The relationship between Monty Python and rock music is pretty well known, in part because their first two movies probably wouldn’t have gotten made without investment from big rock stars. In particular, George Harrison’s Python fandom, and financial backing of Life of Brian, might be known even by some people who aren’t fans of either Python or the Beatles.
For all its significant role in their career, though, rock music itself wasn’t often used or even satirized too often in Python’s actual comedy. A rundown of the sketches in which rock played a part isn’t too hard to cover in one blogpost, though rock’s influence on the troupe predated Monty Python’s formation.
A good four years or so before Monty Python’s television series began broadcasting, Michael Palin hosted (or “presented,” to use the British term) a television show called Now! Based in the English city of Bristol, and done for the independent UK television network Television Wales and the West, it featured both sketches and appearances by British pop acts.
“Some of the groups we had on were very good—the Yardbirds, the Animals, Them, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—some of them were very bad,” remembered Palin in the oral history The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons. “In fact, most of them were very bad, but that show gave me a financial cushion which ran from October /November ’65 until it finally petered out in May/June of ’66.”
This in itself is very interesting, as Palin sometimes played unctuous TV hosts on Monty Python sketches, and it’s a little hard to imagine him playing it relatively straight. What would be yet more interesting is being able to view some episodes, if any survive. I doubt it, in part because I couldn’t dig up any online, and I’ve never seen any bits excerpted in documentaries.
Palin didn’t specify whether the rock spots were mimed or live, but those would be especially interesting to view, especially if they were live (though I wouldn’t count on that). Even if the Yardbirds, Them, Animals, and Mayall were the only good acts on the program, those clips alone would make it worth sifting through the episodes. To my knowledge, there aren’t any surviving film clips of note of Mayall before 1968, which would make those especially worth seeing.
Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones worked together closely as cast members of the British TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set for about a year and a half starting in late 1967. The Bonzo Dog Band did frequent guest spots, often involving performances of complete songs. While they were by no means among the hardest rocking of late-‘60s British bands, they were the best at blending music and comedy, and if the music owed more to vaudeville at their outset, soon much of their material had a rock base.
The most musically accomplished member, Neil Innes, would eventually because an auxiliary member of Python. He participated in their live shows, where he’d sometimes sing original satirical songs); took bit roles in the fourth year (the one without John Cleese) of the Python series; and had small roles in their first two movies. About twenty years ago, I asked him for his take on whether the Bonzos influenced the Pythons.
“There is a link,” he responded. “When the band first met Eric and Mike and Terry, there was a certain mutual suspicion, ‘cause we were crazy guys just coming off the road. They’d come from Oxford and Cambridge, and were young, up-and-coming writers; they’d written stuff for David Frost. It was a kind of cross-fertilization that took place over a couple of years. We all became very good friends.
“I think Eric’s acknowledged that there was an influence from the Bonzos in terms of the anarchy. Python wouldn’t have been Python, I think, if a lot of them hadn’t worked with the Bonzos. I’m not saying that the Bonzos taught them everything they know. But we certainly had the anarchy ingredient, which I think they found attractive, or useful to them. But they were more disciplined than the Bonzos. They knew how to get cameras to point at things.”
The Bonzos had also guested in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, where they performed “Death Cab For Cutie” in the nightclub scene. While Monty Python had yet to have that kind of direct contact with the Beatles when they formed in 1969, they were of a similar age. At least some of them, like uncounted members of their generation, were huge fans. Here’s Palin, again from The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons:
“When we were writing in the late ‘60s, the Beatles were producing their albums and as far as I was concerned those were the greatest and most exciting examples of pop music around. On the day when we knew an album was coming out we just queued up to get it. The Beatles ruled the world, they were multi-millionaires, we were struggling away as comedy writers. Then I heard that during the first series Paul McCartney would stop his music sessions when Monty Python was on so that everyone could look at the show, and then they would go back to recording. That was the first moment I can remember when I thought, ‘This is extraordinary, the Beatles interested in us?’
“The other story, which I have no reason to dispute, was that George Harrison says he sent a congratulatory note to the BBC after the first show and it never got through to us, probably the BBC reception didn’t know who this Harrison man was, or what the program was or something. So right from the very start there was this connection between the best band in the world and our little band of comedy thesps.”
In the same book, Eric Idle enthused, “There was a big change in England brought about by the Beatles. Where everybody had been wearing tweed jackets with leather elbows, suddenly we were wearing leather jackets, and it was cool and you’d discuss your favorite George solo and things like that. That really made a difference and that kept going throughout the ’60s until glam rock, at which point you went ‘Oh, fuck off.’ You’d think ‘I don’t have to keep buying these records any more,’ because that used to be an event for us. Going down and buying the new Beatles album was something I did with [fellow British comedian] Tim Brooke-Taylor. We were quite mature men but still excited to go and buy the new Beatles album, even when we’d left Cambridge and were working for the BBC.”
So the Monty Python-Beatles mutual appreciation society was well underway almost from the story of Python’s TV series. Yet the core of that series — the 39 episodes, broadcast from late 1969 through early 1973, that included John Cleese — seldom employed or drew upon rock music, though it did often feature musical performances by the troupe. Why was that?
Maybe the other Pythons weren’t as big Beatles and rock fans as Palin and Idle. But also, their primary musical experience, such as it was, was in theatrical productions. None of them had been in rock bands. Performing and writing mock-musical pieces—which they did very well—would have come much more naturally than mimicking rock bands, which they never tried (though one would, famously, be a part of one of the most famous fictional rock bands about ten years later). I can only think of a few instances where rock, or even faintly rock-related pop, played even a small part in one of the Cleese episodes:
In episode thirteen, a psychiatric patient has auditory hallucinations of Julie Felix singing Tom Paxton’s banal kids’ song “Going to the Zoo.” A mediocre American folk singer somewhat in the Joan Baez mold, Felix would have been very familiar to British listeners/viewers, having achieved a fair amount of recognition after moving to the UK. She would have actually been more familiar from her appearances on television—including residency singing on the David Frost-hosted Frost Report and then hosting her own BBC TV series—than for her records, most of which weren’t big sellers, though a few made the British charts. “Going to the Zoo” was the title track to her 1969 album.
In the sketch, the patient gets taken in for an operation to get rid of his musical hallucinations. When he’s opened up, hippies emerged who’ve been squatting in his body. If you’re thinking this must be funnier on screen than reading about it, well, not that much. Even as a huge Monty Python fan, this struck me both at the time and since as one of their weakest sketches.
Moving ahead to episode 24, one of that program’s sketches presents a public service film on “how not be seen,” in which several people who are unsuccessful at hiding are blown up. The episode ends with “Jackie Charlton and the Tonettes” “performing” the Ohio Express’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in packing crates, so as not to be seen. It’s the actual Ohio Express bubblegum hit that plays, and that would have been familiar to both US and UK audiences, since it was a Top Five hit in both countries in summer 1968.
The Jackie Charlton reference, however, would only be picked up by British viewers. He was a well known British soccer (or “football,” as the sport’s known there) player, and managed the Irish national team at the 1990 World Cup finals. Not something that would be of much interest to Americans then or now.
The same episode had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it zinger that was the best of the few rock references the Pythons wove into their scripts. A few men on the street offer absurd thoughts on peace (a gumby: “Basically, I believe in peace and bashing two bricks together”). Eric Idle, impersonating John Lennon (down to his Liverpool accent), chirps in: “I’m starting a war for peace.” A great six-word encapsulation of early-‘70s just-post-Beatle Lennon, engaging in peace activism while bashing Paul McCartney, George Martin, and lots of other things in interviews and songs, especially on his Plastic Ono Band album and marathon Rolling Stone interview.
Episode 28 ends with an appearance by an actual Beatle, though not Lennon. The tramp-like “It’s” man, regularly portrayed by Michael Palin throughout the series, is hosting a TV show with Lulu and none other than Ringo Starr as guests. After being briefly complimented by Lulu on his outfit, the end credits scroll and the Monty Python theme blares, the guests walking off in dismay.
According to Kim “Howard” Johnson’s The First 20 Years of Monty Python, the script actually called for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to be the guests. That changed to Starr and Lulu, Palin told Johnson, because “Ringo was the most extroverted of the Beatles, other than Lennon—he’s just that sort of guy. He’ll do anything that’s a bit silly and mad. He’s very nice and uncomplicated and easygoing.
“We wanted someone incredibly famous, and to get a Beatle at that time—we couldn’t get much higher than that. The others were all going through various sorts of withdrawals after the Beatles split up, and had their own particular egos, whereas Ringo just used to knock about. Graham [Chapman] got to know him, and asked him along.”
What about the other guest? “God knows where we got Lulu,” Palin added.
Episode 34 was, unlike every other one, not a series of sketches, but a single storyline, if one with silly and surreal turns. Palin played a goofy guy on a cycling tour who got into all sorts of comic misadventures. As a recurring sonic gag of sorts, Clodagh Rodgers’s bouncy, banal “Jack in the Box” is heard (and, sometimes, sung) throughout the program. The tune was the very embodiment of the kind of trivial puff heard in the Eurovision contest, in which “Jack in the Box” actually represented Great Britain in 1971. For that reason alone, it would have been extremely familiar to British audiences (and probably many other European viewers), the Northern Irish singer scoring a #4 UK hit with it that year. Alas, it and Rodgers would have been totally unknown to Americans, who could more or less laugh along with the gag anyway, fitting in as it did with the general silly fun of the episode.
Maybe an honorable mention should be given to a brief sketch in episode 5 in which a bumbling cop (Graham Chapman) tries to bust actor “Sandy Camp” (Eric Idle) for “certain substances of an illicit nature.” Chapman’s cop fumbles a brown paper bag out of his pocket so he can “take it with me for clinical examination,” only for Idle to discover it contains…sandwiches. “Blimey! Whatever did I give the wife?” exclaims Chapman. It’s an obvious spoof of suspiciously specious late-’60s drug busts of British celebrities, none of whom were more famous than John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles, and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. A few of those rockers speculated the drugs on their premises had in fact been planted by the police.
That’s it for rock in the TV series, and it wouldn’t be heard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, which after all were mock historical epics that took place centuries before rock began. That wasn’t the end, however, of rock’s role in the life of Monty Python. Actually, a record label known mostly for rock acts (Charisma, who had its biggest success with Genesis)) had already done its part to supplement the Pythons’ presence with pretty popular Monty Python audio LPs. Back to Michael Palin in The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons for more:
“Gradually one began to hear more and more stories about bands and musicians who loved Python and felt a kinship with Python for some reason or another. I’ve never quite worked out why that was but there were more and more instances of it and you would meet musicians who would say, ‘That was just wonderful’ or ‘We love that show.’ I think they thought it was somehow quite cool, it was a cult thing.
“When it came to financing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who came in but Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as investors; the label on which we did most of our albums was basically a rock and roll label, so we were closely intertwined with rock music from very early on. But the fact that the Beatles noticed us was quite something. Almost as epic as when I read much later on that, in the declining years of his life, Elvis himself watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Genesis also invested in the film, and more famously, George Harrison’s Handmade Films company financed Life of Brian after EMI Films pulled out.
As a relatively little known footnote, there could have been a close relationship between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a much less successful actual Beatles movie. As Palin wrote in his diary on January 10, 1975:
“It was suggested at a meeting late last year that we should try to put out the Magical Mystery Tour as the supporting film to The Holy Grail. There was unanimous agreement among the Python group. After several months of checking and cross-checking we finally heard last week that the four Beatles had been consulted and were happy to let the film go out. So today we saw it for the first time since 1967. Unfortunately, it was not an unjustly underrated work…”
As much as it might have pained them in some ways to turn down the opportunity, the Pythons made the right call. The Holy Grail is a flawed but overall great film; Magical Mystery Tour is a terribly flawed and pretty terrible film (which pains me to note myself, as I’m a huge fan of both the Beatles and Python).
All of the Pythons did plenty of solo projects, but just one would draw notably on rock, and indeed use rock as the core focus of the best Python solo product. Eric Idle had already featured some occasional rock satire in his TV series Rutland Weekend Television, especially on spots by Neil Innes lampooning Elton John, Bob Dylan, and others. George Harrison also appeared in one Rutland episode, playing the entry to “My Sweet Lord” before gleefully segueing into “The Pirate Song,” which he co-wrote with Idle. Rutland Weekend Television was not picked up for US broadcast, and its thirteen mid-‘70s episodes have seldom been seen by Americans.
However, one Rutland Weekend Television sketch would not only be widely seen in the US, but lead to a full-long TV special. Hosting Saturday Night Live, Eric Idle screened a Rutland clip of the Rutles, brilliantly spoofing the Beatles circa A Hard Day’s Night. That helped lead to the US TV special All You Need Is Cash, where the Rutles brilliantly spoofed the Beatles’ entire career. Idle himself played the Paul McCartney-type Rutle, though he (unlike the other Rutles) didn’t actually play or sing the witty Beatles pastiches on the soundtrack, penned by Neil Innes (who played the John Lennon-type Rutle).
Along with Spinal Tap, All You Need Is Cash is the best mock rockumentary. It took a long time, and just one Python and an auxiliary Python were involved. But Monty Python and the Beatles had finally fused, the result—unlike almost all other such combinations that promised more on paper than the screen—taking from the best of both worlds.
Lou Reed was notorious for giving acerbic interviews and hostility toward journalists. There’s certainly some of that in a new 300-page collection of three dozen interviews spanning 1971-2007, My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed (on Hat & Beard Press, compiled by Michael Heath and edited by Pat Thomas). Asked “are you happier as a brunette?” at a 1975 press conference at Sydney airport, Reed retorted, “Are you happier as a schmuck?” Added Lou a few questions later, “You don’t stand a chance with me, you know. Get your own parade.”
Yet he’s also, and not infrequently, pretty informative and straightforward, depending on whether he seems to repsect and trust the interviewer. Anyone with an interest in Reed (and the Velvet Underground, who do come up in conversation fairly often although he’d left the band in 1970) will find a lot of comments with worthwhile perspectives and uncommon nuggets of trivia and recollections. Even the pieces in which he’s polite and friendly are usually spiced with some sarcastic and cutting remarks, some of them simply rude, but some also pretty funny and witty.
Even if you’re widely read on Reed, you’ll certainly come across interviews you haven’t seen. Many of them were never reprinted before (or, in the case of a few radio interviews and press conferences, never printed anywhere before, to my knowledge).
The sources range from high-circulation mags (Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, MOJO, Melody Maker) to unlikely mainstream publications (Hit Parader, Hits), big daily papers, Trouser Press, and the BBC to outlets where many wouldn’t think to look. Bob Reitman’s 1976 interview for the Milwaukee Bugle-American, for instance, is one of the better lengthy chats Reed gave (and virtually devoid of any rancorous attitude or game-playing). There’s even a 2003 interview with Kung-Fu magazine.
Some of the writers were celebrities in their own right, including Lenny Kaye, Lance Loud, singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, and, of course, Lester Bangs (though just one, from the non-obvious source of Let It Rock, is here). Besides presenting the text of the original interviews, the original pages and covers are often also reproduced, though the type in those is so small you’ll be glad all of the text is also presented in readable size in the format used for most of the pages. As the first volume to collect a lot of his interviews in book form, it’s a welcome addition to the Lou Reed library.
Editor and longtime Lou Reed fan Pat Thomas has written about music extensively for decades. He’s also branched out into documenting the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s with his recent books Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary. I recently spoke with him about My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, and what Reed’s interviews tell us about this talented but mercurial genius.
What gave you the idea for the book?
Me and my co-author, Michael Heath, are both kind of lifelong Lou Reed nuts. We kept kind of discussing over the last several years, was there a book of Lou Reed interviews? There was something called The Last Interview and Other Conversations. I thought oh geez, we’ve been scooped. I bought the book, and it was this extremely thin book with only five interviews with Lou, most of them later in his life. So Mike and I realized that the playing field was wide open. That’s how the whole thing started.
There are a lot of Lou Reed interviews, in spite of his reputation for being one of the most hostile rock stars toward interviewers. (If you could call a guy with one big hit single and one Top Ten album that he virtually disowns a rock star, that is.) There must have been some selectivity involved in what to include, even in a 300-page book. What were your main criteria for what should be featured?
Basically, we wanted to span his whole career post-Velvet Underground. We certainly were looking for provocative stuff. For example, the August 1974 and July 1975 Australian stuff [taken from press conferences at the Sydney airport]. But to kind of have a balance, with obviously the focus on the ‘70s and ‘80s. The criteria was just kind of what was interesting, and I want to throw some credit to Mike Heath on this. ‘Cause he kind of led the charge with the first round of research.
A good number – certainly the majority – of the interviews are his lesser known ones. Some are really obscure, even to big Reed fans. What kind of detective work was involved in digging these out?
He kind of did a lot of that research. He went through the Underground Newspaper microfilm collection, which has alternative papers of all kinds from the mid-’60s through the mid-’80s. That’s where he got a bunch of the pieces in the book, especially the more regional interviews, like the ones with Bob Reitman in the Milwaukee Bugle-American, and Charlie Frick in New Jersey’s Aquarian Weekly. Then of course youtube, at least for these television and radio interviews that we grabbed, was very useful. I’m kind of proud of the fact that there is such obscure ones.
Reed’s so infamous for giving hostile, or at least uninformative and/or game-playing, interviews that it might surprise some readers to find that he played it fairly straight sometimes, even back in the mid-‘70s when he built much of this reputation. I had the feeling that what kind of interview you got depended on a number of factors. If he thought the interviewer was cool (especially if he already knew them and perhaps respected them in a context different than journalism, like Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye), he’d be pretty friendly and forthcoming. If he was having a good day, or in a good period of his life, he’d at least stick to fairly normal standards of politeness and decorum. If the interviewer stuck to the subject he wanted to discuss the most (usually his current album), he’d be easier to deal with. On the flipside: if he thought you were uncool, or it was a bad day/time in his life, or you pressed him on subjects he wanted to avoid or was uninterested in, you might not only get a bad interview, but get insulted, or maybe walked out on. Would you agree?
I would. We recently did a Lou Reed book event in L.A., so I invited a couple of LA-based journalists who are in the book. So there’s a guy by the name of the Dave DiMartino. In 1980, he interviewed Lou for Creem. He said he was expecting the grouchy monster. But he also kind of thought ahead. He knew that Lou was a big jazz fan, so he brought Lou some obscure jazz record and gave it to him, and kind of greased Lou with that record and that discussion. And then kind of switched over and talked about Lou himself.
Some of the interviewers were pretty fawning over what many listeners, even many fans, would say were among Reed’s lesser albums (but happened to be recent at the time of the interview), like Rock and Roll Heart. Reed seemed to lap that up and hence give them a better interview than normal. That might not have been so interesting when sticking to the subject of those albums, but it might have made him more open to discussing other topics too. Did you also get that sense, and that maybe some interviewers, whether in the book or elsewhere, did this so they’d get a more cooperative conversation?
Yeah. I think it was a really tricky balance, because Lou obviously wanted you to fawn over him. But he also didn’t suffer fools gladly. So you had to walk this fine line between kissing his ass. But you also really had to be knowledgeable about Lou’s career. I think he was not into general questions.
Lou ultimately was, like many of us, kind of a nerd. So if you could either accidentally or on purpose find that topic that he could nerd out on…it might be himself, obviously. Like if you said “oh, I really love the guitar tone that you got on the Blue Mask album,” then he would geek out on equipment or something with somebody.
With the exception of maybe people like Lenny Kaye or possibly Lester Bangs, who knew how to play him in advance, I think everybody just felt thrown to the wolves. This guy Rex Weiner [who did an interview published by Rolling Stone Italy in 2006] also came [to] this recent LA event. He said that he was kind of expecting asshole, and was kind of pleasantly surprised when he didn’t get one.
I’d like to compare Reed’s interviews with those of a couple other guys of whom I know you’re huge fans. Van Morrison is also noted for being hostile and/or abrupt with many interviewers, Yet, like Reed, he actually did (and still does) a fair amount of interviewers, in spite of his reputation of despising them. And sometimes the interviews are good. He’s even discussed his past in a lot of detail, without anger, on liner notes to Them and Bang label-era solo reissues, and on camera in the Bert Berns documentary [Bang! The Bert Berns Story]. Do you see some similarities between Reed and Morrison in how they handle the media, and how their kind of manic personalities might determine how an interview goes, sometimes due to factors out of the hands of the interviewer?
As you know, I’m like the world’s biggest Van Morrison fan, so I certainly some thoughts on this. First of all, I know for a fact that those liner notes in the recent reissues was him basically being interviewed in-house, and then somebody editing that so it felt more like an essay. I would agree, yes, if you go over Van’s entire career, he’s done a lot of interviews. But I think he’s probably done a lot less than Lou did. And also, Van famously went through a period that he’s come back out of, where he either refused or wanted total control.
For example, about fifteen years ago, I saw there was an interview in a period when Van was not doing a lot of interviews. It said, exclusive interview. As I read the interview, I realized he was being interviewed by his then-wife. And the interview was credited, or copyrighted, by his production company. So he basically either gave or sold [the magazine]a completely scripted interview. There’s a famous interview when he did the album with the Chieftains, where he’s live with one of the Chieftains, and he’s either refusing to talk or just giving very obnoxious…[There’s a detailed account of one especially hostile interview, with Liam Fay of Dublin’s Hot Press, in the introduction to John Collis’s book Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.]
So like Lou, he can certainly shut down an interview, or has shut down interviews. But yeah, in his older age, he’s kind of come around full circle. I think that Van might be, of the sort of bigger names, the most cantankerous interview.
The other guy to compare him with is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s not as noted for being hostile as Reed and Morrison (though he sometimes was in the mid-‘60s, most famously in a scene in Don’t Look Back). But he’s noted, maybe even more so than those guys, for game-playing, and not giving the expected answers. Or not even giving honest answers, making up misleading ones for his amusement. Do you see some of that in Reed’s interviews?
