REBECCA KEMP

Charlie is My Darling

Writing and personal site for Rebecca Kemp

Charlie is My Darling

Charlie is My Darling

Rebecca Kemp finds out from Andrew Loog Oldham, the man who discovered the Rolling Stones, the story behind the film of their Irish tour that was meant to make them movie stars

“We make our own luck,” says Andrew Loog Oldham of his unprecedented rise to fame as maverick Rolling Stones manager. He did just that in the summer of ’63 when he took a train out of London to see a band playing at Richmond’s Station Hotel. Side-stepping a young dude whose lips looked at him as if to say: “What are you doing with the rest of my life?”, Andrew Loog Oldham breezed by his first encounter with a Rolling Stone. Soon he would help the Stones make the Beatles look like choir boys, and establish himself as one of the most influential men in rock music. He would also be responsible for using the Stones’ 1965 tour of Ireland to produce arguably the first rockumentary.

Variously described as vain, invincible, outrageous, unconventional, revolutionary, camp and inexperienced; as the English Phil Spector, a gangster, a genius, a hustler, a Svengali and as God, Andrew Loog Oldham was born in London in 1944. He gets his name from his father, Andrew Loog, who served in the US Air Corp and was killed when his plane was shot down seven months before his son was born. Mother Celia Oldham put her son through various prestigious English boarding schools, before the young Loog Oldham let himself loose on an unsuspecting swinging sixties London. He worked for Mary Quant, did PR for the Beatles, set up his own record company, discovered Marianne Faithful, and established the Rolling Stones as one of the greatest rock bands in the world – all before his 20th birthday.

What Andrew Loog Oldham (who nowadays goes by the acronym ALO) is probably most remembered for is the way he revolutionised the music industry. He took the nice middle-class boys that were the Stones, roughed them up a bit and made them into the kind of dirty menace parents didn’t want their daughters to bring home. This was in sharp contrast to the working-class boys Brian Epstein had taken, brushed up, and called The Beatles. ALO also had a reputation for an alternative management style, he was into the image and look of the band, an independent promoter who hustled to achieve results and gave British pop its first sexually desirable working-class heroes. In what was then an industry chiefly run by the middle-aged, ALO was the same age as the pop stars he worked with and the people buying their records. He refused to play by their rules and made up a few of his own. His critics called him arrogant and naïve, but ALO was the master of publicity and knew how to play the press like a favourite guitar, even putting word out that the Stones were going to star in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Though he knew the film rights weren’t available, it helped generate exactly the kind of environment and reputation for the band and himself that he was after: anarchic, threatening and strangely beautiful.

Interested in films from an early age, ALO recalls being mesmerised by movie posters in London’s underground stations and firmly believes this shaped his later career. Films such as The Girl Can’t Help It confirmed to him the kind of world he wanted to be a part of, and High Society stayed in his mind to the extent that everything he found fascinating about Grace Kelly he would later apply to Marianne Faithful. British film Expresso Bongo (starring Cliff Richard) about an unscrupulous talent agent who exploits a young musician also had a huge influence on the kind of career, and character, he wanted to pursue: that of a shrewd and successful music manager. “Hollywood did not call me, still hasn’t. Music did,” recalls ALO, but it is clear that this interest in films as well as music meant it was inevitable he would eventually marry the two.

In 1965 bands were all making movies, led by The Beatles’ seminal contributions of A Hard Day’s Night and Help. ALO didn’t want the Stones to get left behind and felt his band could do with a low-key dry run for a later and bigger entry into the film world. “Once The Beatles had made their movies I felt forced to take notice and see if there was something here The Stones should be doing,” he explains. “I organised Charlie so that we could get our sea legs, practice in private (i.e. Ireland) and get a feel of the game. It was never supposed to be the feature, but a warm-up for one. In addition it allowed me and the Stones to see how they played on the screen just walking and talking, as opposed to playing their music.”

ALO wanted the Stones to star in a movie version of a book called Only Lovers Left Alive. The film was to be directed by Nicholas Ray, and is a futuristic Clockwork Orange-style story of teen gangs fighting for survival after all adults have committed suicide. But no one in the film industry was very interested in working with the band as it was felt their reputation as the wild kids of rock would not make them pliable enough to be actors. Charlie is My Darling was conceived to disprove this.

Peter Whitehead was mentioned as a possibility to helm the film, as ALO remembers: “My friend, the Irish set designer Sean Kenny, had seen his film of Allen Ginsberg and all the American Beat Poets at the Royal Albert Hall and suggested Peter to me”. Whitehead was rapidly gaining a reputation for being an innovative and avant-garde documentary filmmaker, and follower of cinema verité’s spare and achingly modern style. Fresh from filming the documentary Wholly Communion (centred around a hip poetry festival in London), the Godard influenced director seemed an obvious choice.

