Saturday, 31 December 2016

It's Trad, Dad - Deal With It

The British Trad Jazz boom of the 1950s and early 60s has been much on my mind, and in my ears, recently. It started when I came across the soundtrack for Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad!, his first full length film, and found the whole strangely enjoyable, despite the collision of jazz and pre-Beatles pop.

I had seen the film many years earlier on television, but didn't remember too much about it beyond the sense of a gathering of momentum towards the end and a vague feeling of Helen Shapiro being lost amid the frenzy - quite disappeared, I mean, as though the film had been overlaid with a kind of mythical element, making it an oblique cautionary tale about the dangers of succumbing to jazz-crazed rhythms.

So I had a look on youtube. And assuming it hasn't been taken down by the time you read this, It's Trad, Dad!, which predates Lester's rather more frequently screened A Hard Day's Night, is available to watch in okay-ish quality here (under its American title of Ring-a-Ding Rhythm).

As you'll see, the final sequence does indeed build in frenzy, as I vaguely remembered, though it's still rather more decorous than I recall. We're not talking the nightmarish trance state of David McCallum in Violent Playground, caught up in an ecstacy of savagery as he dances with his mates in front of horrified police liaison officer Stanley Baker. After a little hesitation Baker would surely accept an invitation to join Lester's merry-making.

And that memory of a mythical-overtones vanishing seems to have been invented by me. Possibly what I was responding to (and in fairness I'm talking about a TV screening around 35 years ago) was the sense that, having organised this climactic concert Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas are sort of subsumed by it, as though they've created a monster they cannot control.

Which is putting it too dramatically, perhaps. But at the end, although everyone's dancing happily together to the song Ring-a-Ding, and there are glimpses of Shapiro and Douglas among the proceedings, singing as they dance, the ultimate message seems not so much about them as about the unstoppable power of the force they've invited into their town: in the final shot the camera closes in on a wailin' sax player getting wilder and wilder until we fade, mercifully, to white.

 An agreeable Dixieland version of the same tune is immediately played over the credits, but given that jazz and pop alternate throughout the film, it's interesting to note that Lester opts to finish the film proper with a pop performance, or pop with overtones of rock'n'roll (the honking sax), despite the film's (UK) title.

The saxophone is as much as a symbol of jazz as of rock'n'roll/pop, of course (unless you are one of those outraged by the addition of Bruce Turner to Humph's band) but was this a case of the director tacitly admitting which genre had the greater commercial clout?

Be warned that, as seen on youtube, the film is hardly the HD experience the uploader suggests, though a brief clip elsewhere would seem to indicate that a pristine print survives. A Region 1 DVD under the American title is commercially available. which I presume is the source for that short clip, embedded below, which features leads Douglas and Shapiro singing. They are filmed less adventurously than many other acts, it has to be said, but the clip also provides a taste of the Goonish efforts of the Lord Mayor and his henchmen to sabotage the jazz concert arranged by our enterprising pair.

It's Trad, Dad! marked a break from typical rock'n'roll exploitation movies like Rock! Rock! Rock! for several reasons. The plot may have been the same as earlier films: crusty adults try to quash new music which has their children in thrall, before [spoiler alert] they are won round to it themselves, tapping an indulgent toe or succumbing more wholeheartedly:

But the story, and indeed every element in It's Trad .., fizzes with a sense of fun and life easier seen than described, and which you will find only intermittently in earlier pop vehicles. The 6.5 Special film spinoff is a case in point - for the most part it's like squaresville, Daddio. Even the brief sequences with the DJs, including Pete Murray, in It's Trad ... convey a sense of life absent from equivalent scenes in 6.5 Special.

What makes It's Trad ... so different from those earlier films? Lester's background, working with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, meant that he had comic invention to spare for the project; he was, moreover, given a great deal of freedom to make the film as he wished. Handed what he assumed to be a 18 page treatment by the writer, Milton Subotsky, Lester was informed that this was actually the shooting script.
And so I just turned it around and made it ... send itself up.
Having already made the influential short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film with Milligan and Sellers, and a TV version of The Goon Show called A Show Called Fred, the sight gags integral to It's Trad, Dad! were already second nature to the young American director:
... when we'd do musical numbers with The Goon Show, the girl would be there singing with the band, and at the end of it a man would come up with a custard pie and go kssssh into her face and say, "That was lovely, Patty. When did you first decide ..." and then they would do the interview.
Also significant is that he had made a short documentary earlier called Have Jazz, Will Travel, in which the great cinematographer Robert Krasker (The Third Man), "didn't do a terribly good job" of capturing the music, according to Lester::
Jazz combos - both modern and traditional - photographed in smoky places, against black. Just abstracts and close-ups of instruments.
Presumably learning from this, Lester and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (a pairing which continued for A Hard Day's Night) successfully convey the excitement of jazz bands in action, as well as displaying variety in the shooting of most of the pop sequences - ring-a-dinging the changes, as you might say.

