Author: Rick Ouellette

I'm a freelance writer and published my second book in November 2016. It's called "Rock Docs: A Fifty Year Cinematic Journey." My first, "Documentary 101: A Viewer's Guide to Non-Fiction Film," was released in 2013. My other activities, like photography, bicycling and a little urban exploring also tie into the content of this blog, which is dedicated to the celebrating the rich history of rock music, film and popular culture.

The Original New Green Deal: “Soylent” Comes of Age

It’s Earth Day 2022, the same year that was the future setting of the iconic (and oft-parodied) 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green.” So it’s the perfect time to look back at the cinematic world presented therein. The whole planet is besieged by overpopulation, economic meltdown and by an ecological Armageddon. The particular setting is an overwhelmed New York City of 40 million inhabitants (half of them unemployed) most of whom have little to eat except the sickly-green wafers of the title.

Of course, it’s not much of a spoiler anymore to mention what SG is made from (it’s PEOPLE!!!). The big reveal here is just as well-known as the twist ending of the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (it’s a COOKBOOK!!!). It’s still a good watch, a vintage 70s potboiler starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Chuck Connors, along with several notable actors in smaller roles. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, using Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!” as its source material. The film’s opening montage–a visual timeline that moves from a 19th century idyll to our present day problems of pollution, runaway mass consumption, poverty and strife–sets the table pretty convincingly.

Bad news for the hipsters: That’s not avocado toast we’re looking at.

But don’t go in expecting a lot of prophetic material. “Soylent Green” is at heart a future-set police procedural with Heston as Detective Thorn who, while investigating the murder of a wealthy man, finds out he has much more than a simple homicide on his hands. Food as we still know it today is the preserve of the very wealthy, along with other luxuries like running water, soap, and linens. This is income equality on steroids.

Thorn seeks to even the score a bit when he goes to investigate at the luxury apartment of the murdered man—the Soylent Corp. executive played by Joseph Cotten before he was unceremoniously dispatched. While still questioning the man’s assigned concubine or “furniture” named Shirl (played by the doe-eyed beauty Taylor-Young) he grabs a silk pillowcase from the bedroom and, with no pretext, fills it with food, liquor and a bar of that soap. Thorn returns to the small bare-bones apartment he shares with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), the old-timer intellectual (or “book”) with whom he works on cases.

The scene where the two man luxuriate over real food and good bourbon is a humorous highlight of this often bleak film. Robinson is very good here as the wise old man who discovers the Soylent Secret from company books Thorn found in the dead man’s flat. It was EGR’s 101st and last screen role and he died twelve days after shooting wrapped, making his famous scene at the euthanasia center all the more poignant. Heston obviously loves working with him and Robinson’s influence gives Heston’s usual granite presence some needed soft edges.

But there’s still a world-gone-berserk out there to deal with, which brings us to “Soylent Green’s” notorious food-riot centerpiece. When the SG supply runs out one day the crowd gets very unhappy very quickly, and the riot control front-end loaders are brought in post-haste. This spectacle, hyped-up due to the illustrated exaggeration in the movie’s poster, has many non-believers. Gene Siskel, in his one-and-a-half star review, warned viewers they “may never stop laughing.” (to be fair, his future TV partner Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 stars). The fact that most people caught in the shovel just don’t jump back to the ground shows that believability was sacrificed for cost considerations and thematic point-scoring.

Because let’s face it, this is not a big-budget production. Instead of a truly horrifying people scooper, they just used whatever public-works truck was available. And although there are a few good forbidding futurescapes, most of the exterior shots used the same old Manhattan/brownstone “streets” that Hollywood had been utilizing on their backlots since the Forties. So while “Soylent Green” wants to be taken seriously it often lacks both the monetary and cerebral heft to do so.

But you get some good B-movie action–the chases and shootouts and the bedroom scene with Heston and Taylor-Young–and a cast worth watching. There’s Chuck “Rifleman” Connors as the shady bodyguard, Whit “Time Tunnel” Bissell as the corrupt governor, veteran character actress Celia Lovsky as Sol’s librarian colleague and, as Thorn’s superior back at the precinct, we have Brock Peters who, a decade before, played the doomed Tom Robinson in the famous film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So, a lot to look at here if you’re considering a re-look or if you’re a young one approaching “Soylent Green” for the first time—just don’t expect a lot of Nostradamus action. Sure, the scarifying opening montage still holds weight but our world of woes is still destined to suffer the death of a thousand little cuts instead of this film’s Gotterdammerung. I guess we can be grateful that the masses aren’t being used for mass-produced food: at least not yet. However, I did recently notice that there is now an actual “meal replacement” product named Soylent (check it out on Wikipedia). So who knows, maybe 2022 is later than we think.

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

The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

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

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

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please leave a message in the comments. The book is only $12 including mailing within the U.S.

Also, if interested join my “Rock Docs” Facebook group.

Click on the link below to see the first “Rock Docs” book sampler.

