Saturday, January 5, 2019

Go Ride the Music (National Educational Television, KQED-TV, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other item on the two-DVD package I showed Charles last night was Go Ride the Music, another KQED-TV production from Ralph J. Gleason (though he took no on-screen or on-soundtrack part this time) and director Robert N. Zagone which takes its title from “Wooden Ships,” a song usually identified today with the Los Angeles-based group Crosby, Stills and Nash but also recorded (and performed here) by Jefferson Airplane, since the song was a collaboration between David Crosby, Steven Stills and the Airplane’s Paul Kantner. I didn’t think I’d seen this one before but I had — I recognized it when one of the musicians in an early sequence turns his face to a TV camera and starts making fun of the image of rock stars as continually doing drugs, and then says in a mock-pleading voice, “Do you have any drugs?” (Most drug-using celebrities would ask, not for “drugs,” but for the particular drug they were on and wanted to use at that moment.) The show is basically a series of performances by the Jefferson Airplane (filmed in the KQED-TV studio but with a recording crew from Alembic Sound with Bob and Betty Matthews running fully professional 16-track recording equipment) and Quicksilver Messenger Service (an outdoor performance at a peace rally at Sonoma State College). Most of the people who’ve bought this disc from and reviewed it for them have concentrated their interest on Go Ride the Music because it’s closer to a normal rock concert movie (though not by much) and regarded West Pole as a curio and a makeweight. 

I noted that I had recorded soundtracks off the air of both West Pole and Go Ride the Music, and I had also recalled Go Ride the Music as the first part of a two-part program with the second part featuring the Grateful Dead (and being considerably less interesting). I had also never seen either of these shows in color before because back then all I had access to were black-and-white televisions — and in West Pole the color was distracting (especially since Zagone got so cute with it, turning the Ace of Cups members into negative images of themselves and playing around so much with the color that it’s not until their last song that we realize all the Ace of Cups members were white — just as when Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced LP was first issued in the U.S. it came in an ugly cover with a shot of the band with all their faces tinted blue — so you couldn’t tell that Hendrix was Black and his accompanists, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, were white). It was considerably less distracting in Go Ride the Music but the visuals still got a bit silly — during Quicksilver’s first song, “Warm Red Wine,” Zagone decided to alternate between vistas of the performance and shots of the field where it took place empty — which wouldn’t have been so bad except he decided to add heavy echo to the song, to make it sound distant and remote, when he was showing an empty field and to remix the sound with full presence when the vistas showed the actual performance. 

At least Go Ride the Music represents the Jefferson Airplane with all but one of the key musicians in the best edition of the band (drummer Spencer Dryden had been replaced by Joey Covington, but all the other principals of the best Airplane — Grace Slick, vocals; Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, guitars and vocals; Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitar; and Jack Casady, bass — were here) tearing through a scorching set that starts with “We Could Be Together” and “Volunteers” from their most openly political album, Volunteers. Accompanied by news footage of Bay Area protests and radical events (credited to a second director, Rick Wise), the Airplane play these songs with a sort of scorching, buzzing anger that befits the calls to revolution made in both songs — in “We Could Be Together” the Airplane sing, “Up against the wall, up against the wall motherfucker,” and at least one point I thought I heard the Airplane’s singers utter the M.F. word on American public television. For the Volunteers album the Airplane sang “motherfucker” but the RCA Victor label prepared a lyric sheet which censored the word and gave the line as “up against the wall fred” (lower case) provoking one of the band members to tell Rolling Stone, “They have to let us sing it, but they don’t have to let you read it.” and Charles, with his marvelously loopy sense of humor, riffed on the recent mini-scandal of the newly seated Democratic Congressmember Rashida Tlaib, who was criticized for saying of President Trump, “Impeach the motherfucker” — “Impeach the fred. The fred is so impeachable.”[1] Despite some strange sound mixing — the version of their huge hit “Somebody to Love” (one of the two songs, along with “White Rabbit,” Grace Slick brought to the Airplane from her previous gig with a band called the Great Society, which turned out to be the Airplane’s first hits) emphasizes Kantner’s and Balin’s backing vocals and buries Slick in the mix — the Airplane are in good form here, with Kantner belting out the song “Plastic Fantastic Lover” (the B-side of the original “White Rabbit” single) far more angrily and soulfully than he had on the studio record. Their version of “Wooden Ships” is quite a bit more loose and colorful than the CSN version you probably know, and it ends the program. 

Alas, the version of Quicksilver Messenger Service heard here is not the best one — the one featured on their first two albums, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Happy Trails: John Cipollina (lead guitar and vocals), Gary Duncan (second lead guitar and occasional vocals), Dave Freiberg (bass) and Greg Elmore (drums) — but a later edition built around folksinger and songwriter Dino Valenti. According to the band’s Wikipedia page, Quicksilver Messenger Service was originally built around Valenti, but just after he joined he was arrested for possession of marijuana and served nearly two years — during which time he wrote the biggest hit he ever had, “Get Together,” for the Youngbloods, though he signed it “Chet Powers” because he was worried he would be violating some jail regulation if it were known he had written a song “inside” and smuggled it out to get it recorded. When Valenti was released he made a solo album for Epic Records, Children of the Sun, which is one of the great unsung masterpieces of the psychedelic era, though continuing the confusion around his name he identified himself on its cover as “Dino Valente,” with an “e” instead of an “i.” When his Epic album bombed Valenti was approached by Quicksilver to join the band after all, and he largely took it over, putting an end to Cipollina’s long guitar jams and aiming it at the pop-rock market through a series of sappy songs signed “Jesse Oris Farrow.” 

The version of Quicksilver seen on Go Ride the Music is a six-piece with Valenti and British session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins added to the original lineup, and Valenti is featured as The Star, wearing an all-white outfit that makes him look like the leader and belting out mostly his own songs — though there’s a welcome moment with Cipollina taking back the reins on a version of the Bo Diddley song “Mona” he also recorded on Happy Trails. Go Ride the Music is a bastard hybrid of concert film and behind-the-scenes documentary, and it doesn’t help that instead of presenting the Airplane and Quicksilver in separate but complete sets, first one band and then the other, director Zagone cross-cuts between them (we get three songs by the Airplane, three by Quicksilver, then two from the Airplane, a cut back to Quicksilver’s “Mona” and then one, the “Wooden Ships” finale that gives the show its title, from the Airplane again), so neither band can build up energy or mood. He also indulges in the all-too-common convention of band films of the time, dividing up the screen into boxes so he can show several vistas at once (it was used in a few dramatic films of the time, notably the original 1967 version of The Thomas Crown Affair, but it was in music documentaries and concert films that it really became an annoying convention) and doing a lot of abrupt jump-cuts. Still, Go Ride the Music is a valuable and entertaining documentary of two of 1960’s rock’s greatest bands in (mostly) straightforwardly presented live performances.

[1] — By coincidence, Donald Trump’s father was named Fred.