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“Rock Docs” Sampler #3: Salute to the Seventies

Oh, to have grown up in the Seventies. That’s not a hypothetical, because I did. To me, the later baby boomers got a bit of the best of both worlds, musically speaking. At the start of the decade, we had just graduated from the kids table and many of the best Sixties performers still going strong, while the glorious excesses of newer rock gods like Led Zeppelin were on the vanguard. If the music scene seemed to be a bit on the wane by the middle Seventies, that was OK. By the time we were off to college or moved away to the big city a couple of years later, the punk and indie-rock movement was just taking hold. In my new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I examine this ever-shifting and regenerating rock history through how it was captured in concert and documentary films. For a 30-page excerpt and info on how to purchase, please click on the link below. Also available on Amazon and from other online book retailers.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Jimmy Page’s fantasy sequence, the most conceptually fine-tuned of the four, arguably holds up the best. It comes during the twenty-eight-minute, nuclear-option version of “Dazed and Confused,” the fame-making psycho blues from the band’s first album. The concert incarnation of “Dazed” featured several sections not heard on the studio original, most notably the unearthly interlude when Page took a violin bow to his guitar, fed it through an echoplex, and played to the crowd like a modern-day Merlin. Then the scene switches to his property near Scotland’s Loch Ness where he had recently (and un-coincidentally) bought the former home of occult figurehead Aleister Crowley. The atmospherics are just right (full moon and a light snowfall) as Page climbs an escarpment in a near re-creation of the “Stairway to Heaven”-suggestive gatefold illustration in Led Zeppelin IV. At the top he meets the same Tarot-deck hermit but it’s actually himself in advanced old age. In a special effects shot that always got a cheer from theater audiences, the hermit’s face then morphs back in time, eventually revealing Page in his Yardbird days, as a schoolboy and as a young tot—suggesting, as Page said in a 2007 magazine interview, that enlightenment “can be achieved at any time in a man’s life.” To top it off, the hermit’s staff turns into a multi-hued light saber.

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From Soul to Soul (1973)

Ten years after becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in the post-colonial era, Ghana celebrated in part by staging a huge cross-cultural concert event. Featuring local performers and an array of mostly black soul, pop and jazz musicians from the U.S., this was an age before a word like “multiculturalism” was part of everybody’s vocabulary and there is a real sense of discovery here on both sides, though the solidarity is touched with befuddlement at times. The biggest star to the 100,000 fans is clearly Wilson Pickett, whose bravura performance inspires a giant mosh pit.

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From The Kids are Alright (1979)

Despite the Who’s tendency to tomfoolery in interviews, in the end all you need is in the music. Jeff Stein made his best directorial move in cajoling a reluctant band to go back on stage at Shepperton Studios and give him one definitive take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the record (there was an invited audience of about 500). Townshend’s eight-minute manifesto of self-determination in an unreliable world is one of rock’s great galvanizing classics and the fired-up band pulls out all the stops. The years of hard living were catching up to Moon (as they would with John Entwistle in 2002) and he showed up for rehearsals overweight and out of practice. But coming out of the song’s electronic keyboard interlude (with its 2001-inspired laser light display) Keith nails the thunderous drum cadenza and Roger lets rip rock’s most histrionic “Yeah!!” while Pete leaps clear across the stage, landing in a knee slide straight at the camera. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll does matter despite the Who’s self-conscious protestations.

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From The Filth and the Fury (2000)

Julien Temple started filming the Sex Pistols from their earliest gigs in 1976. He starts The Filth and the Fury with a bracing montage of British social upheaval, discontent and rioting in the mid-70s that left the country ripe for the Pistols’ confrontational and chaotic revolt. It is the ex-Rotten John Lydon who gets off a lot of the best lines in the contemporary interviews, during which group members are shown individually and in silhouette, as if in witness protection, still somewhat menacing. Lydon recalls his life and times as a “damn ugly fuck-up” who emerged “brain-wiped” after being in a coma for a year with a bad case of boyhood meningitis, then realizing at age fourteen he had only a short time left to escape a third-rate fate. By the end, Lydon tears up at the memory of the ill-fated Sid Vicious, admitting to his inability to pull his childhood friend off the dismal path to junkiedom—it affords Sid a humanity rarely allowed to him by both detractors and idolizers.

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From Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Never mind the Jawas: an open-ended life quest, in the end, is concept enough for Rust Never Sleeps. Never as overtly confessional as some of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, Young connects with his fan base using a more loose-ends type of questing poetry. It’s the type that is easy to project oneself into even when the language gets elaborate and impressionistic. Is the Dylanesque “Thrasher” a beguiling manifesto of creative and personal independence or a thinly-disguised dissing of his former and future colleagues named Crosby, Stills and Nash? Of course, it could be both and more, and the imagery (“Where the eagle glides ascending, there’s an ancient river bending/Down the timeless gorge of changes, where sleeplessness awaits”) of escape and discovery are universal. Rust Never Sleeps, both the film and his then-current album of the same name can be seen as an end-of-decade mission statement.

