Top Twenty (Or So) Rock Reissues of 2023

As time goes on and gets more and more distant from my favorite period of popular music, the reissues and vault finds get ever more specialized. They also get closer to the margins of what might be considered the core repertoire of major acts, and more and more obscure as far as artists who haven’t gotten much if any mainstream attention.

So it goes with my nearly Top Twenty list, where there are yet more live concerts by big stars (and part of seemingly continuous lines of them by Jimi Hendrix and the Doors); a huge expanded box by the Who (many other such boxes not on this list have been recently released as well); more live and rare early Renaissance than anyone thought was around; and a five-CD Heinz box, the very concept of which would have been unimaginable just a decade or two ago. Overdue career-spanning anthologies still come out, like the one for the Daily Flash, but there aren’t all that many such comps as noteworthy that are left in the wings.

While I don’t get too hung up on numbers and rankings, it was a fairly tough decision as these things play out to choose #1. Had none of the Doors’ March 1967 Matrix tapes ever circulated, that would have been an easy choice, but prior availability of tracks does factor into my list. Much of the Renaissance material was unheard, at least by me, which makes it more of a novel discovery, though that box is weighed down by some repetition and (though on less than half of it) subpar sound. There was no 2023 reissue that was clearly of such major importance that it was as easy a choice for the #1 spot, as, say, the first volume of Joni Mitchell’s Archives series and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass were in recent years.

The Doors are by far the more important act, their 1967 tapes are definitely their most interesting live recordings, and the new box is the most complete collection of these, adding some previously uncirculating tracks. Ultimately that gives them the nod, though the top spot could have easily gone to the Renaissance collection, particularly if the welcome surprise of hearing some interesting stuff I didn’t know existed is taken into account.

1. The Doors, Live at the Matrix, 1967 (Rhino). A double live LP, Absolutely Live, by the Doors came out in 1970 while the group was still active, and there have been so many archival concert releases that even Doors fanatics have a hard time keeping track of them. Aside from their 1968 Hollywood Bowl show and the rather short, cover-dominated London Fog 1966, however—as well as a few lo-fi scraps that made it onto Boot Yer Butt!: The Doors Bootlegs—none of them predate 1969 save for Live at the Matrix, 1967. A double disc of material from their March 1967 shows at the San Francisco club came out in 2008, but this five-LP box lives up to the new and improved tag in a couple respects.

Crucially, the box has a lot more of what survives on tape from their March 7, 8, 9, and 10 Matrix shows. Most of the tracks gaining release for the first time have been in unofficial circulation for years, but this material’s taken, to quote Joel Selvin’s liner notes, “straight from reels of Scotch 201 quarter-track tape recorded at 7 ½ ips.” The 2008 compilation had been (it was belatedly discovered) mastered from third-generation copies, though it was thought at the time they were first-generation. 

Yet what’s most important is that these are the only recordings that capture the Doors in peak form before they became stars and their set lists became more rigid and predictable. Their first LP had been out for a couple months, but “Light My Fire” wouldn’t enter the charts until three months after their Matrix stint. The Doors were still an underground act, and the audiences at the club were so small that, as guitarist Robby Krieger’s quoted in the liner notes, “We looked at it as a paid rehearsal. There were five to ten people in the club. We did it for ourselves.” Although the sound quality on these tapes is a little thin and distant, these are the best and most interesting of the live Doors recordings, both for the hungry, wiry intensity of the performances and the presence of quite a few songs that aren’t available in many or any concert versions.

They didn’t mail/phone it in, playing most of the songs from their debut album (no “Take It As It Comes,” “End of the Night,” or “I Looked At You,” sadly); every song from their yet-to-be-recorded second LP, Strange Days, except “Strange Days,” “Love Me Two Times,” “You’re Lost Little Girl,” and “Horse Latitudes”; and even one that didn’t make it onto vinyl until their third album, “Summer’s Almost Gone.” Plus a heap of blues/R&B/jazz covers, some likewise never part of their catalog while Jim Morrison was alive, like “Gloria,” “Money,” “I’m a King Bee,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” and “Rock Me Baby.” Plus a few instrumentals to give Jim a break, including “Summertime” and a couple, Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” that to my knowledge have never before circulated anywhere.

Best of all, the band plays, and Morrison sings, with passion and spontaneity, even given that many of the songs (even the long version of “Light My Fire”) are rewarded with light tennis match-type clapping. “Moonlight Drive” (included here, like several of the songs, in two versions) differs from the Strange Days arrangement with a middle section where Morrison and Ray Manzarek sing improvised-sounding parts against each other, Manzarek playing organ instead of piano. “Unhappy Girl” opens with a long piercing organ solo that doesn’t appear in the studio version. Morrison asks to be shown the way to the next little boy in an alteration to “Alabama Song”—a change which, it’s safe to assume, would not have been allowed on a commercial release in 1967, even by a label as progressive as Elektra.  

Although the songs were often enhanced by bass guitarist session players in the studio, the absence of a bassist means the arrangements are generally leaner here, and it’s interesting to hear Manzarek carrying the bass parts with the lower notes of his keyboard. Too, Ray had to play all his parts on an organ without utilizing piano for color and variation, which means songs like “People Are Strange” sound appreciably different.

As for the two previously uncirculating instrumentals, while naturally the band needed Morrison’s vocals to be at full power, they’re not without interest. The languid, repetitive riffs of “All Blues” are on the filler side, but an eight-minute forty-second “Bags’ Groove” (on the one-sided seven-inch that comes with the box) is actually pretty cool, the group hitting a nice jazz-bluesy sort of Doors-meet-the-MG’s groove. So is the lengthy (and previously available) instrumental “Summertime,” which the Doors arrange to suit their trademark hypnotic rock-jazz-blues style.

Not everything about this box is ideal. The sound quality isn’t remarkably different or better than the previous official and unofficial versions, though everything is now speed-corrected. Indeed, it isn’t as good as it is on the best and most historically significant officially issued Matrix tapes by other acts, those being the two LPs by the Great Society (with a pre-Jefferson Airplane Grace Slick) and 1969 Velvet Underground Live, Morrison’s vocals somehow not coming through as well as the singing does on those great records. The blues covers largely illustrate that early Rolling Stones-style blues-rock wasn’t the Doors’ strength. “Crawling King Snake” (later of course recorded for L.A. Woman) has some of the most amateurish harmonica (presumably by Morrison) to grace any release by a top rock act, though those bleats are brief and more amusing than annoying.

There is one standout among the covers, that being “Who Do You Love,” which the Doors would cut in a mellower version for Absolutely Live. The much earlier one on this box is good and preferable, with some nice swooping slide guitar and well-timed insertion of demonic organ breaks. Note that although the annotation describes this collection as the complete Matrix recordings, two versions of “Who Do You Love” purporting to be from the club in March have circulated. They’re easy to tell apart as Morrison’s vocal on the first verse is higher and nastier on the shorter one not included on this box, among other differences. One would guess the missing version might not have been taped at the Matrix, though it seems to be from the same era, and has similar fidelity. (A slightly edited version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

2. Renaissance, Live Fillmore West and Other Adventures (Repertoire). For a group of notable significance, the output of the original Renaissance—the lineup featuring ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, as well as bassist Louis Cennamo, ex-Nashville Teens pianist John Hawken, and Relf’s sister Jane—was slim. There was just one album, 1969’s self-titled Renaissance, before the group’s personnel started to shift and splinter. By their third album, not a single original member remained. Renaissance itself had just five songs, though three were between seven and twelve minutes long.

This five-disc set does much to amplify their sparse discography, with four CDs of previously unissued live performances, TV and radio broadcasts, and demos, along with a DVD of British and European television clips. That’s a heavenly gift for fans, though it comes with some limitations. The sound quality is uneven, though the performances aren’t. And though there are a few songs that didn’t make the studio LP, there are inevitably a lot of multiple versions of the five that did.

The majority of the material comes from live concerts, the whole of the first disc featuring their March 6, 1970 show at the Fillmore West. While the instruments come through fairly well, there’s no denying that the vocals are on the submerged side. In common with many live tapes of plenty of acts from the era, the songs are stretched to markedly longer arrangements, “Kings and Queens” and “Bullet” lasting fifteen minutes apiece. The odd ghostly, almost avant-garde ending of the studio version of the latter wasn’t replicated in live performance. As a major bonus, however, in addition to all five songs from the LP, three others that didn’t make it were played. All of their compositions have the group’s idiosyncratic blend of rock, classical, and exotic non-rock styles, often layered with a tense, ominous mood.

None of the non-LP numbers are quite up to the level of the material on their studio releases, the eight-minute “No Name Raga” going into some less focused improvisation than was their usual wont. The nine-minute “After the War,” songwriting credited to “unidentified,” is hard to fully judge. It boasts some wailing Jane Relf vocals, but the extent to which they’re under-recorded is a deterrent to full listening pleasure, though there are some forceful riffs and wah-wah guitar, and McCarty’s drumming gets into more uninhibited soloing than he ever did with the Yardbirds. The two-minute “The Tao of Myself” is a two-minute improvisation tagged onto the end of “Bullet,” and the words Keith Relf are singing can’t be easily deciphered. (For that matter, the ways vocals were placed in the mixes and arrangements sometimes made it difficult to make out early Renaissance’s lyrics with exact precision even when they were recorded in classier audio.)

Disc two combines excerpts from concerts in Helsinki (May 1969) and Switzerland (April 1970) with a May 1969 version of “Kings and Queens” from a Swedish radio broadcast. It’s perhaps the least notable disc owing to less-than-sparkling audio quality, sticking to versions of just three of the five songs from the album. There’s also a brief Helsinki interview with Hawken and Keith Relf that just makes basic points that the group, which had only done a few concerts, was trying to do something different.

The sonic imperfections of the first two CDs might put them in the “for hardcore fans” only category, but that’s not the case for the other CDs. Disc three features more than forty minutes of material from a February 25, 1970 Cincinnati concert, and while the fidelity might have been a little too dull to make the cut for the usual standard official live album, it’s appreciably better than what the preceding two discs offer. Crucially, it has not only every song from Renaissance except “Innocence,” but also has far better sounding versions of “No Name Raga” and “After the War,” although “Bullet” lasts less than half of what it does on the Fillmore tape.

Cincinnati’s Music Hall might not have had the glamour of the Fillmore West. But these recordings, made just a couple weeks earlier than the ones from the Fillmore, are a decidedly better representation of the band—who play and sing well everywhere in this package, regardless of the variable technical qualities of the tapes. Disc three is completed by the similarly acceptable-fi audio of 1969-70 British and European TV spots, though those are better experienced as the film clips featured on the DVD.

The first half of disc four has decent-sounding BBC radio broadcasts recorded in October 1969 and March 1970, with versions of all songs from the debut LP except “Wanderer.” Of most interest, there’s also (from the March 26, 1970 taping) a Jim McCarty original, the delicate folk-classical Jane-sung “Face of Yesterday,” that’s the sole song on the entire package that found a place on Renaissance’s second studio album, 1971’s Illusion. There’s also a brief Keith Relf interview where he explains how different factions in the Yardbirds led to a different sound he and McCarty wanted to explore with Renaissance.

The second half of disc four contains the least characteristic, yet in some ways among the most interesting, tracks on this compilation. These nine “rarities and demos,” as they’re titled here, are almost an entire studio album of its own, though they were recorded at various times and with different combinations of musicians. It would have been nice to have exact personnel listings and dates, if they even exist. But Cennamo’s comments in Chris Welch’s lengthy liners indicate most were done between the Yardbirds’ split and Renaissance’s formation, though some were done significantly later. 

Whatever their precise origins, they show a somewhat folk-poppier, less ornate, and more concise side of the band, and a very good one, even if some fans might prefer their more avowedly progressive efforts. One highlight, the buoyant but bittersweet “Line of Least Resistance,” showed up a few years ago on Repertoire’s collection of Keith Relf rarities, All the Falling Angels. So did “I’d Love to Love You,” a lovely acoustic duet between the Relfs, and  “Together Now,” though this a different (and inferior) version with added orchestration.

Generally these studio recordings afford greater room for Jane Relf’s vocals, both in quantity and range of expression. Certainly one peak, not only of this anthology but of her whole career, is her glowing interpretation of “Carpet of the Sun,” which a later lineup of Renaissance  would record in a much more bombastically arranged version, with Annie Haslam on vocals, on a 1973 album. Cennamo states in the liners that this Jane-sung version was cut “after the original Renaissance broke up,” which might make it the latest track on this compilation.

But most of these demos and rarities have an enticing haunting, melancholy-with-rays-of-sunshine bursting through feel, and would make a nice (if short) album of its own, despite its disparate sources. (McCarty’s “Prayer for the Light,” for instance, comes from the obscure Schizom soundtrack.) As a whole, they point to attractive directions the original Renaissance lineup could have explored more fully, whether during their brief lifetime or had they stayed together longer. They also more fully show the appeal of Jane’s singing—in a different way than her brother, though she likewise didn’t have the power of more celebrated British vocalists, she projected personal, enigmatic emotion that more than made up for that.

While it would be a cliché to propose that the whole set’s worth buying for the 40-minute DVD, especially with respect to collectors’ budget considerations, the one that closes this anthology comes close to deserving such an accolade. Besides well-preserved color clips of 1970 broadcasts of performances of “Island” and “Kings and Queens” on the Germany TV program Beat-Club, there’s a much less frequently seen fourteen-minute BBC mini-documentary from late 1969, also in vivid color. This shows the original group working in the studio, where producer Paul Samwell-Smith and engineer Andy Johns can also be seen; in more casual settings, with brief interviews with band members; and at a live performance of “Island” in London’s Revolution Club in October 1969. In black and white, but in good shape, is a clip of the band in Paris in January 1970, again performing “Island,” obviously a favorite of the group and, apparently, television programmers.

This would have arguably worked better as a three-disc set without the first two discs, as higher-fi versions of almost all the songs from the first pair of CDs are heard on the final three. It’s also true that the abundance of multiple versions—seven apiece of “Island” and “Kings and Queens”—makes this too much to take in at once. Yet some fans would argue, with some reason, that if you’re going to have some rare material, you might as well have it all. It’s all here, and if early Renaissance was in some ways not as immediately accessible as far more famous post-Yardbirds projects by their three celebrated guitarists, this does reward patient listeners. It also boasts its share of incandescent songs and passages that strike home right away. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

3. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) (Rhino). The third volume of Mitchell’s five-CD box sets of almost entirely unreleased material actually spans late 1971 to 1975, to be technical. The title refers to years during which she was on Asylum Records. Like the previous two boxes, it’s a deft mix of demos, outtakes, and live recordings, including a few on which James Taylor sings or Neil Young plays, though Mitchell’s the focus on those. The one previously released track might have been missed even by Joni collectors, since “Raised on Robbery,” recorded in 1973 with Neil Young & the Santa Monica Flyers, only came out on Young’s Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976.

Unlike the majority of listeners, I’m a much bigger fan of Mitchell’s earlier work, an era spotlighted on the previous two boxes, which spanned 1963-1971. But I liked this more than I expected, in part because the different nature of the sources ensures there’s more variety than there is on any studio or live Mitchell album from this period. If the studio LPs (For the RosesCourt and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns) had more polished production, the songs from those albums certainly don’t suffer in earlier and often plainer musical settings. Personally I prefer the less elaborate productions, especially to those using the slicker fusiony sounds of Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, though that outfit can be heard on some of the numerous songs from her March 3, 1974 concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

There’s enough material from that show and her February 23, 1972 Carnegie Hall concert to have made two separate albums, and these (as well as scattered much shorter excerpts from other live appearances) mix then-new compositions with older songs that were already favorites, like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” Both Sides Now,” and “The Circle Game.” Some of her between-song raps are quite long and spacey, including an unexpected reference to the Performance movie. A studio medley duet with James Taylor of “Bony Moronie,” “Summertime Blues,” and “You Never Can Tell” demonstrates both that Mitchell had a genuine love for early rock and roll, and that it wasn’t her strong suit as an interpreter or performer.

The more (at the time) recent and less familiar compositions are the highlights, however, though some similarity in her approach on quite a few songs in this era means this wouldn’t qualify as the most consistent Mitchell listen – not that this was the intention of an archival box like this. Some of the better and/or more interesting items include a pre-For the Roses live acoustic version of “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio,” and an outtake of the same tune backed by Neil Young and the Stray Gators; a band-less demo of her biggest hit, “Help Me”; good demos and alternate versions of a couple highlights from Hissing, “In France They Kiss on Main Street” and “Dreamland”; and likewise the demo and Neil Young-backed versions of a Court and Spark highlight, “Raised on Robbery.” Best of all is the Court and Spark outtake “Bonderia,” in which Mitchell scats wordlessly with an unusual nearly middle eastern-gypsy-ish melody that’s almost experimental by her standards. Along the same lines, “Sunrise Raga” is offbeat as it’s nearly instrumental save for some wordless singing, and Mitchell’s backed by bongos on an Indian-flavored piece. Both tracks make me wish she’d done more such ventures.

Like the previous Archives boxes, Cameron Crowe interviewed the singer for the liner notes. While some might wish she’d been grilled in greater depth about some of the specifics on these vault retrievals, it’s enough of a miracle she can speak at some length to an interviewer given her recent health scares. While this might not be my favorite volume owing to my personal tastes, in its selectivity and packaging it’s up to the standards of its predecessors, and the series as a whole is already established as one of the best of its kind in those regards.

4. The Who, Who’s Next/Life House (Polydor). This is basically a superdeluxe edition of Who’s Next, though much of the material was originally intended for the unfinished rock opera Life House (as it’s now apparently spelled, rather than Lifehouse). How does it not rank higher or at the top of this list, considering I wrote about it in about half of my book Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who From Lifehouse to Quadrophenia? It’s not the greatest value for money, boasting a $250-300 price depending on where you get it. More importantly, the extra material isn’t always that exciting, though at least Pete Townshend refrained from putting on post-1970s re-recordings or interpretations of Life House elements. The original Who’s Next album is one of the discs, and a Blu-ray offers mixes of tracks (all heard elsewhere on the set) that some consider higher-fi than what’s possible on average stereo systems. Everything else was not on the Who’s Next LP, though a fair amount of it’s been released elsewhere.

The most interesting material is found on the two CDs of Pete Townshend demos. Much of it’s done the rounds on limited edition release and bootlegs, but they include solo versions of much of the material on Who’s Next that have a different, sometimes more personal, less glossy, and vulnerable cast than the highly polished group studio tracks. There are also some songs that didn’t find release by the Who or sometimes anywhere at the time, with the tender, acoustic folk-based love song “Mary” and the wistful “Time Is Passing” being highlights. An early iteration of “Baba O’Riley,” titled “Teenage Wasteland,” uses a far different melody for much of the performance than the later familiar version. But most of the songs not eventually reworked for Who’s Next aren’t as good as what was selected for that album, “Pure and Easy” being a notable exception. The most unfamiliar of these, “Finally, Over” and “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills,” don’t leave much of an impression.

This box is one of these infrequent instances where, for my purposes, limiting it to these two CDs would have been more enjoyable listening (not to mention more affordable) than working through the whole set. There’s a disc of their first go at the album at New York’s Record Plant in early 1971; alternate versions cut at Olympic; and quite a few non-LP singles and outtakes from 1970-72, sometimes in longer unedited versions, though all of these have appeared in some mixes/edits on other archival compilations. Some fans have already offered different and much more enthusiastic assessments, but I don’t find any of the alternates too appreciably different than the final arrangements, let alone superior to them or on the same level. The non-LP singles and outtakes include some very good songs (“The Seeker,” “Join Together,” John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell”) and a bunch of decent-to-okay ones (the Roger Daltrey-written 1970 B-side “Here for More” is underrated), but the unedited longer versions don’t significantly add to their quality.

There are also two CDs of live recordings from London’s Young Vic on April 26, 1971, and two CDs of live tracks from December 12, 1971 in San Francisco. Acknowledging that many Who fans groove mightily to live recordings of the band from this period (and not just Live at Leeds), these aren’t my favorite ways to experience their music. The execution can be blustery, the songs overlong, and the odd unexpected covers (“Bony Moronie,” Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and Freddie King’s “Going Down”) unremarkable. Overall, there are just too many multiple and not-terribly-varying versions of songs throughout the box to make for listening that’s as stimulating as it might seem on paper.

Also in the box is a 102-page hardback book of deeply researched liner notes that does a lot to help illuminate the stories of both the unfinished Life House and the album it morphed into, Who’s Next, as well as the many extra tracks recorded by the band between 1970 and 1972 (excepting Live at Leeds recordings). The newly written graphic novel based on Life House that’s also part of the package is not as essential and, in my view, inessential. The rare period memorabilia in an LP-sized sleeve, including reproductions of posters and concert programs, is nice but not amazing. If omitting the Blu-ray and the quite sizable graphic novel would have lowered the list price considerably, I would have preferred such a revision.

5. Various Artists, Tape Excavation (Independent Project/P22). This came out in LP form in 2020, but there are reasons to include this on a 2023 list. Even if you’re the kind of collector who gets in line for Record Store Day releases at dawn, you might be frustrated by trying to acquire the LP-only release if you don’t already have it. It was available only as limited editions that added up to 600 copies. More importantly, this CD version adds eight tracks to the original fourteen, now making for a total of twenty-two. It compiles previously unreleased tracks from various Bruce Licher musical projects spanning 1980 to 2019, including material from his most famous band (Savage Republic); pre-Savage Republic outfits Project 197, Bridge, and Final Republic; and post-Savage Republic projects Scenic, Lanterna, Lemon Wedges, Bank, and SR2, along with post-Savage Republic Licher solo recordings. A booklet with liner notes explains the origins of the tracks.

Tape Excavation’s selections are actually of similar quality to Licher’s previous official releases, even if the fidelity and polish might not be as high on a few tracks (particularly the earlier ones). Although it covers four decades, there’s a continuity in the eerie instrumental textures, which both use conventional instruments (especially Licher’s unusually tuned guitar) and blend them in unconventional ways. The earlier efforts bear some traces of early-‘80s post-punk dissonance, yet are likely to appeal to people who don’t usually like post-punk, at least if my own tastes are an indication. There’s even some appealingly cheesy new wave keyboard on Final Republic’s “Chase,” though the same group was responsible for the foreboding waves of overlapping reverb dominating “The Unknown.” The earlier of the additional eight tracks tend to be noisier and more industrial in nature than the original core fourteen.

Licher focused more on sort of post-punk equivalents to surf music with elements of psychedelia and middle eastern melodies as time went on. His pair of 1997 solo demos are of special note; “Cedar” is worthy of exotically dreamy Ennio Morricone-like soundtracks, and “Tundra” can’t help but sound like an end-of-the-century takeoff on the Byrds’ “Why.” The later excursions might be less edgy and frenetic than his ‘80s endeavors, but maintain his knack for atmospheric instrumentals that are more mature yet not at all wimpy.

The tracks of later vintage added for the CD fall into this area, highlighted by Exploratorium’s “The Atmosphere” and the dreamy yet slightly foreboding late-‘90s home recording “SF Cima Song,” a variation of a song from Scenic’s Incident at Cima album. The most recent of the added items, the 2009 solo home recording “Mesopotamia” and the 2017 solo home recording “There Is Always a Light Which Will Illuminate the Way, Even in the Darkest of Times,” are also up to the standard of the selections on the original LP, as spooky instrumentals evoking the kind of photos of desolate landscapes found in many of the booklet’s illustrations. Licher went through dozens of boxes of recordings to cull these tracks, and if even a small percentage of these approach Tape Excavation’s standard, a series of archive releases would be welcome. 

6. The Daily Flash, The Legendary Recordings 1965-1967 (Guerssen). It’s hard to know where to rank a compilation on which the best half dozen or so tracks are so much better than the other dozen or so. On the basis of their handful of previously available rare singles and outtakes, the Daily Flash were among the better early folk-rock groups, with particularly outstanding covers of Ian & Sylvia’s “The French Girl” and Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” as well as searing early psychedelia on “Jack of Diamonds,” which opens with an unholy blast of feedback. They had good vocal harmonies and guitar-oriented arrangements that were polished without getting too slick, creating the impression they could have been significantly bigger if they’d gotten more breaks.

A whole LP’s worth of material, including all of the above songs, appeared back in 1984. But this 19-song comp was eagerly awaited as it includes about ten cuts that haven’t been easily available, and in some cases never before issued. Yet none of the extras are in the same league as most of what appeared on that 1984 LP, I Flash Daily. The folk-rock versions of Dino Valenti’s “Birdses” and Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”—themselves hard to hear in versions by their composers back in the mid-1960s—are just okay. Some of the other folk-rock updates of folk tunes, like “When I Was a Cowboy,” are disappointingly forgettable. Only a couple of original compositions (both by Steve Lalor) are here, and while “Barbara Flowers” isn’t bad poppy folk-rock, the previously unissued “Again and Again” doesn’t make much of an impression.

This Seattle group’s failure to write much, or very interesting, original material was the biggest factor in their failure to rise to the heights of the better folk-rock groups of the time. Like Buffalo Springfield, for instance, who were also produced and managed by Charlie Greene and Brian Stone (and whom Daily Flash guitarist Doug Hastings joined for a bit when Neil Young left the Springfield). Despite the excellence of their best sides, they just didn’t have what it took to be a major band, as much as folk-rock fanatics like me might have wished this comp to prove otherwise. But it does, after a gap of many years, fully represent their legacy, with thorough if occasionally drifting liner notes untangling their history and what happened when, including recording dates. There are three versions of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” though there’s a purpose to the repetition: two different versions were released on singles, and the third one’s a live recording.

7. Various Artists, One Mile from Heaven (Mapache). In the 1970s, there were loads of privately pressed singer-songwriter albums—many, perhaps most, of them poor and amateurish. There were also some decent and, on rare occasion, striking ones, or at least some striking tracks here and there on such releases. This twenty-track double LP curates some of the most noteworthy, with a couple (from Jim Sullivan in 1969 and Bobb Trimble in 1980) falling just outside the ‘70s. In the words of Daniel Resines’s liners, “It’s a compilation of hardly known (if not completely unknown) songs that nobody was waiting for—the sheer opposite of a greatest hits album.” In other words, the kind of thing that many collectors of vintage rock esoterica are waiting for.

But while none of these are household names, some of them are known, to UT readers at any rate. Maitreya Kali (aka Craig Smith) is a star in UT’s world, in large part due to our publisher/editor’s excellent book about him, and his “One Last Farewell” leads off this collection. Another star of sorts in our alternate universe is Merrell Fankhauser, whose prime was just honored with a six-CD box. Gary Higgins, Michael Yonkers, and Jim Sullivan have their own smaller cult followings; Alicia May and Chuck & Mary Perrin have been honored with CD reissues of their albums. At least half the artists, however, are apt to be unfamiliar to most collectors, other than the kind who write reviews for the fine reference books overseen by Richard Morton Jack and the late Patrick Lundborg.

This sort of privately pressed singer-songwriter fare could hardly be called a “scene”—few of them knew each other, and few listeners heard these records when they were released. There is, however, a unifying thread, at least when you hear them with half a century or so of distance. Though not nearly as desolate or outsider-ish as many “loner folk” efforts, there’s a bittersweet after-the-party feel to much of the material. There’s often a pensive, subdued air, but it’s not exactly laidback or mellow. And while these generally had much lower recording and promotional budgets than mainstream ‘70s singer-songwriters on “real” labels did, the sound is always professional, and usually nearly or on par with major label efforts of the period.

At the same time, it’s far enough removed from the bigtime music business to ensure a lot of idiosyncrasy and, within this anthology, diversity. Maitreya Kali’s “One Last Farewell” does stand out as a highlight for its spookiness, but other selections worth noting include Billy Hallquist’s eight-minute “Persephone,” which builds to an extended anthemic choral climax nearly worthy of Fairport Convention’s take on “Percy’s Song,” to cite a rough comparison. Yonkers’s “And Give It To You” is far more delicate and sensitive than his more famed, yet more bombastic, earlier and far heavier, far more electric-oriented recordings.

Joni Mitchell fans are likely to enjoy Alicia May’s “Summer Days,” which was recorded by the same engineer Mitchell used, Henry Lewy. Naomi Lewis’s “More Beautiful” is classy melancholy mid-‘70s singer-songwriting with a more effectively deployed sparse arrangement than most of her more celebrated peers were prone to use. Carm Mascarenhas has, according to the liners, been compared to vintage Van Morrison, though I hear some of fellow Canadian Neil Young in his approach. For something a bit more eccentric, there’s Michael Angelo’s “Field of Lonely Eyes,” which blends nice close vocal harmonies with eerie synthesizer on a cut that’s more homespun and lo-fi than most of the other selections, but pleasantly so.

While hardcore collectors might insist you need to experience these artists with their full albums, this works well as a sampler whether you want to go deeper or content yourself with some of the cream of this niche genre. If you don’t specialize in that niche, the appeal of the individual tracks might be enhanced by hearing them in similar yet versatile company, rather than on full albums by the artists that some might find wearisome to take in all at once. The booklet has background info on all of the performers, with pictures of most of them, and reproductions of all the LP covers from which the material was drawn. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

8. David Blue & the American Patrol, The Lost 1967 Elektra Recordings & More (Hanky Panky/Mapache). Blue’s self-titled 1966 Elektra debut LP was one of the most blatantly early electric Dylan-inspired records, at a time when there was no shortage of Dylan imitators. He did a second, but unreleased, album for Elektra in 1967 with, or at least credited to as with, backup band the American Patrol. Eight of the ten tracks that would have comprised that album are this vinyl-only LP release, along with three acoustic folk tracks he contributed to Elektra’s 1965 various-artists compilation album Singer Songwriter Project, where he was billed under his birth name, David Cohen.

Blue still sounds derivative of Dylan to some extent on much of the 1967 material, but he was taking steps toward finding more of his own voice, both as a singer and a songwriter. “23 Days in September” (which he’d re-record in a more laidback version on his 1968 album of the same name), “Scales for a Window Thief,” and especially “Best of Your Childlike Smiles” are rather nice, if still slightly Dylanesque, pensive folk-rock. There’s a wistful quality to Blue’s softly intoned vocals and more bittersweet melodic turns than most circa-’66 folk-rock (though this was taped in 1967) of this sort had. He gets into more playful, lighthearted moods, with variable but basically acceptable results, on some of the other songs; “Anna” is the best of these, and “You Need a Change” has a slightly ahead of its time country-rock tinge.

It’s unfortunate, however, that “Vaudeville Blues” and “Dr. Smith’s Electrical Light Machine” have a cringeworthy dated vaudeville rock feel, along the lines of so many similar tracks from the time from bands that seemed to feel they should put one such cut on their LP, as if they had to prove their diversity. It’s doubly unfortunate that two other tracks from the unreleased LP, “Anything You Find on the Floor Is Yours” and “Tell Me What It’s Like When You Get Back,” were not made available for this release, as they have a decidedly rougher and bluesier, almost garage rock feel than the rest of the material. As far as demonstrating versatility goes, they’re far better than the vaudevillian tunes, and one wishes they could have been included, or even included at the expense of the vaudevillian numbers. They’d also be more interesting than the pretty run-of-the-mill folk performances from Singer Songwriter Project, an LP that hasn’t been too hard to find (though some editions exclude the tracks by Richard Fariña, which are the best on that compilation).

Who loses in this exclusion? Only fans and history. Had they been possible to add to the tracklist, this LP would have ranked a notch or two higher. History is given, at least, by Mark Brend’s extensive liner notes, decorated by some rare pictures and graphics. This was issued in a limited edition of 500 copies, the same label also putting out a 500-copy vinyl run of Blue’s debut LP at the same time.

9. Los Shakers, ¡Shaker Mania! (Guerssen). Los Shakers, or the Shakers as they’ve sometimes been billed, were the finest Uruguayan rock group of the 1960s, and indeed probably the best one in South America. Some might feel this is damning with the faintest of praise considering how much distance in quality there was between South American rock and North American (and British) rock. But singing in both Spanish and accented English, they were also among the better explicitly Beatles-influenced groups from anywhere in the globe. Plenty of people wouldn’t count this as a major asset either, and it’s easy to imagine some rock critics making fun of how heavily derivative their records were, not to mention the accents and awkward English phrasing. But their records were pretty enjoyable, if no match for what the Beatles (or even the better bands with some similarities to the early Beatles, from the Hollies and the Bee Gees to the Beau Brummels) did. 

Plenty of Shakers music has actually been readily available in English-speaking countries for a long time, both on CD and through an English-language LP Audio Fidelity actually issued in the US in the mid-1960s, Break It All. For those such as I who do care about their catalog, this (so far vinyl-only) compilation offers something different, focusing on non-LP singles and rarities, even including three previously unreleased tracks. As a whole they’re not quite up to the level of the best Shakers CD compilation, Big Beat’s 2000 release ¡Por Favor (compiled, like this LP, by Alec Palao). Nor does it offer anything especially different from what’s been more commonly available. It’s just good sub-Beatles ‘60s pop-rock, sometimes (though not often) with a more South American influence, especially on the closing bossa nova-inflected “Nunca Nunca.” “Don’t Call Me on the Telephone, Baby” is uncomfortably close to Larry Williams’s “Bad Boy” and how the Beatles did that, but nothing else here is as obviously derivative.

Note that “Only in Your Eyes” isn’t the Break It All version, but the much rarer earlier one recorded for a single in March 1965. The complicated origins of the rarities are explained and annotated in Palao’s liner notes. 

10. Various Artists, Let’s Stomp!: Merseybeat and Beyond 1962-1969 (Strawberry). As the liners to this three-CD, 93-track collection begin, “Merseybeat was a relatively brief phenomenon—still a local scene in 1962 and fading by the end of 1964.” But did any other such brief boom echo so loud and long in the history of rock? This was the true beginning of a distinctive British rock sound, which would transform not just the country’s music industry, but also music and even youth culture the globe over.

Much of its mammoth influence, of course, was due to the band who wasn’t only the biggest and best on the scene, but also the best rock group of all time. Alas, the Beatles aren’t represented on this compilation for licensing reasons—not even by one of their pre-EMI Hamburg recordings. But virtually everyone else is. While some of the selection can be debated, it’s the most all-encompassing Merseybeat compilation both in its quantity and its range.

All of the non-Beatles hitmakers are here: the Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Mojos, the Merseybeats, the Merseys, the Fourmost, and Cilla Black. So are the names known who didn’t quite make it big, even if they’re known to many: the Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Jackie Lomax, Tommy Quickly, the Remo Four, Tony Jackson post-Searchers. So are plenty of names known only to those who were there or ravenous collectors, like the 23rd Turnoff, Wimple Winch, Jason Eddie, and Ian & the Zodiacs. So are some names that were unfamiliar to this know-it-all reviewer, from Jeannie & the Big Guys to Satin Bells. The only omission I’d argue for is the Pete Best Combo, whose “The Way I Feel About You” is pretty storming garage pop, even if it was recorded in the US.

