Moonage Daydreaming

As kind of a follow-up to my recent post “David Bowie Byways,” which covers some of the less discussed aspects of his career, here’s a much shorter one that my viewing of the new documentary Moonage Daydream sparked. This isn’t a review of the film; I’ll have a multi-paragraph one in my year-end rock documentaries wrap-up. My basic assessment of how much I liked the movie, to quote from Rip Torn’s response to the question from Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth as to whether Torn likes the album Bowie makes in that film: “Not much.” 

However, Moonage Daydream has some material here and there that perked up my interest. Here are a few such items:

Jeff Beck’s guest appearance at Bowie’s “retirement” concert in London on July 3, 1973. Most of this concert appears in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the event, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Beck guested with Bowie on a medley of “The Jean Genie” and the Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” as well as a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” (a studio version of which was used as a Bowie B-side, though it didn’t make it onto his LPs of the era). Some of the “Jean Genie/Love Me Do” bit appears in Moonage Daydream, though not much. Actually most of the musical performances in Moonage Daydream are pretty brief snippets.

Several explanations have been given for why Beck didn’t allow these performances to be included in the Ziggy Stardust documentary. These include dissatisfaction with his performances and his wardrobe, especially his shoes. He didn’t know he was being filmed, either, which might have contributed to his reservations. 

Inclusion of this footage in Moonage Daydream is welcome, but it’s not as rare as many would think. Beck’s appearance was included in a different version of Ziggy Stardust shown on ABC television in 1974 and, according to some online sources, an Italian print of the film. The sequence also made it onto Youtube, though the quality of what’s seen in Moonage Daydream is better.

Something not discussed in the film is a story that a groupie tells in Dylan Jones’s oral history David Bowie: A Life. She remembers Bowie telling her he would have rather had Beck in his band than Mick Ronson, himself a very Beck-influenced guitarist. Ronson’s on stage with Beck and Bowie in this retirement concert footage. I wonder if Ronson ever knew the story of Bowie preferring Beck to him, if true?

Diamond Dogs script. Some memorabilia in Moonage Daydream flashes by so quickly you barely have time for it to register. One such piece is a script for a Diamond Dogs movie. Diamond Dogs, of course, was a big 1974 hit album for Bowie, but no movie was or has been made based on it.

While details on a Diamond Dogs film aren’t abundant, a post at https://www.davidbowienews.com/2021/03/david-bowie-diamond-dogs-an-unfinished-film/ has some. Diamond Dogs grew out of a stage adaptation Bowie hoped to make of 1984. George Orwell’s widow didn’t give him the rights, but songs that might have been involved (most obviously “1984”) evolved, at least in part, into the Diamond Dogs album.

Bowie also wanted to have a television adaptation of 1984. When that wasn’t possible, he worked on a film that would have been produced in conjunction with the Diamond Dogs album. According to davidbowienews.com:

“Combining the influences of Orwell’s novel together with German expressionism and the silent movies The Cabinet of Dr CaligariMetropolis, and Tod Browning’s Freaks, Bowie had also planned a film to accompany the new album. The film was storyboarded in detail and character parts were written, to be played by Bowie himself, Iggy Pop, Lyndsey Kemp and Cyrinda Fox, among others.

In early 1974 and during his stay at New York’s Pierre Hotel, Bowie together with supervision from cameraman John Dove began work on a short demo video for the Diamond Dogs film. The demo video was shot with a single RCA video camera, and included very basic opening titles, simple special effects and superimposed scenes and figures using cardboard cutouts. Unfortunately the film project was never finished.”

Just a little more than a minute or so of demo footage can be seen on Youtube, some of it containing what looks like a credits sequence. It’s highly abstract and Bowie isn’t seen much. You can’t get much of a sense of what the film as a whole might have been, and note that the electronic-flavored music isn’t by Bowie. It’s unknown whether the music (by Erkki Kurenniemi) was intended for the original movie, though my guess is it wasn’t.

A bigger question is whether the Diamond Dogs script will ever be published for public reading. Even if it’s not that good, it would at the least make for interesting additional Bowie history. As an example for comparison, the seldom seen 1970 movie starring and co-directed by Jim Morrison, HWY: An American Pastoral, isn’t very good, but the shooting script (by Morrison) did make it into the recent book The Collected Works of Jim Morrison.

Diaries. Some other memorabilia briefly glimpsed in Moonage Daydream include a page, or pages, from a diary. This material shoots by so fast that it’s hard to say for certain when it’s from, let alone what it contains, at least until this is on home video and you might be able to decode such info from a freeze frame. My impression was that the shot or shots were from a diary around 1974.

Again, these would have valuable historical information if they’re ever published or accessible to the public. I’m reminded of how Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary made fans aware that Harrison was keeping a diary in the late 1960s, though what entries have circulated are pretty mundane. Even for the day he (temporarily) quits the Beatles in January 10, 1969, he devotes three words to the incident: “Left the Beatles.”

There were some diary entries of Bowie’s from 1973-1975 that were actually published in a British teen music magazine, Mirabelle. These can be seen on the bowiewonderworld.com site. It turns out, though, that they’re hardly useful items for Bowie biographers and researchers. In 1998, he admitted they were ghost-written by his American publicist, Cherry Vanilla. Presumably the diaries briefly seen in Moonage Daydream were legit.

Cracked ActorFor a film that’s never been on home video, this hour-long 1974 BBC documentary is pretty well known. It’s not only for the concert footage from his US tour just after mid-1974, but also for quite a few backstage/offstage/interview sequences. There are some obvious similarities between how he acts and looks and his character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, made not long afterward. 

I actually don’t like it as much as many Bowie fans do. The concert performances and material are dimly lit and not-so-sensational. The offstage portions are often fragmentary and fairly unrevealing. Some parts of Cracked Actor do make it into Moonage Daydream for a wider and contemporary audience, however. While I can’t be entirely uncertain, footage of a live performance of “Rock and Roll with Me,” one of the better rare bits in Moonage Daydream, seems to come from the pool of footage shot for Cracked Actor, and has not circulated before to my knowledge.

Cracked Actor hasn’t been all that hard to see. Unauthorized copies have circulated for a long time, and clips show up on Youtube. When I’ve seen the material in this form, however, it’s had subpar sound and image quality. There’s an obvious market for an official, cleaned-up edition of the documentary, with some bonus footage, on the reasonable assumption some exists. It’s not clear why this hasn’t happened, though at a guess there could well be rights issues and legal obstacles involved.

Hansa Studios. Speaking of documentaries that aren’t as accessible as they could be, there’s a 2018 one on the studios where Bowie worked in the late 1970s in Berlin. Titled Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90, it was broadcast on the British Sky Arts television channel, and given a positive review in The Guardian. Although Hansa’s most known for its Bowie association, other acts who made a mark recorded there, including Wire, the Birthday Party, and U2.

There are some still photos of Bowie working in Hansa in Moonage Daydream, but not much specific commentary on what he did there (and the film doesn’t have that much specific commentary on what Bowie did in general throughout his career). This would make the Hansa Studios valuable viewing, but I only know a couple people in the US who’ve managed to see it. It doesn’t seem available to stream or to buy as a DVD or Blu-ray, and it’s been four years since its Sky Arts broadcast. Why isn’t it accessible?

Byrds Book Bytes

The new BMG book The Byrds: 1964-1967 presents 400 pages of photos from their prime period, with commentary by all three surviving original Byrds—Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby. Even by the standards of coffee table books, this is a literally heavy tome, weighing almost nine pounds. At about $150, it’s also pretty expensive. And it’s a photo book, not a standard narrative one. For a Byrds history, Johnny Rogan’s huge two-volume Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless remains the most thorough account, and indeed one of the most thorough accounts of any rock group.

Still, The Byrds: 1964-1967  is worthwhile if you’re a big Byrds fan, as I am. The photos are really good, and I haven’t seen many of them (some of them outtakes from sessions that generated familiar images, including record covers) before, although I’ve seen many Byrds photos. And the three surviving original Byrds’ quotes were done specifically for this book, not taken from archive sources.

This post is not a review of the book; there will be a several-paragraph one on my year-end best-of list. It won’t be a clarification of what’s wrong, either, as the volume’s refreshingly free of significant inaccuracies. In any case, those are made easier to avoid as the quotes emphasize perspectives and details of specific photos, not exactly what happened when. And the three admit when they don’t remember something.

But even having read so much about the Byrds (and interviewed McGuinn and Hillman), there were still some interesting things here and there I don’t remember reading about much or at all elsewhere. This post won’t try to cite all of them, but muse upon some aspects of their mid-‘60s career that some of the material brought to mind.

Jim Dickson: As the group’s original co-manager, and producer of their very good early demos circa late 1964-early 1965 (long officially available under variations of the Preflyte title), Dickson was enormously important to getting the Byrds off the ground. Crosby is quite negative about him in the book, however, calling him an “asshole” and “an absolute shit” within a few pages of each other. Maybe that’s something you’d expect from a character like Crosby, whose quotes generally have the bluntest and most caustic tone.

But Chris Hillman, who generally doesn’t have many bad words for anyone, says Dickson “had some good moments, but he would always revert to playing us off one another…he’d always find a way to go after one of us and pit us against everyone else.” Amplifies Crosby, “Dickson was violent, and not a good guy. He beat the crap out of Hillman very early on…Dickson was just not a good man.”

Yet Crosby also notes how important Dickson was to refining the sound of the early Byrds by giving them free access to World Pacific Studios, where they made rehearsal tapes that immensely accelerated their development. “Bands go through a period where they’re garage bands and they’re learning how to play and it takes them a long fuckin’ time,” he observes.  “If you have to listen to a tape afterwards, it takes a lot less time. So that was something that Dickson did that was absolutely correct. Hearing ourselves shortened that garage band period to a tenth of what it normally would have been. We went really fast.”

I can’t think of another instance from this era where a band used this process to such great advantage. Of course studio time was (and is) expensive, and the Byrds had the great advantage of doing it for free after hours. But wouldn’t it have made sense for more groups to do something like this, if possible? And these days, when home studios are so much more common and relatively affordable, are there notable acts that go through this—not just rehearsing and recording, but intently listening and then going back to improve what they can do better—with as much intensity shortly after formation? Not so many that you hear about, anyway.

For what it’s worth, McGuinn also remembers how Dickson literally fed the Byrds before they made records, keeping them alive long enough to hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Michael Clarke’s drumming: Clarke’s drumming is sometimes not held in very high regard by critics. Or, at the least, some feel that his skills were limited, if sufficient for the Byrds’ purposes. It’s true that Clarke’s experience was very limited (apparently to informally playing some congas) before he joined, and that he was recruited primarily for his Brian Jones-like looks. This rather haphazard process of selection wasn’t so uncommon in 1960s folk-rock groups, where the ex-folkies who formed their cores knew how to sing and play guitars, but hardly knew any drummers, let alone had worked with any. 

As Chris Darrow of another Southern Californian 1960s folk-rock group, Kaleidoscope, said when I interviewed him for my two-volume set of books on 1960s folk-rock (now available as the Jingle Jangle Morning ebook), Kaleidoscope’s John Vidican “was an 18-year-old hippie who looked pretty good, kind of the high school marching band drummer. He was the only one that had any kind of pop charisma in our band. These folk music guys, they’d never worked with drummers, so they just figured all drummers were the same. And if you could find one that looked cool, that’s pretty much what we all wanted. A lot of these guys, I think, did get picked on kind of how handsome they were, whether or not they could play the drums.”

So it’s cool to read the other Byrds actually complimenting Clarke’s musical abilities here. Crosby: “Michael turned out to be really good. He had a good sense of time, he looked absolutely great, and he was a sweet guy.” But Hillman’s praise comes with some reservations: “He could be lazy as all get out, but when he was on, he was good.” Chris, however, does feel Clarke could have been better: “Mike was a natural drummer, but could have benefited from some direction. Do you know how many drummers offered to take Mike under their wing? Hal Blaine and different studio musicians were ready to help Mike any way they could. I said, ‘Do it, Michael.’ He didn’t want to do it. He had the talent, but not always the drive.”

It’s unfortunate, of course, that the late Clarke didn’t have the opportunity to contribute to the book, which unfortunately doesn’t go into details about why he left the Byrds near the end of 1967. Although it’s beyond the scope of this volume, Michael couldn’t have been that lacking as a drummer, since soon enough he was drumming behind Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and afterward was drummer in the musically unremarkable but sometimes commercially successful Firefall.

Gene Clark: While acknowledging Clark’s fine songwriting, Crosby also admits, as has long been reported, that he pushed Gene somewhat to the background. “He couldn’t play guitar that well and I could, so I kind of nosed him out of the second guitar part.” Along a less traveled path, he adds, “He wanted to be the lead singer, and it was obviously Roger. Roger was five times as good at it.”

While the early Byrds are often hailed for their multi-part harmonies (Hillman not yet singing ,as he would starting in 1966 after Clark’s departure), Crosby also offers, “Almost nothing was three-part harmony. Gene and Roger would sing in unison on the melody, and I’d sing harmony. The structure of Gene’s songs lent themselves to me being able to do a non-parallel harmony, which I really liked to do.”

Crosby on McGuinn: Crosby has often had less than flattering things to say about his bandmates, in the Byrds and other outfits. But he’s extremely complimentary in his remarks about Roger in this book, on several occasions. After praising Clark’s early compositions, David elaborates, “Roger was playing better than anybody else, so he made Gene’s songs sound really great…Roger upgraded them. The minute Roger played them, they were better songs. And then I put harmony on them and that was it.” On their Dylan covers: “Roger was the best translator of Bob’s stuff. Nobody ever made records out of Bob’s music better than what Roger did. And I helped too.” On McGuinn’s solo on “Eight Miles High”: “That’s Roger listening to Coltrane and taking it in. He’s a genius at it. Absolutely better than anybody at that kind of adaptation.”

Terry Melcher: Crosby has some very ungracious things to say about the producer of the first two Byrds albums, Terry Melcher. According to David, “Melcher couldn’t produce a Kleenex box. He knew nothing about audio, nothing about recording, nothing about songs, nothing about our band. Knew nothing about anything. The people who ran the record company were failed shoe salesmen. They knew nothing about music, but he was the son of a movie star [Doris Day], so there you go.”

McGuinn, always more diplomatic, is quite complimentary about Melcher, whom he “thought was a good producer for that AM mono single kind of record, and I believe he was a big part of the Byrds’ success.” As for the possible real reason for Crosby’s grousing, he points out that “Terry didn’t like David’s songs, so he wasn’t putting them on the album. That was the key point that they disagreed on…We left the song selection up to the producers for the most part. We would kind of lobby them and say, ‘You know, here’s a song…check this out.’ But the producer would pick the songs, which is what got David angry with Terry Melcher.”

Maybe Crosby was particularly unhappy the Byrds didn’t release his composition “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which got as far as an instrumental backing track, now available as a bonus cut on the expanded CD edition of Turn! Turn! Turn! San Francisco early folk-rock duo Blackburn and Snow did an excellent version on a single, but the Byrds never put out a finished vocal arrangement. 

Here’s another way Melcher upset Crosby, this from Johnny Rogan’s Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Vol. 1, and not related to one of David’s compositions. For their version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” on their second album, he complained, “Remember that organ note that goes all the way through it that seems very out of place? Terry put it on after we finished the song without even asking us, and mixed it that way. And the tambourine…I could have popped him in the lip for that.”

Hillman comes down on Melcher’s side, if sides have to be chosen. “He was encouraging to me because he knew I was just learning the bass in some ways,” he remembers. “He was very helpful, and I liked him. I never had a problem with Terry ever. But David locked horns with him all the time.” 

However much nepotism might have helped Melcher get his position at Columbia Records, it seems unfair to dismiss him as knowing “nothing about audio, nothing about recording, nothing about songs.” With future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, he’d co-produced the Rip Chords’ early 1964 Beach Boys-lite hit “Hey Little Cobra,” as well as often producing and writing with Johnston on other records. On an unreleased tape of the Byrds working on the Gene Clark song “She Has a Way,” you can hear him making specific constructive and tactful suggestions, even competently singing part of the tune to illustrate points. 

