Friday, 11 March 2016

THE WEEKEND STARTS HERE: JAMES BROWN, HYSTERICAL MODS, READY STEADY GO & HISTORIC WALTHAMSTOW SHOW (MARCH 1966)

James Brown, Ready Steady Go, 11 March 1966 (Photo David Redfern)
“There we were watching James Brown, the Famous Flames urging him back, his cloak laid on his back as he’s dragged to the centre of the stage– screaming, screeching, and we thought that this was it. Anything else was a distraction. We were bonded into a sweaty, sound drenched, sanctified brotherhood of S..O..U..L.”

Fifty years ago, on Saturday 12 March 1966, Barry Coidan witnessed the first ever UK concert by James Brown, a night forever etched in his memory and recounted on his . This historic occasion didn’t occur, as one might imagine, in a Central London venue but on the very outskirts of the capital in Walthamstow, E17, which had only merged into a London borough from Essex the previous year and accessibility via the Tube network was at least another 18 months away. Barry and his school friends - bonded in soul brother and sisterhood – who drove 80 miles from Brighton in a Ford Anglia to the Granada Cinema can be forgiven in feeling they were venturing into unknown territory, but even Adele T and her friend, who set off in a Mini (as in car definitely, skirt possibly), from north-west London had never heard of Walthamstow either.

“I know we drove through the West End to get to Walthamstow – no sat navs then – and somehow arrived at the Granada – buzzing with excitement and what a show – it was unbelievable,” recalls Adele. “I especially remember the end of the concert. James Brown on stage, his vocal group behind him, holding his gold and red cloak, trying to put the cloak on his back to lead him off stage – James Brown, kneeling on stage, not wanting to leave – the cloak thrown off, then put on again, then taken off again. The band playing – ‘You Don’t Have To Go’ - the group singing the words – James Brown kneeling yet again, then finally, after repeating this riff several times, the cloak finally around his shoulders and he walked off stage, only to return for another verse of the song – the climax of a wonderful performance - pure theatre, it was superb!”

The self-styled Mr Dynamite was in an explosive run of form when he hit the UK. Nearly ten years into his recording career ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ began to rewrite the rules of song construction – changing the beat, stripping away chord changes and melody, creating funk - and gave Brown his first US Top 10 “Pop” (as opposed to “R&B”) hit and his first UK Top 30 hit in September ’65. ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ followed and was on the chart as Brown, Bobby Byrd, the Famous Flames, his 18-piece orchestra and entourage stepped off the plane at Heathrow on 9 March to be greeted by half a dozen fans with albums to sign and a gaggle of press photographers. Although ‘I Got You’ would only climb as high as number 29 his reputation and standing amongst those who dug a little deeper – especially the Mods – was sky high.
James Brown arrives at Heathrow, 9 March 1966
The Walthamstow appearance, in which Doris Troy also appeared on the bill, was preceded the night before by a special performance on Rediffusion TV’s Ready Steady Go! Always a huge supporter of visiting American artists, editor Vicki Wickham pulled out the stops for Brown and handed over the entire show (the 137th edition, fact fans) to their guest and his revue, the only time such an honour was afforded a single artist. A similar Otis Redding special in September included appearances from Chris Farlowe and Eric Burdon; whilst The Who only occupied the second half of their Ready Steady Who edition in October (Georgie Fame and Lee Dorsey filling the first half). 

Regretfully no footage of Brown as he muscled into living rooms across the nation as the youth started their weekend has survived although at least one JB collector claims to own an audio recording (my enquiries so far have been met with stony silence). RSG’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, explained the loss to The Guardian: "Most of the shows were wiped because tape was so expensive, so stuff like the James Brown special and The Who special are gone forever. I took home £37 a week but, every so often, I'd buy a video tape and preserve it. It cost me £1 a minute, but the only reason any shows survive is because I did that."  

Prior to the show Brown gave the producers some twitchy moments. Vicki Wickham: “Michael Lindsay Hogg and I went to meet him at his hotel where he adamantly told us he didn’t rehearse.  He said it would like asking a footballer to play the game before game time! He came to the studio and we were nervous but once Michael showed him the stage and the surface of the stage we’d built so that he could dance and do his routines his attitude changed and the sound-check was seamless and they ran through most of the show.  It turned out that he had done a BBC show the night before and they had him on a small riser and he was angry that he couldn’t dance or move.”