Every British Invasion collector would have a different selection to propose for such an anthology, and a few acts aren’t heard at their best. Certainly the Merseybeats’ “Our Day Will Come” and Ian & the Zodiacs’ “Beechwood 4-5789” hardly count among their best work, and Gerry & the Pacemakers’ “Slow Down” is a non=starter compared to the Beatles’ version. Like a good number of compilations of this sort, the mix of classic hits (the Swinging Blue Jeans’ “Hippy Hippy Shake,” Kramer’s “Bad to Me,” and the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”) with deep cuts and obscurities means that almost anyone who buys this will already have some (and maybe even much) of it elsewhere.

But heard a few times, this does grow on you for its sheer diversity. There’s certainly Merseybeat in the classic chipper catchy guitar-driven style; the Fourmost’s “I’m in Love,” one of the lesser known Lennon-McCartney songs the Beatles didn’t release, is one of the best such items. But there are plenty of woman solo acts and girl groups, often in a pop or soul style; journeyman club rock’n’roll by some of the Beatles’ peers who never quite made it outside of Liverpool and Hamburg, like King Size Taylor; light psych from Focal Point; mod from the Thoughts (whose “All Night Stand” is featured in its rarer US version, though it’s not much different than the UK one); and demented early freakbeat, though Jason Eddie’s ‘Come On Baby” is pretty well known to devotees of the form.

Listing all the non-hits of high quality (albeit mixed with some mundane efforts and routine covers) would take quite a few paragraphs, but listen especially for Jeannie & the Big Guys’ tough interpretation of Titus Turner’s “Sticks and Stones”; a surprisingly worthwhile run through “Sally Go Round the Roses” by ex-Vernon Girl Lyn Cornell; and the Remo Four’s solid blue-eyed soul/rock take on Gloria Jones’s “Heart Beat.” Although they’ve done the reissue rounds for decades, the bittersweet, ethereal psychedelia of the 23rd Turnoff’s “Michael Angelo” (sic) and Wimple Winch’s mod mini-epic “Rumble on Mersey Square South” are among the very few items here that show local bands innovating with the changing times and more serious, sophisticated compositions. As the Beatles did—and, somehow, their Liverpool peers didn’t, almost without exception.

There are just three previously unreleased tracks, all carrying some degree of interest. The Maracas’ “A Different Drummer” is a Joe Meek production. Samantha Jones’s “This Is the Real Thing” wasn’t on one of her numerous ‘60s singles, and was retrieved from an acetate. Shel Talmy produced the Pathfinders’ moody and well-harmonized “Lonely Room,” the best of this trio of vault finds, is a fine cover of an Ivy League composition.

Is there much more to be found by many of these acts on other compilations, single-artist or various-artist? Sure (though probably not in the Pathfinders’ case), and everyone will have their favorites, sometimes many, that aren’t featured here. For the less fussy who want a good overview of the breadth of ‘60s Merseybeat, however, it works as a starter or sampler, with detailed, bountifully illustrated liner notes by compiler Jon Harrington. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

11. David John & the Mood: Diggin’ for Gold (Cherry Red). David John & the Mood put out only three non-hit singles as part of the mid-1960s British R&B/rock explosion. But they’re pretty fondly regarded by collectors, in part owing to their inclusion on numerous specialist archival compilations. This 22-track anthology is the first actual compilation of material by the group, though it doesn’t actually include much in the way of songs they didn’t release. All six cuts from the 45s are here, but much of the rest are alternate versions and backing tracks. There’s just one song, the outtake “That Little Old Heartbreaker Me,” that wasn’t on the singles in some form. Even that song is presented in three different versions, one of them a backing track with backing (but no lead) vocals.

Although David John & the Mood were a second-tier British R&B/rock outfit, most of the half dozen numbers on their singles were pretty good. When their material first appeared on reissues, there was speculation that “David John” might actually be a pseudonym for David Bowie, as there’s some similarity between how John (given name David John Smith) and very early Bowie sing in a high, sometimes squealy and mannered voice. “I Love to See You Strut” in particular is pretty taut and brash; “Bring It to Jerome” is a good Bo Diddley cover, if not on the same level as the original or Manfred Mann’s version; and “Pretty Thing,” likewise no match for the original or the Pretty Things’ cover, captures the naive energy of the young British R&B acts well, with one of the all-time great weird dissonant sloppy guitar solos of the genre.

On reflection, John doesn’t sound quite as much like early Bowie as sometimes suspected when “Bring It to Jerome” and “I Love to See You Strut” appeared on Pebbles Vol. 6 back at the end of the 1970s. There are hints that he and the Mood could have developed into something more notable and important than a fairly typical, if slightly better than average, early sub-Stones et al. combo. They didn’t get the chance, however, owing to some bad breaks and questionable management, though they were able to record a couple singles with producer Joe Meek.

While I like David John & the Mood, it can be disputed whether they’re worth the kind of treatment the Beach Boys get with their box sets, where many of the selections are backing tracks and not-so-different alternates. The different versions on this comp aren’t notably different than the familiar (at least to the kind of collectors who accumulate this stuff) ones, though an acetate version of “Diggin’ for Gold” isn’t as close as the others. Even most such collectors would be satisfied with an EP or mini-LP of the singles plus the outtake and acetate. This does, however, come with a 20-page booklet with a full history of the group that documents them much better than anything else that’s been published.

12. P.J. Proby, Presley Style: Lost Elvis Songwriter Demos 1961-1963 (Bear Family). P.J. Proby was most known for his brief period of superstardom as an expatriate American singer in Britain in the mid-1960s, though he had only modest success in his native US. In the early 1960s, before he was known for his own records, he recorded numerous demos of songs for Elvis Presley to cut. That’s been known for a long time, but this 21-track collection marks the first release of any of the material. While it’s of more interest as an historical oddity than for its intrinsic merits, it’s not without such merits, if something of a footnote in the careers of both Proby and Presley.

Proby could credibly emulate Elvis’s style, though he had more of a warble and was ultimately no match for Presley’s greatness. Nor were the songs featured on this anthology among Elvis’s best, even by the standards of his Presley’s generally somewhat diminished early-‘60s output. If you’re looking for highlights from the Elvis catalog from this period like “Little Sister” or “Return to Sender,” or even “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello,” be aware no such items are here. Also be aware that these songs aren’t even among his best or best known secondary early-‘60s output, and were mostly used as filler on his soundtracks, or not even used at all by Elvis. All but three were written by the Sid Wayne-Ben Weisman composing team, hardly the best songwriters of the era, or even among the best who wrote for Presley.

All those reservations out of the way, this isn’t such a bad listen, though it’s uneven and has a few turkeys. Proby undoubtedly attacks the material with professional zeal; the backing, likely by the Wrecking Crew at least some of the time, is like the vocals better than the material; and some of the songs are pretty fair, and occasionally rock out. “Come and Get It,” for instance, is a decent tough bluesy rocker that would have been one of Presley’s better LP tracks had Elvis done a version (he didn’t). “Carnival of Dreams” is a neatly dramatic torch song-cum-rocker. There are also songs neither Proby nor Presley could have done much to elevate, the military ode “Snap To!” being the most flagrant example. 

This collection does raise the issue, as does much of Presley’s post=’50s output, of how much he would have benefited from being able to record more songs by writers closer to his age and musical passions by the likes of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Or even by using songs from composers with a good rock sensibility who were older than Elvis, like what Doc Pomus wrote with Mort Shuman. The issue isn’t discussed by the thorough liner notes, which treat the material as if it’s of deserving of canonization as anything Presley did. If ultimately something of a curiosity, as such curiosities go, it’s pretty interesting. 

13. Heinz, The White Tornado (Cherry Red). For someone often berated for having little vocal or instrumental talent, and sometimes cast as a stooge of sorts (putting it politely) who never would have gotten on disc if not for the patronage of producer Joe Meek, Heinz sure made a bunch of good records. It’s true they might have owed more to stellar backup musicians and Meek’s production than Heinz’s limited skills. But “Just Like Eddie” (his sole big UK hit), “Big Fat Spider,” “Movin’ In,” “I’m Not a Bad Guy,” “Hush-A Bye Baby,” and “That Lucky Old Sun”—to name just a few—are certainly dynamic, highly enjoyable sides in an Meek-meets-the-British Beat explosion way. How much Heinz, however, is too much Heinz?

This five-CD box certainly begs the question, even for Heinz/Meek fans. With the accent on demos and alternate takes found in Meek’s seemingly bottomless “tea chest tapes,” there’s certainly insight to be heard into how the tracks were generated and polished. Many of them, however, can’t help but expose the weaker (and sometimes weakest) elements of Heinz’s voice, and the sometimes undistinguished and/or corny material, before they were burnished by Meek and company. And while almost all of his 1963-66 releases are represented by the original versions or versions that are close to what was issued at the time, there are few songs that weren’t on those discs.

am a Heinz fan, at least of most of his singles and some of the tracks from his sole LP. But let’s be realistic—his demos, backing tracks, and alternate takes don’t carry anything like the charge, let alone historical importance, of the kind of similar marginalia that fills up box sets of the likes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. It can be tough to wade through slightly different or meager outtakes by those groups too, but at least they nearly always illuminate the creative process of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. For all his attributes, Heinz wasn’t one, and for all his erratic studio genius, Meek wasn’t on that level either.

For most fans, a selective compilation, or even the uneven double CD Just Like Eddie: The Heinz Anthology (which has all his 1963-66 tracks), is far preferable to this far scrappier if far more extensive overview. Even serious Heinz fans—and it’s hard to imagine many who get this set won’t already have his standard output—might have been better served by a much more selective trawl through his extras. Some of the alternates are simply the official versions at the original speed, and while the revelations that Meek often sped up the recordings for release are interesting, the slower-running variations aren’t better. The annotation could have been clearer about who’s singing what—it’s usually Heinz, but Meek himself (who was a woeful singer) and songwriter Geoff Goddard are also heard on vocals at some points.

It’s not often that the less familiar material on this box will perk up your ears, whether because it’s different from what you’re used to or it’s pretty good. But there are some tracks that do strike such chords. A demo of “Heart Full of Sorrow” is slower and gutsier than the single, missing the chirpy female backup vocals; a “Big Fat Spider” demo, though missing the incredible creepy guitar licks of the 45, has a notably different bouncy feel and prominent organ; take 7 of “Movin’ In” isn’t much different from the single, but has stunning guitar work, also demonstrating that Heinz could summon satisfyingly raw vocals once in a while. 

There are a bit more than half a dozen songs that didn’t make it beyond the demo/outtake stage, including a rudimentary cover of “Fever.” Most of the others are poppy trifles, some of them bearing an “unknown” songwriting credit. But even these can’t be wholly written off, the box ending on its highest note with “Voices On the Wind.”

As haunting as all but the best Meek compositions and productions—and Joe had many of those—this spare yet effective performance has a decent Heinz vocal and is utterly devoid of the frivolity found in many of his (and Meek’s) other efforts. Although the ending refrain goes on for too long, this stately and somber number is easily up the standard of Heinz and Meek’s better tracks. It reminds us why many listeners still care about their work sixty or so years later, even if they have to be very dedicated to their legacy to spring for this box’s super-deep survey. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

14. Various Artists, You Thrill Me to Pieces: Beat & Pop from the United Kingdom 1963-1966 (Teensville). This has an even more tenuous spot on a best-of list than the Heinz box above. And like that Heinz box, it’s only on here because it’s in a genre in which I specialize – perhaps the genre (mid-‘60s British rock) in which I specialize more than any other. None of these 34 tracks were close to hits, and in fact few of the groups are at all recognizable even to most British Invasion collectors, except the Merseybeats (represented by a demo, “Janie, I Love You,” that might be rare, but isn’t very good). Some of the musicians achieved greater subsequent fame in other contexts, most blatantly Mick Taylor, whose early combo the Juniors weighs in with a forgettable 1964 single. There are some other famous associations in the Echoes, who were Dusty Springfield’s backup group, and the Cockneys, whose Mick Grace filled in for an ill Ray Davies on a brief mid-‘60s European Kinks tour. But for the most part these musicians made little impact at any time.

In its favor, unlike many similar compilations, this doesn’t have lame covers of American rock and soul songs. It’s wholly comprised of compositions you don’t come across anywhere else, many written by the acts themselves, and some that might be by famous songwriters (Goffin-King, Clint Ballard Jr., Les Reed-Barry Mason, Roger Greenaway) but are utterly unfamiliar. It’s far more pop-rock (and sometimes more pop than rock) than R&B, and there’s nothing by the kind of obscure bluesy mid-‘60s UK acts that made good rare discs, like the Fairies, the Birds, and the Wheels. Merseybeat might be the biggest influence, but generally these acts and their writers/producers/labels were trying to make catchy hits.

To be cold, most of them aren’t that catchy, though enough of them are pleasant to be modestly enjoyable while they play, even if they don’t stick with you. It’s a testament to just how prolific the British scene was at the time. But it does make you wonder whether the labels—and there were only a few big ones in the UK, who dominated the business, and were responsible for every one of these 34 tracks—were that wise in giving so many acts a chance. Even at the time, it seems like most of these would have been given little chance at being hits by either average listeners or the record companies, or sometimes even by the performers.

Two of these tracks – not a high percentage, admittedly – do stand out in this crowd, and to my knowledge have never previously been issued on CD. One is the most famous, the Cockneys’ Mick Grace-penned “After Tomorrow,” to which they mimed in the opening sequence to the quickie British rock movie Swinging UK in 1964. Not that it’s brilliant, but it has the kind of quirky unpredictable chord changes, mix of major and minor melody, and exuberant harmonies found in the better Merseybeat (although they were from London). Another is “Kiss Me” by the Viscounts, most remembered (if at all) for Gordon Mills—later manager of Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Gilbert O’Sullivan—being a member. Although it’s kind of corny and diluted a bit by orchestration, it does have the sort of catchy Merseyish melodies and all-out chipper harmonies that had genuine hit potential. As another testament to the imperfection of the British record business, it was used as a B-side, and to my knowledge has never been reissued before this compilation.

15. The Doors, Live in Bakersfield, August 21, 1970 (Rhino). Should this be the only live Doors release in existence, it would rate much higher on this list, as their box of 1967 Matrix tapes does. It isn’t, of course; besides the double Absolutely Live album they put out back in 1970, there are many posthumous concert discs, with more than a dozen discs of material from 1970 alone. This double CD isn’t too much different from those, while the sound, from a two-track tape on a reel-to-reel recorder by road manager Vince Treanor, isn’t quite as good as the others, though it’s alright. It’s also the last of the Doors concerts that was recorded to make it to official release, with the exception of their Isle of Wight appearance from only about a week later.

The Doors were sticking to pretty similar set lists during this time, and my heart did not race at the prospect of yet another medley of “Alabama Song/Back Door Man/Five to One.” Still, this Record Store Day release (on both LP and CD) – not too hard to get on CD a few weeks later, despite its limited-edition status – has its merits. More often than you’d expect, the Doors sort of clowned around and didn’t always seem to take their songs too seriously in the later concerts they did with Morrison. There’s none of that here, the band playing things fairly straight, and with a lot of commitment, even if they might have done “When the Music’s Over,” “Roadhouse Blues,” “The End,” and the medley many, many times by this point.

Less traveled tunes like “Universal Mind” (combined with parts of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”)” and “Ship of Fools” are also included, along with a medley of “Mystery Train/Away in India/Crossroads” that might strike some beginning Doors fans as out of the blue, but which they did at a number of other concerts from this time that have come out. Most exciting is a nine-minute “Love Me Two Times,” both because there aren’t many live versions of that around, and because it’s a lot more stretched-out than the familiar, much shorter hit single, even detouring into “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “St. James Infirmary.”

It’s unfortunate that Treanor’s tape ran out after ninety minutes, leaving some of the two-hour-plus show undocumented (and also missing the first few bars of “Roadhouse Blues”). Maybe that had some other less run-of-the-mill tunes. What’s here has some interesting improvisations, and although it’s sometimes reported that the band and particularly Morrison were losing some heart at this point, they’re giving it their all, with some especially intense screams and crescendos on “The End.”

16. Nina Simone, You’ve Got to Learn (Verve/Universal). More Nina Simone from the 1960s is always welcome, though this live July 2, 1966 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival is rather peripheral to her large discography. At about 33 minutes, it’s pretty short, and note that while there are seven tracks listed, one is a forty-second spoken “Intro to Blues for Mama.” The sound and performance are very good, but the song selection is a little on the sedate side, particularly with “I Loves You Porgy” and the ballad “Music for Lovers.” Better and more forceful, though not scintillating, are Charles Aznavour’s “You’ve Got to Learn,” the Simone-Abbey Lincoln co-write “Blues for Mama,” and the highly percussive quasi-spiritual “Be My Husband.” The highlight is a “Mississippi Goddam” that’s taken at a more relaxed funkier pace than the more familiar frenetic versions. It’s not as good as that faster version, but at least it’s notably different. Even within just six songs, this testifies to the unpredictably wide eclecticism of her repertoire, though it doesn’t match the highlights of her recorded work in the era.

17. Jimi Hendrix, Hollywood Bowl August 18, 1967 (Legacy). This was one of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first shows in the US, after their triumphant appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and concerts at the Fillmore, but also after their disastrous, aborted time as an opening act on a Monkees tour. They were still an opening act (for the Mamas and the Papas) at this Hollywood Bowl gig, a week before the US release of Are You Experienced. Recorded by a radio station technician, the sound is good, and the audience reaction somewhere between what you’d imagine the feedback to have been at their previous Californian shows and the Monkees concerts. In a way that helps, since there’s little audience noise to compete with the music. On the other hand, Hendrix sounds a little displeased by the indifferent crowd, judging from between-song remarks like “thanks anyway” after “Killing Floor” and a promise to do a song “from the bottom of our hearts” before “Like a Rolling Stone.” “We’d like to dedicate this last number to ourselves,” he says before “Wild Thing.” “Well, might as well, there’s nobody else here.” Noel Redding even handles a few of the announcements.

As for the performance, it’s pretty good, but at this point not a standout in the bulging Hendrix catalog of posthumously released live shows. It’s similar to their long-available Monterey set, but not as fine. Jimi forgets a few words during “The Wind Cries Mary,” and the interplay between him and the backup vocals on “Fire” is kind of sloppy, though there aren’t other notable flaws. The set does include a few songs that weren’t available on early Hendrix discs, notably “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Catfish Blues,” and a couple covers he had performed at Monterey, “Killing Floor” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

18. Jackie DeShannon, The Sherry Lee Show (Sundazed). Here’s another one for the “primarily of historical interest” pile, although the music is of solidly respectable quality, if hardly nearly as good or characteristic of what the artist would do at her best. It’s amazing enough that these were found and preserved, as this presents 31 songs DeShannon sang on an Aurora, Illinois radio show in 1956 and 1957. She was only in her early teens, and going by the name Sherry Lee. She didn’t sound too much like she’d sound when she started to make many, and often very good, recordings in the early 1960s as a pop-rock singer, often writing her material. Instead, she sounds like a young early honky-tonk performer, with country her main influence, though there’s some early rock and roll in the mix.

These tapes—in decent, though not studio, quality—are somewhat like the early (mid-1950s) country efforts of Wanda Jackson, or the earliest singles by Patsy Cline. DeShannon rocks a little harder than Jackson or Cline did on those discs, but nothing is nearly as hot as Jackson’s early rockabilly classics, and she’s not as deep in the country bag as Cline (whose “Walkin’ After Midnight” she covers here). Most of the cuts are fair honky-tonk tunes, and while DeShannon’s vocals are strong for a youngster, they lack the personality she’d stamp many of her cuts with in the 1960s, almost  to the point where she sounds like an entirely different artist here. About the only thing that does separate her somewhat from other early honky-tonkers are some ventures into Elvis Presley and Fats Domino songs, though they way they’re arranged here is more on the country side of things than rock’n’roll. It sure sounds, by the way, like she sings about catching someone in bed (rather than dead) in her version of “Baby Let’s Play House,” on which she doesn’t bother to change the subject from a girl.

Once in a while on my lists, I note a release from a couple years back that I somehow missed at the time. Here’s one for this list, though it came out in 2021:

Laura Nyro, Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape (Omnivore). This is really more an EP than an album, the eight tracks lasting a mere eighteen-and-a-half minutes, including some incomplete fragments, studio talk, and a false start. This previously unreleased 1966 tape is – the phrase must be again used — primarily of historical interest, even for Nyro fans, due to its brevity and far barer arrangements than even her first album would boast. There aren’t really arrangements, actually; it’s just her on solo piano, going through a few songs that would appear on her early albums (“And When I Die,” “Lazy Susan,” and “Luckie”), and three that didn’t make any of her records (“Go Find the Moon,” “Enough of Your,” and “In and Out”). It’s not fair to judge a solo audition tape against a fully arranged studio album, but like other such demos, it illustrates how much the songs benefited from full backup, as they did on Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery.

Her talents as a songwriter, and also (though they generally haven’t gotten as much acclaim) singer and pianist, are evident, particularly on the song that’s by far the most famous, “And When I Die.” The others, including the previously unheard compositions, aren’t as striking, though they show her knack for blending soul, pop, Tin Pan Alley, and gospel was already developed, and her vocals fully mature. The producers (Artie Mogull and Milt Okun) deserve some credit for detecting her big potential, although the solo piano backing makes much of the material rather similar sounding. Asked if she can play some songs that she didn’t write, Nyro seems rather stuck for a musical response, going through a partial version of “Kansas City” and just a few lines of “I Only Want to Be With You.” Whether or not she knew other people’s songs by heart, maybe she was reluctant to do any but her own at this audition, although ironically, she’d do the best all-cover album by a noted singer-songwriter a few years later on 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle.

Top Twenty-Five (Or So) Music History Books of 2023

There are still plenty of album reissues and music films that interest me, but there are a deluge of music history books in comparison. There are so many that there are at least a half dozen or so such 2023 books I’d like to check out eventually, but I ran out of time. I’m sure there are others from 2023 I’m not yet even aware of that I’ll read in the future. At least my #1 choice was clear-cut, though there were plenty of other fine or at least somewhat worthwhile volumes.

The supplementary list of 2022 books I didn’t read until 2023 is pretty long, running to a dozen titles. I know my way of making annual lists is different than some and perhaps many other writers, who are strict in only considering releases from one calendar year. My feeling is that I’d rather cover deserving books late than never, especially considering that some would have placed quite high on my main 2022 list had I read them in time, and that some are not going to get wide attention. My feeling is also that just because a certain amount of time has passed between a release and a review doesn’t mean it’s any less worth reading, as much as some publicists would like for reviews to only appear at the time (or even before) a book is released. 

Without trying to pat myself on the back too much, also keep in mind that unlike many listmakers, I don’t post mine until the final days of the year, instead of in early December, November, or even earlier. I know this happens because some publishers insist on having these lists compiled on earlier deadlines, and that there’s often a belief that they have to be made in time for holiday or even Black Friday shopping. But not everyone builds their shopping around these times, and not everyone celebrates these holidays. Of more importance, I’m always able to fit in a few more books, records, and films on my lists by writing about those I come across in November and December, instead of relegating them to perpetual absence from annual lists.

1. Nick Drake: The Life, by Richard Morton Jack (Hachette). Drake only gave a couple scanty interviews during his brief life, and information about the British folk-rock singer-songwriter has been on the fairly scarce and contradictory side. That hasn’t stopped there being a few previous books about him. This one far surpasses those in depth, and is a superb biography by any standard, even leaving aside the challenges of piecing together the life of a man about whom even some basic facts have been shrouded in mystery. The comprehensiveness of the research is astounding, and not only for the lengthy interviews conducted with his closest surviving associates, those being producer Joe Boyd, engineer John Wood, and sister Gabrielle Drake. Morton Jack tracked down dozens of others, from school friends who’d never previously spoken on the record to publicists, journalists, Island Records staff (including label head Chris Blackwell), and other musicians amateur and professional. He also draws from many other sources, some quite obscure, going to the heroic extent of tracking down a piece in which Drake was interviewed for the UK magazine Jackie, though for many years it was thought he’d only been interviewed in one article (in Sounds).

Beyond the sheer wealth of information, however, the author also pieced together both his musical career and complicated, troubled personal life with critical acuity and perceptive sensitivity. All of Drake’s three albums, as well as the considerable amount of material taped but not issued during his lifetime (including his mother’s recordings of her compositions), are expertly described and contextualized. Some long-standing mini-myths are punctured along the way, such as him dropping off a tape of Pink Moon in Island’s office without a word (he actually gave it to Blackwell personally); his second album, Bryter Layter, coming out in late 1970 (actually it was delayed a few months until early 1971, causing Drake considerable distress); Drake seldom performing (actually he did a few dozen concerts); and Nick never receiving critical praise while alive (actually there were quite a few good reviews, including some in the US and even one in Penthouse, though these didn’t translate to big sales at the time). 

Drake’s extremely withdrawn personality, and his decline into mental illness and 1974 suicide at the age of 26, presents a greater challenge to document. Fortunately Drake’s father Rodney kept a diary during this time, and Morton Jack had access to this and other letters. While the family’s struggles in the last three years of Nick’s life don’t always make for a pleasant tale, this difficult time is relayed with objective detail and empathy for a situation that his parents and friends handled as best they could, but were ultimately helpless to alleviate. Some rare, sometimes previously unpublished photos and documents help round out the story in a 500-page book that’s far more info-packed and authoritative than anyone would have thought possible.

In accordance with full disclosure, I note that I read a draft of the book before it was published, and gave the author detailed comments. I also interviewed him about the volume at a July 2023 bookstore event, and you can read the transcript here. This biography would certainly have earned the same place on this list, however, had I not been slightly involved or known the author.

2. All the Leaves Are Brown: How the Mamas & the Papas Came Together and Broke Apart, by Scott G. Shea (Backbeat). The Mamas and the Papas had been covered extensively in books before this overall history came out, including in the autobiographies of Michelle and John Phillips; a biography of Cass Elliot; and Go Where You Gonna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas. All of those have value, but this is the first really comprehensive biography of the group as a whole, and the best of the lot. It not only ties together a lot of the strands addressed partially in other books, but also adds quite a bit of additional info not likely to be found elsewhere. The numerous pre-Mamas/Papas outfits in which the members served time are all documented, and the music of the actual band intelligently and objectively discussed. So are the Monterey Pop Festival that John Phillips and their producer Lou Adler co-organized, and the brief ascendance of Scott McKenzie with the Phillips-written “San Francisco.” In contrast to the approach of many biographies, their much duller years after their 1968 split—both solo and together (including their 1971 reunion album)—are only given as much space as needed, which is to say, not very much.

As for their volatile internal relationships and squabbles, as well as their drug use and temper tantrums, those are here too, as they can’t be wholly separated from the music they made and the songs (largely written by John Phillips) they composed. They don’t overshadow the music, with specific tracks discussed in depth, and detailed examination of how they were produced and arranged. What’s perhaps only striking in retrospect is how much their oft-ebullient and joyous music contrasted with very troubled personal lives, and how brief their creative peak was—about a year and a half—before Phillips’s songwriting declined and they passed out of fashion, not long after they were at folk-rock’s cutting edge. Phillips comes in for both much praise for his musical abilities (at least during that brief peak) and criticism for his personal behavior, which echoed beyond the grave when his daughter Mackenzie publicly stated she and her father had sexual relations.

3. I’m Into Something Good: My Life Managing 10cc, Herman’s Hermits & Many More!, by Harvey Lisberg with Charlie Thomas (Omnibus Press). Unlike Brian Epstein, Andrew Oldham, and Allen Klein, Harvey Lisberg is not a name known to most British ‘60s rock fans, though he was a peer of and interacted with them to various degrees during the British Invasion’s heyday. He’s not even as well known as some managers from that scene lower on the totem pole of public recognition, like Giorgio Gomelsky. But he was very successful, and if he didn’t have any clients other than Herman’s Hermits and (starting in the 1970s) 10cc who made big and long-range impacts, they did very well by him. And though 10cc, and certainly Herman’s Hermits, don’t have the critical clout of clients like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds, their stories are pretty interesting. Lisberg played a big role in popularizing both bands, and has a lot of good anecdotes about them and some others in this fun and well written memoir. It’s not huge, but it doesn’t need to be, telling the tale with economic wit, and not getting too caught up in personal or non-musical detours that don’t carry nearly as much interest as the stars at the center.

If Herman’s Hermits’ catalog doesn’t command enormous critical respect (and Lisberg doesn’t blow up their importance any more than it deserves), he has good, interesting insights into how they quickly became international stars after he began working with them. Despite their squeaky clean image, not everything was smooth sailing. They had to replace their rhythm section when Mickie Most agreed to produce them; they started to resent Most for not being able to play on all their own records or have as much artistic self-determination as they wished; and Allen Klein was lurking in hopes of moving into their affairs, though he was fended off for the most part. Lisberg began working with 10cc’s Graham Gouldman long before 10cc started, and the reports of how Gouldman developed a reputation as a songwriter of hits for the Yardbirds and Hollies are also of high value, and not without their quirks – rather absurdly, it was hoped the Beatles might record Gouldman’s “For Your Love” before it found a home with the group supporting the Beatles on a 1964 Christmas bill, the Yardbirds.

Gouldman, Lisberg, and the other members of 10cc realized the importance of constructing and running their own Strawberry Studios before realizing they should form a group of their own to work there. This wasn’t just a notable signpost in their growth; by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was very progressive to have an artist-run studio in Manchester, at a time when the British recording scene was heavily dominated by London. Lisberg had some less durable, and sometime passing, associations with artists like Julie Driscoll, Andrew Webber and Tim Rice, and Barclay James Harvest, and these are relayed without more space than they merit, though they’re also well worth reading.

4. Happy Trails: Andrew Lauder’s Charmed Life and High Times in the Record Business, by Andrew Lauder and Mick Houghton (White Rabbit). Like Harvey Lisberg’s, Andrew Lauder’s name might not be too well known to the average rock fan, even less so in the US than the UK. But as an A&R man (and sometimes working in other capacities) in the British music business since the late 1960s, he worked with an astonishing variety of interesting artists. None of the UK or German artists he was instrumental in helping to get record deals and/or building their careers became big in US, with the exception of Elvis Costello, with whom he didn’t work with as closely as most of the others with whom he was involved. You might also count Jeff Lynne, who was part of the Idle Race, one of the first acts championed by Lauder at his long stint at the UK branch of Liberty Records, though Lynne moved on to the Move and Electric Light Orchestra.

Yet the list is quite impressive and eclectic, including Hawkwind, the Bonzo Dog Band, Dr. Feelgood, Buzzcocks, the Groundhogs, Nick Lowe, Man, and then up through the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Stone Roses. He was also key to bringing German 1970s rock to international attention (even if the acts never rose to more than a cult level in the US) with Can, Neu!, and Amon Düül II. He worked on the UK end of careers of American performers like the Flamin’ Groovies, Buddy Guy, Canned Heat, and John Lee Hooker. All of these artists are discussed with inside (though seldom scandalous) and entertaining info, Lauder also bringing zeal to his memories of cult figures who never even made the dent that the likes of Neu! did, such as post-punkers the Pop Group and early-‘70s progressive rockers High Tide. The stunt of flying a planeload of journalists and hangers-on to Brinsley Schwarz’s legendary hype-ridden appearance at the Fillmore East is covered in detail, though the rest of their time as a band is respectfully noted too. 

The ups and downs (though in Lauder’s case, it was mostly ups) of working within the volatile music business are likewise documented with detail. Andrew moved on from Liberty to Radar, (briefly) Island, Demon/Edsel, and Silvertone. While his recollections of deciding what to reissue and how well the releases sold on Edsel might be regarded as too specialized by some, for record nerds the nitty gritty of how compilations by the likes of the Action and reissues of cult acts like the 13th Floor Elevators were arranged are fascinating. Some of the cold machinations and personal conflicts at various labels are also interesting, and though Lauder seemed to avoid the worst of these, certainly his frustrations at Island Records put that label and its chief Chris Blackwell in a poorer light than is usually reported. The worst foibles of the bands he interacted closely with are given far less sensationalism than many memoirs would, though they do come into play at times, Lauder remembering how a member of the Flamin’ Groovies would blast the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” repeatedly in the wee hours while staying with Andrew in London.

Reading this, you can’t help but wonder at how much the business has changed since Lauder literally wandered into a publishing company in London as a teenager and was offered a job on the spot, starting his climb up the ladder. His post-Stone Roses activities are kind of rushed through in a few pages, but that’s fine, as his interest in being a player in the record world was diminishing, though his passion for music never has. It encompassed a remarkably wide field, from progressive rock to blues and Krautrock to post-punk and catalog reissues. Lauder treats each genre with equal devotion, without prioritizing the bigger commercial successes as more significant.

5. The Island Book of Records 1959-68, edited by Neil Storey (Manchester University Press). From a purely visual point of view, and to a large degree just for the information it contains, this nearly 400-page coffee table book is stunning. Covering the first decade of Island Records’ existence, it does indeed focus on the records the label issued, though there’s lot of history of the company. Starting with its considerable attributes, there are reproductions of most of the covers of the LPs it issued during this era, many quite rare, often adding back covers, inner labels, and non-UK editions. There are also lots of photos of the artists, reproductions of ads from the period, Island-related documents like press releases and tape boxes, and other memorabilia. 

There are also many extensive quotes, drawn both from interviews done for this project and plenty of other sources, some dating back to when the records were made. Oriented toward interesting anecdotes, these add up to an oral history that’s a book in itself. They feature memories from those involved in founding and running the company, especially its main executive, Chris Blackwell; numerous artists who were on the label; and ancillary figures with something interesting to pitch in, including photographers of the LP covers, producers, and recording engineers. While most of the first half or so of the book focuses on the ska and reggae upon which Island was initially built, there’s much coverage of the rock it moved into in the mid-1960s. Traffic in particular get a lot of space, including plenty of pages on their legendary cottage in the British countryside.

While early Island releases by some other celebrated artists like Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, and John Martyn are noted in detail, refreshingly, quite a few of the less renowned Island acts receive a good share of attention too. These include Spooky Tooth (dating back to their initial incarnation as Art), Nirvana, Wynder K. Frogg, and jazz musician Harold MacNair. Although the first artists with whom Blackwell had success, Millie Small and the Spencer Davis Group, actually had their big hits licensed to Fontana Records, as Island was able to repackage some of their material, they’re also detailed at length. There are also entries, though understandably shorter ones, for Island’s flops and odd records where no one can quite remember why they were green-lighted. There’s even a section on their “adult” line and rugby discs, which weren’t notable aesthetic accomplishments, but played a big part in keeping the label afloat.

