Top Twenty Rock Reissues of 2016

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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



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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

And an “historical mention” to:

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


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

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

Top Ten Rock History Books of 2016

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Honorable mention:

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Top Ten Rock Documentaries of 2016

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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