The Stones were due to embark on their 1965 three-day tour of Ireland – their first - with gigs in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Whitehead followed the group, using two cameras, one with sound and one without, accompanied by just one assistant. Shot in black and white, the film is a refreshingly honest and revealing document of an early Stones, free from hype and promotion. “Price, point and deliver,” was all ALO expected from Whitehead, and gave him £2,000 for the project. “I just wanted to see how the Stones looked on film,” he says. “That may seem strange to the overscreened world of today, but that's the way ours was.”

All original prints of Charlie is My Darling were lost years ago during a burglary at ALO’s offices, and the resulting quality from his only video copy is a grainy and often over-exposed remainder. However, it’s still easy enough to see the Stones enjoying drinks and cigarettes at the Intercontinental in Ballsbridge (now Jurys), where Keith Richards wears a CIE hat (souvenir from their train journey from Belfast) as he plays the piano (very well) and Mick Jagger does a wonderful (and somewhat derogatory) impression of Elvis. Much has been made of Brian Jones’ talk to camera about leaving the band and an early death (cited as an eerie premonition of things to come), but what is more interesting is Jones’ musings on marriage and his plans to make an abstract film with three characters: a man, a woman and love as the third person. Charlie Watts describes himself as “happiest at home” and Bill Wyman feels he’s “not a musician, I just play music, I’m just in a band”. Jagger is shown playing a childish but incredibly funny game with Charlie Watts, offering him his finger instead of a cigarette. These are rare snapshots of unselfconscious musicians with little understanding of how much fame was about to encompass them. ALO says the band generally weren’t conscious of the camera rather than turning on a performance for it. “They would have to be reminded that they had to play to it more than might have been comfortable,” he recalls, “but, as with everything, they knew what the agenda was and worked it.”

What is also fascinating is seeing Charlie is My Darling as a documentation of 1960’s Ireland. Whitehead focuses perhaps on his own preconceptions, with close-ups of the Catholic Times newspaper The Universe, bemused old men reading PR handouts and an interview with a rather startled priest. “Why did you grow your hair long?” someone asks a fan, “’Cos I like long hair” is the response. Not to be outdone in the fashion stakes, the Irish fans are resplendent in beehives, drainpipes and horn-rimmed specs. One live performance has to be abandoned as fans storm the stage, and the band have to make a quick detour across the railway lines at a Belfast station to escape the screaming crowds waiting for them on the other side. However, not everyone was starstruck. At one point the band wearing expensive braided sailor’s caps from Paris, were asked directions for the train to Cork.

Peter Whitehead has said that he was trying to portray the Stones as ordinary guys to which something incredible had happened. ALO gave him little advice on direction, but left Whitehead to his own devices which the director thought was “wonderful”. The tour and the filming made Whitehead realise how huge the band was and how much power someone like Mick Jagger had to make the audience literally go wild.

ALO describes Whitehead as a “swift, lethal and efficient” director, and the results are a reflection of this. ALO (who also appears extensively in the film), Jagger, Richards and Watts were all involved in the editing process with Whitehead, and in this sense it essentially remains their film. Even the title of the film stems from the fact that “Charlie was so attractive on screen”, says ALO.

By the time film was finished and due for release in 1966 colour had caught up with the movies and the Stones saw themselves and the film as outdated, so general release was put on hold. It was however given a premiere at the Mannheim Film Festival in 1966 where festival director and filmmaker Joseph Von Sternberg described it as “a unique document of its time” and said that “when all the other films in this festival are long forgotten, this film will still be watched”. It was also passed to television companies to use as promotion for Stones singles.

2004 marks a renaissance for Charlie is My Darling and is the first time it has received such wide exposure internationally. ALO has taken it to festivals in Scotland, Vancouver, Sweden and the Kerry Film Festival where he was also in conversation with BP Fallon about the project.

The film has now attained somewhat of a cult status due to the rarity of screenings and its formative place in the lexicon of pop docs. It preceded DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (released in 1967 following a Bob Dylan UK tour), and his Monterey Pop (released in 1968 documenting life at the Woodstock music festival and co-produced by ALO’s good friend Lou Adler). Charlie is My Darling was also ahead of Michael Wadleigh’s celebrated Woodstock by some four years, which in contrast used 20 cameramen, 8 camera assistants, 20 sound engineers and 30 production assistants.

As one might expect, ALO’s fast-forward youth spent in the midst of the rock industry led to a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Nowadays he is more sedate, but just as charming and loquacious. With a candid two-volume autobiography under his belt, he still wears the familiar trademark stylish glasses, has added a beard to that handsomely boyish face and a few large rings to those animated hands. He spends his time with wife Esther between homes in Bogota and Vancouver, and his drink of choice is spring dragon longevity tea (“I believe in being well as I used to work at the opposite,” he says). He has a 22-year-old son, Maximillian, with Esther and “from an early detour” a 39-year-old son, Sean (named after Sean Kenny).

It is still ironic to think that ALO saw Charlie is My Darling as an opportunity for the Stones to practice in private, little realising it would achieve quite the popularity it has. Still unreleased, the hour long film remains a priceless tribute to a collaboration of some of the greatest artistic minds working at the time, and was the platform they all used to take on the world.


©Rebecca Kemp 2004

Film Ireland