But it's the trad performances which are particularly compelling, and you don't need to be a fan to become caught up in the energetic whirl of that side of the film. For example, although I like the sequence in Sun Valley Serenade (photography by Edward Cronjager) in which Glenn Miller's Orchestra run through Chatanooga Choo Choo, and have written about it here, it seems staid by comparison, or rather too selfconscious. Maybe it's appropriate for the comparative regimentation of swing.

Lester filmed the music for his film in a variety of ways, but with the straightforward trad jazz bands (as opposed to, say, the Temperance Seven who are afforded quirkier treatment) the emphasis is on whichever instrument is prominent. Presumably they are miming to a backing track, and this is no more a multi-camera record of a single performance than than Cronjager's work above, but the effect is of something far freer, more alive, closer to cinema verite (though I do love the moment in Chatanooga Choo Choo, captured below, where the double bass player is the dead spit of Ernie Wise letting himself go during a dance routine).

It's not a high quality clip but here is Acker Bilk playing In a Persian Market from It's Trad ... for purposes of comparison. Note that in both clips the bands are not performing for an audience: the Miller band is doing a runthrough and Bilk's band is in a recording studio.

The verve in It's Trad ... must surely owe something to Lester's earlier experience of having to be on the alert to capture the essence of the Milligans of this world (as opposed to the Mulligans of the jazz world). During another number at the above recording session, for example, we see Acker Bilk's trumpeter reacting to the effort of a particularly tricky section; it's a tiny detail but it makes the wholeband's performance seem all the more human. Fags are smoked, tea is hastily slurped as occasion allows during the recording. And the difference between Acker supposedly during the informality of the studio and a later stage performance is considerable.

But it was also the case that shooting was done at a fair old lick, with Lester obliged to shoot three musical sequences each day, so the fact there simply wasn't much time for reflection may have helped the process. Which ties in with the making of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film:
Once we took the slates off, what there was, there was! I think we did two takes of the final sequence coming down with the boxing glove, but other than that it was one take for everything. [Peter Sellers and I] cut it together and then I wrote the music for it and got a jazz group to play.
There was no expectation of this now celebrated comedy short becoming a commercial success: it was made "for fun." But that is another clue to the appeal of It's Trad ..., in which, quite apart from the musical sequences, the plot is treated with the contempt, or at least the perfunctory manner, it deserves. A narrator speaks directly to the two leads, instantly outfitting them in dress clothes or changing the location, as desired; boring-but-necessary sequences are speeded up - I think the image at the top of this post shows them attending to the disembodied voice. Lester is still having fun - in contrast to his next project, The Mouse on the Moon., apparently much more of a job of work, in which he was landed with an unsympathetic cinematographer who seems to have been running a business on the side.

In a book mentioned in an earlier post about the Goons and John Lennon, Lester talks to Steven Soderbergh about It's Trad, Dad!; the information and quotes in this post all come from that source.

He makes clear that the Beatles knew, and were besotted by, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, and that that led directly to his being hired for A Hard Day's Night, Lester's next project after The Mouse on the Moon. He tells Soderbergh that isn't sure whether the Fabs would have watched of A Show Called Fred. But the answer would seem to be yes, according to a postscript Lennon added to a review of Goon Show Scripts:
Dick Lester ... directed the TV version of the Goon Show - A Show Called Fred. It was good, but radio was freer - i.e., you couldn't float Dartmoor Prison across the English Channel on TV (maybe the BBC should have spent more money).
Actually, it was made by Associated-Rediffusion for the oppposition, which explains why they weren't allowed to call it The Goon Show. (Honestly, if his eye for detail is this faulty how can we take any of his declarations in Lennon Remembers seriously ever again?)

