in Richard Lesters Hard Days Night (1964).
The bongo drum here irreverently replaces the guitar, as the major musical prop, not seen in the other movies. Cliff Richards’s inability to authentically perform with dexterity on the bongos was again overridden by this burgeoning exuberance for youth culture. However tacky, these are classic moments in cinematic history in their portrayal of ‘slice of real life’ show business fantasy.
Though it still ranked as X-rated ‘smut’ (it was given an A) it revelled in its B movie irreverence. Leonard Mosley in the Daily Express pronounced Yes, yes, yes, to Expresso Bongo, for its buttock slapping and bust swinging vulgarity, and its merciless survey of the flesh peddling activities of Soho.
The realism of Soho’s sleazy back streets, where the same bedrooms have been used for sex for over three hundred years, were not the venue the national gaze (BBC) wanted to portray to its ‘decent’ and ‘respectable audience’. Even so, the craze emanating from this square mile of dark musical frivolity was not to be held back from the nation and eventual world domination by pop music.
The film marks a peak in pop musicals. It presents an authentic portrayal of the ‘scene’ and encapsulates (however crudely) all the ingredients of how to break into show business. In an interview with Neil Shand, Mankowitz recalls When I look at people, I see them as they are. The characters in Expresso Bongo are ebullient and bursting with life. I don’t care about them being amoral or immoral, I am amoral and immoral myself…
John Kennedy, Steele’s co manager, wanted to distance themselves from the Expresso Bongo story of a witless coffee bar singer turned into a star by his devious agent, It was clearly a satirical portrayal of Steele’s rise to fame. As Robert Murphy notes in Sixties British Cinema ‘A musical which cheekily parodied the rapid ascent of Tommy Steele from coffee-bar singer to Pop Idol.’!
Lionel Bart, who introduced Kennedy to Cliff Richard played a significant role in the pop music scene, and wrote Living Doll for Cliff Richard went on to score ‘Oliver’ (a story of a innocent boy, manipulated and controlled by a crook!).
In the film there is a television debate in which Gilbert Harding playing himself, as the social arts producer for ‘Cosmarama’ at the BBC talks to a psychiatrist, the Reverend, and Johnny Jackson (Bongo’s manager): Gilbert Harding begins ‘Beatniks! Is this just a healthy sign of high spirits?’ The psychiatrist responds: Adolescents in our time demand outlets for their frustration. The drums Bongo beats may stand for someone he doesn’t like. A simple means of evacuating tension. The whole mass of whirling conflict surging up to a pounding climax. Any relapse of tension and the face is almost beautiful!
He finishes in self-contradiction. Johnny talks solely of Bongo ‘We do not want our boy exhibited as a teenage curiosity, Bongo Herbert, we must all bear in mind, is a real symbol of modern youth.’ he emphasises. To which Gilbert Harding replies ‘Teenagers are regarded by the corporation with the deepest reverence’. The Reverend continues: We have to reach the youth on his or her own level. I started a jive club at the youth club sometime ago, then a skiffle club and now I think we will have a Bongo club in my crypt.
Johnny now sees a religious angle to promote Bongo and lies to the audience when he tells them they both go to church on Sunday, a ploy to induce support for his now ‘religious’ Bongo in any way possible. Johnny Jackson finally realises in a peak of intuitive clarity that Bongo’s second song should have a motherly and religious angle (Shrine on the Second Floor) and promotes his idea to the record mogul. These conniving pitches are indicative of how the record industry machine operates.
As he walks with his protégé towards a backstage party, he tells Bongo ‘You have to get into the habit of cultivating the right people because every right person you meet makes you more right’. More exploitative advice to confuse the teenager’s morals. Mankowitz’s story constantly verges on being a stringent social document. It seems to suppress an urgent desire to scream at the sordid things it portrays.49 His dreams of success are dashed by his bigger dreams of wealth, exemplified by his contractual terms with Bongo by taking 50% gross of the lads earnings. This is finally brought to a head when the president of Garrick Records tears up Johnny’s unlawful contract with Bongo and signs him to his own label, with American backing. After losing everything to the corporate ranks Johnny tells his girlfriend ‘It’s a bastard world and I’m a fully paid up member’. ‘I created one Bongo Herbert, I can do it again’. as he walks off into another suspect deal for a musical about Omar Khayyam.
