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Rock and Roll Time Machine (Part 1?)
Published on July 16, 2013 by guest author: Tony Are

Recently, I was in the physical presence of the editor of this blog (which doesn't happen very often due to geographical considerations). Along with conversations about a number of interesting topics, she described how she and another friend had come up with the “rock and roll time machine,” an imaginary device that would whisk you back to whatever important concert (or other rock event) you desired. It's at times like this that music criticism can start to resemble the endless chatter of sports talk radio, wherein people pretend that their mostly subjective opinions have the weight of actual scientific facts, which is occasionally a good thing. So in the interest of fantasy-baseball style geekiness, I will add my subjective opinions on what should be the most critical time machine settings. Always keep in mind, however, that although there is a rock and roll hall of fame, there is no Bill James in rock journalism. 

The reader should also keep in mind that I have some (surprise!) very specific thinking about what great live rock performances are about. Despite my anti-folk and punk band roots, I admire a certain amount of craft, in the service of putting across a meaning. I like emotional honesty. I favor a rough edge and an artist going out right to the edge of being out of control. And most important, the show has to be about what the performers are thinking about at the time —and how they are channeling what they are thinking about back to the audience. For me a great rock show should be more like a conversation that engages you and captures the moment and makes you part of it and less like a demonstration of how proficient the performers are at putting on a show.  

That being said, here's a quick guide for those wondering where to set the dial. I did limit it to “rock” or “rock and roll” (jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues will have to be saved for another time), and it's a little heavy on US concerts (with a few exceptions) because I know more about those. It's also heavy on 1966-1978 events because, well, shows were better in those days. 

THE BIG THREE

The Rolling Stones 1969 Tour of The Americas: I've been going to rock shows for almost 50 years, and I've seen most of the great bands, black and white, British and American, huge spectacles and little dingy clubs. I've talked to hundreds of people who have gone to lots more shows than I have. And this tour is always in the conversation. Bootlegged so much they had to make an “official” bootleg, and indelibly recorded in the greatest rock documentary film ever made, they were the best band with their best lineup (the addition of lead guitarist Mick Taylor tightened, expanded, and reorganized their sound in a million crucial ways) playing the best music they were ever going to play, coming off two amazing albums and about to make a third. They were maddeningly loose — the songs tended not to end so much as kind of trail off — but so in sync, and so powerful that it made no difference at all. And they were so confident about their relationship with their audience that they played only a few of their “hits” on any given night and instead loaded the set with not just one but two obscure Chuck Berry songs, and typically three covers of rural blues numbers written before WW2. The Madison Square Garden shows (which comprise the majority of the concert footage in “Gimme Shelter”) are legendary

Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue 1975: Some people would put the 1966 tour here (don't worry, we're getting to that) but I always loved this shambolic, mysterious, hootenany-ish, dark, comedic, weird and beautiful love song to rock and roll the best. Psychedelic in the actual mind-expanding way (as opposed to the I-bought-this-tie-dye-shirt way) the heart of this was actually a great band (anchored by bass player/music director Rob Stoner), Dylan's brilliant performances, and the “lets try anything” arrangements of old songs and new. Never to be repeated, or even attempted. Go ahead and count the number of guitarists playing in this clip

Bob Dylan World Tour 1966: In the beginning there was Bob Dylan and the Hawks. If “modern” rock, with its literary pretensions, gut-bucket syncopations, high-art sympathies, disdain for discipline, and love of pure beautiful noise started anywhere, this was where. It's unhooked from all the conventions of its roots — this music is not rock, not pop, not folk, not blues — but built on the stripped-down foundations that marry all of those things. Dylan famously said “It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound.” And there it is. He had just gone “electric” in the face of almost universal objections from his previously adoring public. And he hadn't just plugged in a guitar, he had created a new kind of electric roar — that shit was NOT folk-rock. Let's face it: he had recently released “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and was starting to make “Blonde On Blonde”. His backup musicians were the fucking Band. Enough said. Why does Dylan rate two out of the three most important time machine destinations? Because he is Bob Dylan, and everyone else is, unfortunately, not. 

LEGENDARY EVENTS

The Monterey International Pop Music Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969): Well, duh. Even if just for the music which, as has been well documented, was pretty great in both cases. And the weather at Monterey was pretty nice. 

