LONDON, ONTARIO – Spending three hours scrounging for 60's arcana during my St. Patrick’s Day visit to yet another record show in the basement of Centennial Hall, has brought to mind that time in my life when pop music was the art form that mattered more to me than any other. Though it seems unfathomable in retrospect, 55 years ago this month, the Dave Clark Five were considered neck-and-neck with The Beatles as the most important band in the world. The DC5 had an enormous impact on my 11 year-old psyche when I first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show; arguably a bigger impact than The Beatles who had made their North American debut on the same show just a few weeks before. In Britain the DC5 (hailing from the Tottenham area of London) had been the first act to supplant those mop-topped Liverpudlians at the top of the national charts and so, naturally enough, were regarded as their rivals. The timing of their appearance on Sullivan’s American variety show ensured that the exact same thing happened on this side of the pond.
The build-up to The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan for three consecutive weeks in February of 1964 had been huge and then – poof – they went back to England. For a few horribly deflating weeks, one feared a reversion to business as usual when the only pop singers we’d see on TV would be those tired American pap-meisters of the old guard, most of whom seemed to be named Bobby – Rydell, Vee, Vinton, Goldsboro. (And, lest we forget, Canada had one of these innocuous crooning Bobbies as well - Bobby Curtola.) But when the DC5 turned up on Sullivan early that April (in the first of what would turn out to be a record-setting 18 Sullivan appearances), and were themselves followed in short order by The Searchers, Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Animals and The Rolling Stones, we had joyous confirmation that a new age was indeed upon us and the pop music game had fundamentally changed for the better.
Sullivan and The Beatles had constructed a two-way, ocean-spanning bridge which would serve to broaden and enrich the music scenes of both the old and new worlds. The most attractive model of a pop music act was now the four or five-member group – a creative collective of friends who wrote and performed their own material and forged their own unique style and ethos. Yes, some lousy bands emerged and some crappy records still got made but taken all in all, this was the beginning of an unprecedentedly exciting and inventive age for popular music.
Though I couldn’t perceive it at the time, the DC5’s music was much less sophisticated and accomplished than The Beatles’. But initially at least, it came on harder and louder (which appealed to 11-year old savages like me) and was punctuated wherever possible with Dave Clark’s closely-miked, air-hammer drum rolls. The impossibly handsome Mike Smith on keyboards and lead vocals was the real star of the band – a solid player and one of the great, leather-lunged shouters of ‘60s rock – who was possessed of a sweet nature and didn’t seem to mind the overbearing Clark calling all the shots and hogging most of the glory. Clark too was a handsome enough chap and an okay drummer but what really distinguished him from the rest of the musical herd, was his Svengali-like brilliance and cunning as a businessman.
Uniquely among bands of that period, right from the get-go, Clark managed the group, produced all of their records and retained ownership of the band’s recordings and song rights. Though their moment in the sun was as fleeting as many another of those first-wave British invasion bands, Clark’s business acumen left him sitting pretty enough that his band never had to submit to the tawdry indignity of reunion or golden-oldie tours. He also retained absolute control of their recorded legacy and has very selectively allowed only a few greatest hits packages to be compiled and issued at premium prices. This has left most of the DC5 catalogue to molder in the vaults, opening up a good-sized nostalgia market for bootleggers who market recorded-from-vinyl knock-offs that gather up two or three original albums and a sprinkling of stray b-sides and rarities on a single compact disc. Those original "long-playing" albums, by the way, could be notoriously short even by the more frugal standards of the time. Side two of Across Canada with the Dave Clark Five takes the record for chintsiness, clocking in at a parsimonious nine minutes and 52 seconds.
The DC5 had a good three-year run where they cranked out a dozen or so infectiously meaty hits and almost as many albums, mostly stuffed with filler but with an occasional gem of musical interest tucked in amidst the derivative dreck. The less said about DC5 lyrics, the better. Even The Beatles didn’t have great lyrics in 1964 but that quickly changed. Not so with the DC5. Some empty weekend when I decide that I hate myself and need to be punished, I’m going to systematically play through all their LPs and tabulate how many times these boys rhymed ‘arms’ with ‘charms’. ‘Take me in your arms’, ‘let me feel your charms’. Pre-pubescently I used to wonder if ‘charms’ was Tottenham slang for ‘breasts.’
