Monday, 6 July 2015

All You Need Is Love (Tony Palmer's documentary series)

Having mentioned Tony Palmer's pioneering 1970s series All You Need Is Love, a history of the many strands of popular music, in the previous post here is a review I wrote at the time of its first DVD release in 2008.
I saw the original series when in my teens and have seen many, many documentaries on myriad aspects of popular music since then. So is this worth buying? The answer has to be a resounding yes: the original film material and the range of authorities Tony Palmer gathered together for this mammoth 70s project mean that it remains a vivid account of the genres which coalesced into rock.
Yes, some sections feel a little dull, and the quality of the film transfer doesn't help in the immediacy stakes, but Palmer has two big things going for him: recognised experts in their fields (eg Sondheim on musicals; Lyttleton on swing) wrote the scripts which became the basis of each programme and - crucially - interviewees are given ample time to talk. You get the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Caesar discussing their own songs, and there's even a bizarre turn from Phil Spector (who appears to be singing his hits in the style of Bob Dylan). Whatever the outcome, Palmer would have deserved our heartfelt thanks simply for the foresight to do something on this scale while the names involved were still around, if occasionally frail.

But the achievement is a considerable one, regardless of that circumstance. Even on the topics which have subsequently been done to death, there is a freshness, and a sense that you are seeing a condensed, still potent truth: the Beatles episode, with Derek Taylor's assistance, is a case in point, conveying a sense of the Beatles in relation to a changing society in the late sixties.

I have read criticism elsewhere of Palmer's juxtaposition of music and imagery - and yes, many moments do seem impressionistic: more verve than strict accuracy. But what sticks in my mind most vividly are the cuts which suddenly illuminate what is being discussed.
In the country music programme, for example,  we are told of the evolution from the songs of the Appalachian (then the Ozark) Mountains to something more commercialised, but Palmer's genuis is in how he chooses to illustrate this at the end. He selects a three year old, supposedly the youngest ever recording star, singing Jambalaya while his daffily proud parents look on, he allows the camera to linger on the look of innocence on the child's face after he finishes, and then cuts to a young girl singing singing an unutterably beautiful Mountain song (below) to show us how far things have come from the purity of their roots.

And in the rock'n'roll programme footage of a polite, uncertain uniformed Elvis preparing for a press conference is enough (for me, anyway) to suggest his musical emasculation.

There is one particularly jarring note for me - though no doubt specialists in other areas will have their own niggles. A discussion by Leiber and Stoller about the first recording of Hound Dog is spliced together with what some fans may recognise as an oft-told account of the tuna-spitting response to the Drifters' There Goes My Baby, giving the false impression that it was Hound Dog which caused that reaction.

But it scarcely matters, given the scale of Palmer's overall achievement. Some episodes may be more incisive than others, some aspects may be rushed through, some lingered over perhaps a little too long in certain programmes (are some of the elderly interviewees overindulged?), but as a pioneering introduction to a range of related musical styles this is a huge achievement. Palmer's work is not the last word but it paved the way for later series with a narrower focus like Dancing in the Streets - and if you want to acquaint yourself with the world of twentieth century popular music in the widest sense (up till the mid seventies, anyway) there isn't another single series which covers quite so much. If it's available to buy secondhand, the lavishly illustrated hardback book (not the tiny paperback) is a useful companion to the DVD set.
And to Dancing in the Streets must now be added Rock 'n' Roll America. As I said in the previous post, to judge from its first programme it is commendably clear and incisive, but it has a far narrower focus than Tony Palmer's series, not to mention the benefit of a whole range of earlier documentaries, including Palmer's, to draw on. I still remember the excitement of seeing a Buddy Holly clip in All You Need Is Love for the first time; in those pre-youtube days I had no idea of his vivacity as a live performer. It looks like the same clip will be featured in Episode Two of the BBC series. So there can't be, for me anyway, the same thrill of excitment that some others might feel, but the pleasure and interest will be in seeing precisely how Holly is put in context. I should also say that some of the Beeb's archive footage of outraged reactions to the new rock'n'roll phenomenon can be found in All You Need Is Love. And I seem to remember that the cinema film Keep On Rockin' had a few clips of vintage outrage spliced in between the live acts.

Reading over the review I am reminded that there was a melancholy aspect to All You Need Is Love as well, though in that series the Tin Pan Alley merchants were the ones who seemed not long for this earth, not the rock'n'rollers (I must confess that the picture of Don Everly used to promote Rock 'n' Roll America gave me a jolt).

Doubtless in time there will be more series about the development popular music in the future where viewers will be thinking along the lines of: "Thank God they managed to interview Damon Albarn before it was too late ..." Luckily I probably won't be around to watch them. Ee, it's that Thomas Hardy all over again.

Comments on the youtube clip indicate that the uncredited singer at the end of the country music episode is Brooke Breeding. There are quite a few threads on the mudcat site, here, about the origins of Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier.

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