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Going way beyond the liner notes

'Classic Albums' series deconstructs some of rock's most popular and interesting albums.

November 20, 2002|Jon Matsumoto | Special to The Times

Great rock and pop albums endure for years and are often consumed by multiple generations of music lovers. Yet rarely do the artists themselves -- and the people who assist them in the recording studio -- get an opportunity to reveal the details behind the creation of these masterworks.

Fans of Elvis Presley may be able to sing the King's classic songs by heart and know the ins and outs of his private life, for instance, but few may be privy to the inside story about how Presley's legendary self-titled album was created in the mid-1950s.

For nearly five years, Eagle Vision's "Classic Albums" series has helped fill this void by offering usually insightful home videos and DVDs documenting the making of pioneering and/or popular albums through original interviews and archival footage. Eagle Vision is the home video-DVD division of London-based Eagle Rock Entertainment.

In the documentary about Elton John's classic 1973 album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," for example, John, lyricist Bernie Taupin, producer Gus Dudgeon, engineer David Hentschel and members of John's band talk candidly about making the ambitious double album.

Much is revealed. Dudgeon explains how he went about adding the indispensable audience applause to the studio hit "Bennie and the Jets." Drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone and Dudgeon explain in detail how some of the album's vocal harmonies were constructed.

Interviews with artists, producers and engineers often are conducted in the studios where their albums were recorded. This helps bring back memories and gives them the chance to play original tapes from the album.

"Sometimes the artist will say, 'I'm not sure I can remember anything" about recording certain songs," says Nick de Grunwald, the English producer of the "Classic Albums" series. "Some of these great artists are nervous in a funny way. It's not like standing up on stage and performing. They are opening up their hearts and souls. But when they actually sit and listen to [the original recordings], the music triggers a lot of memories."

Twenty documentaries are available in the series, among them "Electric Ladyland" by Jimi Hendrix, "Who's Next" by the Who, "The Joshua Tree" by U2, "Hysteria" by Def Leppard, Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" and Elvis Presley's self-titled album.

Most of the featured albums have sold millions of copies. But a few were just great pieces of art that were never hits, such as the Band's eponymous 1969 disc and Lou Reed's 30-year-old "Transformer."

A documentary on the Sex Pistol's "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols"--a revolutionary 1977 punk album that didn't make the Top 40 charts -- is the latest offering in the series. It was released Tuesday.

Though the documentaries place these albums in a social-historical context, the emphasis is on the making of the music rather than the sex, drugs and controversial behavior that might surround the artist or band.

Taking the high road has helped convince press-shy artists such as Reed to participate, says Steve Sterling, the president of Eagle Vision's North American operations.

The Reed documentary is one of the best in the series. He plays some of the "Transformer" songs solo on his guitar and explains their origins with the help of people like critic David Fricke and engineer Ken Scott. Bassist Herbie Flowers demonstrates firsthand how he came up with the famous bass lines to the album's definitive song, "Walk on the Wild Side."

"Classic Albums" was originally made for British television and has subsequently been seen in numerous countries. But only the first six -- including the making of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" -- were televised in the United States on VH1. Today VH1 airs a series called "Ultimate Albums" instead. It also tells the story of noteworthy albums but tends to be heavier on the titillating gossip and nonmusical sociology surrounding the artists than the "Classic Albums" series.

Sterling says Eagle Vision is searching for a cable outlet in the United States that will air "Classic Albums" in 2003. But even if the series finds a U.S. television home, the DVD versions of some of these documentaries will still possess more material than will fit into a one-hour commercial-laden television presentation. For example, with bonus materials, Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" documentary clocks in at about 90 minutes.

Eagle Vision and De Grunwald's Isis Productions have a list of more than 100 album documentaries they are considering making.

The list includes artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Green Day. The company is in pre-production on a documentary examining the making of Nirvana's epochal 1991 album "Nevermind."

"One of the good things about the series is we can kind of go in different directions," notes De Grunwald. "We've done something on [the heavy metal band] Iron Maiden. But I would also love to do Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue.' "

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