Beatles Hamburg Landmarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

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

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

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

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

IndraSign

Translation of Indra club plaque:

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

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

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HendrixBetweenlegs HendrixBehindBack

Experience

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

Kaiserkeller

RoryStorm

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

StarClubEntrance

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

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

StarClubMarker

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

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

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

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

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

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

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

Bambi

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

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

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

BambiBackDoor

The back entrance to the Bambi.

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

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

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

Vollmer

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

MissesMuch

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

PacificHotel

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

Leather

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

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

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

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

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

Fountain on the lake.

Fountain on the lake.

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

Zolkkanal.

 

Elbphilharmonie building.

Elbphilharmonie building.

Planten un Blumen Park.

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

Favorite Ten Pre-Beatles Rock Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everlys1

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

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

Everlys2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elvis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIONNE_WARWICK_PRESENTING+DIONNE+WARWICK-523354

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

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

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

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

Everlys3

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

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

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

JamesBrown_Live_at_the_Apollo-

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

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

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

Holly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China Camp Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Rockers on Film: 15 Great Moments

I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

At several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve taught a course on women in rock during the first quarter-century or so of rock’s evolution, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. One of the pleasures this involves is presenting filmed performances, some quite off the beaten track, of women rockers from around the globe during this period. Even with the increased accessilibity of rock history clips on DVD/Blu-Ray and online, many of them remain rarely seen, or  even unseen by some fans.

Here are fifteen great examples of such footage. I haven’t ranked these in a best-of order, instead just progressing in chronological order, from late-‘50s rockabilly to early-‘80s new wave. Along the way are unforgettable glimpes of girl groups, psychedelic stars, folk-rockers, singer-songwriters, soulstresses, and more.

Wanda Jackson, “Hard Headed Woman” (Town Hall Party, Los Angeles, November 29, 1958). Although Town Hall Party was a country-oriented TV program, it featured quite a few rockabilly stars in the late 1950s, almost all of whom had started in country music. Wanda Jackson wasn’t the most famous of them, but she was one of the best, and certainly the finest woman rockabilly singer, belting with throaty zest. While her appearance on the show unfortunately didn’t feature her finest early rockabilly songs (the white-hot “Fujiyama Mama,” for starters), she does well with “Mean Mean Man” and “Hard Headed Woman.” The latter song’s most famous as a 1958 hit for Elvis Presley, a boyfriend of Jackson’s for a while, who encouraged her to sing in an earthier and rockier fashion than she had on her tamer initial country records.

She also distinguishes it from Presley’s version with a deceptively mellow introduction: “I tell you what, we haven’t done a real good love song. Joe, play me some real pretty, you know, twinkly stuff up there. Real sad.” Guitarist Joe Maphis follows suit. “Y’all like love songs, do you?,” Jackson resumes. “Good. I like those. This one really tells a beautiful story, if you can pay real close attention to the words, and if you like love songs, well, we think this is one of the most beautiful love songs that’s ever been written. And we’d like to do it especially for all of y’all. It goes like this. Do that again,” she instructs Maphis, “that’s pretty.” Upon which she launches into a take-no-prisoners growl: “A hard headed woman, a soft hearted man, been the cause of trouble ever since the world began!,” shaking her hips and pointing for all she’s worth as Maphis spins off sharp rockabilly licks and Jimmy Pruett pounds the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.

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Dusty Springfield and Martha & the Vandellas, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (Ready Steady Go, London, March 16, 1965). In early 1965, several Motown artists toured the UK, just as records from that label were developing a fanatical following across the Atlantic. To commemorate the visit, the leading British pop music television program of the time, Ready Steady Go, did a special “Sounds of Motown” episode. A highlight was a unique, playful duet between the leading British woman pop-rock singer of the ‘60s, Dusty Springfield, and one of Motown’s greatest groups, Martha & the Vandellas.

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” was actually originally recorded by another soul star, Dionne Warwick, and written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who also produced Warwick’s version. It was Dusty Springfield who had the Top Ten hit with the song in the US in 1964, however (oddly, it was not a hit for her in her native UK, where Liverpool band the Merseybeats took it into the Top Twenty). At a time when there was much more segregation between black and white (if less in the UK), it was a fine and bold statement to see two fine black and white acts singing together on television.

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The Ronettes, Be My Baby (The Big T.N.T. Show, Hollywood, November 29, 1965). “Be My Baby” had been a hit for about two years by the time the Ronettes did it on The Big T.N.T. Show concert movie in Hollywood in late 1965. They must have sung it hundreds of times by then, but you wouldn’t know it from the elan Ronnie Spector puts into both her singing and her exuberant onstage presence. From this clip alone, it’s obvious how much she loved performing, and how much joy she put into her vocals. Which makes it all the more tragic that within a year or so, she’d started an enforced retirement of sorts when her new husband Phil Spector—who of course had produced “Be My Baby” and the Ronettes’ other classic girl group hits—insisted she give up her career and stay at home.

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Richard & Mimi Fariña, “The Bold Marauder” (Rainbow Quest, Newark, New Jersey, February 26, 1966). Richard Fariña was the main singer and songwriter in the duo he formed in the mid-1960s with his wife Mimi, the younger sister of Joan Baez. But Mimi was crucial to the pair’s early folk-rock recordings as a harmony singer and guitarist. Fortunately they were filmed as the guest stars of a half-hour episode on Pete Seeger’s public television program Rainbow Quest, just two months before Richard’s death in a motorcycle accident. Although they ventured into tentative early electric folk-rock on their two albums, they play acoustically (sometimes joined by Seeger) on this program. Nonetheless it does justice to their sound and fine material, one of the highlights being this sea shanty-like number (with Richard on dulcimer), whose lyrics sound both like an ageless folk song and a commentary on twentieth-century abusers of power.

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Big Brother & the Holding Company, “Ball and Chain” (KQED, San Francisco, April 25, 1967). Of course, the most famous performance of Janis Joplin singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company is seen in the Monterey Pop film, where she delivers one of the best rock vocals ever on “Ball and Chain.” A couple months earlier, the band—still mostly unknown outside of the Bay Area—did a half-hour live-in-the-studio set at San Francisco’s public TV station, KQED. While this version of “Ball and Chain” doesn’t match the Monterey Pop one in charismatic intensity, it certainly serves notice that Joplin would be a force to be reckoned with. Probably inadvertently, the group’s version of the traditional folk song “Cuckoo”—on which guitarist James Gurley takes the shaky lead vocal on the early part, Joplin taking over on the hurricane-like conclusion—demonstrates just how much they needed her to get on the map. She’s also good on other early Big Brother material on the program, like “Down on Me,” the band’s rough-and-ready early psychedelic rock complementing her sensual style well.

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Aretha Franklin, “A Natural Woman” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, May 2, 1968). Fortunately, there’s a lot of footage of Franklin’s Swedish concert on this date, in which at points you can literally see sweat dripping from her face. It’s a bit uneven, but she hits her stride on her soul hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood” (on which she plays her underrated piano), and “A Natural Woman,” co-written of course by another woman (Carole King) and her first husband, Gerry Goffin.

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Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (Woodstock, August 17, 1969). They couldn’t have planned this, but because the Woodstock festival was running way behind schedule, Jefferson Airplane didn’t take the stage until just as the sun was rising on Sunday morning that weekend. That made for a magnificent backdrop to their set, which like much of Woodstock was filmed, including this radiant version of Grace Slick’s most famous composition, “White Rabbit.” (She also sang “Somebody to Love” here, but that was written by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick.) There have been several expanded editions of the Woodstock film and it’s hard to keep up with what’s appeared where, but “White Rabbit” doesn’t seem to be on any of them.

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Nina Simone, “Four Women” (Harlem Cultural Festival, New York, August 17, 1969). There are many great clips of women rock and soul performers, but this is my very favorite. In vivid color, Simone delivers one of her most dramatic compositions, each verse detailing the tribulations of four different women (the title “Four Women” is not actually sung in the lyrics). The backup is sparse and moody, and the piano solo rather aggressively incorporates her classical training. At the end a gust of wind blows some sheets off her piano, but she doesn’t miss a beat as she vainly tries to stuff them back into place. Mesmerizing. And yes, this took place the very weekend the Woodstock festival was being held elsewhere in New York State, and later on the very day that Grace Slick sang “White Rabbit” with Jefferson Airplane there (see above entry).

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Joni Mitchell, “California” (BBC, London, October 9, 1970). Joni Mitchell wrote a famous song about Woodstock, but didn’t actually perform there. We do have this footage from about a year later, taken from a half-hour program taped for the BBC, live in front of a studio audience. She does a few outstanding songs here as a solo performer, including “Chelsea Morning,” “For Free,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” I think “California” is of special interest, not only because it’s not as well known as most of the other songs in the set, but also because it showcases her skill on the dulcimer, which she plays to accompany herself on this tune.

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Carole King, “A Natural Woman” (BBC, London, April 27, 1971). Although she wrote many hits with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, throughout the 1960s, it wasn’t until early 1971 that King became a star on her own with the Tapestry album. Just a couple months after that LP was released, she did a half-hour live-in-the-studio program for the BBC, as part of the same concert series that Joni Mitchell had done an episode for (see above entry). She did a few of her hits as a solo artist (“I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late”), but also did her own versions of some songs that had first been hits for other artists, as “A Natural Woman” had been for Aretha Franklin. Listening to her sing this and other material on this program, it’s hard to believe it took her so long to emerge from behind the scenes to become a recording star as a singer and solo artist, so accomplished are her vocals.

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Nico, “Femme Fatale” (The Bataclan, Paris, January 29, 1972). Nico left and/or was fired from the Velvet Underground in spring 1967. She hadn’t shared the stage with Lou Reed and John Cale for almost five years when this one-off Reed-Cale-Nico concert was presented in Paris in early 1972. An unplugged semi-Velvet Underground reunion (though no other Velvets were present), part of the concert was fortunately filmed, giving each of the three turns in the spotlight to sing lead. One of Nico’s songs was “Femme Fatale,” written by Lou Reed, though sung (like two other Reed compositions) by Nico on the Velvet Underground’s first album. Cale and Reed supply subdued backup harmonies to her on this acoustic version, on a TV program marking the only time the three were filmed performing together in decent image and sound quality.

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Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, “Summer Wine” (Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, 1972, probably February). The oddest couple of the 1960s, Nancy Sinatra and her producer Lee Hazlewood had several unlikely beauty and the beast hits, including “Some Velvet Morning.” “Summer Wine” was another bittersweet-to-the-point-of-moodiness highlight of their discography, performed with rather irreverent sassiness in Las Vegas as part of a Swedish documentary on the pair in Sin City.

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Patti Smith, “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, October 3, 1976). In the same venue where Aretha Franklin was filmed for TV in 1968 (see earlier entry), a program was shot of the Patti Smith Group in concert. There are other good clips of Smith from the ‘70s, but this is the best sustained document of her electrifying stage presence. Although it includes strong original compositions like “Land,” “Redondo Beach,” “Free Money,” and “Ask the Angels,” it also has some covers she didn’t put on records in the 1970s. The best of these is the one that opens this program, a hyper charge through the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together,” to which Smith, as was her wont, adds some different lyrics.

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The Avengers, “The American in Me” (The Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1978). Although they didn’t get to release many records at the time, the Avengers were the top early San Francisco punk band, fronted by Penelope Houston, who both sang and looked as though she could bore right through your head. The Mabuhay Gardens was the top early punk venue in the city, and this clip captures the ferocious energy of both their performances and the Mabuhay audience’s frenzied dancing.

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Shonen Knife, “Kappa Ex” (Japan, promo video, mid-1980s). This is the most recent of the selections on this list, yet I know less about its background than any other. It was one of the mimed clips on a promo video sent to a music magazine where I worked at the time. This Japanese trio mixed pop and punk in about equal measures, at a time when all-women bands were even rarer in their country than most anywhere else. Even if it’s cornily enacted, this is a charming clip of one of their better songs, the threesome not taking the low-budget props and lip-syncing entirely seriously.

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I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

1970: Baseball’s Bumper Crop of Fluke Seasons

Baseball season’s starting, and with it the unavoidable hopeful predictions that so-and-so is poised to have a “breakout” year. Much of this is hype from managers, owners, broadcasters, and sometimes the players themselves. Every year sees some “career” years that are unexpected, but you can’t count on too many of them, no matter which team you’re following. Here on the San Francisco Giants, for instance, it doesn’t seem impossible that Brandon Belt would somehow put it all together one year and hit .330 with 35 homers and 120 walks. Even if he did, however, it’s likely that would be his one “peak” year, and he’d revert to his usual streaky slightly-above-average performance at the plate.

Some years do see more out-of-context performances than others. I don’t know if there’s any way to measure such things, but for some reason, 1970 seemed to see more of them than most other seasons, and perhaps any other season. You could field a killer All-Star caliber team with the guys who, for just that year, exceeded their career norms by implausibly high margins.

Perhaps the most improbable of them, given his age (33) and how he’d never before approached stardom in his nearly decade-long career, was Cubs outfielder Jim Hickman. His career high in homers had been 21, his highest batting average .257. He’d even been demoted to the minors for a while a couple of years previously, at the age of 31. Suddenly he was a Triple Crown threat, hitting .315 with 32 home runs, 115 RBI, and 93 walks. He even delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the twelfth inning of the All-Star game—the famous one in which Pete Rose scored the winning run by crashing into (and injuring) catcher Ray Fosse. Hickman had a couple of fair years for the Cubs over the next two seasons, but never approached those numbers again.

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On base between Hickman and Rose as that All-Star finish played out was Billy Grabarkewitz, who that year hit .289 with 17 HR, 84 RBI, 95 walks, and 19 stolen bases for the Dodgers—the only season, unbelievably, in which he had more than 200 at-bats. Grabarkewitz had hit a mere .092—that’s not a misprint—in 65 at-bats the previous year, in his first big-league trial. Injuries would limit his playing time to 90 at-bats in 1971; he his a woeful .167 with more action (144 at-bats) in 1972; and he never got regular playing time again. What happened?

“What was amazing was the day after the All-Star game, which was a day off, [Dodgers general manager] Al Campanis calls me into his office and says, ‘You’re doing real good, but you know you need to cut down on your strikeouts,’” Grabarkewitz told Michael Fedo in the book One Shining Season. “So he got [coach] Dixie Walker to go out and work with me. I’m hitting .376 and Dixie wants to change my whole hitting style again. And he says, ‘First of all, you need to quit swinging for home runs.’ He switched me to a heavier bat again, and it’s like I didn’t have a choice. I’m being told to do this. So in the month of August, I don’t think I struck out six times. And I think I hit .101…[in September] I went to [the lighter] bat, and the last month I did real good again—hit home runs, struck out a lot, but got base hits.”

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For the record, Grabarkewitz was actually batting .341 at the All-Star break; he’d have two walks and a two-run homer, his tenth, the first day after the break. But he was indeed down to .289 (and had been dropped from leadoff to the eighth spot in the order) by the end of August, in which he batted .173 (not .101, but bad enough). (He also struck out 26 times in August, not six.)

What really killed his career, however, might have been (again according to his memory in One Shining Season) being told to work on double plays for a long time the second or third day of spring training the following year. That hurt his shoulder badly enough to keep him out of the lineup most of 1971, and he never got a foothold in the big leagues again, with the Dodgers or several other team he’d play for over the next few years.

Or, there might have been a more prosaic explanation. I wish I could find it for reference, but I remember Phillies broadcaster (and ex-center fielder) Richie Ashburn writing in a newspaper column that Grabarkewitz had come looking for him after a game because of a negative comment from Ashburn. Ashburn wrote something along the lines of that if Grabarkewitz had tried to hit him, if Ashburn had curved, Billy would have missed.

Also on the Dodgers that year, in the midst of a much longer career, was Wes Parker, regular first baseman for the team since the mid-1960s, including on the pennant-winning squads of 1965 and 1966. Although acknowledged as an excellent fielder, Parker had never seemed to live up to his potential at the plate. His best season had been 1969, when he hit .278 with 13 homers (though just one came after July, around the time he had an emergency appendectomy). In 1970, however, he had his only superb year, hitting .319 with 111 RBIs, and leading the league with 47 doubles.

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His explanation for why he didn’t approach those figures again will no doubt vex Dodgers fans unaware of Parker’s attitude at the time. “After doing that for one season, I decided it wasn’t worth it,” he revealed in One Shining Season. “It was a conscious decision on my part that the sacrifices and effort, the amount of energy that had to go into it, was more than I thought it warranted. 1970 was for one season only. I’m glad I did that once, but I wanted to enjoy all aspects of my career, part of which was dating again, part of which was enjoying people. I didn’t want to live like a hermit again”—which he’d done in 1970, so he could focus almost exclusively on baseball—”and I really believe that’s what it would have taken for me to have another year like 1970.”

There could have been other grounds for criticizing Parker’s approach to the game. Again I wish I could find the newspaper story, but I remember in 1976, Phillies manager Danny Ozark (who’d been a coach with the Dodgers in 1970) was getting on outfielder Jay Johnstone for not hustling on extra-base hits that could have been triples, stopping at second to pad his doubles total. (Johnstone hit 38 doubles that year, finishing second in the National League.) Parker, Ozark remembered, had led the league in doubles back in 1970 by doing the same thing.

Moving across the diamond, at third base Tommy Harper had a superstar year for the Milwaukee Brewers, then playing their first year under that name after having started life as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Harper always had speed—he’d stolen 73 bases the previous year—and he’d flashed some power by hitting 18 homers for the Reds in 1965, though he’d never hit more than ten in any other season. Suddenly he hit 31 homers to go with 38 stolen bases, a .296 average, 35 doubles, and 104 runs. He’d never come too close to that stat line again, and never hit more than 17 homers in his remaining years, though he did lead the American league with 54 stolen bases in 1973.

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At shortstop, Bert Campaneris had the best career of any player to have a fluke season in 1970. He made the All-Star team six times; led the American league in stolen bases six times; and was the shortstop on the A’s team that won three straight World Series in 1972-74. He was not, however, a power hitter, with 79 home runs in a 19-year career. Except, that is, in 1970, when he somehow clubbed 22 roundtrippers (and 28 doubles). In no other year did Campaneris manage more than eight homers. In 1969, he hit two; in 1971, five.

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There’s no vintage anecdote explaining what happened, but it’s interesting to note that Campaneris turned on the power again for a few weeks a few years later, when it mattered most. In 1973, he hit just four home runs (and slugged just .318) in the regular season. Yet in the postseason, he hit three—two in the American League playoffs, and one in the World Series.

In San Diego, Cito Gaston, like Jim Hickman, had a near Triple Crown-worthy season — .318 average, 29 homers, 93 RBI. It was all the more shocking coming after a rookie year in which he’d hit .230 with two homers, slugging .309. Unlike Hickman, Gaston was relatively young (26), and fans of the second-year-expansion Padres entertained reasonable hopes they had their first superstar. Yet the following year, his average dipped to .228, with 17 homers. Only once did he top ten homers again, with 16 in 1973, his last year as a regular.

1970 Clarence Gaston (f)

As great as his 1970 was, Gaston never did master the strike zone. Even in ‘70, he struck out 142 times—the same year he had his highest walk total, a modest 41. His 121 whiffs in 1971 (accompanied by a mere 24 walks) suggests poor command of the strike zone that pitchers learned to exploit. Gaston’s greatest fame, of course, came not as a player, but as a manager with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989-1997 and 2008-2010, where he was the first African-American manager to win a World Series (in both 1992 and 1993).

Behind the plate, San Francisco Giants catcher Dick Dietz had an amazing 1970, at least at the plate. He hit .300 with 22 HR, 107 RBI, and 109 walks, not to mention 38 doubles. He’d only played semi-regularly in his earlier seasons, but for that year, was almost as good a hitter as the National League MVP, fellow catcher and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

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Dietz tailed off in 1971, but was still very above average for a catcher as a hitter, with 19 homers and 79 walks. Somehow he was waived (not traded) to the Dodgers in April 1972, where a broken hand ruined his 1972 season, in which he hit .161 in 56 at-bats. He rebounded with a rather phenomenal, if unheralded, year as a reserve (playing more first base than catcher) for the Braves in 1973, hitting .295 and walking 49 times in just 139 at-bats, compiling a .474 OBP. That translates to about 150 walks in a full-time year.

Dietz was just 31, and it seems like he should have kept finding work as a reserve, perhaps moving to the American League to DH considering his subpar defensive reputation. It’s been suggested that he was blackballed owing to his role in the 1972 players strike, when he was serving as the Giants’ player representative (and, likewise, suggested he was waived to the Dodgers in early 1972 because of that as well).

With a bit of juggling, you have a starting eight of fluke 1970 seasons here. You could move either Grabarkewitz or Harper from third to second (both played some second base in their career). There are only two outfielders; you could add Bernie Carbo, who had a great rookie year as a platoon player for the Reds (21 HR, .310, 94 walks in just 365 at-bats) and never hit nearly as well again.

