Connexions: Behind the Scene by Richard Mabey
Penguin Education, 64pp, 1968
I’m grateful to the excellent Voices of East Anglia blog for pointing me in the direction of this month’s library loan. Connexions was a series of educational books published by Penguin from 1968 aimed, as the Teachers’ Guide for the series put it, at “the social education of non-academic fourteen to sixteen year olds.” Among the topics these teenagers were encouraged to engage with were Disaster, Violence, The Lawbreakers, The Language of Prejudice and perhaps most alarmingly of all, Work. Little wonder that the series’ general editor and the author of this particular book, Richard Mabey, has subsequently sought solace in the country and is now a very eminent nature writer. The Voices blog post concentrated on the design elements in titles across the series, but I’m focussing on just volume, Behind the Scene.
The ‘Scene’ in question is of course the pop scene. Mabey looks at the cultural and historical contexts of pop music, and as a consequence is keen to consider the significance of the dances and the haircuts as well as the hits. But he has a very particular take on his subject matter, which is illustrated in his choice of vocabulary in the extract below from a section of the book entitled ‘Going Tribal at the Palais’. Here, male and female behaviour among dancers comes under his scrutiny:
The best place to observe dances is of course a dance-hall. . .
It’s in clubs and parties, tribal festivals and national celebrations, anywhere in fact where people are gathered together that you’ll see it. . .
It’s fascinating to try. . . and understand what’s behind the curious ceremonies and displays which you may see.
“Observe”, “tribal festivals”, “curious ceremonies and displays” – this is the language of the anthropologist. Tellingly, in the chapter on this book in the Teachers’ Guide, one of the titles listed as suggested further reading is Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and there’s more on the anthropological theme as Mabey highlights the way gangs transformed into bands (he uses the example of Merseyside’s Park Gang becoming The Tremeloes) and considers the ‘worship of idols’ as pop performers become the subject of intense devotion. All of this is very much in keeping with an era when a sector of intelligent society encouraged all generations to understand pop music, and not to make the mistake of dismissing it as a topic unworthy of serious attention. Mabey went on to write a longer examination of the subject the following year entitled The Pop Process, and this same mission to understand forms part of the agenda for Tony Palmer’s Born Under a Bad Star (1970) (see the entry on this blog for February 2013). But while Mabey crouches at the side of the dance floor with notebook at the ready, we might be left asking where all the fun in pop has gone, the passion and excitement that made us crazy for the music in the first place?
Judging by much of the rest of the book, fun is in short supply for anyone involved in the business. A long extract from Intro magazine reveals how unreliable the charts are given that they rely not just on the powers of memory but also on the honesty of the shop staff who compile the weekly returns. In New York, the countercultural writer Paul Krassner witnesses an auction at which are sold mundane items actually used by The Beatles during a stay at the Riviera Hotel, Kennedy Airport. Paul McCartney’s cutlery goes for $9.25, the cruet set used by George Harrison sells for $9 while Ringo’s Coke Bottle sells to a fourteen-year-old for $6. The fact that the buyers are all teenagers even appears to trouble the conscience of one of the promoters Krassner speaks to:
‘I hated to take their money. They were coming up on stage and counting out nickels and dimes. Eight dollars for a dirty towel. I’m telling you, this has made me pretty sick.’
And it doesn’t sound much better for the performers themselves. Dave Dee recalls his band playing seven days a week for six weeks (at the end of it, Dee notes, “Beaky and Tich were physically ill”), while poor old Andy Fairweather Low actually collapses at the end of a gruelling twenty-four hours which has comprised two gigs on the same night in Leicester and travel back to Wales, followed straight after by the best part of 10 hours in a TV studio. “When I collapsed the doctor gave me a sleeping pill which put me out for about twenty-four hours,” he says. “All I’ve been doing since then is sleeping – doing nothing but sleep. It’s wonderful!”
This perhaps makes it easier to see why pop music was deemed an appropriate area of study alongside disaster, violence and law-breaking. Mabey is thoughtful and thorough, and if I’d been 15 and non-academic in 1968 I would have learnt more from him than from some well-meaning beardy in the Music Department telling me it was OK to like The Beatles because of their mastery of Aeolian cadences. The problem remains though that in trying to explain and contextualise the surfaces of pop, he sometimes forgets the power of the medium simply to make us happy. In this respect, the book reads now not so much as a necessary corrective but as downright pessimistic.
To finish, let’s take our cue from the Voices of East Anglia blog and enjoy some of the visual content in Behind the Scene. Completed copies of the questionnaire on Top 10 records may be sent to this blog at the usual address.