Tony Palmer On Lennon, Liberace & Led Zeppelin

Director Tony Palmer has worked with the very best musicians and made some of the greatest films about music. Here he shares his memories of a storied career...
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Director Tony Palmer has worked with the very best musicians and made some of the greatest films about music. Here he shares his memories of a storied career...

Director Tony Palmer has made some of the finest films about music, with subjects ranging from Maria Callas to Frank Zappa. His 17 part series All You Need is Love is considered the defining documentary on the evolution of popular music. As well as writing and making films about musicians and others, he enjoyed friendships with leading luminaries of the arts world, from Liberace to John Lennon.

It’s difficult to know where to start. You have had such a long and storied career.

It’s a downhill spiral, don’t kid yourself.

In the early 70’s alone, you did such a tremendous amount of work. Is that whole period just a blur to you?

No, no. It’s not a blur at all. If you add together Cream Farewell, 200 Motels, Bird on a Wire, Jack Bruce in Scotland, Ginger Baker in Africa, and I wish he’d stayed there sometimes, and Rory Gallagher, it is a very odd collection. I remember them with enormous affection. I’m immensely proud of some of them, not all of them. Personally I think 200 Motels is the worst film ever made in the history of the universe. But I know it has a cult following.

Do you know why you had such a rapport with these artists?

Before I started making films I was the music critic at the Observer. I was ‘number two’ and I had to do all the things the main music critic didn’t want to do. He didn’t like rock and roll so I found myself writing the very first review of David Bowie, writing the very first review of Led Zeppelin. And I always tried to write about them in such a way that it made clear that I admired them as people. So my reputation as someone who was prepared to take them on for what they were grew. And when I applied to talk to someone, they knew I was going to take them seriously. And they weren’t used to be taken seriously. That’s how the first rock and roll film I ever did, called All My Loving, came about. And that was really John Lennon’s idea. He said, ‘Listen there are all these guys who can’t get onto BBC television. You’ve got to make a film’. So that’s what we did.

Was there ever a problem with you being a critic and then making films about music?

No. I like to think I was absolutely scrupulously fair. Of course it was a danger and I was aware of that. I went to one of the earliest Cream concerts at the Dome in Brighton. And I was just blown away. I immediately wrote a piece saying these guys are great. And that was about two years before Cream Farewell. And sure, Eric asked me to make that film because of what I’d written, but I had heard them close up and thought this is fantastic. When I eventually got to know and interview Jimi Hendrix, he had actually cut out a terrible review I had given and he said, ‘I think this is you isn’t it?’ That was quite funny. I thought, you bastard, you cut out the one really bad review you probably ever had.

That must have happened elsewhere where you panned something and then subsequently did things with those people.

Yes absolutely. And I got Jimi Hendrix completely wrong. And then when I met him I thought, ‘This guy is the bees knees. He’s charming, he’s polite, come over and have supper’. And he did. At the time I lived in Notting Hill and I wouldn’t want to boast about the amount of people who came to supper, but they did. They just called in. Once I opened the door and there’s Keith Moon and I said, ‘What do you want?’ And he said ‘Oh I thought you’d give us a cup of tea, guv’. I think it was when they were making Tommy and I said, ‘You’ve only come to see me because Ken Russell has thrown you out’ and he said, ‘How do you know that?’

You started out with Ken Russell?

I did. I made one film with Ken called Isadora. It was Ken’s film not mine, I was the tea boy. It was a real joy to work with Ken. He was just a very good filmmaker. And he taught me one very interesting thing. He said, ‘Never ever use music as background. Music is part of the narrative drive of the film. Put it in the foreground. Start with the music and everything else will take care of itself’. That certainly motivated Ken. Isadora we made, I think, in 1966. God almighty, 47 years ago, how can you do this to me?

You made a wonderful film about Liberace (The World of Liberace) which appeared to have something of an influence on Behind the Candelabra?

What I felt about Behind the Candelabra was it was neither as good as I’d read from some silly critics nor as bad as I feared it would be. Steven Soderbergh is a very good director and it’s a very skillfully made film. I thought that was the best performance I’ve seen Matt Damon give. What I had against it, for example, Michael Douglas as Liberace is mincing across the room. Liberace never did that. You knew he was gay, you knew he wore a wig, but he would never mince towards you. He was absolutely straight. I don’t mean straight as opposed to gay, but straightforward. In all the years that I knew the real Liberace, I never saw him mincing across the room, waggling his hips and being suggestive, that was absolutely wrong. One final thing about Behind the Candelabra, yes they did steal scene after scene from me, can’t do anything about that. But what I did mind, was not the portrayal of that relationship, which I felt was done very sympathetically. They could have stuck to that without mis-portraying the kind of man Liberace was.

You mentioned 200 Motels earlier, how did you get involved with that?

Frank (Zappa) had gone to MGM and said he wanted to make a film and they said over our dead bodies. And his manager, a wonderful guy called Herb Cohen said to them, how about we bring in a director that you like? And then Frank came over to London. I knew nothing about the project at all. I said, ‘Have you got a script?’ and he said, ‘Sure let me go and get it’. He brought back this huge trunk. I opened it and it was full of papers. He said, ‘There’s the script’ I said ‘Frank, that is not a script.’ He said ‘That’s a small problem, you make it into a script’. Which is what we did. I enjoyed making it enormously.