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop”: Where Musical Dreams Go to Die

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Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.

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“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.

During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”

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I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.

Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.

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“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.

My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt:
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

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“Rock Docs” Sampler #2, The Bests of the Fests

Rock festivals, especially those in the golden era of the late 60s and early 70s, are the source for some of the best filmed footage in pop music history. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious. The parade of musical talent for 1967’s Monterey Pop, 1969’s Woodstock and 1970’s Isle of Wight festivals is awe-inspiring, especially in retrospect: high-water marks of a genius era. But they are also great sociological snapshots of their time period and often the audience members are just as entertaining as the performers!

Below are five excerpts from my new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey about this important rockumentary sub-genre, with accompanying vdeo clips. For a 30-page excerpt and purchase information about this book, please click on the link below or on the book cover image in the right-hand column. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Monterey Pop (released 1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)

There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the quartet of near-mythic Monterey Moments: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.

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From Woodstock (released 1970, directed by Michael Wadleigh)

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

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From Message to Love: The isle of Wight Festival (released 1997, directed by Murray Lerner)

With six hundred thousand rock fans ferrying over from mainland England in August 1970, the third annual Isle of Wight Festival was one of the biggest concert events in history. Unfortunately, the five-day festival turned out to be a financial failure, and the commissioned footage from director Murray Lerner’s crew did not emerge as a feature film until a quarter of a century later. Nevertheless, Message to Love is a documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. It contains a wealth of great musical moments; especially notable are clips of both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison shortly before their deaths as well as footage of the Who at the very apex of their career. It is also a clear-eyed view of an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but instead descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.

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From Wattstax (released 1973, directed by Mel Stuart)

Every music festival film has at least one classic show-stealer and in Wattstax that moment arrives when Rufus Thomas, the perennial Memphis favorite duly advertised as “The Prince of Dance” on the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard, takes the stage. Appearing for all the world to see in a hot pink suit with short pants and white go-go boots, he works up the crowd to such a degree with “The Breakdown” that when he then instructs them to “Do the Funky Chicken,” thousands of dancers storm the football field to oblige him.

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From Glastonbury (released 2006, directed by Julien Temple)

The Glastonbury Festival in rural England holds a rather unique place in the annals of rock as being the one outdoor event started in the Woodstock era that has continued—despite a few missed years—straight into the present day, adapting and growing exponentially but still retaining much of its counterculture spirit. Rockumentary master Julien Temple has funneled this considerable history into a vibrant, if occasionally jumbled, film record of just under two and a half hours. He benefits from the availability of vintage early footage (some of it from 1971’s Glastonbury Fayre) and adds in his accounting of the modern festival (Temple shot there from 2002-05) with much attention to the event’s evolving sociology and an extensive sampling of live performances clips. What is just as memorable as this multi-generational musical cornucopia is the thirty-ring post-hippie circus that accompanies it: a freewheeling pagan arts fair and anti-establishment concave that equals or even overshadows what’s on the main stage.

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A Hard Day’s Fight: In Troubled Times, the Clash’s “Rude Boy” Can’t Fail

Though it will never be regarded in the same zeitgeist-defining terms as the 1964 Richard Lester film, the 1980 Clash vehicle “Rude Boy” can be re-considered nowadays as a “Hard Day’s Night” of punk. Both films focus on era-defining bands in a format where documentary elements cohabitate with a lightly-fictionalized script. But whereas the Beatles quipped their way through a trend-setting capital city that was finding its post-war footing, the London Town that the Clash inhabit 15 years later looks a lot different. Grim high-rise council estates, economic misery and openly racist National Front rallies in downtrodden districts seem to be the order of the day. Of course, this is the backdrop from which sprang the punk-rock uprising in England a few years before. By the time of the events of this movie—-1978 and early ’79—-things only look worse and Margaret Thatcher, with the support of multitudes of aggrieved white voters, is poised to be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Clash—-who keenly identify with multiculturalism—-lash out against all this with their razor-sharp riffs and impassioned lyrics. But the film’s shiftless protagonist (played by Ray Gange) plays like a blank slate on which we are not sure what will be written. He’s like a low-information voter in perilous times, making the film retroactively relevant in this age of Brexit and a Trump presidency.

