If you have socially responsible investments, there are too many reasons to cheer the incoming Joe Biden administration to fit into one paragraph. Obviously there will be much more commitment to promoting sustainability and alleviating the destructive effects of climate change. Fighting systemic racial injustice will also be a priority.
Yet Biden and Congress will also have their hands full fighting the pandemic and boosting the ailing economy—goals that, of course, are deeply interrelated. How easy or difficult will it be to pass legislation that would not just undo the worst policies of the previous administration, but also enact new progressive ones? Much will depend on who’s in Congress, especially a near-deadlocked Senate, which like the House is barely in Democratic control as Biden takes office.
Climate Change and the New Administration
While SRI addresses many issues, most would agree that climate change tops the list. It’s complex and urgent enough that it needs an entire blog post to address, though we hope to examine others in coming months as the new administration settles into place.
Even before taking office, Biden got the discussion into gear by picking a diverse group of environmentally conscious, highly credentialed men and women for key cabinet positions. These include:
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who’s championed renewable energy, as Secretary of Energy.
Deb Haaland, who would be the first Native American cabinet secretary, as Secretary of the Interior.
Pete Buttigieg, who attracted plenty of favorable attention as a presidential candidate, as Secretary of the Transportation.
While there are only sixteen cabinet positions, all subject to Senate confirmation, much of the administration’s staff doesn’t have to pass that test. John Kerry’s appointment as special presidential envoy for the climate won’t need to clear that hurdle. Neither will Gina McCarthy, Barack Obama’s EPA administrator, who will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.
With near-daily accounts of vicious partisan conflict as policies crawl through the Washington maze, it’s easy to get frustrated, especially with the clock running out on opportunities to stem climate change. Socially responsible investing gives us a chance to make our voices heard outside of the voting booth. It’s not too early to look at how SRI should expand and change our voice for environmental action over the next four years, and hopefully beyond.
Where We Stand Now
With the deluge of headlines over the last four years announcing all sorts of calamitous environmental policies, you might assume it’s been nothing but bad news for building a greener economy. To the surprise of many, that’s not exactly been the case.
According to the latest report from the United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, total US-domiciled assets under management using ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investment strategies increased to $17 trillion in 2020. That number doesn’t mean much without some context:
According to Forbes, “The figure represents 33% of all US assets under professional management.”
It rose 42% over the past two years, from $12 trillion.
It’s an enormous gain from just a decade ago, when about one in eight such assets were under professional management, as opposed to one in three.
Some cautions are in order when you take in these numbers. ESG is seen by some as shorthand for SRI Light, with guidelines that aren’t as strict as those often adopted by the SRI community. The 33% figure applies to assets under professional management, and is far from representing one in every three dollars in the overall economy. It also counts the ESG assets of huge investment companies like Vanguard, Fidelity, and BlackRock whose overall mission isn’t SRI-centered, and in the view of some not even especially ESG-centered.
Some see this bulge in ESG as a symptom of big players exploiting opportunities for their financial gain, rather than a reflection of their core principles. As renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in The New York Times shortly after the election, “The fossil fuel industry has been the worst-performing sector of the American economy for many years now. Its problems are twofold: It faces a sprawling resistance movement, rooted in the undeniable fact that its products are wrecking the planet’s climate system. And in wind and sun, it faces formidable technological competitors who can provide the same service, just cleaner and cheaper.”
Along the same lines, some skeptics feel such companies might be creating ESG-sensitive funds to greenwash their public image. Others point out that many financial operations, not just investment companies with ESG assets, are turning toward green technologies out of necessity after demand for fossil fuels tanked when air and car travel plummeted in the pandemic.
The graphics below give a basic outline of ESG’s growth and priorities:
More Signs to Green Growth
But whatever the motives of companies getting green-friendlier or ESG-oriented, the economy’s generally turning more toward environmentally sustainable technologies and investments. Impax Asset Management president Joseph Keefe put it this way on the site of Pax World Funds, the first socially responsible mutual fund in the US:
“The clean energy sector has managed to thrive despite four years of indifference at best, and opposition at worst, from the Trump administration. Technology cost reductions, supportive state-level policy, and strong demand from corporate consumers responding to customer pressure have all helped renewables grow significantly with extremely limited federal support.” As just one example, although solar tariffs were imposed on imported cells and modules in 2018, the Wood Mackenzie global energy consultancy group expects the solar market to grow by 33% in 2020, and 48% in 2021.
Crucially, this sort of progress isn’t only taking root in mutual funds or private enterprises not known for their altruism. Governments and institutions have also continued to direct their resources toward fossil-free territory.
We only had to wait about a month after Biden was elected to see the sharpest such left turn. In early December, comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced New York State would start divesting its $226 billion employee pension fund from oil and gas companies if they didn’t have a plan aligned with the Paris climate accord within four years. In 2018, it had been announced that New York City’s pension fund would seek to divest $5 billion in fossil fuel over five years. But New York State’s divestment would be the biggest yet by a US pension.
Such heartening headlines in no way cancel the worst of the outgoing administration’s environmental atrocities. Even as time ran out on its remaining days in office after the election, it was selling oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; completing rollbacks on more than a hundred environmental rules; continuing 24/7 construction of a border wall, which threatens nearly a hundred endangered species; and not taking measures to increase controls on industrial soot emissions, although polluted air’s been linked to Covid-19 death rates. Still, the trends toward SRI or ESG investments could help the Biden team get off to a running start not just in reversing these policies, but initiating others. What are the possibilities?
First, let’s take a look at what the new administration plans to address. It will be a brief look because there are literally pages and pages of details at joebiden.com/climate-plan. That itself is a heartening sign, considering the outgoing administration seemed to have no such plan whatsoever, let alone such a comprehensive one. Here are a half dozen highlights:
Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
Make a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in clean energy and environmental justice over the next ten years.
Use the federal government procurement system, which spends $500 billion every year, to drive toward 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.
Double down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change.
Make a historic investment in energy and climate research and innovation, as well as clean and resilient infrastructure and communities.
Re-enter the Paris Agreement on day one of the administration.
There’s much, much more information on this site, titled “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.” These key points alone, however, will both encourage and require massive investment in green technology and environmentally conscious companies. As a New York Times editorial reported, along the way, Biden’s pledged to “eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035.” That itself would drive a lot of investment away from gas and oil.
The goalposts are sure to shift as socioeconomic conditions change, and as political battles are waged on Capitol Hill. But SRI investment, from both professional management and plain old citizens, will be vital to keeping those goals in sight.
The SRI/ERG Community Wish List
If socially responsible investors have more power than they’ve had in four years—and, perhaps, ever if Biden sticks to his plan—how can their influence be felt in Washington?
“There is a growing chorus of policymakers who recognize that climate change is a material risk to investments,” notes Bryan McGannon, Director of Policy and Programs for the US Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. “We anticipate that climate risk disclosure by public companies will get attention by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] and Congress in 2021. We also expect the Department of Labor to act on the rules governing retirement plans to clarify how ESG investments may be considered.”
Let’s start with a cabinet position of particular interest to the SRI community. Under new head Marty Walsh, Boston mayor and former union leader, the Department of Labor will probably abandon a proposal requiring plan fiduciaries to prioritize the finances of beneficiaries over social and public policy objectives.
That doesn’t just pave the way for more transparency and ethical behavior from those who administer a great deal of our country’s wealth. It also leaves far greater openings for the initiation of environmentally and socially progressive shareholder resolutions. It would also increase the likelihood of those resolutions having a true positive impact for everyone, and not just benefiting the beneficiaries.
The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment has proposed the creation of a White House Office of Sustainable Finance and Business to promote “the continued growth of sustainable investment and accelerate the shift from a shareholder-centric company model to a multi-stakeholder model.” The second part likewise translates to companies that would be accountable to the health of society as a whole, and not just the portfolios of its investors.
The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment Wish List
This is just the first of eight major recommendations the forum has proposed for the new administration on its website, at ussif.org. If not quite as mammoth as The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice, it’s a lengthy document with dozens of elaborations and sub-recommendations. Here are just some of the other points in its platform likely to be of interest to anyone with a mind toward socially responsible investing, and not just those who make a living at it:
Appoint leadership at the Department of Labor (DOL) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with sustainable investment expertise.
The SEC should reverse regulatory action limiting shareholder proposals.
The DOL should reverse regulatory action limiting the inclusion of ESG factors in retirement plans.
Create a new position of sustainable finance liaison at the Environmental Protection Agency.
End fossil fuel subsidies.
Some of the forum’s recommendations aren’t specifically linked to SRI/ESG or climate change, such as an urge for a $15/hr. minimum wage and mandatory paid sick leave. Those sort of concerns are nonetheless intimately linked with laying the groundwork for more socially responsible investment, which can best thrive if our overall economy and livelihoods are healthy.
The report’s elaborations on the key eight recommendations include some proposals that aren’t mentioned in Biden’s climate plan, and that might be viewed by many as more progressive. These include suggestions to establish a tax on carbon emissions; restore the Clean Water Act; and, in a measure both wordy and worthy, “establish an Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the Council on Environmental Quality.”
Many signs, then, point to a more favorable climate for both fighting climate change and expanding socially responsible investment, an essential pillar in that fight. How might individual investors best allocate their resources in that climate, whether by getting their assets as fossil-free as possible or otherwise? That’s something that can be addressed in a future post on this site.
We all know that much less music was performed in 2020 than in any other year in our lifetimes. How did that affect the reissue business? As with music history books and films, not as much as you might expect. In part that’s because it’s easier to reissue old music than it is to record new music this year, even though there are still logistical difficulties in researching, retrieving, and repackaging tapes.
Even with many record retailers closing or drastically cutting their hours and access, record sales haven’t suffered as much as many other businesses have. Those music consumers still lucky enough to have assets and employment have more disposable income than usual, now that traveling and going out to eat and see entertainment are barely or not possible. And with people at home much more than usual, there’s more time to fill with listening.
So there was still about as much reissue output, and variety of same, as there was in most years. The word “reissue” might not be the best term for some of the items on my list (including the one at #1), as some of them partially or wholly feature music that’s being issued for the first time. If we’re talking music from decades past that was presented on worthwhile albums released in 2020, however, that’s what qualifies for this list, whether it’s been around before or not.
I appreciate the visits of many readers to the posts of my best-of lists over the past few years, as well as the interesting and insightful comments they sometimes generate here and elsewhere. I do get occasional comments from readers who seem to expect something different from what I offer. To clarify:
This is a list of my personal favorites of the albums featuring historical rock recordings released in 2020 that I was able to hear. It’s not a list or compendium of what other writers, listeners, publications, and music communities have deemed their favorites, or considered the most important and historically significant. While packaging is a factor in my selections, it’s not the only or main one. Just because a box has all the notable rarities, great liner notes, or a new mix or remastering doesn’t mean I’ll pick it. I won’t select it if I don’t like the music or the artist, no matter how many bells and whistles it has.
Music can be taken as seriously as religion and politics, and omissions from my lists have even generated some anger in the past. If there’s anger about anything, I ask that it gets channeled toward helping to rebuild my native US, and the world as a whole, after the disastrous four years of the outgoing administration. Here’s hoping, to quote the Who, that “21 is gonna be a good year” after the new administration is inaugurated.
In keeping with those hopes, it’s appropriate that my #1 pick hails from a country that has taken a more humane and sensible approach to our current crises than the US has. Here’s to both neighboring nations following a similar path over the next decade.
1. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)(Rhino). Before her first album came out in 1968, Joni Mitchell was already a prolific songwriter who’d been performing on the North American folk circuit for about five years. Some of her unreleased material from this era has circulated on bootleg, and this five-CD box contains not only some of that, but much more. Documenting her growth from a traditional folk singer to a superb songwriter, it fills in a big gap in the discography of a major performer. Taken from live performances, radio shows, TV programs, demos, and home tapes, none of the nearly hundred tracks (not counting the couple dozen or so spoken introductions) have been officially released. Many of them haven’t even unofficially circulated.
As the songs on disc one that span 1963 to early 1965 reveal, Mitchell began as an interpreter of traditional songs with a voice and style not unlike early Judy Collins. Even at this point, she was better than most of the numerous women folk singers from the final years of the folk revival, even when she accompanied herself on four-string ukulele on the earliest recordings.
By 1965, she’d already moved toward highly original songwriting with her first outstanding composition, “Urge for Going” (soon to be covered by Tom Rush, and then for a country hit by George Hamilton IV). There were still echoes of trad folk in the cover of John Phillips’s “Me and My Uncle” (quite a good version, actually) and her own ramblin’ road ode “Born to Take the Highway.” But her singing—which on the earliest tapes deploys a high, pristine tone a la Collins, Joan Baez, and their many imitators—quickly developed a wider, swooping range. The ukulele was retired, and her underrated, masterful acoustic guitar work started to bloom, with growing use of unusual tunings and rhythms as the ‘60s progressed.
In late 1966 and 1967, classics like “The Circle Game,” “Night in the City,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Chelsea Morning” entered her repertoire. It’s mysterious that she wasn’t signed to a recording deal earlier, as she was clearly getting on par with the best singer-songwriters of the time, though maybe her failure to branch into electric folk-rock held her back. Early interpreters of her work (also including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian & Sylvia, and Dave Van Ronk) covered some of the songs here before Mitchell had a record out, but Joni’s versions here are confident and more definitive.
Although 118 tracks are listed for this set, keep in mind not only that more than a couple dozen are spoken intros, but also that there are a good number of multiple versions. However, there aren’t more than three of any one tune (“Both Sides Now,” “Urge for Going,” and “Night in the City” are all heard three times, for example), and the versions are spaced out widely enough from each other that the redundancy’s not an annoyance. Sometimes you can hear a definite difference or progression between renditions, as you can in just four months between the two of “Eastern Rain.”
The sound quality varies between excellent and okay, and while some hiss can be heard on the tracks with lowest fidelity, none of them are so muffled as to be unenjoyable. And while the sheer number of spoken introductions might sound daunting, they’re actually fairly interesting, and show her a warm and personable (if sometimes a bit flighty) performer even as she struggled to gain a recording contract. Best is one where she bluntly, if accurately, tags David Blue as a Dylan imitator, noting that Blue emulated Dylan’s grouchy side and Eric Andersen Dylan’s humorous side, almost like it was a tennis match between the two.
Best of all, this box has many original Mitchell compositions she never placed on her studio records. There’s a reservation attached to that bonus, however. Almost all of them are interesting and pleasing to hear, but she wisely selected her best work for inclusion in her early records. There are earlier versions about a dozen songs that would crop up on her first four LPs, including six that would show up on her debut album.
Few of the others here stand out as on the level as those that made the cut, and some are preciously lightweight. Exceptions are “Eastern Rain,” which Fairport Convention covered magnificently on their second album, and “Urge for Going,” which only made it onto a non-LP B-side. “Day After Day,” referred to in the liners as her first composition, is pretty strong too.
Interesting oddities include a May 1967 cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” well in advance of the release of Young’s version; a wordless improvisation that isn’t a mere throwaway, displaying her facility at devising jazz-folk melodies; and two versions of “Dr. Junk,” which as she notes uses a Bo Diddley rhythm at times (this was also done as a very obscure cover by the Ian Campbell Group). “Songs to Aging Children Come” has a plain folk arrangement that’s much different from the one on her second LP, which used extensive multi-track vocals.
There are more pre-1968 recordings in unofficial circulation than what made it onto this box. But this is a well assembled retrospective that presents much or all of the cream without overloading multiple versions. Considering Mitchell’s recent serious illness, an unexpected extra is her recent interview about this era that fills up most of the box’s booklet. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
2. Donovan, Live 1965-1969 (London Calling). The title of this double CD could have been more precise; these thirty tracks weren’t from conventional concerts, but from BBC radio sessions. As most of his ‘60s UK peers are represented by a BBC collection or two (or more), it’s a little surprising it took so long for a Donovan BBC compilation to appear, especially as almost all of the tracks have good, clear sound. (And those with the worst fidelity aren’t much worse than the best.) If this was fully authorized, it seems like it would be on a major label, not on a relatively unknown one. But it’s available for sale in major outlets, and so should be considered a “real” release, if a somewhat gray-area one.
In common with most BBC collections, it’s a mixture of good performances that stick closely to the studio arrangements with some interesting variations and choice rarities. Of most interest will be four 1965 performances from his folk phase of songs that never appeared on official Donovan discs. “Who Killed Davy Moore,” one of two Bob Dylan compositions here that Dylan himself didn’t release in the ‘60s, is more melodically interesting than Dylan’s arrangement, with a minor-keyed tune that probably follows the version Pete Seeger put on the 1963 album Broadside Ballads Vol. 2. “Daddy You’ve Been on My Mind,” while a little less striking, is Donovan’s take on Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind,” the title changed as he modeled it on Joan Baez’s 1965 cover where “Mama” was changed to “Daddy.” It’s still a strong performance.
There’s also a decent cover of a song by a less celebrated hero of Donovan’s, Bert Jansch, with “Running from Home.” He also does “Working on the Railroad” – not the overly familiar kiddie singalong, but a fairly gutsy folk-blues he likely learned from a recording by American folkie Jesse Fuller.
Some, if not a huge number, of cuts deviate in notable ways from the studio counterparts. “Young Girl Blues” is a real highlight, as the Mellow Yellow LP version is solo acoustic, but this radio reworking has a full jazzy band and some different lyrics. It’s one of the rare BBC performances from rock artists of the time that could be fairly preferred to the studio counterpart, and is a very observational piece where the radio version heightens the moodiness to good effect. “Barabajagal,” actually recorded at Donovan’s cottage, goes the other way by offering a solo acoustic rendition – not as memorable as the rocking hit single, but memorably different and good on its own terms. “Bert’s Blues,” unlike the full-band jazzy baroque setting on Sunshine Superman, is just Donovan on acoustic guitar and Spike Heatley on upright bass; I prefer the studio version by some distance, but this is worth hearing too. “Lalena,” in two versions (one with strings and one without), has some different lyrics in the third verse of the string-backed take.
Even on the songs that aren’t too different from what you’re used to hearing on Donovan’s ‘60s records, the performances are confident and he’s in very good voice, as well as playing acoustic guitar very well. That’s particularly evident on the numerous 1965 tracks (fourteen in all), where he delivers fine and sparsely (if at all) adorned renditions of his pre-rock hits and obscure covers found on his early releases, like “Little Tin Soldier” (written by Shawn Phillips) and “Candy Man.” And there are brief interviews where Donovan offers some thoughts on folk music and his work, though they don’t last long enough to get too deep.
There are things to criticize about this batch of radio sessions. Some of them from post-‘65 sound like at least some of the components might have been lifted from the studio versions. “Jennifer Juniper” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” to name a couple, sound extremely similar to the hit singles, and “There Is a Mountain” is mainly differentiated by an additional organ part. There’s a pretty big artistic distance between his best late-‘60s work (like the aforementioned hits) and his more lightweight ditties, a few of which are here, such as “The Tinker and the Crab” (in two versions) and “The Entertaining of a Shy Little Girl.” There’s nothing from 1966 (possibly he didn’t do any sessions that year, when he was caught in a complicated contractual dispute that held up his UK releases), and hence just one song from his best album, Sunshine Superman.
But overall, this reinforces Donovan’s stature as a major performer of the era. Not that he needed this compilation to do that; his reputation has risen steadily over the last few decades, since a low point when he was sometimes unfairly dismissed by historians and critics as a flower-power namby-pamby and/or Dylan imitator. It might not substantially redefine his legacy (few BBC anthologies do), but it’s absolutely a worthwhile supplement to his main body of work, and heartily recommended to fans of his earliest and best years. An excellent track-by-track guide to this collection by blogger Stuart Penney, incidentally, can be read at https://andnowitsallthis.blogspot.com/2020/03/donovan-live-1965-1969.html.
3. The Yardbirds, Live at the BBC Revisited (Repertoire). I’ve lost track of how often Yardbirds BBC sessions have been issued and reissued, even without counting the gray-area and bootleg releases on which some sessions have surfaced. And I’m not entirely sure whether this three-CD compilation marks the first time some of these have circulated, though any that haven’t been previously heard are alternate versions rather than songs that haven’t been available in any BBC performance whatsoever. Still, this certainly marks the most comprehensive package of Yardbirds BBC performances in one place. It also certainly has the best annotation of any Yardbirds BBC collection, Mike Stax’s thorough liner notes including first-hand quotes from drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith.
Note that just three tracks date from the Eric Clapton era, and these are from a live concert at the 1964 National Jazz & Blues Festival at which Mick O’Neill filled in for ill singer Keith Relf. Over two-thirds of this dates from sessions with Jeff Beck in 1965 and 1966 – not a drawback, since that was when the group were at their peak. A good part of disc three has 1967-68 sessions with Jimmy Page, however, and is well worth hearing, especially for the version of “Dazed and Confused.”
A number of songs they didn’t put on their studio releases are here, including “Spoonful,” “Bottle Up and Go,” the folk song “Hush-A-Bye,” Freddie King’s “The Stumble,” “Dust My Blues,” “The Sun Is Shining,” Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying,” Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way,” and even a group original (“Love Me Like I Love You”), though that last item an average soul-pop tune. While non-fanatics might not care too much about variations like a greater rhythm guitar presence on “Over Under Sideways Down” or different guitar lines on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” and “Heart Full of Soul,” they’re the kind of things Yardbirds devotees treasure. The same goes for multiple versions of “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Evil Hearted You,” and “Love Me Like I Love You” that were recorded at the same session; they’re nearly identical, but then they’re among the tracks that have rarely or never circulated to my knowledge.
It should also be noted that if you’re enough of a Yardbirds collector to want a set like this, you’ll probably have a lot of it elsewhere. And, while this is another observation that makes some labels livid, the sound quality, while generally very good, is variable, and the minor sonic deficiencies on some cuts can’t be totally remedied by any amount of expert remastering. This is still a major supplement to their studio work, but the previous availability of much of it means I can’t quite rank it as high as the Donovan BBC anthology, none of which had previously been on the market.
Also released by Repertoire at the same time, by the way, was Blues Wailing: Five Live Yardbirds 1964. Not to be confused with their official debut album Five Live Yardbirds (recorded March 1964), this briefer set was recorded on August 7, 1964 at the Marquee (not July 25, 1964 at King George’s Hall in Esher, Surrey, as previously reported). It’s the same material, however, that was first issued back in 2003 as Live! Blueswailing July ’64, with new liner notes by Mike Stax.
4. The Honeycombs, The Complete ‘60s Albums & Singles (RPM). They might be thought of as a one-hit British Invasion wonder for 1964’s “Have I the Right,” but the Honeycombs actually cut quite a bit of material in their brief 1964-66 career as a recording act. They weren’t a one-hit wonder either, exactly, since “That’s the Way” was a Top Twenty UK hit and “I Can’t Stop” almost made the US Top Forty. Most of what they did remains unknown beyond the hard-bitten British Invasion collector world, though. And while they’re often thought of, with some justification, as kind of wimpy, a good number of their tracks were pretty good, if more due to Joe Meek’s imaginative and at times weird production than the modest talents of the group. This three-CD set—yes, there’s enough to fill up three discs to the gills, totaling 78 songs—has all three of their albums, plenty of non-LP singles, a few unreleased studio outtakes and radio performances, and even some mighty obscure solo 45s by group members Denny D’Ell and Martin Murray.
Really only about half of this is prime stuff, but it’s better than you might think. Meek’s production found a suitable outlet with this band, featuring squealing guitars, sped-up sounding D’Ell vocals, crunching drums, odd glissandos, and a general idiosyncratic squash, sometimes making the backup vocals sound truly fishbowl-generated. Some of their LP-only tracks and flop 45s/B-sides were supremely spooky, like “Without You It Is Night,” the admittedly pretty similar “This Too Shall Pass Away,” and “Eyes.” The original 45 version of “I Can’t Stop” was their greatest moment, enhanced by frenetic D’Ell yells, infectious stop-start tempos, and a general sense of nearly out-of-control euphoria. (The LP version, also here, is a ghastly, far inferior remake). “Something I Got to Tell You,” a rare vocal from drummer Honey Lantree, sounds like it could have been a hit, though the lyric “something’s giving me hell” might have blown any chance of that. Non-LP singles and B-sides like “That Loving Feeling,” “Should a Man Cry?,” “Please Don’t Pretend Again,” and “Can’t Get Through to You” are genuinely worth seeking out. And while “Emptiness” isn’t a great song, it has the distinction of being a Ray Davies composition the Kinks never recorded.
What are the drawbacks? Well, D’Ell’s voice, kind of like a wobbly Gene Pitney, will drive some listeners up the wall. The songs, mainly supplied by managers Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, could be puerile, and not saved even by the best efforts of Meek (who wrote some of their other tunes). The live album In Tokyo might be rare, but it isn’t very good, and dominated by covers of American hits. Those obscure solo singles aren’t memorable; the radio performances and outtakes only somewhat interesting; and the historical liner notes disappointingly shallow, with much remaining unknown about how the songs were conceived and recorded. And if you want to subtract points, the Honeycombs didn’t write any of their own material (though Murray wrote his solo 45), making one wonder if they would have made any impact whatsoever without their producer and managers. More than fifty years later, however, does that matter so much? Their name was on a good number of enjoyable, unusual records, all of which can be heard here, even if the ride’s wildly erratic. For a more in-depth appraisal of the Honeycombs and this box, read my post from earlier this year.
5. Keith Relf, All the Falling Angels (Repertoire). Keith Relf made hardly any records on which he was the solo artist – just two obscure singles in 1966, in fact. Of course, he’s pretty famous as the lead singer of the Yardbirds, and to a lesser degree as part of the first lineup of Renaissance. He might be most (and most justly) noted for his contributions to the fierce British Invasion rock of the Yardbirds, but he also had a folky, introspective, and at times fragile vulnerable side that wasn’t always evident in the records he was involved with that came out in his lifetime. That imbalance is partially redressed by this 24-track compilation of obscurities and demos, spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Almost half of them are previously unreleased, and most of them didn’t come out before his death in 1976.
When working on his own or as part of the short-lived late-‘60s group Together (with ex-Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty), Relf usually eschewed blues-rock and psychedelia (at which he was quite good) for more tender outings with an almost nakedly personal aura. There’s a nearly translucent quality to the cuts here that didn’t make it onto discs, as if Relf was not quite of this earth or at home here, with a mystical yearning too ethereal to withstand the everyday pressures of human existence. A few of the earlier tracks will be of special interest to Yardbirds fans, presenting brief demos of two of the better songs from their sole LP with Jimmy Page, “Glimpses” (at this point little more than a haunting chant) and “Only the Black Rose” (which, oddly, has a much more upbeat melody than the studio track). More polished, melodic acoustic folk-rock songs were done by Together; both sides of their rare 1968 single are here, along with a couple outtakes that came out on the 1992 double-CD expanded edition of the Yardbirds’ Little Games, and another outtake in “Line of Least Resistance.”
Of most interest to those who’ve managed to collect the half or CD of this disc that’s come out before are the previously unreleased performances. Fidelity-wise, they’re not up to what would have been considered releasable in the late 1960s and 1970s, and sometimes the sound quality is actually pretty rough or rudimentary. Yet in common with many demos emphasizing guitar and voice, they have a window-to-the-soul feel that would have gotten lost with lots of production, or even much more production, considering these songs work best in a stark state. Although occasionally in an upbeat rock mood (“Try Believing”), more often he favored folky ruminations that verged on crossing the line from melancholy to spooky. “Collector to the Light” in particular sounds almost like a message from a hermit’s cave, with eerie reverb and miscellaneous faint shakes.
A few items are nothing more than sketches or lyric-less scats, but still attractive for their otherworldliness, especially “Roundalay,” which unwinds in jazzy circles as Relf hum-sings the kind of unpredictable minor-keyed melodies he favors. He wasn’t done with far-out experimentation, either, as the closing “Sunbury Electronic Sequence” emphasizes. As its harsh collage of numerous distorted effects goes on for nine minutes, placing it at the end was a good idea, in case you’re not in the mood for extended atonality.
For those needing something more accessible, both sides of his baroque-pop 1966 solo single “Knowing”/“Mr. Zero” are here, as is the yet rarer follow-up solo 45 “Shapes in Mind” (though in just one of the two commercially available versions; more on that in the next paragraph). So is a brooding folk piece from an April 1965 Yardbirds BBC broadcast, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” though that’s come out on previous official releases as “Hush-A-Bye.”
And here are the imperfections that drive label owners mad when reviewers point them out, but should be noted. This has one of the two versions of Keith Relf’s interesting 1966 single, “Shapes in My Mind” (the one that starts with an organ). Why doesn’t it have the other one that came out (which starts with a horn)? Both versions were included on another recent release on Repertoire, the Yardbirds’ Live and Rare box. And the 1968 Yardbirds outtake “Knowing That I’m Losing You” (later the basis of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine”) that includes a Relf vocal (the one that has been officially released is instrumental) would have made a great addition. It’s one of his greatest performances, and one of the Yardbirds’ best recordings from the Jimmy Page era. And it was likely unavailable for licensing, considering it’s never come out anywhere, though it’s been in unofficial circulation for quite a few years.
Relf has come in for his share of knocks from rock historians who find his vocals limited or lacking. I’ve always liked them a lot, however; what he lacked in power, he more than made up for in personality. They’re certainly an asset on this release, which is the kind of compilation that might only appeal to a pretty limited niche of fanatics, and be dismissed as marginal frivolity by many. And y’know what? Big deal. I’m one of those fanatics, and other fanatics will dig the hell out of this. For the story behind this release, read my article about this reissue, which includes material from a recent interview with Yardbirds Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith.
6. The Belfast Gypsies, Them Belfast Gypsies (Grapefruit). The Belfast Gypsies were a spinoff group from Them, including two members (singer/organist Jackie McAuley and drummer John aka Pat McAuley) who’d played on some of Them’s great mid-‘60s records. Their sole album, recorded in 1966 and initially issued by a Swedish label, was much like Them, but yet punkier and rawer, especially in the vocal department. To make a rough comparison, the Belfast Gypsies were to Them like the Pretty Things were to the Rolling Stones.
This was reissued on CD in 2003 with bonus tracks, and this edition is an upgrade, though there’s not much more material. Besides adding single and EP mixes of tracks from the LP, it also has an instrumental from a French EP (though the Belfast Gypsies were probably not involved in that recording). All of those tracks were on the 2003 CD, but this 2020 edition adds a couple of basic February 1966 demos (covers of Graham Bond’s “I Want You” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), which came out on a ten-inch back in 2005. The new CD also has extensive liner notes with some rare photos and memorabilia. Seven of the LP tracks were mastered from newly discovered master tapes, and the others were newly remastered.
All of these bonuses seem to make this the definitive edition, but a reservation has to be expressed. The opening track from the LP, “Gloria’s Dream,” noticeably slows down after the instrumental break. That didn’t happen on the 2003 CD, so this seems to be a flaw. Some labels and compilers don’t appreciate when things like this are pointed out for reissues that have been assembled with overall fanatical care. But like the brief skip in the Honeycombs collection reviewed earlier in this list, it’s something that needs to be noted for the very kind of fanatics who buy these kind of specialist reissues.
To risk losing a few more friends, it seems like the volume level is low on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (one of the greatest Dylan covers), though that doesn’t happen on my LP reissue. Mitigating the disappointment, the EP mixes of “Gloria’s Dream” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” don’t have these problems, and, to risk more wrath from those who might disagree, aren’t notably different from the LP versions at any rate.
I’m actually not that much of an audiofile, but all told, this would have ranked higher on this list had these quirks not jumped out at me. And the dozen LP tracks that are at the core of this release – the ones that really make it worth hearing – have long been easily available on reissues, as another reason why this doesn’t get an even higher ranking. The music is more important than imperfections, of course, and the Belfast Gypsies album is one of the best British Invasion obscurities, well worth hearing if you like first-wave British R&B/rock. The full, and very complicated, tale of the group is told in my lengthy story on the group in issue #23 (summer 2005) of Ugly Things magazine.
7. Fred Neil, 38 MacDougal (Delmore). As this was a pretty limited Record Store Day release in November, it might have passed unnoticed even by many Neil fans, although a wider CD/LP release is planned for 2021. These eight previously unreleased songs were recorded in 1965 in the apartment of John Sebastian and guitarist Peter Childs, both of whom played on Neil’s second album, the verging-on-folk-rock Bleecker & MacDougal. On both electric and acoustic guitar, Childs backed Neil’s vocals and guitar on this rather brief set, which lasts a little less than half an hour. Five of the songs also appear, in different studio versions, on Bleecker & MacDougal; one, “Sweet Cocaine,” would be done for his 1966 Fred Neil album; and the two others, the traditional folk tune “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the African-American spiritual “Blind Man Standing By the Road and Crying,” don’t appear on any other Neil record.
Owing both to its brevity and prevalence of alternate versions, this is kind of like hearing bonus cuts to Bleecker & MacDougal that don’t happen to have been used on an expanded CD version of that album. But if you like this underrated folk-rock pioneer, it’s good and worth hearing, in part because Neil recorded just a few albums (and little of consequence after the 1960s). Although the studio versions are more definitive, there’s a pleasing informal vibe to the more familiar material, and the sound is pretty good. Fred’s melodic blues-pop-folk is affecting in these performances, as are his uniquely resonant low vocals, like a more tuneful and on-pitch Johnny Cash. From a historical point of view, the highlights are the two traditional songs that aren’t on other Neil albums. While not as striking as his original compositions, they’re fine spare interpretations, “Once I Had a Sweetheart” being perhaps most familiar to folk-rock fans through Pentangle’s superb version a few years later. He upped his characteristic dolefulness for the more somber “Blind Man Standing By the Road and Crying,” which concludes the set.
8. Neil Young, Archives Vol. II: 1972-1976 (Reprise). This mammoth ten-CD box could inspire a whole magazine’s worth of commentary from Neil-heads. I don’t use that kind of space on my best-of list reviews, so I’m sticking to some of the essentials. Almost half of the 131 tracks are previously unreleased, and many of the ones that were already available—particularly the 1973 live sets in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the Roxy in Hollywood, as well as the mid-‘70s outtakes from the Homegrown album—were known primarily to Young fanatics. So although this does have a lot of material from mid-‘70s albums like Tonight’s the Night and Zuma that anyone who buys this set will already have, much of it’s unfamiliar, and likely brand new even to committed Young collectors. There are also a few Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young outtakes from their attempts at studio albums during this period.
It’s good to have so much available from a major performer, from peak or near-peak years. But what wasn’t issued at the time isn’t on par with the best of what he released between 1972 and 1976, nor should anyone expect that. Although it testifies to his sheer fertility as a composer, spinning off dozens of rejects that many songwriters would be happy to feature as highlights of their repertoire, there are reasons most of them weren’t selected for his LPs of the era. They’re not as striking or memorable as much of what made the cut. Even one of the best, the wistful 1972 outtake “Goodbye Christians on the Shore,” could have benefited from some trimming and more energetic execution. While it’s cool to hear some different arrangements of well known songs, like a much harder-rocking “Last Trip to Tulsa” (used on a B-side) and a live “The Loner” without orchestration, I wouldn’t put them on the level of the studio originals. Some rarities are more enticing on paper than they are through the speakers, like the rather forced guess-who-this-is-about piano ballad “Sweet Joni” (performed solo by Young at a 1973 concert). The same goes for the so-so rocker “Raised on Robbery,” a previously unreleased version of a Joni Mitchell song from the Tonight’s the Night sessions, which features Mitchell herself on vocals and guitar.
Here are a few observations that won’t be welcomed by all Young fans. He’s at his least impressive when he opts for a straightahead blues-rock groove; he could use bluesiness effectively, but the bluesiest stuff could be routine or even boring. The CSNY outtakes don’t hint that there was a buried masterpiece that never reached fruition as their plans for studio reunions fell apart for one reason or another. And overall Young wasn’t working at as high a standard as he had in his earlier solo years, with much of the best unissued material appearing on the disc with the earliest recordings (disc one, drawn from 1972 and 1973).
9. Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Sockin’ It to You: The Complete Dynovoice/New Voice Recordings(RPM).Mitch Ryder’s status as one of the great white soul-rock singers of the ‘60s is unquestioned. Like a lot of great rock and soul artists from the era, though, his albums were uneven. They’re certainly not as consistent a blast as a good best-of collection.
But if you’re reading this to consider whether a three-CD, 69-track of everything he did for the label that issued those big hits is worth buying, you probably already have a good best-of collection. You want to know: are Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels worth hearing in bulk? In a package with everything from the five LPs they did for Bob Crewe’s New Voice and Dynovoice labels, along with a few rare non-LP 45s?
