Top 25 Rock Reissues of 2018

There was an avalanche of reissues in 2018, even if your interest, like mine, is mostly confined to pre-1975 rock, and mostly to the 1960s within that era. The sheer quantity of releases isn’t much different than it’s been in the past few years, but there are a couple of small trends worth noting.

My pick for the #1 reissue of 2018.

My pick for the #1 reissue of 2018.

One is the growing presence of expanded editions, sometimes radically so, of classic albums (or even albums that never sold much or got much critical attention). In part that’s because 2018 saw the 50th anniversary of several iconic LPs from 1968, which gave the excuse for expanded editions of Electric Ladyland, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Beggars Banquet (which wasn’t so expanded, actually), and most notably The White Album.

But even some records that didn’t have round-number anniversaries, like John Lennon’s Imagine and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (neither of which made my list), got large multi-disc sets with elaborate liner notes and packaging. So did one that was allegedly one of the lowest-selling LPs in the history of Columbia Records (Skip Spence’s Oar).

As to why this is happening, maybe that’s the subject for a future post of its own. Figuring out what’s going on isn’t rocket science, though. The industry’s running lower and lower on vault product to re-release, so there isn’t much alternative to going deeper into those vaults to put out unreleased stuff that might have been considered too financially risky or uncommercial even a few years ago. And artists who were more resistant than, say, Dylan or Frank Zappa to opening their vaults—like the Beatles—are, a bit belatedly, realizing the commercial benefits of such archival digs.

Just as importantly, they seem to be realizing that all these outtakes don’t dilute their legacies. Quite the contrary—they enhance them, and are widely appreciated, with intelligence, by fans who can distinguish between the final album and working/early versions never initially intended for public consumption.

Sometimes those expanded editions do seem like an excuse to market something without much actual benefit to the consumers. Beggars Banquet, unlike all of the other 2018 editions cited above, offered little in the way of extras, other than an original mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil” and a flexidisc with an interview Mick Jagger gave to a Tokyo journalist in April 1968. As Rolling Stones fans know, there are numerous outtakes from the Beggars Banquet era that could have been used for a multi-disc set on par with the more elaborate 50th anniversary editions that did make my list. Don’t rule out this actually happening in the future, say for the 60th anniversary of Beggars Banquet, though by that time many of the listeners who bought the LP on its initial release won’t even be around anymore.

The other small trend? Record Store Day releases are putting a greater accent on material that hasn’t been previously available anywhere, and may not be available anywhere else in the future. Because so much RSD product is devoted to vinyl editions of recordings that have been in circulation for a long time, buyers like myself don’t particularly care about repurchasing what they already own, even if it’s in different formats or glossy packaging. So we haven’t gotten as excited about it as many fellow collectors and store employees might expect.

This spring, however, marked the first RSD when I really did want to make sure to get some of these limited releases as they marked the first and perhaps only time you could buy the material. A  few of them made this list. There weren’t as many such items on RSD’s fall list, and I didn’t even buy any of those. But the bigger Record Store Day has always been in the spring, so we’ll see if this happens again in 2019.

Regardless of industry intentions, there were enough reissues—or, to be precise, releases with archival material, often as compilations or first-time appearances of previously unissued recordings—to fill a Top 25 list. My #1 pick shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me well or has followed my writing. #2 and #3, however, might, as one falls well outside the era that’s my main concentration, and the other is by perhaps the most obscure artist on this list.

1. The Beatles, The White Album (aka The Beatles) seven-disc deluxe version. This might have been the most hyped reissue of 2018, in a year that saw several other high-profile super-deluxe editions (some of which are reviewed elsewhere in this post). Like the Beatles themselves, this was worthy of the enormous hype it was given. The remix by Giles Martin got the most attention, but the four discs of previously unreleased bonus material are far more noteworthy, as three of them contain studio outtakes that for the most part hadn’t even been bootlegged. The fourth features perhaps the most significant previously unissued body of material the group ever taped—quite a milestone, considering the enormous quantity of unreleased music they recorded while active.

My pick for the #1 reissue of 2018.

Detailed commentary on this deluxe edition could fill up a lengthy post of its own. (Commercial: I’ve incorporated much commentary on the previously uncirculating studio outtakes into the ebook version of my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film). Here I’m not going to analyze the remix, as I’m not as excited by or interested in such things as many listeners are.

The so-called Esher Demos on disc three are really what make this deluxe edition a vital project. These are the 27 tracks the Beatles recorded at George Harrison’s home in May 1968 shortly before starting to work on The White Album in the studio. These showcase the group “unplugged” before that term was coined, playing acoustically but as a joyous ensemble, despite the tensions already at work that would lead to their breakup. Most of the tracks are early versions of White Album songs that are sometimes quite different in their folky, looser, more carefree manner (the campfire singalong version of “Revolution” being the top example). There are some songs that didn’t make The White Album, too, though they’d mostly show up on post-Beatles solo projects.

The execution’s a bit ragged sometimes and the sound imperfect (though improved from the bootlegs on which they’ve long been available, just seven of them having been released on Anthology 3). But these working versions are largely complete or almost-complete, and make for a superb listening experience on their own, whether as part of this huge box or not. Note, by the way, that the version of George Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea” (not previously available on a Beatles record, although it was given to fellow Apple artist Jackie Lomax) is a slightly different take than the one that’s been bootlegged. That means there are actually 28 known Esher demos, and it makes you wonder whether there are other alternative versions that haven’t yet circulated.

The three CDs of studio outtakes can, to be frank, be a bit underwhelming in the company of the finished record and the Esher Demos. Usually they’re clearly works in progress. Sometimes they’re just backing tracks; sometimes the songs are unfinished run-throughs; sometimes the arrangements aren’t a whole lot different from the familiar versions; sometimes they’re distinctly inferior to the finished product (like the plod through an early twelve-minute version of “Helter Skelter”). But sometimes they’re pretty different, like the harder-rocking “Cry Baby Cry,” the quite frisky “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” and a superb “take 17” of “Helter Skelter” (using the rearrangement heard on the LP version) with a wildly exuberant McCartney vocal. The outtakes are certainly worth hearing, but like the bonus material on several of the other expanded editions reviewed in this post, usually more valuable for history than sheer entertainment.

The Beatles seem to have finally caught on to the potential of expanded CD editions, and not only with the abundance of rare extras. The book-length liner notes are extremely informative and perceptive, with lots of cool photos and memorabilia. Yes, the package is expensive – probably too expensive, considering almost everyone who buys it will already have the two core White Album discs, sometimes in a few formats. Is it nonetheless essential? The answer to that’s yes too.

2. Liz Phair, Girly Sound to Guyville (Matador). From the time of its release in 1993, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was justly hailed as one of the finest albums of its era. At the time, it seemed like she’d emerged from nowhere. She had, however, made quite a few lo-fi solo recordings, circulated on cassettes known as the Girly-Sound tapes, that had helped pave the way for fuller studio recordings and a deal with Matador Records. Not long after Exile in Guyville, these tapes started to circulate to a much wider audience, also getting bootlegged. Eventually some were released on the 1995 Juvenilia EP and as bonus tracks on 2010’s Funstyle, though the majority remained officially unavailable.

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The three-CD 25th anniversary edition of Exile in Guyville, going by the title Girly Sound to Guyville, finally makes all but two of the forty songs from the original three Girly-Sound tapes widely accessible in one place. While disc one of this set is wholly devoted to the original Exile in Guyville album, the other two CDs present the Girly-Sound material in its near-entirety. These aren’t just extras of interest to dedicated fans. They are among the most notable bodies of unreleased work cut by any significant artist, and not only because of their considerable historical importance. They’re also outstanding songs and performances, some of which have not found a place in any version on any other Phair release.

For those who haven’t heard yet any of the Girly-Sound tunes, it should be clarified that they don’t exactly equate to an early version of her debut album. Just seven of the songs would show up in re-recorded (and sometimes substantially reworked and retitled), full-band renditions for Exile in Guyville. Some of the others would show up (again, sometimes in retitled and substantially reworked guises) on future Phair releases, such as “Whip Smart,” later used as the title track of her second album (and far superior in its earlier incarnation). Quite a few are unique to the Girly-Sound tapes, and quite a few of those compositions are very good. Even the relative throwaways are pretty interesting and entertaining.

After listening to hissy tapes and bootlegs of the material for quite a few years, it’s a pleasant shock to hear these tracks in very clear, clean fidelity. Although the cassettes were sometimes labeled lo-fi, that has more to do with the basic nature of the recordings—done on a four-track in her bedroom—than the actual clarity of the performances, at least in this sonically cleaned-up version.

Accompanied by nothing but her lightly amplified guitar—sometimes so light it sounds as if she’s not trying to play too loudly or disturb her parents (and the recordings were indeed in her childhood bedroom)—there’s an intimacy that rarely survives into a more polished studio setting. But the compositions are complete, and the singing and playing fully thought out. If there’s a tentative lilt to the proceedings throughout, that adds a fetching vulnerability that likewise didn’t come through nearly as strongly on Exile in Guyville, as fine as that album was in different respects.

But what’s most striking about the material is the songwriting, with a conversational flavor that puts into lyrics what many of us think, but don’t actually express in conversation. Certainly we’re usually not bold enough to state matters as nakedly, and sometimes confrontationally, as Phair does in song here. That wouldn’t mean so much if she didn’t have a gift for engaging melodies that often stretch and shift in unpredictable directions (and often alternate uplifting and melancholy sections) over the course of a song, without sounding contrived or done for clever effect. If Phair doesn’t have the vocal chops of a Joni Mitchell (though “Polyester Bride” has some zigzagging swoops that would do her proud), she has a yearning, unapologetic honesty that’s just as effective.

“Johnny Sunshine,” the X-rated “Flower,” “Fuck and Run,” and “Stratford-on-Guy” (here titled “Bomb”) were all highlights of Exile in Guyville, and it’s cool to hear more basic solo versions. Yet more interesting, however, are numerous otherwise unavailable songs that are on par with anything from Phair’s official discography. In particular, the harrowing “Open Season,” whose apparent depiction of a rape scenario unexpectedly glides into a blissful bittersweet rumination, is not just a match for anything else in her catalog, but a successfully unusual and daring composition by anyone’s standards.

It’s a mystery as to why Phair hasn’t revisited the soaringly melodic “Hello Sailor,” which like another highlight, “GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS” [sic], showcases her gift for very long songs that sustain their interest over quite a few lyrics. “In Love w/ Yself” [sic], another standout, has a rousing anthemic chorus for such a vengeful composition, which like others of Phair’s spells out intimate details of a relationship in unnervingly cinema verité fashion.

Some of the lighter numbers verge on novelty, at least in their subject matter. There are tunes about powering up the “Batmobile,” going to a rodeo town to fuck some cows in “South Dakota,” or parodying the Presley cult (“Elvis Song”) with such bitter viciousness that Graceland would likely bar her from entering if they ever heard it. She also borrows blatantly from some standards for parts of the melodies to “White Babies” (from “My Bonnie”), “Chopsticks,” and her off-kilter mutation of “Wild-Thing” (hyphen included). Even these semi-toss-offs have their charm, though it’s the more serious—sometimes much more, even gravely, serious—efforts that carry the most weight.

Even the most exemplary expanded editions usually don’t quite catch everything, and Girly Sound to Guyville is no exception. Two songs from the original cassettes, “Fuck or Die” (an entirely different song, should you need to ask, than “Fuck and Run”) and “Shatter,” are missing. “Fuck or Die” is a really cool galloping workout, but part of it’s very similar to Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” and as Phair confirmed on Twitter, “those lyrics—understandably!—didn’t sit well with the Johnny Cash org.” So that prevented clearance for release.

Similarly, the earlier version of “Shatter” (re-recorded for Exile in Guyville) couldn’t be used as the backup singing on the Girly-Sound version quotes too liberally from the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered.” A pity, as it’s a good track that’s substantially different in its earlier arrangement, especially in the overlapping vocals.

And yeah, this deluxe edition also features the actual Exile in Guyville album. As good as that is, after immersing yourself in the Girly-Sound tapes, it sounds rather slick in comparison (though it was a pretty straightforward production, and certainly not glossy). As that record’s been very familiar for the last quarter century, it’s not likely to be the disc most played in this collection, as most of its purchasers will probably have spun it a great deal in years past. But even if it’s not the main concentration of this review, it is a classic album, and one in which Phair triumphantly executed the difficult task of taking her vision from solo bedroom recordings to full-band studio arrangements.

And other than the regrettable exclusion of those two Girly-Sound tracks, Girly-Sound to Guyville is an ideal deluxe edition. The fairly fat booklet features extensive interview material with Phair, Exile in Guyville producer/bassist/drummer Brad Wood, Casey Rice (who also plays on Exile in Guyville), and some more obscure figures who helped build awareness of Phair’s work. As Matador was taking enough of a chance putting out a 18-song, 55-minute debut by an unknown artist, it’s understandable that many of her early songs didn’t make the cut for her official debut release. But it does make you sorry that Exile in Guyville wasn’t a double album, or even a triple. The extra songs are that good.

It was a close call as to whether this or The White Album would make #1 on my list. Although The White Album is undeniably of greater historical importance, the bonus material on Girly Sound to Guyville is of undeniably more consistently high quality. Indeed, it’s of higher quality than the extras on almost any other expanded edition of an album, whether from 2018 or anytime else. The immense stature of The White Album was ultimately the tipping point in giving it the nod. But Exile in Guyville was a hugely important album too, and finishing second to the Beatles’ impossibly high bar is no cause for embarrassment.

3. Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, Paix (Anthology). Reading about something as “hard to describe” or “unlike anything else” is usually a ticket to disappointment when you’re reading reissue reviews. Often the records are nothing of the sort, whether because they’re derivative or just not that good. This 1972 French album, however, really is unusual, and in a good way, not just a weird way. You know you’re in for something off-the-wall when Ribeiro wordlessly la-las her way through the opening track like a punch-drunk Kerrilee Male (from the late-’60s UK-based folk-rock band Eclection; look ‘em up). Ribeiro more often speaks-chants with an urgent coarseness, though she has a wide vocal range that can vary from Nico-low to stratospheric eerie highs.

Ribiero

More interesting than her singing (which is still oft-thrilling), however, is the music, which after a couple moderate-length cuts gives way to two epics (one nearly 16 minutes, the other nearly 25). While it’s somewhat in the psych-prog mode, there’s an almost spiritual intensity to the blends of churchy organ swirls, loping bass, and almost trance-like ensemble buildups. The mood is often ominous and gothic, yet exhilarating, like a soundtrack to some sort of transcendental journey. It’s not easily comparable to other rock from 1972, and better than her other albums of the late 1960s and early-to-mid-1970s, which are generally more avant-garde and less accessibly high-spirited.

Every other record on this list is “archival” in nature, whether it’s an expanded version of a classic album; previously unreleased live or studio material; or a compilation, whether a box set, best-of, or some other assembly of cuts from various sources. It’s rare these days, and has been rare for quite a few years, that I come across a vintage album I haven’t heard that really excites me. Paix, which I found only because I was house-sitting at a friend’s, is one such record (reissued on vinyl only by Anthology, by the way, though it marks the first time it’s been issued by a US label). That’s almost as much of a thrill as the record itself.

4. The Who, The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968 (Universal). Even in the numerous unofficial 1960s Who live recordings that have circulated for decades, nothing’s emerged with decent fidelity from before April 5, 1968, when they played the first of two dates at the Fillmore East. This two-CD set marks the first official release of material from the April 6 show.

Who

Especially for those unfamiliar with the tracks that have previously been bootlegged from the April 5 and April 6 concerts, the set will come as something of a surprise. Some of the songs are concise, faithful performances of the early hits that made them stars in their native UK and a burgeoning cult act in the US, including “I Can’t Explain,” “I’m a Boy,” and their first substantial American hit, “Happy Jack.” There are also a couple favorites from their second LP: the mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away” and “Boris the Spider,” probably the most beloved John Entwistle composition.

Yet there are also a good number of classic rock covers the group hadn’t yet put on their records, and sometimes never would on their discs. It’s not too unusual to hear “Shakin’ All Over” (which wanders into a riff from the Spencer Davis Group smash “I’m a Man” at one point) and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” both of which would feature on Live at Leeds, recorded just under a couple years later. Less expected are two other Cochran tunes, “C’Mon Everybody” and the far more obscure “My Way” (so obscure, indeed, that it was mistitled “Easy Going Guy” on early bootlegs).

They also tackle “Fortune Teller,” the Allen Toussaint-penned early-’60s New Orleans R&B classic (recorded in 1963 by fellow UK bands the Rolling Stones and the Merseybeats), disclosed in Pete Townshend’s introduction to have been played for the first time at these shows. And it shows—though it’s a heavier arrangement than the Stones’, the harmonies audibly falter at the end of the first verse. There’s also the off-the-wall “Little Billy,” commissioned as an anti-smoking commercial by the American Cancer Society, that Townshend announces as a possible upcoming single, though it’s hard to see it getting issued in the wake of their recent breakthrough US Top Ten hit “I Can See for Miles” (not played at this show, oddly enough). It didn’t appear on a single, or at all until 1974’s Odds & Sods collection.

Most adventurous of all are two songs stretched out way beyond the length of their studio versions. “Relax,” a quasi-psychedelic highlight of late 1967’s classic LP The Who Sell Out, is drawn out to a full eleven minutes, with some extended way-out wobbly Townshend guitar soloing, the riff from Tommy’s “Underture” surfacing at one point. Not music to “Relax” to by any means, it’s intense improvisation, with Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon rocking louder and harder than any other trios of the day, rivaled only by Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience in those departments.

A 33-minute “My Generation”—you read that right, 33 minutes, not three minutes—takes up all of CD two. It’s arguably too long, especially if you thought the 14-minute one on Live at Leeds was enough. It’s certainly different, though, and a signpost to where the Who were going in their onstage act, which would get harder, louder, and longer as the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s. Also different, though not much longer, is “A Quick One,” which inserts the lyric “you are forgiven by the very act of creation” in its finale.

For those familiar with the bootleg from an acetate that Who manager/producer Kit Lambert made of performances from the Fillmore East shows, some of this new release—plainly titled The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968—will overlap with what they already have, though the fidelity’s better. And the absence of the April 5 cuts that did make it onto the acetate means you don’t have to throw away that boot yet, though the April 6 versions are similar. In all, however, it’s a fine and worthy document of the Who as they made inroads into the United States, and moved away from their power pop base to a heavier, more spontaneous approach, onstage at any rate. (A much longer review of this release, including comments from my interview about it with longtime Who sound engineer Bob Pridden (who mixed the release and was already working as the band’s soundman at the actual Fillmore East shows), appears in this issue of Record Collector News.)

5. Pete Townshend, Who Came First 45th Anniversary Expanded Edition (Universal). Who Came First gave Pete the chance to present rather gentler, more introspective tunes than he usually penned for the Who, and to be the only (as opposed to the occasional) lead singer in his thin, high, wavering, yet engagingly heartfelt voice. Universal’s two-CD expanded edition puts a remastered version of the album on the first disc, and seventeen bonus tracks, some previously unreleased, on the second. Such is the quality of the original LP that this would rank higher on this list had this been the first CD release of the record. It’s not, however—and not even the first (or second) time it’s come out with bonus tracks—and so has to be judged on a reissue best-of primarily for what it offers that hasn’t been previously available.

Townshend

And there’s not all that much in that department. The first seven songs all appeared as bonus cuts on Hip-O’s 2006 extended edition, six of them taken from privately pressed 1970s various-artist LPs primarily circulated within the Meher Baba community (though these were naturally quickly bootlegged). Although sometimes more primitively produced than the Who Came First tracks, these were generally in the same league and of the same vibe, highlighted by Townshend’s solo version of the Who hit “The Seeker”; the languid, melancholy “Day of Silence,” which easily measured up to the best of Who Came First; “Mary Jane,” a country-flavored hoedown not far in tone from Ronnie Lane’s similar efforts of the same era; and a left-field, but quite good, version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” (chosen as it was one of Meher Baba’s favorite songs). A wholly instrumental, synthesizer-dominated version of “Baba O’Reilly”—again taken from one of the limited-press Meher Baba LPs—is a welcome presence here, especially as it hasn’t been used as a bonus cut on previous Who Came First CDs, though the bluesy outtake “I Always Say” is pedestrian.

That leaves nine previously unreleased tracks, and while those are the main attractions for Who/Townshend completists, they’re also not as interesting as the other extras. “The Love Man,” a nice slice of assertive romanticism, is puzzlingly subtitled “Stage C,” and not too different from the version used as a bonus cut on previous expanded editions; a variation on “Content” subtitled “Stage A” has a plainer arrangement than the LP version, and suffers from its sparseness. There’s also a ghostly, largely instrumental version of “Day of Silence” that doesn’t measure up to the one that made the cut. An alternate of “Parvardigar” is missing the synthesizer doodlings and percussion that punctuate the Who Came First track, sounding more intimate and low-key, if less creatively adorned. And there’s an incomplete solo acoustic take (still lasting four minutes) of “Nothing Is Everything,” aka “Let’s See Action.”

Disc two closes with four songs that haven’t previously been attached to Who Came First editions in any form, though a couple don’t really belong here. On the plus side, we finally get to hear the pleasing, if non-earthshaking, wistful midtempo folk-rocker “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills”—described in the May 14, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone as a “slow wailing country song” earmarked for the Who’s next studio LP, though this is the first time it’s circulated in any guise. The instrumental “Meher Baba” in Italy is a likewise pleasant-but-minor instrumental combining synthesizer washes with guitar, which sometimes simulates mandolin-like patterns suitable for cruising canals on the gondola.

The final pair of tracks that don’t belong here, frankly, though at least the first is good. The solo acoustic performance of Quadrophenia’s “Drowned” was recorded live in India (without an audience) in 1976, featuring mighty hasty strumming and, of course, Townshend’s vocal in place of the familiar one by Roger Daltrey in the Who’s version. The live performance of “Evolution” that concludes the set was recorded at a Ronnie Lane memorial concert in 2004, and it’s obvious from the deepened voice of Townshend’s spoken introduction how much time has passed since the rest of the material on this release was recorded.

Although this 45th anniversary deluxe edition of Who Came First is the longest version of the album yet released, it’s not definitive. It’s missing “Lantern Cabin,” a nice delicate, moody piano instrumental (first released, like “His Hands” and “Sleeping Dog,” on the 1976 Meher Baba tribute LP With Love) that’s appeared on previous Who Came First expanded editions. Certainly it should have been given precedence over the live performance of “Evolution.” Even hardcore fans might feel short-changed by the relative paucity of actual brand new material on the two-CD set, though that’s the way it often is with deluxe anniversary editions.

At least you get Pete Townshend’s liner notes. And if you want to read more from the Who, Roger Daltrey’s autobiography came out in the fall. (A longer version of this review appears in the issue of Record Collector News.)

6. Bob Seger & the Last Heard, Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings: 1966-1967 (ABKCO). Seger became a superstar by helping define album-oriented rock from the mid-1970s onward. It’s not so well known, unless you were in Michigan at the time, that his career began with fairly raw singles that went into gritty garage rock, blue-eyed soul, and even protest hard rock. For many years, this material was way up the list of recordings that deserved reissue, but had never came out on CD or LP. There were unauthorized collections if you really needed to hear it, but even those weren’t that easy to come by, and didn’t boast the best sound quality.

Seger

So this official compilation of all ten tracks from his five singles on the Cameo label is welcome, especially as it has better fidelity and good, if not super-lengthy, liner notes that put his early career in context. About half this stuff is really ferocious, especially “East Side Story,” whose tale of urban crime gone wrong almost sounds like Bruce Springsteen as garage rocker; “Persecution Smith,” a great knockoff of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues”; and the frenetic garage-pop-rock of “Vagrant Winter.” Some of these singles were actually regional hits in Detroit, and the soul-rock “Heavy Music” even made a bit of national noise before the Cameo label’s problems helped snuff its prospects.

Not everything here is that great. “Florida Time” is a weird Jan & Dean-style paean to spring break; “Very Few” a forgettable ballad; and part two of “Heavy Music” and the instrumental version of “East Side Story” (“East Side Sound”) were kind of B-side filler. But at least these, as well as the seasonal James Brown tribute “Sock It To Me Santa,” testify to his unusual versatility. The one serious flaw to this package is one that couldn’t be avoided: all of his Cameo sides add up to just 28 minutes of music. And because it’s not in the Cameo catalog, it’s missing his first single after he moved to Capitol, the smoking “2+2=?,” one of the best and hardest-hitting anti-war songs of the Vietnam era. (My full article on this compilation is online here.)

7. The Lost Souls, The Lost Souls (Lion Productions). “The Lost Souls never released any records, yet the recorded evidence that survives indicates that they were one of the finest unknown American groups of the mid-’60s, able to write both catchy British Invasion-type rockers and, in their latter days, experimental psychedelic pieces with unusual tempo changes and song structures.” That’s how I started my All Music Guide bio of Cleveland’s Lost Souls. It’s also a blurb on the back on this CD, though I wasn’t aware it would be placed there until I saw a copy.

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It’s a lengthy breathless sentence-long summary of a band that packed a lot of hard-to-peg originality into their short lifespan. And I stand by it, though few others heard their scant body of recorded material, as they never managed to put anything onto disc while they were active. A cassette-only release of their best tracks came out way back in 1983, but I know just two other collectors besides myself who got a copy.

This CD compilation rectifies that long-standing gap and then some. Not only does it include all ten songs from the cassette, but it also has some live recordings; an alternate version of one of the cassette’s songs, “Things That Are Important”; and a few other odds and ends from their earlier days. Seven bonus tracks spotlight post-Lost Souls recordings by one of the band’s singer-songwriters, rhythm guitarist Denny Carleton, in the Choir and Moses, as well as some of his solo efforts.

It’s those first ten tracks, however—presented here in cleaner fidelity, sometimes drastically so, from the cassette release—that show the group at their best, even if they’re almost unsettlingly diverse. They veer from straightahead catchy British Invasion harmony dressed pop-rock to blue-eyed soul and odd collisions of accessible pop and psychedelic weirdness. Unlike almost every other garage band who never got to make a record, they also branched beyond the usual rock setup to incorporate sax, flute, mandolin, and harpsichord.

Those ten songs would have made a cool LP, though maybe not the one they would have put out had they been able to back in the day, spanning as it does different phases of their brief evolution. The previously unreleased cuts aren’t as fully developed or original, indebted far more heavily to early British Invasion and surf music, though they round out our view of the band’s too-short history. The best of these, the catchy if basic “Whatcha Gonna Do,” sounds like a drumless demo. (My longer review of the CD, along with an interview with the Lost Souls’ Denny Carleton, will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)

8. The Choir, Artifact: The Unreleased Album (Omnivore). The Choir were the best Cleveland rock band of the 1960s, performing what’s now recognized as ancestral power pop with guts, fine vocal harmonies, deft instrumental skill, and quality original material. Their legacy hasn’t been served well on disc, however, either at the time or since then. Despite writing and recording a good number of tracks, they never issued an LP, and remain almost solely known for the December 1966 single “It’s Cold Outside,” a huge local hit and a staple of ‘60s garage reissues. The 1994 CD compilation Choir Practice was frustratingly patchy, missing the ace B-side of “It’s Cold Outside” (the grungy “I’m Going Home”) and only featuring portions of their substantial body of work that was unreleased while they were active.

Choir

The Choir went through seven lineups in just four years (1966-70), and this CD at least represents one of them well. Entirely recorded in February 1969, this has organist Phil Giallombardo, guitarist Randy Klawon, bassist Denny Carleton, drummer Jim Bonfanti (the only constant throughout their frequent personnel changes), and pianist Kenny Margolis; all of them sang, and the ten tracks feature material penned by Giallombardo, Carleton, and Margolis. It varies between classic-style harmony pop-rock (“Anyway I Can”), Kinks-ish quasi-vaudeville rock (“Mummer Band”), the best American late-’60s Bee Gees soundalike ever (“Have I No Love to Offer”), and a jazz-Latin-ish instrumental (“For Eric”). Although the approach is heavier than their earlier, poppier sound, unlike so many other acts with similar roots, it’s integrated into the harmony pop-rock songs well. Particularly impressive is the rich piano-organ blend, more identified with Procol Harum and the Band, but shown to be effective in a more pop-oriented context here.

So high marks for the music, but not so much for the packaging. The liner notes are disappointingly skimpy, and do not make it clear whether these tracks were intended to form an actual LP, or are simply sessions done around the same time that have been retrospectively packaged as one. At least the centerfold features an extensive Choir family tree that clarifies who joined and left when. (My interview with Denny Carleton about this release appears in the summer/fall (#48) issue of Ugly Things.)

9. Big Brother & the Holding Company, Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (Columbia/Legacy). Not an expanded Cheap Thrills (there was already one of those), this two-CD compilation is comprised almost entirely of outtakes from the sessions. Twenty-five of the thirty songs are previously unreleased; the previously available ones are on out-of-the-way or expensive compilations that even committed Joplin/Big Brother fans might have missed; and the one non-studio cut is a good hitherto unissued live version of “Ball and Chain” (Winterland, April 12, 1968). There are good, though not book-length, liner notes by drummer David Getz, and an appreciation by Grace Slick that’s thoughtful and long enough not to look phoned in. And you can get all this as a standalone release, instead of having to buy it as part of an expanded Cheap Thrills edition that compels you to buy the original album—which you probably already have in at least two formats—all over again. And the double-CD sold for a reasonable $14.98 plus tax at my local record store. Hey, labels (and artists), pay attention: this is the way to do it!

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On to the music — I wasn’t expecting this to rank as high as it does here. But hey, it’s quite an occasion when you want to play two lengthy CDs’ worth of alternate versions of songs you’re real familiar with three times in three days. While none of them are drastically different from the ones on Cheap Thrills (or elsewhere, for the songs here that didn’t make the cut for the LP), they’re different enough to make for enjoyable, at times compelling listening — even the occasional take breakdowns. And while all seven of the songs from the LP are represented by different takes/performances, there are no less than nine others (again, sometimes in multiple versions), most of them group originals. While these are generally not up to the standard of the final selections (“Farewell Song” being a notable exception), they’’e decent enough, and their inclusion gives us a much more rounded view of the band’s repertoire at their peak.

