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Posts Tagged ‘Pop Music’

Radio Caroline’s 50th Anniversary

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Radio Caroline changed the face of pop music.

In the 1950s and 60s, commercial radio and television in Britain were unknown. The BBC — the British Broadcasting Corporation — was the only game in town, a government run enterprise that was commercial free, but much like today’s cable systems, obtained its revenue by requiring anyone who owned a radio or television to pay an annual licensing fee, a practice that continues to this day.

The BBC produced, and continues to produce, excellent television and radio programming, but in the early 1960s, the BBC wasn’t inclined to embrace pop music, and so Radio Caroline, a “pirate” radio station, took up the challenge, and began broadcasting pop music from a ship safely anchored outside the three-mile limit international waters, creating an entirely new style of DJ programming – the “motor mouth DJ” who played as many records as possible during any given hour, sandwiched in between an avalanche of commercials – something that no one in Britain had experienced up until that point.

Teenagers embraced Radio Caroline, which broadcast the latest pop hits from 6AM to 6PM daily, and it isn’t too much to say that it changed the face of radio in Great Britain, much to the BBC’s displeasure. Radio Luxembourg was another “pirate” pop station of the era, broadcasting pop music from that country 24 hours a day, in English, again using manic DJs who played nonstop pop, while also throwing in as many commercials as absolutely possible.

None of this was new to the United States, of course, where radio stations had been commercial from the start, and flagship pop stations of the era, such as WABC (“Radio 77″ – now, sadly, a talk radio station) were instrumental in bringing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British pop acts to national prominence in America.

The pop musician Dave Clark once observed that if you wanted your record to be a hit on Radio Caroline or Radio Luxembourg, you’d better make it short, repetitive, and to the point, as you could estimate that only 45 seconds of your song would actually make it on to the air uninterrupted by commercial pitches at the beginning and end of the disc. But it served as an invaluable service for pop musicians, because it was the only way to get their music before the public — which teenagers would then buy as 45 RPM “singles” in record shops.

And thus it was with pop music in the 60s – relentlessly commercial, frantic in delivery, but opening up an entirely new world for listeners, and signalling the emergence of top 40 pop radio as an international format. It all seems very quaint now, but at the time, it was a revolution.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a 1964 newsreel on Radio Caroline from British Pathé News.

Some Thoughts on Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and The Ephemeral Nature of Pop Celebrity

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Miley Cyrus, in yellow blouse, cheers on Britney Spears at the opening night performance of her Piece of Me show at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 28, 2013.

Like everyone else who follows popular culture, I’ve been aware of Madonna, Britney Spears, and more recently Miley Cyrus, as power pop performers who deliberately court “controversy.” During the summer of 1999, when I was guest lecturing at The University of Amsterdam, Britney Spears was exploding out of every record store in the city, as well as on The Box, a 24/7 music cable television station that played Britney’s hits in heavy rotation. My Dutch students bought her CDs, played them incessantly, and her early hits became instant teen anthems.

Britney Spears was just 18 at the time, but already the ruling pop star of the era, eclipsing Madonna’s long reign as the queen of pop, something Madonna was smart enough to acknowledge and embrace, thus assuring her own continued longevity as a performer. Now, Britney Spears is 32 years old, and what seemed easy at 18 is considerably more difficult. Spears went into a well-publicized meltdown a few years back, which seemed to me an utterly genuine cry for help; shaving her head bald on impulse, acting out in public, seemingly unable to handle the undoubted pressures of stardom anymore.

Now, Britney’s back, for a two-year residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in a glitzy, lavish show entitled Piece of Me, something out of Cirque de Soleil. The show opened to middling reviews this past Friday, December 28, 2013. Spears is committed to doing roughly 90 shows through 2015, with more in the offing if things go well. This is, make no mistake about it, a major production, whether you care for this sort of thing or not. A lot is at stake, not least of which is Britney’s continued currency as a pop icon.

It’s also very hard work; E! aired a two hour documentary on the pre-production of the show just before it opened, which actually had some substance for a change, illustrating just how many people, how much money, how much rehearsal, how much time, energy, and blood, sweat and years went into creating the entire spectacle.

Performers suffered injuries, dance routines were drilled into Britney’s surrounding ensemble in non-stop rehearsals, enormous sets built, elaborate videos shot, and in what seems to me to be a rather questionable choice simply from a safety angle, Britney spends part of the show suspended in the air on wires as an angel, and later swoops out of a giant revolving tree, also with the aid of wires, as her troupe of dancers do everything they possibly can to showcase her to best advantage.

For, truth to be told, Britney’s dance work isn’t as crisp now as it was in 1999; how could it be? She’s older now, and more careful. Watching a video of the entire concert in segments, it’s clear that Britney is leaving heavily on her support staff at this point. She needs the spectacle to prop her up, as she rockets through a medley of past hits as well some new material, with an air of detached and somewhat bewildered resignation. This is her job, she needs the money, and if this is what it takes to keep on top, she’ll dutifully hit her marks and deliver.

