Old school: Classic rock concert films

This post today could fairly be described as quaint, or even obsolete.

With YouTube and other platforms in wide use, classic rock music fans today have the ability to watch their favorite artists — new or vintage — captured live in concert whenever they like. Whether it’s one song or an entire performance, it’s easy to watch rock musicians strut their stuff on stage from the comfort of your living room, or on your laptop anywhere.

Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, we didn’t have that luxury. The pickings were mighty slim, and the audio and/or video quality was usually not so great. Video clips from “The Ed Sullivan Show” or “Midnight Special” sometimes captured great performances by your favorite bands of the era, but too often we were subjected to “lip-sync’ed” moments taped on cheesy-looking sets, and it was usually the hit singles only.

By the mid-’70s, things started getting better, and by the ’80s, some of the major players in rock music spent the time and money to do it right, hiring respected directors and serious film crews to preserve live shows that showed the artists performing at their peak.

The best of these films were often premiered in theaters or on TV special broadcasts, and eventually they were issued on videotape and DVD. It was a brand-new experience to sit back and immerse myself in an intoxicating concert experience without leaving the house. Once high-definition and surround sound became available, that experience became even more mind-blowing.

I’ve singled out six of the best concert films from the classic rock era, the ones I strongly recommend that you try to see before you die. I’ve deliberately left out “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop” because I’ve discussed them before, and because they offer multiple artists instead of focusing on the work of one major artist, as these choices do. I have DVDs of each, so feel free to stop by and we’ll watch them together!

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“Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads, 1984

David Byrne, songwriter/singer of the Talking Heads and one of rock’s most eccentric visionaries, had enough foresight to pick the right time in the band’s career arc to make a concert film, and to select the right person to take the helm. The band was operating at its peak in 1983 when Byrne conceived and executed “Stop Making Sense,” a highly visual presentation of the group in concert at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, in collaboration with acclaimed film director Jonathan Demme, who had recently won praise for his 1980 slice-of-life comedy, “Melvin and Howard.”

Byrne drew on an array of influences, from New York’s avant garde theater world to the ritualistic traditions of the Pentacostal church, and Demme filmed the ensemble using 24-track digital sound recording, a new technology at the time. “Where analog recording loses a little something with each generation, digital maintains the sound integrity throughout the editing process, so the sound of the music is truly superb,” said Demme.

The show begins with Byrne alone on stage with guitar and a boom box playing the early classic “Psycho Killer,” is then joined by bassist Tina Weymouth, then drummer Chris Frantz on the third number, and then guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison before additional singers and percussionists complete the assemblage for the sixth selection, the brutal Top Ten hit “Burning Down the House.” Byrne’s loner — alone on stage, alone in the world — has gradually become surrounded by a sympathetic community and joyously liberated from his angst and isolation. Imaginative lighting and idiosyncratic set design keep the viewer riveted as Byrne jumps around rhythmically yet spasmodically, at one point wearing his iconic six-sizes-too-big suit, recalling Japanese Kabuki costumes.

Critics were universal in their praise. Said Roger Ebert in a 1984 review, “The overwhelming impression throughout Stop Making Sense is of enormous energy, of life being lived at a joyous high. Byrne and the band seem so happy just to be alive and making music.” Elizabeth Nelson of the pop culture website The Ringer, revisiting the film for a 2019 article, called it “a masterfully executed and profoundly ambitious reimagining of the concert film genre, achieving something at once wildly theatrical but curiously unpretentious.”

The Last Waltz,” The Band, 1978

After eight years as “a” band backing Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan, they went out on their own in 1968 as “The” Band, virtually inventing the genre now known as Americana. Eight long years of albums and tours later, chief songwriter Robbie Robertson said the time had come to hang it up. “We had come to a point. We could tell something was going to happen. Something wrong. I’m not talking about the guys individually, I’m talking about The Band as a train itself. It was us, saying goodbye to the road.”

