❉ We review Simon Matthews’ magical history tour of Swinging Sixties British cinema.
Picture the scene: the year is 1961, and our protagonists are two nameless youths who are stuck in the small town of dullsville, a tweedy suburban wasteland where stuffy establishment caricatures have taken the extreme step of banning music in an attempt to control the teenage population. So far, so predictable Columbia B-movie featuring music sets by pop acts strung together by a tenuous and increasingly bonkers plot. That is, until the film’s narrator chimes in and quite literally edits the listless youths straight to BBC headquarters in London for a tour of the studios, rewinding, fast-forwarding and cutting them around the building in some kind of bizarre postmodern montage, all so they can watch a series of 10-15 minute acts by sort-of-looks-a-bit-like-a-famous-band-but-not-really.
This is Dick Lester’s first film, ‘It’s Trad, Dad!’ (1962), and his anarchic visual flair and stylish composition are very much in evidence in something trendily disposable which was made solely to cash in on the vogue for pop music among teenagers who now made up a significant portion of the cinemagoing population. To say that British cinema and the British music scene looked vastly different just over a decade later would be a gross understatement. The journey from innocent beginnings to drug-fuelled hypomania is one that Simon Matthews charts in new book ‘Psychedelic Celluloid: British Pop Music in Film and TV 1965-1974’, a collection of the best, the worst and the just plain weird (actually, ‘It’s Trad, Dad!’ belongs to all three) examples of pop music films from the ‘long’ 1960s.
On the face of it ‘Psychedelic Cellulloid’ functions as a handy and colourful reference guide, but don’t be fooled – Mathews provides an impressively comprehensive history of the British film industry as well as a detailed knowledge of cinema and television in this compendium, which is positively jam-packed full of trivia and amusing anecdotes. He proceeds chronologically, presenting a series of year-by year case studies of the most important pop music films and soundtracks of the era. But at a time when it was ‘all happening’, how could one even go about that selection process? Well, the book purports to list “any film with a UK pop group or pop singer acting, performing in a scene (or scenes), credited with the title song/theme or making a contribution to the soundtrack.” This catalogue of over 120 key films is peppered with autobiographical notes on high profile figures of the age, including Carol White, Jane Birkin, Reg Tilsley, David Hemmings.
What is particularly interesting is the way Matthews vacillates between the popular and the downright obscure, giving indiscriminate care and attention to each, unearthing gems long forgotten (sometimes with good reason in the case of ‘The Touchables’). It’s especially refreshing to see Peter Sykes’ ‘The Committee’ (1968) afforded page space given the historical importance of its soundtrack (scored by Pink Floyd on the brink of stardom, and featuring a weird cameo by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, all wrapped up in a surreal meditation on the nature of social responsibility – let’s face it, it just doesn’t get any more psychedelic than that).
In short, ‘Psychedelic Celluloid’ has much to amuse, entertain and divert. The perfect book to peruse on a wet Sunday afternoon, perhaps to a musical score by John Barry.
❉ ‘Psychedelic Celluloid: British Pop Music in Film & TV 1965 – 1974’ by Simon Matthews is available now from Oldcastle Books, RRP £20.00.