Archived Reviews

The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour Memories [DVD] (MVD Visual). Though the actual onscreen presence of the Beatles in this documentary is light, it's a decent overview of their 1967 movie Magical Mystery Tour. As the title implies, it emphasizes memories of those involved in some way in the filming, the talking heads pepped up by a bit of home movie footage taken of the Beatles and others on the sets. In truth Magical Mystery Tour (the movie, not the album) was one of the group's least successful and least interesting major projects, but at least a good number of people who did know the Beatles and were in their proximity during its making are interviewed for this 55-minute DVD. Among them are Paul McCartney's brother Mike McCartney, who contributed some ideas to the film (most crucially getting the Bonzo Dog Band to play in one sequence); Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Band themselves; press officer Tony Barrow; Tony Bramwell, a personal assistant to the Beatles; Spencer Davis, who visited the group on the set at one point; Miranda Ward, a journalist who interviewed the Beatles during the filming; Freda Kelly, the fan club president along for the ride; and even some of the dancers in the "Your Mother Should Know" section. While Victor Spinetti would seem to make a good choice as the documentary's narrator as he acted in the film (and other Beatles movies), and he does offer the occasional anecdote, his links are actually a little overly campy, though not quite intrusively so. Since there aren't any major stories uncovered here, and since some of the memories by fans and miscellaneous people who happened to encounter the Beatles during the filming are kind of trivial, it's perhaps best appreciated by Beatlemaniacs rather than more general fans of the band. Note too that no actual Beatles music or clips from the film itself are seen or heard in the documentary (though the soundtrack has some facsimiles of Magical Mystery Tour songs). But at least there are plenty of still photos, some very brief vintage interview clips, some extracts of audio tapes from interviews Miranda Ward did with George Harrison and Ringo Starr while shooting took place, and some fairly entertaining storytelling from the more central participants. The twenty minutes of bonus features present less essential outtakes from interviews with some of the principals who give eyewitness accounts in the main documentary.

The Bee Gees, Odessa [Deluxe Edition] (Reprise/Rhino). Reprise/Rhino went all-out for their deluxe edition treatment of the Bee Gees' 1969 Odessa album. Disc one of the three-CD set has the album (originally a double LP) in its original mono mix; disc two presents it in its original stereo mix; and disc three, most excitingly for Bee Gees fans and collectors, offers 22 previously unreleased tracks (and one promotional radio spot). It goes without saying, perhaps, that this is a pretty specialized affair even by the standards of deluxe editions, especially as Odessa is not exactly considered a core classic late-'60s rock album by mainstream audiences. It has its merits, however, and even though ownership of both the stereo and mono CDs might not be considered essential by the average Bee Gees fan, fanatics will appreciate having both of them side by side (especially as the mono mixes were made available in the US for the first time here).

The real interest, of course, lies in the abundant previously unreleased material. Most of this, it should be cautioned, consists of alternate versions/mixes and demos of songs that made it onto the album -- in fact there demos or alternate takes for every song from Odessa besides "The British Opera" – although there are two previously unissued tunes, "Pity" and "Nobody's Someone," that didn't make it onto the album in any form. As is the case with alternates on many expanded/deluxe CDs, you'd never put these recordings on par with the officially released versions. Mostly they tend to confirm the Bee Gees' judgment as to what takes and arrangements were used on the final LP, with some obviously hesitant performances and a few songs lacking final lyrical polish. But there are some notable interesting differences in the batch, like the "You'll Never See My Face Again" minus orchestration; an early version of "Edison" with different lyrics, at that point titled "Barbara Came to Stay"; a much sparser, fairly rudimentary demo of "Melody Fair," one of the best and most famous songs on the album; "Never Say Never Again" with an upfront heavy fuzz guitar that was erased from the finished master; a demo of "First of May" with nothing more than piano backing; and, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, a version of "With All Nations (International Anthem)" with lyrics, although the one on the official LP ended up being instrumental. As for the two songs with no counterparts on the actual Odessa album, "Nobody's Someone" is a characteristically pleasantly sad, rather sorrowful (if rather lightweight) Bee Gees original that was covered almost thirty years later by a virtually unknown artist named Andrew (no last name); "Pity" is a more upbeat midtempo piano-dominated number, but with a skeletal arrangement obviously in need of completion.

Thorough liner notes explain the origination of the tracks and the differences between the official and previously unreleased versions. Thus overall this, like Reprise/Rhino's box set The Studio Albums 1967-1968 (which gives a similar expanded treatment to the three previous Bee Gees albums), is a valuable supplement to the group's standard 1960s discography. It is a release, however, that will be somewhat limited in appeal to the general pop and rock audience, who might not have the patience to sort through all the multiple versions.

The Doors, Live at the Matrix '67 (DMC/Bright Midnight/Rhino). When the Doors were playing at the Matrix club in San Francisco on March 7 and March 10 of 1967, unofficial tapes were made of their performances. Music from four sets (two each night) from these gigs have long been available on bootleg, and a couple tracks did show up on the Doors' 1997 box set. This two-CD package, however, marks the first official release of material from these shows in bulk. They represent the earliest concert recordings of the band that have been made available, dating from just two months after the release of their debut album (and from a few months before the "Light My Fire" single would catch on and make them superstars). While this by no means has the complete recordings from these two nights that have circulated on bootleg, it does contain one version of every single song captured on the tapes. The sound quality, too, is substantially improved from those bootlegs (though it's not true, as the liner notes claim, that all of those bootlegs had "the worst quality imaginable"). If it's not quite up to the level of the fidelity heard on most official live albums (or even some more adeptly recorded Doors live shows from later in their career that have seen official release), the instruments and vocals come through pretty well, and can easily be listened to for pleasure as well as historical archive value.

