Man who invented the pop video
He documented many of the greatest acts of the Sixties and has recently worked with current rock stars The Libertines – and he’s in Norwich this Saturday evening. Peter Whitehead’s avant garde pop films were the forerunner of today’s music videos, as Keiron Pim finds out.
They say if you can remember the Sixties you can't have been there. Peter Whitehead says he doesn't really remember them, but he can remind himself by watching his films.
He caught The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Small Faces and Pink Floyd at their peak and helped make them into icons.
Tomorrow night a selection of his pop promo films will be shown at Cinema City in Norwich in what should prove an enticing prospect for anyone who loves those bands.
Speaking to him in advance of the screening it soon becomes clear that his memory is better than he lets on – though on hearing his stories, no one would dispute that he was there.
The evening celebrates the 40th anniversary of Whitehead's first film, and is the first time many of these films will have been shown since the decade when they were made – little wonder they have been called "the lost soundtrack to a lost generation". He will be on hand to introduce the films and answer questions.
David Calhoun wrote in Dazed and Confused magazine that "the promo videos made by Peter Whitehead in the 1960s mark the real birth of the music video", and he has been described as the "most important representative of the avant garde cinema in the UK".
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He made his name with Wholly Communion, which recorded Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and beat cohorts at a poetry reading at the Albert Hall in 1965.
"Ginsberg arrived in London and I went to a poetry reading. He was there with a few other English poets.
"They announced at the end that they were planning to rent the Albert Hall for a poetry reading in about five weeks' time, which was the most absurd idea you could imagine for any poet, even Shakespeare.
"A few days beforehand I still didn't believe it would happen. But they said it was going to, and I said 'I'm a filmmaker, I could film it for you'."
Seven thousand people turned up at the Albert Hall and another 2000 were turned away. Whitehead describes the event as "the first Happening with a capital H", the moment when disparate strands of the emerging counterculture in mid-'60s London began to merge and people realised something significant was afoot.
"It was the first moment of consciousness that allowed people to come together. It brought together new attitudes to sex, Vietnam, the Aldermaston March…"
Wholly Communion won the Mannheim Film Festival Gold Medal. Among its admirers was Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who commissioned Whitehead to make a cinema-verité film of the band on tour in Ireland.
Then there was Tonite Let's Make Love in London, in which he filmed the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd in the studio and at the psychedelic UFO club.
What set Whitehead apart at the time was his silent camera, which meant he could record unobtrusively at events such as poetry readings or rock concerts.
"There was nobody else really doing what I was doing," he says. "For a few years I was able to make those films and I documented the Sixties, there's no doubt about that. Anybody now can make a video with a camera they bought from Dixons."
He was "very lucky" to have a silent camera at a time when they were rare in England. However, while he shot most of his films in this country, he maintains they are actually about America.
"Wholly Communion was really about Ginsberg and Corso, who were American – people wouldn't have been as excited if they were English poets.
"The Rolling Stones were a bunch of guys from the London School of Economics who were doing the music of black guys from Chicago. The point is that the music and the essence of what they were doing was American.
"US, a play by Peter Brooke that I filmed, was basically saying that the war in Vietnam was our concern.
"It was American cultural imperialism, just like today in Iraq."
Born in Liverpool in 1937, Whitehead has certainly lived a full life. Falconry is his passion alongside film, an interest that has led to some brushes with death while exploring the birds' habitats.
He once found himself trapped on a Moroccan cliff-face with no choice but to cut one of the two ropes that were holding him.
He burned his way down the other rope, bouncing off the rocks before falling into the sea from 45ft, and still bears the scars.
On another expedition he caught black cholera in Baluchistan, 50 miles from the nearest road.
"I was saved by a witchdoctor: they tied me up with ropes to stop the blood flowing into my arms and legs, and then they stood on me and paralysed me, so that finally the stomach was unable to vomit.
"They broke two of my ribs, but saved my life."
He abandoned film-making for almost 30 years, dedicating himself to exploration, but was recently lured back by the promise of working with the band of the moment, The Libertines.
A friend of a friend put them in touch and the result, which remains a work-in-progress film, receives its première tomorrow evening. It should be a memorable night for music lovers young and old.
Here Comes the Nice: A Peter Whitehead Retrospective begins at 6pm at Cinema City in the Playhouse Theatre, St George's Street, tel: 01603 622047.
The Sixties theme continues in the Playhouse Bar directly after the screenings, with live music, beat poetry and oil-slides.