sat 18/11/2017

Sweet Home Alabama: the Southern Rock Saga, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Sweet Home Alabama: the Southern Rock Saga, BBC Four

Sweet Home Alabama: the Southern Rock Saga, BBC Four

Surface-skimming look at the late Sixties and Seventies music of the US’s southern states

Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975: 'they just wanted to party'

“Suddenly, all America wants to be a redneck”. That might be slightly overstating the impact of southern rock on American culture. Californian ex-actor Ronald Reagan becoming president in the footsteps of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter suggests it’s an unsound declaration, despite the prime-time scheduling of The Dukes of Hazzard during Carter’s tenure. Sweet Home Alabama made the case for the rock music of the south, but failed to convince that it inspired a cultural shift.

Instead, this was essentially the story of two bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The path traced began with the April 1968 murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis. It ended with Carter’s presidency and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” becoming a world-wide rock anthem.

You could get killed in the south with long hair if it was over your ears

Clichés about America’s southern states were reinforced by Easy Rider hitting cinemas in 1969. Neil Young’s “Southern Man” took it further in 1970. Long hairs on motorbikes were ripe targets for pot shots. We were told “you could get killed in the south with long hair if it was over your ears”. Adopting the trappings of the counter culture was a tougher choice in Alabama or Georgia than it was in, say, Notting Hill or San Francisco. Yet standard bearer and pioneer Duane Allman ran the freak flag up. The killing of Martin Luther King reinforced divisions between black and white, which meant the pool of studio musicians became less integrated. Even so, Duane Allman played on Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude”.

The Allman Brothers BandAfter a few false starts and brushes with the mainstream music biz, Allman formed The Allman Brothers Band with his brother Gregg on vocals (pictured right). Their blues rock was tinged with soul, and about the guitar as much the songs. At this remove, and based on what was seen in Sweet Home Alabama, the early Allman Brothers Band was a sparky outfit with charisma and technical proficiency. But nonetheless, like so many others from this period, they were another gang of blues rockers. You had to be there to get them?

One of their early support bands was Florida's Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were from Jacksonville, described as a “kill or be killed neighbourhood”. A bar band, Lynyrd Skynyrd were “jukers” – drinkers, making music for drinking to, presaging Spacemen 3’s snappy tagline of “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills commented that Lynyrd Skynyrd “didn’t care about making a better world, they just wanted to party”.

Without the help of the world beyond the south, this music couldn’t have spread

The appearance of Mills, like that of Bonnie Bramlett, was a non-sequiteur. The reason for their presence wasn’t explained. It wasn’t all that was missing. Sweet Home Alabama worked fine as a gee whiz doc on these two bands, and had a fair try at setting the political and social context. But there was more going on musically - the picture was more complex. Ignoring the place of The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd in that picture did them a disservice. Dusty Springfield had recorded in Memphis, Elvis was absent from Sweet Home Alabama, the fabulous Tony Joe White was missing, wilful oddities like Big Star weren’t mentioned. There was nothing on Greg Allman's musical and personal liaison with Cher. Why was addressing the question of what Lynyrd Skynyrd meant when they sang "in Birmingham, they love the governor", in reference to pro-segregation governor George Wallace, fudged? What was the impact of this music on R.E.M? There’s another, more rounded, documentary to be made on the late Sixties and Seventies music from the south – the birthplace of rock. Contrary to the voiceover, the deep south was not completely off the music map.

Still, we got the awful tragedies which befell The Allman Brothers Band, with the sad, pointless deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, and the plane crash which all-but wiped Lynyrd Skynyrd out. We also learnt that without the help of the world beyond the south, this music couldn’t have spread. Eric Clapton featured Duane Allman on "Layla". The Allman Brothers Band went on to nationwide success after that. It took New York's Al Kooper to recognise the potential of Lynyrd Skynyrd, sign them and become their producer.

Whether or not you can stomach the endless "Freebird" or the clumping “Sweet Home Alabama" is irrelevant. These are classic songs, and will always be so. But Sweet Home Alabama should have gone further. Last year, the British label Soul Jazz released the Delta Swamp Rock: Sounds From the South 2CD set. Its subtitle “at the crossroads of rock, country and soul” caught the flavour of this region’s musical melting pot. In dwelling on two rock bands, the frustrating Sweet Home Alabama did not.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch Lynyrd Skynyrd perform "Freebird" on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1975