I think Dylan…he can be cantankerous. He more just likes to maybe play with the journalist, although he’s capable of giving straightahead answers. There was this famous interview in ’85 in Spin, and the front cover said “Not Like a Rolling Stone Interview.” I still refer to that interview, it’s online. It’s one of the most candid interviews Dylan ever gave. I think his liner notes in the Biograph box set are remarkably straightforward.
But all three of these guys, probably if you had to rank ‘em: Van the most cantankerous, Lou the most also kind of rude, and Dylan the most elusive, perhaps.
With Reed, a kind of game-playing is particularly evident when he talks about Metal Machine Music. Even in the liner notes, it’s not sure whether the record’s a joke or a serious artistic statement. He keeps on riffing on that in his interviews, though maybe he was more forceful on the side of “it was serious” toward the end of his life, when it got revived onstage and some younger musicians praised it without irony. Do you think it was a serious artistic statement, was it kind of a joke (especially on the business) he wanted to get away with, or was it (as I’d say) kind of a combination of the two?
I would agree. I think it initiated a little more as a “fuck you” to the label, possibly to his fans. Then over time, I think he embraced… though he never played with La Monte Young, he obviously as we know played with John Cale, who played with La Monte Young. Lou had an affinity for the avant-garde. He loved Ornette Coleman, or whatever. So I think as he got older, Lou saw [Metal Machine Music] as like, “this is my contribution to the type of stuff that somebody like Cale was doing with La Monte Young.” I think over time Lou saw Metal Machine Music as his great avant-garde artistic statement.
But people may be surprised how much Lou also loved, at least at one point, mainstream music. Iain Matthews from Fairport Convention told me he met Lou in New York in 1974 or ’73, and Lou said, “I know who you are.” And Lou started playfully singing to Iain Matthews the songs off of Iain’s most recent Elektra album. When you think of Iain Matthews, you think of this sort of soft folk-pop or whatever you want to call it. We think of Lou as the aggressive rock and roll guy. So sometimes it’s interesting how these guys, Lou especially, would be listening to something you didn’t think he would listen to, like some kind of folky pop music.
Reed’s attitude toward his fans and more commercially successful projects could be ambivalent. With things like Sally Can’t Dance, almost like, “I put out a deliberately lousy record, and sure enough, it was my biggest seller. Which proves how stupid people are.” Almost like he got more satisfaction from proving the latter point than actually doing what he set out to achieve (sell more records). Or with Rock’n’Roll Animal, “it was a way to get the Velvet Underground songs heard,” almost like the masses couldn’t appreciate them if they were dumbed down – again proving his point, almost to more satisfaction than getting those songs heard, at least in some form. Do you also sometimes get that impression, and what do you put it down to?
I think Lou had this giant ego, starting all the way in the Velvet Underground, where Sterling Morrison – they were recording or writing a song, and Sterling played a really cool lead guitar lick or something, and Lou complimented him. Then Lou quickly said something like, “Well, if I hadn’t written this great song, you would never have played that great little guitar riff. So therefore, you should be thanking me.”
But then, because the Velvets never really took off—and I don’t know if Lou thought they should have been as big as the Beatles or whatever—he’s bitter that the Velvets didn’t have bigger success. He puts out this stuff that he considers substandard, like Sally Can’t Dance or these sort of quasi-heavy metal versions of the Velvets’ songs on Rock’n’Roll Animal. He’s pissed at his fans for buying the substandard work, and he’s also pissed that they didn’t buy his so-called quality work.
So there’s a lot going on there inside of Lou’s head. A psychiatrist would have a field day with this. Another one of our favorite artists is Pete Townshend, who also kind of I think has these various issues, although they manifest themselves maybe in slightly different ways.
But yeah, I think Lou sort of disdains his fans. Some of the people in my personal life who kind of hate other people, I realized as I got older that usually people that are bitter against other people kind of have a little bit of self-hate thing going on. I think Lou had that, at least at some points in his life.
The book spans 1972, when he first started to get noticed as a solo artist, to the early twentieth century. But it doesn’t have any interviews from when he was in the Velvet Underground. He didn’t actually give many then, as they weren’t too commercially successful. But he did give some, including some that were on the radio, but not in print. Was there a deliberate decision not to include those, maybe in part because they’ve been reprinted in specialist Velvet Underground books?
I think we felt, first of all, that there’s been a book or two with some of those. But more that we didn’t want to muddy the waters, so to speak. We wanted it to just be, like, this is Lou’s solo career.
Back in the Velvet Underground days, his few interviews might have been kind of eccentric at times, but definitely weren’t hostile. Also talking to fans of the band from back then, Lou always seemed pretty friendly and sincerely appreciative when fans would speak with him and tell them they liked the band. This friendliness, certainly to the media, seemed to change quickly after Transformer and a fair degree of commercial success, and a lot of notoriety. My feeling is that in the VU days, commercial success and media exposure was so meager for him that he was fairly eager to cooperate (and interact on a human level with fans) when he could get it. When things finally did turn around for him with Transformer, he seemed ill-equipped to deal with the attention and fair degree of fame, maybe in part because the lack of that for his superb work in the Velvet Underground had embittered him, and he thought what he was getting attention for wasn’t as good.
I think Lou pre-fame, pre-Transformer, was probably a bit more of a regular guy. Peter Abrams, who recorded those Matrix tapes [of the Velvet Underground in San Francisco’s Matrix club in late 1969] that eventually came out officially – I remember him telling me, or maybe I read an interview, or both, that they were at the Matrix for several days and he was recording, and Lou was just a regular dude. And he got regular conversations. And then [the Velvet Underground’s] 1969 Live album, [more than] half of it is from the Matrix tapes, and [some] of it is from Texas. But the part of it that’s Matrix tapes was Abrams doing a quick mix of those four-track tapes and just giving it to Lou at the time, [in] ’69, just so he could enjoy them.
Even though Abrams wasn’t an interviewer, I think this standoffishness comes later. One, with fame. And possibly, let’s face it, there’s all kinds of drugs that Lou seems to have been taking. Amphetamines, maybe some heroin, maybe not. But we do know that he was definitely drinking and drugging a lot throughout the ‘70s. And he just became this Lou Reed character.
There might be an interview in the book where he [says] “nobody does Lou Reed better than me.” [For example, in a 1977 interview with Allan Jones for Melody Maker that’s included in My Week Beats Your Year, Reed states, “I’m told that I’m a parody of myself. Well, who better to parody? If I’m going to mimic someone, I might as well mimic somebody good. Like myself. I can do Lou Reed better than most people, and a lot of people try.”] I think what he means is not just the music, but this whole – he sort of becomes a caricature of himself. The album cover of Take No Prisoners is all kind of about Lou Reed as a caricature, like a cartoon character.
So yeah, he’s playing a little role. People used to say that Bill Graham would be on the phone screaming and yelling at some other concert promoter, and then hang up the phone and smile to whoever was in the room. I’ve heard similar stories about Elliot Roberts, Neil Young [and] Joni Mitchell’s manager. It’s a little bit of an act with these guys. I think that might have been a little bit with Lou, consciously or subconsciously. It becomes a bit of a charade.
Were there any interviews you would have liked to use, but didn’t/couldn’t, whether because of rights issues or not being able to find them, or something else?
At one point, it seemed like the bigger magazines, like Rolling Stone and Melody Maker, were kind of holding their interviews for ransom, so to speak. Our budget was everybody would get a hundred or two hundred dollars. Maybe if it was a bigger magazine, they might get a few hundred dollars or more or something. Some of these bigger magazines [were] like, we want $1000 for this. So there was a lot of negotiation. Elliott Murphy [himself a singer-songwriter who’d already released his debut LP by the time he interviewed Reed in 1975 for a piece in Circus that’s in the book] wanted a little more money than everybody else, so he tossed in a Polaroid of him and Lou together.
What was behind the reasoning of not choosing the interviews you didn’t use? Maybe they were too well known (like the ones with Bangs), or had been reprinted elsewhere? Or were just not that good, or redundant with better ones that made the cut?
The only thing that I did – I pulled out some of the later period interviews. In other words, stuff from the ‘90s, early 2000s, [that] to me seemed a little redundant. I think I might have only pulled out about three or four of Mike’s original list. We certainly went light on the Lester Bangs stuff, because I felt like that has been printed a lot, or at least reproduced on the Internet a lot. So we just kind of picked one Bangs thing from November ’73. In that case, we went for Let It Rock magazine rather than Creem, just because it was a little more obscure. I think when all is said and done, we got pretty much everything that we wanted to get.
One of the most recent interviews, with The Guardian, was a good example of how not to interview Reed, who walked out on it (and was persuaded to come back in and curtly finish). I like how Luc Sante wrote in the foreword, “He reduces a pathetic Guardian stringer to tears—deservedly so perhaps, given the wilted lettuce tenor of his questions.” While I don’t think being rude to (let alone walking out on) an interview you’ve scheduled is defensible, it almost is in this case, with the writer being so naive as to think that Reed will bond with him just because he likes “Walk on the Wild Side,” and starts off with tired and fuzzily articulated questions about subjects from his fairly distant past that Reed’s sick of discussing by this point. Do you think Reed attracted more of those kind of inappropriate interviewers than normal because of the nature of his work, or maybe it just seems that way because he had a much lower boiling point than most stars, who’ll usually field the questions even if they have to spout stock answers?
Probably it’s a mixture of all of that. I think that some of these, like, more mainstream newspapers probably just sort of assign somebody willy-nilly to the job, versus where somebody like a Mojo or Rolling Stone will be like, “let’s bring in this guy because he’s a big Lou fan, or Lou already knows him.” There’s actually an interview that’s not in the book, I don’t think we even considered it for the book, but it’s I think from the 2000s, where the interviewer is a TV interviewer. I think it’s British, maybe European. But the guy says something maybe disparaging about Lou’s more current work. And Lou quickly says something like, “well, that’s an interesting question, because everything that’s on TV is totally garbage. So you’ve got a lot of nerve asking me if today’s music is garbage when you’re part of the problem.”
Does Lou have a much lower boiling point? I think he does. Let’s go back to Van Morrison for a minute. Van often has said, “Would you interview a plumber for three pages? No. You should just consider me like a plumber, except that I’m not a plumber, I’m a singer-songwriter.” Van also has this slogan of like, “the showbiz slogan is, the show must go on. And I say, it doesn’t have to go on if you’re not in the mood for it to go on.” So Van is someone who doesn’t want to play the game. I think Lou played the game a little bit more than Van, but almost, like, punished the journalists for participating in their role.
I think Lou maybe was a little more eager to sell records than Van. Let’s face it, there were times when Lou wasn’t really selling records. I think he felt like, “Well, I better do this, or I might lose my record deal (laughs).” But again, he’s resenting the process, I guess is the best way to say it. When I think somebody like Gordon Lightfoot may not like to do interviews, but he realizes, “Well, this is part of the process.
It’s shocking how some of the worst and most poorly prepared interviewers are from some of the best publications, or at least some of the most respected ones. The Guardian is one of the best daily papers in the world. Another of the more recent interviews is done by a Rolling Stone reporter (albeit Rolling Stone Italy), who doesn’t seem too knowledgeable about his career or passionate about being there, and seems lucky to get away with a reasonable piece considering much of the territory covered is well worn. Is it almost like even major publications sometimes don’t take rock seriously enough to send someone well versed in the subject or up to the task, or are unaware of what you need to get something interesting out of a guy who by this time was known to be mercurial and temperamental with the media? Like the Guardian writer who thinks gushing over “Walk on the Wild Side” will work.
I know, I know. That’s not gonna work. You need to tell Lou you like his latest album, whatever the hell it might be. My thought was Rex, the Rolling Stone guy, should have known better. Because I think Rex is capable of doing the research needed.
Unfortunately too, it’s also a little bit of – over the last twenty years, it’s gotten harder and harder to get those writing gigs. So I think that cynically, some of these writers may be like —I’m just speculating — “if I can get this interview with Lou Reed and then sell it to a European magazine, I’ll do it.” So there’s a little bit of mercenary probably going on both sides of the fence there.
It’s interesting that while Reed was known to sometimes be infuriating to work with going back to the Velvets days, he often praises some of his colleagues fervently in interviews. Like he says Nico’s The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End “are so incredible, the most incredible albums ever made,” though attempts to work together in the mid-‘70s apparently worked out badly. Or he’s grateful to Warhol for not demanding a percentage of future earnings when he was fired, though according to several accounts, the break was far more fractious and complicated than that. Did Reed maybe find it easier to be charitable when talking about them to the media than in person?
Two comments: selective memory and very mercurial. [Some] of that stuff that you just mentioned is all in the Lenny Kaye interview from [the] mid-‘70s. And obviously, maybe partially because it was Lenny, he’s almost over-gracious in that one. He’s also saying a lot of nice things about John Cale in that interview. Then of course, if you went to enough Lou Reed interviews, he can be extremely disparaging about Cale. Like, “Have you listened to Cale’s music?” “No, I haven’t.”
There’s a little bit sort of behind the scenes…because you realize that there’s a photo of Reed and Cale. They both are grimacing, or they’re drinking, in front of a Christmas tree in 1977. There’s a bootleg that has photos of Cale, Reed, David Byrne, and Patti Smith playing at the Ocean Club in ’76. So I think there’s periods where these guys are in contact, but we don’t know, or they don’t want us to know, necessarily, if that makes sense. It’s a little bit like the John Lennon-Paul McCartney thing, where obviously there was a lot of fallout post-Beatles. Then you might find out that those five years before he died, [Lennon] and McCartney might have been talking more on the phone than we were led to believe.
But I still remember, by the time those guys were on the cover of Optionfor Songs for Drella, they weren’t talking to each other. There’s also a famous story that Cale has told many times where after that Velvet Underground reunion in 1993, there was talk of doing a MTV Unplugged, which would be turned into an album, possibly a short tour. And Reed wanted total control. Cale just kept saying, “Lou, just relax, let’s talk about this.” And Reed said “no no no no, I’m producing the MTV project.” And finally, Cale just said, “Well, fuck you.” All’s I’m saying is that for as much as there was friendly stuff on and off over those decades, there was also a lot of anger with these guys.
One of my favorite lines in the interviews was when Bob Reitman tells Reed that Patti Smith told Reitman Reed considered producing her first album. Reed’s response: “I’ve considered whether it’s snowing outside.” Probably it would have been a lot more vicious if he seems to have already trusted him as an interviewer. Any thoughts on how Reed dealt with some unconventional turns of the conversation like this with this kind of dismissive sarcasm?
I would imagine that at some point he would have considered [producing Smith], and there’s photos of Reed and Patti together in public in the ‘70s. Could he have also been bitter because Cale wound up doing it? And that album was sort of a critics’ darling album, at the time. It still is. So again, he might have had this, “oh shit, maybe I should have done it.” Again, it’s that mercurial and selective memory thing.
He had a similar issue with Dylan, where he always claimed he didn’t really like Dylan’s music. But then of course, you hear those early demos [from July 1965 with Cale and Morrison, on the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly and See box set], you can tell he’s very Dylan-inspired. And there’s this story where Lou’s playing some kind of small concert or private concert in L.A. around the time of New Sensations, and he does that song “Doin’ the Things That We Want To.” And Dylan turns, I think, to [Lou’s second wife] Sylvia Reed, and says, “I love this song. I wish I’d written it.” So of course Sylvia Reed tells Lou, and Lou gets so excited that he goes out and buys all the Dylan albums that he’d missed, like twenty albums. And now he’s going around telling everyone, “Dylan is wonderful.” To the point where Lou of course appears on that Madison Square Garden [30thanniversary Bob Dylan tribute] concert doing “Foot of Pride.”
There’s several interviews where he’s like, “yeah, Dylan sucks, I never listen to Dylan.” All done before these events. He also kind of made peace with Zappa. Didn’t he induct Frank Zappa into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame? Now, how many interviews did Reed do in the ‘60s where he said, Zappa sucks? I think there’s at least a few. [As one example, in an interview Lou gave Third Ear in 1970 while the Velvet Underground were recording Loaded, Reed called Zappa “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life,” throwing in “Dylan gets on my nerves” for good measure.] Again, was he jealous that they get more attention from Verve than the VU? Maybe. I don’t know. But he had this Zappa-hating thing going on for a long time, but he eventually gave up on.
[There’s] probably a little mental illness going on here too. Certainly narcissism.
It seems like one reason Reed quickly became a pretty prickly interview subject is that he got tired of being asked about his most sensationalistic songs so often, especially “Heroin.” Was he maybe too sensitive to this? Some of those interviewers would probably have gone on to less shopworn questions, or at least had sincere interest in his motivation instead of trying to use songs like that against him.
He probably just got tired of it. I’m kind of friends with Michael Shrieve from Santana, and even if you’re just a casual Santana fan, you remember that Woodstock movie drum solo, right? He can’t stand talking about it. It’s just been asked to death. I think that happened with Lou. think he just kind of burned out on it, as these guys probably do after a while.
Your own brief 1984 interview with Reed for The Notebook is in the book. He was pretty cordial and relatively friendly, if not terribly talkative and informative. Do you think that was one of those zones where he was fairly eager to be a reasonable interviewee, maybe because he especially wanted to promote a new release or things were going relatively well for him overall?
I kind of take the blame for that kind of non-interview. I was super-nervous. I think it’s the first major artist interview I ever did, and one of the things I learned over decades, especially when I did a hundred interviews for [my] Jerry Rubin [biography] much more recently, is to turn interviews more into a conversation. And certainly don’t ask questions that can easily be answered with “no,” “yes,” “no.” So when I re-read my own interview, I don’t go, “oh, Lou’s being a dick,” although he certainly could have helped me out a little bit there.
As you wrote in the book, you weren’t able to interview Reed again, in part because he didn’t show up when you interviewed the rest of the reunited Velvets during their European tour. What would you have liked to ask him if you had the chance?
So the Velvets get back together again, and I remember reading an interview with all of them. They kept talking about—at least Cale did, and I think even Lou—about how “we’re gonna have a ton of new material,” right? I don’t know if they were planning that like, “we’re gonna play it on a concert, we’re gonna make an album.” But they kept talking about these new songs. And of course, there was only one new song, which was probably the weakest thing that Lou has ever written, “Coyote.” Which not only is not a very good song, it really doesn’t feel like a Velvet Underground-type song.
So when Reed didn’t show up, I kept trying to pin Cale down – “can you tell me about these new songs?” It was as if that interview never happened. ‘Cause he’s going, “What do you mean? What new songs?” Finally he just said, sort of frustrated, “the only thing we did in rehearsal was begging Lou to turn his guitar down, because he was always the loudest guy in the room,” for these 1993 tour rehearsal[s]. And kind of just blew me off. So had Reed been there, in retrospect, I would love to have kind of tried to pin him down. Like, “Are you writing new songs for this band, this reunion? Would you like to be writing new songs?” That’s the angle I might have tried to go down if I had been able to interview Lou, specifically in 1993.
What are your favorite Lou Reed interviews?
I’ve always loved those two Australian interviews. Right before we decided to do this book, I used to listen to those or watch them on youtube. Just kind of for the sheer outrageousness of it. They’re definitely the best examples of Lou Reed being an asshole. In terms of interviews on the opposite spectrum, where he’s being cooperative, I think that 1976 Hit Parader interview with Lenny Kaye is good.
The thing that I always got bored with, I remember when albums like New York came out, he just wanted to talk about guitar sounds and guitar tones and his favorite amplifiers. Basically, a lot of his interviews started reading like Guitar Player interviews.
He also started doing that with Tai chi for a while. In fact, one of the weirdest things I ever saw a major artist do, is I saw Lou play at the Warfield [in San Francisco], I would say, early 2000s. In the middle of the concert, he brings his Tai chi master out. And the guy just sort of does interpretive dances in front of the band, on stage where the audience can see, while they’re playing some Lou Reed songs.
It was kind of that nerd thing that I mentioned earlier in this interview. When he got fixated on something he really got fixated. A lot of these artists are kind of OCD, they’re obsessive compulsive, and they get fixated on something. It may be music, or it may be, what gauge guitar strings does Lou like to play?
When most fans, myself included, think of Lou and these interviews, you do think of things like those outrageous Australian interviews, or the Lester Bangs stuff. I hope when people read this book, they realize that Lou could be thoughtful, he could be nice, he could be insightful. And I hope that the book shows some of that side.
Like some magazine asked if they could print some excerpts of Lou’s quotes from the book. I went through and found what I felt were some of the more insightful things. And then, sort of behind my back without asking me, the editor of that particular magazine went through and just grabbed all the asshole-y soundbites. I think this book hopefully kind of shows both sides of Lou, the crazy soundbite stuff as well as, Lou’s being normal or gentle.
I’ve been a fan of Lewis Shiner ever since I read his novel Glimpses about 25 years ago. Its protagonist, an obsessive rock fan, travelsback in time through his dreams, where he tries with mixed success to help the Beatles, Brian Wilson, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix complete their unfinished masterpieces. Part of what makes this work is that Shiner really does know a lot about these legendary aborted records, and a lot about rock in general. He also knows a lot, or went to the trouble of learning, about how the artists actually spoke and acted.
Glimpses is more or less science fiction, though Shiner’s also gone into the rock world with his non-fantasy novel Say Goodbye and several short stories. He’s also written novels in which rock plays barely a part, like Black & White, where buried secrets between North Carolina generations come to a head, and Dark Tangos, which takes on yet more disturbing, difficult secrets and culture clashes in South America.
At first his latest and by far most ambitious book, Outside the Gates of Eden, seems to set the stage for another story set in the rock world. Hero (and sometimes anti-hero) Cole works his way up through Texas teen garage bands to the Fillmore and the verge of rock stardom before seeming to throw it all away. The journey takes him through the college frat circuit, the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and Woodstock before it goes off course.
