PBS's big fall series looks at the music from artists’ perspective

Rock ’n roll pilgrimage

By Stephanie McCrummen

From the title sequence of "Rock & Roll"

Admired series disappears into copyright limbo

Followup, 2008

The series contained so many musical clips that the producers apparently didn’t want to spend what it would take to extend their broadcast rights. For years, as a result, the series has not been available for broadcast or for purchase on DVD or videocassette.

As a result, PBS’s online store began selling videos of Time-Warner’s rock history series not originally made for public TV, The History of Rock ‘N Roll. New York Times critic John O’Connor preferred the BBC/WGBH series.

Buying extensive new rights to resume broadcasts of the famed doc series Eyes on the Prizecost hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2006.

Related Links

Web pages about the series are gone from PBS’s site.

But the series itself has been posted on YouTube in a blurry rendition for many months, as of August 2011.

Original 1995 Article

From the beginning, the producers of Rock & Roll, PBS’s biggest program event of fall 1995, envisioned a history of the music without reference to obvious names, footage and lore. The central idea throughout the 10-hour series, which debuts over five nights beginning Sept. 24 [2005], has been to tell the story of rock from the perspective of its innovators.

The resulting documentary skips over many Top-40 bands to spend time with more than 200 new interviews with artists, producers, musicians and others who made music rock.

“We were very determined that it should not be a ‘clip show’,” says Hugh Thomson, co-executive producer for the BBC. “We thought that there should be an attempt to understand and explain continually.” Concert footage and music are interspersed with old and new interviews with the goal of demonstrating particular sounds or musical influences. Often music is layered under narration, location footage and interviews.

Each of the 10 segments, five produced by the BBC and five by WGBH, is directed to convey a strong sense of place, explains WGBH Executive Producer Elizabeth Deane. With no on-camera host, the films use narration and on-location interviews to tell the story of rock, evoking connections between the music, the artists and such interview sites as a Mississippi church and a Memphis recording studio.

“We wanted each episode to tell a story, not to just be a summary,” explains Deane. “What holds people . . . is to be in the grip of a story which is unfolding, with a beginning, middle and end,” she says. “It’s very hard to do with a subject as encompassing as this, but that was the objective.”

The approach is necessarily intellectual, because telling the story involves exploring connections between rock and other forms of music and writing. Producers seem unworried that the final product will be stodgy, however. “It’s rock and roll,” says Deane. “We wanted to be intelligent, but we didn’t want to kill it.”

Promotion plans are still in nascent stages, though several special events already are in the works, says WGBH publicist Betsy Higgins. One will be a one-hour screening at the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, two to three weeks before the PBS debut.

A companion book, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History by rock critic Robert Palmer, will also be available from Harmony Books after the PBS debut date. Palmer, the chief consultant to the series, has covered rock for Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

Rock & Roll is only the second prominent series of this scope to document rock history. Last year, Time Warner produced A History of Rock & Roll, a 10-hour documentary hosted by Gary Busey, which had a play in broadcast syndication this year and is now available on videocassette.

Audiences should find few similarities between the two series, however. “Time-Warner themselves have said that theirs is very performance-driven,” says Deane, “whereas ours is a deeper look at the history.” The Time Warner film “missed some kind of overview,” says Palmer. “A lot of ideas and conclusions were sort of dropped because there was no narrative to tie it all together,” he says. “I was happy that what was wrong with it was stuff we did right.”

By all accounts, Deane, Thomson and Palmer have shared similar visions of what was “right” for the film. Palmer, a musician himself (but not the suave, semi-famous rock singer of the same name), says he was “totally skeptical” when Deane first approached him in 1993 about writing the companion book and serving as consultant.

“I thought [the series] would be boring,” he recalls. When he met with Deane and Thomson, production and writing teams were already assigned to do 10 roughly outlined shows, and some interviews had been shot. But Palmer saw that Deane and Thomson were treating rock as an art form with a great history.

“It’s usually treated as a succession of rock stars,” he says. “I’m much more interested in the musical collaboration behind rock and roll, [and] everyone was pretty much agreed to going that way.”

