The Kids Are Alright Again: A Conversation With John Albarian
Posted by: Jeff Rosado
Huntington Beach, California native and Loyola Marymount graduate John Albarian has come a long way from playing air guitar on his tennis racket to classic rock staples like "Won't Get Fooled Again." With a wildly diverse résumé including an internship for Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, a stint at Playboy and an editor for several MTV projects, Albarian eventually wound up at Pioneer at the dawn of the DVD era, becoming one of the industry's most prolific producers of music-oriented titles, including The Kinks: One For the Road, Queen: We Will Rock You, Miles Davis: Live in Munich, and Psychedelic Furs: Live at House of Blues. But his pride and joy comes in the form of his most recent project: the two-disc special edition of the heralded documentary, The Kids Are Alright, a musical celebration of The Who.
A fan since age seven (thanks to his mother, who introduced him to the band via a big screen viewing of Tommy), Albarian's appreciation for all things "Who" flowered in his teenage years to such a point that he went as far as to obtain a replica of the scooter Sting saddled in the film version of Quadrophenia (Albarian's favorite movie). A highly enthusiastic and congenial man, John sat down with dOc to discuss his "amazing journey" in helping restore Jeff Stein's remarkable film to its original luster.
dOc: Given its status as one of the most requested titles on DVD, what took so long for The Kids Are Alright to make its digital debut?
John Albarian: BMG had the rights to it and they made a DVD in England. It really was just a laser disc version converted over. There weren't any extras and the 5.1 mix was really poor. They only had the rights for a year and just cranked it out; it was a really sad situation—and you can quote me on that. [Laughs.]
After they lost the rights, a company called Enliven Entertainment entered the picture; they had done The Who: Live at the Royal Albert Hall DVD. So they told [Pioneer's] acquisition guy, Matt Friedman, "Hey, the rights are availible, what do you think?" He asked me and I said, "Get it."
dOc:: So, once the deal was sealed, you thought it would simply be a case of getting the D2 master, tweaking it a bit, and putting it out from there. But it wasn't that cut and dried, was it?
JA: That's right. Generally, [for] many of the discs I've produced, there's a master tape or D2 already available. We clean it up a little bit and make a 5.1 out of the stereo track. So I thought that was kind of going to be the route; it was part of the contract that a source would be provided. So I said, look, we need to go from the negative—where's the negative? And that started a whole snowball effect; nobody knew where it was. So it became a search; who's got it? It hadn't really been seen in over 25 years since Roger Corman's [New World Pictures] distributed the film in America. We looked in Paris, England, all over. And just by a fluke, we found out that [Corman] had it. Even though he had sold his company to Fox, he retained the rights to the films themselves. But there was a mishap at one of the storage facilities. [Fox was] moving stuff and they said, "Oh, here's all the New World stuff." Then all that material got moved to some mountain storage facility, and who knows, might have been lost forever. So we made some calls, asked them to search and search. And they found the negative, and off we went.
dOc: But before the negative turned up, you were in possession of an interpositive print.
JA: Yes, we were. It was pretty good. It was okay. We started to do the telecine work on it for about a week, spent a lot of money on it. [Laughs.] Then the negative turned up.
dOc: What was the reaction of the "powers that be" upon this bit of news?
JA: Well, in my position at Pioneer, I had a lot of economy, so I didn't really have a "powers that be"; I was really running it. So, it was my call to say "scrap it" and let's start over. And the difference [between the negative and the IP] was profound.
dOc: While looking at the film, a couple of radical and gutsy artistic choices you made in the re-mastering process really caught my eye. First, let's take all the vintage black-and-white material dating from the 1960s-era of the band. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall when watching the film many times during its "pay-tv" premiere in 1980, a lot of those clips were all over the place in terms of appearance. Some were bluish, tan, grey, etc. But in this special edition release, you opted to restore all that material to what it looked like originally during those broadcasts. What prompted you to do that?
JA: You have a great memory; I'm so glad you picked that up and asked me that question, because that was a real nightmare. At the time [of the re-mastering], we couldn't find Jeff Stein [the director], so while I was in the telecine bay making these decisions, I really struggled: Did Jeff add this color to the black-and-white? Shall I keep the color? My feeling was that the color was only really there because of the sources that they came from. In those days, transferring video to film was not as technologically advanced as it is now. I wanted to have continuity throughout, so I said let's drain out all the color, because it was [originally broadcast] in black-and-white, it was meant to be shown in black-and-white, let's make it black-and-white. Part of the struggle was that the whole time I was producing this disc, I was making it for fans, because I'm one of them; The Who is my favorite band. And while I am a big fan, there are absolute Who fanatics who would just kill me if I did anything wrong. So I had a web site up asking for input from all the fans, and half of them wanted the color gone and the other wanted it to stay. [Laughs.] So that didn't help me there. I had to make a judgement call.
dOc: Another potentially controversial decision was the removal of the flashing marquee effect for the famous Rock and Roll Circus performance of A Quick One (While He's Away) from the (at the time, unissued) Rolling Stones television film.