That was the impetus for staging “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s final show, on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco. They decided to invite key colleagues to participate — Hawkins and Dylan, for sure, but also Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Dr. John and Neil Diamond, among others. As the cast of supporting characters grew, so did Robertson’s original concept of a home movie, until he decided he had to enlist a real filmmaker. Rock music on film he had seen before, and it was all “Horrible….That’s another reason to do this. “I had watched music on television and in movies, and it was all pretty horrible. We needed someone who was professional and imaginative. Marty Scorsese was our first choice, and fortunately, he was not only willing and available, but he got us. He knew what The Band was about.”

They dressed the Winterland stage like an antebellum ballroom complete with chandeliers. Instead of the usual rock movie crew with hand-held sixteen-millimeter cameras, Scorsese called out Hollywood’s best technicians, a full complement of wide-screen professionals. They made the viewer feel like he was as tapped in to the onstage emotions as any musician there, with the cameras picking up all the looks and glances. The sound, laid down on a full studio twenty-four-track machine, set a new standard (at least until “Stop Making Sense” and its digital sound).

There is interview footage of band members reminiscing, giving the film a quasi-documentary feel, but the performances are the real deal, from The Band’s dozen songs (“Up On Cripple Creek,” “Don’t Do It,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) to offerings from Mitchell (“Coyote”), Young (“Helpless”), Waters (“Mannish Boy”), Clapton (“Further On Up the Road”), Dr. John (“Such a Night”), Hawkins (“Who Do You Love”) and Dylan (“Forever Young”). Critics agreed that Scorsese brilliantly captured the sophistication and poignancy of the evening, and classic rock devotees will find the DVD two hours very well spent.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones,” The Rolling Stones, 1974

“Nobody really knows it yet, but this is the first really good rock-concert film,” said cinematographer Steve Gebhardt at the time of its theatrical release in 1974. “There’s no message to it. It’s just what it says it is: The Rolling Stones in concert. Period.”

Indeed. “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones,” filmed during four shows in Houston and Fort Worth during the group’s 1972 tour, was shot using 16mm film but blown up to 35mm using a “wet gate” process to “make it look like it was shot for the wide screen.” The concerts were recorded in 32-track audio and released in “Quadrasound” (a variation of the four-track magnetic sound format) for the US theatrical release. The objective was to transform the typical 650-seat movie theatre into the auditory phenomenon of a 10,000-seat arena. A black screen and quadraphonic audience noise fooled theatergoers into accepting the recorded ambience as coming from their own venue, intensifying the aural intimacy when the Stones began to play.

What we see here is Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor in superb form, playing the best material they ever wrote: “Gimme Shelter,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,” “Midnight Rambler,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Tumbling Dice,” and ten more, all from their 1968-1972 period. The filmmakers and a four-man camera crew worked mostly from the back of the halls, using a 600mm lens powerful enough to pull in phenomenal close-ups. As Rolling Stone said in its review at the time, “The shots get so close that Mick Taylor’s fingers sometimes look like three-foot-high fence posts.”  

Once its initial theatrical run was over, the film disappeared for decades and wasn’t made available commercially until 2010, when a re-mastered digital version was issued on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with a Jagger interview segment serving as an introduction. Watching this film today in 2022 is an eye-opening experience for younger generations who may be ambivalent about why The Rolling Stones were once known as “the world’s greatest rock and roll band.” Here’s your proof.

Shadows and Light,” Joni Mitchell, 1980

In the 10+ years since her entry into the music business, Mitchell and her music in 1980 had undergone enormous change from timid folkie to confident jazz bandleader. We heard the first big jump in that evolution on 1974’s “Miles of Aisles” LP, with Mitchell fronting a full band for the first time. Her next three or four albums showed her moving inexorably toward a not-always-welcome exploration into jazz arrangements that challenged those of us brought up on “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Both Sides Now.” In 1979, Mitchell assembled a truly all-star jazz ensemble to accompany her as she showcased her newer songs, offering incredible musicianship that we are fortunate to see and hear captured on “Shadows and Light,” an exceptional concert DVD.

