Top 25 Rock Reissues of 2021

Is the well running dry for reissues of the music I specialize in—twentieth century rock, particularly though not exclusively from the 1960s? No, as the length of this list demonstrates. The kind of reissues that are being generated, however, is getting narrower, now that so many albums from the era (even the best rare ones) have been on CD, and so many singles are available on compilations, best-of or otherwise. 

My choice for #1 reissue of 2021.

So many of the reissues of most interest are expanded versions of albums—sometimes albums that have already had one or more previous “expanded” or “deluxe” reissues, loading on more outtakes, demos, home tapes, and rarities. By this time it’s rare such boxes are mostly or entirely comprised of actual previously unreleased material by a significant artist, as Joni Mitchell’s first two Archives volumes have been over the past couple years. There are also quite a few boxes by artists you wouldn’t have expected to ever get half-dozen-or-more-CDs packages, like the Beau Brummels and the Electric Prunes, even if such boxes usually don’t offer much fans of the acts don’t already have. And there are super-specialized genre anthologies that have some rarities, but will inevitably overlap to some degree with existing collections of anyone who’s interested in such material in the first place.

Is all of this something to mourn, if you want to constantly discover “new” old music? Perhaps. It could also be something to celebrate. Forty or so years ago, it was impossible to find much of this stuff, and the existence of much of the unreleased material wasn’t even known in many cases. Now you can easily get it, if you have the budget. At this point, in my view, most of the really good obscure LPs have been reissued, and while others continue to get unearthed, they get less and less interesting the deeper you have to dig. That’s not a viewpoint held by every collector, and in fact it will probably make some angry, but that’s my experience.

My 2021 lists have been Beatles-heavy, which might disappoint some champions of the obscure. But there’s a reason they’re Beatles-heavy. They were the best rock group, and although some of the reissues/films/books associated with them are imperfect, interesting material pertaining to their legacy continues to be unearthed. And you can hear them and still find time to hear acts that never got anywhere near their attention, from the Misunderstood to Tintern Abbey and Latin soul boogalooers on Fania Records.

1. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (Capitol/UMe). The 50thanniversary had to wait until the actual 51st anniversary in this case, perhaps owing to the pandemic. No matter—this five-CD box has three CDs of extra and mostly unissued material (the three original LPs are fit onto the first two CDs). Two of those extra CDs were demos recorded on just two days, May 26 and May 27 of 1970. The final disc has outtakes from the proper album sessions, most of them alternate versions of songs that made the record, though five (some of them obvious toss-offs not seriously intended for final consideration) are of songs that didn’t.

If how I decide how to rank such super deluxe boxes matters to anyone, the inclusion of one batch or CD of particularly valuable unreleased material can act as a tiebreaker of sorts. That was the case with another recent box in which George Harrison was involved, the super deluxe edition of The White Album, whose May 1968 Esher demos constitute some of the best previously unavailable Beatles material of all. The same can be said of disc four from this package, which has the May 27 demos.

Harrison was for the most part playing alone on these with only his vocal and light guitar accompaniment, and while they’ve long been bootlegged, it’s a superb grouping of fifteen tracks that are much like hearing George unplugged just after the Beatles split. Among them are early versions of All Things Must Pass songs like “Beware of Darkness,” “Art of Dying,” “Let It Down,” and “Hear Me Lord” that have a lovely intimate feel notably different from the brilliant elaborately produced ones on the LP. Of even more note, more than half of them didn’t make All Things Must Pass, and while they’re usually slighter than the tunes that made the cut, they’re nice and well worth hearing. “Nowhere to Go,” co-written with Bob Dylan, is an especially noteworthy treasure that might have some coy references to the end of the Beatles. The rest are good enough, usually in a folky and even sometimes country-ish way, that I’d contend they make a serious argument that the third disc of the original All Things Must Pass should have been given over to actual songs rather than substandard jams. Not everyone feels this way, but certainly he had some good extras that could have filled out a triple LP sans jams.

On its own, the May 27 demos would have made a good standalone release. Fans will, however, appreciate the two other discs of extras, though they’re usually not on the same level. The May 26 demos, recorded with longtime friends Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo Starr on drums, are largely sketches for compositions that would blossom into far more effective recordings with Harrison and Phil Spector’s production. Still, it’s interesting to hear George work out the tunes with a more basic approach, and sometimes these are worthy variations in their own right. “Awaiting on You All” (one of three songs on disc three previously released on the skimpy Early Takes Vol. 1) is a gritty, funky, earthy take on the tune, with some growling fuzzy guitar; the same can be said of “I Dig Love.” “I’d Have You Anytime” is more minimal than the LP version, with confident and heartfelt vocals. There are also some songs that didn’t make All Things Must Pass, and while “Going Down to Golders Green” is a throwaway, “I Live for You” has a nice countrified Dylan air, and “Dehra Dun” and “Om Hare Om” a more Indian flavor than most of the eventual album. He also hadn’t abandoned “Sour Milk Sea,” part of the Beatles’ Esher demos before it was given to Jackie Lomax; this is a more straightforward, somewhat more rocking version than the Esher demo, though it’s still not much of a song.

The alternate versions and outtakes from the album sessions mostly demonstrate how the correct, superior takes and arrangement were chosen for the final LP. That’s not a criticism of Harrison; that’s true of the extras on most super deluxe boxes, like the ones of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and The Who Sell Out, to cite a couple more entries on this list. They also show that George’s singing could be kind of thin and strained, and thrived much better in the oft-elaborate arrangements that were among the most distinguishing trademarks of All Things Must Pass.

As with the demos, some variants are more ear-catching than others, like a lower-key, almost dirgey “Art of Dying” and a “Hear Me Lord” with a long, repetitious tag that extends the length to almost ten minutes. A few jams (including a previously uncirculating, and rather straight-facedly performed, “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine”) are superfluous. But the closing, bluesy “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me”—better and about twice as long as the alternate previously surfacing on Early Takes Vol. 1—has excellent slide guitar, and certainly would have been a worthy inclusion on All Things Must Pass had the third original disc been songs instead of jams.

It wasn’t, of course, though you can now experience it that way by sequencing bonus songs according to your preference. And for all the volume this box offers, there might be more, since the liner notes (which finally straighten out what tracks were recorded when) refer to a few recordings not included here, like “an undated personal cassette recorded by George during a visit with brother Pete & sister-in-law Pauline Harrison from late 1969.” Others have made the unofficial rounds, like more than a dozen additional takes of “Apple Scruffs.” So maybe a hundredth anniversary edition will deepen our look at this era even more, though many of us will be gone by then. 

A note about the various editions of this box. I have the five-CD/one Blu-ray/no vinyl edition, which has all of the music, and sells for the expensive price of $150 or so. The “uber” deluxe edition, which has five CDs, a Blu-Ray, and eight LPs—no additional music, just an additional format—sells, through the store on Harrison’s site, for $999.98. That’s not a typo—$1000, really. It does have various extras, most of which are in the “can live without” category for me, including replicas of the gnomes on the cover.

However, the liner notes—which, fortunately, I could read in an electronic file, sent to me because I wrote a story on All Things Must Pass—are considerably more extensive, with considerably more day-to-day details on the recording of the tracks. The “scrapbook” that does come with the five-CD edition, which I haven’t been able to read, is an expanded 96-page version. Sure I’d like to read that, but not enough to pay four figures for the box. The jabs at this box getting targeted for those who, to quote the title of Harrison’s next album after All Things Must Pass, are “living in the material world” are going to be inevitable. (My lengthy, nearly 10,000-word cover story on All Things Must Pass, covering the bonus tracks as well as the original LP, is in the September 2021 edition of the UK monthly magazine Record Collector.)

2. The Who, The Who Sell Out Super Deluxe Edition (Polydor/Universal). Although The Who Sell Out wasn’t the Who’s most popular album, it was their most lovable one. The gloriously effervescent power pop, with touches of hard rock, psychedelia, and introspective tenderness, was dotted with pirate radio jingles and fake commercials, simulating an actual offshore UK broadcast. For all its near-perfection (save the inexplicable disappearance of the jingles and commercials partway through side two), there were a lot of unused outtakes, alternative versions, and demos associated with the project.

This five-CD super deluxe edition has almost all of the ones known to exist. True, the best of these have already appeared on other releases, including previous single- and double-CD expanded reissues of The Who Sell Out. It’s still cool to have all of them on an exquisitely designed and, yes, expensive package. Even if, as is often the nature of these things, many of the previously unreleased extras are rather superfluous alternate versions.

Of the 46 unreleased tracks (actually less than half of the box’s total of 112), the most interesting are the fourteen previously unissued Pete Townshend demos that fill up all of disc five. Like the Who-era demos that have been on his Scoop collections, these are naturally sparser than band versions. There’s a slightly spooky homemade ambience and vocals that, while lacking Roger Daltrey’s powerful authority, have an inviting intimate feel. The biggest finds are a couple arrangements that differ notably from the final product.

“Sunrise” (here titled “Thinking of You All the While”) has an almost entirely different melody, and while it’s still one of his most gentle songs from the era, it’s actually more fully arranged than the solo acoustic version on the LP. The lyrics are different and more conventional too, though in every respect, the album redo is more haunting and effective. One of the two demos of “Relax” is piano-driven rather than guitar-oriented, though otherwise similar in construction.

Also here are a couple songs unavailable in other versions. “Inside Outside” is a strange surf-inflected slice of embryonic power pop with obvious debts to “Surfin’ USA.” “Kids? Do You Want Kids?” is a somewhat awkward unused anti-smoking jingle a la, but not as good as, “Little Billy” (an outtake that’s elsewhere on the box). There are also demos of much more familiar songs like “Pictures of Lily” and “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” and the forceful one of “I Can See for Miles” is decisively the best of the lot, complete with multi-tracked harmonies.

Surprises among the previously unreleased full-band outtakes are few. “Relax” is revealed to have started as a far more, well, relaxed piano-grounded song with Townshend on lead vocals the whole way through, and a much less impressive, less melodic bridge. “Odorono” had an unnecessary reprise of the chorus at the end. A brief pass at “Shakin’ All Over” lacks vocals; so, unfortunately, does the hitherto unknown John Entwistle composition “Facts of Life,” though it doesn’t sound like much of a tune. Otherwise the alternates are expectedly rougher and less developed than the completed tracks, though usually not too dissimilar. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing if you’re interested in Who history—just that you’re not likely to revisit them much after you’ve digested their significance as works-in-progress.

Although this box is titled as a deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, actually it’s more like a summary of what they were doing as a whole between Happy Jack and Tommy. Among the many other extras are non-LP A-sides and B-sides from the era, including the hits “Pictures of Lily” and “Magic Bus”; the singles of “Dogs” and “The Last Time” that didn’t come out in the US; and worthy flip sides like “Doctor, Doctor” and “Under My Thumb.” There are also outtakes from the period bridging The Who Sell Out and Tommy that have been heard on archival releases going back to Odds and Sods, like “Faith in Something Bigger,” “Little Billy,” “Melancholia,” and an early version of “Summertime Blues.” And there are pretty good Who Sell Out outtakes that have been on much slimmer previous expanded CD editions (and on bootlegs for many years before that), like “Glow Girl,” “Jaguar,” the monstrous instrumental “Hall of the Mountain King,” and Keith Moon’s “Girl’s Eyes.”

Be assured, lest it be swamped by the material that didn’t actually make the album, that this box also presents the original album in both mono and stereo versions. The only really striking difference is in “Our Love Was, Is,” which has whimsical slide guitar in the mono solo, as opposed to the superior and more familiar harder-rocking one in stereo. Also here are some mono mixes of non-LP 45s, and the long version of “Magic Bus” that surfaced on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy is presented in mono too. 

As big as this box is, it doesn’t quite cover everything in circulation of note. The absence of a long-booted eight-and-a-half-minute Townshend demo of “Rael,” which includes some lyrical and musical ideas not in the Who Sell Out version, is a significant loss. Less notably, though there are rare actual radio commercials and jingles the Who produced in this era, these don’t include Townshend’s infamous public service announcement for the US Air Force. At least it has rare promo spots for Sunn equipment. “We use Sunn equipment and we find it pretty hard to break,” chirps Townshend in one.

The 82-page bound-in LP-size mini-book has plenty of cool photos and ad repros. There’s also extensive track-by-track annotation by Who expert Andy Neill and short essays by Townshend, recording engineer Chris Huston, and even Arnold Schwartzman (who arranged for the two Coke jingles included in the box), as well as a history of how the record’s exceptionally memorable cover came together. An LP-sized schwag bag has a couple seven-inch vinyl singles with mono mixes of “I Can See for Miles” and “Magic Bus” with a couple period B-sides, along with an assortment of memorabilia facsimiles, highlighted by the poster that came with the original album. It’s a pricey package, yes, but good value for money in the end. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

3. The Misunderstood, Children of the Sun: The Complete Recordings 1965-66 (Grapefruit) The Misunderstood’s status as one of the very best rock bands of the 1960s not to make it big is not so much misunderstood as understood. Even if that reputation rests largely on the mere half dozen tracks their best lineup managed to record in London in late 1966, that output remains stunning. Glenn Ross Campbell’s supersonic steel guitar, the mystical lyrics of singer Rick Brown, and the inventive assortment of tones conjured by his songwriting partner, guitarist Tony Hill—all paced some of the greatest psychedelia, almost like a new zenith the Yardbirds never reached after Jeff Beck left.

The tragedy of the Misunderstood was that this lineup imploded right after they reached that zenith. Redemption, sort of, has come in their posthumous acclaim, not least in the mammoth multi-part story told over the course of several issues of Ugly Things. More redemption’s arrived with this two-CD, 33-track compilation. It expands their legacy to a length that seemed unimaginable when the first Misunderstood compilation, 1982’s Before the Dream Faded, offered a mere 13 cuts.

Only one of the items is previously unreleased, and that’s a different version of “Children of the Sun” that principally varies from the single in its slightly different vocals. Still, it’s good to have all of their core discography in one place, scattered as it’s been over Before the Dream FadedThe Lost Acetates, and an out=of-the-way EP and compilation. It’s true the late-‘60s Misunderstood cuts on which only Campbell remained aren’t here, but that’s not such a big deal as most fans (and I’m among them) regard those as much inferior to their mid-‘60s work.

The six late-’66 recordings by the Brown-Hill lineup from Before the Dream Faded (just two of which came out before Brown was forced out of the group by the US military) start things off. These have been remastered by Alec Palao, as he states in the booklet, “from the best tape sources available, including period mono mixes that have not been used until now.” It’s like hearing half a great album, nearly or on par with the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, that’s somehow missing side two. Maybe no group besides the Yardbirds were as good as blending mind-bending guitar sounds, soul-searching lyrics, haunting melodies, and Indian influences into early psychedelia, though Campbell’s guitar in particular gave them a dimension found in no other band.

The alternate acetate mixes of four of the songs here (two of “Children of the Sun”), it should be cautioned, aren’t that different. Different tape delay echo is at play; “My Mind” has a weirdly different (and not as impressive) vocal, and fades out (unnecessarily) early; and both acetate versions of “Children of the Sun” are missing some vocals on the chorus, to their detriment. None of these alternates are as good as the familiar versions, but they’re still interesting illustrations of how much attention to detail went into perfecting the best ones.

Wisely, the most artistically advanced of their recordings are grouped together on disc one. It’s filled out by two versions of “I’m Not Talking,” which are both impressive in different ways. The one done in London, right before Greg Treadway was replaced by Hill, has a more pronounced raga feel and overall more confidently adventurous vibe. The other, done earlier in Riverside before their move to the UK, has a much longer and in some ways wilder distortion-ridden break. The Yardbirds’ classic arrangement, and not Mose Allison’s original recording, is the obvious model, but the Misunderstood reinterpret it with highly original flamboyance. Also on the first CD are both sides of their rare pre-UK 1966 Blues Sound single, which offer a good British R&B-type take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking” and a less exciting slow blues with Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go.”

Disc two, which might be regarded as a survey of their garage roots, focuses on their earlier, less sophisticated/experimental phase, sometimes with original guitarist George Phelps. Their earliest sides, from the 1965 Phelps lineup, are moody, bluesy garage efforts that can sometimes sound like a rawer Animals, and sometimes like a rawer Del Shannon—sometimes in the same tune. The lyrics are rudimentary in the extreme, but they’re fairly catchy numbers, even if some abrupt tempo shifts are the only hints at the much wilder sounds they’d get into within a year. While some of the straight blues covers are so-so, “Shake Your Moneymaker” is exciting, though they’d soon (like their heroes the Yardbirds before them) move beyond blues classics to writing highly original material. 

The early-’66 take on “I Unseen,” from their last session with Phelps, is a highlight of disc two, yet also illustrates just how quickly and far they’d travel over the course of that year. With Phelps, it’s satisfying raw folk-rock, with a hint of raga in the recurring acoustic guitar riff and Gregorian-type backing vocals. With Hill in London, the arrangement’s actually not much different. But Campbell’s steel, and the group’s exponentially greater tightness and tension, take it to a far higher plane. You could say much the same thing with an overall comparison of CD one to CD two – it’s astonishing how much the band changed and improved in such a short time, though you could say that of many groups in the mid-‘60s.

The packaging of this compilation does not disappoint. The 32-page booklet features plenty of period graphics and a lengthy essay by top Misunderstood authority Mike Stax, though his aforementioned epic multi-issue Ugly Things piece (spread across issues 20-23) on the band is recommended for yet more depth. Noise reduction and fresh transfers have improved the listenability of some of the garage-era recordings on disc two, although unfortunately the sources used for some tracks on previous reissues seem to have been lost. Unless there’s yet another miraculous discovery of previously unknown recordings from this era, it’s the last-word anthology of an incredible band that no doubt would have scaled yet more peaks had they remained together. (This review originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

4. The Beau Brummels, Turn Around: The Complete Recordings 1964-1970 (Now Sounds)For a group that’s still sometimes unfairly dismissed as a one-hit or two-hit wonder, the Beau Brummels sure recorded a mountain of material. This eight-CD box has 228 tracks, and while a good number of them are alternate versions, it’s still a testimony to their prolific output, and the incredible wealth of original compositions generated by guitarist Ron Elliott. While only 24 of these cuts were previously unreleased, many of the rest have been scattered over a tangle of reissues dating back about forty years. Compiler Alec Palao was involved in some of those collections, and he’s the man for the job here, also writing the bountifully illustrated and detailed 88-page booklet.

While much of this wasn’t available on LP or at all in the 1960s, the core of the box presents their five 1965-1968 albums, each embellished by lots of demos, outtakes, and alternates. These trace their evolution from the first really good British Invasion-inspired band in the US through first-class folk-rock, their maturation into the more serious psychedelic era with 1967’s Triangle, and then the early country-rock of 1968’s Bradley’s Barn.

Then there’s a whole CD of April 1965 demos; a CD almost wholly devoted to 1965-67 demos and home recordings (usually done separately, and occasionally together) by the band’s principal figures, Elliott and singer Sal Valentino; and a disc featuring the A-sides and B-sides of all their singles, complete with original mono versions, 45 edits, and rare Valentino solo efforts. Fine songs—dozens, in fact—other than their big “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little” hits abound throughout the set, often bolstering their credentials as underrated folk-rock pioneers.

Like almost all significant artists, the Beau Brummels used good judgment when determining what to release (the Beau Brummels ’66 album being a notable exception). Yes, the abundance of extras, and abundance of excess Elliott compositions in particular, are nearly always pleasant, and sometimes better than that. Still, some of the material that didn’t make the cut was, if seldom pure throwaway, often less substantial than their initial two albums for Autumn Records in 1965.

Much of the best of the surplus was assembled back in 1982 for Rhino’s From the Vault, with songs like “Love Is Just a Game,” “Gentle Wand’rin’ Ways,” “She Sends Me,” “I Grow Old,” and “Can’t Be So” rivaling the better folk-rock from their second album, Volume Two. There are some highlights that didn’t emerge until later, like the bossa nova-flavored “Hey Love” and Sal Valentino’s haunting composition “This Is Love.” And it’s fun to hear them bash it out like the early Kinks did on album filler for “That’s All That Matters,” with a rare lead vocal from drummer John Petersen.

Beau Brummels ’66, their inexplicable all-covers album of that year, still sounds like a mistake to me. But the picture of what the band were truly up to that year is corrected by the fifteen bonus tracks on that disc, largely devoted to originals. These range from respectable to quite good, whether dignified folk-rock (“She Reigns”) or Valentino compositions that show him developing into a promising writer, if not in Elliott’s league (“On the Road Again”). And if you missed out on Elliott’s solo demo of “Candlestickmaker” (revived for his 1969 solo album), which was previously only on the various-artists archival compilation Transparent Days, that’s here too.

While Triangle wasn’t exactly psychedelic in the Fillmore/Avalon sense, it had a mystical tinge and more elaborate production distinguishing it from their early British Invasion/folk-rock hybrids. The extras on that disc aren’t quite as illuminating as on some of the others, but do include “Galadriel,” which is up to the standards of what made the LP (and conceptually would have fit in well with its Lord of the Rings tinge). I’m not as big a fan of the rather sedate country-rock Bradley’s Barn as some other listeners are, but this too is bolstered by some outtakes that vary the mood. Those include a couple Valentino solo covers of Johnny Cash songs, as well as a version of “Long Black Veil.”

The April 1965 demo session features some fine tracks first heard on From the Vaults, as well as more testimony to Elliott’s rather astonishingly fertile flow of new songs at the time, though some of these are rather undistinguished or similar-sounding. A few numbers from the pen of early member Dec Mulligan demonstrate he wasn’t going to rival Elliott (or for that matter Valentino) as a composer, though they’re acceptable British Invasion-style filler. The end of that CD features a significant bonus: three songs from their 1964 demo at Gold Star studios, including early versions of “Stick Like Glue” and “Still in Love With You Baby,” along with the fine and otherwise unrecorded “People Are Cruel.” The last of those songs set the template for their trademark bittersweet melodies and harmonies at their very first studio session. Also present is a 1964 rehearsal, “Believe Me I Can Tell,” that makes its first appearance here.

The disc of Sal & Ron recordings has the informal feel of sessions that would often be labeled as “unplugged” in much later decades. Fun to hear for big Brummels fans, and I’m one, the nonetheless don’t feature their best songs, and some are kind of sketchy compared to their tunes that found official release. Exceptions are an Elliott solo demo of “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and a Valentino demo of the Triangle highlight “Magic Hollow.” I’m not the biggest aficionados of mono single versions, but it’s good to hear so many of them in sequence on the final CD (including the canceled 1965 single “Gentle Wand’rin’ Ways”/“Fine With Me”), and there are some differences audiofiles will pick out, like the longer cold ending of “Laugh, Laugh.” Valentino’s rare 1969 and 1970 solo singles (adding up to just four tracks) bring that disc, and the set, to a close.

Yes, there are just a few items that could have been added to make this set even more complete. Those include Elliott’s 1969 solo album Candlestickmaker (though that’s been reissued on CD) and the numerous songs he wrote or co-wrote that weren’t done by the Beau Brummels, but were cut by other artists, particularly by Butch Engle & the Styx.  For recordings with direct Beau Brummels involvement, however, it’s not going to get better than this. And while the Beau Brummels’ corner doesn’t need to be fought to most or all Ugly Things readers, the box serves as evidence that they were one of the best American groups of their era, even if the mainstream media seldom acknowledges them as such. (This review will appear in an upcoming issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

5. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years 1968-1971 (Rhino). Like volume one, this is a five-CD set stuffed to the gills with unreleased material (with the exception of one track from a various-artists compilation and a couple snippets of between-song chatter). There are live tapes, BBC radio and TV broadcasts, home recordings, and a Dick Cavett Show appearance. In a significant difference from the first volume, there are also demos and outtakes from when she was signed to Reprise. The first volume didn’t have those, since everything on that box predated her first album.

I put volume one #1 on my 2020 list, and while this set is produced just as well, I don’t find it quite as compelling overall. It likewise fills in major gaps in her body of available recordings, but does, at least to my ears, have less notable differences between what’s already been long available in her early catalog. There’s plenty to enjoy on a pure entertainment level without getting into analytics, however, and these should first be emphasized before I point out some mild shortcomings.