Basically, yeah, but only if you’re willing to take a kind of bumpy Ryde. When the first LP leads off with ace covers of “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Come See About Me,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight”—not all of which automatically turn up on Ryder best-ofs—you’re primed for one of the best white R&B comps of all time. But Mitch and his Wheels couldn’t sustain that momentum—hardly anyone could—and there’s a good share of oft-done (sometimes overdone) soul standards that are more on the just-okay side. It didn’t help that they didn’t write original material, something that was always going to keep them out of the league of the best bands of this sort, like the Rascals. Ryder’s vocals are almost always fine, and the Detroit Wheels sometimes inspired, but some of the arrangements are so-so.
The Wheels, whose ultra-tense grooves were never mixed as high as they could or should have been in Crewe’s productions, started to fade more and more into the background as time went on. Crewe partially solved the problem of original material by writing or co-writing most of Mitch’s third album, Sock It To Me!, including the hit title track. Usually it spells trouble when a producer takes such a firm rein. But actually the LP wasn’t bad pop-soul-rock, even when Ryder went afield from his usual forte into almost West Side Story-ish drama (“A Face in the Crowd”) and a sort of soulful Jay & the Americans melodrama (“Wild Child”). He also handled “Walk on By” well, though “Soul Fizz” is an oddity—Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels with a Ryder-less instrumental?
Crewe took his client into more questionable territory with Sings the Hits, which is just a bunch of old—actually just a year or two old—tracks that he remixed and/or overdubbed, throwing in a couple obscure 45 sides that made their first appearance on LP. Again this isn’t as gruesome you might brace yourself for, with the overdubbed horns making for interesting contrasts with the more familiar versions without getting too overbearing. The originals on which you can hear the Detroit Wheels better are, naturally, superior. And they’re all elsewhere on this box, so you don’t have to gnash your teeth over a rip-off.
Then, in true docudrama good-deal-turns-bad fashion, Crewe steered Ryder toward a Wheels-less solo career on What Now My Love, cutting Mitch on some pop standards in the process. This sounds like your basic recipe for disaster, but at the risk of seeming contrarian, it really isn’t as bad as you’d predict. It’s not all standards, with some workmanlike soul and rock oldies covers. And Ryder actually wasn’t so bad at the standards, making a reasonable job of Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)” and going into some impressive (if admittedly rather ludicrous) vocal gymnastics on the modest “What Now My Love” hit. This wasn’t Mitch’s forte, however, and by the end of the ‘60s he was both free of Crewe and hitless.
Also on this anthology is his fine cover of “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” which despite being a fair-size hit was only on the All Mitch Ryder Hits compilation, not one of his regular LPs. Far rarer are seven tracks from mostly post-Wheels non-LP 45s (plus a brief spoken radio spot) that close out disc three, all obscure save possibly “Joy,” which just missed the Top Forty. These were for the most part just fair, though Ryder’s vocals were almost always impressive, and not mailed in even when it was obvious the material wasn’t what he deserved.
The notable exception is the funky “Ring Your Bell”—the one track from the Crewe years that Ryder wrote. It slinks along with a sly confident vocal and cool organ-horn blend, though it’s too bad it (and a few of the other non-LP tracks) has a slight wobble, as if the original source wasn’t used or isn’t pristine. “Ring Your Bell” proved Ryder could develop into a good writer. But with Crewe at least, he wouldn’t have the chance. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
10. The Idle Race, The Birthday Party(Grapefruit). The term wasn’t around back then, but the Idle Race were among the premier exponents of “toytown” psychedelia—story-songs with more than a hint of childhood longing/fantasy, done with enough quirky lyrics and production sophistication to keep it out of the children’s bin. Known (if at all) to the larger public as the first group in which Jeff Lynne recorded LPs, they didn’t make much of a dent on either the charts or the underground before Lynne joined the Move. From 1968, The Birthday Party was their first album, here issued as a two-CD package including the stereo and mono versions of the original LP, along with a bunch of non-LP singles and alternate versions.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between this and late-‘60s work by bigger and better bands, particularly the Beatles and the Move. The Idle Race, and particularly chief songwriter Lynne, drew heavily on the most lightweight la-la aspects of Paul McCartney’s work, with some of the eccentricity of chief Move composer Roy Wood. Their first single (oddly unissued in the UK), in fact, was a cover of the Move’s “(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree.” Almost everything else here was written by Lynne, with fellow Idle Racer Dave Pritchard pitching in a few songs.
As long as you don’t set your expectations for an equivalent to Magical Mystery Tour or the Move’s flurry of ‘60s hits, The Birthday Party’s an enjoyable if slightly twee set of very British pop-rock, even if it sometimes sounds like a kiddie TV show soundtrack gone off the rails. (Lynne amusingly, and not wholly inaccurately, once described the Idle Race as “a cross between George Formby and something or other.”) The tales they tell aren’t especially deep, but they’re fairly witty and unremittingly bouncy, with more than a hint of the helium harmonies that would be a trademark of Lynne’s subsequent projects. Modest orchestration and weird effects take some of the cuts into relatively adventurous arrangements. In view of Lynne’s later fame, it’s tempting to dub them a low-budget, less pretentious foreshadowing of some of his work in the Electric Light Orchestra.
The Idle Race never had hits, but a few of these ditties sound like they could have been with a bit more production/promotion oomph. “Skeleton and the Roundabout” feels like a ride on an arty merry-go-round; “Follow Me Follow” is a rockaballad that will appeal to anyone who likes McCartney facsimiles of the kind Emitt Rhodes devised; and “Morning Sunshine” has very Beatlesque guitar swoops. The non-LP B-side “Knocking Nails into My House” injects a welcome bit of ominous narrative into the mix in its play-by-play detail of a foreclosure. It’s the strongest track here, though not the most typical. Nearly as strong, yet anomalously moody and hard-rocking, is another non-LP flip, Pritchard’s “My Father’s Son,” which ends with a most uncharacteristic blast of feedback.
As the Grapefruit label (and the Cherry Red family to which it belongs) has compiled a lot of ambitious multi-disc sets, it’s a little surprising and perhaps disappointing it didn’t opt to do one collecting all of the Idle Race’s Lynne-era output. That would include not only the group’s second LP (1969’s more mature, yet less impressive, Idle Race), but also a wealth of late-‘60s BBC sessions. Maybe that will be wrapped up with an expanded edition of Idle Race. It would be a welcome supplement to this release, whose 24-page liners include a heap of vintage graphics and comments from Lynne and Pritchard. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
11. Various Artists, Crawling Up a Hill: A Journey Through the British Blues Boom 1966-71 (Grapefruit). Like Grapefruit’s numerous other three-CD curations of major British rock styles spanning the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s, this mixes big names with cult names and unknowns. John Mayall, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Free, Jeff Beck—they’re all here, usually represented by one of their deeper cuts. So are notable but less popular figures like Graham Bond, Duster Bennett, Savoy Brown, Taste (with Rory Gallagher), the Climax Chicago Blues Band (as they were known at their outset), Stone the Crows, and Medicine Head. And there are early Fleetwood Mac-related solo efforts by Christine Perfect and Jeremy Spencer, as well as Peter Green taking a lead vocal with the Brunning Sunflower Blues Band, led by original Fleetwood Mac bassist Bob Brunning.
That alone’s a choke-a-horse list. But the bigger attraction for collectors is the wealth of tracks by acts only known to those who pore the listings of specialist reference books. The Zany Woodruff Operation (who did a fair cover of the early John Mayall single “Crawling Up a Hill” that gives this comp its name), Shakey Vick, Jaklin, Frozen Tear, Angel Pavement, Levee Camp Moan, Red Dirt, and Blue Blood—it’s doubtful more than a few dozen or so British blues hounds are familiar with all those names. Plenty of the tracks are taken from way-rare LPs and 45s, as well as some recordings that were privately pressed or unissued at the time.
The span is certainly wider than the most famous British blues anthology, Sire’s 1973 double-LP History of British Blues (which includes a good number of the same top names, though there’s no overlap in actual songs). As much as we get our jollies from having a lot of material in one place, the more important factor is how good a listen it makes. And it’s pretty good and diverse, progressing from ace cuts with roots in the mid=’60s British Invasion (Mayall’s “All Your Love” with Eric Clapton, Bond’s non-LP single “I Love You,” a live “I’m a Man” from the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page lineup) to purer blues and early-‘70s hard rock-flavored outings. The relatively little-heeded British acoustic blues scene gets some airing too, with efforts by Anderson Jones Jackson (featuring future Folk Roots editor Ian A. Anderson), one-man-band Bennett, Jo-Ann Kelly, and Mike Cooper.
The British blues boom—a more purist-minded, less pop-oriented movement than the mid-‘60s explosion of UK R&B-rock bands spearheaded by the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things, Animals, Yardbirds, and Them—has come in it for its share of mockery for being too stodgy, imitative, and bombastic. There’s some of that here, but not too much, and some of the selections venture beyond the straight blues format into more flexible (and, usually, interesting) territory. The Christine Perfect Band’s “It’s You I Miss,” for instance, is a real highlight, and not just for its rarity (broadcast on a November 1969 radio session, this Perfect composition somehow wasn’t included on her 1970 solo LP). Brooding, minor-keyed, and huskily intoned, it’s a real cool tune that will even appeal to those who don’t care for the Fleetwood Mac records after she joined the band.
Some of the other rarer relics show the more workmanlike British blues groups in their best light. The Climax Blues Band’s “A Stranger in Your Town” is fine slide blues variation on “Rollin’ and “Tumblin’” that sounds a bit like a subdued Yardbirds. Savoy Brown weigh in with a ferocious, menacing live January 1970 version of “A Hard Way to Go.” And there are some goodies from names not especially identified with the blues boom. Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tommy Evans add spooky background vocals to Heavy Jelly’s eerily plodding blues-rocker “Take Me Down to the Water,” written and sung by Jackie Lomax. Linda Hoyle, lead singer of the not-terribly-well-known band Affinity, offers a credibly hard-hitting cover of Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues.”
And there are some decent tracks by the no-names. Red Dirt’s “Time to Move” sounds rather like Jethro Tull at their earliest and bluesiest. Icarus put a bit of jazzy melody and psychedelic organ into “There’s An Easy and a Hard Way of Living,” which like some of the other better material here is better described as “bluesy” than “blues.” There weren’t many Alexis Korner covers, but Jaklin offer a decent rocky version of one of his best originals with “The Same for You.”
Crawling Up a Hill is also more inclusive than many a similar comp might be, drawing in more or less straight blues offerings from groups that didn’t do much of that thing, like the Deviants (“Charlie”), Love Sculpture (“Wang Dang Doodle”), and even Mungo Jerry (“The Sun Is Shining”). There are also a few irreverent parodies, to remind us that not everyone in Britain took blues purism so seriously. The Bonzo Dog Band’s “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” is the most familiar of these, and it’s here. But so are Liverpool Scene’s “I’ve Got Those Fleetwood Mac Chicken Shack John Mayall Can’t Fail Blues,” Jeremy Spencer’s “Mean Blues,” and the Downliners Sect’s rather frivolous Tolkien-blues hybrid “Lord of the Rings.”
Are there significant omissions, whether for licensing or other reasons? Sure, starting with the Rolling Stones, who went into pure blues on some of their late-‘60s recordings. If we’re talking hard rock acts who owed a lot to the blues, Led Zeppelin’s not here either, though Robert Plant’s the featured vocalist on Korner’s “Operator.” There probably aren’t too many people who’d get up in arms over the absence of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, Keef Hartley, or Dave Kelly. But it’s a shame there’s nothing by Duffy Power, one of the finest and most creative cult British bluesmen, who did some of his best and bluesiest stuff during this period.
The small-print, 40-page liner notes by David Wells are jam-packed with info about each track, along with plenty of period record sleeves, pictures, and graphics. There are many more British blues boom highlights besides the ones fit onto this nearly four-hour set, but it surpasses History of British Blues as the best survey of its sort. (This review appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things.)
12. Robbie Basho, Songs of the Great Mystery (Real Gone). Similar in mood if not exact style to John Fahey (for whose Takoma label he recorded in his early career), guitarist (and occasional pianist) Robbie Basho constructed haunting music often utilizing unusual minor-keyed melodies, edgy strumming, and a general stormy-cloud aura. He recorded fairly prolifically from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s without achieving much in the way or sales or renown, even compared to a cultish figure like Fahey. So prolific was his output, in fact, that unreleased material continues to pour from his vaults, including this previously unreleased album. Recorded for Vanguard Records in 1971 or 1972, it’s actually a little more than a single LP (at least by vinyl-era standards), adding up to 55 minutes of music with the addition of an alternate take.
Songs of the Great Mystery isn’t too drastically different from other Basho records I’ve heard, which can serve as either a caution or a recommendation. His rather downcast music isn’t for everyone, and his shaking-leaf vocals definitely aren’t for everyone. He usually concentrated on instrumentals, but sings more often than usual in this set, often referencing Native American culture and images of thunder in his lyrics. On “Thunder Love,” you even wonder if he influenced Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” though that seems extremely unlikely. Interesting lyric from “Laughing Thunder, Crawling Thunder”: “America, god has shed his blood on thee.”
Even if it doesn’t stand out as one of his best outings, and some of the songs are fairly similar to each other (and other Basho recordings on different albums), I like the idiosyncratic atmosphere he creates enough to recommend it. His vocals aren’t that great, but at least suitably complement the eerie guitar work and melodies, which are the main assets of this vault find. Also good are the comprehensive liner notes by Glenn Jones, which feature a wealth of detail and description for a batch of tracks whose recording dates aren’t even certain.
13. Robbie Basho, Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes (Tompkins Square). If you thought nearly an hour of Basho outtakes was specialized, it’s put to shame by this five-CD compilation of previously unreleased material, spanning the guitarist’s entire career. (Technically speaking some of the tracks came out slightly earlier on a Record Store Day LP compilation.) Known to have existed for years before this anthology was assembled, this stretches from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. “Approximately” is the necessary qualification because there weren’t dates on these tapes, although the songs were titled. Experts involved in the set’s production could make some reasonable estimates as to a rough order in which the material was recorded, but the exact times and dates will never be known.
This collection does in a way serve as a career retrospective of sorts, albeit one that doesn’t have his very best recordings, as those were featured on the numerous LPs he issued during his lifetime. If you do like Basho, however, this Basho-in-bulk has a few notable things going for it. A lot of it’s almost or as good as what made it onto his official releases. The tracks don’t just present different versions of songs that are already available, although a few passages here and there were heard in altered form on his albums. The sheer range of styles is also impressive, from the raga-avant-folk that made his biggest mark to devotional music and, on what are probably some of the earliest recordings, blues.
Of course this isn’t for everyone, and maybe not even for all Basho fans. Be aware that quite a few songs are vocal numbers, which are less beloved by most of his listeners than his instrumentals, as they’re (to quote admirer Pete Townshend) “a cross between a kind of a cantor in a synagogue, the mullah calling from the tower for prayers in Islam, and a kind of a street singer. But also an opera star.” On some selections, he switches from guitar to eerie piano. The final track offers a sixteen-minute cantata and features some other singers.
Overall I’d put this at something of a tie with the previous entry on this list, but acknowledge that five discs is a much greater investment of time and money than a single CD. So this might be a little less approachable, and is certainly a less uniform listening experience, than Songs of the Great Mystery. But it’s undeniably more diverse, and recommended just as strongly to Basho fans.
14. Various Artists, Tape Excavation (Independent Project/P22). Even if you’re the kind of collector who gets in line for Record Store Day releases at dawn, you’ll be frustrated by trying to acquire this LP-only release if you don’t already have it. It was available only as part of the 350-copy deluxe limited edition of the book Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Independent Project Records & Press, which is already sold out. The book compiles artwork, often using distinctive letterpress design, by Bruce Licher for numerous records, posters, stamps, and other media since 1980 (see review in my post for best 2020 rock history books). The LP compiles fourteen previously unreleased tracks from various Licher musical projects spanning 1980 to 2019, including material from his most famous band (Savage Republic); pre-Savage Republic outfits Project 197, Bridge, and Final Republic; and post-Savage Republic projects Scenic, Lanterna, Lemon Wedges, Bank, and SR2, along with post-Savage Republic Licher solo recordings.
Highly worthwhile on its own terms, Tape Excavation’s selections are actually of similar quality to Licher’s previous official releases, even if the fidelity and polish might not be as high on a few tracks (particularly the earlier ones). Although it covers four decades, there’s a continuity in the eerie instrumental textures, which both use conventional instruments (especially Licher’s unusually tuned guitar) and blend them in unconventional ways. The earlier efforts on side A bear some traces of early-‘80s post-punk dissonance, yet are likely to appeal to people who don’t usually like post-punk, at least if my own tastes are an indication. There’s even some appealingly cheesy new wave keyboard on Final Republic’s “Chase,” though the same group was responsible for the foreboding waves of overlapping reverb dominating “The Unknown.”
Licher focused more on sort of post-punk equivalents to surf music with elements of psychedelia and middle eastern melodies as time went on. His pair of 1997 solo demos are of special note; “Cedar” is worthy of exotically dreamy Ennio Morricone-like soundtracks, and “Tundra” can’t help but sound like an end-of-the-century takeoff on the Byrds’ “Why.” The later excursions on side B might be less edgy and frenetic than his ‘80s endeavors, but maintain his knack for atmospheric instrumentals that are more mature yet not at all wimpy. According to the detailed liner notes, Licher went through dozens of boxes of recordings to cull these tracks, and if even a small percentage of these approach Tape Excavation’s standard, a series of archive releases would be welcome. So would a standalone edition of Tape Excavation itself on LP and/or CD, though given its use as an extra for a deluxe edition, that probably can’t be counted on soon.
15. Jimi Hendrix, Live in Maui (Legacy). If you’ve seen the jaw-droppingly bad film Rainbow Bridge, you know its only redeeming feature is the 17-minute segment in which Hendrix, accompanied by Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, play live to an audience of a few hundred in a field in the Maui hills. It’s something of a miracle that a good-sounding album of the July 30, 1970 concert is now available, since the environment wasn’t too conducive for good fidelity. That’s evident in the film, where you see foam covering the microphones to cut down on the wind. But this two-CD set has reasonable sound and enthusiastic, if somewhat loose, performances. Since it’s one of the final US concerts he gave before dying less than a couple months later, it’s also of significant historic value.
As a record, however, it’s not all that different from a couple live albums taped a month earlier (Live at Berkeley) and a month later (Live at the Isle of Wight). The set list is pretty similar, though this has a few songs (“In from the Storm,” “Hear My Train A-Comin,’” “Villanova Junction”) that aren’t on Live at the Isle of Wight. Like that previously available live material, it shows Hendrix starting to ease back toward more focused songwriting on tunes like “Dolly Dagger,” but also prone toward sprawling improvisation. While it’s not too noticeable, purists should know this doesn’t present the show in its entire unvarnished state. Back in 1971, Mitch Mitchell overdubbed drums on the songs featured in Rainbow Bridge, and the original tape did not capture a few numbers in their entirety.
These CDs are packaged with a Blu-ray documentary, Music, Money, Madness…Jimi Hendrix in Maui. The Blu-ray is reviewed separately, in my list of 2020 rock history films.
16. Phil Ochs, The Best of the Rest: Rare and Unreleased Recordings (Liberation Hall). All but three of the twenty tracks on this archival compilation were recorded as publishing demos for Warner/Chappell in 1964/1965. Plainly recorded with just Ochs’s voice and acoustic guitar, these include some songs from his mid-‘60s Elektra LPs, some of them among his better and most famous, like “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Canons of Christianity,” “I’m Gonna Say It Now,” “Bracero,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It also has some pretty obscure ones that didn’t make the LPs he issued in his lifetime, like “City Boy,” a very good lilting tune that seems to mark one of his first excursions into non-protest/social commentary writing, “I’m Tired,” and “Colored Town.” And three of these songs have never been on any prior Ochs release (and there are many Ochs releases, especially when you count collections of material he didn’t issue during his lifetime), including “Sailors and Soldiers,” “I Wish I Could Have Been Along,” and “Take It Out of My Youth.”
Also featured as “bonus tracks” are three additional items. “The War Is Over” is taken from a November 20, 1967 broadcast on New York’s WBAI. With joyous background whoops and quite different lyrics from the studio version, it’s the highlight of this CD. Of more purely historical interest, though worth hearing, is a 1970 rehearsal take of his last great composition, “No More Songs,” which has an almost classical feel as the tune is worked out on piano. From 1969, the less memorable “All Quiet on the Western Front” was previously only known via a couple incomplete live versions.
It’s good to have more Ochs in good sound quality, even if the arrangements are rudimentary. Still, this is pretty peripheral to his core work, which is better appreciated on the music he released while an active performer. In his early days, the best of his material was selected for his LPs (“City Boy” being a curious oversight); some of the compositions here are rather generic Ochs in comparison. The packaging is also not clearly annotated. Just six of the songs (including all the non-Warner/Chappell demos) are designated as “previously unreleased,” but I’m not aware of anywhere else these tracks have appeared, and I have a lot of Ochs in my collection.
My guess is that the three mid-‘60s demos marked as “previously unreleased” are the three instances where there are no other versions of those specific songs, and that in fact everything here is previously unreleased. Even in the cases where some songs also appear on the outtakes compilation A Toast to Those Who Are Gone, these seem to be different versions; the performance of “City Boy,” which has a piano on A Toast to Those Who Are Gone, is definitely a different recording. The liner notes do not comment upon if or where any of the tracks were also issued. This is a specialist release geared toward intense Ochs fans, who deserve more than the ambiguous vagueness associated with bootlegs, though this is definitely authorized, as it was produced by his brother (and manager) Michael Ochs.
17. Simon & Garfunkel, Live at Carnegie Hall 1969 EP (Legacy). A low-key streaming-only release that even some Simon & Garfunkel fans might have missed, this has four songs from their Carnegie Hall shows on November 27 and November 28, 1969. A few other recordings from November at Carnegie Hall have come out elsewhere, but these were previously unreleased. Why only four tracks were dispensed, and only via streaming, is a question only the record label and the duo can answer. But as modest pleasures go, it’s pretty good, if containing no big surprises. Included are acoustic versions of “The Boxer” and, a couple months before their official release on the Bridge Over Troubled Water LP, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” “Song for the Asking,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” itself. Art Garfunkel’s just backed by piano on the last of these. The way the catalog business goes, it wouldn’t shock me to see a full-length release from these shows in the future, but for now, it’s all there is.
18. Various Artists, 17 from Morden (Top Sounds). In the 1960s, the Morden Park Sounds Studios of R.G. Jones in London recorded hundreds of British rock groups, most notably the Yardbirds for some of their earliest studio work. Many of the groups that passed through there didn’t release records, or only put them out in extremely limited editions. This compilation has seventeen such tracks, none of them by acts that are even reasonably well known to collectors; none had musicians that went on to fame, though a couple did put out discs on bigger labels. A few cuts are even credited to “unknown,” as the musicians remain unidentified. This is only going to appeal to hardcore British Invasion specialists, especially as a good number of the songs are covers of well known tunes.
But if you are that kind of ‘60s British rock nut, like me, you’ll find this an enjoyable swipe of groups that straddled the line between amateur and professional, even if some of its value is documentary as well as musical. All of the groups have brash energy, usually but not always on the R&B/rock side of things. The Cindicate (not to be confused with the Syndicats, with whom Steve Howe made records in the mid-’60s) stand out for their wild rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Mad Again,” possibly inspired as much or more by the Animals’ cover as the original. Stretched out to five minutes with extended instrumental raveups, it’s the best thing here, even if it sounds like a wind machine’s blowing in the background. The Night Society’s brooding “Play Around with Love” is the best original, in part because it at least tries to do something beyond the standard R&B format, sounding a little like a marriage of the minor-keyed melodies and harmonies of the Zombies with mod rock energy. If nothing else here is too memorable, it’s fun to hear while it’s spinning, and captures the energy of British youth in the wake of the great British beat explosion. And that, combined with thorough illustrated liner notes, is enough to put it on this list.
19. Various Artists, Sumer Is Icumen In:The Pagan Sound of British and Irish Folk 1966-75(Grapefruit). This 60-song triple disc indeed features British Isles folk, usually of the mildly folk-rock-leaning sort, from the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘70s. It’s a little unclear what fits into the “pagan sound” theme. Much of the material is drawn from traditional folk sources, or clearly inspired by traditional folk sources, that’s colored by myth, magic, and exotic legend. Some of it only indirectly reflects this. Should we even keep score as to what might qualify?
It’s better just to take this as the latest installment of a series of quality three-CD sets on the Grapefruit label devoted to UK folk-rock (also including, on this set, music from Ireland). Preceded by 2015’s Dust on the Nettles and 2019’s Strangers in the Room, all have been overseen and extensively annotated by David Wells. All have a good balance of tracks from the most famous folk-rockers of the region and the most renowned mid-level and cult such artists. There are also obscurities who only put out private pressings, or never even managed to release anything while active.
Sumer Is Icumen In (sic)doesn’t duplicate any selections from the other two collections, but features a lot of the same artists. The heavyweights are here: Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, the Strawbs, even a 1975 cut by Mike Oldfield. So are fairly successful acts who didn’t quite make the same impact, like Shirley Collins & the Albion County Band, the Young Tradition, and the Third Ear Band. Then there are plenty who get enthused about in specialized reference books, like Oberon and Stone Angel, even if most people have yet to hear them. And there are names that even those who know the likes of Mellow Candle will probably find unfamiliar, like Shirley Kent and the Minor Birds.
Few genres of the era were as earnest as this strand of British folk-rock. Or as reticent: there’s often an air of devout restraint, whether electric instruments are used or not. It’s not the most varied or exciting stuff, but suits the mood when you want something somber with a touch of the eerie or strange, most often supplied by dabs of unusual instrumentation. The Strawbs’ “Canon Dale”—an alternate version, though the liners aren’t specific about the exact source—is a standout in that respect, backing ominous harmonies with sitar and Rick Wakeman’s gloomy organ.
There’s not much in the way of hooky tunes here, and some of the more memorable offerings arise when the set goes outside the folk-rock boundaries for tracks by rockers with a folk-rock influence. Traffic’s “John Barleycorn” is not just the most famous effort here; it’s the best. Nearly as good is Fairport’s “Tam Lin,” though it’s hard to imagine that anyone with an interest in this style doesn’t already have it in their collection. Less celebrated but welcome contributors from the rock scene include Kevin Coyne, Mighty Baby, Curved Air (whose “Elfin Boy” is effectively spooky), and Marc Bolan, represented by his 1966 demo “Eastern Spell.”
Even if you count this as part of a series and not just on its own, there are bound to be omissions that will upset some enthusiasts. Now that Ireland’s included in the survey, it’s too bad there’s nothing from Clannad’s fine 1973 debut album, which is far more influenced by Pentangle-styled folk-rock than anything else they issued. Maybe that LP didn’t have anything pagan enough; much of it was sung in Gaelic, so it might not be easy to tell. More obviously, there’s still no Donovan, the only global superstar with some affiliation with this movement. Perhaps licensing is the obstacle.
Of course, it’s easy to access Donovan’s catalog, or Clannad’s for that matter. Where else can you get the likes of Midwinter, Magnet, and Amber, who didn’t even have records? And on the same anthology as outtakes by Bridget St. John, the Sallyangie, and Mighty Baby that you might not yet have hard? For all but the very rare collector who has most or all of this material, it’s a good way to make deep dives into the peak era of British folk-rock, with some familiar faces along the trail to improve the overall listening experience. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
20. Carla Thomas, Let Me Be Good to You: The Atlantic & Stax Recordings (1960-1968) (SoulMusic). Carla Thomas was one of Stax’s most consistent hitmakers in the 1960s, and by far the label’s most successful woman performer in that decade. This four-CD set has all of her recordings on Stax and Atlantic from 1960 to 1968, the 94 tracks including everything from her albums and singles during that period. There are also five cuts from the Stax/Volt Revue’s 1967 live albums in London and Paris, and her duets with Otis Redding and father Rufus Thomas. Add the booklet’s 8000-word liner notes, with first-hand quotes from a few who were there (though not Carla herself), and it’s a complete document of Thomas’s prime.
Complete documents don’t usually mean quality that’s as consistent as best-of compilations, and that’s the case here. Her LPs, in common with many ‘60s artists, had a lot of covers of hits and standards. Her girl group-crossed-with-Memphis-soul voice guarantees that none are poor, but it’s hard to get too excited about routine versions of the likes of “What the World Needs Now,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Let It Be Me,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Birds & Bees” (with Rufus Thomas). As much some historians take pains to differentiate Stax from Motown, a few cuts are obviously derivative of the early Supremes, and “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You)” can’t help but recall Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.”
While the best of her sides from this time were compiled back in 1994 for Rhino’s 22-track Gee Whiz: The Best of Carla Thomas, this far more extensive collection has its rewards if you’re a big Thomas fan and/or heavily into the Stax sound. That set only had one Carla-Rufus duet, and just a couple Thomas-Redding duets (including their big hit “Tramp”). This has ten Carla-Rufus tracks (a couple credited to Rufus & Friend), including the 1960 single on Satellite that marked her first appearance on disc. It also has the entire King and Queen album pairing Thomas and Redding, though that has its share of covers of familiar tunes like “Tell It Like It Is,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and “It Takes Two.”
Although the many non-best-of singles can take on a slightly generic Stax feel, there are some good efforts that will be new to lots of listeners who don’t have complete collections of records on the label. Some have a satisfyingly gutsy feel, like the brassy cover of “Little Red Rooster” and the mid-‘60s B-sides “Every Once of Strength” and “Stop Thief.” The five live Stax/Volt Revue songs have a rawer edge than the more polished studio productions, including renditions of her biggest hits (“Gee Whiz!,” “B-A-B-Y,” and “Let Me Be Good to You”) along with covers of “I Got My Mojo Working” and (less impressively) “Yesterday.”
Just two of these recordings are from 1968, and as Thomas kept recording for Stax until 1972, it’s not a complete overview of her work for the company. Most would agree this covers the best of her time with the label, however. Although a lot of this material’s shown up on other reissues and Stax singles boxes, this is an overdue anthology putting everything of hers from these years in one place. (This review will also appear in a future issue of Ugly Things.)
21. Various Artists, Living on the Hill: A Danish Underground Trip 1967-1974 (Esoteric). Every country had its psychedelic/progressive rock scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and Denmark’s small size didn’t keep it from producing lots of records to go with it. Many of them are sampled on this 30-track, nearly four-hour triple CD, plenty of which should be unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated Scandinavian rock hoarders.
Although some of these groups managed to get their discs released outside their native country, really only Savage Rose made much of an impact on English-speaking audiences, what with a few US LPs, Rolling Stone reviews by Lester Bangs, a Jimmy Miller-produced album, and even an appearance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. Bands like Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe (whose 1971 album W.W.W. made it onto John Peel’s Dandelion label), Young Flowers, and Culpeper’s Orchard have gained some modest recognition beyond their homeland in the twenty-first century. Yet for the most part, most of the names on this anthology are pretty unknown in comparison.
Is there a specifically Danish tone to these efforts? Not especially, most of the tracks bearing a heavy British prog influence. Lengthy (not infrequently, too lengthy) soloing abounds, and there’s plenty of organ, sometimes ethereal and classically shaded, to go with the guitar workouts. There are echoes, sometimes loud ones, of major UK prog stars like Pink Floyd, the Nice, and ELP, as well as subtler traces of King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Soft Machine, and the like. There’s a one-or-two-steps-removed-from-the-source feel that adds a bit of strangeness, as though the formula’s been a bit altered or tampered with, though almost all it’s sung in English.
At its best, the cuts lean as much or more toward psych or prog. Beefeaters’ instrumental (aside from some inscrutable mumbling) “Night Flight” (the sole 1967 track) is as much ghostly psych-garage as prog. Day of Phoenix’s “Tell Me” is rather like early Fairport Convention, unsurprisingly so since it’s a cover of the Dave Cousins composition “Tell Me What You See,” which was on the album Sandy Denny recorded with the Strawbs before joining Fairport. Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe’s “Avez Vous Kaskelainen?” is a hypnotic, propulsive instrumental driven by the kind of weedy organ favored by very early Soft Machine. Despite its 1969 release date, the same band’s “Jingle Jangle Man” sounds a little like the heavier parts of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. That leaves the intriguing, if unlikely, possibility that it actually influenced Bowie.
Too often, however, these outings succumb to bombast. Some of the soloing’s as tedious and overlong as any pedestrian British blues-rock band managed. Roundabout riffs are tossed off with flash, but little hooky melody or soul. On Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe’s “Ksilioy,” the best and worst of Danish psych/prog collide, as the first three minutes of blissful harmony-driven walk-through-the-forest power pop-cum-psych would fit snugly onto the original Perfume Garden compilations back in the ‘80s. But don’t get too comfy, as it then runs aground by repeating the same nagging riff for a full seven-and-a-half minutes. This isn’t daring experimentation; it’s being rude to the listener. I even wondered if my CD player had gotten stuck, but no such luck.
As a more general observation verging on criticism, few of these artists project much of an identity, even if their technique is almost on par with bigger British names. Admittedly the one, two, or three songs you get from each featured band aren’t enough for drawing definitive conclusions. Still, you can immediately tell it’s Savage Rose and no one else from the sound of the swirling organ on “Tapiola,” and Annisette’s freaky voice on “Long Before I Was Born.” No other group here puts such a distinctive stamp on their work.
If you’re in the mood for sounds from prog’s heyday that are a little off-kilter from the norm, however, this has its share of haunting passages and odd ideas. It’s best heard one disc at a time, though, to steer clear of getting overwhelmed by too much somber, ponderous riffage and winding near-epics at once. Esoteric’s dependably in-depth 36-page booklet has plenty of info on the bands, as well as vintage record sleeves and photos. ((This appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Ugly Things.)
22. Neil Young, Homegrown (Reprise). One of the most famous unissued albums of all time, Homegrown was originally planned for release in 1975. Famously, at least among Neil Young fans, it was replaced by another unreleased LP, Tonight’s the Night, after he played both for friends back to back and came to the decision/realization that Tonight’s the Night was stronger. Young’s been more active than almost any major musician in putting out vault material in the twenty-first century, and Homegrown finally made its official bow in 2020. Like many if not most unreleased albums whose mystique grows through the years, its belated unveiling is kind of underwhelming. It’s a mostly (though not exclusively) low-key collection emphasizing his mellower folk-country side.
Not everything fits that description, especially “Florida,” whose weird combination of inscrutable stoned rap with eerie musique concrete puts it on the fringe of the avant-garde. The basic blues “We Don’t Smoke It No More” seems similarly out of place, or almost as if Young is deliberately tweaking his audience with songs that are half-jokes. But the greater hindrance is that most of the tracks are sort of generic mid-‘70s Young, which is admittedly better than most mid-‘70s artists were at their best. Also, the best songs have been available for forty years or more on other releases, including the country tune “Love Is a Rose” (on Decade), “Star of Bethlehem” (on American Stars ’n Bars), and “Little Wing” (on Hawks & Doves). Homegrown was also issued as disc seven of the box set Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976, which is reviewed elsewhere on this list.
23. Bob Dylan, 50th Anniversary Collection 1970(Columbia). 1970 wasn’t one of the most illustrious years in Dylan’s career, but it was a productive one, if you’re just going by the quantity of music he recorded. Outtakes from this year have appeared elsewhere, especially on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). This very limited edition three-CD set isn’t part of his bootleg series; it’s part of his copyright extension series, with volumes issued near the end of most years as a fifty-year deadline approaches. There are no less than 74 previously unissued tracks here, although most of these are alternate versions of songs from his 1970 New Morning album, or (far more often) tossed off covers and revisitations of compositions he’d already put on his records. These go all the way back to “Song to Woody,” which he put on his debut album.
These aren’t any great shakes, and not just because these are outtakes. The New Morning songs weren’t too good in any version, with the exception of “If Not For You” (six versions are here) and maybe “Went to See the Gypsy.” It’s kind of interesting, though, to hear him running on half-or-less empty or autopilot, bereft of most of the inspiration he’d flashed in the 1960s, but casually keeping on going, even if it feels a little like going through the motions. There are lots of covers, some unexpected; was he doing Jay & the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” as a joke, or did he really like the song? Other unexpected choices include “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Universal Soldier,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Woman backup singers add some uncharacteristic touches, and Al Kooper plays some characteristically interesting keyboards, though he doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as he did on Dylan’s mid-‘60s sessions. I like how he mimics locust chirps on take 2 of “Day of the Locusts,” though, and the March 1970 take 6 of “Went to See the Gypsy” is fairly good (a different version from three months later was used on New Morning).
