Deep digs into rock's catalogue

The "Under Review" DVD series looks at the music behind rock's drama

DVD Chrome Dreams' Under Review DVD series is one of the better things to happen for music geekdom since 180-gram vinyl or the twofer CD reissue. Where else are you going to find sober analysis of Captain Beefheart's mid-'70s tragic band period or an in-depth discussion of the four Mott the Hoople albums that came out before All the Young Dudes (Columbia, 1972)?

My first brush with the series came a couple of years ago, with one of the earliest installments, Queen under Review: 1973–1980. This was followed by a similar album-by-album chronicle of Thin Lizzy's career, on a different label, Castle Rock. This pairing led me to believe the format was somehow linked to the '70s hard rock phenomenon — but not so. Chrome Dreams has steadily continued to churn out these things, surveying a broad and occasionally head-scratching variety of artists including Beefheart, Mott, Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underground, the Smiths, David Bowie (his late '70s Berlin trilogy), and the Who (pre-Tommy).

The format for these videos is pretty simple: get a bunch of critics, producers, and musicians together to break down a given artist's catalog; interweave audio and video excerpts; then tie it all together with official-sounding narration. (It's a British series, so of course the narration sounds official.) Copyright restrictions keep the producers from relying too much on video, although there's some great rare footage to be glimpsed, from weird videos and promotional clips to obscure live excerpts that you won't see on VH1. They rarely interview the bands themselves, and when they do, it's usually peripheral members such as Velvets stand-in Doug Yule or Smiths second guitarist Craig Gannon. There are also celebrity interviewees such as the Clash's Mick Jones (in the Mott video), '60s Brit-rock producer Shel Talmy, and Factory Records loudmouth Tony Wilson — though, thankfully, no Thurston Moore so far.

Then there are the critics, many of whom are colorful in their own right, and not just for their Austin Powers–worthy teeth. Among the more enjoyable characters are Kerrang!'s hyperanimated Malcolm Dome, Mohawk-sporting motormouth John Robb, and the soft-spoken but likable Nigel Williamson, a writer for Uncut who appears in nearly every volume. The idea of likable critics might seem like an oxymoron, but while one might not always agree with the opinions they express, it's hard to fault the enthusiasm or passion they show for the music.

One of the best things about this series is that it doesn't go "behind the music." Rather, it — gasp! — talks about the music itself without dwelling on who slept with whom or who did what drugs. Under Review's incisive commentary won't be found in dumbed-down VH1 documentaries or, for that matter, sterile rock 'n' roll museum presentations like those at the Experience Music Project. These people know what they're talking about. And as a fellow music geek, I find it oddly enjoyable to hear others enunciate elusive truths about music that hasn't been played on the radio for decades — whether it's Williamson's description of Beefheart's failed crossover attempt Bluejeans and Moonbeams (Mercury/Blue Plate, 1974) as "the worst of both worlds" or Daryl Easlea's assertion — regarding original Mott the Hoople vocalist Stan Tippens — that "groups with lead singers named Stan tend not to make it big."

Anyhow, I'm hooked on the series, and at this point I'd probably watch a video on Nazareth or the post-'70s Foghat catalog. Those aren't requests, though. (Will York)

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