MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: WINTER 2004-2005
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The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio, by Keith Badman (Backbeat Books). A definitive diary this large-format, 400-page paperback is, going through the Beach Boys' 1961-76 professional activities in a thorough day-by-day fashion. All of their known concerts and recording sessions are detailed, as well as TV appearances, record releases, and miscellaneous other incidents of note. Its value, perhaps, lies more as a the most thorough pure reference book on the band than as a read for the more mainstream fan, since many of the entries are matter-of-fact details of what happened when. However, if you're the kind of Beach Boys admirer who wants to know exactly when Brian Wilson appeared with the band live; how often Glen Campbell replaced him on the road in the mid-1960s; where and why David Marks quit the group in 1963; when the scattered pieces of tracks targeted for the unreleased Smile album were done; who the session musicians were that played on many of their recordings (particularly in the 1960s); and the like, the information's here, diligently researched and readably written. There's not much weight on critical analysis, of the music or the processes of the recording sessions. It really is structured like a diary, the details coming first, with few first-hand interviews (though there are many vintage second-hand quotes). It doesn't mean, though, that there isn't room for some pretty interesting little-known stories, like the transcript of a tense dialog between the group and family patriarch Murry Wilson from a 1965 recording session, and tales of how Dennis Wilson briefly got involved with the Charles Manson family. It's also illustrated with black-and-white photos (though not too many rare ones) and copies of American Federation of Musicians sheets documenting '60s Beach Boys sessions, which may not be visually appealing but will be devoured by trivia-hungry fanatics. The Beach Boys, incidentally, did last beyond 1976, but it was wisely decided to only concentrate on the first 15 years (and by far the most interesting ones) of their career, though basic details of their post-1976 endeavors are covered in an appendix.
Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, by James Segrest & Mark Hoffman (Pantheon Books). A full-scale biography of Howlin' Wolf was long overdue prior to the appearance of this 2004 volume. There's no faulting the research involved and the data gathered, as the authors interviewed many, many surviving musicians and professionals who knew and worked with the Wolf, as well as quite a few family members. There are also quite a few quotes from Howlin' Wolf himself, taken from other sources. For all its praiseworthy detail, however -- there are literally about a thousand footnotes -- as something to read, it could have been better constructed. The text often leans heavily on extended quotes that are rambling or repetitious of other commentary by either the authors or other interviewees, and sometimes could have been handily summarized and streamlined in the name of improving readability. As a result it's not the smoothest read, or always the most engaging. Still, it does shed a good deal of light on his little-known childhood and young adulthood. Particularly revealing are the accounts of a rough upbringing that saw him bounced between families and often deprived of parental support or affection, and the twenty years or so during which he honed his craft as a heavily Charlie Patton-influenced Southern bluesman before finally making his recording debut in the early 1950s. His prime years in the '50s and '60s as an innovative electric blues artist at Chess Records get the most attention, and while it's sometimes hard to keep track of all the comings and goings in his band, his recording sessions and releases are thoroughly and enthusiastically depicted. There's also a good deal about the complex personality of the Wolf -- barely literate, proud, professional and gentle beneath a tough exterior, almost workaholic in his appetite for live performance.
Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out, by Sylvia Hampton with David Nathan (Sanctuary). Sylvia Hampton, along with her brother David Nathan, ran the Nina Simone fan club in Britain, and knew the singer from the mid-1960s until her death more than three decades later. This book might disappoint those looking for a conventional biography, however. While some basic details of her life and music are given, it's more a memoir of Hampton and Nathan's own personal experiences and relationships with the mercurial Simone, whom they often saw backstage, socially, or in their semi-professional capacity as fan club organizers. It's not without its value for those looking into insights into the vocalist's complicated personality; it's just not much of a place to find in-depth details of, for instance, her recording sessions or American career. As for Simone's character, the portrait that emerges frankly isn't that appealing, perhaps less so than the authors realize. Although not generally known, she suffered from a bipolar condition, and would often throw tantrums or hurt those close to her without undue provocation. Hampton and Nathan felt it was worth enduring periodic abuse for the privilege of being around such a genius artist, though readers might feel that their devotion often led them to be taken advantage of by a haughty and sometimes selfish woman. While she might not come off as such an appealing person, there are some insights into Simone's feelings about audiences, civil rights, and her impossible-to-pigeonhole artistry, though there's the sense that a rigorous biographer would have offered a more in-depth and less forgiving portrait. The appendices include interviews with family members and musical associates, and a 35-page essay by Nathan that, finally, gives detailed attention to her music and recordings. Neither this book nor Simone's own autobiography, however, really offer a satisfyingly well-rounded portrait of her life and music.
The Making of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, by Tony Barrow (Omnibus Press). The world abounds with peripheral special-interest Beatles books, and you won't find many as specialized or bizarrely peripheral as this ultra-slim book about the making of their 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour. For one thing, it really is slim, looking more like an especially deluxe souvenir program you might pick up at a special screening of the film than a proper book. With just 60 pages, much of it them given over to photos, it hardly justifies its ten-pound asking price, as nice-looking as those photos and the layout are. As for the text, Tony Barrow was well-positioned to observe the haphazard making of this pretty slapdash and poorly received television film, since he was working as a press officer for the Beatles at the time, and was present for much of the filming. His account of the on-the-fly production is entertaining and well presented, but there's really not much in the way of astonishing inside information, particularly as the whole book can be read in about an hour or two, rather like a long magazine article. It's not even entirely by Barrow, getting padded out with some extended quotes from others who were present for some of the shooting, whether in the capacity of journalist, actor, or fan (there's also a page by film editor Roy Benson). The photos, mostly of the Beatles on location during the filming (in both color and black-and-white), are good, including some infrequently seen images. These aren't enough, however, to make this a worthwhile addition to all but the most fanatical Beatles fans' collections.
Scissors and Paste: A Collage Biography of Dusty Springfield, by David Evans (Britannia Press Publishing). This strange and unsatisfying book grew out of the author's research for liner notes to a Dusty Springfield box set. In the course of the research, he was given many press cuttings and clippings; when his liner notes were unused, he used quotes of Springfield that had appeared in the media from the 1960s onward as the basis for this trim (144-page) volume. It's not the most promising approach to a Springfield book, even one that's something of a scrapbook in nature. For it ended up as a huge bundle of Springfield quotes, connected by the author's own commentary, which attempts to provide context for her observations. The author's portions, sad to say, are so indulgent as to be barely above amateur level, with annoyingly chatty speculation as to Springfield's motivations, inner psyche, and feelings that draw in dull and irksome digressions and asides about his own worldview. We learn more about Evans's own feelings about aspects of British and American life, psychology, and maturity -- and, you know, they're not very interesting. Any value for Springfield fans lies in the quotes, which do cover many facets of her life and music, over several decades. At their best, they can be pretty good reading, as when she discusses how her early solo records were produced in Britain in the mid-1960s, or how the album Dusty in Memphis came about. But many of the quotes are rambling, and might have benefited enormously from a little tightening in the editing and, more importantly, straightforward linking text that frames what she's saying instead of being nearly irrelevant. What's worse, the sources for the specific quotes are not cited, although they're listed in one gulp of a paragraph in the acknowledgements.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: FALL 2004
Our Music Is Red with Purple Flashes: The Story of the Creation, by Sean Egan (Cherry Red Books). Considering the Creation had just two low-charting hits in their native UK, that they never made an album in their original incarnation, and that they were virtually unknown in the United States, some might feel it preposterous that a nearly 400-page book has been written about them. That's usually the territory of fanzine articles, of which the Creation have garnered several, as they're one of the more beloved 1960s cult bands. Amazingly, however, Our Music Is Red with Purple Flashes: The Story of the Creation does not feel like a fanzine article stretched out to book length. Instead, it's an extremely well-researched, entertaining biography, drawing on extensive interviews with the three surviving original members, as well as several other musicians who passed through their rotating lineup (some of them, indeed, so briefly that their membership has escaped the notice of prior historians). There are also first-hand interviews with numerous important and minor associates, from producer Shel Talmy to roadies, their fan club administrator, Pete Townshend (who, amusingly, seems unclear as to whether he really did invite Creation guitarist Eddie Phillips to join the Who), and even songwriters whose work was covered by the Creation on obscure studio recordings. Along the way, many mini-myths are cleared up and machinations behind the band's music and volatile internal relationships exposed. As about 35 years had passed between their brief 1966-68 existence and the writing of this book, those memories are often foggy and contradictory, though Egan does his best to sort through them and judge which of them might hold the most credence. It's true that the final chapters on their 1980s-1990s reunions and comeback projects are unavoidably not nearly as interesting as what precedes it, but the 250 pages of coverage of their mod-psychedelic heyday is so intense that it's a book in itself.
Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, by Stephen Davis (Gotham Books). A few biographies of Jim Morrison had preceded this nearly 500-page work, as well as some autobiographies of other members of the Doors and people close to Morrison. So what does Stephen Davis have to add to what's known about the Lizard King? Not an enormous amount, but he certainly writes as though he does, in the slightly haughty, smirking tone that will be familiar to those who've read his previous bios of rock artists like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. He did get access to some unpublished journals of Morrison, as well as memories from a good deal of people who knew the mercurial singer and poet, including some who spent time with Jim in Morrison's final days in Paris. On the whole it's an extremely detailed and fast read, if something of a guilty pleasure considering the author's propensity for irritating asides and turns of the phrase. That makes it enough to be worth the while of Doors fans, but they should also be cautioned that there's much to criticize too. Davis undervalues, indeed sometimes belittles, the contributions and talents of the other Doors, who -- though Morrison was the most important member of the band -- were all creative artists in their own right. When his focus widens to put the band in the context of the entire 1960s rock scene, he makes quite a number of minor but annoying mistakes that will vex the informed rock expert. He also makes a big deal out of unearthing homosexual activities on the part of his subject, but these -- and some of the seedier intimations elsewhere in the text -- are blown-up deductions from circumstantial evidence that smack of sensationalism. That's not to say that Morrison was a holier figure than the one portrayed here; in fact, the cumulative impression of several biographies seems to confirm that he was in many respects a downright distasteful (if supremely talented) individual. He merits a more measured study, however, than this one, even considering how much color and anecdotal flimflam it adds to what we know about him.
The Rolling Stones: An Oral History, by Alan Lysacht (McArthur & Company). Canadian writer and broadcaster Alan Lysacht did a 21-hour radio documentary on the Rolling Stones in the early 1980s. Most of the comments excerpted here apparently are drawn from interviews he did for that project, as well as from some subsequent interviews he conducted with the band over the next two decades, although the lack of exact detail of how much of this was first-hand is vexing; obviously a comment from George Harrison about why the Stones are going to tour America in 1969 is probably not from Lysacht's Stones-related interviews, for instance. Still, it does have sizable quotes from all of the band members (those of Brian Jones are taken from undocumented second-hand sources), as well as dozens of figures whose paths have intersected with the Rolling Stones throughout their lives. Is there a whole lot here that Rolling Stones fanatics won't know yet? No, but there are a lot of quotes that even fans of that nature may well have never run across before, not just from the group, but also from secondary figures like Decca Records executive Dick Rowe, mentor Alexis Korner, roadie/quasi-band member Ian Stewart, session man Nicky Hopkins, guest harmonica player Sugar Blue, Marianne Faithfull, and the like. There are gaps in the chronological coverage and some phases of their evolution are covered much less than others, but it does go all the way up to the early twenty-first century, though it wisely focuses on the 1960s for the first half of the 300-page volume. It's not as good as the group's own oral history, According to the Rolling Stones (and, unlike that copiously illustrated production, doesn't have any pictures), but on the other hand it doesn't duplicate anything from it either, so no harm's done in picking up both. It's a minor gripe, but there are an inordinately annoying number of misspelled names in the text -- not just of obscure figures likely to be known only to music nerds, but also Jimmy Page (spelled repeatedly as "Jimmy Paige") and even some of the interview subjects, such as early near-manager Giorgio Gomelsky.
The Guys Who Wrote 'Em, by Sean Egan (Askill Publishing). Subtitled "songwriting geniuses of rock and pop," this is a collection of profiles of nearly a dozen songwriters and/or songwriting teams who were responsible for classic hit records throughout the rock era. While all of them are famous to some degree, none of them became as famous as the star artists for whom they penned tunes, although most of them did release some records (and sometimes even had hits) under their own names. What makes this cuts above the usual such anthologies is that Egan actually secured first-hand interviews with all of his subjects (although in a couple cases, he was not able to interview every member of a specific songwriting team). Every story here is an interesting one, and every composer profiled an important one, including the teams of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry; Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland; Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn; Mike Stock and Matt Aitken; and (as individuals) Graham Gouldman, Bobby Hart, Joey Levine, Chip Taylor, and Tony Macaulay. Although these are not in a Q&A format, it's obvious the author asked probing and pertinent questions, and he's wise enough to let the subjects for the most part speak for themselves -- and they usually excel at storytelling, perhaps because they're so used to telling stories in song. Particularly since virtually all of these figures were also involved in producing and performing music as well, it also yields interesting, at times fascinating behind-the-scenes tales from important chapters in pop history, including the Brill Building (Leiber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Greenwich-Barry), Motown (Holland-Dozier-Holland), bubblegum (Jeff Barry, Joey Levine), glam (Chapman-Chinn), the Monkees (Bobby Hart), and the British Invasion (Graham Gouldman). Many serious rock fans may already be relatively familiar with the stories of the Brill Building and Motown, but it's good to see far lesser documented but worthy figures like Gouldman, Chapman-Chinn, Chip Taylor, and Bobby Hart get some in-depth coverage. Perhaps not everyone will have a broad enough taste to be curious about all the songwriters discussed in this volume. But even so, you may find the winding and peculiar stories behind hits you're indifferent to or dislike interesting nonetheless.
Never Break the Chain: Fleetwood Mac and the Making of Rumours, by Cath Carroll (Chicago Review Press). As part of the "Vinyl Frontier" series of book-length examinations of classic rock albums, this 225-page work is devoted to Fleetwood Mac's mammoth-selling 1977 recording Rumours. There's only one significant drawback to this study, which is that Carroll did not speak with any of the five Fleetwood Mac members who were in the band's lineup at the time Rumours was made. Otherwise, it's an impeccable and very clearly, intelligently written story of the record's creation, admirably balancing history and analysis. Although none of the musicians in the band were interviewed, the author did draw on some first-hand conversations with peripheral figures like a lawyer involved in their affairs, a Rolling Stone reporter who was at some of the recording sessions, a manager of one of the studios they used, and producer Keith Olsen (who worked on the album preceding Rumours, Fleetwood Mac). While their comments are perhaps not as numerous and do not unveil as much fresh research as some diehards would have liked, they do at least offer some stories and perspectives that have escaped more standard biographical treatments. Some readers might be a little puzzled by how much contextual coverage is also given to the band's career before and after Rumours, stretching as far back as their inception in 1967; it's not until about page 100 that the actual recording of the album starts to be discussed. The surrounding history is relayed very well, however, and does illuminate the complicated relationships and circumstances that generated the record, particularly the collapse of long-standing romances between John McVie and Christine McVie, and Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, shortly before the album commenced. In addition to a good deal of discussion of the recording and writing of the album, there's also quite a bit of detail regarding its promotion, commercial reception, and the subsequent path the group took, none of it extraneous.
Vicious: The Art of Dying Young, by Mark Paytress (Sanctuary). Sid Vicious was the least musically talented of the Sex Pistols, but (other than Johnny Rotten) the most colorful, and the archetype of the most self-destructive tendencies of the early punk lifestyle. He's worthy of a biography, but while a good amount of research went into this 230-page volume, it's unsatisfying on several crucial levels. Although Paytress did a fair amount of interviews with people who knew Sid, he didn't talk to a good number of the most central players -- Glen Matlock (whom Vicious actually replaced) is the only one of the Sex Pistols he spoke with, and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's voice is also missing. More troublingly, the writing and structure are uneven, with the early chapters in particular filled out with digressive and sometimes repetitive philosophical asides about Vicious' legend and legacy, as if those needed to be in there to pad out the text to 200-plus-page length. And as far as its chronological progression, the book's a real jumble, jumping back and forth in time frames, sometimes confusingly so -- although his mother Anne Beverley's troubled background is referred to early on, the specifics are not given until page 142. For all its shortcomings, there's a fair share of interesting and entertaining (if oft-depressing) stories about Sid's erratic behavior and low self-esteem. These span the time when he was just a friend of John Lydon's and a follower of the very early punk bands, on to his recruitment into the Sex Pistols lineup and near-immediate dive into drug problems and a troubled relationship with Nancy Spungeon. After Vicious joins the Pistols, the book picks up some focus and rambles less, and his not-so-fun stint in the band (to which he barely contributed musically), their disastrous 1978 American tour, and his sad short residency in New York before his death are covered in a reasonably interesting manner. There are several and sometimes conflicting perspectives on Sid's personality -- some thought he was a nice enough, not-too-dumb guy, others felt he was a fairly loathsome thug. Yet at the end there's the feeling that there was a hollow center to the man. He comes off as a bit of an untalented lowlife with a certain charisma, getting overwhelmed by factors out of his control when he was catapulted to fame and felt a compulsion to live out the most horrid facets of his image.
