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Politics of the aesthetic - the extraordinary Peter Whitehead

Updated: Oct 7, 2020



By Noel McLaughlin


As we argue in the How Belfast Got the Blues, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling is consistently downplayed in mainstream and academic writing. One is expected to believe it is a film devoid of any aesthetic, or adversarial political, merit – a mere ‘screen test’ to ‘get the band used to cameras’. The film’s importance to history is supposed to amount to nothing more than it being a cultish Stones film; a status compounded by the fact that for many years it was missing in action and, hence, well-nigh impossible to view.

This attempt at explaining the film’s achievements is extremely odd. Charlieoffers some of the most novel and forward-looking images of popular music in performance committed to celluloid at the time. Even if the film was reduced to what its director affectionately referred to as the ‘bird section’, where at its conclusion he reverts to grainy slow motion of the band in performance, it would be worth its place in history.

The fact that these ground-breaking - and in the contemporary context, much-mimicked images - were filmed in Belfast adds weight to our story. Belfast is the location - the source - of where the roots of modern music video first emerged. It is startling just how ahead of their time these sequences are. While, of course, there are arresting performances captured on film and on television before this point, what is striking in Charlie’sconcluding section is the move beyond being merely content to capture images.

Beyond the desire to ‘capture’ – to reproduce what is out there - Whitehead resorts to the haptic, and to a style that could be described as painterly. In this, he is in tune with popular musical artists who started to use the mixing desk and multitrack recording as devices not in service of simply recording performance, but of altering and heightening what music could be; and using the modern recording studio – and its possibilities - as an instrument in its own right. In Charlie, Whitehead pushes the medium, via the materiality of film and the foregrounding of form and technique, into the service of the drama of the Stones in performance. It creates an incandescent quality.

The resulting abstraction creates a spell. The eye is drawn to the minutiae of bodily performance via the slowing down and forestalling of time. Attention is necessarily focused on the majesty of the small gesture. The images shimmer in hallucinogenic sync with the music. And all of this occurs after Whitehead has given the viewer a similarly prescient masterclass in capturing the interaction of band and audience in a more conventional (i.e. documentary realist) fashion. In this final section, though, the ‘real world’ has given way to something altogether more shamanistic, impressionist - even expressionist.

Needless-to-say, the Northern Ireland State at the time certainly didn’t welcome the creation of such spells, and from such a source; one operating well outside the parameters of sanctioned and respectable religious worship.

Indeed, if as a filmmaker of popular music in performance, you want to create a sense of an ‘underground’ musical event, you could do much worse than go to Whitehead’s shamanistic Stones in Belfast ‘recipe’: low lighting and a necessary grainy image, a hint of strobe as a result of these conditions of uneven and low luminosity.

You might similarly emphasise how the sound and the image meet, focus on the small print of what the performers are doing and how this meets the details of what they are playing, and you are describing the language of the modern ‘designed to be edgy’ pop promo/concert film. In a short space of time, it would be a style beloved of Warhol and the Velvet Underground.

Whitehead, however, goes further than his devotees. His camera, unlike the more modern concert music video, is always placed in a liminal zone, an interstitial space between audience and performer (whereas, later versions always focus on the band as the ‘thing’ bring sold). It leaves the viewer uncertain of their loyalties: is it to the stars or the collective? Whatever the answer, the director’s treatment of the performance sections in Charlieare every bit as political as the more nakedly sociological segments. 

Just as we trace, and analyse, a narrative of Belfast’s popular-musical and political sixties in the book, we also to the same end, foreground a narrative of Whitehead’s oeuvre in the decade. This narrative invites the reader to regard Whitehead as present at the birth of the first ‘happening’ with Wholly Communionin 1965, after which we are then to believe that he turned his back on politics by making the Stones first film – the ‘mere screentest’ that is Charlie Is My Darling. After this, he then re-emerges as a political filmmaker, one heralded in critical writing as ‘the counterculture’s chief chronicler’ in the decade’s closing years.

It is doubtful even within the terms of authorship theory and recourse to biography that Whitehead simply suspended his political interests for the purposes of a star vehicle (especially if such an opportunity involved a band as rich in the semiotics of opposition and the language of dissonance as the Rolling Stones).

It is worth rewinding. The event filmed as Wholly Communionwas organised by Better Books, and featured the prominent, and celebrated beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; who, in their critique of American imperialism, became the subjects of extensive surveillance by the CIA. This anxiety about their influence in large part resulted from their popularity. The event not only sold-out. It was also over-capacity and it represented a focal point for young people unhappy with the existing political arrangements. Even though the event was orderly, and nothing akin to a riot occurred, poetry gatherings were banned in the venue for a quarter-century thereafter. What, therefore, precipitated a quarter century ban?

