I’m Feeling (thud, thud) Conflicted All Over
Though it seems unfathomable in retrospect, 50 years ago The Dave Clark Five were considered neck and neck with The Beatles as the hottest band on the globe. 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 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. 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. But when the DC5 turned up on Sullivan early that April (the first of what would turn out to be 18 Sullivan appearances), followed in short order by Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Animals and The Rolling Stones, we had joyous confirmation that a new age was 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 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 wondrous 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 drumrolls. 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 rock shouters of the ‘60s – 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 was an okay drummer and a brilliant businessman. Uniquely among bands of that period, right from the get go Clark managed the group, produced their records and retained ownership of the band’s recordings and song rights.
They 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 poking through. The less said about DC5 lyrics, the better. Even The Beatles didn’t have good 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 platters and tabulate how many times these boys rhymed ‘arms’ with ‘charms’. ‘Take me in your arms’, ‘let me feel your charms’. Prepubescently I used to wonder if ‘charms’ was Tottenham code for ‘breasts.’
For me their high point was the magically bouncy Try Too Hard with Catch Us If You Can in second place. James Reaney 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 snappy suits and fashionable shirts, including those white linen turtlenecks with buttons down the side that looked like something your dentist might wear if he was seriously cool. When I caught the DC5 in concert at the Treasure Island Gardens in November of 1964, for one segment of the show the only illumination came from an ultraviolet light that made those infamous white dickies glow in the dark and a pulsing red light inside Clark’s bass drum that glowed with every thump of his pedal. And keep in mind, dear reader, this was three years before San Francisco-style light shows became compulsory at every concert.
By 1967 the DC5 were done as musicians who could in any way be said to matter. They stopped touring, retrenched in England and spun out leaden cover versions of North American hits that had failed to chart in Britain: The Youngbloods’ Get Together, The Stampeders’ Sweet City Woman, Neil Young’s Southern Man. They didn’t just cover these songs, they smothered them with incomprehension. Clark pulled the plug on the band altogether in 1970 and retreated with his millions to pursue a career as an actor that never panned out, though he did produce a bombastic musical called Time in the mid ‘80s.
Their only film, Having a Wild Weekend (Catch Us If You Can in Britain) from 1965 is a moody and thoughtful flick that is still worth a look. 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, 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 throughout the entire flick.
In this diamond anniversary of the British Invasion, the Beatles’ first visit to America was commemorated in February and then in April PBS broadcast a shamelessly self-aggrandising documentary (produced and directed by Clark) about the DC5. I finally caught up with The Dave Clark Five and Beyond – Glad All Over on DVD last week. I had to. It seems to be a guy thing. I note with approval and pity that my son can’t bring himself to play his Aerosmith records anymore but he can’t discard them either. Even when we come to recognize the limitations of musicians we used to idolize, a fond indulgence 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?
Actually, this documentary may have put me off Clark for good. He’s apparently undergone some plastic surgery as his eyebrows have migrated to the middle of his forehead, giving him a decidedly ogre-ish aspect that seems like facial justice as we see him still heaping unseemly quantities of praise on himself and selling his old bandmates short, even as three quarters of them lie in their graves. In disgust I went on to the interwebs to see what other people made of Clark’s puff piece and found some depressing articles and accounts about his miserly and shabby treatment of the other four during and after their heyday. I know you have to take that stuff with the proverbial grain of salt – but in his own monstrous self-regard Clark doesn’t make it very hard to believe.