There are a good number of songs that didn’t make her early albums, starting with “Midnight Cowboy” (two circa late 1967/early 1968 versions), done as an obscure cover by another artist, but never on her own records until now. It’s not a rival for the tune actually selected as the theme for the Midnight Cowboy movie, Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but still good to hear. There’s the slightly Bo Diddley-influenced “Dr. Junk,” though Mitchell wasn’t getting into rock accompaniment during this era, and most of the tracks are solo acoustic performances. The unusual late 1967/early 1968 demo “Roses Blue,” taped well before the song appeared on her second album, has what’s termed a Peacock harp overdub in the notes, creating an unusual spooky, slightly dissonant sound. There’s her cover—not a great one—of “Get Together,” as well as a bit of “Bony Maronie” that was (with “Big Yellow Taxi”) on the compilation Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace. And there are a couple late-‘60s wordless scatted recordings at a friend’s apartment that actually count among the most interesting previously unavailable/unknown cuts, owing to their cool unusual melodies.

It’s good to finally hear the February 1, 1969 Carnegie Hall concert considered for official release in its entirety (oddly, the only previously released excerpts were the aforementioned bits of spoken chatter, heard on the sampler The 1969 Warner/Reprise Record Show). A few tracks from a September 1968 BBC radio session have mild band accompaniment, the musicians including the Strawbs’ Dave Cousins and Donovan associates John Cameron and Harold McNair. There are sometimes noteworthy differences in outtakes and demos of songs like “Woodstock,” “Urge for Going” (heard with strings), and “Ladies of the Canyon” (heard with cellos). 

Through no fault of Mitchell or those who helped with the set, the fact remains that most of the songs that didn’t find a place on her early albums weren’t as good as the ones that did, although all have some merits. That’s what a top artist often does: pick the best tunes, and leave out some that are kind of similar to the best tunes, but not as good. The live performances, uniformly of a high standard, still often don’t vary much from the most familiar ones.

Although this runs counter to what most critics write about Mitchell’s early work, I find some of the later material here not as striking as her best previous efforts. I don’t favor her piano accompaniment, which she started to use with increasing frequency in this set’s latter stages, as much as her guitar work (though it’s nice to hear a few tracks with dulcimer). And as I’m not a big James Taylor fan, I’m not too hot on five October 1970 BBC radio duets with him, though they don’t put me off. So all told, the set falters a bit—not much—for me the later it goes in this admittedly small chronological span from the very beginning of her recording career. 

This doesn’t mean this isn’t a major archival release that’s very good listening and very good value. In common with volume one, the booklet has a lengthy recent interview with Mitchell about the material on the box, as well as vintage illustrations/graphics and detailed source notes. It’s not #1 this time around, but it needs to be something I like a lot to get into the top five, where it’s placed this year. Although it should be noted that it’s known there’s even more from this era that’s not here, like the “Come to the Sunshine” and “Go Tell the Drummer” outtakes from her first album. This does have four outtakes from a January 1968 Song to a Seagull session, including one, the supremely haunting “The Gift of the Magi,” that should have qualified for an official release somewhere during this era, but didn’t.

6. David Bowie, The Width of a Circle (Parlophone). Some multi-disc boxes, including some of Bowie’s, are bloated by mixes of well known albums done decades after their initial release, and/or a core album that many fans already have, often in more than one version. It’s refreshing, then, that Parlophone have basically put together two CDs of extras that could have been part of an expanded version of The Man Who Sold the World, but are issued separately here. If you want a remix of The Man Who Sold the World by producer Tony Visconti, it came out (titled Metrobolist) in 2020. The Width of a Circle is entirely devoted to material recorded around the same time as The Man Who Sold the World, but not actually on The Man Who Sold the World.

The Man Who Sold the World itself, first issued in 1970, was a major and underrated LP, and my favorite of Bowie’s. This set isn’t as good as the tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, but it’s well worth hearing. Disc one’s comprised entirely of a February 5, 1970 concert broadcast on the BBC, though just one song (“The Width of a Circle”) appeared on the forthcoming album. Musicians who’d have prominent roles on The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti and Mick Ronson, do play on some of the fourteen songs. They generally show Bowie moving toward a more rock-oriented and less folky sound, though some of his late-‘60s folkiness remains on the opening four solo performances.

Some of these songs are from his 1969 David Bowie aka Space Oddity album; one appeared on a flop non-LP 1970 single, “The Prettiest Star”; one had been recorded before Space Oddity but not yet released, “Karma Man”; and there were covers of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and songs by Biff Rose. Most of this was bootlegged a long time ago, but the sound quality here is much better than my bootleg from decades past, even if it’s taken from an off-air cassette recorded by Visconti. The performances are good and straightforward, and if “An Occasional Dream” in particular is not as affecting as the unreleased folkier one he did with John Hutchinson on second guitar and vocals in 1969 (available on the Conversation Piece box), it’s less fruity and hence better than the Space Oddity version. In all, it’s a good snapshot of a transitional phase that’s refreshingly free of songs that circulate in numerous other live versions.

Disc two is a little patchier, combining his soundtrack for the 1970 Scottish TV program Pierrot in Turquoise or The Looking Glass Murders; obscure non-LP 1970 singles; four songs from a March 1970 BBC session, only one of which came out on Bowie at the Beeb; and, alas, five superfluous “2020 mixes” (only one of which, the single edit of “All the Madmen,” is of a song not otherwise on the set). Less interesting than disc one, disc two is still valuable for his faintly pre-glammish non-LP singles “The Prettiest Star” (the original version, not the remake on Aladdin Sane) and “Holy Holy”; the two-part version of “Memory of a Free Festival” on a single, different from the Space Oddity version; and the spooky organ-paced version of “When I Live My Dream” from The Looking Glass Murders. The March ’70 BBC session has a version of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man,” though it’s not nearly as interesting as the previews of “The Width of a Circle” and another song from The Man Who Sold the World, “The Supermen.”

At a glance this seems like it might be a definitive supplement to The Man Who Sold the World, but it isn’t quite. “The Prettiest Star” 45 is presented in an “alternative mix” and a “2020 mix,” but not the original mix, if you’re a purist determined to hunt that down. The liner notes, which are very good and detailed, note that there was an unsuccessful attempt to record “The Supermen” in the studio a couple days before it was played on the BBC. It also refers to a cassette demo of “Holy Holy” “helping to secure Bowie his new music publishing deal.” I don’t think the compilers of archival anthologies like this intend to frustrate collectors who want to hear everything, but sometimes it feels that way.

7. The Small Faces, Live 1966 (Nice). True, the sound on this isn’t great, with some imbalance and dropouts, though it’s pretty listenable. Also true: that doesn’t matter much, since this is a tremendous legitimate release of two shows the Small Faces played at the Twenty Club in Mouscron, Belgium, on January 9, 1966. That only adds up to fourteen tracks, but that’s enough for a satisfying full 55-minute CD, even though four of the songs were played twice. Included are two versions of their first hit single, “What’Cha Gonna Do About It”; the B-side “Grow Your Own”; the medley “Plum Nellie,” which at nine minutes is much longer than the one on From the Beginning, with excerpts from “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Parchman Farm,” and “Land of 1000 Dances”; and a few numbers that would soon be on their debut LP, most notably “You Need Loving” (again two versions), which provided some of the basis for Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” 

Even better, this has a few songs they wouldn’t record in the studio, all covers: Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (admittedly a very short version), James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” the obscure Larry Williams tune “Strange,” and a storming instrumental treatment of “Comin’ Home Baby” (two versions) spotlighting Ian McLagan’s organ. The real star of the show, however, is Steve Marriott, whose full-throated soul-rock vocals are as magnificent here as they ever were. His raw lead guitar’s pretty impressive too, and his brief between-song patter bubbles over with exuberance. This is a terrific document of the group at their most raucous R&B-rock beginnings (even predating the release of their first really big British hit single, “Sha-La-La-La-Lee”), from a period where not many such quality live recordings survive of major British Invasion acts. The liner notes aren’t huge, but they give as much succinct detail as the release warrants, including a couple pages of memories from drummer Kenney Jones.

8. The Beatles, Let It Be super deluxe edition (Apple/Universal). If this list was being made in 1970, Let It Be would rank higher. It’s been dumped on by lots of critics and others in the last half century, but the Beatles at less than their best are still better than almost anything else. There were three great hit singles (“Get Back,” “Let It Be,” and “The Long and Winding Road,” the last of which was albeit much better in its original form without orchestral/choral overdubs); some very good other songs (“Two of Us,” “Across the Universe”); and most of the other songs were decent (“I Dig a Pony,” “I’ve Got a Feeling”). Even the run-of-the-mill ones by Beatles standards (“For You Blue,” “One After 909”) were okay. It did lack the unity and consistency a typical Beatles album, in part because the original concept of playing live without no overdubs got diluted.

About 100 hours of tapes from their January 1969 recordings for the album (originally titled Get Back, and then delayed for more than a year) have been in unofficial circulation for a long time. So there was plenty of material to choose from for a six-disc box set expanded edition. That has to be judged, however, not solely on the original album, which is part of the box as a CD and a Blu-ray. It has to be considered whether it makes the most of an opportunity to add the best previously unreleased recordings. Sure, everybody, insiders or fans, would come up with a different track selection given that such a commercial box can’t be 100 CDs, or anything close to that. Still, to trot out a cliché, if this is all we’re going to get, in many ways it’s a lost opportunity.

Most of the previously unavailable stuff (though a bit of the extras have come out on archival releases like Anthology 3) is on two CDs: “Get Back—Apple Sessions” and “Get Back—Rehearsals and Apple Jams.” If you’ve never heard them before (though many Beatles fans have), they’re interesting, if not on par with what made the original LP. There are different versions, usually looser (sometimes quite a bit looser), of most of the songs from the album. There are also unpolished runs through some songs that didn’t, like “All Things Must Pass,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and Abbey Road works-in-progress like “Oh Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden” (on piano), “Polythene Pam,” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” The brief version of “The Walk,” familiar from the earliest bootlegs from these sessions back in 1969, is here. Note that the version of “Something” is such a tentative fragment that it’s more notable for dialogue between George and John about getting stuck on the lyrics than for the music.

Another of the bonus CDs has the “1969 Glyn Johns Mix,” although Johns, an engineer and co-producer for Let It Be, actually did a few mixes. This is probably the one that came closest to being released, and has a few different takes; more between-song dialogue; and a generally looser, more live feel that was more in keeping with the original Get Back concept than the eventual Let It Be LP. It’s missing the Phil Spector orchestral/choral overdubs; has a couple brief and unimpressive oldies jams not on Let It Be; includes a Paul McCartney song (“Teddy Boy”) that also wouldn’t make the final cut, though it would be on McCartney’s debut solo album; and is missing “Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine,” which did make Let It Be. Got all that? 

Johns’s 1970 mixes of “Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine” are on another of the CDs, titled Let It Be EP. This only has four songs, the others being new mixes of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be.” 

Even if it was felt that the CDs of the original LP and the Glyn Johns mix needed to be standalone discs, the running time for a six-disc set is shamefully short (and, arguably, the audio-only Blu-ray version of Let It Be unnecessary). The two sessions/rehearsals/jams discs add up to only about 73 minutes, and could have easily fit on one CD. The EP-CD is just over 13 minutes. The set has poor overall value for the hefty price, and more importantly, omits a good deal of material that’s arguably at least as interesting as what was selected, and could have fit on a six-to-eight-disc box.

Examples include: their entire live rooftop concert from January 30, 1969 (though some of it was used on the LP); the earliest Johns acetate mixes from January 1969, which were the truest to the rough’n’ready original concept and have a way-cool take of “Let It Be” with a great McCartney count-in (and have long been bootlegged); a version of “Get Back” with John Lennon on lead vocals; a ragged-but-cool version of “I’m So Tired” with Paul McCartney on lead vocals, though that song had already been on The White Album; a good McCartney-sung cover of “Singing the Blues” (albeit with an intrusive announcement from a film technician partway through); the fast version of “Two of Us” seen in the Let It Be movie; a different, very humorous version of “Two of Us” with exaggerated Liverpool accents; George Harrison’s solo demo of “Isn’t It a Pity,” which has only been available on iTunes; and George’s nice version of Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You’ve Been on Mind,” even if the vocals are kind of faint. It’s true that a great deal of the rest of the 100 or so hours of vault material are redundant similar-sounding rehearsal versions and subpar, fragmentary passes at rock’n’roll oldies. But this box certainly isn’t going to make the bootlegs redundant, even if what small percentage of unreleased material was unveiled has better sound quality than the boots.

You want a consolation prize? There’s actually a good one in the box. The 108-page hardback book is very good, with detailed information about the sessions and the whole Get Back/Let It Be project, and plenty of photos. It’s entirely different from, and better than, the photo-dialogue-oriented Get Back book issued to coincide the Peter Jackson documentary on the Get Back saga and this box.

9. Neil Young, Young Shakespeare (Reprise). Recorded on January 22, 1971 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, this is a fine-sounding live concert from a tour on which Young played everything solo on acoustic guitar and piano. While this is prime Young and the dozen songs are all classic and famous (with the possible exception of “Dance Dance Dance”), it’s a little less exciting of a discovery in 2021 than it would have been in, say, 1981, or even 2001. A bunch of very similar shows from the time have circulated officially or unofficially, and some of those other batches are longer with some songs that don’t make this release, like “See the Sky About to Rain” and “I Am a Child.” Judged on its own—though it’s unlikely many people are going to buy this without having heard some of those other performances—it’s excellent, the solo format marking them as notably and enjoyable different from the familiar, usually full-band studio versions. It’s a little odd to hear the audience clap along at points, though it doesn’t interfere with the music.

Included with this release is a DVD of footage from this very concert. It’s not significant enough to merit inclusion on my best-of-film list for the year, as it seems to have been filmed (albeit in color) with home movie-type equipment. You hate to use the term “shaky” considering that’s Bernard Shakey’s a pseudonym Young uses for his film projects, but it sure is. Maybe it was filmed informally with no intention of it being used for anything official, though there aren’t liner notes to illuminate the back story. Interspersed with the footage are a few brief non-concert clips (over which the concert recording plays), none remarkable – a river is shown during “Down By the River,” an elderly man talking to Young during “Old Man,” and the like. And “Sugar Mountain” is incomplete, though it runs the full eight-and-a-half-minutes on the CD.

10. Dusty Springfield, The Complete Atlantic Singles 1968-1971 (Real Gone). This compiles the original mono 45 versions of all the tracks on the singles Springfield issued on Atlantic from 1968-71, when she did her best US sessions and was at her peak as a pop-soul singer. It’s a good anthology, but note that if you’re a Springfield fan/collector, you should evaluate how much original mono versions mean to you, as all of the songs have been available on CD elsewhere (on Rhino’s expanded versions of the Dusty in Memphis and A Brand New Me albums, for instance). Whatever your preference for mono or stereo, it functions as something of a best-of for Springfield in this period, even if just one track (“Son of a Preacher Man”) was a big hit. There are plenty of cuts almost on that level here, though the best tend to be from Dusty in Memphis, like “Breakfast in Bed,” Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” and Bacharach-David’s “In the Land of Make Believe.” For those who don’t have big Springfield collections, much of this will have been previously obscure to them, especially the material postdating Dusty in Memphis, though these include sessions produced by renowned producers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry. Excellent lengthy liner notes augment the fine 24-track package.

11. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection (Capitol). Although his first few singles were credited to Plastic Ono Band and his first full studio album was officially titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, it’s roundly regarded as Lennon’s first proper solo LP. Upon its release in late 1970, it gained huge media attention, and usually great reviews, for its spare and cathartic self-examination of his tortured childhood and shedding of his identity as a Beatle. Some pretty love songs and jauntier observations were mixed in too. But its generally somber, bone-cutting air meant it didn’t sell nearly as well as the 1970 albums by his old chums George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Plastic Ono Band wasn’t nearly as involved a production as the Beatles’ post-1965 LPs—or, for that matter, Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. It was completed in about a month, the bulk of it cut in little more than a half dozen separate sessions. There wasn’t much orchestration or embellishment of basic guitar, vocal, piano, bass, and drums. But although there wasn’t as much experimentation, multi-tracking, overdubs, and such as there had been on late-‘60s Beatles albums, there were plenty of alternate takes. The sheer size of this eight-disc set testifies to that, though the alternates are bolstered by some demos, home tapes, jams, and non-LP singles.

Essentially this presents the original album; the three 1969-70 singles “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Instant Karma”; and no less than six pseudo-alternate versions of the record. Each of those six discs presents different versions of each of the LP’s eleven songs in sequence, as well as different versions of those singles. There’s also a disc of off-the-cuff jams from the sessions, most of them brief covers of rock’n’roll oldies.

With more than eleven hours of music, this “ultimate collection” seems at a glance to be the ultimate gift for the Plastic Ono Band fanatic. Generally it is, but there’s a bit of “be careful what you wished for” attached. Many of the alternate takes aren’t much different from the finished versions, Lennon often having a good idea of the arrangement before work started on a specific song. And there’s virtually nothing in the way of original compositions that didn’t make the album.

Perhaps more problematically for the purist, there are “elements mixes” that highlight and/or subtract ingredients from the LP tracks. As more of a challenge, there are also “evolution mixes” that aim to sort of present audio documentaries of how recordings came together by editing together excerpts of various takes. These mixes are a very twenty-first century way of doing things, giving us an inside (if selective) look that’s never before been available, but in a format that’s not something you want to groove to for fun or many repeat plays.

The standouts are the cuts that are substantially different from the ones on the long-available original album, though a good share of these have come out on Lennon’s Signature and Anthology boxes, as well as his Acoustic collection. In particular, his somewhat lo-fi summer 1970 demos, recorded at the home he and Yoko were renting in Bel Air while they took Arthur Janov’s primal therapy, have a bare and spooky ambience yet more chilling than the relatively polished studio counterparts.

Not all of the songs from Plastic Ono Band were demoed in this form, but the majority were, featuring just John and his guitar, which sometimes boasts a shaky, eerie tone. The compositions he taped at this juncture were in largely finished form, though a few (“Remember,” “Isolation,” “Hold On,” and “”Working Class Hero”) are absent and might not have yet been written. Had these been demoed in the same form, you’d have a complete alternate pre-Plastic Ono Band album of sorts yet rawer and more harrowing than the actual LP.

As for alternates from the studio sessions, there are just a few that stand out as both significant variants from the familiar versions and performances of considerable merit. It’s interesting to hear guitar, not piano, as the dominant instrument in “Mother”; a solo piano rendition of “Isolation” that, maybe uniquely among these outtakes, is an arguable match for the full-band album version; and “Love” with just acoustic guitar, sometimes fingerpicked, sometimes strummed. Part of the main value in hearing the numerous less striking outtakes are frequent reminders that, soul-searching serious lyrics to the contrary, Lennon was often in a jovial mood during the sessions. He frequently jokes and banters with drummer Ringo Starr, bassist Klaus Voormann, and others. “So if you ever change your mind…or the rhythm,” he improvises during take 1 of “Remember,” for example.

Like the many bootlegged tapes of the Beatles covering oldies during the January 1969 Get Back sessions, the disc devoted to jams—largely on songs by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, and Carl Perkins—looks better on paper than it sounds in reality. They were more a way to keep loose between takes, or warm up to back Yoko on the October 10 session that yielded her Plastic Ono Band album, than serious attempts at something that would find release. (The unedited tracks from those sessions for Yoko’s album, incidentally, are on the Blu-ray part of the set, along with Yoko’s three B-sides on the Plastic Ono Band’s early singles, one of which, “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” is presented in a longer, nine-and-a-half-minute version. There’s also a different two-minute version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko.”)

John and his friends do play with more tightness and conviction on the jams than the Beatles often managed during their largely lackluster Get Back sessions covers, however. But don’t get too excited by the presence of an early version of Imagine’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier.” At this point, Lennon had little more than the title lyric.

As always, completist collectors can second-guess the selection even for a box of this size. The Signature box alternate take of “God,” which starts with a scarifying “WELLLLL BROTHER” and still cites “Dylan” rather than “Zimmerman,” is missing. From bootlegs, so is the admittedly slight “When a Boy Meets a Girl,” which is usually attributed to the summer home demos. So are a few home demos of “God,” which John recorded in four versions, not just the one on the box—another is available on Acoustic, and others only circulate unofficially.

Then again, along with the dozens of tracks that have never before circulated, there are neat throw-ins like informal non-studio tapes of “Give Peace a Chance” and “Remember,” and home demos of “Cold Turkey.” The accompanying 132-page book has thorough details on the sessions and tracks, along with many quotes from John, Yoko, and sidemen and studio staff (some contributed specifically for this project). It’s frankly kind of a headache to keep all the elements/evolution/”raw” mixes straight, but spacing the alternate versions out into discs that follow the LP sequence helps. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

12. Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, Live on Air 1965-67 (London Calling). Praising Kramer isn’t going to win you many hip points even among British Invasion obsessives, but he made his modest contribution to one of the great waves in twentieth century popular music. Some of it’s captured on this double CD of 1965-67 BBC sessions, though no doubt some earlier radio sessions are missing, as his popularity peaked in 1963 and 1964. There’s just one of his covers of Lennon-McCartney songs the Beatles didn’t release (“From a Window”), for instance, and while the big hit “Little Children” is here and “Trains and Boats and Planes” was his last big British single, most of this will be unfamiliar even to those who have some Kramer in their collections. Quite a few of these are covers that didn’t appear on his records, though they tend to be forgettable, routine covers of oldies like “Hello Josephine,” “My Babe,” and “Milk Cow Blues.” He did try some contemporary material, though his versions of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right,” and (more surprisingly) Bobby Darin’s “We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here” are unremarkable, or a little worse.

Better are the mild and tuneful pop-rockers that were more his stock in trade—not just the hits already mentioned, but also “It’s Gotta Last Forever” (two versions) and the Drifters-like “Neon City,” probably his best post-hit piece of material. And he and the Dakotas rock surprisingly hard and well on Ricky Nelson’s “Sneakin’ Around,” probably their best relatively tough tune. They certainly must have thought so – there are no less than three 1965 BBC versions here. Kramer had his vocal limitations, and the Dakotas weren’t among the era’s most exciting instrumentalists (though ex-Pirate Mick Green was with them for a while). But they did ultimately offer competent singing and playing on their period Merseybeat, which at its best, here and elsewhere, is genuinely entertaining, if not near the same league as the best acts of the British Invasion’s first wave. The sound quality here is excellent, but unfortunately the liner notes aren’t, giving a basic historical overview but no specific description of these radio broadcasts (which at least are dated), and not even any songwriter credits.

13. Colosseum, Transmissions: Live at the BBC (Repertoire) Blues-rock-jazz outfit Colosseum’s commercial success was modest, amounting to four albums that made the lower reaches of, or almost made, the UK Top Twenty in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The BBC certainly loved them, however, as sessions spanning January 1969 to September 1971 fill up six entire CDs on this set. It makes for both rewarding and frustrating listening, since they could be invigorating at their best, but were pretty exhausting at less than their best.

Colosseum were formed by two veterans of the Graham Bond Organisation, drummer Jon Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, who also played in the late-’60s Bare Wires lineup of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. At their most accessible, Colosseum unsurprisingly sounded rather like late-period Graham Bond Organisation, but with a greater jazz/progressive rock flavor.

That often comes through well on the first year or so covered by these radio sessions, especially on the Bond composition “Walking in the Park,” which of course had been a highlight of the second Bond LP back in 1965. There are no less than five versions here—well, you can’t blame a band for delivering their most famous song over and over—and the interplay between organ and wah-wah guitar on “Elegy” (also represented by five versions) was another highlight of their early repertoire. 

One clichéd view of British rock during this era is that it got steadily less interesting as it got heavier and more self-indulgent with the dawn of the ‘70s. That doesn’t always hold true, but unfortunately, it pretty much does for Colosseum, though their instrumental proficiency was never less than top-notch. Even over the course of these two-and-a-half years, as heard on these sessions, they got progressively prone to longer and less focused songs, overlong riffing, and some of the lengthier drum solos of the period (as good as he was, Hiseman was one of the chief offenders in that regard).

Some opinions on the matter differ greatly from mine, but the introduction of Chris Farlowe into the group in 1971 was not a plus, although he had by far the greatest British commercial profile of anyone in their frequently fluctuating lineup. His vocals were overwrought, and in fact Colosseum’s singing had gone in that direction since original guitarist-vocalist James Litherland was replaced in mid-1969.

The underrated Litherland was also responsible for some of their better original tunes (like “Elegy”), and composing was never among their chief strengths. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their common roots in the Graham Bond Organisation, Colosseum also took a crack at a couple Jack Bruce-Pete Brown collaborations that were among the most popular tracks from Bruce’s first solo LP, “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Rope Ladder to the Moon.” 