This is a landmark event. It assisted in popularising the politics of opposition, and greatly contributed to the entwining of adversarial politics and the less ‘political’ (at the time) world of popular music. The idea that popular music could, and should, ‘make a difference’ emerged from this juncture. Whitehead is not merely in the eye of the storm. He’s seeking to set the direction of the emerging ship of the counterculture. History reveals that these would be choppy waters.

The combination of radical aesthetics and equally radical politics, alongside meeting with a news camera operator’s eye - and an avant-garde flair for visualising popular-musical sounds - renders Whitehead one of the most extraordinary filmmakers of the decade. 

On this site you can view Whitehead at De Montfort University (which also houses his archive) where he eloquently describes aspects of his approach to his art: the multi-dimensionality of images, simultaneity, intertextuality and upsetting the rationality of the existing social order and the narratives promoted by the state are all to the fore. Alongside this, Whitehead foregrounds his love of ancient Egypt and his debt to its art, language and culture.

Credit must go the organisers, and especially Steve Chibnall, for their entertaining introduction to the filmmaker, which concisely captures this extraordinary career (one few filmmakers can rival).

It is worth pausing here to consider issues of context. We didn’t have the space to explore these in, what is again, a lengthy book. Barry Miles of Better Books, International Times, the London Film Makers Cooperative, and one of the organisers of the Albert Hall Event, was a very close friend of Paul McCartney. McCartney, against the reputation established over the years, was the radical and artistically curious Beatle in the early part of the group’s history, living in central London (whereas Lennon in this period preferred suburbia) and embroiled in the culture of Better Books and a member of its inner circle.

In the ‘ideas maelstrom’ of the time, the Beatles interest in Ireland and its politics – as evinced by their debut feature - may have inspired the Stones to maintain, and even extend, the theme. What is certain, if the Beatles had ignited in the Stones an interest in Irish politics and history (as well as its wider relevance), in Peter Whitehead they had an already-formed ally and a practical enabler in the realisation of these highly politicised and controversial ideas. As Whitehead’s assistant throughout the decade, Anthony Stern, put it: ‘the countercultural scene was small, and through Peter I quickly got to know everybody’.

This ‘smallness’ represented an agility that the institutionalised Labour Party, or similar large bodies in the organised left, could not replicate when it came to the necessity of a swift response to events as they occurred. One thing is certain in a broader sense, Irish political influences on the counterculture in England – which are so central to the narrative - are peripheral in published accounts of music and politics in the decade, and hence the same is carried through for the sense created in public memory.

As a symptom of the power of Whitehead’s work in the 1960s, and Charlie’s unerring capacity to disquieten over a half century later, when we approached the personnel close to him in the decade for commentary, they would begin by expressing their enthusiasm for the project, only to become increasingly reluctant to go to record as the deadline for publication loomed closer. We even agreed that those nervous in such a way could send us a statement instead of the interview we preferred. Even then, the relevant parties got cold feet. There was a temptation to include this in the narrative, but we felt we had been necessarily forced into relying on circumstantial evidence more than we would have liked and, as it were, drew a line’. However, it is necessary to convey how we sat, stating awake, like children late in Christmas Eve waiting for promised correspondence about Charlie’sfilming that never appeared. Clearly, this film was more than a promo, a simple star vehicle or merely a dress rehearsal for something larger in production values and sales.

Our disappointment notwithstanding, we fully understand the difficulties for anyone closely involved when it comes to going on record about this incendiary film.

In fact, this points to the more important way that Belfast features more centrally in the book’s narrative about popular music and politics in the 1960s: the city was an embodiment of the very specific failures of the old guard – systemic racism and all that goes with that; unequal rights, a rigged job market, ghettoised housing. While Whitehead does not shine a light on these issues directly, he makes his position clear in other ways (which we explore in chapters 2, 7 and 8).

As writers and readers of the saga of the film and its disappearance, whatever our individual positions – whether you think our argument is naïve conspiracy or if you find it valid, Whitehead for the rest of his life would live with its spectre. He’d constantly move house to stay a step ahead and write novels which were veiled allegories of his life under pseudonyms. These were so vehemently protected, that often the publisher didn’t even know his true identity. The message is clear. If you become an enemy of the state, one is compelled to live one’s life out in such terms.

Indeed, Whitehead connects with later ‘enemies of the state’ and other ‘wreckers of civilisation’, namely Throbbing Gristle, when a young Genesis P-Orridge enjoyed the influence of the late 60s counterculture and its affection for subversive wordplay (a world Whitehead was at the centre of).

It is a simple fact that the first antiracist, countercultural film was set in and shot in Belfast.

It is beyond interesting that it vanished for 50 years. But it is not a blip in Whitehead’s canon of 60s works as one is expected to believe. Rather, it is wholly consistent - and in communion with - the other films he made that are widely accepted as the major chronicle of the oppositional politics of the decade. The fact that he could wring-out such a range of targeted inferences and invocations in a two-day shoot is nothing short of remarkable.




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