The name Dick Carruthers might not be very familiar to you, but his work probably is. One glance at his IMDB page, and you can see just how many live concert films he’s directed for a variety of artists. Most notably, he’s directed both Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day and their 2003 double DVD; The White Stripes’ Under Blackpool Lights; Portishead’s Roseland NYC; and more Oasis releases than we have space to list here.
While he’s currently working on a new concert film for Aerosmith, we caught up with him to discuss his projects, and live video releases in general.
First of all, your work with Led Zeppelin is quite obviously your most famous. How were you approached by the band?
It originated from an Oasis gig I shot, at Wembley, in 2000. Their second night at Wembley went out live; Harvey Goldsmith saw it, and introduced me to The Who’s manager, which led me to direct a film for their very first Teenage Cancer Trust gig. Jimmy Page saw the DVD, and it was at that point in time that he wanted to see how the medium could present surround sound, and he thought the time was right to release these bits of Led Zeppelin material that had been locked away. So he approached me, in order to go over the footage, and make what would become the 2003 double DVD. And not much ever got filmed, by the way, because they never really wanted to be filmed. Some of the footage wasn’t very good, some of it needed fixing or polishing. It was fantastic, because Zeppelin had been so secret up to that point. There were probably some bootlegs going around, as always, but Jimmy hates them, as do I, because I’m all about quality and professionalism with sound and video – don’t even get me started on YouTube, frankly. I think we’ve sort of gone full circle on what Led Zeppelin’s objection was back in the 70s, when they didn’t want to do television – where the picture quality was a bit crap, and the sound was a single mono speaker. TV would not represent what it’s like being at a Led Zeppelin concert, and they were right, so they shied away from it. In 2007, I also put together a new version of The Song Remains The Same, for DVD and Blu-ray. The original film, which was flawed in many ways, was also fantastic, and we all watched it when we were kids, a VHS tape of that was the only thing we could get back then.
Do you think that home releases, the fact that they were just VHS tapes, also made Jimmy Page wait so long to put more stuff out?
I don’t think it was a technological thing, I think VHS was as good as it got at the time. When DVD came along and the sound was better, and the picture was better, everybody would have quite rightly thought, “well now is the time to have a live concert video”, especially for anybody who really embraced surround sound, like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. The fact remains that DVD offered more technological advances, but you know what? Blu-ray is significantly better than DVD, both in picture and sound, but it doesn’t seem to have been as globally successful as it should have. When the players came out, they were 1,000 dollars each. There have to be marketing people out there whose job it is to understand this shit, and to not make the price point too expensive. Now, you can buy it much cheaper, but the greedy people trying to get their money back at the beginning of it kinda killed it, they strangled the baby. It upsets me because they’ve shot themselves in the foot, to a degree, even though they were just trying to give better quality.
And what about online streaming?
Well Blu-ray is better, but it’s been surpassed by streaming, in terms of popularity. I bought a film on my Apple TV the other night, and I was looking at it thinking, Jesus, what degree of compression is this? I know how good a Blu-ray looks, and I could see how horribly compressed this movie was. It’s probably perceived as a war with online streaming, but I think it’s already been lost, because you look at streaming and the quality just isn’t good enough. Just because it’s 1080 doesn’t mean it’s enough. Even now, if you want quality, and if you want decent sound, for god’s sake, buy the Blu-ray. But I do think streaming will catch up eventually, as internet speeds get faster and faster.
How did your work on Led Zeppelin’s reunion gig and Celebration Day come about?
When the Ahmet Ertegün tribute happened, there was no declared intention to make a film. We made sure we recorded everything, of course, and we made sure I had enough cameras to cover it, but most of those were being used for the screen mix that I was doing, which was my first job at that concert. The general vibe from not just the band, but from everybody that was putting it together, was saying, “this isn’t just about recording it so that you can buy a DVD at Christmas”. It’s a one-off gig, you have to be there to experience it. In fact, Jimmy page was opposed to let any of it to the press, but I convinced him to do it, and we gave away two minutes of Black Dog – there was a motorcycle courier waiting for this tape, who took it to Reuters, so it could be put on the newswires and uploaded even while the gig was going on. Years later they looked at all the footage and were blown away by it, and said, “well we should release this”, and I said, “why not?” [laughs] So that happened.
One thing that I noticed about Celebration Day, is that it seems to have a certain narrative. It starts out good, gets better, but halfway through they stretch out a bit much and fumble on Dazed & Confused…
There is a very strong narrative arc for that concert, where the first three songs are nervous but nonetheless brilliant, and on In My Time of Dying they relax and get a bit loose. And the whole thing about Led Zeppelin, the way they played, is that there is a looseness to it, they’re not playing to be perfect. There’s a whole line missing in one of the songs, if you notice it. When I edited it, I made sure I included as much as I could, the shots where they’re looking at each other, communicating. You’re right to spot that bit, but I wouldn’t dwell on it. It would be boring if it was all exactly to time.
And on the rehearsal footage from the bonus disc, you can look up those exact same parts where there were mistakes, and see them nail it, while they make other small mistakes.
Yes, it’s varied, and it’s brilliant. During rehearsals, I recorded a wide shot of one of them and made some copies for the band – only four copies, and I kept one of them. When we watched it again, I remember writing to them and suggesting not four or five rehearsal songs as an extra on the DVD, but the really generous, humble act of including the entire thing. The fans would love it, and it would be a perfect counterpoint to the very elaborate main feature. And the band agreed to it, and that footage is true rock history.
Some of your older releases, like The White Stripes’ Under Blackpool Nights and Portishead’s Roseland NYC, have a 4:3 aspect ratio, and they’re only out on DVD. Is there any chance someone will go back to those and release them on Blu-ray, or change them to 16:9?