Oh, and quite apart from Lester's Goon connection, the Beatles toured with Helen Shapiro the year after It's Trad ... was filmed, so it's probable that she would have discussed her experience, which may have further reinforced the case for Lester as the right choice for the Beatles' film.

(Adopts sonorous voice:) And for the real life Helen Shapiro that unstoppable force at the end of It's Trad ... proved to be strangely prophetic, although it was not a wailin' saxophone but rather a pair of bemopped heads wailin' into the same microphone who were to prove irresistible to teenager and Lord Mayor alike and curtail her reign.

But how did Lester, a young American in London, attract the attention of Spike Milligan, leading to It's Trad .. and, ultimately, A Hard Day's Night, in the first place? Soderbergh's book provides the answers (his comments and questions are italicised):
Lester made his own Dick Lester Show, a one-off programme starring himself and Alun Owen (then an actor) which attracted the interest of Peter Sellers:

He said, `Either that's the worst television program that I have ever, ever seen or I think you're on to something that we are aspiring to.' And I said, `Well, if there's a choice, could it be the latter?' And he said, `Would you like to have lunch and let's find out.' 

And did that lead right into Idiot's Weekly [predecessor of A Show Called Fred]?

That led absolutely into Peter and me going the next day to Spike Milligan, who lay on the floor with his head in a coil of rope. There he was, this wonderful picture. He didn't look at me or get up or do anything; he just said, `Comedy will never work on television. I can write, "Two Eskimos go outside the igloo and the number 47 bus comes and they get off in Hyde Park." You can't do that. No point in talking about it. I'm not interested.'So we went away and then hired a group of young writers and a script supervisor and did, if you like, something in the style of The Goon Show and had very good reviews. At nine the next morning there was a phone call from Spike saying, `I've got the running order for the second show.' Not: `I was wrong; you were right.' Just nothing. It was just bang, off we go. [...]
 Here is an episode of A Show Called Fred:

With Son of Fred we were now quite successful and it had a very good audience and amazingly good reviews, because all the intellectuals grabbed at it. It was the first piece of commercial television, in light entertainment at least, where there was something that was unexpected and worrying.

But what followed, Lester tells Soderbergh, did not enjoy the same success:
With Son of Fred, it just became bizarre. All scenery was removed; one prop would run through the sketches. It would be one thing in one sketch and, because of its shape, it could also suddenly become a key factor in another, and that would be the only common link. Then he started attempting to remove punchlines by interlocking sketches. We are talking a long, long time ago. [...]  Ratings were dropping as it became more unintelligible. And it was pulled about two or three shows before the end of the thirteen that were ordered.
I don't want to delve too deeply into Milligan here; you can, if so minded, read more about him and Steven Soderbergh's book in that earlier post here.

And here is Lester talking in a BFI video about the influence of Goon humour. (The link will take you to the most relevant point in the clip, although the whole thing is worth seeing.)

On the same topic, here is another blog post in which Colin Hall, the curator of Lennon's childhood home, talks about the importance of the Goons and rock'n'roll in the young Lennon's life.

I have quoted before one of Lennon's answers to a music magazine's questionnaire. Asked about his dislikes. he replied: "Trad Jazz and thick heads," with the clear implication that they are natural partners. The dominance of trad jazz - at one point the Beatles had to pretend to be of that persuasion to get a gig at the Cavern - may have contributed to his bitterness, but for those not in the know trad jazz and rock'n'roll in Britain are much more closely related than might be imagined.

Which brings me neatly to the second half of today's sermonette.

Having watched, and enjoyed, It's Trad, Dad!, I began looking around for books to provide some background information. And luckily I came across Pete Frame's strongly recommended (based on the third or so that I've read, anyway) The Restless Generation.

Although it's subtitled "How rock music changed the face of 1950s Britain" its USP is that it doesn't start in 1956. Instead it documents, through extensive interviews with those involved, the growing interest in Britain in jazz in the very early 50s - in playing it, that is, rather than being content merely to listen to such 78s as could be acquired - and the rise and rise of Lonnie Donegan, a sideman in Chris Barber's Band who became the undisputed King of Skiffle and a huge influence on later rock gods including the Beatles.

Which reminds me that my friend late of North Berwick had a problem with a mutual friend who was - and I believe still is - besotted with Donegan. He, my late friend, once confided that he tried to make a leap of understanding by forcing himself to imagine a literary parallel (which I've forgotten, unfortunately, though I think it concerned Elizabethan poetry) but always he came back to ... well, the fact that it was Lonnie Donegan.

