by Sarah Slade
Before the Beatles and Dick Lester, pop movies of the 1950s and 60s featured one of a stable of jobbing popstars, a “let’s do the show right here, fellas!” plot that would involve the clean-cut young folks keeping their youth club/coffee bar out of the hands of a besuited property developer using the Power of Pop (or Trad Jazz, in the case of Helen Shapiro in It’s Trad, Dad!). The jobbing popstar would be required to sing one uptempo number, a ballad, and a jaunty final number about what fun it is to be young and listen to crazy beat music
The template was changed slightly with the release of “A Hard Day’s Night”: an mock documentary that featured the Beatles playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves (Sardonic John, Cute Paul, Quiet George and Hapless Ringo) doing the publicity rounds when all they want to do is play and sing a whole album’s worth of catchy tunes. But still the basic premise was crazy kids at play, and hey, what are they doing on that staircase?
But then Altamont happened, and the Sixties stopped happening.
The 1970s were brown and made of crimplene. Brown-patterned carpets, brown crockery, brown nylon G-plan sofas on nylon shag pile carpets. Even now you can feel a tingle of static while watching reruns of Rising Damp, or God forbid, Love Thy Neighbour. Ever felt that life was a series of thin, meaningless interactions, and that the real party was happening elsewhere? That was the 70s.
In musical terms, the party really was happening elsewhere. The Stones were wrecking chateaux in Cap Ferrat; Led Zep were busy taking prog blues to Middle America, leaving us with Ziggy Stardust, the musically respectable end of the bespangled phenomenom that was Glam Rock. In the middle was Sweet. At the other end was a bunch of former skinheads from Wolverhampton, called Slade.
Slade shouldn’t really cut it in the music business. They look weird: not beautiful alien weird like Ziggy, but more like a bunch of good-natured woodland creatures with guitars. Their music is based of loud bluesy stomps, with the occasional spooky violin interlude. And they can’t spell. It’s a testament to the state of British pop music in the early 70s that Slade managed to get voted the world’s top group in the NME Poll in 1973. But then the only competition was the Donny Osmond/David Cassidy Axis of Bland.
So, given the public image of Slade as essentially benign idiots in spangly suits, you’d expect a movie about Slade to be a wacky romp in the vein of, say Help, or that Dave Clark Five “classic”, Catch Me If You Can. The boys would live together in the a groovy pad, there would be nice young ladies that the cute one would have to kiss, and maybe the film would climax with the boys whistling the “Amour..” aria from Carmen at an angry ocelot. After all, it worked for the Fabs…
Maybe it’s the absence of a “cute one”, unless chipmunks are your thing. Flame is a gritty, bawdy, grubby, dark meditation on the price of fame. At its best, Flame looks and feels like a forgotten episode of The Sweeney. At its worst, it’s a sixth-form media studies project edited by the SWP.
Noddy and the boys are playing the chicken-in-a-basket club/wedding circuit in the Midlands. They do well enough to give up their day jobs, and get “managed” by a bald gangsterish man with an office above a bingo hall. A Sinister Marketing Corporation, represented by Tom Conti, takes an interest in them, and they move to That London, where all popstars live. Don gets a purple velvet jacket. The boys shoot to from grubby club to the Hammersmith Odeon following a shooting incident on a seafaring pirate radio station that is still boggling my mind, several weeks later.
Friends are humiliated and eventually dropped. Dave Hill gets picky about his coffee and snaps at the road manager. Jim Lea writes a sensitive piano ballad (quickly turned back into a stomper during rehearsals, thank goodness). Bald Former Manager resurfaces and there is some kind of dispute about who manages what. Meanwhile, the band are running from teen mag photoshoot to awkward cocktail soiree to recording studio to stadium gig, pursued by screaming fans. Artistic differences flare up onstage when Jim tunes his bass during Noddy’s stage patter. Noddy ends up with Dave’s girlfriend, and Don Powell falls over a lot. Eventually Sinister Marketing Corp decide that forcing a bunch of welders to dress up like Christmas tree fairies isn’t worth the aggro, and the band end up back in the hands of Bald Former Manager.
There is plenty wrong with Flame. Sinister Marketing Corp appears to be headquartered in Kew Gardens, and staffed by a set of crude archetypes that even the most unreconstructed Trotskyist would think were a bit unrealistic. Yet the band prove to be…well…rather good. Noddy Holder and Jim Lea turn in sensitive, low-key performances as the friends torn apart by success. Don Powell reveals some lovely comic timing, and Dave Hill manages to bounce around in his usual way and not break anything.
Flame’s tone and exploited-pop-proles plot was a world away from the high-concept musical capers of the Beatles. Neither a full-on head trip nor a proper documentary, the film was an honest meditation on the price of fame that worked when it focused on the band, but fell apart when it tried to take on The Man.
Sarah Slade (@sladey66) acquired the surname on her wedding day, and once owned an Osmonds concept album. It failed to turn her Mormon, and thus ended her chances of marrying Donny.