Rock Doc Spotlight: “Glastonbury Fayre” (1971)

Director Nicolas Roeg was famous for his masterful and idiosyncratic films, often using subversive themes and cryptic imagery. In fact, he already had two of his better-known movies under his belt (“Performance” and “Walkabout”) when he directed the filming of the second ever Glastonbury music festival, an event that has gone on to become a beloved UK institution. Unlike some auteurs (like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme) who would make several music films along with their features, Roeg was not known for his affinity with the rock culture, though he had worked with Mick Jagger in “Performance” and would later direct David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

There was an unworldly aspect to this early edition of the festival that suited Roeg’s sensibility. Consider the esoteric interests of the approx. 15,000 in attendance (the modern Glastonbury has a cap on tickets of about 140,000), which largely consisted of the vanguard of Britain’s hippie/new-age population. Roeg (along with director of post-production Peter Neal) emphasize this “gathering of the tribes” as much as the music up on stage. We also get to see the construction of the first soon-to-be-famous Pyramid Stage. And consider the location, one those vast, tree-dotted English fields and in the immediate vicinity of Glastonbury Tor, the conical hill topped by the surviving tower of what was St. Michael’s abbey. It’s a place important in Christian, Celtic and pagan mythologies. There’s a lot to point a camera at and Roeg’s highly developed visual style is a strong selling point.

The musical selections are a bit of a mixed bag. It starts strong with a couple of numbers by blues-rocker Terry Reid (dueting with soul singer Linda Lewis on the second); great stuff from the guy who almost became the singer of Led Zeppelin a couple of years before. The 1971 edition of Fairport Convention was whittled down to a quartet, but their vivacious brand of homegrown folk-rock fits the occasion perfectly. Led by fiddler/singer Dave Swarbrick, they do “Angel Delight” and the high-wire instrumental “Dirty Linen,” which inspires a mass freeform jig in the crowd.

A lot of the rest will be take-it-or-leave-it for many viewers. Melanie, already a festival mainstay due to Woodstock, does one of her rooftop-shouting anthems. There’s rare live footage of Family, but one’s appreciation of this may depend on how well you can take Roger Chapman’s eccentric vocalizing. Gonzo acts of the day like Gong and Arthur Brown also figure prominently. Brown’s face-painted and (literally) fiery act, rich with occult craziness, extends well into the audience. There’s also a bit from folk-proggers Quintessence, but mostly as background to the antics of the yoga-crazy, mud-bath loving, tribal-drumming, twirly dancing and meadow-frolicking half-naked (sometimes all-naked) attendees. Roeg shows us a crazy patchwork of both hedonistic and religious/spiritual practices, and organized services by groups ranging from Hare Krishna to the Church of England.

But all these disparate elements come together in the rousing musical finale with Traffic performing that old party favorite “Gimme Some Loving.” This is the extended line-up of the group, with an extra drummer and a percussionist as well as co-founder Dave Mason who had briefly rejoined. Behind the urgent lead vocal of Steve Winwood, the band work the audience into a state of jubilation, many of them climbing onto the stage to dance. It’s a celebratory scene of the kind that would be hard to imagine in today’s over-scaled festival landscape of security and stage buffers. There seemed to be less distance between bands and fans back then and “Glastonbury Fayre” is a valuable window back on the beginnings of the festival sub-culture that plays a huge part of many people’s concertgoing lifestyle today. (Available on DVD and in whole or on YouTube)

–Rick Ouellette

I am the author of the 2016 book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. There are still several copies available (only $12), if interested, let me know in the comments section.

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Make Mine a Double #25: The Byrds’ “Untitled” (1970)

The Byrds’ place in the pop music pantheon is secure. Their folk-rock innovations of the mid to late Sixties have reverberated all the way to the present, informing genres like college rock and Americana. Their popularization of Bob Dylan’s music, and psychedelic excursions like “Eight Miles High,” were to play a big part in broadening the scope of musical and lyrical content in that decade.

Recent music documentaries have solidified the Byrds’ status: the poster for 2019’s “Echo in the Canyon,” hosted by Bob’s son Jakob Dylan, features the iconic 12-string Rickenbacker of head Byrd Roger McGuinn that conjured their famous (and much imitated) jangly guitar sound. 

By the end of the Sixties, the Byrds were coming out of a long transitional period. Vital founding members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had flown the coop (if you will), migrating to solo projects or forming other groups in the expanding L.A. music scene. By 1970 they had settled on a quartet with McQuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin. One big difference of this group was its more muscular sound. For the first time perhaps, the Byrds were a true concert attraction and so was fitting that for the band’s first double album, sides one and two were live recordings.

The album kicks off impressively with “Lover of the Bayou,” a new song by McQuinn and NY-based songwriter and stage director Jacques Levy that was part of a proposed musical they were working on at the time (more on that shortly). This ain’t your kid sister’s Byrds. The atmosphere is edgy, the guitars use distortion and the rhythm section is more muscular. McQuinn sings in a gruff voice that is unfamiliar but fitting for this somewhat menacing 1st person tale of a backwater baddie who “cooked the bat in a gumbo pan/and drank the blood from a rusty can.” He may also be a gun-runner but since the play was never produced we may never find out. What is certain is that this high-powered lineup, esp. considering Clarence White’s standout lead guitar, is tailor made for the louder and more ritualized concert experience taking shape at that time.

The Byrds circa 1970. L to R: Roger McQuinn, Skip Battin, Clarence White and Gene Parsons.

