I’d like to shine a light this week on a little gem of a pop culture artifact that every true rock music fan should see. Available on DVD only since 2009, it’s considered the very first rock concert film ever made, and it’s about time more people knew about it.
As Miami Steve Van Zandt has said, “It’s the greatest rock movie you’ve never seen.”
In 1964 — half a decade before the first rock festival films (“Monterey Pop” in 1968 and “Woodstock” in 1970), before “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1972, and way before major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were making “The Last Waltz” (1978) and “Stop Making Sense” (1984) — there was a groundbreaking flick featuring a dozen of the hottest acts of that pre-psychedelic era, all on one stage.
It has the awkward title “The T.A.M.I. Show,” and it chronicles one remarkable concert held on October 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Performing that night were the very young Rolling Stones, the irrepressible James Brown, rock’n roll pioneer Chuck Berry, California kings The Beach Boys, New York teen sensation Lesley Gore, Merseybeat stars Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Motown titans The Supremes, Smokey and the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye, among others.
Now admittedly, some people — particularly those born after, say, 1990 who are used to more modern film techniques — will probably find parts of this footage excruciatingly dated. First of all, it was shot in black and white, and the stage sets and backdrops are
pretty cheesy. God knows the emcees, Jan & Dean, came across as totally hokey. Some of the song selections might have been a little lame. And you might find the clothes sported by the artists and the “go-go dancers” to be about as straight-laced as the “Breck girl” and pompadour hairstyles.
But hey, that was what young people were wearing in the early ’60s — surf shirts, matching tuxedos, bikinis and the like. In almost every way, this flick is a period piece, and in that regard, it offers a broad spectrum of 1964 music and styles, from California to New York, from London to Detroit. Viewers need to take all that into account.
Most important, of course, is the music. Some, even many, of the performances captured here are eye-opening, mind-blowing, simply extraordinary.
Far and away the most electrifying set is by “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown and The Famous Flames. At his prime, which might have been right around this period, there was nobody remotely like him in terms of raw energy, sexuality, tight dance moves, and the emotion he could squeeze out of each song: “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please” and the stone classic “Night Train.” He definitely left it all out there, with the all-white crowd of local teens losing its collective mind.
(Yes, it was impossible to ignore there weren’t more than a handful of black faces in the audience. I’m not sure why that had to be the case in Santa Monica in 1964, but actually, there were precious few integrated audiences anywhere in the US back then, and wouldn’t be until near the end of the decade.)
The smooth, sensual Marvin Gaye gets my vote for next best act of the evening. He had mesmerizing stage presence in his all-white tux, caressing the mike as he belted out four R&B classics: “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Pride and Joy,” “Can I Get a Witness” and “Hitch Hike.” He was a loyal Motown team player at that time, with a golden voice, recording whatever material Berry Gordy pushed on him (most of which was pretty great), although by the 1970s, he insisted on more control, and came up with brilliant tracks like “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”
As for The Stones, it’s a total treat to see Mick Jagger and Company go through their paces as 21-year-olds, especially the now-craggy-looking Keith Richards, who appeared to be about 16 here (he was 20). Co-founder Brian Jones was still a vibrant part of things then, and Bill Wyman was still holding down the bass lines to complement Charlie Watts’s drums. But I have to say, they made a tactical error when they insisted on being the final act of the
night, because Brown completely upstaged them. Remember, at that point, they hadn’t recorded “Satisfaction” or “Get Off My Cloud” or “Paint It Black” and their material was chiefly cover versions. (Their set list: “Around and Around,” “Off the Hook,” “Time Is On My Side,” “It’s All Over Now” and “It’s All Right.”) Richards has said in interviews about the T.A.M.I. Show that choosing to follow Brown “was probably the biggest mistake we ever made in our careers. But we survived,” he chuckled.
Interestingly, it should have been The Beach Boys and The Supremes (or even Lesley Gore) vying for the headliner status, since they were the ones with the multiple #1 hits on the US charts at that point. But there’s no doubt that Brown or The Stones were the more exciting live act and would provide the better climax to the evening’s festivities.
The Beach Boys’ footage is special because the great Brian Wilson, their genius songwriter/producer, was still performing with them, and he’s clearly the focal point. His falsetto lead vocal on “Surfer Girl” will knock you out. Less than two months later, Wilson retired from live performances, replaced on tour by others (including Glen Campbell for a spell). Dennis Wilson shows a lot of pizazz on drums, and Mike Love does his predictable little dance moves, with Al Jardine and a baby-faced Carl Wilson contributing guitar parts for their four-song set of coast-to-coast hits: “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.”
