Top Twenty Rock Reissues of 2019

Hard as it is to believe, we’re one-fifth into the twenty-first century. Maybe even harder to believe, plenty of material continues to surface on rock reissues. Often these aren’t reissuing official recordings, but unearthing half-a-century-or-so-old items often not even suspected to exist. Most of the really fine LPs from the time have been re-released (sometimes several times), and virtually all of the really fine acts who recorded a good amount of fine music have been honored by compilations.

As I already have a lot of those, most of what I’m getting on reissues these days tends to be studio outtakes, live concerts, and radio recordings, often circulating for the first time anywhere. Otherwise they tend to be bulky boxes containing much or all of what a significant artist did in their entire career, or at least the peak (or one of the peaks) of it. Just one of my best-of picks from the 2019 litter is a straight album reissue, and even that album was barely distributed upon its original release.

So it’s boxes and vault rarities—which sometimes fill up boxes on their own—that dominate my best-of list. It just about made a round twenty in number, throwing in a couple 2018 releases I’d missed at the end. I heard a good number of other reissues, but these are the ones about which I got enthusiastic, or at least somewhat enthusiastic. Although the chart-topping winner has plenty of merit, I had more negative comments about the way the music was released than I ever expected to put into any review of a #1 pick.

1. David Bowie, Conversation Piece (Parlophone). As a five-CD compilation of material Bowie recorded in 1968 and (more often) 1969, this box has great musical value. It’s not such great economic value for the kind of dedicated Bowie fans most likely to want it, since the majority has been previously released. Even most of the material unavailable before 2019 had been issued before this box came out in November. First I’ll focus on the enormous musical positives, and then get into the troubling part of how this stuff was dispensed to the marketplace.

The most significant disc by far is titled The ‘Mercury’ Demos. I’ve been touting these early-’69 demos (almost certainly done around late winter or early spring) as a major body of unreleased music since I first found it on bootleg (minus one song, though this LP has all ten) in the late 1980s. As I wrote on my blog a few years ago: 

“Unusually, this captures Bowie at a point in his career where he was a folky, or at least folk-rocky, singer-songwriter. As hard as it might be to believe, he—with backing by second guitarist/harmony singer John Hutchinson—sounds something like a British Simon & Garfunkel here. The songs, of course, are quite different from those of Paul Simon even at this early stage in Bowie’s development, and include acoustic versions of highlights from his 1969 and 1970 releases like ‘Space Oddity’ (with a primitive Stylophone effect), ‘Conversation Piece,’ ‘Janine,’ ‘Letter to Hermione,’ and ‘An Occasional Dream,’ the last of which is one of the greatest unreleased Bowie performances (and most overlooked Bowie songs, period) of all.

Other songs aren’t as impressive, and some, particularly ‘When I’m Five’ and ‘Ching-A-Ling,’ are kiddie-like leftovers from his overly theatrical phase. But even the minor tunes include some neat oddities, like a cover of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ (done slightly later by Elton John on Tumbleweed Connection) and the haunting ‘Lover to the Dawn,’ which never made it onto a Bowie release, though it evolved into a song that did, ‘Cygnet Committee.’ And you get to hear Bowie and Hutchinson unexpectedly segue into the chorus of ‘Hey Jude’ near the end of ‘Janine.’

Aside from being the only document of that brief period in which Bowie and Hutchinson worked as a duo, I find this of even greater importance for capturing what might have been the true personal Bowie—or at least as personal a Bowie as he could summon given his chameleonic nature. Sincerity is not a quality we usually associate with him, but if there was any time where he meant what he sang, instead of writing as a character (or writing about other characters), this might have been it.”

There you have my musical assessment. What specifically about this official release of the tapes, however? The good news is that this does definitely sound better than the numerous bootlegs of the material, all of which had a lo-fi, muffled, and sometimes wobbly sound. This isn’t super hi-fi, but it’s much clearer, whether they used a different better tape source, did a lot of sonic cleanup, or some combination of the two. Many Bowie fans have known about this stuff for a long time, but they’ll be pleased to have it in significantly more listenable form. This is the disc on the box that makes it an important release, and would have been #1 on its own if it had been issued as a standalone CD without the other material.

Another disc in the box of 1968-69 home demos is also quite valuable and interesting, if not nearly on the musical level of the Mercury demos. The best are eight songs (actually just six different ones, as there are three versions of “Space Oddity”) recorded in December 1968 and January 1969 on a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder in Bowie’s London flat. If nothing else, these clear up something that’s always been uncertain to me: the exact source of the two demos of “Space Oddity” and “An Occasional Dream” that were bonus tracks on the 40th anniversary edition of 1969’s David Bowie/Space Oddity album. According to the liner notes for this package, they came from these sessions (and are not the fairly similar demo versions recorded about a couple months later in 1969, which have long been bootlegged). This also includes earlier versions of a few other songs that are on those slightly later demos (“Ching-a-Ling,” “Lover to the Dawn,” and “Life Is a Circus”), along with one that isn’t (“Let Me Sleep Beside You,” which Bowie had already recorded for Decca in September 1967).

On to the music itself: these are sparse, folky acoustic performances with Hutchinson on second guitar and backup (and occasional lead) vocals, and some Stylophone on “Space Oddity.” They show Bowie developing into a far more interesting and idiosyncratic singer-songwriter than he had been on his earlier, official 1964-68 studio recordings, especially on “Space Oddity” and “An Occasional Dream.” There is both a tender melodicism and a feeling that Bowie’s not only gotten more personally expressive, but is about as genuinely personal as he’d ever get, given his subsequent taste for genre-jumping and character-assuming.

The performances on the Mercury demos just a couple months later are a little bit less inhibited and more assured, and for that reason (along with the bonus of interesting lighthearted between-song banter), I’d give them the edge. These are still interesting to hear, though, and in pretty good quality considering the fairly primitive circumstances of the original recordings.

There are also fifteen Hutchinson-less 1968-69 demos (if any are from 1969, they’re probably from early in that year) of more historical than purely musical interest. Bowie wouldn’t put most of those songs on his studio releases, and while they show him fitfully developing a more mature, rockier singer-songwriter (and less annoyingly theatrical) style than what he’d done in his Decca son-of-Anthony Newley phase, the compositions aren’t that great or memorable. Exceptions are an early version of the 1970 B-side “Conversation Piece” and a different version of his kiddie tune “When I’m Five” that, relatively speaking, is far gutsier and more listenable.

The final three discs on the box are steadily less interesting, mostly because most of the tracks have long been available. One’s largely devoted to 1968-69 BBC sessions (all previously released) that offer worthwhile variations of late-‘60s studio recordings, with marginal bonuses of a couple mono mixes of 1969 studio tracks and an inferior alternate studio arrangement of “Space Oddity” when Hutchinson was still aboard. Disc four has his 1969 album David Bowie aka Man of Words, Man of Music aka Space Oddity, which as the “aka”s alone signify has been reissued more times than anyone cares to count, with bonus tracks of early mixes and the full length version of his Italian-language rendition of “Space Oddity.”

Disc five, the least essential, has a 2019 Tony Visconti mix of the album, with the original 45 versions of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sala,” as “Space Oddity” was titled in Italian. The 120-page book of liner notes is pretty good, with detailed annotation and lots of rare photos, as well as some particularly interesting repros of period memos, press releases, gig posters, and newspaper clippings.

Now for my value-for-money rant. Most of the previously unissued tracks on this package were issued in three separate, expensive vinyl boxes earlier in 2019. That included two sets of demos on seven-inch singles that were about $35 each after tax, and the Mercury demos as a vinyl LP  selling for $69.98 at my favored local independent store. These prices are extortionate. Yes, the Mercury demos LP comes in a big box reproducing the typed and handwritten lettering on the original tape box, with a photo of Bowie and Hutch, a couple contact sheets of more photos, and liner notes. That doesn’t justify charging triple or so the rate for the usual new vinyl album. And while the liner notes are pretty good, they’re on six stapled pages with small, faint type, and no illustrations.

Worse, at no time to my knowledge was it announced that all of the tracks on those expensive vinyl releases would be later made available on CD as part of the Conversation Piece box, and soon. And I get press releases from the label who put all these Bowie projects out. I certainly would have been willing to wait to save $150. 

So the way these cuts were doled out checks all of my boxes of showing disrespect for the fans that have made such archive projects possible, and profitable. Overpriced packaging. No advance notice that the music on those overpriced vinyl sets would soon be made available in one place on a more reasonably affordable CD box. Only a dozen tracks on that five-CD box that were previously unavailable, some of which are not-so-interesting alternate mixes. And one disc almost wholly devoted to a 2019 remix of an album, which I find, like most remixes, unnecessary (and actually here, in the case of the remixed “Space Oddity,” notably inferior). Even if it was done by Bowie’s most important producer.

I honestly don’t know the expenses involved and profit margins for packages like this. But I do know that many fans would much prefer to buy this material all at once as a standard-priced CD, and not feel like they’ll risk being able to hear it at all if they don’t buy the expensive vinyl boxes as soon as they appear. I only hope that some of the money goes to John Hutchinson, as I think he can use it much more than the Bowie estate.

2. The Beatles, Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Edition (Apple/Universal). This would top this list based on the original 1969 Abbey Road album at the core of this four-disc box. But a reissue list, or at least my reissue lists, judge releases like this by what they add to the original, not by ballyhooed new mixes. In this case, this box falls short of the fiftieth anniversary box of The White Album, and maybe even of the fiftieth anniversary box of Sgt. Pepper. Sure it’s still worth getting for Beatles fans, but it’s overpriced. So was the Sgt. Pepper box, and arguably The White Album box, but this is more so.

The positives are mostly to be found in the two CDs of session outtakes. The compilers, however, faced a challenge as there weren’t nearly as many outtakes as there were for The White Album sessions; what outtakes were generated weren’t as interesting; and some of the best such outtakes were already used on Anthology 3. And in case you were hoping that some previously unheard original compositions might have been discovered, that’s not the case. In fact, just a couple of these (Paul McCartney’s long-bootlegged home demo of a song given to Mary Hopkin, “Goodbye,” and his demo of “Come and Get It,” made into a hit by Badfinger) were not released in a different form by the Beatles in 1969. All of the other tracks are alternate versions, including alternates of every Abbey Road song and both sides of the “Ballad of John and Yoko”/“Old Brown Shoe” single.

Alternate versions can be pretty interesting, as much of the White Album box demonstrated. I’m glad to hear them here, but nothing really blows me away. George Harrison’s solo demo of “Something”—not the same as the one on Anthology 3, as this has two piano parts in the mix—is the best of the batch. The differences among the other alternate versions are minor, and sometimes very minor. The version of the side two medley (here titled “The Long One”) differs in the edit and mix, not the performances. The take of “Something” that isolates the strings, and the “strings & brass only” one of “Golden Slumbers”/ “Carry That Weight,” are of primarily academic interest.

And the package is also missing some outtakes that have been documented (most thoroughly in Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles Recording Sessions) and sometimes even bootlegged. Most notable among the absentees is the different version of “Something” with a long, doom-laden piano-led instrumental tag, with a tune later recycled by John Lennon for “Remember” on Plastic Ono Band. This is even referred in the box’s book of liner notes, making its failure to appear here all the more irritating. Maybe the feeling was that multiple versions of alternate takes shouldn’t be used, though there were some on the White Album box, and no one minded to my knowledge.

To the displeasure of some readers and acquaintances, I’m generally unenthused about new mixes and blu-ray audio, which take up the other two discs. The same holds true here—there wasn’t anything wrong with the original, and I find the differences both minor and inconsequential. One consequence, however, can’t be ignored: it shoves the list price into the three figures. The package does include a 100-page book with plenty of interesting text and illustrations, but even this isn’t quite as good or big as the books with the White Album and Sgt. Pepper boxes. Don’t forget, too, that the Sgt. Pepper box came with a DVD of a twenty-fifth anniversary documentary. Maybe it’s unfair to chide a box for not having as much bonus material to draw from, but that does make the Abbey Road fiftieth anniversary edition less worthwhile than its counterparts.

3. Craig Smith/Maitreya Kali, Apache/Inca (Ugly Things). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were a good number of obscure, often privately pressed acid folk albums, where the performer (usually a solo artist) seemed lost between reality and fantasy. Most of them weren’t very good, and certainly not as good as the standard bearer for the genre, Skip Spence’s OarApache/Inca, credited here to singer-songwriter Craig Smith and his alter ego Maitreya Kali, is an exception. It’s very good, and in some ways spookier even than Oar, which is saying something. The original double LP, which appeared in the early ‘70s, was also quite haphazardly assembled. It mixes well-produced Buffalo Springfield-meets-the-Monkees late-‘60s recordings by his group the Penny Arkade with later spare, haunting solo performances reflecting his descent into mental turmoil, even madness.

The later material, dating from when he adopted the name Maitreya Kali, is usually folky, acoustic, and swathed in reverb. The sentiments are a long way from the good-time folk-rock he’d delivered with the Penny Arkade. “Love and pain are the same,” he crooned on “Old Man,” echoing the similarly creepy sentiments in Charles Manson’s deranged songs of the late ‘60s, though with far greater melodicism and musical skill. On “Love Is Our Existence,” he gave his vocal such a tinny fishbowl effect that it was all but indecipherable; “Revelation” was hardly any easier to make out, but couldn’t quite bury a dynamite folk-rock riff, as well as some intriguing lyrics both glorifying and questioning the validity of Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and other deities. Other songs were more straightforward, if exceptionally haunting, folk ballads. Yet they always gave the impression of a seeker questioning reality, and not quite finding satisfactory alternatives.

This CD marks the first official reissue of Apache/Inca, embellished by 32 pages of liner notes from Mike Stax. The original master tapes have disappeared, but this has been, to quote the liner notes, “restored and mastered…from the cleanest vinyl source available.” Although the juxtaposition of Matireya Kali and Penny Arkade tracks can be incongruous, those Penny Arkade cuts (none issued back in the late 1960s) are among the finest obscure Los Angeles folk-rock of the period. For a full Penny Arkade CD with all of the tracks by the group used on Apache/Inca and more, look for Sundazed’s Not the Freeze compilation. For more on Smith, check out Stax’s fine biography Swim Through the Darkness

4. The Artwoods, Art’s Gallery (Top Sounds). Not to be confused with their 1966 album Art [no ‘s] Gallery, this is a collection of previously unreleased 1965-66 BBC performances by the British R&B band featuring singer Art Wood (older brother of Ron), drummer Keef Hartley, and a pre-Deep Purple Jon Lord. Since sixteen other BBC tracks were included on the three-CD set Steady Gettin’ It: The Complete Recordings 1964-67, you might wonder how essential another set of BBC cuts might be, especially for a hitless British Invasion band who were decent but not great. Maybe it’s not essential unless you’re a big Artwoods fan or a huge British Invasion fan in general. But it is highly worthwhile, for a few reasons.

First, just a couple of the songs (“She Knows What to Do” and “Smack Dab in the Middle”) are represented by BBC versions—completely different ones—on The Complete Recordings. Second, seven of the thirteen tracks weren’t done by the Artwoods on their studio releases. Third, the sound quality, while not brilliant as these are not the original broadcast tapes, is quite acceptable. And most importantly, these are for the most part really good slabs of mid-‘60s British R&B/rock, with a more prominent organ (by Lord) than most such outfits boasted. I don’t find Art Wood a great singer, but he doesn’t get in the way of the instrumentalists’ cool grooves.

And while a few of the rarities are average, there’s some really good stuff here that stands up to their best studio work—a dynamite organ-paced instrumental soul-jazz-rock version of “Comin’ Home Baby,” a jazzier instrumental in Les McCann’s “That Healin’ Feelin’,” and a certainly-good-enough workout on James Brown’s “Out of Sight.” While the BBC versions of songs also found on their studio releases might be less eye-catching, some of them are fine supplements to the studio takes, like a moody treatment of Lee Dorsey’s “Work, Work, Work” (“just a tad slower” than the studio track, accurately state the liner notes); the Bobby Blue Bland raveup “Don’t Cry No More”; and two peppy versions of their best song, “Oh My Love.” On the whole I find these significantly better than the numerous BBC tracks on The Complete Recordings—whose title is no longer accurate now that these additional radio tapes have surfaced.

The Artwoods were never going to be a top-tier British R&B act, owing both to Art Wood’s relative shortcomings as a singer and their near-absence of any original material. But does it matter so much when you can enjoy a collection like this over and over? I didn’t expect it to rate so high on this list, but that’s what it comes down to in the end. 

5. The Yardbirds, Live and Rare (Repertoire). The Yardbirds released quite a bit of material in the five years they were active – about four or five albums’ worth, if spread among a wealth of LPs, singles, and EPs in several countries that would have been difficult to track down in total even back in 1968. Since then, however, their catalogue has multiplied several times over with archival live recordings, BBC sessions, outtakes, and even commercials. Even for fanatics, it’s hard to keep track of what’s come out where.

So a new five-disc box of Live and Rare cuts can understandably be greeted with some skepticism as to whether it has much, or anything, you don’t already have somewhere or other. It’s certainly likely to duplicate a good amount of stuff in your collection if you care enough about the Yardbirds to consider buying a five-CD rarities box in the first place. 

That’s the case with Live and Rare, but it still has some vital things going for it that make it worth your attention whether you’re a completist or just want to start rounding out your Yardbirds library. Unlike some such anthologies, it has decent annotation, including overview notes by UT’s own Mike Stax (though the disc-by-disc liners are by veteran UK rock journalist Chris Welch). And if you want a kind of multi-disc best-of-the-rare, it’s a decent survey, taking in many of their better BBC/TV sessions and non-Five Live Yardbirds live recordings.

But to skip to the chase, the main reason for hardcore fans (and I’m one) to pick this up is the DVD, which has 21 songs spanning 1964-1968 with the Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page lineups (and even the Beck-Page one). Much of this has circulated unofficially or semi-officially for years, especially the March 1967 appearance on the German Beat! Beat! Beat! TV program. But here you have it in bulk, with quality likely to better (or certainly at least equal) other sources. 

