The Greatest Rock Time Capsule Ever
NME Poll Winners Awards Show of 1965 captures the entire British Invasion.
A course on the early British Invasion could probably be done with just one video, The NME Poll Winners Show of 1965. (As a follow up I would also recommend the show from 1964, which includes Manfredd Mann and The Hollies, important bands who weren’t in the 1965 show.) Shot in low-res black and white and, judging from how the background liquifies and roils behind the performers, taken off a cheap TV, it features a major sampling of the first tidal wave of that ongoing event. The Big Three at the time, The Beatles, blowing up the place in their Candlestick Park military jackets, The Rolling Stones, with Jagger hard at work on his cock-of-the-walk strut, and The Kinks, racing through the song that launched just about everything you love and hate about rock music with the seminal track, “You Really Got Me.”
Someone had to be at the top and it could have been all but a couple of the acts on the bill. It was never going to be Freddy & The Dreamers, a novelty act with a poor man’s Jerry Lewis as a front man and its sell-by date fast approaching. Nor would it be Herman’s Hermits, whose carefully chosen novelty hits were a cut above that, relying heavily on non-threatening Peter Noone. Their singles were catchy and a lot tighter than what they showed that night. Lose those performances and a couple other distractions and you still have a very impressive event, one that spotlighted the reinvention of rock and roll that was going down at the time
The British invasion was a torpedo headed for America. About to go down with the ship were the very artists who inspired these upstarts to pick up their guitars. Take Chuck Berry — who most of these interlopers loved almost beyond reason. His heyday had already passed, and the groups always gave him credit while making him rich all over again by bringing his songs to the top of the charts again. Even so, it would never be the same for him and a whole slew of others. In their defense it must be said, some pretty bad-ass versions of their songs were being cut by these groups.
Georgie Fame gets one song, and that’s one less than the lamentable Dreamers, who they follow. That doesn’t stop him from making a strong case for being as good as anyone on that stage. Tighter than a rusted lug nut, with a crisp horn section and his own B-3 work steeped in the blues, Fame is a baby-faced killer. A singer with tremendous natural swing, he takes on Rufus Thomas’ “Walking The Dog” with the cool confidence of a seasoned pro.
The pop folk Seekers take it to a different, you might say paler, place. But it’s all good as they exude British charm on their two numbers before handing it over to Herman’s Hermits and a group you won’t remember, The Ivy League or Sounds Incorporated. It’s a good spot to hit fast forward.
After a solid two songs by Wayne Fontana, another surprisingly quality act, The Rolling Stones, pretty much still a cover band and work in progress, take the stage to a fair amount of hysteria. They take care of business — Jagger works his lips and hips as Brian Jones blows some vicious blues harp. Keith Richards is playing what looks to be a cheap Harmony guitar, the one favored by Chicago bluesmen. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, soon to become one of the best rhythm sections on the planet, hold down the fort. Their one self-written tune, “The Last Time,” is a hint of sneering things to come in. The world will turn their way soon enough and they’ll claim the moniker “World’s Greatest.” For the time being, though, they’re still working on their thesis.
Cilla Black follows with a nice R&B flavored “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and a very young Donovan turns Wembley into a quiet little coffee house with nothing more than an acoustic guitar. Be ready to be transfixed by Van Morrison, still a member of Them, the band he was outgrowing fast. He’s already a young master looking down the road for new worlds to conquer. The Searchers and the lusty voiced Dusty Springfield both get their licks in, reminding you of the incredible depth of talent on that island at the time. But after them, it’s showtime, folks.
The closest thing the UK had to James Brown, The Animals, with the incendiary Eric Burden working the stage like it was The Apollo, come out smelling blood and ready to kill. One of the things immediately obvious is this pudgy little cat has some moves to go with his chops. He is solid from the lowest note to the highest in his mighty range, and he just drips with northern England white-boy soul. He seems possessed by something akin to the holy spirit. The band is beyond good, featuring the impeccable Alan Price on keys. Had they had honest management and the ability or desire to write their own songs, they would have lasted longer and been remembered as more than a footnote. But no one will top The Beatles, it’s 1965 and they have the keys to the kingdom — they know they’ll be the highlight of the show and you can see them savoring it.
So of course The Beatles slay. Prolific writers of great songs, who sing and play as well as anybody, they’re simply beyond the reach of the other groups. Thousands of girls in the audience prove their point and absolutely lose it. It’s every bit as good as anything you’ve seen and the fact there was so much great music leading up to it is mind boggling. Don’t pity The Kinks, who have to follow them; they seemed nonplussed as they deliver the song that spawned both metal and punk, “You Really Got Me.” Their second number, “Tired of Waiting,” reveals a more tender side, one Ray Davies will explore at length.
England was the scene, and in 1965 it was flat out exploding. Some of it looks silly now, but when you see someone with their guitar too high or with an inch too much mop hanging over their eyes, close your eyes and listen. It was golden then and will not be depreciating anytime soon.
P.S. Here’s a list of the individual tracks in the order they played, in case you haven’t got an hour and a half to spare.
P.P.S. If you don’t know the over energetic host, Jimmy Savile, here is his Wikipedia page. I wish I could say his story was inspiring, but it’s not. He was a prolific sexual predator who was discovered way too late, after he died.
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