by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
When Charles came home I ran him the DVD I’d just recorded of It’s Trad, Dad!, a film that because of its formula (a thin plotlet on which to hang a lot of performances by famous music stars, aiming at the teenage audience that was buying the stars’ records) and releasing studio (it was an Amicus production from Britain but Columbia was the U.S. distributor, and they changed the title to Ring-a-Ding Rhythm because the British term “trad” — short for “traditional,” and meaning Dixieland jazz — meant nothing to U.S. audiences) tends to get lumped in with all the cheap movies Columbia had been making stateside for almost a decade with the same formula: Rock Around the Clock and its remake, Twist Around the Clock; Don’t Knock the Rock and its “twisted” remake, Don’t Knock the Twist; Juke Box Rhythm; Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom! and the like — when in fact it’s a lot better than that and manages to turn into a minor comedy classic that at once exploits the clichés of the formula and twits them.
The kudos belong mainly to the director, Richard Lester (billed as “Dick Lester”), whose first feature film this was: before this all he’d done were TV commercials and a short with Peter Sellers called The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film whose title, not surprisingly, accurately and succinctly describes its contents. Lester would go on to make The Mouse on the Moon (an adaptation of writer Leonard Wibberley’s sequel to his own The Mouse That Roared, though without Peter Sellers, whose multiple roles in The Mouse That Roared were that film’s highlight) and then, for the producer of both Mouse movies, he would film the first two (and two best-known) films with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
Indeed, much of It’s Trad, Dad! comes off as a sort of beta version of A Hard Day’s Night as well as — ironically enough — a snapshot of British popular music tastes just before the Beatles broke as first national, then international, stars. During the early 1950’s “trad” had briefly become the most popular form of music in Britain, and Brits who led Dixieland bands — notably trombonist Chris Barber, trumpeter Kenny Ball and clarinetist Acker Bilk — became major stars. The “trad” fad also led directly to the acceptance of rock ’n’ roll in Britain, thanks largely to Lonnie Donegan, who played guitar and banjo in the Barber band and would occasionally perform a number with just the rhythm section, augmented by washboards and jugs, to give the horn players a chance to rest. One of those numbers, a cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” became a major hit in the U.K. (and enough of one in the U.S. for Stan Freberg to parody it) and started a fad for so-called “skiffle,” basically jug-band music, which since it was simple to learn inspired hundreds of British kids to form bands. (Among them were three lads from Liverpool named John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.) Since the guitar was the basic skiffle instrument — and the only one that required much in the way of musical skill — it was easy for people (including the three mentioned above) who’d already learned enough guitar chords to play skiffle to adapt to rock ’n’ roll when the British first heard it from Bill Haley (on records and then on tour) and then Elvis (on records and in films since, aside from three concerts in Canada in 1957, Elvis never performed outside the United States).
So the musical menu in It’s Trad, Dad! is an odd mixture of Dixieland (from the Dukes of Dixieland — a band of young white Americans from the wellspring, New Orleans — to Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, the Temperance Seven— who did their vocals through megaphones so they could really capture the 1920’s sound — as well as lesser names like Bob Wallis and Terry Lightfoot), American rock (Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Gary “U.S.” Bonds — his real name was Gary Anderson and he hated that stupid stage name his record company stuck him with — and the fascinating Gene McDaniels, a Black cabaret singer with a very white-sounding voice, artfully filmed with cigarette smoke swirling around him) and British pop-rock (the Brook Brothers, the Paris Sisters, John Leyton and the film’s juvenile leads, Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas). What makes this film not only interesting but a minor comic masterpiece is the cheeky tone maintained throughout by director Lester and writer Milton Subotsky (who also produced): the film opens with a narrator who says it’s about a boy and a girl (as arrows on screen point to Douglas and Shapiro, respectively) and a mayor (Felix Felton) of a small British town which shall remain nameless (it’s so nameless that we see the “You are now entering … ” sign but the name of the town has been whited out) whose attempt to have a quiet cup of coffee (poured out of a teapot after the counterman at the coffee house pulls a series of levers that make intriguing noises but actually accomplish nothing) is suddenly spoiled by a group of teenagers who crash the coffeehouse and turn on the jukebox and the TV waiting to hear their favorite trad artists.
The boy and the girl hit upon a plan: they’ll go to the Big City (obviously London, though again unnamed) and bring back a disc jockey who will put on a jazz TV show and break the ban the mayor has imposed on the music. (In one grimly funny scene, the mayor is using the city seal to smash to bits LP’s by trad artists — eerily anticipating the record-burnings staged by fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. against Lester’s later stars, the Beatles — and when his aide hands him a Lawrence Welk album, the mayor keeps it and says, “Not that one.”) They’re standing against a wall wondering how on earth they’re going to get to the Big City when the narrator offers to help, and suddenly one jump-cut later they’re in the Big City making the rounds of the TV studios and jazz clubs. They finally get to a D.J. after making contact with Acker Bilk at the fancy club where he performs — when they’re wondering how they can get into a club like that, the narrator obliges them with tickets and evening outfits and then, after they dash off, the narrator says, “You might at least have thanked me for the clothes” (see what I told you about this being a beta version of Lester’s Beatles movies?), and the comedy bits get even loonier, notably the efforts of the mayor and his aides to keep the bus with the jazz musicians in it from reaching the town — which they plot on a relief map in a scene staged deliberately to parody all those super-serious dramas the British were making then about their battles during World War II.
