For five days at the end of August, 1970, some 600,000 people descended on the tiny Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England, for a music festival that has come to be regarded as one of the greatest ever staged. In size, it far eclipsed Woodstock a year earlier, and most would argue that the lineup of talent also was better than that of its more famous American cousin. This was actually the third Isle of Wight Festival—the inaugural event in 1968 drew about 100,000 and was headlined by Jefferson Airplane —but by far the biggest. The Saturday, August 29 show alone had a lineup that included Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Ten Years After, Emerson Lake & Palmer (in just their second appearance), The Doors, The Who and Sly & the Family Stone. The final show, Sunday, August 30, was headlined by Jimi Hendrix, and also featured Donovan, Free, Jethro Tull, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and the subject of this fine concert documentary, the Moody Blues, who were at their commercial peak at that moment.
Previously there have been other films, DVDs and CDs culled from these shows, including Murray Lerner’s excellent overall documentary about the festival, Message to Love, which came out in 1997. This one was also directed by Lerner and the first 20 minutes or so combines establishing shots and info about the festival with a fond history of the Moody Blues based on vintage clips and 2008 interviews with the band (which is still together and still tours successfully). Particularly fascinating is a segment with keyboardist Mike Pinder explaining (and the camera showing) the inner workings of a Mellotron, the instrument that more than any other defined the Moodys’ sound. “All of a sudden I had my own orchestra,” Pinder explains of the Mellotron, “and they did what I wanted them to do.”
These were nice, earnest young men who wrote positive songs that blended folk, rock and even classical flavorings together, topped with pleasing harmonies. There was a certain gentle quality to their music that gave it a warm and inviting feeling. You wanted to tag along with them to explore the mysteries of life they sang about. (In the early part of the DVD we see a clip of the group, in matching suits, singing “Hey Bo Diddley” in 1965—hard to believe it’s the even the same guys who did “Nights in White Satin” a couple of years later. Definitely not the mystical Moodys.)
The group’s Isle of Wight performance includes “Nights…” of course, as well as their hits “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Question,” “Legend of a Mind” (the one about Timothy Leary), and, as their encore, “Ride My See Saw.” That last tune is presented as a montage of film clips of the Moodys from several different eras playing the song; kinda cute. Some of the more obscure songs come off well, too: The peppy “Tortoise and the Hare,” the pretty ballad “Sunset” (which the band played around sunset time at the festival), and “Melancholy Man.” It’s interesting watching the band try to capture the pristine sound of their records live as a five-piece—they mostly succeed (they were, after all, fine musicians), but actually, the slightly rough-hewn sound in some arrangements adds to the overall sound of the band. The lack of perfection suits them well.
Fans of the group will certainly want to pick this up; others might want to first investigate Message to Love (which includes “Nights in White Satin”).
Various Artists: The Secret Policeman Rocks! (Shout! Factory)
While we’re in England, we should also give some love to this compilation of some of the best performances from the Secret Policeman’s Ball benefit concerts for Amnesty International from the late ’70s and ’80s. These intimate shows gave the artists who participated a chance to show different sides of themselves in a low-pressure environment for a good cause, and the results were often stunning. All of the performances on this package have been previously released on various Secret Policeman’s Ball DVDs, but it’s still nice to have them all on a single disc.
A few of my all-time favorite SPB performances are included here: Pete Townshend’s solo performance of “Pinball Wizard” is a marvel, and his interpretation of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with second guitarist John Williams, brings new dimensions to that great song. I love Pete’s singing—that voice is fragile yet powerful. Sting, too, shines as a solo—he sounds fantastic on “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle.” Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck team up, as they have periodically through the years—as you’d expect there’s plenty of guitar power on “Further On Up the Road” and the gorgeous instrumental ballad “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” Jeff Beck always amazes me. Another exquisite guitar piece comes courtesy of Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, who play John Lennon’s “Imagine” on acoustic guitars.
Among the other cool performances here is Kate Bush fronting a group led by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour on her quirky “Running Up That Hill”; Gilmour and his group playing “On the Turning Away”; Bob Geldof doing a fine version of “I Don’t Like Mondays”; and Peter Gabriel at his most stirring on “Biko.” The finale (if such a thing can exist on a video with cuts from four different shows) has Sting fronting an all-star group on a reggae-ized version of Dylan’s “I Shall be Released”—it’s a nice twist on an old tune and also lyrically apropos to the cause at hand.
Extras on the disc include a number of the artists (and others not included on this particular compilation) talking about Amnesty International in interviews through the years.
And if you like this, you might want to pick up The Secret Policeman’s Balls, a three-DVD set put out by Shout! Factory earlier this year.
In case you’ve forgotten, I can be hounded at firstname.lastname@example.org.