Johnny Gentle & the Beatles, by Johnny Gentle & Ian Forsyth (Merseyrock Publications). No aspect of the Beatles' career is too small to merit a book, and this 100-page paperback is devoted to the one-week Scottish tour they undertook in May 1960 as the backing group for forgotten British teen idol singer Johnny Gentle. Sure, it was an important event for the group, as their first ever tour. But it wasn't nearly as eventful or crucial to their evolution as, say, their extended residencies at Hamburg. Even at its slim length, Gentle and collaborator Ian Forsyth seem to be straining to fill out the story, with a good amount of background information about both Gentle (useful for obsessive historians perhaps, as he's not too well known) and the Beatles (general stuff about their early years that's been told uncounted times elsewhere). There's also likely some poetic license at work in the description of the events of the week itself, with fine details and character thought/motivations that likely weren't filed away for future use at the time, when no one suspected the Beatles were going to be big stars. It's only of marginal interest even to Beatlemaniacs, but some odd bits of interest surface now and then, such as the recollection that the Beatles played "Kansas City" for the first time on one of the dates, and the assertion that this tour was when John Lennon decided once and for all that his purpose in life was to be a rock musician. Indeed, the authors portray the week as a much more vital and positive experience for the group than several other Beatles biographers, who have sometimes given the impression that the endeavor was a depressing and troubled experience for the band. None of the photos of Gentle, incidentally, feature the Beatles save the one on the front cover (with George Harrison backing him up onstage at one of the tour's shows), which has been reprinted many times. Likely to become a rarity with the passing years, this small-press production unfortunately contains quite a large number of clumsy typos.
The Beatles, The Bible, & Bodega Bay, by Ken Mansfield (Broadman & Holdman Publishers). Numerous authors have capitalized on a fleeting association with the Beatles to make a whole book out of the experience. But even by the standards of that flimsy subset of Beatles memoirs, this is an odd bird indeed. Ken Mansfield was the American manager of the Beatles' Apple Records label in the late 1960s, and in that capacity he did indeed get to meet and work with all members of the group, though he was hardly as much of an insider as figures like Neil Aspinall or George Martin. Half of the book does discuss his Beatles experiences, and while they're only of marginal interest to anyone but voracious know-it-all Beatlemaniacs, there are some interesting stories here and there. There's Mansfield's recollection of Paul McCartney's nervous uncertainty whether "Hey Jude" should be an A-side, for instance (out of concern that it was too long to get radio airplay). There's also the author's first-hand account of the rooftop concert that ended the Let It Be film, he being one of the few people other than the group and movie crew allowed to sit near them as they played. Each chapter of Beatles memories, however, alternates with a chapter of prose devoted to Mansfield's born-again Christian expressions of faith and love for an almighty being. Everyone's entitled to their religious beliefs, of course, but it's hard to believe that Mansfield's are of much interest to Beatles fans, who undoubtedly constitute the overwhelming majority of people with any interest in reading this book. These chapters are not just intrusive; they're boring, and sandwiched amidst the Beatles/Apple Records material as if two unrelated books have mistakenly been printed as one. Only the most obsessed Beatles fanatic should consider it of any use to the groaning shelf of literature about the group.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: SUMMER 2004
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, by John Cavanagh (Continuum). As part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series of miniature-sized books devoted to classic rock albums, this depicts the creation of Pink Floyd's debut full-length recording, 1967's psychedelic classic The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It's one of the stronger early entries in the series, sticking to details and stories of how the songs were written and recorded, and how the record fit into the context of Pink Floyd's early career. Too, author John Cavanagh did a good deal of first-hand interviews. True, Nick Mason is the only member of Pink Floyd offering comments (which are pretty insightful). But early Floyd co-managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King are also heard from, as are more peripheral figures who nevertheless always have something interesting to say, like filmmaker Peter Whitehead, Vic Singh (who photographed the album's front cover), and Keith Rowe of the avant-garde improvisational music group AMM (who influenced the early Pink Floyd in unlikely ways). The prose is concise, critically astute, and to the point, offering a good amount of interesting trivia along the way that might not be familiar even to some longtime followers of the band and their original figurehead, Syd Barrett (who was only with the Floyd full-time for this first album). If there's one disappointment, it's that you're hungry for more. Most likely there would have been enough material for a volume twice as long as this 124-page palm-sized work, though if so inclined you can find out more about the topic in various other books about Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett.
beGLAD: An Incredible String Band Compendium, by Adrian Whittaker [editor] (Helter Skelter). beGLAD (that's exactly the way it's spelled) is the major, if not only, Incredible String Band fanzine. This hard-to-categorize book is based around pieces that have appeared in that publication, and isn't a straight biography of the group, although it's chronologically sequenced and contains more information, in some way or another, than many another standard rock music bio. There are a lot of things to be said in this volume's favor. At 450 pages, it does pack a ton of info about a folk-rock-psychedelic-miscellaneously-exotic band that have really not been to easy to find out stuff about, although they were very popular within the '60s-'70s underground (and sometimes in the overground as well). At the same time, those not intimately familiar with the group's history may well feel a bit or very lost from time to time, since it doesn't follow a format that lays out details of how the band formed and evolved in a conventional manner. Instead it's something of a jumble, mixing interviews, very extended reviews/analyses of individual albums, essays on aspects of the band and specific events in their career, personal memories and anecdotes from fans about seeing the group, and other tidbits. By far the most interesting parts of the volume are the interviews, not only with ISB principals Robin Williamson and Mike Heron (although these aren't all-encompassing career overviews), but also other important figures like producer Joe Boyd and sometime band members Clive Palmer, Rose Simpson, and Malcolm Le Maistre. Although the more personal appreciations and recollections have some insights, they also often suffer (as fanzines often do) from an over-reverent, chatty tone and defensive putdowns of media critics who have offered less than full enthusiasm for the band. Too, the examinations of their lesser, later albums sometimes seem like they're making excuses for those recordings' shortfalls. The sheer length, however, means that any fan of the group will find something enlightening here, and the plentiful photos and illustrations highlight a layout that's much more pleasing to the eye than many of the past productions from Helter Skelter Publishing.
Behind the Scenes on the Pegasus Carousel with the Legendary Rock Group Love, by Michael Stuart-Ware (Helter Skelter). When he was simply known as Michael Stuart, Michael Stuart-Ware was drummer in the lineup that recorded the two best Love albums, 1967's Forever Changes and 1966's Da Capo. There's never been a good biography of Love, and while Stuart-Ware's autobiographical memoir of the period isn't a definitive account of the band (after all he didn't join until after their first album), it does fill in a lot of detail that Love fans will appreciate. Though heavy on re-created conversations, it's more thorough than many first-person books by non-frontline members of notable bands are, covering not only his time in Love, but also his stint in the lesser-known Los Angeles group he left to join Love, the Sons of Adam. It's also pretty well written, with plenty of entertaining stories about both Love and the general '60s L.A. rock scene, though (as with many Helter Skelter books) the proofreading and design certainly could have been better. It's strongest on its observations of the interpersonal dynamic and strange personal behavior within Love in 1966-68, revealing how imperious chief singer-songwriter Arthur Lee could be in his leadership of the band, limiting the contributions of the group's other skilled composer (Bryan MacLean) and at one point failing to show up for a major Florida festival appearance after the rest of the group had gathered there. It also details the negative effects of drug abuse on the band's ambition and ultimately its career, though these tales aren't as extreme in nature as some rumors that have floated around Love would have it. Stuart-Ware's memories of how Lee taught Da Capo songs to the band, and of some of the Da Capo and Forever Changes recording sessions, are the most valuable sections for those craving some further insight into the creative processes of this ill-documented cult band. On a more frustrating level, the passages on Forever Changes -- probably the most beloved cult rock album of all time -- aren't nearly as detailed as many would hope, though he covers the early part of the sessions (when the recording was in danger of being handed over to session men) well. Too, the anecdotes can be rambling and digress into discussions of things like car troubles that are on the mundane side, though for the most part it sticks to the more interesting aspects of being in a (briefly) top-flight rock group.