Joni had a whole new look at this point, as well as a take-charge seriousness to her delivery that complemented the professional approach of the band, which included the wondrous Pet Metheny on guitar, the unparalleled Jaco Pastorius on bass, Michael Brecker on sax, Don Alias on drums and Lyle Mays on keyboards. Are you kidding me? Just watch these maestros strut their stuff alongside Mitchell and bathe in the alternating soothing/ambitious sounds they make on the Santa Barbara County Bowl stage.

The film throws in some curious, somewhat distracting film clips of various ’50s and ’60s iconic artists and images, but once the cameras settle on the live music at hand, it’s a real treat. We get stellar versions of three tracks from 1975’s “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” five from her 1976 masterpiece “Hejira,” three from her then-new tribute to Charles Mingus, and just two from her earlier days (“Free Man in Paris” and “Woodstock”). The vocal group The Persuasions make an appearance near show’s end with a lively take on the ’50s nugget “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and a stunning collaboration with Mitchell on the title track.

This concert film will delight and surprise you, regardless of where you are on the Joni spectrum. I’ve found it’s great to watch on a rainy, mellow Sunday when I’m in a reflective mood.

’68 Comeback Special,” Elvis Presley, 1968

In 1968, it had been seven long years since Presley performed live, a period during which his manager, the controlling “Colonel” Tom Parker, had him focused on Hollywood, starring in more than 20 slapdash, average movies with even worse soundtrack LPs. The rock music world had exploded in the meantime, as The Beatles and the British Invasion, then garage bands and psychedelia took rock listeners on ever-expanding journeys into uncharted territory. Presley was frustrated that he seemed left behind, a relic of an earlier era.

Parker had originally envisioned Presley’s next move to be a mostly traditional Christmas special, broadcast on NBC, but producer Bob Finkel and director Steve Binder had other ideas. With Presley’s encouragement, the program was transformed into something else, a more current version of Elvis doing vintage rock and roll in fully staged fashion as well as in a sit-down, intimate setting in the round. A bluesy treatment of “Blue Christmas” near show’s end would be the only remnant left of Parker’s initial concept.

Elvis” (commonly referred to as the “’68 Comeback Special“) was a huge success in every way. Partly because people of all kinds tuned in to see what he would say and sing and do, the show earned huge TV ratings, and the press was mostly complimentary (The Chicago Tribune called it “dynamic, compelling, incredibly sensual”). Most important, the public’s perception of The King as a has-been joke went through a major correction. They now seemed to re-appreciate him as a vital performer and respected icon of the rock and roll oeuvre.

Filming had taken place six months earlier in NBC’s Burbank studios after numerous rehearsals, and the show made use of the best of the various takes. Most eye-opening is the sit-down setting where Presley, dressed head to toe in black leather, gave strong renditions of rockers and ballads alike surrounded by a small audience in what amounts to a precursor of the “MTV Unplugged” format.

The DVD package I own, released in 2004, is a 3-disc deluxe edition that includes all available footage and outtake, but there’s also a 1-disc version that shows the original broadcast with a few extra numbers added for good measure. If you want a delicious slice of rock history, look no further.

Led Zeppelin DVD,” Led Zeppelin, 2003

It wasn’t until 2001, more than 20 years after Led Zeppelin disbanded following John Bonham’s death, that Jimmy Page began compiling, editing and remixing video and audio materials with an eye toward a definitive DVD of the band in concert at different phases of their career. “There was nothing out there except dreadful quality bootleg stuff,” said Page, “We built our career on live shows, so top-flight video of us in concert was something I felt had to be done.”

Much of the available footage had to be painstakingly restored from tape that had partially decayed and decomposed. Videotape from shows at Royal Albert Hall in 1970 needed considerable work, although footage from 1975 at Earls Court and 1979 at Knebworth Festival were in better shape. Video from Madison Square Garden in 1973 had been used in the lackluster 1976 film “The Song Remains the Same” but was repurposed for this larger project.

