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Published: Sunday, 10/2/2005

Play it again, bands

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Let's do the time warp.

Rewind to the rock and roll '70s, when the only way you could see your favorite band was by shelling out a few bucks or catching them on a late night TV show like In Concert or Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.

There was no MTV, no Super Bowl half-time performances, and no Behind the Music-style documentaries. Consequently, there was always an air of mystery around then-relatively obscure groups like Sparks, Pink Floyd, or Emerson Lake and Palmer, creating blanks in your imagination that looking at pictures in magazines or on album covers could never fill.

Now, thanks to a confluence of film technology, the ubiquity of reunion tours, and the sheer doggedness of some middle-aged rockers, the curtain is being lifted on one of music's creative golden eras.

Bands that once seemed so inaccessible are featured on a batch of recently released DVDs, with loads of vintage performance footage and interviews or captured for posterity's sake in their current incarnations.

Taken as a whole, the discs provide a fun look back on some of the most inventive, if generally forgotten, artists in rock and roll. Some of it is hilariously dated and a big chunk of it's just weird.

Here's a rundown of six'70s-era artists who currently have new DVDs in stores. In a nod to one of live rock's most cherished traditions, they're rated not by the number of stars they deserve, but by lit cigarette lighters. Four lighters is excellent, three good, two average, and one poor.

Briefly: Prog rock doesn't get any proggier than ELP. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer were a bombastic trio with aspirations of marrying classical music to rock. Their originality is unassailable, but unless you liked songs with titles like "Tarkus" or "Karn Evil 9" that seemed to last forever these guys were the musical equivalent of the long-winded bore who corners you at a party to talk about his investment portfolio.

Highlights: ELP were pretty big for their time, thanks to "Lucky Man," a Greg Lake tune that we learn from the accompanying documentary was pretty much an after-thought before it was thrown on the band's self-titled 1970 debut at the last minute. The footage of Emerson manhandling his keyboards reveals how intense he was as a showman. It's also pretty cool to see him take a knife to his instrument, which was the classical keyboard player's equivalent of smashing your guitar.

Degree of datedness: Extreme. From the satin-y outfits to the bloated arrangements these guys were very '70s.

The verdict: Three lighters. Definitely for hard-core ELP fans only, but they'll be ga-ga over this much footage of a band that hasn't played together in years; and the musical mix is excellent.

Briefly: Along with the late Mick Ronson, Hunter was the leader of Mott the Hoople, one of the pre-eminent glam bands of the '70s. With tunes like "All the Young Dudes," "Once Bitten, Twice Shy," and "All the Way From Memphis," Mott put a number of tunes into the classic rock lexicon. Hunter's knack for writing catchy pop rockers carried over into a long and quietly successful solo career.

Highlights: This disc captures Hunter fronting his touring rock band teamed up with an orchestra in Oslo, Norway. Playing acoustic guitar virtually the entire show, Hunter serves as the front man for a warm, satisfying reworking of a number of his songs. The strings add a level of poignancy to "All of the Good Ones Are Taken" and the brilliant (and weird) "I Wish I Was Your Mother." The touching tribute to Ronson, "Michael Picasso," raises goose bumps thanks to the power of the strings and Hunter's passionate delivery. A long interview with the droll, acerbic Hunter is great, too, as he smokes a lot of cigarettes and looks back on Mott while discussing song writing.

Degree of datedness: Zilch. Hunter updates his old tunes quite effectively, throws in a couple of new, unreleased tracks, and refuses to pander to nostalgia.

The verdict: Four lighters all the way. This is a classy performance that sounds exceptional on a good home theater system.

Briefly: We all know Pink Floyd, but there are really two Floyds: the mega-superstar version of "Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here," and "The Wall," and the proto-Floyd led by the original crazy diamond Syd Barrett. The latter incarnation was all the rage in swinging London, serving as the house band for people dipping deep into psychedelics.

Highlights: If you're expecting lots of Floyd's music, prepare to be disappointed. "London 1966/1967," which will be in stores Tuesday, essentially contains only two songs, albeit incredibly long ones: "Interstellar Overdrive" and something called "Nick's Boogie." Interspersed with the band playing are countless images of London, circa mid-'60s, which resembles an R-rated version of Laugh-In.

Director Peter Whitehead filmed Floyd's first-ever recording sessions to use in a movie, so there's some historical value to the footage of the band playing, especially the shots of Barrett droning away on guitar. Interviews with scene-makers of the time, including Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, and Julie Christie are painfully goofy because the subjects take themselves soooo seriously and they have nothing to do with Pink Floyd.

