I have fond memories of Tommy James and the Shondells, a rock group that achieved fame in the mid-'60s and went on to have a lot of chart-topping hits until the early '70s, when FM radio and album rock transformed the industry and may have left them behind. As a youngster in those years, I was quite a fan, but 1968 really saw the transformation of rock and roll, and I shifted emphasis to other artists such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I was still thrilled to get a DVD of a live performance of the band done in 1996, with virtually every big hit they ever did, along with interview footage and even a commentary track. BMG music was good enough to make this retrospective available, but I have to wince at the sound elements they had to work from. What ultimately makes or breaks a concert disc is the soundtrack, and it is the one real problem with this disc.
Tommy James (born with the surname Jackson) got an early start in the business, having recorded his first single before he was out of high school. But it was a little ditty called "Hanky Panky" that really got things going in 1966, when he was 18. Originally only playing in his home state of Indiana, one copy somehow ended up in Pittsburgh, where a DJ played it on the radio, prompting so many requests that the small label that published it was inundated with 80,000 orders and it became number one in that major market. That led to interest from the national scene, and ultimately it sold a million copies nationwide. But the Shondells, the band Tommy had played with since junior high, didn't want to travel, and didn't think anything would come from the record. So he went to Pittsburgh and grabbed a band called The Raconteurs out of a club and they instantly became Tommy James and the Shondells. This was the era where AM radio and the 2 and a half minute single ruled the business, and Tommy James became a king. One hit single after another came in the next few years.
Things didn't immediately get worse in 1968-69, but there was a change in the musical landscape. Gone was the 4-track, and 24-track recordings became common, and as Tommy James put it "Suddenly you had a lot more space to fill, and it all had to be interesting." The band needed to expand its simplistic sound, and to some degree succeeded. The music took on a more intricate tone and the lyrics became more meaningful, but their last big hit "Draggin' the Line" came out in '71. After that the band sort of dropped off the radar, but it does appear he continued to make records, and produce other bands.
The disc has a couple extra features I found illuminating and interesting. There is a 25-minute interview and an individual song commentary track. In the interview Tommy gives a couple stories worth noting. One was when he got a call, while he was basking in his beautiful home in Hawaii, asking him if he "wanted to do this concert on some pig-farm in New York State." He said "Travel 6000 miles to play at a pig farm? Tell them if we don't make it to start without us." And they did, and of course the concert was Woodstock, and the band made a big mistake for missing it, though he had no way to know how big it would be. Another took place during the Presidential race in 1968, when Democratic candidate and Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the band tour with him to all his rallies and perform.
As I said, I liked the band back in the day. They made a lot of hits I still remember, such as "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crimson and Clover," along with their biggest hit "Mony Mony." The title made for a good story in itself, as Tommy was looking for a title and hook for a tune they already had the music to, and he stepped out on his porch and saw a sign saying "Mutual of New York" or MONY. He later joked that if he'd looked the other way the song would have been called "Hotel Taft." But the band did have some nice songs, and I was very happy to see a live performance be released on DVD.
I was concerned right from the beginning when I saw the club they were performing in. It turns out The Bitter End is a club in Greenwich Village in New York, that has been a starting point for many popular entertainers, and that is why they chose the club to play at. But to all appearances it looked like the once mighty had fallen far and hard. I never made it big in rock and roll, but I've played bigger places than this. It was one of those places with a stage so small that nobody could move without bumping one of the other band members, and for one to step off the stage someone else would have to step off with them to let them get by. In other words, tiny. But the crowd was enthusiastic, and the band looked good. The band, which looks far too young to be any of the original Shondells, was talented and up to speed, and Tommy himself looked and sounded good.
The performance was filmed in 1996, and was shot for videotape rather than DVD, and it shows. It still isn't bad, however. While the image quality is soft it has sufficient detail and doesn't suffer much from artifacts. I'd call the picture quality adequate for its purpose.
As I mentioned, there are two main extras, the song commentary and the interview. Switching to the commentary track, you hear Tommy give some information about each particular song and how it came about, and where it went on the charts, usually at the beginning of the song. Once in a while he gives further comment later, but in general you can go through it fast by listening to the comments at the beginning of each song and skipping chapters to the next. There is also a text biography and a complete discography included to complete the bonus features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wanted to like this disc. I wanted to give a glowing review. Unfortunately I can't. The performance itself was fine, everyone sounded good, and all the hits I wanted are there. What wasn't fine was the soundtrack. Whether it came from poor recording, poor mixing, or the worst job of authoring on DVD I've ever heard, I don't know. But no song is spared from constant dropouts in the sound level. Everything sounds fine, but several times in each song that lasts under 3 minutes in most cases the sound drops out and sound thin, hollow, and too quiet. Then bounces back to full volume. When the dropouts weren't there the bass response was great, the sound a little muddled from the mix but still pretty good. But in 12 songs there were probably 50 dropouts that lasted anywhere from 1-10 seconds each. This happened in both the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and the original 2.0 stereo track. For what it is worth, the 5.1 has better bass and more presence, when the sound isn't dropping out, which it did all the time.
I have a couple other complaints on the disc as well. While I'm happy with the interview, and some of the commentary track, other parts of the commentary are verbatim accounts said in the interview. Whether they simply spliced in interview footage into the commentary or Tommy simply tells the same stories exactly the same way I don't know. There are songs described in the commentary track that Tommy didn't talk about in the interview, so it isn't total overlap. But there is indeed a lot of verbatim overlap, which was frustrating. My other complaint is the lack of subtitles, which I always think is a great extra. People like being able to see the lyrics so they can sing along, and the DVD format makes that easy to do. Every musical performance disc should have this feature.
Hard-core Tommy James fans will probably buy the disc anyway, as it is the only live performance there is on video or DVD. It certainly is nice as a retrospective, and may be worth a rental by fans who would like to hear those old standards again. Unfortunately the soundtrack doesn't merit a purchase, and I'm surprised anyone making the DVD thought it would be after hearing it. I strongly urge the band and BMG to try again with a new soundtrack and a new performance. Do it right, and I'll buy it.
Tommy James and the Shondells have not lost my respect, and are acquitted. Whoever was responsible for the dropouts in the sound is fined for messing up what could have been a very nice DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BMG Music
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