This piece, also published on The Guardian online, explains everything. – happy viewing!
Imagine the music business in crisis – at a click, anyone can listen to music whenever they like, for free! Why would anyone ever buy a record again? Sounds like 2010, doesn’t it?
Some bright spark came up with an idea: let’s make records for people without electricity or radios – the rural poor! With their wind-up gramophones, they may be our only market left. Thus began the extraordinary saga of turning Mississippi Delta blues and Appalachian hillbilly music into commercial products, exposing the country – and eventually the world – to authentic Southern roots music. On one afternoon in Bristol, Tennessee, producer Ralph Peer discovered both the ‘yodelling brakeman’ Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family, cornerstones of the country music industry. For the ‘race’ catalogue, he recorded the Memphis Jug Band, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Willie McTell while competitors Paramount immortalized Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton. Other scouts and producers ventured into Louisiana Cajun Country, the Hispanic heart of Texas, the Hopi Indian Reservation and the island of Hawaii. The reverberations of this avalanche of great recordings have shaped our musical world.
Bob Dylan has spoken and written about the effect of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music on him. Like Dylan, I, too, was entranced by tracks like “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice on the Smith box; the voices then were disembodied, floating ghosts with little context save the obvious colour of their skins. Arena: American Epic puts flesh on those wisps of sound as we hear of the terrible lives of Justice and the magnificent Frank Hutchinson in the West Virginia coal mines.
Film-makers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty have wisely focused on key individuals and archetypal stories, bringing the characters and times to life with great sensitivity and thoroughness. We see the birth of ‘race records’ and ‘country music’, the strands of the fast-expanding record industry that converged in 1954 with Elvis and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. The films show us how the record industry introduced America to its true self, selling hundreds of thousands of records in the cities as well as in the sticks and developing a world-wide taste for the rural roots of urban music. The headline music between the wars may have been Rudy Vallee, Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley but the attitudes, accents and frames of reference of today’s most popular artists hark directly back to recordings made far away from Tin Pan Alley.
While the first three films delve into history, making up for the absence of live footage with great interviews and a stunning assemblage of still photographs, the fourth crowns the achievement with something different. T-Bone Burnett and Jack White were involved in the project from the beginning and this climax finds them in a Santa Monica store-front studio hosting an array of contemporary heroes – Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson and Los Lobos among them – recording the old fashioned way. An obsessive named Nick Bergh reconstructed the original Western Electric amplifiers, cables and cutting lathe of the first electrical recording studios. Prior to this technology, performers would sing and play into a horn, the sound would vibrate a spiralling stylus in a soft wax disc which would be coated in metal to stamp the shellac discs which repeated the process in reverse on those wind-up gramophones.
1925 saw the first microphones powered with electricity, which sent a far more vivid signal into the cutting stylus, rendering those magical moments in Mississippi and Georgia hotel rooms many times more lifelike than the 78 rpm discs of earlier years. For two hours, we revel in filmed performances in front of that single microphone, as the camera lovingly follows the sound through anaconda-like cables to the cutting head. As soon as the blank disc starts spinning, our soundtrack switches from the film-maker’s 21st century hand-held digital stereo to the glorious mono of the single microphone. There are no faders; if Burnett or White want more of this musician and bit less of that one, he moves them closer or further from the microphone. It’s brilliant theatre, beautifully filmed and makes for glorious television. Miss it at your peril.
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I plead travel and work keeping me busy and under the radar.
But I’m about to surface. This Saturday, I will be a guest on Loose Ends (Radio Four 1815 and BBC iPlayer thereafter – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08n1ybh) talking about the Sixties and various related up-coming events. For example, on Tuesday May 2 at 2130 at the Albert Hall* (up in the Elgar Room, not the big hall…) I will join a few other ‘60s Relics to present the Pink Floyd / Alexandra Palace / 14-Hour Technicolor Dream film by Peter Whitehead. That’s the one with John Lennon on LSD wandering around staring at the lights and his not-yet-met future wife Yoko cutting the underwear off a beautiful girl in a bit of performance art, as well as close-ups of Syd Barrett improvising in the studio on Interstellar Overdrive.
Then on May 14 @ 1900, I make my first visit to Spiritland, the new hi-fi sound-bar in Kings Cross (http://spiritland.com/) for an evening talking about Nick Drake with Peter Paphides. Peter has a special place in the story of Nick’s posthumous career – he was one of the first journalists to write an extended appreciation of Nick’s music (in Time Out).
And finally, on July 3, I will be back at the Albert Hall to present the film “Jimi Hendrix” that I co-produced back in 1973. It includes those iconic Jimi moments such as setting fire to his guitar at Monterrey Pop, Star-Spangled Woodstock and throwing his guitar down for the last time at the end of a great Isle of Wight set. It also has memorable interview moments such as: Pete Townshend talking about Eric Clapton asking him out to the movies so they could share their anxiety about how much better Jimi was than they were; pre-London girlfriend Fayne Pridgin recounting how Jimi spent the grocery money on an lp by someone she’d never heard of (“Bob Dylan? Who the fuck is Bob Dylan?”); and Little Richard explaining how Jimi’s playing “made my big toe shoot up in my boot!”
A quarter of an hour into the lunch, Sylvester arrived, sweating and nervous, hauling a fat leather briefcase bulging with notes and papers. His seat was between me and Nuttall, who had helped provoke the student strike at Hornsey College and was the author of “Bomb Culture”, a popular text for the 60s underground that attacked most received notions of what constituted art. Nuttall was, in short, David Sylvester anti-matter.
About five minutes after taking his seat, while I was talking to Kermode across the table, Sylvester suddenly knocked Nuttall out of his chair with a haymaker right hand. Cigarette ash, gin and crockery splashed across the table and fell onto the floor. The two were quickly separated and the producer ushered Sylvester out of the room. After a stunned silence, we resumed eating our chicken.
When the producer returned and announced that Sylvester was very contrite, apologizes to everyone and accepts the fact that he could no longer take part in a discussion to which he had been very much looking forward. Nuttall immediately asked where he was: “in the pub around the corner” said the producer. Off went Nuttall. Half an hour later, as we were heading upstairs to the studio, Nuttall and Sylvester appeared, slightly tipsy, arm-in-arm. What could have been an edgy argument about art and culture became a polite love-fest and, as I recall, not particularly interesting radio.
What does it say about the state of our culture today that there is as much chance of fisticuffs between members of the Loose Ends panel as of QPR becoming the dominant football club in West London. Sic transit Gloria mundi, I say.
*I avoid the word “Royal” on republican grounds