Rock of Aegis: “The T.A.M.I. Show”, directed by Steve Binder

The* T.A.M.I. Show* has a peculiar history, the tracing of which necessitates a descent into rock & roll archeology. The film premiered in 33 theatres in LA on November 14, 1964, and was released nationally two months later. It made its British debut as Teen Age Command Performance and was later re-titled, *Gather No Moss. *

It didn’t, even with the summary participation of The Rolling Stones. In large part, the film went underground for 50 years, seen little but talked about with a degree of reverence normally assigned to icons and legends. Quentin Tarantino famously called it “one of the three best concert films even made,” a ranking based on a print that didn’t include an eight-and-a-half-minute long performance by The Beach Boys. Because of legal complications, the California sun-and-surf band’s performance was supposed to have been removed from all the prints. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and an uncut version of the concert film is now available on DVD, with an informative commentary by the film’s director, Steve Binder. He was 23 years old when he was put in charge of documenting the T.A.M.I. show with four electronic cameras in front of a live–and lively–audience. There was no editing, so what he got was what we have. He got gold.

The only footage that wasn’t live is the film’s opening. (It was shot handheld in 16 mm and then blown up to 35 mm.) The theme song for the T.A.M.I. Show, (Here They Come) From All Over The World, is an anthem informing the viewer that the performers are not only “the greatest stars you’ll ever see,” but they are also truly cosmopolitan. We are told “some are flyin’ and some are drivin’ from Liverpool to Tennessee,” a reference that certainly gets wrong the point of origin for The Rolling Stones. (The T.A.M.I Show was taped nine months after The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the event regarded as the beginning of the British Invasion; as far as America was concerned, all British bands came from Liverpool.) But incorrect facts are less of a problem than inane lyrics. Chuck Berry is “checkin’ in from St. Lou, /He’s gonna sing ‘Maybelline’ and ‘Memphis’, too,” and “the representative from New York City/ Is Lesley Gore, now, she sure looks pretty.”

All this lyric juvenalia is covered by documentary footage of the performers doing characteristic things: Jan and Dean skateboard through the streets of Santa Monica; there are scenes of hijinx in the trunk of a taxi and in a tour bus, and backstage moments with The Supremes in curlers happily putting on make-up. There are also shots of rehearsals with the show dancers, who are ubiquitous during the almost two-hour long concert. The women dancers are dressed in everything from bikinis to shimmy dresses influenced by the cage dancers at the Whisky a Go Go. Finally, there is footage of crowds of school kids streaming into the theatre to see the 12 acts, which actually had come from all over the world. The T.A.M.I. Show, which stands for Teenage Awards Music International, was supposed to be the first of a series of international rock concerts. Sadly, it turned out to be the last.

All concert films are, inescapably, revelations of the time in which they are shot. By this measure, the T.A.M.I. Show is a sort of friendly Frankenstein. Of the dozen acts, five are black, three are British and the remaining five originate in various parts of the United States, from the caves of Cape Cod (the dreadful Barbarians) to the beaches of California (the delightful Beach Boys, as well as the antic concert hosts, Jan and Dean). Because of the Motown contingent, Detroit is America’s most conspicuously represented city.

What’s remarkable about the line-up is that the T.A.M.I. Show was staged only months after a bitter 57-day filibuster held up passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the US Senate. In a racially volatile America, the *T.A.M.I. Show *was consciously addressing the country’s best values. Most of the young audience in the theatre (who are ecstatic from beginning to end, and without any prompting) had never seen the black performers who were on stage. They might have known some of the songs, but the performers had been invisible. (This colour divide worked the other way as well. Phil Spector, who produced and managed The Righteous Brothers, wouldn’t let the duo be photographed because he was afraid they wouldn’t get any airplay on black radio). By the time the concert was over and the film distributed, everyone in those audiences was aware of Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and, indelibly, James Brown and The Famous Flames. The performances of all the Motown and R&B acts are consistently excellent. Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye come across as both funky and elegant, while The Supremes’s performance simply emphasizes the accuracy of their naming. There is no one better.

