The Jim Callaghan Rock Opera

I watched Rock Follies, originally broadcast in 2 seasons in 1976-7. I never saw it on TV but I liked the soundtrack albums when they were reissued in this century. I tried to watch the show in 2007 but I wasn’t in the right mood – however the world has changed enough since then to make it more palatable.

The opening credits are displayed like a flickering neon sign for a club in Soho, with the 3 “little ladies” shown as potential bunny girls. The title lettering phases in and out to create ROCK ROLL and LIES as hidden alternative messages during the versions shown at the end of sections. As this was on ITV, each episode is split into parts with ad breaks – 2 for each of the 6 first season stories, and 3 parts for the second series.

The themes of the show are all contained in the opening scene, in which 2 old showbiz boys are planning to have a hit with a revival of the old 1932 musical Broadway Annie. NB. no such musical existed, although in the final minutes of the end of series 2 we hear a performance of the title song of 42nd Street, suggesting that all along we have in fact been seeing what a modern update of a Depression musical ought to be.

If this was made in 2021 then the placing of “Gaslight” would be significant.

Sheldon Markie wants Bill Bishop to work on his show that aims to get audiences to “sit back and forget the gloom”.

MARKIE: You know why it smells good? It’s the right time to be bringing this thing back. People want taking out of themselves today. They want the big N – Nostalgia.

Not quite on the same page, Bishop is interested in “innocence”: “Capturing innocence is like cupping the trembling butterfly in your hands.”

Amongst the trembling butterflies assembled as the cast for the show are actresses Q (Rula Lenska) and Anna (Charlotte Cornwell – RIP earlier this year) as well as session singer Dee (Julie Covington), who was previously in the band Economical Pancake, wants to be like her heroine Janis Joplin, and is currently living in a a house-share with a bunch of left-wing free press activists (it’s not a squat – we learn later one of them owns the property).

The music guy Derek Huggin encourages the girls to think that they could make it on their own as a rock group – singing along to his compositions, of course.

This proposal is exactly what they need anyway since Broadway Annie bombs on tour, despite Markie sacking Bishop and giving new direction himself.

MARKIE: We’re going to give this show sex and gags – that’s what an audience wants, not that wanky goddamn “charm” that Bishop was on. Tits for the husbands, and queer gags for the wives – they go mad for queer gags.

Despite what we might imagine nowadays from reflecting on the longevity of the Carry On series, tits and queer gags are not sufficient in 1976, and the musical folds. So the group The Little Ladies is born, and go out in the world. Every first series episode closes on a song, but in the second series they occur in the start and middle as well, not always material the group have written as part of their act.

Markie might have lost money on Broadway Annie, but he certainly knew what he was talking about in identifying The Big N as a big factor in the contemporary culture of the mid 70s. Everyone else seems to have had the same idea. There’s that awful night club on the south coast that the girls end up in after a gig, where a DJ dressed as a pirate (played by Dustin Gee) is spinning nothing but old 60s hits. There’s the fashionable Idols Club in London, where a prospective manager invites the group to consider the deal he’s offering. Simon Jones plays Juan, the stylish waiter who allegedly influenced Bryan Ferry.

When Dee’s housemates get in the club as well to watch the Little Ladies doing their new act, Juan has a compliment ready: “That taffeta number is such a piece of kitsch… it’s brilliant!”

The Little Ladies certainly understand their mission when they ditch jeans and t-shirts and get classy for their new venue.

But the new management have a new idea beyond the 20s retro: the War Years. They put the Ladies in their own memorabilia-filled house and invite the press round.

MUSIC JOURNO: It’s not enough, nostalgia for World War Two. After all the English have been nostalgic for the war ever since it ended.

But the new management go full-on for ration book chic and get the Ladies to play at the opening night of the fashionable new Blitz Club, an eaterie designed to resemble a Tube station filled with deperate Londoners sheltering from bombing… which is itself the target of a bombing attack. This is the 70s, although it turns out it wasn’t the IRA involved this time.