Carbo

Pitchers aren’t nearly as well represented by fluke 1970s, but there was one guy whose All-Star year came out of nowhere. Clyde Wright had started and relieved for the Angels for a few years without distinction, especially in 1969, when he was 1-8 with a 4.10 ERA. In 1970, he somehow won a place in the rotation and rocketed from 1-8 to 22-12. He’d have a couple other good years in 1971 and 1972 (winning 34 games with a sub-3.00 ERA) before declining into retirement by the mid-’70s. His 12-6 record at the break was good enough to get him a spot on the American League All-Star squad, where he gave up the game-winning hit in the twelfth inning to…Jim Hickman, which is where we started.

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Days of Future Passed: 10 Surprising Rock Albums of the Late 1960s

What makes an album surprising? The criteria will differ widely according to who’s making the judgment. Weren’t all of the Beatles albums surprises, in how each marked not just a significant departure and progression from the previous one, but often wholly unpredictable ones as well? Aren’t albums surprising in which a performer noted for a very specific style moves into a very different one, as Bob Dylan did on his electric rock recordings in the mid-1960s? How about ones that many consider to be duds, Dylan providing another example with 1970’s Self-Portrait?

Although none of the records noted in the above paragraph make the list on this post, most people can probably agree that surprising records are ones that don’t match, and sometimes even defy, expectations given an artist’s past releases. I thought about this recently after reading a new 800-page (yes, 800 pages – and it only goes through 1979!) book about the Moody Blues, Long Distance Voyagers. The Moody Blues aren’t for everyone, and an 800-page book about them definitely isn’t for everyone, or even every Moody Blues fan. But it naturally has a lot of coverage of their most famous album, Days of Future Passed, which was a pretty radical departure from their early sound when it came out in late 1967.

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Were many other significant LPs of the late ‘60s so different than what had preceded them? Not many – an inarguable point even if you don’t like the Moodies. There were some others that came close, in pretty different ways. The common thread on my personal Top Ten list here is the genuine sense of WTF reaction that must have greeted these records when they were first spun, even by dedicated fans. Some were baffled, some exhilarated, some outraged – but no doubt almost all of them were surprised.

The late ‘60s, of course, were not the only era in which such albums were unleashed. Over the next ten or fifteen years, others would appear that were strong candidates for lists of the some surprising LPs by significant artists, again for very different reasons – unlikely comebacks (Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English), utter departures from their usual approach (Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska), wholly uncommercial excursions into the avant-garde (Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music takes the cake in that regard), or outings so stylistically uncharacteristic they seemed designed to piss off longtime fans and record companies (Neil Young’s Trans, as well as several others he’s done). Analysis of those holds some interest, but is best left to different writers. I’m sticking to the era which I know the best – the late 1960s, the one in which Days of Future Passed was released.

1. The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed (1967). Albums two and three on this list are vastly more critically respected than this one, and certainly album number two got much more press for defying expectations than this LP did. But really, have there been any other significant records that were as unlike what listeners would have predicted?

Moody

Admittedly, a big reason for their shift in direction was a substantial change in personnel. For about two years, starting with their debut single in late 1964, the Moody Blues were a good, though not great, British Invasion band with a haunting R&B/pop blend. The only song for which this lineup of the band (featuring Denny Laine, later of Wings, on lead vocals) is famous is their only big hit, “Go Now.” But they had quite a few other good tracks in the mid-’60s, many of them written by Laine and the group’s piano player, Mike Pinder. By fall 1966, Laine had enough of their fading commercial prospects and quit, their original bass player (the forgotten Clint Warwick) having already left.

For a year or so, the Moody Blues somehow struggled onward with replacements Justin Hayward and John Lodge, issuing a couple more flop singles. The story’s often been noted elsewhere (and is naturally told in considerable detail in the new Long Distance Voyagers book), but they were given the option of doing another LP whose function would be to demonstrate a new stereo recording method developed by the Deram label. The story has varied somewhat in different accounts, but the Moodies’ job would be to record a rock version of a symphony by Dvorak.

With no other real opportunity on the horizon, the band accepted — but then jettisoned the concept and substituted their own, that being a song cycle about different parts of a day from dawn to nighttime. It was a risk that in some ways might have been foolhardy (though not as foolish, perhaps, as just doing a Dvorak symphony as they were told), or at least resulted in them being kicked off the label and unable to find another recording contract. Probably more than 95% of the bands in a similar position wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. The Moody Blues did, reinventing themselves as an act bridging psychedelia and progressive rock with somber, stately songs with thoughtful-to-the-point-of-pompous lyrics, gothic vocal harmonies, and Pinder’s eerie Mellotron, marking him as the first adept user of the instrument in rock music. They sounded little like the Moody Blues of “Go Now” days with Denny Laine’s vocals, save for ingredients surviving in the haunting melodies and backup harmonies.

It was a career move that’s been hailed as not only adventurous, but courageous, the Moodies sticking out their necks for what they believed in when the record label funding the project was expecting something totally different. Which I agree with, but really, what did they have to lose? They’d made some good records in their early poppier style, but that approach wasn’t getting them anywhere in 1967. An album of Dvorak interpretation, aided by classical interludes, wasn’t going to make them commercial or critical favorites either. Indeed, it might have made them laughing stocks for being stooges for a company project aimed at hyping a stereo technique. Why not throw caution to the wind and go for broke, consequences be damned? They were probably going to break up anyway if they didn’t come up with a miracle — and that miracle wasn’t going to be the Dvorak album. The only chance they had, in the ultra-competitive world of 1967 rock, was coming up with their own distinctive original material.

It seems that at least a few people at Deram knew what the band was up to, but it would have been great to be a fly on the wall at the meeting at which the result was played to Deram staff expecting a somewhat exploitative Dvorak-meets-the-Moodies LP primarily designed not to advance the band’s career, but to show off their “Deramic Sound System.” Perhaps figuring it didn’t make sense to throw yet more money away to bury or redo the project, Deram released what the Moody Blues gave them. And everyone won, the album quickly gaining strong sales and positive feedback from fans and critics, and over time (which took a good few years) becoming a huge seller.

Something to emphasize that isn’t always pointed out when this tale is told: although the Moody Blues deserve praise for doing something both daring and true to their hearts with Days of Future Passed, it wouldn’t have worked if the songs weren’t strong. Indeed, they made for a stronger batch than any of their other albums, most made when they were established as a top act. Had the songs been on the okay-but-rather-unmemorable level of their pre-Days of Future Passed singles from 1967 with the Hayward-Lodge lineup, or the “Nights of White Satin” B-side “Cities,” the album would have been forgotten, even with the same concept and structure. And while Peter Knight’s instrumental classical interludes linking the band tracks can seem corny at times (the bit before “Peak Hour” almost sounds like the background to a frenetic city scene in an industrial training film), the album would not have worked as well without them, as they were vital to establishing a sense of epic grandeur.

2. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding (1967). As albums by artists who were already influential stars went, none was as surprising as John Wesley Harding, released in the final days of 1967. As Mike Jahn wrote in his 1973 book Rock, “As expected, it thoroughly stood folk and folk rock on their heads.” But not the way fans expected. It had been a year and a half since Dylan’s last album, Blonde on Blonde, which doesn’t sound like much now, but was an eternity by 1966-67 release schedule standards. In that year and a half following a July 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan hadn’t played any concerts or released any singles, or even appeared much in public, sparking rumors of death or crippling injury. In that same year and a half, rock had changed at a dizzying pace, often getting louder and more psychedelic.

Dylan

Some listeners had to expect that Dylan’s next album might have been, if not psychedelic, even louder and more far-out than Blonde on Blonde, itself quite a bit louder and crazier than his early folk recordings. Instead John Wesley Harding was quiet, country-folkish, and barely electric, as though he was consciously restraining himself from rocking out. His lyrics were (with the exception of a song or two) as sophisticated and enigmatic as ever. But soundwise, he’s since been hailed as heading the rock world’s retreat from psychedelia to a back-to-basics, earthier approach, though in truth rock might have headed that way anyway as the possibilities of psychedelic music began to exhaust themselves, as they do in as any major innovative musical movement plays out.

John Wesley Harding’s almost quotidian calm was almost as contrary as possible to almost any Dylan fan’s expectations. Given Dylan’s already iconic stature in the rock world in 1968, many would pick it as #1 on a list of this sort. However, one factor in particular makes me reluctant to consider it for the top position. Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, Dylan was making a lot of music in 1967, if outside of conventional recording studios. Tons of music, in fact, as the recent six-CD expanded edition of The Basement Tapes verifies. By the late 1960s, some of it would be bootlegged, and of course many of the more accomplished songs found official release on the 1975 double-LP version of The Basement Tapes.

The Basement Tapes weren’t quite as hard-rocking as Dylan’s fiercest mid-’60s electric music, though they’re closer to Blonde on Blonde than John Wesley Harding. But they draw more on rootsy blues, country, and gospel than Blonde on Blonde, and if they’re not exactly halfway between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, they’re something of a bridge. Had the best of The Basement Tapes been released in 1967, whether as a single or double LP (and re-recorded in a conventional studio to boost accessibility), they likely would have been very well received, and generated only mild surprise for not being as loud or outrageous as some might have expected. Now that so many Basement Tapes are available, the transition from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding seems less shocking, though hardly insubstantial.

As a footnote, at least a few people besides Dylan and the Band had heard some Basement Tapes before John Wesley Harding was released, when a few of them were circulated inside the industry with the intent of generating cover versions in late 1967. But almost everyone who heard John Wesley Harding shortly after its release had not heard any of these. Indeed, very few listeners even knew of their existence. So The Basement Tapes would not have mitigated the shock for any average purchaser of the John Wesley Harding album when it first appeared in stores.

3. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (1969). Each of the Velvet Underground’s principal four studio albums (a couple outtakes compilations subsequently appeared in the 1980s) was markedly different from each other. Still, I’d have to say their self-titled third album was about as unlike what any of their growing cult fandom would have expected when it came out in March 1969. Having made one of the weirdest and noisiest records of all time with their previous album, White Light/White Heat (released in early 1968), the Velvets now seemed perversely determined to make the quietest album of all time, at least in places.

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I got the record (as a UK import; it was out of print in the US) as an 18-year-old in 1980, and still remember the shock of putting the needle down on the opening track, “Candy Says,” in which the group seem to be deliberately playing in as subdued and restrained a manner as possible, as if they’re afraid nudging the volume up even a bit would cause the needle to skate across the vinyl. And this was after having been thoroughly prepared for the VU’s change in direction by reading retrospective reviews of the LP (which weren’t all that easy to find in 1980, actually).

The Velvet Underground does rock out harder on some tracks, like “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On,” and even gets avant-garde near the end on “The Murder Mystery.” But almost everything, even the mid-tempo rockers, is suffused with a feeling of containment, to the point where guitarist Sterling Morrison famously said (as a compliment) that it sounds as though it was recorded in a closet. It’s as if they’re trying to consciously annoy the fans who wanted more “Sister Ray” and the like by supplying the complete opposite.

With hindsight, however, we can put down much of the change in the Velvet Underground (as with the Moody Blues on Days of Future Passed) to a major lineup shakeup. John Cale was fired by Lou Reed shortly before the sessions for the album, replaced by more conventional (but very accomplished) rocker/singer Doug Yule. Allowing in turn for more conventional, melodic, and romantic songs by Reed, the results were excellent, and actually substantially more commercial than White Light/White Heat.

At the time, however, it confounded and even disappointed a good number of the fans the Velvet Underground had picked up — which weren’t nearly as great in number back then as Bob Dylan fans, or even the number of fans the Moody Blues had after Days of Future Passed. “A lot of people didn’t like our third album because they wanted more of the second,” Reed acknowledged to Metropolitan Review in 1971, after explaining he thought of the Velvets’ first three LPs as different installments of a novel or opera of sorts. “But they didn’t understand that that’s as far as you go with that, then there had to be a release, there had to be an ending. But I needed room to work, so I needed a separate album for each phase. I couldn’t have the ending on the second album, the second album ended very harsh. Then the third album starts out soft. So that was the idea all along, but no one seemed to pick up on it.”

As surprising in the context of a career as John Wesley Harding, I nonetheless put The Velvet Underground one notch lower, mainly for the following reason. John Wesley Harding’s change in direction was a shock for literally millions of listeners. The Velvet Underground’s, if equally profound, was at the time likely noticed by tens of thousands at most. It can’t compare in the magnitude of shock waves it generated, though fifty years later—with the massive expansion of the VU’s audience—it probably does have millions of listeners.

4. The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile (1967). Albums can be surprisingly disappointing, as well as genuinely surprising. This is the standard-bearer for such a record on this list. It’s almost a cliché to cite this 1967 LP as a massive letdown, or, as Beach Boys guitarist Carl Wilson famously described it, “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” But a letdown it was, after the sky-high anticipation fostered by reports of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys working on an album that would out-innovate the Beatles.

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That record, Smile, would never appear, and never even get properly finished, though simulations of what it would/could have sounded like (along with mounds of outtakes) have come out on both official CD and bootlegs. Although Smiley Smile was largely derived from subsequent and entirely different sessions, you couldn’t blame many consumers for expecting Smile when they bought it in 1967. The title was pretty similar, for one thing. And it had some songs (if not always in the same versions) that almost certainly would have been part of Smile, particularly the single “Heroes and Villains,” but also “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes.”

Apart from not sounding as groundbreaking, or just sounding as good, as what listeners expected/wanted after reports of the Smile sessions, Smiley Smile often sounds downright peculiar. With the non-Brian Wilson Beach Boys now determined to play their own music after classic mid-’60s records on which their contributions were largely limited to vocals, the tracks sound rather anemic. There’s an abundance of self-conscious, rather silly (if inoffensively so) humor, as though they’re not taking the endeavor entirely seriously, now that they’ve abandoned shooting for the moon. A classic single with pull-out-the-stops production (“Good Vibrations”), like “Heroes and Villains,” sounds out of place next to much more casual, tossed-off arrangements (including inferior versions of the Smile sessions standouts “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes”) that can sound a bit like informal run-throughs. Some listeners find that informality charming, but it also veers on sounding like outtakes rather than finished arrangements, or something fun to hear on bootlegs, but not on par with the band at full throttle.

There have been some efforts to rehabilitate Smiley Smile, championing it as a rebirth of the Beach Boys’ collective group spirit, or as a continuation of their evolution rather than the signpost to the end of the band’s peak. I take pride in puncturing or deconstructing critical party lines in rock history when the music and facts call for it, but at the expense of losing a few friends on my social media lists, I’m afraid I’m siding with the party line here. Smiley Smile is a big letdown, especially when stacked against not only the buildup when Smile was being recorded, but the actual brilliant (if often flawed) Smile outtakes that are now freely available.

5. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968). Much like Bob Dylan’s move to country-influenced sounds with John Wesley Harding was a shock, so was the Byrds’ sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, when it came out about eight months later. The Byrds, along with Dylan, had been the leading lights of folk-rock; now they were fully on board with country rock. Dylan’s transition to country rock cost him virtually nothing commercially; John Wesley Harding was a big hit, if maybe not quite as big as it might have been if he’d done Blonde on Blonde Part 2. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as many five-star reviews as it would get in rock history magazines and online sites decades later, was not a hit, in part because it wasn’t anything like what people expected from the Byrds.

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Of course, much of that was down to personnel changes that had rocked the core of the band. Just two of the original five Byrds were left. Still, one of them was leader Roger McGuinn, and the other, bassist Chris Hillman, had become an important singer-songwriter contributor to their pair of 1967 LPs. Yet the characteristic electric jangle of their first five LPs was gone, pretty much. And country rock that often sounded close to straight country music was in its place, at a time when country music wasn’t very popular among much of the rock audience. Even the two Bob Dylan covers (of Basement Tapes songs Dylan had yet to release, no less) didn’t have the jangly, vocal harmony-laden appeal of “My Back Pages,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and several other Dylan compositions the Byrds did masterful versions of on their 1965-67 releases.

While many Byrds fans knew the group now had a couple non-founder members, few were aware of just how profoundly one of them, Gram Parsons, had changed the band’s overall direction. With the enthusiastic support of Hillman, the group abandoned McGuinn’s ambitious plan for a double album spanning the history of music, from traditional Appalachian folk to experiments with the then-new synthesizer. Nor were the band writing as much original material as usual.

The record’s since been hailed as a country-rock milestone by many. I confess I’m not one of the critics who admires the album. I think it’s pretty disappointing and rather dull — a statement that’s another ticket to losing Facebook friends. I champion change and unpredictability among top rock innovators, but had I been old enough to buy it in 1968, I admit my gut reaction would have been to mourn the death of the “classic” Byrds sound. As I’ve written elsewhere, I also wish the Byrds had tried McGuinn’s idea to span the history of music, as prone as that might have been to failure.

6. Tim Buckley, Lorca (1970). Released in 1970 but recorded in September 1969, Lorca was one of the most defiantly inaccessible albums by any rock artist, not counting pure avant-garde outings like Metal Machine Music and the early collaborations by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Buckley had not been the most accessible of singer-songwriters on his early albums, progressing from slightly arty baroque folk-rock to orchestrated art song to near-jazz. But those LPs had been full of actual songs, and for the most part pretty pleasant ones, if often challenging in their lyrics and structure.

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Side one of Lorca was not occupied by conventional songs. The dissonant tones and pipe organ of the opening track were more reminiscent of contemporary composers such as Olivier Messiaen or Arnold Schoenberg than of rock, folk, or even jazz. Buckley proceeded to moan with a shaking vibrato, often wordless, sometimes rumbling and sometimes gliding into pealing shrieks, that conveyed not so much anguish as it did sheer agony. It was art, but to unschooled rock listeners, it sounded like the atonal soundtrack to an acid-fueled monster movie.

The free-jazzish track occupying the remainder of side one, “Anonymous Proposition,” was only slightly more approachable, impressive as it was in Buckley’s almost athletic journey across several octaves and vocal shadings. Never mind that the second side of Lorca had material far more in the jazz-folk-blues mode of his 1968 LP Happy Sad, albeit looser and funkier. Some listeners might not have even gotten that far.

The label that released Lorca and Buckley’s first three albums, Elektra, was regarded as about the most artist-friendly record company of the time. But even Elektra had its limits, dropping Tim after Lorca. As Elektra chief Jac Holzman told Musician about the Lorca era years later, “He was really making music for himself at that point. Which is fine, except to find enough people to listen to it.”

Like David Bowie and (in jazz) Miles Davis, Buckley changed styles with unnerving frequency and unpredictability. Unlike Bowie and Davis, he hadn’t built up the sizable audience whose base was large enough to ensure that much of it would follow his career, even as some of it dropped out along the way (and others joined partway into the journey). Lorca’s very small audience didn’t dissuade him from continuing his idiosyncratic path, with parts of Starsailor (also released in 1970) just as strange, followed by unsuspected leaps into more commercial funk-singer-songwriting. As admirable as its uncompromising first side was, it ensured that Buckley remained a cult figure.

7. Blossom Toes, If Only For a Moment (1969). All of the other acts on this list are pretty well known, even if some of them are on the cultish side. Not so Blossom Toes, who make Buckley seem like Bowie. The British band put out just two albums, though these LPs mark them as one of the best and most interesting obscure groups of the psychedelic era. And of all the bands in rock history that have recorded just two albums, few can match the Blossom Toes’ rare feat of producing LPs that were not only first-rate, but totally different from each other.

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Blossom Toes’ debut, 1967s We Are Ever So Clean, was charming whimsical British pop-psychedelia, somewhat like the Kinks jamming with the Salvation Army on the village green on Sunday afternoon. In contrast to the debut’s orchestrated pop-psychedelic summer-day whimsy, If Only For a Moment was all heavy guitars and March of Doom lyrics, closer in tone to Captain Beefheart than the Kinks. It’s far more accessible than Trout Mask Replica, however, with some of the classiest proto-progressive rock dual guitar leads (between Brian Godding and Jim Cregan) you’re likely to come across.

The group’s wistful vocal harmonies are also intact—the only real strong link between the two records. But the chirpy chamber orchestra of the first LP is gone for good. The somber lyrical tone of the extended compositions deals with bombs, war protests, and tortured uncertainty. It’s almost as if the smiley face of the debut album has been inverted into a puzzled frown.

At this point Blossom Toes might be more widely known to the international record collecting community than they were back in the ‘60s. Indeed, the number of albums issued by Blossom Toes during their lifetime is now exceeded by the number of discs of unreleased material available by the same band. They remain, however, virtually unknown to the general public. They’ll never have the cult of Tim Buckley or the Velvet Underground, but they deserve a wider hearing, even if your initial impression will vary enormously depending on which of their two albums you’ll hear first.