David Bowie at Radio City Music Hall Valentine's Day 1973: Ziggy Stardust introduced to America. This was actually the 2nd leg of the tour, and he had already performed at Carnegie Hall in 1972, but this show really caught America's fancy - not just because it was new glam meeting old glam, but because it was great music played by a wonderful band anchored by lead guitarist Mick Ronson. 

Cincinnati Pop Music Festival (1970): 60s “punk” rock introduced to America. Inexplicably broadcast in edited form across the country from the old Crosley Field, this was most people's first look at Iggy and The Stooges and the pre-”I'm Eighteen” Alice Cooper (when he, and they, were a great weird rock band from Detroit and not a less-than-great theatrical rock band from Los Angeles). They did not disappoint. This clip from the TV broadcast (“Midsummer Rock”) pretty much sums up what we were getting into — entering a new era. Also featured: Grand Funk Railroad, Traffic, Mott The Hoople, and Mountain. 

James Brown at The Apollo (Harlem, NYC 1962): The hardest working man in show business, still showcasing his incendiary soul ballads. His hard funk workouts were still 5 years away, but you can hear the foundations for them in the amazing rhythm section and the way he preens on top of it.  

The Who play “Tommy” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (June 1970): Not because it was at the Met, but because they were just so wonderful at the time. The outdoor show at Tanglewood, another classical music venue, in Massachusetts, on the same tour would be a close second. 

The Allman Brothers at The Fillmore East (1971): They could really play. I mean, really. And I don't care who disagrees with me, Duane Allman was a god. Also, you could go out to the rest room during Mountain Jam. 

Bruce Springsteen at The Bottom Line, New York City (August 1975): “I have seen the future of rock and roll, etc. etc.” This was the five nights in a 400-seat venue that turned the local band guy from the Jersey Shore into Bruce Springsteen

The Clash “residency” at Bonds, New York City (May/June 1981): The only concerts in history that were not closed down, but actually expanded by the Fire Marshal. What was supposed to be an eight-night stand was oversold by the promoters, and so the band decided to do 17 consecutive nights so that everyone could come. Every show ended up turning into a sort of mini nighttime festival, with a band that was relaxed and invigorated and playing some of the best music of its all-too-short career. 

The Sex Pistols US Tour (1978): Famous for being a crazy, mixed-up “final act” in the original Sex Pistols career. Famous for skipping most major cities in the northeast for places like Tulsa, Baton Rouge, and San Antonio. Famous for Sid Vicious, who died soon afterward. I guess you had to be there.  But that's the point of this exercise, isn't it? 

THE BEATLES

1957-1962: Although their post-1965 music is what I like best, the pre-recording-contract Beatles are the ones I would have wanted to see. Especially at their raucous residencies in 1961 and '62 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Five manic young proto-punks (the band at the time included Stu Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums), dressed in their leather and tight pants, popping amphetamines, blasting through endless sets of old R&B standards, playing at full volume and screaming at the top of their lungs, then retiring in the wee hours of the morning to do things like set part of a hotel room on fire or urinate on a group of nuns as they passed below their window. My kind of guys. 

1963-1966: When I was a kid I went through a period of not believing the Beatles had actually played these concerts, because I had never met anyone who had actually seen them. That changed later, and although people who were there universally said you couldn't really hear much at the shows (which were also pretty brief by today's standards) we know from recordings that they played pretty darn good. And even with all the screaming, it seems like it must have been a pretty fun place to be. By the final tour in '66, the crowds were a bit quieter and the music was becoming a lot more sophisticated. I wonder what a 1967 tour would have been like? But I guess that will have to wait for a blog about a rock and roll alternate-reality machine. 

And by the way — you can't tell me you don't get a little feeling of envy watching those people on the roof at the end of the "Let it Be" movie. 

CBGB's

The famed NY club had 3 incarnations: 

1) From 1975 to 1980 it was ground zero for everything new and exciting that was happening in rock music. You could go almost any night in 1976 or 1977 and see something that was at least a little amazing, and occasionally very amazing - Patti Smith starting to put together her poetry/rock idea, the Talking Heads or the Ramones rebooting rock itself, or Television being Television.