While I’ve met David Getz a few times, like him, and appreciate his making himself available to me for an interview and speaking once to one of the classes I’ve taught, I’ll here offer a couple differing opinions to minor comments in his notes. Of “Summertime,” he writes, “I’m pretty sure it had never been recorded by a rock band.” Not so — the Zombies did it on their first album, the Doors had done it live as an instrumental (as heard on their March 1967 tapes at San Francisco’s Matrix club), and for all I know there might be others. He does add, “Especially a band like Big Brother & the Holding Co.,” which I think is right.

He also expresses regret that Clive Davis insisted the brief avant-garde piece “Harry,” originally intended to open side two, be removed, and that the band didn’t stand their ground and insist it stay. I’m not a Davis fan, but I have to agree with him in this instance. It’s not a tuneful track — in fact, it’s pretty grating. And while I don’t care whether it would have impacted the LP commercially, you can see Davis’s reasoning — putting it at the beginning of side two would have had many listeners reaching for their needles to skip the song, not nearly as easy a thing to do as it would have if it had been placed at the end of a side.

But let’s end this positively with a couple points of praise not often made about the band, especially considering that most of the record is fun to hear. Even though they were sometimes criticized for not being able to play well, or at least match the intensity of their live performances, in the studio, I really like how you often hear Joplin (and sometimes guys in the band) whoop unpredictable shouts of joy. If it really was laborious to record in the studio, it certainly sounds like they were having lots of fun at least some of the time. And overall, the collection reinforces my incredulity that Big Brother were sometimes criticized — at the time, and since — for not being good players, or not an appropriate match for Janis’s genius. These guys could play, and if it’s with more heart and imagination than polished technique, well, I’ll take those qualities over studio slickness any day. This music captures both Janis and Big Brother at their peak.

10. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown 50th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Edition (Cherry Red). Featuring the song that sent them to brief stardom, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s sole, self-titled 1968 LP was a psychedelic supernova that seemed not so much to launch the band as consume it. Its mix of acid rock, operatic-to-histrionic Brown vocals, demonic lyrics, and berserk Vincent Crane soul-jazz organ runs was maddening yet exhilarating, sounding like nothing else on the ultra-competitive British psychedelic scene. But it used up virtually all of their known first-rate material, and less than a year after it hit the UK and US Top Ten, the band were gone.

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How in the world, you may wonder, can you make a four-disc box out of an LP without any outtakes and few non-LP singles? It’s a fair question, but the package is pretty good value, even if there’s inevitable repetition of most of the album’s songs (sometimes in six or seven different versions).

Disc one has the stereo mix, with bonus non-LP singles and 45 mono mixes; disc two the mono mix, with bonus alternate mixes, an early version of “Fire,” and “Nightmare” as heard (not too differently from the record, to be frank) in the film The Committee. And disc three has their slim body of 1968 BBC radio recordings, as well as the four rare cuts Brown recorded before the Crazy World formed. Fattening up the LP-sized box is an actual vinyl 12-inch version of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, in stereo with a sleeve boasting the original artwork.

This does mean you get the core album on no less than three of the box’s four discs, but there are significant differences between the stereo and mono versions. To me, the stereo’s considerably and unquestionably superior, as the mono sounds hollow—particularly in the vocal department—to the point of lacking completion.

More significantly, among disc two’s bonuses are mysterious “alternative mono” mixes of the songs comprising side one of the original LP, done before brass and strings were added. These have odd spoken links—some by Brown, some by his first wife—that, if they don’t add to the record’s psychedelic seance atmosphere, do fit in more or less. It’s like hearing an appreciably different version of side one of the LP, the spoken bits adding to the feel of a quasi-concept album, even if the concept remains pretty indistinct.

Other significant extras are the three non-LP bonus tracks on disc one, even if none were good enough to demand a place on the original Crazy World of Arthur album. The pre-LP 1967 single “Devil’s Grip”/”Give Him a Flower” mixed their burgeoning devious brand of psychedelia (on the A-side) with a flower-power satire (on the B-side), though “Devil’s Grip” wasn’t as powerful as the material on the album, and “Give Him a Flower” rather forced and lame comedy. Used as a 1968 B-side to “Nightmare,” “What’s Happening” is okay and very much in keeping with the band’s sound, yet overall rather forgettable compared to most of the LP’s material.

Committed Crazy World fans probably have most or all of the tracks on the first two discs, with even the rarities having often gained exposure on various other reissues. At least they’re less likely to have everything, or maybe even anything, from the third CD of rarities and radio broadcasts. The four songs from the April 8, 1968 BBC session—all in fine fidelity, with Ron Wood guesting on bass, and all (including “Fire”) to appear on the LP—were, in original drummer Drachen Theaker’s opinion, their best recordings. They weren’t; maybe Theaker’s view was colored by getting submerged in the album mix after Ahmet Ertegun complained about his time-keeping. But they’re good, and less ornate than the LP arrangements.

Also included is a June 30, 1968 BBC rendition of “Spontaneous Apple Creation” with a notably bumpier tempo than the studio counterpart. Four songs from a 1968 Swedish radio broadcast, in more variable but quite listenable sound quality, have also been retrieved, including one (“Nightmare”) that didn’t make the BBC batch.

The four pre-Crazy World cuts ending disc three are the rarest of the set, yet the least impressive. The three numbers billed to the Arthur Brown Set were recorded in Paris with local soul band the Sharks for the Roger Vadim film La Curée. Other than Arthur’s emergent The Devil in Tom Jones vocal mannerisms, these are very run-of-the-mill R&B-rock tunes, and “The Green Ball” not even up to that meager standard. Done yet earlier, his 1965 cover of Peggy Lee’s “You Don’t Know” (issued only on flexidisc) is better, though rudimentary compared to the fireworks he’d unleash as the Crazy World’s frontman. Adding considerable value to the box, the 24-page LP-sized booklet has extensive liner notes by Mark Paytress that tell the confusing story of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (involving numerous personnel changes in its last year or so, including a stint by Carl Palmer on drums) better than any previous print source. (A longer version of this review, along with my interview with Arthur Brown shortly after the extended edition’s release, will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)

11. The Action, Shadows and Reflections: The Complete Recordings 1964-1968 (Grapefruit). Is there any other 1960s rock group that never released an LP during their lifetime, yet was eventually honored with a four-CD box set? If there was any such box before this, I can’t think of one. But though it took quite a bit of scrounging (including many not-too-different alternate takes) to pump this up to four discs, the Action were worth the effort, as one of the better British ‘60s bands never to have a hit, let alone a full-length album. Sometimes classified as a mod band a la the Who or the Small Faces, the Action were more soul-oriented than either of those acts. They weren’t as good, either, in part because they didn’t write much of their original material during their prime. But they were pretty good, putting more guitar and British pop harmonies into their soul covers than the originals boasted, and then writing a few decent originals.

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As for what you might not yet have on this box if you’re already an Action fan, besides all those previously unreleased alternate takes and backing tracks that comprise the whole of disc two, there are also some BBC recordings and TV appearances, some of soul covers not on their singles. (All of those, however, have appeared on other reissues, if rather out-of-the-way ones.) All of the twenty tracks on disc three have likewise appeared on pretty obscure archive releases (though three of the songs are presented at their full length for the first time), and document their uneven evolution from mod-soulsters to mildly psychedelic and early progressive rock. Recorded in 1967 and 1968 after their five singles, and not issued at the time, I don’t think these are nearly as interesting as the cuts from their mod prime. But they are eclectic, somewhat ambitious, and grow on you some with time.

The packaging on this set is excellent, with lengthy historical liner notes by David Wells, and track-by-track annotation from compiler Alec Palao. Unless someone’s sitting on tapes yet to be discovered, it’s a last-word box, at a time when last-word boxes keep getting supplemented by extraneous material.

12. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland Deluxe Edition 50th Anniversary Box Set (Legacy/Experience Hendrix). What’s most interesting about this four-disc expanded 50th anniversary edition isn’t the original album, though it comprises disc one, digitally remastered from the original two-track tapes. Of more value is an entire disc of rare/unreleased demos and outtakes; a disc of the Experience’s Hollywood Bowl concert on September 14, 1968; and a Blu-ray documentary on the making of Electric Ladyland (not included in DVD format as well, unfortunately). Everything’s encased in a mini-coffee table-sized 48-page hardbook book with liner notes, photos, memorabilia, and reproductions of some of Jimi’s handwritten lyrics, as well as his instructions (not completely followed) for the LP’s original artwork.

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About half of the second CD is devoted to home demos Hendrix recorded as Electric Ladyland was taking shape, probably at New York’s Drake Hotel in March 1968. (You can even hear a phone ring in the background during “Gypsy Eyes”). In contrast to most other extant Hendrix recordings, these are low-volume solo endeavors. Although the liners state these were made with a small amplifier, the sound’s soft enough that it seems almost as if he could have been playing an unplugged electric, like he’s making sure not to disturb other hotel guests.

Besides early versions of “1983,” Gypsy Eyes,” “Long Hot Summer Night,” and “Voodoo Chile,” it’s notable for also including songs that wouldn’t make the running order. Among these, the clear standout is “Angel,” later a highlight of Cry of Love. Others, like “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “My Friend,” and “Cherokee Mist,” didn’t even attain the high profile “Angel” enjoyed on a posthumous release. In large part because of the solo, almost unplugged setting, these show a more sensitive side to the man than his celebrated noisefests do. Here as in few other tapes, you can hear the substantial influence Curtis Mayfield had on our hero, both in the fluidly melodic playing and the oft-wistful/philosophical bent of his vocals and songwriting.

On these demos, there’s a sameness to the tunes and arrangements that gets a bit wearisome after the while. But as a chunk of calm within the storm unlike anything else in Hendrix’s enormous catalog of recordings not issued during his lifetime, it has enormous value. It’s not too important, but note that while the liner notes refer to these tapes as unreleased, that’s not exactly correct. Some of them did come out on a CD packaged with the Hendrix graphic novel Voodoo Child back in 1995, though that non-standard release might have been missed even by some serious Hendrix fans.

The early studio versions of Electric Ladyland songs on the rest of disc two aren’t as unusual or revealing, but have their use as looks at the foundations of “Long Hot Summer Night,” “Rainy Day Dream Away,” “1983,” and even “Little Miss Strange” before those tracks had vocals. The playing’s precision impresses, and “Rainy Day Shuffle” is more soul-jazz than rock. The standout, however, is “Angel Caterina,” an early version (with Hendrix vocals) of “1983” with Redding on bass and Miles on drums. While it’s clearly not up to the level of the finished “1983” (and Miles’s drumming is notably weaker than Mitch Mitchell’s would be), it’s the only outtake in this batch that can be appreciated as a relatively complete song and performance, rather than as a mere backing track.

Numerous Hendrix concerts have circulated that have better fidelity and performances than the Hollywood Bowl show featured on disc three. It’s the right move to include this, however, since it hasn’t been previously available; was a reasonably historic occasion, given the prestige of the venue; and fits into the timeline, as Electric Ladyland came out just a few weeks later. The sound quality’s a bit on the rough side since, as the liners admit, it’s a “two-track recording surreptitiously drawn from the house mixing console.” The gig was on the verge of getting disrupted as well, the set getting interrupted several times when fans dove into the pool of water between the stage and the seats. And parts of “Foxey Lady” and “Fire” went missing when the tape reel was flipped.

Still, a clearly excited Experience deliver a fairly good, if a bit rough (if only in comparison to more finely honed concerts of the period), set that’s not as predictable as some of their others from the era. There’s nothing as unexpected as, say, “51st Anniversary” here. But in addition to the dependable favorites “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze,” there’s a preview of the soon-to-be-released “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”; an instrumental version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (why Hendrix decided not to sing this is mysterious); and, nearly a year before the iconic Woodstock version, “Star Spangled Banner.” “Little Wing,” for all its fame, wasn’t done too often live, so it’s good to hear as part of this set, which also includes a couple of the less played-to-death songs from Are You Experienced, “I Don’t Live Today” and “Are You Experienced” itself. It’s too bad he didn’t preview some more Electric Ladyland goodies like “All Along the Watchtower,” but you can’t have everything.

On the fourth disc, the wordily titled At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland is a highly worthwhile documentary. Much of the material has been long available as part of an hour-long-or-so episode of the Classic Albums series since the late 1990s, but this version adds almost forty minutes. Besides featuring some vintage footage of and interviews with Hendrix, it includes decades-after-the-fact interviews done with almost everyone who played on or contributed to the album’s production, including Mitchell, Redding, Miles, Casady, Stevie Winwood, Dave Mason, engineer Eddie Kramer, manager/producer Chas Chandler, and even relatively obscure organist (on a couple tracks) Mike Finnigan.

There’s more to be heard from the Electric Ladyland era on some other archival releases, and more to be learned from other documentaries, books, and liner notes. But this deluxe edition largely succeeds in offering a good deal of important, entertaining supplementary material for the record that, other than Are You Experienced, was Hendrix’s best. (A longer version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)

13. Marianne Faithfull, Come and Stay with Me: The UK 45s 1964-1969 (Ace). All of Faithfull’s UK A-sides and B-sides from the 1960s, plus all four songs from her 1965 UK EP Go Away from My World. None of the material on this 22-track CD is rare, and in fact most or all of it’s been reissued numerous times. And while it has much of her best early work, it’s missing some ‘60s standouts from her LPs, like the folk-poppers “With You in Mind” (written by Jackie DeShannon) and “In My Time of Sorrow” (co-written by DeShannon and Jimmy Page), or tracks from her underrated folky 1966 LP North Country Maid. This still comes close to serving as a best-of, with some overlooked classy non-hits and B-sides like “Morning Sun,” “The Sha La La Song,” and “Tomorrow’s Calling,” as well as the surprisingly swaggering, bluesy “That’s Right Baby.”

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What is missing is the songwriting skill and tougher, lower-register vocals Faithfull developed by the late 1970s, with the exception of the 1969 B-side “Sister Morphine” (which predates the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers version). But though this might seem lightweight compared to what came a decade later with her Broken English comeback, it’s generally superior British ‘60s pop-rock with a distinctly, almost uniquely genteel quality to both the singing and arrangements. (Albeit there are some mediocre misfires, like her unnecessary treacly cover of “Yesterday.”) It’s also enhanced by thorough historical liner notes—a feature I don’t recall seeing on any previous compilation of her ‘60s studio recordings—with plenty of first-hand Faithfull quotes.

14.  Manfred Mann, The Albums 64-67 (Umbrella Music). The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Bob Dylan all have vinyl mono box sets of their early albums. So why not Manfred Mann, even if they didn’t put out many UK LPs in the mid-’60s, and if they weren’t nearly as iconic as those other names? It might be an excuse to repackage tracks that have been around the block many times (though certainly not often in mono). But as packaging goes, it’s real good, each of their first four British albums getting housed in the original artwork, and the inner sleeves boasting fresh historical liner notes by four different Manfreds. There’s also an “exclusive” LP-sized color photo print of the best quintet mid-’60s lineup, if you go for that sort of thing. Much more significantly, there’s a DVD (lasting a little more than half an hour) with pretty interesting, articulate interviews with four of the five core Manfreds (Mike Vickers declined to participate).

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And there’s music, too, though nothing that will be unfamiliar to those who’ve carefully collected the mid-’60s era in which Paul Jones was the lead singer. As good as Manfred Mann could be, they weren’t quite as good as the best British Invasion groups, and not all that consistent. So it’s a mixed bag here, featuring a pretty good R&B-based debut LP (The Five Faces of Manfred Mann); a wildly uneven follow-up (Mann Made) mixing generally unmemorable original material and eclectic, but sometimes poorly chosen, cover versions; and a nearly all-instrumental album, Soul of Mann, that’s something of a marginal novelty. The other LP, Mann Made Hits, is actually a compilation rather than a standalone LP, and retrieves most of the big hits and standout cuts that didn’t find a home on their British albums, a la “John Hardy,” their superb version of Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” their groovy cover of Ben E. King’s “Groovin’,” and the standout autobiographical original “The Man in the Middle.”

For all the tasty window dressing, however, this is missing some pretty good mid-’60s Jones-sung tracks that didn’t make it onto the British LPs for some reason, like Jones’s catchy pop composition “She”; the jazzy original “Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron”; and the early, pre-hits R&B single “Cock-a-Hoop.” It’s also gotta be admitted that the hits disc really overshadows everything else with its cluster of smashes like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Sha La La,” “Come Tomorrow,” and “Pretty Flamingo,” even if the group’s heart was more in the R&B and jazz they detoured into on their albums. But am I nonetheless glad I got a review copy? Sure. (Lengthy interviews I conducted in summer 2018 with Paul Jones and Manfred Mann bassist/guitarist Tom McGuinness are in the winter 2018 (issue #49) issue of Ugly Things.)

15. Gene Clark, Gene Clark Sings For You (Omnivore). This isn’t exactly a lost album, but it’s probably about as close as we’ll come to hearing one from the primary songwriter of the original Byrds lineup. The bulk of it’s taken from an eight-song acetate of the same name, comprised of sessions that took place near the end of 1967, after Clark had been dropped by Columbia. Five more tracks from a different acetate recorded around the same time, as well as an additional unreleased demo from the era, add up to a full CD of 1967 Clark. Collectors and folk-rock fanatics will be thrilled to finally have the opportunity to hear these rarities, never previously listened to by anyone save a very few.

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But like many and maybe most “lost” albums, Sings For You doesn’t deliver what you might wish for in your imagination. The good news for devotees of the “classic” Byrds folk-rock sound is that it’s far closer in sound to the fairly straightforward folk-rock of Gene’s first LP (from earlier in 1967) than to Dillard & Clark’s country-rock-with-the-accent-on-country in the late ‘60s. The bad news, or at least cautionary warning, is that it’s rather crudely executed, though not so much by Gene as by the erratic backup musicians and arrangements he employed.

And the songs, truth to tell, are mostly not up to the level of his first official album, let alone Byrds classics like “I Knew I’d Want You” or “Set You Free This Time.” He’s not so much forging a new direction as casting about for a direction, or mining his old one. It’s as if the genius for melancholy folk-rock’s still there, but kind of fighting to express itself as it’s fogged by underproduction, and not-quite-killer tunes.

Some of the songs on Sings For You aren’t too memorable, and so lyrically obscure and sprawling that they don’t make the beeline to the heart that his best compositions could. In common with many demo-like batches, there’s also some sameness to the material and approaches that demands a good number of plays before the cuts stick out from each other. That said, however, after such repeated listening—if quite a bit more than some listeners might want to invest—the tunes do grow on you, as does insight into what seems to be a rather fragile, uncertain state of mind when Clark did these sessions.

A good number of the tracks are handicapped by rather slapdash backing, by musicians whose identities are unknown, with the exception of pianist Alex del Zoppo (from Los Angeles group Sweetwater). In particular, the drumming’s so indelicately over-busy that whoever’s in the seat makes oft-criticized Byrds stickman Michael Clarke seem like a virtuoso. Odd embellishments by calliope and Chamberlin strings (a keyboard similar to the Mellotron) add dabs of eeriness, but also a sense of mild experimentation without a firm goal in mind.

But there are substantial positives to these songs, most notably a yearning, questing undercurrent that runs through almost all the words and melodies, even if you’re rarely sure exactly what Gene’s on about. There are, of course, meditations on mysterious women who seem to be floating out of reach (“On Her Own”). Certainly there aren’t many celebrations of romances going well, if seldom falling into gloomy despondency (albeit “Yesterday, Am I Right” comes close, with its wail “what good is my life without you near”).

Some items show sides of the man to which we’re not accustomed. He strains, not too effectively, to hit some really high notes in “Past My Door.” “Down on the Pier” can’t help but recall Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” with its waltzing rhythm and vaguely surrealistic ruminations, and a melody similar enough to merit veto had it been considered for official release. The country-rock he’d already investigated in compositions like “Tried So Hard” (from his first solo LP) is heard just once, in one of the better cuts, “7:30 Mode,” whose six-minute string of images and punctuations of bluesy harmonica also bear a heavy Dylan influence.

Of the six tracks not sourced from the Sings For You acetate, the four solo acoustic performances also have mild to definite traces of Dylan (especially “On Tenth Street”), and have a bit of a generic Clark troubadour feel. Not all of them are previously unavailable in any form. Gene gifted a couple, “Till Today” and “Long Time,” to L.A. band the Rose Garden for use on their 1968 album, now reissued by Omnivore with numerous bonus cuts.

Considerably superior are the two full-band tracks that weren’t placed on the original Sings for You acetate. Blues-rock wasn’t Clark or the Byrds’ forte, but “Big City Girl” has a fairly convincing, jagged bluesy strut, as well as lyrics intimating things aren’t really going to work out with this independent-minded woman—a theme recurring in several of Gene’s songs from the period. The forceful “Doctor Doctor” almost verges on folk-rock/power pop, with haunting moaning vocal harmonies, a bashing chorus, cool curling guitar licks, and a more assured production than the other efforts on this collection. It’s the highlight of this interesting but erratic anthology, and maybe the only track that sounds like it could have been released in 1967 without getting re-recorded in a more polished state.

Note also that there’s yet more unreleased Clark from 1967 on the six-song, twelve-inch EP Back Street Mirror, on Entree. A few of these songs have come out on previous archival releases (sometimes in different forms), though three haven’t circulated. These are likewise interesting-but-not-quite-top-tier efforts, Gene getting into a blues-folky mood on “That’s What You Want,” and using unexpectedly poppy orchestration on “Yesterday, Am I Right.” (My full article on this album, including an interview with Clark biographer John Einarson, is online here.)

16. Beverley, Where the Good Times Are (Deram). Beverley’s better known as Beverley Martyn, the name she took after marrying and sometimes recording with John Martyn. Before that, she cut a couple obscure UK singles for Deram in 1966 and 1967, but didn’t release an album for the label. This Record Store Day release comes close to simulating the LP that might have been, adding a bunch of tracks (one without vocals) that were unissued at the time. All the material was produced by Denny Cordell, famous for working with the early Moody Blues, Move, Joe Cocker, and Procol Harum. The backup musicians included Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Renbourn, Nicky Hopkins, and Alan White.

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Although Beverley came from the folk world, and covers a couple Donovan songs here, this isn’t exactly folk-rock. It’s fairly interesting, reasonably gutsy pop-rock with more folk and blues than most British women-sung pop of the time had. There’s more potential than realization, but Beverley’s original compositions—which comprise half the tracks—are decent, reasonably forceful efforts. Her slightly pinched voice sometimes sounds like Melanie, though the American singer had yet to record and wouldn’t have been an influence on her.

Her own songs are the highlights of this disc, especially the rather haunting “Tomorrow Time.” Her stabs at blues are mediocre; “Happy New Year,” one of the cuts that was on her Deram singles, bears most interest as an early obscure Randy Newman composition; and though it looks at a glance like one of the Donovan songs was not recorded by Donovan himself (“Picking Up the Sunshine”), it’s actually a version of his “Bert’s Blues” with a different title. The highlights of this record make the LP of more than merely historical interest, but it’s not well served by the packaging, which has barely anything in the way of liner notes—a criticism that applies to some other Record Store Day releases of rarities, including the two others reviewed in this list.

17. God’s Children, Music Is the Answer: The Complete Collection (Minky). God’s Children put out just a couple obscure singles in the early 1970s (both included here), but they were a pretty interesting band with a notable pre-history. One of their three lead singers was Willie Garcia (aka Little Willie G.), who’d been the main vocalist for the finest pre-Santana Latino rock band, Thee Midniters. God’s Children were in some ways an early-’70s update of Thee Midniters’ eclectic blend of rock, soul, and some doo wop. They were a little more eclectic, however, also drawing from funk and gospel, and influences from a couple other notable multi-cultural bands ascending to superstardom, Santana and Sly & the Family Stone. “It Don’t Make No Difference” sounds quite a bit like the Sir Douglas Quintet, with a similar piercing organ.

GodsChildren

This 14-track anthology is more promise than realized potential, especially as it had to be pieced together from their two singles from UNI (whose pop-oriented production did not play to their strengths or emphasize their strong original material); demos, a couple of which are instrumental backing tracks; and the rare (if good) solo single Little Willie G. issued in 1969. Still, the material’s fairly strong and diverse, and the blend unusual, even for those adventurous times. They’ve compared themselves to a Latino Fifth Dimension or a Three Dog Night with women singers, and there’s some justification to that. But they were in fact hipper than either of those groups, without getting the commercial songs needed to gain them a wide audience or even many issued discs.

18. Skip Spence, Andoaragain (Modern Harmonic ). At a time when expanded reissues of vintage albums are becoming a huge part of the catalog business, Skip Spence’s Oar seems like one of the most unlikely albums to get the multi-disc treatment. Yes, its haunted acid-folk (dabbed by more than a touch of acid casualty), with plenty of rootsy blues and country thrown into the mix, is now deservedly hailed as one of the finest obscurities of the psychedelic age. Recorded at the end of 1968, shortly after the ex-Moby Grape guitarist’s release from a mental hospital, it felt like a missive from a ghost who’d barely survived the indulgences of the Summer of Love, with feet in both the Haight-Ashbury and the Mississippi Delta.

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But for all its deserved subsequent cult reputation, it sold barely anything when it was first issued in 1969. Even if the absurdly low sales figures (such as 600) sometimes reported might be lower than the actual total, it was certainly one of the most obscure major-label releases of the late ‘60s, rave Greil Marcus review in Rolling Stone notwithstanding. And the LP itself had such an off-the-cuff, rustic one-man-in-an-empty-room feel that it was difficult to imagine much was left over.

But we live in an age when nothing seems impossible, at least when it comes to poking around the vaults. The wittily titled Andoaragain presents no less than three CDs from the Oar sessions, with two entire discs of previously unreleased material. There’s even an outtake from the LP photo session on the cover.

Previous CD editions of Oar had unearthed ten outtakes, all included here as bonus tracks after the original album plays on disc one. In comparison to the dozen tracks on the finished LP, those outtakes were, as the British are fond of saying, “bitty” fragments. None were nearly as solidly constructed as the songs on the proper album, and none sounded apt to be as strong as the final contenders with more work. All of which raised alarm bells, when this much more extensive trawl through the vaults was announced, whether such an exercise was worthwhile. Might it even prove embarrassing to Spence, even half a century later?

Like many such raids of the lost psychedelic arks, it’s neither as marginal nor as revelatory as you might expect. If you’re rightly wary of CDs two and three being yet less listenable half- (or less than half-) finished tunes from the Oar sessions, the first thing to note is that more than half of these 36 (yes, 36) additional tracks are alternate versions of songs that made the final cut. That in itself ensures the majority are more listenable than the items that have already shown up as bonuses on previous reissues.

Alas, it also signifies that there aren’t any previously unheard songs on the order of “Weighted Down,” “Lawrence of Euphoria,” or “All Come to Meet Her”—or indeed, on the order of any of Oar’s compositions (save perhaps the LP’s meandering closer “Grey/Afro”). The “new” titles—of which there are nine (sometimes in multiple versions)—seem to be either made-up-on-the-spot ditties, bits that haven’t grown into germs of full-blown songs, or semi-jams, some with a more rock’n’roll feel than the Oar material (like, unsurprisingly, “I Want a Rock & Roll Band”).

Occasionally there’s a glimmer of the kind of odd wordplay distinguishing Oar’s fully realized compositions, like the disquieting “she has a body of 17, and a mind of 40” in “Fuzzy Heroine (Halo of Gold)”—the only “alternate” version here of one of the songs previously issued as a CD bonus track. Otherwise, the impression is often of a guy, to quote a lyric from “Dixie Peach Promenade,” who’s taken everything from A to Z. For all that, Spence sounds pretty normal and coherent on occasional brief spoken snippets from the outtakes, though of course that’s a pretty small sample size.

None of the numerous alternate versions are a match for the finished products. These indicate—as is often, maybe usually, the case no matter what the professionalism or state of mind of the artist—that considerable refinement went into the songwriting and arrangements before the tracks were completed, and that the cull of available Spencesongs was quite selective. Part of Oar’s peculiar spell is its apparent spontaneity and effortlessness, but the rather haphazard pool of recordings from which it emerged indicates considerable effort was put into molding it into a much more accessible end result.

But even if none of the alternate versions are on the level of the LP tracks, some of them are quite nice and worth hearing. Considering how bare-bones (certainly for a late-’60s psychedelic rock artist) the album’s production was, it might be hard to believe that some of these outtakes are yet sparer, though the essence of the words and music usually remain. An instrumental version of “War and Peace” doesn’t even have those words, yet has a spooky, affecting vibe when stripped of the vocals and psychedelic effects deployed on the LP rendition. The “basic” version of “Cripple Creek” doesn’t vary too much from the familiar arrangement, but has an engaging, slightly more pronounced country-folk feel.

Elsewhere, the brief, jokey rehearsal of “Weighted Down” doesn’t seem like an entirely serious attempt at this gravest of meditations, but at least it’s appreciably different from the LP take. The biggest surprise arrives when Skip briefly inserts part of the melody from Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” into “All Come to Meet Her.” Spence, of course, was the drummer on their first album. But even though Jefferson Airplane Takes Off had only been recorded about two-and-a-half years earlier, that must have seemed like twenty years ago after all Skip had been through in the meantime, from Moby Grape’s first LP to the bad acid trip that helped land him out of the band and into Bellevue Hospital.

Of special note are no less than half a dozen alternates of “Diana.” That makes for quite a few to choose from, I know. But they’re usually invested with a particularly urgent eerieness, especially on the six-minute run-through that ends disc two, and even on the 12-string instrumental version. Such is his intensity that it seems like “Diana” must have been a real person, whether that was her name or not, as it’s not easy to fake such emotional anguish.

For all its magnificence, Oar wasn’t for everyone, even if it did eventually generate a tribute album with contributions from fans like Robert Plant, Beck, and Tom Waits. Exponentially more so, Andoaragain isn’t for everyone, or even every Oar fan. But even if I’m far less likely to be spinning the dozens of outtakes than the core album, I’m glad it’s out there. Heard in modified doses, it’s a bit like listening to a talented but wayward friend trying this and that as he sorts through the musical voices battling to be heard in his head. Sometimes he succeeds in winnowing them into something pleasing, sometimes not. But he seldom offends, and often intrigues. (A longer version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)

19. Various Artists, Gathered from Coincidence: The British Folk-Pop Sound of 1965-66 (Grapefruit). With the exception of Donovan, none of the top mid-’60s folk-rock innovators were from the UK. And really, with the exception of Donovan, no British acts of the period truly blended much of the best of folk and rock into a new and distinctive form. As the subtitle of this interesting three-CD comp indicates, what mid-’60s British folk-rock there was often took a milder form, blending folk and pop as much (or more) than mixing folk and rock. Folk, and American folk-rock, was felt more as an influence on pop and rock than it was actually combined with rock.