There’s an abundance of multiple versions here, as you’d expect from such a lengthy comp covering just under three years, though the group did often noticeably vary the arrangements. There aren’t many songs that didn’t make their first few albums, though a couple such originals from the final (September 1971) session here, the gloomy “Sleepwalker” and “Upon Tomorrow,” were so obscure that organist/vibraphonist Dave Greenslade had a hard time remembering them when giving his commentary for the liner notes. 

Among the other extras, “Shades of Blue,” written by British jazz pianist Neil Ardley, is such pure Kind of Blue-type jazz that it sounds like a different group—and sort of was, since it’s probably just guitarist Dave Clempson with the New Jazz Orchestra. From 1969, “Hiseman’s Condensed History of Mankind” is a percussion-dominated instrumental that verges on the avant-garde, and unsurprisingly didn’t make the cut for a studio LP.

While this BBC anthology (and Colosseum’s catalog as a whole) makes for mixed if occasionally exhilarating listening, this set’s comprehensive packaging can’t be faulted. The sound’s very good, and room’s made for a session of unknown date and origin (from late 1969 or early 1970) and an off-air March 1969 recording of “Walking in the Park.” The 44-page liner notes draw extensively from interviews with surviving members (as well as Greenslade’s comments on numerous specific tracks), and the band show more interest than most veterans in going over the kind of details that the sort of specialists who buy these collections want to hear. 

Also recently issued by Repertoire, and featuring detailed liner notes, were individual releases of five different concerts: Live at Montreux International Jazz Festival 1969Live at the Boston Tea Party (in 1969); Live at Ruisrock Festival, Turku, Finland 1970Live at the Piper Club, Rome, Italy, 1971; and Live 1971 (unlike the others, a double CD, from three concerts in England in March of that year).  Most (though not quite all) of the songs on these were also done in BBC versions on Transmissions, and the sound quality is reasonable on all of them, with the exception of the lower-fi Live at the Piper Club. But as the fidelity’s better, and the performances more precise, on Transmissions, these are for the harder-core Colosseum fan. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

14. The Merseybeats/The Merseys, I Stand Accused: The Complete Merseybeats and Merseys Recordings(Grapefruit)Never entering the charts in the US, but among the more successful Liverpool ‘60s groups in the UK, the Merseybeats have been fairly well served by reissues. Virtually all of their 1963-65 recordings were on Bear Family’s I Think of You CD comp. The numerous discs by their spin-off groups haven’t been so fortunate, with even the Merseys’ 1966 #4 hit “Sorrow” hard to find on reissues.

This double-CD anthology totally rectifies the situation. Besides all everything the Merseybeats released in the ‘60s, there’s everything from all six of the 1966-68 singles by the Merseys, who featured singer-guitarist Tony Crane and bassist-guitarist Billy Kinsley from the Merseybeats; a previously released alternate version of “Sorrow” and a 1966 Merseys track (“Nothing Can Change This Love”) that was unissued at the time; two mid-‘60s solo 45s by Johnny Gustafson, who replaced Kinsley in the Merseybeats for a while; the 1966 single by Johnny & John, which paired Gustafson with Merseybeats drummer John Banks; the 1969 single by the Crackers, who were the Merseys under a different name; two late-‘60s singles by the Quotations, who were fronted by Gustafson; and a 1964 demo by the Kinsleys, Billy Kinsley’s group when he briefly left the Merseybeats. As if that’s not enough for a breathless paragraph-cum-list, there are also a few Merseybeats demos and outtakes that didn’t make I Think of You.

From a completist collector’s viewpoint, you couldn’t better this comp. For quality and consistency, however, it has to be cautioned that this is an uneven overview of a group who, despite nabbing a prime band name and sporting the best visual image of any Liverpool group save the Beatles, were rather musically ordinary. Favoring slow ballads and midtempo numbers spotlighting their fine harmonies, and not writing much original material, the Merseybeats were far below the Beatles and the Searchers on the local totem pole, and for that matter not quite up to the more energetic fare of the Swinging Blue Jeans and Mojos. The Merseys went into a more vaguely mod-pop direction, but never offered anything else on the level of “Sorrow.”

Most of the Merseybeats tracks are on the 34-track first disc.  Although that number might sound exciting if all you have is Edsel’s well-chosen 16-track Beat…and Ballads, that 1982 best-of had most of their noteworthy material. Among the standouts were their Merseyfied covers of the Shirelles’ “It’s Love That Really Counts” and “Don’t Let It Happen to Us”; “Last Night,” their catchiest and Mersey-est non-cover, though it barely made the UK Top 40; the fair pop-rock of “Don’t Turn Around,” which like their version of “Wishin’n’Hopin” made the British Top Twenty; a couple decent midtempo originals in “Milkman” and “See Me Back”; their 1963 debut 45 “Fortune Teller,” one of the few times they more or less rocked out; and the rambunctious soul-pop of their final 45, “I Stand Accused.”

The LP and EP tracks that round out their discography were relatively forgettable for the most part, including some really naff covers, as well as a couple German-language versions of their hits. Exceptions were a surprisingly rocking redo of Rodgers-Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” done Ricky Nelson style, and the catchy 1964 outtake “The Things I Want to Hear,” another Shirelles cover that’s one of their better tracks. It and a few other rarities, like the 1962 demos of Everly Brothers songs, previously appeared as part of the Unearthed Merseybeat series. So did the sole Kinsleys track, “Do Me a Favour,” which would be redone with different lyrics and fuller production by the Swinging Blue Jeans as “Promise You’ll Tell Her.” 

The Merseys track bound to attract the most attention is the alternate version of “Sorrow” (likewise previously heard on Unearthed Merseybeat), which included Jimmy Page, Jack Bruce, and John Paul Jones as backup session men. It’s a little, but not enormously, more rock-oriented than the more orchestrated hit 45, and lacks the memorable “with your long blond hair, I couldn’t sleep last night” coda. After such a strong start, you’d think that their other singles wouldn’t be as bland, but only “So Sad About Us” (issued a few months before the Who’s superior version) stood out, and then only slightly. The spin-off singles by Gustafson’s projects are unremarkable period British pop-rock with shades of soul, blues (“Mark of Her Head” can’t help but recall the Yardbirds’ “The Nazz Are Blue”), and even Tom Jones. The Quotations’ 1969 single “Hello Memories” has the strongest melody, though it was done better by the Irish group the Concords the following year.

You’d have to lay out a lot of bread, not to mention spend untold hours of time, to find the rarer singles on this anthology—even the ones by the Merseys, whom have never before been honored with a compilation that legitimately issues their output. The story’s told well in the abundantly illustrated 24-page liner notes, with quotes from Kinsley and Crane. Be prepared, however, for an experience that’s as much now-I-know-what-that-sounds-like as a vital musical document, though the Merseybeats/Merseys made some notable records at their best. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

15. The Sorrows, Pink, Purple, Yellow & Red: The Complete Sorrows (Grapefruit). When I found the Sorrows’ 1982 Take a Heart compilation on the Australian Raven label shortly after its release, I would have been amazed and excited to learn that there were four full CDs of Sorrows material. They were one of the best mid-‘60s British groups never to have a US hit, and in fact they didn’t have much success in the UK, save for almost making the Top Twenty with “Take a Heart.” But while they weren’t the most original band around, they were a very good one, combining hard R&B and mod pop to electrifying effect on the mix of fourteen or so originals and covers on the Take a Heart compilation.

Almost forty years later, a four-CD Sorrows box is here, and while that sounds exciting, most of the music isn’t amazing. Here’s the hard fact to swallow: that Australian compilation, while terrifically consistent, collected all of their best tracks. Not only that, it collected almost all of their noteworthy ones. They did record some other material in their mid-‘60s prime, but the non-Take a Heart songs from that era were so-so. After multiple and hard to follow personnel changes, the Sorrows had by the end of 1967 turned into an almost entirely different band with the same name, with only tenuous links to the personnel from their peak. They did quite a bit of recording in Italy (sometimes in Italian) in the late 1960s, but at that point were a journeyman British rock band, whose average-to-below-average records were filled out with faceless covers of songs by Traffic, Family, and the Hollies.

There are a lot of extras here besides the mid-‘60s tracks that have been reissued elsewhere on CD a few times. There are some surprisingly dull 1964 demos for producer Joe Meek; stereo versions of songs from their first LP; a few Italian and German versions of early efforts; rare Italian-language singles from before they started to really go downhill; and a CD and a half of the late-‘60s sides from Italy, some from their Italy-only LP Old Songs New Songs, some from singles, some from side projects, some from demos, including a 1969 acetate demo LP. Lo-fi tapes from a 1980 reunion show serve no purpose other than to fill out the final CD.

As I am a big fan of their best mid-‘60s releases, it pains me to say that most of these extras are dull period late-‘60s British rock without distinguishing characteristics. An exception, sort of, is the garage-pop of the previously unreleased 1966 outtake “Ypotron.” I kind of like the weird baroque-mod-rock of “Pioggia Sui Tuo Viso #2,” from a promo-only soundtrack recorded in late 1966. It’s slim reward for such a big set. Is there another reason to buy this instead of that old Take a Heart comp? Well, the 24-page liner notes are incredibly thorough, and do a great deal to straighten out the twisted history of a band who have previously been surprisingly poorly documented, considering the quality of their best work.

16. Norma Tanega, Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog (Real Gone). The 1966 debut album by this quirky folk-rock-pop singer-songwriter has been on CD before, but this has considerably better sound and adds two songs from a non-LP 1967 single. It also has lengthy historical liner notes, by yours truly. So maybe this isn’t an unbiased assessment, but I hope its placement on this list is where it would have been ranked had I not been associated with the package. Tanega is mostly known for the novelty-tinged title track, which was a #22 hit. But her album was a varied if uneven mix of folk, rock, gospel, soul, and orchestral pop production, though winsome, earnest folky singer-songwriting with a dash of introspective melancholia was the most common (and best) element. The B-side of the non-LP 45, “Run, On the Run,” is easily the most unusual track she recorded during the period, mixing near-salsa beats, spy move horns, and fuzz guitar. 

17. Various Artists, It’s a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records (The Singles) (Craft Latino). Although the Fania label is mostly known for salsa music, from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, it also put out a lot of boogaloo, or Latin soul. That’s a mixture of soul music with Latin jazz, which was very popular in the Latino community, though it didn’t make much of an impact with the general pop audience with the exception of a couple chart singles by Joe Cuba of “Bang Bang” fame. Cuba didn’t record for Fania, so he’s not here. But this four-CD (plus a bonus 45), 89-track compilation has plenty of other efforts in the genre from 1967-1975, all taken from singles, and many or all fairly rare and hard to find as far as I can tell. A few of these performers made a wider mark when they did straightahead Latin music, like Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, and the Fania All Stars. Most of them, however, aren’t so well known to soul fans, or in some cases to many collectors whatever their specialties.

Here are the obligatory criticisms to explain why this isn’t higher on the list. Many of the tracks are fairly similar in their uptempo party fusion of period soul music with Latin rhythms, horns, and melodies. Sometimes they’re pretty derivative of straight soul artists like the Temptations and the Average White Band. The Latin flavor is less prominent on the early-to-mid-‘70s selections, often sounding like pretty average if competent period soul. At the same time, however, the relentless party feel, varied with a few sentimental ballads, is pretty infectious and fun, though maybe four CDs is too much to take at once. There are some standout tracks, especially when it gets less formulaic, like Barretto’s “Soul Drummer” or the Harvey Averne Band’s slightly psychedelic instrumental take on Sly Stone’s “Stand.” Even the more generic cuts are usually pretty pleasing, and sometimes a little similar to the brown-eyed soul of the time in Southern California’s Latinx community, though that branch of Latino soul was far less jazzier and horn-oriented. With extensive liner notes, this compiles an important part of the catalog of a notable genre that hasn’t been nearly as thoroughly explored on CD reissues as most forms of soul have. 

18. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Déjà Vu 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Rhino). The only studio album CSNY made in their original (and short-lived) incarnation before breaking up was a huge hit, reaching #1 in May 1970 with two Top Twenty singles, “Woodstock” and “Teach Your Children.” Presenting just ten songs by four prolific songwriters, it’s no surprise that much more material was composed and recorded at the time than made the final cut. Outtakes, alternates, and demos fill up three of the four CDs on this deluxe edition, the original LP occupying the other CD and the vinyl disc that comes with the package.

Of the 38 non-original-LP tracks, all but nine are previously unreleased, the others having previously appeared on various archival projects. That’s quite a boon for the CSNY fanatic, especially since the band had barely gotten together before they broke up. But while interesting, the extras reinforce how the ten songs chosen for the marketplace were the best and most appropriate of the lot, with just a few arguable exceptions.

Disc two is devoted to demos, and are almost more the work of contemporary folk artists than a rock band, especially as only one features Crosby, Stills, & Nash together (and none feature the whole quartet). Of course, most of the group had strong folk roots as well, giving you a glimpse of what they might have sounded like had they somehow never converted from folk to rock. Usually the songs left unused for Déja Vu would find a home on their solo releases; sometimes they’d actually previously been recorded as outtakes by their pre-CSNY groups, as Crosby’s “Triad” had by the Byrds and Nash’s “Horses Through a Rainstorm” (written with Terry Reid) had by the Hollies. 

As for highlights, Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” (which did make CSNY’s live Four Way Street double LP) would have made a less saccharine contribution than the two admittedly more commercial songs he wrote that made Déja Vu, “Our House” (heard here as a both a Nash solo performance and a somewhat lo-fi and sloppy Nash-Joni Mitchell duet) and “Teach Your Children.” Nash and Young duet fairly nicely on “Birds,” the only non-original-LP song on the whole box written by Neil. Lasting nearly seven minutes, Stills’s “She Can’t Handle It” has the kind of affecting yearning quality of other songs of his from the era like “4 + 20” (also heard in demo form) and “Questions.” Maybe it was considered a little too similar to those to get in the final running.

The eleven songs on disc three are full-band outtakes, all but one (another “Horses Through a Rainstorm”) previously unreleased. These alone prove Déja Vu easily could have been a double album, albeit a less consistently strong one than the single disc into which it was whittled down. Some of them would be among the more popular items from early solo releases by the gang, like Crosby’s “Laughing” (soon to be on If I Could Only Remember My Name) and Stills’s “Change Partners” (here in a form titled “Hold on Tight/Change Partners.”

If there’s such a thing as generic early CSNY, however, it sort of characterizes this batch. Strong harmonies and Stills’s confident multi-instrumental skills usually make for pleasant listening. But the tunes simply aren’t as strong as Déja Vu proper, even if they often rock out harder than some who pigeonhole CSNY as sorta-wimps acknowledge.

As befits a disc titled “alternates,” CD four has alternate versions (sometimes just alternate mixes or featuring alternate vocals) of every song from Déja Vu except “Country Girl” and “Everybody I Love You.” None are as good as the ones of the LP; alternates seldom are in these archival exercises. Still, there are moments that make your ears perk up, like some dirty lead guitar dueling in “Almost Cut My Hair,” and a “harmonica version” of “Helpless” (previously available on Young’s Archives Vol. 1) that, of course, includes harmonica.

A straightforward, fairly hard six-and-a-half-minute rocker called “Know You Got to Run,” incidentally, is on this alternates disc (there’s also a Stills demo version) because the first 75 seconds would be edited together with “Everybody We Love You,” the final track on Déja Vu. Taped on July 15, 1969, it’s the earliest recording here, from the first CSNY studio session ever.

As fans have been quick to point out in the wake of this box, Young compositions have a minimal presence in the extras that isn’t explained. Besides the “Birds” demo with Nash and the “harmonica version” of “Helpless,” he’s unrepresented as a composer and lead vocalist. This has given rise to speculation that Young might be holding back CSNY-related extras he wrote for his own extensive Archives series. If so, that unbalances the deeper dive into Déja Vu that this anniversary box offers. 

Although Cameron Crowe and Joel Bernstein’s liner notes provide a reasonable overview of CSNY’s early days in the Déja Vu era, the track annotation fails to list the dates and other supplementary info serious fans would like to be part of these expensive productions. Some are detailed in the liners, and some aren’t. What’s more, the notes describe a few tracks that aren’t here, like a Crosby demo of his Byrds classic “Everybody’s Been Burned” and a studio version of Young’s “Sea of Madness.” As big as this box is, a yet bigger anniversary production somewhere down the line remains a theoretical possibility. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

19. The Drifters, We Gotta Sing! The Soul Years 1962-71 (Strawberry). The completist approach to reissue is useful for dedicated collectors, but often doesn’t yield a consistent or even very good listening experience. Take this three-CD comp of a decade in the Drifters’ career – pegged “The Soul Years,” though certainly some of their early big hits from before 1962 (none here) might quality as soul, like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” The first CD, focusing on their best work from 1962-65, is mostly excellent, showcasing them as not just one of the best early soul vocal groups, but one of the most innovative.

That’s not the situation for the other two CDs, which find them not just sliding into a run-of-the-mill soul group, but also a pretty passé one superseded by the trends of the second half of the ‘60s. Some of the songs are blatantly derivative of Sam Cooke and Jerry Butler, and their The Good Life album of pop and Broadway standards (as often occurred when soul acts did such material) excruciating. By the time the mid-‘60s were passing, they were subpar and boring, and while numerous top songwriters (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Dan Penn, Mort Shuman, Bert Berns, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) wrote some of the material, these feel like leftovers rather than prime cuts.

So what’s it doing on this list? Disc one is really good. While the hits are on many Drifters compilations (“Under the Boardwalk,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” and “Saturday Night at the Movies” were the biggest), this has a few decent tracks that don’t tend to show up on those. Their 1963 version of “I Feel Good All Over,” for instance, which the British group the Paramounts (with future members of Procol Harum) covered, and the neat uptempo number “Baby I Dig Love.” There are live ’64 versions of “Under the Boardwalk,” “On Broadway,” and “There Goes My Baby,” from an era where there weren’t too many live soul recordings. And the LP version of “Under the Boardwalk” has a key lyric change—the singer talks about “making love” instead of “falling in love.” I don’t remember hearing about, let alone hearing, that anywhere. The variation isn’t even mentioned in the booklet’s small-print 28-page notes, which do contain a lot of information about the group’s work during the era.

20. Tim Buckley, Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel (Owsley Stanley Foundation). It’s astonishing that there are about ten CDs’ worth of live recordings in the official Tim Buckley catalog, considering he never broke through to a wide audience during his brief lifetime. Most of these are from the late ‘60s, including this latest entry, recorded at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom on June 15 and June 16 of 1968. Like the other 1968 Buckley live releases, it finds the singer-songwriter moving in a decidedly jazz-folkier direction than his first two folk-rock albums, accompanied here only by bassist John Miller, vibraphonist David Friedman, and percussionist Carter Collins. 

It’s not really rock, but it’s not exactly standard folk or jazz, either. Although four of the songs that would appear on his next LP, Happy Sad, it’s almost as though he’d already forsaken the relatively tight song construction of his first two albums for free-flowing, almost improvisational vocal music with bluesy overtones. Several of the cuts hover around the ten-minute mark, and all generally have a mellower, more subdued vibe than the performances on Happy Sad and the yet jazzier 1969 studio LP Blue Afternoon (from which just one tune, “Happy Time,” is featured here).

Although it had been less than a year since the baroque-folk-rock album Goodbye and Hello had appeared, and only about a year and a half since his self-titled 1966 debut, there’s nothing from those LPs. It’s as if Buckley was determined to wholly reinvent himself just when listeners were getting a handle on him—which listeners never would, as he’d continue to unpredictably and sometimes violently shift styles over the next few years. It doesn’t quite measure up to the more polished, and sometimes higher-energy, studio performances on Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon. At the same time, however, it’s markedly different from his studio LPs, and for that reason alone worth hearing by Buckley fans. Another reason is his versatile voice, which soars through his trademark wide range with passion.

Of most interest to the Buckley fans and collectors most likely to pick up this new addition to the archives, however, are a few songs that don’t appear elsewhere in his discography. “Blues, Love” is a previously unheard ten-minute Buckley original, though it’s as much a bluesy improvisation as a conventional composition. The melancholy “The Father Song,” a short and relatively standard folky number, was heard in the obscure movie Changes; this is just the second live version to emerge (another from a month earlier was captured on Live at the Electric Theater Company, Chicago, 1968). Unlike that previous rendition, this adds a one-minute coda, here titled “The Lonely Life.” Also here is a cover of Fred Neil’s “Merry Go-Round,” which segues into a reprise of “Strange Feelin’.”

Recorded by Owsley Stanley, this has good clear sound, though unfortunately bits from the beginnings of three songs are missing. Detailed liner notes, including comments from bassist John Miller and Buckley’s frequent lyricist Larry Beckett, add value to a 79-minute CD that fattens our view of what Tim was up to on stage in this particular phase of his metamorphosis. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

21. Various Artists, Good As Gold: Artefacts of the Apple Era 1967-1975 (Grapefruit)Apple, of course, is most known for the records it released on the Apple label by the Beatles and some other acts, like Badfinger, Mary Hopkin, James Taylor, and Billy Preston. The company was also involved in other music-related fields, however, particularly publishing. While some of the artists on this five-CD set did issue discs on Apple, it focuses on acts and recordings that didn’t appear in the Apple catalog, but were Apple-connected. Often that means the performers and songs were published by Apple, though room’s also made for some recordings by non-Applers made at Apple’s studios.

You won’t find anything by the Beatles here, and little by Apple’s leading other lights, though there’s a Badfinger track and three by Jackie Lomax. Too, much though not all of the material has appeared on similarly themed compilations on the RPM and Retro labels. Making for a more complicated task to complete your collection, those anthologies have some notable tracks that don’t appear on this set, particularly unreleased cuts by the Iveys before they turned into Badfinger. Good As Gold is still an interesting, and certainly extensive, roundup of Apple-related material, much rare or unreleased at the time. 

Quite a few people here passed through Apple in some way or another, including some names that might be known to many UT readers, but certainly are unknown to most Apple/Beatles fanatics. The Misunderstood, for instance, make the grade because of a publishing connection. Also on board are Grapefruit, led by George Young’s older brother George (sic) Alexander; Brute Force, with his infamous “King of Fuh”; Mortimer, whose cuts include their version of “Two of Us” (here titled “On Our Way Home”), which they almost got to release before the Beatles put it on Let It Be; the Cyrkle; and Andy Ellison. The disc devoted to material laid down at Apple’s Savile Row studio is almost entirely different in nature, with songs by well known figures like Stealers Wheel, Alex Harvey, Tim Hardin, Fanny, and Mike McGear (and some far more obscure performers).

There are so many styles represented that you can’t say this batch has a particular house sound. What it does indicate, however, is that Apple generally favored a lighter, poppier, downright fruitier sound than the Beatles (or even Badfinger) in the aspirants to whom they gave some consideration. Also they didn’t really miss out on any shoulda-been contenders, unless you count the Misunderstood, whose Apple connection was thread-slight. There’s much fair-but-daintily generic late-‘60s pop-rock, sometimes with psych or folk overtones, that’s agreeable but rather unmemorable. 

To be sure, there are occasional standouts. Grapefruit were at their best a better-than-average late-‘60s pop-rock band, as heard on their modest 1968 UK hit “Dear Delilah” (also represented by a George Alexander demo). Sands’ “Listen to the Sky” is one of the better 1967 British psych obscurities. The previously unreleased version of Focal Point’s “Reflections” is good spooky pop-psych with a riff strongly reminiscent of the Lewis & Clarke Expedition’s “Blue Revelations,” though the recording here is a bit lo-fi. The Fire’s “Treacle Toffee World” is first-class toytown psych. Danny Kalb and Stefan Grossman’s “Singing Songs Unsung,” from their 1969 album Crosscurrents, makes an unexpected appearance because Grossman had an Apple publishing deal; its low-key folk-rock makes for a welcome change of pace.

George Alexander seems to have been the finest talent Apple never fully developed, perhaps in part because he was published by Apple, but didn’t record for the label itself. Andy Ellison’s take on Alexander’s “Fool from Upper Eden” is cheerful pop-psych with, as you’d expect from him, more creative eccentricity than most of his company on this comp. Ways and Means do a fine Alexander composition, the Easybeats-ish “Breaking Up a Dream,” which Alexander’s group Grapefruit only recorded with vocals for the BBC. Alexander’s demo of “Lullaby” might have the most historical significance of the ten tracks on Good As Gold that were previously unreleased, as Grapefruit did a version (also featured here) that marks the only recording jointly produced by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Most of the other unreleased cuts are by Drew & Dy, and while they were a rather ramshackle folky duo, one of them also has an interesting Beatles link. On the final day of their Get Back sessions in January 1969, the Beatles briefly busked through a skiffle-ish song titled “Tales of Frankie Rabbit” that many assumed to be an improvised original, or some obscure cover whose source couldn’t be identified. Actually it’s a cover of a number by Drew & Dy, whose basic demo and more fully produced studio version are on this collection. Those were the days when an unsigned duo could simply run up to McCartney near Apple’s original Baker Street office and get him to agree to immediately listen to their tapes, gaining an Apple contract, though nothing by Drew & Dy was released on the label.

