• Written by Rick Ellis
  • Category: Music

Rocktober 2017: 'Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream'

If you were going to pick a band that would seem like a perfect fit for the MTV generation, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be far down on the list. In a visual medium, Tom Petty's long hair and angular looks seemed more suited something you'd see on a local car mechanic who spent all day reminiscing about that time in college when he had a rock band.

And yet, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended up being one of the biggest bands of the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to a long string of incessantly hook-filled songs and a Byrds-inspired sound that always seemed distinctive and pure. When you heard a Tom Petty song for the first time, it sounded both fresh and yet timeless. Just another classic track from a band that was everywhere in pop culture during the height of the MTV Video age.

But that's just part of the story chronicled in the sprawling 2007 documentary "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream," which is currently available on Netflix. Put together by the famed director Peter Bogdanvich, the film interweaves tons of vintage footage, interviews and then current stories from Tom Petty and the rest of the band into an extensive recounting of the band's ups-and-downs.

And with a runtime of nearly four hours, I'm not kidding when I say it's extensive. It takes an hour to get to the point of the story where the band breaks big in the U.S. thanks to the song "American Girl." That might seem a bit much for anyone who's not a Tom Petty superfan, but it's a reflection of Bogdanovich's talent that the four hours fly by when you're watching. For all of the career highs, there are also as many personal challenges and the film covers all of them in sometimes painful detail.

Petty could be a cantankerous guy when he felt he was being wronged and there's something fitting about the fact an extended battle with his music label almost meant his career-topping third album "Damn The Torpedos" could have easily never been released. At one point, Petty has someone taking the tapes of the album's sessions and hiding them every night so the music label can't seize them. It's a crazy story, but one that also epitomizes the drive and anger that sometimes drove Petty.

As it turns out, the extended focus on the early years of the band, especially an early attempt at success under the name "Mudcrutch" pays off unexpectedly, given what happened with Petty's career after this film was made. After Mudcrutch broke up, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell stayed on and became the foundation of the Heartbreakers. But apparently Petty had always regretted having to let go original Mudcrutch band members Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. So in 2007, Petty reformed Mudcrutch and released an album. He briefly toured with the band and they later released a second album in 2016. 

And then there's the fact that while more recent Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums didn't get a lot of radio airplay, they sold well. In fact, the band's 2014 release "Hypnotic Eye" was their first album to ever open at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. It's an interesting twist to the story and it's too bad there isn't an updated version of the documentary available now that he has died. 

Still, "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream" is an excellent look at one of the great American rock singers and bands. It's easy to forget just how many hits they had over the years and how important their sound was to the fabric of popular music. As someone notes in the documentary, "You can hear them play for two-and-a-half hours and you'll know every song."





Rocktober 2017: 'Joe Cocker-Mad Dog With Soul'


I recently saw a list of albums and musicians from the 1970s voted most important by a group of rock critics and music fans. Joe Cocker didn't make the list, which is shocking given that in the early 1970s, he was arguably the hottest male rock singer in America. The fact that he's so easily forgotten - and that he's not even in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - is a reflection of his decade-long meltdown and all those highs and lows are wonderfully chronicled in the documentary "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul."

Cocker's career exploded when he recorded a balls-out, screaming version of The Beatles tune "With A Little Help From My Friends." He forever changed the song in listener's eyes and he performed the same magic on The Box Tops hit "The Letter." He was a man of immense talent and by all accounts a warm and articulate man. Up until the point he decided to launch his first tour of America. He hired Leon Russell to put together the band and the music and the result was a circus called the "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour. There were sometimes as many as 40 people onstage and when the tour was over Cocker found himself in Los Angeles. He was broke, addicted to heroin and drinking non-stop. And while his career later recovered, he battled addictions most of his life.

Unfortunately, Cocker died in 2014, so the documentary doesn't have any recent interviews with him. But "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" does have lots of vintage performance footage, backstage interviews and comments from just about everyone Cocker ever worked with. There are also some great comments from Cocker's longtime wife of 38 years, who paints another side of Cocker in those rare times when he wasn't on tour. They owned a rambling ranch in the mountains of Colorado and the photos of Cocker, covered in dirt and showing off some tomato he grew in his garden is pretty amazing.

There are tons of touching stories in the film, but the one that stuck with me was one from a former friend and bandmate who lost touch with Cocker after his mid-1970s meltdown. "I hadn't talked with him in a couple of years. I'm out of the business and on the radio I hear him singing 'You Are So Beautiful.' I just pulled the car and cried."

If I have one complaint about the film, is that for whatever reason it doesn't include the memorable "Saturday Night Live" performances by John Belushi. By the time Belushi was doing his impressions of Cocker, the singer was a bit of a joke in the industry. He had a reputation for missing concerts or not being able to perform when he did show up. Belushi did this spot-on impression of Cocker and after a couple of the appearances on the show, Cocker showed up one night to sing with Belushi in some surreal Battle-of-the-Cockers. The fact Belushi was able to do Cocker better than the man himself is perhaps the clearest indication of just how far he had fallen by the late 1970s.