The rest of side one covers more familiar ground. There are two Dylan covers (“Positively 4th Street” and their famous “Mr. Tambourine Man”), an electrified hoedown (“Nashville West”), and savvy re-readings of “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” All are spiritedly performed and appreciated by the audience at the two New York City gigs where they were taped. But for many the real high point came when they flipped the record over and were presented with a 16-minute jam based on “Eight Miles High.” Nobody would mistake the Byrds for the Allman Brothers Band when it came to improvisational excursions, but this jam cooks.

The listener is pulled in with a fade-up and McQuinn plays that 4-note intro motif, one of the most memorable signifying sounds of the acid-rock era, and launches into a double-down version of his famous splintered Rickenbacker solo, the band already in high gear. White follows with a torrid solo of his own and gives way to a combined bass/drum solo which, contrary to popular expectations, is a highlight of the piece. Famed rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, was all over this track, describing a “fine series of taut dervish interplays” and suggested that more music like this would return the Byrds to the “rock vanguard.” The intensity of this jam in fact feels like a classic bebop improv (McQuinn says his “Eight Miles” solo was inspired by John Coltrane). The whole band comes back together to build it to a climax before suddenly singing the song’s first verse (much to the crowd’s delight) and steer it straight to the big rock ending it deserves.

The studio half kicks off with “Chestnut Mare,” another song co-written with Levy. Their planned musical, a resetting of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” in the American West which, via an anagram, was to be called “Gene Tryp.” This likely would have been a highlight, it’s a radiant country-rock rondo about a cowboy’s pursuit of a wild horse. With its talking verses, soaring chorus and shimmering guitar fills, its more cinematic than stage bound esp. in the song’s mesmeric middle section, highlighted by the two of them magically floating above a “bottomless canyon.” The sparkling sound (“as clear as a Viewmaster slide of the Big Sur pine cliffs,” Bangs noted) harkened back to the Byrds’ 1965-68 heyday. “Chestnut Mare” became an American FM favorite and a Top 20 hit in the U.K.

The other two McQuinn-Levy numbers seem to look back ruefully on that period. “All the Things” (“I want today are all the things I wasted on the way”) and “Just a Season” have a distinct end-of-Sixties vibe while going for the classic sound of past hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The last verse is a real kicker:

“Shouting crowds and mummer’s shrouds and people going crazy
Always said what was in their heads it surely was amazing
I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar
It really wasn’t hard to be a star.”

Most of rest of the studio tracks are fair to pretty good and all band members get a chance to sing and write. The material is fine but I think they suffer somewhat from being too casually performed and/or too inconsistently produced (behind the boards were longtime band associates Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson). Gene Parson’s “Yesterday’s Train” could have been a cool bonus track from the Band, Clarence White’s dolorous vocal on the cover of Little Feat’s 18-wheel tragedy “Truck Stop Girl” is truly poignant, and the lyrics of the gritty ecological blues “Hungry Planet” should have been required reading from Day One.

(Untitled) concludes with Skip Battin’s cryptic “Well Come Back Home.” Clocking in at 7:40, it’s the longest studio track the Byrds’ ever recorded, and one of the strangest as well. Battin wrote it about a high-school friend who was killed in Vietnam, but the lyric never mentions the war. The tone is both elegiac and assuring, playing off the subtle difference between “well come back home” and “welcome back home.” About half-way thru, the song shifts into an Oriental timbre and, on a bed of chiming guitars and Parson’s tireless drum fills, the “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of Nichiren Buddhism starts up. In continues in various bizarre iterations as the music’s momentum builds and rides the song right off the end of the record.

Music fans who appreciate a band willing to stretch out and try new things would appreciate the idiosyncrasies of an album like this. While Lester Bangs (who was an astute critic as well as a celebrated loose cannon) acknowledged the Byrds’ taste for experimentation, also opined that it was to try and “rejuvenate a beloved but declining institution.” He wasn’t wrong; this line-up stayed together for two more albums and, after a so-so reunion record with the original line-up, the Byrds were no more. The sound they pioneered would be streamlined (stripped down for parts, some may say) by bands like the Eagles and Pure Prairie League. But as I said up top, the positive impact of their legacy can be seen all around, starting with the appropriately titled Time Between, the 1989 tribute album featuring such talented admirers as Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Dinosaur Jr., Thin White Rope, the Chills and Miracle Legion.

The Calliope Crashed to the Ground: Whatever Happened to the Asbury Park Casino?

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

Opened in 1929 and designed by the same architects who conceived of Grand Central station in New York (Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore), the Asbury Park Casino was a monumental Beaux Arts complex that spread out over both sides of the boardwalk in what was then one of New Jersey’s premier oceanside resorts. Behind its ornamental limestone and concrete façade was a concert hall, a cinema, and indoor ice-skating rink, arcades, restaurants, and even year-round accommodations.

In the antique postcard world, the complex looked the very ideal of City Beautiful movement.

The Casino (so defined here as a place of entertainment, not gambling) anchored the southern end of the Asbury beachfront. The northern end featured another immense structure that straddled the boardwalk: the equally grand Convention Center and Paramount Theater. In between were all sorts of amusements, rides, and eateries. Asbury Park along with other similarly structured cities on the Jersey Shore, had their heyday in the simpler times of 50 to 100+ years ago, when the living was more modest and long-distance vacation destinations far less accessible.