Around the same time as Good As Gold, Cherry Red Books issued Those Were the Days 2.0, an updated version of the Apple Records history by Stefan Granados. The new material isn’t cosmetic; it’s almost a hundred pages longer than the original book, with much additional information and some coverage of Apple’s archival activities in the twenty-first century. It’s a very good overview of the company that doesn’t wholly focus on the Beatles, but gives a host of coverage to the many other acts Apple worked with, as well as some of its non-musical endeavors. If you want a taste of Granados’s style and research, he wrote the lengthy informative liner notes in the box set’s 24-page booklet. (This review originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

22. Tintern Abbey, Beeside: The Complete Recordings (Grapefruit). How do you get a 36-track double CD out of a British psychedelic group that only issued one non-hit 1967 single? By adding a heap of demos, acetates, and alternate versions. The single, “Beeside”/“Vacuum Cleaner,” was one of the greatest obscure UK psychedelic 45s, especially the A-side (with its tongue-in-cheek “Beeside” title) Its beguiling Mellotron-coated grandeur puts it in a league very close to the best of what was being done by the top then-new British psych bands like Pink Floyd and Procol Harum, and while the more mod-guitar-oriented “Vacuum Cleaner” wasn’t as special, it was pretty good. Perhaps to no surprise since this is the way these things usually go, nothing else on this heroically assembled and annotated comp is nearly as good as the single. It’s also not the kind of thing that will have wide appeal to anyone except niche ‘60s specialists, and even there probably those with a special bent for British psychedelia.

This doesn’t make the case for Tintern Abbey as an act that should have been a major band (as, for instance, the recordings by the Misunderstood do; see review of their comp much higher up this list). However, it does make the case that they had more underdeveloped potential than most acts of the time who only managed one or two really fine tracks. They had a lot of original material, sometimes with the same kind of wistfully haunting, almost naive air of “Beeside.” You hear this on some of the better songs, like “Snowman,” “Naked Song,” “Black Jack,” “Hookah,” and “Tanya.”

But they also had a fair amount of songs that don’t stick with you much, even if they’re reasonable period psych. And in common with many a group of their style, they got less interesting as they got into somewhat heavier rock after 1967 passed (all recordings here are from 1967 and 1968). They never managed as imaginative or proficient production as they did on “Beeside” either. The anthology’s stretched out by inferior early versions (one of “Beeside,” then titled “Busy Bee”) and barely different acetate mixes of both sides of the 45. On the other hand, the 24-page liner notes give us more details about this hitherto pretty mysterious group than could have ever been anticipated.

23. The Sweet Inspirations, Let It Be Me: The Atlantic Recordings (1967-1970) (SoulMusic)The Sweet Inspirations are more known as backup singers, particularly for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, than for the discs they made on their own. They did record quite a bit for Atlantic under their own name, however, getting a Top Twenty hit with “Sweet Inspiration” and landing several other lower-charting singles. This 66-track comp has everything from their five Atlantic LPs, along with about a dozen non-LP cuts.

Like many soul singers, the Sweet Inspirations had gospel roots, and these came through more strongly in their singing than on records by many other soul artists. They were as good as many better known soul vocal groups, and better than some. They wrote little of their own material, however, and while some top-notch songwriters penned a few of their tunes, they didn’t have nearly as many quality or consistent songs to work with as Franklin or the Supremes did. Their LPs were filled out with quite a few covers of numbers already familiar via original hit versions. So much of their records’ appeal depended on the performance and arrangement, not the compositions.

Fortunately, in their early days they sang so well, and Atlantic’s production was so sympathetic, that usually even the well-worn covers are worth hearing. Their version of the Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” a mild 1967 hit, is a particular standout. Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn penned the outstanding gospel-soul smash for which they’re most remembered, “Sweet Inspiration.” If you like Aretha’s early Atlantic records, you’ll probably like the similar feel of the Sweet Inspirations’ 1967 sessions, though it sounds more like a Franklin side project (sans Aretha) than something on par with Franklin’s classics.

Plenty of soul got more slickly produced as the ‘60s ended, sometimes without much or any drop in quality, sometimes with a notable slide. Unfortunately, it’s the latter case with the Sweet Inspirations’ later sides. They’re hardly unpleasant, but not too memorable, and the generally more orchestrated sound doesn’t have the unforced groove of their earlier work. Some notable names are in the songwriting credits—Don Covay, William Bell, Booker T. Jones, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford, Eddie Hinton, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Kenny Gamble, to cite a few. If not exactly discards, however, they’re not among their top-shelf items. The nine songs from their 1968 gospel LP Songs of Faith & Inspiration that end the set are dull, at least if you’re a soul fan who acknowledges gospel’s huge influence but isn’t a fan of straight gospel.

That album, incidentally, was credited to Cissy Drinkard & the Sweet Inspirations, Cissy Drinkard being the original name of Cissy Houston. Famous as the mother of Whitney, Cissy recorded some decent soul on her own in the early ‘70s, including the original version of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Houston left the Sweet Inspirations at the end of the ‘60s, and the eight 1970 tracks here were done with her replacement, Ann Williams.

Like so many acts, for many and maybe most listeners, the Sweet Inspirations are better served by a best-of than a complete set, like Real Gone’s 2014 double CD The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus. The SoulMusic label, however, is very good at taking a Bear Family completist approach to prime periods of soul acts, though the packaging isn’t as elaborate. It’s good, though, with detailed 28-page liners. (This review originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

24. Colin Blunstone, One Year (Sundazed). Blunstone’s 1971 debut album hasn’t been that hard to find, but this expanded CD reissue offers the important bonus of fourteen previously unreleased demos from the same era, all of them Blunstone compositions. In some ways, One Year itself was something of a pseudo-Zombies album after the Zombies had broken up. It was produced by the Zombies’ main songwriters, Chris White and Rod Argent. They also wrote some of the songs, including a couple (“Smokey Day” and She Loves the Way They Love Her”) that were recorded in different versions in the Zombies’ waning days in late 1968, though those earlier versions didn’t come out until archival compilations. Argent also plays piano on some of the LP tracks and demos, though Blunstone wasn’t just an interpreter, writing four of the LP’s songs.

One Year isn’t so much a Zombies album in all but name, however, as an actual Blunstone solo effort. The material (including a few of Blunstone’s compositions) has some similarity to late-period Zombies, but have much less of a rock feel. Sometimes the arrangements, especially the classical-oriented ones, have a baroque-pop feel that arguably takes them closer to art song than rock’n’roll. It’s always pretty and often wistful, but overall just too dainty to fall in the same league what Blunstone sang with the Zombies. Two of the better songs are covers, those being Tim Hardin’s “Misty Roses” and Denny Laine’s “Say You Don’t Mind.”

The main attraction for Zombies/Blunstone fans—many of whom will have One Year already in another format—are the spare demos. The vocals are accompanied only by acoustic guitar (by Blunstone and, occasionally, Duncan Browne, credited with “classical guitar”) and, on some cuts, Argent. Three of the demos (“Though You Are Far Away,” “Caroline Goodbye,” and “Let Me Come Close to You”) were done in different versions for the LP ; another, “I’ve Always Had You,” would be redone for Blunstone’s second solo album, 1972’s Ennismore. While it’s always a pleasure to hear Colin’s voice, as his own liner notes acknowledge, “some songs are fully realized demos whilst others are merely the beginnings of song ideas.” There’s a sketchy feel to the bonus tracks—understandably, these were demos that were lost for more than fifty years—that don’t contain really outstanding lost works. Although the unplugged feel and Blunstone’s solid melodic sense make for pleasant listening, it’s not terribly substantial.

25. The Electric Prunes, Then Came the Dawn: The Complete Recordings (1966-1969) (Grapefruit). Here’s another box set that would have seemed like a fantasy ten years ago, let alone when the group were active. It has CDs of the Electric Prunes, the psychedelic group known to most only for their hit “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” though they put out five albums and some non-LP rarities, as well as recording a 1967 concert for Swedish radio that’s been on archival releases. All of it’s here, the set lengthened with stereo and mono versions of their first three albums, along with mixes/edits found on seven-inch singles.

The box reinforces a point well known to many ‘60s rock aficionados: though sometimes dismissed as a one-hit wonder (though they had another good Top Thirty hit with “Get Me to the World on Time”), the Electric Prunes were underrated and had a considerable number of fine recordings besides those two singles. Actually, they were one of the better psychedelic groups, despite often not even being considered in the running by those who think of them as something of a novelty act owing to their gimmicky name.

That doesn’t mean that they weren’t rather wildly inconsistent, or that everything here is interesting. Their albums, even the first couple and best, were dotted with subpar tracks where they ventured into vaudevillian or pedestrian blues. Their final two ‘60s LPs featured an entirely different lineup than the players on the first three, and weren’t nearly as good, Release of an Oath being primarily a vehicle for arranger David Axelrod, and Just Good Old Rock and Roll mundane generic late-‘60s rock. And their albums, and even much of the non-LP material, has been readily available on numerous CD reissues. That leaves this without much to offer longtime Electric Prunes fans, except hounds for stereo/mono versions of the first three albums. Hence it’s low ranking on this list, though on the basis of its quality, it would get a place closer to the middle if much of this material had been previously unavailable or hard to find.

Still, now it’s all here in one place, adding four September 1965 demos by the pre-Prunes outfit Jim & the Lords, even if those aren’t so hot (and are mostly covers). While a one- or two-CD compilation might serve the group better for most listeners, exactly what should be chosen for that might vary according to the chooser, and might neglect pretty good rather obscure tracks like the haunting “Antique Doll” from Underground, their second and best LP. Although the band’s been pretty well documented by some ’60 historians (including myself in a chapter in my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock), Gray Newell’s liner notes are extensive and well done, embellished by plenty of graphics from the period.

The following albums came out in 2020, but I didn’t hear them until 2021:

1. Brigitte Bardot, La Belle et Le Blues (Ace). To lead off with the obvious, Bardot is much more famous as an actress than as a singer. She made a good number of records in the 1960s and early 1970s, though, and this is, as the back cover states, “the first Bardot anthology expressly compiled for an English-speaking audience.” I actually had most of these 25-tracks on a Bardot box set, but it’s still worth having, for a few reasons. Most importantly, while she couldn’t sing well in the conventional sense, she didn’t let that get in the way of projecting a great fetching spirit of fun, whether doing frivolous ye-ye music or a handful of artier collaborations with Serge Gainsbourg. There are some real good songs here, and while a few written by and/or sung with Gainsbourg have made some international impact (“Bonnie and Clyde,” the futuristic near electro-pop of “Contact,” and “Harley Davidson”), most of these will be unfamiliar even do those open to investigating French pop-rock of the period. A special highlight is “Gang Gang,” which almost sounds like it could be a 1966-67 Kinks song, such are the melody and high winding backup harmonies.

Crucially, this also weeds out a lot of her pretty terrible vaudevillian recordings (usually from early in her brief recording career) and middle-of-the-road outings. So it’s a much more consistent listen than the box set, and also benefits, if you’re not fluent in French, from good English-language liner notes, even including some recent quotes from Bardot herself. And yes, this does include the original (and unissued at the time) duet with Gainsbourg on “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus,” though it was the duet between Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin that became the big hit.

2. Leonard Cohen, Live in Session ’68 (Rox Vox). These BBC television performances have been in unofficial circulation for quite a few years. The sound quality’s never going to be great, but it’s better on this LP than it’s been in the past, though not enormously so. And this release does have some liner notes, even if they’re not very in-depth. All that noted, the fidelity’s okay and quite listenable, and the performances are very good. Cohen does most of the songs from his first album and some from his then-to-be-released second, with backing from musicians including Dave Cousins of the Strawbs and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson. (For what it’s worth, here’s guessing the occasional light drums are by Pentangle’s Terry Cox, who often played with Thompson in and out of Pentangle.) Some organ and female backup vocals can be heard too, so it’s not just Cohen and his guitar, as was the case for live performances of many early folk-rock musicians. If the sound was up to usual official release standards, this would hold its own as one of the better live albums of the era by anyone. As it is, it’s the best live Cohen from the late-‘60s that’s available, and a worthwhile supplement to his early studio LPs.

3. Third Ear Band, The Dragon Wakes (ReR/NOVEMBeR Books). Subtitled “the legendary unreleased album” and lasting a little less than half an hour, this was issued only as a CD bound into the book Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies: The Life and Times of the Third Ear Band, 1967-1973. The Third Ear Band had a sizable underground following in the UK during that time, though they weren’t exactly rock, and more like an instrumental trance music group blending elements of classical and world music, with some jazz-influenced improvisation. Their instrumentation was rather far afield from rock as well, with hand percussion, cello, violin, and oboe. Their recordings will never get more than a niche audience, involving as they do a lot of repetition than many will find wearying.

This disc’s subtitle is a little misleading: a third album titled The Dragon Wakes was announced in Melody Maker in August 1970, but the band did a number of unreleased recordings in late 1970 and early 1971 that might have been considered for such an LP, not just the six previously unissued ones that are on this CD. Other unreleased studio recordings from the era are on the three-CD expanded edition of their second album, 1970’s Third Ear Band, if you’re keeping track.

Small-print details aside, I find this more accessible than most of the Third Ear Band material I’ve heard. It’s still entirely instrumental and based around repetitive riffs likely meant to induce trance-like states, but the riffs are a bit catchier, though not as memorably digestible as those of actual early space rock outfits like Pink Floyd. The use of electric guitar on some tracks, though seen by some fans and critics as a dilution of their purer original sound, adds some welcome texture. For these reasons, overall it’s more likely to be appreciated by lovers of psychedelic/early progressive rock than much of their official output from the time.

The book it accompanies, however, isn’t so hot. It’s a kind of disjointed collection of interviews with and memories by band members and associates that doesn’t coalesce into a coherent history, or an especially interesting one if you’re not familiar with much of their background. A detailed timeline and discography at the end help put the pieces together, but it’s unfortunate the ingredients weren’t tied into a more standard, coherent narrative history.

Top 25 (Or So) Music History Books of 2021

You’ve got to think that books on twentieth century popular music will eventually get less frequent and authoritative as the originators pass on and first-hand info gets less accessible. That’s certainly not the case yet, given the wealth of volumes on major and minor figures that continue to pour out. The sheer range of performers and styles covered seems wider than ever, as does the kind of books getting generated. Memoirs, photo compilations, day-by-day diaries, discographies, genre and label overviews – all those and more are here. If superstars like the Beatles and the Doors are well represented, so are figures you’d never expect to get covered in full-length book form, from Keith West and Dana Gillespie to Jimmy McCulloch.

1. Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice: 1967-1975, by Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg (Algonquin). As the subtitle makes clear, this memoir by the esteemed guitarist only covers the first decade of his career. Which is fine: that’s the decade in which I’m primarily interested, when he was original lead guitarist of Fairport Convention through the early ‘70s before starting his solo career, as well as playing on numerous interesting records as a session man. This hits all the bases, covering the records, tours, and musicians with whom he collaborated with detail, wit, and clarity. If you’re on the lookout for bits of info you might not have read before, they’re here, like the memory of Fairport learning Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” from Judy Collins’s non-LP B-side; Buck Owens and his band harassing Fairport for their long hair and hippie dress, only for Thompson to humble them by asking for their autographs by names, making it clear he admired their music; or Thompson sneaking a look at Joni Mitchell’s notebook when they shared a bill in the late 1960s.

He’s embarrassed about that incident now, and expresses regret about some other youthful behavior, especially fathering a child (at the woman’s request, with no demands he be involved in the upbringing) but failing to participate in his son’s life for the first dozen years. But the book’s much more about the music and the sparks behind his stylistic blends and shifts, some form of mixes of folk and rock usually serving as the foundation. He neither romanticizes nor complains about the ups and downs of the life of a musician who can maintain a career without stardom, the downs including the crash where Fairport drummer Martin Lamble lost his life (as did Thompson’s new girlfriend) and a truck crashing into the pub where Fairport were living in the early ‘70s (though Richard was not there at the time).

There are also insightful memories of Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, and other Fairporters, and it’s a quick-paced narrative that doesn’t linger overly long on any part of the story. The Thompsons’ embrace of Islam in the ‘70s is explained, though the book doesn’t quite get to the point where they left that faith, or the disintegration of their marriage. An afterword and epilogue quickly offers a condensed summary of his post-mid-‘70s experiences, and while it might disappoint some fans that this period is barely covered, that leaves room for a sequel if Thompson’s up to it.

2. Paul McCartney: The Lyrics, by Paul McCartney, edited with an introduction by Paul Muldoon (Liveright). The most well known book, perhaps by far, on this list, as it was a #1 New York Times best-seller. Just because it was commercially successful, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t good—kind of like the Beatles themselves. Crucially, it’s not just a book that prints the lyrics with some illustrations, though the lyrics of 154 of the songs he wrote or co-wrote are here, and there are lots of graphics. There’s also a lot of text in which McCartney discusses composing the specific tunes, often throwing in a lot of observations about influences, inspirational incidents and people and his life, and life in general. Most of the really well known songs he wrote (with the odd exception like “Hello Goodbye” and “Magical Mystery Tour”) are included, and there are some really obscure ones from both the Beatles days and his solo career, even reaching back to a late-‘50s number (“Tell Me Who He Is”) that was never released, and for which McCartney doesn’t remember the tune.

While some of these stories have been told a fair amount (and a few are even repeated with variations in the text), the commentary’s almost unflaggingly absorbing and entertaining, both for the information and the lively, witty way McCartney tells it. I’m not overall interested in much of his post-early-‘70s solo career, but even the notes on those are usually worth reading, as they usually have noteworthy stories and perspectives not specifically related to the songs themselves—quite a few of which from the previous decades, I admit, I’m not familiar with. Here’s one of the better examples of his wisdom, in discussing a character in “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—“She found a ladder lying outside my house in London. As far as I recall, she stole a picture of my cotton salesman dad. Or robbed me of it. But I got the song in return.”

This doesn’t nab the #1 spot on my list since it does spotlight a good number of songs from a period of his career that doesn’t interest me (even if, as previously noted, the stories accompanying those usually do). A few (not many) notable Beatles songs in which he was the main writer—“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Looking Through You” are a few others—are missing. And there are a few, if not many, factual mistakes that I’m surprised made it through the editing process. For instance, Paul remembers getting the title for “Sgt. Pepper” from a remark Mal Evans made on a plane ride back from visiting Jane Asher on her 21st birthday in Denver, although that was in early April 1967, and the song “Sgt. Pepper” had largely been recorded on February 1. There are many, many Beatles fans besides myself who could have spotted such errors, and the essence and primary points of the stories could have been retained if they’d been fixed. Was it unimportant to McCartney and the publisher to make the relatively modest effort necessary to catch those?

To get back to the book’s substantial pluses, the photos and illustrations are really good, and sometimes rare and unseen (though the absence of captions on some is frustrating). Besides pictures dating back to his childhood, there are plenty of McCartney’s handwritten lyrics, drawings, and letters. Most interesting to me of all were a few very early Beatles setlists, from around the late 1950s and early 1960s, listing some songs they haven’t been documented as performing. And yes, this is an expensive (though not massively so) book, but it’s worth owning.

3. Set the Night on Fire, by Robby Krieger with Jeff Alulis (Little, Brown). Ray Manzarek and John Densmore issued memoirs quite a few years ago, and now Doors guitarist Robby Krieger finally weighs in with his. As a book, this might not be as polished or rigorously researched as some of the others in the Top Five. It’s not strictly chronological, weaving back and forth in an episodic fashion, largely though not wholly focusing on his years with the Doors. As a big Doors fan, however, I found this on the whole more interesting than almost any other rock book of the year, and better than the books by Manzarek and Densmore.

Krieger goes through a lot of details that intense Doors fans want to hear and that aren’t explored as thoroughly in other books, like the nature of his songwriting collaborations with Jim Morrison (which were more frequent than are usually reported); how he won the audition for the Doors, in significant part, with his adept bottleneck style of playing; and how their early residency at the London Fog, far from being the near-bust it’s often portrayed as, was invaluable to honing the group’s playing and songwriting, allowing them to craft new material without pressure. “Every band should be lucky enough to have a London Fog,” in his estimation.

Krieger also puts the kibosh on some long-standing mythic incidents. To his memory, the Doors weren’t fired from the Whisky a Go Go for playing a profane version of “The End”; in fact, he doesn’t think they were fired at all, just moving on to different and bigger gigs. He writes they didn’t think the suggestion from the Ed Sullivan Show people to change the lyric to “Light My Fire” was serious, and that they just casually disregarded it rather than using the original lyric as an act of defiant rebellion. Contrary to John Densmore, he recalls the band starting to work on post-L.A. Woman material in anticipation of Morrison’s return from Paris, not in preparation for a career without Jim. The notorious Miami concert that caused Morrison such legal hassles was, at the time, just another raucous show they didn’t expect to invite prosecution, if more disorganized than usual. He acknowledges the singer’s alcoholism and frightening behavior, but also his sensitive and polite behavior when not drunk. He wonders why the group didn’t think of recording in their office (as they did for L.A. Woman) before that album was done as a way of getting around Morrison’s unreliability, since Jim was often there and sometimes sleeping overnight in the space anyway.

There’s some coverage of the post-Doors years that’s expectedly less interesting, but not wholly uninteresting. For those who want to know about the strange and sad conflicts between the members when a Doors reunion band of sorts was assembled without Densmore in the twenty-first century, that’s here too, though only given a chapter. Krieger comes across much as you’d expect, given his low-key image and onstage presence in the Doors: a nice fellow without an outsize ego who isn’t above poking irreverent and self-deprecating fun at himself and the group, though some of his comments about tension with the one surviving member, Densmore, might strain their at-present intact if tenuous friendship. If you’re wondering about the black eye Robby sported when the Doors played “Touch Me” on The Smothers Brothers, the story behind how he got that is here too, and more shocking than you’ll expect.

4. All or Nothing; The Authorised Story of Steve Marriott, by Simon Spence (Omnibus). This isn’t a standard biography, though it has about as many details about Marriott’s career and personal life as the most thorough bio could have. It’s mostly an oral history, with extensive comments from many people who were in his bands, family, management, or personal life. These are linked together by fairly frequent text from the author filling readers in on the background of Marriott’s trajectory, through his days as a child actor and his peaks with the Small Faces and Humble Pie. This is “authorized” (US spelling) because much of Marriott’s family authorized the book, and many of them participated in interviews, including two of his ex-wives, some of his children, and his sister. That’s just a partial list of the people who are heard from, the most famous including Kenney Jones, Humble Pie drummer Kenny Shirley, Ian McLagan, Peter Frampton, early Small Faces manager Don Arden, and Andrew Loog Oldham (who worked with the Small Faces and Humble Pie at Immediate Records). The late Marriott himself is represented by numerous quotes from interviews he gave.

With almost 450 pages, this not only has as much info as you might want to know. It might have more info than you might want to know, considering how boorish Marriott’s behavior often was. Arguably, it could have been better served by drawing upon the interviews for a standard narrative format. It’s certainly readable, but the many incidents in which Steve was drunk, coked up, obnoxious toward bandmates and partners (and many others), and a general screw-up can be hard to take in such a large dose. This is a big part of many rock and celebrity biographies, of course, but it’s bigger in Marriott’s case than usual. And the decline from fame and a musical peak is longer here than usual – almost twenty years, as really, he didn’t make notable music after Humble Pie’s brief stardom in the early 1970s. He kept trying, the trail leading through numerous bands, abortive reunions with guys from the Small Faces and Humble Pie, and a chaotic personal and business life that saw him move from the UK to Santa Cruz, Atlanta, and back again. For much of his later years, he was slogging it out in pubs or with bands with connections to Humble Pie, without writing or recording significant material.

There is a lot of coverage of the music and records along with the volatile personal tribulations, and the Small Faces and early Humble Pie properly get the most in-depth treatment in that department. As for why he spiraled downward so violently and endlessly, the usual suspects – cocaine, alcohol, reckless spending – are most to blame. It seems like he might have had mental problems as well, so erratic was his behavior; bipolarity is mentioned as a possibility. As usual for such biographies, plenty of people around him put up with this because he could be lovable and had a lot of talent – though the average reader wouldn’t have stood for this kind of stuff from anyone. Here’s one question that isn’t answered, and might not be possible to answer: how did he manage to get such lucrative contracts (the amounts are often reported in the book) after the early 1970s, as he never sold many records after Humble Pie’s hit albums? Was the music industry that naive as to what Marriott was capable of, artistically and personally, given his poor results and poorer reputation for not delivering good recordings and generally being almost impossible to deal with much of the time?

