Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.


Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground: an alternate history

1969: The Velvet Underground Live
The Velvet Underground Live at Woodstock, 1969 (Photo credit: thejcgerm)

It was said that when the Velvet Underground played Woodstock in the summer of 1969, that only the front 10,000 members of the audience could actually hear — but that a good 1000 of them were inspired to form bands of their own. The Velvets’ viscerally exciting set included the 11 rhythm-guitar-driven minutes of “What Goes On” as well as the just-written “Sweet Jane” and the haunting “Pale Blue Eyes”, all three of which found their way into the 3-hour Woodstock movie that followed. Following their set, a lot of the other bands present reassessed their entire approach.

Then it was that the Velvet Underground became a globally recognised b(r)and and their stripped-down approach to rock music completely transformed the early 70s music scene. Millions more people saw the film of Woodstock than were ever there. When “Pale Blue Eyes” turned up on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy and became a hit single, it sealed the deal. “Pale Blue Eyes” reached #6 in the Billboard singles charts, and #2 in the Adult Contemporary chart. In Britain, it reached the top ten, but more importantly, became a staple of radio play. In the mid-2000s, according to industry figures, it had been broadcast more than 6.5 million times. In their celebration of 100 Years of Film, the American Film Institute placed it at #20 in their list of the “top 100 movie songs”.

The Velvets hastily recorded Loaded to capitalise on the success, and had further hit singles with the re-written “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ’n’ Roll”. Meanwhile, the late 60s Blues Revival died away, and a score of 4-piece guitar bands assaulted the charts with their “no solos”  or “punk” philosophy. When Eric Clapton imitated Reed’s chopping rhythm guitar solo on his minor hit “Layla”, it cemented Reed’s reputation as the musician’s musician.

Three more Velvet Underground albums followed, with former band member and avant-gardist John Cale sniping from the side-lines, before the tensions in the band resulted in Lou Reed’s first solo album, Coney Island Baby in 1975. The increasingly erratic Reed then toured the world for three years, with an ever-growing and ever-changing roster of musicians. This culminated in the infamous Live at Budokan set of 1978. Although only ever available as a Japanese import, enough people heard Reed’s on-stage meltdown for his conversion to Christianity the following year to seem less surprising. As harrowing as it was to hear, the stream of abuse directed towards the front two rows of the audience on Live at Budokan were leavened with sublime musical moments, as Reed “deconstructed the myth” and reimagined some of his best-known songs as soul, and indeed gospel numbers.

Meanwhile, Sterling Morrison and Doug Yule reunited with Cale to release the concept album Rashomon in 1978 (Mo Tucker refused to work with the others without Reed). That the title was borrowed from a classic of Japanese cinema was taken by many to be a sly dig at Reed’s problems. The multi-stranded musical narrative was no easy listen, but seemed to confirm that it was Reed who produced all the Velvets’ most commercial material, a notion that had been in some dispute.

Reed had considerable commercial success with his gospel material, which included the massive hit, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” from the openly autobiographical album Growing Up in Public. “Angel” was a #1 in the US gospel charts as well as a #5 in the Billboard singles chart. Other tracks on Growing Up in Public, like “Teach the Gifted Children”, with its neat segue into Al Green’s “Take Me To the River”, became live staples for Reed in the 1990s and 2000s.

The inevitable Velvet Underground reunion took place to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Woodstock in 1989, though Cale wasn’t invited. The event met with mixed reviews, and the subsequent world tour divided opinion. One school of thought insisted that if you were charging high ticket prices, you owed it to the fans to deliver versions of the hits as close to the original as possible. The other argued that the unpredictability of the concerts proved that the Velvet Underground was still relevant. Their last appearance together, in 2005, was indeed a run-through of their best-known hits, which some saw as a sell-out. But that 15-minute Superbowl half-time show gained them a whole generation of new fans. If just a small percentage of the massive global audience were encouraged to seek out their original Woodstock set, or the 1968 self-titled album, it was probably worth selling out.

When asked in later years about that first Woodstock appearance and how they’d come up with that incredibly fast rhythm guitar style, Reed would say, “We were on speed.” He may have slowed down in his last few years, but the affection felt by his legions of fans held fast until the end.