Unbeknownst to each other, Thomson and Deane had been developing similar documentary ideas for several years before former PBS programming chiefs Jennifer Lawson and John Grant brought them together in 1992, Deane says. Thomson recalls that the BBC “wanted an authoritative history of rock” and was willing to “spend the time and trouble to do it properly.” The British were also actively looking for a co-producer for their series, then called Dancing in the Streets.

In Boston, Deane had by 1992 won a PBS/CPB grant of $100,000 to research the series, and also realized the need for a co-producer. Ultimately, WGBH and the BBC split the responsibility for raising the $8 million budget. The Boston station received grants toward its half from CPB, PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts. WGBH is still seeking a corporate underwriter.

When the two executive producers first met in 1992, Thomson recalls, they quickly established that they shared similar ambitions for a series. “We both wanted the same broad sort of scope to the series and the same tone to it,” says Thomson, adding that in his view, the history of rock and roll “has been a history of interaction between the U.S. and Britain . . . so there is an actual logic” for an Anglo-American coproduction.

Notably, WGBH is producing the segment that includes the Beatles, while the BBC tells the story of rap music. The task of dividing the segments between WGBH and BBC production teams “went easily,” Deane says. “I was wondering, as we approached that, how we would decide,” she says, but “by preference our people had more of an interest in the earlier programs and they in the later ones.”

The style and content of the 10 segments emerged from a full year of pre-production planning, a constant flow of footage and treatments across the Atlantic and what Deane describes as “huge summit-style screenings” between WGBH and the BBC, where producers worked out major editorial decisions. The editing has been “arduous,” says Deane. Decisions about what to include have been guided by producers’ determination to focus on the innovators, explore the collaboration behind the music, and, to a certain extent, go with what works stylistically.

Ultimately, producers have not been seriously limited by the costs and logistics of obtaining rights clearances for music and footage, which could have been prohibitive. “We did a lot of work . . . to make sure we understood what this was going to cost,” says Deane. Part of the decision to begin production, Deane says, was the feeling that it would be possible, if complicated, to obtain rights to the material they wanted. Though clearance has yet to be granted for some footage, Deane says that generally their efforts in this regard have been successful. “It helped that so many musicians . . . respected the program,” adds Thomson. The fact that the project was for public TV, adds Palmer, also undoubtedly gave the series a certain amount of legitimacy.

The BBC archives have proven to be a “tremendous resource” as well, says Palmer, with many performances and interviews that have never aired in the U.S.

Luck has been kind. Thomson says that segment on punk rock contains footage of singer Patti Smith that had been stowed away, undeveloped, in a fan’s refrigerator for 14 years. When the woman who shot the film died, her heir gave the film to the BBC.

Location interviews set the tone for each segment. Artists typically appear with instruments in hand, in settings significant to their music and their lives. Jerry Lee Lewis is interviewed at a piano in a Dublin nightclub where he was living “when he had a difference of opinion with the IRS,” Deane says. The soul singer Martha Reeves speaks for the camera in Detroit’s old Fox Theater, and Lou Reed, following his own suggestion, was interviewed in a New York City boxing gym.

The film strives to be “a sort of rock and roll pilgrimage,” says Thomson, “so that you felt like you’ve visited certain key places” in the history of the music.

The look of the interviews themselves is enhanced by producers’ decision to shoot on Super-16mm film. To a much greater degree than typical video, Super 16 captures intense colors and subtle shifts in lighting. Even on the tiny screening-room monitor in WGBH’s studios, the look is grand.

Each interview is carefully crafted to evoke the artist’s personality. For example, the BBC-produced program on ”glam rock,” opens with Iggy Pop in silhouette at a distance, slumping gracefully as a classical statue in a sprawling yellow corn field on the outskirts of Detroit, where he was raised. As the camera glides toward Iggy Pop, he slowly turns and stares into the camera. Again, the setting was the artist’s suggestion, Deane recalls. “He said, ‘they always want to film me in front of a brick wall,’ but he’s a kid from the country so . . . the notion of growing up roaming around in the corn fields, thinking of stuff and hiding is very much Iggy Pop and it is sort of surprising.”