This 79-track set gets off to a literally ringing start with the one cut that could be classified as authentic classic folk-rock, the Searchers’ excellent cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Take Me For What I’m Worth.” But it’s more a historically interesting tour of folk’s absorption into British popular music (and occasional ventures of folkies into slightly pop-rockish sounds) in the mid-’60s. There are plenty of fine recordings; some that have their merits; and plenty of so-so or even subpar ones, significant mostly as a testament to the industry’s eagerness to jump on the bandwagon.

The best tracks, though necessary to provide something like a comprehensive overview of this retrospectively named mini-genre, are also the ones ‘60s rock fanatics are most likely to already own. The Hollies’ cover of Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Very Last Day” gets close to classic folk-rock; Manfred Mann’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” was one of the earliest hit (at least in the UK) rock versions of a Dylan song; and Marianne Faithfull’s hit “Come and Stay with Me” was nearly genre-defining folk-pop. Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” of course, was his first hit, though he would have been better represented by something electric from the Sunshine Superman album.

Also here are some major acts’ satisfying ventures into folk-rock-ish material, like the Pretty Things’ “London Town,” Peter & Gordon’s “Morning’s Calling,” the Kinks’ “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along,” and the Zombies’ gorgeous “Don’t Go Away,” though the latter track (like quite a few on this anthology) is more folky than folk-pop or folk-rock. There are also some fine folky efforts by some of the era’s better non-star UK groups, like the Poets’ “I Love Her Still,” the Sorrows’ “Don’t Sing No Sad Songs for Me,” and the Fenmen’s “Rejected.” The last of these, of course, features future Pretty Things Wally Waller and Jon Povey, even if it’s as indebted to West Coast harmony pop as folk-rock, whose influence is mostly heard in the chiming guitar hook.

And there are some less essential actual hits that nonetheless need to be here to complete the picture, like the Silkie’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the Seekers’ “The Carnival Is Over,” and Hedgehoppers Anonymous’ “It’s Good News Week.” A few artists who were more folkies than rockers did try to add touches of rock into their work, as you can hear on Davey Graham’s pretty good take on the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You,” and early work by Mick Softley, Meic Stevens, Jon-Mark, and Beverley (aka Beverley Martyn).

Whether or not you’re a folk-rock enthusiast, if you have a deep ‘60s collection, you’re likely most curious about the more obscure selections. While there are quite a few, these are—even casting aside questions as to how genuinely they blend folk, rock, and pop—pretty uneven, with an absence of lost gems. Some are unnecessary close copies of the originals, like Peter Nelson’s version of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises.” Some are bad novelties, like Alan Klein’s “Age of Corruption,” a satire of “Eve of Destruction,” a hit that inspired more bad answer records than almost any other.

And there are future superstars briefly venturing into the style, like Marc Bolan on “Beyond the Risin’ Sun,” Olivia Newton-John (!) on the Jackie DeShannon-penned “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” and a pre-Moody Blues Justin Hayward on “Day Must Come” (whose orchestral pop-folk actually makes for one of the best obscurities). On “The Bells of Rhymney,” a young Murray Head even entered the foray.

Here and there, however, are sprinkled some pretty good outings known to few. The Beatmen’s “Now the Sun Has Gone” is a very good bittersweet, acoustic guitar-grounded ballad. The Caravelles (of “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry” fame) sing a fairly lavish Phil Spector-ish production of Canadian folkie Bruce Murdoch’s “Hey Mama You’ve Been on My Mind” (not to be confused with the early Dylan composition “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”). Sarah Jane’s “Listen People” is a decent cover of the Graham Gouldman-penned Herman’s Hermits hit, though like a lot of tracks here, it stretches the boundaries of what might be considered folk-pop, let alone folk-rock.

It probably would have been impossible to license quality folk-rocky tracks from British giants like the Beatles (especially from Rubber Soul), the Rolling Stones (“Lady Jane”), Them (“Richard Cory”), and the Animals’ (“Hey Gyp”). But their absence does make this less definitive, though they’re hardly difficult to come across elsewhere. And whether because of licensing hurdles or not, a few of the best UK obscurities owing something to folk-rock aren’t present, most notably the Belfast Gypsies’ magnificent tense, howling rendition of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The version that is here, by Cops ‘N Robbers, isn’t nearly as fine or imaginative.

Unquestionably fine, however, are the 44-page small-print liner notes by David Wells, jammed with photos, sleeve reproductions, and other memorabilia. The track-by-track annotation tells stories behind the records that are often more interesting than the discs themselves. But even if this isn’t folk-rock at its best, it documents much of folk-rock’s impact on the mid-’60s British pop world with more detail and range than is likely ever to be attempted again. (This review also appears in the summer/fall 2018 (#49) issue of Ugly Things.)

20. Jimi Hendrix, Both Sides of the Sky (Legacy). For a guy who only put out three true studio albums during his lifetime, the Jimi Hendrix discography has become massive. Almost fifty years after his death, compilations of unreleased recordings continue to emerge from the vault, testifying both to his prolific studio output and the continued hunger for more Hendrix. Both Sides of the Sky is the latest such excavation, and will both relieve some of that hunger and still leave the listener somewhat unsatisfied. (Three of the thirteen tracks (“Georgia Blues,” “Things I Used to Do,” and “Power of Soul”) were actually previously issued, but they’re obscure enough to be new to many fans, and even “Power of Soul” is a previously unavailable extended version.)

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It’s a bit like listening to bootlegged takes with high-grade fidelity and packaging, as it’s a bit of a jumble of unrelated tracks, rather than something that would have cohered into an album (or comprise an alternative version of an album). Most of the cuts are from 1969 and 1970 (though there are a couple 1968 recordings), a time when Jimi was struggling to concoct a studio follow-up to his last album with the original Experience, 1968’s Electric Ladyland.

Like much of his work that survives from that time, these find Hendrix working with varying lineups of musicians (though most played in either the original Experience or the Band of Gypsys), and struggling to some degree to find some direction. The tunes are often, though not always, bluesier on the whole than his Experience recordings, and a couple (“Things I Used to Do” and “Mannish Boy”) are covers of actual blues classics. But although Jimi’s instrumental prowess remained awesome, his songwriting and arrangements lacked the focus that had characterized his first three albums.

The best songs on Both Sides of the Sky tend to be the ones that have been available in different versions. The one here of “Lover Man” from December 15, 1969, with Band of Gypsys rhythm section Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, is a clear highlight. Dynamic and propulsive, it has the razor-sharp bounce of the best blues-rock, along the lines of the cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” that kicked off his Monterey Pop Festival set. But the other songs on Both Sides of the Sky, alas, are more meandering and less memorable. Jimi was often having a hard time taking his sketches to the finish line, and this disc has a few of the numerous such examples in his vaults.

More interesting are two September 30, 1969 tracks on which fellow superstar Stephen Stills not so much guests as takes over. With Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and pianist Duane Hitchings, Stills sings and plays organ on “$20 Fine,” an original composition of his that he would not release with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or indeed on any disc. The energetic, midtempo, slightly unfinished-sounding tune is kind of by-numbers late-’60s Stills, but both Hendrix and (more particularly) Stills completists won’t be able to find it anywhere else.

Better is a Stills-led version from the same day of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” soon to be a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This take (with Stills on vocals and organ, Hendrix on bass, and Miles on drums) lacks the trademark harmonies of CSNY’s famous version, but is quite respectable and has a fine, committed Stills vocal, even if the arrangement’s a little on the basic side.

Just two tracks on Both Sides of the Sky predate 1969. Taped on May 2, 1968, the spooky instrumental “Cherokee Mist” features only Hendrix and Mitchell. Another 1968 outtake on Both Sides of the Sky also features only Hendrix and Mitchell, and was recorded on January 28 of that year. As “Angel,” the song (here titled “Sweet Angel”) was one of the best Hendrix compositions to be released after his death, first emerging on the 1971 LP The Cry of Love. He’d been developing it for more than two years, however, though this early version is instrumental. In that sense it’s a backing track missing lyrics, with Hendrix playing not just guitar, but also bass (though Experience bassist Noel Redding was still very much in the band) and, more unexpectedly, vibraphone. Such is the strength of the melody that even this instrumental sketch has an engaging, shimmering beauty, though it would gain a great deal of strength when Hendrix put lyrics and vocals onto the famous later version.

Just as “Angel” doesn’t compare to “Sweet Angel,” so Both Sides of the Sky does not compare to Hendrix’s proper studio albums, or even his best live recordings and compilations. It’s nonetheless an interesting adjunct to his core discography, even if it lacks stone classics or revelatory insights into previously undocumented directions. (A longer review of this album appears in the April 2018 issue of Record Collector News.)

21. The Doors, Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Eagle Vision/Bright Midnight). The Doors only did two concerts with Jim Morrison after this one at the Isle of Wight on August 29, 1970. It’s not the band at their best live, and not a standout among their many official archival concert releases that are now available. Considering how much material the band had to draw from by this point, it’s disappointing that there are only a couple songs postdating their first two albums, “Roadhouse Blues” and the only truly unusual selection for the set, “Ship of Fools.” As good as “Break on Through” and “Light My Fire” are, there are many other live versions. There are numerous versions of “The End,” too, but at least this one inserts much different improvised-sounding bits, including a little of the blues classic “Crossroads” and meditations on “Across the Sea” and “Away in India.”

Doors

It’s nonetheless a historic document, and the band play pretty well. Morrison’s singing, interestingly, is fine, although it’s been reported with some reason that his voice was seriously fraying by the time they began work on their final album with him a few months later, L.A. Woman. It’s also fairly good value, as a DVD of the filmed set is packaged together with this CD on a separate disc. The DVD’s actually of more interest than the CD (and, of course, contains the same music on its soundtrack), adding a featurette about the concert with interviews with non-Morrison members of the Doors and band manager Bill Siddons.

22. Nina Simone, The Colpix Singles (Stateside/Rhino). Simone wasn’t a singles-oriented artist, despite getting a Top Twenty hit (her only big one in the US) very early in her career with “I Loves You, Porgy.” From 1959 to 1963, Colpix did try to get her into the 45 market without much success, though a couple of her singles for the label got into the lowest reaches of the Top 100. This two-CD set has all 27 tracks from those singles, remastered in mono.

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Less striking, mature, and imaginative than her peak work for Philips in the mid-’60s, it still shows her developing into an artist of distinction, if in a poppier and less creative mold than she’d explore in her subsequent Philips and RCA recordings. Simone wrote or co-wrote just three of the songs, and her covers tended toward jazz-pop standards by the likes of Rodgers-Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael. She sounds gutsier and more confident when she sinks her teeth into more contemporary, bluesier material, like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” (covering the adaptation incorporating lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.). She’s also more forceful when putting highly individual stamps on traditional folk tunes, particularly “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Little Liza Jane.”

Some of these have hokey orchestration and backup choral vocals that, at their most dated, sound like a throwback to pre-rock days, or at least more at home on soundtrack LPs than pop-jazz ones. Some are live recordings that are more at home on albums than 45s, and not especially hitbound material, despite their virtues. But sometimes, wisdom prevails and the backup’s a simple jazz combo, as on the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send You,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” The sparser arrangements tend to be the most effective, especially on her stark, even spooky live adaptation of the folk standard “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” which has only her voice and piano until the very end.

There’s still too much jazz in this material to be labeled early soul, but Nina did more or less take a stab at the soul market with “Come on Back Jack,” an “answer” record to Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack.” It’s kind of fun, but also kind of contrived. More rewarding is the 1963 B-side “Blackbird” (its composition credited to her and Herbert Sacker), which anticipates her more accomplished and personal work of the mid-to-late 1960s. Backed only by hard-to-identify percussion—it sounds like a combination of hands slapping, bongos, and an eerie pulsating vibration from another instrument—it takes the spiritual/gospel feel of much of Simone’s early work into almost avant-garde territory, with more than a hint of African folk. It’s not hit single stuff by any means, but that hardly mattered then, and it doesn’t matter at all now.

Taken on its own, The Colpix Singles give a fair idea of her musical progression, as fitful and erratic as it was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Almost half of The Colpix Singles isn’t on the best anthology of her work for the label (1996’s two-CD Anthology: The Colpix Years), though these tend to be the less impressive standards. Also note that with just over 78 minutes of running time, this could have fit onto a single CD. It wasn’t until her mid-1960s work for Philips—her best era—that she would truly blossom, in part because she developed a greater social consciousness, both in the songs she wrote and those she covered. (A longer review of this album appears in the May 2018 issue of Record Collector News.)

23. Alexis Korner, Everyday I Have the Blues: The Sixties Anthology (Grapefruit). Every serious fan of British rock knows his vital Korner was to getting the UK blues scene (and hence its blues-rock scene) going. Yet there might be no other figure in 1960s music—indeed, in British rock history—where there’s such a wide disparity between an artist’s vast historical importance and the mediocrity of his recordings. Korner himself once lamented his “appalling vocals,” and his gruff delivery could descend into outright tunelessness. He was an adequate guitarist, but certainly not a memorable one.

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This makes wading through his extensive discography something of a chore, weighed down as it often is by performances that are rather tame, sometimes even turgid, if you’re hoping for something on the level of the early Stones. Even this three-CD, 69-track compilation is rather selective. But while it doesn’t wholly avoid the mundane, it does students of British rock a favor in focusing on his more listenable output, spanning an April 1961 duet with Davey Graham through the fall 1969 sessions for his Both Sides Now album (issued in the Netherlands and Germany only). While there probably aren’t many Korner completists out there, it includes some pretty off-the-beaten path non-LP singles and tracks that only surfaced decades later on compilations.

Korner did classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Got My Mojo Working” with far less distinction than the best younger, far more rock-oriented bands in his wake. There was also a lingering staid jazziness to many of his arrangements, kind of as a hangover from the his trad jazz roots. Still, he did manage some relatively swinging R&B cuts with a jazzy tinge, like the rare 1962 flexisingle “Up-Town.” His subpar vocals were somewhat mitigated by his frequent deployment of guest singers, whether little known ones like Ronnie Jones and Herbie Goins, far better ones like Duffy Power, or future stars like Robert Plant. And fairly frequent instrumentals avoided the problems that came with vocals altogether.

Korner’s best recordings were those in which he pushed past the boundaries of conventional blues into something a bit more daring and original, whether drawing from modern jazzmen like Charles Mingus (the almost spy movie-like arrangement of “Haitian Fight Song”), or even world music. The weird interpretation of Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues” was aptly described by Korner as “a country blues gone Greek.” “Every Day I Have the Blues” benefits from a satisfying blues-jazz organ solo by Malcolm Saul.

The cuts from his rare Sky High album (recorded 1965 and issued the following year) with Power are among the best on the whole anthology. The moody, riveting “Long Black Train” (written by Power and Korner), in fact, is a genuine obscure British R&B gem, and the blues standard “Louise,” on which Duffy’s accompanied only by acoustic guitar and harmonica, quite good too. Korner’s almost spoken delivery manages to suit Sky High’s cover of Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation,” where the jazz horns are snazzy instead of stuffy. The same album’s “Floating” is a fine, wistful country-blues acoustic guitar instrumental—a nice break among the somewhat blustery R&B-jazz dominating his early-to-mid-’60s repertoire.

There’s also an unexpectedly fine, tough version of “Rosie” (the traditional song that supplied the basis for the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out”) from early 1967 by his short-lived trio Free At Last. If that’s Korner singing on this, it’s easily his best vocal performance, though it’s not certain from the liner notes who actually sang the track.

In the last years of the 1960s, Korner got a bit more eclectic and less jazz-flavored, and sang a bit better. “The Same for You” (from 1968’s A New Generation of Blues) even gets a bit into sorta psych-colored stream-of-consciousness, though the same LP had more conventional material like Power’s “Mary Open the Door”—done much better by Power on his own, alas, though Korner’s version isn’t bad. The next year, “To Whom It May Concern,” from Both Sides Now (though, oddly, included on the Dutch but not the German version), showed unexpected growth in its tender, bittersweet acoustic non-blues, and was perhaps his finest original composition.

With excellent, extensive annotation by David Wells, this almost ridiculously uneven collection is still a valuable document of the British blues godfather, and probably the only one even serious students of the style really need. (A longer version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)

24. Tim Hardin, Lost in L.A. EP (Entree). It’s unfortunate the documentation isn’t more thorough on this six-song, 12-inch Record Store Day release, though the brief liner notes infer that four of the six tracks were cut shortly after Hardin came to Los Angeles in late 1964. These were the four produced at World Pacific studio by Jim Dickson, a legendary figure in the birth of folk-rock for producing many early demos by the Byrds there, as well as co-managing that band. On these compositions, Hardin’s given basic backing by drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Jimmy Bond.

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A couple of them amount to no more than bluesy jams, “Blues (I Need You Like a Soft Breeze)” lasting a good eight minutes. Far more of his potential shines through on the jazzy, waltz-time “It’ll Never Happen Again” (re-recorded for his first LP) and “My Leading Lady” (not found elsewhere as far as I can tell), where his wistful, hurt romanticism comes to the fore. Should these have been cut in late 1964 or early 1965, they’re historically notable as being among the first quality tentative ventures into folk-rock. It would be nice to have an exact date for these.

As it would for the two other tracks, recorded “later” (that’s the closest there is to a date) by Frank Werber, the Kingston Trio manager who would himself get into rock production in the mid-1960s with We Five and others. Hardin sticks to a wholly acoustic format on these, “Turn the Page” sounding pretty reminiscent of “Reason to Believe.” (A full band version of that tune, recorded in September 1968, showed up on the anthology Simple Songs of Freedom: The Tim Hardin Collection.) “Speak Like a Child” would be re-recorded for his second album with a more orchestrated arrangement, though this sparser version is nice to hear.

25. Tim Buckley, I Can’t See You EP (Manifesto). The mountain of officially available Buckley recordings unreleased during his lifetime received another boost with this four-song, 12-inch Record Store Day release. Long known to exist, but only recently unearthed, these are the tracks from the circa early 1966 demo that landed Buckley his deal with Elektra Records. (A March 8, 1966 letter from Elektra chief Jac Holzman, reprinted on the back cover, serves as evidence it was received on March 4.) Although it doesn’t say so in the packaging, he was backed by the Bohemians, who included his songwriting collaborator Larry Beckett on drums, bassist Jim Fielder, and guitarist Brian Hartzler.buckley

Three of these four songs (“I Can’t See You,” “It Happens Every Time,” and “Grief in My Soul”) would be re-recorded for Buckley’s self-titled debut LP later in 1966; the only other version of the fourth, “Sixface,” is on Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions. Actually the sound and arrangements aren’t too much different from what’s heard on the first Buckley LP, though they’re not as tight and professional. In particular, Beckett would not be used on that album (though Fielder remained on bass), with guitarist Lee Underwood, drummer Billy Mundi, keyboardist Van Dyke Parks, and string arranger Jack Nitzsche doing much to enhance the material.

That makes this – in a chorus I use more and more in these best-of lists as time goes by – more of historical interest than an essential addition to an artist’s canon. But this is pretty interesting, and a considerable step forward from the far more rudimentary Bohemians demos from November 8, 1965 (added to the deluxe version of his debut as bonus tracks), which are the earliest Buckley recordings to have been issued. And “It Happens Every Time” and “I Can’t See You” are very good songs, though “Grief in My Soul” and “Sixface” are more pedestrian and forgettable.

Honorable Mention:

Van Morrison, Live in Boston 1968 (iTunes UK). Recorded sometime in August 1968 at the Catacombs club in Boston, this was on iTunes UK for just a few hours in November before getting promptly withdrawn. It had already been written about in much detail in Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks book, though this 68-minute tape is about fifteen minutes longer than the one he was able to hear. It captures Morrison onstage backed by just his acoustic guitar, flute player John Payne, and acoustic bassist Tom Kielbania. It’s speculated that it was only released so briefly to extend Morrison’s copyright on the material.

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Of all the “primarily of historical interest” releases on this list, this might be the least pleasurable as a listening experience, despite the big name attached to it. First, the fidelity isn’t so great—it’s listenable, but the vocals in particular are a bit tinny and hollow. More importantly, the bare-bones instrumentation usually doesn’t serve the songs as well as the studio versions, in part because there’s not nearly as much variety to the arrangements. Those songs include a few Astral Weeks numbers (a month, or a little more, before the sessions for that album started); a few he’d recorded in 1967 for Bang Records (including “Brown Eyed Girl”); an early version of “Virgo Clown” (not to appear as a studio version until 1970’s His Band and Street Choir); an unreleased original blues, “Train Train”; and an eight-minute version of “One Two Brown Eyes,” the B-side of his first single with Them back in 1964.

Although I don’t think the music’s so great, its historic value is substantial and undeniable, as the nearly year-long gap between Morrison’s first solo recordings for Bang and Astral Weeks isn’t so well documented. If you want to learn more about it, I wrote a long piece about the recording here.

Honorable Mention Sort Of:

The Moody Blues, In Search of the Lost Chord: 50th Anniversary Edition (Universal). Where do you put a 50th anniversary edition box set whose only compelling attribute is the visual material on the DVD, which comprises just one disc of this five-disc set? In the “honorable mention, sort of” category, I suppose. In Search of the Lost Chord wasn’t the greatest psychedelic record. Not only isn’t it among the hipper 50th anniversary superdeluxes this year, but it’s a record that provokes derisive snickers from some critics and listeners. Still, it was the second best LP of their post-Denny Laine era after Days of Future Passed.

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Does that mean you should get excited about the “original stereo mix,” “new stereo mixes,” “alternate album mixes,” “single masters,” and “5.1 surround mix” that fill up over half this box? No. In fact it’s on the extreme end of an approach that fills up all too many of these special editions: not even different takes, but different mixes, some of them not even from original or previous incarnations of the actual album. There are five 1968 BBC tracks; the non-LP B-side “A Simple Game”; and 1968 outtakes that showed up back in 1978 on Caught Live Plus Five. But even with a decent 76-page booklet as additional frosting, that still doesn’t add up to a must-have.

But—disc five, a DVD with nineteen songs from three 1968 TV broadcasts—is really good. I’d go as far as to say the ten songs on the July 13, 1968 French Ce Soir on Danse program are the best Moody Blues clips. These show the band playing entirely live (albeit in black and white) before a groovy audience that seems like it must have been screened for cool fashionability. It features not only highlights from  Days of Future Passed and In Search of the Lost Chord, but a good number of surprises: two songs from the Denny Laine R&B/beat era (“Bye Bye Bird” and “I’ve Got a Dream”), a decent cover of the Animals hit “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the unrecorded (to my knowledge) if fairly unremariable Justin Hayward composition “A Beautiful Dream,” and the pre-Days of Future Passed single “Fly Me High.”

The version of “Peak Hour” is a particular highlight, and not just because it’s one of their most underrated and hardest-rocking songs. It seems like there must have been a false start or breakdown when they messed up the harmonies on the first pass at the bridge; the song starts again, and (maybe thinking the best parts would be edited together?) they do a drawn-out rendition with two more passes through the bridge, both successfully completed this time.

A color September 1968 BBC episode of Colour Me Pop with most of the songs from In Search of the Lost Chord is less interesting, as the music’s from the studio recordings, though it seems at least some of the vocals are sung live to backing. Two songs (back to black and white) from another French broadcast later in 1968 fill out the disc, and while these aren’t as good as Ce Soir on Danse, it does have “Ride My See-Saw,” which didn’t make the earlier program.

Is this DVD so good you need to lay out for this fairly expensive box? Probably not, unless you’re a serious Moody Blues fan. Wouldn’t this DVD be better appreciated as a standalone, cheaper release? Sure. And if the DVD’s the only disc worth commenting on at length, should this entry have gone in my DVD best-of lists, not the reissue one? Maybe. But be aware this material’s out there, and worth seeing, whether or not you lay out for this superdeluxe.

 

The reissues below were released in 2017, though I didn’t get to hear them until after that year had passed. I think they’re worthy of coverage here, as a supplement to the 2018 list:

1. Elvis Presley, A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings (RCA/Legacy, 2017). As someone who’s long had the core singles and outtakes of Presley’s legendary Sun sessions, as well as quite a few of the other live recordings and more marginal outtakes that survive from the era, I was wary of investing in a three-CD set containing much material I already owned. It’s still not a bargain if you’ve already collected a lot of early Elvis, but I will say the package is quite impressive. Some of the material sees official release here for the first time, and while the newly unearthed studio outtakes aren’t great and are often fragmentary or tentative rehearsal-like performances, they carry historical interest. This has too many consecutive slow, lugubrious versions of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” than anyone would want to hear for pleasure, but more enjoyable previously unreleased rehearsals and outtakes of “How Do You Think I Feel” and “When It Rains It Pours” help compensate.

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More exciting is the 79-minute disc of 1954-55 live and radio performances on disc three. About half of it’s previously unreleased, and though the fidelity ranges from good to scratchy and muffled, the tracks include some R&B and early rock’n’roll covers Elvis didn’t record at Sun. The band don’t play quite as well as they do on the classic five Presley Sun singles, but they do perform with zest, and Scotty Moore’s guitar particularly impresses – certainly no one else in the world was playing in this aggressive rock’n’roll style before 1956. On some of the tracks, there are “some parts duplicated and edited to create near-complete performances,” but at least the liner notes admit this. And the 120-page book that accompanies this set is superb, with many rare photos and detailed text following Presley’s progress in an almost week-by-week fashion during these crucial years. The historical importance of this music is unquestioned even if you’re not an Elvis fan. But most rock’n’roll fans would agree that the best of this body of work, especially the ten songs that came out on 1954-55 singles, are early rock’n’roll at its best, and indeed Elvis at his best.

2. Pentangle, The Albums (Cherry Red, 2017). Pentangle were the best British folk-rock group except for Fairport Convention. This seven-CD box has all six of the albums the original incarnation recorded between 1968 and 1972, as well as a whopping 54 non-LP bonus tracks, 22 of which were previously unreleased. It’s not a physically imposing production, with all the discs enclosed in a CD-sized mini-box. But the packaging is very good, with an 88-page booklet including lots of vintage photos and memorabilia; recording notes; a chronology; many quotes from interviews with Pentanglers Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn; and essays on each of the albums. The discs are enclosed in sleeves reproducing the original artwork, including the gatefolds that some of the original LPs boasted.

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At their best—especially on their first three albums, and most especially on their third, 1969’s Basket of Light—Pentangle offered an intoxicating, extremely eclectic blend of folk, blues, jazz, rock, and a bit of gospel, pop, and world music. I’m not as big a fan of their next three LPs (all from the early ‘70s), which were more traditional in both repertoire and execution, though they were always capable and had some standout tracks. It’s nonetheless good to have them all in one place, and packaged so well.

The Pentangle fans likely to get this set, however, probably already have most or all of the music from the LPs, and quite possibly most or all of the 32 bonus tracks that have already come out on other releases. They’ll be most interested in the 22 previously unissued tracks, and in common with many such things, they’re more interesting than exciting. Many of them are alternate or live variations that aren’t too notably different from the familiar versions. Exceptions include a pair of outtakes from their first studio session in August 1967, “I Got a Feeling” (re-recorded for Sweet Child as “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and “Market Song” (a live version of which led off Sweet Child). In contrast to the Sweet Child version, the first attempt at “I Got a Feeling” is clumsy, almost pop-blues-rock, indicating that it took them a while to get comfortable with both their nascent folk-rock style and more at ease in the studio itself. “Market Song” is also unrefined (with an uncharacteristic electric blues-rock guitar solo and equally uncharacteristic unpolished McShee vocals), though they’d find their feet soon enough.

Other highlights from the unreleased batch include a quite good full-band version of Cox’s spooky “Moon Dog,” done on Sweet Child as a Cox solo track with just vocals and spare percussion. The full-band arrangement, in contrast, features McShee’s vocals, and comes closer to an equal mix of folk and rock than most of their work, though the sound quality is a bit lower than usual, deriving (according to the liners) “from an imperfect tape source.” Three cuts from an Aberdeen concert on March 26, 1970 include live versions of their early standouts “Light Flight” and “Pentangling.” The Reflection outtake “Wondrous Love,” an American Shaker hymn, has a mesmerizing somber, almost incantational feel (with what sounds like a faint fuzz guitar in the background) that would have made it a standout on the LP had it been included. At the less impressive end of the spectrum, three November 1972 live numbers from Guildford Civic Hall were taken from an audience recording, and suffer from substandard sound quality.

The 32 other tracks on this box that did not appear on the original versions of the first half-dozen Pentangle LPs are likewise usually not all that notable, at least relative to what was cleared for official release. You’d have to be a pretty big Pentangle fan to already have all of these cuts on other releases, but quite a few have been out as bonus tracks on the 2001 Castle CD editions of their first three albums; on Renbourn’s 1972 solo LP Faro Annie (included here because they are trio performances by Renbourn, Cox, and Thompson); or on the box The Time Has Come. The obvious standouts are the three that originally appeared as non-LP tracks on singles, including their ingratiating 1968 debut 45 “Travellin’ Song” (dressed up with strings, although unadorned live versions are easily findable on video, as well as on one of the bonus concert items for Sweet Child). The 1969 B-sides “Cold Mountain” and “I Saw An Angel” are here too (as bonuses on the Basket of Light disc), and are decent cuts in line with their late-’60s sound, though not lost gems.

For all its heft, this set doesn’t have everything. It misses more than two CDs’ worth of BBC tracks that have come out on compilations, as well as more than a CD of additional live, TV, and soundtrack recordings that appear on the four-CD 2007 box The Time Has Come. It still adds up to a worthy, though not quite all-inclusive, monument to the legacy of a band whose brilliantly British folk-rock blend has never been matched, or even replicated. Had I heard it at the time of its release, it would have made the Top Five of my 2017 list—but that’s what happens when you receive your review copy three-and-a-half months after it’s issued. (A longer review of this album appears in the April 2018 issue of Record Collector News.)

3. The Yardbirds, Yardbirds ‘68 (JimmyPage.com, 2017). It’s with great reservations that I put this two-CD set on this list. As many Yardbirds fans know, on March 30, 1968, the group—then just months away from breaking up, playing as a quartet with Jimmy Page on lead guitar—recorded a concert at New York’s Anderson Theatre. This wasn’t released at the time, but came out briefly in 1971 as Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page before Page had it withdrawn. Some of his displeasure was due to the sloppy overdubbing of audience cheers and roars. However, it’s long been bootlegged, and not that hard to acquire in some unauthorized guise.