8. Nico, The Marble Index (1968). Nico is not tremendously obscure, due mostly to her association (actually fairly brief) with the Velvet Underground. Her second album, however, was truly obscure upon its release. It did generate a surprising number of thoughtful, and at times even positive, reviews. Judging by how hard it was to find used copies back when I was buying Velvet Underground records around 1980, however, it must have sold very little when it first came out.

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For those who were paying attention, it must have been a tremendous shock after hearing the three Lou Reed songs Nico sang on the first Velvet Underground album, and then the baroque folk (often orchestrated) on her almost as obscure debut solo LP, 1967’s Chelsea Girl. For one thing, Nico wrote virtually nothing on Chelsea Girl (though she got a partial writing credit for the sole track to sound like the Velvet Underground, “It Was a Pleasure Then”). On The Marble Index, she wrote everything. Not only that, it sounded nothing like the rather gentle pop-folk of Chelsea Girl. Instead it presented harsh, uncompromisingly bleak soundscapes dominated by her stentorian, icy vocals and somber harmonium.

As is now fairly well known, Nico was encouraged to start writing her own songs by Jim Morrison, with whom she’d had an affair, Morrison advising her to take inspiration from her dreams. Likely dismissed as a token glamour girl in the Velvets by many of their observers, she was eager to become more of an artist than a pretty face. Remarkably, she succeeded, and with an original style not easily comparable to either the Velvet Underground, the folky songs she’d done on Chelsea Girl (which seemed to be trying to make her into an underground Judy Collins of sorts), or the singer-songwriters (like Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne) she’d covered on the Chelsea Girl LP. She did have a great deal of help in this regard from fellow Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, without whose arrangements The Marble Index might have sounded too monotonous and meandering.

As it turned out, the music she did on The Marble Index would be far more typical of her solo career than what she’d done on Chelsea Girl or with the Velvets, Cale returning to help with the production and arrangements on much of her subsequent studio work. The Marble Index, like Nico herself, did gain more of a following over the next few decades, and is now available as part of an extensive double CD (with her 1970 album Desertshore) that includes almost a dozen outtakes. It is as unlike Chelsea Girl, however, as the second Blossom Toes album was from that group’s debut—a major difference between the acts being that Blossom Toes would then break up, while Nico would put out four more studio LPs, the last appearing in the mid-1980s.

9. John Cale, Vintage Violence (1970). Recorded in fall 1969 and released in 1970, John Cale’s debut album was wholly unlike what many expected—but not because, as was the case with several other albums cited here, it was weird. On the contrary, it was a shock because it was so damned normal. Or, at least, way more normal than you’d expect given Cale’s reputation as by far the most avant-garde member of the Velvet Underground, and by his many way-avant-garde (indeed, sometimes pretty unlistenable) prior recordings in the 1960s, though very few of them had been heard before they surfaced on archival CDs decades later.

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Vintage Violence was a shock not for the radical nature of its sounds, but for the absence of virtually any radicalism at all. Instead, it was a relatively conventional singer-songwriter record. It was more normal, in fact, than anything the Velvet Underground had recorded, or for that matter any of the records Cale had made with Nico, the Stooges, or Terry Riley. It’s certainly more accessible and less jarring than any of those albums. (Cale’s collaboration with Riley, Church of Anthrax, did not come out until 1971, but the pair had started working on material together in the studio in March 1969, about six months before the Vintage Violence sessions.)

Instead of taking cues from his experimental past, Cale instead plugged into the earthy roots-rock of the Band, who by late 1969 were among the most influential groups in the music business. There were also elements of country-rock, folk-rock, and the introspective singer-songwriting now gaining currency in the pop LP market. Cale sings in a gentle and attractive, if somewhat restrained, voice, backed by the band Grinder’s Switch.

Listeners paying attention to the Velvets and Cale’s prior work certainly would have been far more steeled for something like Church of Anthrax. Just because Vintage Violence is conventional, however, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Far from it, actually. It’s a fine, accessible, pleasing record, full of intelligent if low-key songs, the only avant-garde weirdness popping up (and pretty mildly) on the macabre “Ghost Story.” It’s impressive too for the courage it took for Cale to attempt something not at all like the Velvet Underground, and his ability to pull something of the sort off.

For all its quality, Cale has been pretty modest, and sometimes even dismissive, in his assessments of Vintage Violence. They’re worth quoting at some length here:

In the liner notes to the 2001 CD reissue of the album, he calls it “a very naive record. Those songs were written immediately prior to recording them. I tried to imitate my favorite songwriters of the times, the Bee Gees or whatever. I was out to discover the world of pop songwriting and I thought tunes were the answer. I taught the band the songs in one day and recorded them the next, so we were finished in three days.”

In his autobiography (co-written with Victor Bockris), he writes: “Vintage Violence was basically an exercise to see if I could write tunes. There’s not too much originality on that album, it’s just someone teaching himself to do something…I thought the songs were simplistic. We were writing stuff that was very oriented to what the Band were doing, as the musicians on the album shared that same upstate New York country sensibility.”

More negatively, in the August 30, 1971 issue of Rock magazine, he impassively states, “It was a cop-out. I made the mistake of using other musicians. I should have gone in the studio and done the songs the same way I did Marble Index – overdubbing a lot, doing the parts myself, building the songs up the way I wanted. It would have been more interesting, more honest, more me. The songs on it are about things I’d thought about that morning. They all run into short stories I’ve written, the stories end up as maps and charts, lots of characters come out in my short stories. All of them have characters. Like ‘Adelaide’ is like an English rock and roll song. ‘Little White Cloud,’ like a Bee Gees thing. ‘Cleo,’ like old rock and roll.”

Vintage Violence is better than John Cale seems to think it is, although it’s not his most famous solo record, and still not all that widely known even to Velvet Underground fans, who’d likely pretty readily take a shine to it. I’m aware this list is pretty Velvet Underground-heavy, but then that’s a testament to the daring unpredictability of both the band and the solo work of their three most prominent members (Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico).

10. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass (1970). To fill out this Top Ten list to ten actual selections, I’ve taken small liberties. All Things Must Pass was not released or even recorded in the late 1960s, though it was on the market by late 1970, which isn’t that much later. Musically, it’s different from the Beatles or what George Harrison had done in the Beatles, but not hugely different. You can hear a lot of links between All Things Must Pass and the Beatles, and while it was different in notable ways—an increased emphasis on spiritualism in many compositions, a greater use of horns, and Phil Spector’s co-production (with George)—Harrison brought a lot of the Beatles’ melodicism to the songs, as well of course as his own singing and guitar playing.

Harrison

In this case, the big surprise was not in the content, but in its reception. When the Beatles broke up in spring 1970, everyone was wondering how they’d fare as solo artists. If you’d polled people then as to who would do the best records on their own, I’m guessing about 99% of them would have said the contest would have been between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As for the 1% who would have figured it would have been between George Harrison and someone else, not all of the 1% would have picked George as the winner.

So it was a huge surprise—and a pleasant one—that George’s true solo debut (not counting his Wonderwall soundtrack and avant-garde doodlings on Electronic Sound) outsold Paul and John’s debuts, and was the best record of the three. (Again, I’m not counting Lennon and McCartney’s various soundtrack/avant-garde/live LPs, and considering McCartney and Plastic Ono Band as their true solo debuts.) I realize quite a few listeners and critics would pick Plastic Ono Band as the best LP of this batch, and some prefer McCartney, though champions of Paul’s debut probably rank a distant third in this contest. In my view, however, All Things Must Pass was easily the best, and indeed the only solo Beatles album I’d rate on a par with the band’s releases. It would have been even better had George not put dull jams on disc three of the triple album, and instead used yet more of the songs he’d piled up (some demos of which are available on archival releases and bootlegs).

If there was any one good thing to come out of the Beatles’ breakup, it was that George was finally free to record—in the way he wished—all of the songs he had accumulated during the late 1960s, some of which (such as “The Art of Dying” and “Isn’t It a Pity”) had been written as far back as 1966. All Things Must Pass suggests that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin not only underestimated Harrison’s songwriting talent, but also his production skills. As much as all Beatles fans lament the passing of the group in 1970, it’s impossible not to rejoice in George’s great triumph, surpassing the expectations of even his most devout fans—and, perhaps, even surpassing his own.

Shoreline Trail in China Camp State Park

On my list of places in the Bay Area I’ve heard about but haven’t managed to visit, China Camp has been high on the list for a while. Earlier this month I finally made it out there on a Monday morning. I walked around for nearly three hours, but that’s not nearly enough time to cover this 1500-acre state park, a few miles east of Central San Rafael.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

There are a good number of hiking trails, some of which are on the steep side. A good choice for a path with some length and variable terrain seemed to be the Shoreline Trail, which runs most of the length of the park near the San Pablo Bay. On a weekday at least, it was easy to park on the main road just outside the first campground entrance you come to after entering on the west side. Be aware there’s a parking fee if you go the lot a two-three-minute drive inside, and that you still need to pay a $3 walk-in fee at the trail entrance.

China Camp trail map.

There’s not much in the way of water views from the trail, though occasionally you get glimpses such as this one:

View

The bends on the trail might not offer scenes as spectacular as those in many more celebrated California parks, but they’re pleasing enough, as this series shows:

Trail1 Timber SunTrail Overhang FirstBendBridge

Unfortunately there are reminders that California’s in danger of suffering another drought. This is supposed to be a creek:

Creek

After a while you’ll get to the Back Ranch Meadows Campground (actually not far from the trail entrance if you take the much easier flatter path), where you’ll have a good chance of spotting a bit of wildlife, as I did:

Deer

Turkey

Across the main road that runs through the park, on the side by the water, there’s a very short trail, Turtle Back Trail, that true to its name winds around Turtle Back Hill. It’s actually just a minute-or-two drive from the campground where you can enter the Shoreline Trail. This seems like a good option for parents escorting small kids, and I saw a couple such pairs when I did the loop in just a few minutes:

Turtle Hill Trail path.

Turtle Back Trail path.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

The most popular spot in China Camp is China Camp Beach at the eastern end, which has a fairly big parking lot (fee required) overlooking the dock. I stopped just long enough to take a picture, and that’s where I’ll start on my next visit:

Dock

More info on China Camp State Park at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466.

Top 20 (Almost) Rock Reissues of 2017

Even after so many vaults from rock’s first quarter century have been cleared, I had no problem selecting nearly twenty reissues (sometimes featuring previously unreleased material) for a list that many critics would limit to ten choices. I by no means heard every obscure reissue, or every expensive box set. If I come across some of them next year, I’ll add them to the end of my 2018 list, as I have here for some noteworthy 2016 releases I didn’t hear until the past twelve months.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

If there’s a trend in reissues, or at least the ones I like to hear, it’s the growing number of albums that are about as notable for their historical interest as their musical value—indeed, sometimes more notable for their historical interest. I feel there simply aren’t many acts left from this era I haven’t heard, or albums (released or otherwise) from this era I haven’t heard, that are going to blow me away. Is a record holding a high percentage of its merits in its historical significance such a bad thing, though? Not for those of us who care about how music’s made and its context, illuminating the corners of key performers and musical genres, as well as solving some mysteries about music that’s been around the block for decades.

1. Dion, Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965 (Norton). Although part of its subtitle reads “the lost album,” it should be clarified that this isn’t an unreleased album. Instead, it’s a compilation that simulates what a Dion folk-rock LP might have sounded like had these fifteen tracks been released on a full-length disc in 1965 (all having been recorded between spring and fall of that year). All of the material, as far as I can tell, has been previously available, even if you had to be a pretty dedicated Dion fan to hunt all of it down on various non-LP singles, the obscure Wonder Where I’m Bound LP, and the CD compilations Road I’m On and Bronx Blues. The tracks selected for this anthology are more, as Scott Kempner writes in his liner notes, “significant recordings comprising Dion’s ultimate folk-rock album [that] are presented now as they were originally intended…fifteen tracks that have been unavailable for decades.”

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

That out of the way, it’s still good to have the cream of his 1965 folk-rock-oriented recordings in one place, and not have to weave in and out of incongruous material that it was sandwiched between on previous compilations. It’s also a good way to appreciate Dion’s rather unappreciated, if uneven, contributions to early folk-rock, when he was among the first singers (and virtually the only veteran rock star) to immerse himself in the style fairly deeply. There are similarities to early Bob Dylan and (far more distantly) early Byrds in the backing, which has the tentative yet daring exploratory feel of some other artists following the Byrds and Dylan’s more confident leads (particularly as most of this was produced by Tom Wilson, who also oversaw Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s early folk-rock recordings).

Material-wise (and Dion wrote the majority of the songs here), he lacked the knockout punches of the leading folk-rockers, and some of these cuts are in truth more blues-rock than folk-rock. There are still some standouts, however, like his terrific adaptation of the obscure early Dylan song (unreleased by Dylan at the time) “Baby I’m in the Mood for You”; his cover of Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”; and his fairly successful if somewhat derivative ventures into gentle melodic folk-rock originals, like “Now,” “My Love,” and “So Much Younger.” (My story on Dion’s mid-1960s folk-rock phase, based on a recent lengthy interview with Dion himself, is in the November 2017 issue of the UK monthly magazine Record Collector.)

2. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (six-disc deluxe version) (Apple/Universal). Where do you rank an album that, back in the year in was issued, would have topped many best-of lists, but has become so over-familiar that even a six-disc expanded version isn’t as exciting as it could be? If you’re me, you don’t worry too much about what number it takes on the list, but it doesn’t get #1, even in this deluxe box version. It’s a big move in the right direction in the packaging of the Beatles’ catalog, which until this 50th anniversary box had not taken the obvious step of expanding their classic albums in reissued formats. This one has the stereo and mono versions, plenty of outtakes, the classic cuts from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single (originally intended to be used on Sgt. Pepper), and the audio on Blu-ray/DVD discs if that rings your chimes. But the extras aren’t as exciting as they are on some other box set editions of classic vintage LPs, and the fans most interested in the bells and whistles probably already have a good deal of this in their collection, sometimes many times over.

SgtPepper

That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Beatles material that hasn’t been available before. With The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, I wrote a whole book on that subject. But as I noted in that book, 1967 might have been the least interesting year of the Beatles’ career (if we focus on their core 1962-69 era) in terms of material that was unissued at the time. No longer touring, they were focusing on studio recording, and in making those recordings, building up tracks layer by layer. That means the different versions of songs they recorded for the LP—which form the bulk of the three dozen or so extra cuts on the box (counts vary according to whether you might consider a “2017 mix” previously unreleased)—aren’t all that different from the album versions we’ve heard all these years. Sometimes you essentially just get the backing track or elements of a track, which is interesting, but not so much that you’re likely to enjoy it over and over.

Whatever edition of Sgt. Pepper was issued (the 50th anniversary CDs also came in two-CD format with less bonus tracks), media coverage focused on the stereo remix by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son. I seem to be one of the critics least excited by ballyhoed remixes; it’s good, but it’s not that stupendously different from the original, and the original always sounded pretty good in the first place. The 1992 TV documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper, featuring interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and George Martin (who brings up separate elements of some tracks at the mixing board) that’s also in the six-disc version is good, but long available on bootleg.

The 144-page hardback book might be the best reason to buy the box, as it hasn’t been available before and can’t be easily bootlegged, and is pretty well done, even if the details on some tracks (like the bonus ones on the mono CD) could have been better. And for all its size, the box is missing a few bootlegged or known-to-exist items—the avant-garde “Carnival of Light” outtake, John Lennon’s home demo of “Good Morning Good Morning,” and Lennon’s home recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever”—that would have made the box more definitive, if more expensive.

You can probably tell I don’t feel like the $150 or so this box cost (prices vary according to where you buy it and the shipping, if that’s involved) quite justified the price tag. But don’t get me wrong – the quality even on the oft-circulated stuff is better than the bootlegs; a few of the previously uncirculated tracks (like the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” where Lennon has a mechanical vocal, changing to a more rapid and natural phrasing at McCartney’s suggestion) are interesting, if not phenomenal; and the overall packaging is of a commendably high standard, even if there are a few questionable decisions and omissions. Hopefully there will also be a deluxe box for The White Album’s 50th anniversary, especially as there are much more, and much more interesting, extras to choose from (especially if you count the couple dozen or so demos they did at George Harrison’s home shortly before the sessions started). And then maybe they’ll finally go back to all of their albums to construct deluxe editions.

3. The Rolling Stones, On Air (Deluxe Edition) (Universal). More than most top rock bands of the era, the Rolling Stones have been tight-fisted about issuing rarities from their vaults, putting out little unreleased pre-1970 material. For that reason, this compilation of 1963-1965 BBC sessions can be welcomed as a major crack in the floodgates (though the super-deluxe box edition of their 1965 Charlie Is My Darling documentary did include an entire CD of previously unreleased material of the band in concert in March 1965). Although there’s a “standard” single-disc edition of On Air with eighteen tracks, the two-CD deluxe edition is much preferable, adding fourteen more songs.

the-rolling-stones-on-air

As cautionary notes, there’s hardly any original material (though there are versions of the first two Jagger-Richard-penned hits, “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction”). At this point in their career, their repertoire was dominated by American blues/R&B/soul covers, and that’s what dominates this anthology (although it also has a rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” their second UK hit). Of course, they did such covers as well as anyone in the UK (or the world), and many of them are here to enjoy in versions different than the ones on their early records. The fidelity varies from tinny to excellent, but it’s always listenable.

There are also eight songs (all covers) that didn’t find a way onto official Stones releases, including a smoking “Roll Over Beethoven” that outdoes even the Beatles’ excellent version, as well as a superb “Memphis, Tennessee.” The other such tracks aren’t quite as good, but include the semi-blues-rap of Bo Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers,” as well as another Diddley number in “Crackin’ Up.” There are also performances of “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” “Fannie Mae,” and items from the catalogs of two of their biggest influences, Chuck Berry (“Beautiful Delilah”) and Jimmy Reed (“Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby”).

That wraps up the formidable positives, but here are the more critical observations. To bring up the Beatles comparisons that might be unfair but are inevitable, the Beatles were much more creative and adventurous in taking the opportunities with their BBC sessions to perform songs not available on their commercial releases. They did three dozen such numbers in all, albeit just one of which was an original composition. Although it’s known the Stones did a fair number of songs onstage in their early years that didn’t make it onto their records, as noted above, there are just eight here. It would have been great if they’d done more otherwise unavailable songs by their early idols Berry, Diddley, and Reed.

Of more importance, the Stones and their record label can’t change what they taped for the BBC, but they can be faulted for not making this compilation more comprehensive. There are fifty surviving 1963-65 BBC cuts that have been bootlegged, which means that eighteen are missing from this collection. Sure, some of them are additional versions of songs represented on the deluxe edition. But some are not on On Air at all, including nifty lesser-known tunes they recorded in the studio in their early years, like “Bye Bye Johnny,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Meet Me in the Bottom,” and “Don’t Lie to Me.” It’s even missing their BBC version of “Not Fade Away,” their first big British hit. Everything could have fit onto two CDs, as they have on past bootlegs. Had On Air included everything possible, it would have contended for a higher position on this list.

4. Laura Nyro, A Little Magic, A Little Kindness (Real Gone). Nyro’s career lasted, rather fitfully, almost thirty years. Her best two albums by some distance, however, were her first two, recorded when she was very young: More Than a New Discovery (1967) and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968). They haven’t been too hard to get over the years, but this two-CD reissue is notable for featuring the rare mono versions of each one (in the US, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was only issued in mono to DJs). Although there are only three bonus tracks, they’re significant: the 45 version of “Stoney End” (with different lyrics and vocal), the 45 version of “Save the Country” (re-recorded with a different arrangement for her third album), and, less essentially, the edited single mix of “Eli’s Comin’.” I wasn’t even aware there was a different version of “Stoney End” on 45 until this compilation, which also features lengthy historical liner notes.

Nyro

Despite the high marks for the packaging, listening to these back to back doesn’t mask imperfections in the original works. The LPs were uneven, with a fair distance separating the most well known classics (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Blowin’ Away,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “When I Die”) and the more run of the mill tracks. The relatively average tunes, too, suffer from some similarity to each other, and the arrangements and production sometimes could have been a little gutsier and more imaginative. Yet as uneven as this is, it contains the bulk of her best material.

5. Gene Clark, The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982 (Sierra). This compilation is available in a few variations, the cheapest being a single CD, the most thorough being a package that also puts the songs from the CD on vinyl LPs; adds a couple CDs with extra tracks, even though these only add up to an EP’s worth of material; and a DVD with a mid-1980s Gene Clark interview. This review is for the most comprehensive edition, which with shipping will set you back almost $100, a high price considering a double CD could have fit all the music for those who aren’t fussy about deluxe goodies. This doesn’t stand up to Clark’s best solo material (let alone what he did with the mid-’60s Byrds), and like many such anthologies is more of historical interest than musical brilliance. But as Clark was an important figure as the primary songwriter in the original Byrds (and later a respected cult singer-songwriter and country-rocker), historical significance is a good enough reason to treat this as a notable release.

