Caught on Celluloid

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My old neighborhood Theater

With the recent passing of Lemmy, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, David Bowie and other rock heroes, I’ve been thinking about how important rock concert films are to the preservation of their music and performances. I don’t know many fans who collect these films, but there are many worth having, good for cranking up on a Friday night while unwinding from the week passed… The notes below illuminate the history of rock music movies, with a particular focus on concert film, rather than the use of rock music within a film. Concert films capture our rock heroes in their best moments, on the lighted stage, entertaining and amazing us with their showmanship, virtuosity, and aplomb. With some of them leaving this mortal coil, it’s a good time to reflect on these celluloid documents….

The relationship between popular music and the movies has been challenging, and while there are plenty of examples of opportunistic, awkward marriages, there are many others where the power of the movies and rock music combined have been magic. At the dawn of the form, Bill Haley’s 1954 single “Rock Around the Clock,” his “novelty foxtrot” did not dent the charts until it was included in the soundtrack for the Richard Brooks film The Blackboard Jungle, which itself became a sell out, pushing the single to number one. Two years later Elvis Presley burst on the scene and built his career on combining popular music and film, reaching audiences worldwide with his charismatic performances. Some felt these performances were a tad embarrassing, but they accomplished the goal of both entertaining fans, and expanding audiences. Across the pond in Britain, a similar evolution was taking place, with Tommy Steele starring in his own movie The Tommy Steele Story (1957) after releasing just a few hit singles. Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Jeff Conrad, Cliff Richard and many others followed suit, either on early rock music television shows, or on the big screen. But it was The Beatles who became a global phenomenon in part due to the strength of their appearances on television specials and variety shows in Britain, America and beyond. They were also a key part of establishing the bond between storytelling and rock music, as seen in their 1965 classic Help!

JethroTull_NothingIsEasy_72dpiAs the 1960s came to a close, rock and roll stars were beginning to literally take center stage, making records without hired studio musicians, and selling their wares based on the strength of their musicianship and performances alone. Rock festivals became cultural phenomena, and several of these were captured on film at the close of the decade, setting the scene for the advent of concert films throughout the 1970s. Monterey Pop (1969) caught Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a host of rockers in defining moments on stage. In the United Kingdom, The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was filmed and led to a host of complete performances on film, including legendary videos of The Who and Jethro Tull. Arguably, the biggest, most important rock movie to start the decade was Woodstock (1970). Documenting the festival that took place on the 600-acre Woodstock_40thAnniversary_72dpifarm in upper New York State, the “celebration of love and peace” offered the screen up to The Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a host of other 60s rock acts, many of whom went on to major stardom. The film captured the spirit of the 60s, placing emphasis on the best sentiments of the hippie culture, and the heroes who spoke for them through music and performance. In stark contrast, Gimmie Shelter (1970) graphically captured the dark side of the movement, as members of the Hell’s Angels, who were policing the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamount Speedway east of San Francisco, beat a young black concertgoer to death in front of the band, symbolically ending the youth movement of the decade passed. As if to drive the point home, The Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), released theatrically in May 1970, depicted the sweet and sour dissolution of their union, capturing the band recording what would became their last albums Abbey Road and Let It Be. It is an important and rare document of the band in the studio, and on rooftop of the Apple building where they performed a short set live together for the last time, before being interrupted by the police.

Williams_PhantomOfThe Paradise_72dpiIt was during this tumultuous time that concert films took center stage in theaters, illuminating the live concert experience for posterity, favoring bands playing live on stage over scripted storytelling. While rock music was heard in countless soundtracks of the era, only a handful of movies featuring rock stars fronting their own story, or a fictional tale were funded and released. The first truly notable example of this form was Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Directed by Brian De Palma, this cult classic is about a record producer who claims as his own the music of a brilliant composer. The composer exacts his revenge Curry_RockyHorrorPictureShow_72dpiin the thrilling climax. Paul Williams received Academic Award and Gold Globe nominations for his musical score. This epic was followed the next year by the film, Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This cult classic is an homage to science fiction and B horror films, boasting a soundtrack with almost two dozen unforgettable songs that have become classics in their own right such as “Sweet Transvestite,” “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and “The Time Warp.”