5. Janis Joplin: Days & Summers: Scrapbook 1966-68 (Genesis Publications). Like many Genesis Publications books, this is a limited edition, this one only running to 2000 copies. And like many of their books, it’s expensive, costing £325. I’m not going to pretend that’s not beyond what many readers can afford, and that quite a few don’t want to pay that amount for any book. Should you be able to read this, however, it is very interesting for the Joplin fan, with much material that has never been published. Most of that material’s visual, covering her entire life, though as the subtitle signifies, it’s built around her scrapbook spanning the years 1966-1968. There are photos, letters, newspaper and magazine clippings, and memorabilia dating back to her childhood, though the bulk of it’s from her ’66-68 years with Big Brother & the Holding Company. There’s also a lot of oral history text, taken from close associates like Peter Albin and Dave Getz of Big Brother; her sister Laura and brother Michael; and Jorma Kaukonen and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane.

There’s some unusual, interesting info, like Joplin writing about of Big Brother making a film (apparently unmade) in 1966, an offer (not taken) to sign with ESP Records, and describing the rigors of their first recording sessions. She wrote quite a bit, and in much detail, about her personal and professional lives to her family in the letters reproduced here, though they decrease in number as her success grew. The clippings include some that would be pretty hard to dig up even through library research, and even from her period of stardom, including ones from short-lived or relatively obscure magazines like Eye. Albin and Getz have a lot of good stories, not all of them common to Joplin biographies, like noting how her vocals were double-tracked on their first album, and how the first Tim Hardin LP was a big favorite of Big Brother’s. There aren’t nearly as many visuals or as much text from when she went solo the last couple years of her life, which unbalances the book’s overview, and some of those interviewed for the text stretch things with general observations of the era that aren’t specifically related to Joplin. 

6. The Beatles: Get Back, by the Beatles (Apple/Callaway). The coffee table companion book to the Peter Jackson documentary of the same name features photos from the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions by Ethan Russell and Linda McCartney, as well as dialogue recorded of the Beatles and associates while Let It Be was being filmed that month. To intense Beatles fans, this won’t be as much of a revelation as it will be to much of the public. Some of this dialogue, for one thing, was included in the book that came with initial editions of Let It Be back in 1970 in some countries (including the UK, but not the US). Much of it was paraphrased or summarized in Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt’s book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster about 25 years ago. The dialogue has been selectively chosen, and some of the less flattering bits that are heard on bootlegs aren’t heard.

This isn’t too heavily sanitized, however. It contains some frank discussions about tensions within the group, John’s relationship with Yoko Ono (when both were absent), George leaving the Beatles for a few days, and whether they have long to go before splitting. There were will be some surprises even for those who’ve previously read some dialogue or about the material, like the presence of early quasi-manager Allan Williams at one session; John enthusiastically promoting Allen Klein as a manager to George Harrison the day after meeting with him, and just as enthusiastically recounting watching the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac on TV a few days before that; and; and shots of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and others checking out the roof as a possible concert location five days before the show, though it’s often been assumed this wasn’t considered until the last minute. In all it’s a valuable historical record of what the Beatles were up to in one of the most confusing – possibly the most confusing — junctures of their career. If the text is more interesting than the pictures, the photos are still good to see, and many of them haven’t previously been accessible. It’s also much sturdier than the slim paperback book that came with some editions of Let It Be in 1970, which is notorious for falling apart due to its loose binding.

7. Those Were the Days 2.0: The Beatles and Apple, by Stefan Granados (Cherry Red). This is an updated version of a book whose first edition was published nearly twenty years ago. It’s not a superficial update; there are nearly a hundred more pages, and although some of this covers Apple’s twenty-first century activities as stewards of Beatles/Apple catalog, other material has been added. True, Granados didn’t talk to most of the principal figures who’d interest readers most, like the Beatles, Allen Klein, Yoko Ono, Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall, Mary Hopkin, Billy Preston, and James Taylor. But he did interview more than eighty Apple artists and employees, some high-ranking, like Peter Asher and Joey Molland of Badfinger. While most of the others were in obscure recording acts or were Apple workers barely or unknown to the general public, that ensures they had a lot to say and fresh perspectives, having seldom if ever talked on the record about the company.

The book doesn’t just cover the Beatles’ releases and the high-profile ones by the likes of Hopkin and Badfinger. There’s lots of ink on the many songwriters they published, who often didn’t record for Apple and sometimes never even got to the point of making records. Much attention’s also paid to artists who did put out little-noticed discs on the Apple label, like the Sundown Playboys, Bill Elliot and the Elastic Oz Band, and Lon and Derrek Van Eaton. There are colorful tales of the Apple organization’s more chaotic incidents, but it’s emphasized that for much of the time it functioned as a more or less conventional record company, if one that made some bizarre detours and was subject to the tensions rocking the Beatles as they split and sued each other (and Klein). Also out around the same time as this book is the five-CD compilation Good As Gold: Artefacts of the Apple Era 1967-1975. It complements this book well as it features many of the songs that are associated with Apple but didn’t come out on the label, including publishing demos and tracks recorded at the company’s studios.

8. Hollywood Eden, by Joel Selvin (House of Anansi). Taking students at University High School in West Los Angeles in the late 1950s as its launching point, Hollywood Eden looks at how L.A. developed a regional rock sound based around the surf-car-sun Southern California lifestyle from then until the mid-1960s. Jan and Dean and Nancy Sinatra were students at University High School, but the book’s focus widens to include other L.A. high schoolers who’d soon make their mark on the rock world, among them Phil Spector, Sandy Nelson, Kim Fowley, and the Beach Boys. Although the concentration is on the late 1950s and early 1960s, it edges into the folk-rock era with the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas before Jan Berry’s terrible car accident in 1966—and Spector’s retirement after the failure of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”—signals the end of a relative age of innocence.

Many of these details have been covered in a few previous books like Barney Hoskyns’s Waiting for the Sun, Dean Torrence’s memoir Surf City, and books on the Beach Boys, Spector, Byrds, and Mamas and Papas. Still, it’s interesting to have them woven together with a lot of attention to interrelationships between the acts. Selvin’s style, not just here but in his numerous other books, is to tell the story rather than use direct interview quotes, but there’s still a good number of stories that aren’t so well known, or are told in greater detail than usual. Such as, for instance, the botched kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., in which Torrence somehow played a not-wholly-unwitting part. And there’s definitely more material on a few interesting figures than makes it onto most books, like Nelson (whose drum style and accident that cost him a foot are thoroughly discussed); Jill Gibson, who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mamas and the Papas; and Terry Melcher, who made a mark as a surf/hot rod performer/producer before his most famous work with the early Byrds.

The book has a lot of the behind-the-scenes action, not all of it sunny, in the Los Angeles rock scene at a time when opportunities for hustlers were far more rampant than they’d be when Hollywood became one of the top centers of the music business. Given that strength, it’s not too important in the big picture, but the chronology of Fowley’s 1965 comings and goings is shaky. If this goes into another printing, that section’s note that he caught one of the Yardbirds’ “first performances” in England in 1965, when they’d already been around for about a couple years, should be corrected. The same for a timeline that has him returning to L.A. in December, but somehow meeting with the Mamas and the Papas just days after the August Watts Riots.

9. The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling (1941-1966), by Clinton Heylin (Little, Brown). Heylin has issued a few books on Dylan, and while they’re not flawless, his status as one of the leading authorities on the man is unquestioned. Why another one, considering he’s covered Dylan’s career in depth already, with specialized volumes on his recording sessions and songwriting in addition to the more standard biographical overview Behind the Shades? He’s been able to do a lot more research in the last few years, particularly since he had access to the personal archive Dylan sold to the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016.

So this is kind of an expanded retelling of the first 25 years of Dylan’s life, focusing on the six or so first years of the ‘60s, when he rose from unknown Minnesota folkie to one of the world’s biggest stars. Those who haven’t read many other Dylan books, however, might feel lost by the crush of information, not all of which goes through his songs and career path in a standard fashion. There’s a lot of space given to previously undocumented material that illuminates or challenges the familiar storyline, like between-take session chatter, unreleased concert recordings, personal and business correspondence, and (less interesting) his writing as he worked toward the book eventually published as Tarantula.

For someone like me who knows the core story well (even if Dylan isn’t one of my very favorite artists), that’s pretty interesting, even if some of the detail is still rather extraneous. Others might find the scope disorienting, especially as the chapters don’t proceed in a strictly chronological fashion, jumping between his boyhood and his early career in the early sections. It’s a bit like a fill-in-the-blanks of what’s known by knowledgeable fans, though Heylin pays some attention to the singer’s general career arc, ending with the famous July 1966 motorcycle accident that pretty much put his public career on hold for a year and a half. One would guess that there will be volumes covering his subsequent career, though this is the era that fascinates fans and readers the most.

Like some of Heylin’s other books on Dylan and other subjects, this has occasional smug putdowns of other authors and critics. In the introduction, they’re more than occasional. Far from elevating the stature of his own work, they diminish it. His efforts would be better appreciated if he let the quality of his research and appraisals speak for itself.

10. Always a Song, by Ellen Harper with Sam Barry (Chronicle Prism). Harper is not a well known musician, though her son Ben is. She hasn’t even made many records, and didn’t until she was well into middle age, sometimes recording with Ben Harper. But even if you haven’t heard of her, or for that matter aren’t interested in Ben Harper, this is a good memoir of coming of age in the ‘60s folk music revival, with a lot of coverage of the years before and afterward. Her parents ran the Folk Center (which she eventually took over) in Claremont, California, not far inland from Los Angeles. Through them and the center, she met some of the folk boom’s leading figures, like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. She also had fleeting interactions with other famous artists, some of whom don’t come off too well, particularly Joni Mitchell (who stubbed out a cigarette on the Folk Center’s floor when it wouldn’t give her a free guitar), Guy Carawan, Baez, and Bob Dylan.

Of more note, however, is Harper’s own tale, which is much like many semi-pro musicians of her generation, but well told here. Her parents moved from Massachusetts because her father lost his job in the McCarthy era, and she often felt like an outsider both because of her background and bohemian interests. The Folk Center’s growth from hole in the wall to major destination for musicians and fans is itself interesting. But so is her rocky upbringing, struggles for identity as she shifted from adolescence to adulthood, and a marriage to a man who unfortunately turned abusive and alcoholic. The story’s told with a firm even hand even when the going gets tough, and brings to life some of the hard tasks of raising a family as a single mother while attempting to make a living at the margins of the folk community with some integrity. Is her role in popular music nearly as important as, say, Dylan’s, as documented in Clinton Heylin’s new book? No, of course not. Is this a better read than Heylin’s The Double Life of Bob Dylan, which contains much more in the way of valuable historical research? Absolutely, demonstrating that the lives of faces in the folk crowd have their place in history too.

11. Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair Photographs 1963-1978, edited by Cary Loren and Lorraine Wild with a contribution by Kristine McKenna (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). Leni Sinclair took many photographs of the Detroit rock, jazz, and leftist political scene. She was married to activist and MC5 manager John Sinclair for much of that time, though she was already entering the circle of Detroit alternative/underground artists and radicals before that, shortly after moving to the city from East Germany. This 400-page or so coffee table book has lots of her pictures – some of which postdate 1978, to be technical, and most of them from the decade starting in 1963. Rock fans might be most interested in her photos of the MC5, whom she knew very well, along with some other stalwarts of the late-‘60s Detroit rock scene like Iggy Pop and the much lesser known band the Up. But there are also plenty of images of local and touring jazz icons, as well as demonstrations, riots, and confrontations with authorities. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s concert to benefit efforts (ultimately successful) to free John Sinclair from jail, where he was serving time for marijuana possession, is documented too.

There might be things to criticize if you’re looking at the photos from an aesthetic perspective. They’re good overall, but some are grainy, and all could have benefited from being reproduced on higher-grade paper, though that likely would have added significantly to the price. What’s more important, however, are how they serve as a record of key events and people from a very interesting scene that hasn’t been covered nearly as much as what was happening in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London at the time. The captions often include interesting memories or descriptions of the characters and incidents depicted, as well as generally less interesting excerpts from publications of the period that can lean toward rhetoric. There’s an informative, fairly lengthy overview essay of Sinclair and the milieu in which she worked, as well as a recent interview with Leni conducted by journalist Kristine McKenna. This volume hasn’t gotten much attention or media coverage, and is worth the substantial investment if you’re interested in the ‘60s Detroit underground. And if you’re interested in my story based on my recent interview with Sinclair, you can read it here.

12. Mike McCartney’s Early Liverpool, by Mike McCartney (Genesis Publications). Mike McCartney, younger brother of Paul, took a lot of pictures in Liverpool in the early 1960s, often though not always of the early Beatles. Many of his photos have been included in other books and publications. But with a little more than 250 pages, this is by far the biggest and highest-end collection of his work from that era, with numerous images that will be unfamiliar even to many big Beatles fans. Like many deluxe productions from Genesis Publications, the price is on the high end too—£295, which works out to about $400, for one of the 2000 copies in a limited edition.

Should you be able to look through this, there are a wealth of interesting shots of the Beatles, mostly from around 1961 through mid-1963, with both Pete Best and (less often) Ringo Starr. Some of the pictures are fairly well known, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney huddling with Gene Vincent at the Cavern in 1962, and John and Paul writing “I Saw Her Standing There” at the McCartney home late that year. Others are less so, and they span a gamut from private rehearsals at the Cavern with Ringo to Paul’s twenty-first birthday party, unused scenes from Help!, and a couple color shots of John, Paul, and George Harrison playing in 1958 in the Quarrymen days (although almost everything else is in black and white).

There are also some non-Beatles photos of Liverpool at the time; the theatrical/poetry crowd that Mike McCartney fell into when he joined the Scaffold, though obviously some of the pictures with Mike from this and other times were taken by other people; and visiting American rock’n’roll stars like Vincent, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. Although there’s not an abundant amount of text, Mike supplies some succinct and witty commentary on most of the pictures, sometimes with obscure behind-the-scenes info, though not so much that it unearths a trove of unknown stories. For those serious Beatles/British rock fans who access this, it’s a worthy supplement to the historical record, from someone who was actually very much on the inside of the story as it unfolded. And if you’re interested in my story based on my recent interview with Mike McCartney, you can read it here.

13. Decades: The Bee Gees in the 1960s, by Andrew Môn Hughes, Grant Walters, and Mark Crohan (Sonicbond). The Bee Gees’ career has been covered in a few books, though those for the most part lose my interest after the 1960s, as I’m largely only concerned with their early work. If you feel the same way, this will be a worthwhile read, cutting off at the end of 1969. Everything they did before that is covered in detail, focusing, refreshingly, on their songs and records, and not so much on their celebrity and personal/family lives, though that’s also incorporated. All of the recordings they made during this fertile period are documented in exacting but very readable depth, and while the authors might be bigger fans than many general rock listeners, both the strengths and weaknesses are aptly criticized. Refreshingly, their 1963-66 Australian  records, some of which were very good (if more derivative than their later material), get almost as much attention as their far more famous 1967-1969 ones.

The authors also delve into, with less but satisfactory depth, the many cover versions of  songs written by the brothers Gibb. These include quite a few the Bee Gees themselves  didn’t release or record – an astonishing number, actually, even if not many of those compositions were on par for what they kept for themselves. While this book is far shorter, and far less meticulous, than Andrew Sandoval’s Monkees day-by-day bible (reviewed below), it ranks just a bit higher here both because I like the Bee Gees better and it’s a zippier read owing to its less completist/encyclopedic nature. There’s some overlap (in the focus, not in the actual text) between this and a couple other worthwhile books: The Ultimate Biography of the Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb, which one of this volume’s co-authors (Andrew Môn Hughes) also co-wrote, and Sandoval’s own Bee Gees: The Day-By-Day Story 1945-1972, which is far shorter than The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story, but also has much valuable info.

14. The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story, by Andrew Sandoval (Beatland). To be clear, if this list was ordered by how much research and hi-quality production went into a book, this would be near or maybe even at the top. Its modest position in my ranking is due much more to my relatively un-fanatical interest in the Monkees (though I do like some of their music) than the merits of the writing, which is very good, and the depth of detail, which is phenomenal. Sandoval wrote a 300-page day-by-day book on the Monkees published in 2005 that was itself impressive, but this one actually physically dwarfs it in comparison. The near-coffee-table-sized 740-page volume is so large it must have been hard to even bind together. Besides meticulous coverage of the Monkees’ professional activities through the end of 1970, emphasizing their recordings and performances, there are loads of photos, quite a few in color, and quite a few rare. The photo credits alone take up eleven columns and three pages of tiny print.

All of the studio sessions for the Monkees’ recordings—and there were many—are documented with extreme thoroughness. Interviews all four gave—many from obscure sources like small daily papers and fan magazines, as well as to Sandoval himself—are often and effectively quoted. Sandoval also interviewed quite a few of their associates, like songwriters Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce; producer Chip Douglas; and publisher Don Kirshner. Their live shows get a lot of attention too, as does the context in which the group formed and functioned—not just their TV series and Headmovie, but also the business and publishing machinations behind their conception, management, and financial affairs.

The author might be more generous than some critics in assessing their work, but he gives the tracks plenty of description, and is not reluctant to criticize their subpar product, such as their 1968 TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee. Their solo activities prior to the birth of the Monkees in late 1965 are thoroughly covered, as are their solo projects while the Monkees were going, like Michael Nesmith’s outside productions and early solo albums, and Peter Tork’s post-Monkees band Release (which, ironically, didn’t release anything). Unlikely connections between the band and many of the era’s top icons are uncovered, from the Beatles and Neil Young (who played on some of their sessions) to Donovan, who wrote a song for them, “Saint Valentine’s Angel,” that they didn’t release.

While this won’t be a surprise to serious Monkees fans, it’s astonishing how many recordings were done (aside from their 1967 album Headquarters, very much a self-contained band project) with participation by only one Monkee, or none in the case when backing tracks were laid down without any of them. Nuggets of little known info are plentiful, like Peter Tork having accompanied folk singer Peter La Farge in concert not long before the Monkees started, or Tork having spent wads of royalties on recording his composition “Lady’s Baby,” which (though it was one of his best songs) didn’t even get issued in the 1960s. Through no fault of the author, the book does get less interesting in the 1969 and 1970 chapters after Tork’s departure, with the exception of sections on Nesmith’s early solo country-rock album sessions in 1970. The layers of detail on the recording sessions for their LP filler, while commendable in their thoroughness, might be taxing to plow through for non-completists. If you’re a big Monkees believer, however, this might be your #1 book of the year, or close to it.

15. The History of Bones, by John Lurie (Random House). The memoir by the musician and actor most known for the Lounge Lizards and Jim Jarmusch’s early films only goes to the end of the 1980s for the most part, but it’s still 435 pages. Most of it’s pretty interesting, though it’s somewhat exhausting. While there’s a lot about his music, and a fair amount about his acting, there’s more about drugs, sex, and general debauchery. Lurie doesn’t have the image of being nearly as prolific as New York punk and new wave musicians in these categories, but based on what he’s written, he gave the most blatant of them a run for their money. These excesses didn’t quite cripple his career, but they made it more difficult to conduct, as he acknowledges with wry humor.

Those looking for in-depth sequential details of his compositions and recordings might be disappointed, since they’re fitful and take a backseat to documentation of his lifestyle, though plenty of info about them is here. What comes across most strongly is how difficult it was for Lurie to make a living and maintain sanity as an alternative musician who might have been pretty well known as such figures go, but wasn’t making a ton of money, or even always able to find a record deal. The stories of tours, sessions, equipment, and business transactions gone wrong in all manner of improbable ways are abundant, as are the accounts of entertainment business and arts figures who screw artists and colleagues over. Jarmusch comes off worst in this regard, but there are negative lights cast upon some other associates like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Arto Lindsay (whose departure from the Lounge Lizards isn’t thoroughly investigated), though their talents are acknowledged. He also praises some he’s worked with for their character, and discusses some of his own flaws, principally his lack of aptitude and skill at working within the music and film businesses.

Although Lurie isn’t exactly a rock musician (or easy to categorize in any genre), there are passing anecdotes aplenty about other notables in the New York scene, like Debbie Harry and David Byrne. While Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise get more coverage (if not a ton) than his other movies, there are also stories of his lesser roles in films by Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. There’s also a lot about the general squalor of living in the New York underground at the time, when crime and rough residential conditions were common. They can overwhelm the more art-focused segments, though Lurie makes it clear he was willing to put up with all manner of irritations to do the music he wanted, even if he sometimes alienated those he worked with or lost a lot of money. There are also insights into the specifics of scoring for movies, though they’re just part of a mix that’s something of a helter-skelter ride from his boyhood to the trip to Africa at which the book ends, though he was only at the beginning of that adventure.

16. Nonbinary: A Memoir, by Genesis P-Orridge (Abrams). Most known for pioneering industrial music with Throbbing Gristle, P-Orridge died in 2020, this memoir appearing posthumously. It’s not certain from reading the text whether he finished his intended draft, but this is pretty long (about 325 pages) and covers most of his life, if in uneven concentrations. Those wanting a Throbbing Gristle book might be a little disappointed; they do get a lot of space, but don’t even form until after the book’s halfway point. There’s a lot about his pre-Throbbing Gristle years, including difficult school days and general counterculture mayhem with his performance art project COUM Transmissions and other activities. There’s also discussion of Psychic TV and his post-Throbbing Gristle years, though the last 35 years of his life don’t get much more than 35 pages, and the depth gets much more fitful.

P-Orridge is a notorious and in some ways polarizing figure, and not everyone, even in the underground, will agree with his philosophies. But it’s usually an interesting narrative, with more wit and humor than you might expect from a guy determined to push the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior and constantly brush against authorities. His flights into meditations on pandrogyny, the occult, and other such matters are less interesting than his stories about struggling to survive as an outsider not just in society, but often in the underground itself. There are also interactions, some surprising, with other famous figures, including Ian Curtis, William Burroughs, and (when he was a teenager in the ‘60s) the Rolling Stones, among others.

Although he usually comes across as an articulate and thoughtful sort, be aware that a much different portrait of his personality is given by Throbbing Gristler (and, for much of the 1970s, his girlfriend) Cosey Fan Tutti in her 2017 memoir Art Sex Music. In fact, P-Orridge often comes off monstrously in that book. Which is the more accurate one? There’s no way to tell, and not much reason for those of us outside their circle to agonize about it.

17. Riding the Carousel: A Biography of the Hollies, by Malcolm Searles (Dojotone Publications). There was a fairly slim and perfunctory bio of the Hollies a half dozen years ago, and drummer Bobby Elliott wrote a fairly mediocre memoir that came out last year. This bio isn’t perfunctory or mediocre. It’s almost 600 pages, covering the career of this major British Invasion band in both extreme detail and a very readable fashion. Although there’s not much inside first-hand interviewing of the Hollies or major associates, a great of info was collected from many sources, from top British music papers to fan club newsletters. There are stories that won’t be known unless you’ve followed their career very closely, like their classic 1965 #1 UK single “I’m Alive” being given to the obscure group the Toggery Five by Wayne Fontana before getting taken by the Hollies when producer Ron Richards played the song to them. The odd shuffle of Allan Clarke leaving shortly before “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” unexpectedly became a huge US hit, and then quickly returning to replace his replacement Mikael Rickfors, is also explicated.

It nonetheless can’t be denied that the Hollies weren’t the most personally colorful of top groups, Graham Nash excepted. It also can’t be denied that they got less interesting when Nash left at the end of 1968 (the reasons are thoroughly traced), and the Nash years only take up 235 pages. After their mid-1970s hit “The Air That I Breathe,” the Hollies’ music got that much less interesting, and steadily less so over the last 45 years. Those years take up the final two hundred pages, and that’s a pretty long string to play out, though the author does his best to find whatever interest he can in their sporadic attempts to record new material, reunite with Graham Nash, and navigate the loss of lead singer Allan Clarke. 

