In the spirit of Kerouac’s first thought, best thought dictum, let’s begin this post with the most stylish thing I can think of right now: This video of The Small Faces playing “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” in 1966 on British television:
When I think about things that motivate me to do what I do, I think about what it must have felt like to be here at this show – the Small Faces, the perfect examples of mod fashion, before they got into silly psychedelics, playing perefct R&B. Great looking instruments, great black and white footage, but what really pulls it all together for me is the shot of the audence that comes right at about 1:12 of this video.
A group of kids dance slightly behind the beat, not staring at each other, heads cocked slightly to the side, like they were really wondering if they left the toaster plugged in at home. They’re dressed in clean mod style without over-doing it – the guys in polo shirts or button downs, a couple suits, the girls in mod dresses and skirts. Their self-assured, blasé style is in direct contrast to the pounding R&B coming from the stage. Are they too serious? Disinterested? Acting? All of the above?
Something about that tension of the sound and the movement make the moment click for me – the music is asking you to move, and the audience is respecting some other call to keep themselves in check. The way you hold your self together in the face of overwhelming pressure makes a stylish moment. Like Peter Meaden once said, Mod was “clean living under difficult circumstances”
1. “Blow Up”, the Michelangelo Antonioni movie from 1966, has a similar scene when David Hemming’s characters has to explain to Vanessa Redgrave’s character to smoke “against the beat”. It’s this awkward scene and Hemming’s character tries to lighten the mood by playing some Grant Green-style blues-driven jazz. Redgrave looks hilarious bopping her head to the 16th notes. She slows down, smokes, and the moment clicks, eventually. The fast-paced music swirls around the room while the action on screen slows down…
2. The music of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” is a note-for-note cover of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody” What I think is so interesting about how the Small Faces changed the song is how they took Burke’s lyrics – gospel-influenced, community-building, universal and preacherly – and made them rude, aggressive, male-dominated and sexual, in a way that I think is a great example of the history of white interpretation of black music.
Because of the stigma that black music had/has in white culture, to embrace it was to rebel, to be an individual and therefore, white interpretations of black music have a rebellious, individualistic message to them. What I think is a shame is the loss of the community-driven, shared message of the original black compositions, of which “Everybody” is a great example. Burke, known for the way he brought gospel music into the secular realm (and coining the term “soul music” along the way) exhorts the audience, audible on the track, to come together and affirm his belief in connecting people. The Small Faces instead let the women in their song know they will be making their move on you, and the song’s title tells you how they feel about your opinion on the subject. That could be an attractive proposition in the correct context, but that’s not really the point here; a musical form built around providing community has been re-thought as a way of demonstrating individuality, and it’s the community that gets built around the cult of the individual that most easily sacrifices collective wisdom for the dubious interests of one (small) man.