THE BLOG

Born to Be Wild

09/01/2014 16:50 GMT | Updated 11/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Twelve hours after landing in San Francisco, we were on the road and our way to film the first interview for a BBC Four documentary series about the golden age of American rock, the centrepiece of the channel's United States of Rock season which starts on Friday 10 January.

Over the next five weeks myself, Martyn Stevens (camera and sound) and the other directors would between us film over fifty interviews across America - from Alice Cooper to Ted Nugent, Slash to Chuck D, Tom Petty and the brains behind the Woodstock festival, Michael Lang.

In many ways San Francisco was the perfect place to begin our journey exploring three decades of American rock. The city was spiritual home to the peace and love movement that reflected the dreams and aspirations of the sixties generation - on everything from Vietnam and civil liberties to liberal attitudes towards sex and drugs. And the first wave of American rock music at the heart of the first part of our story - Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival - was forged in this fire of social and political revolution.

Yet as we left the Golden Gate Bridge behind and drove through the lush valleys of Napa Valley, I wondered if the pioneers of American rock I was about to meet over the next couple of weeks still had fire in their bellies or had they turned into respectable pensioners? As we finally reached our destination, Ray Manzarek - The Doors' legendary keyboard player and the man behind the opening riff of Light My Fire - appeared on his doorstep surrounded by an orchestra of the flower-power generation's instrument of choice, wind chimes.

As we sat down in the living room ready for our interview, Ray's wife of almost fifty years, Dorothy Fujikawa was preparing a Sunday dinner. Yet within seconds of the camera rolling it was pretty clear that this was no ordinary septuagenarian, as my first question about the roots of American rock was completely ignored! Instead Ray turned and looked into the camera and introduced himself, "Raymond Daniel Manzarek, I loved the sixties".

For the next hour Ray took us on a whirlwind tour...

Talking about what it was like in fifties America, "When I was growing up what was on the charts was the hard-arsed rock 'n' roll, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley... but then the DJs got wise that things were going on that were untoward, not allowed!"

Through the political struggles against the war in Vietnam, "Hell no we won't go!"

On the life-changing experience of meeting Jim Morrison on Venice Beach in 1965, "He wrote lyrics of a different nature, they were not teeny bopper lyrics and when he sang The End I thought wait a second is that Rimbaud,or rock 'n' roll?"

And how the sixties turned nasty in 1968 with urban riots all over America and running battles outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago, "It was like a teenage movie of political rebellion, except it was happening live on TV. Absolutely insane! Outside of the war things were just groovy, we were cool, we were hip, we were smoking joints, we took LSD. We opened the doors of perception - you know love, peace - and after The Beatles and Dylan, our generation realised that you can do anything in rock 'n' roll".

At the end of interview, as he signed our crumpled BBC paperwork on the kitchen worktop, Ray was telling me about plans for The Doors' anniversary tour in 2015 Little did we imagine as we drove back to San Francisco that night discussing his views on sixties rock that this would be one of Ray's last ever interviews. Less than three months later - on 20 May - Ray died, aged 74.

Like Ray, the musicians we interviewed for the first part of the series didn't just sing about the social and political revolution in sixties America, they were the revolution. Many were bitterly disappointed that rock music in the following decades was hijacked by men in suits and that the Summer of Love spirit was replaced by the 'me, me, me' culture of cocaine. Over the few weeks that followed I learnt that on the issues of music and politics the fire still burns strong in the hearts of the sixties American rock pioneers.

BORN TO BE WILD: The Golden Age of American Rock - Riders on the Storm

Starts Friday 10 January, 9-10pm on BBC Four