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And it is Ray who’s the more-or-less sole focus of “Rude Boy’s” first fifteen minutes or so. We first see him in an iconic UK image of the day: staring down disaffectedly on a grey cityscape from the upper floors of a council tower block. Down the stairs he goes past the KKK graffiti and on out to the unemployment office. Out on the streets of his racially-mixed Brixton neighborhood, the leader at a National Front rally is spewing a xenophobic tirade that would make the Donald look like a Rainbow Coalition spokesman. (Well, maybe not but you get the picture). Although he’s on the dole, Ray works (at least part time) at a dirty bookstore but spends the after-hours in gritty punk venues, eventually shuffling into his screenplay destiny to become a Clash roadie. He’s standing at the back of the club as Joe Strummer and the boys tear through their amped-up version of the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and starts to meet them soon after. Gange’s character gets it to a certain extent. Hung up between the long arm of authority and the general malaise, he is attracted to the Clash’s aspirational indignation—-especially so after getting a night in jail for walking down the street and then having the nerve to get “lippy” with an officer who stops him for no reason. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this case of punk profiling takes places at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street—-the seat of British of British government power.

Still, Ray makes it clear early and often that he has little use for “left-wing wankers,” making his scene with Strummer at the bar one of the more useful in the film. Ray reveals himself as one of those wishful-thinking “undiscovered millionaires” so beloved of Conservative Party and GOP strategists, while Joe’s rising tide would lift all boats. Strummer’s vision of what lies at the end of a blinkered pursuit of materialism is typically blunt and earnest, a touching up-close moment with the punk populist who died in 2002.

Politics aside, the main draw of “Rude Boy” would be the generous serving of concert clips from the Clash’s early prime. Though the tough issues are never absent for that long, there is still an unbridled joy in watching them bounce onto the stage at the huge Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park and get 50,000+ kids bouncing up and down in unison to “London’s Burning.” Jacked-up versions of “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “What’s My Name” and “I Fought the Law” perfectly capture that era’s twin themes of sedition and disaffection. The stage performances work well with Mingay’s documentary street-protest footage: if you ever needed a real-life visual for “White Riot’s” admiring opening line (“Black people gotta a lot of problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick”) you’ll get it here.

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Clash fans will be quick on the draw with the second half of that couplet: “White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick.” Which brings us back to Ray Gange. When one of his crew takes leave after the RAR rally, road manager Johnny Green pops into the sex shop to offer Ray a job on the band’s upcoming north-of-England tour. Internal and external forms of repression circulate: there are unnerving scenes (scripted or not?) of thuggish security men throwing fans out the side door, in the day when being a gate-crasher or stage-rusher could be very bad for your health. At one point, Ray intervenes on behalf of the kids and the bouncers give him a right pounding as well.

In a more genteel but no less disquieting moment, there is an intercut Thatcher speech. Any quaint notion of broad-based social justice is out the window here, replaced by the Iron Lady’s claim that (Caucasian) people “above all” want to be protected from the strangely omnipresent threat of “violence, theft and intimidation.” Joe Strummer captured this grim turning point in a way that echoes bitterly right down to the 2016 U.S. elections. In “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the group’s jaunty reggae number sliced through with ear-splitting punk dynamics, Strummer sings of being one of the few palefaces at an all-star revue of Jamaican performers. He seeks solidarity but comes away dismayed at the perceived indifference to the looming political threat. In the live version seen here, Joe delivers the song’s famous climatic line while the camera hones in on Gange, crouched in the wings. “All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,” Strummer cries out, his voice brimming with rage, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway!” Ray’s expression stays neutral.

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Ray Gange in a recent photo. He received a Fine Arts degree in 1997 and has found some success as a painter and sculptor.

Well, they do say all politics are local and it’s in some of “Rude Boy’s” quieter moments that we see a bit of a breakthrough. Gange the inner-city kid appears seems genuinely moved while talking to lead guitarist Mick Jones after he completes studio vocal for “Stay Free,” his neighborhood narrative of meeting up with a childhood mate who’s just been released from Brixton jail after serving a 3-year burglary sentence. Other scenes are just gratefully played for fun: Ray holds the heavy bag while drummer (and martial arts enthusiast) Topper Headon works out, eventually turning his attention to the roadie whom he playfully pummels. In other scenes, Ray does a bit of the ol’ soft shoe while Strummer plays the rehearsal-space piano and Jones, Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are seen in their full rock-rebel glory in several scenes outside a courthouse while they were up before a judge after the air-gun shooting of some birds–who turned out to be expensive racing pigeons—-while their de facto manager at the time, Caroline Coon, also makes a cameo. The Clash are seen quite correctly as a band on the upswing with all that entails. “Things have tightened up,” Johnny Green tells the semi-competent Ray before he’s eased out a job and shambles off into Thatcher’s grave new world, while the band finish up with their mission-statement cover “I Fought the Law,” charging into the 80s as the conscience of rock.

