When I post about things to see and do in the Bay Area in my blog, I focus on biking and hiking. I also focus on sights and locales that are off the beaten path. San Francisco cable car rides are not off the beaten path, and they don’t involve biking or hiking, either. They’re among the city’s biggest tourist attractions. So what gives with this post?
My excuse, if you want to call it that, is that for the entire month of August, all San Francisco cable car rides were free. They’d been out of commission, like so many things all over the world, for almost the last year and a half. This is part of a city plan to test the equipment after they’d been out of service for so long. Maybe that doesn’t make the most cautious of riders feel so easy when the cars stop and start down some of the steepest urban streets in the country, though the risk seems pretty minimal, or at least not appreciably greater than taking the cars has always been.
Here’s an embarrassing confession: although I’ve lived in the Bay Area for about 35 years, it had been decades since I’ve taken a cable car. Rides are a lot more expensive than they are on the city’s regular streetcars, buses, and trains: $8.00 one way. Cable cars go to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is considered a tourist ghetto by San Francisco residents. Sure, some snobbery comes into play – why pay extra to jam yourself onto a car with a bunch of tourists to someplace you don’t want to go, when you have more important things to do?
You can’t turn down a free ride, though, so I took a couple in August. So here’s another confession. The ride’s great, fun, and not an overblown tourist hype. Not worth the $16 roundtrip in normal times, perhaps, but certainly worth a ride at some point. Even if, by the time you read this, the free rides will be over, and who knows if they’ll ever happen again.
As far as I could tell, the only line in service during this free month test run was the one people usually take, running downtown from Powell and Market Streets to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a twenty-thirty-minute wait, but there’s some entertainment on offer when the operators make the manual turnaround at the terminal:
There are some mediocre street entertainers at the stop that are too loud for my taste. Surprisingly, however, one dancer played Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker” on his boom box at one point during his routine. That’s not exactly standard fare for street entertainment. (Trivia note: Japan’s YMO were one of the few non-African-American acts to appear on Soul Train.)
There’s no canned music on the cable car, and plenty of views as it makes its way up Powell and then down Hyde to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is from the stop at Lombard (where it’s, famously, the world’s crookedest street) and Hyde:
From Powell and California, the Transamerica Pyramid:
You can see the Bay Bridge at some point, though usually not too much of it:
This isn’t the kind of scenery that will draw many photos from tourists, but near the end of the ride, you’ll see a significant new park (to be called Francisco Park) under construction where there used to be a reservoir:
The ride ends just a few blocks down the hill from there:
There’s another turnaround when you take the ride back to downtown from the Hyde Street terminal. There’s a line, too, though it was more like ten minutes instead of twenty-thirty the second time I took it:
There’s also a view of Golden Gate Bridge from the terminal, though it can be pretty foggy:
What to do in Fisherman’s Wharf? The only thing I like to do, except bicycle through it, is check out the sea lions on Pier 39. There’s always a crowd on the benches, but it’s worth the view:
As time goes on, it seems like there are more and more tribute/covers albums than ever before by acts known mostly for doing their own material. Songs from the 1940s, x superstar interprets compositions by x songwriter, an all-blues covers session – there are plenty of examples. In fact, such projects have been a part of rock from its start, whether it was Elvis Presley doing a Christmas album or Ray Charles doing Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Del Shannon even did a Sings Hank Williams LP in 1965, though like many such combos, it looks more interesting than it sounds.
Arguably, the first such post-Beatles detour by an established star known for doing original material to gain wide attention was David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, devoted to classic British Invasion covers in 1973. Around the same time, the Band did their oldies record, Moondog Matinee, and Bryan Ferry his all-covers LP, These Foolish Things. A little more than a year later, John Lennon put out his oldies covers collection, Rock’n’Roll.
Sometimes these records seemed to mark time when a band had run out of inspiration or fresh material (Moondog Matinee). Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll was at least partly cut to settle a legal dispute over song copyrights. The motivation behind other projects seemed kind of inscrutable—Bowie kept pumping out original material shortly after Pin-Ups, and maybe just wanted a break from the pressure to deliverable more compositions after his ascent to glam superstardom.
With this post, I’m listing my favorite such sort of side endeavors predating Pin-Ups. Even considering there weren’t as many such projects back then, it’s a little surprising how few of them excite me. There are a good number such attempts by artists I like very much that basically leave me indifferent. I’ll list a few of these with brief notes at the end.
The clear winner—the only one that sounds very good, makes for a good album-length statement, and doesn’t sound like a novelty or a distraction from the main course—is:
Laura Nyro and LaBelle, Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). Nyro is most known as a songwriter, and mostly for songs that were big hits for other people, like “Eli’s Coming,” “And When I Die,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Sweet Soul Picnic,” and “Stoney End.” She was also, however, a very good singer, with a bigger soul influence than most musicians put in the singer-songwriter bag.
So she was well suited for doing an album of soul covers, most of them fairly big hits, although some of the older and more doo-wop-flavored ones (“The Wind,” “Desiree,” and “The Bells”) weren’t as familiar. And while temporary teams of well known performers usually aren’t special, she also blended well with LaBelle as backup singers for the sessions. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who produced the album as they were rising to prominence in the Philly soul sound, don’t lay it on as lush as they did on many of their hits, which also works well with Nyro’s approach.
Gonna Take a Miracle doesn’t sound like a novelty or side project, but a strong album on its own merits. I wouldn’t say any of these versions surpass the originals, but they’re appreciably different, and moving enough that you aren’t mentally comparing them to superior renditions. The 2002 CD reissue enhances the product with four previously unreleased soul covers (none of them on the studio LP) from a 1971 Fillmore East concert, though a couple of those are pretty brief.
Why did Nyro do this at a time when few other artists of her stature were embarking on similar studio projects? It’s harsh, but the best of her songwriting was already behind her, although she was just 23 when this was recorded in June 1971. Indeed, most of her songwriting was behind her. Her next album didn’t appear until 1976, and there weren’t many others before her 1997 death. Maybe she had dried up and had few notable new compositions to offer. As she’s already done some soul covers in concert, it could have been seen as a way of marking time until she had new material. Instead it ended up being her last album of note.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965). While some albums in this post are by artists who wrote most of their own material, some aren’t. By the admittedly loose standards I’m applying, I included some where noted artists did something different than what they usually did, even if they wrote few or none of their songs. Here’s one instance, from early 1965, with folk legend Odetta presenting an entire album of Bob Dylan compositions. This was, to the best of my knowledge, only the second such Dylan cover LP—there was a very obscure one by Linda Mason (How Many Seas Must a White Dove Sail) in 1964, but neither that album nor that singer are very good.
Odetta Sings Dylan, however, is very good. Her singing is expectedly strong, her interpretations sensitive, and her accompaniment—by guitarists Bruce Langhorne (who’d played on some Dylan albums) and Peter Childs, and Les Grinage—is excellent. While the songs include a few that were already well known (“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”), a number of them wouldn’t be released by Dylan in the ‘60s (“Baby, I’m in the Mood for You”; “Long Ago, Far Away,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”; “Walkin’ Down the Line”; and “Long Time Gone”). The ten-minute version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” might have been released before Dylan’s own rendition, if only very shortly before that.
The 2000 CD on Camden adds two worthwhile bonus tracks from previous Odetta albums, both Dylan covers (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Paths of Victory”). One reason this isn’t #1 is that it’s a folk album, not a rock one, though it has close connections to an artist at the time he was making the transition from folk to rock. Dylan cited Odetta as one of the biggest influences in his changing focus from rock to folk as a teenager.
Various Artists, Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (1963). How does a various artists compilation make a list like this? It does if you consider Phil Spector the artist on this LP of Christmas songs by acts on his Philles Records roster, including the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love. For the record, originally it was titled A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, and then A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.
Generally I don’t like Christmas music, but this is an exception that proves the rule, mostly because Spector held nothing back in laying his wall of sound on these tracks. So they sound more like Phil Spector records than Christmas ditties, though the singers perform them with praiseworthy passion, especially the Ronettes on “Sleigh Ride.”
It’s well known by historians that this was released on the day JFK was assassinated. While it’s been written that the album was heard by virtually no one because the United States wasn’t in the mood for such a record, that’s not entirely true. For what it’s worth, it made #13 on Billboard’s Christmas album sales chart in December 1963, though I don’t think records on that chart sold in huge numbers. It’s reached plenty of listeners through subsequent reissues, however, even making the charts at various points—including a #12 on Billboard’s pop chart quite recently at the beginning of 2021.
The Beach Boys, Beach Boys Party! (1965). No, this isn’t as good as the Beach Boys’ next (and best) album, 1966’s Pet Sounds. It’s not even as good as most of their previous LPs. It wasn’t really recorded at a party, either; it was done in a studio, with some of the party sounds overdubbed later. It’s seen as a stopgap to satisfy Capitol Records’ demand for more material as they, and particularly Brian Wilson, prepared to embark on their most serious project, Pet Sounds.
Still, there’s an inviting loose and casual atmosphere to this collection of largely acoustic covers. Most of them are far from the same league as the originals, including a couple songs by their chief rivals, the Beatles, and even Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But despite the artificial pretense of eavesdropping on an actual party, they sound like they’re having fun, and it’s kind of like a bootleg that got released. And it was quite successful – Party! got to #6 in the US, and #3 in the UK.
There was one cover that did match and, commercially certainly, surpassed the original. That was “Barbara Ann,” which soared to #2 in the US and #3 in the UK, with a lot of help from an exuberant co-lead vocal by uncredited guest Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean. That alone made the album session worthwhile. Greil Marcus’s claim in the Stranded book that “Barbara Ann” “feels better than anything on Pet Sounds—or Sgt. Pepper” is not so much revisionism as extremism, however.
Call me behind the times, but I wasn’t aware until writing this that there’s an 81-track expanded edition of Party! from 2015, titled Beach Boys’ Party! Uncovered and Unplugged. Some of it has alternate takes, but there are also a good number of covers that didn’t make the original LP. Much if not all this had been bootlegged, and it’s fair to say it’s probably too much even for many listeners who enjoy the core album, though it’s out there if you want it.
The Temptations, The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965). As another example of how loose this category can be, here we have an act who wrote none of their own material filling up an LP with compositions by a guy who wrote (or co-wrote) most of their early hit songs anyway. Still, it was unusual in the mid-1960s for rock or soul stars to prominently bill an album as having been written by, or at least entirely comprised of songs by, a specific songwriter. A couple of the tracks, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl,” had already been big hits. Some of the others had been big hits for others—“You Beat Me to the Punch” by Mary Wells and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson’s main group, the Miracles. Others had been previously released by the Miracles, even if they hadn’t been big hits (“(You Can) Depend on Me” and “Who’s Lovin’ You”).
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl” are easily the best items here, and I’m not as big on this album as some other soul critics are. Still, it’s fairly solid and was certainly a big hit with customers at a time when Motown (and soul) performers didn’t prioritize LPs, hitting #1 on the R&B charts. Motown used a similar strategy on a release by their biggest female stars, 1967’s The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, spotlighting material by the songwriting-production team who’d penned and produced all their hits.
Here are some brief comments on similar detours by other notable artists, some of which are valued much more highly by some others than I rate them:
The Everly Brothers, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958). I wish I liked this album more than I do, since I’m a big Everly Brothers fan and the concept is kind of interesting. But this collection of folk songs—an audacious move at a time when the Everlys had just ascended to rock’n’roll superstardom—is kind of dull, with only minimal accompaniment. They harmonize well, but it accentuates how great their early hits (and, for the most part albums) were, with superb catchy songs boasting rock and pop influences that are missing from these tunes.
Skeeter Davis, Skeeter Sings Buddy Holly (1967). I like Skeeter Davis, and I love Buddy Holly. But this album’s just okay, with country-rockish backing, occasional light strings, and competent straightforward, upbeat interpretations by Davis. It was a bit weird to be doing an album like this in 1967, when Holly wasn’t in the forefront of pop and rock consciousness.
The Hollies, Hollies Sing Dylan (1969). This album’s most famous, or infamous, for helping spur Graham Nash’s departure from the Hollies at a time when he felt they, and artists in general, should be writing their own material. The album itself isn’t discussed that much, although it did reach some listeners at the time, making #3 in the UK (though, titled Words and Music By Bob Dylan, it missed the charts entirely in the US). Despite the group’s frequent skill at interpreting material by others, it’s not too memorable and doesn’t suit their strengths, particularly their rich vocal harmonies. Give them points at least for tossing in a song, “Quit Your Low Down Ways,” that hadn’t appeared on a Dylan release, though Peter, Paul & Mary did it on their 1963 In the Wind album.
Rolling Stone, by the way, offered a couple radically different assessments of the results in a couple books bearing its imprint. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock’n’Roll, Ken Emerson wrote the group “stood Dylan on his head with brilliant rearrangements that made no sense but produced ravishing music.” In The Rolling Stone Record Guide, however, John Milward countered, “When [their] formula was applied to more serious-minded interpretations, as on the Dylan album, the effect could be disastrous.”
Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman (1970). I like Harry Nilsson a lot; I’m not a fan of Randy Newman, much less so than many critics are. There was some courage in doing an entire album of a song by a different composer at a time when Nilsson had just one big hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and when Newman wasn’t too well known, though some stars had already scored some success (and, in the UK, big hits) with his songs. But these songs, and this record, leave no lasting impression on me. Nilsson sings well, but a lot of these kind of albums are sung well. You need a lot more to happen to make a good LP.
Booker T. & the MG’s, McLemore Avenue (1970). I like Booker T. & the MG’s a lot, and the Beatles are my favorite act of all time. So what could go wrong with an album that covered Abbey Road? Nothing wrong, exactly, but nothing nearly as special as Booker T. & the MG’s’ best instrumentals, let alone Abbey Road itself. This is often described as an instrumental version of Abbey Road, but it’s not quite that. All of the songs are combined into medleys in different order than the Beatles used, and “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” aren’t here at all.
And a footnote for an album that was considered, but never completed: When the Beatles were recorded what was initially titled the Get Back album in January 1969, one idea was to make a record comprised entirely of oldies covers, perhaps as a partner to an LP with original material. As many hours of bootlegged material from the month reveal, they jammed on many, many oldies during the sessions. However, most of those covers were pretty bad, and many of them incomplete, or afflicted with poor memories of the lyrics. Maybe they could have been capable of an interesting such disc had they focused on it, but that focus wasn’t there during the Get Back sessions.
Earlier this month, I traveled outside of the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in a year and a half. Not that far outside of the Bay Area, I admit. In fact, I took about as short a drive as I could—around two hours—that would technically get me outside of the region. All the way south to Watsonville, about eighteen miles southeast of Santa Cruz.
What do you do in Watsonville, once you’ve gotten your day trip to Santa Cruz out of the way? Well, I wasn’t looking to do much. The main thing was to be able to relax, read, and work a bit for a few days in a place other than my usual home base. I was especially eager to do so after a year and a half of being, like most of us, confined to a limited space due to circumstances beyond our control.
Watsonville isn’t that big (a little more than 50,000 people), and neither is Santa Cruz County compared to the Bay Area. But you wouldn’t always know it from the way cars crowd onto and speed along the highways, and the traffic snarls in Santa Cruz itself, which isn’t that much bigger than Watsonville.
There are a few sloughs (pronounced “slews”) with short walking paths in downtown Watsonville. But it’s far more rewarding to venture a little outside the center for something far more isolated from traffic, with far more abundant trees and water. It’s in the five miles or so of walking paths in the Elkern Slough Reserve—the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, to use the official name.
The small visitor center by the parking lot doesn’t give out physical maps, though they have a big one they have available for reference photos. It’s not such a huge place, however, and you can just pretty much wander around without worrying about getting lost, as I did for the three hours it took to walk most of the paths.
The best destination, if your time is shorter or you just want to cut to the chase, is the small Hummingbird Island. I always find it interesting to see abandoned crumbling buildings of unexplained origin, and there are a couple shortly into the walk:
Hummingbird Island is pretty small—about as small as an island can be, really—and to get there, you have to cross active railroad tracks. Park staff gently warns you to be careful of oncoming trains, though I didn’t see or hear any the morning I was there.
The trail rims around much (though not all) of the island, ending up at a finger shooting into the water. Be careful at the very tip—it looks fairly solid, but it’s marshy and you’ll slip in regular walking shoes.
If you like weird trees, there are a few here and there throughout the reserve, though for the most part it’s standard if pleasant foliage, water, and marsh:
Although I went on a Saturday morning, it wasn’t very crowded with hikers, and I guess it probably seldom does get crowded, owing to its fairly remote location (though it’s actually not too far from central Watsonville or hard to reach). If you like solitude, there wasn’t a single other person on the Long Valley Loop and Murphy Trail that are pretty near the visitor center, though it’s nearly as pretty as best sections of the other trails:
A visit to the Elkern Slough Reserve doesn’t require any advance planning, but note that it’s only open Wednesday through Sundays 9am-5pm. There’s plenty of info, including a trail map, on its website at https://www.elkhornslough.org/esnerr/visitor-information/.
Bay Area residents see Treasure Island a lot, since the middle of the Bay Bridge passes over it, and it can be seen from numerous spots on both sides of the bay. Not too many people actually set foot on the island, however, considering how often millions drive right by the exit ramps that lead down there. Few have biked on the island who don’t live there, either. But it’s become a lot more accessible for bikers recently, with a path winding down from the bike/pedestrian path on the eastern part of the Bay Bridge – which itself only opened a few years ago.
There’s actually not too much to see, and maybe less to do, on Treasure Island. It’s most known for hosting the Golden Gate International Exposition, i.e. a world’s fair, back in 1939. A naval station was there for 55 years, but closed in 1997. Now there are just a little more than a couple thousand residents, clustered in blocks whose bland architecture reflects its past as a military base.
It’s easy enough to get to by bike now, however, and worth thirty to sixty minutes of your time if you ride the Bay Bridge. Bike westward until the bike/ped path ends just before the tunnel. On weekends and holidays only, you can take a path that winds down from the left and goes under the bridge, Then a short steep uphill, and a long steep downhill, gets you down to Treasure Island.
Certainly the most scenic part is the bike path that runs along the water on the island’s western and northern side. Almost as soon as you reach the bottom of the hill, cross over to get on the path. It only goes for about a half mile or so, but you get some nice views of San Francisco and the bay. There are likely to be few people about, so it’s quieter than much of the Bay Area as well:
The path doesn’t go around the whole island’s perimeter, and in fact only for a fairly brief part of it. Here’s an outpost near where it terminates on the north side:
You can also bike around the neighborhoods – more like a neighborhood – with little traffic. A little to the south of the residential area are some pretty decrepit buildings. This used to be an education center, but it doesn’t seem to have been in use for some time:
There’s a market here and at least one cafe, though it’s hard to tell what might have shut down in 2020-21 and when or if they’ll be active again. The same thing goes for occasional festivals that are held on the island. Bringing your own food seems advisable if you want to picnic.