Billy James, manager of information services for Columbia’s Los Angeles office at the time (and author of the liner notes for the Byrds’ first album), characterized Melcher as a hip rocker, and far from a failed shoe salesman. “Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher were the first pals I had in my life who loved rock ‘n’ roll, who were in rock ‘n’ roll,” he told me. “Through my friendship with them and my respect for them, I began to develop an appreciation for rock ’n’ roll.” Although the appreciation was not always reciprocated by less open-minded Columbia personnel than James, who elaborated: “The West Coast A&R department was something of a thorn in the side of the home office in New York. Terry and Bruce were not typical corporate record company producers. There was a lack of comprehension and appreciation for the changes that were going on in popular music in general, and for what Bruce and Terry were doing in particular, at Columbia.”

As a final note about Melcher, a 1965 photo in the book raises some curious questions. It’s been documented that McGuinn was the only Byrd to play (and McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby the only Byrds to sing) on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and its B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You.” It’s also been documented that the full Byrds then played on everything from then onward (though Jim Gordon took the place of Clarke for some of The Notorious Byrd Brothers sessions). “We were playing well, but it’s not the smooth ‘session player sound,’” says Hillman in the book. “It’s a far more interesting and real sound that only the original Byrds could have produced.”

But the photo in question shows McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, and Melcher in the studio with three session musicians. One of them is definitely Bruce Johnston. I’m not sure about the other two guys, though at a guess they could be Billy Strange and Larry Knechtel. Hillman and McGuinn are mystified as to what’s happening in the picture, Roger admitting, “I don’t know what’s going on.” Crosby and McGuinn are playing guitars as an instrument-less Clark looks on; Johnston’s at a keyboard; the other two guys are holding guitars. 

Could the session guys just be hanging out and giving them pointers, maybe between doing non-Byrds sessions with Melcher? Or could session musicians actually have played on Byrds records besides their first single? The photo probably wasn’t taken when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was recorded, McGuinn noting that “David is there, and he didn’t play on the ‘Tambourine Man’ session.”

The “Eight Miles High” single picture sleeve session: Some Barry Feinstein photos make it clear that the great picture sleeve for the “Eight Miles High” single, where Michael Clarke is about to flick a spoon at an oblivious David Crosby’s head, was taken in mid-1965 in Chicago. The book, however, doesn’t include the actual photo from the picture sleeve. Which I would have liked, in part because that might have given McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby a chance to explain what was happening in that wonderfully goofy photo. It’s a minor missed opportunity, and I wonder if the three recognized the picture as coming from the session that generated the “Eight Miles High” sleeve.

The weird Hullabaloo clip: When the Byrds sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on Hullabaloo in late 1965, it was on a set that was bizarre even by the oft-absurd standards of the era. Playing amidst some fake foliage, the Byrds were surrounded by models in hunting outfits wielding shotguns, with some fake dogs. What was the possible rationale?

Crosby explains: “They said, ‘OK, the Byrds are coming to the program. What do we do for birds? OK, we’ll have people hunting them.’ That’s their idea of how to relate? Hunting dogs and girls with shotguns…We thought it was unbelievably hysterically stupid. You can tell from how thrilled we look.”

Unused Turn! Turn! Turn! liner notes: There’s not much memorabilia in the book, but an item of great interest reproduces the unused liner notes publicist Derek Taylor wrote for their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn! These refer, with extreme (by the standards of the day’s notes) candor, to a physical fight between Crosby and Clarke in the studio; to Crosby undermining Clark’s confidence as a guitarist; to McGuinn and Crosby maneuvering to let only three Clark songs on the album; and to Columbia manufacturing 200,000 unused sleeves for a “The Times They Are A-Changin’” single that didn’t come out. And this is from a publicist

These kind of frank insights into a band’s conflicts were rare in any kind of press in the mid-1960s, and certainly unheard of in liner notes. But it’s definitely valuable as a historical document, even if no one should have been surprised that it wasn’t used on the LP’s back cover. Did Taylor submit these as a kind of dare or joke, knowing how unlikely they would be to get approval? And did the Byrds even see these notes at the time? (The survivors don’t comment on them in the book.)

Gene Clark Goes Solo: The Real Story? The usual explanation for Clark leaving the Byrds in early 1966 is that he wasn’t up to touring with the group and generally having trouble coping with the demands of stardom, and specifically that he didn’t want to fly. McGuinn says in the book, and has said in the past, that there might have been some other motivations at work. “Dickson and his business partner Eddie Tickner had been thinking about spinning him off as another Elvis,” Roger remembers. “I found that out years later from Dickson, when he was very sick. My wife and I went to visit him in the hospital, and I guess it was like a deathbed confession. But Jim didn’t die then, and he later denied he said it.”

Whatever Dickson and Tickner might have been thinking in 1966, it seems strange to envision Clark as another Elvis, or even as a significant solo star. He was more talented as a songwriter than a singer, and not wanting to fly—therefore limiting his touring possibilities—would have been a significant disadvantage. But while Clark’s sizable cult following might disagree, I don’t see how his songs could have been considered sure-fire commercial bets, though he did co-write (according to some accounts as the primary author) “Eight Miles High,” and wrote “You Showed Me,” demoed by the Byrds in the Preflyte days and a hit for the Turtles in 1969, with McGuinn. 

It doesn’t often work for a former member of a popular group, and the group itself, to maintain successful separate careers after separating. Such was the case with Clark, whose debut solo album failed to make the Top 200, and who never did sell many records as a solo artist, as much as his cult reveres some of his work. In fact all four of the other original Byrds had greater post-Byrds commercial success than Clark did.

The Fifth Dimension Album Cover: I’ve always thought the cover of Fifth Dimension that shows them on a magic carpet of sorts is cool. It’s hipper than most 1966 rock albums, and there are some outtakes of photos from the session in the book. So it’s a little bit of a surprise to find the Byrds didn’t have much to do with the concept.

McGuinn: “I don’t know what the thinking was with the magic carpet for the Fifth Dimension album cover. We didn’t have much say in the Columbia art department’s ideas. They just came up with things, and we went along with them.”

Hillman: “I don’t know who came up with this magic carpet idea, but they brought in lunch for us, and we’re just there [in one of the book’s outtakes] eating lunch and drinking coffee.”

Crosby: “When you look at how people tried to envision some framework to put us in, visually, they did funny shit like that over and over. They tried to shoot us in ways that were somehow relevant, but it never really worked.”

Linda Eastman: There are a few pictures of the Byrds in New York in late 1966 taken by Linda Eastman, two years before she took up with Paul McCartney. Her abilities as a photographer have sometimes been chastised, but Crosby matter-of-factly counters this impression: “Linda was taking pretty good pictures of a whole lot of people then. She was one of the only photographers we liked. She was comfortable with musicians, but mainly we just liked her because she was a good photographer.”

Crosby on the Doors: He didn’t like them, and more than fifty years after Jim Morrison’s death, he doesn’t mince words here: “I didn’t like the Doors. I was almost the only person who didn’t, but I just didn’t like them. They didn’t have a bass player and they didn’t swing. They were like a square wheel. If you listened to them play live, they just were never quite there. I also didn’t like Morrison as a singer. He was more of a poseur. He tried to be frightfully dramatic and mysterious, but he couldn’t really sing. I thought they were a crap band. And I said so, too, which earned me no end of enmity.”

Larry Spector: Crosby didn’t like Jim Dickson, and he didn’t like the manager they took after cutting ties with Dickson and Tickner, Larry Spector. “I don’t think you really want me to tell you what I think of Larry Spector now,” he says. “He was a sneaky little guy, dishonest and bad.” Crosby has company on this count, Hillman adding, “He was absolutely horrible—dishonest and everything you could possibly imagine in a bad manager.”

“Lady Friend”: This non-LP, non-hit single was written by Crosby, and according to Hillman, “we really had it sounding great. Then [David] sneaks back into the studio and changes the vocal parts and puts these horrible horn parts on it. Ruined it. It became full of unnecessary noise packed into these tracks. It was a great song, but then it wasn’t so great.”

Hillman has discussed Crosby changing the vocals before (in Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless), but here he remembers David also inserting horn parts. Yet there wouldn’t be much in the middle instrumental break without those horns, which Crosby described (also in Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless) as “an idea of mine that I wanted to try. I envisaged a little French horn fugue in the middle of it.” It makes one wonder what might have been in a previous arrangement. Chiming guitars, or something else? Alternate arrangements or takes like that haven’t circulated.

It’s also a little odd that I can’t find any credits for who played the horns on “Lady Friend.” The Byrds had effectively used brass before with trumpeter Hugh Masekela on “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star,” and the book has a couple cool color shots of Masekela performing with the Byrds at the Magic Mountain Music Festival on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County in June 1967. Could Masekela have been playing on the “Lady Friend” single?

Gary Usher: He produced the Byrds’ 1967-1968 records, and McGuinn keeps up the diplomatic good vibes with some staunch praise. (There’s nothing in the book about Fifth Dimension producer Allen Stanton, who seemed more like a Columbia representative keeping general tabs on the sessions than an active creative ingredient.) “Gary Usher was great,” McGuinn enthuses. “It was around this time that the Beatles were doing sound effects, and Gary came up with a lot of ideas in that vein—like a door slamming, pounding on a piano, and backwards tape…Gary was one of the first guys to take two eight-track machines side-by-side and synchronize the tape to go out of one into another to get sixteen tracks out of it. It was pretty clever…He was a fun guy to work with. I really enjoyed him.”

The End of the Era: As I mentioned, there’s no explanation of how and why Clarke left, but there’s a hint in one of the captions of a photo from late 1967, after Crosby had been fired. Next to a photo of the trio playing at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Hillman comments, “You don’t see many photos of us playing as a three-piece, but we hacked it out and we did it. It was a little hard. Mike was thinking, ‘I’m getting out of here.’”

David Bowie Byways

I’ll be teaching a course on the prime (pre-1984) of David Bowie for the first time starting mid-October, and spent a lot of time preparing the material during the summer. As I got my class together, I’ve heard and seen a lot more David Bowie than I have for a while.

There’s been a lot written about David Bowie. Still, there are a few aspects of his work that aren’t discussed much. Like I did when I offered a Doors course a few years ago, and when I offered a Pink Floyd course starting just a month ago, I’m going over some of them with this blogpost.

1 .David Bowie as cover artist. In his first couple decades, almost all of Bowie’s records featured original material, his 1973 all-covers Pin Ups album being a notable exception. But he’s often dotted his discography with cover versions. Indeed his very first single as singer with the King Bees, “Liza Jane”/ “Louie Louie Go Home,” had two non-originals, the first being a sub-early Rolling Stones-style adaptation of a bluesy spiritual (credited to his manager of the time, Leslie Conn), the B-side being a rather obscure “answer” record to “Louie Louie” by Paul Revere & the Raiders. The A-side of his second single was a Bobby “Blue” Bland cover (“I Pity the Fool”), though afterward the emphasis was very much on his original compositions.

Again with the exception of Pin Ups‑devoted solely to mid-‘60s British rock classics—his choice of covers over these two decades was, like much of his career in general, enigmatic, unpredictable, and quirky. There were (even not counting Pin Ups) covers of some famous songs by the most famous artists. There were obscure songs by obscure artists. There were songs that hadn’t even been recorded by anyone else. There were non-rock numbers. There was a ‘50s rock’n’roll classic, a Brecht-Weill classic, English rewrites of Jacques Brel songs, and a movie theme. On unreleased outtakes, BBC broadcasts, and a filmed live concert, he managed to fit in covers of two songs by one of his biggest influences, the Velvet Underground.

In my view, however—unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, both of whom he covered, and not on B-sides or bootlegs, but on two very popular LPs—Bowie wasn’t such a good cover artist. Take those Beatles and Rolling Stones songs—“Across the Universe” on Young Americans, and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on Aladdin Sane. They don’t add particularly interesting twists to, and are in fact quite inferior to, the originals. His interpretations of “White Light/White Heat” (on the BBC in 1972 and in the film of his July 3, 1973 “retirement” concert, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture) and “I’m Waiting for the Man” (on the BBC in 1972, and back in 1967 as an outtake backed by the Riot Squad) are appropriate sort of tributes to his admiration for Lou Reed. But they’re pretty routine and average as musical performances.

Although some of the public disagreed—the album did make #1 in the UK and do okay in the US—I’d say the same of Pin Ups as a whole. While I might find the LP unnecessary, I acknowledge something it did do was bring attention to a few songs (and groups) that were hits in the UK, but not in the US. Those include the Merseys’ “Sorrow,” a #3 hit in Bowie’s remake in the UK (and actually first done by the McCoys, though the Merseys had the big UK hit with a 1966 cover); “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” by the Pretty Things, the best British ‘60s band not to make it in the US; and the Mojos’ “Everything’s Alright,” the last big mid-‘60s rock hit (again, only in the UK) by a Liverpool group new to the hit parade. Presumably publishing royalties were a help to some of the writers of these songs, particularly Syd Barrett, who had been out of the music business for a few years and was well into his downward mental spiral by the time Bowie put Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” on Pin Ups.

Most other Bowie covers don’t grab me either. These include quaint American singer-songwriter Biff Rose’s “Fill My Heart” (on Hunky Dory; he also did Rose’s “Buzz the Fuzz” in 1970 on the BBC); Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” considered for Ziggy Stardust but ultimately used as a B-side, and less interesting than the Rolling Stones’ dynamic 1964 cover of the same song; and, perhaps least predictably of all, the 1957 movie theme (and a hit for Johnny Mathis) “Wild Is the Wind,” done better by the legend who did the version that inspired Bowie’s, Nina Simone. There’s also his live cover of the ‘60s soul hit “Knock on Wood,” and his weird version of “Foot Stomping” (a 1961 early soul-rock hit by the Flares) on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974, which he did in concert as part of a medley with the popular standard “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” And there was his take on Brecht-Weill’s “Alabama Song” on a 1980 single, which isn’t nearly as memorable as the Doors’ version on their 1967 debut album.

Bowie also did a few covers that weren’t officially released until quite a few years later. Continuing the thread of his hard-to-pin-down cover tastes, he did versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s So Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and “Growin’ Up” before Springsteen was a superstar, though Bowie’s variations are neither suited to his style or in the same league as the Springsteen originals. And there were songs he did live in the late 1960s as part of a duo (with John Hutchinson on backup vocals and second guitar) that never made it to circulating tape, like Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” (recorded in the late ‘60s by the Byrds and Dusty Springfield) and, most unlikely of all, “The Prince’s Panties,” from the 1968 album Phonograph Record by Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” fame.

If you put together a mix tape of the original versions of the songs on Pin Ups, it would make total stylistic sense and sound great. If you put together a mix tape of everything else Bowie covered, it would sound kind of crazy, or at least like a mix tape put together by polling a dozen listeners, not just one. I’ve made my opinion known that I don’t think he was a great cover artist. But did he do any good covers (or at least ones I like)?

Yes. “It Ain’t Easy” somehow got onto the otherwise all-original Ziggy Stardust, credited to “Davies.” I admit when I first came across it, I assumed it was by Ray Davies. At least one other friend with a very deep record collection did too. But I’m not as familiar with the post-‘60s Kinks as the ‘60s Kinks; otherwise I would have known the Kinks didn’t have a song of that title. It’s actually by obscure American singer-songwriter Ron Davies, and appeared on his equally obscure 1970 LP Silent Song Through the Land. Bowie never made as much of his record collection as someone like Frank Zappa did, but obviously he was open to a lot of sounds to even become aware of people like Davies and Biff Rose, which must have been yet harder to do in the UK than the US (which Bowie didn’t visit until 1971). 

Not everyone likes “It Ain’t Easy.” In his fine book The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s (which goes through every song he recorded through 1980), for instance, Peter Doggett writes that Bowie “doomed his performance by assuming a strangulated vocal tone that was, presumably, meant to sound both southern and intense, without achieving either aim.” I wouldn’t rank it as a highlight of Ziggy Stardust, but it fits in okay, and has a very catchy chorus—one reason I thought it might have been written by Ray Davies. There’s also a decent BBC version (from June 1971, predating Ziggy’s 1972 release by quite a bit) on Bowie at the Beeb, if you want something a bit different.

