In the spirit of my New Year’s resolutions, I’ve recently been making an effort to watch more documentaries. This has been facilitated by the fact that 2015 has so far been quite lavish with factual programmes on subjects that I find enjoyable (i.e. that do not involve political situations resulting in injury and death, drunken criminals shouting abuse at policemen, or Michael Portillo and railways). Specifically, the BBC has been flush with programmes about music, and not just any music, but music by bands I’ve actually heard of (i.e. not from the last ten years or so).
Of course, television documentaries about music are a bit of a mind-bender because they raise the interesting question of what to put on the screen for us to look at while the music is happening. For some of the programmes, this was a non-issue, since they treated their subjects as any other documentary would, and had topics wide enough to fit in a nice range of video, photos, talking heads, arty shots of pianos and so on. For example, Sound of Song: The Recording Revolution, which dealt with the history of (music) recording from the late 19th century to 1935 (the release year of Top Hat), started with the presenter playing a jazz version of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music – very much onto a winner there. Other key moments were a series of photos of the first juke boxes, which were like phone boxes but for music (the headphones were a hipster’s dream); creaky black and white videos of people dancing about in Tin Pan Alley during the blues era; and a segment explaining just how Thomas Edison used a big candle, a pointy stick and a lampshade for the first ever voice recordings. (Note: there is a small chance that I didn’t fully understand the process.)
Historical footage also formed the backbone of The Heart of Country: How Nashville Became Music City USA. This history of Nashville’s “Hollywood-style dream factory with a Southern twang” started with ancient clips from the ‘Grand Ole Opry’, which as far as I could make out seemed to be a country-and-western version of the Royal Variety Performance, and continued to drop in ageing clips of famous singers − usually just before interviewing them in the present day, as if to highlight just how long ago the original recordings happened. The most striking example occurred with an old clip of a Buddy Holly lookalike in a white suit, clean-shaven and with a teddy boy quiff; cue the present-day interview, and it’s Willie Nelson, looking about as Willie Nelson-ish as you could possibly hope for. Indeed, the only thing more country than that is the word ‘lonesome’, which, pleasingly, Heart of Country also featured heavily.
A more recent programme went straight for the jugular with a celebrity presenter and a title that punned on a Disney film: Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South. Here, music was the thread holding together what was essentially a narrative about the social history of the southern USA: the moonshine and banjos of white hillbillies, the railway and river journeys of pioneers, the racial segregation of the Deep South, the continued Christian undercurrent of everyday life. Cue a fascinating progression of absolutely stunning scenery interspersed with picturesque churches, statues of Martin Luther King and lots of people drinking white lightning (105 proof, which I gather is quite something), all accompanied by pretty much every southern performer you can name: Glen Miller, Ray Charles, the B52s, Bill Monroe, the Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, REM…
A slightly different approach was adopted by the makers of two other music documentaries – Elvis: That’s Alright Mama 60 Years On and The Beatles’ Please Please Me: Remaking a Classic. The (not altogether successful) twist in these shows was that various singers and groups were invited to an iconic studio – Sun Studio in Memphis for Elvis, and Abbey Road for the Beatles, obviously – to perform covers of some well-known songs. These were interspersed with interviews from the performers, from other people who knew the band in question, and, in the case of the Elvis documentary, trips made by the presenter to various Elvis-related locations, such as Graceland.
Now there were two main problems with both of these programmes. The first was that watching people in a recording studio is not inherently interesting. Nor are static shots of old front porches, suburban streets, tables, chairs microphones etc., even if Elvis or the Beatles did once visit/use/sit on them. Some of the interviews were fun: Elvis’s old school friend was jolly as anything, while Joss Stone talking to Stuart Maconie about one of the Beatles’ lesser-known tracks was enjoyable largely because Stone appears to be completely bonkers. There were also several appearances of the old classic “Of course, no one knew then how famous they/he would become…” But, visually, there was just something lacking.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that (problem two) we didn’t get any video (and barely even any audio recordings) of the Big Guys themselves. This was especially galling in the case of Elvis because, as suggested by Suzi Quatro’s extremely enthusiastic interview segment about his many striking physical attributes, much of the genius of Elvis comes from watching him perform. Usually I’m a strong advocate of the advantages of recorded music over live performances (excellent sound quality, no other punters, and you can sing along as loudly as you like). But there’s something mesmerising about Elvis in particular that’s hard to get across in a photograph. A documentary about the great man without any footage of him actually performing, while space is being taken up by still shots of old telephones (I mean, really?) is quite frankly unacceptable. Buck up your ideas, please.
But taking these and the other programmes as a group, perhaps the most fascinating aspect was that certain places and people featured across the board. Elvis, obviously, popped up all over the place: Heart of Country described his mix of influences from a combination of country and western, blues and R&B, so people from all genres and walks of life were citing him as an influence. The equally legendary Dolly Parton also featured again and again, in Heart of Country and Elvis but also in Songs of the South as ‘the Queen of Hillbillies’, an example of the far-reaching effects of mountain music. But other links were more unexpected (to me anyway): for example, Abbey Road, obviously a key player in The Beatles’ Please Please Me, also featured in Sound of Song because it was the first purpose-built recording studio in the world.
In fact, the more I watched, the more it seemed that everything was connected. Although the ostensible focus of the programmes was particular musical genres of the rock ‘n’ roll / country / blues persuasion, pretty much every other kind of music played its part too. British folk music was right up there at the top of the tree, brought over to the US by early settlers and evolving into country and western. With the introduction of black slaves came call-and-response music, which developed on one hand into blues on the other into gospel. That gospel became soul, then funk, and then hip hop, making stars like Ludacris direct descendants of that musical heritage. Blues, meanwhile, begot jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, eventually producing southern rock as played by bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as interbreeding with country music to make bluegrass. Even the whitest of music was affected: crooning was invented specifically as a reaction to the wild ways of rock ‘n’ roll, and black-face minstrelsy, while it may have been astoundingly offensive, was the first real form of ‘popular music’, developing into vaudeville and then into musical theatre.
Which is why huge props should go to the people behind the music, especially those who made an effort to combine black and white music to get the best of both worlds. The Grand Ole Opry seems like a prime candidate for praise in this direction, as do the record producers and recording artists of Beale Street in Memphis. But my main musical hero is Rick Hall, head of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, who appeared in a segment in Songs of the South. At a time when people with different skin colours were barely allowed to sit together, Fame Studios got black and white singers and musicians to play together, and ended up producing songs by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James, The Osmonds, Tom Jones and The Dixie Chicks. When asked by Reginald D. Hunter why he ignored the segregation that was rampant at the time, Hall said, “We didn’t abide by those rules. We wanted to make hit records, and we were colour-blind.”
Seems like music really is the universal language of mankind. Rock on.