2) From 1980 to about 1990 it was a destination — still famous around the world (and with such great sound!) even though it wasn't producing much local music. Wouldn't you have wanted to see then-unknown bands like The Police and later Nirvana playing a room that held about 300 people? I thought so. Also hardcore on Sundays.

3) Starting around 1990 it became more of just a tourist place, and fewer and fewer important bands played there. You can save wear and tear on the time machine by skipping this period. 

MORE TOURS YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE

Pink Floyd (1972-73): The best of both worlds for Floyd-heads — this tour started with the progressive-rock Ummagumma/Atom Heart Mother-style Pink Floyd, but they were also playing a “suite” of these catchy new songs. Then part way through the tour “Dark Side of The Moon” was released, and between one show and the next, Pink Floyd the British psychedelic band became PINK FLOYD.  

Grateful Dead Europe/U.S. 1972: I know I'll get into trouble with this one, because “deadheads” are very opinionated about such things, but '72 was the sweet spot for the more casual concert-goer. The band had tightened up with the addition-by-subtraction loss of extra keyboard Tom Konstantin and extra drummer Mickey Hart, and the songwriting had solidified in the wake of the two Americana-ish albums released in 1970. On the other hand, Jerry Garcia's health had not yet deteriorated enough to limit his flights of fancy, and the band followed as always. Also, they had not yet gotten so popular that the shows lacked intimacy, and even their new special sound system was complex enough to provide unprecedented clarity of sound without being so complex that it prevented the show from going on (as occasionally happened later). Additional bonus: tie-dyed covers on vintage Fender amps, and young hippies in the audience that were not “harkening back” to anything — 1967 was only five years past. 

Neutral Milk Hotel U.S tour (1998): People used to say that not many people heard The Velvet Underground in the late 60s but everyone that did went out and formed their own band. The ephemeral Jeff Mangum and NMH had the same effect on the current crop of DIY indy-rockers. Known for instability, this tour would pretty much be the end of the band for another 16 years. But the damaged intensity and ferocious playing you hear on the two studio albums and a few singles that are (to this point) the entirety of the band's output was completely present in the live setting, only that much more so.  

Sleater-Kinney 1999 U.S. Tour (with the White Stripes): I'm a guy that's been to a few concerts. I was at a bunch of the ones listed above. So when I say that S-K was as good as any live band I ever saw, hopefully it means something. As much as I obsessed over their albums, I thought they never quite translated the power of the live thing on to a recording, but up on stage it was “words and guitars” just pinning you to your seat like one of those astronauts on a rocket sled. Also, the unknown warmup act on the bill was a local band from Detroit with a jaw-dropping live show called The White Stripes who had put out a CD on their own label. They got famous later, I've heard. And of course my younger Duane-Allman-loving self might use the time machine to come forward and argue with my slightly older self, but Carrie Brownstein is a god.  

Bob Marley and The Wailers US tour (1978): Babylon by bus. This was the last tour for the international icon before the full-on symptoms of the cancer that would kill him in 1981 (there were two more tours after this but his health was deteriorating). Not much to say besides the fact that it was Bob Marley and the Wailers. And that although he was an international icon, these shows were so intimate and direct you may as well have been sitting on the stage. No big TVs necessary

Captain Beefhart and The Magic Band US tour (1972-73): Coming off his four greatest albums (Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot) and with his best and most (although sometimes reluctantly) sympathetic group of musicians, this was the one-of-a-kind band's most one-of-a-kind tour.  

AND MANY MORE ...  HELP! There are hundreds of shows that I would go back to see if I had the Rock and Roll Time Machine. I haven't touched any of the fantastic Led Zeppelin tours, Public Image Ltd. (both with and without rioting) the late fifties, the funk bands, Neil Young's 1972 “Time Fades Away” tour, 99 Records bands at Danceteria, 801 Live, early Hip Hop in the Bronx, more English bands, more late 70s bands. The Pixies! Sonic Youth! George Clinton in all his incarnations! Yikes! I will do a “part 2” sometime soon, I hope. In the meantime maybe people could send in suggestions. It would be fun to do a definitive crowd-sourced list (moderated by me, of course, ha ha) of the 500 (or whatever number) most important live rock events ever.

Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.

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