Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be , or so the saying goes, but that hasn’t deterred someone from putting together a series of DVD compilations of historic performances originally recorded at/transmitted from the Bilzen Jazz Festival by one of Belgium’s TV companies. The rationale behind this series is that Belgian TV has recently celebrated its 70th birthday.
The Bilzen Jazz Festival ran from 1965-1981 and was then superseded by the Torhout-Werchter (now just Werchter) Festival. Despite its name, the festival organisers were booking pop and rock bands from a very early stage and many UK-based bands played their first live gigs on the European mainland and got their first serious TV coverage at this festival.
Many of these performances have now been collected on to a series of DVD’s under a title even more contrived than one of mine; ‘British Rock Viewseum’, no less. I’m not sure how many of these there are in total; initially I thought they were bootlegs, but they do seem to be commercially available via Amazon Japan, though not, strangely, via Amazon UK, USA, France or Italy.
I’ve been watching # 5 of this series, mainly because it features some very rare black and white footage of the Bonzo Dog Band playing live – in 1969 at a guess. As ever, things on stage are somewhat chaotic and the sound isn’t great, but it’s still a rare treat to be able to see the band lurch through a fair selection of tunes, including part of the immortal ‘Big Shot’, ‘You done my brain in’, Canyons of your mind’, ‘Urban Spaceman’ and others. Neil Innes and Dennis Cowan hold things together musically – just – whilst Viv Stanshall manifests his usual stage persona, veering from choirboy to lecher, often within a single song. If anything, the boyish Roger Ruskin Spear is the real wild card in this performance, rampaging across the stage in his ‘Wow, I’m really expressing myself’ spiral-painted sunglasses, orchestrating some of his ‘kinetic sculptures’ in a brief rendition of ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ and partially disrobing for the climactic ‘Trouser Press’. British audiences might well have picked up on the band’s casual litter of pop cultural references and in-jokes, but quite what the good folk of Bilzen made of it all is open to conjecture. Probably just reinforced the general European view that because we all live on an island, we’re essentially deranged.
The Bonzos at Bilzen, 1969; L-R: Vivian Stanshall, (a headless) Dennis Cowan, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater
The earliest footage on this DVD comes from 1967 and features a handful of numbers from a very young-looking Procol Harum. The band turn in creditable renditions of ‘Conquistador’, ‘ A Christmas Camel’ and the inevitable ‘Whiter Shade’, but the performance is most notable for the band’s costumes. I’d like to say that they look like extras from ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, but as I haven’t seen that film, I’d have to settle for Danny Kaye’s 1955 movie ‘The Court Jester’ as a point of reference. Gary Brooker is sporting a bizarre leather skullcap, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Terry Gilliam’s star turn as ‘Patsy’ in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ and there is a plethora of billowing satin sleeves and high-necked round collars. There’s also a fight in mid-number as a guy at the back of the stage taking close-up photos of PH drummer B.J. Wilson is summarily ejected.
Costume balls-up: David Knights and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum at Bilzen, 1967
The Moody Blues played at Bilzen in 1969 and are featured playing ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and ‘Have you heard?/The Voyage’. The first song is a fairly straightforward ballad in typical Justin Hayward style and Mike Pinder’s mellotron is required only to provide a strings-type background. Pinder’s ‘Have you heard?‘ is a rather different kettle of fish, however and clearly illustrates that in 1969, the growing sophistication of the way in which proggy bands like the Moody Blues were using the recording studio was in no way matched by the quality of sound available to them when they took to the stage. With muffled vocals and wheezing mellotron, the pseudo-mystical claptrap of ‘Have you heard?/The Voyage’ sounds disjointed and daft. Flautist Ray Thomas looks vaguely embarassed whilst the cameraman ensures that we get plenty of close-ups of Mike Pinder’s ‘comb-over’; surely an inspiration for Ron Atkinson in later years.
The Moody Blues on stage at Bilzen, 1969
The other act on the CD who are definitively playing live are Blossom Toes, who made 2 albums for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label in the late 60’s before disbanding. They rattle through a couple of bluesy numbers quite impressively, something that has inspired me to check out their albums, which I failed to do at the time.
The remainder of the DVD is taken up with colour footage of two bands – East of Eden and Family – that is of a more recent vintage; 1970 or 1971 at a guess. Neither of these are stage performances in the normal sense – in fact they are more reminiscent of rock videos from the 1980’s. Some of Family’s songs are undoubtedly recorded live, but others feature them performing in what looks like a military museum, whilst East of Eden seem to be lip-syncing for the most part; certainly ‘Northern Hemisphere’ from the excellent ‘Mercator Projected’ album is a lip-sync, whilst there is one piece where Dave Arbus conspicuously fluffs a flute cue. There is the unedifying spectacle of the band miming to ‘Jig-a-Jig’ on a (presumably) Belgian beach along with a motley crew of midgets and horses. It’s as bad as it sounds. There is also no apparent connection with the Bilzen Festival and it could be that this material was actually made for German TV, possibly as late as 1972.
What’s so fascinating about all this stuff is that it offers us an insight into an era before the BBC had ushered in the ‘Whistle Test’. Sure, there was ‘Colour me Pop’ before that but most of that footage was a victim of the BBC’s ‘bulk erase’ policy and is thus lost to us for all time. Most of our exposure to bands at festivals in this era came via the occasional movie like ‘Monterey Pop’ or ‘Stamping Ground’ or ‘Woodstock’ – something that worked wonders for the careers of people – like Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Santana – who appeared in these films but did little for those – like Quicksilver Messenger Service (Monterey) or The Incredible String Band (Woodstock) who didn’t. In fact, a week before their 1969 appearance at Bilzen, the Moody Blues should have been playing at Woodstock, but pulled out in order to play at a ‘rally’ in Paris. Interesting to reflect on how things might have gone for them had they stuck with their original plans.