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In 2017, Page remixed the recordings, placing them on one disc, and pairing it with another CD of 1968 Yardbirds studio outtakes, some of which have been issued here and there on archival releases. In its favor, the concert tapes do sound much better—like a real live album, not a tacky fake one. And while the Yardbirds’ career was waning due to largely substandard post-Jeff Beck studio tracks and only fitfully inspired songwriting, onstage they were still usually formidable, even if Relf’s vocals sometimes falter during this particular show. “I’m a Man” in particular was extended into something of a tour-de-force, while “White Summer” showcased Page’s solo folky side. Most famously, the performance also featured a pre-Led Zeppelin version of “Dazed and Confused”—never placed on any of the Yardbirds studio discs—that’s less bombastic than the more famous one by Page’s subsequent band.

But as much of a relief as it is to hear the music clearly without the bullfight cheers, some liberties have been taken with the recordings that were not just unnecessary, but diminish the integrity of the entire excavation project. On the live disc, most of singer Keith Relf’s between-song comments have been taken out. That’s not such a big deal, especially as they weren’t extensive and they’re on the bootlegs that most buyers of this new version will already have. However, the musical performances have themselves sometimes been edited, and some of the omissions—like the third verse of “Dazed and Confused,” and the instrumental quotes from “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” in “I’m a Man”—are not just inexplicable, but detrimental.

The main attraction of the studio disc is the inclusion of “Knowing That I’m Losing You (Tangerine),” which as the subtitle indicates was later reworked by Led Zeppelin into simply “Tangerine.” This recording has long circulated unofficially, and as a supremely eerie, folky piece with echoes of medieval English music, is one of the best things the Page-era Yardbirds did, even if it was unfinished. Criminally, the version on Yardbirds ‘68 is missing Keith Relf’s vocal, turning it into a far less complete-sounding instrumental. It’s a much greater violation than anything done to the live tracks on disc one, especially as “Knowing That I’m Losing You” has never before come out on an official release, and it’s by far the best of the largely marginal cuts on disc two—had the proper version been used, that is.

Also note that the liner note booklet, though including some interesting comments by the surviving Yardbirds and memorabilia reproductions, has a floridly haphazard design that sometimes makes the text difficult to read. On a couple pages, some of the type is actually impossible to read, no matter what the state of your vision. It’s the final touch on a release that could have been a significant correction to a major flaw in the Yardbirds’ discography, but ends up pretty flawed in its own right.

4. Peggy March, If You Loved Me: RCA Recordings from Around the World 1963-1969 (Ace, 2017). By far the least hip name on this list, Peggy March is almost solely known for her girl group-styled #1 hit from 1963, “I Will Follow Him.” She never made the Top Twenty again (and in fact only had three more Top Forty singles), but she was more than a one-hit wonder. In fact, she recorded a good number of catchy girl group-styled discs, if very much on the pop side of that style. And her voice was, if not as teeming with character as someone like the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss or even Lesley Gore, certainly sturdy and versatile.

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This typically good-value Ace compilation (with 26 tracks on one disc) is packaged like a survey of her international work, including tracks cut in Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy as well as the US. In fact, however, it comes close to being a best-of, with the conspicuous absence of “I Will Follow Him” (heard here in a Japanese-language version). “Can’t Stop Thinking About Him” (penned by a young Leon Huff) for instance, is easily as infectious as many an actual girl-group hit; “Leave Me Alone” (by a young Randy Newman) surprisingly husky downer pop; and “This Heart Wasn’t Made to Kick Around,” from 1967, has a wicked combination of fuzz guitar and swirling strings. If the obscure compositions by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (“Try to See It My Way”) and Mike Love and Brian Wilson (“Aren’t You Glad”) hardly rate among their greatest works (or greatest obscurities), they’re certainly interesting rarities.

Even the slighter items pass by pleasantly, and if you happen to already have one or two March best-ofs (as I did), there are some oddball European curios, especially the exotica-infused “Kilindini Docks” and the Ennio Morricone-arranged-and-conducted “Passo Su Passo.” It’s actually missing some worthwhile tracks, particularly her “I Will Follow Him” follow-up “I Wish I Were a Princess.” As a significant bonus, however, the liner notes have comments on each track by March herself.

Top Twenty (Plus) Rock Books of 2018

The rock book explosion kept on exploding in 2018, despite the uncertain state of the record business, the government, and the world in general. There were memoirs and biographies of everyone from superstars like Roger Daltrey and Paul Simon to artists you’d never suspect would have been (or made themselves) the subject, like the drummer of the Student Teachers.

Some of them—even some by and about artists who are big favorites of mine—were disappointing, and don’t appear on this list. But there were easily enough to fill up not just a Top Ten, but a Top Twenty and then some. There were also some worthwhile ones from 2017 I didn’t get to until this year, and as I’ve done for my past best-of lists, I’ve included supplemental picks from the previous year at the end of this one.

Most of these books were memoirs and biographies, but some of them had a different focus, whether on an album, era, or something else. One such work tops my list.

1. Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, by Ryan Walsh (Penguin). Although much of this does discuss the genesis and recording of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album, it’s not solely a history of that LP. Morrison was based in Boston when the material for Astral Weeks came together, and much else of interest was happening in that city that year, though it hasn’t often been documented in either rock histories or general histories of the era. Walsh also investigates the odd commune administered by folk musician Mel Lyman, who claimed to be God; the hype-driven “Bosstown Sound,” in which several so-so local bands were signed to record deals and touted as part of the next San Francisco-like scene (especially by MGM Records); the Boston Tea Party becoming one of the greatest venues for live rock concerts in the psychedelic era, functioning almost as a home-away-from-home for the Velvet Underground; and James Brown giving a televised concert right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a largely successful bid to quell possible rioting.

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Many books that try to link several different stories into one work end up covering too little in their attempt to cover too much. But Walsh succeeds in blending all of these and more—none of which might have made for a 300-page book on their own—into an excellent, absorbing narrative. What emerges is a picture of a countercultural scene in a major city that has somewhat escaped most histories of the period. The research is deep, drawing from many interviews with the participants (though not Morrison), and the prose flows gracefully.

If you’re interested in Morrison specifically, this has many details about his life in Boston that aren’t in even the most in-depth biographies of the singer. These include details about his erratic live performances (leading the short-lived Van Morrison Controversy); fractious relationships with industry figures in Bang Records and Warner Brothers; attempts to work with local musicians, some of whom Walsh tracked down and interviewed; descriptions of obscure unreleased studio and live recordings, Walsh getting to hear an actual nearly hour-long unreleased 1968 show (briefly released on iTunes UK in late 2018) in good fidelity; and some insight into his personal life with his wife of the time, and friends like Peter Wolf, whom Van became friendly with when Wolf was a DJ on a new underground rock station. The other material, however, should interest even most of the readers principally attracted by the Morrison coverage. It’s an excellent overview of the exciting mayhem that was brewing in Boston that year, much as it did in the late 1960s in the far more documented scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London.

2. Nobody Told Me: My Life with the Yardbirds, Renaissance & Other Stories, by Jim McCarty with Dave Thompson (self-published). McCarty was drummer in the Yardbirds, for whom he also co-wrote a good deal of original material; with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf, he later co-founded the original Renaissance, going on to play in numerous other less celebrated acts and various Yardbirds reunions. His memoir is almost everything you’d hope for from a member of a great rock band. Well over half the 300-page book is devoted to the Yardbirds in the 1960s—the five years or so for which McCarty will, justly, be primarily remembered. He discusses every phase of the band’s evolution with clarity, detail, and appropriately modest humor without overdoing it. He takes pride (again without overdoing it) in the band’s astonishing accomplishments, recognizing that their hunger for experimentation and innovation was just as important as their legendary trio of lead guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page). That sounds like what a memoir should do, but believe me, it often doesn’t, whether it’s by a rock musician or someone from another field.

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There are plenty of interesting stories here that even a Yardbirds fanatic won’t necessarily have come across, whether it’s how “Train Kept A-Rollin’” ended up having its distinctive double-tracked vocal by accident, or how McCarty missed some gigs on one of their last American tours due to depression. Although the post-Yardbirds sections can’t match the rest of the text, they’re certainly entertaining, especially when discussing the strange dissolution of Renaissance after its promising beginning. Again unlike many rock memoirists, he keeps the stories of non-musical hijinx to a minimum (though there are some good ones), seeming to know what fans are most interested in and how to keep these in check.

In the absence of a quality biography of the Yardbirds (though there have been a couple half-baked attempts), this is as good a book with the band as its focus as you could want, and highly recommended. While its design is basic, it nonetheless includes a good number of worthwhile photos, many of them rare or never before seen. As a self-published work, it won’t be the easiest pick on this list to find (or even find reviews of), but it’s easy to order online.

3. Let the Good Times Roll: The Autobiography, by Kenney Jones (Blink Publishing). Jones was drummer in the Small Faces, Faces, and the Who; almost anyone who’d take a look at this memoir would know this, though all three bands are in the subtitle to remind you just in case. Although not known as the most colorful member of any of these acts, this hits most of the crucial bases that make for a fine rock memoir. It’s very detailed; candid without being catty; pays a lot of attention to the music and records, as well as the personalities; and is clearly written, with plenty of interesting stories, not all of which will be familiar to fans of his groups. And though the Small Faces weren’t nearly as successful or famous as his subsequent two bands (especially in the US), Jones actually spends more time on them than the Faces or the Who.

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It seems the Small Faces are where Kenney had his best times, and that they’re the band he holds closest to his heart, though his frustration with the breakup caused by Steve Marriott’s departure is still evident. Drugs and other hedonism troubled the operations of his post-’60s acts to some extent. And while the Who gave his biggest payday, he’s frank about the failure of the band to reach their full potential during his stint with them (in part because of Pete Townshend’s failure to give them all his best material), as well as his strained relationship with Roger Daltrey. He also writes poignantly about his affection for Ronnie Lane in particular, and his regret over the illness that caused Lane’s premature decline and death.

Yes, there are some sections on the hobbies that many stars feel should be written about in books like this, even if they don’t interest fans nearly as much as the music. In Jones’s case, it’s polo and helicopters, as well as some sentimental childhood memories before the story really takes shape. But those sections, thankfully, aren’t that long, the bulk of the text dealing with his musical life and times from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. It’s a high-quality, highly readable, and likable book that got surprisingly little attention upon its release, and deserves more.

4. Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir, by Iain Matthews with Ian Clayton (Route). The parade of memoirs by Englishmen continues with this work by a singer-songwriter most known for his time with Fairport Convention, Matthews Southern Comfort, and Plainsong in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, though he’s remained an active recording and performing artist since then. He’s been through the highest highs—a #1 UK single (and substantial US hit) with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and a #13 US solo hit in 1978 with “Shake It”—but also the lowest lows, couch-surfing when he’s been between labels, jobs, and relationships.

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This swing between the extremes isn’t rare for musicians, but it’s not often told as well as it is in Matthews’s account. It’s plain-spoken; detailed about most phases of his career; and told with a personal flavor uncommon in books done with a collaborator. Even if you’re not familiar with his work beyond his first and highest-profile decade, the subsequent sections are pretty interesting, covering not only his wandering from London to Los Angeles and Seattle to Austin and Holland, but also a stint as an A&R man for Windham Hill. It’s also a reminder that after the 1970s, a lot of under-the-radar music was made by figures like Matthews that wasn’t as flashy or radical as the kind covered in hip indie magazines, but popular enough to sustain a following and performing/recording career.

His mishaps in the studio and onstage, tensions within bands, and failed relationships—and there are quite a few of these—are told with a calm acceptance as part of the deal of working in a volatile music business. His dysfunctional family background also holds some sobering surprises. If you’re most interested in the purely musical side, there are a lot of observations about his songs, records, and legends he’s worked with, including Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. It’s highly recommended both for its historical value and as a quick-paced, absorbing reading experience.

5. That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde, by Daryl Sanders (Chicago Review Press). For an album so roundly acclaimed as one of the greatest of all time, a lot of mystery has surrounded Blonde on Blonde. It will continue to do so, but this full book on the double LP is certainly the most in-depth account of its genesis, especially considering that details are sketchy even in some of the better Dylan books. The greatest point in its favor is that Sanders actually talked to several of the people involved in the recording—not Dylan himself, but the late producer Bob Johnston, and quite a few of the Nashville session musicians enlisted to back him (as well as Al Kooper).

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With the emergence of recording session details and, especially on the 18-CD collector’s edition of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, a wealth of outtakes, much more is known about Blonde on Blonde than was the case even ten years ago. But the author ties together its complicated evolution with clarity, starting with the unsatisfactory New York sessions in late 1965 that predated the bulk of the ones a few months later in Nashville. He also connects the record to the Nashville music/recording scene in general, and offers descriptive analysis of the songs themselves, including some overlooked obscure recordings that influenced the compositions. There are also sections on the album’s reception, influence, and artwork, as well as some uncommon illustrations, including manuscripts used at the sessions for a couple songs.

6. All Gates Open: The Story of Can, by Rob Young & Irmin Schmidt (Faber & Faber). There was a previous, unsatisfactorily perfunctory biography of Can, but this is really the first book to tell their story well. As an opening clarification, although Rob Young and Can member Irmin Schmidt are credited as co-authors, they actually didn’t write text together. The bulk of the volume—about 350 of the 550 pages—is a standard biography solely written by Young, while Schmidt “authored” the remaining 200 pages of interviews and diary entries.

Can

It’s really Young’s section that gives this its value. He interviewed all four core members from Can, also drawing on extensive interview material with their colorful singers (in different eras) Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki, and some others who drifted in and out of the band, if only on a part-time or supplementary basis. He spoke with other associates ranging from roadies to girlfriends, and describes all of the recordings in their extensive discography (including some very obscure ones and side projects), along with more video footage than almost anyone suspected existed. Yet it’s not a dry connection of details, putting the music in context with the German rock of the time, the overall European scene (including their UK tours), and the intersections between rock and serious contemporary composers that informed their work. Some pretty interesting little known nuggets pop up regularly, like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s letter attempting to stave Suzuki’s deportation (which was prevented by a different intercession from a major political figure), or Holger Czukay contributing to the band’s breakup by telling Schmidt’s wife Irwin was having an affair. The members’ post-Can projects and semi-reunions are covered, but not too extensively or more than necessary.

Schmidt’s part of the book should be considered an appendix, not a second half or something of the sort. Much of it’s devoted to transcriptions of interviews—not traditional ones where someone asks Schmidt questions, but roundtable discussions of sorts in which he participated with other musicians (most of whom started their careers after Can’s prime), artists, and other non-musical figures. Some interesting Can stories and observations dot these conversations, but really, there’s too much non-Can digression to belong in a book like this or jibe comfortably with the main biography. There are also Schmidt diary excerpts—not from the Can days, but from 2013 and 2014—that have far less Can-centric material. If the addition of Schmidt’s sections raised the price of the book, it would have been better not to use them, though considering the price is a not unreasonable $29.95, it might have made little or no difference to its cost. They can be treated as bonus tracks of sorts, skimmed or left unread if your primary interest is a quality conventional Can biography, which Young’s part supplies.

7. The Hard Stuff, by Wayne Kramer (Da Capo Press). Most known as guitarist in and (certainly as he tells it) leader, if anyone was, of the MC5, Wayne Kramer has written an expectedly hard-hitting, plainly spoken memoir of a journey that was both exhilarating and punishing. The first half of the book details his time in the MC5 in considerable depth, and that’s likely the chief attraction for most people interested in his career. The second half, also in detail, delves into his rough post-MC5 years, which found him not just often musically adrift, but also drifting into hard drugs and not-so-small-time crime. That landed him in prison for a few years. While that was decades ago, it was a hard climb back to both professional and personal stability, with plenty of other shaky musical alliances, serious dalliances with drugs and alcohol, and sketchy characters along the way.

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In limited reaction from some readers and MC5 fans I’ve seen, this bio has gotten a mixed reception, especially from some who feel he’s overblown his role. I did like the book, though. He discusses his musical highs and personal lows with hard-nosed comprehensiveness. It neither glosses over nor laments, or excuses himself for, the toughest and most controversial situations he faced and actions he took. I wouldn’t have minded, actually, some more coverage of specific records and songs; the exciting, distorted pre-Elektra album singles the MC5 did are barely mentioned, for instance. I admit I’m not as expert on the MC5 as I am on many other acts of the era, but there were still some unfamiliar stories to me, like his account of sessions for a second Elektra album that got aborted; his accounts of how he, and not Michael Davis, played bass parts on Back in the U.S.A.; and how cold industry figures like Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun turned on the group when they didn’t sell loads of records. More surprising is how cold relations turned between Kramer and manager John Sinclair when Sinclair was sent to prison, though they patched things up.

If the second half of the story isn’t as compelling as the first, it’s still pretty interesting for the most part. For one thing, not many memoirs spend so much time on the down-and-out portion of an artist’s life, and not many artists lives were as down and out as Kramer’s. Even post-prison, his struggles with substance abuse dragged out for so many years that you do find yourself starting to wish he’d finally kick his drinking habit instead of repeatedly relapsing. He finally does, near the end, where (in common with many such memoirs) the years speed by much more rapidly. But most of the ride makes for good if sometimes disturbing reading, with insights into the tension between art, politics, and music business commerce that are well worth weighing.

8. Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite: My Story, by Roger Daltrey (Henry Holt). Daltrey’s memoir is only half the length of Pete Townshend’s (Who I Am, published 2012), and if you’re looking for details about how many of their songs were recorded or why some of their B-sides were chosen, they’re not abundant. Nonetheless, I liked it, even if I would have liked more depth. In keeping with most people’s perception of the group’s dynamic, Daltrey’s straightforward and no-nonsense, where Townshend tends to be reflective and at times meandering. He also displays more humor, if in a subtle way, than you might expect, making his pride in the Who obvious without getting overblown or pretentious. And there are a lot of good stories here that aren’t all familiar to Who fanatics like me, especially on the band’s formation and complicated road toward their first hit records in 1965. If some classics are barely discussed or not discussed at all, there are still anecdotes about, to take just a few examples, how the vocals developed for “My Generation”; how he felt uncomfortable vocalizing “I’m a Boy”; how he helped write the bridge of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”; or his unhappiness with how his vocals were mixed on Quadrophenia.

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There’s also some honest perspective on his complex, if by now quite friendly, relationship with Townshend; the laughs but, more often, aggravation of putting up with Keith Moon; and the financial irresponsibility of managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. If you want more personal, somewhat salacious admissions, a few are here, like his 1965 loan (paid back) from the notorious Kray twins; his mild dalliance with downers in the 1970s; and his little-reported first marriage. He never dwells on these too often, though, in a refreshing contrast to many rock memoirs that go on about such non-musical matters at inappropriate length. I would have liked more (or virtually anything) on the few Who songs he wrote or co-wrote; if you want to find out how his folky “Here for More” wound up on a 1970 B-side, you’ve come to the wrong place. But it’s a good if pretty quick read, the bulk of it dealing with the Keith Moon era, the past few decades of Who tours/reunions occupying relatively few pages.

9. The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the ‘70s Rock Scene, by Laura Davis-Chanin (Backbeat). As Laura Davis, the author of this memoir was drummer in the Student Teachers, a late-’70s New York new wave band that put out a single on the Ork label, as well as getting a couple cuts on a compilation produced by Marty Thau. Unless you were paying pretty close attention to that regional scene then or collecting it now, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of them. They were one of many groups springing up in the wake of the first flowering of the CBGBs scene, many of whom, like the Student Teachers, not only didn’t achieve fame, but never released an LP.

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But this book is pretty good, whether or not you’ve heard of her band. Rather unbelievably, she was still going to high school—which she barely finished—while the Student Teachers were playing New York clubs, getting to know some of their inspirations. In Davis’s case, she got to know some of them pretty intimately, becoming the girlfriend of Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, with whom she lived for a while (and while still in high school). Destri also produced the Student Teachers, and helped introduce Davis to Bowie, with whom Jimmy played for a bit. And Destri doesn’t come off well in this book, struggling with substance addiction and egotism, and often treating Davis poorly, physically abusing her on occasion.

His name’s foregrounded in the subtitle, but Davis didn’t actually know Bowie that well, although she hung out with him alongside Destri a few times. The book’s more notable as an account of young, enthusiastic teenagers getting so galvanized by the New York punk/new wave scene that they formed a band, getting a sniff of the big time before, as so often happens, drug problems and infighting wore them out fast. In some respects, Davis remained a normal teenager, watching network sitcoms, making money as a babysitter, and struggling to pass high school exams. In others, her life was utterly unusual, not quite successfully balancing those activities with nocturnal clubbing, drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll in the New York underground (which was swiftly becoming overground as bands like Blondie got hits). A good storyteller, she writes about the music and the lifestyle with candor (if occasional sentimentality), including her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis after getting thrown out of the Student Teachers. You can read my interview with her about the book here.

10. Paul Simon: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Simon & Schuster). There have been previous biographies of Simon (and Simon & Garfunkel), most of them not very good. This has the crucial advantage of being the first to draw upon extensive interviews with Simon himself, along with many of his associates (though not Art Garfunkel), some of whom, like his ex-wives, have seldom or never spoken to biographers. It’s a thorough account of his rise from Brill Building hopeful to folkie, folk-rock stardom with Garfunkel, and his eclectic and largely hugely successful solo career. It’s not extremely lively, but then, Simon hasn’t had the liveliest of celebrity rock star lives, though it’s been interesting enough. As you’d expect, interest lags in the final sections, and his post-Graceland work—thirty years—only takes up about a quarter of the book, though there’s no reason it should occupy more space. This doesn’t make the best of the previous Simon bios (Peter Ames Carlin’s Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, from 2016) redundant, but it is the best overall book on the singer-songwriter, and likely to remain such, given the exclusive access to the subject.

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11. All in the Downs, by Shirley Collins (Strange Attractor). Collins is a legend in British folk music with a recording career stretching back to the mid-1950s (albeit with a very long break after the 1970s), though she’s far less known in the US than the UK. Her memoir is uneven but more often than not extremely interesting, both for her memories of her own music and her intersections with many notable figures. From the very dawn of the British folk revival, she was a crucial figure, both for her distinctively husky-yet-high voice—a likely influence on Sandy Denny, among many others—and her role in popularizing, if primarily in the folk community, many traditional British songs. She looks back on her life with candor and, though it’s not a dominant element, some humor, not smoothing over the rougher professional and personal patches.

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Collins doesn’t give equal weight to the most significant records of her career. There’s a lot of detail about her notable collaborations with her sister/organist Dolly, and guitarist Davy Graham. There could be more, though, on her 1970s work with the Albion Band, the closest she got to rock music. There are fairly frequent interjections of general observations about British folk music, and extensive quotes of lyrics from some of her favorite songs, that are not as notable as her recounting of her own experiences. Her writing is good, but the focus is somewhat diffuse and wavering.

As for the notables with whom she crossed paths, there are plenty of details—some painfully honest—about her 1950s affair with Alan Lomax. (There’s more about that in her previous book, America Over the Water; if you’ve read that, note that there’s not much overlap between that volume, which concentrated mostly on her 1950s trip to the US to collect field recordings with folklorist Lomax, and this overall autobiography.) There’s also a lot about her 1970s marriage to Ashley Hutchings, in which the Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span/Albion Band stalwart comes off for the most part as a cad. (She broke up with first husband Austin Marshall, as she remembers in one of the more candid sections, in large part because he “loved jazz and I hated it.”) And there are sections of less, but still at times noteworthy, interest about her struggles to support himself after withdrawing from professional singing in the 1980s, and her comeback in recent years.

Here is a passage, by the way, bound to warm the heart of every music nerd who has endured scolding from parents and other authority figures for “wasting” money on records and books, in remembering working at Collets Bookshop in London as a teenager: “It was here I found the two volumes of Cecil Sharp’s and Maud Karpeles’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, a collection that was, at that time, unknown to me. They were priced at 63 shillings for the two volumes, one of ballads, the other of songs. I bought them with my first two weeks’ wages – 32 shillings a week. I had to live very frugally for a while, buying buns for lunch from the baker across the road, and a packet of dried chicken noodle soup for my evening meal. With no protein and no vitamins I got very run-down that winter, and had painful chilblains on my heels. It’s called ‘suffering for your art,’ but I maintain to this day that it was the best money I ever spent.”

12. Bring It On Home, by Mark Blake (Da Capo Press). For all their success, Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, has been a somewhat murkily documented character, if notorious for some incidents of thuggish behavior. This biography does a good deal to flesh out the story of this rather larger-than-life figure, even if some of the seamier stories that have circulated around him turn out to be exaggerated or, perhaps, never have occurred. Although his childhood and early adulthood remain pretty shady, the picture gets clearer with his entry into the rock’n’roll business in various lower-level capacities with Gene Vincent, the Animals, producer Mickie Most, and others, eventually resulting in him being handed the manager’s reins for the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds almost by accident. Some of the book’s most interesting sections are in these early chapters, which give a sense of how the UK music industry was reinventing itself on the fly during the British Invasion, when brasher and more assertive rock bands were changing the rules with unprecedented speed.

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Grant distinguished himself enough in his year and a half as Yardbirds manager to stay in that position when Page formed Led Zeppelin. (As an aside, in one of the volume’s more interesting anecdotes, Page contends that contrary to many reports, Dusty Springfield did not play a role in getting them signed to Atlantic Records.) Drawing on interviews (not all done specifically for the book) with everyone in Zeppelin except John Bonham, and previously unpublished interviews with Grant himself, a portrait emerges of a man who could be effectively boorish and threatening on behalf of his clients, yet also fiercely devoted to their artistic freedom and financial gain.

There really isn’t enough Grant-centric material to make a long book, and it also covers much of Led Zeppelin’s general career along the way. That doesn’t get in the way, however, of a reasonably informative and entertaining tale, also taking in the band’s Swan Song label, whose clients included Bad Company, the Pretty Things, and lesser-known acts like Detective and Maggie Bell. Grant’s decline—coinciding roughly with Led Zeppelin’s dissolution, and, like many a rock star, involving substance abusive and general erratic behavior—is also covered, though the post-Zeppelin years are understandably only sketched out. I find Led Zeppelin more interesting to read about than to listen to, and this work falls squarely into that category, both for its examination of a complex man and its reflection of how rock management changed (and to some degree needed aggressive managers to give their clients a fair deal) as the rock business grew to elephantine proportions in the 1970s.

13. I Brought Down the MC5, by Michael Davis (Cleopatra). Published six years after his death, the memoir of MC5 bassist Davis appeared the same year as the autobiography of fellow MC5er Wayne Kramer (see review earlier in this post). The pair will generate some unavoidable comparisons, especially as they offer some differing perspectives on the group’s stormy career and demise. I’m not enough of an MC5 fanatic to champion one side of a debate, but I do think Kramer’s book is more detailed and better written. But Davis’s work is still worthwhile, even if it’s not as focused and the production values are a bit rudimentary.

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There are some similarities to the two’s lives. Both had a tough post-MC5 life that saw spells in prison, drug dealing, and substance abuse, though generally Kramer ultimately pulled himself together better. Davis is neither proud of nor apologetic for his behavior, recounting with candor that verges on the matter-of-the-fact. If you think that’s cool, think again: that behavior included DUI, leaving the scene of an accident he caused, telling a woman she was on her own after she informed him he’d made her pregnant, and hitting that woman years later (they ended up living together anyway; long story). Looking back on those mishaps with honesty doesn’t make them any less harmful.

As for the music and the MC5, yes, there’s plenty of that, including his exhilaration as the band morphed from a high-energy cover act to something more original and revolutionary. If the coverage of the records and their label relations is a little spotty, there are still plenty of interesting memories of recording their albums (and their obscure pre-LP singles); the frustrations of not reaching a wide audience and being abandoned by the companies that signed them; and the tensions that led to their piece-by-piece dissolution. There’s also, as in Kramer’s book, a good deal of space for his post-MC5 drift through numerous bands of variable quality, most famously Destroy All Monsters. There’s nothing on his final decade—maybe he just ran out of gas for the project, even though that final decade included reunion performances with Kramer and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson. That’s just as well—that’s not the era that’s most interesting, and there’s plenty here.

14. Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to the Dark Side of the Moon, by Bill Kopp (Rowman & Littlefield). With the abundance of literature about Pink Floyd, is there room for yet another book on the band, albeit one focusing mostly on the years between 1968 and 1973? Yes, and not just because these are the most interesting years of their career, save for the pre-1968 Syd Barrett era. As a disclaimer, I did write one of the back cover blurbs for this volume. But I stand by what I stated: that it combines research into their classic albums and a wealth of little known and unofficial recordings with astute and entertaining analysis. Unlike many historians, Kopp digs into specific songs and recordings both in detail and with perceptive, highly readable commentary. These include not just the official LPs, but also early non-LP singles, the abundance of material that recently became available on the huge Early Years box, and quite a few live and studio tracks that remain unofficially available. Usually such more obscure work is simply noted and/or catalogued in books, but Kopp integrates his descriptions and evaluations with the story of their just-post-Barrett evolution as a whole. Not a lot of first-hand interviews were done for the book, but they do include some figures with interesting comments on the early Pink Floyd story, such as early co-manager Peter Jenner, Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley (who drummed on some Barrett solo recordings), Ron Geesin, Steve Howe, and Nice guitarist Davy O’List.

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15. Long Distance Voyagers: The Story of the Moody Blues, Vol. 1 (1965-1979), by Marc Cushman (Jacobs Brown). Considering their popularity, it’s a little astonishing it took until 2018 for a truly comprehensive biography of the Moody Blues to hit the market. (Nerd note: Although the publication date is given as December 10, 2017 on the copyright page, it did not ship until January 2018.) This isn’t a great rock bio, but it certainly is thorough, taking up nearly 800 pages (though the final 80 or so are devoted to a discography, bibliography, and footnotes). While only two of the five main members (Mike Pinder and the late Ray Thomas) were interviewed by the author, it draws from a staggering wealth of vintage interviews and reviews. Thus it reconstructs and guides the reader through all of their recording sessions and tours. The focus is on the 1967-1972 period that saw the recording of their seven most beloved albums (starting with Days of Future Passed), but their earlier R&B/British Invasion pop period with Denny Laine as lead singer and (with Pinder) main songwriter is not neglected, getting a lot of space too (with Laine’s post-band activities getting some coverage as well). Their less interesting mid-to-late-’70s period, dominated by solo/duo albums and a comeback with 1978’s Octave, is also dealt with in depth.

