Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

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.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part 3: “Parabolica”

We all stood just inside the door of the long-closed sanctum. Lady Domine took a few steps forward from us. She wore a charcoal floral-print tunic, pale red leggings and stylish hiking shoes; she stood with a regally erect posture. But the way her hands cupped her sides with fingers spread, and the manner in which her right foot was set forward, suggested she was better prepared for a spirited game of hide-and-seek than the more serious matter at hand.

I remembered Crutch’s comment when he first told me about our company’s top benefactor. “She’s sort of stuck somewhere between a duchess and a tomboy.

“Well, one thing is for certain,” she said after a pause of a half-minute, “For this sort of undertaking, the old meeting room of a secret society really fits the bill.”

“Didn’t I tell you, it’s perfect!” Crutch spoke with an eagerness that was a bit out of character.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Charlie Crutchfield. At $90,000 we’re definitely going to buy it.”

I nudged Hannah with my left elbow and nodded. She replied with a discreet thumbs-up.

Domine turned to look at me. “Asbestos?”

“Well, there is some, mostly in the basement. But it’s not a very large building.”

Crutch piped in. “The Parabolic Society was never a large fraternity. More like a watering hole for utopian sky-watchers. Have you heard of them?”

She lifted a little crooked smile that lit up her still largely-unlined face. “Not at all. I always rely on you guys in the Ministry of Dark Tourism for my esoteric learning.”

“I doubt that, but thanks” Crutch said and they walked over towards the apse, with its formal arrangement of three chairs.

Hannah turned to me confidentially. “When she says ‘we’re’ going to buy it, should I take it literally to mean all of us? I don’t exactly have twenty-two grand lying around.”

“Don’t worry, that’s her way of being inclusive. She’ll probably take the $90,000 out of her petty cash drawer.”

Lady Domine approached the chairs and lightly patted the larger one in the middle. A light puff of dust rose up, but she took a seat anyway. Then it occurred to me: who would sit on either side, if anyone? The rough idea was a political rally under the guise of a MODT event featuring a re-creation of a 19th century mesmeric performance. I hoped that my late career switch didn’t turn out to be more than I had bargained for.

She leaned forward in the big chair. “Oh, Crutch, I don’t know. What are we supposed to be doing here? Advocating for the partition by having me do parlor tricks? This town is probably crawling with red-caps. It could even get dangerous.”

Crutch turned to look at us and nodded towards the back area. We stepped on bits of shattered tiles, past the apse and into a hallway. I peeked back and Domine had moved off the chair and was peering thru a cracked Palladian window down at the street. I paused with Hannah to look at some parabolic diagrams that remained on the wall. After a moment I suggested she should check out the old member’s lounge and kitchen. When she did, I lingered in the hall.

“the hopheads won’t bother us,” Crutch was saying. “We’ll put up a sign saying ‘Private Event’ and get Ike’s friend Jason to work the door. You remember Jason—about six-foot eight and two fifty, with fists like pile drivers?”

“That must be the gentleman who checked tickets at our ‘Satan’s Skyline’ fiasco last October,” Domine replied. “Let’s limit alcohol sales for this event.”

“Anyway, let’s have a soft opening. We’ll invite maybe 25 of our best customers for free and maybe a few college kids from the town. See how it goes.”

“Do you want to hear a bit of what I’ve been working on”

Hannah had just poked her head out of the kitchen, probably to show me the double dumbwaiter. Rookie enthusiasm. Instead, I motioned her towards me. Once Lady Domine sat back down in the big chair and started speaking, Crutch waved us back into the main room.

“Now let’s spin back down the years to the autumn of our discontent in 2016. When PFF came to power, it was like a little piece of me died. I’m sure many of you felt the same. And when he met his maker, that piece of me was not re-born, it stayed dead. I can only hope to replace it with a new inspirational spirit derived from a wholly new source…”

Her eyes were wide open and stared straight ahead as if into nothing and everything. The effect reminded of the “Glass-Eyed Goddess of Union Mills” whose visage had recently become the MODT emblem.

The good Lady continued. “There is a new righteous power that is forming behind the scenes of everyday life. Anyone with a good heart can tap into it. But we must be careful with it. The retrogressions of this century have been shocking—the vile and needless hatreds, the bloated ignorance, the flagrant racism and the emptiness of forfeited souls that have led to countless brutalities.

“I know the desire for retribution is great with some in this current political vacuum. But we should never resort to violence in any of its forms: physical, economic, mental or whatever else. Instead, we should smite our enemies with the three Ls: Logic, Learning and Love. And the smite shall feel like a kiss.”

Lady Domine leaned back in the chair and rolled her eyes as if to say “who me?” I realized I had just snapped out of a little trance of my own.

“Well, that’s sort of the end of it. I’ll build up to it.”

After a brief silence, Hannah practically slapped her cheek with her right hand. “Omigod, that was amazing! You’ve got to do it. I know I’m new and have no clout… but if we don’t do this event I’m going to die!”

Domine smiled at her, then turned back to Crutch. “I’m still not sure. Why wouldn’t I just start a pro-partition action fund?”

“Because that’s boring and would fizzle out quickly. We’ve already talked about this—sensational gambits and star power is the only thing that’s works now. We’ll hash out the details at the next staff meeting.”

“I’m not really a mesmerist, you know, but I could wing it and see what happens. Soft opening, yes. Or else I won’t do it. Don’t be putting me down for a definite “yes” just yet. No, I have to do it, just look at this country. Can we have drinks later?”

Hannah gave me a side look. “Huh?”
“Don’t worry. You get used to it after a while.”

Crutch took Lady Domine to see the other rooms, Hannah tagged along. I looked out the front window into the town center, where the light was failing. Down below was a stonework mass of once-proud mercantile buildings, their civic ideals mostly forgotten. Beyond that was the triangular common, with its’ patchy lawn and statue of a Union soldier, standing prematurely at ease. A few guys were gathered around a bench at its far side, next to an old pick-up truck with a flag mounted behind the cab. They had bagged drinks and a couple of them were shin-kicking a third, playfully at first but then not so much.

I exhaled uncomfortably. The place with the drinks was only three doors down so I kept quiet and let it pass. But I knew it couldn’t stay that way forever.

This is an excerpt from an in-progress illustrated or graphic novel called The Ministry of Dark Tourism. If interested, follow this blog to get updated or friend me in Facebook, Rick Ouellette.

“Summer Interlude” (1951): Ingmar Bergman’s Silver Cloud with a Black Lining

It’s no big revelation that summertime, that most celebrated of seasons, can often be a contradictory advantage. Sometimes the reasons can be simple: the weather turns stifling, the beaches get too crowded, the traffic backs up for miles and it always seems a little too fleeting. “Summer’s lease has all too short a date,” as Willie Shakespeare put it. And then there is the more existential angst that can come into play. That nagging feeling that there is something missing despite all the fun that was had—a bittersweet feeling stemming from a sense of lost innocence, of elongated school vacations and the promise, even fulfillment, of first love.


