GSTV’s Mad Dog Blogger reflects on one of rock’s lost cinematic treasures
I want to take you back to a time before Pontius was a pilot, when men were men and sheep were nervous. When a dose of the clap was a mere inconvenience and when putting on a great rock show was more about spontaneity and getting it out to the people rather than kowtowing to health and safety nerds and contract formalities.
This is a tribute to my favorite live album and concert movie of all time, a quite remarkable story and, for those of you who might have been curious, the source of the name Mad Dog. The album is 1970′s Joe Cocker and The Mad Dogs and Englishmen Live – a true classic in both musical and 16mm film terms which is usually overlooked in every “Top 100 List of Things RAWK”.
In a few short years starting from the late 60s, Cocker was to explode onto the music scene from being a Ray Charles-inspired gas pipe fitter in England’s industrial Northern steel city of Sheffield to the best white front man singing black man’s music. Having toured the States extensively with his Grease Band in mid-1969, stolen the show at Woodstock that summer, toured the US and UK after that, Cocker was ready for some much needed recuperation and no doubt de-tox. Returning to the US on 11 March, 1970 to record a new album, Cocker discovered on 12 March that a seven week, 48 city tour of the US had been booked – starting 8 days later in Detroit. As Jerry Reed sings in his classic Guitar Man cover, “folks that’s where my story really begins”.
Musical arranger, orchestrator, self-anointed Space Captain and soon-to-become the Mad Dog’s spiritual leader, Leon Russell, rode to Joe’s aid and by the end of 13 March, had ten musicians committed to the project. Between 14 March and that first Detroit show on 20 March, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen rehearsed relentlessly, the whole band now featuring 10 musicians and 11 backing singers known as The Space Choir.
Such was the speed and spontaneity with which this tour was put together, there was no time for goodbyes or making alternative day care arrangements – everyone and their children, girlfriends, wives and dogs (literally) boarded a chartered Super Constellation aircraft, stenciled with COCKER POWER on the fuselage. Including a five-man film crew, 43 people arrived in Detroit for the first of 48 shows across the US.
Simultaneously, the performances were beautifully sloppy and tighter than a camel’s ass in a sandstorm but always marinated in fizzing intensity. Cocker – manic, bug-eyed, possessed, gaunt, spastic and sporting sideburns as thick as a Bulgarian hooker’s armpit hair in his full throaty splendor. Leon Russell – thoughtful, composed, top-hatted circus leader and Master of Space and Time, collocates the band to orgasmic musical heights even they seem sometimes surprised to achieve. The Space Choir – operatic, powerful in their togetherness, united in vocal purity, standing in groups of three, arm-in-arm and holding hands around old ribbon microphones. Twin drummers, Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon, sparring with percussionists Chuck Blackwell and Sandy Konikoff to lay down some awesome synchronized tub-thumping. Guitarists Don Preston and Leon Russell providing riff and roll, searing solos and moments of real sonic pulchritude. Bassist Carl Radle grooving and driving the low end, as well as working up a wicked weed cocktail for the band in the movie. Eye-watering key-stroking from Russell and Chris Stainton and some big-lunged brass battering from sax and trumpet maestros Bobby Keys and Jim Price, all so fundamental to that early big R&B soul sound which is to Cocker as open G-tuning is to Keith Richards.
The movie is no less impassioned, documenting a travelling commune of minstrels, players, hippies and lovers brought together in short order by love, peace and the desire to take this great music to the people. It’s hilarious in parts too – watch King of the Road, Sherman “Smitty” Jones recite “The Face Upon the Barroom Floor” at a hippy picnic mid-tour, or the same Smitty trying to rouse various band members from their hotel rooms 15 minutes before departure. There are impromptu jams and rehearsals on board the Constellation jet, backstage outbursts of heavenly vocals that serve as warm-ups but are really some of the most soulful and off-the-cuff pieces of improvisation you’ll ever here. There is also excess aplenty but overall a real feeling of unity for the greater cause.
This is a unique and must-see/hear movie and album of a time long lost to us – a time when innocence was being barged aside by society’s angst and when putting together around 25 top quality musicians for a 48 date tour…..in 8 days…..was done for the love of music. I would love to hear from anyone who experienced (and I guess, more importantly, can remember) any of these shows.
Check it out…..you know we know if you don’t. We’re following you……..just not on Twitter.
The Mad Dog