But Outside the Gates of Eden is much more than a tale—albeit much more convincing and realistic than almost any other—of a fictional rock almost-star. Its 870 pages take in many other characters and many other milieus of Cole’s generation. These journey from back-to-the-land communes and the snobbish New York art world to abusive police, broken families, and a struggle for integrity and justice that leads Cole and his best buddy into dangerous crime-ridden Mexican climes. And it somehow culminates fifty years after its mid-’60s launch with a high-stakes poker game in Mexico, where the stakes are higher than mere money, or even a mere life or two.
Cole’s struggle to regain a foothold in the music business might be the strongest thread of the book’s latter sections, but it’s hardly the only one. There are also struggles between the political and lifestyle philosophies of different generations, especially with Cole and his estranged father. There’s a delicate balance of family and romantic relationships, always threatening to fall off a high-wire as the characters change, sometimes radically, and at different rates. There are insider takes, unfortunately pretty accurate as far as this music journalist can tell, of the ruthlessness of the music industry.
Not least, although saved mostly for the last, there are the main characters’ quests—as they grow from middle age into senior citizens—to help do their part for environmental and social sustainability in the time they have left. It’s not only an urgent attempt to hang on to the idealism they’d first cultivated in the ‘60s; by the time of the book’s conclusion near 2016, it’s become an absolute necessity. It’s not just the story of a generation, but of an uncertain future, even as it gets ready for the final phase of its life.
Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, both in scale and sheer length. It’s a tribute to Shiner’s strength as a writer, however, that it’s a riveting read that never sags. Besides taking on very big questions, from the value of capitalism to the sacrifices one makes both for art and the planet, it’s just plain entertaining. And if you are a rock fan, this might stand out, as it does to me, as one of the few works of fiction with strong rock elements that ring, as I wrote in a back cover blurb, “with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail.”
Which leads into a disclaimer: I did write one of the back cover blurbs for Outside the Gates of Eden. I’m also prominently thanked in the Author’s Note, as I helped show Shiner around San Francisco (particularly Haight-Ashbury) one weekend as he researched some of that painstaking detail. I also read a draft and gave him some general notes/feedback, including clarifications about the kind of rock history details he wants to make sure are right, whether it’s when something happened at the Jefferson Airplane house, or who exactly was in the Yardbirds at a certain San Francisco show.
But whether or not I’d become friends with Lewis, I would have wanted to ask him about Outside the Gates of Eden. He answered my questions shortly after the book was published in spring 2019.
Outside the Gates of Eden covers some thematic ground that’s also found in your other books. There’s rock music and rock history, which is a big part of Glimpsesand Say Goodbye. It follows characters through volatile periods of social change with repercussions that last decades, as it does in some ways in Black & White. There are some dark and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities and between cultures, elements in Dark Tangos. There are conflicts between different generations, which came into play in different ways in Black and White and Glimpses.
Yet Outside the Gates of Eden is clearly different from your previous books. There’s the sheer size and scope, certainly. But I first want to ask, what kind of similar territory do you see the book exploring to what you have in previous work?
First of all, I’m relieved to hear you say that Eden is “clearly different.” I was a little nervous at the outset because Cole’s story arc seemed a little too similar to Say Goodbye, where a musician moves to California, gets some traction in the music business, but ultimately fails to become a star. Obviously the scope in Eden is much larger, and there are many other story arcs beside Cole’s, but does a larger scope imply a qualitative difference? In the end, I never felt like I was repeating myself in the particulars, so I hope my readers will agree.
One of the other themes you mentioned was generational conflicts, specifically father-son relationships. I had to revisit that territory in Eden for a number of reasons, maybe the biggest of which is thematic. The struggle between the counterculture and the establishment was in many ways that same father-son conflict, writ large. Also, I wanted to let the father have a voice, which is something I hadn’t done before. I think it’s important to get it out there that the World War II generation felt betrayed in many ways when their kids rebelled. Look at all I gave you, they said.
What are some of the other ways in which you set out to nonetheless make Outside the Gates of Eden markedly different from any of your previous books?
Really I think it comes back to the scope thing, which meant getting into more diverse viewpoints. I made some effort, I guess, in Black & White and Dark Tangos to get into the heads of the white supremacists and the right-wing terrorists, but I never really narrated from their point of view. So maybe that’s something that’s been evolving in my work over the years, but it definitely took a huge jump here. Not only do we see through the eyes of Cole’s father, we get viewpoints from Dave, a record producer, and Johnny Hornet, a DJ. Now both of those concepts—the record producer and the DJ—were pretty much brand new in the early-to-mid ‘60s. They were inventing those job descriptions as they went along. So it was very important to me to cover those bases, and to have Madelyn there for the art revolution in SoHo in the 1970s, and Cole there in Austin for the outlaw country music later in the decade, and so on. So maybe one big difference is that I was trying for a kind of completeness in Eden where my other books stuck closer to the classical unities.
Something I think can be said of Outside the Gates of Eden’s themes is that it looks at how a generation changes, sometimes unpredictably, both in how it affects its times and how the times affect it. Is that a fair assessment?
Definitely. Starting in the late ‘50s and going into the early ‘70s, young people brought about some really sweeping changes—Civil Rights, ending the draft and the Vietnam War, legalizing abortion, not to mention big cultural changes. Then the times began to change us. The assassinations of Malcom X, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King. The murders of students at Kent State and Jackson State. Those were all incredibly demoralizing. And the circumstances that had made the sixties possible—a prosperous white middle class, a booming economy, affordable college education—that all started to change, too. The gas crisis of 1973 was a big turning point, the first time that this young generation had to face real shortages. It was a wake-up call, saying “there’s not enough to go around anymore.” And a lot of people reacted to that by saying, “OK, then, I’m going to make sure I get my share.” That was the beginning of the end in many ways.
What were the challenges of taking on such a big area?
Number one, research. Starting with reading general histories of the times, then burrowing down into memoirs of people who were there, or were characters in my book. Conducting interviews myself, visiting San Francisco (where you generously showed me around) and the Woodstock site. All the way down to the incredible wealth of detail that’s available on the Internet. Set lists from concerts that I describe in the book. Complete schedules of who was playing at the Fillmore on any given day. Photos of Haight Street or the performer’s pavilion at Woodstock. So that’s one challenge.
The next is, one, making sure I didn’t overlook some event that absolutely needed to be in the book. Like, I went back and forth and back and forth on whether I should talk about 9/11, and, grudgingly, I decided I had to at least mention it. Two, deciding what to leave out. I mean, you can’t talk about everything. One of my big decisions was not to go in depth on the actual experience of being in Vietnam. I wasn’t there, almost nobody I knew was there, and those that were mostly didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t feel like I could bring anything fresh to that discussion.
It’s interesting—after I had the book pretty well mapped out in my head and was well along into writing it, one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley, published something called The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, really a single novel divided into three volumes. She covers a single family from 1920 to 2019, and it’s a wonderful story, and it’s as different from Eden as it could be. There’s very little music in it, she spends a lot more time in Vietnam, and she has about the same amount of material for each year. I was fascinated, because I knew the problems she had to solve, and I admired the way she solved them in a completely different way than I did.
As a general observation, Eden’s a just plain big book, with 870 pages. That’s about two to three times (and more often than not three times) as long as most novels. It’s long even by so-called “epic” standards. Did you have such an epic in mind when you first conceived the book?
I knew it immediately. My first estimate was that it would be a thousand pages in manuscript, and I was close—the final draft was a bit over 1200.
How do you think such a long work (whether by you or others) is justified, when the great majority of other novels are shorter, and usually much shorter?
That’s easy. I like long books. Middlemarch, War and Peace, Our Mutual Friend, Anna Karenina. More recently, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s such a comfort to start a book and really like it, and know it’s not going to be over anytime soon. And I get excited when I feel like an author is going to be raising big issues.
Obviously not everyone agrees. I have a friend who is reluctant to pick up a book of more than 400 pages. My concession to those readers was to work really hard on tightening the prose, trying to cut out every word that I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.
I have a few questions specifically about the rock music element of the story, especially as I’m mostly known as a music history writer. As we’ve discussed on a number of occasions, many fiction books using rock music as a major or minor element don’t bother to get historical contexts right. Sometimes it’s almost as if the author doesn’t think they’re important, or just doesn’t mind that it seems careless and phony. Your books, especially this one and Glimpses, have very authentic rock historical detail not only in getting the facts right, but also in getting the feel of the musicians (whether real ones like Hendrix or fictional ones like Cole) authentic. Why do you obviously think it’s important to get the context right?
When I’m reading a historical novel, one of my criteria is whether the writer can surprise me with unexpected details. Sarah Waters, for example, is fantastic at this. You don’t have to be an expert on Victorian history to read her novel Fingersmith and know that she did an incredible amount of research, because she’s constantly coming up with stuff that startles or even shocks you. Conversely, when somebody is just making stuff up or relying on things they’ve seen on TV, the writing seems flat.
Also, I am terrible at making stuff up. The more I know about the realities of a place and time, the easier it is for me to write about it.
As one example of how you get into rock culture in the book with some detail, you don’t just go through one character’s dalliance with rock stardom at big venues and festivals, but also his rise through garage bands putting out scarce singles and playing gross frat parties with violence and sexual assault. Is there any autobiographical element to that part, whether as a fan or a musician growing up during that period?
Oh yeah. I was in lots of garage bands. Played lots of frat houses, both in the ‘60s and later on. The frat party I describe Cole playing at actually happened in the early ‘80s, and I was in fact in the band, and one of the kids did actually smash up a chair and try to light it on fire. I didn’t see anything there that was inconsistent with what I’d seen in the sixties at the frat houses I played at Vanderbilt.
It isn’t just the music and musicians that are depicted with naturalistic detail, but also the music business, and how harsh it is. Record deals blow up over petty details, and without giving much away, even when the main musician character gets some success late in his career, it turns out not to be as much of an unqualified victory as he thought it was at first. Is that something you feel important to do, to illustrate how tough and sometimes harsh the business can be, despite its often romantic image?
I think it’s much more common knowledge now that big label record companies can grind you into paste and wash you down the drain. Back in the sixties, a big label contract was the Holy Grail, and nobody knew about stuff like recouping recording costs and gross vs. net earnings. It was important to deal with that in Eden because the book does talk so much about art vs. commerce—as embodied in Alex [Cole’s best friend and, in his early days, bandmate], but also played out in SoHo or in the university system.
I’ve said elsewhere that the book was an all-out attack on capitalism, but that’s not really correct. It’s more of an all-out attack on unrestrained capitalism. That tension, between making art and making a living, between finding happiness and being responsible, is at the heart of the book. I mean, Woodstock is this symbol of peace and love, but somebody ended up paying the bill. The backers lost millions (initially, anyway), the National Guard had to fly in food and medicine, local farmers were handing out sandwiches—I mean, it’s great to be idealistic, but you have to also function in the real world, where things have price tags.
You actually research some of these rock history details, as you did with me when we walked around Haight-Ashbury, but as you’ve also done with real-life characters like producer Erik Jacobsen, and just by your thorough pre-existing knowledge, as comes through with the description of legendary unreleased music by the Beatles/Doors/Beach Boys/Hendrix in Glimpses. Why, I ask because it’s a positive, is it so important for you to get both the facts and the feel right in the rock elements of your books?
It probably won’t surprise anybody who reads Eden for me to say that I’m an idealist. I regard fiction as a calling. When it’s done right, I believe it can reveal truths about the human condition that non-fiction has to work much harder to achieve. If you’re after higher truth, you have to get the “lower” truth—a.k.a., the facts—right first.
You’ve already answered this question in a previous conversation, but I’ll ask it here as it’ll now go in print, and in case your answer’s changed at all. Lots of works of fiction use rock as part of the book, whether as the dominant part or just one part. Most of those books are bad or at least seriously flawed, in part because most of them don’t get the facts or feel right. Why do you think this is generally done so poorly, and done well so infrequently?
It takes a particular skill set to write good fiction about music. Note here that I’m not claiming that I do—this is just me talking as a reader. Obviously you need to write well. You need to really love music and be transported by it. And the really tough one, you have to know how the music is put together. You should be able to play at least one instrument, you should know some music theory, you should know what a Leslie speaker is and how that changes the sound of a Hammond B3. The reason is, if you don’t have a grounding in the reality of the physical instruments, your descriptions can get so metaphorical they read like bad sex scenes—throbbing waves pounding the yielding sands and so on.
Are there any other fiction books besides yours that you think have done this well?
I’ve read a few books where the music details were quite convincing—like Howard Massey’s Roadie, for example—but I had some quibbles with the writing style or the story. So George RR Martin’s Armageddon Rag remains my favorite rock novel. And I gave George some technical assistance on that one. Interestingly, my favorite novel about music is Longing, by J. D. Landis, which is about the classical composer Robert Schumann. Landis gets everything right—gorgeous writing, completely convincing musical stuff, some of it very technical, but never dry. And an absolutely heartbreaking story. Susan Hardin [Tim Hardin’s widow] turned me onto that book, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Have you tried any that have done so notably poorly?
I don’t mind picking on P. F. Kluge because he can laugh all the way to the bank. Eddie and the Cruisers is the poster child for a rock novel by somebody who doesn’t know how bands work. In the novel, the band has four (count ‘em, four) guitar players, a sax player, a drummer, and no bass. This, obviously, was one of many things they changed for the movie. And it’s not just the instrumentation that rings false, it’s the whole chemistry and day-to-day business of the band.
I don’t want to give away anything to those who haven’t read the book, but something that impressed me about it was that there weren’t pat and predictable resolutions to some deep conflicts between some of the characters. Some such conflicts are often resolved with a big tearful scene near the end, in both novels and films. Well, it doesn’t always happen that way in real life, and that’s seldom reflected in books and films. Do you think that’s a fair observation, and is that something you want to make a part of your plots and characters?
Again, this is something I’m glad to hear. I don’t know that I set out to overturn the idea of pat resolutions, but I did base almost everything in the book on either my personal experience or the experiences of my friends. I combined and split off characters and condensed or expanded timelines, but for some definition, most of the book aspires to “truth”—in that higher sense I was talking about earlier. As I’ve gotten older and seen the way events play out—deaths of parents, ends of marriages, people having kids and grandkids—it is increasingly clear that a lot of stuff never does get resolved. So that’s the truth I’m striving to be faithful to.
Also—you hear this a lot and I’m sure many will scoff, but more in Eden than anything else I’ve written, the characters took hold of their own destinies. I’m sure this reflects some kind of subconscious process that I’m just not in touch with, but it felt like they were controlling the plot. There were a number of benchmarks in the story that I had in mind from the beginning—a suicide, an extramarital affair, to name two examples—that it became clear the characters would not cooperate for.
I will say that I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings—I want the reader to have a feeling that it’s done. But “done” is not always the same as “resolved.”
Some casual readers, and maybe (though I hope not) some reviewers, will view or maybe even dismiss Eden as “another ‘60s book” in a tired arena that should be put to bed. But of course, while the ‘60s play a big part in launching the epic, if you do read the whole thing, it goes right up to the present, and addresses very contemporary issues like global warming, sustainability, and community among baby boomers who are now senior citizens. How important was this for you to make a part of the story?
Well, first off, I don’t think I’ve read that many ‘60s books. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that way. But my initial concept of the book was, “what happened to the idealism of the ‘60s, and how did we end up with a culture of greed?” That necessitates bringing the story at the very least into the ‘80s. To me, you don’t have a story yet when you say, “this kind of great thing happened for a while in the ‘60s, but it ended.” When you say, “this kind of great thing happened, and it was mocked and reviled and stamped out by the forces of repression, but it held on and now it’s coming back”—now you’ve got a story.
I liked one character’s line “I think the election of Reagan was a kind of cultural Iron Curtain, cutting off the ‘60s from the history of the future.” But not just because there was that one specific line — I think that thread is there throughout much of the book, especially the latter parts. Of how conservative/reactionary forces roll back cultural/humanitarian advances, or pretend they didn’t happen, or twist them into something else. I note, if subtly, in my books and courses that learning about music of the past isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, but also relevant to what happens today or in any subsequent era. I think the book shows how the past is connected to the present, and how learning about the past can help us understand the present and move into the future. If that is indeed something you have in mind, do you want to comment on that?
It’s not just conservative forces, it’s the capitalist system. When it’s unrestrained—as it has been increasingly since the ‘80s, as we get further and further from the Great Depression that was caused by unrestrained capitalism—the rich just want to get richer and there’s nothing to stop them. Obviously history has a lot to teach us—not just about the Gilded Age and the Depression, which are so similar to what we’re seeing now—but about some possible solutions.
As far as music goes, there’s a lot to learn from that, too. I had an interviewer ask me for some of my favorite political songs from the ‘60s. I fumbled the question and kind of said, well, not that many songs were overtly political. But when I thought about it later, I decided that was wrong. So many songs were political, just not in obvious ways. When the Rascals sang, “A Beautiful Morning,” or the Kinks sang “Something Better Beginning,” or the Beach Boys sang “Good Vibrations,” those were like coded messages to the teenagers listening to the radio, saying, “It’s a new day, it’s time to rethink the world, we are at the very start of something wonderful and profound.” Those songs inspired us to believe in ourselves, to be idealistic, to challenge the existing order.
Although your sympathy definitely seems to be with left-wing and artistically progressive movements, unlike many epic novels with strong historical elements, you also note the flaws of some of these movements and organizations. The early-’70s communes in Eden have deep problems, for instance. Is that something you find interesting to explore, and do you get any flak, even these days, from veterans of those movements feeling like you’re betraying the cause or something similar by being critical?
One of the former commune members I interviewed actually told me my characters were too committed. Where was the fun? Fortunately he read an early draft and I was able to make things a little more relaxed. He had other criticisms, too, but not every commune was alike, and I followed my instincts. Again, as we’ve been talking about, you can try for the truth or you can try for what you wish was the truth. The second option doesn’t really help you deal with the future.
A related question: late ‘60s rock music, which plays a big part in the lives of the characters in the early part of the book, is often written about with rosy nostalgia. But Eden also goes into the seamier parts of the experience. Not just the business hassles and the frat parties that I’ve cited, but also when the two most prominent characters visit Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the summer of love, and it’s a bummer. Or when Woodstock turns out not to be a glorious dawn in the life of one, but kind of an ending of a big part of his life. Again: do veterans of the rock scene feel like you’re laying down a bummer trip by being critical of some parts of it?
The SF writer William Gibson was at Woodstock, and he told me back in the ‘80s how miserable it was there, and how many people walked away saying, “Thank god that’s over.” Only to have these incredibly rosy memories afterward, when the festival became kind of this sacred event. Of the Woodstock veterans I talked to, most were in the middle—glad to have it on their resume, so to speak, but not downplaying the discomforts of it. I haven’t caught any flak over my portrayal of Woodstock, which I tried to make pretty even-handed, but I haven’t heard from any Woodstock vets yet either.
Something else I think the book conveys, which might make even progressives uncomfortable, is that for a better future, a lot of sacrifice is involved. It will involve much more than voting for the best candidate or recycling your newspapers; it will involve big changes in lifestyle that not everyone might find easy to adapt to, certainly at first. Is that important for you to convey, and do you have a feeling that readers are picking up on that?
I would hope that the book inspires readers to make some sacrifices, but that kind of thing is hard to predict. I think one of the most controversial things in the book is the idea that idealists can’t save the world by themselves. No matter how much they hate the idea, they are going to have to get at least a certain number of rich people on their side. As I said earlier in the interview, somebody has to pay the bills. We need to have compassionate, idealistic rich people on board, or we’re doomed.
The book just came out, but how’s the reaction been so far? Not just among people who are familiar with your work (I imagine it’s been very enthusiastic among those), but among any who might be reading you for the first time?
The reaction has been remarkably good. I don’t know how many first-time Shiner readers I’ve been getting, but the thing that really surprises and pleases me is that people seem to be actually reading the book and not just putting it on the coffee table and admiring it. For a book this size, that’s really gratifying. Because it’s a limited edition from a small publisher, that tends to self-select for my existing fans. It’ll have a more general readership when it’s released in the UK in August, and we’ll know more then.
I have a lot of rock music reference books – more so than most people would consider healthy, although I do indeed consult them for work as well as pleasure. I have books of US and UK chart positions; a big discography of US ‘60s garage rock singles; every 20th century issue of Rolling Stone on CD-ROM; a history of every known Doors concert; a guide to ‘60s UK pop on TV; and five volumes of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees, as just a few examples. But I don’t have any rock reference books like the new edition of Galactic Ramble, a huge compendium of reviews of British LPs roughly spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. (For basic info on the book’s availability and pricing, go to galacticramble.co.uk.)
There’s the sheer size of the volume, for one thing. It’s
920 pages, coffee table-sized, with three columns of print. The focus is on
rock, but there are also plenty of jazz and folk LPs, as well as a good share
of “library music” discs (recorded for use on TV/film soundtracks) and
sprinklings of pop, avant-garde, blues, world, and other styles. There aren’t
just oodles of major label releases, but also lots of indies, private
pressings, and even records cut as school projects. There are even albums by
British artists only released in the US, or only available in much smaller
countries. It doesn’t quite catch everything, but it doesn’t miss much.
Like editor/publisher (and frequent reviewer) Richard Morton Jack’s 775-page book using a similar format for North American music from the same era (Endless Trip), it also combines reviews recently and specifically written for this volume with excerpts from tons of reviews from the era. On top of that, Galactic Ramble also has thousands of reproductions of vintage ads for LPs in the book, as well as Top Ten lists by the dozen or so contributors covering everything from the best Welsh albums to “ten titles with awful puns.”
Even if you’ve got a pretty huge collection of UK music from the time, you’re bound to run across things you’re barely familiar with or totally unaware of, whether the 1970 Charlie Watts-produced album by the People Band or the jazz-soul-pop instrumental LPs by Don Shinn (who, in Morton Jack’s estimation, “proves himself Brian Auger’s equal on his organ”). Yet the bigger, and in fact biggest, records of the time are covered too, all the way up to the Beatles, without snobbery that either lowers the standing of superstars or inappropriately champions the merits of cult acts. And acts usually only surveyed through their best-ofs, like Herman’s Hermits, Peter & Gordon, and the Dave Clark Five, are rewarded with real reviews of their actual LPs, even if they rarely deserve canonization as lost gems.