Which I suppose was my position, and I have never greatly warmed to his voice, but I recently listened to a fairly comprehensive selection of his Pye recordings and found myself more impressed than I expected, partly aided by Frame's seeming ability to see Lonnie whole via a few neat phrases. Here's a prime example. After pointing out that Lonnie "nicked half the credit" for a song by Woody Guthrie, Frame describes the number via a little gentle mockery of Donegan's un-American origins, but then leans in to deliver what I suppose you'd have to call a killer caress:
In the lyric, the sherrif (of East Ham, possibly) sends the protagonist a wanted poster with his picture on it. He has to evade capture if only to see his little "sweet thing" one more time - possibly that bint who used to hang around the Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green. On the face of it, the  whole idea was preposterous, ludicrous beyond imagination - but the thing was this: Lonnie could suspend our disbelief, transport us into the heart of the song. Which was more than Billy Cotton ever could.

His records appealed mainly to boys, but girls wanted to watch him too. Lowbrows of all ages were intrigured, not only by his music but also by his comedy patter. He was a beaming showman, a natural for the national variety circuit, the main stream of live entertainment. Into it headlong he was pushed, showing no sign of fear or hesitancy. This is what he was born to do.
And maybe that voice is the point: it is not lovely, but that puts it within reach. "Music you or your lover could have made", as I am fond of quoting from the entry on doo wop in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Listening to a Lonnie compilation recently, the number which stuck most in my mind was Lively, a comedy or novelty number, most definitely English, but sung with the same sense of abandonment (at moments the lyrics are thrown away) as his Leadbelly titles. Here's a live (and predictably lively) performance:

I also note that Donegan recorded a not dissimilar Bricusse-Newley number, Lumbered, and I wonder whether Donegan was an early influence on Newley. I'm really not sure. I suppose what Newley doesn't have is full-hearted abandonment a la Donegan. Newley himself has said, in Spencer Leigh's Halfway to Paradise:
I've never been able to cover black music effectively, and I think the most generous of my fans would agree with me.
But he also says that in bypassing the rock'n'roll chain - a reference, I presume, to Parnes and his ilk -  and coming to music through acting, he had an advantage over other teen idols:
I could afford to be silly and they couldn't. The whole rock'n'roll thing was so desperately serious and it all came from America but I sounded like a Cockney kid who was having a good time.
If inclined, you can read more about Spencer Leigh's book and Newley's singing style here. He does not, as far as I've read, anyway, feature in This Restless Generation. And Spencer Leigh's book is also a great read.

I can't really offer any kind of conclusive opinon on Donegan here as I haven't fully digested him, as it were, so I will simply note for the moment that ability to switch between American and English songs, as above, while remaining recognisably the same performer; it doesn't seem a contradiction. But this may be a more extended musing for another post so I'll shut up on this subject for the moment.

Oh, but I must also record here what I think I read in a music paper, though I can't remember the source. It is well known he has recorded with Max Miller but I clearly recall Donegan saying he managed to sneak Miller onto a stage - a BBC stage? a radio show? - at the time Miller was supposedly banned for a rude joke. For this, if nothing else - and there is undoubtedly a lot else - Donegan must be acknowledged. Assuming it happened. I bet Pete Frame would know. Or he would coin a phrase which would be the literary equivalent of looking askance.

Thinking about This Restless Generation as a whole (or at least a third), if Mr Frame's book has a fault, and I'm really not sure that it has, you could say that there may be an occasional overloading of detail for the casual reader - though what the hell, this hasn't been documented before, and later writers can sift through it and take what they need. I may report back in a later post once I've finished the whole book.

And I can certainly say that when I (ahem) embarked on an entirely different but no less ambitious work myself the writing was powered by an awareness that the story might not get told, or not get told properly, ever again, so it didn't feel right to pare things down. An academic declared it "A researcher's dream" but a comedy website thought there was "a little too much [detail] for the casual reader" so who knows? Linking the discussion back to jazz, perhaps the best attitude to take is the one adopted by the late John R.T. Davies, forever blessed as the man whose remastering of old 78s preserved the life embedded in those dusty grooves.
 All I can do is explain my own feeling, which is: "keep everything and do as little as possible to it … Add nothing, take nothing away." I want to retain as much as possible of the original recording, even if it happens to be in a rather low proportion to the overall sound on the recording. It's important to preserve it because somebody may want it later.
I vaguely remember that he said the same thing more succinctly elsewhere, along the lines of: "Today's transfer could be tomorrow's source material, so have a care."