Why in hell the Clash came to disavow this well-meaning and often vital film is puzzling at best. OK, so “Rude Boy” (unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”) will never be thought of as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The documentary and fiction elements sometimes seem uncertainly cobbled together and the under-developed subplot about a group of black kids caught up in a drug sting would have been better off as a separate project. Johnny Green, in his entertaining and fair-minded 1999 memoir “A Riot of Our Own” says the band made it quite clear they wouldn’t attend the premier at the Berlin International Film Festival and that the same would go for people working for them. Green, who comes across as nobody’s fool, writes “I took delight in telling Mingay on the phone, within Mick Jones’ hearing, ‘See you at the airport.'” He and his road crew partner Barry Baker (who’s also in the film) sat in the balcony and afterwards came down the front aisle, to great applause, to be acknowledged. The film won an Honorable Mention and was playing in London the following month over the band’s objections.

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A recommended read for Clash fans.

As the giddy-up ska beat of Clash’s ebullient “Rudie Can’t Fail” plays over the end credits it’s not hard to re-live the enthusiasm of the Berlin festival crowd. It’s not like a lot of them were thinking “Well, someday this will be a valuable record of that era.” I like to think it was just them getting caught up in the film’s implied idea that when the outside world, with its endless perversions of power and money, brings all its pressure to bear and “You need someone for a savior” at least you can follow Rudie’s example, being “rude and reckless” while “drinking brew for breakfast” and in general caring fuck-all for what anyone else thinks because you’ll go it your own way. May it ever be thus.

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

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“Rock Docs” Sampler #1: The Early Days

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.

If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs, please click on the image of the book cover in the right-hand column,it links to my BookLocker author page which contains a longer excerpt. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick

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It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.

From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)

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Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.

From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

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It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.

From The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.

From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)

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Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!

From: Cream: Farewell Concert (1968)

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

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The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

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At Peace in the Land of “The Electric Pencil”: A Book Review from the Pale Beyond

During the course of my three-part series “The Pale Beyond,” the focus of the text gradually shifted. It moved from the scarifying aspects of the giant closed asylums which dot the American landscape (and the related “urban explorer” subculture that goes with it), to ruminations on the lives of those unfortunate people who were fated to be patients there while they were still open. But a lot of that was merely speculation. Seldom has a class of people been so under-represented, if not downright anonymous. Many of them spent much of their adult lives in these looming Victorian complexes that were designed with the best of intentions but invariably became inhumane warehouses of lost souls.

The story of one of these patients, James Edward Deeds Jr., has come to light with the recent publication of the remarkable picture book “The Electric Pencil: Drawings from Inside State Hospital No. 3.” The book displays the 283 enchanting and enigmatic drawings done by Deeds in pen, pencil and crayons while he was committed to an asylum in the town of Nevada, Missouri between 1936 and 1973. His subjects formed a fanciful and orderly alternate world of riverboats, trains, factories, gardens, animals and dozens of well-dressed men and women with large and almost hypnotized eyes. Deed’s drawings have a keen draftsman’s precision and a calming, nostalgic view of an era just before his own birth in 1908.

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Behind all this is the story of Deeds’ troubled life and the improbable events that led to the discovery of his art. James Edward Deeds was the eldest child of a large farming family in southwest Missouri. He was likely autistic and, unable and/or unwilling to help much on the farm, was physically abused by a cruel father. After threatening a younger brother with an axe—an act which may have been a prank—he was sent to the nearby State School for the Feeble Minded. Later, he was classified insane and committed to State Hospital #3.

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“It was as if the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) had been set down on the outskirts of a small town in western Missouri,” Richard Goodman writes in the book’s engaging introduction. Built in 1887, it was the largest structure west of the Mississippi River at the time it was completed. By the time of Deeds’ confinement many of the ideals of this Thomas Kirkbride-designed complex—the Quaker physician-reformer envisioned spacious and therapeutic facilities built to take full advantage of sunlight and even the “prevailing summer breezes”—had gone by the wayside. Deed’s art therapy was self-directed and little known outside of his visiting siblings and his mother, who kept him in pens and crayons. In a rather poignant touch, most of his drawings were made on the pages of a discarded State Hospital #3 ledger book.

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After Deeds stopped drawing due to arthritis, probably in the mid-60s, he gave the unsigned binder to his mother, who in turn handed it over to one of his brothers. But when the brother re-located in 1970, it was mistakenly placed in the trash by movers. A passing teenage boy spotted it and took it home. Goodman speculates why. “Was it that he knew somehow that this was a person’s life effort, a world that had been created with deliberation, care and skill, and that leaving it there would be wrong?” The boy (eventually man) would hold onto the book for all of 36 years, finally offering it for sale while retaining his anonymity. The drawings in The Electric Pencil changed hands a couple of times before ending up in the possession of sculptor/art collector Harris Diamant, who wrote the book’s foreword.