Yes, these are the kind of books whose bulk and detail make some of your friends, even some of your good ones, question your sanity for owning a copy, let alone reading it from A to Z, as I’ve done. But it’s not just a mass of facts and figures. The writing’s entertaining, and the perspectives are thoughtful and informed. By treating all (or virtually all) records as worthy of consideration, and not just those that were popular or have gained or maintained a certain critical reputation, Galactic Ramble does a great service to rock scholarship in general. Would that all corners of the world get such coverage – which, in fact, Morton Jack is working on, as you’ll read.
Besides producing Galactic Ramble and similar reference books, Morton Jack is also editor/publisher (and again, frequent writer for) the glossy magazine Flashback (info at flashbackmag.com). Also focusing on the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, it has in-depth articles and reviews on cult acts, albums, and books usually overlooked by other rock history publications. (As a disclaimer, I’ve been a frequent contributor to Flashback, though I did not write anything for Galactic Ramble.) I interviewed Morton Jack about Galactic Ramble shortly after its early 2019 publication.
This is the third book of this sort you’ve done, after the first edition of Galactic Ramble and Endless Trip. These are some of the most detailed rock reference books ever published, and not just in their length and detail. No others have the format of combining reviews written specifically for the book and discographical information with excerpts of vintage reviews from when the records were first released. What was your motivation and intentions in deciding on the formats of these books?
Before YouTube and other sites made it easy to check out obscure 60s and 70s albums, hype (usually from dealers…) was often all that hungry music fans had to go on. I found that frustrating, so decided to put together a book of candid reviews from knowledgeable music lovers (egotistically assuming that if I thought such a thing would be useful, others would too). Because I’d already started to collect 60s and 70s music papers and magazines, it seemed logical to mine them for information to add to the book, hence the release dates, adverts and excerpts from original reviews. It all grew from there. It seemed sensible to include famous albums alongside obscurities because they give interesting context, and I wanted the book to be of broad interest, not just for specialists. In fact, albums by big stars of that era (Herman’s Hermits, Cilla Black, the Sweet and many others) are barely listened to nowadays, whereas artists like COB, Vashti Bunyan and the Open Mind, who barely sold a single record at the time, are now very familiar to most lovers of music from that time.
The first edition of Galactic Ramble was pretty big, with 530 pages, but the second edition is a lot bigger, and not merely an update/revision. It’s 920 pages, almost twice as long. What specifically did you want to do and include this time around that wasn’t in the first edition?
The first edition was put together fairly quickly circa 2008, without attempting to be comprehensive. In the ensuing years I made a concerted effort to make a list of eligible albums that weren’t in it, and to add new reviews to entries that were only represented by old reviews. This edition therefore includes a large number of obscurities that I had either never heard of or was unable to cover last time, and much more ‘modern’ perspective. It’s also broader in scope, with genres covered that were largely omitted last time, such as library music and early beat. [Note to US readers: in the UK, “beat” refers to the mid-’60s rock that Americans call the British Invasion.]
Of course you didn’t write all the material, but you wrote more than anyone else. What were the most exciting discoveries for you among the albums in the edition that you hadn’t previously heard?
I wrote the most because I had to wade through many albums I wouldn’t inflict on an enemy!Off the top of my head, two albums I listen to frequently but hadn’t heard when putting together the last edition are Change-Is by the Rendell-Carr Quintet and the self-titled LP by Fuchsia, but there are many others. In fact, there’s one intriguing major label album I heard of in the course of putting the book together that I have yet to find a single copy of, and that still isn’t listed on any music websites. I know that it actually exists, because I know someone who has a copy… and when I find one, I’ll tell you what it is.
The great fascination of this period for me is the sheer variety and volume of music that was released: record companies had little idea what would or wouldn’t sell, so seemingly threw out as much product as possible. At times it seems like a bottomless pit, and I was and am constantly amazed at the sight of major-label albums that I had never even heard of. Discovering it all is an ongoing process. More music came out in that period than anyone can assimilate in a lifetime.
There are excerpts of vintage reviews from dozens of UK publications. These include not just the expected weeklies like NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds, but also underground papers like IT and Oz, fairly forgotten music business publications like Record Retailer, and even general interest magazines like Penthouse and Time Out. Quite a few of the reviews come from publications that are obscure even to scholars and collectors of the era, like Strange Days, Top Pops and the UK edition of Rolling Stone (which was only in operation in 1969, and had different material from the US edition). How much effort was involved in accumulating all of those issues, and what do you see as their greatest value (for historical knowledge, not the price the actual issues would fetch now) 40-55 years later?
In contrast to record collecting, very few people collect old music magazines / papers, and certain issues of certain publications are as rare as any LP. Trade papers like Record Retailer and Music Business Weekly are more or less impossible to find – maybe one or two copies of each surfaces on eBay every year. Obscure consumer magazines like Top Pops are barely any easier to find; that one ran from 1967 to 1971 (by which time it was called Music Now), but even the British Library doesn’t have them. It’s rather mystifying where they all are; I can only assume that they were thrown away in a way that the more serious and large-selling papers (Melody Maker, NME etc) weren’t. Putting together runs of them is a grueling task. In certain cases, it took me years just to establish that certain issues simply don’t exist (for whatever reason). The information just isn’t out there yet. The joy of these scarcer papers is that they cover artists who weren’t touched elsewhere, as well as containing material relating to household names that has barely been seen since. That is definitely their greatest value for me. As for the better-known papers, the sheer volume of interesting information in a random issue of (say) Melody Maker from this era is mind-boggling. To read an issue of any such paper is an extremely vivid, immediate experience for a music lover.
As a related question, it’s amazing how often some quite obscure albums were reviewed. Eleven Trader Horne reviews and nine for the first Peter Bardens record, for instance. Would you agree it’s not generally realized how thorough UK coverage was, at least in terms of sheer numbers of releases reviewed? And why do you think there were so many — to fill up space, to maintain relations with record labels, a general fanaticism among some contributors and editors, or a combination of all of the above?
In those days the music business was pretty efficient in terms of recording, releasing, promo and publicity (although by no means all artists got a fair crack of the whip). When one remembers that Melody Maker, NME, Sounds, Record Mirror, Disc and Top Pops (and many other magazines aimed at young people and the underground) were appearing every single week, it’s less of a surprise to find how much coverage there was of obscure artists. After all, no one knew what the next big thing would be.
Often a connection opened doors, then as now: Trader Horne’s members had been in Fairport Convention and Them, both of which were universally well-regarded by the music press at the time. As well as the reviews, Trader Horne received several feature articles, and Pye made a big effort with press releases and posters etc. As another example, Spencer Davis was involved in managing July, so they were widely covered (with his name mentioned in almost every case, of course).
Almost everything got at least one prominent review, though beyond that coverage often seems arbitrary. Some albums, inevitably, seem to have received absolutely no coverage whatsoever. For example, I have yet to see a single review of the LPs by Ambrose Slade and Czar, and the debut by Catapilla, all of which are well-regarded and highly prized today.
As many publications as were sourced, quite a few other reviews are out there. First there are reviews in general interest UK papers and regional UK papers in different areas and cities. Also there are the many reviews that appeared in the US (and other English-speaking countries). Of course, in many instances the albums didn’t come out outside of the UK or didn’t come out in the same form, but in many other cases they did. What were the parameters of deciding which magazines to use for review sources, and do you regret not being to include some of the others, even if you had to be selective to keep the book to a publishable size?
I restricted coverage in the book to British publications on the basis that I had to draw the line somewhere, and their critical perspectives would approximate cultural homogeneity (for better or worse). Mainstream newspapers contained hardly any proper pop coverage in that era (in stark contrast to today’s papers), and took barely any interest in underground music; in researching the book I trawled through a large number of daily papers but found very little of use beyond jazz reviews. I did excerpt material from several regional papers (typically concerning local bands being given a national shot), but of course I was never going to be able to do a comprehensive job of that. Either way, most pop / rock coverage I’ve seen in the mainstream media was superior or dismissive. As but one example, the reliably absurd Tony Palmer had this to say of the first Jimi Hendrix album in the Observer: ‘Owes everything to the Cream. Overladen with electronic effects and confuses gimmick with invention. One song hardly distinguishable from the next and all characterised by moaning, groaning and sobbing. Mostly out of tune and probably out of time.’
While it’s interesting to see how records were perceived at the time, many of the reviews were unexpectedly positive, often rather blandly so, even for many records that barely got any attention or sales. It often almost seemed like the purpose was to help sell the records as much as judge their merits — not just in the business publications where you might expect that, but also in the ones that were straight music journalism (or at least perceived as such). Do you agree with that, and do you feel like the reviews by GR writers penned recently and specifically for this book can be something of a more critically astute counterbalance?
Time-constraints meant that most album reviews were actually superficial descriptions (often heavily dependent on accompanying press releases or sleevenotes). More than one music journalist from the 60s and 70s has told me that ‘reviewing’ in in those days consisted of listening to one of the many records that arrived at their offices every day with headphones on, whilst desperately getting copy together for other parts of the paper. Considered, in-depth coverage of albums didn’t start until the late 60s, but most reviews remained short and superficial thereafter. (As an aside, for me the most perceptive reviewer of the time was Mark Williams, who wrote for International Times and later founded the sadly short-lived Strange Days.) I don’t think advertising was contingent on favourable coverage, as in many publications today. In fact, one former 1970s Melody Maker editor told me that he used to be taken out for lunch by record company promo people begging him to find them advertising space; there simply wasn’t enough room for it all every week.
In the vintage reviews, there are some amusing misfires for albums that are now established classics, some of which might have seemed ridiculous even at the time. For instance, NME thought Van Morrison sounded ‘for all the world like Jose Feliciano’s stand-in’ on Astral Weeks, adding, ‘Morrison can’t better or equal Feliciano’s distinctive style’. The same publication felt Nick Drake’s ‘voice reminds me very much of Peter Sarstedt, but his songs lack Sarstedt’s penetration and arresting quality’. How do you view such outside-the-established-party line reviews today, and were there some particularly amusing/surprising ones you found?
Inevitably, given the constraints ‘reviewers’ were usually working under, superficial comparisons to famous artists were abundant, and most reviews from that time shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I found it surprising that oft-repeated assertions about now-celebrated artists are usually false: for example, Nick Drake was warmly received by the critics throughout his lifetime, and Vashti Bunyan’s album was widely and positively reviewed. It’s also salutary to note that – then as now – many bands got a critical kicking but still sold huge numbers of records. Black Sabbath spring to mind; they’re now regarded as pioneers, but Top Pops said of their debut album ‘this stuff has all been done a million times before’. Actually, that sense of ennui is frequent in coverage of the time, as if they were living through a dull patch in the development of popular music.
Pure discographical information isn’t the focus of this book, but it’s there in the labels, catalog #s, notes about inserts (lyric sheets and posters), notes about whether they were acetates or private pressings, if they were released outside of the UK only (and where if so), and so on. But perhaps the most valuable component here are the release dates, which are not simply years, but month (if known, as usually is) and year. A lot of misinformation has been passed around about release dates over the years, sometimes for records that were very popular or have huge cult followings, like Blonde On Blonde, Forever Changes and What We Did On Our Holidays. How important did you feel it was to get these as accurate as possible, and how did you pin down the dates of release as accurately as you could?
I wanted the book to contain a large amount of ancillary information that was unavailable elsewhere, and pinning down release dates was a large part of that. I dated albums by using the first reference to a finished (ie post-manufacture) product that I could find. Often this came in the form of an announcement about a forthcoming release, an advert or a review, but sometimes press releases and similar ephemera. It’s not a precise science, though – some albums were reviewed months after they were released, and it’s a fallacy that catalogue numbers were chronological. And, as you say, confusion continues to dog the release dates of even the best-known albums: June 1st 1967 was the date given on original advertising for Sgt. Pepper’s, and the one that has been cited ever since, but it’s now widely accepted that it was in fact on sale in late May.
Another date that’s been inaccurately reported for many years is the release date of Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter. How did you pin that down in particular?
Bryter Layter was originally trailed as a November 1970 release, but artwork delays caused it to be pushed back to March 1971 (greatly to Drake’s frustration). The earliest review I’m aware of was dated March 13th, and all the adverts for the album are from that month. In addition, paperwork and letters possessed by the Drake family bear out this date.
Even with 920 pages, some records and artists from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, the decade more or less that the book covers, were not included. Beyond one or two oversights, there seemed to be some specific considerations: that it was too late (like The Who By Numbers), that it wasn’t enough of a significant variant from the UK release (the US counterparts of many UK rock albums), or that it was too pop (the only P.J. Proby review is the one with guys from Led Zeppelin). And there’s little reggae, though quite a few reggae acts (including some big artists like Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley) were based in the UK for a while. Of course, you couldn’t have included everything that might have possibly fit in without expanding the volume to an unpublishable size, but some omissions will be noticed by readers. What were the parameters for what was included, especially when a release or artist was at the margins of your scope?
As you rightly say, space wouldn’t have permitted truly comprehensive coverage, much as I’d have liked to have aimed for it. I deliberately omitted most ska, reggae, easy listening and traditional folk, though ideally they would all have been covered in depth. And a lot of other omissions are arbitrary or accidental (though I hope I didn’t forget anyone of major significance). I ummed and ahhed about whether to include big-sellers like Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, but decided that they weren’t likely to be of much interest to most readers (or, I admit, me). I used punk as a broad cut-off, as including all that stuff would have hugely expanded the book’s size and scope, and the advent of punk represents some sort of cultural shift – the closing of the first great rock’n’roll era and the start of the next, maybe.
I think your core audience is rock listeners, and the bulk of the book covers rock releases. But there’s also a fair amount of jazz, non-rock-influenced folk, and library music. There’s also some Christian rock, which is seldom covered even in the rock collecting world, and ‘school project’ discs, which some would consider ‘outsider’ music. Why did you want to cover those styles along with the expected rock?
It seemed obvious to treat the whole music scene as a single entity, and I wanted to shine a light on areas of music that collectors spend a lot of money on but critics have more or less ignored. For example, Galactic Ramble contains more reviews of 60s and 70s British jazz than any other book I’m aware of (and I’ve been asked to print just the jazz reviews as a separate volume, which I won’t). The British jazz scene in this period mirrored the rock scene in many ways – remarkable musicians pushing the boundaries of the form with the support of major labels, stunning artwork and so forth – yet finding proper coverage of all (say) Joe Harriott’s albums, including accurate release years, let alone months, was impossible as far as I could see. As a final point, modern tastes are catholic: most people I know enjoy rock, folk, pop and other areas in equal measure, whereas I get the impression that music fans tended to be more tribal back in the day – and, of course, they didn’t have the huge advantage that we have of being able to survey the scene holistically. Much as I think I’d like to have lived through that era, I shudder at the thought of how narrow my musical horizons are likely to have been.
Something the book brings home is the sheer quantity of product released during this era. It’s amazing how many major label flops (some with big budgets, as your reviews sometimes note) came out, and it’s still being fully appreciated how many indies and private pressings that barely found distribution were issued. Pre-21st Century, when the Internet became huge, I guess you could say the same of all eras in recorded music: an enormous amount came out that barely sold and was barely heard. But do you think there was even more of it in the Galactic Ramble era, and that the nature of this quantity of product was different (in both the music that was produced and why it was recorded/released) than in other eras?
I think the immediately postwar generation was remarkably good at playing instruments. I can only assume that, in the absence of modern distractions, 50s and 60s teens spent a great deal more time hunched over guitars or keyboards than is feasible today. It surely helped that there were far more opportunities to play live in those days (partly because there was far less competition as to what people could do with their evenings, no doubt). Finally, the generational shift and newfound availability of various sorts of drugs in the 60s made young people much more capable of expressing their individuality and imagination than before.
That period happily coincided with major labels being awash with money and having a complete lack of awareness as to what would or wouldn’t sell. There was also an enlightened attitude towards what they recorded in many cases; Hugh Mendl at Decca, for instance, believed that the company had a cultural responsibility to record uncommercial music, irrespective of sales. It helped that the majors (EMI, Decca, Pye, Philips and one or two others) owned their own studios and had ready access to pressing and distribution, making it a low-risk business with obvious tax-efficiency for their many other interests.
Having said all that, it’s also worth remembering that records were extremely expensive in the 60s and 70s: the vast majority of new acts were doomed to failure simply on that basis. For example, in the same week that Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Gasoline Alley by Rod Stewart and Mad Dogs & Englishmen by Joe Cocker were released in September 1970, the following also appeared: World’s End by Andwella, Love Songs by Mike Westbrook, Indian Summer by Panama Limited, Greek Variations by Neil Ardley etc, The Magic Shoemaker by Fire, The Road by Quiet World, Key Largo by Key Largo, Seven Ages Of Man by Stan Tracey, Heavy Petting by Dr. Strangely Strange, Half-Baked by Jimmy Campbell, and Gospel Oak by Gospel Oak. Needless to say, there were many others out that week too, both British and from elsewhere. No wonder the more obscure ones are so rare today!
As a final thought, it’s interesting to see how many mediocre artists got to make albums when fine ones didn’t. Why did Decca put out the mind-numbing LP by The Wishful Thinking but no album by Timebox? Why did EMI put out five LPs by Freddie & The Dreamers and none by the Action? One can only conclude that blind luck played its part, as did being championed by someone influential at a label, as David Hitchcock suggests in his wonderful introduction to the book. (And, by the way, Aaron Milenski deserves the Presidential Medal Of Freedom for wading through the Freddie & The Dreamers catalogue for the book.)
As an inevitable related question, this quantity naturally included a lot of generic or even rotten records. For you and the other writers, was it often a challenge to grit your teeth through so many of them, and to find something to say about, say, a group trying desperately to sound like Uriah Heep, without any point or talent to bring to the exercise? Or artists that simply didn’t seem to have any identity, anything distinctive to say, or any clue as to which direction they wanted to pursue?
Much beyond the beat and folk booms, unrelentingly tedious albums were surprisingly few and far between, in my experience. Most of them have decent musicianship, at least, and there’s usually at least one track that justifies the time spent listening to the whole thing. I think the vast majority of boring albums from that era were specifically intended to be background music (easy listening, in other words), and the majority of those aren’t in the book. Nonetheless, I’m sure that there are still a few cheap obscurities of that sort lurking out there with one or two killer tracks on them.
Some of the reviews written specifically for the book challenge received wisdom about quite a few of the records, both by championing ones that have been ignored or disparaged, or criticizing ones that are beloved by critics and/or audiences. Sometimes they almost seem to be spoiling for a fight, like when a Searchers review states ‘even as a singles band they didn’t leave us much to remember. Beyond ‘Needles And Pins,’ how many of their hits can you name?’ And there’s revisionism that can cross the line to extremism, like the review of Jesus Christ Superstar that ends, ‘Has there ever been a better rock opera? Certainly not Tommy.’ I realize you’re not in agreement with every review not written by yourself, but do you have some thoughts about the value of presenting some different and even unpopular viewpoints? And of sometimes presenting radically different opinions of the same album by GR writers, when there are multiple GR reviews of a record?
As long as a review isn’t straightforwardly dismissive, I’m all in favour of an informed music fan expressing their own strongly held view. One of the benefits of offering multiple perspectives is that it emphasises how meaningless individual critical viewpoints are. All the contributors to the book have spent many years listening closely to albums and are able to articulate why they do or don’t like something. I was keen to get their personal perspective, rather than some sort of bland attempt at objectivity, and of course some of their statements (and mine) in the book are intended in a spirit of mischief. The book is meant to be a guide, not a dogmatic final statement, and I hope it communicates far more enthusiasm than negativity.
There are many ads reproduced in the book, many seldom seen since they were printed, even for some really huge acts. Besides giving the book some graphic interest, what do you think are the most historically valuable aspects of those ads? And what were some of the most entertaining/unexpected ones you came across?
As with the reviews we discussed earlier, it’s intriguing to see quite how many obscure albums had paid advertising across several publications, and how various acts were perceived by the marketing department of their respective record labels. Often they had no clue, hence Decca vaguely describing The Human Beast’s sole LP as a ‘worthy progressive album’ or Fontana blandly stating ‘It’s a good album’ of Faintly Blowing by Kaleidoscope, or Philips optimistically urging ‘Hear this album. You’ll like it!’ of the sole LP by Junco Partners. My favourite is maybe the advert Trojan placed for Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, which shows the cover (depicting a bunch of moody skinheads) with the tagline ‘A must for a gay party’.
It’s fascinating for me to see trivia I wasn’t aware of speckled throughout the reviews (principally in the newly written ones, of course). I never would have suspected, for instance, that the 1970 CBS double LP sampler Rock Buster, with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover, includes a completely different take of Trees’ ‘Polly On The Shore’. Was finding out such things something you enjoyed about doing the book, and do you have a couple of particularly memorable such examples/discoveries?
Because pressing plants were so busy in that era, errors were inevitably made, most of them quickly corrected. I wanted to pin down as many of these as possible in the book. Some, such as the very early copies of the first Stones album (that play an amateurish and much longer take of ‘Tell Me’) are now fairly well-known, but others – such as the Trees track you mention – are still pretty much secrets among collectors. Another prominent example is the Bumpers compilation on Island, which contains a remarkable number of alternative versions of well-known album tracks, presumably in error. Other examples include early pressings of the debuts by Van Der Graaf Generator, Mott The Hoople and Atomic Rooster, all of which had rare erroneous pressings that play different music to most copies.
This hardback is a limited edition of 500. Are you planning a paperback, and if so, when will that come out, how available will it be, and will there be any changes to the content?
A paperback will certainly be available, probably towards the end of the year (I wanted to give the hardback time to sell out, which is happening faster than I envisaged). The paperback will of course have various typos corrected, and one or two minor additions, but nothing substantial. For example, since the book came out a couple of months ago I have found two vintage reviews of the rare LP by Kestrel, and realised that I accidentally omitted In Camera by Peter Hammill. Mildly frustrating, but not grounds to recall and pulp the run.