Boarded but unbowed. The Casino in the mid-Nineties. Photo by author.

While places like Atlantic City and Wildwood still hold forth to a greater or lesser degree, Asbury Park took a massive body blow that has been especially hard to come back from. And it wasn’t just shifting societal trends or superhighways and jumbo jets that caused this decline. Mass riots in the city that broke out on July 4th, 1970 and raged for days. When it was over, the main business avenue of the city’s African-American neighborhood burned down, most of it was never rebuilt.

Looking out at the AP boardwalk from what remains of the Casino’s portal, 2017. Photo by author.

The windswept boardwalk started looking like a ghost town, but at the same time a tightly-knit (and racially integrated) community of rock ‘n’ roll and soul musicians started making a big noise in local nightclubs like the Stone Pony and Upstage. Chief among them, of course, was a young, determined and ambitious Bruce Springsteen, who hailed from nearby Freehold. A postcard of the city would adorn the cover of his debut album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” Though there are no direct references to the town (there would be plenty on his next album’s standout ballad “Sandy”), there is a more subtle and symbolic allusion. In the first verse of the first song, the classic word-drunk rave-up “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce is “trippin’ the merry-go-round” between adolescence and young adulthood with a colorful cast of characters. But the background scenery is not as fresh with promise—by the end of the verse “the calliope crashed to the ground.”

The Carousel House still retains much of its exterior charm, including grotesques giving you the side-eye!

And so it would be for the Casino. The building lost favor and deteriorated, attractions closed and the painted ponies were auctioned off. On my first visit to AP in 1995, the circular Carousel House now was a games arcade, the rest of the complex was shuttered. In the back corner of the arcade, you could see what remained of the skating hall (see top photo) giving some idea of the great interior scale of the place. At that time, the beachside part of the Casino was still standing. But disinvestment and the ravages of time and tide and storms would eventually lead to demolition.

The Casino’s boardwalk passageway, then and now, Bottom photo by author.

My second visit to Asbury Park, in 2017, saw half of it gone, the walk-thru was thrashed, enlivened only by the bright and sensuous mermaid murals. The Carousel House is still the only part of it that’s open, nowadays used as an indoor skateboard park.

A renovation of what is left looks unlikely, although it is on the city’s wish list. But Asbury Park is a funny place: it seems to be in a tug-of-war between decay and rejuvenation. The town has a strong arts and LGBQT community, condos are going up, and the music scene is still a factor.

The Paramount Theater today, Convention Center in backgroud (Wikipedia photo)

At this late date it is hard to see how AP could ever sustain two large-scale complexes, especially given the lofty architectural standards of a bygone era. The Convention Center and Paramount are in good shape, a new restaurant has taken over the great old space-age Howard Johnson’s and further up the boardwalk is the wonderful Silverball Retro Arcade and the fortune-telling booth of Bruce’s late friend Madam Marie: still run by her family. So there is still plenty of life left in Asbury Park. But for the Casino, it may be a case of the bigger they come they harder they fall or, in the best case, the smaller they’ll be if ever re-habbed.

Candy Floss and Catastrophe: The Peculiar Case of West Pier

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

It was one of the most celebrated of the 85 pleasure piers built during England’s Victorian era. In 1870, a visiting Napoleon III called it “Britain’s finest structure.” It’s grand 1600-foot oriental profile could be regarded as the people’s answer to the nearby John Nash-designed Royal Pavilion, the exotic getaway built for the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) that had been completed about four decades earlier. In its 109 years of operation (1866-1975), Brighton, England’s West Pier was a topmost playground for everyday folk on their seaside holidays. It was one described as a “luxury liner that never left its mooring” and where the anyone could have first-class accommodations for a small entrance fee. Today, however, only a small portion of the pier’s steel superstructure rises above the chilly Channel waters off the beach. West Pier’s story is one of extremes in pleasure and and calamity.

During its century-plus in operation, the pier variously featured a huge games pavilion and a concert venue with a house orchestra, amusement park rides, slot machines, ballrooms and tea rooms, pubs, and eateries. It was also known for the sale of candy floss (cotton candy) and its signature “Brighton Rock” crystal confection. Author Graham Greene used the locale and the Brighton Rock name for the title of his totemic 1938 novel of crime and Catholicism. West Pier also serves as a backdrop for the Who’s stormy 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia.” (The band’s earlier hit “Pinball Wizard” is sung from the point of view of a lad who loses to Tommy despite knowing every machine “from Soho down to Brighton”).

Jimmy the Mod walks in front to West Pier in the photo booklet from the Who’s 1973 “Quadrophenia” album

But in the end, West Pier was just as unlucky as it was celebrated. While the Brighton Pavilion and its sister promenade Palace Pier, remain popular local landmarks, the West Pier couldn’t sustain it’s boast of being “the best pier.” Much of its central decking was removed in 1944 to prevent enemy landings. Its popularity declined in the post-war era, and more downscale amusements superseded the grand concert hall and the fashionable boardwalk deck. Structural decay commenced with dis-investment and the pierhead was closed in 1970. Maintenance costs for such an ambitious structure scared away potential new owners and the whole place was off limits five years later.

In 1994, West Pier flounders while Palace Pier flourishes. Photos by author.