Be advised that the path back up to the bridge is a really steep and long uphill. The photo here doesn’t really reflect how tough the upgrade is, and you should be in good shape to pedal the whole stretch without interruption. Don’t be a hero if you’re having trouble breathing; walk part of the way if you have to.
Of course, you can’t bike to the island from San Francisco, though you can put your bike on a bus rack and take it there by public transit. If you don’t live in the East Bay, the nearest BART station to the Bay Bridge bike path is MacArthur. It’s only a mile or two to the entrance, opposite the IKEA on Shellmound Street in Emeryville.
Is there much left to learn about early San Francisco psychedelic rock, or indeed 1960s rock in general? Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, considering the many archival recordings that have become officially and unofficially available. Many memoirs, books, and liner notes have illuminated what was going on behind the scenes as well. But interesting documents do continue to pop up, such as previously uncirculating recordings. A couple that just got into circulation are live tapes of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Steve Miller at the Matrix club in San Francisco that are the earliest recordings of those groups that have surfaced, at least beyond a very tight inner circle.
What do they tell us? Well, the tapes don’t present the groups at their best, which shouldn’t be surprising since they’re from very early in their careers and development. As the sound quality isn’t great (though it’s listenable), it’s unlikely they’ll be officially issued. So here are some observations and assessments, especially considering they’re unlikely to be reviewed in depth in many or any other places.
The Quicksilver tape dates from August 9, 1966. Although they wouldn’t release their first album until mid-1968, this isn’t as much as a find as many listeners without deep collections might assume, since there are numerous other concerts in official and unofficial (or quasi-official) circulation from 1967 and even late 1966. A bootleg of a show dated to September 1966 in San Jose has been doing the rounds for (at least according to one source) more than forty years. Another show dated September 4, 1966 from the Fillmore can be heard on wolfgangs.com.
Still, this Matrix tape is from earlier, if only by about a month. The group are a little less polished, and a little more garage, though they were older and more experienced than most garage bands. The set’s dominated by blues-rock covers, with a little bit of folk-rock and rock’n’roll, including some songs (“Mona,” “Pride of Man”) that would be among the most popular of the ones they put on their official ‘60s LPs.
The only surprise of this tape are a few unexpected covers that didn’t seem to survive in their repertoire even until September. There’s a rocked-up folk tune, “My Gal,” which I’m guessing they learned from the version on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 debut album (and which the Spoonful had been inspired to do by Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band’s version). Their version is spirited, but not as good as the best one – which wasn’t by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but by the mid-‘60s UK group the Sorrows, who gave it a driving fuzz-speckled mod rock treatment.
More unexpectedly, they do Del Shannon’s chart-topping early-‘60s classic “Runaway.” This is the only point on the tape—or indeed any Quicksilver tape—where they sound sort of like a typical high school garage band, and not especially distinctive. Quicksilver’s repertoire was entirely devoted to covers at this point, but most of the covers were either fairly well known blues-rock songs; not-especially-well-known blues/R&B songs; or some with folk origins that also wouldn’t have been well known to either fellow bands or their audiences. Maybe they felt obligated to throw in a famous oldie so some of the youngsters in the audience without tastes as esoteric had something to latch onto, and dance to. Or maybe they just liked the song (which is indeed great), although this isn’t a great version.
Although only “Pride of Man,” “Dino’s Song,” and “Mona” would show up on Quicksilver’s pair of late-‘60s Capitol albums, all of the other songs do (unlike “My Gal” and “Runaway,” to my knowledge) appear on other circulating live or studio recordings. Some are very well-traveled classics done by many people (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Suzy Q,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Hoochie Coochie Man”). Some are rather arcane, particularly “Dandelion” and “Hair Like Sunshine,” both taken from jazzman Jack Sheldon’s 1962 Out! album. In Quicksilver’s hands, these become rather routine blues-rockers, though at least it makes for something different and not found even on many other QMS tapes.
Also here is Tarheel Slim’s “It’s Too Late,” a moody minor-keyed blues/R&B tunes that was one of their better obscure covers in their early sets. Here’s the place to note that, even on some official Quicksilver releases, this is persistently mistitled “I Hear You Knockin,’” and the composition miscredited to Dave Bartholomew & Pearl King. Bartholomew and King did co-write the song called “I Hear You Knockin’” that was a big R&B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1955, and then a big pop hit for Dave Edmunds in 1970. But although the phrase “I hear you knocking” is a major part of the lyric of “It’s Too Late,” the Tarheel Slim original, released (billed to Tarheel Slim and Little Ann) in 1959, is an entirely different song.
While the following opinion is not universal and indeed not welcomed by some Quicksilver enthusiasts, although I’m a general fan of the group in its ‘60s incarnations, I think their primary strengths were as instrumentalists (especially guitarist John Cipollina) and interpreters. Their strengths were not as songwriters—actually they didn’t write that much at all, and nothing on this tape—or singers. And their strengths came through best on their more unusual folk-rock covers—particularly “Pride of Man” Dino Valenti’s “Dino’s Song” (both featured on their 1968 debut LP) and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (which appeared on the Revolution movie soundtrack LP), of the songs here—and some of their more exotic outings that allowed them to stretch out instrumentally, particularly “Gold and Silver” (which isn’t here).
On this August 1966 tape, their strengths don’t come through as well as they would in later recordings, in part because some of their best songs aren’t present, and in part simply because they understandably became more polished and proficient as they gained experience. As a straight blues-rock group, they usually weren’t anything special, and certainly not as good or imaginative as the best British ones of the time, though it might have been exciting to people in their audiences who had seldom or never heard such material live. But hey, it’s still good to hear as a glimpse into history that slightly predates what had been the official record, though the sound quality’s kind of tinny.
The Steve Miller tape from the Matrix was recorded almost half a year later, on January 27, 1967. Like Quicksilver, Miller didn’t have his first album (which was also on Capitol) released until mid-1968. There’s not as much pre-first LP live Miller in circulation, and this dates from before Boz Scaggs joined his band. So you’d think this might be interesting, and certainly different from Children of Future. It is different, but not as interesting as you might hope.
While Miller was already a proficient guitarist, and perhaps in some ways more experienced and skilled (certainly at electric guitar) than some of his San Francisco peers on the instrument, he wasn’t among the most imaginative musicians on the scene. I admit I’m not as big a fan of the Miller band as I am of Quicksilver, but some of the same reservations apply. At this point, they were largely doing electric blues-rock, and not nearly as compellingly as the best British bands based in that style. The singing is only adequate, and there’s not much in the way of interesting original material.
Among the more familiar tunes are K.C. Douglas’s “Mercury Blues,” which way down the liner would be on Miler’s Fly Like An Eagle hit album; “Junior Saw It Happen,” which would be on Children of the Future in a much more polished arrangement; and their hyper take on Isley Brothers’ “Your Old Lady,” which they played on the soundtrack LP of Revolution. But they still seem in search of a repertoire, with improvisation-oriented instrumentals taking up much of the tape. The final instrumental, in fact, lasts a good 23 minutes of so.
But for all its length (and it is too long), that instrumental is the most interesting and original excerpt from this performance. Perhaps influenced by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West”—Miller had spent time in Chicago and likely would have been aware of that 13-minute psychedelic instrumental, and certainly aware of the group—it has catchy jazzy changes and rhythms, and escapes the rigid blues format for the most part. Miller also experiments with extended rapid raga-ish solos and distorted sustain, and pretty effectively. Like Quicksilver, and many other groups with a blues-rock base, they were best when reaching for something more original and less imitative. It’s the strongest hint that they had something more to offer than competent electric blues-rock.
Like the August 1966 Quicksilver performance, it seems doubtful this will get lined up for official release, in part because it too has somewhat (although not terribly) thin audio quality. Many shows, incidentally, were recorded at the Matrix, not just by San Francisco Bay Area acts, but touring out-of-town ones as well. And only the albums derived from 1966 shows by the Great Society (Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane group) and 1969 gigs by the Velvet Underground are really great—not just for their historical significance, but mainly for the actual music. Although good official archival releases of early-’67 Doors and early-’68 Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix are also available, much of the rest I’ve heard is more of historical value than sheer musical entertainment. Which is fine—there’s room for history lessons as well as fine sounds in archival tapes, and they’re worth writing about in posts like these.
Ever since rock started top songwriters, whether soloists or in bands, have had some of their compositions covered by other artists without releasing their own versions. Sometimes the same guy or guys have covered more than one such surplus tune, as Billy J. Kramer, the Fourmost, and Peter & Gordon did with Lennon-McCartney songs the Beatles didn’t release while they were active. But it’s rare that an artist covers half a dozen such extras at once, none of which had been released by anyone.
The 1970 self-titled album by Yellow Hand might be the most extreme example of an act giving so much of a rock LP over to such items between the mid-‘60s and early 1970s. The group covered no less than half a dozen Buffalo Springfield outtakes that had never been issued by the Springfield or anyone else. Among them were two Neil Young songs (“Down to the Wire” and “Sell Out”) and four Stephen Stills compositions (“Come On,” “Hello I’ve Returned,” “Neighbor Don’t You Worry,” and “We’ll See”). These weren’t even accompanied by other songs by the same writers that had been released.
Although a Buffalo Springfield version of “Down to the Wire” came out on Young’s 1977 triple-LP Decade retrospective, Springfield versions of the other five didn’t come out until the twenty-first century (though most of them circulated on bootlegs). Basically, Yellow Hand got access to the outtakes because Buffalo Springfield’s original manager/producers, Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, had the publishing on the songs and wanted to make a little money off of them.
I told the whole story of Yellow Hand—based on recent interviews with the group’s guitarist, Pat Flynn, and their singer, Jerry Tawney—in a lengthy (nine-page) feature in the spring 2021 (#56) issue of Ugly Things magazine. Then a teenage guitarist, Flynn was actually given a literal shoebox of cassettes of Buffalo Springfield demos to learn the songs, the band Yellow Hand subsequently forming and recording their LP for Capitol.
Are there any other examples of, as my unwieldy headline for this post reads, “Multiple Covers of Unreleased Songs by Major Acts on the Same Album, From the Mid-’60s to the Early ’70s?” None that are as extreme, but here are a half dozen albums that made the most of someone else’s vaults:
1. Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint, Lo and Behold. McGuinness Flint, featuring ex-Manfred Mann bassist/guitarist Tom McGuinness and ex-Bluesbreakers drummer Hughie Flint, had a couple big UK hits in the early ‘70s without making much headway in the US. Teaming up with Dennis Coulson and Dixie Dean, their 1972 album Lo and Behold was devoted entirely to interpretations of then-obscure Bob Dylan compositions. None of the ten songs had appeared on official Dylan records, though his versions have subsequently appeared on archival releases.
At a glance that seems to outdo Yellow Hand, but not all of the ten tunes were previously unissued by anyone. The Byrds, for instance, put “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” on their second album, and Jim & Jean put out their version soon afterward. Happy Traum had done “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” back in 1963 as “I Will Not Go Under the Ground.” John Walker, Thunderclap Newman, and others had done “Open the Door, Homer.”
One of Dylan’s own versions of “The Death of Emmett Till,” though recorded in the early 1960s, came out on a Folkways compilation in 1972 credited to the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, though it’s difficult to tell whether that LP appeared before Lo and Behold. So points off for mixing in songs that had already been available, if you keep tabs on that sort of thing.
As Tom McGuinness told me in his interview for Ugly Things #49, “I was lucky because I got a lot of the acetates from the time of the Band. Because Albert Grossman came to London with the Basement Tapes and played them to Manfred Mann, the whole group. So I had all these Dylan acetates lying around. Then McGuinness Flint, we were published by Feldman’s, who were Dylan’s publishers in the UK at that point. A guy up there gave me like fifty cassettes of Dylan demos. So I just had this idea of doing some of the little known Dylan songs that were on these cassettes. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.”
2. Hamilton Camp, Paths of Victory. Playing the Dylan card much earlier than Coulson etc., Camp’s Paths of Victory, issued around late 1964, had seven songs by the man. No less than six of them had yet to appear on Dylan’s own albums, though “Girl from the North Country” had been on Dylan’s second LP, and Bob had done “Only a Hobo” under his Blind Boy Grunt alias for the 1963 compilation Broadside Ballads Vol. 1. Again, Dylan’s own versions of the other five of his compositions here have all come out on archival releases.
Of those other five, “Walkin’ Down the Line” had been on Jackie DeShannon’s self-titled 1963 album, and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” on a 1963 LP by Ian & Sylvia. Release dates have been variably reported for early-to-mid-‘60s folk LPs, but Camp seems to have beaten Odetta to the punch with “Long Time Gone” and “Paths of Victory,” which appeared on Odetta Sings Dylan, probably issued in early 1965. That left just one of what we might call an “exclusive,” as “Guess I’m Doin’ Fine” doesn’t seem to have been covered by anyone else.
Camp was an interesting figure who already had a solid reputation in the folk world for his recordings (under the name Bob Camp) as a duo with a bigger name from the early folk revival, Bob Gibson. He also wrote “Pride of Man,” his original version highlighting this LP, a few years before Quicksilver Messenger Service did a great rock cover. But this is a folk album, not a rock one. And while he deserves points for scouring for half a dozen of Dylan’s more obscure tunes at a point before Bob was quite as iconic as he’d be in a year or so, not all of them had been previously unissued by anyone.
As for how Paths of Victory got so Dylan-heavy, Camp told me in an interview nearly twenty years ago, “Dylan was hot, so [Elektra Records chief] Jac [Holzman] thought it was very smart to put more Dylan tunes on there, much to my regret. I originally had done a kind of very eclectic collection. I don’t think any tunes [that didn’t make the final LP] were original, but there were different interpretations of a lot of kinds [of] folk songs, [like] ‘Railroad Bill.’ I liked the album that way.
“But he didn’t like that. He said he wanted more Dylan tunes. So they sent me a tape out of Dylan’s, it was reel-to-reel. I learned three or four tunes, and slapped them on, much to my regret. Because I really got hit for it, in especially the Minnesota folk scene. A magazine called The Little Sandy Review that came out of Minneapolis — it was all Dylan cronies — they just hated it!”
3. Nico, Chelsea Girl. An underrated baroque-folk production, Nico’s first album, released around the beginning of fall 1967, showcased obscure or wholly unreleased songs by a wealth of fine songwriters. Among them were Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and no less than five tracks—half the LP—of compositions by fellow Velvet Undergrounders Lou Reed and/or John Cale (with Sterling Morrison getting a co-credit on one and Nico herself on another).
All of these were fine and generally folkier than most of The Velvet Underground & Nico, on which Nico had of course sung a few classics. A few were really fine, namely the epic “Chelsea Girls” and the haunting “It Was a Pleasure Then,” which is a Velvet Underground recording in all but name, as Nico’s backed by Reed and Cale. None had been previously released by anyone, though a 1965 VU demo of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” would appear on a 1995 box set.
But this is in a way more a Velvet Underground spin-off album than a record by an artist who digs up a batch of otherwise unrecorded songs by an unrelated major act. Nico had sung with the Velvet Underground, albeit only on a few tracks; Reed, Cale, and Morrison all played on the Chelsea Girl sessions, though it can’t be pinpointed what they did on each cut. This doesn’t take anything away from the LP’s considerable status. But it isn’t quite as, to use the word again, “extreme” as Yellow Hand’s Buffalo Springfield homage.
4. The Pretty Things, Philippe DeBarge. Any excuse to put the Pretty Things in as many places in Ugly Things as possible, right? But seriously, this 1969 album was seriously teeming with previously unheard Pretties originals. True, three of them (“Alexander,” “Eagle’s Son,” and “It’ll Never Be Me”) had been done by the band without credit on the Even More Electric Banana album, and one (“Send You With Loving”) for a May 1969 BBC session. But not many people knew about that then, and frankly not many do now, especially if you don’t count Ugly Things readers. Otherwise this is pretty fair psychedelic pop that got an even smaller audience than Even More Electric Banana, since it didn’t get released back then.
And what’s it doing here, if it’s a Pretty Things album with Pretty Things songs? The story’s been told by Ugly Things editor/publisher Mike Stax in his magazine and the liner notes to UT’s CD of the recordings, but basically this was a Pretty Things album with a singer who wasn’t in the band. French fan Philippe DeBarge took the lead vocals, though usual Pretties vocalist Phil May co-wrote all of the songs.
May was diffident about the project when I interviewed him in 1999. “Wally [Waller] and I just wrote a bunch of songs for this French millionaire,” he told me. “No kind of falseness about, ‘He was a musician.’ He just wanted to make a record with the Pretty Things, and he was prepared to pay.”
Added May in Mike Stax’s liner notes for the Philippe DeBarge CD, “I don’t think any of us had great expectations, but we didn’t approach it in that way. We approached it like it was another record to make, and we were getting stuff out of it for ourselves, apart from the finances. It was a good stepping stone between S.F. Sorrow and Parachute.”
In the same notes, Waller also acknowledged the sessions had some value. “For me it was a chance to be the boss in the studio for the first time. I had always been really involved with the production process on all our albums. And I just loved to have the chance to write a few songs and see them through to the end. I think the project put us in a much better shape to tackle something like Parachute.”
As for DeBarge, speculated Wally, “Quite what he was going to do with it I don’t know. I don’t think there would have been any interest from the British music industry, and being in English it wasn’t really suitable for the French market. I think it was a grand indulgence on Philippe’s part. To be honest I was not surprised that nothing became of it.”
This is certainly a worthy adjunct to the Pretty Things discography, and as dedicated to otherwise unavailable songs by a major artist as anything here. But while it’s not quite a Pretty Things album, it’s a Pretty Things album in all but name, with even the guy (May) who didn’t take his usual position playing a major role as writer and backing singer. So it can’t quite be considered a record with “covers” of someone else’s songs, as interesting as it is.
5. The Everly Brothers, Two Yanks in England. Recorded in 1966, this decent LP looked a little like a Hollies tribute at a glance. Eight of the twelve songs were written by the Hollies, credited to the “L. Ransford” pseudonym for Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks, and Graham Nash. The Hollies also played on the sessions, and none of the songs the Everlys covered were well known.
While you had to be (and still have to be) a pretty big Hollies fan to know it, five of these eight songs had already been released on the group’s LPs and B-sides. Three of them would come out on Hollies releases over the next couple years, though you had to be a damned dedicated follower to know that “Like Every Time Before” surfaced on a 1968 B-side in Germany and Sweden.