By subordinating their personal views about rock, the producers have allowed the artists’ own insights to surface. The interviews are both probing and compassionate, the result of interviewers’ attempt to pose intelligent questions and understand the artist, rather than extract preconceived responses. “There’s always a danger that if the show is too well conceptualized you are putting words in people’s mouths,” says Palmer, who conducted a number of interviews for the film. “We were real sensitive to that.”

The reward for producers has been that some of the “more recalcitrant” performers, as Palmer put it, have acquiesced to interviews. “I think what [the artists] appreciated is that we were being serious about the past music history,” says Thomson, who also conducted a number of interviews for the BBC segments, and, unlike Deane, directed some. “Many of [the artists] are used to doing ‘push-the-button’ interviews,” he says, “which made it nice [for them] to sit back and actually reflect on when they began and talk about the music [and] not so much the sort of sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll side of things.”

Though the 10 segments are roughly organized according to musical genres — blues, Motown, folk rock, psychedelia and so on — the stories in each segment converge, overlap and diverge, laying out an intricate matrix of creative influences. To a large extent, producers have taken to heart Palmer’s dictum that “any chronological history of rock and roll is doomed to failure.” The “glam rock” show, for example, begins with Lou Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground, talking about how the writer Raymond Chandler influenced his lyrics. From that point, the segment expands to other major innovators like David Bowie, the Doors and Alice Cooper, the involvement of Andy Warhol, and theatrical influences.

One sequence on the Doors, for example, shifts from footage of Julian Beck’s experimental Living Theatre in London, which band leader Jim Morrison followed closely, and the Doors’ famous concert in Miami, where Morrison was charged with indecent exposure. The sequence intersperses the recollections of Morrison’s friend from film school at UCLA, explaining that Morrison had gone to six Beck performances within two weeks before the Miami concert, and was trying to bring Beck’s ideas of theater into the realm of rock. The footage from a Living Theatre footage and Morrison’s performance are strikingly similar.

Rock & Roll bares the creative process by homing in on sounds and styles of the music. An interview with David Bowie’s pianist reveals the tune of “Jean Genie” to be a riff from an old Muddy Waters song. David Bowie’s set designers are interviewed as the story turns to Bowie’s revolutionary theatrical productions, and later in connection with the ’70s band Kiss. In a segment on West Coast musical influences, Dick Dale, innovator of the “surf guitar” (a sound undergoing a renaissance since its use in Pulp Fiction) is interviewed on a California desert with guitar in hand. A surfer himself, Dale describes his fascination with the jazz drummer Gene Krupa, explaining the driving rhythm of his own guitar as an attempt to emulate both Krupa’s relentless beat and the sound of waves crashing in the surf. As he explains this, a bright blue wave breaks against the sound of Dale’s guitar.

Even well-known archival footage is are revitalized by interspersed fresh interviews. In one sequence, Maxine Powell, founder of the Motown Finishing School, which groomed young Motown artists for the Big Time, discusses how she gave Marvin Gaye advice on matters of style: “I said, ‘Marvin, you don’t need as much as some of the other artists, but you do sing with your eyes closed. It gives the illusion that you’re singing in your sleep. At No. 1 places around the country, you have to have your eyes open.”

She observes, “Everything had to be done in a classy way. So if they were doing the Shake, or whatever, we didn’t do it in a vulgar way.”

For all its emphasis on the sound and look of rock, the series does not ignore socio-political contexts; they emerge subtly through the artists’ own intriguing stories, rather than a filmmaker’s self-conscious attempt to add weight to the subject.

The interest, says Palmer, has been to “tell the social part of it and all of the other parts of it from the point of view of the music.”

“The context is in the background and comes into the foreground when it is appropriate,” adds Deane. Motown musician Beans Bowles talks about his troupe touring the South by bus and being mistaken for Freedom Riders.

For Deane, it was in part the connection between political protest and rock music that led her to do the series. “Rock and roll music has been in the background of a lot of stuff I have done,” she explains, referring to her work as a producer on Vietnam: A Television History, and the American Experience bio of Richard Nixon. “What were they listening to in Vietnam? Jimmy Hendrix, the Doors, Motown . . . what were protesters listening to when Nixon showed up at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Deane says that she was also drawn to the project because she thought there was a “fascinating history” to be told, adding that she prefers to think of herself as a “history-teller” rather than a historian, borrowing a phrase from documentarian Henry Hampton.