The big find is a windy, outdoor seven-song Paris performance from April 30, 1967 that hasn’t shown up anywhere else, at least to my knowledge. Here are the only live clips of “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I,” “My Baby,” and the unlikely Dylan cover “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” from anywhere, as well as the only Page-era one of “Heart Full of Soul.” Half a year after Beck’s departure, Page is in fine form. In all honesty—and this coming from someone who’s a fan of lead singer Keith Relf, not just the Yardbirds as a group—the same can’t be said of Relf, who sometimes wanders off-key or even off-mike, even as he prowls the stage with commanding enthusiasm.

Yet there are good-to-great features of all the other live clips, though Relf’s vocals sometimes aren’t a match for either the studio versions or the sheer volume of Beck and Page. The  takes of “Louise” and “I Wish You Would” from British TV in July 1964 are the only surviving ones with Clapton, and the three songs from a June 1966 French TV spot the only ones of the Beck-Page lineup besides their Blow-Up bit. (Warning, however: this dates from the time Page was still on bass, not yet sharing lead guitar with Beck.)

Sadly, both numbers (“Shapes of Things” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’”) from the May 1966 NME Poll Winners Concert are incomplete, though you can hear the audio in its entirety on one of the CDs. It’s even sadder that the best of their live TV performances, on Shindig in 1965 with Beck, aren’t here, though most of you probably have or know how to see them anyway.

The three-song March 9, 1968 appearance on the French TV program Bouton Rouge is of special note not just as the last time they were filmed live, but also as the best evidence of the Jimmy Page lineup at its best. “Goodnight Sweet Josephine” (their final 45) might not have been much of a song, but they storm through “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and, more notably, offer a tour de force “Dazed and Confused,” complete with violin-bowed Page solo and Page-Relf harmonica raveup. And here Keith is in fine vocal form. It’s the best glimpse of what could have been had the group stayed together (or even managed to lay down “Dazed and Confused” in the studio), but wasn’t.

The audio for all the video can be found on the other discs, but the CDs have a lot more material, going back to seven tracks attributed to the 1964 National Jazz & Blues Festival. Know this, however: though these include a couple Chuck Berry numbers of which no other Yardbirds versions have circulated (“Little Queenie” and “Carol”), the first three songs (including “Queenie”) almost certainly don’t feature Relf on vocals. Expert listeners are pretty sure this is Mick O’Neill substituting for an ill Relf, and frankly he doesn’t come off too well, with a gruff delivery ill-suited for the band’s style. 

Even if the CDs don’t offer a lot of surprises (or perhaps any, if you’ve kept up with everything in the by-now-massive Yardbirds oeuvre), certainly there are a lot of highlights, with even the lower lights never less than interesting. The radio broadcasts focus on some of the songs and versions less likely to make Yardbirds BBC collections, including storming versions of “I’m Not Talking” (two of that song, actually) and tunes that didn’t make their studio releases, like the melancholy folk lament “Hush-A-Bye” and the blues classics “Spoonful,” “Bottle Up and Go,” and “The Stumble.” The Page lineup usually came off better live than in the studio, and that’s amply represented by the two discs of 1967-68 recordings, including BBC versions of the two best songs from their waning days, “Think About It” and “Dazed and Confused.”

There’s a bit of the fill-in-the-blanks feel to the 1966 disc, most of which is given over to studio rarities, including their notorious Italian pop single; commercials for Great Shakes and Maclean’s toothpaste; and mono versions of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” its B-side “Psycho Daisies,” the “Stroll On” cut from the Blow-Up soundtrack, and everything from Relf’s pair of solo singles (including the alternate version of “Shapes in My Mind” that starts with a horn instead of an organ). Like almost any multi-disc Yardbirds compilation of bits and pieces, however, it all goes to show that even at the margins of their recorded work, they were usually much better than most other bands were at their best. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

6. The Searchers, When You Walk in the Room: The Complete Pye Recordings 1963-67 (Grapefruit)While the Searchers made some records here and there for fifteen years after the mid-’60s, their legacy rests firmly on the wealth of material they cut for Pye Records from 1963-67. This six-disc, standard CD-sized box is likely the last-word package on that body of work. There are stereo and mono versions of all five of their UK Pye LPs; sixteen bonus tracks culled from outtakes and French/German-language versions; and an entire CD of non-LP singles, which throws in the EP-only cut “The System.” Add a 36-page photo/memorabilia-jammed booklet with a thorough history by UK rock scholar David Wells, and what’s not to like?

Nothing of consequence as regards the way this was assembled, certainly. (Although hard-to-pleasers will note the absence of stereo versions of two songs from their first album, “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” as sources don’t exist for those.) But though they were the best Liverpool group besides the Beatles, and at their finest one of the best early British Invasion outfits, they certainly didn’t boast the consistent high quality or songwriting talent of their finest rivals. In fact, their LPs were pretty patchy, as those hoping to unearth hidden gems might find to their disappointment.

The gap between their uniformly fine 1963-66 singles — most of them UK hits, and several of them fairly big US ones — and most of their LP cuts, to be brutal, is almost huge. There are a wealth of mediocre covers of American rock’n’roll standards that are not only way less memorable than the originals, but also quite a few leagues below the best ones by their peers. Compared to the Beatles’ knocked-out-of-the-park interpretations, their takes on “Money” and “Twist and Shout” (both from their 1963 debut Meet the Searchers) are anemic. That might be an unfairly high bar for anyone to match, but generally their LP tracks—as was standard before the Beatles started to change the rules in that regard—suffered from thin, rushed-sounding production, contrasting poorly with the generally fine and full treatment afforded their 45s.

The Searchers didn’t write anything on their first three LPs, and while cover-dependent albums were common at the onset of the British Invasion, their interpretations were frustratingly erratic. Many are simply unmemorable or unimaginative, and sometimes unwisely chosen attempts at massive familiar American hits like “Be My Baby” and “Stand By Me.” Aside from their surprisingly great raveup treatment of the Coasters’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me” (which gave them a small US hit, and destroys the Hollies’ tamer UK hit version of the same tune), they just weren’t cut out for the kind of ferocious covers many of their peers mastered. Some of them—”Farmer John,” “One of These Days,” “Tricky Dicky,” “Alright,” and “Hungry for Love” (which was a British hit for Johnny Kidd)—have an engaging nervous, hyper-tempo Merseybeat, but lack the dangerous edge of the more R&B-oriented bands that would soon threaten the whole Merseybeat movement.

If it seems like I’m down on the Searchers, let me hasten to clarify that’s not at all the case. I’m a big fan of their best stuff, and some of that’s on these spotty LPs. When they slowed down a bit for more measured, taut R&B covers spotlighting their fine vocal harmonies, they scored deserved pulled-for-the-US-market hits with the Coasters’ “Love Potion No. 9” and LaVern Baker’s “Bumble Bee.” When they branched into folk standards and near-folk-rock, they hit on a wistful sensitivity whose strength they might not have fully realized at the time. That’s heard to excellent effect on their fine, if sparely arranged, covers of “All My Sorrows,” “Four Strong Winds,” and Jackie DeShannon’s yearning “Each Time,” as well as the group-penned “Too Many Miles.”

Indeed, “Each Time” sounds like it might have been considered for a single, boasting as it does more sonic depth than most of their LP-only efforts. And while some of their British hit 45s weren’t on their UK albums, the singles that did find a place on them—”Sweets for My Sweet,” “Sugar and Spice,” “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” “Take Me for What I’m Worth,” and above all “Needles and Pins”—amply illustrate just why the Beatles cited them and the Rolling Stones when a teenager asked the Fabs to name their favorite British groups on a June 5, 1964 Dutch TV program. They had gorgeous vocal harmonies; they had finely sculpted, if restrained, arrangements; and, above all, they had ringing guitars that anticipated one of folk-rock’s trademarks. 

And those five albums were hardly all there was to the Searchers’ discography. The sixth disc—devoted solely to 26 non-LP tracks—is so strong that they no longer sound like a middling band who managed enough great and good songs to make a fine best-of. Suddenly, they sound like a near-major act—which, of course, they were, but not on the strength of their longplayers. All of the hit singles that didn’t find a way onto their UK albums are here—”Someday We’re Gonna Love Again,” “When You Walk in the Room,” “What Have They Done to the Rain,” “Goodbye My Love,” and their moody original “He’s Got No Love.” So are some just-about-as-fine low-charting UK entries, like their covers of Jagger-Richards’ “Take It or Leave It,” the Hollies’ “Have You Ever Loved Somebody,” and Bobby Darin’s “When I Get Home.”

Most notably, so are a clutch of generally fine B-sides mostly known only to Searchers fanatics, many of which gave them a chance to write their own material. The delicate folk ballad “‘Til I Met You,” the peppy “This Feeling Inside,” the Buddy Holly-meets-formative-folk-rock of “So Far Away,” and the uncommonly mordant, grim-and-bear-it “Don’t Hide It Away” (with equally uncommon jazzy piano solo) are all among their best work—which, when you’re talking about the Searchers, is very good indeed. As Searchers guitarist John McNally lamented to me when I interviewed him nearly twenty years ago, “If you’d had said, like Andrew Loog Oldham did to the Stones, ‘go and write some songs and don’t come out ‘til you’ve written ‘em’ to us, we’d have been a much better act.” Some momentum was lost on their final three, not-so-impressive singles (all from 1967), but these at least seal the “complete” in the box set’s title.

It could be that for most Searchers fans, a best-of or at most double CD are enough. But it’s unlikely any selection would corral all of anyone’s individual favorites, so the Pye box it is if you want to dig deep. And be aware that while it’s the complete Searchers at Pye, it’s not the complete ‘60s Searchers, as no less than four other compilations—Live at the Star-Club Hamburg, the pre-Pye 1963 demos The Iron Door SessionsBBC Sessions, and Swedish Radio Sessions—offer a wealth of worthwhile radio, live, and demo recordings. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)

7. Family, At the BBC (Madfish). Although they never quite broke into the rank of the top British bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Family were nevertheless fascinating during their five-year-or-so-run. They unpredictably mixed various shades of blues, funky jazz, pastoral folk, and even country into their sorta-prog rock, though without melodic hooks as memorable as another group with slightly similar eclectic blends, Traffic. Roger Chapman’s bleating vocals were never going to have the mass appeal of Stevie Winwood, but certainly projected a distinctive personality, even if some would find them an acquired taste. Family were also quite capable at matching their intricate studio arrangements in concert, as this mammoth eight-disc set proves.

Even given that Family were far more successful in the UK (where they had four Top Ten albums and three Top Twenty singles) than in the US (where they barely charted), it’s amazing how often they played on the BBC. This box features 95 tracks from no less than 20 different Beeb broadcasts, spanning November 1967 to May 1973. Many of them have come out on CD before, but twenty make their first appearance here. And a DVD presents nine performances from five different programs in 1969-1971, mostly in color.

The songs that will arouse most interest among hardcore Family fans are those that didn’t appear on their official studio releases. “Bring It On Home” isn’t the famous Sam Cooke soul hit, but the Willie Dixon song that Sonny Boy Williamson recorded at Chess. “I Sing ‘Em The Way I Feel,” issued by bluesman J.B. Lenoir on an obscure 1963 single, is an even greater testament to the depth of their blues collection. “Blow By Blow” is a six-minute jam with some similarity to “A Song for Me.” A 1973 concert-closing “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” however, falls into the category of “must have been fun to play,” but hardly indicative of the band’s core strengths.

All of those tracks have appeared on previous Family archival releases, which makes the twenty that are available for the first time of special note. Of particular value are Top Gear sessions from November 1967 and April 1968 predating the release of their debut album Music from a Doll’s House, including not just previews of six songs from that LP, but also their beguiling 1967 non-LP debut psychedelic single, “Scene Through the Eyes of a Lens.” While the fidelity on these two sessions and some other early broadcasts are obviously “off-air,” they sound fine and perfectly listenable, the whole box benefiting from considerable sonic cleanup.

Two other sessions—five songs from Colour Me Pop in May 1969, and another five from the Bob Harris Show in October 1972—also make their first appearance here. Family remained respectable to the end, but it’s a fair bet that UT readers will find the earlier half or so of this box the best. That’s the stuff that captures both Chapman and Family at their most sinister and haunting.

Although Family worked their way through much of their catalog on these broadcasts, inevitably this means there are multiple versions of many tunes—five apiece of “The Weaver’s Answer” (one of their best songs) and “Processions,” in fact. In common with most BBC performances, they’re not so drastically different that they redefine the compositions, but have a good live feel at times looser and more spontaneous than the studio counterparts. As some of the BBC takes preceded the official vinyl versions, arrangements could be in the process of getting refined. The March 1969 rendition of “Holding the Compass,” for instance, is electric, though the one surfacing a year and a half later on their 1970 LP Anyway would be acoustic.

The DVD is not a superfluous throw-in; in fact, much of it’s spectacular. With the exception of the earliest clip (“Dim,” from March 1969), it’s in vivid color and looks great. True, the wildly gyrating blonde girl dancer and period solarization effects on the Top of the Pops “The Weaver’s Answer” are a little distracting, but very much in the spirit of period fun.

Gearheads will thrill to the sight on some numbers—seldom duplicated by other bands, as far as I know—of two double-necked guitars in the same lineup (combining standard electric six-strings, a twelve-string, and a bass into two instruments). While he was in the group, also cool were the unusual contributions of Poli Palmer, whose electric vibraphone and flute added exotic instruments rarely employed in rock music. Strictly speaking, the four songs from a 1970 appearance on Doing Their Thing don’t belong here as that was broadcast on ITV rather than the BBC, but no one’s complaining.

For all its bulk, Family at the BBC doesn’t include everything they did on radio and film. Twenty-one songs from eight separate 1967-72 broadcasts (all detailed in the liner notes) haven’t survived, or been found. There’s also some other Family footage, such as their spots on the German TV show Beat Club, and their appearance in Stamping Ground, the obscure concert documentary of the 1970 Kralingen Music Festival in Holland. And while the group worked their way through much of the material on their albums over the course of the broadcasts compiled on this box, of course the studio recordings remain more definitive—and numerous, with plenty of bonus tracks augmenting their LPs on various compilations.

But for serious Family fans, this is a worthwhile if hefty investment that’s a significant supplement to their primary body of work. Packaging-wise, it could hardly be bettered, with a bound-in 52-page hardback book of liner notes that include meticulous details on the sessions; a Family family [sic] tree; and plenty of photos, along with a repro poster of their September 15, 1969 concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It’s a testament to the live sound of the band that, as John Peel notes in his introduction to their January 1970 session, was “one group that I would travel continents to see.” (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)

8. Various Artists, Diggin’ in the Goldmine: Dutch Beat Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Dutch Beat Era and Beyond (Pseudonym). Astonishing in its size and scope for such a niche genre, this eight-CD box of 1965-70 Dutch rock surveys arguably the most productive ‘60s scene from a non-English speaking country. Nor does it even stick with the most well known tracks and acts, offering many rarities that had seldom or never been heard even by Dutch beat collectors, whether by the “big names” like the Outsiders or no-names who made just one or two 45s that are impossible to find.

As the box shows, derivative as many Dutch acts may have been of overseas rock trends (especially British Invasion bands), they also developed a distinctly regional sound that wasn’t mere imitation British R&B. The Dutch groups added a distinctively morose, sullenly rebellious attitude that carried a massive chip on its shoulder. Bluesy guitar and harmonica riffs were twisted into something strangely sinister, as was the English language, even if that might have had as much to do with writing in English as a second-language as deliberate lyricism.

While the box isn’t as strong or consistent as the two Nuggets boxes that are the kind of standard-bearers for the ‘60s garage/freakbeat genres, they document a vibrant scene that wasn’t just raw punk and freakbeat by the likes of the Outsiders, Les Baroques, and Q65, though it’s heavily represented. Acid folk, blue-eyed soul, guitar pop, hard rock, and other offshoots are also on board, testifying to the incredible productivity of a country that didn’t really get its rock into gear until 1965 or 1966.

Some standouts fall well outside the Dutch beat stereotype, like Nona’s weird folk “The Other Side of the Mountain”; Roek’s Family’s “Get Yourself a Ticket,” which is slightly risqué pop that’s almost like a more rock-oriented “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus”; and Phoenix’s very credible Hendrix tribute/emulation “Ode to Jimi Hendrix,” the last track on the box. Dream’s hard rock “Rebellion” has some killer organ and guitar. There’s breezy pop that owed more to Merseybeat than freakbeat by acts like the Golden Earrings (before their name change to Golden Earring). 

The box is enhanced by a 204-page hardback book of photos, memorabilia, and liner notes by Mike Stax, editor and publisher of the top ‘60s rockzine, Ugly Things. Besides track-by-track descriptions, it even includes rarity values for the original discs on which the tracks appeared, some of which are in the several hundreds of Euros. There’s much more Dutch beat elsewhere by the best acts represented on this anthology, but this has a representative span of much of the best and rarest, without duplicating a lot of what’s available on the more high-profile reissues. You can read more about the box in my interview with Mike Stax for the site.

9. Fleetwood Mac, Before the Beginning: 1968-1970 Rare Live & Demo Sessions (Sony). This peculiar release has three CDs, and three and half hours, of recordings from the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac that hadn’t been officially released. Despite “demo” getting equal billing with “live sessions” in the subtitle, almost all of it’s live. Presumably all of it’s from 1968-1970, but despite fine and detailed liner notes in the 44-page booklet, the exact sources of the tracks aren’t cited. In fact, those are about the only details not specified in the liner notes, which otherwise comment at length about all of the songs and performances, as well as giving a good deal of historical context for the Peter Green period.

Gleaning what you can from the cloudy clues in the packaging, it seems like a good deal of the earlier material hails from a summer 1968 concert, or concerts, on their first US tour. A good deal of the later material seems to come from the US tour spanning December 1969 to February 1970. Only three tunes are represented by multiple versions (and then just twice each). The four tracks (there are only four) identified as demos are only referred to as “studio quality recordings” with little info, though they certainly sound like performances that have been bootlegged (in worse fidelity) on compilations of Fleetwood Mac BBC tracks. These and three of the live cuts on disc three are described in the notes as originating from 1968 “recordings done for different promotional shows,” one of the vaguest labels I’ve ever read applied to rarities. Also vague: a “horn-like harmonica player” is praised for contributions to a couple live numbers, but not identified, or even acknowledged as unknown.