The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America, by Bruce Spizer (498 Productions). Forty years after the Beatles came to America in early 1964, what more could be said about their invasion of the Stateside market? Plenty, it turns out, as this large-format, 250-page glossy book demonstrates. It tells, in exhaustive detail, the story of the year-long buildup in the Beatles' attempt to break into the American audience -- which was full of failures and false starts throughout 1963 -- and the crazy two weeks in February 1964 in which the group visited the US for the first time, to phenomenal success. The text is divided into about 30 chapters, each of them detailing a key step along the way -- the release of the first Beatles single in America in February 1963, the first visit by Brian Epstein to the country in November of that year, the first times the national media ran stories on the group in late 1963 and very early 1964, and so on. For the general reader, the drawback is that this extremely intensively researched volume (reflecting the author's background as a lawyer) has way too many details of interest only to obsessive fans. For the Beatlemaniac, a drawback, albeit a less serious one, is that this repeats a good deal of information already hashed over in previous Beatles histories, particularly when Spizer discusses their recording sessions. For all that, however, if you really are curious about exactly when and where each Beatles single was probably first played in America, and how the hell Vee-Jay Records ended up with the rights (soon revoked) to release the first 16 tracks the Beatles recorded, this has an enormous amount of well-researched information and little-known anecdotes. Unlike many such scholarly rock volumes, it's written readably and fairly entertainingly, with abundant excellent color and black and white photos and illustrations, some of them (particularly of record company documents and record sleeves) pretty rare. Along the way (often in sidebars), Spizer convincingly punctures many mini-myths about the Beatles' rise to fame in the US that have been perpetuated over the years.
The Pythons Autobiography, by The Pythons (Thomas Dunne Books). They may be a comedy troupe and not a rock band. But The Pythons Autobiography -- a collective autobiography of Monty Python's Flying Circus -- follows a format extremely close to that employed a few years earlier by the Beatles for their Anthology book. It's a large, heavy, expensive ($60) coffee table hardback, the 350 pages devoted almost entirely to extended quotes by each of the six members, along with plenty of illustrations from all phases of their career. And, as Anthology did with John Lennon, it gets around the problem of one of the members (Graham Chapman) being dead by using archive quotes of his from other sources, as well as occasional contributions from his brother and sister-in-law. Inevitably, it's got much of interest for Monty Python fans, covering not just their television series and films, but also their extensive pre-Python stage, writing, and TV experiences in the 1960s, along with the live shows and records they made after their rise to fame. It's not the smoothest or most flawless overview, however. There's arguably too much about their pre-Python days, occupying about the first third of the book, actually. On the one hand, that enables them to discuss a lot of work that's not nearly as well known as their Monty Python productions; on the other, that work isn't nearly as interesting as the Monty Python collective efforts. Many of their television series episodes, and their most famous sketches from those, aren't discussed in depth or at all, though quirkily some fairly little-known aspects of their career get discussed quite a bit, such as their German-language programs. To be honest, in some ways the most interesting things they did get more coverage in Kim "Howard" Johnson's The First 20 Years of Monty Python (which has much more detail on the TV episodes in particular) and David Morgan's Monty Python Speaks! (which also uses the oral history format). The Pythons Autobiography does benefit from much better illustrations (many in color) than either of those two books, and Eric Idle in particular seems to get much more of a say here than he did in Monty Python Speaks! All the Pythons are witty enough raconteurs to make The Pythons Autobiography highly worthwhile, of course, but get 'em all if you're a big fan.
The Murder of Brian Jones, by Anna Wohlin with Christine Lindsjoo (Blake). Anna Wohlin was the girlfriend of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones for the last few months of his life, and was indeed present at his house when he drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969, though she didn't see the drowning itself. Thirty years after Jones' death, she came out with her version of Brian's final days, and of Brian's absolute final day, when he died in circumstances that many feel were never satisfactorily explained. As a book, The Murder of Brian Jones isn't much, with most of the chapters describing their love affair in gushing prose strewn with the cliches of love's sunny glow. As one onlooker's view on a part of Rolling Stones history, though, it has some value, if only because her account differs from most of what's previously been written about Jones' final months. Wohlin writes that Jones was off drugs, fairly healthy, mentally upbeat, musically creative, and looking forward to getting together a new band, which is not the exact picture many other observers and biographers have given. As a lovestruck girl in her twenties at the time, her perspective can't be relied upon as totally objective, and -- perhaps inadvertently -- some disturbing shades of Jones' character do emerge at times, as when she documents his possessiveness and his inexplicable wish to remain friendly with a builder that seemed to be taking advantage of his largesse. It's that builder, Frank Thorogood, whom she accuses of murdering Jones in his swimming pool, though she didn't see this first-hand, basing her conclusions on circumstances surrounding the event. The other Rolling Stones barely figure in the story at all, as Wohlin had little contact with them, though according to her Jones took his departure from the band far more sanguinely than has usually been surmised. Wohlin comes across as an impressionable and not too assertive figure in the Jones story, though that's understandable to a degree, given her youth and naivete at a time when complex machinations were determining the tragic end to Brian's life.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: SPRING 2004
The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night, by Doug Hinman (Backbeat). Subtitled "day-by-day concerts, recordings and broadcasts, 1961-1996," this 350-paged, small-print, large-sized volume is the ultimate chronological guide to the Kinks' professional activities, by the foremost expert in such matters. True, it's not the first volume of choice for Kinks fans that want a standard biography of the band, who should look for Johnny Rogan and Jon Savage's mid-1980s books on the group. For the dedicated followers who want the real nuts-and-bolts facts and trivia, though, this is unlikely to be surpassed, with detailed entries for every date on which the Kinks were playing live, recording, or doing something TV and radio-related. A few introductory paragraphs to each year of their career help provide a basic outline of the band's progression, as do comments within the entries with more general observations about the band's records, internal problems, chaotic business dealings (it's amazing how many of their concerts were canceled), and commercial/critical reception. The book's chief drawback has nothing to do with the author's incredibly diligent research and professional prose, but with the Kinks themselves (and most long-lived artists subjected to this sort of scrutiny): the last parts of the book get progressively less interesting, simply because the Kinks' music and lives got less interesting in the last parts of their career. In addition, again through no fault of the author, the recording information isn't as thorough as it is in some similar "day-by-day" rock books, because documents of what was done when in the studio aren't available for much of the Kinks' work. There's a mountain of esoterica of interest to Kinks fans here, though, whether insights into exactly why the band were unofficially blocked from touring in the US for four years after mid-1965; when and why they changed lineups; and Ray Davies' emergency flights from the US to the UK to change one word in a lyric to "Lola" so that it wouldn't be banned by the BBC.
40 Watts from Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio, by Sue Carpenter (Scribner). In the mid-to-late 1990s, Sue Carpenter launched two pirate music radio stations, first for a few months in San Francisco on KPBJ, then for a few years on KBLT in Los Angeles after moving to that city. This is her memoir of those endeavors, which came to a halt in late 1998 when the FCC shut down KBLT. It's a breezy and fun read, not only for her always-fraught attempts to keep her stations running -- they were broadcast from her own apartment, with a low-wattage antenna that could only reach the surrounding neighborhood -- but also her volatile balancing act between keeping illegal operations on the air while she struggled with uncertain relationships and jobs in her personal life. If KPBJ started as a somewhat naive attempt to play alternative rock on an open frequency, with Carpenter responsible for virtually all of the programming, KBLT evolved into something else. By 1998, dozens of people in L.A., including disaffected major label record staff and punk icon Mike Watt, were hosting shows in a wildly eclectic free-form format; artists like Jesus & Mary Chain, the Flaming Lips, and Glenn Danzig were dropping by to act as guest DJs; and there was even a benefit to raise money for the station, with Mazzy Star among the performers. All of them make interesting cameos in the book. But the volume's real strength is in its insight into the enormous heart and sacrifice needed to keep clandestine stations on the air, often involving bumbling acquisitions of the necessary equipment and technical expertise, and often subject to weirdos threatening to upset the apple cart by passing out on the air or using their shifts to promote fudge. Those are just a few of the strange anecdotes sprinkled liberally throughout the book, which comes to a heart-stopping climax when the FCC confiscates equipment aboard a Hollywood hi-rise (where KBLT was able to briefly radically boost its signal). Told with humor and a knowing look back at the narrator's naivete, it's a ripping yarn for both pirate radio enthusiasts and those looking for a good story within the milieu of 1990s alternative music in general.
In Their Own Words: Adventures in the Music Press, by Paul Gorman (Sanctuary). This fairly fat (400-page) book is almost entirely an oral history of the popular music press in the US and UK, consisting of extended quotes (both from first-hand interviews and second-hand sources) from about a hundred writers, editors, and publishers. Although it starts with the launch of Melody Maker back in 1926, it's actually centered almost entirely on the rock era, with an especially heavy concentration on the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rock criticism was really coming of age. Rock fans will be very familiar with many of the interviewees: Lester Bangs, Julie Burchill, Chris Welch, Robert Christgau, Mick Farren, Ben Fong-Torres, Pete Frame, Charlie Gillett, Barney Hoskyns, Lenny Kaye, Greg Shaw, Nick Kent, Richard Meltzer, Barry Miles, Charles Shaar Murray, John Peel, Lisa Robinson, Ira Robbins, Jon Savage, and Paul Williams are just some of the best-known names. Anyone who reads a significant amount of rock journalism will enjoy this book, with its wealth of colorful anecdotes reflecting the craft's evolution from superficial industry- or teen-based coverage to a point at which some writers were considered to have more star quality than the hitmakers they were writing about. For all its length and entertainment value, however, it's not an ideally balanced overview. There's more attention paid to the UK side of things, particularly at NME and Melody Maker, than the US side. Although there's a fair amount of American coverage, there are some gaps; Spin is barely mentioned, and Rolling Stone is hardly referred to after passing its heyday by the mid-1970s. There's not too much on post-1980 rock journalism, and small-circulation magazines and fanzines get only glancing, sporadic mentions. It's too fragmentary to qualify as an actual history of the rock music press, but that might not have been the intention. As a compendium of observations and memories from some of its most colorful figures, it's very good, and often quite absorbing.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, by Andy Miller (Continuum). Unlike some other entries in Continuum's "33 1/3" series of palm-sized books devoted to classic rock records, this 150-page study of the late-'60s Kinks album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is everything it should be. The writing is crisp and witty, the criticism of the songs informed and thorough, and the historical research excellent and entertaining, unearthing some stories and facts that probably won't be familiar even to some Kinks fanatics. Miller didn't interview Ray Davies, but he did do first-hand interviews with Mick Avory and Pete Quaife of the Kinks, and did enough scavenging through old magazine clips to merit more than 100 footnotes. Also, he doesn't just cover the tracks that made it onto the album, although they're at the center; he also covers numerous other 1966-69 Kinks recordings that were written and/or recorded at around the same time. Since many more tracks were considered for the album than made the final cut, this additional material is essential, and Miller does a lot to straighten out where the songs that weren't used ended up, whether on non-LP singles or obscure compilations. From a purely discographical angle, this does a lot to clear up the confusion of what was recorded when and the stages the album went through in its complicated genesis, also giving a lot of attention to the quality Village Green-era tunes that were issued on the unjustly obscure, out-of-print The Great Lost Kinks Album. A select but relevant bibliography/discography seals a first-rate work that expertly balances historical detail and critical insight.
The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, by Alanna Nash (Simon & Schuster). Tom Parker, the manager of Elvis Presley, led such a secretive and enigmatic life that it's a challenge to put together a comprehensive biography of the man. While Alanna Nash's book inevitably leaves many mysteries left unsolved, it's probably the best Parker biography likely to be written. It certainly beats the hell out of a previous attempt, James L. Dickerson's thin and weak Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley's Eccentric Manager (published just a couple of years before Nash's volume). Nash's effort, besides being much longer, benefits from far more exhaustive research and first-hand interviews, including several with surviving members of Parker's family in Holland, where he grew up as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk before illegally emigrating to the United States. Far from being a necessary prelude, the first parts of the book, documenting Parker's pre-Presley life, are among the most interesting, as he set the stage for a life of duplicity by vanishing from Holland and taking on an entirely new identity on the American carnival circuit. Nash uncovers evidence of his psychiatric instability (for which Parker was discharged from the U.S. army) and suggests that he might have fled Holland after involvement in a murder, though that's speculative and will always be impossible to prove. She also suggests that might be the reason he never let Elvis tour Europe, one of many questionable decisions she examines in the bulk of the narrative, which deals with his work as Presley's manager. Perhaps it was felt that too much repetition with Elvis Presley biographies was undesirable, but the coverage of his early years with Elvis is less satisfying, with some back-and-forth chronology and sketchy overviews of major mid-'50s Presley events that some non-Presley experts might find incomplete or confusing. More interesting is the look at Parker's work in the '60s and '70s, revealing not only a man afraid to let his client express himself artistically, but also a client afraid to buck the boss (though the in-depth coverage one of the times Elvis asserted himself, for his 1968 comeback television special, is the best section of the book). Wisely leaving the main threads of the Presley story to other studies, Nash uncovers a lot of Parker's seedy dealings and peculiar behavior, which both helped launch Presley to stardom and made Parker a wealthy man. Yet they also proved instrumental to the tragic final years of both parties, also described here in fine if depressing detail.
Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon, by Stephen Miller (Omnibus Press). There were multiple Johnny Cash autobiographies and biographies prior to the publication of this 2003 volume. This might be the best place to start, however, because of its 400-page-length thoroughness -- which covers Cash's life right up to his death -- and because it's more objective than some of the other bios. Miller didn't get a whole lot of interviews (and didn't speak to Cash himself), though he did talk to a few family members (none of the real famous ones) and producer Jack Clement. But the diligence of his second-hand research can't be faulted, and the text is pretty clearly written, in spite of occasional grammatical lapses indicating the book could have benefited from one more round of copyediting. All eras of Cash's career are covered: his hard upbringing in Arkansas, his breakthrough with Sun Records, his rise to iconic status in the late 1960s via his live prison albums and prime-time television series, his up-and-down 1970s and 1980s projects, and his critical comeback in the 1990s. So, too, is his sometimes messy personal life, including his lengthy struggles with drug addiction, his failed first marriage, iconoclastic politics that saw him supporting both liberal and conservative causes and politicians, his strong Christian faith, his long marriage to June Carter, and the health problems that eventually stopped him in his tracks. Though clearly an admirer of Cash and his music (which is given plenty of critical description), Miller also gives a very human portrait of the country singer, one who embodied American archetypes but had plenty of weaknesses, though more often than not conducting his affairs and making his music with integrity.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: WINTER 2003-2004
According to the Rolling Stones , by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood [edited by Dora Loewenstein and Philip Dodd] (Chronicle Books).Three years after The Beatles Anthology (also published, as it happens, by Chronicle Books) comes a similar coffee table volume from the Rolling Stones, telling their story in their own words. While not without considerable entertainment value, it's also a considerably lesser achievement than Anthology in scale, length, and insight. For one thing, only four of the surviving Rolling Stones are the actual authors (or, perhaps more accurately put, interviewees); Mick Taylor and, more particularly, Bill Wyman are conspicuous by their absence. You can, of course, read Wyman's own copious recollections of the group in his own coffee table memoir, Rolling with the Stones, which not only beat According to the Rolling Stones to the market by a year, but also is a better read from every angle, with far more detail and fascinating photos and memorabilia reproductions. According to the Rolling Stones nonetheless has its good points, including handsome design and excellent photos of its own. And for most of the time it's a pretty good read, the group discussing its music, live performances, and evolution intelligently and lucidly, particularly when the focus is on the first decade of their career. There's not much here Stones fanatics won't already know, but the main thrust is told with wit (particularly by Keith Richards), and an occasional unusual nugget does emerge, like Charlie Watts's disclosure that the drums on "You Can't Always Get What You Want" were actually played by producer Jimmy Miller. It does, however, not only gloss over lots of the interesting obscure stories and trivia that surface in other books (such as Wyman's), but also gives a surprisingly short end of the stick to their controversies. Their notorious appearance at the Altamont festival in 1969 is given a mere page (all in the words of Watts); their early muses Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, characters as colorful as any in the Stones themselves, are barely referred to at all. You do, however, get way more than you need about their post-1980 tours and the mid-'80s rift between Mick Jagger and Richards. Wyman was wise enough to spend most of his book on the most interesting (i.e. early) part of the Stones' work, and his bandmates weren't; by the point Jagger recalls being advised to "talk to the guy who did Aerosmith's tour when they had a content crisis," your enthusiasm for completing the final 50 pages has dimmed considerably. The text is punctuated by essays from a dozen or so associates, friends, and critics, some of them pretty interesting (by Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun, Rolling Stones Records exec Marshall Chess, and early mentor/semi-manager Giorgio Gomelsky), others superfluous puff pieces (like the one by Sheryl Crow). And what's Tim Rice doing as a contributor to a book like this?