Given the resonance, Expresso Bongo can be meaningfully placed within a wider aesthetic of Social Realism which characterized British cinema in the late 1950’s and early sixties. Scriptwriter Mankovitz cleverly mixed and blended both the cosmopolitan Soho ingredients and the mix of ethnic cultures.
Beat Girl 1959 – The Teenager
In Beat Girl, the pop musical changes its tone from a series of light-hearted romps such as in The Golden Disc to the rise to stardom in The Tommy Steele Story to the crash and failure in Expresso Bongo. It takes the juvenile delinquency, made popular in Britain with such films as Lewis Gilbert’s Cosh Boy (1952) and Terence Young’s Serious Change (1958). Beat Girl leaves the light-hearted jaunt of The Tommy Steele Story and The Golden Disc supping coffee in the coffee bar, to go beyond the backstage into the depths of Soho’s depravity: the stripclub manager’s office.
Beat Girl, set in 1959, intensifies the social indignation that surrounded the honey pot of Soho’s erotic temptations; the coffee bar pop culture juxtaposed with striptease and prostitution. Sally Ann Field’s character, Jennifer, is the underage upper middle class art student studying at St Martin’s School of Art. She is representative of the kind of teenager who might overstep the general rule of her conservative parents and Christian upbringing. A moody, sullen teenage beat girl she digs her heels in when her father remarries and she discovers her new “mother” has a sordid past! She hangs out in the ‘Off Beat’ coffee bar with Adam Faith and pals. He plays the statutory co-starring (actor/performer) role: the undiscovered radical ‘pop star’: the ‘would be’ Terry Dene, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard character. With his guitar, he is the angry undiscovered young singer/guitarist. ‘Alcohol is for squares, child’s play.’ Adam Faith proclaims using beatnik slang with a James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause attitude, with chicken, drag racing and striptease. But the film is about the girl and her incessant desire to transgress her parents’ authority; portraying a teenager transfixed by the seedy side of the Soho. The strip joints and its lewd principles dominate the script thereby exploiting the teenage audience’s desire for the risque and previously unseen. John Barry creates the music in the lip synch mode with a full score centred around the signature tune’s catchy 12 bar riff. In terms of articulation of songs in the film Beat Girl is similar to Serious Charge with Adam Faith singing along to the juke-box.
Both of these films proved to be isolated incidents of the highly unusual marriage of the performance and lip-synch modes, as other films tended to use the performance mode while derivations of the musical film used the lip-synch mode.
Beat Girl seems unsure of how to integrate pop songs and dramatic performance, with the result that they attempt to contain the pop singers’ performances within a fully diegetic mode, but have more in common with the lip synch mode than the performance mode. Her father asks ‘Where do you get your kicks? Hanging around coffee shops listening to gramophone records and jiving in underground dives’. She replies ‘You are such a square aren’t you?’ He asks ‘This language, these words what does it mean?’ She retorts It means us! Something that is ours! Something we didn’t get from our parents. We can express ourselves. And they do not know what we are talking about… it makes us different.
He asks her again ‘Why do you need to feel so different?’ She retorts: It’s all we got. Vavoom! The world goes up in smoke tomorrow and what’s the score – zero. So now while its now, we do everything for kicks. The sometimes awkward scripting of Beat Girl was irrelevant at the time. It could be seen, especially with the camerawork of Walter Lasselly (one of the key players of the soon to be established ‘Free’ cinema movement), as early social realism and established the pop musical ‘Teen Pic’ as a historic social document. The coffee shop becomes a shrine, a temple of enlightenment. This offers further juxtaposition of religion and the ‘square’ (the image given the church in the late fifties) to the rebelliousness of the teenager and beatnik culture. The audience of young mostly underage juveniles is just the same as we see in today’s bars drinking alcopops. A fundamental part of our genetic chain so indicative of adolescent development?
Imagine all the things we can do without breaking the law, its legal. Beat Girl
John Barry introduced Adam to songwriter Johnny Worth who offered to write for Adam. A recording session was fixed up with EMI’s Parlophone label and John Barry was enlisted to provide the backing, for which he used his newly devised pizzicato string sound. The result was the classic What Do You Want (1959) which featured Adam’s pronunciation of the word ‘baby’ as ‘bye-bee’ which became one of his early trade marks. The single entered the charts at number 18, and quickly climbed to No 1 in December 1959, where it stayed for 4 weeks. His follow-up Poor Me also made No 1 and over the next three years he enjoyed a run of eleven Top 20 hits. In September 1961 he made the move to cabaret as Tommy Steele had done. He performed at the 21st birthday party held for the daughter of millionaire publisher Sir Edward Hulton. Within weeks of that event, Adam Faith opened at east London’s fashionable nightspot of the day The Room at the Top in Ilford. In 1960 was described by rock writers as part of the Holy Trinity (Adam Faith, Billy Fury and Cliff Richard) and was the first British pop star to admit to premarital sex.