West Pier became a sort of plebeian version of the old romantic ruined castle. The 1982 book “Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow,” by photographer Manfred Hamm and writer Rolf Steinberg was in the vanguard of an aesthetic that would spur the urban exploration phenomenon. It featured several sad but alluring photos of West Pier, placing it in the same obsolescent class as a graveyard for old steam-powered trains and the abandoned launching pads of the Apollo space program. It attracted trespassers and vandals and by 1994, when I visited Brighton the foot of the pier had been cut off from the land in an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to stop further damage.

West Pier sun deck by “Dead Tech” photographer Manfred Hamm

This beached leviathan was destined for a series of indignities that would all but wipe it off the map while other English piers from Blackpool down to Southend-on-Sea would continue to thrive. The cyclonic Great Storm of 1987 caused a partial collapse. Another severe weather event in 2002 caused the concert hall to cave in. Two major fires delivered the knockout punch in 2003. Both were considered of suspicious origin; I would love to hear any story of how arsonists accomplished this wicked feat, considering the pier was cut off from land and only accessible from structurally unsound steel supports.

The first of the 2003 fires. Photo by Mark Harris

Even in the skeletal shell form it was reduced to, West Pier continues to fascinate. It’s been used for a giant laser light show and the 2003 fires are re-lived in singer Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro.” Most notably for me, the fictional 1970 collapse of West Pier is the basis of writer Mark Haddon’s astonishing lead story in his 2016 collection “The Pier Falls.” In remarkably precise, present-tense detail, Haddon creates an immense, harrowing and heartbreaking disaster out of thin air, after four introductory paragraphs of a normal day out in Brighton. But why? Hasn’t it suffered enough? There must be an aura hanging over West Pier’s skeleton that makes it a subconscious marker of the mortality that awaits even the most powerful of persons or things. It’s that ineffable quality that makes our modern ruins so irresistible to ponder.

The cover of Mark Haddon’s book shows the pier as it looks today.
Today, the 530-foot i360 observation tower stands on the site of the old West Pier entrance. Photo by Arild Vagen

Make Mine a Double #24: The A-Listers

When I started this series on rock’s double albums a few years back I began at the beginning, with Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Over the course of about two dozen posts I’ve looked back on both the famous four-siders and ones that have maybe flown under the radar with the passage of time. As I was recently looking over the list at double albums, I noticed several milestone titles that are yet unchecked. I wondered: do I have anything new to say about the “White Album” or Exile on Main St. at this late date?

Well, I can give it a shot or at least dig up a little factoid or two that may be interesting. And if one of your favorite A-List double albums is not here, it may be because I’ve already covered it or will do a full review in the future, that second category could include records like Electric Ladyland and The River which I hope to get to in 2022.

The Beatles “White Album” (1968)

The Beatles’ double-decker is the first and last word in rock eclecticism. I can’t think of another double album that leaps from tree to stylistic tree with such abandon and sticking the landing much more often than not. The one drawback that one usually hears is that the bulk of the album’s 30 tracks sound like solo songs with the other three as sidemen (if they even appear at all). There’s truth to that; more than half the songs originated during the band’s extended stay with the Maharishi in India earlier in 1968. The only Western instrument they had there was an acoustic guitar, giving the record a singer-songwriter feel at times.

My only beef is that the album is just too varied at times and could have been maybe better programmed. The excellent opening trio of “Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence/Glass Onion” has nice cross-fades and lead-ins. But when “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” kicks in, all bets are off. Paul’s music-hall indulgences (“Honey Pie” is another example) and John’s eight-minute tape collage “Revolution 9” are the most divisive parts of the “White Album” but there’s plenty of good stuff elsewhere, even if the pell-mell formatting of the album practically begs the listener to make their own playlist. I made a 45-minute mix-tape years ago, including a smoother transition of the soft/loud material, three of the four George numbers and Ringo’s closing lullaby “Good Night.” It’s still a favorite way to listen to the core of this great but untidy late period work by the Fabs.

Tommy–The Who (1969)

Of course, this one is so much more than just a double album. Being rock’s first popular rock opera and a touchstone of the late Sixties, it took on a life of its own. It variously got re-made into a symphonic album with a roster of guest pop singers, a Seattle Opera production, a delirious Ken Russell film version that nearly drowned Ann Margaret in baked beans, and a hit Broadway musical, among other iterations. The original album’s rep has maybe suffered a bit over time, due to the polite production values and the rather vague storyline. For me, the best way to sample Tommy is to check out the concert artifacts from 1969-70 when the Who were including plenty of material from their deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid epic in their live show. The 14-minute extension of “My Generation” on their raucous Live at Leeds LP featured bits of “See Me/Feel Me/Listening to You” and an earthquake-force excerpt from “Underture.” The 1995 CD expansion threw in a thunderous version of “Amazing Journey/Sparks.” Also, to get a full feel of Tommy’s power potential, one can check out the filmed segments of Pete and Co. at Woodstock and at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, where the “Listening to You” finale electrifies the crowd.

