|"My Bonnie"--and OTHER Lies From
Over The Sea
|March 23rd, 2004|
|Well, it took forty years, but they FINALLY
"They"? You know--the people at Polydor who've been anxiously hawking those Tony Sheridan sessions from way back in 1961, the ones where he was backed by a variety of musicians, several of which, it just so happened, would soon go on to become the focus of a world-wide mania.
"Beatlemania" was what it was known as, and, as thoroughly documented elsewhere on this site, I fell under its spell right from that fateful evening of February 9th, 1964 and remain transfixed up to this very day. But as devoted a fan of the Fabs as I was from the outset, there WERE certain budgetary concerns this acolyte needed to consider as well. I couldn't, for instance, just grab up everything with the word "Beatles" on it and still have enough ready cash to support my ongoing comic-book reading habit as well, understand, so, ultimately, some discretion was called for...
What NOT to buy? Well, obviously, it was fairly easy to turn my back on the assorted novelties and trinkets--no, people, I NEVER owned a Beatles Wig, authentic or otherwise!--and I felt the need to be choosy about books and magazines, too. Records were another story, though. They were pretty much all "must-haves". All, that is, except one...
Nope, I never bought a copy of that Tony Sheridan album. The fact is, the whole notion of the Beatles performing on a version of something as hopelessly hokey as "My Bonnie" just seemed outright ridiculous, right from the very moment I read about it. And reading about it pretty much encompasses my entire 1964-based memory of the track. Because, y'know, even during a period when the boy's Merseybeat music saturated the radio airwaves, that was one single that didn't manage to land itself in even light rotation! Not from lack of trying, however--the Polydor people worked that thing hard, and you saw it every time you checked the bins in the record store, hoping for a new (true) Beatles release. Even the lure of Lennon belting out "Ain't She Sweet"--which did make some playlists--wasn't nearly enough to pry three dollars out of my pocket. The Saints, it appeared, would have to do their marching without me...
It later turned out that my wife, Lynn, wasn't nearly as discriminating (hey, she married ME, didn't she?...). SHE had a copy of the album--though a later reissue and not the 1964 original--when we first met back in 1974. And at some point, just out of curiosity, I played it. My indifference was overwhelming. I quickly put it aside, my initial instincts confirmed. It was indeed a trifle...
I also ignored the Star Club tapes when they initially emerged, warned off by published reports of sub-standard sound quality. I eventually rectified that mistake only a few years back, finally purchasing a copy of the group's (some would say illicitly recorded) vintage stage performance. It came as a pleasant surprise to discover that it was far more listenable than I had expected it to be. Certainly, the audio isn't of optimum quality, but it's good enough to get across that sense of excitement the group created in this still formative stage of their development. So yeah, I'm thinking, give me more Star Club!
And THAT folks, is what I stupidly thought when I saw this new DVD on sale at my local Best Buy outlet just a few weeks back. Oh sure, the official title is "THE BEATLES with tony sheridan", but all my confused brain was really assimilating on that nicely designed sepia-tinted cover was the large Star Club marquee logo shouting out at me! Maybe this was some old film, newly discovered, or something, I foolishly speculated. I turned it over, looked at the track listing, and really, should have known better--"My Bonnie" again, those Marchin' Saints, but also several early rock classics like "Kansas City", Ya Ya", "Ready Teddy", "Ruby Baby", and "What'd I Say"!! Not being overly familiar with original track listing to Tony's vinyl claim to fame, I let myself be convinced that there was every chance that these were actually raucous live versions of these rockin' perennials, recorded by the lads right there on that fabled Hamburg stage!
I also noted there was a substantial listing of interview subjects accompanying the musical selections, so, realizing the disc would cost me an extra three bucks next week if I didn't buy it right then and there during its debut release period (the SAME three bucks I'd saved many, many years earlier by NOT buying that original Tony Sheridan LP perhaps?...), I raced up to the cash register in a fit of consumer frenzy and plunked down payment for my latest piece of Beatles arcana.
And when I got home, slipped it out of its plastic packaging and into my DVD player, THAT'S when I realized that yes, they FINALLY got me! It took 'em four decades, but they'd finally gotten me to cough up coinage for this Fabs footnote. It was indeed the Tony Sheridan album, in all its gory glory, dressed up and made over with the sorts of bells and whistles only possible in this DVD dominated era. Well, defeated, I alternately sighed and gnashed my teeth, deciding to try and make the best of my ill-considered purchase. I slumped in my chair and settled in to see what my rash consumerism had wrought...