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This wealth of info does have a downside. If you’re not a Moody Blues fanatic, the sheer bulk of quotes from album and concert reviews (as well as detailed lists of how well some of their singles performed in specific radio charts all over the US) can be too much. Having all that material at hand is kind of neat, but it’s used so heavily that the book’s not as readable as other huge rock bios that employ similarly deep research, such as Johnny Rogan’s 1200-page Byrds tomes. The author’s frequent interjections of fannish, personal rebuttals to the band’s negative reviews (of which there were a good number) are unnecessary and diminish the objectivity that would give his work greater credence. There is also such an abundance of typos, with many of the years referenced just one digit off, that it seems like the book might have been rushed through production. Even the years in the title are given differently on the cover (1965-1979) and the copyright page (1964-1979). Still, the sheer quantity of information makes this worth having for those with a serious interest in the group’s creative prime, especially as many of the nuts and bolts details of their career have remained surprisingly obscure given the band’s popularity.

16. The Beatles on the Roof, by Tony Barrell (Omnibus Press). On January 30, 1969, the Beatles famously gave their last live performance on the roof of Apple Records in London, filmed for posterity for the Let It Be movie. Much has been written about that occasion, but can you make a whole book out of it? Barrell does, and fairly successfully, though he needs to cover a lot of other things going on in the group’s career in late 1968 and early 1969 to pad it to book length. Even then it’s not too big (175 pages), and some references to contemporaneous non-musical developments in world affairs are kind of gratuitous, and could easily have been cut.

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Still, nearly half a century after the event, Barrell did manage to incorporate some fresh research, including interviews with people who were there—Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Beatles business associate Peter Brown, assistants to the Beatles, the Apple receptionist, and even a number of fans and policemen who managed to watch the concert. Even Beatles fans who know a great deal about this period might find some interesting stories here that haven’t been often reported, like George Harrison’s attempt (which apparently didn’t get too far) to write a musical about everyday life at Apple with publicist Derek Taylor. It’s a quick read that might go over some familiar territory for Beatles fanatics, but ties together the events leading to the performance pretty well, also covering some other key factors (especially in their January 1969 recording and film sessions) leading to tension within the group.

17. The Doors: Summer’s Gone, by Harvey Kubernik (Otherworld Cottage Industries). Over a period of decades, Kubernik’s done interviews with all the Doors (except Jim Morrison), numerous close and not-so-close associates of the band (ranging from producer/engineer Bruce Botnick to a bodyguard), and numerous people who just saw wrote about or had some contact with them. Excerpts of many of these, plus a few reviews, are in this oral-histories-of-sorts anthology.

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The design’s basic low-budget and the organization is a little scattered. But for the serious Doors fans (I’m one), there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, albeit with some fairly trivial material and inessential basic Doors criticism/appreciation in the mix. There are, as examples, interesting instances of unsuspected recordings by the likes of Jimmy Smith and Blood, Sweat & Tears cited as influences on specific Doors songs—not only by whimsical critics, but also by the Doors themselves. There are unexpected encounters Morrison had with stars like the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings, and fairly revealing comments from figures not often interviewed for other Doors histories, like one of Morrison’s numerous girlfriends, Anne Moore. This is by no means among the first Doors books you should pick up, but it’s a worthwhile addition to the shelf if you want to hoard as much as you can about the group.

18. Channelling the Beat!: The Ultimate Guide to UK ‘60s Pop TV, by Peter Checksfield (peterchecksfield.com). This hefty (700-page) tome is much more a reference book than a sit-down-and-read experience. Certainly it’s for serious collector nerds – the kind who want to know as much as possible about when and where almost every United Kingdom pop-rock act of the ‘60s appeared on film, including TV programs, promo clips, and movies. While most of this is sheer listing of such details, it’s doubtful a more thorough such work could ever be compiled. Checksfield covers the filmography of 150 UK artists, from superstar rock groups to women solo singers, cult acts like the Sorrows and the Action who never had much or any chart success, and pop-oriented people who never made an impact in the US. Sometimes he also covers their post-1960s clips, though the cutoff date varies.

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He doesn’t miss much, although if you’re so inclined, you’ll note the absence of interesting groups with limited success like Scotland’s Poets, and pretty big ones who started their career near the end of the 1960s (like Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Family, and Ten Years After). If you’re as steeped in this stuff as I am, you might find the very occasional missed clip (like Chad & Jeremy’s appearance on The Dick Van Dyke Show, albeit as the fictional “Redcoats”). But to my knowledge, there’s barely anything that escaped coverage. It doesn’t all read like an index, as there are some interesting details (beyond the mere dates and locations) about many of the clips that do survive for viewing. Indeed, I wished he’d put in some more such commentary, as he clearly knows the subject well, though he’s pretty generous in his assessments of the artists’ music. Then again, that might have made this already-floppy volume so big it would have been unpublishable. It’s certainly a valuable reference work on a topic no one’s tackled with such seriousness, and will send you online to look for many of the clips you’ve never seen, or even suspected existed.

19. Wasn’t That a Time, by Jesse Jarnow (Da Capo Press). Subtitled “The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America,” this is more about the Weavers than it is about the blacklist. But the Weavers did interweave, so to speak, more with their times than most major musical acts, getting targeted by a McCarthy-era blacklist that put them out of work for a few years. This is for the most part a Weavers biography, following the four principal members from their early-1940s roots in the left-wing folk group the Almanac Singers through their astonishing huge commercial success in the early 1950s and their reunions (some with altered personnel) from the mid-1950s onward. The author draws upon some rare documents and letters to aid research into a story where the most of the principal figures are no longer alive and available for interviews.

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It’s good to have a book focusing on the Weavers, whose career is also covered in parts of, but not the focus of, biographies of members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, as well as the memoir of another, Ronnie Gilbert. Still, it could have been better. The prose is sometimes too lofty or cutesy—the story’s interesting enough not to need such embroidery—and the transitions between their career mileposts are kind of clunkily documented, leaving some gaps and curiosity to hear more detail about some of their records. The essentials are here, including some aspects of their work that are seldom documented, such as a flop 1958 single incorporating elements of rock’n’roll (“Take This Letter”) so obscure it can’t even be called up online. Their serious and mild dalliances with left-wing politics are also examined, as are the folk community’s mixed reactions to their commercial success. However, it feels like it should have been a livelier and easier read.

20. Siren Song, by Seymour Stein with Gareth Murphy (St. Martin’s Press). Seymour Stein’s had a long and interesting career in the music industry, as an A&R man and, most famously, chief of Sire Records. His memoir is for the most part interesting, though your mileage will vary according to what era draws you the most and which artists he worked with are your favorites. For me, the best parts were the chapters on his lesser known pre-late-’70s years, starting with a teenage apprenticeship at King Records in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stein had a long climb to his success at Sire in the late 1970s with punk and new wave artists the Ramones and Talking Heads, bouncing around with different positions before co-founding Sire in the late 1960s with another colorful industry figure, Richard Gottehrer. Some of the best stories detail his chasing down UK artists, and/or US rights to same, who were neither that big nor much like the Sire music Stein is most associated with, like Fleetwood Mac in the Peter Green era, the Deviants, and Barclay James Harvest.

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Sire was pretty underground-oriented, and tuned in to the UK scene especially, as well as doing some of the first high-class reissues of vintage ‘60s rock. But it really developed as a force in contemporary music by scoring with some of the more commercial and most critically respected new wave artists, such as the Pretenders, the Cure, and Echo & the Bunnymen. Stein writes about his rise with a fairly effective balance of attention to the music business and the music itself, incorporating stories about his stormy personal life (often stormy because of his workaholic dedication to music) without overdoing it.

Sire got yet more commercial and less underground with Madonna, Depeche Mode, and Soft Cell, and even its more alternative acts, like the Smiths, were more commercial than almost anything else in the alternative scene. As the story nears the end of the twentieth century, the text focuses more on machinations (which were often cut-throat) within the music industry than the music. While these sections have their worthwhile aspects, it does start to get more like reportage of political chess than inside stories of musical evolution.

It’s also unlikely there’s much overlap between fans of, say, Peter Green and Madonna, meaning some passages will be of far less value to readers than others, no matter what their taste. In common with some other music executive memoirs, the chief linkage seems to be success, sales, and hits rather than a consistent musical aesthetic, relayed as if the reader will be equally interested in everything that made an impact.

Siren Song’s not a great book. The early sections on his childhood and adolescence are too long and sentimental; the accounts of greed and maneuvering within the industry get to be wearing by the 1990s; and his humor is sometimes witty, and sometimes sappy. Stein’s wide range of both artists he worked with and experiences in the business, however, ensure that a good deal of it will interest anyone with a generally avid curiosity about music of the last half of the twentieth century.

21. The Velvet Underground in Chicago, by Alfredo Garcia with pictures by Allan Lee Koss (self-published). We’re talking super-specialized, super-limited, and very much mostly of historical interest here. If you’re a fanatical Velvet Underground fan, however, you might be interested in this 68-page limited edition book. The key content is comprised of eleven previously unpublished full-page photos of the Velvets at the Kinetic Playground club in Chicago in April 1969. These are pretty high quality black and white shots of the Doug Yule lineup (who weren’t photographed on stage all that often) in action, with a couple striking pictures of Reed dominating the frame at the mike with his guitar. To fill out the slim volume, there are reprints of press clippings, ads, and posters related to all of their Chicago gigs between 1966 and 1970, some of which (like the flyer for their White Light/White Heat release party at Aardvark Cinematheque on February 1, 1968) have been seldom seen. The price is thirty Euros plus shipping and handling, and maybe it’s already sold out, as a mere 150 copies were printed.

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These books were published in 2017, but also deserve mention:

1. Every Night Is Saturday Night, by Wanda Jackson with Scott B. Bomar (BMG, 2017). Roundly and deservedly recognized as the best woman singer of rock’s early years, Jackson’s autobiography is a decent overview of her music and life, if not as fiery as her finest rockabilly records. The writing’s a bit cutesy at times, but the music takes equal or slightly greater footing than her personal life—not always the case in memoirs, especially for singers who’ve had success in the country field. In fact, there’s more detail about her early songs, records, and concerts—the things that fans care the most about, as opposed to home life and religion (though there’s some of that too)—than there is in most of the memoirs by her rockabilly/country peers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Jackson realizes that people who like her music are genuinely interested in her body of work—including the flop singles and obscurities as well as the most famous tunes—and gives her accounts of quite a few of these, with clarity and perspective.

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While Jackson’s still an active performer, the great bulk of the book documents her pre-1970 prime as a recording artist, covering both her rock’n’roll and country sides. There are fairly interesting stories about a lot of her fellow country and rockabilly acts, and quite a bit about her dealings (largely positive ones) with producer Ken Nelson and Capitol Records, as well as her early association with Decca and mentor Hank Thompson. Later chapters deal with her embrace of faith in her later decades, without dwelling on it too much, and accompanying ventures into gospel. Her return to rockabilly in recent decades is also in the final section, including her sessions with Jack White for a 2011 album.

Naturally there will be curiosity about what she has to say about her mid-’50s relationship (actually rather brief and fitful) with Elvis Presley. She demurs from getting too explicit, but does emphasize how much encouragement he gave her to rock out instead of sticking with the fairly conventional country with which she started. It’s also notable she remembers Elvis being cognizant of larger forces igniting the rock’n’roll revolution: “Elvis was always explaining to me and Daddy that most entertainment was aimed at adults or married couples, but this new kind of music appealed directly to young people. He’d say, ‘I’m telling you, they have some money now and they’re buying the records. They’re the ones calling the radio stations requesting songs, and they can make or break you. You need to aim your songs at that audience if you want to sell a lot of records.’”

2. I, Sideman, by Jackie McAuley (www.jackiemcauley.com, 2017). Jackie McAuley’s name isn’t familiar to many rock fans, but ‘60s/’70s British rock obsessives know him as an interesting, even important, member of several fine acts. The most famous by far of them is Them, for whom a teenage McAuley played organ for a few months around late 1964/early 1965. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he was also the singer in the subsequent interesting Them spin-off band the Belfast Gypsies, and half of the folk-rockish Trader Horne with original Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble. He also did an obscure but not-bad solo album in the early 1970s, played with a bunch of little known bands in the ‘70s, and played on a lot of sessions by other artists. It adds up to an interesting life, but self-published memoirs by such figures aren’t always interesting, or well written.

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Fortunately, this one is, covering all of the career junctures mentioned above, as well as his family’s tough roots in Belfast and a bit on his later years, including a stint playing with skiffle king Lonnie Donegan. His brief time in Them, probably what he’ll always be most famous for, is covered in reasonable depth, including both the exhilarating musical highs and, unfortunately, the lows dealing with a punishing tour schedule and exploitative management. It’s disappointing, however, that he doesn’t say more about the Belfast Gypsies’ pretty good LP (in which he played a major role) and gets some of that band’s chronology wrong. It’s also too bad he says hardly anything about his early-’70s solo album, though he admits, with little apparent remorse, that he did nothing to promote it.

Whatever’s he’s relating, however, is written with wry humor and mature perspective, accepting the rough bumps in a journeyman musician’s road as fair trade for his compulsion to make a lifelong career out of music. Along the way were unexpected encounters, related in a very entertaining fashion, with a widely disparate array of stars ranging from Gene Vincent and Jack Bruce to Paul McCartney and Viv Stanshall. In spite of his harsh baptism by fire with Them (who fired him when the hectic pace of life on the road burned Jackie out), he offers high praise for both their music and inspiring his own musical path, enthusing about an early gig (before he joined): “Seeing the band that night was like finding the last piece of life’s jigsaw puzzle.” Although this book isn’t likely to show up at your neighborhood store or get many reviews, it’s easily available through McAuley’s website, www.jackiemcauley.com.  (My interview with McAuley about the book is in the summer/fall 2018 (#48) issue of Ugly Things.)

3. Earth Bound: David Bowie and the Man Who Fell to Earth, by Susan Compo (Jawbone, 2017). I’m a big fan of the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, and felt doing a whole book on the film (and not just star David Bowie’s role in it) was a good overdue idea. This does have a lot of detail on the movie’s origination, shooting, and critical reception, and draws on interviews with many people involved in the production (although not Bowie). Somehow it’s not as exciting a story as I’d hoped, and maybe it’s too much to expect a book on the making of a cult movie to be as interesting as what’s on screen. Filmmaking requires a lot of fairly mundane tasks, and there are stories about costume design, hauling equipment, makeup, and the reactions of locals in New Mexico (where much of the movie was done) that are more ordinary than the images being captured. Livelier are the anecdotes of how the book on which it was based made its way into celluloid form; how Bowie was enlisted to star (those stories vary); and where exactly some of the exotic scenes took place. Fans of his music in particular will be interested in the chapter on the soundtrack, especially its dissection of what exactly Bowie recorded in anticipation of his music getting used, and why none of it ended up in the picture. It’s a supplementary addition to the mounting pile of huge Bowie-related literature (including a book of pictures by the movie’s unit photographer; see review below), capably told.

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4. The Raincoats, by Jenn Pelly (33 1/3/Bloomsbury, 2017). Like other entries in the extensive 33 1/3 series, this is a short (about 150-page) palm-sized book about a specific album, this one examining the Raincoats’ self-titled debut. Unlike many other books in the series, it includes material from recent first-hand interviews with the band and their manager, as well as Rough Trade head Geoff Travis, producer Mayo Thompson, and some of the Raincoats’ British post-punk peers and musicians influenced by the group. There’s also some commentary about the author’s personal reaction to the music and its feminist context, though the emphasis is on the record, its history, and its songs. There are enough interesting stories (example: they were invited to, and played in, a Warsaw performance arts festival after only having done a few shows) to make you wish the book was longer considering how much valuable source material was accessed, or that it could be expanded into a full volume on the Raincoats. What’s here does a lot to illuminate the genesis of one of the most interesting early post-punk bands, and one of the genre’s best albums.

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5. David Bowie in the Man Who Fell to Earth, by Paul Duncan (Taschen, 2017). Although it’s not a coffee table book, this 480-page, 5.5 X 8 inch hardback volume features hundreds of stills and behind-the-scenes pictures by David James, unit photographer on the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. The captions include quotes from Bowie, director Nicholas Roeg, and others who worked on the film, and Paul Duncan’s essay (in English with German and French translations) has an overview of the history of the production. I would have liked this better if the script was also included; with so much blank space on pages with the captions, as is the publisher’s custom, that might have fit. But it’s a good visual record of much of what took place in the filming, reasonably priced at $20.

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6. Wild Thing: A Rocky Road, by Pete Staples (New Haven, 2017). Certainly this won’t make anyone’s best-of list unless you’re a very big fan of the Troggs and the British Invasion. But I am on both counts, so here it is, even though this slim (185-page) memoir by the bass player of the Troggs isn’t that great or informative. It’s readable, though—faint praise, but plenty of small press rock memoirs aren’t—and has some interesting stories about the murky beginnings of the band, who were actually formed from the ashes of rival groups in Andover, England. There are also some entertaining anecdotes about their biggest hits (“Wild Thing” and “Love Is All Around”), touring the UK and US, and disputes with their managers, especially Larry Page (most famous for his slightly prior involvement with the Kinks).

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What’s missing? There are barely any observations about how the Troggs molded their distinct if rudimentary sound, or about most of the records—not just some of the other hits (like “I Can’t Control Myself”), but also the albums on which Staples played. Sure, singer Reg Presley was both the band’s focus and its primary songwriter, but you’d think Staples might have more to say about this. He does have plenty to say about relatively superfluous matters like his non-musical jobs, his family background, and various households in which he’s lived over the years.

There are also poignantly sad recollections of how he was unexpectedly fired in May 1969—at least, Staples himself had no idea it was coming. He’s probably unaware of Presley telling rock journalist (and co-founder of Rhino Records) Harold Bronson years later that Staples “supposedly played bass better than I, although I wonder about that now…this guy was one step simpler than we were—he was an idiot.” Staples isn’t an idiot, judging from what he wrote in his book, but he probably could have penned a better one.

7. Lucky Man, by Greg Lake (Constable, 2017). Considering Lake’s superstardom in Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and important role in early King Crimson), his autobiography received relatively little attention. That’s probably in part that’s because, sadly, he died shortly before it was published. It’s not a major work, not going into as much depth as many memoirs by comparable figures do, and with a rather light skipalong tone that doesn’t linger on many incidents too long or ponder on interior motivations too much. Still, it has its share of interesting stories about early King Crimson and ELP, the latter group expectedly taking up the bulk of the book, as he was with them much longer and much more famously. Lake hasn’t always been recalled with fondness by his associates, but he’s a likable narrator, recounting the genesis of numerous songs and albums without getting immodest, also touching upon the most memorable tours and concerts. The story does drag after ELP break up and Lake (in common with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer) drift through fairly forgettable solo and group projects and reunions, though his admission (at the very end) that he was suffering from terminal illness as he finished the book is poignant.

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8. A Foreigner’s Tale, by Mick Jones (Rocket 88, 2017). As the title makes clear, this is the Mick Jones from Foreigner, not the Clash guy of the same name. Foreigner was by far his most successful project, and non-fans of their mainstream AOR rock might justifiably assume there’s nothing to see here. But even some non-Foreigner fans are well aware that Jones had a long and pretty interesting pre-Foreigner career dating back to the early 1960s. Those readers should know that the entire first half of the book is devoted to the pre-Foreigner years. And they were pretty interesting, taking in a very lengthy spell in France where he collaborated with top French pop stars Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan, and Francoise Hardy, as well as doing a stint with Spooky Tooth upon his return to the UK in the early 1970s.

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This isn’t the most elaborate rock memoir, running to a couple hundred large format pages in which the text often takes up half the space or left. That’s okay, though, because it doesn’t waste words. Jones tells his story simply, but with humor and clarity. It avoids unnecessary bloating of his days as a journeyman of sorts, his contributions usually coming as songwriter or session musician/accompanist rather than featured artist. While I did find those relatively little known days to be the most interesting focus, if you are a Foreigner fan, he writes with similar likable, keeping-to-the-essentials candor about his superstar days. Even if you aren’t a Foreigner fan, you might find many observations from this era about the way a band catches on and the machinations of the record industry (which are of course intimately related) interesting, as I did. The photos and other illustrations aren’t amazingly rare or fascinating, but complement the text reasonably well. Like other Rocket 88 books, by the way, this isn’t available in stores, but can be purchased online.

9. Memory of a Free Festival: The Golden Era of the British Underground Festival Scene, by Sam Knee (Cicada, 2017). This is a slight 144-page volume, with a few brief (if intelligently written) chapters amongst captioned photos (with a few posters sprinkled in) of free British music festivals from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. There’s a nod to these events’ roots in folk and jazz fests, but the bulk of the content is oriented toward the rock festivals that began to sprout during the psychedelic era, continuing in some form for the next two decades, even as the music eventually encompassed punk. The photos, though, are good and offbeat, and just as often of the audience as the performers, the most colorful of these coming from the hippie period, as expected. There are some interesting artist shots too, like the Move and Tomorrow at 1967’s Woburn Festival; Phil May of the Pretty Things at the 1968 Hyde Park Free Festival; David Bowie at 1969’s Beckenham Free Festival (the occasion inspiring his song “Memory of a Free Festival”); and the Slits with the Pop Group at Glastonbury in 1979.

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10. When Ziggy Played the Marquee (Iconic Images/ACC Editions, 2017). When David Bowie filmed his TV special The 1980 Floor Show at the Marquee Club in London in October 1973, it marked the last time he performed in Ziggy Stardust character. (Although Spiders from Mars Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder were in the band, drummer/Spider Woody Woodmansey was not, Aynsley Dunbar now handling those duties.) Photographer Terry O’Neill spent the day at the club when the special was being produced, and this 205-page book is primarily devoted to his pictures from the occasion, usually focusing on Bowie, although some other participants in the program (including Ronson, Bolder, Dunbar, Marianne Faithfull, Amanda Lear, and Ava Cherry) are also seen. This was an historic event worth commemorating in book form for Bowie fans, but too many of the images are too similar to each other to mark this as a notable volume if you’re not a fanatic or near-fanatic. It’s spiced up, however, by large-print quotes and brief interviews/recollections of some of the performers and eyewitnesses, including O’Neill, Lear, Cherry, Jayne County, producer Ken Scott, and Ronson’s wife.

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11. The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, by David Weigel (W.W. Norton, 2017). As an overview of a much-maligned genre that’s received little serious book-length attention (aside from dedicated single-artist biographies), this is adequate, if flawed. Although he interviewed some key figures, the author relies heavily on second-hand quotes, though from numerous sources (some obscure) and properly documented in the footnotes. It covers highlights and shifts in the careers of most of the major prog-rock players of the late ‘60s and 1970s (Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Mike Oldfield, and so on), and some of the more well known cultish ones (Soft Machine, Gong, Van der Graaf Generator).

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Most of the focus, as is proper, is on British groups, though there’s some coverage of North American acts (like Kansas and Rush) and European ones (like Focus, PFM, and Aphrodite’s Child) who owed much to the form. Serious prog collectors will be disappointed at the scant mention of less celebrated acts, as well as the patchy attention given to the big ones. Pink Floyd, for instance, are covered, but rather fitfully, though there’s certainly no lack of information on them elsewhere. For those looking for something that simply connects the dots of the movement and pitches in some amusing/interesting stories, however, it does the job well enough. The final chapters on post-’70s prog-rock revivalists, and the descent of major prog acts into pop and reunions, are by far the least interesting, though they don’t take up too much of the text.

Top Ten Rock Documentaries of 2018

A wide variety of rock history films continued to be issued in 2018, even if there aren’t nearly as many such films as there are books and reissues. Even though just ten are listed here, the range is pretty extraordinary. You have reissues of long-available films with significant extra DVD content; first-time releases of important performances by rock legends; straight, or more or less straight, documentaries; and even a bootleg compilation of outtakes. The featured artists run from the biggest (the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, the Doors, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones) to the cult (the Slits). Some of those cult artists are even cultier than the Slits, to the point where it’s hard to believe a film was made about them (Robbie Basho, the Rising Storm). Another movie was so hard to track down if you didn’t subscribe to the right service that I ended up watching it on an airplane.

Note that in order to stretch the list to ten picks, I put on a couple films with 2017 release dates, and another that seems to have been made even earlier, but not screened until 2018. This is noted when applicable in the reviews. While I don’t imagine there are many purists out there who’ll scream bloody murder for violating the January 1-December 31 parameters, I think it’s better to acknowledge these films late than never. None of the non-2018s were exactly showered with attention elsewhere.

At a time when 50th anniversary deluxe editions are pretty big deals in the reissue business, it’s a little surprising only one such DVD made its way to me. With Woodstock, Altamont, and some other major 1969 events up for their 50th anniversary in 2019, here’s predicting we might see some more in the year ahead. Here’s also predicting, however, that these won’t include the long-hoped-for reissue-with-extras of Let It Be, filmed in January 1969 (though not released until spring 1970), due to the continued legal hurdles obstructing that project.

1. Robbie Basho, Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho. Acoustic guitarist, and sometimes vocalist, Robbie Basho was the kind of cult figure that makes John Fahey seem almost mainstream. Like Fahey (for whose Takoma label he made his best records), his prime was in the 1960s, and like Fahey, he moved the acoustic guitar from a folk base into experimental territory. Yet even more than Fahey, he was not a taste for everyone, incorporating eclectic influences from world and Native American music, and singing in a leaf-shaking voice that some will find inaccessible.

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It’s difficult to make a documentary about such an obscure figure, even as fervent as some such cults are. But this film does an excellent job of documenting and illuminating his troubled and, in some aspects, still-mysterious life. Plenty of vintage stills and interviews with musicians past and present, family, and friends do much to fill in both his career details and insights into his personality—no mean feat, given the scarcity of printed material and hard info on Basho. Pete Townshend’s the only real famous interviewee, but all the other subjects make worthwhile observations, including guitarists even lesser known than Basho, and somewhat more recognizable musicians involved in the companies for which he recorded. Unfortunately there’s just one surviving filmed performance of Basho (from an early-’70s television program), and even that’s in somewhat shaky fidelity, but the footage is used well in this production.

Quite a few documentaries on cult figures are stretched to make a full-length feature, and give the impression it’s been a struggle to pad out its running time to sixty to ninety minutes. Refreshingly, that’s not the case with this one at all. It’s interesting the whole way, including investigations into his association with Meher Baba followers; his recordings with the Takoma, Blue Thumb, Vanguard, and Windham Hill labels; and his odd freak death during a chiropractic adjustment. The editing is precise and the flow paced extremely well. It deserves a wide viewing, and might even interest an audience that has little or no knowledge of Basho’s music. Brief technical note: this bears an official release date of 2015, but is included here as it doesn’t seem to have screened until 2018, which is when I saw it in San Francisco.

2. Elvis Presley, The Searcher. (Sony). Although this HBO special didn’t have a theatrical release, it got the most attention of any film on this list. Over two parts and nearly four hours, it’s the most serious Elvis documentary yet, and notable for focusing as much, or more, on the music than his well-known volatile personal life. It’s not a conventional music documentary in that, rather than using talking heads, the interviews done for the film are heard as voiceovers over footage and stills.

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I wasn’t as blown away by the movie as some mainstream critics were, though not so much because of its quality, which is pretty high. This’ll seem snobbish, but I already knew a lot of what the film explicated, and it didn’t have much in the way of surprises and discoveries. And despite its length, there’s much about his musical career that isn’t noted, or is unclear to less knowledgeable viewers. That leaves the mountain of Elvis literature to fill in the gaps; Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Presley biography is the best source to start with.

But in its favor, it does employ quite a few uncommon images and filmed bits, often from private/home movies. There’s not much in the way of complete vintage performances, but then many of those are available on other DVDs. The commentary from Elvis associates (including, prominently, his wife Priscilla) and some critics and celebrity fans is generally informed and sympathetic, and does not gloss over his descent into movie hell in the ‘60s. I saw one review criticizing this as whitewashing Presley’s less appealing personal traits, but then those are well documented in numerous other sources, including quite a few gossipy books. Putting the music first is a welcome change.

3. The Slits, Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits (2017, Moviehouse Entertainment). Technically this is a 2017 production, but I did not hear of it becoming available for viewing on Hulu until spring 2018. In most respects, this is everything you’d want a documentary on this pioneering punk/new wave band to be. There are interviews with all of the surviving members—even obscure early ones who were out of the picture by the time the band got attention, and drummers Budgie and Bruce Smith (who joined after original drummer Palmolive was fired). There are also comments by notable associates like producer Dennis Bovell, critic Vivien Goldman, and singer Neneh Cherry.

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As there’s not much footage of the band in their late-’70s/early-’80s prime, it’s a challenge to draw upon vintage source material, but director William E. Badgley does it well by using a lot of primitive performance footage and private/home movies. (It does help that the screen often subtitles the lyrics, and even conversation, in large lettering, as they’re often very hard to understand.) While their pioneering roles as an aggressive all-women band are discussed in depth, so are their musical innovations, including their close connection to and incorporation of reggae music. It comes as a disappointment when they break up when apparently still at a musical peak. The otherwise exemplary film is weighed down, as so many such endeavors are, by a final section on their less interesting reunion years, with a lineup missing original guitarist Viv Albertine.

4. Eric Clapton, Life in 12 Bars (Eagle Vision). Lasting more than two hours, and using plenty of first-hand input from Clapton himself and numerous close associates, this nonetheless isn’t the place to turn to if you want a standard thorough career history. It’s more a rather languorous tour of some of his musical highlights and toughest personal tribulations, slower-paced (though not for the most part dully so) and more atmospheric than the usual rock documentary. Unusually, although plenty of people were interviewed—from bandmates like ex-Yardbirds, John Mayall, Stevie Winwood, and Bobby Whitlock (of Derek & the Dominos), as well as lovers like Charlotte Martin and Pattie Boyd—they’re not shown onscreen as talking heads, but heard as voiceovers. His non-musical trials—including a dysfunctional early family life, alcoholism and drug addiction, a failed prolonged attempt to woo Boyd away from George Harrison, and the death of his young son who fell out the window of a skyscraper—get about as much attention as his professional achievements.

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If you want to be picky about gaps in the movie’s coverage, there are plenty. The influence of Delaney & Bonnie on him isn’t mentioned, and nor is his first solo album. His post-Derek & the Dominos career gets scant attention, though for many fans such as myself who aren’t interested in that lengthy period, that’s actually a good thing. On the other hand, his time in the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and the Dominos gets substantial time, even if you won’t (should you not know a good deal bout those bands) walk away with thorough knowledge of his progression in those outfits.