Ingmar Bergman’s background in live theater is evident in the “Swan Lake” excerpts and scenes of backstage life.

Early in his film-making career, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman captured this rueful essence in “Summer Interlude” (translated from “Sommarlek”). This movie centers on a beautiful but detached ballet dancer named Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). While preparing for a “Swan Lake” dress rehearsal, she receives a package containing the diary of an old flame, sent to her anonymously. When a power failure delays the rehearsal until that evening, Marie, now bundled up against the autumn chill, leaves Stockholm on a ferry to the island of her family’s summer place. This was the scene of the summer romance with the boy in question. In the numerous flashbacks that follow, Nilsson transforms Marie (already world-weary at 28) into a vivacious teenager. A dance prodigy, she has a practice room upstairs in the family manor (her aunt and uncle are the only relations we see) and personal use of a one-room cabin down by the rocky shoreline.


Birger Malmsten as Henrik and Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie.

It’s on that same ferry some twelve years before that she meets Henrik, a pensive and handsome boy slightly older than herself. Bergman was in his early thirties at the time and young enough to recall the peculiar rapture of young love, as the world soon boils down to Marie and Henrik and his tag-along poodle. The director’s lustrous B&W cinematography aches with a universal nostalgia but with a keen eye to locations well known to him personally. From the glimmering of the water when the sun peeks from behind a cloud, to the dense pine-filled forests looming in the background, to the long-lingering twilights of a far-north summer spent at the 60th parallel, this film is a marvel to behold.

Just as deftly captured is the couple’s fledgling romance (“We’re inside the same bubble,” Marie tells her new beau). Bergman shows the giddy recognition of mutual attraction, the teasing byplay, the long afternoons spent in a bathing suit, and drying out on the rocks while devising the grand declarations of self-serious late adolescence. (Just as easily as Marie states “I’m never going to die,” Henrik confesses to visions of falling into an abyss). These relatable feelings are so finely honed by the two lead actors that when the tragedy we sense coming actually happens, it hits extra hard.

It’s here that the film starts hinting at themes that would later come to dominate Bergman’s work in such arthouse favorites as “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal.” These would include the inescapability of the past and questioning the existence of God in an impersonal universe. Back in the present, Marie chances upon her debonair but creepy uncle whose revelation about the diary helps her to leave the island feeling a bit less shackled by her memories and ready to move forward with what is now in front of her.

Although it featured no nudity and only inferences of sex, the sensuous “Summer Interlude” was originally titled “Illicit Interlude in America, playing in slightly shady downtown cinemas before the days of straight-up porn. Otherwise, it became recognized as one of the first major works of a great global director and the first of an informal trilogy with “Summer with Monika” (1953) and “Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). For Bergman himself, it marked the true beginning of of the mastery of his craft. “I suddenly felt that I knew my profession,” he later remarked also noting that it was fun to make it. Like he shows with his two young lovers, there will always be a little magical something in the season where “the days are like pearls and the nights like waking dreams.”
–Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #14: The Prog Years, Part One

This series on rock history’s prominent double albums has shown time and again that the four-sided album (or two-disc CD) is the chosen platform for some of popular music’s most ambitious projects. That is not always the case: a band may have a backlog of unrelated songs or chose to package a studio record and a live one together. But just as often it can be a case of a confident group or solo artist in a self-defined peak, pushing their conceptual prerogatives to the limit. This latter possibility is more likely in the lofty dominion of progressive. Oft-maligned and often misunderstood, these bands, as a longform outgrowth of the psychedelic era, tended to fantasy concepts and extended, often complex, instrumental arrangements. As drummer Bill Buford put it, recalling the time he joined up with King Crimson: “I knew this was not going to be three chords and a pint of Guinness.”

So there will be plenty of ambitious undertakings to review, yet it is interesting to note the changed dynamic of these types of outfits releasing epic works. Back in the Seventies, titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) and The Wall (Pink Floyd) were major releases into the general rock canon. More recently, we have the “neo-prog” groups sometimes releasing several double albums and since, in this Internet age, they are marketing more directly to fans, flying under the radar of most music fans. We’ll look at both kinds since the Prog Years really run from the late Sixties to the present.

Tales from Topographic Oceans—Yes (1973)

The idea that a “lengthy footnote” from a book called Autobiography of a Yogi would inspire one to write an 80-minute song cycle is about as far away as you can get from rock ‘n’ roll’s “let’s party” birthright without sneaking up on it from the other side. But those were the times. The ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford got married in March 1973 and at the reception Yes singer Jon Anderson was told about Paramahansa Yogananda’s famed memoir by King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. Anderson, like many others of the era, was inspired by Eastern spiritualism. Before a month had passed, he and guitarist Steve Howe were writing the esoteric lyrics. After months of painstaking composing, rehearsing and recording this veritable War and Peace of rock was released in December of that year. (A detail of Roger Dean’s handsome artwork on the cover is seen above).

Like Tolstoy’s epic book, Tales from Topographic Oceans would prove rough sledding even for some pre-disposed to like it. Side one (dauntingly titled “The Revealing Science of God”) starts with a Buddhist-like chant that draws us up from the primeval ocean and resolves into a heraldic 3-note guitar figure. It then unfolds like much of TFTO. It’s a lush instrumental sound that builds up from reflective stanzas of Anderson’s questing poetics through several segueing sections before building to a soaring climax. These up-tempo sections were a highlight for many, led by the galloping rhythm section of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, over which would ride Howe’s nervy lead guitar or Rick Wakeman’s bounteous synth fills. To my ears, this plan of attack works best on the exalted second side (“The Remembering”) and while sides three and four (“The Ancient” and “Ritual”) may get a bit bogged down in instrumental excesses, both resolve beautifully: with Howe’s classical acoustic guitar and the stand-alone ballad “Leaves of Green” in the former and the gentle, piano-led paen to home and hearth that closes the album.

As was often the case in progressive rock’s heyday, many of the critics were unabashed in their unkindness and Tales from Topographic Oceans remains a wedge issue to this day with fans in online discussions. But in a 2016 interview, Steve Howe looked back on Tales as “a wonderful project where we went to the end of the earth to do it. There was often a feeling that disaster was about to strike, but we got there in the end.” (In fact, dissension during recording prompted Rick Wakeman after the supporting tour). It could be a sublime listening experience in the days of real stereos and inexpensive weed, dropping the needle on your favorite side. In concert, where the album was played front-to-back in 1974, it could be a patience tester even for the die-hards (sample stage patter: “We’d like to carry on with side three”). It was a long march to the “Roundabout” encore. Circling back to TFTO now—-standing on “hills of long-forgotten yesterdays”—-as the lyrics would have it, it feels like an experiential marvel. In an age of digital dissipation and global polarization, the plea for a spiritual evolution to dispel “cast-iron leaders” and “warland seekers” is a balm. Our common humanity succeeding against all the corrupting forces of the world may sound naive, but it’s also intrinsic to the nature of all good people. When they sing the musical question, “Ours the story, shall we carry on?” the answer is easy: Yes.

