In the first of a series of guest blogs by academics, writers and cinema fans, retired university lecturer, musician and music historian Dave Allen talks about growing up in the thriving Portsmouth music scene. In this personal recollection, he discusses the ways in which cinema both reflected and influenced popular fashion, art and music in the 1960s. Music fans wishing to delve further into the archives of popular music in the 50s and 60s can check out Dave’s website here.
In the late 1940s I was born in Portsmouth, a Naval port and the UK’s only island city. My 1950s childhood was determined to a large extent by adults – parents and teachers but through the 1960s I became an increasingly independent and music-obsessed teenager.
To a large extent, music, fashion, art (and sport) took precedence over film in the 1960s, although since I ended up as a university Course Leader in Film Studies it must have counted for something. In retrospect, I can identify a succession of 1960s ‘pop’ films that I saw on release that reflect pretty clearly the changes I went through in those years.
They began in the 1950s with Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” but by 1960 and my 11th birthday I started buying ‘pop’ hit records (Drifters, Elvis etc). Soon after, I spent summer days at the local seafront funfair, checking out the ‘Teddy Boys’ and listening to the hits.
The funfair remains, a shadow of its former self, but in the mid-1970s I saw it again in That’ll Be The Day as David Essex and Ringo Starr worked fiddles on the dodgems. That was fiction but our fair was real. Many years later I saw an episode from a 1963 TV documentary series by John Boorman called Citizen 63 about a group of Portsmouth teenagers who danced the Stomp by the Waltzer. These young CND supporters were ‘beatniks’ in that shifting moment towards mod, which would later be re-presented to us in Quadrophenia. Through the 60s and beyond I came to know those local teenagers who featured again, as beatniks, in Boorman’s first feature film Catch Us If You Can starring the Dave Clark Five.
That’ll Be the Day and Quadrophenia are films I saw on release, but they looked back on my past – so too if from a USA perspective American Graffiti. By contrast Citizen 63 is a film that is very close to my lived experiences, depicting people a little older than me that I came to know in places where I have spent most of my life. But I did not see it at the time, so it exerted no influence then. The same is true of other films from the period that now seem to me to reflect at least something of how I lived or what I was dreaming of, although they passed me by at the time. They include the feature film The Girl Can’t Help It, British documentaries Momma Don’t Allow and The Lambeth Boys and Kenneth Anger’s remarkable Scorpio Rising.
Portsmouth rock & roll group The Live Five during their brief appearance in Val Guest’s Expresso Bongo (1959)
In 1964 I saw Hard Day’s Night a year after I had attended my first live gig, the Beatles in concert. By the time of the film my interest in the Beatles had cooled somewhat although I can see now that it mixes comedy and music with a certain kind of early 60s British ‘realism’. The British ‘new wave’ (and indeed the French) was something else I caught up with subsequently. I was just too young to know about Breathless or Saturday Night & Sunday Morning in the early 1960s.
By 1966 there was radio, records and a ‘cool’ TV show Whole Scene Going (music, fashion, art) at home, Going out, there were bands, record sessions, fashions, girlfriends. The ‘hip’ element of the Portsmouth scene resembled the Ricky Tick Club/Yardbirds scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which was the one 1960s movie of its kind which did more than reflect back to me how I was already living or dreaming. In my final year at school, it revealed a world I had never previously imagined of art, photography, fashion, parties, ‘Swinging London’. I can read it now as sexist, elitist or superficial – but the memory of the initial thrill remains.
After Blow-Up the movie business increasingly sought the younger audience and through artefacts that were more sophisticated than most early pop vehicles (although I retain a fondness for Elvis in King Creole). One interesting feature came through high quality jazz soundtracks by Herbie Hancock (Blow-Up) and Sonny Rollins (Alfie) although Michael Caine’s eponymous ‘hero’ has always struck me as congenitally unhip.
By the late 1960s I was briefly and unsuccessfully pursuing a music career and feeling very much part of the world that was represented in films like Woodstock, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Gimme Shelter. I was no longer ‘learning’ how to live through cinema, it was showing me my life – perhaps most obviously when, in the spring of 1968 I was in an obscure 60s ‘pop’ group enjoying had a couple of days in Olympic Studios, Barnes, while next door the Rolling Stones worked on their album Beggar’s Banquet. These were the sessions shot by Jean-Luc Godard for the film that he preferred to call One Plus One. Then came Performance which, release date notwithstanding, is a 60s movie. I still recall seeing it on a winter’s evening and feeling shocked by the darkness that suggested the crumbling of so many dreams.
Maybe that darkness is what drew me back to a ‘normal’ life, but for all its occasional excesses I’m very glad to have lived in those times, and in that way – and I’m still gigging and still listening to lots of music!