So – good though not great concept, good though not great results, yet not teeming with previously unheard numbers by their benefactors. The last album on this list has even less such material, though it could have had more.
6. The Rose Garden, The Rose Garden. Like Yellow Hand, the Rose Garden had just one self-titled LP, though they’re far better known as they had a #17 hit at the end of 1967 with “Next Plane to London.” Even people familiar with the single usually didn’t hear their album, which meant that few realized ex-Byrd Gene Clark wrote a couple songs on the disc that hadn’t appeared anywhere else. The young band had developed a friendship with Clark, who offered them “Till Today” and “Long Time.” Both songs found a place on the LP, which had little original material by the group.
Two songs isn’t that much, and there are other examples of acts getting first crack at a couple tracks at once, like Silver Metre did with some Elton John-Bernie Taupin efforts on their 1969 self-titled album, and Jim & Jean did with a pair by their friend Phil Ochs on 1966’s Changes, before Ochs put out his own versions. What puts The Rose Garden over the top in this specialist competition is that they actually could have done more Gene Clark exclusives. Clark gave Rose Garden guitarist John Noreen a five-song acetate of songs to choose, but the band took only “Long Time” from that batch. They also recorded an unreleased version of Neil Young’s “Down to the Wire,” and passed on a few other songs by Young and Stephen Stills that were offered to them by Greene and Stone, including “Come On.”
So The Rose Garden could have been half-full of previously unheard Gene Clark songs – but wasn’t. (For that matter, it could have been half-full of previously unheard Clark compositions and half-full of previously unheard Buffalo Springfield leftovers.) If you’re fretting that those other Clark songs on the acetate are lost forever, fear not. The entire acetate (including Clark’s version of “A Long Time”) was issued in 2018 as bonus tracks to the CD reissue of a different eight-song acetate Gene cut in 1967, Sings for You.
When I write about places to see and walk, bike, or hike, I try to find ones that aren’t so well known. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in contrast, is very well known. Built in 1894, it’s the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It’s a major attraction in a park that itself is a huge tourist attraction. So why post about it?
It’s not so well known that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, entrance is free about 9am and 10am. It’s hard to get into anything free these days, let alone in the Golden Gate Park museum concourse, where it costs $18 to ride the new ferris wheel, $15 for the de Young art museum (special exhibits not included), and more than $30 for the California Academy of Sciences.
The tea garden is $12 ($10 in the winter, $7 for San Francisco residents), and while that’s not wholly unreasonable, plenty of people have less money to spend over the last year or so. That also means some people have more time to take advantage of freebies. Unlike the nearby botanical garden, this free admission is for everyone, not just city residents, no matter what part of the Bay Area or indeed world you might call home. (The botanical garden is free for everyone between 7:30am-9am, but only free to city residents otherwise.)
Of course, a lot fewer tourists from around the world are traveling anywhere anywhere these days. But if you do live in the Bay Area, that also means you’ll find the tea garden pretty uncrowded, even during free admission hours. That’s how it was last week when I took advantage of the free hour for the first time, though I’ve been there a few times over the last few decades during regular paid admission hours.
Here are some images, taken during my visit, of what you’ll see in the small but meticulously maintained grounds:
As noted, nearby is the new ferris wheel, though it’s not yet known if this will be a permanent addition to the museum concourse. It was so foggy when I took this at 8:45am that someone said it looked like a photo from the 1890s:
The recent Joni Mitchell box set Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) presents no less than five CDs of previously unreleased material. All of it predates her first album. I’ve written about the box, which is very good, elsewhere. But it not only has fine music. What it contains seems in a way unique among performers of her significance and era. As I’ve written, “No other performer of Mitchell’s stature wrote and performed such a rich and impressive wealth of music before making their vinyl debut.”
That doesn’t mean that Mitchell was the best artist of all time, or even the best at the beginning of a career. This bountiful pre-vinyl output seems as much a product of circumstance as talent. If she’d made her debut in 1964, she would have recorded a pretty good Judy Collins-style album of traditional folk songs that would have been a considerably above-average LP in the style (much like Collins’s first albums were), if dated.
If she’d recorded an album in late 1966, it would have been a pretty strong singer-songwriter folk album of original material. And it would have had some standout songs she’d already composed by this point (“The Circle Game,” “Night in the City,” “Urge for Going,” “Eastern Rain”), though not as many strong ones as were in her repertoire by the time of her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull.
Why didn’t she start her official discography earlier, especially considering pretty well known artists like Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, and George Hamilton IV were already covering some of her songs by 1967? There’s no easy pat answer, but it seems to come down to a couple factors. She wanted much more control over her work than most artists do who sign her first contract, extending to being able to draw and design her own album covers. That probably put off some labels who otherwise would have signed her before she got her contract with Reprise.
Also, unlike almost every other folkie of note in the mid-‘60s, she didn’t go electric, not starting to use full-band accompaniment on her albums until the early 1970s, well after she was a star. That might have made her seem outdated or at least commercially unpromising, though her actual compositions, guitar playing, and vocalizing were modern and innovative. And as hard as it might be to believe now, at her outset she might have been considered more of a songwriter than a singer or performing artist, and someone whose value primarily lay in having others cover her songs. The first artists to have hits with Mitchell tunes, after all, were not Joni, but Hamilton IV (who had a country hit with “Urge for Going”) and, of course, Collins with “Both Sides Now.”
There’s your fairly condensed explanation/speculation as to why Mitchell ended up with such a backlog of good material before her first album. Fortunately it was often recorded in live concert tapes, radio and television programs, and home demos, many of which are heard on the Archives Vol. 1 box.
What about, however, the pre-vinyl output of some of her peers? How does that measure up to Mitchell’s? Was there anyone whose pre-official discography work was anything like this?
Here’s a survey, by no means all-encompassing, of the “pre-“ work of a dozen top 1960s acts, weighted toward my personal favorites. No one had as extensive and impressive entries in this department as Mitchell did, but almost all made some noteworthy recordings during those formative times, now often (but not always) commercially available. Some made some early recordings that were great, if not as great as their famous classics. Some made barely any recordings, or barely any notable ones. But as the cliché goes, it was a place to start.
The Beatles. Why not start at the very top, with the greatest musical act ever? There are a fair number of Beatles recordings predating their debut “Love Me Do” single. The most significant by far are their fifteen demos at their unsuccessful audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962, when Pete Best was still their drummer. There are also a half dozen lo-fi songs they did with Best for the BBC in the first half of 1962; a couple tracks, again with Best, for their June 1962 audition for EMI; and a fiery August 1962 live version of “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern in Liverpool with Ringo Starr.
Yes, there are various other odds and ends, going back to a 1957 very lo-fi Quarrymen performance; shambling lo-fi 1960 rehearsal tapes; and their sessions backing Tony Sheridan in Hamburg, at which they managed to lay down a couple tracks on their own. Except for those two tracks (“Ain’t She Sweet” and the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow”), those other pre-1962 recordings are too rough and unrefined to merit much listening, other than for their historical value.
Although I like their Decca demos, they’re way less mature, and far less impressive, than what they’d be writing and recording by the “Please Please Me” single in November 1962, and the Please Please Me album in February 1963. For one thing, only three of the songs are Lennon-McCartney originals, and none of them were deemed strong enough for the Beatles to record when they signed with EMI, though all of them were given to other artists (“Like Dreamers Do” to the Applejacks; “Love of the Loved” to Cilla Black; and “Hello Little Girl” to the Fourmost). But also, the group sound much less confident, and their musical skills rather skeletal compared to where they’d be in a year or so. I write much more—almost 10,000 words, in fact—on the Decca sessions in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, and you can read that section online here.
My basic stance is that although the Beatles were crushed to fail the audition, it might have been the best break they ever got. It gave them considerably more time to write songs considerably better than what they had at the beginning of 1962. It gave them time to replace Best with Starr. It gave Paul McCartney time to find his own vocal style—he often sounds like he’s imitating Elvis Presley at Decca. And maybe most crucially, if they had signed with Decca, they wouldn’t have been produced by George Martin, who was the best possible producer for the Beatles.
The Beatles sound better on their BBC sessions in March and June 1962. In fact, they sound pretty good, and definitely a band that should have been signed, even if the surviving tinny tapes were recorded by putting a player next to a radio speaker. But only one of the songs, “Ask Me Why” (later the B-side of “Please Please Me”), was original. Only on the August 1962 live performance of “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern—raunchy and hard-hitting, despite the thin audio—do you get a pretty full sense of the magic that would overwhelm the world.
That magic isn’t at all present on the Tony Sheridan sessions. “Ain’t She Sweet” is a pretty perfunctory version of a Tin Pan Alley standard, if run through Gene Vincent, and with an identifiably John Lennon vocal. “Cry for a Shadow” is a kind of cool, haunting driving instrumental, but not at all the sort of stuff in which the Beatles would specialize. The two June 1962 tracks from the Decca audition are rather tame takes on “Love Me Do” (with erratic drumming from Best) and “Besame Mucho” (done better by the band at Decca and on the BBC).
So the brief verdict: plenty of promise on this pre-official debut material, but no match for what they were doing even by their second single.
The Rolling Stones. In contrast to the Beatles’ Decca demos, the Rolling Stones’ rough equivalent—five demos recorded at IBC in March 1963, just a couple months before they cut their debut 45—show them virtually fully formed. These covers of Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters songs are brash and exciting, and rearranged substantially enough to rise above mere imitations of the originals.
It’s not a universally popular opinion, but I’d say these don’t just qualify the Stones as the best blues band in Britain at the time—not a huge accolade, since there weren’t yet that many. I’d go as far to cite them as the best white blues/R&B band in the world at that point. More controversially, I feel they sound as good as any blues/R&B band in the world at that point, white or otherwise, in the UK or North America.
But there are reasons this batch falls short of being as significant as Joni Mitchell’s box. First, it just isn’t that big—five songs, as good as they are. For the record, there’s a fragment of a recording from around late 1962 (of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”) in circulation, as well as some lo-fi home tapes by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ pre-Stones group Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys from around 1961. They’re not substantial enough to merit much serious listening, other than for historical purposes.
Here’s another strong consideration to keep in mind—as good as the demos are, none of them are original songs. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wouldn’t start writing for almost another year, and wouldn’t consistently write great songs for about another two years. By contrast, most of Mitchell’s 1965-1967 tapes are of her own compositions. Even the Beatles had a few early Lennon-McCartney songs in their pre-“Love Me Do” batch.
Long bootlegged, all five of the Stones’ March 1963 demos were finally officially released on the “super-deluxe box set” edition of the 2012 compilation GRRR! It’s too bad the group didn’t record more around this time (though it’s been reported a sixth track was done at IBC, and also some recordings done for a short film of the band that hasn’t been found). As reprinted in his memoir Life, Keith Richards’s diary entries from early 1963 confirm several other covers were in their repertoire of which no recordings circulate, including “Bo Diddley,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Who Do You Love,” and Bo Diddley’s “Bring it To Jerome.”
Bob Dylan. Backtracking a bit chronologically, there are numerous tapes from 1960 and 1961—mostly in friends’ homes, some live—that predate Dylan’s sessions for his self-titled debut LP in November 1961. They show him to be a rapidly improving singer and musician who was becoming a distinctly earthy, bluesy folk song interpreter by the time he approached his Columbia deal. The big “but” is that at this point he was an interpreter, not a composer. Even on his debut album, he’d only write two songs. And even those (and many of his early compositions) were very derivative of previous folk songs and styles, especially Woody Guthrie’s.
The pre-album recordings have their place as performances of considerably historical importance, and do show seeds of his style and much promise, if some primarily evident in hindsight. But they can’t stand up to either Mitchell’s box or what Dylan was doing by the time of his second album, Freewheelin’.
The Beach Boys. This bends the rules a bit, but before signing to Capitol Records, the Beach Boys released just one single, “Surfin’”/“Luau,” recorded in late 1961 for the small Candix label. Its appearance wasn’t insignificant: although the production wasn’t much more elaborate than a demo, it was a substantial regional hit in the Los Angeles area, and #75 nationally.
Still, during that brief pre-Capitol period, the Beach Boys did quite a bit of recording that might be considered a “pre-“ body of work. A double CD of this material, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions, came out in 2016, though there are just nine separate songs. There are 63 tracks, but a whole lot of multiple versions/takes.
The Beach Boys hadn’t been together too long (and had barely played at all in public), and sound pretty tentative compared to even their first Capitol single, “Surfin’ Safari”/“409.” Still, the best songs here— “Surfin’” and early, tentative versions of “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl,” both of which of course became big hits in re-recorded Capitol versions—are really, really good. The others are pretty flimsy and forgettable, but certainly their distinctive brand of vocal harmonies are well in evidence, if quite callow at this stage.
As basic as these are compared to what they’d be recording by the time of their second Capitol LP (1963’s Surfin’ USA), it seems insane that no Los Angeles record company was shrewd enough to pick them up after they lost their deal with Candix. Capitol did after a while, of course, but only with the help of much badgering from the Wilson brothers’ father/manager. It’s easy to say in hindsight, of course, when armchair critics don’t have to invest thousands of dollars in a young and unproven band with little stage experience. But it’s obvious that even at this early stage, they didn’t sound like anyone else, and deserved more record company interest and investment.
The Byrds. Although they weren’t together that long before recording their first single in January 1965, the Byrds produced a body of pre-debut tapes more impressive than anyone on this list. Shortly after they formed, around late 1964 and possibly into early 1965, they made a lot of tapes in World Pacific Studios in Los Angeles, where early manager Jim Dickson was able to get them a lot of rehearsal time. Some of them were issued in 1969 on the Preflyte compilation; while these had most of the very best tapes, there were other good ones, and eventually a double CD of material was made available.
To quote from a previous blogpost, as I can’t particularly say it any better here: Even if you know nothing about the Byrds or don’t care much about tracing their pre-“Mr. Tambourine Man” evolution, these are hugely enjoyable primordial early folk-rock efforts, from a time the ex-folkies were just learning how to play together as an electric rock band.
This batch of tracks does include a few early versions of songs from their classic 1965 debut LP Mr. Tambourine Man, but also features some really fine originals they never put on their mid-‘60s albums and singles, mostly (but not all) written by Gene Clark. “You Showed Me” would be a hit for the Turtles in 1969. Like the other previously unheard originals, it shows the band trying to emulate the Beatles, but instead starting to forge a distinctive brand of melodic, harmony-laden folk-rock.
It seems like the Byrds themselves had reservations about making this stuff available, as they were only intended as rehearsals/demos of sorts. But many of the tracks are excellent, and most of the others at least decent.
For sheer listening pleasure, I’d place this material #1 on this list, even ahead of Mitchell’s (and ahead, if not by much, by the much slimmer slice of work by the Rolling Stones). However, as significant as it is to both the Byrds’ career and the development of folk-rock as a whole, it does only cover a few months. The Mitchell box covers four-to-five years and considerably greater evolution, and of course many more original compositions.
The Yardbirds. Returning to the top British Invasion bands, the Yardbirds did a few demos before their first single in 1964, with Eric Clapton in the band. Live recordings of them at the Crawdaddy Club from December 1963 were also issued, though not until almost two decades later.
Just a few of the demos have circulated, with the Yardbirds covering John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and Chuck Berry’s “Talkin’ About You,” as well as performing an original in a similar R&B/rock style by lead singer Keith Relf, “Honey in Your Hips.” “Boom Boom” and “Honey in Your Hips” were also issued on rare European singles in the mid-‘60s, considerably later than when they were recorded. The demos are decent early British R&B, but kind of restrained compared to both the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds’ later work. “Honey in Your Hips” is actually a decent Diddley-influenced original, but the Yardbirds would never develop into consistently good prolific songwriters, though they wrote some great stuff.
The live tracks from the Crawdaddy are more lively, but also more basic compared to what they’d record with Clapton in 1964, both live and in the studio. It’s not all that different from their debut album Five Live Yardbirds (recorded at London’s Marquee in March 1964)—versions of “Smokestack Lightning” were performed for both sets of recordings—but not as assured, fiery, and imaginative. It’s definitely not as good as the two 1964 singles they cut with Clapton, and while some seeds of their improvisational rave-ups are heard, their great innovations lay a ways in the future.
The Kinks. Although it’s not so widely known, the Kinks recorded some material before they were the Kinks. Well, at least if the packaging on an obscure EP on the 1960s label is accurate. Issued in 2017, the four-song disc Ravensize Session: The Pre-Kinks Regent Studio Demos has early versions of three Ray Davies originals they’d soon record for Pye as the Kinks: “You Still Want Me” (the A-side of their second single), “”You Do Something to Me” (the B-side of their second single), and “Revenge.” The fourth, “Ooba Dooiba,” would not show up in the Kinks’ subsequent discography. Mickey Willett would have been on drums, Mick Avory not having yet joined.
Because more polished versions of “You Still Want Me” and “You Do Something to Me” were recorded in 1964 for Pye, these aren’t as surprising or revelatory as they might otherwise have been. These Ray Davies compositions, issued on the second of the two flop singles preceding “You Really Got Me,” find him and the Kinks imitating the early Beatles and Merseybeat groups. Rather enjoyably, actually, but not with great distinction, and certainly not in line with the far raunchier style they’d hit on with “You Really Got Me.”
That R&B-flavored raunchiness is more in evidence on the basic “Revenge,” where you can hear their early trademark power chords starting to emerge. It’s also heard a bit on the beyond-basic “Ooba Dooiba,” which has energy but almost embarrassingly formulaic songwriting and simple lyrics. Like all of the British Invasion groups listed in this post, the Kinks wouldn’t take long to find their forte. But it’s no more than a glimmer here, though this EP is reasonably entertaining in its documentation of their birth pangs.
The Who. There’s not much Who predating their first (and fine) single, “I Can’t Explain,” even if you count the 1964 single they issued as the High Numbers. That single was kind of an embarrassment, as early manager Pete Meaden lifted the tunes of “I’m the Face” and “Zoot Suit” wholesale from Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It” and the Dynamics’ “Misery.” He grafted new lyrics onto them paying rather blunt homages to the mod lifestyle. “I’m the Face” is rather tepid early British R&B/rock; “Zoot Suit”’s actually has a pretty cool minor-keyed melody, but little of the Who’s personality comes through, aside from Roger Daltrey’s fairly deft lead vocals.
An outtake of Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis” from the sessions for the High Numbers single is fair, but no match for the Yardbirds’ exhilarating, and far more recklessly daring, cover of the same song on Five Live Yardbirds. Demo covers from late 1964 of two songs by Motown’s premier Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team, “Leaving Here” (also done at the High Numbers session) and “Baby Don’t You Do It,” are respectable but not arresting. (Both surfaced on the expanded CD of Odds and Sods.) Only in “Baby Don’t You Do It”’s unexpected, though brief, feedback break do they suddenly sound like the groundbreaking early Who.
