Dear (Georgie, They Call Him the Belfast) Boy
Unpacking the VHS tapes last week, I came across my bootleg copy of The Who Live At Tanglewood. Given that this show, dating from July 7 1970, was subject of a recent thread at the iJamming! pub, I stuck it straight in the video player – and immediately remembered it as combining the worst visual quality and the best performance of any Who live video I’ve seen. As in the past, I sat entranced in front of the television, captivated by The Who’s inner intuition and outward energy – and amazed at the lack of theatrics, the fact that there’s no security visible, no pit or barriers, just four people on stage playing to an audience literally within arms’ reach.
The wife, who came to The Who late in life, joined me on the sofa and, as she has before, remarked on Keith Moon’s staggeringly brilliant, intuitive performance.
“I know,” I said. “And can you believe he was only 23 years old?”
A couple nights later, still unpacking the VHS tapes, I came across one called Goal TV, a night of old BBC football specials broadcast in 1994, and soon found myself watching Hugh McIlvaney’s documentary on George Best. By one of those moments of synchronicity that are designed for the iJamming! web site, it too dated from 1970 – when George Best, as McIlvaney quickly informed his viewers, was also just 23.
The similarities, of course, don’t stop there. Best and Moon – their very mono-syllabic names uncannily describing their extreme personas – were blessed with phenomenal talent that appeared to have been hand delivered by the Gods. George Best, claimed his mother, was playing football at ten months; Keith Moon, as we know, came from a non-musical family and yet mastered the drums as if he was born to them.
Such skills could not go un-noticed. At age 15, Keith was playing in semi-professional bands, and George Best was brought from the Belfast streets to Manchester United. By 1970, each “boy” was a 23-year old at the absolute peak of his game. Be it Moon mining previously unfathomed rhythms from the drums during ‘Sparks’ at Tanglewood, or Best running rings round (the same) hapless defender(s) at Old Trafford, the two men seem as marvelous a miracle of nature as an eagle in full flight or a lion chasing its kill.
Just as the Tanglewood video is remarkable for showing a rock band unprotected from its fans, so the McIlvaney documentary is fascinating for portraying the football star as serf. Somewhat astonishingly, at the time of filming, George Best was still in the “digs” he had called home since being brought to Manchester in 1962 (an eight-year period that spanned the entire recording career of The Beatles). We see both the comically average suburban semi-detached he called home and his equally absurd landlady, Mrs Fulloway – who, in narrow glasses, tight black skirt and cardigan, looked and sounded like nothing so much as a transvestite Eric Idle in Monty Python – bringing a cup of tea to her star lodger as he pores over some glue-it-yourself prop.
But if those cameras caught the post-war protected domesticity of the professional footballer in its death-throes, so it also captured his future. For we then see Best at night, hanging out at a club called Blinkers that makes a noted exception to its otherwise strictly enforced “jacket and tie” code for our snazzily dressed Georgie. He hangs quietly in the corner, downing a bowl of spaghetti and a pint while the camera, quite literally, looks up the skirts of women on the dancefloor for what must have been, in 1970, a positively risqué shot of white feminine undies. You can not imagine Best’s team-mate Bobby Charlton in the same environment.
That football is changing is proven by McIlvaney’s poetic but jarringly inaccurate journalism early on in the documentary.
“The football star remains the ultimate working class hero,” says our narrator, as the camera alternates between the urban masses marching into Old Trafford, and George Best emerging onto the field from the shielded tunnel. “Other poor boys may make it as film stars or writers, but their very success cuts them off from the Tribe. The point about the footballer as folk hero is that he stays at the heart of the tribe, part of its most compelling ritual. He is always within reach. You can have a slice of him each Saturday.”
Perhaps you could. But while I believed all that stuff about “the tribe” when I was a kid, and while I do have many wonderful stories to tell about Crystal Palace players’ approachability (and that of George Best too), I wasn’t even a teen before I grasped that us “tribesmen” employed mercenaries to fight for us on the field. (And maybe, I now ponder, that’s why we started fighting on the terraces: because someone had to represent the tribe for truly tribal, not financial, reasons.) It may still ring true that footballers emerge from the working class, but only a fool would claim that they continue to represent once they start banking their five-figure-a-week salaries.
Which brings me back to McIlvaney’s above statement, and what I immediately saw to be a glaring omission. Where was his mention of the “working class hero” as rock star? After all, original Beatle John Lennon was writing and recording a song of such title at that very moment. Had McIlvaney admitted that “other poor boys may make it as musicians” too then he might also have been forced to confront something very interesting – the fact that, at that juncture in 1970, The Who at Tanglewood were more “within reach” than George Best at Old Trafford.
In truth though, both these working class passions were in a process of flux. Pop music was jumping the barrier to become a serious art form – they called it rock – with financial rewards previously fit only for a King. And footballers, likewise, were leaving behind the fixed wage and demanding recompense equivalent to their talents – with the charismatic, photogenic and almost impossibly skillful “5th Beatle” George Best leading the way.
Such progress came at a price. By 1974, The Who had added England’s biggest football ground to their tour itinerary and George Best was sacked from Manchester United for his consistent failure to make training. Keith Moon and George Best were just 27 years old and should still have been at the peak of their game; instead, they were each descending the slippery slope of alcoholism. The future would never look so bright for either of them as would the past.
…Thankfully, that past is preserved on film.