Far less widely heard than “It Ain’t Easy” are a couple covers on the unplugged demos Bowie and Hutchinson did for Mercury Records around spring 1969. After circulating for bootlegs for years, they were finally officially released a few years ago, most notably as part of the box set of late-‘60s recordings titled Conversation Piece. The Mercury demos are all well worth hearing in any case, and if more for early Bowie originals than the two covers, those two songs are performed well.

One is somewhat well known, but not by Bowie. That’s “Love Song,” written by British singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan, who Bowie referred to as being an on-off girlfriend who wouldn’t stop playing Scott Walker records. “Love Song” is her most well known composition, but not because of her own version (issued on a 1969 single). It’s far more familiar—indeed, for almost all of the public, only familiar—as part of Elton John’s 1970 hit album Tumbleweed Connection. Bowie and Hutchinson do a very nice acoustic version, harmonizing on the chorus. It might not be appropriate to call this a Bowie recording, since Hutchinson takes the lead vocal—the only one he sang on the tracks the pair cut together.

The other Mercury demo Bowie didn’t write was about the most obscure cover he ever did—which, considering how obscure some of the others were, is really saying something. “Life Is a Circus” somehow came his way from the British group Djinn, who didn’t even put out any records. It was written by Roger Bunn—not a household name, but known to some as a very early member of Roxy Music, though he was gone by the time they started making records. (He also had a 1970 solo album, but the song isn’t even on there.) “Life Is a Circus” is a very nice haunting, minor-keyed folk tune, again with affecting Bowie-Hutchinson harmonies, perhaps showing some of the Simon and Garfunkel sound Bowie’s sometimes been reported to have briefly aspired to at this point.

There was one major singer-songwriter who Bowie interpreted very sell, though he might not be quite as well known to rock audiences as the likes of Springsteen and the Stones. That was Belgian Jacques Brel, who wrote songs with a European theatrical flair that fell outside of rock. His songs became well known to English-speaking audiences when American songwriter Mort Shuman (who’d penned quite a few early rock hits with Doc Pomus) translated some of Brel’s French originals into English. One of Bowie’s key early influences, Scott Walker, did quite a few Brel songs, including a couple Bowie performed in the early 1970s, “Amsterdam” and “My Death.”

“Amsterdam” made it onto a 1973 Bowie B-side, and a 1970 BBC version is on Bowie at the Beeb. He also did “My Death” onstage in the Ziggy era, and live versions are on both Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture and Live Santa Monica ’72. Bowie does both songs with forceful, dramatic confidence, and it’s easy to hear how such Brel tunes might have influenced some of his more overtly theatrical compositions of the time, like “Time.” Doing a whole LP of Brel songs in 1973 might have made for a better album than Pin Ups, if definitely a less commercial one.

2. The missing broadcasts. Considering he only had one hit in the 1960s, and that one (“Space Oddity”) not until late 1969, there are a lot of Bowie recordings available from that decade. The same can’t be said of video footage. In fact, apart from a brief gimmicky TV interview from late 1964 where he talks about a (presumably short-lived) society he and his band the Manish Boys have formed for long-haired men, there’s nothing music-related on film of Bowie predating 1969.

You could also count a little seen 1968 short film in which he had a silent acting sole (The Image), and super brief appearances in a late-‘60s feature movie (The Virgin Soldiers) and ice cream commercial, but those had no links to his musical career. If then-manager Kenneth Pitt hadn’t arranged for a half-hour promo film of sorts to be made around Bowie in 1969, Love You Till Tuesday, there would be dramatically less pre-1970 footage at all. That film wasn’t very good or successful in getting Bowie the attention Pitt intended, but its survival at least ensures he’s on screen miming to a few of his early songs (sometimes with John Hutchinson and then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale), including an early version of “Space Oddity.”

Yet Bowie did sing with early bands he fronted on TV, and more than once, in the mid-1960s. As dismal as sales of his 1964 debut single “Liza Jane” were, he managed to perform them with the King Bees on Ready Steady Go—the top British pop music program of the mid-1960s, and indeed one of the best such programs of any time—as well as the lesser known Beat Room. He also did his fourth single, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” in March 1966 with the Buzz on Ready Steady Go, and his second single, “I Pity the Fool,” in March 1965 on Gadzooks! It’s All Happening.

These weren’t even the best of the half dozen singles he did before signing with Deram for an album and a few 45s in late 1966. But it would still be interesting to see him at such a young stage. Sadly, many British TV programs from this era—in a cost-saving move unimaginable considering how much they could have paid the initial cost back in the future, financially and culturally—were erased so the tape could be used again.

That’s even true of Ready Steady Go. Some episodes (particularly ones including groups already recognized to have huge commercial and historical value, like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Who) survive. Most of them don’t. Bowie didn’t have a hit record then, and he was probably never considered for preservation.

There were also 1967-1969 performances of material from his Deram sides, including “Love You Till Tuesday,” “Did You Ever Have a Dream,” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” on Dutch and German TV that probably don’t survive. Frustratingly, a live color clip of him doing “The Supermen” live with the Hype is not only very short, but partially overlaid with some narration from Tony Visconti. Could there be more from the Hype filmed on this occasion, or at least more of “The Supermen”?

Of possibly more interest—especially because some or all of the few missing mid-‘60s clips would have been mimed, not live, and not even to the best of Bowie’s pre-Deram songs— some other unreleased recordings from the time are known to exist. That includes some more demos with producer Shel Talmy than the five that came out on the Early On (1964-1966) compilation and the unreleased 35-minute song cycle about a suicide party (sic) by a character named Ernie Johnson that was recorded in spring 1968. A fragment of one of the Talmy demos, “I Want Your Love” (not a Bowie composition, and done by the Pretty Things on their second album), has circulated online; the Ernie Johnson song cycle is detailed at length in Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold the World book.

3. “The London Boys.” Buried on the non-LP B-side of a single from late 1966 that sold barely anything, “The London Boys” was aptly described by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray in Bowie: An Illustrated Record as “probably the most moving and pertinent work that Bowie produced prior to prior to ‘Space Oddity.’” It hasn’t been hard to get since first getting reissued in 1970, but still isn’t extremely widely known, though in fairness that can be said of everything Bowie did before “Space Oddity.”

Bowie was famously, and in the eyes of some notoriously, cagey about revealing much of himself in his songs, or at least in discussing exactly how much in his songs was autobiographical. It seems likely, however, that at least part of “The London Boys” comes from personal experience. Unlike almost any other mid-’60s British pop record, it documents the morning-after comedown side of the mod experience, not the exhilarating amphetamined highs. While the oft-flatulent orchestration of Bowie’s Deram sides usually worked against him, here it—maybe inadvertently—complements the lyrics of a struggling mod. The sad blurry horns soundtrack what sounds like the weary aftermath of a night of partying and pilling.

“The London Boys” might have been too much of a downer to stand a chance of charting in 1966. More mysterious, however, is its failure to get pushed more prominently by his record labels. He actually first recorded it (in a still non-circulating or lost version) in late 1965 when he was still being produced by Tony Hatch (of Petula Clark “Downtown” fame) at Pye Records.

Somehow it was passed over for release at the time, Bowie giving the explanation, “It goes down very well in the stage act, and lots of fans said I should have released it. But [Pye producer] Tony [Hatch] and I thought the words were a bit strong…we didn’t think the lyrics were quite up many people’s street.” Perhaps they and Pye Records also thought the direct reference to taking pills would have blocked possible airplay.

Presumably “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” Bowie’s first Pye single, was deemed more commercial. It was, but not extremely so, peaking at a mere #36 in Melody Maker (and not entering any other UK charts). It’s been reported that it was suspected it was bought into the Melody Maker charts with some payola. Bowie’s next two (and final) Pye singles were yet slighter. Wasn’t it worth taking a chance on “The London Boys,” even as a B-side? Which of course Deram did in late 1966, but as the B-side of the vastly inferior “Rubber Band,” one of Bowie’s most blatant (and embarrassing) sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian pop efforts.

4. The “real” David Bowie (or David Jones). Bowie’s often been characterized by, and lauded for, unpredictably changing styles, images, and even to some degree his personality, musical and public. This in turn has frustrated some critics who feel like it’s hard to figure out who the “real” Bowie is, or even suspect there isn’t a “real” Bowie, that he’s superficial gloss. At least in his music, which is often about other characters, or assuming a character, most famously Ziggy Stardust and then in his “Thin White Duke” phase.

There have been some apparent autobiographical elements in his songs, however. As noted in the above entry, “The London Boys” seems likely rooted in some personal experience as a mod in his late teens struggling to get a foothold in the music business. Even “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” as relatively slight as it is, seems to have some reflective doubt that comes out of adolescent confusion and at least one love affair. Years later on Hunky Dory, “The Bewlay Brothers” seemed, if only in its title, to refer to him and his half-brother Terry, who spent much of his life struggling with mental illness.

I’ve written this a few times before, but it seems to me that his brief “Simon and Garfunkel” phase as part of a duo with John Hutchinson might be the closest he came to singing as himself, not as a character or someone trying to elude being pigeonholed. The ten-song acoustic Mercury Records demo he did with Hutchinson in early 1969 seems like Bowie at his most sincerely personal, in part because the music (and not just the lyrics) is so unadorned and direct.

“Letter to Hermione” (titled “I’m Not Quite” on the demos) doesn’t even make any bones about who it’s addressed to, or change the name of the girlfriend he’d just broken up with (also a bandmate of his and Hutchinson’s in the short lived trio Feathers), Hermione Farthingale. “An Occasional Dream” also seems very specifically about his and Farthingale’s relationship, and though “Janine” was actually about the girlfriend of his good friend George Underwood, it has the knowing detail of something from real life. “Conversation Piece” is more abstract, but also seems to have a thoughtful and at times joyful spirit not filtered by self-conscious aspiration toward making oblique art. On the other hand, the most striking song from the demos, “Space Oddity,” is very much about an invented character and situation, and very effectively so. 

Here’s what Hutchinson himself told me in a 2014 interview: “Yes, I would say, in those days he was just himself. David Jones and David Bowie were the same person. Whereas when Ziggy happened, it got a lot more complicated, and he was singing as somebody else. He was third person or removed, or whatever it is. He’d written songs for this alter ego or other person to sing. He could sing whatever he wanted them to, he could write whatever he wanted them to say, and maybe it wasn’t sincerity from him. But I don’t think he had a lot of that going anyway. I think it was all performance.”

“When you say you ‘don’t think he had a lot of that going,’ are you referring to the singer-songwriter approach?” I asked.

“Yeah, I don’t think he had very much of that going at all. He was playing a part, and writing his stories, as the character that he’d created. So I’m agreeing with you, I suppose, that he was much more honest during those ‘Space Oddity’ days, if you like, the acoustic days. I think he was totally honest then, and it’s just that the way that he wrote and performed changed when he realized he could invent a persona. You know, David Bowie was just a stage name. But Ziggy Stardust was a character.

5. The odd release history and reception of The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie’s third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, is both his most underrated and the first where he really found a strong, consistent, and distinctive sound and approach with top-notch material throughout the record. It didn’t sell very much, however, despite attracting some rave reviews even at the time. Why?

A few reasons can be speculated. There wasn’t a song as obviously catchy and hit material as “Space Oddity,” or for that matter, “Changes” from his next album, Hunky Dory. “Changes” was only a low-charting single in the US when it was released, but became something of a hit by virtue of heavy rotation on FM radio over the years. Nothing from The Man Who Sold the World got such airplay, to my knowledge, at least in the commercial sector. 

Bowie also performed surprisingly little in the year or so after its release. Even when he visited the US for the first time in early 1971, he was limited to doing promotional interviews and activities in a few cities, and didn’t do any official concerts. He’d tour heavily for a year and a half or so soon in his Ziggy period, but that might not have helped boost back catalog sales of The Man Who Sold the World too much, since he featured little of its material in his Ziggy-era concerts.

A more subtle factor was its strange release history. The album came out near the end of 1970 in the US, where “Space Oddity” hadn’t been a hit, and Bowie was still nearly unknown, despite starting to build an underground following. In his native UK, where “Space Oddity” had been a hit, the record didn’t come out until April 1971, nearly six months later. How did that happen?

The answer isn’t entirely clear even in the best Bowie biographies, but it might have been due to him—unusually for a British artist at the time—being signed directly to an American label (Mercury), not a UK one. Mercury, for whatever reason, might have felt that the album, or Bowie himself, stood a better chance of selling well in the US than in his homeland. 

Famously or infamously, there was also controversy over the cover. The US, and thus first, one had an enigmatic cartoon with a caricature of John Wayne and a wordless speech bubble. The subsequent, yet more controversial, UK one pictured Bowie in a full-length dress—outrageous for a male recording artist in 1971. Yet if Mercury was hoping the US was where Bowie would be break, they were disappointed. According to Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, it sold just 1395 copies in the US through June 1971, about half a year after it came out.

Despite that low sales tally, there are indications that where the album was heard in the US early on, it picked up some very avid fans. During that visit, he was able to do interviews on popular FM radio stations in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Here’s an anecdotal testimony to early Bowie adapters: as a college student in the early 1980s, I was a DJ on a Philadelphia-area college radio station with a big vinyl LP library. It still had the original 1970 edition of the album. The back cover was itself nearly covered with enthusiastic handwritten rave comments from station DJs—not over the past dozen years, but at the time it was released. Very few albums in the station’s collection (which held tens of thousands of LPs) were blanketed with such handwritten praise, even some very famous hit and cult ones. 

Too, the record attracted a rave review in Cashbox, the biggest American music business magazine besides Billboard. Wrote an anonymous reviewer in the publication’s December 26, 1970 edition, “David is a huge talent. His writing is unique in all of music and part of his recognition problem stems from the fact that he is way ahead of mainstream rock… If you feel you might like to get in on someone now who others will be shouting about next year, pick this up…every track trembles with excitement and musical expertise.”

Cashbox (and Billboard) usually reviewed albums with bland enthusiasm. Although only one paragraph in length, this review has a lot more fervor than was customary for a Cashbox reviewer. Here’s guessing a young staffer who got hip to Bowie and the album way ahead of most Americans made a determined effort to slip in a much more passionate recommendation than usual, maybe even taking advantage of a short-staffed Christmas-period week or two to get it into print. Less surprisingly, the album was also reviewed well in Rolling Stone, where it was hailed as “uniformly excellent” and “an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling.”

The Man Who Sold the World eventually had its day, if not as bright as Ziggy Stardust or for that matter Hunky Dory. After Bowie broke as a star, it made #26 in the UK and #106 in the US—not too high, but a lot higher than missing the charts entirely, as it had first time around. But given how well it was received by at least some US press and radio back in early 1970, is it possible Mercury under-reported its sales through June 1971? It certainly seems like Mercury under-promoted the record worldwide, likely leading in part to Bowie signing with a different label, RCA, later in 1971, who threw much more weight behind publicizing the singer and getting his music heard.

6. Ken Scott. Of the producers Bowie worked with, Ken Scott hasn’t gotten ignored by biographers. But he hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the one Bowie worked with the most and most closely, Tony Visconti. There are good reasons for that. Visconti worked on quite a few Bowie records, from 1968 until Bowie’s death nearly half a century later. Unlike Scott, he played instruments on some Bowie records, most notably bass on The Man Who Sold the World. He was also generally a much closer friend to Bowie than Scott was, in part because Scott’s time with Bowie was relatively short.

But his time with Bowie was enormously significant. He co-produced (with Bowie) the singer’s most important albums in the journey from cultdom to stardom: Hunky DoryZiggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane. He also co-produced Pin Ups, which wasn’t nearly as notable, but was a big seller. It’s likely Scott wouldn’t have replaced Visconti for these years if Visconti wasn’t wary of Bowie’s manager of the time, Tony Defries, with whom the producing Tony didn’t get along. Yet it’s hard to imagine Visconti, or anyone, doing a better job than Scott did.