18. There and Black Again, by Don Letts with Mal Peachey (Omnibus Press). As a filmmaker, DJ, and musician (if of limited skills, as he admits) with Big Audio Dynamite and some other acts, Letts has played notable roles in British punk, new wave, reggae, and rap since the 1970s. His memoir traces his journey from a music-obsessed boyhood in London as the son of Jamaican immigrants to immersion in the UK punk explosion and beyond. He crossed paths, and often worked closely, with a load of notables—most famously the Clash, for whom he directed videos and documentaries, but also the Sex Pistols, the Slits, a bunch of reggae icons, and a host of others. There are an abundance of behind-the-scenes stories from gigs, film shoots, and more, some quite unexpected, like when Joni Mitchell invited him and John Lydon to her place in Jamaica. These are interwoven with observations about operating as a filmmaker, musician, and collaborator in a music business, and society, that often discriminated against and hassled blacks such as himself. One incident in which MTV backed out of an interview with him after discovering (in person) he was black is especially galling, but there are others along the same lines.

It isn’t the most consistent read, each chapter introduced by a film script-formatted scene that isn’t as interesting as Letts telling his story in his own voice. Some general detail about musical and social movements isn’t as specific to his experience as the personal stories recounting what he went through directly on his own. The post-‘70s chapters get less and less detailed and fly through the years with increasing speed, though this does cover his life through 2020. However, almost anyone with an interest in the incubation of UK punk and new wave, as well as the overlap between those scenes and reggae (for which Letts was probably the most active generator), will find material they’ll want to digest. There’s also some wit in the unlikely anecdotes, like that visit to Mitchell, where Letts complained about a record she was blasting, only for her to calmly inform him it was her new album.

19. Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records, From Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince, by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt). Warner Bros., as the official spelling goes, has been one of the biggest record companies of the last half century. It’s impossible for a 250-page book to include stories of all their interesting artists, or stories on all the interesting records their artists did. Still, this is an informative overview of how the label evolved from a near-afterthought to the film studio to the biggest record company, and one that launched or peaked the career of many, many acts. It’s rather amazing considering the label was on the verge of being shut down in its early years, though the Everly Brothers and then Bob Newhart kept it afloat so it could grow and absorb Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Major acts not mentioned in the book’s subtitle also include Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Randy Newman, the Kinks, and Van Morrison, for starters, up to R.E.M. near the end of the twentieth century.

The book’s focus is more on the executives who helped Warner Bros. not just survive, but also innovate and keep abreast of or help inaugurate musical trends. These include Mo Ostin, Joe Smith, Lenny Waronker, and Stan Cornyn, and the author interviewed numerous such figures for the book, which has inside information on the wheelings and dealings necessary to both make a profit and cultivate an atmosphere of musical freedom. Warners’ willingness to underwrite near-experimental projects by the likes of Van Dyke Parks, as well as stick with unconventional talents who didn’t immediately pay off like Mitchell and Newman, is also covered. So is their relative demise in the 1990s, when Ostin left the company after some changes at the top.

However, there are some minor errors serving more evidence that many music history books go through the editorial process without being checked by people with deep knowledge of rock in this era. Ricky Nelson did not sign with MCA Records in the late 1950s; the label didn’t start until years later. Van Morrison did not live in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk album was on Buddah (sic) Records, not Warner Bros. Joe Boyd was (briefly) Pink Floyd’s producer, not their manager. The Sex Pistols trashed an A&M office in London, not Los Angeles. Crosby, Stills & Nash were on Atlantic Records, not Columbia.

20. Thinking About Tomorrow: Excerpts from the Life of Keith West, by Ian L. Clay (Hawksmoor). Most known for his big 1967 UK hit “Excerpt from a Teenage Opera” and for being lead singer of the late-‘60s British psychedelic group Tomorrow, Keith West is one of the more interesting cult figures of his era. It’s still kind of a stretch to get a nearly 300-page biography out of his life, especially as he hasn’t put out many records since the late ‘60s, and wasn’t on all that many records in the ‘60s. Nonetheless, this book has its points of interest, covering West’s life and career in quite a lot of detail. There are plenty of first-hand recent interview quotes with West, as well as numerous people with whom he’s worked—most notably Tomorrow guitarist Steve Howe and Tomorrow drummer Twink, though also other members of his previous groups the In Crowd and Four + 1. Tomorrow’s sole LP, released in early 1968, rightfully gets the most attention, with a good amount of comments from producer Mark Wirtz (who also produced West’s early solo singles) too.

Going back to his mod/R&B days with Four + 1 and then the In Crowd, there are the odd unusual and unexpected stories, such as how the In Crowd almost got into the Blow-Up film, or West seeing Led Zeppelin rehearse just as they were getting together. There are also some mundane stories, especially regarding his sporadic post-‘60s musical projects, which never got much traction. Not that it seems to bother West much, as he wasn’t as serious or dedicated to becoming a success as many of his peers – for instance, Howe, who’s remained friends with Keith for all these years.  

21. Weren’t Born a Man, by Dana Gillespie (Hawksmoor). Dana Gillespie had about as interesting a career as you could have in the 1960s and 1970s without having hit records. She had intimate relations with David Bowie and (much more briefly) Bob Dylan, among quite a few others; was with Bowie’s MainMan management organization, and thus his inner circle, in the 1970s; started in folk as a teenager and moved to folk-rock-pop, glam, blues, and (after the ‘70s) Indian music; had bit parts in numerous movies, including Bad Timing with Art Garfunkel; and generally circulated and globetrotted among a great deal of people who were more famous than she became. She was even a waterskiing champion as a teenager. Her memoir isn’t quite as interesting as you might hope from her resume, but she covers all of this, as well as giving an overall rundown of being close to the center of the action in Swinging London and the glam era.

There’s a somewhat unapologetic matter-of-factness to her recount of the many people she and those she knew slept with, though she’s also a little coy about revealing the kind of sensationalistic details some readers might want. As she acknowledges, some of the behavior might be considered unacceptable these days. One story about Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun is gross enough that I’m not going to repeat it here, though Gillespie seems to shrug it off as just part of the business in the early 1970s. Her assessment of controversial MainMan  main man Tony DeFries is generous, even though litigation meant she was unable to record for a few years; as she notes, she never would have gotten to experience the highs of the glam era without him, and wouldn’t give up those years for anything.  In common with many a memoir, it gets less interesting and comprehensive after the 1970s, with a lot of commentary about her devotion to Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, which she notes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. There is a lot of attention paid to her music and records, even as far back as her teenage late-‘60s debut Foolish Seasons, making this worthwhile for those familiar with the discs of this intriguing if minor musical artist.

22. Shindig! America’s Flat-Out Ass-Kickin’ Rock’n’Roll TV Show, by Peter Checksfield ( Maybe not everyone would describe Shindig! in as enthusiastic a sentence as this subtitle, but it was the best US rock TV show in the mid-‘60s. This is more a reference guide than something you might want to sit down and read (though you can, in one sitting). But it’s pretty useful if you have an interest in Shindig!, or in ‘60s rock in general. All of the 85 episodes that were broadcast between September 1964 and January 1966 (as well as three pilots) are documented with lists of the performers and songs they played. Brief comments on performers in each episode give basic background—useful for the many obscure ones who were on the show, though most fans will known the scoop on the many stars that were featured, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys and the Supremes. There are also some notes on what made some performances particularly good, weird, or otherwise noteworthy. A half-dozen screen shots, a bit blurry but quite viewable, are also presented from each program.

I wouldn’t have minded more extensive commentary on some of the performances, or background information on the show’s production. But clearly the author’s seen them all and provides some of the most essential information. It’s amazing just how many stars appeared – not just the aforementioned superstars, but plenty of early rock’n’roll pioneers too, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, and Chuck Berry. It seems like very few of the biggest artists from the time didn’t appear on the program – the Four Seasons were one. Solid UK connections gave airtime to some notable British acts who didn’t tour in the US hits or have hits there when the show was active, like the Who and the Pretty Things. A brief appendix details all the clips that were issued on Rhino VHS compilations in the early 1990s.

23. Having a Rave Up! The Definitive Guide to British Beat Albums in the Sixties, by Peter Checksfield ( Another of the prolific Checksfield’s books devoted to cataloguing various aspects of early British rock, this one lists, rates, and describes a wealth of UK LPs from what’s called the British Beat era there, and the British Invasion in the US. The concentration is the mid-1960s, though early-‘60s albums predating the Beatles’ breakthrough in the US at the beginning of 1964 are thoroughly covered too. In its favor, this includes almost every album that could qualify through 1966 or so, with release date (usually down to the month), label, and complete track listing, including a good number of LPs only released outside of the UK, whether in the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, or elsewhere. Checksfield’s brief descriptive reviews tend toward the more enthusiastic and generous as far as historians of this era go—not many other writers would give the Fourmost’s sole LP five stars, for instance—but at least make for an interesting contrast to more established critical party lines. Photos of the album covers are here too, if in basic black and white reproduction.

Note, however, that this doesn’t include many post-1966 albums, as acts that didn’t start releasing LPs until the late 1960s aren’t included – even the biggest, like Pink Floyd and Cream. A few omissions will puzzle and frustrate some British Invasion fans, particularly Donovan, who’s only represented by a listing of his Greatest Hits compilation. Lists of post-‘60s compilations for further listening are useful but inconsistent, usually but not always listing the best best-ofs, complete works anthologies, and BBC collections. Obsessives will find rare errors here and there; it’s not noted, for instance, that the Yardbirds’ US Over Under Sideways Down LP is missing two tracks that were on its UK counterpart YardbirdsGalactic Ramble is a bigger, more comprehensive, and more critically acute reference volume covering British albums (including jazz and folk) from approximately the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, though this has some info and perspective not found in the other book.

24. Strat! The Charismatic Life & Times of Tony Stratton Smithby Chris Groom (Wymer). Not such a well known name these days even among those who pay attention to the history of record labels and their executives, Stratton Smith was head of the British Charisma label in the 1970s and first half of the 1980s. With Charisma, and sometimes also as a manager (although that was in retrospect a conflict of interest when he handled Charisma acts), he’s most known for his vital role in the career of Genesis. Charisma was also home to some other noted acts, including Van der Graaf Generator, Monty Python (for their LPs), and Lindisfarne. This is his story, and by extension much of the story of the Charisma label, drawing on a lot of first-hand interviews (though none with the late Stratton Smith, who died in 1987) with his artists and employees.

This is more niche even than the average among books that appeal to fans of niche figures in rock history, but it has its share of interesting stories. Stratton Smith was a generally beloved, if erratic, figure who’s usually praised by his clients as a generous and fair man, and one whose decisions were driven by personal enthusiasm as much or more than business. As is often the case with such guys, he had less business sense than artistic judgement, though most of those who worked with him are forgiving of his at times reckless spending and uneven bookkeeping. Some of the most interesting anecdotes are about the numerous Charisma acts that aren’t so well known (Audience, Clifford T. Ward) or never made it at all, as well as some he managed before Charisma launched, including the Creation, the Koobas, and the Nice.

The narrative does jump back and forth chronologically more than it should, and some of the chapters on Stratton Smith’s non-musical ventures, such as his pre-rock work as a journalist and horse racing, can be skimmed or skipped. There’s some coverage of successes he had with acts that emerged in the 1980s, like Julian Lennon and Malcolm McLaren, but the bulk’s devoted to the heart of Charisma’s catalog in the ‘70s. Like other colorful figures of his sort, Stratton Smith overindulged in alcohol and was often disorganized in general, contributing to his early death.

25. A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe, by Joe Yanosik (self-published). Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe’s story was, for many listeners, more interesting than their music, though that was interesting too. It’s a very involved story, but they survived many years of harassment from authorities in the former Czechoslovakia to make underground rock music from the late 1960s through the late 1980s. Although this 132-page book is billed as a consumer guide, it also has a fair amount of general history of the group, from their origins in the psychedelic era when they were inspired by the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. This is particularly valuable as while there was a fair amount of press about them in the English-speaking world (including a chapter in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll), there wasn’t to my knowledge anywhere you could read a fairly detailed overall general history of the Plastic People.

The backbone of the volume, however, is formed by detailed reviews of their albums, as well as numerous ones by acts that had Plastic People members or connections. The Plastic People’s avant-rock will never be broadly accessible, and some of the evaluations might be over-enthusiastic, but the author does differentiate between their best and subpar work, criticizing their flaws when warranted. Their are also reviews of more DVDs and books related to the band than almost anyone would be aware of, though unfortunately the books are in Czech, not English. There are quite a few high-quality reproductions of record covers that in themselves are interesting to see, as well as some good photos of the Plastics from throughout their career, including some amazing early ones where they sport striking onstage costumes. 

26. Top of the Pops: The Lost Years Rediscovered 1964-1975, by Peter Checksfield ( Top of the Pops might be the most famous British pop music TV program, though it wasn’t the best, featuring a lot of mimed performances and middle-of-the-road acts. Still, most of the major UK acts appeared on the show in its first decade or so, along with many one-shots and also-rans. This 650-page reference book lists all of the material aired on each episode, including not just artists performing (if often lip-syncing) songs, but also the clips that were videos sent to the program and segments that just showed dancers or crowds dancing.

Although this is mostly listings, it’s spiced up by numerous first-hand soundbite recollections of performers (some famous, some quite obscure) of the program. Some of these are brief and dry; some are entertaining, like Move drummer Bev Bevan remembering watching the Tremeloes do “Here Comes My Baby” and calling it a terrible song, only for Cat Stevens, who was also on the bill, letting Bevan know he’d written it. Sadly, most of the Top of the Pops footage from this period doesn’t survive, but Checksfield notes when it does – much of it getting preserved owing to rebroadcasts on TV programs in different countries, or to BBC videotape engineer Bob Pratt surreptitiously privately copying performances he liked, although he could have been fired for it. Numerous black-and-white stills from Top of the Pops program break up the basic design.

27. Little Wing: The Jimmy McCulloch Story, by Paul Salley (Lotown). Dying in his mid-twenties in the late 1970s, Jimmy McCulloch had an interesting career without making a name for himself that would be recognized by most general rock fans, though he played in one of the most popular groups in the world. A child prodigy of sorts, the guitarist was already recording in his early teens with One in a Million, who put out a superb flop British psychedelic single. His most creative playing was probably with Thunderclap Newman, the enigmatic band that scored a #1 UK hit (and substantial US one) with the anthemic “Something in the Air” in 1969, but only made one LP before splitting. After a short spell in Stone the Crows after their guitarist Les Harvey died, he joined Wings and was their lead guitarist for several huge hit albums and singles in the mid-’70s. After leaving Wings in murky circumstances, he drifted in and out of a few groups, including for a brief time a mostly reunited Small Faces, before dying from causes that remain mysterious.

It’s a real labor of love to put together a self-published 270-page detailed biography stuffed with pictures and memorabilia illustrations, as Salley has. He spoke with many people who worked with Jimmy (especially McCulloch’s brother Jack, a drummer in some of Jimmy’s bands), and the book’s a very professional-looking and competently written volume. Still, McCulloch wasn’t the most colorful figure, and never really stood out as a songwriter or bandleader/solo artist. Really interesting inside anecdotes are outweighed by general (sometimes bland) praise from colleagues, and the text could have used some more detailed description of the records. It’s most interesting in the Thunderclap Newman and Wings sections, and the Newman part in particular will likely stand as by far the most detailed account of that group’s short lifespan. Intense British ’60s/’70s rock fans will appreciate that level of detail, even if McCulloch’s life and output wasn’t among the most exciting of those in the circles he traveled.

The following books came out in 2020, but I didn’t read them until 2021:

1. When Can I Fly? The Sleepers, Tuxedomoon & Beyond, by Michael Belfer with Will York (Hozac). Although he’s not a name known to much of the general public, guitarist Belfer played a notable part in the early San Francisco punk and new wave scene in his stints with the Sleepers and Tuxedomoon. He also played with various other acts in and out of San Francisco, including Rhythm & Noise, Blaine Reininger, Rhythm & Noise, and Black Lab. His memoir might well be of interest even if you know little or nothing about those artists, as it’s a fairly gripping and entertaining account of coming of age in a volatile scene as a teenager and young adult. He conveys the excitement of playing in a new style as clubs and audiences were just opening up to the music, with stories of collaborations with the Sleepers (especially their disorganized singer Ricky Williams) and Tuxedomoon in a tight but tiny local network.

There’s also plenty of downside — not just in the sort of expected tales of drug deals and abuse, but also in the theft and violence that sometimes almost literally ran Belfer out of town. As just one example, a Hell’s Angel demanded the keys to his car after being falsely told Belfer was selling it; Belfer hotwired it back; and a friend of the Angel forcibly shot him up with speed, Belfer catching hepatitis from the overdose. It’s not the only incident of the sort in the book, which also follows Belfer’s trail to New York, Toronto, Belgium, Seattle, Los Angeles, and other places as he tries to gain something of a foothold as a professional musician.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, are the accounts of betrayal and deceit that aren’t drug-related. As he tells it, Belfer was denied songwriting credits and other official contributions to which he was rightfully entitled. That of course also led to him being financially ripped off a number of times, even if on some occasions the total money involved was probably modest, most of his projects being pretty underground in nature. Although he relapsed into drug abuse and sometimes lapsed into poverty and homelessness, Belfer tells his story with wry (at times gallows) humor and a lack of self-pity. Fast-moving and episodic, it’s a quick read that doesn’t waste words, enhanced by numerous vintage photos, posters, and graphics. Too bad the reprint of a lengthy Sleepers interview in Search & Destroy is reproduced in such tiny print that it’s nearly impossible to read, though. My story on the book, based on a recent interview with Belfer, can be read here.

2. Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer, by Bob Gruen (Abrams). A top rock music photographer since the 1970s, Gruen’s issued several books of his pictures. This is different from those; although there are plenty of photos, most of it’s devoted to autobiographical text. He snapped an astonishing range of musicians over the last half century, and this concentrates on his life and work through the early 1980s, though there’s a little on what he did since then. Although it’s told in a rather matter-of-fact style, there are plenty of stories, most fairly to very interesting, of working with his clients. Those included the most famous of the famous, like John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, but also quite a few underground or at least alternative artists. As he was based in New York, he got to see and shoot lots of the city’s early punk and new wave acts as they were getting off the ground, and not just the ones that became pretty successful, like Blondie. He also interacted extensively with the New York Dolls and some bands that never even got too big an audience on the underground level, like Suicide.

Apparently Gruen was about as interested in working with superstars as underground acts, and took it in stride to shoot the likes of the Clash and the Sex Pistols one week, and Elton John and KISS another. Aside from the sheer variety of artists he captured on film, it’s striking how relatively easy access seemed decades ago – not just for photo sessions, but also hanging out with the musicians on tour, in the studio, and in other non-professional situations. It’s also kind of amazing how, in his accounts, coincidence seemed to open up a lot of opportunities for him, whether it was running into some of the people he wanted to photograph at airports and venues, or happening to be around when there were chances to tour or find outlets for his work. Working at close quarters with his subjects sometimes gave him insights into their lifestyles, not all flattering, that would seem more heavily guarded in the next century – his tales of Ike Turner’s operations and drug use stand out in that regard.

3. View from the Bottom: 50 Years of Bass Playing with Bob Dylan, The Doors, Miles Davis and Everybody Else, by Harvey Brooks with Frank Beacham and Bonnie Brooks (Tangible Press). Harvey Brooks played bass with lots of people, the most illustrious of whom are namechecked in this memoir’s subtitle. Some of the others include the Electric Flag (of whom he was a full-time member, not just a session man), Jim & Jean, Richie Havens, Cass Elliot, Karen Dalton, and John Sebastian. The book’s a pretty breezy, straightforward read, divided into short chapters that are more or less (though not strictly) chronologically ordered. Some of this is rather matter-of-fact, but some of the stories are juicier and more insightful. His accounts of very notable sessions with Dylan (for Highway 61 Revisited; he also played a couple early electric Dylan concerts in 1965) and Davis (for Bitches Brew) leave the impression those guys operated by intuition rather than instruction, though Brooks was fine with going with the flow and the stars were pleased with the results. The Doors weren’t as pleasant, since he remembers business and personal disputes causing a lot of tension within the group (mostly between Jim Morrison and the others), though he still cites “Touch Me” as one of the favorite bass lines he played.

There isn’t too much in the way of surprising info, but there’s some, like his memory of getting a deal for Jimi Hendrix with Verve Folkways before Jimi signed with Chas Chandler—something not reported in standard Hendrix histories. While tales of drugs and excess aren’t as prevalent here as they are in many a memoir, they’re certainly present—Brooks didn’t indulge as much as many of his colleagues did, but he puts the Electric Flag’s demise down to drugs for the most part. Disappointment on the business end is here too, most interestingly in Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s decision to cut him loose after rehearsing with him shortly before they formed, Stills wanting to dictate what Brooks played.

I was still hoping for some more in the way of truly nitty gritty detail. For instance, he remembers writing Jim & Jean’s “One Sure Thing” with Jean Ray for the duo’s underrated Changes album shortly after Joni Mitchell opened for them at a Detroit club where Neil Young was en route to Los Angeles and Buffalo Springfield, but doesn’t offer any more details of note. The book’s worth the few hours it’ll take for rock nerds (especially ’60s fans) to digest it, though it’s too specialized a corner of that era for more general listeners. It’s too bad this has some of the chronological inaccuracies found in too many rock books, like John and Beverly Martyn’s Stormbringer album being recorded around late 1965, about four years before that actually happened.

4. John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, by John Lennon & Yoko Ono with contributions from the people who were there (Weldon Owen). Like 2019’s Imagine John Yoko, this is a well-designed coffee table book celebrating an album, this being John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, though Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band (also issued in 1970) is also discussed. The focus isn’t so much on the album itself as what John and Yoko were up to in general in 1970, and in the second half of 1969, when the Plastic Ono Band concept came into being with the “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey” singles. There are plenty of interesting graphics from the era, some not often seen, including handwritten lyrics, vintage advertisements, and Klaus Voormann drawings of scenes from the Plastic Ono Band sessions, as well as many photos.

The text is largely devoted to excerpts from interviews Lennon and Ono gave, which range from extremely interesting to rambling philosophical discourses that wouldn’t be of note had they been uttered by someone else. They do discuss their songwriting and recordings at points, and interviews with musicians who played with Lennon during this period (Voormann, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston) and others who were associated with his work and life (including Primal Scream therapist Arthur Janov) fill out the picture. There actually isn’t too much to learn here if you’re very familiar with Lennon’s life at the time and his Plastic Ono Band album, but it’s a nice-looking supplement to the period.

5. Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, by Graeme Thomson (Omnibus Press). As I noted when I reviewed a reprint of a previous John Martyn biography (Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story) on my previous best-of list, I’m not the biggest fan of this folk-rock-jazz guitarist. His connection to big British folk-rock names like Nick Drake and producer Joe Boyd makes me interested in his general story, which this book covers fairly thoroughly. I don’t care too much at times for the author’s style, which can get kind of unnecessarily ornamental. But he did speak with quite a few close associates of Martyn’s, including Boyd, first wife Beverley, Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, and sideman Danny Thompson. All of Martyn’s recordings from the 1960s and 1970s are discussed, and his post-‘70s work is rightfully assessed as relatively unimportant and unimpressive.

It won’t come as a surprise to those who’ve read about Martyn before that his personal life was tumultuous, and his behavior often offensive. This is never justified by someone’s artistic talents, and there’s a sizable list of things he did that were objectionable, most prominently his abuse of Beverley Martyn. There was also alcoholism and assorted violent incidents, as well as generally erratic behavior that most people would find hard to be around, but some associates put up with in exchange for the opportunity to play or be around his music. His final years, where his excesses caught up with him and resulted in serious health problems (including an amputated leg and obesity), are covered but not dwelled upon, the bulk of the book getting devoted to his prime output.

6. The Folk Singers and the Bureau, by Aaron J. Leonard (Repeater). The subtitle’s long, but goes a long way toward explaining the thrust of this book: “The FBI, The Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA—1939-1956.” During this period, the FBI and other government authorities targeted many in the US who were perceived to be a threat because of their affiliations with the Community Party. Hollywood movie figures get the most attention in historical overviews, but some musicians, especially folk ones, were victimized too. This looks at how several key figures in the early folk revival were trailed by the FBI and often called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Among them were Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Paul Robeson, Oscar Brand, and Alan Lomax.

This kind of subject is often treated in a dry academic fashion in book form. This might not excite folk fans as much as, say, reading books on the aforementioned notables (and there are books on almost all of them). But Leonard tells the story in an accessible manner that’s plainly stated and fairly easy to follow – rarer in such projects than one might think. He accessed a lot of FBI files, some of which had to his knowledge never been previously written about or referred to before this book. It is striking the degree to which branches of the government found these folkies’ doings a possible subversive threat, and also how incompetent they often were in documenting them.

