20 Feet from Stardom

71QJju2iOQL._SL1425_Whenever my younger daughter and I get telly time to ourselves, we tend to watch music and music-related things. This weekend, we watched a few documentaries and some YouTube stuff.

First up was Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which was a fascinating look at how a band with a great sound, universal acclaim, and tons of talent can still fail to make it because a record label fucks up, or goes under, or for some other reason fails to promote or distribute them correctly. It’s a sobering film, really. Fascinating, but disturbing to think how few records Big Star sold, no matter how many music journalists obsessed about them. If you are or have ever been a music journalist, it should be especially sobering: what exactly are you for, if this can happen?

In similar vein, the brilliant film 20 Feet from Stardom was both uplifting and tragic. To hear, first hand, the story of how Merry Clayton came to make her extraordinary contribution to “Gimme Shelter”; or to see colour footage of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes, including Claudia Lennear; or to see Judith Hill singing “Desperation” solo at a piano – all of this was brilliant. But then there are the stories about the other side of the business. How attempted solo careers stalled due to industry or public indifference; how being a great singer wasn’t enough, you had to be sexy too; how modern cost-cutting trends mean that the work dries up.

The record industry has a long history of exploiting and discarding talent, of course, but there’s something especially poignant about the difficulties experienced by the likes of Darlene Love, whose contract with Phil Spector kept her out of the spotlight for too long, and who, when she was finally free of him, found that her next manager was somehow persuaded to sell her contract back to Spector. The same Spector, of course, who kept his own wife Ronnie a virtual prisoner in their home for five years. Darlene Love, who had to work as a cleaner to make ends meet. Or Claudia Lennear, whose one solo record, Phew, was pretty damn good (including Ry Cooder on guitar and production from Allen Toussaint) but failed to do much in the charts.

That was the next step, to give that record a listen. It really is pretty good. She sounds not unlike Tina Turner (hardly surprising) with some Jagger mannerisms (who borrowed from whom, who knows). Cooder’s guitar makes a lot of it sound like Taylor-era Stones.

Our third music doc of the weekend was I’m Not in Love: the Story of 10cc, which was very interesting. I wasn’t aware, when they were a thing, of the band members’ prehistories. In today’s music industry, Godley and Creme  could have had their side projects and the band could have taken two, three years off at a time, but not in those days. The actual story of “I’m Not in Love” is itself mind-blowing.

Finally, we watched this 55-minute snippet of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert, featuring Bruce Springsteen with a slew of guest stars, including Darlene Love. So good. And I was in floods of tears watching an obviously unwell Clarence Clemons play his wondrous “Jungleland” solo. So great.

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