Plenty of vintage photos and some rare (though not too extensive) period film footage and interviews dress up the deal for those most interested in seeing and hearing unfamiliar stuff. There’s the sense, though, that Clapton and the filmmaker are more interested in discussing his interior agonies. It makes for a movie that’s fairly worthwhile, but not wholly satisfying.

5. The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (ABKCO). This 1968 Jean-Luc Godard film, of course, has been around for a long time, even on a previous DVD release. This 50th anniversary edition, however, adds some significant extras, most notably a 2018 documentary on the making of the movie, including recent interviews with co-producer Mim Scala and cinematographer Tony Richmond. Other extras include Voices, a 1968 Godard documentary made during the filming of Sympathy for the Devil, and a commentary track by film critic David Sterritt. There’s also the director’s cut, which isn’t much different from the more commonly screened version, except that the studio recording of “Sympathy for the Devil” isn’t dubbed onto the soundtrack of the final sequences. That might seem like a minor variation, but its use in the film—against Godard’s wishes—upset the director so much he actually punched one of the producers at the premiere.

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As for the movie itself, it alternates between scenes of the Rolling Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil” in the studio and surreal, almost disconnected footage of Black Panthers reading and shooting in a junkyard; London cars and hotel windows getting vandalized with graffiti slogans; Godard’s wife answering sociopolitical questions with “yes” and “no” while a film crew tracks her through the woods; and a motley crew of customers in a porn bookshop. Some critics and participants (like Tony Richmond, in my interview with him) champion the non-Stones excerpts, but most viewers will still find them infuriatingly tedious and incongruous.

There’s some tedium in the Stones sequences too, but Godard and crew were lucky enough to catch them not only constructing a classic track, but also working on one that changed radically from beginning (when it was an acoustic-flavored folk-blues number) to end. For that footage alone, Sympathy for the Devil is an important film, even if many Stones fans might wish it was the movie’s sole focus.

6. Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Eagle Vision/Universal). Joni Mitchell’s set at the Isle of Wight festival was memorable, though maybe not for the reasons she would have chosen. Faced with an edgy audience, she unexpectedly quit playing her second song, “Chelsea Morning,” declaring she wasn’t in the mood. More notably, her set was soon interrupted by a strange, nearly Manson-looking hippie trying to commandeer the mike and make an incoherent announcement. (It turned out that he’d actually met Mitchell in a different setting in the past.) This and more audience restlessness made her agitated enough to stop playing and tearfully berate listeners for acting like a bunch of tourists.

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Both she and the crowd settled down for the most part after that, though the film’s a little marred by substandard sound on some tunes, particularly a few where she’s at the piano. In spite of it all, overall it’s a pleasing set of early Mitchell material, from an era from which few such lengthy filmed performances of hers have circulated. Some of her most popular classics (“Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides Now”) are here, along with less overexposed compositions like “For Free,” “That Song About the Midway,” “California” (on which she plays dulcimer), and “Gallery.” Some brief interview segments with Joni (filmed in 2003) aren’t too extensive, but add some illumination about the event. If you want to see it without the interviews, an extra feature gives you the option to view the unadorned concert.

7. My Generation. Not a Who documentary, but an overall documentary on the 1960s London cultural revolution that was spearheaded by youth, narrated by Michael Caine. Nor is this solely a music documentary: British Invasion rock gets a lot of attention, but changes in film, fashion, pop art, class divisions, and lifestyle are also covered. To be honest this doesn’t dig up a lot of new information that viewers who’ve already read and seen a lot about this period wouldn’t already know. Yet it’s also a pleasurable viewing nonetheless, in large part because quite a few key figures add their own comments, memories, and perspectives in their own words and off-screen voices. Those celebrities include Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull, Lulu, David Bailey, Mary Quant, and Twiggy.

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Caine does appear onscreen throughout the film, and though as he admits he’s older than most everyone else involved in this movement, he nonetheless makes an apt guide with both his enthusiasm and his comments on how actors such as himself helped break down the entrenched British class system. The combination of narration, entertaining vintage footage (even if those excerpts are brief), and observations by key movers and shakers makes for a worthwhile production—and certainly a very good way to pass an hour and a half on an airline flight, as I was fortunate enough to be able to do.

8. The Doors, Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (Eagle Vision/Bright Midnight). The Doors only did two concerts with Jim Morrison after this one at the Isle of Wight on August 29, 1970. It’s not the band at their best live. Morrison was pretty restrained, largely rooted to his mike as he sang a set that was rather predictable. Considering how much material the band had to draw from by this point, it’s disappointing that there’s only one song postdating their first two albums, “Ship of Fools” (the only truly unusual selection for the set). As good as “Break on Through” and “Light My Fire” are, there are many other live versions. There are numerous other versions of “The End,” too, but at least this one inserts much different improvised-sounding bits, including a little of the blues classic “Crossroads” and meditations on “Across the Sea” and “Away in India.”

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Simply filmed and lighted, it’s nonetheless a historic document. And the band play pretty well. Morrison’s singing, interestingly, is fine, although it’s been reported with some reason that his voice was seriously fraying by the time they began work on their final album with him a few months later, L.A. Woman. The brief “This Is the End” featurette, unlike many such short bonuses, is pretty good, with concise and relevant comments on the concert and the Miami obscenity charges hanging over Morrison’s head by Robby Krieger, John Densmore, the late Ray Manzarek (represented by an archive interview), and manager Bill Siddons. The DVD is packaged together with a CD of the concert’s audio on a separate disc.

9. The Beatles, The Ultimate Mystery Trip (Trade Mark of Quality, bootleg, 2017). The official 2012 DVD release of Magical Mystery Tour included some, though not a whole lot, of outtakes from the Beatles’ 1967 TV special. This two-volume, four-DVD unauthorized release contains two or three hours or so of, in the words of the cover, “outtakes, work prints, alternate scenes, music videos, home movie footage,” some of which has shown up here and there on documentaries and the like, but much of which was previously uncirculated. Considering the rather poor and disappointing quality of the actual original movie (I am aware some fans, and Paul McCartney, disagree with that opinion), this makes this a “primarily of historical interest” package if there ever was one.

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But if you want some extra material to round out our knowledge of this ill-fated production, you have some scenes here (some with sound, some silent) that didn’t make the cut. There are also not-remarkably-different versions of some of the quasi-music videos of Beatles songs that were highlights of the film, including “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” And if you want the 1988 LaserDisc version of the original film (“considered by most to be the best-ever (and unadulterated) version of Magical Mystery Tour,” according to the liner notes), well, that’s here too.

This does not validate the liner notes’ claim that “it is our aim with these new double-DVD sets to prove that the critics were completely and utterly wrong all those years ago – or at least, they would have been if the Beatles had used some of the fascinatingly quirky footage that was left on the cutting room floor.” If anything, it seems to demonstrate that the final cut, for all its flaws, actually cherry-picked the highlights of what was filmed. Unless, that is, you consider the likes of an extensive scene of the cast stopping for fish and chips a vital omission.

It does say something about the value of the Magical Mystery Tour film that the most interesting bits here actually don’t feature the Beatles, those being a brief excerpt from a documentary on supporting actor/comedian Ivor Cutler; a different version of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band doing “Death Cat for Cutie”; and a sequence of Traffic larking around to “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” that didn’t make the original. The best feature of these DVD sets might even be the liner notes, which despite their over-exuberance are quite informative, and in some ways better than the average historical liner notes on commercial archival DVD releases.

10. The Rising Storm, Calm Before…The Rising Storm. I thought enough of the Rising Storm’s sole album, 1967’s privately pressed Calm Before, to feature them in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll. I also need to note I’m one of the guys interviewed in this half-hour documentary, if that’s thought to make its inclusion in this list biased. Still, you do have to stretch things to make even a thirty-minute film based around the band, considering both their short, obscure career and the absence of any footage of the group from when they were active in the 1960s as students at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

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This short does its best to compensate, however, with first-hand interviews with all of the members of the band, along with some vintage photos and other commentators besides myself. As I’ve expressed in print, their LP is one of the few garage band vanity pressings of the time that’s really good, especially the folk-rockish originals. The story of how its reputation among collectors (and value, for original copies of the LP) escalated over time is also interesting, and uncommon even in the land of nerdish collectordom. So far this doc’s played at a few film festivals; it’s not yet known how widely it can be screened and released.

Honorable mention: Two documentaries I put on my best-of lists from 2016 and 2017 were issued on DVD in 2018, both with extra features. The bonus material isn’t good enough to merit listing either of them again in 2018’s Top Ten, but they’re now more widely available if you haven’t gotten to see them yet.

Bang: The Bert Berns Story, an excellent film on the legendary 1960s producer and songwriter, now has 64 bonus minutes of interview material that didn’t make the main feature. Like many such extras, they actually testify to how shrewdly the interviews used in the final cut were chosen, since they don’t contain many particularly interesting observations. There are a few good bits here and there, like Ben E. King’s confession that he gave a disc jockey some payola, and Paul McCartney’s characteristically enthusiastic recollection of how the Beatles found and covered “Twist and Shout.” Overall, however, it fits into the clichéd category of something you only need to see once, as many of the other bonus interviews are kind of dull and/or meandering.

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Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead was one of the longest documentaries of any sorts of recent years, lasting about four hours. The expanded DVD edition has a couple hours of extras, mostly devoted to previously unreleased footage of the Dead’s visit to England in May 1970 to play the Hollywood Music Festival. Even if you’re a Deadhead, that footage’s pretty disappointing, as it’s mostly in lo-fi black-and-white (with occasional color scenes), and comprised mostly of boring coverage of the band arriving in London and wandering around the countryside, backstage, and press functions. The segment where Dead play at the actual festival is downright subpar, its poor sound scarred by faint and often nearly inaudible vocals.

Dead

In its favor, a reporter does a fairly interesting ten-minute interview with Jerry Garcia, and you see the band rehearsing (in better sound) the harmonies for “Candyman,” which would appear on American Beauty later in 1970. The DVD also has a commentary track by director Amir Bar-Lev and editor John Walter, in which it’s noted that Gus Van Sant was at one time going to direct the documentary, and—even more surprisingly—he backed out as “he had been so repelled by the craziness around the Grateful Dead that he decided he couldn’t deal with it.”

Coming tomorrow and the next day: my lists of the best rock history books and reissues of 2018.

Rock Music at Red Rocks

Because I’m known mostly as a music journalist, it surprises some people that when I travel, I spend most of my time doing non-music-related things. I have a lot of interests besides music, and since writing and teaching music history takes up a good part of my professional life, it’s good to get away from that for a while. When I did two days of presentations this fall at Colorado College, I took advantage of the opportunity to make it a ten-day trip to Colorado, most of which I expected to be full of the non-musical activities the state offers.

Still, I’d not been in the state 24 hours before a music site appeared unbidden. One of the first things I did after arriving in Denver was go with a friend to Red Rocks Amphitheater. That wasn’t so much to see the amphitheater—which has staged countless concerts by big names, going back to a Beatles show in 1964—as to take in the actual red rocks of the surrounding area. I had no idea that the visitor’s center houses a Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which I ended up touring within minutes of arrival.

Red Rocks, near the visitor center and Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

Red Rocks, near the visitor center and Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

Colorado is known for several things—the Rockies (both the mountains and the baseball team), skiing, and as the training grounds for many Olympic athletes. It’s not especially known for music. The star most strongly associated with the state is often derided for his sentimental pop-folk-country. But one of Colorado’s top tourist attractions has decided to celebrate its musical heritage in its portal. And there’s no admission fee, so why not check it out?

Those wags who figure there’d be little to show in a Colorado Music Hall of Fame besides a John Denver wing might feel validated by the biggest room in the display, devoted solely to the “Rocky Mountain High” man. But the hall — really more a moderate-size floor — does take up the equivalent of three or four fairly big rooms, with plenty of photos and text on the display panels. Sure, it’s stretching it to feature musicians who spent some early time in the state but made their big impact elsewhere, like early jazz stars Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller. Yet there should be material here of interest to anyone with a fairly wide knowledge of popular music, even if little emerges of a style or styles particularly indigenous to Colorado.

Denver isn’t particularly known as a folk music nexus, but it had one of the more active scenes in the late-’50s/early-’60s folk revival, particularly at the Exodus club. By far the biggest performer to emerge from that scene—even if she, in common with many other artists spotlighted here, was based elsewhere for most of her career—was Judy Collins. Before signing to Elektra Records, the label she spent many years with as a folk and then pop star, she even had a few tracks on a couple rare local compilation albums, 1959’s Folk Festival at the Exodus and the following year’s similarly titled 1960 Folk Festival at the Exodus:

Before signing to Elektra Records and doing her first album, Judy Collins had a few tracks on this rare local LP.

Before signing to Elektra Records and doing her first album, Judy Collins had a few tracks on this rare local LP.

These albums have never been reissued, to my knowledge, and you can’t even hear them online. They’re pretty rare; other than at this hall’s displays, I’ve only seen a copy of one of them once (in a private collection, not in a store). Anyone with leads to hearing these cuts should feel free to contact me.

A teenaged Judy Collins in Colorado, 1958.

A teenaged Judy Collins in Colorado, 1958.

While the folk section takes up a few panels, much of that space honors the Serendipity Singers, one of numerous wholer-than-wholesome folk revival combos. Another area has some info on Bob Lind, who was a ’60s Colorado folkie before moving to Los Angeles and recording the early folk-rock hit “Elusive Butterfly.” I’d like to hear this demo that was on display, which has a couple songs from his 1966 LP The Elusive Bob Lind (which has acoustic performances overdubbed with additional instrumentation without his consent), but some others which aren’t on that album:

A Bob Lind demo album, presumably unreleased.

A Bob Lind demo album, presumably unreleased.

Some musicians started their professional, and sometimes recording, careers in Colorado before reaching stardom in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of them don’t interest me much or at all, but some of them would go on to one of the best country-rock bands (at least on their first LP), Poco. Here’s a picture with a couple future Poco guys, George Grantham and Rusty Young, in the oddly named Boenzee Cryque:

Boenzee Cryque.

Boenzee Cryque.

Yet the most interesting part of the hall features performers with no strong Colorado connections, other than having performed there. In the mid-1950s, George Kealiher, Jr. photographed numerous country and early rockabilly stars at the Denver Coliseum, and literally dozens of his pictures are featured on one wall. I’d never seen any of these before, and they’re not all of big stars, as the one of Marvin Rainwater demonstrates:

Orbison

Cash

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Cline

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A mistake seems to have been made, however, with this caption:

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I’m a pretty big Wanda Jackson fan, and that sure doesn’t look like her to me. A-B it with this early Jackson picture:

Wanda

Colorado wasn’t especially known as a hotbed of ’60s and early ’70s rock. But one room makes the most of what happened there, with a panel on the Astronauts, a surf group (yes, a surf group in landlocked Colorado) who were enormous in the region and had some modest national success. There’s also an enormous family tree—far bigger than you’d suspect could be possible—for Sugarloaf, who made #3 in 1970 with “Green-Eyed Lady” (and the Top Ten in 1974 with the obnoxious “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”).

More significant, at least to the international rock community, was the Family Dog, the Denver venue that managed to host an impressive assortment of visiting luminaries when psychedelic rock peaked in 1967 and 1968, including Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Fugs, the Byrds, and Quicksilver Messenger Service:

Surprisingly subdued poster for Buffalo Springfield's show at the Family Dog in Denver.

Surprisingly subdued poster for Buffalo Springfield’s  1967 show at the Family Dog in Denver.

Another section of the mini-museum details the Grateful Dead’s Colorado concerts, which is kind of taking liberties, even if the Dead had a devoted following in the state. A bigger one documents Caribou Ranch recording studio, which cut sessions by numerous stars in the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, including Chicago, the Beach Boys, and Elton John. The vintage equipment used in the studio that’s on display looks positively antique in the 21st century.

A museum like this is bound to disappoint picky aficionados, and here are a couple performers it could cover who were omitted, or barely represented. Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, not referred to at all in the displays as far as I could reckon, is from Colorado. Although he and that band made their mark in San Francisco, the hall as previously noted has some content on other performers with Colorado origins who went on to fame elsewhere.

There’s a picture of Dean Reed if you look hard enough, but no text or display explaining his quite interesting, even unique, career. Reed’s music wasn’t so notable, but his life was pretty fascinating, as the Denver native experienced unexpected stardom in South America despite managing just one low-charting entry into the Top 100 in the early 1960s. More intriguingly, in the 1970s he moved to East Germany, becoming a pretty popular entertainer behind the Iron Curtain—and supporter of communist/socialist politics in the region—before his mysterious death by drowning in 1986. I don’t know whether the hall is trying to avoid controversy or offending visitors by barely or not featuring notable Colorado musicians from the punk and Eastern Bloc scenes. But their stories are a lot more interesting than, say, Firefall’s, which gets a good chunk of coverage.

Biography of Dean Reed.

Biography of Dean Reed.

I’m not sure the Colorado Music Hall of Fame gets any visitors who come to the state especially to see the museum, as many do to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Of course, that’s not its purpose. It’s one of many things to do in Colorado, which is more remarkable for its numerous stunning natural features. Here are some that I visited during my trip:

The Garden of the Gods, near Colorado Springs.

The Garden of the Gods, near Colorado Springs.

Cone-like rocks at the Garden of the Gods.

Cone-like rocks at the Garden of the Gods.

The South Platte River in Denver, with Mile High Stadium in the background.

The South Platte River in Denver, with Mile High Stadium in the background.

Coors Field, on my tour of the stadium the day after the Colorado Rockies were eliminated from the playoffs. Writing hawking the NLDS series has yet to be removed from the third base lin.

Coors Field, on my tour of the stadium the day after the Colorado Rockies were eliminated from the playoffs. Writing hawking the NLDS series has yet to be removed from the third base lin.

Booth Falls Trail near Vail, Colorado.

Booth Falls Trail near Vail, Colorado.

On the trail in Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

On the trail in Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

And if you do need to do some record store shopping in Denver, the best shop is Twist and Shout, which had a Cassette Store Day during my visit. Yes, not a Record Store Day, but a Cassette Store Day:

Ad for Cassette Store Day at Twist and Shout Records in Denver.

Ad for Cassette Store Day at Twist and Shout Records in Denver.

Denver Civic Center at twilight.

Denver Civic Center at twilight.

Brother From Another Era

My oldest brother, Glenn Unterberger, died unexpectedly in his home just outside Philadelphia on October 14, aged 65. He had many interests besides music, and there were many worthy aspects of his life besides his passions for music and sports. But as those passions were repeatedly cited by relatives and friends at his funeral this week, and as I’m known mostly as a music writer, this tribute will focus on how his musical loves impacted my own life.

Glenn Unterberger, my oldest brother, 1952-2018.

Glenn Unterberger, my oldest brother, 1952-2018.

Glenn was nine years older than I am, and our careers and lives took very different paths. Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area (where I’ve mostly remained since) right after college, I became a writer and, in recent years, a rock music history teacher and lecturer as well. He took the more secure path of practicing law, first with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and then for a law firm in his native Philadelphia for the last nearly thirty years of his life.

Yet his influence on the way my life turned out was considerable, if somewhat subtle. In my work as a writer and adult education teacher, people often ask me, how do you know so much about music that was made when you were too young to hear it? Well, mostly I learned it on my own, the hard way, listening to whatever I could on oldies and classic rock stations while growing up; reading whatever rock history books I could, though there weren’t many in the 1970s; and buying whatever I could that I got curious about, often on the basis of just a few songs I’d managed to hear that got on the airwaves.

There was no internet to instantly call up a library of millions of vintage songs; no college/public radio stations I could get with specialty shows playing non-hits; no groaning shelves of biographies, histories, and memoirs of pre-1970 rock greats. I didn’t have to walk through three feet of snow to a one-room schoolhouse at 4am, but you get the idea.

But I did have a foundation that most kids my age didn’t. Glenn himself got into rock at an early age — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun” were a couple of the first records he bought, aged 11. By the time he was 15, he was going to concerts at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, seeing such greats as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Arthur Brown.

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My parents were indifferent to rock music, and what they might have thought if they’d actually seen Hendrix humping his guitar, Pete Townshend smashing his guitar (as he did when Glenn saw him), and Brown running around in a fire-breathing helmet couldn’t have been good. It’s to their credit, however, that they didn’t try to stop him—and, later, me—from listening to whatever they wanted. If I remember right, they even gave him and his friends rides to those Electric Factory shows when he was too young to drive.

Hendrix

That meant there was rock around the house, if not quite around the clock, a lot more than most other five-to-eight-year-olds had in suburban Philadelphia in 1967-70. He had plenty of singles, sometimes stored sleeveless in those wire racks that did so much to scratch and scuff the vinyl, and lower their financial value to future generations. By the time he entered college in fall 1970, he owned somewhere between 100 and 200 albums, to the best of my recollection. And when he wasn’t listening to what today we might call hard copies, he often had the FM radio on, underground rock emerging as a force on local station WDAS (and slightly later WMMR), as it was in cities throughout the US. 

He and friends also managed to make fairly high-quality reel-to-reel tapes off turntables and, somehow, even off the radio by figuring out how to plug something into the back, years before the cassette and higher-tech stereos would make the process much easier and more painless. I’m not aware of any campaigns by the music industry insisting that reel-to-reel home taping was killing music, but the concept was much the same—friends sharing and filching whatever they could.

Yet this wasn’t done out of any sense of piracy or malice, as the RIAA contends every time technology allows duplication and distribution without a cash exchange. It was simply to acquire and enjoy whatever they could, when very limited budgets meant they couldn’t buy all several dozen or so cool LPs that were seemingly generated on a monthly basis as the album overtook the single as the main commercial and artistic format for rock music. That also meant ordering Columbia Record Club freebies under a series of false names (“Ziggy Gormley” was a favorite) until my parents caught on and put a stop to it. That scene in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man where much the same thing happens wasn’t just made-up whimsy (though they unfortunately got the chronology wrong—you couldn’t order Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival albums in 1967, the groups not having yet released anything). The same thing was likely happening in middle-class homes all over America—and, probably, often in Jewish middle-class homes, as ours was, and the one in the film was as well.

If his record-buying budget was limited, as an eight-year-old too young for an allowance, mine was nonexistent. Hearing rock that wasn’t playing on the radio involved its own form of nefarious sabotage. For me, it was playing Glenn’s records when he wasn’t around. He was pretty tolerant if I wanted to play his singles, maybe feeling he, like many teenagers verging on college, was outgrowing the seven-inch medium. So I got to hear most of the Rolling Stones’ classic 1965-68 hits as 45s, some still in their picture sleeves. I still have a few of them today, and still remember my shock when he told me the blond guy in those photos, Brian Jones, had recently drowned in his swimming pool.

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Wyman

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I even still have the one from the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, though it’s pretty tattered and beat-up by now. Before I’d ever heard the record, I loved the image of drummer Michael Clarke bending a spoon behind an oblivious David Crosby’s head, as if he’s about to flick it right into his noggin—something you could believe wasn’t staged, given how much in-fighting there was in the band.

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There were also a couple by the Beatles that have unfortunately been lost, and I admit to being guilty of trading the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” sleeve for another Beatles rarity. Glenn had been gone from home for a few years by then, and as he was apparently uninterested in moving his collection of 45s with him, I confess to having considered them fair game. But I kept the actual single, of course, playing “Strawberry Fields” over and over again at the height of the “Paul Is Dead” rumor in 1970. It really does sound like John Lennon’s saying “I buried Paul” or “I’m very slow” at the end, not “cranberry sauce,” as John always maintained.

The picture sleeve for the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" single.

The picture sleeve for the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single.

Most of Glenn’s bedroom walls were covered with photos from Sports Illustrated, but he put up a few 45 sleeves too. Collectors may cringe at the prospect of slapping these onto a wall with scotch tape and such when they’d now command some money if they were in mint condition. But then he wouldn’t have had the pleasure of looking at the Dave Clark Five’s “Try Too Hard” every night, or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”—the first image of the foursome I remember seeing.

try-too-hard

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220px-Eleanor_rigby_single_usa

Or the Blind Faith family tree he also posted on the wall, which intrigued and baffled me with its lines connecting Eric Clapton from the Roosters and Casey Jones & the Engineers to the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream; Stevie Winwood from the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic; Ginger Baker from the Graham Bond Organisation and Cream; and the non-superstar of the quartet, Family’s Ric Grech, who looked like a tacked-on leftover in such company. He must have torn this out of the October 1969 issue of Life magazine, after everyone else in the family was done with it.

BlindFaith

If only in retrospect, some of his most valuable 45 finds came in those bargain bins where Woolworth’s and the like would toss flop singles for a dime or so. Or you could buy a ten-pack for a dollar, the downside only being able to inspect the top and bottom labels, the other eight remaining unknown until you’d parted with your bill. Few suspected that many of those cheapo turkeys would be sought-after rarities decades down the line. Not too many survived in his bedroom drawers by the time I got into college and scoured them for goodies to play on my college radio show, but here are a couple:

the-music-machine-the-people-in-me-original-sound

Yeah, the Music Machine’s “The People in Me” did make #66 on the national charts, but I didn’t hear it on oldies radio (or anywhere else) once before I spun Glenn’s copy. And it’s a great song, as are a good number of their other singles, despite their unfair stereotype as a trashy one-hit wonder.

I’ve always wondered how this UK import 45 made it into his collection. Imports of any kind were hard to come by in the mid-’60s, especially singles:

StillImSad

yardbirds-evil-hearted-you-columbia-s

Sure, both of these songs wound up on the Yardbirds’ Having a Rave-Up LP (more of which later), but both are great classic moody Jeff Beck-era cuts. And “Still I’m Sad” has a super-brief strange garbled voice at the end I haven’t heard on any other versions.

I’m a little sorry I didn’t keep a couple more obscure seven-inches he somehow came across, even though I didn’t think the music was that great, and even though the music is easy enough to call up now. One was by the Chicago Loop, the short-lived group that featured Stefan Grossman and Barry Goldberg. Another was this weird Vanilla Fudge EP:

Vfudge

EPs of any sort, of course, were by the late ’60s rarely issued in the US. I’d never seen one before looking at this as an eight-year-old in 1970, and was kind of weirded out by it. Apparently this was a promo-only release, and I wonder how he managed to get a DJ copy. That was something else that probably found its way into the bargain bin, or grab bag ten-packs.

Another 45 I somewhat inherited of which I have particularly fond memories is hardly a rarity. “Light My Fire” was one of the highest-selling, and one of the greatest, #1 hits of the ’60s. It wasn’t until tenth grade that I got curious enough to play the B-side. It was no small task to do so, by the way. Remember how 45s might accidentally chip at the edges, as if a mouse had bitten off a piece? This one did, though not quite chopping off the soundless groove before the music. You had the put the needle on it very carefully if you didn’t want it to slip off the vinyl onto the turntable, followed by that excruciating high-volume scrape against the spinning wheel. But if you managed to get it onto that sliver of space where it would stay on the seven-inch, you were rewarded by “The Crystal Ship”:

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And when I heard it, I went, WOW! I played that quite a bit in the fall of 1976, when, as hard as it might be to imagine today, the Doors were seldom heard on the radio anymore. It stoked my hunger for more, starting with a greatest-hits collection, but quickly moving on to the self-titled debut album on which the track had first appeared. A few years later I had all the Doors albums; eventually I’d have dozens, if you count all the archival live/rarity releases, box sets, and bootlegs; and now I’m developing a six-week adult education course on the Doors. Glenn’s single is echoing on my work more than four decades later, and I never did tell him what he’d inadvertently started.

What about Glenn’s albums? Well, 100-200 LPs might seem like a measly collection today, but it was pretty big for a teenager in the late ’60s. It does seem like the way we collected records was different. When I got really into groups, I’d really get into them, collecting as close to their complete work as I could, or at least as close to a complete work of what I’d consider their only worthwhile era. That started with the Beatles (everything), went on to the Rolling Stones (only their ’60s material), and eventually on to cult groups like Love (only their first three albums). Glenn’s method looked patchier, maybe because he could fill some of the gaps with his reel-to-reel comps. He had just two Beatles albums (Beatles ’65 and Sgt. Pepper, in retrospect a peculiar tandem), for instance, though he had the entirety of some others (The White Album, Abbey Road, Meet the Beatles) on those homemade reel-to-reels, where he also placed much of their other material and non-LP singles here and there.

The only relatively “complete works” sections I recall were for Jimi Hendrix—he even had that lousy album of stuff Jimi recorded with Curtis Knight before getting famous, maybe taken in by its deceptive marketing as a “new” or “real” Hendrix album—and Cream, whose short career made the task easier. He had most of the Who through Who’s Next too, and before I really knew who the Who were, I delighted in the Happy Jack (as it was titled in the US) LP’s daft instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange.” It was impossibly silly and, as I remember, a performance at which Glenn always laughed, though he must have heard it many times before he played it a few more for his younger brothers’ benefit.

HappyJack

Some of the records intrigued me by their covers and titles alone, long before I really paid in-depth attention to the music. One was The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. It was actually a best-of collection of sorts, of course, but the irony was lost on an eight-year-old. Why in the world would anyone put out a comp of their worst stuff, I thought? And what was the beyond-weird instrumental “Chushingura” doing on it? (Actually, I still wonder WTF it was doing there.) 

Airplane

Then there was the cover for In the Court of the Crimson King—as guaranteed to give a young guy nightmares as the scariest episodes of Night Gallery. The record was as good as the cover, but I wouldn’t fully appreciate that until I got my own copy almost a decade after its release. Glenn had their second album (In the Wake of Poseidon) too, which also had good eerie artwork. Artwork, I dare say, much more interesting than the record itself, which was neither too similar to nor nearly as good as its predecessor:

Crimson

The cover for King Crimson's second LP, Wake of Poseidon (bottom), was almost as good as the cover for their debut (top), but the music wasn't half as memorable.

The cover for King Crimson’s second LP, Wake of Poseidon (bottom), was almost as good as the cover for their debut (top), but the music wasn’t half as memorable.

Aficionados of private pressings, small local labels, rare indie discs, and the like will be disappointed to hear that he had little in the way of product by bands known primarily in his city or region. There were a couple of exceptions, though these were of the most renowned such groups. There were albums by the Nazz and Mandrake Memorial, both of which were by far the most successful acts of the psychedelic age from Philadelphia, a town with a fairly meager white rock scene considering its status as one of the five most populous cities in the country.