JA: Another horrifying decision; that was brutal for me. Legend had it that it was done that way (in the original print) because of technical issues with the original footage being shot on French cameras. And the French had their own everything—aspect ratio, etc.—and it was kind of screwy. So when they originally transferred [this clip] for film, a lot of the top and bottom would have been chopped off; they would have lost some picture. So what Jeff [Stein] did was to shrink it, and he added the lights for a "circus" effect. You got the full image, but you also had this flashing lights effect, which I always hated. So again, I said blow it up, let's fix it.
dOc: A few years back, I recall seeing another clip from Rock and Roll Circus in the documentary 25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of The Rolling Stones. It was full screen and a little hazy, but it looked really good. So that's why it baffled me that the Who performance taken from this same gig was presented in this fashion in The Kids Are Alright.
JA: You're right. But when Jeff made the movie, he didn't have the access or the means to transfer it properly, I believe. So there were some technical issues there, but it's still a little hazy. I did try to get the original footage from the Stones to use for our project, but it wasn't a cheap avenue to try and get that source material; I wish I could have. So we [enlarged] what we had and it looks pretty good.
dOc: Another thing quite remarkable is the amount of fixes made to the film in terms of things like scratches, spots and what have you. According to one of your post-production log journals found on the official web site for the movie, the quality control report was sixteen pages long with about sixty entries per page. What was your criteria over what could be fixed within your production budget?
JA: Once we made a new interpositive from the negative and delivered it to Post Logic (the company that did all our telecine work), color correcting, framing, and high definition transferring was done. Then a guy sorts through it literally frame by frame and starts finding scratches, cuts, and tears. There's a rating system of one to three, with the latter being the worst and visible where the action is (on Pete's face for example), where the eyes are going to focus. Those are critical.
dOc: One of the most striking examples is during an interview clip with Townsend, circa 1971, midway through the movie that had always had this enormous tear in the original source. Now, thanks to the magic of technology, it's like it never existed.
JA: I'm glad you like it. That wasn't a "three"; to me, it was a "five." [Laughs.] It took Larry Yore (Post Logic's Hi-Definition specialist) hours to fix that one frame. Post Logic charges $400 an hour and that one frame took four hours to repair, so you can imagine what the whole film would have cost if he did every single one. So we did all the "threes," some of the "twos" and hardly any of the "ones." I could have spent years on it, but we did the ones that were the most obvious.
dOc: Let's talk audio for a bit. With the exception of the Shepperton concert footage and the Who Are You sequence done at Ramport Studios, did you have access to any of the original source material or multi-tracks from any of the other musical performances to work with? Like the Woodstock sequence, for example; that sounded incredible.
JA: Great question. I thought, hey, we'll [obtain] the original masters and re-piece the film together, visually as well as aurally, using modern technology that Jeff couldn't do twenty years ago. I thought that would be simple! [Laughs.] If I had gone to all these various people and said, "I'd like to use your master tapes again," we would have had to pay for them again. It isn't like, "Let me borrow that Woodstock footage for a few days." [Laughs.] You know, they're in the business of making money; there's also the cost of transferring, paying for the rights again, and it creates a lot of problems. So I went right from the film.
dOc: What's most impressive about the sound, particularly in the material shot expressly for the film, is that aside from the increased clarity and expansion, it doesn't sound "overdone" and seems quite faithful to the original mixes on the soundtrack album.
JA: Well, a lot of audio guys and record producers swear by stereo and they create a "phantom center," you know what I mean? So a lot of times when you hear 5.1 tracks mixed by record people, it's not very good because they're afraid of the rears. But Jon Astley [re-mastering engineer for The Who's back catalog] and Pete [Townshend] are full-on as far as 5.1; they're about to release Tommy in that format and they're also working on Quadrophenia. And he did a hell of a mix for the Shepperton/Ramport material [on The Kids Are Alright].
dOc: So, you're saying that aurally, segments like Rock And Roll Circus and Woodstock were re-mixed from what you had to work with? Those bits sound great.
JA: That's correct; the original optical track, in most cases. And there was a lot of intense work by Ted Hall at POP Sound, who is the number one 5.1 DVD guy on the planet. He did The Last Waltz, Yellow Submarine, and all of Steven Speilberg's movies, so he's the greatest. [He] uses a lot of tricks that make it sound so good. I could have made a movie about him, he's a real hero. [Laughs.]
dOc: In the homestretch of your work on the project, you had an opportunity to visit The Who's film and tape archives in England; tell us a little bit about that.