But aside from that one small criticism, I can't think of a better legacy for Joe Cocker than this documentary. It's honest about Cocker's flaws, but it also provides ample reminders of just how magical he was at the height of his talent.

"Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" is available now on Netflix.


  • Category: Music

Deep Track Tuesdays: Five From Foreigner


Each Tuesday, AllYourScreens takes a look at five deep tracks from a familiar classic rock, pop or R&B artist.

When it's self-titled album was released in 1978, it seemed as if Foreigner had come out of nowhere and begun to crank out radio-friendly rock hits. There was just a hint of prog rock keyboards, buttressed by chunky guitar riffs and hooks so strong you could hang a small car off of them.

But guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones had already had a long career, beginning with a couple of minor solo UK hits in the early 1960s. He had written hits for some European musicians, played with Gary Wright in a reformed Spooky Tooth and contributed to albums such as George Harrison's "Dark Horse." Keyboardist Ian McDonald was a founding member of King Crimson. Lead singer (and co-writer of a lot of Foreigner's hits) Lou Gramm had previously released two unsucessful but critically acclaimed albums as a member of the band Black Sheep. So given the amount of experience and talent joining together, it's not a surprise that Foreigner was able crank out six Top 20 hits in a row.

For all of their rock expertise, many casual fans might them best for the string of power ballads they released in the second half of their chart career. 1984's "I Want To Know What Love Is" was their lone #1 hit, and both "Waiting For A Girl Like You" and "I Don't Want To Live Without You" also hit the top five of the music charts. While those are those fine songs, if you're not familiar with these non-hit deep tracks, you'll missing out some great music:

Album: "Double Vision"
Track: "You're All I Am"

Power ballads came pretty easy for Foreigner, even in the early years of the band. While "You're All I Am" was never released as a single, Lou Gramm's silky vocals combined with some subtle solo guitar playing from Mick Jones makes this a track which really could have been a hit.






Album: "Head Games"
Track: "Seventeen"

If the title track of this album isn't filled with enough blustery rock-macho posturing, this deep track about a hot 17-year-old heartbreaker has enough boisterous testosterone in it to make David Lee Roth blush: "I spent a lot of time/And I spent a lot of money/Don't want no other fool/To put his hand on you."







Album: "Can't Slow Down"
Track: "Can't Slow Down"

Most bands from the 70s and 80s who are still touring have given up releasing new music. There aren't a lot of radio stations interested in playing new music from classic rock bands and to be honest, much of the stuff that does get released pales into comparison to the hits we know and love. 2009's "Can't Slow Down" isn't a great song, but it's strong enough that it could have been included on the band's early albums without any noticeable drop in quality from the other tracks. It's a great upbeat rock with a reasonably catchy hook. An impressive effort for a band that has been touring for years with only one original member of the band (Mick Jones).







Album: "Head Games"
Track: "Do What You Like"

There are plenty of other great deep tracks on "Head Games," an album that is crammed with riffy odes to bro-rock romance. But I find myself coming back to this mid-tempo track. It doesn't have a particularly strong hook, but Gramm's vocals just wash over you and it's example of the band's musical balancing act at its best.







Album: "Alive & Rockin' (Live At The Bang Your Head Festival, Balingen, Germany - 2006)
Track: "Juke Box Hero/Whole Lotta Love"

I'll be the first to admit this isn't a track I'd listen on a regular basis. But this 15-minute opus is entertaining mostly because it's so unlike what you expect to hear from Foreigner. The song begins with three minutes of drum and keyboard meanderings before very slowly sliding into "Juke Box Hero." And after a lot of blustery riffs, the song slides pretty easily into the Led Zeppelin classic track "Whole Lotta Love." It musically makes a lot of sense when you listen to the progression and while the vocals won't make you forget Robert Plant, they are energetic and well-intentioned in a very good cover band sort of way.






  • Category: Music

10 Great Musical Performances From 'Playboy After Dark'


While most people only know Hugh Hefner for his iconic Playboy Magazine and fondness for women young enough to be his granddaughter, he also broke some ground in television.

At his prime, Hefner was this young, hip entrepreneur who obviously knew how to have a good time while surrounded by pretty women. And that image was the focus for the short-lived syndicated television series "Playboy After Dark."

"Playboy After Dark" followed the same format of Hefner's early series "Playboy's Penthouse," which aired in 1959-1960. The idea was to create a show that would give the audience a sense they were just hanging out at Hef's apartment for an hour. There were celebrity guests, lots of live music and plenty of gorgeous, lanky women.

Though the show only produced 52 episodes over two seasons, "Playboy After Dark" featured a crazy number of live performances by the best musicians of the day. Everyone from the Grateful Dead to Harry Nilsson made an appearance and while it's difficult to carve the list down to a few favorites, here's a look at ten "Playboy After Dark" performances you'll love:


SAMMY DAVIS JR., BILL COSBY AND JERRY LEWIS

While Hugh Hefner loved the hip counterculture, he also had a soft spot for traditional Hollywood. That's best illustrated in this clip, which has Davis singing, a shout-out to Robert Culp, appearances by Peter Lawford and Bill Cosby. And Jerry Lewis being....well, Jerry Lewis.