Grade: A
Iconic Prog Element: Every good 20-minute song needs a subtitle. From side one to four they are: Dance of the Dawn, High the Memory, Giants Under the Sun and Nous Sommes du Soleil.


Into the Electric Castle—Ayreon (1998)

Are you a lover of classic prog looking for something of more recent vintage? Ayreon, my wayward son. Musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen formed his group project around 1994, in order to “fill a need to create rock operas.” (progarchives.com) The Dutch multi-instrumentalist and vocalist turned out to be an amazingly ambitious songwriter and conceptualist and ever since then he has fulfilled his musical and lyrical visions with an ever-evolving cast of singers and players. His first (but certainly not last) double album is proudly called “A Space Opera” on its front cover. Many classic rock operas, from Tommy on down, tend to be diffuse in their plotting but not this baby. Into the Electric Castle, like most Ayreon albums, has a tightly structured storyline and a cast of characters each voiced by a different guest vocalist. A group of eight archetypes (Knight, Highlander, Barbarian, Roman, Futureman etc.) are led into another dimension by a forbidding deity, in a test of human progress vs. self-destruction. It is melodic, esoteric and ultimately poignant. Ayreon’s prog-metal sound is tempered by a classic 70s flavor with Lucassen dishing out plenty of mini-Moog and mellotron stylings along with his usual stellar guitar and bass work.

Iconic Prog Element: The godfather of Dutch art-rock, Focus frontman Thijs van Leer, shows up to play flute on several tracks.
Grade: A-


Focus III (1973)

Speaking of Focus, the Amsterdam-based quartet had been making a splash in Europe since 1969 (and in the U.S. with their #9 single “Hocus Pocus”) and by the key prog year of 1973 were ready for a twin killing with their third album. The band was a mostly instrumental outfit, with a keen compositional sense that included elements of rock, jazz, folk and classical, sometimes accompanied by the yodeling and scat singing of their ostensible leader, keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer. Acclaimed guitarist Jan Akkerman, who could both shred like a demon and pluck a lute like an angel, was also a key component. This was also the classic line-up with the talented rhythm section of bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden, so they could hardly go wrong. The best known song on Focus III is the exuberant “Sylvia” as good a piece of chamber pop that you’re ever likely to hear and their biggest Continental hit, though it stalled out at #89 in the States. Elsewhere, the group show their knack for jaunty workouts like “Carnival Fugue” and “Round Goes the Gossip” as well as for lovely acoustic miniatures, represented here by “Love Remembered” and “Elspeth of Nottingham.” The middle of the album does get a bit long-winded with jam-band marathons, though there are no shortage of highlights mixed in, esp. Akkerman’s searing leads and van Leer’s punchy Hammond organ solo on “Anonymous II.” Focus III would go gold in the U.S., maintaining the band’s American foothold on prog’s momentum waned in the late Seventies.

Grade: B+
Iconic Prog Element: The 27-minute “Anonymous II” is so long it takes up all of side three before spilling onto side four.


Works, Volume 1—Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1977)

Everything Emerson, Lake and Palmer did was big. Their top-selling records featured grandiose fantasy themes and their stage act showcased a revolving drum kit, a piano spinning end over end thirty feet above the stage (with pianist aboard) and dazzling pyrotechnic displays. But by 1977, having spent the better part of a decade coming across as triumphant warriors, ELP were in danger of being conquered by their own egos. Only hubris combined with internal dissension could produce an LP like Works , Volume 1, essentially three twenty minute solo records followed by a side featuring the “band.” Emerson’s contribution is a fully scored piano concerto. Although there is plenty of impressive work on the ivories here, an orchestrated concerto would prove to be an impossibly hard sell to all but the group’s most hardcore fans. In a similar vein, the insertion of an orchestra on drummer Carl Palmer’s “Tank,” a vigorous instrumental showpiece first heard on the group’s maiden album, gave the re-make a distinctly watered-down feel. Past ELP albums were known for having one track devoted to the radio-friendly balladry of singer/bassist/guitarist Greg. Lake. With a whole side of contributions here the results, typified by the gauzy single “C’est La Vie”, are listenable enough but don’t nearly match the artistic and commercial success of past hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”

On side four the guys revert to old ways on two extended cuts. First with one of the amped-up classical adaptations that always worked well for them and here the honoree (some might say “victim”) is Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” ELP return to their typically exotic subject for the mini-epic “Pirates,” akin to Procol Harum on steroids. By 1977, with punk rock well and truly arrived, critical opinion of the band hit an all-time low (“Works, but only as a Frisbee,” was Creem magazine’s take) though it still made #12 in the States. Yes, there was a Works Vol. 2, a considerably more concise single album released later that year. But after 1978’s unfortunate Love Beach, ELP broke up and only re-surfaced after classic rock became institutionalized in the Nineties.

Grade: C
Iconic Prog Element: Let’s just say “Piano Concerto No. 1”


Sounds Like This—Nektar (1973)

Nektar were a group of Englishman originally based in Hamburg, led by guitarist-lead singer Roye Albrighton. They established their acid-rock bonafides with a way-out live show; their liquid lightshow guy was a full-time member. A first album in 1971 was called Journey To the Center of the Eye and the second one was suggestively titled A Tab in the Ocean, both were marked by sci-fi themes and lengthy compositions. Nektar gathered in the studio in October ’72 with the rather odd notion of simulating a live show in the studio, complete with improvisational jams. Dissatisfied with much of the results, they went back for a partial do-over in early ’73. They ended up with a double LP where the stretching out (three tracks in the 12-14 minute range) alternated with a clutch of progressive pop songs of more traditional length.

The album opens with its strongest track. “Good Day” should have been a hit in a fair world, with its filigreed guitar hooks and a dramatic buildup to an optimistic sing-along chorus. “New Day Dawning” follows in a similar winning style but side one closes with a hard-rock boogie called “What Ya Gonna Do” which is about as original as its title. From there, the album alternates between jams that sound more like their heavy-hitting contemporaries like Deep Purple or Mountain and the more written-out shorter material, like the ballad “Wings.” I prefer the latter, but the longer cuts are a fun listen. Albrighton was not really known as a guitar-hero type but he certainly is one here, ripping off any number of screaming leads on solo-heavy workouts like “1-2-3-4” (keyboardist Allan Freeman also shines here). In retrospect, Sounds Like This seems like a “let your hair down” diversion and Nektar would revert to form later in 1973 with the accomplished concept album Remember the Future, that gave them their biggest U.S. success (#19). That was short-lived but the group stayed popular in Europe and, despite a few sabbaticals, they continue to record and perform, even after Roye Albrighton’s passing in 2016.

