Category Archives: Film Review

Camel’s Treasured Encounter

camel2017_dvdii_27dpiCamel is one of the greatest 1970’s era progressive rock bands on record, sitting comfortably next to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and other classics in the genre. Yet this amazing, enduring band garners less name recognition than their stature demands. Led by Andrew Latimer (guitar, flute, vocals, later keyboards) and initially with his partner, the late Peter Bardens (keyboards) joining Doug Ferguson (bass) and Andy Ward (drums), the band navigates rock and jazz motifs, prog / space rock, and English folk for the greater whole. Camel just released a concert DVD taken from a fantastic performance last year in Japan, thoughtfully titled ichigo ichie (Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur). The film as produced by Susan Hoover, filmed and Directed by David Minasian is exceptionally crafted. It captures a four-piece lineup delivering a set list of classics from their long catalog, highlighting one of their most popular original albums Moonmadness (1976). The staging and lighting is simple; the whole production is tightly focused on the band and their playing, with ample close ups of keys, frets and toms. It will be a treasure for long time fans and newcomers alike who want to see these musicians up close, in a crisp audio and video production.

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Camel is ripe for rediscovery by those who missed out on this band to date. For one thing, their work remains consistently enjoyable, less jagged than their more metal-oriented followers, more listenable. Much of Camel’s work is actually quite sunny – often heartwarming – while Latimer’s evocative guitar style might be compared to David Gilmore of Pink Floyd fame, there is less gloom in their work, more major than minor tonality. Part of this influence was Peter Bardens, whose keys and compositions graced the first six records from 1972’s self-titled debut Camel, through 1978’s Breathless.  He left the band and went on to success as a solo “new age” music artist before his untimely passing in 2002.  Other group members playing bass, keys, and drums have changed over multiple times, with the most persistent member being Colin Bass, an amazing bass player who also offers rich vocals to many tracks since 1979. Powerhouse drummer Denis Clement joined in 2000 and has punctuated albums and stage shows since. The most persistently rotating seat in the Camel lineup has been at the keyboards. After Bardens, a series of exceptionally strong keys men have played on albums and/or concert tours, among them Jan Schelhaas, Kit Watkins, Dave Sinclair, Chris Rainbow, Mickey Simmonds, Guy LeBlanc, Ton Scherpenzeel, and for their most recent show, captured on the new DVD, Pete Jones.

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Pete Jones is fascinating to behold throughout the concert. Though rendered sightless before age 2, he’s built a career as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and released a very well regarded album under the moniker Tiger Moth Tales. His warm expressive vocals grace that solo work, and were put to excellent use with Camel. Jones sings on opener “Never Let Go,” then later “Air Born” and “Long Goodbyes.” The tenor of his voice, the lilt – it was like he was born to take these songs out live with the band. His keyboards throughout, and recorder solo on “Preparation” are sublime.

camel_moonmadness_72dpiAgain the set list includes a handful of tracks from Moonmadness, while touching on most of Camel’s other core records. It’s fairly common for Latimer and crew to say little between songs – to let the music and a bit of lighting speak for itself. True here again, as Latimer’s first interaction is, “How wonderful to be back in Tokyo after 16 years!” followed during the show with very brief introductions to the songs, and the naming of band members. As the show is in Japan, brevity seems appropriate, and as intended the music and fairly limited lighting effects set the stage. This affords an uninterrupted, bird’s eye view for the cameramen to put us right on stage, up close, most appropriate for any aspiring musician who may want to see just how those colorful notes are magically drawn by each musicians. Of the set, the band really stretches out on “Hopeless Anger” with a searing guitar solo from Andrew, dramatic deep toms from Clement and Jones giving his best. Sentimental ballad “Long Goodbyes” was dedicated by Latimer to two “dear friends” Chris Rainbow and Guy LeBlanc – who are on longer with us.

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Camel has been Latimer’s primary occupation, being the one remaining original member, composer and driving force and after a period of inactivity from 2003-2013 due to illness, he and the band have been back on the road for short tours several times over the last few years. Time has not diminished their skills, and we have in Camel an important and enduring ensemble of immense talent. The journey continues – check out this DVD to see how impressive and worthy their travels have been – here’s hoping they embark again.