Wouldn't It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, by Charles L. Granata (A Cappella Books). Here's a solid 256-page book on the making of Pet Sounds , roundly acknowledged to be not only the Beach Boys' best album, but also one of the best albums of the 1960s. Even if you've read a lot about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, this is worth reading too, as both its factual research and critical analysis are extremely in-depth. The author's factual research can't be faulted: he interviewed three of the four surviving Beach Boys to take place in the sessions (Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and Al Jardine), as well as numerous other key contributors to the record (lyricist Tony Asher, bassist Carol Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine) and Wilson's wife at the time, Marilyn Wilson Rutherford. He did not, it's true, interview Brian Wilson himself, but a well-selected set of second-hand quotes by Wilson and others involved with the album is incorporated into the text. Granata's intricate descriptions of the recording process might occasionally get dry due to its unavoidable emphasis on some technical matters that might lose more casual readers, but at least the info's there for those who want to go whole hog. Though the making of Pet Sounds is very much at the center of the book, it also covers key developments in the Beach Boys' career leading up to the record; the album's critical and commercial reception in the US and UK; and Wilson's revival of the album in a live setting decades later. Brian Wilson inspires some of the most adulatory rock criticism, and like other big Wilson fans, Granata occasionally teeters overboard on the "Brian Wilson is a genius" plank; he might also overestimate the album's influence on the Beatles, though undoubtedly Paul McCartney was a huge admirer. But it's for the most part highly readable, and certainly educational.
The Pretty Things: Growing Old Disgracefully , by Alan Lakey (Firefly Publishing). There's much good and much not-so-good about the first Pretty Things biography. You can say that about the Pretty Things' music too, but it's a bigger disadvantage in a book, where unlike on a compilation CD, it doesn't work nearly as well to skip around to just get the bits you like. To start with the positives, Lakey did interview several of the most important musicians who've been in the various Pretty Things lineups (most notably founding member Dick Taylor), as well as some important associates, like early manager Bryan Morrison and producer Norman Smith. He also did a good amount of research to unearth a lot of detail and clear up a lot of mystery about contracts, songwriting credits, timelines, and who played on what. He also devotes space to all phases of the band's career, not just their most notorious 1960s years. That's also a minus, however, since the fact is that their post-1960s records were far less exciting than their earlier ones, with the '60s years taking up considerably less than half the 288-page book. To continue on the negatives, there were a good number of important figures the author didn't interview, most notably singer and founding member Phil May, as well as original drummer Viv Prince, his replacements Skip Alan and Twink, and latter-day manager Mark St. John. Although the post-early-'70s text is more interesting than you might expect, with quite a lot about the turmoil within the band and their record company struggles in particular, the music from this time simply isn't as interesting to read about as the R&B-psychedelic years. Additionally, the writing is far from smooth, often switching disjointedly between topics, and rife with basic punctuation errors. The Pretty Things' story, despite their lack of conventional commercial success, really is an interesting one, and it could have yielded a far superior book to this, though what's here is useful.
Jimi Hendrix: Musician, by Keith Shadwick (Backbeat). As a big (256-page), lavishly illustrated, and expensive ($39.95) coffeetable-sized Jimi Hendrix book, this is pretty admirable, as well written as it is nice to look at. Although, as the title makes clear, Shadwick's slant is to zero in primarily on Hendrix's music, actually he ties in quite a bit about his personal life and professional struggles and triumphs as well, without letting the focus drift. There's been a lot written about Hendrix, but what this study does well is weave together research from a copious number of sources: not only biographies, but also ancient press clippings and little-heard official and unofficial recordings. On top of that, it combines that with informative, astute, and highly readable critiques of Hendrix's music. It encompasses just about every song he ever recorded, and from varying angles examining not just the records, but also his songwriting, vocals, guitar playing, production, and collaborative interplay with his sidemen. For seasoned Hendrix fans, the book is particularly worthwhile in its exhaustive coverage of his pre-Experience years, not even getting to the Experience until page 86. No other writer has done as much to sift through Hendrix's confusing web of pre-Experience sessions and touring, doing much to sort out what actually happened when, and how those early experiences influenced his work as a solo star. If there's a minor reservation to be expressed, it's that Shadwick actually did very few interviews of his own, though he does quote (with proper attribution) from a pretty dazzlingly wide assortment of other sources. As a result, some Hendrix fans might sometimes feel like they're going over territory they've long since digested. For the more general Hendrix fan, however, or the relatively new one who hasn't read many or any other books on Jimi, it's a contender for the best available summary of his work in book form.
Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, by Robert Gordon (Little, Brown & Company). While there was a prior full-length biography of Muddy Waters (Sandra B. Tooze's Muddy Waters), this is superior in both the quality of the writing and the depth of research. In addition to interviewing many of Waters's surviving musical partners, business associates, and relatives, the author also draws upon a wealth of archival material. This ranges from interviews conducted by others with Waters (who'd been dead for almost two decades before this book was published) to the questionnaire Muddy filled out for Alan Lomax when he was recorded for the Library of Congress in the early 1940s. So much research was accumulated for this project, in fact, that about 70 pages of footnotes follow the 300 pages of main text. There's a lot of purely musical coverage and critique, fitting for the man who was one of the very most influential blues musicians of the twentieth century. There's also, however, a very strong sense of the man, not just the musician. And as with every man, there's some good and not so good. The good was the enormous strength, pride, and perseverance it took for Waters to raise himself out of poverty in the Mississippi Delta to become an internationally renowned artist after his migration to Chicago, in the process making a transition from solo country bluesman to urban bandleader. The not as good, or at least more controversial, was his turbulent romantic and family life; it gets hard to keep track of how many women he had children with and how many children he had, though in his way he tried to provide for most of his progeny, legitimate or otherwise. The 70 pages of footnotes, incidentally, aren't nearly as much of a breezy read as the main biographical portion, but at least all the backup information's there for those who want every last morsel.
Chuck Berry: The Biography, by John Collis (Aurum Press). This book appeared at almost exactly the same time as another Chuck Berry biography, Bruce Pegg's Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, and as is often the case when this happens, each has some strengths and weaknesses that makes reading both necessary for those who want as much of the story as they can get. Broadly speaking, Pegg's book has some more in-depth firsthand research, particularly regarding Berry's jail terms and legal troubles. Collis, on the other hand, is stronger and more thorough in his musical analysis and his recap of Berry's recording sessions (and virtually all of Berry's tracks are discussed at some point). He doesn't seem to have done a whole lot of first?hand interviews, but he did do some, and those were augmented by a good amount of digging through archival clips that ably reconstruct the arc of Berry's career. It's also inevitable that Collis comes to the conclusion that Berry is simply an impossible man, both to figure out and to deal with: giving rude interviews and wildly erratic shows, obsessed about money but careless about self-promotion that might actually make him a more valuable commodity, given to lying about or distorting his past. That makes some of this book sad and disillusioning for the committed Berry fan, particularly as it's revealed he seems to view the artistry of his music with about as much passion as a carpenter views sawing wood. But there are a good number of fun stories along the way, and Collis himself has plenty of knowledge and passion for Berry's music.
