Given the ubiquity of its better-known tunes on classic rock radio and the way it’s become a cliché to shout out for that big churn and burn ballad (the one about Duane Allman with “bird” in the title) you could forget that Lynyrd Skynyrd was once one of the mightiest acts on the globe. None other than Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, sings the praises of the mighty Skyn in this new examination of that ill-fated band. And he’s right.
Naturally, it didn’t start that way. There were those clumsy stabs at rock ‘n’ roll in high school that featured the man everyone can agree was a star from the start, Ronnie Van Zant, and trail of record company rejection notices that could have paved several major interstates throughout the South. After some mixing and matching with lineups and militaristic rehearsals at a shack called Hell House the group joined up with Southern Rock mogul Phil Walden’s brother Alan Walden and played just about every rat hole it could find.
As late as 1972 when the band had trekked to Muscle Shoals to record songs that would eventually give rise to a record deal, the skeptics were louder than the supporters. Some grumbled that the Skyn sounded too much like the Allmans (not much), that you couldn’t sell a Southern band outside the South (Tom Petty seemed to know this and took his band Mudcrutch to California), and all that other stuff. Examining this DVD and going back to listen to the recordings from the era (there’s not much that hasn’t been unearthed) it’s evident that the songs are there.
“Down South Jukin’” is as fun today as it must have been to hear in the clubs back in the early times; “Simple Man” is as much a classic in its early iterations as it would become upon its billionth broadcast on FM radio. But there were problems with those early sessions, one being that the group didn’t have a proper producer. One thing leads to another and you can cue the stage direction: Enter Al Kooper.
Under his direction and with the addition of former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King on bass and, shortly thereafter, guitar, the Skynyrd sound was solidified. Enter 1973’s pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd and a barrage of first rate material, including “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Gimme Three Steps” (one of Van Zant’s greatest moments as a lyricist and vocalist), “Free Bird” and the definitive version of “Simple Man”. As legend has it the band had success with that album (it eventually went gold) and the follow-up Second Helping, which featured more contributions from Ed King in the writing department, including “Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”.
The muse was off the rose by the time that the group ended its road trip in time to prepare for Nuthin’ Fancy, an album written mostly in the studio and featuring Kooper at the boards for the third and final time. He, King, and others interviewed for this documentary are of the opinion that despite the commercial success of the record the band was worn down, tired and in desperate need of some time off. They’d already lost drummer Bob Burns, who’d suffered an horrific meltdown out on the road and was quickly replaced by the criminally under-rated Artimus Pyle, whose style would eventually propel the band to greater heights in the live setting and during its final moments in the studio.
Burns and Pyle both appear here and their recollections of the events of the era lead the viewer to the same conclusion: Skynyrd was being overworked and over served, and the moral and spiritual bankruptcy that had visited the band by this point was in danger of edging its way into the creative realm. Case in point: 1976’s middling Gimme Back My Bullets, the title alone perhaps a desperate plea for something/someone to bring back the old days. It was too late for that, of course, drugs had infested every corner of the camp and King, one of the group’s strongest writers, was gone.
Still, the band found time to record and release a jaw-dropping live album in 1976, One More From the Road, which is without a doubt one of the greatest live albums in rock history and not given its proper due in this documentary. It’s where you can really hear the way that the band sounded when it was in its element and how delicate the interplay between the members was and, of course, how much a powerhouse Pyle was behind the kit.
Even without hearing that album you can get an idea of how good the band was during that era thanks to old live footage (much of it coming from Europe). Watching that footage and some of the later images as well is, in a word, spooky. Spooky not just because of what fate held for the mid 1970s version of the band but spooky because it’s hard to imagine that a band that was that talented would suffer so greatly for its success. (The Skynyrd death toll, even after the 1977 plane crash, is remarkably high.)
Spookier still when you consider that there was some effort made to bring the band around. A decade on the band might have been taken under the wing of a well-intentioned management team, told to get some rest, go to rehab and get back out there and make more money than ever. The group would have reunited with Kooper and King and ridden a string of hits penned with outside riders into MTV glory.
Evidence of mending ways were evident on 1977’s Street Survivors. Guitarist Steve Gaines came into the picture and offered a boost to the writing department and helped reinvigorate Van Zant’s musings on the cautionary (and perhaps prescient) “That Smell” and contributed one of the band’s most natural sounding numbers “I Know A Little” and an under-heard track “Ain’t No Good Life”. This was finally the record that the band should have made some years earlier and the one that would redeem it in the eyes of the record-buying public.
Except that wasn’t to be. The plane crash that took the lives of Van Zant, Gaines, his sister, Cassie, the pilots, and Skynyrd crew members. Pyle’s recollection here is moving but also spooky as he seems to relive the event and is all too aware of what came in the years afterward.
Remaining members formed Rossington Collins Band and released three modestly successful albums in the following years but the band and the music really died that in October 1977 when the band’s plane went down. Today, many of the former members appear to be at odds with each other over the group’s legacy and its future, making an official history from the group seem impossible. Any attempt to chronicle the story will have to come from outside and from documents like this one.
This will most likely be the only documentary of its kind on the band as the current version of Skynyrd, everyone seems to agree, plays music that is largely absent of spirit and lacks the integrity heard on those first great studio albums. This is the best story of the original Skynyrd as we’re likely to get and probably the only one that matters.
Extras here include extended interviews, but the nearly three-hour running time, archival footage in the film and the recollections from those who were there are more than enough.