For all its assets, the text could have been better assembled. When some of the figures are first quoted, there aren’t parenthetical notes identifying their role in Island, although brief bios are given in an appendix. This and some of the sequencing can sometimes make it harder to follow than it could have been with that additional context. Some of the quotes are on the mundane, technical, or list-heavy side and could have been more tightly edited. It could be contended that more attention could have been paid to Island’s singles, although there’s a lengthy discography of those in an appendix, and there were so many that giving all of them detailed entries would have expanded the book to an unpublishable size. Still, there were some interesting acts who only had singles or EPs on Island, including the Smoke, the Anglos, and Chris Farlowe. And there are a good number of typos throughout the book – hardly a rarity in music book publishing, unfortunately, but there are more here than in most such productions. It’s to be hoped the next volume, which will only cover the years 1969 and 1970, won’t have as many.

Here’s a mistake that might never be pointed out anywhere else, for what it’s worth. On page 171, in the multi-page entry for The Best of Millie Small, there’s a picture of the Rolling Stones with a young woman on the cover of a March 1964 issue of Pop Weekly. There’s no caption, so one assumes this was placed here because it was thought the woman with the Stones is Millie Small. It isn’t. It’s Cleo Sylvestre, whom the Stones backed on a 1964 single produced by their manager at the time, Andrew Oldham.

6. But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the ‘60s Girl Groups, by Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz (Hachette). The authors interviewed more than a hundred singers, songwriters, producers, and associates for this book, as well as using a good number of quotes from other sources when figures were dead or unavailable. While this doesn’t uncover a great deal of basic info that wasn’t already known, there are many stories about the songs, the records, and the oft-fraught business side and internal relations in the girl group scene. The emphasis is very much on the top acts, and most of this is devoted to those – the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, the Chantels, the Dixie Cups, the Chiffons, the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, and the Marvelettes, with a little on the Exciters, the Cookies, the Angels, and others. That’s still enough to fill more than 400 pages, and get into some fairly little known stories like the Cookies singing backup vocals on the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” and Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” originally being intended for Dee Dee Sharp.

The quotes are sometimes gossipy in nature, and occasionally go into observations about the music business of the era and early days of rock’n’roll that aren’t tightly related to the girl group subject. Note also that this doesn’t cover the numerous fine solo artists who sang in the girl group style, like Mary Wells and Lesley Gore, or some of the actual groups who made good records, like the biggest one-shot of the whole genre, the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.” There’s a little too much space at the end on reunions and post-‘70s oldies touring, and for the likely small minority that cares, it would be good to have the sources of the quotes that weren’t from first-hand interviews noted. These are minor flaws in an overall useful addition to girl group literature, and one that details some of the darkest sides of the story. The failure of many of the artists to get their just royalties isn’t so unknown, but there were also rapes of a couple girl group stars; frequent falling-outs that ended close friendships in many of the groups; and, for Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes, struggles with mental illness and homelessness.

7. Time Has Come Today: Rock and Roll Diaries 1967-2007, by Harold Bronson (Trouser Press Books). Rhino Records co-founder Harold Bronson has written a couple previous books based around his former business and associated activities, The Rhino Records Story and the more specialized, anecdote-driven My British Invasion. There’s some inevitable overlap between topics covered in those and this volume, which puts many of his experiences in a chronologically ordered diary format. It’s still pretty entertaining whether you’ve read the others or not, tracing his journey from high school music fan to preeminent label reissue executive, getting to meet many of the interesting characters in all levels of the music (and sometimes general entertainment) business along the way. These go all the way from the Beatles down to a down-and-out Sky Saxon, and even some of the stories relating to stars are unfamiliar, like Bronson getting the scoop from Andrew Oldham as to why the Rolling Stones’ Big Hits album had a different version of “Time Is On My Side” than the hit single. Oldham told Bronson he didn’t remember being asked before, though Harold brought it up decades after the tracks were recorded.

Peter Noone, the Monkees, the Standells, Blondie, the Pretty Things, Arthur Lee and Love, the Yardbirds, the Music Machine, and obscure names known only to collectors like the Autographs – Bronson has stories about all of them and dozens of others, often detailing conversations (and brush-offs) that caught them more off-guard then they usually were. He got to interview some of them, as well as some acts he and not too many others were terribly interested in—which generate some amusing stories that are more interesting than their then-current records—as a rock journalist in the 1970s before concentrating on Rhino. There might be a little more than necessary about his semi-pro, humor-oriented bands in the early years, but the focus is on other personalities. Which are sometimes more disagreeable than some fans want to hear, as when Paul Rothchild dismisses his attempt to interview him about working with Love because the producer thought a reissue compilation wouldn’t sell, or Jeff Beck declining to authorize a Yardbirds BBC compilation.

An aspect to these reflections that might be more subtle, but is also striking, is Bronson often dealt with figures who were on the downside of their career, or way past the point where they were even involved in making records. As a young writer in the ‘70s, he often spoke with people who had been stars, but were just a few years past their peak work, though they weren’t so past their primes that they weren’t still figuring on getting back to the highest level. Some who were long past their hits—sometimes just one or two hit singles—still were under the impression they were just another hit record away from getting right back in the game. Some had kept physically fit; others had gone to waste. Bronson treats them respectfully without making undue fun of their delusions or conditions, but they’re still sobering reminders of how the stretches in which musicians are famous and at their most artistically productive are often short.

8. Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, by Bill Janovitz (Hachette). I admit I’m not especially a fan of Russell’s records, even from his brief period as a big star in the early 1970s. But Russell’s life is of interest to almost anyone with a serious passion for rock history, owing to his collaborations with many artists and his substantial achievements as a ‘60s Hollywood session man and arranger. This 500 plus-pager has loads of research and detail on all phases of his colorful, sometimes volatile career and life, though the bulk of it is on his most significant years as a recording artist, from around the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Maybe some of the minuter detail could have been pared down about his various homes and family relationships. Sections on his post-‘70s/pre-final years, when he largely toiled in obscurity in small venues and many meager records, can be tougher to navigate, though the author acknowledges the shortcomings of much of Russell’s work during this rough stretch. Russell’s descent from stardom was bumpier than most, and his resurgence in the 21st century (largely engineered by Elton John) among the more unexpected music comebacks, and that unnerving path is meticulously documented here.

The book doesn’t unduly dwell on the fallow period, however, though it doesn’t pull punches as to his stormy artistic and personal interactions There’s plenty about his slow rise from session player and arranger (most successfully on hits by Gary Lewis & the Playboys) to making his own records, combining multiple roots styles and more. There’s a lot about his most celebrated guest appearances and concerts, particularly on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and the Concert for Bangladesh, and his work with Delaney & Bonnie. There’s also quite a bit about Les Blank’s early-‘70s documentary film on Russell, unreleased for many years due to Leon’s objections, though it became available shortly before Russell’s death.

9. David Bowie Rainbow Man: 1967-1980, by Jérôme Soligny (Monoray). While there’s no shortage of Bowie biographies and reference books, this stands out for its sheer length (almost 700 pages) and a different approach than most other major Bowie volumes. Soligny focuses on extended quotes from interviews, most though not all done by the author, with a great many people who worked with Bowie. This includes major figures like producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, the Spiders from Mars, and side musicians like Carlos Alomar. There are, perhaps even more valuably, memories from many who haven’t been extensively interviewed, including significant figures like Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s late-‘60s girlfriend who was part of a trio with him and John Hutchinson (who’s also interviewed). And there are quite a few interviews with much more obscure figures with more peripheral but interesting relationships, usually working rather than personal ones, with Bowie. These include sleeve designers, photographers, recording engineers and technicians, and musicians who just played with him a bit on record and/or on stage. 

It’s true some key colleagues’ voices are missing, like Brian Eno, Angie Bowie, and manager Tony Defries (see the comment from the book’s author on this post for a note on those). He spoke with a great many others, however, usually in pretty recent times (the 2010s). Some of the stories clear up or actually contradict stories and incidents long reported as fact. Some of them might disappoint those who enjoy some of the more mythical ones. Singer Antonia Maass contended, for instance, that the lyrics to “Heroes,” long reported to be based on a meeting by the Berlin Wall between her and Visconti, were written before they started their affair. The oral histories are linked by commentary from the author about each of the albums Bowie recorded between 1967 and 1980, and together with extensive footnotes, they provide the basis for separate chapters organized around each album. His pre-1967 work is also discussed, as are some singles and side projects (particularly his work with Iggy Pop) not contained on the albums.

Inevitably there’s some overlap between the extensive info here and what you can find in other Bowie tomes—which, given the length of this book, are likely to have been read by many who read this volume. The reason this doesn’t rank higher, however, is that Soligny’s prose can be overly grandiose, and the oral histories often extol Bowie’s virtues to an extreme degree, though there’s room for some (not many) controversial or negative views. The footnotes are also too numerous and often too extraneously detailed, though as they’re separated into sections of their own at the end of each chapter, they don’t interrupt the text as much as they could have.

10. Arhoolie Records: Down Home Music: The Stories and Photographs of Chris Strachwitz, by Joel Selvin with Chris Strachwitz (Chronicle). Dying shortly before this book came out, Chris Strachwitz was a major figure in the documentation of American (and occasionally non-American) roots music as the head of Arhoolie Records. He recorded many blues, zydeco, Tex-Mex, folk, and old-time country discs, often going to where the musicians worked (usually in the South) and sometimes making what were essentially field recordings in humble low-budget settings. He took many pictures along the way, and this 240-page coffee table book has lots of them, spanning the 1950s to the 1990s. There are plenty of major figures, too many to list in a sentence or two, though some of them include Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Rose Maddox, John Fahey, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Barbara Dane, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Lydia Mendoza, and Clifton Chenier. Some well known stars who were playing with or observing roots musicians are here too, like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, and Ry Cooder. However, there are just as many images of performers who are barely known or even unknown, and while almost half a century is represented, the bulk of the pictures date from Arhoolie’s prime in the 1960s and early 1970s. While photo-centric books don’t figure as strongly as standard text-oriented ones on my lists, this is the best music photo book of the year.

Although Strachwitz didn’t boast much of his skills with a camera, most of the pictures are fine and sometimes striking from sheer visual points of view, aside from preserving important musical history. Maybe professionals with the techniques sometimes judged to be superior to semi-pros like Strachwitz would have taken photos considered of greater aesthetic quality. But it’s doubtful they would have gained the intimate trust that allowed him to take these pictures—in settings in which outsiders were sometimes viewed with suspicion—in the first place. There are so many exceptional photos that these again can’t be thoroughly listed in a mere review, but the one of Sonny Boy Williamson playing in an alley behind an Arkansas radio station in 1965 is particularly iconic. The trio he’s heading, with promotional handlettering for their radio show on the drum, almost seem to make a definitive pose for the birth of rock and roll, even if this was taken in 1965, long after rock’s actual birth. Not all of the most memorable images are of famous artists or from the 1960s, a 1986 shot of a blind harp musician and his wife working as street musicians in Guadalajara serving as another example.

The introductory 40-page essay by Joel Selvin gives a thorough history of Strachwitz’s work with Arhoolie Records, also noting his other accomplishments as the owner of the Bay Area record store Down Home Music and compiler of reissues of rare roots music. Strachwitz himself gives succinct yet detailed captions for all of the photos, relaying interesting memories of how the pictures were taken and what interested him in the performers. Often he had to put himself in precarious and sometimes even threatening situations to hear, photograph, record, and get to know the musicians, and such stories dot his memories. In his travels, particularly in the earlier years, he also got to experience a side of the United States—in ethnic communities with little representation in mainstream media, and often quite poor ones—that was experienced by few outside of those areas, as is vividly conveyed in some of the images. A “Rock and Roll Cafe,” as it was billed, in Texas in 1969 was a tin shack that looks on the verge of falling over with a good kick or two. Writes Strachwitz: “I didn’t stay for lunch, even though the door was open.”

11. I’m Told I Had a Good Time: The Micky Dolenz Archives, Vol. 1 (Beatland). Micky Dolenz took and kept a lot of pictures while, and shortly before and after, he was in the Monkees, as well as accumulating memorabilia along the way. This nearly 500-page coffee table-sized volume reproduces a lot of the material, as well as presenting memories from Micky about the images in captions ranging from extensive to brief. While naturally the core audience for this is Monkee fandom, these aren’t just pictures of Micky and the group, as there are also figures with whom he toured and interacted. Of special interest are a few of Jimi Hendrix during the short time in summer 1967 when he was a support act on a Monkees tour, though there are also very good ones of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino from the Monkees TV special on which they appeared. Going back to his childhood and little known pre-Monkees mid-‘60s bands, the coverage extends to 1977 and his work as part of a duo with Davy Jones during that time, though the post-Monkees section isn’t large and the mid-‘60s take up the bulk of the book. Along the way are other non-Monkees pictures of note, including some of stars like Harry Nilsson, Cass Elliot, Eric Clapton, and Stephen Stills.

The text, based around interviews with Dolenz by editor Andrew Sandoval, is straightforward and witty, though not too lengthy on some of the Monkees-era photos, with quite a few of the images of the group on tour simply presented as they are. Encompassing early report cards to a receipt from the Beatles’ Apple fashion boutique and much else, one of the more interesting pieces of memorabilia is a memo from Screen Gems-Columbia Music recommending Dolenz’s composition “Randy Scouse Git”’s title be changed (as it was in the UK to avoid controversy, with the newly titled “Alternate Title” reaching #2). The post-1970 section is more interesting than some might anticipate, particularly Micky’s story of being cut from a program for the inaugural ceremonies of Richard Nixon’s second (and uncompleted) term. Dolenz speculates a Watergate joke he might have been overheard making could have responsible.

Among the more memorable observations in the captions is Dolenz’s remark about a picture of Hendrix aboard a Florida boat in July 1967: “It kills me. Jimi, you’re wearing a fur coat! It’s 90 degrees!” And there’s a frank reflection on his post-Monkees singles for MGM: “Looking back, I should have just continued doing Micky-the-Monkee-flavored stuff.” Some more extensive captions for some of the Monkees-era pictures would have been welcome, but for a massive Monkees history, there’s Andrew Sandoval’s The Monkees—The Day-By-Day Story, which like this book has exceptional production values.

12. Happy Forever, by Mark Volman with John Cody (Jawbone Press). Along with Howard Kaylan, fellow singer Volman was the mainstay of the Turtles and Flo & Eddie. They were also part of Frank Zappa’s group in the early 1970s and sang backup for a bunch of records by other artists (notably T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong”), as well as doing some radio and other entertainment ventures. This has an unusual structure for an autobiography, as it’s more an oral history of Volman’s projects dominated by quotes from many professional and personal associates. Volman himself adds only occasional text, and it’s almost like a history of Volman as seen through those who knew and worked with him. It doesn’t suffer for that, but most of the perspective is on the outside, and it serves as much as a history of the Turtles and Flo & Eddie as it does a Volman memoir.

Plenty of people were interviewed for the book, most notably almost all of the other Turtles (including Kaylan, naturally); other members of the Mothers of Invention when Volman and Kaylan were part of the band; ex-wives and relatives; and lots of other musicians who interacted with Volman, sometimes extensively and sometimes slightly, from Alice Cooper and Ray Manzarek to Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. Of most interest are the detailed comments from fellow Turtles, including some who aren’t heard from much, like Jim Pons (who was also in the Mothers), Jim Tucker, Johnny Barbata, John Seiter, and Al Nichol. There are some conflicting and at times contentious accounts that, as in most acts with a happy-go-lucky image, reveal tension and infighting behind the scenes, as well as considerable business problems. There are also stories of how their hits were selected and constructed, and how Volman and Kaylan made the transition to a more underground comic duo after the Turtles broke up at the beginning of the 1970s.

Some of the comments, particularly from fellow legacy acts who didn’t actually intersect much with the Turtles’ paths, are more about the general 1960s/1970s rock scene (and particularly the unjust contracts and financial rewards) than Mark Volman. In keeping with the cliché reviewers often have to note, it gets much less interesting after the Turtles, Zappa, and Flo & Eddie. Sections about Volman’s entry into teaching for much of his career and his late-life embrace of Christian religious faith could have been shortened, indeed drastically reduced. So could repetitious testaments to his good nature and fine character, though there’s occasional criticism of his behavior. 

13. Too Late to Stop Now: More Rock’n’Roll War Stories, by Allan Jones (Bloomsbury). For more than twenty years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Jones was a writer for and then editor of Melody Maker. Then he went on to a long stint at Uncut, where he had a regular column recalling his interactions, often though not always wild, with many musicians. These provided the basis for both a previous book, Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, and this similarly structured follow-up. Several dozen chapters, usually very short ones, recap his interviews (and sometimes travels) with a host of stars and more cultish critical favorites, from Elton John and Peter Gabriel to Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, and the Blasters. These usually emphasize the bawdy times and behavior at least as much as discussing the artists’ music, quite often ending up (or even beginning with) an onslaught of drinks quaffed by both Jones and his subjects. Such is the flow of alcohol that you wonder whether holding your liquor, or at least doing “when in Rome” amounts of booze (and sometimes coke), was considered one of the prime qualifications for and perks of the job.

Like Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, this is largely pretty entertaining, if a little wearing when these mini-portraits give so much weight to substance intake and eccentric, at times aggravating behavior, often relayed with matter-of-fact amusement. Particularly in the later pieces, Jones sometimes goes in greater depth with more focus on the music than he did in his younger days. These are the most valuable chapters, all drawing from extensive first-hand interviews. The best are the ones spotlighting Hynde, John Cale, the Clash, and Wilko Johnson, where some historical perspective takes the place of more youthful searches for kicks. Although pretty long at 360 pages, it goes by faster than you’d think, as the wealth of chapters ensures a fair amount of white space at the beginnings and ends.

14. CSN&Y: Love The One You’re With, by Henry Diltz (Genesis Publications). At a price of about $375, this limited edition (1650 copies) book is of course not for the standard consumer, or even for the budget of the standard CSNY fan. Like other Genesis publications, however, it has considerable value for those who can afford it, or at least who are able to read if not own a copy, as I was. It has 835 photos by Henry Diltz—one of the most renowned rock photographers, especially for his pictures from the late 1960s and 1970s—and almost 60,000 words of text from Diltz, CSNY, and more than a dozen others who knew and observed the group. While the text doesn’t have much basic information that’s not in the numerous other books about the group and their members (and some of it’s taken from previously published sources), it’s entertaining and has some stories and observations that aren’t common fare, like John Sebastian suggesting either Graham Nash or Phil Everly when they were looking for a high harmony singer, and Stephen Stills having a different account than David Crosby and Nash as to how the three got together (the usual story being Cass Elliott was responsible). 

While some of these pictures will be familiar to CSNY followers, plenty probably won’t, including some outtakes from the famous session for the first CSN (no Y at that point) album. And while the story of how the cover shot was taken and the house had been demolished by the time they went to try a reshoot is fairly well known to devotees, it’s interesting to hear the detailed accounts behind the photo session. Less interesting are the pictures and text about their several reunion tours, although those make up a low percentage of this volume. It’s not a thorough history of the band, as it’s built around the times Diltz photographed them; nor does it go into much depth as to their numerous side and solo projects, although some are covered for each of the four. Note that while numerous pages are reproduced from Diltz’s notebooks of the time, these are less valuable than you might hope. His observations are rather mundane, and more troublingly, his handwriting is simply hard to read.

15. 1964: Eyes of the Storm, by Paul McCartney (Liveright). From late 1963 through late 1964 (though mostly from late 1963 through early 1964), Paul McCartney took a lot of photos of the other Beatles, himself, associates, and the press, fans, and public that were chasing and sometimes hounding them around almost nonstop. This book has 275 of them, largely spanning their rise to Beatlemania in the UK in late 1963; their trip to Paris in early 1964; and their subsequent initial trip to the US in February 1964, though there are a few from late in that year. McCartney wasn’t a professional photographer—he never has made that part of his profession, actually—and the pictures are primarily of documentary value, though he was paying some attention to learning about composition and lighting from some of the photographers that regularly worked with the group.

Of course, this was a very historic time at which Paul was at the center, so even average pictures carry a good deal of significance. There are images of the Beatles backstage, onstage, in hotels, and on vacation in Miami, and of key figures close to them like Cynthia Lennon, Jane Asher, Brian Epstein, and road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. There are some unexpected musicians of note like French star Johnny Hallyday and drummer Mickey Jones. And there are plenty of pictures of fans, photographers, reporters, police officers, and anonymous observers to the giddy madness. There are also pictures taken by professional photographers from the time, particularly the ones in which Paul and/or the whole group can be seen. Some of the ones McCartney took are above average as standalone images, like one of George Harrison wearing two goofy hats on top of each other, and onstage shots of Billy J. Kramer and Sylvie Vartan.

With the abundance of books, many of them photo-oriented, covering the Beatles, some might consider this an inessential extravagance. But while it’s not part of the core Beatles library, it’s better than many such coffee table rock photo volumes. There’s not much text, but McCartney did write a thoughtful lengthy opening introduction that’s not just the too-common “I’m so honored to be able to present this book” paragraph or two many celebrities offer. He also has shorter, but still substantial, introductions to each of the five sections. There’s also a lengthy essay by Jill Lepore about the cultural context of the Beatles during this period and a similarly lengthy, serious appraisal of the artistic qualities of the pictures by Rosie Broadley, Senior Curator of the 20th Century Collections at London’s National Portrait Gallery, which had an exhibition of many of these photos around the time this book was published. McCartney’s captions for the photos are very brief, and it would have been good to have more in-depth comments and recollections, but on the whole this is more worthwhile than many such projects.

16. The Searchers: Crazy Dreams! Every Song from Every Session, 1963-2023 ( A thorough critical Searchers discography might have a small niche audience, but I’m glad Peter Checksfield’s doing this and other such specialized books. This has entries for all of the songs they released, along with descriptive paragraphs that can be generous in their judgments. But they’re useful, especially since not too many people are familiar with this British Invasion band’s work aside from their handful of hit singles. Besides covering their singles and LPs, there are entries for work that might not even be known by serious fans, like EP-only tracks, non-LP B-sides, and foreign language versions. There are even thorough details about the fairly numerous recordings Tony Jackson did after leaving in the mid-1960s (even including an unreleased BBC session) and the few drummer/singer Chris Curtis recorded after leaving. The 1963 live Hamburg performances and their 1963 album-length demo of sorts taped at Liverpool’s Iron Door club are included, and their numerous BBC and TV performances listed. 

Some info here and there is so obscure it might even be unknown to owners of multi-disc Searchers compilations, like the original performers of lesser known songs they covered like “Alright” (the Grandisons) and “Each Time” (the Bon Bons). It’s also spotted that there are two versions of “I’ll Be Doggone,” the more common one with a Frank Allen lead vocal, the less heard one with Curtis on lead from on a US LP. And did you know that the French version of “It’s All Been a Dream” has Mike Pender on lead vocals, though Tony Jackson sang the English-language original? It’s true the music, and hence unavoidably the text, gets less interesting after 1966, and the post-Sire comeback entries really play out the string. Reproductions of many record covers, many of them rare and foreign editions, dot the layout.

17. The Byrds: Every Album, Every Song, by Andy McArthur (Sonicbond). Although this won’t have much information serious Byrds fans don’t know, especially if you have Johnny Rogan’s mammoth books about the group, it’s a good and succinct overview of their recordings. Every single track on their albums is detailed and critically evaluated, including non-LP B-sides, bonus tracks on their reissues, the pre-first-album recordings that have been on the various packages with Preflyte in the title, and other bits that only show up on compilations. Some interesting trivia is sprinkled throughout, and the author doesn’t hesitate to criticize subpar songs or give slack to their post-1968 work, which was considerably inferior to their consistently innovative prior efforts.

18. Jerry Lee Lewis: Breathless! Every Song from Every Session, 1952-2022, by Peter Checksfield( Relentless researcher Checksfield continues his series of self-published reference books with a hefty volume detailing every song Lewis recorded. Presented in alphabetical order by song title, 707 separate titles are described in paragraph-long entries varying from a couple sentences to quite a few sentences. There are more than 707 entries, as Lewis recorded multiple versions of quite a few songs, and each separate version, including remakes, live performances, and the odd LP- or 45-only variation are also discussed. There are even tracks from bootlegs, of which there are more than many fans are aware of, and download-only items. You know it’s comprehensive when the entry for the 1966 recordings of the non-hit single “Memphis Beat” notes the substantial differences between the LP and 45 versions, and on the next page, it’s noted that a rare Japanese quadrophonic release has a slightly longer edit of a 1973 remake of the same tune.

You have to be a rabid fan to tackle such a mammoth catalog, and some of the assessments might strike some as too generous. That’s especially so when dealing with the many recordings Lewis made after the early 1970s, a time when he’s generally considered to have passed the point at which his releases were of much commercial significance or peak artistry. But Checksfield doesn’t hold back from criticizing, sometimes severely, efforts he deems subpar or flawed – not just from Lewis’s final half century, but going back to the Sun Records days. The writing’s clear and informative, and though the design is basic, it’s broken up by numerous black-and-white reproductions of record covers, inner disc labels, and screen shots of filmed performances.

19. Blood in the Tracks, by Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik (University of Minnesota Press). It’s pretty well known – well, at least to a lot of serious Bob Dylan fans — that half of Blood on the Tracks was recorded in New York, and half in Minneapolis. Dylan actually recorded all the songs in New York, but decided to re-record some of them in Minnesota in the final week of 1974. The stories of the musicians who played on the records aren’t so well known, and this book discusses their backgrounds and post-Blood activities in depth, though the actual two Minneapolis sessions (December 27 and December 30, 1974) for the album are the heart of the narrative. 

Although one of the session men, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, did go on to became a pretty well known folk musician, the others didn’t. Their tales are of more interest than expected, especially as they’re sometimes dismissed as pretty anonymous figures that were assembled on the spur of the moment. It’s true Dylan’s brother, David Zimmerman, got the backup together very quickly, but several had done or been on records, with connections ranging from Leo Kottke and Olivia Newton-John to a fake Zombies. Although he (unlike the musicians and some others with ties to the sessions) wasn’t interviewed for the book, David Zimmerman had been involved in record production and music management, and it’s interesting to hear details of some of those, as not much has been written about him even in some huge Bob Dylan biographies. The sessions themselves are described in engaging almost play-by-play fashion. The impression’s also given that while Dylan was frustratingly uncommunicative to the musicians he used in New York, he was relatively friendly and open to suggestions in the studio where the Minneapolis sessions took place, Sound 80.

Some critics, fans, and musicians have contended that the more sparsely arranged New York sessions (whether in the takes chosen for release and the outtakes) were better and more in line with the emotions of the songs. Space is made here for those views, but also for ones by the musicians that the Minnesota performances were better, though one of the less aesthetic arguments is that they were more suited to being played on the radio. Some of the later section given to post-Blood on the Tracks work by the session guys, and their reunions in sorts of tributes to the album and Dylan, isn’t too captivating and could have been cut down. Even there, though, you get a good story about Peter Noone’s brief new wave group the Tremblers (in which one played), revealing Noone’s guitar skills were so lacking that his instrument was surreptitiously disconnected onstage, though “he never caught on.”

There’s just one mistake here that cries to be called out. There’s a reference to that Tremblers/Dylan sideman, Gregg Inhofer, being snubbed by Dylan when Bob was checking out the Stray Cats as a possible opening act at a Minneapolis club a few months after Blood on the Tracks was released. That would have been in 1975, but the Stray Cats didn’t form until 1979.

20. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir, by Sly Stone with Ben Greenman (AUWA). Since Sly Stone hasn’t been heard from much in decades, and hasn’t appeared to be in the best shape when he has, it’s a surprise that he produced a memoir at all around the time of his eightieth birthday. Stone’s very colorful music and life have never been covered by a satisfactory biography, and while this account has its value, it leaves the impression there’s much more that could have been said. It’s not as lively as might be expected, telling the basic story of his amazing rise from producer/DJ/sporadic recording artist to superstar in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That’s about the first half of the book; the second half details his rather spectacular fall into both professional and personal abysses, and like many such memoirs loses considerable momentum as his life hits the doldrums.

The book is best, and Sly seems most engaged, when talking about his music. There are interesting details of songs, recordings, and albums, though it’s a bit like reading box set liner notes with a lot of participation from the artist. Be cautioned, too, that he spends almost as much time on his post-prime (say post-1973) records as his glory years, though almost anyone would feel those later discs  are considerably inferior and less deserving of insights. There’s more that could be said about his time as a producer of acts like the Beau Brummels and the Great Society (with Grace Slick on vocals) at Autumn Records, though he does give more time than anticipated to his Stone Flower label for other artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

His numerous controversies—showing up late for shows (which he feels has been overblown, blaming this in part on getting multiple  bookings, though few other artists of his stature from the era have cited this as a problem), heavy drug use, financial ruin—are relayed with some nonchalance, and without much regret or remorse for any pain it might have inflicted. The birth of his child with the Family Stone’s Cynthia Robinson suddenly crops up in the narrative with an aside that the pair had off-on flings while she was in the  group; the departures of original Family Stone members are sometimes noted with brevity and little explanation; even an attack by one of his dogs on one of his kids that resulted in the child losing part of an ear is dispatched relatively quickly. It leaves a feeling of a guy who lacks almost as much of a full explanation for his fall from grace as dedicated fans do.

21. The Jive 95, by Hank Rosenfeld (Backbeat). With a bit of linking text, this is an oral history of San Francisco radio station KSAN, one of the most celebrated of the underground-oriented stations (for both music and public affairs) operating from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Plenty of books are uneven, and among those, this is more uneven than most. There are a good share of interesting stories from DJs, engineers, local rock critics, and others who worked at or were associated with the station, as well as its predecessor KMPX, from which much of the staff moved to KSAN after a 1968 strike.

Some of those quoted (some from archival rather than first-hand interviews) are pretty well known, like original Rolling Stone music editor and occasional DJ Ben Fong-Torres; San Francisco Chronicle rock critic and author Joel Selvin; news reporter Scoop Nisker; and Raechel Donahue, DJ and wife of the station’s most famed figure, longtime DJ Tom Donahue. Some of the more colorful passages include accounts of how the Symbionese Liberation Army sent tapes to the station to broadcast their messages; a Tom Donahue interview of John Lennon around the time of Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album; and the general looseness of a time when DJs could play what they wanted, sometimes when they were stoned, and the general station operations were more casual and spontaneous than commercial stations would be in later decades.

It’s not a smooth read, however, as some of the comments are brief general observations about the San Francisco scene that have been written about for many years. Some of the transcriptions of on-air passages would probably sound a lot funnier when heard than read (and links are provided to hear some airchecks). Some quotes, especially toward the beginning, are uninformative in their brevity, and it’s not always easy to follow how the station’s programming and personnel evolved and changed. The mixed response to the introduction of punk and new wave into some programming by the late 1970s is covered, as is KSAN’s sad transformation into a mainstream popular music station, and then a country station, with none of its former identity intact. There’s some imperfect editing and a few factual mistakes that should have been caught, like identifying Jefferson Airplane’s first woman singer, Signe Anderson, as “Signe Wilkerson.”

22. Rod Stewart: The Classic Years, by Sean Egan (Backbeat). While this is more of a critical overview than a biography, and covers a somewhat wider era than what many would consider Stewart’s core classic years, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor. The focus is roughly on the years 1969-1972, when Stewart made what almost everyone considers to be his best solo albums (particularly Every Picture Tells a Story), and also had a simultaneous successful career as lead singer of the Faces. Egan draws on some first-hand interviews with insiders, especially Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan of the Faces; drummer Mickey Waller; manager Billy Gaff; and Rod’s romantic partner of the early 1970s, Dee Harrington. There are detailed critiques of the albums that, unusually for books of this sort, don’t hold back in pointing out their shortcomings, even for records the author obviously admires. Egan, like most critics, doesn’t like Stewart’s post-1972 records as much, but there’s still a lot of coverage of them up through the early 1980s, although it’s not as extensive as what’s given the previous ones. It can be tough going to go through the tracks of records that are both more boring and not as familiar as the classic stuff, and the best of the book — like the best of Stewart’s discography —lies in the earlier material, particularly what’s dealt with in the first half of this volume.

23. Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir, by Lucinda Williams (Crown). Williams has had a life more interesting than that of the usual musician who rose from cult to mainstream popularity. She didn’t have records that charted until she was well into her forties. As she overlapped the country, folk, and rock worlds, the record industry did not quickly embrace an artist they found difficult to classify. Although a little on the brief side, her memoir is a good read, beginning with a troubled upbringing with a mother struggling with mental illness and failure to complete high school owing to clashes with authority. She needed to constantly move with her family growing up, and continued to move from New Orleans to Austin to Los Angeles to New York to Nashville as she tried to forge a living in the music business, making her debut album for Folkways in the late 1970s for a $300 fee. There were numerous troubled relationships on the way, some of which informed her songwriting, though a lot of the text does discuss her music and records as well as her personal life.

Some of the most interesting sections describe clashes with record labels and producers in her long journey toward establishing herself as an acclaimed recording artist. She deliberately got herself booted off RCA by criticizing the label in public; her contract was bought from Rick Rubin when an album was going to be delayed by two whole years due to a business complication unrelated to her record; producers mixed some of her work to her dissatisfaction, leading to some re-recording and a permanent falling out with a colleague. By the 21st century she’d achieved considerable sales and widespread critical praise, yet there’s little in the book from the last fifteen years. Indeed the depth of coverage trails off considerably by the time it reaches the 2000s, which might disappoint some fans, though the previous years are documented in reasonable depth.

24. Cream: Clapton Bruce & Baker Sitting on Top of the World (Schiffer Publishing). This slim picture-oriented book is pretty narrowly focused and thus might have a narrow appeal, even considering Eric Clapton and Cream remain hugely famous. It’s devoted to the group’s San Francisco shows at the Fillmore and Winterland between February 29 and March 10 in 1968, during which some official and unofficial recordings were made. The numerous pictures vary from highly professional to dark, blurry amateur audience shots; there’s a big difference between the ones by the top rock photographer of the time, Jim Marshall, and many of the others. These are broken up by text commentary and memories from some who were there, including filmmaker Tony Palmer and engineer Bill Halverson. Some of the writing could have benefited from some editing and higher professionalism, but there’s some interesting information for devotees, particularly those clarifying what was played when and what circulates on unofficial tapes. Memorabilia like tape boxes, posters, and ads are also included.