Mandrake Memorial's debut LP is one of the better relatively unknown psychedelic albums.

Mandrake Memorial’s debut LP is one of the better relatively unknown psychedelic albums.

Neither of those bands made much of a nationwide or for that matter global impact, though they were quite popular in their hometown, and Nazz leader Todd Rundgren of course went on to a still-ongoing career as a solo star. They often appeared on bills with much bigger touring acts, and I wonder if that helped Glenn become aware of them, though they got their share of radio airplay too. Especially the Nazz, who actually had a big double-sided local hit with “Hello It’s Me”/”Open My Eyes.” That single only got to #66 nationally (with the B-side charting at #112 in its own right), but must have been big in Philly, as I remember it getting quite a bit of airtime on AM radio shortly after I started listening (yes, I was able to listen to AM radio at night in the late 1960s, as young as I was). 

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So big was it that I assumed it must have been a hit all over the country, but it was one of the later examples of the regional variation in sales/airplay that’s now far rarer in the US. Wikipedia informs me “Open My Eyes” was a #1 hit at WMEX in Boston, and that both sides were often played in late 1969 and early 1970 on Philadelphia FM station WMMR by Michael Tearson, who went on to a very long career at that station and Sirius XM (and whom I often listened to in the ’70s, not suspecting that he’d become familiar with my writing and eventually meet me for dinner in 2010). 

This won’t fly well with some ’60s rock fanatics, but I think those two songs were by far the best Nazz cuts—which, before anyone gets angry, were two more great tracks than most groups manage to come up with in their entire lifetimes. When Rundgren had a big solo hit with “Hello It’s Me” a few years later, I not only thought the remake notably inferior to the original, but was astonished that no one I knew—remember, these would have been junior high students who were seven years old or less when the Nazz version came out—seemed to be aware of its existence.

Years after Glenn was gone at college, he stopped schlepping his LPs back and forth. To my memory, for his last year or two at school, he left most or maybe even all of them at home. Although I probably was supposed to keep my hands off, I seized the opportunity to audition quite a few records on my own, mostly British Invasion discs. So it was I got my first extended exposure, via best-ofs, to Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Animals, and the Kinks.

Gerry

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I quickly determined that Gerry and his gang might have come from the same town (Liverpool) as the Beatles, but weren’t nearly as good—not one-tenth as good, in fact, and (unlike the Beatles) pretty nerdy. The Animals (whose “House of the Rising Sun” I’d already heard and enjoyed plenty) were much better, but I was mystified by the liner note’s backhanded slight against the Beatles—”my mother, who follows the pattern of most mothers, is now an avid fan of the Beatles (they’re clean).” The Kinks were real kool, especially that berserk guitar solo in “All Day of the Night.” I never could have predicted that more than 40 years later, I’d have the opportunity to interview the guy who played that solo, Dave Davies, for hours.

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And there were three albums by the Yardbirds, highlighted by Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds, side one of which (as was written by someone else years before I became a professional writer) is one of the best LP sides of studio tracks recorded by anyone. All of those songs featured Jeff Beck as lead guitarist; somehow, though Beck was in the band when the album was released, all of the songs on side two were older live recordings (first heard on the UK LP Five Live Yardbirds) taken from 1964 performances by the man Beck had replaced, Eric Clapton. Even then, when I was 11 or whatever, I thought it was a weird juxtaposition, and pretty obvious the Beck era was a significant upgrade. I thought better of the live Clapton cuts when I was finally able, in 1979, to hear the Five Live Yardbirds album in its entirety, instead of just the half airlifted to fill out a US longplayer.

Havingaraveup

But getting back to Glenn, the other two Yardbirds LPs occasioned some of the more embarrassing faux pas of my early record collecting career. One of their greatest achievements, the 1966 single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (one of their few recordings from the few months in which both Beck and Jimmy Page were in the lineup), was for many years unavailable on LP. Except, that is, on their Greatest Hits compilation. Which Glenn had, though by the time I realized you could only hear it there, it wasn’t there. It was in DC, where he had in fact relocated his entire collection by the mid-’70s.

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On a visit my parents and I made to the suburban DC apartment where he was living with his wife while I was in high school, I took advantage of his invitation to play anything I wanted. I went right for “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” thinking that the stereo was set up so it would only play through headphones. It wasn’t. My parents came running out of their guest room—everyone else was getting ready to go to sleep—commanding me to turn it down, or better yet, off. Suitably chastened, I did quickly figure out how to cut off the main speakers and listen to it through the headphones. Certainly no one else was demanding to hear the whole track, which was discontinued long before it even got to the atomic guitar solo.

The other Yardbirds album was Little Games. Their only studio LP with Jimmy Page as lead guitarist, I found it just as disappointing as reviews of it in rock encyclopedias had led me to expect, though a few of the cuts were fairly-to-very-good. Glenn kindly said I could borrow it, though it ended up being an, um, permanent loan, as I never did get around to returning it. It’s not the proudest moment of my record collecting career, even if it’s a practice, in all honesty, I never did repeat. But it does testify to our shared passion for the band, Glenn telling me about 20 years later that he was reading a Yardbirds bio online, agreeing with its assessments, and thinking the critic really knew their stuff—and, arriving at the byline on the bottom, realizing it was written by his youngest brother. Validation!

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Going back to 1970, Glenn would occasionally let me and my other brothers hear some of the music he’d taped onto reel-to-reels off friends’ turntables and the radio, but didn’t have on vinyl. I still remember the thrill of hearing Meet the Beatles and getting, although this lingo was not yet in common use, blown away by the sheer quality and variety of songs. Shortly afterward, I’d make Meet the Beatles the first album I owned, asking for it when I was entitled to a present of my choice (the only way for an eight-year-old could obtain such an item).

By this time a senior in high school, Glenn was noticing I’d be playing records on his equipment when he wasn’t around, his complaints leading my parents to buy me a cheap turntable of my own—not the most graceful way to get something I wanted, but another testimony to our shared fanaticism for rock’n’roll. At least by that time, I had the Beatles’ “Let It Be” single—with its (then) seldom-played B-side “You Know My Name,” which we’d laughed at together when he played it off a tape, I incredulous at its sheer strangeness, a la the Who’s “Cobwebs and Strange.”

YouKnow

Also on reel-to-reel was The White Album, which as mentioned he consented to play for us from top to bottom, though just once, in part because that took a good hour and a half. That led to another of my not-too-proud-to-remember stolen-music moments, when I and another brother determined we could listen to this reel-to-reel on our own when neither he nor our parents were home. It didn’t take long, naturally, for Glenn to discover we were doing this—maybe we stored the tape tails in instead of tails out, or something like that. That was the end of our secret reel-to-reel session, and I might have been too embarrassed to ask him to play me anything off the reel-to-reels after that.

As long as we’re on the Beatles, by the way, I recall Glenn telling me in early 1970 he’d just heard a new Beatles single on the radio. This was right before or around the time they were breaking up, and also just after I’d become a Beatles nut, trying to hear or find out anything I could about them. This was more exciting news than the arrival of the Messiah, and I excitedly pressed him for more details.

To my surprise and disappointment, he was kind of vague and lukewarm about what he’d heard, only able to comment that it was kind of like a cowboy song. This wouldn’t have been the Beatles tune most likely to fit that description, “Rocky Raccoon,” which had been on The White Album (which he had, if only on reel-to-reel) for more than a year by that point. I wonder if it was “For You Blue,” the George Harrison-penned-and-sung number used as the B-side to “The Long and Winding Road,” the first posthumous Beatles single. That’s much more of a blues than a cowboy song, but it does have kind of a loping, galloping feel.

Glenn had many reel-to-reels, at least several dozen I think, which were double-sided, probably accommodating about two hours of music each. The tracks on each were meticulously and neatly handwritten, amounting to his generation’s equivalents of what we’d call “mixtapes” when cassettes came into vogue. Amongst the expected songs by the Beatles, Traffic, the Doors, and the like were real oddities, at least in that company, that never got too much sales or attention. There were, for instance, items by the Beacon Street Union and Earth Opera—maybe they were getting airplay at the height of the “Bosstown Sound” hype.

You could also tell when he didn’t care much about some acts others would consider legendary. There was very little Bob Dylan, for instance (I remember “Positively 4th Street” was on one of them), and if you’re thinking he didn’t want to duplicate material he had on vinyl, he didn’t have any Dylan LPs or singles. There was just one Velvet Underground cut, “White Light/White Heat,” though in fairness they were not getting much airplay or sales at the time, and far less known than, say, Traffic, or maybe even (in Philadelphia, anyway) the Nazz.

These tapes were eventually left behind at home when he went to college, and, unlike his LPs, not destined to travel with him when he married shortly after graduation and moved to DC. That meant I was at liberty to play those reel-to-reels without fear of punishment. Alas, the relatively cumbersome task of threading it onto a machine and cueing up to the songs I wanted meant I did little of that, at a time when I did have some of my own vinyl to play. I do remember finding and playing the early Beau Brummels hits “Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little” on one of those tapes. But eventually they’d be thrown out, their only use in the digital age as documentation of what one teenaged rock fan was listening to back in the late ’60s, as captured on those handwritten tape boxes.

So after all this early exposure to music we both loved, did we end up getting the same things in collections that expanded to thousands, comparing notes on new discoveries? No. As far as I could tell, his shelves of discs grew little after the early 1970s. There were other, newer interests occupying his time. Those included working as the sports editor on the University of Pennsylvania’s paper, preparing for application to graduate school, and, most significantly, meeting his future wife, Alyse, whom he married in 1975, spending the last 45 years of his life with her.

Eventually much of his passion resurfaced, especially when he was able to play the music for his two now-grown sons (one of whom, my nephew Andrew, now writes for Billboard magazine). In turn, my nephews made him aware of much more contemporary music. Even if he never took to twenty-first century sounds with quite the energy he gave to ’60s rock, I remember being surprised when he mentioned listening to the Decemberists in his office.

It’s also worth noting that during this entire period he, like millions of young American men, was under threat of getting drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. When the draft changed to a lottery system, his birthdate, December 4, drew #1—meaning he was in the very most likely group to be inducted into the military. Like many young men of the time, he had a college deferment, and the draft was thankfully eliminated in 1973, well before his graduation.

I bring this up not only because it might have complicated his record-collecting life, but also because he’d played Country Joe & the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” for me back in the late 1960s. Back then as a six- or seven-year old, I’d laughed at its sheer jovial novelty, much as I’d treated “Cobwebs and Strange” and “You Know My Name.” It is a funny song, but I was oblivious to the quite serious issues it was satirizing in lines like “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in the box.” Glenn was laughing too, but it must have been a nervous laugh, knowing even at the age of 15 of how that might happen to him or people he knew.

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Much later, my parents and I (without Glenn) visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, shortly after its 1982 opening. I’m grateful his name was not on it. As many now remember, the memorial was quite controversial when it was unveiled, in part because it seemed to be burrowing into the ground. While my family was liberal and opposed to the war, they had not expressed their opposition (or strong political opinions of any sort) too vocally or angrily, at least in my presence. But talking about how the memorial seemed to be going into the ground sparked an uncharacteristically blunt remark from my mother, who blurted, “That’s where that war belongs.”

Fear of losing her first-born son was still fresh nearly a decade after the draft was abolished. By that time those were sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agreed, even if that’s now tempered with acknowledgment that we must remember what happened if we’re to avoid such tragic waste in the future.

By this time, in many ways my knowledge of music from this era was surpassing Glenn’s—not just because my collection had grown into the hundreds, but also because of my voracious appetite for finding out anything I could about rock history. Eventually it would grow into the thousands, and I’d write a dozen or so rock history books. Now I’ve taught adult/community education courses on rock history, on almost a dozen different subjects.

This isn’t to say I was smarter than him, or even that I was more passionate about the music of the time. But unlike him, I made it a big part of my life’s work, discovering acts—let’s take the Pretty Things, as one of the more celebrated examples—of which he and most Americans were totally unaware of in the ’60s. Or even “deep tracks” (a term not in common use back in the day) by stars he was well aware of, from the Kinks and the Byrds to the Who and Hendrix. Although I was pleasantly surprised to learn from a close friend of his, the evening of Glenn’s funeral, that he actually was a fan of the Move—a group barely any more familiar to Americans than the Pretty Things, though they had numerous UK hits.

The Move never did explode in the US, despite this ad's confident prediction.

The Move never did explode in the US, despite this ad’s confident prediction.

It’s fitting that the last time I saw Glenn this year in San Francisco, where I live, we spent hours talking about music and baseball, passions he shared and handed down with so many of his friends and relatives. But the most important inspiration Glenn gave to me wasn’t about rock’n’roll, sports, or his many other interests. It was in the way he lived his life, always thinking about others before he thought of himself; committing good deeds for his family, community, and at his workplace; and doing so with such humility, never making those around him feel like he was doing them favors or expecting any in return.

For Glenn, practicing good values was part of his daily life, whether shouldering much of the responsibility for taking care of my parents in their final years; speaking about the importance of environmental sustainability at his synagogue; or, yes, not losing his cool when his eight-year-old kid brother listened to his records and tapes when he wasn’t at home, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. He was gone too soon, and we’ll miss him every day. But the way he put his principles and his passions into his life will always be with me, and, in an apt footnote, continues to be heard today.

At his funeral service, the rabbi mentioned Glenn had read from the Book of Ecclesiastes just a couple weeks ago, and quoted the very lines Pete Seeger adapted into “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—a song that, in turn, the Byrds turned into a #1 folk-rock hit. A song that, as it happens, I used as part of the title of one of my books, Turn! Turn! Turn!: The 1960s Folk-Rock Revolution.

And that evening, one of his closest friends told me how Glenn won a coveted prize at a party back in the mid-1960s: the Byrds’ second album, also titled Turn! Turn! Turn! It was a time, he explained, when getting any LP was a big deal for a 13-year-old with little disposable income, let alone a good album by one of the top bands of the era. And then I remembered Turn! Turn! Turn!‘s continued presence, years later, in his library of albums.

Glenn’s voice continues to echo in my life and work. He continues to speak to me, even today.

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Père Lachaise Cemetery: Jim Morrison and the Graves Beyond

Most of my posts about hikes and bike outings are for relatively untouristed spots in the Bay Area. So what’s a piece about Père Lachaise  Cemetery doing here? It’s the biggest cemetery in one of the most heavily touristed places in the world, Paris, drawing more than 3.5 million annual visitors. That makes it the most visited cemetery in the world, let alone Paris.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Well, I was there in July, and while I’ve been there a few times before, I didn’t have a camera with me then. And there is a music connection to some of the numerous celebrities buried here, most famously Jim Morrison, the only one with a strong (and it’s extremely strong) connection to rock history. So why not a post with photos from Père Lachaise, emphasizing some of the lesser known and less celebrity-oriented corners of this massive space?

That noted, I’m starting with a picture of Morrison’s grave, the most popular attraction within one of the most popular attractions in Paris:

Morrison

As even many Doors fans who haven’t been here know, the grave has frequently had to been cleaned, as it’s been overrun by graffiti and countless mementoes left here — not all of which are the pretty innocuous ones you see in my picture. I’ve never seen hard drugs left here, but I’ve heard they have, in addition to the marijuana joints you might well spot depending on when you come. I’ve also heard that unruly partiers disturb the peace here, especially at night, when you have to make unauthorized climbs to get in the grounds. 

I must say that on each of my visits dating back to the early 1990s, the crowds gathered at the grave — and there are usually a dozen to two dozen or so — have been quite respectful. Even when there was a tape machine playing Doors music, fans were just smiling and bopping along to songs like “The Soft Parade,” and not in any way creating disturbance. There’s still controversy about whether Morrison should remain here, and the site has to be guarded, even in the broad daylight of late afternoon, which is when I took this photo. And yes, the grave isn’t all that easy to find (get a map inside the gates for the specifics), though if you follow the paths that more people seem to be taking than any others, you can likely get there without one.

Beyond the celebrities, however, Père Lachaise is simply an amazing place to visit, even if it didn’t hold any famous names. It’s kind of a mini-city in itself, with streets of sorts both leafy and haunting:

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Haunted

I especially like the many picturesque graves of people who aren’t at all famous, often embellished with tasteful and moving keepsakes. Here’s one of a woman who died in her early thirties in 2014:

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Some of the more ancient ones are shells of their former selves:

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Some of the structures surrounding the graves are as or more elaborate than the gravestones:

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And the varied landscapes make for some haunting hillsides of sorts:

Hillside

Some of the most affecting parts of the cemetery, however, commemorate incidents in French history that are among the nation’s most troubling from the past 150 years. Most famously, the Communards’ Wall marks where more than a hundred communists were shot in May 1871:

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MortsPlaque

Just as soberly, several monuments mark the deportation and deaths of French Jews in World War II:

Buchenwald

Auschwitz

Enfants

Flossenburg

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Getting back to the famous people buried here, Jim Morrison’s grave hasn’t been the only one defaced. Here’s Oscar Wilde’s grave, and below that, the sign that’s posted nearby:

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AuPublic

Of the non-rock recording artists, the most internationally famous is Edith Piaf:

Piaf

Sometimes missed is the nearby grave for her daughter Marcelle Dupont, who died at the age of two: 

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Piaf is famous throughout the world, but French cemeteries carry reminders that many of the country’s stars are primarily known in France. Such as Gilbert Bécaud, whose grave is quite ornate:

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Becaud

“Thanks,” reads the inscription in the above picture. “Your public won’t forget you.” Which you could also say, many times over, for the memorials to Morrison, Wilde, Piaf, and the victims of government atrocities elsewhere in Père Lachaise.

The Rolling Stones Dartford Tour

Lots of people, including myself, visit sites marking where the Beatles grew up in Liverpool. In fact, there are a number of tours that will take you around — the best by some distance is the one that goes into Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s childhood homes (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes). A good number of people go to Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and of course tons go to Graceland in Memphis. No doubt there are some other rock landmark tours — it’s not official, but a fellow writer took me around to places in Belfast where Van Morrison grew up and mentioned in his songs. 

But few people visit landmarks of the Rolling Stones’ early years. In part that’s because, unlike the Beatles, they didn’t all grow up in the same town. All but Brian Jones were raised in London or near London, Jones hailing from Cheltenham near the Welsh border. But London’s vast and the other four weren’t near each other. Except, that is, for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who both grew up in the London suburb of Dartford. That is, if you can accurately call this town of nearly 100,000 about a forty-minute train ride from the big city a suburb — more on that later.

Considering the Stones are (or at least were) the most popular group in the world bar the Beatles, and that Jagger and Richards were (and are) the most important members, it’s a little surprising there aren’t more pilgrims. There is, however, at least one operator of regular Stones-Dartford tours. I and a friend took it on a July Sunday. We didn’t have any trouble booking it — actually, we were the only two on the tour, the operator taking us around for a couple hours in his car.

I’d have to say that if you’re not a big Stones fan, you’ll be pretty nonplussed by the tour, which takes you around to a series of buildings that most would find nondescript if not for their Jagger-Richards associations. (And you do need a car to see them in a couple hours; Dartford’s not that big, but the sites are fairly spread out around town.) If you drag someone along who’s not pretty passionate about the band, they’ll likely feel kind of like I do when I tag along with friends looking at tapestries. But if, like me, you are intensely interested in their history, it’s worth doing, if only to get a sense of how utterly average Mick and Keith’s surroundings were until they helped form the Rolling Stones.

The most significant stop is actually the very first one, and something you can easily visit on your own if you wish. It’s the Dartford train station platform where the pair met on October 17, 1961, setting into motion the events that led them into the Rolling Stones. Indeed, the spot’s now marked by a blue plaque honoring its significance:

StationPlaque

Sure, there’s not much space for explanatory text on these plaques, but it’s not quite accurate. Mick and Keith did know each other casually at various points while growing up in Dartford, and this didn’t mark the first time they met. And as I heard very quickly when I posted this picture on social media, many fans took exception to the plaque’s claim that they “went on to form the Rolling Stones.” In their view, it was Brian Jones, or Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart, who formed the band, or at least got together to form a band that Jagger and Richards joined very shortly afterward. I don’t find this important enough to argue or get upset about. I think that Jones, Stewart, Jagger, and Richards were all important in the initial stage of the Stones’ evolution, which was quite complicated and would see a number of people go in and out of the lineup until they settled on five members (not including Stewart) in early 1963.

But this was the meeting that sparked Mick and Keith’s very close personal friendship and musical collaboration. The story’s pretty well known (even to some non-Stones fans), but after they recognized each other while waiting for a train, Richards spotted albums Jagger was carrying from Chess Records — a label that issued many records by some of their favorite artists, like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters. That got them to discovering they had very strong common musical interests, as well as both knowing another budding musician into the same material, Dick Taylor (an original Rolling Stone, though he left by the end of 1962 to found the Pretty Things). 

So yes, it was a momentous occasion well worth marking, though maybe not worth the hour and a half roundtrip train ride from London just for the plaque alone. Otherwise it’s an unremarkable train platform:

Platform

As a side note, only about ten days before taking this tour, I actually saw Dick Taylor performing. The Pretty Things have a lengthy, fascinating history that can’t be summed up in a paragraph (and there’s a whole big chapter about them in my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock if you’re curious). Suffice to say they were the best British Invasion band never to make it in the US, and sounded much like a raw Rolling Stones in the mid-’60s, unsurprisingly as they drew from very similar influences. On July 13, 2018, I saw them give what was introduced as their last London club performance, with Taylor and original singer Phil May still in the band:

Dick Taylor (left) and Phil May of the Pretty Things onstage at the Half Moon Putney, July 13, 2018.

Dick Taylor (left) and Phil May of the Pretty Things onstage at the Half Moon Putney, July 13, 2018.

Of greater surprise to me, when I referred to Dartford as a London suburb in my social media posts, I quickly heard back from a couple British residents who took exception to this categorization. “Technically, Dartford has never been a London suburb,” wrote one.  “It has never been part of any unitary authority centred in London (the LCC or its successor, the GLC) and it isn’t even part of the Metropolitan Police Area. Just why this is so, I can’t really say, any more than I can explain why Watford and Epsom were never included in Greater London for administrative purposes.” Another simply stated, “Dartford is in Kent, it’s not a London suburb.” Now, most small-ish cities/large towns twenty miles or so from one of the biggest cities in the world would be, I’d say, fairly described as suburbs, at least in the sense US residents use the term “suburb.” My main point, as I explained, is that Dartford is near but not part of London, a forty-minute or so train journey away.

Getting back to the Dartford train station, I’d guess the surrounding area has changed a lot since 1961. Walk over the road and there’s a huge shopping center. It’s as impersonal as its US counterparts, though a theater was staging a production based on the Rolling Stones’ biggest rivals:

LetItBe

And Dartford being proud of whomever famous they can dig up who was also born in the town, there was a permanently mounted poster honoring artist Peter Blake, most famous for his work as a designer for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album:

PeterBlake

Get a bit away from the train station area, and there are older buildings and less rampant modern development, some of which have strong Stones associations. Here’s the hospital where they were born, though as I remarked to the tour operator, it looks more like a doctor’s office than a hospital:

Hospital

Then there’s the Holy Trinity Church where Mick was christened and Keith sang in the choir — actually quite an aged structure, with the oldest parts dating back to medieval times:

Church

Cities don’t in general do much to honor living rock legends, and Dartford’s no exception. There is a statue of Jagger, but it’s way off the beaten path in the town’s Central Park. It’s so far along a path leading away from the park’s chief open space, in fact, that it’s not too easy to find unless you have a guide. The statue’s so slender that even within feet of reaching it, the sideways view makes it look like some piece of metal sticking up from the ground until you get right in front of it:

Statue

It’s not obvious, but the thing in front of the bench that looks like a small metal door is supposed to represent a Vox amplifier. Why? The answer’s revealed later in the tour.

Mick and Keith didn’t live in the same homes the whole time they were growing up, and the tour visits two former residences of each Stone. Here’s the earlier one for Richards, above a shop:

1stKeithHome

Unremarkable, certainly, except for a plaque marking its significance:

1stKeithPlaque

Rock god, sure. But “cult film star”? Is that really worth mentioning on a plaque?

It’s impossible to get a good clear picture, but inside the window of the store (which was closed it being a Sunday), there was a photo of Keith coming back to visit the building many years later:

KeithPicture

The first of Mick’s childhood homes on the tour is just a couple blocks or so away. As Jagger and Richards were born just half a year or so apart, certainly they must have run across each other in the neighborhood. Mick’s building is yet less remarkable than Keith’s:

1stMickHome

You could say the same about the nearby primary school they both attended for a while:

PrimarySchool

The next stop was Mick’s subsequent childhood home. It’s not that visually stimulating, but it does generate a little more thought. It’s pretty big — certainly big for a suburban London home for a family of four (Mick has a younger brother) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jagger’s final years in Dartford. His father was a physical education instructor, which isn’t a profession we associate with affluence, but the family must have had some decent income and resources. Or, at least, more than the Richards family, whose subsequent home (coming up later) was bigger than their earlier one, but not as big as this one. It’s a little like seeing the difference in size between McCartney and Lennon’s childhood homes — Lennon might have put “Working Class Hero” on his first album, but he definitely had a much bigger and nicer house than McCartney or the other Beatles had. 

2ndMickHome

Part of the reason Mick and Keith didn’t know each other that well before their train station summit was that after going to the same primary school in early childhood, they attended different institutions. Jagger went to Dartford Grammar School, which now also houses the Mick Jagger Centre, a “multi-use facility holding a music venue, theatre, dance studio, meeting rooms and bar/café which are all available to hire on request,” according to its website.

JaggerGrammar

JaggerCentre

Just a few blocks away from Dartford Grammar School is an arguably more interesting structure. While Jagger was going to school nearby, a brand of equipment the Rolling Stones and many other ’60s bands used was being developed just a few blocks away, as the plaque on the building declares:

Vox

So that’s why there’s a Vox amp near the statue of Jagger in Dartford Central Park. It’s not a very big or impressive looking building, and is now occupied by an entirely unrelated business:

AdsCentre

The last stop on the tour was Keith Richards’s other, later childhood home. Visually unexceptional, it does naturally have a plaque explaining its importance:

2ndKeithHouse

2ndKeithPlaque

I’m well aware these photos don’t make for a stunning spread, or even one as interesting as other childhood homes of future heroes, like the ones of the Beatles or Elvis. What they do reflect, however, was how utterly ordinary a suburb Dartford was, and is.

When Mick and Keith were getting turned on to the artists of Chess Records, I imagine it must have fueled their hunger to see more of the world. Or at least something different and more exciting than the plain and predictable, if safe and secure enough, neighborhoods in which they lived and went to school and church. Going to Chicago, home of Chess Records and the greatest blues artists, wasn’t an option. But going to London was, and only a year or so after meeting on the train platform, Jagger, Richards, and Brian Jones were living together in a legendarily squalid apartment in the city’s Chelsea district, in Edith Grove.

As Robert Christgau’s chapter on the Rolling Stones in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll noted, “Only two of them [Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman] came from working class backgrounds…This is not to say the Stones were rich kids; only Brian qualified as what Americans would call upper middle-class. Nor is it to underestimate the dreariness of the London suburbs or the rigidity of the English class hierarchy.” (Hey, there’s another US writer referring, if indirectly, to Dartford as a suburb!) Rock’n’roll, soul, and the blues didn’t offer Mick and Keith a route from poverty; they weren’t poor, though Mick’s family seemed a lot better off than Keith’s. But it did give them a route out of the suburban lifestyle that Dartford certainly reflects.

 

Beatles Hamburg Landmarks

Considering that 55-60 years have passed, it’s amazing how many of the most important landmarks of the Beatles’ stints in Hamburg survive. Just one major site—unfortunately, a very major one (details later)—is gone. Otherwise, the clubs they played, the places they stayed, and some other odds and ends (including the doorway of a very famous photograph) are pretty intact, if understandably usually altered. It took a long time for me to get here, but almost fifty years after I first read about their Hamburg visits (at the age of eight in Hunter Davies’s Beatles biography, back in 1970), I finally made my pilgrimage in July 2018.

The Indra, the first club the Beatles played in Hamburg.

The Indra, the first club the Beatles played in Hamburg.

To be honest, if you’re not a big Beatles fan and don’t make the connections between these landmarks and their early history, they don’t look like much. I was here on my own, but I imagine that if you’re visiting with someone who’s not a fan (or even if they’re a casual fan), they might feel like I do when I tag along with fellow travelers eager to linger over vintage tapestry collections.

Hamburg, however, was the most crucial city to the Beatles’ evolution, other than their Liverpool birthplace. It was here they mutated, in just a couple years or so, from a ragtag semi-pro outfit who couldn’t find a permanent drummer to—without exaggeration—the best group in the world.

They certainly were by the time they played their last Hamburg show on New Year’s Eve in 1962, even if you can’t quite tell from the surviving lo-fi recordings of them in late December of that year at the Star Club. Playing for eight hours or so a night (with some breaks) for weeks or months on end not only accelerated their growth, but forced them to drastically expand their repertoire. Also important was their exposure to the St. Pauli district’s seedy nightlife, which similarly accelerated their growth from teenagers to adults.

There are Beatles landmarks throughout the St. Pauli district, but the most vital are concentrated on the Grosse Freiheit, a small but vibrant street off the western edge of the area’s main drag, the Reeperbahn. Three of the four clubs they played in Hamburg were here, within about a block of each other. The Reeperbahn entrance to Grosse Freiheit is marked by Beatles Platz, its circular shape meant to mimic a record.

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

Five spindly statues on Beatlesplatz represent the group as they were when they first played Hamburg between August 1960 and mid-1961. Four are grouped together; one, of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (who left in mid-1961 and died in spring 1962), is considerably off to the side. The idea behind these not-immediately-identifiable-images is for you to pose inside them as if you’re actually one of the Beatles. Yet less immediately apparent are the song titles inscribed into the Platz, which name many of their biggest hits from throughout their career.

"Let It Be," the final song title inscribed onto Beatles Platz.

“Let It Be,” the final song title inscribed onto Beatles Platz.

The first club the Beatles played in Hamburg was the Indra, though they didn’t draw much due both to its small size and their relative inexperience. Remarkably, it’s still there and still a music club, though a bit removed from the main action, about half a block north of where the other commercial establishments end. 

IndraSign

Translation of Indra club plaque:

Translation of Indra club plaque: “On August 17, 1960, the Beatles took the stage at the Indra. It was their first German engagement and the beginning of a huge career.”

