Usually, we’ll write about calendar items based on when they originally happened — April items in April; August in August; and so forth. But we’re going to mix it up every once in a while, including today.
One night in 1980, Paul Weller — guitarist and songwriter for British pop-punk band The Jam — came home from the pub a couple of lagers to the looser and wrote himself a song.
The verses consisted of bleak, occasionally violent images summing up the drudgery of everyday English life — things like torn-up phone booths, damp apartments, the racket of pneumatic drills and “wishing you were far away.”
The chorus brought everything together simply and ironically, repeating the phrase, “That’s entertainment / That’s entertainment,” in a sort of bitter mock-celebration of stagnation, decay, and lack of opportunity. (If you’re not familiar with the song, you can hear it here.)
Weller’s disgusted swipe at Thatcher-era England would become one of The Jam’s best-known songs. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “That’s Entertainment” No. 306 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, ahead of such rock warhorses as “Iron Man,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Sweet Jane” and “Baba O’Riley.”
In another sign of the song’s cultural impact, “That’s Entertainment” managed to reach No. 21 on the U.K. charts in 1981, even though it hadn’t been released as a single there. Unusually, the song’s chart placement was driven entirely by Jam fans buying copies of the single imported from other countries.
My grandfather, of course, wouldn’t have known Paul Weller from the Archbishop of Canterbury. And even if he had, this week’s calendar entry predates the song by a full six years.
Still, such is the power of the song that, when I saw the calendar entry, I instantly imagined my grandfather writing it while he was fed up with overcooked dinners, overdrawn bank accounts, overheating radiators, and the thousand other minor irritants of daily life:
The film buffs in the crowd are squirming to tell me that I’m barking up the wrong tree; and indeed, they are correct.
In May of 1974, MGM released “That’s Entertainment!,” a two-hour cinema compilation drawn from its musicals of the 1920s to the 1950s. Stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart reminisced while introducing their classic song-and-dance routines.
The movie was a sizable popular and critical success in an America hungry for cultural comfort food. (’74 was also the year that Rolling Stone named the Beach Boys one of its Bands of the Year, based solely on their energetic stage act and the resurgent popularity of their decade-old hits.)
A compilation of great musical moments from the ’20s through the ’50s would have been right up my grandparents’ generational alley. I’m guessing, then, that the reference to “That’s Entertainment” is a reference to seeing the movie. My grandfather, unlike Paul Weller, was not protesting daily drudgery when he picked up his pencil; he was celebrating, or commemorating, his escape from it.
I even went so far as to try to figure out where he would have seen the movie. A small movie theater operated not terribly far from his house during that time period — you can see it in the background of this photo my grandfather took in 1969. So he might have gone there.
I also thought he could have seen it on TV, since a film like “That’s Entertainment!” would have been tailor-made for conservative networks to show in prime time. But newspaper research indicates that the ABC Sunday Night Movie for Nov. 3, 1974, was not “That’s Entertainment!,” but “Midnight Cowboy” — about as far from “That’s Entertainment!” as you can get and still be in the same genre.
(Apropos de nada, how much would you bet that the 1974 network TV edit of “Midnight Cowboy” ends with Ratso Rizzo recuperating in Miami, opening a successful beachfront Orange Julius stand and proposing to a young stenographer played by Karen Black?)