BOOTLEG FILES 199: “Pop Gear” (1965 revue featuring British music stars).
LAST SEEN: It has turned up recently on Showtime.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A relatively obscure film.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It is available in the UK, so maybe a US release can happen.
The year 1964 was a watershed period in British music. Before that year, British popular music was barely heard outside of the U.K. But when the Beatles achieved American success, a seemingly endless number of British bands and singers were suddenly able to crack the American market.
By the end of 1964, some enterprising filmmakers decided to create a cinematic year-in-review to highlight this new wave of British music talent. The result was “Pop Gear,” a strange but jolly little production that serves as a celluloid time capsule for that remarkable musical year.
Of course, the film would not be complete without the Beatles. The Fab Four turn up in “Pop Gear,” albeit in color newsreel footage from a November 1963 concert in Manchester. The Beatles open the film singing “She Loves You” and close the film singing “Twist and Shout.” However, this concert footage came with a large string attached to it: Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, gave permission for its usage provided that several of his lesser-known clients were among the stars in “Pop Gear.”
And that’s probably why “Pop Gear” is not very famous: the major breakthrough stars of 1964 share screen time with Epstein-backed performers who were unknown outside of the UK (and, I assume, also within the UK). It may also explain why other stars were not included in the film, but we’ll address that later.
Beyond the Beatles’ footage, “Pop Gear” is basically a plotless revue hosted by Jimmy Savile, the long-haired deejay and star of the British TV series “Top of the Pops.” Savile mugs shamelessly for the camera while dropping slightly humorous comments about the various performers he introduces. All of the acts lip-synch their songs while performing on strange sets populated with weird props and knick-knacks – there was no dialogue from the performers.
However, director Frederick Goode apparently had no clue how to shoot music performances. Thus, the bands either remain stationary in the midst of their oddball settings while the camera pans endlessly around them, or the bands literally walk in circles around the sets. Mercifully, “Pop Gear” was shot by ace cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (best known for “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and the production handsomely fills the elongated Techniscope screen with uncommonly sharp Technicolor hues.
So who’s on tap in “Pop Gear”? Among the recognizable names: The Animals, who can barely keep a straight face while intoning “House of the Rising Sun”; the Honeycombs, who clap and stomp their Joe Meek-produced “Have I the Right?” with frenetic energy; Peter and Gordon offering a contemplative “World Without Love”; Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (clearly uncomfortable for the cameras) playing “Little Children”; Herman’s Hermits going for the cutesy grins with “I’m Into Something Good”; the Spencer Davis Group performing some wobbly R&B; and crooner Matt Monro (sort of Britain’s answer to Perry Como) incongruously inserted with the soapy ballad “Walk Away.”
Then we have the long-forgotten performers who enjoyed their only star turn here. The most amusing was Tommy Quickly (that’s his photo at the top of the page) performing the inane nursery rhyme riff “Humpty Dumpty” while bouncing around and physically abusing his band. Quickly clearly enjoyed the attention and he is the only performer in “Pop Gear” who actually plays for the camera. Sadly, his star never rose in British music and he quit the business shortly after this film was released. (As a side note: if anyone knows what became of Tommy Quickly, please contact me in care of Film Threat.)
The other obscurities here include Sounds Incorporated, who perform a bizarre jazzy riff on “The William Tell Overture”; The Rocking Berries (for whom Jimmy Savile predicted “big, big, big, big success”); vocalists Susan Maughan and Billie Davis (the only women singers in the movie); the country music-inspired Nashville Teens; and the Four Pennies doing a very strange rendition of the Leadbelly-popularized folk tune “Black Girl.” Their music is entertaining, but their presence will inevitably confuse the contemporary viewer (it probably baffled audiences four decades ago, too).
Of course, this was hardly a comprehensive overview of 1964 in British music. The Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Petula Clark and Shirley Bassey were among the conspicuous absentees. Had the film been able to incorporate these stars, as opposed to the likes of the Rocking Berries or the Nashville Teens, “Pop Gear” might have been a true classic.
For those who did show up, “Pop Gear” didn’t tolerate a great deal of nonconformity. Nearly all of the acts conform to the rigid protocol of 1964 performance standards: the men wore suits and ties and the women are in cocktail dresses. Male hair was slightly longish, but it didn’t touch the shoulders or obscure the eyes. Only the Spencer Davis Group (in matching ochre turtlenecks) and the Nashville Teens (wearing a mismatch of casual clothing) deviate from the formula.
“Pop Gear” apparently ran shorter than anticipated, as the film has a pair of extended dance numbers shoehorned late into the production. The dances are awful in a Scopitone-style of clumsiness and they clearly seem to be added strictly for padding. The finished movie clocked in at very tight 67 minutes, which limited its theatrical playdates to double feature bills.
American International Pictures picked up the rights to “Pop Gear” and brought it stateside under a new title (“Go Go Mania”) and with new sound effects (screaming fans from an unseen audience were heard after the end of each tune). Even though the film’s marketing played up the Beatles as the stars, the film had limited commercial appeal in the U.S.
Although the film dated very quickly, “Pop Gear” turned up on American television over the years: first in the pan-and-scan version of “Go Go Mania” that played on local TV stations and later in the letterboxed original “Pop Gear” version that was broadcast on American Movie Classics and, more recently, on Showtime. The film has also been released on British DVD.
To date, there’s been no American home video release of “Pop Gear.” It doesn’t appear that there is a problem with the film’s music clearance rights, so perhaps its absence from American retail channels is strictly due to its relative obscurity.
Excellent quality bootlegs are easy to locate, and I would strongly recommend seeking this title out. “Pop Gear” is not a great film, but it is a fun nostalgia journey into the 1960s – and it will inevitably produce a good deal of groovy vibes for those who are willing to take the trip.
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