Walter De Maria, Pre-Velvet Underground Renaissance Man

One of the rewards of doing research for intensely detailed books is that the deeper you dig, the more there is to find. (There certainly aren’t many financial rewards involved!) Such is the case with untangling the histories of the Velvet Underground’s associates, especially in the years before 1966, when quite a few people from the avant-garde scene influenced the path the band would take. Sometimes it leads you to experimental records and movies you never would have checked out otherwise, and even makes you aware of interesting other projects with little or nothing to do with the Velvets.

One of the more interesting people who was involved, if briefly, with future Velvet Underground members was Walter De Maria. He was the drummer in the Primitives, the group formed by Lou Reed and John Cale with another guy who wouldn’t go on to the Velvets, Tony Conrad. The band was only around for about two or three months in late 1964 and early 1965, and only Reed appears on the sole Primitives single, “The Ostrich”/“Sneaky Pete,” recorded before the other musicians were recruited. But it was in the Primitives that Reed and Cale first worked together, forming the core of the Velvet Underground after Conrad and De Maria drifted away to other pursuits.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The work of Tony Conrad is fairly well known, at least to many people with an interest in the avant-garde arts. He played in La Monte Young’s group with Cale before and (for a little while) after the Primitives and made quite a few seriously avant-garde recordings, a good number of which were made commercially available. He also made one of the more noted experimental films of the 1960s, 1966’s Flicker, comprised solely of alternating black and white frames.

Walter De Maria’s work outside the Primitives is not so well known, at least to those whose interest in the Velvet Underground is focused on their musical manifestations. He is quite well known as an environmental installation artist, though many who know him for that work are unaware of his relatively slim activity as a musician. In fact, his 1977 piece The Lightning Field is one of the most celebrated examples of “land art,” its 400 stainless steel poles occupying a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer in New Mexico. Other noted, smaller-scale De Maria creations, New York Earth Room (a room filled with 250 cubic yards of earth) and The Broken Kilometer, have been on permanent display in New York City for many years. Some of his visual artwork can be seen, along with some footage of De Maria himself, in the 2015 documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, which is pretty interesting even if your interest in De Maria (and land art itself) is casual.

The poster for the documentary "Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art" features a photo of Walter De Maria.

The poster for the documentary “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art” features a photo of Walter De Maria.

While De Maria’s musical activities are relatively obscure, they’re more extensive than many people realize. Serious Velvets fans — at least those serious enough to read my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day — know that not long after the Primitives, he was drummer in the Insurrections, fronted by fellow avant-gardist Henry Flynt. Flynt had his own fairly close Velvets connection, filling in for John Cale at a few actual Velvet Underground shows in fall 1966.

Later in 1966, Flynt recorded an album’s worth of material as the guitarist and singer in Henry Flynt & the Insurrections. The group’s raw, primitive sound is similar in some respects to the Velvets and the Fugs, but has more of a hillbilly flavor (particularly in the vocals), and is frankly not nearly as impressive as the music being produced by their Lower East Side peers. The recordings weren’t released until 2004, on the Locust Music album I Don’t Wanna.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren't issued until 2004.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren’t issued until 2004.

That’s about as far as I got on the trail of De Maria’s musical activities for the first edition of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, and I didn’t think there was much if anything left to exhume. It turns out, though, that De Maria had released an actual CD of 1960s recordings so obscure — at least, obscure enough to evade my detection — that I wasn’t even aware of it until working on my revised ebook edition in recent months.

At some point in 1964, De Maria recorded a 24-minute instrumental piece, “Cricket Music.” Although the ingenious conceptual composition mixes his drumming and the sounds of crickets, their chirps are hard to detect until about the middle of this lengthy recording, on which De Maria solos in a rather jazzy, repetitious style. Soon, however, the crickets rise in volume until they’re louder than the drums, eventually dominating the soundscape as De Maria continues to plug away in the background, slightly varying his rhythms. By its conclusion, “Cricket Music” is all crickets. The entire track was eventually issued on his 2000 self-pressed CD Drums and Nature, which was reissued in 2016, though you’ll probably have a hard time finding a record store that carries it.

"Cricket Music" and "Ocean Music" were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

“Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

Drums and Nature also includes his 1968 recording “Ocean Music,” which is rather similar in conception. Starting off with several minutes of the sound of ocean waves, his 20-minute piece “Ocean Music” eventually blends the waves with his jazzy repetitious drumming, until by the end the drums have totally overwhelmed the ocean sounds. It’s thus something of a mirror image of “Cricket Music,” in which the sounds of crickets eventually submerge his drumming.

What’s more, both “Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were used in De Maria’s 1969 movie Hard Core, which like his other projects was hardcore avant-garde. The half-hour film’s composed primarily of slow pans over a mountain-shadowed dry, cracked lake bed in the desert. (One source says this was in the Mojave Desert; another says it was in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.) These are periodically interrupted by super-brief shots of two cowboys preparing for a duel, ending with a lengthy shootout. That’s not quite the final sequence, however, as it’s followed by a lingering close-up of an Asian girl’s face, perhaps as an oblique reference to the war in Vietnam.

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It’s not so easy to see the film these days, but it can be viewed for a $25 fee in the Film Library and Study Center of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. Fortunately I live just across the Bay in San Francisco, and so was able to watch it earlier this year.

What’s most interesting to me about Hard Core is not the film — which is largely static — but that it was actually broadcast on television, and indeed made for San Francisco’s public TV station KQED, which aired it in 1969. I admit I don’t watch everything on KQED (still the biggest public TV station in the Bay Area, and indeed one of the most watched such stations in the US), but I have a hard time imagining it would screen something like this these days. Maybe there are some such items I’m missing (perhaps in their periodic broadcast of work by local independent filmmakers), but I don’t recall seeing anything close to as, well, hardcore as Hard Core.

What’s more, Hard Core was not some one-off that found its way onto KQED by a fluke, but part of its experimental Dilexi Series. This is the only installment of the series I’ve yet seen, but it also includes Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich film and an episode, Music With Balls, featuring a performance by Terry Riley (himself a performer with pretty close Velvet Underground associations, collaborating with John Cale on the Church of Anthrax album shortly after Cale left the Velvets).

Zappa-Burnt-Weeny-Sandwich

The twelve-part Dilexi Series was not solely devoted to music or work by filmmakers who were in, or (like De Maria) somewhat in, the musical world. There was also an episode by Andy Warhol, although his contribution, The Paul Swan Film, was (along with Burnt Weeny Sandwich) one of the two entries that had already been filmed, and wasn’t specifically produced for this series. Other installments were contributed by top photographer Robert Frank (later to direct the legendary unreleased documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 US tour) and the Living Theater’s Julian Beck. Episodes featuring and/or directed by less celebrated artists encompassed dance, found footage, documentary, and satire.

Incidentally, there’s another connection between this series and a top rock band. It was produced by John Coney, and Jim Farber worked on it as a production assistant. In April 1970, Coney and Farber would co-produce an hour-long film of a Pink Floyd concert (performed at the Fillmore in San Francisco, though not in front of an audience) that was subsequently broadcast on KQED. Most, though not all, of that footage is on a DVD/Blu-Ray disc in Pink Floyd’s recent box set The Early Years 1965-1972.

Even considering the Pacific Film Archive allows you to view up to two hours of material (appointment needed in advance) from its library for the $25 fee — something, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of when I reserved Hard Core for screening — you’d need three sessions, and $75, to see all dozen episodes. The Dilexi Series seems historically important enough to issue on DVD, or even to re-broadcast on KQED, should the station have the rights to do so. My guess is that some or most of the installments, like Hard Core, are not terribly accessible, and in some respects tough going to watch. They’d serve as a reminder, however, of the risks television can take, and the exposure it can give to important talents far outside the mainstream.

Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore

I’ve been to Point Reyes National Seashore a few times, but it’s so big that there are still a lot of areas I haven’t seen. So when a friend told me about a walk I’d never taken to a place I’d never been, Chimney Rock, we knew how to celebrate Martin Luther King day.

Point Reyes is only about 60-90 minutes from San Francisco depending on where you’re going, but it does take some time and planning to get to Chimney Rock. For one thing, you can’t drive directly to Chimney Rock. You have to park in the big lot at the visitor center near Drakes Beach and take a bus from there. Of course, Drakes Beach makes for a pretty scenic launching point, as you can tell from hiking around the visitor center a bit before you get on the bus:

Drakes Beach.

Drakes Beach.

That’s a zoom lens on the seal below near the visitor center, by the way. Signs warn you not to get too close.

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The bus from the visitor center makes two stops. Most people get off at the first one, the Point Reyes Lighthouse. That’s worth seeing, but if you’ve been there and want to spend time in Chimney Rock, as we did, stay on the bus for a few minutes until the second stop. Near the turnaround where the bus lets you off, a very short trail leads to the Elephant Seal Overlook, from which you can see a beach with seal pups:

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Most visitors take a look and get on the next bus back to the visitor center. But if you’re at all in reasonable shape, the trail going west to Chimney Rock is only about a mile, and rewarded with views like these:

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Those are seal pups on the beach below, as you see in closeup:

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Here’s Chimney Rock, which doesn’t look exactly like a chimney, but what the hey:

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And take a look at more stunning views on the trail back to the bus turnaround, at which buses arrive often to take you back to the visitor center:

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If you’re lucky, you’ll see elk on the hillside as you’re waiting for the bus:

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The Record Plant in Sausalito

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Hot tubs, water beds, sex, and drugs — all were staples of the Record Plant in Sausalito, home to some of the highest times of any Bay Area studio in the 1970s.

Yet there was no small amount of rock and roll too. The dozens of famous albums partially or fully recorded at the Plant in the ’70s include Sly Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Prince’s debut album For You. The Plant continued its reign as one of the top studios in the Bay Area into the early 21st century, through several ownership changes that, at one point, saw the federal government running the facility.

That wasn’t the sort of atmosphere its founders had in mind when the Record Plant opened in late 1972. After establishing himself as a top recording engineer with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, Gary Kellgren opened successful branches of the Plant in New York and Los Angeles with business partner Chris Stone before the two set their sights on Sausalito. As Raechel Donahue (who coordinated KSAN’s live-in-the-studio concerts from the Plant) puts it, “They invented this idea of having a recording studio that gave everybody a comfortable place to be.”

 

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

“Basically, it was a party atmosphere to record in,” says Jim Gaines, who produced and engineered records by the likes of Santana, Journey and Huey Lewis at the Plant. “They built this studio up here to go for the Bay Area bands. But not only that, bring up people from L.A. that wanted to get out of L.A. They had a hot tub in it, they had a boat at one point in time [to] take people out. The house”— where members of bands like Fleetwood Mac would stay during their Plant sessions — “was part of the package deal. And Kellgren was a party kind of guy.”

Indeed, when Gaines interviewed with Kellgren for a job at the Plant, “I’m shaking hands with this guy in this purple or blue Napoleon outfit. He’s got the hat on and everything. I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to work for this guy? Good lord.’ It was all about a big party for him, as well as working. He seemed to put those two together. That’s why the studio was built.”

Gaines turned down the job in favor of staying at Wally Heider’s studio in downtown San Francisco, adding that “when Heider found out that they were coming into Sausalito, he went out and found a building. He had plans to build a studio in Mill Valley to counteract ‘em.” Notes engineer and producer Stephen Barncard, who, like Gaines, also worked sessions at both Heider’s and the Plant, “Wally had plans for a studio in Mill Valley near Tam Junction. I actually saw the plans. He was gonna get [TV and film production company] Filmways to pay for it, and when the Record Plant went in, it was over. It never happened.”

As just one example of the detail lavished upon the facility, recalls Gaines, “the ceiling in Studio B looked like clouds. They were made out of cut-out plywood in different forms, and covered with velveteen or velvet or something like that; they looked like clouds hanging up there. Kellgren was smart; he wanted his rooms to look different. He knew he wanted to make it artsy.”

Word about the Record Plant got out through its lavish opening party, as well as KSAN broadcasts of live-in-the-studio programs featuring such heavyweights as Bob Marley & the Wailers (part of whose October 1973 performance at the Plant was issued on the Talkin’ Blues CD), Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac.

 

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

“At this time it wasn’t really common to do live broadcasts, especially from a recording studio,” explains Raechel Donahue. “When we were at KSAN, our version of a live broadcast was me and [DJ] Terry McGovern and a 100-foot microphone cord which I would feed out the window to him, so he could interview people on the street. It really was [KSAN manager] Tom [Donahue], Chris Stone, and Gary Kellgren who figured out, ‘Ah, there’s obviously a way to do this if we could only just figure this out.’”

KSAN kicked off its Record Plant broadcasts with a legendary 72-hour marathon. At one point during Kris Kristofferson’s performance, according to Raechel Donahue, “this wackadoodle guy came wandering through the studio singing ‘He’s a peach pit, he’s a pom pom, he’s a pervert, he’s a fool’” — bastardizing the lyric of one of Kristofferson’s most famous songs, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” — “and then just walked out the other door.”

“Everyone who was anyone was there, and they wandered in and wandered out,” Donahue said. “All I had to do was figure how to coordinate that. But that’s kind of what KSAN was all about, figuring out how to make reality blend into music. It was a crazy thing to do, but it did start the whole Record Plant live thing.”

It wasn’t the only craziness at KSAN broadcasts; Bob Simmons, the announcer for some of them, recalls Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider “wandering around trying to get someone to get in the hot tub with her” during one.

The Plant soon attracted not only stars from L.A. and out of state, but also quite a few from the Bay Area itself. The setting was as vital to its appeal as the studio itself. “Heider’s was downtown in the Tenderloin,” says Gaines. “That’s a whole different concept down there. I mean, just to park your car and get to the studio without being mugged is a feat. The Record Plant, you could just walk out, and you’re only like one door from the water. Then you got some public tennis courts down the streets. When I was working with KBC Band — Marty Balin and [Jack] Casady and Paul Kantner — Marty would go down there and play tennis while we weren’t working.”

The studio’s most famous feature, however, was on the premises, and more notorious for its, shall we say, extracurricular activities. The sunken area known as the Pit was, in Barncard’s words, “partial boudoir and studio. It’s basically for a place to do track-by-track overdubs and vocals, and then make love to your girlfriend between, in breaks over in the side.”

“Sly Stone moved into that back room for a while,” reports Gaines. “They had a little bedroom for him. Just a bed, with little frilly stuff over it. He wanted all of the doorknobs moved up. It’s like he was a kid or something. The doorknob couldn’t be in a regular place, it had to be like a foot higher. I finally changed that. I said, ‘Man, I can’t deal with this.’ There’s a lot more [stories], but I don’t know if I could tell some of ‘em.’”

Part 2

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

After getting up and running in the early 1970s with some celebrity local musicians and KSAN broadcasts (see part one of this feature), the Record Plant in Sausalito seemed to be thriving in the last half of the decade. Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Rick James all used the studio to record hits, and it’s where Prince cut his debut album. Yet there was no small amount of turbulence behind the scenes, culminating in the Plant almost getting shut down in the mid-1980s before reasserting itself as a top recording facility.

For all the glamour passing through its grounds, not everyone was enamored with the sounds. Although Fleetwood Mac did more than 3,000 hours of recording there for Rumours in early 1976, relatively little was used on the final album, which was largely recorded later that year in L.A. studios. Stevie Nicks may have used the privacy of the sunken area dubbed “the Pit” to write “Dreams,” though it was just as famous as a retreat for drug use by musicians and their visitors.

“The Pit was a complete idiotic idea,” says engineer/producer Stephen Barncard. “That’s how hard the studios were fighting to get those kind of clients.” While the drug use it fostered might have helped attract name players, as Barncard points out, it wasn’t always conducive to the best results. At one session he worked with short-lived semi-supergroup KGB (who included Mike Bloomfield, Carmine Appice, and Barry Goldberg), “Keith Richards was in the next room, and he was apparently passing around some kind of green snortable substance. [Producer Jim Price’s] friend who came along had snorted it up, and got really ill. That kind of put a pall over the whole session.”

As an engineer, Barncard is also critical of the space from some technical respects. “Even perfect equipment doesn’t necessarily always guarantee you’re gonna have a better record,” he feels. “I am really a fan of natural acoustics, of natural spaces. The Record Plant did not have natural spaces. It was the most unnatural. It was designed for totally isolated, multi-track recording, where you don’t have leakage between the tracks. Where you can go and punch in and fix things, and you won’t have anything behind there to give away the fact that you punched in there.