Comments

I was the director & producer of this documentary film. Here are my responses to some of the various inaccuracies and misleading details in this article: “ ‘Suddenly, all America wants to be a redneck’. That might be slightly overstating the impact of southern rock on American culture.” – Here, you quote interviewee & author Mark Kemp who was, quite obviously, making a deliberately jokey exaggeration to get his point across. That’s what people do. It’s a standard technique. “Instead, this was essentially the story of two bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.” – Those 2 bands were the towering twin pillars of Southern Rock, its yin & yang. When they fell apart, so the movement unravelled. As with any documentary film about a musical genre, the focus is primarily on the principal protagonists who spearheaded & defined it. The Allman Brothers Band & Lynyrd Skynyrd were the 2 bands who did this by a country mile. But in the film there were healthy nods to other bands – inc. Charlie Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top. This wasn’t meant to be a top 20 list programme of the best Southern Rock artists. The programme that followed – “Southern Rock At The BBC” – which I also produced, was designed to complement this film. “We were told ‘you could get killed in the south with long hair if it was over your ears’.” – This was said by interviewee, Alabama-born & bred Paul Hornsby – who had long hair at the time. I think his pedigree qualifies him to make that comment. “At this remove, and based on what was seen in Sweet Home Alabama, the early Allman Brothers Band was a sparky outfit with charisma and technical proficiency. But nonetheless, like so many others from this period, they were another gang of blues rockers. You had to be there to get them?” – As you should know, music is subjective. You don’t have to like them. But a lot of people did at the time – they inspired a huge following without marketing or gimmicks. They’re still very popular now. So, I presume people still “get them” today. “The appearance of Mills, like that of Bonnie Bramlett, was a non-sequiteur. The reason for their presence wasn’t explained.” – It wasn’t spelt out, but it was explained. Mike Mills, in interview, describes being a teenage fan of the music and attending Capricorn Picnic events in Macon. Bonnie Bramlett’s presence was explained visually when she, as a Capricorn Records artist, is seen in archive footage performing at one of the label’s picnics. “There was nothing on Greg Allman's musical and personal liaison with Cher.” – You’re joking, surely? “Why was addressing the question of what Lynyrd Skynyrd meant when they sang ‘in Birmingham, they love the governor’, in reference to pro-segregation governor George Wallace, fudged?” – It wasn’t fudged at all. It was deliberately left open, with Al Kooper explaining that he’s still not sure which direction the song swings – pro or anti George Wallace. And it was left open because no one will ever know exactly what Ronnie Van Zant meant – he took the mystery (and that’s exactly what it is) of “Sweet Home Alabama” to his grave in 1977. For what it’s worth, Al Kooper told me that black Americans attended Ronnie’s funeral – so there must have been some positive connections there. “Was the impact of this music on REM?” – Absolutely none. That’s what Mike Mills said when I asked him. That’s why it’s not in there. “Contrary to the voiceover, the deep south was not completely off the music map.” – That’s incorrect, the voiceover said it was off “the rock music map” which it was. Of course there was an abundance of soul & country in the South, but as you know, and as the film explained, the rock industry was based elsewhere. Capricorn Records, as the very first counter-culture rock label in the Deep South, was taking a huge gamble. “We also learnt that without the help of the world beyond the south, this music couldn’t have spread.“ – Untrue. That’s not what the documentary claims. Clapton’s endorsement of Duane Allman’s talent helped to a degree, and Al Kooper was crucial in getting Lynyrd Skynyrd signed, but there was never any suggestion in the film that this music ‘couldn’t have spread’ without them. “Last year, the British label Soul Jazz released the Delta Swamp Rock: Sounds From the South 2CD set. Its subtitle “at the crossroads of rock, country and soul” caught the flavour of this region’s musical melting pot. In dwelling on two rock bands, the frustrating Sweet Home Alabama did not.” – A documentary film is not a CD compilation. You also conveniently fail to mention that particular CD incongruously included material from those well-known ‘Southerners’ Cher, Linda Ronstadt & Billy Vera. To give readers some balance to your article, I’d like to point out that Barney Hoskyns, one of the most respected, insightful and measured music writers in the UK, stated in the Guardian that this documentary film “more than does it (Southern Rock) justice.” Best wishes, James

Someone is sure sensitive! Doesn't the director realise that he comes across as over sensitive and thin skinned? And you are all over the place, taking comments out of context (eg, the example of being killed for long hair - don't think that was cited as criticism of the programme.) Kieron Tyler's review was spot on, and whatever Barney Hoskyns has to say is irrelevant. The point is, had it been advertised - and narrated - as a look at two seminal bands, we would have taken it at very, very enjoyable face value. Describing it as about southern rock, though, full stop, invites criticism. Whether or not you consider Texas to be part of the South - and many do - artists as diverse as Red Krayola and the 13th Floor Elevators, and labels like International Artists were doing it long before a bunch of Florida peckerheads got around to it. Added to which: I suspect you may be distinguishing "rock" from "rock and roll" but - duh - it was invented in the South. Oh and the Gregg Allman/Cher thing was important and its exclusion was curious; it was NOT made clear what Bonnie Bramlett's role was despite what you think is on the archive footage. I mean, don't you think that many viewers may have had no idea who she even is these days? Finally, whatever that notoriously tongue-in-cheek unreliable narrator Al Kooper says: while I still have a big soft spot for the barefoot Ronnie VZ, and I personally read that lyric as anti Wallace, but ....

Ah, there is nothing quite like the wrath of a rock music fan that feels his music (youth lifeblood) has been misrepresented! James, I think Kieron is, indirectly, accusing you of rock sacrilege which is a heinous crime against a personal belief system built on a self perpetuating idea that the artist(s) are able write for each and every individual rock fan as though that individual was only one who "got it". I would like to throw in that I know this because I worshipped (for a time) at this alter and every now and again allow myself to have a wry smile at my previous anarchic, change the world, soul! Happy days. I would also like to clarify that in the USA at the time you could get killed for quite a few things and at the top of this list were four main targets being, of any origin other than Caucasian, of Jewish Faith, a communist tendency and being a liberal long haired sympathetic to any of the previous three. Funnily enough, and this is not a non-sequiteur, Michael Moore touched on what life was like during this time in his recent book, Michael Moore - Here comes trouble. I personally found the documentary enjoyable and did not feel outraged! Of course the only way not to cause offence is to make a fly on the wall but to do so and catch defining moments would require you to be omnipotent.

Hi James, could you not have got the Narrator to at least pronounce Lynyrd Skynyrd right? Drove me mad in what was otherwise a great documentary.

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