How has the reaction been so far? Not just in terms of anyone asking why something wasn’t covered, but maybe unexpected feedback that’s made you aware of releases or other info that wasn’t known before the publication?
People tend to be quicker to comment on what has been omitted than on what has been included! I’m always happy to hear about errors or omissions, but in most cases the latter have been irrelevant for the book. I have yet to have any bombshells dropped on me, but hope some shall – I love unearthing and sharing new info, that’s really what the whole exercise is about.
I’m pretty sure you don’t want to keep producing ever-expanding editions, but would you do another Galactic Ramble if considerably more information became available, both in terms of more obscure albums and other things about the records already covered?
Yes – but that’s a huge if… This edition took ten years of more-or-less consistent work, and I sincerely doubt that enough relevant and worthy new material will surface to justify another completely new edition. However, I will certainly keep tabs on albums that aren’t in the book, and will perhaps compile an addendum (which I’ll make available for free to people who have bought the book).
Would you consider doing an expanded edition of Endless Trip, as there’s certainly been a lot of additional records and info you’ve become aware of for North American releases since that book came out?
Yes, I certainly intend to put together an expanded edition of Endless Trip, though the scale of the task is daunting. Like Galactic Ramble, the first edition was put together fairly quickly and covered much but by no means all of the eligible music. However, given the vastness of the American scene, any second edition of that will still have to exclude private pressings. For coverage of private pressings, people will need to stick to The Acid Archives, which is of course a wonderful book.
You’re already underway on another volume of sorts in this reference series, Hazy Days, covering Australian and New Zealand albums from the same period. That’s an area that’s received far less coverage than rock from the UK and North America in the same era. What’s your motivation in doing this book, and what are you hoping to document/unearth?
It’s astounding how much worthwhile music was made Down Under in this period, the vast majority of which was barely released over there, let alone internationally. I have long planned to collate as many of these albums as possible, in order to spread the word about them. Alongside many fine but uncommercial acts like Tully and Tamam Shud, artists like The Masters Apprentices and Renee Geyer would surely have been international stars given better exposure. It’s harder to dig out the facts behind Australian and NZ albums, as there was far less of a pop music press over there, but I am making steady progress and am lucky to have the support and assistance of one or two local connoisseurs, as well as superb and knowledgeable co-writers like Aaron Milenski and Richard Falk. It will be a wonderful book and I am thoroughly enjoying putting it together.
Sometimes it seems like everything’s been reissued on CD, even those rare Dutch-only B-sides, tracks from stray French EPs, and live Japanese albums. Some cuts you might think you’ve never seen on reissues turn up in odd places if you look hard enough. Steve Miller’s early non-LP single “Sittin’ in Circles” is a bonus track on a UK 2012 CD reissue of his Children of the Future album; Bob Dylan’s live Liverpool 1966 B-side version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was on the Japan/New Zealand/Australia-only 1978 triple LP Masterpieces (and then part of the mammoth recent box The 1966 Live Recordings); the Grateful Dead’s short 1968 single version of “Dark Star” is on the box The Golden Road (1965-1973)as a hidden bonus track on the Live/Dead disc (and then part of the various-artists box Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets1965-1970). Joni Mitchell’s non-LP 1972 B-side “Urge for Going” is on her 1996 compilation Hits, even though it wasn’t one.
It gets goofier than that in some cases. The instrumental “Waltz for a Pig” was used as a B-side for the Who’s “Substitute” in 1966, though the UK release credited it to “the Who Orchestra” since it wasn’t actually the Who. (Short explanation: the Who could not record until a court case with producer Shel Talmy had been settled.) It did come out in 2012 on CD — but not on a Who CD. Instead, it was on the Graham Bond Organization box set Wade in the Water. That’s because the Who Orchestra were a pseudonym for Graham Bond’s group, who cut the quite good soul-jazz-rock instrumental with Ginger Baker (now credited as the composer) on drums. Even before that, it had made it onto the 1968 Japanese LP compilation Exciting the Who. Got all that?
And of course there have been vaults full of previously unreleased material, sometimes enough to fill box sets, as my previous posts on expanded editions have noted. Is there anything left, even if you limit yourself mostly to the 1960s, the era in which I’m most expert?
Statistically, most vinyl releases have never been reissued on CD. You might find that hard to believe when you struggle to find enough shelf space for your compact discs. But keep in mind that most records don’t sell very well, and many of them — maybe most — aren’t very good. Yet even leaving aside the countless acts who only made one or two singles not worth bothering about, are there any — let alone many — officially released tracks by ‘60s notables that have seldom or never been reissued?
Even casting aside marginally different stereo/mono issues and mixes, there are still a good number of such items. Why they’ve rarely or never been cleared for reissue is usually a mystery the likes of us mere fans aren’t given clues to, leaving the motives of the labels and/or artists up for speculation. On occasion it’s pretty apparent why a certain cut isn’t available; sometimes it’s widely rumored an artist is ashamed of the music and blocking its re-release; and other times, the reasoning is inexplicable.
In the post, I’ll go through a dozen or so of my favorite examples. No doubt readers know about some that haven’t come to mind, or just aren’t tracks I care about much. It’s entirely possible that some of these have actually been reissued on discs I’m not aware of, in which cases corrections are gratefully received.
Bob Seger, “2+2+?” (Capitol 45 version).The original version of this oddly titled tune, as heard on a 1968 Capitol single, has never been reissued in any format as far as I know. That’s a crime, as it’s not only Seger’s greatest recording, but also one of the rawest, most powerful anti-war rockers of all.
But wasn’t that on his Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man LP, you’re asking — an album that’s pretty easy to find used and cheap? Yes, but the seven-inch version simply destroys the tamer LP counterpart. And that’s not just collector talk that builds up cuts for their sheer rarity. The single has a searing intensity that couldn’t be matched, making the rationale behind a fairly limp album variation a mystery of its own.
Seger, as many of you likely know, seems to take an inordinate lack of pride in his earliest sides, though these are precisely the ones that will appeal most to garage rock enthusiasts. It was enough of a surprise that approval was finally granted for a CD compilation of his 1966-67 singles on ABKCO last year (the heartily recommended Heavy Music). What’s blocking the original 45 take of “2+2=?” is uncertain, not to mention unfathomable.
Update: So after all that grandstanding with my pick to lead off this list, soon after posting it, a reader informed me the Capitol 45 version was reissued a couple years ago as a vinyl seven-inch by Third Man Records. Backed by “Ivory,” it’s out of stock at the moment. Yet it might not be the exact same version as you hear on the original single. As another reader wrote, “The 45cat.com site says this this Third Man reissue is in stereo and not the original mono 45 mix.”
Them, “Little Girl” (uncensored version). For decades, it was impossible to collect all of Them’s terrific output with Van Morrison in one place. The three-CD The Complete Them 1964-1967 seemed to finally take care of that — but not quite. For it doesn’t have the notorious alternate version of “Little Girl” (only issued on the first pressing of the obscure 14 various-artists UK charity compilation LP) on which Van yelps an obscenity on the fade. Not just any obscenity a la “damn,” mind you, but the f-word, enunciated clearly enough to leave little doubt as to what Morrison had in mind. Like many of Them’s early efforts, “Little Girl” was an outstanding gritty R&B/rocker—but to hear this variant, you’ll have to resort to bootlegs, unless you can track down a rare first pressing of that 14 LP.
The Stone Poneys, “So Fine”/”Everybody Has Their Own Ideas” and “Carnival Bear.” Linda Ronstadt became a superstar, and even everything by her first group, who only had one hit, has been reissued—and available on CD for a long time. Well, not quite. Again, even Ronstadt fans might not know that before doing three albums for Capitol, the Stone Poneys issued a 1966 single on the small Sidewalk label. Maybe Ronstadt has veto power over whether it gets on compilations, but as her first outing on disc, it makes for an odd omission from her in-print discography.
Of course, like many such hard-to-hear scarcities, it’s not that great, the A-side being a routine cover of the big late-’50s doo wop hit by the Fiestas. The B-side, written by Stone Poney Bob Kimmel, is a little more interesting, as a minor-keyed just-about-folk-rocker that’s a little reminiscent of some efforts in the same direction by Bay Area groups with male-female vocals, like We Five and the Mojo Men.
Oddly, that’s not it for MIA Stone Poneys tracks. “Carnival Bear,” the B-side of their flop 1968 single “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water” (credited to Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys), has never been reissued either. It’s not that great — in fact, it’s kind of a weird fusion of baroque pop-rock, wistful country, and (in the later section) rather histrionic operatic vocals. I’ve never heard of the composer, non-Stone Poney Chris Howard, who has few credits to his discography. As a bonus should you track down the rare 45, it comes in a picture sleeve that looks like a different shot from the same session that generated the photo on the cover of Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poneys & Friends’ Vol. III LP.
Much better than the aforementioned rarities, incidentally, is the early-’70s non-LP solo Ronstadt B-side “She’s a Very Lovely Woman,” a gender-adjusted cover of the Emitt Rhodes-composed Merry Go Round classic “You’re a Very Lovely Woman.” She even performed it on TV on Andy Williams and Johnny Cash’s shows. This has been reissued once, however, as a bonus track on the 2009 Australian CD two-for-one-disc reissue of her first two solo albums, Hand Sown…Home Grown and Silk Purse (on the Raven label).
Francoise Hardy, “The Bells of Avignon.” Tucked away on a 1970 non-LP UK B-side few Françoise fans have even heard is “The Bells of Avignon,” sung in English and penned by British composer Tony Macaulay. His resume included the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” Long John Baldry’s “Let the Heartaches Begin,” Scott Walker’s “Lights of Cincinnati,” and the Hollies’ “Sorry Suzanne.”
Cheerier than Hardy’s usual wont, it’s a pleasant enough lyrical jog through memories of the French town honored by the title. It’s kind of hard to picture Hardy as an on-the-road rambler, but that’s the role she takes here, Macaulay making reasonably catchy use of periodic bends into more bittersweet melody. It’s sort of neat how the bridge is quite different from the verses, going into a more uplifting, hopeful, yet yearning mood as she anxiously anticipates a reunion with the Avignon boy she left behind.
As far as I know, “The Bells of Avignon” has never been reissued, making it one of the prime Hardy rarities. It’s not even on the recent 24-track Ace compilation of many of her late-’60s/early-’70s English-language recordings (Midnight Blues: Paris London 1968-1972), an omission that’s odd indeed. It could be argued that Hardy isn’t a notable ‘60s artist to most English-speaking audiences—a superstar in France, she had only sporadic UK success and virtually none in the US. But when someone’s memoir is translated into English and issued by an American publisher, as hers was last year, it could be argued that she’s now risen above cult status Stateside.
Melanie, “Beautiful People”/”God’s Only Daughter” and “Garden in the City”/”Why Didn’t My Mother Tell Me” (1967-68 Columbia singles). To repeat another “even fill-in-the-blank fans don’t know” citation, even many committed Melanie fans don’t know she did a couple singles for Columbia before her debut LP for Buddah. What’s more, the earlier of them has the original version of one of the more popular songs from her early career, “Beautiful People.” Why haven’t these been reissued? Maybe there just wasn’t an obvious place for them, if she only put out four Columbia tracks (and though I like Melanie, I don’t see a four-song EP of her Columbia work as a likely Record Store Day release in the near future). Melanie might want them buried if she has a say in the matter, as she didn’t find her short stay at Columbia a pleasant experience, balking at the poppier direction Clive Davis tried to push her toward.
While this pair of 45s isn’t terrific, they’re okay. “Beautiful People” has an expectedly poppier arrangement than the Buddah remake, though not hugely so. She’d also remake its B-side, “God’s Only Daughter,” for Buddah, and make “Garden in the City” the title track of a 1972 LP, though its B-side, “Why Didn’t My Mother Tell Me,” doesn’t seem to have been revisited elsewhere. Both of the singles, by the way, were arranged by John Abbott, whose most famous credit was Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John,” and is also of note for working on the sole LP by Montage, the interesting late-’60s baroque-pop-rock group masterminded by former Left Banke mainman Michael Brown.
One good home for these two Melanie singles would be on a release that combined them with some solo acoustic demos from the same period that have surfaced online, albeit from a scratchy acetate. Also added could be obscure pre-debut LP songs she wrote that were covered by the mysterious “Mommy” (either a solo woman artist or a female group) on the 1967 single “Sad Song”/”Love in My Mind,” the latter of which Melanie recorded for her 1972 album Garden in the City. But such a compilation seems unlikely to be assembled in the near future, both because of possible licensing difficulties and an unfortunate lack of industry interest.
Tim Hardin, “Lenny’s Song” (original solo piano version, on 1966 compilation LP Why Did Lenny Bruce Die). “Lenny’s Song” was arguably the finest song Tim Hardin wrote after his first two albums. It appeared on his Live in Concert album, recorded at New York’s Town Hall on April 10, 1968. An arguably more memorable version had appeared back in late 1967, as “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” on Nico’s solo debut LP, Chelsea Girl. Few are aware that Hardin had released a yet earlier performance of his composition on the compilation album Why Did Lenny Bruce Die, issued shortly after Bruce’s August 1966 death. While it’s fairly bare compared to the full-band Live in Concert take, it’s an affecting, heartfelt solo piano rendition.
Most of Why Did Lenny Bruce Die is a sort of interview/sound collage tribute to the comedian, and in fact there’s a voiceover narration about Bruce (not by Hardin, I’m pretty sure) for the first minute or so of “Lenny’s Song” as a piano plays in the background. Still, it seems a place should have been found for this as a bonus track on some CD reissue or another. With its failure to appear on Hang on to a Dream: The Verve Recordings, or the Australian two-fer CD of his first two LPs, orthe CD reissue of Live in Concert(all of which have bonus cuts), it seems unlikely it’ll get picked up in the future, possibly because its appearance on the Probe label presents licensing difficulties.
Judy Collins, tracks on Folk Festival at the Exodus and 1960 Folk Festival at the Exodus LPs. Before signing to Elektra Records, the label she spent many years with as a folk and then pop star, Collins had a few tracks on a couple rare local compilation albums, 1959’s Folk Festival at the Exodus and the following year’s similarly titled 1960 Folk Festival at the Exodus. Both were recorded in Denver’s most popular folk club, the Exodus. They’re so rare, in fact, that I still haven’t heard them. I’ve only even seen them a couple times, once in a huge collection of a big collector, and then just late last year as part of an exhibit at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. The Collins tracks on these LPs have never been reissued, to my knowledge, let alone the albums themselves. When I interviewed her for the liner notes of some CD reissues in 2010, she casually agreed with me that it would be a good idea to make them available again, but I don’t know if she has any official power to do so.
Save the Children: Songs From the Hearts of Women album. Speaking of Collins, she (with Ethel Raim Dunson) produced and coordinated this rare May 1967 compilation LP. As it was on the Women Strike for Peace label, I’m guessing it might have been intended to raise money for anti-war movements, maybe specifically the movement protesting US involvement in the Vietnam War. Her one solo track was Jacques Brel’s “La Colombe,” in a different, longer, French-language recording (albeit with a spoken English introduction) than the English one that was on her In My Life album. Collins also dueted with Joan Baez on Pete Seeger’s “Oh, I Had a Golden Thread” and sang Donovan’s “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” with Baez and Joan’s sister, Mimi Fariña. I think “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” is the only track that’s been reissued (on Baez’s Rare, Live & Classic box, where it’s erroneously annotated as “previously unreleased”).
Most of the other artists on the album are noted women folkies and folk-rockers, including Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie (I think her version of “Universal Soldier” here is different from the familiar original one she recorded for Vanguard Records), Malvina Reynolds, Janis Ian (again I think her “Janey’s Blues” here is different from the one on her debut LP), Barbara Dane (doing Dylan’s “Masters of War”), and Hedy West. As the catalog number was W-001, this was likely the Women Strike for Peace label’s first release; I think it was also its only one.
I only saw this album once, in a private collection, and only heard a little of it. I’m pretty sure all the songs the artists had previously recorded are presented here in unique versions done specifically for this LP, though I can’t confirm that without hearing the disc. It seems odd this has never been reissued considering how well known most of the performers are; maybe there is a rights issue involved.
And now for a paragraph of side note trivia: Co-producer/co-coordinator Ethel Raim Dunson, under the name Ethel Raim, co-edited (with Josh Dunson) the 1973 book Anthology of American Folk Music. It transcribed recorded performances from the Folkways 1952 compilation of the same name, which is regarded as perhaps the first important reissue of early folk tracks, helping fuel the folk revival. (The book also includes interviews with Folkways head Moe Asch and early country music A&R man Frank Walker.) I’m guessing Raim was related to Walter Raim, who plays banjo and twelve-string guitar on some tracks on Collins’s outstanding 1963 album #3. Walter Raim, in fact, plays guitar on Collins’s pre-Byrds version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”; though it had often been assumed the guitar had been played by a pre-Byrds Roger McGuinn, McGuinn later clarified he was ill with the flu when the song was cut, and Raim played on the track.
Dino Valenti, “Don’t Let It Down.” Known mostly as the composer of the hippie anthem “Get Together” and as frequent lead singer/songwriter for the early-’70s Quicksilver Messenger Service, Valenti was one of the first folkies to try going electric, if rather gingerly. “Don’t Let It Down,” a rare 1964 Elektra single (probably from pretty late that year), isn’t so much folk-rock as somewhat awkward bluesy rock with harpsichord (by Leon Russell) and pop-soul backup vocals. It’s not that great, but historically interesting. Also not that great, and yet more historically interesting, is the B-side ballad “Birdses,” as it helped inspire the name taken by a group that fused folk and rock far more memorably, the Byrds.
“Birdses” finally did find official release in 2006 on the five-CD box Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973. The failure of “Don’t Let It Down” to get reissued is vexing, especially as two Valenti outtakes from the period showed up way back in 1970 on the Early L.A. compilation.
The Byrds, “Don’t Make Waves” (soundtrack version). As the non-LP B-side to the not-quite-hit-single “Have You Seen Her Face,” “Don’t Make Waves” was one of the least essential songs the Byrds released during their classic 1965-67 David Crosby era. It’s a real basic Roger McGuinn-Chris Hillman composition, serving as the theme song for an obscure 1967 film of the same name, though it has characteristically nice Byrds harmonies. And it has, some of you Byrdsmaniacs are already declaring, been reissued as a bonus track on the expanded CD of their Younger Than Yesterday album.
Yes, but actually the version on the Don’t Make Waves soundtrack LP is different. And kind of weird, too — the vocals have a hollow reverb, almost as though they’re singing to the backing track in an empty hallway. Michael Clarke’s had his share of criticism as a drummer, and though it’s usually unfounded and his work is usually serviceable enough, here it’s kind of overdone bashing. It sounds like a demo that got used by accident, or was maybe rushed over to the film’s producers when they needed something before it could get relatively polished in the studio, the vocals seeming to lose some heart near the finish. McGuinn goes into a neat twelve-string figure at the very end, but even that gets botched by the production, which fades it out as soon as it starts.
If this is such a mediocre recording, some might hold the attitude that it’s better off left unreissued. But the Byrds were one of the greatest bands of the time, and it would be good to have everything they did available, including their relatively few misfires. Maybe it couldn’t be licensed for their standard catalog since it appeared on a soundtrack LP for MGM Records, and not on their usual label, Columbia.
Buffalo Springfield, “Bluebird” (long version). On Los Angeles-area FM radio station KPPC, DJ B. Mitchell Reed made a nine-minute version of Buffalo Springfield’s classic “Bluebird” an underground airplay hit of sorts. As early as 1970, it was reported that Atlantic Records was preparing an album of unissued Buffalo Springfield that would include this extended version. And it did appear on the 1973 double LP compilation Buffalo Springfield. But it hasn’t been issued anywhere else, even on the 2001 Buffalo Springfield Box Set, which had about three dozen outtakes. Maybe the band don’t want it made available, though the 1973 double LP is findable with some effort (and has some very good liner notes in its gatefold).
The nine-minute version is twice as long as the common one that was on their second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, in 1967. Is it twice as good? No. Most of the extra length is taken up by a rather ordinary instrumental jam, and it’s missing the neat coda where the drums drop out, the tempo slows, and a banjo comes to the fore. (A slightly longer one, adding half a minute and taken from acetate, has circulated unofficially.)
Update: just hours after this post went up, Stephen Abbate noted that the long version of “Bluebird” also appears, of all places, on the 1974 Warner Special Products various=artists double LP Heavy Metal: 24 Electrifying Performances. There it keeps company with such early headbangers as Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” along with decidedly non-metallic cuts like Van Morrison’s “Domino” and Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Who knew?
And now, a few honorable mentions to tracks that have been reissued, but on releases that even big fans of the artists might have missed:
Pink Floyd, “Interstellar Overdrive” (1966 version for San Francisco film soundtrack). Probably recorded around late 1966, this hyper-jittery fifteen-minute version of the classic early Pink Floyd instrumental (with extended dramatic drawn-out ending) isn’t just exciting on its own terms. It’s also historically important as one of the very first acceptable-fidelity recordings of the band. It was used as the soundtrack to Anthony Stern’s experimental 1968 film short San Francisco, which is worth seeing for its lightning jump cuts and psychedelic jumble of barely-recognizable San Francisco images, though even some Floyd fans might find it too avant-garde for comfort.
I was surprised that Pink Floyd’s huge 2016 box The Early Years 1965-1972—which included a trunkful of rarities ranging from non-LP singles to soundtracks, outtakes, live performances, and a wealth of film footage—did not include this early version. I referred to it as a previously unreleased version when I reviewed the box set for Flashback magazine and criticized its omission. But even if you also noticed its absence, you might have missed its official release just a few months later on a one-sided single for Record Store Day. As I did, though I already had the track (and the film) on unofficial releases.