A live recording of the Who at London’s Railway Hotel in 1964—some sources give the date as October 20, 1964—has long been bootlegged. Here too they sound like an average, or slightly above average, R&B/rock band with hints of something that might make them stand out from the pack. But only in Pete Townshend’s dive-bombing, distorted intro to “Pretty Thing” do they sound idiosyncratically different from everyone else. Daltrey’s vocals range from fine to embarrassingly out of character when he affects a low Howlin’ Wolf growl. Keith Moon’s drumming is fairly active, but not nearly as wild as it would be in 1965. There are unpleasantly meandering blues jams around the real songs, which are all covers, with no originals.
Studio instrumentals purporting to be from a Who audition at Abbey Road in 1964 have also been bootlegged. It’s kind of unfathomable why the Who, or any British Invasion band, would have only been playing instrumentals at an audition. These too are kind of formless and undisciplined.
If you get the impression from this entry that I’m not a Who fan, rest assured that’s not at all the case. They’re one of my favorite groups. But I do believe that—unlike the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Them, and some of the other greatest heavily R&B-influenced ‘60s bands from the British Isles—they would never have made it as a blues/R&B/soul cover act. The truly original moments on their pre-1965 recordings are when Townshend suddenly uses distortion. The key to quickly lifting them to a front-line British Invasion act was the emergence of Townshend as one of British rock’s best songwriters in 1965, combining their manic energy and avant-garde inclinations with concise power pop and incisive lyrics.
The Velvet Underground. Turning to the US, and the only act on this list that would not experience significant commercial success, the Velvet Underground made some recordings before the spring 1966 sessions that yielded all but one track on their debut LP (though that album wouldn’t be issued until early 1967). No less than 80 minutes of these were issued on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See, all drawn from July 1965 demos. Actually these were probably at least as much home rehearsal tapes as demos. They weren’t recorded in a professional studio, but in a residence on Ludlow Street in New York, though the sound is clear and good.
Although the Velvets do early versions of a few songs from their first album, these tracks aren’t exactly the VU as they sounded by the time of the debut LP sessions. Drummer Maureen Tucker had yet to join the band, whose drummer at this point was Angus MacLise. More importantly, MacLise isn’t even on these tapes. In fact, there’s no drummer at all. Only Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison play on these recordings, giving the proceedings something of a folky unplugged feel.
So although “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” are all here, they’re not nearly as powerful or fully formed as they are on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Cale and not Reed sings “Venus in Furs,” which sounds almost like a gothic folk ballad. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is almost a hillbilly stomp. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also has an ill-suited country-folk feel.
Despite the 80-minute length, there are only six songs on the tape, as there are a number of multiple versions. Among the others, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” would be done by Nico on her 1967 debut album Chelsea Girl, and again has Cale on lead vocals and a pronounced folk feel. “Prominent Men,” never to be recorded in a studio by the Velvets, is the least impressive composition of the batch, as a blatant aping of Bob Dylan’s early protest songs.
The tape is of enormous historical significance, proving that the Velvets were writing great and innovative songs (“Prominent Men” excepted) well before their official debut. Compositionally, the songs are barely different from their later incarnations. The key, and very significant, difference is that the sound of the band lags far behind the songwriting at this point. Going full-band electric, adding Tucker and Nico, and overhauling the arrangements so they were harder rocking and crossed rock with the avant-garde—all of those were necessary to elevate the Velvet Underground to greatness.
As relatively unimpressive as these earlier versions are in comparison, it really didn’t take all that long to happen. Only nine months separate them from most of the sessions for The Velvet Underground & Nico. There are a few other scraps of lo-fi early 1966 rehearsals that predate the first album, but those too aren’t in the same league as what was laid down for the LP.
The Doors. The Doors were another group whose songwriting developed faster than their musical arrangements, and whose first recordings weren’t done with the lineup that would become famous. It wasn’t too long after Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek decided to form a band that they cut a half dozen demos in September 1965, about a year before they made their classic debut LP. All of them would be re-recorded for their albums, and one of them, “Hello I Love You,” would be a #1 hit. True, “Go Insane,” the weirdest of the lot, only resurfaced as part of “The Celebration of the Lizard.” The others were all good-to-great: “End of the Night,” “My Eyes Have Seen You,” “Moonlight Drive,” and “Summer’s Almost Gone.”
But at this point, guitarist Robby Krieger hadn’t joined, although drummer John Densmore’s there. That absence alone makes a big difference. But also, Manzarek is on piano, rather than the organ that he played much more often on Doors records. Fleshing out the group were a stand-in bass player and, more problematically, Manzarek’s brother Rick on guitar. Guitar barely makes itself felt on the tapes, and what’s there is of no consequence. Another Manzarek brother, Jim, adds some harmonica, again to no notable effect. And Morrison’s vocals aren’t nearly as forceful or charismatic as they’d be within a year.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call the demos “raw and empty,” as James Riordan and Jerry Prochniucky did in their book Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. But I see their point; certainly they’re far less full and kaleidoscopic than the records they made with producer Paul Rothchild (and, at the end of Morrison’s life, without Rothchild, but with engineer Bruce Botnick as co-producer for L.A. Woman). They really benefited from having another year to work on their sound; to write more good songs, though the songwriting was already on a high level; for Morrison to gain more vocal confidence; and to refine their lineup with Krieger on guitar and Manzarek on, mostly, organ.
Until a few years ago, these were the only Doors recordings in circulation preceding their self-titled debut album. Recently May 1966 live tapes from the London Fog club became available. These have the Krieger lineup, and are a good eight months after the demos. But they’re not that good, in part because five of the seven songs are R&B/rock’n’roll/soul covers. Surprisingly, there’s also the bluesy original “You Make Me Real,” which they wouldn’t record in the studio until their fifth album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel. Only on “Strange Days” does their unique approach come through.
If the Doors had stuck to being a blues/R&B-oriented band heavy on the covers, they never would have made it. They weren’t nearly as good as the British bands who started with that kind of repertoire, or even as good as the best of the relatively few US bands with a similar orientation. And while I’m a big fan of John Densmore’s drumming, it’s surprisingly substandard on the London Fog tapes.
If a good tape of the Doors during their legendary 1966 summer residency at the Whisky A Go Go somehow emerges, maybe the value of their pre-debut LP sessions can be reassessed. But like several others on this list, their pre-official work has lots of promise without living up to the standards of their core catalog.
Neil Young. Most of the pre-1966 Young recordings that have circulated are on disc one of his Archives Vol. 1 box. You can also throw in a few mid-’66 demos on the Buffalo Springfield, though a few were done in July, the same month sessions started for the first Buffalo Springfield album.
The 1963-64 recordings with the Squires (two released on a rare 1963 instrumental single) aren’t of much consequence, as they’re heavily derivative of the Shadows and the early British Invasion. A few October 1965 tracks with Comrie Smith show more of his songwriting voice starting to emerge, especially on the yearning “There Goes My Babe,” though they’re still no great shakes.
It’s really on his batch of Elektra demos in December 1965 that a recognizable Young surfaces, especially as they include a couple songs he’d put on official releases, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” (with Buffalo Springfield) and “Sugar Mountain.” Part of “The Rent Is Always Due” would be recycled for “I Am a Child” on the Springfield’s third album.
Although the solo guitar accompaniment is bare and Young’s vocals not as confident as they’d be later in the 1960s, the best of the Elektra demos clearly show a fine singer-songwriter, even if the other songs don’t measure up to the ones listed in the previous paragraph. The genius most of us can apply in hindsight makes it seem obvious Elektra, or some label, should have signed this guy up, whether as a solo act or someone that could develop a band or get placed in a group. He didn’t get an Elektra contract, and it’s not even clear how seriously, or if, anyone at the label listened to the demos.
Young wasn’t as nervous for his mid-1966 demos, when he was already part of Buffalo Springfield and just shy of starting to record an album with them. The standouts are the two songs that made their debut LP, “Out of My Mind” (on which fellow Buffalo Springfielders Stephen Stills and Richie Furay sing backup vocals) and “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.” “I’m Your Kind of Guy” isn’t memorable, but “There Goes My Babe” has a heartrending melody, even if there’s no way Young would have recorded it as was, since it’s sung from a woman’s point of view. That’s because it was reportedly a demo for Sonny & Cher (presumably to have been sung mostly or wholly by Cher), fellow clients of the Springfield’s original managers and producers, Charlie Greene and Brian Stone.
Overall I like Young’s early demos, though the best of them are the songs that were re-recorded for official release, and the later versions are substantially better. But he didn’t record too much before Buffalo Springfield’s first album, and what he did record was uneven, though the signs of his future brilliance are clearly there.
Pink Floyd. Considerably in advance of their early-1967 debut single “Arnold Layne”/“Candy and a Currant Bun,” Pink Floyd recorded a half dozen demos in 1965 when they were still a five-piece with guitarist Bob Klose. These were issued on the extremely limited 2015 EP 1965: Their First Recordings, and then made more widely available as part of the very large and expensive box The Early Years 1965-1972.
Although original leader/lead singer/main songwriter/lead guitarist Syd Barrett wrote four of these songs, only the manic “Lucy Leave” hints at their brilliant, teetering-on-madness early psychedelia. It’s by far the best of the batch, marking a transition from their clumsy R&B origins (as heard here on an average cover of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”) to a more sinister freakbeat sound anticipating elements of the brilliant 1967 recordings they made with Barrett. “I’m a King Bee” were in wide circulation before that. The other four originals, three composed by Barrett, are a bit twee and tame in comparison, and far poppier. Roger Waters’s “Walk With Me Sydney” is of note, however, not only as the bassist’s first composition to be recorded, but also for featuring Juliette Gale (Rick Wright’s first wife) sharing lead vocals with Syd.
There are also a few early versions of “Interstellar Overdrive” in circulation that are different from the one on their first LP. The one for the soundtrack of Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London is pretty cool, though unfocused after the first few minutes. Cooler yet is a hyper-jittery pre-record deal unreleased 1966 fifteen-minute version of “Interstellar Overdrive,” recorded for the soundtrack of Anthony Stern’s 1968 avant-garde short film San Francisco. Not so cool is the meandering “Nick’s Boogie,” also done at sessions for Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London.
In sum, pre-“Arnold Layne” Pink Floyd has a few interesting, even exciting cuts—the alternate “Interstellar Overdrive”s and, less compellingly, “Lucy Leave.” As for the rest, there’s not much, it’s not that memorable, and it’s not much like early psychedelic Pink Floyd, though they’re instructive to hear for insight into their roots.
Of course, just sticking to the 1960s, there are many other notable acts who made recordings prior to their official debuts. As I noted, this is a sampling of some of the most notable.
Of all these, only the recordings by the Byrds and the Rolling Stones are really fine and enjoyable, though there are good moments here and there with almost everyone else. And the Rolling Stones did hardly any such recordings, and the ones by the Byrds span, in all likelihood, just a few months. Joni Mitchell’s the clear winner in the obscure category of best and most extensive body of significant work done by an important 1960s artist prior to their first official disc.
If you have socially responsible investments, there are too many reasons to cheer the incoming Joe Biden administration to fit into one paragraph. Obviously there will be much more commitment to promoting sustainability and alleviating the destructive effects of climate change. Fighting systemic racial injustice will also be a priority.
Yet Biden and Congress will also have their hands full fighting the pandemic and boosting the ailing economy—goals that, of course, are deeply interrelated. How easy or difficult will it be to pass legislation that would not just undo the worst policies of the previous administration, but also enact new progressive ones? Much will depend on who’s in Congress, especially a near-deadlocked Senate, which like the House is barely in Democratic control as Biden takes office.
Climate Change and the New Administration
While SRI addresses many issues, most would agree that climate change tops the list. It’s complex and urgent enough that it needs an entire blog post to address, though we hope to examine others in coming months as the new administration settles into place.
Even before taking office, Biden got the discussion into gear by picking a diverse group of environmentally conscious, highly credentialed men and women for key cabinet positions. These include:
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who’s championed renewable energy, as Secretary of Energy.
Deb Haaland, who would be the first Native American cabinet secretary, as Secretary of the Interior.
Pete Buttigieg, who attracted plenty of favorable attention as a presidential candidate, as Secretary of the Transportation.
While there are only sixteen cabinet positions, all subject to Senate confirmation, much of the administration’s staff doesn’t have to pass that test. John Kerry’s appointment as special presidential envoy for the climate won’t need to clear that hurdle. Neither will Gina McCarthy, Barack Obama’s EPA administrator, who will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.
With near-daily accounts of vicious partisan conflict as policies crawl through the Washington maze, it’s easy to get frustrated, especially with the clock running out on opportunities to stem climate change. Socially responsible investing gives us a chance to make our voices heard outside of the voting booth. It’s not too early to look at how SRI should expand and change our voice for environmental action over the next four years, and hopefully beyond.
Where We Stand Now
With the deluge of headlines over the last four years announcing all sorts of calamitous environmental policies, you might assume it’s been nothing but bad news for building a greener economy. To the surprise of many, that’s not exactly been the case.
According to the latest report from the United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, total US-domiciled assets under management using ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investment strategies increased to $17 trillion in 2020. That number doesn’t mean much without some context:
According to Forbes, “The figure represents 33% of all US assets under professional management.”
It rose 42% over the past two years, from $12 trillion.
It’s an enormous gain from just a decade ago, when about one in eight such assets were under professional management, as opposed to one in three.
Some cautions are in order when you take in these numbers. ESG is seen by some as shorthand for SRI Light, with guidelines that aren’t as strict as those often adopted by the SRI community. The 33% figure applies to assets under professional management, and is far from representing one in every three dollars in the overall economy. It also counts the ESG assets of huge investment companies like Vanguard, Fidelity, and BlackRock whose overall mission isn’t SRI-centered, and in the view of some not even especially ESG-centered.
Some see this bulge in ESG as a symptom of big players exploiting opportunities for their financial gain, rather than a reflection of their core principles. As renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in The New York Times shortly after the election, “The fossil fuel industry has been the worst-performing sector of the American economy for many years now. Its problems are twofold: It faces a sprawling resistance movement, rooted in the undeniable fact that its products are wrecking the planet’s climate system. And in wind and sun, it faces formidable technological competitors who can provide the same service, just cleaner and cheaper.”
Along the same lines, some skeptics feel such companies might be creating ESG-sensitive funds to greenwash their public image. Others point out that many financial operations, not just investment companies with ESG assets, are turning toward green technologies out of necessity after demand for fossil fuels tanked when air and car travel plummeted in the pandemic.
The graphics below give a basic outline of ESG’s growth and priorities:
More Signs to Green Growth
But whatever the motives of companies getting green-friendlier or ESG-oriented, the economy’s generally turning more toward environmentally sustainable technologies and investments. Impax Asset Management president Joseph Keefe put it this way on the site of Pax World Funds, the first socially responsible mutual fund in the US:
“The clean energy sector has managed to thrive despite four years of indifference at best, and opposition at worst, from the Trump administration. Technology cost reductions, supportive state-level policy, and strong demand from corporate consumers responding to customer pressure have all helped renewables grow significantly with extremely limited federal support.” As just one example, although solar tariffs were imposed on imported cells and modules in 2018, the Wood Mackenzie global energy consultancy group expects the solar market to grow by 33% in 2020, and 48% in 2021.
Crucially, this sort of progress isn’t only taking root in mutual funds or private enterprises not known for their altruism. Governments and institutions have also continued to direct their resources toward fossil-free territory.
We only had to wait about a month after Biden was elected to see the sharpest such left turn. In early December, comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced New York State would start divesting its $226 billion employee pension fund from oil and gas companies if they didn’t have a plan aligned with the Paris climate accord within four years. In 2018, it had been announced that New York City’s pension fund would seek to divest $5 billion in fossil fuel over five years. But New York State’s divestment would be the biggest yet by a US pension.
Such heartening headlines in no way cancel the worst of the outgoing administration’s environmental atrocities. Even as time ran out on its remaining days in office after the election, it was selling oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; completing rollbacks on more than a hundred environmental rules; continuing 24/7 construction of a border wall, which threatens nearly a hundred endangered species; and not taking measures to increase controls on industrial soot emissions, although polluted air’s been linked to Covid-19 death rates. Still, the trends toward SRI or ESG investments could help the Biden team get off to a running start not just in reversing these policies, but initiating others. What are the possibilities?
First, let’s take a look at what the new administration plans to address. It will be a brief look because there are literally pages and pages of details at joebiden.com/climate-plan. That itself is a heartening sign, considering the outgoing administration seemed to have no such plan whatsoever, let alone such a comprehensive one. Here are a half dozen highlights:
Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
Make a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in clean energy and environmental justice over the next ten years.
Use the federal government procurement system, which spends $500 billion every year, to drive toward 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.
Double down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change.
Make a historic investment in energy and climate research and innovation, as well as clean and resilient infrastructure and communities.
Re-enter the Paris Agreement on day one of the administration.
There’s much, much more information on this site, titled “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.” These key points alone, however, will both encourage and require massive investment in green technology and environmentally conscious companies. As a New York Times editorial reported, along the way, Biden’s pledged to “eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035.” That itself would drive a lot of investment away from gas and oil.
The goalposts are sure to shift as socioeconomic conditions change, and as political battles are waged on Capitol Hill. But SRI investment, from both professional management and plain old citizens, will be vital to keeping those goals in sight.
The SRI/ERG Community Wish List
If socially responsible investors have more power than they’ve had in four years—and, perhaps, ever if Biden sticks to his plan—how can their influence be felt in Washington?
“There is a growing chorus of policymakers who recognize that climate change is a material risk to investments,” notes Bryan McGannon, Director of Policy and Programs for the US Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. “We anticipate that climate risk disclosure by public companies will get attention by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] and Congress in 2021. We also expect the Department of Labor to act on the rules governing retirement plans to clarify how ESG investments may be considered.”
Let’s start with a cabinet position of particular interest to the SRI community. Under new head Marty Walsh, Boston mayor and former union leader, the Department of Labor will probably abandon a proposal requiring plan fiduciaries to prioritize the finances of beneficiaries over social and public policy objectives.
That doesn’t just pave the way for more transparency and ethical behavior from those who administer a great deal of our country’s wealth. It also leaves far greater openings for the initiation of environmentally and socially progressive shareholder resolutions. It would also increase the likelihood of those resolutions having a true positive impact for everyone, and not just benefiting the beneficiaries.