Who_Tommy_72dpiNext up was The Who’s Tommy (1975). Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock albums ever made, Tommy is a tale in music of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who inspires others to transcend their everyday circumstances. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The Who would be back at the end of the decade with Quadrophenia (1979). A battle between two rival gangs, the Mods and the Rockers, this movie uses the music of the Who to explore the dark side of growing up in London in the mid-1960s. Some of the Who’s greatest songs are featured, such as “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Who_IsleofWightCover_72dpiOther than these examples of storytelling, the decade would instead give favor to actual live concert films. One of the first filmed performances was also by The Who in December 1969 when the band began touring Tommy with a set list including nearly the entire rock opera. Tucked away as an extra on The Who film Live at Kilburn: 1977 (1977) is a film of that concert at the London Coliseum in December 1969. It’s not the best film, as the 16mm cameras could barely capture the show, which was not lit properly for film, an issue that plagues many movies from the decade. But it’s a key document of this legendary band delivering one of the first rock concept albums on stage. A much more watchable set was released as Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) which catches the band delivering an amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage at 2 am in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people. These shows kicked off the decade, setting the stage for a wealth of films to come.

McCartneyPaulWings_RockShowCover_72dpiMany of these best concert films of the 1970s will be reviewed within the pages of my upcoming book. Some were released to theaters during the decade, such as ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1970), Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (1972), Yes’ Yessongs (1973), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare (1976), Genesis’ in Concert (1977), The Band’s The Last Waltz (1978), but many more have been unearthed, restored and released on home video long after the end of the era. The decade closed with the release of one of the best-filmed concerts from that time, Paul McCartney and Wings Rock Show (1980). This concert, from the 1975-1976 “Wings Over the World” tour shows McCartney and Wings at their absolute best. The band play many of McCartney solo hits as well as some Beatles songs such as “Lady Madonna,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Blackbird.” It’s an exceptional film that will take any viewer right into the concert experience. It’s absolutely one of the best concert films of all time.

With the sad passing of David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Keith Emerson, here are a few titles worth consideration (apologies to Lemmy, I did not find any films of Motorhead from the 70s):

David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture

BowieDavid_ZiggyDVDCover_72dpiThe best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage and yhr fans out front. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing and source material that exposes extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.

David Bowie: Live at NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978
The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band while surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net. Recordings from the same tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978.

Eagles           

Eagles_historyCover_72dpiEagles Live at the Capital Centre March 1977. Jigsaw Productions, DVD
This concert is on the third disc of the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles. It captures the band in Washington D.C. on the Hotel California tour playing many of their most popular songs. A critic once accused the Eagles with “loitering on stage” and it’s true the band exuded the laid back California vibes perfectly captured in their music.Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later, and it’s a pleasure to watch this concert film. The dual guitar jam during the title track alone is worth the price of the set.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer  

Pictures at an Exhibition (1970) Eagle Rock, 144 min., DVD
This DVD shows ELP playing their version of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and other songs at the Lyceum in London. An excess of psychedelic effects mar the footage, but ELP’s musicianship is magnificent.

ELP_DVD_Cover_72dpiBeyond the Beginning [2 DVD set] Sanctuary Records, 250 min., DVD
A variety of clips of varying quality from the band’s early career are presented here. Although some of the video is out of synch with the audio, this is a worthwhile and essential collection of concert appearances by a talented and thrilling band. The highlight is their set at California Jam on the legendary Brain Salad Surgery tour.

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Keith Emerson, Cal Jam 1973

Top: Photo of the Corbin Theater above, after it was converted to a X-rated theater, late 70s….