More important than the technical and discographical details, however, is the quality of the performances themselves. And while they're occasionally a bit ragged, and certainly not as sleek and cleanly balanced as their studio recordings, you could make an argument for this as the finest Doors live release, from the musical if not fidelity viewpoint. For these are the Doors, and Jim Morrison in particular, when they were still hungry and eager to make an impression, with little of the somewhat self-parodying theatricalism that Morrison would sometimes lapse into onstage after reaching superstardom. There are lean, urgent versions of most of the songs from their classic debut album, as well as, more surprisingly, about half the numbers from the yet-to-be-released Strange Days. "Unhappy Girl," "Moonlight Drive," "My Eyes Have Seen You," "People Are Strange," and "I Can't See Your Face in My Mind" especially have notably sparer arrangements, betraying the band's roots as more of a straightahead rock outfit prior to these songs getting effectively psychedelicized studio treatments. There's even a version of one tune, "Summer's Almost Gone," that they'd wait until their third album, Waiting for the Sun, to put on a studio LP.

Filling out the set are a good number of cover tunes that the Doors didn't release in the 1960s, including several blues and R&B covers. While these have their interest for documenting aspects of their repertoire that aren't fully evident from their studio albums, they also reveal the group to be much less interesting when playing such cover tunes – among them "Money," John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake," Lee Dorsey's "Get Out of My Life Woman," and Them's "Gloria" -- than they were when doing their own material. Still, even these selections include some standouts, especially a burning version of "Who Do You Love" that outdoes the more laidback one on Absolutely Live, and an instrumental version of "Summertime" that gives Ray Manzarek a chance to showcase his organ chops. It's also odd to hear such a cool, almost non-reception from the sparse audience, giving the impression the Doors were playing to a near-empty club, though they seem to be putting as much or more heart into their performance as they would later do for most of their arena concerts. All told, it's an excellent document of their early days that's strongly recommended to Doors fans. It would have been even neater for hardcore fanatics had all four sets from the two nights been included, but admittedly the elimination of multiple versions and resequencing makes this a much more listenable product for the general audience.

Franco & Le Tpok Jazz,  Francophonic (Sterns Music). As his recording career stretched over about 35 years and more than 150 albums, it would be impossible for any Franco compilation, even a two-CD one, to give but a taste of his overall work. If you're willing to accept the limitations inherent in a two-CD set for such a prolific artist, however, Francophonic does a pretty good job of both assembling highlights from his discs and providing some sort of outline to his musical evolution. It samples from numerous eras over the course of its 28 tracks, spanning the years 1953-1980 and lasting a good two-and-a-half hours. In some ways it reflects the changes in African popular music as a whole during this period. It almost sounds a little like a light fusion of Latin and jazz influences in its early rumba-like tunes, growing toward a more steadily rhythmic and ebullient Zairian sound by the end of the 1960s, and stretching out into far longer groove-oriented pieces on the 1970s recordings that take up most of disc two. It's important to remember, however, that guitarist-songwriter Franco was not simply following trends, but was among the most prominent initiators of these developments in African music. The cluster of recordings from the early 1970s on this set seem to be the ones in which he both cements his musical vision and lays down some of his best tracks, particularly in the more haunting tunes that include some call-response vocals, and the tougher outings that contain some of his most forceful guitar work. The 48-page booklet presents an historical overview of his life and music (in both English and French), though some might find it frustrating that more thorough discographical information beyond the original years of release isn't included. It can be a little confusing for Franco newcomers in particular to get a handle on the personnel he used as well, though to be fair to the compilers, discographical data is hardly an easy thing to acquire for African recordings of this vintage, and the booklet does list years of service for many of the singers and musicians with whom Franco played in his bands.

The Incredible String Band, Tricks of the Senses (Hux). A product of remarkable archaeological-strength sleuthing, this double CD has 16 rare and unreleased Incredible String Band recordings from 1966 to 1972. The 95 minutes of material draw primarily from studio outtakes, but also include a May 1968 radio show in New York, a couple live performances from April 1970, and even a home recording from October 1966. Yes, this is primarily for the major ISB fan; some of these are alternate takes/versions, and none of the songs would have been hailed as major highlights of the albums on which they might have been included. Yet at the same time, none of them would have stuck out as especially ill-fitting or weak sore thumbs had they made the cut, making it a pretty enjoyable listen if you like the group, though the numerous eras and lineups represented also ensure that it's not the most consistent listen. Aside from the lo-fi October 1966 rehearsal tape of the band (then just the duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron) doing Leadbelly's "Relax Your Mind," the fidelity throughout is quite good, and the territory covered – as should be no surprise for those even casually familiar with the Incredible String Band – very eclectic.