25. The Tremeloes: Even the Bad Times Are Good!, by Peter Checksfield ( Peter Checksfield’s books are for the serious fan/collector. But even compared to most of his other volumes—including two others that came out in 2023 and are reviewed above, on Jerry Lee Lewis and the Searchers—this has a pretty specialized audience. It’s similar in format to those books, going through all of the Tremeloes’ releases (including those when they were Brian Poole and the Tremeloes from 1962-66) chronologically, with descriptive entries for each. These are enhanced by first-hand and archive quotes from the members (including Poole), as well as quite a few photos and reproductions of record sleeves. The members’ solo releases—not just Poole’s, but the yet lesser known ones of other guys in the group—and tracks that found release on archival comps are included, and many covers of Tremeloes’ material noted. Appendices include a timeline, discography, and thorough list of TV and film appearances, and BBC radio sessions.

All of this is assembled and written well, and the book would rank higher had I been more interested in the Tremeloes. I do have most of their 1960s recordings, including the ones with Poole as a lead singer, which are barely known in the US. But aside from their two big US hits (“Here Comes My Baby” and “Silence Is Golden,” both in 1967), I don’t rate them too highly or find them to have much of a musical personality. Certainly Checksfield rates them pretty highly, praising much of their output enthusiastically, though there might not be many other fans (let alone critics) who find their versions of Joe Tex’s “Show Me,” Bob Dylan/The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” superior to the originals.

If like me you’re not a big Tremeloes fan but are a big fan of ‘60s British rock in general, however, this is more interesting than you might expect. There were a lot more covers of Tremeloes material than most people would guess, some from pretty unlikely sources and non-English-speaking countries, and it’s unlikely they’ve ever been or will be traced with as much detail as they are here. Some of the stories behind how they changed personnel, found their songs (and passed on “Yellow River” before Christie had a big with it), or made sporadic attempts to change with the times are reasonably engaging too.  Despite their limited US success, they had quite a few hits that charted strongly in territories ranging from the European continent to New Zealand and Zimbabwe, as well as many in their native UK. It’s quite a struggle, however, to get through the final sections on their post-1970s comebacks, reunions, and numerous re-recordings of material from their prime.

26. Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, by John Szwed (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Harry Smith’s life was so complicated that it’s hard to classify him, although another subtitle reads “the filmmaker, folklorist, and mystic who transformed American art.” Only part of what he did, and hence what this biography covers, is related to music. But his musical activities, which are covered in detail, were notable. He recorded and assembled numerous albums, by far the most well known of these being the three-volume Anthology of American Music. That three-volume series of reissues of various folk discs of the 1920s and 1930s that influenced important performers of the folk revival, some of whom (like Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan) went on to become rock stars. He also produced the first Fugs album. But as extensive as his musical ventures were, including collecting and taping plenty of recordings of far more arcane performers and styles, these didn’t even account for the majority of his work. That also entailed experimental film, painting, constructing/collecting string figures, and collecting and classifying/disseminating paper airplanes, Ukranian-decorated eggs, Native American dress, and other material.

The range of his work, and his generally itinerant existence, presents a challenge in documenting his life. The author does about as good a job as could be done, but there are many gaps and uncertainties that probably can’t ever be pinned down. The low ranking on this list doesn’t reflect the quality of the research or writing, which is presented in an accessible and readable fashion, though it sometimes roves pretty widely back and forth in chronology. It’s more an indication of my relative lesser interest in Smith’s non-musical doings, though his film, animated and otherwise, like his Anthology of American Music volumes, had an influence outweighing the relatively few people who saw or heard these when they were first produced.

His erratic personal habits, which saw him nearly destitute and unable to take care of essential needs like food, shelter, and health care for much of his adult life, are also described, and are often disturbing. Smith lost or, worse, willfully destroyed much of what he created and collected; often failed to finish ambitious projects, although he completed a good many as well; often freeloaded from friends and benefactors without compensating them; and frequently insulted those same friends and benefactors, as well as audiences, though he could be generous and kind to others as well. His treatment of Allen Ginsberg, who put him up and to a degree financed him toward the end of Smith’s life, was sometimes exploitative and cruel. Some might have rationalized he was worth putting up with because he was a genius folklorist of sorts, but he was a pretty unsocialized one, which makes the man more difficult to admire (and read about) than his accomplishments.

27. Fashioning the Beatles, by Deirdre Kelly (Sutherland House). I’m not nearly as interested in the Beatles’ clothes and haircuts as I am in their music. But it’s undeniable their fashion was visually interesting and enhanced their huge appeal, and this book is a reasonable overview of the many phases it passed through, from their Hamburg leather days through the matching Beatlemania suits, psychedelia, and more casual wear near the end of the 1960s. While the general outline of these changes is known to many Beatles fans, this does have some unusual info that isn’t well-trod, like the fur coat George Harrison wears in the January 1969 rooftop concert being the same one he wore to his wedding three years earlier. For that matter, during their 1969 Get Back sessions, Paul McCartney wore the same shoes he’d worn as part of his Sgt. Pepper uniform. The numerous shops and designers patronized are detailed, down to the Le Château store John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought some clothes from during their 1969 Montreal bed-in. Bet you didn’t know, either, that all of the Beatles except Harrison wore suits by Nutters of Savile Row on the famous photo on the cover of Abbey Road. Some color and black-and-white photos illustrate their constantly shifting image, and it’s interesting to see them modeling Lybro jeans in a 1963 ad that wasn’t printed at the time, as well as Ringo Starr modeling a Tommy Nutter suit in a 1969 Vogue magazine ad.

28. The Art of the Bizarre Vinyl Sleeve, by Simon Robinson and Steve Goldman (Easy on the Eyes). Co-author Steve Goldman has spent a lot of time collecting the strangest vinyl record sleeves he could find, which are often among the ugliest you’re likely to find. A lot of them supply the illustrations for this 180-page book, accompanied by quite a bit of text describing (and often gently mocking) the artwork, often filling in the background on these oft-obscure performers. Sure it’s a bit of a novelty volume for a niche among the record collecting crowd. But there are a fair number of collectors in that crowd who appreciate the weirdness of these designs, most from LPs, though some singles are included. That’s the case even if most wouldn’t want to actually buy or collect many of them (even at the cheap prices they often sell for if they can be found), let alone listen to them. And from the description of the music on the discs, many of them do seem like they’d sound horrible, especially as many were self-pressed vanity efforts, outings by minor celebrities, discs by semi-pro folk musicians, and the like.

There is, however, a pretty wide range of oddities selected from all over the world, including areas not usually covered by Western pop journalism, like the Eastern bloc. And for all the obscurity of many of the entries, questionable artwork on some releases by big-name artists are here, including sleeves on records by the Village People, Prince, and Deep Purple. The odd respectable cult favorite makes it too, like Lothar and the Hand People’s debut LP, adorned with yearbook-quality photos. Designs by respected labels are here, one surprise being a Box Tops best-of on Rhino, where the cover photo had one of the guys (not Alex Chilton) making a ridiculous ugly grimace. On occasion the artists or others involved in the process were tracked down and offered some details, although the stories behind the designs of many of these records—and the careers of many of the artists—remain and are likely to remain mysterious.

The following books came out in 2022, but I didn’t read them until 2023:

1. The McCartney Legacy Volume 1: 1969-73, by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair (Dey Street). Running a little more than 700 pages, this would have certainly placed pretty high on my 2022 end-of-year list had I read it in time. It would have rated even higher than it does if I was more of a solo Paul McCartney fan, though the Beatles are my favorite group, and I think his contributions to that group were as good and important as John Lennon’s. But if you are a big McCartney fan, or even if you aren’t but are a big Beatles fan and/or at least interested enough in his early solo years to find out more about them, this probably won’t be beat. The original intention was to focus on his recording sessions, and those are described in great detail, along with some of his more informal demos, most of them still unreleased. This is woven together, however, with general in-depth coverage of his professional and personal life, including a lot about his wife Linda and the group he formed around him and her, Wings.

This should be hailed above all for finally laying down, with dates and details, the particulars of almost all of his studio recording sessions during these years, which encompassed his first five post-Beatles albums (whether with or without Wings), numerous non-LP singles, and other recording/songwriting projects. Those demos —often uncirculated even unofficially — are often bountifully described, too, including more than a couple dozen he recorded between McCartneyand Ram, among them a good number of songs he wouldn’t otherwise record. There’s also a lot about his disputes, and lawsuits, involving Allen Klein, and the protracted process that he initiated as necessary to dissolve the Beatles partnership. And there’s much about the various Wings lineups, illustrating how Paul, and to some degree Linda, had a hard time ceding as much creative control, commitment, and money as his sidemen would have liked. 

However, the authors give Wings and McCartney more respect for what they accomplished than many music critics did and have – not just Band on the Run (whose Nigerian sessions in Lagos are among the more interesting sections), but everything else as well. Even “Bip Bop,” to pick on a song that’s probably been singled out for more harsh flak than anything else he did at the time, is examined with seriousness, as are pretty obscure B-sides like “I Lie Around” and “The Mess.” If Paul and Linda could be callous with their employees, the point’s also made that they could be generous too, and overall they don’t come off as worse than average in the rock star behavior department. The photos that dot the text are good and unusual, and the text is clear and, if more enthusiastic about his music of the period than I am, not blind to its flaws.

One minor but unfortunate flaw in the book is the lack of an index, and clearer designations as to what was released from his sessions at the time, what came out on archival reissues, and what’s never come out, though that can be deduced from the text. This is, by the way, volume one of a multi-part series, with another half century or so that could potentially be covered in the future. For me, those will hold much less interest past the years documented in this volume, which were the most interesting of his post-Beatles life from both musical and personal angles. 

2. Decades: Donovan in the 1960s, by Jeff Fitzgerald (SonicBond). This is part of the very extensive, and rapidly growing, series of SonicBond books devoted to detailed track-by-track overviews of the work of specific recording artists, both famous and cult. Donovan’s one of the more famous ones, and this slim (134-page) survey wisely sticks to his 1960s output, although there’s a brief overview of his post-‘60s career. Every track he released in 1965-1969 is discussed, usually for at least a paragraph. It’s well-written and rich in detail, not just in how the track sounds, but some of its sources (particularly in the occasional instances when Donovan covered someone else’s song) and some little known stories and trivia associated with some of them. Although it’s primarily a critical assessment rather than a biography with first-hand research, Fitzgerald did interview arranger John Cameron, and several interesting comments for those tracks on which Cameron worked are here. Even for a Donovan fan like myself, some of Fitzgerald’s evaluations are on the overly generous side. On the other hand, the singer-songwriter’s been so generally underrated it’s good to see him given serious critical analysis that doesn’t get stuffy, with interpretations that some might find debatable, but aren’t overwrought. There are very occasional factual mistakes, but on the whole it’s accurate and useful for serious Donovan admirers.

3. Soul Survivor: The Autobiography, by P.P. Arnold (Nine Eight). Although she’s African-American, Arnold is much better known in the UK in the US, as she had some moderate British hit singles in the late 1960s. She also had more overlap with the rock world than most soul singers, as she recorded for Immediate Records and worked with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the Small Faces, and the Nice. While her discography isn’t the work of a major artist, her memoir is an interesting journey through the highs and lows of the music business. In some ways, she had a lot of good fortune: getting asked to stay in the UK after touring there as an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner, the Immediate and rock star connections leading to moderate chart success, and living the high life of just-post-Swinging London with plenty of celebrities. The lows were really low: getting raped by Ike Turner as an Ikette, losing her young daughter in a car accident, escaping an abusive marriage as a teenager when she became an Ikette in the mid-‘60s, and losing much of her lavish lifestyle as she fell out of favor with the music business and couldn’t get a recording deal.

Arnold also had relationships, though sometimes brief, with a number of rock legends, most notably Mick Jagger (begun when she toured with the Turners on a UK tour headlined by the Rolling Stones), Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, and CSNY/Manassas bassist Fuzzy Samuel. These are detailed without sensationalism, as are her professional interactions with numerous major figures she crossed paths with along the way, like Barry Gibb, Nick Drake, Doris Troy, and Brian Jones. All of the aforementioned are recalled in very positive terms, but some others left much worse impressions, like Lulu, P.J. Proby, and John Mellencamp. She felt she was too rock for black audiences and too soul for white rock listeners, making it harder for her to find record deals or make the music she most wanted to. Arnold made some decisions she regrets in her attempts to continue her career in the UK, Los Angeles, and other places, especially in the effect all the moving had on her family and the stress of often living beyond her means. She doesn’t spare herself in attributing responsibility, and while the underside of the music business isn’t the main or sole focus, it’s evident how much of a toll it takes on those who make some inroads without quite becoming stars.

4. Living on a Thin Line, by Dave Davies with Philip Clark (Headline). Considering what a major and beloved figure he is, this autobiography by Kinks lead guitarist and occasional songwriter and lead singer didn’t get much attention. In part this might be because it’s actually his second memoir; the first, Kink: An Autobiography, came out back in 1996. It’s not a sequel covering the intervening years, in which he hasn’t released much music at any rate. It too covers his whole life and career, and while there have been more than 25 additional years in the meantime, the great bulk of it takes place earlier, and much of that is devoted to the Kinks’ first and greatest decade. Inevitably there’s a lot of overlap between the two books, though no actual text from the earlier volume is recycled. So even major Kinks fans might wonder if it’s worth reading if they already have Kink.

The books are different, however, even if it much of this one is a matter of telling the same stories in different ways with some different details. While Dave is not the writer his brother Ray is (in Ray’s own memoirs and short stories), this has pretty straightforward accounts of the Kinks’ evolution and numerous of their classic songs and recordings. Going back to the beginning of their success, for instance, you get his take on Ray’s shout of “oh no!” in “You Really Got Me,” and his view of how the follow-up “All Day and All of the Night” was better. There are also musings on his dalliances with bisexuality and generally dissolute behavior. Occasional detours into his ventures into spirituality and the paranormal, as he’s aware, will strike many as fairly wacky, and are the least interesting sections.

There’s also much on the volatile relationship between the Davies brothers, and if it seems like Dave should have known Ray as well as anyone could, his older sibling remains enigmatic. Dave loves Ray, he often reminds readers, and they could work together very effectively when they were getting along and Ray was open to his younger brother’s input. Ray also often acted in ways that Dave interprets as undermining Dave’s confidence, and can come across as an erratic individual who could be by turns affectionate and alienating. In terms of the Kinks’ output, that might have hurt their work by not allowing more space for Dave as a singer and songwriter, though Dave did make some solo albums (and worked toward an unreleased LP back in the late ‘60s). Those are discussed here, if at less length than the Kinks’ most highly regarded work.

5. Anatomy of 55 More Songs, by Marc Myers (Grove Press). This is a follow-up volume to the author’s 2016 book Anatomy of a Song, and uses the same format. Myers writes the “Anatomy of a Song” column for the Wall Street Journal, which analyzes a famous rock/pop/soul song by interviewing songwriters, musicians, producers, and other more ancillary figures involved in its creation. Myers gives a brief general summary of the song and its position in history, devoting the rest of the column to quotes from his interviews. This differs from his first book only in that it covers 55 songs, rather than 45 songs. All of the 55 chapters first appeared as columns, except for the piece on Arthur Brown’s “Fire.”

Covering a wide range of songs from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the main source of quibbles among most readers will be the ones chosen. Depending on your taste, everyone will have favorites, and everyone songs they’ll dislike. The selection has a bent toward mainstream hits, though some new wave tunes are included. From my point of view, there are undisputed classics like “Dancing in the Street” and “Sunshine Superman,” and dubious if high-selling choices like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Although virtually all of the selections are famous, it’s hard to make a case for Keith Richards’s “Take It So Hard” making the grade in this company.

Even the songs I (or anyone) might not enjoy hearing do have some interesting details behind their creation, which are sometimes more entertaining than listening to the recordings themselves. Although it looks to be a hefty volume at 368 pages, it goes pretty fast since there are a lot of blank/partially filled pages and full-page pictures. And there’s numerous odd trivia that isn’t widely known, some of it not directly related to the song being featured, like Cars drummer David Robinson, who came up with the band’s name, noting “funny thing is I didn’t even own a car at the time.”

6. Rock’s In My Head: A Memoir, by Art Fein (Trouser Press Books). Perhaps principally known in the Los Angeles rock scene, Art Fein has worn many hats in his time on various edges of the music business. That includes working for Capitol Records as a promotion man; being a music editor for Variety; managing or semi-managing a few bands, including the Blasters; free-lancing as a writer for numerous publications; hosting a popular cable TV program with various music journalist and musician guests; and more, though seldom holding a conventional full-time job. His memoir is pretty enjoyable and briskly paced, with inside stories, though usually not too lengthy or salacious, of musicians from the famous (John Lennon and Yoko Ono), rather cult (the Cramps), and the lesser known (the Heaters). Always lurking in the background or foreground, though he doesn’t overdo it, is the difficulty in making a living doing what you love if you’re a music geek and not too inclined to engage in the politics often necessary to gain employment. Declining to get serviced by a hooker at one team-building record company get together, in fact, helped cost him his job, according to his account.

Much of the latter part of the book — too much, really — is devoted to his lengthy friendship with Phil Spector, and his numerous if somewhat sporadic meetings with the producer during Spector’s final few decades. Like numerous other memoirs, his devotion to a volatile figure, whose behavior ranged from generous to abusive, raises the question of how much anyone should put up with from a figure whose art they admire, but whose behavior could be cruel. Not just once or twice, and not just to Fein, but to friends and associates in general. There’s a lot about Spector’s quirks here, right  up to his trials and imprisonment, though Fein does intersperse passages about his extra-Spector life. The writing’s humorous without crossing over to pathos or cheap laughs, and while he has done some other books, it makes one regret that he didn’t write a few more, and a few serious histories and biographies.

7. The Birth of Rock’n’Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records, by Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott (Weldon Owen). As a 250-page coffee table book, this is more of a basic overview than a full history of Sun Records, one of the most important labels in the history of rock. In fact, you get a lot more info about Sun from books written by the authors, those being Escott’s Good Rockin’ Tonight (co-written with Martin Hawkins) and Guralnick’s biography of Sun Records chief Sam Phillips. Nonetheless, what’s here is pretty good, the format allowing for many more, many bigger, and a good number of rarer pictures and illustrations than could be used in standard formats. Guralnick wrote specific reviews of seventy Sun recordings, including most of their biggest hits (though Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential” are missing, to name a couple omissions) and quite a few obscurities. These include key rockabilly recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins, as well as important blues sides by James Cotton, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, Jackie Brenston, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and others.

8. Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988, by Matthew Goody (Third Man). The most important New Zealand record label, Flying Nun improbably became one of the most highly regarded independent alternative rock companies in the world, at least as measured by its global cult following. This densely packed, nearly 400-page slightly oversized volume has more detail about their first seven years than is likely possible to match. Every one of its many releases has a thorough entry that not only describes the oft-quirky music in depth, but also goes into a lot of the background information as to how and when they were recorded and the general history of the act at the time. Many quotes from the period from the musicians, label employees, and reviews are taken from a wide range of sources, often from New Zealand papers that have seldom or never been seen by overseas fans. There are also many illustrations in color and black and white, including many photos, even of some quite obscure acts, and lots of posters and promotional material. These are more interesting than they usually are in such books as the Flying Nun’s promo material often used distinctive multicolored graphics, and sometimes work by noted cartoonist Chris Knox, who (especially as part of Tall Dwarfs) was one of the label’s most vital artists.

Although well written, this is infused with so much intense detail that its appeal might be primarily limited to major Flying Nun enthusiasts. There’s considerable similarity to how many of the bands got together and their oft-shambolic attitudes and methods, which might make it hard to digest too much at once. The 2016 memoir by Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd, In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, is a better general read, especially for those unfamiliar or casually familiar with the company. For those who want more, though, this is a godsend encyclopedia of sorts. Every release by Flying Nun’s more well known acts—the Chills, the Verlaines, the Bats, the Clean, and Tall Dwarfs are some, usually with a bent somewhere between noisy punk and oddball post-psychedelia—are covered, as well as those by the more cultish acts like Look Blue Go Purple. But there are also entries for discs that even collectors might not know, like the 1987 LP by Kim Blackburn, which despite its lack of impact sounds like one of the label’s more unusual detours (“some linked Blackburn’s vocal style to Nico, something she bristled at, while others…compared her to Joni Mitchell…Colin Hogg in the Herald was somewhat mystified by the album: ‘She comes on all beatnik with a collection of freeform jazz-poetry.’”) Another 1987 LP was by Dead Famous People; Flying Nun might have not have led the indie world in sales, but it might have led the whole world in odd band names.

Goody also starts each chapter with overviews of what happened in a certain year, and includes small sections on Flying Nun’s impact overseas, especially in the UK and US. This fills in some of the label’s overall history, which is unlike almost any other indie’s of the period, in part because of its New Zealand base. At its beginning, Shepherd sometimes even did business between serving customers at the record store where he worked; sales of just a few hundred copies could put a release in the charts; for years, some of their more successful records didn’t sell as much as they could have and dropped off the charts because the small runs couldn’t be repressed fast enough; and the whole label was endangered when the last vinyl pressing plant in New Zealand closed in 1987, making it necessary for Flying Nun to strike a distribution deal with WEA. As another reminder of how things can work differently in different parts of the world, some acts on the label were able to afford recording with arts grants. While all of these conspired to make the simple act of putting out records and keeping a label afloat more challenging in many respects than it was in many other locations throughout the globe, it also might have fueled the idiosyncratic identity that’s made Flying Nun’s following endure for decades. It also might have made it harder for many of their acts to maintain careers, many of them lasting only briefly before hanging it up.

Like another recent history of a prominent independent label from the time, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records, this book raises the question as to why some of the company’s catalog is no longer available, and whether it will be reissued. Although the author chose to concentrate on the label’s first seven years, in part because some feel it lost some of its identity when it moved from Christchurch to Auckland, there is also certainly room for him or another writer to document their next few years. Flying Nun did continue to record interesting hard-to-classify music for some time, both by some of its more noted veterans and acts who joined the roster after it moved to Auckland.

9. Pattie Boyd: My Life in Pictures, by Pattie Boyd (Reel Art Press). Boyd was George Harrison’s first wife, and subsequently married Eric Clapton, though she’s no longer married to him. This coffee table book has much more in the way of pictures than text, not only of Boyd with Harrison (and many less with Clapton), but also plenty of photos from her modeling days, mostly from the mid-1960s. There’s lots to look at here if seeing images of a mid-‘60s Swinging London fashion icon is your thing, in many poses, dresses, and some wigs, as well as a shot with Twiggy. Is there anything in the way of rock history? Not much, but there’s some interesting stuff here and there in Boyd’s captions, and a few memorabilia illustrations.

For instance: her diary pages on the day Harrison first asked her out (“George Harrison asked me out!!!!!”), March 6, 1964; Brian Epstein as chaperone for that first date at a restaurant (“George and I were both shy so he helped break the ice”); a posed shot with all five of the Rolling Stones on April 28, 1964; her initial impression of their first home as a couple, Kinfauns (“it was so suburban, ghastly, hideous”), though she loved it after they gave it a psychedelic paint job; and a hand-drawn birthday card John Lennon gave to her on the Beatles’ trip to India in early 1968. Then there’s a picture of her and George with Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles in 1968; a couple love letters, in anguished romantic prose, to her from Eric Clapton in the early 1970s, when she was still married to Harrison; a long weird rambling typewritten letter to the Harrisons from John Lennon advising, “I think we should give Apple to the lowest bidder”; and a color shot of Paul McCartney and George Harrison playing together (with drummer Jim Capaldi) on stage at the wedding party for Pattie and Eric Clapton. All this is scant info for a 240-page book, but good enough reason to check it out of the library.

10. Sun Ra: Art on Saturn (Fantagraphics). Sun Ra accumulated such a huge and often baffling discography that it’s doubtful a complete one will ever be assembled, especially if it pays attention to the many variations in cover art. This was especially true of the many discs he self-released. Many of the covers are reproduced in this coffee table book, focusing on those he issued on his Saturn label. Whatever one’s opinion of their artistic merit, their range was extraordinary, from the most homemade and rudimentary designs to gaudily psychedelic ones. Often elements of the homemade and DIY were mixed with the more professional, florid, and arty on the same sleeve. Although there are a few essays about the records, the pages are dominated by cover reproductions, including some inner label and back covers.

This doesn’t get into much biographical information or musical description analysis; for that, there’s John Szwed’s Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. The essays are largely interesting reading, even if they occupy a small portion of the book, especially the memories of Glenn Jones of distributing Sun Ra’s limited editions via Rounder and seeing Sun Ra play numerous times starting in the early 1970s. It would have been interesting for there to be at least some text about the specific albums and the music they contained, though that might have been difficult due to the often scant and confusing information about the material’s origins. Interestingly, it’s speculated Sun Ra might have been deliberately haphazard in how he packaged and released music on Saturn, or at least unconcerned with details, letting the music speak for itself. The book’s on the expensive side at $75, but it’s something that might appeal to people interested in album design and/or record collecting even if they’re not Sun Ra or even jazz fans. And it’s a lot cheaper than trying to buy the rare original discs.

11. Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press, by Paul Gorman (Thames & Hudson). This book’s scope is almost as wide as it can get for a popular music volume, starting with the founding of Melody Maker in 1926 and going up to around the time very shortly before this was published in 2022. Its strong points are coverage, if sometimes on the basic side, of the launch, prime, and decline of many magazines during this period, often with interesting accounts (some from first-hand interviews) of writers, editors, and publishers. It’s strongest on the highest-profile British publications of the rock era, particularly Melody MakerNME, and later The Face, though US magazines big (Rolling Stone) and small (fanzines like Kicks) are also a part of the narrative. The wide breadth in some ways works against the flow, however, since many of the endeavors are only given a little space, and the wealth of territory means there are constant jumps between subjects, and sometimes (though not drastically so) eras. To its credit, it includes a lot of the smaller players; specialized publications in areas like soul and experimental music; and attention to the triumphs and obstacles faced by writers of color.

The constant shifts can be dizzying in number, however, and sometimes readers might wish for more specific than general detail on the lesser known publications and figures, though that would require a lot more than the 362 pages here. The twenty-first century gets just a few pages of epilogue; some notable publications aren’t referenced at all, though it’s impossible to hit everything; and some might disagree with the impression that music journalism is on the decline or even dying, even considering many print publications have gone out of business, and the nature of the music press has changed with the rise of online platforms. The author’s 2001 book In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press, structured as an oral history (with some of the material also appearing in Totally Wired), makes for an overall better read as that format lends itself better to historical bites, though Totally Wired allows for more context of how the magazines were operated and competed against each other. Which, in turn, sometimes makes for depressing overload with many quotes about circulation and the sometimes tacky decisions taken to increase readership.

12. Holy Ghost; the Life & Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler, by Richard Koloda (Jawbone Press). Free jazz is not my forte, accounting in part for why this isn’t higher on my list of favorites. This book is well done, however, combining much research into Ayler’s life and career with detailed description of his records, as well as substantial quotes from reviews printed of the saxophonist’s work at the time. This doesn’t clear up all the mysteries of his oft-shadowy history, including the biggest mystery of all, how and why he died by drowning in 1970, though suicide seems like a strong possibility. Some second-hand and first-hand interviews with family and associates are drawn upon, most crucially author interview material with Ayler’s younger brother Donald, who was part of Albert’s band for an important period, though they grew estranged to some extent.

Although often acclaimed since his death as an important pioneer, points are made that during his life he received mixed reception running to extremes of highs and lows from critics and peers, and often had a hard time consistently recording, gigging, and earning money. The period near the end of his life during which he went into more commercial and poorly regarded records is covered without gloss, though there’s more focus on the lengthy stretches during which he explored new and daring territory with his avant-garde playing and material. There’s also interesting detail about his relationship, generally good but financially unremunerative, with the most notable of the labels he recorded for, ESP-Disk, and its eccentric owner, Bernard Stollman.

Honorable Mention:

Peter Asher: A Life in Music, by David Jacks (Backbeat). This nearly 400-page, rather small-print biography of the British Invasion hit performer (with Peter & Gordon) and, more famously, producer and manager (especially for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) is very well researched, and pretty well written. It’s in the “honorable mention” category because I for the most part couldn’t get past the mid-1980s, owing to my lack of interest in his more recent activities. That did get me about 250 pages into the book, which is about a book in itself. But I didn’t read the whole thing, hence its honorable mention status.

While it’s hard to determine how many of the quotes were from first-hand interviews and how many excerpted from other sources, the author did talk to Asher for at least some of them. He also spoke to many people who worked with him over the years, and not just obvious choices, but also engineers, assistants, session musicians, and the like. It gets points for taking Peter & Gordon’s career seriously, down to detailed descriptions of non-hit singles, LP tracks, and session details, and doesn’t even get to Asher’s transition to production with Apple until after 90 pages. There’s also some attention paid to the music and social scenes he was a part of, whether swinging London, in which he was more plugged into the underground than most knew, and the Hollywood rock community he became a big mover and shaker in starting in the early 1970s. 

As a producer, Asher did much to shape the slicker, sometimes more laidback part of the SoCal ‘70s rock sound, especially with his use of skilled session pros. Some critics see that as a big negative, but usually the public disagreed, especially regarding Taylor and Ronstadt, though some obscure albums he worked on by the likes of Jo Mama and Tony Kosinec are also covered. So is, winding back to his earlier years, his part in the British Invasion and his close relationship with Paul McCartney. It won’t surprise many that Asher, in keeping with whatever public profile he’s established, comes off as a highly intelligent, calm, and professional figure, and there’s not much wild behavior depicted here. Actually there are so many testimonies to his kind generosity that some might suspect some of the less positive aspects of his life weren’t addressed, though there might not be too many if any to dig up.

Top Twenty (Or So) Music Documentaries of 2023

There aren’t any blew-me-away music documentaries that came out in 2023, on the order of, say, Get Back. There are still quite a few worth viewing, often on subjects that would have been deemed impossibly uncommercial or impossible to film not too long ago. I did miss some I know have at least screened at festivals, and should they be easier to access in 2024, I’ll include them on a supplement to that list. There were still almost twenty I found worth writing about, and if they were heavy on well known figures, docs on the likes of Barbara Dane and Peter Case continue to emerge.

1. Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. When this came out, I was concerned whether this was necessary since there was a pretty good documentary (primarily distributed through the DVD market and not widely screened in theaters) on Barrett almost twenty years ago, The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story. I even wondered whether it was just a retitled or rejigged version of that documentary. It’s not; it’s an entirely different production. And though there’s naturally overlap in what’s covered (and some of the interview subjects), it’s worthwhile, primarily for the amazingly wide assortment of first-hand interviews with people who knew Barrett. That includes Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, but also a host of others. Among them are early Floyd managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King, Barrett’s sister Rosemary, and several of Barrett’s girlfriends. Some who only pop up for brief comments are celebrities in their own right, like Pete Townshend and playwright Tom Stoppard.

Some of these interviews were obviously done quite some time ago, as several have since died, and co-director Storm Thorgerson died ten years ago. I could done without a few sequences in which actors with passing resemblances to Barrett seem to be silently reenacting surreal things Syd could have experienced or imagined. But mostly there are interesting memories and stories, and while the archival footage of Barrett with early Pink Floyd will be familiar to big fans, some of the vintage pictures won’t. It’s probably not giving anything away to readers of this blog that Barrett’s story was tragic in many ways, and his descent into mental difficulties and retreat from the music business isn’t glossed over. His substantial contributions to psychedelic rock are celebrated in detail, however, particularly his songwriting.

2. The Stones and Brian JonesKnown for quite a few movies with rather sensationalistic first-hand investigations by the filmmaker, Nick Broomfield has gotten more straightforward with his recent Leonard Cohen film (Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love) and this documentary about Brian Jones. There’s a lot more to say about Jones than can fit into about 95 minutes, and this doesn’t cover everything about his life and music; Paul Trynka’s biography Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones is the best source for that, and there are plenty of other details in other books. A longtime rock journalist I respect has also criticized this film for not using much for the original Rolling Stones’ compositions on the soundtrack; in a related weakness, not adequately covering the scope of Jones’s contributions to numerous songs by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on unusual instruments; and the image quality of a few interview segments recorded on Zoom.

Fair enough points, especially if you’re looking for the ideal Jones documentary. But even as a longtime Stones/Jones fan, I liked what the movie did cover. A lot of the footage and photos are uncommon, and even if much of it can be uncovered in other various sources, it’s used adroitly to tie together strands of Brian’s story. A good number of soundbites from interviews with Jones’s girlfriends are used that aren’t exactly well-trodden info either, from Linda Lawrence to the less well known ones like Pat Andrews and Dawn Molloy. Bill Wyman has a lot of on-camera comments done recently specifically for this project, and some other lesser-heard-from figures were also interviewed, like film director Volker Schlöndorff, for whose film A Degree of Murder Jones composed the soundtrack. Sure it would have been nice if Jagger, Richards, early Stones manager Andrew Oldham, and some other key figures had been interviewed. But many, also including Marianne Faithfull and Jones’s father, are represented by relevant vintage interview fragments, often in voiceover rather than film (and it’s not always possible to tell what might have been taken from other sources rather than done for the documentary). 

While Jones’s philandering and drug abuse are covered, there’s plenty of attention to his music, Wyman noting his slide guitar work and how Jones and Richards combined their riffs. Brian’s failed attempts at songwriting are discussed, and one particularly noteworthy segment includes a tape recording of a few lines from a tune he’s trying to work out. Unlike some other books and films, this doesn’t dwell on or sensationalize the controversial circumstances behind his 1969 death, though it is of course covered near the film’s conclusion. There are some minor inaccuracies in the chronological sequencing of the events that slightly diminish the film’s value, though they’re of the kind that don’t seem to bug many viewers except fanatics who trainspot these sort of details.

3. San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time. Streaming on the MGM+ channel, this two-part, two-and-a-half-hour documentary focuses on the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene of the last half of the 1960s, though episode two goes a fair way into the 1970s. This is a decent overview that focuses on the most celebrated acts of the time: Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone, with some attention paid to Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans, Steve Miller, and the Tower of Power. Many of the artists dead and alive are represented by voiceover clips; the only talking heads seen on screen from recent interviews are a few non-musicians, including critic Ben Fong-Torres, radio DJ Dusty Street, light showman Bill Ham, and poster artist Victor Moscoso. There are quite a few (if very brief) archive film clips and photos, some quite rare or at least infrequently seen. Highlights among those are Big Brother in rehearsal, a snippet of Dan Hicks performing informally and solo, and famed radio DJ Tom Donahue.