While most of the May 1, 1970 sessions on which George Harrison plays guitar and sings some backup vocals has long been bootlegged, note that these aren’t nearly as exciting as they might look on paper. Harrison’s guitar and singing aren’t at all prominent, and these are mostly covers, whether of oldies like “Matchbox” or some past Dylan standards like “I Threw It All Away” and “I Don’t Believe You.” It’s more of a casual jam than a serious session, and it turns out Harrison isn’t on a few of the songs, including some on which he’s formerly been reported to have played. There are no Harrison compositions in the batch, either. Note, by the way, that it was announced that this set will get a wider commercial release in 2021, with—gallingly, for those who’ve already tracked down this version—two additional tracks.
The following albums came out in 2019, but I didn’t hear them until 2020:
1. Lulu & the Luvvers, Live on Air 1965-1969 (London Calling, 2019). Despite the years in the title, actually this two-CD, 35-song set spans BBC radio recordings from December 1964 to January 1969. It’s the kind of flub you might expect from what seems to be a gray-area release. But the sound quality is very good – none of it’s “off-air,” as the term goes for material crudely taped from putting a recorder next to the radio, instead of as a feed from the broadcast or an actual broadcast tape. And here’s what’s more important—this is pretty good material that largely showcases Lulu’s underrated skills as a talented, earthy (and young—she was a teenager during most of this time) singer with plenty of US soul and R&B in her sound and repertoire.
Crucially, it also has quite a few covers that didn’t make her official releases of the period, most of them pretty good. These include Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song,” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” the Marvelows’ “I Do,” Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” and even the Monkees’ “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” “Mr. Moonlight,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cat Stevens’s “I Love My Dog,” and the Newbeats’ “Bread and Butter” aren’t as impressive, but at least make for something different. And she does a surprisingly rocking version of “Tennessee Waltz.”
Plenty of her ‘60s singles and LP tracks are here, too – not just the obvious “To Sir With Love” (two versions), but UK hits like “Shout,” “The Boat That I Row,” and “Leave a Little Love,” along with good songs whose studio counterparts are only familiar to serious Lulu fans, like “Can’t Hear You No More,” “I’ll Come Running,” “Heat Wave,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Surprise, Surprise.” The sound is thinner than her studio arrangements (and despite the title, her mid-‘60s backup band the Luvvers aren’t on everything). But that also eliminates some of the gaudier orchestration and pop touches, putting the focus a little more on her energetic vocals. And while this isn’t the sort of declaration that will win you acclaim from the rock critic community, overall the anthology reinforces her credentials as a significant talent who remains underrated.
2. The Bee Gees, Live on Air 1967-1968 (London Calling, 2019). True, there aren’t big surprises on this hour-long, 21-song compilation of early Bee Gees BBC sessions. There’s nothing they didn’t release back then, except the worthy if oddly titled “Mrs. Gillespie’s Refrigerator,” which can be heard in its studio version on an officially issued outtake. The arrangements don’t veer much off course the studio counterparts. But the sound quality and performances are good, and it’s a good mixture of all of their first half dozen big hits (“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Words,” “Massachusetts,” “To Love Somebody,” “Holiday,” “World”) and lesser known early tracks. Some of those less familiar songs are about as good as the hits (“In My Own Time,” “One Minute Woman”), and if “Birdie Told Me” and “Jumbo” aren’t of that caliber, well, they’re certainly satisfyingly obscure. In a way, this is about as good a representation of the late-‘60s Bee Gees’ strengths as a compilation of their better early studio tracks. Whether you’d go that far or not, it’s certainly a good listen.
3. The Move, Something More from the Move (Vogon, 2019). We’re talking a specialist release that by most measures wouldn’t rate near any best-of lists, owing to its sometimes iffy sound quality and position at the margins of a major group’s work. Still, I’m a British ‘60s rock specialist, and though I can hear the flaws, this does fill in significant margins of the Move discography. None of these thirteen tracks from radio broadcasts and live performances, spanning October 1966 to December 1967, have been released elsewhere before. It can be debated whether this is an official release, especially given the complete lack of liner notes, though at least the dates and locations are given.
But although most of the songs are available elsewhere in better (and certainly better recorded) versions, it’s still cool to have documents of the Move as they reached their prime. Most valuable of all are three songs from an October 24, 1966 radio session predating the release of their first single, since none of three are available in any other studio or live performances. “Cherry Cherry” is a somewhat eccentric cover of the Neil Diamond hit; “Tired of Being Lonely” covers a very obscure soul single by the Sharpies, and sounds more than a little like the Stevie Winwood lineup of the Spencer Davis Group. I don’t know the source of “Our Love” (that’s where the lack of composing credits is a real drawback), but it sounds like another soul cover to me.
Otherwise you have live performances, if sometimes roughly recorded, of their 1967 British hits; the less traveled but very good first-LP original “Walk Upon the Water”; and a few covers, one of which (“Eight Miles High”) doesn’t show up in any other Move version. And this one isn’t too good; it’s uncharacteristically sloppy in places. It’s interesting that the Move tried it, anyway, along with a few other Byrds songs from the time (two of which, “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” and “Why,” are also here).
4. The Troggs, Live on Air ’66-’68 (London Calling, 2019). Another reliably decent-sounding and underpublicized BBC compilation from the London Calling label, this two-CD compilation has nearly three dozen tracks from their radio appearances, as well as a few brief interviews. There aren’t many surprises here – for the most part these are pretty faithful renderings of songs widely available on their studio releases. Yes, there’s a cover they never put on their official discs, but their version of John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” wasn’t going to give either Hooker or the Animals (who did a much better one) sleepless nights. The guitar solo in “I Just Sing” sounds pretty exotic by their standards; on the flipside, “Gonna Make You All Mine” has some bass swoops that are so irritating you almost suspect they were deliberately annoying.
All their best hits are here (“Wild Thing,” “With a Girl Like You,” “I Can’t Control Myself,” “Love Is All Around,” “Night of the Long Grass”). But so are almost all of their better obscure early originals (“From Home,” “I Just Sing,” “66-5-4-3-2-1,” “Girl in Black,” “Maybe the Madman,” “Say Darlin’,”) as well as two performances of “I Can Only Give You Everything” – the only song here present in multiple versions. The presence of a lot of mediocre originals (especially those not sung by chief songwriter Reg Presley) reminds us that there was a pretty big gap between their genuinely excellent top-shelf originals and turkeys like “The Yella in Me,” “Little Red Donkey,” and “The Kitty Kat Song.” Sure, they could have played a few other of their better tunes not heard here – “Purple Shades,” “Jingle Jangle,” and “Cousin Jane,” in particular – but there’s still a better balance of hits and non-hits than there are in BBC compilations of most British acts from the time. It’s also interesting that Presley was aware of “I Can’t Control Myself”’s problems gaining airplay in the US, as in an interview he says its chart ascent was halted when it got (his term) “banned.”
5. Bob Dylan, 50th Anniversary Collection 1969 (Columbia, 2019). Like other volumes in what’s usually called Dylan’s copyright extension series, this was released as an extremely limited edition just before the year in which a “fiftieth anniversary” was about to expire – in this case, in December 2019. The double CD has 44 tracks, all of them recorded in 1969, and none of them previously available to my knowledge. In fact, none of them are even on 2019’s three-CD Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, which has quite a few 1969 outtakes. Before you get too excited, note that most of the items on this limited double disc are alternate versions, not songs haven’t circulated in other guises from the era. In that sense, they’re sort of outtakes of outtakes, mostly from the Nashville Skyline era. So there are previously unavailable, and pretty similar, outtakes of five Nashville Skyline songs, and previously unavailable alternates of about ten Dylan/Johnny Cash duets. Then there are five post-Nashville Skyline outtakes from spring 1969, most of them covers.
Virtually anyone with an awareness of this series knows going in that this isn’t the kind of stuff you count on hearing over and over. There’s not just similarity between previously circulating versions, but also a lot of repetition. There are, for instance, five versions of “To Be Alone With You”; six of “Lay, Lady, Lay” (granted that’s easily the best song here); and eight of “I Still Miss Someone.” The handful of post-Nashville Skyline tracks are no great shakes, including two versions of “Blue Moon,” another of “Ring of Fire” (without Cash, remember), and a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Take a Message to Mary.” All that noted, it’s pleasant enough hearing Dylan (and, often, Dylan with Cash) run through this material with an informal, loose vibe, as if he knows there’s no great reason to strain himself with this lightweight (“Lay, Lady, Lay” excepted) material. It’s a nice addition to the bulging library of Dylan completists (or at least completists for certain Dylan eras), of which there are quite a few.
As it was for films and records, there was fear the extraordinary conditions of 2020 would slow down the torrent of book releases. It’s really going to take the next year or two to gauge the total impact, but there was little if any decline in either the quantity or quality of rock history books. Nor the variety: there were biographies, memoirs, genre overviews, gaudily illustrated coffee table volumes, and more.
Some readers might think it will be easier to keep the flow of books up, if your image of the writer is someone who just sits and types until he or she is finished. Maybe the limit to public gatherings and facilities will affect publishing less than film production or record manufacturing, but that’s not the whole story. If writers can’t visit libraries or other historical archives, their research will be handicapped or incomplete for quite some time.
As for speculation that interview subjects will be more available than usual if they’re not performing concerts or staying home far more often, that’s not always the case either. Restrictions on travel mean less in-person interviews and access to personal collections. And not everyone might be in as willing a mood to talk as they usually are, owing to the trying circumstances with which we’re all dealing.
For the last paragraph of bad news, the publishing industry has been badly affected over the last year, like most businesses have. Books have likely been delayed or canceled. It’s harder to get them printed and distributed, and there’s certainly less traffic at physical retail stores that remain open. Even the mail is a less reliable service for ordering books, especially between countries.
All that out of the way, my list for 2020 is nonetheless as long as usual. Also as usual, it doesn’t include several candidates I haven’t checked out, whether it’s because they’re still on my library hold list, or items that can’t currently ship from the UK, or books of which I’m not yet even aware. Notable ones I catch up with over the coming year can at least be reviewed as a supplement to my 2021 list, as I’ve done with a few 2019 titles I’ve listed at the end of this one.
1. Heart Full of Soul: Keith Relf of the Yardbirds, by David French (McFarland). While this high ranking might reflect my extreme interest in the subject matter more than the genuinely decent quality of the book, it’s good (and overdue) to have a biography of the Yardbirds’ lead singer. This book’s on the slim side at under 200 pages, but it doesn’t need to be longer, covering Relf’s story crisply without dragging or embellishing to make for a bigger volume, as often happens in rock bios. It benefits from first-hand interviews with Yardbirds Jim McCarty (also in Renaissance) and Paul Samwell-Smith (who also produced Renaissance’s first album), as well as Relf’s wife and members of his post-Yardbirds bands Renaissance, Medicine Head, and Armageddon.
Relf’s time with the Yardbirds takes up more than half the book, and his story is in many respects the Yardbirds story, as he was the most important member who was with them for all five years of their career. While moody intensity often came through in his vocals and songwriting, this reveals the real-life problems—including depressive episodes, major health threats, and a failing marriage—that also impacted his music and performances. Several of his professional and personal associates stress that he was something of an eccentric loner who was enigmatic and hard to fully know, and ill-suited to longevity in a music business where shunning the rock’n’roll lifestyle doesn’t usually work to your advantage.
The focus remains on the music, Relf getting his due as an underrated singer and harmonica player in particular. There’s plenty of description of his tours and recordings, though just a few surprising factual mistakes slip through (Elektra Records repeatedly being misspelled as Electra, for one). Along with Jim McCarty’s memoir Nobody Told Me!, this finally gets a good Yardbirds-centered book on the shelves, more than half a century after they broke up.
2. Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, by Rose Simpson (Strange Attractor). Rose Simpson was part of the Incredible String Band from around mid-1968 to the end of 1970, when the group expanded from the duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron to a four-piece with Simpson and Licorice McKechnie. Simpson was Heron’s partner and McKechnie was Williamson’s, though the relationships were open to varying degrees. This memoir goes into her time with the band in considerable detail, from around the time she met Heron through UK and US tours (including a disappointing appearance at Woodstock) and several albums. Along with the detail are well written, straightforward perspectives on the group’s unusual dynamic, which was fluid and rather whimsical, certainly by the standards of fairly successful bands with lengthy recording careers. Simpson, for instance, had barely any musical experience before joining, and wasn’t even that knowledgeable about pop music.
There’s a lot here that will interest any ISB fan, and some general fans of late-‘60s/early-‘70s folk and rock. Highlights include her comparisons of Williamson and Heron’s writing styles (Williamson being more given to cosmic flight, Heron to earthly concerns); observations on recording and working with manager/producer Joe Boyd, who ran the Witchseason roster of which they were a part; their erratic attempts at communal/rural living; the indulgent and in some ways disastrous attempts to branch out into film (with Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending) and multimedia theater (with the performance group Stone Monkey); and the sometimes exhilarating, often exhausting American tours, where they found ecstatic audiences at the Fillmores in New York and San Francisco, but not so much elsewhere. Especially refreshing are detailed memories of the recording sessions in which she took part, as those are often skimmed over or neglected in musician memoirs.
There’s also a lot about the group’s involvement in Scientology, though Simpson never fully committed to it, and it’s her (and some others’, like Boyd’s) view that it wielded a negative influence on the group’s music and lives. There are also encounters, sometimes volatile, with a wide variety of fellow rock celebrities (and cult artists like Vashti, Nick Drake, and Van Dyke Parks), including the Doors, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Keith Moon, who played drums on Heron’s solo album Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. As to the mystery that many fans are most curious about – what happened to McKechnie, who seemed to vanish thirty years ago – Simpson’s clear that she doesn’t know. She does devote several pages to discussing Licorice, leaving the impression her bandmate was an enigma that she and most others couldn’t get to know too well. You can read much more about Simpson and her book in this lengthy story I recently published, based on my recent in-depth interview with her.
3. Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, by Andy Neill (BMG). The subtitle of this coffee table production is accurate: “The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV.” Ready Steady Go! was the top British rock/pop/soul television program of the mid-‘60s, and in some people’s view the best rock TV show of all time. Over the course of more than fifteen years, Neill interviewed many of the people involved in its production, with the notable exception of the program’s most frequent host, Cathy McGowan. The text alternates between Neill’s history and extensive quotes from many of the producers, hosts, directors, technicians, and musicians involved in the show when it aired from 1963 to 1966. In a coup for a book of this sort, there are extensive multi-page comments from some of the top stars to appear on Ready Steady Go!, including Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Donovan, Eric Burdon, and Lulu.
The volume’s also sumptuously illustrated with many photos (some in color) taken on the set, as well as some vintage press clips, memos, and memorabilia. There’s also a meticulously detailed episode-by-episode guide listing all the performers and (when known, which is usually the case) songs, an appearance index, and even an analysis of the show’s ratings. Why isn’t it #1 on this list, after all that? Some of the comments from the oral histories on the behind-the-scenes production machinations are a little dry and technical, and through no flaws on the author’s part, it’s not quite as consistently compelling a story as the biography and memoir that outranked it. Certainly a good argument could be made for naming it book of the year, however. Just as certainly, it makes you lament the short-term thinking that found just a small percentage of the episodes and footage preserved; most of it’s almost certainly vanished for good.
4. The Velvet Underground: I Met Myself in a Dream…That’s the Story of the Third Album, by M.C. Kostek, Alfredo Garcia, and Ignacio Julia(Velvet Underground Appreciation Society). Bearing an October 2019 publication date but certainly unavailable in the US until 2020, this 336-page hefty hardback is limited to an edition of 500 copies. Largely devoted to nearly 200 photos taken of the Velvet Underground in November 1968, it is of course something geared toward very serious fans, especially since it’s $100. But if you are one (and I am one), it’s real interesting, and not just for the pictures. Of course the pictures are the main deal, with about 100 taken as they were recording their third album in TTG Studios in Los Angeles on November 6, 1968, and nearly 80 others at various Southern Californian outdoor locations (probably but not definitely Los Angeles) outside the studio a couple days later. Almost all are in black and white, though eight of the outdoor photos are in color. Besides offering many glimpses of the Velvets at work in the studio section, the outdoor pictures capture their transition to hippie decor, complete with frilly paisley shirts, bell bottoms, and (for Sterling Morrison) orange pants.
There’s not much text, just a couple brief essays that focus on explaining the background of the photos and the third album. But although those have some unfortunate typos, they’re of additional interest for offering a little in the way of obscure information. In particular, the first of the essays describes material on a demo tape performed by Lou Reed (who did most of the singing) and John Cale of Reed compositions in 1965, mailed to himself on May 11 to establish copyright. This is in Reed’s archive in the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, but not many have heard it so far, and this is the first time I’ve seen it written about, albeit not in extreme depth.
The latter section of the book features lots of reprints of ads, reviews, acetates, tape boxes, and other miscellany related to the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album and what the band were doing around that time. This again has some rarely seen material, some of which reveals information that hasn’t circulated much if at all elsewhere, like early titles to some songs on the third LP. The paper and reproduction quality are very good, and despite the high price tag I’m guessing it will sell out, if you want to put in your order (through inevitablevucatalogue.wordpress.com) while you can.
5. 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History, by Paul Drummond (Anthology Editions). Paul Drummond wrote the comprehensive 13th Floor Elevators biography Eye Mind (published in 2007), and while the text in this new book is interesting, there’s a lot of overlap between what the two volumes cover. Much of it’s devoted to quotes from interviews, done by himself and others, that provided much of the research for Eye Mind. The main reason to check out this new work, even if you have Eye Mind, are the numerous and impressive illustrations in this large-format paperback. There are many photos, posters, newspaper clippings, ads, letters, documents, and other memorabilia related to the Elevators’ career, much of it never published before to my knowledge, and a good deal of it in color. The extensive captions go into a great deal of detail about the graphics, sometimes with quotes from people who were there. It fully lives up to the “visual history” promised in its title, though you should go on to read Eye Mind if you want a fuller history of the Elevators.
That recommendation dispensed, here are a couple criticisms that are small in the large picture. The sole Elevators interview printed during their lifetime (dominated by Tommy Hall), from the December 1967 issue of the Houston magazine Mother, is reproduced here in its entirety. Great, except the pages are so small they’re hard to read; I managed, but I think an appreciable number of readers won’t. And sure the 13th Floor Elevators have a large cult following, but the text’s assertion that their second album “Easter Everywhere’s importance as the [italics included in the book] psychedelic album of the period has now been fully recognized” is unwarranted. By whom? A few critics and devoted fans? More fully by the general music community than Sgt. Pepper, The Doors, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Are You Experienced, or Surrealistic Pillow? The 13th Floor Elevators were a good and certainly very interesting group; there’s no need to puff up their historical status with that kind of overkill.
6. Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Independent Project Records & Press, compiled by Bruce Licher and Karen Nielsen Licher(P22 Publications). Bruce Licher is known for constructing odd, spooky, primarily instrumental soundscapes in his alternative rock bands, of which Savage Republic and Scenic are the most well known. He’s also known, and not solely within the indie rock world, for his distinctive letterpress design work. It’s adorned records by groups in which he’s played, acts on the Independent Project label, and other record releases, posters, stamps, and other ephemera, extending to record company stationery. His visuals and layouts often bridge lettering both ancient and futuristic, often incorporating haunting images, photos, and unpredictable splashes of color. His perfectionist eye for detail extends to this 236-page coffee table book, which lays out an astonishing wealth and variety of his artwork, from the first Independent Project releases in 1980 to the present.
Interspersed throughout the book are essays on his various stages of development, from the Savage Republic era and his time in an ancient downtown Los Angeles building to his moves to Arizona and the Sierra Nevada. Detailed captions give the background to all of the reproductions, and while the text is straightforward, some amusing stories surface, like how he arranged to put stamps of his own design alongside official US stamps on mail, or how his stint designing poetry book covers for Penguin ended as poets felt they looked too much like small-press efforts (“the poets actually wanted glossy full-color covers!”). The range of his clients expanded from IPR-related projects (including early releases by Camper Van Beethoven) to bands like R.E.M. and labels like A&M Records, Licher eventually using more computer technology in his work without compromising the individuality of his output.
At $79.95, this is an expensive purchase, though justified by the high quality of the visuals and production. A 350-copy deluxe edition, including a bonus LP and a few other extras of less note, is already sold out. The LP, with fourteen previously unreleased tracks from various Licher musical projects spanning 1980 to 2019, is highly worthwhile, and reviewed separately in my post covering the top reissues of 2020. Read my story on Savage Impressions and Bruce Licher, based on an extensive recent interview with him, here.
7. Time Between: My Life As a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond, by Chris Hillman (BMG). In keeping with his low-key team player persona in most of his bands, Hillman’s memoir is a straightforward, unflashy, likable recount of his career. The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers have been covered extensively in several books, most notably Johnny Rogan’s huge Byrds volumes and Hot Burritos, which Hillman himself co-wrote with John Einarson. There isn’t an enormous amount you’ll learn about Hillman’s most famous work if you’re familiar with those books, and with the history of his groups in general. But while there’s more on the Byrds/Burritos than anything else, he does cover less familiar ground, including his teenage folk-bluegrass years (scarred by the suicide of his father), Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay quasi-supergroup, McGuinn Clarke & Hillman, and the country act the Desert Rose Band, in which he served as leader.
If you’re looking for some less-traveled Byrds stories, while there aren’t a whole lot, it’s interesting to read how he wrote “So You Wanna Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” with Roger McGuinn, which he clarifies was not specifically about the Monkees, and how playing on demos for South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu gave him some impetus to start writing and singing his own songs. As to the controversy over McGuinn replacing some of Gram Parsons’s lead vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman simply feels “Roger’s vocals were better in the end,” the album including “just the right balance of singers.” It’s not a secret as he’s spoken and written about this in the past, but Hillman’s memories of Parsons are decidedly mixed, combining great admiration of his talent and charm with disappointment at his unreliability and egotism.
The post-early-‘70s years don’t make for as much interesting reading, but Hillman knows not to dwell on the less celebrated parts of his career and maintain a reasonably interesting flow. There are some passages on his Christian faith, but not many, and these aren’t unduly obtrusive. Dry humor and realistic observations on the music business emerge from time to time, as in this summary of manager Larry Spector’s supplying the inspiration for the Burritos’ “Sin City,” in which he’s targeted: “At least he gave me something after robbing me blind.”
8. West Side Story, by Richard Barrios (Turner Classic Movies). Film musicals aren’t mainstays of my record collection, and books about them haven’t made appearances on my lists. West Side Story is the only film musical I really like, however, and this is a good book about how it was made, with plenty of photos. This follows its genesis as a Broadway play to the 1961 film, which was a stormy collaboration between directors Jerome Robbins (who was fired partway through the production as he was taking too much time and spending too much money) and Robert Wise. There’s a lot of back-story to how the cast was chosen, how the New York scenes were filmed, and how cast and crew coped with setbacks include cost/time overruns, quite a few physical injuries, and some tension between key actors. There are also sections on how it was promoted and received by critics and audiences, as well as differences between the play and the movie. I would have liked some more specific description of how the rumble scene was filmed, and didn’t need a final chapter about the recent remake (now not scheduled for release until late 2021). But overall, this is a more consistently interesting and crisply written volume than almost anything on this list.
9. All I Ever Wanted: A Rock’n’Roll Memoir, by Kathy Valentine (University of Texas Press). The autobiography of the Go-Go’s bassist and sometime guitarist concentrates almost exclusively on her life through 1990, when the group reformed after breaking up only four years after she joined. It’s a well written and, more unusually for rock memoirs, very well balanced account, covering recording, performing, songwriting, guitar playing, band and record business dynamics, and personal life and passions without leaning too hard or too long on any aspect. The chapters on her unconventionally permissive upbringing in Austin are about as worthwhile as those on the star period, and disturbingly frank in a couple reports of sexual assault. Her time with Carla Olson in the Textones (who recorded the original version of “Vacation”) is given its due, Valentine observing the band couldn’t break through in part because they were so different depending on whether they were doing Olson’s or Valentine’s songs.
Valentine’s rise to superstardom was rapid after she replaced Margot Olavarria in the Go-Go’s, and she recounts their tours, hijinx, and hits enthusiastically without overdoing it. It’s interesting to read how the band were initially highly disappointed in the sound of their debut album, finding it too clean. As she admits, “My opinion changed proportionally with the increasing sales.” And she has the perspective to add, “Sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like to re-record Beauty and the Beat the way I would like it to sound, with thick, full tones and textures. But then I remember the ephemeral spirit infusing the recording process, the anticipation and joy of a fleeting time, and I know something else was captured that could never be reproduced.”
And then, the downside: not enough time to concentrate on writing strong material for follow-up albums; disputes over songwriting credits, publishing money, and management; getting coerced into publicity that exploited their perky image; and the breakup, to her shock, of the band in the mid-1980s, as she anticipated getting ready to record an album with producer Mike Chapman. She had more trouble than the other Go-Go’s in launching a separate career, and those difficulties are elaborated, as are her affairs with Chapman and Clem Burke. Drugs and alcohol were also a problem with some Go-Go’s, and there is, as there are in so many rock memoirs, a section devoted to her time in AA and recovery. The post-1990 years are briefly summed up in an epilogue, which might have been a tough call if she wanted to tell stories about the reformed Go-Go’s, their lawsuits, and their reunions. To be harsh, if so it was the correct one, as what’s here is solid without much of the post-peak hangover that makes the latter half of many memoirs tough sledding.
10. Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir, by Mark Lanegan (Hachette). If you’re interested enough to be reading a list like this, you’ve probably read numerous musical memoirs that at least in part document harrowing descents into substance abuse. Even by the standards of the most graphic of those, Lanegan’s is exceptionally grim and detailed. It’s often gripping, but there will be times when you might wish it wasn’t as graphic, or at least that the story moves along quicker to the usual rehab and redemption. In this case, it doesn’t come until the very end (and more than twenty years ago), after he’s spent much of the 1980s and 1990s looking to score, even and especially on lengthy tours throughout North America and Europe. Along the way, he helped drag a number of friends and acquaintances along the same path, whether doing drugs with them, selling drugs to them (and to many strangers), or letting lowlifes crash in his pad because they shared or helped him obtain what he wanted and needed.
Is there much about music amidst the chaos? Yes, though especially as the tale grinds on, maybe there should have been more. Lanegan has lots to say, much unflattering, about Screaming Trees, and also about his early solo career, which was considerably more vital in establishing his reputation as a dark alternative rock singer-songwriter. He also has much to say, again often though not always unflattering, about lots of pretty well known figures in the rock world with whom he was associated. That includes the heads of Sub Pop Records (who used a cover shot on his solo debut without his consent, and unceremoniously dumped him by handing his tapes back for his incomplete second album – before asking him back on the label), Nirvana (whose bassist Krist Novoselic asked to join Screaming Trees, though Lanegan turned him down), and Courtney Love (who paid for much of his expenses as he went through rehab). There are also weird and sometimes grisly anecdotes about a host of others, ranging from Greg Sage of the Wipers and 4AD Records chief Ivo Watts-Russell to A&R guy Bob Pfeifer, Liam Gallagher of Oasis, film director David O. Russell, and Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The music business is depicted as a harsh and capricious place, though maybe it often has to be to handle talents as volatile as Lanegan’s.
Lanegan doesn’t make excuses for his behavior, recounted in a straightforward and unflinching fashion, though his troubled family upbringing is discussed. Also there is not much moralizing about drugs or the redemptive power of rehab, and the expected frustrating near-misses when he seemed on the verge of escaping drug hell on his own. There’s not a great deal of self-introspection about the damage he wreaked on himself and others, though in some ways the story speaks for itself.
11. Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina, by Chris Frantz (St. Martin’s Press). Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club drummer Frantz’s memoir concentrates on just what the subtitle says, his wife Tina Weymouth being of course bassist in both of his bands. Although there’s quite a bit (some would say too much) about his childhood/teenage years and family, the core is devoted to the formation and rise of Talking Heads, especially in the mid-to-late 1970s. It’s pretty well known by now that three-fourths of the group have had different views than singer David Byrne about the nature of the individual and collective contributions to Talking Heads’ sound. Frantz states in his intro that he wants his book to present his view on the “the true inside story,” which is different than some others that have circulated over the years.
If you want examples of Byrne’s at times asocial and inconsiderate behavior, there are quite a few, dating back to when the band formed in Rhode Island. However, Frantz also credits Byrne with a lot of talent as a singer, performer, and songwriter, though they (and Brian Eno) had substantially differing views of how composer credits should be apportioned. There are also numerous inside stories of encounters, close and passing, with plenty of figures from the CBGB’s and beyond. Some are very complimentary portraits (Lenny Kaye); some are mixed but overall quite positive (Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal). Some are mildly unflattering (Patti Smith), and some very unflattering (John Martyn, who though far removed from Talking Heads stylistically, crossed paths with them when Martyn was recording). And there are up-and-down interactions with people that could be pretty strange, like Lou Reed, Phil Spector, and Johnny Ramone.
But much more of the book covers Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club’s music and creative processes, both onstage and in the studio. The book hits its best stride when discussing how they aimed to make their recordings different from their live shows; how they wanted to make each album different; and how Frantz and Weymouth wanted to make their Tom Tom Club group different from Talking Heads, only getting a deal with Seymour Stein after they’d started to take off in Europe. The stories of how rough it was living in the Lower East Side when Talking Heads started out are pretty gripping, and the accounts of life at CBGB’s (musical and otherwise) when a punk/new wave scene started to blossom there pretty insightful. For all these reasons, Talking Heads fans, and fans of the ‘70s New York new wave scene in general, will find much to interest them. You can read more about it in my interview with Chris Frantz about the book.
12. The Ox: The Authorized Biography of the Who’s John Entwistle, by Paul Rees (Hachette). Entwistle was the least colorful member of the Who, though of course he had more competition than a guy in any other band would have when matched with Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, and Roger Daltrey. His stock-still, deadpan persona was an important part of what rounded the group’s image off, but in all his life makes more for a reasonably interesting story than a sensational one. That’s what you get with this bio, which covers both his musical contributions (his virtuosic bass playing and offbeat, often macabre songwriting) and his surprisingly tumultuous personal life, given his stolid persona. While in some respects he was a normal family man, he also indulged in typical rock star excesses – drinking a lot and drugging his share, spending money on countless indulgences, and womanizing, leading to his early death in middle age.
The book benefits from excerpts from a memoir Entwistle started but didn’t come close to completing, as well as cooperation from some close associates, including his son and two wives (but not Townshend or Daltrey). Much of this covers ground that will be familiar to Who fans, but it’s told well and does have fresh interviews with friends and colleagues who haven’t ever or often been quoted. There could have been more about his music, specifically his songwriting – interesting Who B-sides he wrote like “Heaven and Hell” and “Doctor Doctor” are mentioned only in passing. And how can you not write about his compositions “Silas Stingy” (about a guy who hoards so much he ends up with nothing at all) and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (possibly about his pal Moon) considering the obvious real-life personality traits they document?
While plenty of rock bios/memoirs document a descent into musical mediocrity and personal chaos, Entwistle’s was sharper and more depressing than most. His tours outside the Who were poorly received, and his solo albums largely uninteresting. The girlfriend with whom he spent his final years is almost universally vilified as a corrupting influence. The post-Moon years only take up the last third or so of the book, which will be a fairly worthwhile read for Who fans, but not on the level of Tony Fletcher’s Moon biography or the memoirs of Townshend and Daltrey.
13. Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, by Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts (Heyday). For about twenty years after World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore district was the center of the city’s African-American cultural life. This book deftly combines more than 200 photos with oral history quotes from people who were there, and some explanatory background text by the authors. Many local jazz, blues, and R&B musicians—whether residents or touring—played in Fillmore clubs, and many of the pictures the authors uncovered document performances. Some famous figures are seen (not always performing), from Chet Baker and John Coltrane to Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday; some were more local/regional in their principal success, like Sugar Pie DeSanto and Saunders King; and some are not just obscure, but unidentified. There are also pictures of local life, whether club audiences, bars, district businesses, informal get-togethers, and the top neighborhood record store.
For all its liveliness, the Fillmore black music scene didn’t develop too much of a distinct or influential regional sound. Maybe it was too small, and some of the top homegrown musicians, like Etta James, moved elsewhere to journey to stardom. Also, even as it was thriving, urban redevelopment schemes were underway that razed much of the area, relocating many residents and destroying quite a few local businesses. And while San Francisco wasn’t as rampantly prejudiced as many US cities, even in its heyday, musicians and residents suffered blatant discrimination in obtaining work and housing. This is also covered in the text and some photos, serving as a sober record of how an ethnic enclave can be weakened and in some ways decimated by insensitive government policies. Read more about the book in my story after it was published, based on an interview with the authors.
14. Let’s Stomp!: American Music That Made British Beat 1954-1967, by Peter Checksfield (peterchecksfield.com). Peter Checksfield’s been cranking out valuable reference books covering pre-1980 (and especially 1960s) British rock over the past couple of years, with volumes documenting the TV/movie/promo films of British ‘60s rockers, the Beatles, and the glam era. This goes into different territory, listing more than 2000 American songs that were covered by British artists between, as the subtitle says, 1954 and 1967. The original versions, and all the UK cover versions Checksfield could find, are documented with original release information. The UK covers of specific songs include not just the first or best-known ones, but all of them, even if there were nearly a dozen (as there were, for instance, for some Chuck Berry compositions).
It’s not just a catalog-like volume of lists. Each of the covers is briefly but vividly described and evaluated, with stars awarded to the one Checksfield judges the best. When a cover is clearly based on a version that’s not the original, the likely actual recording that served as an inspiration is noted. When a song that’s been retitled from the original, or adapted from the original even if it bears different songwriting credits (not too rare an occurrence, alas), that’s noted too. Room is made for some artists from other countries who were based in the UK, like the Walker Brothers, P.J. Proby, and the Bee Gees (born in the UK but based in Australia for the first few years of their recording career). The lists of covers get into some really obscure recordings, including non-UK-only releases and even some versions that only circulate unofficially, or as video performances.
Checksfield is pretty generous in his assessment of the quality of many of the covers—more generous than I would be, in many instances. That’s not such a big deal, however, since his descriptions of the sounds are pretty accurate, and his designations of favorites usually on the money. The volume also makes it plain that, as much as British Invasion groups from the Beatles on down were rightfully hailed for digging deep into obscure US recordings for much of their repertoire, that had been happening with UK artists going back to the mid-‘50s.
His documentation made me aware of some obscure British ‘60s releases (including anthologies of BBC and live recordings) I’d never been aware of. It also made me aware of many original versions I’d not only never been aware of, but never suspected. To take just two examples, I’d always figured Herman’s Hermits “The Man with a Cigar” to be an attempt by someone to drag them into more sophisticated lyrics, not realizing it was a 1963 soul single by Lew Courtney. Simon Dupree’s “Kites,” a 1967 psychedelic hit, turns out to have first been done by the Rooftop Singers, of all people.
If you want to pick on such a mammoth work for occasional omissions, there are a few. The Small Faces’ cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” is listed, but not the ones by Scotland’s finest ‘60s group, the Poets, or the Who (who didn’t release theirs at the time, but whose 1964 demo version came out on the expanded Odds and Sods CD). Nor is the Kinks’ 1967 BBC cover of Spider John Koerner’s “Good Luck Child” (which they retitled “Good Luck Charm”). Some artists who began overseas but relocated to the UK aren’t covered, most notably the Easybeats. And though early 1963 Rolling Stones demos (all cover versions) are noted as unreleased, actually they did officially come out on the 80-track version of the 2012 GRRR! compilation. These are tiny flaws, however, in a valuable reference work, and maybe can be corrected in an updated edition.
15. Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown). Guralnick is one of the pre-eminent writers on American roots music, most notably via his collections Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway; his southern soul history Sweet Soul Music; and biographies of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips. Like Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway, this is a collection of essays and articles, most on prominent musicians like Joe Tex, Lonnie Mack, Delbert McClinton, Tammy Wynette, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Howlin’ Wolf. There are also a few pieces that go outside his usual format, including an interview with Eric Clapton; stories on (non-music) writers Lee Smith and Henry Green; and a couple essays going into his personal and family history. There are also portraits of key non-recording stars like songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Presley manager Colonel Tom Parker; and blues songwriter Willie Dixon. Most of these draw upon first-person interviews with the subjects, with whom he often hung out at recording sessions, offices, concerts, and such while gathering material.