GeneClark

Of most note, at least to listeners like myself who view his Byrds work as his peak, are the seven 1964 solo acoustic demos (one previously released) that show him in uneasy transition between the troubadour folk era and the British Invasion. It’s as though he can’t quite decide whether to be a more mature version of the Kingston Trio or try his hand at more teen-oriented pop-rock, and the songs lack the grand melodies of even his early Preflyte songs with the Byrds, though there’s an affecting yearning naiveté. A couple rather ornate 1967 solo cuts (arranged by Leon Russell, with Hugh Masekala as a musical guest) are curiosities; “Back Street Mirror,” whether intentionally or not, sounds like a Bob Dylan satire.

Devotees of Clark’s solo work will focus on the early ‘70s tracks at the heart of the compilation, including eleven 1970-71 solo demos; a 1970 cut with the Flying Burrito Brothers; and four full-band country-rock-oriented efforts from 1972. Like much of Gene’s work, these (especially the solo endeavors) exude sincerity and contain some interesting wordplay, though I don’t find the melodies terribly memorable. Unfortunate but true: in common with many such archival releases, the later the recordings, the least interesting they are, as is the case here with five 1982 numbers. For all the work Clark did after the mid-1960s, I have to conclude he never found nearly as suitable a vehicle for the full arrangements of his songs as the Byrds — and never again wrote material as superb, as interesting as some of his solo stuff was in an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter way.

So on the whole this is for specialists, but at least for the high price you do get quality packaging, including thorough liner notes by Clark/Byrds biographers. The half-hour DVD interview done at Clark’s home in 1986 by Domenic Priore, incidentally, is pretty good, if basically filmed. Clark talks with intelligence and fair depth about various aspects of his career, including precise details about the writing of “Eight Miles High” (which he wrote for the most part, he explains). At times the visuals cut away from a straight shot of Gene talking to rare pictures (dominated by images from the mid-’60s), which add another element of interest.

6. Various Artists, Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production (Ace). American-born Shel Talmy was one of the most important producers of British ‘60s rock, most famous for the mid-’60s hits he worked on by the Kinks and the Who. At various times, he also produced David Bowie (in Bowie’s pre-fame mid-’60s days), the Pentangle, the Easybeats, Manfred Mann, the Creation, Chad & Jeremy, Roy Harper, Lee Hazlewood, and the Fortunes, as well as interesting flop discs by the likes of the First Gear, the Mickey Finn, and Ben Carruthers & the Deep. All of those artists and more are on this 25-track compilation, functioning as a basic overview of his range, although it doesn’t get deeply into any one act or include much in the way of rarities that comprehensive collectors won’t have elsewhere. If you are on the lookout for rarities, there’s a previously unissued alternate version of the Easybeats’ “Lisa”; Bowie’s “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” (released under the name Davy Jones) with a “previously unissued alternate overdub”; all-women rock group Goldie & the Gingerbreads’ “That’s Why I Love You,” with Genya Ravan; and Perpetual Langley’s girl group-ish “Surrender.” This might be a better comp for someone just getting into this era rather than the experienced collector likely to have a lot of it, but the extensive 28-page booklet of notes by compiler Alec Palao are a good bonus.

Talmy

7. Jon-Mark, Sally Free and Easy (RPM). Jon-Mark is mostly known for his work as part of Mark-Almond, and his brief but significant time in John Mayall’s band in the late ‘60s (which included one of Mayall’s best albums, The Turning Point). Deep ‘60s collectors will also remember he was part of the semi-supergroup Sweet Thursday (also including Nicky Hopkins and future Cat Stevens guitarist Alun Davies), who made some of the most accurate and best quasi-Bob Dylan/Blonde on Blonde tracks, and played on some of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘60s recordings. Before most of this, he was also a solo artist in the mid-’60s, though he didn’t release much at the time. Sally Free and Easy is a notable gap-filling compilation, its 24 tracks including an unreleased Shel Talmy-produced LP he recorded for scheduled (but unfulfilled) release in autumn 1965, along with some outtakes and a 1965 single.

JonMark

Fans of British folk guitar will detect similarities to Davy Graham in Jon-Mark’s dexterous eclecticism and, more distantly, Bert Jansch and Donovan in his skill on the instrument and vocals. He is, nonetheless, not as talented or exciting as any of those artists, whether as a guitarist, singer, or interpreter of folk songs. But it should be emphasized that big fans of the kind of music Graham, Jansch, and Donovan were doing then will like this. Occasionally, the approach is daringly innovative for 1965, whether it’s the use of sitar in “Sally Free & Easy” (also done by Faithfull and Pentangle in the ‘60s) or modest full band backing on the single “Baby I Got a Long Way to Go”/”Night Comes Down,” the latter song better known via the mod rock version by Mickey Finn. Also of interest is “If You’re Gonna Leave Me,” recorded in a much more orchestral pop-oriented version as “Bye Babe” four years later by Lee Hazlewood. Largely, however, the accent’s on his solo acoustic arrangements of folk standards. All of this was produced by Shel Talmy, and as with the Talmy compilation listed above, this CD features detailed liner notes by Alec Palao.

8. Various Artists, Great Guitars at Sun (Bear Family). There were great piano players at Sun (Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich), and good performers on several instruments, but guitars are what first come to mind when you think of the Sun sound. There were many more Sun recordings with fine guitar than can fit on a single-CD 28-song compilation. But this one does a good job, like its companion-disc-of-sorts Drums at Sun, at mixing tracks by legends (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison) with important less famous names (Junior Parker, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Bill Justis, Little Milton, Earl Hooker, Billy Riley) and, at least to non-Sun aficionados, no-names (Dick Penner and Ernie Chaffin, among others). And while there are some familiar classics (“Mystery Train” by both Presley and Parker, Perkins’s “Matchbox,” Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa”), most of the selections aren’t ones you’ll find on average Sun best-ofs. To mix things up a bit more, Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” and Billy Riley’s “Red Hot” are not represented by the versions on original Sun singles, but by alternate takes. Extensive track-by-track annotation enhances appreciation of this material, even if you’re pretty knowledgeable about Sun’s history.

SunGuitars

9. Various Artists, Great Drums at Sun (Bear Family). Are drums the first thing you think of when you think of Sun Records? I thought so (meaning the answer’s “no”). Superb singers, yes; guitarists, definitely, whether great solo artists like Carl Perkins or noted session men like Roland Janes; and piano players, even if you can only name Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. So this 28-track compilation feels a bit like an excuse to generate a novel anthology of interesting Sun material. On that level, however, it certainly succeeds, mixing material by icons like Perkins, Lewis, Rich, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison with names known primarily or exclusively to collectors, whether Billy Lee Riley or guys who make Riley seem familiar, like Jimmy Williams and Vernon Taylor. Give the compilers credit, however, for largely opting for off-the-beaten tracks by the bigger artists, and sometimes choosing alternate takes (including for two of the most famous songs here, Perkins’s “Boppin’ the Blues” and Rich’s “Lonely Weekends”) instead of the usual hit versions. It’s a good listen, even if I find it a peculiar concept, enhanced by excellent liner notes that focus on the drumming heard on these selections.

SunDrums 

10. Van Morrison, The Authorized Bang Collection (Exile/Legacy). We’re back to primarily-more-of-historical-interest for this three-CD compilation of everything Van Morrison recorded for Bang Records in 1967, when he started a solo career after leaving Them. Except for the hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” I’m actually not that big a fan of this brief transitional era, when Morrison recorded in New York with producer Bert Berns. The material (which do include early versions of a couple Astral Weeks songs) isn’t that great, and while Morrison’s singing is good, the production (as he’s sometimes pointed out, and does again in the liner notes) wasn’t always sympathetic.

van-morrison-bang-cover-square88985424672-5ab8e9d1-8564-4b1e-9ca1-223ee9cba7f5

But if the actual music wasn’t among his very best, the archival packaging here is stellar. The seventeen songs on disc one have been issued in a lot of formats, but this CD uses original stereo and mono mixes. More interestingly, disc two (subtitled “Bang Sessions & Rarities”) has a bunch of previously issued alternate takes, as well as original mono single mixes for the completist. Disc three, the notorious “contractual obligation session” at which Morrison tossed off 31 ditties of less-than-serious song fragments as a kind of up-yours to help get out of his Bang contract, has been issued on previous CDs. Its authorized appearance here is a bit of a surprise given both its marginal quality (not fidelity, which is okay) and Morrison’s likely view of these performances as inessential to his core legacy. But they do make this compilation as complete as possible, though the 1967 date attached to them here seems puzzling, as previous Morrison literature has logically reported that they were cut in 1968 after Berns’s death, when Van was particularly eager to cut his association with Bang.

As another surprise, Morrison himself has the byline on the principal liner notes, which are fairly lengthy and quite interesting. As the notes bearing his credit for The Complete Them 1964-1967 a couple years ago were similarly fine, one wonders if Van might actually have it in him to generate a good memoir covering his entire career.

11. The Beach Boys, Sunshine Tomorrow (Capitol). Something like, but not exactly, an expanded version of Wild Honey, this two-CD compilation is a rather peculiar collection of Beach Boys recordings from mid-to-late 1967 (with one stray live track from 1970). Wild Honey itself is here in a new stereo mix, if that is important to you. The rest of disc one, however, is devoted to previously unreleased Wild Honey outtakes, alternate versions, backing tracks, and “session highlights,” as well a few November 1967 live recordings (along with a 1970 concert version of “Aren’t You Glad”). Disc two mixes Smiley Smile outtakes/alternates/backing tracks—not to be confused with material from the far more ambitious Smile, which preceded Smiley Smile—with more summer/fall 1967 live performances (or “live in the studio” recordings that the band considered overdubbing with crowd noise), as well as a 1967 version of “Surf’s Up.”

1967sunshinetomorrow

What you have here, then, is an extensive document of that half-year or so after Smile was abandoned that the Beach Boys worked together as a real band again, playing their own instruments, rather than supplementing Brian Wilson’s session-player-heavy productions. It would be a more definitive document, of course, if Smiley Smile itself was also included, but that couldn’t have fit onto two CDs. It’s a bit like getting a high-quality bootleg (complete with expert liner notes) of bits and pieces from various sources, many of the non-LP extras sounding incomplete or half-hearted.

If the intention is to argue that the Beach Boys remained at a creative peak after the collapse of Smile, I hate to rain on this beach, but I’m not sold. Aside from its best few songs (the mild hits “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’,” and maybe “Here Comes the Night” and “I Was Made to Love Her”), Wild Honey’s material doesn’t come within hailing distance of their best work during Brian Wilson’s prime.

Wild Honey has been around forever (even on CD), of course, so the main reason to dig into this is for the abundant stash of extras. But the studio outtakes, with some outstanding exceptions like “Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone,” just don’t make for cuts you want to hear after you’ve absorbed their scholarly significance to how the Beach Boys were working in the studio. And the live tapes are, to be harsh, a bit of a damp squib, the band sounding generally thin and sometimes perfunctory, and at times (especially during the live-in-the-studio tapes) not even appearing to take the task too seriously. “Surf’s Up” is good, but that was really a Smile cut, not a post-Smile endeavor. As a ‘60s Beach Boys completist, I’m glad this is out there for purposes of historical research, but it’s really not too exciting on its purely musical merits.

12. Tim Buckley, Venice Mating Call (Manifesto). There have been quite a few live/outtake/demo Buckley releases in the CD era. Indeed, the amount of commercially available material Tim didn’t release during his too-short lifetime now exceeds the considerable running time on the nine studio LPs he put out before his death. The discography balloons quite a bit more with this two-disc set, taken from the same September 1969 gigs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles that yielded the 1994 CD Live at the Troubadour 1969. None of these performances duplicate tracks from the 1994 CD, although some of the songs are the same. Some of the tunes, however, don’t appear on Live at the Troubadour at all, among them such notable ones as “Buzzin’ Fly,” “Lorca,” and one (“(I Wanna) Testify”) that actually doesn’t appear on any other Buckley release.

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As glad as Buckley fans (and I’m one) should be that this is available, it really is for Buckley fans only. Not because it’s deficient, but because Live at the Troubadour 1969 itself gives you a good idea of how he sounded in concert at this juncture in his career. Maybe it’s too harsh to label it more of the same, but it’s not too radically different. As a yet more contentious point, Live at the Troubadour 1969 was not Buckley at his most (or even relatively) accessible, Tim offering long, improv-leaning, jazz-folk workouts that were sometimes as much jams as songs, and not as melodic or craftily arranged as his best late-’60s studio recordings. It’s a little wearying to hear over the course of two CDs, especially if you’ve long digested the similar outings on Live at the Troubadour 1969. And guess what? If you want yet more, the single-disc Greetings from West Hollywood (also released in late 2017) has other previously unreleased recordings from the September 1969 Troubadour gigs, though two of the performances on Greetings from West Hollywood are also heard on the more highly recommended Venice Mating Call. 

13. Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Big Time Operator (Repertoire). Of the three most popular British acts of the mid-1960s to combine soul, rock, and jazz, Zoot Money was a fairly distant third (to Georgie Fame and Graham Bond) in significance. Even more than Bond, he’s barely known in the US—even Bond’s band is known by some as the place where Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce played together before Cream. And though his Big Roll Band was a very popular club act in the UK, they just managed one British hit, and that a fairly mild one (“Big Time Operator,” which made #25 in 1966). They were handicapped by a near-total reliance on covers of American R&B songs (albeit some of which were obscure even in the States), and Money’s raspy voice didn’t rival Britain’s top R&B singers. Even the presence of a young Andy Summers (then known as Andy Somers) on guitar wasn’t too notable, his work with the Big Roll Band being pretty low-key and jazzy.

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Still, the Big Roll Band’s records—and there were a lot of them—were usually at least adequate, and sometimes more exciting than that, especially when Money’s organ and the horns got a chance to stretch out. This four-CD set can’t be faulted for thoroughness, including both of the Big Roll Band’s mid-’60s LPs (one studio and one live); a 1966 live set at the Flamingo in London; their nearly dozen non-LP singles; a couple tracks from a 1964 various-artists album; and four from Money’s 1968 Transition LP (presumably more weren’t included due to lack of space). All of these tracks have come out on previous CDs, though you’d have to be a pretty dedicated collector to already have all of them. But even if you do, there’s a significant bonus with eighteen previously unissued BBC tracks from 1964-67, which include some songs (all covers) not on their other releases.

Even on their few original songs, the Big Roll Band weren’t too memorable or groundbreaking. An exception is the obscure 1967 B-side “I Really Learnt How to Cry,” a Money-Summers original in which they finally move from fairly conventional R&B to something more melodically adventurous and personal, with an intricate classical-flavored guitar break. You also hear this on one of the Transition tracks, “Coffee Song” (more famous via its earlier, less subtle cover by Cream), though this was written by non-Big Rollers Tony Colton and Ray Smith. Money’s best track of the 1960s, the superb psychedelic early Pink Floyd-ish “Madman Running Through the Fields” (issued in 1967 during the brief time Money and Summers formed the band Dantalian’s Chariot), actually isn’t here—though fortunately it, its B-side, and other tracks Dantalian’s Chariot recorded for an unreleased album, were issued back in 1996 on the Chariot Rising CD. (A longer review of this album, along with my recent interview with Zoot Money, will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

14. The Beatles, The Christmas Records (Apple). The seven Christmas discs the Beatles made available only through their fan club from 1963-1969 have been bootlegged forever, and it’s unlikely many serious collectors of the group don’t already have these recordings in some format. It’s also true that while these seven-inch flexidiscs were amusing to some degree, they weren’t (unlike almost everything they released to the general public) brilliant art, mixing comic sketches with occasional not-so-serious musical ditties. And it can’t be denied that this seven-inch-sized box of all the singles is expensive, retailing for about $73 (not including shipping) online. Although it’s marketed as a “limited edition,” I can’t find any source that details how limited it is.

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Now that I’ve dumped all the negatives in the lead paragraph, I can add that the packaging is very good, presenting each disc as a vinyl seven-inch single with the original artwork (which got quite florid from 1966 onward). The booklet has some brief historical liner notes, but also reproduces the fan club newsletters sent with the 1963-67 discs. And as I wrote in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, it’s striking how the material, “as much as any compilation of actual 1963–1969 Beatles tracks, reflects their changing characters, images, and even (to a limited degree) music and studio experimentation. Initially just a vehicle for a more-or-less standard Christmas greeting, even by the mid-’60s they were restlessly expanding beyond the limitations of their initial wholesome moptopness. Becoming increasingly less concerned with keeping up appearances, the ‘messages’ became more and more sardonically humorous, the ‘music,’ ‘sketches,’ special effects, and editing progressively odder, even avant-garde at times.” And now it’s commercially available to everyone, filling in a notable if minor gap in their official discography.

15. The Monks, Hamburg Recordings 1967 (Third Man). Getting deeper into primarily-of-historical-interest territory, this EP is of more value for the light it sheds on a cult act’s history than its actual contents. Not discovered until shortly before this release, these five previously unissued 1967 recordings were cut not long before the Monks—a group whose legend rests primarily on their furious minimalist pre-punk 1966 Black Monk LP—broke up. “I’m Watching You,” an outtake from the sessions from their final single, indicates there might have been a way for the Monks to maintain their eccentric ferocity while expanding their melodic boundaries, even if it sounds like a rather incongruous blend of pounding garage rocker and spacy, more psychedelic bridge. The other four tracks, cut at Hamburg’s Top Ten club later that year, are less promising attempts to meld the Monks’ trademark stiff rhythms with a poppier sensibility; the best of them, the moody “Yellow Grass,” is sadly unfinished, lacking vocals.

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16. Various Artists, West Coast Nuggets: Transparent Days (Rhino). A double-LP vinyl release of thirty rarities from 1965-1968, mostly though not always from California, stretching all the way from Vancouver to San Diego. One side’s devoted to garage rock, one to folk-rock, one to psychedelia, and one to pop-rock. It’s doubtful that anyone but compiler Alec Palao has all of these in their original form, ranging as they do from the roaring Marin County garage rock of the Front Line’s “Got Love” to an unreleased 1966 demo of Beau Brummels guitarist/chief songwriter Ron Elliott doing “Candlestickmaker” (later reworked on the title track of his 1970 solo LP). Even the few relatively well known groups, like the Electric Prunes, Love, and the Music Machine, are usually represented by non-LP singles and rarities. Unlike other volumes in the various iterations of the Nuggets series stretching back to the Elektra double LP of the same name back in 1972, its scope is limited to acts from the Warner Brothers-controlled catalog. It’s not as knockout as the most celebrated Nuggets collections, but is extremely diverse and bound to have some items that even big collectors of the era and region haven’t heard.

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17. Neil Young, Hitchhiker (Reprise). At the opposite end of the pole from the Monks, we have an album of previously unreleased material by a very famous artist, not a cult one, that also makes the list more for historical interest than the music it contains. Not that it’s bad—far from it. Recorded in a single night on August 11, 1976, this has solo acoustic versions of songs that would, for the most part, be re-recorded for 1977-1980 albums (though the title track wasn’t issued in an officially reworked version until 2010, and two songs, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength,” were previously unreleased). “Pocahantas,” “Powderfinger,” “Campaigner,” and “Human Highway” are among the most famous of these tunes; “Campaigner” is actually the same performance as the one on Decade, but has an extra verse that appeared on a German release and test pressing.

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It’s always nice to hear Neil Young unplugged, as you can on archival releases and bootlegs of concerts going back to the mid-‘60s. I wouldn’t count these among his best compositions, however, and there’s a similarity to some of the melodies that tends to make the songs blend into each other. It’s a minor, pleasant addition to the huge Young canon, but not a significant statement as a standalone album. A more significant unreleased Young LP from the 1970s is the legendary Homegrown, recorded in late 1974 and early 1975, and almost released before Young decided to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. What is he waiting for?

18. Doctor Ross, Memphis Breakdown (ORG). Doctor Ross is one of those guys I’ve heard a few tracks from on various compilations, but I’ve never heard an entire collection of his work until this one. This anthology of fourteen sides recorded for Sun Records in the early to mid-1950s actually has the exact same recordings, in the same sequence, as a 1987 LP of the same title. There’s also a considerably more extensive compilation of his Sun work on Bear Family, on the 2013 CD Juke Box Boogie: The Sun Years Plus. For those reasons, this doesn’t get a higher position on this list. Nonetheless, it’s still brash early city blues—not full-tilt electric, but certainly far more urban than pre-‘50s country blues, with propulsive drive and some electric guitar, harmonica, and percussion. The most familiar song here is “Cat’s Squirrel,” covered by Cream on their first album, though they seem to have modeled their version on a more developed subsequent rendition Ross did for Fortune.

