Rock on Film

Rock Docs Spotlight: “The Terry Kath Experience”

Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience

Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair–2016–80 minutes

A few weeks ago, I did a retrospective review of Chicago Transit Authority, the debut long player by Chicago, as part of my ongoing series of rock’s notable double albums. A good portion of that piece focused on their renowned guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically in 1978. Kath is the Chicago member of choice for rock geeks, not just for his musical achievements but for the might-have-beens. Chicago started out as an adventurous jazz-rock ensemble that had softened its edges by the time of Terry’s passing and would soon become all but a MOR yacht-rock ensemble by the Eighties, whose soppy love ballads are easy objects of derision.

“The Terry Kath Experience” gets its title early on in a comment about how a power trio of that proposed name led by Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarist may have been quite the ticket had Kath left the chart-topping septet (he was in the process of forming such a “TKE” group just before he died). But this affecting documentary also give proper due to the man himself. Directed by none other than his daughter how could it not be? Michelle Kath Sinclair was but a toddler when her dad passed, and the film takes the form of a personal quest to know him better (and retrieve a cherished guitar of his) as well as exploring his career. She visits with all six of the others in the original band as well as their manager/producer James William Guercio and his widow Alicia Kath.

The quest to retrieve Kath’s many-stickered Telecaster becomes a subplot of the film.

Kath was a largely self-taught prodigy who would sit in with future Chicago bandmates at DePaul Univ. music school in the Windy City. Many local players like them were serving time in “show bands” at local night clubs. His former colleagues attest that it was “renegade” Terry who began pushing for the band to be more themselves after acts like Cream and the Yardbirds started blowing thru town. It was Kath who wrote the mission-statement song “Introduction” that kicked off their bold first album, released in 1969. A remarkable piece of writing that managed to be both accessible and complex, Kath had to describe it from his head for a bandmate to transcribe. Chicago were on to a winning combination with their punchy horn section, accomplished playing and the keen pop sense that went with it (esp. of keyboardist Robert Lamm) in the early days. Kath’s husky vocals and fierce but passionate guitar solos were the feature of many of their hits, with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” being maybe the most notable.

His daughter is an appealing presence and a natural for putting his surviving bandmates at ease in front of the camera. Drummer Danny Seraphine is esp. notable in his mix of fondness and regret when looking back on Terry’s role in the band. Kath was set to try his own luck in Los Angeles before deciding to see the band thru to its early success. The whole outfit did move to L.A. in the wake of international success and Kath was the one leading the way to camaraderie, good times and fruitful recording at the Caribou Ranch, the Rocky Mountain studio and home-away-from home built by Guercio in 1972. It was here that Kath and his wife Alicia spent much time in the early years of their marriage.

In relaxed interviews with Terry’s brother Rodney and Alicia, the pair speak to their niece and daughter of a big, amiable bear of a man. He grew up with annual vacations in the country and thrived in the company of friends and bandmates at the wide-open Colorado ranch/studio. There is ample home-movie footage, and even excerpts from a television special filmed, to attest to this.

Spoiler alert: director Michelle Kath Sinclair finds her dad’s prized Telecaster at a relative’s house in Florida.

Eventually, a darker side reveals itself. (“The trappings of success trapped him,” Seraphine says). There are not-uncommon tales of drink and drug abuse and then there’s Kath’s obsession with firearms. For the life of me I’ll never understand this widespread American fixation, esp. with someone like Kath who appears to be an unviolent man. But his favorite movie was “Taxi Driver” and he often imitated Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene.

The end came in January of 1978 when Kath repaired to his place with a member of the group’s road crew after a long night of substance intake. His companion became alarmed when the guitarist started fooling around with a handgun. Moments later, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head after removing the clip but forgetting the one bullet in the chamber.

But moving beyond this needless death, there is plenty of good stuff for fans and guitar geeks here. There are lots of great live clips (several from Chicago’s great gig at Tanglewood, Mass. in summer 1970), a discussion of his boundary-pushing “Free-Form Guitar” from the first album (recorded several months before Hendrix’ famous Woodstock finale), and the guitar quest thru several homes of friends and family that will delight fans and six-string collectors all over. (Streaming now for free “with ads” on YouTube).

—Rick Ouellette

I am the author of “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.” To look at a 30-page excerpt, please click on the book cover image above.

I Have Seen the Top of Rock Mountain: The Clash live in Boston, Sept. 1979

One of the great action shots in rock history, ace photographer Bob Gruen took this snap of the Clash at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at the Feb. 1979 show mentioned below.

If I was backed into a corner for an answer as to what was my favorite concert ever, I’d have to say the Clash at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, 42 years ago tonight, in September of 1979. Opening acts were the Undertones fresh out of Derry, N. Ireland and R&B legends Sam & Dave (both great). The Clash had made their area debut about seven months earlier at the old Harvard Square Theater, a legendary gig ‘round these parts. However, the band’s stand-offish attitude kinda dampened their appeal at that show.