Guralnick radiates such decency and sincere passion that I’m not eager to supplement that summary with some criticisms. But his portraits are often overzealous in their championship of heroic qualities in these men and women’s lives and art. This enthusiasm also spills over into the how the stories are written, with extraneous asides and breathlessly long sentences. From his report on sitting in on sessions for Maine country singer Dick Curless’s final album in the mid-1990s: “But it was his own quiet certitude most of all that established the mood that quickly took hold and convinced us unquestionably (though I must admit, the question still lingers in my mind, did Dick himself need any convincing?) that we had all set off on a spiritual journey, a journey that was likely to lead to exaltation and grace if we were simply willing to commit ourselves to it in our own way, with or without explicit belief.” I don’t think I could have gotten that worked up even if I’d sat in on the sessions for the Doors’ first album.
This has plenty of info and insights on some major (and minor, as most would classify Curless) figures in blues, rock’n’roll, soul, and country music. Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway are more focused and more stylistically restrained, though hardly unenthusiastic. That makes them better reads for me, even though I don’t share his passion for all of the musicians he celebrates.
16. A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s, by Mike Barnes (Omnibus). At nearly 600 pages, this is a hefty history of a major rock genre that has never before been honored with such a comprehensive book. It’s not so much a straight chronological history, however, as it is centered around chapters on specific UK prog acts, most of them well known. Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Mike Oldfield, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer are obvious suspects, and a lot of the more cultish but prominent ones are covered too (Soft Machine, Van Der Graaf Generator, Gong, Henry Cow, Caravan). There are also sections on prog festivals, its coverage in the rock press, drug use and fashion among prog musicians and fans, and prog’s relationship with British folk-rock, among other sub-topics.
The book’s chief asset is the fresh research, as Barnes did first-hand interviews with many of the musicians, including a lot of the stars as well as the lesser known figures. However, the separate chapters on numerous artists does mean that none of them are documented in extreme depth, and some represented elsewhere by comprehensive books devoted solely to a specific act. Personally I would have liked more description and analysis of the interrelationships between different prog groups and movements, and how the huge genre as a whole grew and morphed over the course of about a decade. Also maybe more in-depth Q&A interviews, of which there are only a few: the one with Sonja Kristina of Curved Air is not only extremely interesting, it’s my favorite part of the book. On the whole, of course this will have info (and knowledgeable perspective from the author) that will be valued by any prog rock enthusiast. Many would have wanted more (or sometimes less) coverage of specific favorites, but it’s hard to get a book published that runs more than 600 pages, and such broader coverage would have made that necessary.
17. Have a Cigar! The Memoir of the Man Behind Pink Floyd, T. Rex, the Jam, and George Michael, by Bryan Morrison (Quiller). The title is overly grandiose: Bryan Morrison was indeed involved in the business side of all of those acts, but sometimes for a short while, and more on the publishing/booking side than the personal managerial one. Written in the early 1990s, this was shelved when Morrison didn’t like how it had been rewritten by a publisher. Ten years after his 2008 death, it was edited by Barry Johnston and, with a few explanatory notes, issued in 2020. Boring technical note: it has a 2019 publication date, but certainly wasn’t available for purchase until 2020, hence its inclusion on this list.
This is a quick, breezy, and fairly entertaining read. It’s almost like an entertainment world equivalent to the O Lucky Man! film in how Morrison bounced from project to project (not always in the music business), often finding great success, and sometimes going bankrupt or nearly dying. There are amusing, if sometimes depressing, stories of the inside machinations of the rock world, whether it’s an unhinged Syd Barrett biting Morrison’s hand to the bone; Roger Waters dispassionately firing Morrison as Pink Floyd approached ‘70s stardom; and Paul Weller blowing the Jam’s chance for US success by dismissing a chance for an interview with a row of high-powered American media to talk with fans. Although the Pretty Things are not cited in the book’s subtitle, they were a vital stepping stone to Morrison’s career as the first band whose affairs he handled (as their co-manager in their early years).
This isn’t all that long (about 220 pages with a good share of blank chapter-dividing pages), and there’s a sense that Morrison could have said a lot more about his clients, who also included (at various stages) Robin Gibb, Keith West, and Wham! There’s also a feeling of impersonal distance from the music, though his enthusiasm does sometimes surface, and not always like you’d expect: he unreservedly hails Barrett’s pair of cult solo albums as classics, and accurately notes that “the songs he had written were wonderful and spoke of simplicity.” And in common with the autobiographies of numerous music business moguls, he gives equal treatment to a wide circle of artists that no reader will like equally: there really isn’t too much overlap between Syd Barrett and George Michael fans, for instance. Then there’s the issue of how he devotes quite a bit of space to non-musical endeavors – his investments in the fashion and design world, and his passion for polo – that rock fans might not want to bother with. It’s a volume for British rock specialists, particularly those with a bent for the kind of emerging underground rocks Morrison somehow tended to work with, though he didn’t seem like too much of a cultural radical himself.
18. Peter and the Wolves, by Adele Bertei (Smog Veil). Originally published in 2013 in a limited edition of 200, this slim memoir is now more widely available in a revised version. It’s slim because, although Bertei has had a long career in music (most famously with the Contortions), film, and writing, this focuses almost wholly on her experiences with Peter Laughner in the mid-1970s as she began to seriously pursue music. The subject of a recent box set that was also issued by Smog Veil, Laughner is one of rock history’s foremost examples of a talented musician, singer, and songwriter who didn’t reach his potential, with barely any released recordings before his death in his mid-twenties in 1977. Bertei mixes memories of her own artistic awakenings as she emerged from a troubled adolescence with her experiences with Laughner, who was kind of a mentor to her when they were roommates in Cleveland.
In some ways this was an exciting time to be around Laughner and the Cleveland underground rock scene, as he was a key member of Rocket from the Tombs and early Pere Ubu with David Thomas. Laughner did much to encourage her entry into the world of professional musicianship and increase her knowledge of rock music in general. At the same time, he was prey to the demons of substance abuse and rock and roll excess as much as any dissolute superstar, though without the accompanying commercial success and widespread recognition. It’s disheartening to read not only tales of his reckless behavior (some involving guns), but also how he sabotaged his prospects in numerous musical projects, almost as if he had a fear of success even on an underground level.
Bertei celebrates his qualities, but doesn’t shirk from detailing the sordid and tragic aspects of his life, although she transcended these to make her mark on the New York underground. It’s a worthwhile account, illustrated with some vintage photos, but a frustrating one, as it reads like the first part of what should be a full memoir. Bertei notes in the acknowledgements that this was originally meant as part one of a lengthier memoir in progress, and one hopes she completes that in the future. You can read my interview with Bertei about the book here.
19. It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Story: My Life in the Hollies, by Bobby Elliott (Omnibus). The memoir by the Hollies’ drummer doesn’t make this list on its literary merit. So be warned: unless you’re a big fan of the Hollies, you won’t be interested. And even if you are a pretty big fan of the Hollies, like I am, you’ll likely find it a pretty matter-of-fact and dry read. Even considering the large print, there’s surprisingly little of high interest in this 320-page book, often told in a “then this happened, then that happened” manner. Surprises are few, among them his story of how Paul McCartney tried to get him to join Wings, or running across Pretty Things drummer Viv Prince in a London gutter. But there’s a shortage of commentary on songs, recording sessions, or just what set Elliott’s fine, distinctive drumming apart from his contemporaries; he does express his admiration for jazz, but there aren’t many specific examples of how it was applied to the Hollies’ pop-rock. Nor is there much reflection on the personal and musical dynamics of the group, though there’s some insight into what drove Graham Nash to leave in the late 1960s, and lead singer Allan Clarke’s mercurial comings and goings in the ‘70s.
There’s enough in the way of musical and touring tidbits to keep you going if you’re looking for more info on the Hollies, who still don’t have a good book dedicated to their career. And, thankfully, the post-‘70s years, when they’ve pretty much been a nostalgia act, are dealt with in just a few pages. But I think the average British Invasion fan, and even some serious Hollies fans, are going to be disappointed. You want a good memoir by a top British drummer who emerged in the mid-‘60s? There were two, actually, in 2018: Jim McCarty’s Nobody Told Me: My Life with the Yardbirds, Renaissance & Other Stories, and Kenney Jones’s Let the Good Times Roll: The Autobiography.
20. Do You Feel Like I Do? A Memoir, by Peter Frampton with Alan Light (Hachette). Kind of like I wrote about the Elton John book in the 2019 section of this list, I’m interested enough in Frampton’s career to pick up a copy of his memoir from the library, though even a little less of a general fan of Frampton’s music. Certainly I don’t have to hear Frampton Comes Alive! again. But remember he did have a professional history that predated that monster by about a decade, including stints in the Herd (who had some late-‘60s UK pop success without breaking the US) and Humble Pie. And his mid-‘70s megastardom is sort of interesting from a sociological point of view, if not extremely so from a musical one.
To bring up the Elton John parallel again, Frampton’s autobiography is similarly likable and for the most part highly readable, though it runs out of more and more steam the farther it gets from the 1970s. In accordance with my personal tastes, the most interesting parts are the early ones, especially his memories of being sort of shepherded into pop-rock stardom with the Herd’s early songwriters/managers, and working with Steve Marriott in Humble Pie. He leaves the impression he never cared too much about stardom and wasn’t enthused by attempts to exploit his looks to gain that, prioritizing his guitar playing and songwriting. That makes it seem that Frampton Comes Alive! was almost an accident that he regrets, though the details of how the big hits were written and how that got expanded into a double LP from its intended single disc here. So are the details about various financial business troubles that have hindered him (especially with ex-manager Dee Anthony), as well as some illnesses and struggles with substance abuse.
The final chapters, like many celebrity memoirs (including, again, Elton John’s), get into steadily less compelling collaborations, tribute/concept projects, comeback tours, resolution of family conflicts, and such. Still, he retains a humble authorial voice, even as a recent rare illness is making it harder and harder for him to continue performing. Interesting trivial note: he turned down a chance to join Grand Funk in the early 1970s, and an invitation to join the Who in the 1980s.
21. Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, by Oliver Craske (Hachette). Craske collaborated with Shankar on the sitar player’s 1997 autobiography, but this is an entirely separate volume that’s a straight biography. It’s an extremely thorough one, running more than 600 pages, and draws on interviews with more than a hundred people, including Shankar and many of his closest family members and professional associates. The detail of his compositions, recordings, film scores, and performances can be technical, using a lot of terms in Indian music that may be unfamiliar to readers not versed in the form, though the terminology is explained in a brief preface. The intensity of the documentation might be hard to wade through for some more casual Shankar fans and listeners.
But if you’re willing to spend more time than is the norm for a biography, a lot of material focuses on the more human side of his life and art. Musically, this includes coverage of his wide influences on and interactions with the international music world, George Harrison and the Byrds foremost among them. Less known, but also discussed at even-handed length, are his numerous fans in the jazz world (notably John Coltrane) and other genres, including occasional collaborator Philip Glass. As for his personal life, his numerous romantic liaisons are examined, as are careers of his offspring, especially daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar. Whatever your knowledge of his music, the sheer scope of Ravi Shankar’s life will impress you, from international tours as a boy to an astonishing number of recordings, famous concerts, and meetings with celebrities and heads of state throughout the world. In addition to interviews, the author was also able to access a great deal of archival material that helped clear up the essentials on Shankar’s background and rise to global prominence.
22. Leonard Cohen: Untold Stories: The Early Years, by Michael Posner (Simon & Schuster). Posner interviewed more than 500 people for a mammoth, three-volume Leonard Cohen oral history. This first volume covers his life until the end of 1970, from his formative years in Montreal through his rise as a poet and novelist and, starting around 1966, his transition to acclaimed singer-songwriter. There are many stories in this 482-page book, some from close associates like producer John Simon, others from friends and peers who’ve seldom or never had their memories published.
There’s a ton of content here. But it reminds you how, unless you’re devoted to collecting as much info as you can, biographies that distill such interviews into part of a focus on the essentials usually make for better reading. Some of the tales are mundane, and there’s a lot of repetition of similar sentiments, particularly those testifying to Cohen’s gracious character, formidable intellect, and prolific womanizing. For those such as myself interested in his music above all else, the sections about his early songwriting, records, and concerts are by far the most interesting.
Even some of the stories that are known to serious Cohen fans will be pretty obscure to many readers. Those include attempts by little known folkies the Stormy Clovers and Penny Lang to do the earliest versions of “Suzanne,” or the several songs he’s known or rumored to have written about Nico. But for a better and more readable overview of Cohen’s career and most important achievements – even considering that only a part of it covers the period documented in this book — I’d recommend the best biography of the singer, Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.
23. Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, by Ted Templeman as told to Greg Renoff (ECW Press). Templeman had a very successful career as a producer in the 1970s and 1980s, gaining his biggest hits with the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen. That means I’m not nearly as interested in the subject as I am for almost any other book on this list, but it has its value, even for someone like me who’s not a fan of those acts. First, Templeman had close ties to some artists who do interest me. He co-produced Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and Saint Dominic’s Preview as he was starting his production career. Before that, he was in sunshine pop group Harpers Bizarre, and even before that, Santa Cruz group the Tikis, who recorded for San Francisco’s Autumn label in the mid-1960s. His stories of those times hold my attention more than the other sections, and his memories of Morrison will be sought by any Van fan, especially as he’s more positive about the singer than many of his associates are, though he acknowledges and entertainingly details Morrison’s eccentricities.
But the post-Van parts, which take up more than half the book, are for the most part worthwhile too. Even if you’re not particularly big on the Doobies and Van Halen, you get a lot of behind-the scenes stories about how their familiar hits were made. More notably, Templeman has a lot of insights into the shifting role of a producer, combining psychology, respect, authority, technical know-how, commercial considerations, and more in a complicated juggling act. There are also illuminating stories about the inner dynamics of Warner Brothers Records, for whom Templeman worked (and also served as a vice president). He was a close friend and associate of Lenny Waronker from the time Waronker worked with Harpers Bizarre, and there’s plenty of commentary about power brokers at Warners like Waronker and Mo Ostin. Like many artists, Templeman fell victim to substance abuse; unlike many memoirs, this doesn’t spend a whole lot of pages on it, or belabor the descent and recovery. At 460 pages, this is pretty long, but pretty well written, with little extraneous material. There’s also some coverage of other artists he worked with (especially Nicolette Larson, Sammy Hagar, Carly Simon, and Montrose), though the ones mentioned earlier in this review take up the bulk of the text.
24. All My Yesterdays, by Steve Howe (Omnibus Press). The Yes guitarist’s memoir is thorough, detailing his career from his start in mid-‘60s British R&B bands through the psychedelic group Tomorrow, his peak ‘70s stardom with Yes, and post-Yes work with Asia, GTR, and others, along with his numerous solo projects. Thoroughness doesn’t always mean goodness, and this is the most erratic book on this list. When Howe focuses on how bands evolve and what their music meant to him, and throws in some reasonable human interest stories, there’s some good stuff about not only Yes, but also Tomorrow, the little known Tomorrow-Yes bridge Bodast, and some other acts. There’s a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff about songwriting, song construction, and recording that might interest readers who are more fanatical about Yes more than they interest me, but that’s fair enough. There are also loads of details about his numerous guitars and associated equipment, and at that point even Yes-heads might get a little lost or uninterested.
It’s to be expected that the story, like so many rock autobiographies and biographies, gets less interesting after the commercial/artistic peak – in this case, after the 1970s Yes years (and, “yes,” their numerous reunions are covered too). But the last half or so of the book gets progressively rote, with whole paragraphs and pages that read like little more than lists of when and where tours took place, interspersed with a few memories of recording sessions and family occasions. Howe does unveil a reasonable sense of humor from time to time, especially when recounting the pitfalls and injustices of the music business. But a strong editorial hand would have really been useful in both condensing the information overload on his less interesting periods, and emphasizing stories and human perspective instead of raw data.
If you like Yes and at least some of Howe’s other work, you’ll find some facts and even insights you’ll appreciate, if much more so in the first half than the second. But even the biggest fans of the guitarist are likely to labor through at least a few of the parts. If you’re wondering whether there’s much dirt on Yes, he restrains himself from throwing much mud around, though it’s obvious he’s had major artistic and personal differences with Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, and Chris Squire.
25. Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, by Nick Soulsby (Jawbone Press). Subtitled “a companion to the film by Beth B,” this is likely to be read by a lot of people before they can see the movie, which at this writing seems to have seldom been screened. It’s primarily an oral history of the no wave/punk/goth/all-around subversive singer, with comments from nearly a hundred people who’ve worked with, been intimate with, and/or been influenced by Lunch, as well as some from Lunch herself. Thurston Moore, Exene Cervenka, Beth B, and members of her bands going back to the late ‘70s are among the contributors. If you’re not extremely familiar with her career, you might get a little lost by the procession through her dizzying assortment of projects; while her music gets the most attention, there’s also coverage of her spoken word performances, film appearances, and books. The author helps by providing an introduction and brief links summarizing the activities documented by each chapter, as well as a timeline/filmography/bibliography/discography.
While this is often fairly interesting, the sections on her early work, when she was among the most notorious no wave performers in bands like Teenage Jesus the Jerks, 8-Eyed Spy, and 13.13, are the most valuable. Like many career overviews, it gets less gripping as her activities scatter into numerous other short-lived bands and side projects – though virtually all her bands were short-lived, and she always had many projects going at once. There are plenty of details on her confrontational performances; their reflection of early abuse she suffered, and her use of sexuality as a means of empowerment; and the diligent work ethic she brings to tackling many avenues of expression.
There’s enough repetition of similar praise for her achievements and character that some editing would have been advisable. Some behavior that would be considered gross or nasty by many or most outside of the deep underground is hailed as groundbreaking use of art to combat systemic abuse and oppression. While plenty of people would question that, they’re not the most likely ones to read a book like this. Looking for odd trivia? Here are a couple bits: she played Herman’s Hermits a lot in her early years as a recording artist (and cited “No Milk Today” as a favorite song), and manager Tom Garretson says “we tried to get her signed to Madonna’s label but I think Madonna felt someone like Lydia was threatening to her. I do know the demo wound up on the coffee table at Madonna’s home because a mutual friend saw it there.”
26. London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock, by Stephen Tow (Rowman & Littlefield). This book’s objective is to detail how London rock of the ‘60s innovated and changed over the course of the decade, from blues and R&B to mod, psychedelia, folk-rock, and progressive rock. It’s okay as a breezy overview of that hugely important scene, though it doesn’t cover every notable act or subgenre, and isn’t long enough to go into any particular artist or aspect in huge depth. I’m a little puzzled as to the aim and value of a not-so-big volume that might serve as a part of an introduction to someone who doesn’t know much about British ‘60s rock. Some acts who didn’t originate in London are covered; the more pop-oriented ones don’t get much coverage, and nor do many women artists; and the focus is often on sweeping summations of their music, rather than the specific London connections. Its main strength are the wealth of quotes—a good many first-hand, and some of the others from obscure period sources—from many of the musicians on the front lines. If you’re pretty familiar with ‘60s British rock, you won’t learn much else.
27. Untamed Youth: The Ultimate Visual Guide to 50s & 60s Rock & Pop at the Movies, by Peter Checksfield (peterchecksfield.com). The industrious Peter Checksfield has self-published five music reference books in the last couple years. There’s little text in this one, which is more like an illustrated list of all the pre-1970 musical appearances of rock (and some pop) acts in films that he could find. That means theatrical films (including some shorts), not including TV appearances and promo films, which he’s documented in other books. This isn’t something you’ll sit down and read (or if you do, it won’t take more than an hour or so), as it only notes the title, year, country, and songs performed (whether live or mimed) in each appearance, as well as whether it’s in color or black and white. Each entry has a screenshot of the performer in the film.
This is useful as a reference book, and although the hugely famous items like the Beatles’ films are covered, there are many entries for obscure performers and obscure performances. I’d guess not many fans, for instance, know Amen Corner were in 1969’s Scream and Scream Again, or that the Beau Brummels did “Wait and See” in 1966’s Wild Wild Winter, or that the Zephyrs were actually in a couple movies. Still, it would have been good to have even brief descriptions/critiques of the musical performances/sequences, as Checksfield has offered in other books.
The following books came out in 2019, but I didn’t read them until 2020:
1. How Sweet It Is: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown, and the Mystery of the Muse, by Lamont Dozier with Scott B. Bomar (BMG). Dozier was, as is well known, one-third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting/production team (with brothers Eddie and Brian Holland) that generated many hits for Motown in the mid-1960s. As it happens, the Holland brothers also published a memoir in 2019 (see review farther down the list). Dozier’s book is better, as it’s more straightforward, and more clearly explains how the partnership worked and his role in it—at least, as he sees it. There are also detailed memories of how numerous Motown classics were written, like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Heat Wave,” “How Sweet It Is” (which Dozier actually wanted to record himself before being pressured to get a hit for Marvin Gaye), “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and quite a few others. Some stories aren’t too familiar, like Dozier’s revelation that Supremes vocals were taken off “Baby Don’t You Do It” before Marvin Gaye put his vocal down on the track for a hit. He didn’t really have to do it, but Dozier also puts paragraphs in which he highlights points/suggestions about songwriting in bold.
That’s the heart of the book, but there’s also a fair amount about how he and the Hollands continued their partnership at the Hot Wax/Invictus labels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though that didn’t end well as they went in different business and musical directions. The complicated circumstances leading to their acrimonious departure from Motown are still complicated as relayed here, but at least they’re less oblique and more concrete than they are when depicted in the Hollands’ book. The text steadily declines in interest as it shifts to Dozier’s solo recording career in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his periodic successes with different partners to the present day. In common with many a musical memoir, there’s a little too much in the way of childhood memories too. But the most interesting passages of Dozier’s life and career take appropriate precedence, and it’s a worthwhile entry in the volumes of books about or by Motown figureheads.
2. Echoes, by Glenn Phillips (Snow Star Publishing). Subtitled “The Hampton Grease Band, My Life, My Music and How I Stopped Having Panic Attacks,” Phillips’s memoir covers one of the longest-lived cult rock careers. The Atlanta guitarist’s discography spans half a century, from his barely-out-of-his-teens stint with the Hampton Grease Band in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s through many solo albums. He’s been on Virgin Records, SST Records, and Columbia, as well as putting out his own discs. Through it all, he’s never been too close to the mainstream. The Hampton Grease Band’s sole album (a double LP) wasn’t just goofy avant-rock, but also allegedly one of the lowest-selling records in Columbia’s history. His solo projects have gotten their share of critical acclaim, but have never sold in great numbers or been too commercial.
In itself that makes for an interesting story. But for a rock memoir, Echoes has an uncommonly good balance between musical and personal experiences, with a concise focus missing from many rock autobiographies. His personal life could be harrowing, including alcoholic parents, stormy affairs with unstable women, and the suicide of his father, committed on the father’s fiftieth birthday. As a musician, he’s run the gamut from recording for a young Richard Branson to gluing together his own self-pressed LPs—and those experiences took place pretty close to each other. If you’re especially interested in the Hampton Grease Band’s career, that takes up a good third or so of the book, a section funny for its coverage of their stranger-than-fiction shows and recording decisions. It’s also sad for the portraits of eccentrically impossible-to-deal-with lead singer Bruce Hampton (who blocked release of archival live recordings through his obstreperousness) and guitarist Harold Kelling (who died after a long descent into alcoholism). Phillips maintains a level-headed mix of humor and serious self-examination, with an entertaining knack for retelling a stack of improbable anecdotes.
3. Good Lovin’: My Life As a Rascal, by Gene Cornish with Stephen Miller (genecornish.com). Of all the items on this list, this is the one that flew the most under the radar, attracting no reviews or even online comments that I saw. Cornish was guitarist in the Rascals, and the least well known of the four. Still, he’s the only one of the still-surviving quartet to have written a memoir. This 530-page book covers his whole career, and isn’t as lengthy a read as that figure might indicate, since the print is large and the margins are wide.
There’s a lot of detail in this autobiography, from his days in scuffling pre-Rascals bands in Rochester, New York through the half-dozen years or so he was in the Rascals, his obscure post-Rascals groups, and their reunions. The style is fairly informal and anecdotal, and has neat nuggets like how Atlantic Records recorded the group live to get a feel for how they should sound in the studio prior to their first LP (does that tape still exist?); why they turned down a chance to record with Phil Spector; Atlantic’s unwillingness to issue “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free” as singles, thinking they were too risky and too much of a departure from their sound; and the other Rascals’ initial fury at Cornish for approving the version of “Good Lovin’” that became their first huge hit.
There’s also a lot of love and criticism of his fellow Rascals – not so much drummer Dino Danelli, but certainly Felix Cavaliere, which didn’t stop Cavaliere from writing a kind introduction. Singer Eddie Brigati also comes in for his share of knocks for leaving the group and not committing to some reunions, though Cornish can also be tough on himself, acknowledging his decades-long descent into drug abuse after his time in the Rascals ended.
Cornish’s post-Rascals decades were rough indeed, finding him at times scrounging for food and a roof over his head. The last third or so of the book is largely devoted to those struggles and his continual Rascals reunions or semi-reunions, and can make for a drawn-out downer, though many rock memoirs follow that path. And like many other rock memoirs, this has some mistakes in rock history chronology that numerous knowledgeable readers (not just Rascals fanatics) will spot, along with a good number of typos that could have been more carefully checked. However, overall these are minor gremlins in a pretty comprehensive overview that any Rascals fan will be interested to read.
4. Come and Get These Memories: The Genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown’s Incomparable Songwriters, by Eddie and Brian Holland with Dave Thompson (Omnibus). The Hollands were two-thirds of the songwriting/production team responsible for more Motown hits than any other, especially for the Supremes, Four Tops, and Martha & the Vandellas. This is more oral history than standard memoir, with extensive quotes from both brothers linked by some narrative text written in their dual voice. The bulk of this appropriately focuses on their early-to-mid-‘60s work for Motown, though their activities at the label where they subsequently worked, Invictus, are also covered. There’s a good share of interesting stories about the writing of many of their famous songs, the division of their production/composing duties, and the inner machinery of the Motown operation.
It’s not quite the knockout book for which some Motown/soul fans might be hoping. There’s too much time spent on their family upbringing, and Dozier’s role, while not neglected, certainly gets a lot less space than the Hollands’. He didn’t participate in this project, which might have something to do with some business and creative disputes they’ve had, though these took place after Motown. The trio’s split from Motown in the late ‘60s—a move that neither the trio nor the label never fully recovered from—gets a few pages, but is described in roundabout terms that make it difficult to determine exactly what was being disputed. It does seem like Eddie was the main man from the trio negotiating with Berry Gordy, and though he says “it could have been solved with one phone call,” it didn’t help that he didn’t read his lawyer’s 32-page response to one crucial round until years later. More revelatory are Brian’s recollections of a mid-‘60s relationship with Diana Ross, and how that affected what he was writing for the Supremes.
5. Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story, by John Neil Munro (Polygon). Martyn is one of those guys whose records I never find as interesting to listen to as reviews of them lead me to expect. He’s also one of those guys whose story interests me more than his music, in part because he was part of a British folk-rock scene that’s a big interest of mine, though I don’t like him nearly as much as Nick Drake, Donovan, or Sandy Denny, to name just a few of his peers. This is a reasonably interesting bio of the folk-rock (with a lot of jazz, some blues, some reggae, and some electronic experimentation) singer-songwriter-guitarist, originally published in 2007, and revised/updated in 2019. It follows his career from his Scottish youth through his early albums (some with first wife Beverley Martyn), his peak of critical acclaim with early-to-mid-‘70s albums, his increasingly fitful post-‘70s work, and his death in 2009 after massive health problems (including an amputated leg and obesity). Plenty of people who knew and worked with him were interviewed, along with Martyn himself.
Tellingly, a few figures who worked with him extremely closely did not speak about Martyn, whose volatile personality put plenty of colleagues off. Most notable among the absentees are Joe Boyd, who produced early Martyn records and found him distasteful to work with; Chris Blackwell, who as head of Island Records gave Martyn the chance to record many albums, though the singer was never a big seller; and Beverley Martyn, who had a rocky marriage with John, and felt he curtailed her own musical career (though the author contests whether this was definitely the case). There’s plenty of info about his recordings and his prickly persona, and friendships with Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff (both of whom died tragically young), though occasionally the text rambles and doesn’t fully fill in some gaps in his arc. His alcoholism and rough treatment of some of his romantic partners are not overlooked, though criticism of his flaws is a little restrained, and his diverse musical talents enthusiastically celebrated. It leaves the impression that many of us would go out of our way to avoid this mercurial man who was capable of great nastiness, as documented in Beverley Martyn’s memoir.
6. Me, by Elton John (Henry Holt). I’m not a big Elton John fan, which explains why it took me more than a year to get around to checking out a memoir by a major rock star whose career started in the late ‘60s out of the library. Still, I acknowledge this is a pretty interesting, well-written autobiography. He has a good British self-deprecating sense of humor about himself and the frequent absurdities of the music business, going all the way back to his days as a backup pianist for Long John Baldry in Bluesology. He’s unapologetic about his love for some aspects of celebrity excess, like shopping sprees and camp clothing. That’s balanced, somewhat, by detailed recounts of his drug and relationship problems, and his contributions to numerous charitable causes.
If you’re more interested in his pre-late-‘70s work—the part that’s gained him by far the most critical respect—than anything else, know that this covers all phases of his career fairly evenly, the post-mid-‘70s eras taking up more than half the book. As for whether this follows the common trail of rise to success followed by cocaine addition, rehab, fallow artistic periods, hobnobbing with non-musical celebrities, and redemption of sorts through family love, this book’s not an exception. If you’re a record nerd who wants details about his early tours and albums, there are a fair amount of those, though some well known songs are barely or not discussed. His long personal/professional association with lyricist Bernie Taupin is covered in depth, however, and most readers with a casual or greater interest in Elton John will find at least some sections worth reading, even if you skim some of the rest.
7. The Beatles: Tell Me What You See, by Peter Checksfield (peterchecksfield.com). Subtitled “the ultimate guide to John Paul George & Ringo on TV and video,” this lists all known footage of musical performances (live and mimed) by the Beatles, both as a group and solo performers. It follows the same format as his two previous useful reference books, Channeling the Beat! (for UK ‘60s pop on TV) and Look Wot They Dun! (for UK glam rock on TV). All dates, sources, and locations (when known) are listed, along with brief descriptions, as well as notes as to whether the footage survives. It’s a handy primer for what you can view, including promo and feature films as well as TV appearances. Note that the solo years take up a much larger part of the book—about 200 of its 280 pages—than the section devoted to the Beatles as a group. In fact, Paul McCartney’s section alone takes up a little more than a hundred pages. Through no fault of the author, that means some parts—namely the later solo years—are a lot less interesting than others, namely the Beatles and the early solo films.
8. The Last Four Years, by Annette Walter-Lax in conversation with Spencer Brown (self-published). Walter-Lax was Keith Moon’s girlfriend the last four years of his life, and with him when he died in his sleep in September 1978. This isn’t a conventional memoir, although it recounts their time together in detail. The first part, taking up almost the first half of the 200-page book, has quotes from recent interviews Spencer Brown did with her, linked by Brown’s narrative text. The rest of the book offers Q&As from the interviews covering various topics, like their trips abroad and particularly troublesome incidents in which Moon destroyed hotel rooms or caused general havoc. There was a lot of that when you were around Moon, maybe more so in his final years than during his first decade with the Who. In his case, it was yet more excessive than most downward booze-and-drug-fueled spirals. In common with many another celebrity memoir, it becomes evident he isn’t going to get his act together. It also becomes evident that his partner, for whatever reasons, won’t leave him in spite of his abusive behavior – not physical abuse, but having sex with another woman in front of you certainly qualifies among the worst forms of abuse.
This is a quicker read than its 200-page length might set your gears for, as there are pages with a lot of white space, and sections of black-and-white photos from their relationship (reproduced in mediocre quality). There’s also a fair amount of repetition of similar sentiments and overlap between what’s covered in the first part and the Q&As. The point is made, in fairly interesting but depression fashion, that if anything Moon’s descent was worse than has usually been reported, and he might well have died earlier from his recklessness. It also notes that his physical and mental problems were affecting his musicianship, and that the couple’s extended stay in Hollywood (in which Moon hoped to enter films, and recorded a poor solo album) was pretty disastrous both in terms of professional self-sabotage and the burning of bridges even with fellow hard-partying rock buddies.
9. Harlem 69: The Future of Soul, by Stuart Cosgrove (Polygon). Like Cosgrove’s earlier books Detroit 67 and Memphis 68, this mixes coverage of a city’s soul scene in a particular year with the social upheavals affecting the region’s music and overall lives. Like those books, it takes a kind of haphazard path, alternating music-focused passages with extended segments on the sociocultural backdrop. There’s not a great deal of overall continuity, making it feel like an episodic tour of Harlem’s musical and cultural communities that doesn’t stop too long in one place. The musical sections cover figures like King Curtis, Betty Davis, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Donny Hathaway; styles like boogaloo; and events like the Harlem Summer Cultural Festival concert series and Jimi Hendrix’s September benefit show in the area. The social segments discuss the growth of the drug trade, the Black Panthers, and gay life. The frequent connections drawn between Harlem soul of the late-‘60s and later developments in black music like hip-hop and New Jack swing are sometimes strained, and there are several pages on Arthur Conley although he does not seem to ever have been based in Harlem. The book’s best treated as something to dip into on a chapter-by-chapter basis, the one on the Harlem Summer Cultural Festival being the best and most focused.
For most of 2020, media’s been in, if not a lockdown, a slowdown. We’re not going to movie theaters, and access to book stores, record stores, and libraries is limited, if there’s access at all. Film directors, record producers, and publishers can’t work as quickly and efficiently as normal. This naturally has led to expectations that less product would be released, perhaps much less than in a typical year.
Surprisingly, this hasn’t turned out to be the case at all, more so for music history films than music history books and reissue albums. Actually this list is longer than any other best-of I’ve compiled for the film category. There have been rock documentaries of all sorts, from superstars to cult figures, on regional scenes, magazines, and TV shows.
In part this testifies to the continued, and likely growing, interest in music history. For this year in particular, it reflects the growing use of “virtual” cinema sites that enable viewers to easily stream movies upon or shortly after release. In some ways, it’s become easier to see the movies than it would if we’d tried to catch them in theaters, especially for specialized ones that might seldom or never play in your town. Maybe there will be a slowdown next year, when the difficulties in researching and filming movies at a time when there aren’t public gatherings catch up with the release schedule. But for now, there’s lots to see.
As long as this list is, it doesn’t cover everything I would like to have seen in 2020. I don’t have HBO, so I didn’t see the new Bee Gees documentary. Could I have gone over someone’s house who has HBO to see it? Not safely, not now. Released near the end of the year, a DVD set of the complete episodes of the early-‘60s British folk TV series Hullabaloo would not have arrived through the mail from the UK before January 1 even if I’d ordered it on the day it came out.
There are also several documentaries that I’m willing to check out of the library, but whose subjects don’t interest me enough to pay to watch. These include films on Tiny Tim, the Go-Go’s, and Shane MacGowan, as well as Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. I’ll add any 2020 documentaries that I don’t see until 2021, but find worthwhile, as a supplement to my 2021 best-of list. If it’s thought my failure to spend as much time and money as I can to see everything I can before year’s end makes me unqualified to publish a best-of list, I eagerly—even hungrily—accept your rebuke.
Since my picks are often not in line with what the majority of critics select, it’s refreshing to lead off this list with a documentary that was extremely well received in every review I saw, and by everyone I know who watched it. If there was a list that combined picks from all other best-of lists in this category, my guess is that it would be #1 there too.
1. Laurel Canyon. In two parts adding up to two-and-a-half-hours, this justly praised documentary takes a pretty comprehensive look at the Laurel Canyon rock scene from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘70s. All of the major acts associated with the Los Angeles neighborhood are covered, including the Byrds, Love, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, the Mamas & the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles. So are a few that aren’t as major (Alice Cooper, Little Feat, the Monkees), and Frank Zappa might have been given more time, although he’s in there. Unlike many, maybe most, such films, this doesn’t use on-screen recent interviews, with the exception of those for photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde. Instead, interviews with almost all of the key musicians are voiced over vintage footage and photos, some of them obviously conducted many years ago (including remarks by late figures like Jim Morrison and Love’s Bryan MacLean). A few non-musicians from the music industry are also heard from, like David Geffen, Jac Holzman, and radio DJ Jim Ladd.
There are many, many photos and clips excerpted in the film, some of which seem to have been rarely or never seen since first screened or broadcast. While much of the story will be familiar to fans who know a lot about this era of folk-rock, psychedelia, and singer-songwriters, the comments are relayed in an interesting and colorful manner. Some of the stories are not so familiar, like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine” outtake making its way to the Byrds in part because some felt Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s harmony vocals made it unusable. There’s also Love guitarist Johnny Echols’s view that his group got Elektra to sign the Doors so they could get out of their contract with the label, only for that to backfire when they couldn’t leave Elektra, who put a lot of its resources into promoting the Doors.