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19. Various Artists, Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts (Bear Family). Shortly after Woody Guthrie’s death from Huntington’s Disease on October 3, 1967, tribute concerts were organized at New York’s Carnegie Hall to benefit research into the illness. Both shows took place on January 20, 1968, and a similar benefit/tribute was staged at the Hollywood Bowl on September 12, 1970. Excerpts from both the New York and Hollywood concerts were released on a two-volume set in 1972, and now have been expanded into this three-CD box, which includes quite a bit of unreleased material. More than any other item on this list, this makes the cut more for its historical interest than its music, as this was more notable as an event than as a showcase for memorable performances.

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The 1968 shows featured Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger. All of them did reasonable unplugged covers of various Woody songs, Paxton’s “Pastures of Plenty” perhaps coming off best, though none of these tracks were career highlights. The real reason these recordings are remembered is the surprise appearance of a superstar who hadn’t played onstage for more than a year and a half. Backed by the soon-to-be-Band (who’d soon record their debut LP), Bob Dylan delivered breezily confident versions of “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and the most obscure of the three Guthrie tunes he covered, “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt.” While these are by no means among the best of his ‘60s rock tracks, in this context they’re clear highlights, fairly rocking the house in the midst of this otherwise rather sedate presentation (linked by stilted onstage narration from actors Robert Ryan and Will Geer). These cuts are actually more polished and focused than most of The Basement Tapes, and one wonders what kind of concert Dylan and the Band could have done at this time focusing on original material, though this would not come to pass.

Some of the same acts (Arlo Guthrie, Seeger, Havens, and Odetta) were also part of the Hollywood Bowl bill, joined by Country McDonald, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joan Baez. Again, these performances (Baez’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” being a standout) are neither disappointing nor electrifying—although this time around, more had full-band arrangements (the backup musicians including Ry Cooder and sometime Flying Burrito Brothers Chris Ethridge and Gib Guilbeau). Again there’s narration (by Geer and Peter Fonda) that, while important to preserve as a document of the event, dampens the momentum of the listening experience.

As usual, Bear Family goes the extra mile and then some in the packaging. The label dug up around a couple dozen unissued tracks, though none of them are by Dylan, and most are from the Hollywood Bowl performances (tapes couldn’t be located for some other songs known to have been played). There’s also a 160-page hardback book of liner notes, and a hardback 85-page replica of The TRO Woody Guthrie Concert Book, a songbook-with-photos companion to the concerts that was originally issued in 1972. As with some other Bear Family boxes, the book of liners is in some ways more interesting than the CDs, with detailed memories from the participants; vintage photos from the shows; and reprints of programs, tickets, newspaper reviews, posters, and original manuscripts of Woody Guthrie lyrics. Bonus tracks on the third CD include interview excerpts with some of the performers about the concerts, and the long-winded seven-minute poem Dylan recited at his April 12, 1963 concert at New York’s Town Hall, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” (though that was previously released on his 1991 box The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3). (My fuller review of this box will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

The following four records came out in 2016, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t hear them in time to put them on my 2016 list.

1. Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos, Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul 1963-1969 (Knitting Factory, 2016). This observation isn’t going to fly well with some Fela fans, but his Afrobeat recordings — and I’ve heard about a dozen albums of them, spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s — aren’t the most varied musical endeavors. Often it seems as though you can chart the peaks and buildups of his lengthy tracks as though they were following similar graphs. If you prefer more heterogeneity in your sounds, you might prefer, as I do, this three-CD set of his earlier work. Taken from singles, his first studio album, the slightly lo-fi concert LP Afro Beat Live, and other recordings, it in some ways finds him evolving toward the Afrobeat style. But it also, as its title indicates, has a fair amount of soul, jazz, and highlife, sometimes instrumental, sometimes with English lyrics. The songs are usually in the three-to-five-minute range instead of groove-oriented workouts, and they’re fairly diverse, with some great weird slightly dissonant (or are they actually slightly out of tune?) horn lines. They’re also fairly different from the non-African soul and jazz he was clearly influenced by, mixing in a lot of African influences and his own originality. There’s plenty of uplifting energy throughout this extensive compilation, which has value far exceeding its historical documentation of Fela’s pre-Afrobeat roots.

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2. Bob Dylan, The 1966 Live Recordings (Columbia/Legacy, 2016). Even if I’d obtained this 36-CD box set before 2016 ended (I admit I didn’t), it’s doubtful I could have listened to the whole thing before I compiled my best-of list for that year, as it was issued November 11. Even some people I know who bought it upon release haven’t gotten through everything. I have, and you don’t have to hear it to know that, even if you’re a Dylan fan, you have to be extremely committed to hear the entire production. Including much or the entirety of many shows from his 1966 tour, the set list rarely varies. So you hear well over a dozen of these concerts in part or full, usually in excellent sound, though a few lo-fi audience recordings are placed on the final discs.

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Especially since one of the best of these shows came out in 1998 as The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (though it was actually recorded in Manchester), this is really more of an extensive historical document than a pleasure cruise. Of course, this was about the most historic rock tour ever, with Dylan encountering some controversy and occasional audience hostility for playing loud rock music with future members of the Band, even though he split his sets into acoustic and electric halves. If you’ve heard the Manchester set over and over (as many have, since it was bootlegged for decades before its official release), the primary interest lies not in the music, which is rather similar (if passionately delivered) from date to date. It’s in the audience reaction, which isn’t as negative as has often been reported, with a clear majority applauding the electric rock numbers.

However, the objections of the small minority of hecklers are very vocal and nasty, especially in his UK concerts. That leads to some strange, at times impenetrably indistinct stoned-sounding spoken introductions and comments from Dylan. One of his between-song ramblings at his final London concert goes on for several minutes, and Dylan’s not noted for such extensive on-stage banter. For those who do want to focus on the music, it’s good, though one wishes his electric version of “Positively 4th Street” was taped more than once in good fidelity (as it was for the first concert preserved here, in Sydney on April 13, 1966). Other than that, the main variation in the electric sets is in the tempos and some vocal nuances, though he and the soon-to-be-band (then still the Hawks) clearly settle in and get more comfortable the more the tour progresses. If you want detailed analysis of the tour and the recordings, Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin supplies it with his 2016 book Judas!: From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall: A Historical Overview of the Big Boo.

3. The Zombies, The BBC Radio Sessions (Varese Vintage, 2016). Is this double CD good value if you’re the kind of Zombies fan who wants to have everything they did? No; there are just seven unreleased tracks, one of which is an interview, another of which is a third version of “Tell Her No.” Is it still a good listen, especially judged against a rather shallow pool of reissues of specific interest to me? Sure, and it’s enhanced by good thorough notes by Andrew Sandoval. The Zombies’ greatest strength was their moody, often minor-keyed original material, so in a sense it’s a shame that the majority of this features covers of American R&B/soul material, at which they weren’t as skilled interpreters as, say, the Beatles or Rolling Stones. On the other hand, many of these covers didn’t make it onto Zombies studio releases, so this gives you the chance to hear otherwise unavailable songs. Although a few of the bluesiest items are awkward, generally these cuts are pretty good, the clear highlight being their almost eerie reading of “The Look of Love.” As is par for most BBC sessions, the performances of the originals aren’t as strong as the studio versions, but there are some good ones here, including some neglected flop singles and B-sides like “Just Out of Reach,” “I Must Move,” and “Whenever You’re Ready.”

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4. Various Artists, Spiritual Jazz 7 (Jazzman, 2016). Sometimes a reissue’s interesting, or certainly offbeat, enough to merit a place on lists like these even if it’s in a genre that’s not my main passion. Qualifying on those grounds is Spiritual Jazz 7, subtitled “modal, esoteric & progressive jazz inspired by Islam 1957-1989.” (There seems to be a typo there, as one of the track’s from 1999.) There are a few prominent names here (most notably Yusef Lateef and Pharoah Sanders), but few of them are too familiar, and probably some of them aren’t likely to have been heard even by listeners with big jazz collections. The Islam content isn’t too overt, even on the tracks with vocals; the spiritual inspiration, whether for these specific cuts or for the musicians’ lives and art in general, is spelled out more explicitly in the extensive liner notes. The religious dimension aside, it’s a varied collection of progressive jazz over a period of a half century, more than half of it hailing from the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the material’s damned obscure, and/or from damned obscure small labels, one (the Lightmen’s “All Praises to Allah (Pts. I & II)”) even sourced from a seven-inch single on the drummer’s Lightin’ imprint.

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Top 25 (Almost) Rock Books of 2017

There wasn’t any particular trend in the rock books I liked well enough to list here from the past year, except that there were a lot of them. Biographies, memoirs, genre overviews, journalism-on-rock-journalism, oral histories, volumes on non-rock musicians who made some impact on rock and pop—all are represented below. And there were quite a few others I read, or gave a try, that I didn’t think good enough to make the cut.

My choice for the #1 rock book of the year in 2017.

My choice for the #1 rock book of the year in 2017.

I still ended up with nearly 25 books worth writing about, plus about half a dozen from 2016 I didn’t read until the following year. One slight oddity is that in all four of the annual book lists since I’ve started this blog, the #1 choice has gone to a British author, as it does in the volume that leads off my 2017-best of.

1. Roots, Radicals and Rockers, by Billy Bragg (Faber & Faber). Subtitled “How Skiffle Changed the World,” on its most valuable level this serves as a fine history of skiffle, the peculiarly British mixture of folk, blues, country, and DIY amateurism that helped revolutionize UK music in the 1950s. More subtly, this connects the dots linking skiffle to previous roots music movements (in the decade following World War II) in the country’s traditional jazz revival, and to the first generation of British rockers it helped inspire, first in the late 1950s and then (far more meaningfully) in the mid-1960s, when teenagers who’d graduated from skiffle to rock launched the British Invasion. Such links aren’t always so easy to hear in skiffle itself, especially to American ears, to whom trad jazz and skiffle sound both unlike British Invasion music and rather tame when compared to the best US jazz, blues, and folk.

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But whatever you think of skiffle (and I—as one of the few Americans, I’m guessing, who owns a skiffle box set—am not much of a fan), this is an interesting and well written document of a revolution that was both social and musical. Bragg also draws in the rise of the British teenager, the stirrings of a British folk revival, the emergence of television, and other non-strictly-skiffle subjects without either detouring from or overextending the reach of the book’s main subject. Although Bragg’s more known as a musician than a writer, it’s a serious volume that (unlike many books by celebrities) is not inappropriately self-referential and is diligently researched, even if many of skiffle’s key figures are no longer alive to be interviewed. It deserves the wide acclaim it’s received, though if you like it, be aware you should also check out Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation (Rogan House, 2007), a fine hefty volume that takes a wider view of 1950s British music.

2. In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett, by Tony Fletcher (Oxford University Press). Until this book, Wilson Pickett was one of the few remaining giants of soul music who hadn’t been honored with a decent biography. This is it, Fletcher doing his expected good job in interviewing plenty of associates, researching Pickett’s recordings in depth, and giving more detailed description of the singer’s records and music than most soul biographers do (even of the turkey discs Pickett cut after the early 1970s). Although he had a volatile personal life and temper, Pickett’s life wasn’t quite as interesting and dramatic as some of the legends he approached but didn’t match in influence, like James Brown, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin. Yet if his story isn’t as epochal, it’s not apt to be told better than it is here. For those (like myself) who notice such items, the two eight-page spreads of pictures are better than average than they are for such things, including some seldom seen photos of Pickett in the studio, onstage, and with family.

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3. Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, by Woody Woodmansey with Joel McIver (St. Martin’s Press). Woodmansey was the drummer in David Bowie’s band the Spiders from Mars for about three years at the beginning of the 1970s—still the most celebrated period of Bowie’s career. From the larger-than-average size of the type, I was braced for the kind of superficial memoir you get from many notable associates who weren’t stars. But this is a pretty good breezy read, justly focusing on those Spiders from Mars years, though there’s some background on his earlier experiences and a bit on the post-Bowie times. He could be bitter considering he was unceremoniously dumped from the Spiders right after Bowie’s short-lived “retirement” in mid-1973, and given the news on his wedding day. But he looks back on the era with equanimity, and goes over almost all the Bowie records on which he played track by track.

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Refreshingly, Woodmansey also has quite a bit to say about how he played drums on these, changing his style to integrate himself into the songs (and Bowie’s own swiftly mutating personas) as suitable. There’s some sex (and yet less drugs), but the spotlight is very much on the music and their fairly fast, though hard-earned, rise to stardom. The sections on his post-’70s activities (including a reunion with bassist/producer Tony Visconti as part of a sort of The Man Who Sold the World tribute band) aren’t very interesting, but the great bulk of the book is directly Bowie-related, and is recommended reading for Bowie fans.

4. Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green, by Jimmy McDonough (Da Capo). A la the Wilson Pickett bio reviewed above, it’s hard to believe this is the first decent book on this soul giant. In part that’s probably because Green’s life is daunting to research given his enigmatic behavior; the proliferation of murky incidents dotting his history; and the inaccessibility of the still-living Al himself, who did not grant interviews for this volume. McDonough did speak with many people who’ve worked and known Green, however, including many involved in the Hi record label for which he cut the hit records for which he’s most famed.

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It’s a story full of many twists and achievements that are hard and sometimes impossible to unravel, given the many different accounts and perspectives given by associates and Green himself. As is proper, his post-’70s work gets much less space than his prime, though McDonough does not, unlike many biographers, make excuses for or build up his subject’s many subpar post-peak records. Sometimes the author’s style is overly flippant and glib; otherwise this might have ranked higher on this list. But this is a very interesting and deeply researched book, covering his move into gospel and preaching, and his complicated relationships (including comprehensive reporting of the incident in which a woman scalded him before shooting herself) as well as his music.

5. Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics, by Jean R. Freedman (University of Illinois Press). Although she’s seldom gotten attention from the pop mainstream, Peggy Seeger’s had a pretty interesting life, as well as doing significant music as part of the first family of sorts of American folk, also including half-brother Pete and brother Mike. Written with access to Peggy, this is a thoroughly researched account of her improbable journey, in which she spent much of her life in the UK as partner to Ewan MacColl, a key figure in the British folk revival. Unlike a good number of thoroughly researched accounts on university presses, it’s also a pretty accessible, entertaining read, without sacrificing depth of detail and analysis.

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The child of musical academics who played their own large parts in popularizing folk music, Seeger left Radcliffe to travel around Europe and perform after growing up in a more or less middle-class household – itself pretty unusual for a young woman in the mid-1950s. Happenstance led her to London and an affair with then-married MacColl, culminating in her becoming a British citizen and spending most of the next few decades abroad. Her story’s interesting enough on musical terms, which found her performing the original version of MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face” (inspired by Seeger) and writing a well known feminist anthem, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer.” But it’s also notable for its many intersections with currents that helped shape the music and culture of the 1950s and 1960s, including the staunch leftism and sometimes off-putting musical purism of the British folk revival; the harassment undergone by many US musicians for their left-wing associations; the couple’s use of radio to tell stories of the working class mixing music and social commentary; and her celebrated colorful, if sometimes instable, family life, both before and during her relationship with MacColl.

Inevitably, the story gets less interesting in the last third or so of the book after the early 1970s, when the folk revival’s influence and audience shrank. I also would have liked more coverage of Seeger and MacColl’s relations with record labels, which saw Peggy record (with MacColl and on her own) an astonishing wealth of discs that continues to the present day. On the whole, however, it’s a high-quality biography that’s superior to Seeger’s disappointing memoir, which appeared later in 2017.

6. American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank, by RJ Smith (Da Capo). Strictly speaking, this isn’t a music book, as Robert Frank is a photographer and filmmaker. However, his work did overlap significantly with the musical world, most notoriously in his still-officially-unreleased documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour, Cocksucker Blues. He also co-directed a 1959 short based on beatnik life (including Allen Ginsberg), Pull My Daisy, that had music by jazz musician David Amram. And a more obscure 1988 film he co-directed, Candy Mountain, had a music-centered plot, with a cast including Tom Waits. He remains most known, however, for his photography, especially his late-’50s book The Americans, but also for his work used on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

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Now that my first paragraph’s justified its inclusion, it’s time to emphasize that it’s a very good book, especially given that Frank has been pretty reticent about reflecting on his career in the media (and did not grant interviews to the author of this volume). It’s extensively researched, however, and for the most part gripping, starting with Frank’s difficult youth and early adulthood as a Swiss Jew during World War II. Frank made a career out of doing the unexpected and uncommercial, and was an innovator both in his gritty techniques and in choosing unconventional subjects that often did not reflect on the United States in a flattering manner. While his years as a filmmaker did not match his photographic work in influence, these too were idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, sometimes apparently in willful avoidance of putting his professional livelihood on a steady footing.  As a reminder that it could be rough sailing in the publishing world almost sixty years ago, The Americans, now considered a core classic of photography, was remaindered the year following its initial release.

If you’re more interested in his work with the Stones than anything else, that’s covered in much detail here, though it’s just one section of a lengthy book. It is interesting to hear speculation that Cocksucker Blues was not released because the Stones were concerned that its depiction of drug use would imperil Keith Richards at a time when he was in danger of going to jail in Canada on drug charges. (It should be noted that Frank had been working on the 1972 footage for almost five years at that point, and might have stood a better chance of getting it into circulation had he kept to a more conventional schedule.)

Bill Wyman, not known as the most colorful interviewee in the Stones, had this refreshingly irreverent take on the matter (quoted in the book with attribution, though not from one of the author’s interviews): “I thought it was a piece of shit, actually. It was so amateur and poorly done. I just couldn’t relate to it. [Robert Frank] was obviously just looking for anything sensational. That’s why me and Charlie [Watts] are hardly in it, because we weren’t sensational. All the good bits, I thought, were cut out. It was just like a poor home movie, shot badly.”

The book as a whole, however, is likely to be appreciated by many people with an interest in the visual arts and popular culture, not just Stones fans. Here’s one thing it does have in common with many popular music books, however. It kind of peters out in the final sections, as Frank (still alive at the age of 93 at this writing) hasn’t done too  much in the past few decades, and the narrative gets both less interesting and jumps around more loosely between different eras and disparate events. This isn’t that huge an error, but it’s also unfortunate it repeats the too-often-stated-as-fact myth that the Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil” when a murder took place at Altamont (they were actually doing “Under My Thumb”).

7. Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970, by Richard Morton Jack (Sterling). An engaging, finely designed 250-page coffee table survey of top psychedelic rock LPs. Each of the 101 albums gets a two-page spread of its own, with a detailed one-page review and a nearly full-page reproduction of the LP under discussion (with the back covers sometimes reproduced as well). There are also plenty of uncommon photos and ads, some from the author’s own extensive personal collection.

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As the introduction acknowledges, whittling down such a fertile genre to a mere 101 selections is bound to stir the ire of psych-heads, all of whom would pick different favorites. But it should be stressed that in addition to expected classics like Sgt. Pepper and The Doors, the book also features a great number of obscure albums that are virtually ignored by all other histories of the period getting published around the 50th anniversary of the summer of love. Blossom Toes, Silver Apples, Mad River, the C.A. Quintet, Tomorrow, the Deviants, and H.P. Lovecraft are all here, as are some even more obscure acts like the David, Ill Wind, and Dragonfly. There are also a few picks from outside the US and UK, like the Churchills (Israel), Traffic Sound (Peru), Os Mutantes (Brazil), and Group 1850 (Holland).

The book’s greatest virtue is not its admirably wide-ranging coverage, but its crisply written histories of these records, which combine enthusiastic description and astute critical appraisal. The author draws upon a wealth of vintage quotes from dozens of publications, some quite hard to find and rarely cited by other critics, such as Mojo Navigator, Top Pops, Flower Scene, KRLA Beat, and Fusion. There’s also first-hand material from interviews he conducted with dozens of the musicians. Special sections on UK/US music publications of the time, the best non-LP psychedelic singles, late-’60s rock festivals, and psychedelic rock on film add to the fun. No doubt many would wish Richard Morton Jack was able to pick 201 or even 1001 psychedelic LPs, or at least that he has the opportunity to do a sequel. As it is, however, Psychedelia pulls off the rare feat of both serving as a fine introductory survey of many (if hardly every) notable psychedelic albums, and entertaining and offering some new information even to acid rock experts. (A longer version of this reissue appears in issue #45 of Ugly Things.)

8. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, by Jonathan Gould (Crown Archetype). There were a couple previous biographies of Redding, one of them (Mark Ribowsky’s Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul) just a couple years older than this one. (See #16 in http://www.richieunterberger.com/wordpress/top-twenty-rock-history-books-of-2015/ for my review of that.) So could there be that much more to add? No, but this does have some pluses over Dreams to Remember, with some more depth (running about 500 pages) and very detailed, acute critical description of Redding’s records.