On disc one alone, there's the ISB's own version of "Lover Man," a song covered on Al Stewart's first album; an alternate take of one of their better-known late-'60s tunes, "The Iron Stone"; a Williamson poem, "The Head," previously only known via the inclusion of its lyrics on an LP insert; and an impressive live 13-minute radio version of "Maya," sitar and all. On disc two, there's a 16-minute suite cut for (but not used on) I Looked Up, "Queen Juanita"; a fetching, wistful 1972 outtake with the mysterious Licorice McKechnie on lead vocals, "Secret Temple," previously available only as a BBC recording; a mere six-minute multi-part epic of sorts in a 1971 piece to accompany a mime play, "Poetry Play Number One"; pleasantly meditative Williamson-penned folky instrumentals; and relatively straightforward, stirring folk-rock in the alternate version (with an additional verse) of "All Writ Down." There are even a couple songs (represented by live recordings) from their somewhat notoriously extravagant onstage epic U that didn't make the corresponding double LP. Characteristically for almost any album billed to the Incredible String Band, there are liberal traces of world music, Indian music, American old-timey sounds, psychedelia, and other unpredictable influences embellishing the haunting British folk at the core of their sound.

The liner notes are extremely thorough in documenting the origins of the material, down to the extent of sidebars containing meticulous explanations as to how the recordings were discovered and restored. It's true that neither this nor another Hux double-CD ISB release, Across the Airwaves (of BBC recordings), could be considered among the group's most essential recordings. Yet each are way above average as archival projects dedicated to the margins of a significant act's work go, and the label deserves high commendation for assembling and packaging them with extreme loving care that is vital to filling out dedicated fans' appreciation of the ISB's large body of work.

Wanda Jackson, Live at Town Hall Party 1958 (Sundazed). Recorded at Wanda Jackson's performance on the Southern California television show Town Hall Party on November 29, 1958, this six-track, ten-inch EP isn't the greatest fidelity-wise. For that reason, purists might prefer to watch the performances of four of these songs on the Bear Family various-artists DVD of clips from that day's actual program. If you're forgiving of the sonic imperfection, this is still a pretty nifty souvenir from the heyday of one of the great rockabilly singers of the 1950s – and it's not as if you have a lot of, if any, other such vintage live Jackson recordings to choose from. Backed by a house band (led by the great guitarist Joe Maphis), Wanda's perhaps a little more country-oriented than some might expect on these numbers, especially considering the backup group includes steel guitar and fiddle. Still, she does rock out hard on "Mean, Mean Man" and "Hard Headed Woman," even if Cliff Crofford's trumpet makes for an unwelcome addition to the arrangements. While not as raucous, the covers of the country hits "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" and "Alone with You" are done with feisty honky-tonk energy, and the Harlan Howard-penned B-side "Queen for a Day" serves as a reminder that she did record much straight country even in her early days.

Jefferson Airplane, Airplane Farm [bootleg] (Deep Six). Recorded live at the Family Dog in San Francisco on September 7, 1969, this bootleg is an excellent-sounding concert that would, under most circumstances, be quite up to snuff as a legitimate release. But as there's already an official live Jefferson Airplane CD with very pro sound recorded just a couple months later (Live at the Fillmore East 1969), as well as a couple other official live discs from 1968, this is redundant for all but serious Airplane freaks. If you're one of those, this is certainly a good listen, the set including a number of their more celebrated songs ("Good Shepherd," "Greasy Heart," "Crown of Creation," "Somebody to Love," "Wooden Ships," and "Volunteers"), as well as some less scintillating ones ("The Farm" and the traditional blues "Come Back Baby"). As for unusual moments, however, there aren't many, other than "The Ballad of You and Pooneil" segueing into a bit of "Starship," which would be a song on Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship's 1970 album Blows Against the Empire. At the end, there are also about 23 minutes of instrumental jamming with guest Jerry Garcia that, like many such relics of the era, aren't too interesting or melodically developed.

Little Willie John, Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions (Kent). Though no Little Willie John discs of material recorded after his imprisonment for murder in October 1964 were issued between that time and his death (in jail) in May 1968, he did actually record quite a few tracks for Capitol in February 1966. These recordings (supervised by David Axelrod and HB Barnum) were unreleased both at the time and for decades afterward, in part because King Records (John's previous label) contended Capitol's right to issue the cuts. This 2008 CD of twenty tracks from the sessions, recorded at a time when he was out on appeal, can thus be considered as a genuine lost Little Willie John album. (And despite the number of songs, there would have only been enough for one LP, since there are two versions of eight of the numbers.) For someone with a murder sentence hanging over him, John sounds remarkably unaffected and at ease, and indeed pretty much the same as he did in his classic King period, albeit a little more mature. Much the same can be said for the arrangements, which update his sound a little into the mid-1960s, but draw considerably from lightly swinging jazz and even a bit of easy listening pop in addition to soul. There are a few remakes of songs he'd cut at King, as well as some standards and R&B-oriented tunes (and, disappointingly, just one original John composition). Would this have re-established John as a star had he won his appeal and Capitol been allowed to put the material out? Probably not; there aren't any songs that scream "hit," and that was still the name of the game in the R&B market. But if it had been somehow marketed as a comeback album, without expectations that it would be a huge seller – in the manner that respectable efforts by R&B and rock veterans were, many times over, in subsequent decades – it would have been well received, as John sings well and the material is sympathetic, if not quite outstanding. For all these reasons, this doesn't rank among his best work; his best King sides remain the place to start. But for the same reasons, it will be enthusiastically and justifiably welcomed by Little Willie John fans as a significant discovery, at a time when few such substantial unreleased bodies of work from soul's golden age seemed to remain at large.

Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon, Breakin' Down the Walls of Heartache: The Best of Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon 1968-1975 (Kent). Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon were kind of oddballs as soul groups went, not so much for their music as for their unusual career path. Though Johnson and his group had little success in their native US, it was a different story over in the UK, where they landed three Top Ten hits and a couple smaller ones in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This well-chosen compilation has a couple dozen of their tracks, all but one from 1967-1972 (the 1968-1975 date range of the title being off by one year), variously billed to the Bandwagon, Johnny Johnson & the Bandwagon, or Johnny Johnson & His Bandwagon. Certainly the biggest and best of them is the 1968 #4 British hit "Breakin' Down the Walls of Heartache," which sounds a little like a Motown record that you think you must have heard sometime on AM radio, but haven't (and which was later covered by Dexy's Midnight Runners). None of the other late-'60s cuts are in the same league, and the Bandwagon often sound like a Motown group that couldn't quite stay on the roster. Sometimes, indeed, it seems as if they can't decide whether to emulate the Four Tops or the tougher side of the Temptations, sometimes coming off like a somewhat more poppier version of the Four Tops. But while Johnson was far from the most original or talented of artists (and there are a few forgettable covers of soul and rock hits padding out his recorded repertoire), the discs he cut for Epic were on the whole pretty likable, if a little lightweight in their somewhat ersatz Motown feel. The Epic material takes up almost two-thirds of this compilation, but the disc does also include just slightly poppier stuff he did in the early 1970s, including the big British hits "Blame It (On the Pony Express)" (whose chorus lifts a hook from the theme to the Scooby Doo cartoon) and "Sweet Inspiration." Also among the later cuts is what has to be the strangest cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" this side of William Shatner, done with such an overt belting early-'70s soul arrangement that you might not even recognize the song until the chorus.

John & Yoko Ono Lennon, Filming to See the Skies [DVD] (Sparkle Disc). It's well known among many Beatles fans that John Lennon and Yoko Ono made quite a few experimental/avant-garde films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Relatively few of those fans, however, have been able to see those films, which have rarely been screened since the time they were made (and weren't screened all that often at the time). The absence of an official release of these works has left a hole for bootleggers to exploit – even if it's wildly uncommercial even by bootlegging standards – that's been met by the two-DVD set Filming to See the Skies, which contains a whopping five hours of films the pair made (usually together) during the era. Even this compilation does not contain everything John and Yoko did in the medium; the item most conspicuous by its absence is the notorious 42-minute 1969 film Self Portrait, which was not a film of John Lennon's head or face, but of the part of his body most likely to cause controversial offense upon public display (and not to be confused with his and Yoko's Erection, which documents the construction of a building). Still, what's here does present the bulk of their output as a filmmaking team. Even the most adventurous and dedicated Beatles/Lennon/Ono fans should be advised that these movies really are uncompromising experimental statements that many will find hard to sit through or unbearably tedious, much as John and Yoko's avant-garde albums are. Yet like those albums, they do contain some interesting ideas and give considerable insight into where the couple's heads were at during the period, even if they're more admirable as concepts than entertainment.

On disc one, Film No. 4 is actually an Ono film without Lennon involvement that precedes the pair's romantic relationship. Consisting solely of brief, serially arranged shots of 365 (sic) pairs of moving buttocks, in its repetition of banal everyday activity, it bears similarities to early Andy Warhol films (as indeed does much of the material on this DVD). It's more interesting, however, for the fairly amusing voiceover commentary about the shooting – from Ono and many others – than the images themselves. From mid-1968, Film No. 5 (Smile) has nearly an hour of Lennon gazing (and sometimes smiling) into the frame, shot with a high-speed camera.Two Virgins, shot around the same time, shows fusing images of John and Yoko while music from their Two Virgins album plays on the soundtrack.

On disc two, the more-or-less feature-length Rape is, by the couple's tough standards, one of their more accessible and watchable efforts, as a camera trails a woman around London and refuses to stop, driving her to anguished hysteria. The short Apotheosis is one of their more ingenious cinematic ideas, a cameraman ascending in a hot air balloon over a village and through wintry fog, several minutes of gray suddenly giving way to a blue sky over a field of clouds. The 19-minute Fly, which follows flies as they dance over a woman's nude body while Ono improvises harrowing wordless vocals on the soundtrack, is probably the pair's most original film; unfortunately, the print transferred onto this DVD, unlike most of the others used for this set, is quite poor and difficult to watch. The one-minute Freedom simply shows a woman (head not shown) taking off her bra as two cold electronic tones alternate on the soundtrack. The 19-minute Erection, via serialization of stills taken of a site over 18 months, shows the construction of a London building as disquieting experimental music (with Ono's trademark experimental vocals) plays on the soundtrack. Bringing the disc to a disappointing close is the brief To See the Skies, with poorly preserved footage of what seems like Ono explaining an exhibit of her work at some unspecified point considerably postdating Lennon's death.

