Gary James' Interview With Music Documentary Director
He's one of the leading directors of music documentaries and historical drama films in the world. He has won over forty international prizes for his work. With over one hundred films to his credit, he's worked with the very best Rock has to offer, including The Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.
Q - You actually wrote for this newspaper The Observer?
A - Yes. I was music critic number two for The Observer from about the beginning of 1967 until about the beginning of 1974. The Observer is one of the two main, quality Sunday newspapers, or it was back then. There's now a third one. But, that was all there was then.
Q - That would have meant that you got to meet a lot of the Pop / Rock stars of the day.
A - Well, not only that. More by luck than judgment, I think. It did result in me writing the first ever review of Led Zeppelin; the first ever review of Cream; and the first ever review of David Bowie. I mean, just one thing kind of led to another. Cream was because I'd met Eric Clapton when he played with The Yardbirds. I had a friend who was involved in The Yardbirds...one of the roadies I think. So, I'd met Eric and got on rather well with him. I suddenly had a call saying he was putting together this new group and would I like to come and hear them? So I did. I think I went to the first ever gig, which they played in the Brighton Dome as I remember. Now, I was so amazed by them. I was working for The Observer then. I wrote a long article about them absolutely straight-away. Through Eric of course I met Jimmy Page, (laughs) and hence Led Zeppelin. One thing kind of led to another really. But I think it was more by luck than judgment. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That's Showbiz, as they say.
Q - And that's really all you need in many cases.
A - Yeah.
Q - What were you doing before The Observer?
A - Well, I was at Cambridge University. I came to London in 1966, which of course was a perfect time to arrive in London. I had with me, one astonishing calling card, as it happened. When I was at the University in November '63, I went to a press conference which was being given by a group that, a relatively new group, that was playing that evening, who happened to be called The Beatles. And at the end of the press conference, it was pretty silly at that, to be honest. By then, I think they'd had one Number One, but they weren't the sort of inter-galactic stars they became. We were all kind of milling around and Lennon actually came up to me and said, why had I not asked any questions. I said "'cause I thought the whole thing was pretty silly." He said "Yes it was. What do you do?" "I'm a student." "What of?" I told him and he said "well, that sounds pretty silly too." So we both giggled. He then straight forwardly said would I show him around the university. He'd never been to Cambridge before, I think. I said "I don't think you'll be mobbed." "No, no, no," he said. "I'll come in disguise." So when I picked him up, he was wearing a very silly beard and a rather silly, big hat. So again, more giggles. But I did in fact show him around the university that afternoon. Some of the main buildings. At the end of it, he just assumed I was coming to the concert, which indeed I was. Then he said "next time you come to London, give me a call." I said "Well, I'm not coming to London. I'm at university and I'm going to be here for at least another two or three years." So he said "Well, ring the number." So I finally finished up about two and a half years later. I still had the bit of paper. I rang and by that time of course, they were incredibly famous. I could tell by the bored voice of the girl on the phone, I was the 300th person who rang up that morning and said "John Lennon said to call." I said "Well, he did." About an hour later a guy called Derek Taylor rang me back. He was the press officer of The Beatles. The one thing he said that I remember for ever is; "John wants to know why it's taken you two and a half years to ring him up?" (laughs) So anyway, we met. One thing led to another and by then, I started at the BBC. One of the things he wanted to talk about when we did meet was the fact that a great number of musicians who he admired, either couldn't get on the Pop coverage of the BBC or didn't want to be seen through gyrating nubiles. So he kept saying it was my duty, my responsibility to do something about this. Eventually I made a film which starred all the people, he gave me a list, which incredibly enough when I made the film at the end of '67, those people had never appeared on British television, let alone television anywhere else. Unknown people like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Eric Burdon and so on. So, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and made a film which included all of them. Lennon insisted that I call it All My Loving, a familiar title. That was the first one I made about Pop music and then I made quite a number of others. Then, to round this particular story off, I think it's gotta be the Spring of '72, I was in New York. It was one of those mad coincidences. I was walking up a street and coming down the other direction was somebody looking remarkably like John Lennon. We both spotted each other and burst out laughing. He said "What are you doing here?" And I said "Well what are you doing here?" He said "I live here sometimes." And then he said a wonderful phrase; "Are you doing anything useful these days?" (laughs) So, that provoked a long lunch and during the course of the lunch he said that now what I should be doing is, and again, don't forget this is '72, is trying to make some evaluation of all the different strands that made up Rock 'n' Roll. What was Ragtime? Where had it come from? What was Jazz? Where had it come from? What was Blues? Where had it come from? And so on and so on. Of course it's one of those crazy ideas that sounds fun when you say it quickly, but then when you think about how to do it, it rapidly becomes a nightmare. We didn't get into any detail at the lunch. As he got up to go, he turned around and said "By they way, I've got the perfect title for you." I said "What's that?" He said "You should call it All You Need Is Love." I said "I think I've heard that title before." (laughs) So, we did call it All You Need Is Love and that's the big series we eventually did, which last year we finally got out on DVD.