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Certainly many people could relate to Deeds’ creating his peaceable kingdom as a psychic escape from the bleak reality of his life within State Hospital #3. Even in the lives of those of us much more fortunate, there is a constant mental and spiritual need to find our own “happy place” in a very uncertain world. But just beneath the placid surface of these illustrations lies the despairing world that James Edward Deeds lived in. For too many years his “treatment” consisted of alternate applications of sedatives and shock therapy. Diamant took to calling the unknown artist “The Electric Pencil” before Deeds was eventually identified when his niece saw one of the notices that the collector ran in Missouri newspapers. That nickname derives from drawing #197 where the seemingly dyslexic Deeds wrote the word “ectlectric” next to a pencil. But the letters ECT (used by staff for the phrase “electro-convulsive therapy”) would show up on other pages as well. Saddest of all may be the image of a man casting a nervous sidelong glance under which Deeds wrote “Why Doctor.”

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Why, indeed. It turned my mind back to the untold thousands of others who dwelled in more-or-less total obscurity without the alleviating comfort of artistic aptitude, never mind the posthumous recognition of a New York art gallery show and a handsomely-presented book. (Deeds passed away in 1987, having spent his final fourteen years in a nursing home). Recently, on a third attempt, I found the auxiliary Danvers State patient cemetery that I had heard about at the time I started this series. Not having spotted it from the car, I took to my trusty hybrid this time and biked around the area along the Danvers-Middleton town line where it was purported to be—a curious mixed-use area of farmland, rehabilitation centers, community gardens and a Massachusetts Youth Services detention center.

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After a while I spotted it up on a gentle slope from a low-lying field. It was a mile away from the old façade of the Danvers asylum (the centerpiece of the new condo development there), a pleasantly situated rectangular site off the road. As usual, numbered graves abound, but a recently-dedicated plaque now lists the names of those interred. Since the most recent passed away in 1920, most of these people would have lived in the imagined time frame of Deeds’ graceful drawings. Here they were, at peace in the imagination of the artist as well as within the borders of the rail fencing, even with a pall overhead that the October sunshine didn’t quite burn through.

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The Return of the Boston Rock Opera: The Moon is Back in the 7th House

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Dormant for over ten years after a great run in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Boston Rock Opera company is back in a big way. In August they returned from a long hiatus with a three-part David Bowie tribute show at the ONCE ballroom in Somervile, Mass. and this weekend they are back at the same venue with a full theatrical production. Arriving in the middle of the excruciating endurance contest that is this year’s American presidential election season, the BRO’s upcoming rendition of the evergreen hippie musical “Hair” couldn’t have come at a better time. Even if the play’s zealous love-bead idealism is a little dated at this point (it was first produced almost 50 years ago) the book’s more particular message—a righteous plea for understanding, non-violence and harmony free of racial or gender bias—is more relevant than ever. Watch this space for an upcoming review.

Right from the opening song, with its dreamy astrological pronouncement of a coming utopian age, “Hair” was a whole new ball of wax when it graduated from its off-Broadway beginnings to the Great White Way in 1968. In practical terms, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t reached the “Age of Aquarius.” It doesn’t look like “Peace will guide the planets” anytime soon and that instead of “No more falsehoods and derisions” there are people more ready to dish them than ever before. Boston Rock Opera founder (and “Hair” director) Eleanor Ramsay says the musical “Mirrors many of the same racial and social issues that dominate our discourse today.” All the more reason to bask in the exuberance and irreverence of a work that speaks to our better angels in an age when others try to cynically exploit our fears and prejudices.

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The cast of BRO’s production of “Hair.” Photo by Joshua Pickering

The Boston Rock Opera story began in the early Nineties, after an ad hoc performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter weekend at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge grew into something more. For the next decade, the group amassed a pretty impressive list of conceptual rock productions. There were encore performances of “Superstar” that got ever more professional, culminating in a version that had Gary Cherone, vocalist of Extreme, in the lead role. They also did a full staging of the Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow,” arguably the very first rock opera, as well as Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” and the Small Faces’ “Happiness Stan.” There were original productions such as Tim Robert’s “Crackpot Notion” and album tribute nights: a particular favorite of mine was “Aqualung vs. Billion Dollar Babies.”

Most impressively for me were BRO’s productions of the Kinks’ sprawling political parable “Preservation.” This Ray Davies creation, unfolding over three discs on two different albums (1973-74), tells the cautionary tale of a gangster-like real estate developer who gains power and lays waste to a once-peaceful land. I know, right? Under the guidance of Eleanor Ramsay and local rocker Mick Maldonado, also starring as the devilish Mr. Flash, “Preservation” grew from a free-wheeling club show at the Middle East to the theater at the Massachusetts College of Art. This fully-realized incarnation, which co-starred Letter to Cleo’s Kay Hanley as Flash’s top “floozy,” got the official stamp of approval from Ray Davies himself when the Kinks leader stopped by a rehearsal and offered some feedback.