I'm very glad that I had a brief email correspondence with him before he died, and thanked him in particular for the JSP CD of Luis Russell's Orchestra, who had thrilled me ever since I first heard them on a Parlophone LP (Beatles link or what?) in 1972. (My initial enquiry had been about locating a copy of his Billie Holiday compilation for the Jazz Greats magazine for my place of work; he very kindly got the publisher to send one free: spreading the word, you see.)

Which suggests another thought before we draw this meeting to a close. Born in 1958, I suppose I missed the worst excesses of the Trad Jazz boom, but I have cause to be grateful to whoever was making the purchasing decisions at my local library, which I believe was a pioneer in the area for the lending of records. No Elvis, Beatles or Stones in 72, the year I began to take an interest; it was only jazz, blues or folk if you wanted an alternative to classical yawnmakers - but someone must have chosen those Luis Russell and Clarence Williams which began to supplement my pop diet as a teenager. So the boom affected me because the record of someone else's enthusiasm had lain there in a durable and pungent PVC sleeve, waiting. And I recall that when I went to the nearby post office carrying this prize, the middle aged (as it seemed to me then, anyway) clerk remarked on it, complimenting me on my choice. Possibly I am too much i'the Frame at the moment, but I wonder whether he had been in a band and at some point had settled for security?

And finally, for those who have hung around till the end of this ragbag of a post, some consumer advice.

There are various options for those who want to access the music for It's Trad, Dad! The original soundtrack album - by which I mean the original album of the soundtrack - is strangely likeable to these ears, even though it's an equal mix of pop and trad jazz. A CD version is commercially available, issued by Hallmark - a company which I am duty  bound to warn you is notorious for the audio quality of many of their public domain transfers. I have ordered it, faute de mieux, but haven't heard it as yet. A punter review on a well-known shopping website suggests that the sound isn't so bad on this occasion but we'll see. Or rather hear.

Alternatives are available, however. For those who want only the jazz sides, and more than could be fitted onto the original LP, the Cumbrian-based Fellside Records have issued this compilation, entitled British Traditional Jazz Goes to the Movies.

In addition to It's Trad ... there is music from the soundtrack of several late fifties and early sixties British films, as seen on the cover, including Acker Bilk in Band of Thieves. I have ordered a copy but haven't heard it yet although their website would seem to suggest a level of care has been taken with products. (Find out more about this compilation, issued on their jazz imprint Lake, on their website here.)

Ah, but there's more. What of the customer with Lennonish tendencies, drawn to the varied pop in It's Trad ... but repelled by the jazz? He (or she) could do worse than investigate a CD set issued by Fantastic Voyage, responsible for a lot of inventive public domain compilations, entitled Quiffs at the Flicks. Along with the music from many other films this includes all the pop sides from the original It's Trad ... soundtrack album plus four other pop numbers featured in the film which didn't make the vinyl, what with being crowded out by noises made by people wearing stupid hats and tootling clarinets.

Anyway, them's the choices. Which you could see as indicative of just far our society has progressed, or possibly regressed, since the original LP came out. On the one hand, you can now plunge more deeply into the side of Lester's film which interests you, be it Bilk or Douglas (- Craig of that ilk, as Dave Podmore's friend Andy Hamer would say).

On the other, as you are no longer obliged to offer houseroom to that other sort of music, you are depriving yourself of any possibility that, over time, you might come to love or respect it. And perhaps even bring a moment of hope into a harassed post office worker's life, but I digress.

Anyway, next thing you know you're, I dunno, employing enormous elastic bands to stop musicians who represent that despised and feared genre, that aural otherness, from entering your town to play a concert.

No: that sort of intransigence (as seen in the first half of so many rock'n'roll exploitation movies) must never be allowed to happen again, cinematically or in what I joshingly refer to as the "real" world. So, Brothers and Sisters, let us pray, together - come join me; don't be embarrassed (I did say this was a sermonette) and frame a most earnest wish: that the big bands never come back.

No comments:

Post a Comment