We live in an era of music documentaries. This year sees the release of films about Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, the Backstreet Boys, NWA, Tower Records, Wilko Johnson, Danny Fields, and the Grateful Dead. There are also more music documentaries on television than before (while other forms of music broadcasting have declined). Recently I’ve watched programmes about James Brown, Dave Clark, Culture Club and Kenny Rogers.
I’ve fallen under the spell of these films. Documentaries are now at the centre of my musical enjoyment. They can trigger off a new phase of obsessive listening: the James Brown documentary, for example, has made me think again that he might be the single most astonishing figure in all of popular music. Documentaries also provide one of my favourite ways of experiencing music. Oddly, not all of this is related to hearing the music itself.
It is the build up that I enjoy. I like to hear people talk about records, particularly when they are describing a song I know and love. Hearing someone rhapsodise eloquently about it brings me out in goosebumps before they even play the track. I’m also hearing the track in my head before it comes on. Recent examples of this include Pete Waterman talking about ‘The Winner Takes it All’ and ‘The Day Before You Came’ in The Joy of ABBA and various DJs talk about ‘I Feel Love’ in Electric Dreams: The Gorgio Moroder Story. In the latter, I wanted them to delay the track for as long as possible, as I knew it was going to slay me when it was finally played. Just as it has done every time I’ve heard since 1977.
And there was another one today. This wasn’t in a documentary, but in the latest edition of Desert Island Discs. The castaway was Paul Millar, producer of Sade’s Diamond Life and Everything But the Girl’s Eden. He had this to say about ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones:
‘Gimme Shelter’ has the best 45-second intro of any rock record ever made. Beautiful guitar riff with a vibrato on the guitar, giving it a sort of shiver. And then the producer, Jimmy Miller, plays a little South American fishbone with a stick: chk, chk chk chk. Then a couple of notes on the piano from Nicky Hopkins. A second guitar. Then, a little, strange, haunting harmonica from Mick Jagger. And then, Charlie Watts: BAP! BAP! BOOM! A perfectly timed riff from Keith – ba, ba, badada. And then Mick Jagger comes in – screaming his head off. And they mix it way back in the mix. And then the producer says, ‘I think we should get a woman to sing on the chorus’. And it was the end of the sixties. And it is an incredible piece of apocalyptic music. But more than anything else, if you don’t want to play air rhythm guitar and be Keith Richard when you’re playing this, there’s no hope for you.
Then they play the song. And it is, of course, one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. Obviously, when asked which of his selections he would take with him if he was only allowed to keep one, it was this record that Millar chose.