The rapid blend and flow of clips and commentary is excellent, and this refreshingly avoids two overdone clichés of music history documentaries. First, there aren’t several introductory minutes of soundbites of numerous figures gushing over how great the subject of the film is. Second, there aren’t modern critics or post-‘70s musicians supplying unnecessary validations of why this subject is important and how we need to revere it. The documentary trusts the strength of its own content to let that speak for itself.
2. Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine (Greenwich Entertainment). This packs a lot into its 75 minutes, with a fast pace that verges on the hyper at times, though some would contend that’s appropriate for a magazine that prided itself on living fast and hard. There are interviews with many of the key surviving figures, including editors Jaan Uhelszki (who worked on the film as writer and co-producer) and Dave Marsh, and Connie Kramer, wife of late Creem publisher Barry Kramer. There are lots of testimonials from rock musicians like Alice Cooper, Peter Wolf, and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and rock critics like Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, and Lenny Kaye. There’s even some grainy vintage black-and-white footage of staff (and a performance by Mitch Ryder’s group Detroit) at the early-‘70s Detroit offices. There are plenty of stories of the volatile relationships between key staffers like Kramer, Marsh, and the late Lester Bangs, who were all determined to have a fun and lively rock magazine, but often disagreed on how to do it.
Creem wasn’t all high times, and some of the seedier aspects of its history are addressed. Their offices, whether in Detroit or in the countryside, had a lot of squalor. Their humor, meant as provocative and tongue-in-cheek, often skirted the line of getting offensive. The opportunities it gave pioneering women rock journalists are appropriately celebrated at some length. So are the psychological difficulties that led Barry Kramer into drug abuse and death in 1981, when he was only in his late thirties. This movie can now be streamed for free in many regions, if you have an active library card, through kanopy.com.
3. Mr Soul! In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the public television program Soul! (exclamation mark included) presented not just soul music, but all kinds of African-American arts and social affairs. This documentary offers a valuable retrospective of this semi-forgotten, groundbreaking show, focusing on producer/host Ellis Haizlip. There are plenty of interviews with associates who worked on the program and artists who appeared on the show. The prime attraction, though, is the wealth of excerpts from vintage Soul! clips. This includes a mighty impressive roster of stars, lesser known but influential artists, and near unknowns. Here’s a partial list: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Al Green, Ashford and Simpson, the Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, B.B. King, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. And there’s room for some figures who haven’t been canonized as much, like Black Ivory and New Birth.
It makes you wish there was a series devoted simply to highlights from the show that offered complete performances, especially since these have seldom been seen since they were aired. The fast-paced documentary does waver a bit in its focus, sometimes jumping around chronologically and between segments concentrating on the show and covering Haizlip’s life and personality. But overall it’s a highly worthwhile and entertaining look at a television production that should have greater recognition.
4. Zappa. This two-hour documentary of a major figure in twentieth-century (usually) rock music has a lot going for it. There’s a ton of rare footage from throughout his career, and even before his career in some family home movies, with excerpts (if brief ones) of things you’d never expect to see, like his wife help setting up the cover shoot for We’re Only In It for the Money. Frank Zappa is represented by excerpts from many filmed interviews going back half a century, some of which have rarely or, I’d guess, never been seen, especially the early ones. Some of his key collaborators are interviewed, including his late wife Gail and members of various Mothers of Invention/Zappa lineups, including Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and Ruth Underwood. Several aspects of his work and music are covered, including some (not all) of his early psychedelic-period albums; his work in symphonic/non-rock composition; the “Valley Girl” hit, with vocals by his daughter Moon Unit; and his fight against censorship in the 1980s, which found him testifying articulately in Congress.
A two-hour documentary can’t encompass everything interesting and important about Zappa, of course, and some of his fans might be dismayed by what’s missing. Many of his key supporting musicians are mentioned only in passing or not at all, like singer Ray Collins and drummer Jimmy Carl Black, to name just a couple. There were so many in his groups that it would be hard to fit in the majority of them, but it’s hard to believe, for example, that Flo and Eddie wouldn’t have had something to say for a production like this. His very interesting Bizarre/Straight labels, which put out eclectic productions by other artists (often with direct assistance from Zappa), are barely noted, and his involvement in Captain Beefheart’s career not really explained. His manager Herb Cohen, a big part of his early years (and with whom he had major disputes), is entirely absent. His sole Top Ten album, Apostrophe, isn’t directly addressed. The list could fill several paragraphs; probably several pages, if Zappa fans more interested in his post-‘60s career than I am were writing this.
Rather than rag on the film for what it can’t cover unless it was a multi-part anthology, it’s better to enjoy its rather episodic journey through much of his career highlights, though the sections on his final appearances in the early ‘90s are drawn out. Note, by the way, that when I saw this through virtual streaming, some bonus footage played at the end, with a few rather unpleasantly unfunny minutes of backstage hijinx at the Whisky in the early ‘70s, and a workout by his band during the Apostrophe era. I don’t know if this will be showing as part of the presentation everywhere it streams, or will be in theaters, if/when it screens in those.
5. In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton. Folk singer Dalton’s cult is avid but small, and her recorded output (with just two albums issued during her lifetime) sparse. The odds seemed against the construction of a good full-length documentary, but this film manages to beat those odds, making for an interesting view even for listeners like me who aren’t huge Dalton fans. Although she wasn’t filmed much, it turns out she was on camera more than you’d guess, and this includes some seldom seen footage of her in performance taken by German and French television. There are also what seem like they might be home movies or supplementary non-musical footage shot by those programs, and a good amount of vintage photos and shots of handwritten lyrics and journals (some of which are voiced by a woman other than Dalton for this documentary). While some of her close associates are gone or not represented, there are interesting interviews with a good number of people who knew or worked with her, including Peter Stampfel, Peter Walker, Dick Weissman (who played with John Phillips and Scott McKenzie in the Journeymen folk group), Michael Lang (who ran the label that issued her second album), her daughter, and her third husband.
Dalton had a troubled and in some ways tragic life, reflected to some degree in her sorrowful Billie Holiday-meets-folk-revival vocals (which are often heard on recordings used on the soundtrack). She wasn’t the most responsible mother; had serious substance abuse problems before dying of AIDS in her mid-fifties in 1993; and never got too far in her performing or recording career, despite moving from Oklahoma to New York and attracting attention and respect from some notable peers. Stampfel makes interesting observations that she seemed to expect audiences to be in thrall to her performances, and was taken aback when such reverence wasn’t always forthcoming. While there were occasional interactions with bigger names (she was briefly tried for a slot in the Journeymen but didn’t work out; she was close to Tim Hardin for a while and covered numerous songs of his; she opened for Santana on tour, though the match was ill-conceived), these didn’t result in major breaks. And she wrote little of her own material and wasn’t adaptable to the rock era and recording in a folk-rock style.
As a final stroke of bad fortune, a fire a quarter-century after her death destroyed her journals, as well as some tapes. Fortunately a lot of the archival material had been photographed by the filmmakers, and some of it can be seen in this worthwhile documentary.
6. Music, Money, Madness…Jimi Hendrix in Maui. How did Hendrix end up giving his second-to-last American concert to a few hundred hippies, for free, in the hills of Maui on July 30, 1970? It’s not an easy question to answer in just a couple sentences. This hour-and-a-half documentary does a good job in explaining the circumstances, especially as some of the key figures are long gone a half century later. But some are interviewed here, including bassist Billy Cox and several figures involved in the performance’s preservation, the concert’s staging, and the production of the movie for which some of the show was filmed, Rainbow Bridge. This is supplemented by archival interviews with drummer Mitch Mitchell and Rainbow Bridge director Chuck Wein, as well as quite a few clips from the concert itself.
Basically, Hendrix and his manager Mike Jeffery needed money to finish Jimi’s studio, Electric Lady. A complex deal was arranged where half a million dollars were secured from Reprise Records to finance a film to which Hendrix would create a soundtrack. The film, Rainbow Bridge, was a disastrous mix of amateurishly scripted (or non-scripted) hippie life and philosophizing, and Hendrix died before he could construct a soundtrack. Its one asset was the seventeen minutes of footage of Hendrix, Cox, and Mitchell performing the somewhat impromptu concert, in conditions so windy that huge pieces of foam had to be placed over the microphones.
Although a few people involved in Rainbow Bridge (notably Wein himself) speak positively about the film, most agree, in humorous detail, that the movie was both chaotically produced and a mammoth artistic failure. The movie’s poor reception and its aftermath, in which a deceptive album of unreleased material titled Rainbow Bridge (which didn’t include any recordings from the Maui concert) was assembled to capitalize on the film, are also covered. It’s amazing that a large company like Reprise (part of Warner Brothers) could be sort of suckered into the deal, so half- (or less) baked was the film’s story and setting. It makes for a good tale of hippie-era excess half a century later; in fact, it’s a good deal more entertaining than Rainbow Bridge itself.
Also valuable are the bonus features of all the existing 16mm color film from Hendrix’s two performances on Maui that day. These include some not used in Rainbow Bridge, though unfortunately the cameras weren’t running all the time and missed a good deal of the show. Indeed, sometimes they weren’t running all the way through some songs, and still photographs fill in some of these gaps.
This Blu-ray is packaged with a two-CD set, Live in Maui, which has recordings of both of the sets Hendrix played this day. It’s reviewed separately in my list of 2020 album reissues (to be published December 31).
7. Every Night’s a Saturday Night(MVD Visual). To be precise this documentary on saxophonist Bobby Keys came out in 2018, but it didn’t get on DVD until 2020, so here ‘tis on this list. Keys is most known for playing on numerous Rolling Stones records and often touring with them, though he also recorded/toured with Joe Cocker, George Harrison, John Lennon, Delaney & Bonnie, and many others. This is a little more low-budget and less slick than most of the films on this list, but that doesn’t really hurt because the list of people interviewed for the production is quite impressive. Besides quite a bit of storytelling from Keys himself (obviously filmed before his 2014 death), there are comments from Keith Richards, Mick Taylor (surprisingly as he’s seldom interviewed about his peak years), Charlie Watts, frequent musical partner Jim Price, Bobby Whitlock, Richard Perry, and numerous others. There’s some vintage footage from his stints with the Stones, Delaney & Bonnie, and Joe Ely, but the accent’s on the interviews, tracing his career from his teenage years in Lubbock through his times, some wild and crazy, with the Stones and others in the ‘70s.
True, there’s little post-mid-‘70s coverage, though his firing and re-entry to the Rolling Stones entourage is noted. But almost all viewers are here for the years leading up to that, right? And here for the Stones stories above all, and they get more space than anything else, including quite a bit on the Exile in Main Street sessions in France. Keys makes the interesting observation that Jimmy Miller was a good producer for the Stones at this time as he knew when to voice his opinion, and when not to. The story of Keys filling up a bath with liquor to immerse himself in with a female friend is also here, if you want some of the sleaze. There’s also the back story of how he and Richards threw a television out a hotel window in Robert Frank’s 1972 tour documentary (the impression is it was staged and kind of forced). The clip in which he takes a solo with Joe Ely is too long, but there’s not much else to gripe about in a documentary that’s both entertaining and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
8. Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me to Be? Michael Des Barres has been around as both an actor (since childhood) and rock singer (since the early ‘70s) for more than half a century without breaking through to true stardom. Since he went through a bunch of mediocre glam/hard/mainstream rock bands, you might wonder whether he’s worth an 80-minute documentary. But he is, and not just because he interacted with quite a few more well known figures, from Led Zeppelin and Duran Duran to Don Johnson and second wife Pamela Des Barres. Interviews with Des Barres get the bulk of the screen time, and he’s an interesting, drolly funny storyteller who doesn’t make unwarranted grand claims for his talents and achievements. The bumpy road includes a weird childhood mixing aristocratic boarding school education with one schizophrenic parent and another in jail; a minor supporting role in the hit movie To Sir with Love; his early-’70s stint as lead singer with glammish rockers Silverhead, probably his most well known band; Detective, who were signed to Led Zeppelin’s label; a brief time as singer with Power Station; Chequered Past, with Steve Jones and members of Blondie; and numerous bit and supporting roles in movies and TV series, most famously a recurring role on MacGyver.
Quite a few others from Des Barres’s past and present were also interviewed, including his three wives (most notably Pamela Des Barres); John Taylor from Duran Duran/Power Station; members of Silverhead; Blondie’s Nigel Harrison, who was in both Silverhead and Chequered Past; Steve Jones; director Allison Anders; Don Johnson; and music business executive/manager Danny Goldberg. Clips from TV/movies/performances spanning decades are sampled. Des Barres does not shirk from recounting various troubles and flaws, including alcoholism (though he’s been sober since the early ‘80s), excessive/irresponsible womanizing, and a brief time when he was a sort of rent man to rich Hollywood women to pay bills, observing that it wasn’t all that much different than what you had to do to make a living as a rock musician.
The actual music and songs of his various projects aren’t discussed in depth, and frankly, they’re not of such value they deserve that kind of analysis. (Drug dealers, he notes, were the fan base of one of his groups.) As one of the other talking heads aptly comments, Des Barres could easily transition to acting since he was so often acting the part of a rock star, even if he never was one. He’s in his early seventies now, but his engaging, entertaining, candid presence in this documentary might be his greatest role. It might be a while if ever before you can see this in theaters, but it’s available to rent in the expanding world of online virtual cinema; youtube charges the reasonable price of $3.99.
9. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (Magnolia). This documentary – technically a 2019 production, although I’m not aware of it screening before 2020 – is indeed focused on Robertson’s take on the Band. He’s the main interview subject and storyteller, though there are also interviews, both recent and archival, with the other guys in the Band; producer John Simon; Robertson’s ex-wife; Ronnie Hawkins; and numerous other Band associates. While I’m not much of a Band fan, it’s interesting and well done, with plenty of footage (some rarely or never seen, I believe), piles of vintage pictures, and lots of attention paid to their roots as backing bands for both Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Robertson can be a bit deliberate as he spins his tales, but he speaks well and gives the other guys in the Band credit.
Not enough credit, however, for some Band fans and critics. After its release, this drew some criticism—some of it harsh—for being too Robbie-centric, though the film’s title doesn’t make any secret of that. More seriously, some feel he was whitewashing his role in the group’s troubled descent. In particular, drummer Levon Helm was vocal at points after the Band’s breakup over what he felt was unfair apportionment of the group’s songwriting credits, which were dominated by Robertson. This issue isn’t ignored in the film, though the claims aren’t given much weight. The Band’s diminishing critical and commercial success after their first two albums isn’t examined, the years rushing by between 1970 and The Last Waltz. So there are significant gaps, but—as with most documentaries—there are books to fill those in and give a fuller perspective. What this does cover is worth seeing if you have a serious interest in rock history.
10. The Shadows at Sixty (BBC Four). Hour-long TV documentaries that aren’t always easily accessible after their broadcast (especially if you don’t live in the region of their origin) usually aren’t candidates for high rankings on year-end best-of lists. 2020 was an unusual year, though, and I think critics can be forgiven for including some such TV productions in their selections. And viewers can be forgiven for searching them out on the Internet, through whatever channels they can be seen.
One such deal is this hour-long overview of the Shadows, who were by far the most popular and influential British rock group before the Beatles. In Britain, that is (and much of the rest of the world); in the US, they never had a hit, and are still relatively unknown. Their long run of instrumental hits in the early ‘60s, however, were vastly important to inspiring many aspiring British guitarists. And with their sort of Ventures-with-a-twang sound, the records did have their moody, mysterious appeal, though there were limitations of what you could do within that format.
While there’s nothing extraordinary about this documentary, it’s a solid enough look at their career. There are many excerpts of vintage Shadows performances, and while they’re exceedingly brief, it could be argued that it might be somewhat tough going to see many full-length versions at once. There are also recent, fairly informative interviews with lead guitarist Hank Marvin, rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch, and drummer Brian Bennett, as well as singer Cliff Richard, the early British rock superstar whom the Shadows often backed on record, onstage, and in movies.
If you’re real knowledgeable about their work, there are things to pick on. The contributions of bassist Jet Harris, whose enormously thick sound was innovative in his own right, aren’t detailed. Ian Samwell, who was in Richard’s earlier backup group and wrote some of his and the Shadows’ early material (including the classic initial Richard hit “Move It”), isn’t a presence. But it’s still a useful survey of the group, and it’s good that the survivors were interviewed while there was still time to capture their recollections.
11. The Story of Ready Steady Go! (BBC Four). Technically speaking, there was a 2019 date on the end credits of this hour-long documentary on the mid-‘60s British rock music TV program Ready Steady Go! But to my knowledge, it wasn’t seen until it aired on BBC Four in March 2020. So it makes the cut here, even considering it’s not so easy to watch if you’re not in the UK (though there have been ways with today’s technology). It’s a no-frills, punchy rundown of this legendary pop music program, which presented everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones down, and was a crucial outlet for exposure at a time when BBC radio didn’t allocate much of its airtime to rock music.
Besides exciting (if very short) excerpts of appearances by the Beatles, Stones, Who, Them, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and others, there are also recent interviews with several artists and Ready Steady Go! staff. These include Donovan, Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, Georgie Fame, Gerry Marsden, and Chris Farlowe, as well as some of the show’s dancers, program producer Vicki Wickham, and Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who directed some of the show’s episodes). The show’s demise is covered near the end, and largely attributed to the ascendance of the rival program Top of the Pops, which mystifies me as Ready Steady Go! was clearly the better and more exciting series; interviewees feel Top of the Pops’use of charts to determine the content was a crucial factor.
12. White Riot. (Film Movement). The UK organization Rock Against Racism was formed in 1976 to combat racism and the National Front with musical concerts and activism. It makes for an interesting documentary subject that echoes all too strongly in what’s happening in society in 2020. That doesn’t mean the film’s without its flaws, although it’s worthwhile viewing. It’s strongest in its interviewers with several key members of the original RAR, as it’s abbreviated, including founder Reg Saunders. There’s also a good deal of vintage footage of performers with ties to RAR, including X-Ray Spex, the Clash, Steel Pulse, and Tom Robinson. Non-musical film clips of National Front rallies and leaders remain horrifying more than forty years later, and there are some recent interviews with musicians from the time (including Robinson, the Clash’s Topper Headon, the Selecter’s Pauline Black, and Steel Pulse’s David Hinds), although these aren’t too numerous or extensive. Period photos and graphics (including some from RAR’s fanzine, Temporary Hoarding) add to the visuals, which are most impressive in the final few minutes, which focus on a 1978 RAR march/concert (with the Clash, Robinson, and Steel Pulse) that drew about 100,000. Clips of the largely Asian band punk band Alien Kulture, and comments from the band’s Pervez Bilgrami, give welcome voice to an ethnic group not often heard from in punk/new wave histories.
Still, this movie doesn’t entirely convey the extent of RAR’s reach and influence, especially on the musical side. There’s as much coverage of the National Front and general late-‘70s UK racism as there is of the music, and while those topics are important, it’s hard to gauge how many acts participated and to what degree. The interesting tension between Sham 69’s following (which included some listeners with right-wing leanings) and the usual anti-racist stance of punk acts is noted. But the section in which there’s unrest at a Sham 69 concert with black reggae act Misty in Roots doesn’t make the details of the ruckus too clear, though Sham 69 singer Jimmy Pursey did his part to throw in his lot with RAR by participating in the big 1978 concert. The film doesn’t cover what happened to RAR after the 1970s, though its effect was felt in election defeats of the National Front.
There are books that cover RAR with some depth, but the modest 84-minute running time of this documentary could have been extended for a fuller view. The pace is somewhat herky-jerky, too, alternating slower, deliberate sections with frantic late-‘70s clips. There’s a strange vogue for framing some vintage clips inside a TV set in recent music documentaries, and White Riot does this sometimes, although I’d much prefer seeing that footage fill the entire screen.
13. Meeting the Beatles in India. In early 1968, Canadian Paul Saltzman, then in his mid-twenties, went to Rishikesh, India to learn about transcendental meditation at the ashram of the Maharishi. He didn’t know that the Beatles were there when he was admitted, and for a week, he learned about TM alongside the group and their companions. He also took quite a few color photos of the Beatles, which were published many years later in his book The Beatles in Rishikesh. His film Meeting the Beatles in India is based on those photos and experiences, mixing his memories and pictures with a recent visit to Rishikesh and interviews with a few others who were there.
The movie isn’t entirely devoted to the Beatles, with some commentary about meditation and its benefits, and some of Saltzman’s personal history. While it can get sentimental at times, it’s well done and includes some first-hand interviews with insiders who haven’t often been seen on film speaking about the Beatles. These include George Harrison’s first wife, Pattie Boyd; Pattie’s sister Jenny, who was also in Rishikesh; the flute player on “The Inner Light” (who doesn’t remember too much); Lewis Lapham, the only journalist who was able to cover the story within the ashram; and, most surprisingly, Rikki Cooke, the real-life model for “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” Top Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn (who accompanied Saltzman on his recent return visit to Rishikesh) supplies some context, and there’s some seldom seen footage of the Beatles in Rishikesh and Harrison working with Indian musicians.
14. Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Lionsgate). In essential respects, this is a typical competent documentary, mixing lots of excerpts of vintage clips with contemporary interviews with Lightfoot and numerous associates/admirers. For those (like me) who are frustrated by overviews that jump back and forth in time, you might find the structure a little exasperating, though not so much that it interferes with basic enjoyment of the film. Instead of progressing chronologically, it’s more episodic, with segments devoted to his songwriting, guitar playing, Canadian identity, rural upbringing, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and other topics. That still leaves enough for viewers to grasp his basic history, though the torrents of praise from peers past and present (including unlikely people with no strong connection to Lightfoot’s career, like Geddy Lee and Alec Baldwin) are a little excessive even by the standards of admiring documentaries.
There are so many bits (if usually very brief) of vintage clips going back to before his rise to mid-‘60s fame that you wish a compilation of them could have been made separately, since many of them seem rarely if ever seen since they were first made or broadcast. (You can also throw in a brief snippet of Ian & Sylvia performing “You Were on My Mind,” the first ‘60s clip I’ve seen of them doing their most famous song.) Some of the interviewees do have close ties to Lightfoot, including Ian Tyson, Sylvia Tyson, and Warner Brothers executive Lenny Waronker; others at least have high name recognition and were around when Lightfoot rose to fame, like Ronnie Hawkins, Randy Bachman, and Anne Murray. Some difficult aspects of his life are dealt with, including his alcoholism and relationship with Cathy Smith (later girlfriend of John Belushi). For more music historian types that might be interested in things like his time under Albert Grossman’s management (referred to fleetingly) and early recordings for United Artists Records, you’ll have to go to the printed record. Lightfoot himself comes off as unsurprisingly self-effacing, if willing to talk to some degree about his craft and experiences, and his lack of productivity since the ‘70s means there’s little about his post-‘70s work and recordings. This movie can now be streamed for free in many regions, if you have an active library card, through kanopy.com.
15. Suzi Q. (Cadiz Music). Suzi Quatro had a string of big glam-poppish hits in the UK in the mid-1970s after moving there from her native Detroit, but never broke through as a star in the US. Maybe that opening sentence is considered unnecessarily elementary by many rock fans, but actually she remains more known in her own country for her role as Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days than for her records. This documentary is a brisk overview of her career, built around extensive interviews with Quatro and plenty of vintage film clips. Also interviewed are a couple of her sisters (who were in bands with Quatro before she went solo) and key associates like ex-husband Len Tuckey (who played lead guitar in her band during her prime) and Mike Chapman (who co-produced and co-wrote her big hits with Nicky Chinn). A bunch, perhaps too many, musicians past and present briefly testify to her importance. I’m not big on the presentation of some film clips on TVs that take up a small part of the screen, though for the most part these are used in standard full-screen fashion.
The film, and Quatro herself, address a couple subjects that cloud what for the most part was a success story. Her decision to go solo after producer Mickie Most singled her out as the part of a band with her sisters worth pursuing caused resentment within her family, which to some degree still seems to linger. As to why she didn’t break through in the US while scoring lots of big hits in the UK, Australia, and numerous other countries, the blame is placed on under-promotion and being ahead of her time as a tough frontwoman. The sameness of much her material is not cited, but that isn’t to be expected from a documentary whose purpose is to celebrate and elevate her legacy, not to criticize it. Also covered are her Happy Days years and ventures into theatrical roles in later years, though this isn’t as interesting as the core of the movie, which deals with her rise and ‘70s peak.
16. Chuck Berry. There aren’t any other rock documentaries of the past year or two that are such a mish-mash of the interesting and the mediocre. Its strongest points, though they’re not incredibly strong, are interviews with Berry’s immediate family, including the woman he was married to for almost seventy years. There are also interviews with a few insiders, notably Marshall Chess of Chess Records and (via archival footage) longtime pianist/accompanist Johnnie Johnson and Berry himself. There are also archive clips of Berry in performance from the 1950s through the end of his life, though these are less numerous and briefer than you’d hope.
The biggest pitfalls are the ridiculously hokey reenactments of major incidents in his life, which are more numerous and lengthier than you’d wish. Some of the real-life connections of the talking heads to Berry are tenuous at best, and Gene Simmons’s comments are featured way too much. You get an overview of his music (though not too much specifically about most of his major hits), and his problems with the law and womanizing are discussed, though in a chronologically nonsequential fashion that avoids getting too critical or going too deep. Those with substantial knowledge of Berry’s life—which was quite interesting, musically and otherwise—won’t learn too much, though it gives an outline of his times and achievements for viewers who aren’t as familiar with him.
17. Herb Alpert…Is(Herb Alpert Mod). Twice this film has a soundbite proclaiming Alpert outsold the Beatles in 1965 and 1966; a promo blurb for the movie plays it a little safer, saying he outsold them in 1966. I don’t think 1965 has a case, but that could be true for 1966, more because Alpert released more LPs that year than because he truly surpassed the Beatles in popularity. This documentary doesn’t go so far as to claim he’s the more significant artist, but is certainly a flattering portrait of the genial trumpeter/record executive. It’s in the standard format for such retrospectives of living legends: recent interviews with Alpert and close associates like Lou Adler and A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss; vintage clips of Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (one of whom offers just a few comments); and a fair amount of attention to the A&M label he co-founded with Moss, with comments from some A&M artists like Sergio Mendes and Sting.
These are the film’s the most interesting sections, even for someone like me who doesn’t highly rate his music. But then there are the other standard parts of such documentaries that aren’t as worthwhile. Those include testimonies from people who didn’t have a direct role in Alpert’s career, like Billy Bob Thornton (who notes, oddly, in one soundbite, that Alpert’s “like butter”); too much repetition of general praise on what a great guy and important figure Herb is; gushing, sentimental comments from his wife, who sang with Mendes; and quite a bit of time on his painting and sculptures, which have been much of his focus in the past few decades since he retreated from the front lines of the music business. As for the A&M sequences, it might be too much to expect coverage of some of the more intriguing acts who were on the label in their early careers (like Captain Beefheart and the Strawbs). But it should have at least been noted that they shrewdly picked up US distribution for numerous major UK acts in the late 1960s, like Procol Harum, Joe Cocker, Free, Fairport Convention, and T. Rex.
18. Vinyl Nation. There have been a few documentaries about vinyl records, usually focusing on what vinyl discs mean to collectors and the resurgence of interest in manufacturing and buying them. Some of Vinyl Nation covers similar territory to previous such films. There are testaments to how great LPs are from fans, label owners, and record store employees; how vinyl is more tactile, has more graphics, and more personal associations; and how record-buying builds community. There are also some more behind-the-scenes aspects of the vinyl revival with visits to facilities where the records are manufactured. This hour and a half movie differs most from others I’ve seen on the subject with its willingness to explore some areas that are less oft-traveled, and even a bit controversial. These include the substantial environmental impact of manufacturing vinyl records; the much higher cost of LPs, both compared to new CDs and to how they used to cost in the twentieth century; and how much, or even whether, the oft-touted better sound quality of analog vs. digital product really exists. Also, a much higher percentage of people of color and women are interviewed than they usually are for this kind of project.
19. The Ventures: Stars on Guitars (Vision Films). The Ventures were one of the most popular instrumental rock groups of all time—the most popular by some measures. They weren’t the most colorful guys, and while that doesn’t mean they can’t be the basis of a good documentary, this one fails in a key respect. It has very little actual music by the Ventures. There are brief archival clips, but even those have only very brief bites of sound from actual Ventures records or performances on the soundtrack. The 90-minute film is based around extensive interviews with the sole surviving Venture of the core quartet from their vintage years, guitarist Don Wilson. Some other Ventures are heard, briefly, talking in older clips, and plenty of other musicians weigh in with praise and observations, from the famous (John Fogerty and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer) to the not-so-famous and unknown.
Much time’s given to explaining how the group’s most distinctive sounds and techniques were perfected. Their actual recordings don’t get nearly as much examination, though most of their big hits are discussed. So is the sheer, mind-boggling quantity of their recorded output; their numerous theme albums, and the artwork used to illustrate them; and their phenomenal fame in Japan, where (according to Wilson) they outsold the Beatles two to one. At least it isn’t claimed that they were therefore twice as good and significant. This has its interest for Ventures fans, but it’s kind of a slight overall production, seriously handicapped by the absence of Ventures music, even if almost anyone interested enough to watch this knows what it sounds like. You can stream it for free, by the way, on hoopladigital.com, if you have an active library card with one of the many libraries that grants you access to the site.
20. Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones (MVD). While this documentary lays out the basics of Jones’s life (and death), really this can’t be considered a top-flight overview of his very interesting career, let alone one that contains revelations. Its good points? It does have interviews with a fair number of people who knew or worked with him, including Pretty Things Dick Taylor and Phil May, photographer Gered Mankowitz, Stash Klossowski, and Volker Schlöndorff (director of the movie Jones scored, A Degree of Murder, starring Brian’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg). It also has some rare photos and silent footage (some dating back to his teenage years), some of which I’d never seen, and I’ve seen a lot of early Jones/Rolling Stones.
You would think, however, that if there’s one thing a Brian Jones documentary should have, it’s footage—with sound—of him playing with the Rolling Stones. There’s none here—my guess it was deemed too expensive to license, or permission was denied. Recently recorded incidental Stonesy music on the soundtrack doesn’t compensate for this. There are also no interviews with the surviving Stones or crucial associates Andrew Oldham and Marianne Faithfull, or girlfriends who bore Jones’s sons, like Linda Lawrence. Sure those must be hard to secure, but it does mean this doesn’t include the closest perspectives of Brian’s life and death. There are numerous rock documentaries in recent years that stretch to cover an important subject without the resources to produce a satisfactory result. This is one of them, though Jones fans like myself might want to check it out for what it does manage to present.
The following documentaries came out in 2019, but I did not see them until 2020:
1. The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. With the same director (Thom Zinny) who worked on Elvis Presley: The Searcher a few years ago, this documentary uses a similar approach. It doesn’t go over Cash’s career point by point, though it offers a basic tour. It doesn’t have talking heads, instead using voiceovers from vintage Cash interviews and many people who knew and/or admired him, including some superstars like Bruce Springsteen who didn’t have a notable role in his story. There are many photos and vintage film clips, stretching from the 1950s to shortly before his death. Attention’s paid to both his music and up-and-down personal life, including some family and pill problems.
If you’re looking for thorough details on all of his notable songs and recordings, you might be at least a little disappointed. “I Walk the Line” isn’t heard; “A Boy Named Sue” isn’t even mentioned; and his time in the Highwaymen is absent. It’s kind of an episodic path through his times, from growing up in poverty in Arkansas through his rise to stardom at Sun Records, his 1960s concept albums, his hit prison LPs, his TV show, his religious beliefs, and his comeback in late life with Rick Rubin. It’s worthwhile and fairly illuminating, but I’d say it’s worth more than 95 minutes. Give it two hours, and maybe some more interesting details could have fit in—like, say, a clip of and discussion of “I Walk the Line,” his first big hit, and one of his best. You can see this documentary for free on youtube, as part of that site’s YouTube Originals series.
2. Olompali: A Hippie Odyssey. While only tangentially related to rock history, the Chosen Family commune in Rancho Olompali in Marin County in the late 1960s makes for an interesting story. Its connection to the rock scene was principally through the Grateful Dead. And it wasn’t even too strong – the Dead rehearsed there a few times, lived on the grounds for a while in 1966 (before the commune moved in), and, maybe most famously, took the picture on the back cover of Aoxomoxoa there. The communal lifestyle, however, was growing in tandem with the explosion of psychedelic music and culture, and should be of interest to most people interested in that period of musical history.
The Chosen Family was started in 1968 by disillusioned ex-businessman Don McCoy, who could afford to support an extended family through an inheritance. The good part of the year or so more than half a dozen families and others lived there was mostly in the beginning, where group decisions were made, children played together and were home-schooled, and lots of cooperative fun was had. There were warning signs soon enough: kids were given drugs at a very young age, and McCoy went to India, where he found a guru while leadership in his absence grew haphazard. Then it got worse – much worse. Hell’s Angels gang-raped one of the commune’s women. There were two big drug busts. Worst of all, two young children drowned when they fell in the swimming pool without supervision. Not even the main mansion burning to the ground shortly afterward (and fortunately not killing anyone) was as bad as that.
The documentary has first-hand interviews with many of the residents, including the now-middle-aged children. McCoy died in 2004, but is well represented from numerous extracts from an oral history he taped. Plenty of photos from the period also illuminate a tale whose value shouldn’t be dismissed as a morality tale of how the hippie dream was doomed and inherently hopeless. There were a lot of noble goals and some happy times associated with its inception, even if its fall from grace was pretty horrible, and due in part to inexcusable irresponsibility.
3. Creating Woodstock (Cinema Libre Studio). Just like Woodstock’s 50th anniversary generated several books and a 38-CD box set, so did it generate more than one documentary. Focusing more on the genesis and staging of the event than the music, this covers some of the same ground as the superior PBS/American Experience production Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (reviewed in my 2019 best-of documentary list). But even with the fair amount of overlap, this is worth seeing if you want some more information and stories, even if some of it’s retold with different words.
There’s little music heard, and the footage of both the performers and audience is variable, the emphasis being on interviews with the organizers. Some of them were among the principal figures, like John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang, and Artie Kornfeld; others, like talent coordinator Bill Belmont, aren’t heard from as often. Just a few musicians are here too (Arlo Guthrie, Leslie West, and Richie Havens), along with a couple guys from a band who played off the main stage, Quarry. Some of the interviews were obviously done years, sometime many years, before the 2019 release date of this film; indeed, more than half a dozen of them are no longer alive. Some of the details of stage construction, crowd management logistics, and the like get dry, though they’re evened out by a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the performers. A half dozen brief extras from a few of the interviews are included on the DVD.
4. San Francisco’s First and Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Movie: Crime 1978 (Superior Viaduct). In 1978, Larry Larson filmed early San Francisco punk band Crime in the city’s top punk venue, Mabuhay Gardens. About forty years later, the footage was used as the basis of this 35-minute film, edited and directed by Jon Bastian. It’s a brief piece, really more a concert movie than a documentary, and like much early punk footage, has imperfect sound that makes it hard to hear the lyrics. Still, it’s valuable for the historic record, capturing the group in color at the Mabuhay’s apex. It has better image quality than most early punk films do; there’s a little footage of the group filmed separately in an outdoors location; and there are very brief interview snippets with the band that are more statements of attitude than informational observations. It’s been issued on DVD with a vinyl double seven-inch record of the soundtrack.
The Albany Bulb is not a light bulb, and it’s not in Albany, New York. Just north of Berkeley, California, the Albany Bulb is an open space/parkland by the San Francisco Bay. Part of the small town (again, just north of Berkeley) of Albany, it’s easily reached by going all the way down Buchanan Street toward the water. You wouldn’t necessarily guess that it occupies former landfill, as it’s filled with vegetation, walking paths, and, more unusually, public art.
When you start your walk near the end of the parking area and small beach, you wouldn’t suspect the northwest area is full of public art, as nice and scenic as the main approach looks:
If you veer to the left where the trees are in the distance, instead of following the main trail, you’ll come across some interesting rock graffiti:
And some yellowstone — and we don’t mean the huge national park:
Going back to the main path and then turning toward the smaller paths that run near the water’s edge, more dedicated standalone artwork appears:
But the bulk of the sculptures are found by following the main path north until it hits the water. This curved space has not only the big statue featured at the top of this post, but also several other sculptures from scrap:
Plus smaller wire sculptures:
And yet more modest ones:
You might call this one “somewhere there’s a feather,” in honor of the early Jackson Browne song Nico put on her first album:
And a reminder, on rock graffiti, that we’re in the year 2020:
Plenty of dogwalkers are on the route, and while it’s hard to know what they think of the art, some of them sure like the water:
Some artwork’s off the main path, like this piece you might see on your walk back:
For a spot so peaceful on a warm summer day, with a bunch of relaxed socially distance walkers, the Albany Bulb’s sparked its share of controversy over the years. It was established as a public parkland of sorts after efforts from citizens over years to prevent development in the area. Exposed to the elements, much of the artwork that’s been there in the 21st century has deteriorated or disappeared. So what you see on any given visit may well vary. But there should be quite a bit of it, if my visit in August 2020 is any indication.