Grade: B-
Iconic Prog Element: Halfway through “New Day Dawning” the band seamlessly shifts into the first verse of “Norwegian Wood” just because they can.


The Astonishing—Dream Theater (2016)

The Long Island-based Dream Theater are one of those prolific and restlessly creative groups that have emerged from the neo-progressive and prog metal movements of the last thirty years or so. (The Flower Kings and Big Big Train are two others that come quickly to mind). This 130-minute behemoth was their second double concept album, coming a full fourteen years after the first, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. True to its title, that album explored various states of psychological struggles over the course of a half-dozen tracks—one of which, at 42 minutes, took up the whole second disc. Still, the relatively tight focus of Six Degrees stands in sharp contrast to the operatic sci-fi sprawl that is The Astonishing. The cover art shows a squadron of robotic orbs hovering over a futuristic city. After the “Dystopian Overture” we learn that in a distant future music, while not said to be explicitly banned, is something that people have “no time for” anymore. Instead, the orbs (called NOMACS) beam down their dissonant playlist of bleeps, blurps and technological babble. But if there is any oppression here in futureland (how much is not clear) it is challenged by the emergence of Gabriel whose messianic status seems based on the fact that he’s the only left who can carry a tune.

If you detect a note of skepticism here, go to the head of the class. The band’s synopsis of The Astonishing runs a full six paragraphs, but just listening to the album it’s hard to discern any storyline at all. Almost every song is based around general platitudes that could easily make up an album of unrelated tracks. Lead singer James LaBrie has a great set of pipes but lacks the versatility to spread them over several different characters. Before long we are getting sub-Andrew Lloyd Weber “showstoppers” like the soapy “Chosen” (“Against all hope we found a way/And it is all because she trusted me”). It’s too bad—Dream Theater founder-guitarist-lyricist John Petrucci has all the chops and ambitions in the world and the music here is played expertly but without much personal distinction. Yet the band has pulled off this kind of thing before and may well again in the future. The Astonishing, however, hardly lives up to its title: it’s all reach and no grasp.

Grade: C-
Iconic Prog Element: The NOMACS get five brief tracks all to themselves and are often more interesting than the human characters.

Follow this blog and you’ll be notified when Part 2 of this post comes out. Featured will be 2-disc bad boys from Soft Machine, Can, Mike Oldfield, the Flower Kings and others. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Tinseltown Rock #2: 1956, The Year Rock Hit the Silver Screen

From all the way back to its earliest days, rock ‘n’ roll has been almost as much of a visual medium as an audio one. First, second, and even third generation fans, when asked about the pioneering days, will likely mention Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, Chuck Berry’s duckwalk or Jerry Lee Lewis attacking his piano. Right from the get-go, the look of rock was closely tied to the impact of the music. In the 1950s the “jukebox movies” starting arriving almost as soon as the genre had a name. Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Baby Rock It, Rock Rock Rock and Jailhouse Rock all saw release by the end of 1957. These teen movies were usually uneasy alliances of the new youthful spirit of the times and hackneyed Hollywood plot points featuring head-scratching adults. The wild dancing, the Alan Freed cameos and the spotlight performances by everyone from Elvis to Johnny Burnette to LaVern Baker and the Platters, give these films a certain historical value—if you can sit still through the wooden acting and tired show-biz scenarios.

Take Rock Around the Clock. Considered by many the first rock ‘n’ roll hit, it makes sense that Columbia Pictures would build a movie around it, right from the get go. In fact, the song had already played over the opening titles of 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and would later perform the same service for 1973’s American Graffiti and the hit TV series Happy Days. The plot is a very fanciful notion of a rock & roll origin story. Big band manager Steve Hollis (played by Johnny Johnston) is convinced that the music he is promoting is on the way out and he heads back to the big city with his aptly-named sidekick, Corny. They stop in a hick town called Strawberry Springs, where is just so happens that a rock ‘n’ roll subculture (led by the local house band, Bill Haley and His Comets) is taking hold. At first they are flummoxed (“Hey, sister, what’s that exercise you’re getting?”) but soon realize they may be on to the next big thing.

All this looks so squeaky clean, making the scandalized reactions of the town’s old hags even more unintentionally funny. The dancing is energetic but hardly an affront. Everyone’s in evening wear and the action on the dance floor is led by professional partners Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton. It is Gaye’s character who gets romantically involved with Steve Hollis, enraging the Ice Queen NY booking agent who has a thing for Hollis and who is liable to destroy everyone’s chance at rock ‘n’ roll immortality, just for revenge. (Spoiler Alert: Hollis calls in a favor with Alan Freed, playing himself).

While the actors and the dancers in Rock Around the Clock are reliably Caucasian, the roll call of musicians and singers are a welcome mix of white, black and Hispanic performers. They all appear together in a final stage number. This diversity of performers (some of them true rock innovators) is the best legacy of these early pictures, even though they are cobbled together with the studio’s play-it-safe scenarios.


The Platters with their classic “Only You.”

For instance, Rock, Rock, Rock! starts out with two swingin’ numbers. One is over the opening credits where the featured performers are shown (Chuck Berry, La Vern Baker, the Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers etc.) and another for a dance scene at the malt shop. But the air quickly goes out of the room (cinematically speaking) when Dori (Tuesday Weld, only 13 at the time) is asked if some boy has asked her to the (middle school?) prom. After replying “not yet” she is quickly compelled to leave her seat and regale us with a soapy ballad. But naturally, the various acts lip-syncing to their hits is the big feature here, a highlight being the two numbers by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, seen below.


Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, introduced by Alan Freed, in “Rock, Rock, Rock!”

And so the formula went. These jukebox pictures made for good business, so were churned out on a set schedule. Don’t Knock the Rock followed in Dec. 1956, still with Bill Haley and the Comets topping the bill (as “The Kings of Rock”) but Little Richard couldn’t help but steal the show with his two numbers towards the end of the flick.


Little Richard lets it rip with “Long Tall Sally.”

Of course, Elvis was the biggest of all back then and Colonel Parker’s scheme to make his client (and himself) rich included making as many movies as possible and Jailhouse Rock, released in fall of 1957, was already his third film vehicle. But it was the first straight-up blockbuster, both with earnings (its box office take was comparable to The Wizard of Oz) and because of its racy subject matter. As jailbird-turned-pop-star Vince Everett, Presley is a punch-happy, manslaughtering, girl-grabbing, ego-driven SOB of an anti-hero. “Cheap, unpleasant, tasteless,” were a few of the reverse compliments it earned from critics. It’s stage performance of the title song is an indelible image of the genre, despite the many far less potent films that would follow. The die had been cast and from here straight thru to Bohemian Rhapsody, the movies have been rocking ever since.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film (Part 2)

Sally Sedition, 1979: “My granny lives up there on the 12th floor and ‘alf the time the lift’s broken. It’s a travesty, that is.”