The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment has proposed the creation of a White House Office of Sustainable Finance and Business to promote “the continued growth of sustainable investment and accelerate the shift from a shareholder-centric company model to a multi-stakeholder model.” The second part likewise translates to companies that would be accountable to the health of society as a whole, and not just the portfolios of its investors.
The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment Wish List
This is just the first of eight major recommendations the forum has proposed for the new administration on its website, at ussif.org. If not quite as mammoth as The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice, it’s a lengthy document with dozens of elaborations and sub-recommendations. Here are just some of the other points in its platform likely to be of interest to anyone with a mind toward socially responsible investing, and not just those who make a living at it:
Appoint leadership at the Department of Labor (DOL) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with sustainable investment expertise.
The SEC should reverse regulatory action limiting shareholder proposals.
The DOL should reverse regulatory action limiting the inclusion of ESG factors in retirement plans.
Create a new position of sustainable finance liaison at the Environmental Protection Agency.
End fossil fuel subsidies.
Some of the forum’s recommendations aren’t specifically linked to SRI/ESG or climate change, such as an urge for a $15/hr. minimum wage and mandatory paid sick leave. Those sort of concerns are nonetheless intimately linked with laying the groundwork for more socially responsible investment, which can best thrive if our overall economy and livelihoods are healthy.
The report’s elaborations on the key eight recommendations include some proposals that aren’t mentioned in Biden’s climate plan, and that might be viewed by many as more progressive. These include suggestions to establish a tax on carbon emissions; restore the Clean Water Act; and, in a measure both wordy and worthy, “establish an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Council on Environmental Quality.”
Many signs, then, point to a more favorable climate for both fighting climate change and expanding socially responsible investment, an essential pillar in that fight. How might individual investors best allocate their resources in that climate, whether by getting their assets as fossil-free as possible or otherwise? That’s something that can be addressed in a future post on this site.
We all know that much less music was performed in 2020 than in any other year in our lifetimes. How did that affect the reissue business? As with music history books and films, not as much as you might expect. In part that’s because it’s easier to reissue old music than it is to record new music this year, even though there are still logistical difficulties in researching, retrieving, and repackaging tapes.
Even with many record retailers closing or drastically cutting their hours and access, record sales haven’t suffered as much as many other businesses have. Those music consumers still lucky enough to have assets and employment have more disposable income than usual, now that traveling and going out to eat and see entertainment are barely or not possible. And with people at home much more than usual, there’s more time to fill with listening.
So there was still about as much reissue output, and variety of same, as there was in most years. The word “reissue” might not be the best term for some of the items on my list (including the one at #1), as some of them partially or wholly feature music that’s being issued for the first time. If we’re talking music from decades past that was presented on worthwhile albums released in 2020, however, that’s what qualifies for this list, whether it’s been around before or not.
I appreciate the visits of many readers to the posts of my best-of lists over the past few years, as well as the interesting and insightful comments they sometimes generate here and elsewhere. I do get occasional comments from readers who seem to expect something different from what I offer. To clarify:
This is a list of my personal favorites of the albums featuring historical rock recordings released in 2020 that I was able to hear. It’s not a list or compendium of what other writers, listeners, publications, and music communities have deemed their favorites, or considered the most important and historically significant. While packaging is a factor in my selections, it’s not the only or main one. Just because a box has all the notable rarities, great liner notes, or a new mix or remastering doesn’t mean I’ll pick it. I won’t select it if I don’t like the music or the artist, no matter how many bells and whistles it has.
Music can be taken as seriously as religion and politics, and omissions from my lists have even generated some anger in the past. If there’s anger about anything, I ask that it gets channeled toward helping to rebuild my native US, and the world as a whole, after the disastrous four years of the outgoing administration. Here’s hoping, to quote the Who, that “21 is gonna be a good year” after the new administration is inaugurated.
In keeping with those hopes, it’s appropriate that my #1 pick hails from a country that has taken a more humane and sensible approach to our current crises than the US has. Here’s to both neighboring nations following a similar path over the next decade.
1. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)(Rhino). Before her first album came out in 1968, Joni Mitchell was already a prolific songwriter who’d been performing on the North American folk circuit for about five years. Some of her unreleased material from this era has circulated on bootleg, and this five-CD box contains not only some of that, but much more. Documenting her growth from a traditional folk singer to a superb songwriter, it fills in a big gap in the discography of a major performer. Taken from live performances, radio shows, TV programs, demos, and home tapes, none of the nearly hundred tracks (not counting the couple dozen or so spoken introductions) have been officially released. Many of them haven’t even unofficially circulated.
As the songs on disc one that span 1963 to early 1965 reveal, Mitchell began as an interpreter of traditional songs with a voice and style not unlike early Judy Collins. Even at this point, she was better than most of the numerous women folk singers from the final years of the folk revival, even when she accompanied herself on four-string ukulele on the earliest recordings.
By 1965, she’d already moved toward highly original songwriting with her first outstanding composition, “Urge for Going” (soon to be covered by Tom Rush, and then for a country hit by George Hamilton IV). There were still echoes of trad folk in the cover of John Phillips’s “Me and My Uncle” (quite a good version, actually) and her own ramblin’ road ode “Born to Take the Highway.” But her singing—which on the earliest tapes deploys a high, pristine tone a la Collins, Joan Baez, and their many imitators—quickly developed a wider, swooping range. The ukulele was retired, and her underrated, masterful acoustic guitar work started to bloom, with growing use of unusual tunings and rhythms as the ‘60s progressed.
In late 1966 and 1967, classics like “The Circle Game,” “Night in the City,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Chelsea Morning” entered her repertoire. It’s mysterious that she wasn’t signed to a recording deal earlier, as she was clearly getting on par with the best singer-songwriters of the time, though maybe her failure to branch into electric folk-rock held her back. Early interpreters of her work (also including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian & Sylvia, and Dave Van Ronk) covered some of the songs here before Mitchell had a record out, but Joni’s versions here are confident and more definitive.
Although 118 tracks are listed for this set, keep in mind not only that more than a couple dozen are spoken intros, but also that there are a good number of multiple versions. However, there aren’t more than three of any one tune (“Both Sides Now,” “Urge for Going,” and “Night in the City” are all heard three times, for example), and the versions are spaced out widely enough from each other that the redundancy’s not an annoyance. Sometimes you can hear a definite difference or progression between renditions, as you can in just four months between the two of “Eastern Rain.”
The sound quality varies between excellent and okay, and while some hiss can be heard on the tracks with lowest fidelity, none of them are so muffled as to be unenjoyable. And while the sheer number of spoken introductions might sound daunting, they’re actually fairly interesting, and show her a warm and personable (if sometimes a bit flighty) performer even as she struggled to gain a recording contract. Best is one where she bluntly, if accurately, tags David Blue as a Dylan imitator, noting that Blue emulated Dylan’s grouchy side and Eric Andersen Dylan’s humorous side, almost like it was a tennis match between the two.
Best of all, this box has many original Mitchell compositions she never placed on her studio records. There’s a reservation attached to that bonus, however. Almost all of them are interesting and pleasing to hear, but she wisely selected her best work for inclusion in her early records. There are earlier versions about a dozen songs that would crop up on her first four LPs, including six that would show up on her debut album.
Few of the others here stand out as on the level as those that made the cut, and some are preciously lightweight. Exceptions are “Eastern Rain,” which Fairport Convention covered magnificently on their second album, and “Urge for Going,” which only made it onto a non-LP B-side. “Day After Day,” referred to in the liners as her first composition, is pretty strong too.
Interesting oddities include a May 1967 cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” well in advance of the release of Young’s version; a wordless improvisation that isn’t a mere throwaway, displaying her facility at devising jazz-folk melodies; and two versions of “Dr. Junk,” which as she notes uses a Bo Diddley rhythm at times (this was also done as a very obscure cover by the Ian Campbell Group). “Songs to Aging Children Come” has a plain folk arrangement that’s much different from the one on her second LP, which used extensive multi-track vocals.
There are more pre-1968 recordings in unofficial circulation than what made it onto this box. But this is a well assembled retrospective that presents much or all of the cream without overloading multiple versions. Considering Mitchell’s recent serious illness, an unexpected extra is her recent interview about this era that fills up most of the box’s booklet. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
2. Donovan, Live 1965-1969 (London Calling). The title of this double CD could have been more precise; these thirty tracks weren’t from conventional concerts, but from BBC radio sessions. As most of his ‘60s UK peers are represented by a BBC collection or two (or more), it’s a little surprising it took so long for a Donovan BBC compilation to appear, especially as almost all of the tracks have good, clear sound. (And those with the worst fidelity aren’t much worse than the best.) If this was fully authorized, it seems like it would be on a major label, not on a relatively unknown one. But it’s available for sale in major outlets, and so should be considered a “real” release, if a somewhat gray-area one.
In common with most BBC collections, it’s a mixture of good performances that stick closely to the studio arrangements with some interesting variations and choice rarities. Of most interest will be four 1965 performances from his folk phase of songs that never appeared on official Donovan discs. “Who Killed Davy Moore,” one of two Bob Dylan compositions here that Dylan himself didn’t release in the ‘60s, is more melodically interesting than Dylan’s arrangement, with a minor-keyed tune that probably follows the version Pete Seeger put on the 1963 album Broadside Ballads Vol. 2. “Daddy You’ve Been on My Mind,” while a little less striking, is Donovan’s take on Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind,” the title changed as he modeled it on Joan Baez’s 1965 cover where “Mama” was changed to “Daddy.” It’s still a strong performance.
There’s also a decent cover of a song by a less celebrated hero of Donovan’s, Bert Jansch, with “Running from Home.” He also does “Working on the Railroad” – not the overly familiar kiddie singalong, but a fairly gutsy folk-blues he likely learned from a recording by American folkie Jesse Fuller.
Some, if not a huge number, of cuts deviate in notable ways from the studio counterparts. “Young Girl Blues” is a real highlight, as the Mellow Yellow LP version is solo acoustic, but this radio reworking has a full jazzy band and some different lyrics. It’s one of the rare BBC performances from rock artists of the time that could be fairly preferred to the studio counterpart, and is a very observational piece where the radio version heightens the moodiness to good effect. “Barabajagal,” actually recorded at Donovan’s cottage, goes the other way by offering a solo acoustic rendition – not as memorable as the rocking hit single, but memorably different and good on its own terms. “Bert’s Blues,” unlike the full-band jazzy baroque setting on Sunshine Superman, is just Donovan on acoustic guitar and Spike Heatley on upright bass; I prefer the studio version by some distance, but this is worth hearing too. “Lalena,” in two versions (one with strings and one without), has some different lyrics in the third verse of the string-backed take.
Even on the songs that aren’t too different from what you’re used to hearing on Donovan’s ‘60s records, the performances are confident and he’s in very good voice, as well as playing acoustic guitar very well. That’s particularly evident on the numerous 1965 tracks (fourteen in all), where he delivers fine and sparsely (if at all) adorned renditions of his pre-rock hits and obscure covers found on his early releases, like “Little Tin Soldier” (written by Shawn Phillips) and “Candy Man.” And there are brief interviews where Donovan offers some thoughts on folk music and his work, though they don’t last long enough to get too deep.
There are things to criticize about this batch of radio sessions. Some of them from post-‘65 sound like at least some of the components might have been lifted from the studio versions. “Jennifer Juniper” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” to name a couple, sound extremely similar to the hit singles, and “There Is a Mountain” is mainly differentiated by an additional organ part. There’s a pretty big artistic distance between his best late-‘60s work (like the aforementioned hits) and his more lightweight ditties, a few of which are here, such as “The Tinker and the Crab” (in two versions) and “The Entertaining of a Shy Little Girl.” There’s nothing from 1966 (possibly he didn’t do any sessions that year, when he was caught in a complicated contractual dispute that held up his UK releases), and hence just one song from his best album, Sunshine Superman.
But overall, this reinforces Donovan’s stature as a major performer of the era. Not that he needed this compilation to do that; his reputation has risen steadily over the last few decades, since a low point when he was sometimes unfairly dismissed by historians and critics as a flower-power namby-pamby and/or Dylan imitator. It might not substantially redefine his legacy (few BBC anthologies do), but it’s absolutely a worthwhile supplement to his main body of work, and heartily recommended to fans of his earliest and best years. An excellent track-by-track guide to this collection by blogger Stuart Penney, incidentally, can be read at https://andnowitsallthis.blogspot.com/2020/03/donovan-live-1965-1969.html.
3. The Yardbirds, Live at the BBC Revisited (Repertoire). I’ve lost track of how often Yardbirds BBC sessions have been issued and reissued, even without counting the gray-area and bootleg releases on which some sessions have surfaced. And I’m not entirely sure whether this three-CD compilation marks the first time some of these have circulated, though any that haven’t been previously heard are alternate versions rather than songs that haven’t been available in any BBC performance whatsoever. Still, this certainly marks the most comprehensive package of Yardbirds BBC performances in one place. It also certainly has the best annotation of any Yardbirds BBC collection, Mike Stax’s thorough liner notes including first-hand quotes from drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith.
Note that just three tracks date from the Eric Clapton era, and these are from a live concert at the 1964 National Jazz & Blues Festival at which Mick O’Neill filled in for ill singer Keith Relf. Over two-thirds of this dates from sessions with Jeff Beck in 1965 and 1966 – not a drawback, since that was when the group were at their peak. A good part of disc three has 1967-68 sessions with Jimmy Page, however, and is well worth hearing, especially for the version of “Dazed and Confused.”
A number of songs they didn’t put on their studio releases are here, including “Spoonful,” “Bottle Up and Go,” the folk song “Hush-A-Bye,” Freddie King’s “The Stumble,” “Dust My Blues,” “The Sun Is Shining,” Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying,” Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way,” and even a group original (“Love Me Like I Love You”), though that last item an average soul-pop tune. While non-fanatics might not care too much about variations like a greater rhythm guitar presence on “Over Under Sideways Down” or different guitar lines on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” and “Heart Full of Soul,” they’re the kind of things Yardbirds devotees treasure. The same goes for multiple versions of “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Evil Hearted You,” and “Love Me Like I Love You” that were recorded at the same session; they’re nearly identical, but then they’re among the tracks that have rarely or never circulated to my knowledge.
It should also be noted that if you’re enough of a Yardbirds collector to want a set like this, you’ll probably have a lot of it elsewhere. And, while this is another observation that makes some labels livid, the sound quality, while generally very good, is variable, and the minor sonic deficiencies on some cuts can’t be totally remedied by any amount of expert remastering. This is still a major supplement to their studio work, but the previous availability of much of it means I can’t quite rank it as high as the Donovan BBC anthology, none of which had previously been on the market.
Also released by Repertoire at the same time, by the way, was Blues Wailing: Five Live Yardbirds 1964. Not to be confused with their official debut album Five Live Yardbirds (recorded March 1964), this briefer set was recorded on August 7, 1964 at the Marquee (not July 25, 1964 at King George’s Hall in Esher, Surrey, as previously reported). It’s the same material, however, that was first issued back in 2003 as Live! Blueswailing July ’64, with new liner notes by Mike Stax.
4. The Honeycombs, The Complete ‘60s Albums & Singles (RPM). They might be thought of as a one-hit British Invasion wonder for 1964’s “Have I the Right,” but the Honeycombs actually cut quite a bit of material in their brief 1964-66 career as a recording act. They weren’t a one-hit wonder either, exactly, since “That’s the Way” was a Top Twenty UK hit and “I Can’t Stop” almost made the US Top Forty. Most of what they did remains unknown beyond the hard-bitten British Invasion collector world, though. And while they’re often thought of, with some justification, as kind of wimpy, a good number of their tracks were pretty good, if more due to Joe Meek’s imaginative and at times weird production than the modest talents of the group. This three-CD set—yes, there’s enough to fill up three discs to the gills, totaling 78 songs—has all three of their albums, plenty of non-LP singles, a few unreleased studio outtakes and radio performances, and even some mighty obscure solo 45s by group members Denny D’Ell and Martin Murray.
Really only about half of this is prime stuff, but it’s better than you might think. Meek’s production found a suitable outlet with this band, featuring squealing guitars, sped-up sounding D’Ell vocals, crunching drums, odd glissandos, and a general idiosyncratic squash, sometimes making the backup vocals sound truly fishbowl-generated. Some of their LP-only tracks and flop 45s/B-sides were supremely spooky, like “Without You It Is Night,” the admittedly pretty similar “This Too Shall Pass Away,” and “Eyes.” The original 45 version of “I Can’t Stop” was their greatest moment, enhanced by frenetic D’Ell yells, infectious stop-start tempos, and a general sense of nearly out-of-control euphoria. (The LP version, also here, is a ghastly, far inferior remake). “Something I Got to Tell You,” a rare vocal from drummer Honey Lantree, sounds like it could have been a hit, though the lyric “something’s giving me hell” might have blown any chance of that. Non-LP singles and B-sides like “That Loving Feeling,” “Should a Man Cry?,” “Please Don’t Pretend Again,” and “Can’t Get Through to You” are genuinely worth seeking out. And while “Emptiness” isn’t a great song, it has the distinction of being a Ray Davies composition the Kinks never recorded.
What are the drawbacks? Well, D’Ell’s voice, kind of like a wobbly Gene Pitney, will drive some listeners up the wall. The songs, mainly supplied by managers Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, could be puerile, and not saved even by the best efforts of Meek (who wrote some of their other tunes). The live album In Tokyo might be rare, but it isn’t very good, and dominated by covers of American hits. Those obscure solo singles aren’t memorable; the radio performances and outtakes only somewhat interesting; and the historical liner notes disappointingly shallow, with much remaining unknown about how the songs were conceived and recorded. And if you want to subtract points, the Honeycombs didn’t write any of their own material (though Murray wrote his solo 45), making one wonder if they would have made any impact whatsoever without their producer and managers. More than fifty years later, however, does that matter so much? Their name was on a good number of enjoyable, unusual records, all of which can be heard here, even if the ride’s wildly erratic. For a more in-depth appraisal of the Honeycombs and this box, read my post from earlier this year.
5. Keith Relf, All the Falling Angels (Repertoire). Keith Relf made hardly any records on which he was the solo artist – just two obscure singles in 1966, in fact. Of course, he’s pretty famous as the lead singer of the Yardbirds, and to a lesser degree as part of the first lineup of Renaissance. He might be most (and most justly) noted for his contributions to the fierce British Invasion rock of the Yardbirds, but he also had a folky, introspective, and at times fragile vulnerable side that wasn’t always evident in the records he was involved with that came out in his lifetime. That imbalance is partially redressed by this 24-track compilation of obscurities and demos, spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Almost half of them are previously unreleased, and most of them didn’t come out before his death in 1976.