Not so on 9/19/79. By that time their first LP had been finally released in America (re-configured to include a fistful of their classic singles) broadening their fanbase while their collective surly demeanor had been replaced by more of a band-of-the-people image. That become clear three songs into the set during (appropriately enough) “Complete Control.” (My memory has since been aided by a bootleg cassette of the show that I purchased in the 90s). Near the end of the song, Joe Strummer’s ad-libbing to the “C-O-N Control” chant abruptly ends and there is a sudden roar from the crowd (at 9:55 of the above-mentioned recording, seen below). The brutish security guards employed in those days by monopolistic rock promoter Don Law were manhandling fans streaming down the aisles for a closer look. The guards were not used to being challenged, least of all by a relatively scrawny lead singer from England, who had just come ten rows deep (with his Fender in tow) to confront them.

After the commotion, Strummer went back to the stage and went all Popeye Doyle, demanding to know who’s-running-this-operation? When the name Don Law was called out it was a bit of a laugh: the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was released as a single two months earlier. “Where’s Don Law?” Joe repeatedly bellowed. When the man didn’t show, he declared the area in front a stage open to all and the crowd went nuts. The goonish guards were obliged to stand down.

The Clash were spectacular that night, playing every song as if their lives depended on it, with a passion and ferocity seldom equaled. Guitarist Mick Jones further endeared the band to the fans by allowing, “This is a good crowd for us, don’t think we don’t appreciate it.” Mick got off another good one later, while introducing his song “Stay Free,” saying it was about a couple of friends who were sent to the nick. “That’s the penitentiary to you lot.”

The cassette ran out before the end of the show, but I do remember the first encore, a new reggae number where Strummer came out from the wings swinging a train-signal lantern. This was “Armagideon Time” which would soon be released as a b-side to the title track of the album that would break them in the U.S. From that same month (Dec. 1979) that “London Calling” was released, here’s them doing “Armagideon” at the benefit concerts for Kampuchea. RIP Joe, there will never be another.

The Times that Bond: The Clash on Broadway at 40

The Clash and their epic residency at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, was that really 40 years ago this month? Yup, I was one of the lucky 30,000 or so who were there for one of the 17 nights. It would have been the same number of fans over only eight shows before the NY Fire Dept. reduced the capacity. Not the Clash’s fault it seems, they honored ticket holders by doubling the amount of shows when the overselling promoters were found out.

Oh, to be 23 years old again, am I right? Me and my two friends who had gotten tickets had the date changed because of this snafu. Our plans for a Saturday night gig and a neat New York City weekend were upended when the expanded schedule had our tickets transferred to the following Monday night. How we even found this out in the pre-Internet age is lost to history. All I recall now is scheming with my partner from work, tooling around in our van that we drove for the General Services dept. at Charlestown Savings Bank in Boston. He did me a solid by agreeing to speak to our manager on Monday morning and say that I was stuck in NY for some obscure reason and/or sick and would not be in until Tuesday.

The Clash at Bond’s, June 1981. From l to r: Paul Simonon, Joe Strumer, Mick Jones. Unseen: drummer Topper Headon

As usual, we had the van’s AM radio turned to WILD, the late lamented soul music station that broadcast out of Roxbury, the city’s predominant African-American neighborhood. Suddenly, the Clash’s “Magnificent Dance” came on, a rare record from a white act for that station. I excitedly told him that this was the group that was drawing me away for a punk-rock weekend in the Big Apple. I was a bit disappointed that this was the instrumental dance mix of ”The Magnificent Seven,” sans Joe Strummer’s witty white-guy rapping. But it struck a blow for the black-white-unite impulse that was floating around back then as musical elements of rock, funk, reggae and rap seemed to be in allegiance.

The weekend was a blast. Those who were there will remember the vital (and often tense) scene that held sway in front of Bond’s as lingering confusion over what tickets were for what day meant cops and crowds and media coverage almost every day. The famous Times Square NYPD sub-station was directly across the street. At one point, Mr. Strummer walked thru the crush to get to the venue’s front door, the closest I would come to meeting him.

Bond’s Casino was an iconic place with an interesting backstory. In the !930’s and 40s it was a large supper-club type establishment. Under the same name it was later a clothing store with its gargantuan signage being a Times Square landmark, the O in the word Bond often sporting a clock to go along with the miles of neon, garish statuary and news ticker. By 1981, it had converted back to a nightclub but that wouldn’t last for much longer.

The Bond’s building was quite an attraction in and of itself back in the day.

Inside the club on Clash night, I remember mostly the winding, undulating ramp that led to the concert room. I also recall hat the 1750 peeps in attendance did a fair job of filling the place, I couldn’t imagine double that number as the unscrupulous promoters wanted. I enjoyed the opening act (the legendary Slits) but also remember being pretty disappointed with the Clash’s performance that night. It seems a bit like false-memory syndrome now. This was the fifth out of six times I saw them and maybe it was the law of diminishing returns. The second time (at the Orpheum Theater in Boston with no less than Sam & Dave and the Undertones opening) was maybe the best concert ever in my personal history. I thought the guys were sort of defaulting to the dub-wise sounds of that era’s edition of the band, but the typical setlist from then doesn’t really bear it out. They opened with the blazing 1-2 punch of “London Calling” and “Safe European Home” while the Mick Jones-sung hit “Train in Vain” and the current rave single “This is Radio Clash” soon followed. But songs from the current triple-album (the eclectic and meandering “Sandinista!”) seemed to dominate the middle of the set. But I like “Sandinista” a lot more nowadays and a time-travel loop back to that gig would surely find me deliriously entertained.

