What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?

This is one of the best rock documentaries ever made.

Today, with everybody having a 4k video camera in their pocket, there’s a plethora of rock docs, done on the cheap, basically hagiography. You may start ’em, but it’s hard to finish them, your mind wanders, you shut it off… In today’s time-challenged on demand I only do what I want culture I’m stunned that I took two hours out of my day to watch this film, but I was just that interested. Furthermore, even if you’ve never even heard of Blood, Sweat & Tears you will dig this movie. You should see this movie!

So it was pitched to me as a documentary based on footage shot during BS&T’s Eastern European, i.e. Communist, tour back in 1970. You know, found footage resurfacing to make a buck.

But that’s not what this is.

You have no idea how big Blood, Sweat & Tears was back in ’68 and ’69, even into the spring of 1970. They were everywhere.

Also, if you were not alive in the era, you have no idea of the sixties counterculture, the protests against Vietnam…you’ve read about it, but you’ve never felt it.

You feel it in this movie.

It’s also hard to explain what music was in the late sixties, really starting in January of ’64, when the Beatles broke in the U.S. Music was EVERYTHING! It was Instagram, Netflix, TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat all rolled into one. Everybody was paying attention and you tuned in not only to be satiated, but surprised. And no innovation was off the table. Pushing the envelope was de rigueur. It wasn’t until the middle seventies, with the emergence of the Ramones, that there was a reaction, a return to simplicity, and in retrospect everybody can see that the Ramones’ image might have been punk, but they could write and play, they were just using a different construct, and it was so far ahead of the audience that it took decades to be embraced.

So we’re following the players. And the acts. And there’s this one called the Blues Project, which morphs into Blood, Sweat & Tears. The link? Steve Katz and Al Kooper, who quickly stopped getting along.

You see it was Al’s band. And I’m watching this documentary and I’m self-satisfyingly wincing how they’ve written Al out of history, and no one will ever know, but then they tell the story of the advent of the band, how it was really Al’s idea and construction.

And that first album… It’s the best thing BS&T ever did. As a matter of fact, Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” has longer legs than anything from the David Clayton-Thomas era. Sure, Thomas may have sung the hits, but Al wrote that song, Donny Hathaway covered it, and people are still singing it today, it’s part of the ongoing culture, that’s the power of a great song.

Now Al says he got kicked out of his own band.

In this film they say they asked him to remain, as bandleader, but not as the singer.

Al is extremely creative, but he does have edges, and he doesn’t back down if he believes in his viewpoint/opinion. So, knowing Al, I can understand the others’ frustration, after all Al wrote a song about visits to his psychiatrist’s office and insisted it be on the LP.

However, nobody in BS&T proceeded to set the world on fire after that second album, the first with David Clayton-Thomas, and Kooper was involved in the Monterey Pop Festival, cut “Super Session” and found and recorded Lynyrd Skynyrd, never mind continuing with his own solo career and writing for TV.

But that’s not what this film is about.

So Al’s out of the band and although the hoi polloi embrace Clayton-Thomas, the cognoscenti never do. But this film goes a long way to rehabilitating his image. HE WAS A JUVENILE DELINQUENT!

And as a result, the U.S. government wanted to deport him. So the band agreed to do this Eastern European tour in exchange for David’s green card. That’s how the world works, horse-trading.

And according to this film, when the band came back and said how bad it was over there they were labeled tools of the administration, the hated Nixon administration, and were banned from the counterculture and the bad press ultimately led to the demise of the band.

Just one thing is left out. “Blood, Sweat & Tears 3” was a stiff. It was highly anticipated, and the band did not deliver. “Lucretia MacEvil”? What was that about? Made for AM play, which it hardly got, not for the core audience that supported, that built this band. And sure, there’s the Traffic song and another Laura Nyro song… But it’s not the same.

Al says he established the blueprint for the second, hit album.

Whether true or not, the guidance was now gone. The third album was paint-by-numbers, more of what the audience wanted.

Only the audience didn’t want it anymore.

In the fall of ’69 “Led Zeppelin II” expanded the boundaries of what was considered hit music. “Whole Lotta Love” was EVERYWHERE!

And at the same time “Blood, Sweat & Tears 3” was released, so was Traffic’s reunion album, “John Barleycorn Must Die,” Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” and Eric Clapton’s very first solo LP. Others were pushing the limits. BS&T were not.

And then there was the political thing.

BS&T were not cool. After all, their big hit album had come out over eighteen months before. In a fast-moving marketplace they shouldn’t have waited that long. You don’t milk every last dime out of the last album, you cut a new one. This was the difference between CBS and Warner Brothers. WB would leave money on the table, for the good of the act, CBS would sell until there was no one left to buy.

And having read “Rolling Stone” cover to cover, I remember the bad press. And this film amplifies it. And to be on the receiving end of that must have been very hard.

But one thing was for sure, like I said above, Blood, Sweat & Tears were no longer cool, their moment had passed. Keep innovating or die. The public says it wants something new just like the old, but this is ultimately untrue.

Woven into the story of the band is the story of the Eastern European tour. And it is eye-opening. They’re in Romania and the government throws a sh*t fit when the audience for the first night’s show won’t stop clapping, won’t stop cheering for the U.S.A., they’ve gotten a taste of freedom and they LIKE IT!

Good for the U.S. Bad for U.S./Romanian relations.

And this is one place where a picture tells a thousand words.

Then again, this whole movie sits in counterpoint to today.

Back then all the young were anti-Vietnam, the youth were aligned. That is no longer true, the red and blue divide applies to all ages. Also, the thought of a dictator ruling by fiat was anathema, unheard of. Meanwhile, on 1/6/21, they invaded the Capitol in support of that.

Oh my, have times changed.

And most people look their age in this film. But that is reassuring. It demonstrates that not only is survival key, better than to O.D., but the power of youth. Back then NO ONE wanted to work for the bank. And there was no tech industry. Being in a rock and roll band was the height of status, and cash. Then again, with nine members in the band, not everybody could get rich, but the music came first, right?

Well, it did back then, not today. Where the goal is to create a brand and Rihanna plays the Super Bowl half a decade after releasing new music. There’s just not enough money in music, it’s a bad use of her time.

So you’ve got the story of politics, both in the U.S. and the Cold War, the story of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and a visual representation of the temperature back then, what it was really like during the sixties and ultimately the dawn of the seventies.

And the seventies were different. After Kent State… People went back to the land. And ultimately focused on their careers. They became money-hungry.

But before that…

P.S. The film is supposed to open in March. Meanwhile, the target audience doesn’t even go to the theatre anymore. And documentaries can get lost on streaming television. But I think this one will have word of mouth, because it’s visceral and real. And I know you can’t see it now, but it affected me so much I wanted to write about it.

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