The dividing line between star and audience when offstage was once emphasised by the Ottoman Potentate-like demands emanating from dressing rooms. It was expected of showbiz types when they touched down on terra firma and the serfs assigned to pander to their every eccentric whim were accustomed to it. Whether Shirley Bassey, Liberace, Orson Welles or even Danny La Rue, stagehands at the nation’s leading venues as well as production staff at BBC TV Centre knew what to expect. It was part of the deal; you get the star and they get to be treated as a regal presence; but this was a small sacrifice to make when they could be relied upon to deliver the goods in the end.
The rise of The Beatles and the wave of working-class boys-made good that followed in their wake changed this to a degree. They were perceived not only as the antidote to the archaic Hollywood approach to celebrity, but they would’ve been embarrassed to act the prima-donna. This was most evident in the public persona they exhibited – no Rank Charm School graduates, but down-to-earth, unpolished charm and humour emphasised by the crucial fact that they spoke in their natural accents. As strange as it may seem from today’s perspective, this was a crucial element in the erosion of class barriers that took place in the 1960s. RADA students who emerged into the job market suddenly had to relocate the rough edges that RP theatrical tutors had drilled out of them or else they’d find themselves permanently ‘resting’.
As the decade progressed, the financial rewards of the Beat Boom enabled its beneficiaries to indulge in the accepted trappings of success – the Rolls Royce and the country house being chief amongst them; but there was a mischievous aspect to this incursion into previously out-of-bounds territory by boys raised on rations. The Rolling Stones aped old-school aristocratic poses; Ray Davies of The Kinks penned satirical vignettes on the upper classes; and by donning dandified military outfits, The Beatles also knowingly nodded to the tongue-in-cheek vogue for adopting the sartorial insignias once associated with their ‘social betters’, something also to be found in the names of Carnaby Street boutiques such as Lord John and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.
Wealth may have distanced the leading lights of this generation from those they once looked in the eye when learning their craft in grimy clubs and cellars at the dawn of the decade, but it’s noticeable when viewing archive interview footage from the back end of the 60s that riches didn’t render them untouchables. There is a refreshing absence of artifice in any John Lennon interview; even when he’s venturing into slightly more esoteric areas with Yoko at his side, it’s still the humorous and very human, self-deprecating Lennon from earlier in the 60s, speaking in a language free from the bland, faux-humility of his pop predecessors who had been coached to say nothing that might offend the mums and dads. This was also reflected in the lyrical content of his material once he’d dispensed with the Lewis Carroll-like imagery of his LSD phase. The audience felt that listening to a Lennon LP when he was baring his soul was akin to engaging in conversation with him.
The sequence in the ‘Imagine’ film where he attempts to defuse the God-like mythology that had grown around him by talking to a confused casualty of the decade found sleeping rough in the grounds of his home is testament to Lennon’s essential humanity when confronting someone still struggling in the social demographic he’d left behind in Hamburg. He even invites the fan into his home for a bite to eat before sending him on his way. Ironically, it was this willingness to exude approachability that tragically cost him his life in 1980, and Mark Chapman’s bullets have ricocheted across the firmament of stardom ever since, arguably re-establishing the cosseted star surrounded by bodyguards and refusing to speak to the media or fans when passing from hotel to limo.
Lennon’s unvarnished affability wasn’t an exclusively English trait, however; Janis Joplin is similarly stripped of airs and graces whether responding to a microphone stuck in her face or reclining on Dick Cavett’s chat-show sofa; what you see is what you get with Janis. A recent Radio 4 documentary on the experience of female music journalists in the 60s and 70s recalled how unlimited access to stars was once relatively easy, with only agents to navigate rather than a team of PR people presenting the interviewer with a list of do’s and don’ts before their allocated ten-minute slot with the latest three-minute wonder.
The truth only emerged from old Hollywood stars once Tinsel Town had discarded them and they were free to spill the beans, released from the PR constraints of the now-deceased studio system, something that was apparent when a whole glut of them appeared on Michael Parkinson’s BBC chat show in the 70s. However, the rise of the dumb superstar with nothing to say and encouraged to believe their own hype has necessitated the resurgence of a professional posse to keep them from exposing the vacuums in their heads, feeding them lines and instructing the interviewer what can and can’t be said for fear their hard work will be undone by one minor veering from the script.
The twitter airing of pre-interview conditions issued by the immense landmark talent that is…erm…Will.i.am underline this ridiculous scenario. One specification on the pre-interview list handed over to the lucky journos landed with an unenviable assignment states ‘questions should be one sentence, straightforward questions. Refrain from editorialising about the subject/theme prior to asking a question that will clutter the conversation’. Another helpfully points out ‘if he asks you to repeat a question, this indicates you need to ask crisper, more direct questions’. (I’ve got one – ‘Will.i.am, why are you such a massive arsehole?’). Just in case the interviewer neglects to remember how honoured they are, a reminder is there – ‘Due to a tight rotation schedule, we will ask that journalists stick to time blocks as assigned for the day.’
Once we had astonishingly gifted artists who eschewed the enclosed cocoon of ‘The Star’; now we have remarkable mediocrities who act the diva when they have done nothing to earn it. How did that happen? Oh, I momentarily forgot; it’s 2016, isn’t it. Silly me.
© The Editor