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May 18th, 1965: A Review of The Greatest Pop Concert in History - Part One

A Review of The Greatest Pop Concert in History - Part One

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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Journalist Alan Smith called the NME Poll Winners’ Concert, held on April 16th 1965 at London’s Wembley Empire Pool, "The biggest array of pop stars ever assembled on one great day." Another commentator called it "The greatest pop concert on earth."

Alan Smith was working for NME at the time, so of course he was going to hype the show no matter what. But it's hard to argue that the line-up of acts didn’t support Smith's claims:

The Beatles

The Animals

The Rolling Stones

The Kinks

Dusty Springfield and the Echoes

Tom Jones

The Searchers

The Moody Blues

Them

Donovan

The Seekers

Wayne and The Mindbenders

Freddie and The Dreamers

And that's just the musical side of the program. Celebrity disk jockey (and later convicted pedophile) Jimmy Saville, along with TV/Radio personality Keith Fordyce, hosted the event on behalf of the NME.

How did such a concert ever come to pass? Nowadays unless you’re Coachella or Glastonbury--festivals with veritable war chests of both cash and credibility at their backs--it would be impossible to assemble a line-up like the one listed above. And even then, having The Beatles and Stones on the one bill would surely be a bridge too far. Big stars know, more or less, what they’re worth now; they have a wealth of precedent to go by in determining what concerts they should play and how much cash they should ask for. Naivety, then, is as-dead-as-a-doornail when it comes to all facets of the ‘big time’ concert booking business.

In the early 1960s, however, the screaming-fan concert business was still very new to just about everyone; and you can bet that no-one (excluding maybe Col. Tom Parker and Al Grossman) really knew what it was all worth, or how long it would last. Certainly the bands hadn’t figured out what they should be getting paid for the often huge shows they were doing--history is riddled with retrospective stories of big acts like The Stones and Bob Dylan being ripped off on concert deals in the early days.

It was, in many ways, an innocent time where pop music was concerned. A time before business savvy came to dominate the concert industry in particular. And that’s how a show like this one was allowed to happen: because the industry hadn’t quite placed its finger on the pulse and determined what a festival like 'NME Poll Winners' was worth in monetary terms; instead, everyone was still just riding a wave of hysteria crafted by The Beatles and supplemented by a bunch of other great artists.

The Moody Blues (introduced by Jimmy Saville) opened proceedings to screaming approval. They played two songs, "Bo Diddley" and "Go Now". Following the Blues was Freddie and The Dreamers, whose kooky shtick routine has aged poorly, especially when compared with the quality of the opening act.

Hermin’s Hermits look and sound equally corny with the benefit of hindsight. In fact, it’s not until Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders take the stage that the show again elevates above the level of pulp. That’s maybe unfair to The Seekers and Sounds Incorporated, in particular, but they were really so far out of their genre element here as to be a disappointment. Fontana’s "The Game of Love" is the first real timeless hit of the night, and in turn, it serves to trigger the first realization of the gravity of this event in historical terms.

Tune in for the next installment of this review, where we’ll begin by looking at the performance of The Rolling Stones.

Below is the full concert footage from the 1965 'NME Poll Winners' concert.

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