'In the summer of 1959 my two major passions, rock 'n' roll and cinema, collided to sensational effect in the long-awaited film version of Expresso Bongo'.
Andrew Loog Oldham. Maverick manager of the Rolling Stones.
The idea of the 'youth cult' exploded big bang like, into life in the mid fifties with the arival of rock 'n' roll. Teen gangs had existed before this - see John Boultings 1947 British screen masterpiece Brighton Rock for a fictional look at the infamous razor gangs of the 1940s - see also Jon (England's Dreaming) Savage's excellent 'TEENAGE' book for a complete pre rock 'n' roll history of the teenager and teen gangs. With the new improved 1950’s version of delinquency (both street level authentic and media / mogul created) dropping like a transatlantic A-bomb of proto-punk style and attitude (Elvis, Little Richard, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Levis jeans, leather Jackets, 6 inch flick blades, motorcycle gangs etc) - announcing the 'age of the teenager', largely a Hollywood construct to begin with, Hollywood was quick to perpetuate and exploit what seemed at first like a fad, and so the 'youth dollar swindle' soaked up and sold back it's own teenage American dream myths with films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), Don't Knock The Rock (1956), Girl Cant Help It (56), The Big Beat (1957), The Beat Generation (1959), Born Reckless (59), Jailhouse Rock and many more.
Since the 'British Youth Cult' movie plays a hugley important role in proto punk as a construct I thought it only right that I include the finest of the genres roots, coming so close as they do to the dawn of the 60s when the term 'punk' first started to be used as a label for trashy American garage bands aping the British invasion with extra snot and attitude. In some ways there is no defining cut off between the end of the 50s and the start of the 60s only that one decade gradually merged into the other. Some commentators even state that the 60s didnt realy start until the release of the first beatles single in 63.
In Ali Cateral and Simon wells book Your Face Here they kick off their run of film reviews with The Beatles explosive 1965 classic... 'A Hard Days Night is an eighty five minute scream of orgasm. As Tommy Steel tickeled and Cliff Richard teased, the four headed eight legged hydra called
JohnPaulGeorgeAndRingo brought teeny boppers to a shuddering climax'.
Yeah, the first Beatles film was a faultline altering youth-quake, however these things dont just arrive out of the blue, someone has to pave the way, (some revisionist history books say otherwise but - there was life in Britain before the Beatles) and while its easy to dismiss Cliff Richard and Tommy Steel as clean cut teenybopper fluff now. At the acctual time it was a very different story.
Dont forget what Cliff achieved with his first record Move It (a number 2 UK hit), a gunuine slice of brooding supercool on wax, music critics Roy Carr and Tony Tyler wrote that it was the first genuine British rock classic while John Lennon was also once quoted as saying that Move It was the first English rock record. For a very brief moment Cliff actually seemed like a British sex deviant that may just possibly be as dangerous as Elvis. Giving off an air of sleezy menace, striking defiant poses of pure rock attitude, and rarely smiling or looking at the audience or camera. Sex appeal? Bags of it! Of course in hind sight we know things turned out different and Cliff quite quickly proved to be a wet letice and a massive let down (Billy Fury was the real deal British Elvis).
Cliff while still looking dangerous though, made his first on screen appearences in the form of two underappreciated films. Both are historically vital in terms of being amongst the first British films to deal with the whole 'youth cult' phenomena. A time when rockers, teds, greasers, tone up boys, trad jazzers, beatnicks and the early modernists were sending highly charged electric currents through the nations psyche, thrilling the youth but offten confusing or intimadating the older generation.
Although Cliff only appeared in a minor supporting role in Serious Charge, it paved the way for Expresso Bongo. Serious Charge itself was a teenage deliquency picture focusing on a 'rockin' youth gang' and their devastating effect on a comunity. A dark and heavy film for its day, dealing with thuggery, theft, lies, deciet, teenage death and the acusation from one rougue teen of molestaion from a parish vicar. Cliff plays the main delinquents younger brother, barely talking, apart from singing rock 'n' roll in the obligatory coffee bar hang out.
Cliff gets bumped up the bill in Expresso Bongo, playing alongside Lawrence Harvy in this tale of showbiz exploitation. Harvey plays slippery hustler come Larry Parnes style svengali Johny Jackson a fast talking chancer with a stripper girlfriend.
The opening sequence alone is an exhilarating trip through the forbidden backstreets of seedy Soho, all neon light and forboding shadows. Filmed with verve and exhuberance, an obvious influence on Julian Temple's 1984 homage to the acrid sights and sounds of late 50s Soho Absolute Beginners which ultimatley failed to capture the raw esscence of Colin Mcinnes wondefully precient late 50s novel.
Expresso Bongo however is still criminaly underrated, putting the record staight on its importance the whirlwind teen genius and legenday Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham let rip about the film in his 2000 autobiography Stoned. first taking about the musical that lead to the film.. '(Expresso Bongo) written by Wolf Mankowitz, this was the first ever British dramatisation of the 50s rock 'n' roll scene and the revolution in the streets as it was fomenting. 'Soho Johnny never had it so good - or lost it so fast' blared the bill board. Even more than the censored weekly TV shows that pandered to the youth, or the incresing interest by promoters in cashing in on live rock, Expresso Bongo's run in the West End signalled a coming of age for the new music, the new style, the new hustle. Even better, it owed very little to it's Yank progenitors; (sunk as it was in the shadowy showbiz underbelly of Soho - strip clubs, spivs and protitutes) it was Brit to the Core. It would be my liturgy: a senario where the manager was equally as important as the artist'. Fired up he goes on 'Expresso Bongo was at once so incredibly obvious and yet, oh so subtle: sex, religeon, a whiff of incest (which i believe to be the rock coupling that dare not speak its name). I saw a future where Bongos begged me to be their Johnny . And almost as important as the boost the play gave to my own aspirations was the reassurance that, despite the lonliness I often felt, I was not alone and, with like-minded fellows, anything was possible'.
Strong words indeed to atribute to what is essentially a piece of entrertainment, his musings on the actual film are a revelation. 'No one could have pleased me more as manager Johnny Jackson than my own Larry Harvey, who was as at home in the cofee bars and strip joints of Soho as he had not been in the society drawing rooms of his immediatley previous hit, Room at the Top. And to prove even further that my subconscious was beggining to control the audio and video of 'real life', Bongo was played by Cliff Richard. What really struck me was the upbeat conclusion, after a music business tycoon and an over the hill floozy conspire to steal Bongo from Johnny. Just as he's decided to get his drums out of hock and go on the road, leaving the scrumptios Sylvia Syms behind in her pasties, a notorious showbiz deadbeat repays a loan that Johnny never thought he'd see again. The movie ends with Johnny dropping his drums in the street and strolling off in search of the next Bongo. Although I may not have articulated it at the time, that attitude became one of my mantras:
'They always fuck you for the first one'.
Proof then that this film changed the very life of at least one fan and sometimes the tease is as good as the climax. Expresso Bongo is as pure a punk rock moment as any.
See also THE DUKE WORE JEANS (1958) the Tommy Steel vehicle that predated Cliff's cinema debut.