“My most exciting moment, probably, in my musical career, was when I appeared on the front cover of Melody Maker,” says Dave Cousins of the band Strawbs in the documentary “Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There,” which will be screened at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick, Sept. 17.
The documentary takes a close look at the weekly newspaper that was basically the British equivalent of Rolling Stone in the ’60s and ’70s. In a society where there were few other options for those looking to learn about popular as well as up-and-coming bands, Melody Maker was perhaps even more powerful and dominant than Rolling Stone. More than one person interviewed in the documentary calls it the Bible of the British music world, in that era.
“You’d go to work on the subway, on a Thursday morning, and everybody between the ages of about 14 and 20 would be reading the Melody Maker,” says one of the paper’s editors, Richard Williams, in the documentary.
Melody Maker writers had almost unlimited access to musicians. The 10-minute, publicist-monitored phone interview had apparently not been invented yet. It was more likely that the musician would stop by the office, and you’d head off to do the interview in a pub, and then maybe hit a few nightclub afterwards. No questions were off limits, but then again, if Keith Richards asked you not to print something, you didn’t even think about doing so.
A lot of the documentary focuses on the magazine’s photography and, in particular, the work of Barrie Wentzell, its chief photographer from 1965 to 1975. Once again, nearly unlimited access, both onstage and offstage, led to stunning photos of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Pink Floyd and many others. One of the best things about this documentary is just the photos that stream by as people talk, one amazing black-and-white shot after another.
The movie doesn’t have much of a structure, veering off on tangents whenever someone has a good story about Keith Moon behaving badly or David Bowie being charmingly eccentric, or Wentzell feels like philosophizing a bit.
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull tells an amusing story about the band’s manager and a Melody Maker editor making up some fake news about the band breaking up. And that wasn’t an isolated incident.
“The one that I remember vividly,” says Cousins, “was, ‘Springsteen to Support Strawbs.’ And that was a complete fabrication. And thank God it never happened! ‘Cause when I saw him play for the first time, I thought, ‘Thank God we didn’t have to follow him onstage.’ ”
Though it doesn’t do so in a linear way, ‘Melody Makers’ does get around to telling the newspaper’s history: Its early incarnation as a trade paper, more like Billboard than Rolling Stone; its transformation and phenomenal success in the ’60s; its attempts to branch out overseas; its failure to adapt to the times after punk changed everything in the late ’70s.
Melody Maker no longer exists: It was merged into its edgier rival NME in 2000. But it played a part in music history, just like Rolling Stone did, and it’s hard to imagine anyone with an interest in classic-rock not enjoying this movie.
“Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There” will be screened Sept. 17 at 7 p.m., at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Director Leslie Ann Coles will introduce the film and participate in a question and answer session, afterwards. Visit njfilmfest.com.
Also on the schedule for the festival’s opening weekend is “Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim,” which will be shown on Sept. 15. This is a documentary about the making of the former Sonic Youth member’s recent album, Electric Trim. Unlike “Melody Makers, Should’ve Been There,” though, it has quite a narrow appeal.
The richly orchestrated and often pop-flavored Electric Trim represents a big departure from the music Ranaldo has made in the past, and he works with a cool group of collaborators, including the writer Jonathan Lethem (who contributes lyrics), singer Sharon Van Etten, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. But there’s nothing really novel about the recording sessions, and Electric Trim seems, to me at least, like a solid though less-than-exceptional collection of songs.
Yes, it’s rare to be able to witness an album coming together in the studio, piece by piece, the way you can watch Electric Trim coming together here. But unless you happen to be a big fan of Ranaldo and/or Sonic Youth already, is that something you would really feel compelled to see?
“Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim” will be screened Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Director Fred Riedel and producer Jerry Fried will introduce the film and participate in a question-and-answer session, afterwards. Visit njfilmfest.com.
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