Pop Television 57 – 60
Until 1957, British television had closed down for an hour at 6pm so as to give parents a chance to put their children to bed. The BBC then decided to introduce a show for young people on Saturdays to start at 6.05, it was named the 6.5 Special. They appointed two of their youngest producers: 27-year-olds Josephine (Jo) Douglas and an Oxford University graduate, Londoner Jack Good. Jack was to become the undisputed champion of rock ‘n’ roll on British TV. The show launched the hand jive and Good even wrote an instruction book, Hand Jive at the 6.5. The live rock’n’roll music presentation of Good’s production (the first of its kind in the UK) became the hallmark for all his future TV shows, and indeed a benchmark for all popular music presentations in the future of live television.
In the television movie aboard the 6-5 Special, the two girl protagonists sit in the buffet coach. ‘We’ve eaten the steak now lets talk turkey.’ Jean says but stage frightened singer Ann, jumps train at a station as her agent proposes she should audition in front of the talent scouts Pete Murray and Jo Douglas, who just happen to be on board. They reboard the 6-5 Special they come across Finlay Cowen, a retired music hall performer who advises her: ‘Nowadays there’s hundreds of deluded, untalented, unteachable, starry-eyed something or nothing goofs who want to break into an already overcrowded profession with its scrambled and untidy ranks, so be careful’.
Next they meet the talent scout Pete Murray who sits there like Pop Idol’s Simon Cowell. The timid singer bursts into song as a full orchestra erupts from nowhere as the train steams on. The film tries to bend all the sound rules and this early television movie is in an expressive reality ‘diegetic mayhem’.
The influential difference in sound between live television broadcasting and film soundtracks, was that television was dependent on the live performance mode whereas the film soundtrack went through a more diversified period trying to exploit the product they were selling by using the lip synch and performance mode creating a larger than life presentation. The ambient diegetic film editing of music in these early backstage musicals were glimpses into the beginnings of commercial exploitation in pop, which led to the birth of the pop video.
With the BBC introducing The 6-5 Special (1957) and ABC Television with Ready Steady Go (1958). Both were transmitted simultaneously on Saturdays at 6 p.m.
Television producer Jack Good invented rock’n’roll television in Britain and masterminded both shows at different times in the period between September 1958 and 1959. He spotted both Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde (through Larry Parnes) who he wooed to stardom, among a host of others. This included the considered founder of pop music Lonnie Donegan preferred not to be steered into all round entertainment and with his cohorts Ken Colyer and Alexis Korner kept aloof of mass adulation and sellout stardom. He starred as the headlining performer on the film version of 6-5 Special
In a music press interview prior to the first presentation of, Jack Good outlined the basic aims.
Jack Good explains: We intend to make this the most organised show on television,’ he began, ‘and also one of the fastest and most exciting. I’m looking for a certain type of audience reaction. It’s like as if an audience were sitting in a theatre quietly and then were confronted by a blistering stage show that never lets up for one moment. We aim to startle viewers with quick, lively presentation, and because I’m convinced that comedy, no matter how good, tends to slow down a show of this kind, we will not be featuring any comedians.
! was in direct competition to BBC’s 6.5 Special, formerly produced by Jack Good. Frankly, I’m thrilled at the prospect, and the essence of competition must obviously encourage us to work doubly hard. Finally, what style of music will we hear on! For a start there’ll be a preponderance of Big Beat material from the cream of Britain’s ‘rockers.’ But that doesn’t mean that ballads are out of favour. Right now, the trend in pop music generally is veering towards a more melodic conception, and we will follow that trend.