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I think what’s interesting about it, technically, it was clear there were a lot of visual effects that Frank wanted. I said to him, these can be done optically, but it’s going to take months and cost a fortune. I told him we could do it on video tape. So Herb said to me, ‘I think you’re going to have to come with me to see the head of MGM in Hollywood’. I had to break the news to him, we were going to do it on video tape. And there was a very long pause and he said, ‘What’s video tape?’ And then completely by chance I was at a party at Technicolor. I was talking to this guy and I told him what we were doing and he said, ‘We’ve got, somewhere in our basement, an old Technicolor camera. Why don’t we try to transfer the red signal to the red negative and so on?’ So we did a test. My god, it’s there, in colour. So I think the interesting thing about 200 Motels from a technical point of view, it was the first film shot on video tape and transferred to film.

200 Motels is a sort of tour film. Bird on a Wire is also a film about touring in a completely different way.

The reason for the film in the first place was that Leonard had told his manager that he never wanted to tour again. And what the manager knew, that Leonard didn’t, was that the record company wasn’t going to renew his contract because the records didn’t sell. So to not have a record contract or an artist that wanted to tour, in the early seventies, was commercial suicide. The manager was desperate to get some sort of film. Leonard saw the film and I don’t think he disliked it, but he was worried, to use his words, that it was confrontational. I did an incredibly stupid thing and said here’s the material, see if you can calm it down a bit to keep you happy. He came up with version two, which was a complete screw up. It more or less opened and closed on the same night. I think he knew where the raw material was, but every time I saw him he’d say, ‘Where’s the film?’ and I’d say, ‘Why are you asking me?’ Then Herb Cohen found these boxes. It wasn’t the film, but all the off-cuts. Slowly and surely we managed to piece it all together. I think the picture as it exists now is made up of 3000 tiny little fragments. And I think Leonard’s only quoted remark has been, ‘I’m glad the problem has been resolved’.

It’s a really tense film in a way. Leonard comes across as a slightly flawed character…

I think that’s right. It was a condition of me doing the film that he would never ever shut the door. And he never did. In the final sequence, where he’s crying, the camera was no more than two feet away from him. He didn’t take any notice of us at all. On that level he was absolutely as good as his word. That kind of film today would be impossible. Leonard came to the O2 a couple of years ago. I had one of those passes that says ‘Access All Areas’. I couldn’t get within a million miles of him. I just went back to the hotel and I waited around and sure enough he came in and he looked at me, pointed his finger and said, ‘Where were you?’ That’s the difference between then and now.

Is there a white whale in your career? Someone you would have loved to make a film about that you missed?

Well, it wasn’t that I wasn’t able to catch him, because we did film Phil Spector, when I was making a series called All You Need is Love. I said to him, after he’d threatened me with a pistol, that I’d love to make a longer film. And he said, ‘Sure man, that would be great’. And for one reason or another I never got around to doing it. I always regretted that. I was also asked to make a film with Kurt Cobain. I actually went to meet him and we talked about it. By then I’d taken the pledge that I was not going to make any more films with rock and rollers. But actually I thought that Nirvana were very interesting and I was tempted. Then he died, so he solved the problem for me. I do sometimes think, my God I met all of those people. I actually did have tea with Bing Crosby, I did talk to Frank Sinatra and so on. Was that really me? Am I imagining this?

And John Lennon was a patron of that film?

I first met him when I was at university oddly enough. The Beatles came to give a press conference about a concert they were playing that night at the Regal Cinema at Cambridge. And I went representing the university newspaper. I think it was October 63. I got tapped on the shoulder and it was Lennon and he said, ‘You didn’t ask any questions’. And I said, ‘No, I thought it was pretty silly’. And he said ‘Yeah, it was a bit’. And then he said ‘Have you got time this afternoon to show me around the university?’ Initially I said no and he asked why and I said that he’d be mobbed and that wasn’t my idea of fun. He said, ‘How about if I come in disguise?’ I went to meet him at the hotel and he turned up in a large fedora and an extremely silly big beard and a brown mackintosh. So we both got the giggles at that point. He got rid of the disguise and I managed to show him Kings College Chapel and I remember the Wren Library. At the end he said, ‘Here’s my number, when you come to London give me a call’.

Three years later I arrived in London in order to work at the BBC and I still had this bit of paper. I rang up and you could tell by the tone of the woman at the other end that I was the 400th person who had rung up that morning. I put the phone down thinking that would be all I’d hear. About an hour later, the phone rang and it was a guy called Derek Taylor, who was the famous Beatles publicist who subsequently became a very good friend of mine and he said, ‘I’ve got a message for you from John’. And I said, ‘Ok what is it’ thinking it would be fuck off, who the hell are you? And it was, ‘Why has it taken three years to call him?’ That began a friendship that was really, really valuable to me. I think what he valued from the friendship from me was that I never ever spoke about it. Even when Hunter (Davies) produced the correspondence between Lennon and others, I think I’ve got 20 or 30 letters from John, I wouldn’t let Hunter have them at all. They were private. I’ve even kept my word after John died.

You’re not tempted to write a book or…?

Absolutely not. I’m sitting here looking at a photograph which I’ve never seen published which John gave me and it just says ‘To Tony, love John’. Maybe on eBay that would fetch a lot of money, but it’s personal to me and that’s where it’s going to stay. And it was John who encouraged me to do All You Need is Love. I met him quite by chance at some event in New York in 1972. Over lunch, which of course was a lot of brown rice, John said one of the most important cultural influences of the 20th century is the development and rise of popular American music. He said it was ridiculous and there ought to be a series about that particular subject. And I said, ‘You’re right’. And we made a list of subjects: blues, swing and so on. After I made the list, he had to go, so he got up and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect title. Call it All You Need is Love’. I said, ‘Wait a minute John, I think I’ve heard that title before.’ He just laughed and left. And so we called it All You Need is Love.

All You Need Is Love  –  The Beatles, Leonard Cohen – Bird On A Wire, The World Of Liberace and Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels are available now on DVD from Boulevard Entertainment