When working on his own or as part of the short-lived late-‘60s group Together (with ex-Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty), Relf usually eschewed blues-rock and psychedelia (at which he was quite good) for more tender outings with an almost nakedly personal aura. There’s a nearly translucent quality to the cuts here that didn’t make it onto discs, as if Relf was not quite of this earth or at home here, with a mystical yearning too ethereal to withstand the everyday pressures of human existence. A few of the earlier tracks will be of special interest to Yardbirds fans, presenting brief demos of two of the better songs from their sole LP with Jimmy Page, “Glimpses” (at this point little more than a haunting chant) and “Only the Black Rose” (which, oddly, has a much more upbeat melody than the studio track). More polished, melodic acoustic folk-rock songs were done by Together; both sides of their rare 1968 single are here, along with a couple outtakes that came out on the 1992 double-CD expanded edition of the Yardbirds’ Little Games, and another outtake in “Line of Least Resistance.”
Of most interest to those who’ve managed to collect the half or CD of this disc that’s come out before are the previously unreleased performances. Fidelity-wise, they’re not up to what would have been considered releasable in the late 1960s and 1970s, and sometimes the sound quality is actually pretty rough or rudimentary. Yet in common with many demos emphasizing guitar and voice, they have a window-to-the-soul feel that would have gotten lost with lots of production, or even much more production, considering these songs work best in a stark state. Although occasionally in an upbeat rock mood (“Try Believing”), more often he favored folky ruminations that verged on crossing the line from melancholy to spooky. “Collector to the Light” in particular sounds almost like a message from a hermit’s cave, with eerie reverb and miscellaneous faint shakes.
A few items are nothing more than sketches or lyric-less scats, but still attractive for their otherworldliness, especially “Roundalay,” which unwinds in jazzy circles as Relf hum-sings the kind of unpredictable minor-keyed melodies he favors. He wasn’t done with far-out experimentation, either, as the closing “Sunbury Electronic Sequence” emphasizes. As its harsh collage of numerous distorted effects goes on for nine minutes, placing it at the end was a good idea, in case you’re not in the mood for extended atonality.
For those needing something more accessible, both sides of his baroque-pop 1966 solo single “Knowing”/“Mr. Zero” are here, as is the yet rarer follow-up solo 45 “Shapes in Mind” (though in just one of the two commercially available versions; more on that in the next paragraph). So is a brooding folk piece from an April 1965 Yardbirds BBC broadcast, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” though that’s come out on previous official releases as “Hush-A-Bye.”
And here are the imperfections that drive label owners mad when reviewers point them out, but should be noted. This has one of the two versions of Keith Relf’s interesting 1966 single, “Shapes in My Mind” (the one that starts with an organ). Why doesn’t it have the other one that came out (which starts with a horn)? Both versions were included on another recent release on Repertoire, the Yardbirds’ Live and Rare box. And the 1968 Yardbirds outtake “Knowing That I’m Losing You” (later the basis of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine”) that includes a Relf vocal (the one that has been officially released is instrumental) would have made a great addition. It’s one of his greatest performances, and one of the Yardbirds’ best recordings from the Jimmy Page era. And it was likely unavailable for licensing, considering it’s never come out anywhere, though it’s been in unofficial circulation for quite a few years.
Relf has come in for his share of knocks from rock historians who find his vocals limited or lacking. I’ve always liked them a lot, however; what he lacked in power, he more than made up for in personality. They’re certainly an asset on this release, which is the kind of compilation that might only appeal to a pretty limited niche of fanatics, and be dismissed as marginal frivolity by many. And y’know what? Big deal. I’m one of those fanatics, and other fanatics will dig the hell out of this. For the story behind this release, read my article about this reissue, which includes material from a recent interview with Yardbirds Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith.
6. The Belfast Gypsies, Them Belfast Gypsies (Grapefruit). The Belfast Gypsies were a spinoff group from Them, including two members (singer/organist Jackie McAuley and drummer John aka Pat McAuley) who’d played on some of Them’s great mid-‘60s records. Their sole album, recorded in 1966 and initially issued by a Swedish label, was much like Them, but yet punkier and rawer, especially in the vocal department. To make a rough comparison, the Belfast Gypsies were to Them like the Pretty Things were to the Rolling Stones.
This was reissued on CD in 2003 with bonus tracks, and this edition is an upgrade, though there’s not much more material. Besides adding single and EP mixes of tracks from the LP, it also has an instrumental from a French EP (though the Belfast Gypsies were probably not involved in that recording). All of those tracks were on the 2003 CD, but this 2020 edition adds a couple of basic February 1966 demos (covers of Graham Bond’s “I Want You” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), which came out on a ten-inch back in 2005. The new CD also has extensive liner notes with some rare photos and memorabilia. Seven of the LP tracks were mastered from newly discovered master tapes, and the others were newly remastered.
All of these bonuses seem to make this the definitive edition, but a reservation has to be expressed. The opening track from the LP, “Gloria’s Dream,” noticeably slows down after the instrumental break. That didn’t happen on the 2003 CD, so this seems to be a flaw. Some labels and compilers don’t appreciate when things like this are pointed out for reissues that have been assembled with overall fanatical care. But like the brief skip in the Honeycombs collection reviewed earlier in this list, it’s something that needs to be noted for the very kind of fanatics who buy these kind of specialist reissues.
To risk losing a few more friends, it seems like the volume level is low on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (one of the greatest Dylan covers), though that doesn’t happen on my LP reissue. Mitigating the disappointment, the EP mixes of “Gloria’s Dream” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” don’t have these problems, and, to risk more wrath from those who might disagree, aren’t notably different from the LP versions at any rate.
I’m actually not that much of an audiofile, but all told, this would have ranked higher on this list had these quirks not jumped out at me. And the dozen LP tracks that are at the core of this release – the ones that really make it worth hearing – have long been easily available on reissues, as another reason why this doesn’t get an even higher ranking. The music is more important than imperfections, of course, and the Belfast Gypsies album is one of the best British Invasion obscurities, well worth hearing if you like first-wave British R&B/rock. The full, and very complicated, tale of the group is told in my lengthy story on the group in issue #23 (summer 2005) of Ugly Things magazine.
7. Fred Neil, 38 MacDougal (Delmore). As this was a pretty limited Record Store Day release in November, it might have passed unnoticed even by many Neil fans, although a wider CD/LP release is planned for 2021. These eight previously unreleased songs were recorded in 1965 in the apartment of John Sebastian and guitarist Peter Childs, both of whom played on Neil’s second album, the verging-on-folk-rock Bleecker & MacDougal. On both electric and acoustic guitar, Childs backed Neil’s vocals and guitar on this rather brief set, which lasts a little less than half an hour. Five of the songs also appear, in different studio versions, on Bleecker & MacDougal; one, “Sweet Cocaine,” would be done for his 1966 Fred Neil album; and the two others, the traditional folk tune “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the African-American spiritual “Blind Man Standing By the Road and Crying,” don’t appear on any other Neil record.
Owing both to its brevity and prevalence of alternate versions, this is kind of like hearing bonus cuts to Bleecker & MacDougal that don’t happen to have been used on an expanded CD version of that album. But if you like this underrated folk-rock pioneer, it’s good and worth hearing, in part because Neil recorded just a few albums (and little of consequence after the 1960s). Although the studio versions are more definitive, there’s a pleasing informal vibe to the more familiar material, and the sound is pretty good. Fred’s melodic blues-pop-folk is affecting in these performances, as are his uniquely resonant low vocals, like a more tuneful and on-pitch Johnny Cash. From a historical point of view, the highlights are the two traditional songs that aren’t on other Neil albums. While not as striking as his original compositions, they’re fine spare interpretations, “Once I Had a Sweetheart” being perhaps most familiar to folk-rock fans through Pentangle’s superb version a few years later. He upped his characteristic dolefulness for the more somber “Blind Man Standing By the Road and Crying,” which concludes the set.
8. Neil Young, Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 (Reprise). This mammoth ten-CD box could inspire a whole magazine’s worth of commentary from Neil-heads. I don’t use that kind of space on my best-of list reviews, so I’m sticking to some of the essentials. Almost half of the 131 tracks are previously unreleased, and many of the ones that were already available—particularly the 1973 live sets in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the Roxy in Hollywood, as well as the mid-‘70s outtakes from the Homegrown album—were known primarily to Young fanatics. So although this does have a lot of material from mid-‘70s albums like Tonight’s the Night and Zuma that anyone who buys this set will already have, much of it’s unfamiliar, and likely brand new even to committed Young collectors. There are also a few Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young outtakes from their attempts at studio albums during this period.
It’s good to have so much available from a major performer, from peak or near-peak years. But what wasn’t issued at the time isn’t on par with the best of what he released between 1972 and 1976, nor should anyone expect that. Although it testifies to his sheer fertility as a composer, spinning off dozens of rejects that many songwriters would be happy to feature as highlights of their repertoire, there are reasons most of them weren’t selected for his LPs of the era. They’re not as striking or memorable as much of what made the cut. Even one of the best, the wistful 1972 outtake “Goodbye Christians on the Shore,” could have benefited from some trimming and more energetic execution. While it’s cool to hear some different arrangements of well known songs, like a much harder-rocking “Last Trip to Tulsa” (used on a B-side) and a live “The Loner” without orchestration, I wouldn’t put them on the level of the studio originals. Some rarities are more enticing on paper than they are through the speakers, like the rather forced guess-who-this-is-about piano ballad “Sweet Joni” (performed solo by Young at a 1973 concert). The same goes for the so-so rocker “Raised on Robbery,” a previously unreleased version of a Joni Mitchell song from the Tonight’s the Night sessions, which features Mitchell herself on vocals and guitar.
Here are a few observations that won’t be welcomed by all Young fans. He’s at his least impressive when he opts for a straightahead blues-rock groove; he could use bluesiness effectively, but the bluesiest stuff could be routine or even boring. The CSNY outtakes don’t hint that there was a buried masterpiece that never reached fruition as their plans for studio reunions fell apart for one reason or another. And overall Young wasn’t working at as high a standard as he had in his earlier solo years, with much of the best unissued material appearing on the disc with the earliest recordings (disc one, drawn from 1972 and 1973).
9. Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Sockin’ It to You: The Complete Dynovoice/New Voice Recordings(RPM).Mitch Ryder’s status as one of the great white soul-rock singers of the ‘60s is unquestioned. Like a lot of great rock and soul artists from the era, though, his albums were uneven. They’re certainly not as consistent a blast as a good best-of collection.
But if you’re reading this to consider whether a three-CD, 69-track of everything he did for the label that issued those big hits is worth buying, you probably already have a good best-of collection. You want to know: are Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels worth hearing in bulk? In a package with everything from the five LPs they did for Bob Crewe’s New Voice and Dynovoice labels, along with a few rare non-LP 45s?
Basically, yeah, but only if you’re willing to take a kind of bumpy Ryde. When the first LP leads off with ace covers of “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Come See About Me,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight”—not all of which automatically turn up on Ryder best-ofs—you’re primed for one of the best white R&B comps of all time. But Mitch and his Wheels couldn’t sustain that momentum—hardly anyone could—and there’s a good share of oft-done (sometimes overdone) soul standards that are more on the just-okay side. It didn’t help that they didn’t write original material, something that was always going to keep them out of the league of the best bands of this sort, like the Rascals. Ryder’s vocals are almost always fine, and the Detroit Wheels sometimes inspired, but some of the arrangements are so-so.
The Wheels, whose ultra-tense grooves were never mixed as high as they could or should have been in Crewe’s productions, started to fade more and more into the background as time went on. Crewe partially solved the problem of original material by writing or co-writing most of Mitch’s third album, Sock It To Me!, including the hit title track. Usually it spells trouble when a producer takes such a firm rein. But actually the LP wasn’t bad pop-soul-rock, even when Ryder went afield from his usual forte into almost West Side Story-ish drama (“A Face in the Crowd”) and a sort of soulful Jay & the Americans melodrama (“Wild Child”). He also handled “Walk on By” well, though “Soul Fizz” is an oddity—Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels with a Ryder-less instrumental?
Crewe took his client into more questionable territory with Sings the Hits, which is just a bunch of old—actually just a year or two old—tracks that he remixed and/or overdubbed, throwing in a couple obscure 45 sides that made their first appearance on LP. Again this isn’t as gruesome you might brace yourself for, with the overdubbed horns making for interesting contrasts with the more familiar versions without getting too overbearing. The originals on which you can hear the Detroit Wheels better are, naturally, superior. And they’re all elsewhere on this box, so you don’t have to gnash your teeth over a rip-off.
Then, in true docudrama good-deal-turns-bad fashion, Crewe steered Ryder toward a Wheels-less solo career on What Now My Love, cutting Mitch on some pop standards in the process. This sounds like your basic recipe for disaster, but at the risk of seeming contrarian, it really isn’t as bad as you’d predict. It’s not all standards, with some workmanlike soul and rock oldies covers. And Ryder actually wasn’t so bad at the standards, making a reasonable job of Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” and going into some impressive (if admittedly rather ludicrous) vocal gymnastics on the modest “What Now My Love” hit. This wasn’t Mitch’s forte, however, and by the end of the ‘60s he was both free of Crewe and hitless.
Also on this anthology is his fine cover of “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” which despite being a fair-size hit was only on the All Mitch Ryder Hits compilation, not one of his regular LPs. Far rarer are seven tracks from mostly post-Wheels non-LP 45s (plus a brief spoken radio spot) that close out disc three, all obscure save possibly “Joy,” which just missed the Top Forty. These were for the most part just fair, though Ryder’s vocals were almost always impressive, and not mailed in even when it was obvious the material wasn’t what he deserved.
The notable exception is the funky “Ring Your Bell”—the one track from the Crewe years that Ryder wrote. It slinks along with a sly confident vocal and cool organ-horn blend, though it’s too bad it (and a few of the other non-LP tracks) has a slight wobble, as if the original source wasn’t used or isn’t pristine. “Ring Your Bell” proved Ryder could develop into a good writer. But with Crewe at least, he wouldn’t have the chance. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
10. The Idle Race, The Birthday Party(Grapefruit). The term wasn’t around back then, but the Idle Race were among the premier exponents of “toytown” psychedelia—story-songs with more than a hint of childhood longing/fantasy, done with enough quirky lyrics and production sophistication to keep it out of the children’s bin. Known (if at all) to the larger public as the first group in which Jeff Lynne recorded LPs, they didn’t make much of a dent on either the charts or the underground before Lynne joined the Move. From 1968, The Birthday Party was their first album, here issued as a two-CD package including the stereo and mono versions of the original LP, along with a bunch of non-LP singles and alternate versions.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between this and late-‘60s work by bigger and better bands, particularly the Beatles and the Move. The Idle Race, and particularly chief songwriter Lynne, drew heavily on the most lightweight la-la aspects of Paul McCartney’s work, with some of the eccentricity of chief Move composer Roy Wood. Their first single (oddly unissued in the UK), in fact, was a cover of the Move’s “(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree.” Almost everything else here was written by Lynne, with fellow Idle Racer Dave Pritchard pitching in a few songs.
As long as you don’t set your expectations for an equivalent to Magical Mystery Tour or the Move’s flurry of ‘60s hits, The Birthday Party’s an enjoyable if slightly twee set of very British pop-rock, even if it sometimes sounds like a kiddie TV show soundtrack gone off the rails. (Lynne amusingly, and not wholly inaccurately, once described the Idle Race as “a cross between George Formby and something or other.”) The tales they tell aren’t especially deep, but they’re fairly witty and unremittingly bouncy, with more than a hint of the helium harmonies that would be a trademark of Lynne’s subsequent projects. Modest orchestration and weird effects take some of the cuts into relatively adventurous arrangements. In view of Lynne’s later fame, it’s tempting to dub them a low-budget, less pretentious foreshadowing of some of his work in the Electric Light Orchestra.
The Idle Race never had hits, but a few of these ditties sound like they could have been with a bit more production/promotion oomph. “Skeleton and the Roundabout” feels like a ride on an arty merry-go-round; “Follow Me Follow” is a rockaballad that will appeal to anyone who likes McCartney facsimiles of the kind Emitt Rhodes devised; and “Morning Sunshine” has very Beatlesque guitar swoops. The non-LP B-side “Knocking Nails into My House” injects a welcome bit of ominous narrative into the mix in its play-by-play detail of a foreclosure. It’s the strongest track here, though not the most typical. Nearly as strong, yet anomalously moody and hard-rocking, is another non-LP flip, Pritchard’s “My Father’s Son,” which ends with a most uncharacteristic blast of feedback.
As the Grapefruit label (and the Cherry Red family to which it belongs) has compiled a lot of ambitious multi-disc sets, it’s a little surprising and perhaps disappointing it didn’t opt to do one collecting all of the Idle Race’s Lynne-era output. That would include not only the group’s second LP (1969’s more mature, yet less impressive, Idle Race), but also a wealth of late-‘60s BBC sessions. Maybe that will be wrapped up with an expanded edition of Idle Race. It would be a welcome supplement to this release, whose 24-page liners include a heap of vintage graphics and comments from Lynne and Pritchard. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
11. Various Artists, Crawling Up a Hill: A Journey Through the British Blues Boom 1966-71 (Grapefruit). Like Grapefruit’s numerous other three-CD curations of major British rock styles spanning the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s, this mixes big names with cult names and unknowns. John Mayall, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Free, Jeff Beck—they’re all here, usually represented by one of their deeper cuts. So are notable but less popular figures like Graham Bond, Duster Bennett, Savoy Brown, Taste (with Rory Gallagher), the Climax Chicago Blues Band (as they were known at their outset), Stone the Crows, and Medicine Head. And there are early Fleetwood Mac-related solo efforts by Christine Perfect and Jeremy Spencer, as well as Peter Green taking a lead vocal with the Brunning Sunflower Blues Band, led by original Fleetwood Mac bassist Bob Brunning.
That alone’s a choke-a-horse list. But the bigger attraction for collectors is the wealth of tracks by acts only known to those who pore the listings of specialist reference books. The Zany Woodruff Operation (who did a fair cover of the early John Mayall single “Crawling Up a Hill” that gives this comp its name), Shakey Vick, Jaklin, Frozen Tear, Angel Pavement, Levee Camp Moan, Red Dirt, and Blue Blood—it’s doubtful more than a few dozen or so British blues hounds are familiar with all those names. Plenty of the tracks are taken from way-rare LPs and 45s, as well as some recordings that were privately pressed or unissued at the time.