LINDA RONSTADT

Ronstadt made a couple of appearances on the show, but my favorite, an acoustic guitar version of "Long, Long Time," isn't available. So instead here's the equally impressive "Living Like A Fool." What an amazingly pure and powerful voice.



THE IKE AND TINA TURNER REVUE

Just an explosive live version of "Let Me Take You Higher," complete with those dance moves that reportedly inspired a young Michael Jackson.



THREE DOG NIGHT

In 1969 Three Dog Night was just kicking off their incredible run of hit singles, but they were already one of rock's hottest concert acts. The audience in this clip is just crazy - everyone from Soupy Sales to James Brown and Richard Pryor.



FLEETWOOD MAC

If you wonder what Fleetwood Mac sounded like in its pre-Buckingham/Nicks years, this blues-heavy version of "Rattlesnake Shake" will give you a good idea. And there's a bonus appearance by Arte Johnson.



JOE COCKER

A great performance of "Hitchcock Railway" by Cocker, who in 1969 was still a few years away from the "too stoned to stand up and sing" phase of his career.



B.B. KING

Is there anything better this blues master performing "The Thrill Is Gone?"



JAMES BROWN

The clip isn't the best quality, but it's a chance to see Brown talk about his life a bit and sing two songs: the ballad "If I Ruled The World" and the percussive "I'm Black And I'm Proud."



THE GRASS ROOTS

I've always had a soft spot for Sixties pop-rock and when The Grass Roots made this appearance, "Midnight Confessions" was a top five hit. It's a good example of how "Playboy After Dark" booked a wide range of musicians, from hip underground to the most commercial rock around in the late Sixties.



HARRY NILSSON

Besides Nilsson's performances of "Good Old Desk" and "Together," there is some close-up magic and an appearance by director Otto Preminger. At the time Preminger was directing the film "Skidoo," which included some Nilsson songs on the film's soundtrack.





 

  • Written by Rick Ellis
  • Category: Music

Review: 'Chicago And REO Speedwagon: Live At Red Rocks'

When I was younger, one of the things I promised myself is that I wouldn't become one of those sad old guys still listening to the music of his youth 30 or 40 years later. I loved music as a teen and was reading Billboard magazine in high school. My first real job was at a radio station and that's also the first job where I was fired (for pulling a prank during an overnight DJ slot). 

So while I still appreciate the music I grew up on, I can go long periods without listening to any of it. Ironically, I've listened to more classic pop and rock in the past year due to my 11-year-old son's obsession with it than I have in the past twenty years.

But there are lots of people in the world happy to swim in the warm and comforting seas of nostalgia and that interest has kept both Chicago and REO Speedwagon on tour for much of the past couple of decades. To their credit, both bands have continued to release new albums to little or no attention. But with no radio station format around to play them, they have increasingly become veteran nostalgia acts. And how you feel about that will probably color how you feel about this concert special, apparently recorded in 2014 for a DVD release.


REO has co-headlined with a wide range of fellow classic rockers over the years, ranging from Styx to Bad Company. They continue to do well, in part because unlike many of their fellow classic rock acts, they still have an original singer who can reasonably recreate the hits. Sure, if you see the band too close, it's hard to see past the frail bodies and sometimes uneasy rocking out. But they aren't embarrassing themselves and if you want to pay good money to hear a 66-year-old sing "Take It On The Run," then this is the concert for you.


Chicago is a tougher situation for me. They were by far my favorite band in high school and I dip back and listen to their older stuff on a regular basis. But I wasn't a fan of the 80s-era power ballad Chicago and honestly, I'd prefer watching a 12-hour-long "Sanford & Son" marathon to hearing "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" again.


But Chicago is also difficult to watch because the bulk of the band's lead singers and performers have either passed away or left the band. The current-day Chicago does indeed have a few original members, so they're not in the same category as Foreigner, who was recently touring without any original band members. But the Chicago of today doesn't much sound like the songs I treasure from my youth. That's a dealbreaker for me, although the band continues to release new music and co-headline successful tours. Watching Chicago isn't anywhere near the cringeworthy level of a current day Billy Joel tour. But it still brings on an uncomfortable mix of sadness and discomfort.


If you're happy with just seeing the bands today and remembering the good old days, that's fine. This as good of a concert as any to watch and seeing the two bands play together is interesting enough. But it's tough to see myself age, much less the bands of my youth. I loved doing stand-up comedy, but also recognize that continuing to tour at my age would be more depressing than entertaining. No audience ever looked at Henny Youngman and thought "Man, I bet that guy has a great personal life."


As a performer, I can understand why so many classic rock bands are out there touring 20, 30 or even 40 years since their last hit. It's difficult to walk away, even when your body tells you its time. And especially if people are still willing to pay to see your perform.

But yet....there are times when I do wish they'd make that call. As Rick Nelson sang in that great 1970s song "Garden Party," "If memories are all I have/I'd rather drive a truck."