The other theme that Markie sensed in the air was the general malaise and despondency, in a world of regular strikes and inflation and frustration. Even the staggeringly pretentious rock star Steve Streeter (played by Tim Curry having a bloody good laugh) realises that life on “the street”, as he imagines it from his penthouse of narcissism and drug-assisted paranoid insecurity, aint much fun. The stage set for his US tour, where the Ladies are playing support, depicts Britain as some sort of Ballardian deprivation zone.

Are we to take Steve as a parody of Bowie? Maybe, maybe not, he is fleetingly labelled as the UK version of Bruce Springsteen. However this brief glimpse of the poster for his latest album suggests a problematic relationship with fascist insignia and imagery:

More likely that “Steve Streeter” could be an allusion to Steve Shorter, the fictional rock idol in Privilege.

There’s lots of negativity in the music business in 76-7. When the Ladies are booked to play at the Aggro Club in Birmingham they have to share the bill with the hot new punk sensations Zero. The trend-chasing music press hacks following them (no Burchill or Parsons parodies here, it’s too early for that) are more excited for “the sound of the terraces” because of course they’re all bloody middle class fakers themselves even when sneering at the Ladies.

It will not surprise you that Zero sound like no actual punk band of the period, though it is quite believable that some 3rd rate heavy metal bands ended up sounding like them when attempting to jump on the new bandwagon. I think what we hear of their sound is similar to the terribly overpraised “proto-punk” band The Third World War, who operated 5 years earlier. For my money TTWW are the all-time winners of any award for a group who sound incredibly exciting when you read about them, and also look at the pretty smart sleeve designs, and see the song titles… just don’t play the godawful record, it’s the most listless 70s pub-boogie with some soulless prick honking over it. Also like Zero the singer had some homophobic issues going on, though you have to stay awake till track 4 to hear them.

But it’s not all panto-nihilism in ’77. Some people just want to get on, get the country back on its feet. Like the charming posh man who runs the Aggro Club, despite the makeup he has to put on for business.

MANAGER: What this country needs if it’s going to survive, what it needs is more go-ahead guys like, if I may say so, myself. You see, I’m quick off the mark, giving people what they want. When they wanted country & western, this was the Rio Grande, with chaps and spurs. When they wanted elegance, it was the Top Hat, all artsy-deco.

DEE: And now they want brutality?

MANAGER: They get The Aggro.

It’s not hard to guess who he will be voting for in 1979, nor Johnny Britten, the owner of the club where the Ladies end up playing the New Years party in to 1978.

Johnny is firmly against scroungers, deviants and lefties, and he thinks Great Britain will be back on her feet with the new North Sea Oil money. Never mind all the moaners and whingers.

The counterculture of the late 60s is long gone, but Dee’s housemates were trying to keep the spirit alive with community newsletters and action groups and education classes for kids in tower blocks. Her boyfriend Spike stays in touch as he moves on to work on Fisticuffs, a new underground publication running the stories the establishment don’t want to be heard. This eventually earns them a bugging operation from the Special Branch, and Ken Church, the other guy working on the paper, has trouble with his radical conceptual sculptures that the GLC were previously giving him a grant to work on. But at least Ken still has his boyfriend Harry Moon, who happens to be the guy who took over writing the music for the Ladies after Derek disappeared.

Yes that’s Billy Murray as Spike (Don Beech in The Bill for many years, and very strange to hear as a 70s leftie), Dennis Lawson, and Derek Thompson (Charlie in Casualty). Fun fact: Derek and Bob Hoskins worked together on The Long Good Friday a little later on. Another connection: Steve Streeter’s hanger-on Charlie Chime is played by Karl Johnson, who was in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, along with Ian Charleson, who briefly appears in this as the US folk singer Jimmy Smiles, singing about how America needs to come together again after the trauma of Vietnam.

