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Case Number 17388: Small Claims Court

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The Secret Policeman Rocks!

Shout! Factory // 1979 // 61 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 1st, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas is afraid that Sting's job as a Secret Policeman is a very poorly-kept secret.

The Charge

Celebrating 30 years of music for human rights.

The Case

The first Secret Policeman's Ball was held in 1979, when comedian John Cleese and rocker Pete Townshend teamed to up to raise money for Amnesty International. The subsequent Secret Policemen's Ball events over the years have featured great comedy bits and great music from a wide variety of talented folks. This new DVD focuses on the latter, compiling some of the more noteworthy musical performances that have been offered at these events.

Let's start with the good news: this DVD does indeed feature a great deal of excellent music. Sting kicks things off with a vocally boisterous but instrumentally restrained take on his classic "Roxeanne," though things really kick into gear with the team-up between Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck on "Farther up the Road." Watching these two master guitarists at work is always a treat, and both of them are in fine form in this performance. Pete Townshend takes his turn with a solo acoustic version of the always-entertaining "Pinball Wizard," stripping the song down to its core and bringing out some nuances that one might not catch in the more frenzied performances of the song. Next is one of the first solo performances from Phil Collins, who sits at the piano and turns in an exceptionally intimate version of "In the Air Tonight." The first truly hard-rocking number of the night is Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," though this one suffers from exceptionally poor sound quality (more on that in a moment).

One of my favorite pieces of the show is an acoustic guitar duet between Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins, who turn in an exceptionally affecting instrumental version of John Lennon's "Imagine." The two were always marvelous together, and that's certainly the case in this instance. Somewhat less successful is David Gilmour's "On the Turning Away," in which his voice is a bit too loud in contrast to the ethereal synth accompaniment. Another instrumental piece is provided by Dave Stewart, whose "Amnesty" feels a bit too pretentious for its own good. Things get back on track with Bob Geldof's stellar "I Don't Like Mondays." This is immediately followed by another Beck and Clapton team-up, "Cause We've Ended as Lovers." I found this instrumental selection to be an even stronger performance than their earlier entry.

Sting returns with another understated take on one of his tunes, "Message in a Bottle," before Pete Townshend and John Williams (the great guitarist, not the great film composer) offer a breezy take on "Won't Get Fooled Again." Peter Gabriel turns up to provide the penultimate tune, a throbbing performance of "Biko." The show concludes with Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," performed by a combination of several of the aforementioned musicians (though Sting provides lead vocals and seems to have played a role in the arrangement of the song, given its very distinctly Stingish adult contemporary/reggae vibe). Despite a handful of misfires, this is generally a solid collection of music.

Unfortunately, I'm unable to recommend the disc to all but the most devoted fans of these performers. Why? Frankly, it looks and sounds like rubbish. The detail is so poor on most of the performances that it's occasionally difficult to figure out precisely who is performing until you hear their voice. Scratches and flecks are all over the place, color bleeding is a severe problem, and the image is extremely flat. Ugh, what an eyesore. Equally bad is that the disc fails to rock in any way thanks to the pinched and underwhelming mono audio included on the disc. It ranges from listenable to abysmal, but it's never even half as good as it should be. I understand that the folks at Shout are probably just making do with what they've been given, but sheesh, it's impossible for me to recommend something that does such a poor job in the technical department…particularly a concert disc, which is so dependant on strong image and sound.

A small consolation prize is a generous supplemental feature, "The Secret Policeman's Files," which compiles over an hour of archival interviews with the musicians featured on the disc. Fans of rock history will certainly be eager to hear the thoughts of these folks, even if the segments are somewhat disproportionate (Pete Townshend gets 25 minutes while Eric Clapton gets two).

While I do wish I could recommend this decent collection of music, I can't do so in good conscious considering the horrible transfer and audio. Check it out at your own risk.

The Verdict

The performances are free to go, but the DVD is guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 72

Perp Profile

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 61 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Concerts and Musicals
• Documentary
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• Documentary


• IMDb

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