That said, the surprise among the American acts in the concert is Lesley Gore, who everyone refers to as sweet and pretty. She cuts a curious figure; only 18 years old in 1964, she is already dressing like someone’s responsible mother, with her tightly buttoned, two-piece suit and bouffant hairstyle. But her medley of songs has the tightest message of anyone on stage. The lyrics deal with teenage love and the things that can go wrong and the emotions that are generated out of that heightened state. But when she steps into the Vaseline-diffused lens frame that Steve Binder provides for his balladeers, men and women alike, and sings, “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way,” she sounds like a proto-feminist, and her bright-eyed performance is utterly convincing. (It was successful as well; in 1964 the song held for four weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart at number 2, just behind* I Want to Hold Your Hand* by The Beatles.) The declaration that she is young and free and that she loves those states is an affirming one for the T.A.M.I. audience, which consists largely of young women. Gore was highly intelligent; she was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who recorded her songs in French, German and Italian. What she wasn’t able to act upon, but what she understood when she was singing these compact ballads of independence, was that she was gay. In 2005 she came out, finally saying and doing whatever she pleased, and living her life as she had always wanted.

To make the concert manageable and to still remind the audience of the band’s most recognizable hits, the segments take the form of medleys, which is not to the advantage of Gerry & The Pacemakers, who have to follow Chuck Berry’s Maybellene with their cover version; the move is from energized grittiness to something that is pleasant and polite. There is no mischief in the British band. They fare much better when they do How Do You Do It? *and *Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying, the kind of buoyant romances and ballads that made them charter members of the British invasion.

But among the English bands, it’s The Rolling Stones, “those bad lookin’ guys with the moppy long hair,” as the theme song describes them, who steal the show. The band is not yet Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (anymore than Diana Ross is a prefix for The Supremes) but it could be. Jagger is already a youthful predator feeding on life; you can see it in the way he tilts his head to one side in It’s All Over Now, looking at the audience as if he were a bird of prey, or in the manner of his stalking the fringe of the stage during an instrumental section of I’m Alright. His relentless self-consciousness is mesmerizing, and he seems to be trying out some new moves, provoked (one suspects) by the astonishing performance James Brown had just given. Brown was the penultimate act, but he performed as if it were the ultimate one, and his impossible histrionics would have challenged the younger Jagger to open things up even more. When Mick sings that time is on his side, you already know the lyric has less to do with a patched up love affair than with a projection into his future.

The T.A.M.I Show was a moment caught in a longer narrative of history, both for the bands and for the societies in which they were performing. Two months after the concert, Brian Wilson experienced a mental breakdown that led to his leaving The Beach Boys; he performed with them only once over the next 19 years. Brian Jones, the founder and multi-instrumentalist for The Stones, would become estranged from the band and would drown in his swimming pool in 1969 at the age of 27. The promise that had been so innocently reflected in the openness of the audience towards all the performers also began to fade.

There is an odd premonition of that shift at the end of the segment with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. They have just performed a raucous version of Mickey’s Monkey (which includes some odd chest scratching and jungle moves), and as they dance offstage, Binder cuts to the audience camera. Throughout the film, it has measured the democratically enthusiastic appreciation given every group. As the band and the dancers who joined them in their final number float by, the camera picks up a single policeman, his shiny riot helmet and nightstick visible, walking down the aisle and towards the stage. He doesn’t actually do anything untoward, but he looks out of place.

That’s because he looks like the future. In four years, that future will bring to America the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the police riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the escalating war in Vietnam and the My Lai Massacre. Two years later, National Guardsmen would kill four students at Kent State University, and the act will occasion a different kind of song from Neil Young about Richard Nixon and his tin soldiers. The refrain for Young’s dirge, repeated as insistently as James Brown declares the pain of being a “prisoner of love,” is “four dead in Ohio.” The times were, indeed, changing.

The America we see in the open, uncomplicated faces of the audience members will be transformed because the country in which they live is undergoing a massive transformation. Some of them don’t look much older than kids, but they’re not the little children in Billy J Kramer’s song, who will give up their witnessing for a quarter and some candy. Many of the song lyrics in the T.A.M.I. Show were about heartbreaking and heart-mending. They sat ambiguously on the cusp between those two conditions. Only a few years later America would break the promise of its own heart. The mending is still happening.

Volume 29, Number 2: Marcel x 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #114, published May 2010.

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