The Record Store Day single won’t be too easy to come by, even if it was pressed in a run of 4000, as Floyd’s fans ensured the limited edition would quickly move copies. It’s still too bad no room was made on the box — or on any official DVD or Blu-ray, to my knowledge — for the San Francisco film.
Technically some hard-liners might say this item doesn’t quality for this list, since a track officially unavailable on disc until 2017 can’t said to have been unreissued. It was, however, heard on the soundtrack of a film that was screened starting in 1968, so I’ll be lenient with boundaries here.
The Rolling Stones, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” (long version). Looking for a rare variant by a major band that’s more significant than adding a tambourine beat? They don’t come much more major than the Rolling Stones, but even major Stones fans might have missed this slightly longer version of the B-side of “Satisfaction.” And it’s well worth hearing as (a la Them’s alternate “Little Girl”) another early example of Decca Records apparently censoring one of its best acts. On the extended tag, this long version has Mick Jagger offering a few more wicked imitations of the song’s subject: “I have two clerks…I break my ass every day…here comes the bus…uh-oh…I thought I had a dime…where’s my dime?…I know I got a dime here somewhere…I’m so sharp, you won’t believe how sharp I really am, don’t laugh at me!”
As bold language goes, “I break my ass every day” is several, if not many, rungs below Van Morrison exclaiming the f-word. Still, that’s probably the reason a shorter, ass-less version was substituted after the longer one appeared, according to Martin Elliott’s The Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions 1962-2012, “on very early pressings of the UK and US Out of Our Heads album.” It did appear on the 1989 box The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years, though that’s a hefty price to pay if you just want those additional fifteen seconds or so.
A much more notorious Stones track also came out on an official reissue box, though so briefly that even many Stones completists didn’t catch it. Given to Decca as an up-yours when they needed to give the label one final track as a requirement to wrapping up their contract, the 1970 outtake “Cocksucker Blues” was obviously unreleasable. That wasn’t just because of the title (later used as the title of Robert Frank’s controversial unofficially released documentary of their 1972 US tour). The song itself, performed solo by Jagger on acoustic guitar, is a harrowing and explicit first-person account of gay male prostitution. Yet it somehow slipped out as a bonus single with Decca’s 1983 German box set The Rest of the Best, though it was discontinued shortly afterward. Even one of the world’s top rock memorabilia/record dealers was unaware of this until I brought it to his attention a couple months ago.
Peter, Paul & Mary,“If You Love Your Country.” No, Peter, Paul & Mary aren’t a hip name to toss around these days, even if they did sell tons more records than your Stooges and Beefhearts. Which might seem to make calling this rarity their best late-’60s recording highly relative. But it is a haunting number, and just about folk-rock, with a ghostly organ. The reason it’s so rare? It was recorded for a single in support of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign that was commercially unavailable, but distributed free of charge at Democratic campaign centers. Even big PPM fans are mostly unaware of this 45, which to my knowledge has been reissued just once — on the massive (13-CD) German box set Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record: 1961-2008. Which means it’s hardly any more known to the general public now than it ever was.
Have some of the tracks listed in this post come out on reissues I’ve missed? Are there notable unreissued ones from this era that are also worthy of mention? Feel free to pitch in with the comments section — more information’s always welcome.
How do you put together an ideal version of an expanded edition of an album? No one’s really done it, if that means including every last damn thing available, and somehow making the whole thing a great listen end-to-end, without cuts that are primarily of historical interest. I detailed some of my favorite expanded editions in my previous post.
It’s easier, it seems, to pinpoint what you shouldn’t do on an expanded edition, because so many of them are flawed, in quite a few different ways. Examples could fill up a lot of posts, especially if you included records whose actual core albums I don’t care about a lot. I’m noting a few here by way of illustration, but they have plenty of company.
Combine the classic album with a recent re-recording of the same material. Fans really do want to hear bonus music from the same era in which the core album was recorded, not remakes done years (sometimes many years) later. Case in point: the two-CD expanded edition of Patti Smith’s Horses had a bonus disc of a live performance of the album from 2005 (with a cover of “My Generation” thrown in at the end), thirty years after the original LP came out. (We’re not even getting into the many expanded editions that mostly feature material from the era, but add on just a few recent recordings or re-recordings of little interest.)
It’s all the more galling considering that one of the best bootlegs of all time—her live concert at the Roxy in Los Angeles on January 30, 1976, which has long been available unofficially (most famously under the title Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night)—would have made a much more exciting and suitable companion disc. Fidelity isn’t a roadblock; it was broadcast on FM radio, part of the reason it made the bootleg rounds so extensively and quickly in the first place.
A previous expanded edition of Horses was about as meager as it gets, adding just one track, a live version of “My Generation” from 1976 (recorded just a few days before the Roxy broadcast, which also included “My Generation”). Maybe her pre-Horses single, “Hey Joe”/“Piss Factory,” is unavailable for contractual reasons, but that would also seem like a logical addition to such an edition.
Keep expanding your expanded edition — putting out not just two expanded editions, but even three. Hardcore fans are the lifeblood of the catalog part of the music industry, and the foundation of a legacy act’s base, especially if they’re continuing to tour. It was already a lot to ask of them to buy the classic albums they already owned again at the dawn of the CD era, the rationale being improved sound quality and durability (though those benefits have been questioned).
It’s yet more to ask of them to buy another CD with the same music they already now own on compact disc, with some extra material. It’s quite a bit more to ask them to buy a CD based around the album a third time, and verging on an insult when the expanded-plus-one (or two) edition doesn’t come out long after the previous one.
This has happened quite often in the reissue world, but here are a couple illustrations. The Who’s Live at Leeds came out with eight bonus tracks in 1995, pushing the running time to 77 minutes, almost as much as a single CD can fit. That seemed like a good deal, but then it was superseded by a two-CD edition in 2001 that also included a whole disc of Tommy songs from the same show. And then almost ten years later, the fortieth anniversary edition blew it up to four discs, adding their show from Hull the following evening (February 15, 1970). And hey, the 2014 deluxe edition digital release has some additional dialog between songs, as well as longer versions of some of the songs themselves.
It could be argued that the Who and their label(s) were to some degree responding to a changing marketplace that both made bigger editions more viable, and also made them more necessary as the reservoir of vault material as a whole sank lower. Love’s Forever Changes, however, has been through multiple editions that, unlike Live at Leeds, don’t add nearly as much additional material as the years go on.
The 2001 edition added seven bonus tracks—none of them exactly revelatory, devoted to a non-LP single not on par with the album and some outtakes/alternates that weren’t too notable. Still, good to have if you’re a fan. But if you wanted everything good to have, you also had to get the two-CD “Collector’s Edition” in 2008, with an “alternate mix” of the album and yet more outtakes/alternates/etc.
Then in 2018, there was a four-CD edition, adding a vinyl LP of the Forever Changes album and a DVD with a hi-end audio version (plus just one actual video clip). Such multi-disc and multi-format combinations are themselves becoming more common in the age of spruced-up expandeds. As for the actual music not found on other editions, this adds relatively little, as three of the four discs are variations of the core album (the stereo, the mono, and, much less usefully, an “alternate mix”). The disc of actual outtakes/demos/non-LP sides has just a bit not on previous editions—a couple barely different 45 versions, and a couple backing tracks.
Yes, it does come with a nice LP-sized booklet of liner notes, with plenty of cool illustrations. But more than most productions of this sort, it did seem to mark a point where even some hardcore fans said “enough,” and did not buy this pretty expensive edition, to quote a Bob Dylan song title, the “Fourth Time Around.”
At least these series of Who and Love editions were spread out over a few years. In late 2014, the six-CD super deluxe of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album had eleven previously unreleased performances from late 1969 at San Francisco’s Matrix Club, tapes from which had provided the bulk of their classic 1969 Velvet Underground Live double LP. Other previously released Matrix tapes filled out discs five and six of that set. Just a year later, however, the four-CD box The Complete Matrix Tapes made that unreleased material redundant, as it included all of those unreleased cuts.
As I wrote in the expanded ebook edition of my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, “Considering that serious Velvet Underground fans – i.e., almost anyone likely to buy this super deluxe edition – would also want The Complete Matrix Tapes, this [the six-CD expanded The Velvet Underground] really should have been a four-CD set without any Matrix tapes, holding the eleven unissued tracks for the forthcoming Matrix Tapes box. As it is, many purchasers of this large and expensive box are now likely to have well over half of its contents elsewhere – a slap in the face to the very Velvet Underground fanatics that have made exploitation of their catalog possible.”
Put out different expanded editions that for the most part feature the same material, but leave something off that’s on the other. There are many such items, even including one I praised in my earlier post about good expanded editions. As I noted there, Nico’s The Frozen Borderline—essentially a combination of expanded editions of her The Marble Index and Desertshore LPs—is missing two alternate versions that appear as bonus tracks on the much slimmer 1991 expanded edition of The Marble Index. The Frozen Borderline was otherwise assembled so conscientiously it’s hard to believe no one involved with the project was aware of those other alternates. And there was certainly enough space for those two tracks, since there’s a ten-minute gap of silence near the end of the second disc (more details later in this post).
Here are a couple other projects to pick on. The 1995 single-disc expanded The Who Sell Out had nine bonus tracks, all of them really good stuff as bonuses go. The 2009 two-CD expanded The Who Sell Out had no less than 27 bonus cuts, in addition to stereo and mono versions of the LP. So that must have been definitive, right?
Not quite. Two pretty good outtakes from the first half of 1968, “Glow Girl” and “Melancholia,” are on the single-disc edition, but not the much larger two-CD one. Maybe it was felt that, as the only tracks postdating 1967, they’re out of place, and they are both available on other Who archive CDs. But it really wouldn’t have displeased many, if any, Who fans to put them on the larger set too.
By the way, it’s a little curious that while the Who’s debut album, My Generation, got a five-CD box treatment—and Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Live at Leeds have all gotten imposing boxes—none was done for The Who Sell Out, even on its 50th anniversary, which would have been a good excuse to knock it out. Certainly it could have been enlarged with some more singles and the numerous demos Pete Townshend was churning out at the time, as he did throughout the Who’s prime.
Another less legendary, but still highly worthwhile and historically notable, album from that era that generated two editions with a lot of overlap was John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ A Hard Road, the only LP they recorded with the pre-Fleetwood Mac Peter Green. The 2003 double CD expansion had 22 bonus tracks. These are necessary to get a fuller overview of the Bluesbreakers’ Peter Green era, as they also encompassed numerous non-LP singles, outtakes that only surfaced years later on compilations, and an EP recorded with Paul Butterfield.
The 2006 expanded edition reversed gears and cut the running time to a single disc and 14 bonus tracks, inevitably removing a bunch of stuff from the two-CD version. Yet it also has four songs from a January 23, 1967 BBC session that are not on the double CD. Well hey, at least you get different liner notes with the 2006 edition…
Put out an expanded edition that’s not very expanded, even when it’s known there’s a lot of good or at least interesting unreleased material from the same era. Lots of discs could be named here, but let’s focus on a very recent one. The 50th anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet had little in the way of extras, even though quite a bit of material the Rolling Stones cut during the sessions has been bootlegged. Instead, you got a package with a vinyl LP; a bonus vinyl disc with an original mono mix of “Sympathy for the Devil”; and a flexidisc with a telephone interview Mick Jagger gave to a Tokyo journalist in April 1968. And no historical liner notes.
Coming out at the same time as much more substantial 50th anniversary editions for The White Album, Electric Ladyland, and even The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, it looked pretty paltry in comparison. But hey, at least it had both the original banned “toilet graffiti” cover and its clean white “invitation” replacement.
Why aren’t the Rolling Stones getting aboard the super deluxe box train, when even the Beatles have finally embraced it with zeal? I read speculation that the outtakes were not made available for legal reasons, and while specifics weren’t given, at a guess maybe it has something to do with the rights to songs written by Mick Jagger-Keith Richard (and for that matter Bill Wyman) that haven’t previously been released in any form. If that’s the case, it’s too bad, though you can suffer with the hissy quality of the unreleased material on bootlegs in the meantime. If a legal dispute’s holding it up, the big losers are the fans.
Put a note promising yet more extra material on a website or download that never goes up, or is never made available. Like some other Who albums, Quadrophenia has been issued in a super deluxe edition guaranteed to relieve you of your paycheck faster than Whole Foods’ shopping cart. This five-CD extravaganza includes the original album; 25 Townshend solo demos which illustrate how meticulously he sketched out the material, also including a few songs that didn’t make the album, though these are weaker and more ill-fitting for the opera than the ones that were selected; a disc of 5.1 SurroundSound mixes of eight (and just eight) of the album’s seventeen tracks; a seven-inch vinyl single of “5:15” and the non-LP B-side “Water”; a 100-page hardback book with an essay by Pete Townshend, illustrated with rare photos and documents; and assorted other memorabilia.
So far so good, pretty much. The extras aren’t so great that you’d nominate this as one of the best expanded editions, but certainly there’s a lot of bonus material, if of variable value. But there’s a glitch in those extras, if one seldom commented upon, even by Who fanatics.
Though the book promises an online area of yet additional bonus content via “Q-Cloud,” the link provided to access it simply brings you to a “not found” page. I hadn’t tried it for a few years, but I just tried it again, and it coughs up the same result. It’s an unconscionable rip-off that, if nothing else, is in keeping with Pete Townshend’s failure to finish off some of his most ambitious ‘70s projects, the early-‘70s album/movie Lifehouse being the most famous of those.
Bloat the box with new mixes that were never even previously commercially available. This was done on a 50th anniversary edition from 1968 that didn’t get too much attention, at least compared to the likes of The White Album, Electric Ladyland, or even Skip Spence’s Oar (the last of which wasn’t technically a 50th anniversary edition, as that album didn’t come out until 1969, though it was recorded at the end of 1968). The 50th anniversary deluxe of the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord had three CDs and two DVDs (one of the DVDs boasting visual content, the other various audio versions of the album). One of the CDs was almost solely devoted to a “new stereo mix” (the “original stereo mix” is featured on a different CD).
I’m aware some collectors get real enthusiastic about new mixes and 5.1 SurroundSounds (for those who have the hi-end equipment to play them). Maybe some of them would feel I have bad ears, or lack appreciation for the nuances different mixes bring out. But I know I’m not alone in my criticisms of filling up space on expanded editions with these. As one fellow critic, who’s heard and written about an enormous amount of vintage rock, wrote to me recently: “I have no time at all for new remixes and remasters of albums that sounded perfectly fine when they were first released. Why remix a classic Beatles album to make it sound like a modern recording? Of course, we both know that answer to that one: $$$ and £££.”
Put out a bunch of unreleased material that could have been used on an expanded edition for a few hours, or as an edition so extremely limited that it’s sold out before most fans are even aware it’s available. Sometimes this has been done, the usual speculation goes, to extend the copyright on material that’s in danger of going into public domain if it’s not officially released in some fashion. In 2012, Bob Dylan didn’t bother to make a secret of this in the four-CD The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. 1, a four-CDR (not a typo, CDR) compilation of 1962 outtakes and live recordings. Reportedly only 100 copies released, and then only on Europe.
Naturally these were quickly bootlegged/file-shared, and most Dylan fanatics knew how to get those non-original copies if they wanted. On their own, however, the first two CDs—comprised of studio outtakes—would have made for the logical bonus discs for an expanded edition of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. There are too many multiple versions to make this compulsive over-and-over listening. But there’s some good stuff here, and it’s certainly all of significant historical value, especially since it includes some original compositions and covers that didn’t make the LP.
Dylan and Sony would do this again for the years 1963 and 1964, rather than make at least some of that material widely available on standard expanded editions of his third and fourth albums, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. It might seem churlish to slam Dylan for these copyright extension exercises when he’s been far more willing than most legends to authorize official reissues of tons of his vault holdings, on the lengthy and still-ongoing Bootleg Series. Still, it would have benefited from both over-the-counter availability and historical liner notes/photos. Sony and Dylan certainly can’t be surprised that it’s been heavily bootlegged/unofficially circulated.
Van Morrison recently super-briefly issued some rare material in a different way. For just a few hours on November 7, a 64-minute live recording of an August 1968 Boston gig, his voice and acoustic guitar backed by just bass and flute, was available on iTunes UK. Although the fidelity’s not great, it’s part of the bridge between “Brown Eyed Girl” and Astral Weeks. Maybe the sound quality isn’t considered good enough for a general release, but it might have made an interesting disc in an expanded edition of the Astral Weeks album. As my lengthy story on the material’s release notes, there are apparently no plans for such a project where Astral Weeks is concerned.
Hidden bonus tracks. They’re not just an expanded editions, of course. One of the most aggravating was on a box set by a blues performer where the bonus track was not at the end, but at the beginning, requiring you to put your player on rewind so it went back before the start of track 1. My cheap CD player was unable to do that, and there was no refund or replacement conventionally playable disc with the bonus track when I let the label know—not much sympathy at all for my situation, in fact.
Most hidden bonus tracks—meaning songs unlisted in the packaging—are at the end of CDs, not the beginning. Often they’re preceded by a gap of silence, ranging from ten seconds to ten minutes. Which means they’re missed by those of us who are such ignoramuses that we unthinkingly eject the CD when it goes silent, instead of taking care to notice that the clock’s still ticking.
It’s back to Nico’s The Frozen Borderline for a prime example. An alternate version of “Frozen Warnings” at the end of the second disc of plays as an unlisted “hidden” track after a ten-minute gap of silence. I suppose the logic here might be, what a pleasant shock it is to suddenly hear music come out of the speaker after you think the album’s ended, while you’ve gone to wash the dishes or check your email. But such is the harried pace of modern life that plenty of people who’ve paid for the disc might eject it after the music’s over, or they think it’s over, without ever suspecting there’s more to come. Maybe I’ve even missed some hidden tracks myself.
My advice to record labels: don’t be cute. Don’t even put an unlisted track at the end if there’s no gap of silence. Let people know it’s there; if they’re getting an expanded edition, they do want to hear everything (and know what it is, in the liner notes/annotation). It’s kind of like those DVDs that had “easter eggs” where you couldn’t access unlisted bonus features unless you figured out exactly what to click and hover over—if you even knew the bonus features were there. That seems to have mostly or wholly disappeared from the DVD (and now Blu-ray) business, as it should from expanded music CDs.
In my past couple posts, I’ve praised some extended editions, and harped on a bunch of them whose flaws range from imperfection to downright annoying. Most extended editions, however, fall way between those two extremes. They offer enough extra material to interest committed fans, but not such exciting bonuses that you want to play the add-ons nearly as much as you play (or at least played, back when you had the bare disc) the original album. Again, just a couple examples of middle-value extended editions, which happen to be from the same label, the same era, and the same region:
The two-CD “Legacy Edition” (named after Columbia/Sony’s Legacy imprint, specializing in reissue) of Santana’s self-titled 1969 debut LP more than doubles its length with a couple alternate takes; previously unissued sessions for the original, unreleased album, produced by David Rubinson, including a song (“Fried Neckbones”) that wasn’t cut when the LP was redone from scratch a few months later; and seven songs from their legendary Woodstock set, four previously unreleased. Do I appreciate having this material available? Sure. Have I listened to it a lot? No, and it’s not on the level of the original LP, except for some of the Woodstock set, especially the one that’s long been well known from the festival’s soundtrack album and performance in the Woodstock movie, “Soul Sacrifice.”
The two-CD Legacy Edition of Janis Joplin’s last album, Pearl, likewise more than doubles the length of the LP with some demos/alternates/outtakes (half previously unreleased) and a live disc of material recorded in mid-1970 during the Festival Express tour in Canada (almost have previously unreleased). Likewise: good to have, I like it when I hear it, I appreciate its historical value. But I haven’t played it too often, and it’s not memorable in the way the Pearl LP is.
At this point some of you, including some who are actually in the music business and record industry, might be thinking that I’d rather expanded editions weren’t around at all. Or even worse, you might be reconsidering whether the record business should be doing expanded editions at all. No! Don’t stop! I do generally relish that extra material, whether it’s just that stray barely-different alternate take or heaps of demos that are actually revelatory.
Just because the bonuses are rarely on the level of the core albums doesn’t mean they’re not at the very least historically interesting, and at the very most vastly entertaining, to hear. Even the crummy cuts sometimes yield insights into the creative process. The usual gap in quality is an expected testament to the editing skills of the musicians, producers, songwriters, and labels when it came to determining what should be on the finished album.
And if I don’t especially feel the need to get the core albums along with the bonus material, or care too much about the remastered/remixed versions, I’ll end on an upbeat note by praising one of those relatively uncommon instances in which a bunch of extras are packaged on their own. Let’s give a hand to last year’s Big Brother’s Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills. As I wrote when I put it in the Top Ten of my year-end list:
Not an expanded Cheap Thrills (there was already one of those without much in the way of extras), this two-CD compilation is comprised almost entirely of outtakes from the sessions. Twenty-five of the thirty songs are previously unreleased; the previously available ones are on out-of-the-way or expensive compilations that even committed Joplin/Big Brother fans might have missed; and the one non-studio cut is a good hitherto unissued live version of “Ball and Chain” (Winterland, April 12, 1968).
There are good, though not book-length, liner notes by drummer David Getz, and an appreciation by Grace Slick that’s thoughtful and long enough not to look phoned in. And you can get all this as a standalone release, instead of having to buy it as part of an expanded Cheap Thrills edition that compels you to buy the original album—which you probably already have in at least two formats—all over again. And the double-CD sold for a reasonable $14.98 plus tax at my local record store. Hey, labels (and artists), pay attention: this is the way to do it!
As I wrote in my December 31, 2018 post listing my favorite reissues of 2018, expanded editions of classic, or even not-so-classic, albums are a growing presence in the record industry. At this point, in fact, it seems like almost every vintage rock act has an expanded edition of some sort in their catalog. At the extreme end of the scale, it can run to huge, and hugely expensive, multi-disc sets, like the recent seven-disc White Album box or, on a more cult level, the seven-disc set box for the Stooges’ Fun House. At the chintizest end, it can mean just one additional marginally different alternate take, or one B-side.