The author contends that these folkies had stronger ties to the party than were often acknowledged, either by themselves or historians. He also supplies a lot of contextual information about the general anti-Communist climate of the era that isn’t strictly music-related, but of use and interest for understanding why this harassment took place. Instances in which artists cooperated to at least some degree with the investigations are detailed, particularly those of White and Burl Ives. So are the dubious dealings of Harvey Matusow, an informer whose unreliable accounts helped damage the careers of numerous Communists or supposed Communists. Leonard doesn’t accept the views of some historians and takes a nuanced approach, with informed speculation, of the extent to which these folkies acknowledged their leftist associations and tried to avoid prosecution without compromising their beliefs or causing problems for others in the folk community.

7. Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest, by Ian Zack (Beacon Press). Odetta was a major figure of the folk revival; unusual in that scene as she was an African-American who was not, for the most part, a blues artist; and influenced many musicians who went on to become more famous, including Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Somehow, however, this biography is blander than expected. It’s not especially through flaws in the writing, as it’s thoroughly researched by an author who wrote a good book on Reverend Gary Davis. Odetta’s life just didn’t seem overly dramatic, and she wasn’t the most loquacious interview subject, at least as she’s quoted here. This follows her life from her humble upbringing (largely in Los Angeles) and rise through the folk world in the 1950s and first half of the 1960s, which saw her become manager Albert Grossman’s first notable client. Her activism and involvement in the civil rights movement is noted, though it wasn’t as extensive as those of some other figures.

Her recordings are also detailed, with some (though not a great deal) of comments from musicians and others with whom she worked. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that before recording one of the first albums devoted solely to Dylan covers (1965’s Odetta Sings Dylan), she had suggested an album of songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie; Dylan also visited the sessions, though she told him to leave after she corrected some words from the demos from which she learned the songs. It’s also reported that Paul Simon offered her the chance to record “The Sound of Silence” before the Simon & Garfunkel original was reworked for their first big hit, though she turned it down. As expected, the coverage of her life and work after the folk revival waned following the mid-1960s is much less in depth than what’s given to her previous years, though her comeback with blues albums late in life is detailed.

8. Cuba Music and Revolution: Original Album Cover Art of Cuban Music, compiled by Gilles Peterson & Stuart Baker (Soul Jazz). Like numerous other Soul Jazz books, this is a coffee table volume largely devoted to reproductions of album covers. There’s also some text explaining the basic history of and developments in Cuban popular music from the 1950s to the early 1990s, the period covered by this work. Largely unknown outside of Cuba (though there were occasional acts that were exceptions, particularly Irakere), these sounds were enclosed in LPs with interesting and wildly varying artwork. Some of them recall private or vanity pressings in more affluent countries in their homemade feel and snapshot photos, though they’re usually more artfully and colorfully done. Some have accomplished modern designs that are on par with those on noted North American and European modern jazz labels. A few have images explicitly reflecting the socialist ambitions of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, though most of them aren’t political in nature.

This is something more to browse through via a library copy rather than buy if you’re not a Cuban music specialist or vinyl graphics aficionado. But certainly the sizable audience for quality volumes of LP reproductions will like this, no matter what their tastes. Most of the sleeves get full-page reproductions, and more than a hundred others get smaller ones in a final section of this 256-page book.

9. Shut Up You Animals!!!: The Pope Is Dead: A Rememberance of Dirk Dirksen: The History of the Mabuhay Gardens, by Dirk Dirksen, edited by Ron Turner and James Stark (Last Gasp). Yes, I know “rememberance” is spelled “remembrance”; that’s how the word’s spelled in the title. More about typo problems later. First, you want to know what the book’s about, not about the kind of things that English majors notice. Dirksen was the main promoter/emcee behind the Mabuhay Gardens, which from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s was San Francisco’s most famed venue for punk, new wave, and other alternative music and performance. Although he gets a byline, actually he only wrote a short introductory chapter, dying in 2006, long before this volume was published in 2020. It’s more a scrapbook than a biography (or certainly than an autobiography), the text largely given over to short memories (or should that be “rememberances”) of Dirksen from several dozen musicians and scenemakers who interacted with him, as well as a few interviews. Almost as much space is given to vintage graphics, especially posters of Mabuhay shows.

Testimonies emphasize that although Dirksen had (and seemed to cultivate) an image of a hardnosed crank who delighted in insulting performers and audiences, underneath it was a heart of gold that could be generous and thoughtful. Similar points are made often enough that they can become redundant. Most of the brief oral histories have a different colorful tale or more to illustrate the points, whether it’s Dirksen breaking his nose in fights with obnoxious parts of the audience or how he gave breaks to all sorts of performers who didn’t have much promise on the surface. The unglamorous side of early punk is discussed as much as the exciting one, and Dirksen seemed to get more fun than profit out of the enterprise, almost as though he saw himself as being as much of a creative act as the entertainers he booked. The text is rambling and erratic enough that if it wasn’t augmented by numerous poster repros, as well as a day-by-day list of everyone who performed there from December 1976 to June 1982 (though the club kept operating for a few more years), it wouldn’t have made this list.

Now for more about typos. There are an extraordinary number of them in this book, so much so it seems like some of the chapters were just pasted into the layout without anyone having looked at them, let alone done any copyediting or proofreading. The mistakes are hardly all things only fussy reviewers would notice, even leaving aside the misspelling of a word in the book’s title. “Punk rock” is spelled “ptink rock” at one point, as if the text was scanned by an optical reader and never actually read by a real person. That’s in a chapter that is printed twice, one nearly complete version immediately preceding the complete one. This kind of sloppiness isn’t “punk.” It’s being rude to the reader.

Top Twenty (Or So) Music History Documentaries of 2021

Last year in this space, I wondered if there might be a slowdown in music history documentaries, considering the more limited access to many of the resources needed to produce them. Although there were still limitations on what we could do in all areas of life in 2021, these don’t seem to have affected either the quality or quantity of such docs. In some ways, the genre seemed healthier and to carry more weight than ever. Three of the top four films on this list—Get BackSummer of Soul, and The Velvet Underground—were not only major achievements and popular movies, but also received a wealth of acclaim from the mainstream media and many viewers who weren’t even too familiar with the subject matter. A good number of the others got pretty big audiences and many positive reviews, if not quite as many as the aforementioned movies.

My choice for #1 music documentary of 2021.

This doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for documentaries on more niche subjects, even if the upper part of my list probably doesn’t have many surprises. There were films on esoteric non-rock styles, like free jazz and experimental women composers, that were interesting even if those aren’t the kinds of sounds you usually listen to. Others spotlighted performers you would never have suspected to get the full documentary treatment just a few years ago, whether on the cult side (Poly Styrene, Lydia Lunch, Eric Andersen) or hitmakers who’ve long fallen out of fashion (Trini Lopez). And there were worthy efforts on non-musicians who’ve made an impact on the scene (Ben Fong-Torres), as well as ones focusing on record labels and radio stations.

No, I didn’t see everything that might have been considered for this list. I never do, and who does? There is, for instance, a new one on Dionne Warwick that has not yet been too accessible. Ones I like that I catch up on in 2022 will be a supplement to my list next year, as a few from 2020 that I didn’t see until this year are to this list.

1. The Beatles: Get Back. No documentary—possibly any documentary, let alone a music documentary—got as much attention this year as Peter Jackson’s eight-hour, three-part series dedicated to the January 1969 sessions that produced the Beatles’ Let It Be movie and the bulk of their Let It Be album. He took more than 60 hours of film—little of which was used in the original Let It Be movie—and condensed it into a day-by-day look at what the Beatles were doing during that crucial month. The coverage, and acclaim, it received were deserved, if as much for the vast historical importance of the footage as what Jackson did with it. There is no other music documentary that gives us such a detailed look at the creation of a project, in this case a celebrated and sometimes infamous one by the world’s greatest group.

To get a little snobbish, though Jackson can’t be faulted for this, it isn’t as revelatory or now-known-for-the-first-time as some reviews believe it is. Virtually all of the music and much of the dialogue have been heard for many years on about 100 hours of bootlegs that were largely taken from the sound recorded on the original filmmakers’ equipment. Much of the dialogue, including some of the most crucial passages, was printed way back in 1970 in the book that came with the original UK edition of the Let It Be LP. Most of the music and dialogue was effectively summarized and analyzed more than twenty years ago in Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt’s book Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be Disaster. I did my own part to disseminate some descriptive analysis of these sessions in my 2006 book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film. (Plug: Still available as a revised/updated/expanded ebook, with about 50,000 more words than the print edition.) Viewers, however, can’t be faulted for greeting much of this as new information, since only a relatively small percentage of Beatles and general rock fans have waded (as I have, I admit) through all of those 100 hours.

This is different and in some ways superior to these previous documents, however, and not just because it’s naturally going to be more entertaining and impressive with accompanying visuals (which are in excellent quality, and notably superior in clarity and color to the original Let It Be film). Numerous images without speech (especially facial expressions) convey some emotions that don’t transmit with mere transcription or audio-only recordings, like when Paul McCartney seems to nearly choke up into tears when it seems like John Lennon might not be coming into rehearsal after George Harrison quits about a week into the sessions. (John does make it, Paul getting called to take his phone call just as it seems like McCartney might break down). John, Paul, and Ringo Starr seem to have a let’s-stick-through-this-together bro-hug of sorts shortly after George (temporarily) quits.

Although dialogue sans visuals gives the impression Lennon callously thinks Harrison can be replaced by Eric Clapton after George walks out, an audio-only conversation between John and Paul secretly recorded by a hidden microphone tells a different story, with both obviously urgently concerned to get George back in the band. When George returns when sessions resume at Apple Studios, the way he and the others are joshing around make it obvious no serious grudges are being held. When Billy Preston joins in shortly after the filming moves to Apple, the whole band’s relief and joy at the lift he gives the sessions (the exact word “lift” is used by one of the Beatles) is palpable.

Jackson also effectively zeroes in on highlights of the numerous multiple versions of songs from rehearsals, especially bits that notably vary from the familiar versions, like a cha-cha pass through “The Long and Winding Road” and the numerous funny accents used on different takes of “Two of Us.” Subtitles tell us what the many brief snippets of unreleased songs they perform are, even if it’s just a line or two (or even a word or two), including not only some way-obscure covers, but also early Lennon-McCartney compositions and jams that only seem to have been officially titled with the making of this film. Subtitles also quickly identify the many associates and friends who are seen at points, from engineer/producer Glyn Johns to Paul’s brother Mike and Apple doorman Jimmy Clark (who has a more extensive and colorful role during the rooftop concert sequence than you might guess).

Much of the media spin on the Get Back film has been that the Beatles weren’t fighting as much or having as miserable a time during these sessions as most biographies have usually contended. It’s also been pointed out that many, maybe even most, bands have these kind of arguments and ups and downs in the course of extensive rehearsal and recording. That seems to be generally borne out by the film, but it’s not like this month wasn’t without its significant problems and tensions. One of the members—of a band in which each guy was crucially important—quitting less than ten days into the sessions was a major, even grave problem, although it was basically solved within another ten days. Some of the words, exchanged glances, and expressions make it apparent at various points that each of the Beatles have some differences of opinion that might not be fully expressed.

On the brighter side, Ringo–largely silent throughout the proceedings—has a “to the rescue” moment when he quietly but firmly lets it be known he wants to play on the roof, at a point where some of his bandmates seem undecided. When they finally do make it to the roof (for a concert that’s shown in full, if sometimes in split screen and with bits of dialogue from the crowd on the street and police), it’s exhilarating to see the laborious and sometimes fraught weeks of rehearsal paying off with an excellent live show, even if you’ve already seen much of it in the Let It Be film. The original Let It Be movie, incidentally, is not made redundant by this film—most Let It Be’s scenes are not repeated in Get Back, whether complete performances of songs like “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be,” or their highly amusing tongue-in cheek cover of “Besame Mucho.”

It’s a tough call as to whether this or Summer of Soul (reviewed below) is the best music documentary of 2021. Summer of Soul is definitely more enjoyable and (owing to its much shorter two-hour length) accessible, and also of vast historical importance. Even some major Beatles fans might find the eight-hour length of Get Back to drag at times, especially when they’re continuing to rehearse some of the songs they’ve already worked out. But these sessions were of such historical importance, and documented in such unprecedented depth here, that I’m giving this the top slot, without any slight intended toward Summer of Soul.

You want some mild criticisms? Here are a couple. The last day of the sessions (January 31, the day after the rooftop concert) could have been represented more fully; scenes from these are shown in part of the screen while the end credits roll. (To be fair, much material from those sessions is in the Let It Be film.) And some of the very first subtitles read, inaccurately, that Paul was fourteen when he joined the Beatles (he was fifteen) and that George was thirteen (he was fourteen at the youngest, or could have just turned fifteen, when he joined sometime in early 1958). These dates are very well documented by numerous books, and not just known to hardcore obsessive historians. How does such a high-profile and well done project get them wrong?

2. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)In the summer of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival held six days of music in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. The talent at these events was astounding, and much of it was filmed. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has assembled this nearly two-hour documentary around these semi-forgotten concerts, including footage of enough greats to fill up a paragraph. Among the performers are Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, the Chambers Brothers, Abbey Lincoln with Max Roach, Sonny Sharrock, Ray Barretto, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Hugh Masakela, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Herbie Mann, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Clips of all of these onstage are embellished with interviews from event organizers, members of the audience, and a few of the artists, like Wonder, Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, Mavis Staples, and two of the Fifth Dimension. The only drawback is one that might be considered a compliment: the performance excerpts are pretty short, and one wishes there were more, and at least some complete songs, even if that would have meant greatly expanding the film’s length. The cuts between artists and clips can be pretty fast, though there wasn’t much alternative to fit everything into two hours.

When I saw this through online virtual cinema streaming, there was an additional forty-minute interview with Questlove. Among his interesting observations were that there were more than forty hours of footage to draw from, although these weren’t totally unscreened prior to this film, since specials based around the concerts were aired on New York television. Asked if more of the footage might be made available, he said there would be enough to generate subsequent special editions, which would be valuable for those who want to see quite a bit more. Among the other notable parts of the interview were Questlove’s revelation that the footage might have been thrown out had the documentary gotten underway just a few weeks later, and that he’s working on a Sly & the Family Stone doc.

3. McCartney 3, 2, 1. Even as a huge Beatles fan, I’m not as over the moon over this three-hour, six-episode Hulu series as a few of my friends are. That’s a quick explanation as to why this isn’t #1, but this won’t be a bad news review, since the series is very good. Paul McCartney discusses many aspects of his music and his career with producer Rick Rubin, who’s wise enough to let Paul do most of the talking; ask him reasonable questions that often focus on the process of writing, playing, and performing music; and do so, unlike a good many media figures, in an understated fashion that’s not overly sensationalistic or sycophantic. Shot in moody black and white in a studio, the pair often isolate specific parts of Beatles (and a few post-Beatles) tracks as they discuss tunes, a big boon both for musicians/producers/engineers and general big fans. While they go over a few of his most famous early-‘70s solos songs (and a bit that postdate those), the emphasis is almost wholly on the Beatles, which McCartney seems fine with.

It’s true that many of these stories will be familiar if you’ve seen other documentaries and read a lot about the Beatles. Some of them will be familiar even if you haven’t experienced too many of those. But it’s always fun, and interesting, to hear Paul voice them with his usual ingratiating enthusiasm and knack for engaging storytelling. Some of the tales aren’t so oft-told. Just a couple of my favorites include how Phil Spector wondered why the Beatles bothered to put good songs on B-sides, since he never did; their response was that as record buyers themselves, they wanted to provide maximum value and not make listeners feel like they were cheated. The Moog synthesizer on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” in Paul’s telling, was used in part because Robert Moog himself happened to be working with one in Abbey Road. Beatles experts will spot some stories he doesn’t remember accurately, such as recalling how John Lennon praised “Here, There, and Everywhere” when they played back the album it was on while in Austria to film Help!; that album, Revolver, wasn’t recorded until the following year. If you know enough to catch that, you’ll catch some others. But you likely won’t be bothered by occasional clinkers like that in what’s overall a highly entertaining and often insightful series.

4. The Velvet UndergroundAs a disclaimer, I am listed in the “thanks to” part of the credits for this Todd Haynes documentary, though my involvement was just a long phone call with a co-producer, and several follow-up emails with notes that might have been considered helpful. I’m also particularly close to the subject of this film, as one of my books, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, covers the group’s career in detail.

In about two hours minutes, this does colorfully convey many of the essential facets of this legendary band’s significance. There’s barely any surviving footage of the group and, sadly, no quality footage with sound from live performance. But Haynes did as much as possible with the source material, with plenty of photos (some rare); some scraps of film footage that to my knowledge have never been previously available, such as black-and-white (if silent) images of the Doug Yule lineup; and even a few bits of unreleased 1965 demos. There weren’t tons of interviewees, in part because some members and numerous associates are no longer around. Yet there are good memories from John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and others in the VU circle like Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed’s sister, guys from Reed’s pre-VU groups, Jackson Browne (who played and recorded with Nico around the time of her first album), and Sterling Morrison’s wife. Reed, Nico, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, and some others who weren’t interviewed are represented by spoken excerpts from tapes. And the entire 1965-70 period is covered (along with much pre-VU history), though it’s weighted toward the Andy Warhol era.

Even with two hours, it’s not possible to cover all or even most of the Velvet Underground’s interesting accomplishments. Still, there are some shortcomings to this documentary that should be noted. Original drummer Angus MacLise is just mentioned a couple times in passing. Billy Yule, drummer for a couple months in summer 1970, isn’t mentioned at all. Neither is the live Max’s Kansas City album he drums on, or for that matter the VU’s fantastic 1969 double live LP. The Doug Yule era, which saw some of their greatest performances (including those on 1969 Velvet Underground Live) and their great third LP and not-as-great 1970 album Loaded, is represented, but given far less space than the Cale lineups. The band’s birth is overcontextualized as part of the overall New York avant-garde arts scene, with quite a few minutes devoted to activities in that world that weren’t directly VU-related. A good deal of stock footage of ‘60s scenes and images not at all directly VU-related is used, at times trying too hard to keep a fast pace and fill up time and the screen.

It must also be pointed out that some chronology is juggled. Whether some events were sequenced out of order because it was felt to work better cinematically, I can’t say. However, if you were from Mars and didn’t know anything about the Velvet Underground before seeing this film, you might think the first LP was released before they played the Dom at St. Mark’s Place (though the album came out almost a year afterward); that Nico left the band after, not before, White Light/White Heat; and that Sterling Morrison left the band before Lou Reed did. Maybe there aren’t many people who care about such things. But it would have taken only some minor resequencing, and maybe a couple more minutes of running time, to put things right without diluting the quality of the viewing experience.

The preceding two paragraphs of criticisms might create the impression that the film isn’t worth seeing, particularly if you’re particular about VU details. That’s not the case. It’s entertaining and vividly illustrates some key aspects of the group’s enormous significance. You’d need a few more hours to tell the story with the thoroughness it deserves, and that’s not possible for a theatrical release, with a PBS multi-episode series probably even less likely. And for all those other details and more pinpoint accuracy, there are books that tell that story—mine, for instance, but others as well, lest this review seem like an infomercial.

5. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. The title, as well as some of the approach, of this eight-episode, approximately six-hour Apple TV Plus series might overstate the impact of the rock and soul music of 1971. There were a number of years where music had a big impact, some with a bigger impact, like 1964, 1967, and 1956. But there was a lot of interesting music being made in 1971; a lot of turbulence in the surrounding world; and a fair amount of interaction between those two camps.

This series covers a lot of it, from superstars like Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones, and the Who to acts who were just emerging (David Bowie) or whose influence was felt more in the innovative quality of their work than record sales (Gil Scott-Heron). There are tons of excerpts, if seldom too extensive, from vintage interviews and performances, and lots from non-musical events of the time, again spanning the famous/infamous (Richard Nixon) to less predictable junctures in African American activism, feminism, and censorship. Refreshingly, there are no talking heads. There are plenty of spoken interviews both vintage and recently done for this project, but these are heard on the soundtrack over period film clips, a la one of the top other recent music documentaries, Laurel Canyon. If this is a trend, here for once is one I can get behind, letting words and action speak for themselves instead of constantly cutting to static close-ups of people talking about what happened.

Sure, you can learn lots more about any of the musicians, albums, and sociocultural developments covered in other books (and sometimes documentaries) than you can here, since this covers so much but doesn’t linger on any one topic for too long. But if you’re okay to go with the flow and just appreciate seeing so many interesting and incisive bites in a binge—and not get agitated about some musicians not mentioned or included, whether Paul McCartney or Nick Drake—there are plenty of unfamiliar clips and interviews. The list could be long, but there aren’t many, if any, other places you’ll, for instance, see Mick Jagger being interviewed in the early 1970s in French or footage of Sly Stone working in a home studio, or hear comments by rarely interviewed Bowie manager Tony Defries. Much of the 1971 music heard on the soundtrack to complement some of the non-performance images is likewise hardly cliched, whether tracks by cult artists like John Martyn and Gong, or deep cuts by the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. 

6. Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. The story of X-Ray Spex singer/songwriter Poly Styrene is interesting beyond her pioneering role in early British punk music. There are some gaps in this documentary; her brief pre-X-Ray Spex career as reggae singer Mari Elliott isn’t mentioned, and there’s not much discussion about how X-Ray Spex formed, their relationship with their record label, and how their discs were recorded. While I would have liked more of that, what’s here does a very good job of conveying the essence of her music and personality. Her daughter, Celeste Bell, provides much of the narration, often drawing upon her own mixed and volatile experiences having Styrene as a mother, without overdoing it. There’s quite a bit of vintage footage, ranging from sharp color to blurry black and white, of Poly in performance. And there are interviews—refreshingly, heard in voiceovers rather than the more standard talking heads—from a wealth of people who knew or were influenced by her, including Paul Dean and Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex; Poly’s sister and ex-husband; and members of numerous early punk and new wave bands like the Selecter and Special AKA.

In an hour and a half, the film covers many facets of her music and life, some of them disturbing. These include her songwriting, and frequent focus upon identity and consumerism (though her daughter notes she was a shopaholic for clothes); the inspiration she provided for other women of color in the punk/new wave scene; and her feeling an outsider owing to her mixed-race ancestry. On the more distressing side, also documented are her mental problems, which resulted in a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia rather than acute bipolar disorder; how X-Ray Spex’s trip to New York and well received gigs at CBGB’s nonetheless spurred some inner turmoil; and her entrance into the Hare Krishna community after X-Ray Spex split. Her return to musicmaking years later, and rapprochement of sorts with her daughter after she was largely raised by others, gets the bulk of attention in the final minutes, though it’s not unduly drawn out.

7. The Who Sell Out: Classic Albums. I’m not sure what the precise title of this is, but you’ll be able to find this documentary on The Who Sell Out album by using these words or some combination of them. Although it only lasts a little less than half an hour, it’s a good overview of this great 1967 record. There’s a good case that it’s their best one, though TommyWho’s Next, and Quadrophenia get more critical reverence and attention. By the time the superdeluxe edition of the record appeared in 2021 in conjunction with this film, lots of people involved with it were gone. But fortunately Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey weren’t, and give good and fairly detailed comments about The Who Sell Out’s conception and individual songs. Townshend notes, with amusement, that composer Speedy Keen pointed out the title of “Armenia in the Sky” was supposed to be “I’m an Ear Sitting in the Sky,” and declares “I Can See for Miles” was the best song he wrote, though his opinion’s been known to change multiple times on such matters.

There’s some period footage of the Who and managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp on and offstage, some seldom or never seen in other documentaries. A few surviving associates and journalists offer remarks, and parts of some tracks are isolated so you can focus on specific members’ contributions (though John Entwistle’s bass isn’t honored with any). My only reservation is that some of the songs aren’t commented upon, including standouts like “I Can’t Reach You” and “Sunrise.” Nor is it explained why the commercials linking the tracks petered out shortly after the beginning of side two of the original LP, though their placement and purpose are discussed. This was made available for free viewing on YouTube when the superdeluxe box of The Who Sell Out was released, though I don’t know if it’ll be up there for good.

8. Tina (HBO). HBO’s Tina Turner documentary is more oriented toward her personal life than her musical career, but doesn’t neglect the music she made on her own or with her ex-husband Ike. Although Turner’s long been retired, she was interviewed recently and fairly extensively for this picture, speaking about life both with and without Ike. It also benefits from a good number of interviews with other close associates, my favorite being Jimmy Thomas, who was in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue a long time. There are also plenty of vintage performance and interview clips (including some with the late Ike Turner) stretching back to the early 1960s, some of them rarely if ever before seen, though mostly pretty brief. It’s a pretty solid overview that doesn’t avoid the tough issues of Ike’s abuse of Tina, but doesn’t dwell unduly on them either. 