Live at Bond’s, June 13, 1981

The Bond’s residency would find the Clash not only at “The Crossroads of the World” but at a career crossroads as well. They were reaching a bigger audience and not always in a way that suited some of them. Joe Strummer, God bless his soul, was incensed when some of the group’s adventurous choices for opening slots (notably Grandmaster Flash) were mercilessly booed. The group’s radical roots could only take them so far and the attracting of a more mainstream fan base did not necessarily bring the enlightenment they sought.

But that’s a story for another day. As for me, I went straight from Bond’s to Penn Station ten blocks south and caught the red eye train back to Boston. It reached Boston just in time to stumble into work Tuesday morning where I got the expected comeuppance from the boss man. So I stood there and took it and lived to rock another day.

A four-minute snippet of Don Lett’s “Clash on Broadway” footage

The closest thing to a documentary record of this event is the 20 minutes of Don Lett’s unfinished “Clash on Broadway” project. This is available on YouTube in three parts or as a bonus feature on the DVD of Lett’s exemplary Clash doc “Westway to the World.”

Rick Ouellette is the author of Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book icon above to find out more!

Rock Docs Spotlight: “Out of Ireland: From a Whisper to a Scream” (2000)

Irish musicians have had a broad, if rather diffuse, impact on the history of pop music. The relative social and geographical isolation of the Emerald Isle until well into the Sixties may have had a lot do with that. Since then there has been a smattering of superstars (Van Morison, U2, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), notable genre artists (blues-rock master Rory Gallagher, indie-rock darlings the Cranberries) and iconoclastic greats like Sinead O’Connor and the Pogues’ Shane McGowan.

Originally released in 2000, the entertaining and encyclopedic “Out of Ireland” was a three-part program produced for Dublin-based RTE television and its 158 minutes should satisfy even the most ardent fan of Irish popular music. Director David Hefferman starts with an overview of the country’s lively but derivative show bands that dominated the music scene while rock ‘n’ roll came to the fore in the Fifties and early Sixties. But the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion groups on the other side of the Irish Sea could not be denied, though the response at first came in fits and starts. Tellingly, it was from a wide range of emerging acts, from the gritty garage rock of Van Morrison and Them (whose “Gloria” would be a starter-kit tune for innumerable bands to follow) to the lightweight pop of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Dana, whose candy-coated “All Kinds of Everything” won the 1970 Eurovision song contest.


A ten-minute clip of “Out of Ireland,” covering the punk years.

There is a lot to get to here and Hefferman gets to a lot of it, even if things here feel a little puddle-deep at times. He does counterbalance this tendency by returning to major artists like Van and Rory and U2, at various points and stages of their careers. One interesting point that gets echoed at different junctures is that many Irish rockers reached back past the show bands to find inspiration (even if by osmosis) to the greater example of traditional Irish music, literature, and storytelling. Morrison’s observational/impressionistic lyrics on his landmark Astral Weeks LP echoed James Joyce’s ability to lend grandeur to the everyday. Thin Lizzy’s first hit was a rocked-up version of the traditional “Whiskey in the Jar.” The progressive folk band Horslips dressed up archetypal Celtic themes in glam-rock finery while the Pogues spoke (both wildly and poignantly) to the modern Irish diaspora. There’s a keen sense that Irish rock often finds that bittersweet, happy-sad symmetry so typical of Irish culture.


This video of Phil Lynott’s “Old Town” (featured and discussed in the film) shows both the charismatic and troubled side of the Thin Lizzy frontman, who died at age 36.

The film, aptly sub-titled “From a Whisper to a Scream”, does well to ground this thematic thread from the Erie as a lightly-populated backwater to dynamic player in the global pop scene with regularly placed commentary from creative consultant (and editor of Ireland’s music magazine, Hot Press) Niall Stokes. This is esp. advisable when you’ve got a rhetorical road race of musical personalities like the flinty Van the Man, the sharp but soft-spoken Sinead, and the road-hogging conceits of the notably self-regarding Bono and Bob Geldof, who continues to over-estimate the pre-Live Aid influence of his band the Boomtown Rats.


The Cranberries’ lovely “Ode to My Family,” another video steeped in rich Irish ambience

Speaking of screaming, “Out of Ireland” also provides a good overview of the country’s contributions to the punk revolution, with segments on Belfast bangers like Stiff Little Fingers, the Undertones and the Blades (bands that really had something to yell about in that town during The Troubles) and Dublin’s Radiators from Space, whose guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, later joined the Pogues. There are also sidebars on important Irish-English performers of the era (Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, Boy George) and 80s bands that never broke out bigtime but are still plugging away, like the Saw Doctors and Hothouse Flowers.

