I thought I would give a review of probably my all time favourite concert film (and I own a fair few!!) as I believe it needs to be seen by far more people than it probably has been.
This fantastic tour documentary was filmed and recorded on Joe Cocker’s 1970 American tour and gives a fascinating insight into not only the rock n roll circus of the tour itself, but also a great document of the times from which it came. The story of the tour itself is something that you just cannot imagine happening in this day and age.
In early 1970 Cocker touched down in L.A. from a world tour exhausted and ready for a well-earned rest after a relentless tour promoting his first two albums ‘Joe Cocker!’ and “With A Little Help From My Friends’. Over the previous year he had built up a reputation for being one of the most passionate, unique, and electrifying performers on the world stage. His distinctive and powerful roar (there really is no better word for his voice) singing Rock n Roll, Blues, Jazz, and Soul with choice cover versions of famous songs by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, along with so many others, rubberstamped with his own style, had connected with a worldwide audience from all aspects of life, along with a show stealing performance at the previous summers Woodstock Festival.
Upon his arrival in L.A. he was informed by his manager that in only 8 days time he was to set off on another American Tour lasting 7 weeks, playing 48 nights, in 52 cities. This had been arranged without any consultation with Cocker himself and having already parted company with his ‘Grease Band’, he found himself without a band and only a week to find one, rehearse, and get as much material as possible to take out on the road. His hands were tied regarding trying to get out of the tour, and the ramifications of pulling out would have been catastrophic for his burgeoning career at that point. He made a few phone calls and his knight in shining armour arrived in the form of Leon Russell, a good friend and gifted musician who, with Cocker, held a week long open audition where musicians who were available would come along, jam, and by all accounts it became a week of playing music and partying hard! By the end of the week, such was Russell and Cocker’s pull; they had a 25-piece band to take on the road. Among them were Rolling Stones Sax player Bobby Keys, Chris Stainton (Piano and Organ), Don Preston (Guitars), Carl Radle (Bass), Jim Price (Trumpet), with Chuck Blackwell, Jim Gordon, and Jim Keltner (all on drumming duty!!!), Bobby Torres and Sandy Kolikoff (percussion) along with a 10-strong backing choir including Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear. The assembled cast of musicians along with soundmen, roadies, secretaries, managers, wives, kids, and animals made up a touring party of 43!
The results contained within this film are a glorious time capsule of a golden period in music with the hippy-spirit still thriving, complete with the rock n roll excesses and decadence synonymous with the times. It gives us a glimpse of the whirlwind nature of the tour, incredible live performances, the band travelling by plane and bus from city to city, the off stage excess, and the often hilarious camaraderie of 25+ musicians on the road together. It is often filmed in split screen, much like the Woodstock film that preceeded it, showing as many aspects of what is going on at the time from as many different view points. The director of the film Pierre Adidge said later “It was no ordinary tour. They brought together the finest musicians in Hollywood, who all went because they wanted to go, because they wanted to be a part of this whole giant effort, they wanted to be together through their music.” The fact that they got together in a matter of days, went on a riotous rock n roll tour, made great music for 7 weeks before disbanding, just adds to the magic. It is essential viewing for anyone who has an interest in the late 60s and early 70s music scene.
From the opening hustle and bustle outside the venue pre-show, mixed with backstage footage with inter-band dynamics already coming to the fore. The 25-piece band gather for a mini sermon in the dressing room with great linessuch as “Every night’s a Saturday, every days a Sunday” before a gospel rendition of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is performed before heading to the stage. The spirit of togetherness is palpable before even a note is struck.
One of Cocker’s biggest hits opens proceedings as ‘Delta Lady’ hits you like a train with its funk-soul-pop gloriousness. A track impossible to keep still to, it showcases the power of the huge band to devastating effect. With 3 drummers on stage, a horn section, Russell playing guitar in his top hat and bell bottoms, along with great accompaniment from a truly gifted backing band and choir, fronted by the mesmerising Cocker with his dishevelled style, looking more like a hobo than a rock star, with his drunk uncle at a wedding shuffle, he gyrates and flails around the stage like a man possessed. The music completely consumes him, and his primal delivery swings from sheer raw power to more tender moments showing a very versatile, soulful singer that he often does not get enough credit for. The fact that he was only in his mid-twenties when it was filmed and recorded is astounding with the depth of feeling his voice possessed.