Exile on Main St.–Rolling Stones (1972)

The Stones’ legendary double LP from their time as tax exiles living in the South of France is definitely one of those “we-never-knew-how-good-we-had-it” albums. In an age when great rock records were coming at you from every direction, this sprawling 18-song collection had it’s critical detractors, esp. in the aftermath of note-perfect Sticky Fingers. But as Keith Richards later noted, “within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.” I didn’t own Exile at the time but “Tumbling Dice,” “All Down the Line” and Keith’s “Happy” lit up the summer of ’72 via the radio, just like the previous album’s hits (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”) did the summer before. Nowadays, I love the four quieter songs on the old Side Two (“Torn and Frayed” has become a latter-day fave) and though things slip a little during Side Three (“Turd on the Run”??), the two closing numbers (“Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”) epitomize the defiant pride and staying power of this scrappy, world-weary classic.

“Songs in the Key of Life”–Stevie Wonder (1976)

If anyone was ready to foist a double album on the listening public, it was Stevie Wonder in the mid-70s. His previous album (Fufillingness’ First Finale) was his first #1 on the U.S. pop charts and he spent the first half of the decade recording an amazing string of hit singles. His creative cup was still running over but Motown head Berry Gordy was at first skeptical when Stevie first asked him about recording a four-sider. (Gordy was also notoriously skeptical about Marvin Gaye making What’s Going On, another one that turned out to be a masterwork). But after getting the go-ahead, Wonder went to town. He would sometimes spend 48 hours straight in the studio and played many of the instruments himself. Although it was more than two years between albums SITKOL was an enormous critical and commercial success, spending 14 (non-consecutive) weeks at #1 and winning four Grammies. The first disc is all but perfect, Featuring timeless hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Pastime Paradise” (later adapted by Coolio and parodied by Weird Al) as well as indelible tracks like the majestic opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the thrilling Return to Forever-like fusion jam “Contusion” and the baroque-sounding message song “Village Ghetto Land.” The second disc, where five of the seven tracks are over six minutes, may feel a little padded out but tunes like “Isn’t She Lovely” have not lost any of their initial appeal. It would prove to be Wonder’s creative mountaintop, as deeply personal as it is profoundly universal. Stevie even treated his fans with a 2014 tour in which he performed his magnum opus in its entirety.

London Calling–the Clash (1979)

Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a varied art form, esp. since the post-Beatles era. Still, each genre has its own ideas and arguments about what elements make their sound true to form. This was certainly true in the early days of British punk rock, where the hard-and-fast sonics of entrenched protest was a bit of an orthodoxy. The in December of 1979 the Clash, after two albums of incandescent rock rebellion, released the multi-faceted London Calling. Here, the straight-ahead rockers had to share the spotlight with the adapted strains of ska, rockabilly, reggae and even lounge jazz. Sure, there was still plenty of the righteous anger their fans loved, but there were also songs about being “Lost in the Supermarket.”

It was a great leap forward for the band, but also took some time getting used to. One early reviewer professed that the powerful opening title track, an epic doom-scroll of its time, was so good that the rest of double album could never measure up (!!). I eagerly bought London Calling (which the principled band insisted be budget priced) the first week it came out. But I admit I winced the first time I heard songs like the blotto barroom ballad “Jimmy Jazz.” But London Calling would soon reveal itself as what it was. Its 19 songs are a varied and vital record of human experience and emotion in many forms and moods. These range from quiet reflection (“Supermarket”) to bristling indignation (“Clampdown” and “Guns of Brixton”), to the historical (“Spanish Bombs”) to the overarching (“Death and Glory”). And of course it also has “Train in Vain,” the “hidden” track that was included at the last minute and not listed on early pressings; it turned out be one of their biggest songs.

The willful eclecticism of the Clash would become accepted (and even expected) in later strains of popular music. I will leave you with one of London Calling’s great and simple pleasures—a party-ready dance number whose chorus extols the virtues of “drinking brew for breakfast.”

So until next time, Make Mine a Double—-Rick Ouellette

Rock Docs Spotlight: “Blitzkrieg Bop”

The “strong, hard and raw” sound of the early New York punk scene comes back in all its gritty glory on this shoestring VHS title that I recently plucked from Rock Doc obscurity for three dollars at a consignment/antique shop in Providence, RI. It’s times like these that make me glad I have kept a functional VCR around. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is an unfancy 52-minute field report from CBGB frontline that was likely produced for a local TV broadcast. That it even got to videotape seems remarkable: there are no production credits or even a copyright date (though I’m guessing 1978 or ’79).

What you do get is complete performances of eleven songs (five from the Ramones and three each from Blondie and the Dead Boys) interspersed with straight-man narration and interview snippets with band members and notable rock scribes like Charles M. Young, John Rockwell and Robert Christgau (CBGB owner Hilly Kristal also appears). Although the narrator gamely comes to grips with the whole “punk cult” thing, he edges into an unintentional Rod Serling tone at times and overall there is a bit too much emphasis on the genre’s “violent-oriented imagery.” There is much discussion of Ramone titles “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat” (“with a baseball bat”) while often missing the point of the group’s comic-book shock value and downplaying more celebratory numbers like “Rockaway Beach.”

Although material of the film is hard to find, there are some YT clips of its Ramones Oct. 1977 CBGB show highlights.