Of course, U2 are still plugging away as well, and their international popularity does not seem to be waning anytime soon. A section towards the end of “Out of Ireland” makes the odd connection that the group’s gargantuan “Pop” and “Zoo TV” tours may be a more modern version of those old show bands (the stage show “Riverdance” is also edged into that category). I agree with that to an extent, but don’t see it necessarily as a compliment. But that’s put aside for Hefferman’s final point that although the lightly-populated island has put itself on the world music map it is no time for complacency. I think all can agree on that, even if it means overthrowing the “show bands” all over again.

If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Rock Docs Spotlight: Christmas with the Sex Pistols (2013)

Few rock and roll Christmas stories are as heartwarming as the Sex Pistols’ tale of how they spent December 25th, 1977. You may well ask, huh? But look at the situation facing the England’s most notorious punk band at the end of that epochal year. Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated that summer, with the one notable exception of the band’s blistering protest song, which took its title from the royal anthem. The Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” lambasted a “fascist regime” and an outdated monarchy that lorded over a population that needed a serious wake-up call. They had connected with a significant portion of the nation’s youth and the single is widely believed to have denied the #1 spot in the UK by industry chart-rigging at the very height of the festivities in June. Johnny Rotten and the crew had also spent the better part of a year earning their reputation as cultural enemy #1 in the eyes of Britain’s establishment.

The year wound down with a planned Sex Pistols tour, but local authorities saw to it that 27 gigs were cancelled, leaving the group in a bus that had a destination sign accurately reading “Nowhere.” That’s where we are at the start of Julien Temple’s thoroughly engaging 2013 documentary look-back. The one-hour film actually kicks off with an extended montage of hokey holiday B-roll of British holiday miscellany that shades into the darker side of that particular season: the country’s economic woes and desultory labor strikes.


Huddersfield from the hill.

It was then that the “Christmas miracle” mentioned in that montage’s ironic narration happens. The Pistols, disillusioned and all but destined to spend December 25th tooling around the rainy motorways in their Nowhere coach, got a call from the firemen’s union in the hardscrabble West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield. The firemen, who were stuck on wages of 170 pounds a week, had been on the picket line for nine weeks. They asked the band if they would be interested in doing a charity gig for the worker’s children on Christmas Day. Would they?


Here’s the complete film. Enjoy!

“Christmas With the Sex Pistols” (aka “Never Mind the Baubles”) is an object lesson in the random acts of kindness that can make our world a little better when tolerance and understanding win the day. The band’s anarchic outrageousness may have been necessary to shake up the country’s moribund state of mind, a process that would go on to reenergize Britain’s culture for the better. But it came at a price, esp. at the hands of the country’s tabloid press, led by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk. “Anything we did was transferred into a lie,” John Lydon (then Johnny Rotten) says in the film’s contemporary band interviews. “They just wanted to smear us,” he continues, “but you can’t beat the truth.” And the truth of that Christmas afternoon was that the Sex Pistols were accepted as (and presented themselves as) nothing more than good-natured benefactors, throwing an unpretentious Yuletide party for the kids (most of them grade-schoolers) with gifts and band memorabilia for all, a luncheon and a huge cake (more of that later).

Temple smartly compliments this angle by having the three surviving Pistols from this line-up (Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook) relate their own childhood recollections of the Yuletide. The relatively stable home environments of Lydon and Cook contrast sharply with the backstory of Jones, whose sour holiday memories and it’s “fucking ‘orrible” TV specials are related to his abusive “shit family” (refer to his memoir Lonely Boy for details), only partially relieved by escaping to the house of his childhood friend, Cook. Of course, John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious) is not here to tell his tale but Lydon recalls that Sid, keen on coming across as a punk tough guy, needed a “serious talking to” before the party. He reminded Sid that that kind of posturing wouldn’t work with children. Jez Scott, who was about 15 and is the only kid there interviewed here as an adult, remembers that “Sid was brilliant.” He had ended up with two Sex Pistols soccer-style scarves and Mr. Vicious politely asked Jez if he could have one as the memorabilia were not meant for band members.


Sid and kids, with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, his partner in doom, looking on.

Jez also remembered that the Pistols delivered their usual furious set, even including their anti-abortion tirade “Bodies.” But the children, being “natural anarchists,” loved them and enthusiastically started a cake fight with the ample leftovers of the featured dessert. Johnny Rotten, as the lead singer, was apt to lean over the front of the bandstand or wander into the audience. So he soon had his head covered in frosting, much to his own delight. “It had all gotten a little too serious” by then, he recalls of the atmosphere surrounding the group. Both band members and a couple of greying guys who walked nine miles to see the night show, talk of the fleeting days of “punk unity” and the good vibes that permeated this gig. Near the end of this piece, Temple treats the true-blue Pistols fan to a chunk of great footage from the evening “adult” show. These performance clips are of particular interest as it was the band’s last UK show in their original run. Their chaotic U.S. tour soon followed and ended with the group’s bitter break-up a mere three weeks later.