 

Styx Was Here

Styx_Caught5b_72dpiStyx is a Chicago based rock band that released nearly a dozen records from the start of their most enduring lineup in 1972, through 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. Three multi-talented singer-songwriters Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards, accordion), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), and James Young (vocals, guitars, keyboards), backed by brothers John Panozzo (drums) and Chuck Panozzo (basses) penned a dramatic blend of rock and pop that placed them in league with stateside brethren Kansas and Journey. I caught the group on tour supporting the Pieces of Eight album on January 27 1978 at the Long Beach arena. It was an exciting, powerful presentation, featuring a tight performance that showcased the soaring vocal prowess and instrumental credentials of each principal musician. I will never forget DeYoung singing “women and whiskey” in repeated cycles with echoplex effects, Shaw nailing every note of “Renegade” and Young growling out “Miss America.” Somehow they never got as big as Kansas and similar acts – the arena had a curtain erected cutting off 30% of the seats towards the rear of the floor. Maybe it was the fact that their most popular work came a bit later in the 70s, as one can see by the marquee of their show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, they played just a couple of weeks after the Sex Pistols! Yet they have endured. As of the time of this writing Shaw and Young represent Styx on annual tours while DeYoung tends to his solo career. As to their concert history, several films of varying quality and interest capture the band during their initial tenure.

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Styx Live and In Concert (2011) Tommygun Video, 142 min B&W, 1.33:1

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 11.10.52 AMThis unofficial release from Tommygun video presents Styx live on two tours at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, the Equinox tour April 2, 1976 and the Grand Illusion outing, January 28, 1978. The first includes eight songs at 48 minutes while the second, filmed in black and white has thirteen tracks at 88 minutes. The Grand Illusion set is the better of the two, and the DVD sports a crisp transfer with lucid, high contrast B&W photography and decent sound. Extras include 6 minutes of rare footage from 1972 & 1977, and an entertaining kitschy television advertisement for Styx live. It’s another excellent release from Tommygun, as they continue their important quest to preserve rare concert video.

Styx: Caught in the Act (2007), A&M Records, 142 min, 1.33:1

Styx_CaughtCover_72dpiIn addition to the Tommygun release, key for any fan or collector, the high resolution color film transfer on the official Styx DVD Caught in the Act (2007) remains the best official release by the band. Directed by Jerry Kramer and recorded for ‘In Concert’ by Westwood One, the main feature is a live performance from the tour supporting 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. This concept album about the demise and resurrection of rock ‘n roll music in a dystopian future led to a creative blending of rock and theater performed on tour. In fact, it’s one of the few examples of a rock opera or concept album that was presented live with actual staged interludes that incorporated a bit of acting and actual dialogue. The show begins with an opening video that establishes the concept, after which Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung take the stage to act out the first two songs, “Kilroy Was Here” and “Mr. Roboto” sporting costumes designed by Ray Brown and Peggy Martin along with wireless microphones, freeing the players to traverse a stage full of props and lighting effects. Special effects luminary Stan Winston designed “Mr. Roboto” which is worn briefly by DeYoung. James Young reprises his role as “Dr. Righteous” the mouthpiece for the fascist regime, for the first of four additional tracks that include dialog and staging. These are interspersed with a number of Styx 1970s classics, most notably “Come Sail Away” from The Grand Illusion and “Renegade” from Pieces of Eight each delivered in tight performances that rival the original tours for those albums. Director of photography Daniel Pearl arranged a flawless multi-camera shoot (eight cameramen and eight assistants are credited!) that captured the band in perfect form, alternating pit and perspective camera angles to present the creative staging and rocking performances to the best possible advantage.

Styx_KilroyCover_72dpiOne wonders how comfortable band members were with DeYoung’s Kilroy concept, and the fact that they were obliged to act out parts of the story on stage with actual written dialogue, some of it admittedly a bit cringe-worthy. The official story is that band members were unhappy with the musical direction of Kilroy leading to a somewhat acrimonious split. However, any misgivings are not evident on film, as the musicians deliver their lines and performances with aplomb and dramatic intensity. Adding further credibility to the concept, DeYoung’s story about the criminalization of rock by the “Majority for Musical Morality (MMM)” ended up being somewhat prescient. Just two years after Kilroy’s release, in 1985 Tipper Gore, wife of future vice president Al Gore, led a campaign as part of the “Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)” seeking to add warning labels to albums deemed to contain offensive content. At U.S. Senate hearings, artists as diverse as Frank Zappa and John Denver argued against the labels, protesting the attempt to restrict their freedom of expression. Given the lens of history, Kilroy was a very successful, unique way to blend rock and theater that ended up influencing rock musicals through to the current day. As the critics of the work say, maybe it is a bit too much “rock meets show tunes” or “Andrew Lloyd Weber swallowed a robot!” But looking back through a kinder lens, it’s a milestone event in rock lore that’s entertaining on A&M’s home video release.