The result, titled simply “Led Zeppelin DVD,” is a 2-disc treasure trove released in 2003 that shows the foursome on stage at those four different times in the band’s relatively short lifespan in the Seventies. As a huge fan in the band’s early days, I was most thrilled to see the 1970 footage, as it approximates what they looked like when I had seen them a few months earlier doing the blues rock classics from their first two LPs. The stuff from 1975 is great because it includes a section when they gathered on stools at the edge of the stage with acoustic instruments to do a few ballads (“Going to California,” “That’s the Way”).

But this is Led friggin’ Zeppelin we’re talking about, so the footage showing them really cranking it up (“Dazed and Confused,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “Kashmir,” for example) is the meatiest part of it. Critics like Michael Azerrad of Rolling Stone called it “the Holy Grail of heavy metal” and gave it four of four stars. The band’s fan base, still avid 25 years after the fact, made this package the best selling DVD in the US for three consecutive years.

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I would have loved for this Spotify playlist to include songs from each of the films featured here, but there was no corresponding album to accompany “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones” nor “Led Zeppelin DVD,” and Joni Mitchell has removed her entire catalog from Spotify, so tracks from “Shadows and Light” aren’t available. But I do have music from “Stop Making Sense,” “The Last Waltz” and “’68 Comeback Special.”

There is still a light that shines on me

When Apple Records released The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album in May 1970, the world was still reeling from Paul McCartney’s public announcement the previous month that the band had broken up. (John Lennon had told the group privately six months earlier that he “wanted a divorce,” and George Harrison had already begun sessions for his solo debut, but the public had only just learned that the end had come.)

As a loyal fan, I bought the LP right away, but not with the excitement and eager anticipation I’d had with “The White Album” in late 1968 or “Abbey Road” in autumn 1969. “Let It Be,” apparently, would be The Beatles’ last album, which forever tainted it in the minds of many.

It was a strange record. Two of the songs (“Get Back” and “Let It Be”) had already been released as singles; four others seemed to have been recorded in some sort of live setting; two tracks (“Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”) were pretty much inconsequential filler; one tune (“One After 909”) was a Lennon-McCartney chestnut resurrected from their teen years; and sprinkled throughout were weird tidbits of verbal outbursts (mostly from Lennon). The album’s ragged nature seemed a letdown after the astonishing, polished work on “Abbey Road.”

There was mention of a “Let It Be” film that documented the making of the album, but it saw only limited release and was soon pulled from distribution, evidently because it was roundly panned and The Beatles themselves didn’t much care for it either. So I never saw it until years later. In fact, I went with my friend Barney one day in 1978 to a small Cleveland theater that was showing “Let It Be” in a double feature with “Magical Mystery Tour,” another neglected Beatle film project. (We never saw either film that day because theater personnel threw us out after I mischievously fired up a joint as the movie was just beginning!)

When I finally saw “Let It Be” a couple days later, I agreed with the critics who found it to be a dreary, uncomfortable, ultimately depressing look at my favorite band on the verge of dissolution. They all looked so glum and serious, with no sense of fun or even shared creativity. They sat in silence or bickered, and there was a clear sense that things were collapsing, and no one seemed to care. Sure there were a few entertaining moments, mostly the rooftop concert sequences, but I concluded they were right to bury the film in the archives.

What I never knew until about a year ago is that the film’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, had shot nearly 60 hours of film, and sound crews had captured 150 hours of music and conversational recordings. Peter Jackson, the award-winning filmmaker behind “Lord of the Rings” and a huge Beatles fan himself, had always wished for the opportunity to review those source materials to see what was there, and four years ago, Apple Records gave him the green light to delve into them.