“Stevie Wonder, Songs In the Key of Life? That’s the deadest record ever recorded. That’s the Record Plant sound. I didn’t like to record there because I lacked time to make stuff sound decent, but I liked the people, the gear and the location,” Barncard continues. “Many, like [producer/engineer Jim] Gaines, were able to create hit records from there, and that’s all that counts in the end. But they had the gigantic budgets and my experience was a couple of overnight quickies and two weeks with New Riders of the Purple Sage, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. In the end, we’re talking different styles of producing, and it’s all good.”

Artwork for Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'

 Projects continued to roll into the Plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the studio’s ownership was in flux, soon threatening its very existence. Co-founder Gary Kellgren, the engineer/producer who was the artistic force behind the operation, drowned in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1977. In the early ’80s the other co-founder, Chris Stone, sold the Plant to a quadriplegic teenage music fan, Laurie Necochea. In 1984, a year before her death, it was sold to Stanley Jacox.

Around that time, the Pit was rejigged for more constructive purposes. “While I was doing the Con Funk Shun record [‘Electric Lady’], John Fogerty calls me,” Gaines said. “He’s coming out of retirement, quote-unquote, and he wants a studio. I had just opened up [the former Pit as] the little C room in the back. He said ‘Jim, I’m just gonna do this record myself. I’m playing all the instruments. Can you engineer it?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in the middle of a record, I’ll give you my assistant Jeffrey Norman. Just move into the back. We need to open up the room anyway, and you’ll be easy.’

“When we turned it back into a real studio, Centerfield was the first record cut in that little room. There would be days when I had Starship in one room, Huey Lewis in another room, and Fogerty in the other.”

Artwork for John Fogerty's 'Centerfield'

Yet soon after that, Jacox was accused of manufacturing amphetamines in his home and investing some of the proceeds in the Plant — and the studio was actually taken over by the federal government.

“The day the studio was shut down, I had a session with Journey,” remembers Gaines. “I noticed there’s a lot of cars in the parking lot for 9:30. As I’m approaching the door, here comes federal marshals; all kind of police are surrounding me. They said, ‘We’ve just taken possession of the studio, and we need to interview you.’

“They went through the studio, looking for drugs. They thought that was the source of the ‘drug manufacturing,’ quote unquote,” Gaines says. “They didn’t find any drugs. I mean, there might have been a joint or something in one of the road cases, but they were highly disappointed.

“They basically told me, ‘Look, we’re gonna take possession.’ Fortunately, I had Journey in there with all their gear and stuff. I said, ‘Well, you can’t take possession until I get all my band’s gear out of here, and tapes. ‘Cause we’re working on a record, and you cannot have any of this stuff. It doesn’t belong to the studio.’ I called the band up and said, ‘We gotta clear outta here. Everybody come and get stuff.’

“It was shut down for around six months or so, maybe more. At one point, the federal marshals offered me a position to open and run the studio. I said to them, ‘Look, if my clients knew I worked for the federal marshals, you think that they would come in here? Here’s the deal. Take my secretary, make her the studio manager, and I will come in and do some work.’ I actually opened the studio with Santana when that part reopened.”

Gaines was also working with Santana at the studio for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“Carlos and one of his main guys had just left to go shopping when that quake hit. I was working with Chester Thompson doing some organ overdubs. We were in studio A; I didn’t think we were gonna get out of there before that damned thing came down. When it hit, you can feel there’s some low-end rumble or something going down. So CT looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘What are you doing?” And we both said, ‘Uh-oh.’

“And we hit flying into that door, man. We’re out on the ground out in the parking lot, and the ground is rolling along. I had a bottle in my car; we sit in the parking lot, found us some cups, and turned the radio on, listening to ‘Bay Bridge collapsing and the freeway collapsing.’ One of the consoles got beat up pretty bad, and twisted a little bit. We was down for about at least three or four days. Phones didn’t work. The only thing that worked was the fax machine, for some reason. We never figured that out.”

Part 3

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

When Arne Frager took over the Plant in Sausalito in 1988, he wasn’t much interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

“I was really interested in rebuilding the studio into a really great sound emporium for making records,” Frager said.

If hits are what a studio’s judged by, it generated plenty of those over the next decade and a half or so. It held sessions for big albums by Carlos Santana, Metallica, Dave Matthews, John Lee Hooker, and Mariah Carey, as well as for lesser-selling but celebrated artists like the Kronos Quartet.

 

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

“It was a party studio throughout the ’70s, until the government seized it in 1985,” says Frager, as the first two parts of this series illustrate. “I had Herbie Herbert, the manager of Journey, tell me he’d never go there, even though he knew I was rebuilding it and was more serious about business. He said, ‘I tried to talk Journey out of going there, and they went there and wasted lots of money just partying. I didn’t like that.’”

So if the partying, if not eliminated, was no longer as much the focus, what was drawing so many acts to the Plant, both from the Bay Area and beyond?

“You would have the ability to step outside and be surrounded by these gorgeous, tall eucalyptus trees, and walk a few steps out to a beautiful dock by the edge of the bay,” remarks producer/engineer Enrique Gonzalez Müller (now also a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music), who was on the staff for several years starting in 1999, and continued to work on Plant projects until its 2008 closure. “But at the same time, you didn’t really feel the need to step out of the studio because the vibe was amazing!

“One of the studios that had a lot of use, called the Garden—which used to be Sly Stone’s personal room back in the day—the lounge for that studio was literally outside, in the open air. The lounge was this beautiful little garden that had fish in a pond and a Jacuzzi that you could relax in. It wasn’t really the type of atmosphere that you find in a lot of big studios where you do want to step out for air and escape the pressure of making records. People just relaxed, hung out, and that level of ease and comfort definitely transpired onto the music being captured within those walls.”

Just because Frager was the owner didn’t mean he always got special treatment. When Van Morrison was booked for an album, “the only words he spoke to me in the month he was at the Plant were ‘Hi, I’m Van’” as Arne was waiting to greet Van the Man at the studio’s front door on the first day of the sessions. When Frager went to Studio C to introduce himself to Starship, their manager “blocked the door and said ‘hey, you can’t come in here,’ and locked the door in front of me.” When Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind kept parking his motorcycle in Arne’s space by the front door, according to Frager, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted relieved himself on the vehicle in rebuttal, though by the time Jenkins came out at night hours later, the stink had evaporated.

Such hijinks, however, seemed to take a back seat to more serious work, such as sessions Gonzalez Müller worked on for the Kronos Quartet’s You’ve Stolen My Heart. “Kronos decided that they were going to record and re-create every single element heard in these [vintage] Bollywood scores, which have gigantic orchestral, super-quirky, unconventional instruments,” he recalls. “We needed to do a ton of overdubs. If they wanted to record one melody, they would record it three, six, eight times to create the sound of a larger orchestra. It became this beautiful monster for us engineers. We had to be on top of this massive amount of musical input that then we had to filter, sift through, and condense into something palatable.

“They brought in Asha Bhosle,” the Indian singer on the original recordings of this material, composed by her late husband, R.D. Burman. Then in her early seventies, “Asha had more energy than any of us, and the Kronos Quartet are an energetic bunch. When she started singing, it was an exact photocopy of what you had heard her do in the ’50s. Every single peak and valley of her vibrato seemed to be performed perfectly, deliberately, and assertively.

“Here we were in a laboratory making this beautifully layered, complex Persian rug one little tedious hair at a time. I might be misquoting the year, but to paraphrase, she shared this anecdote: ‘In 1943, I had to do two albums in one day. I remember reading the score as a young singer, and it had instructions for when to ‘duck,’ because the entire orchestra was recorded with one single microphone, live!’ The flutes were behind her, and if she didn’t duck, the microphone couldn’t capture their fragile sound accurately. That was such a profound story for me for how there’s a million ways that you can capture emotionally captivating music.”

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While Frager takes great pride in hits like Santana’s Supernatural (where a Polygram executive who signed Carlos came to sessions for a couple weeks just to hang out because he was such a big fan of the guitarist), he’d also sometimes let up-and-coming bands use the facilities. “We did a band on spec, just to help them, called the Monophonics,” who are from San Francisco and are “kind of a funky horn band. They’re out there touring all over the world doing really well. We gave ‘em the time at the Plant just for their first record. No charge.

“I always felt it was a crime to see a studio with a million-dollar investment, or 2 million, sitting there empty. If people approached me, and had a project—sometimes I had an interest in the project—sometimes we just gave ‘em the studio,” though he acknowledges he also did so for “a long list of bands nobody’s ever heard of.” 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit “What’s Up” was also cut at the Plant. But as Arne notes, singer-guitarist-songwriter Linda Perry never brought “another dollar’s worth of business into the Plant” after leaving the band for a solo career.

Frager sold the studio in 2008, although it kept running for another month or two. Since then the Plant in Sausalito has ceased operations, though the building’s now being used by Harmonia, “a health and well-being social club” (as its website describes it).

“We started losing money in 2000 because of Napster,” says Frager. “Young people who used to buy records suddenly found out that you could get music for free. I kept it alive for eight more years with my own money. I put [in] over $1 million, thinking ‘this can’t possibly stay this way. These record companies are gonna figure this out.’ I ran out of the ability to use my own personal funds. By the end of 2007, I could no longer afford to keep the doors open. Nobody’s making any records there, and that’s really what that building is for. They’ve been trying to sell it ever since I closed the doors.”

While Frager has moved on to a new chapter in his life and is now “signing and developing unknown artists,” he maintains the Plant Recordings Studios site “because that’s my brand. Above any studio I’ve ever been in that was a major studio, this place kind of had a laid back, relaxed feel. It was very conducive to making records. I always felt there was magic in that building. I still do.”

For Sale sign on the Plant property, November 2016.

For Sale sign for the building formerly housing The Record Plant in Sausalito, November 2016.

Rolling Stones Memorabilia

Last month in New York, I saw the Rolling Stones’ massive traveling exhibition of memorabilia, instruments, costumes, photos, and whatnot, Exhibitionism. Part of my intention was to write a blogpost about the exhibit, which was partially foiled by a no-photos policy. They do allow cell phone photos, but I don’t have a phone that can take pictures. That’s why the first graphic here is not of something in the exhibit, but of an EP boasting a cover from one of their first photo sessions, which I bought at a record convention back in the early 1980s for $6. “Where else are you gonna see a picture of Keith Richards looking like this?” was the dealer’s pitch.

Note that "Stoned," the B-side of the Rolling Stones' second single, is misspelled "Stones" on this EP.

Note that “Stoned,” the B-side of the Rolling Stones’ second single, is misspelled “Stones” on this EP.

You’re not going to see it at this exhibition. Now even with nine big rooms, such a space isn’t going to be able to show close to everything. Still, another reason this blogpost isn’t exactly an extended Exhibitionism review is that it was just okay, nothing extraordinary. There wasn’t a whole lot to wow the diehard Stones fan/collector. With ticket prices close to $40, it wasn’t nearly as good a value as that EP, even adjusting for inflation.

Of course, it wasn’t a total loss by any means. I liked the re-creation of the squalid 1963 flat in which Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones lived, as well as some of the vintage instruments. A fact sheet Brian Jones filled out in 1964 reveals he was a fan of Richie Barrett (original writer/singer of “Some Other Guy,” the first song the Beatles were filmed performing) and the New Orleans R&B label Minit. A tape box for tracks from Their Satanic Majesties Request has working titles for some of the songs (“2000 Light Years from Home” is inexplicably called “Toffee Apple,” for instance).

That’s not enough to fill up a solid blogpost. What the displays did do for me, however, was generate some Stones memorabilia I was unfamiliar with when I searched for some of the things I saw at the exhibit online. For instance, one of the neatest instruments you could see was a Vox amplifier Bill Wyman used when he auditioned for the band in late 1962. As the now well known tale goes, they weren’t particularly eager to recruit Wyman. But Bill was, as Roy Carr wrote in The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, “embraced not only because of his ability, but because he appeared to possess more amplification equipment than the rest of the group put together.”

The amp that made such an impression back in 1962 doesn’t seem so mighty these days:

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Retrieving this image, however, called up a couple cool Vox endorsement ads the group posed for early in their career. (A few such ads can be seen in Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost’s fine book Rolling Stones Gear: All the Stones’ Instruments from Stage to Studio.)

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The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

I couldn’t find a Satanic Majesties tape box, but the search coughed up one for their 1964 5 X 5 EP. The great instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is missing “South” in the title. Much more interesting is that it’s subtitled “(And Muddy Came Too).” This might be a source of (almost certainly false) rumors that Muddy Waters, the blues great the Stones did meet when they went to Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, plays on the track. Also check the note “fade at approx 2 mins—between marks,” though on a German LP (and a CD reissue of the US LP on which this appears), the track runs about a minute and a half longer, that instruction getting discarded.

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There were some promo posters for Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed that were new to me, and rare, considering not many are online. As this one for Beggars Banquet (spelled Beggar’s Banquet in the copy) shows, this June 1968 photo session at the seventeenth century Swarkstone Hall Pavilion in Derbyshire, England was also the source for the more famous picture that appears on the cover of the Hot Rocks compilation:

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You can stay at this (now restored) building, by the way, though it’s expensive, and its website does not volunteer information about whether you can just go there and walk around the grounds for a few minutes.

As long as I was searching (largely unsuccessfully) for the other late-‘60s promo posters, this ad I’d never seen for the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single turned up;

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Looks like Wyman had a rough night. He looks more worn out than Jones in this picture—not an easy thing to do in 1968.

The film section of the exhibit was kind of disappointing, just offering a few clips from a few of their rockumentaries with some commentary. The poster for Gimme Shelter wasn’t at the exhibit, but it’s interesting as it uses an outtake from the session for their famous December Children’s LP cover shot. Brian Jones wasn’t in the Stones, of course, when Gimme Shelter was filmed in late 1969 more than four years later, and one has to guess New York’s Plaza Theatre just used whatever picture they had quickest access to:

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The guitar that Keith Richards used for “Sympathy for the Devil” was one of the more interesting instruments on display. I couldn’t find a picture of that online, but the search generated some picture sleeves for European singles that backed “Sympathy for the Devil” with “Prodigal Son,” an odd choice for a 45 even considering it was a B-side. Maybe this version of a song by bluesman Robert Wilkins (read more about how the Stones might have found his recording of it here) was selected by Decca to deny songwriting royalties to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Here’s the Dutch single, which has a really oddball sleeve design:

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It turns out that there’s actually a logical reason the Stones are pictured sailing a ship named Veronica. Radio Veronica was a long-lived Dutch pirate radio station that was still broadcasting when this single came out in 1973—hence the lettering “Veronica’s favourite choice” at the bottom.

Should you visit Exhibitionism, take a walk afterward just a couple blocks north on New York’s great High Line park. The elevated walkway features ever-changing public artworks such as these, which I saw on my visit:

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At the southern end of the High Line, there’s also the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the foremost art museums in the US. Here’s a view of the neighborhood from one of its outdoor decks:

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Top Twenty Rock Reissues of 2016

We’re half a century away from rock’s golden era—well, at least my favorite era of rock—and the reissues keep coming. There was no trouble filling up a Top Ten-and-then-some list for 2016, but there aren’t so many discoveries of previously unheard goodies these days, at least in my pile. The trend is more toward embellishment of previously available material into more definitive deluxe editions, with some overdue first-time-on-legitimate-CD issues of LPs that fans have long been clamoring to get back into print. There’s also a massive box of previously unreleased material from the prime of a major band (Pink Floyd) with the kind of hefty thoroughness that should be done for such acts, but seldom is.

Not that I hear many complaints from people who read this blog or other writing of mine, but the chronological scope of these reissues is narrow, though a few of them do fall outside of the mid-to-late- 1960s. This is, however, an honest list of my favorite 2016 reissues that I’ve heard. No doubt there were some I would have liked that I missed; contrary to some people’s belief, just because you’re a nice guy who’s written about this kind of stuff for a long time doesn’t mean you automatically get sent copies of everything you might want to hear. But if you care about rock history, you should find some items here you’ll want to know about, even if your concentration or specialties are different than mine.

1. Pink Floyd, The Early Years 1965-1972 (Pink Floyd/Legacy). Selecting a monstrously large, expensive box by one of the biggest acts of all time doesn’t make for the most exotic #1 year-end choice. With a price tag hovering around $500, you can’t exactly exhort readers to rush out and buy it either. Yet this does have an enormous amount of rare, or at least off-the-beaten track, material from their pre-Dark Side of the Moon era. The package adds up to ten CDs and nine DVDs (the disc count goes up if you add the blu-rays, though these don’t have significant material not on the other discs). It doesn’t quite have everything of note you can’t find on their 1967-72 studio albums (more on that in a bit). But it has a great deal of it, often in better quality than you’ll find on bootlegs of the same cuts and clips.