Whatever my feelings were towards the material, I must confess that it's mounted handsomely. The sepia conceit found on the box continues throughout a majority of the disc's interview portions, while the songs are delivered in good ol' black and white. Ah, the songs. Right off the bat, any slim hopes of long-lost movie footage is immediately dashed as "Ain't She Sweet" is illustrated--rather deftly, it must be admitted--by a series of archival photos from the era, expertly aligned to the beat of the music. This practice continues for all 16 songs, to varying degrees of success. As you might expect, the first tune is composed almost entirely of shots of John, while the second--"When The Saints Go Marching In"--cleverly (or morbidly--your choice) features a non-stop montage of the ill-fated Lost Beatle, Stu Sutcliffe.
Things really got dicey for me, though, with track three:"Why". While Sheridan, in his quasi-Presley croon, sings the imploring lyrics to an absent lover with a fair amount of passion, the choice of visuals struck me as questionable...
Again with the repeated Lennon motif, but when the camera slowly zooms in on full face shots of the unsmiling Beatle looking directly at us as Sheridan coos, "If only you knew how much I love you", and "Why can't you love me again?", well, while I THINK the filmmakers were trying to express the fans near universal longing for the Fallen Fab, the effect instead comes across as just plain GAY!! Not that there's anything wrong with THAT--except in this case, there actually is, as it puts an entirely skewed subtext to what would otherwise be considered a bit of a weepie. I mean, geez, at this point, the boys hadn't even MET Brian Epstein yet, y'know?!...
I watched these three songs along with the alternating interview segments (the main special feature to this DVD is that you have the option of just viewing the songs, just viewing the interviews, or seeing them all in succession. Even though the music and the discussions are sometimes wildly out of sync, I chose the latter method, as it provided for some variety, if nothing else...), and to say things started out slowly would be kind. Dominating the early going is Allan Williams, the group's first manager, a man whose business acumen apparently superseded only his oratory skills! Okay, that was a cheap shot, but good golly, even the filmmakers saw the need to tighten his long-rambling stories, as the editing is all too apparent in the viewing. Frankly, after a trio each of tunes and talking heads, I'd had more than enough, and turned off the DVD player, promising myself that I'd come back to the documentary soon. Not that I was looking forward to it, mind you, but a promise IS a promise, after all...
Finally, three days later, I put the DVD back in the machine. The back cover announced that it clocked in at a staggering 2 hours and 17 minutes, and since I'd only sat through approximately 30 of those minutes, I figured to have more than an hour and a half ahead of me. Frankly, this seemed more daunting a prospect than sitting through one of those expanded "Lord Of The Rings" multi-discs, but I assured myself I could always just watch this thing in smallish portions over a number of days! Yeah, THAT'D work! I was going to get through it, by gum, if only to A) get my money's worth, and B) share the experience with all you good people! But then something TOTALLY unexpected happened: I suddenly found myself enchanted by the remaining portion of the disc, and truth be known, took it ALL in in that second sitting, actually wanting more as it drew to its inevitable conclusion!?! What happened?
Well, for one thing, my buyer's remorse had mostly vanished. I now clearly realized what I'd bought, and had come to grips with it, making it far more likely for me to enjoy the production on its own modest terms. Secondly, the omnipresent image of John Lennon receded substantially, and the remaining songs featured a variety of approaches, including using stills of none other than--gasp!--Mr. Sheridan himself! And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the beleaguered Mr. Williams no longer dominated the chronologically oriented discussion of the band's earliest days, as more and more of the cast fell in to supplement his observations, offering welcome contrast--and conciseness--to the erstwhile manager's recollections.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, given the topic and the venue, but a fair amount of those interviewed spoke in German! Mein Gott! Worry not, though, as handy-dandy sub-titles are thoughtfully provided, but a warning--most of these guys talk pretty fast, so be prepared to do some speed reading! Among those speaking their native tongue were the legendary pair (though filmed separately) of Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr. Considering the pivotal role these two played in the band's history, I can only ever rarely recall seeing them interviewed, and though their segments here are relatively short, what they do have to say--particularly Astrid--continues to resonate long after the DVD player has been turned off.
