Rock Docs, Volume One – It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

In May of 1987 I had just finished my sophomore year at Texas Christian University, was one year away from getting my first computer, and had a fairly serious obsession with rock and roll, mostly of the classic variety and with a heavy dose of the Texas blues-rock revival thrown in.  I had maybe two dozen CDs at this point, my riches were all vinyl, and I read Rolling Stone and Spin voraciously.  No VH1 Behind the Music or Classic Albums Series, no 33 ⅓ books, Lester Bangs was dead, cultural interpretation of rock was in its infancy, and while MTV was redefining the visualization of music, there weren’t many filmed histories of rock’s great bands — I think maybe this was because the idea of a “rockumentary” as historical narrative didn’t occur to a lot of the era’s musicians, simply because they were still actively working.  There had been great rock documentaries, but they generally captured a moment in time, a tour or concert:  Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop and Don’t Look Back, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock.  Rather than tell a story of an artist or era, these films became a part of their respective subjects’ legends, and only occasionally, as with the movie Jimi Hendrix, released three years after Hendrix’s death, was there an attempt to provide historical perspective or commentary from contemporaries.

Derek Taylor in 1970, from Wikipedia

Into my 1987 world dropped the British documentary It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, which, as you might expect, looked at the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, echoing in its title the first line of the first song on the album.  But, rather than profile just that record, or just the Beatles, the movie used Sgt. Pepper’s to explore the larger cultural shifts happening across the world in 1967.  By combining new interviews with vintage footage, and maintaining an appreciative but balanced perspective, It Was Twenty Years Ago Today manages in its 105 minutes to be both entertaining and speak with some authority on rock’s coming of age.  Produced by Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer up until his death in 1997, the film is both an “inside job” and broadly illuminating, portraying 1967 through the lens of one of that year’s, and rock’s, greatest recordings.  Taylor also published an accompanying book. [It’s interesting that when the documentary came out none of the Beatles albums were yet on CD — Sgt. Peppers still had to be dealt with in its original linearity.]

Needless to say, the local public broadcasting station (KERA — also the first PBS station in America to broadcast Monty Python’s Flying Circus!) played this film through the summer of 1987, and on one occasion I managed to tape it.  The VHS cassette bounced around the country with me for another twenty years before I transferred it to a DVD, and now I bring it to Progarchy.  It exists in bits and pieces on YouTube, but it’s hard to upload there because of YouTube’s copyright protections — it “hears” the Beatles songs embedded in the video, god knows how — and returns a polite but firm notification that Apple Corp won’t allow the post.  Fair enough (I guess), but meanwhile the piece languishes in the dustbins, unavailable on any format commercially.  So with that said I’m posting it here, and if anyone objects I’ll take it down.

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