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'The T.A.M.I. Show': Out on DVD for the first time, it's a '60s-rock revelation

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tami-stonesImage Credit: Dick Clark ProductionsIf you’ve never seen The T.A.M.I. Show, the 1964 youth-concert explosion that has just been released on DVD for the first time, then by all means get hold of a copy of it. It’s an electric surge of ’60s rock-and-soul energy that will leave you bopping, laughing, and generally awed at the crackly pop fervor of the moment it captures. I confess that I didn’t realize, until now, how unique that moment was.

The first time I saw The T.A.M.I. Show, back in 1979 (it was then a fixture on the revival-house and college film-society circuit), I was, at the time, steeped in the percolating romantic-erotic rapture of disco (Chic, Donna Summer, Sylvester) and the compact-rock catharsis of punk and New Wave (Talking Heads, Blondie, the Clash, Devo), not to mention the symphonic synth-pop swoon of Supertramp. Seen, and listened to, against that backdrop, The T.A.M.I. Show, just 15 years old, struck me as old-fashioned and rather quaint. Shot in black-and-white at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, it looked and played like a glorified episode of American Bandstand (T.A.M.I.” stands for the wonderfully ’50s-fuddy-duddy “Teen Age Music International”), with a variety-show balcony for its gyrating beach-blanket backup dancers and a lot of performers who weren’t, to be honest, all that relevant to me, like Chuck Berry and Lesley Gore and the Supremes. They may have been terrific on their own terms, but I felt, in my heart, that I didn’t need to hear “Sidewalk Surfin'”or “Baby Love” again. The movie seemed a time-capsule document of a long-ago, far-away era.

How funny pop is. The T.A.M.I. Show looks looser and more ecstatically alive to me now than it did then. (Maybe that’s what eight seasons of American Idol will do to you.) It was filmed just eight months after the Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, but you can see and hear how the culture shock that the Beatles represented had already rippled out into the world. Everyone in the movie, on stage and in the audience, is very polite, because “the 1960s” hadn’t happened yet. And yet the show, which is brilliantly paced, with a momentum that builds and builds, keeps pointing to the eruption that’s about to be unleashed.

The dual opening act is startling. Chuck Berry walks on, winkingly handsome, doing his classic tinkery guitar riffs, and then, just as he’s winding down the final chorus of “Maybelline,” the camera swivels over to the right side of the stage, where Gerry and the Pacemakers launch into their version of “Maybelline.” This is no mere cute transition; it’s a busting down of racial-musical barricades. Even in 1964, a vast majority of the audience that ate up the music of Elvis and the Beatles had little to no idea that the basic rhythms they were grooving on were the creation of black rhythm-and-blues artists. The T.A.M.I. Show makes that thrillingly explicit. From the get-go, it mixes black and white musicians into a utopian jamboree.

One thing that seems very early ’60s is the screaming. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium looks about as modestly scaled as a large high school theater, but the crowd of teenagers sitting nicely in their seats somehow manage to fill the place with a keening din that sounds like the purest Beatlemania. They scream at Gerry and the Pacemakers, the British Invasion boppers from Liverpool who, as led by Gerry Marsden, suggest the early Beatles if Paul McCartney were one-fifth as handsome and had a seizure each time he sang. They scream when Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer, shakes his groovy mop of golden hair, and when the Miracles, led by a then unbilled Smokey Robinson and his micro-vibrato croon, drive “Mickey’s Monkey” into a jubilant dance orgy. They scream at the sheer majesty of Marvin Gaye, resplendent in a white suit and white bow-tie, singing as if he were the lord of soul, and they scream when Lesley Gore comes out in her Tracy Turnblad flip, her movements just staid enough to make her look like the Hillary Clinton of teen idols. Don’t be fooled by her appearance, though — she’s incredible! A one-woman pop powerhouse! Standing in the spotlight, Gore turns “You Don’t Own Me” into a searing manifesto, The Feminine Mystique squeezed into three soaring minutes.

There are dull acts, like Jan and Dean (you really shouldn’t sing in a Beach Boys-knockoff falsetto if you can’t do it in tune), and Billy J. Kramer. But the whole thing builds towards the supreme double climax of James Brown and the Fabulous Flames followed by the Rolling Stones. A number of critics have heralded Brown’s T.A.M.I. Show performance as the single greatest one of his career. Seeing it again, I can believe that. The famous shtick of “Please, Please, Please” (falling to his knees, being led off-stage like a wounded man, then throwing off that cape to sing again, and again, and again) always struck me as pure burlesque, but this time I saw the passion nestled in the comedy. That’s how much he’s hurtin’, how deep his love is, how desperately he doesn’t want his baby to go. Brown’s dancing is almost hip-hop. Shimmying across the stage, he looks electro-ecstatic, as if powered by a volt cord.

Many observers have said that Brown is so tremendous that he out-powers what comes next: Mick Jagger’s white-boy imitation of him. But that’s a politically correct reading of the crossover complexity of rock & roll. Yes, James Brown, who invented this stuff, was a more technically amazing soul belter and dancer than Mick Jagger. But as the Rolling Stones take the stage, there’s something in their sound, and in Mick’s moves, that all the previous acts, including Brown, have only paved the way for. James Brown is the original genius, the Einstein of funk-soul rhythm, but in The T.A.M.I. Show the slovenly genius of the Rolling Stones is that their rhythms aren’t tidy, they’re jostly and menacing. They spill over the sides. Jagger, staring down the audience as he does his version of the Brown shimmy, has something new in pop: danger. Behold, in its early, roots-rock form, his satanic majesty. The other performers have all sung anthems of joy, longing, and heartbreak, and they’ve delivered each one of those songs to you. When the Stones do “It’s All Over Now,” the world shifts. Jagger, crowing in triumph, might almost be stomping on the girl he no longer loves. He doesn’t give a damn about you — the song is all about the glory of him.

Welcome to the 1960s.