Yet another graduate of the Disney stable, Spears is above all a professional performer, and has been a star since she was a child. Her meltdown was all but inevitable as she morphed from teen idol into adulthood, but now she seems to be grounded in the one true ethic that always gets professionals though anything: work, work, and more work. And I personally have no doubt that she’ll get through this two year gig, hopefully bank some cash, and then perhaps consider retiring.

But in the audience on her first night, in one of the front rows, was the new pop tart of the moment, Miley Cyrus, whose recent “provocative” videos “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” have grabbed literally hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She’s clearly the next big threat on the horizon. Ostensibly, Miley just came to Britney’s show, and that was all.

But in what might be construed as an incredibly smart and yet seemingly generous gesture, Miley stood in the front row throughout Britney’s entire opening night performance, not hanging back, but rather singing along to the hits word for word, exhorting the audience to higher peaks of frenzy with shrieks of delight, jumping up and down in time to the music, pumping her fist in the air, at one with the music. It was her show, too.

It was clear to me what was happening; like the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMA awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003, in which Madonna both acknowledged and passed the torch to Spears as the next ruling princess of pop, this was the moment when the past met the future. With Miley simultaneously paying court to Britney while also amplifying her own celebrity, the 21 year old pop star was there to pay homage, but also to announce to the world that she, Miley Cyrus, was the new pop diva.

After the show, Britney tweeted “@MileyCyrus Love you so much! Thank you for coming to #PieceOfMe! I adore you :) ,” and she’s right to be grateful; Miley Cyrus really pushed Britney through her all-important first night, and got plenty of publicity for her herself in the process. Help a friend out, and help yourself out at the same time; it’s very convenient. It was abundantly clear that a lot was riding on Britney’s “comeback,” and Miley’s fame and energy was certainly an asset.

But as I watched, I wondered; what will Miley feel like when she’s 32, and the white-hot blast furnace of pop fame has cooled a bit? Yet another Disney alumnus herself, Miley Cyrus may well find herself doing a residency gig in some other Vegas hotel, as the newest pop diva of the era cheers her on, while also signaling her obsolescence. One day, perhaps, Madonna, Britney and Miley will team up together for a triple threat show, say in 2023 or so, in response to the attention being paid to the next big pop female star, whomever she may be.

Get Yourself A College Girl (1964)

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief clip from Get Yourself A College Girl.

And while we’re on the subject of 60s California pop, here’s a truly amazing film which has just been released on archival DVD — no masterpiece, this, but a wildly disparate cast in a completely nonsensical plot — featuring a truly amazing group of recording artists of the period, all shot in 6 days in glorious Metrocolor.

Get Yourself A College Girl was produced by the legendary “speed artist” Sam Katzman, who had an iron clad rule that no film he produced would take longer than six days to get in the can — until he lengthened his schedules in the late 60s to a lavish 15 days for some of Elvis Presley’s later films — and directed by former child actor Sidney Miller, whose other credits include directing episodes of Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Smothers Brothers Show, My Favorite Martian and even The Mickey Mouse Club.

Mixed into this cinematic stew are Nancy Sinatra, Chad Everett, Hortense Petra (Katzman’s wife, a “good luck” charm in all of his later films), plus musical guests The Standells, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, jazz organist Jimmy Smith, jazz sax player Stan Getz with vocalist Astrud Gilberto, and a whole lot more, none of it making any sense at all, but featuring that slick, candy-colored sheen that typified California pop music of the era.

As critic Mel Neuhaus noted on the TCM Website, “A curious 1964 hybrid of teen movie musical with pre-feminist overtones as well as a parody of moralistic anti-rock message films, Get Yourself a College Girl is a must-see due to its strange guest-star cast, who help elevate the formula narrative into a near-surreal ’60s happening. The basic plot follows Mary Ann Mobley’s transition from songwriter to a controversial figure in the music industry who’s wooed by a song publisher (Chad Everett) and a politician seeking the youth vote [. . .]

The choice of music guest stars is one of the most freakish conglomerations in any movie musical. Let’s face it – any picture featuring rockers The Dave Clark 5 (Thinking of You Baby, Whenever You’re Around), The Animals (Blue Feeling, Around and Around), and The Standells (Bony Moronie, The Swim) alongside the Jimmy Smith Trio (The Sermon, Comin’ Home Johnny), plus jazz greats Stan Getz and velvet-throated vocalist Astrud Gilberto (doing their cornerstone of ’60s cool, The Girl from Ipanema) has got to be seen (and heard) to be believed.”

It’s a fascinating time capsule of a time long vanished, and worth savoring for the sheer explosion of musical talent on the screen. And, of course, everyone looks like they’re having a lot of fun.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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