Scott’s side of the story is well told in his book Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust (co-written with Bobby Owsinski), which also discusses his time engineering on late-‘60s Beatles sessions and producing other artists. Here are two of my favorite of Scott’s observations. As he admits in the section on Bowie, he initially viewed Hunky Dory as a chance to make the move from engineering to production in a low-key way with a low-profile artist where any failure on his part wouldn’t be noticed. He quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case—as he writes, “As we were going through the material it suddenly hit me. ‘Hang on, this guy is really fucking good. He could be a lot bigger than I expected and this album might actually be something that a lot of people will listen to. Crap.’ Here it was again. Trial by fire.” 

Scott also hails Bowie’s efficiency in the studio, noting that “95% of his vocals on Ziggy and every other album I recorded with him were done in a single take.” That might not sound like such a big deal, but even half a century ago, it was hardly a given that anyone did their vocals in one take, especially as recording generally got more sophisticated and prolonged.

7. Bowie as benefactor. Bowie isn’t usually noted as an especially generous celebrity. Indeed, often biographers have portrayed him as pretty self-interested at various points in his career. But in the early 1970s, before he was an established superstar, he helped a few people out who really needed it, at a time when he was barely past the point of really needing it himself. At the time, it wouldn’t have seemed to many people that there was much in it for Bowie to be producing and writing for the people he did.

Yet he did help out a few major acts. He likely not only kept Mott the Hoople from breaking up by producing their All the Young Dudes album. He also wrote and produced their biggest hit, “All the Young Dudes,” at a time when he could have used a hit himself—his second big UK hit, “Starman,” wasn’t even in the charts yet (though it would enter them very soon). A little later in mid-1972, he co-produced (with Mick Ronson) Lou Reed’s Transformer, helping give one of his prime heroes his first hit LP and (with “Walk on the Wild Side”) biggest hit single. By many accounts, Reed wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with or work with, which makes Bowie’s advocacy all the more admirable.

Speaking of guys who weren’t always easy to work with, Bowie took a chance with Iggy Pop and the Stooges by helping him get to be part of the MainMan organization then looking after Bowie’s affairs. He also helped mix the Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power, though accounts vary as to whether that was necessary or an improvement. Four years later, well after he’d cut his ties with MainMan, Bowie continued to help a down-and-out Iggy by producing, and co-writing much of the material on, Pop’s two 1977 solo albums. He even toured with Pop’s band at the time on keyboards, again when there seemed little for him to materially gain from the association, though he would get payback of a sort when he made one of the songs from the Pop 1977 albums, “China Girl,” a big hit in 1983.

Bowie also helped Dana Gillespie, a girlfriend of his back in the mid-1960s, get on the MainMan roster and did a little production for her, most notably on a cover of “Andy Warhol.” And he, most unexpectedly, produced a hit single for Lulu in 1974, “The Man Who Sold the World”/ “Watch That Man,” at a time she’d been off the charts for four years. 

It could be argued that Bowie getting Mott, Pop, and Gillespie with MainMan was a mixed blessing, given manager Tony Defries’s mixed reputation and Bowie’s own break with Defries in 1974. In her recent memoir, Gillespie writes that litigation with MainMan meant she was unable to record for a few years. Nonetheless, her assessment of Defries is generous; she notes she never would have gotten to experience the highs of the glam era without him, and wouldn’t give up those years for anything.

8. The breakup of the Spiders from Mars. The Spiders from Mars are by far Bowie’s famous backup musicians, yet the full trio of Spiders only worked with him for about a couple years. Their famous “retirement” at the July 3, 1973 London concert filmed for Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture pulled the plug on them unexpectedly. It’s sometimes forgotten that two of the Spiders did play with Bowie a bit longer, with guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder playing on Pin Ups and at the 1980 Floor Show TV special filmed in London’s Marquee in late 1973, with Aynsley Dunbar replacing Woody Woodmansey on drums. Still, the Spiders were out of a job much sooner than they seem to have expected.

The reasons for this, as they are for a few other things discussed in this post, aren’t entirely clear. There seems to be a combination of factors: Bowie’s genuine desire to move on to a different style and different musicians; increased discontent from the Spiders at their relatively low wages, especially after they learned new keyboardist Mike Garson would be making a lot more; and a wishful-thinking plan/hope by Tony Defries that Mick Ronson could be a solo star (Ronson wasn’t), and growing tension between the Spiders and Defries. 

Back to my 2014 interview with John Hutchinson for another viewpoint on why the Spiders finished with Bowie’s premature “retirement”: “It was just that they knew they weren’t selling tickets, and the money supply was gonna be cut off from RCA, basically.” Hutchinson wasn’t a Spider, but he played with them and Bowie on tour in 1973 as an extra 12-string guitarist. Bowie’s onstage retirement announcement was a surprise to him, as it was to Woodmansey and Bolder. Hutchinson was out of a job immediately, driving back to the north of England without a job or a place to live, owning only his car, guitar, and a suitcase.

“It looked to me like he was ready to take a break,” Hutchinson added. “I mean, I do remember on the UK tour, that everybody was getting pretty bored with it all. The same stuff had been performed every night pretty much in the same way. He must have been ready for a break in a financial sense, business sense, emotional, physical. I guess that’s why he retired. All those things. Rather than putting his band on hold. I think the Spiders were sort of likely to be sort of folded up anyway, that’s the way it was looking. That what he and Mick really wanted was a nine-piece band.”

Here’s a viewpoint of mine that I don’t see come up too often. While a split might have been inevitable, it’s unfortunate Bowie didn’t stay with the Spiders from Mars for at least one more studio album of original material. It seems like they could have handled Diamond Dogs, or at least much of Diamond Dogs. To draw a rough analogy, it’s kind of like how I feel Janis Joplin should have stayed with Big Brother and the Holding Company for at least one more album before working with other bands.

9. Bowie as actor. Bowie’s acting debut in a feature length film, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, was impressive. The film itself was very impressive. However, there might be some weight to some critics’ observation that Bowie was playing a character not unlike himself. Or, at least, not unlike his mid-‘70s image, down to the wardrobe and dyed red hair. Mick Jagger got some similar criticism for his starring role in Performance, a late-‘60s cult film co-directed by Nicolas Roeg, the sole director of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I haven’t seen all of Bowie’s subsequent films, but I don’t think he ever did as well as The Man Who Fell to Earth as an actor, or ever got another movie or role as good. These include parts in Merry Christmas, Mr. LawrenceAbsolute BeginnersThe Hunger, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Some parts were substantial, some were rather minor supporting roles or even brief. The Linguini Incident was embarrassing in all respects. 

It’s a little puzzling to me that he never got another starring film role in which he was as much the star as in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In part that’s because in 1980, he received considerable critical acclaim for his starring role in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man. As some biographers have noted, this was especially impressive given that theater critics would not be nearly as likely to be impressed by his rock star credentials as some film critics and many moviegoers, or likely to cut him slack because acting wasn’t his principal profession. 

He didn’t star in David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man, which was probably for the best. John Hurt did a spectacular job in that role, and it’s unknown whether Bowie was up to the demands of playing the elephant man in heavy makeup that would have made him unrecognizable (unlike in the Broadway production, where he wasn’t required to be made up in that way). Why didn’t he get another respectable starring role or two in the cinema? Maybe it was just down to not getting the right film/director/offer pitched to him.

And here are a couple notes about footnotes in his career:

1.“Young Americans” on The Dick Cavett ShowWhen Bowie performed on The Dick Cavett Show in November 1974, he previewed the title track (and hit single) off his upcoming Young Americans album. Near the end of the studio recording, there’s a point where the instruments drop off and he slows down the lyric, singing “break down and cry” in about the highest voice he mustered. On The Dick Cavett Show, he doesn’t even try to hit those high notes, singing much lower ones. 

His Dick Cavett Show appearance is usually discussed in terms of how strange he looked and acted, sniffling during the interview and looking so gaunt it seemed like he weighed less than a hundred pounds. That’s led to speculation that he was high on cocaine. Whether or not that’s so, or to what extent it’s so, one wonders whether less-than-optimal condition affected his ability to hit those high notes, or whether he thought he couldn’t in his condition.

One more note about this appearance: he sang “Young Americans” on national TV for an episode broadcast in early December 1974 (I’ve seen both the dates of December 4 and December 5 reported). That’s a good two and a half months before “Young Americans” was first released (on a single, a little before the Young Americans album). These days, such advance exposure of a new song/single would likely not just be rare, but considered by many in the business to be downright damaging. It would also be considered unwise, or even foolish, to spend precious network time presenting a song that was unavailable for purchase. But those were the days when industry policing of such things was far less restrictive, and we were all the better for it.

2. Is that David Bowie on “Penny Lane”? Not on the hit Beatles recording, of course, but on a soundalike version that came out on the UK budget LP Hits of ’67, devoted to recreating the sounds of big hits at a much lower price. And at a much lower quality – some of those soundalikes didn’t sound exactly like their prototypes. The version of “Penny Lane” has an anonymous singer who sounds so much like Bowie that when I played it many years ago for someone, she instantly said, “That’s Bowie.” And though at least one writer I’ve read dismissed such a guess as ridiculous, really more people than not think it certainly sounds like Bowie, and enough to possibly be a young Bowie picking up a few pounds as a session singer. Other vocalists who’d later become well known picked up some money on soundalike budget discs, most famously Elton John, who did enough such sessions that there’s a whole CD of his soundalikes.

The ”Penny Lane”-Bowie rumor picked up steam when the track was officially issued on the 2001 CD compilation Hot Hits on 45, though it had already done the rounds on Bowie bootlegs for quite some time before that. In January 2013, however, Record Collector magazine clarified that it wasn’t Bowie, but in fact a session singer named Tony Steven. The uncanny similarity wasn’t, of course, Steven imitating a then-nearly-unknown Bowie, but more a matter of both of them being influenced by Anthony Newley.

San Francisco’s New Tunnel Tops/Battery Bluff Parks

Does San Francisco need more parks? It already has more park space, from the huge and famous Golden Gate Park to tiny near-hidden neighborhood greenery, than almost any other city. Most Bay Area residents, however, would emphatically answer that there can’t be enough parks. And a couple of new ones have opened in an area that, though located near very popular resident and tourist attractions, was until recently something of a barren wasteland.

View of the Golden Gate bridge and the lower (playground) part of the new Tunnel Tops park in San Francisco’s Presidio.

It might be hard to believe when you walk or bike around the waterfront between the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge today, but it wasn’t that long ago that the area between the trail that goes along the water and the Presidio was kind of dumpy. Crissy Field was spruced up for the better with its transformation from a waste dump to a restored wetlands habitat, complete with walkable trails and occasional temporary public art installations. But the incline between the road on the south side of Crissy Field and the main part of the Presidio was pretty scrubby and uninviting, with no special reason to spend time there, though a bike path went through part of it. The busy highway connecting the Marina district to the bridge runs through here, and seemed to inhibit much natural or human activity along this border of sorts.

That changed in the spring with the opening of small Battery Bluff Park, and then in mid-summer with the opening of the larger Tunnel Tops park. Tunnel Tops will get more use, in part because it’s easier to walk there from Crissy Field, and in part because there’s more to do there, especially for kids in the lower part nearest the road:

The upper part has fairly large green spaces to walk around, as well as curved benches to take in the view of the bay and the bridge:

If you take a space on those benches, it seems like the view would be a lot more interesting than whatever’s on your phone:

To the east, you get a view of the city skyline as it overlooks Russian Hill, including the Transamerica pyramid and the city’s newest tallest building (Salesforce Tower):

There are already a few food stands/trucks, and will likely be more as the park gets more popular. The few I saw on my first visit in early August, refreshingly, were more ethnic and imaginative than the typical hot dog stand:

With six acres, Battery Bluff Park is a little less than half the size of Tunnel Tops. It’s only a few minutes walk (only about two or three by bike) up from the upper level of Tunnel Tops, though, and likely to be less crowded. You also get good views of the bridge from here, though sometimes with the remains of batteries, reminding us the Presidio used to be employed for military purposes:

You can see Alcatraz in the distance:

Across the street, there’s another reminder that the Presidio used to be a major military base, with a large national cemetery:

More so than at Tunnel Tops, there are reminders that these parks were built on top of highway tunnels:


To the west, the bike path winds down past some buildings and then up toward the bridge. Although it’s not too well known to the public, one of the buildings houses the Presidio Park Archives and Records Center, which has a large collection of historical photos. Many of them are related to the military and the Presidio’s connection to it, but some of them aren’t, and have a surprisingly wide range of unusual shots of other aspects of Bay Area life. It’s free and open to the public for research at specified hours:

There’s info about Tunnel Tops park at https://www.presidiotunneltops.gov; about Battery Bluff at https://www.presidio.gov/places/battery-bluff; and about the Presidio Park Archives and Records Center at https://www.presidio.gov/places/park-archives-and-records-center.

Pink Floyd’s Sort-of Secrets

I’ll be teaching a course on Pink Floyd for the first time in late August, and spent a lot of time preparing the material over the last few weeks. As I got my class together, I’ve heard and seen a lot more Pink Floyd than I have for a while.

There’s been a lot written about Pink Floyd. Still, there are a few aspects of their work that aren’t discussed much. Like I did when I offered a Doors course a few years ago, I’m going over about a half dozen of them with this blogpost.

1. The musical demise of Syd Barrett. As much as there’s been about Pink Floyd the group, there’s much that’s been written and speculated just about Syd Barrett, although he made just one album and a few singles with them as their original leader. It’s widely known that he made some abortive attempts at doing some recording in 1974, about four years after his second and last solo LP. Some material from those sessions has long been bootlegged.

I didn’t realize, however, until viewing the 2012 documentary Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here that a few scraps are heard in that film, marking the only officially available extracts. If Barrett’s solo albums were something like, to paraphrase Pink Floyd biographer Nicholas Schaffner, like much of the method had gone out of his madness, the 1974 sessions are like hearing a brain that’s almost closed down. There’s some personality fighting to get out of these instrumental bits and pieces, but it’s almost like it’s seeping out from some of the few empty bricks in a wall, to use a description Roger Waters might appreciate.

One wonders if the sessions were a last-ditch attempt to get Barrett involved in something positive and creative again, a last-ditch attempt to exploit whatever commercial value might be left in a recording by the original Pink Floyd leader in the wake of The Dark Side of the Moon, or something in between. Whatever the case, it couldn’t have been a pleasant exercise for anyone involved.

Considering Pink Floyd’s post-Barrett success—not just with Dark Side of the Moon, but really starting right away with the UK Top Ten success of their second (and first post-Barrett, for the most part) LP, A Saucerful of Secrets—one wonders whether he would have continued to dominate the group as much as he did on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, even had he remained mentally healthy. Even before Syd’s departure, Waters and Rick Wright were writing some LP tracks and B-sides that, if not among the best of the group’s work, were certainly respectable. One can only speculate that perhaps Waters and Wright would have written a significant and growing share of the songs as time went on, even if Barrett continued to pen the majority of the compositions. It’s a what-if that will never be known.

2. David Gilmour before Pink Floyd. Unfortunately there’s little recorded evidence of David Gilmour’s music before he joined Pink Floyd around the end of 1967, and what’s circulated isn’t very impressive. He was the group Joker’s Wild, and five unreleased tracks they’ve recorded have been heard. They’re all cover versions; there’s not even much guitar on most of them; and if Gilmour’s singing, it’s not easily detectable. It’s the kind of thing a semi-pro band might give to prospective promoters as evidence that they could replicate some hits and songs by famous acts live. 

It’s not at all like Pink Floyd either, and in fact doesn’t have much personality whatsoever. There are faithful covers of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” but actually as done by the Beach Boys, not the original hit arrangement by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers; the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”; Manfred Mann’s bluesy “Don’t Ask Me What I Say,” written by their original singer Paul Jones, which at least was a pretty deep LP track that took some digging to find; and Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah,” not one of his more renowned numbers, though the Kinks covered it their first album and the Rolling Stones did it on the BBC. On “Beautiful Delilah,” Gilmour (presuming he’s the lead guitarist) finally peels off a solo, but it’s a routine competent one of the sort heard on tons of recordings by generic mid-‘60s British R&B/rock bands.