What this documentary could have benefited from, at least for those who take this scene very seriously, is simply more time and depth. There were many interesting secondary musical acts in the scene who aren’t seen or even mentioned, some of whom were certainly filmed in decent quality, like It’s a Beautiful Day and Cold Blood. Some that barely or never recorded have interesting film clips too, like Ace of Cups. The Beau Brummels’ contribution as the first major ‘60s San Francisco rock group is, as usual in these productions, entirely overlooked, although you actually do hear an instrumental passage from one of their recordings in the background at one point. There’s arguably a little too much attention paid to non-musical aspects of the scene, like posters and light shows. And extending the coverage at the end to the Doobie Brothers and, more particularly, Journey (whose “Lights” plays over the end credits) is extending it too long. 

My expectations might have been too high considering the co-director, Alison Ellwood, did such a good job (as the sole director) of Laurel Canyon, a survey of the 1960s/1970s rock scene in that area of L.A. that was one of the best recent music documentaries. A similar format is employed here, but the subject’s really worth four full hours.

4. Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback. Debuting as a stream on Paramount Plus, the documentary looks at Elvis Presley’s fabled 1968 comeback network television special. The story is told well in the book Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, by Gillian G. Gaar, who is interviewed in this film. But this doc also benefits from interviews with some of the program’s dancers, audience members, a choreographer, and most importantly, director Steve Binder, whose extensive comments are the narrative thread of sorts. There are also, of course, numerous clips from the special itself, as well as outtakes not in the original broadcast. Running nearly two hours, it’s padded a bit by commentary on the general sociocultural context of 1968, Elvis’s pre-1968 career (especially his descent into poor movies), and, more problematically, testimonies from current artists as to Presley’s huge enduring influence (as if that’s ever been in doubt).

Binder’s detailed recollections of his interactions with Elvis, and the obstacles Colonel Tom Parker (largely unsuccessfully) threw in the way of doing the show Elvis and Binder’s way, are the key attractions, though the other interviewees have their share of worthwhile stories and insights. The tragic footnote was how Binder and Presley could not sustain their friendship after the special as the director was unable to contact Elvis, one interviewee speculating that had they remained close, Presley’s career would have turned out differently and better.

5. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis). Technically this first played a film festival in 2022, but didn’t start to circulate too widely until mid-2023, so I think it’s okay to put this in the regular 2023 listings. Hipgnosis was the design studio responsible for many classic rock album covers from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, formed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, though  Peter Christopherson came in as a third partner in the 1970s. They’re most famous for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but did several other Floyd covers as well as famous ones by Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Wings, and Peter Gabriel. They’re all discussed in depth in this documentary, directed by noted rock photographer Anton Corbijn. It’s straightforward in format, progressing chronologically with interviews with Powell, Paul McCartney, the surviving members of Pink Floyd, Robert Plant, Graham Gouldman, and Gabriel, as well as lesser known associated and friends. The only arty touch is filming the interviews in black and white, though the album covers and art are shown in full color.

As Thorgerson died about a decade ago, he’s only represented by some archival interviews. There’s vintage footage of Powell too, but he participated more than anyone in the interviews done for the film. Maybe some hardcore fans will lament the absence of coverage on some of their many relatively obscure album designs, whether for String Driven Thing (in which Helen Mirren can be seen) or Toe Fat. And while there are several books by now that tell much of the Hipgnosis story relayed here, it’s a well-paced overview of its highlights, as well as a reflection of a time when much time, art, effort, and money was put into elaborate sleeve designs, to the point of making special trips abroad in deserts and mountains to get the exact shots desired. Although appropriately brief, the time at which the team split in disputes over direction (some wanting to abandon sleeve design for videos) and finances is covered, Powell poignantly  noting that he and Thorgerson—close friends as well as colleagues—didn’t speak for next twelve years.

6. Little Richard: I Am Everything. Little Richard makes a good subject for a documentary, and this is a good one, but with some minor flaws that keep it from being an excellent one. It covers much of his career with a wealth of vintage interview excerpts and performance snippets, along with comments by quite a few peers, associates, musicians he influenced, and (least essentially) academics. The singer is consistently charismatic as a vocalist, pianist, and storyteller, if one that constantly inflates his importance, if usually in a humorous way.

Although much attention’s given to his mid-’50s superstar peak, there’s also some adequate space for his detours into gospel music both in the late 1950s and later decades, as well as his reversions to rock in the early 1960s and later. Various notables, some obviously in interviews dating back many years, testify to Richard’s greatness, including Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Nile Rodgers. Some of the less famed people who worked with him get some time too, like “Tutti Frutti” lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie and drummer Tony Newman of Sounds Incorporated, who backed Little Richard on UK shows in the 1960s.

As exciting as it is to watch him perform, the vintage musical clips, though numerous, are frustratingly short — very short, like just a few seconds. Some of the writers and scholars make obvious or redundant comments about his sexuality and the discrimination he suffered. Longer music excerpts would have enhanced the impact considerably, and if those behind the film felt that would have made it too long, that’s underestimating the appetite of the audience. I believe most of them, myself included, would have welcomed extension of the film by about twenty minutes to reach the two-hour mark, if that would fit in more such material. Performance visuals aren’t the only things shortchanged — Jimi Hendrix’s pre-fame mid-’60s stint in Richard’s band is only mentioned, and the sequence of what happened when, as it is in many documentaries, sometimes gets out of order, though few except serious fans will catch these.

7. What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? Blood, Sweat & Tears are never going to be considered among the hipper acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But for a couple years or so, they were one of the most popular rock bands in the US. While there’s much about their history in this documentary, it centers on their 1970 tour of Eastern Europe, which included shows in Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. (For what it’s worth, contrary to a remark in the film, this wasn’t the first time an American rock band played behind the Iron Curtain; the Beach Boys played a few shows in Czechoslovakia in June 1969.) A different documentary of that tour was made at the time, and while much of it is lost, the recent discovery of some of the footage means that a fair amount of it is used in this movie. The director of the tour documentary, Donn Cambern, is interviewed in this new overview, as are several key members of BST, including singer David Clayton-Thomas, Steve Katz, and Bobby Colomby, and Jim Fielder. So are record executive Clive Davis and rock journalist David Felton, who wrote critically about the band at the time.

It wasn’t known by many at the time that BST agreed to the State Department-sponsored tour to keep Canadian native David Clayton-Thomas from being deported. The band had mixed feelings about doing it for other reasons, including embarking on what could have been considered cooperation with the government at a time when there was a lot of opposition to its policies (especially US involvement in the Vietnam War) among their audience. Footage from the tour itself reveals wildly varying reception from the Eastern European audiences, from enthusiastic near-rioting to, if at only one concert discussed, hostile indifference. Upon their return, some of the musicians noted their discomfort at visiting countries where some personal liberties were curtailed and suppressed. This in turn generated some hostility from the counterculture and rock press who viewed them as tools of the US authorities, their hip quotient further diminished by taking gigs in Las Vegas. This is cited by some of those interviewed as a principal factor, perhaps the principal factor, in the band’s diminishing popularity and descent from superstardom.

Although it’s interjected irregularly, the film does also cover some of the group’s general history. It takes a while to get to it, but their origins as an Al Kooper-led group with hipper musical credentials on their debut album is detailed (though Kooper isn’t interviewed), as is his departure and the recruitment of Clayton-Thomas, the band feeling they needed a better lead singer. So is their appearance at Woodstock, including some concert footage, though not much was filmed of them at that festival, their manager at the time getting blamed for asking for money. A subsequent manager was recommended to them despite his being in jail at the time; he was hired, and was the manager during their Eastern European tour. There’s also discussion of their integration of horns into rock arrangements and its influence at the time, though even at that time, it wasn’t as big a hit with critics as with the public.

While very interesting, if a little erratically constructed, the film doesn’t entirely satisfactorily deal with the effect of the tour and the group’s subsequent struggles. The tour might have cost them some credibility with critics (like Felton, who wrote about them in Rolling Stone at the time) and some audiences, but there certainly wasn’t an immediate effect on their popularity. Their third album spent a couple weeks at number one in August 1970, after the tour was finished. The possibility that Clayton-Thomas’s departure (which isn’t mentioned) in the early 1970s, and a drop in quality in their recordings, might have played a significant role are not considered as factors.

8. The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane. Dane has had an interesting life, to say the least, both as a musician and activist. Although most identified with the folk revival, from the 1950s through the 1970s she also recorded some jazz and records that even bordered on pop-rock, as well as doing a mid-’60s album with the Chambers Brothers. Her left-wing activism included membership in the Community Party in her younger years, involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, obstacles her politics threw in her career path during the McCarthy era, and travel to Cuba in the mid-’60s at a time when few American artists went there, which led to appearances throughout the world, including in East Germany. She was married for a long time to Sing Out magazine editor Irwin Silber, and helped run a record label, Paredon, that put out many world music and politically minded discs. She turned down a management offer from Albert Grossman, before, she says in the documentary, he handled more famous clients like Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan.

All of this is covered in this film, though it can’t go into all this and more as much her recent memoir The Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song does. This does offer numerous recent interviews with Dane, still alive as of this writing in her mid-nineties, as well as children and fellow musicians and activists, Jane Fonda and Bonnie Raitt being the most famous. Considering she never became a star or even sold too many records within the folk or jazz communities, there’s a surprising wealth of archive footage, including network TV appearances on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Playboy After Dark. Most amazingly, there’s also footage of her travels and musical appearances in Cuba in the 1960s, and many interesting photos help round out the story. It doesn’t always follow a straight chronological order, though she was doing so many things nearly at once it would be hard to film this in timeline fashion. Her post-1970s years, during which she was largely inactive in music, don’t get much time, though there are quite a few clips of her when she began performing more in her eighties. The narrative intersperses those with her basic history from the 1940s through the 1970s, which actually works better than lumping that in at the end.

9. Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus StoryFrom 1967 to 1971, the Electric Circus was one of New York’s leading rock clubs, located in the East Village on St. Marks Place. While this 90-minute documentary isn’t extraordinary from a filmmaking point of view, it’s very competent, mixing archive photos and footage with interviews with some of the venue’s main figures, concertgoers, and a couple performers from major bands who played there. Among those interviewed are founders Jerry Brandt and Stan Freeman; Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers; and Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico. There isn’t much film of actual musical performances at the club, those being limited to silent clips of Sly & the Family Stone and the Voices of East Harlem. But there are a good number of bits of the many non-musical circus-like acts who also performed there; shots of the audience grooving; and news clips of the time covering the Electric Circus and interviewing audience members.

Although overshadowed by the Fillmore East, and even some other venues like Steve Paul’s Scene, in coverage of New York’s psychedelic-era rock, this film makes the case (not overtly) that it should get more attention. More than other venues in New York and elsewhere, it was a multimedia experience, not just due to the light shows, but the aforementioned circus-like performers, like mime artist Michael Grando, one of those interviewed for the documentary. The space’s prior history as the Dom (noted for regular Velvet Underground performances in spring 1966) and the Balloon Farm is acknowledged. So is the tragic bombing, for still unknown motivations, in 1970 that injured seventeen and likely increased the damper on things that led to the club’s closure in 1971. So is the bust of Brandt for having a joint in his luggage when entering Canada, which led to him being ousted from the club’s operations, and a split between him and Freeman that was never repaired. I streamed this from a festival and it’s possible it might not screen widely or make it to home video, but it’s worth watching for fans of ‘60s rock. 

10. Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over. This is yet more average than the average music documentary, with plenty of testimonials to Warwick’s talents and character; plenty of snippets from archive clips, most very short, but including many of her numerous hits; and lots of recent interview comments from Dionne herself. As evidence of how widely respected she is among her peers, the interviewees—some of whom must have been filmed a few years before this went into wide release, and not everyone is still alive—include Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Jackson, Gladys Knight, Berry Gordy, Elton John, Clive Davis, Barry Gibb, Cissy Houston, Stevie Wonder, and even Bill Clinton. There’s not a great deal that serious fans won’t know, but her style and collaborations with producer/songwriters Bacharach and Hal David are discussed, as is her wide appeal to both black and white soul and pop fans. There’s attention to her activism during the Civil Rights era (which included a risky attempt to change lyrics in “What’d I Say” to refer to integration) and, more extensively, her involvement in AIDS-related causes. Although there aren’t many non-hit songs among the vintage clips, one of the most unusual has her singing in Italian, and there are so many clips sourced that few if any viewers will have seen all of the originals.

This is also like many documentaries in how it loses steam when it passes her musical prime. The last third or so is more about her considerable post-1970s humanitarian activities than her music, which got a lot duller after her association with Bacharach-David ended. How that (and indeed the partnership between Bacharach and David) ended isn’t discussed, and while her controversial involvement with the Psychic Friends Network and bankruptcy are, they’re not examined in much depth. Her sister Dee Dee, who made a lot of records, some very good, without getting big hits isn’t mentioned, although she’s seen in a news clipping. A documentary can’t cover everything, or everything in depth, but some fans, and I’m one, would like to know more. And not necessarily about the negatives—there isn’t anything substantial about her relationship with the Scepter/Wand label, which put out most of her big hits, or Florence Greenberg, who ran the label. Or how she felt about Cilla Black quickly covering and getting a big hit with “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” though that’s been gone over elsewhere. For many subjects, there are supplementary books to fill in a lot of gaps that documentaries can’t address. There hasn’t been a good one by or about Dionne Warwick, and time’s running out to get first-hand comments from those who were there for such a volume.

11. Joan Baez, I Am a NoiseWith a lot of participation from Baez in recent interviews and concert footage from shortly before her retirement from touring, this nearly two-hour film has a greater autobiographical feel than many documentaries. That helps lead to pluses and minuses, the pluses being a good deal of archive footage going back to childhood home movies and 1958 live performance (with sound) at Cambridge’s Club 47. There are also lots of photos, rare documents, and letters (principally by Joan herself) going back to her pre-professional years. Other figures represented by interviews both vintage and done for this project include ex-husband and noted antiwar activist David Harris, her son Gabriel, and other family members. Important junctures in her career that are covered include early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival; her musical and professional relationship with Bob Dylan; her mid-‘70s resurgence with the Diamonds & Rust album and touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue (though, oddly, her one big hit single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Rode Old Dixie Down,” is not mentioned); and social activism that at times landed her in jail. Some scenes briefly show a huge archive of Baez material, some of which presumably was sourced for this movie.

Baez also spends a good deal of time ruminating over her difficulties with her family, including intimations of abuse on the part of her father, though the particulars aren’t too thoroughly detailed. She also gives a lot of space to discussion of her psychological problems, often referred to in letters that are blown up on the screen, and sometimes illustrated with animation. There are often transitions between her history and recent scenes of her traveling and on tour, and as often occurs, the recent sections are both less interesting and derail some of the momentum of the pre-1980 stories. Much that could have been covered of her purely musical evolution isn’t here, whether how she got acquainted with the traditional folk music that comprised the bulk of her early repertoire; her at times awkward attempts to move from solo folk to fuller arrangements and rock, which included an attempt at an unreleased mid-‘60s rock album produced by her brother-in-law, Richard Fariña; and her longtime relationships with Vanguard Records and manager Manny Greenhill. One of the recordings heard is a presumably teenaged Baez singing “Why Do Fools in Love,” and it might have been interesting to hear her views on rock, why she opted for folk, and how she felt about how the music scene changed as folk and rock mixed.

Some of this is covered in other books (though not very satisfactorily in Baez’s autobiographies) and liner notes, as well as the 2009 American Masters documentary How Sweet the Sound. I had the feeling, however, that Baez was undervaluing her musical career, or at least underestimating viewers’ interest in it. Maybe that says more about what I want in a documentary than what Baez wanted to express in this one. Still, there’s a gap in Baez’s legacy without a memoir, documentary, or biography that gives more space to her music and influence. Doing such a project wouldn’t prevent her from writing books and being in projects outside of music; Judy Collins, for instance, has also written multiple books, but did focus on her musical prime in Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. Baez did have the sense of humor to mock the cover of her Blowin’ Away album as one of the worst of anyone’s, attributing some of the impetus behind deciding upon the strange attire in which she’s dressed to her use of Quaaludes at the time.

Baez’s sometimes strained relationship with her younger sister Mimi Fariña gets a lot of screen time, and something should be noted about its portrayal. It’s presented as a loving but competitive and sometimes fraught one. Viewers might get the impression Mimi— who played guitar and sang in a duo with first husband Richard Fariña on pretty impressive mid-‘60s albums, as well as doing some later far less noteworthy recordings—wanted to have Joan’s stature as a musician, but lacked the talent and spent her adulthood in her sister’s shadow. Musically that might be true to some extent, but it’s not mentioned that Mimi Fariña founded the esteemed (and still operating) organization Bread and Roses. It presents concerts for parts of the population that might have a hard time going to such events otherwise, such as prisoners and people of all ages struggling with disadvantages. That’s as much of a legacy to society as what Joan did in her own highly valuable work for social causes.

12. Peter Case: A Million Miles Away. As a disclaimer, I’ve known singer-songwriter Peter Case for nearly twenty years, and also been friends with his wife, journalist/author Denise Sullivan (who’s interviewed in this film), for longer than that. I’ve known a few other people interviewed in this documentary too. But I do think this film will be of interest to anyone interested in the more adventurous side of the mainstream music business in the past half century or so, and the more mainstream side of the independent/underground world. Case has sort of straddled those worlds, first as part of new wave groups the Nerves and the Plimsouls in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then as a solo act who has blended and flitted between folk and rock. He’s never made it “big,” in part because, as he acknowledges here, he hasn’t been the greatest at working personal relationships with people who work at labels and publicizing musicians.

This doc has archive clips going back to his days as a street singer in San Francisco in the 1970s, interspersed with excerpts from recent performances. Case recounts his breaks and setbacks with wry humor, as laid out in one of his first interview remarks, when he remembers David Geffen asking him “what happened?” after Peter’s career didn’t take off. “I go, ‘You’re David Geffen,’” Case replied. “You tell me what happened.” He also recounts, with no shame, how he got “lower education” in the San Francisco streets while his peers were getting higher education in school, and how he was dropped from a major label because he was too inexpensive (sic) to promote.

Refreshingly, there aren’t interviews with more famous musicians and writers to validate how important he is; instead, we hear from peers from the world of performers that gained critical respect without stardom, like members of the Balancing Act and Lone Justice, Chuck Prophet, and Case’s ex-wife, fellow singer Victoria Williams. Prophet chips in with a witticism of his own when noting how, along the lines of the oft-quoted line that all of the few people who bought Velvet Underground albums formed bands, all of the few people who bought Case records were also inspired to leave their bands and go solo. Case seems happy enough in his cult-ish niche, though the major scare he endured in his fifties when he needed to have a bypass operation without health insurance is also part of the story, as is the rally of fellow musicians and fans to help cover his expenses.

13. Little Richard, American Masters (PBS). This is an entirely different documentary than the theatrically screened film Little Richard: I Am Everything, which was released shortly before this episode in the American Masters series was broadcast on PBS. Inevitably it covers some of the same ground, but it’s certainly less lively. Maybe that’s to be expected from an installment in a long-running series known for a straightforward style, but it’s less interesting than I Am Everything, even though it’s almost as long. It too mixes vintage interview and performance clips with comments from associates, British Invasion stars Ringo Starr and Keith Richards (both of whom played on bills with Little Richard in their bands’ early days), and  writers. Specialty Records chief Art Rupe is represented by audio, at one point noting the company did everything to get the star to record rock’n’roll again after he went gospel, even withholding royalties as part of that effort. Unlike I Am Everything, Pat Boone is among the interviewees, and while his take that he helped break Little Richard to a wider (and whiter) audience is dubious, at least he’s given the chance to offer his two cents.

As in I Am Everything, the performance clips are too brief. As great as Little Richard was, both documentaries make too much of him as an almost singularly titanic figure, boosted of course by many comments from Richard himself. It’s not an issue worth arguing too fiercely about since his importance is undisputed, but it should be noted, and is not in this film, that he wasn’t the only African-American rock’n’roll pioneer crossing over to white audiences in a big way starting in the mid-1950s; Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were just the biggest of those stars. Finer details about how his 1960s and early 1970s rock’n’roll comeback records on various labels didn’t catch on in a big way aren’t discussed, and Jimi Hendrix’s brief but colorful pre-stardom mid-‘60s stint in Richard’s band isn’t mentioned. If such info’s felt too mundane by documentary filmmakers, it’s out there in various books, though there hasn’t been a great one on the singer. If not as good as I Am Everything, this American Masters installment still adds material to documentary coverage of this icon, though it’s more supplementary than as interesting a film in its own right.

14. Max Roach, American Masters (PBS). The American Masters series broadcast episodes on three major African-American musicians in 2023, a welcome contribution to the PBS schedule. This nearly 90-minute overview of jazz drummer Max Roach was the best of the three as far as how well made a film it was, and would rank higher on this list if I was more of a jazz fan and thus more interested in the subject matter. It offered a lot of interest for me nonetheless, covering his journey from bebop (especially in the lineup he led with Clifford Brown) to Civil Rights-oriented music with then-wife Abbey Lincoln and later projects that focused on solo drumming and percussion ensembles.

With a guy whose career spanned more than half a century and had a discography of well over fifty albums (not counting the many he played on for other bandleaders), it’s not possible to do such a program without leaving a lot out. That might annoy some serious jazz aficionados, but what’s covered is covered well, with some excellent performance footage of his bebop days, excerpts from his Freedom Now Suite (his most well known and arguably most important work, with vocals by Lincoln), his M’Boom percussion orchestra, and even a clip of him and Lincoln performing in Iran in the late 1960s. There are also interviews with several musicians who worked with Roach, and several of his children.

15. Roberta Flack, American Masters (PBS). Like all American Masters episodes on musicians, this mixes archival clips with interviews, some vintage, some recent. It’s artier in its format than most installments in the series, though, using voiceovers instead of talking heads for the interviews. These include not just a lot of comments from Flack, but also from associates like producer Joel Dorn, ex-husband and jazz musician Steve Novosel, some musicians who played with her, and more contemporary journalists and musicians. There’s a lot of detail on her big hits “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and (with Donny Hathaway) “Where Is the Love.” These include comments by Lori Lieberman, who did the original version of “Killing Me Softly,” and Clint Eastwood, whose use of “First Time” in Play Misty for Me revived interest in Flack’s cover and propelled it to #1 three years after its release on her debut LP. Attention’s also paid to the origination of her pop-jazz-soul in front of club audiences in Washington, DC; the prejudice she endured as a result of her interracial marriage; and a few lesser known songs, including a few of her more socially conscious ones from her early recordings.

It might not have been the intention of those making the film, but this wouldn’t make a big case for her being a major artist, certainly not to those not very familiar with her work. As noted, not too many of her songs are discussed aside from the three big hits, and there’s not much of a sense of how many records she did and what others might have been significant. Maybe room, for instance, could have been made at least for the Janis Ian-penned “Jesse,” her Top Thirty (just) 1973 follow-up to “Killing Me Softly.” The documentary also adheres to the cliché of getting much less interesting after an hour or so, with a lot of space for her association with Peabo Bryson and some general comments from more contemporary artists.

16. Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between. A singer-songwriter who never broke through to large-scale commercial success despite a lot of critical acclaim, Jeffreys was also hard to classify owing to his mix of rock, soul, reggae, and more. Hence the “in between” of the title, also referring to his mixed-race background. This 70-minute documentary is as modest in scale as his impact on the music scene was, even at his 1970s height, and is standard in format, blending interviews and archive clips. Those interviewed include Jeffreys himself, his wife and daughter, some brief bits of praise from contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen, and colleagues like guitarist Alan Freeman and producer Michael Cuscuna.

Such was the rather subtle and sometimes low-key nature of his work that it’s hard to imagine newcomers being blown away from exposure to it, but the movie, like his music, is reasonably interesting. His volatile relationship with the record industry, which saw him bounce between several labels, had something to do with his failure to make more commercial headway, though this could be said of many artists. There are a good number of brief clips of him in action from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the strange juncture in which he blackened his face with minstrel-like getup for performance is covered. So is his sole hit of sorts, “Matador” (though then only in a few European countries), whose release as a single was suggested by Gene Simmons. His albums grew sporadic after the early 1980s, and his last few decades are covered lightly, ending with conveying the sentiment that he came to appreciate the devoted following he had rather than ruminate over his lack of greater recognition.

17. The War on Disco (PBS). A polarizing musical and cultural force, disco was both phenomenally popular and widely hated, culminating in a Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey’s Chicago Park in which records were burned and a major league baseball game forfeited. That event is also the key culmination of this hour-long episode of PBS’s American Experience series, which looks at how disco both rose in the 1970s and generated fierce antipathy among many music listeners. This doesn’t have much examination of the music itself and how it evolved out of soul and was produced in the studio, though some key records like “Soul Makossa” and “I Will Survive” are highlighted. The dominant viewpoint in this doc, expressed by some cultural commentators and a few disco performers, is that disco largely grew out of the black and gay communities, and the backlash was from white males who both felt threatened by its cultural expression and disliked the perceived elitism of clubs like Studio 54. Some other viewpoints are expressed, some feeling that the Chicago DJ (Steve Dahl) who spearheaded the Comiskey Park event wasn’t racist, but bitter over getting fired when his station changed format from rock to disco (though he quickly landed a job at another station). The archive footage and photos feature clips of dancers and clubs rather than performers, and naturally the Comiskey Park event where the record blowup grew into beer-fueled chaos.

The following films came out in 2022, but I didn’t see them until 2023:

1. In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50This first screened at very select outlets in 2022, and didn’t get its first San Francisco screening—or, apparently, much screening in commercial theaters—until November 2023. So it could have gone into the main section of this list, though it wouldn’t have been too highly ranked. This alternates between interviews with/footage of King Crimson in 2019 and some attention paid to their lengthy history, including interviews with some of their numerous past members and some (and certainly not a ton) of archive clips. If anything, this favors the 2019/recent footage, almost to the extent that it’s as much a documentary of that iteration of the band as it is of King Crimson as a whole. This is a fairly common approach in music documentaries, and not one I usually endorse, especially for a band with a career as lengthy and complex as King Crimson’s. Maybe the filmmaker wouldn’t have had as much access—including a lot of recent interviews with King Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp—as he did without giving the then-current (and still fairly recent) lineup as much weight.

There’s some history here, but in bits that are more tantalizing than satisfying. From the band’s first and still most famous (if short-lived) iteration, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, and lyricist Pete Sinfield are all interviewed, but without much insight into how the group came up with their highly distinctive brand of progressive rock, or the musical (rather than personal) specifics as to why it quickly collapsed. There are also interviews with important subsequent members like Bill Bruford, Jamie Muir, Mel Collins (who rejoined in the 2010s), and Adrian Belew, but no substantial discussion of how and why the group’s style changed so often (and, sometimes, radically) over the decades. Clips from as early as 1969 (though in crude black and white for that year) and the ‘70s and ‘80s are cool, but very brief. A brief homage in the credits to all the members who aren’t heard from (and, in some cases, not mentioned) fills up an entire screen, including such key names as Greg Lake, David Cross, Boz Burrell, and John Wetton. It could be argued that the main audiences for the film are King Crimson fans who know a lot of that stuff anyway, but then again some of that audience wants to learn more of that stuff, or at least hear and see some surprising and fresh content.

If you want to concentrate on what’s here rather than what’s missing, Robert Fripp lives up to his image as a curmudgeon with stuffy and reasonably amusing comments. These both attest to his musical perfectionism and make clear his disdain for being analyzed, as well as the time such interviews take away from practicing and concentrating on his work. Various fanatical fans testify to the strength of Crimson’s cult—a predominantly male one, it’s fair to say, especially judging from the audience shots from various 2019 concerts. One subplot of the recent coverage is of special note for being poignant without getting maudlin. Multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin was part of the group for most of the 2010s though he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, spending his final years playing with the band in an effort to do as much as he could before dying in 2020.

2. The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie (Paramount Plus). At around the fiftieth anniversary of this massively popular song, this hour and a half documentary looks at its genesis and realization. It’s stretched out a bit more than it should be to get to its length, but on the whole it’s pretty interesting, even if you’re not a huge fan of the song or McLean. Crucially, it’s not just about the song, also devoting some time to McLean’s early years and recording career. It also goes over the circumstances behind the plane crash that took Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper’s lives, and inspired, if that’s right word, the composition. McLean himself is interviewed a lot, as are some other relevant figures, like producer Ed Freeman, session musician Rob Stoner, and a sister of Valens. Some short segments with contemporary artists performing and discussing “American Pie” aren’t necessary, but they don’t take a lot of screen time.

There are some sides to the story that are interesting and not so well known, like the influence of Tim Hardin’s “Bird on a Wire” on McLean; the crucial role session pianist Paul Griffin played in the hit recording; and a 1971 radio broadcast in which Pete Seeger, with whom McLean had played, hails “American Pie.” McLean also goes through the lyrics and construction of the song in detail (verse by verse at one point), and there’s recent footage from the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper played their last show before their deaths.

3. Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC (MVD). This focuses on just two clubs, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, mostly during the 1970s, when they were both vital to the birth of punk and new wave. There’s considerably more coverage of Max’s than CBGB, although the latter isn’t neglected. It’s a rather modest documentary, without much in the way of star power or amazing vintage footage. But a good number of people from the scene are featured in the interviews, some of them famous or pretty well known, like Alice Cooper, Lenny Kaye, Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls, and Billy Idol, along with somewhat lesser knowns like Jayne County, Elliott Murphy, and (briefly) Suicide’s Alan Vega. And there are quite a few contributions with more cult or behind-the-scenes figures like photographer Bob Gruen, Max’s booker Peter Crowley, New York Dolls manager Marty Thau, and members of Ruby and the Rednecks and the Testors. 

While you can find out plenty more about Max’s, CBGB, and New York punk/new wave from many other books and documentaries, this still has a lot of decent stories and perspectives that will interest aficionados. Some of them verge on more details that you might want to know (particularly the anatomical ones of County), but insightful points are made about the peculiar attractions and repulsions of each space; how some bands were more interested in getting record deals than making artistic or political statements; and Max’s struggles to simply survive with changes in ownership and financial/legal troubles, which according to some accounts here included counterfeiting money. There isn’t as much performance footage with full audiovideo as there should be, much of the non-talking head visuals filled in by silent clip excerpts and photos. There are, however, a few actual vintage live clips of Murphy, Ruby and the Rednecks, Sid Vicious, and the Testors to evoke the atmosphere of seeing the acts on small stages in the era.

The Blocked Road to the Who’s Lifehouse

Between 1969’s Tommy and 1973’s Quadrophenia, the Who recorded a wealth of material, though they released only one full-length album in those four years, 1971’s Who’s Next. The new eleven-disc box Who’s Next/Life House has most of the material (though not Live at Leeds or recordings related to that album). That includes the original Who’s Next album; numerous 1970-72 non-LP singles; a wealth of demos for the Tommy follow-up Pete Townshend originally envisioned, Life House (or Lifehouse, as it’s sometimes spelled); plenty of early ‘70s studio outtakes; and four CDs of live 1971 recordings. There’s also a big hardback book of liner notes, along with a less essential hardback graphic novel based on Lifehouse and some pieces of memorabilia.

This isn’t a review of the box, which will come as part of my year-end overview of 2023 reissues. Instead, these are some thoughts as to why Lifehouse (I’ll stick with the one-word spelling) wasn’t completed. I offered a lot of these in my 2011 book Won’t Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia, and this is a condensation of what I see as the primary reasons. That book is out of print, and especially as the liner notes to the new box clarify some of the background information and sequence of events, if any publishers want to issue an updated version, they’re welcome to contact me.

Lifehouse is one of the most well known ambitious rock albums that failed to get finished, or at least finished as intended, along with the Beach Boys’ Smile, the Beatles Get Back, and whatever studio album Jimi Hendrix might have polished off in 1970. Lewis Shiner wrote a good science fiction novel about a rock fanatic who goes back in time to help those artists complete those records, albeit with mixed results, in his 1993 book Glimpses. Should fans fantasize about trying such a feat with other unfinished potential masterpieces, Lifehouse would be on many lists. So would changing the trajectories of other careers. For the Velvet Underground, for instance, it would be good to go back in time and arrange for them to actually have good quality film footage of some of their performances, and perhaps for their 1969 studio outtakes to get released as an album at the time instead of surfacing on archival compilations many years later.

The story that would have been the basis of a Lifehouse opera/film/concept album of some sort is complicated—one of the key reasons it wasn’t made. The plot isn’t really possible to explain in a paragraph, in part because its chief architect, Pete Townshend, sometimes explained it in different ways. Basically, it would have taken place in a dystopian future where the world was so polluted that most of the population had to live inside suits protecting them from the environment. A totalitarian government would have kept them mollified by transmitting entertainment and experiences to them, a concept often now hailed as anticipating the Internet. Rebels would have lived outdoors and outside this system, and organized a rock concert in opposition to the suffocating lifestyle imposed on them by authorities. Performers—the Who, namely—and the audience at the concert would have transcended attempts to suppress this expression by merging as one and elevating to a higher plane of existence.

As I see it, there were three primary obstacles to Lifehouse getting finished, and possibly even getting much off the ground:

1. By trying to make a film of Lifehouse at the same time as the album—and also playing live concerts that they, and especially Townshend, hoped to generate material for both the music and the movie—the Who were taking on way more than they could chew at once.

There are some similarities here to another project mentioned above, the Beatles’ Get Back. The Beatles were hoping, with considerably widely varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, in January 1969 to write/gather material for a new album; return to live performance with at least a concert or two; have the concert feature the new material; make a concert recording of that new material their next album; film that concert or concerts to make that footage the basis of a rockumentary; and also film a lot of the rehearsal/recording of that material in a film and/or recording studio as the album/concert was being prepared.

Not too much of this actually came to fruition. They played live, but only as an impromptu concert on the roof of Apple Records that could be seen by few people, and was done primarily for the film cameras. The film project became the Let It Be movie, a blend of the rehearsals/studio recordings and rooftop concert that, maybe inadvertently, also revealed tensions within a group on the verge of splitting up—and didn’t come out until more than a year later, right after the group had split up. The Get Back album mutated into the Let It Be LP, a mixture of studio work, live recordings, and a bit of improvised tomfoolery that didn’t really satisfy any of the Beatles’ initial ambitions. 

Worst of all, the whole endeavor played a crucial part in ending the Beatles, though it took about fifteen months to play out. George Harrison quit about ten days into January 1969, although he was coaxed back to play out the remainder of what the Get Back project was turning into. When Phil Spector did controversial post-production in early 1970 for the Let It Be album, most of which was based around their 1969 recordings for an intended Get Back LP, the results formed the final straw that led Paul McCartney to quit and the band to break up for real. It wasn’t just Paul who split the group; Ringo Starr had briefly quit in summer 1968, Harrison had left for a few days in January 1969, and John Lennon had at least told the others of his intention to leave back in September 1969, without making public announcements.