All these decades on, when the still striking blonde Kirchherr talks initially of directing what turned out to be the Beatles first ever photo shoot, and then taking Stu off to the side for a private session, it's hard not to realize that as joyous as the saga of Beatlemania was for us fans, up close and for the people directly involved, it had more than its share of tragedy. As she reminisces about the unlikely but undeniable mutual attraction between her and the sadly doomed Sutcliffe, you can't help but notice the far-away look in her eyes, as she's clearly someplace else suddenly, someplace better, as she speaks of her great lost love. It's fleeting--the bassist's demise isn't dwelt upon--but it's memorable nonetheless.
The other participants range from former Star Club manager, Horst Fascher, various German and Liverpool-based musicians (including no less than the fellow who took over the drums for Ringo with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes!), the sound assistant on the Sheridan/Beatles sides. several fans and journalists, and, introducing each song (save for, curiously, "Ain't She Sweet") as well as participating in the larger ongoing discussion, is the belated star of our show, the man you HAVEN'T known for all these years, Mr. Tony Sheridan himself! While nothing earth-shattering is gleaned from these shared memories, and in fact a lot of old warhorses are trotted out--George was quiet! Lennon could be a real Jekyll and Hyde! Paul was always smiling!--a few subtle shades are added to the personality palate. For instance, Fascher recalls exchanging maybe 6 or 7 sentences total with Sutcliffe in all their time together, and points out that, once Astrid came along, he spent ALL his down time with her. Meanwhile, he estimated that Pete Best spent maybe ten per cent of his off-stage hours with the rest of the band, and if you went looking for one Beatle, you invariably found three, as John, Paul, and George were virtually inseparable in those halcyon days.
And while there may be a bit of flattery at play by perhaps exaggerating the influence the more seasoned Tony Sheridan had on the group--particularly George's guitar playing--it IS interesting to note that several musicians took note of disagreements the one-time lead singer had with Best regarding the quality of his drumming skills! Hey, maybe it was Tony Sheridan who got Pete booted from the band?..
Mostly, the observations from these witnesses draw their strength by the almost unanimous incredulity they subsequently experienced as they watched, agog, these talented musicians--and, in many cases, recent co-workers--achieve a success the likes of which NOBODY in their sane mind could've ever predicted! And, aside from a minor grumble or two from the unlucky Williams, there seems to be absolutely no bitterness directed towards their now iconic former associates. Even Sheridan, clearly enjoying his moment in the sun here, assiduously dissecting each and every track on his long-ago album as if it were the monumental "Sgt. Pepper" itself, comes across as a likably amiable bloke. I know next to nothing at all about the man--I have no idea what he's been up to in the intervening years--and until now, I didn't much care. However, now my curiosity has been peaked. Yeah, okay, so he sang like an Elvis-wannabe, but he wasn't untalented, as these clips clearly prove.
Ah, the clips. Some work better than others, like "Sweet Georgia Brown", which dispenses with the rockers entirely, and instead giddily plays over a succession of (then) contemporary pin-up queens pictures. While several other tracks utilize the same (admittedly limited) series of photos, including an especially jarring one of Sheridan himself grinning goofily over his shoulder, other videos subtlety approximate the excitement of a true stage performance with limited special effects and quick and clever cutting. And during Sheridan's intros, we finally find out that, yes, "My Bonnie" was indeed meant as a joke of sorts!! The only thing that's let unexplained is just WHY he's wearing that New York Yankees cap throughout his session in front of the camera?!? Something WRONG with the Mets, I wonder?...
Ultimately, "The Beatles With Tony Sheridan" provides an interesting dichotomy for long-time fans. On the one hand, it obsessively dwells on music that, truthfully, rates little more than a footnote in the Big Picture (and due no doubt to copyright concerns, the single self-generated composition, the McCartney/Harrison instrumental, "Cry For A Shadow", is neither included nor mentioned, while a slew of tracks with no Beatle input whatsoever are examined ever-so-closely anyways). Conversely, this period can never be glossed over, as so much of the ensemble's maturation--as a band AND as individuals--took place during the Hamburg era. Talk about your Jekyll and Hydes!
Should you buy it? Probably. It's not a must-have, but in the final analysis, it's a lot more worthy a project than I originally deemed it to be. Hey, if nothing else, you can get a few chuckles from the discs' one other special feature--a seemingly never-ending parade of album jackets and singles sleeves from over the years, all hell-bent by their owners of exploiting these precious few tracks for all they're worth--and then some!
The only thing is, they neglected to include their own tastefully done cover in the procession of fifty or so alternating images (Watch as Tony Sheridan's name grows and shrinks with alarming regularity! ). They really should've, if for no other reason than it was the one that got ME.
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