In a previous post, I wrote about notable EPs of the (mostly) 1960s. I’m not a big EP collector by any means, but there are some EPs I have outside of that time frame that aren’t discussed too much, and are pretty interesting. Some of them are from later than the 1980s, and some are reissues or first-time issues of ‘60s material that didn’t come out until decades later. Some of them are rare, too, but that’s not the main reason I have them in my collection.
Here are ten of them, not ranked in order of quality, and not meant to be a best-of list of any sort. It’s just a survey of some interesting and fairly obscure releases in a format that’s never caught on like the album or single.
Various Artists, Folk Rock E.P. (sic) (Moxie, 1981). Back in the stone age of 1960s reissues, the Moxie label was one of the few companies generating vinyl compilations of mid-‘60s garage rock. There were plenty of things to pick on about their anthologies if you were so inclined. The sound quality was, to put it mildly, uneven, especially as it seemed that all of the tracks had been dubbed from vinyl copies, some of which had a lot of surface noise. Sometimes you could even here brief bursts where someone seemed to have dropped and lifted a needle. The graphics were crude enough to have been etched by an actual stone age transplant.
Moxie’s most well known products were found in their series of Boulders ‘60s garage rock anthology LPs. They also did some EPs, including this six-track seven-inch of mid-‘60s folk-rock rarities. Maybe as a concession to polished marketing, it was pressed on yellow vinyl. Below the Moxie logo, the inner label proclaims, “‘The Times They Are A Changin’ presents the first folk rock E.P.” No picture sleeve, though.
Precisely because the overwhelming majority of garage-rock comps focus on rather similar-sounding raunchy sounds that are often cruder variations of the British Invasion, this release marks a refreshing departure from the formula. What’s more, none of the songs have been reissued much, though this came out back in 1981. As far as I can tell, the Bats’ “Nothing at All” and Beer’s “Anymore” haven’t been reissued anywhere else, though it’s hard to keep up with this kind of thing.
While much of the EP has a slightly raw adolescent feel, all of the tracks have their merits. In fact, the Avengers’ “Open Your Eyes” is one of the very best obscure folk-rock cuts, with fine Byrds-ish harmonies, chiming guitars, and a touch of eerie psychedelia. Boo Boo & Bunkie’s “Turn Around” is an amusing Sonny & Cher takeoff; the Black Sheep’s “It’s My Mind” a solid harmony folk-rocker; the Bees’ “Leave Me Be” an archetypal sullen teen rejection ode; and the Bats’ “Nothing At All” an enticingly sluggish number with mournful melodic harmonies. The closer, by the oddly named Beer, is more like teen garage lament with folk-rockish guitars than classic folk-rock, but still an affecting listen, like the rest of this EP.
The Plagues, Through This World (Quarantined, 1987). This obscure Lansing, Michigan garage rock outfit put out three rare singles in 1965 and 1966. In 1987, some devoted soul put out five of the six tracks on this seven-inch. The graphics were basic in the extreme, with a crudely photocopied picture of the group on a pink background.
Their story is probably much like thousands of other garage bands that didn’t make it big, but the music isn’t exactly like most of them. “That’ll Never Do” is such a downer take on typical lovelorn teen garage rock that it almost sounds like K Records post-punk alternative rock act Beat Happening would have in the mid-‘60s. The father-of-Calvin Johnson-like vocal verges on deliberate parody of the form. The drumless “Through This World” nearly seems like a garage Herman’s Hermits, in the best sense of that phrase. Sure it’s primitive, but it’s pretty catchy, too.
While things get more upbeat, full-bodied, and typically garage on side two, these cuts have their strengths too. “I’ve Been Through This Before” is a haunting but forceful blast of disappointed romance (there were many such garage-rock songs) with the kind of fuzz guitar garage rock fanatics treasure. “Tears from My Eyes” is the kind of folk-rock-influenced brooding garage that could have fit onto the above-listed Moxie Folk Rock E.P. “Why Can’t You Be True” is more formulaic “done-me-wrong” garage, but again shows their knack for fairly catchy minor-keyed melodies, which lifts into unpredictably jubilant Merseybeat-ish mode in the bridge.
Incidentally, this doesn’t include one of the sides from their three singles, their initial B-side “Badlands.” It’s a garage-surfish instrumental that’s not bad, but not as interesting as their other efforts.
Various Artists, The Magic Cube (no label, 1982). This nine-song nine-inch flexidisc – you read that right, nine inches – isn’t really a standout for the music, though it’s decent. It’s a mid-‘60s garage rock compilation, some with an ominous psychedelic tinge. Some of the tracks are fairly off the beaten path, though the Rising Storm’s “Frozen Laughter” has been easily available on reissues of their LP, and the Unrelated Segments’ “Cry, Cry, Cry” has shown up on numerous collections.
What really makes this stand apart is the oddball packaging. It’s strange enough to have a nine-inch EP, or a flexidisc garage comp. It’s yet stranger to have both at once. It was enclosed in a cover more like a business envelope than a record sleeve, with a blurry purple-tinted cover of a city skyline, over which a cube hovers. The tracks are listed on a traffic signal-shaped arrow that folds out into a three-dimensional cube, should you be so inclined to make one.
For what it’s worth my favorite track – a garage-frat take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” by Kenny & His Fiends – does not seem to have been reissued anywhere else. For all its obscurity, The Magic Cube itself has been reissued on CD and vinyl, though that vinyl measures ten inches, not nine.
The Byrds, Another Dimension (Sundazed, 2005). In truth this could have been a standard LP instead of a double EP, as it has twelve tracks. Alone among the items on this list, these are ten-inch discs – a measurement that was uncommon at any time in the record business history. And these alternate versions/outtakes from the sessions for the Byrds’ third LP, Fifth Dimension, are the kind that will only generate enthusiasm among fanatics, since they’re more like mix variations than unreleased material. “Instrumental tracks,” “long version, partial alternate vocal,” “long version instrumental without sound effects,” “no string overdubs” are some of the subtitles, to give you an idea.
Still, if there groups worthy of official releases of the kind of tinkered variations that show up on bootlegs, the Byrds are one of them. In no cases do the alternate versions match the released ones, but it’s kind of neat to hear “John Riley” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” without strings, a slightly longer version of “I See You,” and “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)” without sound effects. Not to mention “version 2” of “John Riley” as a faster-paced, jazzy instrumental; “version 1” of this instrumental, as you’ll surely remember, was a bonus track on the expanded Fifth Dimension CD. I don’t think any of these variations had been officially released elsewhere, though again it’s hard to keep up with things like that.
What really puts this double EP on this list, however, is the packaging, featuring a gatefold sleeve with alternate color cover shots. Best of all, the inner gatefold has the transcript of their March 1966 New York press conference, where Roger McGuinn and David Crosby speak at interesting length about the “Eight Miles High/Why” single and raga rock (and press officer Derek Taylor gives a long answer to the question about Gene Clark’s departure). It’s a rare example of valuable historical documentation being presented on archival releases – not just on reissue EPs, but on reissues in general.
The Left Banke, “Things Go Better/Hertz Rent-A-Car/Toni Hairspray” (Winfield, undated). The Left Banke didn’t record much in their brief lifetime, leaving behind less than thirty tracks (not counting reunions). This unauthorized three-song seven-inch is a scant supplement to their scant legacy, with commercials they did for Coke, Hertz, and Toni hairspray. The tunes aren’t much – are jingles ever that substantial? But they sing very well, in their usual style of backing Steve Martin’s superb lead vocals with sort of New York Beach Boys harmonies.
The tracks flash by in a mere three minutes or so, and the exact same recordings grace each side. The packaging won’t win any awards, setting text against a color photocopy of graphics from their first LP, and snapshots of the group in performance on the back cover.
Syd Barrett, Vinyl Sessions (Octopus, 1986). The release of the Barrett outtakes compilation Opel a couple years after this four-song, unauthorized seven-inch would seem to have eliminated any need to track this EP down. Not so, since the version, or at least mix, of “Milky Way” — a song that did not appear on Barrett’s two early-‘70s LPs — on the EP is different. And, to my ear, better, starting with the “1-2-3-4” spoken countoff that doesn’t make the officially released counterpart. The Vinyl Sessions version also has some almost sitarish buzz to some of the background guitar that gets lopped off the one on Opel.
More notable are the differences on “Dark Globe,” which had been on his debut album The Madcap Laughs. The alternate take on Opel (mysteriously retitled “Wouldn’t You Miss Me (Dark Globe)”)has a single-tracked vocal. The one on Vinyl Sessions is doubled tracked, a ghostly and slightly out-of-sync vocal shadowing the main one. That ghostly shadow enhances the woozy mystique of the recording considerably, and is entirely missing from the Opel counterpart. Both the Opel and Vinyl Sessions versions, incidentally, are far superior to the haphazard one on The Madcap Laughs, which is so strained and out of tune that its selection as the final take seems like deliberate sabotage.
The differences between the Vinyl Sessions “Word Song” and “Birdy Hop” and Opel’s seem minimal, if they’re even different takes at all. The EP’s certainly worth hearing, however, for the different version of “Dark Globe” alone. In line with many of the entries on this list, the packaging is threadbare, the front cover displaying a photocopied picture of Barrett against a faint pink backdrop; a drawing of an octopus adorns the back. It also didn’t take long before the tracks appeared with others on a Barrett bootleg LP (1987’s Vegetable Man Where Are You?), and of course in the current era they probably circulate on other physical product and online guises.
Start, Tales of Glory (L-Ert, 1981). Since I get a lot of grief for not liking many cult acts/records as much as their fans do (or not liking those records at all), it’s refreshing to have some groups I like to which almost no one else seems to pay any attention. One is the obscure early-‘80s Lawrence, Kansas indie rock group Start, aptly described in one review as having a sort of Doors-meet-the-Jam sound. That didn’t fit in with the usual barometer of what was hip in either the underground or the mainstream at the time, and Start got much notice to my knowledge, putting out an eight-song mini-LP and this yet scarcer three-song seven-inch.
Should that 1983 mini-LP Look Around get reissued on CD (it hasn’t), these three tracks would be worthy and indeed essential bonus cuts. On side one, “Let’s Dance” is a catchy if throwaway number, while the eerie organ-led instrumental “Tales of Glory” is something like an early-‘80s indie rock counterpart to the surf classic “Pipeline.” The B-side’s “(No More) Living in the Past” is a more heavyweight entry, and a match for anything else in their slim legacy, with a lean, moody melody; tough vocal; odd background bits that sound like blends of yelping sung notes and outer-space blips; and forceful anti-nostalgia lyric (“maybe we all live in the past when modern times move too fast”). The performance has an unusually live one-take feel, and is all the better for it.
This isn’t a bootleg, but the cover art isn’t much more elaborate than what’s found on the unauthorized releases detailed in this post, with black type set against a basic pale blue background. Here’s something I didn’t know until writing this entry: the producer, James Grauerholz, was a personal assistant to William Burroughs, becoming his business manager and now his literary executor. Grauerholz had been recommended to Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg, which probably explains how Ginsberg does a spoken word cameo on a track from Start’s mini-LP, “Little Fish/Big Fish.”
Shonen Knife, Yama-no Attchan (Zero, 1984). The music on this release is good catchy pop-punk, similar to if not quite as brash as their 1983 release Burning Farm. What makes it stand out more, especially if you’re the kind that covets discs as much or more for their appearance as their music, is the unusual shape and artwork. Like Burning Farm, this is an eight-inch disc – a format I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere, though Burning Farm (which I don’t have in its original form) was also an eight-inch. That’s enough to accommodate ten songs, which probably wouldn’t be possible on a seven-inch, at least without notable loss of fidelity.
The cover has hand-drawn images of the three Shonen Knife women, as well as handwritten song titles, some in Japanese, some in English. The pink insert also mixes Japanese and English, to the extent that you don’t get quite all the lyrics and recording information, at least if you’re an English reader/speaker. I guess another bonus for future estate appraisers, unique to my copy, is a handwritten January 1986 reply (in English) to my interview questions from Shonen Knife’s Naoko Yamano.
The Corsairs, Today (Music Rage, 1984). I’m not much for retro-‘60s sounds cut after the 1960s. This six-song twelve-inch – the twelve-inch becoming a more common form for EPs starting around the late 1970s – is an exception. The Corsairs played with melodic mod rock punch, and also paid more attention to crafting a well-balanced, imaginatively flavored recorded sound than most acts of the era that took their inspiration from the mid-‘60s. The driving, dramatic title track alone would qualify this as a notable release, with powerhouse bass, glittering vocal harmonies, and unpredictable song construction that doesn’t fall into derivative clichés.
While the other tracks aren’t up to “Today”’s standards, they’re good solid British mod-style rock, more on the Beatles side than the Who’s. Alan Shalby, the singer and songwriter, had some flair for compositions with more ambivalent, sometimes darker nuance than most ‘60s revivalists on “Today” and some other numbers, like “Never Listen.” The Corsairs didn’t attract much attention even within the ‘80s-‘60s scene, and had just one other release, a 1986 single. I’ve been made aware of some additional unissued studio recordings, and a CD compilation would make for a worthwhile project.
Degenerazione Musicale, “Nord/Sud/Est/Ovest” (Crazy Mannequin, 1988). One of the weirdest releases I’ve come across, on an EP or anything else, is this four-track seven-inch by an Italian act. The music’s strange enough – a college of white noise that segues into garage-surf guitar and whispered weeping; a jazzy instrumental with munchkin giggles; hysterically overwrought operatic singing backed by synthesizers and psychedelic swoops; and industrial grinds while discordant guitars clang and a woman whisper-moans. Shards of mirror glass are glued onto the sleeve, at least on my copy.
What really makes this hard to play on the radio – even underground college radio – are the tiny holes drilled into the vinyl. Not in the center label, but in the grooves themselves. Each of the four, fairly brief tracks is separated by the kind of blank extended bands that usually (well, virtually always) are placed at the end of the last track on vinyl sides. And there’s a tiny hole drilled into each of those, so your needle can’t help but get stuck in them if you just let the disc spin. Maybe that can damage your needle permanently – I’ve never tried to let the EP spin uninterrupted.
Some collectors will get enraged by this act of hubris. Even if your needle doesn’t get damaged, you’ll have to keep getting up and down to pick up your stylus so it doesn’t get stuck in that rut. But by strategically placing these holes so they’re impossible to avoid, the Crazy Mannequin label is subverting the very act of playing records, thus shaking us out of our collector complacency. Rather like Christian Marclay’s artworks that have spotlighted (and even released) vinyl that’s impossible to avoid scratching or even walking upon, it knocks these supposed holy relics off their pedestal and cuts them down to size. For Degenerazione Musicale, that size happens to be a seven-inch EP.
As an honorable mention, here’s a recent EP reissue I reviewed for my best-of 2016 list. I’ll reprint it here:
Jesse Fuller, Working on the Railroad (Mississippi/Secret Seven, 2016). 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.
The EP, or extended play, record has been around in some form about as long as records have. In rock music, they’ve been issued in several formats over the years, from seven-inches and twelve-inches to ten-inches, CDs, and bonus seven-inches with full twelve-inch LPs. Back in the 1960s, they were usually four-song compilations of tracks that were also and/or previously available on singles and albums. They didn’t take off to a meaningful extent in the US (though that changed a bit in later decades), but were a popular medium in the UK and numerous other countries. In fact, for quite a few years they were the primary format in France, which issued more Beatles EPs than Beatles singles before 1967.
The most interesting EPs—certainly if you weren’t living in the countries of their origin—were those that presented material that had not been available on singles or LPs. These days, just about all of the songs that were exclusive to certain rock EPs are available on reissues. But it’s neat to look back at the ones that used the EP as a vehicle for fresh sounds, not as a marketing tool for recycling or repurposing songs that ultimately made more sense to buy on singles and albums, if you had the budget.
Here’s an opinionated summary of the most noteworthy ’60s EPs, most of them from British acts, and most of them UK releases. It was relatively rare for US artists to issue EPs that unveiled new material, but there are a few of those too. All of these are seven-inches. Some purists might question whether a few three-song seven-inches are more properly classified as “maxi-singles,’ as the term was sometimes given in the UK press, but I’ve put them on too. I haven’t tried to rank them in quality, instead listing them in the order in which they were released.
The Big Three, At the Cavern (Decca, November 1963). It’s a little strange to lead off this list with one of the least musically interesting items, but we’re going in chronological order. The Big Three were one of the most popular Liverpool groups, and occasional comments in oral histories from those who were there suggest they were on par with, or even better than, the Beatles live. That assertion certainly isn’t borne out from their small official discography, which is energetic but mundane Merseybeat fare. They could play forcefully and had some of the top instrumentalists on the Merseyside. But when you don’t write many songs, and what little original material you have is weak, you certainly can’t bear comparison to the Beatles even if you did blow them off the stage at the Cavern (which I doubt happened, but no matter).
The Big Three never released an album, but they did manage to put out four singles and an EP that was, as the title says, actually recorded at Liverpool’s most famous club. As the only disc by a Merseybeat band taped at the Cavern, it’s of notable historical interest for that alone. The audience noise and introduction by compere Bob Wooler (famed for his role in the early Beatles’ career as fan and general advisor) add to the atmosphere. Musically it’s a truer representation of their sound than their studio 45s, where they were given some inappropriately lightweight pop material. But let’s be real here — it’s competent but not great, in part because two of the tunes are overdone rock classics (“What’d I Say” and Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin'”), and the other a not-so-great version of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The one group original, “Don’t Start Running Away,” is just passable.
There could have been a much more famous recording made at the Cavern in 1963. As many Beatles fans know, George Martin was considering taping the Beatles’ first album there, but then figured they could re-create their live excitement in the studio. Which they did, magnificently, for their debut LP Please Please Me.
The tracks on the Big Three’s Live at the Cavern EP—fairly successful in the UK, by the way, where it reached #6 on the EP charts—haven’t been hard to find since 1982, when they were on the Cavern Stomp compilation, which gathered all thirteen of the cuts they released in the ’60s. It includes a cover of “Bring It On Home to Me” from the 1964 various-artists compilation At the Cavern, also recorded at the club, and also with an introduction by Bob Wooler.
The Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones (Decca, January 17, 1964). The Rolling Stones took more advantage of EP opportunities than most of their British Invasion rivals, issuing three of new material in the mid-’60s (and a maxi-single in the early ’70s). They could have used more imagination for the title of their first EP, but it was a good sampling of their early R&B repertoire, preceded by only two actual UK singles. The highlight, easily, was their soulful interpretation (complete with wavering but haunting background harmonies) of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” the track primarily responsible for propelling this to #1 on the UK EP chart. As Roy Carr speculated in The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, “Had it been released as a single, it may have well reached the very top.”
Also good was “Bye Bye Johnny,” a reliably energetic Chuck Berry cover. Less impressive was their rather murkily recorded version of “Money,” which was far inferior to the Beatles’ classic interpretation, and a routine run-through of the Coasters’ hit “Poison Ivy.” Perhaps these were attempts to be accessible to listeners likely to be more familiar with those songs than the relatively arcane blues that still featured in much of their repertoire. It wasn’t until late 1965 that “You Better Move On” came out in the US (on the December’s Children LP), and not until 1972 that “Bye Bye Johnny” and “Money” finally did so on the More Hot Rocks compilation.
“Poison Ivy,” meanwhile, didn’t come out in the US until the expanded CD version of More Hot Rocks in 2002. Note that the version of “Poison Ivy” on the 1972 MoreHot Rocks collection (also included on the expanded CD) is a different, somewhat less impressive take, easily distinguished from the other by the presence of a guiro’s scraped percussive noises. It also fades out, where the harder-rocking EP version comes to a “cold” ending with a drum flourish. The weaker alternate version of “Poison Ivy” had first come out, I’m guessing by sloppy accident, on a UK various-artists sampler LP, Saturday Club.
The Downliners Sect, Nite in Gt. Newport Street (Contrast Sound Productions, January 1964). It was pretty rare that British Invasion bands released independent live EPs. Maybe there were some private pressings of such items here and there, but this four-songer is certainly the most widely known. Not that the Downliners Sect are too widely known–they never had a British or American hit. But they did put out three albums and a bunch of singles, and as something of a yet rawer Pretty Things (who themselves were something of a rawer Rolling Stones), they have their cult followers.
All four songs on Nite in Gt. Newport Street were American R&B covers, including routine workouts on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” and Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah.” “Green Onions” doesn’t actually sound too much like the Booker T. & the MG’s classic, and hits a nice, slightly menacing loping groove. Their take on Bo Diddley’s “Nursery Rhyme” is really cool, laying down a solid Diddley beat behind effectively restrained vocals. I’m aware I’m not as much of a Downliners Sect fan as some other ’60s/British Invasion fanatics, but I think “Nursery Rhyme,” as early as it is in their career, is their best track, except maybe for “Sect Appeal” from their first LP.
This is a mighty rare disc, but all four cuts have long been easily available, as they were part of the 1994 compilation The Definitive Downliners Sect: Singles A’s & B’s. Not so for an unissued follow-up EP they recorded for Contrast Sound Productions. The four tracks (including covers of “Rock and Roll Music” and Jimmy Reed’s “Brite [sic] Lights—Big City”) came out in 2011 on the Brite Lights—Big City EP, which itself is now very hard to find.
Georgie Fame, Rhythm & Blue-Beat (Columbia, May 1964). Fame debuted a higher percentage of his output on EPs than most British Invasion stars, and maybe a higher one than anyone. Three EPs in 1964-65 presented a dozen tracks that hadn’t been available elsewhere—a whole album’s worth. Since he was a pretty big star in the UK after “Yeh Yeh” topped the British charts in January 1965, it’s strange he didn’t put out an LP that year. The same could be said of the Yardbirds, who had no British albums (although two were issued in the US) in 1965 either.
Rhythm & Blue-Beat is the first of those EPs, and is exactly what the title promises: Fame’s brand of jazzy R&B, married to a ska beat. It’s okay, but not up to the standard of his best mid-’60s work, and has a sort of novelty feel, especially on his adaptation of the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme (a live version of which had already come out on his debut album). He’d do another thematic EP of sorts in May 1965 with Fats for Fame, featuring four Fats Domino covers. In November of the same year, Move It on Over didn’t have a theme, though aside from the title track, it was devoted to R&B standards that were rather overdone by then (“Walking the Dog,” “High [sic] Heel Sneakers,” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”).
The dispersal of numerous Fame tracks on EPs and non-LP singles, along with the usual discrepancy between his British and American discography, made assembling a complete collection of his pre-1967 material a difficult task indeed for decades. That was finally solved in 2015 by the expensive five-CD box The Whole World’s Shaking: Complete Recordings 1963-1966, which has everything from these EPs.
The Beatles, Long Tall Sally (Parlophone, June 19, 1964). Lots of Beatles EPs came out in their homeland in the first three years of their career, some of them big UK sellers. But Long Tall Sally was the only time they included tracks not previously available on UK albums or singles. It was a stormer, too, particularly the title cut, which had been a staple of Beatles shows almost since they began, and would be the last song they played at their last official concert (at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966). The other three tracks were hardly slouches, with John Lennon’s vocal pacing a terrific cover of Larry Williams’s “Slow Down” and Ringo taking one of his infrequent leads on Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox.” Rounding out the seven-inch was the sole original, “I Call Your Name,” a characteristically decent second-tier Lennon-McCartney tune.
Technically speaking, this didn’t mark the debut of all the tracks. Capitol Records, hungry for Beatles product after they invaded the US in early 1964, put “I Call Your Name” and “Long Tall Sally” on The Beatles’ Second Album, which had come out two months earlier. Also “I Call Your Name” had been the B-side of a Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas single back in July 1963, though the Beatles’ own rendition slays it.
Even if you were one of the (likely very few) British residents who had The Beatles’ Second Album, however, on its own merits this was arguably the finest EP of the British Invasion. Perhaps it was an excuse to get some of their covers on disc without jamming up their albums with too much non-Lennon-McCartney material, but it’s none the worse for that. Likely they could have filled up several more EPs with more great covers if they’d had the inclination, but luckily quite a few of those were cut at their BBC sessions, and are now widely available on CD.
The Merseybeats, On Stage (Fontana, July 1964). Throughout early rock history, there were a bunch of releases by high-profile acts that gave the false impression they were recorded live. This is one of the more obscure ones, actually recorded in the studio, though the idea was to capture them more like they were on stage than their poppier singles did. The opportunity to record them in their native Liverpool’s Cavern Club was not taken advantage of, and it was, according to the Merseybeats’ Billy Kinsley, cut in a mere 25 minutes. All of the songs were covers, including “Long Tall Sally,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You” (which Elvis Presley had recorded early in his career), Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” (here just titled “Shame”), and Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” (written by Willie Dixon). It was a major commercial success, making #2 on the British EP charts, on which it stayed for 25 weeks.
It would be great to report this shows the Merseybeats could have been a tough rock/R&B act given the chance, but in fact the results are mostly mediocre. Actually, “Long Tall Sally” and “Shame” have terrible throaty, rasping lead vocals, a kazoo (!) on “Shame” adding another irritant. Perusing the detailed liner notes of a couple Merseybeats reissues doesn’t reveal who was responsible, though according to Spencer Leigh’s It’s Love That Really Counts: The Billy Kinsley Story, it’s drummer John Banks on “Long Tall Sally,” and (the text seems to infer) Aaron Williams on “Shame.” As the Beatles’ own ace version of “Long Tall Sally” had come out only slightly earlier, the one by the Merseybeats can’t help but sound ghastly in comparison.
“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You,” at least, is fairly good—not nearly as good as the Beatles’ terrific 1963 BBC version, but then that would not have been available for contrast back then. “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” is fair at best, and no match for the best Diddley covers by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Pretty Things. In truth the Merseybeats were really more suited for pop-rock, and made some fairly good (though hardly great) singles in that vein, though they never had US success.
All four tracks from this EP, and everything else they did in the ’60s, are on the 2002 Bear Family compilation I Think of You: The Complete Recordings. According to the Merseybeats’ Tony Crane, On Stage was the third best-selling British EP of 1964, “only beaten by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” though I have a hard time believing there weren’t more than a couple Beatles and Stones EPs that outsold it.
The Rolling Stones, Five By Five (Decca, August 14, 1964). Having cut some fine sides at Chess Records’ studios during their first US tour, the Stones were eager to get some of them out before their second full-length UK album. Devoted mostly to covers, 5 X 5—with, as the title suggested, five tracks rather than the more common four—was a fine dish of those, from the time they were still a very R&B-oriented band. Their rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” (the very first song Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had performed in public) was the most popular. But the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” (named after the address of the Chess studios) was the best, as kind of a more rock-oriented take on Booker T. & the MG’s with a compelling riff and great Ian Stewart organ (and some of Bill Wyman’s best bass).
Also on the EP were a contemporary soul cover (of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me”) and a slow blues (“Confessin’ the Blues”), both well done. Their songwriting was still in a relatively primitive stage on the one original, “Empty Heart,” but even that had some cool irregular rhythms and wayward backing vocals. American fans wouldn’t miss out on these cuts for long, as they formed the backbone of their second US album, 12 X 5, just a couple months later. To quote Roy Carr’s The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record again, “Along with the Beatles’ Long Tall Sally four-tracker, Five By Five is unquestionably the first and last great EP. They really don’t make records like these any more.”
Another collectors’ note: a longer version of “2120 South Michigan Avenue” came out on a German LP compilation, with markedly more guitar soloing by Keith Richards. That was finally made available in the US on the 2002 CD of 12 X 5.
The Rolling Stones, Got Live If You Want It! (Decca, June 11, 1965). The Rolling Stones’ first live release had rather lo-fi recordings from their March 1965 UK tour. If not the Stones as their early very best, it’s still a fun and atmospheric (for the wild screaming) listen. Three of the songs (“Route 66,” “Pain In My Heart,” and a very abbreviated “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”) had been on their first couple British LPs in different studio versions. But the two others, Bo Diddley’s elemental “I’m Alright” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On,” were not otherwise issued by the Stones. “I’m Alright” is exciting and “I’m Moving On” is easily the EP’s high point, with fine slide guitar and harmonica, in a hard-driving arrangement not too similar to either Snow’s country original or Ray Charles’s soul cover.
Got Live If You Want It! caused more than its share of discographical confusion among collectors. First, the US album Got Live If You Want It!, issued in 1966 (and not issued in the UK), is an entirely different recording. It does have a lamer version (with the original backing track, but re-recorded vocals) of “I’m Alright,” which had appeared in its original EP version on the American 1965 album Out of Our Heads. Two of the other tracks, “I’m Moving On” and “Route 66,” found their way onto the grab-bag late-’65 American Stones LP December’s Children. “Pain in My Heart” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” meanwhile, didn’t get released in the US until the 2004 box set Singles 1963-1965 (although these had been on an EP, not a single).
Finally, “We Want the Stones,” listed as a “song” on the original release, is in fact nothing more than a crowd chanting “we want the Stones,” lasting thirteen seconds (and credited to the band’s pseudonym for group compositions, Nanker Phelge). That’s on Singles 1963-1965 too. As for the title, “Got Live If You Want It” is a pun on the Slim Harpo blues classic “Got Love If You Want It,” which had already been covered by the Yardbirds and the Kinks, though the Stones never put out a version.
Manfred Mann, The One in the Middle (HMV, June 18, 1965). Manfred Mann utilized the EP format to debut tracks more than most major British Invasions did. I’m just choosing one here since some of them weren’t that interesting (particularly the EPs of instrumentals), and/or the tracks often soon appeared on other releases. For the record, the January 1965 EP Groovin’ with Manfred Mann had a dynamite Ben E. King cover in the title track and a couple fair R&B rockers with “Did You Have to Do That” and “Can’t Believe It,” But all were on the US The Five Faces of Manfred Mann LP a couple months later, and the fourth track on the EP was “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” which had already been a #1 single.
The One in the Middle was their most interesting EP, though one track, “Watermelon Man,” had been on the American LP The Five Faces of Manfred Mann. “The One in the Middle,” a self-referential Paul Jones composition detailing the roles of the Manfreds (though he originally intended it for Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf), was the song most responsible for the disc topping the British EP chart. Quite possibly it could have been a hit British single on its own, though Manfred Mann were in the midst of a lengthy bunch of those. Just as notable was their cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” which had an almost orchestral buildup (without orchestral instruments) that gave it a power and feel quite unlike the plaintive folk original.
In this company, their cover of the Paris Sisters’ “What Am I To Do” was lightweight, though it’s worth noting that it’s not only a catchy pop-rocker, but is also far better than the timorous original. It, “With God on Our Side,” and “The One in the Middle” all appeared Stateside in October 1965 on the My Little Red Book of Winners LP.
The Kinks, Kwyet Kinks (Pye, September 17, 1965). Contrary to the title, the four songs on this EP weren’t that much quieter than the Kinks’ usual early fare. Most of them were folkier, though, and one in particular marked the first major departure of main singer-songwriter Ray Davies into social commentary. That was “A Well Respected Man,” which became a deserved big US hit when it was issued in the US the following month. It’s a rare example of a British Invasion band and/or label misjudging the singles market, since it was–to this day, to the surprise of some British Invasion fans—not issued as a 45 in their home country.
The other songs on this EP might not have been up to that level, but a couple were certainly good. Dave Davies had his first major outing for his folky tendencies as singer and songwriter of the pleasing midtempo “Wait Till the Summer Goes Along,” which had a rambling country-folk feel. Ray Davies had a decent, and still largely overlooked, folk-rockish outing with “Don’t You Fret,” which almost sounded like a Scottish or Irish ballad given a couple tense rave-up accelerations. “Such a Shame” was much more ordinary (if rather downbeat) British Invasion pop, but three out of four on an EP of previously unavailable originals is pretty good.
Part of the reason this EP doesn’t get much comment outside of the UK is that all of the tracks were quickly available on US releases. “Such a Shame” showed up on the B-side of the American “A Well Respected Man single, and all four songs were on the US Kinkdom album just a couple months after the EP came out across the Atlantic.
Country Joe & the Fish, Talking Issue #1 (Rag Baby, October 1965). Distributed with the underground Rag Baby magazine, this might be of more historical importance than musical brilliance, but its position in Bay Area rock history is notable. This early version of Country & the Fish—Joe McDonald and guitarist Barry Melton were the only musicians who’d go on to the fully electric Fish—was more jugband folk than rock, though Melton did play electric guitar. Also, this EP has just two tracks (all of side one) by the group on the disc. The flipside has two forgettable folk songs by Peter Krug, who wasn’t in the Fish.
But the two Fish songs are early versions of a song that would feature in a full rock arrangement on their first album (“Superbird”) and, more notably, an early version of their most famous number, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” These are barer and considerably less effective than the re-recordings. Yet they’re among the earliest relics of Bay Area protest rock, which would grow more psychedelic as folkies like McDonald and Melton made the transition to loud electric instruments. They did so fully by the time of their second, far more impressive EP in 1966, also listed here.
Country Joe & the Fish, Country Joe & the Fish (Rag Baby, July 1966). While this features a slightly different lineup than Country Joe & the Fish would have slightly later when they recorded their debut album, this is all-out electric rock that counts among the first truly psychedelic recordings from the San Francisco Sound (though to be technical, the Fish were based in Berkeley). All three of the songs would be re-recorded for their first LP, and all are in somewhat less polished state here, though not much if at all to their detriment. These include “Thing Called Love,” which would be retitled “Love” on the album, and “Bass Strings.”
But the piece de resistance of the EP—if not of the Fish’s whole career—is the nearly seven-minute instrumental “Section 43.” It’s one of the greatest psychedelic instrumentals, blending hypnotic Asian-influenced melodies, spooky ethereal organ, fiercely distorted electric guitar, and even a bit of bluesy raveup and jugband hijinx. The remake on the debut Electric Music For the Mind and Body album is similar, but not as good or spontaneous. Country Joe & the Fish can also be seen performing this, to great effect, in the Monterey Pop movie.
It will never be possible to get accurate statistics, but this could have been the highest-selling and most influential self-released EP of the 1960s. Figures as high as 15,000 copies have been quoted for its total sales, and it was reportedly distributed in underground record stores and head shops well beyond the Bay Area, as far away as Europe. Original copies are now rare and expensive, but fortunately both this and the Fish’s 1965 EP (as well as a less impressive 1971 EP where McDonald was the only remaining musician) were compiled onto the 1980 LP Collectors Items: The First Three EPs.
The Who, Ready Steady Who (Reaction, November 11, 1966). A kind of weird mix of throwaways and quality originals, the inspiration behind the title of this five-song EP would have been mostly unknown in the US, where the UK rock TV show Ready Steady Go! wasn’t broadcast. It might have led fans to think these were performances from that program, but in fact they were studio tracks, not live (or even “live in the TV studio”) recordings. If only in hindsight, side two seems like a vehicle to let Keith Moon get his surf fanaticism out of his system, with a cover of “Barbara Ann” and Jan & Dean’s much more obscure “Bucket T.” Also on side two was a short (one minute and 22 seconds) and strange cover of “Batman,” also done (though briefly as part of a medley) on the live LP the Kinks did in 1967.
Side one, though, had some good Pete Townshend originals. “Disguises” was a really good mod rock tune that, in line with their 1966 UK hits “Substitute” and “I’m a Boy,” were subtle evocations of how things weren’t always what they seemed. It’s not as good as those two hits, but it’s not too far out of that league either. A considerably different version of the good power-popper “Circles” had been on the US version of their debut My Generation LP, and different sources have given different accounts of how the two versions circulated. This is what I can gather: the one on the American My Generation was produced by Shel Talmy. The second one, produced by the Who without Talmy, came out on the B-side of the original “Substitute” single, but had to be withdrawn because the group and Talmy were in a legal dispute.
It seems like this second version is the same as the one on Ready Steady Who, and thus the only one of the five tracks on the EP to have already been available, if briefly. I don’t have that original rare withdrawn 45, and if that’s not accurate, feel free to send in corrections. In any case, I prefer Talmy’s version, which though it has a kind of murky mix, has more energy than the one on the EP. The EP take is considerably cleaner, but more reserved.