Works like “Preservation” were rapturously received by the local music community, so it was naturally disappointing when the Boston Rock Opera went quiet soon after a Tenth Anniversary show in 2003. An outsider can only guess at the difficulties of keeping afloat a rock-theater collective in this age of tightened resources and shiny digital distractions. That’s why it has been such a welcome surprise that this valuable local music resource is back with us. Let the sunshine back in.

More info at http://www.rockopera.com

Documentary Spotlight: Jaco

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JACO
Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes

While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.

Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.

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This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”

Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.

But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.

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Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.

I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.

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BBA

Rock Band or Law Firm? The Invasion of the Would-Be Supergroups

Jeff Beck, Roger McQuinn, Paul Kantner, Jack Bruce, Keith Emerson, Leslie West. These are a few of the names burned into the pages of rock music history. They made their reputations in iconic bands of the Sixties like the Yardbirds, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain and the Byrds. But bands are invariably fragile entities, from the chart-toppers right down to the local covers group. Think of even your two or three best pals in the world and try to imagine working and travelling with them nearly non-stop for an indefinite period of time—not to mention with other people you may not be nearly as tight with—and you can see where even many of the most successful of groups have pretty limited time spans.

But an advantage of success is that you meet other talented peers and these connections invariably lead to new bands once the bloom is off the rose of your first star-making gig. For every Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton who had the right stuff for lasting solo careers, there were dozens of others more suited to being role players (for more on this check out some of my entries in the “We’ve All Gone Solo” category to the right) or nominal leaders who needed complimentary wingmen. With the surnames of these guys (they were almost exclusively male) already well-known to fans, this re-shuffling of the rock-musician deck led to a number of law-firm or acronym group names throughout the 70s and 80s. While some found even greater fame in this incarnation (notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) many others had just a shining moment or two before splintering again, with others going solo and/or re-forming their more famous band, especially as the classic-rock “legacy act” thing became big starting in the Nineties. Here are nine of the more notable examples of this curious sidebar of pop history.

West, Bruce and Laing

I start with this power trio as perhaps the most natural fit in this category and who seemed most destined for bigger things as a unit. Felix Pappalardi produced most of the records by Cream, maybe the original pre-designated “supergroup.” When he hooked up with fellow New Yorker Leslie West in 1969, they formed Mountain as a sort of Americanized version of Cream, alternating gritty blues-rock (courtesy of West’s gruff vocals and blazing lead guitar) with an almost baroque take on pop songcraft (Pappalardi’s specialty). In 1972, with Mountain winding down and Cream long since broken up, West teamed up with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce, who neatly reprised his role as powerhouse bassist and co-lead singer, also Felix’s part in Mountain.

There was a lot of buzz circling around West, Bruce and Laing, who got a nifty million-dollar, three-album deal after a bidding war. Their first album, Why Dontcha, hit #26 in the U.S. charts and ticket sales were brisk for their concerts. The bloozy rockers dished out by the wrestler-sized West (like “Pleasure” and the title track) were popular with the decibel-crazed longhairs of the era and Bruce’s somewhat softer material balanced them out. In 1973 came the pretty good follow-up Whatever Turns You On but that LP stalled at #87 and rock music’s perennial elephant-in-the-room, hard drug abuse, would lead to bitter in-fighting and WBL never toured again. Their official break-up wasn’t announced until early ’74 around the time an indulgent live album (featuring a bum-blasting 13-minute version of the Stones’ “Play With Fire”) was released to complete the three-album deal. Jack Bruce would move on to his many projects, which in 1993 included the not-dissimilar BBM (with his Cream frenemy Ginger Baker and Irish guitar great Gary Moore) and, in 2005, a one-off Cream reunion. Mountain re-formed for one more studio album and, after Pappalardi’s death in 1983, West and Laing played under the Mountain banner for many years with a rotating cast of bass players.

Beck, Bogert and Appice

As the second of the Yardbird’s three iconic axemen, the mercurial Jeff Beck had a lot to do with the creation of the modern rock guitar sound but with his vast array of squealing, whooshing or stabbing sound effects, he was the most difficult to pin down. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were forerunners of the heavy hard-rock engine stokers with their work in Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. Beck had met the package-deal rhythm section as early as 1967 with intentions of getting a thing together but contractual issues and the early edition of the Jeff Beck Group (which launched Rod Stewart) kept this from happening until 1972. The trio did some well-received shows and started working on an album, released in early ’73. I loved the BBA album as a 15 year-old (and still do) and it’s very much an article of its era. Beck’s bracing, sometimes unhinged, guitar solos and brash power chords, Appice’s walloping drum fills and Bogert’s hyperactive bass are well-matched to the slap-happy arrangements of a do-as-you-please era when rock was king. “Livin’ Alone” and “Lady” (with its Who-ish dynamics) are the highlights of the group originals. The group gleefully steamroll over Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” while changing gears completely for a refined remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with a sensitive vocal from Appice that helped it become a minor hit. But soon, the restless Beck was packing up his white Stratocaster and moving on, and BBA would not complete a second studio LP, though a live album (originally released only in Japan) is now available on the Internet.