The five songs by the Ramones are great, often electrifying, seen at a career peak two weeks before the release of their classic “Rocket to Russia” LP. The other two groups are captured in fine form as well. Blondie, featuring a more animated Debbie Harry than her cool image may suggest, do the ever-popular “X Offender” (called “You Just Had to Laugh” on the label) as well as “Rifle Range” and the sultry “In the Flesh.” The “controversial” Dead Boys (originally from Cleveland) grind out their signature “Sonic Reducer” and two others, the surly stage antics of singer Stiv Bators and guitarist Cheetah Chrome are preserved for all to see.

Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone contemplate a day trip to Rockaway Beach.

Sure it’s all a bit raucous, but fascistic? Unfortunately, the doc does go down that road courtesy of Mr. Christgau, who in a three-way discussion with other writers implies pretty vehemently that the Ramones’ messaging could one day lead to extensive right-wing violence. Wait, what? At first, I thought it was a put-on by the famous record-rater who gave “Rocket to Russia” an A. But it doesn’t appear to be unless he was indulging in some form of rock-critic performance art. Either way, I would have to give Christgau’s contribution to the film a D-.

Unsurprisingly, it is the band members who come across as the most level-headed. All agree in some way with the notion of punk’s affirmative value by way of rambunctious fun, subculture community-building, and the encouragement provided to find your own voice whether it be in music, art, fashion or whatever. The film ends with the Ramones’ tearing thru “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” Billboard’s greatest ever #1 hit that only made #81.

In the song, Sheena has to break away from the boredom of her surroundings, discovering that “New York City really has it all.” Thing is, she made that discovery during the Big Apple’s troubled decade, when it was beset by crime, arson, bankruptcy and white-flight. A new insurgent creative class streamed into a desolate Lower East Side and made their own pop-culture history. That New York bears little resemblance to today’s hyper-gentrified city. Yet documents like “Blitzkrieg Bop” help preserve that spirit in spite of a few ill-informed digressions.

If you like this article and are interested in my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey,” please leave a message below.

–Rick Ouellette

Go Placidly While You Still Have the Chance: A Pop History of the “Desiderata”

A certain little inspirational prose poem, which was born (if not completed) 100 years ago, has a few fascinating backstories. Authored by the Indiana writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) “Desiderata” been a touchstone of plain-spoken revelation for untold thousands, if not millions, of folks worldwide. Much of its popularity comes from the 1971 hit recording narrated by Les Crane (more on him in a minute) and featuring a soaring choir that assured one “You are a child of the universe.”

Even the origin of this famous work was once shrouded in a mystery born of a misunderstanding. In 1927, Ehrmann registered his poem for copyright but only included the first phrase “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste” adding only an “etc.” Although there would be further attempts to secure a proper copyright (esp. by Max’s widow after his death), there were lapses along the way and the “Desiderata” (in Latin, “things desired”) fell into the public domain around 1960. That is about the same time that St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore included it (unattributed) in a booklet of inspirational works. Someone took the listed date of the church’s founding, 1692, as the date of composition, suddenly giving the 35 year-old work the gravity of an newly discovered masterpiece of the early Enlightenment. This may also be why so many of the “Desiderata” posters that adorned college dorm walls used Gothic-type fonts.

A Desiderata mis-attribution on a radio survey from October of ’71. Still, it would prove way more popular than the other two new releases.

Of course, the poem’s popularity skyrocketed with the hit record in ’71. In a way, Les Crane may have been an odd MC for the record’s proto-New Age platitudes, asking us to “remember what peace there may be in silence.” He made his name in 1963-64, as a semi-controversial late-night TV host, being one of the first to try and go up against Johnny Carson. His show featured risk-taking political debates, unusual guests (Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother) and his signature shotgun microphone which he used to get hot takes from people in the audience. He was also a civil-rights advocate, respectfully interviewed both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and had one of the first openly gay guests on TV (Randy Wicker). To cap off his Sixties’ bona fides, Crane was also married at the time to actress Tina Louise, who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Les Crane on his TV show in 1964.

With Crane’s portentous, deep-toned narration and the unsubtle female chorus, “Desiderata” may sound a little hokey 50 years on, but Ehrmann’s sensible, Middle-American wisdom is needed now more ever. Many may think that given the events of recent history it is all but impossible to “avoid loud and aggressive persons” who “are vexations to the spirit.” And while I am personally referring to an orange-haired monstrosity who was until very recently the U.S. president, there is good advice here on both sides of the political aisle. People who loathed Trump are aghast at his followers who have distressed themselves with “dark imaginings.” Yet they may also try and understand that “many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” and not just react to this phenomenon with the same rigid animosity that it unleashed. As hard as it my be in the deafening world of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social-media indulgences, I believe it is still of great importance to try to “speak one’s truth quietly and clearly, and to listen to others.”

Crane’s record reached as high as #8 on the singles chart and won a Grammy in the Spoken word category. Les had thought, as did many back then, that the words had been passed down thru antiquity. When he found out otherwise, Crane (who died in 2008) did the right thing and paid royalties to the Ehrmann estate.