Text by Rick ouellette/Illustrations by Eric Bornstein

Never underestimate the symbolic value of the hated “tower blocks” of working-class London as rhetorical ammunition for punk rockers in their skirmish with the UK establishment of the late 1970s. On their second LP, This is the Modern World, the Jam posed under the same shadowing underpass as Sally did in the above drawing, with the same applied animus of inhumane council estates. This perceived cattling of the populace was immortalized in songs like the Clash’s “London’s Burning,” Chelsea’s “High-Rise Living” and XTC’s “Towers of London.”

In reality, not a ton of these early punks actually lived in these dreaded high rises, many coming from more outlying London districts or suburbs (the Jam hailed from Woking, 23 miles from the Charing Cross measuring spot). An exception was Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who indeed lived way up off the ground with his granny. The group made a point to be filmed looking out from an outdoor balcony down to the elevated Westway and the city beyond. This footage made it into Julien Temple’s 2007 posthumous docu-pic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. In that film, Jones is seen on the same balcony and says, “All you have to do is look out there to write a song. It’s all out there.” That “roar of the city” that Jones refers to can be absorbed by anyone who wants to experience and understand it, regardless of their origin. Joe Strummer himself was born in Ankara to a foreign-service family and went to a private boarding school for a while. But he absorbed the street and its varying forms of the human condition to be able to write about like few had done before.


By the time of the Sandinista! album, released in late 1980, the Clash’s critique of high-rise public housing had advanced from rabble-rousing phrases to more of a news editorial bent. “You can’t live in a home which should not have been built/By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt” Mick Jones sings The song’s somber eloquence is reflected in the montage of this fan-made video, which includes the band-on-balcony footage mentioned above.

The creative impulse to strike out in anger and protest, an indignation often leavened with raffish humor, is a British tradition dating at least as far back as Jonathan Swift (Johnny Rotten has been likened to a modern-day Artful Dodger). In 1979, Julien Temple showed his debt to radical French director Jean (Zero for Conduct) Vigo when he made the 19-minute short subject Punk Can Take It. He recruited the conversant second-line punk outfit the UK Subs (along with a couple of carryover characters from his filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) in creating a cheeky parody of Humphrey Jennings’ acclaimed 1940 newsreel London Can Take It. The wartime documentarian made several skillful morale-boosting works, showing the English population banding together in the face of Luftwaffe attacks. In Temple’s version, the band (and the safety-pinned kids in general) have to withstand the bombardment of an uptight establishment that would suppress and/or co-opt them. The pithy narrator mimics the authoritative tone of Jenning’s source material. He assures us that the big noises we here “are not Hollywood sound effects” as we join the Subs regaling a sweaty, pogo-happy club crowd with such two-minute buzzsaw bursts as “Stranglehold” and “I Live in a Car.”

Sally notes the prominent role played by “poxy politicians” in the attempted demonization of punk, rivaling the role of the tabloid newspapers as they chronicled the “foul-mouthed yobs” and their “rock cult filth.” Notable among these officials was then city-councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, seen below.

Punk Can Take It hints at a punk purism, dispensing with hippies and even neo-Mods with cartoonish violence. But the new scene was diverse even in the early years of 1976-77. The Jam wore sharp suits and slashed away at their Rickenbackers, evoking mid-Sixties Who and Kinks, but with an extra dose of sneering. In the 2015 doc, The Jam: About the Young Idea, director Bob Smeaton (who also helmed Festival Express) shows how kids from the outlying “satellite towns” embraced an image that was less confrontational than the Kings Road early adopters, who were often marks for bobbies and skinheads. Although the songs of frontman Paul Weller were more thoughtful than many others, the delivery system was just as fierce, as seen in this 1980 version of “Private Hell” from the German music show Rockpalast (the full show is available as a bonus disc on some DVD editions of About the Young Idea).

Most Brit punk documentaries focus on a few of the same elements that gave rise to this new contentious sound that rattled the status quo in Old Blighty. Primary causes were the nation’s social and economic upheavals of the mid-70s, the blandness of mainstream culture and the perceived pomposity of arena-rock groups. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd came in for a right bashing. As Sally tells it: “Before punk, it was all prog-rock tossers and 20-minute guitar solos. That’s boring, innit?”

Don Letts, who had made the seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 (discussed in Part One), joined up with Mick Jones after he left the Clash, forming Big Audio Dynamite. Letts latter returned to film making and produced the excellent wide-view documentary Punk: Attitude in 2005. Instead of slagging off anything that came before the Pistols, Letts see the outrage of the Class of ’77 as part of an evolving struggle against complacency—even a “spiritual thing within,” as Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones puts it. Here, the survey of that attitude stretches back to Woody Guthrie, the Fifties’ rock & roll pioneers and even the war-protesting hippies that the punks were aligned against. Letts has directed several other music docs as well: for the purposes of this post, the 2000 Clash profile Westway to the World is also recommended.

In the 21st century, the punk spirit can be re-lived and hopefully spark new inspiration in younger generations through the flock on related films that have been released in the last two decades. Sometimes they are not documentaries: maybe the two best cinematic depictions of the vibrant Manchester is the brilliant feature film Control (directed by Anton Corbijn, 2007) about the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and the wildly entertaining 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) starring Steve Coogan as the city’s punk-scene impresario Tony Wilson.

Among the newer notable docs is Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, the alternately hilarious and sobering profile of the UK’s irreverent trailblazers, and The Slits: Here to be Heard about the fearless forerunners of riot girl bands. Meanwhile, Julien Temple has gone on to become a virtual Sex Pistols documentary cottage industry. He filmed their 2007 concerts in London to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks album. Their pariah status long behind them, they came across like modern English folk heroes, playing their nuts off for a mult-racial and multi-generational crowd for whom the lads’ “God Save the Queen” is now an “alternate national anthem.” Another recent Temple production, Christmas With the Sex Pistols (2013), is even better. Combining his old footage with new interviews with the band and attendees, Temple creates a heartwarming (yes, really) remembrance of the band’s secret holiday party that they threw for the children of striking firefighters on 12/25/1977. Naturally, the kids have no problem getting into the anarchic frame of mind, covering Johnny Rotten’s head in frosted cake, mid-performance.


From the 1980 film “Rude Boy,” the Clash front-line (from l to r, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones) are seen performing at a Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park. The offending tower blocks loom in the background.