Not that Brown’s broadcast, which hit television screens at 6.08pm on Friday 11 March, was received with anything like universal acclaim as one review quoted in Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded makes clear. “If you have a taste for old-fashioned entertainment (primitive screaming and emotional kidology) done every bit as top-priced African witch doctors and the most famous minstrel shows, then don’t miss the Wild Man of Harlem.”
"Wild Man of Harlem", London, March 1966 (Photo by Harry Goodwin)
More surprising, although without the racist undertones, was the view of Ready Steady Go! presenter Cathy McGowan who laid it on thick for BBC’s The Story of Pop.  "When he came here he was hailed as the great James Brown – and the show was awful. I mean he just couldn't produce the sound. It was terrible. I mean it was really awful. It was a bad, bad show. A disaster. And the only reason that they devoted the whole show to Brown was because of the following that he'd got here built up because of the hysteria on the part of the Mods. You know, it was like everything else. It was like everybody's-gotta- say-you-like-James-Brown-week. So, of course, the demand for James Brown records was such that everyone was writing into the programme saying James Brown. Every Mod you asked would say James Brown. And the worst thing of all was that when he actually did his numbers the Mods didn't like him. The music and the records were so fantastic, but when they actually came there to the studio to do it live... something went."

It’s worth reading Brown scholar Cliff White’s eloquent rebuttal to McGowan and detractors in full but in part he writes, “Brown didn't so much appear on RSG as dominate an hour of television that just happened to fill the program's regular spot. He strutted and stamped and screamed, he sweated and grunted and fell on his knees (and screamed), he danced across the stage like he had skates on and then charged around the studio, through the audience, and back again (screaming). In short, he was quite uncontrollable, and he kept it up for the entire show, pouring out barely intelligible lyrics while his bloody great band hit chords that fractured nerves and hammered relentless riffs without mercy. All in all, he was quite magnificent.”

As White added, James Brown was neither Helen Shapiro nor “simply another harmless jigaboo with a trendy kind of rhythm and a humble smile”. This was indeed a new bag. So new it left audiences confused, especially by Brown’s famous cloak routine during ‘Please Please Please’ which, according to the popular press, left scores of television viewers appalled by his “disgusting behaviour”. The Daily Mirror leading the charge the next day claiming ‘Pop Singer’s Mock “Fits” Shock Viewers’. Epileptic seizures and religious reawakening were difficult to tell apart in 1966.

David London shared White’s assessment. “I worked on many of the RSG shows as a studio floor manager. My everlasting memory was of the then unknown great James Brown taking over the whole show and just leaving everybody absolutely speechless! Great memories.”

College friends of a Mod persuasion of one Walthamstow witness, Geoff, had another take. “I saw him when he first toured in the 60s, at Walthamstow Granada, absolutely brilliant, so good went back for the second performance, got in the second row from the front, I think the seats cost 30 shillings or something similar. His performance was magnificent, never seen anything quite like it, so well-rehearsed. At the time I attended day release at the London School of Printing at Elephant & Castle, and all the others in my class slagged off his appearance on Ready Steady Go! (which was very similar to his live show) as too rehearsed, lacking spontaneity, etc. But then they raved over the Action doing ‘I'll Keep Holding On’, so what did they know about soul music?”

For local Mods like Steve Ellis, singer with Tottenham band the Soul Survivors, the impact of witnessing Brown up close had a profound effect as he recounted in Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson’s 2013 book, Mods: The New Religion. “Our manager, Sid Bacon, was forever telling us to go and see live bands. He got us tickets to see James Brown & the Famous Flames at the Walthamstow Granada. That night James Brown was fucking unbelievable. He absolutely blew my socks off. I came out after that gig and I just thought, ‘I’ve got to be like that. My God that’s how good I’ve got to be and that’s what I’ve got to do with this band’”. With his band’s name switched to Love Affair, Ellis scored a UK number in 1968 with ‘Everlasting Love’.

Eddy Grant from another North London band in attendance, the Equals, would similarly hit the top of the charts in ‘68 with his song ‘Baby, Come Back’. Eddy had no hesitation when asked in 2008 about the most memorable gig he’d attended. “That is quite easy. James Brown, live at the Walthamstow Granada in 1966. Nothing has beaten that since.”
Programme for Walthamstow & Brixton Granadas 
Although I rather unfairly implied the Walthamstow Granada was out in the back of beyond it did play host to most of the major acts in the 60s – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Small Faces, the Who etc – and had a long history dating back to the late nineteenth century when it served as a performing arts venue. In 1930 it was bought and modernised by Granada Theatres who turned it into a 2,697 capacity cinema that later also doubled as a concert hall but it took the boldness of promoter Arthur Howes to travel to the US and bring Brown to the Granada theatres (JB played Brixton the day after Walthamstow before heading to Paris) after bosses at rivals Top Rank ran scared.

