The T.A.M.I. Show: Santa Monica Rock City
The T.A.M.I. Show featured the single greatest rock & roll lineup of the pre-Woodstock era. The T.A.M.I. performers at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 29, 1964, were truly extraordinary — a veritable mid-'60s pop-history lesson.
A number of subgenres were represented: the British Invasion (Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas), garage rock (the Barbarians), California surf music (the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean), girl groups (Lesley Gore, who, while not a group, was close enough in style) and Motown (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes).
Then there were the three headliners: Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and James Brown — the Father, Sons and Holy Ghost of rock & roll and rhythm & blues.
Best of all: It was filmed.
After a theatrical run back in 1964 and years of grainy VHS dubs and substandard YouTube clips, this week Shout! Factory is finally releasing a proper DVD of the program. This is T.A.M.I. as it was always intended to be seen, which makes this release particularly exciting for rock geeks and other discerning music fans.
The real co-star of T.A.M.I. — an acronym for "Teenage Awards Music International" — as seen in this newly mastered and restored version is the audience: maniacally enthusiastic teenagers from local high schools (go, SaMo!), screaming, cheering, shaking, screeching, dancing, clapping and generally raawwking to the sounds of their music.
It's a cinema vérité portrait of the sudden predominance of a vast youth culture, as boomers hit a collective puberty that would have international sociopolitical ramifications. Within three years of this hellzapoppin' adolescent rock & soul orgy, many of these same kids would switch brands from Tang (the astronauts' favorite) to LSD (the innernauts' choice).
Director Steve Binder, 23 at the time, captured the proceedings in real time, with no retakes and no breaks beyond "pee-threes," the union-mandated few minutes for bathroom use.
Binder shot the show with four cameras, in black-and-white "Electronovision" (an early high-definition technology), adding to the defiantly unslick aesthetic. Despite vestiges of showbiz shtick in Jan & Dean's comedic introductions and some of the Motown acts' coordinated routines, everything else about the show, down to the wild choreography of the stage dancers, spells out raw, sweaty, blatantly libidinous physicality.
Superlative music aside, Binder's realistic direction is the key to T.A.M.I.'s brilliance as a music documentary. There's no curtain to hide the wizard: Performers, audience and cameras are all in plain sight.
"My mantra was honesty," says Binder in a recent phone interview. "There were so many rules in those days with traditional Ed Sullivan–type shows, and one I broke was, 'You never shoot off the set.' When James Brown finished his last song, he started to move off to the side of the stage and off the set. I screamed to the cameramen to keep following him — 'Don't stop at the end of the scenery, because I want to see James Brown! I don't care if we're showing garbage in the wings!'"
The youthful Binder intuitively knew that the adolescent fans were crucial to T.A.M.I.'s power. "The audience is 50 percent the end result," he says. "They become part of the chemistry of what turns the artist on and builds the energy. In rock & roll [films], my job is to give [the viewer] a front-row-center seat in the audience. My goal is to make 'em part of the energy of watching these tremendous artists onstage."
Inevitably, it's James Brown & the Famous Flames' kinetic set that's referred to as T.A.M.I.'s highlight. The film confirms Brown's reputation as a remarkably athletic hoofer, and one can see in his gliding footsteps the precursor to Michael Jackson's moonwalk.
During "Please, Please, Please," Brown even does his famous cape act — first he appears to be fainting, then, as "cape man" Danny Ray gently covers him to lead him offstage, the Godfather of Soul heroically declines the aid and insistently lurches back to the microphone to finish the song.
Brown's elaborate stage act notwithstanding, he wouldn't rehearse before the shoot. "I'd never seen James Brown ever when I went up to him and said, 'Okay, James, it's your turn to rehearse,' " Binder recalls. "He looked at me, smiled, and said, 'Hey, Steve, you'll know what to do.' [Laughs] It wasn't easy to feel what he was doing, but it was exciting for me. In all honesty, when I look at the James Brown segment specifically, I say to myself, 'Holy shit, I did that!' "
(By the way, despite conventional wisdom about this legendary program, the evidence shows that while the Stones had the hapless task of following Brown, they more than held their own with their unique brand of limey cool.)
Watching The T.A.M.I. Show 46 years later reveals a time when American music was not only less compartmentalized but also less racially divided — a distinct irony given that legal apartheid had just ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Don Waller notes in his smart, affectionate liner notes for the DVD, "Black. White. Boys. Girls. Vocal groups. Bands. It was all rock 'n' roll. And they were all good."
Interestingly, Binder was hired after having worked with T.A.M.I. producer Bill Sargent on two NAACP benefit performances celebrating school desegregation.
"There was a camaraderie among all these acts," he recalls. "I was so young and naive at the time that I didn't realize it was the first time blacks were treated as equals nationally. I was born and raised in L.A. I came from a very liberal family, who treated people for who they were, not what color they were. It just seemed natural to me."
Binder would go on to direct the pop-music variety show Hullabaloo, and later helmed Elvis' 1968 Comeback Special — as the notes rightfully point out, his "other crowning contribution to rock & roll cinema."
A trove of treats and trivia comes with this much-awaited, official T.A.M.I. release: the fully restored Beach Boys set that was cut from original theatrical prints; actress Teri Garr's appearance as one of the fanny-shakin' dancers; and shots of the extraordinary studio musicians for bandless acts, like arranger Jack Nitzsche, Glen Campbell and several other members of the reliable "Wrecking Crew" (my eye caught an elegantly coiffed pianist, and I quickly realized I was looking at a pre–Master of Space and Time Leon Russell!).
The film may also provide an answer to the intriguing question of the permanence and resonance of rock & roll and soul music from the 1960s, even among the youth of the 21st century.
Popular music has become endlessly fragmented over the last 40 years — but for a brief, shining moment in 1964 Santa Monica, the era's musical excellence came together on the T.A.M.I. stage. The Stones, Brown and Berry supply unadorned intensity and rhythm, the kind of energy craved by punk rockers and hip-hop fans. Smokey Robinson and even Gerry Marsden of Gerry & the Pacemakers — one from Detroit, the other from Liverpool — display vocal chops with soul and advanced technique.
And, crucially, all the artists perform songs whose tunes wrap around your head, showing that the sometimes-neglected art of writing melodic hooks is, and always has been, the cornerstone of music that matters.
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