Q - Was that shown on any of the U.S. networks?
A - No. There was a lot of stuff in it they wanted to take out. I got into very heated conversations with PBS in '76, '77. It was shown around the world, except in the United States. It was shown in Canada for God's sake! But they only wanted to show some episodes or even the episode they wanted to show or take things out because they didn't like the sort of political angle of it. Part of the purpose of the series was to, as Lennon suggested in the beginning, was to put it in some kind of historical, social, political with a small p, context. And of course Rock 'n' Roll was the Dick Clark American Bandstand, where you did have gyrating nubiles if you see what I mean. And the guys that we were filming did not want to be treated like that. But that was the explanation of what Pop music was and PBS wasn't prepared to stomach anything else at that time. Life has changed considerable. At that time, Pop music as not considered worthy of serious study.
Q - In the old days, you would have Midnight Special or Don Kirshner's In Concert on TV. If you contrast that to today, there' s too much music being seen and heard on TV with MTV, VH-1, CMT and everything else.
A - Yeah. I think that's true. And it comes out in a fairly undiscriminating way.
Q - That press conference you attended with The Beatles in attendance...where were they performing that night?
A - At one of the local concert venues. The press conference was at something called the Regal Cinema, (laughs) believe it or not.
Q - How many people turned out to hear them?
A - It was pretty full. They'd had a number one hit by then. I'm sure "Please Please Me" pre-dates that. They were well known.
Q - I assume just the British press were there.
A - Yes. Just the British press.
Q - When you were at this Beatles press conference, was that the first time you saw what they looked like?
A - In the flesh...yeah.
Q - Had you seen a picture of them before?
A - Yes, 'cause they'd been in the newspapers.
Q - What'd you think of the long hair and the collarless jackets?
A - C'mon, it wasn't long hair. (laughs)
Q - At the time it was!
A - No, it wasn't. The thing that struck you while you were there was they were very witty, genuinely witty. Paul was doing kind of an endless PR job on behalf of them. But also, they were articulate. They were perfectly able to field questions from university people if you see what I mean. There were some university people there and also they were rather smartly dressed. They were absolutely the antithesis of what you expected. What you'd heard of their music, belied what they looked like, if you see what I mean.
Q - The influence of Brian Epstein.
A - Exactly.
Q - Did you get to speak with him?
A - Here was there. I had a long talk with him.
Q - What kind of a guy did you find him to be?
A - Well, I liked him a lot. He was very hard not to like. He was a genuinely nice, good, straight-forward man who kind of wandered into a situation that he would be the first to admit, was a bit peculiar. He was very middle-class, Jewish Manchester and Liverpool. They are very posh people, if you see what I mean, that group of people, and very polite and very well brought up and very good mannered. Suddenly, he's got these four roughs, which he knew had been to Hamburg. His family ran a record shop in Liverpool, but that's what struck you. He was a very nice, well-intentioned guy.
Q - Did he ever tell you at any time "Take a good look at these guys. They're going to be bigger than Elvis!"?
A - I don't think in November, 1963, anybody had any idea what was going to happen.
Q - Including you.
A - Including me. Nobody had any idea.
Q - Did you meet all The Beatles that day in November?
A - Oh, yes. I met them all at that time. But, it was Lennon who was the most curious. I'm not saying the others weren't. It was very Lennon-like. He took the imitative and thought, here I am in Cambridge, the home of one of the great universities of the world, I wanna have a look around. I had to explain to him, it's a bit more difficult than that, 'cause it's not one campus. It's about thirty campuses all linked together. It's not very big in terms of area, but they're all little colleges. So, we chose one or two things to look at. He was very quiet. Nobody bothered him and even if they had, I think he would've reacted politely. I think even if they recognized him, they left him alone. But we were within the university grounds, so screaming girls wouldn't have got in.