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There are some minuses, too. The earlier parts of the book are overcontextualized, with a lot of passages about the general history of R&B, soul, and southern black life that don’t refer to Otis at all, and could have been removed or trimmed way down. There are entire (albeit short) chapters, for instance, on Ray Charles and Specialty Records, and these subjects aren’t such a strong part of Redding’s story that they deserve those sections. Fortunately, the book focuses more and more on Otis as it progresses, and almost solely on the singer for the most interesting part of his life, when his recording career picked up steam in his last few years. The only real dirt not widely known (though it has come to light elsewhere as well) is Redding’s involvement in a 1964 shooting that could have led to an attempted murder charge. This is detailed but not sensationalized, the text properly concentrating on his music and professional accomplishments.

9. Byrds: Requiem For the Timeless Vol. 2, by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House). If you thought Johnny Rogan’s epic 1200-page Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 1 was the last word for the matter, think again. For Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 2, Rogan combines six biographies of varying length into one, devoting different sections to the lives and pre- and post-Byrds careers of the members who are no longer alive: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, and Skip Battin. It runs to 1248 pages – and that’s not a misprint, although the last 200 are taken up by an extensive discography and index. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Rogan’s work (also including large volumes on Van Morrison and the Kinks/Ray Davies) that it’s a thorough enterprise, drawing on scores of first-hand interviews and unearthing quite a bit of obscure information and perspectives.

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The most interesting parts, alas, are the ones falling closest to when these guys were actually in the band. Gene Clark has the longest of the six chapters – it’s a full book in itself, really, at 400 pages – and it’s the best section, covering his pre-Byrds days in the New Christy Minstrels and his many solo projects. Clark fanatics will be fascinated to hear of unreleased tracks like “Don’t You Know What You Want” (demoed for CBS, but never released, by girl duo the Cookie Fairies in spring 1966) and the apparently different 1965 song “That’s What You Want,” demoed by Gene himself in a solo acoustic version. Everyone will be dejected to read his long spiral into commercial obscurity and health problems, culminating in an early death in 1991.

Gram Parsons has been covered extensively in other books and documentaries, but Rogan does add some spice to Gram’s story with a lot of details on the guitarist’s myriad of pre-Byrds projects, as well as unexpected associations like a session the embryonic Flying Burrito Brothers did with Jesse Ed Davis. There’s also the dirt on an uncompleted Melcher-produced early-’70s Parsons solo album, during which Melcher threw up in A&M executive Jerry Moss’s brand new custom-made Yamaha piano. Clarence White has not been as extensively documented, despite gaining his own cult following for his country-rock guitar work. Rogan again fills in a lot of blanks about his pre-Byrds days, transition from bluegrass to electric rock, and personal life, which like Parsons’s ended prematurely in 1973.

There’s less to say about the creativity of the other three Byrds covered. Original drummer Michael Clarke didn’t write much for the Byrds or sing, though he comes off as an affable happy-go-lucky sort whose drumming was underrated. Kevin Kelley, drummer for much of 1968 (and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album) before pretty much vanishing from the public eye, is granted the slimmest portion of text, though there’s still room for plenty of interesting stories about the Rising Sons (where he played alongside Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder and was produced by Terry Melcher).

Skip Battin, Byrds bassist from 1969-73, might be the least popular member of the group among fans, in part because the songs he wrote for them (some composed with Kim Fowley) were often considered ill-fitting or subpar. Yet his chapter is more interesting than you might expect, in large part because much of it’s devoted to his tangled and quite unusual pre-Byrds history. After a couple hits as part of Skip & Flip in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he—like, in a different way, Kim Fowley—spent a decade throwing a smorgasbord against the wall in hopes that a plate or two would stick, including some mid-’60s folk-rock with Steve Young and Van Dyke Parks; a short-lived band with ex-Leaves guitarist Bobby Arlin; and a weird late-’60s LP with Evergreen Blueshoes.

All six of these Byrds’ demises are recounted in detail, and that’s part of the reason this isn’t as engrossing, or certainly as uplifting, as part one of Rogan’s Byrds history. This isn’t solely because reading about unchecked substance abuse and its morbid consequences can make for tough, even glum reading. Save for White (killed by a driver while loading equipment in 1973) and Parsons, these guys spent literally decades playing a post-Byrds bar band/nostalgia circuit (sometimes as part of dubious semi-Byrds reunion/tributes), issuing poorly distributed indie records barely anyone heard, and coping with drastically dwindling financial resources.

Rogan valiantly makes the best of some of their efforts, but it’s simply not nearly as exciting to read about them as it is about the Byrds’ remarkable accomplishments in the ‘60s. It’s yet less exciting to plow through the hassles with club promoters, the squabbles over rights to use the Byrds name, and fights over the estates that also plagued some ex-members. Not as essential as its predecessor, Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 2 nonetheless digs up an abundance of material Byrds fans will judge essential, explicated by dozens of pages of footnotes, some of them quite fascinating in and of themselves. (My fuller review of this book appears in issue #46 of Ugly Things.)

10. In the Wings: My Life with Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, by Ianthe McGuinn (New Haven Publishing). As Roger McGuinn’s girlfriend and then wife from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Ianthe McGuinn bore two of his children; knew all of his fellow Byrds, often attending shows and sometimes going to recording sessions; and encountered quite a few other Hollywood celebrities in the band’s circle before the marriage ended. So her memoir’s of considerable interest to Byrds fans, and thankfully not the catalog of complaints some other ex-rock spouses’ books have been. Sure, the relationship was rocky; it ended after she caught McGuinn in bed with Roger’s next wife at their road manager’s home. But Ianthe is also appreciative of her ex’s better qualities, including the music he made, which she often writes about in this appropriately concise volume.

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There’s plenty of interesting trivia, from where the dialogue for “2-4-2 Foxtrot” was recorded to the revelation that “I See You” was written about a one-night stand McGuinn had with a young girl on the band’s first British tour. But there’s also useful insight from someone who knew McGuinn as well as anyone, and also knew the other Byrds and their managers pretty well. When Gene Clark left in early 1966, “David and Jim realized they had to become better collaborators. They jammed more frequently together, sharing song ideas, and they experimented musically with new influences.” Shortly before Crosby was fired the following year, he “went on diatribes about songs-in-progress on [The Notorious Byrd Brothers], in full opposition of ‘Goin’ Back.’ He was surreptitiously exerting his desire to be a leader in the band, wanting to have the final word.” When Crosby was indeed fired shortly afterward, “I felt Roger [as he was by now known] had decided to take control of the group, and I could see that he was joyous.”

Although the Byrds’ post-Crosby years weren’t as interesting as their mid-’60s peak, there are plenty of notable anecdotes from the band’s (and the McGuinn’s marriage’s) latter years. Carl Sagan “was intrigued by Roger’s use of space science and sci-fi in his songwriting,” asking for Byrds albums in exchange for his book Intelligent Life in the Universe, but their management screwed up and didn’t send the LPs. “Jesus Is Just Alright,” one of their strongest tracks from their final years, “was a song that [producer] Terry [Melcher] had bought the publishing rights to,” perhaps explaining at least in part why they recorded this gospel number (though Ianthe does not make this supposition). Coming across Ry Cooder in a line at the DMV, Ry told her, “I can’t believe what the Byrds have done to Clarence White. His character has changed so much. All that drug use is really destroying his talent.”

Dotted with previously unpublished photos of the McGuinns and the Byrds (though they’d benefit from sharper reproduction), In the Wings adds a valuable dimension to the Byrds’ tale. I wrote a longer review of this book, and also interviewed Ianthe McGuinn, in issue #46 of Ugly Things.

11. Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend, by Karen Bartlett (Lesser Gods). Although issued in the UK in 2014, this Dusty Springfield bio didn’t come out in the US until 2017; I can only hope purists don’t think I’ve committed the gravest of sins by thus putting it on this list. Like some other books on Springfield, this focuses more on her (largely gay) sexuality and less on her music than is optimum. But it does pay more attention to her music and recordings than those other volumes, with detailed descriptions of many (yet not all) of her best singles and albums. Some key musical associates weigh in with pretty detailed first-hand recollections, including Mike Hurst of the Springfields, Kiki Dee, Madeline Bell, and producers Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, and Kenny Gamble. So do some ex-lovers, including musicians Julie Felix, Carole Pope (of the group Rough Trade), and Teda Bracci (from the all-women ‘60s San Francisco group the Freudian Slips, though she and Dusty met much later), though not Norma Tanega, who was with Springfield for a few years in the late 1960s.

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Naturally there’s also quite a bit – perhaps a bit too much – on her tumultuous personal life, which saw lengthy struggles with alcoholism, mental problems, and general reckless behavior, particularly after the hits stopped coming and she moved to Los Angeles for much of the 1970s and 1980s. The bulk of the book, however, is on her pre-early ‘70s glory days. The chronology, though generally linear, sometimes wavers a bit, and the coverage of her ‘60s recordings has some gaps; it’s unbelievable that a full-length book doesn’t even mention “The Look of Love,” which was both a pretty big US hit and one of her best tracks. Detailed critical description of Springfield’s records, by the way, are available in Paul Howes’s meticulous The Complete Dusty Springfield (published in 2001), which is recommended to serious Springfield fans.

12. Lightfoot, by Nicholas Jennings (Viking). I like Gordon Lightfoot, most particularly his early work, but he’s never struck me as the most colorful character. If his music’s anything to go by, he’s solid, reliable, and a fine craftsman, but not too quirky or unpredictable. Those assumptions are mostly borne out by this biography, the first thorough one of this Canadian legend. Written with some first-hand input from Lightfoot (though the songwriter still seems fairly guarded and reclusive in what he’s willing to reveal), this is a well-constructed survey of his career, though not likely to surprise or intrigue most non-Lightheads. It covers his beginnings as a struggling country-pop sort of singer to his emergence in the mid-’60s as a significant folk-pop-country singer-songwriter, which saw his most inspiring recordings, though he really didn’t hit mainstream stardom until his big ‘70s hits. Those (“If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) are written about in depth, and Jennings talked to a fair number of Lightfoot’s associates for some perspectives on various eras.

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Still, I was hoping for some more unexpected stories about songs like “I’m Not Sayin’,” along the lines of a passing note that Trevor Lucas toured with Lightfoot in Britain in 1966, perhaps explaining why Fotheringay did Gordon’s “The Way I Feel” a few years later. His management by Albert Grossman (and certainly his parting of ways with Grossman) isn’t much discussed, and more comments by his producers would have been welcome, if they had much to say. Nor is there anything, to pick on one example, on nearly three dozen demos (including a lot of material that would never resurface) that have circulated bearing a mid-’60s date. You do learn about his marriages and serious relationships, most interestingly a lengthy one in the early 1970s with Cathy Smith, most famous for her role in John Belushi’s death (and previous associations with the Band).

In common with many a bio, it loses steam when Lightfoot starts to tread water after the ‘70s. For quite a few years (and in common with many a classic ‘60s/’70s rock musician), he’s been a popular touring act, but has done little in the way of recording and composing. He almost died in the early 2000s (and was mistakenly reported to have died in 2010), but some detours into his passions for canoeing and (as a fan) auto racing make for less exciting detail. When you do make it into the 1980s, however, there’s this priceless aside: “To clear the house after a concert by punk rockers X, staff at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles once played Lightfoot’s music over the sound system, emptying the venue in record time.”

13. Rolling Stones On Air In the Sixties, by Richard Havers (Harper Design). Subtitled TV and Radio History As It Happened, this is a survey of the Stones’ radio and television appearances from 1963-1969. There’s at least some detail (even if it’s just a few words and a listing) about every such known appearance around the world—not just the BBC, Ready Steady Go!, and Ed Sullivan, but local TV appearances in the US, French radio concert broadcasts, performances on Swedish and Australian TV programs, and the like. As a serious Stones fan I’m glad to have this, and the coffee table-sized book is designed well, with plenty of photos and memorabilia, some rare or previously unpublished. It’s a rather peculiarly constructed volume, however, that I would have done differently.

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What such book wouldn’t you have done differently, you’re asking? Fair point, but the level of coverage of these many appearances is variable, and at times unsatisfactorily skimpy. Maybe the author hasn’t been able to hear and see all of the rare material (it’s hard to tell in some cases). But even for some long-bootlegged items like the Europe 1 Radio broadcast of their April 18, 1965 concert at L’Olympia Theatre in Paris, some more actual description of the performances would have been welcome. Although all of the performances (and songs the broadcasts contained) are listed at the end of each chapter, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether specific songs were mimed or live. And unlike some reference-type books of this sort, it’s not organized in strict chronological order with individual entries for each appearance, leading to some mildly confusing back and forth between dates and locations.

The audience for a book like this is limited, but of course if even a small percentage of Stones fans are interested in the subject, that’s a bigger readership than the entire audience for many bands. And I do value learning about things like a March 18, 1964 live broadcast for Radio Luxembourg of more than a dozen tunes that included a song for which no Rolling Stones version circulates (Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing”), or that Brian Jones and Mick Jagger talked about “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on a few Radio 1 shows, though again you’re left hungry for more info about many such rarities. The most notable graphics, incidentally, are reproductions of correspondence from the BBC, including some snarky remarks from early in their career indicating that institution would have been glad to bar them from the airwaves had they not been so popular with teenagers. A particularly telling November 26, 1964 memo from the BBC’s Patrick Newman states, “The agent of the Rolling Stones (Eric Easton) is a jolly nice helpful fellow (who appears to have bitten off more than he can chew in handling this group), whereas the agent for the Animals (Don Arden) is a thoroughly naughty man.”

14. The British Underground Press of the Sixties, by James Birch & Barry Miles (Rocket 88). This handsome hardback is basically a catalogue for an exhibition of covers of British ‘60s underground papers at London’s A22 Gallery in 2017, though with more content and higher production values than many such catalogues boast. It features covers of every issue of some of the most famed underground papers, including Oz, Friends, the related Frendz, the more obscure Ink and Gandalf’s Garden, and the most famous by far of all of these, International Times (commonly known as IT). Some covers of the yet lesser known Black Dwarf are also here, along with some covers of, to quote the back cover, “the major adult comic books that grew out of the underground press: cOZmic Comics and Nasty Tales.”

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While the bulk of the book’s given over to high-quality reproductions of those covers, there are also a few pages of text introducing the section for each paper. These are penned by the biggest authority of all on the topic, Barry Miles, who was heavily involved with International Times as an editor and writer. Inevitably some of his commentary overlaps with his memoir In the Sixties (an expanded edition of which was also just published by Rocket 88, and is reviewed elsewhere in this roundup), particularly in the IT chapter.

The focus of The British Underground Press of the Sixties, however, is on the covers, not the history. Those covers were sometimes psychedelic, sometimes messy, and sometimes garish, but almost always interesting, rather like the rock posters of the era, though they weren’t as classy. Sprinkled among the covers are a few interesting inserts (like the one in a January 1968 Oz advertising Yoko Ono’s Film No. 4) and posters (such as one in an October 1970 Oz for Jimi Hendrix by Mike McInnerney, who did the illustration on the cover of the Who’s Tommy). Appendices reproduce graphics and documents from IT and Oz, like a flyer for the Roundhouse launch concert for IT in late 1966 with the Soft Machine and “the Pink Ffloyd” [sic]; a poster for an “Oz obscenity fund benefit” featuring Traffic and Alexis Korner; and an Apple Records ad for the Elastic Oz Band single to help with Oz’s legal fees, in which John, Yoko, and Ringo participated.

What this book doesn’t feature are reproductions of the articles themselves, many of which included interviews with major and minor rockers that can now be difficult to access, even if IT and Oz are fortunately now archived online. Wouldn’t you love, for instance, to be able to read the story on the seldom-covered Sandy Bull in the October 16, 1970 Friends? Here’s hoping this well done catalogue/book hybrid inspires some other magazines to establish archives, bolstering the visibility of an underground press that, as Miles concludes in his introduction, we need “now more than ever.” (My fuller review of this book will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

15. Lou Reed: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis (Little, Brown). On its own terms, this 500-page biography is a decent book, written by a longtime rock journalist who knew Reed, though he doesn’t falsely position himself as a close buddy. The author interviewed a few dozen people, some who worked closely with Lou, and some of whom haven’t talked much or at all about their experiences with the man, like Richard Mishkin (who was in a college band with Reed and occasionally filled in with the early Velvet Underground); Eddie Reynolds, guitarist in the Tots, who backed Reed onstage in his early solo career; and writer Rob Bowman, who had typically frustrating experiences with Reed when they collaborated on a box set. Every phase of Lou’s career is covered, though the Velvets aren’t investigated as thoroughly as they are in some other books, and there are some intensely detailed track-by-track overviews of post-mid-1970s albums that don’t interest me as records.

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This isn’t as good, however, as the first major Reed biography following Lou’s death, Howard Sounes’s Notes from the Underground: The Life of Lou Reed (issued a couple years ago; see #3 on my post for top twenty rock history books of 2015). That book, which was intensely researched, got some criticism—some of it quite harsh—for putting too much emphasis on Reed’s more irksome qualities, though any book on him would find incidents in which those were evident plentiful. DeCurtis doesn’t paint as negative a picture. But though an introduction fondly looking back upon their friendship steels you for a possible hagiography, the author doesn’t ignore the less appealing aspects of the man, telling many stories of how Reed could be difficult, and at times nasty (and at times kind and generous).

16. Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan (Alfred A. Knopf). This unauthorized biography got some mainstream media attention upon its release, as Rolling Stone editor/publisher Wenner was upset about his unflattering portrayal. One can see why, as he comes off as thoroughly unlikable. According to the accounts of many of the more than 200 people Hagan interviewed, Wenner’s often been greedy, unethical, untrustworthy, and hungry to hang out with and butter up celebrities, sometimes affecting Rolling Stone’s coverage of them. Wenner himself has plenty of time to tell his sides of the stories, as the author interviewed him extensively, in addition to accessing his extensive archive. Still, after the book’s 500 pages, you might have more than you ever needed or wanted to know about a guy whose egotism has sometimes crossed the line into narcissism.

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The book itself is extensively researched and gives a lot of insight into how the rock press and popular culture has changed since Rolling Stone was founded in 1967. About three-fourths of it takes place before 1980 (and the magazine’s steady move toward more mainstream coverage tilted toward non-music celebrities), so there are plenty of good stories about its glory days when it was based in San Francisco, and actually had much groundbreaking content about rock and the counterculture. For all his flaws, Wenner himself made some notable contributions to rock journalism through his own interviews in Rolling Stone’s early years, particularly his marathon conversations with John Lennon and Yoko Ono shortly after the Beatles split. (Wenner then managed to screw up his friendship with Lennon by printing the interviews in book form, against Lennon’s wishes.) If you want more stories about Rolling Stone at its peak, and less on Wenner himself, Robert Draper’s 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine is recommended, though it doesn’t dig as deeply into Wenner’s life (including his homosexuality, which he didn’t publicly acknowledge until the mid-’90s).

17. In the Sixties (Expanded Edition), by Barry Miles (Rocket 88). Barry Miles was perhaps the most vital figure behind the most influential British underground paper, International Times (aka IT); ran the similarly inclined Indica Bookshop, patronized by the Beatles and others; got to know the Beatles (especially Paul McCartney) well, eventually working for their short-lived experimental Zapple label; and also had inside views of the worlds of Pink Floyd, the UFO Club, Allen Ginsberg (and numerous other poets), and Frank Zappa. He documented his experiences during the decade well with his memoir In the Sixties, originally published in 2002.

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Rocket 88’s new expanded edition makes some corrections (though it didn’t catch everything) and adds some text, though the printed material is pretty similar (and reduces the sections on Zapple, now covered in Miles’s full-length 2015 book The Zapple Diaries). Had In the Sixties itself first come out in 2017, it would place higher on this list, as this is in some ways a reprint of a title that’s been around a long time.

The big change—and the major reason to consider getting this edition, if you already have the original—is the addition of hundreds of illustrations. These aren’t crammed into their own separate section, but placed in the wide margins of the pages throughout the book in a visually appealing layout. They include not just photos, but also flyers, business cards, correspondence, press releases, ads, posters, magazine covers, event programs, and the like, many from Miles’s own extensive collection.

These could alone fill up a worthy exhibition catalog, and a couple of paragraphs aren’t enough to list the coolest highlights. Among them are handwritten invitations for Ginsberg’s 39th birthday party; McCartney’s handwritten note listing the first four books he bought from Indica (including poems by the Fugs’ Ed Sanders, Gandhi on Non Violence, and Drugs and the Mind); a Fugs songbook (!), which Miles borrowed from McCartney himself; a two-page color photo spread of an early Pink Floyd gig at All Saint’s Hall; the Soft Machine playing at the International Times launch at the Roundhouse in late 1966; and the catalogue to Yoko Ono’s show at Indica Gallery, where she and John Lennon first met in late 1966.