Some of the musical numbers were filmed in the U.S. by a second unit directed by Peter Case, and these are clearly less imaginative than the ones Lester filmed in Britain — the American numbers have the same dull head-on treatment as was common in pop musicals of the day, while Lester’s numbers feature overhead angles, instrument’s-eye views, proto-psychedelic effects (in one scene he zooms into the megaphone of the Temperance Seven’s singer and then starts spinning the camera until his mouth turns into a paisley pattern) and the kinds of split-screen effects that became common and, eventually, an oppressive cliché of their own in later 1960’s music films. The combination of the cheeky comedy of Subotsky’s script and the audacity of Lester’s visual imagination make It’s Trad, Dad! a far better and funnier film than most of the teen musicals of the period (what a shame Lester never made a movie with Elvis!), and had it been a bigger hit — especially in the U.S. — it wouldn’t have been such a surprise when A Hard Day’s Night came out and turned out to be a comic masterpiece, hailed as such even by movie critics who otherwise didn’t especially like the Beatles. — 4/16/08
I had caught most of the movie It’s Trad, Dad! on Turner Classic Movies, which showed it as the kickoff of a series of rock ’n’ roll (more or less) films from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I’d remembered it as a minor classic, a great comedy that married the rock movie to the sort of anarchic British comedy that started in the 1950’s with the Peter Sellers Goon Squad and then flowered with Beyond the Fringe, Flanders and Swann and all the other groups who were recorded by George Martin (who later produced the Beatles, and his experience creating sound effects for comedy sketches on records served him in good stead when the Beatles started making records like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper), and ultimately reached a mass U.S. audience with Monty Python. This time around It’s Trad, Dad! seemed as good as it had the last time even though the “trad” — a British name (short for “traditional”) for Dixieland jazz — seemed to hold up much better than the rather limp attempts at rock ’n’ roll that dominated the pop charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. between the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper and the advent of the Beatles.
The two juvenile leads, Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas, both sing, and frankly I’d forgotten how low-pitched Helen Shapiro’s voice was: she basically sang tenor, and if I’d heard her “blind” I’d have thought she was a man. I remember the story she told Philip Norman about the British tour she went on in early 1963 in which the Beatles were her opening act (yes, you read that right!) and at one point John Lennon went up to her on the tour bus and gave her a song he and Paul McCartney had written for her. She recalled he had the air of a scared little schoolboy handing in a late homework assignment to a notoriously stern teacher, and the song they gave her was “Misery” — I don’t think she ever actually recorded it, but the Beatles did: it’s one of the most intense, moving and beautiful tracks on their first album.
The trad, Dixieland, jazz or whatever you want to call them songs in It’s Trad, Dad! seem genuinely timeless (even though there were better Dixieland groups on both sides of the Atlantic in 1962 than the ones we got here), and singer Ottilie Patterson is genuinely a hoot: she comes out in a weird hairdo and a dress that suggests she’s going to go into some 1890’s music-hall ballad, and instead she starts shouting “When the Saints Go Marching In” (and on some of Chris Barber’s earlier records she did quite credible covers of “Weeping Willow Blues” and other songs from Bessie Smith’s repertoire).
The rock — except for Gene McDaniels’ “Another Tear Falls” (a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and one that’s virtually forgotten today), beautifully filmed by director Richard Lester in a haze from McDaniels’ cigarette, and the Paris Sisters’ number “What Am I to Do” (written by another legendary songwriting team, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and well worthy of revival even though it sounds like a better song than the Paris Sisters’ performance of it) — seems quite a bit on the wimpy side, and Gene Vincent and Gary “U.S.” Bonds both made their reputations with much better songs than the ones they get to do here. (Incidentally Bonds — whose real name was Gary Anderson and who hated the stupid stage name his manager stuck him with — was one of those people who sounded so Black on his records you stare in disbelief when you see him and register that, despite makeup and a hair style seemingly cultivated to create racial ambiguity, he certainly looks white here even though his Wikipedia page lists him among “African-American singers” and his backup singers do look Black.)
It’s Trad, Dad! is still a great movie — and it’s clear just why producer Walter Shenson thought Lester would be a good director for the Beatles: the same combination of good pop music and whacky comedy that makes It’s Trad, Dad! interesting is what made A Hard Day’s Night and (to a lesser extent) Help! so much fun — though the Beatles’ films were even stronger, at least partly because in them the great musicians and the whacky comedians were the same people! — 7/12/11