Elvis Presley, Kiss Me Quick Little Sister [bootleg] (KMQ). This bootleg presents no less than 79 minutes of sessions for five songs that were all recorded by Elvis Presley on a single day, that being June 25, 1961. Three of the songs ("Kiss Me Quick," "That's Someone You Never Forget," and "I'm Yours") would be used on the Pot Luck with Elvis album. The other two, both of which were far superior to the other three, would become the A-side ("(Marie's the Name of) His Latest Flame") and B-side ("Little Sister") of what might have been Presley's best single of the early 1960s. Like many such bootlegs with multiple alternate run-throughs of the same songs – eleven of "Kiss Me Quick," three of "I'm Yours," six of "That's Someone You Never Forget," ten of "Little Sister," and 11 of "("Marie's the Name of) His Latest Flame"), to be precise – it's for fans only, there being just too much repetition for anyone else to find it listenable. Nor were the takes all too different from each other or the officially released track, and while this disc spreads out the different versions to keep consecutive multiple versions of any one song to a minimum, that also makes it a little difficult for more scholarly-minded listeners to keep track of each tune's evolution. Still, for those who dig fly-on-the-wall looks at a master's session, there are some things to notice here and there, like the use of an organ (rather than a piano) on early versions of "(Marie's the Name of) His Latest Flame," and the overall gradual addition of fullness and power to the arrangements and vocals.

Relatively Clean Rivers, Relatively Clean Rivers (Fallout). Many American rock LPs of the mid-1970s given very small pressings on tiny or vanity labels had something of a time warp hangover feel, as if the trends of hippie rock from about half a dozen years earlier were still in vogue. Relatively Clean Rivers' self-titled album is one such rarity, with an easygoing California folk-rock-psychedelic feel in which light-to-strong traces of Neil Young, the countrified Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service can be heard. It's different than the vast majority of such LPs, however, in that it's actually a fairly good collection of tunes with some decent songwriting and strong, professional playing and harmonizing. No one should investigate this under the illusion that it's nearly as good as the aforementioned influences, mind you. But it's quite alright, and also not as imitative as many artists from numerous eras were who claimed Neil Young and the Dead as influences. There's an attractive resigned, almost addled melancholy to the vocals and melodies that sets this apart from the usual such fare, though some of the songs could certainly have benefited from more structured composing and arranging. There's some variety to the proceedings (and from the general folk-rock-psychedelic prototype) too, with some extended instrumental acoustic passages and a middle-eastern influenced number, "The Persian Caravan," that recalls exotic early Country Joe psychedelic excursions like "Section 43." Overall the album almost gives the impression of documenting the dying embers of a band of hippies who've found refuge in one of the last safe places for souls of such a mindset, clinging to their credo as their species awaits oncoming extinction. The album became much easier to acquire following its CD reissue in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Sam & Dave, The Original Soul Men [DVD] (Hip-O). It's unlikely that a better vintage performance footage-centered Sam & Dave DVD could be constructed than this disc, which features 18 clips, all but two from their 1966-1970 prime (though "Road Runner" features the Sam & Dave Orchestra rather than Sam & Dave themselves). Assembled from a wide variety of American and European sources (mostly but not always from television programs), it contains versions—usually, but not always, live rather than mimed—of all of their most popular songs and then some. "Soul Man" is here, of course, but so are "I Take What I Want," "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Soothe Me," "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby," "Hold On! I'm Comin'," "You Got Me Hummin'," and "I Thank You." The live performances are the ones that hold the most fascination, as you'd expect, both for the duo's energetic singing and animated stage presence, as well as (on the color clips) some very of-their-era loudly colored suits in hues of lemon, lime, and red. As unusual departures from their sweaty soul repertoire, there are also versions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Make It Easy on Yourself" and, less enjoyably, the pop standard "Lucky Ol' Sun," the latter sung with talk show host Mike Douglas. A 1980 revival of "Soul Man" on {#Saturday Night Live} and a 2007 solo Sam Moore rendition of "You Are So Beautiful" are by far the least essential items, to be honest. But overall the DVD does a fine job of surveying their career, taking care not to offer multiple versions of songs and drawing from a wider variety of sources than most fans would have suspected survived. As a small documentary element, interviews done specially for this project with Sam Moore, Stax Records executive Al Bell, Booker T. & the MG's bassist Duck Dunn, fan and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, and others are deftly inserted between clips without wearing out their welcome. The bonus clips of the Blues Brothers singing "Soul Man" on Saturday Night Live and the Sam & Dave Orchestra playing "Secret Agent Man" are extraneous. But a different version of "I Take What I Want" makes a more worthwhile extra, and rare 1963 clips of the Davis Sisters, the Soul Stirrers, and Jackie Verdell & Brother Joe May audiovisually illustrate Sam & Dave's gospel roots.

Patti Smith, Under Review [DVD] (Sexy Intellectual). Like other DVDs in the Under Review series, this 90-minute disc is a documentary heavily slanted toward critical evaluation of the performer's albums and songs, mixing vintage film clips and photo stills with interviews done specifically for the chapter. Patti Smith fans might be disappointed that the clips (though numerous and from various part of her career) are pretty brief excerpts of songs rather than complete performances, and that neither Smith herself nor some of her closest musical associates (like Lenny Kaye) were interviewed, although there are a couple Smith interview snippets from other sources. Otherwise, however, it's a pretty good overview of her career, properly concentrating on the four albums she issued during her mid-to-late-'70s peak, though cursory coverage is given to her work from the 1980s onward as well. Even by the Under Review series' standards, the circle of critics providing commentary on her music is heavyweight, including two Smith biographers (Victor Bockris and Nick Johnstone), Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Savage, and Mark Paytress. But there are also a few good observations from people who actually worked on her albums, particularly Radio Ethiopia producer Jack Douglas (who remembers being called in to work on the title track in the midst of a hurricane) and Horses engineer Frank D'Augusta (who praises producer John Cale's tactic of staying out of sight from the band in the control room to make them feel more comfortable). The minimal extras include a Patti Smith quiz and the strangely titled "Special Feature – Horses for Courses – The Making of a Landmark Album," which isn't a feature or about Horses at all, but a 90-second story about a Smith performance told by Victor Bockris.