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Detailing and analyzing the contents in depth would take several thousand words minimum; go to the usual online sites for comprehensive track listings. For my own post, I’ll just note that while I have quite a bit of previously unofficial Floyd audio and video from this era, some of the audio and much of the video was entirely new to me. On the audio front, the most notable inclusions are their non-LP late-‘60s singles (previously reissued on numerous releases, but still not all that easy to find in total); six 1965 demos (previously released as a scarce limited edition) that aren’t that great, but are historically important as their first surviving recordings; and, most crucially, quite a few BBC sessions, many of which are really excellent.

Some of these, in fact, are arguably a match for, or even better than, the standard well known studio versions. The epic BBC rendition of “Interstellar Overdrive” from December 20, 1968—to give just one example—is both stupendous and quite different from the studio version, even if it (unlike many of the BBC cuts) isn’t quite hi-fi in fidelity. Other portions of the box are considerably less exciting, but sometimes—like the September 1969 live  Amsterdam performance of their rather half-baked conceptual album-that-never-was “The Man”—carry notable historical weight.

Video-wise, while some of this (like their 1967-68 promo clips) has been heavily bootlegged, much of it hasn’t. The quality, both as far as the image and (to a lesser extent) the performance, is variable. But some of the footage is excellent, and most (if not quite all) of it worth a look for the serious Floyd fan, even if there are too many versions of songs like “Set the Control For the Heart of the Sun” should you pack your viewing into two or three days. It’s admirable how they kept finding new and interesting ways to do “Interstellar Overdrive” in particular. If ambitious pieces like “A Saucerful of Secrets” couldn’t avoid patches of tedium, they usually attacked such challenges with commendable fearlessness.  Although the black-and-white footage of a near-full-length 1970 performance of “Atom Heart Mother” in Hyde Park is shaky, it’s certainly fascinating to see a large choir performing the piece with them live.

Could such a sizable collection possibly miss some worthwhile rarities? The answer, as it is for virtually all box sets of this magnitude, is yes. Even discounting the absence of several good circulating audio recordings of live early-‘70s concerts, the failure of Anthony Stern’s 1968 fifteen-minute avant-garde short film San Francisco to get included is a real loss, as its soundtrack is a hyper-jittery pre-record deal unreleased 1966 version of “Interstellar Overdrive.” There are plenty of Zabriskie Point soundtrack outtakes, but more have long been bootlegged. Their filmed-without-an-audience April 1970 performance (broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED public TV station) is missing some material shot for (but not used in) the program.

The absence of such items, however, will likely matter little or not at all even to most Floyd fans, as what’s here is abundant, of great historical interest, and often quite entertaining. Yet considering the scale and expense of this set, customers deserve more than the basic liner notes (by Mark Blake, author of the fine Floyd bio Comfortably Numb) here, although there’s a lot of neat memorabilia. Perhaps the three surviving Floyds could have contributed some quotes and memories with more details about this rare and oft-mysterious material, though it might not be easy to get them in the same room these days.

By the way, when I saw drummer Nick Mason in 2005 on the book tour for his  memoir Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, he was asked whether there was anything unreleased of interest in the vaults that might come out in the future. He was nonchalantly dismissive of the notion that anything was worth putting out—an absurd contention even then, before the existence of everything on this set was known. Whatever could have happened in the intervening decade to change his and the rest of Pink Floyd’s minds?

2. The Move: Move (three-CD expanded), Something Else from the Move (expanded), Shazam (two-CD expanded), Looking On (two-CD expanded) (Esoteric). A few times on this list, I’ve taken the liberty of grouping a few related releases into one entry. This is the most notable instance, as these four reissues take the Move’s first three LPs (and sole EP) and radically expand them in size with bonus tracks. The result is a definitive representation of most of their career, though it doesn’t include their final LP and singles (done for a different label) or a two-CD compilation of live 1969 Fillmore performances that came out a few years ago.

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Although the Move are much better known in the US than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s (due in part to Jeff Lynne and, if much more briefly, Roy Wood having gone on to the Electric Light Orchestra), they’re still not as widely known in the States as they should be. Aside from the Pretty Things, they were the best 1960s British rock group never to have a hit in the US. These CDs heap on a load of outtakes, demos, and (especially) BBC performances, some previously unreleased (though those of you who’ve kept up with other expanded editions and the Anthology 1966-1972 box will, alas, already have a great deal of this. They’re embellished with historical liner notes, a wealth of vintage photos, and (except for Something Else) mini-posters with reprints of articles from the UK press.

Space precludes a full examination of each CD; for that, you can consult my lengthy review of all four of them in issue #42 of Ugly Things. Let it just be said that if you haven’t heard or heard much of the Move, but you like the mid-to-late-‘60s work of the Beatles and the Who, these are highly recommended, as they combine some of the qualities of both bands with the added twist of Roy Wood’s eccentric but melodic songwriting. Move has their earliest and catchiest hits, as well as documenting the band in their poppiest (yet still pretty hard rocking phase); Something Else from the Move captures the band live at London’s Marquee club in 1968, and is surprisingly dominated by cover versions. Shazam finds them going into progressive rock-influenced epics (with some shorter songs thrown in), though not to the point of self-indulgence or sacrificing a catchy tune. Looking On, the only one of these albums recorded after Lynne joined, does sometimes verge on indulgent heavy progressive rock, though it retains some of their more songcraft-oriented elements. The wealth of BBC performances added to these CDs (Something Else excepted) include covers of quite a few songs the Move didn’t put on their regular releases, though these are usually ordinary in comparison to their studio performances of their original material.

3. The Yardbirds, The Yardbirds (two-CD expanded) (Repertoire). If you’re a fan of the Yardbirds—nay, if you’re a serious fan of ‘60s rock in general—you’ve probably had this 1966 album for a long time, and perhaps in more than one edition. If so, this two-CD expanded edition of the original album doesn’t have a whole lot of (and possibly no) goodies here you haven’t previously heard. But this is the definitive edition of their only full studio LP with Jeff Beck in the lineup, and in fact their first studio LP, period (the one album they did with Eric Clapton was live). Frequently referred to as Roger the Engineer because of its ungainly cover drawing of engineer Roger Cameron (and titled Over, Under, Sideways, Down in its US edition, which subtracted two tracks), it was an uneven but often thrilling collection of tracks that blended middle eastern/Indian-influenced melodies, hard blues-rock, pseudo-Gregorian backing vocals, social commentary, and Beck’s unequaled mastery of sustain and distortion, sometimes in the same tune. Taken together, it was a building block of psychedelic music, though the quintet that made this album would soon alter with the departure of bassist/co-producer Paul Samwell-Smith and the entry of Jimmy Page.

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This two-CD expansion has both the mono and stereo mixes, which sometimes differed radically, the mono mix of the weird-as-get-out instrumental “Hot House of Omagararshid” featuring a scorching Beck guitar solo missing from its stereo counterpart. It also has their incredible psychedelic single from later in 1966, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (with both Beck and Page on guitar), as well as its humdrum non-LP B-side “Psycho Daises” and the sole other track from the Beck-Page era, “Stroll On” (the rewrite of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” they played in the Blow Up film). There are also all five tracks used on Keith Relf’s rare 1966 singles (which were in a far more baroque folk-pop mold than the Yardbirds tracks on which he sang), and some alternate versions of songs from the 1966 LP of only marginal interest. Historical liner notes with comments from Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty top off the package. While it’s not my intention to turn this post into an ad for Ugly Things, issue #42 features a lengthy interview I conducted with Paul Samwell-Smith in 2016, including numerous comments about the Roger the Engineer album.

4. Judy Henske & Jerry Yester, Farewell Aldebaran (Omnivore). This has long been on the list of the most desirable psychedelic rarities never to gain legitimate CD reissue, which it finally did this summer, complete with historical liner notes and extra tracks. Originally issued on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1969, it’s an assortment of enigmatic songs with oddball imagery encompassing blues-rock, country-folk, satire, and early synthesizer experiments. There’s no better obscure album by early-‘60s folk revival veterans ending up as weird psychedelicists at the end of the decade. The five bonus cuts are just instrumental demos of some of the songs from the LP, but the rare pictures, graphics, handwritten lyrics, and period press release in the booklet are good surpluses. If I may, I think I can take some credit for revival of interest in this LP that finally led (almost twenty years later) to its CD reissue, as I included a chapter on Henske & Yester in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll—now available in a radically expanded ebook edition, of course.

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5. Fleetwood Mac, The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968 (Albatross, bootleg). You can’t get this in stores, the quality is a little hissy, and there’s no annotation. So why does this rank so high? Because the music is largely very good—if I ranked these albums by how often I played them, it might place even higher. Quite a few Fleetwood Mac BBC recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s (most with original lead guitarist/principal singer-songwriter Peter Green in the lineup) are on the two-CD Live at the BBC, but quite a few others remain unreleased. This features 19 of the early ones that didn’t make it onto Live at the BBC, and if the fidelity’s not quite optimal, in all cases it’s actually of an easily listenable standard. Of more importance, a lot of these songs were not only not on Live at the BBC, but not on any official Fleetwood Mac release.

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While some of this is routine blues or rock’n’roll oldies covers (including “Sheila,” “Bo Diddley,” and “Peggy Sue Got Married”), there are some dynamite blues cuts not included on their LPs, like B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World.” Most interesting of all is an excellent version of Muddy Waters’s “You Need Love”—the same song (written by Willie Dixon) that provided the basis for Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” a year before that Zeppelin track was released (and a couple years after the Small Faces used it as the basis for “You Need Loving” on their first LP). Danny Kirwan takes lead vocal on the supremely haunting blues “Crazy for My Baby,” and while I’m not the biggest fan of Jeremy Spencer’s parodies, his “Psychedelic Send Up Number” is pretty funny and accurate (especially the lyric “I am here and you are there and we are all going nowhere”). It seems kind of unlikely this material will gain official release soon, but it should, with any sonic clean-up that can be applied without deadening the sound. For a fuller review of this CD, see my blogpost about it here.

6. The Beatles, Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Apple). How does the first CD issue of the only commercially available concert recording of the best rock act of all time not make #1 on a year-end list? Over-familiarity, perhaps. This was first issued on LP back on 1977; has never been hard to find used; and, despite the Beatles’ brilliance, isn’t all that great, in part because it wasn’t so well recorded. It couldn’t be well recorded considering the screaming at their shows and the concert recording technology of the time. It’s been remixed from the original multi-track tapes, but there really isn’t all that much you can do to make the source material sound much fuller or clearer. And while some might find it heretical, I don’t hear too much difference between this and the original LP.

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Still, it’s an exciting document of their concerts—for it mixes tracks from 1964 and 1965 shows together—in the midst of Beatlemania. There are plenty of great songs and enthusiastic performances, even if the songs don’t veer radically from the studio versions (and, without exception, aren’t as good as those studio versions). And the CD does include new historical liner notes, as well as four bonus tracks (two apiece from 1964 and 1965 shows; one of these, “Baby’s in Black,” did previously come out on the 1996 Real Love CD single). Note, however, that three complete Hollywood bowl shows were recorded—August 23, 1964; August 29, 1965; and August 30, 1965. Yes, a mike failure meant that Paul McCartney’s vocals were missing from a few of the August 29, 1965 songs. But why not put out a double CD of all three shows—which have long been available in their entirety on bootleg—in the sequence the songs were performed?

7. The Mamas & the Papas, The Complete Singles: 50th Anniversary Collection (Real Gone). Is there much that’s previously unheard in any form on this double CD of Mamas & Papas singles that you won’t have if you’ve paid attention to the group’s releases, whether when they were active or since? No, and be aware that most of disc two has solo singles by Cass Elliot, John Phillips, and Denny Doherty that don’t measure up to the group efforts. Audiophiles note, however, that this anthology features original mono single mixes, some of whose components are significantly different than the ones used in the more commonly available versions.

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Of more importance, however, disc one is simply extremely listenable—the best single-disc compilation of the Mamas & the Papas ever, in fact, even though it’s just half of this package. It has all the familiar hits, naturally. But it also has more quality B-sides and low-charting 45s than you might remember the group boasting, a few of which—“Got a Feelin’” and “Strange Young Girls” in particular—are on the level of their big hit singles. “For the Love of Ivy,” “Safe in My Garden,” “Somebody Groovy,” “Once Was a Time I Thought,” “Did You Ever Want to Cry,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Too Late,” and “Midnight Voyage” aren’t far behind, and that’s almost an album’s worth of good non-hits right there. Also in its favor are lengthy liner notes with first-hand quotes from Michelle Phillips and producer Lou Adler, as well as a weird, wordlessly hummed 1969 Mama Cass solo single (“All for Me”) so obscure you can’t even call it up on Youtube.

8. Sandy Bull, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo (Real Gone). In the early 1960s, it was virtually unprecedented for a musician to cut an album weaving together folk, jazz, blues, classical, gospel, and even a bit of electric rock’n’roll. Sandy Bull didn’t only do so over the course of his debut LP, 1963’s Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo. He also often fused different strands of folk, jazz, and world music within the same track, particularly on the groundbreaking cut that occupied all of side one, “Blend.” Lasting twenty-one minutes and fifty-one seconds, with jazz legend Billy Higgins accompanying Bull on drums, “Blend” was both mesmerizing and impossible to classify. In its length and improvisational feel (as well as Higgins’s drums), it drew from jazz; in Bull’s guitar style, elements of folk; and in its droning qualities and accelerating climax, aspects of middle eastern and Indian music. If side two’s four tracks were shorter, they were no less eclectic, encompassing interpretations of German composer Carl Orff, English Renaissance composer William Byrd, a Southern mountain tune, and a gospel song. Here’s hoping his yet better and more adventurous follow-up, 1965’s Inventions, will follow on CD soon. Incidentally, I did the liner notes for this CD, though I hope the ranking reflects where I would have listed it had I not written them.

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9. Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vol. 1 & 2 (Now-Again). It’s amazing enough that Nigerian rock bands managed to form, endure, and (after the fighting was over, for the most part) record during and after the country’s 1967-1970 civil war. These two compilations collect rare tracks, virtually unheard outside of Africa beyond intensely specialist collectors, by Nigerian groups between 1971 and 1978. The music is an exotically awkward, at least to the ears of the Western collectors at which these US anthologies are targeted, mix of rock, soul, psych, and funk, sprinkled with a bit of highlife and other African influences. The label garage rock-soul-funk might apply, but it’s a little bit stranger than that, with lyrics that sometimes seem stream of consciousness without any attempt at being arty. Influences from American icons like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana can be heard. But these Nigerian guys (they’re all guys) didn’t quite have the equipment or experience to replicate them, instead coming up with something more interesting than simple imitation.

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Note that although these come packaged with extensive liner notes, the back cover blurb stating that these are “presented in two 100+ page books full of never-seen photos and the story of the best Nigerian rock bands told in vivid detail by musicologist and researcher Uchenna Ikonne” is a little misleading. These do indeed have interesting text and photos, but they don’t exactly add up to two books. Well over half of the text (and many of the photos) of the two volumes are identical, though each has some sections not in the other.

10. Graham Bond, Live at the BBC and Other Stories (Repertoire). It’s a testament both to the increased interest in demonic organist/singer Graham Bond’s music and the prolific body of work that survives that this four-CD set of 1962-1972 performances even exists. Most of its tracks are from the BBC, but some are taken from other live recordings, with a demo and rare studio releases on which Bond played thrown in too. Even if you have all his albums and the four-CD box of 1963-1967 material that Repertoire issued on Wade in the Water in 2012, you won’t have any of this. There are early-‘60s straight jazz recordings on which Bond played as part of the Don Rendell Quintet; 1963 BBC sessions (some backing singer Duffy Power) on which he and his group, with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, started to make the move from jazz to tentative R&B; and three January 1966 tracks on which the transition from jazz to his idiosyncratic brand of growling, hard-hitting soul-jazz-inflected R&B/rock was complete, as well as some bits and pieces from 1966-1972 of marginal interest.

