By Kim Hughes
Powered by astounding and unfiltered anecdotes about musical stars of 1960s and 70s from those at the front lines, Melody Makers: Should've Been There — a cinematic love letter to late British weekly music magazine Melody Maker — captures a vital passage in 20th century music history.
Namely, it explores a time when a print publication with a peak circulation of 200,000 operating long before the digital age and without the strong-armed machinations of record labels could literally break an artist and shoot them up the charts.
The notion seems impossible today, but it worked for decades: a journalist would catch a gig, be blown away, and the next week, the band would be on the cover of Melody Maker. The world promptly came calling.
Of course, artists playing those gigs included David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Yes. But the roadmap forged by Melody Maker and its staff was unparalleled and, for a long time, untouchable… unless maybe you were notorious thug manager Peter Grant “advocating” of behalf of Led Zeppelin.
And yet despite its impressive list of commentators — Eric Burdon (Animals), Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Pete Agnew (Nazareth), Sonja Kristina (Curved Air) and Dave Cousins (The Strawbs) plus heaps of MM contributors — Melody Makers: Should've Been There is a slog. The reason is two-fold: its format is talking head plus still images mainly provided by Barrie Wentzell, the mag’s chief contributing photographer from 1965 to 1975. And these meandering tales lack précis.
Wentzell’s images are magnificent; from Hendrix to Zappa to The Who, he shot them all, apprehending on paper the mercurial charisma fans in the pit experienced in real-life. But as the guiding force in a moving picture, it hobbles the pace. It also, near the end, scans as an advertisement for his work, mostly because Wentzell dominates everything, from look to narrative, ironically rendering Syd Barrett, Keith Moon, and Mick Jagger as lesser contributors.
That said, it is pretty mind-blowing to consider the bands that might not have formed without the classified ads in the pages of Melody Maker (King Crimson and Roxy Music, to name two) or how subsequent music publications such as NME and Rolling Stone (and Q and SPIN…) may never have happened were it not for the success of the magazine, launched as a trade publication in 1926.
Its impact can’t be overstated. Actually it can — and is — in Melody Makers: Should've Been There which, like many of the acts it championed, was ultimately killed by the emergence of punk rock. Still, it’s a worthwhile look-see for rock fans.
Melody Makers: Should've Been There. Directed by Leslie Ann Coles. With Barrie Wentzell, Eric Burdon, Ian Anderson, Pete Agnew, and Sonja Kristina. Opens July 12 at Toronto’s The Royal and other select Canadian markets.