Various Artists, The Big Top Records Story (Ace). Run as a sideline by the owners of the heavyweight publishing company Hill & Range (most famous for supplying songs to Elvis Presley), the Big Top label never really established either an artistic identity or much of a commercial track record. Despite landing the occasional hit, they remain most remembered by rock'n'roll fans for issuing Del Shannon's first hits. Perhaps because it was a secondary concern of the owners, the company didn't seem to have much of a focus, and listening to this 26-track compilation of 1958-64 Big Top releases is a little like getting a pack of random overstock 45s from one of those record stores that used to sell them in batches of ten for a dollar. But though the resulting unevenness means this compilation is unlikely to appeal to anyone but serious rock'n'roll collectors, it's actually a little better and more interesting than many such specialty anthologies. For one thing, it does actually have a few hits, including Shannon's "Runaway" (presented in a rare stereo mix with a slightly different vocal than the familiar hit single) and "Little Town Flirt," as well as Don & Juan's 1961 doo wop smash "What's Your Name?" Some of the smaller hits are very cool, for different reasons. Lou Johnson's 1964 single "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" (covered for #1 UK hit by Sandie Shaw in 1964) is the original version of that Bacharach-David classic. The Dynamics' odd minor-key tail-end doo wop number "Misery" (from 1963) was rewritten almost note-for-note as the B-side of the debut 1964 single by the Who (then called the High Numbers), "Zoot Suit." (Although "Zoot Suit" is usually cited as a rewrite of the Showmen's "Country Fool," it clearly is far more similar to "Misery" in both melody and arrangement.)

Elsewhere, there are a number of intriguing oddities, even if some are more odd than good. Don & Juan's "True Love Never Runs Smooth" is another overlooked original version of a Bacharach-David tune (covered by a hit for Gene Pitney); Andrea Carroll offers quite good girl group-styled tunes with "The Doolang" and "It Hurts to Be Sixteen"; and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman wrote a few of these rarities, including "White Bucks and Saddle Shoes" by a pre-teenage, girlish-sounding Bobby Pedrick Jr., who would in the 1970s later score hits as Robert John. There are also a few very early, clearly yet-to-hit-his-stride productions by Phil Spector, including one of ex-Chantels singer Arlene Smith's "He Knows I Love Him Too Much," written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King (and redone with more success by the Paris Sisters). Add in an "answer" record to Elvis Presley's "Return to Sender" (Gerri Granger's "Don't Want Your Letters"), a solo single by "Maximillian," aka Del Shannon's musitron player Max Crook, and quite interesting notes about the label's history and origins, and there are enough curveballs to keep serious early rock scholars entertained.

Various Artists, Break-A-Way: The Songs of Jackie DeShannon 1961-1967 (Ace). With this volume, Ace Records' songwriters series – which had previously documented such well-known early pop-rock composers as Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King – takes a more daring step into the catalog of a writer less famous, though not less talented. Though she had a couple big hit records of her own in the 1960s and released many discs in the decade, Jackie DeShannon was even more active as a songwriter, with many of her compositions (including many she never released under her own name) getting covered by artists in both the US and UK. This compilation has 27 such songs, some written by DeShannon herself, and some in collaboration with noted figures like Sharon Sheeley, Jimmy Page, and Jack Nitzsche. Though there's one big hit here (the Searchers' "When You Walk in the Room") and another track that was on a famous hit album ("Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe," from the Byrds' 1965 debut LP), for the most part these are songs known only to record collectors, and in a couple cases more known by versions other than the ones represented here.

Like all of the other CDs in the Ace songwriters series, this isn't exactly a best-of as regards DeShannon covers, mixing some of her most famous tunes with rarities by big names, and just plain rarities by singers hardly anyone's ever heard of. While DeShannon went on to record quite a bit of material in a late-'60s/early-'70s serious singer-songwriter vein, these songs make plain her skill at creating catchy Brill Building-style pop, sometimes with a gutsy sexy and folky streak missing from the more pop-oriented Brill Building tunesmiths. For all her talent, however, these interpretations don't always do the material full justice. "When You Walk in the Room," "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe," and Irma Thomas' "Break-A-Way" (a great song given wider exposure when Tracey Ullman made it into a Top Five British hit in 1983) are the only really superb tracks. A few others (P.J. Proby's "Just Like Him," Brenda Lee's "So Deep") are pretty good; a few of the better ones were done better by other artists (notably Cher's "Come and Stay with Me" and Gay Shingleton's "In My Time of Sorrow," both given superior treatments by Marianne Faithfull); and a few are disappointingly tame or clumsy versions of clearly fine songs (Diana Dawn's "Back Street Girl," the Bandits' "I Remember the Girl"). And while several other stars are represented (such as Duane Eddy, Rick Nelson, Peggy March, Bobby Vee, Dobie Gray), their cuts aren't highlights in either their or DeShannon's careers.