Another film that Rock Follies could link to is Breaking Glass, the Hazel O’Connor-starring story of a rising New Wave star, which was originally conceived as the Rock Follies Movie. Although that might present itself as the gritty, tougher reality of the music business, there’s not much in it that the Ladies don’t know about. The Ladies have to work on a porn film at one point – it’s presented as a jolly old laugh when the filming is going on, but the coercive and unfair contracts are mentioned. Exploitative deals, chart-fixing, bad distribution, publishing rights rip-offs and drug use are also in the Follies as well as the Glass, and Follies does a better job of having a positive gay character with a big part of the story. There are no queer gags or tits in this show. Follies gets its message clear and succinct at the climax of series 1:

DEE: …riding the capitalist exploitation rollercoaster is the way to survive!

ANNA: Oh Dee! You have this pathetic illusion that there is some distinction between capitalism and your ideal of rock music. But rock is a celebration of capitalism!

Of course Spike told her that all along – he preferred Mantovani to modern music. And of course the advertising industry hasn’t wasted any time assimilating the concept of “women’s liberation” in to the campaign the Ladies have to sing on whilst trying to get their gear back together.

The finale episode feels like the jolly ending to the feel-good musical we were promised at the start, with all the characters mulling over how depleted the world is and it just needs a burst of “adrenaline” (Spike is ready to hand with the Marxist explanation of how industrial capitalism has depleted cultural energies). And if you’d prefer the message from a pseud in a leather jacket straining to be Lou Reed, try that new show Rock Box – it’s kinda like Whistle Test, but, y’know, cooler and for people younger than 35, near enough. Hey… what kind of show was this? Was it like one of those “rock operas” they did in the 70s?

Here’s how Rock Follies came to be a thing for me: my parents had the original LP of Evita, which Julie Covington sang on, also featuring Mike D’Abo as Che Guevara. I remember when “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” was at number 1 and Top Of The Pops played a video that was simply a montage of old photos (any kind of video was still unusual in those days). Remembering that years later, I had a listen to her solo albums… and they’re great. The Beautiful Changes from the early 70s has lyrics by Clive James, and her eponymous second album from 1978 is an amazing selection. Not only the Richard Thompson song right at the start, which should have been a huge hit, but also the smart inclusion of “The Kick Inside” by Kate Bush, which is a great choice since the original only came out that year.

Speaking of cover versions, the Little Ladies debut single “OK?” was an absolutely solid piece of 70s rock and was an actual top ten hit in its own right. It really should be revived as the perfect post-Me Too comment – I suppose Lily Allen would do it, if no one else was interested.

To prove I’m such a big Julie fan, here’s my top 3 reasons why Julie Covington is in fact more punk than Patti Smith (who gets a mention in one of the record company meetings):

  1. She had a number one single but refused to go on Top Of The Pops because she didn’t want it as a single. I bet The Clash would have changed their mind if “Tommy Gun” had been a chart-topper.
  2. She didn’t do the stage version of Evita because she didn’t empathise with the character and didn’t want to give a more positive portrayal.
  3. Her solo albums are better quality than Patti’s, both in recording and choice of material, and she didn’t do anything like that Patti Smith song that we don’t mention.

Have I said too much? There’s nothing more I can think of to say to you. But all you have to do is look at YouTube to know that every word is true.

One thought on “The Jim Callaghan Rock Opera

  1. Should also mention the issue of the legal action over “the original Rock Follies”, see here:
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-4907548/How-REAL-Rock-Follies-hit-rock-bottom.html

    Look at the comments under that article – looks like Charlotte Cornwell was responding as “Chas6” and Annabel Leventon didn’t realise.

    Of course all the business about contracts and members leaving the band near the end of series 2 could have been a sly comment on the whole issue.

    The actual verdict makes it sound as though the “original Follies” were offered some involvement initially:
    https://swarb.co.uk/fraser-v-thames-television-ltd-qbd-1984/

    Like

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