From the first rehearsal list of! (Saturday 13th Sept 1958), it can been seen that every song used was in fact a cover version of someone else’s hit. The Dallas Boys sang Buddy Holly’s Think It Over and Gene Vincent’s Rocky Road Blues, Neville Taylor & The Cutters sang the Coaster’s Yakety Yak and the Everly Brothers Oh What a Feeling, Lord Rockingham’s XI performed two medleys. Marty Wild sang Buddy Knox’s Somebody Touched Me in addition to a medley with the Dallas Boys in which he sang Elvis’ Baby I Do not Care and Ricky Nelson’s Poor Little Fool. Jimmy Henney introduced a new talent making his debut television appearance: 17 year old Cliff Richard backed by his group The Drifters. Cliff pouted and gyrated his way through Milton Allen’s Do not Bug Me Baby
In 1958 Cliff Richard appeared in thirteen of the sixteen shows broadcast since September 1958 and topped the bill on many of them. In early December he collapsed with exhaustion. Performing twice nightly on the variety circuit, rehearsing for during the daytime as well as filming Serious Charge at Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, had taken its toll on his health. Angry at the apparent exploitation and overworking of his son, Cliff’s father sacked his manager Franklyn Boyd. In January 1959, the BBC moved their new flagship pop show Drumbeat forward from 6pm on Saturday (where it was in direct competition with!) to 6.30pm because it was losing the ratings war. On hearing the news, Jack Good said in a NME interview
I should think they now have a very good chance of succeeding! Indeed it is possible both channels will increase their audience rating as a result of no longer being in direct competition.
In May 1959 with just five shows to run before the end of the series, Drumbeat makes a concerted attempt to secure big name artists which included Adam Faith, Terry Dene, and John Barry for its broadcasts over the summer of 1959 when it holds a monopoly over teenage viewers without any competition ended on ITV in May 1959, and was replaced with Boy Meets Girl in September 1959.
It was certainly a role model for later music shows such as Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops, all of which have given youth a platform to express their views and their talents. Ready Steady Go was a mirror which not only reflected, but actively helped to shape the formative tastes of an entire generation, and stands today as an historic record of a long time of rapid social change and emerging new identity. As undoubtedly important as it was then, Ready Steady Go has become even more important as a televisual window through which we can once again witness the process of a changing world, through the powerful and evocative medium of its music.
Spike Milligan, a keen fan of the music scene during the 1950s, presented a documentary for the Boulting Brothers entitled Milligan at Large Meets Joe Brown (1959). He calls the record industry ‘the revolving
door of the adolescent masses’. In the programme Jack Good tells Joe Brown ‘do not jig about to much’ as he rehearses for television. In this tongue-in-cheek look at early pop music television production, Good tells Spike that Joe is not a typical ‘pop star’ who usually styled themselves on James Dean or Elvis, Joe is himself with his own jiggy dance style and can actually play the guitar unlike many artists. Spike notices that they rehearse without sheet music, which was almost forbidden in the days before rock’n’roll. He asked pop Svengali Larry Parnes ‘Do you think beat music is here to stay?’ ‘Oh most definitely I believe it was here before I was born and will still be here when I’m gone’.
The combination of Jack Good as the television producer and Larry Parnes as showbiz impresario began a rapid flow of the original pop idols to television. Elvis impersonating or moody James Dean look alikes were flooding into their offices. They shone as demi-gods to the music industry. Lional Bart was another key player along with Norrie Paramor…
These films are united by much more than the crude exploitation and spectacularisation of a teenage musical fad. The stories told by these films matter a great deal, insofar as they consistently proffer a cutting critique of the culture industries; a critique that subsequently becomes the foundation for pop culture. They portray the music industry in such critical and ambiguous terms that they effectively ‘manufacture authenticity’ for audiences by consistently representing the antithesis of authenticity (alienation, fraud, manipulation, phoniness, corruption etc.) as evils to be avoided. These films contributed the ideological foundation of rock’n’roll and pop culture in the UK during the fifties.
We may not be able, retrospectively, to ascertain whether teen audiences circa 1952-62 internalised these critiques, but neither can we ignore the fact that, approximately five to ten years later, a mass culture (rock) emerged that was organised precisely around these discourses. Despite their status as teenpics these exploitative movies jumped on the latest musical fad of the time, they effectively showcased authenticity, by virtue of the onslaught of inauthentic elements (fraud corruption manipulation, exploitation) that are demonised and repudiated. From the naivetyy of The Tommy Steele Story to the juvenile delinquency of Beat Girl each process instilled an historic epitaph to the changing culture of the time. This pop culture blossomed with unstoppable exuberance. The pop movies discussed here are equally narratives about the manufacture of celebrity, featuring the transformation of a ‘nobody’ into a ‘somebody’. As with the four actors. And remember folks its the audience that make them stars otherwise they are just like you and me. Rock on.