Degree of datedness: Off the charts. There is nothing about swinging London that resembles 2005 other than maybe the fact that the dance parties they threw back then look a lot like raves do now.

The verdict: This one's an acid trip waiting to happen, but we'll give it two lighters. The footage is fascinating from an archival perspective and swinging London looks like a lot of fun.

Briefly: Of all these bands, Sparks is the one you're most likely to have never heard of. The core of the group is brothers Russell and Ron Mael, who were kind of an American version of German synthesizer wizards Kraftwerk. Their quirky sound melds electronica with dance and rock music into a sort of thinking-man's disco. Lyrically, they zero in on little details and absurdities like why beautiful women end up with ugly guys or just how annoying it is to get lost in a phone message system. They are, in a word, strange.

Highlights: This disc captures the band playing its 2002 release "Lil' Beethoven" in its entirety before running through a separate set that serves as a career retrospective. The "Lil' Beethoven" portion is brilliantly staged with just Russell Mael singing, Ron Mael on keyboards, and a pair of backup musicians on drums, guitars and vocals. How four people make this much noise is attributable to lots of electronics, sampling and tape loops, but it works remarkably well. Over the course of the concert, Ron Mael, a skinny little fellow who looks like he just walked off the set of a '50s horror movie where the properly-attired accountant turns into a crazed slasher, pounds away on the keyboards, spouts poetry and never reveals an ounce of emotion. During "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls" he escorts a strikingly attractive woman around the stage the entire song without ever cracking a smile.

Degree of datedness: None. Sparks may have been formed in the '70s, but their sound still seems to be about 10 years in the future.

The verdict: Four stars. This is an infinitely enjoyable package that gives an overlooked band its due. Well worth picking up.

Briefly: Marc Bolan was a true rock star, blessed with good lucks, a wealth of charisma and some great guitar chops. After a short career as a folky, Bolan emerged as a bona fide pop idol in the early '70s, especially in England where girls and boys alike went crazy every time he stepped on stage and hammered out boogie-based rockers like "Hot Love," "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" and "Jeepster." His career was tragically cut short in 1977 when he died in a traffic accident at the age of 30.

Highlights: "Born to Boogie," a film made in 1972 and directed by Ringo Starr, is presented here in its entirety. Starr mixed concert footage with a series of surreal stoner-vision scenes that are indescribably obtuse. Imagine Monty Python's Flying Circus presented by musicians under the influence of hallucinogens. The concert material is an incendiary reminder of just how intense T. Rex was in its prime, highlighting Bolan's substantial guitar chops. The film also contains a version of "Children of the Revolution" with Elton John on piano, proving that when stripped of all the gaudy showmanship, John could seriously rock out as a sideman. Also included is a documentary narrated by Bolan's son, Rolan, that is a sweet ode to his father.

Degree of datedness: Heavy. "Born to Boogie" oozes '70s rock star excess and some times you get the feeling you're watching a bunch of guys just messing around.

The verdict: Four stars. More than most of the other recent releases there's a real sense of rediscovery here. Bonus concert footage captures T. Rex in all their fury and Bolan deserves a reminder that in his prime he was up there with Jagger as a rock and roll front man.

Briefly: Traffic was the quintessential '70s band with Stevie Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood and various supporting players cranking out concept albums and songs that are still played regularly on the radio. "The Low Spark of High Heel Boys," "Dear Mr. Fantasy," and "Glad" are classic rock staples that helped create the jam band template. They broke up in 1978 amid the usual band problems, i.e. egos and drugs. Winwood, of course, went on to have a lucrative solo career.

Highlights: Sadly, not many. This DVD is essentially a concert souvenir for anyone who caught their 1994 reunion tour. Just when the band gets going, the directors cut to crowd shots of adoring fans, slow motion films of people dancing and rapid-fire images of various band members playing. They do this on every song. Part of the problem is that Traffic is not a very visually exciting band and you're basically stuck with normal-looking fellows playing their instruments, something the film-makers seemed unable to stomach. A spaced out Jerry Garcia shows up for a "jam" on "Dear Mr. Fantasy," but the take never catches fire.

Degree of datedness: Not relevant. The songs sound good, but the film-making, including lots of uninteresting shots of the band backstage clowning around, renders them irrelevant.

The verdict: One lighter. For diehard fans only.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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