Break-A-Way, of course, is still a fine compilation, put together and annotated with Ace's customary expertise. But while this might be a somewhat insider collector-oriented point, such collectors know that DeShannon herself – a great singer in addition to being a great songwriter – recorded versions of some of these songs (like "Back Street Girl" and "Blue Ribbons") for rare publisher demo LPs that, both vocally and production-wise, were immeasurably superior. It's to be hoped that some or all of the material from those demo LPs eventually sees CD release to put the record straight, which doesn't seem to be as far-fetched a whim as one might think, since the Break-A-Way CD itself closes with a previously unissued folky 1967 DeShannon demo, "Only You Can Free My Mind." Even if such releases don't come to pass, DeShannon was so prolific that additional compilations of covers of her compositions would be welcome.

Various Artists, Do-Wah-Diddy: Words and Music By Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (Ace). As part of its excellent ongoing series on major American pop-rock songwriters of the 1950s and 1960s, Ace presents a couple dozen '60s recordings of tunes penned by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry – usually working together, though on occasion with others, Barry penning one alone – on this compilation. Like other anthologies in this series, it's not a best-of, instead being a more collector-oriented cross-section of hits, misses, original versions, and rare versions. That might disappoint some looking for a quick fix of the most well known covers of Barry-Greenwich songs, as this is missing most of the ones that became big hits, including all of the ones produced by Phil Spector and most of the ones done by the Shangri-Las. However, for those fans who have most or all of those tracks somewhere in their collection anyway, it's a very nifty selection of fine Brill Building records, more often than not of the classic girl group variety. It's true that the best tracks are the most familiar, all of them medium-to-big hits: Lesley Gore's "Maybe I Know," the Beach Boys' "I Can Hear Music," the Jelly Beans' "Baby Be Mine," the Butterflys' "Good Night Baby," the Chiffons' "I Have a Boyfriend," the Shangri-Las' superb drama "Out in the Streets," and the Exciters' original version of "Do-Wah-Diddy," soon covered for a chart-topping British Invasion hit by Manfred Mann. But there are some rarities to entertain the collector that are good on their own terms, especially the Darlettes' "Here She Comes," a first-rate vengeful girl group number, and the young Andy Kim's moody 1965 single "I Hear You Say (I Love You)."  Even some of the classics presented not-quite-in-their-original versions are cool, like the Summits' 1963 single "Hanky Panky" (the first occasion that song was released on 45) and Nilsson's respectable interpretation of "River Deep – Mountain High." It's only occasionally that there's a real misfire, like the Majors' "What Have You Been Doin'," which is a blatant rewrite of that doo wop group's only hit, "A Wonderful Dream." Otherwise it's a fine trawl through this great songwriting team's less anthologized contributions to the Brill Building sound, with Ace's usual fine liner notes and track-by-track annotation.

Various Artists, Golden Age of American Popular Music: The Country Hits (Ace). Twenty-eight country hits that also crossed over to the pop charts between 1953 and 1963 – albeit usually charting far lower on the pop side, usually stopping well short of the Top Forty – are assembled on this interesting compilation. It should be clarified at the outset that despite the somewhat similar titles and concept, this is an entirely different CD than another anthology on the Ace label, The Golden Age of American Rock'n'Roll: Special Country Edition. That disc had plenty of country hits that were really big pop hits (a la Marty Robbins' "El Paso"), some of which are still played on oldies radio. Golden Age of Popular Music: The Country Hits, in contrast, has very few such items, with exceptions here and there like Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" and Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." What this collection does do is give you a pretty good cross-section of country music as it moved away from hillbilly roots to more commercial, poppier, and more slickly produced sounds, though these particular cuts hardly sound slick per se. Many of country's greatest, and certainly most popular, singers of the era are represented, including Cline, Cash, Robbins, Jim Reeves, Ray Price, Bobby Bare, Lefty Frizzell, Roy Clark, Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, Floyd Cramer, and Faron Young. To the pop and rock fan, however, there aren't as many songs that will stand out as there are on The Golden Age of American Rock'n'Roll: Special Country Edition; even the quite thorough liner notes admit at that "most of the inclusions here are of a gentler nature than those on its sister CD." But there are some actual classics on the track list, including Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man"; Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You," later covered for a huge pop hit by Ray Charles; and Ferlin Husky's "Wings of a Dove." There are also some items worth hearing for their sheer offbeatness, such as Skeeter Davis' "My Last Date (With You)," a sort of vocal version/answer song to Floyd Cramer's huge hit "Last Date," and Cramer's own Top Ten pop instrumental cover of Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose."

Various Artists, Hot Guitars: American Guitar Tracks from the 1920s-1950s (Viper). The concept behind this compilation is not only to present 20 tracks that showcase guitar virtuosos of various strains of American popular music from 1922 to 1957. It also gathers songs that were specifically constructed to spotlight guitars, or which were devoted to guitars, if only in their song titles. While the concept is a bit on the specious side, the important thing is that it does offer a good sampler of fine and sometimes spectacular recordings spotlighting guitarists in the electric blues, country blues, Western swing, hillbilly, swing jazz, and early rock'n'roll styles. There are, as you'd expect, some very famous names here, like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, and Chet Atkins, though the tracks by which they're represented are by no means their most famous. There are also a few pretty famous cuts, most notably Johnny "Guitar" Watson's astonishingly futuristic-for-1954 blues/R&B workout "Space Guitar," and Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's "Guitar Boogie." And there are numerous names and tunes that will be known mostly to specialist collectors, though the talent on display is of a similarly high level. It's true that, relative to other wide-ranging compilations of American roots music from the same era on the Viper label, the annotation is on the rather whimsical and general side, though at least the year of each recording is supplied. If you're not so concerned with background information and more with an overall glimpse of the evolution of the guitar in American roots music from the Roaring Twenties through the birth of rock'n'roll, however, this is a very good ride. It's especially to be complimented for giving some due to overlooked pioneers who are less celebrated than the names cited earlier in this paragraph, such as Adolph Hofner, Joe Maphis, and Leon McAuliffe.