It’s sometimes speculated Gilmour got into Pink Floyd mostly because he was a friend of the group with (like Barrett and Waters) roots in Cambridge, and the Joker’s Wild demos would lend ammunition to that theory. I would think, however, that Gilmour must have improved a lot between the time of these demos and joining Pink Floyd, and/or that the demos simply don’t represent his talents well, since he quickly proved himself a good and distinctive guitarist, and a significantly talented singer and songwriter, after replacing Barrett. He might have been told “play like Syd Barrett” when he first joined the Floyd (augmenting the Barrett lineup for just a few weeks before Syd was gone for good), but he was sounding like himself soon enough. And at least some of that must have been cultivated before 1968.

3. Musical “voices” in Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd don’t have a reputation as a particularly exciting live act, or at least one that projected a lot of personality onstage. Fortunately there’s a surprising amount of footage of the group from 1967-1973, much of it on the box set The Early Years 1965 to 1972. They were a little more animated onstage than legend sometimes has it, and not just in the early Syd Barrett/psychedelic days. Certainly the most animated member was Roger Waters, especially in the clips (there are several) of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” where he screams and gesticulates with genuine menace.

As a launching point for a general observation, Pink Floyd, and usually Waters, used non-musical mouth voices more frequently and with more imagination than is usually acknowledged in literature about the band. These actually date back to the Syd Barrett era, and weren’t only done by Waters. On Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “Pow R. Toc. H” is almost hard to classify as an instrumental, despite the absence of words, since it’s full of vocal noises, almost like they’re communicating without language in the jungle. The 1967 clip of them doing an unfortunately very brief extract on the BBC has Barrett making the vocal percussive noises at the start. On most of the studio track, other effects are featured that almost sound like demonic birdcalls. And then there are the unforgettable interjections, best transcribed as “doy doy,” that intimate madness as much as anything Barrett was involved with.

4. Pink Floyd soundtracks—the movies. Pink Floyd had some of their music on soundtracks almost from the time they started. An early, hyper-fast version of “Interstellar Overdrive” from late 1966 was used as the soundtrack to Anthony Stern’s highly experimental, psychedelic fifteen-minute short “San Francisco” (the music came out on a limited edition Record Store Day release a few years ago). Only a little less obscurely, some instrumental pieces are heard in the hour-long 1968 British movie The Committee. They’re on the Early Years 1965-1972 box, and the film (starring ex-Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, with a scene of Arthur Brown performing “Nightmare” at a party), came out on DVD. 

More famously, and in some ways infamously, Pink Floyd soundtracked Barbet Schroeder’s movies More and Obscured By Clouds (aka La Vallée), which generated full-length Pink Floyd LPs in 1969 and 1972 respectively. It’s likely lots more people have heard the soundtrack LPs than seen the films, though both movies are on Early Years 1965-1972, and weren’t too hard to find on video before that. The music doesn’t comprise huge parts of those films, in which Pink Floyd don’t actually appear. But it’s used pretty effectively, if rather sparsely and subtly, and considerably less in Obscured By Clouds than in More

I’d seen both More and La Vallée quite a few years ago, and watching them again recently confirmed my memory that they’re pretty lousy — as films, not the soundtracks. And not in a laughably bad B-movie or lower-grade movie way — in a boring way. More’s young junkie protagonists are pretty unlikable characters, and the German student lead is actually kind of loathsome in his chauvinistic selfish hedonism. The opening credits, over which Pink Floyd’s “More” theme song plays, is by far the best sequence, as Floyd’s music and the impressive cinematography are the focus. La Vallée’s French hippies in search of paradise in Papua New Guinea aren’t much less offputting than More‘s characters, and the last half hour or so in particular is turgid.

The films are unworthy of both Pink Floyd and cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who’d get much wider attention for his work on Kramer Vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, among other far more famous movies. Here’s one blooper that’s escaped most viewers’ notice: in More’s opening credits, David Gilmour’s last name is misspelled as “Gilmore.” Or maybe they wanted the “mour” spelled the same way as the movie’s title?

Some Pink Floyd music is also heard in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point. Antonioni was an important filmmaker, and his movies Blow-Up (1967, with the Yardbirds playing one club scene with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the lineup) and The Passenger (1975, starring Jack Nicholson) in particular are excellent. Which makes it all the more baffling that Zabriskie Point, filmed in English in Southern California, is so terrible. Part of this can be blamed on his decision to cast two amateurs rather than professional actors as the leads, but it goes beyond that. The story’s slim and uninteresting, the other acting is wooden, and much of the movie, like the Schroeder films, is just boring. And the lead guy’s decision to paint his stolen plane with silly psychedelic graphics and return it to the airport he took it from—where he gets shot by law enforcement officials—is daft even in the context of daft hippie-era movies.

Like a good number of flops by noted artists, Zabriskie Point has its revisionist champions. Only a month or so before this post, The New Yorker gave it a brief near-rave review in advance of a revival screening, hailing it as “a daring and flamboyant blend of fiction and documentary…By way of wide-screen images filled with the giddy illusions and gaudy forms of American advertising, architecture, and technology, [Antonioni] realizes his freest, wildest aesthetic adventure.” As with Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, to name one of many examples I can cite, a revisionist rave doesn’t change my original opinion.

Pink Floyd’s contributions are fairly good, though, including their atypically good-time folk-country-rocker “Crumbling Land”; the ominous “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” which plays over the opening credits (and, like the opening credit/theme sequence of More, has music that’s far more interesting than the onscreen action); and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (here titled “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up”), which plays as a house is seen exploding in the desert in slow motion from several angles.

As many Floyd fans know, and some general rock fans know, the original intention was for Pink Floyd to do the entire Zabriskie Point soundtrack. They didn’t have such a great time collaborating with Antonioni, however, and ultimately the soundtrack just used these three songs, augmented by some cuts by other acts, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Youngbloods, and John Fahey. Four unreleased Pink Floyd tracks from the sessions came out on an expanded two-CD version of the soundtrack, and lots more unreleased Floyd material intended for consideration for the soundtrack has circulated on bootleg.

Notable pieces that didn’t make the film include one that formed the melodic backbone of Dark Side of the Moon’s “Us and Them.” Another, likely intended for the surreal scene of couples making love in the desert, features the Floyd making snickering, sardonic jokes about devising a sort of sex soundtrack, including some blatant profanity that would have ensured it wouldn’t have been used, at least in a full unedited version.

Pink Floyd were considered for a soundtrack for a movie that would have been on the level of their musical contributions, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But Kubrick and the band didn’t agree on conditions for the music’s use. Nick Mason told a reader in Uncut in 2018 that it was “probably because he wouldn’t let us do anything for 2001…We’d have loved to have got involved with 2001–we thought it was exactly the sort of thing we should be doing the soundtrack for.” But 2001 was in production about three years before A Clockwork Orange, and Pink Floyd were far less famous then, so it seems unlikely Kubrick would have considered them for the earlier movie. In any case, 2001 or A Clockwork Orange both fared fine artistically without Pink Floyd music, though it’s interesting to speculate how 2001 might have been with Pink Floyd’s contributions.

In a way Pink Floyd, or certainly at least Roger Waters, got to soundtrack the film they wanted with The Wall, which in its way was as weirdly flawed and often hard to watch as More, La Vallée, and Zabriskie Point. After all that activity, the San Francisco short and the surreal The Committee—which isn’t great, but is certainly easier on the eye than the Schroeder/Antonioni efforts—might have been the best uses of Pink Floyd’s music in the movies. This doesn’t count Live at Pompeii, the early-‘70s concert documentary that, despite its own flaws, ably captures full live performances of early Pink Floyd standards.

5. The Dark Side of the Moon cover origins. The Dark Side of the Moon has one of the most famous covers in history. But part of its inspiration came from an unlikely mundane source. Look at the cover of the 1963 book The How and Why Wonder Book of Light and Color:

And, more notably, the graphics from a couple pages inside:

This reminds me of countless kid/young adult science books from the mid-twentieth century, and some Highlights-like magazines for kids that explained the world with colorful elementary graphics. This isn’t a hidden secret fanatical researchers discovered many years later for taking designers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell to task. Powell acknowledges these sources in his recent book Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive.  

I didn’t realize how many books center on the work of Hipgnosis, who designed most of Pink Floyd’s covers, and many others, some of them quite famous. There are at least half a dozen. Alas, there’s a lot of repetition between them. Through the Prism is about the best for historical text, along with perhaps Vinyl, Album, Cover, Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue. That includes some obscurities along with the famous sleeves, including some that aren’t nearly as impressive as the ones they did for Pink Floyd. Like this one from the early ‘70s for the obscure British group Toe Fat, which Powell acknowledges in The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue was not one of their finer moments:

Urban legend has it that Toe Fat broke up, in part, because Hipgnosis wanted them to call their next album Toe Fu, and have a picture of a huge cube of tofu on the cover. To which Toe Fat retorted, “We’re not a bleedin’ health food store!” Well, it makes for a story, anyway, even if it’s not true.

Here are some more incidental side notes when you dig deep into the Pink Floyd saga:

1. The Purple Gang demos. By the 2020s, most bodies of intriguing unreleased work by top classic rock acts known to exist have been issued or are at least in unofficial circulation, whether the Beach Boys’ Smile or the Beatles’ Get Back sessions. One of the few such items that no one’s ever heard, outside of the creator and at least one record producer, is a tape of Syd Barrett demos from around early 1967. Here’s what Joe Boyd told me in a 1996 interview (I don’t have an exclusive, he’s told plenty of others too):

“One of the great sorrows in my collection is that I don’t have the demo tape that Syd gave me of six or eight songs that he hadn’t recorded. I was recording a band called the Purple Gang and we were looking for material, and Syd gave us this tape. There were some terrific songs, very different from [what he ended up putting on his solo albums]. Strong, melodic, good songs.”

The Purple Gang’s vaudevillian music was far from early Pink Floyd, or rock, and hasn’t dated well or gotten even a small cult following. It’s a little hard to see how Barrett’s songs, even if they might have been castoffs of sorts, could have fit into their repertoire, or their potential maximized by the Purple Gang. Still, if Boyd’s description has even some validity, they’d be fascinating to hear. And if they haven’t turned up yet 55 years later, it might be something of a miracle if they’re ever found, if they haven’t been destroyed, lost, or erased.

2. Medicine Head’s Dark Side of the Moon. It’s still not widely known—even by most of the tens of millions of fans who’ve bought The Dark Side of the Moon—that there was an LP with an almost identical title just a year earlier. And the artist wasn’t even that obscure, at least to UK audiences, though there are still barely any US listeners who’ve heard of them, let alone heard them. This is the British blues-folk-rock group Medicine Head, who actually achieved some significant commercial success in their homeland in the early 1970s. 

Medicine Head had seven albums in the 1970s, and four British chart hit singles—“(And The) Pictures in the Sky” (1971, #22), “One and One Is One” (1973, #3), “Rising Sun” (1973, #11), and “Slip and Slide” (1974, #22). They had a connection to a much more famous group when ex-Yardbirds singer Keith Relf worked with them as a producer. Relf also joined the band on bass for a while, and is on their 1972 album Dark Side of the Moon. Not The Dark Side of the Moon—note the absence of the “The” at the beginning.

I’ve heard some though not all of Medicine Head’s records, and they’re not my thing at all. They have a rustic, at times almost skifflish sound, and not much in the way of memorable songs or to make them stand out much from many British blues or blues-influenced acts of the time. They don’t sound at all like Pink Floyd, even Pink Floyd at their bluesiest. But they did put out a record titled Dark Side of the Moon, and the year before Pink Floyd’s THE [capitals mine] Dark Side of the Moon.

I don’t know enough about the legal side of things to know if Medicine Head might have had grounds for taking legal action had Pink Floyd’s huge seller simply been titled Dark Side of the Moon. It did make it easier on Pink Floyd, however, that Medicine Head’s The Dark of the Moon didn’t sell well, clearing the path from much if any confusion with Pink Floyd’s 1973 album. Had Pink Floyd decided not to use that title for fear of overlap with Medicine Head’s record, it might have been called Eclipse, the title of the concluding track—not a bad title, but one that probably wouldn’t have served the group as well as The Dark Side of the Moon.

3. The Fresh Windows’ 1967 single “Fashion Conscious”—Syd Barrett under a pseudonym? Back in the very early days of compilations of obscure British psychedelic ‘60s flop nuggets—although it was already the early 1980s, well after the late ’60s—the key anthologies were the three-volume Chocolate Soup for Diabetics series. The first volume included a 1967 single by the Fresh Windows, “Fashion Conscious,” that was a quite good mod-psychedelic cut with biting humorous lyrics satirizing a trendy Carnaby Street-era girl. It’s not exactly like early Pink Floyd; it might be more like a slightly psychedelicized Kinks. But it has a playful yet seething vocal phrasing with some similarity to early Syd Barrett compositions, as well as a generally humorous yet penetrating aura that likewise can recall Barrett-era Floyd, if more slightly.

What really fueled speculation that the song might at least have been written by Barrett was the songwriting credit, “S. Barrett.” Could this have been a song Syd donated to another act, and could be maybe even have played or sung on the track? 

There’s still not much known about the Fresh Windows, but it’s now known the answer is definitely “no.” The writer, singer, and lead guitarist was actually Brian Barrett, no relation to Syd. Some online posts speculate that the guy who put the unauthorized Chocolate Soup for Diabetics comp together deliberately and mischievously miscredited the composition to “S. Barrett” to generate such rumors.

Is there anything else by the Fresh Windows, considering the quality of “Fashion Conscious”? Just the other side of the single, “Summer Sun Shines.” And it’s not nearly as good.

San Francisco Books/Films/Records: The Rest

In my new book San Francisco: Portrait of a City, I briefly review notable books, films, and records related to the city. There are forty noted in each category, and particularly as these had to cover several different styles and eras, inevitably some titles of interest weren’t included.

Here are the ones that didn’t make the cut. If you don’t see a favorite item, remember that it could be in the “Top Forty” lists in the book itself. These are offered as a kind of supplement to what did make the book.

BOOKS:

Altamont, Joel Selvin (2016)

The most complete book-length account of 1969’s violence-marred Altamont rock festival, drawing on accounts from musicians, concertgoers, law enforcement officials, camera operators for the Gimme Shelter movie, and the girlfriend of Meredith Hunter, the teenager murdered in the audience.

Berkeley U.S.A., Anne Moose (1981)

Several dozen residents from all walks of Berkeley life tell their stories in this oral history anthology, from booksellers and authors to street poets, punks, activists, veterans, panhandlers, and Hare Krishnas.

Bill Graham Presents, Bill Graham & Robert Greenfield (1992)

The legendary rock promoter’s autobiographical oral history has extended, oft-self-aggrandizing quotes from both Graham and numerous musicians and associates, testifying to his central importance in both the San Francisco scene and the global development of rock promotion into a huge industry.

The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 4: Mr. Sixties!, R. Crumb (1989)

These 1966-1967 comics by the leading underground comics artist are mostly taken from just after he moved to Haight-Ashbury, with jaded portrayals of the hippie counterculture, plenty of raunchy free love, and early strips with his famous characters Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat.

The Complete Zap Comix, Gary Groth (ed.) (2014)

Bound multi-volume reprint of all seventeen late-1960s issues of the first widely read underground comic has plenty of early work by Robert Crumb, as well as other top early cartoonists like Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson; one volume features a 225-page history of Zap, with extensive comments from the artists.

Got a Revolution, Jeff Tamarkin (2003)

The most comprehensive biography of Jefferson Airplane, the band most responsible for popularizing the San Francisco acid rock sound, drawing on first-hand interviews with all the members and key associates.

Heart of the Rock, Adam Fortunate Eagle (2002)

Combination memoir-history of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-71 by one of the activists involved in taking the island, celebrating its long-term impact but also detailing the movement’s problems and divisions.

The Iron Heel, Jack London (1907)

Genteel daughter of a UC Berkeley professor is radicalized by her new firebrand husband, both playing leading roles in a failed socialist revolt against oligarchs that takes them from San Francisco to Washington, DC, in a departure from the Yukon adventure stories for which London was most celebrated.

Janis: Her Life and Music, Holly George-Warren (2019)

The best biography of Joplin, covering her years with Big Brother & the Holding Company and as a solo artist, as well as her troubled personal life and half-decade of struggle as a folk-blues singer before moving from Texas to San Francisco.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally (2003)

The numerous books about the Grateful Dead tend to be very specialized or only of appeal to serious Deadheads, but this 700- page volume is the most thorough account of the band likely to be written for the general reader, authored by a longtime official historian/publicist for the group.