The seven-disc expanded edition of The White Album.
While the biggest boxes tend to go to very popular acts, that’s not a hard and fast rule, with many cult artists getting the very extended treatment. Besides the Stooges, for instance, the entire Velvet Underground catalog has been granted expanded editions, some of them running between four and six CDs. Even artists who neither sold that much nor have much left in the vault get spruced-up single CDs, like late-‘60s Elektra groups Clear Light and Eclection. And Skip Spence’s Oar, supposedly one of the lowest-selling major label LPs of the late 1960s, was recently honored with a three-CD edition—perhaps the unlikeliest huge expansion of an album to date, though it’ll no doubt be outpaced by an even more obscure record in the future.
What makes for a really good extended edition? Ideally, it should hit all or at least some of the following bases:
Additional material, whether studio outtakes/B-sides/rare compilation-only tracks/live recordings, that’s of considerable historical interest/value to enhancing appreciation of the core album;
Additional material that, besides being rare in the manner outlined above, is also very good and enjoyable to listen to, even granting that it’s seldom-to-never going to be as good as the core album it’s embellishing;
Thorough excavation of all the reasonably interesting/quality additional material that can be added to the core album, even if it takes several discs to do so;
Top-notch packaging, particularly in the way of detailed historical liner notes, with fine/rare vintage photos, ads, posters, label/sleeve reproductions, and other memorabilia being useful bonuses.
Some expanded editions come close to hitting this grand slam, but none of them really do. That’s not necessarily the fault of the compilers, labels, or artists. Sometimes every damn last thing is included, but the additional material’s just not massively interesting/enjoyable/notable. Sometimes great unreleased tapes known to exist are not legally available for clearance. Sometimes the artists themselves aren’t cooperating with the project.
I’ll look at some of the notable failures of expanded editions to meet their potential in my next post. But the bulk of this post will be devoted to some of my favorites, and why, in different ways, they meet at least some of the goals to which all such retrospectives should aspire. No doubt some of your favorites will be missing. But keep in mind that it’s a list of personal favorites, not one that ticks off how well the set was mastered and assembled and how its importance is judged by the community of music critics and listeners as a whole, regardless of how much I like the music.
As it happens, two of the best expanded editions came out last year, and took the top two positions on my 2018 reissue list. #2, but #1 as far as ideal expanded editions go, was Liz Phair’s Girly Sound to Guyville. Despite the different title, this is essentially an expanded edition of her 1993 album Exile in Guyville, which occupies disc one of this three-CD set.
But the real attraction of this release—not a box, just a regular CD-sized package with three discs—are the two CDs of the so-called Girly Sound tapes, which Phair recorded on her own on a four-track in her bedroom. These predate the recording of Exile in Guyville, and include not only different versions of seven Exile songs, but more than thirty others, some (but not many) of which she’d redo for post-Exile albums. These come close to meeting all four of the criteria for the ideal deluxe edition:
Considerable historical importance. This is almost as thorough a document as possible of her evolution before her debut album, both with the different versions of Exile songs but also, even more crucially, the many songs that didn’t make it on there or anywhere. (As to why it’s not completely thorough, see two paragraphs down.) And they’re much different sonically than the Exile material, with their solo lightly-amplified-guitar-and-voice intimacy (though Exile wasn’t gaudy or over-produced).
Extremely high-quality, enjoyable bonus material. I’m not putting detailed reviews of the music for the albums I discuss in this post, and you can read about that aspect of Girly Sound to Guyville in my extensive rundown of the record on my best-of list. But the two discs of home tapes have both very good, sometimes great, songs and good performances, in considerably better sound quality than their bootlegged versions. They are discs I’ve listened to over and over, which is rare for tracks augmenting the core classic album.
Almost everything known to exist was included. Here’s a prime example of how two items are missing, but not through the fault of the artist. Two songs from the Girly Sound tapes, “Fuck or Die” and “Shatter,” that have circulated unofficially are not included. That’s because they incorporate some lyrics from Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” and couldn’t be cleared for official consumption.
Good packaging and annotation. The fairly fat booklet features extensive interview material with Phair, Exile in Guyville producer/bassist/drummer Brad Wood, Casey Rice (who also plays on Exile in Guyville), and some more obscure figures who helped build awareness of Phair’s work. However, in part because it’s not LP-sized, graphically the booklet’s not as impressive as most expanded edition notes are, with virtually nothing in the way of illustrations. If it’s a choice between good notes/documentation and fluffy/minimal notes filled out with big photos, however, I’ll take the non-augmented notes every time.
To be honest, this really could have been a two-CD set with just Girly Sound material. Almost anyone who gets this already has Exile in Guyville. The conundrum is, though, that if it just had the Girly Sound stuff, it wouldn’t be an expanded edition, and maybe the participants wouldn’t have been as motivated to produce liner notes that were as thorough. The third disc probably didn’t up the price up too much; the CD set was selling for a pretty reasonable $20-25 when it came out, though I wonder if it’s already gone out of print, since it’s already not easy to find new online.
#1 on my 2018 reissue list — but not quite as impressive as Girly Sound to Guyville viewed purely from how it fulfills an extended edition’s mission — was the seven-disc box of the Beatles’ White Album. Three of the seven discs didn’t interest me much — two of them were of a new (and hyped) mix of The White Album itself, and the third a Blu-ray with mono and 5.1 versions. But four were largely comprised of unreleased material, three of them devoted to 1968 studio outtakes (almost all of which hadn’t even been previously bootlegged), and the fourth to demos the group recorded at George Harrison’s house shortly before the White Album sessions started.
More than anything else, that disc of demos—the so-called Esher demos, in honor of the name of Harrison’s home—is what puts this in the top echelon of expanded editions. I’ve written about them at length in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, and you can read that section here. But for now, it’s sufficient to note that they’re the most important body of unreleased Beatles material, the 27 acoustic-oriented tracks showing them in an unplugged, loose, and friendly frame of mind. Crucially, it’s also a disc you can play over and over for sheer enjoyment—as I did when most of the demos got bootlegged back in the early 1990s. Now they’re in appreciably better sound quality, and available for all the world to hear, not just us clued-in cats who seek unofficially circulating recordings.
The three discs of studio outtakes have enormous historical value, but aren’t, with maybe a few scattered exceptions, things you’d want to play as often or repeatedly. And it’s not a thorough presentation of everything known to exist—there are so many multiple takes of White Album songs that you’d probably need a car trunk to hold them all on compact disc. (Maybe those will be made available to the public on the 100th anniversary of The White Album, though none of us will be around to hear them at that point.)
There’s also a 164-page hardback book that, a little surprisingly considered how much has already been written about the Beatles, is very good; has a lot of information, intelligently relayed; and has plenty of interesting graphics.
The Beatles were at an advantage when devising a box like this, of course, because they had such a big well of interesting unreleased material from the White Album era to draw upon. That wasn’t the case when they put out the only other deluxe edition produced for a Beatles album, the Sgt. Pepper box, where the outtakes weren’t nearly as numerous or interesting (or as variant from the official versions, as the ones for the White Album sometimes were). Another icon of the era, however, had an even bigger reservoir of unissued material to tap for the next deluxe I’ll cite.
It’s arguable whether Bob Dylan & the Band’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete is even an expanded edition. None of it, after all, came out on a “proper” album, if you take that to mean an album released relatively soon after it was recorded. Even the 1975 official compilation of Basement Tapes—issued a good eight years after the tapes were actually taped—isn’t quite the core of this six-CD set. The 1975 Basement Tapes, for one thing, had eight Dylan-less Band songs not on the box, and five of the songs on the 1975 double LP were given overdubs for that release.
I think it’s safe to guess that these distinctions don’t matter too much to most—maybe even almost every—listener who’s interested in The Basement Tapes. They’ll probably consider The Basement Tapes Complete to be an expanded edition of whatever they have, whether it’s the 1975 double album or the five-CD Genuine Basement Tapes bootleg series. If you’re not disqualifying it, again it scores high in the key categories:
Vast historical interest, as it’s among the most mysterious periods of any major artist’s career, and a rare example of a star recording shed-loads of material during his prime, but not releasing any of it at the time;
A thorough exhumation of the available goods. A few very lo-fi tracks were left off, but it still included a whopping 138, some of which had never even been bootlegged. And the lowest-fi of the tracks were thoughtfully grouped together on one disc. It’s true that the 18-disc collector’s edition of Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 outdid this by including every damned last surviving studio take, a disc of hotel room tapes, and MP3 downloads of all his surviving 1965 live performances. That’s not included in this list because it’s not an expanded edition of a particular album, although it’s extensive enough to deserve this honorable mention.
Listenability. To the chagrin of some, I’m not such a huge Bob Dylan fan. And this six-CD anthology of Basement Tapes, I think even Dylan obsessives would admit, is uneven, with a big gap between the best of the material (much of which was chosen for the 1975 double LP) and the numbers that were obviously throwaways or goofs. But it’s pretty listenable overall, if not as compellingly so from start-to-finish as the Girlysound tapes or the Esher demos. You’re likely to listen to this at least a few times all the way through if you buy this in the first place, and some Dylan fanatics will listen to it many times without tiring.
Packaging: a hardback 42-page book of liner notes that, if not as huge as the one with The White Album (or for that matter the books/liner notes that the Bear Family label often includes in its box sets), are very informative. That’s complemented by a 122-page book of vintage photos and memorabilia, much of it quite rare.
While these are the three expanded editions that stand out to me as the class of the field, I’m also citing a few others I like a lot, even if they don’t touch as many bases:
The Moody Blues’ first album, The Magnificent Moodies (in the UK; as usual for those days, in the US, their first LP was similar but somewhat different), was “expanded” into a two-CD job by Esoteric. Basically, it was an excuse to not just add to, or double, the length of the original, but to quadruple it. The Magnificent Moodies was hardly a magnificent album, though it was pretty good as second-line British Invasion LPs went. However, in the era when Denny Laine was their lead singer and (with keyboardist Mike Pinder) writer of their original material, they did a lot of non-LP singles. Some of those were quite good, and all are essential to a fuller version of their pre-psychedelic/prog era, when their forte was haunting R&B/pop.
The first disc of this modest regular CD-sized package has The Magnificent Moodies and all of their non-LP sides, even adding a rare French EP cut and an early unreleased version of their big hit “Go Now.” The second disc is more in the “good to have” category than the “spin over and over” one, with lots—about thirty, in fact—outtakes and radio sessions, not to mention a Coke commercial.
But it’s a nearly 60-track overview that’s so extensive it would have been unimaginable when it was a struggle just to get all of the Moody Blues’ pre-1967 output in one place. Lots of small-print info and graphics are in the 24-page booklet, and a foldout of press clippings and postcard/ticket-type thingies are thrown in. It’s an example of how to do the best job possible without the big budget and size of a deluxe box. Some would argue that it should also include their two other non-LP singles predating Days of Future Passed (after Laine left), but then those are on—you guessed it—the two-CD expanded Days of Future Passed.
While I don’t want this to turn into a commercial for Esoteric, the same label also huffed and puffed up the self-titled debut album by the Move into an unimaginable size, without sacrificing quality. The thirteen songs of the actual LP comprise a relatively minor part, percentage-wise, of this three-CD, 65-track set. There are also both sides of their first two singles (both big hits in the UK); outtakes; demos and a local Birmingham radio session from January 1966, a good year or so before their first record came out; and an entire disc of January 1967-January 1968 BBC sessions, including a bunch of covers they didn’t put on their studio releases.
Yes, disc two is dominated by the kind of stereo mixes I find relatively inessential. But again, an info-packed booklet and foldout of press clippings gets the most out of the regular CD-sized format. Esoteric did a similarly bang-up job on a lot of other parts of the Move catalog, by the way; the two-CD Shazam adds about three dozen bonus tracks to an LP that only has six songs (albeit some of which are pretty long). Ditto for Procol Harum’s first album, whose ten tracks are the prelude to 27 bonus ones, even if a few of those are peripheral stereo mixes. We do get into quantity over quality in some respects with these Esoteric editions, but the best extras on all of these are things you want to play, and sometimes play a lot.
I’m not as big a fan of Nico’s solo stuff as I am of the early work by the Moody Blues, Move, and Procol Harum. But I like how the two-CD The Frozen Borderline compilation basically puts two substantially expanded editions together. Disc one features her 1968 album The Marble Index, with outtakes, alternates, and demos; disc two features her 1970 album Desertshore with a half dozen demos.
These are close enough in release dates to basically be an overview of her prime as a songwriter (remember she wrote little on her very worthwhile 1967 debut Chelsea Girl), with both albums bearing a heavy influence from John Cale, as both an arranger and instrumentalist. It’s true the Desertshore demos tend to confirm just how important Cale was because they sound so bare compared to how they’d develop after he worked with the material. But that in itself is of pretty vast historical importance, if you’re a Velvet Underground fanatic at any rate.
The LPs came out on different labels (Elektra and Reprise), which often complicates things in the reissue business. But luckily those labels are now administered by the same company, which removes the obstacles from packaging these in tandem. The liners aren’t as imposing as the others on this list, but get the job done with lots of info and first-hand quotes from Cale and others.
How could it have been better? They could have also added material from her BBC broadcasts on John Peel’s program in early 1971, though most people who want The Frozen Borderline would already have those on her Peel Sessions EP, issued almost twenty years before The Frozen Borderline. Much less forgivably, two alternate versions that appear as bonus tracks on the much slimmer 1991 expanded edition of The Marble Index are not on The Frozen Borderline. It’s almost as though they feared making the set a total success.
One of the best expanded editions was of a soundtrack LP, rather than a conventional album statement by one artist. The 2003 two-CD deluxe edition of The Harder They Come pulled off the difficult feat of making a classic album better by more than doubling its length with a second disc of eighteen reggae classics from 1968-1973.
In a refreshing counterpoint to the elitism that sometimes governs the selection of such compilations, it included not only additional tracks by artists featured on the original soundtrack (the Maytals, the Melodians), but also some of the first crossover hits to popularize reggae in the US and UK (Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” Dave & Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel”). Although Johnny Nash is sometimes derided as an exploiter/mere popularizer of Bob Marley songs, it also includes his big hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” along with his Marley cover “Guava Jelly.” There’s also Eric Donaldson’s original version of “Cherry Oh Baby,” covered by the Rolling Stones on their Black and Blue album.
Yes, the compilers of this edition had an advantage over most expandeds in being able to pick choice gems from the entire pool of the era’s reggae music, rather than cull leftovers surrounding a core album by one artist. But it’s done very well, also included decent if not huge liner notes.
This was also done, incidentally, for the Easy Rider soundtrack, whose two-CD edition almost triples the length of the original LP release, adding nineteen other late-’60s rock classics (including the Band’s original version of “The Weight, ” which is heard in the film, but couldn’t be used on the original soundtrack LP for contractual reasons). But although it’s a good listen, it really isn’t connected with the film, which itself wasn’t connected with a certain musical style, as The Harder They Come was with reggae.
To round out the releases given qualified praise here to an even ten or so, how about a “shout-out,” as the 21st century terminology demands, to expanded editions that include DVDs/Blu-R=rays as well as music CDs. That’s becoming more common as time goes on, and though it’s usually secondary to the musical portion, there are some real goodies.
Just a few months ago, the expanded edition of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland also had a DVD documentary about the making of the album (in addition to three CDs, one of them comprised of outtakes/demos, the other of a live 1968 concert at Hollywood Bowl). That documentary was issued a long time ago as part of the Classic Albums series, but the opportunity was taken to add almost forty minutes of extra material. So there you have an occasion where “bonus” material’s added not just to the music, but also to the visuals.
I like how Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water made the second disc a DVD featuring their 1969 TV special Songs of America, which is very interesting; had not been too easy to view; and was quite controversial at the time, mixing music with footage of contentious late-‘60s social turmoil. There’s also a documentary about the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water on the DVD disc.
Too bad, then, that no extra musical tracks are added to the actual album, when there are certainly some other studio and live recordings from the time that were eligible. In fact, a couple were even included when the album was part of the box set The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970. But when it comes to extended editions, you not only can’t have everything—you never have everything.
But if even some of the best expanded editions have imperfections, some imperfections are more imperfect, and even annoying, than others. My next post discusses what not to do with expanded editions—even though such things are done all too often.
I’ll be teaching a course on the Doors for the first time at the end of this month, and spent a lot of time preparing the material over the last few months. I’ve been a big Doors fan for more than forty years, but of course as I got my class together, I’ve thought a lot more about the group recently than I have for a while.
There’s been an enormous amount written about the Doors. It’s hard to believe there was a time, before the best-selling Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive came out in 1980, that there was no substantial book about them. Still, there are a few aspects of their work that aren’t discussed much. I’ll be going over a half dozen of them here.
1. The bass player(s). Even many casual rock fans know the Doors were unusual in not, with few exceptions, using a bass player onstage. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek is particularly noted for playing the bass parts on a Fender Rhodes Piano bass, simultaneously playing the upper register melodies on a Vox Continental organ.
Doug Lubahn’s book about the Doors, which includes a section specifically detailing his bass lines on the Doors tracks on which he played.
It’s not so well known that the Doors usually used an electric bassist on their recordings, though except for the first album (on which Wrecking Crew stalwart Larry Knechtel played on a few tracks), they were properly credited on the original LPs. Doug Lubahn, who plays on most or some of Strange Days, Waiting for the Sun, and The Soft Parade, handled the instrument more than anyone else. But they used a few others too, including Harvey Brooks on The Soft Parade (who’d played in the Electric Flag and on some of Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s sessions); Jerry Scheff on L.A. Woman (most noted for playing in Elvis Presley’s band); Lonnie Mack (on Morrison Hotel);, and, least famously, Ray Neopolitan, who plays on most of Morrison Hotel, though not much else is known about him.
If the quartet lineup—really a trio, instrumentally, Jim Morrison rarely playing anything—worked so well in concert, why was it almost always altered in the studio? There’s a pretty big difference between hearing something live and on a record, and they, producer Paul Rothchild, and Elektra Records were likely conscious that some more depth and oomph were needed. And the session bassists worked pretty well, whether playing on their own or kind of doubling/reinforcing Manzarek’s lines. Here are just a few of the memorable bass lines on Doors records:
That part near the end of “Take It As It Comes” where all the instruments dramatically drop out except bass and drums (Knechtel);
The opening riff of “You’re Lost Little Girl” (Lubahn);
The opening riff of “My Eyes Have Seen You” (Lubahn);
The part right before the final, shouted verse of “The Unknown Soldier,” introducing by a single declarative, loopy bass note (Kerry Magness, of the group Bodine, who only played on this one Doors track);
The fuzz bass on “Five to One” (Lubahn);
The throbbing bottom on the opening instrumental section to “L.A. Woman” (Scheff);
The ominous line underpinning the intro to “Riders on the Storm” (Scheff).
Jerry Scheff’s autobiography, which has just a little on his work with the Doors.
There are plenty of others. In fact, most of the tracks on Doors albums have a session bassist except for the self-titled debut, and even that has Knechtel playing on four of the eleven songs.
I’d go as far as to say it would have been a good idea for the Doors to have a full-time bass player, though it’s been reported that when they were first getting their sound together, they tried a few bassists and found the sound too full. Doug Lubahn would have been the best candidate, as he fit in with them well and was already recording for Elektra as part of the Rothchild-produced group Clear Light.
In fact, in his obscure memoir My Days with the Doors and Other Stories, Lubahn says Rothchild asked Doug if he’d consider joining the Doors as a full fifth partner in 1967. Lubahn, apparently without regret, turned him down as he wanted to stay in Clear Light, who ended up doing just one LP before splitting. Lubahn does acknowledge that when he brought up the subject with Rothchild twenty years later, the producer denied it ever happened.
Whatever took place, the Doors’ records sound great — in part because they used session bassists. Which leads to the next point:
2. The Doors were better in the studio than they were in concert. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — many and perhaps most bands sound better on their finished studio product than they do on live tapes. And at their best, the Doors were pretty good live. I do think the gap between their live and studio sound is bigger than it is for the usual top act, in part because they used bass players on their records. And the dynamic range and sonic balance of Doors records is usually pretty phenomenal, with engineer (and, on L.A. Woman, co-producer with the other Doors) Bruce Botnick deserving credit as well as Rothchild. Of course like countless acts they were sometimes able to use overdubs and effects that weren’t possible onstage, like Ray Manzarek’s use of the Marxophone on “Alabama Song,” his weaving of both organ and piano parts on “The Crystal Ship,” and the rain and thunder on “Riders on the Storm.”
That lets them off pretty easy, but there are some less flattering issues that can be brought up as well. For me at least, their live recordings—and I’m too young to have seen them in concert, so I’m going from the many official and unofficial taped shows in circulation—sometimes suffered in a few crucial respects:
Frequent insertions of dissonant poetry/music pieces, sometimes as medleys with actual songs with which they didn’t jibe too well. I’m not a big fan of the legendary “The Celebration of the Lizard” epic, but obviously it meant a lot to the Doors, or at least to Morrison, as they often performed small-to-big chunks of it. Sometimes the juxtaposition of a grating poem to a classic tune would be jarring, like when they preceded “Light My Fire” with that screeching “Wake up! Run to the mirror in the bathroom look” section. The medley of “Texas Radio & The Big Beat” and “Love Me Two Times” wasn’t as displeasing, but nor was it entirely logical.
A sense that they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. This comes through much more strongly on their 1969-70 tapes than the pre-1969 ones (which are much fewer in number, especially if you want decent fidelity). You don’t have to hear specialized archive releases or bootlegs to find this; it characterizes much of the official 1970 double LP Absolutely Live, where there’s sometimes a looseness that verges on sloppiness, and a jovial tone at odds with the serious poetic lyrics. Lester Bangs pointed this out back in 1976 in his chapter on the Doors in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: “Morrison was by turns painfully and wryly aware of his own absurdity, and you can hear his humor in the between-song banter (“Dead cat in a top hat…thinks he’s an aristocrat…That’s crap”) on [the intro to “Break on Through”] on Absolutely Live.”