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These account for three of the four discs, and if not for the fourth, this would be a kind of fill-in-the-blanks archival project for completists that couldn’t find a place on a year-end best-of roundup. Disc #3, however, would by itself earn a place on this countdown. Recorded by his short-lived Graham Bond Initiation outfit at two separate BBC sessions on January 31 and March 22 of 1970, it’s highlighted by a ferocious medley of two of his best compositions, “Walkin’ in the Park/I Want You,” and two equally galvanizing 13-minute interpretations of “Wade in the Water.” There are also two takes of one of his best post-Organization songs, “Love Is the Law,” as well as a couple others from his obscure, uneven late-‘60s US-recorded albums. The loose yet forceful “The World Soon Be Free” totally eclipses the comparatively anemic one on his Love Is the Law LP, and overall the ’70 sessions have a nearly mesmerizing blend of rock, blues, and hip jazz, with an aura that’s grim yet compelling. It’s Bond near his very best, playing and singing at a level he’d never again come close to in the four years remaining in his life.

11. The Boots, Beat! The Complete Telefunken Years (RPM). Besides the Lords, the Boots were the best mid-‘60s German “beat” band. They were also the German band most capable at emulating the British R&B style. Given the relatively few competitors they had in both categories on the German scene, and the generally poor standard of pre-Krautrock German rock as a whole, you could be forgiven for judging the first two sentences of this paragraph as damnation with faint praise. But while they were gold and silver medalists without much formidable competition, the Boots did (rather like the Lords) make records that were genuinely fun, even if they’d never win awards in the originality department. This two-CD compilation has all of their 1965-1967 recordings, including both of their LPs, some non-LP singles, and some compilation appearances and outtakes.

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Since the Boots for the most part covered songs recently recorded by British and American rock groups (or blues/R&B songs those bands covered) and wrote little of their own material, putting an idiosyncratic interpretive stamp on the material was necessary to make it noteworthy in any way whatsoever. This the Boots managed to do, with the help of Werner Krabbe’s mordant vocals and Ulli Grün’s funereal organ. And the Berlin band did have a feel for blues/R&B, whether on overdone standards like “Gloria” and “Dimples” or less clichéd choices like Cops & Robbers/The Pretty Things “You’ll Never Do It Baby” (here retitled “But You [sic] Never Do It, Babe”).

The non-blues/R&B tunes are in the minority, and might be disparaged by purists as too pop. Actually, however, these gave the Boots the chance to really ratchet up the haunted house factor that might have been their most distinguishing attribute. The Zombies’ great “Remember When I Loved Her” was eerie enough in its original guise; the Boots’ beyond-the-grave arrangement takes the despair of the original to the darkest corners of the cemetery. Similarly, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and the Walker Brothers’ “Another Tear Falls” were suitable vehicles for what we might call the Moody Boots, though not as striking as “Remember When I Loved Her.”

Disc one, dominated by their 1965 debut LP Here Are the Boots and early singles, is superior to disc two, given over mostly to the 1967 LP Beat with the Boots, on which they went in a far more soul-influenced direction. Even that includes a groovy organ-paced instrumental soul-jazz version of Mel Torme’s “Coming Home,” however. The best Boots material has been available on Bear Family’s Smash…! Boom…! Bang…! , but aside from its greater thoroughness, The Complete Telefunken Years has one more advantage. Unlike that Bear Family anthology, its liner notes are in English, summarizing the essentials of the Boots saga. That might be reason enough to make this the first comp of choice for English speakers, even if it’s more expensive.

12. Johnny Winter, Byrds Can’t Row Boats: The Unreleased Masters Collection 1965-1968 (Cicadelic). The numerous recordings Winter made in the mid-to-late 1960s a few years before he signed with Columbia have been around the block on quite a few compilations. These two-CD, 36-track collection gets points for thoroughness, even if less than half of it, despite the subtitle, is previously unreleased in any form (some of the other tracks are represented by previously unreleased mixes). To those wholly unacquainted with this period, it will come as a surprise to hear Winter trying out some folk-rock and psychedelia in addition to his usual blues-rock.

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For those who favor those styles, those tracks will actually be the highlight of this compilation, particularly the excellent moody Byrds-styled folk-rocker “You Were Once a Man,” which wonders what a statue would think if he came to life today. The kind of nutso pseudo-surrealistic-Dylan “Avocado Green” is worth hearing too, as are the soul-rock tunes “Easy Lovin’ Girl” and “Comin’ Up Fast.” Much of the rest of this is the accomplished but rather routine blues-rock that Winter would make his main diet when he came to national attention. He does, however, turn in a surprisingly affecting cover of the Byrds’ “The World Turns All Around Her,” which (actually included here in two versions) is one of the highlights of this historically significant set.

13. Eclection, Eclection (Esoteric). Despite issuing just one self-titled album, Eclection’s history was too unusual to summarize in a two-paragraph review like this. (If you must, there’s a full chapter on the group in my expanded edition of Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll.) Suffice it to note that although they were based in the UK, just one of the quintet came from the UK, the others hailing from Norway, Canada, and Australia. Their 1968 LP, one of the more interesting obscure folk-rock albums of the period, actually sounded more Californian than British. Its harmonies, slightly orchestrated production, and song construction strongly recalled early Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Seekers, but the band split before doing any additional albums that might have carved a more distinct identity.

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This record’s been reissued on CD before; I did the liner notes for that edition, in fact. But this has the significant advantage of adding three non-LP tracks from late-‘60s singles, one of them featuring a different woman singer (Dorris Henderson) than everything else they released, on which Kerrilee Male handled the female vocals. The sound they achieved is more pleasing than the actual songs, to be honest, but that sound is a very pleasing one. This (like the Clear Light reissue listed below) would have ranked higher had the core album around which this CD is based not already been long available without the extras.

14. Clear Light, Clear Light (Big Beat). Nearly twenty years ago, I described Clear Light as sounding “like the Elektra Records roster (the Doors, Tim Buckley, Love) being tossed into a blender.” I’m aware Clear Light cultists would scream in protest that the one-liner was unfair, or even that they weren’t at all derivative of those acts. Still, I stand by that assessment, though I’ll also point out that it’s not a criticism. Clear Light might not have been nearly as original as the Doors, Tim Buckley, or Love, all of whom at various points worked with the producer of Clear Light’s self-titled 1967 album, Paul Rothchild. But the period Elektra psychedelic sound of their LP is appealing, even if I found it a bit generic.

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The Clear Light album has been previously issued on CD, but this Big Beat edition is easily the best, as it adds lengthy historical liner notes; the non-LP B-side “She’s Ready to Be Free”; the pre-Clear Light single by the Brain Train, from whom Clear Light evolved; and, most importantly, four previously unreleased outtakes. The outtakes aren’t too great or memorable, but add to the picture of this interesting psychedelic one-shot group (though it’s not a complete one, as two surviving tracks from their abandoned second album were judged of too low fidelity to be included). The best Clear Light track, included on here and on the original LP, remains their most over-the-top one: a gonzo six-minute version of Tom Paxton’s “Mr. Blue,” which transforms the rather tame folk tune into an epic psychedelic horror show.

15. The Tomcats, Running at Shadows: The Spanish Recordings 1965-66 (RPM). Despite the subtitle, the Tomcats were not a Spanish group, nor were most of their recordings in the Spanish language. Instead, they were one of the many hopeful British R&B/rock groups springing up in the wake of the Rolling Stones, somehow ending up in Spain, where they performed and got to record four EPs in the mid-1960s. Known (if at all) for evolving into the late-‘60s British psychedelic group July (who recorded one album that has a cult following), they never even released discs in their native UK. This compilation, esoteric even by British Invasion collector standards, has all the tracks from those Spanish EPs, as well as a non-EP track from a film soundtrack and a few demos from the Second Thoughts, a few of whose members went on to play in the Tomcats.

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The preceding paragraph is probably enough to put off listeners who want something in the way of name recognition before taking a chance on obscure material. But this is a pretty enjoyable release, if wildly uneven and not at all as original, distinctive, or creative as the bands (like the Rolling Stones and Pretty Things) whose paths they generally followed. The folk-poppy Spanish-language tunes done British R&B-style are genuinely strange, but also genuinely, at times atomically energetic. They do an unexpectedly terrific rock/R&B cover of Reverend Gary Davis’s country blues standard “Cocaine” that’s quite different from the prototype. The title track is a very good folk-rock-cum-British Invasion original that’s the only strong hint of development of a personality of their own. Much of the rest is generic early British R&B or uninspiring faithful covers of big mid-‘60s British and US hits, though even some of those are appealing. But the highlights make this worth investigating for British Invasion fanatics, though you have to be pretty fanatical to plunge this deep.

16. The Beach Boys, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (Omnivore). Before the Beach Boys signed to Capitol Records, they had a local hit with “Surfin’,” and recorded a few other tracks in late 1961 and early 1962 for producer Hite Morgan. These, and some outtakes from those sessions, have been on some other albums dating back many years. This double CD, however, is the most thorough exhumation of those sessions by far, including not just all nine songs they recorded at these sessions (also including an early version of “Surfin’ Safari”), but also many unreleased alternate takes of those tunes. It adds up to 63 tracks in all, augmented by lengthy historical liner notes (by Jim Murphy, author of the recent book Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963), cool rare graphics of tape boxes, and vintage ads/record labels.

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This, even more than some of the other entries on this list that dig into a very specialized corner of an artist’s career, is a “not for everybody” release. The many multiple takes of each song are presented in separate groups of nine, meaning you’ll hear run-throughs of the same song over and over again for nine consecutive stretches. It’s kind of like hearing a completist bootleg of surviving sessions (and there are many of those for the Beach Boys’ Capitol recordings, particularly in the 21-volume Unsurpassed Masters series), except this release is legitimate.

For scholars, however, it’s still interesting to hear the embryonic Beach Boys working out their harmonies, even if the alternate versions aren’t too different from each other, and the instrumental backing is so rudimentary as to border on the minimal. It’s also surprising, admittedly with the benefit of more than half a century of hindsight, that the Beach Boys had trouble getting a record deal after the release of “Surfin’.” Even at this stage, it’s obvious they had talent (particularly in the vocal department, and particularly in their harmonies and Brian Wilson’s leads). It’s also obvious, again in hindsight, that even so early on, they didn’t sound like anyone else, and should have been a group worth investing in—as Capitol did.

17. Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions (Light in the Attic). How does previously unreleased material from the prime of a significant artist rank low on this list? It’s not because I feel he’s overrated. Indeed, I wrote a big chapter on Tim Buckley in my Urban Spacemen: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock book. And almost half of these 13 tracks were re-recorded for his best album, Goodbye and Hello.

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Perhaps inadvertently, however, these rather bare-bones demos illustrate just how much Buckley’s songs benefited from baroque-folk-rock studio production. In this rather naked state, they tend to sound rather alike and run into each other, as they do on another archival release on which Buckley plays backed by just his acoustic guitar, Live at the Folklore Center, NYC—March 6, 1967. Plus the songs that he didn’t put on his studio albums (although different versions of a couple have shown up on other archival reissues) don’t make one question the decisions to omit them in favor of stronger compositions.

The above two paragraphs might be seem like a harsher dismissal than intended. This is of considerable historical importance; Buckley’s singing is very good; and some of the numbers redone for Goodbye and Hello, particularly “No Man Can Find the War” (one of the finest protest songs ever), radiate obvious strength even in this unadorned condition. With excellent liner notes incorporating a wealth of comments from producer Jerry Yester and frequent Buckley co-writer Larry Beckett, it’s of great value to the serious Tim Buckley fan. It can’t stand on the level of Buckley’s best material and performances, however.

18. John Lee Hooker, The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 (Acrobat). I don’t get as many random unsolicited cool things in the mail as some people think. But sometimes items do show up that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise, like this four-CD, 101-song John Lee Hooker compilation. Now, as great as Hooker was, you couldn’t say he made the most diverse recordings, many of his sides then and later sounding pretty similar to each other in their earthy boogie stomp. (The last song on CD two, perhaps aptly, is titled “Too Much Boogie.”) So this might not be the kind of set you want to play in sequence too often, even if you’re a blues nut. It’s also not comprehensive, sticking to tracks recorded for three labels, though he cut a fair number for other companies (like Specialty, for whom he recorded more than a dozen in the mid-‘50s). Nor does it have the singles he did under a number of colorful assumed names, from The Boogie Man to the who’s-fooling-who John Lee Booker.

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Still, what’s here has the cream of his best recordings, including his top classics “I’m in the Mood,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Boom Boom,” “Dimples,” “I’m Mad Again,” “Maudie,” “Boogie Chillun,” and “Louise.” (The last song might not be one of his core classics, but it’s familiar to rock audiences as the Yardbirds did a version on their 1964 live LP, though it might not have been based on Hooker’s, as John Lee wasn’t the only one to record it.) While some purists find some of the later recordings on this set inferior to his earlier ones due to their use of more electricity and full bands, I actually find many of these among his very best (and, in the case of “Boom Boom” and “Dimples,” his most famous). Sure, there are some routine tunes here, and the approach can veer on monotony. But rather like early Johnny Cash box sets are okay to hear all at once if you’re in the right mood, and in the mood for songs that don’t vary all that much, this is general quality listening that formed some essential building blocks of mid-twentieth century popular music.

19. Jesse Fuller, Working on the Railroad (Mississippi/Secret Seven). This six-song, ten-inch vinyl reissue is of considerable historical importance. Cut just north of Berkeley, California in El Cerrito in 1954, these were the first recordings by major folk-blues singer and one-man band Jesse Fuller, including his first version of the well-known “San Francisco Bay Blues.” But it’s also musically impressive as well. I’m not much for most recordings from the very early folk revival, of which these just about qualify, being geared more toward specialized folk fans than the commercial market. However, these recordings are rich and full, with some pretty amazing instrumental work (more so on guitar than kazoo) considering it’s all by one guy. Most of these songs (“San Francisco Bay Blues,” “John Henry,” “Lining Up the Tracks,” “Railroad Work Song”) would be overdone in the ensuing ten years of the folk revival. Yet as these are the first or among the first versions, they have a powerful freshness most interpretations lack.

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20. Various Artists, Kinked! Kinks Songs & Sessions 1964-1971 (Ace). Sometimes a record makes a list, at least my list, because of its historical significance instead of its musical merit. Yeah, maybe that’s not fair, but if that’s your stance, take heart that at least this is at the bottom. You can’t tell from the title, but this is a compilation of Kinks covers, not actually tracks by the Kinks themselves. What makes this special is that it focuses on, and rounds up most of, the songs Ray Davies (and, in one instance, Dave Davies) wrote, but the Kinks did not release, though some Kinks BBC versions/outtakes/demos of such tunes showed up many years later on some archival compilations. As with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there were a fair amount of such items the Kinks “gave away,” though none of them were hits, with the arguable exception of Dave Berry’s “This Strange Effect,” a mild UK hit (and not a hit at all in the US), but a huge hit in Holland and Belgium. Some of these rarities have been hard to find in either their original versions or on reissues, and this anthology does hardcore Kinks fans a great favor by collecting most of them in one place. The CD’s rounded out by uncommon or offbeat covers of songs the Kinks released first, like Marianne Faithfull’s “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home” and Duster Bennett’s “Act Nice and Gentle.”

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All the same, there’s not a single outstanding cut among these 26 tracks—and nothing even on the order of, say, Billy J. Kramer’s version of Lennon-McCartney’s “Bad to Me” or the Toggery Five’s cover of the Keith Richards-Andrew Oldham composition “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys,” to cite a couple Beatles/Stones giveaways. There are some better-than-average ones, like Berry’s “This Strange Effect,” the Pretty Things” “A House in the Country” (which has a verse not in the Kinks’ version), the John Schroder Orchestra’s wistful instrumental “The Virgin Soldiers March,” the Orchids’ energetic girl group take on “I’ve Got That Feeling” (whose release predated the Kinks’ recording of the song by about half a year), and the Thoughts’ “All Night Stand” (here represented by a previously unissued alternate take). But the most highly sought after rarities—those that don’t exist in any Kinks version—are surprisingly bland. Nonetheless, it fills in a notable gap in the Kinks (or at least Kinks-related discography), its value upped by compiler Alec Palao’s customarily thorough and informative liner notes. It would be nice if this paved the way for similarly expert comps of giveaways by the Beatles, Stones, Who, and others, but I wouldn’t bet on such collections appearing soon.