The Souther Hillman Furay Band

It wasn’t just the heavy rockers who were getting on the roll-call bandwagon when it came to assembling new “sure-thing” bands. SHF was the idea of David Geffen, who figured that the combo of singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and country-rock stalwarts Chris Hillman (a founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros.) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) would make a great addition to his roster of artists at Asylum Records. With a supporting cast that included keyboardist Paul Harris, drummer Jim Gordon and pedal steel/dobro master Al Perkins, SHF got off to a promising start with the 1974 hit single “Fallin’ in Love” while the debut album hit #11, meaning there were quite a few copies mixed in with the Jackson Browne and Doobie Brother titles in the record racks of those so inclined. Though a pretty solid entry in that category, the group couldn’t overcome the personal disagreements natural in such inorganic assemblages. SHF did manage to squeeze out a second album in 1975 (Trouble in Paradise) but split up soon after.

Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit

A few months ago, I wrote about Paul Kossoff in the aforementioned “We’ve All Gone Solo” series as one of those deeply sad rock & roll fatalities, a talented and influential lead guitarist who was less than fully equipped to deal with the often callous vicissitudes of the music industry and band dynamics, never mind the wide availability of hard drugs. Free were hard rock pioneers but bad blood (esp. between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist-songwriter Andy Fraser) and Kossoff’s heroin use precipitated an initial break-up in 1972. Kossoff pulled himself together enough to lead up this band with Free drummer Simon Kirke, Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (later Ronnie Lane’s replacement in the last line-up of the Faces) and future Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys and lead vocals. With its brooding bluesy sound, the KKTF album sometimes seems the lost bridge between Free and Bad Company, fans of either/both groups may find this a pleasant discovery if it flew under their radar first time around. It has many fine examples of Kossoff’s trademark sustain-filled soloing and Rabbit’s fluid keyboard work is a nice added dimension, even if his singing is merely competent when compared to Rodgers. But this was strictly a one-off and soon Free were having another go, though Kossoff’s continued addiction problem (among other factors) derailed that idea in ’73. Rodgers and Kirke soon saw the top of the mountain as half of Bad Co. while Kossoff died in 1976, his drug-damaged heart giving out on a flight from L.A. to New York.

Paice Ashton Lord

Hard rock heavyweights Deep Purple split up in 1976 after which two of their original members, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, teamed up with fellow Englishman Tony Ashton. The Blackburn-born Ashton was an accomplished pianist and singer and a bit of a gadfly, having done tons of session work, most notably for Family and John Entwistle. In 1971, he had had a big hit called “Resurrection Shuffle” with another group that sounded like an accounting firm—-Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Paice, Ashton and Lord kept on with the sound of Ashton’s earlier group, blending in elements of R&B, jazz and rock with Ashton’s extroverted vocals on top. More of an enjoyable side project than an intended supergroup, they would only do the one album (with a live CD added years later). Jon Lord and PAL’s guitarist Bernie Marsden went on to form Whitesnake with singer David Coverdale (Paice was also in the band for a while) while Ashton was a bit out to dry. He re-invented himself in later years as a TV host and painter before dying in 2001. His two PAL bandmates went back to a re-formed Purple in 1984; Lord passed away in 2012.

McQuinn, Clark and Hillman

Let me take this time to give a shout-out to Chris Hillman, one of rock’s great utility players. Never a big star in his own right, he was nevertheless a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Stephen Still’s Manassas. Good bands all, and of course in the first case, damn near legendary. Hillman, who was a steady hand at the bass guitar and mandolin as well as a sometime singer and songwriter, had already been down the great re-shuffle road with Souther, Hillman and Furay. In 1979 he agreed to join his more high-profile ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark but he soon found out that while Byrds of a feather may flock together, they don’t always do so in flawless formation. The original line-up already had a brief, middling re-union in 1973 but MCH never even got off the ground artistically. These bona-fide folk musicians, who did so much to kick-start the great folk-rock movement in the mid-Sixties, almost totally abandon that here. Instead of trying to update that sound for a newer audience they settled for an glossy, soulless production style that was grounded in a no-man’s land somewhere between the Little River Band and Firefall (there’e even a semi-disco number). I bet Hillman and McGuinn likely would prefer to forget that debut nowadays, but for the talented but troubled Clark, this is a sadder case. He saw MCH as a boost to a post-Byrds career that never really gelled. But he overcame the production values he so disliked and cut what to my ears sounds like the band’s best song (“Won’t Let You Down”) on their second album though his continued substance abuse issues meant he lost equal billing (1980’s City merely “featured” Clark). It was likely these same drinking/drug problems that contributed to Clark’s premature death in 1991.