Often missed by passerby are some interesting photos and posters above the entrance, which you have to get very close to in order to make out. The Beatles poster is of their last show in Hamburg — not in the Indra or even St. Pauli, but in the Ernst-Merck-Halle, as by this June 1966 gig they were global superstars, not a struggling club band. Less common are the photos of Jimi Hendrix; though he didn’t play the Indra, he did play the Star Club in March 1967.

BeatlesBlitztourneePoster

HendrixBetweenlegs HendrixBehindBack

Experience

The Indra closed about six weeks into the Beatles’ first visit, and they moved to the Kaiserkeller. Though less than a block away, it was much better situated to draw in the foot traffic from Grosse Freiheit, and a much bigger and better venue. It’s still here and still a club, with a doorway poster for some of their shows. Note they’re billed below, and in much smaller type than, fellow Liverpool group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (misspelled “Hurican”), whose drummer was Ringo Starr.

Kaiserkeller

RoryStorm

The Star Club, the final and biggest place the Beatles played in Hamburg for 1962 engagements, was just across the street and south of the Kaiserkeller. Unfortunately the building burned down in 1987, and the former entrance now looks a bit like a mini-mall:

StarClubEntrance

The entrance to the former Star Club, as it looks today.

But at least there’s a marker in the large open space inside, commemorating some of the many legends who played the Star Club. Besides the Beatles, these included fellow Liverpool bands both famous (the Searchers) and relatively obscure (Ian & the Zodiacs). But quite a few are great acts from elsewhere (you’ll have to blow up the picture to read them), including the Pretty Things, the Spencer Davis Group, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Walker Brothers, and US rock’n’roll greats like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles — an amazing roster (and this is just a partial list, missing some notable names like Jimi Hendrix,  Cream, and Soft Machine).

StarClubMarker

The interior of the space the Star Club used to inhabit at least gives a good idea of how big it was.

The interior of the space the Star Club used to inhabit at least gives a good idea of how big it was.

Grosse Freiheit itself is still teeming with gaudy nightlife, and many locals and tourists who likely aren’t there to pay homage to the Beatles:

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

Around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, on the Reeperbahn itself, is the Top Ten club, where the Beatles played in late 1960 and spring 1961, between their Kaiserkeller and Star Club stints. There aren’t many traces of its history from its current appearance. It’s now a club featuring late-night DJ sets a few times a week, though the entrance looks more like one for an apartment building:

Entrance to the former Top Ten club, now a DJ venue called Moondoo.

Also around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, at #33 on the far quieter Paul-Roosen Strasse, is the building that housed the Bambi Kino, the cinema over which the Beatles slept in legendarily filthy quarters on their first visit:

Bambi

Yes, it’s marked by an actual Bambi, though that space is now a garage, not a cinema (which actually only operated for a couple years or so). There are still apartments above it, and they don’t look all that plush from the outside. The youngsters in this photo are at tables placed on the sidewalk by a cafe across the street. There’s a plaque a few feet to the right of the Bambi marking the Beatles’ residency, another landmark you might miss if you don’t know to look out for it:

English translation of Bambi plaque: “The Beatles lived here in 1960.”

The Beatles didn’t actually enter their rooms on this street, instead using a back entrance on Grosse Freiheit. As documented elsewhere, they probably didn’t get much sleep, as the Bambi Kino started running films at loud volume at noon, after the Beatles had stayed up all night and then some playing music and winding down:

BambiBackDoor

The back entrance to the Bambi.

The Reeperbahn itself is still jammed with nightlife—much of it of the red-light variety—for about half a mile, sex clubs sitting side by side with falafel joints, bakeries, and tawdry bars. Not my kind of scene, but it gives you a taste of the wild side the still-teenaged Beatles were thrown into without preparation in summer 1960. 

Food and beer court in the middle of the Reeperbahn has some welcome relief from the rows of sex clubs and bars lining both sides of the drag. The sign in the background translates to “the heart of St. Pauli.”

The most notable landmark outside of the Grosse Freiheit area is the doorway in which John Lennon posed for a memorable picture by Jurgen Vollmer, later used on the cover of his 1975 Rock’n’Roll album. To find it, you need to go to the arch reading Jäger-Passage at Wohlwillstrasse 22, go into the passage, open the gate, and go into a small garden. The doorway is easily recognized on your right. In the picture I took on July 7, 2018 (Ringo’s 78th birthday, as it happened), my guide held a copy of the Rock’n’Roll LP on the left edge:

Vollmer

By chance, a shop named after the opening lyric to the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” opened a few doors to the right of Jäger-Passage. Not an authentic Beatles Hamburg landmark by any means, but it’s an interesting coincidence:

MissesMuch

Farther away from the Reeperbahn, the Pacific Hotel—where the Beatles stayed for their final visit at the end of 1962, and a much nicer place than the Bambi Kino—is still in operation, only a block or so from Feldstrasse U-Bahn station. It still looks like a rather nice place to stay, in fact:

PacificHotel

A couple blocks from there is the former shop where the Beatles got leather suits, though it’s not in operation anymore:

Leather

And near the Feldstrasse U-Bahn entrance are the fairgrounds where Astrid Kirchherr took the first great pictures of the Beatles in late 1960. It’s still used as a fairgrounds a few times a year—but I was there a couple weeks before one of those occasions.

The fairgrounds where the Beatles were famously photographed by Astrid Kirchherr in late 1960 usually sport this empty look today.

Maybe it’s an indication of how rock history has yet to be taken as seriously as it should, but there isn’t as much boosterism of the Beatles in Hamburg as you might expect—certainly little outside of Grosse Freiheit. Museums and souvenir stands had plenty of postcards of local landmark churches, lakes, buildings, and such, but none that I could find of the Beatles in Hamburg. Fortunately I did get one from the guide I used, Stefanie Hempel, who runs tours on Saturday evenings (info at http://www.hempels-musictour.de/en) that cover all of these sites in detail.

There are other things to do and see in Hamburg (a city of nearly two million), of course. Here are pictures of just some:

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

Fountain on the lake.

Fountain on the lake.

View of the shipyard from the top of St. Michael’s church.

Zolkkanal.

 

Elbphilharmonie building.

Elbphilharmonie building.

Planten un Blumen Park.

But really, for me, it was the Beatles landmarks that made me decide to finally visit. Besides Liverpool and London, Hamburg’s the city with the most important of these.

Favorite Ten Pre-Beatles Rock Albums

Among their many accomplishments, the Beatles did more than anyone else to elevate the standards of the long-playing album in rock music. It’s a cliché, but largely true, that pre-Beatles rock LPs were often thrown-together affairs, surrounding one or two (or more) hit singles with hastily recorded filler. Even the ones that involved more thought and time were often filled out with dull covers of popular songs, sub-standard original material, or even, in ill-advised attempts to build all-around entertainer credentials, non-rock songs.

The Beatles' first album, largely recorded on February 11, 1963 (four tracks were recorded for their first two singles in late 1962), and released in the UK on March 22, 1963.

The Beatles’ first album, largely recorded on February 11, 1963 (four tracks were recorded for their first two singles in late 1962), and released in the UK on March 22, 1963.

Starting with their debut album Please Please Me in early 1963, the Beatles changed that. Every song, even their American rock’n’roll covers, was almost as good as, or sometimes even as good as, their hit singles. It’s often marveled at in rock literature that they recorded the album in one day, but it’s sometimes not noted that actually four of the songs were previously recorded in late 1962 for their first two singles. So they weren’t recording a standalone album in its entirety from scratch. But cutting ten tracks of such high quality in one day for the bulk of the LP was still a remarkable achievement.

I make these observations when I teach my non-credit community education classes on the Beatles, or indeed on general rock music history. I do add that there were some rock LPs prior to the Beatles that were very good and consistent, though not too many. I have in mind some of the records on the following list in this blogpost.

What makes an early rock LP a standalone album, and not a compilation? As noted, even Please Please Me contained some previously released material. The qualifications will vary and even be hotly contested according to the critic and fan. For the purposes of this post, I’m only considering albums in which at least half the material was previously unreleased. I know that’s kind of a loose standard, but standards were generally looser in the early days of the long-playing record.

Before writing this, however, I’d never devoted much thought to measuring just how many really good pre-Beatles rock albums there are. Kind of to my surprise, I had a hard time filling out a Top Ten list of my favorites in which I could really get behind each LP as something I’d enthusiastically play from beginning to end. I had to cheat a little bit — inserting a live album recorded before but released after Please Please Me, records in which the last sessions took place just after Please Please Me was finished, and a folk revival LP by an artist who later went into folk-rock – just to push the number up to ten.

Many artists who have compilations never put out an outstanding LP. Some came close, but they or their labels didn’t select or program available tracks well. Some early LPs regarded as classics turn out to have been dominated by singles. There are enough examples of interesting non-qualifiers to fill up an entirely separate post, but I’ll note some at the end of this list.

On the whole, the paucity of really good pre-Beatles rock LPs testifies to the group’s innovations on this front, maintained with their second LP (With the Beatles, late 1963) and expanded upon in almost every subsequent album they released. There is a clear winner as far as the act that made the best LPs before the Beatles’ emergence, which might surprise listeners only familiar with their numerous hit singles.

1. The Everly Brothers, It’s Everly Time (1960, Warner Brothers). The Everlys’ first album for Warners, following a long run of stardom at Cadence Records in the late ‘50s, did have a hit single (“So Sad”). Otherwise, however, all of the tracks were new to disc. They were all decent-to-excellent, and varied, including five compositions by the duo that wrote quite a few of their early hits, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant; quality covers of recent rock and R&B songs by Ray Charles (“What Kind of Girl Are You”) and Fats Domino (“I Want to Know”); and a good non-wimpy version of the pop tune “Memories Are Made of This.” Some of the Bryants’ contributions were really strong, those being the bouncy “Some Sweet Day” (covered to fine effect by Fairport Convention on the BBC in the late ‘60s), the fairly gritty (certainly for the Everlys) “Nashville Blues,” and “You Thrill Me.”

Everlys1

About the only complaint you could make, which is one that would apply to many early rock LPs, is that the running time’s too short, the dozen tracks adding up to 27 minutes. The guy who turned me on to this more than thirty years ago felt that the songs on this and their next album (see next listing) tended to fade out too early. But those are minor drawbacks for a rare early rock LP of mostly new material where every song is good. And though not many people talk about it today, it was a big hit in its time, making #9 in the US and #2 in the UK.

2. The Everly Brothers, A Date with the Everly Brothers (Warner Brothers, 1960). Issued just five months after It’s Everly Time—product line expectations really were higher back then—A Date with the Everly Brothers was another LP by the duo that was well above the standards of the albums by their peers. If not quite as killer as its predecessor, it was similar enough to It’s Everly Time that it almost sounded as if it could have been recorded at the same sessions. Indeed, two of the songs were—the huge classic hit “Cathy’s Clown” and its B-side, “Always It’s You.” Those songs, and “Lucille” (the B-side of “So Sad”), are the only three of the twelve tracks that had been previously released.

Everlys2

“Lucille,” an excellent guitar-centered cover of the Little Richard hit, became a sizable hit in its own right, reaching #21. Other highlights included the first version of the famous Boudleaux Bryant composition “Love Hurts,” predating Roy Orbison’s more famous rendition, and the catchy Felice & Boudleaux Bryant collaboration “So How Come (No One Loves Me).” As it happened, those three songs made for a great start to the second side of the LP, even if that momentum couldn’t be kept up over the course of the whole program.

As the Beatles did fine versions of “So How Come (No One Loves Me)” and “Lucille” (in an arrangement much closer to the Everlys’ cover than the Little Richard original) on the BBC in 1963, here’s guessing they must have had a copy of this LP. They weren’t alone in their home country. It made #3 in the UK, and #9 in the US—numbers they’d never again approach.

Like It’s Everly Time, however, this is a short album, clocking in at 28 minutes. Fortunately, in 2001 WEA International combined both LPs onto one CD, adding seven bonus tracks also recorded in 1960 (including the hits “Walk Right Back,” “Ebony Eyes,” and “Temptation”). That makes for a great value package of the duo at their Warner Brothers peak.

That peak didn’t last too long, in part because the Everlys were distracted by stints in the Marine Corps and attempts to break into Hollywood as actors. More seriously, a publishing dispute broke off their access to compositions with the Bryants (though the dispute wasn’t with the Bryants themselves). They did record more fine material for Warner Brothers in the 1960s than most people realize, but never again made LPs as good as their first pair. In fact, they never really made an album that seemed designed as a strong standalone piece until 1968’s country-rock Roots, when solid LPs by rock acts were much more common and expected than they were in 1960.

When history looks at unfilled potential of rock greats, the strongest focus is unsurprisingly on artists who died young, like the Everlys’ friend Buddy Holly. One wonders, however, whether the Everlys might have made much better LPs after 1960 had the military, Hollywood, and the publishing problem not gotten in the way. And, indeed, whether rock history might have been altered in some way, if they could have demonstrated it was possible to sustain a run of quality rock albums before the Beatles came along.

3. The Beach Boys, Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963, Capitol). It’s true the Beach Boys’ second album doesn’t find them as much at the top of their game as other artists were on LPs on this list, like the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. It’s also true that some might disqualify this record from consideration as it was actually released three days later (March 25, 1963) than Please Please Me, which came out on March 22. And although some of the sessions took place before the Beatles finished Please Please Me on February 11, seven of the twelve tracks were cut on February 11 and February 12.

beach-boys-the-surfin-usa-1963-album-cover

Also in the “it’s true” category: the Beach Boys never did manage a really great start-to-finish album before 1966’s Pet Sounds, and never did after Pet Sounds for that matter. They had a good number of strong LP tracks—much more so than most ‘60s acts with plenty of hit singles—but through the mid-1960s, they were spreading their assets too thin over too many albums issued in rapid succession. Even on Surfin’ U.S.A., the two songs that had been on a single (“Surfin’ U.S.A.” and its hit B-side “Shut Down”) were easily the best on the record.

Having listed the reasons why Surfin’ U.S.A. maybe shouldn’t be on this list, let’s turn to why it is on the list, and at #3 at that. At a time when the usual quality of rock LPs was pretty low, Surfin’ U.S.A. was pretty good. Aside perhaps from a couple of the weakest instrumentals, none of the tracks were dispensable. Some were pretty good—“The Lonely Sea” (actually dating from a June 1962 session) is a superb ballad, “Farmer’s Daughter” a pretty decent midtempo harmony rocker, and “Noble Surfer” a fair vocal surf song. “Stoked” is actually quite a hip surf instrumental, and while the covers of Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” and “Misirlou” aren’t as good as the originals, they’re respectable.

Unlike many of the records (including many big hits) they’d issue over the next four years, Surfin’ U.S.A. was played by the Beach Boys, without any session men. If their skills were a little on the rudimentary side, they were nonetheless a capable, even exciting band on their own. If its impact wasn’t as big as the Beatles’ first albums, it was pretty big, making #2 in the US, and demonstrating that a self-contained rock band could make a varied, highly enjoyable full-length album of mostly original material.

4. Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956, RCA). Give RCA some credit–although the label might have been nervous about whether its then-astronomical investment in Elvis might pay off in early 1956, it quickly committed to a full-length album. The self-titled LP was issued on March 23, a day before “Heartbreak Hotel” became Presley’s first single to enter the Top Twenty, on its way to a seven-week reign at #1. What’s more, the record didn’t have “Heartbreak Hotel” or any singles.

Elvis

Nine of the twelve songs were issued on EPs in March, I’m guessing simultaneously with the LP. Some purists might maintain their availability on records that might have predated (if just slightly) or come out the same time as the LP would disqualify it from this listing. In part because the LP (which made #1) was by far the format on which fans were most likely to first hear the songs, and in part because whatever difference existed was probably very little, I’m not letting this prevent it from getting on this list.

On to the music: it was very good, if not quite on the level of his early singles for both Sun and RCA. It was also a bit of a jumble: seven tracks were cut in January 1956, but the others were Sun outtakes from 1954 and 1955, three of them rather restrained ballads. The covers of recent early rock’n’roll hits (including “Tutti Frutti,” “I Got a Woman,” and most famously “Blue Suede Shoes”) were appreciably different from, but not quite as good as, the originals.

I do like his version of the Drifters’ hit “Money Honey” better than the original, and a couple of the other January 1956 tracks (“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” covered well by the Beatles in 1963 on the BBC, and “One Sided Love Affair”) are very good. So are the earthier Sun outtakes, “Just Because” and “Tryin’ to Get to You.”

So it adds up to a good, often electrifying debut that quickly demonstrated Elvis’s talents went well beyond what he put on his singles. I’m aware many critics would put it higher on the list—some even at #1—but the recordings just aren’t quite as good as his best early 45s.

It’s also missing his great January 1956 version of Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” saved for use as the B-side to his second RCA single, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” In my opinion, it’s his greatest post-Sun recording besides possibly “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and his only RCA recording that sounds like it could have been done at Sun Records. Its presence on the Elvis Presley album would have boosted it considerably. So would the inclusion of another Crudup cover he cut on January 30, 1956, “So Glad You’re Mine,” which was saved for his second RCA LP, Elvis (which otherwise was solely comprised of tracks from early September 1956 sessions).

As a footnote, if a record gets a bonus point for a memorable cover, Elvis Presley certainly deserves one. By now, it’s well known that it was emulated almost a quarter century later on the Clash’s London Calling.

5. Dionne Warwick, Presenting Dionne Warwick (1963, Scepter). This might come as a surprise, as Warwick’s not especially thought of as an album artist; as she had such a long run of hit singles written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; and some might feel that her brand of soul/pop was too mild to be categorized as rock, though I’d disagree with that. It turns out, however, that this debut LP was issued on February 10, 1963—the day before the Beatles finished Please Please Me. What’s more, just four of the twelve tracks had been issued as singles. It’s even possible the second of those singles, “This Empty Place”/“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” was issued a bit later than this LP; I can only pin down its release date to the month February 1963, though I’m guessing it probably came out around the same time as the album.

DIONNE_WARWICK_PRESENTING+DIONNE+WARWICK-523354

In common with the majority of other LPs on this list, the singles here—her debut “Don’t Make Me Over,” and both sides of the aforementioned Febuary 1963 45—are decisively the best tracks. But it’s a strong album on the whole, with some of the other Bacharach-David-penned tracks almost matching the quality of those singles. She acquits herself well on “Make It Easy for Yourself,”  which had already been a hit for Jerry Butler, and would also be a hit a couple years later for the Walker Brothers. The same’s true of “It’s Love That Really Counts,” a poppier version of which would be a very small (#102) hit for the Shirelles, and also a #24 UK hit later in 1963 for the Merseybeats.

Yet another track, “The Love of a Boy,” was also a hit for someone else (Timi Yuro, who took it to #44), though Warwick’s reading was far more gracefully understated. And “Wishin’ and Hopin’” would be a Top Twenty UK hit for the Merseybeats in 1964, the same year Dusty Springfield took it into the US Top Ten. Bacharach-David’s “I Cry Alone” sounds like it should have been a hit for Warwick, but it wasn’t a hit for anyone, and not issued on one of Dionne’s singles.

The rest of the material on the LP wasn’t quite up to the level of these songs, and some weren’t even written by Bacharach-David. But overall it was a fine debut, and generally an unveiling of Warwick’s distinctive orchestrated pop-soul, as produced and written by Bacharach and David. It’s also somewhat more R&B-oriented, and less lushly arranged, than her subsequent work, which is a plus in my book.

6. The Everly Brothers, The Everly Brothers (1958, Cadence). This ekes onto the list, as six of the dozen tracks had been issued on the Everlys’ first three Cadence singles. These included their huge hits “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie”; their quality Don Everly-penned, less uptempo B-sides “I Wonder If I Care As Much” and “Maybe Tomorrow”; and the less well known mild hit single from early 1958, which paired a cover of Ray Charles’s “This Little Girl of Mine” with the Everlys original “Should We Tell Him.”

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Inevitably, these overshadowed the other tracks on the LP. But even though it was largely filled out by covers, these versions weren’t mailed in. The Everlys aren’t noted for being fine R&B interpreters, but actually they were pretty good at the style. On this debut, they offer respectable, and respectably hard-rocking, versions of Charles’s “Leave My Woman Alone,” Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” and Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” and “Rip It Up,” though none of these match the originals (“Leave My Woman Alone” coming the closest). In all it made for a solid listen, and sold pretty well at a time when LPs had a much smaller slice of the teenage/rock market, making #16.

Some other critics might put their next album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, on this list as well, but I find this record of low-key traditional-oriented folk and country covers less exciting on the turntable than it is as a concept. It did demonstrate that the Everlys were putting more effort into making their albums distinct entities than most of their early rock peers. They also picked a concept with more integrity than other detours that early rockers attempted on LPs, like entire albums of Christmas music (though the Everlys would eventually do one of those too) or pop/jazz standards.

7. James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963, King). Although released in May 1963, a couple months after Please Please Me came out, this was actually recorded on October 24, 1962, before all but two of the tracks on the Beatles’ debut were cut. Unusually for a soul LP of the era, it was a big hit on the pop charts, where it peaked at #2. It also did a great deal to launch Brown into a higher level of stardom, though he was already a big figure in the R&B world.

JamesBrown_Live_at_the_Apollo-

I’m aware that many critics would place this higher on a list like this. Some might even put it at #1. But musically, I don’t find it as impressive as its reputation. It’s more oriented toward ballads than you might expect, and drags a bit for me. If everything here was as kinetic as the frantic version of “Think,” I might indeed put it at #1, or at least a lot closer to the top position. But it doesn’t reach those heights otherwise, or indeed the heights of his best subsequent ‘60s singles (or Live at the Apollo Vol. 2, recorded in June 1967), whether uptempo or not.

If any record on this list gets points for historical significance, however, this certainly does. It was the first live rock or soul album to have a huge impact; one that did a good deal to expand the audience for earthy soul; and one that demonstrated that earthy soul LPs could sell in massive numbers. Not that it matters much, but it turns out that though the record has been praised for capturing the onstage and audience energy of a live soul concert, much of the crowd noise was overdubbed from recordings of white teens in the audience at a Cincinnati sock hop. Many live recordings throughout the history of the record business have employed such overdubs, but that does mean it’s not as authentic a document of early soul as had been assumed for many years.

8. Buddy Holly, Buddy Holly (1958, Coral). Like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly took somewhat more care with his LPs than most early rock stars did. Unlike the Everlys, he didn’t get to the point where he delivered a couple albums dominated by LP-only material. Fully half of his first solo album—really his second, since the debut by his band the Crickets had come out a few months earlier (see next listing)—had come out on singles. And yes, these were pretty much the record’s best songs, including the A-sides “Peggy Sue,” “Words of Love,” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” along with the excellent B-sides “Listen to Me” and “Everyday.”

Holly

Still, the rest of the cuts weren’t that run-of-the-mill, and one was great. The great one was “Rave On!,” which became a hit when it was issued as a single after the LP came out. His cover of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” is actually pretty tough, as is his version of “You’re So Square “(Baby I Don’t Care),” first recorded by Elvis Presley.

Holly was a forward-thinking guy for a late-‘50s rock star, writing most of his own material and taking an increasingly firmer hand on its production. One has to guess he would have been likely to attempt more sturdily conceived standalone LPs had he not died in February 1959, but we’ll never know for certain.

9. The Crickets, The “Chirping” Crickets (1957, Brunswick). In a situation destined to confuse future generations, some of Buddy Holly’s records were credited to his group the Crickets, and others credited to Holly alone, though they essentially sounded like the work of the same artist. Although billed to the Crickets, this can be considered Holly’s debut LP. Four of the twelve songs had been on singles, including “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!,” and the B-sides “Not Fade Away” and “I’m Looking for Someone to Love.” And yes, they were a cut above most of the rest of the material.

Chirping_Crickets

Nonetheless, even on the less top-flight tunes, Holly was pretty good, and sometimes more than that. “Maybe Baby” was so great, in fact, that it became one of his biggest and best hit singles in 1958. While Holly’s covers weren’t nearly as distinctive as his original compositions, his versions of songs by the likes of Chuck Willis and Roy Orbison are okay. They don’t stand out in the company of hits, however, whether here or on subsequent Holly compilations. Interesting footnote: this was the first album Eric Clapton ever bought.

10. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963, Columbia). No, this isn’t a rock album. It’s a folk album, even if one track (the traditional song “Corrina, Corrina”) has feather-light band backing, including drums. It was released two months after Please Please Me on May 27, 1963. And though over two-thirds of it was recorded in mid-to-late 1962, four of the thirteen tracks were cut on April 24 of the following year, by which time the Beatles’ debut had been in UK shops for about a month.

Dylan

But aside from the all-important need to push this list to exactly ten selections, this is the first album by a major figure who’d move from folk to rock that was dominated by original material. (There were only two original compositions on his prior album, his self-titled debut LP.)  Even before Dylan moved into electric folk-rock in early 1965, it was influential on rock musicians, most famously the Beatles. And it demonstrated to the rock generation in general that an album could be a major standalone statement without hit singles, or even by an artist who at the time wasn’t making a dent in the 45 market.

It was little known at the time, but is widely known now, that some rare copies of the first pressing of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had different tracks. Four songs from that version—dating from 1962 sessions, and generally more traditional folk-oriented than the most famous songs on the album—are missing from the common edition, which replaced them with four others. Two of those others (“Girl from the North Country” and”Masters of War”) were among the most celebrated songs on the LP, validating whatever decision might have been made to alter the contents.

So those are my personal favorites, and my reasoning, which I’m sure would be debated if submitted to a panel constructing an official list of this sort of thing. And, possibly more controversially, here’s my reasoning for not including some other early rock LPs that have their champions:

Elvis Presley. His second album, simply titled Elvis (from October 1956), has its moments, and like his first does not use big hit singles to fill out the running order. I just don’t find it all that exciting, with the exception of his cover of Arthur Crudup’s “So Glad You’re Mine” (the sole track, as previously noted, to date from January 1956, all of the others being cut during the first three days of September 1956). His versions of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Long Tall Sally” are okay, as are the Leiber-Stoller ballad “Love Me” and the calypso-tinged “How Do You Think I Feel.” Much of the rest, however, I find forgettable.

220px-Elvis01

Ray Charles. If you were making a list purely on the basis of historic significance, certainly his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (and to a lesser degree its sequel from the same year, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 2) would rank high. It made #1, and achieved unprecedented crossover appeal by having a soul singer perform country-oriented material. I’m just not such a big fan of it, and particularly of the sometimes sappy arrangements. Some of his other pre-1963 albums have their advocates, but they don’t really grab me, and a la many LPs of their era, are usually highlighted by hits that overshadow the non-hit tracks.

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Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson. Both were on Capitol Records, and both did a lot of fine tracks besides their big hits. For whatever reason, however, the cuts that were grouped into their LPs were uneven, even though with more selectivity, each could have constructed a fabulous album from the best recordings of their peak era.

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Howiln’ Wolf. His self-titled album from 1962, sometimes called “The Rocking Chair Album” after the cover photo, is really good—there’s no dispute about that. It’s electric blues, but it’s close to rock in execution, and undeniably a big influence on the later blues-rock of the ‘60s, especially from British bands. But although it’s not a best-of—and Wolf didn’t really have enough chart success to generate a conventional best-of album—at least ten of these twelve tracks had already been on singles, and the other two (“You’ll Be Mine” and “Going Down Slow”) were on a 45 that might have predated the LP or been released around the same time.

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Billy Fury, The Sound of Fury (1960, Decca, UK). What about pre-Beatles rock albums in the UK? Well, there weren’t too many of them, especially if you don’t count the ones by Cliff Richard & the Shadows. This one (actually issued in the ten-inch LP format, rather than the standard 12-inch one) by an early British rock star who’s known to few in the US (where he had no success) has its boosters. It’s unusual for consisting entirely of original material by Fury, sometimes credited to the pseudonym Wilberforce. Also unusually, just two of the ten songs were issued on a single, which seems to have come out about the same time. Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s that great. It’s rather mild rockabilly, much inferior to the original US variety generated by Sun Records and other labels.

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Roy Orbison, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Gene Pitney, the Shirelles, to name a few. They’re among my favorite pre-Beatles artists, and all have great compilations, whether they’re best-ofs or with a different focus. But none of them made really good standalone LPs. I could name several other such acts.

The Collins Kids. The album Introducing Larry and Lorrie looks like a late-‘50s LP, even if the artwork’s a little too cleanly tasteful. The twelve tracks would certainly qualify the cult brother-sister duo for this list, as they’re fine and at times white-hot rockabilly from the late 1950s. But it’s not an actual 1950s album. It’s a compilation, and was issued in 1983.

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China Camp Part 2

Back in February, I posted about my hike in China Camp near San Rafael, noting I didn’t have time to walk some of the trails. I did get back there in late winter, and while there’s not nearly enough time to walk the rest of the trails on one visit, I did see quite a bit more than I had on my first visit. So here’s a brief “China Camp Part 2″ post.

One of the recommended loops on the Friends of China Camp site is taking the Bayview trail one way and the Shoreline trail another. I already posted some pictures from the western part of the Bayview trail, so here are some from the eastern part, which does have some views that lives up to its name:

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That’s the best one, where you see the San Francisco skyline faintly in the background (it was a cloudy day) behind the San Rafael-Richmond bridge. From the same point, a wider view:

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Also from the Bayview trail, a less dramatic view of Turtle Back Hill:

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But a more dramatic view, considerably to the east, of Rat Rock Island (that is its real name):

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From this photo, you might think you’re in the middle of the Pacific. The island’s pretty close to shore, however, as this wider perspective reveals:

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Just to the west of the island is Rat Rock Cove:

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Following the Shoreline Trail east after it meets the Bayview Trail, you might come across this rock garden of sorts at the eastern boundary of the park, if it hasn’t been removed:

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The Shoreline Trail is pretty flat, if a bit rolling, compared to the Bayview Trail, and much closer to sea level (and the actual water of the San Francisco Bay). So it’s less exciting. But if you’ve walked much of the length of the Bayview Trail first, as I did, it’s much easier on the feet, and sensible to do in the last part rather than the first. The loop of sorts took about four hours, and with the dirt surface and considerable elevation changes of the Bayview Trail, it is a decent workout, even if you’re in good shape. And you have a good chance of spotting some wildlife, as I did near the end:

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On this cloudy March Monday, there weren’t many people in this quite large park, which you’ll have mostly to yourself. Approximate tally for the day: about half a dozen hikers, about half a dozen mountain bikers, and about half a dozen deer.

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