Given the record’s grandiose arrangement, it should be of no surprise that a “Desiderata” parody would follow, and a year later the incorrigible cast of characters at National Lampoon happily obliged with “Deteriorata” from their pop-culture spoof album called “Radio Dinner.” These two records together should convince a thin-skinned world that it is both possible to have ideals and a good subversive laugh in the same lifetime. The Lampooners (the female singer is a young Melissa Manchester, a year before her fist solo LP) let us in on a little secret right off the top: “You are a fluke of the universe/You have no right to be here.” The music (arranged by future Spinal Tap member Christopher Guest) clings stickily to the original and they scored a coup by getting famed actor/announcer Norman “Voice of God” Rose to play the baritone announcer. In the parlance of today, wicked parodists like NL may be seen as “haters” but “Deteriorata” is also sprinkled with helpful life-coaching (“rotate your tires” and “know what to kiss, and when”) and bright-side thinking: “Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, there is always a future in computer maintenance.”

Not surprisingly, the Lampooners lose the plot for a moment along the way (“For a good time call 606-4311… ask for Ken”) but soon get back on track, assuring us that “whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.”

Now don’t that make you feel better? So while it is increasingly difficult to “Go placidly amid the noise and haste” it’s not impossible. And whether you prefer earnest inspiration or wicked satirical humor, use what you need to get there. Because even if (as NL would have it) “the universe is laughing behind your back” there is no reason why you can’t turn around and laugh right back.

Machine Age Masterpiece: Bethlehem Steel’s Singular Second Act

The gargantuan Bethlehem Steel plant towers over the Lehigh River in its namesake city in eastern Pennsylvania. It closed in 1995 amid sweeping changes in the global economy and laid dormant after the three-year site cleanup that followed. Since 2011, the facility has been renamed Steel Stacks and forms a dramatic backdrop to a complex that includes an arts center, a cinema, a PBS station, a museum of industry, and an outdoor concert venue among other things. Some sort of adaptive re-use was almost a given: the facility is so mammoth that it defies demolition. The city has constructed a three story-high walkway, stretching out probably close to 2000 feet, where visitors can get up close and personal to this facility. Walking this trestle, dotted with wildflower plantings and well-considered historical markers, tells a useful tale of a changing America.

The term “adaptive re-use” is a little different in this case. Unlike textile manufacturing from the early Industrial Revolution, which took place in orderly brick buildings which are perfect for gutting and rehabbing, Bethlehem Steel is a monumental jumble of blast furnaces, pipelines, vents, catwalks, conveyor lifts, and smokestacks. It wasn’t constructed so much as it was necessitated. The plant’s profile changed continually from its beginnings in the 1860s, as technology evolved. Eventually, the four mammoth blast furnaces completed the plant’s final silhouette and are now illuminated with colored spotlights at night. That’s a far cry from when the noisy and smoky furnaces were going 24/7 for decades at a time. Now relegated to its status as perhaps America’s largest art object, “The Steel” (as the complex was locally called) must be remembered reverently.

Starting in the last quarter of the 19th century, steel production was the master industry of the nation and was powered by untold thousands of mostly immigrant workers. From the rails needed for America’s train-led westward expansion, to the beams that provided the frame for numerous great bridges and skyscrapers to the armaments that saw the Allies victorious in two world wars, the industry’s contribution to national greatness was huge.

But as often is the case in heavy industry, worker conditions were abysmal, esp. in the earlier years. Brutally long shifts for six or seven days a week (with only two unpaid holidays mixed in) and numerous safety hazards (500 workers died from various mishaps between 1905 and 1941) led to the turbulent union organizing efforts that is a national historic epoch in itself. While even a peacetime two-year military veteran will get a fawning “thank you for your service” nowadays, very little lip service comes the way of laborers who toiled for decades in such places as Bethlehem. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Strohmeyer wrote in his book “Bethlehem in Crisis”: “it takes uncommon talent, a strong body, and a mind that knows no fear to transform piles of (raw materials) into the molten metal that is poured, rolled and pounded into the various shapes that support the mainframe of civilization.”

Bethlehem Steel workers were fully unionized by the early Forties, but the end of World War II was also the swan song of the Machine Age. It was succeeded by the Atomic Age and the Information Age, overlaid with several iterations of the Consumer Society. Although I’m not one to deny the march of time, it seems that now we are best at manufacturing clickbait, data-mining and misinformation. Still, Bethlehem presently has it better than many Rust Belt locations, with a stabilized population based on a more varied economy. Many monolithic company towns have lost half of their citizens along with most of their tax base. For instance, U.S. Steel built the city of Gary, Indiana from scratch in the early 1900s. It is dominated by the monstrous Gary Works mill which blocks out Lake Michigan. It was once the world’s largest steel plant and is still the biggest in North America, but automation and foreign competition has reduced its workforce to 3000. The company controlled the town but never cared much for building a sustainable housing stock or providing public amenities, leading to a hollowed shell of a city.

(A telling anecdote from Hardy Green’s excellent 2010 book “The Company Town” notes that during Gary’s “heyday” the city’s largest green space was the front lawn of the factory superintendent’s mansion).

South Bethlehem, where Steel Stacks is located is not without its issues: it depends partly on a large casino (which I guess is OK if you don’t gamble) and well-heeled students from the hillside campus of Lehigh University can mix uncomfortably with lingering pockets of Forgotten America. But Steel Stacks is a promising development and if you ever go there to see a concert or a movie, have a close-up look at the plant and take heed of its story, and give a thought to those who built yesterday what we take for granted today.

Photos and text by Rick Ouellette