According to the site, “the recently discovered recordings [for the collection] date from 1968 and 1970 and were discovered unlabeled in the US, so not much is known about them other than they have been authenticated by experts and approved for released by Fleetwood Mac.” It’s almost as if there’s a reason someone’s hiding or deliberately failing to disclose the origins of the material. Its the kind of thing associated with gray area releases, except that this was approved by the band (according to, “lets us re-live the power of the original Fleetwood Mac on stage with material personally selected by Peter Green” (according to the liner notes), has those lengthy in-depth liner notes, and has come out on a major label.

That long-winded explanation of why I can’t give you more precise source notes out of the way, the music is on the whole worthwhile, if (like all of the Peter Green-era catalog) uneven. The sound quality’s good, and the performances generally very good, avoiding the kind of too-long jams heard on some of the other early live Fleetwood Mac that has made it into official or unofficial circulation. Overall I prefer it to the most well known such material, that being several albums worth of early 1970 Boston recordings that have been packaged under numerous different titles. There’s a mix of some of their most famous songs (“Oh Well (Part 1,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” “The Green Manalishi,” “Albatross”), quite a bit of the straight blues at the base of their early repertoire, some of the mediocre rock’n’roll oldies they could never resist inserting into their sets, and some songs that didn’t make it onto the three late-‘60s LPs with Green. The distance between their very best stuff and their lesser output was wider with early Fleetwood Mac than with almost any other major rock group, but the best of this batch is very fine, and most of the rest at least satisfactory.

Highlights include a nine-minute version of B.B. King’s “Worried Dream,” which doesn’t get dull and features some magnificent slow-sad Green blues riffs. The performance of “Albatross,” not much different from the hit single, is very good too, and the cover of Otis Rush’s “Homework” sensational (I think the latter might be from a French TV program). It’s good to have a longer, live take on one of Green’s best obscure originals, “I Loved Another Woman,” though this and a few other cuts have some periodic faint vocals. “Before the Beginning,” another of Green’s best not-so-famous compositions, is rendered with despondent eloquence, though it ends rather abruptly. If you want real long variations, “Shake Your Money Maker” is eight minutes, Danny Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way” eleven minutes, “The Green Manalishi” almost twelve, and “Rattlesnake Shake” thirteen (though there are much longer versions of “Rattlesnake Shake” around). Too bad, though, that the first part of “I Need Your Love So Bad” is missing.

Although they’re a minor part of the set percentage-wise, the tracks tagged as demos (though I believe they’re from the BBC) are some of the best. In fact, one of them’s the very best cut – a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” originally recorded by Muddy Waters in the early 1960s, and the basis for key parts of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s a terrific version, with dual guitar riffing, a jittery propulsive beat, and one of Peter Green’s best vocals, alternately commanding and playful. And it sounds much clearer here than it has on bootlegs. The demo (again, I think, BBC) cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World” is a really good blues shuffle, and the other two demo/perhaps BBC numbers are solid enough as well. “You Need Love” alone justifies this set’s release—and if you’ve had enough of such clichéd boasts in reviews by writers who get some stuff free (though I did pay $14.99 for a used copy), you’ll be relieved to know this three-CD set was selling for a reasonable $18.98 at my local large indie store.

As a final note, fewer bands have been as heavily documented on above-ground and underground discs as early Fleetwood Mac, considering they only put out three proper LPs with Green. In my collection, I count, besides those three LPs, an official two-CD set of BBC broadcasts; about eight or nine official CDs’ worth of studio outtakes; seven official CDs or so worth of live recordings; one unofficial CD of BBC recordings; and seven CDs of unofficial live recordings. There’s even more out there. And maybe even more will come out officially, though for the time being, it’s hard to imagine too many fans craving additional helpings. 

10. Manfred Mann, Radio Days Vol. 1-4 (East Central One Limited). Since Manfred Mann were one of the more popular British bands of the ‘60s, and still had sizable (if more sporadic) success going into the ‘70s, it’s not a surprise they recorded plenty of BBC sessions. The sheer bulk of this new series still takes you aback. The eight discs span 1964-1973, and take in not just many hits, but also lots of lesser-known B-sides and album tracks. There are also a good number of covers, and even some originals, they never put out on their studio releases. And the third volume digs beyond the BBC vaults to unearth more than a CD’s worth of soundtrack recordings and commercial jingles, throwing in some outtakes and a non-LP 45. It’s maximum Manfred.

Manfred himself is the only guy to appear on all four sets, and while it’s probably not the intention of this series, cumulatively they illustrate how his group changed more than almost any other over the course of that decade. And not just via their numerous personnel changes, in which Mann was the only constant presence, and the outfit’s very name changed from Manfred Mann to Manfred Mann Chapter Three and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Each of the four comps might almost have been recorded by different bands, so drastic were his gear shifts. Fleetwood Mac might have been the only comparably popular outfit who changed so much in their first ten years, to the point where they and the Manfreds were almost unrecognizable from when they started.

Each volume covers a distinct phase of Manfred Mann, volume one documenting the Paul Jones era. Even then Manfred Mann were kind of several bands in one, handling jazzy R&B and classy pop-rock with ease, and taking odd detours into other areas with less success. There’s no “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” here, as sadly several sessions spanning late 1963 to late 1964 don’t survive. Their other 1964-66 hits are represented, along with some standout LP/EP outings like “Groovin’,” “What Am I To Do,” “Look Away,” “Machines,” and “The One in the Middle.” In one of the many brief interview segments (from the original broadcasts) interspersed throughout the CDs, Jones discusses how he wrote “The One in the Middle” for the Yardbirds, who turned it down as “Keith Relf said that’s not my sort of personality.” There are two versions of a half dozen numbers, including a cool “Sha La La” where they throw in a deliberately subdued chorus that builds back to a full-throated finale.

As (in line with the great majority of BBC sessions from the era) the radio arrangements don’t vary enormously from the studio versions, the most curiosity will be aroused by the songs that aren’t otherwise available, particularly three penned by Paul Jones, though these are in some ways the most disappointing. Jones wrote some good tunes, but his compositions “That’s the Way I Feel” and “It Took a Little While” are by-numbers R&B workouts; “You Better Be Sure” is a bit livelier, and might have made acceptable filler on one of the later LPs he cut with the Manfreds. Weirder, though not good, is their unlikely novelty cover of the Hollywood Argyles’ “Long Hair, Unsquare Dude Called Jack” (co-written by Kim Fowley), dating from the brief period when Jack Bruce was in the group.

Volume two spotlights the Mike d’Abo era, in which Jones’s replacement sang a series of big UK hits from 1966-69, though only “The Mighty Quinn” also hit it big in the States. All of those are here (sometimes twice), along with some strong originals that many singles-buyers never heard, like “Each and Every Day” and “Cubist Town.” They also took the opportunity to play some covers that never made it onto this version’s ‘60s vinyl, like “Mohair Sam,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Hound Dog,” “The Letter,” “Fever,” “Abraham, Martin & John,” “She’s a Woman,” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” the last of which was the only song performed by both the Jones and the d’Abo lineups. Note that some of the versions of the hits use previously recorded backing tracks – sometimes taken from the official release — with vocal and instrumental overdubs. That might have saved time back in the day, but makes them less interesting than many another BBC session, whether by the Manfreds and countless other acts.

As the BBC-exclusive covers wouldn’t have been highlights of their records, the big attractions are a few originals that didn’t see the light of day at the time, some of which are rather different to what the d’Abo lineup were usually doing. The d’Abo-composed “Handbags and Gladrags” became far more famous via covers by Chris Farlowe and, more notably, Rod Stewart. Its failure to make a Mann LP (or even single) is vexing, and though d’Abo put it on his 1970 debut solo album, a fine full Manfred Mann BBC version is a highlight of this collection.

Also notable are two good Mike Hugg compositions the Manfreds never placed on their official discs, the pensive “So Long” (not the same as their cover of Randy Newman’s “So Long, Dad,” which is also here) and melodic ballad “Clair” (sung by Hugg himself, with bassist Klaus Voormann on flute). D’Abo’s to the fore on the pleasantly poppy “Oh What a Day” (also resurfacing on his 1970 LP, though Manfred Mann didn’t release a version). He previewed his solo career with his ballad “The Last Goodbye,” on which he sings and plays piano without backup from the rest of the group.

There was a significant gap between the almost bubblegum pop of some of their late-‘60s hits (a la “Ha! Ha! Said the Clown”) and the more serious work on some of their LPs of the time. That disappeared when Mann and Hugg reorganized the band as Manfred Mann Chapter Three, whose work occupies the third volume. Arguably they got too serious, their records offering a sort of turgid early progressive rock with pop/R&B speckles, albeit in an oft-intriguingly gritty way that could verge on the grimy. Some of it almost sounds like Dr. John gone prog, though Hugg isn’t in the same league as a vocalist.

This has versions of a few of the songs from their pair of LPs on both the BBC and Swedish radio, as well as enough rarities to confuse discographers for years to come. Hugg’s “Breakdown” (from the 1970 Swedish broadcast) isn’t available elsewhere, as far as I can tell. Neither is the go-go-flavored instrumental “Bluesy Susie,” a live version of which plays behind a fairly entertaining interview with Manfred’s wife (“my wedding night was spent going with a boyfriend to see Manfred play”). There are also different 45 versions of “Happy Being Me” and “Devil Woman”; mono demo versions of “Konekuf” and “Time” that are different from the ones on the first Chapter Three LP; three tracks from Chapter Three’s unreleased third album (the burbling circular riffs of “So Sorry Please,” recorded July 1970, vaguely anticipating some of the synthesizer riffs on 1971’s Who’s Next); and a song they contributed to the soundtrack of the B-movie Swedish Fly Girls.

And that’s just disc one of the third volume. Disc two has their pretty snazzy 1969-70 jingles for Michelin, Maxwell House, and ski fitness, as well as background music for a 1968 BBC play. Most of the CD, however, is devoted to their soundtrack to the 1969 sexploitation movie Venus in Furs. The film had no relation to the Velvet Underground classic, and neither did Mann and Hugg’s music, which was an eerie mix of avant-garde horror and downbeat jazz. There are too many repeated motifs, and the sound too lo-fi, to make this something you’ll spin often. But in a way it’s the most fascinating section of this whole series, uncovering a side of Manfred Mann’s music unlike most of the other work in his voluminous catalog.

Mann overturned his personnel, and his sound, yet again in the early ‘70s with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Although he’d ultimately return to the top of the charts under this billing, their 1970-73 BBC sessions comprise the fourth and least interesting volume of this series. At least as determinedly prog-rock as Chapter Three, it wasn’t as eccentric, and pretty unlike Manfred’s ‘60s work, though there were links to the past in the choice of covers, particularly Randy Newman’s “Living Without You” and Bob Dylan’s “Get Your Rocks Off.” Dylan’s “Father of Day, Father of Night” gets a couple extended workouts (its studio counterpart would be one of the Earth Band’s most heavily played early-‘70s cuts on FM radio), and “Mighty Quinn” is revisited a couple times too. Leadbelly’s “Big Betty” had actually been recorded (as “Black Betty”), but not released, by the d’Abo lineup, and “Dealer” was a revamp of an LP track (“Dealer, Dealer”) from the d’Abo days.

It could be that prog-heads find volume four of this series the best of the lot, and have the least use for the Paul Jones days – and that British Beat fans feel exactly the opposite. You’d need to have very broad taste to like all four volumes more or less equally. But as they’ve been released separately, that’s not an issue if you want to give one or more a pass. The sound quality is usually good-to-excellent, and though some off-air recordings and soundtracks are not up to usual release standard, these are detailed as such in Mann biographer Greg Russo’s extensive liner notes. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)

11. John Renbourn, Unpentangled: The Sixties Albums (Cherry Tree). He was one of the finest British folk guitarists, but John Renbourn was overshadowed by both his band and the other guitar player in that band. With Bert Jansch, he gave Pentangle the best acoustic guitar team in the country. But his own records weren’t as exciting or groundbreaking as his group’s. Nor were his own records as exciting as Jansch’s, since he wasn’t quite as creative a guitarist, and more decisively not as good a singer or songwriter. Despite his unquestioned virtuosity and eclectic mastery of folk and blues styles, his best contributions were as part of a unit, not as the focus of a spotlight.

That doesn’t mean his ‘60s work outside Pentangle wasn’t worthwhile. And while none of the six albums on this box set are that hard to get elsewhere, it’s handy to have all of them in one place, with a 24-page illustrated booklet of historical liner notes. Each of the albums is housed in a sleeve replicating the original front and back covers, and all but one has bonus material, though not so much that it’s an automatic acquisition for Renbourn fans.

The heart of the CD-sized box is in the three solo albums: the 1966 self-titled debut, the follow-up Another Monday (from later in ’66), and the tongue-twistingly titled Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte, issued in 1968 almost simultaneously with Pentangle’s debut LP. There’s also 1966’s Bert and John, which isn’t so much a dry run for Pentangle as a kind of capstone for Jansch and Renbourn’s pure folk era. Filling out the set are the two albums he did with expatriate American singer Dorris Henderson (1966’s There You Go and 1967’s Watch the Stars), which were sought-after rarities for many years, but made easily available on CD quite some time ago.

That’s quite a productive three-year run, considering he was also busy cementing folk-rock-pop stardom of sorts with Pentangle from 1967 onward. If these LPs weren’t on the level of Pentangle or Jansch’s, they have their pleasures, if fairly modest ones. The first two solo outings make for highly agreeable low-key, cool-out listening as he fluidly ambles between folk, blues, and various combinations of the two. Another Monday holds additional interest for the presence of a pre-Pentangle Jacqui McShee on low-profile vocals for a few tracks. If Renbourn’s singing was pretty faceless compared to Jansch or McShee, and not even quite as imbued with character as adequate British folk singers like Davy Graham, it doesn’t drag things down either.

Sir John Alot (as everyone refers to it for convenience) finds him branching out a bit, if not hugely, with some ventures into medieval-flavored music. There’s also some modest backing from other musicians, including hand drums by Pentangle’s Terry Cox, though it stops well short of the more-or-less folk-rock Pentangle themselves were generating at the same time. Mostly instrumental, Bert and John might have been taken as the ultimate British folk guitar summit meeting at the time, and was certainly appreciated by some rock musicians, Jimmy Page likely among them.

Renbourn takes a more secondary role on Henderson’s records, but he’s not an incidental accompanist. His guitar work is arguably more interesting than the vocals, which are okay but not up to the standard of McShee’s, to take an obvious comparison. The sole bonus cut to Watch the Stars, however, is an interesting oddity on a couple grounds. Her cover of “Message to Pretty” on a non-LP 1967 single, if indeed Renbourn is playing on it (the liners have no specific comments about the personnel), is the only time this set gets into pure electric folk-rock, done fairly well in this instance. It must also be one of the few Love covers by British artists of the time. Was it perhaps even the first to make it onto disc?

Other bonus cuts include a couple alternate versions from Sir John Alot; a song apiece from Jansch’s It Don’t Bother Me and Jack Orion albums (as Renbourn played on those tracks); and outtakes from John Renbourn, including the blues “Can’t Keep from Crying” and Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game.” Renbourn went on to make many more albums, but these are his most notable ones outside Pentangle, and worth attention by both Pentangle completists and ‘60s British folk fans in general. (This review originally appeared in Ugly Things.)

12. Bob Dylan, Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (Sony Legacy). This might be stating the obvious, but this three-CD set would rank higher if I was more of a Dylan fan, or even more of a fan of this era of Dylan. Basically it focuses on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline outtakes, with four tracks he performed with Earl Scruggs in 1970 for a Scruggs documentary. Which means the years in this package’s title should really have been 1967-1970, but no refunds are likely if you complain about the inaccuracy.

The highlights are the alternate takes of seven John Wesley Harding songs. While overall they’re not terribly different from the ones used on this quickly recorded LP, sometimes they’re a tad rockier than the ones selected, especially on a much faster “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” Conversely, the alternate “As I Went Out One Morning” has a much slower, more irregular beat, and isn’t as good as the official version, but is at least different. Never having liked Nashville Skyline much, I wasn’t too interested in the alternates for that LP, the exception being “Take 2” of “Lay Lady Lay.” Though hardly inadequate, it’s inferior to the hit single in every way, particularly as Kenneth Buttrey had yet to play his cowbell and bongo percussion. Technically speaking, it’s not previously unreleased, as it was available “as a digital download with iTunes pre-orders of Together Through Life.”

Almost twenty Dylan-Johnny Cash duets from February 1969, many of them long bootlegged, take up about half the collection. It’s nice to have these in better sound quality, including a few tracks (like “Wanted Man”) that haven’t shown up on bootlegs I’ve seen. But while the rockabilly-cum-country-rock treatments are fun to hear, they still sound rushed and ragged, with Cash’s vocals and songs far more to the foreground than Dylan’s. Filling out the set are the audio from a few songs Dylan did on Cash’s TV show in 1969; a couple Self-Portrait outtakes from May 1969; and the folky, and marginally interesting, Scruggs-Dylan collaborations. The annotation’s decent (though not exhaustive), but it’s one of the less essential installments in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, even as it diligently documents the leftovers from his Nashville country-rock phase. 

The Self-Portrait outtake of “Folsom Prison Blues,” by the way, starts accelerating like an out-of-control locomotive near the end. It’s worth reviving Paul Cable’s observation on this cut in his book Bob Dylan: His Unreleased Recordings: “All Dylan can find to do with it is speed it up to a ludicrous rate as the end of the song approaches. If this was not the musicians playing a joke on him it must have been Dylan deciding he wanted to get this whole Nashville bit out of the way as soon as possible.”

13. Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity, This Wheel’s on Fire: The Lost Broadcasts (Vogon). There are no liner notes, or annotation as to when and where these tracks were recorded, on this gray area-looking release (nice color cover photo, though). That diminishes its value somewhat. But if you can cope with the absence of context, it’s a solid collection of late-‘60s-sounding radio and/or TV broadcasts, with pretty good sound that never has lo-fi bootleg quality. Besides featuring this British soul-rock/jazz/slightly psych act’s sole big hit, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” it also has some of their better known songs (a cover of David Ackles’s “The Road to Cairo,” “Save Me,” “A Kind of Love-In,” “Why Am I Treated So Bad”) and less traveled items like “Shadows of You” (a really swinging treatment that’s the disc’s highlight) and “I’m Going Back Home.” There’s also a song from Driscoll’s 1969 solo album, “A New Awakening” (no details about whether this version was cut with Auger, natch). Also present are some instrumentals spotlighting Auger’s organ (again, no info on whether these were done with the Trinity), including an almost unrecognizable arrangement of “A Day in the Life.” I find Auger’s organ more impressive than Driscoll’s singing, but their combination was unusual and interesting, if not destined to last considering their individual ambitions. 

Also out this year on the London Calling label is a less impressive collection of a dozen Driscoll/Auger/Trinity live/TV recordings, Live on Air 1967-68. A problem is that they didn’t vary their repertoire too much for these performances, which include three versions of “Save Me,” two of “Season of the Witch,” two of “Tramp,” and two of “Red Beans and Rice.” At least it has an orchestrated cover of Nina Simone’s/the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” that’s not found on their studio releases. It also has basic liner notes that at least give dates and locations for all of the tracks, though on the whole it’s not as impressive or adventurous in its material and execution as The Lost Broadcasts.

14. Tim Buckley, Live at the Electric Theatre Company Chicago, 1968 (Manifesto). Can you have too much previously unreleased live Tim Buckley? Not if you’re as much of a fan like I am, but even I have to concede some of those archive recordings aren’t for everyone, or even for frequent listening by fans. This double CD of live recordings from May 1968 falls into this category, as indeed does much of his posthumous live discography, which now include about a dozen discs’ worth. When you add on a few CDs of studio outtakes, there’s now way more posthumously issued stuff in Buckley’s catalog than what he managed to put out while he was alive—and he was fairly prolific in generating official albums when he was alive.

This isn’t everyone’s opinion, but I find most of Buckley’s live tapes markedly inferior to his studio output. He really did benefit from good production and full arrangements, which fortunately he often had. Outside the studio his songs, particularly on his more acoustic-oriented sets, were more bare-bones, and tended much more to sound like each other. That’s true of these performances, on which he’s backed only by Carter C.C. Collins on congas and an unidentified bass player. And like plenty of artists in concert, he often went on for too long.

So what’s this doing on this list, if near the bottom? His voice was so good it’s always good to hear it, even if it’s often more interesting here than the material. The songs include a good number of pieces he didn’t put on his studio albums, among them the largely instrumental “Look Out Blues” and, more interestingly, “The Father Song,” though that was heard in the obscure film Changes. Among the covers are Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” which he somehow stretches to almost eight minutes in a nearly unrecognizable interpretation. Much more satisfying is Fred Neil’s “Dolphins,” sung and played well here, and the definite highlight of the set. Add good liner notes with comments by Buckley songwriting collaborator Larry Beckett and sideman Lee Underwood, and there’s enough here to make this worthwhile for Buckley collectors, though it’s not a place to start even in his posthumous catalog.

15. Janis Joplin, The 1969 Transmissions (Leftfield Media). No big surprises here on what looks like a gray area release, as it’s not on Sony, which handles Joplin’s solo catalog. This 76-minute CD simply presents good-sounding live performances from Amsterdam on April 1, 1969, and the Texas International Pop Festival on August 30 of the same year. A note on the back says this is from FM broadcasts, and while I’m not sure about that, the fidelity’s very good, about up to official release quality. It’s not much different from official live material that’s come out from other Joplin performances from that year, and doesn’t have any big surprises in the set list. But her singing’s good and the backup decent (though not as inspired, if more polished, than Big Brother & the Holding Company). Plenty of her favorites are here, sometimes in multiple versions, like “Summertime,” “Combination of the Two,” “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” There’s more from Amsterdam than Texas, the Amsterdam set getting the edge. A good supplement to your Joplin collection if you’re a big fan, though not absolutely vital.

16. Various Artists, Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary Complete Singles Collection (Minky). Where do you list a four-CD box set in which just one of the discs is really good, and only about three-quarters of that one disc at that? Here, I guess. Rampart Records was one of several imprints run by Eddie Davis. It specialized for the most part in the kind of soul-pop-rock-Latin hybrids generated by numerous East Los Angeles acts in the 1960s and early ‘70s, most of them by Latino artists (as well as a few African-American ones). Spanning the singles issued on Rampart from 1961 to 1968, the first two CDs are kind of so-so. The two actual hits (Cannibal & the Headhunters’ “Land of 1000 Dances” and the Blendells’ “La, La, La, La, La”) are by far the best tracks.

Yet, at least relatively speaking, most of disc three catches fire, at least for the first fourteen of its eighteen tracks. Featuring 1968-72 singles, none by well known names, these are really fine soul-pop-Latin confections. Sometimes they have a gauzy production that helps make them sound about five years older than they actually were, but that’s part of what makes them cool. Even the cover versions—of “Evil Ways” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Mississippi Delta” by the Village Callers, and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by the Invincibles—are worth hearing. You wouldn’t think Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion” a logical choice for a soul harmony group cover, but the Invincibles pull it off very convincingly and well. There’s a dreamy production to some of the sweet romantic tunes that’s unlike most of the other soul of the era, and some Latin-rock toughness to the more uptempo arrangements. The Hummingbird 4’s 1972 instrumental “Cho Cho San” is guaranteed to hit the spot for anyone who liked El Chicano’s somewhat similar hit “Viva Tirado.”

Unfortunately, the last four songs on CD three, and most of CD four (which has 1976-1991 recordings), are kind of terrible, with a lot of space for mediocre disco. The value’s enhanced by a good book of detailed liner notes (most by the late Don Waller) and fine photos, and if CD three was a standalone disc that cut off the four late-‘70s disco numbers, it would have made the top ten. It’s not, so it’s kind of in the honorable mention/just-sneaked-into-the-bottom part here.

17. Booker T. & the MG’s, The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 1 (1962-1967) (Real Gone). The best early Booker T. & the MG’s singles, like “Green Onions,” “Soul Dressing,” and “Hip Hug-Her,” tend to make it onto their best-of compilations. They’re also quite a bit better than most of their other singles, whether tracks from the A-sides and B-sides. Still, it’s neat to have everything from their first five years of 45s on one 29-track CD. The playing’s always sharp and often stellar, even if some of the material is run-of-the-mill R&B. There are also some good cuts that aren’t well known, like their moody-verging-on-spooky interpretation of the oft-covered “Summertime” and the delicately minor-keyed “Winter Snow,” one of those rare Christmas-affiliated discs that wholly avoids sappiness. I don’t have too much more to say about this collection, but there’s plenty about their early years in the 16-page booklet.

18. Jimi Hendrix, Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts (Legacy). Back in 1970, six songs from Hendrix’s January 1, 1970 show at the Fillmore East comprised the Band of Gypsys album. Since then, additional material from all four of the sets he did at the Fillmore East on December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970—with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums—has come out on an assortment of subsequent releases, and sometimes only on concert film, or in edited versions. This five-CD box presents, for the first time, everything from all four of the sets. Seven of the tracks haven’t been available anywhere. So for these reasons alone, it’s an historic document. 

But what about the listening experience? Opinions on Hendrix’s catalog vary strongly, and one school feels this more R&B-oriented, post-Experience approach with African-American musicians is what he should have followed, or even been following all along. Mine is that this trio wasn’t nearly as good as the Experience with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. They don’t do the Experience-era songs as well, and the more recent compositions by Hendrix weren’t as good as his earlier ones. And despite the skill of the players, plenty of the tunes meander or go on too long.

As this is Hendrix (with Buddy Miles taking vocals on a few songs), this is still worth hearing. “Machine Gun” alone, heard in three separate versions, validates this era, even if none of his other newer compositions were up to that epic. Billy Cox’s liner notes are interesting, and the booklet has plenty of cool photos. But I can’t say I’ll pull this out for nearly as much listening as my favorite Hendrix recordings, accounting for its low slot on this list.

Getting honorable mentions, as well as fulfilling the all-important task of padding this list into a round number of twenty, are two albums that were released in 2018, but which I didn’t get to hear until 2019:

1. David Bowie, The Lost Sessions (2018, Leftfield Media). While this double CD is almost certainly an unauthorized release, that hasn’t kept it from being sold online through the most mainstream commercial outlets, or in fact from being stocked by a public library in my area. Nonetheless, it’s a useful supplement to the official Bowie at the Beeb compilation, gathering 1967-71 radio sessions (as well as a couple stray outtakes, a brief 1966 interview, and a 1972 TV appearance) that didn’t make it onto that two-CD collection. There’s nothing in the way of songs unavailable in any form elsewhere, except the unexceptional 1970 studio outtake “Tired of My Life.” But there are a good number of performances of relatively obscure items from his catalogue, like “Little Bombardier,” “When I Live My Dream,” “Width of a Circle,” and “Amsterdam.” The sound’s usually pretty good, but only fair on the eight tracks from February 5, 1970. Other strikes against it: five other tracks from that February 5, 1970 broadcast have long been available on bootleg, but are not present here. And the liner notes are almost nonexistent, although at least the dates and sources of the original broadcasts are listed.

2. The Beach Boys, Wake the World: The Friends Sessions & I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions (2018, iTunes). It’s hard to say whether these things qualify as “albums” these days, since they’re only commercially available as downloads from iTunes. Still, they do add up to three CDs of outtakes from late-‘60s Beach Boys LPs, issued just in time to extend their copyright, a la some other iTunes-only releases by big acts. Maybe they should be considered as two reissues, but I’m combining them into one review here as the batch came out all at once, and almost everything was recorded pretty close to each other.

I’m not nearly as big a fan of Friends or 20/20 (or for that matter any of their post-Smile recordings) as some other Beach Boys cultists are. Here we have leftovers and works-in-progress from LPs that weren’t among their best, or even particularly great. The modest hit singles from these albums—“I Can Hear Music,” “Do It Again,” and “Friends”—are still by far the most memorable tracks. Some of the covers are really ill-suited for the group, whether tunes that ended up coming out on the albums like “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” or “Cottonfields,” or weird choices that didn’t (“My Little Red Book”). Like the 1967 Beach Boys outtakes that came out recently, a lot of these are fragments, or have a backing track/incomplete feeling, like the almost grim instrumental version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman,” though original material dominates.

So what’s the good news? It’s still almost always nice to hear their harmonies, which still sound identifiably Beach Boys and like no other group, even when their material had changed enormously from just two or three years before these sessions. The arrangements and melodies might not be a match for that classic era either, but they’re often eccentric enough to keep your interest. They frequently hit a weird zone between the almost experimental and a desire to be accessible that just can’t be suppressed. Even some of the incomplete-sounding compositions are considerably attractive, above all “Been Too Long” (also known as “Can’t Wait Too Long”). It sounds like a nice hook in search of some more lyrics to fill out verses, or a chorus in search of the rest of the song. So you can file this in the “good to have” section if you’re a big Beach Boys fan, with the caution that it’s even more peripheral than many such outtake collections are.

Top Two Dozen Rock Books of 2019

There’s no subject too big or little for rock books these days. Memoirs by and bios of superstars and obscure cult figures; overviews of entire genres; a 920-page reference book that covers just one country and one decade; coffee table photo productions; even a bit of fiction – they’re all here. It’s a more fertile ground for me these days than rock reissues or film documentaries, and more time-consuming, since you can listen to or watch records and movies in an hour or two, but most books take up more time than that. Sometimes considerably more time, when you get in the 500-1000 page realm, as a few of these do.

It’s so hard to keep up that it’s impossible for me to get to (or even become aware of) everything I’d like by the end of the calendar year in which they’re published. So, as usual, this adds some 2018 titles to the end of the main 2019 list. More than usual, actually, since there are almost ten of them. No one’s griped about my doing this in years past, but if this is thought to be cheating somehow, my feeling is it’s better to review these books at some point—and really, 2018 wasn’t so long ago—than not at all. I’m sure there will be some 2019 books supplementing my 2020 list, impurifying my legacy even more.

It’s a close race, as usual, between the #1 and #2 picks, whose order could easily be reversed. If a tiebreaker’s needed, I usually go with the subject that hasn’t been as fully documented elsewhere, as I did for this list.

1. That’s the Bag I’m In: The Life, Music and Mystery of Fred Neil, by Peter Lee Neff (Blue Ceiling). The subtitle isn’t hype: more mystery surrounds Fred Neil’s life than that of almost any other significant cult figure, from folk-rock or ‘60s rock or otherwise. It seems like making a 300-page biography would be an impossible task given the absence of crucial hard information about the singer-songwriter, who only gave one print interview (and that a not very in-depth one). Considering the obstacles, Neff did a heroic job of uncovering a lot of previously undocumented details, including Neil’s real name (Fred Morlock), his upbringing (wayward but not quite as volatile as some have speculated), and his time as a Brill Building songwriter and sporadic recording artist in New York in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His mid-‘60s prime—when he recorded folk-rock classics like “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “The Other Side of This Life,” and “The Dolphins”— properly gets the bulkiest coverage, with plenty of stories from associates and his many (often more famous) admirers. Plenty of hitherto unknown background comes to light, including the lowdown on several unreleased albums’ worth of live and studio recordings; session details for some of his best work; plans, unrealized, for him to play at Woodstock and, even more obscurely, Altamont; and a good number of rare and unpublished photos of the notoriously reclusive Neil.

Of more importance, the writing is of a very high standard—certainly way higher than it is for most self-published books, and many books about cult figures. Neff admires Neil’s work with fervor, but looks at his life with commendable objectivity. He points out not only his oft-overlooked generosity, but also his problems with drugs, women, and the music business (which seemed to have taken more advantage of him than it did of most comparable figures). One surprise is speculation, backed up by some evidence, that Neil might have been dyslexic to the point where literacy was a true problem, explaining to some degree his struggles with contractual and financial matters. His post-1970 activities, or perhaps more accurately inactivity, are also examined, and don’t take up more space than necessary, considering his musical output was sporadic and eventually dwindled to nothing.

Even with the book’s considerable length, much mystery still does remain about Neil. Particularly, why he wrote so little after his classic 1966 Fred Neil album; why he performed so little in the wake of his best work; and why he seemed reclusive not just to the point of zealous privacy, but near-mania. Those mysteries probably can’t be unraveled any more than Neff did here, even though he  interviewed many people who knew Neil. One gets the sense that  Neil wouldn’t have had much or anything to say even if he’d been  cornered into a retrospective interview. But as much as fans might

hunger for more detail on the deep-voiced, enigmatic songwriter—a big influence, as often testified in these pages, on a great many singer-songwriters who became more famous (including David  Crosby, Stephen Stills, occasional collaborator John Sebastian, Joni Mitchell, Barry McGuire, Denny Doherty, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tim Buckley, and others)—there probably won’t be any more than you’ll find here.

2. Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues, by David Dann (University of Texas Press). There have been some massive over-600-page rock bios in recent years. But they’ve usually been for pretty big names like the Beatles, the Byrds, and Ray Davies, and not for somewhat lesser known, if still very significant, artists from the same era. Michael Bloomfield’s one such figure, and this is one such book, running to about 750 pages. That might scare off some potential readers, but remarkably, there’s very little filler in a volume that’s both extremely detailed and a very enjoyable read from beginning to end. With deep research that extends to quite a few unreleased live and studio tapes, Dann covers the blues-rock guitarist’s journey from Chicago blues through stardom, or something close to it, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, and collaborations with Al Kooper.

Bloomfield’s descent after the ‘60s was a long and painful one, but it’s still interesting to read about—more interesting, I dare say, than the erratic records he fitfully released during his last decade or so.

His  problems with drugs, insomnia, and women are not ignored, and in fact are discussed pretty extensively, though not with sensationalism. The tragedy of his life isn’t only how he couldn’t maintain the artistic highs of the likes of the East-West Butterfield album and his work on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It’s also how he lost interest and motivation in maintaining significant creative musical output in the 1970s, in part because of his unwillingness to make the usual accommodations to the music business that are necessary to keep a career going.

The prose occasionally flirts with getting too in-depth. Readers probably don’t need to know a play-by-play of the Monterey Pop Festival lineup (everyone who played, not just the Electric Flag), for example. Bloomfield’s albums and live tapes are dissected song-by-song, which can be too exhaustive for the mediocre ones (and the author agrees that some were mediocre or flawed). But the quality of the writing’s very good, and some little-discussed works that deserve greater recognition get full due—I’m not sure there’s this much coverage of the Electric Flag’s The Trip soundtrack anywhere else, to take one instance. This is worth the considerable investment of time you’ll need to digest the whole tome, and a significant addition to blues-rock scholarship.

3. Outside the Gates of Eden, by Lewis Shiner (Subterranean Press). This is an arguable inclusion in a best-of list for music books. Not because of its quality (which is very high), but because it’s not exactly a music book, and not even non-fiction. Like some other novels and short stories by Lewis Shiner, however, it draws heavily on rock music. And unlike most authors that try to use rock in fiction, Shiner really does know a lot about rock history, and how rock musicians speak and act.

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 ‘60s 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 put Outside the Gates of Eden high on this list. Elsewhere on this blog, you can read my interview with him about the book shortly after it was published in spring 2019.

4. Janis: Her Life and Music, by Holly George-Warren (Simon & Schuster). For all her fame, there was only one good and thorough Janis Joplin biography, Alice Echols’s Scars of Sweet Paradise, before this one. While both are worth reading and there’s inevitable overlap between the two, I’d give this the edge since, as the title indicates, this pays some more attention to Joplin’s music. It doesn’t bypass her colorful personal life, but too much Joplin literature emphasizes the sensationalistic aspects of her career (and there were many), and/or her status as a cultural/feminist icon. Those features are important and noteworthy, but her music is what’s most important.

