While it's true that the artists of the 1950s laid the foundation for what would soon be dubbed "rock and roll", it was the 1960s that created the blueprints for all the specific genres that would claim the title for its own. From the sweet sensations of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to the riotous, raw power of The Rolling Stones, the 60s saw the start of some of the most remarkable and memorable music and musicians ever to grace the top of the charts. It was the era when the singer/ songwriter came into their own, allowing beat poets like Bob Dylan to turn into a voice for a generation. It was a time when a new 'noise' from England redefined the cultural impact of music. The 60s was when songs changed, no longer just about love and loss, but offering options of introspection and reflection. Thanks to the efforts of John, Paul, George and Ringo, otherwise known as The Beatles, the 60s were instrumental in reshaping the concepts of recording, composition and studio creativity. It was a decade ripe with sweetness, sunshine, scandal and sadness. Many major acts were discovered and decried while a few almost-famous faces faded quickly into one-hit obscurity. Any attempt to try and address this entire intertwined entity in less than a multi-volume presentation would be idiotic. The subject is just too overloaded with intriguing issues and individuals. So when Casey Kasem (America's number one disc jockey) decided to produce a television series about rock and roll from the decade of peace and love, it seemed like a match made in Heaven. Who better to address the impact of the 1960s than someone whose whole life was immersed in music? Now released on DVD from Kultur International Films, Casey Kasem's Rock and Roll Goldmine attempts the Herculean task of coalescing this tumultuous ten years into a digestible discussion. Sadly, all it can do is barely scratch the surface.
Divided into five parts, each dealing with a different era or aspect of 60s culture and music (the Elvis documentary being the exception, more or less) this varied vault of performance video segments is gleaned from a syndicated series Kasem fashioned in 1986-87. Hoping to cover the most controversial and complex decade in popular entertainment through hour-long film clip compilations (again, Elvis being the exception), themes were developed for each installment, hopefully to focus the discussion into digestible pieces. Sans the usual commercials, each disc clocks in at around 42 minutes. Individually, they offer the following formats, artists and songs:
The British Invasion:
Gerry and the Pacemakers: "How Do You Do It"/Peter and Gordon: "World Without Love"/Manfred Mann: "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)"/The Animals: "We Gotta Get Out of this Place"/Joe Cocker: "Delta Lady"/The Kinks: "You Really Got Me"/Procol Harum: "Salty Dog"/The Hollies: "He Aint Heavy He's My Brother"/The Troggs: "Wild Thing"/The Yardbirds: "Heart Full of Soul"/Traffic: "40,000 Headmen"
The Soul Years:
James Brown: "I Feel Good"/Otis Redding: "Try a Little Tenderness"/Aretha Franklin: "Respect"/Ben E. King: "Stand by Me"/Sam and Dave: "Hold On, I'm Coming"/The Temptations: "My Girl"/Stevie Wonder: "Fingertips"/Ike and Tina Turner: "River Deep, Mountain High"/Percy Sledge: "When a Man Loves a Woman"
The San Francisco Sound:
Van Morrison: "Domino"/Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin: "Ball and Chain"/The Grateful Dead: "Truckin"/Santana: "Jingo"/Country Joe and the Fish: "The Fish Cheer"/ "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag"/The Steve Miller Band: "Living in the USA"
Jefferson Airplane: "White Rabbit"/The Doors: "People are Strange"/The Who: "My Generation"/The Small Faces: "Itchycoo Park"/Steppenwolf: "Magic Carpet Ride"/Blue Cheer: "Summertime Blues"/Cream: "Sunshine of Your Love"/Canned Heat: "On the Road Again"/Jimi Hendrix: "Purple Haze"/Janis Joplin: "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)"/The Beatles: Interview in Holland
Elvis...The Echo Will Never Die:
The Elvis box contains clips of his concert appearances and some archival newsreel material. But we never seen an entire song performed. Instead, there are snippets of "Suspicious Minds" and portions of pop ditties from Fun in Acapulco and Blue Hawaii.