Notes from a Revolution: Com/Co, The Diggers & The Haight, Kristine McKenna & David Hollander (eds.) (2012)

Compilation of the agitprop leaflets/handbills (reproduced with the original artwork) distributed by the Diggers as Haight-Ashbury psychedelic culture peaked in 1967, collaging calls for free love and food with antiwar protest, drug use advisories, and colorfully chaotic announcements of rock festivals and other community events.

A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey Pop Festival, Harvey Kubernik & Kenneth Kubernik (2011)

Fine, heavily illustrated coffee table book about the June 1967 rock festival that was crucial to the onset of psychedelic rock’s heyday, with numerous first-hand memories from Monterey’s musicians and organizers.

Ringolevio, Emmett Grogan (1972)

Much of the semi-autobiographical novel of this peripatetic activist and all-around hellraiser takes place in the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love, documenting the arrogant zeal Grogan and other Diggers brought to dispensing free goods and bucking authorities.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, Jeff Guinn (2017)

Meticulously researched, and very readably related, story of Jones and his temple from their early years in Indianapolis through their brief time of influence on San Francisco politics and their final, progressively horrific days in Guyana.

Rolling Stone Magazine, Robert Draper (1990)

Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, heavy on entertaining anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

San Francisco Oracle (1991)

Facsimile reprints of all twelve issues of the legendary Haight-Ashbury underground paper published between 1966 and 1968, more noteworthy for its wildly freewheeling graphics than its oft-impenetrable prose.

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols (2000)

The only seriously worthwhile biography of Joplin, covering her years with Big Brother & the Holding Company and as a solo artist. It documents her musical and personal lives, as well as her significance to the counterculture and feminism.

Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, Richard Cahan & Michael Williams (2016)

Coffee table book spotlights government pictures of Japanese Americans, often from San Francisco and the Bay Area, being sent to and living in detention centers, taken by notable photographers including Dorothy Lange, Ansel Adams, and Clem Alberts.

World Film Locations: San Francisco, Scott Jordan Harris (ed.) (2013)

Compact illustrated overview of nearly a hundred films set in San Francisco from the 1906 earthquake to the early twenty-first century, with guides to where to find specific scenes with striking location shots.

You Can’t Win, Jack Black (1926)

Almost disturbingly matter-of-fact autobiography of a small-time criminal’s travels throughout Western North America includes chapters on San Francisco stints in thievery and jail; originally serialized in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, and a significant influence on William Burroughs.

FILMS

Alcatraz Is Not an Island, James M. Fortier (2001)

Hour-long public television special on the 1969-71 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, interspersing clips from the time with memories from key activists involved in its planning.

And Then They Came For Us, Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider (2017)

In 45 minutes, this documentary effectively pinpoints the most disturbing aspects of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans (many from the Bay Area) during World War II, aided by stills from major photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, and interviews with those whose families were affected (notably Star Trek’s George Takei).

Berkeley in the Sixties, Mark Kitchell (1990)

Compelling two-hour documentary follows Berkeley activism from the free speech movement through anti-Vietnam War protests and 1969 riots at People’s Park, mixing archival footage and interviews with many of the participants.

Birdman of Alcatraz, John Frankenheimer (1962)

Melodramatic biopic of Robert Stroud, who became a renowned expert on bird diseases while serving a lifetime prison sentence, actually takes place only partially on Alcatraz (where he wasn’t allowed to keep birds), though it’s bolstered by a strong performance by Burt Lancaster as the Birdman.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson (2015)

The tumultuous history of the Black Panthers, from their Oakland roots and economic/social justice programs to their battles with the FBI and chaotic breakdown, told with an abundance of gripping ‘60s/’70s film clips and decades-later interviews with surviving Panthers.

The Cockettes, David Weissman & Bill Weber (2002) Documentary on the definitely San Franciscan comedy-theatrical troupe of the late 1960s and early 1970s mixes intriguing period footage and interviews with many of its key players, although they were more gay-oriented amateur camp than high art.

Experiment in Terror, Blake Edwards (1962)

Deranged killer’s scheme to force teller Lee Remick to rob a bank on his behalf gets derailed by a bumbling FBI chase in this average suspense thriller, elevated by a Henry Mancini score and shootout finale at a Giants game in Candlestick Parik.

Fog City Mavericks, Gary Leva (2007)

Rather too-proud-of-itself, yet informative, look at the work and influence of the most famous San Francisco-based filmmakers, particularly Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, though less titanic figures like Philip Kaufman and Chris Columbus also get some screen time.

Fog Over Frisco, William Dieterle (1934)

A young Bette Davis gets snared into a murder/kidnapping scheme in this slight mystery yarn, redeemed by some of the earliest location footage of city streets and the bay in a sound film, along with one of the earliest San Francisco car chases. 

Golden Gate Bridge, Ben Loeterman (2004)

Crisp hour-long PBS program uses plenty of vintage photos in its look on how the bridge was constructed, as well as its cost in human lives and the political maneuvering that went into funding and engineering it. 

Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, John Antonelli (1985)

A look at the life of the beat giant who put San Francisco settings into much of his writing (particularly On the Road), mixing a few TV interviews of Kerouac with observations by literary peers like Allen Ginsberg and ex-wives/girlfriends.

Jonestown, Stanley Nelson (2007)

Documentary on the meteoric rise of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, and its horrific end in mass suicide in Jonestown, with shocking vintage footage and numerous interviews with Peoples Temple survivors and insiders.

The Man Who Cheated Himself, Felix E. Feist (1950)

Detective Lee J. Cobb frames himself when he covers up a murder by wealthy Nob Hill girlfriend Jane Wyatt in this economic, tense thriller, with stops in several city parks and landmarks, ending with a hideout in Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Psych-Out, Richard Rush (1968)

Scruffy Haight-Ashbury hedonism gets the Hollywood psychsploitation treatment in this thin and laughably exaggerated flick, worth catching for a just-pre-stardom Jack Nicholson in the starring role as a ponytailed aspiring rock musician.

Silicon Valley, Randall MacLowry (2013)

PBS documentary on the roots of the Silicon Valley tech community in the 1950s and 1960s, when the invention of the integrated circuit and Fairchild Semiconductor laid the foundation for the microprocessor and many other giant companies to follow in its wake.

Summer of Love, Gail Dolgin & Vicente Franco (2007)

Hour-long overview of Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s, originally broadcast on PBS’ American Experience series, mixing hippie clips from the era with recollections from some of the participants.

The Times of Harvey Milk, Robert Epstein (1984)

Widely and deservedly acclaimed documentary on the pioneering gay San Franciscan politician, examining his heartening rise to political power, tragic assassination, and its repercussions in the community he represented.

A Trip Down Market Street, The Miles Brothers (1906)

Filmed just days before the 1906 earthquake, this 13-minute silent recorded scenes on downtown’s main thoroughfare by putting a camera in front of a cable car as it chugged from the city center to the Ferry Building, capturing a hurly-burly of automobiles, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, about-to-perish buildings, and excited newsboys.

Turn It Around: The East Bay Punk Scene, Corbett Redford (2018)

Exhaustive Iggy Pop-narrated documentary on the genesis and heyday of the East Bay punk scene, whose prime saw the establishment of one of the world’s most celebrated punk clubs, Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street, and the launch of one of the world’s most successful pop-punk bands, Green Day.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Judy Irving (2003)

Sentimental documentary of Mark Bittner—a kind of unofficial caretaker of wild parrots on North Beach’s Telegraph Hill before losing his tenancy in a rent-free cottage—benefits from spectacular shots of the legendarily steep neighborhood and its views of the bay. 

RECORDS

“Theme from San Francisco,” Jeanette MacDonald (1936)

Performed by star Jeanette MacDonald in the MGM movie musical San Francisco, this overtly melodramatic, operatic theme was the first song in honor of the city to gain wide mass media exposure.

Anthology of American Folk Songs, Barbara Dane (1959)

If you hungered for more down-to-earth folk than the Kingston Trio offered at the hungry i, this clutch of plaintive but grittier folk standards like “Girl of Constant Sorrow” and “Nine Hundred Miles” captured what you might have seen at North Beach’s hipper beat haunts.

Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Honed in part in San Francisco nightclubs like the Black Hawk, Brubeck’s clean, sharp brand of West Coast cool jazz reached its apogee on this huge seller, spearheaded by one of the biggest jazz hits of all time, “Take Five.”

“Little Boxes,” Pete Seeger (1963)

Bay Area folkie Malvina Reynolds was inspired to pen this sarcastic satire of cookie-cutter post-war housing on a drive through Daly City just south of San Francisco, though Pete Seeger was the singer who made it into a minor hit single.

Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Country Joe & the Fish (1967)

The top Berkeley psychedelic band’s debut celebrated drugs, free love, and political protest with an eclectic exuberance, paced by piercing organ, stinging bluesy guitar, and Country Joe McDonald’s witty words and droll vocals.

Quicksilver Messenger Service, Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968)

Most known for marathon jams on blues-rockers like “Who Do You Love,” Quicksilver were actually better served by the concise folk-rockers with mournful vocal harmonies that dominated this debut LP, though John Cipollina’s thrilling quavering guitar powered the hypnotic instrumental “Gold and Silver.”

Striking It Rich, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (1972)

Country swing with a Marin County hippie twist, Hicks and pseudo-Andrews Sisters-like backup singers delivering his droll takes on “Canned Music,” accident-prone oddballs, and the like with tongue-in-cheek, sardonic wit.

Quah, Jorma Kaukonen (1974)

Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist turns in some haunting original folky tunes that occasionally use subtle orchestration, with a relaxed intimacy that has the “end of an era” or “morning after the party” feel of a counterculture who’d been through a rousing decade, exhausted but happier and wiser for the experience.

Birdboys, Penelope Houston (1988)

Avengers singer (and longtime librarian at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library) Houston turned in an almost entirely opposite direction with her solo debut, replacing scabrous anthemic rants with gentle, haunting folk-rock with an acoustic base, probing the struggles of growing into adulthood with affecting melancholy.

Lands End Exhibit at the Cliff House

San Francisco’s Cliff House has seen its share of turbulence since the first one was built in the 1860s. It burned down a couple times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then it underwent multiple renovations and ownership changes. At the end of 2020 it closed, like many restaurants have over the last couple years. Permanent closure seems unimaginable, as it’s a landmark with views of nearby Ocean Beach and offshore rocks that are magnificent even by San Francisco’s high standards.

Ocean Beach, as seen from inside the Cliff House.

It’s likely to be bought and operated as a restaurant by new entrepreneurs in the near future. But at this point, it’s kind of in limbo, though it remains owned by the National Park Service. So why write about it now? Well, from November through March, it hosted a Lands End exhibit of art with the stated goal “to discover artwork in unlikely places and to consider the planet’s health.”

Kitchen art made from ocean detritus, as part of the Lands End exhibit

And why write about the exhibit now that it’s closed? It’s a modest record of how the building was used for an unexpected purpose that might, unfortunately, be the only such use in its long history. As most Bay Area residents know, as well as many tourists, the Cliff House usually houses average, overpriced restaurants and a gift shop, patronized by at least as many out-of-towners as locals. If you do eat there, it’s mostly for the views, although you can get similar ones for free walking around nearby. This marked a perhaps one-of-a-kind opportunity both to get somewhat different views unobstructed by restaurant crowds, and see the large multi-level space used much differently than it usually has.

Worn downstairs booths remained in place in the middle of the exhibition.

It used to be that if you ate in the Cliff House, there was lots of the standard restaurant clutter—patrons, staff, tables, kitchens, bars—interfering with the views and generally creating a slightly hectic atmosphere. Admittedly, I only ate there once, for a birthday, when we were fortunate enough to get a windowside table with good sunset views of ocean rocks, and (on the evening of Martin Luther King Day) might have been less busy than usual. As you can see in what remains of the upstairs dining area, though, it was a fairly crowded layout:

Especially as the exhibit had timed admissions so there weren’t many people there at any given point, there were clearer panoramic views of the ocean and water. As San Franciscans know, though it seems to be constantly surprising to many visitors, fog can roll in quickly on a sunny day. That’s what happened during our visit:

Ocean Beach before the fog
Fog roling into Ocean Beach, just a few minutes later
Fog on the water

By the end of our visit a couple hours later, the beach was completely fogged in:

That meant the Camera Obscura, a staple of the Cliff House for many years, had to be closed:

Youngsters near the Camera Obscura

As for the exhibit, first of all, it gave visitors a chance to ramble through large parts of the building—especially the kitchen and maintenance areas—that were inaccessible to the public, revealing just how big a place it is. One part even had a large screening room of a quirky environmental film:

Also quirky was the art, illuminating various environmental topics, especially climate change:

A docent said that, sadly, this is almost certainly the only exhibit that will take place, as bids are currently being made by prospective restaurant operators. At least the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Area, itself called Lands End, will remain free and open to locals and visitors. These are just some of the highlights of a walk around the area:

The long abandoned Sutro Baths, on the beach just to the east of the Cliff House
Tunnel in the Sutro Baths
Tip of the Golden Gate Bridge emerges from the fog, as seen from the Lands End walk that runs about a mile east of the Cliff House
Rocks just offshore from the Cliff House

Ten Great and Good Pre-Beatles British Rock Records

British rock before the Beatles—before the October 5, 1962 release date of “Love Me Do,” if you want to be specific—is often dismissed as practically worthless. Certainly on the whole it was usually much wimpier than the British Invasion, and than the rock being produced since the early-to-mid-1950s in the music’s birthplace, the United States. In pre-Beatles times, it was also infrequently heard outside of the United Kingdom, with only one just-about-rock tune becoming sizable hit in the US.

British rock wasn’t entirely hopeless during this period, however, even if it lacked much of a distinct style, or innovations on par with what the Beatles and scores of other groups would boast from 1963 onward. This survey doesn’t try to make the argument that pre-Beatles British rock was rich with classics or abundantly populated with overlooked discs that demand rediscovery. It does, however, point out ten really good records that are worth hearing, as well as some honorable mentions of other fine songs by the artists that made this limited cut. It’s not a best-of list in order of quality, and is instead as chronologically ordered by release date as I can make it.

Cliff Richard, “Move It” (August 29, 1958). Some of the selections on this list will be pretty obscure, or at least little known to the general public. Some of them will be pretty famous, and often at least a little known even to many non-UK rock fans. This debut hit by Cliff Richard is one of the most famous ones, and though he’d go on to have dozens of big UK hits for the next few decades, it’s still his best record. Urgent, exciting, and tense, it also boasts a considerably advanced lean, penetrating electric guitar sound for its era, not only for the UK, but from anywhere. Richard does a pretty good Elvis-styled vocal, but its most memorable feature is its opening descending guitar riff. As a Liverpool teenager, Paul McCartney got so excited when he figured out how to play it after seeing Richard’s backup band the Shadows do it on TV that he immediately bicycled to John Lennon’s house to show him.

Honorable mention: “Apron Strings” (April 17, 1959). Originally a very obscure single by American singer Billy The Kid, this swaggering rockabilly number was a highlight of Richard’s first album. Although the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and some other top British Invasion groups are justly acclaimed for discovering and recording some very hard-to-get American songs, it’s interesting to note that some buried US discs were getting that treatment by British artists much earlier. Richard did a considerably better job on the tune than Billy The Kid, too. While he wasn’t a match for the best early American rock’n’roll and rockabilly singers, Richard did quite a few decent rockers in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with quite a few dreadful pop numbers and ballads), though many of them weren’t spotlighted as A-sides.

Vince Taylor, “Brand New Cadillac” (April 1959). Although Taylor was brimming with the right kind of rockabilly attitude, his vocal chops weren’t so hot. That didn’t stop him from singing with just as much zest as if he really were Gene Vincent, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Cochran, and such. While “Brand New Cadillac” might be an obvious choice considering it’s by far his most famous song (owing largely to a cover version by the Clash), it’s still his best effort, with an ominous guitar riff crossing rockabilly and spy music. The guitar was played by session musician Joe Moretti, more famous for his soloing on Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” (see listing below), who made an ace contribution here too. It’s also worth noting Taylor wrote the song, at a time when it was far less common for rock’n’rollers to pen their own material.