The punks’ visceral suspicion towards the concept of public high-rise housing came to a horrifying realization in June 2017 when the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London erupted into a shocking conflagration that killed 72 people. The shoddy, cut-rate cladding and lax attitudes towards safety regulations and upkeep were major contributing factors to how a simple fridge fire quickly engulfed the entire building. The rhetorical aggression of punk rock pales in comparison to the “passive violence of civilized life” mentioned by the narrator of Punk Can Take It.


The Grenfell Tower inferno, June 14 of 2007.

Few rock songwriters would have understood this better than Joe Strummer, who died suddenly from a congenital heart condition in December of 2002. He and Mick Jones wrote a song for the Clash’s first album called “London’s Burning”. Naturally, it was not a call for mass arson—after all, London was burning with “boredom”—but instead was one of many songs coming from the UK at that time calling for a unity among kids to combat the de-personalizing nature of modern society. Joe, lost late at night in a housing project sings, “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.”

In Julien Temple 2007 Strummer doc The Future is Unwritten, the cinematic auteur of British punk, used a repeated motif of having groups of people (bandmates, friends, celebrity fans) sitting around bonfires sharing their stories of Joe and lauding his sense of globalism and social justice. One can only imagine Strummer’s reaction to today’s political climate of nationalism, bigoty, authoritarian rule and the whole Brexit folly. But no matter what the current conditions, it’s always best to remember his parting words from an old taped interview: “You can change anything you want to. People are out there doing bad things to each other because they’ve been de-humanized. It’s time to take humanity back to the center of the ring.”

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Documentary Spotlight: “My Generation” (2018)

I am fated to go to my grave as an unreconstructed Anglophile and that’s OK. From seeing the Beatles and Stones on TV at an impressionable age, to Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” inspiring me to try writing, to Monty python, to the early punk years to my later incarnation as an English Premier League nut, it’s never let up. Not even now, at the height of the whole Brexit fiasco—with its echo of the same disturbing societal trends that gave us Trump on this side of the Atlantic—has it wavered much.

So it’s not a big surprise that I’m giving a big Reel and Rock recommendation for last year’s nostalgic “My Generation,” co-produced and hosted by Michael Caine and now available online and on DVD. This is not strictly a music documentary, but you can’t make a film about Britain’s post-war generation without rock & roll being a huge part of it. Just in the introductory section you get two Kink Klassics (“Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset”) and the Who’s titular anthem. The soundtrack is a continual parade of classic Brit rock, from the Beatles and Stones to the Small Faces and Thunderclap Newman.


This “My Generation” trailer is followed by a short clip from the film.

But it’s also about fashion, film, photography, pop art and even hairdressing (Vidal Sassoon got his start in Swinging London). Caine, a veritable rock star among actors, is a great host with his everlasting Cockney charm. When the music takes a break, he’s doing new, audio-only interviews with Twiggy, Paul McCartney, David Bailey, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull and mini-skirt inventor Mary Quant. while the intoxicating period footage plays over it. This is not a particularly in-depth social study (if you want to do deep-diving on this subject check out Shawn Levy’s excellent book “Ready Steady Go”) but it’s a highly entertaining primer and a valuable one too as its subjects are well into their seventies by now.


Twiggy, Twiggy, Twiggy: A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Director David Batty does not play the “Debbie Downer” card; there is a bit about the era’s social divides and a sidebar towards the end about how the drug scene got a bit out of control (a section on Brian Jones’ death and funeral strikes a brief minor chord). But overall the tone doesn’t stray much from “wasn’t it all so great?” But for here, that’s OK. Let’s put away he uneasy thoughts about the unfocused grievances, latent (or blatant) bigotry and foreign-agent manipulation that has left us in such a precarious state that it makes us nostalgic not just for “My Generation” but for the highly-imperfect but reasonably-stable systems of government that we were rebelling against at the time.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Make Mine a Double #13: The Bee Gees’ “Odessa” (1969)

From their humble beginnings as a family singing group, the Bee Gees went on to become one of the biggest selling popular music groups of all time. The three Gibb brothers reached their commercial zenith as the dominant act on the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which has sold some forty million copies worldwide. Although their early AM hits and the iconic disco workouts of Fever remain in steady rotation in various radio formats, little if anything from Odessa graces the airwaves anymore. This lushly packaged double LP hit the stores in early ’69 and although it did achieve a measure of success (#20 in the U.S., #10 in the U.K.) the album was hindered by the lack of a monster single to sustain its reputation. In fact, a dispute between two of the brothers over what song to release as a 45 caused a fissure in the band that would take a couple of years to patch up. An impressive set of progressive pop compositions beautifully sung and performed, Odessa could be a fresh discovery for those who have long extolled the virtues of the much-worshiped Pet Sounds. Like that classic album from the Beach Boys (also a family-based group) Odessa elevates a teenage art form into a sophisticated new realm without ever seeming pretentious.


“First of May” was the only single released from the double album and only got as high as #37 in the U.S.

Born on England’s Isle of Man, older brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice honed their close harmony style from an early age. Their family moved to Australia in the late Fifties but after topping the Down Under charts in 1966 with the immortal “Spicks and Specks,” the brothers headed back to England. They fell under the auspices of impresario/producer Robert Stigwood, who heavily promoted the band and helped them hone their signature style on yearning, melancholic ballads like “To Love Somebody” and “Massachusetts.”


The Bee Gees in 1969, with drummer Colin Petersen, second from right, still a full member with the Gibb Brothers.

By the end of the Sixties, with high-aiming records like Sgt. Pepper and Days of Future Past all the rage, the Bee Gees made their move. The curtain-raising title track clocks in at 7:30 and features Maurice’s Spanish guitar and solo cello by guest Paul Buckmaster. The nautical imagery and historic references presage the work of artists like Al Stewart and (much later) the Decemberists. The boys even work in a new wrinkle on their usual theme of dealing with romantic setbacks, courtesy of the eyebrow-raising refrain, “You love that vicar more than words can say.”

But with seventeen songs to work with, there is no shortage of the Bee Gees’ stock-in-trade balladry, that keening heartache delivered by the famous high-pitched voices and insistent vibrato. Because tunes like “I Laugh in Your Face”, “Sound of Love” and “Never Say Never Again,” (“You said goodbye/I declared war on Spain”) sound familiar despite their relative obscurity, Odessa sometimes seems like a template for the elegant pop songcraft of a lost era. This craft extends to the musical performance. Drummer Colin Petersen kicks into gear when the group stretches stylistically, especially on an early foray into funk at the end of “Whisper Whisper.” There’s also a fun homage to The Band (“Marley Purt Drive”) a jaunty hoedown (“Give Your Best”) and an eccentric ode to Thomas Edison.