Since there is nothing really unifying the entire presentation (this is really just a box of exclusive, individual "episodes") it is best, perhaps, to address each individual portion before giving an overall impression. The discs are available for purchase separately, so you may want to forgo plunking down your cash for the complete set (since there really are a couple of clunkers here) and merely pick up the recommended titles. So, DVD-by-DVD, here is a breakdown of the discs:
THE BRITISH INVASION (Rating: ****)
This is one of the best discs in the series, both from a musical and a historical standpoint. Though rights issues prevent the biggest names (i.e. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits) from appearing here, what Kasem's crew delivers is still first rate and fairly representational of the era. While the inclusion of Traffic ("40,000 Headman" is an average song) Joe Cocker ("Delta Lady" does find him in fine voice) and Procol Harum (the classic "A Salty Dog") seems specious, everyone else here infuses the episode with appropriate Mersey Beat madness. Gerry and the Pacemakers live take on "How Do You Do It" (the song a certain George Martin wanted an upstart group of mop toppers to record) is excellent, as is Eric Burden's ballsy blast of belligerence in "We've Got to Get Out of This Place". Peter and Gordon are too passive to really sell the excellent McCartney penned "World Without Love" and anytime we can see Manfred Mann whip through Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn", it's to be relished. It's a great song done up with full British brashness. Ray Davies is fresh faced and formidable as he leads The Kinks through the classic "You Really Got Me" and The Troggs camp it up a bit in a tube station tribute to their seminal hit "Wild Thing". But perhaps the best performance is The Hollies "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother". Evocative and moving, the power of this pop song shines through, even in a pantomime state. And look for a too young Jimmy Page doing his best pin-up poses as a member of the Yardbirds for "Heart Full of Soul."
THE SOUL YEARS (Rating ***1/2)
There is a strange, social consciousness permeating through this look at perhaps the most vital of all the musical genres to thrive in the 60s cornucopia of styles. From the magnificent Motown sound to James Brown's inventive proto-funk, this DVD has a nice cross section of R&B acts. Especially powerful is Otis Redding's reading of the standard "Try a Little Tenderness" and Queen Aretha's showboating "Respect". It's nice to observe the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in a brief interview snippet, but his truncated performance of "I Feel Good" leaves you wanting a lot more. Between Sam and Dave's gospel shout out on "Hold On, I'm Coming" to Tina Turner's incendiary reworking of Phil Specter's little symphony for the kids "River Deep, Mountain High", this song set really sparkles. While many of Motown's main acts are missing here (The Supremes, The Miracles) the choice of the Temptations' "My Girl" couldn't have been more archetypal. It is, perhaps, the best representation of that slick Detroit dance beat. Both Ben E. King (with his shortened shot of "Stand by Me") and Stevie Wonder (hopping through "Fingertips") are stellar performers, the pieces here fail to be the best showcases for their individual talents. And even though "When a Man Loves a Woman" is perhaps one of the best gut-wrenching ballads to be found in black music, Percy Sledge's never-ending version here makes you think this tune is nothing more than an endless tape loop.