All of the live performances on the film and album are stunningly powerful and to think that this band was pulled together to tour in a matter of days is mind-blowing, such is the quality and musical tightness on display. With each passing song, the exceptional musicianship, and a rowdy, addictive, feel-good vibe running through the music, unveils itself, making the shows sound like the greatest rock n roll party on the planet.
A version of Dave Mason’s ‘Feelin’ Alright’ bristles with the funky piano playing of Stainton and melodic guitar work from Russell. The laid back, but heavy, funk-groove of the bands delivery of the song, utilising the ‘Space Choir’ to maximum effect just makes you want to dance.
The Boxtops song ‘The Letter’ is slowed down with a chorus full of blues-funk and wall of voices, completely different to the original, but somehow still sounding like the same song.
As is shown on his records and throughout the film, Cocker is a wonderful interpreter of other people’s songs. The fact that 4 classic Beatles songs are featured, iconic and legendary on their own merits, but completely reworked to fit Cockers style and making them his own. His now legendary version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ is widely considered to be the definitive version, completely unrecognisable from its rather twee original arrangement. His version of George Harrison’s ‘Something’ is delivered soulfully and beautifully. His vocals gently build from an understated, weathered, blues-croon, to full pelt rock n roll power. “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” swelled with the added choir and funky edge to the playing gives it additional rock n roll swagger.
He makes his mark on so many other classic songs too. The Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Woman” now a heavy groove with funky sax, before the chorus becomes an out and out, fast- paced, rock n roll extravaganza.
Ray Charles’ “Lets Go Get Stoned” is 7 minutes of slow-blues perfection with the horn players coming into their own with a gospel backing.
What this album and film does best is show that Cocker can do any style, any genre, take it by the scruff of the neck and make it his own. What this also demonstrates is how skilful Leon Russell is as an arranger and musical director. His influence over the band and the general fun-vibe that runs through the music is channelled through his vision.
The quieter moments between shows are often the most telling. At complete odds with his on stage persona, Cocker comes across as a quiet, almost insular character, visibly uncomfortable with a camera crew as a constant companion, and his rather endearing, engaging interview pieces where he speaks of why singing means so much to him are quite revealing. In his soft Sheffield accent he tells of his opportunity to sing as “a release” of pent up anger, emotion, and frustration. He refers to a quote he made that “If I didn’t have singing I probably would have murdered somebody!” such is the release of rage from within him, which gives his amazingly powerful roar that much more of an edge. He speaks of being lucky that he has had singing as an outlet for that, and so many people do not have an outlet to let everything go, and for that he counts his blessings every day.
A lot of credit also has to go to the tour manager Sherman “Smitty” Jones, who’s ability to organise the touring party, getting them up and out of hotels in the mornings, getting them from place to place, arranging makeshift rehearsal space, negotiating large food orders with disinterested restaurant chef’s, etc, basically making the tour tick along as fluently as it is physically possible to do with such a large amount of musicians who are notoriously difficult to manage. But, doing it with such charm, charisma and level-headedness that is documented superbly throughout this film, he is one of the great unsung heroes of the tour.
There is a rather poignant moment towards the end of the film where the assembled tour party are having a picnic and break into a dancing circle, where again the sense of togetherness and friendship really shines through. Another from the same passage, tour manager Smitty recites the poem “The Face On The Barroom Floor” eloquently to the assembled throng. It is another touching moment.
The tour would eventually take its toll on Cocker. His addiction to alcohol and declining mental state due to depression would mean that he would spend a two-year period away from music back in Sheffield before resurfacing again. The intensity at which he performed, coupled with the sudden nature of the “Mad Dogs…” tour when he was physically and emotionally drained, accelerated his decline. Of course he could have been another rock n roll casualty but luckily Cocker is still here today and performing. His transition to watered down, blue-eyed soul has, I think, altered peoples perceptions of him and many, particularly people under the age of 40, see him as just some old, scraggy dude, with a rough voice singing soul ballads. The most famous of which “Up Where We Belong” with Jennifer Warnes seemed to seal his fate in some people’s eyes. But with ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ you have a film and album that truly shows what a powerful and gifted performer Cocker was in his prime. A unique, one of a kind musician, and one who we should truly value and treasure as one of our greats.