That story could (and has) filled many a magazine article and book chapter. What Temple’s shrewdly charming film does is sprinkle a little holiday magic on the band’s inglorious ending. There were many factors that contributed to that; the group’s youthful inexperience, the tabloid nonsense and an older generation’s stark intolerance, not to mention the cynical machinations of the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. It’s a loving holiday card sent to the town of Huddersfield and a fine record of a notable moment of grace for a beleaguered rock legend in the making. With all the hype scraped away, it’s simply a tale of people doing a good deed where needed, when only a lump of coal was expected.

If you like my music documentary posts, feel free to click on the book cover above right to check out a 30-page excerpt of my Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinemtaic Journey and/or join my Facebook group simply called Rock Docs. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Rock Docs Spotlight: “White Riot” (2020)

This new documentary directed by Rubika Shah could not have been released at a more favorable time. It is a lively and concise look back at the U.K’s Rock Against Racism movement of the late Seventies. The group was a direct counter-protest to the rise of the virulent anti-immigrant political party the National Front. The RAR was a grassroots movement that were supported by many high-profile punk and reggae bands from that musically fertile era. Coming as it does during the hangover period of Britain’s Brexit fiasco, and the restive aftermath of the election that ousted American’s unapologetic bigot of a president, White Riot shows how this struggle against humanity’s inner demons is a perpetual, vital cause.

The only real beef I have with White Riot is its title. Also the name of the Clash’s first single, the song was a fervent call for multi-racial unity against a common foe: a government indifferent to the many societal and economic woes facing the working-class at the time. But the song could be misconstrued the other way (and occasionally was in 1977) and may also lead some to think that this is a film about Joe Strummer and Co. Although the Clash do make several appearances, this is squarely a film about a movement where music plays but a supporting role. Central to this tale is Rock Against Racism founder Red Saunders, now an old grizzly bear of a man sitting in his office surrounded by the memorabilia of the time, esp. many back issues of the group’s handmade newspaper, Temporary Hoardings. Early on, Shah uses some of the available stock footage of National Front rallies and marches, with their drearily obvious signs (“It’s Our Country, Let’s Win It Back”) and speech snippets by those like the odious NF leader Enoch Powell and their paunchy and punchable “activities head” Martin Weber. Saunders came from a background in agit-prop theater and knew how to gain attention for a cause without being a bore about it. When Saunders, who is also a photographer, was asked to shoot at a punk concert, he was instantly bowled over by the Clash. Here was the musical energy that could match the drive of his upstart social movement. The Rock Against Racism manifesto was re-printed in many of Britain’s biggest music mags and that movement quickly spread. Bands that played at RAR-related shows were X-Ray Spex, 999, Steel Pulse, XTC, Sham 69 and the Tom Robinson Band; several members show up in interview snippets. But director Shah makes no mistake in pointing out that the National Front had made race prejudice an “acceptable point of view” in Britain at that time. This extended to some prominent old-guard rock stars. Included in this shameful category was David Bowie (who opined that the nation could “benefit from a fascist leader”) and Rod Stewart, who suggested (from the comfort of his new home in Los Angeles) that all of the UK’s immigrants “should be sent home.” Most egregious was Eric Clapton who, during an infamous 1976 concert in Birmingham, launched into a drunken racist tirade (“get the coons out”) while also asking minority fans in the audience to raise their hands and chanting the NF slogan “Keep Britain White.” Of course, Saunders was all over this, bitterly criticizing Clapton (who built his career on the blues) of musical colonialism and suggesting that the guitar-god may be suffering from a touch of “brain damage.” True, punk did sometimes dabble in Nazi iconography, but you always got the feeling this was for shock value and not the sort of contemptible white privilege on display in the examples above. An enjoyable aspect of White Riot is the emphasis on the inner workings of Temporary Hoardings and the current interviews with staffers like “Irate” Kate Webb, Syd Shelton and Lucy Whitman. The grassroots organizing, in an age before cell phones and the Internet, is inspiring as are the animated re-creations pf the newspaper’s cut-and-paste punk aesthetic. After months of rumbling with NF marchers and right-wing yobs, RAR had its moment in a bravura march from Trafalgar Square (see photo above) to Victoria Park, the ensuing demonstration and concert (headlined by the Clash) drawing close to 100,000 folks. The National Front fizzled at the polls in the ensuing general election (1.3%) but the vote also saw the election of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, who employed the dog whistle instead of the boot to exploit the cause of white grievance. Yet the celebration of cultural diversity promoted by Rock Against Racism has taken hold over the decades, even as populations seem intent on going backwards. So the struggle goes on, but Rubik Shah’s compelling work can act as a valued piece to show us again the way forward. ************************************************** 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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick. rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Rock Docs Spotlight: A Kouple from the Kinks

Is it “a small observation of a big thing” that makes The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the group’s once-ignored and now-cherished 1968 album, so special? That comment by XTC frontman Andy Partridge is one of the more interesting takes in this vivid and engrossing new documentary of the iconic band’s “lost” masterpiece. Echoes of a World: The Story of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society features interviews (and two recent duet performances) by founding Kink brothers Dave and Ray Davies, as well as their drummer Mick Avory. Typical of rock docs nowadays, there is a parade of well-known musician/acolytes, including Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Natalie Merchant, Graham Coxon, and Suggs from Madness.