The stats:

Ichigo ichie: Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur
Camel Live in Japan 2016

Andrew Latimer – guitar, vocals, flute and recorder
Colin Bass – bass guitar, vocals
Denis Clement – Drums, recorder
Peter Jones – keys, vocals, penny whistle

Filmed and directed by David Minasian
Assistant Director Trinity Houston

Recoded live at the Ex Theater Roppongi Toyko, Japan
Lighting design by Del Jones

 

Rick Wakeman & Tony Ashton’s Gastank

wakemangastank_ad-breakRick Wakeman just released DVD and CD/DVD sets of the original series called Gastank, a unique show aired in the U.K. on channel 4 back in 1982-1983. It featured Wakeman interviewing a host of musical artists as diverse as Steve Hackett, Ian Paice, Andy Fairweather Low, John Entwistle, Eric Burdon, and Godley and Crème, then joining these musicians for a few live numbers with stalwart cohost Tony Ashton and friends. The show was beloved by fans of rock and prog music who had the chance to see some well established rock ‘n’ roll heroes, along with a few overlooked artists of the era, play bar blues, classic, progressive old and new songs live in an intimate setting. It’s available via Wakeman’s site and at Gonzo Multimedia here: http://www.gonzomultimedia.com/product_details/15960/Rick_Wakeman-Gastank_(DVD).html

Anyone interested Wakeman’s mid-period work, or any of the guests on this show are advised to pick up a copy of this rare set. Every segment is interesting and even of historical importance in some way, be it the interviews or live numbers. One of the best moments of the set is Wakeman and Ashton sharing a piano for a hilarious bit simply called “Keyboard Adlib.” That and Steve Hackett’s “Boogie” alone are well worth the price of the set! Sound good? Read on…

Background / Interview with Rick Wakeman

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Rick Wakeman and Steve Hackett

The year is 1982. Popular music has gone through several tumultuous years, an understatement for artists of the time. Classic and progressive rock musicians are at that moment reimaging themselves, their sound, and their stagecraft, in light of new influences, and the tremendous impact of music videos via the juggernaut called MTV. Punk has come and mostly gone, but continues to influence a host of bands, all plying slightly different musical territory, be it goth, ska, “new wave” dance or one of any number of increasingly eclectic musical styles.

In the face of these events, Wakeman and Tony Ashton, established a new television show called GasTank. Produced by Paul Knight with associate Ralph Tobert, Directed by Gerry Mill and recorded in a pub setting with stage and small studio audience, the show aired in the U.K. on channel 4 in 1982-1983.

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John Entwistle and Rick Wakeman

As an example, GasTank #1 kicks off with a couple of pieces by Ashton and Wakeman, then features friends Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, a reggae band The Cimarons, then legends Alvin Lee and Eric Burdon. Ashton brings a sense of humor, honky tonk bar-band blues piano and gritty vocals to his featured songs – his bits are often tongue-in-cheek and always enjoyable. Wakeman is, well, the man and musician we’ve come to know over so many years in the business – funny, disarming even, and as always brilliant on the keys. The house band includes long time Wakeman drummer Tony Fernandez with Chas Cronk and Jerome Rimson on bass. The rest of the crew play their parts whether an original tune from their catalog, or a suitable cover, such as when Eric Burdon introduces a long time Elvis Presley favorite. It’s intimate and thoroughly enjoyable for any fan or interested viewer.

Three cameramen, Richard Dellow, Andy Watt, and Mike Hand Bowman capture the action primarily from positions just in front of the small stage, or on it, affording us an upfront view of fingers, frets, and performances. The sound by Mike Erander and enduring quality of the footage itself is exceptional.

GasTank has long been unavailable on home video in any format. The box set from Gonzo Multimedia puts that right. It includes every episode of the series, presented over 2 DVDs (and in the larger set 3CDs as well) along with an interviews book and other goodies.

But there is a bit more to the story of GasTank, and for that we talked to the man himself, Rick Wakeman to learn more.

Rick, how did the concept for Gas Tank come about?

My dear friend Tony Ashton came up with it. The whole idea of the program, of playing live with people was his brainchild. He came up with the name as well, which I thought was a great name – back then “gas” was a hip expression. He was wonderful to play with – all Tony wanted to do was play piano, which worked well cause I played synths. He was a great boogie-woogie rock player – bands like Ashton, Gardener and Dyke and all the other groups he worked with are evidence to that. He was so, so good. It was sad when he died. One of the nice things is when I watch the programs – it’s the memories of seeing Tony play and all the good times that we had that I cherish. We did have amazing amounts of fun.

