One of the conventions of postwar popular music became the early career press interview where “the four lads” were introduced to an unsuspecting public. In this piece I wish to argue that this performance became stylized as pop matured into a self-conscious form. I’ll start with Elvis interviewed by Horace Logan on Louisiana Hayride in the mid-1950s:
There are several elements to note here. First of all, after a brief introduction, the young male music performer is greeted by an older presenter in quite a ritualized way: “… Fine Elvis, how you getting along?” Although ‘Hoss’ Logan was a country announcer, as both individuals and surrogates for an audience later interviewers tended to represent the middle class. There is a combination of surprise and slight patronage in their tone. Second, the performer is endorsed by an enthusiastic audience of screaming fans who offer us a first taste that this is more than an ordinary stage show: it is the making of a social phenomenon. Third, the clowning musician seems to throw away their opportunity to demonstrate professional engagement. As Elvis says, “I’m, err, sick, sober and sorry.” In this case the line is an echo of Johnny Bond’s 1951 country song of the same title, but it is what it says about the young performer and his role that is interesting. Hauled up to explain himself, he rejects the demand for professionalism and instead evokes a kind of youthful irresponsibility. He’s just larking about.
Compare all this to the 1963 Pathe News reel of the Beatles coming to ABC cinema theatre, Ardwick, Manchester (still operating as the O2 Apollo):
Here the all-purpose educational voice-over does the work of the patronizing presenter (“They’re a natural, these fabulous four”). The larking about is visual, as the band clown around with a toy panda donated by fans (“Ringo: a fab drummer and always good for a laugh”). What is interesting here is the juxtaposition between the band offstage as a kind of comedy outfit and onstage as music magnet for fans. They constantly present an appealing mixture of work and play. On stage, they work at making fun music that draws a female audience. Off stage, portrayed as an off duty troupe of potential boyfriends, their antics are “fun,” and yet they are also at work doing a press call. The moments in public but “off stage” thus become a strange combination of work and play in which the band are almost inevitably compelled to lark about in order to demonstrate their accessibility as humans. After all, they’re just ordinary lads who happen to be music geniuses.
Fast forward over a decade, now, to the Bill Grundy’s interview with the Sex Pistols on the Today Show late in 1976:
I have discussed this interview elsewhere as a piece of history (Duffett, 2010). It’s worth noting in this particular context, though, that while the punk girls’ ruse is to endorse the presenter, they are primarily presented as endorsing the band: coming along to join in the party. Meanwhile, the glaring Grundy hams up his role as patronizing interviewer. His cross-class glare and sarcastic put-downs continually attempt to dismiss them as second rate theatre, even though he comes across that way by theatrically performing his own responses.
The Pistols themselves are larking about (“down the boozer”) until Johnny is caught out for his bad language. In that sense Grundy takes on a super-ego function which is recognized by Glen Matlock (“He’s like you dad, ain’t he? This geezer. Or your grandad”). Grundy finally retorts with a provocation that was to cost him dearly: “Say something outrageous… What a clever boy!” While the Pistols have sometimes been contested for their lack of authenticity (they were manufactured, took the money and played the media), this interview is their greatest performance. It reflects youth – Johnny’s shame at being caught out for his bad language – but also performs class: Steve Jones is unafraid to swear because he has no stake in the world of polite middle class life demonstrated by the Grundy. If the Beatles were at play while they were at work, the Pistols are at play while they are on strike. They have broken their relationship to their handler (“like your dad”), but have kept it with their audience (more like you). In other words, the Sex Pistols brought a special kind of punk delinquency to the parading of the four lads.
Finally, by the time we get to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, everything is completely known, recognized and cliched. The press conference becomes part of the recording process: lads at work, at play, on record. ‘One February Friday’ came as the b-side of their 1984 hit single ‘Two Tribes’:
Matt Hills has recently written an interesting piece discussing fandom for the FGtH producer Trevor Horn. In a way Horn represented a model of 1980s musical entrepreneurialism. After the high technology recording studio system had deskilled and rejected many of its human inhabitants – session musicians – those who were left controlled new banks of digital machines. A producer like Horn could then be celebrated as an entrepreneurial genius, a maestro alone like a mad scientist in an automated environment of high gloss music making. Frankie were his working class temps: popping in to do a sonic and marketing job as part of their remit. Though they made the music, it was Horn who perfected it. Throwing away their place in the system, they indirectly referenced the workers who had lost their jobs in Britain’s longstanding secondary industries.
In the full uncensored version of ‘One February Friday’ one can hear Paul Morley playing it straight in the middle class interviewer role, putting questions of such existential weight to the band (“How would you like to die?”) that their throwaway answers highlight a kind of class futility. Why engage with even these seemingly deep questions, when they are just the tools of an alienating, middle class discourse? As drummer Ped Gill explains in rather downbeat tones, “It sorta comes like: birds, ale, money and maybe drugs. I’m not sure about that one yet.” When Morley replies, “Is that what pop music is for you then?” Ped adds, “Yeah – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – you know what I mean: the full trip.” Just like Elvis, FGtH are professionals, charged with the duty of larking about as part of their working life, but at times the gap now seems too large. This time five lads are on parade, but except for Holly and Paul they seem to lack enfranchisement. Rather than participating in the press call, in spirit they already seem to be down the pub.