That’s why I think their tapes of shows at San Francisco’s Matrix tapes in March 1967 (two CDs of which have been officially issued) are easily their best live recordings, despite not-quite-optimum fidelity. “Light My Fire” was still three months away from becoming a hit, and they’re not yet jaded. They’re still hungry, and play things pretty straight. Even their second-best set of live recordings—two shows in Stockholm in September 1968, which have yet to see official release (possibly because of somewhat imperfect sound)—are more earnest and straightahead, without the toying with their own compositions you hear on the many official CDs of 1969 and 1970 concerts.
One of several posthumous archival CDs of 1970 Doors concerts.
Mediocre blues/R&B/early rock’n’roll covers. The Doors did a lot of non-originals live that they didn’t put on their studio LPs. Which brings us to the next point:
3. The Doors were not particularly good at blues/R&B/soul. There were only three covers on Doors albums, all of which worked fairly well in their own way: Weill-Brecht’s “Alabama Song” and two blues classics, “Back Door Man” (written by Willie Dixon and originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf) and John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake.” (With Ray Manzarek on vocals, they also put a little-commented-upon version of Dixon’s “(You Need Meat) Don’t Go No Further,” first recorded by Muddy Waters, on a B-side.) They did a lot more in concert, as was hinted at by 1970 even if you didn’t go to Doors shows, since they put a couple on Absolutely Live.
Archival releases and bootlegs have unleashed a lot more into circulation, including but not limited to “Money,” B.B. King’s “Rock Me,” Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” and “Little Red Rooster.” Back on the first live tape that survives (from May 1966 at the London Fog, recently excavated and released), they even do “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It.”
May 1966 tapes of the Doors at the London Fog were recently discovered and officially released.
I’m of two minds about the availability of all this surplus. On the one hand, you want live/archive releases/bootlegs to have material you can’t hear in an act’s common discography. The Doors have plenty of that, including not only the ones listed in the preceding paragraph, but also occasional non-blues covers like an extended instrumental version of “Summertime,” as well as some originals (usually half-baked-sounding) that didn’t make it onto their standard releases.
On the other, they just weren’t that good at these blues/R&B/soul/early rock’n’roll classics. Not nearly as good as, say, the Rolling Stones, one of their chief early inspirations, or some of the other best blues-oriented British Invasion bands, like Them, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. Or the Beatles, who weren’t nearly as blues/R&B-oriented, but did some great covers of songs in that style, “Money” being merely one of the most famous examples.
Some other great groups, it should be stated, weren’t great blues/R&B interpreters, like the Who. Just because you aren’t great at that one thing doesn’t mean you’re not great. But the Doors, unlike some other top bands, weren’t great at both covers and their own songs.
The Doors genuinely loved this music. But their interpretations were relatively perfunctory, sloppy, and unimaginative, often verging on the sluggish. Morrison tended to give in to some of his worst vocal mannerisms on these, such as affected yelps and macho growls and screams. It doesn’t bother me too much, but the live Matrix 1967 version of “Crawling King Snake,” predating its release on L.A. Woman by about four years, has some of the most abominable harmonica playing (presumably by Morrison) you’ll hear anywhere, though it fades away after the instrumental introduction.
There was just one R&B cover on their live recordings that was really good, despite their numerous attempts. The Matrix 1967 arrangement of “Who Do You Love” is lean, taut, and not too much like the Bo Diddley original. Compared to his usual blues interpretations, Morrison’s singing is effectively restrained; Robby Krieger’s slide guitar is superb; and the way the organ, drums, and guitars crash together and accelerate at the end is great. But it’s an exception that proves a general rule, in my view.
Official two-CD release of Doors tapes from March 1967 at the Matrix.
Had the Doors tried to make it as a straight blues/R&B band—or even, like some of their British Invasion heroes, a blues/R&B-oriented rock band—they never would have made it. The predominance of such material in their early sets was probably demanded/expected when they were unknowns who needed to play at least some familiar, danceable songs to club audiences. Their undistinguished efforts in this regard seem to have caused some other bands to dismiss them as hopeless no-contenders, and even make Rothchild and Elektra president Jac Holzman wary of getting involved with the Doors until they heard their far more impressive original material. Of which there was a lot, leading to the next point:
4. Were there any other top bands whose debut album was so clearly their best? I can’t think of any. The Doors were both blessed and cursed by their early productivity. Blessed because when they creamed off the best for The Doors, they had not just arguably the best debut album of all time, but one of the best albums of all time. Cursed because they couldn’t match that debut, even though they had a lot of fine music left.
Even for great groups that start off with a great album, usually that doesn’t happen. They don’t use up their best material; they write new material that’s good or even better, and stretches into new directions. That happened with the Beatles after Please Please Me, and the Who after My Generation. It happened with the Rolling Stones after their self-titled debut, though in part that’s because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who’d barely written anything by the time of their first album, quickly matured into a great songwriting team.
The Doors, unusually, seem to have written two to three albums’ worth of songs by the time their first LP was released. It’s only become apparent with the passage of time, and the availability of numerous archive releases, how many of their post-debut album compositions were actually written way before the sessions for their second LP (Strange Days, released September 1967). Seven of the ten songs from that record had been performed onstage by March 1967 at the latest, as half a dozen are on the Matrix tapes.
When I got this bootleg of March 1967 Matrix tapes as an 18-year-old in 1980, I was fascinated to hear early performances of numerous songs the Doors had yet to record in their famous studio versions.
(As an aside, those tapes are a reminder of the days when acts would perform quality original material in concert that hadn’t yet been released on their official albums. That would be uncommon in subsequent decades, in part because of fears, whether overblown or legitimate, that the songs would be bootlegged/broadcast/circulated before their proper unveiling on commercial discs. As an unfortunate consequence, many live performances haven’t been as interesting as they could have been had artists used them to introduce/refine new material.)
It’s known that some of the as-yet-unreleased songs on the Matrix tapes had been written and performed for quite some time. “Moonlight Drive,” the song Jim Morrison sang to Ray Manzarek on Venice Beach when they decided to form a band in summer 1965, was on their batch of half a dozen September 2, 1965 demos (and also recorded in an early version on an outtake from The Doors), as was “My Eyes Have Seen You.” “Strange Days,” to the surprise of even avid Doors fanatics like myself, is on the May 1966 London Fog tape that was released a couple years ago.
So when it came to the Strange Days album, you had a group of songs that were strong, but not quite as strong overall as those that had already been selected for The Doors. Whether because of Jim Morrison’s increasingly erratic behavior/indulgences and/or other reasons, they found it hard to maintain their quantity and the consistency of their quality, and kept dipping back into their early pool of songs when the well was sinking. On their third album (Waiting for the Sun), they plucked a couple other numbers from their September 1965 demo, “Summer’s Almost Gone” (also performed at the Matrix in March 1967) and “Hello I Love You.”
Even as late as Morrison Hotel, they retrieved “Indian Summer,” which like “Moonlight Drive” had been cut in a different version as an outtake for The Doors. Another big surprise from the May 1966 London Fog tape was an early live version of “You Make Me Real,” which took almost four years to appear on Morrison Hotel. Even on L.A. Woman, “Cars Hiss By My Window” has been reported to have been worked up from lyrics dating back to notebooks Morrison kept in Venice Beach in the mid-’60s.
Of course, many and maybe most rock artists sometimes reach back into their past, sometimes way back. The Beatles revived one of the earliest Lennon-McCartney compositions, “One After 909” (which they’d recorded but not released back in early 1963), in January 1969 for the Get Back sessions/Let It Be album. They took another song they’d considered recording, but not released, back in early 1963, “What Goes On,” when they needed to fill out Rubber Soul two and a half years later. The Beach Boys reworked “Thinkin’ About You Baby,” which Brian Wilson and Mike Love had penned for singer Sharon Marie back in 1964, into “Darlin’” in late 1967, and got a pretty big hit with it. There are numerous other examples.
But there aren’t many other examples of a band of comparable significance to the Doors using so much material that couldn’t fit onto their first album. They had enough, indeed, to make The Doors a double LP. But it wouldn’t have had the relentless knockout punch of the single disc, and double LPs in rock were rare back in late 1966, let alone double LPs that were also debuts (the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out being a very notable and unusual exception).
Does that mean that the Doors’ career was a disappointment after their first album, and that none of their subsequent songs were on the level of the best from that LP? Of course not. But their trajectory was not one of explosive artistic growth through a sustained peak. It might have contributed to a sense of letdown that led some critics, like Lester Bangs, to view the band, kind of unfairly, as having slid into less relevance/hipness. Or at least find, as Lillian Roxon wrote in the late ‘60s her entry on the Doors in her Rock Encyclopedia (the first serious rock reference book), that “the second album was a repeat, a lesser repeat, of the first.”
The best of their final album with Morrison, L.A. Woman, indicates they just possibly might have been able to recharge themselves with both exciting fresh material and an interesting exploration of new directions had their lead singer lived. Which leads to the speculation:
5. What would the Doors have done if Morrison hadn’t died? Or at least lived long enough to be on one more album?
It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. Even if he’d lived, it’s possible he would not have recorded with the Doors again. Maybe he would have stayed in Paris and never returned to the US, in part to avoid a prison sentence he was appealing for profanity and public exposure at a March 1969 concert in Miami, though the other Doors could have recorded with him in France. There’s also speculation that he was tired of music and pop stardom, and wanted to discontinue his musical career in favor of writing poetry/prose and perhaps working in film—again impossible to prove or disprove.
Here are the negatives of how the next Doors album might have sounded had Morrison been involved:
There’s reason to believe his voice was sharply deteriorating. His alcohol intake and general substance abuse gets the most attention when his excesses are documented. But he was also a heavy smoker, and this might have been taking its physical toll, even though he was at 27 still pretty young. You can hear a gruff tone on some of the L.A. Woman cuts—like “Been Down So Long,” “The Changeling,” and “L.A. Woman” itself—that’s coarser than anything he’d previously cut, though it works well for this material. His smoking, and an associated hacking cough, were apparently getting even worse in his last few days in Paris. How long would it have been before he lost some of his vocal range and depth?
L.A. Woman was tilted more towards straight blues than previous Doors records. That’s especially true of “Been Down So Long,” “Cars Hiss By My Window,” and the John Lee Hooker cover “Crawling King Snake.” But it also comes through to some extent on “The Changeling,” “L.A. Woman,” and “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat).” Again, this works well within the context of the LP, since there was variety and contrast with classic, more characteristically Doorsian songs that weren’t straight blues (“Love Her Madly” and “Riders on the Storm”), and since even “L.A. Woman” and “The Changeling” were bluesy without having standard, predictable blues structures and melodies.
Excerpts from the L.A. Woman sessions are featured on this disc.
However, there’s reason to believe Morrison might have wanted to drift into straight blues that would have made the Doors less interesting or even pedestrian. Predicted drummer John Densmore in his memoir Riders on the Storm, “He would just want to play the blues, the slow, soulful, monotonous blues, which is great for a singer like him, but boring for a drummer like me.” And possibly boring for listeners, especially if it’s delivered in a croaky voice.
But there are a couple positives to this speculation too:
Although some L.A. Woman tracks seem to show some wear on Morrison’s voice, on other tracks, he crooned as well as ever. In particular, his vocals on “Riders on the Storm” are as clear and haunting as anything he sang. And that was the last song he recorded with the Doors, so it wasn’t as if his voice went into decline after the L.A. Woman sessions started. Would he have still been able to summon these kind of performances on another Doors LP?
And although some feel Jim was through with pop music and wanted to stay in Paris to write, an indication that he might have felt otherwise also comes from John Densmore’s memoir. Shortly before his death, Morrison called Densmore from Paris to see how L.A. Woman was doing; expressed some enthusiasm for doing another one; and said he’d be back in just a few months. According to the Morrison bio No One Here Gets Out Alive, Morrison told Densmore that if critics liked L.A. Woman, “wait’ll they hear what I got in mind for the next one.”
Does that mean Morrison had already written some songs we never got to hear? Or at least that he’d sketched out some lyrics or ideas? It should be noted that Densmore at least was dubious they’d be as good, writing, “I saw us spending the rest of our lives in dumpy clubs and in grumpy recording sessions.”
My own feeling, to be honest, is somewhat in line with Densmore’s. The material, I’d guess, would have gotten bluesier, but also less interesting and inspired, possibly even monotonous and burned-out sounding. And it would have been diminished by Morrison’s problematic vocals and general downward physical and mental spiral. But it certainly had a chance of being better than the pair of utterly unmemorable albums the Doors did record without him.
Did Morrison possibly have in mind material that might comment on his dire personal situation (particularly the threat of a prison sentence), and push the limits of what was considered acceptable in pop music, particularly via controversial lyrics? We don’t know that either. But it’s interesting to consider, even without taking into account his numerous brushes with the law stemming from his anti-authoritarian behavior onstage and offstage:
6. How often the Doors ran into obstacles with presenting their original lyrics. Instances in which the Doors were censored or somewhat self-censored might seem tame now that far more provocative and profane lyrics are more common in rock and rap. Still, there were a number of interesting cases in which their words were changed for their recorded versions, starting with the opening track of their first album.
The middle section of “Break on Through” was supposed to feature Morrison repeatedly singing “she gets high,” and that’s how it was recorded. Instead, on the original LP (and single), we heard “she gets, she gets, she gets, she gets” before he goes into an extended wordless wail. That always intrigued me, even as a fifteen-year-old back in the late 1970s. She gets what? I certainly wasn’t guessing “she gets high.”
The Doors continued to sing “she gets high” in live performances, such as the one on 1970’s Absolutely Live and even back at the Matrix in March 1967. And the original uncensored studio version was reinstated on CD reissues. In fact, now it’s hard to find the censored “she gets” one, although that was the only one available when it first came out, and for many years after that.
Even as someone who advocates free expression, my own feeling might disappoint the Doors and many of their fans. I think the censored “she gets” (no “high”) version is better. The rhythm of the shorter phrase fits better into that section. But also, it’s more interesting to leave the third word to your imagination. Everybody loves his baby because she gets money? She gets sex? She gets “it,” whatever it is? She gets “high” might have been considered hip and daring in 1967 for its drug reference, but it’s frankly kind of a cheap letdown now. She smokes pot, or even does harder drugs. So what? Does that even make her cool? And was it really that unusual, at a time when so many people were getting high?
The Doors’ first album ended with “The End.” Famously and infamously, the middle section was a reenactment of the Oedipus myth. It got the Doors fired from their Whisky A Go Go gig when Morrison sang explicit lyrics about having sex with his mother. There was no way that was going into the recorded version when the Doors cut the LP, not in late 1966, and maybe not even today for most acts. Jim did chant the f-word during the instrumental break, and while that was buried on the original release, again CDs reinstate this. Or kind of reinstate it, since it’s still kind of submerged, if audible. My take is that it doesn’t notably add or detract from the track’s ultimate effect. If you want to hear the untampered “fuck the mother, kill the father” line, that’s on the Matrix tapes.
Leading off side two of The Doors was their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man,” written by Willie Dixon. Live, they at least sometimes altered the lyrics to insert the following verse, which is not found in either Howlin’ Wolf’s original or the Doors’ studio version: “I’ve got the right to love you, I’ve got the right to hug you, I got the right to kiss you, I’ve got the right to misuse you.” You can hear that on their Matrix tapes.
As there’s no Doors recording of “Back Door Man” predating the Matrix tapes, it’s not known whether they were already doing those words onstage when they recorded their first album. If they were, it’s not known whether it was their decision not to use those words in the studio, or if there might have been pressure from Elektra. It can’t even be discounted that had these words already been part of the Doors’ arrangement, they might have been cut simply for space considerations, as the additional verse would have made the song considerably longer than the three and a half minutes it occupied on the first LP. Whatever the situation, here’s one case where the omission of that pretty offensive line “I’ve got the right to misuse you” was a good thing.
Another jolting lyrical change to another song they covered on their first album can be heard on the Matrix Tapes. A key line of Weill-Brecht’s “Alabama Song” is “show me the way to the next little girl.” At the Matrix, that line was sung as “show me the way to the next little boy.” That wasn’t going to fly on a 1967 record, Elektra or not.
Another infrequently noted example of censorship, or maybe self-censorship, was “Five to One,” the final track on their third album, Waiting for the Sun. That’s because there’s just the one version, which doesn’t contain profanity. In concert, however—as numerous live tapes evidence—Morrison consistently concluded the spoken section near the end about getting in a car to go out with some people with a declared intention to “get fucked up,” those words being drawled in a drawn-out manner for emphasis. It’s an odd, interesting detour in a song largely devoted to revolutionary exhortation, but the Doors were good at mixing somewhat contrasting narratives into the same song. Yet there’s no way Elektra Records, even as one of the hippest and most progressive labels of the ‘60s, was going to allow the f-word on an album in 1968, by their most commercial act or probably anyone else.
There are two different versions of “Touch Me” that owe nothing to the words Jim Morrison sings of the principal tunes (actually written by Robby Krieger, the sole composer credited). At the very end of the track, there’s a memorable four-note staccato brass riff. That’s all you hear on the original single.
But on the mix the band intended—and again, it’s the one that has become standard on CD—you hear low vocals grunt-sing “stronger than dirt.” That was a playful quote of a jingle, if that’s the right word, in a widely broadcast commercial of the time for Ajax, where voices chant-sang the same phrase in much the same way. Maybe it was removed from the single to avoid any objections, legal or otherwise, from Ajax.
I might sound like a fuddy-dud here, but I think the “stronger than dirt” interjection is rather silly and juvenile. And dated. Lots of people would have gotten the joke, i.e. reference to the Ajax commercial, back in the late 1960s. Not a whole lot of people born after 1960 get it now, and even those who saw the commercial back then might have forgotten about it. People haven’t forgotten about the Doors, and that “stronger than dirt” reference is there forever, though it’s so brief it doesn’t seriously blight the listening experience for me.
“Build Me a Woman” is one of the more obscure Doors songs, as it wasn’t on any of their studio albums, though a concert version’s on Absolutely Live. That version’s “clean,” but the one they did on the New York PBS TV program Critique in April 1969 opens with the line “Sunday trucker, motherfucker,” although Morrison slurs the MF word to iron out the profanity when he repeats the line. It’s another odd interjection that doesn’t fit in with the song’s main (if slight) narrative, perhaps meant as a jibe against rednecks harassing hippies. Considering their career was being destroyed by canceled concerts in the wake of their Miami show, it also took some integrity and courage to sing the uncensored lyric on television, though only PBS would have allowed that then. (Would they allow it now, one wonders?)
The most celebrated incident in which a Doors lyric was censored, or almost censored, occurred on the most popular network television variety show. When the group appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 17, 1967, they were famously told by a producer not to sing the word “higher” in “Light My Fire.” They sang it anyway, Morrison nonchalantly claiming to forget to change the words in all the excitement. As Ray Manzarek often told the story, the producer screamed they’d never be on the Ed Sullivan Show again. To which they responded, “We’ve done the Ed Sullivan Show.”
What’s never discussed, however, is exactly what the Doors could have sung instead of “girl we couldn’t get much higher.” It’s not easy to alter that phrase. “Girl we couldn’t light the fire,” or something as asinine and ill-fitting as that?
What’s even more ridiculous, of course, is the order to change the lyric in the first place. “Light My Fire” was a #1 single for three weeks in the summer of 1967. By the time of this broadcast, literally tens of millions of people had heard the song in its original unexpurgated guise. Was singing it a different way going to erase the memory of the original lyric? Much more importantly, if “we couldn’t get much higher” did indeed refer to getting high on drugs, so what?
When the Rolling Stones were asked to alter the words of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1967, Mick Jagger complied. (Despite some claims in interviews that he’d just mumbled some words in place of the title, you can certainly see him sing “let’s spend some time together” at times in the clip that was broadcast.) The Doors did not. And they did suffer the consequences of never appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show again, though that really didn’t hurt their career in the long run.
Some of this post has focused on some of the weaker parts of the Doors’ musical legacy. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I want to emphasize I’m a huge Doors fan, and they’re among my top ten favorite rock acts. Along those lines, the closing section is on a musical positive that I don’t see commented upon too much:
7. The Doors were quite adept at mixing sex and romance into songs that were largely, or at least as much, about other topics. There are numerous examples, and I’ll cite a few here:
“Break On Through” is mostly about transcendence, but goes into a quite lusty and effective middle section, as cited earlier: “Everybody loves my baby, she gets”…high. Or not.
“When the Music’s Over” is about generally revolutionary behavior and sentiments. But in the middle, Morrison purrs to his baby to come back into his arms.
Morrison chants “love my girl” near the beginning of one of the most revolutionary-minded Doors songs, “Five to One.”
“Peace Frog,” which reflects the general violence/confusion of late-’60s society, is overlaid with singing chants of the line “she came,” as well as ending some verses with “She came in town and then she drove away, sunlight in her hair.” And of course “Peace Frog” is a medley with one of the band’s most overtly romantic numbers, “Blue Sunday,” as if the chaos of the streets has receded, to be replaced by blissful love.
Most of “Land Ho!” is about a wayfaring sailor. But it ends with a jubilant intention to “come back home and marry you.”
And “Riders on the Storm,” though mostly about an ominous hitchhiker, has an entire verse urging a woman to love her man, take him by the hand, and understand.
What does all this mean? That sex and death are intertwined, as might be one popular interpretation by overenthusiastic academics and psychologists? Or that you can’t have revolution without sex, or that sex and love are as important or more important than revolution?
My hunch is a different one: that for all his anti-authoritarian daring and testing of conventions and limits, Jim Morrison in particular was also something of a romantic. That’s overlooked in all the controversy he stirred with his more extroverted and outrageous behavior. But it’s certainly consistently there, and perhaps part of his search for transcendence, even if he never quite found that blissful plateau in his lifetime.
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.