“Rock and roll can seem like a series of random explosions,” she says, “but there are stories that connect those moments—that connect the people who made the music, the people who took the risks and pushed the boundaries, and took us into a world we might never have known without the music.”

TV has not always given respect to those performers for their earlier work. Thomson tells a story of David Bowie sitting in a hotel room in the U.S. and hearing his famous song, “Changes” transformed into a diaper-commercial jingle.

“The thing is that these people have got all the money they need,” Thomson says. “All they care about now is what history is going to make out of them, so this series is important to them, and they wanted to be put in the right place.”

Production teams at WGBH and BBC are still making final cuts, and considering how to end the series, a decision that will reflect their approach and understanding of the music and the purpose of the documentary itself. The final segment pays relatively little attention to current artists, though the form of current music is explored. Palmer says that it is difficult to name today’s great artists. “Ultimately the worth of what is happening is going to prove out with the changing musical generations,” he says. “Basically it’s the music that lasts and influences other musicians … and it takes a while for that to become evident.”

Deane says the last program focuses on rap, techno and electronic music. At the end of the pilgrimage through rock history, Deane hopes to leave a feeling — not a message — “that the same kind of freedom that has always been part of this music is still very present.”

Location interviews set the tone for each segment. Artists typically appear with instruments in hand, in settings significant to their music and their lives. Jerry Lee Lewis is interviewed at a piano in a Dublin nightclub where he was living “when he had a difference of opinion with the IRS,” Deane says. The soul singer Martha Reeves speaks for the camera in Detroit’s old Fox Theater, and Lou Reed, following his own suggestion, was interviewed in a New York City boxing gym.

The film strives to be “a sort of rock and roll pilgrimage,” says Thomson, “so that you felt like you’ve visited certain key places” in the history of the music.

The look of the interviews themselves is enhanced by producers’ decision to shoot on Super-16mm film. To a much greater degree than typical video, Super 16 captures intense colors and subtle shifts in lighting. Even on the tiny screening-room monitor in WGBH’s studios, the look is grand.

Each interview is carefully crafted to evoke the artist’s personality. For example, the BBC-produced program on ”glam rock,” opens with Iggy Pop in silhouette at a distance, slumping gracefully as a classical statue in a sprawling yellow corn field on the outskirts of Detroit, where he was raised. As the camera glides toward Iggy Pop, he slowly turns and stares into the camera. Again, the setting was the artist’s suggestion, Deane recalls. “He said, ‘they always want to film me in front of a brick wall,’ but he’s a kid from the country so . . . the notion of growing up roaming around in the corn fields, thinking of stuff and hiding is very much Iggy Pop and it is sort of surprising.”

By subordinating their personal views about rock, the producers have allowed the artists’ own insights to surface. The interviews are both probing and compassionate, the result of interviewers’ attempt to pose intelligent questions and understand the artist, rather than extract preconceived responses. “There’s always a danger that if the show is too well conceptualized you are putting words in people’s mouths,” says Palmer, who conducted a number of interviews for the film. “We were real sensitive to that.”

The reward for producers has been that some of the “more recalcitrant” performers, as Palmer put it, have acquiesced to interviews. “I think what [the artists] appreciated is that we were being serious about the past music history,” says Thomson, who also conducted a number of interviews for the BBC segments, and, unlike Deane, directed some. “Many of [the artists] are used to doing ‘push-the-button’ interviews,” he says, “which made it nice [for them] to sit back and actually reflect on when they began and talk about the music [and] not so much the sort of sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll side of things.”

Though the 10 segments are roughly organized according to musical genres — blues, Motown, folk rock, psychedelia and so on — the stories in each segment converge, overlap and diverge, laying out an intricate matrix of creative influences. To a large extent, producers have taken to heart Palmer’s dictum that “any chronological history of rock and roll is doomed to failure.” The “glam rock” show, for example, begins with Lou Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground, talking about how the writer Raymond Chandler influenced his lyrics. From that point, the segment expands to other major innovators like David Bowie, the Doors and Alice Cooper, the involvement of Andy Warhol, and theatrical influences.