And an “historical mention” to:

21. The Doors, London Fog 1966 (Rhino/Bright Midnight Archives). Here’s another “historical significance” pick, yet one in which the historical significance outweighs the musical quality even more. This recently unearthed tape of a May 1966 performance at the London Fog on Sunset Strip is the earliest circulating live recording of the Doors, and the first of any kind with the quartet that made their famous albums. It’s not terrible; the sound is pretty good for an audience tape, though Jim Morrison’s vocals are a little hollow. But they sound a bit like an average, at times even plodding white blues-rock band, a little as if they’re trying to be an American Rolling Stones with a prominent organist.

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Five of the seven songs are covers, and while they hold interest as uncommon tunes in the Doors’ catalog, their interpretations of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It,” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” (the last with Ray Manzarek on vocals) aren’t scintillating. It’s surprising to hear them do the original “You Make Me Real” at this early date, as it didn’t show up on their studio releases until 1970’s Morrison Hotel, though the version here is inferior. Only on “Strange Days” do you hear the hypnotic eeriness that would be one of the Doors’ most arresting trademarks.

It’s a little surprising that they’d cut their classic debut album (which didn’t include any of the songs here) just a little more than three months later, as Manzarek excepted, the members are some ways off their peak. Morrison’s vocals are almost there, though it’s odd to hear him shout-plead with the audience to dance at a couple points, in line with the semi-bar band they still were. Robbie Krieger’s guitar isn’t as assertive as it would become. Most surprisingly, John Densmore’s drumming—superb on their first LP and thereafter—is clunky enough that had I been told there was a sub or it was by a guy he replaced, I would have believed it. Unfortunately, another reel with “The End” taped by the same friend who taped the other performances is missing. And while this package includes some memorabilia and both CD and ten-inch LP versions of the material, $49.98 is too high a list price.

Top Ten Rock History Books of 2016

In terms of quantity, 2016 saw about as many rock history books as there have been in recent years. In terms of quality, I think there was a significant though not huge dip. There wasn’t a problem filling out this Top Ten list to ten books, but there weren’t many other serious contenders I was tempted to list, though I did read or try to read quite a few others.

Generally, the trend toward niche or special interest books that would have been unimaginable a couple decades (or even a decade) ago continues. So does the trend toward rock memoirs, including some by big and small names that did not make this list. There are also a couple 2015 releases I put at the end that I did not read in time to include on my 2015 list, and no doubt there will be some 2016 books I’ll read over the coming year that I’ll put on my list next year.

1. Small Town Talk, by Barney Hoskyns (Da Capo). In rock lore, Woodstock (the small New York town, not the festival) is primarily known as the base for Bob Dylan and the Band in the late 1960s. Since that time, however, it’s also been a long-term or temporary (sometimes very temporary) base for artists like Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Happy Traum, Maria & Geoff Muldaur, Paul Butterfield, Todd Rundgren, and numerous others. This is a thorough and satisfying account of what drew musicians to the area and what they did (which wasn’t always purely musical) there, by an author who knows the scene well, having done the best Band biography. Hoskyns draws from a lot of his research for that book (Across the Great Divide: The Band and America), but also talked to many other people, and deserves some sort of award for having interviewed the notoriously non-author-friendly Van Morrison specifically about his time in the region.

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A draw for its peculiar brand of pastoral hedonism, ultimately the Woodstock area just wasn’t big enough to keep producing enough music to establish itself as a permanent hip music mecca. Nor could it thrive as much after the mid-1980s death of Albert Grossman, who as manager and force behind the Bearsville label and studio did far more than anyone else to fund whatever scene was happening. There were enough interesting, sometimes wild times along the way, however (mostly between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s), to make for a worthwhile, substantial book.

2. Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, And the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, by Joel Selvin (Dey St.). Like some other books of Selvin’s, this does not use the usual format of quoting from interviews, instead telling the story as a narrative, though drawing from extensive research. This is not my favorite approach, but in this case it works pretty well. Crucially, Selvin did draw from a lot of first-hand research for this examination of the Altamont festival, including more than one hundred interviews. Among them were people who had seldom or never given their accounts of what happened at the turbulent concert, including the girlfriend of Meredith Hunter (the boy in the audience who was murdered), law enforcement officials, concertgoers, and camera operators for the Gimme Shelter movie (which was partially filmed at Altamont). Some famous musicians who played there were consulted too, including members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and the Grateful Dead (though none of the Rolling Stones).

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What emerges is a tale of a good, or at least admirably utopian, idea that was altered and grew out of control, to the point that no one was really in charge of staging and supervising the event, and no one eager to be accountable for its negative consequences. The Rolling Stones do not come off well here, one of the factors contributing to the festival getting staged in Altamont being their unwillingness to give up some of the profits to the owners of a better alternative site (Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County). Selvin doesn’t let this cloud his assessment of the music the Stones played at Altamont (a sixteen-track recording of which he was able to hear), which he judges as phenomenal despite the dire circumstances in which it was performed.

3. Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy, by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch (Blue Rider Press). Only a month before Brian Wilson’s memoir (see entry lower on this list), the Beach Boys’ lead singer came out with his. They couldn’t help but be compared in the press, especially as Love has often been accused by devoted fans and harsh critics of hindering the band’s artistic evolution, and specifically of blocking SMiLE by objecting to its experimentalism. At times his book reads like a defense to such charges. But more often it’s a quite detailed account of the band’s odyssey through garage surf music and classic orchestrated pop-rock to transcendental meditation, which Love embraced with a fervor far greater than the other Beach Boys (and possibly than any other rock star). Whatever your feelings toward Love—and he’s one of the most unpopular rock stars, at least among a band’s core fanbase—there’s a tremendous amount of info here, from the band’s crude beginnings through their infighting long past their prime (with passages actually quoting from court documents and taped conversations).

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The tensions within the band (especially between Love and Dennis Wilson) are not ignored, and considerable space is devoted to Mike’s struggles to win songwriting credits for many 1960s Beach Boys songs he recalls (in great detail) helping compose. Yes, their brush with Charles Manson is covered too. So, however, are insights into the making of their classic ‘60s recordings (and their not-so-classic subsequent ones). The latter sections, much of which are devoted to Love’s publishing battles and his long (still-running) stewardship of the band as they changed into an oldies act, are inevitably far less interesting than the first half or so of the book.

But no matter what side you favor in the band, this is an above average rock star memoir that, to my surprise, I found more illuminating than Brian Wilson’s, at least as far as hard info about the SMiLE history. It is interesting, too, that for all Love’s concerns about SMiLE (mostly with the impenetrable lyrics), “We all had questions, but we did what Brian wanted, and we worked harder on those vocals than on any others in the history of the band.” As to their commercial decline that coincided with SMiLE ‘s failure to reach completion, “Brian was our quarterback, and once he was out of the game, we could never keep up.”

4. Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali, by Mike Stax (Process Media). You haven’t heard of Craig Smith? Most people haven’t, even among ‘60s/’70s rock obsessives. But in addition to writing and singing some idiosyncratic, high-quality folk-rock that barely got heard in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Smith’s story was like few others, his frustrating near-misses at success followed by a descent into gruesome madness and homelessness. Swim Through the Darkness is an amazingly thorough portrait of an All-American guy who seemed to have everything going for him, only to have it all go south.

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Like many artists who lacked a few good breaks or obvious hit songs to make a splash, Smith met and worked with plenty of famous stars on his road to oblivion. His journey, however, was yet more unusual than most, starting with his transition from squeaky-clean Andy Williams backup musician to the Mike Nesmith-produced band the Penny Arkade. When that group failed to find a record deal, he left for the Hippie Trail, where a mysterious incident in which he was likely beaten up and worse permanently changed him. When he returned from Asia at the end of the 1960s, he’d descended into madness, self-pressing strange but enticing acid folk LPs before doing jail time for assaulting his mother and drifting through decades of homelessness.

Mike Stax, noted as the longtime editor/publisher of the top ‘60s rock magazine Ugly Things, unearthed a startling (and oft-disturbing) wealth of info considering Smith’s records were largely unreleased or unheard, though Craig crossed paths with everyone from the Monkees to Manson (and Brian Wilson and Mike Love, for that matter). Besides finding and talking to many of his friends and associates, he unearthed police records and even helped arrange for a proper curatorship of Smith’s ashes. Smith’s tale is the dark side of the Hollywood dream that the likes of the Beach Boys and Monkees rode to worldwide fame, but left nearly-as-talented musicians like Smith (who died in his sleeping bag in North Hollywood Park in 2012) on the literal street. Stax not only tells his saga like a good detective story, but also makes us care about the music and the man.

5. Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story, by Dean Torrence (SelectBooks). The same time Mike Love’s memoir came out (and the month before Brian Wilson’s was released), half of Jan & Dean added his voice to surf history with his own autobiography. Jan & Dean’s story wasn’t as contentious as the Beach Boys’, or as influential and well known, which means this book won’t get nearly as much attention as Love’s or Wilson’s. But it’s a likable ride through the career of the second-most-successful surf’n’hot rod act, and one that had plenty of connections and intersections with the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson co-wrote and sang on Jan & Dean’s biggest hit, “Surf City.”

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Torrence remembers the pair’s late-‘50s beginnings as gawky high school students recording in Jan Berry’s garage, as well as their mid-‘60s prime as hitmakers and hosts of the legendary concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show. One’s struck by how much easier, in some ways, teenagers could get themselves into the music business in the early days of Los Angeles rock. It wasn’t as innocent as it sometimes seemed. Berry made sure their debut single “Baby Talk” was a hit by shoplifting copies from an L.A. store that was surveyed for the charts. And, of course, everything got gravely serious when Berry suffered brain damage in a 1966 car crash.

It’s unfortunate Torrence’s book doesn’t discuss their obscure post-accident late-‘60s recordings, though the part on his subsequent reinvention as a noted graphic artist (often for rock LPs) is interesting. It’s also too bad that his revival of a Jan & Dean touring act, clouded by his attempts to keep an addled and substance-abusing Berry in line, end this book on a more somber vibe. What’s here is, however, like Jan & Dean’s music, pretty fun, if not nearly as deep as the Beach Boys’ best records.

Also out in 2016, by the way, is the very detailed (and very expensive) The Jan & Dean Record: A Chronology of Studio Sessions, Live Performances and Chart Positions. Like Becoming the Beach Boys: 1961-1963 (see note at end of next listing), it’s too detailed and at times too dry to find a place on this list. But it does have a lot of raw information of great interest to Jan & Dean fanatics, though those are much less numerous than Beach Boys fanatics.

6. I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman (Da Capo). Wilson is one of rock’s more complex and enigmatic personalities, but even going into this memoir with full knowledge of that, I find it hard to know what to make of it. If you prefer memoirs to have a linear beginning-to-end chronology (I do) and are a little annoyed by most that go back and forth all over the place (I am), it’s frustrating that this book falls firmly in the latter camp. Somehow over the course of about 300 pages, it does cover most of his and the Beach Boys’ albums, most of their famous songs (and many of their un-famous/infamous ones, even down to the Mount Vernon and Fairway bonus EP with the Holland album), and many of his major problems with his father, family, manipulative psychiatrist-of-sorts Eugene Landy, and mental illness. It’s highly readable and, at least for those who haven’t scoured other sources of details about the Beach Boys’ career, informative.

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Still, the text isn’t all that in-depth in terms of either facts that aren’t previously known, and perspectives that haven’t been offered in other sources. At times I felt like Wilson was an observer of rather than a participant in his own life, such was the detachment of some of the tone. His volatile relationships with father Murry Wilson, Landy, and (you knew he’d get to this) Mike Love are discussed at some length, but he seems to be holding back from criticizing or expressing anger at their worst excesses. There are some little known stories, like how he had hopes for the instrumental title track of Pet Sounds to serve as the theme for a James Bond film or that SMiLE is spelled the way it is because “it was partly about forgetting the ego, which is the reason all the letters are capitalized except for the lowercase i.” The sentences that affected me most explained how “at some point I knew SMiLE was done—or rather, that I was done with SMiLE. It was too much pressure from all sides: from Capitol, from my brothers, from Mike, from my dad, but most of all from myself.”

But it’s exasperating that Wilson seems to place about as much importance, and give almost as much space, to writing about his album of George Gershwin covers—and his recent, rather mundane daily routine—as Pet Sounds or SMiLE. He might be as interested in those other subjects as those classic albums he’s been asked about to death, of course. But some of those other projects aren’t too interesting to read about, and it was hard going to get through the passages on some of those recent endeavors. Sometimes he slips in small deadpan jokes as if to remind us that he doesn’t always take this memoir business 100% seriously, and despite generally holding my attention, it felt some ways short of being thorough and definitive. (For those who want something more intensely researched and factual, incidentally, the recent Becoming the Beach Boys: 1961-1963 has a wealth of information about their earliest years as a recording act, though I felt it was too dry to find a spot on the supplementary list of 2015 books in this post.)

7. The Rise, The Fall, And the Rise, by Brix Smith Start (Faber & Faber). I’ll be honest here: I hate the Fall. There, I’ve just lost at least a dozen readers already. But although I’m not part of the long-lived British punk band’s considerable cult, their history—as part of the UK punk movement and, after the early ‘80s, the general alternative rock scene—is pretty interesting. So is the life of Brix Smith (now known as Brix Smith Start), who was both a guitarist in the band and married to main Fall singer-songwriter Mark E. Smith for much of the 1980s (and returned to the band for a while in the ‘90s after their marriage ended). One testament of a good memoir is that it keeps your attention even if you’re not a fan of the artist’s music. So it is, for the most part, with The Rise, The Fall, And the Rise, which actually is only about half devoted to Smith’s life in the Fall.

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Brix has had a quite unlikely life passage, starting with an on-the-surface privileged upbringing in L.A. and Chicago that was disrupted by an abusive father and shuttling back and forth between different families. After meeting Mark E. Smith at a spring 1983 fall gig, a whirlwind romance resulted in her moving in with him in Manchester within weeks, marrying soon thereafter, and gradually becoming an actual part of the Fall around the same time. Although encountering some expected resistance from fans and critics who charged the Smiths with nepotism, she proved her worth as a full member of the band. But the idyllic romance with the mercurial Fall mainman soon curdled, as too many such associations do, when her husband sank deeper into substance abuse, psychological abuse, and infidelity. It affected the band too, Brix pithily observing, “It seemed to me that the deterioration of our relationship was reflected in my dwindling songwriting credits.”

The story doesn’t end with Smith’s departure from the band (and marriage) in the late 1980s. The see-saw continued with a volatile relationship with top classical musician Nigel Kennedy; struggles with depression and, for a while, waitressing upon her return to L.A.; and, most unbelievably, a return to the Fall for several years. I could have done without the lengthy section near the end on the success of her and her current husband’s London fashion shop, and there should be a rule against extended passages describing memoirist’s dreams (of which there are a few). Probably some other such material was cut from the manuscript, which according to the acknowledgments was reduced nearly in half from its original size. What’s here is usually quite penetrating and occasionally gripping, although when she calls Mark E. Smith on an impulse several years after leaving their marriage and then impulsively rejoins the Fall, I had to think to myself, “This is one reunion that isn’t going to end well.” And it didn’t.

8. In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, by Roger Shepherd (HarperCollins). In the early 1980s, record store manager Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records, the most well known New Zealand indie rock label. His memoir focuses on its heyday in the 1980s and (to a lesser extent) 1990, when it issued releases by the lion’s share of the most highly regarded New Zealand alternative rock bands, including the Chills, the Clean, the Verlaines, and Chris Knox and the Tall Dwarfs. Even by late twentieth-century indie rock standards, Flying Nun was a seat-of-the-pants operation, Shepherd learning the business as he went along, often without contracts or adherence to standard practices (which backfired on him when Flying Nun issued a live Fall album that Fall singer Mark E. Smith objected to). By the late 1990s he’d been ousted from his own label, though he bought it back from Warner Music about a decade later.

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There’s plenty of information about the bands in the preceding paragraph if you want it, as well as stories about plenty more obscure acts like Look Blue Go Purple, the Gordons, and the Dead C. More interesting to me, however, were the stories about the precarious existence of an indie label proprietor trying to simply make a living in a small country where any degree of international exposure was necessary simply to keep his business afloat. If that meant traveling to Auckland or eventually London to relocate Flying Nun without knowing much about those cities or having many contacts there, so be it. Other obstacles you don’t often read about, like New Zealand police attempting to bust the label when pot was sent to them in the mail, or a London publicist who’d sell Flying Nun promos to fund his pub visits, had to be surmounted as well.