Lifehouse didn’t split up the Who, but in some ways it didn’t even get as far as Get Back in terms of eventual results. There was no Lifehouse film—in fact, no filming was done at all, then or since. There were concerts at London’s Young Vic theater intended to generate audience/performer interaction that would have produced more material for both the album and movie. But apparently it virtually immediately became evident that nothing of the sort would take place, with an audience who wanted familiar songs to experience in a fairly standard concert situation, to which the Who largely reverted.

And the Lifehouse album evolved into—possibly, in Townshend’s perspective, was diluted into—Who’s NextLifehouse probably would have, like Tommy and Quadrophenia, filled up a double album; Who’s Next was a single disc. Who’s Next wasn’t linked by a story or concept. Unlike Let It Be, it was a huge critical success, and consistent in the tone of the production and arrangements. It was also a big commercial success. But Pete Townshend nonetheless didn’t seem as happy as he might have been about any of this, owing to the abandonment of his Lifehouse plan.

What would my advice have been to Townshend and the Who? First, it should be noted that had I been around and offered my suggestions, or even if I could travel back in time and do so, my guess is that my beliefs would have been laughed at or ignored. That’s true of all three issues I’m detailing in this post. It’s one thing to look back with many years’ hindsight; it’s another to try and interfere with grandiose notions at the time they’re being launched and debated, by musicians with very strong opinions and, at least some of the time, likely big egos.

That acknowledged, my feeling is when you come down to it, if your primary talent is musical, multimedia projects need music at the core, and need the music to be done first. Maybe it’s not as simplistic as the Field of Dreams cliché “build it and they will come,” but the most important thing is to have the songs, and hopefully in a good recorded state. If it’s meant to be a multimedia endeavor, the rest won’t necessarily follow, but at least it can follow. That’s sort of what did happen with great success with Quadrophenia, on which a great movie was based, though it took quite a while (about a half dozen years) after the album’s release to reach the screen, and without nearly as much direct involvement from the Who as Pete Townshend hoped Lifehouse to have.

So my advice to Pete and the Who would have been: get the album done first. Discard the audience-feedback idea, which probably everyone but Townshend would have conceded was unlikely to work. Then and only then, address the much more complicated, and costly, task of making it a movie, and possibly then the yet more complex process of perhaps making it an evolving project with audience participation. This still might not have resulted in a movie or anything else in other media. But it would have increased the chances of that happening, and also maybe the chances of there being a thematically linked Lifehouse double LP instead of the single non-concept disc Who’s Next.

Incidentally, I would have given the same advice to the Beatles: focus on getting a Get Back album done, maybe live-in-the-studio if you want that feel, and not complicating the matter by trying to make the new material a concert album – especially because George Harrison wasn’t enthusiastic about performing an official concert in the first place, though he might have been clearer about articulating this to the others before briefly quitting. Maybe abandon the film idea altogether, or at least reduce it to a concert documentary if George and everyone can agree on playing a live show or two after the album’s done (a remote possibility, considering the differing opinions and arguments about where to even do a concert). Such intervention wouldn’t have had wholly positive effects. If all this advice had been taken and no filming of the rehearsals/studio recordings done, we wouldn’t have Let It Be and Peter Jackson’s Get Back, which are of enormous value in documenting the music and internal state of the Beatles at the time.

And some similar advice to Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix: get a track list or two together and pick the best versions you have to get on the road to getting a finished album together, instead of perpetually recording and re-recording in a quest for perfection. Far easier said than done, I know, especially considering how much pressure they (and the Who and the Beatles) were under from multiple directions to churn out product instead of taking their work into new, risky, and expensive territory.

Just to keep us on our toes, by the way, Townshend—not one to consistently offer the same assessments of his work—had a cheery perspective on how Who’s Next came out in the November 2023 issue of Record Collector. “The success of the album—oh fuck, it was just great,” he said. “Prior to that, the Who were considered to be a bit of a joke by most musos. Tommy, as a rock opera, was not considered to be as important as, say, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album, the Band, or what the Beatles were up to.

“I knew that the music was gonna be among the best that I’ve ever produced. What actually happened was that Glyn put together an album, which was very, very workmanlike, beautifully recorded. He honored my demos, he took the good bits and ignored the bad bits—not the bad bits, but the unnecessary bits. I was immensely proud of the fact that, at last, we’d made a record that felt like a good music record…suddenly the music buffs were taking notice.”

2. If Lifehouse should be a double album, take some more time to make the songwriting of a more consistent standard, and/or provide brief link tracks of sorts that both make the story clearer and move it along, as was done in Tommy.

A good number of Who fans and associates feel that the Lifehouse project was too complicated and taking on too much at once. Lots of people felt Lifehouse was just too hard to understand or incomprehensible, which will be addressed by the third and final of this post’s points. It’s far less often postulated that most of the songs known to have been intended or at least considered for Lifehouse that weren’t used simply weren’t as good as the ones that ended up on Who’s Next. Of the twenty-to-twenty-five or so songs likely in the Lifehouse pool, there’s a considerable gap in quality between the best half of those and the lesser half. That’s not something I would say of Tommy and Quadrophenia. And on those albums (much more so on Tommy than Quadrophenia), the lesser songs performed a much greater function in explicating the story and moving it along than the lesser songs likely to end up on Lifehouse would have.

Many of what I’d consider the lesser songs are on the new box in some form, and most of them saw release by the mid-‘70s on singles, B-sides, Pete Townshend’s 1972 solo debut LP Who Came First, or the outtakes/rarities compilation Odds & Sods. Leftovers from the Lifehouse era comprise a fairly long list, though among the more notable are “Pure and  Easy,” a snatch of which was heard in the Who’s Next track “The Song Is Over”; “Naked Eye”; “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” the B-side of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; “Time Is Passing,” which like “Pure and Easy” and the non-LP 1971 Who single “Let’s See Action” would also be among the songs found on Who Came First; the folky “Mary,” which like “Time Is Passing” and some Townshend solo demos of more familiar Who’s Next songs were bootlegged by 1973 under the title The Genius of Peter Townshend; and “Water,” which wouldn’t show up until a 1973 B-side. It should be noted that not all of these would have shown up on Lifehouse and some might not have been targeted toward Lifehouse at all, especially the ones that ended up on non-LP singles.

But with some exceptions—and I know some other fans’ assessments can be much different, even violently so—I don’t find most of these on the same level as what was chosen for Who’s Next. The obvious greatest exception is “Pure and Easy,” which not only was up to that level, but was absolutely essential to Lifehouse’s storyline, or at least what plot most people aside from Pete Townshend could grasp. “Mary” too is very good, if not as conducive for a full band arrangement as the Who’s Next material. “Time Is Passing” is both good enough to have merited consideration for a single-disc condensation of the Lifehouse candidates and one that fit into the Lifehouse plot, albeit again in a way that most people other than Townshend could only tentatively understand.

In another controversial evaluation, it could be said that some of the secondary Lifehouse-era compositions were rather too similar to some of the better Who’s Next selections to have stood out too much in that company. I would put “Naked Eye,” “I Don’t Even Know Myself,” and “Too Much of Anything” in that category. As for “Water,” the lyrical boast—even if Roger Daltrey was just voicing a character—of needing water and somebody’s daughter has not dated well. The three most obscure demos that are on the new box—”Greyhound Girl” (a song which did find its way onto a Pete Townshend B-side in 1980), “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills” (unissued until it appeared on the 45th anniversary edition of Pete Townshend’s solo album  Who Came First , though it was played to Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott in 1970), and “Finally Over” (previously uncirculated to my knowledge)—are the most unmemorable tunes of all from the batch.

My quite possibly unwelcome advice, had I been there, would have been: to Townshend in particular, spend more time writing some better songs that could fill out a really strong double LP, possibly with some attention to tunes that could make the plot easier to follow. Get some help from John Entwistle, or even Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon, if they can come up with anything that might add some variety with reasonable quality. Entwistle, after all, wrote the pieces on Tommy (“Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About”) going into areas of family abuse that Townshend was not as comfortable penning. Moon had come up with the idea for “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” even if it was later disclosed that Townshend actually wrote the song, though the Tommy track bore a Keith Moon songwriting credit. Daltrey had written a reasonably decent 1970 B-side, the folk-rockish “Here for More,” and while that wouldn’t have had an obvious place in Lifehouse, maybe some encouragement would have gotten him to at least try to come up with a Lifehouse song of acceptable caliber.

Even in the unlikely case the Who would have seriously considered such feedback, there was another consideration that would have made it difficult. Writing more material, whether all by Townshend or with some help (Entwistle being by far the most likely to come up with something of use), would have taken more time. Time doesn’t seem to have been something that any of the four wanted to spend if it meant delaying an album or, maybe more crucially, tours showcasing new material.

While it had been “only” two years since the Who’s last studio album, Tommy, that was a big gap in the early 1970s—much more of a gap in the eyes of record buyers and the business for a big act than it is today, or even than it would be by the end of the 1970s. The Who—especially if you weren’t Pete Townshend, who had more songwriting royalties—depended on touring for a large part of their income, with sheer desire to play live perhaps an even greater reason they wouldn’t have wanted to take too much time off the road. And remember the Who had only been superstars for two years, since Tommy’s release, with a lot of debts, expenses, and scrambled business affairs that sucked up revenue from TommyLive at Leeds, and touring in 1969 and 1970. Taking much more time for songwriting, which would have been largely viewed as inactivity by the public, might have been perceived as endangering their grip on their newly acquired superstar status.

As is very well known, the Who—nudged by associate producer Glyn Johns, after he got involved with the sessions—decided to cut down the options to a single-disc LP without a concept. Had I been there, I would have offered another likely unwelcome suggestion: to take out Entwistle’s “My Wife” and replace it with “Pure and Easy.” It’s not a popular position with many Who fans, but I’ve both never liked “My Wife” much and also felt it doesn’t fit with the vibe of the rest of the record. In the small sample of asking people I know over the years, “My Wife” doesn’t seem to be too well loved by many of them either, though that’s probably not the overall consensus, given that John Swenson wrote in the original Rolling Stone Record Guide that it’s Entwistle’s “best song and a lot of people’s favorite track on the record.”

Taking “My Wife” off Who’s Next would have likely created some tensions in the band. Entwistle would have lost significant royalties and also suffered a blow to his pride, even if it had been used as a B-side in compensation, like a couple of his other songs (“Heaven and Hell” and “When I Was a Boy”) were in the early ‘70s. As for the option of adding a couple of the better, more subdued Lifehouse leftovers to the running order—“Time Is Passing” and especially “Mary”—that was theoretically possible, but very unlikely given the limitations of 1971 LP technology. Sound quality could suffer when there was more than forty minutes of music on one piece of long-playing vinyl, and Who’s Next ran 43 and a half minutes as it was.

3. No one really understood the Lifehouse story, and Pete Townshend didn’t articulate it well in whatever blueprints he made.

This is easily the most well known of the three obstacles to Lifehouse’s completion highlighted in this post. As his longtime friend and frequent sounding board Richard Barnes wittily put it in the DVD The Who, The Mods, and the Quadrophenia Connection, “There were two groups: people that understood Lifehouse, and people who didn’t. The people who understood Lifehouse included one, Pete Townshend. The people who didn’t was everybody else he ever tried to explain it to, and the whole rest of the human race, which was about four billion at the time.”

Elaborated Barnes when I interviewed him for my book, “Pete kind of tied himself in knots, particularly in Lifehouse, with the sort of rigid format that he set for himself. When I was writing my book [the 1982 biography The Who: Maximum R&B], I think he gave me a whole load of stuff on Lifehouse. I started to read to try and make sense of it, and thought, ‘No, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown,’ like everybody else.”

Some of Townshend’s comments about the inability of everyone— even his closest associates—to get their heads around what he had in mind seem disingenuous and maybe even a bit cruel. “I was at my most brilliant and I was at my most effective and when people say I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about what they’re actually doing is revealing their own complete idiocy, because the idea was SO FUCKING SIMPLE! It’s not complicated,” is an outburst quoted in the liner notes to the box. In his memoir, he wrote that it was like “trying to explain atomic energy to a group of cavemen.”

Maybe such comments come off more harshly than Townshend intended or ever believed, but they can be interpreted as insulting to the intelligence of some of his best friends and collaborators. Richard Barnes is not an idiot; he wrote one of the better books about the Who, went to art school with Townshend, helped come up with the name the Who, and remained a trusted friend of Pete’s for many years. Townshend wouldn’t have hung out for so long with someone who wasn’t smart, and wasn’t smart enough to comprehend a concept that was reasonably workable. 

The other guys in the Who might not have been as cerebral as Townshend; few rock musicians were. But they weren’t idiots, either, and were quite willing to support Pete as much as they could for Lifehouse‑within reasonable limits. Daltrey’s sometimes been criticized as someone whose insistence on mundane practical realities got in the way of Lifehouse, but that very pragmatism could be an asset. He got to the heart of the matter in a way that could have been the foundation for a real-world Lifehouse by zeroing in on its most comprehensible and vital central theme.

As he stated in a radio special for the thirtieth anniversary of Who’s Next, and has also stated in a similar way elsewhere, Townshend’s “idea of the piece initially came from one sentence that he came out with, ‘if we ever found the root of all life or the basis of all life, it would probably be a musical note.’ Now that in itself is wonderful, just a great basis for a story.” Perhaps simplifying the story to emphasize the concept the primary singer firmly grokked would have been an avenue to Lifehouse’s completion.

If Townshend’s explanation of the plot to Sounds was any indication of how he tried to transmit it to the Who and others (like their managers and film studios who were interested in financing a Lifehouse movie), there seems no mystery about why they would have been baffled. “Rather than get into another fantasy thing like Tommy I’ve decided to make every area as practical as possible,” he told the magazine.

What he proceeded to lay out seemed like the antithesis of “practical as possible”: “So I’ve been working on a piece of music that goes from the first single note—oneness—then it divides into twoness and then threeness then it’s rock music. Then it wasn’t to be oneness again. From there we go to people. We’re the notes, we’re the divisions, we’re the spearheads—the highest form of intelligence—and we’re the people that have got the problem.”

Townshend did describe some more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the story in Sounds, but the passage above still reads like it needs a translator into something that can actually be understood. It wasn’t the only instance in which his explanations to print media were difficult to fathom. When that many people can’t make sense of an idea, and when very few if any can make sense of it aside from the originator, it might just have something to do with the idea itself, or at least how it is being explained and articulated.

Also odd was Townshend’s division of Lifehouse into two “barrels.” As he explained it to Sounds, “One barrel is fiction in the way Tommy was fiction. It has music, a story, adventures in it. On the other side is the story about man’s search for harmony and the way he does it is through music. Through going into this theatre and setting up certain experiments.” The quirky use of the term “barrels” wasn’t limited to this interview. It crops up several times in the box’s liner notes’ account of how Townshend tried to explain, script, and pitch the project.

Even within the liner notes, the “barrels” are sometimes described differently. After reading it a few times, the best I can summarize it is that one barrel would have been the main story of Lifehouse, and the other how the story and music would have been shaped to some degree by interaction between the Who and their audience. Maybe it’s a testament to the limits of my own capabilities, but I’m not entirely sure of what was in the barrels, how they would have interacted, how they could have blended into a coherent film (or, possibly, even a coherent album), and why they were even being referred to as barrels at all. I think this confusion would have been shared by quite a few people with whom Townshend would have to work on Lifehouse, and certainly by journalists he was explaining it to, and readers of those explanations.

An intriguing disclosure in the liner notes to the new box states that as the Who got ready to work with Glyn Johns on an album (and not film) that could come out of all this, Pete “envisioned a double album where the sleeve would give him an opportunity to include text about Life House (sic) where he could explain the idea.” This is pretty much what he did within the gatefold sleeve of the 1973 double-album Who rock opera Quadrophenia, in the shape of a very short story that nonetheless explained the plot and scenario in a pretty succinct and accessible manner.

This was amplified by the booklet of photos bound into the gatefold, which almost seemed like stills from an actual movie, though the Quadrophenia film wouldn’t be made until the end of the 1970s. Had Townshend and the Who scaled down Lifehouse in a similar manner, maybe we could have had a strong double album with a theme—perhaps simplified from Pete’s grandest ambitions—that could have then been developed into a movie, as Quadrophenia was.

A key difference is that while Lifehouse was something of a science fiction story that would have been hard to film in the 1970s, with a plot still challenging to follow if it was only in LP form, Quadrophenia was very much based on the real-life experiences of the Who and their fans in the mid-1960s. That itself made it more conducive to generating a story that could be reasonably straightforward to follow, and eventually developed into a film. And, perhaps, something ultimately more universally appreciated and understood than what Lifehouse ever could have been, as much as Townshend wanted it to address universal concepts in life, music, and transcendence into a higher state of existence.

Alec Palao, Rock Archivist Extraordinaire

Although this story was commissioned and written a few years before I posted this on my blog in 2023, it didn’t run at the time. Here it’s presented for the first time, with some updated information.

A few years ago, El Cerrito, California rock archivist Alec Palao was visiting Shel Talmy, producer of classic early hits by the Who, the Kinks, and others. “After I inquired as to whether he had any copies of his old records, his wife mentioned, ‘There are some here in the closet,’” Palao remembers. “I pulled out a blank acetate and it said ‘Davy Jones’ on it. Naturally, I was very, very excited.”

This wasn’t the Davy Jones who sang in the Monkees. Before he changed his name to David Bowie in the mid-’60s, a young British mod named David Jones cut several flop singles in London—including a couple produced by Talmy. “I got home and played it, lo and behold, there’s five completely unknown, undocumented David Bowie songs,” enthuses Alec. “Subsequently I found another four, looking through the rest of his archive. To come across fresh Bowie—and for it to be really great garage-y, the most snotty, punky Bowie you’ll ever hear—was really exciting.”

It wasn’t exactly another day on the job for Palao, even after a quarter century of digging up buried treasure from a mountain of ‘60s garage rock, psychedelic, British Invasion, and soul performers from around the globe. And there was more where that came from, as the US-born Talmy (now back in California) produced a wealth of great hits and misses in ‘60s London, including the decade’s best Australian rockers, the Easybeats; boundary-stretching folk-rockers Roy Harper and Pentangle; and cult mods the Creation, who like the Who pioneered the use of feedback and innovative guitar distortion. “He had unreleased stuff by all the major artists he worked with,” marvels Palao. 

Some of the first fruits of those finds are on the Palao-assembled Ace Records compilation Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production, including a different version of Davy Jones/Bowie’s third single, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.” It features one of the most shuddering, noise-ridden mid-’60s guitar solos this side of Pete Townshend. Other unissued Talmy productions are also starting to see the light of day via Palao, like an entire unreleased mid-’60s LP by folk guitar virtuoso Jon-Mark that neither Alec nor anyone else knew existed. These are just the latest projects in a career that’s seen him assemble and write liner notes for hundreds of reissues, largely though not exclusively of artists from the ‘60s, from superstars to obscure cult acts that never got to issue an album.

Born and raised in London, but a resident of the East Bay for over three decades, Palao knows it takes more than blind luck to stumble upon closets full of such riches. “I started off being a consumer and fan myself,” he explains while juggling the tapes, discs, and sound files from his usual multitude of simultaneous projects in his El Cerrito home office, a couple miles or so north of Berkeley. “I had started working in retail selling reissues, in my case with mail order. I did that for many years, until I began to realize I’d rather create records than sell them.”

A la producers from the early days of the music business who’d travel to or set up shop in New Orleans, Texas, or New Mexico to record musicians, “I frequently would travel around the country, often with a tape machine in the back of the car, which I found was the best way to gain access to off-limit catalogs. A great example is Frank Werber, who managed the Kingston Trio. I spoke to him on the phone a few times, and he was a little bit circumspect at first. But we got to know each other, and finally he said, ‘Well, come on down.’

“So my wife Cindy and I loaded up the car with tape machines, drove down to New Mexico, [and] set up next to the bank vault of the town’s old post office, which Frank owned. We opened it up, and there were all these master tapes. I knew he’d produced certain groups [for his Trident Productions company], like Sons of Champlin, Mystery Trend, Blackburn & Snow, so I was anxious to see that he’d kept that. But not only had he kept that, he had all these tapes by other people—Sly Stone, Quicksilver, the Grateful Dead, you name it. Because he’d owned a recording studio too.

“That was one of my earliest revelations—you’ve gotta get a hold of the guys that actually made this stuff, whether it be studios, producers, or label owners. Because they’re gonna have the real gold. No one told me to go and talk to Shel Talmy. I just went and visited him, and he revealed he still had a lot of his vintage material. So we started working together, and eventually he told me, ‘Have at it.’”

While Palao has worked on projects from musicians hailing from everywhere from Iceland to Uruguay, from major acts like The Zombies to esoterica the like of little-known early 70s songstress Laurie Styvers, he’s also retrieved a goldmine of ‘60s Bay Area rock from obscurity. Such notable acts as psychedelic pioneers the Charlatans, Frumious Bandersnatch, and unheralded folk-rock duo Blackburn & Snow, who barely eked out a single or two during their heydays (or, like all-women band Ace of Cups, didn’t manage to release anything at all), literally owe nearly their entire discographies to his rescue missions from their tape vaults. He oversaw expanded editions of Country Joe & the Fish’s first two albums, featuring his usual mini-book-length liner notes. He also compiled the definitive ‘60s San Francisco psychedelic box (Love Is But the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets), and recently added another chapter to Rhino Records’ sporadic Nuggets series with another volume of overlooked ‘60s rock, the vinyl-only double album Transparent Days: West Coast Nuggets.

Divided into LP sides for folk rock, garage rock, pop-rock, and psychedelia, it’s unlikely anyone (except maybe Palao himself) has all thirty of the 1965-68 off-the-beaten tracks on Transparent Days in their original form. The Bay Area (the roaring Marin County garage rock on the Front Line’s “Got Love” is a highlight) is but the midpoint of a collection spanning Vancouver to San Diego. Even the relatively well known groups like Love and the Electric Prunes are represented by non-LP singles fans of those bands might have yet to come across, and hitmakers the Association by the downright bonkers psychedelic outing “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies.”

Observes Alec, “If you’re a fan of ‘60s pop, you’re familiar with ‘Cherish’ and ‘Never My Love.’ So if you see the name ‘the Association,’ you’re gonna assume it’s gonna be that sort of a sound. Instead you get this very existential piece of music with a koto, odd lyrics, and odd harmonies. So hopefully this will open ears.”

The first San Francisco group to successfully respond to the British Invasion is represented too, but it’s certain that no one would have heard Ron Elliott’s “Candlestickmaker” (later reworked on the title track of his 1970 solo album), as this October 1966 demo by the Beau Brummels’ lead guitarist and chief songwriter makes its first appearance on Transparent Days. It’s an example not only of Elliott’s idiosyncratically moody folk-rock, but also of how Palao uncovers gems by turning every stone he can.

“I came across it on a tape that was from the recording studio where it was done, [San Francisco’s] Golden State Recorders,” he says. “It wasn’t identified as the song ‘Candlestick Maker,’ or as Ron Elliott. But when I heard it, it’s like, ‘I think I know what this is.’ I sort of triangulated with memorabilia and paperwork that I have from the studio, and discovered that yes, Ron Elliott did a demo session in October 1966, and went and played it to him. He said, ‘Oh yeah…’”

Some legends even leave forgotten tapes at the recording studio, and they’d likely disintegrate if historians like Palao weren’t around to discover them. “Original Sound in Hollywood was what they call a ‘dark’ studio, non-union,” he says by way of illustration. “So people could go there and just experiment, and not have to worry about paying big union fees to musicians. A lot of publishers liked that. Plus [the recording equipment] was in a unique format, 10-track, so it was like [a] big deal. A lot of tapes were left there because there was only one machine that could play them, and that was at this studio. I found tapes by Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Lowell George, Mike Nesmith, Captain Beefheart—all these people would go there and record. It’s been a really magical stash to go through.”

A veteran musician of numerous bands (including the Sneetches and Sting-Rays) going back to the ‘80s, Palao’s also played in reunited versions of ‘60s groups like the Beau Brummels, Chocolate Watchband, and the Seeds, as well as currently pursuing his own muse in Strangers In A Strange Land. You sense he’ll never lack time, however, for more archival projects, like two large multi-disc sets he’s planning “to document performances done at the Avalon Ballroom and the Matrix Nightclub in the ‘60s. These are holy grail tapes. I knew about them many years ago, but it’s taken this long to finally be able to get the access to them. It’s an incredible history of how the San Francisco music scene evolved. It confirms some myths, and dispels a lot of others. There’s a lot of mediocre music as well as a lot of transcendental stuff”—not just by scene kingpins like Big Brother & the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but also superb lesser-knowns like the Great Society, whose singer was a pre-Jefferson Airplane Grace Slick.

Alec Palao (left) and Paul Kopf (right) of Strangers in a Strange Land

Another project he’s particularly excited about working on is the new four-CD box set for RPM Records of the Action. The mid-‘60s British mod band were produced by George Martin, and have generated a large cult following with singles somewhat akin to a more soul-oriented spin on the sound of fellow mods like the Small Faces. However, they never landed a hit in their native UK, made no impression in the US at the time, and didn’t manage to release a LP before breaking up in the late 1960s.

Titled Shadows And Reflections: The Complete Recordings 1964-1968, Palao says it will prove to be the last word on this frequently-reissued cult act. In addition to their five Parlophone singles, it features BBC sessions, demos and audition material, and a whole disc of previously unissued stereo mixes and studio outtakes, culled from the band’s sessions with George Martin at Abbey Road. “That’s about as close as I’ll get to mixing the Beatles!” he laughs.

“A lot of people might ask me, ‘Aren’t you scraping the barrel?’ And I’ll always tell them, ‘No.’ I know there’s probably great unreleased albums by all manner of artists in all genres out there. You just gotta go do the hunting and sifting to find them.”

Ball Four Outtakes Part 2

In my Ball Four Outtakes post a few months ago, I discussed the unedited full transcripts of the audio tapes Jim Bouton recorded for the basis of his classic book about his experiences in the 1969 season. These are available at the Library of Congress, though you have to make arrangements to view them in person at the library in Washington, DC. I also detailed some examples of interesting material that didn’t make the book, even if Bouton and his collaborator/editor Leonard Shecter almost always picked the best stories and observations for the final manuscript published in 1970.

There are many other items that didn’t make the book, some trivial or of not nearly as much value as what made the cut. Some of the omissions, however, were noteworthy, even if they weren’t on the level of what you read in Ball Four. Here are a few other examples, for what might be called Ball Four outtakes.

**One of the most colorfully controversial stories of the era in major league baseball took place the year after Ball Four, when Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter, or so he at least sometimes claimed, on LSD. Acid isn’t mentioned in Ball Four, but it turns out shortly before 1969, Bouton and fellow Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson went to Haight-Ashbury and were offered LSD by a youngster calling himself the Acid Man. Bouton demurred, in part because he thought he might be used in relief (presumably the Yankees were playing in Oakland). Peterson pointed out Jim couldn’t pitch any worse on LSD, considering how he’d been pitching of late.

**There’s an interesting observation on pitcher abuse, before that term was used, that’s both perceptive yet at the same time illustrates how faulty memories could be even four years after the fact — and how difficult it was to check on their accuracy in the days long before Bouton’s career went sharply downhill starting in 1965, when he went 4-15 with a 4.82 ERA after winning 21 games in 1963 and 18 in 1964 (and pitching very well in three World Series starts, winning two of them in 1964). He blames the sore arm he developed in 1965 in part on pitching eleven innings on a cold-weather opening day versus future Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, whose Minnesota Twins went on to win the pennant that year.

These days no pitcher goes eleven innings, let alone on a cold opening day after, according to Bouton, going no more than six innings in spring training. As he correctly points out, it’s poor management to risk someone’s long-term career by using a pitcher that way in cold conditions so early in the season.

But when you go to to check the boxscore, it didn’t happen that way. Bouton went just five innings, not pitching that well, giving up four earned runs. The game did go eleven innings, the Yankees ultimately losing. Maybe Bouton felt sore during or after the game, and retrospectively blamed this on pitching too long when remembering how long the contest lasted. Whatever the case, he never would pitch too well in the majors again, though his status as opening day starter indicates the Yankees were expecting him to.

**In about the only story in the book that reflects badly on a member of the Astros, Bouton writes about a fight breaking out on the team bus after Jimmy Ray makes fun of Wade Blasingame. Several members of the Astros got up to block a coach’s view of what was going on, so the incident didn’t blow up any more than they thought necessary. In the transcript (but not the book), those members are named: future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, star outfielder Jimmy Wynn, and Curt Blefary. Jim especially praises pitcher Denny Lemaster for telling the coach (also named, Buddy Hancken) to get back to the front of the bus where he belonged. Bouton also hails Lemaster, the Astros’ player representative, for not being shy of standing up to coaches and the team’s general manager.

**In a take on baseball politics that didn’t make it into the book, Bouton notes that player representatives seem to get traded more often than others, in the days when a strong baseball union was just getting off the ground under Marvin Miller. This is specifically sparked by relief pitcher Jack Aker, the Pilots’ player rep, getting traded early in 1969. Aker, who generally had a good career (including leading the American League with 32 saves in 1966), was off to a poor start with Seattle, with a 7.56 ERA after fifteen games, which could be seen as reasonable justification. He was traded to the Yankees for Fred Talbot, who had a mediocre career (and barely pitched in the majors after 1969), and to Bouton the trade didn’t make sense. Aker righted himself with the Yankees, putting up a 2.06 ERA the rest of the year, and had five more good-to-average years.

**Mike Marshall would become one of baseball’s most successful relief pitchers for much of the 1970s, albeit with some down years. In 1974, he won 15 games and saved 22, setting a still-standing record for pitchers of appearing in 106 games. In Seattle he was used as a starter and, after some early success, did poorly, getting sent down to the minors in July. Bouton points out that in the minors he quickly pitched better, in part because Marshall was able to set his own pitching program instead of fitting into what Seattle wanted. He also points out that after seeing Jack Aker pitch much better with the Yankees, Pilots manager Joe Schultz might be starting to understand that it was better to leave pitchers alone with their methods instead of trying to impose these on them. Schultz wouldn’t have much of a chance to try that out, getting fired after the season, the only one in which he’d manage in the big leagues.

**There aren’t many comments in the book about then-Washington Senators manager Ted Williams and then-Minnesota Twins manager Billy Martin, but the ones that were used weren’t negative. In the transcripts, Bouton does cite a newspaper article — probably hard to track down now, especially as he doesn’t name the publication — where Martin criticizes Williams for being the kind of player who wouldn’t get his uniform dirty or slide to break up a play. Jim admires Martin for having the guts to say this, considering how canonized Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, already was by 1969. Acknowledging he never saw Williams play, Bouton does remember Ted being a player who didn’t give his all on defense or being that well-rounded in his effort.

Ted Williams, Manager of the Washington Senators March 17, 1969 X 13900 credit: Fred Kaplan – assign

**Bouton’s very complimentary about Tommy Davis in the book. Briefly a superstar in the early 1960s with the Dodgers, when he one two batting championships, Davis never recaptured his peak performance after breaking his ankle in 1965. But Jim praises Tommy for being one of the Pilots’ team leaders. Of greater interest, he notes that on most other clubs, there were factions in which team leaders gathered around black players or white players, without overlap.

**In a small fun story about how the game is played, Bouton remembers how umpires would speed up games to make sure they finished quickly, whether because of rain or other reasons. Specifically, he relates a story from Tommy Davis of how on the Dodgers, Junior Gilliam was told by an umpire who had an appointment to get to with one out in the ninth inning that if there was a ground ball, Gilliam could get the first out and the umpire would get the second to complete the double play. Gilliam got a ground ball, and the umpire called the runner out at first base before the ball got there.

**In Ball Four, Bouton is very critical of some elements of the Yankees, whether specific players, the culture of the club, the executives he dealt with, or manager Ralph Houk. Yet he wanted very much to be able to play for them again, if in large part because his home and family were in New York and he wanted to be based there. Extraordinarily, he even said he’d be willing to go to New York’s minor league system to work on his knuckleball if he could get back in the organization. He noted he’d be willing to play for the Mets too, though 1969 being the Miracle Mets year of their surprise World Series championship, there wouldn’t have been a place for him on that club. Bouton never did play for the Yankees again, and in fact he wasn’t invited back for a Yankees old-timers day until 1998, with the help of a New York Times article from Jim’s son Michael urging the Yankees to lay aside grudges stemming from his father’s remarks in Ball Four.

A Visit to the Battersea Power Station

The Battersea Power Station was one of London’s most imposing structures in its heyday, which lasted for much of the twentieth century. In the US, and maybe everywhere outside of the UK (and for many people in the UK), it’s most known for its grim, almost fearsome image on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. It also has a less high-profile, almost cameo role in classic rock when it can be seen in a shot behind the fictional main character of Quadrophenia in the booklet of photos that accompanied that record.

The cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals.

The Battersea Power Station wasn’t just a prop. It did provide a lot of power for the area from around the 1930s through the 1970s, though by the early 1980s it—or more properly, the two stations comprising what was called Battersea Power Station—was closed. The details are pretty technical and not of such great interest to me and, probably, most readers of this blog, though they’re out there if anyone wants them. Basically technological changes had made the station obsolete, but it was so visually striking that many wanted it preserved somehow.

Again the details of how it endured threats to its survival are available, but I think most rock fans, or even general history fans, are more interested in what it’s like today, and what you can see of it if you’re in London. I’ve been to London more than a dozen times, but didn’t actually visit until July 2023, figuring I should check another landmark off my list.

The Battersea Power Station is still there and does look much like it used to, although it’s nothing to do with power anymore. While it probably owes its survival to hopes to preserve it as an architectural landmark, it’s not quite that now. It’s part landmark with one tourist attraction, but more a supermall of sorts, surrounded by almost frighteningly postmodern buildings that I’m guessing are aiming for high-rent residents and businesses.

Some of the buildings near Battersea Power Station.
Some of the multi-story mall now occupying much of Battersea Power Station.

The four chimneys are still there, but the building’s so big you have a hard time fitting them into one photo, let alone make it look like Animals, unless you have a helicopter or some such thing. I just about fit all four in walking out of the nearby Battersea tube/underground station:

Battersea Power Station as seen from where you exit Battersea tube station.
A different angle from closer to the building can only fit three chimneys.

Something you can do that’s more exciting than checking out the mall—full of retailers offering expensive items of no interest to me—or what remains of its vintage architecture is take an elevator to the top of one of the chimneys. Probably most visitors will find the price (just over fifteen pounds, if you reserve a ticket online) not worth the relatively brief ascent and seven minutes you get for a panoramic view at the top. There’s a small display of the history of the power plant while you wait for the ride that probably holds little interest for most visitors.