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Tony Ashton and band

What to you are some of the standout moments from the interviews or performances from the show, from your perspective?

There were quite a few standout performances. Phil Lynott was a great friend who came on and you’ll see when you watch it, he introduced a new member of Thin Lizzy, one that became a very important part of the band. John Entwistle’s solo appearance will remain with me forever. I asked him to come on – he was a great friend. I said “I want you to do a long solo – imagine an extended “My Generation” type of solo.” He said okay. So we wrote this piece for him and he did it in rehearsal. It was a good solo – a bit subdued, but I thought it would be really nice. Then his roadie took me aside and said ‘be prepared for tonight – that was just playing around.’ The solo he did for the taping was just jaw dropping – he absolutely knew how to take it to that next level. We had some good fun things on there. Suzy Quatro, Maggie Bell – lots of other performances. There were fun things as well – odd comments made, John Entwistle made one comment and his ex-wife sued him!

We had a great house band – we had a lot of fun with the house band – all great friends and camaraderie. Alvin Lee was on as a guest and he was fantastic. He loved it so much, he asked to come down and play in the house band. We had that with a few of the guest musicians – not just playing and leaving but most staying all day and watching the other people that came in. We had it set up like a club, and it was a great idea and it would still stand up today.

Give us one or two humorous anecdotes about the proceedings, something that went wrong or was surprising or even shocking?

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Rick Parfitt came in and it was the first time he had ever performed solo. And I remember him saying to me “I’m nervous, I never get nervous!” He helped overcome his nerves before we did the interview, by getting completely rat-faced; mind you I was as well. I sat with him doing the interview and I saw the lights were on but no one was in, and he could see in me there wasn’t anyone in either! I asked him a question (mumbles) “how did it feel to do your first solo” and he just grinned – and you can’t see this part because the footage was lost, but he came off the stool and he stumbled by me and landed on the floor (whack). The producers voice came down from upstairs and he said, “probably best to do this interview tomorrow!”

We used to do the interviews after the recordings, we would record in the morning then we would have a liquid lunch then we would do the interviews in the afternoon. They organized a green room, which was heavily stocked with alcohol – better than most pubs and bars. After the incident with Parfitt the green room was only opened after the interviews had been done!

More of this interview can be found inside the set’s booklet, including artists of today who would be on Rick’s wish list if there show were to be revived… and a recollection by dearly departed talent Tony Ashton

Not included, however, is Rick’s perfect pitch for the DVD/CD Box Set:

I can truly recommend that you buy this wonderful collection. The reason I can say this is, I’d buy it myself! It contains so much history, so much fantastic playing, interviews that will never be heard again from a lot of people whom sadly are no longer with us. There’s some music that was never recorded anywhere else. It’s part of our heritage and history and if you’re old enough to remember it, it will bring back great memories. If you weren’t even born at the time, I’m sure you will like a lot of the music, and will like going back and learning how so much of it came about. The GasTank collection, there will never be anything else quite like it, I can guarantee that!

 

Rush Balance Left and Right Brain

Rush_ESLImage_72dpiRush could be described in a number of ways; they are rock gods, storytellers, and virtuosos. They are the rare band that evolved without trading away complexity or progressive tendencies and yet became incredibly successful, their popularity waxing rather than waning in the 1980s and beyond. As most readers will know, there is a question now as to how many more times Rush will play live, whether a one-off or a proper tour, given the status of the three band mates, and the vagrancies of time.

 

I missed seeing Rush in the 1970s and was first introduced to the band by my hard-rocking college roommate Dave Kain, who was a major fan. I really liked parts of Farewell to Kings (1977), and had no exposure to Hemispheres (1978), instead I identified most with the sound and lyrics on Moving Pictures, released in 1981. Here is what I’ve learned while researching my book, on late 70s Rush.

Geddy Lee (bass, vocals) and Alex Lifeson (acoustic and electric guitars) formed Rush with drummer John Rutsey in Toronto in 1968. In 1974, they released their first album, Rush, which sounded a little like Led Zeppelin. It included the first classic Rush song “Working Man.” Rutsey left after the first record and was replaced by ace stick-man Neil Peart. With that, Rush recruited not only one of the world’s greatest drummers, but also one of rock’s best lyricists. By 1977, Rush was bringing their epic songs and instrumental virtuosity to arenas in the US, Canada, and Europe.