It’s covered in depth here, with lots of description of both released and unreleased recordings, as well as first-hand interviews with associates and research into archives and personal letters. While there’s lots of detail, it’s also a fast and absorbing read. Her post-Big Brother output might get less space than the two-and-a-half years with Big Brother, but at a little more than 300 pages, it doesn’t skimp on anything crucial. Her sometimes murky activities, musical and otherwise, in the first half of the 1960s are tracked with as much diligence as they ever have. Two good inserts with dozens of photos too, some uncommon.

5. CSNY: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, by Peter Doggett (2019, Atria). For all their massive fame, this is the first really good book about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Although their prime only lasted for the year and a half after they formed (and Neil Young was only aboard for the final half or so of that period), there’s more than enough to fill 330 pages, even if it rightly focuses almost exclusively on that era. Doggett dug deep into their unofficial studio and live archives, and if for nothing else, his work’s valuable for sorting out the mass of confusing and sometimes contradictory accounts of such basic elements as where and when they formed. The book also details not just the two studio albums CSN/CSNY did in 1969 and 1970, but also the extensive tendrils of other demos, live recordings, and outtakes they cut at the time, sometimes solo or without all three or four present. In addition, Doggett draws on interviews he’s done with CSN and some of their associates over the course of many years, as well as interviews they gave for others, some quite obscure. 

As just a few examples of the relatively little-covered territory examined at length, there are accounts of their numerous failed (and sometimes ludicrously over-ambitious) film projects, or how exactly a non-Woodstock performance of “Sea of Madness” ended up on the Woodstock soundtrack. But the abundance of interesting trivia doesn’t overwhelm the main story, which focuses on how such talented but egotistic folk-rock performers managed to get together in the first place, and the fragile balance that made unity impossible to maintain, even as superstardom briefly reached near-Beatles levels. Wisely, it doesn’t stretch out the tale beyond its primary points of interest, taking care of their post-1974 tour reunion projects (many aborted) in just twenty pages.

Minor criticism: the primary sources for the many quotes are listed only once “to avoid repetition.” Some of us do care where all of these quotes appeared. If the aim was to save a lot of paper, in this day and age, it’s not too hard to post them online and include the link in the footnotes.

6. Galactic Ramble, edited by Richard Morton Jack (self-published; When its first edition came out about ten years ago, Galactic Ramble seemed an unimaginably huge reference work for British music’s beat-to-prog prime. Its 530 pages combined vintage and newly written reviews for a vast range of British Isles LPs from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s. Could a new edition even find that much more to document, let alone count as an essential purchase for serious fans and collectors?

The answer’s an emphatic yes. With more than 900 near-coffee-table-sized pages of three-column print and more than a million words, it’s not just radically expanded. It’s one of the biggest books of any sort you’re likely to own. Crucially, it’s not just or primarily lists of discographies, though the most essential release/label/catalog # info’s here. Under the guidance of Flashback magazine editor Richard Morton Jack, a team of a dozen or so expert writers/collectors review virtually all of the entries in descriptive depth, alongside extensive excerpts of reviews from the UK press at the time the LPs were issued.

Alongside entries for familiar stars and classics are thousands of reviews of albums seldom listed (let alone critiqued) in standard reference books, from major label flops to obscure indies and private pressings. There can’t be many other books that review fourteen Peter & Gordon LPs, to take one example. Although rock’s the main focus, quite a bit of jazz, folk, Christian rock, library music, and even school project records are also covered.

It’s also astounding how many vintage reviews Jack’s uncovered, and not just for the expected popular records. There are nine, for instance, of Peter Bardens’s solo debut, and eleven (!) for Trader Horne’s sole full-length. They’re sourced not just from the usual weekly papers like Melody MakerNME, and Sounds, but from literally dozens of others as well, ranging from underground mags like IT and Oz to forgotten music business rags like Record Retailer. There’s even a Penthouse review of Bert Jansch’s debut, to cite one especially deep dive.

While the vintage reviews are of considerable value for giving us a sense of how these records (famous and otherwise) were received at the time, they’re also often more blandly positive than you’d expect, as if they have an eye toward trying to sell as well as judge product. It’s also a hoot to read some misfires on LPs now accepted as core classics. NME thought Van Morrison sounded “for all the world like Jose Feliciano’s stand-in” on Astral Weeks, putting the boot in (or deeper down its mouth) by 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.”

Written decades later, the retrospective reviews commissioned for this volume are not only usually substantially lengthier and more detailed, but also more knowledgeable and critically acute in their assessments. They’re also peppered with interesting trivia and clarifications, though not at the expense of highly readable, entertaining, and (usually) concise overviews of the music. Who would have thought the rare CBS double LP sampler Rock Buster, a 1970 release with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover, includes a completely different take of Trees’ “Polly on the Shore”?

Sometimes the fresh reviews might overreach in their cross-references to records that might draw a blank even with huge collectors. Patchy Fogg’s Today’s Weather, itself a pretty unknown item, “was released on the same label as Oberon, but is more comparable to bands like Galley or Gallery.” Sometimes the bolder assertions are almost spoiling for a fight, as when a Searchers review asks, “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, a review of Jesus Christ Superstar concluding, “Has there ever been a better rock opera? Certainly not Tommy.” Ack!

And for all its comprehensiveness, Galactic Ramble actually does miss a few titles here and there, or omit some artists some collectors would have liked to make the cut, like Irish folkies the Johnstons and Ronnie Lane post-Faces. It’s selective in US-only releases (no Got Live If You Want It! in the Stones section, for instance), and there’s little reggae. On the other hand, plenty of non-UK albums by British Isles artists (usually with material partially or wholly unique to the releases) do make the cut, including some variants even fans of the artists might be unaware of, as well as odd titles by British acts issued in the States but not at home, like Dana Gillespie’s well-regarded Foolish Seasons.

Other big pluses include reproductions of literally thousands of vintage LP ads with graphics ranging from the striking to absurd, some of them with text that’s quite interesting in and of itself, like Pete Townshend’s extensive comments on behalf of King Crimson’s debut; a couple inserts with full-color reproductions of dozens of particularly rare or peculiar-looking LP covers; an extensive introduction by producer David Hitchcock with insider insights into all facets of the UK record industry at the time; and numerous top ten lists that get into some real esoteric yet fascinating territory, a la “ten sleeves that rarely show up in top shape” and “ten LPs with cringe-making spoken sections.”

Vernon Joynson’s massive discographies covering the same era in various continents have their value, of course, and the late Patrick Lundborg’s The Acid Archives goes deep into American obscurities from the same era. Morton Jack’s own Endless Trip applies much the same approach as Galactic Ramble to North American releases. Galactic Ramble, however, is the best rock reference book to date for documenting a specific era with such detail and blend of enjoyable criticism with hard information. It’s expensive (£100, with shipping running to £35 if you’re not in the UK or EU), but essential for serious rock scholars, and won’t be around forever, as this hardback edition’s limited to 500 copies. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things. You can read my interview with Morton Jack about the book here.)

7. Elvis in Vegas, by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster). Title to the contrary, this isn’t totally a book about Elvis Presley’s stints in Las Vegas, though it takes up a good chunk of the text. It’s about as much a book about how Las Vegas entertainment took shape in the mid-twentieth century, and how Presley’s shows, specifically those in 1969 and 1970, changed the way it was presented. That’s not such a big deal, since the book’s very good, even if it might disappoint some Elvis fans expecting something different. In fact, more than half the book’s over with before it gets to his 1969 comeback shows, first dealing with how Las Vegas became a gambling capital, and how shows at the casinos and hotels evolved from the 1940s onward. Even if you’re not especially a fan of the kind of acts that blossomed there, like the Rat Pack, this is pretty interesting, laying out how the musicians and comedians were primarily there as loss leaders for the real money to be made from gamblers. But over decades, the kind of entertainment accompanying that business took on a life and character of its own, with glitz, schlock, and a haven for pop singers and standup comedians whose work was drying up as popular tastes shifted.

Presley fans, fear not: there’s a lot about Elvis too. Not just his comeback shows, but also his unsuccessful first series of Vegas shows in 1956, and his periodic stops in the town for R&R over the next ten years, as well as the film Viva Las Vegas. The buildup to his decision to return to performing after his 1968 TV special and artistic renaissance on record is also covered, and naturally the first series of shows in summer 1969 is extensively documented. The subsequent Las Vegas residencies are examined in steadily diminishing detail, which is okay, since they became less interesting as time went on. Zoglin also looks at how Presley’s Las Vegas shows both changed the city’s entertainment and how Presley’s concerts were influenced (if not enormously so) by the new era, including the stage act of another singer who made Vegas a second home, Tom Jones. The book also supplies the answer to an interesting trivia question: the only artist to play both Woodstock and Vegas in 1969. (Answer: Blood, Sweat & Tears.)

8. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth & Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chicago Review Press). As Robert Johnson’s life has been hazily documented in the absence of much hard evidence as to what happened when, it’s something of a miracle that a fairly lengthy biography has been constructed of the bluesman. Much about him remains and will likely remain mysterious. But this still pieces together many of the basics, drawing on painstaking grunt research and interviews with seemingly everyone who could have been found who knew or knew something about the man. Obviously many of those interviews took place decades ago, and it must have taken a long time for all or at least some of these pieces to fit together. Now we have a reasonably comprehensive account of Johnson’s rambles, music, and recordings, including his death (from poisoning, although the drink that did it seemed intended just to make him ill) at the age of 27 in 1938.

Occasionally there’s an overabundance of contextual detail (particularly in early sections detailing which relatives lived where) that could have been condensed. Yet it’s also for the most part very readable, avoiding the stilted academic prose some scholarly blues works fall into, and also steering clear of too much conjecture to fill in the gaps. The two recording sessions that yielded all of his recordings are discussed in depth, including how he got briefly jailed the night before the first day of these, and why it’s unlikely he recorded facing a wall (as an illustration for an early Johnson compilation intimated). John Hammond’s too-late search for Johnson to appear at a New York concert is noted, and it’s briefly relayed how he did try out an early electric guitar during a New York visit, but preferred to stick with an acoustic, though he liked the electric instrument’s volume. 

There isn’t often much humor in books like this, but here’s a funny comment from the daughter of a guitarist the young Johnson learned from, Ike Zimmerman. “There wasn’t no crossroads,” states Loretha Zimmerman. “They went ‘cross the road.’” More soberly,  Johnny Shines had this to say about Johnson and women: “Did Robert really love? Yes, like a hobo loves a train—off one and on another.”

9. Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues, by Tammy L. Turner (University of Mississippi). Dick Waterman was a booking agent, promoter, and manager for many blues artists during the 1960s blues revival. He continued to work with many of them after that decade, as well as managing Bonnie Raitt for many years at the start of her career. Waterman didn’t want to write his own memoir, but this biography almost reads like one, so extensively is he quoted. That works fine, since he’s a good storyteller, not just about the music of the artists he handled, but also about the ups and downs of the business end that most fans don’t see. That includes shepherding elderly bluesmen who haven’t played professionally for decades from gig to gig, trying to get back royalties for musicians who’ve seen little money, and even getting beaten up trying to defend a bartender at a club where his clients regularly played. 

The list of artists with whom he worked closely, and tells quite a few stories about, is extremely impressive. Among them are Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy (it’s noted here that Apple Records expressed some interest in signing him), Fred McDowell, Maria Muldaur, and of course Raitt (with whom he had a romantic relationship for years, though her ascendance to superstardom happened after they parted ways. Also rather amazing, however, are the number of other interesting figures with whom he had significant interactions, not all of them from the blues world. Again, a partial list: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Dion, and Taj Mahal. 

There are stories here and there that could have been cut or shortened, but most are very interesting, spanning the gamut from funny to tragic. Although it’s not a big part of the narrative, there’s also a sense of how difficult it was for Waterman to survive in this profession, falling into the outskirts of poverty not just as a youth, but throughout his career. Also included are some of the many photos he took in the ‘60s of the legends with whom he interacted.

10. My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, compiled by Michael Heath and edited by Pat Thomas (Hat & Beard Press). Lou Reed was notorious for giving acerbic interviews and his hostility toward journalists. There’s certainly some of that in this collection of three dozen interviews spanning 1971-2007, many of them never reprinted before (or, in the case of a few radio interviews and press conferences, never printed anywhere before, to my knowledge). Yet he’s also, and not infrequently, pretty informative and straightforward, depending on whether he seems to respect 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.

The sources range from high-circulation mags (Rolling StoneCreemCircusMOJOMelody Maker) to unlikely mainstream publications (Hit ParaderHits), 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 of his Reed articles, 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. It’s a welcome addition to the Lou Reed library, and you can read more about it in my interview with editor Pat Thomas.

11. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, by David Browne (Da Capo). It’s true: two very similarly titled biographies of CSNY came out at almost exactly the same time (the one by Peter Doggett is reviewed higher up the list). That must have delighted the authors and publishers no end. But readers basically win, since both are worth reading, even if I prefer Doggett’s. The main reason? Although the writing in both volumes is good, as noted in my rundown of Doggett’s, he focuses mostly on their brief late-‘60s/early-‘70s prime. Browne’s covers the whole, often painfully drawn out half century, including the many solo and side projects. In fact, about three-fourths of it is post-4 Way Street, which makes for a mighty long, slow (and sometimes steep) decline in musical value, at least in terms of CSN if not Y.

Still, Browne interviewed more than a hundred people, including Crosby and Nash (but not Stills and Young, who did not make themselves available). And though the sporadic actual post-‘70s reunions of the quartet (and to an only slightly lesser degree the CSN trio) were both disappointing and frustrating, their tumultuous personal lives make for pretty interesting reading, if in kind of an elongated train wreck way. Browne is overly generous in his assessment of much of their work (post-1970 CSN/CSNY and otherwise), but doesn’t hesitate to discuss the flaws in their weaker efforts.

Here’s something that still escapes me, however. In some interviews, and in the recent Remember My Name documentary, Crosby emphasizes his need to keep touring at an advanced age and precarious health just to support himself. According to the figures in this book, however, numerous post-‘80s CSN/Y tours have grossed quite a few millions of dollars. Could his financial struggles just possibly have something to do with living beyond his means, or at least considerable monetary mismanagement?

12. At the Birth of Bowie: Life with the Man Who Became a Legend, by Phil Lancaster (John Blake). Phil Lancaster was drummer in the Lower Third, the group that backed a young David Bowie for about eight months from around mid-1965 to early 1966. As their sole officially released output on disc amounted to two low-selling singles, it’s not a period of his development that’s received too much attention. Still, this recollection of that fairly brief period is a pretty good read for Bowie fans, and despite its 300-page length a pretty quick one, owing in part to its large print. Even so it’s a bit puffed up around the edges with some obvious asides and observations, but for the most part Lancaster sticks to the story, recounting Bowie’s stint with the Lower Third with as much detail as he can manage. Not only are their sessions (few as they were) with hit producers Shel Talmy and Tony Hatch pretty fully sketched out, but Lancaster also lists as much of their repertoire as he can remember, including some unreleased demos and unlikely covers, like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (from Mary Poppins). There are also notes about their passing encounters with big British Invasion stars like the Who, Small Faces, the Pretty Things, and Ray Davies.

Bowie (still billed as Davy Jones when the first of the two singles appeared) really hadn’t found a distinctive style at this point, borne out by his first 45 with the Lower Third, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” which owed a great deal to the early Who. Lancaster was a huge Who fan, and remembers the Lower Third playing with nosebleed volume at their live shows, though this largely was not reflected by their meager recorded output. They did cut a version of Bowie’s first outstanding song, “London Boys,” with Hatch, but as Lancaster relates in one of the most interesting sections, this was apparently withheld from release due to Pye Records’ uneasiness over its reference to pill-taking. Lower Third manager Ralph Horton helped split the act by focusing on Bowie and isolating the backing musicians, leading to their departure at an early ’66 gig when they demanded to be paid or not play at all. Despite the bitter ending, Lancaster looks back at both Bowie and the era with affection. Much of the book does capture the excitement of being on the mid-‘60s British rock circuit, even for groups like the Lower Third that were trailing the leaders of the pack.

13. Face It, by Debbie Harry (Dey St.). Harry’s memoir is largely entertaining and informative, though it falls prey to a few of the common flaws of rock star autobiographies. Chatty, candid, and sometimes rambling, it does largely stick to her long path from singing backup in forgettable late-‘60s group the Wind in the Willows, waitressing, Playboy-bunnying, and generally boho-ing until Blondie got off the ground in the mid-1970s. Blondie fans who’d like more of a song-by-song rundown of their best albums might be disappointed, but Harry discusses their musical evolution and personnel changes/contributions quite a bit, as well as the general milieu of the CBGBs scene. There are also some brutal hardships in the days leading up to Blondie, including a sociopath stalker and, even more grimly, a robbery and rape in the apartment she shared with boyfriend and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein. Sour management deals also led to, unbelievably, her and Stein going broke around the time the band broke up, which was also when Stein almost died from a rare and prolonged illness.

Harry relays this with much less bitterness than most celebrities in her position, which is one of the book’s strengths. Not as strong are the detours into some extramusical subjects that aren’t of such great interest, at least to me, like some of her fashion choices and her passion for pro wrestling. Like many a memoir, the final sections are less interesting as Blondie’s music becomes less vital following their reunion, Harry filling out the text with recollections of her numerous movie roles. The abundance of portraits of Harry by her fans used in the illustrations (which also include numerous good photos) are unnecessary, but not so extensive that they interfere with the enjoyment of a fairly solid effort in the rock memoir sweepstakes.

14. Fried & Justified, by Mick Houghton (Faber & Faber). Starting his career as a music journalist, Houghton became a publicist of some note in the UK from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. He worked with some of the era’s most successful or at least renowned alternative rock acts, including Julian Cope, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Undertones, KLF, Sonic Youth, the Wedding Present, and Felt. His memoir of those times would rate higher on this list if I was a bigger fan of those artists, and the era. But it’s still an interesting look at some of the inside action from both the mainstream/major label and indie/underground sides of the new wave/post-punk scenes.

