dvd & video review
Michael Sadler: lead vocals and
Jim Crichton: bass and keyboards
Ian Crichton: guitars
Steve Negus: drums and percussion
Jim “Daryl” Gilmour: lead keyboards and vocals
First of all, you must take into account that Saga is my favorite band. This doesn’t mean considering them as “the best band ever” (though very good indeed). It is more related to emotional and biographical reasons, and, well, you probably have “that one” too! I’m not writing this preface to justify my musical tastes: it’s for me a simple but necessary act of honesty, as it is difficult to be (or to be perceived) as objective, supposing “objectivity” really exists (and I am really skeptical about this). As I’ve written quite a lot about them by now I hope I’ve found the adequate balance.
As a band, Saga is really a case of study. They never had a smash hit (even if they came close with “On the loose” and “The flyer”), and they never had a massive following in their country of origin, Canada. They have suffered from several changes during their career: line-up, producers, record labels, managers, styles and even geographical relocation. They’ve been able to spend seven months working on a song (“On the loose”) and to record an album so quickly that their drummer couldn’t arrive in time to the recording sessions (“Pleasure and the pain”). They have made really great music, some masterpieces, and yes, some horrible stuff. But they have managed to maintain a fanbase especially in Europe, but also in America (the most notable case being their friends from Puerto Rico). They keep a considerable respect as a live band, decent record sales and a certain cult status.
Saga has been around for twenty five years now and they are still not only a great live band but also one of the most entertaining and dynamic rock bands on record and on stage. But what really matters is that they defined from the very beginning an accessible but yet truly personal style in the times of the difficult transition between the progressive and post-progressive era. They based this style in songwriting, inspired by the condensed composition technique of their admired Gentle Giant, but in a completely different way. But… which way? Many progfans dismiss Saga as being a predictable, flat and commercial act. But then I see a paradox: I’ve found too many references to the more different bands and musical forms, too many bands presumed as “being like Saga” (which tends to mean “simple”, “short songs”, “not very progressive”, “AOR oriented”, etc.) and too few really close in spirit. From here we could set up an interesting debate about how we need and look for definitions to fit music into categories, but I’ll leave it to a future band, as my friend Alfonso suggested; I’ll try if time and spirits help. The re-edition of all their back catalogue, new studio album, this DVD and the upcoming live DVD of their wonderful 25th anniversary concert will mark 2003 as a good time to reconsider one of the most influential and underrated bands of rock and prog history.
As an introduction to the band, if needed, I still find useful and suggestive the quote of Jim Crichton defining their classic sound as “Medieval Funk”. Of course it is not as simple, but is quite accurate. In fact, most progressive rock –if not all-, is a kind of fusion of old and new, of rock with other kinds of musical tradition, so it is not that strange. In their best moments, Saga excels in the fusion of song composition in the pop-rock tradition, outbursts of instrumental genius and a clockwork-precision performance as a band. It’s then when rock magic arises, the moment when a rock band is more than the sum of its musicians, as good as they can be.
Transition and tension between musical eras at the end of the seventies and early eighties is an important key: from sophisticated and cerebral to more direct and immediately emotional (and marketable) music, from the analogue to the digital (Saga was the first band to record an all digital album, “In transit”), from FM to MTV, from America to Europe. Saga lived difficult but interesting times, and they did it very well…. And survived! This is what we can find in their first DVD, a compilation of music videos, live material and recent interviews called “Silhouette”.
For a fan, there is a lot to enjoy in “Silhouette”, which runs for two hours. The first section, the whole music videos, contains of course pretty good music and very funny and entertaining moments, although it is generally for the die-hard fans. The first music videos, “Don’t be late” and “Careful where you step” are taken from Saga’s third album, “Silent Knight” (1980). As it was usual for rock music videos in this pre-MTV era, we see mainly the band on stage (even though in playback). A good chance to capture a young and ambitious Saga (and the legendary Mike Sadler’s moustache). In 1981, with a great album to promote, “Worlds Apart”, things have changed. Here, as in its follow up, the equally gorgeous “Head or Tales”, live performance is mixed with some naive plots, generally involving Mike running endlessly (as much as he does on stage). Better production values, a band feeling at their peak, and a sense of innocence that, fortunately, is not entirely missing today, are the trademark of these “next big thing” times. OK, we must recognize that most music videos in the early eighties are crap (“Catwalk” is a little big embarrassing), but as a document of the band’s evolution it is very interesting. We even have a decent one, “The flyer”, where we can find Michael running –of course- for his life trying to make a really dangerous phone call. By 1985 things are really different. Music videos had evolved in the wake of MTV and “Behaviour’s” “What do I know?” is more sophisticated, arty and serious. As a video, this is really a fine one (shame about the song), but one can help feeling that things were not OK at that time (pressures on the band and poor reception of the album would end up with Gilmour and Negus leaving shortly afterwards).
We jump then from 1986 to 2001 to find the band reunited and in a mature new form with surely their best video effort, “Money Talks”, from the excellent album House of cards. It’s not only very state-of-the-art, but also an ironic and critical view of the money craze we live in. The companion to “Money Talks” is “Always there”, a video made especially for the DVD, dedicated to their fans (or as Mike likes to call us, “friends” around the world).
The live section (almost an hour) is recommended to fans and newcomers alike. It is taken from a gig in Paris during the “Head or Tales” Tour and it is just great. Not only the band had a simple but perfect stage design with a mosaic of background lights taking different shapes according to the music, but they were in a fantastic an enthusiastic form. We can witness mostly old songs from the first three albums, with excellent renditions of “The Perfectionist”, “Compromise”, “Ice Nice”, “Don’t Be late” or “You’re not alone”, and some sketches from their present like “Time’s up” o “Scratching the surface”. Anyway, I regret they haven’t included a fuller performance (there are other songs scattered in various CD releases, not always with the best sound and image quality, and in this sense this is a great opportunity lost). As a sort of compensation, we have three additional bootleg live video recordings of “It’s time”, “Humble Stance” and “Intermission”, of inevitably inferior but fairly good quality.
And last but not least, we can dive into a series of combined 2002 interviews with each member of the band. From the beginnings to the days of glory, the middle eighties split up (Steve Negus and Jim Gilmour talk openly and honestly about those hard times), the nineties comeback, the band way of working, recording, touring, the Chapters... Here we find a mature band, still amazed to have come so far and for so long. It has not been easy, but there are still lots of people who care and enjoy Saga. Maybe this DVD is late, but can help them out.