The Supremes, of course, were in the middle of an unprecedented string of five consecutive #1 hits, rivaling The Beatles on the charts from mid-’64 to mid-’65. The incomparable Diana Ross, with strong backing from Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, opened with two lesser hits — “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and “Run, Run, Run” — before sending the crowd into a frenzy with “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go.” I’m not sure if it’s endearing or just weird when a dozen teen dancers come roaring onto the stage to shake and shimmy behind the famous trio.
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Motown’s original #1 hit group, didn’t disappoint, serving up a smart set of three tunes, opening with their latest single “That’s What Love is Made Of,” followed by two of their biggest hits thus far — “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Mickey’s Monkey.” Robinson, who wrote so many of the songs recorded by numerous Motown groups, performed passionately on lead vocals as The Miracles crooned and danced in unison beside him.
I’m not sure why Lesley Gore was allowed to sing six numbers, more than anyone else, except to say she had a dynamite voice (no lip-synching here), and a couple of the tunes were shortened and squeezed into a mini-medley. She represented the New York girl-group sound of the early ’60s, which may have been on its way out within a year or two, but you wouldn’t know it from this great performance. Her songs: “Maybe I Know,” the ahead-of-its-time “You Don’t Own Me,” “You Didn’t Look Around,” “Hey Now” and her back-to-back 1962 classics, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”
Fittingly, the producers chose to open the proceedings with original rock and roller Chuck Berry, but I found it very strange that they made him share the stage with England’s pop group Gerry and The Pacemakers. Berry kicked things off with a solid “Johnny B. Goode” and then segued into his first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene”… but suddenly in mid-song, the camera swung over to The Pacemakers doing the same song! Their hit ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” was next, and “It’s Gonna Be Alright” … but then it was back to Berry doing “Sweet Little Sixteen”… then another Pacemakers song “How Do You Do It?” before Berry had one final shot with “Nadine (Is That You?).” The Pacemakers got to close out this bizarre interplay with their hit “I Like It.” There has been no explanation I could find in my research to justify this back-and-forth nonsense.
Also part of the show were lesser acts like Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas (“Bad to Me,” “Little Children”), Jan and Dean (“The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), and The Barbarians (“Hey Little Bird”). Suffice to say they were the filler between the quality acts.
If you look closely, you can see that the house band backing the vocalists was none other than The Wrecking Crew, L.A.’s loose assemblage of excellent session musicians who appeared anonymously on hundreds of hit records through the ’60s and ’70s. Glen Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano are among those doing their magic in the shadows. And the dancers, choreographed by the award-winning Toni Basil, included a few future stars including actress Teri Garr.
So what does “T.A.M.I.” stand for, anyway? It’s an acronym for the strangely named non-profit organization Teenage Awards Music International (how’s that for garbled syntax?). The plan was for the organization to produce a series of yearly concerts and award ceremonies for TV broadcast, and possible feature film release, with proceeds earmarked for music scholarships and other programs benefiting teenage music education. But none of these things — except the initial 1964 concert and subsequent movie — ever materialized. All that remains is this historical DVD with the curious title.
When the producers went looking for the acts they wanted, they naturally started with The Beatles, but they were unavailable, so manager Brian Epstein agreed to send two other acts under his purview (Gerry and The Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas). The Stones were young and hungry and jumped at the chance. Motown was happy to provide three major acts, and The Beach Boys were eager to be part of the California-based event. Getting Chuck Berry brought in the early rock influence, while Lesley Gore represented the “girl group” sound. It was a perfect storm of everything on the pop music scene at the time.
Perhaps most remarkable about the filming of this extravaganza was the use of four then-new “Electronovision” cameras that allowed for live editing on the spot, and audio that was mixed down live in the room from four-track to “glorious mono” (the preferred format of the day). There is no unused footage, no alternate takes, and no multitrack audio to be remixed, so what you see is what actually happened, absolutely live. With that in mind, the result is a truly astounding, high-quality concert film.
The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, by the way, has its own legendary status. Opened in 1958 as a combination concert hall/convention center, it hosted the Academy Awards for several years, and was the scene of dozens of rock concerts from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s. Beginning with The Doors in 1967, many top artists were drawn to the venue’s great acoustics, including Creedence, BS&T, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Van Morrison, Procol Harum, Traffic, David Bowie, Genesis, Lou Reed, Journey, Rush, Jethro Tull and The Clash. Upstaged by newer Los Angeles venues in the ’90s, the facility is now mostly dormant, used only occasionally for film and commercial shoots.
Do yourself a favor and take this trip down proverbial memory lane. You won’t be disappointed!