Well, you should not make that change, and this is an interesting question. Because if something is framed properly, shot properly within the 4:3 format, then you should leave it. You can put it out on Blu-ray, but leave it as it is, with the black pillars on left and right. I would definitely do that with Portishead, and The White Stripes. With the latter, it’s critical that it stays on 4:3 because it was shot on Super-8, and it’s got that bootleg feel about it. But every TV program that’s made now is 16:9, and they carelessly crop old footage. There’s the anniversary of the first World War now, and they just crop into it, no respect. Any kind of historic footage gets that treatment now. And you couldn’t do that to a perfectly framed film, it would be vandalism. But it can be done, if the original footage wasn’t framed in a way that you would lose something by going to 16:9. There’s a Paul McCartney project that I directed in 2007 that does that, called The McCartney Years.
Hows the process of going through all the material for the McCartney DVD?
We had too much material, so we squeezed it into three DVDs. If you read online – I’ve learned not to -, some of the uber-fans have been displeased about the fact that it doesn’t contain every single frame of film that Paul ever made. But that’s inevitable, and I sympathize with them, some people actually want that, the complete definitive collection of everything ever done. But it wasn’t realistic, so I’m defending that work now by saying, we had to make some cuts and choices. But even so, it filled three discs. We polished things up and replaced bits that didn’t really work, and we put it in widescreen as well, because it was meant to be one of the first Blu-rays. Some of the fans complained that all these videos were 4:3, and now they were made 16:9. But when you watch it in HD on a 16:9 TV, it blows you away, and the fact that it came from a 4:3 original is irrelevant. There’s always the trolls who will have a go at you for whatever you do.
Did the 2003 Zeppelin DVD also omit the not-so-great material? Were some of those cuts made to avoid repeating songs?
Regarding the quality of the material, yes, and this came from Jimmy. He wanted to set the bar very high, so only the best material was going to make it. It was very much spreading everything out like a big jigsaw puzzle, picking parts from each concert we had, and making sort of a story, a journey. So of course you don’t want to repeat songs, particularly, you want it to have a musical journey, and that was carefully thought about, assessing the best performances and working it that way. To release everything would somehow dilute it all. And that is the same thing that I did with McCartney – you don’t want to have everything, you just want the best bits, joined together like a rich story.
I think it set a great example for other bands to follow. I recently I got this AC/DC double DVD called Plug Me In, and it shares a lot in common with the Zeppelin one. Do you think it’s been an influence, and are you aware of other releases similar to that?
Yes, I think it has to influence others. Obviously the next big project I moved on to after that was a McCartney one, made in the same way. Also, there’s a guy called Alex who sent me a nice e-mail saying, “I’ve just totally copied you”, and made a Kiss DVD…
That was another one I was going to ask you about…
[laughs] So yeah, at least he had the respect to tell me.
It’s called Kissology, and there’s volumes 1, 2, and 3, all double or triple discs, but they tend to include full performances. So, by the time you’re at the end of disc 1, you’ve heard Firehouse four times.
I don’t know KISS that well, I’ve never worked with them. I nearly did, there was talk of doing some big 3D thing many years ago. But they probably don’t exercise the same humility and restraint that Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page do, let’s say that.
One thing that’s cool about it is that there’s a commentary track to a bunch of songs.
Oh, that’s usually very good, unless they’re boring. On some of the Oasis films that I’ve made, I got Noel or the whole band to do a commentary track, and it’s hilarious. I’d put the whole band together with a bunch of beers and a big screen, mic everybody up and just watch the film, and I’d hold up cards to ask them questions. Honestly, if you really want a good night, get Lord Don’t Slow Me Down, and listen to the band commentary on top of the film. I didn’t make the film itself, but it was released with a DVD of a live concert that I did make.
What about Oasis’ Time Flies DVD? Someone took the commentary track that Noel Gallagher did for the band’s music videos, and cherry-picked the funniest bits into a YouTube video. Have you seen that?
I have to disagree with you there, because what happened was that the video suddenly went viral, but the DVD has been out for years. He didn’t cherry-pick bits when Noel was critical or funny – he’s like that the whole way through, over two hours. Noel is one of the funniest, wittiest people you’ll ever meet. So that video that some guy made and put it on YouTube, it suddenly went viral, and I was getting e-mails and texts from friends, asking if I was the one talking to Noel Gallagher, and I’m like, yeah, but it’s been out for four years! So the irony for me was that something so good, released to Oasis fans, only gets picked up when there’s this dreadful bit of editing. That guy, I tweeted him saying, “thanks for making this a lot more popular around the world, but you know what, your editing is shit”. And he tweeted me back saying, “yes, you’re right, but I did it really quickly”. I spent months and months making that, and you just do a quick one-evening edit when you’ve just come back from a club, and it goes viral.
On concert films, one thing that rarely works is when the main feature cuts away from the concert to show interviews or other footage. What’s your take on it?
A concert is a certain flavor, and no matter many cameras you’ve got, or how you edit it, it’s like a big pasta dish. If you’ve got a huge bowl of it, no matter how good it is, after you eat so much, you won’t want any more. And that’s something to look out for, because some people can’t stomach a concert video that’s nothing else. If there is a bit of documentary, that seems to be what the critics prefer, it adds flavor.
An example of that practice that irks me is an Aerosmith DVD called You Gotta Move, where they just cut from the middle of a song to studio footage.
Aerosmith have never really had a brilliant live concert released, one that does justice to how good they are. Because they truly are one of the very best live bands out there. I’ve been working with them this year, and I’m impressed at how well they perform right now. So I’m glad to be working on a live concert film for them right now. We hope to get it finished in the next month or so, and we plan to put it out on cinemas, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.