Rush_farewell-to-kings-cover-600x600The band’s fifth and sixth studio albums, A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978), are two of a kind. They were both written in the Wales countryside and both contain lengthy compositions on grand themes such as space travel (“Cygnus X-1”) and Greek mythology (“Hemispheres”), and songs inspired by Romantic poetry (“Xanadu”) interspersed with short, intimate pieces (“Closer to the Heart”). The two albums are also connected by one long song in two parts. A Farewell to Kings ends with “Cygnus X-1,” the first part of a two-part epic that lasts 28 minutes. The second part, titled “Hemispheres,” kicks off the next album, Hemispheres.

Rush’s concerts for the two albums were a feast for the ears and eyes. The success of 2112 (1976) had allowed them to buy some shiny new instruments. Peart added a wide array of percussion to his arsenal: a gong, orchestra bells, tubular bells, temple blocks, and crotales. These expanded his sound palette and helped him to become one of the most versatile drummers of the period. In addition, Lee bought some new synthesizers (a Minimoog, an Oberheim polyphonic) and a Taurus foot-pedal keyboard. Lifeson showed his versatility by switching from acoustic to electric guitar, playing foot-pedal keyboard and changing his sound with a wide array of effects pedals. Watching Lee sing, play intricate lines on his bass guitar, and play a pedal keyboard with his feet all at the same time was riveting. No matter how complex and cerebral their albums were, when they played live they were always raw and visceral, and no one ever seemed to make even the slightest mistake!

Rush_HemispheresCover_72dpiThe tours for these two albums were reportedly extremely difficult for the band, not only because of the complexity of the music, but also because of the everyday circumstances of being on the road in the 1970s. They headlined both tours, but, unlike Led Zeppelin, Rush didn’t have a snazzy jet to fly from gig to gig. Driving in a van 300 miles each day across the vast expanses of Canada and the United States to reach their next destination, they dubbed the Farewell to Kings tour the “Drive ’til You Die” tour. These die-hard musicians never wanted to disappoint their fans, playing when they were sick and sleep-deprived, rarely missing a gig.

Fans recall these performances as legendary in great part because of the backing films by Nick Prince, the swirling smoke effects, and the band’s high-powered performances. The wider array of instruments expanded the overall complexity of the material, but the band still rocked hard, wringing emotion from Peart’s two-part science fiction epic. These rock gods embodied the story’s new deity, Cygnus, the god of balance: a perfect blend of Apollo (the logical thinker) and Dionysus (ruler of emotion). Mind and heart united, a balance of brain and boogie… Rush triumphed at the end of the 70s, perfectly positioned for the mega-success the experienced in the 80s.

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Exit … Stage Left (1981)
Replay X 3 box set
Mercury (2006), 59 min., 1.33:1

 

 

 

Although short clips of early Rush concerts have been included in documentaries and as bonus material on DVD sets, the best way to see them during their epic period is to the watch Exit … Stage Left, filmed in Montreal. This concert video is on Disc One of the box set Replay X 3, released in 2006 (each of the three discs from the set is also available separately). Although the concert was filmed in late 1981, after they had released Moving Pictures, the band plays three classics from their epic period: “Xanadu,” “Closer to the Heart” and “The Trees.” Geddy and Alex’s double-necked electric guitar and bass can be seen in action in “Xanadu,” as well as Peart’s wide array of percussion instruments. The sound is a bit muddy and the lighting could be brighter, but it hardly matters in this epic display of creativity.

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Don’t Stop Making Sense

One of the most surprising, exhilarating concerts I ever attended was way back on December 6, 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium at the height of the “new wave” music movement. On that night, my roommate Irene and I arrived to find that the stage area of the cavernous concert hall was nearly empty. The Civic was and still is a hollow concrete shell, built originally to hold 7,000 patrons as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. On this night, there was a stage riser, but only plywood where normally there would be black flooring. A wooden ladder leaned against the dirty white wall stage right, along with a few racks seemingly bereft of gear. There were no lights, no curtains and no equipment save for a single microphone on its stand at center stage. We asked an usher what the hell was going on, and were told to just take our seats.