It also turns out that Shepherd himself suffered alcohol problems, in part because he was a manic depressive, a condition not diagnosed until well after Flying Nun’s heyday. If I can drop in a story not in the book, even in the midst of struggling with these afflictions and financial problems that were threatening to sink the company, he found time to personally pick me up from the Auckland airport when I visited New Zealand in late 1989 and set me up with a place to stay with a couple employees. I didn’t suspect any of this stuff going on behind the scenes at the time, and my only qualifications for such hospitality were editing an alternative music magazine in the US and having been given his name by someone else who visited. This humility spilled into Flying Nun’s music and packaging as well, which is a reason it’s picked up a small but devoted overseas following. This humility is also evident in Shepherd’s memoir, which might have too many details about running an indie label or particulars about the small New Zealand scene to interest a large audience, but will be valued by Flying Nun enthusiasts for precisely those reasons.

9. Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed, by Bettye Kronstad (Jawbone Press). Bettye Kronstad was Lou Reed’s girlfriend and, briefly, wife in the early 1970s. A lot more was revealed about their relationship in the past few years when she gave her first interviews about it, but this is a full book covering her time with him. Contrary to what might be expected, when they became serious right after he left the Velvet Underground in late 1970, she found him a kind, gentle, sensitive poet. In fact, the first weekends she spent with him were at his parents’ Long Island home, where he’d moved back into when the Velvet Underground finished. Soon enough—in a pattern found in too many rock relationships—he was becoming moody, then moodier, then psychologically abusive, along with the substance abuse that often accompanies such slides.

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It can be a little frustrating reading Kronstad’s recollections, especially as she, as in so many dysfunctional relationships, thought endlessly of leaving but couldn’t or wouldn’t. Eventually she did, and right in the middle of a 1973 European tour. She wasn’t on the inside of as many songwriting and recording sessions as you might hope. But a day she and Lou spent together in Central Park, painstakingly re-created here, did provide the inspiration for “Perfect Day.” Some of her stormy childhood experiences also provided the basis for songs on his Berlin album, though she wasn’t exactly pleased when she realized what Reed was doing. Those passages alone might make this worthwhile for serious Reed fans. It’s unfortunate, however, that she writes (more than once) that John Cale was still in the Velvet Underground when Reed left, making one wonder how knowledgeable she was about a major portion of his career.

10. My Little Red Book: Love Day-By-Day 1945-1971, by Bruno Ceriotti (self-published ebook). Day-by-day books are almost by definition mostly for serious fans, which is not a criticism; I wrote one myself on the Velvet Underground. Although there’s much more quality Love historical literature in the twenty-first century than at any time previously (due to John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love biography and drummer Michael Stuart-Ware’s memoir, as well as the Love Story documentary), this is a worthy supplement even if you have all of that material. Ceriotti’s research details all of their known gigs and recording sessions during this period (the only one of real interest, especially from 1965-68), including first-hand interview material from several members, particularly Stuart-Ware, guitarist Johnny Echols, and drummer/keyboardist Snoopy Pfisterer. There are plenty of little-known details about things like their few out-of-California gigs, the brief membership of Tjay Contrelli during the Da Capo period, and original drummer Don Conca’s (as his name was actually spelled) time in the band. Unfortunately a print edition scheduled for release in 2016 was canceled, but a PDF can be ordered for $10 from Ceriotti’s website, brunoceriotti.weebly.com. (Ceriotti has also done a smaller ebook for the Blues Project, and has free day-by-day rundowns on numerous other ‘60s bands on his website, including the Other Half, Clear Light, the Sons of Adam, the Rising Sons, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.)

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Honorable mention:

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt). It’s a little surprising there’s never been a really satisfactory biography of Simon, or Simon & Garfunkel as a separate entity. This one doesn’t entirely meet my fussy standards, but is certainly the best one to date. Unlike all of the other books on Simon I’ve read, it does much to straighten out what actually happened, especially in his early years. The teen and young adult years spent bouncing among numerous different (almost universally mediocre) pop-rock discs and projects before S&G’s first LP are pretty well documented. So are, more interestingly, his extended mid-‘60s jaunts as a solo artist in England, which saw the release of his first solo album. While the details of his years as half of Simon & Garfunkel, and his subsequent solo stardom (and periodic volatile reunions with Garfunkel) are more known, these are also covered thoroughly, with plenty of actual description of the songs and recordings.

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Still, some more extensive new stories from associates (neither Paul nor Art were interviewed) would have been welcome. I still have the feeling that some interesting info remains to be discovered, or at least fully laid out, about his early years in particular (and to some extent his long period as a star). That’ll be harder and harder to get with each passing year, with Simon and many of the people he knew in their mid-seventies, if they’re still around. The most recent twenty years of his life are covered in a mere 25 pages (with 2016’s Stranger to Stranger meriting a mere two sentences), but let’s be honest: the skimpiness of those sections is not going to disappoint too many readers, who’ll be far more interested in what took place through Graceland.

Relatively minor note: although many, many books have mistakes, a few ones that are peripheral to the main subject show up here that really should have been caught. Jimi Hendrix did not play on the first night of the Monterey Pop Festival (which Simon & Garfunkel closed); he famously played near the end of the third and final night. Carly Simon was 21, not a mere 16, when she was one of many visitors to Paul’s Stockbridge vacation home in 1967. And Bob Dylan did not get the arrangement credit and royalties for the Animals’ hit version of “House of the Rising Sun.”

Just so it doesn’t seem like I’m singling out this book for such errors, similar ones are found in the Brian Wilson memoir reviewed elsewhere on this list, where Wilson praises Phil Spector’s productions of the Dixie Cups’ 1964 hit “Chapel of Love” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”  Actually “Chapel of Love” was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (though Spector did  co-write the song with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry), and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” was produced by Ike Turner (Spector did produce recordings by Ike & Tina Turner, but that was about four years before they did “Proud Mary”).

The following two books came out in 2015, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t read them in time to put them on my 2015 list:

So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, by David Browne (Da Capo). This takes the approach of focusing on a key date in Grateful Dead history in every chapter, which might make this look to be a fragmentary overview at first glance. But actually that’s just a loose structure on which to hang a fairly standard biography, with the author devoting most of the text to filling in most of the essential background on the Dead. While not as through as Dennis McNally’s Grateful Dead bio A Long Strange Trip, some readers might find this career-spanning book more accessible. It draws upon quite a few first-hand interviews with the band and their many associates, though their move from a rather anarchic enterprise into a huge business, uninteresting slick records, and Jerry Garcia’s serious decline in health make the final sections pretty downbeat.

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The Road Is Long…The Hollies Story, by Brian Southall (Red Planet). Were the Hollies one of the most successful British Invasion bands? Absolutely, especially (but hardly exclusively) in their native UK. Were they one of the most interesting? Not really, as good as their best hits and non-45 tracks were. So their story is not as captivating as those of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, or even groups that had substantially fewer chart hits, like the Yardbirds and Small Faces. But it’s good for there to at least be one book about the Hollies, which finally arrived with this volume. The band’s career was not as nearly as dramatic as those of the other groups mentioned in this paragraph, and this is a competent rundown of their basic history, concentrating mostly on their prime ‘60s years. There are quotes from all of the principal members (though not all of them are first-hand), and the stories of their hits and tours are competently told, with some observations from some of their close associates. This doesn’t, however, have much description or analysis of their albums and, yet more disappointingly, some of their most special traits, such as Tony Hicks’s guitar playing and Bobby Elliott’s underrated drumming. It’s a good thing there are good liner notes in the box sets The Long Road Home, Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years, and 30th Anniversary Collection, which fill in some gaps not covered in this decently written but rather perfunctory biography.

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Top Ten Rock Documentaries of 2016

Interesting rock documentaries continue to appear, but there aren’t as many of them as there are notable rock history books, or rock reissues. In part that’s because a film is much harder to finance, complete, and distribute than a book or album. The movies on this list range from superb to adequate, but I did have to take some liberties to push the list to ten items, including listing a few 2015 releases I didn’t see until this past year; putting on a DVD that’s been out for more than half a decade, but didn’t get released in the US until 2016; and even ending the list with a doc about an actor who made a few poorly received records. DVD labels are noted when the films are available in that format.

1. Bang: The Bert Berns Story. Although his name isn’t especially well known to most rock fans, Berns was an important and colorful figure in 1960s rock and soul. He wrote and/or produced numerous classic hits, from “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy” to “Here Comes the Night” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” Co-directed by his son Brett, this fast-paced documentary has insightful, often funny, and often sad comments by an amazing assortment of people he worked with or influenced, including his widow, Solomon Burke, Ron Isley, Ben E. King, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, one of Bert’s Mafia buddies, and, in a coup, Van Morrison, who is surprisingly forthright and detailed in his recollections. Indeed, almost everybody of note is represented (though some by archive interview clips rather than ones done specifically for this feature). Neil Diamond is the most notable absentee, and the McCoys’ Rick Derringer and Lulu would have been nice to have too, but considering you can never have everyone, the batting average is amazingly high. My only complaint is one that speaks well of the quality of the film and the fascination of its subject: I wish there were more comments from many of the interviewees, which hopefully might be included on the DVD edition (scheduled for spring release).

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2. Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (Capitol). I was skeptical that Ron Howard’s documentary on the Beatles’ live performances (centering on the 1963-66 Beatlemania era) was overhyped, and/or wouldn’t offer much that hadn’t been covered elsewhere. Its position on this list lets you know quickly that my suspicions weren’t confirmed. No, it doesn’t have a great deal of footage that hasn’t been previously unearthed, though there are some rare or unfamiliar clips (and some of the familiar ones are in color instead of black and white, and occasionally use shots not in the standard versions). It is odd that a few (not many) of the clips are in notably inferior quality to how they appear on some official and unofficial releases, almost making you wonder if they were deliberately fuzzed-up to look older.

But the film puts their story as a popular live act together smoothly, in a fashion so entertaining as to be time well spent even for snobs like me who’ve already seen a great deal of it. The done-for-the-doc interview inserts with Paul McCartney are succinct and insightful, his best quote being about Brian Epstein: “It was clear he had a vision of us that was beyond the vision we had of ourselves.” If the ones with Ringo Starr aren’t as notable, they’re still worthwhile. A dozen or so others interviewed in the film (usually with no direct association with the ‘60s Beatles)—including Elvis Costello and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as non-celebrities like Ed Freeman, a roadie on their final US tour—offer observations that are more interesting than you might expect. Crucially, those are kept—unlike in so many other documentaries—brief and to the point, with none of them getting more time then they merit, even if they’re famous.

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If you were able to see this in theaters, a half-hour short of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium followed the main feature. This too exceeded my expectations, as the image quality was visibly cleaned-up from copies of the TV documentary for which the footage was shot that are in circulation. Also, this half-hour (unlike the hour-long original TV documentary) focuses solely on the Beatles’ performance, and doesn’t have voiceover narration that obscured parts of a few of the songs.

Unfortunately the Shea Stadium short isn’t on the DVD, even on the two-disc special edition. That special edition does have more than 100 minutes of bonus material on the second disc. None of it’s too extraordinary, but it does have complete clips of five different songs from various sources in 1963-65, along with several short mini-docs on their songwriting, Liverpool, shooting A Day’s Night, and their visits to Australia and Japan, among other subjects. Some of the people interviewed for this range from insiders like Peter Asher to figures not often heard from, like Ronnie Spector and Leslie Whitehead, who filmed the first sound clip of the Beatles (doing “Some Other Guy” in the Cavern in August 1962).

3. Gimme Danger. I’m not a Stooges fan, which is about the most unpopular opinion a rock critic can offer. But I liked this documentary, which might put me back in the graces of all those readers who were about to unsubscribe from this blog after reading the previous sentence. Although there isn’t much footage from the band’s prime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, esteemed director Jim Jarmusch does a fine job in combining what archive clips are available (mostly silent, other than for their 21st-century reunions) with a wealth of photos and, most crucially, a lot of first-hand interviews with the surviving Stooges. Well, the ones that were surviving when filming was done; drummer Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve Mackay have since passed on.

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The lion’s share of the interviews are done with Iggy Pop, a great asset to the filmmaker, as he’s a good storyteller (my favorite being how Moe Howard of the Three Stooges was asked for permission to use the name “the Stooges”). The effects of the stroke Scott Asheton suffered a few years before his death are evident, yet though he speaks slowly, he’s quite articulate. Guitarist James Williamson, one of the minority of vintage Stooges to enjoy good health and relative wealth in his middle age, amusingly recalls how delusional the Stooges were in thinking what they were doing could be popular. In fact they were doing what they liked, not necessarily what the masses liked—a crucial difference.

It’s true, as some have pointed out, that a few surviving voices who played interesting roles in the Stooges’ story aren’t heard from, like Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman, John Cale (who produced their first LP), manager-for-a-time Tony Defries, and David Bowie. It’s also true that the Raw Power album, and Bowie’s role in it, should have been covered with more clarity and depth. It’s a still a good achievement that avoids the pitfalls of many docs on musicians of the era, such as spending too much time on reunions or figures from later generations and/or rock critics babbling about how great these guys were.

4. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. Since an artist isn’t (and can’t be) the most objective judge of his or her own work, I wondered how effective this documentary-of-sorts would be upon learning that it relied almost wholly on interview material with Zappa. It’s not only interview material, as some vintage performance footage is mixed in, but the extensive interviews are only with Frank. My wariness to the contrary, it does work pretty well, in large part because Zappa was a very well spoken and entertaining interview subject. That’s not to say I, or most anyone (even Zappa fanatics), would agree with everything he says. His putdowns of people who only like his early music with the Mothers of Invention (a group that includes me) are on the snide side, and his critiques of American cultural and political priorities can be unfair and narrow-minded.

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Much of the time, however, his observations are right-on, and funny, if often delivered with a deadpan sarcasm that carries a hint of smugness. The breadth of archival interviews drawn upon by director Thorsten Schütte is breathtaking, ranging from the late 1960s to very shortly before his death. To break up all the talk, there are also quite a few vintage performance clips spanning the same period (throwing in some of his now-famous 1963 appearance “playing” a bicycle on the Steve Allen Show), some of which I had no idea existed, let alone actually seen. The rare archival material alone makes this worth seeing for the Zappa fan. But its presentation of Zappa as an iconoclastic cynic constantly puncturing holes in American hypocrisy also makes this worthwhile for anyone interested in popular culture.

5. The Peter Green Story: Man of the World (MVD Visual). I’ve written about this 2009 documentary before, giving it a lengthy full-length review in issue #1 (spring 2012) of Flashback magazine. So what’s a 2009 documentary doing here? Well, besides performing the all-important function of filling out a Top Ten list so that it will actually contain ten items, this excellent two-hour documentary on the mysterious original Fleetwood Mac frontman seems to have finally been issued in the US in 2016. There’s no date on the back cover, but the unexpected appearance of a promo copy at my door in late 2016 seems to indicate that’s when it came out here.

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There are plenty of excerpts from vintage Mac clips and, more importantly, interviews with almost all of the key surviving players in the drama. That includes not just a been-through-the-grinder Green himself, but also Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and, most remarkably, Jeremy Spencer, at one time considered to have been as much of a casualty of the era as Green was. To its credit, the documentary neither sensationalizes nor soft-pedals Green’s problems (which are evident enough, truth to tell, in the rambling, not-too-coherent interviews he gave specifically for this film). There are also interviews with associates like producer Mike Vernon, John Mayall, Carlos Santana (who credits Green as a key influence, way beyond Santana having covered “Black Magic Woman”), ex-girlfriend Sandra Elsdon (an inspiration for “Black Magic Woman,” though her name is misspelled as Elsen here), and controversial ex-Fleetwood Mac manager Clifford Adams.

Note that in a rare case of underselling the product, the back cover incorrectly lists the running time as 90 minutes. Actually it’s two full hours, not even including the DVD extras, which are as marginal and inessential as many such items are. I might have ranked this #4 or #3 on this list, incidentally, had it not been already available for years outside the US, and not that hard to find through unofficial channels in the US.

The next three entries are 2015 releases that I didn’t see until the past year:

6. Keith Richards: Under the Influence (Netflix, 2015). Only available through Netflix, this documentary mixes scenes of Richards working on his 2015 solo album Crosseyed Heart with archive footage/photos and interviews in which he discusses his influences. Guess which part is most interesting?