For me their most sublime platter was the magically bouncy Try Too Hard with Catch Us If You Can in second place. James Reaney (the only other Londoner I know who will admit to still carrying a torch for the band) saves his highest accolades for the reverb-drenched, saxophone-heavy Any Way You Want It. One area where the DC5 were arguably ahead of the curve for at least a few minutes was presentation. The band was always beautifully decked out in tailored suits and snappy shirts, including their trademark white linen turtlenecks with buttons down the side that looked like something your dentist might wear if he was seriously groovy. (These were the shirts that George Harrison sneers at as 'grotty' when he is lured into a fashion consultant's office in one of the most sharply written scenes in A Hard Day's Night.) When I caught the DC5 in concert at the old Treasure Island Gardens in November of 1964 (the first of two shows that night), for one segment, the only illumination came from a pulsing red light inside Clark’s bass drum that glowed with every thump of his pedal and an ultraviolet light that made their infamous white dickies glow in the dark. And keep in mind, dear reader, this was three years before San Francisco-style light shows became de rigueur at every concert.
By 1967 the DC5 were done as musicians who could in any way be said to matter. They stopped touring internationally and retrenched in England, spinning out witless medleys of 50’s rock & roll standards and leaden cover versions of more contemporary North American hits that had failed to chart in Britain: The Youngbloods’ Get Together, The Stampeders’ Sweet City Woman, even Neil Young’s Southern Man. They didn’t just cover these songs, they smothered them with utter incomprehension. Clark pulled the plug on the band altogether in 1970 and retreated with his millions to pursue an acting career, briefly enrolling at the UK’s Central School of Speech and Drama where one of his classmates was London Ontario’s Kate Nelligan, just out of high school (at South Collegiate) and preparing herself to take the British stage by storm.
Unlike Nelligan, Clark’s acting career never panned out, though he did produce a perfectly bombastic West End musical called Time in the mid ‘80s in which he wasted the talents of (among others) Freddie Mercury, Julian Lennon and – appearing in hologram form as some sort of extraterrestrial grand wizard – Laurence Olivier. This was right around the same time as Olivier also tarnished his escutcheon by appearing as the dramatically challenged Neil Diamond’s rabbi/father in their absurd remake of The Jazz Singer. Knowing his end was in sight, this most considerate of knightly forebears was without shame in signing on for any turgid project that would fatten the bequests he left to his kin.
The Dave Clark Five’s only film, Having a Wild Weekend (Catch Us If You Can in Britain) from 1965 is a moody and thoughtful flick that James Reaney and I insist is still worth a look today. Before the band caught on in a big way, Clark regularly worked as a stunt man and an extra on British film shoots, so he knew a thing or two about how movies were made and hired playwright Peter Nichols to turn out the script and gave John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon) his very first job as director. Of course none of the DC5 could act their way out of paper bags which was a definite liability and the overbearing Clark made sure that he was the only member of the band who was given a major role. Guitarist, Lenny Davidson (besides Clark the only ‘fiver’ still alive today) doesn’t utter a single word from one end of the film to the other.
For the diamond anniversary of the British Invasion, the Beatles’ first visit to America was commemorated in February of 2014 and then in April of that year, PBS broadcast a shamelessly self-aggrandising documentary (produced and directed by Clark, of course) about the DC5. I eventually caught up with The Dave Clark Five and Beyond – Glad All Over later that year. I had to. It seems to be a guy thing. While my daughters have jettisoned all their New Kids on the Block crap, I note with approval and pity that my son doesn't play his Aerosmith records anymore but he can’t quite bring himself to discard them either. Even when we fellas come to recognize the limitations of musicians we used to idolize, a fond indulgence stubbornly remains in place. Okay, maybe they weren’t musical geniuses but they were likeable enough blokes who caught a lucky break and provided a lot of harmless pleasure, right? Hell, several record shows back, I actually paid good money for a bootleg CD that gathered together 17 hard-to-find tracks mostly hailing from old b-sides that featured the DC5 as . . . wait for it . . . instrumentalists. “Scintillating,” “exquisite” and “nuanced” are not the words that anyone employs to describe their lack of instrumental finesse. Somehow emblematic of their reliably plodding musical approach, was the fact that Rick Huxley was one of very few 60's bass players who always used a pick.
Though I still won’t be dumping my DC5 discography any time soon, that 2014 documentary certainly took Clark down several pegs in my estimation. In disgust I went on to the interwebs to see what other people made of his cinematic puff-piece and found a number of depressing accounts about his miserly and shabby treatment of the other four during and after their heyday. I know you have to take such rumours and reports with the proverbial grain of salt but in light of the monstrous self-regard still on display in that documentary, it's hard not to believe the worst and to find a new sadness leaking into the grooves of their once-innocent and joyful records .
The passing years have not been kind to Clark and in what looks like the handiwork of a dipsomaniac plastic surgeon, his eyebrows have migrated to the middle of his forehead in a most alarming way, giving him a decidedly ogre-ish aspect. Watching Clark continue to heap unseemly quantities of praise on himself while selling his mostly dead band-mates short - 'you could risk spreading a little glory, Dave; they're not going to upstage you now' - seemed to validate that old principle which novelist L.P. Hartley termed “facial justice”; the idea being that the way we treat the people in our life will eventually earn us just the sort of face we deserve.
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