After some time waiting and wondering what was about to happen, the house lights dimmed, and the man of the evening, David Byrne came strolling onto the stage platform, a cassette tape player in one hand, acoustic guitar strung over his shoulders. He said “I gotta tape I want to play…” and clicked the Play button on the boom box. Then begins a pre-recorded backbeat to an acoustic version of the first Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer.” As anyone can imagine, particularly if you’ve seen the outstanding Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense (1984), which was filmed over three nights in Los Angeles just a week after the San Francisco date, we were in for a one-of-a-kind art-rock performance.

Talking Heads In Concert
HOLLYWOOD, CA – CIRCA 1980s: (From L to R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads perform at a concert circa the early-1980s in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We expected the Talking Heads to be avant-garde, to present something unique and different, but accounts of their previous shows all the way back to their first, supporting The Ramones in 1975 at New York’s dank CBGB club suggested to us that the show’s staging would be minimal. What we did hear is that the band would be wound tight, that singer, guitarist and principal composer David Byrne was an eccentric, that he could dance TalkingHeads_CBGB_72dpiand sing while somehow keeping his head straight, or bobbing or moving in some other unnatural way to accentuate the Reagan-era angst of their rock ‘n’ funk songs. We had no idea how far he had developed these skills, that he could truly hold an audience enraptured with every move, and play so effectively off the other musicians, each of whom were accomplished in their own right, dancing together or apart, songs building into manic eruptions of jubilant, rhythmic new wave music.

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWhat we saw that night has remained seared in my memory forever, repeatable to an extent by viewing the film. After the opener, accomplished bassist Tina Weymouth joined Byrne for the song “Heaven.” As she took the stage, road crew members, clad in black, wheeled out a riser for her gear, plugged her into the sound system and exited quietly. During this track the team wheeled out another riser packed with drums, shortly to be occupied by the Heads’ rock-steady drummer, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz. Next up, the fourth member of the core band, Jerry Harrison (guitars, keys) joined in for “Found a Job,” one of the really infectious early Heads tracks. From this point on, additional musicians including guitarist (Alex Weir), keyboards player (Bernie Worrell, of Parliament/Funkadelic), percussionist (Steve Scales) and backup singers (Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt) joined in succession until the entire band was assembled for then hit “Burning Down The House,” from their album Speaking in Tongues (1983). Now assembled, this expanded band drove through a perfect set list that included “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime” along with several from the new album, while the rest of the stage was completed with colored lights, video projection screens, and black matting for every exposed part of the stage. The movie does as good a job as possible of giving viewers an idea of what it was like to have a complete stage built out during such an event, but the necessity of focusing on the musicians precludes the ability to capture the nuanced impact of seeing all the rigging happen before our eyes – literally cabling, matting, lights, screens, everything it took to create a modern day concert was erected by the crew while we watched. It was an absolutely fascinating thing behold. It also ruined the band.

TalkingHeads_SITCover_72dpiAfter the experience of staging this massively creative show, the Talking Heads never toured again, despite the fact they went on to record three more albums before officially breaking up, the last including guest guitarist Johnny Marr from The Smiths. The daunting thought of topping the 1983 tour wasn’t the only issue. The band was growing apart, each member working on other projects. Chris and Tina continued on with the Tom Tom Club. David Byrne launched a long solo career. In fact, besides The Smiths’ Morrissey/Marr split, the demise of the Talking Heads was one of the most unfortunate “divorces” of the 1980s.

I was reminded of all this recently, when our art theater The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco screened a print of Stop Making Sense on one of their Monday concert film nights. The effusive sellout crowd led to a second showing, after all these years. It was a potent reminder of the popularity of the Heads and this angular music in general, as we were, midway through the reign of the punk/goth/new wave 80s.

Stop Making Sense (1983) © Talking Heads Films 1984, 1.78:1, 84 minutes

PrintThis is justly considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. The spectacle of the stagecraft, along with leader David Byrne’s jubilant performance, is emotionally impactful, filling attentive viewers with the lust for life he and the band exhibit. After a theatrical release, the movie was originally made available on home video tape in an extended version that included three additional songs from the actual show that had not appeared in the theatrical release. These tracks “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” and “Big Business” are available as extras on the extended “special edition” DVD which also includes audio commentary, promotional trailer, and other features.

p.s. There is also film of the Talking Heads on the prior tour in Rome, December 18, 1980 taken under bright white lights, when the core band was joined by Adrian Belew (guitar), Busta Jones (bass), Steven Scales (percussion), Dollette MacDonald (vocals) and Bernie Worrell (keys). It’s reasonably good footage of the band at this key point in time, before they took three years off prior to their final tour. The show is also captured in B&W footage from the Capital Theater, New Jersey on November 4th, 1980. Both films will be of interest to fans and collectors, particularly as the lineup at the time included guitar wizard Belew, who added his trademark distorted guitar noise, and who also harmonized with Bryne perfectly given their very similar voices.