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7. Watch the Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Netflix, 2015). Even if you’re not a Deadhead, you’ll probably be able to sit through this Netflix documentary. I know that remark will offend Deadheads, but I mean it as genuine praise, given how hard it can be for the unconverted to take Grateful Dead-related projects in greater than limited doses. Weir was not the most famous or colorful member of the Dead (Jerry Garcia was), but as second guitarist and second banana of sorts, he made major contributions to the band. Spanning his whole career, but jumping back and forth from the past to the present (as is the unfortunate wont of many documentaries these days), the best parts are those in which he tells interesting stories of the band’s rise and fall, with the help of good archive clips. There are the expected less enlightening sections on his recent projects and settlement into contented family life. But in the interviews with Weir that form the heart of the film, he comes across as a likable humble fellow, and doesn’t flinch from recounting some of the excesses and consequences of his band’s lifestyle.

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8. All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (FilmRise, 2015). I have the feeling I’m going to be in the minority in this assessment, but I found the premise of this documentary, at least as I perceived it—that Tower was a great institution whose passing should be lamented—baffling. Tower Records was a chain, and not somewhere I’d buy records unless I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere else. The prices were usually higher than they were in the best indie stores, and the selection missing a lot of specialized items you could find in those best indie stores. The staff were usually indifferent, and the atmosphere antiseptic. Sure, living in the Bay Area, I had access to a great many more quality indie stores than I could have patronized almost anywhere else in the world. But my attitude was: why should I go to Tower, when I can support better non-chain stores? And my Tower experience is not limited to the Bay Area; I visited numerous other cities that had Towers. This film romanticizes Tower as a great place oozing with character, which I simply did not find to be the case, even given I didn’t go to one until the early 1980s (as I didn’t grow up in California, where Towers were initially based).

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Getting beyond my grumblings and into the film itself, it’s an adequate history of the formation of a chain that eventually grew to monstrous global proportions from its relatively modest beginnings in Sacramento. There are plenty of interviews with founder Russ Solomon and key staff members, as well as some testimonials from famous musicians, though the best stories seem to come from the 1970s and its most famous store on Sunset Boulevard. (There are no interviews with disgruntled employees who, dissatisfied with crummy working conditions, routinely stole a lot of product, according to what an ex-employee told me.) The business-oriented sections on expansion, operation setup, and financial glories and problems that led to its early twenty-first-century demise will, I think, not be of too much interest to general music fans, though record industry insiders (who will probably comprise a good percentage of those interested in viewing this film) might find them absorbing. There are colorful anecdotes here and there about relatively wild and crazy times during the store’s multi-decade run as a successful enterprise. I feel these might resonate more strongly with those who grew up with Tower in the 1960s and 1970s, or for whom Tower was the only place to access a wide selection of product, than for music enthusiasts who’ve gone out of their way to look for records in many outlets.

9. 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary (MVD Visual). An unspectacular 80-minute documentary that aired on PBS, this makes the list not just to help push it to ten entries, but also because it has some good vintage film clips of the trio in the ‘60s. Some of these are rarely seen (such as their performance of their Gene McCarthy campaign song “If You Love Your Country,” only issued on a rare 45), and there are some brief but interesting vintage interview segments too. Otherwise this gives rather bare outlines of their career, including latter-day interviews with Mary Travers, Noel Stookey, and Peter Yarrow, as well as a few with friends, family, and associates. About half of this is devoted to their post-early-‘70s years, and while their intentions remained as noble as ever, the music frankly wasn’t nearly as interesting. If you’re looking for some penetrating coverage of their career arc—like more about manager Albert Grossman, their studio recordings, and their role in popularizing Bob Dylan songs—there’s disappointingly little about such matters here. Nor will you find it in the recent coffee table book Peter Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life, sadly.

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10. For the Love of Spock (Gravitas Ventures). Even as someone who’s more a fan of the original Star Trek series than a Trekkie, I couldn’t say I found out a lot about Leonard Nimoy that I didn’t know in this documentary of the man who played Spock. It was directed by his son Adam, and so has some details about his family that aren’t familiar to the average Star Trek viewer, ranging from interesting stories of his long years of pre-Star Trek struggle to mundane reconnections with relatives in the final years of his life. Still, it’s a reasonably entertaining ride through his career and off-screen experiences, including interviews with fellow Star Trek cast members that are both expected and among the more worthwhile parts of the film. How does this qualify for a rock documentary list, you’re asking? Well, Nimoy did make some infamous records in his croaking voice, some of which skirted novelty—like his tribute to a famous hobbit in “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” which he’s seen performing on TV here. In the absence of another obvious #10 pick, that’s enough to put this film on the bottom of this list.

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How San Francisco Recording Studios Dealt with Early Punk Rock Bands

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

When San Francisco punk group Crime recorded their first single, “Baby You’re So Repulsive”/“Hot Wire My Heart,” the band “knew only that they wanted the resulting recording to be loud,” says Henry Rosenthal, a drummer who later joined the band.

“Apparently, the band kept turning up knobs on the control board, pinning meters and creating that most beautiful of sounds known as analog distortion,” Rosenthal says. “The exasperated engineer was ignored, and finally got up and ran out of the control room, washing his hands of the whole mess, saying, ‘You do whatever you want! I give up!’”

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Less than 10 years after Bay Area psychedelic bands rewrote how rock was recorded, a legion of punk and new wave groups from the region were upending the rulebook yet again. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Crime, the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and dozens of other acts cut sounds as rude and crude as any being made in the country. Sometimes they met hostility in the studio; sometimes they met bewilderment. Most often, the musicians, engineers, producers, and studio owners worked together to make records that somehow captured the scene’s vibrancy in the absence of major label backing, time, or money.

There were no favored one or two studios for the new breed. Sessions were snagged whenever they were available and affordable (or, if they were lucky, free) at studios such as Hyde Street, Different Fur, or even facilities at Mills College in Oakland. Failing that, as producer John Cuniberti notes, “Many early punk records were recorded literally in a garage or basement. My first recordings with the Dead Kennedys took place in a converted mom-and-pop grocery store on a 16-track for $25 an hour.

“The bigger studios like the Record Plant or Fantasy insulated themselves from low-budget unsigned bands, punk or otherwise, by keeping the rates high and catering to the major labels,” says Cuniberti, who in addition to much of the Dead Kennedys catalog also engineered legendary punk discs by Victims Family and Flipper. “[However] by 1980 there were a handful of small one-room studios popping up all over the Bay Area. Most of them were owned and built by musicians who wanted to record themselves, their band or their friends’ bands.”

Gary Hobish saw different ends of the recording spectrum when he recorded as guitarist and bassist in hard-edged Berkeley new wavers the Jars. The band’s first 7″ was recorded in a studio in the building housing Target Video (itself important for its films of numerous early punk acts) between 17th and 18th Streets on South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission District.

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“We had a song called ‘Electric Third Rail,’ and at one point we wanted the sound of somebody being electrocuted,” Hobish remembers. Engineer Mike Fox “came up with the idea of running the tape at half speed, and we took a bunch of aluminum beer cans and crinkled them at half speed. When we sped it up, it was fairly electric.”

Yet when the Jars were invited to make a demo for Fantasy Records, famed for their hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival, at Fantasy’s Berkeley studios, “I don’t think they got it at all,” says Hobish. “The engineers were sympathetic, but they would try to clean it up in terms of, ‘Well, this is how a recording should be done.’ It was no animosity there, but it just wasn’t really the right approach for a lot of bands.”

“Most punk bands in the beginning were only capable of performing their live show in the studio,” says Cuniberti, who later worked with Chickenfoot, PJ Harvey and Joe Satriani. “The recording was pretty straightforward and never required much ‘production.’ Singles were made in a day, and LPs in a week or less.”

Avengers singer Penelope Houston tells of her band recording their debut 7″, exemplifying how and why some early punk classics were cut so fast: “When we did ‘I Believe in Me’ I made up the verses during a scratch vocal take, and when I was done and it was time to do the real vocal, I said, ‘Oh just keep that.’ We were broke, jobless musicians who shared the same flat. We couldn’t imagine recording, let alone releasing, a full LP.”

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Over time, some of the longer-lived bands could spend more time and money in the studio, a difference reflected in the growing sophistication of their records. For example, the Dead Kennedys “were all business in the studio, and knew what they wanted,” Cuniberti says.

“However, capturing the energy of their live show in a studio setting was difficult. The vibe would vanish after a few takes of a song, which required an engineer to have his shit together on the first take. The Dead Kennedys’ early 45 singles like ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ had very little ‘production’ but a lot of energy and intent. It wasn’t until their second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, that the band moved away from the formula punk sounds of the ’70s,” Cuniberti says. “By 1982, the band was well-known and selling tickets, records and T-shirts, and could now afford ambitious studio recordings in more expensive studios. With more studio time available, their imaginations ran wild. The third album, Frankenchrist, went even farther with irreverent amounts of reverb, echo, and layered guitars and vocals.”

When Gary Hobish worked as an engineer on the debut LP by legendary San Francisco oddballs the Mutants in the early ’80s, a balance had to be struck between punk and polish. “The first set of sessions, they had brought in a well-known producer and Hollywood engineer,” says Hobish. “Some great recordings were made, and a lot of it is on the album. But the band sort of rebelled against things being a little too sterile, or looking for that perfect take, when they didn’t feel ‘perfect’ was really one of the requirements.”

“They could have made a great record with just that material,” Hobish adds. “But they waited about six months and then they brought in [San Francisco-based guitarist] Snakefinger to produce another set of sessions, and that essentially filled out the album [with], I guess, 40 percent newer material. They reacted a bit better to that, possibly because they felt that Snakefinger was sort of one of their own from the same scene from his involvement with The Residents,” the San Francisco avant-garde outfit with whom Snakefinger often collaborated.

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But Hobish, who has mastered vintage releases by the likes of the Avengers and Flipper for CD reissues, believes that despite their desire for both distortion and a lack of polish, those punk bands wanted to make “good recordings.”

“The fact that a lot of the recordings from that era are very rough has more to do with wanting to get things done quickly, or not being in the most professional situations, or just wanting to capture some raw live energy, than it did with having any sort of disdain for proper recording techniques,” Hobish says.

But, as Henry Rosenthal remarks, it’s that very energy, and to some extent the primitive conditions, that fueled the power that makes those records endure today.

“When Crime started, the punk moniker didn’t exist yet, so there were no rules for recording the music,” he declares. “The band considered itself elemental rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Crime’s best recordings were those made under the most adverse and restrictive conditions.”

Into The Mix -400 X 400-02

Unreleased Fleetwood Mac 1968 BBC Performances with Peter Green

After unexpectedly high-volume reaction to my post about the most essential Peter Green recordings (mostly done with Fleetwood Mac), I’m spurred to do another post about an entirely different set of tracks he cut with the band. These are found on the recent bootleg The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968. You can’t get this in stores, the quality is a little hissy, and there’s no annotation. But they’re notable, commercially unavailable performances, sometimes of songs not found on any of their releases, studio or otherwise. They deserve extended comments, and in the absence of any that I’ve found, I’m taking on the job.

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There are a lot of Fleetwood Mac records from the time Peter Green was in the group, from mid-1967 to spring 1970. Besides the three albums they issued during that time, there are several non-LP singles; tracks that only showed up on the US album English Rose; two albums of mostly improvised material with Chicago blues musicians in early 1969, issued under various titles; several live albums released long after Green left; and many, many outtakes and BBC performances that have shown up on archival compilations. For all the wealth of material already out there, there are quite a few BBC tracks that still haven’t made their way into official circulation. That these are often of songs that can’t be found elsewhere is a testament to the band’s wide repertoire, not only of numerous covers, but also even of some original compositions that never found a place on their studio releases.

Even with nineteen tracks, The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968 doesn’t include anywhere near all the unissued tracks they cut for the BBC before 1969. (It also doesn’t include anything from 1967, though I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.) Still, it covers a fair bit of ground, and more than half of the songs aren’t in their official catalogue. In the majority of these cases, those were covers of American blues and rock’n’roll songs, and I’ll compare Fleetwood Mac’s versions to the originals in these notes.

1. Sweet Little Angel (recorded January 16, 1968). “Sweet Little Angel” is one of B.B. King’s most well known classics, making #6 in the R&B charts in 1956. Fleetwood Mac do the expected good job on this number, Green taking lead vocals. This is well up to par with most of the songs they covered on their early albums. Maybe they thought it was too well known to do on an official release. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why they didn’t elect to record this in the studio.

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The question “can white men play the blues” sparked controversy at the time and up to the present, but for the record, B.B. King wouldn’t have been one of the guys taking Fleetwood Mac to task for covering his material. Green, King told British rock journalists Roy Carr and Steve Clarke, was “the only living guitarist to make me sweat. He’s got the sweetest tone I’ve ever heard.”

Incidentally, although this bootleg is titled The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968, as noted earlier, there are no tracks from 1967. All of them were cut between January 16 and August 27 of 1968. They did record six songs for a November 7, 1967 session, but none of them are here, though fortunately all appear on the legit double CD Live at the BBC.

2. Bee-I-Bicky-Bop Blue Jean Honey Babe Meets High School Hound Dog Hot Rod Man (recorded January 16, 1968). The title alone is fair enough warning that this is one of Jeremy Spencer’s spoofs of early rock’n’roll, which he’d make staples of their live performances, even if they seldom made it onto their studio sessions with Green. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m less of a fan of these satires than some other early Fleetwood Mac devotees. As the long title announces, he throws in lots of elements of early rock. The “Bee-I-Bicky-Bop Blue Jean” in the title, by the way, is inspired by rockabilly great Gene Vincent, one of whose 1956 classics was “Bi-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go”; “Bluejean Bop” was another of his early songs.

3. Where You Belong (backing Eddie Boyd, recorded January 16, 1968). The only song on this collection that’s not really a Fleetwood Mac track, as here they back American bluesman Eddie Boyd. Boyd first did this in 1959 as an obscure 45 on the Key Hole label, taking in a little rock’n’roll to his blues with a shuffle beat and saxophone solo. Fleetwood Mac’s arrangement isn’t quite as good, but does have a neat rockabilly-tinged guitar break. This number, by the way, is not on the 1968 LP Boyd did using Fleetwood Mac as backing musicians, 7936 South Rhodes.

4. Mean Old World (recorded February 26, 1968). A highlight of this batch, “Mean Old World” is a tight, dynamic shuffle with fine Green vocals and economic stings of his guitar. T-Bone Walker recorded the first version of “Mean Old World” in 1942 (though it wasn’t released until 1945), and blues harmonica great Little Walter’s 1952 version became a#6 R&B hit. Fleetwood Mac’s version, however, is probably based on the one done by B.B. King (who retitled it “It’s a Mean World”); recorded in 1961, it became a small R&B hit shortly after it was issued as a single in 1966. Dare I say Fleetwood Mac’s is better, speeding up the tempo and allowing Green space to shine on lengthy solos. This is another song not found elsewhere in the band’s catalog, though it’s better than quite a few of the blues covers they put on their first pair of LPs.

B.B. King's "It's a Mean World" was included on this oddly-covered compilation.

B.B. King’s “It’s a Mean World” was included on this oddly-covered compilation.

5. Please Find My Baby (recorded April 9, 1968). Fleetwood Mac put quite a few Elmore James songs, or Jeremy Spencer songs heavily based on the Elmore James sound, on their early albums. “Please Find My Baby,” first issued by James on a 1953 single, was not one of them. Like many a James tune, it’s based around the riff most famously deployed in “Dust My Broom.” The James original is better than this Spencer-sung cover, but Jeremy doesn’t do a bad job of it, though it offers nothing you can’t hear on the James covers or James knockoffs he helmed in the studio. Here’s guessing the piano on this version is by Christine McVie, then still known as Christine Perfect and two years away from joining the band after Green’s departure.

6. Black Magic Woman (recorded April 9, 1968). One of Fleetwood Mac’s classics, obviously, and the most famous song Peter Green wrote, in large part due to the cover by Santana, whose Carlos Santana counts Green as one of his biggest influences. There’s not much to say about this version, as it’s very close to the one they put out as a 1968 single. It’s strange that it wasn’t included on Live at the BBC, as the fidelity is up to acceptable release standard, and the performance strong.

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7. Peggy Sue Got Married (recorded April 9, 1968). “Peggy Sue” was one of Buddy Holly’s biggest hits. Its sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” was both musically similar and not as good. It was a #13 single in the UK in 1959 (after Holly’s death), however, and so would have been quite a bit more familiar there than in the US. Jeremy Spencer, of course, takes the lead on this acceptable but non-thrilling cover. “Peggy Sue Got Married” was reworked with different lyrics as “Buddy’s Song” (on which Holly’s mother was given the songwriting credit) on the first LP Fleetwood Mac recorded without Green, 1970’s Kiln House.