There is also a lot of archival footage of both the band and the North London locales so central to their songs. A nice added touch is B&W filming in nearby Highgate Wood, where a young actor playing Ray delivers his thoughts on the record’s beguiling depictions of small-town Britannica. Overlooking the districts he would write about, actor Ray says that the album was a chance to “speak from inside myself.” This device works esp. well within the idea that the album was “not nostalgia but time travel.”


“I’m glad we stood our ground.” The simulated young Ray Davies mulls over the making of his unfashionable tour de force.

But oh, for those small observations of big things (actually, the inverse of that saying is probably more accurate). In late 1967, the Kinks’ released a single so great that Partridge (a pretty dang good songwriter himself) freely admits “I spent my whole life chasing that song.” This was “Autumn Almanac” a hit in the UK which preceded (and pointed the way to) the Village Green. The song, inspired by Ray Davies’ gardener, celebrated the prosaic joys of lawn work, a Sunday roast, a beach holiday in Blackpool and neighbors who will love you ‘til you’re 99. Not exactly the hippest subject matter during rock’s psychedelic era. Although “Autumn Almanac” would reach #3 in the UK charts, the band’s popularity started to fade as they went further down their rabbit hole of ethereal old-timeliness.


The last 11-minutes of “Echoes of the World.”

The Village Green album, which followed in the fall of 1968, doubled down on that lost sense of community and shared spaces. The title and lead-off track (one of the two tunes that the Davies are shown performing in a parlor) extols the virtues of Tudor houses, custard pies, George Cross medal recipients, obscure British pop-culture figures like Desperate Dan and Mrs. Mopp, and even virginity itself. The society is also quite clear on what they are against (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). More poignantly, the brothers also do “Do You Remember Walter,” a bittersweet ode to the lost ideals of youth.

Echoes of a World also looks back fondly on the albums rich picaresques. The family remembrances (“Picture Book”), the indifferent-universe hymnal (“Big Sky”), the exquisite rural escapism of “Animal Farm.” Just as memorable are the inhabitants of Ray’s “dream space”: the rebel “Johnny Thunder,” the local temptress “Monica,” the legendary “Phenomenal Cat” and the neighborhood witch, “Wicked Annabella.” These people and places are so ingrained in the minds of fans that several of the interviewees here—including Partridge, Natalie Merchant, record producer Greg Kurstin and even Dave Davies—proudly show hand-made illustrations of various tunes.


“American tourists flock to see the village green” A picture of your humble blogger in 2016 in the Kinks Room at the Cliswold Arms pub, where the Kinks did their first show. Ray and Dave grew up directly across in the Fortis Green/Muswell Hill area.

In an age of social disconnectedness, the yearning for a solid sense of place and community is only enhanced. Maybe that is one of the reasons that Village Green Preservation Society took so long to be fully appreciated. Paul Weller likens it to “a longing for something that wasn’t really there.” True, the fraternity may be amorphous but it is still there and still vital. As it says under the credits on the back cover of the original album: “You are our friends for playing this record.”

Another Kinks-related piece that has been made available for Amazon streaming is 1985’s Return to Waterloo, a 57-minute fictional film directed by Ray Davies. Its title suggests the band’s signature ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” but the urban romance depicted in that beloved Kink Klassic gives way to a grim premise here.

The mostly dialogue-free story stars Ken Colley as the dark-eyed, haunted “Traveler” who goes to and from work on a commuter train whose terminus is the iconic station of the title. There is a serial rapist at large and our man bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect. It is never made quite clear whether he’s the guy or not, although the lockdown stare he gets from Ray himself (as a subway busker) is ominous enough. Return to Waterloo functions more as a downbeat tone poem, encompassing feelings of disconnection, loneliness, parent-child alienation and disheartened nostalgia, in contrast to the mostly nourishing nostalgia of the Village Green album sixteen years earlier.

I know it doesn’t sound very chipper, but the strong songs here by Ray move along the story. (A few of the tunes from the soundtrack also made it onto the Kinks’ latter-day highlight Word of Mouth, released in 1984). An evocative piece like “Expectations” can stand on its own as a pensive commentary on Britain’s post-empire decline and seems esp. relevant now in the UK’s post-Brexit era. As one can tell from the video below, Return to Waterloo boasts excellent production values. The cinematographer here is the acclaimed Roger Deakins, still early in a career that would see him be the director of photography for such movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, among many others.

