TERRY GROSS, host:
Over 30 years ago, a British filmmaker named Tony Palmer began the ambitious project of putting together a 17-part series on the history of popular music for London Weekend Television, a commercial channel in Britain. The last episode aired in 1980. It's now available as a five DVD set. Recently, our rock historian Ed Ward sat down and watched the whole thing.
(Soundbite of song, "All You Need is Love")
ED WARD: "All You Need is Love," they couldn't even get the theme music right. The note where you'd sing "need" goes up instead of staying the same. Maybe they thought they were improving it, although given the rest of the stuff on these DVDs, I'd just put it down to sloppiness. It's incredible. In the mid-70s, when these films were made, nobody knew more about pop music than the British. Yet, day after day, I watched, taking notes, agog at the misperceptions and downright errors here.
What were they thinking? And who is this guy, Tony Palmer, who threw this dogs' dinner together? Is he the guy with the weedy voice, who narrates the intro here of the first episode, and informs us that, among other things, jazz did not come up the river from New Orleans and blues didn't come from West Africa. Well, of course not. The African who sold slaves to the Europeans weren't selling their own people.
But I bet Palmer was responsible for the footage of a searing performance by Fela Aniku Apukuti(ph), probably the most important pop musician to come out of Nigeria in the 20th century, and calling it a strident imitation of white rock music. It doesn't get better after that, at least not for a good long while. Among other things, there's the bizarre editing, which characterizes most of the episodes, giving us the montage of the Count Basie Orchestra and the Ku Klux Klan, B.B. King playing "The Thrill Is Gone" behind Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. And most memorably of all, footage of cowboys riding bulls in a rodeo, while Nick Lucas, an American singer who introduced the songs of the 1920s, sings "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
But eventually, the series gets a little better. When Palmer turns the script over to Jack Good for the rock and roll episode, the one dealing with Elvis, Jean Vincent, Carl Perkins, and Little Richard, things finally turn around. Good was the youngest producer at BBC television when rock and roll hit England, and the shows he produced did far more than radio to spread the word of the new music. His self-deprecating memories and sense of humor about Britain's early rockers give an unusual insight into the birth of a culture in the country which would give it back to the land of its birth in a radically changed style.
(Soundbite of rock concert)
Mr. JACK GOOD (Former Producer, BBC Television): In England, when rock started, there were those(ph) musicians who had any background in anything that would subsequently have anything to do with rock. The British popular music had been, ever since the advent of jazz, totally imitative.
(Soundbite of rock concert)
Mr. GOOD: Tommy Steele, for instance - his band was abominable. And he just came onto the stage and yelled at the audience. And it was really revolting to stay(ph) because it meant nothing, just totally empty. The music was awful, and it was just an example of how foolish the public were to watch such a thing.
WARD: The Beatles episode follows. And again, Palmer turns his script over to the right person. Derek Taylor, who's the press officer for the Beetles, the Birds, and the Beach Boys, and whose wry take on the whole thing saturates the episode. It's a masterpiece of concision, fitting not only the Beatles, but the whole Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival, which Taylor also had a hand in, into its 51 minutes.
Next, we get "Sour Rock" - not a label which stuck - which deals with the Rolling Stones, the deaths of Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and the hippie dream going bad. The last two episodes, though, have a secret weapon - rock critic Lester Bangs - young, articulate, sarcastic, and in fine form, denouncing mid-70s rock, as only someone deeply immersed in it could.
Mr. LESTER BANGS (Rock Critic): I've never had to pay any dues because I grew up, not rich, but with enough money, I could always afford any record, any magazine I wanted. You know, I had a car, this and that. We lived in the suburbs. Our parents supported us, in general. We had the leisure to screw ourselves up, you know.
Musically, something's going to have to happen pretty soon. It's like waiting for the renaissance, you know, when everybody thinks it has to happen. It's commonly said that every, you know, ten years, there's a big star, and it's in the middle of a decade. Dick Clark said this in an interview I did once. He said, well, you know, there was Sinatra in the '40s. And there was Elvis in the '50s and the Beatles in the '60s. And now is the time - and that was two years ago. And nothing has happened.
WARD: His insights are startlingly apt, not to mention prophetic. It's entirely possible that, as he was saying that last bit, his friend Patti Smith in New York was urging Hilly Kristal to let her boyfriend's band play at Kristal's bar, CBGB's, thereby, igniting a revolution which would wipe the bloated excess these episodes documents so well for public consciousness.
To be fair, there are moments on all the episodes which are worth watching. Eubie Blake, then in his 90s, is incredibly articulate and funny when discussing ragtime. And Irving Caesar, in his 80s, casually mentions how he wrote all of his hit tunes in under 15 minutes, including "Tea for Two," which he claims took six minutes to write. John Hammond takes the film crew to the club where he first saw Billie Holiday and talks candidly about racism in the music business. And Artie Shaw projects a sharp intelligence talking about the swing era.
Some of the documentary footage is astonishing, too. A mind-bogglingly racist newsreel of John Lowmax and Leadbelly, recreating Lowmax's discovery of the singer, actual footage of a cakewalk, Marlene Dietrich in a guerilla suit, and a film performance by Jimmie Rodgers. But all of this is fed through and almost knee-jerk anti-Americanism typified by the omnipresent rodeo footage and footage of Disneyland, which drives home the idea that Americans are baffoons. And an elevation of some musical question marks like British jazzer Mike Gibbs, British protest songwriter Leon Russell, and the Japanese show-off drummer Stamil Yamashita(ph).
It's a product of its time and place, and while I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for your collection. maybe your public library or video rental place has it. If so, watch at your risk, but do grab that last disk with the Beatles, Stones, and Lester Bangs.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. Ed sends a special thanks to British rock historian Peter Frame. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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