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8. That Ain’t It (recorded May 27, 1968). A basic blues shuffle, sung by Peter Green, that doesn’t appear on any of their other releases. Green’s also responsible for the harmonica, which he occasionally played during his time in Fleetwood Mac. I haven’t been able to find a previous version of this, so I’m guessing it’s an unreleased Green original. Whatever the case, it’s rather routine blues, and it’s not a great loss they declined to do it in the studio.

9. Psychedelic Send Up Number (recorded May 27, 1968). Although it’s called “Psychedelic Send Up Number” on this bootleg, Christopher Hjort’s chronology Strange Brew: The British Blues Boom 1965-1970 gives the title as “Intergalactic Musicians Walking on Velvet.” As both titles signify, it’s a psychedelic rock satire, and, unexpectedly given my uncharitable view of Jeremy Spencer parodies, quite funny and successful. As hard rock/distorted guitar chaotically whirls around a swirling rhythm section, Spencer intones dead-on silly psychedelic non sequiturs like “I am here and you are there and we are all going nowhere.” His vocal sounds like it’s fighting to keep from drowning in a sea of overindulgent noise, which is entirely appropriate to the genre it’s lampooning.

This spoof might have not have worked too well for repeated listening in the midst of their early blues LPs. But as an oddity in their early oeuvre, it’s quite funny and entertaining, down to the drawn-out climax that Spencer concludes by blowing a raspberry. Jeremy would take on hippie rock again, and also to good humorous effect, on “Take a Look Around Mrs. Brown,” one of the tracks on his obscure 1970 self-titled solo album.

Jeremy Spencer's 1970 solo album.

Jeremy Spencer’s 1970 solo album.

10. Dead Shrimp Blues (recorded May 27, 1968). From the same session, but in a far more serious mood, is this cover of one of the handful of songs Robert Johnson managed to cut before his death, recorded 1936 and released in 1937. Green sings and plays this solo, with no backing other than his acoustic guitar. While not remarkable, it’s a respectful and respectable interpretation, done when Johnson was just starting to get recognition among white rock musicians and listeners.

One of numerous Robert Johnson compilations that contains "Dead Shrimp Blues."

One of numerous Robert Johnson compilations that contains “Dead Shrimp Blues.”

11. Sheila (recorded May 27, 1968). Not a Buddy Holly cover, but as close to one as you could get, since this Tommy Roe song (a #1 hit in 1962) was so obviously based on Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” This Jeremy Spencer-sung cover isn’t a satire, but a straightforward version that’s faithful to the original, and competent if unexciting.

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12. Evenin’ Boogie (recorded August 26, 1968). This Spencer-penned instrumental was on Fleetwood Mac’s second album, Mr. Wonderful, which had just been issued in the UK when this was taped for the BBC. It’s a decent, fast-paced number with good Elmore James-inspired guitar from Jeremy, who might have been kind of a one-trick pony with his guitar leads, but could do James-like slide with panache. This arrangement lacks the saxophone heard on the studio version, and the brief burst of enthusiastic crowd noise at the end indicates it might have been done before a live audience.

13. You Need Love (recorded August 27, 1968). The unquestioned highlight of this CD, from both musical and historical viewpoints. “You Need Love” was a fairly obscure, if very good, 1962 single by blues great Muddy Waters, penned by fellow blues great Willie Dixon. It’s more famous, or infamous, for providing the basis of much of Led Zeppelin’s hit “Whole Lotta Love.” It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Dixon was awarded part of the songwriting credit for the Zeppelin track, also getting a settlement after a lawsuit on his behalf.

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It’s little known that about nine months before Led Zeppelin recorded “Whole Lotta Love,” Fleetwood Mac performed “You Need Love” on the BBC. It’s a terrific version, with dual guitar riffing, a jittery propulsive beat, and one of Peter Green’s best vocals, alternately commanding and playful. Running over four minutes, this absolutely should have gone on Mr. Wonderful in place of one of the one-too-many Elmore James covers and/or knockoffs that LP featured instead.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if Fleetwood Mac had put it on one of their studio releases before Led Zeppelin’s version came out. Although Fleetwood Mac were far bigger in the UK than the US, their records were, in the late 1960s, much more well known than early-‘60s Muddy Waters singles. Had Fleetwood Mac issued an official version, the similarities between Dixon’s “You Need Love” and “Whole Lotta Love” would have been picked up on and widely publicized far earlier than they were.

Another major 1960s group, incidentally, adapted “You Need Love” before either Fleetwood Mac’s BBC rendition or “Whole Lotta Love.” On their self-titled 1966 debut LP, the Small Faces used it as the basis for “You Need Loving,” a storming mod raveup. The composition was credited not to Dixon, however, but to Small Faces singer Steve Marriott and the group’s bassist, Ronnie Lane. One would guess that if Fleetwood Mac put “You Need Love” on one of their official discs, they would have credited Willie Dixon as the writer.

14. May I Have A Talk With You (recorded August 27, 1968). Fleetwood Mac’s August 27, 1968 recordings for the BBC marked their first with new guitarist Danny Kirwan, who made the band a quintet after he joined just a week prior to the session. He takes lead vocal on his composition “Talk with You,” titled “May I Have a Talk with You” on this bootleg, though it was just “Talk with You” when it was recorded for the band’s Blues Jam at Chess in early 1969. It’s a basic but pleasing grinding midtempo blues tune, and I prefer this earlier BBC performance to the studio one, as it has a far looser, more relaxed groove.

One of several albums that draw from tracks Fleetwood Mac recorded with blues musicians in Chicago in early 1969.

One of several albums that draw from tracks Fleetwood Mac recorded with blues musicians in Chicago in early 1969.

15. Bo Diddley (recorded August 27, 1968). It’s no surprise that Jeremy Spencer takes the lead vocal on this faithful rendition of Bo Diddley’s 1955 self-titled hit, which remains one of Diddley’s most famous songs, and was the one that did the most to establish his trademark rhythm. You’re not going to beat Bo at his own game on this, but this is a respectable, respectful interpretation that plays it straight, with no hint of a parody on Spencer’s part.

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16. Wine Whiskey and Women (recorded August 27, 1968). About as down and dirty a blues as Fleetwood Mac ever managed, “Wine Whiskey and Women” was originally released by Papa Lightfoot as “Wine, Women, Whiskey” in 1954. It’s a testament to the band’s diligent record collecting that they even found this obscure track, though I’m guessing they might have come across it on some various-artists compilation that was easier to obtain than the original 45. Spencer does well with the raw’n’ready vocal, and there’s good harmonica (presumably played by Green). But Papa Lightfoot’s original—which is about as raw and earthy as mid-1950s electric blues got—gets the decisive edge over this interpretation. Unfortunately there’s a blast of static at one point that, though brief, makes this perhaps the least likely track to gain official release if there aren’t any other tapes of the performance.

17. Crutch and Cane (recorded August 27, 1968). Although it’s titled “Crutch and Cane” here, this is the familiar blues standard “Look on Yonder’s Wall.” It was first recorded by James “Beale Street” Clark in 1945, but Fleetwood Mac almost certainly learned it from Elmore James’s 1961 version, lead singer Jeremy Spencer being such a James fanatic. Fleetwood Mac take it slower than James did, and since there’s harmonica (probably by Green) and it’s almost certainly Spencer on the James-style guitar, maybe that’s Christine McVie guesting on the rollicking piano. This wasn’t one of James’s better recordings, and it’s not one of Fleetwood Mac’s best James covers. But it’s okay, even if yet another James song is hardly the kind of discovery to get the most excitement out of hardcore early Fleetwood Mac fans.

One of the Elmore James compilations containing his version of "Look on Yonder's Wall."

One of the Elmore James compilations containing his version of “Look on Yonder’s Wall.”

18. If You Be My Baby (recorded August 27, 1968). Not a terribly obscure tune, this slow blues appeared on the Mr. Wonderful LP, where Green and manager Clifford Adams were credited as the co-writers. It’s actually quite a bit different from the studio version, which has brass and a generally peppier uptown soul-tinged feel. I prefer the BBC arrangement, which puts the accent on doleful harmonica instead of the B.B. King-styled guitar licks spread throughout the studio track. It’s not that great a song in any case, but at least the BBC performance is notably different from the studio counterpart.

19. Crazy For My Baby (recorded August 27, 1968). Titled “Crazy For My Baby” on this CD, this is actually Danny Kirwan’s “Without You,” a fine haunting slow blues whose moodiness verged on despondency. This BBC version predates the studio version, which would first appear on the US-only English Rose LP (and later on the UK edition of Then Play On), by about six weeks. It’s not much different from the English Rose arrangement, but it’s a fine performance, and does, notably, have graceful piano—Christine McVie, if I can guess for the last time?—not used on the studio counterpart. There’s also a keening harmonica solo in the instrumental break, instead of the smooth guitar one featured on the English Rose take. Kirwan wasn’t much of a lyricist, and like many of his songs, has words that are basic to the point of banality. That doesn’t matter, however, when they’re wed to music with this somber power, ending this collection on a high note.

Back cover of the English Rose LP.

Back cover of the English Rose LP.

Why hasn’t this material been issued? It’s kind of hissy and thin (though occasionally approaching release-quality), as I say. But it’s not so bad that some sonic cleanup could probably make most or all of the tracks releasable. There’s also the possibility that better-quality tapes of the same performances exist somewhere. As there’s not much duplication with songs on their studio discs, that makes it all the more desirable for fans, and not just hardcore completists.

Another cover used for The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968.

Another cover used for The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968.

It is intriguing, incidentally, that there are a few other songs Fleetwood Mac played on their 1968 BBC sessions that are not on this bootleg or official releases. These include some nifty-sounding items like B.B. King’s “Worried Dream” and “How Blue Can You Get,” Slim Harpo’s “Buzz Me Baby,” Otis Rush’s “I Have to Laugh,” Elvis Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman,” and Buddy Holly’s “You’re the One.” I don’t know whether they’re not on this CD because the tapes were too lo-fi, or there aren’t any existing tapes. Assuming some tapes of those missing performances do exist in quality comparable to the ones included on this hour-long bootleg, there would be enough material to do an official nearly 80-minute CD of previously unreleased 1968 sessions. And there are yet more BBC performances from the Peter Green era in 1969 and 1970 that have yet to find official release, perhaps providing the basis for a sequel of sorts to this bootleg in the future.

My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was published in September 2016.

My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was published in September 2016.

Patti Smith Exhibit at Mills College Art Museum

Lots of cultural institutions and events charge a high fee these days, and not many such things are free. It’s a pleasure to report, then, that the Patti Smith exhibit that just started at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland (and runs until December 11) is free to the public. The parking’s even free and easy, though it does help to have a car to get there. More important than the free admission, however, is the quality of this collection of Smith memorabilia, which is high.

Patti Smith singing "Gloria" on Saturday Night Live.

Patti Smith singing “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live.

The exhibit has lots of photos, press releases, concert posters, vintage clippings, flyers, and such from the mid-1960s to the present. There’s also a video room showing short films of the Patti Smith Group doing “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live back in the 1970s and more recent items, like a clip for “People Have the Power” and one that follows Smith’s visit to Jean Genet’s grave. There’s a table with about a dozen of her poetry and photography books if you have a lot of time to browse. There are also rare 1970s recordings taken from four sources (more details below).

The exhibit, though assembled with as much care as those at major museums, seems to have been underpublicized in the San Francisco Bay Area. I only found out about it from an online post by a friend near San Diego. I went on the fourth day of the exhibit, and had the space to myself for the first forty minutes or so, though four or five people came in toward the end of my hour-and-a-half visit. Yes, it was a sunny Saturday, but almost no one I’ve mentioned this to had yet heard about it. One of the staff said 150 people were at the opening, but I think there are many more than 150 people in the region who’d want to see this.

As an indication that this is a lower-key setting than your usual museum trip, photography is permitted. Here are a few snapshots of some of the items of most interest to me, most of them from before 1980.

Some of the early photos are from the years when she was primarily known as a poet, and had yet to properly begin her musical career. (One shows her with playwright Sam Shepard in 1969.) Here’s a flyer for a poetry reading on December 4, 1972 at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Note the “rated X” lettering underneath her image:

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Another flyer for shows Patti Smith did, with Television also on the bill, at Max’s Kansas City in August and September 1974, before either act had done an album:

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Songbooks, usually only bought by musicians and hardcore fans, sometimes have text—often by the artists—that’s not printed elsewhere. Here’s a songbook page for “Birdland,” with comments by Smith:

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Here Smith observes, “One moment I looked out of the vocal booth and behind the control board was [producer] John Cale crashing his head against the hard melodic keys of an accoustic [sic] typewriter.”

Some of the press releases, articles, and Patti Smith fan club notes have bits of interest for aficionados. One fan club article describes how she and Ivan Kral were hassled for double-parking in California, Kral getting hauled off to jail before getting bailed out, much to the consternation of Patti, who feared he might be deported. A press release for Easter states that Kral had the idea “that the next big thing after the Stones would be a girl,” Smith commenting, “That’s why he’s with me. [He] told me, ‘You’re going to be the first real girl rock and roll star.’ I said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”

Most rock stars would prefer to pretend bootlegs didn’t exist, or worse, chastise fans for buying them, and critics for writing about them. As a refreshing contrast, this exhibit virtually celebrates them, with many bootleg LP covers on display on a wall of her records (also including some rare official releases).

youlight onesheloves liveinlondon hardnipples

Among those was one that rang a special bell for me: Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night, a used copy of which I bought for $7 back in 1983 at Rasputin’s in Berkeley, less than ten miles from this exhibit. Taken from a tape of a January 30, 1976 performance at the Roxy in Los Angeles, this is in my view the best live rock concert that has yet to be officially released. Gotta say that my version—a subsequently issued variation with no title, though the musical contents are identical—is a darn sight prettier than the original (both covers are on display):

teenage patti-smith-fantasy-discos-front

By the way, one of the non-bootlegs was a radio sampler LP for Todd Rundgren’s 1978 album Back to the Bars that, unusually, has “a conversation with Todd Rundgren and Patti Smith” on side two. I’d never heard of that before.

Smith retired from music for almost a decade at the beginning of the 1980s, so I was interested to find this poster for poetry readings she did on October 9-10, 1981 in Ann Arbor. Also on the bill were Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, with her husband Fred Smith:

sonicspoetry

The rare recordings, which you can listen to on headphones, include a December 25, 1971 poetry reading at St. Marks in New York; a few poetry readings from an unknown venue in 1973 on which Smith’s voice is backed by sparse instrumentation; a 1974 show at Max’s Kansas City in which she’s started to make the transition to rock, with guitar by Lenny Kaye and piano by Richard Sohl; and an October 20, 1977 poetry performance in Köln, Germany. You’d have to hang out for at least a couple hours to hear all of it, though if the attendance is as sparse as it was on my visit, it shouldn’t be a problem to do so if you’re really dedicated.

I just sampled a bit of the ’71 poetry reading and the 1973 poetry tracks (of which there are only three). “Brian Jones,” one of the 1973 recordings, backs Smith’s ode to the dead Rolling Stone with creepy avant-garde guitar and saxophone. I heard most of the 1974 recordings, which are really primordial Patti Smith Group ones lacking bass and drums, though unfortunately the performances are lo-fi. Among the more unusual items from that tape is a cover of the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”; “Piss Factory,” which was Smith’s pre-debut LP single; the obscure original “Harbor Song”; and a version of  Bessie Smith’s “I’m Wild About That Thing,” given the sardonic introduction “This is from our last album [though Smith had yet to release an LP], Patti Smith Sings the Blues.”

Patti Smith in the "People Have the Power" video.

Patti Smith in the “People Have the Power” video.

Note that these rare recordings are accessed by using a couple iPods. I guess it’s betraying my age to admit I don’t own iPods, but I got a crash self-taught course in how to use them. It’s a little unfortunate that the other exhibit in this hall has some multimedia components whose sound occasionally drowns out what’s coming through the headphones. It’s a minor inconvenience for an exhibition well worth the trip—and far more affordable than the $40 ticket I’ll be paying later this year to see the big exhibit the Rolling Stones have mounted to themselves in New York later this year. Bet Smith’s performance of “Brian Jones” isn’t part of that.

The exhibit Root Connection: 20 Years of the Patti Smith Collection is at the Mills College Art Museum until December 11. The museum is at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday 11am-4pm (11am-7:30pm Wednesday). Admission is free.

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