JA: First of all, it was a remarkable journey, or an "amazing" one; I had never met the band, I had never met anybody with The Who, because I had to go over to their office to get permission first... And it's just like a rock and roll office ought to be: gold records everywhere, dogs running around, everybody's cool, and it's beautiful. [Laughs.] It was a sort of mecca. I was very nervous and thinking, "What am I doing here?" I'm this guy that was in high school playing air guitar on my tennis racket, and here I am walking in the door. So it was really weird, but they were gracious and totally cool. Their archives are in Norwich, a small farm town just outside of London. You go into this place and it's like this walk-in refrigerator—there are films everywhere, because its also the Meher Baba archives, Townsend's guru, which is why the archives were established, with The Who's material being just a sideline. To be honest with you, they weren't keeping [their material] in good shape years ago; they didn't think they would need it or that it would be worth anything. So a lot of stuff you would think is available is just not there. A lot of it was rotting, and Pete's assistant Matt Kent, who runs the website petetownshend.com, stepped in and said, "We gotta save this stuff."
dOc: One thing you did find was the fabled Kilburn show not used in the final cut of Kids, which was once rumored to possibly be included or excerpted on this set.
JA: The prelude to the Shepperton concert. Kilburn was supposed to be used in the film, but it was reportedly very bad. It's all there, but it's just unprocessed negatives. I would love to take that show and make it into a disc, but as Jeff says here on the DVD, it was an "abortion," as he put it, so there it sits. Also, a lot of the songs that were performed at that show were taken from just one camera angle; that's all we could find, so that didn't make it feasible, it wasn't worth it. I could have added a lot of supplemental stuff that wasn't included in the film, but this is The Kids Are Alright movie. I didn't want to add stuff that Jeff didn't put in [originally]. Besides, The Who are planning on coming out with discs of their own in the future that will utilize a lot of this "never before seen" footage.
dOc: What was it like to interview Roger Daltrey for this package?
JA: I asked Martin Lewis—one of the set's associate producers—to do it. He's known Pete for many years, he's English and he's a pro, but it was my job to come up with the questions. Roger lives near Los Angeles, in Van Nuys, and he was only able to give us a short amount of time due to having some work done on his home. I picked him up, and I'm meeting one of my absolute heroes, driving him in the car, and freaking out: What am I gonna talk about? We talked about Home Depot, which was fun.
dOc: It goes to show that he's a regular bloke like the rest of us.
JA: You know, he really is; he's a pro. As soon as we settled in, he said, "Let's go, John! I don't want no makeup. Let's go, let's go!". He was in a hurry, but as soon as those cameras went on, he just lit up. At first, he was only going to give us twenty minutes, but wound up staying for an hour and a half. He had a good time, I think, and I really wanted to get him involved because if you think about it, he's not really "in" the movie at all; he's there for about 10 seconds. To me, Roger always got the short end of the stick; he gets ridiculed by Pete and is always getting beat up by everybody. I always say Pete wrote the bible, but Roger's the greatest preacher that ever lived.
dOc: Was John Entwistle going to be involved in some capacity before his untimely death last year?
JA: Actually, he was. Early in the project, their 2002 tour was just beginning out here on the West Coast and I was in the process of setting up an interview. But a couple of weeks beforehand, he up and died on us.
dOc: And Keith Moon passed away during the production of the original film, so this is an eerily similar occurrence during the re-birth of The Kids Are Alright for the digital generation that parallels that tragedy.
JA: I never thought of it that way. Absolutely. That's a good reason why the multi-camera supplement/isolated bass feed with John was included. Speaking of which, this brings up an issue that I didn't address on the commentary or "making-of" that your readers may find interesting: A lot of people have been e-mailing me to ask why we didn't do the same for Keith. The honest answer is that there was so much microphone bleed around his drum kit; it wouldn't have worked. Only John had an isolated feed, so that's why we were able to get such a crisp image of his audio.
dOc: What I found so terrific about that feature is how intricate he was to the band's sound; all those little nuances and hammer-on riffs that were buried in the cacophony Townsend and Moon were putting out. I just thought it was a really inspired treat to have that included.
JA: Isn't that awesome?! Thanks. I had to fight to get that feature in. To hear him wailing away is just remarkable.
dOc: In closing, what was your reaction when you viewed the finished product after almost a year of hard work?
JA: [With] all the discs I've done, I've always had regrets. But...this is the best disc I've ever seen. [Laughs.] I'm so proud of it and I don't think there's anything I would have done differently. I [did] everything I possibly could without compromising the quality. We could have done a third disc to put a lot of other stuff on, but you have to meet a market price, and it would have been difficult to sell this thing for fifty dollars, so I had limitations. But it's rockin', man. I love it. I watch it all the time.