As you leave the small history display area and go into the area to start waiting for elevators, flashy graphics show on the wall to ward off impatient boredom.
View looking up as you ascend/descend the elevator.

But hey, you’re in London, you’re interested in Pink Floyd and the Who, and why not do it once, even if you might feel better about spending five pounds instead of fifteen pounds. The panoramic view at the top is nice, even if Battersea Power Station isn’t high enough, and London not riddled with enough skyscrapers or scenic hills and water, to compete with panoramic views in the likes of New York and San Francisco. 

The Thames, as seen from the top of the Battersea chimney.
View of two chimneys from the top of another one. Note swimming pool on the roof of a nearby building, just to the bottom right of the right chimney.

Nick Drake: The Life biography: Interview with author Richard Morton Jack

On July 8, 2023, I interviewed Richard Morton Jack about his new outstanding biography Nick Drake: The Life at Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford, England. This is a transcript of our conversation.

JAMES ORTON (Blackwell’s): Thank you for joining us this afternoon, and a huge thank you to our musicians. Now we’re into the main event, which is Richie Unterberger discussing the new biography of Nick Drake by Richard Morton Jack. I spent the whole of yesterday reading it. It’s so thoroughly researched, and the love and respect you can feel Richard giving Nick throughout it is incredible – but obviously I’ll let Richard tell you about it. So please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Richie Unterberger and to Richard Morton Jack.  

RU: I’m very happy to present this event with Richard, whom I’ve known for about twenty years. We’ve become good friends because of our mutual interest in the era of music in which Nick Drake operated, and I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of his biography quite a bit before publication. I know some of you have read it already, and I urge those of you who haven’t to get a signed copy today. 

I’ll be asking Richard how he came to conceive of a work that’s not just deeply researched, but also, I think just as importantly, has proper perspective on Nick Drake that demythologises a lot of the misperceptions that have arisen around this very talented but troubled artist. The amount of research that went into documenting this figure who, when he was alive, not much was known about, and who didn’t make himself known well to the public, is just amazing. Just a couple of examples. It has so frequently been reported that Nick Drake did just one interview. That is not true: Richard found the other one. 

RMJ: Another one!

RU: Another one – which appeared in the most unlikely place, a teen-oriented magazine, and contained some useful information. Another example: contrary to what you might see online, there were many reviews of Nick Drake’s records when he was around, and Richard found one of Pink Moon in Penthouse magazine. Would you have ever thought to look in Penthouse

Richard interviewed many of Nick’s surviving friends and associates, some of whom have never been on the record before, and they did a great deal to clarify Nick’s personality and musical achievements. My first question is, what did you most want to find out when you decided to do this pretty long biography, and what surprised you the most about what you found? 

Author Richard Morton Jack at Blackwell’s.

RMJ: First, thank you very much for that generous introduction. I respect Richie’s work very much, and he is currently in the middle of researching his own enormous biography of the Velvet Underground, so I hope we’ll be able to talk about points of crossover in our work and the careers of the two artists. 

But to answer the question, I set out to be as thorough as possible. I knew that I wanted to look through and read absolutely everything that was available, and to speak to everyone. But I didn’t have specific expectations of extraordinary revelations or smoking guns. I knew that Nick’s life was, broadly speaking, accurately represented already, so what I found the most revealing and useful was the consensus that I was able to gather from his friends, his family, his school reports and so on. There wasn’t much departure from that consensus. Most people’s memories of Nick match up uncannily, even if they’d never heard of each other and never met him together. After interviewing them all I didn’t have to work out who to believe and how to navigate different versions of events.

The privilege of being able to speak to his cousins, and musicians, and Chris Blackwell, all sorts of interesting people who don’t usually speak about Nick and haven’t much in the past, is that I was able to put this jigsaw together and get a coherent whole. I think some people were perhaps hoping I’d find evidence that he was a heroin addict, that he was gay, whatever the big stories would be. But I was neither looking for those nor found them. The strength of the consensus is what really gave me confidence in describing his personality and certain aspects of his work. So, in the way that circumstantial evidence can be more compelling [than a smoking gun] in a criminal investigation, that consensus, to me, was more powerful than any amazing single revelation would have been.

RU: Although I will say, even though I had read as much as I could about Nick Drake before Richard’s book, there were quite a few unearthings of significant information that I was not aware of – and not just bits of trivia. For instance, his musical influences. The book illuminates notable under-appreciated influences  on his work, not all of them musical. Maybe unfairly, he is thought of as a ‘folk’ or ‘folk-rock’ musician, but I’ll read out some of the influences from when he was starting his professional career: Astrud Gilberto, Jimmy Smith, Segovia, Odetta, John Hammond, Bob Dylan, Booker T & the MGs, Miles Davis, John Coltrane… And he was able to see in person some of the great British blues-rock bands of the 1960s: John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, the Graham Bond Organization, Cream… 

Do you think this wide range, the eclecticism of his influences, has been overlooked and underestimated, and is maybe part of what set him apart from so many other singer-songwriters in the folk-rock bag during that time? 

RMJ: I think there’s an element of truth in that. I mean, the word ‘folk’ is unhelpful as relates to Nick. It’s used nowadays simply to mean ‘people with acoustic guitars’, not actual ‘folk music’. Almost the only sort of music that I can pretty confidently say I’ve never heard anyone suggesting Nick ever liked or listened to was folk! I mean, proper English trad folk, or indeed traditional American folk (not blues, but Appalachian or whatever). 

But, as you rightly say, Nick did have a broad taste in music, which reflected his generation’s exploratory interest in contemporary culture and what was coming over from America and so on. And at boarding school, of course, boys would bring back records and share them and obsess over them. So there was an informal lending library going on, which was helpful to him. And Nick loved pop, he loved rock’n’roll, he loved West Coast rock – the Doors, the Byrds, Love. And why wouldn’t he? He was excellent, and he loved excellent music. 

But I think what’s fundamentally important to remember about Nick’s own musical taste is that he came from a classical place as a child, and classical music was very much his companion in his illness – more, I infer (I don’t know for sure) than pop or rock. I mean, we all know that he was listening to classical music shortly before he took his own life that night. And I think classical music informed his sensibility easily as much as pop or rock or folk and so on.

RU: One influence that I always thought was underestimated on him is Donovan. I’m a big fan of his, but until relatively recently he has often been put down by ‘serious’ rock critics. But I’ve always heard – and it’s a compliment – his influence in Nick Drake. And you documented some specific instances: he had a poster of Donovan on his wall, a friend remembered him learning songs off Donovan’s two best albums, Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, and Joe Boyd – the main producer of Nick Drake, who was interviewed extensively by Richard – enjoyed both those albums when working on what I would consider Nick’s best record, Bryter Layter. Do you agree that Donovan’s an underestimated influence? 

RMJ: Yes. I think Donovan was a huge influence on other British songwriters in that era, maybe second only to the Beatles among British artists – more so than the Stones, I would say. But I think his influence is often overlooked, partly because he perhaps hasn’t helped himself with the way he has spoken about that era in recent years. But he’s a very fine guitarist, it goes without saying, and probably put just as much work into his style as Nick did. Donovan’s lyrics depart from Nick’s in obvious ways, but I think they’re similar in terms of the structure of their songs and their approach to the guitar. To me, it’s obvious that Nick was listening closely to Donovan’s fingerpicking, especially on the acoustic second record in A Gift From A Flower To A Garden. So it doesn’t seem at all a stretch to me to call Donovan a vital influence on Nick, from 1965 (when Donovan started releasing records) onwards. I think Nick was listening to him right away.

RU: Going back to Nick Drake’s early years, which you document extensively, I think a key point is that not just his parents but other people, like teachers, were almost trying to herd him onto a specific track: going to Cambridge, probably training to be a professional of some sorts. And you wrote that the one thing that nobody seemed to be taking into account in trying to get this mediocre student into an elite school, was: ‘What does Nick want to do?’ Do you think that fuelled his desire to make his own statement, his own career, outside of what was expected of him? 

RMJ: I’m sure that dynamic existed. I also think it’s easy to look on Nick’s non-musical life with hindsight and say, ‘Well, people didn’t understand him, people didn’t realise this or should have done that’. But I think Nick was probably quite a maddening person to be involved with as a young… well, he was always young, sadly, but as a teenager, because he obviously had talents, he obviously had abilities, he was charismatic and younger people respected him at school, this was recognised, he was a good leader and so on. He had qualities that were obviously likely to make him into a useful and helpful member of society as an adult. But he was passive – and there was no suggestion that Nick was mentally unwell as a teenager, that there was something larger militating against his future success. 

As a result, I think his parents thought, ‘We need to get him into Cambridge by hook or by crook, because his school has said this is a possible outcome for him. So let’s just keep going, because if we don’t he might end up just being at home without much idea of what to do with his future next summer’, or whatever the timeframe was when they started worrying about this. 

To an extent – maybe tacitly – Nick’s parents have been criticised for not having recognised that they had a genius in their midst, but that’s not how life works. I don’t think any parent would say, ‘Our teenage son seems to like playing the guitar quite a lot, so let’s assume that he’s going to create a wonderful career for himself doing that’. I mean, it’s just not realistic. But I’ve never inferred the opposite extreme – that Nick’s parents wanted him to be a ‘career man’ and have letters after his name in a patrician, pompous, Empire-building way – and I don’t think that view is supported by any evidence, easy though it is to assume because of his social background and because there was a degree of tension between him and his parents about his not particularly wanting to go to Cambridge in the first place, and then wanting to leave it quite quickly. 

I think his parents were actually rather liberal and permissive, within parameters that were normal for that time, and they did allow Nick a lot more freedom than he might have expected or than some of his friends might have had. As I describe in the book, when he went to Cambridge – slightly against his will, but not kicking and screaming – his father worked out a careful and loving, really, arrangement on paper concerning Nick’s finances, and how he would fund Nick in order to allow him to proceed with his music during the university vacations without having to get jobs or think about income. Because the Drakes, contrary to popular belief, weren’t made of money. 

So Nick’s parents were supportive of his musical aspirations while he was at Cambridge. There’s a sweet letter from October 1967 where his father says, ‘We opened a bottle of wine to celebrate’ when they heard some good news about one of his early demo tapes making a mark, and so on. But I think it’s unrealistic for us to assume that they should have recognised that he was a great talent earlier than they did. 

RU: Before his musical career, in the school reports, the image of Nick is of someone very reticent and almost passive, so it was surprising to me in the book to learn that he had a fierce streak of ambition. He made demos and was shopping them around in London before he had a recording contract, and he was making contacts in music publishing and the record business. And when he was making records, his producer, Joe Boyd, and sound engineer, John Wood, have remembered how forceful he was and how he wanted the records to be made exactly as he wished, he wanted his songs to be represented just as he envisaged them. Is that something you wanted to bring out? 

RMJ: Yes. I think this sense that Nick was always passive, that he didn’t make anything happen, everything happened to him, is not supported by evidence, especially from the summer of 1967. I think that was a particularly important  year in Nick’s life because he had ten months to fill between getting into Cambridge and actually going there, so he went to University in France in February, he travelled around Morocco, he came back to England in May, then he went back to Paris for a few weeks on his own, and then he was in London for August and September. And over those few months, starting probably around February, he became a songwriter. 

And I think in that time a lot of things made sense to him in a way they hadn’t previously. One of the few utterances that we actually have from Nick about his songwriting is that it was only when he went to France that he had the time and space to think about his own personal reaction to the world around him, and how he wanted to frame it. And that’s when he became a songwriter. So I think by the time he got back from France, and before he went to Cambridge, he was committed to a future in songwriting. 

And he hustled! He knew that that the way forward was to find a publisher, sell the songs, find a record company, find a producer, and perform. Performing didn’t come naturally to him, or at least wasn’t something that he enthusiastically aspired to, but he understood the need for it – and did it. The first thing he did when he got back to London that summer was to make a recording and shop it. And, lo and behold, almost immediately a major pop song publisher called Hansa wanted to buy some of his songs. They didn’t want to record him, they wanted to buy the songs and sell them to others – which Nick had the confidence, arrogance, whatever you want to call it, to reject. 

But I think he knew that he was good, and that he had to fight to be heard. There are some tantalising glimpses that I wasn’t able to pin down. There’s a rather mysterious figure called Calvin Mark Lee, a Chinese-American research chemist based in London. He was one of the signatories to the famous Times advert against the criminalisation of pot, which the Beatles funded, and he was working on the fringes of the record business. David Bowie was his great discovery, and the person whose name his is connected with for posterity, rather than Nick’s, but somehow he connected with Nick in 1967 and was supporting and encouraging him too. [I did speak to him, but sadly he was suffering from dementia and couldn’t remember Nick.] 

What I mean is, Nick was out there making contacts, hoping to find a foothold in the music business rather than just waiting around like the entitled upper-class cliché that some sources have suggested he was, thinking, ‘Well, everyone will just recognise my brilliance…’ That wasn’t how he was.

RU: Before we get into the core of Nick’s career – his albums, the songs that he’s so well known for – what are the most important qualities to you in this biography, and in rock biographies in general? What were you trying to bring to this biography that’s lacking in so many popular music biographies?

RMJ: I’m really interested to discuss this, so thank you for raising it. I think that for too long readers have been tolerant of shoddy research in popular music biographies. I think that’s partially because they want to believe in mythology about rock stars. They want to believe that Keith Moon drove a car into a swimming pool, even though that didn’t happen. They don’t necessarily want to read a book about Keith Moon that says, ‘This is just not true’. 

But for me certain popular musicians, Nick being one, deserve sober, sensible treatment, because I think posterity deserves eyewitness accounts that are reliable and properly verified. So I wanted to apply the same standards of research and clarity to his life that I would if I were writing a book about Charles Darwin. I’m not comparing their lives, but I don’t think anyone reading a biography of Darwin would be tolerant of half-baked mistruths, blatantly wrong dates and so on. It’s just not the way that biography should work. But I often read pop books and think, ‘That’s just back-to-front, that record wasn’t out then, and this isn’t possible…’ 

I think that writers like you and Mark Lewison have already shown that it’s possible to approach rock and pop music with a scholarly, but not dry, eye. There’s plenty of amusing facts and details that can be brought into play without having to repeat myths and glorify bad behaviour and so on. So I wanted this book to stand as a serious biography, irrespective of the fact that it was about a ‘pop’ musician. 

I also feel that my book almost turns into something else, because Nick stopped making music in 1971, meaning that the last three full years of his life were not spent doing the thing that has fundamentally made people interested in his life. Instead, it pivots into a story about mental health and a family, a dynamic in a family, which doesn’t lend itself to mythologising and to funny anecdotes, for obvious reasons. So from a writer’s perspective I was quite lucky to have two separate stories to tell, really. And the second was obviously a much more sober and upsetting story to balance and to get right. 

RU: And I should add that, to try and get that difficult part of the story right, the Nick Drake Estate made Nick’s father’s diaries available. 

RMJ: Absolutely. Nick’s father wrote the diary about Nick. It wasn’t a diary that he was writing of old – he started it in March 1972 because he recognised that Nick’s illness was severe and that it was, as he put it in one of his entries, ‘going to be a long job’ (which I used as one of the chapter titles). He realised that the movement of Nick’s illness needed to be watched, so that he and Molly could start recognising ‘the last time he did this, such and such happened…’, or to record when he was or wasn’t taking his pills, and what the effect on his behaviour was and so on. So the diary is really about Nick. 

And it’s a brutal document, it’s got little levity in it – but it did give me the huge benefit of knowing where Nick was most of the time, because he was at home most of the time. So I was able to anchor those last years in detail. I knew exactly what Nick was doing for much of the time – what he was watching on TV, what he was eating. The challenge, really, was not making that tedious to read, because of course there are fans of Nick – of whom I’m one – who do find tiny details interesting and revealing, but you can cross a line into pointlessly repeating information that doesn’t have any wider value. So cherry-picking the most salient bits of the diary was one of the most difficult tasks for me, because it would have been easy just to turn the whole thing into prose. 

RU: Going to the core of Nick’s musical achievements, his most important musical associate was the producer Joe Boyd. One of the many things I learned in the book that I was not fully aware of was that, besides producing Nick Drake’s first two albums, he thought Nick’s songs could be covered by other prominent artists, some of whom I didn’t suspect. He sent Nick Drake’s songs to Roberta Flack for consideration, although she didn’t record any, but Millie Small, the pioneering ska / reggae singer most known for My Boy Lollipop, did record one of his songs. And Joe also thought that Nick could have written for films. Do you think he overestimated Nick’s potential, or was he just ahead of his time in seeing it? 

RMJ: The latter. I do think that Nick’s songs are difficult to cover, but perfectly possible to do justice to. I think Joe felt an immediate sense of discovery when he first heard Nick [in January 1968]. He was convinced straight away that this was a rare talent, and has openly said that he doesn’t understand why others didn’t feel the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s as crude as him having seen dollar signs, I think he just thought, ‘This guy is obviously going to be hugely successful, and I’m lucky enough to have had the opportunity to be his discoverer, to sign him and to work with him’. 

So one of the things that Joe immediately anticipated was that other people would form an orderly queue in order to sing his songs, in the way that was happening with Dylan and Donovan and Leonard Cohen and… you name it. Nick’s songs sounded like standards to Joe. So he was paying Nick a publishing advance every week because he was convinced that this was going to be where Nick was going to have his best shot at earning a decent amount of money.

And one of the many puzzles about Nick’s recording career is why so few people did record his songs. There were five or so covers during his lifetime – very few, and none that would have brought in any money. So yes, I think Joe was absolutely prescient, as has been borne out. Obviously, it’s a tragedy for him, as he says, that the success didn’t come when Nick was around to enjoy it. 

RU: Although Boyd and Drake worked really well together, it was like most producer-artist relationships, they had some disagreements which might have led to better results. One is still controversial among some Nick Drake fans. I like the instrumental pieces on his second album, Bryter Layter, very much, but not everybody does, and Boyd wanted more songs with vocals instead. This is an example of how, although Nick Drake’s image is of somebody who barely said anything and didn’t assert himself, he stood his ground and insisted that the instrumentals were on there. Do you think that’s an interesting part of how they could spur each other on, and work together productively even when they didn’t initially have the same end goal in mind?

RMJ: I think it speaks well for Joe that, although he strongly disagreed with Nick on the subject of the instrumentals, he ultimately did what Nick wanted, not what he wanted. Joe’s memory is that Nick’s vision for Bryter Layter was that both sides should be bookended by instrumentals (although what the fourth one would have been is a mystery – there’s no evidence that one was ever either written or recorded). But I think Joe’s vision was, ‘He’s a songwriter, he sings, he’s not a writer of instrumentals that you could hear on bread commercials’ (or whatever) – and to him, that’s what those instrumentals sounded like. So I think he found it frustrating. 

But the most fundamental problem for Joe on that specific subject was that Nick had inadvertently, and slightly uncharacteristically, revealed by playing an encore at a concert in September 1969 that he had another song that was good and that was finished, that Joe otherwise wouldn’t have known of. And that was Things Behind The Sun. And Joe’s ears pricked up, obviously, and he said, ‘Well, obviously that’s going on Bryter Layter, right?’ And Nick said, ‘No, it’s not ready, it’s not finished’. Which was a white lie – Joe had heard it, he knew it was finished. Nick didn’t perform songs that weren’t finished, it’s just not how he operated, he never shared anything that wasn’t finished. 

So I think Nick was squirreling away songs for Pink Moon as of 1969. I think he always knew that Pink Moonwas what he wanted to do – not as a reaction to Bryter Layter, as is often assumed, but just as the next step he wanted to take. He knew he wanted to do a guitar-and-voice album as a creative experiment. It was one of the avenues he wanted to explore. And he knew that Things Behind The Sun belonged on that, not on Bryter Layter, with strings and drums and so on. So I think that was a more specific area of conflict for Joe: ‘Why are these instrumentals on here when I know you’ve got another good song?’ 

RU: For someone with such a brief career, who only did two known interviews, there are so many rumours and myths around Nick Drake, many of which are unfounded and unfortunately circulate online and in other places. Here’s one that the book clarifies and refutes. It was reported for many years that when Pink Moon, Nick’s third and final album, was done, he went to Island Records and, without telling anybody, just put the tape at the reception and left. Well, the truth might not be as colourful, but it’s the truth and that’s what’s important: he actually delivered it personally to Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records. What do you think the book does most to set straight about Nick and his career, whether it’s incidents or his character? 

RMJ: I think the most important assumption or rumour about Nick that I wanted to clarify is the extent to which he took drugs. It has been said that he smoked dope morning, noon and night, that he was almost addicted to it. The assumption has been that smoking dope defined his days, and probably didn’t help when it came to his descent into mental illness. But most of his friends don’t recall Nick smoking any more of the rest than the rest of them did – which was a fair amount, but socially, and it’s a non-addictive substance. 

Now, of course, Nick probably smoked it on his own as well, which didn’t help when he wasn’t in great shape mentally, and I’m not trying to dismiss its possible contribution to his difficulties – but that was an area where I was able to say with confidence: Nick didn’t smoke nearly as much as has been assumed. 

In addition, I can find no evidence that he ever took LSD. I mean, it’s perfectly possible, because it was widely around in 1967 and some of the imagery in his songs from that year seem to suggest hallucinatory experiences – but equally, maybe he didn’t. He was a sensible guy, he knew it was a Pandora’s box that not everyone should open. None of his friends remember him taking acid – and they remember taking it themselves, where they were and who they were with. And it was never with Nick. 

And then the suggestion that he was a heroin addict, which has often been repeated, including in one or two books, is simply not borne out by anyone’s recollections. So that was something I was glad to be able to set straight. 

I suppose the other major area that really came through strongly for me, from all people I spoke to, is that until late 1969 – so, shall we say, for the first 21 full years of Nick’s life – he was a happy, outgoing, productive, popular, forward-facing person. So that’s why I wanted, and everyone agreed, to have a picture of him smiling on the front of the book, because that describes how a lot of his friends remember him: first and foremost as an ambitious, cheerful sort of person who wasn’t doomy or gloomy or bad company. Not a flamboyant extrovert, but a good guy to have in a room. So it was gratifying for me to be able to contextualise Nick’s illness with the first, large part of his life and say that really the illness came down like a shutter on him, and doesn’t define how he always was. 

RU: There’s a seeming contradiction in Nick’s career. He didn’t do much to publicise himself, although he did play more concerts than is usually reported, about forty. He did a couple of interviews, but rather reluctantly, and didn’t say much. Yet he seemed disturbed that he didn’t have more success and recognition, especially maybe after the second album, which is in some ways a step forward from Five Leaves Left but didn’t get significantly more acclaim. Do you think that lack of recognition helped spark his mental difficulties, or contributed to them? 

RMJ: I can’t speak for the psychiatry involved, but approaching his state of mind as if he weren’t ill, I think the sense that he might as well not be bothering was very hurtful. I don’t think he wanted to have gold records on the wall and drive a fast car and have girls screaming at him, but I do think he wanted to feel validated by some sort of audience, a small but loyal audience, and to know that he wasn’t wasting his time, as would anyone who writes or paints or whatever it may be, yet has barely anyone validate them. 

In Nick’s case, there are two things to remember. Firstly, he had been led to believe by all of those on the inside of his career, and with all the right motives, that he was going to be very successful. There was no suggestion by anyone that he was marginal, that he should have low expectations of his sales and the take-up of his work. He was therefore quite confident in leaving Cambridge that this was what he needed to do in order to have the success that everyone had led him to expect. 

Secondly, to put it crudely, I think Bryter Layter had been his degree. He knew that he couldn’t make Bryter Layter whilst at Cambridge, especially in his third year when he had finals and would have to do a bit of work: he couldn’t just keep coasting and expect to get through his finals. So Bryter Layter was, in a sense, what he did instead of his degree, in the expectation that it would be released in the summer of 1970. The first published, advertised release date for it was that May, which would have dovetailed with when his friends were sitting their finals, and he could have neatly substituted that achievement for his degree. 

But there were problems, John Cale was brought in to do a couple of arrangements in June and the release date started being pushed back. Joe Boyd went back to America, there were postal strikes, Island decided to have a major rebranding exercise which held up a lot of releases, then they decided on a campaign called ‘El Pea’ (which involved circulating giant inflatable peas to record shops), and Bryter Layter was postponed and postponed. 

None of this had anything to do with Nick, but his record was clearly not a priority for Island. A Cat Stevens or a King Crimson album would have come out straight away, but I think Nick slowly began to realise that he simply wasn’t a priority for Island. That’s not even much of a criticism of Island, it’s just the reality. Five Leaves Left had barely caused a ripple, so Bryter Layter got put on the back-burner. 

And that was upsetting for him, because he had left Cambridge in the teeth of fairly strenuous advice from his parents and others whom he respected in order to do something which then wasn’t happening. And then when it did happen, it was released to indifference. So I think those two factors combined to accelerate his low self-esteem and questioning of what he was doing with his life. 

Early-1970s Capitol Records LP for US release that combined tracks from Drake’s first two albums.

RU: This is hindsight, but – especially because I’m from the United States – it seems like barely anything was done to get him an international audience, especially in North America, which might have helped with his desire for some sort of validation, some sort of recognition. When they did put out a record, Capitol Records clumsily combined material from the first two albums instead of, say, putting out Bryter Layter and then, if it had sold well, putting out Five Leaves Left. Do you think that, had Nick gotten more recognition, even if he had been unable to tour in the States, that might have helped with his career and his general perception of the worth of what he was doing? 

RMJ: I’m sure it would have – but I think you’ve identified the problem with that in your question, because in those days you didn’t get recognition without touring. It was too much of a shuffle, there was too much competition, and it was so easy to get lost. And, of course, America is a vast territory. You have to be out there visiting the local radio stations, playing second on the bill to Black Oak Arkansas or whoever. That’s what you did. You see these bizarre bills from those days, with obscure English acts supporting American rock acts, because you had to be out there doing that, getting the catcalls. John Martyn did it relentlessly, and he never ‘broke’ America – but he did build up a certain following there. 

But by the summer of 1971, when that compilation album came out, Nick wasn’t in a position to perform, or even to travel, really. But I do think Bryter Layter could have done well in America. There’s enough material on it with a sunny, radio-friendly quality for it plausibly to have broken through and made an impact. But again, he just wasn’t a priority for Capitol. They just had too much else going on, and who’s this English guy who no one can get on the phone? It was just hopeless, unfortunately.

RU: You mentioned John Cale playing on Bryter Layter. Especially because I’m writing a book on the Velvet Underground, it’s an interesting connection to me – when the 1970s start you have these areas of rock which seem separate, but there were these unusual collaborations. At the same time Bryter Layter was being made, Joe Boyd and John Wood were working on Nico’s Desertshore, where John Cale was the arranger. Do you think it’s a reflection of the open-mindedness of that time that producers and artists were willing to bring in ingredients that might not have seemed sensible or logical on paper? 

RMJ: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think anyone ever anticipated John Cale being a good fit for Nick, it was just an inspired coincidence that he heard some of Nick’s recordings without adornments and thought, ‘I want to adorn them!’, and therefore did. Joe recalls him hopping into a cab that very day, and just going and hammering on Nick’s door. 

Joe has open ears and a broad-minded approach to music. Over the course of 1970, the year that Bryter Layter was recorded, he completed, I think, sixteen albums – an awful lot. And the span of those albums is quite remarkable. There’s folk music (what we call ‘folk’, anyway) – Vashti Bunyan, the Incredible String band. There’s jazz, including some quite avant-garde jazz, there’s rock, there’s Nico, who’s maybe called ‘art-song’ now, but I don’t know how she was categorised at the time, if at all… And I don’t think anyone thought that mixture was strange. I think the mixture was what it was all about. 

Bringing together musicians from different traditions and backgrounds in order to see what happened was a joyous part of what was going on at the time, and was taken for granted. I think it’s only in hindsight that we think how remarkable it was to have had avant-garde jazz musicians combining with pop musicians and so on and so forth. These endless collaborations, sessions that were full of seemingly unlikely or disparate people making coherent music together, were taken as read then, I think, and Joe was all about the collaborations, that was the essence of Witchseason. He understood that putting musicians together could create magical results, and John Wood regards that as one of Joe’s greatest strengths as a producer: knowing who to bring onto which session to create the best result. 

RU: To bring in another Velvet Underground connection, another surprise to me was that a record Nick listened to toward the end of his life, when he was staying with his parents and having a lot of problems, was by Nico. It’s not specified which, but I’m guessing it was Desertshore.

RMJ: Yes – that was in December 1973, and it’s wonderful that Rodney even mentioned Nico by name. There are several frustrating bits in his diary when, completely understandably, he writes things like, ‘Nick came back from Birmingham with three new records today’. And I’m thinking, ‘What were they?’ There’s an entry from July 1974 that says something like, ‘Nick went to a rock concert in London this evening but left early and came home’. What was the concert? It would be fascinating to know. Was it Roxy Music? Who was it? So yes, it’s great that Rodney did mention Nico, because normally he didn’t name names. 

RU: I’m a Nico fan, but it seems to me that if you’re having struggles with depression, Desertshore or The Marble Index are maybe not what you want to hear to lift yourself out of that. So that was a big surprise to me. 

RMJ: I imagine that he was interested in it because Joe had done it. There’s another bit in Nick’s father’s diary, from September 1974, where he writes ‘Nick went out and bought Melody Maker’. And these things were worth recording for Rodney, because Nick didn’t always have the energy or confidence to face the world, even in terms of a small transaction like that. I got them out and had a look at which issue it would have been – and it had Nico and John Cale on the cover [with Brian Eno and Kevin Ayers]. So I suspect Nick did keep abreast of the other artists Joe was working with, and of course had it in mind that he wanted to work with Joe again himself. So there was a certain logic to his listening to Nico, I think. 

RU: Some musicians of great quality – the Beatles or the Beach Boys – reach an audience immediately. Unfortunately for Nick Drake and the Velvet Underground, it took decades. Do you see that as part of the great frustration that Nick experienced?

RMJ: Yes, absolutely. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to see obviously inferior artists, as you might perceive them, doing a great deal better than you are, attracting that attention. It seems bizarre to me that Five Leaves Left made so little impact. I can’t explain it, no one can. I can understand it not being a number one, or a number ten or a number twenty. But why wasn’t it number 30? I think it could and should have done a lot better than it did. No one has come up with a plausible explanation for that. So Nick must have felt deeply frustrated, especially – as I said earlier – because he had been led to believe that it was going to create ripples. 

But, of course, the story of art is of cream rising – Van Gogh and so on. There are so many examples to illustrate the fact that it takes time for it all to settle, and for some of the things that do the best in their day to be forgotten and the artists no one gave any thought to to rise. It’s interesting looking at the charts and reading through the newspapers in those days – there are just so many popular artists from that era that I doubt anyone listens to now. For example, famously – well, famously within Nick Drake’s biographical circles! – one of the only reviews of Five Leaves Left compared it unfavourably to Peter Sarstedt. Now, with all respect to Peter Sarstedt, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) might be on the radio every now and then, but who sits down and listens to As If It Were A Movie, or another  of his albums? They’re not rubbish – far from it – but because he’d had a hit they were widely reviewed. And, inevitably, Nick was compared to whoever was successful in a broadly comparable field, and I think that must have been irritating. 

But this process happens, of course, and we end up with the things that resonate the most and that people identify with the most strongly. And I feel there’s an irony about my book, which is that there’s now more knowledge about Nick available than there is about absolute megastars, Jimmy Page or Mick Jagger, say, whose private worlds remain a mystery because they keep them that way, meaning their public face and books are drawn from pretty superficial interviews and so on. But, partly because I’ve got Rodney’s diary, partly because of the amount of people I’ve been able to speak to and so on, I feel that Nick is more known now than they are: his personality and the detail, what he liked doing, what he watched on TV. Because of the access I’ve had and the material his sister has already shared, there’s an awful lot of forensic information that you normally wouldn’t come close to with a major artist. 

RU: The first time I spoke to Joe Boyd he was specifically talking about Bryter Layter, and he said, ‘That’s one of the very few records I’ve made where I would not change a thing’. And Joe Boyd has made many records, many really good records. Even at the time, it was inexplicable to him that this achievement was not recognised as such. It wasn’t as bad for him, because he got so much recognition with Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, later REM, there are many examples. But to be the originator of Bryter Layter and not get that feedback immediately must have been tough. I mean, even the Velvet Underground got a lot more positive response when they were active than has generally been acknowledged. A lot more, I think it’s fair to say, than Nick Drake did. So in some ways it was easier for them than for him.

My last question, which is another hindsight question, is: had Nick experienced enough success, even if it was on a cult level or making number thirty, as you say, do you think that might have offset his growing psychological difficulties enough for him to produce more music? 

RMJ: It’s a lovely thought, but the answer is ‘no’, as far as I’m aware. Not only did Nick’s illness rob him of certain aspects of his sanity, it also robbed him of his creativity. Bit by bit, his ability to generate material, which he had done prolifically for about three or four years, dwindled until he was simply not able to play the guitar and sing simultaneously, or write lyrics. The story of his illness in 1972, 1973 and 1974 is also the story of him desperately trying, in lots of different ways, to recapture his creativity.

And I don’t see his illness as being related to anything else, really. I just think it was sheer bad luck. It’s not because he went to boarding school, it’s not because he smoked too much dope, it’s not because his records didn’t sell. It just came upon him. It happens to people. It’s a terrible tragedy, and I think it’s nice to think of ways in which Nick’s life could have turned out differently. But I fear his outcome was inevitable, based on his illness: it was eating away at him to the point where he couldn’t see any plausible future. I think it would have gratified him if his records had sold better, but I don’t think it would have helped him be creative in his illness. 

RU: If anyone else wants to ask anything, please do. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: To understand Nick’s mind – thinking of when he first went to France, and then the book that was on his bedside table that fateful night – did you have to read a lot of Albert Camus? And secondly, his family’s house, Far Leys, is at some sort of end of a corner of a shady lane. Is it fair to assume, because Nick was there for three years after the last album, he went walking there, and if I walked there, I’d be sort of walking in his spirit? 

RMJ: Firstly, I didn’t immerse myself in Camus. That’s the kind of thing I tried to avoid in writing the book – trying to think myself into Nick’s head and read all the books and Romantic poems and reverse-engineer theories about where his songs came from. I interpreted my role as his biographer quite literally, and that was just to describe his life and try to contextualise his work with it, rather than write pages and pages speculating about which Romantic poets might have informed which lines in which songs. I think that’s a separate and perfectly valid exercise, but for someone to do from a different perspective. 