“I’m always surprised by the staying power of old cinemas,” wrote Barry Coidan on his As I Was Saying To My Friend The Other Day blog. “Besides the massive trauma of James Brown’s brass, the old Walthamstow cinema shuddered to the sound of our unrestrained teenage voices, stomping feet and generalised sexual energy. The Scala, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the Hammersmith Apollo, the Forum – lovely old cinemas – now unflinchingly absorb the kinetic energy of our age.”

After over a decade of sitting unused, and after tireless campaigning by local residents, the old Granada (EMD) Cinema building at 186 Hoe Street is open again. The former foyer now utilised as a pop-up bar, under the title Mirth, Marvel and Maud, whilst the rest of the Grade 2 listed building, including the auditorium where Brother James repeatedly smashed to his knees, is being developed to breathe new life into the burgeoning local arts community.

I was in there two weeks ago listening to DJs bang out old soul and funk records and it already looks gorgeous, mercifully keeping the character and much of the décor of the past. It was impossible to not think about James Brown and how fifty years previously Record Mirror had described gig goers exiting into the cold air with “ears ringing and apparently not working properly; eyes definitely out of focus; legs a trifle shaky”. I too suffered from some of those symptoms but not, unfortunately, due to the Godfather of Soul conquering new territory during one weekend in 1966.

POSTSCRIPT:

After publishing the above yesterday I received the following addition from Merric Davidson who runs the great Top 10 music site Toppermost. Not only did Merric attend the Walthamstow show but kept a press cutting too. Thanks a lot for sharing Merric.

"JB at Walthamstow Granada, Saturday 12 March 1966. Four of us travelled up from Bournemouth and afterwards took in a Les Cousins all-niter (another story). Certainly an event, much planning involved, we wore James Brown armbands made out of mauve corduroy if memory serves, and sauntered up Carnaby Street beforehand giving it some! It was an extraordinary evening, sitting in a cinema, quite a few rows back, and as soon as the band struck up we were all out of our seats and down the front, or as close to the front as we could get. I reckon it was a similar show "The TAMI Show" but the rapture took over right from the first note so it's hazy. Anyway here's Stan Laundon writing in The Independent (local paper, where based?) on 18 March 1966:

JAMES BROWN HITS THE GRANADA FANS BY STORM - When American rhythm and blues star James Brown appeared at Walthamstow Granada Theatre, Hoe Street, on Saturday, manager Mr Ralph Papworth, had full houses - and a night he will never forget. Brown, a brilliant showman and the biggest rage on the rhythm and blues scene for many years, spoke to me in his dressing room before the show: "My kind of show is different from the rest. I have something to offer and when I give it, I give it from my heart - I like to express my feelings." When James Brown walked on to the stage, the audience went wild. As the atmosphere in the auditorium mounted, Brown ran through a list of his well-known hits, including his latest disc, "I Got You, I Feel Good" - probably unheard by the screamers. Almost every agent in London had booked seats for their own artistes to watch the show, among them Dusty Springfield, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon, Millie and many others who either entered the show late to avoid suspicion or in disguise. Fans stood in the aisles, climbed on the seats and even tried to rush the stage just to get a glimpse of the famous James Brown and his group, the Famous Flames. Brown, 32, was slammed by the nation's newspapers for doing a "fit" on the Granada stage, purely for a little extra showmanship. The remainder of the bill was the Mike Cotton Sound, the Marionettes, Doris Troy, and compere Keith Fordyce."

Can't remember any of that first half with those guys and I'm glad I can't remember Keith's "urgings" but the second half from the great man, a memory for life!"

5 comments:

  1. Brilliant! Now I am going to bust out some James Brown after I get the kids packed up!

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  2. Worth noting that after RSG that night, Irma Thomas was playing at the Marquee. What a weekend!

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  3. Fantastic article Monkey.Oh for a time machine.Used to live up the road from the cinema in late 80s and it was falling apart then.Glad to hear it's been saved.

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  4. There is a recording of the James Brown special I just found it on one of my old tapes. Not very good but it could probably be re-mastered

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  5. Wow. Would love to hear it, whatever the quality, if at all possible. Great it's out there!

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