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'All You Need Is Love' tells the story of pop music

With John Lennon’s encouragement, director Tony Palmer created a TV series that explored the history of pop music right up through rock ’n’ roll and The Beatles.

When British filmmaker Tony Palmer was visiting New York City during the early ’70s, he was pleased to run into an old friend from back home one afternoon — John Lennon. After their initial greetings, Lennon asked Palmer what he’d been up to in a typically pointed fashion.

“I can hear him as if it was today,” Palmer recalls. “He giggled, and then he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Are you doing anything useful?’ ‘Minding my own business!’ I think I replied. And later, over rather too much brown rice, he said what was really needed was a film which put the whole saga [of music] into some sort of social and historical perspective, so that we could really understand where rock ’n’ roll had come from. And so, what began as a rather foolhardy idea eventually became ‘All You Need Is Love.’”

“All You Need Is Love,” subtitled “The Story Of Popular Music,” was the first TV series to explore the subject in depth. And, over the course of 17 50-minute episodes, it’s a series that leaves few stones unturned. Palmer looks at virtually every genre, from ragtime, jazz, and the blues, to vaudeville, musicals, and swing, country, folk, and, from episode 13 on, rock ’n’ roll.

“I think John hoped that if I did the series, people would see that rock ’n’ roll had made an extremely important contribution to the social history of our times,” says Palmer. “That was certainly an ambition of his, and it became an ambition of mine. And I don’t want to take too much credit for it, but it was the first long series to do that.”

The series first aired on British television in 1976 and was in circulation until the early ’80s. But after that, it seemingly disappeared, not even being released on video. It’s an absence Palmer attributes to an uncertainty over who owned the distribution rights.

“That was the main reason it languished,” he explains. “Eventually, it was sorted out by a group of lawyers who seemed far more determined than me to get it issued.”

Thus, its new release in a five-DVD set marks the first time the series has ever been commercially available.

Palmer had previously covered rock music in “All My Loving,” again at Lennon’s suggestion (“He said, ‘Palmer, you have a duty; you’re working [at the BBC]. Get [the bands] on by fair means or foul, but get them on!’”). But that film, which first aired on British TV in 1968 and featured acts like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, had been an hour long; this new venture was set to be much more ambitious.

“I said to Lennon, ‘How the hell am I going to learn about all these different subjects in a crash course?’” Palmer says. “And he said, ‘Well it’s easy. All you have to do is get hold of all those clever people’ — he always called them clever people — ‘who know about these things.’ So, it was fairly straightforward, actually. I just made a list of subjects. In fact, I think we started to make the list over the lunch as I remember, over the brown rice.”

And as the brief was to cover all popular music, not just rock, the subject list grew rather long.

“There had to be a film about ragtime,” says Palmer. “There had to be a film about blues, a film about ja