By the way, Le Mythe de Sisyphe wasn’t on his bedside table, so that’s a myth. He bought it in Paris as a birthday present to his mother in November 1974 and posted it to her, but sadly it didn’t arrive because of postal strikes. Instead, rather nicely for her, for obvious reasons, it arrived in around February 1975. So it was ultimately a gift from beyond the grave. 

As for walking in Tanworth, I don’t think Nick did much exercise at all in his last years, but of course he knew the village back-to-front. He did occasionally walk a neighbour’s dog, though, so that’s something, and I guess they would go down that path. But if you’re going to walk around Tanworth with the idea in mind that you’re following in Nick’s latter-day footsteps, I would probably say ‘maybe’ but not ‘definitely’. He tended to stay indoors or drive to places.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Do you think the cover of Bryter Layter served him well or not?

RMJ: Your guess is as good as mine! Nick poured so much interest and energy and passion into the creation of his records, not only in writing the songs but also, as Richie was saying, being assertive in the studio – not in a dogmatic, unpleasant way, but he dug his heels in, he knew what he wanted and he got what he wanted – that I find it perplexing that he was so casual about their artwork. He just wasn’t involved in how his albums looked. He didn’t seem to have strong views either way. 

Bryter Layter’s cover was photographed by Nigel Waymouth, a friend of Joe Boyd’s. The guitar Nick’s holding belonged to Nigel, the shoes that are in front of Nick belonged to Nigel, as did the chair he’s sitting in. Nick just turned up, then one of the pictures was chosen (by Nigel, not by him), then the artwork was generated. There was a meeting at which it was presented and one of the Island execs present told me that he remembers Nick neither expressing pleasure or displeasure, just not saying anything – and that was that.

But Nick did materialise by Nigel’s side in a crowded room the following year and said, ‘I just want to say that I now understand what you were trying to do with that album cover, and I really like it’. Nigel had no idea what he was on about, but clearly Nick had reverse-engineered some sort of meaning to it and was grateful for it. Nigel remembers the encounter because it was baffling. 

I think the picture on the back cover, of Nick watching a car zooming past him on the Westway, speaks more of him in a symbolic sense than a picture of him holding a guitar does. But for me personally, Bryter Layter is so closely tied up with the image of him on the front that I find it impossible to unpick that and imagine it with a different cover. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: My father-in-law was at school with Nick at Marlborough and doesn’t remember a single thing about him. He’s even got a photo of them, but he doesn’t remember him. It’s very irritating! Did you find it funny – which is the wrong word – that towards the end of his life he seemed to be on a bit of an up? Also, I found the diary stuff amazing, just so revealing about his character. Looking through the diary, was there anything which surprised you? 

RMJ: Are you basing your feeling that Nick was on the up towards end of his life on what I wrote? 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: The hanging out in Paris, yeah. 

RMJ: Nick was very depressed at the end of his life. I think there were glimmers, but what Nick tended to do throughout his illness was make a resolution and then not see it through. And often his parents thought, ‘Well, maybe now something’s changing, he’s becoming positive again, he’s actually going to see something through…’ And then he would crash back into indecision and inability. And that’s basically what happened in Paris. He came back determined to make a new album and get on with life, but unfortunately it was beyond him. I found it quite sad that his parents – latterly, after his death – repeatedly said (and perhaps came to believe) that towards the end of his life Nick had been happier than they’d ever seen him and so on. 

But I fear that was wishful thinking, and that they were allowing themselves to concoct a narrative that wasn’t supported by what had actually happened. There were glimmers of positive action from Nick towards the end, but many more of him being at his worst, really. In his last fortnight and on his last day or two he was absolutely as bad as he ever was.

As for Rodney’s diary, of course, it contains lots of valuable material relating about Nick. I think Richie was the first person who read a draft of the book, about a year ago, more or less as soon as I finished it. It was around double the length of the published version, and eliminating material from it was, I thought, going to be impossible because it was so intertwined. Everything seemed so relevant to me. But the realisation that a lot of it was actually repetitive and that, whilst different anecdotes have slightly different weight, ultimately you only need one of them to give the picture, was liberating. 

And his illness was the most challenging bit to whittle down, because I wanted to convey its relentlessness and hopelessness, and I was worried that if I cut out too much of the doom and gloom, quite honestly, I might create a false idea that Nick was better than he was – because he was very, very ill. And in the last quarter or so of the book I wanted, without being depressingly grim myself, to convey a sense that the outcome was, in a sense, inevitable, and that the counter-narrative that has arisen that there could have been a different outcome, that Nick’s overdose was possibly accidental and so on, just wasn’t the case. It’s not borne out by anything that I saw. 

But the hardest task in writing the book was trying to streamline the last part, because there is just a lot of relentless material in Nick’s father’s diary. It’s not an easy read and I don’t think much would be gained from it being published in full, really. It’s a heartbreaking document. 

That said, if you strip out the awful tragedy at its heart, there’s a lot of mundane information, most of it relating to Nick, but it’s what they were eating and what they were watching on telly, and Mr. Heath has lost the election, all this sort of stuff, so it’s interesting simply as an account of an early 70s household.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: A bit of an impossible question. How long does it take between someone dying an unknown, then getting known, and then becoming this incredible figure? 

RMJ: I think that’s a really interesting question – and of course, it’s case-by-case. How many are we still waiting to hear of? But speaking about Nick, I think it’s interesting to speculate, as a fantasy: had he been willing to play a concert in September, October 1974 and a promoter had said, ‘Yeah, sure’, what would the take-up have been? I suspect larger than Nick might have anticipated. I think he was better known than he realised, and perhaps better known than posterity has acknowledged. 

We all know that he had tracks on Island sampler albums in his lifetime, which sold huge numbers, so there was that. But I also think his albums had cumulatively reached a larger audience than has been acknowledged. You see these made-up figures – ‘a combined total of 5000 sales during his lifetime’ – but no one knows what his records sold in his lifetime. The earliest source I have that gives a number is that, at the time of Nick’s death Bryter Layter had sold 15,000. Now, that’s not a large number, that’s not enough to get you into the charts – but it’s not nothing. 

So I do think he had a larger fanbase than he realised – because it’s really good music. People picked up on it and said, ‘You should listen to this’ in student halls and so on, and word had spread. But no one knew who he was, no one knew how to contact him, no one could see him live. There was no visibility. So I think Nick was isolated from his audience to the extent that maybe he didn’t even realise there was an audience. 

At time of his death, Nick was trying to get an accounting for the last few years. Island hadn’t accounted him properly, and I don’t blame them particularly for that – there was a degree of chaos between Witchseason and Joe Boyd and Island, and it was all being sorted out. But Nick’s arrangement had been that, after recording costs had been met on his albums, he would get 50% and Witchseason would get 50%. Of course, Pink Moon cost barely anything to record, so that was almost immediately profitable. But what Nick wanted to know at the end of his life was, ‘Am I owed any money? What’s the situation?’

Well, I’ve seen the royalty figures for the years immediately following his death. At the end of 1974, shortly after his death, his royalty statement for 1972-1974 was finally organised. That was about £1800, which is about £16,000 now. The figure for 1975 was lower, because it was only for 1975. But for 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, the figure got bigger each year. So there was a growing interest straight away – and this was before he was being revered as a James Dean-type figure. 

So I think, whether or not Nick had died, his records were picking up momentum. But then, of course, the whole cult surrounding his death contributed towards his mythology and status, and that process has never stopped. 

RU: I want to add that I think it’s been overemphasised that the use of one of his songs in a commercial was responsible for elevating him out of obscurity, because – as Richard notes – the ‘cult of Nick Drake’, if you want to call it that, was building and building way before that. In some ways it’s similar to the artist I’m working on now, the Velvet Underground. If that Volkswagen commercial had not appeared, I think his following now would be about as big, or only slightly less, than if it had not appeared. It’s the music that’s done it, it’s not because of the fluke that it was selected for a commercial. 

And a final thing: Joe Boyd deserves an enormous amount of credit for making sure that Nick’s records were still in print, and that a boxed set was still in print. That made sure that awareness could continue to build (unlike with some artists, like Skip Spence, where you couldn’t get the record for many years). And I think it will continue to build indefinitely, for generations beyond us. 

RMJ: I agree with that. The suggestion that the Pink Moon advert is where Nick’s story suddenly changed is, as far as I’m concerned, inaccurate because his records were freely available all over England in the 1990s when I was a teenager. Listening to Neil Young, listening to Bob Dylan, listening to Joni Mitchell, listening to Nick Drake, it was all the same by then, in the UK at least. He wasn’t on the level of someone like Townes Van Zandt, where you might still feel, ‘This is really quite an obscure guy’. I mean, Nick was well-known in the 90s, as far as I was concerned, getting to grips with my own musical tastes.

And the sense that his reputation will continue to build was really the main motor for getting my book done. Gabrielle understood that – although it slightly stuck in her craw to reopen the wound, as it were – interest in Nick is not going away. And therefore the facts need to be straight, because too many misapprehensions have been taken as fact in the absence of a sober inspection of everything that there is in her possession, and in the memories of those who knew him but hadn’t necessarily spoken about him publicly. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: I’m interested in Nick Drake’s classical influences, which you alluded to – you mentioned that he listened to classical music in the last years of his life, and I hear the influence of Debussy in some of the string arrangements on Five Leaves Left, for example. What have you been able to find about the kind of classical music he listened to?

RMJ: Frustratingly, Nick’s record collection – although really it was more of an accumulation, as he wasn’t a ‘collector’ in any serious way, and I understand he treated his records quite casually – has been dispersed, partly given away by his parents, or pinched by fans, left lying around and eventually chucked, I don’t know. So there isn’t a sort of block of ‘Nick Drake’s record collection’. There are a few which have been kept, including copies of his own albums and one or two John Martyn albums and the Brandenburg Concertos and so on. So I don’t have a clear answer to what classical recordings he most liked. 

But I would say, on a tangent of sorts, that another myth about Nick is that ‘Robert Kirby wrote the arrangements’, that the arrangements were just grafted onto Nick’s songs. I actually think one could almost say it was generous of Nick to give Robert the arrangement credit, because the arrangements were by the two of them. Nick was sitting at the piano or with a guitar, making suggestions, and Robert was sitting over there, writing, and Robert would say: ‘Well, how about this instead of that?’ It was absolutely collaborative all the way through those two albums. Nick knew what he wanted, and the arrangements were written very much with him. Robert was much more than an amanuensis, but it was certainly a collaborative effort. 

Robert’s main reference points were classical. but he loved the Beatles and George Martin, and understood the difference between writing classical music and pop arrangements, and that you had to have a pop sensibility. So I think the influences on Nick’s arrangements were towards the more pop end of classical, shall we say? Robert referred to the artists or the composers that he and Nick had in mind – Fauré, Debussy, Delius, Vaughan Williams. And I don’t mean to sound insulting to these composers, I just mean the more overtly melodic parts of their work. 

In terms of Nick’s private passions within classical music, I don’t know. But I can say his tastes were catholic and he liked symphonic music, he liked solo piano, he had a broad understanding and enjoyment of the canon. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: I just want to challenge you. I’m wondering whether you are yourself mythologising a little bit when you talk about the inevitability of his death because he was so ill. I’m just wondering, have you yourself been through a period of acute mental illness for two years or longer? 

RMJ: No, not in the least. It’s absolutely fair to take me to task on that.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: It’s more a point about mental illness than Nick Drake himself: who knows whether he would have come out of it or not? If you’re in that state for a long time, what happens is there is atrophy generally. You can’t think, you can’t move, it’s difficult to have ideas, it’s difficult to be creative. You feel like you’ll never come back from it and you’re on the brink – and I’ve been through this, I’ve been on the brink – but often there is a return from that. And when you begin to return from it, things come back. 

So I think your narrative, that there is no return, is a kind of mythologising and needs to be challenged. It’s a general point about mental illness. I think it’s dangerous to say, ‘There can be no return’. If Nick Drake was at a point where he could take his own life, I think one would have to say that may have been a situation which could have been turned around, just by chance. Someone could have come back who may have had what he needed at the time, and the next day there would perhaps have been onward movement. So I want to challenge you on that point. That’s all I’m saying. 

RMJ: I’m happy for you to have done so, and I apologise if what I was saying seemed glib. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: I’m not saying that you’re glib. I just want to make that point. 

RMJ: I take it on board, and I’m delighted that your experience has been different to Nick’s. And I don’t say he was never going to get better with any levity. What I think I was – perhaps clumsily – trying to express was the fact that the counter-narrative that he was ‘getting better’ towards the end of his life is not borne out by evidence. I think a lot of Nick’s admirers – with the best of motives and goodwill towards him – want the outcome to have been different, and have therefore seized on small glimpses that have entered the history books, as it were, of him having been happier and much better, and of having taken far fewer pills on his last night on Earth than he did. 

And for me, revisiting his last weeks or months and trying to construct an accurate version of how he was, day-by-day and week-by-week, left less room than I think has been widely understood for thinking that he was in a more positive frame of mind at the end of his life and therefore that the outcome might have been more positive. But you’re absolutely right, of course. One should never write off anyone psychologically, and I didn’t mean to. 

RU: Thanks, everybody, for coming today. And I hope, again, if you have not bought a copy of the book, you will get a signed copy on your way out. 

RMJ: Thank you. 

Ball Four Outtakes

Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is one of the most famous and successful sports books of all time, and deservedly so. There’s not much more that can be said about it that hasn’t already been stated elsewhere. As its Wikipedia entry notes, it’s the only sports book that made the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books of the Century, and made Time magazine’s list of the hundred greatest non-fiction books published since 1923 (when Time itself was founded).

But there is a lot more that he wrote, or at least dictated for the transcripts that became the basis for its diary-like text, than has been published. To read it, you have to know where to get it, and make a special effort to access it, especially if you don’t live near Washington, DC.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has a collection of Jim Bouton papers with more than a hundred containers with about 37,000 items. Probably no one would be able to go through all of those unless they were writing a Bouton biography (and one did come out a few years ago), and maybe not even for that kind of project.

Among them, however, are the original transcripts of the tapes he dictated during the 1969 baseball season that, with editor Leonard Shecter, were turned into the far more concise prose of the Ball Four book. There are also early drafts of the book, though these are much closer to Ball Four in its published form. All of the transcripts, and much of the early drafts, are in just four of the many boxes comprising the Bouton papers.

I went through all of the transcripts, and one of the early drafts, during two days I devoted to looking at the material recently at the Library of Congress. Anyone could do this, as long as you register for a Library of Congress library card (quick and easy to do there in person) and make an appointment with the Manuscript Division a good deal ahead of time (two weeks at least, I’d say), as the material’s stored off-site. But you do have to do it in person in Washington, DC, which I managed to plan as part of a multi-week East Coast trip that was primarily devoted to a work project.

There is a lot more material in the transcripts than the book, hence a lot of material that didn’t make the book. Is it revelatory, or at least worth reading for serious Ball Four fans, of which there are many?

It’s a question that will take a long time to answer, which I’ll try to in some ways with this blogpost. As interesting as I generally found it, it’s sort of like deluxe box set editions of classic rock albums, which I’ve reviewed and dissected much more often than I have literary works. On most deluxe editions, the extra material — the outtakes, the demos, the live recordings from the same era, the alternate mixes, the home tapes, etc. — aren’t nearly as good as the final record, whether they’re alternate versions or songs that didn’t make the album in any form. They’re often interesting, but not on par with the familiar work, and more of value for insight into the creative process than for listening pleasure. Sometimes they are very good from a pure listening standpoint. More often, they’re just okay, or not very different from the final versions.

That’s kind of the case with the Ball Four transcripts. Bouton and Shecter definitely picked the best of the pitcher’s stories and observations for the published book, though there might be a handful of unused ones that should have been considered. In addition, the stories and observations used in Ball Four — even the very best ones — were virtually always considerably pruned from the much longer, more repetitious, and wordier ways they were first voiced in Bouton’s tapes.

That’s to be expected. Bouton was speaking off the top of his head (though he also took some written notes), not writing even rough versions on a typewriter at the end of each day (this being, of course, long before there were word processors that would have those tasks much easier). Often it’s a little like hearing a long version of a classic song, with fadeouts and rehearsals and false starts that can be trimmed, before it’s whittled down to its most effective essential shape.

If you are the type of fan and reader who knows most or all of the stories from the book by heart —and I bet I’m far from the only one —there are a fair number of reasonably interesting ones, or “outtakes,” that didn’t make the final cut, though it takes a lot of patient weeding through the transcripts. While there aren’t many general conclusions to be drawn from what was chosen other than the most obvious previously stated one that he and Shecter plucked the best anecdotes and comments, I do have one.

When Ball Four was published, it sparked an enormous amount of controversy for its depiction of behavior that wasn’t publicized by professional athletes. These included labor disputes, unfair personnel decisions by managers/coaches/ownership, fighting (seldom physical) among players, frequent use of profanity (if commonplace even in mainstream media more than half a century later), and some sex (tame if fairly sexist by today’s standards) and drugs (limited to amphetamines). From some of the outrage it generated among journalists, fans, and the baseball establishment at the time, you might have thought Bouton went out of his way to be as offensive and sensationalistic as possible.

Yet if anything, Bouton held back quite a bit of controversial material — both in terms of stories and thoughts about what he was experiencing — that he dictated into his tape recorder, but didn’t use in Ball Four itself. This included some specific conflicts with other players, sometimes cited by name, that he omitted; citations of drug use and sexual behavior in which famous players were named that didn’t make the book, or in which the story made the book and the player wasn’t named; and substantial criticism of racist or insensitive actions by other players and one manager that aren’t found in the final version. Maybe Bouton was reluctant to go too far and jeopardize his position as a still-active player, especially when detailing the Astros, with whom he’d still be playing when the book was published in 1970. Maybe he felt that getting too personal and cutting too deep would cause too much specific animosity in a few particular situations. Maybe it was a combination of those concerns.

On the flipside, some quite positive comments Bouton made about some associates, particularly Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz, aren’t in the final version. Maybe these weren’t felt colorful enough, or were deemed unnecessary considering there are several pretty positive passages about Schultz in the book, something often overlooked by commentators. Some of Ball Four‘s more interesting incidents are fleshed out considerably more fully, sometimes for stories that are fairly brief or presented more lightheartedly in the final version.

There are many examples I could describe in this post, but I’ll limit myself to just a few of the ones I found among the more interesting:

**Although Bouton generally found race relations—not just between blacks and whites, but also between blacks, whites, and Latin players—friendlier on the Astros than on other teams he’d played with, he’s extremely critical of them at a couple points. He notes that two or three players—he doesn’t name them—used the n-word, and not in a kidding manner. He also muses that if changes should be made to the Astros roster, those players should be dispensed with.

He also felt that the team should have traded a few players (rookie pitcher Tom Griffin, who struck out 200 batters in 1969, is mentioned as a possibility) for slugger Richie Allen, then wrapping up a very controversial season in which it was apparent the Phillies were eager to trade him during the off-season. Bouton’s feeling was that Allen was so good it was worth giving him special treatment to have him on a club, at a time when many teams would have shied away from him (though the Phillies did trade him to the Cardinals, in a famous deal in which Curt Flood was included and refused to report to Philadelphia).

Far from being controversial from our vantage point, Bouton’s attitude toward the prejudiced players seems admirable. Maybe he didn’t, for all the risks he took in Ball Four, want to rock the boat too much with the Astros, for whom he still had to play (if not for much longer) when the book came out. (A brief recommendation that general manager Spec Richardson get fired would have probably caused him far more trouble.) Because Bouton does mention a few white players (particularly Curt Blefary and Doug Rader) who had very good relationships with the blacks on the club, and because he’s generally complimentary about most of his Astros teammates, it’s impossible to say who the offending bigots were, though there might be some suspects more likely than others by process of elimination.

**One of the longest entries in Ball Four is for June 7, when Bouton and some other Seattle players participated in a sports clinic for underprivileged youth in Washington, DC. His friend and roommate Gary Bell was traded minutes after Jim returned to their hotel room, and both events got a lot of space in the book.

On tape, however, an incident at the clinic is treated with much more depth and gravity than it is in the final text. Shortly after arriving at the clinic, Pilots manager Joe Schultz and one of the team’s best players, Don Mincher, simply bailed out as they got impatient and bored with the bureaucracy of getting assigned to run part of the activities. In the book, this is treated as a somewhat quirky and slightly comic turn of events that Bouton views as copping out, without hectoring Schulz and Mincher too much.

In the transcript, it’s obvious this troubled Bouton much more deeply  than he let on in the final product. Such was his anger that he talked about it for about half a dozen pages. In part this was because by abandoning the clinic, the pair had failed to come through on commitments that people were counting on, including Hall of Fame player Monte Irvin, then public relations specialist for the baseball commissioner’s office. He states he could never deeply respect either Schultz or Mincher after what happened, though he has a fair amount of positive things to say about both in Ball Four

**While Bouton held back some of the toughest things he could have revealed, he also held back some comments that would have put his associates in a better light. Maybe this was just done for space reasons, but it’s interesting that in an entry after a good deal of time had passed since Schultz disappointed him in DC, the pitcher’s quite fulsome in his praise of how the manager made sure to put him and Marty Pattin in games after rough outings. He views this as Schultz caring about players and not showing favoritism, looking for the long-range health of the team.

Along the same lines, the Seattle Pilot who comes off worst in the book is outfielder Wayne Comer, mostly as a result of a verbal fight between the pair after Comer profanely insulted a man who’d come by the team bus to thank a teammate for tickets. Bouton makes an important distinction, however, between his view of Comer as a person and his appreciation of him as a player. He’d try to get along with him, he said, and praised his abilities and character in uniform, even if he didn’t care for him as a man.

**In summer 1969, rookie White Sox star Carlos May lost part of a thumb in an accident when he was in the Marine Reserves. He had a decent major league career, but the injury probably cost him a chance at a much better one. The incident isn’t mentioned in the book, but on tape, Bouton is pretty critical of what he sees as the military’s stupidity. When he was fulfilling his own military commitment at Fort Dix, he notes, he was never allowed to participate in the dangerous activities like crawling in live machine gun fire. It’s implied that athletes or reservists who might be known to the public were protected in this fashion, May getting injured in a screw-up of that mode of operation.

**Bouton writes about how a Houston sportswriter seemed to think star Astros pitcher Don Wilson’s arm problems were mental, not physical. The book doesn’t detail how he sat down to dinner with Wilson and Wilson’s wife — still sometimes considered daring in 1969, as Wilson was black — and urged Don’s wife not to let him pitch if her husband’s arm was hurting that much. Jim knew it was hurting because Wilson had told him to be prepared to take his place if his arm felt so bad he couldn’t take the mound. Bouton told Wilson’s wife it wasn’t worth risking a career.

**Yogi Berra was fired as Yankees manager after the team lost the 1964 World Series (in which Bouton won two games) to the Cardinals, with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane replacing Berra. According to Bouton’s tape, this decision had been made before the World Series was over — that the Yankees wouldn’t keep Yogi regardless of the outcome. That led to the odd situation of two managers fighting for a championship with one who’d be leading the team he beat the next year, and the other replaced by his opponent even if the Yankees had won. Bouton thought Keane was the only guy involved in the Series on the field who knew about the situation.

**Reserve catcher Freddie Velazquez isn’t mentioned much in Ball Four, other than the disclosure that he earned the nickname “Poor Devil.” The transcripts reveal that Bouton had a friendlier relationship with him, and with some other marginal players like Gus Gil and Billy Williams (not the Cubs star),  than you’d guess from their light presence in the final book. It also reveals that when Velazquez caught pneumonia in spring training with the Giants in 1959, he was told by a club official that he’d be released if he didn’t play, though he was under doctor’s orders not to. Velazquez didn’t, really couldn’t, play, and was released the day he got out of the hospital, in Bouton’s account.

**The risk and uneasy logistics of dictating into a tape recorder while he was on the road aren’t discussed much in Ball Four. Bouton was fortunate to have roommates—Gary Bell, Bob Lasko, Mike Marshall, Steve Hovley, and Norm Miller—with whom he got along and trusted to let know he was writing a book. All of them were supportive and kept it a secret, and if any had told on him, it might have cost him not just some status in the clubhouse, but his actual job. 

Bouton faced a dilemma of sorts when Bell was traded, unsure of who his next roommate would be. The transcript discloses, though he doesn’t muse upon this in the book, that he’d prefer fellow reliever John Gelnar — a fairly minor Ball Four character —or Marty Pattin, a starter who comes off better in the book than almost any other Pilot (and who would have one of the most successful subsequent careers of anyone on the team). The book could have been different if he’d roomed with either of them, depending on how they reacted to finding out he was writing one. Or it could have jeopardized the book itself, if they were displeased and restricted what he could say in their presence, or even worse let the secret out.

Bouton ended up rooming with Mike Marshall, but only for a few days, as Marshall got sent to the minors. While Bouton didn’t spell it out in the book, he faced an awkward situation when he was then assigned to room with Steve Barber. Barber is one of the Pilots who comes off worst in the book, mostly because of his refusal to go on the disabled list though a sore arm limited his innings, though Jim did appreciate Steve’s willingness to catch the knuckleball in pregame warmups when catchers didn’t want to. It might well have been tense for the two to room together, even if Bouton had somehow hid the project, or Barber hadn’t objected to the book. Over the objections of a Pilots executive, Bouton and three others switched hotel room keys so Jim could room with his friend Steve Hovley, Barber ending up rooming with Greg Goossen.

Bouton’s book-in-progress might not have been as much of a secret as he would have liked. On tape, he admitted near the end of his time with the Pilots that it must have seemed apparent he was working on one, even quoting a suggestion to put something in the book from coach Eddie O’Brien, the figure from the team that comes off in the weakest light. Maybe it was thought Bouton wouldn’t go through with a book, or that there wouldn’t be publisher interest in one from a player who wasn’t a star (even if he’d been a star for a couple years), and indeed was fighting to hang on in the majors.

**One of the more lighthearted vignettes in the book has veteran pitcher Johnny Podres, who’d be starting his final season with the Padres, giving Bouton some pitching tips in a bar in spring training. Like the Pilots, the Padres were also a new expansion team, and it’s observed that Podres didn’t have a contract when he came to spring training to ask for a chance. After a pretty successful career including four World Series wins with the Dodgers, he’d been out of baseball a full year before taking the chance, aged 36. He even got in the Padres rotation and started their second game as a franchise, and though he was 5-3 with a 3.31 ERA on June 1, he was cut by the end of June after a couple rough outings.

**Mike Marshall was sent to the minors by the Pilots in early July, and Marshall’s refusal to report unless they sent him to Toledo rather than Vancouver is written about in Ball Four. What’s not written about is that Bouton went to the trouble of going to Marshall’s apartment the day after Mike was sent down ready to convince him not to quit, telling him what a great town Vancouver (the Pilots’ AAA team) was, how good the Vancouver manager (Bob Lemon) was, and why he should stay in baseball long enough to get a pension.

Also discussed in the book is how another Pilots pitcher, Garry Roggenburk, actually quit mid-season although he hadn’t been set down, as he didn’t like the game anymore. Not discussed is that Bouton speculated that if he’d known Roggenburk was that unhappy, he would have tried to talk him out of it before it was too late, making the point that you couldn’t reverse that choice. Although Bouton was criticized in some quarters for the criticisms he made about organized baseball, he clearly thought it was worth the sacrifices and indignities to do what was necessary to stay in the majors, even at a time when it was so much lower-paying and afflicted with unfair labor practices.

**Not everything in the book or transcript is about something mildly or very controversial. It’s sometimes overlooked there’s a lot of good insight into how the game’s played, and numerous stories that don’t have social/organizational dimensions. Like this one that didn’t make the final book, about fellow Pilot pitcher George Brunet. Bouton remembers a time Brunet entered a game to pitch to Mickey Mantle with the bases loaded, looking into the Yankees dugout and knocking his knees together to let them know how scared he was.

I hate to ruin a good story, but I went through Brunet’s relief appearances against the Yankees on and didn’t find any such game in which this happened. Maybe Bouton was thinking of August 4, 1963, when Brunet did give up a pinch-hit homer to Mantle, though with the bases empty and not right after he’d entered a close game (which the Yankees won 11-10). Or maybe it was a spring training game.

**One of the more interesting items in Bouton’s Library of Congress file isn’t from the audio transcripts, but a letter from collaborator Leonard Shecter on September 1, 1969. He expresses pleasure about Bouton’s trade to the Astros just a few days earlier, inferring it will be great for the book. He also urges Jim to speculate on why he was traded from the Pilots, with some tough love that’s both the mark of a good editor and might have been tough for Bouton to read. 

Shecter felt that Bouton had become unpopular with fellow players and the front office, acknowledging the pitcher might disagree. He points out that getting his shoes nailed to the floor—by pitcher Gene Brabender, Jim discovered shortly after the letter—was not an indicator of affection. Shecter wonders if Bouton’s just not the kind of guy to get along with more baseball players than not. Jim didn’t really take Shecter’s advice and speculate much about why he was traded, or consider whether it might have been because he was disliked at the Pilots. He did seem to take Shecter’s suggestion to ask Tommy Davis, a fellow Pilot traded to the Astros just after Bouton was, about this, and that exchange did make it into Ball Four.

There are many other interesting extras in the Ball Four transcripts. Interesting I think, at any rate, to longtime readers who want some more behind-the-scenes details into the making of this classic. There are enough that I might add some others in future blogposts, though this gives you a taste of what awaits at the Library of Congress. And, maybe, one day in a superdeluxe edition of Ball Four that adds some of the unpublished material, complete with contextual footnotes.

Off the Beaten Track New York Music History Sites

There are so many music history sites in New York that you could easily fill several books with photos and descriptions of them. In my first visit to New York in six-and-a-half years this spring, I saw a few I hadn’t checked before. While very famous ones like the Strawberry Fields memorial space to John Lennon in Central Park are well worth checking out, this post presents a few of the more offbeat ones I saw on my trip.

Many and perhaps all of these sites are far from striking in the visual sense. Most visitors would shrug and wonder why anything is special about them. It’s what took place there, not how they look, that’s of note, even if some of the interest might be largely limited to fanatics. Yet the first image, however bland it might seem, was where many classic hit records were born.

The Brill Building.

At 1619 Broadway, the Brill Building was where many songwriters, and often producers and record label owners, worked or at least visited in the early 1960s. They came to be so identified with the inventively produced and arranged fusion of early rock’n’roll and melodic pop—especially, but not always, heard on hits by girl groups—that the Brill Building has long been used as a label for this sound as a whole. Brill Building hits were often written by composers—often Jewish, and often, though not always, married couples—like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The Brill Building itself, however, is just one of countless large office buildings in mid-Manhattan:

As unremarkable as it is to look at, this structure really deserves a plaque noting how many hits were written here or nearby. I add “nearby” because this wasn’t the only building in the area where songwriters and their associates worked. In particular, 1650 Broadway, just a few doors up the block, housed Aldon Music, the major publishing company co-founded by Don Kirshner. That large building is even less interesting to look at than the Brill Building, whose ground floor is occupied by a branch of the CVS chain.

Both the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway are just a few blocks north from Times Square, New York’s heart of the beast:

Moving south to 23rd Street, between mid-city and Greenwich Village, the famous Chelsea Hotel is still in business, though it’s had some rocky times in recent years. Plenty of artistic figures stayed or lived there, and in rock history, some of the most famous of those are Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nico, Leonard Cohen, and Sid Vicious:

You could fill a whole block of plaques honoring famous residents, but there are just a few at the hotel’s interest. Leonard Cohen does get one of those, which was put up fairly recently:

Going way uptown to the north end of Harlem, there really seems nothing special about this building on 138th Street. Yet, as a friend pointed out, it was home to the first record label—first “widely distributed label,” according to Wikipedia”—owned and operated by African Americans, Black Swan Records. Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter were its most famous artists. In the early-to-mid twentieth century numerous black artists lived on the street or nearby, including Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, and Eubie Blake.

Going way downtown to the Lower East Side, this building at 56 Ludlow Street occupies a huge place in Velvet Underground history. Here more than anywhere else the group got its sound together in 1965, with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and original VU drummer Angus MacLise all living and/or working on their music in the building as the Velvet Underground got off the ground:

The first photographs of the group, taken before MacLise left and was replaced by Maureen Tucker, were taken around here around mid-1965, including on a nearby stoop, a rooftop, and a bench a couple of blocks or so away in Seward Park. The building looks very much like it did in mid-1965, though the neighborhood’s changed enormously.

When I stayed with a friend a few blocks away in 1986, it was still a fairly rough’n’tumble area with lots of noise and business/industrial deliveries, and few cultural hotspots. In 1965, it must have been a lot more so. Yet in 2023, surrounding blocks feature many hipster-oriented shops and places to eat. There’s even a significant difference since I last walked around there almost fifteen years ago. One cultural (rather than consumer) attraction worth visiting is the Tenement Museum, although an admission only gives you a tour with access to one part of the museum/building (reconstructing circa-1900 tenements) at a time. It will take quite a bit of time and money to go through all the various tours.

There are more Velvets-related sites, of interest to an even more limited circle of fanatics, almost thirty miles away in Long Island. You’ve got to be dedicated to make the trip, which you’ll need to do on the Long Island Railroad line, or with a car, which fortunately I could get a ride with via friends. Lou Reed grew up in one of Long Island’s towns, Freeport, which he longed to escape for a less suburban life, yet occasionally honored in his songs and career. Here’s Freeport High School, from which he graduated in 1959:

This is where Reed, as he sang in “Coney Island Baby,” “wanted to play football for the coach.” While here he was already playing in rock groups, including the Shades, who as the Jades released a single that Reed played guitar on, co-writing one side and writing the other. Again this building isn’t much to look at, but is much the same as it was back in the late 1950s.

Freeport itself isn’t much to look at, with traffic-filled main drags clogged with plenty of suburban industrial businesses and retail outlets. Not far from those boulevards, however, are well-to-do suburban homes, like this neighborhood where Reed lived, within walking distance of the high school:

Four other members of the Velvets also grew up in Long Island, including guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, who went to Division High School in Levittown, about ten miles away. That building’s even less to look at than Freeport High School. If you’re wondering why I wrote “four other members,” Doug Yule, who replaced Welshman John Cale in 1968, grew up in Great Neck, as did his younger brother Billy, who drummed with the Velvets in summer 1970 at Max’s Kansas City while Maureen Tucker was on a leave of absence owing to the birth of her first child.

It’s back to the big city, however, for a Reed tribute worth checking out even if you’re not a fan. The last stop going north on the Q subway line at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, which only opened about five years ago, features portraits on the tiled walls by Chuck Close, including this one of Reed: