Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 1, 2003)
On paper, Hard ‘n’ Heavy Presents Rockthology sounds like a great idea. It purports to offer rare material from prominent artists, and Volume 4 definitely enticed me. Mostly I wanted to see it because it included footage of Tin Machine, the band David Bowie led from 1989 through 1992. Disparaged by most and not commercially successful, I really liked Tin Machine, and since it’s very tough to find band clips on official home video, I eagerly greeted the opportunity to check out this material.
The remaining lineup of Volume 4 seemed pretty strong as well. It included footage of Queen, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, AC/DC, and the Doors. I don’t count myself as a big fan of any of those acts, but I thought it’d be interesting to watch these pieces nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the reality seems much less interesting than I hoped. With a few of exceptions, most of the footage Volume 4 emanates from between 1989 and 1991. The show starts with Queen and mostly features an interview with drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May conducted to promote their 1989 album The Miracle. They chat about their early days, the new album, touring, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. We also see some clips from stadium performances of “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” plus parts of the music videos for “I Want It All” and “Radio Ga-Ga”.
Tin Machine’s material comes from 1991 and revolves around the then-current Tin Machine II album. We get a collective band interview that discusses their first days together, attitudes toward sex in America and II’s censored album cover, the video for “One Shot”, changes in the business over Bowie’s career, and the future of the band. We see clips from the videos for “One Shot” and “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
Though the next segment purports to focus on Black Sabbath, it really offers two separate segments with band members, neither of whom are named “Ozzy”. First we get a clip from around 1985 in which guitarist Tony Iommi roots through a bag, pulls out items and comments on them. He examines things like the covers for Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil, a couple of Sabbath albums, and Sun City plus a Lita Ford poster, an Aleister Crowley book, and some toys. Iommi then brings in drummer Bill Ward, and the pair discuss the controversial video for “Trashed”.
After that, we jump to 1989 and encounter Ward on his own. He chats about his departure from Sabbath and his attitude toward the business at that time plus his then-contemporary solo efforts. During this piece, we see parts of the videos for Sabbath’s “Trashed” and Ward’s “Bombers (Can Open Bomb Bays)”; the latter features Ozzy on vocals.
The Doors become the focus of the next piece, and we get remarks from keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Shot in 1991, he visits the Alta Cienega Motel where Jim Morrison once lived, and he tells us about the band’s controversial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He then briefly chats about The Doors; for legal reasons, he doesn’t say much, but his disdain for the flick seems apparent. We see some shots from the band’s performance of “Light My Fire” on the Sullivan show.
The Led Zeppelin segment really focuses mostly on former lead singer Robert Plant. It comes from 1990 and mostly addresses his then-current album Manic Nirvana. Plant sits with guitarist Phil Johnstone and goes over topics like his current band, his feelings about bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, his educational career and early playing days, Jason Bonham’s wedding, and his attempts to move his musical career forward. Unfortunately, Plant tends to babble, and many of his statements make little sense.
In addition to his remarks, we see a variety of snippets from Plant solo videos. The segment ends with what seems to be a mostly complete Zeppelin performance of “Black Dog” that I believe comes from the film The Song Remains the Same. The song starts in progress, but it doesn’t appear to chop that much of the opening.
While the first five segments of Volume 4 all included music and interviews, the last three are more basic. In the only piece that comes totally from an era prior to the mid-Eighties, we get Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “Wild Thing” from Monterey Pop. We also find the music video for AC/DC’s 1986 track “Who Made Who” and another video for an all-star version of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water” recorded during the “Life Aid Armenia Supersession” in November 1989. The latter doesn’t show any clips of Deep Purple at all, as it just cobbles together recording studio shots to make a loose music video for the benefit single. It doesn’t identify anyone, but viewers of this disc will recognize Tony Iommi, Brian May and Roger Taylor among others.
What parts of Volume 4 work best? Obviously, my affection for Bowie makes the Tin Machine clips the most interesting. Objectively, they’re not all that terrific, but as a fan, I think their piece offers some moderately compelling material.
After that, the Doors section probably appears strongest. Manzarek’s discussion of the facts behind the Sullivan episode are intriguing, and it’s very good to see parts of the performance. In The Doors, Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison heavily accentuates the word “higher” – which he wasn’t supposed to sing on the show – but the real Morrison clearly didn’t do that. (A distortion of reality in an Oliver Stone movie? Nah – can’t be!)
The remaining interviews range from fair to poor. Queen’s May and Taylor don’t give us much insight into their careers. As noted, Plant basically babbles, so his comments go nowhere. Iommi’s grab-bag escapade would be more entertaining if he displayed some real wit or personality, but he doesn’t seem clever enough to make it succeed. Ward’s comments actually flit upon some intriguing subjects such as his disdain for the rock business, but he doesn’t do this in a deep enough manner to make them generally compelling.
Part of the problem with the interviews stems from the fact almost everything comes out of context. We get the participants and their music with almost no background information. From what I can tell, the program comes from a series that prospered in the early Nineties. I expect that back then, less context was necessary for viewers, as much of the material was current at the time. More than a decade later, however, memories fade and some of the segments are unnecessarily confusing.
I think this issue emanates from the fact that the program was created back in the early Nineties and then simply slapped onto this DVD. It’s apparently not a modern compilation, and nothing’s been done to change it from its original presentation. Warts and all, we see what appeared when the producers first created it.
Probably the biggest weakness of Volume 4 comes from the infrequency of complete musical clips. Only four songs appear essentially uninterrupted: Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, Hendrix’s “Wild Thing”, AC/DC’s “Who Made Who” and the all-star “Smoke On the Water”. For all the others, the videos and performances are chopped up badly and we only find brief snippets of them.
This becomes very frustrating. As I mentioned, I wanted to see this product because of the Bowie material, especially since it really is tough to find Tin Machine clips. All I hoped to get was one full music video from the band, but that doesn’t occur. The two videos included appear only in tiny fragments, and the entire presentation feels unsatisfying.
Rockthology isn’t a bad piece, as it includes some reasonably interesting information about classic rock artists. Despite my frustrations, I enjoyed much of what I saw. Nonetheless, it doesn’t work especially well for either die-hard fans or those with a more idle curiosity. The former won’t like the absence of complete clips, while the latter may not get much from the fairly era-specific information featured. Rockthology offers a cool concept but suffers from flawed execution.