Bilzen Thrills……

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The Bilzen Jazz Festival ran from 1965-1981 and was then superseded  by the Torhout-Werchter (now just Werchter) Festival.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.

8 responses to “Bilzen Thrills……

  1. Richard Strelitz

    Another great blog, eerily synchronous. On my 45 minute drive into work, I was entertained by the Bonzos, in song and in interview that allowed me to recall seeing them live in LA, a killer performance. I’ve been going through my collections, culling out the very kind of live performances you discuss, with many of the same bands. I still search in vain for some record of Keef Hartley playing at Woodstock, or even mention of their performance. I was lucky enough to find Sweetwater footage, well worth the effort. We should talk off line about this line of speculation.

    Liked the Pat Metheny piece, too. I’ve been listening lately to the circle of friends around Keith Tippett and especially the Afro-jazz of Louis Moholo, Henry Miller, and Dudu Pukwana, sometimes with Elton Dean, Mark Charig and Nick Evans. VERY worthwhile.

  2. Hey Richard, Good to hear from you again. As regards Woodstock, I seem to recall that there was a huge (audio) bootleg project a few years ago that aimed to collect as much stuff from the festival as they could unearth – in the end I think it ran to 17 CD’s! As I recall, there was definitely something by the KHB on there, but I think it was a very low-fi audience recording of one lengthy track. I’ll let you know if I come across it again.

    I blow hot and cold with South African jazz – I loved the Blue Notes and was lucky enough to see them live a couple of times, but I have to be in the mood for their records – same with the Brotherhood of Breath. The albums I keep returning to are Dudu Pukwana’s ‘In the townships’ and ‘Flute Music’ and also quite a lot of Johnny Dyani’s later output when he’d moved to Copenhagen. Also Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim, but that’s a different ballgame, really. If you haven’t come across it allow me to recommend a collection called Next Stop… Soweto’ Volume 3 on Strut Records STRUT063 Subtitled ‘Giants,Ministers and Makers. Jazz in South Africa 1963-1984’ it’s a double cd full of early work by the likes of Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana before they jumped ship for Europe and there’s a lot of good stuff by people I’d never heard of previously. Not sure who distributes it but a quick Google should tell you what you need to know.

  3. Hey Agentcoop,
    Thanks for the response. I checked out the Viewseum DVD’s and between the lack of quality of the site and the abundance of things that hold no interest let alone allure for me, I’ll keep looking. Might I recommend two of the most joyous jazz pieces in my collection if not ever:
    Arthur Blythe’s “Down San Diego Way”. Blythe is a master saxophonist and is marvelous at combining odd voices into mellifluous textures. Note the nod to the original dixieland practice of using a tuba for the bass instrument.
    John Handy: Spanish Lady, from Live at Monterey 1967. Again, very interesting blend, with Mike White’s violin playing counterpoint to Jerry Hahn’s guitar and Handy’s masterful sax.

    If you don’t have these and don’t locate them quickly, I’ll try to get you copies.

    Have you heard Elton Dean’s NineSense?

    The mysterious radio oracle that randomly selects songs from my mobile collection treated me to more Bonzo, a smattering of Blodwyn Pig and Yes doing “I See You” with its marvelous interplay between Peter Banks and Bill Bruford. The Bonzo’s were never known for their lyrics, but I have an inordinate fondness for a couplet from Keynsham, maybe even from the eponymous song,
    “There are no coincidence,
    But sometimes the pattern is more obvious”

    Take care of yourself, I look forward to your postings, even if I prefer baseball to football.

  4. Hi Richard, Thanks for this; will keep an eye out for the Handy and the Blythe. My only real experience of Arthur Blythe is on a brilliant Joey Baron CD called ‘We’ll soon find out’ on Intuition Records. Recommended. Have heard Ninesense, but was never entirely convinced – bit of a curate’s egg of a band for me. Loved the original version of ‘I See You’ even more than the Yes version! Had to stop blogging about the Yankees because I lost access to coverage of games on free-to-air (too poor to shell out for ESPN!) and felt that there were probably people better placed than I to write about the Evil Empire. Also, watching ballgames live over here = not enough sleep! Oh well, maybe baseball will make a comeback and maybe someone will put on a highlights show at a reasonable hour, though I suspect that hell will freeze over first…..

    Off to Kerala shortly so the blog will be on hold from the end of next week until the end of the month….

    All the best,


  5. Richard Strelitz

    “I See You”– you mean the Gene Clark version? Good choice.

  6. Yeah, The Byrds version, though I’m pretty sure it was a David Crosby/ Roger McGuinn collaboration…always a favourite….

  7. You’re right of course. Reflexively, I attribute the Byrds’ lyrical songs to Clark.
    Have a great time in Kerala, but surely there is authentic curry closer to home.

  8. From experience, I can tell you that you don’t go to India for the food! As you say, plenty of authentic curry just down the road…

    Rapidly got hold of the Arthur Blythe and John Handy stuff you mentioned. Played ‘Lenox Avenue Breakdown’ last night and it’s terrific. I remember the album from way back because of the excellent cover; just another one I never got round to.

    Incidentally, reverting to the Bonzos, here’s a heads-up: if you have a Demonoid account – some sainted soul has posted a home made Stanshall compilation of all the bits and pieces and 45’s he did immediately post-BDB….Big Grunt, The Sean Head Showband, the original ‘Tubular Bells’ narration and suchlike. There’s a lot of this stuff that I haven’t heard for 40 years (!!!!) and some I’ve never heard. Haven’t played it yet and it will no doubt all be grungy vinyl rips, but in the land of the blind…..

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