Honorable mention: “Jet Black Machine” (August 1960). Almost a follow-up of sorts in both theme and sound to “Brand New Cadillac,” this stop-start shaker became a British Top Twenty hit—Taylor’s only one. He’s most famous for being at least a partial inspiration for the Ziggy in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Also of note is that early Beatles associate Tony Sheridan plays guitar on his 1958 cover of Roy Orbison’s “I Like Love,” which rocks harder than and outdoes the original.

Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over” (June 1960). “Shakin’ All Over” is known the world over, but not necessarily by Kidd. It was a North American hit by Canadian group the Guess Who in the mid-1960s, and more famously, a mainstay of the live shows by the Who, who put it on their 1970 album Live at Leeds. Kidd’s original version was a #2 British hit, and a classic by the standard of any country, particularly owing to its skin-crawling guitar licks from Joe Moretti. It’s one of countless songs proving that although rock was in a somewhat fallow period at the beginning of the ’60s, there were plenty of tough energetic rockers. Like “Move It,” this too shows a very advanced guitar sound and tone for the period. It was the best cut by the best pre-Beatles British rock act, who were a substantial influence on the Who, though they never became known in the least in the US during their lifetime, in spite of quite a few other good records. The biggest shame for posterity is that no film footage of the band has made it into circulation, if any’s even preserved.

Honorable mention: “Please Don’t Touch” (May 1959). A frenetic debut also decorated with plenty of bolts of skittering guitar. There were some other really fine Kidd singles in the late 1950s and early 1960s too, most notably the edgy “Restless,” “Feelin’,” “Let’s Talk About Us,” and “Please Don’t Bring Me Down.”

The Shadows, “Apache” (July 8, 1960). The Shadows were easily the biggest pre-Beatles British rock group, and had hits almost everywhere in the world except the US. Why didn’t they make it in the US, with their twangy, moody, slightly country-influenced sound? Well, they mostly performed instrumentals, which didn’t hurt them at home. But that might have made it harder to crack the American market, where the Ventures were more successfully popularizing haunting guitar instrumentals with less of a country twang. “Apache” is their most popular hit, but still their best, sounding a bit like a rock’n’roll western theme. If you’re thinking “wasn’t this a hit in the US?,” you’re kind of right—it was a big hit, but not for the Shadows. Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann took it to  #2 in the US with a similar arrangement that added the sound of pinging arrows.

Honorable mention: “Man of Mystery” (November 4, 1960). The Shadows had lots of big British hits in the first half of the mid-1960s, and made a scary amount of records, not even counting the many on which they served as Cliff Richard’s backup band. A lot of them sound kind of the same, but not as good as “Apache.” “Man of Mystery” was their follow-up hit to “Apache,” and about as good as any of them, with the dark and mysterious vibe that kind of title demands.

Billy Fury, “A Wondrous Place” (September 2, 1960). Fury is rated very highly by some historians and fans, some of whom point to his 1960 ten-inch LP The Sound of Fury as the best British pre-Beatles recording. I’m not on board with this, finding that record rather mild rockabilly, much inferior to the original US variety generated by Sun Records and other labels. I’m not big on his hits either, and he had about twenty of them in the UK between 1959 and 1965 without making the slightest impression in the US. This 1960 song, however, is a nice moody rockaballad, and better than the more orchestrated, melodramatic original version by American pop-rock-soul singer Jimmy Jones (of “Handy Man” and “Good Timin'” fame). To spoil the party more, it’s not as good as the Merseybeatish version by the British band the Cherokees from early 1965, produced by Mickie Most, who had much more success with the Animals, Donovan, and Herman’s Hermits.

The Moontrekkers, “Night of the Vampire” (September 1961). Easily the least celebrated item in this Top Ten, though it did brush the bottom of the British charts. Like a good number of records produced by Joe Meek, this made the most of both horror movie imagery and exotic-for-the-time sound effects. Here they’re complemented by spidery guitar licks, a lumpy galloping beat bringing to mind monsters stalking graveyards, and flourishes of sweeping organ. Contrived? Sure. Fun? That too.

Screaming Lord Sutch, “‘Til The Following Night” (December 1961). Sutch couldn’t sing very well, but that didn’t keep him from becoming one of British rock’s great characters, and one of its most eccentric ones. Specializing in rock’n’horror, he took obvious cues from ghoulish American rocker Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but gave it his own goofy twist. This is a tour-de-force of graveyard special effects by producer Joe Meek, the most important pre-George Martin British rock producer. But Sutch’s bands could rock pretty hard, and his ’60s records included session guitar by future stars Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Like Vince Taylor, he had the genuine rock’n’roll spirit, if not the vocal chops and originality that could have vaulted him into true stardom.

Honorable mention: “Good Golly Miss Molly” (December 1961). No, the B-side of ‘Til the Following Night” won’t make anyone forget Little Richard’s original. But it’s a testament to how hard and manically his bands could rock, though the “horror” sides of his ’60s singles were generally far more effective than his covers of early rock classics.

The Springfields, “Allentown Jail” (February 1962). Originally recorded in 1951 by pop singer Jo Stafford, this is a pretty deep cut even for Springfields fans, appearing on their LP Kinda Folksy. Featuring a pre-solo stardom Dusty Springfield, this trio were more folk-pop than rock or even pop-rock. But if only for Springfield’s presence, there’s enough of a rock connection to place it on this list. An uptempo number with swirling violins alternating between Springfield solo and group vocals, it’s a full-bodied pop production with a pinch of rock, though the song tells a story in the manner of a folk ballad. 

At least two future folk-rock musicians were listening. According to Jerry Yester (then in the Modern Folk Quartet, which would move into folk-rock, and then in a later lineup of the Lovin’ Spoonful), he and Barry McGuire (then in the New Christy Minstrels) would “listen to that stuff, and it blew our minds. ’Cause we were still flat-out in folk music, and to hear this John Barry-[type] band behind the Springfields…we loved it.”

The Springfields had a few British hits, although “Island of Dreams” just misses the pre-Beatle cutoff as it came out in November 1962. Although it’s a bit corny in its blend of pop, folk, and country, it’s worth hearing for Springfield’s soaring solo vocal on the bridge, and is better heard on a less ornately arranged live TV clip from early 1963 that survives. The Springfields were also one of the few British acts to have a US hit before the Beatles, hitting #20 in 1962 with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which oddly did not chart in the UK. 

Jet Harris, “Main Title Theme (From The Man with the Golden Arm)”(August 10, 1962). Jet Harris had been the bassist in the Shadows, and in 1962 started to release records under his own name, sometimes paired with ex-Shadows drummer Tony Meehan. He coaxed a remarkably thick sound for the era from his bass, making it, very unusually, a lead instrument on a handful of instrumentals he issued, some of which were big British hits in 1962 and 1963. The first of these was this moody, cinematic piece, whose chirpy brass combine with Harris’s booming bass to make this similar to early James Bond themes. Although it just misses a cutoff date since it was recorded on October 20, 1962 and released April 1963, the brooding “The Man from Nowhere” is even better. Harris’s career was derailed by a bad car accident in September 1963, and though he was very briefly in an early lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, he never got back into front line of British rock.

The Tornados, “Telstar” (August 17, 1962). A question almost guaranteed to win you points at whatever trivia game you might play: who was the first British rock group to have a #1 hit in the US? The Beatles were the second. The first was the Tornados, though their hit is more well known than the band. Producer Joe Meek’s crowning achievement, this mesmerizing futuristic instrumental still sounds like science fiction rock, from its opening launch to the twinkling fadeout, highlighted by eerie electronic keyboards. Why didn’t the Tornados become bigger? They were a primarily instrumental act, soon to be overrun by vocal groups like the Beatles, and didn’t tour the US when they should have capitalized on their hit.

Honorable mention: “Ridin’ the Wind” (October 1962). This came out on EP the same month as “Love Me Do” and I don’t know if its release date predated the October 5 one for “Love Me Do,” but at any rate, it must have been recorded before “Love Me Do” came out. Another spooky sci-fi rocker, not as distinctive as “Telstar,” but striking just the same, with a bit of a surf music feel. It made #63 as a single in the US a few months later—the only other time the Tornados made the American Top 100, though they had a few other British hits and many other records.

HONORABLE MENTION:

The Packabeats, “The Traitors” (November 1962). Easily the rarest item on this list (though it’s been reissued), this Joe Meek-produced instrumental came out the month after “Love Me Do.” Kind of a collision of the Shadows and the Tornados, it has infectious twangy guitar riffs, some of the ghostly electric keyboard riffs that were trademarks of Meek’s productions, and a cinematic sweep. It’s as good as the big British instrumental rock hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and acts like the Shadows and Jet Harris kept scoring high on the charts with these kind of songs through 1963. But that whole style was about to be swept away by the huge wave of new British vocal groups, the Beatles leading the charge.

Fact-Checking Paul McCartney Lyrics Book

Paul McCartney: The Lyrics is a very good book. It’s much better than I expected, since most books of rock lyrics just print the lyrics with some illustrations of no great consequence. This two-volume, expensive-but-worth-it production has a lot of text featuring detailed recollections from McCartney himself about his songs. It also has a lot of illustrations, but they’re pretty interesting and often rare or previously unpublished. A full reprint of my review of the book from my previous post of my favorite rock books of 2021 is at the end of this post.

This post, however, is not another review of Paul McCartney: The Lyrics. It’s sort of a fact-check on some of its text. It’s a good book, but it’s not perfect.

To quote from my review: “There are a few, if not many, factual mistakes that I’m surprised made it through the editing process…There are many, many Beatles fans besides myself who could have spotted such errors, and the essence and primary points of the stories could have been retained if they’d been fixed. Was it unimportant to McCartney and the publisher to make the relatively modest effort necessary to catch those?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Paul misremembers some incidents, and particularly gets some order of what happened when wrong. Some of these things happened fifty to sixty years ago. What does surprise me is that the publisher—a big one, with a very prestigious project—apparently didn’t care enough to do the kind of fact-checking that might be considered routine if this was a book on a major political figure or movement, rather than a mere celebrity musician who did more to change the world than most politicians.

So no, they didn’t ask me or, it seems, others who could have caught mistakes to go over the text. Not that I’m so special; there are probably thousands of fans who could have done so, and will while they’re reading the book. But here are ones I caught, if anyone’s interested in treating these as sort of corrective footnotes.

On page 64: Remembering recording “Can’t Buy Me Love” in Paris in January 1964, Paul muses, “The irony here is that just before Paris, we’d been in Florida where, if not love, money certainly could buy you a lot of what you wanted.”

To those not steeped in the history of Beatles recording sessions, it might seem like the mistake is that the hit was recorded in Paris, not London, where they cut almost all of their records. However, “Can’t Buy Me Love” was indeed recorded in Paris on January 29, 1964, while the Beatles were playing shows in the city for almost three weeks.

The error is the first of several chronological ones in the book that might seem trivial to plenty of people, but are certainly mistakes. The Beatles hadn’t been in Florida before this session. In fact, only George Harrison had been to the United States, and he didn’t go to Florida during his trip there (mostly to see his sister in the Midwest) in late 1963.

The Beatles did go to Miami in mid-February 1964, only a couple weeks after recording “Can’t Buy Me Love,” for a short vacation after their famous initial American appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and concerts in Washington, DC and New York’s Carnegie Hall. They also performed the last of their three Sullivan spots this month in Miami.

It’s odd that McCartney switches the order of events that did happen very close to each other, but where one (their first US visit) was much more famous and important to the group’s career than the other (their visit to Paris). There might be literally millions of Beatles fans who’d spot this switcheroo, which just shows that followers of celebrities often know more about such details than the stars who actually experienced them.

On page 91: “My favorite electric guitar is my Epiphone Casino. I went into the guitar shop in Charing Cross Road in London and said to the guy, ‘Have you got a guitar that will feedback, because I’m loving what Jimi Hendrix is doing.’ I’m a big admirer of Jimi. I was so lucky to see him at one of his early gigs in London and it was just like the sky had burst…

“The guitar shop staff said, ‘This is probably the one that will feedback best, because it has a hollow body and they produce more volume than a solid body guitar.’ So I took it to the studio, and it had a Bigsby vibrato arm on it, so you could play with the feedback and control it, and it was perfect for that. It was a really good little guitar, a hot little guitar. So that became my favorite electric guitar, and I used it on the intro riff to ‘Paperback Writer’ and the solo in George’s song ‘Taxman,’ as well as quite a number of other pieces through the years. I still play it today. That Epiphone Casino has been a constant companion throughout my life.”

Cool, but McCartney wouldn’t have seen Hendrix until late September 1966 at the earliest, which is when Jimi moved from New York to London. Hendrix did some gigs right away before the Experience formed, but my guess is Paul didn’t see him until at least a little later than September. “Paperback Writer,” however, was recorded quite a bit earlier, on April 13 and 14, 1966, during the Revolver sessions. “Taxman” was recorded about a week later. Either he wouldn’t have seen (and almost certainly not heard of) Hendrix before he used that Epiphone Casino on those songs, or maybe there were later recordings where he used it with a Hendrix feel in mind.

Although it’s not a mistake, it’s interesting that Paul refers to using this “on the intro riff to ‘Paperback Writer.’” That seems to mean that McCartney, and not George Harrison, plays lead guitar on at least part of the song. (In late 2022, the notes to the superdeluxe edition of Revolver clarified that Paul “used an Epiphone Casino hollow-body electric guitar for the propulsive riffs of ‘Paperback Writer.'” Harrison, according to the notes, “doubled the guitar riffs that follow each of the choruses.”)

According to Andy Babiuk’s quite thorough and authoritative Beatles Gear (as well as the Revolver superdeluxe liner notes), Mcartney actually bought an Epiphone Casino guitar around December 1964, almost two years before Hendrix became known in London. Paul’s account from a July 1990 issue of Guitar Player might well be the more accurate one of how he was inspired to get the instrument, noting that British blues-rock great John Mayall “used to play me a lot of records late at night. He was a kind of DJ type guy. You’d go back to his place and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say just check this out. He’d go over to his deck, and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton…he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from. He gave me a little evening’s education in that. I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone.”

Page 105: “I’d say to the other guys, ‘Let’s use a library sound of an audience laughing when “the one and only Billy Shears” is introduced to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends”’.” This is fairly minor, but the sound of an audience laughing is heard after the first verse of the title track from Sgt. Pepper, much earlier in the song. Audience noise is heard at various points throughout the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” track, but after the line referring to Billy Shears near the end, it’s more general chatter and screaming, not laughter. Of course to be picky, maybe Paul originally suggested laughter here, but they ended up using different audience noise instead.

p. 179: A caption states “For No One” “was written in the Austrian Alps during the filming of Help! March 1965.” While this isn’t demonstrably untrue, the Beatles hadn’t even finished recording the Help! album at that point. It seems very unlikely they would have waited until Revolver to record it in 1966, not putting it on either Help! or the album they recorded in late 1965 between the two, Rubber Soul. Maybe Paul started writing it in March 1965 and it took a long time to complete, but that’s not what the caption or any other source states.

He seems to have mixed up his skiing trips, as according to Barry Miles’s 1997 book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, written with extensive input from McCartney, the song “was written in March 1966 when Paul and Jane were on their skiing holiday in Klosters, Switzerland.” In the same book McCartney confirms, “It was very nice and I remember writing ‘For No One’ there.”

Page 185: Discussing “From Me to You,” according to Paul, “We were on tour with Roy Orbison at the time we wrote this. We were all on the same tour bus, and it would stop somewhere so that people could go for a cup of tea and a meal, and John and I would have a cup of tea and then go back to the bus and write something. It was a special image to me, at 21, to be walking down the aisle of the bus and there on the back seat of the bus is Roy Orbison, in black with his dark glasses, working on his guitar, writing ‘Pretty Woman.’ There was a camaraderie, and we were inspiring each other, which is always a lovely thing. He played the music for us, and we said, ‘That’s a good one, Roy. Great.’ And then we’d say, ‘Well, listen to this one,’ and we’d play him ‘From Me to You.’ That was kind of a historic moment, as it turned out.”