KBC Band

For such a group of disparate talents and personalities, Jefferson Airplane maintained their classic line-up from late 1966 to 1970, becoming one of America’s great psychedelic-era bands, augmenting the Aquarian platitudes of the day with tough-minded social and political lyrics. Starting in the early Seventies, the Airplane parts would splinter off into an uncountable number of solo projects, duos and reconfigurations. Of course, from 1974-78 the front line of vocalist-songwriters (Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Grace Slick) led the evolution into Jefferson Starship and more widespread commercial success than they ever saw in the Sixties. Meanwhile, the band’s formidable guitar-bass pairing (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) had formed the blues-centric Hot Tuna. By the time of the late 70s, this deck of cards was getting re-shuffled with ever increasing frequency. With Balin’s departure, Starship had recruited the full-throated AOR belter Mickey Thomas and had scored a huge hit with the paint-by-numbers arena rocker “Jane” which was a long way away from the days of “White Rabbit.” In 1984 Kanter, with his idealism and sci-fi sensibilities out of fashion, was eased out of an organization he co-founded almost twenty years before. He soon re-teamed with Balin, the other co-founder in 1965, and added Jack Casady when Hot Tuna went on sabbatical. The group’s self-titled 1986 album turned out to be a solid, sometimes inspired affair that balanced romantic and political themes in a way that recalled the heyday of both the Airplane and Starship. Sure, the closely-miked drums and sax refrains are pure skinny-tie 80s. But Marty and Paul combined to pen two excellent topical numbers here: “Mariel” was inspired by revolutionary Nicaragua (Kanter had visited there with Kris Kristofferson) and the mini-epic “America” which not only did some soul-searching about the home country but also featured shout-outs to everything from the struggle against apartheid to West Germany’s Green Party. This anthem compared favorably to the Starship’s recent laugher “We Built This City” and though not a hit did get considerable FM airplay. As did “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me” which was one of several classy, grown-up romantic tunes by the Balin. But Marty was more reliable in his songwriting than he was in the area of band commitment. When he skipped out on a music video shoot to take an extended Hawaiian vacation, the group dissolved though all three would be on board for a brief Jefferson Airplane re-union some five years later.

GTR

OK, this is cheating a bit as GTR is not an acronym but an abbreviation for “guitar.” The two GTRs in this case are the lead guitarists from the classic lineups of two leading progressive rock bands, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis. By 1986, when this band released their sole album, their old bands had adapted in the post-punk 80s, when the fantasy themes and 18-minute suites of classic prog had fallen from favor. Genesis had become a pop juggernaut when Phil Collins stepped out front after Peter Gabriel opted for a solo career and Yes had recently scored their only #1 single with the new-wavey “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Howe was also a charter member of Asia, the standard bearer of amalgamated post-prog, but GTR was clearly a bridge too far. There’s certainly some fine playing by the two formidable six-string masters but the LP is bogged down by material that is neither fish nor fowl. Slick arrangements and clichéd lyrics trump the occasional instrumental inspiration and the leisure-suit videos didn’t help any (see below). Howe quickly retreated back to alternating his time between Asia and Yes, while Hackett (who has been critical of the project in retrospect) moved on to his many thoughtful solo efforts, earning much respect from both older fans and the younger neo-prog crowd.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

Well, this sort of brings us full circle, as the original ELP(almer) was cited up top as one of those self-named bands that did hit the jackpot, a group emblematic of both prog’s majesty and self-indulgence. Years after that band had run its course, keyboard maestro Keith Emerson and bassist-singer Greg Lake were keen to have another go but by 1985 drummer Carl Palmer was employed as the stickman with (wait for it) Asia. All involved insist that it was mere coincidence that his replacement had the right surname initial to keep the famous acronym going. Cozy Powell was the valued journeyman drummer (Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Rainbow etc.) who also had a #3 solo hit in England with the Hendrix-influenced instrumental “Dance With the Devil.” ELP2 (as they were sometimes called) was a bit of a return to form considering the later albums of the predecessor band (Love Beach anyone?) with a unified group attack that replaced the solo-spot indulgences of old. It yielded a moderate hit (“Touch and Go”) that added a heady synth hook from Keith to a streamlined 80s arrangement.

Elsewhere, ELP2 built on past success with the “Karn Evil 9” echoes of “The Score” and also included was a mighty classical adaption just like in the good old days-—Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War.” Despite reaching #23 on the U.S. charts, there would be no encore record. Like the work of many of the bands here, this project was a fleeting moment in the vast backlog of pop music. It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, as they say, so when you need something a little off the beaten path after hearing the greatest hits once too often, it’s places like these where you can turn to appreciate as well the ambitions that came up a little short.

Copyright 2016–Rick Ouellette