To hear Houghton tell it, you might think a publicist’s job was more to stay out of the way and let the clients have their way than to push their product hard, though I suspect he did more grunt work than he lets on. His job at times went beyond the stereotype of sending out press releases and hounding writers for stories, whether it was taking Sun Ra shopping in London or leaking KLF’s plans to throw buckets of sheep’s blood over the audience at an industry awards show to tabloids (to help ensure the event didn’t happen). Some of the stories are funny, some are depressing, but most illuminate the zany capricious ways of the period’s music business and its stars, or semi-stars. Even his more successful charges sometimes seemed so ill-suited for the spotlight that it’s not so much a question of why they didn’t get bigger, but how they got as far as they did. People like Houghton probably have more to do with it than they get credit for, though he declines to take much in this humorously deadpan account.

15. A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen, by Barry Alfonso (Backbeat). For all McKuen’s massive book sales as a poet and lengthy discography as a singer-songwriter, this is the first biography of the man. I’m not a McKuen fan, but as he was a significant part of the era of musical history in which I’m most interested, I was reasonably interested to find out more about his life. This biography delivers pretty well on that account, with a highly readable and critically astute survey of his personal and professional life. Understandably, the author’s evaluations are more generous than mine.

But Alfonso take a balanced view of McKuen’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the artist’s sentimental romanticism was leavened by some vulnerable loneliness, eroticism, and even some tawdry bits here and there. His personal life was more troubled than one might assume, with family abuse in his early years and a sexual identity he largely hid from the public eye. As the author acknowledges, it’s difficult to piece together his life, particularly but not exclusively his pre-fame years, with total accuracy. In part that was due to his reluctance to divulge full personal details, and in part that was due to the sometimes dubious or untrustworthy memories he did make public. This book diligently traces whatever trails it can and notes the tales that should not be taken as gospel, or did not to surviving evidence ever happen.

There’s probably lots more that could be said about his records (there were many) and writings, but given his work’s unevenness, Alfonso wisely emphasizes McKuen’s most essential and interesting  efforts. As a consequence it’s not a terribly long volume, tallying around 200 pages. But it probably didn’t have to be longer, which would have risked delving into the mundane parts of his oeuvre. A fuller story would have also risked losing the interest of more general readers like me, who’ll appreciate the book’s concise overview of this popular yet oft-scorned figure.

16. Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem, by Benjamin Piekut (Duke University Press). British progressive rock group Henry Cow is one of those acts whose history I find more interesting than their music. One of the most leftist acts to make any kind of name for themselves, they  combined rock, jazz, improvisation, then-cutting-edge electronic technology, and political text. The result found favor with many critics and garnered a passionate underground following, especially in Continental Europe. At the same time it was almost defiantly inaccessible to the masses, as much as Henry Cow wanted their music to make a political statement on behalf of the oppressed and working class. Appropriately, this hefty biography—almost 500 pages after the lengthy section of footnotes—is a mixture of accessible history and academic theorizing that will lose many general readers. The  author even acknowledges in his lengthy sociological introduction that “die-hard fans of the band might find the most satisfaction by jumping directly to the narrative history that begins in chapter 1.”

Fortunately, the straightforward history substantially outweighs the sections focusing on rigorously delineated cultural context and musical analysis. Everyone in the band was interviewed except Lindsay Cooper (who was too ill to speak about their history), along with many associates. In common with many left-wing organizations, Henry Cow had a lot of internal struggle and debate, some of them actually common to many rock bands, like romantic relationships that got in the way, equipment and van breakdowns, disputes over musical direction, and rocky interactions with record labels. There were not many other groups, however, who hashed these out with meetings like those of political collectives, including some written statements both to the public and among themselves that could verge on political diatribes. Whether on the surface or not, the contradiction between playing adventurous music outside of the mainstream and trying to use that to rally the masses was often at the heart of these tensions.

Aside from lots of stories about Henry Cow’s genesis, mid-‘70s peak, and protracted dissolution, there’s also inside information about some other interesting topics that played a strong role in their tale. Those include fellow European prog group Slapp Happy (whose members would work and for a time merge with Henry Cow); the early days of Virgin Records, when it was for the most part an underground label, not the mainstream one it became; and the birth of Recommended Records and the Rock in Opposition movement, both of which they (and especially drummer Chris Cutler) were vital in launching. It’s also revealed that director Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted them (along with Pink Floyd and Magma) to soundtrack his adaptation of Dune, and that guitarist Fred Frith might have been considered to produce the Sex Pistols. Like Henry Cow, the book is sometimes a struggle (especially the theoretical introduction and afterword, which can be skipped by most rock fans without missing anything, or even offending the author). But it’s worth persevering with for those interested in a very different kind of rock music and history.

17. Look What They Dun! The Ultimate Guide to UK Glam Rock on TV in the ‘70s, by Peter Checksfield (self-published?). Like Checksfield’s previous, much bigger volume Channelling the Beat! The Ultimate Guide to UK ‘60s Pop on TV, this is a reference book listing TV appearances of a specific style and era. This time it’s British glam rock, listing all known TV appearances (and occasional movie ones). Helpfully, the footage known to survive is listed in boldface, making it easier to access at a time when it’s easier to do so than any other in history. Much of this is pure listings with dates, program, and songs performed, but Checksfield does knowledgeably (if often briefly) describe many of the surviving clips. The heavyweights like David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music all get chapters, but so do British acts that never made it big in the US (Slade, Hello, Mud); not-exactly-glam acts that nonetheless tapped into glam both visually and sonically (the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Kinks, the Move); and artists that never even made it particularly big anywhere (Kenny, Paul Da Vinci). Keeping the scope more manageable and the content more interesting, the end of the ‘70s is used as a cutoff point, though many of the acts continued their careers afterward (sometimes long afterward). I’d be more passionate about the book (as I was about Channeling the Beat!) if I was more of a glam fan, but it definitely has its use as a clearly formatted and thoroughly researched reference work.

18. Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music, by Daniel Bukszpan (Imagine). The 50th anniversary of Woodstock spurred a flurry of books, several of which have their modest attributes. This is the best of the four reviewed here, chiefly because the author actually interviewed a lot of the performers, promoters, audience members, and crew who helped put on the event. There are small (usually two-page) chapters for each of the performers, with their set lists, and sections on the genesis of the festival, the behind-the-scenes machinations, the poster, the aftermath, the soundtrack LP, the movie, artists who were invited but didn’t play, and so on. And there are plenty of photos and illustrations. Some of the performer chapters are padded by general observations about their music, but specifics are given as to their actual sets. 

19. Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World: 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Mike Evans & Paul Kingsbury (Sterling). Actually this first came out ten years ago, but opportunities to capitalize on a 50th anniversary only come around once. While as an overview of the festival it’s basic, it has plenty of good photos; set lists and brief profiles/set descriptions for all of the acts; quotes from a lot of the musicians, and some of the others associated with Woodstock, as well as audience members; and a foreword by Martin Scorsese, who was operating one of the cameras for the film. Some contextual chapters about preparations for and the aftermath of the event range from interesting to superfluous. On the whole it’s better than another Woodstock retrospective issued in 2019 (50 Years: The Story of Woodstock Live, reviewed below), though both will give you a good idea of what happened, and each has material not in the other.

20. 50 Years: The Story of Woodstock Live, by Julien Bitoun (Cassell). Most of this volume’s given over to short chapters on the performance of each of the several dozen acts at Woodstock. There are set lists, brief descriptions of the actual music, some background info on the acts, and plenty of photos, though not all of them are from Woodstock itself. There are also some small pieces on the events leading up to the festival, the movie, the soundtrack albums, and the stories behind the acts that didn’t make it to the event. It’s kind of like what you imagine the liner notes to the 38-CD limited edition complete Woodstock box might be like, though this is a lot cheaper than that $800 extravaganza, especially if you take it out of the library. The writing (translated from French) isn’t that great and the critical assessments are often too generous/enthusiastic, and sometimes rather peculiar. Still, this has its use for the fairly complete documentation of what was played and when, though that’s also in other Woodstock books now.

21. Girl: An Untethered Life, by Julia Dreyer Brigden (self-published). “Girl” was the nickname of author Julia Dreyer Brigden, whose first husband was David Freiberg, of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Starship. There’s some material about Freiberg and those bands here, but mostly this is a memoir of growing up in Marin County in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time she reached adolescence, Girl was kind of wild, running away to Mexico, marrying a local rock star ten years her senior as a teenager, and having a daughter with him not long afterward. Even well into their marriage, Girl often took off for wayward travels around the world, though she settled down into a more conventional and grounded life after quitting drugs (and, post-Freiberg, drug dealing) by the ‘80s.

This is pretty interesting and well written as memoirs of coming of age in the loose environment of the ‘60s Bay Area go, but it will disappoint those looking for inside info on the rock scene. There are a few interesting stories about the internal dynamics of Quicksilver; Dino Valenti comes off very badly, and Gary Duncan not much better, especially as regards their sexism. And there are a few observations about Paul Kantner, Grace Slick (who advised Girl about seeking help for her substance abuse problems), and David Crosby (Girl was nearly a passenger in the accident that killed Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton in 1969, and was among the first to arrive at the scene of the crash). It’s more her personal tale of her rocky journey from girlhood to adulthood, distinguished from other accounts by the Bay Area setting and the circles in which she traveled. And the chronology’s shaky on some of the experiences with rock stars, though that’s only likely to picked up by the kind of rock nerds who actually remember when Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name was recorded.

22. Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music, by Michael Lang (Real Art Press). Fiftieth anniversaries only come around once, so Woodstock’s fiftieth occasioned several graphics-oriented coffee table books, as well as a PBS documentary and a 38-CD box set. This one, by Woodstock co-promoter Michael Lang (who with Holly George-Warren put out a conventional text memoir of the event, The Road to Woodstock, ten years ago), has less text than the others listed in this survey. Unlike those others, it doesn’t focus on the music, and in fact has relatively little about the music, concentrating instead on how the festival was created, organized, and run. So it’s less interesting, at least to me, than the other two, though the text has its points of value. More interesting are the wealth of photos, in both color and black-and-white, the majority taken by Henry Diltz. These cover the festival from many angles, from inception to aftermath, including not only star performers, but also many shots of the audience and members of the upstate New York community.

Of particular note are some rarely seen documents, like a poster for the festival at its original (canceled) location in Wallkill; the contract for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s appearance (“under no circumstances are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to open the show”); a list of artists and their fees, including some who didn’t appear, like Iron Butterfly ($10,000) and the Moody Blues ($5000); and most especially a July 7, 1969 letter from Apple offering to present Billy Preston and James Taylor. They didn’t appear, as Lang didn’t find the unopened letter until about forty years later. The letter also offered to show a film by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, also stating “we will also present for the first time in America ‘The Plastic Ono Band,’ which actually is a series of plastic cylinders incorporated around a stereo sound system.”

23. Jim Marshall: Show Me the Picture, by Amelia Davis (Chronicle). The companion book to the documentary Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall has many pictures by the acclaimed, usually San Francisco-based photographer. Marshall was mostly known for his work with musicians, and photos of rock, blues, jazz, soul, and country artists in the 1960s and early 1970s (most in black and white, and a few in color) dominate the volume. There are also some non-music pictures, mostly dating from the early 1960s, and often of the American poor and/or minorities. Although the text is fairly sparse, there are also memories and appreciations of Marshall from some who knew and worked with him. His legal and drug troubles, as well as frequent unruly behavior, are not ignored, though the essayists emphasize the positives of a talented but troubled man.

24. Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, by Jayson Kerr Dobney and Craig J. Inciardi with Anthony DeCurtis, Alan di Perna, David Fricke, Holly George-Warren, and Matthew W. Hill (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The catalogue of a 2019 exhibit of rock instruments at the MET in New York is a full-blown hardback book, with essays by seven contributors on different related topics: “Guitar Gods,” “The Rhythm Section,” “Creating a Sound,” “Creating an Image,” and Iconic Moments” are some. The text has adequate overview-type information, though as only a relatively small number of musicians (most stars) are specifically examined, there’s some repetition of both details and viewpoints.

More notable than the text, which doesn’t contain much fresh or surprising information for knowledgeable rock fans, are the numerous photos, many of which are of instruments from the exhibit. Gearheads might get more out of this than the average reader, but there are some unusual and especially historic items. Those include the 1964 Fender Stratocaster Bob Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; a beat-to-hell-looking Fender Esquire Jeff Beck used with the Yardbirds in the mid-1960s; and one of the Mellotrons the Rolling Stones used in their brief 1967 psychedelic period. It’s kind of expensive ($50) for what you get in the 236-page book, and some interesting instruments from the exhibition (listed in an appendix) aren’t pictured in the book, like a Telecaster Jimmy Page played with a violin bow in the Yardbirds. It adds up to something most of us should get from the library if we can, unless you’re an instrument collector or fetishist.

The following books were all published in 2018, although I didn’t read them until this year:

1. What We Did Instead of Holidays: Fairport & Its Extended Folk-Rock Family, by Clinton Heylin (Route). This isn’t solely a history of the first dozen or so years of Fairport Convention, although they’re the core around which the text revolves. This also covers the numerous spin-off acts Fairport generated, including Steeleye Span, Matthews Southern Comfort, Trader Horne, Fotheringay, the Albion Country Band, and the solo careers of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Ian Matthews. A lot of those acts (including the still-active Fairport) kept going a long time, but this book is only devoted to the era starting with Fairport’s founding in the mid-1960s, and ending with Richard and Linda Thompson’s breakup in the early 1980s.

Heylin follows a format he’s used on some of his other books, mixing his own text with many quotes from the participants, both from his own interviews and archival sources. It’s an interesting and fast-moving tale that, while documenting one of rock’s more subdued styles (British folk-rock, in which Fairport were the most important band), brings to light many tumultuous artistic and personal forces that were taking place behind the scenes or playing out in public. In his numerous books (including his biography of one of the principal figures in Fairport, Sandy Denny), Heylin can be smugly opinionated, but that’s dialed down here, and mainly reserved for barbs at CD compilations he feels could have been better assembled. Some other books, such as Heylin’s Denny biography, do go deeper into the details of specific acts like Thompson and (in the memoir Thro’ My Eyes) Matthews. But this weaves the complicated story of Fairport and its offshoots together pretty well, and is better than the best other Fairport book, Fairport By Fairport.

2. Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life in and out of Rock and Roll, by John Simon (self-published). As the subtitle notes, Simon was “producer of the Band, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc.,” though that sentence lists most of the familiar acts with whom he worked. Although his autobiography’s 332 pages, it’s a quick read, since he writes in short paragraphs and uses plenty of margins and white space. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, though it’s not major, either. He has a fairly engaging, storytelling style that runs through his experiences with all of the aforementioned acts; a few others he produced that are well known (the Cyrkle, Gordon Lightfoot, the Electric Flag, Cass Elliot, Steve Forbert); and some who aren’t well known or even often discussed by cultish fans, most of those dating from after the early 1970s. 

The bulk of the book covers the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he achieved his peak successes with the Band and Big Brother & the Holding Company. Some of the tales will be familiar to knowledgeable followers of those groups, and maybe more interesting for his down-to-earth, humble perspective on his role and their records than the actual facts involved. But he does inject meaningful observations on his contributions as a producer, and indeed how the nature of a producer’s contributions can vary according to the specific project. There are also wry, cynical takes on the capricious and sometimes cruel music business. For those looking for something not covered in the usual mainstream histories, he discusses his own quirky obscure solo albums, which do have their admirers, though not legions of them.

It’s a little odd that while the first two Band LPs are examined in more detail than anything else, he doesn’t get into why he didn’t continue to work with them. Too, some fairly interesting people he produced, specifically Jackie Lomax and Bobby Charles, are only mentioned in passing. Maybe that’s a matter of him not feeling those projects have good stories behind them, rather than glossing things over. But their absence is still felt, considering some that abundant white space could have been filled. I interviewed Simon about the book here.

3. Rock Graphic Originals: Revolutions in Sonic Art from Plate to Print ’55-‘88, by Peter Golding with Barry Miles (Thames & Hudson). There have been plenty of rock poster books, and this one’s a cut above most of them, for several reasons. There are a lot of reproductions, many of them not often seen in books, and most of them (despite the wide yearspan of the subtitle) from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘70s. Unlike most such volumes, a good number of the illustrations show how the work progressed, again referencing the subtitle, from plate to print. That’s a technical process that might interest professionals and specialists more than general readers, but it’s not overdone and doesn’t take away the main stage from actual poster repros. The captions aren’t too extensive, but nonetheless are more informative than they are in similar anthologies, with basic essential details and some interesting info about how/where/why these were produced.

What’s coolest is that while San Francisco rock posters might be the largest category here (in common with a good number of other rock poster books), this also makes room for posters from different regions, and on different subjects. There’s even a psychedelic poster for a Haight-Ashbury ice cream parlor. Posters from London, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other non-Bay Area locations get some ink. So do posters for non-rock events/subjects like a Diggers happening and a legalize pot rally, and rock poster-influenced publications like underground papers and comics. Some of the San Francisco posters hold special interest, like the one for the Fillmore with a lion that was redrawn by Lee Conklin for the cover of Santana’s debut album. There’s a little too much Grateful Dead here (again in common with some other poster surveys), but most of this is novel and refreshing, even if you’ve seen a lot of these kind of graphics elsewhere.

4. Imagine John Yoko, by John Lennon & Yoko Ono with contributions from the people who were there (Grand Central Publishing). I’m not a big fan of John Lennon’s Imagine album; otherwise, I’d like this 320-page coffee table book devoted to the record more. Still, it’s a very well put together volume that has a lot of text, photos, and graphics to entertain and enlighten if your interest in Imagine is at least casual. Besides extensive memories of the sessions and comments on the songs from Lennon and (to a lesser degree) Ono, there are comments from many people who were involved in the album and its associated projects, including films and art exhibitions. That includes not only session musicians like Klaus Voormann, but also numerous engineers, personal assistants, filmmakers, and others. These are drawn from both interviews done for the book and vintage sources—all of them vintage, unfortunately and obviously, in Lennon’s case.