The DVD release includes 54 minutes of bonus material consisting of twelve music videos, filmed between 1977 and 1983. The transfers on these videos are richly detailed, with clear stereo sound available in Dolby stereo and Dolby 5.1. It’s a reminder that the 70s-era Styx was the more successful incarnation, and that they split after the theatrical Kilroy work in 1983, just as the music video market, hungry for artists that worked with mixed media, was skyrocketing.

Film Strip: (top to bottom) (a) DeYoung’s disguise, demonstrating the film’s rich, vibrant colors (b) Young’s Dr. Righteous, caught with perspective (c) Shaw at mid range, one of eight camera placements (d) DeYoung at the grand piano, Young behind, from discreet on-stage cameraman (e) Band caught in the act

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American Football Plays Again

AmericanFootball_band_lp_coverOne album and an EP, active for just three short years, absent for fifteen. Not exactly a recipe for enduring fame. But, against all odds, it worked for the band American Football, formed in the late 1990s in Illinois. Founders Mike Kinsella (vocals, guitars, bass), Steve Holmes (guitars, Wurlitzer) and Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet) released a self-titled EP in 1998 on Polyvinyl records. A full-length debut album followed this in 1999. While the record did well on college radio stations at the time, the band broke up as members moved away from the college town of University of Illinois and went on to other pursuits. Since that time, it has become a cult classic.

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Influenced by a range of artists including Steve Reich, the dreamy sound of American Football is an amalgam of alt-rock, emo and jazz, with varying time signatures and polyrhythmic interlocking guitars. Lyrics are simple and confessional, sung in a loose manner that brings to mind the confusion and alienation that can inflict high school and college aged students. It’s music with and about feelings. Kinsella called their musical ideas “noodly and meandering” yet the songs are carefully built with precise counterpoint. While rooted in emo and math-rock, listeners may notice the influence of bands as diverse as King Crimson, and Radiohead hidden in these songs. They are unique, and comprise an album that was and remains a classic, must-have record. Even the cover art adds to the whole, featuring a photo of an iconic Midwestern home near the University, taken by Chris Strong, used ever since as their defining iconography.

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After the band decided to revisit the work and to reunite for some live tour dates in 2014, the album was reissued as a deluxe edition with extra tracks, and a music video directed by Chris Strong for the lead-off track “Never Meant” was released. Apparently Polyvinyl’s website crashed under the weight of traffic, such was the pent up interest in this band, and their only full length record. New live shows that have been staged in the U.K. and USA feature Kinsella’s cousin Nate on bass, and occasional percussion by, to this writer, an unknown band tech.

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The Set List…

The band made their way to San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop music festival last Saturday night, February 27, and the Regency Ballroom. It was a fantastic show that as one would expect featured nearly their entire debut album, along with a many new and rare tracks. Among these were “Tamborine,” “Letters,” “Emotional,” “Leaving Soon,” “New Song,” and “Five Silent Miles,” the leadoff track on the set list. Lighting was simple and tasteful, illuminating a full size image of their only album’s iconic cover photo. The show ended as that album began, with the first track from their debut album, “Never Meant.” It was a fantastic concert, attended by fans and newcomers alike, heaping praise on this multi-talented band.

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Asked if there were any questions before they played the final encore, described as “the last song we know how to play,” one audience member asked if they would go on another long hiatus. Kinsella mused, “We’ll be back in another 15 years when I’m 54. I’m going to keep these jeans and wear them again!” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that….

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