The span is certainly wider than the most famous British blues anthology, Sire’s 1973 double-LP History of British Blues (which includes a good number of the same top names, though there’s no overlap in actual songs). As much as we get our jollies from having a lot of material in one place, the more important factor is how good a listen it makes. And it’s pretty good and diverse, progressing from ace cuts with roots in the mid=’60s British Invasion (Mayall’s “All Your Love” with Eric Clapton, Bond’s non-LP single “I Love You,” a live “I’m a Man” from the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page lineup) to purer blues and early-‘70s hard rock-flavored outings. The relatively little-heeded British acoustic blues scene gets some airing too, with efforts by Anderson Jones Jackson (featuring future Folk Roots editor Ian A. Anderson), one-man-band Bennett, Jo-Ann Kelly, and Mike Cooper.
The British blues boom—a more purist-minded, less pop-oriented movement than the mid-‘60s explosion of UK R&B-rock bands spearheaded by the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things, Animals, Yardbirds, and Them—has come in it for its share of mockery for being too stodgy, imitative, and bombastic. There’s some of that here, but not too much, and some of the selections venture beyond the straight blues format into more flexible (and, usually, interesting) territory. The Christine Perfect Band’s “It’s You I Miss,” for instance, is a real highlight, and not just for its rarity (broadcast on a November 1969 radio session, this Perfect composition somehow wasn’t included on her 1970 solo LP). Brooding, minor-keyed, and huskily intoned, it’s a real cool tune that will even appeal to those who don’t care for the Fleetwood Mac records after she joined the band.
Some of the other rarer relics show the more workmanlike British blues groups in their best light. The Climax Blues Band’s “A Stranger in Your Town” is fine slide blues variation on “Rollin’ and “Tumblin’” that sounds a bit like a subdued Yardbirds. Savoy Brown weigh in with a ferocious, menacing live January 1970 version of “A Hard Way to Go.” And there are some goodies from names not especially identified with the blues boom. Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tommy Evans add spooky background vocals to Heavy Jelly’s eerily plodding blues-rocker “Take Me Down to the Water,” written and sung by Jackie Lomax. Linda Hoyle, lead singer of the not-terribly-well-known band Affinity, offers a credibly hard-hitting cover of Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues.”
And there are some decent tracks by the no-names. Red Dirt’s “Time to Move” sounds rather like Jethro Tull at their earliest and bluesiest. Icarus put a bit of jazzy melody and psychedelic organ into “There’s An Easy and a Hard Way of Living,” which like some of the other better material here is better described as “bluesy” than “blues.” There weren’t many Alexis Korner covers, but Jaklin offer a decent rocky version of one of his best originals with “The Same for You.”
Crawling Up a Hill is also more inclusive than many a similar comp might be, drawing in more or less straight blues offerings from groups that didn’t do much of that thing, like the Deviants (“Charlie”), Love Sculpture (“Wang Dang Doodle”), and even Mungo Jerry (“The Sun Is Shining”). There are also a few irreverent parodies, to remind us that not everyone in Britain took blues purism so seriously. The Bonzo Dog Band’s “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” is the most familiar of these, and it’s here. But so are Liverpool Scene’s “I’ve Got Those Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can’t Fail Blues,” Jeremy Spencer’s “Mean Blues,” and the Downliners Sect’s rather frivolous Tolkien-blues hybrid “Lord of the Rings.”
Are there significant omissions, whether for licensing or other reasons? Sure, starting with the Rolling Stones, who went into pure blues on some of their late-‘60s recordings. If we’re talking hard rock acts who owed a lot to the blues, Led Zeppelin’s not here either, though Robert Plant’s the featured vocalist on Korner’s “Operator.” There probably aren’t too many people who’d get up in arms over the absence of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, Keef Hartley, or Dave Kelly. But it’s a shame there’s nothing by Duffy Power, one of the finest and most creative cult British bluesmen, who did some of his best and bluesiest stuff during this period.
The small-print, 40-page liner notes by David Wells are jam-packed with info about each track, along with plenty of period record sleeves, pictures, and graphics. There are many more British blues boom highlights besides the ones fit onto this nearly four-hour set, but it surpasses History of British Blues as the best survey of its sort. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
12. Robbie Basho, Songs of the Great Mystery (Real Gone). Similar in mood if not exact style to John Fahey (for whose Takoma label he recorded in his early career), guitarist (and occasional pianist) Robbie Basho constructed haunting music often utilizing unusual minor-keyed melodies, edgy strumming, and a general stormy-cloud aura. He recorded fairly prolifically from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s without achieving much in the way or sales or renown, even compared to a cultish figure like Fahey. So prolific was his output, in fact, that unreleased material continues to pour from his vaults, including this previously unreleased album. Recorded for Vanguard Records in 1971 or 1972, it’s actually a little more than a single LP (at least by vinyl-era standards), adding up to 55 minutes of music with the addition of an alternate take.
Songs of the Great Mystery isn’t too drastically different from other Basho records I’ve heard, which can serve as either a caution or a recommendation. His rather downcast music isn’t for everyone, and his shaking-leaf vocals definitely aren’t for everyone. He usually concentrated on instrumentals, but sings more often than usual in this set, often referencing Native American culture and images of thunder in his lyrics. On “Thunder Love,” you even wonder if he influenced Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” though that seems extremely unlikely. Interesting lyric from “Laughing Thunder, Crawling Thunder”: “America, god has shed his blood on thee.”
Even if it doesn’t stand out as one of his best outings, and some of the songs are fairly similar to each other (and other Basho recordings on different albums), I like the idiosyncratic atmosphere he creates enough to recommend it. His vocals aren’t that great, but at least suitably complement the eerie guitar work and melodies, which are the main assets of this vault find. Also good are the comprehensive liner notes by Glenn Jones, which feature a wealth of detail and description for a batch of tracks whose recording dates aren’t even certain.
13. Robbie Basho, Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes (Tompkins Square). If you thought nearly an hour of Basho outtakes was specialized, it’s put to shame by this five-CD compilation of previously unreleased material, spanning the guitarist’s entire career. (Technically speaking some of the tracks came out slightly earlier on a Record Store Day LP compilation.) Known to have existed for years before this anthology was assembled, this stretches from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. “Approximately” is the necessary qualification because there weren’t dates on these tapes, although the songs were titled. Experts involved in the set’s production could make some reasonable estimates as to a rough order in which the material was recorded, but the exact times and dates will never be known.
This collection does in a way serve as a career retrospective of sorts, albeit one that doesn’t have his very best recordings, as those were featured on the numerous LPs he issued during his lifetime. If you do like Basho, however, this Basho-in-bulk has a few notable things going for it. A lot of it’s almost or as good as what made it onto his official releases. The tracks don’t just present different versions of songs that are already available, although a few passages here and there were heard in altered form on his albums. The sheer range of styles is also impressive, from the raga-avant-folk that made his biggest mark to devotional music and, on what are probably some of the earliest recordings, blues.
Of course this isn’t for everyone, and maybe not even for all Basho fans. Be aware that quite a few songs are vocal numbers, which are less beloved by most of his listeners than his instrumentals, as they’re (to quote admirer Pete Townshend) “a cross between a kind of a cantor in a synagogue, the mullah calling from the tower for prayers in Islam, and a kind of a street singer. But also an opera star.” On some selections, he switches from guitar to eerie piano. The final track offers a sixteen-minute cantata and features some other singers.
Overall I’d put this at something of a tie with the previous entry on this list, but acknowledge that five discs is a much greater investment of time and money than a single CD. So this might be a little less approachable, and is certainly a less uniform listening experience, than Songs of the Great Mystery. But it’s undeniably more diverse, and recommended just as strongly to Basho fans.
14. Various Artists, Tape Excavation (Independent Project/P22). Even if you’re the kind of collector who gets in line for Record Store Day releases at dawn, you’ll be frustrated by trying to acquire this LP-only release if you don’t already have it. It was available only as part of the 350-copy deluxe limited edition of the book Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Independent Project Records & Press, which is already sold out. The book compiles artwork, often using distinctive letterpress design, by Bruce Licher for numerous records, posters, stamps, and other media since 1980 (see review in my post for best 2020 rock history books). The LP compiles fourteen previously unreleased tracks from various Licher musical projects spanning 1980 to 2019, including material from his most famous band (Savage Republic); pre-Savage Republic outfits Project 197, Bridge, and Final Republic; and post-Savage Republic projects Scenic, Lanterna, Lemon Wedges, Bank, and SR2, along with post-Savage Republic Licher solo recordings.
Highly worthwhile on its own terms, Tape Excavation’s selections are actually of similar quality to Licher’s previous official releases, even if the fidelity and polish might not be as high on a few tracks (particularly the earlier ones). Although it covers four decades, there’s a continuity in the eerie instrumental textures, which both use conventional instruments (especially Licher’s unusually tuned guitar) and blend them in unconventional ways. The earlier efforts on side A bear some traces of early-‘80s post-punk dissonance, yet are likely to appeal to people who don’t usually like post-punk, at least if my own tastes are an indication. There’s even some appealingly cheesy new wave keyboard on Final Republic’s “Chase,” though the same group was responsible for the foreboding waves of overlapping reverb dominating “The Unknown.”
Licher focused more on sort of post-punk equivalents to surf music with elements of psychedelia and middle eastern melodies as time went on. His pair of 1997 solo demos are of special note; “Cedar” is worthy of exotically dreamy Ennio Morricone-like soundtracks, and “Tundra” can’t help but sound like an end-of-the-century takeoff on the Byrds’ “Why.” The later excursions on side B might be less edgy and frenetic than his ‘80s endeavors, but maintain his knack for atmospheric instrumentals that are more mature yet not at all wimpy. According to the detailed liner notes, Licher went through dozens of boxes of recordings to cull these tracks, and if even a small percentage of these approach Tape Excavation’s standard, a series of archive releases would be welcome. So would a standalone edition of Tape Excavation itself on LP and/or CD, though given its use as an extra for a deluxe edition, that probably can’t be counted on soon.
15. Jimi Hendrix, Live in Maui (Legacy). If you’ve seen the jaw-droppingly bad film Rainbow Bridge, you know its only redeeming feature is the 17-minute segment in which Hendrix, accompanied by Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, play live to an audience of a few hundred in a field in the Maui hills. It’s something of a miracle that a good-sounding album of the July 30, 1970 concert is now available, since the environment wasn’t too conducive for good fidelity. That’s evident in the film, where you see foam covering the microphones to cut down on the wind. But this two-CD set has reasonable sound and enthusiastic, if somewhat loose, performances. Since it’s one of the final US concerts he gave before dying less than a couple months later, it’s also of significant historic value.
As a record, however, it’s not all that different from a couple live albums taped a month earlier (Live at Berkeley) and a month later (Live at the Isle of Wight). The set list is pretty similar, though this has a few songs (“In from the Storm,” “Hear My Train A-Comin,’” “Villanova Junction”) that aren’t on Live at the Isle of Wight. Like that previously available live material, it shows Hendrix starting to ease back toward more focused songwriting on tunes like “Dolly Dagger,” but also prone toward sprawling improvisation. While it’s not too noticeable, purists should know this doesn’t present the show in its entire unvarnished state. Back in 1971, Mitch Mitchell overdubbed drums on the songs featured in Rainbow Bridge, and the original tape did not capture a few numbers in their entirety.
These CDs are packaged with a Blu-ray documentary, Music, Money, Madness…Jimi Hendrix in Maui. The Blu-ray is reviewed separately, in my list of 2020 rock history films.
16. Phil Ochs, The Best of the Rest: Rare and Unreleased Recordings (Liberation Hall). All but three of the twenty tracks on this archival compilation were recorded as publishing demos for Warner/Chappell in 1964/1965. Plainly recorded with just Ochs’s voice and acoustic guitar, these include some songs from his mid-‘60s Elektra LPs, some of them among his better and most famous, like “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Canons of Christianity,” “I’m Gonna Say It Now,” “Bracero,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It also has some pretty obscure ones that didn’t make the LPs he issued in his lifetime, like “City Boy,” a very good lilting tune that seems to mark one of his first excursions into non-protest/social commentary writing, “I’m Tired,” and “Colored Town.” And three of these songs have never been on any prior Ochs release (and there are many Ochs releases, especially when you count collections of material he didn’t issue during his lifetime), including “Sailors and Soldiers,” “I Wish I Could Have Been Along,” and “Take It Out of My Youth.”
Also featured as “bonus tracks” are three additional items. “The War Is Over” is taken from a November 20, 1967 broadcast on New York’s WBAI. With joyous background whoops and quite different lyrics from the studio version, it’s the highlight of this CD. Of more purely historical interest, though worth hearing, is a 1970 rehearsal take of his last great composition, “No More Songs,” which has an almost classical feel as the tune is worked out on piano. From 1969, the less memorable “All Quiet on the Western Front” was previously only known via a couple incomplete live versions.
It’s good to have more Ochs in good sound quality, even if the arrangements are rudimentary. Still, this is pretty peripheral to his core work, which is better appreciated on the music he released while an active performer. In his early days, the best of his material was selected for his LPs (“City Boy” being a curious oversight); some of the compositions here are rather generic Ochs in comparison. The packaging is also not clearly annotated. Just six of the songs (including all the non-Warner/Chappell demos) are designated as “previously unreleased,” but I’m not aware of anywhere else these tracks have appeared, and I have a lot of Ochs in my collection.
My guess is that the three mid-‘60s demos marked as “previously unreleased” are the three instances where there are no other versions of those specific songs, and that in fact everything here is previously unreleased. Even in the cases where some songs also appear on the outtakes compilation A Toast to Those Who Are Gone, these seem to be different versions; the performance of “City Boy,” which has a piano on A Toast to Those Who Are Gone, is definitely a different recording. The liner notes do not comment upon if or where any of the tracks were also issued. This is a specialist release geared toward intense Ochs fans, who deserve more than the ambiguous vagueness associated with bootlegs, though this is definitely authorized, as it was produced by his brother (and manager) Michael Ochs.
17. Simon & Garfunkel, Live at Carnegie Hall 1969 EP (Legacy). A low-key streaming-only release that even some Simon & Garfunkel fans might have missed, this has four songs from their Carnegie Hall shows on November 27 and November 28, 1969. A few other recordings from November at Carnegie Hall have come out elsewhere, but these were previously unreleased. Why only four tracks were dispensed, and only via streaming, is a question only the record label and the duo can answer. But as modest pleasures go, it’s pretty good, if containing no big surprises. Included are acoustic versions of “The Boxer” and, a couple months before their official release on the Bridge Over Troubled Water LP, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” “Song for the Asking,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” itself. Art Garfunkel’s just backed by piano on the last of these. The way the catalog business goes, it wouldn’t shock me to see a full-length release from these shows in the future, but for now, it’s all there is.
18. Various Artists, 17 from Morden (Top Sounds). In the 1960s, the Morden Park Sounds Studios of R.G. Jones in London recorded hundreds of British rock groups, most notably the Yardbirds for some of their earliest studio work. Many of the groups that passed through there didn’t release records, or only put them out in extremely limited editions. This compilation has seventeen such tracks, none of them by acts that are even reasonably well known to collectors; none had musicians that went on to fame, though a couple did put out discs on bigger labels. A few cuts are even credited to “unknown,” as the musicians remain unidentified. This is only going to appeal to hardcore British Invasion specialists, especially as a good number of the songs are covers of well known tunes.
But if you are that kind of ‘60s British rock nut, like me, you’ll find this an enjoyable swipe of groups that straddled the line between amateur and professional, even if some of its value is documentary as well as musical. All of the groups have brash energy, usually but not always on the R&B/rock side of things. The Cindicate (not to be confused with the Syndicats, with whom Steve Howe made records in the mid-’60s) stand out for their wild rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Mad Again,” possibly inspired as much or more by the Animals’ cover as the original. Stretched out to five minutes with extended instrumental raveups, it’s the best thing here, even if it sounds like a wind machine’s blowing in the background. The Night Society’s brooding “Play Around with Love” is the best original, in part because it at least tries to do something beyond the standard R&B format, sounding a little like a marriage of the minor-keyed melodies and harmonies of the Zombies with mod rock energy. If nothing else here is too memorable, it’s fun to hear while it’s spinning, and captures the energy of British youth in the wake of the great British beat explosion. And that, combined with thorough illustrated liner notes, is enough to put it on this list.
19. Various Artists, Sumer Is Icumen In:The Pagan Sound of British and Irish Folk 1966-75(Grapefruit). This 60-song triple disc indeed features British Isles folk, usually of the mildly folk-rock-leaning sort, from the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘70s. It’s a little unclear what fits into the “pagan sound” theme. Much of the material is drawn from traditional folk sources, or clearly inspired by traditional folk sources, that’s colored by myth, magic, and exotic legend. Some of it only indirectly reflects this. Should we even keep score as to what might qualify?
It’s better just to take this as the latest installment of a series of quality three-CD sets on the Grapefruit label devoted to UK folk-rock (also including, on this set, music from Ireland). Preceded by 2015’s Dust on the Nettles and 2019’s Strangers in the Room, all have been overseen and extensively annotated by David Wells. All have a good balance of tracks from the most famous folk-rockers of the region and the most renowned mid-level and cult such artists. There are also obscurities who only put out private pressings, or never even managed to release anything while active.
Sumer Is Icumen In (sic)doesn’t duplicate any selections from the other two collections, but features a lot of the same artists. The heavyweights are here: Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, the Strawbs, even a 1975 cut by Mike Oldfield. So are fairly successful acts who didn’t quite make the same impact, like Shirley Collins & the Albion County Band, the Young Tradition, and the Third Ear Band. Then there are plenty who get enthused about in specialized reference books, like Oberon and Stone Angel, even if most people have yet to hear them. And there are names that even those who know the likes of Mellow Candle will probably find unfamiliar, like Shirley Kent and the Minor Birds.
Few genres of the era were as earnest as this strand of British folk-rock. Or as reticent: there’s often an air of devout restraint, whether electric instruments are used or not. It’s not the most varied or exciting stuff, but suits the mood when you want something somber with a touch of the eerie or strange, most often supplied by dabs of unusual instrumentation. The Strawbs’ “Canon Dale”—an alternate version, though the liners aren’t specific about the exact source—is a standout in that respect, backing ominous harmonies with sitar and Rick Wakeman’s gloomy organ.
There’s not much in the way of hooky tunes here, and some of the more memorable offerings arise when the set goes outside the folk-rock boundaries for tracks by rockers with a folk-rock influence. Traffic’s “John Barleycorn” is not just the most famous effort here; it’s the best. Nearly as good is Fairport’s “Tam Lin,” though it’s hard to imagine that anyone with an interest in this style doesn’t already have it in their collection. Less celebrated but welcome contributors from the rock scene include Kevin Coyne, Mighty Baby, Curved Air (whose “Elfin Boy” is effectively spooky), and Marc Bolan, represented by his 1966 demo “Eastern Spell.”
