08 August 2020 00:30
Liverpudlian quartet the Real Thing, who tackled prejudice and challenged the pop status quo in the 70s, are the subject of Simon Sheridan's fond and vital documentary Weeks later the Real Thing won Opportunity Knocks, and in 1976 became the first black British band to get a No 1 hit with You to Me Are Everything. Everything: The Real Thing Story (BBC Four) travels back in time to the year when the quartet – Chris Amoo, Dave Smith, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake, later joined by Chris's brother Eddie – supplied the soundtrack to the hottest summer in living memory. For black British people, though, that summer song meant so much more, especially when it was performed on Top of the Pops. In the 1970s, DJ Trevor Nelson recalled, the band was the antidote to the primetime unreality of the Black and White Minstrel Show and racist slurs as TV comedy punchlines. For once, black British musicians could rival African Americans.
True, the song was written by two white guys, and yes, the band could hardly yet emulate State-side sophistication (1976 was also the year of Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life), but Chris Amoo's husky, creamy voice was soul brother to Teddy Pendergrass's, while Ray Lake's falsetto was as captivating as that of Eddie Kendricks. The Real Thing might have broken America but for the fact that during their US tour with David Essex, three dismal cover versions of You to Me are Everything sullied the Billboard Top 100. The Americans deserved the real thing. Back in Britain, the foursome were written up as the black Beatles and became sex symbols to a generation of overwhelmingly white women, including the young Kim Wilde, who visited them backstage. And their shirtless photo shoots had a subtext, argues Trevor Nelson: "We're black men and if this is a threat to your white male sexuality, that's your problem." I tested this hypothesis wearing a waistcoat, Real Thing-style, while writing this.
First, it's got all the glory and tragedy of the most compelling music stories: a Liverpool band struggling from humble beginnings, trying to find an identity, fraternity and fallings-out, coping with huge success and its aftermath – not to mention sex, drugs, mental illness and death. On top of that there's a constant layer of narrative about the endless pressures of racism on black British musicians, told brilliantly both explicitly and in the micro-details of 1960s and '70s life. Maybe most devastating thing of all, though, is the stark fact that it's taken until 2020, and a lot of accumulating cultural pressure, for this band to be given the courtesy of a full-length national TV documentary. In particular the commentators' accumulated memories really bring home how important The Real Thing were in expressing a proud black British - and specifically Liverpudlian identity at a time when even seeing a black face on UK TV was, as DJ Trevor Nelson says, notable enough to phone friends to remark on. The story covers a broad swathe of history, from the early '60s when The Chants, a predecessor to The Real Thing, were regularly backed by The Beatles at The Cavern and even briefly managed by Brian Epstein. The Real Thing would be formed in 1972 by Chris, younger brother of The Chants' Eddy Amoo, clearly inspired by them but also driven on by their lack of recognition compared to their white Liverpool peers. What happened thereafter is anything but straightforward, with the breakthrough 1976 hit "You to me Are Everything" only being the start of even more hard work to maintain success and still be the band they wanted to be. The other is maybe a nerdy complaint: we never hear from the band's backing musicians, and the amount of music actually played throughout the film is small. Everything: The Real Thing Story, BBC4, review: A worthwhile story told too hastily The Real Thing became the first Black British band to have a UK number one with their hit You To Me Are Everything My knowledge of Liverpool band The Real Thing begins and ends with their 1976 hit You To Me Are Everything. But, as Simon Sheridan's film Everything: The Real Thing Story proved, they were more than a one hit wonder. The band started out in the 60s as The Chants and were championed by The Beatles, with whom they played at the Cavern Club. In the early 70s, however, The Real Thing stepped into the limelight and found success with political anthem Children of the Ghetto. There were some interesting moments – The Real Thing performed as David Essex's backing singers, a factor the Rock On singer self-importantly says gave them their mass of young female fans – but this tale was told with too little vigour to make it stand out from the other musical stories that emerged at from the time. This was a shame because The Real Thing were nothing like the other bands. They were the first all-black British band to have a UK number one. This film shined when contributors – from the band themselves to fans including Billy Ocean and Trevor Nelson – were given space to acknowledge the difficulties that came with being black in 70s Britain. Stories of being treated differently by TV show hosts and being pulled over by the police because "a black man can't afford a car like that" still sadly resonate today, making the film more relevant than perhaps Sheridan intended. It wasn't all pain, though: Nelson's joy at watching the band on Top of the Pops as a child – "There's black people on the TV!" – was palpable. A lack of archive footage led to actors awkwardly playing out whatever was being described, while the decision to allow the white ex-wife of one of the band members to say the N-word uncensored was something the BBC ought to have steered clear of.