Visually, there’s an abundance of photos, movie stills, handwritten lyrics, and other ephemera. Most of the images are meticulously dated with locations noted—something that should be a given for books like this, but too often isn’t, especially in rock/popular culture publications. It raises hopes that more such works will be produced for classic rock albums/artists in the future, as not many succeed with both the text and visuals. John and Yoko could be vainglorious in their zealous documentation of their art and lives (something that comes through far more strongly in their Imagine film), but the book largely avoids this, for all its thoroughness. Favorite Lennon quote from these pages (about the song “Imagine”): “The World Church called me once and wanted to say, ‘Can we use the lyrics and just change it to “Imagine one religion”?’ So that showed that they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song; the whole idea.”

5. The Association: ‘Cherish’, by Malcolm Searles (Matador). Although they were white-hot commercially for a couple years, the Association have never gotten the critical respect of comparably successful rock bands from the mid-to-late 1960s. That’s likely part of the reason there hasn’t been a bio of the band until this one, which should satisfy anyone who wants a complete story of the pop-rock harmonizers. At nearly 450 pages, it draws on extensive first-hand interviews with original members Jules Alexander, Jim Yester, and Terry Kirkman, as well as a wealth of quotes from them and other guys in the band from many sources (all properly footnoted). Not a whole lot of people (at least relative to the millions who bought their big hits) were too curious about all their albums and flop singles, but Searles goes through them, going back to their pre-“Along Comes Mary” folk-rock-pop singles.

He also documents their beginnings in various folk combos, and uncovers some press and publicity in which the group from which they evolved (the Men) were quite possibly the first outfit referred to as a folk-rock act, even before the Byrds and Bob Dylan really popularized the term. And there are extensive quotes from quite a few reviews of the band, even way past their prime. The author’s prone to sentences that run on way too long, and perhaps the book does too, with their post-mid-‘70s descent into the nostalgia circuit (and many revolving lineups) taking up more than a hundred pages. But it’s a readable and reasonably objective account that doesn’t sugarcoat their poor recordings, though he’s clearly a big fan of their better work. Their peak wasn’t really that long (taking in five big hits between 1966-68), but fortunately the ‘60s take up the main chunk of the volume, although it won’t convince non-fanatics that they were a major group, as big as those huge hits were.

6. Phil Gernhard, Record Man, by Bill DeYoung (University Press of Florida). The term “record man” is usually used for titans of the industry known to much of the general public, like Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers or Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. But the music business is populated by many “record men” who operate somewhat under the radar of even many knowledgeable fans, notching up hits here and there without getting identified with a particular style or vision. Phil Gernhard was one of them, not so much carving a niche as latching on to an almost random-seeming series of hits in various capacities over a span of decades. As producer, publisher, A&R guy, and whatnot, he was involved in Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay”; the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” series of singles; Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John”; and Dick Holler’s original version of “Double Shot,” before it was made it into a hit by the Swingin’ Medallions. That’s just the 1960s; after that, he played large parts in the careers of Lobo and Jim Stafford, and then for country stars the Bellamy  Brothers, Tim McGraw, and Rodney Atkins.

It’s pretty doubtful anyone’s passionate about all these records and artists. The common denominator is success and sales, not a consistent aesthetic. But if you are interested in any of them, this is a quite well told tale of Gernhard’s peripatetic, troubled career, with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories about the songs and the discs. DeYoung did his research, talking to many of the musicians (not Dion, though he tried), business associates, and family members. He doesn’t inflate it into a bigger story than it deserves, getting the job done in 160 pages. If you want a few accounts of intriguing failures, some of them are here too, like a clutch of odd Florida garage rock and psychedelic singles he tried to launch. There’s something of the “throw it at the wall to see what will stick” vibe about his operations, but then, that’s often how things get done (or screwed up) in the record world. Gerhard’s career might have been a marginal one in the grand scheme of things, but the way it’s covered here still makes  for worthwhile reading, if often downbeat owing to his sad personal life and sometimes seedy business practices.

7. World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story, by Gillian Gaar (BMG, 2018). Sub Pop might be the most famous independent label, or at least semi-independent label (having sold much of the company to Warner Brothers in the mid-1990s, though retaining majority ownership), of the last few decades. This mini-book of sorts, running about 150 pages, is a no-fat overview of the label’s foundation and rise, taking the story all the way to the 2018 year of publication. Veteran Seattle-based writer Gaar was well positioned to see the label’s progress all along, and the text benefits from first-interviews with label co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman. Several other key figures in the label’s creative and administrative departments are also heard from, including producer Jack Endino and illustrator Charles Peterson. 

Sub Pop’s rise to a prominent and, eventually, very commercially successful company was an improbable and chaotic one. The most interesting parts of the story are those unlikely beginnings, with the label growing out of a fanzine by Pavitt that started to include cassettes, leading to the formation of a proper record label. It often verged on collapse in its first dozen or so years, even after getting big cash infusions with the Warner deal and the boost Nirvana’s success gave to its back catalog. By late 1996 Pavitt had even left the label as the relations between the founders broke down, though those were repaired and he did come back years later to do some consulting. With stability came a more conventional (if still relatively unconventional) business atmosphere. The latter sections detailing its various ventures into music of many styles from throughout the world—not just the Northwest base for which it’s most renowned—are not as interesting, not through any fault of the author, but simply because the story became less quirky and unusual.

8. Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story, by Randy Fox (BMG, 2018). Nashville’s Excello Records is most known as a label that issued prime swamp blues by artists like Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, and above all Slim Harpo. Actually, the company put out a lot of records in a bunch of different styles over its lengthy history, including gospel, soul, rockabilly, and more. Their saga isn’t really so involved or monumental that it deserves a volume on the order of books that have been done on Sun or Stax. But this well done book doesn’t overextend its reach, putting the story into 170 compact pages in a spread-out palm-sized format. Its most interesting points aren’t just some stories about how much of Excello’s swamp blues (particularly Slim Harpo’s) was recorded by Jay Miller. It’s also an insight into the complex and unpredictable genesis of labels like Excello, who emerged not so much from the vision of music lovers or even a guy looking to capitalize on music trends, but as an outgrowth of Excello head Ernie Young’s interests in jukeboxes and retail/mail-order record distribution. That itself was an outgrowth of his prior experience in non-music-related businesses, like pinball machines.

Excello also had a strong tie-in with the emergence of R&B radio, particularly John Richbourg’s show on WLAC in Nashville. The practice of paying for airtime might seem like payola now, but back then, it was just considered the normal course of building a business, both from the record and radio side. Some of the descriptions of Excello’s many releases verge on lists as Fox tries to cover so much territory, but there are also some colorful stories, such as the unlikely emergence of one-hit wonder the Crescendos’ huge rock’n’roll hit “Julie” when a guest girl singer was enlisted. As is the case with virtually all significant labels, unusual connections abound, like Swamp Dogg’s involvement with the company as a producer in the early 1970s, and (unfortunately) Miller’s Reb Rebel label, which in Fox’s words specialized in “jaw-droppingly racist records.” Also covered is the affection several British bands held for Excello, Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun even once declaring, “I think [Mick] Jagger would have liked to be on a funky label. I think Jagger would have liked to be on Excello. We were the closest he could get to Excello and still get five million dollars.”

9. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography, by Eric Idle (Crown Archetype, 2018). Is Eric Idle’s relationship to music tenuous? Sort of; he’s much more famous as a comedian than he is as a musician. Still, he was part of the Rutles (on film if not on record), and the main force behind creating that comic satire of the Beatles. He was the most responsible for Monty Python’s frequent musical parodies, as both a singer and writer. And he was friends with quite a few rock stars, most famously George Harrison. His memoir’s a breezy and pretty witty read, spread about evenly between his ‘60s beginnings, Monty Python’s TV show and movies, his various side and solo projects, Monty Python reunions, and the Broadway Spamalot musical. There’s a lot of name-dropping in the latter sections of his palling around with famous celebrities, not all rock stars, from David Bowie and Mick Jagger to Robin Williams. It doesn’t quite cross the line into boastful gossip, though it reminds us that the likes of Idle travel in different, more rarified and privileged circles than the likes of nearly all of his readers. Certainly there could have been more about the Monty Python TV/movie/live performances for which he’s most celebrated, but then he does talk a lot about them in several Monty Python books, most notably the oral histories The Pythons and Monty Python Speaks!

Top Twelve Rock Documentaries of 2019

It was a good year for rock history videos, at least as measured by how many were worth watching. If you don’t have cable, you’ll probably miss out on some that don’t get into theatrical or DVD/Blu-ray distribution. I don’t have cable, and have to scramble to catch some when I’m house-sitting up the road. So I didn’t get to see everything, just like I didn’t get to read or hear everything. Yes, I know the Linda Ronstadt documentary, for instance, isn’t here. I haven’t seen it, though I probably will eventually when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray.

Most of these dozen or so films got far less distribution than the Ronstadt doc, and some of them were barely seen at all. My #1 choice might surprise some readers, since it focuses on an era later than my usual specialty.

1. Desolation Center. Between 1983 and 1985, Stuart Swezey promoted exotic underground punk/avant-rock rock and industrial music shows in the Southern California desert near Los Angeles. He was also behind an equally unlikely “Joy at Sea” one aboard a boat in the San Pedro harbor, featuring the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen. Taking place under the Desolation Center banner, these are documented with more detail than anyone thought possible in the new film of the same name. Directed by Swezey himself, it’s built around an abundance of shaky vintage lo-fi film clips and audio, as well as recent interviews with many of the musicians and participants (including Swezey). Almost all of the surviving notable performers contribute recollections, including not only some Minutemen and Meat Puppets, but also key members of Sonic Youth (though not Kim Gordon), Einsturzende Neubauten, Savage Republic, Redd Kross, Perry Farrell (then part of his pre-Jane’s Addiction group Psi-Com), and industrial/performance  art group Survival Research Laboratories.

Even if you’re not into that kind of underground rock, you might well find the film fascinating. Now well into middle age and veterans of hundreds if not thousands of shows, the musicians (and indeed the numerous audience members and organizers who also have screen time) often still speak of these happenings with a sense of awe. The archive footage and photos capture the odd settings to which fans were bused to (in actual school buses) from L.A., at points beyond which paved roads ended. Both musicians and audiences were free to mingle and experiment in ways not possible in conventional indoor venues, sometimes using explosive pyrotechnics. In retrospect, as some of them acknowledge, that could have been dangerous, as when a metal plate in one of Survival Research Laboratories’ exercises went flying over the audience.

Usefully, the first part of the film also explores how difficult it was to stage punk shows in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s due to police harassment, leading in part to taking the music to a place beyond their reach. They couldn’t escape the authorities altogether, the Bureau of Land Management sending Swezey a letter in 1985 that helped him decide to discontinue the events. The musicians and others at the Desolation Center shows discuss them with humor and insight, also noting their influence on subsequent far bigger desert spectacles like Coachella and Burning Man. The Desolation Center concerts, however, had a sense of spontaneity and edginess missing from those far bigger enterprises, and that comes across vividly in this well-made documentary. I interviewed Swezey about the film here.

2. Leonard Cohen, Marianne and Leonard: Words of LoveTwo notes first that are not words of caution, but of clarification. Although the title leads you to believe this is centered around Leonard Cohen’s lengthy relationship with Marianne Ihlen, and much of the film does dwell on that, it’s about as much of a Leonard Cohen documentary as a movie about the couple. And while it was directed by Nick Broomfield, known as a sort of guerilla documentary filmmaker who corners people who don’t want to talk on screen about controversial subjects, this is a pretty straightforward movie that doesn’t use that approach. It combines plenty of vintage footage (much taken from home/amateur movies, especially the scenes with Ihlen), Cohen concert snippets from throughout his career (none too extensive), and interviews done for the film with figures who knew Cohen or Ihlen. 

Just because it’s not quite what you might expect doesn’t mean this isn’t worthwhile, whether taken as a Cohen documentary or one on him and Ihlen. There might not be a whole lot here you don’t know if you’ve read the best Cohen biography (Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man), but it’s a well done overview that ties together the major points in his evolution. Although the interviews aren’t that numerous, some key associates weigh in with interesting observations, including Judy Collins, producer John Simon, less expected participants like folk singer Julie Felix, and Cohen guitarist Ron Cornelius, who actually has the most lively comments. Some relatively unfamiliar territory is covered, like Cohen’s concerts, apparently fairly numerous, at mental institutions. Also discussed are the difficulties faced by children who grew up in the permissive bohemian environment of the Greek island Hydra (where Cohen and Ihlen spent much time), who as adults succumbed to alcoholism, suicide, and in the case of Ihlen’s son (not with Cohen) Axel, mental illness.

Most moving of all is the observation by one Cohen associate that of the many women who were involved with (and often threw themselves at) Cohen, Ihlen was the only one who wasn’t star-struck. Although their relationship was not destined to stay the course, Cohen did send her a tender message when she was virtually on her deathbed – and the scene of her hearing that message is actually in the film.

3. Barbara Rubin, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground. Filmmaker Barbara Rubin’s relationship to rock music was tangential, if notable. She was the person who alerted Andy Warhol and the Factory to the Velvet Underground at the end of 1965; maybe they would have gotten together anyway, but that doesn’t mean her connection wasn’t prescient and important. She was also a friend of Bob Dylan (whom she also connected with Warhol, if briefly), and appears with him in a picture on the back cover of Bringing It All Back Home. But she’s primarily known as an experimental filmmaker, although her career in that field was brief, and most noted (and notorious) for her half-hour 1963 movie Christmas on Earth, which was rawly sexual and radical for its time, and perhaps still is today.

Since this documentary aptly focuses much more on her movie-making, and her substantial influence on underground scenemakers like Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, than her role in rock music, it could be questioned why it’s on this list. Well, it’s far more interesting, and much better done as a film, than some documentaries on much more famous actual rock musicians on this list. Even if Jeff Beck and John Lennon might have had more interesting lives, the docs on them reviewed near the bottom of this list aren’t that great. This one deftly weaves a great deal of footage from Rubin’s movies, home/amateur movies, films by Warhol and others, and recent interviews with those who knew her for a fast-moving portrait of a pretty uninhibited character whose volatile life took some wildly unpredictable turns. It’s pretty amusing, as a rock snob aside, to see Kinks spelled “Kings” on a list of celebrities she hoped to feature in a film that didn’t get made.

After her film career sputtered, her late-‘60s rural retreat with Ginsberg and some other friends didn’t end well, culminating with a wholly unexpected shift to Orthodox Judaism. Although the director didn’t corral really famous people into his interview list (with the possible exception of avant-garde filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas, who worked with Rubin quite closely), relatives, friends, and colleagues speak pretty eloquently about her inspirational and frustrating character. There’s some footage of the VU and Dylan (not much if any exclusive to this documentary), and a few stories about their interactions with Rubin, for those who especially want to zero in on the rock content.

4. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Above Us Only SkyTechnically this bears a 2018 date, but it doesn’t seem to have been shown on TV until 2019, and didn’t come on DVD until later in the year. Although it’s centered around the making of the Imagine album, there’s a fair amount about their lives in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There’s nothing quirky or unexpected about the documentary’s approach, which is fine. Besides plenty of period footage of Lennon and Ono at the Imagine sessions and in the Tittenhurst estate in which they were then living, there are recent interviews with a host of people who were around them at the time. Among them are Imagine musicians Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, and Alan White, as well as less well known personal assistants, engineers, photographers, music bizzers, and journalists who were on the scene. There’s only a bit of recent interview footage with Yoko herself, but more of John’s son Julian. Unlike some of the numerous Lennon docs, this doesn’t over-idealize his life, though the portrait is gentle and positive. It sticks mostly to actually covering what happened, which more music documentaries should do.

The DVD has a few modest but noteworthy extras, particularly color footage of John and Yoko busking through “Oh Yoko!” on May 24, 1969 at their brief stopover in the Bahamas before continuing to Montreal to stage their Bed-In for peace. There’s a fuller version of the strange, halting conversation between John and Curt Claudio, a creepy American fan who managed to get into Tittenhurst; Lennon shows a good deal of consideration and rational humility considering the intrusion. There’s also split-screen footage of John working on “How Do You Sleep?” and “Oh My Love.”

5. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (PBS). Does a TV program count as a film or video? Well, this did play a few festivals and theaters, including one in Berkeley where a few people involved in the film had a Q&A. So yes, this movie-length work, a part of PBS’s American Experience series, makes the cut on technical grounds. More notably, it’s worth watching as a decent survey of Woodstock as a social/cultural event, with vintage and fresh voiceover interviews with many of the event’s promoters, producers, performers, and attendees. Note that those wanting a focus on the festival’s music might be disappointed; it isn’t entirely neglected, but there are only bits of actual performances, commentary running over some of that footage. That’s okay, though, considering how much footage is in the actual Woodstock film (both the original and expanded versions), and how much more circulates unofficially. This is more the story of the event’s genesis, and how the festival was experienced, musically and otherwise, by the huge audience.

Besides the extensive voiceovers (no talking heads here), there’s quite a bit of previously unreleased footage of stage construction, and audience reaction/swimming/free food feeding, taken (according to the Q&A) from 35 hours of Woodstock movie material made available to the filmmakers. The most amazing facet of the festival is how it happened at all, considering how many logistical problems it encountered, and how hopelessly behind schedule things were even before it started. At one point, one of the organizers remembers being told that for everything to be built according to plan, they’d have to wait until November. Audience memories of the communal vibe that arose on the grounds and the weekend’s significance to their lives are poignant while, for the most part, avoiding undue sentimentality. And just as it became a free festival, you could watch this on PBS for free – something you can’t say of the 38-CD fiftieth anniversary Woodstock, which lists for $799.98.

A couple music nerd notes: the previously unseen footage includes snippets of performances by some of the most obscure artists at Woodstock – indeed, so obscure that most people don’t know they were there. Among them are Sweetwater, Quill, and Keef Hartley. Also, while David Crosby refers in a voiceover to CSNY’s set as being their first live appearance, it was in fact their second; they’d done their first concert just a couple days before, on August 16, in Chicago. In fact, on the original chart-topping Woodstock album, Stephen Stills himself refers to it as “the second time we’ve ever played in front of people.” It’s not as egregious a myth as the oft-repeated assertion that the Rolling Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” when someone in the audience was killed at Altamont (they were actually playing “Under the Thumb”). But it’s an urban legend whose momentum will only gather steam after this broadcast, and needs to be halted before it gets out of hand.