Return to Waterloo can be a bit of an odd duck in the viewing of it. It veers rather unsteadily between realism and the Traveler’s elaborate fantasy world. Everyday situations, like an encounter with a group of punk rockers, can shift into overdrive very suddenly (look for a young Tim Roth as one of the punkers). Elsewhere, a Pythonesque wit takes hold, as a matronly woman (within earshot of the Traveler) discussed her strategy if confronted by the rapist: “I’d give him a swift kick in the bollocks, that would sort him out.”
So while maybe not the thing to watch if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film, but a must for Kinks fans and clear-eyed Anglophiles. Make a note in your own autumn almanac to view one or both of these fine forays into the Kinkdom.

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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Documentary Spotlight: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?


Louis Armstrong in full flight.

With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.


Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58

Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.

Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.

But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.

For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com

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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Tinseltown Rock #3: “Godspell” (1973)

The musical Godspell certainly came into the world at the right time, during the height of the early Seventies “Jesus Rock” mini-genre. Although the concept album Jesus Christ Superstar had hit the stores in 1970, this Stephen Schwartz-penned production hit the stage first, debuting Off-Broadway in March of 1971 several months before the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice blockbuster raised curtain on the Great White Way. At the same time, the AM stations were sprinkled with hit songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The idea of Jesus as a sandal-footed advocate of selfless human values had firmly caught on with many in the counterculture as the Sixites gave way to the new decade.

Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the world, this musical trend played out during my last two years (7th and 8th grade) of parochial school. There had been a marked change during the eight illustrious years I spent at St. John’s School in downtown Peabody, Mass. The earlier years were marked by a grim catechism and vestiges of corporal punishment—ear-pulling was still a go-to tactic of the older nuns (luckily I was spared). By the time I hit sixth grade, the modernizing Vatican II decrees were in place, and there were hippie-ish nuns and younger priests with acoustic guitars at “folk mass.” By seventh grade, we were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in class, our homeroom sister tittering at the use of the term “J.C.” to address the Messiah.

Although our tastes were running more to Rod Stewart and the Stones, we dug JCS. It was a straight-up rock opera, musically compelling and contemporarily astute in its retelling of the Passion of Christ, with anti-hero Judas at the center of the action. In the eighth grade (1971-72) it was all about Godspell, with a field trip to Boston’s Wilbur Theater in the offing to see a performance by the touring company. The record, with its familiar illustration of Jesus against a red background, was ubiquitous and the single “Day by Day” hit #13 on the Billboard charts. But this was a different proposition, a more traditional (and largely plotless) musical based on a series of parables adapted from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Godspell also seemed to tap into the so-called “Jesus freak” scene of the time, with its ragamuffin characters exuding relentless good spirits and hamming it up in such a way as to convince the world that vaudeville was not dead after all. Still, we 14 year-olds ate it up, debating our favorite songs and having a ball at the Wilbur Theater. It was my first time at seeing a big-time theater production and though I could sense the corniness of it all, the in-your-face eagerness and enforced audience involvement, it was a spoonful of sugar that helped the last year of my Catholic medicine go down.

By the time this film adaptation hit the screens in 1973, that overweening flower-power jauntiness must have seemed to many to be past its shelf life. It doesn’t take long for the film to give you this feeling. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, it begins with John the Baptist (David Haskell) pushing a cart over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian boardwalk into Manhattan and into cinematic immortality of a sort. He cases out eight potential disciples in a manner that may nowadays seem a little creepy. He then blows his fanfare trumpet from the top of the Bethesda Fountain and, after a quick Friends-style baptism, it’s showtime!

And so it goes for most of the film, until the betrayal and death of Christ is quickly taken up near the end. Jesus is played by the wispy Victor Garber whose face paint and mime-like outfit, complete with stylized Superman t-shirt, is like an open invitation for skeptics. But hey, I’ve always considered myself a fair-minded critic and I will say that the early parts of the movie are the strongest, before the relentless mugging and prancing becomes too much. “Save the People” exudes a certain poignancy, Garber’s plaintive tenor is just right as he ponders “Shall crime bring crime forever?” and pleads for the exaltation of everyday people, “not thrones and crowns.” The camera’s telephoto shot of massed skyscrapers neatly show the concentration of power and money that have replaced those thrones and crowns, never mind the fact that when it pans down to the street the troupe are playing leapfrog on the empty avenue. The J-man and the Baptist lead the apostles, now all dubiously attired in patched-up glad rags, light out to their new HQ on Randall’s Island. They take on a purposeful, march-like gait under the multitudinous (and cathedral-like) support beams of Hell Gate Bridge, apparently prepared to set the world to rights.

But there’ll be no fishes ‘n’ loaves action here. From here until the end credits you’ll hardly see another soul. The ten-member cast proceeds to sing and tell parables amongst themselves in a strangely de-populated New York City, strange that is until the recent scenes of a ghostly Gotham in the throes of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this insularity derives from it being a play with humble beginnings (Godspell was conceived and first staged by Jean-Michael Trebelak at Carnegie Mellon Univ. as his masters’ thesis). But the insularity, along with the suffocating positivity, soon gives the group an almost cult-like demeanor, starting with the clip below.


