Gimme Shelter is way too dark; Woodstock and Monterey Pop too hippie-dippy in retrospect. The Last Waltz might be a contender. But no matter the competition, when it comes to rock 'n' roll concert films, 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show is the granddaddy and, quite simply, the greatest of them all.
It's also long been something of a holy grail for music home-video aficionados. To this critic's knowledge, the film was only aired once on national TV — on some long-forgotten, after-midnight cable program in the early '80s. Fans have therefore had to settle for bootleg videos with inferior audio and visual quality, almost none of which included the Beach Boys' stupendous four-song mini-concert, which, due to contractual obligations, was deleted from prints shortly after the film's initial showings. (In 1984, a home video, That Was Rock, was released, splicing together segments from The T.A.M.I. Show and Phil Spector's 1966 answer flick, The Big T.N.T. Show, which was as eclectic in its lineup — featuring acts that ranged from Ike & Tina Turner and Ray Charles to the Byrds, Roger Miller, Joan Baez, the Lovin' Spoonful and Donovan — as The T.A.M.I. Show was, but the compilation lacked the much-needed continuity and momentum that made those individual shows great ... and basically, in a word, sucked.)
So this DVD release — featuring high-definition video and pristine sound — is an occasion to rejoice, a verb that certainly applies to a pop cultural artifact that remains as joyous as this one is. The T.A.M.I. Show (its title was an acronym for "Teenage Awards Music International" — originally planned as a yearly event) took place at Santa Monica Civic Center in late October 1964 and was being shown on Los Angeles-area movie screens two weeks later. Its financially strapped producer Bill Sargent (the liner notes suggest that the production went into the red when Chuck Berry demanded several thousand dollars in cash before he'd take the stage) sold the rights to the project to the classic, low-budget horror 'n' surf film company American International Pictures — and the film soon became a teenage staple on drive-in and "midnight madness" screens across the country.
The grandest thing about the film and concert is that it perfectly captures a point in history — before rock was considered "art" (but, trust me, there's plenty of art here!) — when various genres blurred, and an extremely large range of popular music was all considered "rock 'n' roll." (It was similar to the AM radio of the era; Detroiters of a certain age will surely remember CKLW's eclectic playlists.) Post-Elvis and, especially at that time, -Beatles, teenage music fans no longer seemed to care whether it was black music or white music, male or female, proto punk or pop. They only cared if it was a hit record ... and whether you could dance — and, in this case, scream — to it. Who ever imagined at the time the cultural and sociological significance this would all have in the long run?
Speaking of the Beatles, the British Invasion was, of course, in full swing here — and the concert kicks off by cutting back and forth between the duck-walking Berry and Gerry & the Pacemakers; the latter came to The T.A.M.I. Show as part of a Fab Four manager Brian Epstein package deal, which also included Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas (probably the weakest act on the bill, although their Lennon-McCartney written songs still shine) and a pre-"Satisfaction" Rolling Stones. Detroit was also well-represented, thanks to Berry Gordy, who offered up three acts from his then-touring Motown Revue, including Smokey Robinson & the Miracles in early full prime; a young and beautiful Marvin Gaye; and a just-out-of-their-teens (but still very dynamic) Supremes at a point when they only had two hits to their credit. (Positively awe-inspiring is that, aside from the self-contained bands, the backup music here — be it for Mr. Berry or Miss Ross & Co. — is all provided by the legendary Wrecking Crew, including Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Hal Blaine in its ranks, and all conducted by Phil Spector and future Neil Young acolyte Jack Nitzsche.)
It's all totally live, by the way — no lip-synching or auto-tuning here — demonstrating why, say, teen pop queen Lesley Gore, probably the biggest star at the time, thanks to her multitude of Quincy Jones-produced hits, was no Britney Spears ... or why the Barbarians, perhaps most famous for their one-handed drummer, Moulty (and prominently featured on Lenny Kaye's original Nuggets album), was one of the American proto-punk and garage rock bands. The climax both then and now, however, is the spectacular performance by James Brown & the Flames (who hadn't yet crossed over to white audiences with the yet-to-come "I Feel Good" and "Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag"). Many critics have called it the best concert sequence ever captured on film and it's hard to disagree, as the future Godfather of Soul dances, spins (Michael Jackson never even came close) and screams (in key, mind you!) his way through his trademark "No man alive can make me leave the stage/Help me before I hurt myself" routine.
The Stones didn't want to follow him, and Brown, of course, wasn't crazy about the idea either — but the band holds its own, delivering a "punk rock" set of mostly covers, with Brian Jones leering; Mick, Keith, Wyman (did you know he sang backup on "Time Is on My Side"?) and Charlie creating visual and musical archetypes that remain to this day. Along with the Beach Boys (who were filmed exactly two months before leader Brian Wilson retired from the stage for the next 19 years and whose high energy demonstrates exactly why they influenced the Ramones as much as anything else, even if the Ramones could never sing like this crew could), it's the most classic rock 'n' roll performance captured by director Steve Binder, who would go on to direct Elvis' 1968 comeback TV special and who created a few visual rock 'n' roll archetypes of his own here. And, hey, we haven't even mentioned those groovy 'n' wild go-go dancers (including future movie star Teri Garr) who are onstage throughout most of the show.
And classic is the operative word for this disc. Shout Factory has delivered a terrific package; rock historian (and frequent Metro Times contributor) Don Waller's notes are exhaustive and frequently jaw-dropping (for instance, James Brown — whose set was completely unrehearsed before filming — was paid a whopping $10,000 less than the three British bands!), and his DVD commentary with director Binder makes a second viewing a must immediately following the first. Don't be fooled by those recent PBS pledge-drive showings — too much editing and condensation, too many pledge breaks, and, like that aforementioned That Was Rock video, too much loss of momentum. Bottom line: If you love rock 'n' roll and its history, this is one essential DVD. In the parlance of Mr. Waller, it's the devil's daddy!
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.