Despite the album’s long string of top-notch lead vocals by Barry and Robin Gibb, it may be the “quiet” brother Maurice who’s the unsung star here. Playing a variety of keyboards in addition to his bass duties, he comes to the fore on the loftier second disc, his grand piano leading the way on the orchestrated instrumental “Seven Seas Symphony.” He also takes full advantage on his one vocal showcase: “Melody Fair” is maybe the loveliest tune on a record chock full of them. Despite his reputation as a stabilizing presence in the midst of two more ambitious siblings, Maurice (who died in 2003) couldn’t prevent the rift caused when Barry’s “First of May” was chosen as the single while Robin’s “Lamplight” was relegated to the b-side. Robin (who passed away in 2012) was out of sorts over the notion that his older brother was being pushed out to center stage and split for a solo career.


Maurice Gibb’s delectable “Melody Fair” gained popularity two years after its initial release when it became the de facto theme song for the movie Melody starring Tracy Hyde.

Although Barry and Maurice carried on as a duo (Cucumber Castle, anyone?) the trio eventually re-united and re-defined themselves for the Seventies, leading to an outbreak of white leisure suits, exposed chest hair and those little spoons hanging around the neck. After Saturday Night Fever the excesses of the decade caught up with the Bee Gees, as Robert Stigwood insisted that they star with Peter Frampton in a mega-movie based on the Beatles most famous album. Seized by what was reported to be a sort of collective cocaine psychosis, cast and crew turned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band into a garish and silly film musical that was universally loathed. It is worlds away from the classy accomplishments of a work like Odessa, where ambition was happily married to good instincts.
—Rick Ouellette

Rock Doc spotlight: “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell at the Isle of Wight 1970”

Directed by Murray Lerner—1970/2018—76 minutes

We are just a few months away from the outpouring of tributes and remembrances marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A lot of that of course will focus on that weekend’s legendary line-up of performers. But what of one artist who didn’t end up on that stage in Bethel, New York, even though she wrote the definitive anthem of the event? Joni Mitchell was scheduled to play for the masses gathered on Max Yasgur’s famous field. But as travel logistics to and from the festival got worse, Joni was held back at the urging (or insistence) of David Geffen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They wanted to make sure that they had at least one guaranteed performer for a scheduled post-Woodstock edition of the Dick Cavett Show. This left a very disappointed Ms. Mitchell to write her brooding but beatific “Woodstock” after watching news coverage of it from a hotel room.

But Joni would appear at a larger multi-day festival the following summer. The 1970 edition of England’s Isle of Wight event (where attendance topped out at some 600,000), was marked by an acrimonious struggle between radical elements of the audience and what was perceived as greedy owners who cordoned off the grounds and had the audacity to charge admission. Anyone who has seen Murray Lerner’s exemplary documentary of the festival (Message to Love) will know of the fence-busting and the rhetorical fireworks emanating from the stage by both sides. And they would also recall Joni Mitchell’s segment from the film, where she is interrupted by a man trying to borrow her microphone for an impromptu rant.

Both Sides Now faces those troubles head-on, beginning with a sneak preview of Joni doing the famous title intercut with scenes of the general turmoil. The line “it’s life’s illusions I recall” takes on a new meaning here. Symbolically, the 1970 Wight festival was the smudging of the rose-colored lenses thru which Woodstock’s Aquarian ideal was viewed. The commodification of the rock music marketplace, with its vast legions of potential consumers, was well under way. Murray Lerner, who died in 2017, produced several single-artist offshoot videos from his extensive footage, including those of headlining acts like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. But this edition, graced with the astute reminisces of Mitchell from a 2003 interview, stands with the best of them both musically and thematically.


Everywhere there was song and celebration… and insurgency? The 1970 Isle of Wight festival as seen from the top of the non-paying section dubbed Desolation Row. Many would try to bust in thru the fencing.

Certainly, fans of Joni should not pass this one by, either by viewing the full set on YouTube or by obtaining the keepsake Blu-ray edition. Right from the top, as she straps on her acoustic guitar and starts into the lovely “Song about the Midway,” you can tell this is some special stuff. At this point, she had three albums worth of her uniquely introspective and romantic songs to draw on and her star was on the rise, her current single (“Big Yellow Taxi”) hitting #11 on the U.K. charts. Mitchell was a seasoned performer, confident enough to do three songs from her future classic album, Blue, which wouldn’t come out until the next summer.


Joni performs “Song about the Midway” and “Gallery.”

Joni, whose father’s ancestry was Norwegian, was famously described as a “Nordic princess” in Sheila Weller’s popular 2008 book Girls Like Us, was a luminous presence in her long flaxen hair, tangerine-colored maxi dress and turquoise necklace. The cameramen, after days of shooting hairy guys in hard-rock bands, couldn’t get enough of her. Even when there’s a flub she makes something out of it; after a couple of verses of “Chelsea Morning” she tells the crowd she doesn’t feel like singing that much, but not before finishing the abbreviated number with an impressive flurry of her distinctive open-tuned guitar stylings.

But playing solo acoustic to such a huge and restive crowd proved a little dicey: in Message to Love we see a glib Kris Kristofferson getting nearly booed off the stage. For Joni, the trouble starts when a man who seems like he’s on a bad acid trip is extracted from the crowd close in front of her. She has sat down at the piano for a couple of tunes, singing about a street musician playing “For Free” while her world consists of limo rides and “velvet curtain calls.” Then she tries in vain to get the crowd to sing “we are stardust, we are golden” in the chorus to “Woodstock.” When a man who had been sitting behind her tries to borrow her mike he is all but wrestled off the stage. With the masses ready to erupt, Mitchell exhorts the crowd (at the 2:00 mark of the video below) to give the musicians “some respect” while the man, freaky as he may seem, tells the organizers at the end of that clip that we are indeed “caught in the devil’s bargain.”


Joni Mitchell SINGS “Woodstock.” Then, though visibly nervous, she confronts the unruly isle of Wight crowd after having her performance interrupted by the head of the Committee to Paint the Fence Invisible.

In the interview segments, Joni reflects on just how unnerving the experience was for her 26 year-old self. She remarks on how the 1970 Wight event was the “Hate-the-Performers Festival” and that some of the stars brought it on themselves by arriving in luxury cars or in custom caravans. The event was running behind the schedule and she agreed to play in the tension-filled afternoon instead of at night, in effect being “fed to the beast.” The trouble was stirred up by a faction (which included a pack of French anarchists) called the “Free Festival Radicals.” They were camped out on the hillside behind the site and spent much of their time trying to tear down the fence. The idea that music is some sort of natural occurrence, like the sun setting over an ocean, instead of the end result of a laborious creative process, was a thing at the time (also evident in the film Festival Express, filmed the same year). It is as galling as the idea of illegal downloading that started with Napster and that has made life nowadays even more difficult for musicians not in the upper echelons.

