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.”

I said, Lord, take me downtown

Back in 1970, the two most popular brands of rolling papers were Zig-Zag and Top. When a gritty little blues band out of Texas named ZZ Top released their debut album, stoners assumed the name was a winking reference to those two brands.

Billy Gibbons, the group’s superb guitarist and de facto leader, chuckles when he hears this and replies, “No, I’m afraid not. We had a bunch of posters of great blues players in our apartment back then, people like B.B. King and Arzell Hill, who went by Z.Z. Hill, and we thought we’d combine them into ZZ King, but that was too similar to B.B. King’s name, so we figured, ‘The king is at the top,” so we went with ZZ Top. That’s the true story.”

Hmmm. Well, okay. I can live with that, although I think the first version makes for a more enticing tale. In either case, ZZ Top is certainly a better name than Gibbons’ first band, The Moving Sidewalks. Ultimately, what matters in this group’s story is the music and the remarkable long-term chemistry between the three guys who comprised ZZ Top for all these years. They’ve set a record (51 years) for the rock band with the most years without a change in the band’s lineup.

Dusty Hill, circa 1975

Sadly, though, that has come to an end with the death last week of Dusty Hill, the extraordinary bass player behind ZZ Top’s unique sound. He had suffered from bursitis, a hip replacement and even an accidental gunshot wound in the past, but still, his passing at age 72 was unexpected.

Fans will be pleased to hear that ZZ Top plans to continue touring with Elwood Francis, the band’s long-time guitar tech, on bass. According to Gibbons, “Dusty emphatically grabbed my arm a little while back and said, ‘Give Elwood the bottom end, and take it to the Top.’ That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

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Note: There’s a Spotify playlist at the end of this post that I’ve compiled of ZZ Top’s most noteworthy tunes, if you care to listen along while reading!

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Time for a disclaimer: I’ve never bought a ZZ Top album, and frankly, after listening intently to much of their catalog over the past week, I’m not sure why. Their music — hard-driving, blues-based, boogie rock — is right up my alley. Of course, I knew their radio hits, but I just wasn’t sufficiently motivated to take the time to get to know their albums more fully. My mistake. As of this writing, I have become more of a fan, and I have developed a respect for their work and their achievements in the music business.

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Hill and eventual ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard were both from Dallas, becoming bandmates in a local group called American Blues, which also included Hill’s guitarist brother Rocky. In 1968, Dusty Hill and Beard wanted to broaden their horizons to do more than just straight blues, so they relocated to Houston, where the scene offered more musical options.

Dusty Hill, Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard in 1975

Houston-born Gibbons had built some notoriety there as a hot lead guitarist, singer and songwriter with his band, The Moving Sidewalks, and they even got the chance to be the warmup act for his idol, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, once in Houston. “We had the audacity to play ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Purple Haze’ in our set, and when we looked offstage, he was standing there, watching and grinning. Afterwards he said, ‘I dig you guys. You’ve got guts.'”

The drummer for The Moving Sidewalks wasn’t working out, so Beard made his move and became the new drummer. The band released a single and was poised to sign a deal with London Records, the American affiliate of British-based Decca Records, but their bass player wouldn’t sign. He was ousted and replaced by Hill at Beard’s recommendation, and the deal with London was inked just as they changed their name to ZZ Top.

Their debut album in 1971 was appropriately titled “ZZ Top’s First Album” because “we wanted everyone to know there would be more,” noted Gibbons. Based on its chart performance, it should’ve also been their last — it went absolutely nowhere, missing the Top 200 album chart and yielding no singles. But when I listened to it last week, I was impressed by the way they took their blues influences and merged them with rock elements to create their own approach. As Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys said last week, “They were a blues band with their own sound, and that’s hard to do.” The tracks weren’t polished, nor was Gibbons’ gruff voice, but there’s solid blues rock there, especially “Brown Sugar” (no relation to the Rolling Stones tune), “Neighbor, Neighbor” and “Backdoor Love Affair.”

Their 1972 follow-up LP, “Rio Grande Mud,” at least reached #104 and spawned the single “Francine,” though it stalled at #69. Gibbons continued to hone his blues-rock songwriting, adding dashes of suggestive humor, innuendo and some taboo subjects here and there into the lyrics just for grins.

By 1973, he came up with a tune that still gets classic rock radio airplay nearly 50 years later: “La Grange,” which uses an infectious riff you may have heard in other blues tunes (“Refried Boogie” by Canned Heat, for example). It’s a tale about a notorious brothel called the Chicken Shack, which became “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on stage and screen in the ’80s. The album it came from, “Tres Hombres,” recorded in Memphis, peaked at #8, putting ZZ Top on the map in a big way.