Various Artists, Sing Me a Rainbow: A Trident Anthology 1965-1967 (Big Beat). In the mid-1960s Trident Productions, run by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber, recorded quite a bit of San Francisco Bay Area rock, usually but not always leaning to the folk-rock side. Though they had a big hit right away with the We Five's 1965 smash "You Were on My Mind," that single (and, to a lesser extent, the We Five group) represented the only real success Trident managed, despite distribution for some of their recordings through A&M and Verve. Sing Me a Rainbow is a two-CD set of tracks cut by Trident from 1965 to 1967, the great majority of them previously unreleased. Those tracks that were released will be familiar to the San Francisco '60s rock fan, including "You Were on My Mind" and a few other We Five singles, as well as Blackburn & Snow's neglected folk-rock classic "Stranger in a Strange Land" and the Mystery Trend's garage-psychedelic 45 "Johnny Was a Good Boy." Otherwise, though, this is virgin territory for all but the most insider San Francisco '60s rock collectors, even if some of the artists (particularly the Sons of Champlin and John Stewart) went on to release reasonably high-profile records.

While it would be unrealistic to expect most of this to measure up to the better San Francisco rock of the early psychedelic scene, it does contain its share of cuts worth hearing, as well as generally contributing to a wider picture of the Bay Area scene at the time than is available through commonly available discs. Certainly not many people have heard the four We Five singles here other than "You Were on My Mind," which generally present a more straightforward and gutsier folk-rock combo than their LP tracks did. John Stewart & Randy Steirling's "Leave Me Alone" is a surprisingly early (August 1965) and brooding venture by then-Kingston Trio member Stewart into folk-rock; the Front Line's "Got Love" (later re-recorded for an official 45 outside Trident) is superb spiky garage rock; and the New Tweedy Brothers, known to San Francisco psychedelia aficionados for their rare 1968 LP, offer strong folk-rock on "Time," a song later re-recorded for that album. While much of the rest is rather average period folk-rock (though some British Invasion-influenced garage-pop is present too), sometimes with a soft pop bent, even much of this is invested with some of the bittersweet yet uplifting spirit particular to San Francisco rock of the time and place. Ace/Big Beat also deserves credit for giving dedicated collectors of the style something different from the few familiar names, including a few alternates/demos/backing tracks of recordings from Blackburn & Snow (the best of Trident's acts, the We Five included), the Sons of Champlin (in a much poppier style than their later, more psychedelic incarnation), and the Mystery Trend. Compiler/annotator Alec Palao, too, deserves much credit from rescuing this quite extensive archive of a nearly forgotten, but vital, corner of early San Francisco rock history for commercial release.

Various Artists, Still Dead: The Grim Reaper's Jukebox (Ace). Ace's 2006 compilation Dead! The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits doesn't automatically seem like the kind of concept that would generate a sequel. But there were certainly enough rock'n'roll "death" discs in the 1950s and 1960s to fill up a series, and two years later, the label was back with 24 more such novelties from 1952-1969. As theme-concept various-artist rock anthologies go, songs about death certainly rank among the odder and more interesting subjects available, owing both to their morbidity and the sheer difficulty of making a record about death that's both commercial and avoids bad taste. Actually, such discs (including many of the ones assembled for this CD) usually weren't all that successful at doing so, but they're at least amusing to hear for their sheer weirdness, assuming they don't catch you in the wrong frame of mood. There is one out-and-out classic here, the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," as well as a couple other hits, Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy" and Billy Ward & the Dominoes' ridiculously over-the-top weeper "The Bells." Otherwise, you're likely to be hearing most of these ditties for the first time, and frankly, quite a few of them aren't all that good, with some exceptions. Little Caesar's "Goodbye Baby" is an incredibly risqué early-'50s R&B murder tune, while the same singer's 1960 rarity "The Ghost of Mary Meade" is an effectively spooky outing. The Whyte Boots' "Nightmare" is well known to girl group collectors as one of the best Shangri-Las imitations, and Vern Stovall's 1961 single "Long Black Limousine" was famously covered by Elvis Presley. Beyond that, it's very uneven sledding, perhaps highlighted, if that's the right word, by the so-bad-it's-fascinating 1969 single "The Year 2000" by Estelle (aka Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes), in which she awkwardly details the end of the human race by the end of the millennium. Likewise stretching the boundaries of good taste is an "answer" record to the Everly Brothers' hit "Ebony Eyes," the Beverly Sisters' "Flight 1203," in which in turns out Miss Ebony Eyes has missed the flight on which everyone else has died. Much of the rest falls into the fun-to-hear-once-or-twice (or less) category, preferably on Halloween, when you need an offbeat selection of seasonal tunes to impress your record collector friends. But it's good fun, if not exactly clean, with appropriately irreverent detailed liner notes as to the backgrounds of these unlikely deathsploitation records.


Archived Reviews

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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