And there’s more. There’s a picture of the photo shoot for the Sgt. Pepper cover (with Miles in attendance) I don’t remember seeing elsewhere. There’s a congratulatory telegram from George Harrison after Miles interviewed him for IT, and McCartney’s release form for including his signature on the 1967 ad in The Times of London supporting legalization of marijuana. And a poster for the first UFO shows features Pete Townshend’s wife-to-be, Karen Astley.

The Collector’s Edition of the book, incidentally—selling for twice as much (£70) as the standard edition—is signed by Miles with a slip case cover. More notably, it comes with a disc of sound files containing the audio of about five and a half hours of 1967-69 interviews Miles did with McCartney, Harrison, Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Pete Townshend. The audio on these is in variable lo-fi, but the speakers are understandable, and it’s amazing enough that the original cassette tapes survive. Townshend and (at least in parts) Lennon are the most interesting interview subjects, all of the conversations rambling somewhat between music and general discussions of the era’s lifestyles and social climate. Even though articles and transcriptions with a lot of the quotes from these interviews are online, these tapes do include some other material, such as Townshend’s dismissal of Shel Talmy as “a complete shit” and detailed comments on “Cobwebs and Strange” (Keith Moon “would never admit that it was bordering on jazz, but in fact it’s the freest bit of free-form jazz, in a way”). (My fuller review of this book will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

18. Who Wrote the Beatle Songs?, by Todd M. Compton (Pahreah). Generally, you can tell who the main writer was on the Beatles’ songs by who took the lead vocals; on some occasions where the lead vocals are shared, the split between Lennon and McCartney was near half and half. On the many Lennon-McCartney songs where one or the other made minor-to-major contributions even if they weren’t the primary composer, there are interesting stories behind who contributed what, as well as some disparities in accounts of the responsibilities. While this detailed look at who did what doesn’t have information that hasn’t been previously available, it’s intelligently and straightforwardly written, consolidating a lot of the available (and sometimes conflicting) information and quotes into one place.

Compton

Of most use to Beatles aficionados who’ve probably already come across a lot of this stuff (especially in Paul McCartney’s memoir Many Years From Now), it also diligently credits and footnotes the sources for the many accounts as to who did what, ranging from comments at the time the songs were released until memories offered decades later. While Lennon-McCartney songs are the book’s focus, all of George Harrison’s songs for the Beatles (as well as the few Ringo wrote or co-wrote) are also covered, along with some commentary on outtakes, cover versions, and songs written during the Beatles era that showed up on solo releases. The instances – and they weren’t that rare – where one of the Beatles made substantial contributions to a song where they weren’t listed in the credits, and where figures from outside the group (like Donovan and Beatles assistants/roadies) pitched in with ideas that didn’t merit a songwriting credit, are also documented.

19. Liner Notes, by Loudon Wainwright III (Blue Rider Press). The subtitle—”On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things”—clues you in that Wainwright does not take this memoir business as deadly seriously as some stars (or even some cult figures, of which he’s one) do. Like his songs, his prose writing’s witty, sardonic, glib, and not all that concerned with gaining a big audience. Although it follows a roughly chronological progression, it flits back and forth between eras and hither and thither through various themes and subjects, including big ones like marriage, love, sex, and death. And while it’s 300 pages, it’s really not that time-consuming, with plenty of short chapters whose last pages have white space, as well as lots of excerpts from his song lyrics and a few reprints of columns his father wrote for Life.

Wainwright

I could have done without those lyrics and columns, but actually I liked what was here, for the most part. Wainwright has plenty of interesting stories—many of them funny, though he doesn’t overdo the overt humor—about his adolescence, early career, touring, and sideline as an actor. There are also tales aplenty of the seesawing nature of the music business, which has seen him both hyped as one of the next big things and dropped by labels like a cold potato. There are also some more serious thoughts about family and marriages (he’s been through three of them), including stormy times with his first wife, fellow respected cult singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, and less stormy times with his second, Suzzy Roche of the Roches.

I would have liked more introspection about the development of his idiosyncratic style of singer-songwriting, and more about how he hit upon his irreverent take on the genre – he wasn’t just another new Dylan, which is a reason we’re interested in his life in the first place. And if you’re looking for even roughly sequential and detailed remembrances of his most notable albums and film/TV appearances, you’ll find many gaps, though you won’t come up totally empty. Maybe that sort of documentation just isn’t in Wainwright as an autobiographer, or doesn’t interest him. At least what’s here is more entertaining than many memoirs that offer not-exactly-in-order bits of varying size.

20. David Bowie: A Life, by Dylan Jones (Crown Archetype). This isn’t the first or second book you should get about Bowie if you’re looking for a big biography, even though this is 500 pages. If you already do know a lot about him, or even the basics, this is a good if imperfect supplement to the growing wealth of Bowie literature. For it’s not a conventional bio, but an oral history, with a bit (not much) of linking text from author Dylan Jones. Principally drawn from nearly 200 first-hand interviews (including some with Bowie himself, though they don’t dominate), it goes over his whole life and career, though not paying equal attention to each phase of his evolution. Some of the expected close Bowie associates are heard from, including the Spiders from Mars, Angie Bowie, Brian Eno, producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, and longtime sidemen Mike Garson, Earl Slick, and Carlos Alomar. There are also, however, a good many figures who aren’t too well known to the general public, from childhood friends to photographers, directors, journalists, groupies, and some people whose time with the man was peripheral and/or fleeting, but good for a story or two.

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Even if you have a bunch of Bowie books, and/or are generally an expert on the singer, you’re likely to come across some interesting tales and observations. Here are just a few: a groupie on one of his early-’70s tours remembers David’s obsession with Jeff Beck, and confession to her, whether wholehearted or not, that he would have rather had Beck in his band than Mick Ronson. There’s also Bowie’s confession to producer Hugh Padgham that “My voice is actually a complete steal from Scott Walker and Anthony Newley.” And there’s Robert Fripp remembering recording his contributions to Heroes in two or three days, though Eno gives the impression they took even less time.

What’s the downside to this useful compendium? Well, Bowie’s life after 1983 or so wasn’t nearly as interesting as what preceded it, but about forty percent (200 pages) of the book covers that falloff. In this section, you (or at least I) get stories about his art collecting, home in Mustique, and video/photo shoots that really aren’t of high interest. The allotment of coverage is uneven, and not always justified; there’s a whole (if short) chapter on his Live Aid appearance, but nothing at all about Scary Monsters. And the many notes of how charming and down-to-earth he was get tiresome by dint of repetition, though some would say the frequency of that sentiment reinforces how genuine it was. If you want yet more memories of Bowie, the less impressive 2016 book A Portrait of Bowie gives fifteen people a chapter each to comment on the man, though there’s some overlap with David Bowie: A Life both in the associates interviewed and the stories told.

21. I Scare Myself, by Dan Hicks (Jawbone). Hicks’s rather short memoir (about 165 pages not counting some supplements by other writers) is much like the man and his music: nonchalantly dry and mutedly witty. (His assessment of the legendary Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in early 1967: “I only lived a few blocks away. I could’ve walked over, but I was working on some songs, and I guess that event wasn’t a priority for me.”) It’s not a big deal, but it’s also dotted with some minor inaccuracies and chronological misalignments.

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It adds up to a marginal inclusion on this list, but for those familiar with his idiosyncratic cult output, it’s fairly interesting and entertaining, going all the way back to his pre-Charlatans folkie days. Although the Charlatans put out just one single while Hicks was with them (a couple dozen or so tracks are now available on an archival release), his time with that notable early San Francisco hippie band is covered pretty well, as is the transitional time in the late-’60s when he started playing as a solo act. And of course his most celebrated era, the half-dozen or so years as leader of the idiosyncratically country-swing Hot Licks starting in the late ‘60s, gets a good amount of ink.

The book gets more downbeat in its final section, documenting his spiral into alcoholism, which took up most of the next twenty years. And while there are a good amount of interesting stories and ephemera for Hicks/Charlatans/Hot Licks fans, I would have liked at least some introspection into why his music, from the get-go, had a uniquely droll humor – a humor that comes through to some degree in the text, but is oddly not examined in his reflections on his creative work. The wrap-up (by another writer) of his final years isn’t nearly as interesting as the main body of the book, which is fleshed out by a lengthy critical discography and a brief afterword by producer Tommy LiPuma. There are quite a few good pictures (some in color), though, some of them rarely seen.

22. Everything Is Combustible, by Richard Lloyd (Beech Hill). The best part of the ex-Television guitarist’s memoir—and it does comprise well over half the book—focuses on his time in the group, as well as the half dozen or so years leading up to it, when he was an aspiring guitarist who met all sorts of celebrities and got into all sorts of sex and drugs. There’s also a fair amount of extraneous musings about his childhood and outlooks on the world that aren’t nearly as stimulating. And there are also quite a few gaps, and occasional chronological leaps back and forth, in his overview — very little, for instance, on his post-1980s solo career or time in a reformed Rocket From the Tombs.

Lloyd

To be harsh, about 25-30% of the text could have been cut, whether or not some of those gaps were plugged as compensation. If that had been the case, the book would have ranked higher on this list. For when it’s on, it’s really on, with lots of stories about CBGB’s, Marquee Moon, Tom Verlaine (who comes off as an uptight controlling figure for the most part), and founding Television member Richard Hell. And the more interesting the subject matter, the more focused and honed the prose, making this kind of like munching on a watermelon until you hit the juicy core. That makes it a worthwhile but flawed read, Lloyd not particularly mourning his tribulations (which have included near-deaths from substance-related health problems and stints in mental hospitals), but regarding them as parts of life’s journey, to be experienced for their highs and lows. (Lloyd discussed this book and his career with me for my lengthy article on him and his memoir in the December 2017 issue of the UK magazine Record Collector.)

23. Art Sex Music, by Cosey Fanni Tutti (Faber & Faber). This is one of the shakier inclusions on this list, as Tutti’s musical projects (most famously Throbbing Gristle) are not on my playlist, and some of the text dealing with those and her fairly extreme performance/mail art weren’t of too much interest for me. Still, Throbbing Gristle, and the spinoffs in which she and her partner Chris Carter were principals, were a pretty big presence in the underground rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a touchstone of the industrial genre. Tutti writes lucidly and candidly about all of her musical and performance/mail art endeavors, as well as her work as a nude model and stripper. She seemed to have often viewed such work as supplemental art projects in themselves, although they got her into some pretty nasty situations.

Cosey

There will be some surprises to those who know Tutti only from her more notorious, noisy, and confrontational endeavors with Throbbing Gristle and others. One is that, professional activities and sadly cruel father aside, she’s had a fairly conventional family life with Carter and her son, counting tending to her vegetable garden as one of her favorite pastimes. Another is how Throbbing Gristle, for all its noisy industriousness, actually had their roots in the hippie underground of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The saddest is how manipulative, cold, possessive, and vindictive Throbbing Gristle frontperson Genesis P-Orridge was throughout most of his personal and professional relationship with Cosey and the rest of the band, judging by the extensive accounts in this memoir. Their unexpected twenty-first century reunion worked out about as well as most regroupings of volatile bands, at least in terms of the anguish it caused Cosey and Carter, though she somehow manages to take pride in what music they managed to produce in spite of the circumstances.

24. Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe (Sarah Crichton Books). There hadn’t been any first-rate biographies of Mitchell before 2017, and this isn’t one either, although it had more media attention than any previous book on her. Reasonably comprehensive coverage of what happened when, as boring as some authors and critics seem to find it, is the underpinning of any major bio. Reckless Daughter does not have that, with some significant gaps and unsteady nonlinear shifts in the timeline. I’m not a big fan of the author’s style, which can be ornate and a little gushy when it comes to Joni’s virtues.

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The book does have first-hand interview material with dozens of Mitchell’s friends, collaborators, and associates, including some from relatively recent conversations with Joni herself. The interesting stories in some of those propel it onto this list, if only at its bottom. Despite the author’s admiration of her art, Mitchell does not come off as too personally likable or kind, dispensing harsh words (whether directly to Yaffe or via other sources) about the character and/or music of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and second husband/collaborator Larry Klein. As just one example, Mitchell remarks that Collins (whose hit version of “Both Sides Now” was crucial to getting Joni recognized as a major songwriter) “sounds like the damsel in the greenroom. There’s something la-di-da about her.” Notes Collins in the book, “I once asked David Crosby, ‘Why is Joni so mad at me?’ He said, ‘Joni hates everybody.’”

The following half-dozen books came out in 2016, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t read them in time to put them on my 2016 list. I also added just one from 2015 that I didn’t read until this past year.

1. Judas!, by Clinton Heylin (Route, 2016). Heylin might have documented Bob Dylan more thoroughly than any other writer, with books on the artist that include a day-by-day survey and detailed examination of every song he’s written. Judas! focuses only on the year or so between his first electric rock performance (at least his first such one since his teenage years) and the end of his 1966 world tour. That year, from about mid-1965 to mid-1966, was the most controversial of his career, the electric half of his concerts generating mixed reviews and some hostile audience response, even as his rock records made him a superstar.

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The book’s greatest value is in its exhumation of many obscure concert reviews from the time itself, giving us a view of how these shows were received at the time, rather than in retrospect. There’s also plenty of commentary from people who were there and analysis of each concert along the way, as well as some coverage of his studio recordings of the era, though his live work gets the greatest attention. In some of the early sections, the back-and-forth between the live shows, studio sessions, and media coverage is a little jumbled, though that is not a concern once the text gets into 1966. The verging-on-minute detail could limit its appeal for non-fanatics, especially as Dylan didn’t vary his sets much on his world tour, though Heylin always finds something to say (and often enthuse) about the variations. It’s somewhat similar to the 36-CD box The 1966 Live Recordings that came out around the same time as this book in that you’re glad it’s there for reference and historical posterity, but it’s kind of too microscopic in its documentation to be the most entertaining listen or read.

The many quotes from Dylan’s press conferences and interviews during this year sometimes get him hailed as a master of the putdown, but lead me to ask: am I the only one that finds many of his flippant responses (sometimes to fairly reasonable questions) dumb and unfunny? A more basic question: why are none of the pictures in the sixteen pages of photos (some uncommon) captioned?

2. Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul, by Stuart Cosgrove (Polygon, 2016). Divided into twelve chapters for each month of the year, this closely examines the artistically triumphant but internally turbulent year of 1967 at Motown Records. It also weaves in events shaking the Motor City outside of Motown in 1967, particularly Detroit’s summer riots and the police misconduct that led up to it, as well as the boiling local rock underground led by the MC5 and their manager, John Sinclair. It’s best when it closely examines controversial developments at Motown, particularly the firing of Florence Ballard from the Supremes and disputes which led the songwriting/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to leave the label. It’s less successful when it weaves in non-Motown material, particularly the MC5-Sinclair axis, which has been covered better elsewhere. The Motown details are absorbing for the most part, though there are some inaccuracies that shouldn’t have slipped through, especially in some references to non-Motown happenings: Jimi Hendrix did not burn the flag at Woodstock, for one. I got this 2016 book as an import remainder in San Francisco in 2017, but it does not yet seem to have been published in the US.

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3. Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, by Ed Ward (Chicago Review Press, 2016). This is a revised and expanded edition of a 1983 limited-edition biography of the sometimes brilliant, but personally and artistically erratic, guitarist. Bloomfield did his best work in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for a couple years in the mid-1960s, the same time he did his best playing as a sideman (for Bob Dylan). He made some other records in the 1960s that had their moments with the Electric Flag, Al Kooper, and others, but that’s a pretty brief peak for a guy whose career continued until his 1981 death. This bio’s pretty brief too, running about 150 pages (not counting a reprint of a 1968 Rolling Stone interview and a lengthy discography).

Bloomfield

It might not need to be any longer, though, considering it does a decent job of covering the basics, and doesn’t dwell on his long decline longer than necessary. Several (though by no means all) of his close musical and personal associates were interviewed, and there are sharp evaluations of his recordings and influences that properly give the most attention to his playing with Butterfield and Dylan. His problems with drugs, insomnia, and family relationships are detailed but not stretched out, as is his curious lack of ambition after he’d help pioneer loud blues-rock guitar. There were probably more stories that could have been unearthed the book itself been more ambitious – how did he end up playing on a 1971 session with Ann-Margret with members of Little Feat, for instance? And how about more details on his contributions to the 1973 Steelyard Blues soundtrack? Some more info on his life and music is in Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom’s Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, which is a good complement to this more conventionally structured overview.

Speaking of soundtracks, as a minor point, although Bloomfield was credited with scoring Pascal Wexler’s classic 1969 film Medium Cool, there seems to be a misconception that he played all of the music heard in the movie. This book states that “Bloomfield created an ominous surf-guitar instrumental to accompany the film’s opening sequence.” Actually that instrumental was not created by Bloomfield—it’s “Emotions,” a track off of Love’s debut album, which was not that obscure then (though its use in the movie was uncredited) and hasn’t been since. From what I can gather, Bloomfield’s role seems to have been selecting music for use on the soundtrack, rather than actually creating music for that purpose. It’s doubtful there will be any more books on Bloomfield, but his role on Medium Cool should be straightened out, and that instrumental in the title sequence should be properly credited to Love on reissues of the movie itself.

4. India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation, by Sidharth Bhatia (HarperCollins). First published in 2014 in India and issued elsewhere later, this is an overview of the rather small and struggling Indian rock scene from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. As in other regions far both geographically and culturally from North America and the British Isles, Indian rock acts didn’t fully embrace trends until a year or three after they’d passed out of fashion in rock’s epicenters. Even relative to many such regions, however, India’s rock music was on the derivative and run-of-the-mill side, at least judging from the fairly scant body of recordings that were made.

IndiaPsychedelic

For that reason, this slim volume is of most interest for its well-researched look at the sociocultural context of early Indian rock, rather than for its coverage of the music itself. There were few places to play rock in the country, even in the huge cities; it wasn’t even easy to get adequate equipment; and many of the groups, as well as their audiences, featured Anglo-Indians with much greater resources and access to Western music and fashions than the overwhelming majority of the nation’s population. There weren’t even many opportunities for rock acts to record, both because of the relatively primitive state of Indian music industry and the general lack of widespread interest in rock both within and without the business.

The book’s a little matter-of-factly written, and the quotes (from a good number of first-hand interviews) on the brief and basic side. But it’s of value for its insight into a scarcely documented scene in which many of the benefits taken for granted in the Western world were only patchily available, or weren’t available at all. For those interested in the more purely musical side of things, there are brief chapters on some of the more notable Indian bands of the period, like Atomic Forest. Attention’s also paid to the few performers who started in India and made something of an impact in the US and UK, like Biddu and Asha Puthli, though it’s curious that it’s not mentioned that Biddu managed to release recordings produced by future David Bowie producer Tony Visconti after moving to the UK in the late 1960s.

5. Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80 (Phaidon, 2016). When the subtitle states “Punk in Print,” what they really mean is how punk was reflected in British posters, fanzines, and other media reprinted here. Virtually everything was originally printed in England, although some of this material features US performers. No matter: even if the subtitle would have been more accurately phrased “Punk in Print in the UK,” it’s a historically valuable 500-page compendium of reproductions of not only posters and fanzine covers, but also some advertisements, press releases, mainstream publication covers, stickers, flyers, tour programs, and other ephemera. While many punk icons are represented on these – like the Sex Pistols (whose “Anarchy in the U.K.” single was actually advertised in programs for soccer matches), Clash, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Elvis Costello – there’s also room for artists who didn’t even make it to the strong cult level, like the Cortinas, Headache, London, Patrik Fitzgerald, and (featuring John Lydon’s brother Jimmy) 4” Be 2”.

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The graphics are usually crude, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The captions are brief yet considerably more informative than they are in many such books that reprint memorabilia, often offering interesting trivia and background bits that aren’t obvious just from looking at the graphics. What this doesn’t have are actual excerpts from the fanzines and other publications (besides the covers), which likely have quite interesting (albeit often quite amateurish) coverage of the early punk and new wave scenes. One of the few such substantial excerpts included, for instance, is a very detailed two-page account (credited to “Terry”) of the Sex Pistols’ September 17, 1976 performance at Chelmsford Prison, distributed on a two-page flyer. More such actual text reproductions would comprise a project, perhaps, for another time, as would a book similar to this that focused on US punk from the same era.

6. A Tribute to Keith Moon (There Is No Substitute), by Ian Snowball & the Estate of Keith Moon (Omnibus Press, 2016). I usually don’t list books where some sections are of such limited interest that I skip or skim them, but I’ll make an exception here given how interested I am in the subject. This volume presents a few dozen chapters, mostly just a page or two in length, in which many associates, drummers, and Moon fans give their thoughts on the Who madman. It’s a rather frivolous book, and there are quite a few sections in which musicians from bands who didn’t start until after Moon’s death pay tribute to him, which are of limited interest.