Beatles fans worldwide should thank their lucky stars that a talent like Jackson was selected for the task. In “Get Back,” his triumphant, seven-hour documentary released on Thanksgiving on Disney+, his efforts paid off handsomely, with grainy film images digitally restored and enhanced, and the sometimes unintelligible audio cleaned up to such a degree that what we see and hear is a thrilling revelation. True, it may be a bit long and sometimes tedious for the casual fan, but for rabid Beatles fans and professional musicians, it’s Shangri-La.

Most notably, we learn that the prevailing myth advanced by the “Let It Be” movie — that the sessions were nothing but ugliness and toxicity — is simply untrue. Granted, things started off shakily when they first convened in the cavernous Twickenham film studio, a cold environment hardly conducive to conviviality or productivity. The guys seemed understandably self-conscious about the cameras and microphones recording their every move, and they often showed up late, or not at all. However, once they moved the proceedings to the new studio set-up in the basement of the Apple Records office, the mood improved significantly, thanks in large part to the arrival of their old friend Billy Preston, who had only stopped by to say hello while in London but ended up staying for a week and contributing enormously to the vibe and the musical recordings.

It was mesmerizing to me to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the resilience and raw talent of John, Paul, George and Ringo, these four men I had idolized my whole life, as they coped with the absurd circumstances: They had reluctantly agreed to be filmed writing, rehearsing and recording an album’s worth of new songs in preparation for a live performance three weeks ahead, location still undecided. Talk about pressure.

We get to see several of The Beatles’ classic tunes transformed from rudimentary sketches to finished product, particularly “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” It’s the arduous process of songwriting and track recording, and while it may go on all the time for rock bands everywhere, it rarely happens with cameras rolling, and here it’s the bloody Beatles, for crying out loud!

As one young songwriter put it in a Washington Post article the other day: “You never get to see someone in that moment of making something up, especially a song like ‘Get Back’ that you know so well. That was totally incredible… Watching Paul do it that way, where he’s just plugging and plugging and plugging until he gets it, that’s how it actually happens.”

Said another musician: “This whole endeavor — writing songs — is filled with failure. Most people think, ‘Oh, the Beatles, everything they did turned to gold.’ Wrong. You’re always trying and discarding things and searching for the right thing. There’s a lot of sitting around, a lot of screwing around, a lot of playing nonsense music. Then there’s also a lot of slogging away, trying to get what you’re actually working on to be great. The reality is it often has to sound bad before it sounds good. These eight hours reaffirm that.”

“Get Back” offered many other discoveries, most of them pleasant, even exhilarating. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that McCartney, Harrison and Lennon seemed to have new songs just pouring out of them at this stage. (Even Ringo Starr debuted the beginning of his song “Octopus’s Garden” during these sessions.) In addition to the amazing McCartney songs that would end up on the “Let It Be” album, including “Two of Us” and “The Long and Winding Road,” we also hear him toying with early drafts of tunes that would end up on “Abbey Road” (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Oh Darling,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Carry That Weight”) or his first solo albums (“Teddy Boy,” “The Back Seat of My Car”).

Lennon’s output included “Dig a Pony” (then known as “All I Want is You”) and “Across the Universe”; early previews of “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” destined for “Abbey Road”; and “Gimme Some Truth” and a tune known as “Child of Nature,” which would later be recast as “Jealous Guy” on his “Imagine” album.

Harrison, meanwhile, brought “All Things Must Pass,” which The Beatles seriously considered but ultimately set aside, and it ended up the title track of his solo LP nearly two years later. In addition to his songs “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue,” which made the cut for the “Let It Be” album, Harrison also presented the rollicking “Old Brown Shoe” and perhaps his finest ever composition, “Something,” which Lennon later called “the best song on ‘Abbey Road.'”

How fabulous it is that we’re given the opportunity to watch and listen to all these eventual masterpieces played in their earliest forms. It makes me appreciate the finished recordings all the more.