THE SAN FRANSICO SOUND (Rating: **)
The fact that this set starts off with Van Morrison (the excuse being he moved to Haight-Asbury at the height of the hippy movement) shows the sloppy, scattered approach to what is, perhaps, the worst DVD in the series. While it's hard to hate Morrison's soulful "Domino", you'll still be wondering what he is doing here. With so much of the true California mid-60s rock and roll sound un-represented on this set (The Mama and the Papas, The Turtles and The Beach Boys just to name a few), what Kasem and the clan uncover is second rate at best. Come on, couldn't they do better than Steve Miller and his band blowing through a routine version of "Living in the USA", especially considering the performance is from '86, not '66? Do we really need to hear another of Country Joe's endless explanations about his place in the pantheon of political protest songs? His childish sing along "The Fish Cheer/ Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die Rag?" is really no longer the anthem her proclaims it to be. And while late 60s Santana meshed musical worlds brilliantly, the unfocused "Jingo" is just no fun. All that leaves is Big Brother with Janis, and Ben and Jerry's favorite acid trippers - the Grateful Dead. Thankfully, both performances are top notch. Joplin's moving, spiritual reading of "Ball and Chain" is mesmerizing in its power and passion. And no one can play loosey goosey jovial jams better than the Dead (and "Truckin" in one of their better front porch folk songs). Still, when one of the definitive Bay area bands, Jefferson Airplane, is MIA (they are reserved for The Sixties song free-for-all) it pinpoints this installments paltriness (the retarded anti-dope drivel doesn't help matter much).
THE SIXTIES (Rating: ***)
How do you address a lot of the top-notch performers and important bands from the era you are championing, when you obviously forgot to feature them in the specific shows you had already created? Why, compile a grab bag of musical goodies and hope that no one cares that there's no central theme. The Sixties is indeed all over the map song-wise, running from the supersonic blues of Cream ("Sunshine of Your Love") to the fey Brit-pop of The Small Faces ("Itchycoo Park"). Still, the clips chosen for compilation make one of the better sets in the series. Jefferson Airplane may, today, be as relevant as space food sticks, but no one can deny the power and presence of that classic ode to "literature", "White Rabbit". Grace Slick's sensational voice makes an already dramatic song nearly operatic in scope. The Doors deliver "People are Strange" in a languid, 'merely going through the motions' performance. But even then, the late Jim Morrison was a rock icon of untold magnetism. The Who's "My Generation" is a brilliant display of pre-arena rock form and it's hard to beat Steppenwolf's "heavy metal thunder", even if the clip for "Magic Carpet Ride" is a pretentious pile of dung. There are also a few faded footnote acts featured, bands like Canned Heat, whose "On the Road Again" seems too hippy dippy to be important. And anyone who can describe what made Blue Cheer (massacring Eddie Cochran's classic "Summertime Blues") so special, deserves a medal of some sort. Still, with the one-two punch of Jimi Hendrix (doing a dynamite live version of "Purple Haze") and Janis Joplin (the terrific "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder")), the performances here are hard to beat. Only the idiotic inclusion of the three minutes of Beatles interview footage (surely more an afterthought than any kind of important artifact) ruins the overall presentation.
ELVIS...THE ECHO WILL NEVER DIE (Rating: *1/2)
It has to be said upfront that there is really no way that a 48-minute documentary could possibly cover Elvis' entire career. Such a short span of time couldn't even begin to address his cultural impact on the 1950's, let alone speak to his films, his Las Vegas years or his decline into self-destruction. Kasem's challenge then is to find a happy medium between tribute and tribunal, to place the King of Rock and Roll's achievements up on a pedestal, while also trying hard not to be too infatuated with everything he did. So the result here is a middling mishmash, a small slice of scandal followed by heaping helpings of praise. Too bad that the people doing the pontificating are so far outside Elvis' pool of personal associates. While Tom Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. claim friendship, there comments are far too studied and rehearsed to resonate like genuine emotion. Others, like Ursula Andress and B.B. King give much more fan-based insight, commenting on the King that they personally experienced. Finally, a motley crew of odd unknowns talk about what a great guy the boy from Tupelo really was. Really insightful. It's only when Rolling Stone's rock critic David Marsh begins his discussion of Presley's impact on rock and roll that this presentation starts to come alive. Marsh has a way, with just simple words and keen observations, to make a rather staid subject come magically to life. His short sequences indicate what this feature could have been. And with a minimal amount of Elvis music (and what sounds like voice and vocal impersonations) this honest but hemmed in effort is dry, dull and derivative.