“Disguises” was first heard in the US when it made the Magic Bus compilation LP in 1968, which also, kind of inexplicably, included “Bucket T,” one of their strangest early efforts (particularly in John Entwistle’s goofy horn solo). It took a while for the other tracks to become available Stateside, “Barbara Ann” appearing on 1986’s Who’s Missing, and “Circles” coming out on 1987’s Two Missing compilation. “Batman” made it onto the 1995 expanded CD of the Who’s second album (A Quick One), whose bonus tracks also include three other songs from the EP—but not the EP version of “Circles.” Is it any wonder Who fans resorted to bootlegs to get the five tracks, both because it took so long for all of them to appear on US releases, and because even when they did they were scattered here and there?
The Other Half, The Other Half (Vogue, January 1967). Sometimes tracks showed up on foreign EPs for inexplicable reasons that will probably never be known. Such was the case with the Other Half, a very good but obscure California group that bridged the gap between garage rock and psychedelia. Their best known song might be their first single, “Mr. Pharmacist,” the A-side of the only 45 they did for GNP Crescendo (more famous for their Seeds releases). That’s on this four-song French EP, along with its B-side, “I’ve Come So Far.”
But the EP also has two songs, “I Know” and “It’s Too Hard,” that never came out in the US. Since the Other Half never had anything close to a hit in their home country, it’s kind of baffling as to why Vogue, a very prominent French label, would license unreleased tracks by an unknown American band. It’s a good thing they did, though, since like the ones on the GNP Crescendo, they’re fine if slightly raw moody garage-psych tunes, paced by the brilliant sustain-laden guitar of Randy Holden.
More than even most good obscure bands of the era, the Other Half have had bad luck in getting their legacy properly enshrined on reissues. All four songs from the EP were included on the 1982 French LP Mr. Pharmacist (which also had all the songs from their good self-titled 1968 LP, as well as the non-LP B-side “No Doubt About It”). Most of the CD reissues of this material are designated “unofficial” in discogs.com.
There are other instances, by the way, of tracks mysteriously showing up on French EPs only, most famously (at least among the people who trace this sort of thing) an alternate version of the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” A French EP by the Belfast Gypsies, a good spinoff group of Them, had an instrumental (“The Gorilla”) not found elsewhere, though it turns out it wasn’t even recorded by the Belfast Gypsies, but by a different unidentified band. And there’s another example in our next entry.
We the People, St. John’s Shop(London, January 1967). We the People were a good, not great, Florida group who put out some pretty good singles that encompossed both gnarly garage rockers and melodic ballads with a Zombies influence. They had some regional success, but never charted nationally. Which makes it all the more mysterious, a la the Other Half EP, why some unreleased tracks of theirs showed up on a French EP. One of these four tracks (“In the Past,” a garage-psych gem that ranks as their best recording) came out in the US on a single near the end of 1966, but the other three didn’t come out on American discs. One, “Declaration of Independence,” was pretty good and about on the level of their better 45s; another, “Lovin’ Son of a Gun,” is a so-so midtempo bluesy rocker.
But the title track is one of their best numbers, with its slightly psych-addled Zombies wistfulness (“you may think his way is way out, but his way is in”). What’s more—at least from what I can gather from what’s been written about We the People—it was a string-less version, minus the orchestral overdubs that diluted the cut when it was issued on a US 45. Here’s guessing it might never have come out had it not leaked onto this French EP. Fortunately all four of the tracks were made widely available on CD decades later.
John Mayall’s Bluebreakers with Paul Butterfield, John Mayall’s Bluebreakers with Paul Butterfield (Decca, January 6, 1967). Pairing good rock musicians with each other doesn’t necessarily result in something twice as good, and in fact often doesn’t result in something as good as what they were doing on their own. Such was the situation with this four-track EP, putting together arguably the most important mid-’60s blues-rock bandleaders of the UK and the US. Both Mayall and Butterfield had made justly famous and influential albums in 1966, but this joint effort is surprisingly ordinary and unmemorable, if competent. There aren’t any major flaws, but there aren’t any huge sparks either.
Some more original material might have helped; just one of the tracks here, Mayall’s “Eagle Eye,” falls in that category. Giving more space to Peter Green for the kind of fiery guitar work found in the 1966 Bluesbreakers album with Eric Clapton, and Butterfield’s 1966 East-West LP with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, could have lit some fire too. Note that while this EP is sometimes titled All My Life in discographies, no title is given on the record’s artwork.
Somehow I found an original copy of this EP, which I’d presumed quite rare and hopeless to count on finding, at Rhino Records in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s for just five dollars. I suppose that had something to do with the poor condition of the sleeve (the top had come unglued and there were some stains on the back), though the disc plays well. All four tracks have come out as bonuses on CD reissues of the A Hard Road album, which Mayall had recorded with Green and the Bluesbreakers shortly before cutting this EP.
Mad River, Mad River (Wee, late 1967). If not a name as big as most on this list, Mad River were one of the better San Francisco bands that didn’t make it nationally in the late-’60s, recording two albums for Capitol. The first of these (also, like this EP, self-titled) is odd, tense, dark psych with some gnarly guitar. I don’t like the second, the country-rock-oriented Paradise Bar and Grill, nearly as much, but it has its devotees. Even some psychedelic rock fans who know about both LPs, however, don’t know the group did an earlier three-song EP for a small Bay Area label.
Its value is diminished a little since two of the three songs, “AGazelle” and “Windchimes,” were redone for their first LP (as “Amphetamine Gazelle” and “Wind Chimes”), though the EP arrangement of “Wind Chimes” has some “hare krishna” chanting that didn’t survive into the later version. But the third track, “Orange Fire,” was not featured on their albums in any guise. While some collectors are prone to saying “and this non-LP cut was their best song” more because it’s rare than because it’s decisively better, in this case, “Orange Fire” was their best song. An eerie folk-rock ballad for the most part, it offered some of the most direct, blunt anti-Vietnam War protest of any rock recording. I say “for the most part” because a couple times it erupts into fierce instrumental breaks with cacophonous crossfire of distorted guitars, as if to sonically mirror the carnage of the Vietnam War.
It’s mystifying as to why “Orange Fire” didn’t find a place on their first Capitol album. While I doubt it was a factor, it can be pointed out that some of the chording in the instrumental sections strongly recalls riffs that have a prominent role in the Yardbirds’ psychedelic classic “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” The original EP, though it got some local sales and airplay, is impossible to find. Fear not—like a couple other Bay Area rarities discussed in this post, it’s on the CD compilation The Berkeley EPs.
The Move, Something Else from the Move (Regal Zonophone, June 21, 1968). This five-song disc had a significant plus and minus. The plus was that none of the five, all recorded live at London’s Marquee club (though some had “new live vocals…recorded at Marquee studios”), appeared in any version on their studio LPs and singles. The minus was that they’re not as interesting as their many good studio tracks, in part because they’re all covers.
At least it’s certainly not a run-of-the-mill choice of material, including the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star,” Love’s “Stephanie Knows Who,” Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “It’ll Be Me,” and Spooky Tooth’s “Sunshine Help Me.” The Love cover’s the best, but generally they’re sort of undistinguished versions, and it’s kind of like hearing a BBC session where a group takes the opportunity to do favorites by others they’re not intending to do in the studio. (The group did quite a few of those on the radio too, as heard on some archival releases.)
Surprisingly, the EP wasn’t hard to get as a twelve-inch reissue back in the early 1980s. A 1999 reissue added bonus tracks from the same event, again all covers, including “Piece of My Heart,” Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” a second version of “Sunshine Help Me,” and–most surprisingly—”Too Much in Love,” from an obscure 1968 Denny Laine single. A 2016 expanded CD puffed it up more with live 1968 Marquee versions of their UK hits “Fire Brigade” and “Flowers in the Rain,” a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love,” and a very brief “Move Bolero.”
Frumious Bandersnatch, Frumious Bandersnatch (Muggles Gramophone, June 1968). One of many San Francisco-area psychedelic bands who barely or never got the chance to record, Frumious Bandersnatch did put out a three-song seven-inch—not skimping on running time, with fourteen minutes of music—in mid-1968. More so than most of the entries on this list, it had an “easily the highlight” track in the dramatic, captivating “Hearts to Cry,” with excellent Quicksilver Messenger Service-like guitar, haunting vocal harmonies, and a midsection raveup. On the basis of this track alone, they seemed to have potential that was deserving of at least a full album. The other two tracks were not as memorable, but not dispensable either.
Pressed on purple vinyl with a picture sleeve, this is mighty rare in its original incarnation. Fortunately this, like Country Joe & the Fish’s second EP and Mad River’s EP, is on the 1995 CD The Berkeley EPs, which also includes a less impressive rare EP from the region by Notes from the Underground. That collection (along with Country Weather’s one-sided LP) serves as evidence that the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and particularly bands that were sometimes based in the East Bay, generated more in the way of notable EPs than anywhere else in the US. Fortunately much other Frumious Bandersnatch material, which was unreleased at the time, became available on the 1996 CD compilation A Young Man’s Song. “Hearts to Cry” still stands out as their best song by far, however.
The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar”/”Bitch”/”Let It Rock” (Rolling Stones, April 26, 1971). One anomalous early-’70s/maxi-single entry tops off this list. On their own, “Brown Sugar”/”Bitch” made for a tremendous double-sided single. In the UK, a live cover of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” was added to make it a three-song “maxi-single.” That cover’s a reliably decent Stones interpretation of a Berry standard, though not one of Berry’s greatest songs or among the Stones’ best Berry covers.
And an honorable mention for the most interesting unreleased EP:
The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album is justly considered the least essential LP they released while active that was centered around “new” material. Released in January 1969, this soundtrack to their animated feature actually only contained four previously unreleased Beatles songs, and even those were leftovers from sessions in 1967 and early 1968. Side one of the LP was filled out with “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love” (both of which were featured in the movie), neither of which were hard to get elsewhere then or since. Side two had instrumental George Martin music for the film score that might have defenders here and there, but realistically, few listeners have played that side more than once or twice.
At the time and since, the Beatles and EMI have been criticized for putting so much filler on a full-length (and full-price) LP. A subsequent CD reissue titled Yellow Submarine Soundtrack improved matters by getting rid of the Martin score and adding nine actual Beatles songs that had been used in the film soundtrack (although all of those, like “All You Need Is Love” and “Yellow Submarine,” had been previously available on other discs).
What could and should have been done at the time of the film’s premiere in July 1968 was to put out an EP of the four previously unreleased songs, adding another outtake. In fact such an EP was given initial preparation for release, though not until March 13, 1969. On that date, a master tape for a five-track EP was compiled and banded at EMI. Side one would have featured “Only a Northern Song,” “Hey Bulldog,” and “Across the Universe.” Side two would have presented “All Together Now” and “It’s All Too Much.”
“Across the Universe” actually hadn’t been on the Yellow Submarine album or soundtrack. It would find a home on the No One’s Gonna Change Our World various-artists charity album in December 1969. With some overdubs, a different Phil Spector-produced version would appear on Let It Be.
The release of this five-track EP back in March 1969 would have made perfect sense, though it might have ticked off the millions of fans who’d already paid full price for the Yellow Submarine LP sans “Across the Universe.” Actually it would have made yet more perfect sense to put out the EP back in July 1968, though that might have ticked George Martin off. This would-be EP, incidentally, was mastered in mono, though that format was going into obsolescence by early 1969.
So was the EP format itself, but actually the Beatles had used it for a new release fairly recently. Magical Mystery Tour was released as a double EP in the UK. In the US, it came out as an LP with the six songs from the UK double EP (all of which had been on the TV program’s soundtrack) and the five songs from 1967 singles that hadn’t been on LP. In that case, the full-length LP presentation actually made more sense, even if it had five songs that weren’t on the soundtrack.
If the Beatles ever get on board Record Store Day’s fashion for vinyl releases of classic material, don’t be surprised if that canceled Yellow Submarine EP finally sees the light of day. In mono, of course.
In my previous post, I wrote about some of my favorite records that were written by famous artists, but first released on discs by others. It’s a huge subject that would take several books to fully document, if someone wanted to do reference volumes going through every example. I limited that list to my very favorites, but there are many other instances that have interesting stories behind them, even if the music wasn’t always brilliant. Here are a few, starting with perhaps the most famous that didn’t make my first list:
Scott McKenzie/The Mamas & the Papas, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” How did John Phillips give away one of his biggest hits, instead of having his own hugely successful group do it? The story’s been told pretty often, but McKenzie and Phillips had been friends for a long time before the Mamas & the Papas formed, playing together in an also-ran folk revival group that made some records, the Journeymen. “San Francisco” was meant as a kind of welcome to everyone coming to Northern California for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which Phillips co-produced with Mamas & the Papas producer Lou Adler. It was also a way of helping out an old friend, and it would be McKenzie’s only hit.
For such a gentle, rather innocuous song, “San Francisco” has stirred its share of rage among some of the very San Franciscans it might have been intended to honor. Some felt it was an inappropriately wimpy anthem for their city. Some rock critics past and present, whether from San Francisco or not, deride it as sappy hippy naiveté. Some also accused Phillips, and indeed the whole Monterey Pop Festival organization, of exploiting the San Francisco scene, both for using it as the trendy subject for a hit single and for having a lot of emerging San Francisco bands on the Monterey bill to enhance its credibility. The Mamas & the Papas were based in Los Angeles, not San Francisco, giving more ammunition to those who saw them as bandwagon-jumping carpetbaggers.
I can’t get that angry about something that’s just a song, and though I’m not a huge fan of it, I think it’s okay. Judging from the singalong reaction of many students (usually now senior citizens) in my adult community education classes when I show a clip of McKenzie miming the tune, lots of people still think it’s more than okay.
The Acid Gallery/The Move, “Dance Round the Maypole.” When people hear this obscure late-1969 UK single, they often mistake it for the Move, with its catchy British pop tune, lumpy hard rock arrangement, playful lyrics, and foggy vocals and backup harmonies. There’s a good reason for that. This was written and produced by main Move songwriter Roy Wood. And the backing vocals were by Wood and fellow Moveman Jeff Lynne.
This would have worked fine as filler on an early Move LP, though maybe Wood felt it wasn’t heavy enough for what they were getting into by 1969. It wasn’t a hit, and the Acid Gallery made just this one single. They weren’t done with the record business, however, as guitarist Vic Elmes and drummer Mike Blakely (drummer of the Tremeloes’ Alan Blakely) were soon in Christie, who had a big 1970 hit with “Yellow River.”
The Barron Knights/The Who, “Lazy Fat People.” Pete Townshend didn’t make writing for other artists nearly as much of a sideline in the mid-1960s as Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and Ray Davies did. He did place some compositions with other artists, including an early version of “Magic Bus” with the Pudding, whose single came out in 1967, a year before the Who had a hit with the same song. Far more obscure was this weird donation to the Barron Knights, a British group known more as a comedy outfit than a serious musical enterprise. It has more of a black-comic vaudeville feel than a rock one, complete with vocals producing fake trumpet sounds. Townshend’s demo of the song has been bootlegged, and while it’s more palatable, it’s not great in that guise either. It’s really kind of an ill-advised stab at a novelty song, though I once read it was aimed at man-with-a-cigar greedy music biz tycoons.
The Searchers/The Everly Brothers/The Hollies, “Have You Ever Loved Somebody.” A typically catchy and effervescent Hollies pop-rock original, “Have You Ever Loved Somebody” was done twice before the Hollies’ own version came out on their 1967 Evolution LP. The Searchers did a very good, hard-charging, slightly fuzz-tinged arrangement on a 1966 single that just dented the UK charts at #48. The Everly Brothers did a good one on their Two Yanks in England album that same year. Both of these recordings are superior to the relatively ordinary, relatively heavier one on Evolution.
At first glance, the Two Yanks in England album almost looks like an LP stuffed with Hollies giveaways, as eight of the twelve tracks were penned by the group. But although the album’s worthwhile, and did mark the debut of some of the songs on disc, none of these were exclusives. The Hollies had already issued their own version of five of the numbers, and the others would all appear on Hollies releases in the near future, whether on B-sides or LPs.
Dusty Springfield/The Zombies, “If It Don’t Work Out.” Although the Zombies had two excellent songwriters in Rod Argent and Chris White (who wrote separately), they barely got involved in the game of having other artists do songs that didn’t find a place on their own records. One exception was Argent’s “If It Don’t Work Out,” which got a spot on Dusty Springfield’s late-’65 UK LP Ev’rything’s [sic] Coming Up Dusty. She does a good enough job on a tune that shows a greater soul influence than most of the Zombies’ work, but it’s only acceptable filler, not something with hit single potential.
Both the Zombies and Springfield, however, rated it more highly than I do. In the liner notes to the box set Zombie Heaven, Zombies guitarist Paul Atkinson told Alec Palao, “We rehearsed it a lot but [Rod] said ‘I’m going to give it to Dusty.’ I was upset about that, because I thought it could be a hit for us.”
Elaborated Argent in the same notes, “We were on tour with Dusty and she said to me ‘I’m recording at the moment, will you write something for me?’ So I wrote her a song over the weekend which was ‘If It Don’t Work Out,’ and that was quite good really because I had her voice in mind. I played the song to her in the studio and she loved it.”
Said Dusty in 1965 (according to Paul Howes’s book The Complete Dusty Springfield), “That tambourine is fantastic. Rod was there on piano. I asked him, on tour, to write something for me—this is it! The strength of the brass is lovely.” According to that book, it was planned as a single, though it ended up as an LP track. The Zombies did their own adequate version in July 1965, but it didn’t come out (with some overdubs in December 1968) until 1969, after the group had broken up.
Yellow Hand/Buffalo Springfield, Yellow Hand. On their sole album, 1970’s self-titled Yellow Hand, this unknown group somehow got hold of half a dozen songs by Neil Young or Stephen Stills that had been recorded or demoed back in their Buffalo Springfield days, but were never released by that great group. These included Young’s “Down to the Wire” and “Sell Out,” and Stills’s “Neighbor Don’t You Worry,” “We’ll See,” “Come On,” and “Hello I’ve Returned.” All of these songs are on the Buffalo Springfield self-titled box set in Springfield/demo versions except “Sell Out,” which is on Young’s Archives Vol. 1 box.
While these songs generally aren’t up to what the Springfield put on their LPs, they have their merits, and are sometimes about as good as some of their deep album cuts. Yellow Hand’s versions are substantially different than the ones in circulation by the Springfield, having been recorded considerably later, and arranged based on demos that were made available to the group.
Butch Engle & the Styx/The Beau Brummels, most of The Best of Butch Engle & the Styx: No Matter What You Say. “The best of” is an odd title for a Marin County group that had only three singles, none of which were close to being a hit. With the addition of almost a dozen outtakes, Beat Rocket/Sundazed put out a full CD of their 1964-67 recordings in 2000. All but two of the tracks were written or co-written by Ron Elliott, lead guitarist and main songwriter of the Beau Brummels. Elliott also co-produced the recordings, making the band almost a minor league affiliate of sorts to the Brummels.
The Beau Brummels were an excellent and underrated group, and the thought of lots of otherwise unavailable Elliott songs naturally piques the interest of any fan. Unfortunately, however, most of these are subpar castoffs that aren’t nearly on the level of what he reserved for his own band. Since they unsurprisingly have a similar minor-based melodic sense and moodiness, they almost sound like the work of an act trying to imitate the Beau Brummels. Although “Hey, I’m Lost” (one of their singles) is a fairly good and tough number, otherwise it’s an unexpectedly underwhelming mid-‘60s garage-pop-folk-rock collection. Beau Brummels fans will want it, but they’ll probably be disappointed to at least some degree.
Georgie Fame/John Mayall, “Something.” Strange but true: Mayall never got into the charts with any of the numerous singles he wrote for his band the Bluesbreakers. But he did with a song he co-wrote with guitarist Jon Mark, an accomplished folk guitarist who’d play in Mayall’s group in the late 1960s. In late 1965, the Mayall-Mark composition “Something” was a mild UK hit for Georgie Fame, peaking at #23. It’s an amiable good-natured effort with more of a soul-pop feel than the usual blues, or blues-rock, in which Mayall specialized. It doesn’t scream “hit,” and probably got as high as it did owing to Fame’s track record, as he’d topped the UK charts (and almost gotten into the US Top Twenty) a year before with “Yeh Yeh.”
Jim & Jean/David Blue, “Strangers in a Strange Land.” Jim & Jean’s 1966 album Changes was almost an exercise in digging for then-unreleased songs by significant folk-rock songwriters. These included Eric Andersen’s “Tonight I Need Your Lovin’” (which Andersen would never put on his own discs) and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” which the composer had recorded in 1963 at the sessions for his third album, but which would not be issued until the mid-‘80s. There were also a couple songs by Jim Glover’s buddy Phil Ochs, “Crucifixion” and “Flower Lady,” that wouldn’t become part of Ochs’s discography until his 1967 album Pleasures from the Harbor. “Crucifixion” is a standout as it’s a straightforward, haunting interpretation that doesn’t have the musique concrete effects that some fans feel mar Ochs’s arrangement.
Also haunting, and yet better, is their version of David Blue’s “Strangers in a Strange Land.” Blue is most notorious for his 1966 self-titled Elektra album, on which he seemed determined to sound (and, on the cover, look) as much like early electric Dylan as possible. “Strangers in a Strange Land,” however, wasn’t at all like Dylan. Its beguiling, winding melody was well suited toward Jim & Jean’s close harmony, as well as the economic but biting folk-rock backing track. Indeed, “Strangers in a Strange Land” was better and more original than any of the songs Blue placed on his own 1966 debut LP, though Blue never released his own version anywhere.
The Changes albumalso includes a couple other Blue compositions, though these (“Grand Hotel” and “About My Love”) were also on the David Blue album. Incidentally, “Strangers in a Strange Land” is an entirely different song than “Stranger [singular] in a Strange Land,” a superb David Crosby-penned early folk-rock single by the male-female San Francisco duo of Blackburn & Snow.
The Fresh Windows, “Fashion Conscious.” This is kind of an honorable mention because actually this wasn’t written by a member of a famous group. But some collectors assumed it was, because this obscure 1967 UK single bears the songwriting credit Barrett. And as it’s a really cool mod rock number about a too-cool trendy-following dolly bird with mild psychedelic touches and an acidic satiric vocal, it seems like it might, just about, have been a composition by original Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett. It’s rather more straightforward than his Pink Floyd songs, but there’s some similarity in the songwriting and the very British, measured vocal.
It turns out, however, that there’s no known connection between this Barrett and Syd Barrett. Rumors were fueled, perhaps purposely, when it was given a credit of “S. Barrett” on the inner label of one of the first and best (if unauthorized) compilations of rare ‘60s British psych, Chocolate Soup for Diabetics. In fact, virtually nothing is known about this group. “Fashion Conscious” has never been reissued again to my knowledge, despite its considerable quality.
Throughout rock history, songwriters who are star recording artists in their own right have always “given” songs away to other acts. Or, at least, other acts have often recorded compositions that the songwriters haven’t released themselves, whether the composers directly gifted the songs to them or not. The Beatles famously gave away some Lennon-McCartney tunes to others, especially other people managed by Brian Epstein, and especially early in their careers. But many other stars did this too, maybe more during the British Invasion than some other periods, though this was happening and still happens all over the world.
Assembling a list of all the interesting instances when this occurred would fill up a book. I don’t have time to write that, unless someone pays me well to do so. However, I can offer some of my favorites from rock’s early years, along with some such items that might not have been great tunes, but have interesting stories behind them. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, including maybe some of your favorites. Keep in mind this isn’t meant to be a definitive or comprehensive list, just a group of some I want to blog about.
I also didn’t want to get into the nuances of ranking them in order. So I’ll go kind of in chronological sequence, listing the artist and then the composer, or the artist and the group from which the composers came.
The Everly Brothers/Roy Orbison, “Claudette.” Orbison didn’t get his first big hit until 1960 with “Only the Lonely,” though he’d made some fair rockabilly records starting in the mid-1950s, usually for Sun. Perhaps not unreasonably considering his early lack of major success, he considered concentrating on songwriting rather than performing. His one major triumph in landing a hit with someone else was this 1958 B-side to the chart-topping “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
“Claudette,” a much harder-rocking number that verged on rockabilly, was a pretty substantial hit in its own right, reaching #30. Inspired by Orbison’s first wife Claudette, it had furiously scrubbed chords and a chorus with much different, more irregular rhythms than the fairly conventional verses. The Everlys put their usual high-powered infectious harmonies into the performance. Orbison eventually recorded his own version on his 1965 album There Is Only One Roy Orbison, but the Everlys’ remained definitive.
This is the only 1950s entry on this list, and I’m aware there are others. Maybe the most famous is Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by Paul Anka, and a pretty big hit. But I don’t think it’s a great song, and a worrisome indication that Holly might have gotten into tamer orchestrated pop arrangements had he survived. As an interesting side note, however, Holly had written a song with Bob Montgomery (“Wishing”) in hopes that the Everlys would record it. They didn’t, but fortunately Buddy cut a version (not released until 1963, with posthumous overdubbing) that’s among his best recordings, though it’s not too well known.
The Crystals/Gene Pitney, “He’s a Rebel.” Pitney had a lot of hits, but he didn’t write most of them. And he couldn’t have released his own version of “He’s a Rebel” in 1962, at least not without changing it to “She’s a Rebel,” which wouldn’t have had much of a chance in those pre-feminist times. But write it he did, and it was taken to #1 by the Crystals, though the lead vocal was actually done by a singer not in the Crystals, Darlene Love—something that’s fairly well known now, but was unknown then. Another peculiarity about this recording was that it had to fight off another version by Vikki Carr, which it did, pretty easily. Carr’s rendition is pretty stiff, and the Crystals’ (or Love’s, if you prefer) was far more soulful, as well as benefiting from one of Phil Spector’s definitive Wall-of-Sound productions.
This wasn’t the only hit Pitney wrote for someone else, as he also co-penned “Hello Mary Lou,” a big rockabilly-pop single—and one of the best and hardest-rocking—for Ricky Nelson. Yet “Hello Mary Lou” was a B-side to Nelson’s #1 “Travelin’ Man,” although it became almost as big a hit, reaching #9 on its own. Pitney put out his own version a little later as an album track, and while it’s okay, it’s not a match for Nelson’s, which benefits from a sparkling James Burton guitar solo.
Getting back to “He’s a Rebel,” while it could be naturally assumed that Spector’s production was the key to making the song a hit, his touch wasn’t infallible. There was another instance where a Spector-produced original version was the relatively stiff flop, and a much different arrangement a huge classic hit. Spector produced the original, forgotten version of “Twist and Shout” by the Top Notes. But it took the Isley Brothers’ vibrant cover to make it a hit (and of course the Beatles’ sensational version was an even bigger one).
Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas/The Beatles, “Bad to Me.” Speaking of the Beatles, as previously mentioned, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote quite a few songs that the Beatles didn’t put on their own discs, but which found a home on other releases. When asked about such gifts in their early years, they’d diplomatically reply that they simply felt that a few of the songs they’d written weren’t suitable to do themselves and would be better handled by others. In truth, they were probably limiting the giveaways mostly to castoffs that weren’t as good as, and were more lightweight than, what the Beatles were reserving for themselves. That principle probably holds true for many giveaways by many songwriters throughout rock history.
Still, most of those semi-rejects are fun and catchy enough to hear, if hardly on the level of what the Beatles were putting on their own records. Kramer was one of the most frequent beneficiaries of Lennon-McCartney surplus, and “Bad to Me” was the best of their Merseybeat-styled extras. Unlike most of them, it was just about good enough to imagine as filler on one of their 1963 LPs. A very basic acoustic demo of the Beatles (probably Lennon solo, possibly with a little help from McCartney) doing their own version finally came out on iTunes a half dozen years ago (after being bootlegged for many years). Despite the rudimentary recording quality, it’s much better than Kramer’s anodyne interpretation.
Jan & Dean/The Beach Boys, “Surf City.” I didn’t hear “Surf City” until around 1973, since I was only a year old when it first came out in 1963. I was well aware of the Beach Boys by 1973, however, and when I first heard “Surf City” on an oldies station, I was sure it was the Beach Boys. I’d be surprised if some of you reading this didn’t have the same reaction, whenever you first heard it. There was a good reason for this: Brian Wilson co-wrote the song with Jan Berry. “Surf City” was a huge hit, reaching #1 before the Beach Boys themselves had any #1 singles.
A few years ago, I asked Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean whether Wilson didn’t realize how big “Surf City” could be before letting Jan & Dean work on it. “He think he saw the potential,” Dean responded. “Brian probably very rarely worked on something that had no potential. But I sure think he, in comparing the two, just thought ‘Surfing USA’ had a lot more potential. And so did we. I mean, it was perfect. It was kind of a simpler song. It’s in E, and it’s Chuck Berry. We certainly loved Chuck Berry; obviously Brian did too as well. He couldn’t go wrong by liking Chuck Berry and being influenced by Chuck Berry. And ‘Surfing USA’ is just a straight old backbeat. ‘Surf City’ was kind of a shuffle, and was a little bit more complicated.
“I think creative people can kind of lose interest in a creative piece that they’re working on, and not be as motivated by that particular project, because you got something else in your mind that you’re also tinkering with. I’m sure he knew there’s potential, or he would have been embarrassed even to give it to us. So I’m sure he knew it was good.
“What we did to it, though, was we took it ten or fifteen levels above just the pure song in terms of cutting a track, and discovering the Wrecking Crew and all that. I think the tracks and the recording techniques that we used for  were pretty unbelievable. The song was kind of a good song, and a Brian Wilson song, again, it’s always gonna be good. But the production that Jan put in relationship to the song really pushed it over the top.
“Even Brian, when he heard it, was blown away. Maybe at that point, he probably realized, this is really, really good. But it wasn’t as though he was gonna ask for it back or anything. As a songwriter, he was probably thrilled. That’s the way he looked at it—‘This is a song I didn’t finish, and I am a songwriter. I’ll get credit on it anyway. And I got a publishing company. So I’m doing exactly what I should be doing at my age, being a songwriter. And record producer.’”
I think this is the very best recording on this list, and certainly it’s one of the most successful. The Beach Boys probably missed out on a big hit, but they’d have plenty others over the next few years, and Jan & Dean did as good a job on the song as the Beach Boys probably would have. So to use a cliché that wasn’t in use in 1963, “It’s all good.”
Mary Wells/Smokey Robinson, “My Guy.” Smokey Robinson wrote so many songs for other Motown artists that it’s really grounds for an entire article in itself, if not a book. Plenty of songs he wrote for others, rather than his own band the Miracles, were big hits, especially for Mary Wells and the Temptations. As a #1 single, “My Guy” is hardly an obscure pick, but I think it’s the best of the lot. It’s also not something he could have sung with the Miracles, at least without changing the title to “My Girl.” And that would have meant he couldn’t have co-written the #1 song he actually did title “My Girl” for the Temptations.
This entry also gives me cause to note that while historians often speculate about what might have happened had legends like Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, and Otis Redding not died young, they don’t always often discuss other what-ifs that weren’t death-related. Robinson wrote (or co-wrote) and produced a number of hits for Wells, also including “Two Lovers,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “You Beat Me to the Punch.” It was a great artist-producer team, and when Wells left Motown after “My Guy,” she couldn’t work with Robinson anymore, or record his fresh compositions. She lived for another few decades, but none of her post-Motown records were big hits or, more importantly, nearly as good.
It’s an artistic tragedy that the partnership was cut off. In an alternate universe, what would have happened if she’d stayed at Motown and, most likely, kept working with Robinson? We don’t know, but I bet there would have been a series of hits to come, and that she’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — which she deserves to enter anyway, based on the run the pair did have.
Peter & Gordon/The Beatles, “World Without Love.” I think this is clearly the best of the Beatles’ giveaways. Whatever anyone’s opinion, it was certainly the most successful, getting to #1 in the UK and US (where P&G were the first British Invasion act to top the charts after the Beatles). It’s now well known that Peter & Gordon got access to this, as well as several other Lennon-McCartney extras, since Paul was going out with Peter’s sister, Jane Asher, and living in the Asher household. Peter & Gordon’s Lennon-McCartney covers were really McCartney covers, as he was the dominant and indeed possibly sole writer of all of them. John Lennon didn’t like “World Without Love” because of the lyrics, especially the opening line “please lock me away.” But while it’s hard to figure where the Beatles might have placed it on their own releases, it’s certainly a good early British Invasion-style tune, with fine Peter & Gordon harmonies and a somewhat more forceful arrangement than most of the early Lennon-McCartney donations.
Of course Lennon and McCartney gave away quite a few other songs in the ‘60s. If you want to read about all of them in detail, I’ll take a second to plug my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, which has a whole lengthy chapter dedicated to the subject. For the past few years, Peter Asher’s been presenting a combination music/storytelling show in New York, San Francisco, and London where he talks about getting “World Without Love,” and plays McCartney’s brief, primitive solo demo of the song. He also tells the story of how the duo got access to another composition by a different star…
Peter & Gordon/Del Shannon, “I Go to Pieces.” Del Shannon had already recorded a version of his composition “I Go to Pieces,” and produced an unreleased version by obscure soul singer Lloyd Brown, before Peter & Gordon became aware of it. As Asher tells it in his show, Shannon offered it to the Searchers during an Australian tour, but they turned it down. Peter & Gordon were also on that tour, and let Shannon know they’d like to do it. It became their first hit (at least in the US) not bearing a Lennon-McCartney composer credit. Shannon’s own version came out on one of his albums a little later, and while it’s not too different from P&G’s’, I prefer it, since it’s not as heavily orchestrated, though it’s missing the dual vocal harmonies of the Peter & Gordon arrangement. The Lloyd Brown version, by the way, has since circulated, and has a gentler slightly jazzy soul-pop feel, though it’s not as good as either Shannon’s or Peter & Gordon’s.
The Toggery Five/The Rolling Stones, “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys.” The Rolling Stones, or more properly Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, wrote quite a few songs given to other artists, even if these haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as the Lennon-McCartney giveaways. In part that’s because not many of these Jagger-Richards compositions were hits, “As Tears Go By” (Marianne Faithfull’s debut single) being a notable exception; Gene Pitney also had a British hit with their “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday” in early 1964, before the Stones had even entered the US charts under their own name. But also it’s in part because most of the songs weren’t that good, and were not only more lightweight than what the Stones recorded themselves. Most of these surplus items date from the mid-‘60s, when Jagger and Richards were first starting to write. They usually weren’t much like what the Stones were doing on their own, with an ersatz Merseybeat feel. Numerous demos of these (most or all apparently only with Jagger and Richards’ participation) are on the Rolling Stones’ outtake compilation Metamorphosis, which didn’t come out until 1975.
One of those Metamorphosis tracks, “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys”—actually bearing the unusual songwriting credit of Keith Richards and manager/producer Andrew Oldham, sans Jagger—was done back in 1965 by a British group that never had a hit, the Toggery Five. To my mind it’s the best of the Stones’ giveaway covers, and actually considerably better than the Metamorphosis demo. It might not be the greatest of songs, but it’s fairly catchy in a sort of Merseybeat-meets-the-Drifters way, the tempo and tune owing a lot to Drifters hits like “Under the Boardwalk” (which the Stones, of course, covered in 1964). Also, however, the Toggery Five attack the song with real rock zest, in contrast to the Metamorphosis version, which like many early songs on that LP has wimpy orchestrated pop production. The harmonies are real good too, and the cut’s executed with the kind of polish that makes you think the group were certain they had a hit in the can. They didn’t, and the Toggery Five were forgotten (and only got to do a couple singles total), though fortunately their version has been reissued a few times.
By the way, the Rolling Stones themselves didn’t forget about the song after they were done with it. In the expanded DVD version of the 1965 Charlie Is My Darling documentary, there are scenes of Mick and Keith busking through the song acoustically in what looks like a hotel room, during the end credits. It’s hard to tell whether they’re doing it because they like it or they’re making fun of it, but it’s an interesting and unexpected bonus.
Trevor Gordon/The Bee Gees, “Little Miss Rhythm & Blues.” The Bee Gees, and especially Barry Gibb, wrote lots of songs in their early days they didn’t manage to jam onto their own prolific releases. Even before they moved from Australia to England in 1967, they’d already placed a lot of songs with other artists, primarily in Australia. Most of them aren’t so memorable, but Trevor Gordon’s Barry-written “Little Miss Rhythm & Blues” stands out both for its relative quality and an almost earthy rock and roll style that’s not associated with the Bee Gees. Sort of like Jerry Lee Lewis meets Merseybeat, it’s quite cool, if a bit underproduced, with the Bee Gees themselves contributing enthusiastic background vocals. Gordon would also go to England and have a British hit as part of the Marbles with the Brothers Gibb-penned “Only One Woman,” though it didn’t catch on in the States.
