In 1966, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were set to create the soundtrack for and play youth gang members in a movie based on the novel Only Lovers Left Alive. Nicholas Ray was going to direct, Andrew Loog Oldham and Allen Klein were the money men… and yet…
What would happen if angry and vengeful young people took power? This has long been a staple of pulp fiction, if not the entertainment industry (young people being the most coveted demographic as pop culture consumers). And, of course, it has also long been a fantasy of angry and vengeful young people. Where would we be without it, right?
Well, in 1964, a British novelist named Dave Wallis published Only Lovers Left Alive, which convincingly imagined just that scenario. Perhaps channeling forerunners like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (1959) and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), Wallis used the backdrop of teenage revolt in a dilapidated postwar London to showcase this theme. To startlingly good effect.
The effect was so good, in fact, that in March 1966, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham announced that Only Lovers Left Alive would be the band’s film debut. The Stones would not only portray members of a roving gang of vindictive delinquents, but they and Marianne Faithfull would write and record the soundtrack. Allen Klein, smelling a potential payday on the order of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, co-signed on as a producer. And Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar) was in talks with the producers to be the director, while Gillian Freeman (The Leather Boys) was reportedly going to write the screenplay.
In Wallis’ novel, the adults are not rounded up, put in camps and dosed with LSD (the way it was later portrayed in the 1968 youth-ploitation film Wild in the Streets):
No, the adults disappeared because they all committed suicide. To hasten the generational turnover, so to speak, the government issued “Easiway” suicide pills—and, being as how England practiced that dreaded “socialized medicine,” the pills were no doubt free of charge. The unintended consequence, however, was that the economy collapsed without the old guard to tend to it. Gasoline, tires (tyres, as they’re called in the novel), sugar and coffee replaced the now-worthless English pound as currency. As the older generation faded, the youth assembled into rival gangs and retreated into motorbike races and debauchery. The essentials of life dwindled and packs of wild dogs roamed the streets. One gang took over Windsor Castle, and a good time was had by all, at least for the short term. The battle for control ultimately came down to two gangs; the victors castrated all of the male survivors of the rival gang. Then disease spread and the winning gang had to hit the road.
In short, the plot of Only Lovers Left Alive is The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” come to life: “Don’t cry / don’t raise your eye / It’s only teenage wasteland…”
Speaking of which, here’s a great video done to accompany “Baba O’Riley”:
Imagine the above plot of Only Lovers Left Alive with a soundtrack by the Rolling Stones at the peak of their rawest powers! Imagine Brian Jones taking a hatchet to Mick Jagger or Marianne Faithfull heaving a javelin into the guts of Allen Klein or Bill Wyman gouging out the Queen’s eyes with the neck of his bass guitar. Good times.
Nicholas Ray and Gillian Freeman reportedly wrote a draft of a script for the film but, because the Stones lost confidence in Ray’s ability to pull off the project, the backers withdrew their money. This is not surprising, in retrospect. By 1966, Ray was something of a pariah in the film industry. His previous film, 55 Days at Peking (1963), had been a big-budget historical drama about the Boxer Rebellion, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. Ray, by that time, had a history of unreliability due to serious alcohol and drug abuse and, halfway through the filming of 55 Days at Peking, he collapsed on the set and two assistants had to take over the director’s role. The film lost $7 million and was the last feature Ray would ever direct. Only Lovers Left Alive, had it been made, would have been either Ray’s lifeline back to Hollywood respectability or the noose with which he hanged himself.
Alas, he never got the chance.
If the film had been made—and had it taken its vibe from the book jacket photo spread by Bruce Fleming—it might have beaten The Wanderers and 12 Monkeys to the apocalyptic punch and, right now, be considered a classic of punk cinema. But, alas, the good ideas die young, one supposes.
All was not lost for the Rolling Stones as cinema stars, though. Oldham had arranged for their second tour of Ireland in late 1965 to be filmed, in order to learn how they would “translate” to the silver screen. A documentary about that tour was completed and shown at a film festival in Germany in October 1966. The film was never officially released, partly because Oldham and Allen Klein battled over the ownership of rights to the footage and partly because a burglar at Oldham’s office made off with all the prints (Hmmm, that sounds suspicious). In 2012, a revised version of that original film, called Charlie Is My Darling—Ireland 1965 was released by Klein’s ABKCO Records. What goes around comes around.
Here’s the trailer for the 2012 release. You actually get to hear Brian Jones and Bill Wyman speak!
Yes, yes, we know. Jim Jarmusch directed a film called Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013 and he confessed to having taken the title from the Wallis novel. But that’s where the similarity ends. Jarmusch’s film was about vampires. Here’s the trailer:
Only Lovers Left Alive was also the title of an album by Stiv Bators’ band, The Wanderers, in 1981. And so, Stiv gets the last word. As usual.