Q - Were there screaming girls for the concert that night?
A - There were a lot of university people there. So, I guess the age group was teenagers and people in their early twenties.
Q - How big was the venue?
A - I would've thought five hundred to six hundred. It wasn't huge.
Q - You directed Ringo in 200 Motels.
A - That's right. Frank Zappa wanted me to do the film. We had a long talk about casting. I said "Why don't you get Ringo in it? That would be a good joke. He can dress as you." (laughs) So, that's what happened. I also made a film with Peter Sellers called The Magic Christian and Ringo was in that. Now, I didn't make the film The Magic Christian. I made a film about Peter Sellers while he was filming The Magic Christian and Ringo was in that, so I got to know Ringo very well. One of the key interviews in All My Loving is with Paul. Paul wanted to speak on behalf of them all as he always did. He said "I'll do the talking." (laughs)
Q - He was the P.R. guy.
A - Oh, absolutely. P.R. par excellence. And very good at it. And honest. He's an honest chap.
Q - Do you keep in touch with them (Paul or Ringo)?
A - I was thinking about Ringo last week and realizing I've got something which I must send him. I know where he is. Paul...once every two or three years. If something happens, little notes are exchanged. That's all. I was never one to call myself his friend or Ringo's friend for that matter. John, I really had a kind of on-going relationship with. Of course that was a slight problem with Paul because he thought he ought to have the relationship with this kind of rather strange film maker come journalist. But, that was a Paul / John thing. If I see him, I will say "Hello" and talk about his problems and he asks about my problems. So, it's perfectly friendly. I think what they all have in common is, I have never been in a journalistic sense, disloyal. I've never told tales out of school. All I've done is filmed them and filmed them in a way they approved. Therefore, my loyalty to them has never been questioned. It's a little bit of trust. I think an example of that is, I wrote a famous review for The Observer about "The White Album", where I compared them to Schubert, which caused terrible trouble at the time. Paul, through Derek Taylor, asked if they could reproduce it on the "Yellow Submarine" album. And as far as I know, it's the only liner notes on any of their albums. But, there on the Yellow Submarine (album) is the liner notes by me. Very flattering to be asked. They never have had any cause to doubt my professional loyalty to them. I thought they were great musicians and very good guys.
Q - Before you were at Cambridge, had you heard about this explosion of musical groups in Liverpool and London?
A - No. I wasn't interested to be honest. I was hoping to be an academic and I got sort of sidetracked.
Q - Are you happy about that?
A - (laughs) I mean, that's been my life in one way or another. I can't do much about it now.
Q - You also worked with Jimi Hendrix?
A - Yeah. I filmed him in Worcester, Massachusetts for this film All My Loving. And again, we got on quite well, principally because the guy who was doing the light show was a very good friend of mine called Marked Boyle. When that particular tour ended in early 1968 and Jimi came to London, he immediately got in touch with Mark Boyle. Mark Boyle had also done the light show for Soft Machine. I was friends with Soft Machine, so we met Jimi in that way. Jimi of course lived in an area of London called Nottinghill Gate and I had a sort of basement in the house that I had in Nottingham Gate. Jimi came there quite a lot actually, with all kinds of strange people.
Q - Did you also meet Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin?
A - I met Janis Joplin. I never met Jim Morrison. I wish I had. Janis I met because I had to go and interview her for The Observer. Again, she was terrific. I thought she was a mess and in a mess, but not drunk. I think she was on heroin at that time when I did an interview with her. They were all very extraordinary people, that group. I think the reason they responded to me was, I took them seriously as human beings and I took their music seriously and I wasn't interested in anything other than them as people and what they created. I think they sensed that. I think it appeared that I was capable of speaking in joined up sentences and I think they liked that too.
Q - You probably were in their age group as well, weren't you?
A - Oh, pretty much.
Q - From their perspective, it's probably better to give an interview to someone who's your own age, rather than twenty years older.
A - Or even twenty years younger.
Q - There you go. (laughs) That would've been pretty hard to do at that time.
A - Well, I don't know.
Q - Can you ever envision something like a British Invasion happening again?
A - No. Paris in the twenties was kind of the cultural center of the universe. Russia, at the end of the 19th century was the center of the cultural universe. London in the '60s was the center of the cultural universe. These are moments that happen. You can't explain them. You can't perpetuate them. And you certainly can't reproduce them. I'm not saying it would never happen again, quite the contrary. Who knows? But it's not something that one can predict, I think.