Great, but the tour with Orbison took place in the UK between May 18 and June 9 of 1963. The Beatles recorded “From Me to You” on March 5, 1963, more than two months before the start of the tour. It’s back to Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now for a firmer date, as Barry Miles writes the song was composed “on 28 February 1963 in the tour bus traveling from York to Shrewsbury on the Helen Shapiro tour,” the Beatles’ first tour of the UK. 

Certainly it’s quite possible Lennon and McCartney played Orbison songs they were writing during that subsequent tour. They could well have played him “From Me to You,” considering it was not only already written and recorded, but also that it was #1 on the British charts the whole tour, and the Beatles were playing it in concert every night. When Paul discusses “From Me to You” in Many Years from Now, he adds, “After that [italics mine], on another tour bus with Roy Orbison, we saw Roy sitting in the back of the bus, writing ‘Pretty Woman.’” McCartney seems to have conflated writing “From Me to You” on one tour and seeing Orbison writing “Pretty Woman” on another tour a few months later.

Orbison, by the way, didn’t record “Oh, Pretty Woman” until August 1, 1964. It seems unlikely he would have sat on such a strong number for more than a year, though of course that’s impossible to prove, and maybe he was just starting to write it and it took a long time to complete.

p. 389: Here’s a mistake for which McCartney probably can’t be held accountable. A caption to a picture of Paul with Wilfrid Brambell, who played his grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, reads “With Wilfred Bramble.” The first sentence of the text for this entry (for the song “Junk”) spells Brambell’s first and last name right. Did anyone proofread that caption?

p. 639: Paul recalls the genesis of the title track for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and indeed the whole Sgt. Pepper concept, as follows: “I’d gone to the US to see Jane Asher, who was touring in a Shakespeare production and was in Denver. So I flew out to Denver to stay with her for a couple of days and take a little break. On the way back, I was with our roadie Mal Evans, and on the plane he said, ‘Will you pass the salt and pepper?’ I misheard him and said, ‘What? Sergeant Pepper?’”

McCartney visited Asher in Denver on her 21st birthday, which was in early April 1967. The last session for the Sgt. Pepper album was completed on April 3, although some remixing was done later that month. The first session for the Sgt. Pepper title track had taken place on February 1, by which time the song had certainly been written, and the concept probably starting to take hold. Other reliable sources have reported that Paul started to come up with the Magical Mystery Tour title song and film concept during the Denver trip, and maybe he mixed up the chronology of the conception of these two projects.

p. 639: Also in the entry for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” setting the context for how the album in part evolved from their retreat from live performances, Paul notes: “We had recently played Candlestick Park. That was a show where we couldn’t even hear ourselves; it was raining, we were nearly electrocuted and when we got off stage we were chucked into the back of a stainless steel minitruck. The minitruck was empty, and we were sliding round in it, and we all thought, ‘Fuck, that’s enough.'”

This was actually the Beatles’ last official concert, in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. It can be pretty chilly and foggy in San Francisco in the summer. Paul seems to notice this in a much-bootlegged tape of most of the show, announcing before the “Long Tall Sally” finale, “We’d like to say that it’s been wonderful being here in this wonderful sea air.” He also remarks “it’s a bit chilly” after “Yesterday.” As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly forty years, I can testify that it’s not rare for the summer fog to be so heavy it can almost seem like it’s drizzling.

But I can also testify that it rarely actually rains in San Francisco in the summer. And it wasn’t raining at Candlestick Park during this concert. I’m a bit hesitant to call this an outright mistake if Paul and the Beatles felt like it was raining. But no accounts of which I’m aware, and there are quite a few, of the concert report that the Beatles were in danger of being electrocuted. There are, for instance, quite a few in Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles’ Last Tour, by Barry Tashian, leader of the fine Boston group the Remains, who were a support act on the Candlestick bill. These include Tashian’s own memories, eyewitness reports from fans, and reprints of 1966 reviews of the concert in the San Francisco Examiner and TeenSet. None of them mention rain (although Tashian does recall that “on stage, a wild sea wind was blowing in every direction”), let alone danger of electrocution.

I believe Paul was actually thinking of a concert from just a few days earlier in Cincinnati. The Beatles were scheduled to play at Crosley Field on August 20, 1966, but the concert was canceled two hours after its scheduled 8:30 start time due to rain. The Beatles indeed feared they’d be electrocuted if they went on, George Harrison remembering in The Beatles Anthology, “It was so wet that we couldn’t play. They’d brought in the electricity, but the stage was soaking and we could have been electrocuted, so we canceled—the only gig we ever missed.”

In the 1972 book Apple to the Core attorney Nat Weiss, who worked on the Beatles’ business affairs in the US, remembered that McCartney in particular was upset by the incident: “We’d just been through a very bad experience in Cincinnati. The promoter had been trying to save himself a few cents by not putting a roof over the stage. It started to rain and the Beatles couldn’t go on because they would have been in danger of electrocution. They had to turn away 35,000 screaming kids, who were all given passes for a concert the next day. The strain had been obviously too much for Paul. When I got back to the hotel, Paul was already there. He was throwing up with all this tension.” (The Beatles did play in Crosley Field the following day, when the weather was clear.)

That would explain how that incident would be specifically cited when McCartney remembered how and why the Beatles decided to stop touring. But it seems very doubtful the near-electrocution he’s referring to took place in Candlestick Park. For that matter, the sliding around in a stainless steel minitruck might well have happened in Cincinnati rather than San Francisco, since Paul places this mishap after a show where “it rained quite heavily” in The Beatles Anthology.

It’s a little odd, though it’s not a mistake, that Paul doesn’t note the Candlestick Park concert was their final official gig, as it’s been cited as such in many, many historical accounts. He certainly must know it was, as he made a point of doing the last official concert held in Candlestick Park in 2014 before it was demolished, as a sort of homage to the Beatles having played their final show there.

p. 721: In the entry for “Too Many People,” the song that John Lennon interpreted as a jab at him and spurred his famous response “How Do You Sleep?,” Paul gives this account of one of the factors leading to the Beatles’ breakup and subsequent ill feelings between the pair: “The whole story in a nutshell is that we were having a meeting in 1969, and John showed up and said he’d met this guy Allen Klein, who had promised Yoko an exhibition in Syracuse, and then matter-of-factly John told us he was leaving the band. That’s basically how it happened.”

Not exactly, or at the least this drastically condenses the timeline of what occurred. As the recent Get Back documentary makes clear, John and Yoko had their first significant meeting with Klein in late January of 1969, near the end of the January 1969 recording sessions and filming that eventually produced the Let It Be LP and film. (The date of both January 26 and January 27 have been given for the meeting, though judging from the film and the companion book of dialogue from the sessions, January 27 seems more likely.) According to the Get Back documentary, the Beatles as a group had their first meeting with Klein on January 28, very shortly afterward.

It’s not too important whether or not the Beatles managed to first have a group meeting without Klein where “John showed up and said he’d met this guy Allen Klein.” Certainly, however, McCartney knew about Lennon’s interest in having Klein as the Beatles’ manager by January 28 at the latest. Certainly John wouldn’t have “told us he was leaving the band” at that meeting. He played in the Beatles’ last concert on the roof of Apple a couple days later, for crying out loud.

The meeting at which John said he was leaving the band is usually reported as having taken place in September 1969, not long after he’d done a concert in Toronto without the Beatles (on September 13) as part of the Plastic Ono Band. That’s almost eight months after the group meeting with Klein in late January, and they’d recorded all of Abbey Road in the interim. For what it’s worth, Lennon didn’t officially leave the band after that September announcement, at least publicly. The Beatles are usually considered to have split on April 10, 1970, when Paul’s intention to leave became public.

Also for what it’s worth, Yoko’s Syracuse exhibition didn’t take place until October 1971. It seems very improbable that Klein would have promised Yoko a Syracuse exhibition at their first or one of their first meetings, which took place back in late January 1969. Paul’s account makes it look like the first time John told him and the Beatles about Klein, he told them Klein had promised Yoko the exhibition. 

Most of the mistakes noted in this post are apparent jumbles of chronology, understandable to a degree of events that happened more than fifty years ago, and not ones that are going to seriously disturb most readers or Beatles fans. This one, however, might be the most egregious error, significantly distorting the roles Klein and Lennon played in the Beatles’ breakup.

p. 847: Reinforcing the inaccurate chronology of the previous item, in the entry for “You Never Give Me Your Money,” Paul reports that “it was early 1969, and the Beatles were already beginning to break up. John had said he was leaving, and Allen Klein told us not to tell anyone, as he was in the middle of doing deals with Capitol Records. So, for a few months we had to keep mum. We were living a lie, knowing that John had left the group.”

Almost all of this is true, pretty much, though the split wouldn’t be final until spring 1970. Except that this wasn’t early 1969. It was September 1969 when John announced he was leaving, and Allen Klein convinced him (and, perhaps, the rest of the Beatles) not to tell anyone, since he was making a new deal for the group. Paul’s off by about half a year, and that’s not a trivial inaccuracy, since the Beatles would record Abbey Road during that time.

Do ten errors (and maybe I missed some others might have caught) over the course of 875 or so pages make for a substandard volume? No, of course not, though I think they’re noteworthy enough to be cited in case no one else does. It doesn’t seriously impair the overall high value of the book, my full review following below, as promised.

Paul McCartney: The Lyrics, by Paul McCartney, edited with an introduction by Paul Muldoon (Liveright). The most well known book, perhaps by far, on this list, as it was a #1 New York Times best-seller. Just because it was commercially successful, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t good—kind of like the Beatles themselves. Crucially, it’s not just a book that prints the lyrics with some illustrations, though the lyrics of 154 of the songs he wrote or co-wrote are here, and there are lots of graphics. There’s also a lot of text in which McCartney discusses composing the specific tunes, often throwing in a lot of observations about influences, inspirational incidents and people and his life, and life in general. Most of the really well known songs he wrote (with the odd exception like “Hello Goodbye” and “Magical Mystery Tour”) are included, and there are some really obscure ones from both the Beatles days and his solo career, even reaching back to a late-‘50s number (“Tell Me Who He Is”) that was never released, and for which McCartney doesn’t remember the tune.

While some of these stories have been told a fair amount (and a few are even repeated with variations in the text), the commentary’s almost unflaggingly absorbing and entertaining, both for the information and the lively, witty way McCartney tells it. While I’m not overall interested in much of his post-early-‘70s solo career, even the notes on those are usually worth reading, as they usually have noteworthy stories and perspectives not specifically related to the songs themselves—quite a few of which from the previous decades, I admit, I’m not familiar with. Here’s one of the better examples of his wisdom, in discussing a character in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—“She found a ladder lying outside my house in London. As far as I recall, she stole a picture of my cotton salesman dad. Or robbed me of it. But I got the song in return.”

This doesn’t nab the #1 spot on my list since it does spotlight a good number of songs from a period of his career that doesn’t interest me (even if, as previously noted, the stories accompanying those usually do). A few (not many) notable Beatles songs in which he was the main writer—“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Looking Through You” are a few others—are missing. And there are a few, if not many, factual mistakes that I’m surprised made it through the editing process. For instance, Paul remembers getting the title for “Sgt. Pepper” from a remark Mal Evans made on a plane ride back from visiting Jane Asher on her 21st birthday in Denver, although that was in early April 1967, and the song “Sgt. Pepper” had largely been recorded on February 1. There are many, many Beatles fans besides myself who could have spotted such errors, and the essence and primary points of the stories could have been retained if they’d been fixed. Was it unimportant to McCartney and the publisher to make the relatively modest effort necessary to catch those?

To get back to the book’s substantial pluses, the photos and illustrations are really good, and sometimes rare and unseen (though the absence of captions on some is frustrating). Besides pictures dating back to his childhood, there are plenty of McCartney’s handwritten lyrics, drawings, and letters. Most interesting to me of all were a few very early Beatles setlists, from around the late 1950s and early 1960s, listing some songs they haven’t been documenting as performing. And yes, this is an expensive (though not massively so) book, but it’s worth owning.

Thanksgiving in Porto

Portugal’s a small country, and if people can name one of its cities, it’s almost always bound to be its biggest, Lisbon. The second biggest city in Portugal, Porto, isn’t actually that much smaller than Lisbon, with a population of about 1.7 million in its metropolitan area. I visited Portugal (just Lisbon and the beach town of Sagres) about thirty years ago, but admit I gave little thought to Porto then or since.

The Duoro River in Porto, Portugal.

That changed in November 2021, when I unexpectedly visited the city for a few days after an equally unexpected invitation to give a presentation on the Velvet Underground at the Porto Pop Festival. I hadn’t been out of Northern California for three years, though I love to travel internationally, and hadn’t been on a plane in all of that time either. Yet here I was in Porto over Thanksgiving weekend, knowing little about it beforehand, though I got to see a lot in my regrettably short four days there.

Poster for the Porto Pop festival, hoped to be the first of many

Porto isn’t just any old second city. Its core, as its looks-like-it-was-written-by-a-publicist Wikipedia entry quickly informs you, was proclaimed a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996, and those designations aren’t just given out to any location with a lot of history. On the Atlantic coast, the magnificent Duoro River runs right through the heart of town. I’m not an architecture expert or aficionado, but the old buildings both stately and humble, narrow pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial streets, and waterside views are enough to keep you entertained for several hours of walking. Should you be in decent shape, it should be added, since a lot of the streets and hills are steep.

Narrow street leading to the north side of the Duoro River, with the Louis I bridge in the background.
The Luis I bridge, as seen from the path along the river’s north side.

What of Porto’s modern culture? While what I could take in was limited by both my short stay and my need to be present at three nights of Porto Pop events, the city’s keen to put itself on both the international arts map and establish itself as a major tourist destination. There are hip esoteric record stores, if that’s your thing, as well as a wealth of restaurants, and while its native cuisine isn’t so vegetarian-heavy, there are plenty of places for vegetarians like myself to find something.

Oddities I picked up in Porto record stores: reissue of rare 1964 EP by British group the Clique, and a nearly ten-year-old esoteric fanzine

English is spoken fairly widely, or certainly by enough people to manage if you don’t speak Portuguese. Porto’s people are friendly, and the population already 90% vaccinated by the time of my visit, with most people still wearing masks outdoors as well as indoors. The calm atmosphere made for a welcome if temporary change from the US, where every day has seemed like Armageddon for the past five years or so.

In the center of Porto, near the biggest train station.

The standout cultural attraction has to be the Fundacao de Serrvalves contemporary art museum, though you have to take a 45-minute bus ride from the city center to reach it. The pretty huge space stages major exhibitions, but that’s not even the primary reason to visit. Its massive sculpture park — it’s way too big to call a garden — has a dozen equally large-scale impressive modern sculptures, Claes Oldenburg being the biggest name represented. Sculptures aside, it takes a good one or two hours to take in the multi-level park itself, highlighted by an elevated “treetop walk.”

Claes Oldenburg “Plantoir” sculpture in Serralves park
Sky Mirror sculpture in Serralves park
Maman spider sculpture in Serralves Park
Treetop walk in Serralves park

On the way back, the multi-floor Portuguese Centre of Photography is a worthwhile stop right on the bus route, and not just for its impressive exhibitions of pictures and photographic equipment. Unusually, it’s housed in a former prison:

Interior view in the ex-prison housing the photography museum.
Some of the museum’s ancient equipment.

This was, incidentally, the first of what’s hoped to be an annual Porto Pop festival. Unusually, these exclusively featured presentations by authors of rock music books. Here are a couple of the other authors at the event, which was entirely conducted in English:

Don Letts being interviewed about his memoir There and Black Again
Longtime British music critic and author Vivien Goldman (although she’s now been based in New York for many years)
John Cale on screen during part of my Velvet Underground presentation

I didn’t get to see everything I would have liked in Porto, missing one of its most-hyped sites, the Lello Bookstore (famed for its unusual and unusually large interior architecture). I’ll also want to check out the large Agramonte Cemetery if I’m able to make it back, though at least I got to check out a much smaller one about halfway between my hotel and the festival:

Odd gravesites in Porto.


Porto, with the Luis I bridge in the foreground. Only streetcars and pedestrians are permitted on the bridge.


Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.