Overall, Rock and Roll Goldmine is a nice collection of classic clips disadvantaged by the attempts to be all-inclusive, sentimental and overly important. Sure, rock and roll grew up and matured during the 60s, taking the teen idol tenure from the decade before and channeling it through a great deal of sex, drugs, politics, protests and social causes. But the lack of big named acts and the inclusion of some unnecessary preaching (does every discussion about soul music have to meander off into race relation rationalization?) really taints the tale being told. This is actually nothing more than a microscopic skimming of the solid surface regarding the sonic importance of the music of the 1960s. While many of the performances are fantastic, and the chance to see some of these long gone performers in action is priceless, the lasting impression one gets from these DVDs is one of loss: loss for an era when people thought rock and roll could change the world; loss for a time when all manner of music, from soul to psychedelic could co-exist with equal appreciation; and loss for the many acts whom money or management prevented their inclusion here. Casey Kasem's Rock and Roll Goldmine is a good, basic primer about the peace and love generation. Just don't expect it to be definitive.
A mixture of film, kinescope, color video, nth generation dubs, faded footage and newsreel images, the transfers on Rock and Roll Goldmine differ so wildly that to try and pinpoint all the pros and cons would take a lifetime. Examples vary from the crystal clear Smothers Brothers videotape for "My Generation" to the terribly tainted color crap of The Hollies singing "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother". Some of the black and white is basic (Manfred Mann) while in other instances the monochrome can really be spectacular (Gerry and the Pacemakers). It's a safe bet to say that for every pristine presentation, there's an equally atrocious, almost unwatchable clip. While the modern video footage of Kasem is just fine, this entire 1.33:1 full screen offering is as wide-ranging in its visuals as a DVD can get.
Boasting a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, you'd think that Rock and Roll Goldmine would sound divine. And indeed, some of the songs benefit from the new, more open aural timbre. But since all the technicians had to work with was the old mono mixes from the early days of television and film recording, there is not a great deal of difference in the 5.1 or the 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo. There are times when you can feel a minimal amount of added dimension to a sound, but in other instances, the super-sizing of the sonic landscape reveals hiss and other recording flaws. Overall, the music sounds good but it definitely is not reference quality.
One of the real shames of this series coming to DVD is the lack of any contextual material. Maybe the manufacturers of the set considered Kasem's comments and the overall historical information in each show provided enough of a background. Perhaps there was no way to add any additional information. It is also possible that cost prevented the inclusion of extras. Whatever the case may be, it's a disgrace there isn't some manner of bonus content here. It would help raise the desirability factor for those on the fence about buying this series.
It's hard to define what it really "wrong" with the DVD set of Casey Kasem's Rock and Roll Goldmine. Aside from the apologists' Elvis offering, it's a chance to see some of the more influential and inventive acts that made their mark in the magic decade of the 60s. While some crucial names are indeed missing, what's here is – for the most part – exciting and entertaining. But there is something about this series that's unsettling. Maybe it's in the way Kasem crawls through the phony praise like he's anticipating a terrorist attack. There is definitely a dearth of well-written awe in the tired, clichéd comments he spouts. Perhaps it's the pain of seeing such stalwart, stellar performers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, knowing that we will never see their like again. Maybe it's in the way that black music, surely the most popular force in all of entertainment today, is shuffled over to a single disc of delicious delights. Surely a point in time that boasted so many important performers of color, deserved another episode for exploration (the primary pilferer of R&B gets his own "Kingly" installment – why not do the same for Little Richard or James Brown?). In the end, what really undermines Rock and Roll Goldmine is its expansive scope. No one series of shows could cover every aspect of what is perhaps the most significant decade in American history. This Casey Kasem collection feels like the results from a trip to the television vaults of many music shows. After the available (or affordable) clips were compiled, a show was then fashioned around them. While the sounds here are mostly delightful, the framing device surrounding them is flawed. You'll enjoy Casey Kasem's Rock and Roll Goldmine. But you may not gain any more insight from the view of this volatile, vibrant era.