Blues-Rock Explosion, by Summer McStravick and John Roos (Old Goat Publishing). As the first volume in a series of '60s rock reference books, Blues-Rock Explosion is a fat, nearly 300-page, nearly-coffee table-sized book with entries on 42 blues-rock acts of the 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the text is devoted to lengthy biographical profiles of the career of each artist through 1972, with thorough discographies (primarily covering US and UK singles and albums of pre-1973 material, though including a few other foreign releases of note, with track listings for every album). There are also brief "postscript" sections covering the post-1972 careers of everyone covered. The bios are very well researched and cleanly written, and particularly praiseworthy for the wealth of vintage quotes they dig up from many reviews and interviews, usually from sources actually published during the 1960s and early '70s. Also, the assiduous details of the comings and goings of the personnel in long-lived bands like John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers do a lot to detail and clear up confusing lineup shifts that have been difficult for even some diehard fans to pin down. The only major criticism that can be given is that, even as long as this book is, and even though it indisputably covers most of the major blues-rock acts (Mayall, Paul Butterfield, early Fleetwood Mac, Allman Brothers Band, Cream, Canned Heat, and more), there are some omissions of blues-rockers of considerable importance. There aren't any entries, for instance, for Free, Roy Buchanan, or the Groundhogs. Nor are there entries for many artists who, though they didn't always focus on blues-rock, made blues-rock an important pillar of their sound and contributed greatly to the genre: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Spencer Davis Group, the Animals, Steve Miller, Jeff Beck, Them, and Jimi Hendrix, for instance. Their exclusion would have seemed less arbitrary had there not been some artists covered in the book who definitely did not always stick to blues-rock, such as the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, and Tracy Nelson. Still, for what's offered, it gives you much more on each act than you'll find in the standard popular music reference book, in a more entertaining fashion, and also covers some relatively obscure ones that aren't often written about (Bakerloo, Black Cat Bones, Nick Gravenites, John Dummer Band, Mark Leeman Five, Duffy Power). With extensive cross-referencing between entries, it also gives a sense of just how closely intertwined the scene was, with many of the musicians collaborating with each other in different projects at different times. Given how much more ground could have been covered, a second volume with a similar attention to research and detail would not be unwelcome.
Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures of a Folk Rock Troubadour, by Neville Judd (Helter Skelter Publishing). If you want the details on what happened when in Stewart's career from the early 1960s to the twenty-first century, this 350-page, painfully small-print tome has tons of them. What this doesn't have is a reader-friendly structure and flow, though the research is extremely deep. To his credit, the author talked extensively with Stewart himself, as well as numerous key associates, including former managers, band members, producers, and girlfriends. Yet not only is the prose dry, it's often haphazard, following a chronological progression but often zigzagging back and forth confusingly within narrow time frames, and often repeating and backtracking onto itself. It's nothing some diligent editing couldn't have remedied to some extent, but as it stands, it's sometimes as if rough notes from different word processing files have been pasted together. And, as is unfortunately often the case with Helter Skelter/Firefly publishing, there are way too many basic punctuation errors, which are especially annoying when these make it hard to tell if a section is a quote or not. The net effect of these flaws is to limit the appeal of this work to very serious Al Stewart fans, who want the information so much that they'll put up with the slipshod presentation. That's unfortunate, because there is a lot of information contained within, going back to his teen years in Bournemouth, and particularly on his mid-'60s years as a folkie in London. There are also some intersections with numerous interesting figures, some of them (like Paul Simon, who became friends with Al when living in London in 1965) no surprise to folk-rock experts, others (like Yoko Ono, in whose work Stewart actually invested prior to her relationship with John Lennon) quite unexpected. His slow breakthrough to (brief) American superstardom is also carefully documented, and the book appears hardly any more interested in Stewart's post-1980 work than the general public was, sweeping up final 20 years or so of its coverage in a mere 60 pages.
The Formative Dylan, by Todd Harvey (The Scarecrow Press). When a book's subtitled "transmission and stylistic influences, 1961-1963," that's a pretty good indication that it's written more for an academic audience than a popular one. That's true of this slim study tracing the sources of Dylan's early work, though it's not so stuffily written that some more general Dylan enthusiasts won't find it of some value. Harvey writes short pieces on 70 early Dylan songs -- virtually everything that has been officially released from his pre-1964 career, including both original compositions and covers. He details not only their origins in pre-existing folk songs and interpretations, but also compares Dylan's different performances of the song to each other (in released and unreleased versions predating mid-1965, sometimes running to as much as 20 in number). The descriptions of the performances and song structures might be hardest for the non-musicologist readers to wade through, with frequent breakdowns of chord progressions and uses of terms such as "tonic" and "subdominant" chords. More interesting to the layperson, however, are his thorough examinations of possible sources for Dylan's songs, running not only to previous recordings, but also to versions he might have been exposed to live or via songbooks. While his exposure to some such sources from early-'60s peers are reasonably well known and unsurprising to Dylan scholars (Dave Van Ronk, the Clancy Brothers, Jesse Fuller, Paul Clayton, Eric Von Schmidt), others are more obscure and surprising (Bonnie Dobson, Len Chandler). What comes across is how extraordinarily deep and wide Dylan's range of folk repertoire was for a guy in his early twenties, and also how he slowly progressed in his own writing, from simply pasting on new words to an old melody to starting to devise original words and music that couldn't be strongly attributed to previous songs. Unfortunately, this doesn't look at everything Dylan wrote and performed in the early 1960s, excluding a few songs from obscure compilations, and also unofficially released original tunes (like "Hero Blues") and covers ("Wade in the Water" and "That's All Right," to name but two of the more interesting ones) that have circulated widely on bootleg. It might also have been nice if the author had made reference to some subsequent popular versions of songs discussed in the book (like the Byrds' covers of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "He Was a Friend of Mine," or Fairport Convention's cover of "Percy's Song") to provide more of an entry point for non-specialists. But what's here is researched with admirable diligence and presented readably, including appendices of early-'60s set and session lists and chart breakdowns of each of the 70 songs into their structure, tempo, tuning, meter, tempo, etc.
Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power , by Gerald Posner (Random House). A number of books on Motown preceded the 2002 publication of this investigative-oriented volume, which emphasizes the business and manipulative sides of the company more than most previous studies had. The title and back cover copy perhaps sensationalize the author's findings more than they should. For this is actually a pretty straightforward account of the giant soul music label's rise and eventual decline, with almost three-fourths of the text devoted to Motown's pre-1970 heyday. Posner did do new interviews and research (particularly relating to some of Motown's legal wrangling), in addition to trawling through a lot of previously published sources. Inevitably, much of the information and stories he relates will be familiar to the Motown (or even general pop music) fan. But the story's told well, though there's not much in the way of earth-shaking revelations. Knowledgeable fans already knew that Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. was a complex and at times unethical character. About the most damaging new dirt dug up is about possible scams to sell new records but declare them as cutouts in financial accounts, thereby enabling Motown to underpay artists royalties -- interesting, but not the kind of thing that sets most readers and music listeners' hearts a-racing. But there are good stories about many major Motown stars, like Marvin Gaye getting into a pissing match with Gordy at a business meeting hours after John F. Kennedy's assassination. There are also basic but informative overviews of the label's biggest hits, and the closely intertwined relationships between all of the departments -- performers, producers, songwriters, publicists, salesmen, and session musicians -- though the role of Motown's many session musicians might be underplayed. It all slowly unraveled starting around the end of the 1960s as the company transferred its base of operation to Los Angeles, and that downhill ramp is covered sufficiently as well. But for a better document of the actual music Motown produced -- which is, after all, its chief legacy -- Nelson George's Motown history Where Did Our Love Go? is a better book to read.
Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes , by Sylvie Simmons (Da Capo Press). Serge Gainsbourg was a major figure of twentieth century popular music and culture in his native France, though his appeal in English-speaking nations has largely been limited to an esoteric cult following. This rather thin book (185 pages, 45 taken up by appendices) is one of the only two English-language volumes about Gainsbourg that had been published as of the early 2000s, though other, much weightier tomes about the singer-songwriter have been issued in France. One does get the impression that much more could have been written about him than Simmons manages (though to her credit she refers readers to some of those other French-language sources). But for English-speaking readers outside of France in particular, it's a useful and entertaining summary of his life, benefiting with some interviews with a few of Gainsbourg's associates, particularly actress Jane Birkin (who was his lover for more than a decade starting in the late 1960s, and also often sang his songs or duetted with him on record). Less extensive interview commentary supplied by Marianne Faithfull and Jamaican rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who backed Gainsbourg on his popular reggae (or "Freggae") recordings, is also useful. But the heart of the book is the author's basic overview of his life arc and career highlights, as well as description and critical analysis of his many recordings, from the late 1950s to his death in the early 1990s, during which he dabbled in a bewilderingly large array of genres. Gainsbourg emerges as a man as peculiar as his songs -- alternately romantic, highly sexual, obsessed with sleaze, and mightily productive despite a publicly visible lifestyle of dissolution. It succeeds in making you want to hear more of his music, and the voluminous discography in the appendices (covering both his own recordings and interpretations of his work by others) give you a good idea of what to look for.