One sequence on the Doors, for example, shifts from footage of Julian Beck’s experimental Living Theatre in London, which band leader Jim Morrison followed closely, and the Doors’ famous concert in Miami, where Morrison was charged with indecent exposure. The sequence intersperses the recollections of Morrison’s friend from film school at UCLA, explaining that Morrison had gone to six Beck performances within two weeks before the Miami concert, and was trying to bring Beck’s ideas of theater into the realm of rock. The footage from a Living Theatre footage and Morrison’s performance are strikingly similar.

Rock & Roll bares the creative process by homing in on sounds and styles of the music. An interview with David Bowie’s pianist reveals the tune of “Jean Genie” to be a riff from an old Muddy Waters song. David Bowie’s set designers are interviewed as the story turns to Bowie’s revolutionary theatrical productions, and later in connection with the ’70s band Kiss. In a segment on West Coast musical influences, Dick Dale, innovator of the “surf guitar” (a sound undergoing a renaissance since its use in Pulp Fiction) is interviewed on a California desert with guitar in hand. A surfer himself, Dale describes his fascination with the jazz drummer Gene Krupa, explaining the driving rhythm of his own guitar as an attempt to emulate both Krupa’s relentless beat and the sound of waves crashing in the surf. As he explains this, a bright blue wave breaks against the sound of Dale’s guitar.

Even well-known archival footage is are revitalized by interspersed fresh interviews. In one sequence, Maxine Powell, founder of the Motown Finishing School, which groomed young Motown artists for the Big Time, discusses how she gave Marvin Gaye advice on matters of style: “I said, ‘Marvin, you don’t need as much as some of the other artists, but you do sing with your eyes closed. It gives the illusion that you’re singing in your sleep. At No. 1 places around the country, you have to have your eyes open.”

She observes, “Everything had to be done in a classy way. So if they were doing the Shake, or whatever, we didn’t do it in a vulgar way.”

For all its emphasis on the sound and look of rock, the series does not ignore socio-political contexts; they emerge subtly through the artists’ own intriguing stories, rather than a filmmaker’s self-conscious attempt to add weight to the subject.

The interest, says Palmer, has been to “tell the social part of it and all of the other parts of it from the point of view of the music.”

“The context is in the background and comes into the foreground when it is appropriate,” adds Deane. Motown musician Beans Bowles talks about his troupe touring the South by bus and being mistaken for Freedom Riders.

For Deane, it was in part the connection between political protest and rock music that led her to do the series. “Rock and roll music has been in the background of a lot of stuff I have done,” she explains, referring to her work as a producer on Vietnam: A Television History, and the American Experience bio of Richard Nixon. “What were they listening to in Vietnam? Jimmy Hendrix, the Doors, Motown . . . what were protesters listening to when Nixon showed up at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Deane says that she was also drawn to the project because she thought there was a “fascinating history” to be told, adding that she prefers to think of herself as a “history-teller” rather than a historian, borrowing a phrase from documentarian Henry Hampton.

“Rock and roll can seem like a series of random explosions,” she says, “but there are stories that connect those moments—that connect the people who made the music, the people who took the risks and pushed the boundaries, and took us into a world we might never have known without the music.”

TV has not always given respect to those performers for their earlier work. Thomson tells a story of David Bowie sitting in a hotel room in the U.S. and hearing his famous song, “Changes” transformed into a diaper-commercial jingle.

“The thing is that these people have got all the money they need,” Thomson says. “All they care about now is what history is going to make out of them, so this series is important to them, and they wanted to be put in the right place.”

Production teams at WGBH and BBC are still making final cuts, and considering how to end the series, a decision that will reflect their approach and understanding of the music and the purpose of the documentary itself. The final segment pays relatively little attention to current artists, though the form of current music is explored. Palmer says that it is difficult to name today’s great artists. “Ultimately the worth of what is happening is going to prove out with the changing musical generations,” he says. “Basically it’s the music that lasts and influences other musicians … and it takes a while for that to become evident.”

Deane says the last program focuses on rap, techno and electronic music. At the end of the pilgrimage through rock history, Deane hopes to leave a feeling — not a message — “that the same kind of freedom that has always been part of this music is still very present.”

Web page created July 1995, revised 1997, 2008, and 2012.

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