6. Peter, Paul & Mary, At Newport 1963-65 (Shout Factory). Peter, Paul & Mary’s energetic, downright swinging performance of “If I Had a Hammer” was a highlight of Murray Lerner’s Festival documentary, which featured footage from the mid-‘60s Newport Folk Festivals. So it’s a delight to have about an hour of clips of the trio at the event on this DVD, which leads off with the same version of “If I Had a Hammer” seen in Festival. PPM’s biggest hits are here (“Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and an odd Peter Yarrow solo rendering of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”), but so are some of their better “deep” LP tracks, like “If I Had My Way,” their covers of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” and the Weavers’ “Wasn’t That a Time,” “The Rising of the Moon,” and “Hangman.” The less impressive songs tend to be the ones that are shown only in partial performances. The filming is basic but effective, the best jobs being done with the clips that focus on the trio at an apparent nighttime spot, huddled closely around the mikes. Yarrow and Noel Stookey added a bit of commentary on the soundtrack, but these are brief bits that don’t unduly intrude on the music.

It’s true that they weren’t nearly as good at blues or comedy as straightahead earnest folk, brought home by their covers of “San Francisco Bay Blues” and “Betty & Dupree,” and an excruciating semi-parody (featuring just Yarrow and Joan Baez) of the tiresome folk tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” If you want more niggling complaints, there certainly could have been more in the way of annotation. The different years of the performances aren’t even identified, though Yarrow contributes some succinct liner notes. But overall it’s a valuable document of Peter, Paul & Mary at the peak of their fame and powers, at the festival that meant more to them and the folk community than any other.

7. David Crosby, Remember My Name. David Crosby’s had an interesting life, both musically (primarily as part of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and personally (with well-documented drug and health problems, romances, and feuds). This documentary doesn’t cover a whole lot that you can’t find out in numerous books, some very good, about the Byrds and CSNY, along with his own middling memoir. It does have numerous archive snippets of live performance and interviews, and some fresh interviews done with past and present associates. But its main value lies in the extensive interviews done specifically for the film with Crosby himself (by veteran rock journalist/director Cameron Crowe, although Crowe didn’t direct this movie). He talks with more candor than the usual documentary subject about, on the negative side, the women he’s hurt, his overindulgence in drugs, and the trail of musicians in the Byrds and CSNY with whom he’s no longer on speaking terms. He is less evasive than most stars (or former stars, if you want to be cruel) in the line of questioning, readily admitting to his failures without much in the way of excuses or self-pity.

While it’s okay, and maybe more than okay given the fair entertainment value in listening to Crosby tell stories in his own words, there certainly could have been more, or more specifically about his music. If you’re looking for insights into his contributions to “Eight Miles High,” or how exactly songs were chosen out of a large pool for CSN’s debut (or CSNY’s Deja Vu), you won’t find them. General observations about the Byrds and CSNY’s contributions (incidentally, he views CSN and CSNY as entirely different ensembles) are fairly on-target, but not surprising to those who know their folk-rock history. Occasional comments stand out, like his admission that he didn’t go a great job producing Joni Mitchell’s first album, though he feels he did capture her essence. More embarrassingly (though it seems Crosby’s beyond embarrassment at this point), he remembers Mitchell taking the floor at a private party to debut a song obviously directed, negatively, at him – and playing it twice.

Some of the interviews with Crosby intimates are frustratingly meager. Certainly I would have liked more than a few words from the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, perhaps at the expense of photographer Henry Diltz’s blathering about the significance of Croz’s astrological signs, which even Crosby finds overbearing. There’s also a lack of specifics as to exactly why no one else in CSNY (including longtime best friend Graham Nash) will talk to Crosby now, either from Crosby or the other three. There’s the sense those relationships fell apart not only through actual dislike, but just from the burnt-out stress of their off-on supergroup dynamics over the course of nearly half a century. And in keeping with so many documentaries, there are almost obligatory insertions of less interesting sequences of him performing his recent music, and discussing how much family and home now mean to him, though these are kept shorter than they are in many comparable productions.

8. Bill Wyman, The Quiet One. A documentary about Bill Wyman works with a big advantage and a big drawback. The big advantage is that Wyman kept a thorough, almost obsessive-compulsive archive of his career. The big drawback is that, although serious fans of the Rolling Stones appreciate his contributions, he was the least interesting member of the group in the three decades or so he was their bassist. So this film does have a lot of cool vintage photos that haven’t often or ever been seen, as well as numerous snippets of rare or home movies (though nothing on the order of, say, an exciting performance of a full song). These are more interesting the earlier in the career they’re from, going back to his pre-Stones days in the Cliftons.

The drawback? Although Wyman provides fairly extensive comments and there are a few voiceover comments from other Stones and associates (though not Mick Jagger or Keith Richards), many aspects of his and the Stones’ music are not discussed. Wyman was an important contributor to the development of “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Paint It Black,” but this is not mentioned, which is a flaw, not a mere oversight; even if he didn’t want to get into the thorny issue of why he didn’t get songwriting credits, the stories themselves would have been interesting enough. There’s nothing about his songwriting for the group, which though meager was interesting (especially “In Another Land”), or how he felt about Jagger-Richards’ near-total domination of the band’s composing. For that matter, there’s nothing about how he worked with his bandmates in the studio, let alone how he felt about Keith Richards playing the bass parts on some of the records. 

I suppose there are some general moviegoers and critics who’d complain that getting into such details would bore the audience, who’d prefer what the movie does discuss about his difficult romantic life, especially his controversial second marriage to a woman who was underage when they started dating. But such a documentary by definition has its strongest appeal to big Rolling Stones fans, who would appreciate hearing more about the music, and maybe about some aspects of the music and Wyman’s role that haven’t come to light. The movie doesn’t get as deeply into the more controversial aspects (and, for that matter, interesting non-controversial aspects) of his personal life and the Stones as his books Stone Alone and Rolling with the Stones do. Those books are out there for those who want a fuller story, but there’s no reason this movie couldn’t have been a fuller portrait as well.

9. The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory). Certainly this would have ranked higher, and near the top, if this marked the first time this legendary early-‘70s Jamaica-set film was reissued. It doesn’t, so it’s primarily judged here for its extras, which are both bountiful and uneven. The main bonus is director Perry Henzell’s follow-up movie No Place Like Home, which though mostly filmed shortly afterward was not finished until 2006. Compared to The Harder They Come, it’s a letdown, though it too is set in Jamaica. Reggae music isn’t a significant factor this time around, but more crucially, it has a half-baked feel, whether due to its troubled production or not. Tracking the brief affair of a visiting American helping with a TV commercial shoot and an ambitious young Jamaican on the set, it blurs a slender plot with cinema verité-ish glimpses of various facets of island life. There are some interesting scenes and certainly some gorgeous scenery, with much intense hi-tech restoration necessary once the footage was found. But it seems more like a sketch than a fully realized project, though there are insights into culture clash here and there.

That’s just part of one disc of this three-disc set, which also has the original The Harder They Come, a cult classic for its reggae soundtrack, star singer Jimmy Cliff’s performance in the title role, and its gritty portrayal of Kingston ghetto life. There are hours of extras, but the commentary by reggae expert David Katz is disappointing, sounding as if he’s reading from an essay instead of directly commenting on the action. In that case, it should have been used as liner notes, and a film expert or surviving person involved in the production used as commentator. There are a bunch of short documentaries and interviews (including with the late Henzell) related to the making of both The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home that range from quite interesting—the one with Harder photography director David MacDonald is the best—to associates who ramble too long. The ones tied to No Place Like Home do reveal what a struggle it was to complete the movie decades later, with much detective work involved in finding surviving footage and restoring it to much more watchable condition.

A third disc includes more bonus features on Dynamic Sound Studios, the restoration of No Place Like Home, anatomy of some scenes, Henzell’s home and production center, and Henzell’s disciples. The disc would not (unlike the other two discs) play in my Blu-ray player, and I’ll add comments on it when I’m able to view it in proper operation.

10. Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix). Although Dylan’s mid-‘70s Rolling Thunder tours don’t seem like the most controversial subject, this documentary caused its share of controversy, mostly because some of the interviews are with fictional characters (and the one with Sharon Stone is about fictional incidents). But the bulk of this two-hour, twenty-minute film uses actual footage from the tours, mostly focusing on performances by Dylan. Those scenes are the highlight of this for-the-most-part documentary, as his renditions (mostly of mid-‘70s material, with a few pre-Blood on the Tracks classics as well) are intense, sometimes to the point of being weird. Dylan was interviewed by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, but doesn’t say much of consequence, admitting he doesn’t remember much. A few other real participants in the tours get some talking head time too (like Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Scarlett Rivera, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Ronee Blakley), but it’s not the most straightforward or thorough account of what took place.

Opinions about this doc were strong, both from viewers ecstatic over its contents, and those who felt the fictional segments diminished its merit. I’m not passionate enough about the subject matter to take a vehement position. If fictional stuff was thrown into a documentary on an act or period that meant more to me, I might be up in arms. It doesn’t bother me here; in fact, from a cinematic perspective, these are some of the more entertaining parts. They’re also pretty convincing, since the actors – uncommonly for tricks like this – underplay their roles, instead of giving away the game with obviously outrageous statements or exaggerated behavior. As a history of the tours, this would have been more valuable had it included more material on the non-Dylan acts; Baez, McGuinn, Elliott, and even Joni Mitchell are seen only fleetingly in the vintage footage. What’s here, however, has its value, even if it might be something of a lost opportunity to make the history as accurate as it could have been.

11. Echo in the Canyon. The focus of this documentary is a little fuzzy, but basically it’s about Los Angeles rock of the mid-1960s, some (but not all, despite the title) associated with Laurel Canyon. In particular, it celebrates the music of the Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas & the Papas. Members of all those acts (Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, and Michelle Phillips) are interviewed, as are some others with strong associations with that scene (producer Lou Adler, Graham Nash) and frankly mild ones (Eric Clapton). There are also very brief snippets of vintage footage. All of this, however, is interspersed with a tribute concert/recording of sorts that younger musicians did not long before this film’s release. Those include Regina Spektor, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Beck, and most particularly Jakob Dylan, who’s kind of the host of the production, conducting the interviews as well as being the central figure in the tribute ensemble. 

As interesting as mid-‘60s L.A. rock is, there are enough serious flaws in the movie to fill up at least a paragraph. Not even taking into account that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had no strong association with Laurel Canyon, the film overlooks some important figures who did, like Love, the Doors, and the Mothers of Invention (the last of whom are only mentioned in passing). More significantly, the device of mixing the historical interviews/footage with a contemporary tribute concert is unnecessary, considering the covers aren’t as good as the originals, and how it takes time away from the subject matter of far greater interest. If all this sounds like the gripes of a curmudgeon who just wants to live in the past, bury himself in more arcane interview footage that will drive impatient listeners to their cell phone screens, and should be castigated for failing to appreciate the attempt to bridge history with a new generation of musicians and listeners, fine. Bring it on!

Yet even with the film’s modest length (a bit more than eighty minutes), there are bits that might be unfamiliar to those who’ve already heard a lot of the stories. For instance, McGuinn remembers the Byrds’ wardrobe changing to a more casual one after their faux-Beatles suits were stolen from Ciro’s on Sunset Strip, where they had an early residency. Stephen Stills reveals his composition “Questions” was partially inspired by rearranging some of the elements of Judy Collins’s “Since You’ve Asked.” A piece of footage I don’t remember seeing before has Neil Young explaining to Dick Clark how Buffalo Springfield formed after he and Bruce Palmer just happened to drive their Hearse by a car with Stephen Stills heading in the opposite direction. Ultimately it’s worth the price of a matinee ticket, and no more.

12. Sam Cooke, The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (Netflix). I saw a flurry of mixed reviews of this documentary when it first became available. Some unfavorably compared it to ABKCO’s 2003 doc Legend, or at least questioned the need for another one. While I wouldn’t rate this newer production as a major work, I think it’s okay, and has enough material and perspective not in the previous one to make it worth viewing. There are reasonably interesting interviews with some surviving peers and associates like engineer Al Schmitt, Smokey Robinson, and Friendly Womack, and if the talking-head clips with academics and historians aren’t as interesting, they’re not without value. There are plenty of seldom seen vintage photos and film clips (though these are quite short), and a few overlays of audio-only Cooke interview snippets.

The coverage takes in not only his evolution from gospel star to pop-soul giant, but also his associations with civil rights figures and Muhammad Ali. The final section on his death notes speculation that the mob and/or record industry figures might have been involved, but gives different sides of the issue, and stops short of finding a conspiracy given the fragmentary evidence. The chief frustration with the 75-minute movie is that it could have gone in more depth, not only by offering lengthier performance clips, but also by discussing a few more of his records, some hits not even gaining a mention. If you want that, however, there are two big books that offer that kind of detail, You Send Me (by Daniel Wolff with S.R. Crain, Cliff White, and G. David Tenenbaum) and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie.

Also, the following documentaries came out in 2018, but I did not see them until 2019:

Conny Plank, The Potential of Noise (Cleopatra). Actually first screened in Germany in 2017, and released in the US in 2018. But Plank is not exactly a household name, so how about a review here? The German producer might be best known in the hipster world for working with several key Krautrock groups, including Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, Can, and Guru Guru. His association with them is covered here, but some might be disappointed that it only occupies some of this documentary, since he produced quite a few other acts before his death in 1987, aged just 47. Those ranged from Scorpions and Ultravox to Killing Joke, DAF, Eurhythmics, and a few names who might not be too familiar to English-speaking audiences, like Gianna Nannini and Rita Mitsouko. Many of them are interviewed in this film, which is a straightforward mix of comments from associates, family, and friends with numerous (if brief) bits of archive footage of his more illustrious clients.

If there’s any structural twist to this documentary, it’s that it was co-directed by his son Stephan, who didn’t get to know his father as well as he would have liked before Plank died when he was a teenager. Stephan himself does much of the interviewing and narration, and in common with many artists, Plank comes off as a figure more concerned, sometimes to the point of obsession, with his work than his family. His devotion to recording led to the construction of his own studio in a barn in semi-rural Germany near Köln, where much of the music he produced was cut. His standards for music deserving of his attention and time led him, he states in an interview excerpted for this film, to turn down opportunities to work with the Cars and U2 (whose Bono he dismisses with a vague disdainful comment). If there’s anything seriously lacking in this generally satisfactory overview, it’s more of a sense of what made the Plank sound distinctive, especially since his records (especially the non-Krautrock ones) covered a lot of different territory. 

Jeff Beck, Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story (Eagle Vision/Universal). While there’s some good stuff in this fairly straightforward and conventional documentary, I have to admit it lost me about halfway through. Not so much because of the reasonable quality of the film, but because Beck’s career hasn’t been so interesting after the 1970s, at least as far as the records he’s done. The first half does have coverage of his ‘60s and ‘70s work with the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck Group and his solo fusion efforts, though it’s not so in-depth that much will astound fans who know a lot about the guitarist. Its greatest value is that Beck, not always the most voluble of interview subjects, talks a lot about himself and his music throughout the documentary. So even some of the familiar stories, like how he got the sitar-like sound for “Heart Full of Soul,” are interesting to hear in his own words.

Associates like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Jan Hammer, and Ronnie Wood are also interviewed, though a few of the guys testifying to Beck’s prowess, like members of Aerosmith and Guns’n’Roses, were not exactly his peers. As he hasn’t done landmark albums over the last few decades, the last part of the film kind of wanders through various observations from lesser known people who’ve worked with him during that time, along with bursts of performance clips dotting those years. There’s a little about his fascination with cars, but not so much that it takes over from music as the center stage.

Aretha Franklin, Amazing GraceTechnically this premiered at a 2018 festival, though it wasn’t widely shown until the following year. Actually this film of January 1972 Aretha Franklin performances recorded for her gospel album Amazing Grace was supposed to have come out back then, but was shelved because of problems syncing the audio track. Now those technical difficulties aren’t apparent, and though Franklin blocked the release, after her 2018 death the film could finally be seen. Directed by noted director Sydney Pollack, it’s a pretty straightforward document of the performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir. The band includes top session players Bernard Purdie (on drums) and Chuck Rainey (on bass), and gospel star James Cleveland performs a bit during the proceedings.

As respected as the Amazing Grace album was by critics—and as big a seller as that LP was, reaching the Top Ten—I don’t find the material nearly as exciting as Franklin’s classic soul music. It’s interesting, though, to see her performing in a pretty small church, with a largely African-American congregation as audience, though Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can briefly be spotted. Her father C.L. Franklin, himself a respected gospel singer, also gets on stage for a bit. For secularists like me, the highlight is her gospelization of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

John Lennon, Looking for Lennon (Echo Bridge). Will this documentary tell you much about John Lennon’s childhood and teenage years if you’ve read widely about the Beatles? To be a snob, no. Just the Beatles biographies of Hunter Davies (who’s interviewed in this film) and Mark Lewisohn will tell you a lot, and (especially in Lewisohn’s case) quite a bit more, than can fit in a 90-minute movie. It’s made more awkward by scenes with a few talking head experts/academics who tell part of the story, without much charm or revelatory insight, while walking among Liverpool/Lennon landmarks.

So why give this doc a look? It does have interviews—albeit many so brief they’re more like soundbites—with quite a few people who knew Lennon growing up, some of whom have never or seldom been quoted in books or seen on film. That includes some of the surviving Quarrymen (even the most obscure “original” one, Bill Smith) and the late promoter Sam Leach, though Astrid Kirchherr, who was almost as important as any early Beatles associate, speaks for just a few seconds. There are also quite a few photos, many well known and often reproduced, but quite a few that are both unfamiliar and interesting. Should you not know much about Lennon’s early life, this will give you a fair overview. Otherwise, it’s a marginal addition to the wealth of footage/analysis devoted to him and the Beatles.