The troupe put a fresh coat of hippie paint to their new scrapyard base of operations, set to the new version of “Day by Day”, here sung by the tomboyish Robin Lamont (all the apostle actors retain their first names in character)

Rather than go out into the world and do good deeds as the historical Jesus probably would have wanted, director David Greene retains the let’s-put-on-a-show impetus and “opens up” the stage musical by using his Columbia Pictures budget, and an oft-used zoom lens, to stage scenic production numbers all over the city: Lincoln Center, Times Square and the top of the nearly-completed World Trade Center are just three of the famous sites used in a single song, “All for the Best.” A nice “get” was the interior of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, used as the setting for Joanne Jonas’ solo turn a la Mae West in “Turn Back O Man,” petitioning mankind to give up its foolish, materialistic ways.


The late Lynn Thigpen, who some may recall for her role in the Carmen San Diego TV series, does a bang-up job with “Bless the Lord” though the all-fall-down ending points up the film’s reflexive silliness.

Stephen Schwartz’s songs, with their appealing melodies and soaring choruses, can only support this movie so long with all the troubadour triteness going on. A lot of one’s receptivity to Godspell depends on how much one accepts the built-in artificiality at stage musicals. My receptivity became very limited very quickly after seeing the Boston production in 1972, by the mid-70s my idea of a touring company was when Jethro Tull or the Allman Bros. Band hit the Garden across town. Things improve a bit when the mood turns serious at the end, esp. with Katie Hanley singing “By My Side” and the vaulted supports of Hell Gate Bridge make a great setting for the “funeral” of Jesus.

But to what end? Does Godspell have something to say today, even for us secular humanists? There is if you stretch your imagination, and the kindness espoused does stand in stark contrast to the callous evangelists of today, who more closely resemble the money-changers Christ went ballistic on way back when, the ones who now defy state orders and recklessly urge their hapless parishioners to congregate during a pandemic, lest they miss even one week of the collection box. But for that we may need a new kind of righteouness, leaving the Godspell movie as the “patches and face-paint” relic it was even in 1973, never mind today.

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

Rock Docs spotlight: “Echo in the Canyon” (2018)

The nostalgic Echo in the Canyon, directed by Andrew Slater and hosted/executive-produced by Jakob Dylan, trains its rose-colored lens on L.A.’s musical community of blithe spirits that created the Californian pop and folk-rock sounds that captivated fans in the mid-to-late 1960s. A documentary like this has a certain built-in success rate for baby boomers. The tone is set early when the Byrds’ “Wild Mountain Thyme” is set to vertiginous aerial shots of steep-sided Laurel Canyon, with its funky houses in a asymmetrical jumble. This stuff is baby-boomer catnip and the producers spread the appeal by also featuring performers of younger generations, discussing this music’s impact and performing some of these chestnuts in new arrangements.

As expected, the Byrds figure heavily here. The type of 12-string hollow-body Rickenbacker guitar that Roger McGuinn played on many of the group’s hits (most notably their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”) adorns the DVD cover. The film starts with Tom Petty (who later also employed a Rickenbacker) discussing the instrument’s distinctive jangly sound. Only a few other groups are given wide coverage: the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds era), the Mamas and Poppas and Buffalo Springfield. There are some glaring omissions (no mention of Joni “Ladies of the Canyon” Mitchell??) and Jakob Dylan’s strange reticence in the casual interview segments with such notables as David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Steve Stills and Jackson Browne is a decided drawback.


Tom Petty shows Jakob Dylan Laurel Canyon’s weapon of choice.

So while I would not hesitate to recommend Echo in the Canyon to its target demographic, it does have a tendency to coast on the ready-made appeal of its subject. This does not make it unique among Rock Docs, but a little more imagination could have yielded a film of more staying power. The cross-pollinating of influences and friendly one-upsmanship between the B’s: Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Bob (Jakob Dylan’s dad, that is) is a well-travelled road, travelled once more. More compelling here is the localized narrative of the pixie-dust effect you got with closely-grouped creative types in a (then) semi-rural enclave that was just up the hill from the Sunset Strip with its music clubs, sound studios and record label offices. Another nice touch is Slater’s inclusion of choice clips from the 1968 Jacques Demy movie Model Shop; it was shot in the vicinity and gives a great feel for the era.


Cros to Jakob: “You know, I knew your old man five years before I ever saw him smile. But you, kid, you’re all right.”

Presently, we get the tribute renditions of the related classic songs. Some of these are informally done in the studio. Brian Wilson sits down at the piano and there’s a tuneful duet between the younger Dylan and Nora Jones on the Association’s “Never My Love.” Towards the end the action shifts to the concert stage with a band led by Jakob that mostly features relative newbies like Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power. Your reaction to these concert clips may depend on how you feel about the individuals involved (I guess I’m destined not to be a Fiona Apple fan) but there’s another issue at play. These songs are culled from a “genius era” and that magic is hard to match. While the Byrd’s 1968 version of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s exquisite “Going Back” was a transformative experience, here it’s just nice. Still, Echo in the Canyon is a fairly good valentine to a golden time, place and sound. As Graham Nash says at one point, “Historians will remember us 200 years from now. I’m not letting this go.” And neither are we.

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