“You doing anything useful these days?” These were the words that inspired documentary director Tony Palmer to spend two years of his life, travelling all over the world, to make All You Need Is Love, a 17-part series on the history of popular music that’s only now arriving on DVD this week, 30 years after it first aired on television.

The words were spoken by John Lennon, an old friend of Palmer’s. “I can still hear his voice saying that,” he says over the telephone, recalling the struggles to make the series. Palmer — a veteran director who’s made films about classical music in addition to 200 Motels, the cult classic feature starring Frank Zappa — ended up capturing dozens of musical giants at their most candid, painting a first-hand eyewitness account of the evolution of jazz, blues and pop music over the course of a long century only three-quarters finished.

“When I look at the swing episode, that was the only long interview Artie Shaw ever gave. Bing Crosby — gone within a few years. Cab Calloway, gone. Frank Sinatra, gone. Benny Goodman, gone. I was really desperate to get around these guys because I knew they had extraordinary stories to tell, and I wanted to get there before they weren’t there to tell them.”

I saw the series when it aired in Canada, for the first time, on TVO, and it ended up being a major inspiration for my decision to become a music critic when I left college. Even at the time, though, I knew something was missing from the final episode, which speculated on the future of pop music, and appointed as its heir apparent ... Mike Oldfield. His 1973 prog rock opus Tubular Bells remains huge, though it’s very much a period piece now, especially when you consider what was happening literally on the doorstep of Palmer’s editing suite.

“We were aware — we’d had the Sex Pistols running in all directions in London, and I begged EMI and Polygram to put off the finishing of the series so that we could include some of that, but they wouldn’t allow me to. They said, ‘You’ve spent quite enough money anyway and we don’t know any of this stuff.It’s vulgar.’

“So I had my knuckles rapped, was told to finish it and go away. In retrospect,” he says, “it was a terrible mistake and we knew it at the time, but it wasn’t our money. We couldn’t do anything about it really.”

The series arrives on DVD with its 17 episodes cleaned up and formatted for widescreen televisions, but without any bonus features, a shortcoming Palmer blames on the producers’ penny-pinching.

“If I’ve been tempted to commit murder it’s this — the film was jointly financed by EMI and Polygram. And some moron in EMI junked all the outtakes. We sat there filming, for example, two hours of our interview with Hoagy Carmichael. And you can’t use all of that, so you use five or 10 minutes. And the rest, this idiot at EMI threw away. Can you believe it?” he asks. “This moron was actually on the same plane as us yesterday afternoon coming over to New York. I thought, shall I kill him now? And I thought I’m much too old for that. But I know he was the guy who signed it off.”