Ticket to Ride: Inside the Beatles’ 1964 Tour That Changed the World, by Larry Kane (Running Press). As a Miami news reporter who was still only in his early twenties, Larry Kane was able to accompany the Beatles throughout their 1964 and 1965 North American tours, as well as on some of their 1966 North American tour; he also interviewed them at a few other points in their career. Here's his memoir of his time with the Beatles, and while it's competently written and fairly detailed, its appeal is limited to Beatlemaniacs. There are many books whose primary audience is Beatlemaniacs, of course, and in that sub-genre this is neither the best nor the worst. Although Kane remembers his experiences with the Beatles well, he doesn't come up with many significant stories that are particularly little-known or surprising. Similarly,, his insights into their characters similarly seems reasonable, but nothing new and exciting for students of the group. There's a little sex, drugs, and controversy, but it's pretty mild, on the order of John Lennon making out with Jayne Mansfield, George Harrison throwing a drink at a nosy photographer, and the group starting to discreetly use marijuana. Too, like many of the reporters following the Beatles during their early career, Kane's questions when he interviewed them were fairly basic and sometimes banal, seldom dealing with their music, though they got a little more probing as time went on. Many of those interviews are quoted within the book, and many of them can be heard on the hour-long CD that's bound into its inside back cover. Overall it gives a sense of how manic (and sometimes tiresome) the Beatlemania tours were, with the hysterical crowds, media crush, and incessant plane rides, though the book and CD are both puffed up with some faintly over-dramatic linking narration. This book, incidentally, is an entirely different one than Barry Tashian's similarly titled Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles' Last Tour.
45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution, by Jim Dawson & Steve Propes (Backbeat). The idea behind this book was a good one, albeit not an easy one to trace in smooth linear form: the birth and evolution of the 45 RPM record, which dominated the popular music market by the end of the 1950s, and which by the end of the 1900s was nearly extinct. The authors' coverage of the birth of the 45 format is thorough, though some of the technicalities behind the perfection of the new technology are on the dry side. In addition to detailing how the 45 resulted from competition between major labels for establishing new dominant 12-inch and seven-inch vinyl formats with the death of the 78, the authors also properly note how important jukeboxes, the rise of teenage culture, and the birth of rock'n'roll were in establishing the 45's pre-eminence. After that early history's dealt with, however, the book flounders a little, with anecdotal, rather drifting coverage of topics like the picture sleeve, the EP, how 45s are made, and a whole chapter on one of the rarest 45s, the Five Sharps' "Stormy Weather." Dawson and Propes' primary expertise is in pre-1960 rock'n'roll and R&B -- they wrote the excellent 1993 book What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record? -- and they seem on far less sure footing when they talk about the 45's role in 1960s rock, and its diminishing importance in the waning years of the twentieth century. There could have been far more written about '60s picture sleeves, non-LP B-sides, B-sides that became hits, rare 45-only versions, the 45's different history in the UK and other countries, and particularly collectable 45s, for instance, although most of those topics are skimmed over. It ends up being a rather slim overview of the subject, though there was room for considerably more in-depth investigations. The book's illustrated with numerous, though not a ton, of particularly odd, interesting, or historical 45s, some of them in color.
When the Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV, by Andy Fyfe (A Cappella). Led Zeppelin IV was the group's most celebrated album, and this book is a 200-page rundown on its evolution. The sections that focus on the recording and composition of the album are thoroughly researched, with song-by-song rundowns both on the shaping of the tracks in the studio, and the critical merits of each tune. There's also a whole section on the cover art, which might seem excessive but isn't, given both the complex mystery of the sleeve and the battles the group fought to have it done their way (with no band name on the cover). The book runs into choppier waters, though, in the context-framing chapters, which take up about as much space as coverage of the album itself. There's a whole lotta stuff on the band's history and recordings before and after Led Zeppelin IV, and while that provides a useful overview for those not overly familiar with Led Zeppelin, much of the information will be old hat to many fans. The tone also leaves something to be desired, sometimes coming across as finding anyone who seriously criticized Led Zeppelin then and now close-minded and deficient. There's too much made of the group's rocky relations with the press (which takes up a whole chapter and then some); there's too much repetition of some of the points the author hammers home in Led Zep's defense; and it even sometimes gets on unsteady factual ground when it widens the lens from Led Zeppelin to broader assertions about rock's history. Unlike the best books in the "Vinyl Frontier" series (which this is part of), it seems padded out to book length with too much material not directly related to the album at hand.
Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman , by Fred Wesley Jr. (Duke University Press). Fred Wesley is most known for his work with James Brown in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, during which time he not only played trombone with the star, but often worked as the director and musical arranger of Brown's band. A good chunk of his autobiography covers his stint with Brown, but it also covers the rest of his career, from his beginnings in Alabama bands as a teenager through his post-Brown solo and band endeavors. Some of the book, to be blunt, is dull, particularly at the very beginning and very end, when it's something of a going-through-the-motions exercise of who did what and what happened when. In between, though, it's entertaining and at times fascinating, starting to gather steam around the time Wesley tours with Ike Turner and Hank Ballard in the early 1960s. It's a good look at the tough hurdles a sideman faced, particularly a Black sideman in the '60s, with forthright storytelling that doesn't shy away from honest self-examination of mistakes and wrong-headedness. After his career was interrupted by a hitch in the Army (which turns out to be much better reading than you might expect), the way's cleared for the most entertaining chapters, those dealing with his life on the road and in the studio with James Brown. Brown is painted as a megalomaniac, one who would impose punishments and tedious rehearsals just for the purpose of exercising authority. Just as interesting as the stories of Brown's impetuousness and temper are Wesley's own brutally honest, though not self-pitying, self-recriminations for being too much of a yes-man to Brown and suffering too much abuse for the sake of being able to play and help produce such great soul and funk. A chapter on Wesley's time with Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band immediately following his departure from the James Brown organization is also good, as are to lesser degrees his reports on his struggles to establish himself in Hollywood as a solo artist and session musician. The sections in which, following drug problems, he straightens out to enjoy some success touring with the JB Horns is surprisingly lacking in color, with a rushed get-it-over-with quality. But for the most part, this is a good look at soul's transition to funk from the inside, told with humor even when the setbacks are heartbreaking.
Yes Yoko Ono, by Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks (Japan Society/Harry N. Abrams). Published in conjunction with a major touring exhibition of Yoko Ono's artwork in 2001-02, this 352-page, coffee table-sized glossy production is a major written and visual document of her multimedia career. As is the case with many art books, it's more for the serious fan and art connoisseur than the general reader. That's due to the scholarly/academic tone of the text, which sometimes discusses her work in highly theoretical fashion in terms used most often in the world of high art. And it's also due, frankly, to the high ($60) price. But even if it's something you're unlikely to sit down with for extended bouts of pleasure reading, it's visually quite excellent, with high-quality color and black-and-white photos (with accompanying text) of dozens of her pieces in several idioms. These include not only coverage of her visual artworks, but also of her "scores and instructions," "events and performances," "advertisements" (the most famous of which are the "War Is Over! If You Want It" billboards she and John Lennon put up in various cities in December 1969), films and video, and music. The essays might not always be easy reading, but they're very detailed and critically acute, also filling in some background on Ono's life and the New York, Tokyo, and London art worlds that influenced her work. (Not all of the essays are by the credited authors Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks; numerous other writers contribute too, which leads to some repetition of facts and ideas.) And the sheer breadth of her career (though most of what's covered predates the mid-1970s) does come across, with plenty of evidence that she was making an impact in the avant-garde art/performance/music world prior to her taking up with Lennon in the late 1960s. Her blend of Japanese and Anglo cultures, never at home with either, is also conveyed, as is her emphasis on audience/viewer participation in much of what she produced. As for some of the most famous pieces represented here, you'll find the "Ceiling Painting (YES Painting)" that Lennon climbed in 1966 when he met her for the first time at a London exhibit; the "Painting to Hammer a Nail" piece, in which Lennon asked if it was alright for him to hammer in an imaginary nail; the "Cut Piece," in which audiences removed articles of Ono's clothes piece by piece; and stills from the film Fly, with an Ono soundtrack. There's also a section anthologizing some of her writings, and a chronology of exhibitions, concerts, and events. And there's a three-song, 20-minute 2000 CD of music by Ono, A Blueprint for the Sunrise (though it's not the same as her 2001 Capitol CD with the same title), bound into the back cover.
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