The best part of the original film was, without question, The Beatles performing live on the rooftop. The same holds true in Jackson’s documentary, where we get to watch, for the first time, the entire 43-minute performance uncut, during which they play “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “One After 909,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” some more than once. Running parallel to this excellent footage is the hilarious storyline of the ineffectual London bobbies trying to shut it all down and being stymied by clever Apple staff who hold them at bay as long as they can.

I mustn’t forget to mention how much I really enjoyed the moments in the studio when, as a way of cutting through the lethargy, the band broke into vintage rock oldies like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Kansas City,” reminding us that, down deep, The Beatles were just a great little rock ‘n’ roll band who became larger-than-life icons — icons that we’re still interested in watching and learning more about, 50-plus years later.

A few other observations:

Paul still comes across as the true workaholic of the group, continually pushing the others to get to work in order to meet deadlines. He acknowledges that he could be overly controlling, but without the late Brian Epstein around to be “the Daddy figure,” someone had to step up. It seems likely the project would’ve fallen apart without his “C’mon, boys” approach, and he deserves credit for that.

John was a listless, unenthusiastic, even disruptive presence at first, clearly showing the effects of his recent dabbling with heroin in the off hours. In the later sections of the documentary, he seems far more engaged, performing the material with renewed purpose, and even joking around with the others.

Yoko Ono, whose influence on John has been widely accused of breaking up the band, rarely left his side, but in her defense, she barely said a word in the sessions, at least in the film sequences we see. (Well, there’s one bit where the band is jamming chaotically, and she pitches in with her signature caterwauling, but that’s an isolated instance.) Paul, George and Ringo may have been less than welcoming to her, overall, but Paul is on record here at one point saying basically, hey guys, they’re in love, give them a break. “If we force him to pick between Yoko and us, he’ll pick Yoko,” he warned. And he was probably right.

George, let’s face it, was tired of being disrespected by Paul and John, and was tired of being a Beatle in general at this point, which led to his five-day departure that caused no small amount of concern among the others. But they coaxed him back, and he showed a more professional, congenial attitude and some fine musical chops on the ensuing recordings, both in the studio and on the rooftop.

Ringo? Well, frankly, he looked bored, tired and unhappy through most of the documentary. I imagine he was thinking, “This used to be so much fun. What the hell happened?” But he still offered occasional moments of levity as well, and was always ready to play when the time came. He had a well-deserved reputation for being a drummer who played to the song, contributing exactly what the arrangement called for. The chugging train beat he came up with for “Get Back” is a perfect case in point, as is the understated work on “The Long and Winding Road.”

The other important characters who show up in the documentary show their true nature, good or bad:

Billy Preston, as mentioned earlier, was a godsend, bringing a calming amiability precisely when it was needed, especially in the studio.

Producer George Martin, so pivotal to The Beatles’ recorded legacy since their beginning in 1962, is reduced almost to a bit player here, but he handles it with aplomb as the cool professional we’ve known him to be.

Engineer/producer Glyn Johns, who would build his own legacy working with The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Eagles and many others, seemed to be grateful just to be asked to participate, sitting amongst the band during playbacks and even during tense conversations. It was Johns, evidently, who solved the problem of where the band should perform the new songs to conclude the film by suggesting the rooftop of the Apple building.

Mal Evans — personal assistant, roadie, friend, all-around good guy — was all of those things for the band before, during and after these sessions. What a hoot to see him procure and then bang on an anvil for a run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

My impression of Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is that he was a rather annoying presence throughout. He chastised the band when they needed nurturing instead, and he kept pushing to stage the performance in Egypt or Libya when it was clear they weren’t interested. Perhaps he was just trying to do his job in a very trying situation, but I’m guessing The Beatles wondered if they’d made the right decision in bringing him in to direct the project.

Lastly, a heartfelt thanks to Peter Jackson for the time and tender-loving care he put into this extravagant undertaking. Beatles fans around the globe are eternally grateful.

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Here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs that comprise The Beatles’ “Let It Be” 1970 album, and a few of the early drafts heard in Jackson’s documentary.