 

 

The Rock Opera and the Yogi Temple

The Who were pure electric rock energy personified, most definitely Rock Gods in their time and after, and certainly the progenitors of the Punk movement that followed. They were an utterly fantastic band in concert; performances where you felt that at any time the guys might just levitate off the stage. The music was pushed to the very limits of what rock could acheive. As the 1960s came to a close, The Who released their masterpiece Tommy (1969). This seminal recording introduced the concept of a “rock opera,” delivering a complete story spanning the length of two albums, kicking off the 1970s movement that led to expansive, meaningful rock epics. The album made the band in America and all over the world, with its deeply spiritual message of hope, love and self-reliance.

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I was just ten years old in 1970 when I first got a cassette tape of Tommy. I must confess I didn’t understand it then; it was too deep, sometimes overtly disturbing and parts of it actually scared me. I listened to this tape on a crappy cassette player over and over again for about a year, finally putting it away forever. I probably only heard the hits “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” for the rest of the decade, and since that time. As I realize now, a big part of the album was just too disturbing for me to process then.

Who_LakeShrine_72dpiNow I realize that my aversion to this work was because at that time my family was also in somewhat of a crisis. My brother Bill, who was 19 years old in 1969, was part of that generation’s “perfect storm.” He had lost his way in life to drugs, a failed attempt at college and the Vietnam War draft. He suffered from a deep seated anger, and finally found peace through Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings at the Lake Shrine, a beautiful retreat on Sunset Boulevard near the Santa Monica beaches, soon becoming a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) church. He had been terribly troubled, and left home to find peace. I was not yet in my teens. We only saw him twice a year after that, sometimes visiting him at the SRF church in Los Angeles, or sometimes when he could come back to our house. All I could comprehend was that he went away to become a monk, and was gone. It seemed to my young mind that life was somehow so challenging and dangerous that powerful emotions could cast you out of society, changing your course eternally. Pretty heady stuff for a preteen.

Once I got older I realized that while so foreign to our Christian family, this departure from “normal” society saved my brother. The teachings of SRF were to help students gain a “direct experience of truth” as opposed to blind belief. Those messages and their practices changed Bill forever. I knew the lyrics to Tommy were plumbing the same territory, and again, at that young age I was alternately drawn in, yet somehow repelled by its powerful messages. Today I also realize that this album was and remains one of the most transformative, important records of our time.

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As I prepared to write this article, I experienced a coincidence that has to be telling me to look inside myself for some truth as well. My wife and I just purchased a historic landmark property in Santa Cruz, California. There is a “yogi temple” on the property, a decorative archway as an entry, and other structures built by a mason named Kenneth Kitchen in the 1940’s. No one over the years seemed to know what his architectural influences where – they seemed vaguely Indian or Turkish. I was somehow drawn to this property; the structures spoke to me, and I kept coming back to the idea of going through with the purchase for more than a year, despite the challenges I knew we would face. Just after we bought the property, a historical architect in the area sent us a book he was working on. Get this. Kenneth Kitchen had terrible “anger management issues” as we might say today, just like my brother did thirty years later. In Kenneth’s case, his brother took him down to the Yogananda’s temple in Los Angeles where he stayed and studied in the SRF church (yes, the same church my brother retreated to in his time of need!) When he returned to Santa Cruz he bought the property I now own, and built these structures as homage to the SRF church and the peace he attained from his studies there. Reportedly he raised goats, sold their milk, did his brick work, and tried to live a more simple, humble existence. Was I drawn in to this mysterious property and its structures because of my long lost memories of visiting my brother at the yogi temple, and the sights therein? Or was I ready to move a bit outside of the Silicon Valley, to focus a bit more internally, a bit outside the hustle of hi tech? I think so.

In a similar way, after learning of Townsend’s motivation for writing Tommy, I have been drawn back into that work. I’m not making this up people, it’s been a bit overwhelming and I’m listening now. You might know the story of Pete Townsend’s pathway to his ultimate masterpiece, which itself is informed by a spiritual teacher from India.