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On the other hand, there are some good stories by people who knew and worked with him, and plenty of fine pictures, some of them rarely seen. Contributors range from guys with quite close Who connections – like Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones, Keith’s personal assistant Dougal Butler, and John Schollar from Moon’s pre-Who band the Beachcombers – to journalists, roadies, tour managers, and just plain fans who remember a special concert or chance to meet Moon. There are also comments from notable peers like Jack Bruce, Kinks drummer Mick Avory, and Bonzo Dog Band drummer (and partner in pranks) “Legs” Larry Smith. There are also a couple paragraphs from a 20-year-old Florida girl captioned as a “Keith Moon Look-Alike,” so be aware that not everything here is on the serious side, though some may say that’s appropriate for a book on a drummer also famed as a manic comic.

And from 2015…

Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, by Ian Zack (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Often biographies of early blues musicians are more academic than readable, and/or suffer from a lack of source material from which to draw. This is an exception, even if there’s understandably much more on Davis’s post-World War II activities as a performer, recording artist ,and teacher than there is on his far more sketchily documented earlier times. The author spoke to many folk revivalists and rock musicians Davis knew and influenced, from Taj Mahal and Tom Rush to more obscure but notable ones like Jesse Kincaid of the Rising Sons. His descriptive analysis of the Reverend’s musicianship and discs is acute, yet easily comprehended even for those who aren’t guitarists, or don’t count country blues as one of their favorite styles. His personal flaws, though they weren’t so grievous in comparison to many musicians, are not overlooked, including his problems with alcohol.

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Top Twelve Rock Documentaries of 2017

The past few years, there have been just enough rock films to fill out a Top Ten list, and that’s only by slotting in a few movies from the previous year and non-rock documentaries that are nonetheless of interest to me (and hopefully some other rock fans). That’s the case again in 2017, with entries ranging from big stars to sidemen, and rock journalists to a real-life rock’n’roll high school of sorts. (The three films here released before 2017 are noted as such in the reviews.)

If there’s any trend—other than a heartening one toward subjects, such as Native Americans in rock, that likely would been considered too obscure to fund even a decade ago—it’s the increased availability of documentaries primarily or only on streaming services like Netflix or AmazonPrime. For those of us too cheap to pay for them in our home, that means catching up on some of them at homes of friends who can access them, as I did while house-cat-sitting during Thanksgiving. We can complain about these not being available on DVD, but then again, watching a movie always requires some sort of first-world expense or hardware, whether it’s paying for a ticket at a festival screening or having a home DVD player and television (and the electricity to run them).

1. Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story. There’s nothing structurally unusual about this documentary about the harmonica player, singer, and leader of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Nor are there notable surprises for viewers familiar with the basics of his career. And you know, that’s fine. What you get is what music documentaries should deliver at their core: a comprehensive, straightforward, mostly chronologically sequenced overview of a notable musician, with plenty of interviews with close relatives and people who played and worked with him. And the number of interviews the filmmakers landed is impressive, including just about everyone notable who’s still around: Elvin Bishop, Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman, drummer Sam Lay, Butterfield’s ex-wife Kathy, his brother, two sons, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Joe Boyd (about the Butterfield Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), David Sanborn, Happy Traum, Mark Naftalin, and Nick Gravenites among them.

Butterfield

Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of film footage from the Butterfield Blues Band in their prime in general, though this documentary includes excerpts from their performances at Newport, Monterey, and Woodstock, as well as some silent home movies dating back to the early ‘60s. Some little known bits of interest to serious fans pop up, like the actual location of the striking cover for the East-West LP, shot at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, or that a young Steve Martin shared the bill with Butterfield when the band played the Golden Bear in Southern California. Some of the more colorful memories from the interviews include Geoff Muldaur on Albert Grossman starting a fight with Alan Lomax after the folklorist gave Butterfield’s band a demeaning introduction at Newport (“that’s what a manager should do”).

Another observes that whatever Muddy Waters would have written, Paul Butterfield lived. Unfortunately that included a long decline over the last decade or so of his life, involving serious substance abuse and health problems, and the breakup of his family. But the bulk of the movie is on his better days in the 1960s and early 1970s, even though it doesn’t take the overt stance, as I do, that his most interesting music by far was made in the mid-’60s on his first two albums, when both Bishop and Mike Bloomfield were guitarists in his group. I don’t think Butterfield was a great singer or composer of note either, or at least as good in the non-harmonica playing/bandleader departments as the film’s general tone espouses. But his life deserves this worthy commemoration, though I was a little disappointed there wasn’t an excerpt from his stranger-than-fiction 1966 appearance on the show To Tell the Truth, which you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HSEDBeeDHg.

2. Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story. If you know a lot about David Bowie in the first half of the 1970s, there won’t be a whole lot that’s unfamiliar in this well-constructed, straightforward documentary of his primary guitarist during those years, Mick Ronson. Still, it’s fun to see and hear quite a few of his associates talking about him, including producer Tony Visconti, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Lou Reed (represented by archive footage), David Bowie (though seen in archive footage and heard in voiceover), Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson, and Ronson himself (also, naturally, represented by archive footage, particularly a pretty extensive interview from not long before his 1993 death). There are also some key voices missing, such as producer Ken Scott, manager Tony DeFries, and the other Spiders from Mars. His work with musicians other than Bowie is also covered, though not in great depth; likewise his unsuccessful solo career, the film not really addressing its failure due to Ronson’s weaknesses as a frontman/singer/songwriter. There is, however, plenty of footage of Bowie from his glam era as compensation. And if you want at least one perspective that’s unfamiliar, it turns out Ronson hated the Velvet Underground, though his co-production (with Bowie) of Reed’s Transformer was crucial to that record’s success. A DVD version (which I haven’t yet seen) of this has been released with extra features.

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3. Long Strange Trip. Not yet available on DVD, but streaming on Amazon Prime (and given a limited release in theaters), Long Strange Trip is a four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead. Is that too much, or not enough? That depends on how much of a Deadhead you are. Whatever your interest in the band, the movie’s strengths are interviews with all of the founding members save Pigpen (Jerry Garcia represented, of course, by archival clips and recordings), as well as a wealth of footage from throughout their career. With so many Dead fanatics, one’s reluctant to declare that even Deadheads will see some material they’ve don’t know existed. But that seems likely given the abundance of home movies, good-quality color performance clips dating back to the mid-1960s, and excerpts of an unreleased documentary on their 1970 European tour. You seldom see a complete song, but that might be grist for another project.

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For all its length, this movie is not a history that covers all the key bases, and doesn’t progress in a linear manner through their career and albums, a la the Beatles’ Anthology. That’s in keeping with the Dead’s nonchalantly “whatever happens” attitude toward much of their lives. But it does mean some events and recordings (the film makes the point that they didn’t see commercially available albums as cornerstones of their work) that even some diehards would consider essential aren’t covered. Tom Constanten, a brief but important member in the late ‘60s, isn’t even mentioned. Nor is Mickey Hart’s extended absence for a few years in the early ‘70s, let alone how his father’s mishandling of the Dead’s management contributed to that. And some of the laudatory comments by committed Dead fans (Al Franken among them) about the relative merits of obscure concert versions of the same song, and the religiously ecstatic experiences of losing oneself in the Deadhead world, will seem weird and borderline-creepy to the unconverted, not to mention tedious at times.

Some key surviving associates and family are also notable by their absence, but the non-member interviewees do often offer illuminating comments and memories. Among them are Warner Brothers executive Joe Smith, early Garcia girlfriend Barbara Meier (who reentered his life near its end, though longterm girlfriend Mountain Girl is a notable absentee), lyricist John Perry Barlow, engineer Dennis Leonard, and tour manager Sam Cutler. There’s also publicist/biographer Dennis McNally, who refreshingly acknowledges that the obsessive tape trading among Deadheads probably doubled or tripled the band’s audience. McNally’s book on the Grateful Dead is the best source for further investigation into the numerous recordings and events this documentary doesn’t fit into its four hours, which do tell many of the most important tales of the band. But it probably won’t convince the undevoted (such as, I admit, myself) to reevaluate and elevate their significance.

4. Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Given a theatrical release and now available on Netflix, this is a 100-minute film on one of the most famous jazz musicians. Yes, this list is nominally a rock list, but I do make room for some other music documentaries of note, and Coltrane did influence some major rock stars. Two of them, Carlos Santana and Doors drummer John Densmore, are interviewed here, though they (and Coltrane’s influence on rock) are not a primary focus of the movie. Instead, it’s a fairly conventional overview of his life, music, and impact, including a good number of fine archive clips, including one from when he was still in Miles Davis’s group. A lot of people who were around Coltrane are not around at this point, but there are useful comments from a number of interviewees, including several of Coltrane’s sons and daughters, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, and Wayne Shorter. Bill Clinton even testifies to Coltrane’s importance, with Denzel Washington adding some narration from Coltrane’s writings.

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Of Coltrane’s albums, only A Love Supreme (and, in less depth, Giant Steps) get substantial coverage. For that reason, some Coltrane fans might feel a little unsatisfied, or certainly that an additional hour or so would have given a more complete record of his achievements. Given that this is probably targeted toward a more general audience, however, this does a decent job of representing his musical evolution and touching on his most significant achievements. A small note which is not a criticism: as long as Santana and Densmore were interviewed (and their comments are relevant and expressed well), it might have also been neat to have a bit from Roger McGuinn about Coltrane’s substantial influence on the Byrds’ most celebrated psychedelic song, “Eight Miles High.”

5. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Native Americans have played notable roles in rock since its beginnings in the mid-to-late 1950s, when Link Wray was one of the most innovative early rock guitarists. This documentary covers some of the most notable Native Americans in rock (though some of them were only partially Native American), particularly Robbie Robertson of the Band, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Redbone, and Jimi Hendrix (one of the figures whose ancestry was less than half Native American). Any film that gives some mainstream exposure to Wray and Sainte-Marie is worthwhile in my book, but that doesn’t mean this is an ideal survey. Some of the figures covered, like early bluesman Charley Patton and jazz singer Mildred Bailey, were active in non-rock styles that might have been influential on rock, but weren’t rock per se. There is more to say about some, maybe most, of the spotlighted musicians than this film fits in; the segment on Redbone doesn’t give much of a sense of their sound beyond their big hit “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s a matter of personal taste, but I wasn’t interested in the metal and hip-hop artists covered, even if it brought the story more up to date.

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Some viewers might feel it’s inappropriate to judge a film on what it doesn’t do rather than what’s there, but I wish this project could have been a series with full episodes on outstanding musicians, rather than a single feature that mixed them together. Within the movie itself, the focus sometimes wavers and rambles, with an occasional sense that they’re building up some performers’ Native American connections to make sure the end result reaches feature length. Some critics and friends did like the film more than I did, and increasing awareness of Wray, Sainte-Marie, and Davis in particular makes this a worthy effort in some key respects.

6. On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone. Sly Stone superfan Michael Rubenstone spent years trying to interview the legendarily eccentric and reclusive Sly for a documentary he was trying to make on the soul star. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that he didn’t get the interview; Sly has barely appeared in public for many years. But along the way, Rubenstone did speak to a lot of people who knew and worked with Sly, including Freddie Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, Gregg Errico, and ex-manager David Kapralik. While the absence of comments from Sly makes this an incomplete picture, it’s nonetheless an interesting film, also drawing upon (if in brief bits) quite a few mesmerizing vintage performance/interview clips from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Rubenstone’s fandom is a bit creepily obsessive, but then if he wasn’t so besotted with the band, a project like this would probably have never gotten done. It almost didn’t get done anyway, as most of the footage is from more than ten years ago. Rubenstone gave up for almost a decade, getting especially discouraged after paying thousands of dollars for a Sly interview that never took place after the filmmaker was endlessly (if predictably) put off with shaky explanations. For that and quite a few other reasons, Sly does not come off as the most admirable of characters, inexplicably sabotaging his career when he seemed to have everything going for him. At least the strength of Stone’s music comes through, both from the vintage footage and the comments of his collaborators. This film is still flying way below the radar, having only played at a few festivals and special events (I saw it at the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora), though hopefully it will get wider distribution and eventual DVD release.

7. The Everly Brothers, Harmonies from Heaven (Eagle Vision DVD, 2016). This two-DVD release devotes one disc to an hour-long BBC documentary (with some additional interview material in the bonus features), and another to a live 1968 performance at a Sydney nightclub that was broadcast on Australian TV. You could easily make a good two-hour documentary on the Everlys instead of a sixty-minute one, and while there are some good interviews and vintage footage, there are also significant problems. There are too many talking heads, even if some of them are very relevant (both Everlys, a son of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant) or noted big fans who got to work with them (Art Garfunkel, Keith Richards, Graham Nash, Albert Lee). Some of them are not relevant, like Tim Rice and some producers, musicians, and critics who aren’t as famous or interesting. There are a wealth of excerpts from cool ‘50s and ‘60s clips which would be great to see in full, but are frustratingly short.

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Also, the commentary is often overcontextualized, drifting into general observations about early rock’n’roll, radio, and Nashville that are both unnecessary and take away time from more specific discussion of the Everlys. Although most of their early hits are discussed, their post-early-’60s career—which included quite a few good records, even if most of them weren’t commercially successful—is almost dismissed, barely getting mentioned. Don Everly does look a bit frail in his interview segments (Phil is represented by 2010 interviews done before his death), but he’s wholly articulate, and there seems no reason why more in-depth commentary from him wasn’t used. (Here’s one zinger he offers on his relationship with Phil: “We never got along. He was different than I. He was a Republican, I was a Democrat. I couldn’t believe he was voting for Republicans, I just couldn’t believe it. I was a complete Democrat. I was just a leftist.”) Rock’n’Roll Odyssey, a 1984 PBS special on the Everlys, did a better job, and is more highly recommended than this documentary, although it has performance footage from numerous sources (again, it must be said, brief) not tapped for the PBS doc.

The second disc is quite good, and better than you might expect given it’s from a half-dozen or so years after the Everlys stopped landing American hits. Don does talk too much between songs, and some of the comic bits are kind of dumb. But the duo and their backing band rock pretty hard, on a set including many of their early hits, even if a few of them are truncated or kind of rushed. It’s a little odd and unfortunate that even at this stage they were mostly an oldies act, but they do put it in a couple of their better country-rock-flavored late-’60s songs, “Bowling Green” and “Kentucky.”

8. Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul. Documentaries that are only or primarily available online have become a trend in music docs. This one from Netflix on Joe Cocker is another, though in common with other such items that have made my lists, the production’s as good as what you’ll see in standard theatrical releases. Unlike a good number of documentaries on music and other subjects these days, it doesn’t take an obtuse or arty approach, instead just digging into a straightforward chronological survey of the singer’s life and career. That’s generally good news, and it does work here, alternating judiciously placed Cocker archive concert and interview footage with interviews with those who worked closely with him and knew him well. Among those interviewed with valuable observations are longtime Cocker keyboardist Chris Stainton, A&M Records executive Jerry Moss, producer Glyn Johns, Rita Coolidge (a backup singer on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour), Jimmy Webb, brother Vic Cocker, wife Pam Cocker, and manager Michael Lang.

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However, through no fault of the filmmakers, the last half of the movie isn’t nearly as interesting as the earlier part. True, there are very few music documentaries where the second half is more interesting than the first half, given how many artists peak early in their career, if their career lasts more than ten years. But a lot of momentum’s lost after the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and even more after the 1970s, with all of Cocker’s finest work coming in the first few years of his recordings. It is sad, if instructive, to hear the many tales of his alcoholic excess, though just a bit cheering that he straightened out, relatively speaking, in his latter years. If there’s a villain in this piece, it’s manager Dee Anthony, whose insistence (according to some interviewed here) that Cocker do the lengthy, unprofitable, and exhausting Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour when he could have used a rest contributed to his early burnout.

9. The Resurrection of Victor Jara. This film was actually first screened in 2015, but to my knowledge it didn’t make it to San Francisco until I saw it in February 2017, and then screened just once in a small space during a festival. A legend in Chile, folksinger Jara is most known in North America for having been executed in 1973 after a military coup in that country. In part sparked by this, Phil Ochs organized a benefit for the Friends of Chile in May 1974, at which he, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Melanie, Dave Van Ronk, and others performed. These events are covered in this documentary, but its focus is on Jara’s life as a whole, including his music and its influence from the mid-’60s to the early ‘70s, and how his memory was honored in Chile over the last few decades.

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Actually, its focus was too diffuse for me; I felt I didn’t get a full grasp on his pre-musical career, how he came to be one of Chile’s most popular musicians, and the political activism of his life and songs. There are a good number of vintage clips, if usually brief and fuzzy, and some of his musical peers are interviewed, as well as American admirers like Guthrie and Judy Collins. It’s of value to most music fans interested in the relation between music and social activism, and a reminder that as bad as things are in many parts of the world now (including the US), they were really bad in the US-supported 1973 Chilean coup, where artists such as Jara were tortured and killed.

10. The High School That Rocked! You might think it a stretch to make a film, even a short, about the rock concerts at a suburban high school. Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, however, wasn’t a typical such place, at least in terms of the acts it managed to book in the mid-1960s. Unbelievably, the Beau Brummels, Animals, Remains, Yardbirds (the Jeff Beck-Jimmy Page lineup), the Rascals, the Doors, Cream, Phil Ochs, Sly & the Family Stone, and Buddy Miles all played there within about four years in 1965-69. Although it’s not in wide circulation, this 27-minute documentary is well-paced and well made, emphasizing comments by students that don’t get overlong, trivial, or overstay their welcome. Their memories of the concerts and fleeting interactions with the stars (the class president even inviting the Yardbirds back to his home after the concert) are enhanced by plenty of vintage photos of the concerts, newspaper clippings, and local radio charts.

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How exactly did a high school, even from a fairly well off area, get so many plum acts? It was in large part due to students Dick Sandhaus and Paul Gambaccini (later a noted rock critic), who managed to make connections, particularly through rising talent agent Frank Barsalona, that secured some stars. One student, Charlie Karp, even ended up joining Buddy Miles’s band after his group backed Miles when the drummer played the school. He’s one of the students interviewed for this short, which has played some festivals, and is certainly worthy of screenings on public television.

11. Free to Rock (PSB Records, DVD). There will probably never be another documentary that gives roughly equal attention to Billy Joel and the Plastic People of the Universe. This 55-minute one does, however, by virtue of its unusual subject, examining how rock and roll helped bring down the regimes behind the Iron Curtain, especially in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. There are interesting interviews (usually conducted in English without translation) with Soviet rockers of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, as well as some vintage film clips (though these are pretty brief) of those musicians in action. Rock musicians in other Eastern Bloc countries are also interviewed, discussed, and seen, including Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe, whose way-underground Zappa/Velvet Underground-influenced sounds were crucial to the dissident movement that eventually overthrew the country’s rulers.

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Also covered are the Western stars who played behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall and the Soviet regime fell, including the Beach Boys, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elton John, Billy Joel, and heavy metal acts like the Scorpions. Also interviewed are heavyweight politicians like Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and even former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, though the musicians struggling to function and express themselves under these regimes are the most thought-provoking.

There’s the sense that much more could be said about the complex factors both driving the music being made in these regions and the social changes they ignited. (Some of these are explicated in the two-hour bonus disc, mostly of extended interviews, though in common with many such extras, they tend to be drawn out and drag after a while.) It can also be said that some of the music by the Soviet and Eastern bloc bands, as admirable as it was to have performed it under such repressive conditions, isn’t very good—and that some of the Western stars who managed to play in those countries before the early 1990s weren’t exactly the greatest the rest of the world had to offer. But even if it’s a bit of rush to document such massive movements in less than an hour, it’s still a worthy overview.

12. Ticket to Write. A documentary on rock criticism from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s (with a technical release date of 2016, though I saw it at a film festival in early 2017), this as expected focuses on interviews with rock journalists of the era. These include such well known ones as Ben Fong-Torres, Ed Ward, John Morthland, Sandy Pearlman, Gene Sculatti, Ira Robbins, and Jaan Uhelszki (with some too young to have been writing then, like Mike Stax of Ugly Things, providing some historical context). Its strengths are that some good stories are told, like the one about hookers descending upon a rock critics convention in the early 1970s, only to realize that guys getting paid $25 per review (if they were lucky) were not exactly prime targets. As a film, it has problems. The narration is overbearing; the sound quality of the interviews erratic; and the background music sometimes doesn’t sit comfortably in the mix of a talking head-heavy documentary. I also found some of the premises baffling, such as championing the Dictators as a turning point of sorts in reviving rock from the doldrums in the mid-1970s. And MTV is too conveniently pinpointed as a villain that killed the golden age of rock criticism, though there’s been plenty of rock writing since the early 1980s, even if there may never again be publications with the reach and influence of Rolling Stone, Creem, and Trouser Press. Barely any UK writers are involved, which means this is really an overview, if a flawed one, of US rock criticism of the era.

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