While not exactly the kind of thing to win them points for retroactive hipness, Barry Gibb also managed to place a song with an American star a couple years before leaving Australia. In November 1964, Wayne Newton recorded his melodramatic, somewhat Gene Pitney-esque ballad “They’ll Never Know,” which was on Newton’s Top Twenty LP Red Roses for a Blue Lady the following year. This was the first song written by any of the Bee Gees to be released outside of Australia and New Zealand.
The Thoughts/The Kinks, “All Night Stand.” There were quite a few Ray Davies songs (and even one Dave Davies song) that weren’t released by the Kinks, but issued by others. I know this might be starting to sound like a broken record, but it’s unsurprising the Kinks didn’t cut most of them on their own, because they weren’t as good or gutsy as the Davies songs they did lay down. Nor were they that successful, with the exception of the placid ballad “This Strange Effect,” a huge hit for Dave Berry in Holland, though it only made #37 in his native UK. (The Kinks did record a version of “This Strange Effect” for the BBC that eventually found release, but did not put it on their studio discs.) The eerie “I Go to Sleep” is pretty good, but I much prefer the Kinks’ sparse demo (eventually released as well after getting bootlegged) to the one by the artist who was able to record it back in the mid-‘60s, Peggy Lee.
An exception in both quality and energy is “All Night Stand,” a fairly penetrating look at the troubling undercurrents of Swinging London. It’s got the same kind of peppy brashness as numerous 1966 Kinks songs like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”—not as raunchy as their first big singles with a modified power-chord arrangement, but not as subdued as what they’d get into by 1967 and 1968. While the Thoughts don’t put much personality into it, it probably doesn’t sound much different than how the Kinks would have done the tune. Of course it would have had much more personality with a Ray Davies vocal, as you can hear on a demo that found release after doing the rounds on bootleg.
“All Night Stand” seems like a reasonable contender for release on their 1966 LP Face to Face. Why didn’t it make it? Maybe it was considered too downbeat or serious for a collection that, for all the satirical sophistication of most of its songs, usually had a fairly cheery wit. Thematically it might have fit in better than the one song, the closing cut “I’ll Remember,” that seemed like a throwback to the earlier Kinks in its standard romantic lyrics. Which brings me to a question I’ve never read posed: was the use and placement of “I’ll Remember” on Face to Face deliberate, almost like it was a tongue-in-cheek farewell (thus the phrase “I’ll remember”) to the more standard, simpler romantic pop lyrics Davies used on the Kinks’ earlier records?
The Sons of Adam/The Other Half/Love, “Feathered Fish.” Here for a change we have a way-obscure song done by two groups that never came close to a hit, written by the leader of a band that, though very famous, never quite got beyond cult status. “Feathered Fish” was written by Love’s Arthur Lee, and has the kind of manic energy and weird free-associating lyrics of some of Love’s hard-rocking early songs, like “Stephanie Knows Who.” Why Love themselves didn’t issue a version isn’t clear. It would have fit in fairly well on the first side of their second LP, Da Capo, but maybe it wasn’t considered quite as strong as the six excellent songs that did make it on side one. Had Love decided to make a whole LP of real songs instead of devoting side two to the long jam “Revelation,” it certainly should have made it. But that might have meant padding the album with slightly lesser songs. That would have worked better than putting an interminable blues jam in their place, but what’s done is done.
Lee liked a fellow Los Angeles band, the Sons of Adam, who featured terrific guitarist Randy Holden and drummer Michael Stuart, whom Lee would poach for Love in autumn 1966. Before that, Lee offered the group “Feathered Fish.” According to Sons of Adam rhythm guitarist Jac Ttanna, Arthur actually offered them three songs, one of which, “Seven and Seven Is,” would become Love’s only Top Forty hit. Oddly, neither Stuart nor Holden would be in the band by the time Sons of Adam finally got around to recording “Feathered Fish” on their third and final single in 1967, shortly before they split. It’s a good garage-psych performance, with constant stop-start tempos and the kind of breezy raw early psychedelia that peaked in L.A. for just a magic year or so from around mid-1966 to mid-1967.
Holden did record “Feathered Fish,” however, as part of his next band, the Other Half, one of the most underrated psychedelic late-‘60s outfits. Included on their sole LP (whose label mistakenly credited the composition to Country Joe, sans McDonald), it’s a starker yet more powerful version, with almost shouted menacing vocals and thrilling yelping, sustain-heavy Holden guitar. Randy nonetheless told Ugly Things that “Other Half didn’t do it as well as Sons of Adam,” and noted in the same interview that he’d cut a much better version with them while he was still in the band.
Manfred Mann/Bob Dylan, “The Mighty Quinn.” This is hardly an obscure song, or hit cover. And there were a lot of Dylan compositions in the ‘60s that he didn’t put on his records, but were recorded by someone else. In fact, Manfred Mann had already had a #2 UK hit with one of them, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” in 1965.
Some Dylan fanatics have a hard time accepting the possibility that other artists might have performed any of his compositions better than Dylan himself did. But I’m siding with the masses on this one. Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn,” which made #1 in the UK and the Top Ten in the US, is much better than the original, which Dylan cut with the Band as part of a massive collection of “Basement Tapes” in 1967. That original—the second of the two takes was finally released in 1985, and both takes are now on The Basement Tapes Complete—is skeletal. Manfred Mann made it much more tuneful and fun, emphasizing a catchy-as-hell chorus, great soaring harmonies at the end of the verses, and Klaus Voormann’s unforgettable interjections of pennywhistle. When I play the versions back to back in rock courses I teach, students virtually unanimously prefer the Mann cover.
Should this be considered a giveaway? Sort of, because although Dylan didn’t write it with Manfred Mann in mind, it was on a fourteen-song publishing demo of Basement Tapes recordings meant to solicit cover versions. Take one by Dylan and the Band did soon appear on the first popular Dylan bootleg, Great White Wonder, but not until 1969, more than a year after Manfred Mann’s hit.
If Manfred Mann’s polishing of Dylan songs is considered sacrilegious, it’s worth considering Mann’s comments to me from an interview nearly twenty years ago. He saw the strengths of his group’s Dylan covers as “the ability to change it, because it always seemed as if the original version was very personal to him. It didn’t seem like a definitive version, in some funny way. I don’t mean that in any way as an insult, ’cause I absolutely loved the original versions. But it just seemed that there was space there to do something, and make it different. Which you couldn’t do with Elton John—he seems to have done it in the standard way. Dylan did it in a very idiosyncratic way. And therefore, there was the space to do it in a different way. I almost feel that I straightened them out in a way.
“We approached it without any respect for the original. That’s absolutely essential. You can’t go around with so much respect for the original that you can’t function. It was quite simply, ‘What can we do with this?’ And my general thing was to have it in music form, in front of me in paper, and just play it and play it and play it until in the end I wouldn’t refer to the original record, after I knew it. If you play it long enough, you find you’re playing it your way.” His way would extend to taking liberties that some Dylanologists would see as heresy, though they ruffled Mann not at all: “I would cut sections out if I needed to. In ‘Just Like a Woman,’ I cut out the whole middle bridge. We didn’t want to do it, and we just didn’t do it.
“We had the songs that everybody else had missed, where the original versions were sometimes quite idiosyncratic and a bit left-field. But I could use it. I was simply a bit of a predator, looking for material.”
Jefferson Airplane/The Byrds, “Triad.” “Triad” is pretty infamous in the Byrds’ history, as one of the straws that broke the camel’s back in leading to David Crosby’s departure (or, more precisely, firing). This song about a ménage a trois was recorded during the sessions for their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but not used. Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who’d jointly fire Crosby in late 1967, didn’t like the song, to the frustration of the composer, who felt what he was writing was good enough to get released. And certainly better than Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back,” which did make the album, although Crosby had no enthusiasm for its inclusion.
In Johnny Rogan’s Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Vol. 1, both clarified that “Triad” wasn’t the leading factor in their decision. “We didn’t like the song at the time,” Hillman told Rogan, adding, “I don’t think it was a moral decision. The song just didn’t work that well. David was drifting and bored and wanted to do something else, and that song just added fuel to the fire.” McGuinn agreed: “‘Triad’ wasn’t the crux of it, that was nothing really. It was just a song that I didn’t think was in particularly good taste.”
Crosby found a home for the song, however, with his friends Jefferson Airplane, who included it on their 1968 album Crown of Creation. “What is he saying that is bad?,” said Grace Slick in Jeff Tamarkin’s Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. “If the two women want to live there, and he wants to live there, who cares? His band wouldn’t let him and, yeah, I’ll sing it! I wouldn’t do that [a threesome] personally, but I don’t have a moral issue with it.”
The controversy has added luster to a song that actually isn’t that great. The Byrds’ languid version, now available as a bonus track on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, wouldn’t have stood out as a good addition to the album; in fact, it wouldn’t have fit that well. And it’s not as good as “Goin’ Back,” which is the kind of sparkling folk-rock at which the Byrds excelled. I like Jefferson Airplane’s version of “Triad” better, and though it wasn’t among their best tracks, it fit in better on Crown of Creation.
Fairport Convention/Joni Mitchell, “Eastern Rain.” In their early days, prior to their heavy emphasis on rocked-up British folk, Fairport Convention excelled at well-chosen covers of American folk-rock songs. Some of them hadn’t been released by the composers when they recorded them for their first two albums, or their late-‘60s BBC sessions. One such highlight was Joni Mitchell’s “Eastern Rain,” from their first album with Sandy Denny as woman vocalist, What We Did on Our Holidays (titled simply Fairport Convention in the US). It’s given a beautiful delicate folk-rock arrangement, from the rain-mimicking guitar plucks to the rich vocal harmonies and Denny’s own characteristically glowing lead singing.
Mitchell did perform a solo folk version live in the late-‘60s, as you can hear on bootleg, but did not put it on her official discs. Fairport did a couple then-unreleased-by-Mitchell songs on their 1968 debut album, but Joni did put both of those on her second album, Clouds, in 1969. As Fairport’s Iain Matthews confirmed when I interviewed him for my book Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock, producer Joe Boyd “had a direct line to her publishing demos and supplied us with whatever we could handle.”
Fairport, by the way, were another act that put out then-unreleased Dylan songs in the ‘60s, like The Basement Tapes’ “Million Dollar Bash,” which is on their third album, Unhalfbricking. That LP also includes a considerably older Dylan song that the composer had not issued on his records, “Percy’s Song.” Although it’s not too well known, I’d go as far as to say Fairport’s BBC version is one of the best Dylan covers, and only outclassed by Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” as the finest of a composition not yet released in Dylan’s official catalog, though his 1963 outtake made it onto 1985’s Biograph box.
Marianne Faithfull/The Rolling Stones, “Sister Morphine.” Although “Sister Morphine” is one of the better known songs from the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers, it’s still not too widely recognized by the general public that the first version came out on a rare Marianne Faithfull single in 1969. Its status as a “giveaway” is a little diluted by the composer credits, which Faithfull herself shared with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Sticky Fingers only credited Jagger and Richards, but as Faithfull explained in the liner notes to the 2018 compilation Come and Stay with Me: The UK 45s 1964-1969:
“Mick is mean. He’ll always be a student of the London School of Economics! Keith Richards wrote to [Stones publisher] Allen Klein and told him that I’d written the lyrics. Jagger and I had split up, very bad blood and all that. Keith Richards told him that I did write the words and I needed the money. So now and again, I get a royalty check for ‘Sister Morphine.’ I’ve been living off ‘Sister Morphine’ for years. I just got one today. £485!”
The Rolling Stones’ version of this downer drug song is pretty good, but I’d give Faithfull’s the edge, if only a slight one. This is the point where her voice started to lower and become more earthy, in contrast to the angelic, virginal tone of her mid-‘60s hits. She really sounds like she’s living the lyric, not just singing it, though the worst of her drug problems were yet to come. As she herself states in the aforementioned liner notes, “I was the character in the song.”
Why aren’t more people aware of Faithfull’s version of “Sister Morphine,” although it’s been reissued a few times? Because of its controversial subject matter, the single was withdrawn by Decca Records in the UK, where only 500 copies are reported to have been issued. But I haven’t read that it was censored in the US or other countries, and in any case, it was the B-side to the relatively innocuous Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition “Something Better.” Despite its quality, “Sister Morphine” was simply unlikely to get airplay anywhere in 1969.While that finishes my list of selected favorites in this niche category, there were quite a few other oddball entries that are worth discussing, even if they were of uneven or even unimpressive quality. I’ll write about some of those in my next post.
This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. As I’ve written before, I think it’s the finest first-person account of playing major league (and, for a bit, minor league) ball over an entire season. It’s more than that: I’d say it’s the best sports book, period. And an important book on its own terms, not just for its documentation of baseball.
Bouton questioned many of the sport’s norms, most famously the reserve clause, but also the general baseball culture that often treated players callously. As a nonconformist in a conformist environment, he also championed the underdog, making many like-minded young readers feel that they too had voices worth hearing.
And—in a point often overlooked by retrospective overviews of Ball Four, even very positive ones—it’s very funny. Some other memoirs have been hailed as worthy cousins to Ball Four, and I’ve tried some (such as Bill Lee’s), but none seem, to use baseball terminology, even in the same league. Maybe part of that well-written wit is down to sportswriter editor Leonard Shecter, whom Bouton never shied away from crediting as his collaborator. I have to think, however, that much of it is down to Bouton just being a naturally funny and insightful storyteller who’s not afraid to shoot sacred cows.
Bouton died last summer, at the age of eighty. If I’d been able to ask him a few questions about Ball Four, here are some that come to mind. Most of them are interrelated, and some might have made him uncomfortable, despite my admiration for the book.
1. From the standpoint of making a story, does he think the season couldn’t have turned out any better?
I think it could have hardly turned out any better. You couldn’t plan this, but the three sections vividly illustrated three very different aspects of the ballplayer experience. The one taking up the bulk of the book had him with the first-year expansion team the Seattle Pilots—who would only stay in Seattle one year before moving to Milwaukee. (Just to clarify for any curious readers, the Seattle Mariners, who’ve been in the city since 1977, were not the same franchise.) So you have the sometimes comic drama of a team of rejects from other squads, green rookies, and over-the-hill veterans trying as best they can to survive.
The briefest, but still memorable, section had him sent down to the minors for a few weeks in April, after he’d been in just a couple games. Bouton then reeled off a series of impressive relief stints that got him called back up, even though manager Joe Schultz had told him “Well, if you do good done there, there’s a lot of teams that need pitchers” the night he was demoted. As luck would have it, that brief time in the minors took in a week-long trip to Hawaii, as well as a brief stopover in Vancouver, where Seattle’s Triple-A team was based. That lent a tinge of exoticism to the narrative, but also served as a bold contrast to the much plusher life led by major leaguers.
For the final section, Bouton unexpectedly found himself in a different league and the midst of a pennant race when he was traded to the Houston Astros in late August. Again, a mightier contrast to his time with the Pilots could have hardly been staged, unless he’d been traded to the Miracle Mets, who were on their way to the most improbable World Series victory in history. Alas, though they were two games out of first in the National League’s Western Division on September 10, the Astros lost 16 of their last 22 games, finishing fifth and a dozen games back.
Probably Bouton, and his publisher, would have preferred that the Astros gone on to win the World Series, with Bouton as a hero winning the final game. That would have likely helped sell more books, but it also would have obscured the title’s ultimate more everyman experience. Most major leaguers aren’t World Series heroes (though Bouton was, back in 1964, the second of the two consecutive years he was an ace for the New York Yankees). They’re usually more like Bouton in 1969, bouncing from team to team, from majors to minors, and indeed struggling to hang on to a major league job.
As Bouton noted in his epilogue, in spring 1969, he’d started out even with Jim O’Toole, another former ace trying to make the Pilots. O’Toole didn’t make the club, and indeed never pitched in organized baseball again; by the summer, he was pitching in the semi-pro Kentucky Industrial League. Bouton might have been cut from the Pilots too, in which case there wouldn’t have even been a book. But his journey between three teams could have hardly made for a better, more varied scenario.
2. As he was traded with a little more than a month to go in the season, did he feel more at liberty to write with frankness about his Seattle Pilots teammates, manager, general manager, and coaches?
I don’t remember ever reading or seeing Bouton asked this. If he hadn’t been traded near the end of the year, he would have been returning to the Seattle Pilots (or, as they became, the Milwaukee Brewers) in 1970. Although he wasn’t as personally critical about the team’s personnel as some have reported, there were certainly details many would have preferred to keep private, especially as few of the Pilots knew he was writing a book. (It seems that none were, other than his roommates Gary Bell, Mike Marshall, and Steve Hovley, as well as his brief minor league roommate Bob Lasko.)
There were a few guys in Seattle who didn’t come off well in Ball Four. Worst was bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien, with whom Bouton often clashed over his petty rules about how to do things, Jim nicknaming him “Mr. Small.” Not much better was pitching coach and ex-Giants star Sal Maglie, whom Bouton admired as a fan growing up in the New York area, but with whom he had differences with the Pilots, especially over when and how often to throw his knuckleball.
Bouton and outfielder Wayne Comer didn’t get along, Comer sniping “get him the fuck out of here” when Bouton went into an intellectual explanation of a book he was reading, and the pair briefly arguing when Comer said the same thing about a fan coming on to the team bus thanking fellow pitcher Garry Roggenburk for tickets. Although pitcher Fred Talbot isn’t portrayed as badly as some have reported—he and Bouton had some friendly interactions as well as contentious ones—he does come off as something of a redneck, especially when he jumps in front of Bouton to get a cab and calls him a communist.
While Bouton didn’t have anything particularly negative to say about the personality of another former ace, Steve Barber, he came down hard on Barber for lingering on the active roster when he could have gone on the disabled list or rehabbed in the minors. “There was Steve Barber getting his road uniform refitted,” observed Bouton. “I guess he wants to look good while sitting in the diathermy machine. ‘You son of a bitch,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re the guy who won’t go down in order to help out the club. Instead you hang around here, can’t pitch, and now other guys are sent down because of you.’”
They did get along well enough for Bouton to throw knuckleball pitches to him—Jim had a hard time finding people, catchers or otherwise, to catch him due to the knuckleball’s unpredictable movements—in exchange for him catching sore-armed Barber. When Mike Marshall was sent down to the minors after rooming with Bouton for just a few days, Bouton and Barber were assigned to room together, but just switched keys so Bouton could room with his friend Steve Hovley. When the incident’s reported in Ball Four, nothing is said as to whether Bouton’s reluctant to room with Barber.
Even some of the guys Bouton basically likes have their bad points noted. He originally thought of slugger Don Mincher as something of a redneck due to his heavy Southern accent. Yet he was man enough to admit, when Mincher encouraged him to hang in there after being sent down to Vancouver, “I really was wrong about him. He’s a good fellow.” Still, when Mincher and Joe Schultz bail out of a clinic for underprivileged kids in Washington, DC, he reports, “I don’t think Joe would have gone back to Baltimore alone, and I don’t think Mincher would have either. But they gave each other just enough support to do it together. They were less afraid, both of them, of running out than they were of facing this great unknown that involved so many people.”
This is also the one page that puts Schultz in a pretty poor light, in these paragraphs:
“Mike Marshall said he thought he understood what had happened with Joe Schultz and Don Mincher. ‘I could see it coming,’ Marshall said. ‘Joe couldn’t cope with the situation. He wasn’t in charge. He was forced to follow along. It was frustrating to him not to know what the plan was and he’s neither intelligent nor competent enough to be at ease with the unknown. That’s why he surrounds himself with other people, coaches, who are as narrow as he is. He wants to rule out anyone who might bring up new things to cope with. He wants to lay down some simple rules—keep your hat on straight, pull your socks up, make sure everybody has the same-color sweatshirt—and live by them.’
“And it was obviously true. Like on the bus going to Washington, Joe Schultz and I were sitting across the aisle from each other. I handed him the sports section of the paper and when he was through with it I asked him if he wanted to read the rest of the paper. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘I don’t read that.’ There’s no comfort for Schultz in the front of a newspaper. When he wants comfort he can get it from somebody like Mincher.”
I don’t know whether Schultz read that passage (though he hadn’t read the book at all a couple years later, according to Bouton), but he wasn’t happy about Ball Four. “A year after the book came out I was a sportscaster from New York covering spring training in Florida,” wrote Bouton in his updated edition of Ball Four. “Before a game one day I spotted Joe Schultz, then a Detroit Tiger coach, hitting fungos to some infielders. I hadn’t spoken to him in about two years. Naturally, I had to go over and say hello.
“I half expected him to tell me I was throwing too much out in the bullpen. Instead, he said he didn’t want to talk to me, that he hadn’t read my book, but he’d heard about it. When I tried to tell Joe that he came off as a good guy, Billy Martin, the Tiger manager at the time, who’s a bad guy, came running across the field hollering for me to get the hell out (this was before Martin wrote his tell-all book). Because I’ve grown accustomed to the shape of my nose, I got the hell out.”
Maybe Schultz would have been upset to read him frequently—very frequently—quoted good-naturedly cursing up a storm, as well as some places where he acts goofy, like when he’s smiling after a Pilots loss because Lou Brock (of the Cardinals, where Schultz had coached) has stolen successfully on his first 25 attempts. But Bouton does on the whole treat him well. “There’s a zany quality to Joe Schultz that we all enjoy and that contributes, I believe, to keeping the club loose,” is one of his observations. “It makes for a comfortable ballclub.” Elsewhere he notes, “I’ve heard no complaints about Joe. I think he’s the kind of manager everybody likes.” And when Schultz called him to tell him he’d been traded, Jim “told him I thought he was a helluva man and that I was sorry I couldn’t do more for him.”
Furthermore, in the anthology of pieces about managers Bouton oversaw (I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad), the pitcher wrote, “I enjoyed pitching for him more than any other manager I ever played for…Under the circumstances I couldn’t have had a better manager that summer than Joe Schultz.” And in his follow-up book to Ball Four, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, Bouton quotes Schultz as saying the following about Ball Four: “What the shit. The more I think about it, it’s not so bad.” Adds Bouton after that quote, “Some day there’ll be a movie made of Ball Four. Only Joe Schultz could play Joe Schultz.”
All this speculation might be moot, since between 1969 and 1970 in their transition from the Pilots to the Brewers, the team underwent more personnel changes than almost any I can think of in such a short period of time. Schultz and the whole coaching staff were fired. Talbot was sent to Oakland just a few days after Bouton was traded to Houson; Mincher was traded to Oakland in the off-season; Barber was released, though he’d pitch five more years for other teams; and Comer went 1 for 17 for the Brewers before getting traded in May to the Senators.
There were enough ex-Pilots on Milwaukee, however, to cause some commotion. As Hovley reported in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, “The ball club is really in an uproar. Every guy on the club has a copy of the magazine [in which excerpts of Ball Four appeared before the book was published] and the excerpt is the topic of conversation from the time the bus leaves the hotel until the bus returns from the ball park after the game. They’re all looking at the dates in there and trying to figure out how many other dates are going to be in the book and what they might have done on them…[pitcher] Gene Brabender wants to know how you’d like to take a ball in the chest.”
General manager Marvin Milkes’s two-faced penny-pinching ways are slammed in Ball Four, but he didn’t seem to take it personally. According to the Ball Four update, Milkes invited Bouton to lunch a few years later and offered to pay him $50 for Gatorade for which Jim hadn’t been reimbursed. “Of course I didn’t accept, but we had a good laugh about it,” Bouton wrote. “Marvin told me he liked the book because it helped open a few doors for him. He said wherever he goes, people ask him if he’s the Marvin Milkes in Ball Four.” Maybe he found that any publicity was good publicity in his line of work.
3. Did Bouton go easier on the Houston Astros because he knew he’d be back with that team in 1970?
It seems like it. There’s very little in the entries documenting his month or so with the Astros that would cause offense. About the worst incident is one where a fight broke out on the team bus between Jim Ray and Wade Blasingame, after Ray teased him about a woman in Blasingame’s room. Manager Harry Walker’s sometimes bombastic manner is mocked a bit, as are general manager Spec Richardson and (for his curfew bedchecks) coach Mel McGaha. This didn’t stop Bouton from inscribing in the copy of Ball Four he gave Walker, “I have more respect and admiration for you than any manager I’ve ever played for.”
Bouton is very complimentary about the personalities of a number of Astros, including his roommate Norm Miller, Larry Dierker, Doug Rader, and pitching coach Jim Owens. He’d also been very complimentary about some Seattle Pilots, including, besides his roommates, Tommy Davis, Marty Pattin, and (though he didn’t make the club before going on to a long career) Skip Lockwood. He also makes a point of noting how on the Astros, “The blacks go out of their way to join with whites and the whites try extra hard to join in with the blacks…It doesn’t seem forced, and I think it’s worth a lot to the ballclub.”
4. Was Bouton deliberately protective of some marginal players on the Pilots, not or barely mentioning them in the book so it wouldn’t adversely affect their careers?
Again, it seems that might have been the case. Bouton mentions taking utilityman Gordie Lund and pitcher Garry Roggenburk on his neighbor’s boat in Puget Sound with his family. But he barely mentions them elsewhere in the book, other than as part of an interesting incident not long afterward, when Roggenburk unexpectedly quit baseball and Lund (his roommate) drove him to the airport.
The night Bouton was sent down to Vancouver, he makes a point of noting that reserve outfielder Jose Vidal “was the first guy to come over and say he was sorry to see me go,” and that backup catcher Freddie Velazquez was the second. “At that point I felt really close to them,” Bouton wrote, though they’re seldom named elsewhere in the book. He called Diego Segui—not a marginal player, but about the best pitcher on the team—“a good fellow” in passing, but otherwise wrote little about him. Maybe it was simply a matter of not talking much with Latin players who didn’t speak English as their first language.
Reserve outfielder Steve Whitaker played 69 games for the Pilots, and had been a teammate of Bouton’s for the three previous years with the Yankees. The only time he’s mentioned is in the context of the Yankees years, for being invited onto The Match Game (Bouton wasn’t) and a run-in Whitaker had with an umpire. Or maybe this is reading too much into things, and Bouton just didn’t have anything interesting to say about the player.
5. Could Bouton’s personality had something to do with him being traded to the Astros, especially as it happened a few days after he’d argued with some of the Pilots in the bullpen?
After pitching poorly and getting taken out of the game on August 18, Bouton wanted to throw pitches in the bullpen, as he didn’t think he had the right feel of his knuckleball and wanted to work on it. No one showed much enthusiasm for this, including the bullpen catchers, and fellow reliever John Gelnar made fun of Bouton. Jim kind of blew up, stopped throwing, and delivered an angry mini-tirade about their insensitivity, coming down especially hard on Eddie O’Brien, who told him to take a shower. Bouton did promptly apologize after the game to everyone except O’Brien.
“I don’t really think I did myself any good in the bullpen tonight,” admitted Bouton in his diary entry. “I mean what will get around about it is not that I said some tough things, but that I delivered a short speech in front of the bullpen. Nobody delivers short speeches in front of the bullpen.” This seemed to blow over, as a couple days later, “Sitting in the bullpen tonight it seemed as if I’d never given my little bullpen lecture. The guys were coming over to tell me stories and I felt right back in the swing of things.”
Still, Tommy Davis—who was traded to the Houston Astros just a few days after Bouton—told Jim “the talk around the club was that I wasn’t traded just to get two players, but because Marvin Milkes wanted to get me off the ballclub. The rumor did not explain why.” Speculated Bouton, “Gatorade?” (Referring to their dispute over him getting reimbursed for ordering it for the Pilots.) That’s a funny quip, but maybe the bullpen speech did have something to do with it.
6. Was Bouton surprised that some of the players he describes as misfits or flakes went on to careers as respected managers?
Lou Piniella was with the Pilots in spring training, but traded before the season began. Bouton gives the impression it was because of Lou’s attitude. “Sounds like somebody up there wants to unload Lou Piniella,” he speculated after reporting on a run-in between Piniella and Schultz. And a few days later: “Lou Piniella has the red ass. He doesn’t think he’s been playing enough…He says he knows they don’t want him and that he’s going to quit baseball rather than going back to Triple-A.”
A few days after that: “Piniella is a case. He hits the hell out of the ball. He hit a three-run homer today and he’s got a .400 average, but they’re easing him out. He complains a lot about the coaches and ignores them when he feels like it, and to top it off he’s sensitive as hell to things like Joe Schultz not saying good morning to him. None of this is supposed to count when you judge a ballplayer’s talents. But it does.” When Piniella was traded, “like we all knew Piniella would be canned and it happened today. He was traded to Kansas City for Steve Whitaker and John Gelnar, a pitcher. It was a giveaway. Bound to happen, though. Lou just wasn’t their style.”
It doesn’t sound like a recipe for a longtime player, let alone a manager. But Piniella went on to win the 1969 Rookie of the Year award for Kansas City, and then to a long career as major leaguer that lasted until he was forty years old in 1984, taking in stints as a valuable contributor to World Series titles for the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. Then he managed several teams for periods totaling more than twenty years, landing a World Series title for the Reds in 1991. You don’t get to do that unless you learn to get along with the baseball establishment, or at least find teams where you can do that.
Astros third baseman Doug Rader is described in detail as the team’s prince clown, playing practical jokes and, when the tension of the pennant race got to him, putting his mouth to a shower nozzle so it looked like water was coming out of both his ears. No one disputed he played hard, however, and he’d manage the Rangers and the Angels for a total of about six years in the 1980s and early 1990s. You’d rather have a manager with a sense of humor than a skipper without one—a point Bouton subtly made about Joe Schultz, though Rader’s sense of humor was likely more sophisticated. It’s too bad Rader didn’t get more of a chance to manage in the big leagues.
Larry Dierker, the ace of the Astros (a highlight of Bouton’s stint with the team was saving his twentieth win in September), is portrayed in the book as a loose, funny, freewheeling guy, though again a very serious competitor on the ball field. Among the highlights of the Astros section is an account of how Dierker sang the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” to himself on the bench between innings while he was working on a shutout. He and Bouton also agreed they much preferred the Beatles to the country music a lot of other ballplayers did; you can read more about Ball Four’s musical references in this prior blogpost.
Dierker went on to a long career as an Astros broadcaster before unexpectedly being hired to manage the team in 1997, despite no professional managerial experience. This had all the marks of an impulsive move in the face of conventional baseball wisdom that would blow up in everyone’s faces, but actually it worked out pretty well. The Astros finished first in their division four of the five years Dierker was at the helm. His firing had more to do with their poor postseason record (2-12, never advancing beyond the first round) than his in-season performance. Obviously he took his responsibilities as managers very seriously. He also wrote a book that focused on them, This Ain’t Brain Surgery, though it was a more straightforward, conventional baseball volume than Ball Four. Again it’s unfortunate he didn’t get the opportunity to manage for more years.
The most famous player Bouton played with in 1969 was Joe Morgan, then second baseman for the Astros, though it was his superstar years with the Reds in the 1970s that would put him in the Hall of Fame. Bouton doesn’t have much to say about Morgan in Ball Four, though he compliments his skills turning double plays. It’s hard to tell how negatively Morgan felt about the book from a quote attributed to him on Mark Armour’s article about Ball Four on the Society for American Baseball Research site: “I always thought he was a teammate, not an author. I told him some things I would never tell a sportswriter”—though such things, whether they were controversial or not, aren’t in the book.
Bouton didn’t play with Nolan Ryan, who was just starting his career with the Mets in the late 1960s, and became one of the most famous pitchers from his era. Ryan’s image is pretty conservative, in part because of his long friendship with the Bush family, George W. Bush being a part-owner of the Rangers while Ryan pitched there. But there’s little-known evidence that he read and enjoyed Ball Four. I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally reprints a letter from Ryan’s wife Ruth, who wrote:
“I want to congratulate you on your success with Ball Four. I bought it in Houston in July, and both Nolan and I enjoyed it very much. We have often discussed the pretentiousness, the loneliness, and the frustrations which accompany baseball; and your honesty and subtle sense of humor captured that aspect so well.”
7. How does he feel about the books he did after Ball Four in the early 1970s: I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally and I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad?
Ball Four was going to be an impossible act to follow. Even if Bouton had stayed in the majors (he quit baseball in summer 1970), no team would have welcomed him doing another diary book of a season. It would have been impossible to recreate the circumstances that helped Ball Four’s narrative in any case. But he did come out with a follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally (also in collaboration with Shecter), in 1971, just a year after Ball Four.
I don’t think I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally sold that well. It did get into a paperback edition, but you don’t see many copies around. It’s pretty good, though, if not as in-depth or electrifying as Ball Four. It focuses on the reaction and fallout from Ball Four, and also includes quite a few stories from his last season with the Astros in 1970, though these aren’t delivered in Ball Four’s diary form. There are some good stories from other points in his career, though the chapters on his transition to TV broadcasting aren’t as interesting.
There’s also an interesting, if more specialized, chapter on the ins and outs of the book deal for Ball Four. Bouton was subject to many runarounds from his publisher, whether not getting as much money as he thought he would from the terms of his contract; staff turnover at the publisher that left him dealing with people who hadn’t put him under contract and didn’t particularly want to put out the book; incompetent promotion and book tour support; manipulation of the release date that forced him and Shecter to settle for worse terms; and, worst of all, insensitive editing of the controversial material, which he and Shecter had to fight hard to restore.
“Every single passage which told some truth, every passage that may possibly have been considered tough, or funny or sexy, was neatly excised,” complained Bouton. “Example: The section in which I talked about the Yankees staying out late and partying whenever they played in Los Angeles was crossed out and this note was attached to the margin: ‘Is this possible?’ Nah, I made it up.
“An incredible job was done on the manuscript. If we had allowed these changes to stand, Ball Four would never have been heard of. We could have changed the title to Peter Rabbit Goes to the Ballgame. We wore out two erasers just restoring what the…copyreader had taken out.”
(As an aside, Ball Four itself was edited down from many tapes Bouton made during 1969. I’d like to read the unedited transcripts of those, in case they survive, though usually what doesn’t make a book isn’t nearly as interesting as what does. Fortunately, his personal papers and related materials are now preserved at the Library of Congress. According to a blog on the Library of Congress site, “the glory of the collection is the hastily scribbled notes, the audiotape transcripts, and the drafts of Ball Four.”)
Bouton relays all of these injustices as if he and Shecter were victims of particularly unfortunate staff at their publishers. As a published author myself, I can tell you that half a century later, very similar ones are not uncommon. Probably they weren’t uncommon back in 1970. But he felt like he was getting screwed, because it wasn’t something he went through in his chief profession. Maybe he got a better deal with I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, although unlike Ball Four, it wasn’t a bestseller. Follow-up books often get a better deal, in part because it’s reasoned that based on the success of the author’s prior book, enough people will buy it to turn a profit no matter what kind of book it is.
Although the credit for 1973’s I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad reads “written and edited by Jim Bouton with Neil Offen,” in fact most of it’s not written or edited by Bouton (or Offen). It’s an anthology of pieces about managers from the early twentieth century to the 1960s, most of them previously published. Bouton did write a few chapters, including an overall introduction and the sections on the Yankees mid-‘60s skippers (Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, and Johnny Keane), Dick Williams, and Joe Schultz. Those chapters are pretty good and funny, as are some briefer Bouton-penned comments on some of the managers for which he didn’t write the essays. The other essays are okay, but there’s the sense his name was being used to sell a book that wasn’t really his, or that he’d compiled rather than (for the most part) written.
8. What did he think of his first wife’s book?
In 1983, Bouton’s first wife, Bobbie, wrote the memoir Home Games with Mike Marshall’s ex-wife Nancy. The book’s not so great, in part because of a contrived structure that takes the form of imaginary letters they might have written to each other about their lives and husbands. However, it doesn’t portray Bouton in a very positive light, detailing some of his imperfections as a husband and father. Both he and Marshall come off as kind of egotistical guys—not that it’s so common among star athletes.
Those unsympathetic to Bouton’s undercover reporting in Ball Four might say he was getting a taste of his own medicine. The pitcher had this to say about the book to George Vecsey of the New York Times in 1983:
“We all have the right to write about our lives, and she does, too. If the book is insightful, if it helps people, I may be applauding it.
“I’m sure most of the things she says are true. I smoked grass, I ran around, I found excuses to stay on the road. It got so bad that I smoked grass to numb myself. It took me a year to where my brain worked again. I no longer think of grass as harmless. We were in the death throes of a marriage. She should ask herself how did she not see these things.” According to the story, he had not yet read the book.
Added Bouton in the article, “A lot of guys have been faithful to their wives in baseball. It didn’t happen with me, but I don’t think you can blame baseball. I don’t think I became more egotistical at 38. I was egotistical in the third grade.”
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.