(Reelin’ in the Years Productions)
BY STEVEN ROSEN
One wants to be careful, when reviewing new releases of old
rock ‘n’ roll, to not succumb to nostalgia. And if you’re a Boomer – the target
audience for this package – the British Invasion is a real minefield for that.
It’s hard not to watch old video of those acts, who changed American music and
lifestyle forever, and not well up over younger and perhaps better days.
I’m that target audience, I know, but I think I can put
nostalgia aside to say that the 2009 filming of Gerry Marsden of Gerry &
the Pacemakers performing a solo version of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” at Liverpool’s Cavern Club is a lovely cinematic and musical
moment. It’s the highlight of the 5-DVD British
Invasion box set (Reelin’ in the Years Productions;
www.the-britishinvasion.com) which includes separate volumes on the 1960s-era
music of Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, Dusty Springfield and
the Small Faces, plus a bonus disc. (The first four titles are also available
The Pacemakers – friends of the Beatles and managed by Brian
Epstein – were among the earliest “Merseybeat” bands to play the Cavern. They
only had hits in the Invasion’s early years, including an upbeat rocker the
Beatles turned down – “How Do You Do It?” Most of their hits were like that – sunny, danceable,
friendly without any edge, sung by a hard-working Marsden in his TV appearances
(compiled here) with a clenched smile that borders on overbearing.
But Marsden did write two wonderfully melodic hits,
straddling major and minor keys with great delicacy, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch
You Crying” and “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” The latter, a tribute to his hometown
and its river (and also the title of a film), contained the refrain, “This
land’s the place I love/And here I’ll stay.”
So here’s Marsden, 44 years later, concluding a new
interview with director David Peck for It’s
Gonna Be All Right: 1963-1965 at the Cavern – which has been reconstructed
after Liverpool authorities filled it in for an underground train station in
the 1970s – by picking up an electric guitar and singing “Ferry” for the crew.
He’s a little nervous, but as he points out, he really did stay in Liverpool – he’s lived the life he wrote about. He puts
an affecting “Gloria”-like downbeat into his chording, one that adds a
melancholy, bluesy dimension to the song, and sings it with all his heart.
Overall, this is a solid, well-researched series from the
company that has produced the DVD sets American
Folk Blues Music, Definitive Motown and Jazz
Icons. If the subjects of this series may sometimes seem musically
lightweight compared to the previous ones, the approach isn’t.
The Herman’s Hermits
and Small Faces volumes are two hours long; Gerry & the Pacemakers is 90
is about 80. While obviously this would be more important musically if the
Kinks, Who or even Dave Clark Five were subjects, don’t underestimate the
sociocultural impact of these acts. As Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits points out,
his band at its peak was selling as many singles as the Beatles – The Who even
opened for them on a U.S.
For each spotlighted act, full performances of songs are
included – live when possible, although there is plenty of lip-synching – and there are archival and contemporaneous
interviews with the featured subjects and those who worked with them. The DVDs roughly follow the chronological order
of each acts 1960s-era hits, so people like Marsden and Noone (of Herman’s
Hermits) are able to comment on how their careers unfolded as we watch. Each DVD also has a thorough
booklet and source-material credits.
On that lip-synching issue, some acts fare better than
others, but Reelin’ in the Years has worked really hard to find as much concert
and live-performance footage as possible.
The Herman’s Hermits volume, Listen People: 1964-1969, is blessed with footage from several
concerts, including one in an Australian TV studio where the band is bombarded
represented by the Once Upon a Time:
1964-1969 volume, really benefits from having a fair amount of live
performances included. This affords an opportunity to see and hear her in her
greatest decade and to appreciate not only her vocal range but the effortless
way she could adjust intonation while moving among soul, pop and rock material.
At the NME Poll Winners concert from 1966, she goes from the ultra-torch-song
drama of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” to Sam Cooke’s raucous “Shake”
without missing a beat.
That the compilers were able to find as much “live” footage
as they did is impressive; as a pop star Springfield
was forced to endure a lot of cornball lip-synching set-ups on variety shows.
The worst is included on the bonus disc – an Australian show called Bandstand that placed her in the middle
of awful sets (an inappropriate cowboy motif for “Twenty-Four Hours From
Tulsa,” a great song) – and then made her endure questions from an unctuous,
idiotic host who wants to know why the Springfields broke up. (This was a
folk-pop group, featuring her and her brother, that she left in 1963. The
interview took place in 1967, after she’d had countless solo hits.)
died in 1999, her volume relies on archival interview footage along with new
conversations with her still-awed back-up singers Madeline Bell and Simon Bell.
In the old interviews, Springfield
has a charming, self-effacing quality. Interestingly, she’s mostly a
conservative dresser, showing very little skin or cleavage. Modest by standards
of a Lady Gaga or Amy Winehouse, but her voice sure isn’t.
Here’s an interesting, little-known fact about Manchester’s Herman’s
Hermits – courtesy of the interviews with Noone included on Listen People: The pop-rock quintet
recorded “For Your Love” before the Yardbirds and “Bus Stop” before the
Hollies. Noone had an in with songwriter Graham Gouldman who gave his best
stuff first to the Hermits. (A version of “Bus Stop” is included on the bonus
disc.) Gouldman wrote the Hermits’ finest hit, “No Milk Today,” a model of pop
songwriting in the way its verses, choruses and bridges rise from and support
each other. This DVD includes an excellent live version of “Milk,” plus an
exuberant Ray Davies-penned hit called “Daddy,” from German TV.
No one’s going to come out of watching Listen People thinking Herman’s Hermits desperately need critical
reappraisal – teenage Noone’s preening poses, designed to make the girls
scream, and too many vaudeville/music-hall-hinged songs prevent that. But you
will come out with increased appreciation for the talents of the late lead
guitarist Derek Leckenby, whose tight, sizzling solo on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”
is a prime example of exciting, rock ‘n’ roll economy. In recent oldies
concerts, Noone has taken to combining “Henry VIII” with the Ramones’
“Blitzkrieg Bop,” and you can really see the connection.
The Small Faces DVD, All
or Nothing: 1965-1968, should be the highlight of this package – like The
Who, they were R&B-loving Mods who made the transition into swingin’ London and psychedelic
rock with flair. Yet, for all their British hits, only “Itchycoo
Park” was ever big in the U.S.
But it’s actually somewhat disappointing, although not for
the song performances – it’s wild to watch the band’s musical and fashion
styles change so dramatically in such a short period. But with both lead
singer/songwriter Steve Marriott and powerfully thumping bassist/songwriter
Ronnie Lane long gone (although the DVD uses an interview that Lane, starting
to be affected by the ravages of MS, made in 1988), a lot of the contemporary
commentary comes from the keyboard player, Ian McLagan. And he’s too damn
hypercritical – even slagging “Itchycoo
Fans of the Faces’ post-Sgt.
Pepper high-art concept album,
Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, will value the appearance here of seven songs from
the album the group performed on a BBC show called “Colour Me Pop.” (Marriott
and Lane sing live to pre-recorded tracks.) But be warned – the appearance of a
British comic named Stanley Unwin, who speaks in a mangled Cockney accent
between songs, gets very old very fast.
This kind of first-class treatment to British Invasion acts
makes one hope more will come – and, indeed, Reelin’ in the Years has announced
the next batch will include the Hollies, Manfred Mann and (a group that never
successfully invaded the U.S.)
the Pretty Things. That’s something to look forward to.