By the end of the 1960s, principal composer, guitarist, and vocalist Pete Townshend and the band, Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass), and Keith Moon (drums) felt that it was time to develop something more substantial than the short pop songs they had been releasing. At the time, The Who was a singles band that felt they were going nowhere. The challenge was on to move past the short singles into something more substantial. Pete could write for a bigger stage, something more serious. Many believe this was the moment that saved the band. Townshend in particular knew that rock fans, and people in general were searching for answers to the woes of the day, the spiritual emptiness that accompanied sex, drugs, and gratuitous behavior. Co-manager Kit Lambert was completely behind his artist, even helping with the story’s development and other matters. Similarly, the band remained steadfastly behind their leader. “Nothing was off limits…I knew it would be okay… [and] that Pete would go on to write this kind of work,” explained Daltrey in retrospect.

Who_TheGodMan_72dpiAs Townshend relays the situation, he experienced a “bad trip” after taking the powerful hallucinogenic LSD while on an airliner from the States back to Britain, and felt he left his body. “There was nothing good about it” he said later. But it suggested to him that there was more to life than what we see, because at some point during the trip, “he was not his body.” As Townshend went looking for answers, a friend told him about spiritualist Meher Baba and the book, The God Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba with an Interpretation of his Silence and Spiritual Teaching, by C.B. Purdom. The book and its messages struck Townshend as containing answers to the questions going on in his head. “It was the simple stuff, I liked. It was, don’t worry be happy, do your best, leave the results to God. All the pieces came together and I was able to start on Tommy in earnest,” he later stated. Tommy would tell the story of a spiritual journey; “a boy that grew up in difficult circumstances, becomes a teacher, and misuse his powers, paying a price” said Townshend.

As most readers will know, the arc of the story begins with Tommy’s mother and lover killing his father right in front of him. The trauma causes the boy to become deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy suffers unbearable traumas, including child molestation, the kind of subject matter that was taboo at the time. He becomes an iconic pinball wizard, and loses his way spiritually, becoming a type of false prophet. In the end, Tommy regains his senses, and he and his followers gain spiritual enlightenment by learning to look inside of themselves for the answers to life’s mysteries. Townshend summarizes, “We are deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to our inner spirit. One life is all I know. The present life. And yet because of my ignorance, of the infinite, I cannot enjoy it. I am sad, poor, wrapped in indignity.”

Who_AutobiographyofaYogi_72dpiTownsend’s epic story of Tommy strikes me as a bit like the story of Kenneth Kitchen and of my brother Bill, and I’m feeling open to these messages. After watching the documentary about the making of Tommy, I did grab a fresh copy of the double LP and couldn’t believe I had set this one aside for so many years. It’s full of beautiful songs mostly featuring acoustic guitars, gentler, thoughtful placement of electric punctuation, creative bass leads, and the roiling drums of Keith Moon behind it all. Roger Daltry’s vocal performance and that of the work’s principal composer, is amazing, their voices still young, belying innocence yet wisdom beyond their years. In studio, then on stage, Daltrey began inhabiting the role of Tommy, delivering the impactful lyrics with an amazing power and grace. And, now, so many years after my brother gave me the book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I think it’s time to read it.

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Coda:

Who_TicketStub76_72dpiThe Who performed most of the album in concert many times around the world, at a time when some of the largest rock festivals were staged. It was perfect timing, as the band played Monterey Pop, Woodstock and two years in a row at the Isle of Wight. South of my hometown in Los Angeles, they played Anaheim Stadium on the 14th of June 1970, just one month after releasing one of the most revered live albums of all time, Live at Leeds. Fortunately, the festivals, and some defining Who concerts have been filmed over the years and there is a wealth of documentation on the band, certainly one of the richest and varied celluloid collections of any rock band before U2, including media darlings The Rolling Stones. Arguably the best of these is the film capturing the band in full flight at the Isle of Wight.

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Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) Eagle Rock, 85 min., 1.33:1, DVD
The Who topped their Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock appearances with this amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage early in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people.

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Tommy (1975) Sony Pictures, 111 min., 1.85:1, DVD
Love it or hate it, this Ken Russell film is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock films ever made. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The imagery in this film, which includes Ann Margaret rolling around in gushes of pork ‘n beans, no doubt fuelled my aversion to it’s strange content at the time! But hey, it’s only a movie, and only rock ‘n roll….or maybe, it does mean a bit more…

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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