My friend Tracie, an Albuquerque native who went to college in Dallas, remembers first seeing and hearing ZZ Top at a free concert on the quad her first week on campus. “ZZ Top will always have a special place in my heart! At that concert, the Texas folk knew who they were, but this ‘little girl from the small mining town in the west’ never heard of them! I knew instantly that if this band was typical of Texas rock, I was gonna love college!” My friend Carl, a native Texan, recalled, “They were a wild-times, rowdy, fun, crank-it-up party band. We memorized every note, every word of tracks like ‘Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers’ until the grooves on the vinyl were gone!”

Hot on its heels in 1975 came “Fandango!,’ a half-live, half-studio release that went Top Ten and included “Tush,” featuring another indelible riff that reached #20 on the singles charts. By this point, the three-piece band was touring virtually non-stop, at first warming up for acts like The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd but usually as the headliner. Whereas their earlier shows didn’t offer much visually, ZZ Top mounted a mammoth, 300-date tour from mid-1976 to mid-1977 they called the Worldwide Texas Tour, where they used elaborate staging and costumes designed to showcase their Texas roots.

That tour made them one of the nation’s top draws during that period, but it also took its toll. Frank Beard had developed a serious alcohol and drug problem that required rehabilitation, so instead of finding a replacement, the band chose to go on hiatus for a couple of years. For us, there was no other drummer but Frank,” said Hill. “We were tired and needed a break, and we were willing to wait for him to get better.”

Their return to active recording and touring in 1979 was marked by several changes. Gibbons had been paying attention to technological developments and the New Wave music trends, both of which showed up on their albums “Deguello” and “El Loco,” and singles like “Cheap Sunglasses” and the double-entendre classic “Pearl Necklace.” The group made their first appearances in England and the European continent, and time spent in the studio with the British band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark introduced them to how drum machines and synthesizers could became prominent tools in the ZZ Top arsenal. Some of their original fans were none too pleased by this development, but for every old fan they lost, they gained three new ones.

Coincidentally, both Gibbons and Hill, independently and without each other’s knowledge, had grown chest-length beards which, when combined with sunglasses worn more or less permanently, gave them a cartoonish appearance that became part of ZZ Top’s new self-deprecating sense of humor.

The timing of all this was perfect, as Music Television, soon known far and wide as MTV, made its debut and changed the face of pop music. Bands became overnight sensations based just as much (or more) on what their video looked like than what their music sounded like. ZZ Top enlisted videographer Tim Newman, who was keen on shooting “mini-movies” instead of standard concert video. Because Gibbons, Hill and Beard felt they didn’t exactly have matinee movie star looks, they agreed it would be fun to appear only as background observers, watching the gorgeous women and high-octane cars on music videos like “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Said Gibbons, “We knew we weren’t prima donna rock stars, so why not be the guys watching from the background, rooting for the underdog and the misfit?”

How ironic that a trio of unfashionable Texas rockers would end up as superstars in the very fashion-conscious MTV era. “We found it all kind of silly, but it was a fun time,” said Beard. And profitable as hell, too — sales of their 1983 LP “Eliminator” topped 15 million and put them in the Top Ten in the US, UK, Australia and several other European countries. The ZZ Top gravy train continued throughout the ’80s, with 1985’s “Afterburner” and 1990’s “Recycler” also achieving huge chart rankings and sales numbers, thanks in large part to MTV exposure for “Rough Boy,” “Doubleback” and “My Head’s in Mississippi.”

1994’s “Antenna” and its hit single “Pincushion” turned out to be ZZ Top’s last fling with superstardom. After that, the band still made a few LPs and toured periodically, but MTV stopped running music videos and their following dwindled. Through it all, the band was like a sturdy three-legged stool — all three legs were of equal importance to the band’s continued lifespan.

Hill, who started playing bass at age 12 because his older brother insisted on it, said he learned a lot about the instrument and what it could do by listening to virtuosos like Cream’s Jack Bruce and jazz greats like Stanley Clarke and Charles Mingus. “I used to try to come up with all these complex bass lines, kind of showing off, I guess,” he said in a 2014 interview. “But it didn’t take me long to figure out I needed to play to the song. Sometimes you shouldn’t even notice the bass, and I hate that in a way, but I also love that in a way. To not be noticed is a compliment. It means you’ve filled in everything just right for the song, and you’re not standing out where you don’t need to be.”

Gibbons, Hill, Beard (without a beard)

That kind of unassuming, humble approach to their fame has served the group well. “We’re the same three guys playing the same three chords,” said Gibbons in the highly watchable 2019 documentary film, “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.” If you have even a passing interest in this group, I recommend you check it out. It’s on Amazon now.

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