Also in the interviews, Mitchell explains her revelation that a large audience is like a giant dragon with the first five rows like the head. If you placate that part of it, it will send a calming message back down to the rest. Joni finished the set to a won-over audience and one of the best shots Lerner has is the sight of her running back onto the stage for an encore. Yes, the beast of a mass-market rock ‘n’ roll marketplace was about to take over and Mitchell would be one of its most visible jet-setting stars. But in this case, it’s because her talents were rewarded by paying fans who allowed her to keep doing her thing. In view of the lowest-common-denominator, computer-enhanced pop stars that dominate today’s scene, we have indeed paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Stairway to Purgatory: Greta van Fleet in an age where baby boomers still walk the earth

Back in 1971-72 when I was still in my early teens, there was a guy named Bob Hegarty who did an FM freeform-style radio show on a small station in Danvers, Mass. He also wrote about rock music for a weekly arts-and-entertainment paper called North of Boston. I semi-idolized this guy. His radio show was pretty awesome: he was spinning all the great stuff of the era: the Who, the Stones, Cream, Bowie, Hendrix, Tull etc. as well as some blues and jazz. I was probably one of his younger fans and would call in a request almost every week and always be included in his roll call of regular listeners that he would read off at the end of the show: I was the proverbial “Rick from Peabody.” His weekly record reviews in NOB were erudite and free-wheeling. He liked all the stuff that I was getting into at the time with one big exception: to him, Led Zeppelin were a no-go zone.

Of course, as a 13-year-old American male I loved them and already had Led Zeppelin IV on cassette by the time Hegarty’s review of it showed up in NOB. And it was a doozy. Bob did have nice things to say about “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” and even paid Jimmy Page a nice back-handed compliment on the latter, saying that the guitar solo on “Stairway” showed that “Page can still play his axe.” Hey, thanks! As for the rest of the LP, to him it was the same old stuff: so loud “that it doesn’t even matter what they’re playing.” In fact, by the time he got halfway thru the closer “When the Levee Breaks” Hegarty was so fed up that he wanted to take the platter off the turntable and smash it to pieces, “until I remembered I just paid FOUR BUCKS for it.” Classic. Despite my LZ fandom, this didn’t make me mad. It made me want to become a writer, too.


The Greta van Fleet of their time? Led Zeppelin raising the roof at Madison Square Garden in 1973. From the film “The Song Remains the Same”

Which brings me to Greta van Fleet. The young Michigan quartet have been the beneficiary of much press in the last year or so, much of it along the lines of them reviving the dormant genre of heavy rock. (Dormant to the hype-spinners, of course). Their guitarist has admitted he taught himself every riff off the first two Zeppelin albums and let’s just say it shows. Those two LZ albums got panned in Rolling Stone by John Mendelsohn, in prose that toggled between dismissive and sarcastic. (This is the same Rolling Stone that recently did a fawning teenybopper-style piece on GVF). Of course, a lot of that was generational (inter-generational, really). The first wave of baby-boomer rock freaks had a chip on their shoulder about Jimmy Page and Co. (a real creation of the 70s), believing the band were bulldozing the cherished blues foundation upon which rock ‘n’ roll was built, all to appeal to their younger siblings with volume and bombast. Sure, some of this is the old generational certitude that your era is better. But there is more to it now, which I will get to in a bit.

Greta van Fleet had been making a bit of a splash for months but it all came to a head when they made their high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live. Audio-wise, their first number, “Black Smoke Rising,” showed them to be a capable if derivative hard rock act. But there was one big problem: you were looking at them as well. Granted, I’m not the band’s target demographic but I find it hard to think that even today’s teenage girls would be ga-ga over their mismatched patterned cast-offs, sandals and the type of satin jackets that haven’t been in style since Blue Oyster Cult fired their first publicist. But that’s just me, I guess. Singer Josh Kiszka’s self-conscious yelping and arm-waving, not to mention the awkward and vaguely inauthentic stage moves of his two brothers (guitarist Jake and bassist Sam), bordered on self-parody, if that were possible this early in a career. When they returned later for the ballad “You’re the One” (a decent song in search of a credible singer), Josh spent most of the song posing like an eight-armed Bodhisattva with six of them missing.


GVF singer Josh Kiszka. Even the Rock & Roll Fashion Police were left speechless on viewing this.

With a band like this, acting dorky almost on purpose while riding the sonic coattails of a beloved classic-rock icon like Zeppelin, the social media backlash was as fun as one could hope for. I was too happy to pile on, dubbing them “Greta van WTF-R-U-Wearing” and clicking on the Ha-Ha icon when someone declared “Every generation gets the Led Zeppelin they deserve” or asked “Why is the singer dressed like Greg Brady’s bedroom door?” But there was also the backlash to the backlash, with people getting dubbed “haters” (does that mean nothing is open to criticism?) or just boring old farts. Apparently, some people in my age group have convinced themselves they like GVF and that’s their prerogative.


“Highway Tune,” a sort of learner’s-permit variation on Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” was one of the songs on their Grammy-winning Best Rock Album. Or as the voters probably thought of it, Only Rock Album.

But what is ignored (or,frankly, not even realized) is that standards were simply a lot higher then and many boomers have stuck to them. Fans and reviewers alike were a lot more discerning and that was for the better. Despite their exaggerations, Hegarty and Mendelsohn were not that off base in their anti-Zep attitudes. Parts of Led Zeppelin II in particular sound grating nowadays and they were taking songwriting credits that should have (and in some cases eventually did) go to the blues greats they were emulating. But they grew by leaps and bounds over the next few albums. Some people suggest using similar patience with GVF but I’m not holding my breath. We may joke about “Stairway to Heaven” (remember the guitar-shop scene in Wayne’s World?)but if they ever wrote anything with 10% of the eloquence of Robert Plant’s lyrics to that song, I would probably drop dead on the spot.

No, it doesn’t seem to be in the DNA anymore. Today, “we walk on down the road/our shadows taller than our souls” for real. In the one issue of North of Boston that I still have there is one of those State-of-the-Rock articles that were popular once. The writer, one Mike Howell, begins by stating, “The question of whether or not rock has lost its vitality is very much in the air today. Huh? This was 1972, the same year of Exile on Main St./Ziggy Stardust/The Harder They Come/Eat a Peach/Close to the Edge/Transformer etc. So now is the time to keep your own to your own. I’m not upset that Greta van Fleet won the Grammy for best album instead of what would have been my choice: Merrie Land, the stirring post-Brexit concept album by The Good, The Bad and the Queen, the group led by Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Why would I be, they don’t even reside on the same plane of existence. So if you’re looking for something young and new in rock & roll, dig a little deeper (I would suggest someone like Nashville’s All Them Witches). But the important thing is to keep thinking for yourself: in other words, to be a rock and not to roll over for the kind of bargain-basement hype that is Greta van Fleet.