As is par for the course for me on many such projects, I wish there had been more about the music. Her influence on Mick Jagger is fleetingly mentioned a couple times, but there aren’t specific details about this or their tours with the Rolling Stones, let alone any footage from those tours (although a sequence of Tina performing on the 1969 tour is in Gimme Shelter). The Turners’ success with soul covers of rock hits like “Proud Mary,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Come Together” isn’t discussed, and even the records from her spectacularly successful solo comeback in the 1980s aren’t covered in much detail, with the exception of the hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The final segments kind of drag in a way common to how many documentaries of legacy figures get less interesting toward the end, though otherwise it’s a worthwhile watch.

9. Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-TorresBest known as a writer and senior editor for Rolling Stone in the late 1960s and 1970s, Ben Fong-Torres has had a long career as a journalist, writing primarily though not exclusively about music. This documentary does focus on his Rolling Stone years, highlighted by audio excerpts from tapes of his interviews with major stars like Jim Morrison, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. Fong-Torres himself is interviewed extensively, as are some Rolling Stone colleagues and musicians. There’s also some interesting material about his background growing up as a Chinese-American in the Bay Area, and the murder of his older brother Barry, an activist in the Chinese-American community. The film conveys how fortunate he was to be on the ground floor of rock journalism when access to stars was considerably greater, and how seat-of-the-pants rock journalism was when Rolling Stone was the first widely circulated national publication to cover the music with seriousness. But it also conveys how Fong-Torres’s personable skills at making his subjects comfortable sharing information was an asset to his writing.

10. Born in ChicagoAlthough this bears a 2020 date, it didn’t premiere in North America until 2021, and I hope it doesn’t bother anyone that I’m putting it in these 2021 listings. This focuses on the 1960s Chicago blues scene, but particularly on how a young generation of white listeners emerged who played blues, sometimes becoming quite famous. Proper attention is paid to how electric blues became a Chicago trademark with the emergence of giants like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in the middle of the twentieth century, but then the young white blues (sometimes blues-rock) guys get the primary attention. 

The basic history laid out by the film and narration (by Dan Aykroyd) doesn’t offer new information for those familiar with the scene. The movie’s main value is found in excerpts of archival footage and, more notably, interviews with many of the principal figures that tell the story in largely interesting and colorful ways. Those interview clips span the mid-1960s to recent times, including comments by Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller, Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, Sam Lay, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, and others. Also heard from are some rock musicians from other regions who have something to say about the movement, like Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Carlos Santana. The point’s made that the music served as a means to bring people of different races and artists together, though Chicago blues had very few white listeners when the 1960s started.

11. Sisters with Transistors: Electronic Music’s Unsung HeroinesIn the twentieth century, numerous women were in the forefront of the development and creative application of electronic music. This documentary focuses on about ten of them, some of whose names might have some familiarity beyond the world of specialists of this field, like Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and Theremin player Clara Rockmore. Some of them have been heard by wide audiences even if their names might not be well known, like Bebe Barron, who with her husband Louis composed the score for Forbidden Planet, and Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the theme for the Doctor Who television series. Others are more apt to be primarily known to followers of the avant-garde, like Maryanne  Amacher and Elaine Radigue. 

Even if, as it is for me, electronic music is not a big interest of yours, this is a pretty interesting film, and certainly well done. A considerable amount of vintage footage was unearthed of the artists in performances, and occasionally talking about their work. There aren’t any talking heads, but voiceover interviews, from both the artists talking about their work and other musicians discussing these figures, are featured, with narration by Laurie Anderson (whose own music isn’t covered in the film itself). Some of the clips are quite entertaining in their own right, like Suzanne Ciani performing live in the mid-1970s with a huge bank of equipment with intersecting wires; Rockmore playing the Theremin; and Amacher filmed in the early 2000s in a home that’s accurately described in voiceover as in frighteningly bad shape. Although the significance and struggle of women establishing themselves in the field isn’t emphasized as much as their actual music, important points about these are made, such as Carlos noting how few women score major Hollywood movies, and Amacher’s feeling that she wanted to do something more original and creative than push around notes by dead white men.

12. Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz. Free jazz has been around since the late 1950s, but it’s the peak of the form—the 1960s, spilling over a little to the 1970s—that’s the focus of this film. Unlike free jazz itself, the format of this documentary is pretty conventional, mixing bits of choice archive footage and photos with interviews (both archival and done specifically for this project) with many of the key performers. That’s fine—although this doesn’t dwell on any one or several figures long enough for some specialists, it covers a lot of ground in satisfying fashion. The musicians represented by footage and/or interviews is pretty long, but includes such key players as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Don Cherry. Plenty of others are seen and heard who might not have as high profiles, like Prince Lasha, Sonny Simmons, Burton Greene, Bobby Bradford, and critic Gary Giddins.  The interviews are occasionally vague and rambling, but for the most part insightful.

As in any such project, you might wish some of the excerpts were longer, as they include some downright entertaining clips like Sun Ra’s band in colorfully gymnastic action; the Art Ensemble of Chicago in their striking onstage makeup; and Gato Barbieri playing outdoors on a rooftop. Although the New York scene understandably dominates the proceedings, to its credit the free jazz communities in Chicago and St. Louis are also covered, as are the pockets of free jazz players that emerged in Europe after US musicians had laid the groundwork. Also explored are the attempts by musicians, with varying success, to create organizations and collectives that gave them more artistic control than the standard music business often allowed, including the loft performances spearheaded by Sam Rivers. Of course this doesn’t cover everyone, and there might be fans that lament the absence of people from Sonny Sharrock to Pharoah Sanders, though some relatively un-famous figures like the percussion group M’Boom do appear. Although it’s not a notable flaw, perhaps a few minutes could have been added discussing the contributions of record labels like Impulse and ESP to documenting free jazz, as well as the ventures of more mainstream companies like Atlantic and Blue Note into the format.

13. The Songpoet. How refreshing for PBS to broadcast a nearly two-hour documentary on a singer-songwriter who’s never sold many records, or even been widely claimed as a huge influential cult artist. His name’s not in the film’s title, but it’s on Eric Andersen, who’s been making folk, folk-rock, and country-rock records since the mid-1960s. As befits his music, this documentary is way lower-key and calmer than most retrospectives of careers by someone not hugely known to the general public. Besides interviews with Andersen and wives/girlfriends, peers of his from the ‘60s New York folk scene like Tom Paxton, John Sebastian, and Happy Traum also pitch in with memories. There’s not much vintage film of Andersen to draw from, but there are a good number of excerpts going back to a CBC mid-‘60s clip of “Thirsty Boots,” as well as lots of photos from the ‘60s to the present. Also noted are Brian Epstein’s plans to manage him before suddenly dying in 1967, and his brief appearances in Andy Warhol films.

While this does cover his whole career, more attention is paid to the ‘60s and early ‘70s than other eras, which is appropriate as that’s when his most popular work was done. “Popular” is relative; he never broke through to a wide audience, and although his most respected album, 1972’s Blue River, is referred to as a big seller, that’s not an accurate way to describe an LP that peaked at #169 in the charts. There could be more about his origins and his music; certainly some periods are barely or undiscussed, though Blue River benefits from stories from producer Norbert Putnam. The mystery of how his follow-up Stages was lost by the record company (and eventually discovered nearly two decades later) is also discussed, with hints that it was deliberately lost because Andersen had

displeased someone or some people at Columbia. This does build Andersen up more than non-cultists might find justified; his singing (which became a hoarse growl in recent years), compositions, and recordings are simply not as distinctive as Bob Dylan’s or Leonard Cohen’s, to name a couple high bars to match.

There’s a horrifying story in here, incidentally, and not one that reflects badly on Andersen, but on the ‘60s folk scene as a whole. He remembers playing the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1967, where noted folklorist Kenny Goldstein announced Epstein’s death and declared he was happy the Beatles’ manager was dead, as the Beatles were bad for the folk scene. Not only that, according to Andersen, much of the crowd agreed with him. That’s way worse than purists yelling about folkies going electric. That might have been rude and wrong-headed, but they weren’t cheering a young man’s death. In his typically laconic and mild-mannered way, Andersen notes the incident led him to distance himself from that folk scene.

14. My Name Is LopezTrini Lopez is not a name that gets dropped by many hipsters these days, though he sold an enormous amount of records between 1963 and 1965. While not many would claim his sort of go-go fusion of rock, folk, Latin, and pop as markedly significant, he made some moderately enjoyable music and was truly significant as a Latino star in an era when there were few. Even if your interest in Lopez is moderate, as mine is, this documentary is worth seeing, as it’s very well done. Excerpts (admittedly very brief) from dozens of filmed performances in the (mostly) 1960s and 1970s are blended with extensive recent first-hand interviews with Lopez. While there’s a lot of footage of a recent modest-scaled concert, this has more purpose than most such things do in documentaries, since an historical Q&A Lopez did live on stage at the event is intelligently excerpted. For what it’s worth he’s in decent voice in that show, which has some added poignancy as Trini died of COVID-19 not long afterward, in 2020.

This isn’t just the story of his hit records, as Lopez recalls his family’s struggles growing up in Dallas, and the prejudice he suffered as a Latino entering the music scene. His climb to stardom included interesting interactions with Buddy Holly, Holly producer Norman Petty, the Crickets, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles, whom he shared a bill with in Paris for a few weeks in January 1964. (He confesses he told an interviewer at the time that he didn’t think the Beatles would make it in the US, as the country already had a great rock group in the Beach Boys.) There are also unlikely snippets of duets with the likes of Vikki Carr; just a few comments from peers and associates like Dionne Warwick and Tony Orlando; and some coverage of his short acting career, which could have been bigger had he not left The Dirty Dozen when the production of that movie went beyond schedule. There’s nothing on his post-1970s activities save that recent concert, which is okay, as too many documentaries extend their coverage beyond the period in which an artist is truly of interest.

15. Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away. This American Masters PBS special on the blues great, like many episodes in the series, won’t tell you everything, or even a great deal, about the ins and outs of Guy’s career. There’s a book, Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, and various liner notes for that. Which doesn’t mean this documentary isn’t without value, though there’s a lot it doesn’t cover about his recording career in particular. Its best feature is Guy himself, who talks extensively about his life in segments filmed pretty recently, when he was 84. These are interspersed with a very few vintage interview snippets, some choice (if too short) performance clips going back to the 1960s, and a few interviews with peers, associates, and acolytes, including Eric Clapton.

The perseverance he needed to get a foothold in the Chicago blues scene after moving there from Louisiana when he was a young man is covered in interesting detail. So is, with less detail but interesting memories, his mixed if overall positive experiences recording and touring with another blues great, singer and harmonica player Junior Wells. There is too much exposition on what the blues means by some of the interviewees, like John Mayer and Kingfish. I would have preferred more space for performance clips; sometimes it’s felt, here and in some other documentaries, like the producers are afraid viewers will switch channels if the excerpts last more than twenty seconds or so. Guy comes across as a humble but determined man, grateful for his eventual wide recognition but confident of the his talents, on vocals and guitar, that took quite a while to make a broad impact.

16. Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never OverDirected by veteran underground/experimental filmmaker Beth B, this is a full-length documentary on the no wave musician/spoken word-performance artist that’s more straightforward than many of Beth B’s other movies (some of which have featured Lunch) and Lunch’s own projects. Lunch speaks extensively about her life and career in recent interviews, with a lot of performance footage going back to Teenage Jesus & the Jerks through shows from just a few years ago with Retrovirus. A few other people chip in with comments, like Thurston Moore and members of a few of her many bands, but Lunch is the main voice. Her pretty straightahead, if occasionally profane, and calm commentary contrasts, though not negatively, with the usually confrontational and explosive nature of the performance clips. Those include bits of 8-Eyed Spy and her work with Roland Howard, in addition to the bands previously mentioned.

As expected, Lunch speaks candidly about sex (including some early family abuse), power dynamics in relationships, and her urges to shock and oppose what’s expected of music and art in both the mainstream and underground. There’s more humor than you might expect from her standard public image, as when she observes that she and Nick Cave had nothing in common, but she and Rowland Howard (who was in the Birthday Party with Cave) had everything in common. There’s also some humor from the other interviewees, including Jim Sclavunos’s account of being deflowered by Lunch as a prerequisite of being allowed to join Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It’s not the place to go if you want an easily digested linear overview of what she’s done; it jumps around chronologically, with too much attention and space given to Retrovirus, though the concluding segment with them is easily the best of the recent performance clips. It’s rather on the short side at 77 minutes, and if you wish it were longer, the companion oral history book (also titled Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, reviewed in my best-of list for 2020) has way more detail, including quotes from many figures who aren’t in the film.

17. WBCN and the American Revolution. Although the official release date of this documentary was 2019, it doesn’t seem to have been widely seen until it was broadcast on PBS in late 2021. It also seems like the PBS version was substantially lengthened from the original to almost two hours, though it’s hard to know what to believe when you look for info about things like this online. At any rate, I’d rather include something like this that barely anyone seems to have seen before 2021 than leave it out because of its technical initial release date. 

WBCN was the first underground FM radio station in Boston, and one of the most famous such ones in the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Music wasn’t the sole focus of the programming, and isn’t the sole focus of this documentary, which gives at least as much time to its news reporting and the explosive sociopolitical context in which the station operated. But there’s a lot about the music it played, and its alternative news coverage, which dove into plenty of important and controversial subjects, is also worth knowing about. The very well, if conventionally, done film is heavy on talking heads from the period, including many of the station’s DJs and employees, as well as its founder Ray Riepen, also a key figure in the establishment of the city’s leading rock club, the Boston Tea Party. There are excerpts of WBCN interviews and radio broadcasts with Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Jane Fonda. And a couple of the talking heads who pop up are unexpected inclusions for documentaries like this: Noam Chomsky and (if very briefly) colorful Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee. A companion book was published in late 2021.

18. Mr A. & Mr M.: The Story of A&M RecordsMr A. was Herb Alpert and Mr. M Jerry Moss, who founded A&M Records in the early 1960s and ran the label for the next thirty years. This two-part, nearly two-hour documentary debuted on Epix near the end of the year, and covers the history with extensive interviews with the pair, as well as lots of archive footage of the company’s biggest stars. There’s some overlap—not in actual scenes, but in subjects covered—with the 2020 documentary on Alpert himself, Herb Alpert Is…. Understandably there’s plenty of attention paid to Alpert’s early records, which were crucial to launching the company. Otherwise the emphasis is very much on a handful of A&M’s biggest acts from the 1960s through the 1990s: Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, the Police, Suzanne Vega, Styx, Sergio Mendes, Janet Jackson, Peter Frampton, Carole King, and Supertramp. Not many listeners will be big fans of all of these big sellers from disparate styles, but that’s the kind of diversity that’s needed to become a power in the record business, and A&M didn’t have as much of a stylistic identity as other big indies like Motown, Stax, Elektra, or Atlantic.

The points are repeatedly made—too often, really—that A&M was an artist-friendly label and a great place to work, certainly at least for Alpert and Moss. Some of these could have been dropped or reduced for room on some of the more interesting cult artists or even commercial failures who recorded for the label, especially in its early days, like Phil Ochs, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Steve Young, and (very briefly) Captain Beefheart. A&M’s shrewd moves in picking up American rights for important late-‘60s British acts like Procol Harum, Fairport Convention, and the Strawbs are noted, but not detailed in depth. Some of their notable mid-sized acts who had some hits are barely present, like Chris Montez. Any big company must have had some interesting tensions accompanying pivotal decisions that could have worked both for and against the success and quality of its product, but these aren’t much of the story here, though the bittersweet fallout from its sale to PolyGram in the ‘90s is discussed. The result is a passable but rather bland overview of an important record company.

19. In Their Own Words: Chuck BerryThis nearly hour-long episode in the PBS series is kind of like a condensed version of 2020’s fuller-length documentary Chuck Berry, without the schlocky re-enactments that weakened that release. That means this shorter overview is actually superior, though neither one goes into the kind of depth a major pillar of rock like Berry deserves. There are exciting, but frustratingly very brief, archive clips of him in performance throughout his career, as well as some bits of interviews he gave for cameras. Family members (including his longtime wife) chip in with memories, as do Marshall Chess and Keith Richards, as well as some more peripheral figures. As for specifics about most of his many hits and classic compositions, well, you’ll have to do the more time-consuming but rewarding work of going through biographies, rock histories, and liner notes. This has some of the basics of his importance and creativity as a guitarist and songwriter, as well as hitting some key incidents of his career, including the jail stints that derailed him at several points.

The following documentaries came out in 2020, but I did not see them until 2021:

1. Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (Kino Lorber). Jimmy Carter, it’s fair to say, had a greater passion for music, and better musical taste, than most presidents of our lifetime. This well done documentary examines those, with recent interviews with Carter, who remains well spoken and lucid well into his nineties. His admiration for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and the Allman Brothers is the most noted aspect of his pantheon, and Dylan, Nelson, and the late Gregg Allman are also interviewed. Not everyone Carter liked and engaged in his campaigns and causes was as critically esteemed; Jimmy Buffett and Garth Brooks are also heard from. It’s also true that he didn’t champion (if he was aware of them) edgier acts like Neil Young, Patti Smith, or Sun Ra. But he overall gravitated toward big names of good quality, and not just rock musicians (or even exclusively liberal musicians), as his fandom of several musicians who played at his rallies or government functions are also covered. Those included Dizzy Gillespie, Loretta Lynn, and Charlie Daniels, as a few examples.

It’s not always remembered that some of these musicians played a crucial role in raising funds for Carter’s presidential campaigns, especially the Allman Brothers, but also others. It’s certainly not often remembered that Carter actually sang, or more accurately chanted, the brief title lyrics to Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” at one event, as seen in a clip here. And it’s not often revealed, as Willie Nelson does in an interview, that Nelson smoked pot with one of Carter’s sons in the White House. The film is stretched a bit to feature length with some general coverage of Carter’s political accomplishments and struggles, with some comments by non-musical figures like Madeleine Albright, Andrew Young, and Carter’s son Chip. But the focus is mostly on the musical connections, and overall it’s a calmer and more even-handed assessment of the subject matter than the slightly hype-ridden approach many films bring to such topics. Also seen in vintage Carter-related performances and/or interviews are Paul Simon, Nile Rodgers, and Rosanne Cash.

2. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO). This was among the most popular documentaries of 2020, but without HBO or a safe convenient way to watch it with others, I didn’t see this until spring 2021. The pluses are the standard ones for fairly lengthy music documentaries on big acts with plentiful resources. There are interviews with all three of the Gibb brothers in the group, though only Barry’s were done specifically for the movie, Robin and Maurice having died some years back. There are clips, if usually pretty short ones, going back to home movies and TV appearances in Australia before their move to London in 1967. Several close associates also speak, including, refreshingly, guitarist Vince Melouney, though it sometimes isn’t mentioned that the Bee Gees were a quintet when they rose to global fame in the late 1960s. Tensions between the brothers (which even led to them briefly splitting in the late 1960s) aren’t glossed over, though they realized then and almost always that they were worth a lot more together than apart.

While their late-‘60s pop hits get a lot of attention, more time’s given to their disco years. To strike a sour note that might annoy some fans, not everyone likes both phases, or certainly equally likes both phases. The late-‘70s were certainly their years of peak commercial success, but it’s my view that their earlier work from the 1960s and early ‘70s was not just better, but so dissimilar to almost be the sound of an entirely different act. Their stylistic transition is discussed at some length, which could make the later sections of interest even to some who aren’t fans of their later music. Or conversely, I suppose, make the earlier sections of interest even to some who aren’t fans of their earlier music. The film loses momentum after the ‘70s as there isn’t too much to say about their work afterward, though that final section isn’t too long, leaving their earlier years as the movie’s main focus.

3. The Go-Go’s (Universal/Polygram). This hits all the points that should be required of decent, responsible documentaries. There are interviews with all five Go-Go’s from their most famous lineup, as well as the two early members who weren’t on their big hits, and the bassist (Paula Jean Brown) who joined for a while after Jane Wiedlin left. Also heard from are their manager (who got edged out after they became big stars, to the band’s eventual regret), Miles Copeland from IRS Records, and producer Richard Gottehrer. There’s a wealth of vintage footage dating back to their early punk years, though some fans might wish the excerpts were longer, and some live (if sometimes lo-fi) recordings form part of the soundtrack. Their problems are neither ignored nor highlighted at expense of the music, including Charlotte Caffey’s drug addiction, disputes over songwriting royalties, and fractious personnel changes. Wisely, just a few minutes are given at the end of their reunions, with the concentration on their half dozen or so years from their formation through the mid-1980s.

4. Streetlight Harmonies (Gravitas Ventures). Reversing the more common good points-bad points review sequence, let’s start with how some aficionados might pick on this doo-wop documentary. The style has a pretty extensive history, and especially as many of the notable groups only had one or two hits, many of them aren’t mentioned—some of them big ones, like the Diamonds. It jumps back and forth chronologically, and doesn’t present a linear history of how the style originated and developed. There are some excerpts of vintage clips, but they’re very brief, not numerous, and usually presented as crooked inserts in a larger graphic, where full-screen images would have been preferable. The last fifteen-twenty minutes stretch this out with some comments by doo-wop influenced artists from decades after the genre’s heyday, and a recording session from a few years ago in which some of the originals participated.

The good points make it worth viewing, however, mainly the interviews with a couple dozen or so figures. These include members of the Flamingos, Coasters, Crystals, Chantels, Five Satins, Drifters, Beach Boys, Little Anthony, and others, along with some knowledgeable historians and DJ Jerry Blavat. If the journey’s a bit haphazard, numerous topics are touched upon—not just the music itself, but also the difference between African-American and Italian-American groups; the difficulties in getting properly paid; the hardships of touring in the south; and the overlooked influence of doo-wop on surf music, with comments from Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Al Jardine. These stories, and the ingratiating way they’re told by these veterans, are the film’s strengths, though there’s much territory (like record labels and recording sessions) that could have been more thoroughly covered. In many regions, this can be seen for free on with a current library card.

5. Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something. The intensity of the devotion of Chapin’s considerable fan base might only be matched by the distaste many critics have for the singer-songwriter’s long-winded story-songs. Whatever side you’re on, this is a pretty accomplished documentary, and might hold some interest even for those who don’t admire his music. That’s both because he was a significant figure on the 1970s pop scene—certainly as a commercial force, even if he wasn’t to everyone’s liking—and since he did more than almost any other celebrity, let alone popular musician, to work for progressive social issues.

There’s plenty of archive footage going back to his mid-‘60s folk days with siblings in the Chapin Brothers, as well as interviews with relatives, accompanists, Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman, peers like Billy Joel and Pat Benatar, and (though taken from a concert) memories from Bruce Springsteen. The enormous time and energy he spent lobbying politicians and doing benefits for progressive causes are detailed, as is the struggle to combine those with a commercially viable career and family life. The drawn-out concluding part on his death in a car accident and legacy might leave the impression the time couldn’t otherwise be filled with more coverage of his music and records. Even if your interest in Chapin is mild, as mine is, take heart—you don’t have much to lose by checking it out, since it can be viewed for free (with a current library card) in many parts of the US on

6. Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story. Airing on PBS, this short (less than one hour) documentary covers the soul singer known for both his large size and unique phrasing. He used an almost stuttering sort of scat style and elongated buzzing noises, sometimes on popular standards. It’s not just short, but slight, and only gets on this list by virtue of giving some attention to a ‘60s soul vocalist who isn’t too well known, although he had some fairly big hits (with his radical interpretation of “Summertime” reaching the Top Ten). There are excerpts of just a couple vintage clips/interviews, and while there’s some silent color home movie-type footage of Stewart in concert, these short bits are often repeated, as if to cover the absence of other source material. A few people who knew and worked with Billy are interviewed, as are a critic and a musician of a subsequent generation, but they don’t say much of substance. The general point’s made several times that Stewart was unique and distinctive, but there’s surprisingly little specific detail or analysis of why that’s so, though at least it’s pointed out that he was significantly influenced by calypso. 

A couple interesting stories do emerge, though one wonders if they might be somewhat exaggerated. It’s recalled that Stewart wanted songwriting royalties and credit for his version of “Summertime,” though it’s hard to see how that could have been obtained, even if he did a highly original arrangement. It’s also reported that he went to New York to try to get this through direct action, but was given an address that turned out to be composer George Gershwin’s grave. An exchange of gunshots between Stewart and Wilson Pickett on a bus is also reported, and one wonders what kind of argument could have been serious enough to risk death. The documentary’s worth catching if it airs on your PBS outlet, but isn’t nearly as significant as Stewart’s actual discography.