Even if you count this as part of a series and not just on its own, there are bound to be omissions that will upset some enthusiasts. Now that Ireland’s included in the survey, it’s too bad there’s nothing from Clannad’s fine 1973 debut album, which is far more influenced by Pentangle-styled folk-rock than anything else they issued. Maybe that LP didn’t have anything pagan enough; much of it was sung in Gaelic, so it might not be easy to tell. More obviously, there’s still no Donovan, the only global superstar with some affiliation with this movement. Perhaps licensing is the obstacle.
Of course, it’s easy to access Donovan’s catalog, or Clannad’s for that matter. Where else can you get the likes of Midwinter, Magnet, and Amber, who didn’t even have records? And on the same anthology as outtakes by Bridget St. John, the Sallyangie, and Mighty Baby that you might not yet have hard? For all but the very rare collector who has most or all of this material, it’s a good way to make deep dives into the peak era of British folk-rock, with some familiar faces along the trail to improve the overall listening experience. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
20. Carla Thomas, Let Me Be Good to You: The Atlantic & Stax Recordings (1960-1968) (SoulMusic). Carla Thomas was one of Stax’s most consistent hitmakers in the 1960s, and by far the label’s most successful woman performer in that decade. This four-CD set has all of her recordings on Stax and Atlantic from 1960 to 1968, the 94 tracks including everything from her albums and singles during that period. There are also five cuts from the Stax/Volt Revue’s 1967 live albums in London and Paris, and her duets with Otis Redding and father Rufus Thomas. Add the booklet’s 8000-word liner notes, with first-hand quotes from a few who were there (though not Carla herself), and it’s a complete document of Thomas’s prime.
Complete documents don’t usually mean quality that’s as consistent as best-of compilations, and that’s the case here. Her LPs, in common with many ‘60s artists, had a lot of covers of hits and standards. Her girl group-crossed-with-Memphis-soul voice guarantees that none are poor, but it’s hard to get too excited about routine versions of the likes of “What the World Needs Now,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Let It Be Me,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Birds & Bees” (with Rufus Thomas). As much some historians take pains to differentiate Stax from Motown, a few cuts are obviously derivative of the early Supremes, and “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You)” can’t help but recall Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.”
While the best of her sides from this time were compiled back in 1994 for Rhino’s 22-track Gee Whiz: The Best of Carla Thomas, this far more extensive collection has its rewards if you’re a big Thomas fan and/or heavily into the Stax sound. That set only had one Carla-Rufus duet, and just a couple Thomas-Redding duets (including their big hit “Tramp”). This has ten Carla-Rufus tracks (a couple credited to Rufus & Friend), including the 1960 single on Satellite that marked her first appearance on disc. It also has the entire King and Queen album pairing Thomas and Redding, though that has its share of covers of familiar tunes like “Tell It Like It Is,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and “It Takes Two.”
Although the many non-best-of singles can take on a slightly generic Stax feel, there are some good efforts that will be new to lots of listeners who don’t have complete collections of records on the label. Some have a satisfyingly gutsy feel, like the brassy cover of “Little Red Rooster” and the mid-‘60s B-sides “Every Once of Strength” and “Stop Thief.” The five live Stax/Volt Revue songs have a rawer edge than the more polished studio productions, including renditions of her biggest hits (“Gee Whiz!,” “B-A-B-Y,” and “Let Me Be Good to You”) along with covers of “I Got My Mojo Working” and (less impressively) “Yesterday.”
Just two of these recordings are from 1968, and as Thomas kept recording for Stax until 1972, it’s not a complete overview of her work for the company. Most would agree this covers the best of her time with the label, however. Although a lot of this material’s shown up on other reissues and Stax singles boxes, this is an overdue anthology putting everything of hers from these years in one place. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
21. Various Artists, Living on the Hill: A Danish Underground Trip 1967-1974 (Esoteric). Every country had its psychedelic/progressive rock scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and Denmark’s small size didn’t keep it from producing lots of records to go with it. Many of them are sampled on this 30-track, nearly four-hour triple CD, plenty of which should be unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated Scandinavian rock hoarders.
Although some of these groups managed to get their discs released outside their native country, really only Savage Rose made much of an impact on English-speaking audiences, what with a few US LPs, Rolling Stone reviews by Lester Bangs, a Jimmy Miller-produced album, and even an appearance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. Bands like Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe (whose 1971 album W.W.W. made it onto John Peel’s Dandelion label), Young Flowers, and Culpeper’s Orchard have gained some modest recognition beyond their homeland in the twenty-first century. Yet for the most part, most of the names on this anthology are pretty unknown in comparison.
Is there a specifically Danish tone to these efforts? Not especially, most of the tracks bearing a heavy British prog influence. Lengthy (not infrequently, too lengthy) soloing abounds, and there’s plenty of organ, sometimes ethereal and classically shaded, to go with the guitar workouts. There are echoes, sometimes loud ones, of major UK prog stars like Pink Floyd, the Nice, and ELP, as well as subtler traces of King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Soft Machine, and the like. There’s a one-or-two-steps-removed-from-the-source feel that adds a bit of strangeness, as though the formula’s been a bit altered or tampered with, though almost all it’s sung in English.
At its best, the cuts lean as much or more toward psych or prog. Beefeaters’ instrumental (aside from some inscrutable mumbling) “Night Flight” (the sole 1967 track) is as much ghostly psych-garage as prog. Day of Phoenix’s “Tell Me” is rather like early Fairport Convention, unsurprisingly so since it’s a cover of the Dave Cousins composition “Tell Me What You See,” which was on the album Sandy Denny recorded with the Strawbs before joining Fairport. Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe’s “Avez Vous Kaskelainen?” is a hypnotic, propulsive instrumental driven by the kind of weedy organ favored by very early Soft Machine. Despite its 1969 release date, the same band’s “Jingle Jangle Man” sounds a little like the heavier parts of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. That leaves the intriguing, if unlikely, possibility that it actually influenced Bowie.
Too often, however, these outings succumb to bombast. Some of the soloing’s as tedious and overlong as any pedestrian British blues-rock band managed. Roundabout riffs are tossed off with flash, but little hooky melody or soul. On Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe’s “Ksilioy,” the best and worst of Danish psych/prog collide, as the first three minutes of blissful harmony-driven walk-through-the-forest power pop-cum-psych would fit snugly onto the original Perfume Garden compilations back in the ‘80s. But don’t get too comfy, as it then runs aground by repeating the same nagging riff for a full seven-and-a-half minutes. This isn’t daring experimentation; it’s being rude to the listener. I even wondered if my CD player had gotten stuck, but no such luck.
As a more general observation verging on criticism, few of these artists project much of an identity, even if their technique is almost on par with bigger British names. Admittedly the one, two, or three songs you get from each featured band aren’t enough for drawing definitive conclusions. Still, you can immediately tell it’s Savage Rose and no one else from the sound of the swirling organ on “Tapiola,” and Annisette’s freaky voice on “Long Before I Was Born.” No other group here puts such a distinctive stamp on their work.
If you’re in the mood for sounds from prog’s heyday that are a little off-kilter from the norm, however, this has its share of haunting passages and odd ideas. It’s best heard one disc at a time, though, to steer clear of getting overwhelmed by too much somber, ponderous riffage and winding near-epics at once. Esoteric’s dependably in-depth 36-page booklet has plenty of info on the bands, as well as vintage record sleeves and photos. ((This appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Ugly Things.)
22. Neil Young, Homegrown (Reprise). One of the most famous unissued albums of all time, Homegrown was originally planned for release in 1975. Famously, at least among Neil Young fans, it was replaced by another unreleased LP, Tonight’s the Night, after he played both for friends back to back and came to the decision/realization that Tonight’s the Night was stronger. Young’s been more active than almost any major musician in putting out vault material in the twenty-first century, and Homegrown finally made its official bow in 2020. Like many if not most unreleased albums whose mystique grows through the years, its belated unveiling is kind of underwhelming. It’s a mostly (though not exclusively) low-key collection emphasizing his mellower folk-country side.
Not everything fits that description, especially “Florida,” whose weird combination of inscrutable stoned rap with eerie musique concrete puts it on the fringe of the avant-garde. The basic blues “We Don’t Smoke It No More” seems similarly out of place, or almost as if Young is deliberately tweaking his audience with songs that are half-jokes. But the greater hindrance is that most of the tracks are sort of generic mid-‘70s Young, which is admittedly better than most mid-‘70s artists were at their best. Also, the best songs have been available for forty years or more on other releases, including the country tune “Love Is a Rose” (on Decade), “Star of Bethlehem” (on American Stars ’n Bars), and “Little Wing” (on Hawks & Doves). Homegrown was also issued as disc seven of the box set Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976, which is reviewed elsewhere on this list.
23. Bob Dylan, 50th Anniversary Collection 1970(Columbia). 1970 wasn’t one of the most illustrious years in Dylan’s career, but it was a productive one, if you’re just going by the quantity of music he recorded. Outtakes from this year have appeared elsewhere, especially on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). This very limited edition three-CD set isn’t part of his bootleg series; it’s part of his copyright extension series, with volumes issued near the end of most years as a fifty-year deadline approaches. There are no less than 74 previously unissued tracks here, although most of these are alternate versions of songs from his 1970 New Morning album, or (far more often) tossed off covers and revisitations of compositions he’d already put on his records. These go all the way back to “Song to Woody,” which he put on his debut album.
These aren’t any great shakes, and not just because these are outtakes. The New Morning songs weren’t too good in any version, with the exception of “If Not For You” (six versions are here) and maybe “Went to See the Gypsy.” It’s kind of interesting, though, to hear him running on half-or-less empty or autopilot, bereft of most of the inspiration he’d flashed in the 1960s, but casually keeping on going, even if it feels a little like going through the motions. There are lots of covers, some unexpected; was he doing Jay & the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” as a joke, or did he really like the song? Other unexpected choices include “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Universal Soldier,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Woman backup singers add some uncharacteristic touches, and Al Kooper plays some characteristically interesting keyboards, though he doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as he did on Dylan’s mid-‘60s sessions. I like how he mimics locust chirps on take 2 of “Day of the Locusts,” though, and the March 1970 take 6 of “Went to See the Gypsy” is fairly good (a different version from three months later was used on New Morning).
While most of the May 1, 1970 sessions on which George Harrison plays guitar and sings some backup vocals has long been bootlegged, note that these aren’t nearly as exciting as they might look on paper. Harrison’s guitar and singing aren’t at all prominent, and these are mostly covers, whether of oldies like “Matchbox” or some past Dylan standards like “I Threw It All Away” and “I Don’t Believe You.” It’s more of a casual jam than a serious session, and it turns out Harrison isn’t on a few of the songs, including some on which he’s formerly been reported to have played. There are no Harrison compositions in the batch, either. Note, by the way, that it was announced that this set will get a wider commercial release in 2021, with—gallingly, for those who’ve already tracked down this version—two additional tracks.
The following albums came out in 2019, but I didn’t hear them until 2020:
1. Lulu & the Luvvers, Live on Air 1965-1969 (London Calling, 2019). Despite the years in the title, actually this two-CD, 35-song set spans BBC radio recordings from December 1964 to January 1969. It’s the kind of flub you might expect from what seems to be a gray-area release. But the sound quality is very good – none of it’s “off-air,” as the term goes for material crudely taped from putting a recorder next to the radio, instead of as a feed from the broadcast or an actual broadcast tape. And here’s what’s more important—this is pretty good material that largely showcases Lulu’s underrated skills as a talented, earthy (and young—she was a teenager during most of this time) singer with plenty of US soul and R&B in her sound and repertoire.
Crucially, it also has quite a few covers that didn’t make her official releases of the period, most of them pretty good. These include Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song,” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” the Marvelows’ “I Do,” Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” and even the Monkees’ “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” “Mr. Moonlight,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cat Stevens’s “I Love My Dog,” and the Newbeats’ “Bread and Butter” aren’t as impressive, but at least make for something different. And she does a surprisingly rocking version of “Tennessee Waltz.”
Plenty of her ‘60s singles and LP tracks are here, too – not just the obvious “To Sir With Love” (two versions), but UK hits like “Shout,” “The Boat That I Row,” and “Leave a Little Love,” along with good songs whose studio counterparts are only familiar to serious Lulu fans, like “Can’t Hear You No More,” “I’ll Come Running,” “Heat Wave,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Surprise, Surprise.” The sound is thinner than her studio arrangements (and despite the title, her mid-‘60s backup band the Luvvers aren’t on everything). But that also eliminates some of the gaudier orchestration and pop touches, putting the focus a little more on her energetic vocals. And while this isn’t the sort of declaration that will win you acclaim from the rock critic community, overall the anthology reinforces her credentials as a significant talent who remains underrated.
2. The Bee Gees, Live on Air 1967-1968 (London Calling, 2019). True, there aren’t big surprises on this hour-long, 21-song compilation of early Bee Gees BBC sessions. There’s nothing they didn’t release back then, except the worthy if oddly titled “Mrs. Gillespie’s Refrigerator,” which can be heard in its studio version on an officially issued outtake. The arrangements don’t veer much off course the studio counterparts. But the sound quality and performances are good, and it’s a good mixture of all of their first half dozen big hits (“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Words,” “Massachusetts,” “To Love Somebody,” “Holiday,” “World”) and lesser known early tracks. Some of those less familiar songs are about as good as the hits (“In My Own Time,” “One Minute Woman”), and if “Birdie Told Me” and “Jumbo” aren’t of that caliber, well, they’re certainly satisfyingly obscure. In a way, this is about as good a representation of the late-‘60s Bee Gees’ strengths as a compilation of their better early studio tracks. Whether you’d go that far or not, it’s certainly a good listen.
3. The Move, Something More from the Move (Vogon, 2019). We’re talking a specialist release that by most measures wouldn’t rate near any best-of lists, owing to its sometimes iffy sound quality and position at the margins of a major group’s work. Still, I’m a British ‘60s rock specialist, and though I can hear the flaws, this does fill in significant margins of the Move discography. None of these thirteen tracks from radio broadcasts and live performances, spanning October 1966 to December 1967, have been released elsewhere before. It can be debated whether this is an official release, especially given the complete lack of liner notes, though at least the dates and locations are given.
But although most of the songs are available elsewhere in better (and certainly better recorded) versions, it’s still cool to have documents of the Move as they reached their prime. Most valuable of all are three songs from an October 24, 1966 radio session predating the release of their first single, since none of three are available in any other studio or live performances. “Cherry Cherry” is a somewhat eccentric cover of the Neil Diamond hit; “Tired of Being Lonely” covers a very obscure soul single by the Sharpies, and sounds more than a little like the Stevie Winwood lineup of the Spencer Davis Group. I don’t know the source of “Our Love” (that’s where the lack of composing credits is a real drawback), but it sounds like another soul cover to me.
Otherwise you have live performances, if sometimes roughly recorded, of their 1967 British hits; the less traveled but very good first-LP original “Walk Upon the Water”; and a few covers, one of which (“Eight Miles High”) doesn’t show up in any other Move version. And this one isn’t too good; it’s uncharacteristically sloppy in places. It’s interesting that the Move tried it, anyway, along with a few other Byrds songs from the time (two of which, “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” and “Why,” are also here).
4. The Troggs, Live on Air ’66-’68 (London Calling, 2019). Another reliably decent-sounding and underpublicized BBC compilation from the London Calling label, this two-CD compilation has nearly three dozen tracks from their radio appearances, as well as a few brief interviews. There aren’t many surprises here – for the most part these are pretty faithful renderings of songs widely available on their studio releases. Yes, there’s a cover they never put on their official discs, but their version of John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” wasn’t going to give either Hooker or the Animals (who did a much better one) sleepless nights. The guitar solo in “I Just Sing” sounds pretty exotic by their standards; on the flipside, “Gonna Make You All Mine” has some bass swoops that are so irritating you almost suspect they were deliberately annoying.
All their best hits are here (“Wild Thing,” “With a Girl Like You,” “I Can’t Control Myself,” “Love Is All Around,” “Night of the Long Grass”). But so are almost all of their better obscure early originals (“From Home,” “I Just Sing,” “66-5-4-3-2-1,” “Girl in Black,” “Maybe the Madman,” “Say Darlin’,”) as well as two performances of “I Can Only Give You Everything” – the only song here present in multiple versions. The presence of a lot of mediocre originals (especially those not sung by chief songwriter Reg Presley) reminds us that there was a pretty big gap between their genuinely excellent top-shelf originals and turkeys like “The Yella in Me,” “Little Red Donkey,” and “The Kitty Kat Song.” Sure, they could have played a few other of their better tunes not heard here – “Purple Shades,” “Jingle Jangle,” and “Cousin Jane,” in particular – but there’s still a better balance of hits and non-hits than there are in BBC compilations of most British acts from the time. It’s also interesting that Presley was aware of “I Can’t Control Myself”’s problems gaining airplay in the US, as in an interview he says its chart ascent was halted when it got (his term) “banned.”
5. Bob Dylan, 50th Anniversary Collection 1969 (Columbia, 2019). Like other volumes in what’s usually called Dylan’s copyright extension series, this was released as an extremely limited edition just before the year in which a “fiftieth anniversary” was about to expire – in this case, in December 2019. The double CD has 44 tracks, all of them recorded in 1969, and none of them previously available to my knowledge. In fact, none of them are even on 2019’s three-CD Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, which has quite a few 1969 outtakes. Before you get too excited, note that most of the items on this limited double disc are alternate versions, not songs haven’t circulated in other guises from the era. In that sense, they’re sort of outtakes of outtakes, mostly from the Nashville Skyline era. So there are previously unavailable, and pretty similar, outtakes of five Nashville Skyline songs, and previously unavailable alternates of about ten Dylan/Johnny Cash duets. Then there are five post-Nashville Skyline outtakes from spring 1969, most of them covers.
Virtually anyone with an awareness of this series knows going in that this isn’t the kind of stuff you count on hearing over and over. There’s not just similarity between previously circulating versions, but also a lot of repetition. There are, for instance, five versions of “To Be Alone With You”; six of “Lay, Lady, Lay” (granted that’s easily the best song here); and eight of “I Still Miss Someone.” The handful of post-Nashville Skyline tracks are no great shakes, including two versions of “Blue Moon,” another of “Ring of Fire” (without Cash, remember), and a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Take a Message to Mary.” All that noted, it’s pleasant enough hearing Dylan (and, often, Dylan with Cash) run through this material with an informal, loose vibe, as if he knows there’s no great reason to strain himself with this lightweight (“Lay, Lady, Lay” excepted) material. It’s a nice addition to the bulging library of Dylan completists (or at least completists for certain Dylan eras), of which there are quite a few.
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.